Bodie and Jimmy Are Back

Here’s some of the dialogue I plan to include in my talk on Saturday for Mencken Day. Its title is “When America Was Great and Baltimore Knew Better.”

Scene 1:

Bodie: The radio in Philly is different?

Shamrock: N-word, please, you gotta be f-word with me. You ain’t never heard a radio station outside of Baltimore?

Bodie: Man, I ain’t never left Baltimore except that Boys Village s-word, one day, and there wasn’t no radio up in that b-word.

[Shamrock starts to hit the pre-set buttons.]

Bodie: Come on, man, you’re killin’ me.

[Shamrock tunes into Prairie Home Companion and viewers hear Garrison Keillor say, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my home town. It’s been
perfect tomato weather out there. . .]

Bodie: This a Philly station?

Shamrock: How the heck should I know?

Bodie: Why would anyone ever want to leave Baltimore? That’s what I’m askin’.

Scene 2:

McNulty: I feel like I don’t even belong to any world that even bleeping matters.

Greggs: ‘Cause you’re a cop?

McNulty: Nah, it’s not just that. It’s like, I went to meet her once; she was in a hotel room on the top floor. I punched the button on the elevator and it doesn’t even go there. You gotta have some kind of special key to even get to that special f-word floor. So I go to the front desk, some sneering f-word calls upstairs, gives me permission to go and get laid. I listen to the s-word she talks about and it’s the first time in my life I feel like a f-word doormat. Like anyone else with any smarts would do something else with his life, you know? Earn money, or … get elected. Like I’m just a breathing [sex] machine. I’m serious; I’m the smartest a-hole in three districts and she looks at me like I’m some stupid f-word playing some stupid game for stupid penny-ante stakes.

Jimmy and Bodie seem to have the same outlook that led Mencken to write this:

Human relations, in such a place, tend to assume a solid permanence. A man’s circle of friends becomes a sort of extension of his family circle. His contacts are with men and women who are rooted as he is. They are not moving all the time, and so they are not changing their friends all the time. . . . In human relationships that are so casual there is seldom any satisfaction. It is our fellows who make life endurable to us, and give it a purpose and a meaning; . . . What I contend is that in Baltimore, under a slow-moving and cautious social organization, touched by the Southern sun, such contacts are more enduring than elsewhere, and that life in consequence is more agreeable.

By the way, Machen is also part of the talk. Can you believe it?

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Old Urbanism

H. L. Mencken was so much more than an iconclast:

The chief beauty of such a town as Paris lies in the harmony visible in its architecture, and particularly in the architecture of its private buildings. Look down any of the principal streets and you will note at once that most of the houses are of a height, and, what is more, that most of them are of the same general style. In the treatment of details there remains plenty of room for individual enterprise and skill. Some houses are quite commonplace. But taken together they produce an effect of order and dignity. There are no bloody wars between Doric and Gothic, Moorish and Tudor English, the pointed arch and the mansard roof, the Corinthian column and the Byzantine minaret. Huge towers do not leap indecently from squat Greek temples. The stories of one house are not twice as high as the stories of the house next door.

Even in London, a town generally hideous, an effort at harmony is still visible. True enough, you will find huge sarcophagi shouldering pretty little Georgian houses in Pall Mall, and a saturnalia of styles in Park lane, but in most other parts of the West End every separate street, beside its virtues in detail, has some virtue as a whole. It is, in fact, a street, and not a mere hodge-podge of houses. The roofline is broken, not by leaps, but by intelligible progressions. And if we cross the Channel and proceed to such streets as the Ludwigstrasse, in Munich, we find harmony become almost perfect.

Harmony, of course, does not mean sameness. Here in Baltimore, at least in our residence sections, we have plenty of sameness. One wanders for hours through endless rows of undifferentiated houses. Citizens in liquor are constantly pulling the wrong bells, swearing at the wrong keyholes. It is difficult, so I hear, even for a teetotaler to find his house on foggy nights; the wine-bibber, in despair, frankly gives it up and so stays down town. But that ugly and depressing monotony is not harmony–no more, indeed, than the beating of a tom-tom is music. Harmony means the agreeable co-ordination of distinct but related details. It is important that they have elements in common, but it is also important that they have elements not in common.

Such harmony is rare in Baltimore. South street, for example, which might well have had character and beauty, for its builders did not lack money, is unspeakably and amazingly ugly. It has beautiful details, true enough, but the general effect is cacophonous and repulsive. So with Baltimore street, Lexington street, Hopkins Place. Even Mount Vernon Place, for all its charm, is still chaotic and disturbing. The serene dignity of a London square is not in it: the war between its antagonistic details is too savage and too noisy.

If Department of Justice Had only Watched “The Wire”

Peter Moskos continues to dissect the Department of Justice’s report on the Baltimore Police Department. It sounds just like the HBO series:

The system has several key deficiencies. First, BPD sets thresholds of activity that trigger “alerts” to supervisors about potentially problematic conduct that are too high. Because of these high thresholds, BPD supervisors often are not made aware of troubling behavioral patterns until after officers commit egregious misconduct. Second, even where alerts are triggered, we found that BPD supervisors do not consistently take appropriate action to counsel the officer, consider additional training, or otherwise intervene in a way that will correct the behavior before an adverse event occurs. Third, critical information is omitted or expunged from the EIS that could help address officer training or support needs or help prevent future misconduct.

It is clear that the Department has been unable to interrupt serious patterns of misconduct. Our investigation found that numerous officers had recurring patterns of misconduct that were not adequately addressed. Similarly, we note that, in the past five years, 25 BPD officers were separately sued four or more times for Fourth Amendment violations.

Minus the sex, of course:

Officers suffer from being supplied with outdated, broken, or in some cases, no equipment. As one officer noted to the Fraternal Order of Police in a focus group, “How am I supposed to pull someone over for having a taillight out when my car has two?”

Officers have no computers in their cars, forcing them to return to the district station to type reports, and even those computers are often not working…. Taking officers off the street to type reports at the district takes away from time that could be spent on law enforcement or community building activities. It also creates inefficiencies for officers who often must write reports on paper in the field while their memories of incidents are fresh, and then type the same information into computer databases after arriving at the district station at the end of their shift.

Machen Day 2016: Before Jimmy and Bunk

My father, who died in 1915 at the age of eighty-eight, and my mother, who died in 1931 at the age of eighty-two, were both Christians; from them I learned what Christianity is and how it differs from certain modern substitutes. I also learned that Christian conviction can go hand in hand with a broad outlook upon life and with the pursuit of learning.

My father was a lawyer, whose practice had been one of the best in the State of Maryland. But the success which he attained at the bar did not serve in the slightest to make him narrow in his interests. All his life he was a tremendous reader, and reading to him was never a task. I suppose it never occurred to him to read merely from a sense of duty; he read because he loved to read. He would probably have been greatly amused if anyone had called him a “scholar”; yet his knowledge of Latin and Greek and English and French literature (to say nothing of Italian, which he took up for the fun of it when he was well over eighty and was thus in a period of life which in other men might be regarded as old age) would put our professional scholars to shame. . . .

He was a profoundly Christian man, who had read widely and meditated earnestly upon the really great things of our holy faith. His Christian experience was not of the emotional or pietistical type, but was a quiet stream whose waters ran deep. He did not adopt that “Touch not, taste not, handle not” attitude toward the good things or the wonders of God’s world which too often today causes earnest Christian people to consecrate to God only an impoverished man, but in his case true learning and true piety went hand in hand. Every Sunday morning and Sunday night, and on Wednesday night, he was in his place in church, and a similar faithfulness characterized all his service as an elder in the Presbyterian church. At that time the Protestant churches had not yet become political lobbies, and Presbyterian elders were chosen not because they were “outstanding me [or women] in the community,” but because they were men of God. I love to think of that old Presbyterian session in the Franklin Street Presbyterian Church of Baltimore. It is a refreshing memory in these days of ruthless and heartless machinery in the church. God grant that the memory may some day become actuality again and that the old Christian virtues may be revived! (J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity in Conflict,” Selected Shorter Writings, 548, 549)

Do We Need Transcendence to Plow Streets?

Neo-Calvinist praise from David Koyzis for Bruce Ashford’s contention that political liberals and political conservatives both lack transcendence:

Politics in the United States has, for some time, assumed a binary structure. On one side stand the Republicans, who represent conservatism. On the other side stand the Democrats, who represent progressivism. But what most Americans fail to see is that conservatism and progressivism are similar in one significant respect. Both ideologies are “moving targets” that lack transcendent norms, which leads to a nearly endless variety of social ills. It may, at times, be appropriate to be conservative, and at others progressive. But when these designations become normative, they become idolatrous.

This sort of observation seems to be tone deaf to the religious inflection of contemporary politics. Just remember all the national exceptionalism that appeals to the United States’ special (read divine) role in world affairs.

But this way of looking at politics also seems to be oblivious to the actual stuff of civic life, namely, ordinary affairs as opposed to supernatural aspirations. Would transcendence, for instance, really resolve the snow-removal crisis in Baltimore (thanks to our Pennsylvania correspondent)?

In Harford County, residents complained that their online snow tracker went dark overnight. Baltimore County officials fielded complaints from constituents who remained snowbound Monday. And some residents in Anne Arundel and Carroll counties griped about the pace of the cleanup.

But many residents also said they gained a greater appreciation for how their tax dollars are spent to carry out one of government’s most essential functions: keeping the roads functioning.

Facebook pages for nearly all of the area’s jurisdictions lit up with complaints and compliments for how snow removal crews were progressing.

For their part, elected officials don’t shy from public appearances during major storms, promising a diligent response and hoping to win political currency. And in Maryland, voters are typically more forgiving of any failures, said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist.

Not so where major snow events are more common. Crenson pointed to Michael Bilandic, mayor of Chicago in the late 1970s when a blizzard crippled that city for months.

“His snow removal efforts were so feeble he lost the next election,” Crenson said. Maryland voters “are likely to give their elected officials a pass.”

I understand the appeal of thinking the Lordship of Christ will fix what ails fallen life. After all, Christ is the great fixer. But sometimes, when Protestants or conservatives invoke divine or philosophical categories as the cure for political woes, I can’t help but think they have missed the point of politics.

The Omar Effect

Will I be the only American to sense the insult that may lurk behind Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.? While Ross Douthat considers the Francis effect, let’s not forget about Omar Little who worked the streets of Baltimore, the city that was the capital of American Roman Catholicism for its first 125 years at least. (Can you say Baltimore Catechism? Sure you can.)

Rorate Caeli has a set of images of the churches that Pope Francis will visit while in the U.S. But what about this one, the original Roman Catholic cathedral in the U.S.:
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Of course, a visit like this has lots of symbolism. I was relieved to see that discussion of Pope Francis arriving in the U.S. by way of a Mexican-border crossing fizzled. I imagine that photo-op went no where once adults in the room figured out how much security it would take for the pope to identify with Mexicans seeking entry to the U.S. How strange might it have appeared to have 8 to 10 black SUVs along side the pope’s little white Fiat crossing from Mexico into Texas from the town of Sarita (just north of Laredo)? Would the SUV’s have to put the papal Fiat on a flatbed to cross the river? Some are not convinced, though, that the pope is immune to posing for cameras.

Still, imagine the two-fer that Pope Francis could have executed had he spent one more day in the United States and visited a city rich in Roman Catholic history. After all, Baltimore is only 40 miles north of D.C., and only 100 south of Philadelphia. He could have honored those Roman Catholics of English descent, like John Carroll, the first American archbishop who organized Roman Catholicism in the new nation. And he could have scored points by identifying with the mourners of Freddie Gray’s death and the many others who have protested the brutality of urban police against African-Americans.

Missing an opportunity like that suggests a pontiff that knows not life in the United States. We get our first Bishop of Rome from the Americas and he turns out to be — well — European.

Reality Wins

Is it merely coincidental that the day that Nancy Pelosi tries to gain the upper Roman Catholic hand on Marco Rubio is also the day that Jason Stellman (of Bryan and the Jasons) announces he is throwing in the towel?

Here‘s Nancy on the Roman Catholic mainstream:

I thoroughly disagree (with Rubio’s opposition to gay marriage), being raised in a Catholic family, raising a Catholic family, mainstream Catholic – well, the Baltimore catechism, to get back to our hometown of Baltimore, was what we were raised on. And I think that this statement by Senator Rubio is most unfortunate. It’s a polarizing statement. The fact is, is that what we’re taught was to respect people in our faith and to say that this endangers mainstream Christian thinking is so completely wrong.

Does Jason sound here like he understands he’s in the Roman Catholic fringe?

While my days as an official apologist for the faith are over, my faith is still very much alive (albeit expressed differently nowadays).

It’s been a wild ride, and I’d like to say I will miss blogging at Creed Code Cult, but my feelings are mixed. I took a lot of abuse here, but I also handed out my share of it. In many ways the interaction I have had in these pages reflects the very best and very worst of me. To those I have offended, been impatient with, or smug toward, please accept my sincere apology. Grace should be received with grace, and I have received freely, and so desire to freely give.

Postscript: when Jason writes, “When ideas eclipse people, and when being right obscures being loving, everyone loses. Love God and love your neighbor. This is the Law and the Prophets,” wouldn’t that have been a reason to remain Presbyterian?

Ben Carson vs. Martin O'Malley — Please

This story about the faith of presidential candidates leads me to propose an alternative. First, a glimpse of the article:

This season’s crop of presidential candidates reflects this country’s many contradictions in faith. A minority of them have stuck with their first church. Hillary Clinton has always been a devout Methodist—her only conversion was from Goldwater Girl to ’60s liberal under the tutelage of her suburban Chicago pastor, Don Jones, who took his youth group to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak. Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and minister, has never strayed from his Baptist roots—his latest book is called God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. Santorum has always been Catholic; he tells Newsweek his faith was invigorated while he was in the Senate, owing to factors like his parish priest in Northern Virginia, his experiences of fellowship in the Bible Study Group in the Senate and his wife’s deep faith.

Ben Carson, the renowned neurosurgeon, hews closely to Seventh-day Adventist teachings, which include observing the Sabbath on Saturday and a literal belief in creationism. (He allows that Earth may have been formed over six “periods,” but insists that however long it took, it was God and not a Darwinian struggle that made us who we are.) Carson says his faith strengthened when he had an epiphany as a teenager that took him off a path he believed was headed to prison and onto one that made him the pride of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. (He’s famous for pioneering an operation to separate twins joined at the back of the head.)

The alternative is an all The-Wire 2016 presidential contest. Many know that Martin O’Malley, the basis for Tommy Carcetti, the white mayor elected in the fourth season, announced his entrance into the Democratic primaries. If only because I hope O’Malley’s presidency might inspire David Simon to do a The-Wire version of West Wing, I am going to vote for O’Malley should he gain the nomination. But I also will be pulling for Ben Carson. The reason is that the African-American public school students featured in season four — which my wife and I just finished for the ?? time — mention Carson at least twice as the person they want to be when they grow up. And that was a decade ago.

Plus, could the timing be any better for the release of a religious biography of Baltimore’s greatest writer?

Where are B-s Detectors When You Need Them?

AJ reminds via Saul Bellow that New York City is good at business but not at culture:

New York is a publishing center, the business center of American culture. Here culture is prepared, processed and distributed. Here the publishers with their modern apparatus for printing, billing, shipping, editing, advertising and accounting, with their specialized personnel, wait for manuscripts. Their expenses are tremendous so they cannot afford to wait too long; they must find material somewhere, attract writers or fabricate books in their editorial offices. New York, of course, includes Washington and Boston. Some of its literary mandarins actually live in Cambridge, in New Haven, Bennington, New Brunswick, Princeton; a few are in London and Oxford. These officials of high culture write for the papers, sit on committees, advise, consult, set standards, define, drink cocktails, gossip — they give body to New York’s appearance of active creativity, its apparently substantial literary life. But there is no substance. There is only the idea of a cultural life. There are manipulations, rackets and power struggles; there is infighting; there are reputations, inflated and deflated. Bluster, vehemence, swagger, fashion, image-making, brain-fixing — these are what the center has to offer…. New York, then, is not the literary capital of America. It is simply the center of the culture business. It manufactures artistic lifestyles for the American public.

Maybe real transformation needs to happen somewhere other than New York City, or perhaps a papal encyclical will turn Wall Street into a Catholic Worker House of Hospitality.

And to pile on, here’s why H. L. Mencken made money in New York’s publishing business but spent his earnings in Baltimore:

What makes New York so dreadful, I believe, is mainly the fact that the vast majority of its people have been forced to rid themselves of one of the oldest and most powerful of human instincts – the instinct to make a permanent home. Crowded, shoved about, and exploited without mercy, they have lost the feeling that any part of the earth belongs to them, and so they simply camp out like tramps, waiting for the constables to rush in and chase them away. I am not speaking here of the poor (God knows how they exist in New York at all!); I am speaking of the well-to-do, even of the rich. The very richest man, in New York, is never quite sure that the house he lives in now will be his next year — that he will be able to resist the constant pressure of business expansion and rising land values. I have known actual millionaires to be chased out of their homes in this way, and forced into apartments. In Baltimore, too, the same pressure exists, to be sure, but it is not oppressive, for the householder can meet it by by yielding to it half way. It may force him into the suburbs, even into the adjacent country, but he is still in direct contact with the city, sharing in its life, and wherever he lands he may make a stand. But on Manhattan Island he is quickly brought up by the rivers, and once he has crossed them he may as well move to Syracuse or Trenton. (“On Living in Baltimore” 1926)

You Don't Need to be David Simon to Know that Arcade Fire Does Not Play Jazz

But watching Treme will help.

The missus and I have finished season three of Simon’s latest HBO series and it holds up even if it is not as good (to all about me) as The Wire. Both series are about medium-large historic American cities under siege — drugs in The Wire’s Baltimore and hurricane Katrina in Treme’s New Orleans. The characters in both are grizzled survivors, not victims, who don’t get any help from large bureaucratic organizations — police, city government, federal government — to assist their struggle to survive. In fact, the organizations that are supposed to play umpire so that bad people don’t profit from others’ suffering are either inept or have palms out positioned to be greased by profiteers.

Unlike The Wire, Treme is missing the cops/murder mystery dimension. Originally I was not interested in The Wire because I figured it would be another gussied up cop show — Hill Street Blues for the new millennium. But I was wrong. The legal dimension of the show always supplied a story line, which in turn helped to make sense of the Dickensian set of characters that come and go. It led me to conclude that “the law makes it better,” meaning, without the clear sense of injustice in pursuit of resolution through justice, arguably the narrative that holds this here planet earth in some place of cosmic meaning, a show like Treme wanders. In season three, legal aspects of Treme receive more prominence and drama heightens as a result. But this viewer has a hard time understanding what holds all the characters’ lives together other than the city.

Of course, the one prominent feature of Treme that might yield coherence — more in the form of a documentary — is music. If I were a fan of jazz I might enjoy the series more, but usually during every episode I say to my wife, much to her annoyance, “too much music.” A constant battle in the show is that between authentic New Orleans music, which includes jazz (in various forms) and zydeco for starters, and the tourists who know nothing about music and come to town to hear celebrity acts that are distant from the city’s musical heritage. Again, I don’t know enough music to weigh in on any of this, but the show did allow me to discern that Bruce Springsteen and Christina Aguilera, who recently appeared at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, were likely there because of folks trying to profit from a national perception of the city rather than because they represent anything indigenous to New Orleans or Louisiana.

Christina Aguilera! Really?