dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

'Captain Fantastic'

I was fifteen when my mother, after reading one too many Wendell Berry books, decided that our family needed to get more in touch with “the land.” We started eating bone-marrow broth and brown rice and taking hikes in the woods behind our local mall. My mom did her best, but our time communing with Mother Earth lasted only three months: Summer came, and with it trips to Grandma’s house and unlimited access to refined sugar and cable TV. Bone-marrow broth just couldn’t compete.

Still, my stomach twisted in recognition as I watched the new film Captain Fantastic, which stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a father raising his six kids to be radically self-sufficient far from the materialism and comforts of modern life. The Cash family lives in a yurt deep in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, growing their own food, wearing animal pelts, and reading philosophy together by firelight. You don’t see as many big families in real life anymore, and the ones on TV tend to be cartoonish or dramatized beyond belief. But writer and director Matt Ross deserves serious credit: He’s brought to life a believable, united family you might actually want to be a part of, even with the yurt and weird hats.

The Cash’s have been living in the woods for fifteen years when the film starts, though missing from the scene is wife and mother Leslie (Trin Miller), who for the past three months has been hospitalized. So it’s up to Ben to carry out the couple’s shared goal: “[To create] a paradise out of Plato’s Republic. Our children will be philosopher kings…. We are defined by our actions, not our words.”

This is as close as Ross gets to giving the Cash family a creed. And since Leslie is off-screen for most of the film, the viewer is left to wonder how much of that creed is dictated by the whims of Ben’s personality. The Cash children’s lives are ordered by a strange mishmash of Marxist philosophy, physical fitness, and Socratic teaching methods. But just when Ross lulls you into agreeing that eating only unprocessed foods and meditating together in a meadow is the ideal way to raise a family, he pauses to show the darker, complicated side of Ben’s parenting.

Read more

Summer Reading

Here in the country: No TV, no radio...The Obamas on You Tube (both were great), but that's as far as I've gone with the conventions. Fire flies gone. What's left? Summer reading.

Am slogging through Empire of Cotton by Sven Beckert (reading group assignment for September). Rereading and loving again The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark (other reading group). But read for pleasure: I Am Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Stout (interesting, but elusive).

BUT REALLY Great: The Irish: A Character Study by Sean O'Faolain. Thank you, Joseph S. O'Leary.    O'Leary didn't like my favorite, Heinrich Boll, "touristy," he thought, and proposed instead: "I recommend an oldie, Sean O Faolain's "The Irish" (1940).") It took me a long time to find it--not in Ireland where I looked, but on alibris. It came just a week ago (U.S. pub date, 1949, pp. 180, New York: Devin-Adair, who be they?)

First, O'Faolain can write (and not just short stories). Second, he has well-considered and temperate views, which he weighs against others

Read more

Law, Order, and Philadelphia

Calling himself a candidate for law and order, Donald Trump has encouraged the notion that America is heading back to the tumult of the late 1960s. For an example of why that's not so, consider Philadelphia, host city for the Democratic National Convention.

Philadelphia has a tradition of hardball police tactics, dating back to Frank Rizzo's reign as police commissioner and then mayor in the 1960s and '70s. But we see a different story now, where demonstrations surrounding the Democratic National Convention have proceeded in 97-degree heat without arrests. Philadelphia newspaper columnist Will Bunch credits the progressive approach of Mayor Jim Kenney, a Democrat who has made a point of welcoming immigrants to the City of Brotherly Love:

Even with thousands of protesters coursing through Philadelphia’s streets this week, it’s still possible that no one will be arrested.

“We don’t need to put people in the criminal justice pipeline,” Kenney told me on Tuesday ...  I don’t want to arrest anybody -- that’s our goal.”

It's a sharp contrast with the approach that, say, New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg took for policing the 2004 RNC -- wholesale illegal arrests were used to detain protesters for the duration of the convention, later costing the city millions of dollars in legal payouts. And it certainly veers away from the head-busting Philly tradition that Rizzo embodied.

Bunch continues:

There’s been something big happening in Philadelphia during this hellishly hot week -- a plot twist that’s been buried under the invasion of Bernie’s die-hard supporters, the Democrats’ coronation of Hillary Clinton, and the non-stop griping from pampered Beltway journalists that bad convention logistics has left them too little air conditioned or too long waiting for their Uber ride.

The DNC has marked Philadelphia’s coming out as city that’s outgrown its culturally conservative roots and its long hangover from its bitter conflicts of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, to become a bastion of  progressivism.

It's not Rizzo's Philly anymore, nor is it Richard J. Daley's Chicago in 1968.

Kenney looked further back for historical parallels in his speech at the DNC. He spoke of how Know-Nothing mobs rioted against Irish Catholics in Philadelphia in 1844, burning down their churches. "The Know-Nothings have returned, and last week in Cleveland they vowed to take their country back this November," he said.

Chess Dreams

The game of chess has formed the subject of inspiring real-life stories, books, and movies, typically about a dedicated chess coach who takes a team of inner-city kids and leads them to heights of glory, beating suburban teams that enjoy every advantage. Yet whatever color, ethnicity, or class background these young chess players represent -- whatever divides they span -- they share one attribute: they are all boys. Or nearly all. 

A recent New York Times article looks at this reality, raising what the writer calls “one of the vexing questions in chess: Why, in a sport where physical differences do not matter, are boys and men so much more prominent than their female counterparts, despite efforts to attract more girls and women?” He notes that while at middle-school level the boy-girl ratio in a competition may be as low as two to one, at major tournaments it is much, much larger. Not a single one of the world’s current hundred top-rated players is female. The Times cites an essay in a chess journal, by the English grandmaster Nigel Short, addressing the same question. Describing the recently retired Hungarian grandmaster, Judit Polgar, as “clearly an outlier,” Short surveys the high dropout rate in chess by younger female players and the continuing lack of participation and achievement at the international tournament level, and closes with this speculation:

Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn’t feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.

Unsurprisingly, Short’s conclusion whipped up stormy protest, and the Times article duly offers alternative explanations for male dominance, based mostly on the specter of bias against female players, a habit of underperforming due to an ingrained sense of inferiority, and an array of realities within organized chess that make girls and women feel unwelcome. 

Before addressing this issue I should fess up: I have squandered more of my life than I would want to admit playing chess.

Read more

What We’re Still Learning from Benedict’s Resignation

Transfers of power can be messy, maybe even more so when they play out over time. Pope Benedict XVI resigned more than three years ago and Francis is undeniably the only pope. Yet in some ways the transition is ongoing, and it continues to affect the Church.

That’s in part because the resignation itself isn’t really finished. With Benedict living his quasi-monastic retirement in the Vatican (though some may dream, his resignation cannot be rescinded), those who might be thought of as closest to the theological, spiritual, and cultural agenda of that pontificate still seem to be feeling its effects. It was clear back on that unforgettable February day in 2013 that the ones most shocked by the decision were the biggest fans of the pope-theologian Joseph Ratzinger. For some that shock manifested very early as opposition to Pope Francis (an opposition thus in place a full year before the first discussions that led to the Synods of October 2014 and 2015 and finally to the exhortation Amoris Laetitia). But for other prelates and ecclesiastical “creatures” of Benedict XVI, that initial shock yielded to the realization that Francis was the legitimate successor to Benedict XVI and that all was going according to God’s plans. This can be seen in certain cardinals, bishops, and lay intellectuals, among them Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian philosopher and  conservative Christian-Democratic politician who was extremely close to John Paul II and who wrote a very strong defense of Amoris Laetitia in L’Osservatore Romano last week. This is notable because it’s the first significant sign of the loyal realignment to the Church of Francis by many who were for a long time identified as “JP2 bishops” or “Ratzingerian.” This can’t be easily or cynically dismissed as someone just jumping ship or going whichever way the wind blows. 

Another interesting element is that during these last three-and-a-half years it has become clear that the process of the reception of Francis’s pontificate is related to the process of the evaluation of the pontificate and pre-pontificate period of his predecessor—even while that predecessor is still alive. This process of embracing a new pope usually takes place after the burial of the predecessor. The current situation is obviously different. What’s interesting is that for some the emotional and intellectual attachment to Benedict XVI seems to be incompatible with the embrace of the new pope, while others seem to be more at ease with the situation.

Read more

Here & Elsewhere—Candidate Trump Edition

Our editorial on the nomination of Donald Trump is now up on the homepage. It begins:

For more than a year now, half the country and most of the media have responded to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign with a mixture of amusement, disgust, and morbid fascination. Obvious lies and juvenile insults that would have sunk any other candidate only seemed to help Trump. He mocked a disabled journalist and faulted a U.S. senator for having been a prisoner of war (“I like people who weren’t captured”). He called other candidates short or ugly and bragged about the size of his penis. He was, if anything, rather less statesmanlike than the version of himself he had played on his reality-TV show, The Apprentice. But the worse his behavior, the better he did in the polls. It was all quite a spectacle.

Now that he is the official nominee of the Republican Party and has pulled ahead of Hillary Clinton in some polls, the fun is over. The most important fact about Donald Trump now is not that he is ridiculous or contemptible, but that he is dangerous. His character, inexperience, and complacent ignorance all disqualify him for the office he seeks. If elected, he would pose a threat to the country’s constitutional norms, as well as to its security.

Read the whole thing here.

In the Times Literary Supplement, the novelist Richard Ford wonders why Trump "seems strangely insubsantial." What is it about people, Ford asks, "that makes them seem actual or authentic, makes them seem to be there instead of seeming vacant and vanishing, like Mr Trump"?

Listening, would be one thing. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to listen to people, especially people who don’t corroborate what he already espouses (though he does seem to hear insults and likes to mock and threaten and even injure those he deems to be insulters). Being able to distinguish our needs from his needs, would be another trait of actualness—instead of believing (as Trump seems to) that our needs should match his, or maybe just match his wishes. That’s two. Another evidence of actuality might be that if a person spends a great deal of time and effort persuading us he badly wants something, that we eventually can find some evidence that the wanting person knows a modicum of what that something is. Three. Four would be that a person not flat-out mislead us when the truth is otherwise easily available. Five would be that a person not malign everybody who disagrees with him about virtually anything—calling into question their morality, ethics, religion, marriage, ethnicity, their dog’s name. Six would be (I’ll quit after this) that a person be able to affiliate himself with people who themselves seem actual or authentic, allowing us observers to conclude that he’s like them. Absence of these qualities is what makes us run away from people. It’s not what makes us elect them to be president.

In the Washington Post, Leon Wieseltier writes about how the politics of grievance has given rise to Trump:

What does economic wretchedness have to do with the appetite for authoritarianism? There is nothing very mysterious here. Liberals and socialists have been wondering for a hundred years why people in economic distress do not vote according to their economic interests. The answer should have been obvious long ago: People in adversity turn not to economics but to culture. They are fortified not by policy but by identity. They seek saviors, not programs. And as the direness of their circumstances appears to imperil their identity, they affirm it by asserting it ferociously against others. Hurt people hurt people. Against these hurt people, therefore, and against the profiteer of pain who shabbily champions them, it must be insisted that no amount of sympathy for their plight justifies the introduction of a version of fascism into American life. No grievance, however true, warrants the fouling of American politics by the bigotry and the brutishness peddled by Donald Trump. Either he wins or America does.

Terrorist Droning

As people who are terrified by terrorist attacks often forget, terrorism by a military organization is a purely military tactic. Military tactics have defined goals to which are allocated certain resources.  The terrorism is done for a specific end.  It is not done for its own sake.  To combat it, we need to understand what the end might be, so we don't end up being manipulated by terror, which is the point of terror as a military strategy.

One way to understand how it works is to look at a situation where it did work; an episode when it was an effective military strategy.  And one of the most famous in recent years was in 1946, when a Jewish terror attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem killed 91 people and changed the nature of the conflict in Palestine.

Read more

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Solidarity

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on five prior entries: civility, tolerance, humility, justice and mercy. Today, I want to turn to the sixth virtue, solidarity.

I learned of solidarity by being the son of a New York City police officer.  From my father’s work, I learned about a set of relationships that were neither with family nor friends, but rather with “partners” or fellow officers on the “force.”  These were the people with whom dad enjoyed a certain solidarity, a tangible and very evident one.  At any family event there were aunts and uncles and cousins, there were friends and neighbors, but there was also my dad’s partner, Frank Tornabene and his wife Joan, who fit in just as easily as everyone else.  Frank was never identified as anything but “my partner,” a term filled with meaning.  

At family parties my dad would tell stories from the force, that were always livelier when Frank was there.  My dad was a great raconteur; I heard every type of story from police chases to interrogations to cover-ups.  I developed an appreciation for his vocabulary---at six years of age I knew what a “perp” (aka perpetrator) was.  I am sure that his love for humanity and fairness that so animated those stories is what moved me to be in the field I am in today.  

Later, when he worked in Manhattan South homicide, I would walk into his office in lower Manhattan, and as I did, I knew that everyone knew who I was because like every cop, Dad shared his family with his squad.  From his stories, I knew who they were, and I knew that everyone there had “each other’s back.” There in those offices and from those stories, I learned what solidarity was like.   I was learning about the police force in all these stories and from them I knew that cops relied on one another, reflexively.  They didn’t give it a second thought.  

Read more

Was Tim Kaine "Ruined for Life"?

From humble beginnings 60 years ago in south-central Alaska, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps has grown to become the largest lay Catholic full-time volunteer program in the world. Committing themselves to the four core values of JVC---spirituality, simple living, community and social justice---young volunteers, most of them recent college graduates, spend a year (or two, or three) living together, and working with and for the poor and needy in over 40 US cities and 6 countries around the world.

FJVs (former Jesuit volunteers) often laughingly refer to having been "ruined for life" by the experience*. By "ruined for life" they mean that the experience wrought such a profound change within them that it changed---in many cases permanently and for the better---the direction of their lives.

One of those FJVs is Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine who is now the Democratic candidate for vice-president. Kaine spent some time in 1980-81 as part of the JVC community in El Progreso, Honduras.

I'd be curious to know if there are any FJVs and/or Virginians who can offer any perspective on Sen. Kaine and the extent to which his JVC experience may have shaped his career in public office.  (We can also use this as an open thread for reactions to Sen. Kaine's nomination.)

Trump's Convention Speech Was Nightmare Fodder

Last night, no joke, I had nightmares about having to explain Donald Trump to my children.

Just a year ago it was reasonable to hope that they might never have to know about that late-twentieth-century celebrity and twenty-first-century TV star, Donald Trump the alleged billionaire businessman. And if he did come up, well, that Trump would be easy enough to explain: he was the living embodiment of the worst of our shallow, wealth-worshipping, cruelty-loving culture. I couldn't fathom how his toxic narcissism and insecurity had failed to cut into his popularity, especially when it was (or ought to have been) well known that any less-than-worshipful media coverage provoked him to send ugly threats to journalists in his own handwriting. (Let the record show that I once declared him "pretty terrifying" for that reason alone.) But I still believed people would eventually tire of his phony political posturing. He would never actually run for president.

To be fair, one of the reasons I thought he'd never do it was because I was sure he wouldn't release his financial documents and let the world see precisely what he's worth. It didn't occur to me that he'd get away with just not doing that. Still, I was certain he'd never actually get the nomination. Even as support for his ugly, resentment-based, policy-free campaign swelled, I still believed there were grownups somewhere in the GOP who would stop him from actually being the nominee.

Last night he stood triumphant, and although he has never hidden what he is, he made it more explicit than ever.

His message: America is in a crisis that no one but Trump -- "I alone" -- can save it from. To do so, he will claim unchecked power. We'll let him have it, and in exchange, he will protect us. He'll fix all of the country's most intractable problems "quick." He'll punish all who oppose him. Don't ask how, just believe him.

This is the kind of thing that American democracy is supposed to prevent. It's an explicit promise to bring about the kind of government that conservatives most abhor. Voting for Trump is voting for a strongman with no apparent interest in the details of the government we currently have, with no real sense of how far the power of the executive office extends and what checks are in place to limit it. It is putting power into the hands of a man manifestly unfit to wield it.

Even if Trump loses the election, as I am still fairly confident he will, what happened last night is something we will all have to answer for someday. In my nightmares I saw myself, decades hence, trying to explain to my children what it was like to endure the campaign season we're about to live through. That's assuming he loses and they don't start asking questions until they're studying recent American history, perhaps in high school. (Don't ask me, even now, to tell you much about the politicians who did not win the presidency in the years before I started elementary school.) Even in a best-case scenario -- which for me looks something like: Hillary wins and somehow turns out to be much better than I expect, and wars actually end and Guantanamo closes and police reform happens and so on -- even if we somehow end up in a uniformly prosperous, united, happy America fifteen years down the road, they will have to ask, eventually, "My God, how could it have gotten so bleak?" And I don't know how to answer. It's already hard enough for me to give them a pre-school-level picture of our country, and what a government is, and what the president does, without being painfully conscious of all the nuance I'm leaving out. When, at primary time, my oldest son asked who was running for president, I could hardly get Trump's name out. I didn't want it in his ears.

That same child, just turned five, woke me from my frightening dreams last night because he had had one of his own. Ordinarily, waking from a nightmare is a relief -- it wasn't real; it was all a dream. But last night I woke up to the realization that the worst aspects of my dream were bald fact. Donald Trump really had clinched the Republican nomination and accepted it with a speech that made me understand what it must be like to see a country turn fascist and not be able to stop it. He really did it, and afterward the cable news anchors tried to fit what was happening into their usual framework for covering elections; and the most craven Republicans cheered for Trump as though he somehow fulfilled, rather than destroyed, all of their long-cherished principles; and the ones who saw what was happening with clear eyes and troubled consciences mostly just stayed away and kept quiet.

"I came in here because I'm afraid of the dark," my son said in the middle of the night. That makes two of us.

Existence and Pre-existence

The first three words of the first item of Donald Trump's healthcare plan are "Completely repeal Obamacare".

I was surprised to see this stated so starkly and unambiguously.  Because if this were to happen, along with everything else, the pre-existing condition ban would go away.  This could cause several million people, including people in mid-treatment, to lose their insurance.  And many of these people are people paying their own premiums with no subsidy from the government.

Most people think they know what "pre-existing condition" meant.  But it was far worse and more complicated than most people know.  The pre-existing condition problem was part of an overall underwriting philosophy that covered both individual policies and small groups (defined as 2 to 50 employees).  The Affordable Care Act not only eliminated pre-existing conditions as a means to deny coverage, it eliminated the underwriting of small groups, which had been underwritten in a way that carried the pre-existing condition philosophy into the commercial group market itself.  To explain how this worked, and what it would mean to go back to the way things were until only recently, I'd like to tell you a story about how I think I saw the old system kill someone once.

Read more

How to Change the World

It's a tall order, changing the world, especially when the subject is race. But it didn’t surprise me that Bryan Stevenson had ideas - four of them, in fact - worth listening to when I heard him speak earlier this year.

Stevenson is executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and author of Just Mercy, an engrossing and deeply disturbing memoir about his baptism as a young lawyer into the fight against class- and race-based malpractice in our criminal justice system.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently recommended the book, sending me back to notes I made during Stevenson's April speech at Connecticut College.

Just Mercy was a "One Book, One Region" selection for my area, meaning individuals and organizations were encouraged to read and discuss it. If any book deserves to be a "One Book, One Nation" selection, this is it.

I had already read Mercy, attracted in part by its links to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson didn't intend to make that link, but one of the case histories he lays out is that of Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman in Monroe, Alabama. Monroe, you may recall, was Lee's home and the model for the town in Mockingbird.

McMillian's case doesn't precisely mirror that of Mockingbird's fictional Tom Robinson, but how he was convicted and sentenced to death is equally egregious.

Read more

The Trump Next Time

Modern American Presidential races have included three too-close-to-call matchups (Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, Nixon-Humphrey in 1968, Bush-Gore in 2000) and three “historic” landslides (Johnson-Goldwater in 1964, Nixon-McGovern in 1972, Reagan-Mondale in 1984). More typical is, say, a five point margin. A result like 59% - 41%, which may sound reasonably close to the layman, is in fact a landslide. If you’re on the losing side of that kind of Presidential vote, you’re probably only winning a couple of states.

I expect this fall’s election to be that kind. Barring an unexpected calamity that could fundamentally change the calculus of the campaign, (Hillary gets indicted, America suffers a terrorist attack of 9-11 magnitude), Trump will lose by a lot. Think 57%-43%.

There are good reasons for this. Personally and psychologically, given what a Presidency demands, Trump is – to use a favorite word of his – a disaster. The more I listen to what he says and how he says it, the more I think he isn’t just unconventional, but unhinged. If there’s one piece about Trump you should read this week, it is George Saunders’ New Yorker article, “Trump Days,” which recounts Saunders’ weeks of  following the Trump campaign and trying to understand the nature of his appeal. Saunders is a fiction writer, with a strong sense of absurdity, and this is the kind of political piece written by a non-political commentator, and much the better for it.

Read more

Rudy Giuliani's Concern for Immigrants

From a story I wrote for Newsday, October 12, 1996:

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani filed a lawsuit yesterday to overturn new laws he said would force the city to surrender the names of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to the federal government.

"The Immigration and Naturalization Service will do nothing with those names but terrorize people," Giuliani said. "They deported only 1,000 people from New York City last year. We have literally 400 {thousand} to 450,000 people whose names you could turn over, and that creates a very frightening situation for them."

... In the meantime, he hoped to build political support for Congress to change the immigration laws. He said he had formed a coalition to spread the word about positive aspects of immigration. "I truly believe there is a reservoir of good will for that," he said. "It just has to be tapped."

Who was that guy who praised nativist Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, anyway? I've covered Rudy Giuliani's career on and off since 1983, and I've never known him to be so over the top in a speech as in this one. Others who covered him in his mayoral days are saying the same.  "I have never seen Rudy Giuliani this rabid," Giuliani biographer Andrew Kirtzman tweeted. There were times in the speech when he seemed to be shaking with rage, spitting his words out.

Giuliani's angry defense of police in this time of danger for them was no doubt genuine: four of his uncles served as police officers. But as much as he shouted, grimaced and gestured -- or maybe because of that --  his high praise for Trump seemed staged and false, as if a part of him still knows better.

The Thousand Word Noir

There were Americans everywhere in Wiesbaden in 1952 and when they told me to meet him in front of the Art Museum, I wasn't sure that I would be able to make him out. But there he was standing next to The Fat Man's cream colored Audi. He was wearing shades and had his hair slicked back, and had on a pair of new loafers that somebody had to have sent him from the States. As soon as I saw him, I knew that he would have no trouble fitting in and doing what he needed to do to the Czech who was coming in that night on the 8:40 train from Prague....

 

Read more

Without a Trace

Sometimes a post on one issue turns up another. Ten days ago I posted a piece under the title “Black, White and Blue,” discussing a New York Times op-ed by Michael Eric Dyson, a prominent sociologist and public intellectual. Dyson’s essay was called “What White America Fails to See,” and appeared in the Times—the online version only—on the evening of Thursday, July 7. Dyson, who is African-American, wrote it after the killings of black men by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. The piece lambasted white Americans for their collective blindness with regard to such killings, and effectively charged that white privilege makes them complicit in what Dyson called “an undeclared war against blackness.”

I blasted out my post soon after Dyson’s essay appeared. But when I went to put it up the next morning, and clicked on the link to Dyson’s essay that I’d inserted, I noticed something strange. His essay had been changed, and pretty substantially. The most obvious change was the title, now recast as the far less accusatory “Death in Black and White.” A new lead followed, then a number of excisions and alterations throughout the piece. In a single italicized sentence affixed to the top of the op-ed, the Times informed readers that the essay had been “updated to reflect news developments.”

There was no doubt what those developments were. Hours after Dyson’s piece appeared, a black man named Micah X. Johnson had murdered five white police officers in a self-proclaimed act of retaliation for the killings in Louisiana and Minnesota. In the aftermath of that event, I guessed, either Dyson or the Times editors, or both, decided to soften Dyson’s essay.  

My own commentary no longer made sense in certain places, since it discussed sentences removed from the revamped Dyson essay, and I was annoyed at having to revise my piece simply because the Times had revised his. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered about that revision itself. To update a news story in order to include new information is one thing, but to change the tone and tilt—to change the meaning, really—of an op-ed piece, after it has been published, is something else. What about Dyson’s original essay? Did it still exist? I couldn’t find any links to it. If you googled his name and the phrase “undeclared war against blackness,” you got... nothing, because that key phrase had been removed. Dyson had written it. I knew he had, because I had read it and cut and pasted it. But officially, and effectively, that version no longer existed; and if you hadn’t cut and pasted it, you’d never know.

To me such actions raise challenging questions about digital journalism and the mutability of online texts. As I writer I can understand Dyson not wanting to take heat for highly critical racial commentary offered in an essay written hours before an enraged black man killed a bunch of white cops. But does that mean that the Times should airbrush parts of his published essay out of existence? That struck me as having difficult implications for journalistic practice. And especially for a newspaper of record like the Times. How are we to understand what “publication” means in online journalism? Why didn’t the Times simply have Dyson append a follow-up to the piece, revisiting it briefly in light of Dallas and showing, in effect, the evolution of his thinking? Where was the transparency? In making substantial changes to the rhetoric and thrust of the piece and then trying to fob those changes off as a mere “update,” the Times appeared to be bowdlerizing an essay in order to avoid controversy, and then trying to cover its tracks.

I pursued these questions with the Times Public Editor, the Times Op-Ed editor, and Dyson himself. You can read Public Editor Liz Spayd’s response to me here, and my own account in a subsequent piece I wrote for the Huffington Post. What do you think?

The Catholic Vote: Big Changes in Four Years

The notion that Catholics and evangelical Christians could be forged into a singular political force certainly takes a hit in a new Pew poll that finds them going in distinctly opposite directions in this year's presidential race. Another vanishing factor in this year's presidential race is the idea that there is a significant divide between Catholics who attend Mass weekly -- and are supposedly more conservative and loyal to the bishops' agenda -- and those who don't.

In a poll released this week, Pew finds that white evangelical Christians favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a startling 78 percent to 17 percent. Trump is 5 points ahead of where Mitt Romney was at this point in the 2012 campaign. Catholics favor Clinton over Trump, 56 percent to 39 percent. Clinton is 7 points ahead of where Barack Obama was at this point of the 2012 campaign. (Trump leads among non-Hispanic white Catholics, 50-46; Clinton leads among Hispanic Catholics, 77-16.)

In June 2012, Romney led Obama among weekly churchgoers -- narrowly among Catholics, 48-45. He trailed Obama among Catholics who attended less often. There is a significant shift in the 2016 race. Catholics who attend Mass weekly strongly favor Clinton over Trump (57-38). So do those who attend less often (56-40). While Trump holds a 4-point lead among white Catholics., it appears that Latino Catholics are taking the Catholic vote with them.

Pew has identified an amazing shift in the Catholic vote, which is often described as a swing vote. Pope Francis has to be considered as a possible factor: In 2012, before his papacy, many Catholic bishops were essentially campaigning against Obama by emphasizing issues such as religious freedom and abortion. This time, we've had the pope and the presumed Republican nominee embroiled in a controversy over immigration.  Another factor is the candidate: Trump's  nasty, nativist campaign seems to have  triggered a negative response in ta significant bloc of Catholic voters who might otherwise have favored a Republican. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" appealed to many Catholic voters.  The Trump campaign is neither.

The caveat here is that the poll was taken (June 15-26) before the results of the FBI investigation of Clinton and her emails was announced.  It shows Clinton leading overall 51-42. Some more recent polls have shown a tightened race.

 

 

 

The Sublime Joys of Celibate Adultery

In April, Pope Francis issued Amoris Laetitia where he called for a more pastoral approach in dealing with Catholic couples who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment of their Catholic marriage.  He suggests that each case be considered on its own merits.  He did not make any changes to Catholic doctrine in this document, so what he meant by "pastoral" was, as usual, interpreted by each in their own way.

In July, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, who is considered very conservative, responded by saying:

Catholics in Philadelphia who are divorced and civilly remarried will be welcome to accept Holy Communion – as long as they abstain from sex and live out their relationships like “brother and sister”.

I found this to be a remarkably liberal statement coming from him.  But I also found it disturbing.  Is he saying that adultery begins with sexual relations?  Or is he using sexual relations as a convenient and unambiguous dividing line?  Will sexual relations become the new standard of adultery?

I present to you a story of a failed Catholic marriage.

Read more

Hillary Attempts to Add Alka-Seltzer to the Healthcare Stew

Hillary Clinton has now updated her health care proposal.  In addition to the usual promises to improve quality and cut costs and prices blah, blah, blah that all the politicians are making, there are two possibly substantive proposals.  The first is that people might be allowed to go on Medicare from age 55.  The second is a mysterious thing called the “public option”.

The lowering of the eligibility age for Medicare (ironic in a climate of raising the Social Security eligibility age) seems pretty straightforward in that she didn’t specify that this new age group would get anything other than standard Medicare.  But the “public option” could change the rules of the healthcare game, depending on what it really is.  And she left some clues.  Let’s take a closer look.

Read more

Rescuing Kitty Genovese

You needn’t be a New Yorker or even of a certain age to know the name Kitty Genovese. The murder of the twenty-eight-year-old woman in March 1964 came to serve as a symbol of the kind of collective apathy thought to have afflicted, if not defined, an era of soaring crime and imminent social breakdown. Thirty-eight people were said to have watched from their windows as she was stalked, stabbed, raped, and left for dead at three a.m. in the vestibule of a Queens apartment building, none having lifted a finger (or phone) even as her attacker returned to finish the deed. Books followed, courses of study were established, and an academic industry was built on the Genovese murder and “the bystander effect”—an interpretation dutifully tended down through the decades by a media reluctant to subject a story this “good” to the greater scrutiny it deserved. In fact, not nearly as many people witnessed the attack; few saw it in its entirety; and two called the police.

That might have been the scoop of James Solomon’s documentary The Witness, which follows Kitty’s youngest brother Bill as he pursues the nagging questions about just what happened to his sister and how in the fifty intervening years her murder became shorthand for a sociological phenomenon. But maybe more important than cataloguing the journalistic flaws—which had already been acknowledged in a 2004 New York Times story and by others reviewing the original reporting—the film helps reanimate a young woman known mainly for the notoriety of her death and by the photo accompanying almost every account of it, reminding us that this was a real person getting her life underway. The dramatic appeal of The Witness comes from the fact that Bill seems to discover certain facts about the life of Kitty Genovese just as the audience does.

As the driven sibling willing to admit the obsessive aspect of his quest, Bill Genovese, now sixty-eight, makes for a compelling guide. A handsome, articulate Marine who lost both his legs in Vietnam, he is polite but dogged in tracking down surviving witnesses and learning what they did or didn’t see. (That he is often shown wheeling himself to meet interviewees forcefully underscores the notion of his dedication to the mission.)  He learns just how an exaggerated and erroneous version of the story that originated with The New York Times took root and became a trope repeated in everything from reports on 60 Minutes to speeches by Bill Clinton to episodes of Law & Order and Girls. He also meets, and shows admirable compassion for, the son of Winston Moseley—the man who killed Kitty—now a middle-aged minister whose own skewed understanding of the crime reveals how damagingly it affected him.

Yet it’s the section of the film that (un)covers Kitty’s life that works best.

Read more