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Reading the Same-Sex Marriage Polls in Ireland

Ireland is holding a referendum on legalization of same-sex marriage on Friday, historic not just because of the matter at hand but also that it would be decided directly by national popular vote – not (as in the case of seventeen nations that have legalized it) by courts or legislators.

Polling suggests the Yes vote (that is, in favor of legalization) will win handily, but not everyone is so sure. One reason for the uncertainty is the inaccuracy of the polling preceding recent elections in Britain, which predicted a close finish that turned out anything but. Another is the possible role of the well-known social desirability bias – the tendency of a survey respondent not to state true preferences out of fear it might open them to criticism of their motivations. In the United States it’s become mostly associated (if not synonymous) with the Bradley effect, named for 1982 gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, an African American who was leading comfortably in pre-election and even exit polling but lost to his (white) opponent George Deukmejian. White voters who told pollsters they’d vote for Bradley did the opposite. Some reports say “a ‘shy’ No vote” is seen as a real possibility in Irish political circles, given

the social pressure to at least appear to be sympathetic to the Yes vote … being felt across the country following endorsements not just from all major political parties but state bodies too. Even Ireland’s police association, the Garda Representative Association, has come out for Yes, the first time it has taken a partisan position on a referendum. 

Some recent polling says more than 75 percent of Irish voters favor altering the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, with most business and unions and even some Catholic priests publicly voicing support (the nation’s bishops are encouraging a No vote). The No side is saying that the social desirability bias is definitely at play. Dublin and other urban centers seem a definite Yes, but rural, western Ireland is trending No. Younger voters are in favor of legalization; middle-aged and older ones, less so.

An NPR report this week used the construction “conservative, Catholic Ireland” and also identified the country “one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.” Other reports use similar language, noting the more or less familiar details that it wasn’t until 1985 that Ireland legalized the sale of contraceptives, or until 1993 that it decriminalized homosexuality, or that abortion remains illegal. Would a Yes victory amount to “a heavyweight punch to the body of the church” in a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic? Or, as Jesuit priest Oliver Rafferty, a visiting professor at Boston College, suggests in this New York Times piece, might a Yes victory actually offer a new opportunity for the church in Ireland? 

If it can no longer epitomize the broader culture in Ireland, Irish Catholicism can perhaps emerge as a more caring less overtly dogmatic and oppressive feature of the Irish landscape. Its focus might be more concentrated on ministering to peoples’ actual needs than on wielding power in Irish society.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.

Read the whole thing here.

Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:

…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.

Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?

Read the whole editorial here.

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

More new stories on the website

E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

Your Congress at work for the West Bank Settlements

As the "Trans-Pacific Partnership" makes its way through the U.S. Congress, the trade agreement (with Pacific and Asian countries) is being amended to penalize BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) efforts against the West Bank Settlements.

The amendments from House and Senate committees "require U.S. trade negotiators to 'discourage politically motivated actions' by foreign countries and international organizations that aim to 'penalize or otherwise limit' commercial relations with Israel or 'persons doing business in Israel or in territories controlled by Israel."

"Territories under the control of Israel," of course, refers to the occupied land beyond Israel's 1967 borders. The measures are directed primarily at European countries and businesses who are increasingly opposed to the West Bank Settlements and to Israel's refusal to recognize a Palestinian state. The Occupation of the West Bank is against international law. If passed, these amendments would contervene long-standing U.S. policy opposing the Settlements.

Recall that the BDS movements was started as a non-military, non-violent protest against Israel's Occupation of Palestinian Territory. The movement has garnered more sympathy in Europe than in the U.S.; but even in Europe little has come of it.

How exactly is the U.S. Congress empowered to limit the free speech and political decisions of European countries? Why not ask your Senator or Representative?

J.J. Goldberg of The Forward has the story and the language of the amendments.

House Bill.  AIPAC Press Release: House Fast Track Bill Targets Economic Attacks against Israel.

Just Said No UPDATE

Making my way into the depths of international news, I was surprised to read that Pakistan had said, "NO," to sending troops to back up the Saudi war againt the Houthis in Yemen. The Saudis have been bombing the Houthis trying to stop their advance into the south of Yemen. General opinion seems to be that bombing alone will not do it, hence the call for Pakistani troops since the Saudis appear not to have a serious ground force of the sort that would be required.

The Pakistanis said, no: their president said no, and then the Parliament voted no. Why? It was not entirely clear, especially since Pakistan is the recipient of very significant loans and gifts from Saudi Arabia as well as the Gulfies.

Here are two reports that provide more information and analysis.

Bruce Reidel at al-monitor reports on the Pakistani assessment and vote on the request and offers a brief analysis of the "no" vote.

Patrick Bahzad at Pat Lang's blog offers a more extended analysis and some interesting speculation on how the Iran nuclear agreement may be shifting the geo-politics of the region, including Pakistan's relations with Iran and China.

UPDATE: Another factor that came to light today: the Saudis wanted only sunni, not shiite soldiers from Pakistan. The Pakistani army is said to be 70 percent sunni and 30 percent shiite. Pakistan has enought troubles without igniting a sunni-shiia war on their own territory.

Coffin or Suitcase? Goldberg on Europe's Jews

In the April issue of The Atlantic, several thousand words into Jeffrey Goldberg's deeply reported, timely, and sobering assessment of Euorpean Jewry, he asks whether it's 1933 again.

Anti-Semitic attitudes have increasingly turned into anti-Semitic attacks, and perhaps 2015 is the tipping point. Goldberg was interviewing a group of Jews in a cafe near Sarcelles, a center of 2014's anti-Jewish riots. 

The [town's] synagogue is now also used as a base of operations for the more than 40 soldiers who have been assigned to protect the town’s Jewish institutions.

“We’re very glad for the soldiers,” one of the men, who asked me to identify him only as Chaim, said. “But soldiers in the synagogues means that there is no life here, only danger. This is why I’m leaving.” It is, he said, using an expression common during the Algerian civil war, a choice between le cercueil ou la valise—“the coffin or the suitcase.”

After reading Goldberg's reporting, that stark dilemma does not seem melodramatic. Weaving interviews and synagogue visits with hate-crime data from throughout Europe, he portrays an existential anxiety among Jewish communities from Sweden to France to Greece. In one of history's most macabre twists, the tiny Jewish population of Gemany may have the strongest state support on the continent. Angela Merkel is "among the world's chief defenders of Jews." 

Casual and even well-educated observers of modern European religion can learn much from Goldberg's narrative, so much of which shows a rapidly changing everyday experience for Jews. With the Shoah slipping from living memory -- and its memorials defaced, its museums attacked or empty -- anti-Semitism no longer lies dormant.

A younger generation tells its parents to stop going to their Jewish doctors. Jewish students are afraid to go to school: if to public school, they are individual targets; if to Jewish schools, a collective target. A Swedish rabbi and his wife do not walk in public together, for fear that they might both be attacked and leave their children orphans. 

Goldberg concludes by considering whether emigration to Israel or the United States--the suitcase options--is the best hope for European Jewry. "Do you have a bag packed?" he asked Alain Finkielkraut, a celebrated French intellectual, referencing a classic question in Jewish culture. "We should not leave," he said, "but maybe for our children or grandchildren there will be no choice."

As an American Jew whose family left Moldova just before its Jews were exterminated, Goldberg is not optimistic for the future of Jewish life in Europe. He visited what used to be the synagogue in the town of Leova, where his grandfather would have prayed. It is now a gymnasium. "The caretaker tried to sell it to me," he quips. A bid for the future? Goldberg demurs, and leaves us with this:

I am predisposed to believe that there is no great future for the Jews in Europe, because evidence to support this belief is accumulating so quickly. But I am also predisposed to think this because I am an American Jew—which is to say, a person who exists because his ancestors made a run for it when they could.

 

The Impeachables

Forty-seven Republican Senators have written to the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," warning them that whatever agreement President Obama and Secy. of State Kerry might come to on Iran's nuclear progrgam, there's a good chance it will be dumped in a new administration. (Wonder which new administration?)  Here's the NYTimes story with over 3500 comments.

Is this an Impeachable offense? Oh wait! Would these 47 have to bring articles of impeachment against themselves?

The Iranians seem to know enough about the U.S. government to call it a "propoganda ploy"; that's a little stronger than the President's observation calling the letter "somewhat ironic," putting the Senators on the same side as Iranian hardliners. Here's the letter; check out those signatures! From satirist Andy Borowitz: "Iran Offers to Mediate Talks Between Republicans and Obama."  Amy Davidson at the New Yorker  points out that the senator who wrote the letter has been in the Senate for two months. Marking the fence posts? Jim Pauwels points out below that they may have all used the same blue pen to sign.  Even the Daily News!!  And The Logan Act (1799) (text below) HT: Pat Lang.

March 11 @10:33: Having just finished reading the paper, I am thinking maybe this mess could prove a turning point. 1. The Democrats are backing away from new sanctions legislation; 2. Herzog and Livni running against Netanyahu are pulling up in polling; 3. Tom Frideman does a fact-filled column on how Sheldon Adelson is buying U.S. and Israeli politics.  (Cites below in comments @10:44). Too pollyannish?

He is running for office--in Israel

PM Netanyahu has delivered his speech to the Joint Session of Congress at the invitation of Speaker Boehner. Netanyahu's grand entrance to the floor of the house a la the President's for the SOU should not confuse us. Netanyahu wants to remain Prime Minister of Israel, but if he can manage U.S. foreign policy, he would consider that a plus.

Here is his address to the Congress, via CSPAN (at about 15 minutes).

Commentary: William Galston at Brookings on recent polling. Robert Hunter at Lobelog on outcomes of successful negotiations. Bernard Avishai at the New Yorker on what Netanyahu really wants--war. George Friedman at Stratfo on the U.S. dilemma in shaping a ME balance of power with or without Israel (HT: Jim Pauwels). Here's a British take on the speech.  Reporters from the Guardian have annotated the speech. And here's Jon Stewart!! (R-rated metaphors!)

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Remember the Battle of Tannenberg

The Graduate Record Exam in history I took at the end of college had trick questions about Canada--tricks because we knew nothing about Canadian history. A collective effort to come up with a list of great moments in Canadian history missed the mark.

Today looking at the situation in Ukraine, it strikes me that Americans are in the same factual fog. We know little about the historical or political forces at work in Ukraine. Our understanding of Russia and Putin is being made in the headlines. Europe's dilemma eludes us.

Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have been shuttling between Kiev, Moscow, Belarus and Washington dealing with a major EU crisis. The potential for continent-wide conflict may seem remote as long as the battle is beetween Kiev and Eastern Ukraine (with its unmarked Green Men and their tanks,etc). The European, especially the German, effort to keep the peace is rooted in a long history of conflict that the Germans may understand (and regret) more than most. One hundred years ago in the opening days of World War I, the Germans destroyed the Second Russian Army at the Battle of Tannenberg; not the first time or last time that Germany and Russia destroyed one another.

In the meantime, here in the U.S. our congressional foreign policy team of McCain and Graham call for arming Ukraine. President Obama has spoken of supplying defensive military equipment, which sounds benign enough until it becomes clear that this could include anti-tank weapons, etc. Those who have a handle on the bigger issues point to the danger of nuclear confrontation. At the recent Munich Security Conference (where McCain pooh-poohed Merkel's peace efforts) experts on the nuclear situation of Russia and the U.S. raised the alarm not only about the frayed relations between the two nuclear powers but about the fact that the "red phone," a staple of the Cold War, is no longer connected.

Spiegel Online has a report on the nuclear discussion at the Munich Conference.

If you have the time: A video of Ambassador Jack Matlock: "The Mistakes We Made with Russia and How to Stop Making Them. Matlock was ambassador to Soviet Union, 1987-1991 during critical moments in the agreements between the U.S. and Russia over the break-up of the Soviet Union. Sobering.

Who Speaks for the Jews?

Here is a vigorous rejoinder from the Jewish Daily Forward to PM Netanyahu's claim to speak for Jews everywhere. Well argued too.

Bibi-Boehner Brouhaha: What Does It Mean

The editors have laid out the fundamentals of what's wrong with Majority Leader John Boehner's invitation to PM Benjaming Netanyahu to speak to Congress. And this post from January 21 links to early commentary on Why and How this happened.

Since then, there have been reams of analysis. Among the most diverting, those suggesting that there are no strategic national differences between the U.S. and Israel even if Israel wants to bomb Iran and the U.S. does not. Rather it is just personal or political or something.

Two example of that commentary:

The Bad Marriage metaphor in which the bad relations between Obama and Netanyahu are said to lie at the heart of the controversy. Here from DC and Jerusalem is that analysis by Times' reporters Peter Baker and Jodi Rudoren.

The second is an analysis arguing that the famous "bipartisan" support for Israel no longer exists. Bernard Avishai writes in the New Yorker:  In "Netanyahu and the Republicans," he argues that the Republicans and Likkud are now aligned. How will the Dems take that?

 

Accidental Armaggedon

“In the event of a nuclear attack, which of these items would be the most helpful? Rank them in order of importance.”

This was one of the first worksheets I remember from elementary school. There were about twenty illustrated items. My classmates and I were perplexed. Sure, we had probably watched a filmstrip that mentioned the Geiger Counter, but none of us could remember what it did. And why would we want a broom? Would we be that concerned with the tidiness of our fallout shelter?

IT WAS ABOUT 1983. That same year, the Russians shot down a Korean civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan; the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a lengthy warning about the buildup of nuclear weapons; and on September 26, a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel secretly saved the world from accidental Armaggedon. But more about Stanislav Petrov later.

Growing up in the early 1980’s, not far from North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) and the Air Force Academy, the Cold War was a hot topic – even for kids. Popular videos on the burgeoning MTV network, such as Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” satirized and lamented the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Dads took their sons to see “Top Gun” in theaters, and we cheered when Russian MIGs were splashed in the ocean. “Red Dawn” was always checked out of the video store. One of my favorite books, still there in my parents’ house, was titled “Great Warplanes of the 1980’s.”

KIDS TODAY don't have the same fears. They don’t know that the broom is to sweep nuclear fallout off your friends.

The globally-aware college students that I teach don’t think about nuclear annihilation. Environmental degradation? Yes. Terrorism? Yes. Economic inequality? Yes. Racial injustice? Absolutely. But if they think about nuclear weapons at all, it’s in the context of who might acquire them – namely, North Korea or Iran. The notion that the arsenals of the already nuclear-armed states should be at the center of moral concern seems outdated, like referring to music videos being shown on MTV.

The fact is, the nuclear capabilities that already exist have grown in power beyond human comprehension, and there have been enough “close calls” regarding their deployment to warrant the gravest of fears. In recent years, many influential voices have made the case that – regardless of whether nuclear weapons ever made us more safe – they certainly no longer do so.

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White Smoke over Montecitorio

Almost two years ago a deadlocked and faction-riven Italian Parliament failed to elect a new President upon the completion of Giorgio Napolitano's seven year mandate. The highly respected Napolitano, a former member of Italy's Communist Party, was prevailed upon to extend his term. He finally stepped down in January citing age and increasing fraility, in a manner reminiscent of Benedict XVI with whom he had had warm relations.

Today, adroitly directed by the energetic young Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, the "Grand Electors"  elected as new President the former Christian Democrat, Sergio Mattarella.

Here is a report by Kay Wallace who writes an English blog for La Repubblica:

Born in Palermo in 1941, Sergio Mattarella comes from a prominent Sicilian family; his father Bernardo was one of the founders of the Christian Democrat (DC) party that dominated the Italian political scene for half a century. His brother, Piersanti became Governor of Sicily in 1978 with a campaign to clean up the DC and rid it of its close ties with Cosa Nostra. He was gunned down in his car by the Sicilian Mafia in 1980. There is photograph that shows him being pulled out of the car, still alive, by his brother Sergio.

Mattarella is a centrist politician who has held several ministerial posts in governments of different political stripes. In 1990 he resigned from his post as Education Minister in protest at the Mammì media law, a bill that effectively legalised Berlusconi's TV empire. In 1993 he drafted the electoral law in force from 1994 and 2001, the Mattarellum. Later as Defence Minister he oversaw the abolition of conscription. He was nominated to the Constitutional Court in 2011.

Wallace concludes:

There were two big winners: Sergio Mattarella and Matteo Renzi. By imposing his will on parliament and his party, Renzi showed just how able a politician he is. After the embarrassing farce of the last attempted presidential election, it was also a good day for Italy.

 

51st State reappears

An unnoticed side-effect of the Republican victory in the mid-term is the decision to launch the party's own foreign policy. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, has invited the governor of Israel, our 51st state, Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This appears to be part of the continuing effort of members of Congress to deep-six negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter's nuclear program. The Congress has threatened to pass legislation increasing the sanctions against Iran. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said he would veto such legislation, arguing that it would likely end the negotiations and raise the specter once again of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Presumably, Boehner thinks that a pep talk from Netanyahu would rally votes to override any veto.

It is not Boehner's responsibility to invite Netanyahu and the White House has objected. It is not Netanyahu's responsibility to interfere in U.S. politics. Perhaps common sense will prevail. Netanyahu will stay home. Congress will not pass further sanctions. Obama cannot therefore veto them. Talks will continue and perhaps an agreement will be reached. Stay tuned.

The Forward has this analysis: "Did Benjamin Netanyahu and the GOP just pull off a coup--or lay an egg?"  Jim Lobe has a good round-up of everyone who wasn't asked about the visit, and is now angry, as well as some speculation about who actually proposed it, not Boehner or McConnell he opines.

Mexico's missing students and murdered priests

Francisco Goldman (the New Yorker) and Alma Guillermoprieto (the New York Review of Books) are among the journalists who in ongoing reports not only continue to monitor the latest developments in the case of forty-three missing (and all but confirmed dead) students from the Mexican state of Guerrero, but also work to frame the events within a particular political and economic context, which is characterized mainly by government corruption, poverty, and the rampant and indiscriminate violence of drug gangs.

The basic details: In late September, the students were abducted from one of the nation's poorest vocational schools, reportedly at the behest of a local mayor and his wife who were concerned that planned protests by the students would interfere with or overshadow their own scheduled event. According to the government, the abductees were then turned over to a gang related to the mayoral couple, who killed the students, burned their bodies, and dumped their ashes in a river. The national outcry has been such that Goldman wonders whether the case is "spark[ing] a revolution," while Guillermoprieto notes "the marches, vandalism, protests, petitions, and shame too, as the government sinks in disgrace, its inability to guarantee the safety of its citizens or prosecute its criminals more evident by the hour."

Still, three months have passed since the kidnappings, and forensic confirmation that remains discovered are in fact those of the students has been slow in coming. Parents and families of the missing have appealed for Pope Francis's intervention in urging Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government to properly search for the missing students, and at a December 21 Mass in the town where the college is located, Papal Nuncio Christophe Pierre assured the gathered that "Pope Francis knows what's happening here." (Francis told a general audience at the Vatican in November, "I am with the Mexicans, those present and those at home, in this painful moment of what is legally speaking disappearance, but we know, the murder of the students.")

It was also on our about December 21 when a priest from a seminary on the outskirts of nearby Ciudad Altamirano, Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta, was abducted. He was missing for four days before his body was discovered, on Christmas, with gunshot wounds to the head. The motive and killers are unknown. Lopez Gorostieta is the third priest to be murdered in the southern part of Guerrero this year, one of whom was killed for reportedly refusing to baptize a gang leader’s child. Other priests have received death threats for refusing to perform "quickie" marriages or bless such items as automobiles, have been shaken down for protection payments, or have been targets of highway robbery attempts. One was briefly kidnapped after his preaching on "la familia" was misinterpreted by gunmen as an endorsement of a rival cartel by that name.

The Catholic Multimedia Center says Mexico is the most dangerous country in Latin America to be a priest; thirty-six have now been killed there since 1990, counting Lopez Gorostieta. Goldman notes that since 2000, one hundred and two journalists also have been murdered. These are among the quantifiable facts about violence in Mexico, but the numbers tell only so much and seem to have grown wearying besides. "The government offers to investigate, but nothing is ever known," a local priest named Jesus Mendoza Zaragoza recently told the New York Times. Or as Guillermoprieto puts it, in writing specifically about the missing forty-three: "Everyone knows what happens; no one understands why. ... What is this story we are trying to tell and cannot understand?"

A Teenager Goes to Cuba (pre-"normalized relations")

Thirteen years ago this month we set for Cuba on a large cruise vessel with a salt water pool called the SS Universe Explorer. Fidel Castro was still its president, and the relations between Cuba and the United States President Obama has just “normalized” were still very much not normal. It was December 2001, and Havana was the last stop before Miami at the end of our semester-long journey sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh called Semester at Sea. (We weren't supposed to call it a cruise; the captain preferred "voyage.") University students took classes in between stints in 10 ports from Kobe, Japan, to Salvador, Brazil. The program obtained special educational permission to take the Universe Explorer and its six hundred American university students into Cuba. A high school student at the time, I tagged along with my dad, a history professor.

The students were thrilled to go where few Americans could. When we got to Havana, it felt like we’d stepped in a time travel machine that only did half the job, mingling the 1950s with the turn of the millennium. The graffiti in Spanish, “Down with Batista!” and “Long Live Free Cuba!” looked impossibly new, though it wasn’t. But it was the cars I remember most: the old Ladas, Studebakers and Buick Specials punctuated by newer Japanese and Korean cars which were evidence of pockets of new money, from somewhere. These mid-century cars radiated glamour, even if they are falling apart, as did the art deco buildings. Pastel paint on buildings peeled and some houses crumbled slowly, propped up with timber. At the Hotel Ambos Mundos, you could take an open elevator to the room in which Hemingway stayed, preserved with a typewriter. In the lobby, a pianist played “As Time Goes By,” a detail I remember because I noted it in my journal, but now seems a little on the nose.

At the University of Havana our hosts presented a documentary about Fidel Castro, and from the little I knew about history at the time and from what the documentary indicated, he came across as a decent guy. After the film, students from the university joined the American students and I don't know who started it, but soon dozens of us, Cubans and Americans, were arm in arm singing John Lennon's “Imagine” as we climbed the campus plaza’s stairs to a reception. My teenage knowledge of geopolitics was awfully thin, so I was piecing together what I was supposed to think about what I was seeing. I remember our tour bus drove by what was clearly a neighborhood of shacks with tin roofs and a low-walled perimeter. "What's that?" someone asked the bus's tour guide. She replied, pretending she didn’t see it, "What's what?"

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Meanwhile, back at the war

Perhaps you have been distracted by doings at the Vatican and the fear-filled news of Ebola (Although, there's this: Nina Pham, a critical-care nurse who cared for Mr. Duncan, the Ebola victim,  is now in isolation herself at Texas Presbyterians. She has been described as a compassionate and caring person [I felt proud reading that she grew up in a Vietnamese Catholic family]). NYTimes

But back to the ME: Things seem to be falling apart. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who always sees the dark side of things (he may be right this time), writes today that the Shiite militias who are the only real fighting force protecting Baghdad are also busy kidnapping and killing Sunnis. (So much for a coalition government.) Meanwhile ISIS has moved further south in Anbar province and are now due west of the Baghdad International Airport. They have moved up their artillerly. (Do U.S. advisors now in Baghdad have an alternate departure route?) Juan Cole has much the same news with the addition that ISIL has looted heavy weapons from the Iraqi army base it captured in the Anbar province of Hit.

Turkey is dragging its feet on cooperating with the U.S. and its "coalition," while it is also reported that the Turkish Air Force is bombing Turkish Kurds while Turkish Kurds are leading protests against President Erdogans's foot dragging.  Here is an analysis of the Turkish/Kurdish struggles from a Turkish source.

The Day George Mitchell Saved American Patriotism From Oliver North

(When Sen. George Mitchell receives Commonweal's Catholic in the Public Square Award later this month, there will be little---and perhaps no---mention of his work on the Iran-contra committee and his July 13, 1987 statement to Col. Oliver North.  (There's no mention of it in the lengthy biographical entries about Mitchell on Wikipedia and the Academy of Achievement.) And that is probably as it should be.  Mitchell's more recent work as an international peacemaker, and particularly his work in Northern Ireland, will rightly take center stage.  All the more reason then, to remember it here.)

It was the summer of 1987 and the Iran-contra hearings were in full swing. As Congress came back from its Independence Day recess the man in the middle of the scandal, NSC aide Lt. Col. Oliver North, began his testimony...and a folk hero was born.

With his erect bearing, immaculate uniform, beribboned chest, and puppy-dog eyes, North embodied an American patriotic ideal.  A man of action who loves his country and will do what it takes to get the job done.  A man alternately bewildered at and defiant of those who would besmirch the honor of his good name.

Meanwhile the Congressional investigators looked like...members of Congress.  Mostly older, graying, paunchy, suited men who sounded like...well, members of Congress, speaking the orotund dialect peculiar to that body.

To the evident delight of some Republicans (e.g., Rep. Richard Cheney of Wyoming) on the 26 man (yes, all men) combined House and Senate select committees, North's reputation soared overnight as he cleverly exploited the committee's own rules to make soaring speeches in defense of himself and of the secret and illegal policies he had carried out---selling arms (despite an arms embargo) to Iran for the release of American hostages (thus providing a further incentive for kidnappers) and secretly funneling the funds raised to the contras in Nicaragua (despite the Boland Amendment).  "I didn't think it was wrong; I thought it was a neat idea," said North.  Most Americans watching the televised hearings cheered him on.

It was different on radio.

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