Entry from April 15, 2005

As usual in her play on behalf of the Zeitgeist, Tina Brown turns up trumps. The very, very latest trend spotted by this inveterate trend-spotter in her column in the New York Sun (“It Shines for All”) is the attractiveness of women of a certain age — of, say, her own age — which has been hitherto overlooked by our youth-obsessed culture. Wow! Bet you never saw that one coming. And this Big New Thing, the discovery that oldies can be beautiful, is not only as a result of the advance of science to the point at which, “thanks to a closet full of new products or a lunchtime trip to the dermatologist, we now get the faces we can afford.” No, sir! You didn’t think she was that shallow, did you? It’s not just the quality and elasticity of the putty that gives new character to those old faces, it’s the beauty of experience itself. Just look at the new Duchess of Cornwall.

The best Camilla Parker Bowles moment last weekend (she writes) was not about the clothes or the wonders wrought by facials. It was at the blessing at St. George”s Chapel in Windsor Castle when we heard her posh baritone firmly “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, by thought, word and deed.” The queen reportedly once referred to Camilla as being “rather used,” but being “rather used” is what gives Camilla her edge. All that marital drama, pain and abuse in the press has been absorbed now under her feathered Philip Treacy hat. Camilla has wounds. She has memories. She has wisdom. It gives her self-confidence the subtle glow of power.

And — talk about the subtle glow of power! — Camilla is but a foreshadowing of Hillary Rodham Clinton whose “scars are spurs” that will make the electoral horse jump her right into the White House. “They won”t stop Hillary,” writes Tina. “Nothing is sexier than survival.”

Well, I can think of a few things sexier than survival — which, as the logicians would say, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of sexiness. But she may be right about old, well-used dames being trendy. And although we can quite understand why it’s sexy for a woman to have things to repent of — as Meredith Willson once wrote, “The Sadder but Wiser Girl’s the Girl for Me” — it’s not only the world’s traveling salesmen who continue to hope (and they pray) for Hester to win just one more “A.” We all must admit that there’s something charming and cool about acknowledging manifold sins and wickedness. Or at least there is if we are acknowledging them not to God but to nosy neighbors and celebrity worshipers like Tina Brown who are always prepared to grant a plenary indulgence to those who satisfy their curiosity. They do this, as we see in the passage above, by converting sin into suffering. And in the age of the victim, everyone understands that suffering is cool.

Yet sin, though not unrelated to it, is not the same as suffering. Or rather, perhaps, it is a particular kind of suffering — the purest kind. For the true consciousness of sin can brings with itself only suffering and no moral point-scoring, let alone the kind self-satisfaction that Tina Brown finds so sexy. Of course, we can hardly blame her for not spotting this rather obvious difference between true repentance and the sin of pride when the church, at least the Church of England, seems oblivious to it too. “In the eyes of the church,” writes Roxanne Roberts in the Washington Post, “Charles and Camilla deserve the respect due any married couple. They made a public confession, repented and have been forgiven. ‘They”re absolved of their sins,’ says the Rev. Daniel Webster, an Episcopal priest in Salt Lake City. Because of that, Webster says, they should now be fully embraced. ‘The reality is that none of us live perfect lives. The church is the one vehicle that offers forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption.’”

Ah, but the problem with this view of the matter was spotted long ago by one of Shakespeare’s greatest sinners, the adulterous fratricide and regicide, King Claudius of Denmark, when he tries to pray for forgiveness:

My fault is past, but, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murther”?
That cannot be, since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murther:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain th’offense?
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ‘tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law, but ‘tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature, and we ourselves compell’d
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. . .

The Church of Rome, to give it its due, still holds that one may not be pardoned and retain the offense, at least in the case of the remarriage of divorced people. We were reminded of this by more than one of the TV commentators at the Pope’s funeral the day before Charles and Camilla’s wedding, all of whom thought the fact quite as scandalous as the Church’s insistence on clerical celibacy or its refusal to ordain women. Doubtless Tina Brown feels the same. For what could be more revolting to the Priestess of Prepossession than the reflection that there can be no fixing the teeth, nor yet any beautifying of the forehead, of those faults we must give in evidence above? . . .

. . . And here’s one for my statistically-minded readers. Steven E. Landsburg in the Wall Street Journal praises Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics as having demonstrated to a fare-thee-well that “legalized abortion was the single biggest factor in bringing the crime wave of the 1980s to a screeching halt.” Not having read Mr Levitt’s book nor the “overwhelming” evidence cited by Professor Landsburg, I think this idea is mistaken. The advent of abortion was one contributory factor but only one in what seems to me to be much more likely to have been the causal agent in the decline of crime rates: the corresponding decline of fertility rates. Crime always correlates with a big bulge in the numbers of 18-34 year old males in the population, who are the ones who commit 90 per cent of the crimes. The last such bulge entered the population in the late 1960s as the baby boomers came to adulthood and started petering out in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the last of them entered their thirties. That was also the period of high crime rates, now thankfully reduced. But the price we pay for that reduction is an aging population that much smaller numbers of young people in the future will eventually have to support. It sounds almost tautological to say that the crime rate declined because the segment of the population from which the criminal classes are recruited shrunk in size, but this seems to me to be the case. Or am I wrong? Statisticians please e-mail me: james@jamesbowman.net

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