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NWC Pandemic Response: Select Research & Game Findings

Friday, April 3rd, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — aha, games get real a few months ahead of reality ]
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NWC seems to have been prescient in their war gaming of an epidemic in September 2019, eh?

You’ll find the expanded game report here

So the distance between game and reality is slight —

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The distance between doll and person..

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And while we’re at it, La vida es sueño.

Of Counterpoint and Counterrevolutionaries — a book review

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

[ Emlyn Cameron reviews Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire Is Upon Us, which offers us current insight into the celebrated 1965 Cambridge Union debate between William F. Buckley, Jr. and James Baldwin ]
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Nicholas Buccola
The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America
Princeton University Press, (2019)
ISBN 9780691181547
Hardback, 496pp: $29.95 / £25.00

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                                                                    “Repression is an unpleasant instrument,” – William F. Buckley, Jr.
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There was something musical about William F. Buckley, Jr.

He was, in addition to being one of the most recognizable pundits of the 20th Century, a harpsichordist with a profound love of Bach.

“It’s not my medium,” he said in 1992, but a kind of musicality was in the warp and woof of his whole public life.

He used all his affect as an instrument in the practice of persuasion. Like Bach, he was a master of counterpoint — allowing his voice and gestures to work independent but harmonious enchantments that formed a captivating whole: the luxuriating deliberation and emphasis he put into each phrase and phoneme; the lexicon of unusual words, with their intricate, exotic sound and coy medley of connotation and insinuation; the features of his owlish face sparking and cascading with feeling, with suggestion; and his deft, musician’s hands clasping, undulating, and pirouetting through the air.

In his recent book The Fire Is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola calls this contrapunctus, “the art of performing conservatism,” and presents it as essential to Buckley’s success in popularizing his politics. The book is Buccola’s history of the 1965 Cambridge Union debate between Buckley and James Baldwin. More broadly, it is an attempt to give an intellectual biography of both men.

With regards to Baldwin, the book is a charming introduction: It paints an inviting picture of him, with emphasis placed on his stubborn independence, ceaseless emotional curiosity, and concern that progress in American race relations extend beyond law to a substantive moral revolution of individuals. His commitment is to a confessional honesty and a future where all people, having discarded the cataract of racial prejudice, are ennobled by the recognition of their mutual humanity.

It is a spirit of reform and a kind of personal character for which Buccola has palpable admiration. The reader is not long in joining him in his respect for Baldwin: I came to the book with knowledge of Buckley and Firing Line but possessing precious little familiarity with Baldwin. I knew his name, had his essays recommended to me by a discerning friend, and had seen the debate itself, but his life and work was largely unknown to me. The man I came to know was one I could not help but like: “‘intensely serious,’ ‘delicate,’ ‘intuitive,’ ‘rash,’ ‘impractical,’ ‘rebellious,’ and ‘mercurial,’” according to the catalogue of impressions Buccola cites, he is irrepressible and tender, tough and impassioned. And, as his insistence on examining unvarnished humanity would require, he is fallible.

The apex of this balance of Baldwin’s foibles and charm is his agreement to pen an essay on the Nation of Islam for an editor with whom he has had a good working relationship: He long defers the delivery and finally sells the finished product to a different outlet, leaving the editor high, dry, and furious. And—just as one’s temple begin to throb with not a little voyeuristic impatience and disappointment—Buccola describes Baldwin sitting through the editor’s sputtering, racially charged tirade, only to lean forward at its conclusion and suggest that the man publish his resentments as an introspective essay (which he does, and which Baldwin publicly defends as the sort of honesty essential to progress). This innocent, placid response, devoted to his project of understanding, is as redemptive as it is unexpected. These episodes, and others from Baldwins life, prove just enough to please and inform, without spoiling the appetite to know more and read him firsthand.

Buckley, on the other hand, emerges the worse for this examination. It is not just that he resisted the civil rights movement (though that would be enough to contaminate his image): Buccola proposes that Buckley’s claim to a principled resistance is a mask on an unscrupulous defense of white supremacy. Buccola supports this by reference to successive arguments Buckley made for segregation, in which he shifted emphasis between, “constitutional, authoritarian, traditionalist, and racial elitist” justifications depending on what was rhetorically expedient (even when one called for conduct repudiated by one or more of the others). Buccola furthers his case by citing Buckley’s personal correspondence, highlighting evidence of prejudice (a distaste for sharing even a segregated army base with black soldiers) and self-interested cunning (apparently plagiarizing an essay he commissioned for National Review in his column before it could be published). And completes it by showing how Buckley either did not read, did not understand, or intentionally misrepresented Baldwin’s work in every public conflict he had with the man. The combined blows are debilitating, though their impact is blunted in a few respects:

First—and most superficially—Buccola is a scholar but not a great stylist. The book is easy reading, but it never approaches anything sublime in its delivery. This is made more conspicuous by the contrast to the style and skill of its subjects.

This connects to the second and more substantial limitation: Buccola’s clear condemnation of Buckley announces itself at just about every opportunity, even in the selection of verbs—words “oozed out of Buckley’s mouth slowly and [were] accompanied by a devious smile,” for instance—and the seeming absence of almost any positive descriptors for him beyond “witty” (even synonyms). Given Buccola’s thesis and the evidence he marshals, censure is legitimate. But, delivered as it is, he is unlikely to win any previously unsympathetic converts. Instead he’ll likely be suspected and dismissed by many conservatives to whom he might have most meaningfully made his argument and who could most benefit from critically examining the history of the conservative movement. (For a more skilled stylist with a similarly critical view of conservatism, who thereby also helps the reader come closer to Baldwin’s ideal of truly understanding the feelings and motivations of those one contends with, see Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, which artfully marries a critique of the 1960’s Right with an effective rendering of what made the movement appealing to its adherents.)

Buccola is not helped in this respect by his willingness to speculate as to the thoughts and feelings of his subjects where history has left no record upon which to draw. It aids the tone of the book (and, one imagines, pads difficult transitions), but leaves his flank rather unbecomingly exposed to assault for wishful historical thinking from critics. (Perlstein also does this occasionally, but less often, with a lighter touch, and usually without recourse to definitive phrases like “must have,” of which Buccola has availed himself.)

Finally, for people open to his argument about Buckley, the book will prove compelling, but Buccola’s broader project of a biography of ideas for these two men feels incomplete. He starts strong, with early insights into the childhoods of his subjects: how the claustrophobic poverty of Harlem and the self-hating cruelty of Baldwin’s father shaped Baldwin’s thoughts on inhumanity and self-delusion; how the pristine and hierarchical arrangement of family and staff at a young Buckley’s Connecticut home nourished his belief in “fruitful inequalities.” But, before long, the book takes to examining the arguments and ideas without such perceptive analysis of what circumstances and experiences gave them genesis or came to alter them. We are given events of the men’s lives and an evaluation of the themes of their writings, but the connective tissue of how the former inspired the latter is increasingly tenuous.

This is most apparent, in my memory, in Buccola’s statements on Buckley’s attempt to write a “big book” of political theory. Throughout the book Buccola teases that he will discuss at length Buckley’s abortive thrusts at writing a comprehensive theory of political conservatism. Given the goal of his book and the early insights into Buckley’s developing views, one expects to find a lushly realized explanation for the inability of one of recent history’s most emphatically opinionated and prolific writers to give a long statement of his beliefs.

Surely, there must be some revealing reason that a man who gave conservatism a project and a platform at its nadir and nursed it to a new zenith could not set down his own manifesto? The final reveal is disappointingly brief, descriptive instead of explanatory, and rests largely on Buckley’s preference for offensive rather than defensive debating, which Buccola had already described. This, like other aspects of the book, leaves one feeling as though potential is yet untapped in a subject which Buccola had begun so energetically to mine.

All the same, the book is a challenge to the retrospective image of William F. Buckley, Jr. that any intellectually honest person who has held affection for the man must acknowledge. I can say from firsthand experience, having often enjoyed watching that mesmerizing, sly figure on Firing Line, that it is neither pleasant nor quickly and easily done. But, it’s a testament to Buccola’s book that this painful disillusionment is also not something one is able to evade or delay.

And, as I’m sure Baldwin would insist, it is essential.

Further, for all the discomfort, there is not much surprise. It is rather like confirming a lurid suspicion one has come to feel towards an otherwise well-loved uncle.

Though I may stand at an ideological remove from them, I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity and good intentions of the average conservative and I believe in good in Buckley himself: I’ve interviewed people who attest from personal experience to his warmth and generosity. And I know he could be bracingly honest, as when—near the end of his life—he admitted without melodrama that he had reached an end to the enjoyment he took in living and was ready to be done with it.

But, he was also a man who argued that massive military spending in Vietnam was indicia of American moral superiority because it would have been cheaper just to carpet bomb indiscriminately. And who, Buccola shows, supported segregation and racial paternalism by any means necessary.

Buccola, who shares my experience of being on the political right through college (and knows the attachment to Buckley this usually entails), has performed an act of integrity and honesty with this book by bringing the ugly side of a charming man to the fore. The result could be ethically and intellectually vitalizing for everyone involved.

It is to be hoped that it will be a challenge to conservatives, and even to many liberals who have allowed more immediate conflicts to retroactively label old adversaries “reasonable.”

There was something enchantingly musical about William F. Buckley, Jr., and he cared that instruments of beauty never be abused by being put to poor use: Upon his personal harpsichord was the phrase, “Shame on anyone who plays me badly.”

We would do well not to forget his many sour notes.

Animal Farms

Thursday, April 2nd, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — a silly little, fun little, scary little DoubleQuote ]
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April opens with Animals in the Street:

Reclaiming territory from the sprawl..

What’s a DoubleQuote? Well, for one thing it’s a little work of art — “conceptual art”. Got it?

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Sources:

  • MS News, Wild goats take over Welsh town amid coronavirus lockdown
  • SacBee, Coyotes prowl empty San Francisco streets as coronavirus locks down city
  • Coronavirus meets religion #5 – the arts and pestilence

    Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

    [ by Charles Cameron — — what novelist, poet, painter, composer or film maker will create the great works of our present plague? — with two quotes on pestilence ]
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    I owe much to the Guardian for Jonathan Jones‘ article Plague visionaries: how Rembrandt, Titian and Caravaggio tackled pestilence, which provided me with the classic western exemplars here — and then there are those two quotes. But read on —

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    Pilgrims, penitents, flagellants, corpse-bearers, gargoyles, vultures — the whole ghastly crew populate the first chapter of Carlos Fuentes‘ great novel Terra Nostra. It is a time of plague, and the river Seine is boiling.

    Great artists not infrequently tackle subjects of death, decay and destruction, the antechambers of hell, as they do works of beauty, mercy and grace, the antechamber of paradise. Today’s edition of “Coronavirus meets religion” features a small cluster of the greatest works of European art, painted in time of plague — to ward it off, to beg God for his mercy, to instruct the faithful in the path of heaven, to petition God on behalf of oneself or one’s family..

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    Titian: Pieta

    This detail of a painting by the great color master Titian shows from left to right the virgin Mary holding her son Jesus, who has just been brought down from the cross, dead, his hand held by a an old and weathered figure half-clothed in rad, believed by art historians to be a self-portrait by Titian, and representing St Jerome. and bottom right, an image of himself and his son as they’d be represented in a peasant’s ex voto or prayer plaque.

    Jonathan Jones notes:

    Titian painted this twilit image when Venice was being ravaged by plague. He portrays himself half-naked, prostrated before the image of Mary cradling the dead Christ. To make his message clear, he includes a picture within this picture: a crudely daubed popular ex-voto panel you might see in a church, depicting him and his son Orazio in prayer. This most sophisticated of artists is offering this great ashen canvas in the same simple spirit as an offering any peasant might make. It didn’t work. Titian and Orazio both died in the 1576 plague.

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    Mary Shelley:

    Want a shiver down the spine? Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein – here she is on pestilence, from this month’s Back Matter on Lapham’s:

    Have any of you, my readers, observed the ruins of an anthill immediately after its destruction? At first it appears entirely deserted of its former inhabitants; in a little time you see an ant struggling through the upturned mold; they reappear by twos and threes, running hither and thither in search of their lost companions. Such were we upon the earth, wondering aghast at the effects of pestilence. Our empty habitations remained, but the dwellers were gathered to the shades of the tomb.

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    Caravaggio: The Seven Works of Mercy

    St Matthew‘s gospel gives the standard set of “works of bodily mercy” (Matt. 25: 35-36:

    I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me

    Various artists have depicted what are now known as the Works of Corporal Mercy, Bruegel the Elder painted them in pen and ink, Bruegel the Younger painted them in color, but nobody had brought all seven together combined in such a single image as Caravaggio‘s. From Caravaggio.ogr:

    He set the Acts described in Matthew 25 : 35-36 in a little piazza, perhaps in front of the same Taverna del Cerriglio where three years later he was attacked. It is night, and the padrone is directing three men to his inn (“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”). One is hardly visible. The second is recognizable as a pilgrim by his staff, Saint James Major’s shell, and Saint Peter’s crossed keys on his hat; perhaps he can be identified as Saint Roch but more likely, following the Gospel, he is Christ in disguise. The third, a young bravo, is Saint Martin c utting his cloak to share it with the naked beggar in the foreground (“I was naked, and you clothed me”). In the shadow behind the blade is a youth whose legs seem to be twisted (“I was sick, and you visited me”). The group of loiterers is completed by a husky man, Samson, in the desert of Lechi (Judges 15 : 19), pouring water into his mouth from the jawbone of an ass (“I was thirsty, and you gave me drink”). Opposite this group, on the right, is Pero breast-feeding her aged father, Ci-mon, through the bars of his prison (“I was hungry, and you gave me food” and “I was in prison, and you came to me”). And in the background, a vested priest holds a torch to illuminate the hasty transport of a corpse, perhaps recalling the plagues that periodically decimated the city’s population (burial of the dead, the seventh Act, not mentioned in the Gospel). Above the scene hover the Madonna and Child with two angels, as if to warrant divine acknowledgment of human charity, particularly of the protagonists in the painting, who may portray members of the confraternity.

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    Susan Sontag:

    Sontag on pestilence, in Disease as Political Metaphor — courtesy the New York Review of Books:

    From pestilence (bubonic plague) came “pestilent,” whose figurative meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “injurious to religion, morals, or public peace—1513”; and “pestilential,” meaning “morally baneful or pernicious—1531.”

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    Albrecht Dürer: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

    Most beloved of the most famous set of illustrations of the Book of Revelation is this work by Albrecht Durer. The Met explains:

    [T]he Four Horsemen presents a dramatically distilled version of the passage from the Book of Revelation (6:1–8): “And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; … When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given great power over a fourth of the earth; to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” Transforming what was a relatively staid and unthreatening image in earlier illustrated Bibles, Dürer injects motion and danger into this climactic moment through his subtle manipulation of the woodcut..

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    But as the Book of Revelation shows, better things eternally await us:–

    Durer again, illustrating the Madonna portrayed as the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” in Revelation 12.1

    May you each and all receive a blizzard of blessings in these hard times.

    Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis.

    Coronavirus meets religion #4

    Saturday, March 21st, 2020

    [ by Charles Cameron — this one’s fine, with popes, patriarchs, confessions, hindutva and all — but i’ll have something special for you in #5 ]
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    I just ran across an Italian site, DIRESOM, that monitors matters of the virus, religion and law, and am going to drop in some of the more potent notices here.

    Hindutva:

    Around mid-February 2020, Chakrapani Maharaj, who is the President of the Indian fundamentalist party “All India Hindu Mahasabha”, asserted that “corona is not a virus, but an angry avatar [divine embodiment] who came into the world to punish those who eat meat and to protect poor people”

    The thuing is, religion allied to nationalism all too easily turns into bigotry, persecution, torture, massacres, whatever..

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    Orthodoxy:

    ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH ANNOUNCES HALT OF ALL ORTHODOX CHURCH SERVICES GLOBALLY DUE TO CORONAVIRUS
    18 MARCH 2020

    Brother Hierarchs and beloved children in the Lord,

    From the Phanar, from the heart of the Queen of Cities, from the City of the Great Church and of Haghia Sophia, we are communicating with each and every one of you – women, men, and children – because of the unprecedented conditions and tribulation that we are facing as a human race as a result of the global threat posed by the pandemic of the new coronavirus, called Covid-19.

    The voice of the Church, of the Mother Church, cannot be silent in such times. Our words, then, take the form we have learned through the ages: through the liturgy and through instruction, with encouragement and consolation.

    Church of England:

    Same thing in the UK..

    As the challenge of the coronavirus grips the world, and as the Government asks every individual and every organisation to rethink its life, we are now asking the Church of England in all its parishes, chaplaincies and ministries to serve all people in a new way. Public worship will have to stop for a season. Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid-week gatherings must be put on hold. But this does not mean that the Church of England has shut up shop

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    Catholicism:

    The issue of the sacrament of confession — traditionally a face-to-face practice (albeit often conducted through a grille or veil) — may, a Vatican authority on canon law argues, legitimately be conducted via telephone, in sufficiently urgent, exigent circumstances.

  • Note on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the current pandemic situation, by the Vatican’s Grand Penitentiary, Cardinal Piacenza [Italian]
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    Pope Francis, pray for us


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