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"The Second Coming" Comes Again

In a column featured on our homepage, E. J. Dionne uses W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” to help explain the surprising popularity of Donald Trump in this country and the rise of far-right and far-left political parties all across Europe. Here’s the first section of the poem, the part that Dionne discusses:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And here’s Dionne:

The line invoked most—“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”—is irresistible. It’s always tempting to assume that the side we oppose brings vast reservoirs of demonic energy to bear against our own sad and bedraggled allies.

The other oft-quoted verse comes four lines earlier, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” This sentiment comes back again and again, at times of stress when Establishments seem to be tottering and when moderate and conventional politicians find themselves outshouted and outmaneuvered.

We are definitely in for another “Second Coming” revival, and Donald Trump is the least of it. The center is under siege all over the democratic world.[...]

Political Establishments worthy of the name and middle-ground politicians who care about more than power understand the dangers of a Yeats moment—to social harmony, to tolerance and, if things go really badly, to democracy and freedom. The next decade will test whether the political classes of the world’s democracies are up to the challenge.

Is this right? Yes and no. Dionne’s first observation is a good one: Yeats's line about the worst being full of “passionate intensity” does give politicians and pundits a golden tongue with which to lick their wounds after defeat. They may have lost a debate or an election, or sunk to the bottom of a poll. But at least they are not the worst, and anyway every dog has its day, including the loudest-barking cur.

Still, if Dionne is right about the source of the poem's appeal to Beltway insiders, I think he's wrong about its message. When Yeats wrote that "the centre cannot hold," he was not thinking of political "centrists" or the established political class; he meant the social center of gravity that keeps a country from disintegrating. The unity of any social organism—church, state, or political party—is constantly threatened by centrifugal forces (“turning and turning in the widening gyre”). At certain moments in history those forces can tear a country apart, and Yeats believed he was living at such a moment in Ireland's history. When he wrote, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity," he did not mean that the centrists or moderates of the Establishment lack all conviction while dangerous radicals are full of passion, as Dionne seems to suggest. If a careful reading of the poem itself weren't enough to prove this, the poet's political record would be. For Yeats was never exactly a moderate in his opinions and affiliations. He did caution against the dangers of political zeal, but what he objected to was less the zeal than the politics. His mad old men knew "a Helen of social welfare dream, / climb on a wagonette to scream." Prose translation: If you are a Helen, you have better things to do than campaign for some social or political cause, however worthy it might be (for example, you can sit in a castle while men go to war over you and write poems about your beauty). Yeats's own political inclinations were inchoately reactionary. He believed in a kind of aristocracy of the spirit and looked down his nose at the masses and their elected representatives. He was no centrist.

Why is this important?

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Chautauqua: a paragraph, perhaps a half-page, in my high school US History textbook; or Robert Pirsig’s term to characterize his self-communing in Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And then there is The Chautauqua Institution of 2015, a gated village of 750 acres, host to thousands of people – some true Chautauquans  - for a nine week summer program organized around weekly themes. History at Chautauqua is structural, certainly architectural: to enter the gates is to go back to the past, visually and communally. On brief inspection, one concludes that the average age of the participants stretches back more than two generations. This is a “senior world” (I include myself.), although there is no lack of families with children.

Well over a hundred years ago, Chautauqua began as a summer retreat for Sunday School teachers. It has transformed itself and its lake shore over the years. The major Christian denominations still have their residence houses, but one could almost be unaware of the thoroughly religious foundations of Chautauqua. There is, of course, morning worship services in the amphitheater, and the Department of Religion sponsors the major afternoon lectures,  an Inter-Faith program. No one at Chautauqua balks at religious sentiments; and the politics are left of center, socially progressive. As for ecumenism: there are regular Catholic services and a Jewish center, offering a wide range of religious and cultural programs.

The entry way to Chautauqua looks something like the toll both approach to a turnpike: busy, crowded with cars, and confusing: We were part of a tour and had to claim our entry passes amid a crush of people at the ticket office, but once we found ourselves inside the fenced acres, we drove hesitantly down very narrow, tree shaded streets, passing wood frame houses, Victorian in look and, in some cases, in origin. The road sloped down to the shore of the lake, to the grand Athenaeum Hotel, a Victorian wooden hostelry that recalls Dickens’  depictions of hotels in Martin Chezzulewit. The density of the housing, the lushness of the gardens that encroach on to the streets, and contrasts of shade and light on the frame houses work a transformation, as does the omphalos – the Amphitheater – spreading its bowl-like shape to focus on a stage platform, roofed above but open at its sides to the winds.

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Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

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With friends (and allies) like this UPDATE 4

UPDATE 4: Ben & Jerry have come out in favor of the agreement. Will there be a new ice cream flavor: P5+!.....five parts peanut butter to one part vanilla? Or?

UPDATE 3 (8/19): Chemi Shalev, Haaretz columnist and keen observer of the U.S. has this astute and sad observation: "Fractured American Jewish Community Is First Victim of Iran Nuclear Deal." With details of the acrimony in the U.S. Jewish community.

UPDATE 2: Some heartening news: (RNS) Rebuffing a campaign among Jewish organizations to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, 340 rabbis sent a letter to Congress Monday (Aug. 17) supporting the agreement and rejecting the notion that most American Jews oppose it. Right On Rabbis!

UPDATE: J.J. Goldberg of the Forward calls the right-wing on accusation that Obama is an anti-Semite: "Let’s be clear: Conservatives have every right to advocate their views. Israel’s leader has every right to defend his country’s interests as he sees them, even if others see them differently. Even if he stands alone. But they cross a line when they call others bigots for noticing what they’re doing. And to do so in the name of an American Jewish community that didn’t sign up for this fight is outrageous." Right on, Mr. Goldberg.

Posted August 15: The Jewish Telegraph Agency reports that security for the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv and the ambassador has been increased because of death threats over the Iran nuclear agreement.

AND: PM Netanyauhu has appointed Danny Danon the Israeli ambassador to the UN. This NYTimes story gives a run down on his career, which includes repudiation of the Oslo Accords, opposition to a two-state solution, opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement, and well....opposition to just about everything that the U.S. and the UN have tried to do to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the Times story, "The naming of Danny Danon as the new ambassador is the latest in a string of appointments by Mr. Netanyahu that indicate he will not bow to mounting international criticism and efforts to isolate Israel."

One fears for Israel, or at least I do. Netanyahu appears a bigger threat to the country than all the Arabs and Palestinians combined. Is he pushing the U.S. to see how far he can go in testing the "special relationship?" Does he want Europe to bring sanctions not just on West Bank entities but on Israel itself?  Talk of Bibi's messiah complex starts to look like more than talk.

Connecticut Supreme Court ditches death penalty. (UPDATED)

Today the Connecticut Supreme Court spared the lives of eleven death-row inmates by narrowly ruling that the state's capital-punishment law was unconstitutional. A 2012 statute repealed capital punishment for future crimes—but not for crimes committed before the date the law was enacted. (The legislature passed an identical bill in 2009, but then-Governor Jodi Rell, a Republican, vetoed it. Three years later, her successor Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, signed an updated version into law.) The court took up the case when Eduardo Santiago, sentenced to death for killing a man in 2000, challenged the law.

New Mexico and Maryland enacted similar bans on the death penalty for future crimes, and late last year Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) commuted the sentences of Maryland's death-row inmates (they'll spend the rest of their lives in jail). This happened in New Jersey five years ago, in Illinois four years ago, and in Nebraska earlier this year.

"This state’s death penalty no longer comports with contemporary standards of decency and no longer serves any legitimate penological purpose," according to Associate Justice Richard Palmer, who wrote for the majority. "For these reasons, execution of those offenders who committed capital felonies prior to April 25, 2012, would violate the state constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment." With that, the Court effectively ended capital punishment in Connecticut.

The state hadn't executed anyone since 2005, when the notorious serial killer Michael Ross, who became Catholic after his arrest, finally received the punishment he had wanted for so long. He believed God had forgiven him.

UPDATE: The Connecticut Catholic Conference issued the following statement in response to the Supreme Court's decision:

The Bishops of Connecticut have long supported the repeal of the death penalty based upon the teaching of the Church regarding the sanctity of life.  Accordingly, the Catholic Conference was a very active participant in a coalition to end capital punishment in our state.

The Conference supported the repeal of the death penalty in 2009; during that Session of the General Assembly, a bill passed the House and the Senate and was subsequently vetoed by Gov. Rell.

In 2011, another bill was raised in the Senate regarding the death penalty.  However, when the proponents of the measure lacked a majority to pass this legislation, the bill was never called.  The following year - in 2012 - the issue of the death penalty was raised again and, with an amendment excluding the 11 current inmates on death row from the proposed legislation, the repeal of the death penalty passed on April 21, 2012.

On August 13, 2015, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty, as passed by the legislature, is unconstitutional, and the Conference concurs with this decision in accordance with the teaching of the Church.  However, first and foremost, the Conference is also very cognizant of the victims and their families…and our thoughts and prayers are with them as they deal with what must be a very difficult period.

Diplomacy is hard; war is easy UPDATES

The continuing, and sometimes vicious, arguments surrounding the fight in Washington about the Iran nuclear agreement seem to ignore an important and self-evident fact. Since 1990 U.S. policy has shown that it is all too easy to go to war. Whereas getting a diplomatic settlement for a wide range of issues has been virtually impossible.

Now we have a diplomatic agreement, how can any reasonable Congress man or woman pass up the chance to see if it will work? As recent history should teach them, we can always go to war.

As this piece from Al Monitor by Akiva Eldar an Israeli journalist and former Haaretz editor argues violence is easy--and easier while diplomacy becomes impossible.

UPDATE: Rep. Brad Ashford, (D.-NE) fresh from an AIPAC sponsored trip to Israel:

“This deal is not good enough for Israel, not good enough for the United States of America, not good enough for the Middle East, and not good enough for the world,’’ Ashford said in a speaking engagement before two Omaha Jewish groups. Ashford’s speech came hours after the first-term congressman returned from a weeklong trip to Israel. There, he spoke to Israeli political, military and intelligence officials about the deal and how it could ultimately affect security in the Middle East.

Thanks Katherine Nielsen for the link.

Money, money, money. NYTimes (8/13) offers this assessment of the role of donors in the Iran agreement fight. Balanced (perhaps too balanced) in pointing to both pro and con donors speaking with Schumer. When considering how few congressional parents send their children off to war, we might ask the same of donors. Why don't  those enthusaistic about war and voting for it be the first to sign up, starting with the Congress followed immediately by those who buy them, The Donors.

Nathan Guttman at the Forward fact checks the arguments pro and con.

Hovering Confession

If you bridle at the many advice columns written by and for overinvolved parents, you might want to skip this and stick to dotCommonweal’s usual roster of world events and philosophical inquiries. I want to say a few things—partly confessional—about helicopter parenting, and you might not find them interesting, except perhaps as self-incrimination (mine, that is).

There are plenty of self-diagnostic tests parents can take to “find out” if they are helicopter parents. But the two prominent symptoms are 1) omnipresence, and 2) interference: you want to be there all the time in your child’s life, and you want to fix everything. These are the errors that serve parents up as objects of well-deserved mockery. For instance... University of Georgia administrator Richard Mullendore reported some years back on a student who woke up one morning to discover that her dorm lacked hot water. She called her father, a Georgia bank president, and by 8 AM he had already called Mullendore. (Such excesses are facilitated, Mullendore observed, by what he called “the world’s longest umbilical cord”—the cell phone.) Closer to home, a friend of mine who’s an executive with a large company tells me that it is now far from uncommon for a young college grad to show up in his office for a job interview, accompanied by... guess who?

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Andre, The Giant

Andre Dubus, the great short story writer, would have been 79 years old today. I can't recall exactly why, a few years ago, I picked up a copy of his Selected Stories. It proved one of those books that fell apart from frequent use: Read over and over, passed along to friends, coffee and whiskey spilled on pages, tobacco smudged in the margins. Eventually I gathered all of his individual collections of novellas and stories, and his two books of essays, too. There are few writers who mean more to me.

Dubus's prose was lean and elegant, and had a rhythm and musicality that came from the attention he paid to how it sounded when read aloud. He possessed a gift for the striking phrase or paragraph, those lines that are encountered with all the force of revelation. Consider this passage from his short story, "A Father's Story," about the meaning of rituals — in this case, the Catholic Mass:

Each morning I try, each morning I fail, and know that always I will be a creature who, looking at Father Paul and the altar, and uttering prayers, will be distracted by scrambled eggs, horses, the weather, and memories and daydreams that have nothing to do with the sacrament I am about to receive. I can receive, though: the Eucharist, and also, at Mass and at other times, moments and even minutes of contemplation. But I cannot achieve contemplation, as some can; and so, having to face and forgive my own failures, I have learned from them both the necessity and wonder of ritual. For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love.

The paean to ritual in this passage points to Dubus's earthy, incarnational religious faith. He understood the holiness of the ordinary. For me, reared in the disenchanted and disembodied wasteland of non-denominational Protestantism, no aspect of Dubus's writing resonated more.

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The Atlantic's Derek Thompson on "A World Without Work":

The U.S. labor force has been shaped by millennia of technological progress. Agricultural technology birthed the farming industry, the industrial revolution moved people into factories, and then globalization and automation moved them back out, giving rise to a nation of services. But throughout these reshufflings, the total number of jobs has always increased. What may be looming is something different: an era of technological unemployment, in which computer scientists and software engineers essentially invent us out of work, and the total number of jobs declines steadily and permanently.

In the Guardian, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that in today's America "only the rich can afford to write about poverty":

This impoverishment of journalists impoverishes journalism. We come to find less and less in the media about the working poor, as if about 15% of the population quietly emigrated while we weren’t looking. Media outlets traditionally neglected stories about the downtrodden because they don’t sit well on the same page with advertisements for diamonds and luxury homes. And now there are fewer journalists on hand at major publications to arouse the conscience of editors and other gatekeepers. Coverage of poverty accounts for less than 1% of American news...

Christopher Caldwell's review of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me is, to borrow a phrase, "required reading":

Coates has written a provocative book about one of the pivotal issues of our time: the confrontation between black youth and forces of order. With an Internet and grassroots campaign having arisen to delegitimize the latter, it would be surprising if the issue did not gather intensity in coming months. Coates’s contribution to the discussion is not well written or well reasoned or trustworthy. But it is politically engaged, and exhilarating in the way that political engagement is exhilarating. If the book itself tells us little about the issue, the reaction to the book among intellectuals tells us a lot. It is evidence that something is changing at the core of our literary culture. Either critics have lost sight that there is such a thing as an unworthy book on a worthy subject; or they are too terrified of being tarred as racists even to give an accurate description of a book about race.

'The Leech Woman'

I confess I didn’t know there was a third Berrigan brother who was also a political activist and peace protester, though not an ordained one. Nevertheless, he appears to have possessed the characteristic Berrigan sense of vocation and certitude.

And did you know that the gangster (Paulie) played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas (was it pasta he was cooking to serve with the lobsters in his posh prison cell?) was based on a Brooklyn mobster named Paul Vario? Or that it was an undercover cop, who also happened to be a former teenage delinquent from Brooklyn, who set up Vario and hundreds of other gangsters in one of the NYPD’s most successful sting operations? “As soon as the guy thinks you’re a cop, it’s just like him knowing you’re a cop,” explained Douglas LeVien, the detective who infiltrated the mob. “If he’s suspicious, he’s gonna ask you who’s your mother and who’s your grandmother. And that test you’ll never pass. Then you’re dead.” Ah, gangsters and their mothers. What’s up with that?

Or what about noir and B movie actress Coleen Gray, she of the “luminous skin”? Gray, born Doris Bernice Jensen, played an ingénue opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawke’s classic Red River (1948), and often complained of not being cast as more of a seductress. Later in her career that wish was evidently granted when she starred in The Leech Woman (1960), playing a predator who somehow used fluid from men’s brains to forestall aging.

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Jon Stewart's lessons for journalism

Years ago I interviewed a portrait artist whose portfolio included some distinctly unappealing clients. When I asked if clients had ever expressed buyer's remorse over his honest portrayals, he said most people—at least those seeking a public profile—like what they see in the mirror.

On another level, most people seeking a public profile like what they hear when they speak. During my years as a daily newspaper reporter, whenever I quoted someone making what I considered a bigoted or ignorant remark I braced myself for accusations of misrepresentation. But that almost never came.

One particularly virulent homophobe actually called to congratulate me on fairly presenting his views.

That's why I wasn't at all surprised by the reaction last week when "Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams revisited some disgraced—at least in the majority view of the show's audience—interview subjects. Her task during Jon Stewart's final week at the helm was to see if they harbored any grudges.

No, said the pastor who once compared Obama to Hitler, he wasn't a bit sorry he had appeared on the show. But he conceded that he had changed his mind about Obama—whom he now related to Satan.

One of the many brilliant aspects of Stewart's "Daily Show" was that Stewart knew the surest way to skewer ignorance or bigotry is to simply let it speak for itself. He made most of his points simply by running footage of the target.

And while interviews were blatantly edited to allow "correspondents" to insert their—often astounded—reactions, you had the sense that the person being interviewed was given every chance to redeem him- or herself.

Stewart consistently called himself a comedian, not a journalist, yet he exemplified the journalistic lesson that honest means are also the most effective.

Searing as his satire was, he was a rare positive presence on the political and media landscape. Probably that's why he was remarkably successful in getting people he disagreed with to come on his show.

Sure, they did it in large part because of his popularity. But they also came, I think, because they trusted he wouldn’t try to misrepresent them. Rather, he honestly revealed them—and there's satisfaction all around in that.

Here is what the Iran deal—and Obama—are up against

It is no secret—since they announced it—that AIPAC is spending several millions of dollars to defeat the Iran agreement. Obama has called them on it—rightly so. AIPAC should be registered as a lobbyist for a foreign government, which would curtail their spending and their lobbying of Congress.

Obama made reference to this spending in his American University speech and to inaccurate statements being made about the agreement. Now AIPAC and other opponents are hitting back themselves--and with the assistance of the NYTimes, "Fears of Lasting Rifts..."

[T]he tone of the current dispute is raising concerns among some of Mr. Obama’s allies who say it is a new low in relations between Aipac and the White House. They say they are worried that, in working to counter Aipac’s tactics and discredit its claims about the nuclear accord with Iran, the president has gone overboard in criticizing the group and like-minded opponents of the deal.

Except for administration officials defending the president, the story quotes officials of AIPAC and other organizations supporting Israel and opposing the agreement. You can bet there are many people in Washington the Times could have turned to for this story with, shall we say, a more nuanced view.

The NYTimes is not of one mind on the Iran deal. From the editorial page editor's blog, Taking Note.

Fun Chart: 2014 lobbying U.S by AIPAC: $3.06 M; 2014 lobbying U.S. by Israel $2.47 M.

MORE: Andrew Bacevich at the LATimes has these observations (nothing on gay marriage!):

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Riding The Trump Tiger

Last night, along with 24 million other viewers (a record for a primary, apparently), I watched the first Republican presidential debate. If you put aside that this event actually was part of choosing the next leader of the Free World, the spectacle made for great television. Really. It entertained me, though mostly for the hathos of it all. 

Trump was center stage, and the Fox News moderators went after him. (The very first question of the debate asked candidates to pledge not to run as a third party candidate, which Trump refused to do.) That was the dominant fact of the debate, the sun around which all the other skirmishes seemed to orbit. It set the tone, kept the anticipation in the air. But it also offered the rare chance to see Fox almost quaintly appeal to "facts" in order to embarrass Trump, and appeal to consistency to play "gotcha" with nearly all the candidates.  

In short, having turned their news programming into a kind of postmodern performance art for all these years, suddenly the various Fox personalities discovered a concern for civility and a commitment to reason and truth. Of course, the hour was too late for that. 

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The Good Ending

Nine years ago, when our mother was dying of lung cancer, my sisters and I considered  moving her to a hospice. Like many who are dying, my mother viewed hospice with ambivalence and dread, and by the time she agreed, she was too fragile to move. Which was too bad, since the facility I toured—the nation’s first residential hospice, in Branford, CT—was a remarkable place, with an aura of sunlit serenity and a view of the Connecticut coastline that looked strangely Californian. I knew it was exactly the right place for my mother, who had long felt a deep pull toward ocean vistas. But we were too late. Her fear of death prevented her from having the kind of death that would have suited her best.

I was reminded of this, and many other end-of-life predicaments and paradoxes, by Marietta Pritchard’s new book, The Way to Go: Portrait of a Residential Hospice. A retired journalist in her seventies, and wife of Amherst College English professor (and Commonweal contributor) William H. Pritchard, she offers a tender and nuanced account of life—and death—at The Fisher Home, a nine-bed residential hospice in Amherst, Mass, where she has worked as a volunteer for years.

The Way to Go alternates passages from Pritchard’s volunteer journal with short chapters profiling residents and staff at The Fisher Home. Written in the present tense, the book reminded me of Tracy Kidder’s low-key, meticulously detailed studies of institutions, companies and communities, and the individuals who make them thrive. With discerning appreciation Pritchard describes the efforts of nurses, bereavement counselors, doctors and administrators to create “a medically conscientious haven, an oasis for dying people, as well as for their families and friends.”

“Hospice seeks to normalize death,” Pritchard writes, noting what a challenge that is in a culture in which death typically figures as “the unspeakable... the event that cannot be faced.”  Normalizing death turns out to require “undoing the habits of lifetimes;” withholding medical treatment from the dying, for instance, can contravene both the training of health care workers and the loving instincts of family members. “It is hard to relinquish the impulse to feed and hydrate a loved one,” Pritchard acknowledges. But hospice principles recognize that when a person is “actively dying,” pushing food or liquids can actually increase discomfort. So don’t start an intravenous drip. Keep them comfortable with mouth swabs and sips of water. Let the peaceful death happen. “Thank you all,” the volunteer coordinator tells her staff after the death of a resident, “for another good ending.”

Hospice care for the dying involves tradeoffs and dilemmas, like how to adjust medication enough to alleviate pain, but not so much as to obliterate alertness. Pritchard chronicles the sometimes cruel process of being “decertified”—temporary upticks in health that disqualify residents for hospice, forcing them to leave. For those who stay, death looms sooner rather than later (the average stay at Fisher is three weeks), and The Way to Go offers insight into their ways of reckoning with it. Pritchard pays attention to family complexities, describing cases in which the dying person is ready but his family is not, and the obverse as well.

For the residents, dying is an intense, inward, and often idiosyncratic process. One of them, who spends many hours looking out the window, is unsettled when a well-meaning friend, hoping to beautify the panorama, presents her the gift of a hummingbird feeder and a potted flowering plant. “She had gotten used to looking out that window, watching the clouds roll over an austere view,” Pritchard writes. “Now there was more visual complication there, something to pull her attention away from the inner order she was trying to make.” 

Her portraits of residents include both the religiously faithful and the skeptical, and all types of personalities—the cranky, the dour, the serene, the raucously irreverent. A rabbi, conducting a memorial service for one resident, recalls his last meeting with the dying man. “As I was holding his hand and speaking with him, he suddenly opened his eyes and took a break from breathing his last to inquire of me: ‘Who the fuck are you?’” Approaches to dying are as many and various as we are ourselves. Some residents achieve peace. Others fight with all their might, raging against what lies ahead.

The Way to Go studies a hospice in a liberal, largely agnostic college community. The Catholic hospice movement has its own tradition and culture, but it reflects many of the same core principles—and provides many of the same spiritual benefits to those who work in it. As John Paul II noted in a 2004 address to the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, “Daily experience teaches that the persons most sensitive to the suffering of others and who are the most dedicated to alleviating the suffering of others are also more disposed to accept, with God’s help, their own suffering.”

For Pritchard, volunteering at The Fisher Home involves no dearth of moving moments, as when she sits a deathbed vigil for one particularly beloved resident and finds herself humming “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” as he expires.  Though her days there can be hectic, they nevertheless provide “a kind of meditative quality.” Well aware that she herself has far more life behind her than ahead, Pritchard finds in The Fisher Home a salutary way of focusing on ultimate things. “Volunteering at a hospice keeps me from forgetting that life ends,” she writes, and “also teaches me that life goes on until its end, and that the last stretch can be as valuable and satisfying as any other part of our existence, if we allow it to happen that way.” Bravo.

A breath of fresh air and a dose of reality

President Obama spoke at American University on August 5. In defense of the Iran nuclear agreement he said many things, worth thinking about. Among them a recognition that U.S. and Israeli national interests (at least as seen by PM Netanyahu) are not congruent:

OBAMA: "I have also listened to the Israeli security establishment, which warned of the danger posed by a nuclear armed Iran for decades. In fact, they helped develop many of the ideas that ultimately led to this deal. So to friends of Israel and the Israeli people, I say this. A nuclear armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.

"I recognize that prime minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong. I believe the facts support this deal. I believe they are in America's interests and Israel's interests, and as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes  temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.

"I do not believe that would be the right thing to do for the United States, I do not believe it would be the right thing to do for Israel."

The text of the talk from the Washington Post.   

Paul Pillar analyses Obama's idea of "mindsets."

Constitutional in Idaho

Lynn Winmill, a federal judge [in Idaho] has ruled that Idaho’s law banning secret filming of animal abuse at agricultural facilities is unconstitutional.

Audio and visual evidence is a uniquely persuasive means of conveying a message, and it can vindicate an undercover investigator or whistle-blower who is otherwise disbelieved or ignored.

Prohibiting undercover investigators or whistle-blowers from recording an agricultural facility’s operations inevitably suppresses a key type of speech because it limits the information that might later be published or broadcast.

The state law passed at the behest of the dairy industry argued that films of animal abuse was hurting business. Too bad says the judge! (See the AP story.)

Let's see how this goes down in California where two restraining orders have been issued against David Daleiden & Co. for filming abortion providers talking about fetal parts for research and most recently lab technicians showing fetal hearts, livers, etc.

The irony of the contrast, I leave to your own thoughts and imaginations.

A New Look, and Some New Features

You may have noticed that Commonweal looks a little different in places today. It’s been just over two years since the last major redesign of the website, a long time in online publishing, and we’ve made a few modifications to acknowledge and address how readers’ expectations and habits have changed in that time.

For one thing, we’ve made our articles easier to read on all screens—desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone—with a template featuring narrower column widths, wider margins, and a different type face. For another, we’re making greater use of photographs and images, and making them more prominent. And with so many more of our readers sharing what they read via social media, we’ve made it easier to find our Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking buttons.

We’ve also changed the way that comments appear. Rather than having to scroll to the bottom of a story to post and read comments, you can now call up the comment box alongside the story. Just click the “Comments” link above the article: A scrollable window of comments will appear to the right of the article, with the option to “add new comment” clearly indicated. If you want to hide the comments window, just click the “close” button. And, we’ve given editors the ability to select comments they think deserve greater attention and highlight them in the “Editor Featured” tab.

Overall, we think these relatively small changes represent some big improvements. But of course, if you have any specific questions or complaints about how things are working on your end, the best thing to do is contact us directly. Otherwise, go ahead and carry on reading, sharing, and commenting on the stories you come to Commonweal for. 

Robert Conquest, RIP

Robert Conquest has died at the age of 93. By the end of his life, he was best known as a historian, whose landmark book The Great Terror detailed Stalin's brutal purges. Conquest's assessment of Stalin's aims and methods, controversial when The Great Terror first appeard in 1968, was largely vindicated when new information came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union. (When a new edition of the book was published in 1990, Conquest wanted to call it I Told You So, You F***ing Fools.)

But long before Conquest became famous as a historian, he was known as a poet. He belonged to a group of British writers known collectively as The Movement, which included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, and Elizabeth Jennings. It was a fairly heterogeneous group, more a ragged circle than a movement. Its members all belonged to roughly the same generation, but had little else in common apart from a desire to get out from under the shadow of literary modernism. Most of them were more influenced by Yeats and Robert Graves than by Eliot and Pound.

Amis, who also wrote poetry, became famous as a novelist. Larkin became the most important poet of postwar Britain. Thom Gunn moved to northern California, joined the counterculture, and started writing free verse.* Elizabeth Jennings, a Catholic, enjoyed a loyal following but was never taken as seriously as the Movement men—and certainly not as seriously as she deserved to be taken. (She was never well known in the U.S.)

Conquest's reputation as a historian eventually eclipsed his reputation as a poet, though not totally: among those who love the limerick, he was considered a modern master. After the jump, three of his finest (with unasterisked profanity).

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St. Anne, St. Anne, Email Me a Man

I, along with thousands of subscribers, received the following e-mail from the Catholic Match institute this week. I’d like to respond to it publicly, because I think it raises a lot of important questions for young single people grappling with being young and single. And because the author actually asked me a lot of questions.

Dear Kaitlin,

I was driving down the highway as I passed the Shrine of St. Anne, a French gothic church dedicated to the Mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The gorgeous church reminded me of the prayer, "St. Anne, St. Anne, find me a man." I felt silly praying it, but was willing to try anything at that point.

Don’t feel silly, I can relate. I downloaded Tinder.

As I sped by, I turned up my music and tried not to worry, but I had my doubts and again wondered: Will I ever meet "The One"?

Not if The One meets you first! As U2 once said (Were you listening to U2?): “God moves in mysterious ways.”

What am I doing wrong?

Maybe pull over next time. Don’t just drive by.

Why haven't I met anyone yet?

Well, maybe you need to lower your standards. Have you considered downloading Tinder?

Am I afraid of change?

There’s only one way to find out. A good test is a new haircut. If it scares you, you’re afraid of change. If it doesn’t, push the limits. Maybe shave it all off and see if that scares you.

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Why we love "guv'mint"

Here’s a complete page-one story from the local weekly, The Deposit Courier:

NYS Inspector Forces Name Change for Browns Pharmacy

To satisfy state inspectors and state regulations, Brown’s Pharmacy has a new sign.

Pharmacist Jeff Hempstead said the pharmacy with its adjoining gift shop was reconfigured in 1988.  At that time the inspectors approved of the new store design and signed off on the project.

Every year inspectors have given the pharmacy high marks and there has been no indication of any infractions.

During the most recent inspection, this year’s inspector said because the entrance does not lead directly into the pharmacy the signage had to be changed.  The old Brown’s Pharmacy sign had to come down because it was technically over the gift shop side (now an Irish Peddler) and a new sign indicating that the pharmacy is a “Department Within” had to be added under the Pharmacy sign over the pharmacy’s windows.

“We want to reassure the community that nothing is changing with the pharmacy except the sign,” Hempstead explained.  “The inspectors are not always the same and this guy cited us because of the entrance.  I’ve added the little white ‘Department Within’ sign to satisfy the inspector.”

Hempstead said he has always registered it as a “pharmacy.”  Now, he has to re-register as a “pharmacy department.”  He said he plans to contest the ruling and he plans to re-hang the familiar “Brown’s Pharmacy” sign that has identified the pharmacy since 1847.  It will probably have a new home on the pharmacy side of the building but at least it will remain a familiar Front Street landmark.

My comment:  “… since 1847”!

But wait!  Did the inspector have a point?

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