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Droning On

Some follow-up thoughts to my review of the drone-warfare movie, Eye in the Sky (You can read the review here.) The film explores the decision of whether to use a drone missile attack to wipe out a team of Somali terrorists inside a compound in Nairobi, Kenya, who are suiting up for an imminent suicide bombing. After surveillance cameras reveal a nine-year-old girl selling bread at a stand just outside the compound, we follow the military and civilian command’s agony of decision: is it justifiable to kill a nine-year-old in cold blood in order to eliminate terrorists plotting to kill many more innocents?

One question I had as I watched the movie, and then as I wrote the review, is whether feature films are the best way, or even a good way, to illuminate ethical dilemmas. As soon as I say that, of course, I think of a bunch of mainstream films over recent decades that do just that -- Silkwood, The China Syndrome, A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Concussion, and, of course, Zero Dark Thirty. In taking up political, environmental, military and other scandals and dilemmas, such films constitute the muckraking ethical arm of Hollywood. I guess your sense of whether they dignify and focus significant ethical conundrums, or dilute and trivialize them, will depend on what kind of moviegoer you are. Do you want pathos, or perspective? And are these aims mutually exclusive?

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All over but the back-biting

The campaign trajectory of the next seven months is looking all too clear. Donald Trump will add to his denigration of immigrants, women, politicians, Europeans, muslims, etc., vicious attacks on Hillary Clinton. He will bully, badger, lie, and make fun of her. She has promised not to reply in kind. As if she could!

HOWEVER, being the recipient of several Hillarygrams over the last several days inviting me to "Play the Woman's Card, (and send a campaign contribution)" I suggest she drop that line of retort as well. [Trump having accused her of playing the woman's card and bellowing that she could never get elected otherwise, her 18-year old campaign copy writers have her replying--in kind.]

Puts me in mind of Jean Hughes Raber's come-back to "women should vote for women" several yards down on dotCommonweal:  "I've got nothing against women working together toward common goals (like world domination, making men's lives miserable, and outlawing restrictive foundation garments, the stated goals of the International Feminist Conspiracy, Great Lakes Chapter, of which I am recording secretary (JOKE)."

Hillary Clinton has to run a campaign as the last adult standing and not as the "Little Woman Who Could."

The Revolutionary

Nicholas Clifford’s profile of Simon Leys in the latest issue of Commonweal mentions the late Sinologist’s interest in a revolutionary Chinese writer named Lu Xun (1881-1936). During the Cultural Revolution, Leys sought to defend Lu Xun’s legacy from the attempts of the Chinese Communist Party—and intellectuals in the West—to appropriate him as a Maoist icon. Although Lu Xun maintained left wing and patriotic commitments throughout his career, he never joined the Chinese Communist Party. Mao himself allegedly admitted that Lu Xun would “either have gone silent, or gone to prison” if he lived through the anti-dissident campaigns of the 1950s.  

It’s a good thing that the Cultural Revolution-era debate on Lu Xun has settled on Simon Leys’s terms. The problem, however, is that his legacy is now under attack by a different kind of sanitizing exaltation. Gloria Davies, author of a recent biography on Lu Xun, writes that post-Maoist scholarship has often reduced his revolutionary polemics to “an example of mere intellectual factionalism.” So I’ll take Clifford’s essay on Simon Leys as an opportunity to ask: Who was Lu Xun and why should we know him better?

The social decay that marked late-imperial China played out on a microcosmic level in Lu Xun’s family. He was born into a gentry-class family in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, but his grandfather’s imprisonment for bribery and his father’s failing health laid a heavy burned on the family finances. It seems hardly shocking, then, that Lu Xun (whose given name was Zhou Shuren) abandoned the imperial examination system—the traditional path to success in China for an ambitious young man—that his forbears had followed.

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Is Business an Ethics-Free Zone?

For many if not most, the idea of a “moral economy” is a contradiction. I was reminded of this when reading some of the comments on my last blog post. The logic is straightforward: the “business of business is business”, which is to maximize profits, and as long as corporations don’t break any laws, they are not doing anything wrong. To claim otherwise would be seek perfection in a fallen world.

In my own field of economics, this perspective is pervasive. One of the first things you learn in elementary microeconomics is that consumers maximize utility and firms maximize profits. That’s just how things are. This view is summed by nicely by Branko Milanovic:

“I am thus intellectually sympathetic to the view that personal morality exists only outside economics or capitalism. I might like the guys who are nice and ethical, but when it comes to economics I really do not expect them to be so. I even very much doubt when they claim they are. I tend to see them as hypocritical. This is not in their job description.”

Milanovic makes a comparison with bobsledding—you can go as fast as you like, but you should not hit the fence. In other words, do whatever you can to maximize profits, but don’t break the law. So Milanovic refuses to condemn the behavior of the financial sector in the run-up to the crisis, because they were doing what they are supposed to do and (for the most part) not breaking the law.

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Reading with Ramona

When I wrote a post here on April 12 to mark the occasion of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday, I had already filed the column that has just been published in our Spring Books issue ("Ramona the Real"). I mention that because anyone who read the comments on that blog post, which were largely about how contemporary children respond to Cleary's books about Ramona Quimby, might assume my column was inspired by them. It was a happy coincidence -- and evidence that the intensity of my kid's identification with Ramona is far from unique. Though I haven't read or watched Game of Thrones, I've watched friends react to it online, and to say, as Abe R. did, that "the scene where Ramona tears up the owls is basically my 5 year-old's Red Wedding" is both funny and exactly right -- the shock of it all! The carnage! The desolation and despair! My not-quite-five-year-old was climbing the couch cushions with his hands clapped over his ears as I read that chapter of Ramona the Brave.

"Feisty, imaginative Ramona is Cleary’s crowning achievement and the reason she will be revered for generations to come," Ruth Graham writes in an essay at Slate's Book Review. She goes on to sing the praises of some books I haven't read, Cleary's "unjustly forgotten teen novels," and her take makes me want to read those next (probably without my son at my side).

At Christianity Today, D.L. Mayfield writes about reading the Ramona books in Cleary's own town of Portland, Oregon, with his five-year-old daughter named Ramona. Now that's a fan.

I didn't intend for my column in Commonweal to dwell so often on reading with my kids (see here, and also here). But it's something I spend a lot of time doing, and it's been fascinating at every stage to experience books I think I know well through their eyes, and to see the world as they do thanks to those books. We have left Ramona behind for now -- after we followed her through first grade, I decided my rising kindergartener needed a few years to catch up with what comes next. But we are still reading together, a chapter at a time, in the afternoons while his two little brothers take their naps. Now we're working through Eleanor Estes's books about the Moffats, which are written with a similarly keen understanding of how children look at the world and what they think is important. The experience is less stressful for my son -- Rufus, the youngest Moffat and the one with whom he most closely identifies, is as independent and impulsive as Ramona, and even more alarmingly unsupervised, but his escapades generally turn out just fine. For example, both Ramona (in Beezus and Ramona) and Rufus (in Rufus M.) try and fail to get library cards of their own -- believing, falsely, that they know how to write their names. But where Ramona refuses to be corrected and ends up (spoiler alert!) scribbling her "signature" all over her sister's library book so that she can keep it for herself, Rufus buckles down and spends all afternoon learning to write, and back at home his mother praises his accomplishment without asking how it came about. Cleary focuses on the embarrassment the situation causes for Beezus, Ramona's big sister; Estes has Rufus going alone to the library because the rest of his siblings are too wrapped up in their books to pay any attention to him. The Moffats books also have a more "historical" feel than even the oldest of Cleary's, having been published in the 1940s and set a generation earlier. But if the outer trappings of World-War-I-era life are unfamiliar, the children's inner lives, their emotions and logic, are completely relatable. Reading those books aloud makes me appreciate how Estes adopts a child's perspective even in her storytelling style and pace, repeating herself and dwelling on details that would seem insignificant to adults. She knew that kids would know just why they mattered. They are funny, too, and often Marty has surprised me by laughing at a situation I would have thought he'd be too young to see the humor in.

But enough about us. I want to hear more from you all about reading with your kids, or any kids. What have you enjoyed? What did you learn? What should I look for next?

2025... and Beyond

Question: So where are you in American society if you have no cash in your pocket and you don’t drive a car? Answer: in the year 2025, or thereabouts. The cashless and driverless society, in other words, of our near future.  

To me the most fascinating aspect of the U.S. currency redo and the Harriet Tubman $20 bill (aside from Alexander Hamilton being spared elimination via the popularity of a Broadway musical!) is that, as the Times notes, it’s not certain how long a life the Tubman bill will enjoy, since its arrival around 2020 is likely to be followed soon after by the abandonment of cash. To be sure, such prognostications aren’t exact science; the cashless society has been promised for at least half a century, and the driverless car has long been an abiding staple of pop futurism. But now we truly are at the brink of both changes; we’ve reached that moment where the remaining obstacles are not technological, but logistical and – most important – psychological. That is to say, in us.

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Should a Catholic University take Koch Funding?

Can a Catholic university legitimately take money from the likes of the Koch Brothers? This is not a hypothetical question. Many Catholic universities are implicated. But none more so than Catholic University of America, which—in the face of much criticism—has just doubled down with another $10 million donation from the Koch Foundation.

The original partnership with the Kochs, and the subsequent criticism, predates Pope Francis and Laudato si’. If the university’s arguments were weak back then, they are paper-thin now.

Just consider how the philosophy and business practices of the Koch Brothers goes directly against the authoritative teaching of Pope Francis. I will make three points in this regard.

First, the Kochs are avid libertarians, defenders of the unconstrained free market as the best route to prosperity. This ideology is simply not compatible with Catholic social teaching. In full continuity with his predecessors, Pope Francis condemns the notion of a “deified market” or a “magical conception of the market.” His point is that an economic system underpinned by self-interest and oriented toward profit maximization is simply incapable of delivering integral and sustainable development. It leads instead to an economy of exclusion, and is deaf to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. Pope Francis stresses that working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is a moral obligation—and for Christians, a commandment. “It is about giving to the poor and to peoples what is theirs by right,” he says. In other words, the universal destination of goods is a reality prior to private property. I have a feeling the Kochs would strenuously disagree with this. And this is no mere prudential disagreement. It is foundational and anthropological.

Second, the Kochs are among the leading funders and promoters of climate-change denialism. In Laudato si’, Pope Francis castigates those who are focused on “masking the problems or concealing their symptoms.” “There are too many special interests,” he says, “and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.” It almost seems like the pope is addressing the Kochs directly! Today, the stakes are especially high after the signing of the Paris Agreement by 196 nations last December. This agreement, which aims to phase out carbon emissions, was a major priority of Pope Francis. It explains the timing of the encyclical’s release, and Laudato si’ served as a moral charter for the agreement. But, almost alone in the world, the Paris agreement is being opposed by key U.S. political interests—because they are beholden to those very same vested interests condemned by Pope Francis.

Third, the business activities of the Kochs cannot be deemed ethical. In terms of assessing ethics in business, the best starting point is "The Vocation of the Business Leader," put out by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. This document is currently being updated to encompass the wisdom of Laudato si’. And Pope Francis makes a compelling point about business ethics that bears repeating in this context. He notes that businesses profit from not paying the true costs of their activities. “Only when the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations,” he says, “can those actions be considered ethical.” It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the business model of the Koch Brothers is simply unethical, period.

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New Issue, Now Live

We've just posted our May 6 issue to the website, featuring Nicholas Clifford's in-depth look into the multiple careers of the Roman Catholic Belgian-Australian writer, essayist, literary critic, translator, art historian, sinologist, and university professor Simon Leys, as well as William Pritchard's essay on the new two-hundred-page edition of T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems .

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly writes that the character Ramona Quimby reveals what children's author Beverly Cleary knows about growing up. Reflecting on two recent Notre Dame graduations, Cathleen Kaveny poses a new way forward for Democratic and Republican Catholics beyond partisan culture wars. Rand Richards Cooper reviews the military drama starring Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky.

For books, John T. McGreevy reviews two new books by Sudhir Hazareesingh and David Bell that incorporate American views into the twentieth-century struggles between republicans and Catholics in France over "basic freedoms"; Paul Lakeland reviews Sarah Bakewell’s latest work which scrutinizes (mostly French) existentialist philosophers both as thinkers and as "human beings marked by their moment in history"; Dominic Preziosi reviews Don DeLillo's upcoming novel—a futuristic yet familiar story of filial conflinct and mortality—Zero K; Kathleen Sprows Cummings reviews a providentially-written, full-length biography of Joan Chittester by Tom Roberts; And Gilbert Meilaender reviews George M. Marsden's "biography of a book"—C.S. Lewis's radio-broadcast-turned-religious-classic Mere Christianity.

See the full table of contents here.

Quirke and the Mother of Mercy Laundry

Benjamin Black, the noir disguise of Booker Prize winner John Banville, has returned us to 1950s Dublin and to its genteel but menacing mean streets. Even The Dead is the eighth in the series of detective fictions which follows the life of the functioning alcoholic and pathologist Dr. Quirke. A peculiar family history and the established powers of the church and government burden Quirke. Of course, family and church and politics are in league; the revelations of that alliance challenge the doctor and in some cases imperil him through his many professional years.

Black/Banville has layered remarkable complexity in developing Quirke’s character over these eight books. It would be a long paragraph to summarize them here, but the complications are as much a part of recreation of an Ireland of sixty years ago as the murders and violence that Quirke and his ally Inspector Hackett confront.

Quirke is burdened by a past: he was raised in a brutal orphanage, “adopted” by a powerful judge, well educated in Ireland, and as a doctor in Boston. His melancholy and self-doubt ground his alcoholism, just as the death of his beloved wife leads to his profound sense of loss. Not quite a Byronic figure, but certainly a man who would appreciate the notion that he is an ironic approximation of one. Quirke’s every pleasure is won from guilt and every self-assertion a claim for respect from an authority that will mock him. His compassion is his hair shirt. It is to strong women that he turns to face himself in their eyes.

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My Year of Teaching Saudis

It’s not often that I feel I’ve gotten out more than Nicholas Kristof. In fact, before April 20 of this year, it had never happened. But Kristof’s New York Times column that day, entitled “Obama in Saudi Arabia, Exporter of Oil and Bigotry,” allowed me to feel, for a fleeting moment at least, that my corner of northeastern Pennsylvania is not so small after all.

Kristof’s column is a polemic. “Saudi Arabia should be renamed the Kingdom of Backwardness,” he writes; it “legitimizes Islamic extremism and intolerance around the world” and “is also a wellspring of poison in the Islamic world.” These are fighting words, but alas not mere empty provocations. As any reader of the news knows, there are plenty of reasons to question whether Saudi Arabia has become a dangerous ally to the United States; and like it or not, the once-durable U.S.-Saudi alliance has become strained. (Some might say: About time! Others might be more circumspect.)

Kristof knows, of course, that Saudi Arabia exports more than oil and bigotry. What was behind my fleeting feeling of being nearly as worldly is that, over the last fifteen years, the Kingdom has also been exporting increasing numbers of students. Saudi students started arriving in numbers at Catholic institutions toward the end of the last decade. At King’s College, there were none when I arrived in 2012, then a handful in 2013, thirty or so in 2014, now around ninety, with another twenty-five expected in the fall. As total enrollment at King’s is about 1,800 students, come the fall, Saudis stand to constitute more than 6 percent of our student body—a remarkable leap in so little time.

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It's Raining in Minnesota

My parents got me The Very Best of Prince album when I was about eleven years old. I had just received my first Walkman and with this new technology in tow, I thought I should begin to take myself more seriously a music-listener. I made concerted efforts to have my taste in music, movies, and TV mirror that of my siblings—who were the obvious standards for coolness at the time—and noticed quickly that classic rock and synth funk made me more admirable in the eyes of my older brothers than Jock Jams ever could. I’m not sure peer pressure has ever produced nobler results. Prince was my first real musical love.

In the early 2000’s, pop as a genre—which, as a preteen, I was expected to like—primarily referred to folks like Britney Spears and 3LW and Backstreet Boys. But there was something qualitatively different about listening to Prince; even though it was dancey and fun, his music didn’t feel cheap or hollow like the music I heard on the radio. It felt timeless.

Eleven is probably a weird age to begin a musical infatuation with an artist known for his “predilection for lavishly kinky story-songs,” but I loved that he told stories, set scenes—even if I didn’t always understand the subtle meaning underneath the words. It was easy to imagine the people and places he painted lyrically—they were all in vivid detail: “She wore a raspberry beret / the kind you find at a second-hand store” and “walked in through the out door;” or “Dream if you can a courtyard / an ocean of violets in bloom”—even a kid can latch on to imagery like that.

I suppose my parents weren’t too concerned about the subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) suggestions in his music, since, in addition to loving Prince, I was also the kid who requested books about Moses for Christmas and practiced spelling big words in my free time. They knew they could trust me to remain obstinately innocent while still exposing me to one of the most amazing musicians my homeland has ever produced—and indeed, they were right. It took me about a decade to realize and understand the almost incessant sexual references in his lyrics (I really thought “Little Red Corvette” was about a little red corvette), but the slow revelation just made it seem that his music grew along with me.

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Politics, Personalities and The Understanding

To my mind the biggest question about Donald Trump, as I wrote back in January, is whether he represents a paradigm shift for Republicans or merely a passing phenomenon – whether he’s Barry Goldwater or, say, John Anderson. (Remember John Anderson? Probably not, and that’s the point.) As Matt Sitman noted here yesterday, an article in the Times last week by Michael Lind,  titled “Trumpism and Clintonism are the Future,” argued for the Goldwater model, portraying Trump as avatar of a new Republican Party – and identifying parallel shifts on the Democratic side. The article is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with all of it.

But for now I’m going to put politics to one side and focus on personalities. The other night we watched on TV as Hillary fielded the question from the little girl about whether she, Hillary, would get the same pay as President that a man would. Hillary nimbly answered with a laughing rejoinder that elicited mirth while scoring a good political point. My wife and daughter cheered aloud. But my response was more grudging – as I find it often is to Hillary. I have no doubt she’ll be a capable President, and I expect to vote for her. But I don’t warm to her, and I’m hard-pressed to say why. Polls show all the candidates garnerning unprecedented personal negatives. I get that when it comes to Ted Cruz (smug self-aggrandizing weasel universally despised by his colleagues) and Trump (well, Trump). But why does Hillary inspire such dislike? 

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Hooray for Harriet

Although the push to put a woman's face on our paper currency hasn't exactly been a big concern of mine, I was truly gratified by today's news that Harriet Tubman, the legendary abolitionist, will replace President Andrew Jackson, the genocidal racist, on the front of our country's 20-dollar bill.

There were other good candidates to replace either Jackson on the 20-dollar or Hamilton on the 10, the 5- and 1-dollar bills being sacrosanct. But surely none could have been better suited for the honor than Tubman.

She was born into slavery in Maryland, escaped to the North, and then repeatedly risked her life to free other slaves via the perilous Underground Railroad. She was an ardent supporter of suffrage for blacks and for women. To top it all off, she even served as a Union spy during the Civil War.

Symbols are not solutions to centuries of discrimination, even if it's an African-American or female president. But the symbolism of having an African-American woman as the face of a popular measure of our paper currency still merits a cheer. And of all the male candidates for retirement, Jackson had my vote.

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Why The Future Could Look Like Last Night

Over the weekend in the New York Times, the always interesting Michael Lind argued that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton represent the future of their respective parties. (This was, of course, before both candidates’ impressive wins last night.) For Lind, Trump is not just a populist aberration on the right, and the challenge Hillary is receiving from Sanders—despite all those young people feeling the Bern—does not portend the future of liberalism. Instead, the ascendancy of both Trump and Clinton points to what he calls a “policy realignment,” or “the adjustment of what each party stands for to its existing voter base.”

Here’s how Lind describes the “existing voter base” for each party now, in 2016:

Today’s Democratic base is, to simplify somewhat, an alliance of Northern, Midwestern and West Coast whites from the old Rockefeller Republican tradition with blacks and Latinos. To give one telling example, former Senator Jim Webb, the candidate who most fully represented the white Southern working-class base of the F.D.R.-to-L.B.J. Democrats, abandoned his campaign after receiving little support in a party that bears ever less resemblance to the New Deal Democrats.

For their part, the Republicans of 2016 rely for their votes on the Southern white and Northern white working-class constituencies that were once the mainstays of the other party.

This state of affairs, as Lind goes on to explain, is the result of a partisan realignment that started in the 1960s: the old party coalitions broke-up, and a “reshuffling of voter blocs among the two parties” began. What he calls Wallace Democrats—socially conservative and economically populist—moved to the Republican Party, and moderate, business-friendly Rockefeller Republicans drifted toward the Democrats.

This basic story, of course, is not exactly new. But Lind suggests that we’ve misunderstood it. We too often assume this realignment had settled into durable pattern with the “Reagan revolution” and its aftermath. We overemphasize how much the Reagan presidency marked a new ideological era, one in which modern conservatives came to dominate the Republican Party, with Democrats becoming the defenders of economic and social liberalism. Whereas before these changes both parties had conservative and liberal wings, now there was a conservative party and a liberal one.

All this is not quite right for Lind. Instead, he views Reagan as a transitional figure—and, importantly, Bill Clinton too.

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'Some Exceptions May Apply'

From our editorial on Amoris laetitia, now up on the homepage:

The pope’s conservative critics must know that even the church’s strictest teachings often have exceptions. What are the Pauline and Petrine privileges, after all, if not exceptions to the church’s general rule about the indissolubility of valid marriages? (These “privileges” allow a pope to dissolve a marriage between a baptized person and his or her unbaptized spouse “in favor of the faith.”) Despite such impeccably traditional departures from Christ’s commandment against divorce, there is a tendency among some conservatives to confuse fidelity with a one-size-fits-all legalism. And if there is one thing you can confidently say about Pope Francis, it’s that he isn’t a legalist. Near the beginning of Amoris laetitia, he rebukes those who would reduce the Gospel message to a set of rigid disciplines—“stones to be hurled at others.” The pope wants to remind us that what Christ said of the Sabbath is also true of the sacraments and the rules surrounding them: they were made for us, not we for them. The rules exist not to protect the sacraments from being soiled by contact with sinners, but to protect us, the children of God, for whom the sacraments were instituted in the first place. The Eucharist, for example, is to be understood primarily as a gift that brings healing and nourishment, not as a remote display of supernatural power to be approached only with trepidation.

For more about the exhortation, see the responses we've posted by Peter Steinfels, William L. Portier, Sandra Yocum, and Dennis O'Brien.

Elsewhere

In the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson on "The Crisis in Brazil":

The Workers’ Party believed, after a time, that it could use the established order in Brazil to benefit the poor, without harm—indeed with help—to the rich. It did benefit the poor, as it set out to do. But once it accepted the price of entry into a diseased political system, the door closed behind it. The party itself withered, becoming an enclave in the state, without self-awareness or strategic direction, so blind that it ostracised André Singer, its best thinker, for a mess of spin-doctors and pollsters, so insensible it took lucre, wherever it came from, as the condition of power. Its achievements will remain. Whether the party will itself do so is an open question. In South America, a cycle is coming to an end. For a decade and a half, relieved of attention by the US, buoyed by the commodities boom, and drawing on deep reserves of popular tradition, the continent was the only part of the world where rebellious social movements coexisted with heterodox governments. In the wake of 2008, there are now plenty of the former elsewhere. But none so far of the latter. A global exception is closing, with no relay yet in sight.

In the New York Times, Roger Cohen on "Bernie's Israel Heresy":

Sanders struck an important blow for honest and more open debate by raising issues seldom broached in an American presidential campaign—the Palestinian houses and schools “decimated” by Israeli force in Gaza, the fact that “there are two sides to the issue,” the need for a balanced American role. He set down a marker in the Jewish American city par excellence.

In the Atlantic, James Parker on "The Greatest Poet Alive":

If you’re a certain kind of reader, with a certain kind of brain, you’re always on the lookout for the poem that will save your life. Existence heaps itself upon you; your tongue thickens and your thoughts get cluttered. But you keep a muddy eye trained on the world’s poetry portals, the places where the poems come flapping through, because you know that a line, a rhyme, a verb can reboot your internal chitchat and zap you out of all your encrustations. You know that this is the poet’s job, in the end: to remind you—oh, the cheesiness, but oh, the urgency—how to be alive.

Not every poet can do it, of course. Even the champs manage it only intermittently. But there’s one, Les Murray—an almost hairless, shorts-wearing, rustic giant-genius from the back end of Australia, prone to vast grumps and vaster generosities—who pulls it off with miraculous regularity. (Miraculous regularity … Oxymoron? Not with this guy.) I say he’s our greatest living English-language poet.

DotCommonweal's Anthony Domestico reviewed Murray's new collection here. Murray's great poem "The Say-but-the-Word Centurion Attempts a Summary," first published in Commonweal, can be found here.

National Poetry Month: C. D. Wright

The poet C. D. Wright died unexpectedly on January 12, 2016 at the age of 67. She was a fiercely experimental writer, moving from lyric to prose-poetry to, in her most recent work, “prosimetrical essays” (essays that aren't generally lineated but that do employ many of poetry's other tools: rhythm, repetition, fragmentation, compression).

Wright was also fierce in her moral vision. One Big Self (2007), a visual/textual hybrid created with the photographer Deborah Luster, focused on Louisiana’s state prison system. (A sample bit of reported dialogue: “I’m never leaving here.—Grasshopper, in front of the woodshop, posing beside a coffin he built.") In 2011, she published One with Others, a meditation on the Civil Rights Movement as told through the life of Margaret Kaelin McHugh, Wright’s mentor, “an autodidact, deeply literary, an outraged citizen, a killingly funny, irresistible human.”

In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share some quotations from Wright’s most recent book, published a week before her death: The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, and Fire & All.

Yes, that’s the whole title, and it accurately represents the book’s omnivorous interests. Wright focuses on poetry, first and foremost, but also on the relation of photography to the written word; on her experiences researching and visiting Louisiana state prisons (“I remember an afternoon at the iron pile at Transylvania watching the men quietly plait each other’s hair between sets at the weight bench”); on her loving regard for the late poet Robert Creeley (“In his company I felt poetry’s sturdiness and purpose”); on the exhilarating experience of reading Under the Volcano while traveling in Mexico as a penniless undergraduate (“In those days I dreaded coming to the end of a mighty book. It was not so much the story; I just resisted being ejected from the experience.”)

As Ben Lerner has written, “Even categorizing [Wright] as uncategorizable is too easy: she was part of a line of mavericks and contrarians who struggled to keep the language particular in times of ever-encroaching standardization.” Wright’s intellectual and formal restlessness comes through on every page of The Poet. She will be missed—most, of course, by those who knew her (she taught for many years at Brown), but also by those who read her.

While finishing this post, I noticed that Zoey Cole just published a remembrance of Wright on Literary Hub. It's excellent and worth a read. In the meantime, here are some of Wright's words from The Poet ... .

Here she is on nouns:

I like nouns that go up: loft. And ones that sink: mud. I like the ones that peck: chicken. And canter: canter. Those that comfort: flannel and pelt. Cell is an excellent word, in that it sweetly fulfills its assigned sound in a small, thin container. Unlike hull, which is disappointing.

On poetry’s relationship to social and political circumstances:

Poets will have to summon a fierceness equal to the current environment. We will have to meet irrational force with savage insight. We will have to bring our own rudimentary technology, our own order, to the common weal. Inasmuch as poetry is the mind’s domain, it is the mind’s defense. But poets will have to shed some of our mental armor. We will have to channel our loathing toward our elected objections of negation, forgo gentle murmurings (as Adorno says, “There is nothing innocuous left.”) Poets will have to stop bemoaning poetry’s lost station, while continuing to press its perceptions. That which we cannot speak of we can no longer pass over in silence.

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What Lights the Political Spark

Somewhere in a shoebox holding the detritus of my youth there may still rest a signed, black-and-white photograph of Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, who lent his name to legislation related to military engagement in Vietnam and Roe v. Wade and who in 1975 led the committee investigating intelligence-gathering abuses by the CIA and FBI. But none of these had led to me ask for the portrait that would arrive in the mail, tucked snugly into an official-looking envelope emblazoned with an official-looking seal. I was only following instructions: For a middle-school social-studies class, I had to do a report on a U.S. senator, and I was randomly assigned Church. I can’t remember anything about what I might have turned in; what I can remember was that in the months and years to follow, when encountering references to Church amendments or the Church Committee, I had a clue of what was being talked about. And that, as I triumphantly remind my children, is why you do your schoolwork.

Classes in history and government may acquaint young people with history and government, but what sparks the romance with politics? My seventh-grade daughter has shown flickering signs of interest in the current presidential election, and last Wednesday attended with a friend and her parents the rally for Bernie Sanders in New York’s Washington Square Park. She came home tired and bleary-eyed, excited and talkative, with stickers and buttons and a Bernie (first name only, please) poster in the style of a Grateful Dead album cover—bought with the money she was supposed to use for food. She had gripes about the crowds and the clouds of marijuana smoke, but these were minor next to the views firmly expressed well before the event on why women shouldn’t be expected to vote for a presidential candidate just because the candidate is a woman.

From poorer soil plants can also grow. Around the time of my Church report, I remember watching (as apparently do others) an episode of the TV series Happy Days, set if you recall in an idealized version of the 1950s, in which main character Richie Cunningham defies his father to campaign for Adlai Stevenson. When Dwight Eisenhower wins, Richie and the kids—and by extension a generation—are distraught. Was it really like that? I asked my mother. The wistful solemnity with which she answered “yes” made a lasting impression. But so did watching with her, one year before, the resignation of Richard Nixon on a nine-inch black-and-white TV, and, one year after, listening to my father bemoan the failure of Republicans in Kansas City to nominate Ronald Reagan. It was up to me to make sense of it all.

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Georgetown University: A Case for Reparations?

What does Georgetown owe to descendants of the 272 slaves sold by the Society of Jesus in the fall of 1838 to ensure the university's survival? An apology? A memorial? Scholarships? Or something else?

Those are among the questions raised by Saturday's NY Times article about the Georgetown community—administrators, professors, students and alumni—and its deepening efforts to reckon with the school's history.

The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance.

But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard.

Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.

Now, with racial protests roiling college campuses, an unusual collection of Georgetown professors, students, alumni and genealogists is trying to find out what happened to those 272 men, women and children. And they are confronting a particularly wrenching question: What, if anything, is owed to the descendants of slaves who were sold to help ensure the college’s survival?

The entire article is worth reading, most grippingly for what it reveals about Cornelius Hawkins, his family and their extraordinary faith. Georgetown historian Adam Rothman calls the episode, and the school's Jesuit archives, “a microcosm of the whole history of American slavery".

The sale marked the end of nearly two centuries of slaveowning by the Maryland Jesuits. Proceeds from the sale not only helped save Georgetown; they also helped finance Fordham.

Undecided. What to Do?

As a result of 23 years spent in daily journalism, it's not my way to discuss publicly who I vote for. The ethics codes at major news organizations discourage such advocacy, as they should. Fifteen years out from the newsroom, that practice sticks with me. But what I would say  is that on the eve of the Democratic primary in my state, I'm undecided between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

That was my response a few days ago when  a Sanders volunteer with the voice of a teenager called the house and asked who I was voting for.  The volunteer seemed stunned into silence for a few beats after I said, "I'm undecided." The caller didn't offer any arguments to vote for Sanders.

Indeed, after all the debates and the mass of news coverage, how is it possible to be undecided? But I am. What do do? I'll consider anything you have to say.