The Public Square
Copyright (c) 1998 First
Things 83 (May 1998): 63-79.
And Now for Something Not Very Different:
It comes in three fat volumes published by Blackwell, The Rise of
the Network Society. A thoughtful cardinal friend put me on to it while
we were in Rome participating in the Synod for America. The author is sociologist
Manuel Castells, a Spaniard now at Berkeley who has over the years taught
at universities from Paris to Hong Kong to Hitotsubashi. Virtual reality,
according to Castells, is old hat. The new and totally revolutionary thing
is real virtuality. The new digitized world, says Castells, segments markets
and breaks up the uniformity of a mass audience. "These processes
induce the formation of what I call the culture of real virtuality. It
is so, and not virtual reality, because when our symbolic environment is,
by and large, structured in this inclusive, flexible, diversified hypertext,
in which we navigate every day, the virtuality of this text is in fact
our reality, the symbols from which we live and communicate."
This is intelligible Marshall McLuhan, he of "the medium is the
message" fame. More intelligible, but not necessarily more persuasive.
Illustrating what he means by "hypertext," Castells cites Dan
Quayle’s 1992 criticism of Murphy Brown’s deciding to have a baby, followed
by the next television episode showing Murphy Brown watching Quayle’s criticism
and railing against his interference with the choices that women make.
Here is what Castells makes of that: "The unsolicited presence of
Murphy Brown’s imaginary world in the real life presidential campaign induced
the transformation of Quayle (or rather of his ‘real’ television image)
into a character of Murphy Brown’s imaginary life: a supertext had been
made, blending in the same discourse passionately argued messages emitted
from both levels of experience. In this case, virtuality (that is Murphy
Brown being in practice what many women were, without being so in the name
of any woman) had become real, in the sense that it actually interacted,
with some significant impact, with the process of election to the most
powerful political office on earth."
This is the kind of thing that helps explain why sociology departments
are being shut down in our better universities. The commonsensical telling
of the story is that Dan Quayle criticized the Murphy Brown program for
encouraging wrongheaded behavior, and the Murphy Brown program attacked
Dan Quayle as an oppressive prude. There is no evidence that the episode
contributed to the defeat of the Bush-Quayle ticket, and at least one person
close to the campaign tells me it helped the Republicans. Whether it helped
or hurt, all but the thoroughly unhinged recognized that what happened
is as old as the orator who puts an empty chair on the stage and proceeds
to make sport of his opponent. It is not helpful to call the imagined opponent
in the empty chair a "hypertext" or to say that we are witnessing
an instance of real virtuality. We are witnessing an age-old instance of
the games people play in order to make (usually unfairly) a point. What
Castells also fails to point out is that a few years later almost everybody
agreed that Barbara Whitehead was right when she wrote her famous article
in the Atlantic Monthly, "Why Dan Quayle Was Right." The
supposedly media-sotted public was quite capable of perceiving the difference
between reality and the clever games of a television sitcom.
"The inclusion of most cultural expressions within the integrated
communication system based on digitized electronic production distribution,
and exchange of signals, has major consequences for social forms and processes."
Castells goes on to say what all this means for religion. It is true that
religion can employ the new communications system, but: "By having
to concede the earthly coexistence of transcendental messages, on-demand
pornography, soap operas, and chat-lines within the same system, superior
spiritual powers still conquer souls but lose their suprahuman status.
The final step of secularization of society follows, even if it sometimes
takes the paradoxical form of conspicuous consumption of religion, under
all kinds of generic and brand names. Societies are finally and truly disenchanted
because all wonders are on-line and can be combined into self-constructed
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Or so it seems to me. The disenchantment of the
world is what worries the cardinal, and was the theme of his eloquent intervention
at the Synod. Many years ago Max Weber disseminated the message of a world
that had been disenchanted under the pressures of science and specialization,
but I would suggest that today we are witnessing the re-enchantment of
the world. Certainly this is the case in the hard sciences that are taking
an "anthropic" turn in disclosing the "irreducible complexity"
of a world wondrously designed for a purpose. These developments are winsomely
described in Patrick Glynn’s recent book God: The Evidence—The Reconciliation
of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World (Prima Publishing). All
generalizations creak under too much weight, but "postsecular"
captures the tenor of our times much more adequately than "the final
step of secularization."
And why should a prince of the Church, of all people, fret about the
gospel message conceding "the earthly coexistence of transcendental
messages"? Christians, and Catholic Christians in particular, have
always understood that we live in a world of signs and symbols that do
not themselves have a "suprahuman status" but are effective signals
of transcendence. They are the sacraments and the words of the Word. And
it is hardly new that the gospel must contend against contradictory signs
Cassells writes that "the new communication system radically transforms
space and time, the fundamental dimensions of human life. Localities become
disembodied from their cultural, historical, geographic meaning, and reintegrated
into functional networks, or into image collages, inducing a space of flows
that substitutes for the space of places." I don’t have quotations
readily at hand, but I know I have read in the history books almost exactly
the same things being said upon the advent of the telegraph, the telephone,
radio, and television.
Please don’t get me wrong. I do not doubt for a minute that there are
nerds surfing the Internet for whom that is a world more "real"
than family, friends, or ingrown toe nails. That, too, is nothing new,
as witness Walker Percy’s marvelous novel of a long time ago, The Moviegoer.
Nor do I deny that someday the technology of "virtual reality"
may be developed to the point where even the less neurotic will have difficulty
in differentiating between reality and the images produced. But that day
is not now, and our hype about the revolutions being worked by the media
can only produce its own sense of unreality. Communicating the truth amidst
the cacophony of untruths on sale has never been easy. We will not get
any better at it by blaming the media. In fact, the undoubted segmentation
of media markets—for instance, the Internet, CD-ROMs, and five hundred
channels of television—create stunning opportunities for the concentrated
communication of the truth. That the story of salvation is only one mouse
click away from designer pornography is but another instance of God’s unlimited
condescension in becoming man.
Meanwhile, the ten year old who has watched hours of television every
day still turns to her mother and asks, "Is that just television or
is that true?" Just as the father in the dark of night picks up the
little boy who is having a nightmare and tells him everything is all right.
The little boy holds on tight, dries his tears, and is immeasurably grateful
to have been returned to "the real world." Whenever things like
that happen, they ward off the nightmares of virtual reality and real virtuality,
and we know again that the world is enchanted. Castells is wrong to think
that religion, at least Christian religion, is about things of "suprahuman
status," and that the loss of that status is the opposite of religion,
called secularization. The Christian truth is the most secular of things—sicut
erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum.
It is the world that is charged with the grandeur of God (Hopkins) and
man who is the cantor and caretaker of creation (Heschel)—a creation of
wonder that evokes and ever transcends all our wondering. The enemies of
wonder we will have always with us, and some will come with erudite theories
and intimidating jargon to announce, ever so reluctantly, the end of wonder.
They should not impress those who know that "the Word became flesh
and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the only son
of the Father."
Remembering the Holocaust
"We Remember," the Vatican statement on the Holocaust published
in this issue, is tightly packed and bears very close reading. The New
York Times editorial on the subject also bears close reading. "Critics
contend," say the editors, "that Pius XII’s silence was a form
of collaboration, inspired by anticommunism and the Church’s anti-Jewish
traditions." The editors leave no doubt they sympathize with, if they
do not entirely agree with, that contention. This despite the fact that
numerous Jewish voices, including the Times, praised Pius XII’s
outspokenness during World War II. All that changed with Rolf Hochhuth’s
1963 play, The Deputy. The editors now write that the Vatican statement
"offers evidence of church efforts to save Jews and recalls the thanks
Pius received from Jewish leaders. It is regrettable that the Vatican has
not yet found the courage to discard this defensive, incomplete depiction."
The editors find nothing out of the way in the presumption that they
are conducting the trial and the Catholic Church is in the dock. They constitute
themselves as prosecutor, judge, and jury in a way that is wonderfully
insouciant. One might be permitted to ask when the Times will find
the courage to acknowledge that its star reporters such as Walter Duranty
and Herbert Matthews served as Communist shills in systematically covering
up the massive atrocities of Marxist-Leninism. But of course to this very
day, after no less than 100 million killings by Communists, "anticommunism"
is still a term of opprobrium in the lexicon of the New York Times.
One might even ask the Times about its own silences while the Holocaust
was happening, and before that when Jews were desperately trying to get
into the United States.
The editorial’s supercilious conclusion is noteworthy: "It now
falls to John Paul and his successors to take the next step toward full
acceptance of the Vatican’s failure to stand squarely against the evil
that swept across Europe. With its repudiation of anti-Semitism, the new
document provides a useful starting point." Now isn’t that nice, the
editors pat the Church on the head for taking a first step. To "stand
squarely" against Nazism apparently means that the Vatican should
have become a belligerent and declared war on Germany. There was, of course,
the inconvenient fact of Italy’s alliance with Germany and later occupation
by Nazi forces.
The editors are quite explicit in their criticism of Pius XII: "He
did not encourage Catholics to defy Nazi orders." And what if he had
done what the Times says he should have done? The Hitler government
would have correctly declared the Catholic Church, also in Germany, to
be an enemy power and faithful Catholics to be guilty of treason. Does
anybody in his right mind believe that would have helped save the lives
of Jews, or anybody else?
Perhaps Piux XII could and should have done other than he did. We can
argue about that, and I assume God has already rendered judgment. But one
cannot help but be struck by the contrast between the editorial of the
Times, so smug and simplistic, and the Vatican statement’s recognition
of the complexity of moral judgment about people caught in the tentacles
of great evil. "We Remember" is subject to legitimate criticism,
and we will be returning to that in these pages, but it evinces a humility
that comes from an awareness of sin and grace, of historical ambiguity,
and of both human frailty and grandeur — an awareness entirely missing
from the self-righteous carping of the Times and some other, mainly
Jewish, critics. Fortunately, other responses, including Jewish responses,
to the Vatican statement demonstrate a greater humility and sophistication
about the complexities of human action.
The Case of the Uppity Nun
Mother Angelica is, as they say, a piece of work. Her Eternal Word television
and radio enterprise (EWTN)has become a veritable empire that is said to
reach fifty-four million homes in the U.S. and uncounted others in thirty-four
countries. She is a woman of definite views, and last November she definitely
did not like a pastoral letter on liturgy issued by Roger Cardinal Mahony
of Los Angeles. She went on the air to criticize it as a mish-mash of liberal
platitudes that sacrificed the mystical to the sociological and came close
to denying the real presence of Christ in the Mass, concluding her review
with the statement that faithful Catholics owe "zero obedience"
to the Archbishop. The Archbishop let it be known that he was not amused,
and Mother said she regretted the zero obedience crack but then went on
to expand and deepen her critique of the pastoral letter.
Now, according to the spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Father
Gregory Coiro, Mahony has taken his unhappiness with EWTN to the Vatican.
"The Cardinal wants the Holy See to do something about Mother Angelica’s
whole attitude that she is not responsible to the National Conference of
Catholic Bishops or to any of the individual bishops," says Coiro.
"It goes beyond her criticism of the Cardinal—it’s about how the network
operates and to whom it is accountable." The phenomenal success of
EWTN has long been a sore point with some bishops. Some years ago the bishops
conference raised from the faithful millions of dollars to launch a Catholic
television network and it turned out a complete cropper. Then up crops
from Birmingham, Alabama, this nun with an attitude who, with a secondhand
camera and a prayer, builds a media network that sweeps the field. Just
who does she think she is?
Cardinal Mahony wrote her last December, "When a network features
programs that attack and criticize its own bishops publicly, how can that
build up the body of Christ, the Church?" Mother Angelica is of the
view that criticizing bishops or anyone else who misrepresents the faith
is indeed a service to the Church. While generally opposed to clericalism,
Cardinal Mahony apparently tends to the view that it is for bishops and
not for upstart nuns to present Catholic truth in public. Fr. Coiro says
the Cardinal has invoked canon law, specifically Canon 753, which says
that Catholics are forbidden to show disrespect to bishops and specifies
that only the Holy See may correct a bishop’s teaching. Canon 1373, he
continues, provides for "just penalties" for those who break
the rules, including the penalty of imposing an interdict, which could
mean denying the sacraments to Mother Angelica and her coconspirators.
Mother, it should be noted, has a record of not being intimidated by
clericalist threats. At a conference a couple of years ago, she is said
to have refused to interview several bishops on EWTN and they questioned
her authority to turn them down. "I own the network," she explained.
The bishops said she wouldn’t always be around to call the plays. "Well,"
she offered in further explanation, "I’ll blow the damn thing up before
you get it." As to what Cardinal Mahony expects from the Vatican,
Fr. Coiro says, "Is he looking for Rome to slap an interdict on EWTN,
which technically would be justified under the circumstances? Probably
not, though I wouldn’t rule it out. But what other options are being explored,
I don’t know."
This is somewhat surprising since the Los Angeles Archdiocese under
Cardinal Mahony is famed for its hospitality to dissenters from magisterial
teaching and its seemingly unlimited devotion to nonjudgmental dialogue
with a wide diversity, indeed a glorious mosaic, of views espoused by Catholics.
Surely this openness might be extended also to Mother Angelica. His official
spokesman notwithstanding, it is simply not credible that a cardinal who
is so very tolerant of theologians who call for zero obedience to the Pope
wants Rome to slap an interdict on a nun who presumes to criticize him.
That could, no doubt unfairly, expose him to the charge of being, among
other things, inconsistent.
Le Livre Noir du Communisme (The Black Book of Communism) is,
as we have noted before, causing quite a storm among French intellectuals,
who love nothing more than storms. Put Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and the Communist
bunch together and they killed, by conservative estimate, at least 100
million people. Everybody knew that, or should have known that. The Black
Book has raised hackles by insisting that the murderous intent was there
from the beginning, that the evil is inseparable from the ideology. For
instance, by March 1918, when it had been only five months in power, Lenin’s
Bolshevik regime had deliberately killed more of its political opponents
than Czarist Russia killed in the entire preceding century.
But fur really began to fly over the Black Book’s claim that the evil
of communism was equal to, and in some ways greater than, that of Nazism.
The Nazis, admittedly in a much shorter time, killed some twenty-five million,
if one includes a war against the democracies that were allied with the
Prof. Tony Judt of New York University tries to sort matters out in
the Times. "Nazis applied ‘special treatment’ to the useless
people they murdered, Communists ‘liquidated’ those whom history, in their
eyes, had already condemned," he writes. "The road to Communist
hell," he continues, "was undoubtedly paved with good (Marxist)
intentions. But so what? In the words of the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone,
revolutions—like trees—are known by their fruits." (Jesus said something
similar about trees and fruits.) Good intentions? Really? Even with the
qualifying parenthesis? One doubts Mr. Judt would say that the road to
Hitler’s hell was undoubtedly paved with good (Nazi) intentions.
Even generally sensible people have a hard time shaking the leftist
virus that leads them to insist that there was something "idealistic"
about the Communist catastrophe. "Liberals in a hurry," and all
that. Mr. Judt finally cannot abide the Black Book’s conclusion that Communist
sympathizers are as guilty as Nazi sympathizers. He does say that "in
the sorry story of our century, communism and Nazism are, and always were,
morally indistinguishable." But he cannot leave it at that.
He then introduces an "analytical" factor that cannot help but
bear on the moral judgment. "But if we are not to wallow in helpless
despair when it comes to explaining why it came to this, we must keep in
view a crucial analytical contrast: there is a difference between
regimes that exterminate people in the inhuman pursuit of an arbitrary
objective and those whose objective is extermination itself."
First, who is it that is in danger of wallowing in helpless despair?
Presumably those who, in one way or another, sympathized with or supported
communism. For them, as for those who were favorably disposed to Nazism,
there is an alternative to wallowing in despair: contrition, confession,
and repentance. Second, is the "difference" between Nazism and
communism that the former killed for the sake of killing while the latter
killed to achieve "an arbitrary objective"? However arbitrary
(meaning mad), the Nazis, too, had an objective: a racially and ideologically
pure super-nation that would dominate world history in a Thousand Year
Reich. Mr. Judt, like so many others, cannot recognize that as an objective,
no matter how "arbitrary." On the other hand, his argument betrays
a still lingering sympathy for the Marxist objective of a dictatorship
of the proletariat ushering in the utopian dream of a classless and stateless
society. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists believed that their objective
was "extermination itself." Their mass murders were not, as is
commonly said, senseless. The actions of both made "sense" in
the context of the objectives they were pursuing. Their objectives, and
the means employed to achieve those objectives, were equally evil.
Why does someone as thoughtful as Tony Judt say that these causes were
morally indistinguishable and then feel the need to quickly vitiate
that judgment by saying they were analytically different? Sloppy
thinking is one answer. The more important answer is that—in France, the
U.S., and elsewhere—it is simply intolerable to acknowledge that Communist
sympathizers are as guilty of complicity in mass murder as are Nazi sympathizers.
Anyone who is exposed as having sympathized with Hitler is, understandably,
a pariah excluded from any position of influence. By way of sharpest contrast,
those who throughout their careers urged sympathy and understanding for
Lenin, Stalin, and Mao occupy endowed chairs in our most distinguished
universities and positions of highest influence in the media, think tanks,
and churches of our nation.
That apologists for communism are as morally culpable as apologists
for Nazism is a truth that, if honestly acknowledged, would exact too high
a price from our several establishments. That is the truth convincingly
set forth by Le Livre Noir du Communisme, and it is as unacceptable
to intellectuals here as in France. Indeed the truth is harsher than that.
Nazism was in power for twelve years. Until 1941 and even later, almost
nobody, including the great majority of Jews in Germany and elsewhere,
thought that Hitler was really set upon a course of mass extermination.
In the 1930s there was a widespread disillusionment with the decadence
of the democracies. The German economy and national self-confidence were
revived; in Italy the trains ran on time, or so it was claimed; and Mussolini
and Hitler looked like the wave of the future. Although much more was known
by people who seriously wanted to know, the Holocaust, when it did happen,
was largely hidden by the exigencies of world war.
Communism, on the other hand, conducted a reign of terror that spanned
seventy years. The concentration camps, the purges, the politically perpetrated
mass starvations by famine—all were on the public record. Some denied their
existence; many more explained their necessity. The means are regrettable,
they said, but the end is noble; you can’t make an omelet without breaking
eggs, and so forth. That was the anti-anti-Communist line that dominated
mainstream intellectual discourse in the West. Those who carefully and
candidly spoke the truth about communism—and there were many, such as Malcolm
Muggeridge, Robert Conquest, Whittaker Chambers, and Midge Decter—were
scornfully dismissed as anti-Communists, meaning troglodyte reactionaries.
They threatened "peaceful coexistence" with communism, which
was declared to be a permanent fact of life.
Yes, there are distinctions to be made, but when it comes to moral judgment
they are mostly distinctions without a difference. During the long years
of communism’s evil empire, more of the brightest and the best belonged
to the anti-anti-Communist camp than were ever supportive of Hitler in
the 1930s, at least outside Germany. But what does that suggest? That moral
responsibility is mitigated by a head count of the like-minded? It also
overlooks the now easily forgettable fact that many decent and intelligent
people looked with hope to fascism’s answer to democracy’s apparently terminal
illness. It is true that Marxism attracted powerful intellectuals who arrayed
it with elaborate and sophisticated theories, and that was not generally
the case with National Socialism, which had a strong populist and anti-intellectual
element. That demonstrates only that many people are intimidated by intellectuals,
while intellectuals are charmed by one another’s company. It needs to be
added that many felt themselves pushed toward anti-anti-communism by thoroughly
obnoxious forms of anti-communism. As for Christians, it is true that the
discerning saw the anti-Christian character of Nazism, while Marxism’s
apologists often presented it as a fulfillment of Christian ideals. But
what is to be said of Christians who excused, or even actively embraced,
an atheistic attack against Christianity and against millions of fellow
Christians for the sake of realizing putatively Christian ideals? Of the
making of distinctions there is no end. Whether they make a difference
is another matter.
Here is the painful reality to be faced: This century has witnessed
a treason of the intellectuals immeasurably greater than that described
in Julien Benda’s 1927 La Trahison des Clercs. Soon, I am told,
The Black Book of Communism will be published in this country. Perhaps
it will stir the necessary debate that is taking place in France. One fears
that will not happen, however, among those who agree with Prof. Judt that
facing the truth will leave people with no alternative but "to wallow
in helpless despair." There is another alternative: self-knowledge,
the painful acquisition of wisdom, confession, forgiveness, and amendment
of life. Admittedly, that alternative rests upon a biblical view of reality.
For those who have convinced themselves that that view is not available
to them, perhaps there is no future other than that of continuing self-deception
or helpless despair.
There are few things more gratifying than to witness a capable generation
of young people eager to carry on what you have tried to do. This business
of getting older is of course as old as the human story, but each of us
has to experience it for himself. I distinctly remember that as a young
man of twenty-five I looked at those who were ten years older as the generation
that had failed. My job and that of my friends was to set right what they
had, for the most part, so badly bungled. I was viewed, and was inclined
to view myself, as something of a wunderkind. In any project or committee,
I was accustomed to being the youngest member, and I well remember the
shock of the day when in a meeting someone younger than I included me in
his somewhat dismissive reference to what was done by "your generation."
Or the day I was walking by the police academy around the corner on East
20th Street and was struck by the fact that the city was hiring kids to
At the same time, I have always had an intuitive reverence for really
old people, and have frequently remarked over the years that I rather look
forward to playing the role of the wise old man. At age sixty-two that
time has come. At least to the young I am the old man. Whether I am wise
or not is quite another matter. I expect and even rather hope that the
brightest of them think it their task to set right the projects that, for
all my limited achievements, I have badly bungled. Such aspirations, or
delusions as the case may be, are necessary to keep history moving. Young
academics are writing dissertations about me. One asks in an interview
if I have any "final thoughts as you look back at your life’s work."
That’s sobering. Now that I’m more than five years beyond that nasty cancer
business and am feeling great, I think it quite possible that I’ll have
another twenty productive years, but I play along with those who are preparing
the obituary. It’s flattering in its fashion.
And they do sometimes ask interesting questions. For instance, twice
in the last few weeks I’ve been asked about my work routine, and whether
there is anything I do to get ready when I sit down to a serious bout of
writing. The answer is yes, and that is the excuse for this little reflection
on getting older. I begin by praying a prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas, "Ante
Studium." Perhaps others might find it of benefit. Here it is, first
in Latin, and then in English:
qui de thesauris sapientiae tuae
tres Angelorum hierarchias designasti,
et eas super caelum empyreum
miro ordine collocasti,
atque universi partes
tu inquam qui
luminis et sapientiae diceris
atque supereminens principium
super intellectus mei tenebras
tuae radium claritatis,
duplices in quibus natus sum
a me removens tenebras,
peccatum scilicet et ignorantiam.
Tu, qui linguas infantium facis disertas,
linguam meam erudias
atque in labiis meis gratiam
tuae benedictionis infundas.
addiscendi modum et facilitatem,
loquendi gratiam copiosam.
Tu qui es verus Deus et homo,
qui vivis et regnas in saecula saeculorum.
From the treasures of your wisdom, you
have established three hierarchies of angels,
have arrayed them in marvelous order
above the fiery heavens,
and have marshaled the regions
of the universe with such artful skill,
You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the true origin
raised high beyond all things.
Pour forth a ray of your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul
the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.
You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
Refine my speech
and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of your blessing.
Grant to me
keenness of mind,
capacity of remembering,
skill in learning,
subtlety in interpreting,
and eloquence in speaking.
guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.
You are true God and true Man, and you
live and reign, world without end.
I should add that the prayer is always answered, although, alas, I do
not always act on the answer, as the readers of these pages know too well.
I should also add that this and other jewels, in both Latin and English,
are available in Devoutly I Adore Thee: The Prayers and Hymns of St.
Thomas Aquinas, published by Sophia Institute Press in Manchester,
New Hampshire. As for that young woman who wanted my "last words,"
I will leave that to Him who alone knows what it means to bring a work
to completion. For that last word, all of life is a getting ready.
While We’re At It
- The ACLU gets morality. An alert reader in St. Louis sends me a fundraising
letter from Ira Glasser, executive director of the ACLU, dated simply "Wednesday
morning." (I, too, sometimes find Wednesday mornings disorienting.)
He writes, "You may be surprised that the executive director of the
ACLU is writing to you on the subject of morality rather than on
law or the Constitution or some civil liberties emergency." But it
seems the "reactionary merchants of virtue" are prevailing with
the argument that America is in a state of moral decline. "I believe,"
writes Mr. Glasser, "that we are fundamentally a more moral nation
today than we were in the 1950s." He and others are a "saving
remnant" who want to preserve moral advances against a return to the
oppressive 1950s of racial segregation, of women "limited to the kitchen
and bedroom," of "gay men and lesbians forced to live secret
lives of terror," of disabled people "furtively hidden and closeted
away," of loyalty oaths, and, above all, of women "subject constantly
to the risk of death and certain degradation if they needed to terminate
a pregnancy." The reactionaries want to limit personal behavior, whereas
"the true public morality of a nation is measured by justice and fairness,
freedom to be different, to be free of the tyranny of the majority."
The worst thing the reactionaries are doing is to campaign against what
they call the judicial usurpation of politics. "If they succeed,"
warns Mr. Glasser, they "would gut the independence of the
federal courts and make them politically subservient to the very excesses
the Constitution was designed to protect us against!" And so he
continues in his appeal for help in preserving "civic virtue and the
public morality." That the ACLU is attempting to coopt the language
of virtue and morality is not uninteresting, but we should not take too
much comfort from it. They may succeed. The new tack taken by Mr. Glasser
is a plus, however, in that it concedes the point that many of us have
been making for years: the culture war is not between moralists and amoralists
but is a conflict of moralities; the one grounded in tradition, religion,
and concern for the common good, the other premised upon the liberation
of the autonomous self; the one accountable to democratic deliberation
and decision, the other imposed through the manipulation of the judiciary.
"The true strength of great movements has never been political,"
concludes Mr. Glasser. "Their strength has always been moral."
Now that the ACLU has recast itself as the Moral Minority, we may perhaps
anticipate a greater measure of clarity in our continuing contentions.
- The distinction is so elementary that it seems to elude most experts
in complexification. When President Clinton and Vice President Gore come
out for ending "discrimination" against homosexuals, they put
the gay and lesbian cause solidly in the tradition of a civil rights movement
that most Americans tend to approve. But David Walsh of Catholic University,
writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, says this overlooks a very
basic difference: "Americans do not wish to deprive homosexuals of
their ordinary civil liberties simply because they are homosexual. On the
other hand, they do not wish to see aggressive enforcement of homosexual
civil rights because they sense that it cannot but entail an equally aggressive
endorsement of the homosexual way of life. Homosexual rights are unlike
the notion of civil rights employed to protect other minority groups. Those
who discriminated against blacks or women knew they were doing wrong. Those
who disapprove of homosexuality are profoundly convinced that they are
right. This is a moral fact of elemental significance, and all sides would
do well to take note." Neither, says Walsh, is "neutrality"
the answer. "An aggressive assertion of the validity of the homosexual
preference cannot be reconciled with a public disapproval of its practices.
A neutrality that effectively blocks even the discussion of the moral worth
of different lifestyles is nothing more than a political sleight of hand.
Like all such deceptions, it cannot long endure." With respect to
those who practice what most people continue to believe is a perversion,
Americans want to be both publicly decent and publicly disapproving. Depicting
the gay cause in terms of civil rights inevitably implies that disapproval
is indecent, which—unlike other discriminations associated with civil rights—puts
the discriminating in the bind of denying what they believe to be morally
true. Prof. Walsh is right in saying this "cannot long endure"—unless
people are coerced by law into acting as though they do not believe what
they do. Regrettably, the historical record suggests that the denial of
freedom can long endure.
- A retired bishop of the Church of Sweden, which is Lutheran in its
way, remarks to a friend, "Christianity in Sweden is like the post
office; you can’t very well get along without it, but it doesn’t figure
large in one’s life." He thinks this a very nice thing about Sweden.
- Those who are skeptical about the moral progress of humanity must make
an effort to ignore such heartening developments as the ASPCA program to
create "no kill" cities. In San Francisco, for instance, the
organization has announced that "no adoptable animal with a treatable
disease will be euthanized and [ASPCA] will pay for medical care for an
animal with a long-term health problem after it is adopted." Milwaukee,
St. Louis, and New York are also taking steps toward becoming "no
kill" cities. Now if we could only extend this caring vision to include
- An alert reader in Kalamazoo, Michigan, says she sighted this Planned
Parenthood billboard picturing a laughing and hugging young black couple
and bearing the message, "Planned Parenthood. We’re more than you
think." They are obviously worried about what people think about the
business they’re in. They should be.
- Thanks to an alert reader in Florida, I have here the venomous gushings
of Steve Gushee, an Episcopal minister, who writes a religion column in
the local tabloid. The Rev. Gushee is much exercised by Catholic bishops
who are considering the reintroduction of meatless Fridays. "Can weekly
confessions, fasting before communion, and knuckle-knocking nuns be far
behind?" (Dare we hope?) The Second Vatican Council worked a revolution,
according to Gushee. "Many discovered for the first time that religion
was not meant to control their life but unleash it for unlimited growth."
There you have it, aggiornamento as slipping the leash. Bernard
Cardinal Law of Boston favors the fast, which prompts Gushee to write,
"But Law is the kind of religious conservative who thinks the Spanish
Inquisition was enlightened evangelism. . . . Some churchmen just can’t
get accustomed to the freedom and joy their faith proclaims." Nor
others to the humility and charity that it enjoins.
- Another in the "Whither Incest?" genre of public advocacy.
The British medical journal Lancet runs an article titled, "Should
organs from patients in permanent vegetative state be used for transplantation?"
Such a shame to let the organs of those "vegetables," who are
so expensive to care for, go to waste. After discussing at length the great
benefits to be gained by killing off the incapacitated, the article concludes:
"For religious, cultural, and other traditional reasons, it is likely
that the proposal would be rejected; nevertheless, the arguments in favor
are sufficiently compelling to justify serious debate." But, of course,
serious debate is only justified on the premise that those religious, cultural,
and other reasons are not compelling. The serious debaters assume the outcome
of the debate.
- These requests are a fairly regular thing, asking me to mention in
this corner a conference that is coming up, a position that is open, tapes
that are available, and on and on. But, dear friend, that’s why we started
the "classified" section a while back. Rates are reasonable,
exposure is vast, and you can find out more about placing your ad by contacting
Richard Vaughan, Publishing Management Associates, 129 Phelps Avenue, Suite
312, Rockford, IL 61108; phone (815) 398-8569; fax (815) 398-8579;
- The New Nationalists are coming! The New Nationalists are coming! That
was last week’s alarum. New Nationalism is the buzz term for a convergence
of forces opposed to free trade that is bringing together Pat Buchanan,
the Sierra Club, labor unions, and that funny little man from Texas. Inside
the beltway it is viewed as a great threat, and terror was intensified
when the new nationalists denied the President "fast track" authority
in trade agreements. With that action, the world was transformed, if we
believe Peter Beinart’s long article on the subject in The New Republic.
"Many things that seemed inevitable last week no longer do. And a
lot of powerful people went to bed on Sunday night afraid of what they
might wake up to." Think about it. Living in a world so small that
a congressional vote means that many things you thought inevitable no longer
are. Washington, as sober observers have long recognized, is not a city
but a company town in which the only business is politics. One of the most
debilitating factors in our intellectual life in the last quarter century
is the number of publications and think tanks that have attracted to Washington
people who are capable of thinking. I quickly add that some of them are
my best friends, but they face formidable odds in a place where what Russell
Kirk called "the permanent things" have a life expectancy of
a week or less, until the next magazine deadline or congressional hearing.
"Many things that seemed inevitable last week no longer do."
Think about it.
- Hadley Arkes went over the top, or so some said, when he suggested
in these pages that we should brace ourselves for a Jewish and Christian
Removal Act. He employed, to be sure, a touch of hyperbole, but the idea
is not so farfetched. We are witnessing, in both government and corporate
policies, an increasing exclusion or marginalization of religious folk
who dissent from ruling secular orthodoxies. Major law firms do not appoint
as partners or members of personnel committees anyone who is known to think,
for example, that homosexuality is a grave disorder. Even if the person
did not let that belief influence his decisions, why should the firm open
itself to a discrimination suit? In Washington State a judge is threatened
with impeachment for appearing at a pro-life meeting, although other judges
routinely attend Planned Parenthood events. And now here is an AP story
about a lesbian woman in Australia who has "won her right" to
be a Catholic teacher. The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities
Commission has found the Archdiocese of Sydney guilty of discrimination
because it would not certify as a teacher in the Catholic schools Jacqui
Griffin, cofounder of the Gay and Lesbian Teachers and Students Association.
Said Ms. Griffin, "The decision is only one of many steps needed to
create a climate of tolerance and acceptance for gay and lesbian students
in Catholic schools." And one more step toward a legal regime in which
individuals and communities that dissent from prescribed opinion will not
be tolerated. A Jewish and Christian Removal Act? A touch hyperbolic perhaps,
but definitely not paranoid.
- I have been accused from time to time of being too hard on our parish
newspaper. Ha. Meet Roger Kimball, writing in the New Criterion.
(Not, mind you, that I think he’s being too hard.) Kimball writes: "‘Of
all horrible religions,’ G. K. Chesterton once observed, ‘the most horrible
is the worship of the god within. . . . That Jones shall worship the god
within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.’
We had occasion to ponder Chesterton’s remark on Sunday, December 7, when
the New York Times Magazine favored its readers with a special issue
on religion. Elsewhere, the media was full of recollections about the bombing
of Pearl Harbor—the event, as Franklin Roosevelt put it, that made December
7 ‘a date which will live in infamy.’ For its part, the Times gave
us ‘God Decentralized,’ a miscellany of a dozen or so short articles by
divers hands on subjects ranging from the problems of interfaith marriages,
young American Muslim girls who wear nose rings and baggy jeans, and the
monthly meetings of the ‘Freethought Association’ in Talladega, Alabama,
where ‘devout atheists gather for their Sunday social.’" The caption
on the cover of the magazine read, "Americans are still among the
most religious people on the planet. But these days, they’re busy inventing
unorthodox ways to get where they’re going." Kimball is not impressed
by the truism of the first sentence, but it’s the second that gets him
going. "Then there is the second sentence, about ‘inventing unorthodox
ways’ of practicing religion. ‘Unorthodox’ is a favorite word in this special
issue—partly, no doubt, because spiral dances in the woods by Lake Geneva
make for colorful copy. But the more important reason is that on all moral
and religious matters the Times long ago declared itself an enemy
of orthodoxy. Hence when it endeavors to cast a friendly eye on religion
it winds up producing a carnival of psychobabble in which genuine religious
feeling is indistinguishable from the most flagrant forms of pseudo-spirituality.
Indeed, the conceptual muddle is precisely their point. For the Times,
religion can go unchallenged only if (as one caption puts it) faith is
an ‘option,’ an innocuous item in that great consumer smorgasbord that
includes expensive shoes, exquisite chocolates, and churches in the Ozarks
where real estate entrepreneurs dispense enlightenment along with mortgages
and bedizen their chapel altars with the Star of David, images of Jesus,
Shiva, Vishnu, and John F. Kennedy. We do not doubt that editors at the
Times intended to produce a thoughtful reflection on religious diversity
in contemporary America. What they have given us with ‘God Decentralized,’
however, is a grotesque parody in which religion emerges as little more
than a matter of lifestyle, the latest form of equal-opportunity kitsch."
- Viewed at one level, it’s simply one more quirky entry in the what-won’t-they-do-next
sweepstakes. But I suspect there is something deeper at work. At a museum
in Mannheim, Germany, there is an exhibition of corpses that is drawing
huge crowds. A Dr. Gunther von Hagens has invented a method of "plastination"
whereby skeletons can be displayed as though in various activities, with
their muscle structure preserved to exhibit the complexity of the body.
Among the exhibits is a woman with her womb gashed open to show a five-month-old
fetus. Anti-abortionists have asked the doctor to plastinate other fetuses
that can be used for educational purposes, but he says he doesn’t want
to be political. Protestant and Catholic religious leaders are protesting
the entire exhibit as a desecration of the body. Catholic moral theologian
Johannes Reiter of the University of Mainz says, "The Mannheim exhibition
fits somewhere between art and commerce, one in which the likely damage
to taboos has been factored in as a cost." The "likely damage
to taboos," of course, gives the exhibition the panache of being "transgressive,"
a merit greatly valued in contemporary art. Reiter adds, "He who styles
human corpses as a so-called work of art no longer respects the importance
of death." The corpses on display are obtained from people who donate
them for this purpose. The radically dualistic notion that the body is
not oneself but is a thing that one can give away may be seen as a further
extension of the donation of body parts for transplant purposes. If I can
donate my body for medical purposes, why not for the purposes of "art"?
It is, if not immortality, at least an extension of life in the denial
of death. A few years ago there were stories about how many Germans no
longer have funerals or even announce publicly that someone has died. The
dead just disappear; one day they are no longer there, and everybody goes
about their business as though nothing had happened. The Mannheim exhibition,
then, can be seen both as a denial of death and as a denial of that denial
in the return of the dead. It is a ghoulish business, but also a testimony
to the profound wisdom of the biblical truth that we are to commend the
dead to the elements from which they came, in the sure hope of the resurrection
of the body. The Mannheim exhibit is a pathetically futile rejection of
that truth further cheapened by pandering to the fashions of "shock
art." It makes a kind of perverse sense in a gnostic culture in which
the self is divorced from matter, and the body is a "thing" to
be used for pleasure, entertainment, or, as Dr. von Hagens would have it,
the education of the public. As he might say, a body is a terrible thing
to waste. That assumes, of course, that the body is not inseparably part
of a person with another destiny.
- The title of the piece tells the story: "Abortion Now Divides
Americans as Deeply as It Ever Has Since 1973—And in the Same Proportions."
This is in Public Perspective, a publication of the Roper Center,
and it summarizes a quarter century’s polling of opinion on abortion. In
1987, according to one poll, 34 percent of Americans said abortion should
be "a woman’s decision in all cases," and 63 percent said abortion
should be "legal only in extreme cases or illegal in all cases"
(12 percent taking the last position). According to that poll (Time/CNN),
the pro-abortion position reached a high of 47 percent in 1992 and in the
same year the anti-abortion position dropped to a low 47 percent. Since
then, the anti-abortion position has been gaining, but modestly so. A CNN/USA
Today poll has 65 percent saying that abortion should not be "generally
legal" in the second trimester, and that jumps to 82 percent in the
third trimester. A poll sponsored by a consortium of media shows no difference
between Protestants and Catholics. Thirty percent in 1992 said abortion
should be "legal in all cases" and 21 percent said that in 1996.
The Roper report does not include some polls commissioned by organizations
directly involved in the abortion dispute that report significantly higher
opposition to abortion. The Roper article is one more confirmation of the
fact that, contra the Supreme Court and many others, the unlimited abortion
license is supported by a small and declining minority of the public. What
that means for the prospect of more protective laws, or even for personal
behavior, is another question.
- "Christian socialism is but the holy water with which the priest
consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat." At least that is
how The Communist Manifesto puts the matter. There is something
of a revival of talk about Christian socialism in the New Labor party of
Tony Blair. Chris Bryant, a former priest in Latin America who pushed liberation
theology and was later a Labor party official, is at the center of a new
socialist talking group that meets at the posh Scott’s restaurant on Mount
Street. According to the Spectator’s Sion Simon, "The group
is avowedly ecumenical, which in practice means much higher church than
traditional Labor Christians, who tend to be dour left-wing Methodists."
Simon doesn’t think the group is socialist at all, just New Labor Christians.
But on both sides of the drink there is a certain moral superiority attached
to calling oneself socialist. After all, in conventionally dichotomous
minds, the alternative is to be a capitalist. It was precisely the tone
of moral superiority that I found off-putting, even in my youthful wanderings
on the Left. It was somewhere around 1968 that I was at a fashionably liberal
party at an elegant apartment on Central Park West and scandalized the
host by remarking that I did not consider myself a socialist. "Surely,"
he insisted, "you agree that we live in an unjust world where the
poor should have more of the necessities of life." When I allowed
as how I did agree with that, he pronounced his satisfaction that I was
a socialist after all. The entrance price into the socialist "constituency
of conscience," as these folk liked to call themselves, seemed absurdly
cheap. Of a colleague who fancied himself the keeper of the social conscience,
the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked that he was so confident
of his righteousness that, if he died and was condemned to hell, he would
assume he was sent there to save souls. I admit this is not an argument
against socialism. The argument against socialism is that it is very bad
for people, including poor people. I hope the Spectator is right
in thinking that Chris Bryant and friends are not really socialists. The
tragedy of liberation theology in Nicaragua would play as farce in London.
Anyway, it appears that Mr. Blair aspires to being Bill Clinton, not Danny
Ortega. Without the sleaze factor, of course. The oysters at Scott’s are
said to be excellent.
- In a haughtily dismissive review of several recent books on the papacy,
Patrick Collinson, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, notes
that one, in its discussion of Pius XII, has the Croats being Orthodox
and the Serbs being passionately Catholic. Collinson writes, "As Private
Eye might put it, shorely shome mishtake here?" He does have the
good sense to approve of Eamon Duffy’s achievement in Saints and Sinners:
A History of the Popes. But then he writes, "A Protestant might
understand Saints and Sinners differently: all equally sinners and
saints. In Luther’s words, the Christian is ‘simul justus ac peccator.’"
As Private Eye might put it, Shorely . . .
- "Averting Our Eyes from Slavery" is a forceful column by
Nat Hentoff in the Washington Post excoriating American leaders,
black and white, for their refusal to address the horror of slavery in
North Africa. Our familiar critic Ibrahim Hooper of CAIR, "an Islamic
advocacy group," excoriates Hentoff and others for fomenting "Islamophobia."
A letter in the Post from the American Anti-Slavery Group, signed
by Charles Jacobs and Dominic Mohammed, responds to CAIR: "In Mauritania,
Islam is used to justify slavery. . . . In Sudan, an Islamic holy war mounted
on the black Christian south employs slave raids. To know and to say these
things is not anti-Arab or anti-Muslim: It’s anti-slavery. Should we let
the slaves languish in order not to offend extremists and terrorists?"
With the possible exceptions of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Minister Farrakhan,
and the folks at CAIR, most everyone will recognize that as a rhetorical
- U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich says she finds it "difficult
to conceive" how stories of miracles and resurrection could be taught
as history. In a suit brought by the ACLU, she allowed the school board
of Lee County, Florida, to offer courses on the Old Testament but not on
the New. Apparently items such as the Red Sea, Sinai, and Elijah’s raising
of the widow’s dead son all have perfectly natural explanations.
- "Policies that restrict access to abortion not only deter pregnant
women from obtaining abortions, but also deter women from becoming pregnant
in the first place." That is the complaint expressed in a recent issue
of Family Planning Perspectives. It is one of many statements that
greatly heartens Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics Incorporated, a Texas organization
that presses malpractice suits against abortionists. He has put together
a remarkable booklet (Access: The Key to Pro-Life Victory) that
includes numerous statements by pro-abortionists who contend that, even
without any change in the law, the abortion industry is being terminated
by the shortage of medical terminators. For the booklet and more information,
write Life Dynamics at P.O. Box 2226, Denton, TX 76202.
- . . . where angels fear to tread. But here I go into an explosive dispute
among Jewish thinkers. Elliott Abrams, Michael Horowitz, Michael Medved,
and some other Jews have written a letter to the director of the Holocaust
Museum in Washington protesting the depiction of Christianity in a film
that is shown there on the origins of anti-Semitism. They complain that
the film unfairly and simplistically blames Christianity. For instance,
it depicts without comment Hitler claiming that, in his effort to rid the
world of Jewish influence, he is only completing the work started by the
Church. The letter of protest greatly excited Leon Wieseltier of The
New Republic. The writers—whom Wieseltier, ever the gentleman, calls
"fools"—noted the film’s omission of any reference to "the
brave anti-Nazi resistance groups comprised of Catholic and Protestant
clerics and leaders." Wieseltier reacts: "They adduce ‘righteous
Gentiles,’ unaware of the terrible admission that is contained in that
honorific." What terrible admission is that? That most Christians
were not heroes, which is what "righteous Gentiles" is intended
to connote? Wieseltier continues: "And they cite Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
of course. They are not aware that in 1933 he reported that, in the matter
of the Jews, ‘the most sensible people have lost their heads and their
entire Bible.’" Note the scornful "of course." Wherever
he got that Bonhoeffer quote, it is subject to benign interpretation. But
is his point that Bonhoeffer—who was killed for, among other things, rescuing
Jews—was not a righteous Gentile? If so, he would seem to be aligning himself
with Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, even though
it was Wieseltier, I assume, who commissioned his magazine’s devastating
review of that slanderous tract. His conclusion is of particular interest:
"They [the writers of the letter] declare that ‘the film repeats and
propagates libels of Christianity.’ Libels! These Jews are conservatives
who have made a career out of the charge of ‘moral equivalence.’ Do they
know anything about the history of ‘libel’ in the entanglements between
Christians and Jews? This is not only error. It is also dishonor."
Wieseltier’s reference to moral equivalence implies that Jews are responsible
for the film in question, which may well be the case, although the Holocaust
Museum is presumably a national and not just a Jewish institution. There
is no doubt that many Christians did, and some still do, libel Jews. Does
this mean that it is not possible for Jews to libel Christians and Christianity?
That Daniel Goldhagen is not possible? That Wieseltier’s apparent contempt
for Dietrich Bonhoeffer is not possible? Such a line of argument is not
only incoherent. It is also hysterical.
- "I’m History" is Joseph Epstein’s 92nd and last essay as
editor of American Scholar. As noted here earlier, the Phi Beta
Kappa’s Senate fired him for refusing to toe the line of what Epstein calls
O.K.isms—multiculturalism, radical feminism, queer theory, speech-act theory,
victimhoodism, and other excitements that only intellectuals could take
seriously. Very serious, however, is their devastating impact on institutions
such as American Scholar. Writing in the Baltimore Sun, columnist
Michael Packenham recalls a 1991 essay by Epstein in the Hudson Review,
"The Academic Zoo: Theory—in Practice." There he depicted the
political program of tenured radicals: "It is an intellectual version
of the Whole Earth Catalog—a pallid, boiled-down, warmed-over, unisexual,
blandified Woodstockian version of heaven on earth. Heaven for them, as
I see it, hell for the rest of us." You can see why Joseph Epstein
didn’t fit in. Packenham concludes: "Get angry. Get active. Write.
Shout. Demand. Complain. Campaign. Withhold contributions and other support.
Ridicule and torment. The alternative is passive collaboration in the trashing
of what’s left of the liberal tradition, the wan hope of civilization."
I don’t know about anger, shouting, complaining, and the such, and I would
want to add prayer to the list of things to be done, but he is certainly
right about the liberal tradition, rightly understood.
- All the scholarly tomes devoted to trying to make sense of the many
parts of Christianity in America can now be safely ignored since Bruce
Bawer has come up with a taxonomy that cuts through the complexities. There
are really only two groups according to Mr. Bawer, the liberal churches
of love and the conservative churches of law. There you have it. Bawer
is author, most recently, of Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays
Christianity (Crown), a book with the merit of having a nuanced title
that will assure most people that they can safely spare themselves the
trouble of reading it. Before that, he wrote A Place at the Table,
a spirited apologia for the religious acceptance of homosexuality. Now,
writing in the Times, Mr. Bawer is upset at the very positive response
to Robert Duvall’s remarkable film, The Apostle. He allows that
Duvall turns in a magnificent performance, but faults the film for its
favorable portrayal of Pentecostalism, a religion that, he notes, teaches
the inerrancy of the Bible and the damnation of the unsaved. "Most
telling, the official faith statements of the Pentecostal Holiness Church
cite Christ’s Great Commission—to evangelize the world—but omit his Great
Commandment, to love God and one’s neighbor." Duvall’s film, he complains,
depicts Pentecostalists as loving when we all know that they are hate-filled
fanatics. On somewhat more solid ground (it could not help but be more
solid since his main allegation is preposterous) he notes that in the film
nobody is seen speaking in tongues. "Doubtless Mr. Duvall has omitted
this sensational—but crucial—aspect of Pentecostalism for fear of alienating
moviegoers," says Bawer. It is hardly doubtless, although it is possible.
What Mr. Bawer makes doubtless is his own fury at a film that might lead
an uncritical public to think that law and love are not mutually exclusive.
- "If we listen to these opinions, we are likely to come to two
conclusions. The first is that many homosexuals are correct to suggest
that they, perhaps more than any other group in America, are severely stigmatized.
But the second is that those Americans who have qualms about homosexuality
are also correct if they believe their views to be widely shared."
What I think Alan Wolfe of Boston University means to say on the second
point is that those who have qualms about homosexuality are correct in
believing that their views are widely shared. That was his finding in a
recent study he discusses in the New York Times Magazine. Because
I know Wolfe to be an intelligent fellow, I expect he’s being a bit disingenuous—just
disingenuous enough to get his article past the thought police at the Times—when
he suggests there is a tension between the "Thou shalt not judge"
tolerance of most Americans and their continuing aversion to homosexuality.
He craftily insinuates into his article three reasons why that combination
of attitudes may make sense. First, people perceive that homosexual activists
want not only tolerance but moral approval of their way of life. Second,
the predatory actions of some homosexuals, especially in relation to children,
occasion understandable fear. Third, the rhetoric of gay liberation that
presents homosexuality as "socially constructed" and a matter
of choice makes "people feel that they have the similar choice of
condemning it." "There is no culture war in America," Wolfe
wrongly asserts, "but on the question of gay rights, fairly severe
battles are likely to be fought for the foreseeable future." Which
being translated means that most Americans will never extend their general
tolerance to homosexuality. In forums where free speech is not so limited,
the reason is not hard to state. Unlike the case of, say, blacks or Jews,
the "gay community" is defined exclusively and without remainder
by what people do, and what they do is deemed to be wrong. The last-ditch
argument of gay activists is that they are driven by uncontrollable desire.
Whether with regard to alcohol, gambling, violent anger, adultery, homosexual
temptation, or something else, most people think they know about desires
that sometimes seem uncontrollable. They are reluctant to approve the proposition
that people should act on such desires, which is the core proposition of
the homosexual movement. I expect Mr. Wolfe knows that, too, and he therefore
knows as well that there is no paradox at all in the general tolerance
of most Americans and their disapproval of homosexuality.
- The television channel Comedy Central has this cartoon program called
South Park, created by Trey Parker, who has said, "I can guarantee
it’s gonna be the raunchiest thing on TV and it’s gonna p--- a lot of people
off." A recent episode had "Jesus" and "Satan"
in a boxing match. The bout, accompanied by sexually explicit songs, ends
up with "Satan" winning and "Jesus" complaining that
he lost because everyone bet against him. Bill Donohue of the Catholic
League is, as you might expect, unhappy with this. One might also expect
that the sophisticated editors at certain publications will again take
Donohue to task for lacking both a sense of humor and theological insight.
"It is all too often the case that Jesus does lose and Satan does
win," one anticipates their editorial opining, "because deep
down we are all guilty of betting on the power of evil." As for the
foul language, "mature Christians understand that the drama of the
gospel must be depicted in the realistic context of the world as we find
it, not as we wish it to be." And so forth. As has been oft remarked,
a liberal is someone who refuses to take his own side in an argument. Donohue,
on the other hand, thinks the program is out to offend Christians, for
which there is no penalty in Mr. Parker’s world. Donohue issues a challenge:
"To those who say that South Park is just a cartoon, I have
a suggestion. Write to Mr. Parker and ask him to deliver the same message
of blasphemy, sex, and violence by substituting Martin Luther King for
Jesus and Bull Connor for Satan. After all, that should tick a lot of people
off, too." That is a dangerous challenge, as Parker might just take
him up on it. There would be an awful fuss, of course, and he might lose
his job, but he would have the satisfaction of having proved himself perversely
brave. It would not do much to lift popular culture out of the gutter,
although it would give some editors the opportunity to discover something
that is simply beyond the pale. They might even be tempted by the frisson
of being accused of censoriousness, for it must be a terrible bore to be
inexhaustibly understanding toward the banal pranks of the avant garde.
- Elevating the level of public discourse. That’s a fine phrase, and
we sometimes employ it in explaining what we’re trying to do here. There
are those who think it means using more religion-talk in public, which
is not quite right. For instance, Vice President Al Gore recently gave
a talk on race relations that is laced with biblical references. Those
who oppose racial quotas, he said, are hypocrites who refuse to recognize
that the sin of racism persists. "The Gospel of Luke tells us of Jesus’
reaction to people who willfully refuse to see the evidence before their
eyes." Jesus addressed them as "ye hypocrites." In Washington
State 280,000 people have signed an initiative for the November ballot
that would ensure "the state shall not discriminate against, or grant
preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race,
sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment,
public education, or public contracting." (Private businesses and
organizations are free to do as they wish with preferences.) But according
to the Vice President, there you see 280,000 hypocrites at work. Ditto
for the majority of voters in California when the same question was posed
in the last election. Ditto for the great majority of Americans, according
to every poll. Cut through the cant about there being legitimate arguments
pro and con. The brutal fact is that we are a nation of hypocrites. This
does not seem like a promising way for the Vice President of the United
States, who may soon be the President of the United States, to elevate
the level of public discourse.
- "Ask the persecuted." That is always good advice when one
encounters the argument that protesting persecution "will only make
matters worse." That argument is regularly advanced by those opposing
the Wolf-Specter bill known as the Religious Persecution Act. Elliott Abrams
of the Ethics and Public Policy Center very ably takes on that argument
in the center’s publication American Purpose. His essay is titled
"Nazi Gold and Chinese Christians" and concludes with this: "Will
we allow commercial objectives to dictate national policy? Will we really
contrive to ignore the Laogai, the slave-labor system in which China’s
rulers imprison millions of men and women in eleven hundred camps? Will
we spend Mondays tut-tutting about how the Europeans sought only money
and ignored persecution in the 1930s, only to seek money and ignore persecution
yet again on Tuesdays? The analogy is no doubt weak in a number of ways,
but it has great strength in another: for the real comparison being drawn
is not between Nazi gold and Chinese Christians, but between Western reactions
then and Western reactions now. What if the Swiss had said then, ‘This
is wrong, it is monstrous, and we will have no part of it. We will not
do business as usual’? While we are in the midst of condemning them for
not saying that, we might pause a moment and think twice about just what
we are saying to China’s millions of political prisoners and to Christians,
Tibetan Buddhists, and Muslims there. Fifty years from now, will Chinese
thank us—as today Poles and Czechs do—for helping them win their freedom?
Or will we be compared to the Swiss, who loved gold more than they hated
- There he goes again. The story in the San Francisco paper says that
Father Andrew Greeley has "an acerbic wit with a self-described ‘shanty
Irish mouth,’" and this time he is putting his talents in the service
of ABC in its defense of the program Nothing Sacred. He appeared
on a panel with Father Bill Cain, the Jesuit co-writer of the series. The
only criticism they had of ABC is that the network delayed the broadcast
of an episode dealing with a priest who is HIV-positive. Greeley is scornful
of the Catholic League, which has been lambasting the series. He says,
"I don’t know anyone else that’s criticized it. I don’t know of any
other person or group claiming a Catholic voice that has been opposed to
it." Fr. Greeley is a professor of sociology. He and two other priests
on the panel asserted that Nothing Sacred is a terrific advertisement
for Catholicism. Fr. Cain was more correct: "The show is not designed
to get anybody into a Catholic church. The show is designed to tell stories.
I didn’t start to write a show in order to proselytize." Apparently
it would be a violation of artistic integrity to serve the Church. Fr.
Cain may also be more cautious these days, since, under the implied threat
of a lawsuit, he had to write a letter of apology to Dr. Bill Donohue of
the Catholic League withdrawing his charge that Donohue had said Jews had
no right to work on a show about Catholicism. Donohue never said any such
thing. There may be nothing sacred, but some things are still libelous.
- Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works has received extensive notice
in these pages, as has his argument that we should try to be more understanding
toward people who commit infanticide—or "neonaticide," as he
prefers. One should always hope for worthy adversaries, even though the
hope is so regularly disappointed. On the subject of religion and morality,
I am afraid it turns out that Professor Pinker exposes himself as a bigot
and a deeply confused ignoramus. Writing in the Weekly Standard,
Andrew Ferguson posited against Pinker’s position on neonaticide the ancient
view of Christians that "human beings were persons from the start,
endowed with a soul, created by God, and infinitely precious." Pinker
rejoins that appeals to religion will not help in solving our moral dilemmas.
The opposite is the case. "That solution," he writes, "has
given us stonings, witch-burnings, crusades, inquisitions, jihads, suicide
bombers, abortion-clinic gunmen, and mothers who drown their children so
they can be happily reunited in heaven." Some people who believe that
people have souls have done horrible things, ergo we should not believe
that people have souls, or something like that. In fact, it seems Prof.
Pinker knows that people do not have souls. "Unfortunately for that
theory, brain science has shown that the mind is what the brain does. The
supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals,
turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a
lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma
that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise
today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God." The logic
would seem to be that there is no immaterial soul because the material
brain can be bisected with a knife, etc. Slam dunk. And one must stand
in amazement at Steven Pinker’s apparent agreement with the view of the
intellectual and scientific establishment of Galileo’s time that their
morality depended on the dogma of an earth-centered universe. Regrettably,
some church officials uncritically went along with the establishment view
of the day, which is a salutary caution against doing the same with the
Pinkers of our time.
- "The media is sliding not only down the scale of respectability,
but also back toward its disreputable roots. In his classic work The
Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, the historian Jacob Burckhardt
identified Pietro Aretino, the sixteenth-century blackmailer and pornographer,
as ‘the father of modern journalism.’ Aretino’s method was simple. He published
a kind of newsletter with a wide circulation. If you paid him off, he praised
you in the most extravagant terms. If you didn’t, he attacked you viciously
and obscenely." That’s from Richard Brookhiser’s column in the New
York Observer. The historical reference might come in handy in discussions
of current affairs, which used to be called talking dirty.
- First there is assisted suicide, and then there is assisted grieving
for suicides. Hallmark cards of Kansas City has come out with a line of
cards for the suicide market. The idea has been tested in six cities, with
the cards appearing on shelves under a "suicide" category. The
company reports "an overwhelmingly positive response." The news
item does not say whether there will be the usual sideline of humorous
cards. ("Hooray! She finally did it!") Hallmark’s decision is
a testimony to the infinite creativity of capitalism, and to our culture’s
continuing determination to mainstream the aberrant in the hope that the
very concept of the aberrant will one day be eliminated.
- Judge Lawrence E. Walsh earned a reputation for prosecutorial ruthlessness
when he was independent counsel for the Iran-Contra affair, a story painfully
documented by one of his victims, Elliott Abrams, in his book Undue
Process. Now Judge Walsh is a leader of the pack attacking independent
counsel Kenneth Starr. His lead article in a recent issue of the New
York Review of Books is accompanied by a cover cartoon picturing Mr.
Starr holding hammer and spikes and seated beside a large wooden cross.
Think about it. The editorial judgment is as execrable as Judge Walsh’s
current disservice to justice.
- There have been forty-six of them, but this was the first time I was
in attendance at a National Prayer Breakfast. I was in Washington the evening
before to receive the William Wilberforce Award from Prison Fellowship
and stayed over for the breakfast, which has become a major institution
since it was established during the Eisenhower years. Some four thousand
people from more than 160 countries, or so the brochure says, gather under
mainly evangelical auspices to invoke God’s blessings on the nation, which
is no doubt a very good thing to do. The event is held in connection with
the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters, making this
the largest assembly of the leadership of evangelicaldom short of the anticipated
rapture. Attendance by the President is mandatory and this year Clinton
came in the midst of the latest scandal of sex and lies, looking nervous
and almost penitent. He read from 1 Kings 3: "And now, O Lord my God,
thou hast made thy servant king in place of David my father, although I
am but a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. . . ."
The Vice President led a prayer in which he alluded to the pluralism of
our society and cited John 17, "that they may all be one," which
is an interesting ecclesiological twist. The applause for Clinton was tepid,
with a good number of us standing for the office but not applauding the
man. There was no applause at all when the President and his party shuffled
off the stage. The silence was impressive. The applause greeting Billy
Graham, on the other hand, was loud and long. Contrary to some press reports,
Graham did not "absolve" Clinton but offered a carefully crafted
prayer reminding us that we are all sinners, which nobody seemed inclined
to contest. Most of the prayers were offered "in your name,"
leaving unspecified just whose name was being invoked. Presumably it is
a matter of sensitivity to the Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and nonbelievers
in attendance. The booklet handed out contains the chiefly banal remarks
of Presidents and others who have spoken at past breakfasts. I notice that
Mother Teresa’s more pointed remarks about abortion a few years ago are
not included in the printed excerpt. There is a section titled, "Thoughts
on Jesus’ Message to Be Considered." The selections are strictly moral
and might well have been chosen by that great bowdlerizer of the New Testament,
Thomas Jefferson. The National Prayer Breakfast is a grand, some might
say gross, exercise in civic religion. I am not entirely disdainful of
civic religion, but I could not help but notice that in attendance were
some prominent evangelical critics of "Evangelicals and Catholics
Together" who relentlessly castigate us for not dotting every "i"
and crossing every "t" of theological exactitude. But here they
were together, brothers and sisters with all and sundry, praying to a mainly
unknown, or at least unnamed, god. It gives one pause for thought.
- Week after week Monsignor George Higgins churns out his columns for
the Catholic diocesan press. His formidable energy over these many years
cannot help but elicit admiration. It is regrettable that in recent years
he seems unable to get through a column without attacking those awful "neoconservatives."
This week’s column takes note of an important new book by Thomas Frank,
The Culture of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise
of Hip Consumerism (University of Chicago Press). Frank’s point is
that since the 1960s corporate America has exploited to the hilt the decadent
fashions of a counterculture that is, in fact, the cultural establishment.
Exactly. Inexplicably, Msgr. Higgins thinks Frank’s argument discredits
neoconservatives who "flatly refuse to put any of the blame for the
[cultural] problem on corporate America. They prefer to blame it on what
they call the ‘new class’ of liberal intellectuals." I don’t know
where Msgr. Higgins has been, but as one who is regularly dubbed a neocon
(I have absolutely no investment in the label) I should point out that
over the years I and others such as Irving Kristol, Peter Berger, and Michael
Novak have written repeatedly and at length about corporate America’s domination
by the "new class" and its exploitation of the pseudo-rebellion
of the counterculture in order to make big bucks. Higgins writes, "The
moral corruption that neoconservatives condemn in American society owes
more to commercial imperatives than to the failures of some autonomous
culture. . . . It was bankers, investors, real estate developers, and manufacturers—not
liberal intellectuals—who made these mistakes." I don’t know what
an "autonomous culture" might be, but as for liberal intellectuals,
from whom does Msgr. Higgins suppose the bankers et al. get their ideas?
His simplistic either/or between intellectuals and corporate leadership
rather completely misses the import of Frank’s book: leftist intellectuals
shape the fashions, including the fashion of being anti-business, which
are then profitably coopted by corporate leadership. By now I nearly despair
of changing the mind of my friend George Higgins, but let it be said once
again: Support for free enterprise is perfectly compatible with criticizing
the rascals who are largely in charge of it.
- It didn’t start with the Clintons, of course. Push the point far enough
and one must admit that it started with that unfortunate afternoon in the
garden. But without doubt we are witnessing a marked increase in the general
tawdriness of our public culture. Pat Moynihan came up with the nice phrase,
"defining deviancy down." Alternatively, it is the raising of
the "yuck" threshold. Back in my college days, the ordinarily
phlegmatic Dr. "Big George" Beto at Concordia in Austin, Texas,
would wax eloquent on the infamy of the Duke of Windsor who, having shirked
his duty, was consigned to a life of pitiable celebrity. That came to mind
this morning with a full page ad in the Times, titled "A Royal
Occasion." The supposedly royal occasion is that Sotheby’s is holding
an auction of the Duke and Duchess’ personal effects. "Own a piece
of royal history," says the ad, which notes that some items will go
for "as low as $100." It is very low indeed. For as little as
$500 you can own a pair of red velvet shoes worn by the Duchess. (As it
turned out, most items sold for many times more than the auctioneers anticipated.
More the pity.) "Net proceeds from the auction of the Collection of
the Duke and Duchess of Windsor will benefit the Dodi Fayed International
Charitable Foundation." Of course. How wondrous the cunning of history
that perfectly closes the circle by bringing together these four who reduced
public dignity to kitsch. "A former king and his love," as the
ad puts it, together with Dodi, a playboy who lived off his father’s billions
and achieved notoriety by getting killed in a car crash with a deeply confused
young woman celebrated for trashing the family that was her only claim
to public notice. A royal occasion? Hardly. It is a matter of exploiting
the detritus of parasitical lives that drew their glitteringly shabby sustenance
from the connections they betrayed. And all this, mind you, under the auspices
of Sotheby’s, which styles itself the world’s most distinguished dealer
in finer things. P. T. Barnum would be embarrassed. And Big George Beto,
may he rest in peace, would explain once again the inexorable connections
between duty and dignity, between dishonor and tackiness.
- Now in his ninetieth year, Dr. Erik Kuehnelt-Leddihn is undertaking
another American lecture tour this October-November. A Roman Catholic who
contends that much of the best in Catholicism is owed to Luther, a dissenter
from liberalism who makes an engaging argument as to why he is not a conservative,
Dr. Kuehnelt-Leddihn is one of the more ingenious intellects of our time,
and a good friend. For bookings, write him at A-6072, Lans, Tyrol, Austria.
- When asked—and I am asked with some degree of frequency—I always say
that the New Oxford Review is better than you might think from those
sensationalist ads for it that you see, it seems, almost everywhere (including
here). One fears, however, that the gap between hype and reality might
be narrowing. "The Church is at a major crossroads in her history,"
begins an editorial announcing that NOR is from now on going to
increase the number of pages in each issue. It appears the editor has been
talking with "orthodox Catholics" who are getting cold feet.
They caution that "it’s entirely possible we’ll get a Bernardin-style
Pope" (referring to the late Archbishop of Chicago) who will wimp
out on the hard questions. "In orthodox Catholic publishing,"
we are told, "some of our astute colleagues have apparently decided
to take a low profile or in effect sit on the sidelines." They think
it is "imprudent to alienate the people who may one day soon be running
the Church." Tell me it ain’t so, Deal Hudson at Crisis, Phil
Lawler at Catholic World Report. Et tu, Father Fessio? Not to fear,
however. Editor Dale Vree is standing tall. "We at the NOR refuse
to be an accomplice to that. We will keep our light burning—and in full
view—come what may. The savvy game plan devised by certain of our orthodox
colleagues has not diverted us from our purpose, and will not. So, beginning
with this issue, the NOR has forty pages (instead of thirty-two)
and will continue to have forty pages indefinitely into the future. . .
. Yes, our strategy is risky, both financially and in terms of further
alienating powerful people, but we feel called . . . to forge ahead—and
we will go forward with the signature words of John Paul’s pontificate,
‘Be Not Afraid,’ ever in our minds and hearts." One pictures those
powerful people with their savvy game plan gathered in a glitzy corporate
board room: "Gentlemen, despite our warnings, Vree says he’s going
ahead with the forty pages. We’ve got to stop him before he corners the
market on Catholic orthodoxy." I have always appreciated the Dale
Vree of two minds, the one that writes those silly ads and the one that
edits a generally sensible NOR. And I cannot help but respect a
magazine whose survey of its own readers indicates that the favorite publication
of the overwhelming majority is First Things. It is with the friendliest
of intentions, then, that I express the hope that Mr. Vree will not get
his minds together. Unless, of course, it would mean that the ads become
as sensible as the magazine generally is.
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