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A Brief Theory about Marilynne Robinson

“I have scoured the Internet,” a friend emailed me when Marilynne Robinson’s Lila had just been released, “and found not one critical or negative review of Marilynne Robinson.” Linda McCullough Moore's review in Books and Culture was a mild exception to that rule, while noting how rare qualms with Robinson’s work really are. With the subtitle “A Dissenting View,” the review begins, “One almost requires a handwritten invitation to take issue with the work of Marilynne Robinson.” Though it lost out on a National Book Award to Phil Kay's Redeployment, Robinson's novel was recently nominated for a National Books Critics Circle award.

Beyond her formidable literary talent (of which there is much to say, and I don't intend to detract from attention to it), I think there is another reason Robinson is so revered. In short: She refuses the categories which characterize how we publically interpret experiences, and it’s a breath of fresh air for everyone who is looking for wisdom on that score. There was a moment during the question period of Marilynne Robinson’s lecture at Yale Divinity School this winter that illustrated this well.

Robinson’s dense and subtle lecture was an argument against scientific positivism which reduces emotions and affective states to merely something you can quantify—just areas of brain activity lighting up on scans. This interest has animated her projects all long; she’s written about it in many essays, and in the pages of Commonweal. This has obvious implications for understanding how faith works, but it’s a bigger statement about relating to the self, our affective states, and our ability to see these states as distinct from other modes of understanding.

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Eamon Duffy on Francis

In the new issue of the New York Review of Books, church historian and sometime Commonweal contributor Eamon Duffy has an excellent review-essay on three books about Pope Francis. I don’t think anything Duffy writes will come as news to most Commonweal readers, but he does cover a lot of territory with his usual nuanced approach to Catholic issues, in his customary elegant prose.

Duffy is perhaps best known for Saints and Sinners, a comprehensive but accessible history of the papacy. He made his academic reputation with The Stripping of the Altars, a study of pre-Reformation Catholicism in England, a book that changed our understanding of the often misunderstood upheavals of that period by documenting the popularity and vitality of traditional Catholic practice and belief. A favorite Duffy book of mine is Faith of Our Fathers: Reflections on Catholic Tradition, a collection of essays that strikes the right balance between the inevitability of change in the church and the even greater need to rely on the resources of the tradition to guide those developments. “Faithfulness to that tradition is not a matter of uncritical obedience to authority; it is a shared labor of learning, in which we work together to draw new and surprising growth from the old soil,” he wrote. Tradition is “the trace of a complex shared life, rather than a clear-cut compendium of answers.”

In his NYRB piece, Duffy emphasizes the fact that Francis is the first pope to have been ordained after the Second Vatican Council. He does not pine for some allegedly lost, golden age when the church claimed to be a perfect society. Francis’s “commitment to conciliar values is instinctive, strong, and different in kind from that of either of his immediate predecessors,” Duffy writes.

I think that gets at what is perhaps the most obvious nature of the change in tone and focus coming from the Vatican, and that instinctive commitment to the council goes hand in hand with Francis’s determination to encourage debate among the bishops and his sure-to-be-contested push to return real decision-making authority to the local church. Duffy also notes how different Francis’s idea of priesthood is from “the exalted doctrine of priesthood that has been in favor during the last two pontificates.” He cautions that, although those in the pews are cheering on these developments, many of those ordained during the past thirty-five years are likely to have a difficult time adjusting to Francis’s often blunt critique of clericalism. Divisions within the church are deep and not easily bridged.

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Vatican presser on sexual-abuse commission.

Days after Pope Francis instructed the world's bishops to cooperate with the commission on sexual abuse he established last year, the seventeen-member group met for the first time in Rome. During a press conference at the Vatican this morning, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, spoke about the commission's work, which will include promoting education about child safety, suggesting best practices to dioceses, and developing methods for measuring compliance with those norms. The commission is "very concerned" with the question of accountability for bishops who fail to protect the vulnerable, O'Malley said, and would recommend consequences in time. He stopped short of suggesting what those consequences might be, but said that there must be a way of dealing with such cases "not in an open-ended way."

The commission is working on educational programs for church leaders--including seminars for members of the Roman Curia and for newly appointed bishops who visit Rome for episcopal orientation, according to O'Malley. The cardinal also said he is asking every bishops conference to name a person who will serve as a liason between the commission and the local church. In 2011, the Vatican asked dioceses to turn in their child-protection norms. At this point, about 96 percent of dioceses have complied, O'Malley said. The commission will be in touch with the rest. Very few dioceses have not yet developed such norms, according to the cardinal. But more than a few have guidelines that are too "weak."

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Yes, the Crusades; Yes, the Inquisition UPDATE

Yesterday, President Obama mentioned the Crusades in his comments to the National Prayer Breakfast. OY!

All Hell has broken Loose. Those, who might otherwise mention the Crusaders, the Inquisition, etc, as a swipe at Catholics, let's just say some Protestands and Deborah Lipstadt (who might otherwise note the harsh treatment of Jews), are shocked, SHOCKED that Obama mentioned these historic travesties in light of ISIL's burning, behading, and general Islamic unruliness. Just when Catholics are coming to grips with historic wrongs and travesties (burnings, etc.) the anti-Islamisits are suggesting, we weren't THAT BAD....OY!

UPDATE: A link to President Obama's "remarks" (as they are called on the WH site). 

Ross Douthat weigns in on Obama's Niebuhrian outlook, "Obama the Theologian." I think Douthat over-reaches on this. Niebuhrians, take a look.

To God who gives joy to my youth

Altar servers are in the news once again as a priest in the neighboring Archdiocese of San Francisco has decided to eliminate female altar servers.  This follows a recent interview with Cardinal Burke where he suggested that female altar servers have contributed to a loss in priestly vocations.

While it’s possible that a decline in altar serving among young men has played a role in the decline in vocations, it is almost certainly dwarfed by other causes: widening professional opportunities for Catholic men, smaller families, a shifting sexual culture, secularism, and the rise of an active and engaged laity to name just a few. 

More fundamentally, however, Vatican II’s reform of the liturgy changed the role of the server in ways that make it harder to play the role as a seedbed for vocations that it played in the past.  In the pre-conciliar liturgy, servers actually had a fair bit to do.  They prayed certain prayers after the priest (ostensibly on behalf of “the people”), rang bells during the consecration, and held a paten under a communicant’s chin to catch fragments of the host.  Most masses--even daily Masses--had at least one server and the work of the server required fairly close collaboration with the priest throughout the Mass.

In most parishes where I’ve attended Mass during my life, however, the servers usually have a much more limited role.  They usually bear the candles (and sometimes the processional cross) during the entrance and the offertory;  hold the Missal during the collects; and assist the priest during the lavabo.   In cases where the parish still rings bells at the elevation, this is also one of the server’s duties.  Very rarely have I seen servers prepare the altar.

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Bibi-Boehner Brouhaha: What Does It Mean

The editors have laid out the fundamentals of what's wrong with Majority Leader John Boehner's invitation to PM Benjaming Netanyahu to speak to Congress. And this post from January 21 links to early commentary on Why and How this happened.

Since then, there have been reams of analysis. Among the most diverting, those suggesting that there are no strategic national differences between the U.S. and Israel even if Israel wants to bomb Iran and the U.S. does not. Rather it is just personal or political or something.

Two example of that commentary:

The Bad Marriage metaphor in which the bad relations between Obama and Netanyahu are said to lie at the heart of the controversy. Here from DC and Jerusalem is that analysis by Times' reporters Peter Baker and Jodi Rudoren.

The second is an analysis arguing that the famous "bipartisan" support for Israel no longer exists. Bernard Avishai writes in the New Yorker:  In "Netanyahu and the Republicans," he argues that the Republicans and Likkud are now aligned. How will the Dems take that?

 

Immunity, Community, and Libertarianism

We seem to be going through an immunitary moment.

This is especially interesting, since some philosophers and political theorists have for more than a decade been using the language of immunity and autoimmune disorders to shed light on contemporary politics. It’s also not surprising because there are some strong echoes and resonances between the two fields: immunity, after all, is a collective response to a threat or crisis. And autoimmunity is a response that becomes reflective, aiming not only at the external “enemy” as it invades the (social or corporeal) body, but which turns and attacks the body itself. Both are excellent metaphors for what can happen in the highly divisive and excessively paranoid political world we inhabit. It may also be possible that the specific issue of immunization – or more specifically the government’s role in immunizing its citizens – can expose the conceptual bankruptcy of libertarianism.

I suggest this after reading a recent story that explores Rand Paul’s link to an anti-vaccine organization, as well as Chris Christie’s (non-libertarian, probably cynical) comments that immunization should be rendered an act with multiple options for exit and exception. This is the already shaky logic of the Hobby Lobby case applied to public health. Unlike Hobby Lobby, however, we’re talking about matters of immediate sickness and health, and potentially life and death. Immunity requires a comprehensive, truly collective response. The problem is that libertarians believe one of two things: either communities don’t exist at all (no whole is anything more than the sum of its parts), or community does exist but is made up of individuals who may opt out whenever they feel that their “freedom” is endangered.

A multiplicity of microbiological forces operate in the world around us (and in us) at all times. These forces allow us to live or even thrive, or they can cut us down. We need a collective response to manage them. This is not new information; it is wisom gleaned from much suffering and an edifice of knowledge at least two centuries old. Neoliberalism and its contemporary counterpart libertarianism have for decades attempted to privatize all forms of social security, including the protections of public health. They have done so, moreover, perhaps ironically, in the name of immunity. In other words they have mobilized one conception of immunity – that of the individual who desires to be “immune from” the state’s requirements – as an attack on another type of immunity, that of the collective which wants to be free from contagion and deadly disease. This is the insight of Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito among others.

I am concerned that what Freud called the “reality principle” will in the end decide which side wins this conceptual battle. A few of us may admire Ayn Rand’s writing on ethics, but this doesn’t make her an expert on public health. The virtue of selfishness will not and cannot stop contagion.

Pope to world's bishops: Get behind my sexual-abuse commission.

Today the Holy See released Pope Francis's February 2 letter to the world's bishops conferences and religious communities asking for their "complete cooperation" with the sexual-abuse commission he established last March. The commission's job, the pope explains, "to improve the norms and procedures for protecting children and vulnerable adults," which--everyone knows--haven't been working out so well.

In his letter Pope Francis related his own experience meeting with abuse victims. "I was deeply moved by their witness to the depth of their sufferings and the strength of their faith," he wrote. "This experience reaffirmed my conviction that everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused." Pastors and those in charge of religious communities, the pope wrote, "should be available" to meet with victims and their loved ones. "Such meetings are valuable opportunities for listening to those have greatly suffered and for asking their forgiveness."

Because families must feel confident that the church is doing all its can to protect the vulnerable from predator priests, Francis continued, "priority must not be given to any other kind of concern, whatever its nature, such as the desire to avoid scandal." To that end, the pope urges local bishops conferences to "fully implement" the sensible 2011 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recommending a series of abuse-response procedures. Francis also recommends that dioceses periodically review their policies--and make sure they are being followed.

That a pope has established a commission to determine the best ways to respond to allegations of clerical sexual abuse is all to the good. Francis recognizes what the Roman Curia and previous popes took far too long to grasp: the sexual-abuse scandal is a global phenomenon that requires decisive action at the highest levels of the church. Local bishops conferences will certainly benefit from the commission's policy recommendations. But it's 2015. Figuring out how dioceses should respond to abuse accusations requires careful attention, but it isn't rocket science.

The more difficult problem is what to do with bishops who--through acts of commission or omission--endanger the vulnerable under their care. Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, who is in charge of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, says this is one of the problems the abuse commission is "urgently" exploring. We'll see just how urgently soon enough. According to Pope Francis, they meet in just a few days.

Sullivan's Dish is done

I wasn’t sure I wanted to post on Andrew Sullivan’s announced retirement from blogging until it became clear whether the Daily Dish would go on without him. Today the answer came: It won’t. Sullivan this morning announced that Friday will be the Dish’s last day

There’s been a number of encomia to Sullivan and his blog written since last week. His announcement has also elicited critiques and rehashes of previous critiques on his writing career (going back decades) and his editorial decision-making. It’s ground worth covering but also well-covered and won’t get more coverage in this post – though there may be some who have a thing or two to say.

I came around to regular reading of Sullivan’s blog about the time he was rethinking his position on the war in Iraq. Hard to say exactly what it was that made his site the first one I checked every day, or the one I soon began to check most often. But I do recall finding his site much less shrill (believe it or not) and somewhat more reasoned than those then breaking through on the left-leaning side of the blogosphere. (I’d count Matthew Yglesias as another who at the time was reliably providing a safe place of sensible commentary.) I liked that he posted on a range of serious matters and a number of others that were less so. I liked how he said what he had to say on same-sex marriage, torture, Abu Ghraib, and Dick Cheney, Michael Moore, and the Clintons. I was willing to give him even more leeway on his obsession with the story of Trig Palin’s birth and the woman who could have been vice president. I thought he captured and in some ways reflected what at the time was being characterized as the Obama phenomenon. I was also interested in his public Catholicism, and in his public hashing out of where his pronouncements and positions might put him in opposition to its tenets or most vocal adherents, or in line with them.

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Happy Birthday Facebook

On Facebook this morning I learned today is Facebook's eleventh birthday. In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg and his college buddies (one of whom now owns the new New Republic, which, according to Mollie is having a good, and also retrospective, week) began one of the world’s first social networking sites. The idea was to help those on their way to college see who their classmates would be before they got there. Formerly [thefacebook], it was an exclusive website: you’d only be able to apply with a .edu email address. In my high school it was a rite of passage: you got into college, you got to be “on Facebook.”  

Then in 2005, when I was 16, it opened to “non-college networks,” and those included high schools. At first it wasn’t popular to join. Only the “online nerds” did, just because they could. I remember all the girls on my cross country team decided we each wouldn't join until we got a .edu email address, to preserve the “tradition.” If someone joined before that we’d say they “sold out.” By senior year, we each had our own profile page. There are photo albums of cross country races we uploaded to share with each other still available on Facebook today.

In 2006, when anyone with a valid e-mail address could use Facebook, it was an encroachment on a private internet world populated by the curated identities of teenagers—an invasion of you and your friends. The prospect of Mom and Dad seeing the person you were “online,” the pictures you post (or pictures posted of you), the music you said you liked, the words you used in your comments...this was horrifying. The combination of Mom, Google, and Facebook…you didn’t have time to answer all of those questions. You didn’t want her “in your business”: in your journal, in your room, in your backpack, and on your Facebook.

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Accidental Armaggedon

“In the event of a nuclear attack, which of these items would be the most helpful? Rank them in order of importance.”

This was one of the first worksheets I remember from elementary school. There were about twenty illustrated items. My classmates and I were perplexed. Sure, we had probably watched a filmstrip that mentioned the Geiger Counter, but none of us could remember what it did. And why would we want a broom? Would we be that concerned with the tidiness of our fallout shelter?

IT WAS ABOUT 1983. That same year, the Russians shot down a Korean civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan; the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a lengthy warning about the buildup of nuclear weapons; and on September 26, a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel secretly saved the world from accidental Armaggedon. But more about Stanislav Petrov later.

Growing up in the early 1980’s, not far from North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) and the Air Force Academy, the Cold War was a hot topic – even for kids. Popular videos on the burgeoning MTV network, such as Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” satirized and lamented the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Dads took their sons to see “Top Gun” in theaters, and we cheered when Russian MIGs were splashed in the ocean. “Red Dawn” was always checked out of the video store. One of my favorite books, still there in my parents’ house, was titled “Great Warplanes of the 1980’s.”

KIDS TODAY don't have the same fears. They don’t know that the broom is to sweep nuclear fallout off your friends.

The globally-aware college students that I teach don’t think about nuclear annihilation. Environmental degradation? Yes. Terrorism? Yes. Economic inequality? Yes. Racial injustice? Absolutely. But if they think about nuclear weapons at all, it’s in the context of who might acquire them – namely, North Korea or Iran. The notion that the arsenals of the already nuclear-armed states should be at the center of moral concern seems outdated, like referring to music videos being shown on MTV.

The fact is, the nuclear capabilities that already exist have grown in power beyond human comprehension, and there have been enough “close calls” regarding their deployment to warrant the gravest of fears. In recent years, many influential voices have made the case that – regardless of whether nuclear weapons ever made us more safe – they certainly no longer do so.

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A Short Play About Thoughtfulness

Scene: 6:15 a.m. My bedroom. I am asleep. My three-year-old child enters from the bathroom.

 

CHILD (stage whisper): Mommy!

ME: ...What?

CHILD: Know why I didn't flush?

ME: ...Why?

CHILD: So it wouldn't wake you up.

 

He goes back to bed.

Fin.

Fethullah Gülen on Islam, democracy and freedom of speech

Publishing a book in 2009 about Francis of Assisi's peaceful encounter with Egypt's Sultan Malik al-Kamil during the Fifth Crusade led me to meet a lot of people with an interest in improving interreligious relations. Among them were a number of Turkish immigrants who are followers of the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. I observed that through a network of private schools, foundations and media organizations, they have worked very hard to improve Muslim-Christian relations.

I offer that as a brief backdrop to an important op-ed piece  in The New York Times in which the reclusive Gülen, living in exile in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, speaks out forcefully against the increasingly harsh nature of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule. He writes:

Turkey’s rulers have not only alienated the West, they are also now losing credibility in the Middle East. Turkey’s ability to assert positive influence in the region depends not only on its economy but also on the health of its own democracy.

The core tenets of a functioning democracy — the rule of law, respect for individual freedoms — are also the most basic of Islamic values bestowed upon us by God. No political or religious leader has the authority to take them away ... Speaking against oppression is a democratic right, a civic duty and for believers, a religious obligation. The Quran makes clear that people should not remain silent in the face of injustice: “O you who believe! Be upholders and standard-bearers of justice, bearing witness to the truth for God’s sake, even though it be against your own selves, or parents or kindred.”

It's an interesting piece in which Gülen invokes Islam in defense of free speech. That value has been under attack in Turkey, where Erdogan's government has been arresting, smearing and intimidating journalists. Gülen may not have the power of a state behind him, but he has the power of an idea.

The New Republic positions itself for the future by looking at its past

It's still hard to know where the project will end up, or how much of the old New Republic will live on in it, but it must be said that the new New Republic has been having a very good week.

First there's the excellent cover story, by Jeet Heer, in the magazine's new issue -- its first since the December 2014 conflagration that was much discussed here and elsewhere.

The initial cries of outrage over owner Chris Hughes's determination to make the storied journal over into a "vertically integrated digital media company," which took the form of mournful (and well-deserved) encomia for the best of TNR's long history and the best work of its recently departed big names, were followed by more ambivalent reactions to the apparent death of the old TNR that focused on that magazine's spotty history of opining on matters of race and foreign policy as well as its occasional dramatic journalistic lapses (Stephen Glass, Betsy McCaughey...).

Now, the magazine relaunches, so to speak, with a cover story examining "The New Republic's Legacy on Race." It's a canny bit of public-relations positioning, to be sure; it lends some after-the-fact integrity to Hughes's decision to remake the magazine root and branch (if you're willing to assume the decimation of his staff was part of the plan all along). But it's also a very good article in its own right. Heer, a historian, does not simply recall the lowlights of the Peretz era or rehash the controversy over then-editor Andrew Sullivan's decision to publish an excerpt from Charles Murray's The Bell Curve. He goes back to the magazine's founding, in 1914, to trace its successes as well as its failures over the last century. "At its best moments," he writes, "the magazine has been a beacon of fact-based reporting and a forum for rich debate over racial issues. At its worst, the magazine has fallen under the sway of racial theorizing and crackpot racial lore."

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Marcia, Marcia, Marcia--The Best Superbowl Ad of 2015

The best commercial during Sunday's game was the "Brady Bunch" Sinickers ad. For those of us of a certain age, that is. The making of the commercial is astonishing. Look at the physics behind this; it must be extraodrdinarily complicated. 

I just love Steve Buscemi in everything he does--whether it's Fargo or Boardwalk Empire or The Brady Bunch

Missing a Vocabulary of the Moral Middle

Finally free of the imperative of manuscript editing, I actually am reading. Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, is a worthy sequel to The Shallows. The earlier book was a brilliant telling of the neuroscience of our brains in using the internet…. As opposed to, say, reading. (yes, this is a blog post, blah blah…) The current book is an exploration of the automation of processes of all sorts, from factory processes to self-driving cars to decision-support software employed by doctors and lawyers.

Carr’s books are attractive because he avoids turning them into a polemic on one side or the other of these questions. He doesn’t think automation is inherently bad (Frankenstein) or inherently good (the techno-futurists); indeed, he gives a nice history which shows that excitement about machines and anxiety about them have gone hand in hand from their inception. His books are really more about understanding something thoroughly.

But with two lessons. One, Carr is adept at noting how “this time it’s different.” In The Shallows, he persuasively makes the case that the internet is not just another in a string of “media” advances, from writing to the printing press to the telegraph to the radio. The combination of the actual processes (and limits) involved in use and the physical capacities (and limits) of the human person shape what a given media technology can mean and be for us. The internet combines a pace of extraordinarily rapid inflow and a virtually-unlimited storage capacity. This differs from reading. In The Glass Cage, he is out to show that the current wave of automation is different because of its capacity to mimic not just human physical processes, but human thought processes. One of the key claims of the book is that the ability to mimic processes is not the same as replicating the processes themselves – Watson doesn’t answer a Jeopardy question the same way a human does, nor does “Doctor Algorithm” go about diagnoses in the same way a doctor does. In some ways, the ability to process massive amounts of data via algorithms and probabilities is great; in other ways, it is very different from human thought and action, and introduces a different set of “errors.”

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Monday Morning Links

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Eamon Duffy creates a portrait of Pope Francis by reviewing three recent books on the pope: The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by Austen Ivereigh, A Big Heart Open to God: A Conversation with Pope Francis by Antonio Spadaro, SJ, and Pope Francis: Untying the Knots by Paul Vallely. After reading Duffy's "Who Is Pope Francis?", take a look at our review of Ivereigh's The Great Reformer from our latest issue.

Today Obama will announce his proposals for the federal budget in 2016, and the Washington Post’s Federal Eye blog tells us what we should expect. CNN explains how the 10-year plan attempts to help the middle-class. The Boston Globe addresses GOP resistance to Obama’s approach to addressing income inequality. 

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Mental Loops

The vivid expression “earworm” suggests a voice, perhaps a song, or some phrase or fragment, that plays unwanted in a continuous mental loop. Subliminal sometimes it may be, but persistent, even distracting, as we might wish to concentrate all our attention on a problem or text. I think that times of stress brings the voice on. I have heard inside my head my voice audibly repeating the short prayers that the nuns in grade school would unselfconsciously tell us were "ejaculations." Those moments when anxiety threatens to screech its nails down fearful chalk boards – then I am likely to repeat as litany Domine adjuvanda me festina.

I have lately been reading through three of Philip Roth’s novels from the eighties and nineties, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, and I Married a Communist. Each has its striking virtuosity of voice and of perception. The energy of the prose and dynamism of the plotting and the voices (heteroglossia of the first order) can sweep a reader along. I had to stop, however, over a passage near the conclusion of I Married a Communist. The chief narrator Murray records  experiencing an ear-worm like obsession in a moment of great anxiety. Murray has just left his brother Ira in his rustic shack in Pennsylvania. Ira is despondent, angry, homicidal. Murray knows how violent Ira can be, and he fears that his brother will soon attempt to kill his estranged wife. On the drive back to his home, unconvinced that he has dissuaded his brother despite taking his knives and pistol, Murray recounts his inner turmoil. He maintains his stability, more or less, by repeating a quotation from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. They are Feste’s words at the conclusion of the play: “And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.” Now you must know that Murray is an English teacher and an acutely sensitive reader. He is relating this experience to Nathan Zuckerman, his former student and now an accomplished novelist. Murray considers what his mind was doing with Feste’s words.

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Superbowl Sunday reminder: Football is bad for you.

In a recent episode of HBO's Real Sports, Bryant Gumbel spoke with several members of the 1985 Chicago Bears, whose historically dominant season ended with a devastating rout of the New England Patriots. If you lived in Chicago during their reign, or really anywhere near a television or radio, there was no escaping the '85 Bears. There was "The Superbowl Shuffle"--predicting a national championship halfway through the season (to the chagrin of several members of the team). There was the cover of Time magazine. There were the TV spots. The inevitable SNL sketch. They were superstars.

But some of that light has dimmed in recent years. Former quarterback Jim McMahon now experiences extended periods of depression, and has struggled with suicidal thoughts for years. He has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia. Nearly half of McMahon's teammates are now suing the National Football League for the injuries they've suffered playing the game. William "The Refrigerator" Perry can hardly walk. Keith Van Horne claims that the team medical staff concealed--with the aid of generous distribution of pain meds--the fact that he was playing on a broken leg. Wilber Marshall is on disability. Richard Dent describes himself as "very damaged goods." At the age of fifty, Dave Duerson shot himself in the heart so that his brain could be donated to the NFL brain bank. His son found his suicide note, instructing the family to have his brain studied.

Near the end of the piece, Gumbel asks former Bears head coach Mike Ditka whether player injuries will be the cross on which the NFL is nailed. "Let me ask you a question better than that," the coach replies. "If you had an eight-year-old kid now, would you tell him that you wanted him to play football?" I wouldn't, Gumbel says, would you? "No, I wouldn't. That's sad. My whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward."

I'm going to watch the big game tonight, just as I do every year. I'll drink beer and eat wings. I'll laugh at the good commercials and mock the bad ones. But every time players knock heads, or the game is stopped for an injury, I'm going to think about this Real Sports piece. I'll recall Mike Ditka, revered by millions as a god of football, looking out into the middle distance and admitting that playing the game just isn't worth the risk. And I'll wonder whether the same could be said about watching it.

White Smoke over Montecitorio

Almost two years ago a deadlocked and faction-riven Italian Parliament failed to elect a new President upon the completion of Giorgio Napolitano's seven year mandate. The highly respected Napolitano, a former member of Italy's Communist Party, was prevailed upon to extend his term. He finally stepped down in January citing age and increasing fraility, in a manner reminiscent of Benedict XVI with whom he had had warm relations.

Today, adroitly directed by the energetic young Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, the "Grand Electors"  elected as new President the former Christian Democrat, Sergio Mattarella.

Here is a report by Kay Wallace who writes an English blog for La Repubblica:

Born in Palermo in 1941, Sergio Mattarella comes from a prominent Sicilian family; his father Bernardo was one of the founders of the Christian Democrat (DC) party that dominated the Italian political scene for half a century. His brother, Piersanti became Governor of Sicily in 1978 with a campaign to clean up the DC and rid it of its close ties with Cosa Nostra. He was gunned down in his car by the Sicilian Mafia in 1980. There is photograph that shows him being pulled out of the car, still alive, by his brother Sergio.

Mattarella is a centrist politician who has held several ministerial posts in governments of different political stripes. In 1990 he resigned from his post as Education Minister in protest at the Mammì media law, a bill that effectively legalised Berlusconi's TV empire. In 1993 he drafted the electoral law in force from 1994 and 2001, the Mattarellum. Later as Defence Minister he oversaw the abolition of conscription. He was nominated to the Constitutional Court in 2011.

Wallace concludes:

There were two big winners: Sergio Mattarella and Matteo Renzi. By imposing his will on parliament and his party, Renzi showed just how able a politician he is. After the embarrassing farce of the last attempted presidential election, it was also a good day for Italy.