Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Three odd new ideas, and the ancestral castle -- Llantilio!

Here are three strange new ideas: which I will try to summarize as clearly as possible, because although I read politics, when I try to write it, I turn unoriginal and merely end up repeating other people. These ideas may not be altogether correct, but they are certainly startling. Namely,

  • that global "free trade"*** is a bad thing, while nation-by-nation protectionist tariffs are better for the nations that enact them. Free trade, it seems, may be a kind of free-for-all craft fair, where no one pays an entry fee to set up a booth. The result is that most of the goods for sale are junk hawked by the impoverished, who have few other job choices because borderless "free trade" has also prompted their old employers to close up shop and reopen only in the cheapest sections of the vast fairgrounds. Protectionist tariffs, on the other hand, are like the fees charged by any self-respecting town (or park district or hotel ballroom manager) to vendors to get in and sell. The fees fill the host's treasury let's hope, vendors have reason to stay in town, hire good help, and mind their and their neighbors' booths -- and the quality of goods rises above stolen shampoo and razor blades;
  • that capitalism** is all very well as far as economic liberty is concerned, but once it married the modern state (which had already destroyed the medieval church and its curbs on human folly and sin) it helped birth the modern man; the modern man who does little else but buy stuff, and obey the authority that swept into the vacuum of religion: government, down to the last license plate renewal sticker and to the baking of correct cakes. Now I deny part of this dreary old complaint. There is nothing wrong with the pleasure of owning nice things. Queen Victoria, a great moral character, posed all hers and photographed them so people could see what she owned, art and knickknacks and such. Besides, if you turn righteous about the tragic emptiness of mere possessions, pretty soon you're leaning over your neighbor's fence and deciding he owns too much crap. That way lies, Georgie Pillson who loved his bibelots would say, mere "Bolshy" (Bolshevik, communist) attitudes. As to the other, the vacuum of religion filled by government diktat, yes, I see that. We seem to obey just about as readily as the medieval serf trudging his grain to the lord's mill. What has capitalism done to our inner life, to the soul that read Milton and said no to kings? 
  • and third and most startling of all comes the idea that Abraham Lincoln*  -- Lincoln, I say -- was a bad apple very much responsible for the pitiless, authoritarian nanny-state that is Washington, D.C. At first it's hard to know whether a person who believes this resides in the far-left or the far-right fever swamps. It almost seems an opinion outside even those bounds of sanity, unless you are a Southerner, since they of course do have special issues about A.L. Coincidentally or not, the scholars who don't like him also refer to the Civil War as "the War for Southern Independence." What they seem to be saying nowadays, politically, is not that slavery was good, but that when Lincoln harnessed the power of the federal government to stomp out Rebellion, he also stomped out the Constitution which took its legitimacy from the people ratifying it --or not -- not from "demigods" in Philadelphia who, through it, had bestowed upon us in 1787 perfect, inescapable rule. After Lincoln, no more secession talk. You're in. The nation is all, and if you disagree you are overwhelmed and killed. The same scholars who dislike him note that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and threw newspapermen in jail. And yet he always gets the benefit of the (incidentally, liberal) authoritarian's excuse, that it was all for a higher cause. He felt compassion.             

There are our three odd new ideas. I trowel them in here, thinking they might serve as mulch for our mental gardening project, Blogging the Gospels. For it is to the Gospels that we return, in answer to the challenge of these ideas. (Re: Lincoln. "The first shall be last, and the last, first"?) Do these short books have answers for the business of buying and selling, for the purpose of life outside business, do they have answers about government or liberty? If we, as modern people, seem to be so strangely unfree, what did freedom once mean and where did it come from? And can the Gospels civilize the hordes invading America and all Europe, against our will and at our governments' beckoning?


Above, please note a building which can seem even more haunting than it looks, if we think of it as dating from a time of strange freedoms we no longer know. Oh, I don't say it wasn't built to supervise a conquered population. I don't deny that circa 1216 dental care did not exist and Jews were too often expelled from too many towns. But it is possible to gaze at those towers and vaguely, vaguely imagine a time when something liberating overlay all. It may only have been as simple a fact as that even the lords of castles then, even kings, acknowledged an authority source, and a potentially punishing one, above themselves. I think it might have been the Gospels. Now, in our liberated West, no more of that.

A bleak but powerful late winter view, isn't it? The photo is of White Castle, in Wales, and comes from the blog Codlins and Cream. I have mentioned her before. She took a day trip there recently.

I have decided that this is my ancestral castle. Well, why not? You have only to go back a few generations before your family tree spreads out exponentially to include scores and hundreds of people, and then thousands and millions. "Arithmetical ancestors," Henry Adams called them in Mont St. Michel and Chartres. Your own, private four grandparents may recognize you and be enchanted to see you when you all meet in heaven, but after that all bets are off. Who knows but your many-times-great grandparents may shout in delight, and rush to take upon their knee as it were, people whom you would have been horrified to know in life. Is there jealousy beyond the veil? At any rate why not claim as your own, then, this pile once echoing to the commands of Hubert de Burgh? Its Welsh name is "Llantilio." Can't you just see that word as the title of a middle-aged-ladies' medieval romance novel? It's splashed in white script across the cover. The background painting is all rich sunshine, beautifully perspectived green hills, a towering pile, and a girl with flowing hair and royal blue kirtle on horseback approaching it at noonday. Llantilio!

I can. It's the year 1216. (My teeth probably hurt. I have been taught the Jews are a cursed race. I don't live in a society such that a daring man "pleasures" me in a side chapel during Mass.) I am sitting on the companion slope to the one before me in the picture, leading down to the river. Or no, that must be the moat, and I stand on a bridge overlooking it; overlooking it, and the tower and section of the wall -- my father's wall -- opposite.

Everything is freshly built. I marvel at the gleaming whitewash, and at the depth of the foundations that must have been dug to support those walls. It will stand a thousand years and more. Of course I'm in love with Gryfyth ap Summat, the foreman in charge of all the works, he with his deep brown beard and brown eyes. But I am the daughter of a march lord, and so I may not look at a vile person however handsome ... (is this what they call flash fiction?). And I can't possibly trace my ancestry back to the cook or the tenant farmers plowing all around, because what's the pleasuring in that? As an aside, do I also know freedom, because I know the Gospels?

Curiously, I happened to find -- it's me again, not the medieval miss of White Castle -- in the library yesterday a novel which is essentially male historical romance fiction. The House of Special Purpose, by John Boyne (Doubleday, 2009). Even the cover glows with a sort of male equivalent of the flowing-hair-and-horses art given to Particia Bracewell and Elizabeth Chadwick. We see an off-center detail shot of a real nineteenth-century oil portrait, all dark blue and olive-gray: some man in military uniform, and yellow and red roses below. I've gotten well underway reading the story. It seems good, if simple. (I'm sorry but I don't believe in the scene of the young girl chancing to look up while disembarking a yacht at dusk, to espy the hero in a distant third floor window.) Scanning a bit ahead, I think the plot is actually going to concern the hero's memories of guarding the Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia during the reign of the last Czar. The romance publishing industry belonging so very much to women, it's interesting to see what a man writer does when given his head.  

Also. This is the second modern novel I have plucked, at random, in the last month from the shelves of a nice suburban library, in which it seems to me that the authors -- whatsoever their subject matter -- clearly prove early on that they know on which side the publishing industry's ideological bread is buttered. In the first, Death and Mr. Pickwick, we already have two teen boys kissing on page 64 of an 800 page book; in this of Boyne's, we have an elderly Russian monarchist refugee in London, in 1979, bizarrely slapping down "that awful Thatcher woman" on page 16 out of 470. I can't believe the two snippets (and that's all they are) are coincidence. I believe these writers know they have to get past their share of twenty-five-year-old editorial interns wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, who have utterly rigid ideas about what liberation is. And just imagine "pitching" them a book idea on blogging the Gospels -- on what the Gospels have meant to the West. Incomprehensible. They think all that nonsense is done, and their ideas will last a thousand years.

*** "Trump is right on trade," by Patrick Buchanan, Feb. 16, 2016.
**"Capitalism: the conservative illusion," by Jack Trotter, Chronicles Magazine, Feb. 4, 2016.
 *"The Strange Case of the Missing Constitution," by Clyde Wilson, Chronicles Magazine, Nov. 1, 2007.

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