I did end up finding several very good books (with accompanying CDs) on spirituals to share. I am posting the Amazon links, so you can read summaries and reviews there. I am delighted to have found music not only from the period of slavery, but from Emancipation and the Civil Rights Era as well. (And I threw in some other related books and websites.)
I was out of pocket for much of the weekend, so I only now saw that Roger Scruton has passed away. (And he passed away on what was the 9th anniversary of my own father’s aneurysm, leaving me with yet another reason to be superstitious of that date.)
I loved reading everything Roger Scruton wrote. In modern society, we tend to use the word “philosopher” to mean anyone who studies philosophy as a formal discipline at university. It cheapens the word considerably, as there are a lot of baristas $100,000 deep in student loans and a lot of professors that are really just Twitter trolls with tenure who probably consider themselves philosophers. Scruton was a philosopher in the true sense – someone who loved wisdom and was in possession of much timeless knowledge himself.
There will obviously be some toxic pieces published about his conservative worldview in our left-leaning mainstream media. Like much of the garbage they shovel into the digital landfill, it won’t stand the test of time or detract from Scruton’s many achievements. Western civilization is unquestionably better for his life of letters. I only regret that Scruton had to devote his last years of living dealing with the ignorant social media mobs that have come to characterize the past decade.
Sir Roger Scruton has died. Diagnosed with cancer last summer, he passed away peacefully on Sunday surrounded by his family.
There will be a lot of things written and said in the coming days. But perhaps I could say a few things here.
The first is to reiterate something that the Scruton family have said in their announcement of his death. There they refer to how proud they are of Roger and of all his achievements. I think I can say that all Roger’s friends share that feeling. His achievements were remarkable. He was a man who appeared to know about absolutely everything, producing books on architecture, philosophy, beauty, music, religion and much more. In many ways — as his former student Rabbi Sacks once said to me — he seemed bigger than the age.
There seemed no area he had not mastered. In the mid-2000s we were at a dinner party at the house of our late friend Shusha Guppy with a group of eminent writers and journalists, all with egos of their own. I remember one of them asking Roger whether he would think about doing an updated version of his book The West and the Rest. With characteristic and by no means feigned humility he replied that he didn’t think so because he didn’t think his Farsi was any longer up to it. How beautiful it was to see every other writer in the room look as though they might just give up there and then.
Doubtless there will be some talk in the coming days of ‘controversy’. Some score settling may even go on. So it is worth stressing that on the big questions of his time Roger Scruton was right. During the Cold War he faced an academic and cultural establishment that was either neutral or actively anti-Western on the big question of the day. Roger not only thought right, but acted right. Not many philosophers become men of action. But with the ‘underground university’ that he and others set up, he did just that. During the Seventies and Eighties at considerable risk to himself he would go behind the Iron Curtain and teach philosophy to groups of knowledge-starved students. If Roger and his colleagues had been largely leftist thinkers infiltrating far-right regimes to teach Plato and Aristotle there have been multiple Hollywood movies about them by now. But none of that mattered. Public notice didn’t matter. All that mattered was to do the right thing and to keep the flame of philosophical truth burning in societies where officialdom was busily trying to snuff it out.
Having received numerous awards and accolades abroad, in 2016 he was finally given the recognition he deserved at home with the award of a knighthood. Yet still there remained a sense that he was under-valued in his own country. It was a sense that you couldn’t help but get when you travelled abroad. I lost count of the number of countries where I might in passing mention the dire state of thought and politics in my country only to hear the response ‘But you have Roger Scruton’. As though that alone ought to be enough to right the tiller of any society. And in a way they were right of course. But the point did always highlight the strange disconnect between his reputation at home and abroad. Britain has never been very good with philosophers of course, a fact that Roger thought partly correct, but his own country’s treatment of him was often outrageous. As events of the last year reiterated, he might be invited onto a television or radio program or invited to a print interview only for the interviewer to play the game of ‘expose the right-wing monster’. The last interview he did on the Today program was exactly such a moment. The BBC might have asked him about anything. They might have asked him about Immanuel Kant, or Hegel, or the correct attitude in which to approach questions of our day like the environment. But they didn’t. They wanted cheap gotchas. That is the shame of this country’s media and intellectual culture, not his.
But if there was a reason why such attempts at ‘gotchas’ consistently failed it was because nobody could reveal a person that did not exist. Of course Roger could on occasion flash his ideological teeth, but he was one of the kindest, most encouraging, thoughtful, and generous people you could ever have known. From the moment that we first met – as I was just starting out in my career — he was a constant guide as well as friend. And not just in the big things, but in the small things that often matter more when you’re setting out. Over the years I lost count of the number of people who I discovered that he had helped in a similar way without wanting anyone to notice and expecting no reward for himself.
A man other than Roger might have got bitter about some of the treatment he received, but he never did. Whatever his complex views on faith, he lived a truly Christian attitude of forgiveness and hope for redemption. His last piece for The Spectator — a diary of his last year — radiates this. If he sometimes fitted uncomfortably with the age in which he found himself it was principally because he did not believe in its guiding tone of encouraged animosity and professionalized grudge. He believed instead – and lived in — the spirit of different age. One in which he encouraged his readers to share. That is a spirit of gratitude for what you have received, and forgiveness for what you have not.
One of my first grieving thoughts on hearing the news was how much I still had to ask him. But in that spirit which he encouraged I will instead turn to the shelves I have full of his books and marvel again instead about the huge amount he gave us.
When my father returned from his tour in Vietnam, he didn’t know what to do with himself.
He came from an upper-middle class family, and his parents likely would have pushed him into college had he not been drafted. He tried attending classes under the GI Bill, but the transition from stomping through the jungle – clothes soaked from the humidity, eyes constantly watching for booby traps and some of the most venomous snakes in the world, bracing for enemy fire at any moment – to listening to a professor, not much older than himself, drone on and on about how to write an essay was impossible. I’m sure he did not want to listen to anyone who spent the war on campus talk about Vietnam either. “Please, hippie, explain how the world works to me.”
He worked for his favorite relative – his uncle, a contractor – for a while. He developed many practical skills and apparently learned a lot about how to get along with people and run a business. Then he discovered an occupation that he truly loved: drilling municipal water wells.
I think part of the appeal of the water infrastructure industry was the danger. Not unlike working on an oil rig – in fact, oil and water rigs share some equipment – water wells run deep into the Earth. You have to be both strong and fearless to work on them, much like surviving in a war zone. People did die occasionally by falling into the pit, which happened one terrible day to one of my father’s friends.
But I think the greatest appeal the job had was that it was hard work being done entirely outside. The activity and the sunshine had a restorative effect on a man who had been all but destroyed by the experience of war.
He worked his way up through the company, through various acquisitions, into management. In addition to the physical labor out under the hot California sun, my father loved the construction and maintenance of infrastructure as an intellectual project. When I eventually went into public finance, many people would ask me how I knew so much about civil engineering. This was our dinner table conversation when I was a child. I could diagram a desalination plant when I was seven. We were geeks, but a special kind of geek – the sort who wanted to be out in the world and learn how things fit together.
My father would eventually give this gig up when he grew older and returned to working as a contractor, as his uncle had taught him originally.
I bring this all up, because it has become somewhat fascinating to me how people talk and think about hard labor and the perceived value of blue collar workers in our society.
I’ve spent a lot of time this weekend working out in my gardens, which is fairly typical for me. And I usually talk to everyone who passes by while I am doing it.
Yesterday afternoon, I was kneeling on the ground planting dozens of deep purple petunias and French marigolds in a flowerbed. An Amazon truck pulled up, and the delivery man walked up the path toward our front door with a pile of packages. I waved at him and he asked me how I was doing.
“It’s a beautiful day to be outside,” I said, and I meant it. I was enjoying watching butterflies dancing around my garden in early January. It was marvelous. And I loved the contrast of yellow and purple I was putting together.
“You know you could pay someone to do that for you,” he shouted, and then climbed back into his van.
Why would I want to pay someone to plant flowers? Actually getting down on your hands and knees and digging in the dirt is sort of the point of gardening as a hobby. So is feeling the warm sun on your skin. People who don’t physically tend to their gardens are not gardeners. They are just people who happen to own gardens. Their relationship to their garden is not any different than their relationship to their television or their grandfather clock. It’s a possession, not a pastime.
(Somehow this reminds me of a most painful biography of the socialite Bunny Mellon I read years ago. She tried to make herself famous as a “gardener,” but she had legions of staff to maintain her gardens. Her idea of gardening was waltzing around in her Givenchy gowns and clipping a rose here and there. Even that lady’s own children loathed her. Her biographer made a point of discussing how she left only some stupid ceramic cabbage to her estranged son in her will, which he smashed on the rocks along the shore as an act of catharsis. That woman was miserable to her very core. And she kept a picture of disgraced politician John Edwards on her nightstand, which was totally creepy, but I digress.)
Then today, I spent a couple hours working on Fern Dell. If you recall, we cleared out a massive tangle of vines (massive by the standards of a Florida transplant) to build a primeval-looking garden that we’ve nicknamed Fern Dell. It was no small feat to clear all that vegetation out and free up the trees to live their best lives (and as I mentioned before, I had help). But it has also been a feat to prepare the soil and plant the ferns and whatnot because there are so many established roots. And we hauled in a lot of stone to build a path through the new garden.
My old neighbor came walking down the trail behind our house and saw me working out there. “How did you get all that planted? Was it difficult cutting through all that?”
I explained that I had to use a mattock in places, and it eventually got the job done.
“What is a mattock?”
“It’s a tool, sort of like a pick-ax, but with a different shape.”
She was dumbfounded that I would get out in the backyard and swing an ax for the sake of building a garden. She was looking at me like I was some sort of alien with strange customs like drinking milk through my finger.
Only an hour before that conversation, we were loading the stones for the path into the back of my SUV at Lowe’s. The gentleman we have to mow and edge our lawn (we do hire someone for that, my plants are a part-time job in themselves) happened to be walking through the parking lot back to his truck and saw us. He ran over to our car and started helping load the heavy stones in. He didn’t even ask if we wanted help. He just started doing it.
We are really good friends with him and I took the occasion to invite his daughter to our daughter’s birthday party. But it made me think how he’s probably treated as some sort of untouchable in our town because of what he does for a living. I mean, even the Amazon delivery guy looks down on yard work, and it’s not like he’s jetting off to Davos to talk about trends in macroeconomics to corporate elites anytime soon.
I started this post off with the Rule of St. Benedict, who insisted that “to pray is to work and to work is to pray.” To be autonomous, to exert great effort, were for St. Benedict cornerstones of a contemplative life. You don’t just work because you have to. You work because there’s ultimately some form of wisdom in it.
I can certainly say this was true for my father coming back from Vietnam. For him, he had glimpsed some life-altering truth in the jungle and it was the suburban rat race that required not thinking too hard about anything. I mean, that’s the essence of a mid-life crisis, isn’t it? You look around at all the crap you’ve bought and the meaninglessness of the “work” you performed to obtain it all, and you ask yourself “For what?” People who engage in hard physical labor tend not to have that sort of restless energy. There’s also something about physically creating things that makes you not question your dignity or purpose.
St Benedict’s ideal used to be omnipresent in American society, but here it was described as the “Protestant work ethic.” There’s no Protestant work ethic anymore. In modern western societies, labor is not regarded as a contemplative or essential character-building activity. It’s the occupation of people who didn’t have the upbringing or financial resources to jump through the necessary hoops to have a “better” life. No one chooses to do it. They do it because they have no better options.
I listen to “liberal” politicians nowadays who used to invest a lot of time sucking up to blue collar workers speaking with open contempt about hard work. Hillary ran an entire campaign on such elitism – to be blue collar meant you had bad values. Biden recently advised coal miners to “learn to code.” Of course, “learn to code” has become a euphemism for this specific sort of disdain. If you have to work hard to get by in this world, it’s your fault. Nevermind the fact that this phrase is being used by aging politicians who probably unplug their computer every time they have a problem. “Learn to code,” they say, as if it were something they could do themselves.
Is this supposed to be progress? Can you imagine the people who settled New England listening to the people who live in New England now? They’d be like, “WTF, you sound like the vapid, self-absorbed, antisocial aristocrats we came over here to get away from.” (I’m sure many of them do think these things, right before they move to Florida.)
But what’s funny is how little material wealth people have to have in order to start talking like a spoiled heiress. You see this even in children who do not come from wealthy families but are accustomed to getting everything they want. How do you reverse this sort of behavior once it sets in? Do people have to be humbled by some great economic disaster? It’s a profoundly strange phenomenon to me.
People love to criticize political polling, and for good reasons. There are a lot of innumerate charlatans who pretend they are performing some quantitative alchemy that normals are too stupid to understand. Most of these charlatans have a set of preferred candidates, and they twist their commentary to make their candidates seem statistically inevitable when they are far from it.
Probably the biggest charlatan out there is Nate Silver, who is simply a political pundit – and a poor one at that. The guy’s entire career now exists on the epic troll colony that is Twitter, which is pretty much the only place someone can maintain a massive following despite being generally wrong. (Well, Twitter and the New York Times.)
There are better ways to follow polls. One, disregard any “national” polls and certainly disregard any polls of registered voters.
We do not have a national election for president, but a bunch of statewide races, and geography matters to how people think about politics and how they feel about their quality of life. If you want to understand outcomes in particular states, look for local polling from local colleges and newspapers. The Des Moines Register poll is a thousand times more valuable than CNN. I’m not saying these sources are universally good, but they are a lot better than national polls, which really aren’t capturing anything.
Likewise, any poll that is constructed based on registered voters is going to be distorted by the people who are registered but habitually don’t vote or all the people who remain on the rolls but aren’t legally eligible to vote. It’s about as useless a statistic as you can get.
There isn’t any statistical voodoo that a person can perform to take bad data and make them useful. They are simply constructing bad hypotheses based on bad data. And that is why they fail to read the current political environment. In fact, I think it is fair to say these folks were always this bad, but they seemed more competent when elections were only battles between establishment candidates.
With all of that as a preamble, it is really starting to look like Bernie Sanders is the strongest candidate in the Democratic primary. The Democratic primary so far has been this long process of voters “trying on” candidates all the way down the rack, only to disregard them after some detail emerges that makes them seem fundamentally unelectable. Sanders is the only candidate who has consistently remained at or near the top in polling despite the mess.
Some astute political observers are alleging that Nancy Pelosi’s only motive in setting up a stand-off with Mitch McConnell over her sham articles of impeachment was to delay the Senate trial – which will obviously dismiss the articles or acquit Trump, the entire charade was a colossal waste of everyone’s time and taxpayer dollars – and keep Bernie in Washington DC during the Iowa caucuses to pad the race for the establishment candidate, Joe Biden.
Maybe that is true, but as readers know, I am a big fan of Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity. I’m not sure how much it matters where Bernie is physically when he has a massive army of supporters going door-to-door for him. Also, Pelosi’s impeachment scam has made every American household associate Biden’s name with potential corruption. It’s hard to see how that has ever helped Biden, or how drawing it out even longer helps him. Like I said, stupidity not malice.
I also think the thing that will blow everyone’s mind this election cycle is that the political establishment might choose to get behind Bernie rather than sabotage him yet again if his nomination seems baked in. They love abusing the word “existential,” and four more years of being locked out of DC is an existential problem for their pocketbooks and spheres of influence.
At the end of the day, Bernie Sanders is running on one thing: A massive tax increase and thus massive increases in government spending. Pair that with the Democratic establishment, which only cares about one thing: collecting political rent. At some point, these two groups will get over their language barrier and realize they are a match made in heaven, Scrooges doing the backstroke through a vault of other people’s money. If you think I am wrong, remember the image of a grumpy Bernie at Clinton’s coronation party. The Clintons are everything he rails about, but he’s eventually brought in line.
Right now, you can turn on the television and find Democratic politicians and political operatives siding with Iran over the United States in the killing of someone who was explicitly labeled a terrorist by our government, including under Democratic administrations. They have been so conditioned over the past few years to like anyone who is positioned opposite Trump, no matter how batshit, that they are lifting up a murderous, vile human being. The vive la résistance crowd is cheering on a guy who outright slaughtered 1,500 protesters. At this point it is clear that there’s no limit to how low they will go. Remember, these are the same people who not too long ago were enraptured by a porn star’s attorney and considered him a viable presidential candidate.
These people have already been radicalized. If you think they are beyond embracing a self-labeled socialist (or that he is beyond embracing them), you are kidding yourself. I have zero difficulty seeing Baby Boomer liberals pulling the lever for Bernie, even though it will likely nuke their nest eggs overnight. We nearly saw that happen here in Florida in the race between moderate Republican Governor DeSantis and the corrupt, self-labeled Democratic socialist Andrew Gillum. There are a lot of retired school teachers in gated communities who have no problem with the idea of socialism and are too old to have to live with the real consequences of such a shift in governance. And unlike many millennials, they will get out the vote.
I have never thought Biden was much of a threat to Trump. If you have separated local polling from national polling all along, Biden has always seemed like he was created and being propped up by the mainstream media. Even Obama doesn’t like the guy enough to support him. He’s such a weak candidate that it’s boring to talk about all the attributes that make him a weak candidate. Regardless of his history of corruption and other serious concerns, the guy is visibly senile. There is no doubt a fraction of people who will follow him wherever he goes despite what’s coming out of his mouth. The problem with Sanders is that there are a lot of people who genuinely like what he is saying even though it is insane.
Sanders quite literally wants to end the American experiment and has gotten millions of people on board with that. That’s worth worrying about.
No luck in finding Finn McCool today, but we are hoping he’ll materialize to sun himself at some point. Many thanks to everyone who expressed concern. Elise is still very sad her lizard ran away and it’s heartbreaking.
My mother was asking me last night about the homeschooling curriculum that we will be using for 4th grade. I explained that since we are going to be studying American history for the first time, I am trying to bring American history into the other subjects as well.
I picked novels that involve American history in some way, including The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison, Prairie School, The Courage of Sarah Noble, The Terrible Wave, and Blue Willow. (Before anyone suggests Laura Ingalls Wilder, we are already big Little House fans.)
For art and music, I have found some books and resources on American folk art and folk music. I bought American Folk Art for Kids With 21 Activities. I have collected books on American artists like Grandma Moses and the Hudson River School. For folk music, I have Wee Sing America and Wee Sing Fun ‘n’ Folk. I think I am close to having enough folk songs to introduce a new one every day, and to stack them close the era during which they were composed (Revolutionary War, Civil War, Great Depression, etc.).
My mother thought that was a brilliant idea, and asked if any of the resources I found included African-American spirituals. It occurred to me that was a big part of American music history that was overlooked in these books and we obviously need to do an entire unit on it.
So now I am on a quest to find a good kids’ resource that goes through African-American spirituals. I am especially looking for any resource that involves decoding spirituals that were used by slaves to communicate details about the Underground Railroad. If anyone out there knows of any good resources – they don’t have to be specifically directed at children, but they do need to be relatively accessible – on this topic, I would be most grateful for suggestions.
I did find this PBS unit on Hidden Messages in Spirituals. The site even includes a worksheet for decoding the lyrics of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” But I think it would be cool to find something that goes beyond that one song because it’s such an important topic.
I have also amassed a lot of resources for teaching about a variety of Native American cultures. It’s impossible to be exhaustive on this topic, but a combination of History Pockets and the If You Lived When… series are a good foundation for more detailed study in later years.
Well, Elise decided to take her bearded dragon outside to show him a hideout she had made and she set him down on a log. And there went Finn McCool, off into the jungle behind our house. Bearded dragons can run very fast, so by the time we heard her screaming hysterically he was quite gone. We poked around in the palmettos and vines for a couple hours trying to find him, but the ground is covered in leaves now and Finn is designed for camouflage. And so he is gone.
I have read many stories on the Internet this afternoon about bearded dragons running away and then somehow making it back home after days and months. I am praying this will happen with Finn McCool. We will be spending a lot of time outside this weekend searching in sunny spots for him. Fortunately, the lows for the next several days are going to be in the high 60s, so if he can survive the predators he might be okay. And there is a large creek in the middle of the jungle, and a busy street along the edge, so he might decide to come back in the direction of our house. He ran off into lizard paradise at any rate.
Elise, as you can imagine, is absolutely beside herself with grief. I’m struggling to understand how to deal with the situation, as we had told her many times not to do exactly what she did and she decided to do it anyway. Sometimes kids have to learn the hard way. On the other hand, he is a living thing and this is a very sad situation. We were all attached to the little fellow and it’s going to be strange doing school work without him perched on top of the books. I hope he is okay.