Monday, December 15, 2014

On Limited Government, Unlimited Government, and Immigration Reform

I thought about posting this as a Facebook status, but then it got longwinded and I realized that I had already given this perspective multiple times to past Civics (or, in our school, American Government) students, albeit in a somewhat altered form.

Recently, there has been a lot of coverage of the President's decision to extend amnesty, using the powers of the executive branch, (although, given that he is merely not enforcing the law against those accused rather than forgiving them, amnesty is not a very precise term) to certain classes of undocumented immigrants. The battle cry on the part of many Republicans has been "separation of powers" and "executive overreach" for this illegal action. And it does, in fact, raise questions about the effectiveness of our system of checks and balances in stopping the President from deciding when he will and will not carry out the law.

Although there are many different forms of government--constitutional monarchy, representative democracy, parliamentary democracy, semi-presidential democracy, absolute monarchy, federal, etc--there are in fact only two different approaches to government: limited and unlimited. These two different approaches are not particularly tied to one form or another, although it is difficult (outside of the realm of Tolkien's Middle Earth, perhaps) to imagine an absolute monarchy in a limited government or a presidential republic in an unlimited government. 

These two approaches will eventually color the entire system of governance. A limited approach to government basically assumes the autonomy of the individual units of a society: the citizen, the family, the business, the Church, etc. The government, considered as the sum total of those who, through various offices, control the secular state, is therefore limited to specific roles, and in those roles, constantly scrutinized through a redundancy of various branches. Thus, for example, the executive branch, which has the duty of carrying out the law, will be checked by the judicial branch before they can actually carry out the law in terms of punishment, and the legislative branch will be prevented from enacting whatever laws it wants by, on the one hand, the right of the judiciary to make sure that the laws correspond with the appropriate powers of government, for example, by making sure that laws are in accordance with the Constitution, while most limited constitutions provide for some kind of veto exercised by the executive branch. It is equally important, in terms of maintaining a limited government, that each of the various branches, however they are divided, are elected or appointed by separate procedures. This is the system that we have in the United States.

An unlimited government, on the other hand, assumes that the State is a total entity, consisting of various parts: the Church, the secular government, the family, etc. All of these are units of the whole, usually represented (at least ceremonially) by a single figure, such as a King, or in socialist countries, by the Party. In democracies, the People would take this role. In an unlimited system, the various branches are checked by a single entity, sometimes not the entity that is actually invested with responsibility for the whole state, as for example in Great Britain where Parliament holds near-absolute power, through the Crown, over Church, State, family, individual, etc.

The difference between these when it comes to issues like the one that I mentioned above cannot be overstated. If a Prime Minister, against the wishes of a majority in the U.K. House of Commons, went ahead with overlooking the execution of this or that immigration law, he would probably be subject to a vote of no confidence, have to tender his resignation, and conduct new elections for the House. He is always checked by that higher authority which, it is assumed, represents the majority of the people's interests (whether it does or not). Likewise, if the House of Commons decided that judges were interpreting laws a bit too liberally, they might dissolve an entire court system and choose a new one with new judges who would behave like they wanted them to.

On the other hand, in our limited system, if the Congress wishes to prevent the President from carrying out a law in a particular manner, the Constitution gives them very little recourse, since the execution of laws (the very laws that they write, oddly enough) is assumed not to be any of their business. They are given basically four options: they can sue the President in the courts (which almost never works because of the assumed separation of powers), they can deny funding to his executive priorities (which also never works because they would have to pass a law to that effect, which the President would almost certainly veto), they can subpoena his officers (who will probably plead "executive privilege") and make his life difficult for items on his legislative agenda (which he will just do back to them), or they can impeach and remove him (which they almost never have enough votes to pass and has never been done in the two hundred twenty-five years of our Constitution).  Likewise, if they don't like how the courts are interpreting the law, they can basically complain and hope for the appointment of better ones after the next election.

To summarize, we can say this: In an unlimited system of government, a particular branch has almost total control of the state, but no one component of the state is ever unchecked by that one component. While in a limited system of government, despite the fact that checks and balances exist, the individual branches are pretty much left to aggregate power on their own, unchecked. This power will usually fall on the branch of government that appears to have the clearest mandate from the electorate, whether that electorate is the people or a junta of military leaders or a King.

That is ultimately the source of this, and almost every, conflict that has occurred as a result of an expansive or "imperial" Presidency in the United States. Contrary to the arguments which one can read in the Federalist Papers, the Presidency is actually a sort of German  monarchy, limited in its ability to enact its agenda by certain Constitutional forms, but ultimately holding the position of supremacy over the government. In fact, one might argue that, although the Federalists were politically motivated to argue that separation of powers would lead to real checks on the various branches, many of them, especially Hamilton, already saw that the state which they had created would be led by a single, powerful (and unelected) President with powers that were limited only by formal procedures. Certainly Hamilton had no great love for democracy.

A limited government will ultimately only function as a group of bodies checking and balancing one another if, and this is the key, all of the members of each branch of government are agreed that this is what they should be doing. In other words, they all must agree, amongst themselves, not to try to score political points by failing to check one another. For example, too often the Congressmen  are worried about putting a  President of their own party in an awkward political position so that he can't carry out the party agenda as effectively, while on the other side of the aisle, and adverse Congress will pass laws that are popular but clearly opposed to the President's ideology just to embarrass him and score political points. This particularly happens when the two parties differ widely on fundamental values (as they do in American politics). We cannot, as a society, even agree when life begins or whether a dead person has finally escaped from taxation. Moreover, our society is so media-saturated that politicians are not eking out political power in Washington, D.C. anymore by causing other politicians trouble, they are scrambling for it in opinion polls and 24-hour news networks, which means that they feel even less safe leaving the boundaries of party orthodoxy.

The only way for Congress to restore balance to our system, then, is to try to become as popular as the President, not an easy task for a body that regularly polls at less than 15% favorability or less. People like democracy, but they don't particularly like watching it happen, which is part of the reason for this discrepancy. The Congress must act in such a way that they show that they can lead the government, that the majority of people have confidence in them, and that the Presidency is a useless position without the help of the legislative branch. That is a very tall order.

Now let's make an assessment of the President's decision and what should be done about it. I would say that Congress has only one way to make itself the representatives of the People and so fight the President for leadership of the government, which is, in fact, what this fight is all about. They should de-fund the President's amnesty program and pass one of their own, protecting the same people (if not more) and accomplishing the same goals, but forcing the President to appoint new officers to the various administrative positions that this type of law would entail. This would make him have to submit to Congress on the timing of the implementation and give the voters a chance to make their voices heard as regards those officers. I don't think that Constitutional bickering will accomplish anything in terms of restoring the balance of power unless they actually appeal to the people on whose sovereignty the constitution depends.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Movie Reviews from the Sidelines: Interstellar (2014)

Lots of sci-fi movies begin in cornfields or country roads, with a whole lot of hicks being either confused, invaded, and, in general, stereotyped. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) manages to avoid that and actually make one of them into a hero, deftly incorporating Matthew McConaughey's beautiful Southern drawl.

The film opens in a post-apocalyptic dustbowl. Not only are earthlings trying to fight adverse weather and low population, but even the crops that are growing die off one-by-one from diseases that attack entire species. Pretty much, everyone is left either eating fried corn or boiled corn. In the midst of that Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot/engineer turned unwilling farmer,  attempts to raise a family in a world where scientific innovation is no longer welcome.

One scientist (Michael Caine), however, has a solution: a vehicle capable of exploiting wormholes to rocket across galaxies to habitable worlds. The science is a little fuzzy, but suffice it to say the problem with travelling a really long way really fast is that everyone else moves along just as quickly through time, while the crew does not. Amazing, this turns a three-hour movie into a race against time.

Travelling to distant worlds and alien environments, the crew, including Amelia (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and a few robot companions,  soon discover something unexpected at the end of the galaxy: human cowardice and treachery.

Just like the character's names-short, flat, and uninteresting-the movie itself suffers from one-dimensional characterization and stuffy dialogue. Basically, although we get to see the struggles of various characters and hear them pontificate upon this or that aspect of their world and its struggle, we don't really get to explore them as fully-developed human beings. They occupy stock roles in a drama which, while beautifully realized, expends its most dramatic moments ruminating on our place in the stars. It causes some problems for the actors, who are trying to choke down deep-sounding lines in the midst of a drama that should be affecting the characters more than what it is.

On the other hand, the tale IS extremely gripping and tense. An Apollo 13-meets-Armageddon aesthetic reigns through the space sequences, and the alien worlds which the explorers visit range from the stunning to the surreal. The realism of the props and visual effects subtly draw you in to a story full of twists and surprises.

If it sounds like a paltry reward for poor characterization and scripting, don't let that discourage you. The fact is that you will come out of the movie wishing that another twenty minutes had been tacked on the end. The premise works that well.

I personally hope to see more films like this being taken on by Matthew McConaughey in the future. He makes about the most perfect starship captain you can imagine, with plenty of swagger and hidden depths--a Texan Capt. Picard. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, is the Will Riker of this movie: love her, hate her, everyone will have an unswayable opinion. In this picture, I tended towards the latter. Where was Sandra Bullock when they were casting this movie? 

My Grade: B (Go see it. Take the older kids with you.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Ballot Initiatives and the Federal Government

"We the People"

Today, at early voting, I was privileged to vote on a number of issues which will directly affect my quality of life in my home state. This got me to thinking about the role of such ballot initiatives in other states and the possibility of having such a mechanism at the federal level.

For those of you that come from states where this is not a significant feature, let me explain. A ballot initiative (or referendum) is a process where ordinary citizens can collect signatures to propose a law, and then the law can be enacted by a majority vote at the following election. Some states also provide for this process to be initiated by the legislature or by various municipal organizations (my home state does both), while others introduce various quirks into the system by requiring approval at multiple ballots. While one version of this process or another exists in most state governments, to varying degrees (with the exception of Delaware, which apparently doesn't trust its people very much...), there is currently no provision for direct democracy at any level in the federal government.

In my home state, ballot measures serve an important function for a state in which party affiliation is often at odds with the prevailing ideology. Democratic and Republican legislators or city governments may be hesitant to propose laws which do not correspond to the national party platform, even if they are measures which they personally support. Ballot initiatives allow the people, often times with the help and encouragement of their legislators, to break the gridlock in the state Capitol and enact laws that pretty much everyone, or at least most people, agree on but can't obtain the right political conditions to enact.

Ballot initiatives, particularly when those initiatives correspond to important legislative goals, also seem to benefit democratic participation in general. When people know that their vote is going to really change the direction of the country in a direct and unambiguous way, they will tend to make more of an effort to participate in elections, increasing voter turnout and knowledge of the essential issue. Scotland experienced this, for example, when a proposal on independence when the people voted directly on the question of independence: a turnout of nearly 80% was recorded. In my own constituency, this last election is bringing people out to cast their ballots on issues ranging from the sale of alcohol to city limits. And in the meanwhile, those people are also voting in the national midterm elections which usually draw a very small crowd.

In a country where gridlock between the various houses of Congress and/or between Congress and the President seem to be the order of the day, and disenchantment with our highest level of governance is at an all-time high, I think it is important that we consider direct democracy as an alternative. Since our government is unable to reach consensus on a variety of issues, and the two political parties are dominated by pluralities that are radically opposed to one another, why not look into allowing the people to weigh in on legislative proposals?

There would be several ways of approaching such a measure, and all of them, unfortunately, require the arduous process of Constitutional amendment. However, we have passed amendments before and, I think, might be able to manage it again if things keep going the way that they are going.

Such a process should tend towards a balance between direct majoritarian democracy and the consensus of states implied by our federal system. Here is what I would propose:
  •  First, the bill would need to be proposed by a small group (I would suggest one-tenth of the overall number of states) of state legislatures, which would include the possibility of those states with ballot initiatives proposing such measures directly from the people. The proposal could then be challenged by interested parties on Constitutional grounds before the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who would make a determination on the legality of the measure. 
  •  Then, the measure would be put directly to the people in all of the fifty states and in all the territories of the United States. In order to pass, the bill would need to be approved both by a majority of the overall number of voters and by majorities in more than half the states. 
  • The bill would then be protected from Congressional amendment or repeal for either a minimum period of time (two years, for example) or until another ballot initiative authorized it. 

The effect of such an amendment would be that a greater number of issues close to the heart of the American people would fall under their deliberation. More citizens would participate in elections, particularly midterm elections, because the issues that affect them would really be on the ballot, rather than just the public personas of individual politicians. Politically divisive issues such as immigration and entitlement reform which have little chance of action at the federal level could be decided on by the people, using their own judgment apart from party politics. Unpopular laws could be repealed without the fear of Presidential veto. In essence, such a measure would guarantee that the people, considered both as a single body and as a number of states, would actually exercise sovereignty over the national government, and it is precisely on this basis that the Constitution exercises any binding authority in the first place.

"We the People of the United States, in order to form a perfect union......"

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Movie Reviews from the Sideline: Gone Girl (2014)

Should you take your significant other with you to see Gone Girl (2014)?

No. No. No. Never. Don't do it. Also, don't take your parents with you to watch this movie. Or your kids. In fact, if this type of movie appeals to you, you may want to go by yourself and not tell anyone else that you went.

Gone Girl (2014) is a murder mystery with a twist. (I couldn't possibly give it away.) Basically, it follows the fairy-tale romance of two magazine writers Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike). As romance turns into marriage, their relationship slowly seems to disintegrate until, one day, the wife disappears. The husband quickly becomes the primary suspect and the audience is left to wonder, at least until the third act, if the mild-mannered-but-romantic main character is really as likeable as he first appears.

The thing about this movie that surprised me (and yes, that is because I didn't read the rating as carefully as I should have) is how overtly and intensely sensual (read sexual) this movie is.  While the main thrust of the plot is to show an intricate interplay of power and revenge, both the story and the visual imagery play on the delicate balance that exists between the erotic and the manipulative. Of course, this being Hollywood, the artistry of expressing that theme through subtle suggestion and character development is quickly discarded in favor of explicit sex scenes and gory bodies (albeit beautiful bodies) in serene locations. Coming right after a Fifty Shades trailer, this reviewer couldn't help but think that the filmmakers' primary goal was to capitalize on an aesthetic clearly in vogue with certain demographics.

The main cinematic weakness of this movie is its length. Director David Flincher has a story to tell, and he seems willing to let the movie go on and on to get it told. Every angle of the main character's life is unraveled, all the consequences of his decisions are teased out, every side character given their time to shine. While this might be some audiences' cup of tea, the result is a movie that feels like it should have been a miniseries, if any of the actors could have been paid enough money for such a thing. As we move into the third act, where, finally, the plot starts moving to its (somewhat anticlimactic) conclusion, the denouement becomes so lengthy and intricate that it is bound to make many moviegoers feel like they have just finished studying for an exam or reading a novel. This film is exhausting.

The good thing about this movie is the acting, well, except for Neil Patrick Harris whose attempt to take on a serious dramatic role falls flat on its face. The actors really pull out all the stops to convince us that their characters really are as crazy as the plot makes them out to be.  The result is mesmerizing, even if the lines they are reading are way too hipster and artsy.  We can almost forgive the movie for its slightly anachronistic props.

In essence, imagine what would happen if you found a really good writer and a really good director, made them read soft-core porn and Sherlock Holmes novels for a week and then doused them in craft beer. That is pretty much what we have here.

My rating: C-

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Movie Reviews from the Sideline: Dracula Untold (2014)

When you make a movie about vampires, there are basically two paths that you can go. The first is the dark fantasy path, where you are going to focus on the world of blood-suckers, their exclusion from normal society, and, of course, their excellent night-life . The second is the horror route, where vampires are the embodiment of gory, chaotic evil: fear of the dark in human form.

If you judge Dracula Untold (2014) as a horror flick, as some other reviewers have done, then, of course, it falls flat on its face. Don't go and see this movie if you are looking for a few cheap scares and lots of fake blood. Instead, it manages to be something slightly more: a dark fantasy work of art that marries the historical character of Vlad the Impaler, defeater of the Turks and Machiavellian mastermind, with the fictional creation of Bram Stoker.

The movie starts out by explaining that Vlad (Luke Evans--the thinking man's Orlando Bloom) was drafted as a child soldier by the conquering Turks. As a warrior, Vlad is ruthless, earning himself the name "Impaler" by his masters. He returns to rule his country, still paying tribute to the sultan, until the unthinkable happens: they demand that he put his son (Art Parkinson) through the same trauma that he underwent. Unwilling to pay this price, Vlad discovers a way that he can gain the power to protect his country, becoming a monster that will terrify and destroy the advancing Turkish hordes.

In weaving this origins story, director Gary Shore seems determined to make it clear that he is taking the fantasy, rather than the horror, path. He is also drawing a contrast with other fantasy costume productions (cough, cough, Game of Thrones) which try to humanize their characters by having them belch, screw, and defecate as often as possible. What is at work in Dracula Untold, however, is the tension that exists between dark and light, ends  and means, sacrifice and survival. Its focus on moral themes and plot-over-character seems to have more in common with Tolkien's Middle Earth than with the Stoker's Transylvania.

It seems like the movie takes other cues from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well. The costumes, swords, and props on this movie are exquisite, going rather above most medieval costume dramas. The visual effects fit seamlessly with the world of the film and entertain more than impress. What is even more shocking is that the script lives up to the film's beautiful aesthetic, rather than detracting from it (cough, cough The Hobbit).

The film occasionally feels like it skips a few steps between plot points, which makes this reviewer wonder if a longer film was in the works at some stage.  For moviegoers who can't reach logical conclusions, this might pose a problem. For myself, I thought that risking a longer running time might have paid dividends in critical acceptance, but wouldn't have added much in the way of entertainment value.

In fact, the weakest point in this movie is its gimmicky conclusion, which I refuse to give away. The thing is, though, that the movie is such a good time, and the actors involved are so excellent, that audiences will probably forgive the filmmakers for obsessively trying to turn this movie into an origins story.

My rating: B++ (and I'm pretty stingy with A's)--Go see it.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How I Would Reform the United States Senate

The following is an idea I have been mulling around for a few days. The House of Representatives, because it follows districts determined by the state legislature, already, in the experience of two centuries, adequately represents the interests of the states. The Senate should then, in my mind, represent the interests of the nation as a whole. I propose that, instead of electing Senators per state, they be elected to represent federal Senate districts of roughly equal population which would be drawn by the House of Representatives every ten years. . Considering that many Senators serve repeated terms for decades with almost no opposition, and the shifting boundaries that would come with different House of Representative compositions and census records, this would be a major democratization of the house and result in more new faces in the Senate. I also propose that the House of Representatives have the power to set deadlines for the passage of legislation that they send to the Senate. If the Senate fails to amend or reject the bill they are sent within that period of time, then it is considered to have their implicit approval and is transmitted to the President as if they had passed it. This would greatly limit the overuse of filibuster in the Senate. Finally, the Vice President would have the power to appoint whomever he wants as President pro temp. and appoint the members of committees, making the Vice President's role as President of the Senate more important. This would allow him to guide legislation through the Senate with less delay.

Article I
The Senate shall be composed of members elected one per federal Senate district every 8 years, but no Senator may serve more than two consecutive terms.

Article II
Every tenth year, after the conclusion of the federal census, the House of Representatives shall divide the territory of the United States, including lands belonging to the United States but not part of any particular state, into a number of districts equal to twice the number of states. These districts shall each contain as equal a number of persons as may be possible, but all island chains shall be considered as contiguous with the ocean coasts of the nearest state for the purposes of apportionment. This division into districts must then be approved by the Supreme Court of the United States as being fair and in accordance with the provisions of law and this Constitution.

Article III
On the day appointed for federal elections, the registered voters in each district, who must be duly qualified in the states in which they are resident, shall each cast one vote for Senator. If any candidate receives more than half of the votes cast, he shall be elected Senator, but if he does not, then a second election shall be held within three weeks between the candidates having the two highest numbers of votes or the two candidates having the highest number of votes, whichever number is lower, with the person receiving the greatest number of votes declared the winner. If, however, even this is tied, then the House of Representatives shall, upon meeting for the first time in consequence of the election, determine which of the candidates in eh second election are to be seated in the Senate.

Article IV
The states shall be responsible for collecting the votes for Senator and reporting them to the federal election authorities created by law.

Article V
The President of the Senate shall be the Vice President; however, he may appoint as President-pro-tempore any member of the Senate to preside in his absence. The President of the Senate shall appoint the members and chairmen of all committees.

Article VI
Upon transmission of any bill to the Senate, the House of Representatives may, upon the agreement of a majority of its members, designate any period of time greater than ten days for the Senate to consider the bill, after which, if the Senate shall not have voted against the bill or passed an amended version of it, it shall be immediately presented to the President of the United States by the Speaker of the House as having obtained the approval of the House and the implicit approval of the Senate, who shall sign or reject the bill in the same manner as if it had been passed by both houses.

Article VII
Congress shall have authority to enforce this amendment by necessary legislation.

How I Would Reform the Electoral College

The following is the text of an amendment (in very rough outline) which I would support to reform the Electoral College. Basically, it makes it so that, if a candidate receives 60% of the vote from a state, he receives 60% of the Electoral Vote from that state. It also creates an "alternative vote" system, so that the Electors indicate their second preference for President. If one of the candidates wins, then the person who received the most second preference votes from that candidate's electors becomes Vice President. (As an example, if most Democratic electors voted for Nader as a second choice and Gore won the Presidency, then Nader would become Vice President.)

Amendment to the Constitution – The Electoral College

Article I

Each state shall appoint a number of electors for the President of the United States equal to the number of Representatives to which that state shall be entitled in Congress plus two; the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and such other organized territories as law may recognize shall each be entitled to choose three electors.

Article II

Every candidate for the office of President shall, within each state in which he intends to run for office, nominate a number of candidates for electors equal to the whole number of electors to which that state is entitled.

No elector shall hold an office of trust or profit under the United States or be compensated in any way for his services by any person or government.

On the day appointed for the election of President, the registered voters of each state shall each cast one vote for one of the candidate’s slate of candidates as electors. The state constitutional officer responsible for elections in that state shall then appoint from each slate a number of electors proportional to the number of votes which the person received from the people, with any remaining electors being distributed in order to those slates having the highest remainder until the whole number of electors for that state have been appointed.

 Article III

On the day predetermined by law, the electors shall gather in the capitals of their respective states and cast two distinct votes, one indicating their first preference for President and the second indicating their second preference from among those candidates who submitted a slate of electors in that state or any other state. The ballots shall then be transmitted under seal to the President of the Senate and opened in the presence of Congress on a date determined by law.

When the ballots are opened, if any person receives a majority of first-preference votes, he shall be elected President, and the person receiving the most second-preference votes from those electors casting ballots for the person elected President shall become the Vice President.

If, however, no person receives a majority, then the second preference votes of the person receiving the fewest votes shall be distributed to the remaining candidates. This process shall continue until either all the second preference votes are exhausted or one of the candidates receives a majority. After this, the person with the most votes is elected preference, and the person receiving the most second-preference votes of those who cast their first-preference votes for the winning candidate shall be named Vice President.

Article IV

If, at the conclusion of the voting, there is a tie in the number of votes, then the members of Congress shall immediately vote between the candidates who have the highest number of votes to determine the President, with each member having one vote. The person receiving the most Congressional votes shall be President, and the person receiving the second highest number of votes shall be Vice President.
Article V
Congress shall have authority to enforce this amendment by necessary legislation.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Movie Reviews from the Sideline: Left Behind (2014)

So, here's the premise: all the Christians (and cute children) disappear suddenly. What will you do with that? Why, of course, let's focus on a single plane trying, despite the fact that they still have a pilot, not to crash. Christian filmmaking FTW.

Left Behind (2014) is the latest attempt to re-boot a film series based on the popular book series of the same name. The previous manifestation featured a bland script, poor acting, and, of course, a "film star" whose career was just slightly past its prime. In the current manifestation, not much has changed, except that we get Nicolas Cage, of National Treasure infamy, instead of Kirk Cameron, of fundamentalist infamy.

It would probably earn me a few brownie points to spend some time explaining what was wrong with premillennialism and the rapture thesis that goes along with it. I'll leave that aside. I don't always write just to please my audience, unlike some filmmakers....What we have in front of us is a movie in which all of us pretty much knew what was going to happen--well all of us who read the original series, unlike you godless heathen, Muslims, Catholics, atheists, animists, postmillennialists, amillennialists, (heaving for breath), Lutherans, Democrats, etc. etc. Throughout the whole world, everything is going terribly, especially for a family in which one member has become a Christian; then all the Christians disappear, and everything gets worse.

Yep. That's pretty much it. There are no cool visuals of a world gone mad, except in the always-sane (sarcasm) world of hospital triage and shopping malls. The rise of the Antichrist, which would have at least given someone the chance to have a little fun with the movie, is completely absent. There is a little bit of praying, in case someone stumbled into the theater thinking that this was a secular movie, and, to top it all off, a verse from the King James Version of the Holy Bible.  Even the (mildly) interesting theological quandaries posed by such an event are passed over with a few moments of college-student outrage from the female lead (Cassi Thompson).

And that is just what is missing. Everything else in the movie is awful as well. The extras act very much like nice Church people who were told to act bada** (asterisks included) for a few seconds and/or confused and frightened. The script makes the usual Christian-movie mistake of trying to cram as many explanations as it can into every sentence. Nicolas Cage is the best actor on screen--and that should tell you all you need to know about the rest of the actors. The human interest angle of this movie is broken up by cheap scares from an old-fashioned telephone and, of all things, dwarf jokes. Yes, in 2014, Christians are entertaining themselves with jokes about little people. 'Cause 'Merica.

I can't help but think of what a missed opportunity this was. What could be a great movie based on a ridiculous theory turns out to be as big of a flop as 2012--and that movie was at least as faithful to the Mayan religion as this one is to Christianity. I mean, seriously, you have a sci-fi/fantasy premise that all the children in the world disappear, a premise that a huge number of people actually think is going to happen someday, and THIS is all you do with it? Even the books did a better job, and that is saying a lot.

Oh, you thought I was going to say that this was a missed opportunity for evangelism? Nope. It wasn't. I think the movie showcased the ideology behind it perfectly.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Hymn to Our Lady of Sorrows

It is the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom I dedicate this song.
It can be sung to the tune "Pange Lingua" or, for a more festal occasion, "Regent Square".

Mary, by the cross abiding,
Underneath that sacred tree,
When our Lord to John confiding,
To his Church entrusted Thee,
In thy tender heart residing,
Were some wounds that came from me.

Oh what crushing contemplation,
Is't to know that I have brought,
To my star of veneration,
Even one unpleasant thought;
Yet in choosing Thy vocation,
Thou a sinner's life hast bought.

See upon Thy heart, so burning,
Is a crown of thorns entwined
By those Christians who are yearning,
After luxuries refined,
And in spite of Thee are earning,
Nought but penalty to find. 

Coredemptrix, Queen of Sorrow,
Bear away my soul to Thee!
O could I some language borrow,
Which would praise Thee fittingly,
Every day upon the morrow,
I would sing it mournfully!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Hymn to Mary, Vessel of Devotion

Mary, our treasure, vessel undefil├ęd,
See how our off'ring by the flesh is sullied,
Take to Thy bosom all our works and worship,
Making them holy.

Through endless ages, Thou shalt be our shelter,
That all our merits may be free of danger,
And perseverance by Thy name be certain,
Pure gate of heaven!

There is no creature e'er so great and mighty
Whose grace and virtue equal his Creator
Who, for His glory, made himself Thy subject,
Doing Thy bidding. 

Then let us never turn our contemplation
To Christ our Savior, or the Holy Spirit,
Ere we salute Thee with the holy angels,
Pleasing the Father. Amen   

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Hymn to Mary, Seat of Wisdom

To the Tune "Merton" or "Halton Holgate" (87.87)
(Vs. 1-5 are new, while the Doxology was written by Fr. Edward Caswall of Congregation of the Oratory)
1. Mary, ere the world was founded,
God conceived Thee in His plan, 
That all sin should be confounded, 
By, through Thee, becoming Man. 

2. So when God made earth and heaven, 
Kneading them to one accord,
Thou wert made the very leaven,
Raising them unto the Lord. 

3. Oh, if Wisdom's habitation, 
Be where e'er His Law is felt,
Thou art like her incarnation,
For in Thee the Law hath dwelt. 

4. Bowing at Thy holy altar, 
He who owns Thee as his Queen, 
Knows his heart shall never falter, 
If Thy prayers will intervene. 

5. Mary, Wisdom's great creation,
Where the Word shall not depart,
Fix in us the contemplation,
Of Thy undivided heart.

Doxology (By Edward Caswall)
Honor, glory, virtue, merit,
To the Father and the Son,
With the co-eternal Spirit,
While eternal ages run.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Prolegomena to a Low Mass

Now, before I make my case for the Low Mass, let me start out by saying that there are two kinds of "professional" traditionalists.

The first group of professional traditionalists are the "Scholarly" trads, whose love of tradition is fueled by a great desire, not only for celebrating the Mass according to the rubrics, but for putting it on with the utmost solemnity possible according to the rubrics, exploiting every liturgical possibility and following up on every technical description of the ceremonies which has been given for the past four hundred years, at minimum. This group of traditionalists is a really necessary group, because they often have the skills to back up their snobbery, and any solemn liturgical function, without their advice and counsel, often fails to rise to the occasion. However, I must say that I pity them, having assumed such a role for a number of years because, while they attempt to construct, reconstruct, or describe each ceremony in its blissful glory so that the faithful may "experience" the full majesty of the Church's liturgy, they often find themselves to be the only ones on whom the experience is lost, or they make the planning stage of carrying out any liturgical function so miserable that everyone in the congregation is more focused on the movements of the altar servers than on the altar.

The second group of professional traditionalists are those who, while not so obsessed with minutiae of liturgical praxis, are nonetheless committed to dragging out Church services for as long as possible with a plethora of hymns, devotions (usually the same of both, repeated endlessly Sunday after Sunday), announcements, the same old Mass settings and plainchant propers, and multiple other public demonstrations of their piety before everyone can go to Lunch or get busy with the work of converting the world. These, too, are an absolute necessity to the Church, not the least of which because, when the time comes for May Crownings or Rosary services or Novenas, they know how to pull off such events in a manner that will generally edify the congregation and please them. One must be sure, however, that he has taken his insulin before such events (however necessary) so as not to go into diabetic shock.

I, as the name of my blog implies, am not a professional traditionalist of either sort. I am an amateur, content merely to try to get myself and a few others into the pearly gates by means of the marvelous Extraordinary Form. Like any amateur worth the name, I love, within the limits of my time and understanding, the solemn liturgies of the Church along with all of its devotions and sentimental flourishes. I find nothing wrong with them, taken in and of themselves, provided that they are done well and, in terms of time, in proportion to the capacity of the people trying to carry them out. What I do not approve of, however, and it seems to be a common theme among many of the professionals, is this fairly common denigration of the Low Mass and those who prefer it.

The Low Mass is a particularly genius creation of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. One will look in vain for a "spoken" Divine Liturgy in the Eastern Rites. For non-Catholic Churches, the concept of a group of people speaking an entire service, including those parts that would normally be sung, combined with long periods of near-silent prayer is about as foreign as a Buddhist temple. Only in the Roman Rite is it to be found, and for good reason.

We Roman Catholics have had to deal with a lot in our time. When the rest of the elite traipsed off to Constantinople, leaving behind the poor Romans to deal with all the barbarians and Latin grammar, the Western Empire, and together with it the Latin Church, was given the unenviable task of converting a horde of pagans who, unlike the noble Romans and Greeks, worshipped under trees and among standing stones and suchlike. And there was so much ground to be covered. So, we learned how not to let the best be the enemy of the good, pack up our liturgies, and get along with what we had. Barbarians not being known for their singing voices, we invented the low mass in order to save what was left of our sanity.

Well, that may be a slight exaggeration. But in any case, my point is that the Low Mass comes from evangelistic necessity and is rugged by design. It thrives anywhere, it brings Christ to anyone, because it requires so little to carry out and yet achieves, with noble simplicity, a truly contemplative act of worship.

Now, there are Low Masses and there are Low Masses. The "lowest" Mass, I think, can be found in monasteries, seminaries, and pretty much any place that a priest finds himself without the intrusion of laity. In these places, there are far too many priests to have each of them celebrate a High Mass, and yet the power of the Mass is such that the Church has long recommended to priests the daily offering of the Mass. The effect of this, for the priest, is that it confirms to him the intimate relationship with Christ that was conferred to him by his priesthood, on the one hand, and his obligation to offer sacrifice for the good of the Church on the other. A priest is always a priest, whether among the people or not.

Now, these "lowest" Masses are perhaps the largest targets of professional liturgists, who are particularly adept at coming up with rules on how people should properly love and worship God, without considering the honor of God or the sanctification of souls as major factors in their consideration. Such liturgists, whom I shall hereafter refer to as "Nazis", look at the room full of priests, each celebrating their own Mass with their own servers, quietly whispering the prayers in an almost inaudible tone, and conclude that these men must be antisocial, given, after all, that they are sharing their most intimate encounter with God with a half-dozen or dozen other men in the same room. "How dare they not be goose-stepping in time with all the other concelebrants!" exclaim the Nazis.

The fact is, however, that I have indeed, with only the slightest hint of fear at the approach of the liturgical Gestapo, been present at almost countless private Masses. I can say that anyone steeped in the history of the Church and in the spirituality of the Mass cannot help but accept the fact that such Masses are celebrated with and for the entire Church, for it is the prayer of the Church by a priest of the Church that is being offered, not the priest's own private prayers, and this is united with the intentions of the Church and the private prayers of the Church precisely through the silence and the explicit mention of them by the priest in the Ordinary of the Mass. There is nothing more "for" the Church than a priest who gives himself entirely, heart and mind, to the Sacrifice of Calvary, at which only one Bishop was originally privileged to assist and only one celebrant--indeed, the laity were so few that Jesus felt it obligatory to make one on the fly before completing the sacrifice. And there is nothing to compare with the experience of being in a monastery during the period of time set aside by low masses and being completely surrounded by the sacrifice of Calvary wherever one looks. The only thing that can even approximate the experience is to be amongst a group of people, each one shouting their own praise to heaven or praying quietly to God, and yet it is far better than that, because the sacrifice of praise being offered is that which is uttered in heaven by the Holy Trinity itself.

Next we have the ordinary, work-a-day parish daily mass, which, again, is hated by the Nazis for two unforgivable features: (1) it is generally quick and (2) the people pray during it. This is clearly opposed to the New Mass where (1) it is generally quick as well, but has less than half the verbosity of the traditional Mass, despite taking the same amount of time, and (2) the people mindlessly mumble the same words at precisely the same moment, so that if, during the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer the priest stopped and said "Good morning!" they would all give the appropriate liturgical response, "Good morning, Father!"

Now, the beauty of the parish daily mass is precisely in that it is simple and wholly without fuss. A priest merely walks in, says the prayers in the book while the people follow along, as best they can (and most of them really can, despite what people say), and offer their own prayers to God. There is not a better packaged deal of grace in all of Christendom: hear scripture, pray for your intentions, get your Rosary prayed, receive Holy Communion, adore the Lord, unite yourself with the Church, and all in 35 minutes or less! And from that brief moment the whole day is sanctified. We are strengthened and prepared for battle, and we do not spend so much time fussing over the shininess of our AK-47s that we get blown up by an IED in the interim. In other words, the daily low mass works.

Finally, we must consider the very pinnacle of the Low Mass, the Dialogue Mass with hymns. This is about as far as a Low Mass can go before we have to draw the line and tell it to start owning up to its High Mass pretensions. In this Mass, the priest and people alternate reciting the parts of the Mass usually reserved to the server, and the whole is penetrated, from time to time, especially at the entrance, offertory, communion, and recessional, with hymns sung in the vernacular. Yet, even this Mass has its virtues. When you are out on a camping trip, or celebrating a feast day with a priest who cannot, for all the world, sing, or have an hour or less to occupy, this form of celebration is particularly effective at conveying the joy of the faith, perhaps even more than the solemn Gregorian tones of the High Mass, to the largest group of people.

And, again, as someone who has also experienced this type of Mass, it WORKS. There is no need for a vernacular liturgy or for people who are not capable to fuss around with putting on a Solemn High Mass. The liturgy is still the liturgy and the graces of that liturgy effectively communicate grace to those participate. I have seen a school transformed by the introduction of a Dialogue Mass, which forces them to speak words which, before, were obscured by the chant and music of High Mass and to reflect on their meaning. After one such celebration, in fact, many of them were asking questions about parts of the Mass they had never noticed before.

Now, all of this is not to say anything against the High Mass, and, indeed, I believe that it is a parish's duty to celebrate, and enjoy, the weekly High Mass. It should be the pinnacle of our Sunday, if we are able to attend. But I cannot abide the amount of disapproval and scorn that so many show a Low Mass, as if it were somehow less "worthy" than the High Mass. The question is not of worth, but of propriety. There are times for a High Mass, and there are times for a Low Mass; each has its gifts, and each has a unique way to communicate God's grace to the Church militant.

A Sermon by St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

I share the following from the former readings for the Octave of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I made a relatively free translation so as not to lose any of the force of the original, which is really quite beautiful.

Sermo 4 de Assumptione B.M.V circa medium
There is nothing that pleases me more, and nothing that terrifies me more than to preach on the glory of the Virgin Mary. For, see, if I praise her virginity, I see that there are many who have offered themselves as virgins after her. If I preach on her humility, we will find, perhaps, even a few who, taught by her Son, have become meek and humble of heart. If I want to proclaim the greatness of her mercy, there are some also some very merciful men and women. There is, however, one thing in which she does not have someone like her, before or after, and that is her joining the joy of motherhood with the honor of virginity. This is Mary's privilege, and it is not given to another: it is unique, and it is also something that words cannot perfectly describe.

Nevertheless, if you pay attention closely, you will find not only this one virtue, but even other singular virtues in Mary, which she only seems to share with others. For can one even compare the purity of the angels to that spotless virginity which was found worthy to become the tabernacle of the Holy Spirit and dwelling place of the Son of God? How great and how precious was her humility, together with such perfect innocence, such wisdom without fault, and such a fullness of grace? How did you obtain such meekness, O Blessed Woman, such great humility? You are indeed worthy, whom the Lord considered carefully, whose beauty the King desired, on whose lap with its sweetest fragrance the eternal Father was brought to rest.

Behold, with these acts of devotion we have meditated on your ascension to your Son, and we have followed you as though from a distance, O Blessed Virgin. Let the grace of your mercy, the favor that you found with God, be made known to the world: may your prayers obtain mercy for the condemned, remedy for the sick, strength of heart for the lowly, consolation for the afflicted, aid for those in peril, and freedom for your holy ones. And on this day of celebration and gladness, may Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, through thee, O merciful Queen, pour out the gifts of His grace upon all those who invoke the sweetest name of Mary with praise, for He is the God of all things. blessed unto all ages. Amen.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sonnet In Memoriam - June 19, 2008

The stars of midnight share their light with you--
I look at them, so distant and so cold;
These gods of mem'ry in my heart renew
All things I love but never more can hold.

I think of you with them, when I am weak,
Beyond the sea whose harbor is the grave;
How you would know the tongues that they would speak,
In isles of light that wayward sailors save.

Before the stars in prayer, I often dream
That I am starlight shining in your eyes,
And guiding you across the pathless stream,
To Him whose realm is guarded by the skies.

My dreams are constellations of your thought,
Which newly once, in ancient words, you taught.

Monday, July 21, 2014

O Slaves of Christ Through Mary - A Hymn

To the tune "Nyland" or "Kuortane"

O slaves of Christ through Mary,
Set free from Adam's stain,
The chains of love you carry,
Bring joy that conquers pain;
Then not as hosts infernal,
Who name Her out of fear,
But with glad hymns eternal,
Sing to our Lady dear!

O Mary, sweetest Mother,
Thy children look to Thee,
For there is not another,
So near the Trinity.
In Thee the holy image
Of God took on its hue,
That when we see Thy visage,
Our Lord comes into view.

Those who would teach God's people,
To cease Thy endless praise
Will call Thy servants feeble,
Who pray through Thee always.
Yet in their condemnation,
They Satan's lies repeat,
Who at the incarnation,
Bowed not before Thy feet.

O Lord Thy cross and manger
Of one same wood were built,
Which rescues us from danger,
And frees us from our guilt;
At both Thy fairest Maiden,
Thou givest unto us,
Whose hands are heavy laden,
With graces plenteous.

The wood is self-denial,
And slav'ry is the tree,
Which makes of love a trial,
And proves fidelity.
So make us slaves through Mary,
Let love our shackles be,
So that we may not tarry,
In running after Thee.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A Hymn to Mary, Queen of All Hearts

To the tune "Duke Street" or "Old 100th"...

O Mary Queen of every heart,
Whose prayer doth life and light impart,
Take root in us who sing to Thee,
That we may ever fruitful be.

Thou gavest birth unto our Lord,
Then we, His members, in accord
Look to Thee as our Mother still,
Rejoicing in Thy holy will.

Thou art the Holy Spirit's Bride,
So let us cast away our pride,
And may we have Thy presence here,
Where He may linger ever near.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Arkansas, Our Native Land - A State Anthem

So, Arkansas needed (note the past tense) a new patriotic song to sing at school gatherings, public assemblies, etc. So I wrote one. To be sung to the tune "Austria":

1. God of nations bless our country,
Arkansas, our native land!
Let our hearts be just before Thee;
Guide us with Thy righteous hand!
Hill and valley, stream and delta,
Unto Thee we consecrate.
|: May the Lord of every people
Bless the banner of our state!:|

2. May this Christian land be christened,
With a flood of penitence,
When we have Thy law forgotten,
And have given Thee offense!
Not by armies, not by canon,
Are our lives made safe and free;
|: Make Thy people ever mindful
That our safety is in Thee!:|

3. Lands of harvest, lands of plenty,
Thou hast given us to keep.
When the foes of peace assail us,
Lord arouse us from our sleep!
Teach the hands of patriot warriors
Both to fight and to prevail!
|:With the Lord of hosts before us,
Arkansas shall never fail! :|

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Catechism in Song - Lesson 3 - The Kinds of Sin

Lesson 3 - The Kinds of Sin

Refrain: There are three kinds of sin with which we must contend,
Every day till our days are done;
There are three that will flee when we have charity,
And our God hates them, every one.

Verse 1:
And the first is the kind that makes all of us blind,
Which we did not commit at all,
But old Adam and Eve, by the serpent deceived,
Brought the sin called Original.

By that sin we are slaves to this Earth and its ways
And we cannot reach heaven's door.
Only one Lady yet was so Immaculate
That from sin she was kept ever pure.

Verse 2:
Now the other two kinds which we must keep in mind
Are the sins that we sadly commit.
They are actual sins against God and all men,
And they make us for heaven unfit.

The most dreadful of these like a deadly disease
Kills the life God has put in your soul.
They are mortal and grave and, unless you are bathed
By confession, to Hell you will go.

Verse 3:
But the devil has sense and he knows greater sins,
Are too often too hard to employ,
So he often attempts with a lesser offense,
To deceive us and lessen our joy.

These are venial crimes and so many a time,
We allow them to darken our hearts;
But each mortal offense very often begins,
When a habit of sinning starts.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Catechism in Song- Lesson 2 - God the Father and Creator

We believe in one God, the Trinity,
Who has always been and ever shall be,
Father, Son, and Spirit in Unity,
One God, one in Three. (2x)

We believe in One who is always near,
Knows our every thought, and comforts our fear,
We His mystery and power revere,
One God, always near. (2x)

We believe that God made our souls like Him,
So that, like a Light, He could shine therein,
May we never stain His image with sin.
One God, shine again. (2x)