A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


dotCommonweal Blog


While the U.S. Congress takes its late summer break and President Obama works to secure the passage of the Iran nuclear agreement, we should notice that the U.S. is not the only nation having the flibberdigibits--although we are probably having the most serious case of them.

Russia, one of the signatories, is also having its anxieties about whether the deal is good for Russia. The major concern seems to be whether the deal confirms Russia's great power status or underminds it. And then, if its turns out to be good for the U.S., will it be bad for Russia (a version of if it's good for Iran, it will be bad for the U.S.). Lobelog.

Poll: Pope Francis and Former Catholics

A new poll released in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States offers data that suggest the pontiff will have the ear of many Catholics who have left the church or otherwise become discouraged with its leadership.  

The poll by Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service presents an interesting profile of those who identify as former Catholics, a group that it says comprises 15 percent of the U.S. population. It finds a gender gap, for example: former Catholics tend to be male (55 percent) while current Catholics are more likely female (56 percent). The former Catholics are more likely to identify as liberal (37 percent) than current Catholics (27 percent) or as political independents (50 percent, former Catholics; 36 percent, current Catholics).

Former Catholics are reported to have a much more positive view of Pope Francis (64 percent approve) than of the church (43 percent). Similar gaps can be found among young people and liberals.

Catholics are much more likely to say that Pope Francis understands the needs and views of American Catholics (80 percent) than to say the U.S. Catholic bishops do (60 percent).

While some conservative Catholics have objected to Francis's priorities,  the poll suggests that overall, American Catholics have a more favorable feeling toward their church than they did before Francis became pope. (56 percent said their feelings had changed, and of those 3 out of 5 said their feelings toward the church had become more favorable.)


Read more

Can Hope Combat Despair (and Denial) on Climate Change?

With this July officially the hottest month in recorded history, and 2015 likely to top 2014 as the hottest year; with wildfires consuming swaths of rainforest in the Pacific Northwest; with heat-trapping carbon dioxide having risen from pre-industrial-era levels of 280 parts per million to above 400 ppm this year (where they’re likely to stay absent significant action to reduce emissions), it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the state of the earth’s climate, if not legitimately depressed. Climate researchers themselves increasingly show signs of what psychologists have labeled “pre-traumatic stress”—the anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive” thoughts that come with the daily work of charting what looks like an increasingly bleak future. Relentless attack on the part of climate-change deniers is said to play a contributing role.

“Certainly the possibility of extremely bad effects should weigh heavily on our minds,” David Cloutier wrote on this blog in May. “But the contemplation of such effects can even have paradoxical effects, leading us to despair, especially when we recognize that any individual changes we make may be lost in humanity’s massive collective activity.” The giving up of hope, however, is exactly what we need to guard against when it comes to climate change. To that end it’s been interesting to see how two of the most typically gloomy writers on the topic have recently been finding silver threads in the gathering clouds.

For instance, Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent profile of Christina Figueres, who heads the U.N.’s Secretariat of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, bears the hopeful tagline, “The Woman Who Could Stop Climate Change.” Figueres is characterized as such for her near certainty that something positive will emerge from the upcoming annual Conference of the Parties on climate change, to be held in Paris. Figueres, Kolbert writes, is aware of the danger of high expectations but “is doing her best to raise them further, on the theory that the best way to make something happen is to convince people that it is going to happen. ‘I have not met a single human being who’s motivated by bad news,” she told me. “Not a single human being.’” That she can maintain this attitude—not only while working within the bureaucracy of the U.N. but also while being charged with persuading 195 countries to scale back their use of fossil fuels—is something she attributes to being the daughter of the man who led the Costa Rican revolution of 1948. “I’m very comfortable with the word ‘revolution,’” she tells Kolbert. “In my experience, revolutions have been very positive.”

Bill McKibben, meanwhile, earlier this summer hailed Pope Francis’s Laudato si, not least for the fact that “simply by writing it, the pope—the single most prominent person on the planet, and of all celebrities and leaders the most skilled at using gesture to communicate—has managed to get across the crucial point” that climate change is the most pressing issue of the day.

Read more

Bringing Bernie Back Home

The other day, as I was heading home to my apartment in Washington Heights—a small, somewhat close-knit neighborhood, geographically isolated from the tourism and crowds generally associated with Manhattan—I encountered a young man and woman with clipboards, gently trying to intercept passersby. "Hey," the man made eye contact, "have you heard about Bernie Sanders?" "Yeah,” I said, giving a thumbs-up and walking on, proud I'd been able to answer them in the affirmative. But they both lunged toward me, and started speaking very quickly. "Awesome! Are you registered? Do you know about our group? Are you interested in participating in our events? Do you want to volunteer?"

Brooklyn native Bernie Sanders currently doesn't have a New York City campaign office because, as I was to learn in the course of my encounter, he "didn't think people would like him this much." And so groups like the one I ended up learning about that day—Washington Heights for Bernie Sanders (they call themselves Bernie WaHi)—are getting ready for when he sets one up.

"We realized that the campaign didn’t have the structure yet in New York or as much funding as some other candidates,” said Adam Masser, one of three Sanders organizers who facilitate events and volunteer assignments in Northern Manhattan. Masser and his friends saw a "real opportunity to get the word out on behalf of Bernie and start organizing." So they started inviting their friends, and then their neighbors, to mobilize fellow Bernie supporters while also cultivating new ones.

Still a problem for Bernie at the moment is name recognition: “Bernie Sanders” doesn’t register with the same immediacy that “Hillary Clinton” does. So Bernie WaHi will focus on that, while also hosting more events and recruiting more volunteers. Voter registration is also part of the plan: Supporters are seeking to sign up people who’ve never voted, and to get registered Independent and Green Party voters to register as Democrats before the October 9 deadline.

Bernie WaHi takes its name from Washington Heights, but it covers a wider geographic area that includes Northern Manhattan, Harlem, Inwood, and the South Bronx—all bordering neighborhoods. At a citywide organizing meeting with twenty other organizing leaders, Adam and others agreed to work together and make sure every voting district is covered.

I asked him if they had official word Sanders was opening an office or if this was all "just hope." "Definitely not just hope. But,” Masser admitted, “there hasn't been any official word." Sanders has offices in New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, and in his home state of Vermont. Whether or not an office is ever opened in Manhattan, there will “definitely be campaign events,” Masser said, and he will definitely have a body of volunteers mobilized.

A sentiment I have heard repeated is “I don’t really like Hillary, but Bernie is…” Too old, too left, too radical, too something. And then I hear, “I would love to see him as president, but I don’t have too much hope it will happen.” But the more I meet people like Masser and his fellow Sanders supporters, the less I accept that.

Sanders is in an “upward trajectory,” Masser pointed out. His main message—that this country belongs to all of us, not just the billionaire class—resonates with a lot of people. He is the only candidate who doesn’t have a super PAC—something not lost on those most turned off by the state of presidential politicking.

But Sanders would probably be the first to admit he needs all the help he can get, where he can get it. Could the grassroots efforts in his hometown provide another boost?

Popes in the City

Perhaps you’ve heard that next month Pope Francis is coming to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia after he visits Cuba. (What message might the Argentinian pope be sending by first dropping in on those Jesuit-educated Castros? Best not to think about it.) The impending arrival of the papal caravan has excited a good many Catholics (and many others) while increasing the anxiety of those self-anointed “orthodox Catholics” who fear that the Jesuit pope has a leftish agenda up the sleeve of his cassock. For their part, Francis enthusiasts are waxing enthusiastic. Over at National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters, who to his credit often has sage things to say when it comes to the liberal-conservative divide in the church, began a many-part series titled “Pope Francis is Coming!” Golly, yes he is, but do we really need the exclamation point? (Winters and I have differed in the past on just how papal-centric Catholics ought to be.) [“Contra Baumann", NCR].)   

Francis’s New York City stop will in fact take place almost fifty years to the day after Pope Paul VI, the first pope to visit the United States, flew in for a tumultuous fourteen-hour stay in October of 1965. Like Paul, Francis will address the U.N. and plead for peace. On that score, the papal agenda, however futile, rarely changes. It is unlikely, however, that Francis will warn the U.N. delegates that resorting to birth control is “irrational,” as Paul did, much to the audience’s surprise and befuddlement. One suspects that the “irrational” denial of climate change will be a principal theme, along with the depredations of modern capitalism. Francis’s predecessors were also critics of economic inequality. How could they not be with the way the Gospel disconcerts us all by pointing an accusatory finger at those who neglect the poor? Despite the strenuous if well-rewarded efforts of some neoconservative intellectuals, the eye of a needle hasn’t gotten any larger. Francis’s regard for the poor, much to the discomfort of such folks, does seem to be of a somewhat different intensity than most of those who preceded him in the chair of Peter. 

Francis’s visit is a big deal, but I doubt “the entire nation is focused” on it, as Winters imagines.

Read more

Down Syndrome and Abortion

On a vacation at a ranch we met a family that included Harry, a three-year-old boy with Down Syndrome. He couldn’t yet speak words, and expressed himself via loud exclamations that sometimes ascended into a strange and unfamiliar kind of cackling laugh. The first time I heard it in the dining room, not seeing the source of the noise, I was startled and thought, What is that?

It wasn’t long before exasperation was replaced by affection.  The boy was so sweet, so thoroughly delighted and delightful and full of love, it was easy to fall for him. “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” I took to saying to him as he raced about, laughing.

I thought about Harry today when I read the story about proposed legislation in Ohio that would outlaw abortions done on Down Syndrome fetuses. It is very easy for me to agree that ridding the world of its Harrys --  up to 90% of diagnosed Down Syndrome pregnancies in the U.S. are terminated -- is an ugly and misguided project, on multiple levels. Even pro-choice advocates express grave doubts about abortions done to de-select certain kinds of babies. (The article points out that a number of states have already outlawed abortion for gender selection.) As pre-natal genetic diagnosis grows ever more effective, this theme is sure to grow ever larger, and the eugenic shadow it casts that much darker.

Yet while personally anti-abortion, I’m hardly an absolutist (no overriding problem with rape and endangered-mother exceptions), and I recognize the complexities of living in a pluralistic country which has decided to accept legal abortion in most cases. Moreover, I tend to look pragmatically – and warily -- at the likely pitfalls that would result from attempting to return to across-the-board pre-Roe v. Wade prohibitions.

So it’s not surprising, I guess, that I see some problems with the Ohio legislation. First, how to enforce laws that depend on ascertaining motive? All a woman would have to do is attest to some other plausible motive. Will we give lie detector tests? Even proponents of these laws admit that there has been, and is likely to be, no enforcement. And absent enforcement, one assumes that the law has other purposes, giving weight to abortion advocates’ suspicion that such laws are tactically designed, as the article says, to divide and conquer – “[driving] a wedge between supporters of disability rights and backers of abortion rights.”

Maybe that’s a good thing, if -- as one abortion defender complains -- “by focusing on the diagnosis of a fetal condition, [such a law] edges toward recognizing the fetus as a person.” The merits of such a recognition will surely be the dividing line for voters on this issue. I confess to some ambivalence.

And yet... there’s Give ‘em Hell Harry, and his crazy, lovable, life-affirming laughter.

Stephen Colbert on Learning to Love the Bomb

If you read one article this late-summer Sunday, make it Joel Lovell's GQ profile of Stephen Colbert. It especially will be of interest to Commonweal readers for the moving way Colbert talks about the suffering and loss he's experienced in his life – most of you will know his father and two brothers were killed in a plane crash when he was ten years old – and their relationship to his Catholic faith. But what stayed with me from the piece was not just the wisdom and lack of cant with which Colbert talks about pain and loss, but the affirmation and joy and gratitude with which they're mingled. An example:

He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. “And the world,” he said. “It's so…lovely. I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people.” The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not “the Gospel tells us” and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. “And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”

Or consider this anecdote also mentioned in the article: Colbert once had a note taped to his computer that read, "Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God." 

The persistence of gratitude and joy in his life connects to what Colbert describes as "learning to love the bomb," a phrase taken from a director he worked with early in his career. The explanation for it is below the fold, mainly because it comes at the end of the article – some might want to read it first in context, fresh. Here it is:

Read more

In Norcia, Topping the Charts

Norcia is my favorite town in Italy. Tucked into the  far southeastern corner of Umbria, it is the home town of Sts. Benedict and Scholastica; the home of great butchers dating to medieval times; and the jumping-off point for hiking excursions into the nearby Sybillini Mountains National Park. And so the walled town has the lovely Basilica of St. Benedict and a lively community of young monks; the best prosciutto, wild boar sausages and truffles from an enticing array of butcher shops; and views of towering mountains.

Now, USA Today reports, the community has an album topping a chart in Billboard magazine—"Hymns to Mary" sung by the Benedictine monks.

Marking Pages, Marking Time

For the last year or so I've been more-than-usually interested in the journals and notebooks of writers. The reason why, as they say, is overdetermined. My mildly embarrassing penchant for literary gossip. The elusive hope of discovering just how a writer did it. Watching the mind of someone I find fascinating at work. But the main reason—or at least the reason behind this particular surge—is due to wondering how certain writers processed and absorbed what they read and experienced, how they flagged poems or passages from a novel or that especially useful anecdote or conversation. If wide-reading and lived experience are what furnish the room of the mind, then a writer's notebooks might reveal how he arranged the furniture, or where he especially loved to sit.

I suspect my interests veered in this direction because, though still in my early 30s, I've felt a need to be more purposeful in my reading, and what I do with whatever "material" (literary or otherwise) might prove helpful for my own work. In my 20s I read with total promiscuity, and was haphazard in taking notes and keeping track of what I had experienced. Now I feel that my time is irrevocably limited in a way I didn't in the past. That I'll only read so many books, only write so many essays, only be able to remember so many lines of poetry or prose. Or maybe it's better to say that by the time I reached thirty, I had failed enough to know how easily ideas and projects and what you read slips away from you.

It was with some interest, then, that this short take from Dwight Garner about about reading Emily Dickinson—and about keeping a commonplace book—caught my attention. Here's the rather fetching main passage, though the whole entry deserves your attention:

I keep a commonplace book, a place where I write down passages that matter to me from the books I read. It’s packed with Dickinson, from her poems and her letters. These lines come to me, in my daily life, both in their intended contexts and quite far out of them. She explains why we read: “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” She underscores my sense of what it is like to watch cable news: “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” She suggests what I am thinking when I order a Negroni: “Bring me the sunset in a cup.” She catches why gay marriage took so long: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.” Her sarcasm rings down the ages: “They say that ‘home is where the heart is.’ I think it is where the house is, and the adjacent buildings.”

Do Commonweal readers have similar anecdotes or enthusiasms? 

Read more

Hillary speaks....

As long-time readers/commenters at dotCommonwela know I am no Hillary-fan, but I did admire her snap-back at a group of "Black Lives Matter" groupies with whom she met having somehow kept them from disrupting a public appearance somewhere in Campaign Land. What I liked in this "private" but videoed meeting was her listening very carefully to them, and then giving them as good as they gave her. NYTIMES STORY

Mrs. Clinton, after listening and nodding for several minutes, responds calmly that her life’s work has been helping the nation’s poorest children, many of them black, before turning the tables on the much younger man and demanding instead to know how he plans to turn his deeply felt emotions into meaningful, lasting change. “You can get lip service from as many white people you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say: ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer,’ ” she says. “That’s not enough, at least in my book.”....."I don’t believe you change hearts,” Mrs. Clinton says, summarizing her basic view of social policy movements. “I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”

Her interlocutor [a person who takes part in a conversation or dialogue] from Black Lives Matter, "Mr. [Julius] Jones" in the NYTimes story, spoke and let her speak reminding her that all the battles of the slavery, reconstruction, and the civil rights movements have not resolved many of the issues facing young African-Americans. How was she going to change hearts? He's less than half right about hearts. She is more than half-right ..."change laws...allocation of resources, [and] the way the system operates."

In a country that hardly remembers the last war it started, Mrs. Clinton at least remembers what worked last time (legislation and organizing) and what didn't  (half-assed  rhetoric).

P.S. The Bracketed statements are for the benefit of a critic (the interlocutor's first name was not in the first story I saw; it now is).

The Difference The Donald Makes

The Donald Trump phenomenon endures. Not only is he up in the polls and on good terms with Roger Ailes, but even Ross Douthat is casting about for the possible upsides of Trump's presence in the race.  While offering a number of caveats and confessing that it's a glass half-full scenario, Douthat claims that Trump presents perils for the GOP, yes, but that there's "a real opportunity here for reformers as well." The core of his case:

Because so long as a protean, ideologically-flexible figure like Trump is setting the populist agenda in the party, you’re less likely to have stringent ideological tests applied to other candidates and their ideas; so long as the voter anxieties he’s tapping into are front and center in the debate, you’re less likely to see other candidates ignoring those anxieties while chasing support from donors or ideological enforcers instead.

Douthat goes on to argue that this already has happened with regard to healthcare—that Marco Rubio and Scott Walker both have offered policy proposals (or rather, gotten away with offering them) they might not have been able to in a Trump-less primary. From his vantage as a reform-minded conservative, "Trumpism is a problem and an opportunity at once..." Even granting that these assertions were something of thought experiment, they strike me as very wishful thinking.

Read more

Compare & contrast.

Jared Fogel, thirty-seven, former Subway pitchman, video-game star, will plead guilty to possessing and transmitting child pornography (some of which depicted children as young as six), to traveling in order to pay for sex with minors ("the younger the better," he told one of the seventeen-year-old girls he patronized, asking her to find more girls for him). In exchange, the government has agreed not to seek a sentence of longer than twelve and a half years (and Fogel won't seek one shorter than five). A judge may decide to impose a stricter sentence.

Shawn Ratigan, forty-eight, former Catholic priest, catalyst for the removal of Robert Finn, the former bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, admitted to creating and possessing child pornography, to taking surreptitious photos of five girls between the ages of two and twelve, to posing some of them, removing their clothing to expose their genitalia. In exchange, the prosecution sought and received a fifty-year sentence, which Ratigan has been serving since 2013.

Coddled Collegians

A new essay in the Atlantic is making the rounds among those interested in life on American campuses. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, announces that “something strange is  happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

Lukianoff (a lawyer) and Haidt (a social psychologist) argue that in a misguided effort to create “’safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable,” colleges have embraced an ethic of “vindictive protectiveness,” attempting to safeguard students by punishing those—students and professors alike—who violate expressive norms derived from progressive political values. Such protectiveness, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, is a poor preparation for professional life. Worse, it “is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety.”  Political correctness, in other words, may teach young people “to think pathologically.”

Essays of this type typically summon anecdotes to convey a dismaying sense of enforced conformity in the academy, and “The Coddling” doesn’t disappoint. There are the students who ask their law professor not to lecture on rape law, or even use the word “violate,” for fear of the distress it might provoke in class. Or those who call for attaching thematic “trigger warnings” to such books as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (racial violence) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (misogyny, physical abuse), “so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might ‘trigger’ a recurrence of past trauma.” Haidt mentions that in a class of his own, at NYU’s business school, he was discussing Odysseus and showed a painting of the Sirens—whereupon a student complained that the image of topless mermaids “was degrading to women, and that I was insensitive for showing it.” And then there was “Hump Day” at the University of St. Thomas, modeled on the popular GEICO ad, where the option to pet a live camel was deemed insensitive to people of Middle Eastern descent—and the group behind the event announced its cancellation because “the program [was] dividing people and would make for an uncomfortable and possibly unsafe environment.”

Read more

Now on the website

We've just posted another Commonweal reading list to the website—this one on the state of Catholic marriage today. In it you will find concise explanatory pieces on interfaith unions, validity, divorce, and annulment, as well as more in-depth articles on the theological issues likely to generate discussion at the upcoming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and October’s Synod on the Family in Rome. Use it as a resource for thinking about marriage—as it is taught by the church, and how it is practiced today.

See the list here, and keep track of all Commonweal reading lists by bookmarking this page.

Also, Robert Mickens's latest letter from Rome is up, with news about how Italian bishops are following the example Francis set at the beginning of his papacy by pushing European politicians to enact more hospitable policies to deal with the influx of migrants fleeing persecution and war.

Meanwhile, eleven cardinals have come together to put out yet another book arguing against Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposals for developing the Church’s doctrine on marriage—again, the aim is to have the volume ready for the upcoming gathering of the Synod of Bishops.

Read all of this week's letter from Rome here, and catch up on previous dispatches here.

"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?

Read more


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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.