“Ray McGovern, a former CIA officer who gave the daily brief for President George H.W. Bush, is pretty well known in the intelligence community. He's become a Christian antiwar leftist who goes around bearing witness. Whatever his views, he's harmless.”
—Sidney Blumenthal in an email to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, February 18, 2011
When Ray McGovern was a fresh-faced recruit to the CIA during the Kennedy administration, he was awestruck by the words from the Gospel of John engraved on the entrance of the original headquarters building: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Those words have stuck with him throughout his career—first during his twenty-seven years as a specialist in Soviet foreign policy at the CIA, and now as a critic of the CIA and U.S. foreign policy. McGovern says there was no damascene moment in his transition from being an analyst to being a dissident, and that he remains a true-believer in the original mission and political independence of the CIA. He argues that, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in the “intelligence fixing” that led up to the Second Gulf War, the analysis branch of the CIA, which was supposed to be an objective fact-finding department, gradually became subservient to the political goals of the executive branch.
McGovern’s indignation at this development was on full display at a press conference in 2006 when he challenged Donald Rumsfeld to explain his September 2002 claim that there was “bulletproof” evidence of links between Al Qaeda and the government of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. A four-minute exchange ensued, with Rumsfeld denying that he had lied. (You can find the exchange on YouTube.)
McGovern has met with both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and maintains an active schedule speaking and writing on U.S. foreign policy and intelligence. In March, I had a chance to speak with him about Syria and U.S. foreign policy at large.
Nicholas Haggerty: Why did it take five years to get to a ceasefire in Syria?
Ray McGovern: When the Arab Spring moved to Syria, initially it was a grassroots movement. There’s no denying that Assad clamped down with great cruelty, and that served to inflame the situation. But it was not very long till the CIA was sent in there to find “moderate” rebels so that they could assist in causing Assad all manner of troubles and perhaps even bring him down. Why did we do that? What’s in it for Washington? Assad was not a threat to us. He was cooperating with the United States in the War on Terror. He was helping to find terrorists and he was one of the people who took some of our detainees to be tortured and held in prisons while we figured out what to do with them.
One of the main factors is that Israel has inordinate influence on the policymakers at the State Department and in the White House. Syria has been on Israel’s list of countries for regime change in since 1996, when several U.S. neocons wrote a paper for Netanyahu just before he became Prime Minister the first time. The paper was “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” The authors made it very clear that the objective would be to foment real problems in Iran, Syria, and Iraq—against all manner of countries in the Middle East that might support Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
In early 2013, Assad and his army had dislodged many of the rebels from the places they had occupied for a couple of years. The Syrian government was starting to win the war. After the Ghouta chemical-weapons attack in August 2013, a former Israeli official told the New York Times how the Israeli government felt about the situation in Syria. Here’s what he said:
'This is a playoff situation in which you need both teams to lose, but at least you don’t want one to win—we’ll settle for a tie,' said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. 'Let them both bleed, hemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.'
That was the Israeli policy then. It’s the Israeli policy now. While Sunni and Shia are killing each other off in Syria and in other countries in the general area, as Pinkas says, “as long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.” You can make sense of U.S. policy toward Syria over these past five years if you understand that, for whatever reason, the people running our policy are so identified with Israeli interests that they do Israel’s bidding and disappoint Israel very rarely.
NH: Saudi Arabia is also worried about Syria and Iran. One could argue that we’re doing their bidding too, even though they are hostile toward Israel. Isn’t the situation more complex than the U.S. doing Israel’s bidding?
RM: There are of course other factors in play regarding Washington’s policy toward Syria. Turkey and Saudi Arabia also support the violence against the government of Bashar al-Assad. As usual, the Turks’ preoccupation is with suppressing the Kurds, who in recent years have increased their control over parts of northern Iraq. Needless to say, Turkey does not want the Kurds to have similar success in northern Syria. For the Saudis, the violence in Syria has the trappings of a medieval kind of religious war—in this case, Sunni vs. Shia—backed by an inexhaustible bag of Saudi cash with which to arm and support rebels (“moderate” or not) trying to remove Assad. Why are U.S. protests against this Saudi support for ISIS and other real terrorists so flaccid? U.S. legislators and the foreign-policy elite are reluctant to risk offending the Saudis who have been offered $100 billion worth of arms from U.S. manufacturers during the President Obama’s tenure as president (half of these offers have been approved). The Saudis could, of course, could go elsewhere to spend their oil money on sophisticated weapons. Those on the cash end of the arms trade “drenched in blood” (as Pope Francis described it to Congress) would prefer that those dollars didn’t go elsewhere.
But in my view, Israel has had the most disproportionate influence over the decisions of U.S. policymakers—especially the neocons, who frankly find it quite difficult even to distinguish between the strategic interests of Israel and those of the United States. I can be this blunt because with the analysis I did during my twenty-seven years at the CIA, the coin of the realm was telling the truth as we saw it—corny as that may sound these days. Also, it helps not to be running for any office or seeking financial support.
NH: How do you respond to critics who say such criticism of the Israeli government springs from anti-Semitism?
RM: I respond with the stubborn facts that leap out of events over recent years. The reason I do not take offense at that question is that most Americans, including my closest friends, are in fact misinformed about the facts relating to Israel’s influence on U.S. policy on the Middle East.
NH: How do you explain Obama’s rejection of further involvement in the region, particularly after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack?
RM: Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Assad government of responsibility for the August 2013 sarin attack no fewer than thirty-five times. Evidence is accumulating that the Ghouta incident was orchestrated by Turkish intelligence and “allied” intelligence agencies, in order to mousetrap Obama into open war on Syria. That evidence includes Turkish court documents presented to the Turkish Parliament showing how the transport of precursor chemicals from Europe to rebels in Syria was facilitated by Turkey.
Recently, President Obama himself told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that National Intelligence Director James Clapper paid the president a surprise visit to caution that the evidence of Syrian government responsibility for the sarin attack was not a “slam dunk.” The Turks, Saudis, and other Gulf kingdoms (all of them highly lucrative customers for U.S. arms sales) were as determined as Israel was to see that Assad wouldn’t “win.” Obama was on the verge of being drawn into yet another unnecessary regime-change war, and has now declared himself proud that he was able—even if just at the last minute—to change his mind and call it off.
His pride is well placed. He needed to face down virtually all of his pro-Israel, pro-Saudi, pro-Turk advisers, many of whom are still wet behind the ears. Obama showed he could resist the misbegotten advice of his sophomore advisers and two seniors—Vice President Joe Biden and John Kerry. In short, the president found he had it within him to act like a President. The experience gave him the confidence to bang enough heads in Washington, including Kerry’s, to drive home the nuclear deal with Iran, perhaps his second-most-important foreign-policy success. His first, in my view, was saying no to an open U.S. attack on Syria two years before.
NH: What led to the ceasefire?
RM: The Russian intervention changed things. The United States was not making very good progress against ISIS. The bombing campaign was sort of helter-skelter. More and more terrorists were coming into Syria and Iraq through Turkey and other countries north of Iraq.
The Russians have their own problems with jihadists. They have had problems all over central Asia. Thousands of Chechnyans and others are being trained, equipped, and paid to go into Syria, to go into Iraq as members of ISIS. They are being paid by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and by other wealthy Gulf States. Why? It’s hard for me to understand. But they’re Sunni, and they really hate Assad (who is Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam). They want to get rid of him, and they saw this as a good opportunity by taking advantage of the original Arab Spring.
Putin met with Obama on September 28, 2015, at the U.N. I wasn’t a fly on the wall there, but it’s very clear what happened. Putin must have said to Obama, “Mr. President you have to understand, you have an ocean between you and the jihadists. We don’t. We have much more incentive to stop ISIS and to stop the other terrorists like al-Nusra before they make it so perilous for us in our soft underbelly that we can’t contend with them. Mr. President, we’re not impressed by your bombing campaign. So you have watched us put in aircraft and other armaments earlier this month. We just want to let you know that the day after tomorrow we are going to enter the fray, and we going to go after the people trying overthrow Assad and, of course, ISIS.
Obama had a choice. He could bow to pressure from the same neocons that opposed the deal with Iran. Or he could instruct John Kerry to work something out with the Russians, which is what he ended up doing. He instructed Kerry and Putin instructed Lavrov [Russia’s foreign minister] to get together to initially “deconflict”—to make sure the aircraft they are sending on these bombing missions don’t run into each other or shoot each other down. That was October and November of last year. Now we have the next couple of steps. We have people convening in Vienna – 19 countries, without preconditions. Now that’s big. To convene a meeting like that, the United States had to stop saying “Bashar al-Assad has to go before we talk.” Think what you will of a great power determining who should rule a country oversees, but the U.S. dropped that precondition and the negotiations started. That was a concession on the part of President Obama. And there was another concession that was equally important—that Iran was allowed to sit at the table. Had they been prevented before? Of course they had been, because the neocons and the Israelis hate the Iranians and didn’t want them to have any role in this thing.
So the negotiations got started with the UN involved in a big way. Then, on February 22, we have this agreement that is blessed by the presidents themselves—Obama and Putin—which calls for a cessation of hostilities in areas where ISIS and al-Nusra are not trying to overthrow the government in Damascus. It remains to be seen whether that will be implemented, because it will require the United States to lean very hard on Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Israel. It’s going take a lot of pressure. The only reason it gives me some hope is that the president showed himself up to facing some of that pressure when he was working out that deal with the Iranians on their nuclear program.
NH: We hear often from Obama and Clinton that the U.S. must remain the world’s sole superpower, lest a Russia or China occupy the vacuum of power. Are they right?
RM: China has so many internal problems. And Russia has its own economic and other problems. In my view, there’s not much evidence that the Russians or the Chinese have pretensions to have the kind of empire that we have enjoyed since the end of World War II. We’re overstretched. I recently listened to the Army Chief of Staff testifying on the Hill, and he says, “We just have to have more troops. Our troops are in 140 countries, and they’re spread so thin.” Well, there’s another way to get enough troops and that is to pull them out of at least half of those 140 countries. What happens to empires when they overstretch? Look at the British Empire, for example.
What’s behind this rhetoric of the United States remaining the world’s superpower is the military-industrial-congressional complex. Why is the U.S. wagging its finger at China about developing those islands in the South China Sea? You can’t justify building another aircraft carrier or three more nuclear submarines unless there’s an enemy out there, and China is a good candidate.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A short, curious post at First Things by R.R. Reno, "Why I'm Anti-Anti-Trump," caught my attention this week. Much of it consists of Reno citing and agreeing with an article by Walter Russell Mead that runs down the failures and limits of the prevailing "American establishment"—Wall Street, Silicon Valley, our great universities and foundations, Hollywood, and more—and how Trump is the candidate for those who blame this establishment for the many problems we face, and don’t believe it is up to the task of addressing them. Our elites, for Mead, are "unusually clueless these days." Or as Reno puts it in a slightly different way, "The Baby Boomer consensus has failed to create a healthy society that works for the majority of Americans, whether that's measured in economic, cultural, or moral terms." Conventional wisdom just won't do anymore. Trump, and his supporters, are rising up and saying "No!" to the status quo.
Fair enough, I suppose. I’d modify this account of Trump’s rise in a few ways, especially when it comes to the conservative movement’s role in mainstreaming fact-free, conspiracy-tinged political ideas, but I understand what Mead and Reno mean. Here, for example, is a representative sample of Mead’s argument:
Myself, I don’t think the system is quite as corrupt as some Trump supporters believe or, perhaps more accurately, I lack their confidence that burning down the old house is the best way to build something new. But it would be equally wrong and perhaps more dangerous to take the view that there is nothing more fueling his rise than ignorance, racism and hate. The failure of the center-Left to transform its institutional and intellectual dominance into policy achievements that actually stabilize middle class life, and the failure of the center-Right to articulate a workable alternative have left a giant intellectual and political vacuum in the heart of American life. The Trump movement is not an answer to our problems, but the social instinct of revolt and rejection that powers it is a sign of social health.
I nodded along with at least some of this, though I certainly don’t believe the “Trump movement” is a sign of “social health.” While it’s true that there is more than just racism and hate behind Trump’s support, there’s far, far too much of it for me to take the relatively benign view of Trump’s ascendency that Mead does. Or to put it differently: I can understand and even sympathize with the plight of many Trump supporters, without excusing their support for a candidate rightfully described as “semi-fascist,” or feeling even a trace of approval for Trump himself. I “get” why so many are angry, especially those living in economically depressed areas, but that doesn’t require approving of how that anger has been channeled.
Where I absolutely have to part ways with this line of thinking, though, is when Reno pivots from quoting Mead to make the following assertion about Trump:Read more
An article in my home newspaper raises again the topic of college life and the “safe space” that figures prominently in student conceptions of education today.
The Hartford Courant reported last month on a successful effort at Hartford’s Trinity College to cancel an appearance by rap artist Action Bronson, whose violently misogynist lyrics offended many. A petition bearing 1,000 signatures – hefty participation in a college of just 2300 – asserted that Bronson’s performance on campus “would create a psychologically harmful and drastically unsafe space” for women, LGBT students and survivors of sexual assault. The student concert organizers who booked the performer agreed to rescind the invitation, apologizing, in a campus-wide email, for not doing “a thorough enough check” of Bronson’s lyrics and videos. Apparently they first considered allowing him onstage as long as he refrained from performing certain songs, including one called “Consensual Rape.” Ultimately, though, they decided that “the very act of bringing Action Bronson to this campus runs counter to the college's obligation to protect the emotional and physical safety of its students.”
A Trinity senior who co-authored the petition described feeling “relieved,” and remarked that “people are kind of feeling their faith in humanity has been restored. We all came together and made a decision — hey, we don't think this is OK.” As for the administration, a letter from a dean informed alumni and parents that the rapper’s prospective visit “caused a great deal of hurt and alienation in our community;” that his lyrics “are not in line with Trinity's mission or what we stand for as a community;” and that banning him was “the right decision.” “The learning that has taken place,” the dean wrote, “has focused on the importance of dialogue that leads to a safe, respectful, and caring community.”Read more
Reading Timothy Snyders interesting review of the Ukraine-Russia struggle in the New York Review of Books, I see this: "On February 22, Yanukovych [then president of Ukraine] fled to Russia. (Two years later, his political strategist, Paul Manafort, would resurface in the US, playing the same role for Donald Trump.)"
Wikipedia adds this to the story: "[Manafort] is also known for his successful efforts lobbying on behalf of Ferdinand Marcos, Jonas Savimbi, Viktor Yanukovych and other foreign leaders, which led his firm to be listed amongst the top five lobbying on behalf of human-rights abusers."
Oh well, a guy has got to make a buck where he can. As Steven Lee Myers points out in his biography of Putin, The New Tsar, Henry Kissinger went to Russia to consult with Putin. Somebody has to keep these guys in power. And presumably Manafort will introduce President Trump to a whole range of leaders that might otherwise be persona non grata at the State Department.
There’s a scene in director Luca Guadagnino’s current film A Bigger Splash where Harry, the manipulative music-producer houseguest played by Ralph Fiennes, guides his hosts through a Rolling Stones track from the Voodoo Lounge album, revealing the tricks he used to get certain sonic effects. It’s not a bad song, but only a few bars are heard before he puts on another record. What plays now is the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue"[*] which Harry can’t stop himself from dancing to. Is it a better song? Yes, but maybe it’s the context—the way Fiennes, shirt open, is shot under a hot Mediterranean sun; the funny-creepy irony of the lyrics in that moment; the cranking up of the soundtrack; a glimpse of the LP spinning on the turntable. Another character asks if he produced this one too. “Honey,” Harry shouts back, “I was only sixteen when they did this!” For Harry, clearly it’s not just a better song, but a great one.
And what makes a great song—we’ll stipulate rock songs here—is different from what makes a song representative of the genre, criteria for which Chuck Klosterman discusses in a New York Times Magazine piece headlined “Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?” On the same day it was reported that Gus Wenner, son of Jann, would be harnessing the brand power of Rolling Stone magazine to launch a website on video-gaming—“It’s the new rock-and-roll,” he declared—Klosterman predicted that three hundred years from now, almost no one would even know what rock-and-roll was, and that maybe just a single artist, based on the staying power of a single composition (think Sousa and “The Stars and Stripes Forever”) would be the future’s only link to what he calls the “most important musical form of the 20th century.” And that artist and song are?
Questionable premise, annoying certainty, a unilateral pronouncement guaranteed to elicit complaints about overlooked nominees—well, that’s all part of writing about rock-and-roll (see Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Pitchfork’s best-ofs). Tower Records at its height not only anchored street corners and retail centers but also produced its own monthly magazine, Pulse, pages of which were given over to “desert island discs,” reader-submitted lists of can’t-live-without records—the ceaseless output of a subculture defined by its compulsion to collect, catalog, and rate. Klosterman’s piece, if not explicitly intended to generate similar response, has of course done just that. It got about thirteen-hundred comments in a little more than twenty-four hours, many no doubt from people who went straight to the end to learn Klosterman hadn’t anointed Mick or Bob or Paul or Jimi or Aretha, or James Taylor or Janis Joplin or the Beach Boys or Radiohead or REM or anyone else who hands-down, no-doubt, unquestionably deserves it over the ultimate choice: Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode.”Read more
"Hello," a stranger shouted as I walked by the little town green at the end of my street. "Can I meet your dog?"
This green is where the World War II War Memorial stands, a stone slab inscribed with last names still recognizable at the Post Office around the corner. We'll gather there with our neighbors Monday morning, as we do every year, to hear a rough rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" by a local Fife and Drum Corps. A few of us will sing, and one of us will give a speech.
The stranger was a fit young man in military fatigues, and as he came nearer with his long, confident stride I thought he might notice the memorial. But he had eyes only for my German Shepherd dog. He was already beside us before I could finish saying, "Sure, you can meet her. She's very friendly."
"What's her name?" he asked, crouching down and in one seamless move running his hands along the dog's ribs. "Darcy," I said. "She's 12 years old, but you'd never know it. She used to be a seeing-eye dog, but she was retired early after a few years on the job. My husband and I got her six years ago."
Darcy greets everyone with gusto, but something clicked with this stranger that I'd never seen before. Instinctively, I dropped the leash, and within seconds my dog was at his command, circling him where he stood, sitting at a flick of his hand. "Wow," I said. "She really responds to you."
"I had a German Shepherd dog," he said. "His name was Cisco, and we were partners when I was in Iraq. He was an amazing dog. Nothing spooked him, and he was always with me, always ready to work."Read more
In ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, reporter, teacher, and translator Gene Palumbo—who has lived in El Salvador since he moved there to cover the civil war in 1980—has written a unique remembrance of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It is comprised of stories from priests and nuns who knew him throughout his clerical life: as a young "docile" auxiliary bishop of San Salvador passively aligned with a corrupt social order; as a rural bishop who spent full days visiting residents of far-flung hamlets and when necessary confronted the National Guard to demand prisoners be released; and as the prophetic martyr "spontaneously proclaimed... a saint" at his funeral by the people of El Salvador and beatified by Rome one year ago yesterday.
The vignettes Palumbo compiles reveal just how much the people influenced Romero, more than how Romero influenced them. As one example, years after a shouting match with parishioners during a Mass in San Salvador, Romero returned and apologized for the incident, saying:
I now understand what happened that day, and here before you I recognize my error.
I was wrong and you were right. That day you taught me about faith and about the Church. Please forgive me for everything that happened then.
The shouting match had started when the parishioners asked Romero to explain why he had justified, on behalf of the bishops conference, a military invasion of the National University. His late apology was received with tearful applause and—as one nun attested—"all was forgiven."
Read the full article here.
It’s been fascinating to see the issue of transgender rights migrate from a mere blip at the edge of the cultural and political radar, to a burning topic of contention, with front-page headlines seemingly every day. I’ve appreciated the frank back-and-forth that dotCommonweal readers have engaged in, in my posts and Mollie Wilson O’Reilly’s as well. It isn’t always easy to discuss this topic with openness, humility and a readiness to listen and learn.
Anyway, today I’m not here to opine, but just to provide a few resources for those who want to keep thinking about this. First is a front-page article from today’s Hartford Courant, my home newspaper, about a transgender high-school teacher and his experiences teaching in the Connecticut suburbs.
Here is a column written by a Baptist pastor in Texas, Mark Wingfield, discussing how he undertook to learn more about transgender people, and what he learned. You can also link to an NPR interview with him that aired today on Weekend Edition.
A lengthy front-page article in today’s New York Times, meanwhile, goes behind the scenes to look at how the Obama administration decided on the Education Department directive instructing schools to shape transgender-friendly bathroom policies – and turned the personal battles of transgender Americans, the headline says, into “a national showdown.”
Finally, here’s a link to a blog post, titled “The Cultural Salience of Gender Dysphoria,” on the website of Mark Yarhouse, a researcher in sexual orientation and identity -- and also an evangelical Christian. Yarhouse teaches at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, and his research aims to integrate psychology and theology, with special focus on human sexuality and sexual identity. This post discusses his attempt to apply theological reflection to gender dysphoria and the lives of transgender people. He provides links to a talk he gave on the subject at Calvin College last year; to a widely-circulated essay on the subject that he published in Christianity Today; and to critical responses to that essay, including a conservative take-down (in First Things). Yarhouse wrote the article, he says, in order to “help Christians have a more compassionate response to a complex phenomenon,” and to recommend “a thoughtful, prayerful approach, one characterized by humility about what we know and do not know, and a response that embodies conviction, civility, and compassion in all our exchanges within the Body of Christ and beyond.”
In her essay, “Love of Religious Practices,” Simone Weil addresses the condition of those afflicted by “the ugliness in us. The more we feel it, the more it fills us with horror. The soul rejects it in the same way as we vomit. By a process of transference we pass it on to the things that surround us.” Persons in such conditon include prisoners in cells, drudge workers in a factory, and patients in a ward or care home. “In this exchange the evil in us increases. It seems then that the very places where we are living and the things that surround us imprison us in evil. . . this is a terrible anguish. When the soul, worn out with this anguish, ceases to feel it any more, there is little hope of its salvation.”
Such dark analysis might serve as a thematic statement for a worryingly good novel, The Rack, by the pseudonymous A. E. Ellis, published almost sixty years ago and at least twice reprinted. Graham Green hailed it as one of the great books, rising “like monuments above the cemeteries of literature.” And he suggested that the novel ranked with Clarissa, Great Expectations, and Ulysses. My wife called attention to the title when she looked up the website of a favorite author and found the book listed as a shaping influence. “The Rack”? Curiosity (and humiliation – I’ve not heard of it, and Green liked it!) had me ordering a copy and then, slowly and painfully, as befits the work’s title, I read it.
Simply put this is the story of a patient in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the French Alps set immediately following the end of the Second War. Reviewers noted similarity in concept to Mann’s Magic Mountain. But this is not a novel of philosophical discourse. Rather The Rack is a novel of treatment, excruciating clinical procedures, recurring x-rays, painful and intrusive puncturings of the chest wall, and attenuated hope withered by signs of improvement dashed – again and again.Read more
Up here in Westchester County, New York, some folks are in a snit because New Rochelle High School is switching to gender-neutral graduation gowns -- that is, all students will wear the same color, instead of boys wearing one color and girls another. This is, to my mind, clearly a good decision. It costs the graduates and their families no additional pain or difficulty. If anything, it saves some trouble. And yet there are people -- not students, from what I have seen, but community members and internet commenters -- who are attacking the decision because it was motivated by a desire to make non-gender-conforming students' lives a little less fraught.
In the Journal News, the paper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley, columnist Phil Reisman gave voice to the complaints of "ardent traditionalists" who "say this is a classic case of autocratic overreach and a poor attempt to placate the concerns of a few kids at the expense of all the rest."
Questions he does not pose include: In what way is this a "poor" attempt? And what "expense" does it impose? What value is there in dividing the graduating class by sex, and what exactly will be lost if that tradition is abandoned? (A later column looks at another school in the area that made a similar decision, and the various disingenous comments made online by parents who oppose it.)
Reisman focuses on the opposition campaign of one man, "a lifelong city resident" (who seems not to have children currently enrolled in the New Rochelle school system) who, he says, is "concerned that his cause would be misinterpreted as intolerance. 'These kids have a hard enough life as it is,' he said. 'This is America and they have right to the pursuit of happiness. So I’m very uneasy to target the kids. It’s not the kids that are the issue — they aren’t what I take exception to.'”
Except, of course, that they are. When you are fighting to maintain a pointless separation of the sexes after the school board has decided to do away with it, you are privileging that separation of the sexes over the comfort of the individual students, however few they may be, who will be forced into making a public statement with which they cannot be comfortable. It's the same reason that what this man proposes as a compromise solution -- allowing students to choose the color they wear -- is no solution at all. Besides being needlessly complicated for whatever poor teacher or administrator has to deal with ordering the gowns, it preserves the very binary that the district wants to do away with. And the only reason for preserving it is to resist the growing conviction that gender-identity issues exist among high school students and are best handled with compassion.
What this man wants to do is what many people want to do in the face of confusing sex-and-gender battles: erase the specific people who identify as LGBTQ from the debate and make it a simple question of liberal-vs.-conservative identity politics.
The rather sudden prominence of transgender rights also provoked an op-ed in the Journal News from a local Catholic pastor (not mine, thank God), which begins: "Suppose I were to come to believe one day that I feel more like a chicken than a human being, and I publicly announced to the world from now on I want to be considered a chicken?"
Stop me if you've heard this one.Read more
About a decade ago, I happened to be sitting at the table with a Navy veteran of World War II when the conversation turned to Japan. He was a retired physician, the father of a friend of mine, and if I remember correctly we were discussing an upcoming trip to Japan by someone in his family.
He had never been to Japan, he said, but if the U.S. hadn't dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would have. His Navy unit was among those poised to invade the Japanese mainland, a battle anticipated to be an epic bloodbath. He likely would have been killed, he added matter-of-factly, after which a somber pause settled over the table.
No one from his family took up the topic, and it wasn't my place to do so. But I think of him every time the subject of Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes up, as it has with news that President Obama will visit Hiroshima when he is in Japan later this month, the first sitting U.S. president to do so.
The White House has made it clear that Obama won't apologize for the use of nuclear weapons, the only time they have been used in warfare, nor have the Japanese asked him to. No apology, in my view, is necessary.
What IS necessary, and too often neglected, is to focus on the fearsome power of these weapons and how essential it is to the future of all nations, peoples and the earth itself that they never be used again. Obama's pilgrimage to Hiroshima is a perfect opportunity, and I applaud him for taking it.Read more
As I predicted last summer, transgender rights have continued to loom large in the national conversation. Every day brings another story. Today it’s a front-page Times article about a trans boy in a small town in Vermont and the disagreements over what bathroom s/he will use in high school. Yesterday it was a RAND Corporation study, commissioned by the Defense Department, which found that allowing trans soldiers to serve openly, in the words of one defense analyst quoted in the piece, “is a nonissue in terms of the impact on the budget, military readiness, unit cohesion, and morale.”
And the other week it was the eruption of legal action and political angst in North Carolina, where the passage of bathroom ordinances restricting use by birth gender has generated a large backlash, with the federal government intervening on behalf of the right of trans people to use the bathroom of their choice, and a counter-backlash, with traditional-minded Carolinians expressing resentment at the federal government for stepping in. The driver for such stories is a directive, issued by the Education Department to schools, that extends Title IX protection, which bans discrimination based on sex, to transgender people. President Obama has clarified and forcefully defended the directive, and its application to school facilities, as a matter of protecting children’s dignity.
In all these “pee in peace” controversies, I’m struck by two questions. The first is practical. As pragmatic Americans shouldn’t we be asking ourselves, how in the world can one enforce a bathroom ordinance such as the one passed by North Carolina? Even if you granted legitimacy to the idea of assigning bathrooms by birth gender, how would you make it work? Would we employ someone for every bathroom in the US? And what would they do? Check birth certificates? Check genitals?
And if a law or regulation is blatantly impracticable and unenforceable, what is the point of passing it in the first place?Read more
Exactly one week after the May 6 speech Pope Francis gave in accepting the prestigious Charlemagne Prize (awarded for work done in the service of European unity), another in a series of planning meetings for this summer’s World Youth Day in Krakow was held. The choice of Krakow as the venue is a tribute to John Paul II, who held the World Youth Day of 1991 in Czestochowa. That was just a few months before the Bishops’ Synod Special Assembly for Europe, eastern nations of which had only recently liberated themselves from communism. The future of Europe looked somewhat brighter then than it does today. The future of European Catholicism also looked different, as did the papal teaching on Europe.
Francis has reinterpreted and updated the positions on Europe of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, putting the accent on the relationship between Catholicism and Europe and emphasizing the pluralistic roots of the continent. This was clear in his May 6 speech; he did not mention the “Christian roots” (or “Jewish-Christian roots”) to which the European Union should return, which was something of a mantra for his predecessors. Instead, he referenced Erich Przywara, one of his favorite theologians, in advancing his main point: “The roots of our peoples, the roots of Europe, were consolidated down the centuries by the constant need to integrate in new syntheses the most varied and discrete cultures. The identity of Europe is, and always has been, a dynamic and multicultural identity.” The church has a part to play in the revitalization of Europe, according to Francis, but it is not the role of guardian in modern Europe’s cultural conformity to a hypostatized Catholic tradition. Rather, it is the role of witness to the Gospel: “Only a church rich in witnesses will be able to bring back the pure water of the Gospel to the roots of Europe. In this enterprise, the path of Christians towards full unity is a great sign of the times and a response to the Lord’s prayer ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21).”
While Francis’s position on Europe is not quite that of his predecessors, I believe the difference is more marked between Francis and Benedict than it is between Francis and John Paul II. Francis, it should be pointed out, is also one of the few Catholic bishops in Europe who has the courage to repeat John Paul II’s teachings on social issues like capital and labor, human rights, and migrants and refugees. It is noteworthy that those Catholics who cite John Paul II in opposing any possible change in the church (especially on marriage and family) seem forgetful of his words on these other issues.Read more
The church of La Sagrada Familia in the Colonia Roma section of Mexico City is the de facto headquarters in the cause for the canonization of Miguel Pro, the Mexican Jesuit priest executed in 1927. The story of Padre Pro is recounted on a plaque beneath his portrait, which is mounted to a pillar behind the altar rail. Born in Guadalupe and dedicated to serving the poor, he is said to have been humorous, charming, and a master of disguises. The last was a necessity of his underground ministry; with the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles, the government in the mid-’20s had commenced to enforce with brutal severity the anti-Catholic provisions of Mexico’s 1917 constitution. Pro, long under surveillance, was eventually arrested under the pretext of involvement in the attempted assassination of Calles’s predecessor, Álvaro Obregón, and convicted without trial. Still conscious after the initial barrage of the firing squad, he supposedly shouted “Viva Cristo Rey!” before taking a final, fatal shot at close range. The government publicized photographs of the execution as a warning to the people, but tens of thousands of Mexicans attended Pro’s funeral—a fact portrayed as a courageous and defiant rebuke to Calles.
Mexico City has the most museums of any city in the world, from collections of fine art and archaeological rarities to the personal effects and relics of notable figures—including Padre Pro, a museum in whose name adjoins Sagrada Familia. Within steps of one another in the Coyoacan neighborhood are Leon Trotsky’s preserved home—its walls not only adorned with photos and artifacts but also pocked with bullet holes from a firefight preceding his 1940 assassination—and the Frida Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, where the tourist crowds seemed unfazed by the artist’s 1954 Self Portrait with Stalin, in which the murderous Soviet leader assumes the role of watchful saint.
Padre Pro’s remains are interred at Sagrada Familia. A steel box beneath his portrait has a slot wide enough for written testimonials of miracles. One sign asks politely that no flowers be left; another warns against touching the candles. It was a little after 5 p.m. on a Thursday, and perhaps two dozen people were in the church, some praying the rosary, others sitting quietly. A few days earlier, an international human rights team investigating Mexico’s handling of the September 2014 disappearance and presumed murders of forty-three students from the state of Guerrero had released its final report. In contending that evidence had been suppressed and torture used in extracting confessions from alleged suspects, it called into serious doubt the “historical account” of the matter that has been put forth by the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. As such it had given hope to the families of the missing as well as human rights advocates inside and outside Mexico that the real details of the case, and maybe even justice, would be forthcoming.
Yet the report seemed to generate little local reaction, adding to worries that indifference was setting in. Banners commemorating the missing may yet hang in various squares and markets across Mexico City, and cement sidewalks are etched with the command “never forget,” but two years later, the colors are fading and the edges are worn. Pope Francis had not met with the families of the missing during his February visit, as some had hoped he would, and a semi-permanent protest outside the National Palace has all but folded its tent.Read more
Let’s be clear: Donald Trump is not a fascist; he is a semi-fascist. I recognize the risk of using the f-word. In fact, I am positively allergic to it. This case, however, is different. The U.S. is at a moral crossroads. We need to be utterly unambiguous about why.
I emphasize the “semi” in semi-fascist. Trump has shown no interest in the stereotypically fascist exaltation of discipline, not for himself and not for any organized movement. The closest his militants get to uniforms are baseball caps. And though he may have toyed with the occasional outbreaks of violence at Trump rallies, those scuffles are absolutely nothing like the systematic thuggery of budding fascisms.
On the other hand, consider this: He has built a political movement on a populist nationalism that scapegoats enemy groups both within and without. He will expel or bar alien intruders. He plays relentlessly on a sense of national humiliation, victimization, grievance, and decline. He asserts that the nation faces an emergency that justifies torture and murdering the wives and children of our terrorist enemies, even briefly suggesting that as Commander in Chief he could order the military to violate the laws of war. Unlike full-fledged fascists, he is not explicitly anti-parliamentarian, an idea perhaps too complex for him (or perhaps too multisyllabic); instead he scorns virtually the entire political class as “stupid” or “without a clue,” i.e., unable to make a deal. He takes no note of Congressional procedures and Constitutional limits. He is indifferent to civil liberties except for gun rights, and has spoken ominously about reining in the press. When asked about compromise, he replies by vaunting his own “flexibility,” as though compromise were nothing more than a personal skill rather than an appreciation for distinctive outlooks and interests. If none of that rings an alarm bell, you haven’t read enough about Europe in the 1920s and ’30s.
Still, why not just call Trump an authoritarian or a demagogue, which would be bad enough? Why not “Caesarist” or caudillo? Liar, bully, opportunist, vulgarian, purveyor of toxic politics—won’t that language suffice? I don’t think so.Read more
The United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, is currently the subject of a good deal of adulation in New York-based news media, both local and national. He is very quotable, and it seems as if reporters don't have much trouble finding out about his pending investigations even if the law requires investigators to keep them secret. He is putting away one corrupt politician after another, capped in the past two weeks by the sentencing of the former speaker of the New York State Assembly, Democrat Sheldon Silver (12 years) and the former majority leader of the State Senate, Republican Dean Skelos (5 years, less than half of what Bharara wanted). And if the leaks being published here and there are accurate, he is hot on the trail of Mayor Bill de Blasio for alleged fundraising violations and working his way into Gov. Andrew Cuomo's inner circle, too.
There is an unfortunate tendency in journalism to treat prosecutors uncritically, and no matter how many times prosecutors foul up in horrendous ways, that never seems to change. They're treated as if they've ridden in on a white horse. I probably did the same for a time when I was a newspaper reporter covering courts, crime and politics. It's satisfying to see the mighty fall if they deserve it. But prosecutors are mighty, too, and their power tends to go unquestioned.
Jeffrey Toobin provides a more balanced look at Bharara in his New Yorker piece "The Showman," which focuses on Bharara's penchant for publicity. Bharara is one of those prosecutors willing to try out novel uses of the law to make a high-profile case. But that quality seemed to desert him when it came to prosecuting the Wall Street executives at the companies responsible for the 2008 financial collapse. As Toobin writes:
Before Bharara became known as the scourge of insider trading—a 2012 Time cover story called him the “top cop” of Wall Street—he gained attention for the cases he did not bring against the financial industry. He took office in 2009, at the height of the mortgage crisis, and the Southern District, along with the Justice Department, in Washington, conducted investigations of the major firms and individuals involved in the financial collapse. No leading executive was prosecuted. Bernie Sanders, the Presidential candidate, says in his stump speech, “It is an outrage that not one major Wall Street executive has gone to jail for causing the near-collapse of the economy. The failure to prosecute the crooks on Wall Street for their illegal and reckless behavior is a clear indictment of our broken criminal-justice system.”
In a conversation in his office, Bharara rejected the critique. Without going into specifics, he said that his team had looked at Wall Street executives and found no evidence of criminal behavior. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the things that we had either been assigned before I got here or had the initiative to look at were looked at really, really carefully and really, really hard by the best people in the office,” he said. “There’s a natural frustration, given how bad the consequences were for the country, that more people didn’t go to prison for it, because it’s clearly true that when you see a bad thing happen, like you see a building go up in flames, you have to wonder if there’s arson. You have to wonder if there’s anybody prosecuting. Now, sometimes it’s not arson, it’s an accident. Sometimes it is arson, and you can’t prove it.”
Eric Holder, who, as Attorney General, was Bharara’s boss for six years, made a similar point. “Do you honestly think that Preet Bharara and all those hotshots in the U.S. Attorney’s office would not have made those cases if they could?” he said. “Those are career-making cases. Those cases are your ticket. The fight would have been over who got to try them. We just didn’t have the evidence.”
As the New York Times has reported, President Obama will visit Hiroshima later this month, the first sitting American president to do so since the U.S. destroyed the city with an atomic bomb in August 1945. Together with the bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later, the attack killed on the order of 200,000 Japanese civilians and ended World War II.
No sooner had the announcement of Obama’s visit been made than the White House disavowed any intention to apologize for those deaths or to reevaluate the decision to cause them. “He will not revisit the decision to use the atomic bomb at the end of World War II,” announced Benjamin J. Rhodes, a national security adviser. “Instead, he will offer a forward-looking vision focused on our shared future.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest elaborated the point, saying that the president “appreciates... that President Truman made this decision for the right reasons,” said Earnest.
Earnest’s comment is nuanced to the point of unintelligibility. (What is he actually saying? That President Obama understands that Truman didn’t order the bombing out of a sadistic desire to commit mass murder?) The truth is, such careful, cautious parsing fits this president. To visit Hiroshima and say nothing about the decision to drop the bomb is precisely the kind of carefully hedged and calibrated action that makes Obama such a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty kind of president. On the glass-half-full side, well, unlike any of the eleven Commanders-in-Chief before him since Truman, he is making the trip. No caveat issued by his press secretary can efface the symbolism of the visit. And, of course, Obama knows it.Read more
"Perhaps it won’t be long before the many words spoken about women as deacons will be overtaken by actions." That was Phyllis Zagano, writing in Commonweal in 2012, when she made the case for ordaining women to the diaconate. Yesterday, commenting on Pope Francis's announcement of a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons, she told NCR: "It's very hopeful. It displays Francis's openness to scholarship, to history and, most importantly, to the needs of the church."
In her Commonweal article, Zagano specifically addressed scholarship, history, and needs of the church:
While women were included in the order of deacon, not only in the early church but at least until the twelfth century in the West (and in the East up to modern times), the historical fact of women ordained as deacons is apparently not sufficient to call women back to that order today. Early documents point to bishops selectively ordaining—or not ordaining—women according to the needs of their dioceses. While the church has changed in many respects since women deacons were common, the fact that the church calls forth the people it needs for certain ministries has not changed. ...
[I]f reconciliation with the women of the church—especially with the women of the church in the United States and the developed world—is an issue of interest, then ordaining women as deacons becomes a genuine necessity. But even the most convincing political argument will not hold sway unless the church as a whole agrees with individual conferences of bishops, and then individual bishops, that the ordained ministry of women is necessary in their dioceses, their provinces, and throughout the world.
Diaconal ministry—of the word, the liturgy, and of charity—is clearly necessary everywhere. The service provided by the deacon at liturgy is the smallest part of the deacon’s charge—even as it is the most symbolic. The ministry of the deacon is to carry the gospel, literally as well as symbolically, and with it the charity of the church in all its forms. When deacons are involved, the soup kitchens and the religious education programs, the homeless shelters and the adult formation meetings gain new connection to the parish and ultimately to the bishop.
Of course, this small excerpt doesn't fully convey the scope of Zagano's piece. Whether or not you read it when it originally appeared in 2012, it's worth reading today in full.
If any news story merits wide distribution, it's the one headlined "Muslim Leaders Wage Theological Battle, Stoking ISIS's Anger" published May 8 in the New York Times. Alas, it didn't make the Times's online "trending" list, and seems to have quickly disappeared from view.
Written by Laurie Goodstein, the article focuses on Western imams and scholars whose vigorous repudiation of ISIS has put them on the terror army's hit list. All of us, inside and outside the media, should amplify these Muslim voices, which merit at least as much coverage as those hijacking their religion.
A journalist myself, I understand why the atrocities of ISIS grab more attention than the good deeds of millions of Muslims peacefully practicing their religion. But if we are at war with ISIS, as generally agreed, then surely we ought to appreciate hearing from some of its most effective opponents.Read more
Our May 20 issue is online, featuring Paige E. Hochschild's response to Pope Francis's Amoris laetitia on indissolubility and the intentionality of love (she joins Peter Steinfels, William L. Portier, Sandra Yocum, George Dennis O'Brien, and others who comprise our Amoris laetitia reading list); and Joseph S. Flipper on the theological virtues of soccer.
For books, Frank Pasquale reviews Matthew Desmond's Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City—history and analysis that is "universally embraced by establishment academics like Robert Putman" but with implications "more radical than most acknowledge." Kathleen A. Brady reviews Prophecy without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square by Cathleen Kaveny, who raises concerns about divisive behavior in media conversation about religion and critiques efforts by certain scholars to explain the resulting polarization. And Gordon Marino reviews Gary Gutting's What Philosophy Can Do, a volume written in a jargon-free style that could "easily serve as a course in the strange but august set of perennial questions that philosophy tries to address."
Richard Alleva reviews two respective biopics about the lives of Miles Davis and Chet Baker, and Mary Frances Coady has the last word with a reflection on "un petit saint," Georges Vanier Jr. (or, Brother Benedict).
See the full table of contents here.
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