dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

Secretary Kerry: Nice Try

Secretary of State John Kerry's effort to bring the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off to another level is clearly failing, if it has not already failed. So what's next? Some weary but knowledgable observers offer their thoughts. I read them to say in general: time for the United States to sign off.

Tom Friedman at the NYTimes: "The truth is Kerry’s mission is less an act of strategy and more an act of deep friendship. It is America trying to save Israel from trends that will inevitably undermine it as a Jewish and democratic state. But Kerry is the last of an old guard. Those in the Obama administration who think he is on a suicide mission reflect the new U.S. attitude toward the region. And those in Israel who denounce him as a nuisance reflect the new Israel."

Henry Siegman at Haaretz:  America has been seen by the entire international community as “owning” the peace process, not because its statesmen are believed to be wiser than all others, but because it enjoys leverage with Israel that uniquely enables it to influence the Jewish state’s policies.....[I]t is the consequence of the many decades of unprecedented U.S. generosity towards the Jewish state in the form of virtually unlimited military and economic assistance.... It has long been assumed that a point would surely come when Washington would use its long-accumulated leverage to inform Israel’s government that it could no longer fend off international criticism of Israel’s occupation without incurring serious damage to its own credibility and national interests. It was believed that when the U.S. reaches that point, Israel would have no choice but to withdraw from the West Bank to the pre-1967 lines, subject to minor mutual border swaps and appropriate security guarantees....But that moment of truth never came, and no one believes any longer it ever will.

Paul Pillar at National Interest: Reviews "What to Do After Peace Process Failure."

Elsewhere

Dean Baker on education and inequality:

The patterns in the data show that inequality is not a question of the more-educated gaining at the expense of the less-educated due to inevitable technological trends. Rather, it has been a story in which a small group of especially well-situated workers — for example, those in finance, doctors, and top-level corporate executives — have been able to gain at the expense of almost everyone else. This pattern of inequality will be little affected by improving the educational outcomes for the bottom quarter or even bottom half of income distribution.

Jonathan Cohn on taxes:

Relative to other countries, tax rates in the U.S. are relatively low, even when you throw in local and state taxes and add them to federal levies. Overall, according to the Tax Policy Center and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which supplied the graph above, taxes in the U.S. are among the lowest in the developed world. The average for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an organization of rich countries, is higher. And in countries like Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands...the average is much higher. In those nations, taxes account for more than half of total national income.

That level may sound scary but, as many of us have written before, you could make a good case that the people of Scandinavia and Northern Europe know what they are doing. They are far more secure, thanks not only to national health insurance but also to generous provision of child care and unemployment benefits. And despite the high tax burden, their economies have historically been strong—in part, because the combination of investment and a secure safety net makes people more comfortable with a dynamic, ever-changing economy. The wonks used to call this economic model “flexicurity.”

Thomas Nagel on regret:

If someone breaks his promise to drive you to the airport, causing you to miss your flight, then even if the flight crashes with no survivors your friend is not excused: he shouldn’t have broken his promise. The retrospective effects of later outcomes have to do not with justification but with affirmation or regret, which are independent of justification or its absence.

New stories on our homepage

Now on the homepage, "Being Prepared for Joy," Anthony Domestico's fascinating interview with poet Christian Wiman. An excerpt:

AD: You’re currently teaching a course called “Accidental Theologies,” which you define as the kind of theology that gets done in seemingly nontheological texts—letters, poems, and novels, for example. Why are you drawn to this kind of writing? What in particular interests you about the kind of theology that gets done in, say, the novels of Fanny Howe or Marilynne Robinson? And how do the pleasures you get from accidental theology differ from the pleasures you get from the more traditional theology of a Karl Barth or Hans Urs von Balthasar?

CW: I seem immune to ideas that have no concretion to them. Most systematic theology—modern theology, I should specify, like Barth or Balthazar—just bounces right off the stone of my brain. I don’t mean that I don’t enjoy it—I do—but it seems not to stick with me in any meaningful way, seems ungraspable the minute I’ve closed the book.

Embodied theology, though, ideas about God that have some music and physicality to them, ideas, that is to say, that aren’t primarily ideas—these sorts of works I understand and love and am able to carry with me in my life and faith. I’m not ranking the ways one does theology, though; just diagnosing my own magpie method, which has its own strengths and weaknesses.

But you should really read the whole thing.

Also, the editors write on Republican efforts to tighten voting rules in a number of swing states:

Republicans in nine states have pushed through laws with strict photo ID requirements as well as a variety of limitations on early voting, extended voting hours (including weekends), same-day registration, and absentee voting. All of these restrictions would disproportionately affect minority voters. Many African Americans, especially those living in cities, do not have the state-issued photo IDs, such as driver’s licenses or passports, required by the laws. Many cannot get to the polls until early evening. Sunday voting, often organized around church services in African American communities, is especially important for increasing turnout. How can prohibiting Sunday voting, as Ohio has just done, be anything but discriminatory?

Read all of "Voting Rights & Wrongs" here.

Finn flayed.

Last week, Kansas City Detective Maggie McGuire was honored for her work on the troubling case of Shawn Ratigan, a now-laicized priest serving a fifty-year sentence for possessing and creating child pornography. Recall that in 2012 Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph was found guilty of failing to report suspected child abuse--after diocesan personnel informed him that they had found pornographic photographs of minors on Ratigan's laptop and the bishop failed to notify police. Obviously Deputy U.S. Attorney Gene Porter hasn't forgotten the details of that case, because when he presented the Crystal Kipper & Ali Kemp Memorial Award to McGuire, he delivered a stinging rebuke to Finn and his diocese:

When it becomes clear at the outset of the investigation that the entire hierarchy of a centuries-old religious denomination does not seem willing to recognize that the children depicted in the images are, in fact, victims of child exploitation, nor seem very willing to help establish the identity of the children depicted, and instead are spending millions of dollars on legal counsel in an ill-advised effort to avoid having the priest and bishop accept legal responsibility for their crimes, then you know, as an investigator, that your work is cut out for you.

He continued:

But for [McGuire's] work, multiple victims might not have been identified, a predatory priest might not have been removed and sentenced to the functional equivalent of life in prison, and Robert Finn never would have become the first cleric of his rank in the United States to sustain…a criminal conviction for failure to report suspected child abuse.

A judge sentenced Bishop Finn to two years of probation. He has not been censured by church authorities.

(H/T NCR)

Greater grace, greater praise

The heavens will confess your wondrous deeds, O Lord” (Ps 88[89]:6). The heavens will not be confessing their own merits: “the heavens will confess your wondrous deeds, O Lord.” In any mercy shown to the lost, in the justifying of the wicked, what do we praise if not the wondrous deeds of God? You give praise because the dead rise again; give even greater praise because the lost have been redeemed. What grace! What mercy of God! You see someone who yesterday was a whirlpool of drunkenness and today is a model of sobriety. You see someone who yesterday was a cesspool of excess and today is a paragon of temperance. You see someone who yesterday was blaspheming God today is praising God. You see someone who yesterday was a slave of creatures today is a worshipper of the Creator. People are being converted from all those desperate conditions. Let them not consider their own merits. Let them become heavens and let those heavens confess the wondrous deeds of the one who made them heavens. (Augustine, EnPs 88[89], 6; PL 37, 1123)

Christian seders: always a bad idea?

Can Christians host seders? Should they? It's a question I've seen raised and answered in a few places this Passover, with some interesting responses, mostly in the negative. I've never been to a seder, Christian or otherwise, and no parish I've been in has ever tried it, so I'm interested in the question without being very invested.

Everyone whose opinion I've read concedes that Christian seders are a well-intentioned practice -- usually, anyway, an attempt to learn more about what Christ believed and did, and what Jewish neighbors do today. But most think they're a bad idea nevertheless. An exception is Mark Silk, who gives the Christian hosts his blessing.

He notes concerns raised by Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy ("a Christian woman married to a Jewish man") in a piece at Religion Dispatches: the practice appropriates a Jewish ritual, ignoring the history of Christian persecution of Jews as well as the still-vibrant religious experience of Jews today. She gives a clear explanation of the danger of theological insensitivity and error:

Christians mounting their own reading of the Haggadah almost always want to discuss how Jesus is like the paschal lamb, using the occasion to show how all the Hebrew scriptures point to Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies. This theological exercise, known as supersessionism, is problematic enough in a purely Christian context, but as part of a Jewish ritual it is deeply out of place.

At Religion News Service, Silk writes,

Read more

Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

This is kind of an old story in online time, dating all the way back to last week, on a study that links declining interest and participation in religion to the rise of the Internet. Of course, there's been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there's been organized religion, something Elizabeth Drescher tidily sums up (again) at Religion Dispatches: from the piper on the English green to colonialism in the New World to Industrial-age indifference to--according to "research" from 2010--Facebook, there's always something steering people away from church. And she doesn't even mention radio, TV, professional football, or kids' soccer games. 
 
Never mind whether any of these have been definitively linked to "the problem" anyway; like video games and gun violence or vaccines and autism, blaming the Internet for [insert name of ailment here] has that easy intuitive appeal that comes with any simple, single-cause explanation for something that had seemed too complex or concerning to consider more deeply.
Read more

A poem for Palm Sunday

I meant to post this yesterday, but forgot. Perhaps it is not too late.

The Donkey
BY G. K. CHESTERTON

When fishes flew and forests walked  
   And figs grew upon thorn,  
Some moment when the moon was blood  
   Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
   And ears like errant wings,  
The devil’s walking parody  
   On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
   Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,  
   I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
   One far fierce hour and sweet:  
There was a shout about my ears,
   And palms before my feet.

Abducted in Cameroon

Sr. Gilberte Bussiere; photo courtesy Congrégation Notre-Dame

Two Italian priests and a Canadian nun were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Cameroon on April 5. The radical Islamist group Boko Haram from Nigeria is suspected. I don’t remember how I came across the story. Did I read it? Was it on the radio? But I know it registered. These were Catholic missionaries. Who were they? The news story didn’t say.

Read more

Connecting the Circuits

The leitmotif of the great father of the Church, Origen, in his commentaries on Scripture was: "not only then, but now." The narrative of faith is not merely "in illo tempore," but "in hoc tempore."

It is the challenging task of the preacher to proclaim God's Word as relevant in our own day. But, of course, it is the task of every believer to appropriate the Good News, to pass over from a merely "notional" to a "real" apprehension and assent.

Here the great artists – poets, painters, musicians – can be occasions of grace for us. Perhaps none more so than Johann Sebastian Bach.

Bach's two surviving Passions coincide in the current liturgical year with our reading of Saint Matthew and Saint John today and Good Friday. I have been listening these past days to the Saint Matthew Passion and will towards midweek begin to play/pray the Saint John Passion.

In his masterful, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner devotes ninety dense pages to an analysis and appreciation of the Passions. Here is an excerpt:

As everyone familiar with either of Bach’s surviving Passions knows, participating either from the outside as a listener or from the inside as a performer, the placement of the chorales is central to the overall experience – pulling the action into the here and now, confirming, responding to, or repudiating what has just happened in the narrative, and obliging one to consider its significance.

 

It is the judicious choice and placement of chorales that provide the essential scaffolding and punctuation of the narrative and that simultaneously articulate the underlying theological themes. You could of course remove them (together with the meditative arias) and the piece would still make sense at one level; but to do so would break the circuit –obliterating the connections to Bach’s time and to ours.

The Consistent Ethic of Pope Francis

Pope Francis met this morning with members of the Italian Movement for Life. In his remarks to the group he said:

Thank you for the testimony you give by promoting and defending human life from the moment of conception! We know it, human life is sacred and inviolable. Every civil right rests on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, that of life, which is not subordinated to any condition, be it quantitative, economic or, least of all, ideological. “Just as the commandment 'Thou shall not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shall not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills .... Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘throw away’ culture which is now spreading” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, n. 53). And in this way life, too, ends up being thrown away.

National Poetry Month - Tracy K. Smith

Last week, I talked briefly about the prosy-yet-still-poetic work of Spencer Reece. This week, I wanted to draw attention to a very different writer: Tracy K. Smith.

Smith has truly catholic (small "c") tastes. The high and the low, the verbal and the visual, the jokey and the philosophical: all serve as lenses through which Smith--and, with her help, the reader--sees the world and culture anew. In 2012, Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars, and it was a well-deserved honor. It has helped me to see the poetic possibilities of everything from cosmology (Smith mines the metaphoric implications of dark matter and dark energy), to science fiction (the film Soylent Green makes an appearance), to pop music (David Bowie hovers over the whole collection; see below), to the Iraq war. 

Here is the opening to "Don't You Wonder, Sometimes?" Smith's work shows that wonder is the proper attitude to take towards the immense strangeness and beauty of the cosmos--and towards our place within it:

After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

For the complete poem, go here.

Pope Francis apologizes for sexual-abuse scandal.

 

Today, in an address to members of the International Catholic Child Bureau (BICE)--an NGO that works to protect the rights and dignity of children--Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the "damage [abusive] priests have done for sexually abusing children." Noting that the total number of abusive priests is high, "obviously not compared to the number of all the priests," Francis reassured the audience that "the church is aware of this damage; it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the church." He promised that "we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed--on the contrary, we have to be even stronger."

Is this earth-shaking? Not really. But given that the last time he spoke on the subject it didn't exactly go over too well, this is a marked improvement. And--significantly--these remarks were not part of the prepared text. Francis could have read through the speech as written and avoided the uncomfortable subject altogether, bringing headlines like, "Pope Speaks to Child-Protection Group, Ignores Sexual Abuse." But he didn't. And what he said carries some force.

Francis pledged not to "take one step backward." He referred to "sanctions that must be imposed." Of course, the question remains: sanctions for whom? For abusive priests? We're aware of those sanctions. What about the bishops who enabled abusers? Francis has made it clear that he's not afraid to investigate an accused cardinal. But is he willing to penalize bishops who have put kids at risk--even after the hard lessons of 2002? That's the great unfinished business of the sexual-abuse scandal.

 

A Lenten Love Letter

There is something characteristically, beautifully and powerfully Catholic about CRS Rice Bowl

Characteristically, because Rice Bowl is an intensely incarnate program.  The flimsy, yet sturdy, fold-together Rice Bowl on the dining room table is something you can see and touch.  The aromas of Rice Bowl's meatless dinner recipes fill the kitchen on Friday nights, stimulate the taste buds with flavors both new and familiar, and fill the stomach (or not, which provides its own lesson). 

Beautifully, because Rice Bowl's educational materials are thoughtfully and artfully prepared.  They're inviting to the eye and always feature, first and foremost, photographs of CRS beneficiaries from around the world and across the US.  Unlike some charitable programs, Rice Bowl doesn't innundate its donor-participants with images of blank-eyed impoverished victims on the brink of death.  Rather, Rice Bowl's photographs, stories and videos steadily and subtly offer images and reminders of the hope and joy that come from faith and love made incarnate. 

Powerfully, first because Rice Bowl raises $7 million annually to support CRS programs in 40 countries around the world. (1/4 of money raised stays in local dioceses.)  Second, because Rice Bowl deepens the meaning and practice of Lent...especially for children:

Read more

Horizons

 A new book and a film have revived interest in a famous quote of Donald Rumsfeld speaking about the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq:

Reports that say there's -- that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.

The quotation has sometimes been criticized and even mocked. But it called to my mind the use made long before of the same threefold distinction by Canadian philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan. He appealed it to explain what is meant by the term “horizon,” much-used by existentialist philosophers, in particular Martin Heidegger.

Visual horizons are defined by a viewpoint and a field of vision, the first determining the second. On the tenth floor of the Empire State Building, a certain field is open to view until the meeting of sky and earth define one’s physical horizon, the point beyond which one cannot see. Go up to the 86th floor, and a much larger field is open to view. Move from the western to the eastern side of the observation deck and a different field of vision appears. Your viewpoint determines what you can see, how far you can see, where the horizon is beyond which you cannot see.

Lonergan proposed to consider one’s existential viewpoint as the sets of questions one is asking or could ask.

Read more

Get those children out of the muddy-muddy

I have no plans to see Noah, the new Darren Aronofsky biblical disaster movie, so I didn't get around to reading A. O. Scott's review in the New York Times until someone recommended it. That recommendation was related to the content-advisory bit at the bottom -- a form Scott has often had fun with. This, at the very end of his Noah review, is perhaps his greatest work:

“Noah” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and only Noah remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”

The review itself is unexpectedly profound, as Scott (and, he says, Aronofsky) takes up some deep questions raised by the attempt to translate a biblical legend into screenplay material.

Noah's story, Scott writes, "is among the strangest and scariest in the Hebrew Bible. At its center is what appears to be an unnerving example of divine self-doubt." That's something we tend to leave out when we think about Noah and the Ark -- instead, we "emphasize the happy outcome: the rainbow, the dove, the cute paired-off beasts, the repopulation of the flood-cleansed earth." By contrast, says Scott, Aronofsky's film "dwells on the dark and troubling implications of Noah’s experience." He has many interesting thoughts about how that plays out.

When you have kids, or when you start buying things for other people's newborns, you quickly discover the popularity of Noah's Ark as a nursery motif. Boats filled with animals appear all over bedding, gift wrap, and other baby items, especially unisex infant stuff -- wild animals seem to cross gender barriers in a way that fire trucks and butterflies do not, and in the case of the Ark they are conveniently organized in complementary pairs.

There's a Fisher Price Noah's Ark toy in the co-op playroom where I spend one morning a week with my sons. Watching my two-year-old stuffing the animal figurines into the boat, I started to point out the fact that they came in pairs, one male and one female -- but I stopped myself, thinking, How much of this story am I prepared to tell him? I didn't see how I could avoid starting at the beginning, and I certainly wasn't about to do that. Eventually, of course, I want him to hear the whole story, and to have it fire his imagination to think about God and God's relationship with us. But for now, "Noah was a guy who had a boat full of animals" is enough.

It's natural, even correct, for us to remember the story of Noah mainly through its happy ending, because that's the point of the story, the reason it's being told. But the rainbow and the boat and the animals do not make for a cute and simple story, and if we try to tell it that way we end up shortchanging its power to move and provoke us as imaginative, questioning, struggling adults. I like Scott's parental warning because it's clever, but also because it's a reminder that, however often religion may be considered in our culture a childish thing to be put away, the Bible, when you really look at it, isn't childish at all.

New stories now on our homepage

LBJ coincidentally comes up in a couple of the stories now on our homepage, perhaps underscoring the point that E. J. Dionne Jr. makes in his column that a “thoroughly justified revival of Lyndon B. Johnson’s standing” is underway. From “LBJ’s Way”:

The Johnson comeback brings with it a new appreciation of the durability of the reforms enacted on his watch. It turns out that there are irreversible social reforms -- changes in how we govern ourselves and view our society that future generations come to take for granted and refuse to wipe off the books.

It’s impossible to imagine that the Civil Rights Act will ever be repealed. The law itself and the broad political and social movement that came together to pass it permanently altered the nation’s attitudes on race. Racism will never be fully stamped out, but our default position -- most visible in the rising generation -- is that racial discrimination is both wrong and stupid. At the least, attacks on the civil rights legacy must be indirect and subtle, as in the Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act.

Similarly, despite all the efforts to contain Medicare’s costs, government-provided health insurance for the elderly is a fact of life. An overriding contest in our politics now is whether the guarantees in the Affordable Care Act will also come to reflect a new normal.

Read the whole thing here.

Among the other reforms of the Johnson era was the Higher Education Act of 1965, which Hollis Phelps recaps in his piece on one of today’s “threats to the common good”: the huge burden of student loan debt that graduates carry with them after college. From “Graduating with a Degree in Debt”:

It’s fair to say that many students wouldn’t be able to attend college at all without easy access to loans. But that so many students have to borrow has much to do with the cost of attending. Although the figures vary, over the past thirty years the real cost of attending a four-year institution has at least tripled, far outpacing inflation. Increasing tuition prices means that grants and scholarships don’t go as far as they used to. Combine that with family income levels, which have been stagnant since the 1970s, and it’s no surprise that the average student now graduates college with $29,400 of debt; 38 million individuals now hold a combined total of more than $1 trillion in student loan debt. That’s four times what it was ten years ago, and it surpasses total U.S. credit card debt. In fact, when it comes to what Americans owe, student loan debt is second only to mortgage debt. …

When confronted with such facts, politicians, the media, business leaders, and the student loan industry typically respond by stressing the importance of individual responsibility in borrowing. True, we might hear halfhearted calls to rein in the cost of tuition, but more common are scolding reminders about how planning in advance, say, with college savings accounts; how choosing an affordable school; how working part time; and how good old-fashioned belt-tightening can help one avoid a mountain of debt after graduation. …

My students, who sometimes graduate with double the average debt, aren’t necessarily poor planners or irresponsible borrowers, misinformed about the debt they are taking on to finance their college education. They just come from homes that couldn’t afford to put money into a college savings account. They’ve chosen for various reasons to attend a college that is one of the more reasonable options in the state, but still costs $17,300 a year for tuition alone. They already have part-time jobs, but $7.25 an hour, which is the current minimum wage in North Carolina, doesn’t make much of a dent in current tuition rates. They know what it means to tighten their belts, since they’ve done so all their lives. My students are, in other words, painfully aware of the amount of debt they are taking on and the consequences: numerous years of sacrifice in other areas of their lives to repay with interest the cost of their degree.

Read the whole thing here.

The Sixth Extinction and the Religious Imagination

Dominic Preziosi has written an excellent post on the question of climate change and the question of potential futures, here. My post might be understood as an extended riff on issues raised there, as well as a continuation of a question I raised in an earlier blog, about religion and the anthropocene. I need to start with some initial ground clearing:
1. Humanity has altered the basic order of life on earth. Nearly every natural process is shaped in a fundamental way by processes of production and consumption. We live in the anthropocene.
2. We have known since at least 1972 – the year of the Club of Rome Report – that such dominance is unhealthy in the present, and unsustainable with regard to any conceivable future. The pursuit of material comfort (in the developed world at least) has ironically led to a future of radical climate volatility.  
3. One potential future has to be seriously considered: a globe where human life no longer exists. Here we enter the world that Scheffler’s book Death and the Afterlife examines: how do we philosophize, how do we think ethically about the present – one’s own present – when no-one, no human persons, will live on in the future? Because of the anthropocene, it is clear that the earth itself will stratigraphically mark/inscribe and “remember” the human trace. We have some future. In geological time, our legacy will be literally etched in stone. But on a human temporal scale, what happens to ethics when the expectation of a collective cultural “afterlife” disappears? We already live in what may be the sixth great extinction, the most destructive erasure of life forms in 65 million years. What happens if human life falls under its shadow? What happens if the bell tolls for us, just as it has tolled for the species that are currently going extinct all around us?

I want to raise a question before I continue to discuss these issues in a second entry. What might happen -- what could or should happen – in the temporal gap between awareness of an end and our collective experience of the end itself? Specifically, what happens to religion? Others (Jack Miles, for example) have addressed and attempted to answer this question. How might religion – or to speak more directly to the readers of Commonweal, our religious tradition – prepare us not only to change course while we still have time, but if and when our time runs out, to comprehend in a full and mature way the imperatives of that condition?

Climate change & 'the afterlife'

There’s an interesting quote from Jonathan Schell in the New Yorker’s recent remembrance of the late author. Schell, who in his book The Fate of the Earth “brought home the sheer reality of what it would mean to explode our atomic arsenals, summoning up not the mainly visceral, personal fear of the duck-and-cover drill but the far deeper horror of a world permanently sterilized and impoverished,” had late in his life come to apply his thinking about nuclear war to climate change. “Both crises,” the article quotes him as saying, “reveal a kind of bankruptcy at the crucial hour of many of the things we place our faith in… . I can easily imagine that in six months the whole earth will be blazing with anger at what’s going on. I can imagine that, but I can’t imagine how it will happen.” 

About a week has passed since the release of the latest and correspondingly more dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—things are only getting worse and “no one on this planet is going to be untouched by the impact”—which means about one less week for the world to muster the anger Schell was hopeful about. The media has generally performed well, at least according to Media Matters, which approvingly notes the amount of coverage the report has received from cable outlets like Al Jazeera and MSNBC and even broadcast networks like NBC. CNN largely ignored the report, however, devoting less than two minutes to it, in contrast to the twenty-plus minutes elsewhere; Fox, in giving it more time, also provided “coverage that largely denied the danger of climate change.” (An aside: Roger Ailes, who runs Fox News, was arguably at one time a relative environmentalist, using his position as media consultant to the Nixon administration to encourage the president to promise a Kennedy-esque mission to eliminate water and air pollution in America by 1980.) Related articles and analyses continue to appear, including this BBC item on Exxon’s breezy lack of concern over the impact of new climate data on its profits—although even it “does not dispute that global warming is happening.” 

Would that the rest of the world could be so nonchalant.

Read more

A career full of "first-rate performances": Mickey Rooney, RIP

a promising performer

There's something unsettling about successful child actors, even the best ones -- especially the best ones. Watching them perform, I can't help thinking about the fact that they are performing. And I am not convinced that it can be good for any child to be good at acting.

Mickey Rooney was certainly one of the best, a professional even before he could read a contract (or anything else). I've long been fascinated by the films of the 1930s and '40s, and the way they reflect Depression-era and wartime America, and I have always had a soft spot for Mickey Rooney. And I have always been impressed less by his talent than by his obvious hard work. Rooney was a performer who held nothing back; a vaudevillian who wanted made sure the people in the very back row got their money's worth. Or, perhaps, a child who just wanted to please. He was, after all, born in a trunk, and put on the stage by his parents as part of their act when he was not yet two. They got him a part anchoring a series of shorts when he was only six, and had his name legally changed to match the character so that he could profit even when he wasn't shooting.

All the studio stars worked harder, or at least faster, in those days, and the kids may have worked the hardest of all. I noted in a post here just after Shirley Temple's death that she made a staggering number of movies from 1934 to 1939. Rooney had a similiarly incredible output. I had thought it might be fun -- and quick -- to honor him with a quick look back at what Commonweal's film reviewers had said of his work. Little did I know how many reviews I'd have to read through -- back then the magazine was a weekly, and every issue included several movie reviews. Just searching our archives gives vivid evidence of how busy Rooney was in his heyday.

Read more