Friday, April 08, 2005

Our existential crisis: The unbearable lightness of being human

I'm currently working on a fairly lengthy post on an outrageous editorial in The Weekly Standard alleging that liberals are essentially purveyors of a culture of death (pro-abortion, pro-euthanasia, anti-democracy, anti-liberty (!), etc.). As I work on that post, responding to extremism with the sober moderation that characterizes this blog, I continue to think about the issues that stem from the gravity of recent events, specifically the deaths of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II, about which I have already written so much. Why do those two, so different and yet so similar, continue to haunt me? What is it about them that simultaneously arouses such outpouring of grief and such longing and hope for the good and the just, for some meaning that gives purpose to our lives and ennobles our spirits -- not just from me, a secular liberal wrestling with the fact of mortality and the unbearable lightness of being human, but in the hearts of so many around the globe who otherwise don't seem to have much in common?

I have long thought that we are in the midst of a serious existential crisis brought about by the diminution of the divine and the elevation of the merely human to a state of primacy that it cannot possibly sustain. With Machiavelli's revolution, the modern project was unleashed, and now, centuries later, we confront the consequences of that project and seek to come to terms with what ails us. This is how Thomas Pangle, one of my teachers at the University of Toronto, explains this crisis -- a crisis of faith, a crisis of spirit, yet also a fundamentally political and cultural crisis -- in his book The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Postmodern Age. I may be biased, given my admiration of Professor Pangle's work, but this is a truly awesome diagnosis:
  • Do we not seem, as a people, more and more cast adrift in a floating anomy of lonely crowds denuded of trustworthy emotional and intellectual sources of human fellowship and inspiration or aspiration? In darker moments, one cannot help but wonder with trepidation whether the country might not be entering upon an irreversible trajectory. Is our culture not gathering a rather frightening momentum? Throwing themselves into essentially unpleasant or stultifying work with a view to the accumulation of greater material satisfactions and petty signs of prestige, to which they become ever more grimly enthralled; seeking escape in mindless music, sports, travel, and short-lived, gripping diversions of all kinds; convulsed periodically with fantastic longings for revelatory erotic or religious experiences: may not future generations of Americans lead increasingly fragmented and purposeless existences in a world of unprecedented materialism, desperate personal isolation, and inner psychological weakness verging on collapse?

Is that not us, so many of us, Americans or otherwise? In prose and content worthy of Matthew Arnold, the great cultural critic of the 19th century, Pangle addresses the seeming paralysis of the human spirit in a world that simply does not seem to allow us to live full and dignified lives. We work, we play, we drink and get high, we engage in the sort of self-forgetting and self-denial that allows us to pretend that nothing is wrong. We seek meaning in immediate and largely debasing pleasures even as we sense that something is wrong and search frantically for something beyond ourselves to cling to. We pollute our souls with the shallowness and corruption of material possessions even as we long to find strength, resolve, and meaning in something, anything beyond the material. And that -- that is what this moment in history is all about. In Terri Schiavo we saw the very face of our mortality, and even as her case further polarized an already polarized political culture, we grasped, I think, some sense of communion both with humanity as a whole and with the mysteries that may lie beyond our earthly grasp. In Pope John Paul II we saw the love and faith that is truly possible in the human spirit, a life lived in the service of the divine, including the human incarnation of the divine, and even as tempestuous debates about abortion and euthanasia and other moral touchstones rage on in our polarized political culture, we sense some possible relief from the modern human condition as it descends ever further into "unprecedented materialism, desperate personal isolation, and inner psychological weakness verging on collapse". Their stories, however sad in the moment, fill us with hope that we are not stuck in some "irreversible trajectory" into madness, that there is an incredible repository of goodness and justice lurking beneath the corrosive surface of the modern project, and that the human spirit, finally freed from its chains, may yet triumph over that which would destroy it.

It is now up to us.

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Thursday, April 07, 2005

Thoughts from the sober middle

We'll be undergoing a few changes around here in the coming days, as I try to improve the look and content of the site. Stay tuned, and thank you all who have spent some time here, especially those of you who visit regularly. It's enjoyable to be able to write and post on a variety of topics each and every day, but you make it all the more worthwhile and rewarding.

We're now a week old -- hard to believe -- and I hope that what I post here contributes in some way to a medium, not to mention to a society, that seems to be sorely lacking in independent, non-partisan commentary and the intelligent discussion of politics, philosophy, and culture. The adversarial nature of our political arena -- certainly an American phenomenon, with its Crossfire-style shout-fests, but increasingly also a Canadian one -- means that the sober middle is left largely voiceless, if not outright abandoned. If it's all about visibility, and personal reward, then it's much more profitable simply to take a side and stick to it remorselessly and without reservation. Profitable, but, more than that, it's the easy way out. Being in the sober middle means listening to all sides and thinking about compromise, acknowledging that there are simply no easy answers to many of our most pressing concerns. Being at the drunk extremes, if I may put it that way, whether of the left or the right, often means ceasing to think and merely repeating catch-phrases and partisan slogans -- talking points, as they're known. Oh, of course, there are many intelligent voices on both the left and the right, but, again, the adversarial nature of our political arena means that winning is often more important than either detached intellectual probity or a pursuit of a common good that transcends the endless, self-perpetuating partisan bickering that, let's face it, gets us nowhere. The Schiavo fiasco was a good example of this, and the sordidness of it all doesn't need further commentary here. At the end, it wasn't about Terri anymore, for she had simply become an excuse for yet more bickering and political opportunism, yet another battlefield in a "culture war" that makes no sense at all and of which there will be no victors.

It would be easy for me, too, to pick a side. Liberal, conservative, whatever. That's where all the action is, after all, out there on the drunk extremes, preaching to the converted and blogging away into shameless self-importance. That's not where The Reaction will go, however. Here, already, I have defended the mainstream media against right-wing accusations of liberal bias, taken the social liberal position on Terri Schiavo (to me, also a conservative appreciation of the dignity of life well-lived), trumpeted the extraordinary faith and good works of Pope John Paul II (including both his social progressivism and his moral convictions), and defended the noble idealism of Paul Wolfowitz (a man of courage, whatever his other flaws). In future, I will continue to call them as I see them, and that means moving around a political spectrum that just isn't as neat and tidy as the drunk extremes -- firing their slings and arrows at each other often in complete disregard for the truth -- seem to think. To be sure, there is some healthy, internecine debate among both self-styled liberals and self-styled conservatives, but why not approach our most pressing concerns from a perspective that hasn't been drained of intellectual rigour by the win-at-all-costs mentality of hardened partisanship or that, more simply, hasn't been tagged with a label that by definition constrains serious thought and virtually renounces the prospect of conciliation for the sake of some higher good? Is that not truly the only way to move forward, to find common ground -- and, ultimately, any semblance of a common good?

That's my challenge, and it stems from Socrates's assertion, before his accusers, that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being". So let's examine it, I say, and let the drunk extremes play their self-important little games. The sober middle may not be where much of the action is, but it's the right place to be.

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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

So who are these papabili?

The two most important, and powerful, offices in the world must be the U.S. presidency and the papacy. I'm not sure what would come next: Surely not the U.N. secretary-generalship, but perhaps the chairmanship of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, or perhaps the chairmanship of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff or, looking to the private sector, the chairmanship of Microsoft. Or perhaps it's just something as simple as the office of being Oprah. Any other suggestions?

I ask this because I continue to be amazed at my own interest both in the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II and, increasingly, in his imminent succession -- both the process of succession, which seems almost endlessly fascinating, and the various candidates that may soon be competing, such as there is "competition" in the conclave, to occupy Peter's seat. But my interest seems to make sense. There is a presidential election every four years, and a new president at least every eight years. Since the late-'80s, when I first became interested in politics, there have been four presidents and at least three incredibly tight election campaigns ('92, '00, '04 -- and '88 was at least interesting in its own way). But I, like so many others, have known only one pope during my teen and adult years, and even if I'm not Catholic, John Paul II was one of those massive figures who could not fail to influence me and, more significantly, the world around me.

In short, the papacy affects us all, more or less, and questions abound: Will he ever emerge from J.P.II's shadow, or will he be the George H.W. Bush to J.P.II's Ronald Reagan? Will he follow, as seems likely, J.P.II's theological conservatism, dynamic evangelism, and commitment to social justice, leading the Church as an institutional bulwark against materialism, social liberalism, and modernity generally, or will he guide the Church away from J.P.II's moral absolutism (i.e., the "culture of life") and political authoritarianism (i.e., centralized power in the pope himself)? Will he adhere to J.P.II's intransigent opposition to liberalization both in terms of the Church itself (i.e., the ordination of women, relaxed celibacy restrictions on priests) and in terms of key moral issues (i.e., abortion, contraception, euthanasia, stem-cell research), or will he guide the Church towards more complex, nuanced responses to the challenges of the future (i.e., science and technology, democratization and economic development in the "South", the confrontation with Islam)? The answers matter, so we must pose the questions.

Soon enough, 117 voting cardinals -- 114 appointed by J.P.II himself -- will be charged with the task of electing the next pope. Who will it be? Right now, an Irish bookmaker has both Dionigi Tettamanzi (Italy) and Francis Arinze (Nigeria) at 11-4. They're followed by Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras) at 9-2, Joseph Ratzinger (Germany) at 7-1, and Claudio Hummes (Brazil) at 9-1. There is something to recommend each one, as there is to recommend at least nine or ten others. Now, I admit: Trying to predict the outcome of a conclave -- politics and personal relationships meshed with the holy spirit -- isn't like predicting the outcome of even, say, the Iowa caucuses (cardinals, presumably, are even tougher to figure out than Iowans). There will be correct predictions, of course, but any prediction is little more than a shot in the dark. Which makes it all the more fun.

So... what? Will the Italians seek to reclaim the papacy? Then it might be Tettamanzi, once called "that wee fat guy" by Scotland's Keith O'Brien, or perhaps one of three or four second-tier candidates. Will the cardinals seek a twin to J.P.II? Then it might be Cuba's Jaime Lucas y Alamino, another anti-Communist. Will they turn to the emerging African Church and to the front-lines of the confrontation with Islam? Then it might be Arinze. Will they turn to Latin America, now seemingly the quantitative home of Roman Catholicism? Then it might be Maradiaga, debt-relief advocate and friend of Bono. Or Hummes, an economic progressive who recently stated that "the Church must adapt to the modern world". Or Argentina's Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Will they turn to "Old Europe"? Then it might be Ratzinger, J.P.II's chief of doctrine as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (his online fan club -- believe it or not, he has one -- also refers to him as "Grand Inquisitor for Mother Rome" -- how's that for a frighteningly anachronistic title of doom and gloom?). Or Jean-Marie Lustiger, Jewish convert and Archbishop of Paris. Or Austria's Christoph von Schoenborn, a cultured theologian. Will they turn to a complete geographic outsider? Then it might be India's Ivan Dias? Will they go with age, anticipating a brief tenure for the next pope, perhaps looking for a transitional figure or someone merely to carry on J.P.II's efforts without much in the way of innovation? Then it might be Ratzinger, who will be 78 on April 16. Or Lustiger, 79. Will they go with youth? Then it might be Maradiaga, 62. Or Schoenborn, 60. Or will they go for the "right" age, say, 70-72? Then we're back to Tettamanzi, among others. Or, hey, how about a Canadian pope, like Marc Ouellet? That might not be so bad.

One thing seems clear, however. Whatever the talk of social justice, a central aspect of J.P.II's papacy, these men are all fundamentally conservative. Only two moderates -- it would be too much to call them liberals -- are even in the picture, Belgium's Godfried Danneels and Mexico's Norberto Rivera Carrera. Don't count on it. The fact that J.P.II appointed 114 of the 117 electors means that the next pope won't be much of a theological deviation from his predecessor. There's an Italian saying going around to the effect that you should always follow a fat pope with a skinny one. Yet we're looking at another fairly rigid conservative with tendencies to social justice (even Tettamanzi, so close to the ultraconservative Opus Dei, has boosted his social justice credentials in recent years). That means more of the Church as bulwark against what are seen as the excesses of modernity. So where will the oppositional difference lie? Perhaps with a decentralizer, as is widely suggested. Or perhaps the Italian cardinals, and there are many of them, will hold out for an Italian -- after all, they held the papacy for several centuries before J.P.II. Perhaps someone from the "South" will be enough of a novelty. Well, Arinze may be too much of a new thing, from too new a Church, so perhaps one of the Latin Americans.

For my part -- not that it's worth much -- I'll go with Tettamanzi, Ratzinger, or Maradiaga. Narrowing that down, I'll go with... nah, I'll hold off on a prediction after my success last night with UNC. Regardless, it's truly fascinating stuff. We haven't seen anything like this for 26 years, and it may well be over a decade, or even two, before we see it again. When we're talking about one of the two most important and powerful offices in the world... pay attention. It's not Haley's Comet, but it's close enough -- and likely more relevant to our lives.

And for those of us who try to balance social liberalism with deep concern for the direction modernity seems to be taking, ever more towards moral relativism and away even from liberalism's fundamental tenets, there is nothing but ambivalence about the direction the next pope, and the Church, will take. It is important, I think, to have such a powerful counterbalance to the forces of modernity, but at what cost?

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Monday, April 04, 2005

It's the Tar Heels, baby!

Forgive me, but a little gloating is in order. I correctly picked three of the Final Four teams: North Carolina, Illinois, and Louisville. I had Syracuse coming out of the Austin region, but the Orangemen were beaten by Vermont (damn you, Catamounts! -- no, I was happy to see the underdog win) in an incredible first-round game, and Michigan State beat Duke and Kentucky to make it to St. Louis. And I correctly picked Illinois over Louisville and North Carolina to beat any semifinalist out of Austin. And I correctly picked North Carolina over Illinois in the national championship. I had North Carolina beating Illinois 74-69 (a tie-breaker in Yahoo's Tournament Pick'em). The actual score: 75-70. And this was all before the tournament even started. Repeat: before. After correctly picking Connecticut to win it all last year and correctly predicting much of March Madness this year, I'm beginning to wonder about my career choices thus far.

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Fromage, Juno-style

Did anyone actually watch the Junos last night? (To our American readers, that's our equivalent -- to be generous -- of the Grammys.) Well, I need some Ed the Sock to put that pretentious parade of crapola into some kind of cultural perspective, or at least to make fun of it with the stunning precision he brings to all of his cultural criticism. Indeed, his annual "Fromage" retrospectives on the absolute worst in music videos (a medium that deserves to be deconstructed into oblivion) is must-see TV, and I would make the case that he may be one of our most perceptive cultural critics. (To our American readers, Ed the Sock is a hand-puppet that appears as host and interviewer on MuchMusic (our MTV) and CityTV, a local Toronto station.) Sure, it's all a bit too close to the gutter, but there's an honesty to Ed's commentary that seems to elude the bright lights of the Canadian intelligentsia.

Anyway, without mincing words, what is this shit? Avril Lavigne wins Artist of the Year? That's like Keanu Reeves winning a Best Actor Oscar. Okay, okay. So maybe "Artist of the Year" doesn't have anything to do with talent and is really given to the most obnoxious celebrity or the "artist" who makes the most money without actually having any talent. But it must be about "talent". After all, the pride of Napanee, Ontario, as she is commonly known (poor, poor Napanee), was also nominated for... wait for it... Best Album! For that astounding piece of crap, Under My Skin. Now, she lost -- phew! -- but to Billy Talent, a bland, Nickelbackesque rock band that, well, sucks. (Oh, and she was nominated for Best Songwriter!) Other nominees for Best Album: Miracle, by Celine Dion. Now, I hate Celine Dion as much as the next guy... no, more so. She's the worst thing this country has ever produced, and that includes Keanu Reeves. Still Not Getting Any, by Simple Plan. Juvenilia never sounded so bad. I could go on... and on... and on. Under My Skin did win Best Pop Album, yet another sign of impending apocalypse. And Sum 41's Chuck won Rock Album of the Year. Yet more awful Canadian juvenilia at the forefront of Canadian rock. Fan-bleeping-tastic. At least Sarah Harmer won Adult Alternative Album of the Year, whatever that means, for All of Our Names. Now there's some good stuff, buried deep beneath the steaming pile of horse manure that is mainstream Canadian music these days.

Other signs of impending apocalypse: The other Best Pop Album nominees included Celine Dion's Miracle, Fefe Dobson's eponymous debut, and talent-less/soul-less Canadian Idol Ryan Malcolm's Home -- a trio of stinky fromage that speaks for itself. It's enough to make the glory days of Duran Duran and Culture Club seem really, really deep by comparison. (Remember when there was actually some good music out there? See the great Almost Famous, and you'll see what I mean.)

One final sign of impending apocalypse: Shania Twain's "Party For Two" was nominated (but didn't win, thank whatever god is responsible) for Single of the Year. "Party For Two" may be the worst song ever recorded, and that includes anything by Celine bleeping Dion.

At least we can all go out and buy the back catalogues of Rush and the Hip. For now, though, mind your heads. Frogs are about to fall from the sky.

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Sunday, April 03, 2005

Let's play ball!

I had no idea when I started this blog just a few days ago that my first few posts would be so serious. But the deaths of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II were simply too enormous to ignore, and those two stories have very much captured the attention of anyone who pays attention to what's going on in the world. In the next few days, I intend to turn to other serious topics, including the continuing cosmic disturbance that is the presidency of George W. Bush, but, for now, let's leave aside the gravitas of life and death and the meaning of the human condition for a most happy occasion: the start of the baseball season.

Which is tonight, in fact, with a truly inspired Sunday-night opener: Yankees-Red Sox. The blood-feud resumes.

It's funny, though. There are so many reasons to dislike baseball (MLB, that is), especially for this (former) Expos fan:
  • Payroll inequality: The Yankees start the year at over US$200 million, while the Blue Jays, now the sole recipient of my unconditional loyalty, have virtually no chance of competing with them (or the Red Sox) in the AL East, even with ownership's -- i.e., Ted Rogers's -- commitment of significantly more money over the next three years. The NHL has faced the same problem, with high-priced free agents more or less limited to a few major-market teams (Rangers, Red Wings, Maple Leafs, etc.), but at least hockey is one of those sports where small-market, low-payroll teams with good chemistry and balanced line-ups can prevail (Flames, Lightning, etc.). This is what truly recommends the NFL (and, to a lesser extent, the NBA). It's not the case that each NFL team enters the season with an equal shot at a Super Bowl, but, owing to a rigid salary cap, the NFL is a league of real competitive balance, which means that teams can re-tool quickly and small-market teams (Packers, Panthers, etc.) are at no significant disadvantage.
  • Franchise relocations: Yes, my beloved Expos are now -- gasp! -- the Washington Nationals. I remember the hey-days of Montreal baseball, when Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Steve Rogers, Tim Wallach, Warren Cromartie, and so many other great players excited huge Big O crowds and made the Expos a perennial contender in the NL East. I remember what it was like to sit in those crowded stands as a boy and root for my home-town team with the unbridled optimism of youth. I remember going to one of the Expos-Phillies playoff games in strike-shortened 1981. I remember the disaster of that same year: Rick Monday's home run off Steve Rogers to send the Dodgers to the World Series against the Yankees. I remember the incredible Expos team of strike-shortened 1994 -- the Expos led the formidable Braves by six games (with less than half the payroll) in the NL East and had the best record in all of baseball before the most pointless strike in the history of strikes ended the season and forever destroyed baseball in Montreal. And now? Now the stands in D.C. will be filled by inside-the-Beltway politicos and wannabes, many with little or no real interest in baseball or its history. It'll be the trendy thing to do in a city that rides the waves of trendiness down the river of popularity. So I bid farewell to my beloved Expos and turn my full attention to the Blue Jays -- even without Carlos Delgado, they'll be an exciting team with a lot of promise this year, and they deserve greater support in this city (alas, also prone to self-important trend-surfing).
  • The steroid scandal: So much for the integrity of baseball. I have little to add on this topic, but it's obvious that baseball needs to clean up its act. And soon. But here's a question: Who the hell is Alex Sanchez -- and why is he taking steroids?

Despite all this, we could be in for a great season, much like last year, with at least most divisions competitive and good wild-card races in both leagues. It's tough to pick against the Yankees in the AL, and I'll go with the Cardinals again in the NL (but challenged by the Braves, who may have their best team in years). As for the Jays, a .500 season would be nice, and I, at least, am looking forward to many warm summer evenings down at Skydome (I just can't bring myself to call it the Rogers Centre yet).

This is a great time of year. Coming out of a long winter filled with the usual discontent, there's nothing in sports that beats the start of the baseball season. (Watch Bull Durham if you want to see why.) As I've said before, it's the truly beautiful game.

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