Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mt. Parnassus and Mt. Sinai

I neglected to post this last month, when school started at Highlands Latin School. It is Headmistress Opening School exhortation, available here:

Welcome parents, teachers and students to the 2014-2015 academic year.  It is a privilege to address you today at the beginning of this our fifteenth school year.  We thank God for our many blessings, for this misty fall morning, for Highlands Latin School, for our beautiful new athletic field at Spring Meadows, for a new school year, for the gift of life, the gift of children, and the gift of grandchildren.  Last year my grand-daughter who was in Kindergarten, greeted me after the Opening School Ceremony with this comment, “Nana, your speech was OK, but it was too long.”  Kindergartners, please bear with me.

In partnership with parents, and guided by the gospel, we are committed to helping students develop their intellectual gifts to the highest standards of the classical tradition.  We are committed to character and faith formation.  We are committed to helping students grow in knowledge, wisdom, and in the love of Our Lord, so that they may wisely use their gifts in the service of others and for the glory of Christ and his Church.

A Highlands Latin education is built on a strong and lasting foundation: a foundation of three universal languages, Latin, mathematics, and music; a foundation of reading the classics to develop wisdom and virtue, and the foundation of a living faith.

In the ancient world there are two mountains that symbolize classical Christian education:  Mt. Parnassus and Mt. Sinai.  In Greek mythology, Mt. Parnassus was the abode of Apollo, the great god of reason.  Climbing Parnassus came to be the metaphor for classical education, that glorious and sometimes painful journey of learning Latin and Greek.

Climbing Parnassus is an ascent up a steep and formidable mountain, where reason itself is enshrined on its snowy peaks.  It is not reaching the peak, however, but the climb itself, that molds character and develops virtue.  It is the climb itself that forms the mind and heart of the student and leaves him with a permanent imprint.  By aiming for a lofty summit, the student learns to fix his eyes upward and to always strive for excellence, for arĂȘte.

Enshrined on Mt. Sinai, on the other hand, is not human reason, but God himself.  Here is a mountain we cannot climb, a summit we cannot reach by our own efforts.  And so it was that from Mt. Sinai, God came down to us with his self-revelation, first in the Law and then in the Gospel.  It is through faith in this Revelation that we ascend the mountain of God.  Two mountains, one of ascent and the other of descent, one of human striving and the other of God’s grace.

Climbing a mountain, students, is not a race. There are no winners or losers.  It is not how far up the mountain you climb or who is first or last.  You can extend a hand down to someone who is struggling below you, and you can reach a hand up to someone who is above for help.  It is equality of effort that is the goal, not equality of results, so that each of you achieves as much as your ability and circumstances allow. As you climb your mountain this year, keep your eyes firmly fixed on these two lofty peaks, these two visions of greatness, Mt. Parnassus and Mt. Sinai.  Hold them both together as they support and defend each other, in your classical Christian education.

Students in a few moments you will be sitting in your first class of the year. Remember always to honor your parents, respect and obey your teachers, and extend a helping hand and a word of encouragement to your classmates, everyday.  Have a great year and work hard.  Strive for excellence, strive for arĂȘte.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why is UK suspending four football players for playing with a toy gun?

Four University of Kentucky of Kentucky football players have been suspended from next Saturday's game with South Carolina. Their offense?

They were playing with a toy gun. Seriously.

They were suspended for firing air-soft guns on campus. An air-soft gun is an artificial gun that fires little white pellets that, when it does hurt, hurts less than a paintball gun.

Do people get suspended from UK for paintball?

The first thing, of course, is exactly what rule they broke. There was a lot of talk about breaking the rules, but what are the rules? Here is the code according to the Lexington Herald-Leader:
The code states that punishable disciplinary offenses include “any possession or display of, or attempt, or threat to use firearms, explosive or other weapons upon University property without University authorization.”
Okay, so where does an Airsoft pistol fit in here? It's not a "firearm," nor is it an "explosive," nor does it constitute a "weapon." So how did the players violate the code? Now maybe there is some rule about triggering the UK security alert or something (there was a brief lockdown because they thought someone had a gun), but, so far, that is not what they are saying.

My theory is that they are doing this for the same reason they ban students from smoking even outside on campus where the smoke could not possibly hurt anyone: they are against guns per se.
While pellets from an air-soft gun are not as dangerous as bullets from a regular firearm, they could cause injuries, particularly if they struck someone in the face, Monroe said.
Pellets from an air-soft gun are not as dangerous as bullets from a regular firearm? Someone give this man an award for understatement. He has probably also realized that a firecracker is not as dangerous as a hand grenade.

Pretty soon the UK Police will be patrolling the campus vicinity arresting children for driving their toy fire engines without a licence.

And can they cause injuries when they strike people in the face? Of course they can. So can a lot of other things, such as, oh, I don't know, tennis balls.

That's right. Tennis balls. Tennis balls, it turns out, are not as dangerous as bullets.

In fact the UK Football team has a player just coming off an injury from a drill they did in practice wherein a tennis ball is shot at a player, who is supposed to catch it. But wide receive Jeff Badet didn't do that, and it hit his eye and caused him to miss the team's first two games.

But do we ban the throwing of tennis balls?

In fact, players can be injured doing a whole lot of things on the football field. But we don't ban any of them. So precisely what is wrong with an air-soft gun and why should players be suspended for using one?

Hebrew and Greek: Friendly or unfriendly rivals?

My new article, "Is Hebrew Better than Greek?" at Memoria Press:

One of the most common criticisms of classical education in the Christian education world is that it imports into Christian education ideas that conflict with the Biblical world view. According to this criticism, classical education tries to incorporate both Biblical/Hebraic thought and Greek thought, and in doing so unwittingly corrupts the process of Christian education and leads Christian students astray. This argument is based on the idea that there is an irreconcilable dichotomy between Biblical/Hebraic and Greek thought.

Hebrew thought, in many of these criticisms, is represented as manifestly good and Greek thought as irrevocably bad. This criticism has a long pedigree, and there are versions of it going back at least to Tertullian, an early Church father, who asked the question, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?"

While there are important distinctions to be made between the thinking of the Greeks and the Hebrews, this criticism not only oversimplifies the issue of competing world views, it fundamentally misunderstands many of these differences and draws mistaken conclusions from them. But before we draw any inferences from the differences between Greek and Hebrew thought, we should be very clear on what these differences are. And the first thing to acknowledge is that there are differences. In his book Culture and Anarchy, the great Victorian thinker Matthew Arnold talked of two rival forces, "rivals dividing the empire of the world between them":
And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism. Hebraism and Hellenism―between these two points of influence moves our world ...
Read the rest here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Culturally illiterate New York Times unaware of most basic Christian belief

I remember hearing a few years ago that a skyscraper in downtown Singapore featured, in its Christmas display, a manger scene featuring Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the seven dwarfs. Now the nation's most prestigious newspaper has stepped in it about as badly.

This is utterly priceless. The New York Times printed an article on Israeli tourism which contained a reference to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, "marking the site where many Christians believe that Jesus is buried."


The Times, apparently, is blissfully ignorant of the fact that the central belief of Christianity, a religion which boasts some 2.2 billion adherents worldwide and is intimately bound up in our own history and culture, is that Jesus was resurrected. Other than the cross itself, there is no more comprehensive symbol of Christian belief than the empty tomb.

It's sort of like not knowing that baseball involves hitting a ball with a bat or that milk comes from cows.

Here's Rod Dreher at the American Conservative on the Times' major gaffe:
I can understand someone living in Pakistan, or Sichuan province, not getting that all of Christianity, in its many versions throughout the ages, rests on the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t understand how an educated American, whatever his beliefs, can not know that. Yet that story got through several layers of editing at the Times before making it into print. It’s staggering.
As Dreher points out, it's one thing to disagree with this belief, but to simply be ignorant of it is inexcusable for the nation's most prestigious newspaper.

Read the rest here. HT: Rick Garrett at Mirror of Justice.

Yuval Levin: How today's so-called "conservatives" think like liberals

I have said more than once that we are all liberals now―either what Allan Bloom called left-wing liberals or right-wing liberals. As much as modern conservatives think they are different from the people who call themselves liberals (at least in America), they are really using the same basic philosophical playbook, which consists of worshiping the abstract rights of the choosing individual.

Every pimp and drug dealer, if he knows little else, knows at least this: "I got my rights."

For liberals this means expanding government to protect the rights of atomistic individuals; for so-called conservatives, this means contracting it. They come to different conclusions, but they use the same basic premises. They are two sides of the same coin.

If you are a conservative who is confused about what it is to be a conservative (which is most conservatives today)―or a liberal who wonders why you believe what you believe, then you need to read Yuval Levin's new article in First Things magazine: "Taking the Long Way," one of the most cogent and insightful recent essays on what it is to be a conservative--and a liberal progressive.

A sample:
For many decades now, America’s political life has been divided between people who call themselves “conservatives” and people who call themselves “liberals” or “progressives.” This suggests that Americans are moved to conserve the good we have and to champion liberty and progress, which might make us better still. These are noble aspirations. But unfortunately, the left and right alike seem confused about what liberty and progress really mean and require. Our ­conservative party is confused about what it should conserve and our liberal or progressive party is confused about what it should advance. The two are not misguided in exactly the same way, but both tend toward radically deficient visions of the life of a liberal society.
Read the rest here. It is behind a firewall, but you can buy the article online for $1.99. It will be the best two dollars you ever spent.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Step 4: The Unconditioned Reality is the Creator

In the last two steps I have departed significantly from Fr. Spitzer’s proof for the existence of God. This step, however, will closely follow the last part of his argument. In this final step, we will show that there exists a creator of all that is, and that this creator is infinite, immutable, unbounded by the laws of physics, eternal, absolutely simple, and unique.

First, some definitions:

4.1 “’Creation’ means the ultimate fulfillment of a conditioned reality’s conditions.” (Spitzer 140)

4.2 “Ultimate fulfillment” means the fulfillment of a reality’s conditions that does not itself depend on some further condition. Ultimate fulfillment may be distinguished from proximate fulfillment, in which a reality fulfills a condition in such a way that it depends upon some further condition.

4.3 “’Creator’ means the source (power or act) which ultimately fulfills a conditioned reality’s conditions.” (Spitzer 140.)

It is either the case that a reality is unconditioned or it isn’t. There is only one unconditioned reality. (3.4) Therefore, all realities other than the unconditioned reality are not unconditioned—i.e., they are conditioned.

4.4 All realities other than the one unconditioned reality are conditioned realities.

Recall the argument in Step 1. Any conditioned reality which has, as its conditions, a finite set of conditioned realities, does not exist. (1.6) Any conditioned reality that has, as its conditions, an infinite set of conditioned realities does not exist. (1.7) Therefore, a conditioned reality must have, as a condition, a reality which is not conditioned—i.e., an unconditioned reality. Furthermore, this condition is not itself conditioned, so it must be last in the series of conditions. Thus:

4.5 The unconditioned reality is the ultimate condition of all conditioned realities.

Now we are in a position to conclude that the unconditioned reality is the creator of all other realities. For the unconditioned reality is the ultimate condition of all other realities, (4.5) and the ultimate condition of a conditioned reality’s conditions is its creator. (4.2 and 4.3) Therefore:

4.6 The unconditioned reality is the creator of all other realities.

The creator of all things must continually fulfill the conditions, for if the conditioned were at some point in time unfulfilled, the conditioned reality would cease to be. (1.3) Thus, the Creator must continually sustain all other realities so long as they exist as their final condition. Thus:

4.7 The Creator continually sustains all other realities in being.

These four steps establish the truth of theism. There exists a Creator of all other realities that is not limited by space or time, is immutable and eternal, infinite, absolutely simple, and the ultimate condition for all that is.

Conclusion of the Series

In the introduction to this series I spoke of a gradation in the strength of an argument. I’ll reproduce that here:

A: Absolute certainty. No rational person could harbor any doubt, however small, as to the argument’s conclusion. 

B: Satisfactory certainty. The argument is so convincing that no rational person could be unpersuaded. A reasonable person may be able to identify some doubts about the conclusions of the argument, but those doubts are so small, and the weight of the argument so great, that it would be irrational to deny the conclusion.

C: Relative certainty. A reasonable person can be certain that conclusion of the argument is better supported than any alternative. The argument is not airtight, but it is sufficient to establish that the conclusion is superior to any alternative.

D: Reasonable disagreement. The argument is sufficiently compelling that a reasonable person could reasonably believe the conclusion of the argument to be true. It is not so compelling that it would convince any rational person.

E: Moderate support. An argument does not compel one to a conclusion, but it nevertheless furnishes grounds that supports a conclusion.

F: Bad arguments. The argument does not establish its conclusion, nor does it furnish any ground that might lead a reasonable person to think the conclusion more likely.

Every reader can, of course, assess the argument from himself or herself. In my view, the argument hovers between an A and a B. The only major empirical claim made by the argument is that something of some kind exists. The rest of the argument is deductive. The argument does not depend upon any particular scientific or philosophical theory.

Most cosmological arguments rely on either the principle of causation, the principle of sufficient reason, or both. Our argument, however, does not rely on either principle. It does not assume that the existence of things has an explanation. It simply shows that if one affirms that some reality exists, one cannot deny the existence of a single unconditioned reality, unbound by space or time, immutable, eternal, infinite, and the Creator of all that is.

The real reason the ed establishment has it out for Teach for America

Teach for America has been under recent attack by the education establishment. The ostensible reason for the criticism is that TFA teachers don't have the experience and professional training of veteran teachers whose jobs they sometimes take (TFA teachers are cheaper).

But what really galls the establishment is the fact that TFA teachers come into the classroom with only 5 weeks worth of training and do the job at least as well or better than the teachers who have gone through the professional equivalent of a lobotomy known as teachers college.

We go now to the Economist:
On September 10th a report for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of America's education department, suggested that TFA’s members excel at teaching maths (although older studies suggest they do no better than ordinary teachers at instructing children how to read). The report, which examined TFA members teaching maths in middle and high schools, found that the improved test scores of pupils were equivalent, on average, to an extra 2.6 months of school. Despite this seeming proof of TFA’s impact in classrooms, and its larger social mission, the organisation has many critics. Why? 
Says Connor Williams at the Daily Beast:
Why does alt cert attract such outsize attention? Because programs like TFA implicitly reveal the problem with the main core of U.S. teacher preparation. There’s substantial research showing that TFA teachers perform at least as well as traditionally trained teachers—and sometimes perform better.
No wonder teachers unions hate them. They show their members up. If TFA is not stopped, it could further reveal the travesty which is teacher certification in this country.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Burning Bummer: Bible censored from Banned Books Week documents

This week is Banned Books Week and once again the people who preach to the rest of us about the evils of censorship have averted their eyes to the most banned book of all: The Bible.

As in previous years, the oh so sanctimonious American Library Association has issued their top ten list of most frequently challenged books. But the one book censored by virtually all public schools didn't make the list.

Oh, wait, maybe the longer list of "Banned & Challenged Classics" will mention it in its catalog of 97 such books. But, alas, it is absent.

Surely the "100 most frequently challenged books: 2000-2009" will have it. Nope. Nor does Moses, Luke, or St. Paul make the list of "Most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century." In fact, a complete search of the "2013-2014 Books Challenged or Banned"for the term "Bible" produced the following result:
"0 document(s) with 0 instance(s)" 
Some people will argue that the Bible is not included in these reports because there have been no attempts to actively remove it from libraries or curricula because it is not included in these venues in the first place. So, in other words, it is not to be considered to be "censored" if it has already been successfully banned? Well that's convenient.

What's that word we use when people withhold a term from a document for political reasons? "Cen ...," "Cens ...," Give me a few minutes. I'll remember it.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Simplicity of God: Objections and Responses

This is a post discussing the objections to Step 2 in the ongoing series setting forth a proof on the simplicity of any unconditioned reality.


In the First Step of the argument for the existence of God, we established that if there exists any reality, there exists an unconditioned reality. That step established that if anyone asserts that something exists, but denies the existence of an unconditioned reality (i.e., a reality that is utterly independent of any other reality), one is caught in self-contradiction.

The Second Step of the argument establishes than an unconditioned reality, considered in itself, must be 1) without parts, 2) absolutely simple (i.e., it possesses no intrinsic or extrinsic boundaries and has no actual or potential incompatible states with any other reality) and 3) infinite. From the necessarily simple and infinite nature of an unconditioned reality, several other features--eternity, independence of the laws of physics, and immutability--followed.

Can an Unconditioned Reality be Spatial?

The only sustained criticism of the second step concerned the argument that an unconditioned reality cannot be composed of parts. The original post did not define the notion of a part, but a subsequent edit added that definition. The addition of the definition renders the objections raised superfluous. I do believe, however, that a quick reformulation of the argument as it relates to spatial extension will be useful.

Extended Spatial Realities Have Parts

A part is defined as:
any aspect belonging to a reality that is distinct in any way from any other aspect of that reality. (2.1a) 
The question, then, is does a spatial reality necessarily have parts?

If a spatial reality is extended, it has parts. For if A is a spatial reality, it means that some aspect of A has a distinct location from some other aspect of A. If A had no aspects that were distinct in terms of location, A would be a non-extended point. Thus, if a reality is extended, it is composed of parts.

Pure Unconditioned Reality Has No Parts

Can an unconditioned reality be composed of parts? We can distinguish two types of parts: parts upon which a reality depends and parts upon which a reality does not depend. Take a trivial example: my existence currently depends upon my brain. However, my existence does not depend upon my hair. I can go on existing if I shave my head, but I cannot go on existing without my brain. We can break the question down into two parts: can an unconditioned reality have parts upon which it depends? And can an unconditioned reality have parts upon which it does not depend?

An unconditioned reality clearly cannot have parts upon which it depends, for an unconditioned reality cannot be dependent upon any other reality. (1.1 and 1.3) Remember that a reality is defined as broadly as possible: if you can say of x either, "there is an x ..." or "it is not the case there's no such thing as x ...", x is a reality.

Can an unconditioned reality have parts upon which it does not depend? We've left the answer open: possibly it can. However, when we speak of "pure" unconditioned reality or an unconditioned reality considered in itself, we mean the unconditioned reality as it is independent of such parts. Thus, while we leave open the possibility that it might be in some sense true that an unconditioned reality might possess non-essential parts, we speak of unconditioned reality in itself as it is independently of these parts.

(Christians will obviously want to maintain that an unconditioned reality can take on non-essential parts, as it opens the way for the Incarnation.)

We can conclude from the above that an unconditioned reality, considered in itself, does not have parts. Thus, pure unconditioned reality is not spatially extended. (Note that nothing new from Step 2 has been introduced, the premises have just been shuffled to deal specifically with the issue of spatiality.)

What of Non-Extended Spatial Realities?

Yet there is one final possibility: though an unconditioned reality cannot be spatially extended, can it be a non-extended spatial reality? That is, can it be a point? We again answer no; for a non-extended reality to still be spatial, it must be in some way located spatially. It must be here instead of there. 

Yet for this to be true, such a reality depends upon the space in which it can be located here instead of there. A reality that is non-extended and not located in space would be extra-spatial. Thus, such a reality is necessarily conditioned. But no unconditioned reality can be conditioned. Therefore, no unconditioned reality can be a non-extended spatial reality.

We have established that pure unconditioned reality cannot be an extended spatial reality, and it cannot be a non-extended spatial reality. We must conclude, then, that if a reality is unconditioned, it is neither extended, nor located in space. To be neither extended nor located in space is to be extra-spatial. Therefore, a pure unconditioned reality is extra-spatial.

An Alternative Argument for Immutability and Extra-Temporality

Step Two offers an argument for the non-temporality and immutability of any pure unconditioned reality. However, there is an alternative proof that is, to my mind, even more effective.

One could rearrange the immutability and temporality premises and make the argument differently. A reality, to be mutable, must be able to change (by definition). To be able to change, a portion of the reality must be in a state of potentiality—i.e., not x but able to become x. Yet any reality, to exist at all, must be actually in some state. 

Therefore, a reality, to be changeable, must be in some respect actual and in another respect potential. Potentiality and actuality are two distinct aspects of a reality, distinguished by modality. It follows that any mutable reality has parts. But no unconditioned reality, considered in itself, has parts. Thus, no unconditioned reality is mutable. (2.4) 

Now, time is either a reality independent of other realities or an aspect of those realities. No unconditioned reality can have time as a condition. Therefore an unconditioned reality cannot essentially be in time. Nor can time be said to be an aspect of an unconditioned reality in itself, for unconditioned realities, in themselves, do not change. (2.4) An unconditioned reality is non-temporal in the sense that it does not depend upon time, does not change in time, and does not have its own time (in terms of a sequence of states).

Monday, September 15, 2014

Step 3: There Is Only One Unconditioned Reality

In the third step of our series on the existence of God, we turn to the question of whether there can be more than one unconditioned reality. In Step 1, we saw that there must be at least one unconditioned reality. In Step 2, we saw that any unconditioned reality must be absolutely simple, outside space and time, immutable, and infinite. In Step 3, we will show that there is only one unconditioned reality.

Any unconditioned reality must be absolutely simple, without any incompatible states with other realities. (2.10) Thus, if there are multiple unconditioned realities, each must be absolutely simple and none incompatible with any of the others. (2.5 and 2.10) Furthermore, they cannot be distinguished by having different boundaries, for unconditioned realities have no boundaries. (2.5 and 2.10) 

3.1 Unconditioned realities cannot be distinguished by having distinct boundaries.

But this deprives us of any way of distinguishing between different unconditioned realities.

Think of how we distinguish between things. One way to distinguish between iron and posies is that the boundaries of the former give rise to an incompatible state with the latter (inanimate as opposed to animate). Iron is a different kind of thing than a flower. Even among flowers, there are different kinds: posies are distinct from roses. These distinctions in kind arise from distinct boundaries, which gives rise to incompatible states. But we cannot distinguished unconditioned realities this way, for they have neither boundaries nor incompatible states. (2.5 and 2.10)

3.2 There are not multiple kinds of unconditioned realities.

But things of the same kind can have distinct instantiations. Say that one has two iron spheres of precisely the same size. In kind, they are the same. Nevertheless, the spheres still differ by having distinct physical boundaries: one is here, another there. Furthermore, they differ by being made of up different materials. One has these atoms, another those. Yet we cannot distinguish unconditioned realities this way, for they are not in space (2.2), nor are they material, for then they would be conditioned by the materials. (This is just another way of saying they lack boundaries.) But distinct instantiations are distinct by virtue of being in different places, composed of different entities, or otherwise having distinct boundaries. Thus we can conclude:

3.3 There are not multiple instantiations of unconditioned realities.

Yet we know that there is at least one unconditioned reality. (1.10) Thus we can conclude:

3.4 There is only one unconditioned reality.

The basic tenets of theism is that there exists a reality that is one, that is unlimited by space or time, that is eternal and immutable, absolutely simple, infinite, is unlimited by the laws of physics, and is the continuous creator of all other realities. 

You will have noticed a certain pattern: at this point, the argument I have presented has demonstrated that there exists one, and only one, unconditioned reality that is not limited by space and time, is infinite and eternal, is absolutely simple, is immutable, and is not limited by the laws of physics. There remains only one more step: to show that this reality is the continuous creator of all that is.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Step 2: The Absolute Simplicity of God (Updated)

This is the second step in a proof for the existence of God that has been the subject of an ongoing series. In the First Step, we deduced the existence of at least one unconditioned reality. This argument draws heavily on Robert Spitzer’s New Proofs for the Existence of God.

In the first step, we saw that if any reality exists—any reality at all—there must be at least one unconditioned reality. In this article, we will be drawing out the consequences of this with respect to simplicity. We will see that an unconditioned reality must be absolutely simple.

The term “simplicity” is a term of art. In common parlance, simplicity often means something like the lack of content or what is easily understood. We naturally consider “1”, for instance, to be simpler than the operation “1+1” or the number “32.” “Simplicity,” as we will use the term here, will not mean what is easy to understand or what lacks a richness of content. Simplicity will be used in an ontological sense to mean that which is without parts, boundaries, or incompatible states.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Music for Cultural Zombies: A meditation on the new U2 album

The following article has been released and is available free of charge from Vital Remnants

I was the guy at my high school who knew all the hot bands--and the ones who would be hot even though nobody knew it yet.

I remember when I had Queen's first three albums before anyone had ever heard of them and found out they were coming to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a mid-size venue for Los Angeles County. I convinced a few of my friends (who I don't think had ever heard of them) to go with me. "Killer Queen" had been a moderate hit the previous year, but that was all anyone other than me know about them. Then, about two weeks before the concert, "Bohemian Rhapsody" hit the airwaves. There we were, the only ones around with tickets.

At a reunion not too long after graduating from college, an old college roommate came up to me and said, "You know, you used to play music from all these bands that no one had ever heard of. And, a few months later, they would be really popular. "So tell me, what's going be popular next?" I don't remember what I said, but I hope it was something like, "Polka. Trust me."

Then there was the friend at my fraternity, who, upon discovering I was a wealth of knowledge of the pop music world, would grill me every time he saw me about some band or another. I was walking through the lobby of the University of California Library one day and he stopped me. "Okay, I think I've got you now." And he proceeded to formulate some question having to do with a band from Canada which was the only band that had gotten so far on the charts in America--or some such thing. "You can't possibly know that!"

I looked at him calmly, and said, "April Wine," as I turned and walked out the automatic doors, leaving him standing there dumbfounded (This is what passed for important knowledge at that time).

I'm trying to figure out how I knew all this, since, at the time, there was no Internet and very little information available on what is now the object of a whole industry. There was Circus magazine, which you could obtain at one of the few record stores around, Melody Maker, a British magazine―if you tolerate all the coverage of British bands that didn't even have American releases. And then, of course, Robert Hilburn's articles in the "Calendar" section of the Los Angeles Times.

Los Angeles was a great place to live if you liked rock music, since it was always on everyone's tour schedule. I saw a lot of bands live growing up there. Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Queen, Kiss, Yes, Peter Frampton, Bob Seger, Cheap Trick, Jackson Browne, Al Stewart, The Dictators, Rush, UFO, Talking Heads, the B-52s, the Kinks, Kenny Loggins, Journey, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Gentle Giant, Thin Lizzy, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Sparks, and Be Bop Deluxe. There were others. I saw some of them more than once.

I remember a friend of mine and I going to see Devo at the Whiskey A Go Go before they hit it big in the early 80s with "Whip It." It was also before they began performing as their own opening act at their concerts without anyone knowing about it. Before the show, my friend Wes and I had a couple hours to kill and we were walking down the Sunset Strip, seeing the sights. Wes had a T-shirt with a picture of the Tubes on it. The Tubes were a moderately popular band in the early 80s. As we were talking, a fairly tall guy walked up to Wes and said, "I like your T-shirt." It was Fee Waybill, lead singer of the Tubes. They were playing at a club down the street.

I'm thinking about all this now that I've listened to the new U2 album that is partly famous because iTunes has released it for free.

U2 is one of the few classic rock bands that is still together and writing new music. Like the Heartbreakers, who also have a new release, U2 is one of the many classic rock bands that believed in meta-narratives. They couldn't actually provide any, but they at least believed they existed. Aside from disco and other subgenres in pop music at that time that were about little other than having fun (through various means, including sex and drugs), many of the classic rock bands at least attempted to say something they thought might be significant. Most of the time they ended up trying to say too much, in which case they ended up just being pretentious (I'm thinking of Rush here).

Among the most pretentious musical events ever was, of course, the movie "Tommy," a so-called "rock opera," with music and performances by the Who. Because it was produced by a popular rock band, everyone was expected to suspend critic judgment and talk about how profound it was, a critical assessment commonly voiced by such expressions as "Oh wow" or "That was so radical" (expressions that were considered high praise among us knuckle-headed teenagers of the time).

Of course, there was nothing profound about "Tommy" at all. It wasn't really about anything--or at least anything important. But everyone was expected to think highly of it because it was the Who and the Who were cool.

The only rock act of the time that made any real sense was Alice Cooper, and that was only because his act was a Vaudevillian stage play wherein the character he played was shown going to Hell (where, incidentally, he belonged). All of it, of course, was a tongue-in-cheek. No one took Alice Cooper seriously, especially Alice Cooper: He spent half of his stage act making fun of himself, dispensing with the need for the rest of us to do it. I still consider it a favor.

And there's not much good you can say about Kiss, but at least there was no pretense to their unadulterated hedonism.

When it comes to popular culture you have to be thankful for small things. Bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis, although they never pretended to say much that was very compelling (well, maybe Pink Floyd did), their attempt to say something could at least be taken as a bow to the idea that there were things about life worth saying that had some importance in this life and, sometimes, beyond it.

They at least tried to say something big, and if they couldn't find anything particularly big to say, they said it big. In fact, the lack of any substantive message was more than made up for by the size of the show. Pink Floyd's "The Wall" tour, and virtually all the concerts of groups like Yes and Genesis (when they were led by Peter Gabriel), were huge spectacles. They were big, bold, and gaudy.

Nostalgia for metanarratives

I wonder what it says about us now that bands no longer make much of an effort to actually put on a show? Today's rock bands don't even attempt to say anything big. They have small things to say and they expend little effort in saying them.

No one writes a song like John Lennon's "Imagine" anymore, a song which evokes a wholly different world. In one sense that's good, since I can't imagine any world in which I would less like to live. I don't want to live in a world in which there is "nothing to kill or die for," or where there is "above us, only sky."

But what's worse than living in a world in which songwriters write songs about worlds that are not very good worlds is a world in which no one writes songs about other worlds at all.

We don't live in a world in which songwriters can't write such songs; we live in a world in which they won't. It's not that they can't say anything big because they don't know how; rather, it is because they don't believe there is anything big to say.

Many of the rock bands of the 70s and 80s were pretentious because what had to say was less important than they seem to think it was. Now it is considered pretentious to say anything important in the first place.

In Jean Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, he defines postmodernism as "incredulity toward metanarratives." Our culture now doesn't believe there is any one narrative in which we can all participate, but only smaller, subnarratives under which we gather only briefly and for some small comfort, before having to disperse back to our atomistic individuality. "The narrative function," says Lyotard, "is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, is great goal."

We got the world John Lennon hoped for. Unfortunately it is a world in which a song expressing hope for such a world could not be written.

What we are left with in a world without metanarratives is a world in which there is nostalgia about a world with metanarratives. Has anyone noticed the recent blizzard of shows about "the 60s"? Why are we engaged in this frenzy of nostalgia for the 60s?

I'll tell you why.

We look back longingly on the 60s because it was when John F. Kennedy announced his vision for putting a man on the Moon. It was when Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Civil Rights Crusade and the March on Washington, D.C. It was when Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society programs. there were grand causes and

What do we do now? The big, bold imaginative quest, like the Apollo program of the 60s and 70s, is too expensive, or too troublesome, or simply not realistic. It doesn't address any of our current priorities, the chief of which is what benefits me personally. The safe, comfortable little individualistic world in which we live militates against it. We got what we wanted: a bottomless pit of information and goods from anywhere on earth. We've got air conditioning microwave ovens, and wide screen TV.

Was there something else we needed? Comfort kills culture.

Our contracted imaginations are simply incapable of even formulating any kind of grand vision. And we try to find causes big enough for crusades, but they're getting harder and harder to find. All the cultural walls have been scaled. All the barriers have been broken. All the cultural landmarks have been removed.

And besides, isn't The Walking Dead coming on in a few minutes?

The best we can do is something like gay rights. But that's a poor excuse for a crusade. Despite the comparisons with Blacks, gays were never enslaved, they never had to live in separate neighborhoods or go to inferior schools or had to drink at separate drinking fountains.

Never happened.

Discrimination against gays is largely a myth. In fact, they're wealthier than everybody else on average and have political clout way out of proportion to their numbers and are celebrated at every cultural juncture by the media and entertainment industry. The only danger they are in is suffocation due to over-adulation.

The gay rights movement is nothing more than the muscle twitch of a tired, dying culture.

And then, of course, there is Woodstock. How many television specials have we had now celebrating what was, essentially, a big, over-haired, drug-induced orgy? The attempts to exalt an event in which a whole bunch of spoiled, overgrown adolescents show up and behave, well, like spoiled, overgrown adolescents are nothing short of comic. But at least if you take away the pretense of "freedom," you can see what kind of society modern liberals really want.

And if you want to see something other than old reruns of it, just go to a college coed dorm hall.

But what about space, the final frontier? It's too expensive to explore, and besides we need the money to prop up Medicare.

We can't do culture big anymore. All we can do is admire the past era in which we could. Which brings me back to the new U2 album.

What is U2's "Songs of Innocence" about? It's about nostalgia for meta-narratives. U2 is a classic rock band that has lived past its era, "chasing down the dream before it disappears," as Bono sings on the first track. To speak to the current culture it can no longer evoke the great; it must instead evoke the era in which the great could be evoked. "The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)" is not about greatness, it is about the memory of thinking things could be great.

Of course, I remember the first Ramones album. I had it before anyone else. One listen to "Blitzkrieg Bop" on the radio and I was on my way to the record store. But I grew out of it: I not only grew out of liking it, I grew out of the idea that it was worth liking.

But we live in a culture that refuses to grow up.

"The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) is Bono's nostalgic reminiscence of hearing the punk band the Ramones for the first time. It begins with an anthemic chant, much like the Ramones' cartoonish "Hey, ho, let's go" from "Blitzkrieg Bop." Then the crunching electric guitar chords, and then the oversimplistic drum beat―Ramonish fixtures all.

The Ramones were the quintessential nihilist band. They may have invented torn jeans and T-shirts of the kind that you can now buy in high-end stores for some ridiculous price, I'm not sure. From the way they visually presented themselves to how they played their instruments bespoke the philosophy of nothingness. Joey Ramone sang in a mock monotone, Dee Dee Ramone played an intentionally unremarkable bass, Tommy Ramone played pretty much the same no-frills drum beat in every song. Then there was Johnny Ramone, the guitarist of the band who bragged that his guitar playing style (such as it was) was entirely without blues influence, which was just another way of saying it was devoid of human subtlety. It was a styleless style.

And by the way, the blues thanks Johnny for disassociating himself from it.

Everything about the band evoked a senseless and sterile world in which human feeling had no context and human aspiration no place. A broken relationship was reduced to "I don't want to walk around with you," anger to "Beat on the brat (with a baseball bat)," and all the while they just wanted to be sedated. I don't want to attribute too much intelligence to the band, but knew exactly what they were doing.

And boy did it play. In modern culture the demand for nihilism is bottomless.

Rolling Stone Magazine famously designated the Ramones one of "The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time." Yes. You heard that correctly. Then again, that probably says as much about Rolling Stone as about the Ramones.

So why would Bono so admire Joey Ramone? At first you're tempted to think that the high tone of a song about something as mundane as the lead singer for a punk band is slightly comic, but when Bono sings that he "woke up at the moment when the miracle occurred/To a song that made some sense out of the world," you begin to realize that there comes a point in the lives of many people in my generation when you either grow out of the attraction for the shallow appeal of the music you listened to when you were young, or you have to take it seriously and come to terms with what much of it really is.

If the song you liked asked you to Rock and Roll All Night and Party Every Day, it's a little easier to shrug it off. You realize it is just silly and debased and you try not to think too much about it so you don't end up unconsciously whistling it all day.

But in what way did the Ramones "make sense out of the world"? You could only say that if you just accepted their nihilism outright, something Bono seems explicitly to professes when he says, "I was young, not dumb/Just wishing to be blinded/By you..."

Make no mistake, Bono knows how to fashion a lyric:
We use language so we can communicate
Religion so I can love and hate
Music so I can exaggerate my fame
And give it a name
But the irony is that the worldview championed by the likes of the Ramones is the very thing that has ended up making groups like U2 obsolete and irrelevant. U2's concerts were never quite the big productions of many other classic rock bands, but they at least wanted to be about something. They and musicians like them are less and less able to communicate to a culture that rejects the grand narratives they were once able to voice. But, hand it to them, they're smart enough to know what they are still capable of doing, which is to reminisce about the time when this could still be done.