Saturday, February 26, 2005

NY Times: A Grand Season at a Cold Canyon


February 25, 2005

Racing north up Route 180 in Arizona, ahead of a storm moving in from California, I drove through the gray-green Kaibab National Forest and Coconino National Forest. Ponderosa pines stood sentry-like, to the accompaniment of radio warnings of snow - 16 inches in Flagstaff, where I'd come from, and 10 inches where I was headed, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

A family of wild turkeys strutted alongside the road just before the woods gave way to a rolling expanse of scrub country covered with patches of snow. Blue sky alternated with bands of thick, billowy clouds casting a pearly luminescence and concealing the San Francisco Peaks, which normally dominate the eastern horizon. Then, before the snow could catch me, I was there -at the entrance gate of the Grand Canyon National Park. Minutes later, I stood on Mather Point, 7,000 feet in elevation, gaping at the edge of the canyon. No matter what the season, the canyon always takes your breath away.

In winter, a trip to the Grand Canyon is all about weather - cold, foggy and rainy; warm, clear and sunny; frigid and blindingly snowy - not only on the highways and at the airports that provide access to the canyon, but also in the park itself.

At Mather Point that day, the air was crisp and the sun pierced the clouds so that shafts of light illuminated the vivid colors of the rock layers in the canyon walls. Below the rim, where the cliffs and the slopes of the upper canyon descend into the V-shaped inner gorge, snow blanketed the landscape at higher elevations and merely flecked it lower down. At the bottom, roughly a vertical mile below the rim, flowed the sinuous Colorado River. Back up top on Mather Point, tourists piled out of buses and S.U.V.'s, chilly but delighted, busily snapping pictures and exclaiming over the views.

In winter, dramatic and rapid weather changes at the South Rim can make canyon-watching an extreme sport. You can experience four seasons within minutes at Mather Point, going from sunny and mild to a blizzard that obliterates the whole scene and leaves you clutching the overlook railing, enshrouded in a whiteout.

"You can be standing inside a snowstorm with zero visibility when suddenly the storm moves along and you can see all the way to the bottom of the canyon," said Ronald Brown, a ranger in the park. "Sometimes the snow melts as it falls, or the fog will be so thick you can't see the closest rocks. Once in a great while there's an inversion: you'll be standing at the rim with only the tops of the highest rock formations visible. Everything below you is filled with clouds so thick it looks like you could walk right out on top of them."

Still, even in winter, this is sunny Arizona, where that great ball of light in the sky beams down about three of every four days, said Mark Stubblefield, a National Weather Service meteorologist. At the canyon, about half the days in cold months are sunny or partly sunny. A typical pattern is a snowy or foggy day followed by a clear one, as wind from the storm brings in fresh clean air.

Because the hordes thin out once the temperature drops, there is less jostling for space at the overlooks than in summer and there is less need to pass slowpokes on the trails. The National Park Service said that of the 4.67 million people who visited the canyon in 2004, 162,059 arrived in February, compared with 677,633 in July. "The snow makes the canyon look clean and bright," Mr. Brown, the ranger, said. "When clouds and shadows are moving through the canyon and snow is reflecting light off the rocks, it's more breathtaking than usual."

Most of the activities available to canyon visitors in the warm months occur, weather permitting, throughout the winter as well. This includes two-day mule trips down Bright Angel Trail, from Grand Canyon Village, the hub of the South Rim, to Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor, where visitors spend the night. (When severe storms caused a rock slide on Jan. 5, the trail was closed for almost three weeks until it could be cleared. The mule trips resumed on Feb. 7.)

Straight across the canyon from Mather Point is the North Rim, 1,000 feet higher and about 10 air miles away, but more than 200 miles by car and a 21-mile, two-to-three day, cross-canyon hike. From mid-October to mid-May, the North Rim is closed because of snow, but the South Rim remains open year-round (the Park Service keeps the roads clear). Another advantage of visiting the canyon in winter is that fewer travelers mean fewer helicopters and small planes buzzing overhead, spoiling the peace and quiet. During my three-day stay, I saw no aircraft, though they do operate all year.

As I walked the Rim Trail ahead of the storm, I kept tripping over rocks. Instead of looking where I was going, I was riveted by the chasm, which dropped off just inches from my feet. During inclement weather, rangers warn winter hikers to beware of ice, mud, slush and slippery rocks on all of the trails. Hiking poles and instep crampons are recommended for brutally cold days when trails at the high elevations may be icy. (As hikers descend into the canyon, the weather warms up. Average February temperatures are 21 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit on the South Rim and 42 to 62 degrees in the inner gorge. Hikers staying overnight at Phantom Ranch must remember that a mild day by the river can be a snowy one up top.)

Tour buses still come to the canyon in the cold months, but in far fewer numbers, and from December through February visitors can take their own cars onto the Hermit Road, which begins in Grand Canyon Village and dead-ends eight miles to the west. As I drove it, stopping at overlooks, the tempest hit, so I opted to wait it out at Pima Point for that once-in-a-lifetime view of Granite Rapid 5,000 feet below. Post-storm, standing on the narrow promontory that forms Maricopa Point was like being on the prow of a ship that had set sail into a sea of swirling reds, pinks and salmons, the shades of the canyon's epic towers, buttes and pinnacles.

Another 360-degree prospect awaited at Hopi Point, where bands and patterns of color in the cliffs - black bleeding into mustard-yellow, orange melding into coffee-umber-cinnamon-terra-cotta - danced and shimmered in the shifting light. The Grand Canyon, it seems, must be the mother piece of Southwestern pottery, inspiring generations of Indian artists.

At Mohave Point, you can see the Colorado River both coming and going, as it were, from east to west, a skein of muddy-hued water unspooling through the canyon.

I also drove Desert View Drive, which curves along the South Rim for 25 miles from the park's southern entrance to its eastern one. At Lipan Point, windy sheets of freezing rain and snow pelted me, but I hung in there until the ceiling lifted, revealing both a rainbow and the tableland of the Navajo Reservation, ending abruptly at Palisades of the Desert, the sheer bluffs that form the Grand Canyon's eastern wall. Here the Colorado River turns west and enters the black-schist inner gorge. Above, the broad Tonto Platform, consisting mostly of green-gray shale, spreads like a mossy carpet over the canyon.

At every stop I made along both roads, and during my hikes, I encountered people madly trying to record the moment, either by filming the canyon with a camcorder or by taking photographs. But no camera lens is long or wide enough to capture the canyon. After a while, you have to stop looking through the viewfinder and gaze unblinkered at the constantly changing panorama. Only then will you realize that the Grand Canyon is the perfect scale. If it were any deeper or wider, it would be an abyss, and if any smaller, it would lose much of its monumentality. EAGER to see the Colorado River close-up, but not via a boat or a two-day trek on foot, I drove southwest under a bright sun for about 140 miles from the South Rim to Peach Springs, 5,000 feet in elevation and the capital of the Hualapai Reservation, on Historic Route 66. Diamond Creek Road, which requires a four-wheel-drive vehicle even in the best of weather, heads north out of town, dropping 3,000 feet in elevation as it winds 20 miles through Peach Springs Canyon, one of the Grand Canyon's many side canyons, right to the river.

As the only road that runs to the floor of the Grand Canyon, it presents a singular view, especially for those who have seen the canyon only from the South Rim.

Evidence of how green Arizona's desert is - even in winter - surrounded my car as I descended through Peach Springs Canyon. Prickly pear, barrel and spiny cactus, agave and yucca plants, and other desert shrubs climbed far up the canyon walls as they rose all around. The sky was overcast, so the colors were more muted than they had been at the South Rim. Yellow-green willows and cottonwoods appeared as the road crisscrossed Diamond Creek and then, around another bend or two, ended at a beach - mile 226 of the Colorado River's 277-mile course through the Grand Canyon.

The river rushed by, its strong current whooshing over a bed of boulders that ran from the shore to midstream. Its chilly waters, at their winter temperature of 40 degrees, were hardly colder than in summer, when the water temperature through the floor of the canyon rarely rises above 45 degrees.

Since 1964, the release of water from Glen Canyon Dam, 15 miles upstream from the park, has controlled the Colorado's flow through the Grand Canyon. Even so, the river projects its wildness. The Grand Canyon as a whole, in fact, often leaves visitors overwhelmed by its power.
No matter what time of year you go, the canyon stands immutably, despite all the miners and other adventurers who have tried to exploit its resources and failed. It is a place of beauty and rawness that must be appreciated simply for what it is.

South Rim Activities Don't Stop for Winter

VISITORS to Grand Canyon National Park can fly into Flagstaff, Ariz., (80 miles away), Phoenix (230 miles away) or Las Vegas (280 miles away). The Grand Canyon Railway (800-843-8724; runs vintage diesel and steam passenger trains from Williams, Ariz., (65 miles away) to the South Rim.

One of the best hotels on the South Rim is the rambling chalet-style El Tovar, built of logs and native stone in 1905 and exuding a rustic charm. It is being renovated; when it reopens April 13, rates will be $123 to $285. A five-minute walk down the Rim Trail from El Tovar, with equally impressive canyon views, is the 1935 Bright Angel Lodge, which has a history room crammed with memorabilia from the park's early days. Guests stay in small cabins or motel-type rooms. Rates are $49 to $240. Information on both hotels is available at or by calling (888) 297-2757.

Camping, hiking, biking, mule trips, horseback riding, flight-seeing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and ranger programs are all wintertime options, weather permitting. Just about the only activity not available now is Colorado River rafting; the season begins in mid-April. For more information about any of these activities, visit

The Grand Canyon Field Institute (866-471-4435; offers classes ranging from geology to cultural history.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Stanley Crouch: New Debate Over Black Identity
Originally published February 24, 2005

Confusion over Africa and its relationship to black people in this country may be coming to a head very soon.

We now find that more Africans than ever are immigrating to the U.S. and that their presence may dramatically change the discussion on affirmative action.

Over the years, affirmative action has become a free-for-all grab bag that anyone who is not white - or not male! - can use as a precedent for special treatment by the government or the job market, especially where public funds are distributed. That is not, however, how affirmative action was conceived, rightly or wrongly.

Almost a decade ago, I attended a conference called by then-Vice President Al Gore, in which many people spoke on issues of color and ethnicity. One of the most important was Richard Goodwin, who had been involved with affirmative action when it was conceived.

Goodwin said affirmative action had been applied in a number of cases that were not part of the original mission, which was to address the fact that only one group in America had spent more than 200 years enslaved and that its descendants deserved some consideration because of that. It was not intended for people from India, from Africa, from Latin America, from Asia, the Caribbean and so on.

To many, this is a jarring argument because, during the intellectually fuzzy 1960s, black nationalism took such a strong position that there was an aggressive argument for black people to deny their American experience and reach out for Third World identification. Black Americans were supposedly displaced Africans whose identity had been hidden from them.

The impact of this thinking is directly behind the problems that black Americans, especially those in what is called the underclass, face with growing emigration from Africa. Now the threat is coming from their African cousins - not from their brothers and sisters. Actual Africans, hot with immigrant ambition, could now become another "model minority" and displace black American low achievers.

As actual "African-Americans," they could take advantage of affirmative action, which would make even more obvious the limitations suffered by those in the black underclass who are not motivated.

Affirmative action will continue to be discussed, but the debate over American identity is just beginning.

It will be revealing to see just how soon black Americans begin to realize that their American experience is unique and has little to do with the limited subject of color alone.
When black Americans actually throw away sentimentality about Africa and begin to assert their historical identity as Americans and elevate their aspirations along the lines of drive we find common among immigrants, we will see our country improve remarkably.

Sandra Meisel: The Ladies of the Ring

Despite its immense popularity, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings has long been criticized by feminists who say that there are too few female characters and that those who do exist are most notable for their conventionality.

The first charge is irrefutable: there are only three major and six minor feminine roles in the three fat volumes that comprise Rings. Even the numerous horses in the story all seem to be male! An Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien moved in a world steeped in masculine intellectuality. Although Tolkien himself took female students, women played almost no part in scholarly life at Oxford in the 1930s and 40s.

Tolkien was a prominent member of the Inklings, an all-male, mostly Christian coterie of pipe-smoking, pub-loving dons. Like many men in such a milieu, Tolkien put women on a pedestal. In the entire body of Tolkien's work no women are ever immoral although they may face sexual harassment, attempted rape, forced marriage, or even death at the hands of men.

Nor are any women ever shown in the service of the Dark Lord Sauron or his ancient master, Morgoth. The only named females who aid them are a vampire bat and two giant spiders.

In an era that doesn't prize traditionally feminine virtues, Tolkien's work stands out for its idealized view of women. He highly honors their traditional roles. Indeed, it could be argued that nearly all the action in Tolkien's universe derives from one women's dereliction of her motherly duties.

In The Silmarillion, which is set millennia before Lord of the Rings, the elf-queen M’riel suffered such a severe case of post-partum depression that she willed herself to die, ignoring the desperate entreaties of her husband. Her motherless son grew up proudly ungovernable. It was he who fomented the rebellion of the elves against the gods, thus setting in train thousands of years of misery.

To the chagrin of feminists, Rings' three heroines conform to conventional feminine Types, familiar from medieval literature and fairy tales. These are: Arwen the Fairy Bride, Galadriel the Good Witch, and Eówyn the Shield Maiden. Their negative equivalents, however, are significantly absent. Tolkien's heroines, furthermore, excel in traditional feminine functions. They fructify, inspire, counsel, preserve, nourish, and heal -- all in the service of life. They are mistresses of domestic arts: Arwen embroiders, Galadriel weaves, Eówyn cares for her infirm uncle and manages his royal household.

Tolkien doesn't include evil counterparts to these images of conventional femininity. There's no Temptress, Sorceress, or man-hating Amazon in his story. Female characters among Tolkien's speaking peoples (elves, humans, dwarves, ents, and hobbits) may have character flaws and foibles but only one fleetingly mentioned woman in the work is deeply evil.

When the first Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out in 2001, a newspaper article noted that there "[wasn't] much estrogen flowing" in the movie. Filmmaker Peter Jackson, however, has made some intriguing changes in the story's female characters. Jackson's principal alteration was to give Tolkien's women more time on stage and more opportunities to be active. He didn't make them proto-feminists though you'd never know this from the hue and cry raised on various Tolkien websites.

In the book, Arwen the elf maiden seems just a pretty face, a promised trophy wife to reward the human hero Aragorn for his mighty deeds. She's meant to be Aragorn's supportive partner who makes him more of a man than he would have otherwise been. Despite her significance, Arwen makes only the briefest appearances in the books. This treatment would do for medieval romance but contemporary audiences -- of any sexual politics -- expect to see more of the hero's love interest.

As director, co-producer, and co-writer of the three Rings movies, Jackson widened Arwen's role, casting Liv Tyler in the part. Jackson dramatized the poignant romance of Arwen and Aragorn that Tolkien had relegated to an appendix in his hobbit-centered story.

Jackson emphasizes Arwen as a source of loyal encouragement: she believes in Aragorn's destiny more strongly than he initially does. Against her father's wishes, she insists on sharing her lover's mortal status even before he's won his victory. The filmed Fellowship of the Ring puts a sword in Arwen's hand, supposedly the sword of her brave great-grandmother -- whom Tolkien probably didn't picture armed. And Arwen rather than a male elf warrior rescues Frodo, the hobbit who bears the baleful Ring, when enemy forces close in.

For The Two Towers, the second film in the trilogy (2002) , Peter Jackson invented a scene where a vision of Arwen restores the breath of life to a nearly drowned Aragorn. The concluding installment, The Return of the King (2003) devises another bit of initiative for Arwen. She requests the reforging of Aragorn's broken ancestral sword to enhance his manhood, aid his military prospects, and strengthen his claim to his throne. The written text has her engaging in a more conventional feminine pursuit -- embroidering his royal banner. In the film, Arwen herself brings the banner to Aragorn's coronation, but it's not specified as her own handiwork.

Purists screamed about the alterations and doctrinaire feminists are unlikely to have been mollified with all this tinkering. Arwen's maternal grandmother Galadriel, greatest of her people, is a far more complex character, ably played by Cate Blanchett. Eager to rule her own kingdom in Middle-earth, Galadriel listened to the voices of rebellion and departed the Undying Lands against the will of the gods who rule there. She is forceful in other ways as well. Her mother originally called her "Man-maiden" because at six feet four inches in height, she was the tallest of all elf women and notably athletic.

In one version of her story, she actually took up arms to defend her kin from attack before her departure from the realm of the gods. But Tolkien re-wrote the Galadriel sections repeatedly, trying to eradicate the sinful pride with which he had originally endowed her, for he was much taken with the notion that Galadriel resembled the Virgin Mary. Despite her formidable appearance, she functions as a consoling, protective mother-figure.

Tolkien's highest goddess, Varda Elbereth, is an even better fit for the Marian role because she stands on the world's highest peak, listening to the prayers of Middle-earth's people who invoke her in their need. Another female character skillfully adapted by Jackson is Eówyn, a human maiden played by Australian actress Miranda Otto. Eówyn is the 24-year-old niece and nursemaid of an enfeebled king. Called "the steel lily," she longs to do great deeds in the company of men. Tolkien depicts her plight with sympathy but implicitly rejects her notion that men's work matters more than women's.

Jackson gives Eówyn an extra opportunity: He allows her to best Aragorn at swordplay. (A scene in which she destroyed a monster threatening women and children wasn't used in the final cut of The Two Towers.) In The Return of the King, Eówyn plays the hero as she does in the book by slaying Sauron's greatest servant, whom no man can kill.

Although there are no villainous women to oppose Rings' three great heroines, there is a female monster -- Shelob, the giant spider, who attacks Frodo and his servant Sam on their journey to destroy the evil Ring. Shelob is an archtypical Devouring Mother, sadistic and entrapping, a female who takes and destroys rather than give and nourish.

One feminist critic decried the episode as an attack on the womb and evidence of anti-female bias. But after breathing a prayer to Varda Elbereth and blinding the spider with a light source provided by Galadriel, Sam is able to kill Shelob because she unwittingly helps him drive his sword into her own belly. Evil mars itself as good feminine powers overcome an evil one. Tolkien prefers to show females in a positive -- even too positive -- light.

At the risk of committing the biographical fallacy, his idealization of women may have grown out of his reverence for his widowed mother. She forfeited support from her family by converting to Catholicism with her two sons and died in appalling poverty. Marriage is the best destiny for women -- and men -- in Tolkien's world. Even the king of gods sees more when his queen is beside him and she hears more when he is with her.

Marriage for Tolkien is the culmination of the past and the promise of the future. Only through intermarriages with human men -- sons of indomitable mothers -- can the elves leave lasting progeny in Middle-earth. The wedding of Arwen and Aragorn that renews his kingdom unites three lineages of elves and three of humans, not to mention a trace of divine blood.

Their fateful marriage consciously recapitulates the union of their ancient heroic ancestors Luthien, an elf princess, and Beren, a human warrior, who fought the ancient enemy, Morgoth, in The Silmarillion. Tolkien modeled the unconquerable Luthien on his own wife Edith, both for her beauty and for the long struggle they endured to marry: the priest who had raised Tolkien had forbidden the lovers contact until Tolkien came of age. "She was my Luthien," he said and had that name inscribed for her on their joint tombstone, with his later entered as "Beren."

The royal union of Arwen and Aragorn has a rustic parallel in the marriage of hobbits Sam and Rose at the end of The Return of the King. Rose is Sam's touchstone of normality, his emblem of hope in the bleakest part of the Ring-quest. Being able to found a family with her shows that bearing the Ring has not harmed him as it has his master Frodo. The hero comes home to his garden and his Rose. Although Tolkien's females are conventional, they are also powerful.

Females alone can harvest and process the super-nourishing wheat of the gods into "way bread" for journeys. They routinely "see farther" than men and summon sacred trees to grow. They bring inspiration and instill hope. They listen to the woes of the world, encourage resistence, and shed tears of pity. In Tolkien, feminine virtues make life worth living.

This article was originally published online at Independent Women's Forum.

Sandra Miesel is the co-author, with Carl Olson, of The Da Vinci Hoax. She holds masters’ degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from the University of Illinois. Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She regularly appears in Crisis magazine and is a columnist for the diocesan paper of Norwich, Connecticut. Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences, appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews. Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited fiction. Sandra and her husband John have raised three children.

Related Titles from Ignatius Press:
- Tolkien: A Celebration, edited by Joseph Pearce
- Tolkien: Man and Myth by Joseph Pearce
- J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion by Richard Purtill
- J. R. R. Tolkien: Master of the Ring - (DVD)

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Jason Stark: Prepare Yourself Barry: Tougher Questions Await

23 February 2005

By Jayson Stark,
Jayson Stark Archive

We thought he couldn't get any stranger. We thought he couldn't get any more arrogant. We thought he couldn't possibly get any tougher to love, or even like.

But Barry Bonds keeps finding ways to go where even he hasn't gone before. On the field. Off the field. He's full of surprises, that Barry.

It took a special Bonds performance up there on the podium Tuesday to make Jason Giambi look like a sympathetic figure. But Barry pulled it off.

At least Giambi says he's sorry, signs some autographs, acts like a member of the species most of us can relate to -- even if we're not supposed to be sure what the heck he's sorry about.

But the only thing Bonds seemed sorry about Tuesday was that he forgot to turn his cell phone off during his own press conference. OK, make that two things. He also seemed sorry he couldn't quote any good lines from "Sanford and Son."

Actually, if there was one moment of true, inspired clarity in this press conference, it was that "Sanford and Son" quip. We've heard a few scouts say that Barry has been moving like Fred Sanford in the outfield these last few years. So maybe there's a different reason for that than they'd suspected.

But the rest of that mumbo jumbo he fired out there? Mere media members shouldn't be allowed to analyze all that. We need to get the American Psychiatric Association working on this case ASAP.

Oh, part of it we kind of understood. It was just Barry being Barry, doing what he's done 703 million times before: Turning on his West Coast Offense before his questioners could get his defense stuck on the field.

Somewhere in there, we think he was trying to make a point about how alcohol and tobacco are the real scandals in this country, because they're documented "killers" -- so how come we have to waste everyone's time with this steroid garbage.

But before he got that message out in a manner that might actually have been comprehensible, the flames of anger engulfed his point. And the next thing we knew, he was either suggesting we look into whether Ulysses S. Grant took steroids back in the 19th Century, or auditioning for a job as program director at Nick at Nite. We're still not sure.

It's clear now that there are so many things he doesn't get, it's hard to know where to start. But we'll stick to this:

Nobody wants to hate this guy. Not the fans. Not the people asking those questions Tuesday. Not the men he plays against. Not even Jose Canseco.

Barry Bonds is the greatest player most of us have ever seen. It's human nature to want to love and admire people like that.

But he's the one who makes that just about impossible, not the people who put him through "all this rerun stuff." Yeah, he should have smiled more in his career -- but not for us. For him.
It's painful to see anyone that great who is that angry -- especially when he has spent all these years trying to make sure we knew he didn't care what the world thought of him.

Well, if he didn't like these questions, just wait. Those BALCO prosecutors have some questions waiting for him, too. In an open courtroom. Where he can't control the setting, can't filter the topics and can't wriggle out of the answers by complaining about how tired he is of the subject.

If he answers those questions the way he answered these questions, what happens next will make those 53,000 boos he hears in Dodger Stadium seem like a bigger lovefest than the Oscars.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Film Review: Touchstone Magazine on Groundhog Day

Phil’s Shadow

Michael P. Foley on the Lessons of Groundhog Day

Last December the New York Times ran an intriguing article about a Museum of Modern Art movie series on film and faith. What attracted the Times to the series was not its pageant of grave Swedish cinema but its opening feature, the 1993 romantic comedy Groundhog Day. The curators, polling “critics in the literary, religious and film worlds,” found that the movie “came up so many times that there was actually a squabble over who would write about it in the retrospective’s catalog.”

The movie, the article went on to observe, “has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in Groundhog Day a reflection of their own spiritual messages.” A professor at NYU shows it in her classes to illustrate the doctrine of samsara (the endless cycle of rebirth Buddhists seek to escape), while a rabbi in Greenwich Village sees the film as hinging on mitvahs (good deeds). Wiccans like it because February 2nd is one of the year’s four “great sabbats,” while the Falun Dafa sect uses the movie as a lesson in spiritual advancement.

Deciphering which, if any, of these interpretations is correct is no easy task, especially since the director and co-writer of the film, Harold Ramis, has ambiguous religious beliefs (he is an agnostic raised Jewish and married to a Buddhist). The commentators also seem wedded to a single hermeneutical lens, forcing them to ignore contradictory data.

A more fruitful approach, I suggest, would involve following all of the clues, clues that lead not only to religion but also to the great conversation of philosophy. Once we do so, Groundhog Day may be seen for what it is: a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.

Typical Modern

Groundhog Day is the story of Phil Connors, an obnoxious weatherman at a Pittsburgh TV station who must cover the celebration of Groundhog Day in rural Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Phil (masterfully played by Bill Murray) is egotistical, career-driven, and contemptuous of his fellow man. “People are morons,” he tells his producer Rita, played by an adorable Andie MacDowell. “People like blood sausage.” Phil, in other words, is the typical product of modernity, the bourgeois man who lives for himself in the midst of others. Rita describes him—and us—well by quoting Sir Walter Scott’s “There Breathes the Man”:

The wretch, concentred all in self,Living, shall forfeit fair renown,And, doubly dying, shall go downTo the vile dust, from whence he sprung,Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.
By refusing to die to himself, Phil and those like him are doomed to die doubly, triply, innumerably.

The Punxsutawney celebration of Groundhog Day culminates with the town elders consulting a real woodchuck, also named Phil, about the next six weeks. The groundhog sees his shadow, an omen that more winter is to come.

Connors cannot wait to return to Pittsburgh, but trapped by a blizzard (which he failed to predict), he and the crew must stay another night in Punxsutawney. When he awakes the next morning, Phil discovers to his dismay that it is February 2nd—again. The same thing happens the next day, and the next. For reasons that are never made clear, Phil is condemned to live Groundhog Day over and over.

Phil’s situation is unique, yet the movie hints that it is not unrelated to our own quotidian lives. Commiserating with two locals over beers, Phil asks, “What would you do if every day was the same, and nothing you did ever mattered?” The men’s faces grow solemn, and one of them finally belches, “That about sums it up for me.” Phil’s preternatural plight bears a twin resemblance to ours: first, as a symbol for the Fall, with its “doubly dying” estrangement from God and return to the vile dust from whence we sprang; and second, as a symbol for life in the wake of postmodern philosophy.

For the great father of this philosophy is Nietzsche, and the idea that frightened him most was the “the eternal recurrence of the same,” i.e., that even the superior human being must bear the same dreary existence an infinite number of times. Like us, Phil is the modern man who must now confront the hardship of postlapsarian life on the one hand and the metaphysical meaninglessness of postmodern thought on the other.

Indeed, Phil’s various reactions to his enslavement read like the history of philosophy in reverse. Phil is shocked at his own impotence, so much faith had he put in his meteorological training. (“I make the weather!” he tells an unconvinced state trooper.) Phone lines and automobiles prove useless, as do his visits to a doctor and a therapist. All of the Enlightenment’s societal buttresses—technology, natural science, and social science—collapse under the weight of a problem outside the parameters of space and time.

Failure & Happiness

Once Phil realizes that in his Nietzschean quagmire there are no consequences to his actions, he also experiences modern philosophy’s liberation from any sense of eternal justice. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he gleefully announces. His reaction epitomizes Glaucon’s argument in Plato’s Republic. Remove the fear of punishment, Glaucon argued, and the righteous will behave no differently than the wicked. Nineteen hundred years later, Machiavelli, arguably the father of modern philosophy, elevated this view to a philosophical principle.

And Phil embodies it perfectly: Once he learns that he can get away with anything he wants, he becomes Machiavelli’s prince. He unhesitatingly steals money from a bank, cold-cocks a life insurance agent, and seduces an attractive woman.

To Phil’s surprise, however, this life of instant gratification proves unfulfilling, leading him to set his sights on Rita, his beautiful and wholesome co-worker. The name “Rita,” I contend, tells us something about the role she plays in Phil’s life. Rita is short for Margarita, the Latin word for “pearl.” To Phil, Rita is the pearl of great price. We know from Matthew’s Gospel that this pearl is the kingdom of Heaven, but it may also be appropriate to think of it as happiness, since, according to Aristotle, happiness is that towards which everything in our life is ordered.
And so the overriding question of the story becomes clear: What will it take to attain true happiness? What will it take to buy the pearl?

Phil’s initial attempts to win Rita again betray his Machiavellian instincts. Machiavelli contended that it is better for a prince to appear to be virtuous—which fosters in others a gullible trust—than to be virtuous, which hamstrings his actions. And so Phil goes to extraordinary lengths to learn about Rita’s aspirations and then to feign the same. (The logic here is also Hegelian: Injustice is justified in the name of historical progress.) Yet the ruse never works; each night ends with Phil receiving a slap in the face rather than acquiescence to his overtures. The pearl of happiness, it turns out, cannot be bought with counterfeit money.

Phil’s failures lead to despair. At the end of his rope, he now commits suicide—over and over. Yet no matter how often he jumps off buildings or electrocutes himself, he stills wakes up to another Groundhog Day. His poignant awareness of his emptiness recalls the chilling line from St. Augustine’s Confessions: “I went far from you, my God, and I became to myself a wasteland.” Liberation from the divine law initially sounds thrilling, but such freedom proves to be not only hollow, but self-squandering annihilation. As Phil says, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.”

And so Phil, with nowhere else to go, unconsciously turns from modern philosophy, with its “concentred” individualism, to ancient philosophy, with its praise of the just life as the best way to live. Phil begins pursuing excellence (which in Greek is the same word as virtue), not for any ulterior motive but because he enjoys it. In good Aristotelian fashion, he cultivates moral virtues (e.g., saving a choking victim), intellectual virtues (reading Chekhov), and a proficiency in the arts (playing the piano). And thus Phil starts to become happy, for he is now fulfilling the conditions of happiness identified by the moralists of antiquity: knowing, doing, and loving the good.

Not God

One can also argue that there is a theological dimension to Phil’s transformation. Part of his conversion involves recognizing that there is a God and he is not it. Like most moderns, Phil thinks of himself as (in Freud’s immortal phrasing) “a prosthetic god,” someone who “makes the weather” through his mastery of science. Later, after his unsuccessful suicides, he tries to convince Rita that he is a god, a claim she rejects on account of her “twelve years of Catholic school” (this is the only time in the movie a religion is explicitly mentioned).

But Phil’s conviction evaporates once he is forced to acknowledge the inevitable death of an old beggar whose life he repeatedly tries to save. In the final scene of this subplot, he is kneeling down, vainly administering CPR to the man, when he stops and plaintively looks heavenward. And in an unrelated moment, he indirectly acknowledges God as Creator by reciting the verse, “Only God can make a tree.” God alone, Phil learns, is the Lord of life and death.

And then there is the pearl. On what ends up being the cycle’s last day, Rita is mesmerized by Phil’s now luminous character. As the first item for sale at a fund-raising event in which eligible bachelors are auctioned to the highest bidder, Phil generates tremendous interest from the town’s ladies, but Rita grandly outbids them all by offering the contents of her checking account. In a happy peripety, rather than Phil buying the pearl with everything he has, the pearl buys him with everything she has.

Like grace, Rita comes to Phil as a freely given gift; like the kingdom of Heaven, she confers on him an ineffable bliss. Rita’s purchase of Phil is literally a redemption or buying back from the slave block. (As she coos to him later, “You’re mine; I own you.”)

It is only after this redemption that Phil—and Rita—wake up the following day to February 3rd. The seemingly endless recurrence of the same has been broken by a love born of virtue, and the couple is now free to live happily ever after. (Because the cycle is broken by the consummation of love and desire rather than the abandonment of it, the story cannot be seen as an allegory for Eastern religious thought. And because this “eternal” recurrence is terminated by love and classical virtue, it is a refutation rather than an endorsement of Nietzsche.)

Though Phil and Rita’s romance is essential to the plot, it is not, however, the only gauge of progress. Throughout the movie, the groundhog seems to function as Phil’s nonhuman doppelganger. Both are weathermen and they share the same name. Phil suspects a link but wrongly concludes that as long as Phil the groundhog sees his shadow, he will be doomed to relive February 2nd. (This initiates a tragicomic incident in which he kills himself and the groundhog.) But what we eventually come to realize is that it is not Phil the groundhog’s shadow that proves crucial, it is Phil the man’s. As long as Phil wakes up in the morning and sees his shadow, there will be for him more winter, more of the same. But if he awakes without a shadow, he will be given spring, new life.

What is Phil Connors’s “shadow”? It is his vices, his bad habits and sinful ways that detract from and diminish his God-given goodness. The equation of shadow with vice is apposite, since both are, in St. Augustine’s terms, a privation: Shadows are a privation of light, and evil and vice are a privation of the good. Significantly, when one of the townies hears Phil Connors’s name, he teases him with the admonition, “Watch out for your shadow there, pal!” And significantly, the townie’s name is Gus—short, of course, for Augustine.

I should add, though, that the movie is not perfect. Rita’s final “redemption” of Phil, for instance, results in their sleeping together the next morning. (Call it the incense that had to be thrown on the Hollywood fire.) Also, despite promising hints, Phil’s turn to God is underdeveloped and falls short of a full religious conversion.

Purifying the Ground

Nonetheless, Groundhog Day exemplifies genuine pro-gress, from the nadir of contemporary thought to the apex of classical philosophy, from depravity to virtue, from wretchedness to happiness. And perhaps more interestingly, the movie taps into a Christian symbol of which its makers were no doubt unaware.

February 2nd in the liturgical calendar is the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, the feast that commemorates the presentation of her Son in the Temple 40 days after his birth. It was on this occasion that the aged Simeon declared the infant Jesus a “light for the revelation of the gentiles.” Traditionally, candles are blessed on the feast, with a prayer that “just as visible fire dispels the shadows of the night, so may invisible fire, that is, the brightness of the Holy Spirit, free us from the blindness of every vice.”

Simeon’s prophecy led to a folk belief that the weather of February 2nd had a prognostic value. If the sun shone for the greater part of the day, there would be 40 more days of winter, but if the skies were overcast, there would be an early spring. The badger was added later in Germany, but the Germans who emigrated to Pennsylvania could only find what native Americans in the area called a wojak, or woodchuck. Since the Indians considered the groundhog a wise animal, it seemed only natural to appoint him, as we learn in the movie, “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators.”

The ground of Groundhog Day, in other words, is Catholic. And just as our secular celebration of the day unwittingly echoes a deeper truth about the Light revealed to the gentiles, so too does the movie unwittingly point the way back to that truth. And who knows, perhaps Rita, with her twelve years of Catholic school, knew this all along.

Michael P. Foley currently teaches in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. The New York Times article to which he refers is Alex Kuczynski’s “Groundhog Almighty,” December 7, 2003.

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Metaphilm: Darko and the Light

Donnie Darko
Darko and the Light
A disturbed student walks into the light.
::: Annie Frisbie

In Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “A Sound of Thunder,” a time traveler steps off the prescribed path and crushes a butterfly. He returns to the future to find that everything has changed. This is the biggest conundrum in the conception of time travel, and perhaps renders time travel physically possible (at least according to Stephen Hawking) but metaphysically impossible.

Until Donnie Darko, films dealing with time travel have limited themselves to being just cool exercises in the “what if?” Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1996) is perhaps the most elaborate and successful movie mind-----, but its final revelation provides no answers to the time travel conundrum. The film remains at the level of example—if time travel is like this, then this is what would happen. It doesn’t explain why and its characters remain caught in a loop, destined to repeat themselves forever. Bruce Willis’s character will always watch himself die.

Donnie Darko follows a boy of superior intelligence whose emotional problems propel him on a very strange trajectory through a tangent universe. Donnie’s journey begins when he dreams about a rabbit telling him to leave the house. He follows the rabbit, and escapes being killed by a falling airplane part of unknown origin. But the rabbit tells him that the world is going to end in twenty-eight days. Donnie’s been given life and death at once.

Donnie Darko boldly attempts not only to transcend the time travel conundrum, but to link it explicitly to the biggest question of all: Does everyone die alone?

If God exists, he must by extension have a plan for the universe, a path for everyone to follow. If we are following a path that God knows from start to finish, then we should be able to jump to any point on that path because it already and always exists. Donnie is able to see these paths as Abyss-like arrows emanating from people’s chests. He tries to ask his science teacher what it all means, but his teacher can’t answer—he’ll lose his job. He can’t tell Donnie how to travel in time because it means telling Donnie that there is a sovereign God who created time and who oversees its unfolding.

Donnie’s bible is The Philosophy of Time Travel, a book written by Darko character Roberta Sparrow, a.k.a. Grandma Death. Sparrows are the birds most commonly associated with God’s providence. In the Bible, Jesus asks that we “consider the birds” to understand how God will take care of us. Shakespeare riffs on these words as Hamlet, confronted with his own mortality and understanding that he must take action, says, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow . . . The readiness is all.” But the dark side of God’s providence is death. Hamlet understood this—the readiness of which he speaks is the readiness to die. Throughout Jesus’ teachings, the idea is that true devotion to God will remove the fear of death because of the trust that God is sovereign and he will provide, even after death. As the existential optimist Job says, “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him.”

So why, then, does Roberta Sparrow say to Donnie, “Every living thing dies alone”? This question throws Catholic schoolboy Donnie into a tailspin. He thinks that the world is going to end and he’s going to die and be alone and there’s nothing he can do about it. Even as he falls in love with Gretchen and comes to know the depth of his mother’s love for him, Donnie watches his world spiral out of control. He finds destruction of his own making and destruction that is unavoidable. He can’t make heads or tails of any of it and comes to find that the world is a terrifying, dark place even as there are pockets of goodness.

Donnie is learning the meaning of what the biblical writer John calls “the now and the not yet.” The Christian believer lives in the paradox of knowing that salvation (from the eternal consequences of sin) has already arrived and that salvation (from the sorrow of living in a fallen world) is still to come. The conflict will be resolved only when the believer sees Christ face to face—that is, on the believer’s mortal death. Chiefly loving the “now” will lead the Christian to try to turn this world into heaven, to seek happiness in the temporal. Living solely for the “not yet” sends the believer into exile, devoid of intimacy with God’s much-loved children, dreaming only of an escape hatch. Choosing to (try to) love both creates a holy neurosis that might be what Paul meant when he said, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Or what Jesus did when he laid down his life for his friends.

As the clock runs out, Donnie makes love with Gretchen and then goes to Roberta Sparrow’s. He’s found love, and now he needs answers. If everyone dies alone, then it doesn’t matter that he loves Gretchen. What he finds is death, destruction, sorrow, and despair. The complete darkness of the fallen world is laid bare before him, and Roberta Sparrow is nowhere to be found. And then the sky starts to fall.

Donnie watches the clouds gather above his house, and then scenes from the movie run in reverse. Donnie is back in his bed on the night of his death. He laughs. He should laugh: he has time traveled, and now he will die—but Gretchen won’t be murdered. His family will weep but the world won’t come to an end at the close of twenty-eight days. He’s sacrificed himself to prove that God exists, that God is indeed sovereign over everything—and if God exists then no one dies alone, it is safe to die, and the world doesn’t have to come to an end. His death does change the future, profoundly, but he laughs because he’s learned that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person, not by half.

Posted by: editor on May 18, 2002 6:32 pm

Dennis Prager: The Case For Judeo-Christian Values, Part VI

February 22, 2005
Liberal Feelings vs. Judeo-Christian Values

With the decline of the authority of Judeo-Christian values in the West, many people stopped looking to external sources of moral standards in order to decide what is right and wrong. Instead of being guided by God, the Bible and religion, great numbers -- in Western Europe, the great majority -- have looked elsewhere for moral and social guidelines.

For many millions in the twentieth century, those guidelines were provided by Marxism, Communism, Fascism or Nazism. For many millions today, those guidelines are . feelings. With the ascendancy of leftist values that has followed the decline of Judeo-Christian religion, personal feelings have supplanted universal standards. In fact, feelings are the major unifying characteristic among contemporary liberal positions.

Aside from reliance on feelings, how else can one explain a person who believes, let alone proudly announces on a bumper sticker, that "War is not the answer"? I know of no comparable conservative bumper sticker that is so demonstrably false and morally ignorant. Almost every great evil has been solved by war -- from slavery in America to the Holocaust in Europe. Auschwitz was liberated by soldiers making war, not by pacifists who would have allowed the Nazis to murder every Jew in Europe.

The entire edifice of moral relativism, a foundation of leftist ideology, is built on the notion of feelings deciding right and wrong. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
The animals-and-humans-are-equivalent movement is based entirely on feelings. People see chickens killed and lobsters boiled, feel for the animals, and shortly thereafter abandon thought completely, and equate chicken and lobster suffering to that of a person under the same circumstances.

The unprecedented support of liberals for radically redefining the basic institution of society, marriage and the family is another a product of feelings -- sympathy for homosexuals. Thinking through the effects of such a radical redefinition on society and its children is not a liberal concern.

The "self-esteem movement" -- now conceded to have been a great producer of mediocrity and narcissism -- was entirely a liberal invention based on feelings for kids.

The liberal preoccupation with whether America is loved or hated is also entirely feelings-based. The Left wants to be loved; the conservative wants to do what is right and deems world opinion fickle at best and immoral at worst.

Sexual harassment laws have created a feelings-industrial complex. The entire concept of "hostile work environment" is feelings based. If one woman resents a swimsuit calendar on a co-worker's desk, laws have now been passed whose sole purpose is to protect her from having uncomfortable feelings.

For liberals, the entire worth of the human fetus is determined by the mother's feelings. If she feels the nascent human life she is carrying is worth nothing, it is worth nothing. If she feels it is infinitely precious, it is infinitely precious.

Almost everything is affected by liberal feelings. For example, liberal opposition to calling a Christmas party by its rightful name is based on liberals' concern that non-Christians will feel bad. And for those liberals, nothing else matters -- not the legitimate desire of the vast majority of Americans to celebrate their holiday, let alone the narcissism of those non-Christians "offended" by a Christmas party.

And why do liberals continue to endorse race-based affirmative action at universities despite the mounting evidence that it hurts blacks more than it helps? Again, a major reason is feelings -- sympathy for blacks and the historic racism African-Americans have endured.
Very often, liberals are far more concerned with purity of motive than with moral results. That's why so many liberals still oppose the liberation of Iraq -- so what if Iraqis risk their lives to vote? It's George W. Bush's motives that liberals care about, not spreading liberty in the Arab world.

Elevating motives above results is a significant part of liberalism. What matters is believing that one is well intentioned -- that one cares for the poor, hates racism, loathes inequality and loves peace. Bi-lingual education hurts Latino children. But as a compassionate person -- and "compassionate" is the self-definition of most liberals -- that is not the liberal's real concern. His concern is with an immigrant child's uncomfortable feelings when first immersed in English.

Reliance on feelings in determining one's political and social positions is the major reason young people tend to have liberal/left positions -- they feel passionately but do not have the maturity to question those passions. It is also one reason women, especially single women, are more liberal than men -- it is women's nature to rely on emotions when making decisions. (For those unused to anything but adulation directed at the female of the human species, let me make it clear that men, too, cannot rely on their nature, which leans toward settling differences through raw physical power. Both sexes have a lot of self-correcting to do.)

To be fair, feelings also play a major role in many conservatives' beliefs. Patriotism is largely a feeling; religious faith is filled with emotion, and religion has too often been dictated by emotion.

But far more conservative positions are based on "What is right?" rather than on "How do I feel?" That is why a religious woman who is pregnant but does not wish to be is far less likely to have an abortion than a secular woman in the same circumstances. Her values are higher than her feelings. And that, in a nutshell, is what our culture war is about -- Judeo-Christian values versus liberal/leftist feelings.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Chronicles Remembers Samuel T. Francis (1947-2005)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

I didn’t know Sam Francis as well as I would like to have, but he and I had several long talks together and some correspondence at different times over the last seven or eight years of his life. I have very fond memories of these conversations and the impish gleams that so often crept into Sam’s eyes just before he delivered himself of some delightful anecdote or apercu.

Apart from our shared political interests, we were both slightly shame-faced aficianados of British horror-story writers like M.R. James, H.P. Lovercraft, and Sheridan Le Fanu and had a wistful admiration for that numinous world of ivy-clad vicarages, fog-bound English country houses and haunted churches. Yet while I was content just to read the stories, Sam had researched into the writers, the stories they wrote, and their sociopolitical context—perhaps rather more than these rather lightweight subjects merited. But such intellectual curiousity and thoroughness was characteristic of the man. Without ever becoming embittered or cynical, he took nothing on trust, but would always cut to the quick, whether discussing Vathek, immigration, the Tudors, or revolutions from the middle. Without being bombastic or self-satisfied, he was someone perfectly prepared to suffer for his principles and for his art. Nor did he bear grudges against those who had behaved so contemptibly toward him. His print lacerations of those who had attacked him, although cutting, were never ill-judged or unmanly and were antiseptic rather than poisonous—which is more than can be said about the streams of bile that flowed in his direction from those who hoped that by denouncing him they might themselves escape attack.

Even from a trans-Atlantic perspective, I can see that his death (how ironic that he should have suffered this heart trouble despite his resolute and highly effective weight-loss programme) has deprived the American Right (and, for that matter, the Western world) of one of its most distinctive and eloquent voices and left a gaping hole at the heart of many worthwhile enterprises and publications, not least Chronicles. Such gaps can never be filled completely, but he has mercifully left a corpus of insightful and invaluable work that can and will help inspire similarly doughty Westerners in the future. He would have smiled at the sentiment and demurred at the compliment, but the fact remains that he was—and will remain—a noble example to all who value what he valued.
—Derek Turner
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More than 35 years ago, Sam Francis and I were raw recruits together in the faltering cause of the Old Republic. Like his fellow Tennessean, General Bedford Forrest, Sam bought a one way ticket to the war, never looked back, and grew into a peerless comrade and leader. How can we ever fill such a huge gap in our ranks?
—Clyde Wilson
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Friday, February 18, 2005

I was shocked to hear about Samuel Francis’s death. It looked for a while as if he would pull through; and then this happens. What a terrible loss to us all.

His passing deprives us of one of America’s most courageous and funniest writers. How I wish I’d met him more than once (we did exchange the occasional cordial e-mail and telephone call). Glad to have confirmed my suspicion that underneath his irascibility was a good deal of sensitivity, not to mention downright timidity.

Every writer who read Dr. Francis’s work realized that here was a master stylist, witty, opulent, and devastating. However much one might try to achieve a Francis-like idiom oneself, the feat was impossible. He could be neither emulated nor even adequately mimicked, because le style, c’était l’homme. At least he retained his formidable authorial skills to the last. If his hand had forgotten its literary cunning, he would, I should think, have found that unbearable.
—RJ Stove
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Sam and I corresponded regularly from 1992 up until a few short months ago, and I enjoyed his company at John Randolph Club functions and similar get-togethers. I remember the standing ovation he received just by walking into a room at the Soldiers and Sailors Club in Manhattan, where he was to give a talk. It was a thrill for me to receive a letter through mail or e-mail from a writer I so admired. In reading numerous other e-mail testimonials, I notice that other people felt the same way. If you wrote Sam, he’d find time to return the favor. One recalls both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, in their final years, writing one return letter after another to total strangers.

Sam figured prominently in three of my books. I chose his 1992 essay “Nationalism, Old and New” to close out my 1999 collection, The Paleoconservatives. That pretty much says it all. I can only add that reading Sam’s column in Chronicles—not just for its worldview, but for its manly prose—gave me the same pleasure as did a passage from William Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe or Andrew Lytle. He was that great a writer.
—Joseph Scotchie
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I was deeply saddened to learn of Samuel Francis’s sudden death. Although I haven’t met or known him personally, his brilliant essays were well known to me.

His views and comments on conservatism, religion, and current culture-war issues were both valuable and impressive, and one could get to know his character through them. Mr. Francis’ leave is a great loss, and he will be missed by his colleagues and friends, as well as his readers. Let me express my sincere sympathy.

—Vladimir Palko, Minister of the Interior, Slovak Republic
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“I’m more afraid of a microwave than a gun.”

That was one of Sam Francis’ witty observations, during a debate on gun control, in one the many editorial meetings we attended while working at the Washington Times. I met Sam at the Times, and there I came to know his caustic humor and wonderful prose, and most importantly, there I learned at his knee.

Nearly all the tributes to Sam make a few of the same points: He was gruff and grumpy, possessed of humor as pointed as a poniard, endowed with the gift of writing magnificent prose, which in turn flowed from surpassing intellect and erudition, and perhaps most importantly, courageously stood on the ramparts of our culture when the other weekend warriors fled to the bushes.

The personality quirk that made Sam hard to know also made him a fine writer. Sam was a bit of a curmudgeon, a man who grumbled good morning on the way by your desk. He was, as Tom Fleming says, a skeptic; indeed, he was, but he was also a witty and inviting conversationalist whose expanse of knowledge left interlocutors like me feel as if we were standing in the middle of the Mojave desert, unsure of which way to turn. Sam’s learning was as deep as it was wide, and for all his erudition on serious subjects such as history, whether it was the Earl of Clarendon or the British monarchy, he was also versed in contemporary matters.

One of Sam’s favorite novels and films, for instance, was The Godfather. He called the movies “masterpieces,” a point he proved when he penned his fabulous essay, “The Godfather as Political Metaphor,” for Chronicles.

Sam Francis the Writer

Everyone reading here is familiar with Sam’s singular gift of crafting prose and turning a phrase. Such was Sam’s talent that he twice won the Distinguished Editorial Writing Award from the American Society Newspaper Editors. This was no small feat given the ideological tone of that organization, and that Sam was writing editorials for the conservative Moonie newspaper in Washington, which others in the media often said wasn’t a “real newspaper.” How good was Sam? Here are a few of his better lines from those prize-winning editorials.

In “A brief history of the L-word,” (Oct. 31, 1988) Sam wrote about “what may be the most intellectually embarrassing event of the year,” when a “small host of the nation’s literati” purchased an advertisement in the New York Times to complain that President Reagan had made “sport” of the word “liberal.” After listing the signers of the ad, Sam wrote that they “assure the readers that they paid for the ad themselves and that it ‘has not been authorized by any candidate’—although you don’t need a Ph.D. to know which candidate most of these eggheads are supporting.”

Writing about the discovery of a Stone-Age culture called the “Natufians” in a piece called “The way we weren’t” (Dec. 28, 1988), Sam quoted one scientist as saying that the long-dead Natufians had “everything but mailboxes, practically.” Quipped Sam: “There are two possible reasons why they had no mailboxes: (1) there was no one else in the world to send them any mail, or (2) there was lots of mail, but the postal service was too primitive to deliver it—further evidence that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

When Sam wrote about a man having an idea, the man didn’t just “have an idea.” It “percolated up from his brain pan.” Howell Heflin didn’t walk to the Senate floor to denounce the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He “waddled.” When Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan went to Vassar College, he didn’t go to give a speech, he went to “harangue the sisters.”

In Sam Francis, we enjoyed a rare combination of talents: the ability to put a pen into the service of a brilliant mind. Many thinkers cannot express thoughts in writing, and many writers have no thoughts worth writing about. Sam had a bottomless reserve of significant things to say, and he said them well. Indeed, he often said them without equal.

Sam was also a fine editor. When he edited an editorial, he invariably improved it. He edited seamlessly and could make it appear as if no editing were done. A great editor improves your work, he does not diminish it. Sam did that. A great editor edits without inserting his own voice to make what he edits sound the way he wants it; he edits with your voice in mind and makes it sound the way you want it. Sam did that, too.

From Sam, I learned to write poetically and rhythmically. But he was, after all, a Southerner. Southerners make sublime writers. Sam was certainly both of those.

Sam Francis the Man

Sam Francis was a scholar from the old school. If he had been a professor, I imagine he would have been one of the old cap-and-gown “misters” padding along the stone walks and ivied walls of a 700-year-old college in England. Like his colleague Tom Fleming and others, Sam was among those lucky enough to have attended college when college offered a genuine education and was not, as colleges became in the 1970’s, another four years of high school and excuse to behave like an adolescent.

A few personal stories. One day, Sam was walking by editorialist Ken Smith’s desk eating a donut or pastry. Whatever it was, a few crumbs tumbled down Sam’s tie to the ground. Without missing a beat, Ken said, “Careful, Sam, you’ll get some of that in your mouth.” I don’t recall Sam’s laughing, but it leveled me. Now that Sam has joined Ken, who died so tragically and so young of liver cancer, I wonder if they’re remembering that one.

On a more serous note, in 1990, my wife at the time announced that she was divorcing me and taking my children to California. The damage from the blow lasted years, but like a gunshot, initially you’re numb to the pain. I went to work at the Times the next morning, but it wasn’t long before I needed to talk to someone. I got up from my desk and walked to the closest private office. It was Sam’s. I walked in, tears welling in my eyes, and Sam, big as he was back then, leaped from his chair. “What’s wrong, Cort?” he asked. He listened patiently to my sad story. It was all a friend could ask.

Now, if anyone says they know the breadth of Sam’s learning, few know it as well as me, and I learned about it the hard way. You can often judge a man’s intellect by the size and content of his library. Sam knew that I had done some improvement work on my home and asked if I would install book shelves in the basement of his new home. Sam wanted book shelves along two walls, the kind of shelves that require slotted brackets affixed to the wall and plywood shelves resting on movable braces. The job took two days and required boring into the concrete walls with a rented hammer drill. Such was the weight and size of Sam’s ponderous library, probably only a few books short of the Vatican’s, that the metal brackets required toggle bolts and lead wall anchors. Erecting shelves for Sam’s library was nothing less than a construction project, and my sinuses were coated with concrete dust for days. But it was a worthy endeavor. I learned that this man had a giant intellect and insatiable appetite for knowledge. Over the past few years, I lost personal touch with Sam, which I regret. I should have made the effort. But I never lost interest in reading what he had to say, most of which he said in nonpareil fashion. Despite his towering intellect, Sam never made you feel small, even though you knew that he knew his grasp of just about everything was cosmically greater than yours. That, said Robert E. Lee, is the mark of a gentlemen.

To close, let me refer to one of Sam’s favorite films, The Godfather, Part II. In a quiet, emotional scene, Tom Hagen tells Michael Corleone he always wanted Michael to consider him a brother. Well, I always wanted Sam to consider me a friend. I hope he did.
—R Cort Kirkwood
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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Sam was brilliant and courageous, and is irreplaceable. Despite his great knowledge of Machiavellian political thinkers, Sam’s writing was anything but Machiavellian. He was not interested in writing to advance an agenda, much less an agenda devoted to self-promotion. What interested Sam was truth, and what motivated his writing was a desire to tell the truth as he saw the truth, regardless of the consequences to himself.

Sam was also a wonderful friend. Talking with Sam was always a treat. His knowledge was vast, ranging from a profound grasp of history and political theory, to an amazing familiarity with the many strands of American conservatism, to a keen appreciation of good books and movies. He also possessed as dry and fine a wit as anyone I have ever known. He will be missed.

—Tom Piatak
permanent link

I wish to express my condolences to the staff of the Rockford Institute and Chronicles for the death of Sam Francis. I share your loss deeply because of the power of the well crafted words that he wrote in his columns. While I may not have always agreed with everything he said, like any good editorial writer, he still made me think and occasionally brought me around to his side. His analyses of politics and foreign relations were very insightful, and I can say now that I watch the Godfather movies in a different way thanks to his essays on them. Paleo writers on the young side like myself can only hope to be a tenth of what Sam Francis was to Chronicles and journalism in general. Again, I express my condolences and sorrow at our loss.

—Sean Scallon
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Sith the death of Sam Francis, the world has lost a voice of singular brilliance and clarity. I have always feared getting into a debate with him, but I will miss the acuity with which he delivered his blows against political foolishnenss and moral deceit.

—Harold OJ Brown
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The enemies of our culture, civilization, and decency may breathe a sigh of relief.

—Srdja Trifkovic
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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sam was indeed a gentleman of the old school and capable of great courtesy as well as gruffness and bluntness. I always appreciated his kindness to me and I admired his strength of character, which was evident in many ways. He was also very funny, and I can remember him clearly, sitting in the midst of a group of Chronicles editors, surprisingly attentive to his lengthening cigarette ash as he waved it above his host’s carpet, making witty observations that were both bleak and accurate.

I am about fifteen years younger than he was, and I have long felt that Sam was one of a group of men who, whatever their respective faults, have a combination of abilities and qualities that people my age or younger do not have. So to lose his knowledge and clarity and decency seems a very great loss, and larger than a personal one.

—Katherine Dalton Boyer
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Sam Francis was one of my heroes. I think of myself as his student, as someone who benefited immeasurably from the writings of a man who never backed away from telling the truth. I’m certain there a lot of Sam’s readers who feel the same way. I am fortunate to have known him. He was a genuine patriot and a first class intellect. The real America has lost a true son and champion. Good bye, Sam, we’ll miss you. May the Good Lord bless and keep you, may He make His face to shine upon you and give you peace.

—Wayne Allensworth
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Although I had known about his grave condition and had tried unsuccessfuly to visit Sam the day before his passing, the news of his death shook me deeply nonetheless. Sam was one of my closest personal friends and during my years in Washington, my wife and children had viewed him as a family member. What seemed his solitary nature concealed a fearless heart and a devastating wit, which helped turn him into a brilliant, courageous journalist. May our longtime comrade-in-arms dwell in the house of the Lord forever!

—Paul Gottfried
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The likes of him will not soon be seen again.

—Roger D McGrath
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This space was to be Dr. Francis’ new weblog, which I created the night before he died. We had high hopes that he would recover, and Creators Syndicate even indicated that we should look for another column from him by the end of the month. The Almighty had other plans, however, as today, sadly, we learned that he had passed away.

We shall, instead, use this space for Chronicles editors to leave memorials for our colleague and friend. Dr. Francis was one of a kind. Cantankerous yet friendly, he was always a joy to be around. Though a fierce opponent in debate, he was, in private, always quick with a joke and would express kindness. On hearing of the birth of my youngest son, Carl, he congratulated me and said, “I hope I can see him soon.”

The legacy that he leaves behind is powerful. His scholarship was first-rate, and younger radical conservatives in particular must do their best to study his works and transmit his ideas, just as he did James Burnham’s. His warnings on the deadly dangers of the managerial state and anarcho-tyranny are crucial to the survival of genuine conservatism.

Samuel Francis will be sorely missed, but, as Dr. Fleming wrote, we have good reason to believe that Sam found his help in the Name of the Lord, Who made Heaven and Earth. As always, we trust in the mercy of God, Who spared not His only-begotten Son for us.

—Aaron D Wolf
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Samuel Francis (1947-2005) was the political editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and a syndicated columnist.

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Click here for a word from Thomas Fleming on Samuel Francis.
Click here for a brief obituary.

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The English Classical Republicans and the Resistance to the Modern State
The Machiavellian Tradition, Pt. I
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Copyright 2005,

Mark Steyn: The U.S. Policy on Europe? No Giggling

The Daily Telegraph
(Filed: 20/02/2005)

Two years ago, I wrote that America and Europe were now engaged in a new Cold War. And just like the old Cold War it's not only about Jacques Chirac issuing Krushchevian boasts to Washington that "we will bury you"; it's also got room for the occasional détente phase. So this month in Washington is Be Nice To Europe month. For weeks now, the Administration's hardline Zionist Christian fundamentalist neocon unilateralist warmongers have been coming into the office to find smiley-face reminders from the White House pinned to the desk: "Have you hugged a European foreign minister today?" And they've been doing their best to comply: Condi Rice flew in to the heart of "old Europe" and launched a big charm offensive. Then Donald Rumsfeld flew in and launched what felt like a faintly parodic charm offensive, insisting that the disparaging remarks about "old Europe" had been made by the "old Rumsfeld".

And now the President himself is on his way, staying up all night on Air Force One trying to master the official State Department briefing paper on the European Rapid Reaction Force, the European Constitution, the European negotiations with Iran, etc. ("When these subjects come up, US policy is to nod politely and try not to giggle. If you feel a massive hoot of derision coming on, duck out to the men's room, but without blaming it on the escargots.") The French Foreign Minister took to calling the US Secretary of State "chère Condi" every 30 seconds. It's doubtful if the French President will go that far, but, if he does, the White House line is that Mr Bush is happy to play Renee Zellweger to Chirac's Tom Cruise ("You had me at bonjour").

What does all this mean? Nothing. In victory, magnanimity – and right now Bush can afford to be magnanimous, even if Europe isn't yet ready to acknowledge his victory. On Thursday, in a discussion of "the greater Middle East", the President remarked that Syria was "out of step". And, amazingly, he's right. Not so long ago, Syria was perfectly in step with the Middle East – it was the archetypal squalid stable Arab dictatorship. Two years on, Syria hasn't changed, but Iraq has, and, to varying degrees, the momentum in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon (where the Syrians have overplayed their hand) is also in the Bush direction. Boy Assad finds himself in the position of the unfortunate soldier in Irving Berlin's First World War marching song, "They Were All Out Of Step But Jim".

The EU isn't the Arab League, though for much of the past three years it's been hard to tell the difference. But it, too, is out of step. The question is whether the Europeans are smart enough, like the savvier Sunnis in Iraq, to realise it. The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt compared the President's inaugural speech with Gerhard Schröder's keynote address to the Munich Conference on Security Policy last week and observed that, while both men talked about the Middle East, terrorism and 21st-century security threats, Mr Bush used the word "freedom" 27 times while Herr Schröder uttered it not once; he preferred to emphasise, as if it were still March 2003 and he were Arab League Secretary-General, "stability" – the old realpolitik fetish the Administration has explicitly disavowed. It's not just that the two sides aren't speaking the same language, but that the key phrases of Mr Bush's vocabulary don't seem to exist in Chirac's or Schröder's.

The differences between America and Europe in the 21st century are nothing to do with insensitive swaggering Texas cowboys. Indeed, they're nothing to do with Iraq, Iran, Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, or any other particular issue. They're not tactical differences, they're conceptual.

Does this matter? Not a bit. "Dear Condi," cooed Michel Barnier, the French Foreign Minister, at their joint press conference, "how convinced I am that the world works better when the Americans and the Europeans cooperate."

But what exactly does this new Euro-American "cooperation" boil down to when the airy platitudes float gently back to earth? It means that the US expends huge amounts of diplomatic effort and, after a year or three, the French graciously agree to train a couple of dozen Iraqi policemen. Not in Iraq, of course – that would be too close cooperation – but in France. So, in the détente phase of the new Cold War, the Iraqi police recruits permitted to set foot in the Fifth Republic are the equivalent of a 1970s ballet-company cultural exchange.

By contrast, consider the Kingdom of Tonga; population 100,000. A few months back it managed to deploy 45 Royal Marines to Iraq, and without getting schmoozed by Condi or Rummy or anyone else. A proportional deployment from France would be 27,450 troops; from Germany, 37,350 troops. Even Belgium would be chipping in 5,000. Can you conceive of any circumstances in which France or Germany would ever "cooperate" to that extent? The entire "Trans atlantic Split: Chirac Aghast At Blundering Yank Moron Shock!" vs "Transatlantic Rapprochement: Rumsfeld Gives Tongue Sarnie To Schröder – See Souvenir Pictorial" narrative is wholly post-modern: either way, it makes no difference. That suits Europe; the Kyoto Treaty makes no difference to global warming, the EU negotiating troika makes no difference to Iran's nuclear programme, the threat of an ICC subpoena makes no difference to the Sudanese government's mass slaughter programme – and Washington has concluded that a Europe that makes no difference suits it just fine, too.

So the test this coming week will be whether anybody talks about anything concrete, anything specific, or whether they just dust off the usual blather: "Europe and America," said President Bush in Ireland last year, "are linked by the ties of family, friendship and common struggle and common values."

In fact, Mr Bush and many other American officials have an all too common struggle articulating what those common values are. In Prague in 2002, the President told fellow Nato members: "We share common values – the common values of freedom, human rights and democracy." In a post-Communist world, these are vague, unobjectionable generalities to everyone except the head hackers in the Sunni Triangle. It's when you try to flesh them out that it all gets more complicated. The reality is that Europe's very specific troubles – economic, demographic, political – derive from Europe, not America. And, if the member states of the EU are determined to enshrine constitutionally and Continent-wide the "rights" that have proved so disastrous for them as individual nations, there's not a lot America can do about it except stand well clear. Or as Mr Bush put it in his Telegraph interview yesterday: "No, I'm not going to comment [laughter]" – evidently still having trouble with the "no giggling" rule.

On the other hand, a new CIA analysis has predicted the collapse of the EU within 15 years. It's a bit unsettling to find that the guys at Langley who've got absolutely everything wrong for decades suddenly agree with me. If this pans out as most CIA analysis does, Europe is on course to be the hyperpower of the 21st century.