Joaquin Murrieta, the Gold Rush, and California’s original sin

I live in a neighborhood with streets named for various characters associated with old California – Dana Way (for William G. Dana), Harte Way (for Bret Harte), Helen Way (for Helen Hunt Jackson), Murieta Way (for the famous outlaw, Joaquin Murrieta), and Joaquin Way (for Joaquin Miller, who named himself after Murrieta and preferred to spell the name with one “r”). Dig a little deeper, and we find Rosita Way (for Murrieta’s murdered wife), Carmela Way (his wife’s middle name), and Salvator Way (presumably for Salvador Mendez, the bandit who identified Murrieta’s severed head in court). These, at least, are the associations I see, although it’s possible that whoever named the streets had other people in mind. But the pattern is fairly obvious.

“The Robin Hood of El Dorado”, written by a Chicago journalist named Walter Noble Burns in 1934, seems to be the first serious effort to write a genuinely historical account of Murrieta’s life. Burns cites places, names, and dates, and claims to have obtained hundreds of oral testimonies from those who knew Murrieta or his victims – or were close to those who did. His most important historical claims seem to be specific enough to have been falsifiable in 1932 if they were, indeed, false.  Consequently, I take the general outline of his narrative to be generally accurate. But Burns is no historian: there are no footnotes, and he does a lot of “filling in the blanks” that required some imagination on his part. Which makes for a rollicking good read, if a bit on the gruesome side. But the literary inventions are not what trouble me: the truth of Murrieta’s legend is unsettling on many levels, to the point of shaking one’s faith in humanity, if one ever had any.

After Joaquin Murrieta married young Rosita Feliz in Sonora, Mexico, they fled to the California gold fields and settled in a mining camp called Sawmill Flat. Murrieta was believed to have been a modest, polite, hard-working, all-around decent fellow. He was known to have built a house for his bride, to have staked a claim and done some prospecting, but mostly for “dealing monte” with an honest hand in the town’s saloon. There are no accounts of Murrieta making trouble for anyone before tragedy struck. One day a group of surly American miners came through his front door, uninvited. Amdist a flurry of racist anti-Mexican taunts, they ordered him to pack and leave town. They told him – falsely – that his claim belonged to Americans now since California had just been “sold” to the United States. Murrieta knew his rights and refused to leave. The miners proceeded to beat him unconscious. While the men were attacking Joaquin, Rosita grabbed a knife and tried to kill one of them. The miners left Joaquin for dead and turned to Rosita. After brutally taking turns with her and satisfying themselves, she finally lost consciousness, and the yankee miners left her for dead as well. Murrieta revived and called out for his wife. He found Rosita and laid her on a couch, where she also revived long enough to speak to him – and then he helplessly watched her expire.

Months later, the decaying corpses of five miners from Sawmill Flat were found in a ravine with one bullet through each of their skulls. Their bodies were too decomposed for identification, but somehow everyone knew.

After exacting justice for Rosita’s murder, Murrieta was evidently done with killing and moved on to greener pastures, settling this time in Murphy’s Diggings to be near one of his brothers. He wanted to live a quiet life. But the yankees weren’t about to leave him alone. Anti-Mexican sentiment was high in the American mining camps, some more than others, though it was by no means universal. In any case, this time Murietta was falsely accused by a belligerent miner of stealing a mule. The baffled Joaquin protested that he was borrowing his brother’s recently purchased mule. He and the miner agreed to meet, with Joaquin’s brother, in Murphy’s Diggings the next day to settle the dispute. The miner showed up with a mob of nineteen rowdy Americans, in various stages of inebriation, eager to hang a couple of Mexican thieves. Some of the more respectable Americans showed up, too, vigorously defending the Murrieta brothers and testifying to their innocence. But their protests were futile. In the end Joaquin could only watch helplessly while his brother was crudely hanged by the mob. His own life was spared, but he was flogged into a bloody pulp with thirty-nine yankee lashes on his bare back – while tied to the same tree.

This pushed Murrieta over the edge. He was forever a changed man.

In the weeks that followed, eighteen of those twenty men in the lynch mob were found dead. Their tortured bodies seemed to reveal a pattern – lassoed and dragged by a horse, rope burns around the neck, small stab wounds all over the body, and an “M” carved into the forehead. The remaining two also died violently. The instigator was shot down in the street by an American miner who witnessed the lynching and flogging and was outraged by the injustice.

The rest of the story is a flurry of criminal genius and organization, casual cruelty, and outrageously daring bravado. The idiot who wrote the back cover of my copy of the book – and who obviously didn’t read it – says that Murrieta’s campaign was all about “defending Hispanos against violence and dispossession by rampaging gold rush miners”. On the contrary: Murrieta created a vast network of loyal bandits who killed for gold, for horses, and for fun. It’s true that he had a special contempt for American miners and unleashed his vengeance on them. But it seldom had anything to do with defending Mexicans. He raided peaceful ranches that had little to do with miners or mining or Mexicans, and for some perverse reason, he targeted the most vulnerable miners in the Sierras, the hard working Chinese, who never bothered anyone and who took abuse from all directions, leaving a sea of blood and tears in his wake. Murrieta had acquired a taste for killing, discovered he was very good at it, and found that he enjoyed it. He assembled a band of outlaws known as the Five Joaquins that terrorized the state from one end to the other, though he was the undisputed leader.

Murrieta apparently had a flair for dramatic effect. He often went to town in costume, to gather information about his enemies, or just to have a good time. There are countless stories of his daring and bravado. But what endears certain criminals to the public mind – what makes folk heroes out of them – is their humanity when it shows up in kindness. We love a bad man who has a tender side and does good deeds now and then. While Murrieta avenged every treason against him, he is also said to have rewarded every kindness shown to him, no matter how small. In many of these stories he appears indifferent to the gold and loot, and gladly gives it away. If you gave him lodging and a meal without protest, he was as likely to reward you as to kill you: flip a coin. Honestly, though, from the dozens of stories recounted by Burns in this riveting book, I have to wonder how certain it could be that Joaquin Murrieta is the outlaw of every story. His gang consisted of hundreds of men and dozens of small bands with their own leaders, and there were at least four more Joaquins besides, so I have think that positive identification was not a slam dunk.

A deputized sheriff by the name of Harry Love was commissioned by the new state of California to organize the California Rangers for the purpose of stopping Murrieta and his savage partner, Three Fingered Jack. Love and his men found them in a canyon on the Coast Range, prevailed with gunfire, and for purposes of identification decapitated Murrieta and cut off the hand of Three Fingered Jack. For years these relics were displayed around the state, finally resting in San Francisco, until destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906. Legends of Murrieta’s buried gold persist to this day.

What is the reality of Joaquin Murrieta? The folk hero that some Hispanic or “Chicano” activists have tried to make of him is untenable. If he was ever a good man, he definitely went bad and there is no whitewashing this fact. I do think it likely that Murrieta was, at first, not a man with a criminal disposition, and that the injustices he suffered helped to propel him to a life of crime. We applaud the justice he brought to bad men when the law was absent. We are charmed by the mercy he showed, at times, when he could easily have done what by then came naturally to him. Like all criminals, and indeed all men, he was not a one dimensional personality. He was, like most of us, someone who alternated between his better and worst instincts — but his demons won in the end.

In any case, the most disturbing aspect of this book was not the terror inflicted by Murrieta’s outlaws, as awful as that was, or even the idea that a good man could turn so bad due to circumstances beyond his control, but rather the morally depraved milieu of the gold rush itself. This is not news to me, or to any student of California history. However, Burns makes it come alive in a way that caught me a little off guard. Think about it: California’s non-Indian population went from about 12,000 in 1848 to 380,000 ten years later. By some estimates the newcomers were over 90% male. So, the gold rush was an overwhelmingly male phenomenon, lacking the feminine influence that is necessary to tame and domesticate the average man. That’s already a problem. But it might not have been so much of a problem if these were average men. The ’49ers were not average men. They were, by and large, the greediest, the rowdiest, the most ignorant, the least moral, the least religious, the least educated, etc. of the men in the place from which they came. The more respectable among them still found nothing wrong with leaving wives, children, farms and businesses behind in order to undertake a dangerous journey in a fanatical quest for more wealth and riches than they could possibly use. The mining towns were essentially organized for greed and debauchery. It was not uncommon to have multiple brothels and no churches. The overall tenor of the Sierra foothills was greed, violence, debauchery, drunkenness, and very little respect for life. “Fire on the Mountain” by the Marshall Tucker Band is an accurate portrayal.

It’s true that there were good men, too, whose motives weren’t entirely debased. Many were more interested in adventure than gold. Gen. John Bidwell, the founder of Chico, comes to mind. He was well educated and made his fortune mining the Feather River. Once that was done he turned to farming and ranching, married well, treated his Indian workers well, and founded a new city. He was a deeply Christian man, and his disappointed biographers, two hard-bitten cynical journalists, declared that despite all of their research they could find no “dirt” on him to report.

I suppose that, under the circumstances, one should be surprised to find so many remnants of civilization in the mining camps. The vigilante committees are known today for their excesses and injustices, but they helped bring order to chaos, and they included many genuinely fair-minded men. Burns recounts a number of vigilante trials where the accused is acquitted and released despite popular opposition. He also reports many incidents where fair-minded men stopped, or tried to stop, intemperate vigilante “justice” in the mining camps. Although the lawlessness of the gold rush ceded to the forces of civilization, in part because the miners themselves had grown tired of it, the untamed spirit of the ’49ers remains in this state under various guises. You might say that California is still paying for its original sin.

Book Review: “The Fool of New York City”, by Michael O’Brien

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 “I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect.” –Mark Twain

I read novels so rarely these days that it’s become a matter of embarrassment. A novel is hard for me to justify given the pile of books about “real” things waiting for me on my reading table. It’s not that I haven’t understood the place of great literature, intellectually, but the silent prejudice directing my personal reading habits has been this idea that a novel is an inferior device for communicating reality. (In my younger days I read some hideous novels.) It is long past time to disabuse myself of this notion: Michael O’Brien has forced me to turn the page, so to speak, which is something he is skilled at doing.

“The Fool of New York City” is a feat of the imagination. It’s not the strangest novel I have ever read, but it comes close, and the strangeness is all the more pronounced because of it’s very plausibility. “This is New York City, after all”, says one of his minor characters. O’Brien takes the reader on a gripping journey of mystery, adventure, tragedy and romance, with a knack for inserting the reader directly into the shoes of his protagonists. And who are these protagonists? The first is a giant nearly eight feet tall, a wholesome Iowa farm boy who landed in NYC on a basketball scholarship, but also a man with secrets; the second, a tormented soul he found nearly frozen in an abandoned building, an amnesiac with a cosmopolitan background and a tragic past he can’t remember. Together, they set off to discover the amnesiac’s true identity …

I can’t say much more than this without getting into spoiler territory. Read this delightful book. It’s comparatively short for an O’Brien novel, and it is infused with realities that one does well to contemplate.

A Review of “Malcom Muggeridge: A Biography” by Gregory Wolfe

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“In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.” – St. Augustine

“Christ has created you because He wanted you. I know what you feel – terrible longing with dark emptiness. And yet He is the one in love with you.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta in a letter to Malcom Muggeridge

Generally speaking, modern people choose their religion so as to conform to the lives they are living. They believe as they live, rather than live as they believe.  This attempt to quiet their consciences can seem like a brave act of individual liberty in a society that glories in religious pluralism. But in a more Christian age, men did not deny the incongruity of their faith with the follies of their own lives. They knew that truth wasn’t going to change to suit them, and they forced themselves to live with the tension in the hopes that one day they would reform. Malcom Muggeridge was this pre-modern type of man. He lived badly for many years, but God refused to permit him the illusions modern men seem to enjoy.

The outline of Muggeridge’s life is well known. The son of a middle-class Fabian socialist, Malcom became impatient with the gradualism and hypocrisy of a socialist elite that didn’t have the stomach for revolution and, despite lip-service paid to egalitarianism and the plight of the working class, enjoyed lives of globe-trotting luxury and indulgence. He became a staunch communist and an open admirer of the Soviet Union. Upon graduation from Cambridge he traveled to India where he taught in the colonial schools, studied Hinduism and Islam, sympathized with Ghandi, and promoted Indian nationalism. Returning to England, he found work as a journalist and was assigned foreign correspondent to Moscow by the Manchester Guardian. He relished the opportunity to see Soviet communism up close. But what he learned in this revered “worker’s paradise” turned his enthusiasm into horror. Despite his own rhetorical excesses, Malcom discovered in himself a fierce hatred of cruelty and injustice. The barbaric inhumanity he witnessed in the name of atheistic communism turned him against every kind of mass ideological movement. He was furthermore aghast at the calculated dishonesty and, in some cases, the self-delusion of the Western intelligentsia when it came to the Soviet Union, upon which they projected their hopes and aspirations. It was also clear to him that these westerners relied upon the “success” of Marxism-Leninism for their reputations.

Malcom was the first to break the story of the Stalinist famine in the Ukraine, wherein four million perished by starvation and disease while their food – not only grain, but the food in every pantry! – was hauled away to feed more cooperative Russians. Those who resisted, or who were suspected of resistance, were simply shot. To keep the word from getting out, the border was sealed so that Ukrainians had no escape. On a clandestine and unauthorized trip to the Ukraine, Malcom watched starving peasants being loaded onto cattle trucks at gunpoint with their hands bound behind their backs. The story was censored at first, but Malcom would not be silent and became an implacable foe of communism for the rest of his life.

This courageous but unpopular act nearly cost Malcom his career. Still a man of the political Left, by this time the Left would no longer have him. He was barely employable as a journalist in England in all but the most pro-establishment Tory publications (which he detested politically) and gossip columns. His family struggled as he tried to pay the bills with various desperate writing gigs. The war came and he joined the armed forces as an intelligence officer, serving honorably. He returned to England and, by a series of unlikely employments and promotions, ended up a media star himself, landing finally at the BBC. During this time his politics moved further away from those of any party and developed into something that resembled a pragmatic libertarianism. He was clearly a gifted wordsmith, a master of the language, and an incisive commentator. The quality of his writing was recognized as superb. He was surprisingly adaptable as a compelling television presence. Malcom became widely respected – and also reviled – for his piercing criticism of those in positions of power and authority. His transparent sincerity was part of his appeal, once admitting “I hate government. I hate power. I think that man’s existence, insofar as he achieves anything, is to resist power, to minimize power, to devise systems of society in which power is the least exerted.” Toward the end of his career his wit, humor, and voice were known to all Englishman. His highly televised face was recognized everywhere.

And yet, beneath all of this worldly success, Malcom had long been miserable.

Malcom read the Bible secretly as a child, enthralled with the Christ-figure. While at Cambridge he embraced the religious skepticism of the day, but found himself drawn to mystics and even to the devout. His best friend was a serious Christian who became an Anglican clergyman. Malcom especially admired his asceticism and religious discipline. At the same time Malcom had fallen into the casual homosexuality of the elite, a phenomenon that was rife in England at the time, though he was still in love with a girl back home. (The extent to which casual male homosexuality was a staple of upper class English life has always eluded me, but it seems to have been ubiquitous for several generations even as it remained illegal. This must have had severe psychological effects on many of its practitioners.) His passions became unruly, particularly his sexual passions. When he married Kitty Dobbs, as good Fabian socialists they seriously considered having an “open marriage”. It might as well have been. Malcom’s sordid infidelities are too numerous to count; Kitty’s are less numerous but no less tragic. This compulsive behavior went on for decades, all through the highs and lows of his career. It always left him feeling empty, despairing, and lost. He and Kitty fought bitterly and constantly. As his family grew, he sought escape in projects that took him far from home. He attempted suicide at least once. He agonized over religious questions, and though he couldn’t bring himself to believe, he couldn’t bring himself to reject God altogether either.

Part of Malcom’s inner torment was his self-image as a permanent outsider. Painful in his youth, he tried hard to belong without success. Later he came to see his outsider status as having important advantages. He was in that sense a free man. As a writer he could say what he wanted to say, without worrying about who it might offend. He relished attacking the “establishment” and its acolytes, but extended his range of targets to anyone whom he felt exercised undue influence over others. Maintaining this posture required a spirit that lacked generosity. He was outside by choice now, and developed a sort of contempt for insiders. This gave him his freedom. Insiders are not free: they have to bow to their institutions and defend their absurdities. Or so Malcom thought. As applied to the Church, Malcom could not see himself accepting a set of doctrines that were above criticism or deferring to churchmen who were, in his estimation, just party men like all the others. The extreme patriotism after the war ended turned him off for similar reasons. You would never find Malcom Muggeridge waving a flag or a pom-pom. But his independence came at the price of arrogance, to the point where, after his acceptance of the Christian faith, he could no longer stand to watch himself on television, deploring this “terrible man” with a “certain arrogance about myself” and “completely lacking in humility”.

Malcom’s exceptional intelligence, energy, and productivity was driven by a force he didn’t understand.  The sheer volume impresses – books, plays, documentaries, interviews, hundreds of articles. He interviewed everyone from Churchill to MacArthur to Stalin’s daughter. His literary circles included all the men of letters of his time, being closest to George Orwell. He described his friend Graham Greene as a “saint who is trying unsuccessfully to be a sinner”; Hilaire Belloc as “not at all a serene man” nursing decades old grievances, and of whom, “having written about religion all of his life, there seemed to be very little in him”; and of Evelyn Waugh he said “I have formed the impression that he does not like me”, which was evidently true, although in fairness Waugh was a misanthrope who didn’t like anybody. Apart from Chesterton, whom he admired, the English Catholic literati did not impress Malcom as men whose Catholicism had changed them for the better. They left him curious but uninspired.

Behind the scenes of this busy public life was a titanic internal struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Even as Malcom gave in to the flesh, he would not surrender his mind. He began to see with increasing clarity how the ethos of liberalism had poisoned his own life, making himself and his loved ones miserable. What was previously a slow awakening became a torrent of awareness. He decried the comfortable materialism of his circumstances and longed for poverty and asceticism, for “the simple life”. He saw the rise of sexual promiscuity (with the implied dismissal of marriage), contraception, abortion, and euthanasia as signs of a decaying civilization with a Freudian death wish. He understood that the decline of Christian faith and respect for the Church was the source of these evils. He professed these insights publicly even as he continued to live according to his old habits.

Malcom plunged himself into research about this Jesus, this Man who haunted him all of his life and wouldn’t leave him any peace. The painful alienation and longing for God expressed in St. Augustine’s “Confessions” resonated with him acutely. He recalled with amazement the serene faith of the peasants he encountered in churches behind the iron curtain. He traveled to Lourdes and Palestine and was inspired by the faith of the Christian pilgrims, mostly of humble origins. He befriended a holy priest who ministered to the severely disabled. Finally, he sought out Mother Teresa, bewildered at this woman who accomplished so much with so little, who didn’t shrink from loving the unlovable, or touching the untouchable, and not for an idea or a set of abstract social principles, but for the love of a Person. The publicity-shy nun permitted him to make a television documentary about the works of her Missionaries of Charity, and to write a book about her – “Something Beautiful for God” – bringing her then obscure work to the attention of the world. Still unable to grasp Christ directly, Malcom was permitted to see Him through the life of a genuine saint, and in the faces of the world’s forgotten ones.

And then, in the twilight of his life, the old familiar pain of being an outsider looking in returned to him. He wanted what these Christians had, Who these Christians had, but didn’t know how to possess Him. He wanted to be counted among them, but still couldn’t bend the knee.

Malcom spent the remainder of his career defending and promoting a Christian worldview at every opportunity. Yet he remained apart. Malcom’s difficulties with the Catholic Church were a surprising combination of two things: 1) He was shocked and disappointed at the changes in the Church that seemed to have resulted from the Second Vatican Council. He saw religious life collapsing everywhere and moral teachings abandoned. 2) He was still a theological skeptic himself. Despite the post-conciliar liberalism that had no regard for doctrine, he was an honest man and would not join the Church if he didn’t accept its dogma. It’s not clear that he connected theological orthodoxy or liturgy with the moral precepts that concerned him. Nor is it clear that he worked very hard at theological understanding. This biographer suggests that Malcom was bored by theology. Although a reluctant moralist, he was fundamentally a poetic soul who seemed content with a mystical approach to the person of Jesus Christ.

Despite his distance from the Church, he began to call himself a Christian and tried to live like one. He established a daily prayer regimen. He gave up his womanizing, and further still, his drinking and smoking. He ate sparsely and became a vegetarian. He repaired his marriage to Kitty and tried to make things up to her. Their marriage became something beautiful and attractive, a hard-won prize. Their final years were spent in love, enjoying one another’s company and the company of friends, often reading the Pslams aloud to each other. Kitty would later write: “It is inevitable that in the course of time trouble and strife between man and wife should occur. This is for the most part due to our human vanity and egotism; but these differences can be overcome, and every reconciliation strengthens the bond of love.”

At long last, Malcom and Kitty received a letter from a respected priest and friend. In between formalities, the letter contained only one substantive line: “It is time.” Now 79 and 78 years old, respectively, this was all they needed. Malcom and Kitty Muggeridge formally entered the Catholic Church in November of 1982, finally at home and at peace. In July of 1990, Malcom suffered a crippling stroke. The state of his soul as a Christian penitent is manifest in the words he shouted that first night in the hospital: “Father, forgive me! Father, forgive me!” He died from complications four months later.

Catholic economic and social doctrine is not libertarian

Rorate Caeli has an excellent post up today – “Truth be told: The Traditional Catholic position on the economy is not Libertarian”.

“Very few indeed have been making the case, a case that is true, that the positions stated by Pope Francis on economic and social matters are much closer to the Traditional Catholic position on the economy and the State than not. Indeed, it can be said unhesitatingly that this is one area in which the Pope will find mostly allies in Traditional Catholics. They know by heart, also as victims of injustice (including within the Church), that the doctrine of the Church regarding individual persons, society and economic relations, and individuals faced with government, is one which privileges ‘justice’ as its foundational aspect.”

Thoughts on a commercial society

The late Christopher Dawson’s essay “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind” is a compelling polemic. Most of us have no sense of what a non-commercial society might look like. There are vestiges here and there – faint echoes in places known to the world as cultural “backwaters” – but we can scarcely imagine a society that is not dominated by commercial or economic concerns. Having first defeated Christianity and then Marxism, the commercial ethic of the “bourgeois” is now ubiquitous and triumphant. Dawson argues sharply that Christianity and “bourgeois” values are utterly incompatible:

… it is obvious that the Christian ethos is essentially antibourgeois, since it is an ethos of love. This is particularly obvious in the case of St. Francis and the mediaeval mystics, who appropriated to their use the phraseology of mediaeval erotic poetry and used the antibourgeois concepts of the chivalrous class-consciousness, such as “adel,” “noble,” and “gentile,” in order to define the spiritual character of the true mystic.

But it is no less clear in the case of the Gospel itself. The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the “open” type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction. For what is the Pharisee but a spiritual bourgeois, a typically “closed” nature, a man who applies the principle of calculation and gain not to economics but to religion itself, a hoarder of merits, who reckons his accounts with heaven as though God was his banker? It is against this “closed,” self-sufficient moralist ethic that the fiercest denunciations of the Gospels are directed. Even the sinner who possesses a seed of generosity, a faculty of self-surrender, and an openess of spirit is nearer to the kingdom of heaven than the “righteous” Pharisee; for the soul that is closed to love is closed to grace.

In the same way the ethos of the Gospels is sharply opposed to the economic view of life and the economic virtues. It teaches men to live from day to day without taking thought for their material needs. “For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of things which he possesses.” It even condemns the prudent forethought of the rich man who plans for the future: “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee, and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?”

On the whole, I am not quite as negative as Dawson. I like merchants and shopkeepers. We should be glad to have more shopkeepers and fewer serfs. But let’s look at what happened historically. The triumph of the merchant meant, in the long run, the triumph of commercial values which, paradoxically, led to the end of the merchant. Why? Because the predominant ethic of the merchant class, or the bourgeois, was that of maximizing profits. Profits are maximized by creating large economies of scale and eliminating competition (i.e., other merchants). Thus, a commercial society is dominated by a few powerful corporations whose primary purpose is making money, putting thousands of merchants out of business, and employing thousands of would-be merchants for low wages.

The real sinister thing about a commercial society is that the bourgeois merchant’s ethic ends up invading everything else. Manufacturing, for instance, becomes chiefly a matter of producing things that will yield the highest price for the least economic input. Salesmanship becomes every bit as important as quality and craftsmanship, or even more so. They tell you in school nowadays that everyone must be a salesman. In job interviews one is expected to “sell himself” to the interviewer. Self-promotion is mandatory: to fail at self-promotion is to fail at life. Employees are hired, evaluated, and fired based on their contribution to the “bottom line”. Similarly, employees treat employers as nothing more than a means to an end: one is expected to “job hop”, to make lateral career moves, on the basis of maximizing income. The commercial ethic has also conquered the ideals of government. It’s not uncommon for politicians to say things like “government should be run like a business”.

If we replace monetary profit with the idea of personal gain or satisfaction, we can see how commercial values have invaded things like religion, family, and relationships of every kind. It is commonly said that a friendship, a marriage, or a religion is only worth maintaining if one “gets something out of it”. Marriage is reduced to a private contract based on mutual benefit, like any other commercial transaction. When the benefits cease, the marriage is over. Modern Christians attend worship not to give themselves to God in prayer, but to be entertained or stimulated, to have a fulfilling experience. Etc.

It is easy to see how persons who do not conform themselves to bourgeois values find themselves on the margins of a commercial society. If you’re not a natural self-promoter; if you’re not sufficiently motivated by money, utility, or pleasure; if you’re constitutionally incapable of placing economic efficiency over good work done well; if you value loyalty and commitment above personal gain; if you refuse to distort the truth for the sake of salesmanship; if you refuse to treat economic competitors as enemies to be crushed; if you are incapable of pretending that good is evil, and that evil is good, for the sake of professional relationships – you will always be perceived as an outsider. Even if you are seldom directly challenged, your associates will intuitively sense that something about you is very different and a little frightening.

We aren’t going to fundamentally change our commercial society anytime soon. Those on the margins will have to do their best to conform and withstand the temptations to compromise. But perhaps there can be progress at carving out a niche for the incorrigible. Resurrecting the old guild system, in some form that works within the larger economy, might be worth exploring. Intentional communities can lead to intentional economic structures. Certainly there is no reason why governments, schools, hospitals, and other non-commercial institutions could not, in some measure, reclaim their original purposes and put bourgeois values back in their place. Large companies with comfortable advantages that are “too big to fail” can afford to revisit their priorities.

One thing is certain: a commercial society is a dynamic society, but it’s the dynamism of a freight train, not a pendulum. Our society’s dynamism is always oriented towards two specific goals: 1) fomenting human desire and discontent; and 2) removing all obstacles to their economic “solutions”. If we can’t stop the freight train, maybe it’s time to build another track.

Raising musical children

My wife and I are often asked what we have done to raise a musical family. This is always slightly embarrassing because we didn’t really plan on raising a “musical family”, nor are we altogether sure why some children take to music and others don’t. Neither of us are musicians. Although Mrs. C. is fully Asian, she’s definitely not the Tiger Mom when it comes to music lessons and practice. Our children will also attest to the fact that we have (ahem) less-than-perfect parenting skills, and in some respects a non-ideal home life. But it turns out that we did raise what most people would call a “musical family”, and so I thought it might be helpful to share our family’s approach to music. It’s definitely not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way, but it has met with some success.

1. An educational philosophy that “music is curricular, not extra-curricular”. From the beginning, we were convinced that music is an essential component of a liberal education. And so we began with the attitude that music is not primarily something one does with “free time”, or something that (like other hobbies) must always be “fun” and “enjoyable” to be worthwhile. Rather, music is studied because it expresses the good, the true, and the beautiful; and because the knowledge of music enriches the whole man. Furthermore the lives of the great composers, the histories of famous and important works, and the influence of music on society should also be studied. Knowledge and competence comes first; the enjoyment comes later.

2. Respect for parents. This is a huge topic, and I’m not qualified to write the book, but children who don’t respect or obey their parents are not generally very teachable. Just paying for lessons isn’t going to help much. And getting them to practice is going to be a constant battle. So, it’s important that children be raised from the beginning with a healthy respect for their parents.

3. Home education. This not only gives a family lots of flexibility in terms of music lessons and event scheduling, but it can help children avoid unproductive and harmful distractions. Almost 50 percent of our city’s youth orchestra is home schooled.

4. No television. Our decision to live completely TV-free has eliminated one major distraction and a fierce competitor for the children’s free time (although now we have to fight with computers, etc.).

5. Exposure to good music. We’re not convinced of the “Mozart Effect”, but our children’s exposure to the best kinds of music – primarily sacred, classical, and folk music – begins in utero and continues throughout their childhood.

6. Limiting bad music. Certain genres of “music” are actually anti-musical. They erode the patience, calm, and mental discipline that is necessary to learn the art of real music. And so we have always tried to maintain a tight control over the kinds of music we allow in the home. Our children have not become addicted to rock music or any of its derivatives (rap, hip-hop, heavy metal, etc.) – what Professor Alan Bloom called “America’s drug of choice”. There are exceptions, but it’s rare for an electro-music-addicted young person to find anything appealing about classical piano or violin, or even traditional folk music. You might make him study it, but when he wants a musical diversion, he’ll always choose the passive stimulation of rock music before picking up the fiddle or sitting down at the piano.

7. Musical siblings. Having one or more siblings who also study music has a great many benefits, both tangible and intangible. They need each other, they help each other, and they play together.

8. Musical friends. There were, in fact, two families who inspired us when our oldest children were very young. We saw their beautiful enjoyment of music and wanted the same kind of joy for our family. Later on, we were blessed to have the friendship of one family in particular whose children were also musical, and with whom our children enjoyed playing.

9. “Yes” to music. All parents must say “no” to their children often enough. We decided early that we would try to say “yes”, whenever possible, to our children’s musical aspirations. That means sacrificing time and money for concerts, competitions, rehearsals, workshops, master classes, new instruments, and special trips of all kinds that were “above and beyond” what was minimally required for their studies.

10. Love and a happy home. I don’t like the Tiger Mom’s approach. It may result in good musicians sometimes, but I’ve talked to numerous people who resented that kind of upbringing and have dropped the music. There must be love in the home, and a genuine desire for the good of the children as opposed to parental or family prestige. Children can sense when your motives are off. Spend time talking about music and listening together, but don’t make an idol of it. At the same time, the laissez-faire approach is also mistaken. There needs to be firmness and discipline, especially in the beginning, at least for a minimal effort, and without any fear of occasional unpleasantness.

“… that the nations may know they are but men.”

From Psalm 9, Tuesday’s reading at the office of Prime:

“Arise, O Lord, let not man prevail; let the nations be judged in Thy sight.
Appoint, O Lord, a ruler over them, that the nations may know they are but men.”

This seems pertinent to a recent discussion at W4. I think it’s safe to say that the desire to be governed – in this world – by a just man, a monarch, is deeply rooted in the Christian soul. That’s not to say that other non-monarchial systems are illegitimate, but ultimately we want to be ruled by God’s vicar. The psalmist describes the unhappy alternative: man prevails on earth, assigning to himself god-like powers and usurping God’s prerogatives.

R.I.P., Boy Scouts of America

Scout taking oath

The final promise of the Scout oath is the most important: “to keep myself … morally straight”. And that promise has now been broken by the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America in a spectacular way.

The new membership policy states that “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” Some Catholic commentators, including bishops, note that the bare words of this policy do not violate Catholic teaching. And that is quite true in the strictest sense of “orientation” and “preference”. I have all kinds of orientations and preferences that are opposed to the virtues of Scouting, and even opposed to the commandments of God. Living a “morally straight” life means striving to overcome sinful or disordered “orientations”. A literal reading of the new policy is therefore not a problem for Catholics.

In fact, the Scout’s previous policy doesn’t even violate the new policy. The old policy asserted “… we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”  Sexual orientation or preference wasn’t the issue. Same-sex attraction, by itself, was never enough to be excluded from membership. The problem was the openness and the self-identification with homosexuality. The policy referred to “avowed homosexuals”, avowed meaning “to declare openly, boldly, and unashamedly”. The issue has always been the open and public identification with homosexuality and the implied approval of homosexual acts

What, then, has changed?

The Boy Scouts of America did not simply tack a new explanatory note onto the old policy. If they had, the clarification would have been unremarkable. Rather, the Boy Scouts of America repealed the old policy and replaced it with a new one. Taken at face value, the mild language about “sexual orientation or preference” in the new policy is a red herring. It’s not the real story. The big news is that the former policy excluding “open or avowed homosexuals” has been formally rejected.

Now that we’ve examined the plain words, let us confront the plain message behind the words. The fact that the exclusion of “open or avowed homosexuals” was replaced with a prohibition of exclusion based on “sexual orientation or preference” indicates that, in the minds of BSA leadership, “sexual orientation or preference” is expected to be “open or avowed”. The unmistakable message is that open or avowed homosexuals are no longer excluded from membership.

Teenage boys talk about lots of things. Very often, they talk about girls – even chaste boys who are not sexually active, and who have no intention of being sexually active until marriage, can talk a lot about girls. Presumably scouts who consider themselves homosexuals will be free to talk about other boys in the same way that normal boys talk about girls, and nothing can be done about it (unless, of course, talking about girls is now forbidden.) This will change the entire culture of the organization by introducing a sexual element into the group, permeating every relationship. A certain innocence will be lost, trust will be compromised, needless confusion will be sowed, and social pressure will increase exponentially. Consider the fact that BSA’s magazine for boys, Boy’s Life, runs an advice column that often deals with “girl problems”. Expect this column to begin addressing “boy problems” in the near future. As a recent case here in northern California demonstrates, the unchecked presence of homosexuality within a troop can and does lead to disaster.

Open homosexuality adds still another more insidious, tyrannical element to the problem: that of institutional dishonesty. Everyone must now pretend that homosexual behavior is natural, moral, and healthy. Sexually confused boys, who might otherwise grow up normally, may come to believe it themselves and act accordingly. Worst of all, though, the culture of lies now forced on the Boy Scouts of America will produce a systematic and habitual dishonesty within the organization across the board.

Thus far, to the best of my knowledge, of the Catholic bishops to whom we look for leadership and direction only Bishop Paul Loverde of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, has had the courage to suggest that the new policy “forces us to prayerfully reconsider whether a continued partnership with the BSA will be possible”. Otherwise the response of Catholic bishops has been weak and insipid, to say the least – though not surprising given the dismal state of the Church today. With respect to the new policy the National Catholic Committee on Scouting wants to “study its effects”. Give me a break. I suggest they study the Bible and Catechism.

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There is some good news on the horizon. A coalition of former BSA leaders and parents are meeting in Louisville, Kentucky next month to plan for a new organization that will be true to the traditional virtues of Scouting.

“I am pleased to announce that OnMyHonor.Net along with other likeminded organizations, parents and BSA members, are announcing a coalition meeting that will take place next month in Louisville, Kentucky. There we will discuss the creation of a new character development organization for boys. While the meeting will be private, your voice is very important to us and will be represented there.  We will host and facilitate a national coalition meeting of former BSA parents and other youth leaders who wish to return to truly timeless values that once made the BSA great.  We welcome your comments as we develop our plans. Please share your thoughts with us at Contact@OnMyHonor.Net.”

There is a growing movement of Catholic scouting called the Federation of North American Explorers. This group has a lot of promise and organizational support is already in place. Also – Dr. Taylor Marshall of Fisher-More College is launching the Catholic Scouts of St. George, which seems to have gained considerable traction in a short time.

As for scouting in Chico, I am not optimistic. Our scoutmaster, God bless him, is furious and disgusted at the BSA’s decision and is soul-searching about what to do. Yet he feels “obligated to carry on the tradition”, and I can’t help but sympathize. The troop has been a blessing for these boys, many of whom have formed great friendships and worked hard to achieve their rank. Conservative troops like ours will probably try to carry on as usual, hoping the subject never comes up. Alternative scouting organizations are not likely to find much support around here.

Scouting families need to understand something. The Boy Scouts of America isn’t going to let troops ignore the homosexual agenda. A memo from the Golden Empire Council hints at “new safety trainings, camp dynamics, and other incremental changes” on the way. The BSA today isn’t the same organization it was last week. The uniform today stands for something different.

Russell Kirk on the meaning of life

“What is the object of human life? The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love ever can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learnt that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by Love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part that was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. And he apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death.

He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward the triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them within bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars. And, with Burke, he knows that ‘they will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.’”  – Russell Kirk