Depth in the Shallows

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The Illiberalism Of Democracy

Some Have The Right To More Freedom Than Others

The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Ryszard Legutko

Berkeley. Yale. Capitol Hill. At town halls, universities and in social media, the Great American Shout Down rages. What passes for free speech nowadays is more akin to euphemism, virtue signaling, and North Korean propaganda. Only those with predetermined and self-sanctioned moral virtue and correct opinion are allowed the freedom to express it. All others can bugger off or be shouted down. Anyone who disagrees is not a debate opponent or a political adversary, rather, they are The Enemy. Opposing views yield personal demonization. This is not freedom. This is totalitarian tyranny masquerading as political and moral correctness. And, if unchecked, will lead to our ruin or our enslavement. Or both.

Enter Ryszard Legutko, professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University, former Polish politician, and current Member of the European Union Parliament. He experienced the reign of communist terror in Poland, its fall, and the rise of liberal democracy in Europe. In this profound book, he eviscerates the prevailing narrative that the dark forces of communism were defeated and liberal democratic forces of light brought freedom to those countries behind the Iron Curtain. He exposes the demon within liberal democracy. The demon that surfaced when former communists in his native Poland made the smooth transition from brutal Soviet style power players to eager advocates of democratic freedom overnight. The demon, as these men demonstrated, is the active spirit of totalitarian domination inherent in all liberal democracies in the West. It is, Legutko says, the coercion to freedom. Or, as Orwell had it, SLAVERY IS FREEDOM. One has only to look at Hollywood’s love affair with Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, or Stalin (or Jane Fonda’s active participation in the war against American soldiers), or the academic elite’s embrace of Marxism, radicalism, and anarchy to see that Legutko diagnoses a real disease.

“It seems that the idolatry of liberal democracy, which nowadays we observe among the same groups that so easily succumbed to a totalitarian temptation—their angry rejection of even the slightest criticism, their inadvertent acceptance of the obvious maladies of the system, their silencing of dissenters, their absolute support for the monopoly of one ideology and one political system—are part of the same disease to which, apparently, intellectuals and artists are particularly susceptible. It thus seems that the mental enslavement described by Milosz was not a single occurrence occasioned by a short-lived infatuation with communism, but an inherent handicap of the modern mind.”



The Audacity Of Barry

A Barry Good Time

Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States by Dave Barry

When it all gets a bit heavy, I turn in earnest to humor. A good dose everyday is a healthy habit, I think, but I am selective. Much of what passes for funny today involves teenagers-this seems to be trending upward in age now-with a selfie stick shooting a video for Youtube. Now, I am all for the operation of Darwinian principles with respect to youngsters surfing among sharks, or swimming close to lava flows, or climbing around the tops of unfinished buildings in China, but when I really want to laugh out loud, I read some Wodehouse, P.J. O’Rourke, or Dave Barry. There are many others of course, but these are a sure bet.

Dave Barry has been a newspaper columnist, novelist, humorist and all around observational troublemaker. Barry has written enough that just about anyone can find something to laugh at. And since he takes aim at everyone more or less equally, you rather joyfully have a skin-thickening experience. And if you want an interesting twist on the old crime story, read Barry’s collaboration with other Florida writers called Naked Came the Manatee. It is funny and suspenseful and wacky. The most interesting aspect, after Barry’s leadoff chapter, is how each subsequent writer deals with the loose ends and bizarre storylines. I first read it years ago when a good friend of mine pushed it on me. It didn’t sound like my thing, but I can’t stop telling people to pick it up. The same is true with anything by Dave Barry.

“We constantly see surveys that reveal this ignorance, especially among our high school students, 78 percent of whom, in a recent nationwide multiple-choice test, identified Abraham Lincoln as ‘a kind of lobster.’ That’s right: more than three quarters of our nation’s youth could not correctly identify the man who invented the telephone.”

The Light Of Day

A Beacon For The Dark Night Of The Soul

The Life And Writings Of Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a journalist, activist, Catholic convert, and co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. She was devout in faith, radical in politics, and unwavering in charity. At one time or another she was a communist, anarchist, distributist, and syndicalist. A spiritual searcher since youth, Day read and talked and prayed her way into the Catholic Church. Committed to helping the poor, marginalized, and downtrodden, Day took action. No act of love was too small, and no one in need was unworthy. Day, however, did not wish to be called a saint. An anecdote about Dorothy Day has her saying that calling her a saint would be to dismiss her too easily.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy Day so much. She defied categorization. She refused to be minimized by a label. In our age of identity politics and professional victimhood, Day is a welcome tonic. She refused to be defined except by Love. We can roll our eyes at her political passion, or disregard her economic idealism, but doing so misses the point. Day always sought the Truth in Love. She gave all she had to help others. She was a believer in the little way, bookended perhaps by St. Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa. Day fed the hungry at her front door, clothed the naked, and gave shelter to the homeless. She did what she could, with what she had, where she was. That is something all of us can do.

“Don’t worry about being effective. Just concentrate on being faithful to the truth.”

An Inkling Of Something Deeper

More Than A Friend Of Friends

Night Operation by Owen Barfield 

Owen Barfield (1898-1997) was a British lawyer, philosopher, poet, novelist and thinker who, if remembered at all, is usually remembered for his friendship with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and his membership in their literary group, The Inklings. But, Barfield demands his own following. Not known for enduring blockbusters like The Lord of The Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, Barfield nevertheless offers us a challenging examination of many of our cultural, literary, and philosophical assumptions that persist today.

In this book, Barfield’s only foray into science fiction, Barfield depicts a civilization gone underground. Quite literally, a society in the gutter. Rampant fear of terrorist attacks, obsession with security, and a hollowed out humanity are pervasive themes. Still relevant today, Barfield’s book ranks with 1984, Brave New World, We, and Darkness at Noon. Skip The Hunger Games. Read Night Operation. It will change the way you watch the news and engage social media. Then ask yourself, are you living or are you just crisis hopping?

“When the velocity of progress increases beyond a certain point, it becomes indistinguishable from crisis.”

You Schall Not Pass!

Unless You Read James V. Schall

On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing by James V. Schall

I first encountered the inimitable Father James V. Schall, S.J. in a wee little book called A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning. It is a walk through the greatest books and thinkers with a brilliant and generous guide. Schall is a teacher and reader par excellence. He wants us to read, as he has done, the greatest minds and the greatest books not to be liberal in a political sense, but in the human sense. To be liberal is to broaden one’s humanity beyond the skull size kingdom (as David Foster Wallace called it) we live in. To get outside of ourselves that we may become more fully human. Schall knows that thinking, reading, writing, and other forms of communicative expression give life great meaning and enjoyment. That without them, and without the higher things they strive to impart, we are left with a dark, dark, world.

We have only to look around and see those trapped in the “everything is relative, I’m a victim, and the government isn’t doing enough for me” mentality and know this is true. It is not a political problem. It is one that rests within each of us. Do we want the best? Or do we just want to be comfortable with the least?

Read Schall and you will be driven to know the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

“No one will seek the highest [things] if he believes that there is no truth, that nothing is his fault, and that government will guarantee his wants.”

In Warm Blood

The King Of Kings Arrives

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

If people remember Truman Capote these days, it is almost exclusively for the book In Cold Blood. This has been reinforced by two movies in the last decade or so treating of the Kansas farmhouse murders (Capote and Infamous). And while this book is important in its own right—kicking off a new genre of literature—it is too limited for anyone to come to a full appreciation of Truman Capote. Known more for his antics and parties, his literary feuds (with Norman Mailer and others), and for another book that never came, Capote is, it seems to me, at his best in this story.

A Christmas Memory is a short story, mostly autobiographical, about a young boy and his elderly female cousin. It is about being poor in Alabama in the 1930’s, about a relationship across the canyon of age, and about the richness and mystery of love. It is a charming, heartwarming, and melancholy tale. This is no Hallmark movie. It is the happy, hard, and ultimately holy story of Love. It is a superb Christmas story that calls to mind the Christmas Story born in Bethlehem ages ago. Merry Christmas.

“As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.”

Living Water In The Desert Sands

Fullness In The Empty Quarter

Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger

Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003), actually Sir Wilfred to be exact, was a British adventurer and writer. Born in Addis Ababa, he spent many years as a participant in African politics and military affairs. Following WWII, he twice trekked across Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali, also known as the Empty Quarter. An enormous ocean of desert, Thesiger sought hardship in the vast emptiness as a means of living in full. He had a special love and reverence for the Bedouin way of life. No Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up for this guy. He didn’t need to read a book to simplify his life, he simply did it.

In Christianity, the practice of going to the desert to battle demons was especially prominent in the first centuries after the death of Jesus. The early Desert Fathers and Mothers wanted to simplify life to its essence. Work and prayer, overcoming temptation, all under the watchful eyes of God, led these early monastics to great feats of privation and endurance. They became known as “athletes of God.” Today, the desert still has figurative meaning. Many of us speak of being in a spiritual desert. Whether from a death, illness, or other loss, we find life clarified by the emptiness. That is, if we are awake. We often fall back asleep, seeking riches but depriving our spirit. It is to the sleeping that Thesiger speaks, echoing the voices in the desert long ago.

“In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not a necessity was an encumbrance.”

My Dirda Little Secret

I Wanna Be Like Mike

Books, Essays, & Reviews by Michael Dirda

If you aren’t much of a reader, he will make you want to be. If you are an avid reader, he will make you think a lifespan too short, no matter how long it is. If you think reading is the same as breathing, and you obsess over stacks of unread books, and you keep accumulating books, on Kindle or in stores, even though you know it is mathematically impossible to read them all, doing nothing else, by the time you die, even if you live forever, well…this man will still remind you what you are missing in BookWorld. He is Michael Dirda, reader, author, and guide to all things bookish.

Make no mistake, he is no snooty aesthete who looks down on popular publishing as low brow for the low down. A fan of science fiction, detective stories, and supernatural tales, Dirda offers something for everyone. Even when he writes of classical literature, art, and poetry (provinces of the pretentious, both in readers and critics), he does so as a kind of Everyman Reader. He writes as excitedly about ghost stories as he does about the classics. Many times I have read a column of his in the Washington Post, Barnes & Noble Review, or New York Review of Books, and immediately ordered books he reviewed  or referenced, or started reading the ones I had. And any recommendation Dirda made, has yet to disappoint. For some, reading about books is as pleasurable as reading books, but Michael Dirda makes you want to do both and nothing else. So give yourself a Christmas gift. Not another book, but the time to read it. Then do it.

“For me, the two weeks between Christmas and Twelfth Night have come to be reserved for desultory reading. The pressure of the holiday is over, the weather outside is frightful, there are lots of leftovers to munch on, vacation hours are being used up.”

Quibbles And Bits

Love In The In Between

Two Lives by William Trevor 

William Trevor (1928-2016) was an Irish novelist, playwright and short story writer. Less than two weeks ago, Trevor joined the ranks of the grateful dead. He lived a full life, at least a full writer’s life, in which he won many prizes for his stories. Trevor told tales of life on the margin, and marginal lives, of incomplete people being completely human. A generosity toward his characters gives Trevor a discerning eye for greatness in the smallness of things. In this book, really two novellas, Trevor writes about two women, two messy lives, and love in the bits and pieces. In the end, it is all any of us really have.

“A person’s life isn’t orderly …it runs about all over the place, in and out through time. The present’s hardly there; the future doesn’t exist. Only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person’s life.”

Wisdom Of Other


Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon 

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was a poet and translator from Michigan. After taking degrees from the University of Michigan, she moved with with her husband, poet Donald Hall, to a farm in the northeast. At the time of her death at the young age of forty-seven, she was the poet laureate of New Hampshire.

Kenyon wrote about nature, faith, melancholy, and the everyday. She had a profound spiritual vision rooted in simplicity. Kenyon resonates with us still because of her ability to unearth the joy and terror of being human in the most ordinary things on the most ordinary of days. But, even in her darker verse, the rim of light is always on the horizon. She reminds us in this poem, and in much of her other work, that we must live fully in the now. For, as she says, one day it will be otherwise.


I got out of bed

on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

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