Language matters

If I understand the term correctly, nominalism holds, in practice, that words have no objective meaning or reality in themselves, but are merely tools for describing whatever we want them to describe. That is to say, words are contingent only upon the meanings we assign to them, not upon an “abstract” and unchanging reality that demands expression. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“Nominalism consequently denies the existence of abstract and universal concepts, and refuses to admit that the intellect has the power of engendering them. What are called general ideas are only names, mere verbal designations, serving as labels for a collection of things or a series of particular events.”

Most everyone today is a nominalist to some degree. We can be sure that many Californians who voted for Proposition 8 did so on the basis that the people, rather than judges on a court, ought to have the right to define marriage; they did not vote for Proposition 8 because the term “marriage” describes an objective and universal reality that cannot be altered by votes of any kind. Such voters, already committed to nominalism, will be completely out of arguments when the people change their minds.

The importance of language in the culture wars cannot be overstated. We are losing the culture wars because we are losing the language wars. We have conceded the idea that people get to define words however they wish, whether individually or as part of the “democratic process”. I touched on the importance of language in my essay on feminism some time ago. For the cultural vandals and barbarians among us, language is a mighty barrier to their goals. In order to attain their wicked ends they must co-opt the language, redefine words, and eliminate old concepts and categories. Feminism has made tremendous strides towards ruining English in this manner, and the homosexual activists are attempting to do the same. Hence, you will (hopefully) never see me refer to homosexuals as “gays”, since “gay” is already a perfectly good English word – widely used and understood for centuries, and having nothing to do with homosexuality – for which there is no suitable replacement. The use of the word “gay” to mean “homosexual” has so corrupted the English language that schoolchildren can’t read literature more than 50 years old without snickering or giggling when they encounter the word.

All of this is by way of introducing a very important essay by Lydia McGrew, titled “Fighting the Leftist Nominalists Every Step of the Way”. Even more important than voting or political activism, fighting the homosexual agenda requires holding the line on the meaning of words in everyday life – even, perhaps, at considerable personal cost. It seems like a small matter, but once the language battle is lost, the cultural and political consequences are a foregone conclusion. Lydia writes:

“I’m more than a bit worried about what is going to happen to all of my good Christian friends if and when homosexual ‘marriage’ is put into place (with or without the will of the people) in their parts of the country. It seems to me not implausible that some of them will simply start referring to same-sex couples as ‘married,’ to the partners in such so-called ‘marriages’ as each others’ ‘husbands’ or ‘spouses’ or ‘wives’ and excuse doing so by saying, ‘Well, no matter what you think, it really is the law that they are married.’ They might even think in some confused way that they, even in private conversation, are obligated to ‘obey the law’ by using this terminology. In fact, I suspect that any employer in such a state or any businessman who sells any goods or services to the public and refuses to go along in conversation with the ‘marital’ status of a homosexual employee or customer will face lawsuit. And the comments of this hard-core leftist commentator suggest that conservatives will be told exactly this: ‘Shut up. Homosexual marriage is now a legal fact. That is what you are being asked to acknowledge. Whatever you may think about the matter, you cannot deny the legal facts now in place. Just refer to those and keep the rest of your opinions to yourself.’ (Notice, among other things, his reference to ‘refusing to accept a plain legal fact.’) (See also this story about the ostensibly Christian Condoleeza Rice, though some might well question whether Rice is a conservative in any sense worth mentioning. The homosexual pair did not even have any pretense of legal ‘marriage,’ but Rice went out of her way to call the one man’s mother the other man’s ‘mother-in-law’ nonetheless.)

Whether or not arguments about the homosexual agenda usually involve nominalism, that argument (about our using the word in this way because ‘now that’s true legally’) is nominalism pure and simple. The idea is that a positive law can simply create a legal reality regarding marriage–however crazy that new ‘reality’ is–and that we can and should now refer to this new reality in our own usage, regardless of ‘what we think,’ as though the fact that a man literally cannot be married to another man is a mere matter of opinion. This is all very bad indeed.

I say that all conservatives, Christian and otherwise, who know perfectly well that two men or two women literally cannot be married must resist this usage to their last gasp. Fight it every step of the way. Do not give in to this specious argument about a legal reality. In using this terminology without some qualifier such as ‘so-called’ or scare quotes, you are, whether you like it or not, both caving in to and furthering the homosexual agenda and the erosion of marriage. Just say no.”

As with any other conversation involving Lydia McGrew, the discussion in the comment boxes is guaranteed to exercise your critical thinking faculties.

National firearms panic?

The Yeoman Farmer reports some alarming news from his local firearms dealer. Apparently the election of Barack Obama has sparked what looks like a national firearms panic. Today’s Orland Press-Register runs a similar story.

The pistol pictured above is a Ruger GP100 .357 magnum, which I recently purchased on the advice of a good and knowledgeable friend. This revolver gets excellent reviews everywhere. Unfortunately, much as I believe in shopping locally, I was unable to make the purchase from our dealer here in Orland. They were not only out of stock, but so were their suppliers – the gun was backordered without an estimated lead time. I made the purchase in Butte County and probably paid too much money. Given the volatile political and economic situation today, I didn’t want to wait for prices to come down.

The GP100 is manufactured with barrels of various lengths. I ended up with the shortest – 3 inches – for marginally better concealability. Concealed carry permits are issued by the county sheriff. They’re easy to get in some counties, almost impossible to get in others. We’ve had a few incidents in Glenn County lately that are definitely cause for concern.

I’ve never been into firearms, so this is new territory for me. I’ve played around with our 20 gauge shotgun, shooting clay pigeons and water bottles, but that’s about it. The world of firearms is a subculture of its own, requiring not only technical skill and knowledge but a mastery of laws and regulations – especially in California. This is one hobby that could run away with your free time if you aren’t careful.

I am told that a rural homestead should have at least three firearms: a 12 or 20 gauge shotgun, a .22 caliber rifle, and an effective handgun for “social purposes”. I don’t have the rifle yet, but it should be useful for slaughtering and euthanizing farm animals, among other things. I’m leaning toward the Ruger 10/22 but am still open to suggestions.

Feast of Saint Stephen Protomartyr

Saint Stephen’s speech and martyrdom:

“And they made a calf in those days, and offered sacrifices to the idol, and rejoiced in the works of their own hands.  And God turned, and gave them up to serve the host of heaven, as it is written in the books of the prophets: Did you offer victims and sacrifices to me for forty years, in the desert, O house of Israel? And you took unto you the tabernacle of Moloch, and the star of your god Rempham, figures which you made to adore them. And I will carry you away beyond Babylon. The tabernacle of the testimony was with our fathers in the desert, as God ordained for them, speaking to Moses, that he should make it according to the form which he had seen. Which also our fathers receiving, brought in with Jesus, into the possession of the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers, unto the days of David.

Who found grace before God, and desired to find a tabernacle for the God of Jacob. But Solomon built him a house. Yet the most High dwelleth not in houses made by hands, as the prophet saith: Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. What house will you build me? saith the Lord; or what is the place of my resting? Hath not my hand made all these things?

You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do you also. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them who foretold of the coming of the Just One; of whom you have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.”

Now hearing these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed with their teeth at him. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looking up steadfastly to heaven, saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. And he said: “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” And they crying out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and with one accord ran violently upon him. And casting him forth without the city, they stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul. And they stoned Stephen, invoking, and saying: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling on his knees, he cried with a loud voice, saying: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep in the Lord. And Saul was consenting to his death.

Christmas, American Style

The American way of celebrating Christmas has long been under attack by secularists. We are now used to what has become known as “the war on Christmas” and hopefully are responding appropriately. I’m fortunate to live in a place where the majority of public officials, merchants, and citizens are unintimidated by secularists and proudly acknowledge Christmas in the public square. I’ve already been wished “Merry Christmas” several times in the past 24 hours by waitresses, store clerks, and anonymous strangers.

What is less known is that the American way of celebrating Christmas is also under attack, for different reasons, by some traditionalists and religious conservatives. Chief among the objections is that Protestant America seems to have no regard for the Catholic liturgical calendar: most Americans begin celebrating Christmas before Advent commences! (One blogger refers to this phenomenon as “the war on Advent”.). The season of Advent is supposed to be moderately penitential, but one is pressured to attend so many parties during this time that the idea of penance is completely lost.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, observed from December 25 (Nativity) to January 6 (Epiphany), are virtually ignored apart from Christmas Day itself. Having celebrated “Christmas” since the day after Thanksgiving, by the time the real Christmas comes along everyone is sick of it. Saint Nicholas has morphed into Santa Claus, thereby eclipsing the real feast of Saint Nicholas on December 6. The post-Christmas feasts of Saint Stephen, Holy Innocents, Circumcision, and others are similarly ignored due to Christmas-fatigue.

Another common complaint, of course, is the crass commercialization of the holiday and the pressure to spend lots of money. This is followed by objections to other American customs – Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, Charles Dickens, Victorian Christmas displays, Christmas films and “carols” of questionable orthodoxy, etc. – to the point where it seems that nothing about American Christmas traditions are pure enough to touch.

How ought a Catholic respond to this?

I have to confess that I love many things about our American-style Christmas. While growing up, my mother always made Christmas seem magical. Christmas, in fact, helped lead me from teenage agnosticism/atheism back to faith in Christ. The sentimental Christmas songs on the radio helped force me to confront the unsentimental claims of historic Christianity. From Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”, from Clement Clarke Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (the song, not the film), many American traditions of the season are dear to me.

A word about commercialization. Yes, it is totally out of control. Yes, it has obscured the real meaning of Christmas in many ways, and to that extent must be resisted. However, let’s keep one thing in mind: just because something has a commercial origin doesn’t make it “fake” or lacking in cultural significance. Commerce is culture, too. It’s a good thing that merchants honor Christmas, decorate their shops, have pre-Christmas sales and so forth. It’s a good thing that some people can make a living operating Christmas tree farms. It’s a good thing that chambers of commerce all over America organize Christmas events for the benefit of their members. It’s a good thing that, for a few weeks out of the year, a few more Protestant Americans will ask themselves “who is the real Santa Claus?” and thereby become familiar with a great Catholic saint. The problem is not that some people benefit financially from Christmas; the problem is that, for too many, Christmas has become a sacred means to worldly ends.

As Catholics, of course, we have happily made some adjustments. Worship – the Mass in Christmas – is the season’s absolute priority. We try to keep a good Advent. We don’t put up the tree – and we don’t start listening to Christmas music (much to the consternation of our kids who never tire of it) – until Gaudete Sunday or later. We have moved our gift exchange to Epiphany so as to better keep the twelve days of Christmas. We are trying to cut back on gifts for those who have plenty, and to re-emphasize giving to the poor. But we do participate in the larger celebration of the community, insofar as we are able, even if we aren’t quite sure where to draw the line at times. I’m cheered by the ringing of the Salvation Army bells. So long as there is a Salvation Army, I’m glad they do what they do this time of year. We are Americans, too, and fortunately it isn’t difficult to find redeeming qualities in the way Americans celebrate Christmas.

No friends in high places

Attorney General Jerry Brown, charged with defending Proposition 8 against its challengers, is urging the state Supreme Court to void the initiative. It’s bad enough that the fate of Prop 8 will be decided by the same judges who illegally voided Prop 22. Now, the initiative does not even have the formality of support by the executive branch. What a circus. Barring divine intervention, I expect same-sex marriage will be the law in California before the end of 2009.

Thursday evening

Elena Maria Vidal’s Tea at Trianon is one blog that never wastes any bandwidth. Every word is worth reading. Today she gently reminds us that Civility Towards the Aged is an important Christian duty:

“There are many little courtesies that can and should surround the elderly …  Even if a story is being told for the thousandth time, the young can learn to listen patiently, or at least, not to interrupt. An older person should never be isolated at a party or dinner; the young should be encouraged to sit with them, get them refreshments, talk to them, listen to their stories, asking pertinent questions. An older person should be served first at dinner. Boys and girls can easily learn to hold a door open for grandma or grandpa, letting them go first. If necessary, an older child or teenager can readily give up his or her seat for an older person, if chairs are limited. For that matter, although it may seem quaint, it is respectful for children and young people to rise when an elderly friend or member of the family enters the room, if this can be done without causing embarrassment and inconvenience.


Is California ungovernable? I think we’ll find out next year:

“Others say this nation-state is so oversized, balkanized and polarized that it is destined for dysfunction no matter who is in charge. They cite the influx of immigrants, the constant tensions over water supply and large, self-contained regions that bear little resemblance to one another.

It has even been suggested that the state should break into multiple, more manageable pieces. More than two dozen attempts at that have been tried during the years, the latest by a Northern California lawmaker in the early 1990s. More recently, a blog called Three Californias was created to advocate carving California out of the union and into a new country with three states.”


Wendell Berry on the depreciation of work (via Jim Curley):

“With industrialization has come a general depreciation of work. As the price of work has gone up, the value of it has gone down, until it is now so depressed that people simply do not want to do it anymore. We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly line. One works, not because work is necessary, valuable, useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit-a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation. This is explained, of course, by the dullness of the work, by the loss of responsibility for, or credit for, or knowledge of the thing made. What can be the status of the working small farmer in a nation whose motto is a sigh of relief: ‘Thank God it’s Friday’?”

Thank the Middle Ages

One of the things I enjoy is learning the origins of English words and phrases. Not surprisingly, many English phrases are of biblical origin. Biblical illiteracy being what it is today, I am sure that most people who say things like “bite the dust”, “by the skin of your teeth”, or “sour grapes” have no idea as to their Christian origins. The contribution of William Shakespeare to the treasury of English idiom is likewise enormous but mostly lost on contemporary English speakers. Shakespeare, immersed in the language and thought of Christendom, was also influenced by the English Book of Common Prayer, another important literary stream from which we have received gems like “speak now or forever hold your peace”, “till death us do part”, and the most commonly known version of the Lord’s Prayer, recited also by English-speaking Catholics.

A good many words in English come to us from the Age of Faith, popularly known as the Middle Ages. Here’s a website that lists a few of them, and I offer the following samples:

BANK/BANKRUPT- In mideaval times Italian moneylenders used benches in the marketplace to conduct business. Latin for bench was Banca, which transferred to English as bank. These lenders were required to publically break up their benches if their businesses failed, the Latin expression being banca rupta-, becoming bankrupt in English.

BEDLAM:- Bethlehem hospital in London was built to house the mentally ill. As most commoners were at best semi-literate, they mangled the name so that it emerged as “bedlam,” with the implication of chaos deriving from the insane antics of the residents.

BLACKMAIL- Sixteenth century Scottish farmers paid their rent, or mail, to English absentee landlords in the form of WHITE MAIL (silver money), or BLACKMAIL (rent payment in the form of produce or livestock). The term blackmail took on a bad connotation only when the greedy landlords forced many poor farmers to pay much more in goods than the they would pay in silver. Later, when robbers along the borders demanded payment for passage and “protection” the farmers called this extortion blackmail as well.

CURFEW- Despite the modern perception, Medieval cities were actually rather well regulated places, with municipal ordinances governing many aspects of public life to maintain order and safety. However, even the best maintained cities were mostly built of wood, fire was a constant danger, and most cities experienced a devastating fire every few decades. To help provide some protection against fires, many cities required that fires be banked at night. On his first rounds of the evening, the night watchman would remind all the citizens to cover their fires. In Old French this was covre feu, which became coeverfu in Anglo-French after the Norman Conquest, courfeu in Old English, and eventually our modern “curfew,” with the meaning of a limitation.

HAVOC- A medieval war cry signifying “no quarter.

MAUDLIN- Another attempt by Medieval Londoners to pronounce a hospital name, this time it being “Magdalene.”

TAWDRY- On the Feast of St. Audrey it was common to give as gifts little trinkets –religious medallions, charms, and such– of no great value. As a result, the phrase “a St. Audrey” came to mean something cheap, which eventually, became “tawdry.”

Orland’s Centennial Christmas

Orland’s Centennial Christmas celebration took place last Saturday. The Wintons performed beautifully, as we knew they would, and we enjoyed getting to know this family at lunch before their performance. Our good friends from Sacramento – three families in all – drove up for the event and even participated in the entertainment. Their talented children, most of whom attend St. Stephen’s Academy, graced the Library Park gazebo with music so ethereal it left this appreciative small town audience fairly stunned. Our “Country Road Fiddlers” performed clasiscs such as Arkansas  Traveler, Blackberry Blossom, Old Joe Clark, Cluck Old Hen, Worried Man Blues, Swallowtail Jig, The Road to Lisdoonvarna, Jesse’s Polka, and many others. A few of us men got up to sing Haul Away Joe, for which I wrote a special verse:

Chico is a rowdy town, they party on through Monday
Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe.
Orland is a sleepy town, the shops are closed on Sunday
Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe.

Way haul away, wish I was home in Orland
Way haul away, we’ll haul away Joe.

The festivities concluded with a lighted Christmas parade featuring fire trucks, antique cars, marching bands, and a live nativity scene – old fashioned Americana at its best.

A little bit of heaven

We picked up a Christmas tree this evening – not the one I wanted, but the one LeXuan wanted. She had decorating plans, you see. And she made it more beautiful than I could have imagined.

Heaven must be something like…

a cold December night,
a blazing fire in the woodstove,
a new Christmas tree,
the sounds of Handel,
a rose-cheeked woman nursing a baby and teaching
origami to her children,
a glass of red wine,
children excited over hot chocolate,
a child reading Dickens,
a child reading Tolkein,
a tiny hand grasping for ornaments,
the warmth of Christmas approaching,
the promise of a child’s life,
wonder at the grace of it all.