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Swedish Hate Crime
Monday, May 16, 2011, 4:26 PM

     Lately I've stumbled upon an on-line discussion about a violent assault, perpetrated by two African American teenage girls, on a man who was dressed as a woman and whom they caught in a women's rest room.  They beat him up pretty badly, and now they are being accused of "transphobia," which apparently is defined as an irrational hatred of people who think they were born as members of the wrong sex and who then go about cross-dressed.  The "hate crime" category is being suggested here, which would aggravate their punishment severely.  That prompted arguments back and forth, carried on at a depressingly low level, on whether "hate crime" legislation is an unconstitutional proscription of thoughts

     Those who were in favor of the legislation argued that we already criminalize evil thoughts that are acted upon, and that that is what separates a charge of murder from a charge of involuntary manslaughter.  That argument is absurd.  The difference between murder and involuntary manslaughter is a difference of intent, not opinion or attitude or feeling — and these are the things that people mean by "thought," when they inveigh against a Thought Police.  Intent is constitutive of the action.  That is, it not only prompts the action, but it stamps the action with its seal; it makes it the kind of action it is.  So if I have been drugged by a stranger, and in a delusional state take a heavy object and crush someone's skull with it, I am not guilty of murder, simply because I was not in a state to form the intent to kill.  If I see someone falling from the window of a thirty story building, either dead already or certain to die in moments, and I pull a gun and shoot, I am guilty of attempted murder, because the intent to kill informs my action.  What I feel about the body falling is of no consequence, unless it can be shown that I was motivated in part by something deeply disturbing, such as fear or a desire to avenge a terrible wrong, in which case, if anything, my passions will be a mitigating and not an aggravating factor.  It is why we consider murder for hire a worse thing than murder committed for passion.

     The defenders of the legislation could not perceive the difference between intent and attitude or feeling.  I don't think that the teenage girls should be out on the streets again for a long time, but they did not go out seeking this crime, motivated by hatred.  The crime, as it were, came to them.  They acted like barbarians and should be punished accordingly, but it would be utterly unjust to punish them worse, because they may have been motivated in part by scorn or disgust or fear or revulsion — if anything, those passions would mitigate their guilt somewhat.

     The one argument that the defenders of "hate crime" laws put forth was that such crimes are perpetrated to terrorize a whole community.  Sure, I will agree that if you are going to terrorize a community, you will probably be motivated by hatred (unless you are hired to do it, which again makes your crime all the more despicable).  But what is justly punished is not the hatred.  It is the intent to terrorize.  Let us say that you are the head of the Tartaglia crime family, and the local priest has been leading demonstrations against your control of corrupt politicians.  You have the priest executed, gangland style.  That, in my mind, is legitimately punished as more than murder.  The murder, after all, is committed not simply to kill a particular person, but to intimidate thousands of others.  It is an act of declared war on the public order. 

     So then, if someone happens to believe that homosexual pseudogamy is a threat to the public good, and if, being something of a hothead, he gets into a quarrel with his next door neighbor over noise late at night, and he loses his temper as they quarrel and breaks his jaw, it is quite unjust to aggravate his punishment if the neighbor happens to be homosexual.  For there we would be criminalizing a political viewpoint which rational and quiet and lawabiding people can hold (and many millions do hold it), or a passion, and not an intent.  We might change the characteristics of the next door neighbor, making him a redneck with tattoos, and the hothead neighbor a redneck-hating sociology professor.  The law does not touch the passion.  We know he shouldn't hate rednecks, but he does hate them, and we are within our rights to take that into account in mitigating his sentence, if we choose to mitigate it at all.  For there is not a single person alive who is not frail at times in this regard.  Moreover, in neither case would we have someone who set out to terrorize a whole community.  It's not as if the sociology professor passed out flyers reading, "Death to NASCAR," and snuck into a trailer park with an acetylene torch.

     But I do have an interesting case to look at, one that certainly does involve "hate crime."  It's this case, from a totalitarian regime.  Again, I don't think that holding or even preaching a political opinion, no matter how loathsome, is an actionable offense.  And I certainly don't wish to punish people for evil feelings.  But if "hate crime" legislation is morally defensible at all, it is as legislation aggravating the sentence for people whose crimes are intended to strike terror into the heart of a whole community.  So, for instance, if the Ku Klux Klan were to invade a black neighborhood and abduct a child, I agree heartily that that would be far worse than if a divorced husband were to abduct his own child.  That is not because of the political opinion or the feelings of the Kleagles, but because of the intent, which is to attack, directly, the whole community, and bully them into submission. 

     The Klansmen, if you accused them of hatred, might well respond with a shrug.  "We don't hate them," they might say.  "We just want them to live somewhere else."  They would be lying, but if they were telling the truth it would only make them all the more disgusting and depraved, because then they would be acting in cold blood.  But their emotions here don't matter.  The act and its intent are what matter.  They would be guilty of war against a community.  In such a case, capital punishment seems none too strong.  I'm not advocating for capital punishment, note well — but if a state did recognize capital crimes, abduction of a child with intent to terrorize a community would sure qualify.

     And this is exactly what the Swedish KKK, otherwise simply known as the Government, have done.  If the judge in question had hired a thug to abduct Domenic Johansson because he was her son and she wanted custody and hated her ex-husband, well then, I do understand that passion, and I'd certainly allow it as a mitigating factor.  But that was not the case at all.  The Swedish KKK abducted Domenic, who was only a few moments away from leaving Sweden forever with his mother and father, for the sole purpose of terrorizing every family in Sweden, particularly Christian homeschoolers, and bullying them into submission.  The Mafiosi leave the priest dead in a ditch, not because they hate him, and not because they hate priests (they may not, and if they do, it is neither here nor there), but because they want to make sure that no priest again will get up the nerve to oppose them.  That is what makes their murder more than a murder.  If the abominable people led by Fred Phelps were to invade Greenwich Village and abduct a child from a homosexual couple, that too would be more than kidnapping.  I don't think that children should be raised without both a mother and a father, but I also don't think that children should be abducted!

     What the Swedish KKK have done here is purely evil.  I have no doubt that many of the perpetrators have been as dispassionate as serpents, unblinking as they coil to strike.  I could go farther here.  As I said, I understand animal passions, and human passions.  But the cold passion, if it can be called a passion at all and not the deliberate freezing of all human feeling, that would sacrifice a child to make everyone else tremble before they question the authority of the state, that I find hard to understand.  Perhaps it is an evil that approaches what a deceased professor at Providence College once called "negative transcendence," an evil so deep, so devoted to the abyss of pride, that it can only be explained by diabolical inspiration. 

    "Ah, but it is for the child's best interest," says Moloch. 

Distilled Evil
Saturday, May 7, 2011, 9:40 PM

     I was riffling the other day through a compendium of writings from colonial times, and came upon an early constitution, I believe from Maryland, outlining capital crimes.  Murder, obviously, was a capital crime, as was what we'd call voluntary manslaughter.  Then there was "stealing a man," which meant, evidently, stealing a human being, or what we'd call kidnapping.  That too was a capital crime.  I'm not sure that capital punishment is a prudent sentence for a kidnapper, simply because, if he has nothing to lose, he might just murder his victim anyway to cover up the crime.  But I hardly think that it is an excessive punishment, if we imagine the horror the crime causes to the loved ones.

     So that has made me think of the battle that is before us as Christians, who believe in the holiness of the family, and its priority to the state.  For not all religionists believe in such priority.  I've been following the details of a state-sanctioned kidnapping in a non-Christian nation.  It seems that a young Christian couple decided that they did not want to send their son to the state school.  They fought matters out with the local school authorities, were harassed by them, subjected to daily fines, and haled before judges.  Finally, since one side of the family lived in another country, they decided they would simply move there.  It should be noted that they were violating no law, but non-Christian nations of a certain sort seem to have unwritten "laws" that trump laws that are actually on the books, so that they can boast that they support "freedom of religion," let us say while their ambassadors are hobnobbing at the UN, but the reality on the home ground is actually quite different.

     One would think that their decision to emigrate would settle the issue.  But then one would be underestimating how implacable the opposing religion is.  The Christian family had boarded a plane to fly to the mother's home country, when officials arrived before the plane took off, seized the boy, and put him in the custody of government-approved foster parents.  This, without a single charge of any crime, and without a single piece of evidence that the boy was anything but happy and confident.  The officials, of course, drummed up "justification" for the kidnapping, noting that the boy had two cavities that were untreated, in baby teeth.  When I was a kid, I had cavities in baby teeth now and then, and I will wager that so had every one of the kidnappers.

     The boy has now been living away from his mother and father for more than a year.  I believe that everyone involved in this kidnapping deserves to spend time behind bars — a lot of time.  You can read about the case here

     It is an example of distilled evil.  Burke wrote that there is nothing in nature so purely evil as the heart of a metaphysician, by which he did not mean the heart of someone who studies the meaning of cause and effect, and what "being" is, but an ideologue, one who applies a single idea, with relentless certitude, with mechanical or mathematical inexorability, to every human affair and all human conditions.  This is a case of such pure evil.  It does not palliate the evil that it is committed for the sake of the state religion. 

The Real World
Friday, March 25, 2011, 8:20 PM

     When my daughter was young, she would often be asked, not usually by fellow homeschoolers, why she kept reading The Lord of the Rings.  I told her to reply, "Because I want to know what's going on in the world."

     That came to my mind today after a discussion I had with a Catholic men's group at our school.  One of the young fellows told me that his professor in Introduction to Sociology — a typical course assigned during orientation to unsuspecting freshmen — expressed her disdain for our twenty-credit Development of Western Civilization Program, required of all students.  "You should be studying something that will be of use to you in the Real World," she said, "like feminist sociology."

     Pause here to allow the laughter to die down.

     Homo academicus saecularis sinister, the creature beside whom I have spent all my adult life, is a source of endless entertainment, like a child with wobbly consonants trying to talk serious grownup.  I really could not repress the merriment.  "If somebody said that to me," I laughed, "who was a construction worker, or who went down in the mines, or quarried rock, or built roads, I'd say, 'Fellow, you're wrong about that,' but at least I'd say there was something to what he'd said."  But homo academicus saecularis sinister doesn't really have much regard for the men who do that.  HASS never drives down the highway, saying, "You know, I'm quite lucky, because I don't have to break my back in the sun, and I get three months of the year off, and am paid quite well compared with what a man or a woman who does something absolutely necessary is paid, as for instance the men who rolled the asphalt on this road I'm speeding on."  Indeed HASS will complain about never being paid in accordance with his or her intelligence, which, according to the most reliable testimony, that of HASS — who should know best, after all — is astonishingly high.

     When I hear a phrase like "The Real World," I must confess that I fall into the sin of detraction.  That is, I immediately detract fifteen points of intelligence and ten points of common sense from my interlocutor.  If it's followed by such phrases as "today's society" or "the global marketplace" or "thinking outside the box," I inevitably turn to an object of greater interest, a child playing in a sandbox, a retriever wagging his doggy tail, or the purple streaks of cloud gathering in the west.  I dearly hope that my students will never consider the sand-furrowing child, or the galumphing retriever, or the setting sun, to be anything other than deeply Real, mysteriously and beautifully and achingly Real, and that their encounter with the great poetry and art of the west, not to mention that perennial philosophy of Aristotle, and that wisdom-seeking eros of Plato, and the word of God itself, will confirm them in their love for that Reality.

     One of the students said, "She's overeducated," but alas, that is not true.  If I were to take my friend the truck driver to the Sistine Chapel, he would not be so foolish, I am sure, as to say, "Hmm, a lot of naked people falling all over themselves."  He would sense that there was a mystery there to which he'd hope someone might introduce him, to lead him by the hand, saying, "Notice the electric space between the finger of God and the finger of Adam," or "See how Michelangelo has painted his own face in the sagging skin held by Saint Bartholomew."  My friend might be slightly undereducated for an hour in the Sistine Chapel — and who, for that hour, would not be?  But the college professor who sniffs at the Gilgamesh, Hesiod, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Pindar, Plato, Aristotle, Livy, Cicero, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, Augustine, the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the letters of Saint Paul — just to take the first semester for example – is not overeducated.  That professor is undereducated, and overschooled, a deadly combination.  Deadly, but common enough, from what I see, and especially common among people who reduce all matters to contemporary partisan politics, as homo academicus saecularis sinister is wont to do.

What Happened to Marching Bands?
Monday, February 7, 2011, 10:16 AM

     Last night I watched the Super Bowl with the sound off.  It was nice not having my nerves jangled by computer generated whooshes and bombastic apocalyptic football-music and the chatter of Joe Buck (sorry, Joe, but you're not your father Jack, nice guy though you may be).  I heard later on that the pop star who was supposed to sing the National Anthem blew it.  I'll bet, though there's no way to confirm this, that she doesn't understand what the words mean.  And I'll bet she's not the only singer who doesn't.

     I did also glance at the commercials, and, for a moment or two now and then, at the halftime show.  And I asked myself, "If I were a creature from another planet, or, maybe more outlandish still, somebody transported to this day from 1940, what would I guess about the people who apparently find this stuff appealing?"  Let's see, then.  If such things are evidence, I'd say, "Their favorite color is black — they film everything as if under a metallic blackness.  They enjoy spitefulness and cruelty.  They don't really understand human creativity, but confuse it with bells and whistles and cheap tricks.  They put no premium on kindness, grace, gentleness, nobility.  Their women are harsh, their men are either softheaded boors or monsters.  There is nothing childlike in them.  They think they appreciate the beauty of the human form, but they don't; they wish to transform it into something mechanical.  They will say that they are just joking, but that too is revealing.  Why should they find nastiness and spitefulness funny?  More to the point, why should they find only nastiness and spitefulness funny?"

     Ugly sure is expensive.  If you had a fine marching band out there, all right, maybe technically they wouldn't be as "talented" as some of the image generating geeks are, but they wouldn't be ugly.  You have to go well out of your way to be ugly.  You have to try hard, spend a lot of money, twist and wrench things out of order. 

     People will say, "That's comedy, and comedy has always been that way."  No, it hasn't.  Was there a nasty streak in some of the comedy Americans enjoyed before, say, 1970?  Yes, here and there.  It was never a dominant note.  W. C. Fields played a nasty child-hating cad, and I guess that's why I never liked W. C. Fields, but I don't think we were supposed to approve of his nastiness — the joke was on him.  Milton Berle was, I've heard, an extraordinarly nasty man, and some of that leaks through into his comic routines, though that was not his intention.  I guess some people would say that Groucho Marx plied the comedy of nastiness, but I don't see that, and when in later years he hosted You Bet Your Life, he was smart, gracious, a trifle bawdy, and self-deprecating.  After them, you get a lot of people whose personal lives were pretty rocky — Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Lou Costello — but whose principal aim, in their prime, was to make people laugh, and in Jackie's case, to make people laugh with tragic sympathy for a poor sinner who never seemed to learn a lesson.  Jackie was, in his prime, one of those comedians you couldn't laugh at unless somehow you also laughed with, enjoying and forgiving the human foibles: Jack Benny, Gracie Allen, Jerry Lewis (when he was young), Bob Hope.  Then there were the immensely appealing geniuses of physical comedy and clowning — Jackie and Lucy were here too, and Art Carney, and Costello, but also guys like Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and, of course, Chaplin.  Cary Grant was a comic actor of impeccable timing, but one who also knew that for his comedy to work it could not skid off the rails into hardness or meanness.  If there's a Cary Grant out there now, that would be news to me.

     Even in the 1960's, the television comedies were not nasty.  Most of them could be divided into two groups: the zany, and the lovable rubes (and sometimes both at once).  Paul Henning, who produced the Burns and Allen Show, took that offbeat humor and made hay with it, producing the quirky and often satirical (at the expense of city slickers and rich folks) Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres.  They might have been the best of the zanies, but there were plenty: Get Smart, Gilligan's Island, McHale's Navy, Sergeant Bilko (a tad of nastiness there), F Troop, The Munsters, The Addams Family … Some of these hold up pretty well.  The lovable rubes could be seen in The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies … That's not counting the best comedy of the decade, The Dick Van Dyke Show, which doesn't fit either category, and, if it had been made nowadays, would be thoroughly nasty.

      What will people say about us a hundred years hence, when they see what we laughed at?  "What happened to them?"  So I'm guessing.

Of the Burning of Books
Saturday, January 29, 2011, 9:50 PM

     We've just begun, in our Development of Western Civilization course, to discuss the Middle Ages, and in particular how the monks in those early years, from the German takeover of the western empire in 476, to perhaps the crowning of Otto as Holy Roman Emperor in 962, were the men primarily responsible for preserving the ancient pagan and Christian learning in the west and for extending civilization to the wilds of Germany and beyond.  It's a remarkable story, told by Christopher Dawson and others far better than I can tell it.  What's most remarkable, though, is not that the men managed such a thing, against some long odds, nor even that, given the antipathy against pagan learning expressed by a minority of influential Christian writers such as Tertullian, they even considered it worthwhile to do in the first place.  It's that, apart from a few people who actually study the Middle Ages or the history of the Church, they get no credit for such a prodigious feat; rather they are often accused of the cultural equivalent of setting fire to the library at Alexandria, and this by the very people whose trousers smell of gasoline and who have matches sticking out of their pockets.

     I think here of Dante, whose practice in this regard was no different from that of his intellectual master, the great friar Thomas Aquinas, who himself followed a long line of schoolmen, not all of the same philosophical or theological opinions — indeed there was often fiery controversy — who considered pagans such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil to be venerable authorities.  Dante was far from the first to call Aristotle "The Philosopher," or the Arab Averroes "The Commentator."  Granted, not everyone thought that Aristotle was a healthy fellow for a Christian to study, but those who were wary of him were not wary at all of what they knew of Plato.  The writers of the Middle Ages were, if anything, a little free with their veneration, so that to read an argument by Chaucer's Pardoner or Wife of Bath or the talking chicken Chaunticleer is to hear citations from one pagan or early Christian author after another, Seneca, Horace, Ovid, Augustine, Cato, Cicero, and so forth.  That habit of theirs, really a mark of wise humility, earned them the reproach of being a bit slavish, but a glance at the art and the intellectual works they actually produced shows that they were instead astoundingly original, suorum generum.  Dante read all the Roman poetry he could find, and made of Virgil his guide through Hell and Purgatory.  He probably had the whole Aeneid committed to memory: from Virgil, his pilgrim namesake says in Inferno, he derived the lovely style that has honored him.  Yet there is nothing in the ancient world like the Divine Comedy.  There is nothing even close.  If we compare Dante with Tasso, or Milton, or Camoens, or other lesser epic poets of the Renaissance, we see the difference.  Over and over, in the Renaissance poets — the poets of that age that saw itself as the rebirth of the grandeur of the past — we see the same Virgilian or Homeric topoi repeated, the female warrior who dies mid-epic, the capture of a hero by a dangerously beautiful lady, the speeches of the leader to his crestfallen followers, the funeral games, the wise Nestor who gives good martial advice, the Helen and the Hector and the Turnus and the Achilles.  But Dante, who read Virgil to better effect than any of them, has no such, but crafts a work the like of which had never been seen before.  Nor is Dante alone.  The Gawain poet, Chretien de Troyes, William Langland, Boccaccio, the Provencal troubadours, the Minnesaenger, Snorri Sturlusson, the author of the Nibelungenlied — what we have in the Middle Ages is a wild proliferation of poets who were heirs to pretty much the same pagan and Christian learning, who revered it, and who produced works of surprising originality.  We may say much the same thing about their drama and their architecture.  The Romanesque is a wholly new style, despite its tenuous relation to ancient Roman building, and then comes the French style, dismissively called "Gothic" by broadminded people of a later age, a style that is endlessly fascinating.

     When I was in Sweden with my daughter this summer, we saw some churches with plaster ceilings that were entirely white.  But now and then we'd see a shadow beneath the white, and that made me wonder if there hadn't been paintings underneath, whitewashed over.  My guess was correct.  In the Enlightenment, that period of self-satisfied bigotry, the constriction of the arts, and the consigning of centuries of human learning to the flames, the smart people of the day commissioned the destruction of works of folk art that were learned, intricate, and quite beautiful.  It is hardly an isolated instance of the phenomenon of culture-destroying among deistic or antiecclesiastical elites.  Francis Bacon consigned Aristotle to irrelevance, but it is much to be doubted whether he actually read such Renaissance Thomists as Suarez and Banez, much less Thomas himself.  The smarties of the eighteenth century sniffed with contempt upon things medieval — for almost two hundred years Dante is almost wholly unread outside of Italy.  What happened, too, to all the stained glass windows in the cathedrals of France?  One wonders how much literature has been lost because the courtiers of the Renaissance, unlike the monks, were simply not interested in preserving medieval manuscripts.  John Dewey, despiser of all learning originating in an age before John Dewey's, tried his hardest, and with wonderful success, to eliminate classical learning from American public schools.

     And now in our own day, who are the burners of books?  I note with real pleasure that homeschoolers, the large majority of them Christian, and those in charge of upstart evangelical and Catholic high schools and colleges, are the ones in the United States who are preserving classical learning.  They study Aristotle — with impressive care — at Thomas Aquinas College in California.  They learn Latin and Greek at Patrick Henry College, a school whose students are to the typical Ivy Leaguers what linebackers are to waterboys.  I could say similar things about the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, the Great Books program at Baylor, the Catholic Studies Program at the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota, Thomas More College, and many more such places, but I could not say them about too many other schools.

     Meanwhile, at many another school, the secular fires go on burning.  This week I met a wonderfully engaging and very smart candidate for a position teaching medieval literature at my school.  She told me that she had been informed by her department that they would cease to offer a course in the history of the English language after her departure.  That is not because such a course would be unpopular, but because they believed it should not be taught.  Why not, you ask?  She informed me that in many English departments, the professors believe that study of the older literature, say before 1800, and especially medieval literature, should simply die away.  It should not be taught.  Again, that's not because Chaucer would be unpopular.  On the contrary, the fear is precisely that students would come to love Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton.  That's why those authors should die the death.  Shakespeare, of course, avoids the ax, mainly by being conscripted into the legions of the politically correct. 

     So, as has happened before, it will happen again: if Western culture is to be preserved for a better age, the church will have to do it.  No one else will.

Shallow and Crazy at Once
Monday, January 10, 2011, 12:04 PM

     If his writings and self-made videos are any evidence, the gunman in Arizona the other day was out of his mind.  Try to read aloud his ramblings about the dating of years — he seems not to have understood what "BCE" refers to — or about teaching a child to substitute one letter for another in every word he writes wherein the letter appears, or about controlling your own dreams, or about the government's controlling your dreams.  You can't do it.  The very syntax of intelligible thought breaks down.  If we found out today that he was following orders from a dog whose father's name was Sam, no one would be surprised.

     That's madness, all right.  But the madness that has impressed me recently isn't of that sort.  I tried last night to check on the progress of the negotiations between my Saint Louis Cardinals and the great Albert Pujols, only to find that even on the baseball site, people were talking about the shootings in Arizona, and were saying things that were, in a sense, madder than anything coming from the gunman.  Many years ago I spent a summer at a Catholic Worker house in Washington, and met several people whose hold on reality was intermittent and vague.  One woman believed that the Russians and Arabs had conspired to kidnap her Siberian husky, to do experiments on it in a basement in the city.  Another man believed that space aliens had attempted to contact him by inscribing messages, via lightning, upon a rock on a mountain in West Virginia.  Now if such a person should say, "I believe that Glenn Beck paid this gunman off," we would but shake our heads and try to change the subject, maybe asking him to go find the canned peaches in the basement, or something.

     Yes, I would find that to be crazy enough, but it is a craziness that is in a way identifiable.  What's harder to deal with are the comments made by people who do not think they are Napoleon.  Here what's broken down is not intelligibility, but intelligence; and we end up with shallowness and craziness at once.  Let me give an example from a day or two before the shootings.  A certain professor, who considers himself a conservative, but who is actually something of a proponent of technocracy and Randian rapacity, wrote in what he thought was defense of religious faith.  Some people, he said, are strong and morally upright by themselves, and do not need a belief in a Creator and Judge to keep them in line.  But others, most others, need that; and therefore we should not discourage religious faith, because the more we can rely upon people to govern themselves, the less we need to turn to law and bureaucracy and so forth.

     Now that whole argument is upside down, subjecting religious faith to the needs of the state, just as Hobbes had done; but that's not my point.  I am thinking about this great army of faithless and virtuous people.  Where are they?  Yes, I know that there are faithless and nice people, who might not burn down my house or rape my children, and who might make very fine dinner companions, and who might, to stretch a point, retain something of a Christian moral vision, the tatters of such a vision, after they had turned away from Christ.  But can someone write as this writer had done, with the slightest notion of the difficulty of moral virtue?  Even the pagan Romans, who had no clear notion of the fallenness of man, called it virtus because it denoted a hard-won manhood.  If we made an examination of conscience, beginning with lust, the least of the seven deadly sins, we'd have to give up right there, if we're the typical American, and never get round to gluttony. 

     But we, who have no clear notion of virtue at all — we who are so shallow that we scramble to figure out some way to condemn the professor recently charged with incestuous acts with his grown daughter — we, of all people, hurl condemnations this way and that, with gleeful abandon.  And there's a madness to that, a madness absurd in its claims to sanity.  The standard madman charge against religious faith is that it breeds dissension (and note, by the way, that it is "religious faith" that comes under fire, conveniently vaporous, and not Jesus).  Well, I imagine Vikings trampling booty-laden back to their ships, with the smoke of a burnt town in the distance, complaining about the table manners of the men of Kent.  It breeds dissension?  As opposed to what wonderful unity we enjoy? 

     We are rapidly becoming a people whom, in the main, no respectable peasant of past years would have allowed his children to associate with.  The principal virtue that we boast of is that we impose no virtues on ourselves; and the result is that we fail to see the evil where it is.  We live in a sty laden with dung, and complain about the bad breath of our political opponents.  We divorce almost half the time we bother to marry in the first place, and look with scorn upon people of past ages, who took marriage seriously enough to suppose that it was the foundation of a decent community.  We have made a fetish of sex, of youth, of prestigious work, of money, of autonomy, and of politics, and yet we hate the manhood of men and the womanhood of women, we dispense with our children, and we are bound to the silliest and costliest fads of the day. 

     I am reading about the beloved Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who observed a ten year period of silence, and who retreated to the forest to live a life of prayer and fasting.  Out of his mind, the knowing secularist would say.  Yet when Saint Seraphim, in his old age, returned to "the world," he became the spiritual director of a convent of nuns he established, gave counsel to hundreds of people who came to him every week, dictated to one of his friends a work of deep and humane instruction in the ascetic life, healed the sick, and radiated a profound joy.  Saint Seraphim was sane in the old sense of the word: he was whole and sound.  If the political wranglings of our time — and the amoralism that goes along with them — are sane, then give me the madness of Seraphim.  I'd be nearer the Lord, I'd be wiser and happier, I'd be of more use to my family and friends, and I'd get more done.

Some Cold Water
Thursday, January 6, 2011, 10:34 PM

     Not a terribly serious post, this.  Recently I read an article by a sports reporter who begged that we use our common sense and not compare apples with oranges.  He was discussing the winning streak of the Connecticut Lady Huskies, recently snapped at 90, and the longest winning streak in Division 1 college men's basketball, that of the UCLA Bruins under John Wooden, 88 games in a row.  The man made the obvious point that the women's game is not the men's game, which is to say, though he did not say it, that if there were no strict segregation of the sexes, there would be no women's game at all.  He asked that people give due credit to both teams, and not try to force a comparison that had no point to it.  Then he wrote what I think is the silliest sentence on a sports page that I have read in many years, and that is saying quite a lot.  He wrote that if the UCLA Bruins played the Lady Huskies 88 times, they would win all 88, and by a margin of at least 30 points.

     I am trying to imagine such a game.  I am trying to imagine the team with Lew Alcindor (soon to be known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar), with his elegant sky-hook, or the team with that sequoia of a man, Bill Walton.  Who is going to cover Alcindor or Walton?  Who will prevent them from scoring at will?  If they miss the basket inside, who will outleap them to catch the rebound?  It is something like imagining Marshall Faulk in a football game against a pretty good high school team.  Who is going to tackle him even once?  What is to prevent him from scoring every time he carries the ball?

     If it is hard to envision the Wooden teams of old, maybe a team nearer our time would make matters easier.  I am thinking of the great North Carolina team of the early 1980's.  This team was not, perhaps, as great as Wooden's teams, nor did enjoy anything like comparable success.  I believe the team made it to two national championship games and won one of them, against Georgetown, on a last-second errant pass thrown right into the hands of the Carolina guard.  Now that North Carolina team featured the man who is probably still considered the greatest basketball player who ever lived, Michael Jordan.  Right there with Jordan, and perhaps at the time superior to him in skill, was James Worthy, himself an NBA Hall of Famer and one of the fifty greatest to play the game.  The third in a stupendous trio was Sam Perkins, who, while never attaining the level of greatness of a Jordan or a Worthy, became a superb NBA player in his own right, in a long career. 

     So I am attempting to picture Michael Jordan, all six foot six of him, with superlative ability to leap, and with large and nimble hands, being "covered" by one of the Lady Huskies, and for the life of me I cannot do it.  I cannot see how he does not drive at will to the basket, or, if he chooses, pass inside to the taller Worthy and the much taller Perkins.  Nor can I see how the Lady Huskies, on offense, can possibly penetrate to the inside, being for all intents thicketed by the arms and legs and trunks of men much bigger than they are, and faster, and more agile.

     That's just for starters.  Thirty points?  The height differential alone would be worth thirty points.  Then there is the leaping differential.  And the strength differential.  And the speed differential.  And the size of the hands.  And the agility of the arms and legs, not encumbered by the woman's angle between the thigh and the calf (that makes for plenty of blown ACL's), nor by the woman's angle between the forearm and the arm from shoulder to elbow.  And the size of the basketball, which, even for absolutely free shots, would cut the women's offense by twenty percent, all other things being equal — and of course, all other things would be very far from equal.  I do understand that a small men's team can sometimes cause a tall men's team some fits, but they can only do so by means that would be unavailable to the women.  They would have to be faster and more agile, playing tenacious defense, and they would have to be able to shoot from the outside.  But men shoot from the outside by jump shots, releasing the ball from above the level of the head.  One of the most notable things about the women's game is that that is not done.  The women lack the strength, or their hands are too small to control the ball that far away from the body, so the "jump" shots are made from the level of the chest, or at best the face.  The first time I saw this I was astonished — I could not believe it; I am used to it now.  It stands to reason that no man of Michael Jordan's height could make a shot from the outside, with Jordan covering, by such a release.  It would be stuffed.  Then a fortiori the woman who is smaller and who cannot leap as high will not do it either.

     The upshot of it all is this: if you ordered the men to play for keeps, and fined them heavily for every shot the women made from the field, then, not counting a few free throws for a few fouls, Jordan and Worthy and Perkins (and Matt Doherty and Jimmy Black) would basically shut them out.  Basketball is a contact sport, and the defending team, especially if they are relatively slow afoot, usually suffers the brunt of an offensive player's legitimate charge; plenty of times the defender is thrust hard to the floor and is called, himself, for the foul.  The situation would not only be unfair to the women; it would be perilous.  The only question would be, in how many of the 88 games would the women score as many as five baskets from the field.  I am guessing that such a thing might happen a few times, but no more. 

     My brother-in-law has confirmed my suspicion.  When he was a freshman playing for a mediocre freshmen boys' team in high school, the girls at Carbondale Area were enjoying a 55-game winning streak, and at least one state championship.  So the girls' coach, one Mary Ann Egnatovich, asked his coach whether she could have her team scrimmage against the boys.  The boys didn't know what to expect; after all, the girls were juniors and seniors and were State champions.  So they scrimmaged, and it was a complete slaughter, and Miss Egnatovich called a halt to it before they were halfway through.

     I guess I will be called names for saying these things.  Martina Navratilova, a feminist if ever there was one, but also an honest woman, once challenged Vitas Gerulaitis to a match.  Martina was simply the Michael Jordan of women's tennis, and Gerulaitis was a very good player, but no superstar.  Gerulaitis clobbered her, 6-1, 6-1.  I actually believe that Martina's performance was quite impressive; I do not see how anyone but a Martina Navratilova could hold service against a top male player even once a set.  Chris Evert, back when she was Chris Evert Lloyd, played regularly against her husband John Lloyd, who was a nobody on the men's singles tour, and never beat him, not even once.  And that's tennis, which puts much less of a premium on size and strength than does basketball, and is not a contact sport. 

     I should add, too, that before the infamous Title IX was passed, tennis and golf were the top women's sports, in that order.  Forty years later, after all the social experimentation and the expenditure of millions and the destruction of thousands of boys' and men's teams, golf and tennis are still the top women's sports, only the order has been reversed.  It is a fascinating case of enshrining discrimination on Monday (otherwise there are no women's teams), and then outlawing it on Tuesday, when it comes to making up rosters and allocating money.


The Freedom of Man, 2
Friday, December 17, 2010, 5:58 PM

     If we're to discuss liberty, we must come first to an understanding of man — what is good for man, what is the ought that expresses itself in a clear view of man's being.  I'd like to follow the line of thinking from the Fathers, through Thomas Aquinas, Dante, and such Renaissance Christian humanists as Spenser and Milton, as opposed to the fundamental nihilism of Hobbes and almost all social-contract theorists.  Liberty, for Dante, is not so much a formal freedom of the will, and certainly not a guarantee of certain kinds of political action, but a freedom of judgment that orients man toward his fulfillment, a fulfillment which is the same for all men, because we all share the same nature.  That is, I am truly free not simply by virtue of my will, and not because I suffer no undue constraints upon the political expression of my will, but because my judgment is trained toward God and the City of God.  Sin is a self-shackling, a binding of the soul to what is base, futile, alienating, and empty.  That is why, when the pilgrim Dante has been scoured clean of the effects of all seven of the deadly sins, climbing the rest of Purgatory Mountain is not difficult for him: "I felt my feathers growing for the flight," says he.  His liberty comes to full flower in the joys of faith, hope, and love, and — it is crucial to keep this in mind — it is what makes it possible for him to be a citizen, as Beatrice says, "where Christ is Roman, in that Rome above."  One of the sweetest things about the freedom-making mountain is that it reunites people with one another, singing, praying, conversing, assisting one another in penance, rejoicing for one another's victories.  In exitu Israel de Aegypto, sing the blessed souls in the boat on its way to the island, and they sing not as discrete Israelites, but as Israel, foreshadowing their membership in the New Jerusalem.

     If we believe, with Thomas, that grace perfects nature, then man's orientation toward the bliss of heaven — a bliss that the maiden of Pearl says is enjoyed all the more, the more there are to enjoy it — then what here on earth corresponds to that bliss?  It is our life together with one another, as we pursue the common good here, and the greater good of eternal life, which is in its essence, says Dante's Piccarda, "to live in loving."  That is the freedom we long for.  Such a vision in its richness and its human depth makes utilitarianism look like the scheme of a smart-aleck adolescent with too much time on his soft little hands.  For utilitarianism seeks some quantitatively conceivable "greatest good" for numerable people; but all the premises upon which it is based are faulty.  People are not for, from, and with themselves — they are not, or they ought not to be, Narcissi gazing into ponds of their own making.  They are for, from, and with one another.  Then they cannot simply be numbered, just as parts of a living creature cannot be numbered.  The good that they receive — beyond those things necessary for life and some small measure of comfort — is good just to the extent that it is shared; meaning that the sharing itself is fundamental to the good in question.  You cannot enjoy a part of a friendship.  You cannot be a friend alone.

     Collectivism and liberalism make the same basic mistake, which is to submerge the true human individual — that is, the human being made in the image of God, and therefore made to enjoy his liberty in acts of love for God and for his fellows – under the sludge of an ideology that abstracts man from love.  So we end up with a leviathan State that is loveless, and that compels the ants in its charge to do their duty, while leaving the ants "free" to do those things that the State cares nothing about, or that end up feeding the State.  For instance, the ants may be "free" to pursue individual pleasures, for that demotion of love is all to the benefit of the State that can, nay must, intervene ever so benignly to manage the chaos that must erupt.  The ants are "free" to ogle nude formic thoraxes, which is just another way to keep them really apart from one another and therefore of less threat to the State.  Each "freedom" that the State concedes is a limited license, bearing no relation to what the ants are supposed by nature to become, since no nature is acknowledged.  Nor are we ever to recall that devotion alone unites us.  We are to distrust our very Savior; we demote him to an individual's pursuit, like backgammon or squash.  Instead we have the great Substitute, the liberal State, or the collectivist State.

     I do very much want to strangle the Leviathan, but not to establish a bare and godless individualism as the law of the land.  That would be but to invite a second Leviathan to come and set up his throne in the north.  It is precisely because I believe in communities and families and the common good that I want the great all-competent State to die the death it so richly deserves.  All of which compels the question, what would a decent community look like?

Freedom for Man
Sunday, December 12, 2010, 10:30 PM

     I've promised that I'd describe why, though I love liberty, I can't call myself a libertarian.  The question compels me to turn to a Christian view of man, one that can find corroboration in Aristotle and in certain strands of Stoicism, but that is only fulfilled in the Body of Christ. 

     This view prescinds from a Trinitarian paradox.  God has made each of us in His image and likeness; what does this mean?  I used to believe that the revelation had to do with what separated man from the lesser animals: we employ reason; we are possessed of intellect; we perform spiritual actions (as, for instance, contemplating the divine); we are endowed with immortal souls.  Yet the verse in Genesis, as has long been noted, is strangely plural: "Let us make man in our image," says God.  Some critics believe that the plural is a fly in amber, a residue of polytheism surviving in a much later text.  I find the suggestion absurd.  We have, in Genesis 1, a hymn to creation, such as we find also in God's speech to Job from the whirlwind, and in Psalm 8.  In the latter texts, God is shown as with the "sons of morning," or he has made man "a little less than the angels," so that we should expect no less here, particularly since we will find angels in the expulsion of man from Eden, and all throughout the epic of the early patriarchs.  But the Fathers saw also an intimation of the Trinity, since, after all, it is never suggested that man is made in the image of the angels — they who rather are also made in God's image, with names that reflect the unicity of God, like Michael ("Who is like God?", implying the answer, "No one is like God").  Now if man is made in the image of the three-personed God, it is not only "not good for man to be alone," it is downright self-contradictory, since God himself is not the lonely God of Omar (Chesterton), and to contemplate Him is no "flight of the alone to the Alone" (Plotinus), but is a contemplation of a communion of Love.

     This meaning of man is intimated also, as C. S. Lewis saw, and as has been meditated upon by the last two Popes, by our having faces.  Yes, so do many of the animals, but only man will gaze with love into the face of another, seeking the heart of the one he loves.  When Dante meets Saint Benedict in the circle of Saturn in Paradise, he makes the remarkable request — remarkable, seeing that since the circle of Mercury he has not even been able to divine the merest traces of a countenance — that "father" Benedict show him his face.  That cannot be, says Benedict, until Dante arrives in the very presence of God, in the empyrean, wherein all the faces of the saints will be clear.  Then, after his short conversation with the pilgrim, Benedict rises again to his sphere, accompanied by his brothers in contemplation.  I think Dante here is suggesting two truths about man here.  The first is that we are only truly ourselves, and we will truly know one another, when we are made one in God.  The second is that we are made for communion; the heart of the monastic life is eucharistic.  These two truths about man illuminate one another.  They are but the twin commandment given by Jesus, that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.

     Thus the "individual" as understood in rationalist social-contract theories is, for the Christian, already a reduction, even an abstraction.  To be, as Pope Benedict has said, is revealed to us as to be from, to be with, and to be for: it is the Trinitarian mystery of existence.  We must not think of people as, primarily, individuals, to which are superadded contingent relationships.  Every person is born into a world of relationships: is the child of a mother and a father.  In a certain sense, it is correct to remember that Jesus would have died on the cross to save even one of us: he loves all, in such a way as to love each, as if each were the only being in the world.  But each of us is not the only being in the world, and could never be, so that when Jesus saves me he saves the fellow who is the son of Anthony and Jane, the husband of Debra; and it is also those relationships of love that he has come to heal and redeem.  That is but what it means to save the individual.

     I grant that this is a great mystery.  But I think it helps us to avoid the unnecessary dichotomy between rights, which are supposed to inhere only in individuals, and responsibilities, which are supposed to be owed only to others.  In point of fact, my rights and responsibilities are incoherent if considered as separate from one another, since I am fundamentally from, with, and for others.  A family is more than an agglomeration of human isotopes; to deny that it too possesses rights is to mistake what a human being is.  If no man is an island, and if every man's death diminisheth me, then every man's evil harms me, and every man's virtue builds me up.  All these things we need to consider when we ask, "What does a just society look like?", and, what is not the same thing, "What form of government best serves the end of justice?"  We will conclude that it is not true that the "freest" society is the most just, if by freedom we mean the license to behave as if we were alone in the world, pursuing individual ends, but that a just society will be the most free — because it will be a society of genuine liberty wherein human beings can best flourish.  I'm not original here, far from it.  More on this soon.


The Morality of Legislating
Friday, December 3, 2010, 7:42 PM

     Let me say up front that because I try to be an orthodox Catholic, taking my inspiration from the teachings of the Church, I cannot be a libertarian; nor do I think that libertarians have much that is useful to say about the fulfillment of man's nature as a social being.  I also suspect, in my moments of sporadic agreement with the pacificst theologian Stanley Hauerwas, that we Christians in the United States have a greater need of beggars than we would care to admit — a need of people who turn aside from the moneying game.  Some of those beggars may be unemployable for practical reasons, but others may be genuine contemplatives, who remind us that the heart of  life is not to be found in a paycheck, or in the fancy things we snatch at the store. 

     Nor do I have any natural affection for rich people.  The small town where I grew up had one or two sort-of rich people in it: the family that owned the oldest continuously-running pharmacy in the country (now defunct); the family of the town doctor; the family that ran the biggest grocery store (now a supermarket, and sold away).  I went to the local Catholic grade school with the children from these families, who lived pretty much as everyone else lived, except in a Victorian house.  My first real encounter with Money came when I went to college, and met kids who went to boarding schools (what were they?), whose parents took vacations to Bermuda (we went to visit my cousins in New Jersey), whose pastimes included sailing (our Lackawanna River was four feet deep), and who frequented expensive restaurants (we could get lobster at Sharkey's for three dollars a pound).  I found it hard sometimes to make friends with them, not that I or they tried very hard at it.

     And yet — I don't exactly sympathize with "the rich," whoever they may be, but I don't envy them, either, and I certainly don't want their money.  They can keep it, for all I care, and for all the good it will do them.  There's something that unsettles me about the idea that they "owe" me or their country a far greater portion of their substance than I or anybody else owes.  I understand that, within reason, rich people should pay taxes in accordance with their wealth, and that they do.  But I want to be careful here.  If a bridge needs to be built, then the state has the moral duty to raise money to build the bridge, which will serve the common good.  It's justifiable, then — one can make a case for it — to tax wealthy people at a somewhat higher rate than others are taxed, to build the bridge; for it may be that the wealthy will enjoy a greater benefit from anything that the state does to encourage trade or business, seeing that they have more substance to invest in business to begin with.  But it doesn't seem right to me to advocate taking money from A, because he has it, to give it to B, because he doesn't have it, without making B subject to expectations enjoined upon him by the local community of which A or someone like A is a part.  That is, if I lend money to my nephew Ronnie, I have the right to expect that he will not blow it at Foxwood's, but will use it for the purpose for which I lent it.  That's not simply because it's my money, but because I could have put that same money to a hundred other uses — I might have given it instead to my niece, or my neighbor.  The principle is similar to that of eminent domain.  The state may take my property, compensating me for it with a just price, to build something that might, in principle, be used by everyone, directly or nearly-directly, such as a bridge, a road, a harbor, or an airport.  But it may not in justice take my property merely to give it to someone else, like a developer, who happens to want it, and who dangles in front of the city the possibility of a higher tax base.  I might want to keep my house for selfish reasons, just as a miser might want to keep his money.  But I might want to keep it for good and generous reasons, just as a father who has been successful in business might use some of his wealth to build a neighborhood playground, or to set up a family member in a trade, or to buy new hymnals for his church.

     The welfare state begins by compelling people to put money aside for their old age — the fiction of the Social Security trust fund comes to mind.  There, at least, there is some correspondence between what the state takes from you and what the state will give back.  And the state has a genuine interest in keeping people from destitution.   But what happens eventually is that people in charge of a welfare state come to think of all things as belonging to them: children, for instance, are wards of the state, lent out to their parents conditionally; families are creations of the state; money is all the state's to play with, so that refraining from raising people's taxes is viewed as a "gift" to them.  I don't see that.  Nor do I see that Death is some game-scrambler, the great opportunity to ignore the generation-spanning essence of the family, so as to rifle half of an estate, often compelling people to sell a homestead just to pay the taxes on it.

     I'm not talking here about current economic policy.  I don't pretend to be an economist.  Maybe we need to raise taxes during a recession, though that seems counterintuitive to me.  What bothers me is the sense that somehow the desire to levy taxes on the wealthy is a sign of moral maturity, and that a rich man is merely selfish to resent any use of those monies.  As I said, I don't see that.

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