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Was Tim Kaine "Ruined for Life"?

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

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

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

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

Trump's Convention Speech Was Nightmare Fodder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Existence and Pre-existence

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

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

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

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How to Change the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Trump Next Time

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

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

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

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Rudy Giuliani's Concern for Immigrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thousand Word Noir

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

 

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Without a Trace

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Catholic Vote: Big Changes in Four Years

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Sublime Joys of Celibate Adultery

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

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

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

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

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

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Hillary Attempts to Add Alka-Seltzer to the Healthcare Stew

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

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

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Rescuing Kitty Genovese

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

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

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

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

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Donald Trump and the Death of Objectivity

Objectivity: the word tends to draw snickers nowadays. Many would say objectivity isn't even possible. Nonetheless, there are observers who still strive to be objective or at least to be seen as objective. That includes old-school reporters like me, judges, historians or other academics (depending on their fields, it seems).

 But now the last bastions of objectivity seem to be falling to the Donald Trump phenomenon. The nation's best historians, a Supreme Court justice, and some journalists have dropped the measured style of communication that objectivity seems to require and denounced Trump as a danger to the nation. As Jim Dwyer reported in The New York Times, historians such as David McCullough, Robert A. Caro, Ron Chernow, David Levering Lewis, William E. Leuchtenberg and Vicki Lynn Ruiz have formed a group essentially to oppose Trump's candidacy.

McCullough said he reached out to Ken Burns saying that

despite 40 years of avoiding advocacy in his work, he no longer had “the luxury of neutrality or ‘balance’ or even of bemused disdain.” After a few conversations, Mr. McCullough said, the two men came up with a plan: “Why don’t we see if we can round up some other people who care about the American story, and who have given so much of their life’s work to it, see if they are willing to step out and make themselves heard.”

They formed a group, Historians on Donald Trump.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has also denounced Trump, of course, a move many have questioned. Despite the deep partisan divide in the court, it seems many of us still hold out the hope that the justices are objective. As The New York Times editorialized, "Washington is more than partisan enough without the spectacle of a Supreme Court justice flinging herself into the mosh pit."

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Magnificent Memoirs

How long have we been living in the Age of the American Memoir? Autobiography has existed for centuries, of course, but sometime in the past couple of decades, in this country anyway, true-life stories seemed to overtake the novel in their mass appeal.

Funny thing is, while I have continued to read novels and various kinds of nonfiction books during this time, I pretty much stopped reading memoirs. Not sure when, exactly -- or why, exactly. Maybe it was in 2001, when the journalist and essayist Meghan Daum turned thirty and wrote a book called My Misspent Youth. I was forty-two then, and I recall chortling at the absurdity of the youthful memoirist – how much life can you have to retell, how much perspective to offer, when you are a callow thirty?

Of course it is true – or at least, I believe it is – that a great writer can make almost anything interesting. My turning-away from contemporary American memoirs may have more to do with the new prominence of certain themes and approaches – confessional chronicles of family dysfunction and the therapeutic modes associated with them – and the retreat of themes more appealing to me. Somehow, in my mind anyway, the contemporary American memoir got lumped in with reality TV and Jerry Springer-like talk shows where engineered conflict, personal damage and a penchant for noise, buzz and “edginess” were the rule.

And so – fairly or not, and surely in some cases to my detriment -- I have missed, or dodged, such sensations as Girl, Interrupted; The Glass Castle; The Liars’ Club; A Wolf at the Table; Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood; The Kiss; Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness; and many many more.

The memoirs I have admired most in my life – and admiration is not strong enough a word to describe the almost deliriously affective pull these books had on me – engage other themes:  love; loss; memory; the enigma of mortality; the battle with time and its implacable henchman, change; the allure of art and the kinds of life that can serve as springboard to it. The memoirs I read in my twenties and thirties take up these themes, often with writing that combines sharp insight with a capacity for opulent lyricism. Some of these memoirs are works of literature as precious to me as any.  

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A Non-Synodal Reception for a Post-Synodal Exhortation

Three months after the publication of Amoris laetitia ("The Joy of Love"), the reception is underway, and various commentators already are noting the wide differences in the hermeneutics of the post-synodal exhortation. If we want to identify the two main approaches, we can say that one has a rather constrained view of the text and, especially, of the two synodal gatherings. It focuses on categorizing different kinds of couples, telling them what they can do in the church and what the church can do for them, while generally ignoring the novelty of the exhortation when it comes to enforcement of discipline toward people who are divorced and remarried or homosexual.  Favoring this approach are those such as Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, selected by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to coordinate an “informal working group” of five bishops assigned the task of “furthering the reception and implementation” of Amoris laetitia across U.S. dioceses.

The other interpretation focuses on the exhortation’s renewed emphasis on conscience as opposed to legalistic approaches to moral theology, and its acknowledgment of the need for theological and pastoral attention to new situations. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has articulated this position, most recently in an interview with Antonio Spadaro in the semi-official Vatican publication La Civiltà Cattolica: “Amoris laetitia is the great document of moral theology that we have been waiting for since the time of Vatican II and that develops the choices already made by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by [John Paul II’s] Veritatis splendor.” 

How will this “interpretation gap” play out in the global Church? Schönborn’s view is much closer to Francis’s and offers something very close to the authentic (even though not official) interpretation of Amoris laetitia, not only because he expressed it in interviews in La Civiltà Cattolica, but also given that Schönborn was invited by Francis to present the text in the Vatican to the press on April 8, 2016. Now sides also appear to be forming in the U.S. Catholic Church; for example, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich in a July 7 tweet recommended the interpretation offered by Cardinal Schönborn. But it is not clear how many bishops and pastors will follow Schönborn, and how many will follow Chaput. The problem is that reception seems to be a matter of individual interpretation. In other words, some see relativism in Amoris laetitia, but the way the bishops are receiving the text is precisely an example of the relativism of the church hierarchy: every bishop by himself, without coordination at the national level.

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Guns and White Identity

What motivates the gun movement in the United States? To me, the answer has always seemed obvious—the legacy of a “primitive liberalism” that exalts the autonomy of each individual over the idea of a common good that ties people together through reciprocal rights and responsibilities. This comes not only in a Lockean flavor, which celebrates each individual as king of his castle, but also in a darker, stronger Hobbesian flavor—whereby social interaction takes the form of a war of all against all.  

But recent events have convinced me that the original sin of racism also plays a role. What’s clear is that the US gun movement has become a movement centered around white identity. Studies do show a correlation between gun zealotry and white racial resentment. It is no surprise that gun crackdowns tend to come in response to black men owning and wielding firearms. It is no surprise that both gun sales and pro-gun rhetoric rose dramatically upon the election of Barack Obama. And it is no surprise that the NRA gets uncharacteristically tongue-tied when a black man is killed by police for carrying a legal firearm.

Part of this is straightforward: if you refuse to accept a whole race as full and equal members of the community, and you are habituated by centuries of racism to think of this race as particularly prone to violence and criminality, then arming yourself doesn’t seem too strange. And because you don’t feel like you belong to a shared community, you are more willing to tolerate the destruction of black lives that comes from the toxic admixture of a mountain of guns combined with a deep legacy of institutional racism and social exclusion.

But there’s more to it. It is now abundantly clear that owning and brandishing a legal gun is something a white person can do with impunity, but a black person cannot. The tragic death of Philandro Castile really brings this home. As does the well-document different reactions to white men and black men who “open carry” in the same area. Thus guns become a way of displaying racial superiority, especially at a time when more “traditional” displays are no longer an option.

Guns therefore seem to serve a two-fold purpose for white identity—modulating fear and magnifying privilege. The answer is course is to end both racism and the scourge of guns. 

Nature Notes: July 11, 2016

Nature Notes are very late this year. Thanks to Jean Hughes Raber who wants to know what's with the fire flies in 2016, I have been stirred to action. She has very few of our dazzling friends. We have less than few, almost none.

This is a survey of the fire fly population on dotCommonweal. Don't hold back.

Perhaps I shouldn't expect to see the fire fly blinks mid-July. It is a lesson never to leave your nature post in June. So much happens. The laurel bush flowers have come and gone. Did the Iris bloom? Can't tell. The Alliums bloomed, and are now overwhelmed by the ferns. Elderberry bushes full of berries without my having seen the flowers. It is locally reported that June was very dry; the corn is still very low to the ground. But in our little patch everything green is so green, so abundant that I think our sliver of micro-climate had rain. That doesn't explain the fire flies unless they too have come and gone. Alas.

Previous reports:

May 30, 2011

June 22, 2012,

June 27, 2014

June 12, 2015.

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Mercy

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on four prior entries: civility, tolerancehumility, and justice. Today, I want to turn to the fifth virtue, mercy which I call “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”      

Since the Gospel reading today is the Good Samaritan parable I thought I would reflect with you on that parable. But I would like to do it today—that is, after a week of racist killings in the US. I want to suggest that if mercy is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,” entering into civic discourse is an act of mercy!     

But, we should not be thinking of ourselves as simply being merciful when we enter into civic discourse. We should think of entering into the civic discourse just as Jesus wants us to hear his parable of the Good Samaritan. That is, that we allow ourselves to be decentered.  

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The Other Side of the Pond: Things Aren't Great There Either

The continuing fall-out from Brexit only gets worse, everyday becoming more surrealistic. Many Americans are probably getting a little bored with the foolishness of England's political class about which Sarah Lyall in the NYTimes gives a rundown that echoes scenes from "Monty Python." Oliver Letwin, the cabinet minister appointed to oversee the process, told a parliamentary committee that he had "no idea" what was going to happen because the government had not planned for Brexit to win.

The most serious and sober assessment I have come across is in Der Spiegel on line and helpfully available to all us English-speakers in our own language. I was stunned by this quote: "Politically, the EU referendum was the most expensive bad bet made by a British prime minister in decades. Cameron will go down in history like Lord North, the premier who accidentally lost the colonies in America." Was it really an accident? Inattention to details-- (perhaps a bit like Mrs. Clinton's use of a private server for State Department business)?

Historical analogies aside, Christopher Scheuermann gives a sober analysis of how seriously Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel are taking the prospect of an EU without Britain. The U.S. should be equally concerned and attentive.

Late to Class

I wanted to share with Commonweal readers an essay of mine, "Leaving Consevatism Behind," just published in the summer issue of Dissent. The title indicates the general subject matter—the way my political views have changed over the last decade or so—but the essay really is about class, and how I've come to understand it. As such, it's the most personal writing I've ever done, because what I call my belated class consciousness really comes from my adult self looking back at how and where I was raised. 

I've excerpted the first few paragraphs of the essay below: 

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