The 'Weekly Standard,' Notre Dame & 'Commonweal'
Paul Baumann June 15, 2009 - 11:59am
The neoconservative Weekly Standard is best known as former vice president Dick Cheney's favorite humor magazine. And it is funny--truly. Who can forget those satirical pieces warning of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, or the one--written in code!--about demure, heavily mascaraed Iraqi and Al Qaeda secret agents canoodling while passing nuclear secrets over heavy pastry in Vienna? And then there was the wild Monty Python-like script for "democratizing the Middle East at gunpoint." The magazine's limericks are even better. How do the staff poets manage, again and again, to rhyme same-sex marriage with pedophilia, feminism with mandatory castration, and capitalism with tantric sex? Perhaps genius is the only explanation.
Occasionally, the Weekly Standard attempts a serious piece of journalism. This is always a stretch for writers and editors, especially religiously motivated neoconservatives, committed to the long struggle against what is derisively called "the reality-based community." Thus did an unnamed senior Bush adviser famously explain the idea of Bush's "faith-based presidency" to journalist Ron Suskind: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Too true. A good example of the Weekly Standard's penchant for "creating other new realities" was a May 18 article, "God and Obama at Notre Dame," by Joseph Bottum, who edits First Things, an occasional sparring partner of Commonweal. Addressing the alleged scandal of honoring prochoice President Barack Obama at the nation's best-known Catholic university, Bottum took the occasion to announce--in that Trotskyite way neocons have of anointing themselves the irresistible wave of the future--that Notre Dame, "still living in a 1970s Catholic world, has suddenly awakened to find itself out of date."
If you had a penny for every time a First Things writer has pronounced this or that Catholic (and especially this magazine) "out of date"--well, you'd have almost as much money as First Things gets each year from right-wing foundations. To be sure, Bottum takes pains to inform his readers that the Obama/Notre Dame controversy was not about politics, but culture. Reaching for the highest rhetorical notes in his impressive register, he argues that legalized abortion is irrefutable evidence of America's corruption and decline, if not impending doom. "For American Catholics," he writes, "the church is a refuge and a bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families." Notre Dame's alleged squishiness on abortion, exemplified by its invitation to President Obama, means it lacks "the cultural marker that would make [it] Catholic in the minds of other Catholics." Until Catholic universities understand this, the essay pronounces, "they will not be Catholic--in a very real, existential sense."
Bottum's writing has always been brightened by a wonderful indifference to mundane facts, a winning embrace of the fantastical. Still, it is rather stunning, in the aftermath of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, to read that Catholics find a refuge and a bulwark for their families in the church. (That must be why every parish in the country requires anyone involved in church work to attend a "safe environments" workshop. And you have to attend in the real, not merely the existential sense.) Just as problematic is the attempt to define who is or isn't Catholic. Granted, reading this or that person or group out of the church is a passionate hobby for some. But doing so in the "existential sense" seems a bit squishy for the editor of a magazine that prides itself on its gimlet-eyed defense of "orthodoxy."
Doubtless those of us condemned to live in the reality-based community will be "left to just study" Bottum's existential claims. In the meantime, those among us who are journalists need to remind Bottum of the first two rules of the profession. First rule: to the best of your ability, get the facts right. Second rule: if you do make a mistake, acknowledge the error and correct it. Bottum needs to understand that even Dick Cheney's favorite humor magazine should try to avoid blatant errors and misrepresentations. To help him, we sent the following letter to the Weekly Standard hoping to correct a number of erroneous statements Bottum made about Commonweal in his essay.
To the Editors:
Joseph Bottum's article in your May 18 issue, "God and Obama at Notre Dame," contained a number of serious inaccuracies regarding Commonweal magazine and the content on our blog, dotCommonweal.
After quoting from an editorial that appeared in America magazine, Bottom writes, "America was soon joined by the other old-line American Catholic magazine, Commonweal, which could not bring itself to express the least sympathy for the protesters." He then refers to an article from the Web site of the magazine he edits, First Things, that was excerpted, linked to, and discussed on the Commonweal blog (http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=3129). But his characterization of that discussion is misleading in several ways: First, a post by an individual blogger on dotCommonweal is not in any way an expression of Commonweal magazine's editorial stance. Comments from blog readers are even more obviously not to be interpreted as the voice of the magazine. And the claim that our bloggers and commenters have been uniformly unsympathetic to "the protesters" at Notre Dame in general, or to Lacy Dodd, the author of the First Things Web article, in particular, is false. In fact, the blog post Bottum refers to described Dodd's article as "a moving testimony." And it gave rise to a lively discussion that included a wide variety of opinions, which Bottum's account completely mischaracterizes.
"Commonweal put a notice of the article on its own website, and 83 comments later, the young woman had been called everything but a slut," Bottum claims. In fact, Bottum is interpreting several commenters' respectful criticisms of Dodd's argument as attacks on her person and her personal decisions, which were in fact widely praised. When Bottum writes, "Her story was flimsy,' manipulative'..." he is apparently quoting the following sentences: "It's a moving story, but a flimsy argument." And "Bless the young woman for all she did to keep her baby, but her article is emotionally manipulative."
More seriously, Bottum distorts two phrases from another comment when he writes, "She was just a horny kid,' one of the victims of the Russian roulette moral theory of premarital sex' so rampant in the protesters' troglodyte version of Catholicism." In fact, the use of the former phrase did not refer to Ms. Dodd, and Bottum's interpretation of the latter phrase is totally inverted. Here is the original comment (which was addressed to another commenter on the blog):Your metaphor of the pregnant ND girl and the Blessed Mother also implies that the Holy Spirit was just a horny kid. Come off it.
Do I feel sorry for the ND girl? Of course, and also for her child and even the father. They are all victims of the Russian roulette moral theory of premarital sex - take a chance! :-( But contraceptives are not fail-safe, and it does a tremendous disservice to kids to let them think it's OK to act otherwise. The possibilities of negative consequences are simply to [sic] great to risk.
Yes, the old teaching 'no marriage, no sex' is a hard saying. So?
In context, the line Bottum quotes as an attack on the moral outlook of "the protesters" is in fact an endorsement of abstinence education. And his suggestion that Dodd was called "a horny kid" is simply false.
Bottum should know better than to pretend that comments on a blog post are representative of a magazine's editorial stance. But if he insists on using blog comments to make his argument, he ought to make sure he doesn't misconstrue their meaning. In this case, he has not served your readers accurately or well.
The Editors of Commonweal
Our letter was printed in the June 15 issue of the Weekly Standard, along with Bottum's unrepentant response. There Bottum ingeniously notes that "every word I quoted appeared on the Commonweal site." That is undeniably true, but true only in the sense that every word he quoted also appears in the dictionary. He further asserts without plausible argument that "the words I quoted were a precise and fair summary of the expressed views of Commonweal and its writers." This immediately brought to mind Humpty Dumpty's brilliant retort in Through the Looking Glass: "When I use a word...it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."
Understandably, we were left scratching our heads, fearful that Bottum had succumbed to what the pope calls "the dictatorship of relativism." Upon further reflection, however, we grasped what he was so wittily telling us. Obtusely we had failed to see that "God and Obama at Notre Dame" was satire after all, right from the start and all the way to the closing lament (ha, ha, ha) about the brokenness of Catholic culture and the U.S. church. And so we hereby withdraw our objections, and will wait (what else can we do?) for Bottum to act again, creating reality as he goes merrily along. He's an empire now. No one dares dispute it.
About the Author
Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.