"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for February, 2011

Chesterton on mass transit

“In contemplating some common object of the modern street, such as the omnibus or the lamp-post, it is sometimes well worthwhile to stop a moment and contemplate why such common objects are considered commonplace. It is well worthwhile to try to grasp what is the significance of them–or rather, the quality in modernity that makes them so often seem not significant but insignificant. If you stop the omnibus while you stop to think about it, you will be unpopular. Even if you try to grasp the lamp-post while you try to grasp its significance, you will almost certainly be misunderstood. Nevertheless the problem is a real one, and not without bearing on the most poignant politics and ethics of today. It is certainly not the things themselves, the idea and upshot of them, that are remote from poetry and even mysticism. The idea of a crowd of human strangers turned into comrades for a journey is full of the oldest pathos and piety of human life.”
-G. K. Chesterton in The Uses of Diversity.

I recalled this passage upon hearing that funding for high speed rail has been cut in Florida and several other states.  Apparently a rail project has been afoot in Florida for almost twenty years, but now it won’t be built.  A similar project has been underway in California for an even longer time and has chewed up billions of dollars, but not a single mile of track has ever been laid down.  It would seem that high speed rail in America is doomed.  The problems are manifold, but the biggest one is just that it’s too expensive.  Even under the best projections the projects only generate a fraction of the necessary money.  The rest has to be supplied by the taxpayers, and they are understandably not too pleased by the prospect.

However, we need some mass transit.  Anyone could reel off a long list of benefits: less pollution, less sprawl, less reliance on foreign oil.  Those are the minor benefits.  The major benefit is just this.  Life in a car is unpleasant.  You’re inside a metal box, trapped in the middle of a highway, horns honking at you outside, some idiot screaming at you on the radio inside, often stuck in one place for hours on end.  It’s one of the least pleasant experiences imaginable.  Obviously getting together with some strangers on a bus or train is better.  It allows for interaction, relaxation, and possibly even a touch of meditation.  If we don’t stick up for mass transportation, we will lose a part of our humanity.

Chesterton on the triumph in Egypt

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy.
You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.”
– G. K. Chesterton

This comes from his essay The Wind and the Trees, which is one of the all-time great essays by the world’s greatest essayist. What do wind and trees have to do with revolution and democracy? Read the essay and you’ll find out.

In any case, the principle has just been demonstrated in Egypt. Every pundit is currently busy explaining why the revolution in Egypt will lead to democracy, or why it won’t lead to democracy, or why it might lead to democracy. The fact is that Egypt already has a democracy. True, the people can’t vote yet, but they can get out in the street and make their voices heard.

For decades the Egyptian government suppressed that right, sending police to break up protests, shutting down opposition parties, and stifling the press. The Egyptian government tried to do that to this round of protests as well. The people, however, were just too numerous. Thanks to their own will power and with a small assist from the internet and various outsiders, they had the courage to get out into the streets and stage mass protests while facing down both the police and the military. It took 18 days, but eventually Mubarak was forced to step down. Democracy caused the revolution, not the other way around.

Dead blogs

I encounter a certain problem while trying to find good blogs to read. I search for a topic that I care about, such as “Chesterton” or “white water rafting” and find an interesting post. I start to think that I’ve finally found someone whose blog is worth following. Then I got to their home page and see that they haven’t posted for a year or more. It makes the search difficult and frustrating.

What’s worse still is that it’s perfectly understandable. The internet is necessarily one of the lowest priorities in a person’s life. It is entirely reasonable that someone should start a blog, post a few times, and then abandon it because they’re busy with real life, or they joined a different blog elsewhere, or perhaps they just got bored. In fact, while this is my first blog, I’ve logged on to dozens of different web communities in my life and then left after a few days or weeks. I’ll bet that you have too.

What I find really strange is that you may read this complaint about abandoned blogs on an abandoned blog. I posted this on February 9, 2011, but I have no clue when you’ll come along and read it. you may be reading it a year later, or ten years, or a hundred years. I may be dead by the time you read this.

The Super Bowl, eh?

Well, I watched the Super Bowl.  Most of it, anyway.  A friend from Charlottesville invited me to a Super Bowl Party, but I had trouble getting the directions so I arrived late and missed the entire first quarter.  The first commercial that I saw was a dreadful ad for Budweiser, in which a tough-looking cowboy walks into a town and sends everybody scurrying for cover, but he softens up and starts singing Broadway show tunes after someone gives him a beer.  Look, folks at Budweiser, it’s been done before, okay?

The commercial I liked best was a VW ad for the “21st century Beetle”, which you can view here:

This commercial actually exploits the uniqueness of the product.  The entire point of the Beetle is that it’s (a) small and (b) stylish.  This ad makes both points in just thirty seconds.  Plenty of other ads were slick but didn’t have much to do with the product.  The Kia Optima “Epic Ride” commercial or the one with the kid dressed as Darth Vader could have been used for any car.  VW actually cared enough to consider the particular merits of the car they were selling.

Other than that, what is there to say about the Super Bowl? I could write about how it’s an exercise in commercialism, how everything from the football commentary to the ads is dumbed down, how the halftime show was bland and uninspiring, how the entire thing is a sorry commentary on the state of American culture, and so forth. All of that has been covered in enough detail by others, however, so what would be the point? Gabe pointed out to be yesterday that Super Bowl Sunday is probably the fourth-most-observed holiday in the United States after Christmas, Thanksgiving, and July Fourth. I managed to convince him that New Year’s Eve probably also sneaks onto the list, thus dropping Super Bowl Sunday to fifth? (And what about Easter. Could that push it to sixth? And Valentine’s Day? Seventh?) But the point is that a lot of us watch the Super Bowl despite the fact that we enojy neither football nor corny commercials. As a result, we get overexposure to monotonous commentary, commercialism, and hypersexuality, and thus we feel a need to detoxify slightly after the game. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing by writing this.

Chesterton on God and cowslip seeds

The Holy of Holies

Elder father, though thine eyes
Shine with hoary mysteries
Canst thou say what in the heart
of the cowslip blossom lies?

Smallest of all lives that be,
Secret as the deepest see,
Stands a tiny house of seeds
Like an Elfin’s granary.

Speller of the stones and weeds,
Skilled in nature’s crafts and creeds,
Tell me what lies in the heart
Of the smallest of the seeds.

God almighty and with him
Cherubim and Seraphim
Filling all eternity.
Adonai Elohim.

– G. K. Chesterton

I remember that this was one of the first Chesterton poems I ever read, though I’d read several of his books before that time.  His ability to tie together a profound idea in simple yet highly poetical language, use perfect rhyme and meter, and wrap it up in a small but memorable package amazed me then.  It still does.

We tell children that “God is everywhere.”  It is a shorthand for communicating a complex theological concept in a way that young minds can understand, yet at the same time it is the truth.  Matt Groening needles this idea by suggestings that children should ask, “If God is everywhere, is He in the toilet?”  Well, here’s the answer: yes.  God is in the toilet, in the bowl and in the tank, in the pipes and in the valves.

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