I’ve avoided blogging about the HCR litigation, because the real action is obviously in the Supreme Court, which won’t get to it for a little while. But the willingness of Republican-appointed federal district judges to strike this law down is interesting. The latest is the district court in the Florida litigation. The idea that the government can’t — in principle — force you to buy a commercial product is, to me, laughable. Ever heard of Social Security? Medicare? There is such an easy way to justify the individual mandate under the tax power. And I find the Commerce Clause powers challenge to the mandate strangely formalistic in its reliance on a distinction between acts and omissions. Even on the Commerce Clause front, the holding in Wickard v. Filburn really does seem to dispose of the case, since that case also involved the regulation of the failure to participate in a market (i.e., production of corn for home consumption that allowed the farmer to bypass market transactions). That said, precedent is as precedent does. And so the challenge raises interesting questions about the intellectual integrity of certain conservative members of the Supreme Court. Scalia was content to rely on Wickard to uphold criminal prohibition of marijuana use and possession (see Raich, 545 U.S. at 37 n.2). I have heard colleagues argue his concurring opinion in that case provides useful insights into how he will vote in the inevitable HCR case. I have my doubts. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I would not be at all shocked to see the Supreme Court split 5-4 on this, though I won’t venture to guess who will get the 5.
Archive for January, 2011
The New York Times reports that earlier this month, Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent undercover agents to Phoenix to investigate selling practices at a gun show. Such venues serve as the planet-sized loophole through which people who shouldn’t have guns are able to buy them without a background check. In many states, all you need to buy a gun at a show is a driver’s license and the ability to seem like you’d pass a background check. Sellers get to decide. The Times provides the following transcript of an exchange that took place at that Phoenix gun show.
Investigator: “So, you’re not one of those, you know, dealer guys, right?”
Seller: “No. No tax, no form, you don’t have to do transfers or nothing.”
Investigator: “Yeah, yeah.”
Seller: “Just see an Arizona ID and that’s it with me.”
Investigator: “So no background check?”
Investigator: “That’s good, because I probably couldn’t pass one, you know what I mean?”
The clerk sold him a Sig Sauer pistol for $500.
I’ve never heard of a mayor running this sort of operation. Can’t imagine Arizona officials appreciate Bloomberg’s investigation, but it certainly speaks to the desperation of urban mayors. Their cities are being decimated by gun violence. And it’s not just a city problem. A 2010 study showed that rural white kids were just as likely as urban black kids to die from gun injuries. All while the NRA’s lapdogs stymie widely supported measures like background checks for all firearm sales. Why should it be harder to buy a car than a gun?
In today’s Boston Globe, David Mednicoff points out that secular governments in the Middle East seem to have a tough time of it compared to Islamic states, both in terms of stability, but also, he argues, openness.
This rising tide of mass protests against Arab secular strongmen urges us to think again about the role of Islam and government. Decades of Western policy have pushed Middle Eastern governments toward secular reforms. But a more nuanced view of the region — one that values authenticity as much as Western dogma — suggests something different. If we are concerned about stability, balance, even openness, it may be Arab Islamic governments that offer a better route to those goals.
Yes, caveats and exceptions abound. (Consider, e.g., the role of women in conservative monarchies like Saudi Arabia. Stable, OK, but good?) But he raises an intriguing question.
I am reminded also of the ringing “The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church,” condemned as an error by Pope Pius IX in his famous Syllabus. Indeed, the notion of religious freedom as basic to human dignity is a recent idea in Catholicism. Toleration of other religions had been advised by Aquinas, but only if some good comes from permitting them, (he advised toleration of Judaism because he thought it foreshadowed Christianity,) or if a greater harm might ensue by quashing them.
And the ominous presence of Islamist extremists waiting in the wings in the destabilized countries raises the same question: should the US be supporting moderate Islamists rather than Western-style secular states? And what would the religious right in the US say?
Helene Cooper lays out the no-win situation the U.S. is in.
Bruce Riedel, former CIA, has this assessment: “A new Egypt will still be the enemy of al Qaeda and a rival to Persian Shia Iran.
The “realist” view of U.S. relations with Egypt, Stephen Walt: “the real reason the United States has backed Mubarak over the years is to preserve the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and to a lesser extent, because Mubarak shared U.S. concerns about Hamas and Iran. … For those of us who think that the “special relationship” is bad for the U.S. and Israel alike, therefore, a change of government in Egypt is not alarming. In fact, change in Cairo might not threaten Israel’s interests significantly, and might even help break the calcified diplomatic situation in the region.
“For starters, a post-Mubarak government is unlikely to tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, because such a move would immediately put it at odds with both the United States and Europe and bring Cairo few tangible benefits….”
February 1: Juan Cole on the Egyptian military’s many branches and perhaps differing views.
Pew has this on major Muslim countries including Egypt and the attitude of their populations to democracy, Islam, etc.
February 2: Juan Cole, Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979.
Karl Barth famously instructed the preacher to hold the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. Over the years both The New Yorker and Commonweal have supplemented and surpassed the newspaper in providing provocative material to help actualize the sacred text.
In pondering the readings for this Sunday’s liturgy I found myself harking back to one of the pieces in the current issue of Commonweal. I was particularly struck by this line from Chandra Bozelko’s “The God of Ambition:”
It is when we want our wills to be done that we become undone, staring skyward from our own personal foxholes.
But then, unbidden, lines from John Donne’s “A Hymne to God our Father” came as well:
Wilt Thou forgive that sinne where I begunne,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive those sinnes through which I runne,
And doe them still: though still I doe deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For, I have more.
I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spunne
My last thred, I shall perish on the shore;
Sweare by thy self, that at my death thy Sunne
Shall shine as it shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I have no more.
Watch the live stream of Al Jazeera English.
I just learned today that Fr. Edmund Hill, O.P., died last November 11th. Not as well known as he might have been, he deserves our lasting gratitude for his contributions to the project of publishing all of the works of St. Augustine. The most important of these were his versions of the Sermons, of “On the Trinity,” and “On Christian Teaching.” He made the sermons read like spoken sermons, not like lectures, and his notes to all three of his translations were illuminating and often very entertaining. Requiescat in pace.
Here is a memorial essay on Fr. Hill by Fergus Kerr, O.P., the present editor of New Blackfriars.
The January 28 issue of Commonweal features a package of articles on “America’s Prison Problem.” In “Cruel & Unusual: The True Costs of Our Prison System,” sociologists Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon explore the effects that “mass incarceration” has on individuals and communities, and call for an approach to the problem that is based on a sense of “community justice,” or the consideration of the community as an organic whole whose treatment should be subject to the demands of justice.”
Also in this issue: in “Worth Taking a Chance,” Joseph Sorrentino reports on a program in Rochester, NY, designed to help released prisoners adjust to life on the outside and avoid returning to jail. And a current inmate, Chandra Bozelko, describes how her time in prison has helped her access the humility necessary to begin a real relationship with God.
As it happens, The Wilson Quarterly (er, no relation) also focuses on the prison problem in its winter 2011 issue. If you have an appetite for more after reading through the latest Commonweal, check out “Beyond the Prison Bubble,” in which Joan Petersilia wonders whether we are “seeing the beginning of the end of America’s long commitment to what some critics call ‘mass incarceration.’” Her overview of the situation touches on many of the same points as DeFina and Hannon’s, including the negative impact that incarceration can have on communities. The issue also has an article by Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig proposing “cost-effective” ways to bring down crime. Those two are subscriber-only, but a highly informative piece by Alex Tabarrok on the business of bail bondsmen is free to the public.
That’s what Rob Vischer calls this one over at MOJ…Pretty darned good, I’d say.
Here’s Nicholas Kristof on the Olmsted affair.
Yet in this battle, it’s fascinating how much support St. Joseph’s Hospital has had and how firmly it has pushed back — in effect, pounding 95 theses on the bishop’s door. The hospital backed up Sister Margaret, and it rejected the bishop’s demand that it never again terminate a pregnancy to save the life of a mother.
Initially, this line set off my hyperbole alarm. But, as any Luther scholar can affirm, Luther’s 95 theses wasn’t a declaration of schism, but an outraged cry for reform, in his case largely over the indefensible abuses occasioned by the selling of indulgences. The split wasn’t final until mutual intransigence forced it. (Then, it was Luther’s insistence that he be proved wrong by use of scripture and reason alone, vs. the Church’s insistence that he recognize their authority to define tradition as they wished.)
The USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine has come down squarely on Olmsted’s side, interpreting the kind of action done in Phoenix as impermissible, a direct abortion. The report that Kristof links to includes a couple heart-rending vignettes of women’s health being endangered by hospital adherence to the Olmsted-strict interpretation of the ERD. That report concludes with this statement by National Women’s Law Center co-president Marcia D. Greenberger:
We call on the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate these serious lapses and order immediate corrective action where violations are found. We also call upon religious and nonsectarian hospitals alike to ensure that their practices comply with federal law and to serve the patients’ health needs.
So…the plot thickens…
HT: Alan Revering
My friend and Commonweal contributor, Anthony Domestico, alerted me to this interview with Yale religious studies professor, Kathryn Lofton, who has a new book coming out March 4 analyzing Oprah through the lens of American religious history. The book is called Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, and it argues that Oprah has created and embodied her own brand of modern spirituality based on the idea that the “narrative of personal discomfort” can be profitable if it is only turned into a historical commodity. This is to say that the suffering of a human spirit in history can bring salvation by innocently giving itself over to a dysfunctional human economy. Sound familiar? It’s a Jesus story for the late capitalist.
The message seems to be that if you master the discipline of virtuous consumption, you too might have the opportunity, in an ironic twist, to give your “self” over to the very market you have just transcended, thus serving to elevate the crass world that once oppressed you. This, of course, is Oprah’s own narrative. After achieving success in the seedy world of daytime television, she was able, through personal conversion and discipline, to offer her “self,” her own life story (along with a few of her “favorite things”) for the betterment of her followers. Having thus died to the world, she was able to rise again as “O,” the transcendent Other of late capitalism that simultaneously serves as its judge and sanctifier. And, now that the sun is setting on her show, the cross from which she has instructed her disciples, her work is accomplished as her ghost is given over to, reintegrated, and installed at the right hand of the One from whom she was begotten. She will now serve her friends by giving them a community of their OWN to ensure that this day they will be with her Father in Television. As Lofton says,
Now she is conjuring the very network that will represent, I would argue, the future of the way networks will be construed. Even as her physical self slowly evaporates, she becomes increasingly an icon, a brand. One Oprah will fade, and another Oprah will strengthen and redact, with her physicality dissolving to an eventual brand “O.” That kind of programming for the self—which seems highly particularized, but of course prescribes its own particularization—is the genius of Oprah Winfrey.
Breaking news from The Onion: “Gap Between Rich And Poor Named 8th Wonder Of The World.”
“Of all the epic structures the human race has devised, none is more staggering or imposing than the Gap Between Rich and Poor,” committee chairman Henri Jean-Baptiste said. “It is a tremendous, millennia-old expanse that fills us with both wonder and humility.”
Its official recognition as the Eighth Wonder of the World marks the culmination of a dramatic turnaround from just 50 years ago, when popular movements called for the gap’s closure. However, due to a small group of dedicated politicians and industry leaders, vigorous preservation efforts were begun around 1980 to restore—and greatly expand—the age-old structure.
Read the whole story for more rueful laughs.
A blip as the Great World turns: Let us note that the Minimalist (Mark Bittman) is ending his column in the NYT. Sorry to see him go.
“Terrorism Going Unpunished” was the headline on Sean Hannity’s Web page back in November when Guantanamo detainee Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani was convicted of one count of conspiracy in the 1998 terrorist bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa and acquitted of 284 counts. “Eric Holder needs to resign,” Hannity announced. “He said failure wasn’t an option but it certainly was here!” Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty and others also called for Holder to resign following the verdict.
By the way, Ghailani was sentenced today to life in prison without parole.
As I noted in November, it was a mistake for major news organizations to highlight the acquittals instead of the conviction on one count, which in and of itself was serious enough to send the defendant to prison for life. “Terrorism Going Unpunished” just wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t. Given the deadly consequences of the conspiracy Ghailani took part in, the life sentence was to be expected.
John Garvey (cousin of Commonweal’s fine columnist of the same name and a sometime contributor to the magazine himself) was inaugurated today as President of the Catholic University of America.
John, former dean of the Boston College Law School and a friend of many years, entitled his inaugural address, “Intellect and Virtue: the Idea of a Catholic University.” Blessed John Henry Newman, as one would expect, figured prominently in the reflections.
Here is one passage:
The Catholic University of America is a university – a community of scholars united in a common effort to find goodness, truth, and beauty. It is a place where we learn things St. Monica could not teach her son. Holy as she was, she could not have written the Confessions or The City of God. Smart as he was, neither could Augustine have written them without the intellectual companionship he found first at Carthage and later among the Platonists in Milan. The intellectual life, like the acquisition of virtue, is a communal (not a solitary) undertaking. We learn from each other. The intellectual culture we create is the product of our collective effort. A Catholic intellectual culture will be something both distinctive and wonderful if we bring the right people into the conversation and if we work really hard at it.
The rest is here.
In the nation’s capital, the Washington Stage Guild production of G.K. Chesterton’s play “Magic” has been extended through Feb. 6—a happy outcome for a work that isn’t produced often in the United States. I managed to catch the show the other day, and found it witty, atmospheric and affecting. The ideas and aphorisms sure do fly by at a mile a minute: Reportedly written at the suggestion of Chesterton’s pal George Bernard Shaw, the script feels very much like a piece Shaw would have written had Shaw been a believer. Some of my favorite passages are speeches by the Anglican rector character, who at one point says, during an argument that touches on rationalism, faith, and a visiting conjurer’s party tricks:
“Why should sham miracles prove to us that real Saints and Prophets never lived? There may be sham magic and real magic also….There may be turnip ghosts precisely because there are real ghosts. There may be theatrical fairies precisely because there are real fairies. You do not abolish the Bank of England by pointing to a forged bank-note.”
While at the theater I also learned that the contemporary science fiction and fantasy author Neil Gaiman has called Chesterton a huge influence on his writing career. Who knew?
The Illinois Appellate Court removed Rahm Emanuel from the Chicago mayoral ballot yesterday because he didn’t meet the one-year residence requirement. Today the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in an expedited manner. The Chicago Tribune has this story.
My first and only reaction was that someone decided to give Emanuel his “comeuppance” for stepping out of the queue. I’d guess he’ll be on the ballot when voting begins. But Chicago, what do you think?
Update 1. Illinois State Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke declines to recuse herself from deciding whether Rahm Emanuel is on the mayoral ballot or not. Her husband, a Chicago alderman, supports another candidate. “Aren’t we beyond that? Women have minds of their own. We have spouses in every kind of business,” Justice Anne Burke said Wednesday. Good for her!
Update 2. The Illinois Supreme Court: “”So there will be no mistake, let us be entirely clear,” the Supreme Court wrote in its ruling today. “This court’s decision is based on the following and only on the following: (1) what it means to be a resident for election purposes was clearly established long ago, and Illinois law has been consistent on the matter since at least the 19th Century; (2) the novel standard adopted by the appellate court majority is without any foundation in Illinois law; (3) the Board’s factual findings were not against the manifest weight of the evidence; and (4) the Board’s decision was not clearly erroneous.” There you have it!
Today’s Spiegel-online has a piece on the revolution in Tunisia and its possible consequences for other Arab countries and even for Israel, whose Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom is quoted as fearing that “Tunisia might ‘set a precedent that could be repeated in other countries, possibly affecting directly the stability of our system.’ If democratic governments take over Israel’s neighboring states, the vice prime minister said, the days of the Arab-Israeli security alliance will be over.”
A couple of key paragraphs from the piece:
The populations of these countries are young and unhappy. Indeed, 53.4 percent — or roughly 190 million out of a current population of 352 million Arabs — are younger than 24 years old, and nearly three-quarters of them are unemployed. In many cases, the education these young people receive doesn’t do them any good because there are no jobs in the fields they trained for. Many are 35 or even 40 before they can afford to marry. In essence, this is a violation of a basic human right perpetrated against millions in countries such as Egypt, where life expectancy is nine years less than it is in Germany, or in Yemen, where the figure is almost 15 years lower.
Governments in these countries, on the other hand, are corrupt and outdated. Indeed, before Ben Ali’s ouster, the leaders of North Africa’s five countries had enjoyed a combined total of 115 years in office. The countries’ youth ministers are generally old men.
In countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, demographics, governments run by old men and widespread malaise are forming a dangerous mix. Although it is aware of the situation, the West continues to support the old rulers.
Just posted to the homepage: Nicholas P. Cafardi’s “Loose Canons: Ratzinger, Church Law & the Sexual-abuse Crisis.”
In 1988, the CDF was fielding lots of laicization requests—many from accused American priests—and being pressured by U.S. bishops to grant them quickly. But Ratzinger found that objectionable. In his L’Osservatore article, Arrieta explains that Ratzinger’s problem was the “natural repugnance of a justice system to grant as a matter of grace (dispensation from the obligations of priesthood) something that should, instead be imposed as a punishment (dismissal, as a penalty, from the priesthood).” Ratzinger wanted to make it clear that offending priests were receiving canonical punishment, not mercy.
So Ratzinger asked the church’s chief canon lawyer, “Can’t we streamline the penal process to deal with these men?” Castillo Lara’s response was lawyerly: The law will work if the bishops use it, but they are not using it. “The involved bishops have not first exercised their judicial authority to properly punish such crimes, even for the protection of the common good. The problem is not so much one of juridic procedure but of responsible exercise of a bishop’s governing authority.” Castillo Lara, too, had been hearing bishops complain that they could not use the canonical criminal system because it was too unwieldy. The fact that he mentions “the involved bishops” in his letter indicates that he thought bishops should have held abusive priests responsible in the canonical criminal trials provided for in the Code. Ratzinger replied courteously, and that was the end of the exchange.
Was Castillo Lara right? Were U.S. bishops not doing their jobs? Yes and no. While it’s true that many U.S. bishops had come to the conclusion that administrative laicization was the best way to handle sexually abusive priests, it’s not as though they didn’t have their reasons.
Read the rest right here.
Politics Daily editor (and Commonweal columnist) Melinda Henneberger has a strong piece at PD on “Kermit Gosnell’s Pro-Choice Enablers.” She digs into the grand jury report (which, by the way, makes for accessible but very disturbing reading) to summarize the horrors of the case — and believe me, they’re not easy to summarize. Henneberger focuses especially on how under-regulated and unsafe Gosnell’s clinic was. Site reviews by the Pennsylvania Department of Health had noted violations in 1989, 1992 and 1993, but Gosnell did nothing to address them (besides paying his fine). The direct connection to prochoice politics comes after that, and was made by the grand jury itself:
After 1993, even that pro forma effort came to an end. Not because of administrative ennui, although there had been plenty. Instead, the Pennsylvania Department of Health abruptly decided, for political reasons, to stop inspecting abortion clinics at all. The politics in question were not anti-abortion, but pro. With the change of administration from Governor [Bob] Casey to Governor [Tom] Ridge, officials concluded that inspections would be “putting a barrier up to women” seeking abortions. Better to leave clinics to do as they pleased, even though, as Gosnell proved, that meant both women and babies would pay.
“This is where those of you who are pro-choice may well want to cross your arms over your chest,” Henneberger writes, “but the kind of regulation that if enforced might have prevented this atrocity is in all cases seen as an infringement by abortion rights advocates, and thus is strenuously opposed.” Read the rest of this entry »
Some dotCommonweal readers may remember the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who late in life entered the Catholic Church and is perhaps best known in America for his book about Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God. In the 60s Muggeridge wrote book and film reviews for several American magazines, including Esquire. In what was supposed to be a review of a play about Sherlock Holmes, the late Wilfrid Sheed made light fun of the sudden ubiquity of “the muggeridge.” This is Sheed at his cattiest and most playful. Not a proper review but a brilliant piece of writing.
Perhaps the outstanding feature of the new muggeridge is its formidable second-strike capacity. Woe to anyone who controverts it—the muggeridge strikes back with the speed of a cobra, with a suave giggle and lick of the forked tongue. The macdonald* was good in this respect, but hopelessly wasteful: it used to try to answer its enemies point by point. The muggeridge simply giggles and licks, and its enemies become instantly paralyzed.
The muggeridge’s extraordinary output also enables it to review the same book in several places at once, which clears up a lot of silly confusion. The old machines used to disagree sometimes and then they fought like old tin battleships, circling slowly and pelting the landscape with shot. It was a mess. One hardly knew what to think.
Nowadays, none of this is necessary. Simply install a muggeridge in your office (the only thing a muggeridge will not fight with is another muggeridge). Several magazines have already purchased one—and these magazines among our best. An imported criticism machine adds a cachet that anyone can feel proud of.
“Pickering, Hills, Sullivan, Beinart, Dobbins, More Ask Obama Administration to Support UN Resolution Condemning Illegal Israeli Settlements”
I have spent the past week or so trying to revise and update an old article on genetics and ethics for a book project. The funny thing: the article, published in 2000, is a curious combination of dated and timely. Written around the time of the White House’s announcement of the sequencing of the human genome, it cataloged and evaluated the advances in genetic medicine, such as personalized drug treatments, that were anticipated to occur in five to ten years.
Ten years later, many of those same advances are still predicted to be realized in the next five or ten years.
Why? Well, as Erika Check Hayden wrote in an article in Nature celebrating the tenth anniversary of the sequencing, “Life is Complicated.”
In one of the best opening paragraphs I have ever read in an essay on the topic of genetics, she sets the scene:
Not that long ago, biology was considered by many to be a simple science, a pursuit of expedition, observation and experimentation. At the dawn of the twentieth century, while Albert Einstein and Max Planck were writing mathematical equations that distilled the fundamental physics of the Universe, a biologist was winning the Nobel prize for describing how to make dogs drool on command.
She analogizes the role of genes in cellular function to a Mandelbrot set, which “when computed and graphed on the complex plane, . . . is seen to have an elaborate boundary which, being a fractal, does not simplify at any given magnification.”
My lay translation: the closer you look, the more complicated it gets.
Or, if you will, “I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:14).
For most people, the bloodshed in Tuscon was a signal to ratchet down political rhetoric and to reflect on why such violence occurs. But for one bishop, it offered an opportunity to attack President Obama’s support for abortion rights.
The Without a Doubt column Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence wrote in response to the president’s speech in Tuscon is a good example of how driven certain bishops are to make the Catholic Church a one-issue church. Bishop Tobin somehow used Obama’s Tuscon speech – “his best moment as president” – as an opportunity to write that he is “the most pro-abortion president” ever. He writes that “abortion policy is the prism through which I view everything this president says and does.”
He is not the only bishop to use this “prism” – a viewpoint that is out of step with the Vatican’s.
Pope Benedict XVI pressed Obama on the importance of the abortion issue when they met in 2009, and afterward his spokesman noted that Obama said he is committed to reducing abortions. But the pope and Obama also discussed immigration, religious tolerance, the Middle East and other issues. I don’t think they could have had much of a talk if the pope used Bishop Tobin’s standard and judged each issue through the “prism” of the president’s support for abortion rights.
When a Vatican spokesman praised Obama’s Cairo speech, he didn’t view it through the “prism” of abortion. Nor did the Vatican use the “prism” of abortion when it said in a statement that Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for his support for nuclear disarmament and international peace. To do otherwise would lack common sense.
The Times‘ music critic, Anthony Tommasini, as many undoubtedly know, has been embarked over the past two weeks in a quixotic, but intriguing effort to select the ten greatest classical music composers. He has announced his Oscar choices here. Along the way Tommasini has made a number of insightful comments, in articles, videos, and blog posts, on the composers he has considered. Interestingly, he suggests that it would have been easier to name the top five or the top twenty than to struggle with the limitations of ten.
It will come as no surprise that Bach tops the list. Tommasini writes:
My top spot goes to Bach, for his matchless combination of masterly musical engineering (as one reader put it) and profound expressivity. Since writing about Bach in the first article of this series I have been thinking more about the perception that he was considered old-fashioned in his day. Haydn was 18 when Bach died, in 1750, and Classicism was stirring. Bach was surely aware of the new trends. Yet he reacted by digging deeper into his way of doing things. In his austerely beautiful “Art of Fugue,” left incomplete at his death, Bach reduced complex counterpoint to its bare essentials, not even indicating the instrument (or instruments) for which these works were composed.
On his own terms he could be plenty modern. Though Bach never wrote an opera, he demonstrated visceral flair for drama in his sacred choral works, as in the crowd scenes in the Passions where people cry out with chilling vehemence for Jesus to be crucified. In keyboard works like the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Bach anticipated the rhapsodic Romantic fervor of Liszt, even Rachmaninoff. And as I tried to show in the first video for this project, through his chorales alone Bach explored the far reaches of tonal harmony.
To my considerable delight Giuseppe Verdi ranked eighth on the list. and, of all the comments that I read, here is the one that most warmed my Italianate heart:
Verdi should not be blamed for his own popularity nor tainted by the excessive devotion of the most fanatical opera buffs. Those who dispute the sophistication of his craft don’t know what they’re talking about.
Let me defer to a rather authoritative voice, that of Stravinsky. In his book “Poetics of Music,” Stravinsky challenges the assertion that the early Verdi works, steeped in the traditions of Italian opera and thick with oom-pah-pah arias, are somehow negligible, and that only with the more experimental operas of his later years did Verdi reach his potential.
“I know that I am going counter to the general opinion that sees Verdi’s best work in the deterioration of the genius that gave us ‘Rigoletto,’ ‘Il Trovatore,’ ‘Aida’ and ‘La Traviata,’ ” Stravinsky wrote. But, he added, “I maintain that there is more substance and true invention in the aria ‘La donna è mobile,’ for example, in which this elite saw nothing but deplorable facility, than in the rhetoric and vociferations of the ‘Ring.’ ”
I disagree with Stravinsky about Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. But the elite he was referring to were his fellow composers, and Stravinsky’s astute defense of Verdi shook up contemporary music circles.
John Allen has a fascinating interview that begins:
Fascinating characters have always populated the landscape of Jewish-Catholic relations, but even in that milieu it’s tough to find a more intriguing personality these days than Joseph Weiler. A South-African born legal scholar and the son of a Latvian rabbi, Weiler is considered a leading expert on European constitutional law. From his perch at the NYU Law School, of all places, he edits the ultra-prestigious European Journal of International Law, and it would be easier to list the elite European universities from which he doesn’t hold honorary doctorates.
Weiler is living proof that a rock-solid sense of one’s own identity can fuel a remarkable capacity to defy the expectations of others.
We’re talking about a deeply faithful Orthodox Jew, the father of a large Jewish family in the Bronx which keeps kosher and strictly observes the Sabbath. Yet in 2003, Weiler published the best-selling book A Christian Europe, pleading for the European Union to embrace its Christian heritage. Sporting a kippah, Weiler also recently stood before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights to defend Italy’s right to display the crucifix in public school classrooms. He took the case pro bono — arguing that forcing Italy to take down the cross would be a blow not against Christianity, but against pluralism.
What may prove even more provocative is the perspective of Weiler’s new book, due out later this year, on the trial of Jesus. Here is what he says of it in the interview:
In my view, the theology I’m proposing makes everybody obey God. If I’m right that the trial is the working out of Deuteronomy 13:1-5, Jesus dies totally innocently since he is the prophet sent by God. Yet the Jews were also doing exactly what God told them to do. He said that if one day somebody comes with signs and wonders, and invites you to change the Law of Moses (which is at the heart of the indictment according to Luke in Acts), you’re supposed to resist, and it explicitly says to put him to death.
In the trial, God achieves two things in one stroke. It’s a trial of the Jews, to remind the Jews that they have their covenant and their salvation lies in it. It’s also a trial of Jesus, in which he dies innocently because in that way he expiates the sins of everybody else. His death is the way of redemption for the world. At the end of the day, according to this vision, everybody is following the path of God.
He adds by way of caution:
I think Christians will be either dismissive or will take it very, very seriously. People of good will should like it, because it’s a way of reconciling theologically something that has marred relations between Christians and Jews. What’s good about the book, I hope, is that it’s not pie-in-the-sky. It’s tightly argued and is hugely respectful of texts and other sources. I beg the reader of this interview to wait for the full text — it is nuanced, careful, and respectful.
The whole interview is here.
Wilfrid Sheed, who died Wednesday morning at the age of eighty, may have been the most naturally gifted writer who ever wrote regularly for Commonweal. At Slate, Timothy Noah claims that Sheed “possessed the most captivating writing style of any journalist writing in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and that includes Mailer, Wolfe, Talese, and various other dandies of the New Journalism.”
The son of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, the godson of G.K. Chesterton, Sheed probably could have written some interesting books even if he hadn’t been a great writer: he had so many stories to tell, so many charismatic friends and acquaintances. But because he was so talented, he could turn even the most unpromising subject — a dull play or book, an editorial meeting — into great journalism.
Among his many gifts as a writer was his versatility: Sheed did all the voices, and did them well. As a memoirist and moralist (for him the two often went together), he could write with eloquent simplicity, as in this piece about growing up Catholic before Vatican II and hanging onto one’s faith afterward. Writing as a satirist, Sheed could be deadly funny and deadly serious at the same time, as in this guide to hatchet jobs. He wrote more than a few of those himself, including a famous takedown of Norman Podhoretz’s infamous memoir, Making It. (Many years later Podhoretz refused to shake Sheed’s hand because of that review.) But Sheed also knew how to bury his hatchet in a bad book while somehow managing not only to leave the author intact but also to defend him against his less scrupulous critics, as in this characteristically nuanced review of Edmund Wilson’s The Cold War & the Income Tax.
[Wilson's] prose (possibly the best non-fiction American prose since Thoreau) has become rather shapeless, possibly even careless. The tone is that of a man who doesn’t expect to be contradicted; he addresses his subject as if it had never been discussed before—and will never need to be discussed again. There is no suggestion here of failing powers, only of failing intensity and concentration, like a Yankee after his twelfth pennant.
Sheed knew, as Wilson did, that it was silly to judge an important writer by his worst work, or to refrain from criticizing bad work because it was written by an important writer. More than that, Sheed had an eye for the essential quality — the ground note audible in all a writer’s work, both the good and the bad (cf. his discussion of Hemingway here and his essay about William F. Buckley, Jr. here).
Sheed’s most famous quality was his wit, which was dry, quick, and ruthless. He scuppered foolishness gladly. I won’t spoil his reply to an angry letter from Michael Novak in the NYRB (you can read the exchange here – and you should). Suffice it to say Sheed knew how to follow some of the advice he gave in that essay about hatchet jobs:
Since the last thing a hatchetman wants is sympathy, the thing to aim at is a hair-line cut, almost invisible until the victim moves and his head topples off. An angry letter from him is equivalent (change metaphors there) to the death lunge of the brave bull. Three or four lines in riposte will sever his aorta for good.
By 1974 he had it down to four or five words.
Sheed and his wit were usually on the side of the underdog. He was a man of great sympathies, as well as great loyalties — to people and to institutions. He asked that a Latin Mass be said at his funeral, and he wanted his headstone to read, “He wrote a few good sentences.” Bless him, he wrote no bad ones. Requiescat in pace.
U.S. Catholic carried an article that focuses on an important topic for anyone interested in the survival of Catholic schools: why more Latinos don’t attend Catholic schools. It quotes Father Joe Corpora, co-chairman of the University of Notre Dame’s Task Force on the Participation of Latinos in Catholic Schools:
… the task force has discovered that it’s more than financial constraints keeping most Hispanic families away from Catholic schools, Corpora says. Two other factors are at play: First, in most Latin American countries there is no such thing as a parish school, so the entire concept is new to many Latino immigrants …
Also, Catholic schools in the United States have been slow to realize the differences between Latino immigrants and the descendants of Western European immigrants who founded the schools …
“Our schools for years and years served immigrants. When the immigrants stopped looking like immigrants, we’ve never re-invented our schools to serve today’s immigrants,” Corpora says. “The church has not gotten smart enough to adapt to the local clientele.”
American Grace, the recent book by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, has some data that underline how urgent it is for the schools to connect with young Latino Catholics. It notes that nearly 7 in 10 young Catholics who attend church regularly are Latinos (because Latinos in the 18-34 bracket are more likely to attend church than Anglo Catholics). It also notes that Latinos are far more likely to remain in the church (78 percent retention rate to 57 percent for Anglo Catholics). In the 18 to 34 age group, 58 percent of Catholics are Latinos.
What it boils down to is that any solution to securing the future of Catholic schools must include a way to connect better with Latino Catholics. Catholic colleges, which have a considerable stake in this, should do all they can to assist.
Aaron David Miller, former ME diplomat, and author of The Too Much Promised Land, is one of the more thoughtful and careful observers of U.S.-Israel negotiations.
He has this in Politico: “Muddle through is usually given a bad name — particularly by the energizer bunnies of U.S. diplomacy who want engagement and solutions. But under current circumstances, it may not be such a bad idea.” Miller offers four strands for Administration policy to pursue as part of muddling through. My two-cents: The U.S. may have already lost our capacity for command and control here, and perhaps “muddle through” should be interpreted as “Do no (more) harm.”
Every morning on my way to work, I pass a streetlight with a prolife bumper-sticker stuck to its base. It says something fairly nonconfrontational, like “Choose life: your mother did!” Or “Babies are a gift, not a choice.” Plastered over it is another, duelling sticker, which I will again have to paraphrase: “What if it were your daughter? Your sister? Protect women’s right to choose.” I find this line of prochoice argumentation depressingly shallow, premised as it is on the assumption that a prolife person is obviously not concerned about the women involved (and, I guess, obviously male). Of course you wouldn’t want a woman you actually care about to have to carry an unintended pregnancy to term. If you’re prolife, it must be because you haven’t thought enough about women, and how they’re affected by the availability or absence of abortion. If you could simply imagine someone in your family pregnant, you’d see how wrong you are to want to oppress women needlessly.
I thought of this today as I read William Saletan’s take on the grisly case of the Philadelphia abortionist now accused of delivering several babies and then killing them with scissors. He is also charged with third-degree murder of one of the women he treated. (This probably goes without saying, but I’ll warn you anyway: both the news story and Saletan’s summary of its contents are deeply disturbing.) Saletan writes, “It’s a tale of gore and nihilism—and an occasion for pro-choice advocates to reflect on the limits of reproductive freedom.”
For “absolutists,” of course, any talk of restrictions is anathema. If you insist that the only issue at stake in the abortion debate is women’s autonomy, you can’t give ground to those who think something else may be at stake too. You have to resist the idea that killing a fetus in the third trimester is somehow worse than doing so in the first. Suddenly the “what if it were your daughter?” method of reasoning isn’t so helpful; you can’t go with your gut. And what happens when that third-trimester fetus is out of the womb and breathing on its own — a baby, in other words? It’s wrong to kill it then, right? But why?
Will this case promote the reflection Saletan thinks it should? Or will “absolutists” insist that Gosnell’s only crime was poor medical treatment of the women he (illegally but, per their logic, legitimately) agreed to treat well after their babies were potentially viable? If you’ve adopted the argument that women’s autonomy is the most important thing at stake, is it possible to draw a line at all?
P.S. Yes, this is a post about abortion! Comments are tentatively open, but let me say right upfront that this is not an opportunity to revisit discredited claims about Obama supporting infanticide.