Monday, March 2, 2009

Lent and the Inner Conservative

Like all Americans of my generation raised in moderate Republican, suburban homes, by the time the Reagan revolution signalled the extinction of that slice of the American political pie, I had found a new political home. Giving in to the assurances of my multi-cultural urban friends that fears of John F. Kennedy's blind allegiance to the Pope were unfounded, I adopted the identity of "liberal". After years of GOP efforts to redefine the term as an obscenity, and the cowardly acquiescence of Democrats hiding behind the "progressive" label, I persist in my auto definition as "liberal". Please note that the opposite of liberal is illiberal, not conservative. Indeed, while people like me were shifting their allegiance to JFK and his party, the more radical elements of our sheltered communities, inspired by a poisonous melange of watered down futurism and the unadulterated bile of objectivism, embraced a nihilistic, social Darwinist creed bizarrely described ever since in the popular media as "conservative".

The 100th anniversary of the publication of the Futurist Manifesto passed largely unnoticed last week. It's a shame since nothing else I've seen could so plausibly explain the life's work of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. While the foot soldiers of the Reagan Revolution have been white men in the Sun Belt whose soft minds have been molded, by jingoist Sunday sermons from evangelical pulpits and non-stop 24/7 talk shows hosted by Goering clones on their truck radios, into supporting policies diametrically opposed to their own interests, the command center has always been manned by Grover Norquist-style oligarchs. These two disparate classes at the top and bottom of the coalition would never have gotten off the ground without the intermediate cadre of radicals, usually from such down-to-earth fields such as economics and engineering, captivated by the second tier "isms" of futurism and objectivism. Among them, Alan Greenspan has recently confessed that his conversion by Ayn Rand contributed to the Wall Street meltdown. These people were united by a limitless conviction that their personal successes resulted entirely from their own hard work, talent, and natural superiority, and by a religious faith in the infallibility of the "market". I regard such people as the black sheep of the family and the neighborhood, and they reciprocate in kind, but the lines are never all that black or white. Though I pay little more heed to to the Futurist Manifesto than to the Ayn Rand claptrap, I do admit to an irrational futurist love of racing cars and my favorite artifacts in the Garden State are the Pulaski Skyway and the old brick industrial buildings near the Great Falls in my native Paterson, while the objectivist/futurists tend to favor fake colonial style ranch houses in gated two-acre plot sylvan exurbs, despite, or in addition to, a boyish fascination with weapons and supersonic airplanes.

Soon after my seduction by Camelot, my inevitable liberal tendency toward appeasement asserted itself again when I married a Catholic, rendering null and void three decades of anti-papist indoctrination. Not just any Catholic, but one of the most ardent Catholics in all of Christendom. I've gone on to sire an ever expanding Catholic family, and while I continue to dash hopes of a death-bed conversion, I do allow myself to be dragged into the occasional mass, usually when it's too cold to sit outside in the car for an hour. As my two devoted readers know by now, I am fond of old places, things and rituals. Despite our divergences in matters of faith and doctrine, my wife and I agree that the substitution in "liberal" churches of recycled 70's guitar-strumming folk singers for the majestic unused organs, is an inexcusable abomination. We both prefer the Latin mass, she for the tradition, I because of its mystery and reassuring incomprehensibility. I love much of Catholic tradition: the art, the architecture, the ecclesiastical robes, and the incense, giving me as legitimate a claim to the title of "conservative" as that of any of my radical right brethren.

The other under reported event last week was the beginning of Lent. It usually comes up only in stories covering Carnevale, Fasching or Marti Gras, unless you read church bulletins, but for someone raised with no idea of Lent, the cyclical concept of Rabelaisian revelry followed by a period of repentance and purification is as appealing as the waving of the incense. It's similar to why the four season climate of New York or Rome is so much more appealing to some of us than the always perfect, always warm and sunny weather of Florida, no matter how much we may lament the cold. For many years I have given up something for Lent, usually wine, but sometimes all alcohol, less from a devotion to God than from a concern that my liver might be in need of a period of repose and regeneration, but also, in part, from the satisfaction obtained through self-discipline. Sadly, with the ravages of time and a declining economy, the pre-Lenten celebrations have become ever less Dionysian.

This year I decided to shield my friends from my self-induced suffering and consequent foul humor, so when those rare occasions for socializing with friends come up, I will momentarily set aside my vows of sobriety in the name of conviviality. I will however renounce the warming embrace of Jack Daniels on those bleak evenings of lingering winter. My daily bread will be taken with water until we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, the coming of spring, and with a little luck, the beginning of an upturn in the economy. This year promises sacrifices for everyone. There is something to be said for voluntary sacrifice. Think of it as spring training for the long season ahead.

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