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Robert Conquest, RIP

Robert Conquest has died at the age of 93. By the end of his life, he was best known as a historian, whose landmark book The Great Terror detailed Stalin's brutal purges. Conquest's assessment of Stalin's aims and methods, controversial when The Great Terror first appeard in 1968, was largely vindicated when new information came to light after the fall of the Soviet Union. (When a new edition of the book was published in 1990, Conquest wanted to call it I Told You So, You F***ing Fools.)

But long before Conquest became famous as a historian, he was known as a poet. He belonged to a group of British writers known collectively as The Movement, which included Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, and Elizabeth Jennings. It was a fairly heterogeneous group, more a ragged circle than a movement. It's members all belonged to roughly the same generation, but had little else in common apart from a desire to get out from under the shadow of literary modernism. They were more influenced by Yeats and Robert Graves than by Eliot and Pound.

Amis, who also wrote poetry, became famous as a novelist. Larkin became the most important poet of postwar Britain. Thom Gunn moved to northern California, joined the counterculture, and started writing free verse. Elizabeth Jennings, a Catholic, enjoyed a loyal following but was never taken as seriously as the Movement men, and certainly not as seriously as she deserved to be taken. (She was never well known in the U.S.)

Conquest's reputation as a historian eventually eclipsed his reputation as a poet, though not totally: among those who love the limerick, he was considered a modern master. After the jump, three of his finest (with unasterisked profanity).

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St. Anne, St. Anne, Email Me a Man

I, along with thousands of other newsletter subscribers, received the following e-mail from the Catholic Match institute. I’d like to respond to it publically, because I think it raises a lot of important questions for young single people grappling with being young and single. And because the author actually asked me a lot of questions.

Dear Kaitlin,

I was driving down the highway as I passed the Shrine of St. Anne, a French gothic church dedicated to the Mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The gorgeous church reminded me of the prayer, "St. Anne, St. Anne, find me a man." I felt silly praying it, but was willing to try anything at that point.

Don’t feel silly, I can relate. I downloaded Tinder.

As I sped by, I turned up my music and tried not to worry, but I had my doubts and again wondered: Will I ever meet "The One"?

Not if The One meets you first! As U2 once said (Were you listening to U2?): “God moves in mysterious ways.”

What am I doing wrong?

Maybe pull over next time. Don’t just drive by the shrine.

Why haven't I met anyone yet?

Well, maybe you need to lower your standards. Have you considered downloading Tinder?

Am I afraid of change?

There’s only one way to find out. A good test is a new haircut. If it scares you, you’re afraid of change. If it doesn’t, push the limits. Maybe shave it all off and see if that scares you.

Am I holding myself back?

Are you holding yourself? This can be a comfort when the going gets really lonely

I hear similar questions from the emails that I receive from you.

I’m so glad you got my emails! I felt so silly (as I’m sure you can understand) telling you all of my secrets.

I hear many of you say that you pray to meet your spouses, you go to Catholic events, you go out on dates. But still haven't met the one you've been waiting for.

You heard me sister. But what if my spouse can’t make it out of the house?

I have often felt like I am waiting for my life to begin. But who says life doesn't begin until I'm married?

I thought you said that, in last week’s email…

What about the things that God wants me to do right now as a single person? Don't wait around. Meet new people, even if it’s uncomfortable. Have the courage to go to that event, even if you don't know anyone else. Prepare for marriage, even if you haven't met anyone yet.

Like cooking?

Let’s start today.

Oh, I see: like online dating.

Robyn
Director, The Catholic Match Institute

Why we love "guv'mint"

Here’s a complete page-one story from the local weekly, The Deposit Courier:

NYS Inspector Forces Name Change for Browns Pharmacy

To satisfy state inspectors and state regulations, Brown’s Pharmacy has a new sign.

Pharmacist Jeff Hempstead said the pharmacy with its adjoining gift shop was reconfigured in 1988.  At that time the inspectors approved of the new store design and signed off on the project.

Every year inspectors have given the pharmacy high marks and there has been no indication of any infractions.

During the most recent inspection, this year’s inspector said because the entrance does not lead directly into the pharmacy the signage had to be changed.  The old Brown’s Pharmacy sign had to come down because it was technically over the gift shop side (now an Irish Peddler) and a new sign indicating that the pharmacy is a “Department Within” had to be added under the Pharmacy sign over the pharmacy’s windows.

“We want to reassure the community that nothing is changing with the pharmacy except the sign,” Hempstead explained.  “The inspectors are not always the same and this guy cited us because of the entrance.  I’ve added the little white ‘Department Within’ sign to satisfy the inspector.”

Hempstead said he has always registered it as a “pharmacy.”  Now, he has to re-register as a “pharmacy department.”  He said he plans to contest the ruling and he plans to re-hang the familiar “Brown’s Pharmacy” sign that has identified the pharmacy since 1847.  It will probably have a new home on the pharmacy side of the building but at least it will remain a familiar Front Street landmark.

 

My comment:  “… since 1847”!

But wait!  Did the inspector have a point?

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New issue, now live

Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.

Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:

No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:

Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:

Guilty Book Pleasures

Like many Americans, I do some “guilty pleasure” reading each summer. Do you make this distinction? For me, guilty pleasure means a novel I enjoy reading, even can’t put down, but don’t particularly admire. During a recent vacation I read four novels: Eight Black Horses, by Ed McBain; The Girl on the Train, the bestseller by Paula Hawkins; Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity; and After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, by the Anglo-Australian novelist, Evie Wyld. Two guilty pleasures; two un-guilty.

For me, genre novels are often the guilty kind. The opening scene of Eight Black Horses (one of McBain’s 87th Precinct series) is as formulaic as Law & Order, which it distinctly resembles. Body is found in gruesome circumstances; cops show up and exchange mordant-morbid jokes; the investigation begins. Classic police procedural, and for me, very enjoyable. But nothing in a novel like this is going to surprise you. All the pleasures lie in the reconfirmation of the already-familiar; even the cops themselves are worn down by familiar routines, and we enjoy hearing them say so.

A friend of mine, Michael Robinson, a historian of science with an avid interest in science fiction, likes to challenge my notion of the guilty literary pleasure; he defends genre fiction and insists that its practitioners deserve more literary respect than they get (I’ll agree when it comes to Philip K. Dick, though I balk at Orson Scott Card). But it’s not about genre, really. I can think of any number of novels I have admired, from John le Carre’s The Honourable Schoolboy many years ago, to Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven last year, that qualify as genre but still pass my test. 

One way to know you’re in a guilty-pleasure novel is speed. You dive in for an hour, and find you’ve read a hundred pages. This is less reading than careening. A novel, like a highway, has to be built in such a way that will allow this.  Can you skim, and still follow what’s going on? The guilty-pleasure novel allows you semi-consciously to separate narrative elements, sorting what drives the plot from what is mere scene-setting, and then read accordingly, cruising past “filler” to land on important plot turns or payoffs.  The guilty-pleasure read is all about ease. You never have to reread. There are no impediments. Everything is designed to keep you cruising.

In contrast, many of the novels I have prized most over the decades do the opposite: slow you down.  Language is used in unexpected ways.  Temporal structures and points of view shift. Ironies ramify on multiple levels. Chapters do not follow precut sizes or designs. These writers have a way of making you stop to reflect. You pause from reading in order to put the text of your own life up against the one you are immersed in. You are being invited, lured, or even forced into a meditative action. James Joyce’s “Araby” is a small, seemingly innocuous story, but I have lingered for years over its radiant and elusive closing lines. This slowing-down action is a basic part of my memory of reading Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov, and even Hemingway... and more recent books as well, like Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. Or most of Alice McDermott. Or Evie Wyld.

Evie Wyld’s novels are the slim, spare-looking kind you think you’ll polish off quickly. But two hours later you’re only on p. 60.  You spend time getting your bearings. You flip back to re-check something thirty pages ago. (Even the title – After the Fire, A Still Small Voice --  slows you down.) Wyld’s language and perceptions are just offbeat enough to keep you alert. After the Fire is set partly in Australia in the early 1950s. Consider these sentences describing a boy’s impression of a dreary Australian Christmas, his father off fighting in the Korean War, and the boy’s angst triggering an oppressive sense of a dark presence or fate shadowing him: 

Christmas day was tense, full of wide fake smiles and the smell of too many cloves in the pudding... Leon went to the bridge and watched people strolling through the harbour in their Christmas outfits. Women with legs the colour of sweet nut glaze, their dresses high and tight to their throats, the clip of their short steps. The girls with the secrets under their skirts, fingernails like preserved cherries. Something watched him from under the bridge, he could feel it, something that snuffled and scritch-scratched. It threw him looks from the coolest bit of shade.

The un-guilty literary pleasure is delivered by writers using language to convey the impression of a world seen fresh, felt fresh. Wyld’s second novel (she has published just two), All the Birds, Singing, is a small masterpiece that I’ll hope to discuss in a future post. A slender, dense, eccentric novel, it weaves two first-person narratives around a nominal mystery (something is killing the sheep on a small farm off the coast of England) to create a meditation on suffering, memory, and the construction of the self. It’s a novel that gets its grip on your imagination and just won’t let go.

When all is said and done, for guilty pleasures I prefer novels – like McBain’s --  that make no claim to being literature, over those that have middlebrow pretensions, like Gone Girl, or Girl on a Train. (A novelist friend of mine, Dan Pope, recently reeled off the list of novels with “Girl” in the title, discerning a brazen play for women readers. How many novels have “boy” in the title?) Writers like Paula Hawkins or Gillian Flynn have figured out how to give their sentences a sheen of contemporary literary realism, but beneath it you can hear the plot machine clanking away.

These highbrow/lowbrow discussions of the arts in America afford endless opportunity for contested categorization and bitter border wars. What I want to point out is that like any other muscle, the novel-reading muscle needs exercise. In all calisthenics we get accustomed to the machines we use, and I suspect that reading too many Gone Girls will, over time, make it harder to read Evie Wyld.  You’ll lack the patience. You’ll slow down and stop. It’s too dense, too rich, too digressive... too hard. I mean, it’s summer, right?

Like summer itself, the guilty reading pleasure is gone far too quickly. But great literature clears a space in your mind that stays there for a long time.

Coming Home by Teaching the Beatitudes according to Lúcás Chan

After two weeks of teaching a bioethics course in Pune in the second half of June, I began July in Bangalore where I taught a very intensive two week course for 26 licentiate and doctoral students meeting 4 hours a day.

The course was “Biblical Ethics” and it was to be team taught by Lúcás Chan and me. Though I team taught courses frequently with Dan Harrington and with Roger Haight, this would be my first time team teaching with a former doctoral student. We agreed to meet in Bangalore on July 1 a little more than two weeks before Chan would be chairing the first ever Pan Asian conference of Catholic Theological Ethicists. We had each written two books in this fairly new field that Chan pioneered. Unfortunately, as many of you know, Chan died of a heart attack on May 19th.

In this light, I decided I should only teach his work. I thought, if I taught both his and mine, more students would naturally ask me about mine. Besides they probably would have been more deferential to my work, though Chan’s you will see is the more significant.

The decision was a good one.

Unlike anyone before him, Chan established normative criteria for doing biblical ethics. In Doing Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions, he insisted that writing biblical ethics required exegetical competency as well as a competency in ethics, particularly in proposing a method for applying the exegetical insights to ordinary moral life. Additionally Chan argued that virtue ethics was a most worthy method for making that application.

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Naked Racism, or Naked Partisanship?

Upon the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby ruling that invalidated long-standing preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act, a number of states that had been subject to those provisions immediately began to impose new restrictions on voting and voter registration. Many believe these to have a disproportionate effect on African American voters, and thus many also and understandably believe these restrictions to be racially motivated. But what if it's not racism that generated opposition to the VRA and spurred the move toward the new, stricter requirements their backers say are aimed at reducing vote fraud? What if it instead is "naked partisanship"?
 
That's a possibility Randall Kennedy floats in his Harper's review (subscription) of Ari Berman's new book, Give Us the Ballot. After several pages spent on the history of voting rights since Reconstruction -- including the 1965 passage of the VRA and the political hostility toward it, as seen only in part by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan's expressed preference for not signing reauthorization -- Kennedy toward the end of the piece cites recent legal scholarship in reconsidering the significance of race in the Shelby decision and subsequent implementation of voting rights restrictions.
 
Samuel Issacharoff, for instance, writing in the Harvard Review, "compared Section 5 of the VRA to an aging athlete, 'one step too slow to carry the team.'" Its forced retirement may be a good thing, prompting voting rights advocates to to consider "new mechanisms to a new era" that should no longer focus on "'the historically central question of racial exclusion.... [T]he category of race increasingly fails to capture the primary motivation for what has become a battlefield in partisan wars.'" Similarly, Guy-Uriel E. Charles and Luis Fuentes Rohwer in the Yale Law Journal--though skeptical of the Shelby decision--"do not see the end of preclearance as the disaster" that some bemoan: "'[I]n the current era we cannot say without any amount of certainty that the central problem of voting is race.'" Kennedy himself comes down on this side: "The VRA has completed the main task it was designed to address. Societal changes have made inconceivable the recrudescence of wholesale, unambiguous racial disenfranchisement" (italics his). 
 
The reaction to this of those alarmed by the spate of recorded deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement; by the racially motivated attack on Charleston's Emanuel AME Church; and by the edgy resentment of those opposed to the removal of Confederate symbols from public spaces might be: Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?  A return to unambiguous racial disenfranchisement may not seem so inconceivable in the midst of all of this. Then add in what this weekend's New York Times Magazine lengthy cover story characterizes as a five-decade effort by Republican activists at systematically dismantling the protections of the VRA: Is there anything so ambiguous about that campaign?
 
And yet: what if Kennedy is on to something?
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Hillary and capitalism

Last April 24, I noted here a letter from Laurence D. Fink to the chief executives of Fortune 500 firms.  Fink, Chairman of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager (approximately $5 trillion), expressed alarm at how “short-termism” was skewing the economy. A low capital gains tax (20 percent) on any stock held more than a year provided an incentive for shareholders, investors, and executives to value quick returns rather than long-term growth in productivity, work force skills, and innovation. 

Fink had a remedy.  He proposed taxing gains on investments held less than three years as ordinary income (around 40 percent) and investments held for less than six months at an even higher rate.  The rates on capital gains would then tail off, even dropping to zero after ten years of ownership. 

Now Hillary Clinton has taken up the idea, proposing a different schedule of rates—ordinary income rates for the first two years, then declining not to zero but the present rate over six years—but using the same principle. “Since when was one year considered a long-term investment?” Mr. Fink wrote last spring.  Hillary improved on that line by pointing out that one year “may count as ‘long-term’ for my baby granddaughter, but not for the American economy.”

This sort of proposal, as I wrote here in April, does not address a lot of questions about the capital gains tax, either its fairness or its effectiveness.  I simply quoted William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck, who wrote on a Brookings Institution blog that “Fink has opened up a crucial debate, and it’s time for Congress and presidential aspirants to join it.”

Hillary has. 

Right-wing denunciations were immediate. 

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Elsewhere

In the New York Times Magazine, Eliza Griswold on the plight of Christians in the Middle East:

For more than a decade, extremists have targeted Christians and other minorities, who often serve as stand-ins for the West. This was especially true in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, which caused hundreds of thousands to flee. ‘‘Since 2003, we’ve lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches were bombed,’’ Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, said. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians began to leave Iraq in large numbers, and the population shrank to less than 500,000 today from as many as 1.5 million in 2003.

The Arab Spring only made things worse. As dictators like Mubarak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya were toppled, their longstanding protection of minorities also ended. Now, ISIS is looking to eradicate Christians and other minorities altogether. The group twists the early history of Christians in the region — their subjugation by the sword — to legitimize its millenarian enterprise. Recently, ISIS posted videos delineating the second-class status of Christians in the caliphate. Those unwilling to pay the jizya tax or to convert would be destroyed, the narrator warned, as the videos culminated in the now-­infamous scenes of Egyptian and Ethiopian Christians in Libya being marched onto the beach and beheaded, their blood running into the surf.

"Yes, Racism is Rooted in Economic Inequality," says the Jacobin's Seth Ackerman:

[I]f racial inequality isn’t merely a symptom of economic inequality, what is it a symptom of?

I already feel like I can hear the answer: it’s a symptom of hundreds of years of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid.

Yes. But what were slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and urban apartheid if not extreme forms of economic inequality?[...]

And what exactly do you think all those African slaves were doing in the American South?

To quote Barbara Fields:

"Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations — as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa."

The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik on Max Beerbohm, whom George Bernard Shaw called "The Icomparable Max":

Beerbohm’s best writing is a form of criticism of other people’s; his gift for the observation of manners is small next to his gift for the understanding of how writing engraves itself on our brains. “Note that I am not incomparable,” he said once to , protesting the “incomparable” label. “Compare me.” If we do, we find that, among the great English essayists, he is the one whose genius depends least on the apprehension of immediate experience and most on what happens when we read. Everything good he writes is about how books, after building us up for life, let us down once we’re in it.

And that Iranian money?

What will the Iranians do with all of that money when sanctions are lifted. Some opponents of the nuclear agreement have argued that they will buy conventional weapons and carry on with their terrorism, etc.

Questions: How much money are we talking about? Whose money is it? This helpful rundown from Al-Monitor may not be definitive, but it lays out some of the amounts, the owners, and the entanglements that come with international finance. The phrase, "usable funds" figures in the analysis, "Will Iran Get Its Billions Back."

In Defense of Germans

Can I say a few words in defense of Germans? The Euro crisis that’s been building for years now, with Greece as its molten core, is hard to comprehend. I mean, I get the general idea. Two dozen nations (give or take) are united by one currency but lack a governing entity that can set fiscal policies. It’s like trying to run an orchestra without a conductor. But is it in fact true, as Paul Krugman has been repeating for years, that Brussels and its technocrats are “trying to run Europe on the basis of fantasy economics”? For an untrained person, the fine points (or any points) of macroeconomics and international finance can get pretty murky.

What has been clear is the role increasingly assigned to Germany, at least here in the United States: villain. A recent article from the New York Times, ominously titled “Germany’s Destructive Anger,”  faults the Germans not merely for being selfishly shortsighted in their economic policies, but for being rigid, vindictive, self-righteous and dyspeptic. The article is by an economist, and that’s significant. Most “average” Americans may only vaguely know that a Euro crisis is happening (“you mean, the soccer thing?”), but if you sketch for them the outlines of the current situation, most will say that the Greeks need to clean up their act and pay their debts. Why should the Germans be blamed?  But the opposite opinion prevails among economists, almost all of whom see Germany at fault. The main points:

1) Austerity in Europe has been a mistaken policy. When financial crisis hit here in 2008, our government responded with bailouts, government spending, and cheap money to inflate the economy. Europe should do the same.

2) Germany fails to grasp its own self-interest. If lesser countries are allowed to leave the Euro zone—or forced out—it will over time almost certainly damage Germany’s powerful export machine. But Germans are choosing to punish Greece, rather than taking a coolly systemic view of the situation.

3) Germans are conveniently forgetting the role debt and debt forgiveness played at critical moments in their own history: after World War I, when massive debt destabilized governments and led to fascism; and after World War II, when the victorious allies chose the Marshall Plan (another proposal, the Morgenthau Plan, which sought to keep Germany perpetually under-developed, was rejected), forgave war debts, and laid the foundation for the postwar “economic miracle” in West Germany.

Increasingly, though, the critique rests on the idea that Germans are mean and vindictive.

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What's the problem? (Cont.)

(Continuation): A California Superior Court judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring further releases of videos surreptiously made by David Daleiden and the guerrilla film maker, Center for Medical Progress. This ABCnews story seems to imply that the company StemExpress is featured in those videos. (StemExpress was featured in the science section of the NYTimes story previously posted).

The legal grounds for the judge's action are unclear; a hearing is scheduled for August 19. Any legal beagles here able to clarify the grounds for the restraining order? [UPDATE: The Washington Post offers this legal analysis, which may turn on a California law requiring both parties to agree to a taping of a conversation.]

This story has legs and I can't help observing that taking it to court gives it very long legs. (Are there bachelor degress in film-making that teach students how to keep a story going?)

Prominent Ladyjerk Gets Happy Ending

In the movie Trainwreck, the comedian Amy Schumer stars as a reckless but successful magazine editor who has been drinking for love in all the wrong places. Like Schumer’s sketch-comedy series Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central), Trainwreck contains its share of off-color humor. (“You dress him like that just so no one else wants to have sex with him? That's cool,” she asks her sister about her husband.) She may not be everyone’s cup of tea; critics deride her work as self-gratifying, crude, and offensive. But her fans call her a brilliant, courageous feminist leader. Whatever one makes of her work, there’s no denying that she is unapologetically herself. It’s not a shtick. Schumer wants to challenge the ways in which we talk about feminism—as loaded a term as that may be.

As my friends and I left the theater after seeing the movie, all we could say was how much we love Schumer. Her voice is refreshing in a time when the culture seems to see feminism through one or the other of two opposing lenses. There are those who believe that feminism means that women should be able to do anything they want sexually without any criticism or fear of consequences – “if men can do it, so can we.” Suggest otherwise and you’re keeping women down. And then there are those who believe that by policing our own behavior, we can flourish as true women. “True empowerment” means being modest, thinking about consequences, and avoiding risky behavior.

In the movie, Amy drinks and sleeps around and explicitly avoids seeking a long-term relationship—at least at first.

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There Will Be No Buckley Revival

"It’s as if he never existed," Andrew Ferguson reports a friend recently commenting about William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review who died in 2008. Ferguson's friend mainly was referring to Buckley's place—or rather, lack thereof—among the rising generation of writers, and he goes on to suggest that "it’s not clear that younger journalists, tweeting and Snapchatting and texting and Instagramming all the livelong day, have more than a vague notion of who he was." His interlocutor is right, I think, but for reasons Ferguson might be too kind to consider directly.

Rather than blaming the digital lives of young writers for their lack of attention to Buckley, my explanation is simpler. Buckley really never wrote much of lasting significance. If you had to associate him with one form, it would be the newspaper or magazine column; the sustained work of seriously crafted books and essays eluded him. He never wrote a movement-shaping book like Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. His intellectual virtues, from what I've been able to discern, are those of the debater and polemicist more than the studious man of letters.

Think about it this way: If you wanted to introduce Buckley to a young writer, what book of his would you choose?

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What's the problem? II

Don't want to prolong this discussion, but the Science section of the NYTimes (July 28) tells us some more about fetal research, fetal tissues, and fetal parts pricing. I'm guessing Mr. Daleiden's video prompted the story. The First Post...

De-screening

Every summer for two weeks we rent a cabin in the woods of Vermont while our nine-year-old daughter goes to a Quaker-run farm and wilderness day camp nearby. Our getaway seats us in the very lap of nature. Birds of all kinds sing outside our windows; giant variegated moths drowse on the screens; the staccato tree work of woodpeckers forms a background percussion. Some unidentifiable creature howls in the woods at 2 a.m. That’s enough to make me rethink sleeping outside in my tent.

But what truly scares some potential renters of the cabin, its owner tells me, is not the presence of wild animals, but rather the absence of something else: internet. The cabin, christened “Off the Grid,” offers no TV, no WiFi, no computers, no cellphone reception. To make a call, we drive a mile down the road to a little spot between the hills where you can get a signal. To triage my email, I drive over to Woodstock twice a week and spend half an hour on the computers at the library.

The prospect of an unplugged vacation turns out to be highly polarizing. “It pretty much instantly rules out two-thirds of the people who inquire,” the cabin’s owner says. “The other third wouldn’t have it any other way.”

We are—and very happily—in that other, neo-Luddite third.

My jeremiads on the topic of handheld-addiction and digital distraction are well known to my friends. Among those friends are many who, in theory anyway, share my belief that digital devices have become a kind of mass addiction, yet still find it really hard to unplug for any substantial period. That’s a widespread reality these days. Every few months, it seems, I read an essay breathlessly touting some device-free getaway camp whose adult attendees rhapsodize proudly about unplugging—for a weekend!   

Being away from screens for two weeks poses some logistical challenges, especially in trying to clear work and correspondence away beforehand—and catch up afterward. But the benefits, for my wife and me anyway, outweigh them. Time and space to read more. To exercise and be outdoors more. To prepare a real meal, instead of throwing something together in haste, as is (alas) too often the rule at home.

And, most of all, de-screening spurs conversation.

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Grace Abounding

On this feast of Saint James, fifty years ago, I celebrated my "first Mass" in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome. My parents and then sixteen year old brother were present, along with relatives and friends from the United States and Italy. In those pre-cellphone and pre-Skype days, I had not seen or even spoken with my family for almost three years.

Many of those who were present that day have, of course, gone before "marked with the sign of faith."

The first reading for today's Mass has only grown in meaning in the intervening years:

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us ... We too believe and so we speak, knowing that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will raise us also with Jesus and will bring us with you into his presence. Indeed, everything is for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people, it may increase thanksgiving to the glory of God (2 Cor 4:7,14&15).

A blind man on a galloping horse

My father left school at the age of 16. His father was not pleased and told him that if he wasn’t going to school, he was going to work and brought him down to the brickyards with him. It didn’t take long before my father decided that perhaps he should look for something else to do. He went to secretarial school in New York City, learned shorthand and typing, and found his first real job as a travelling secretary on The Twentieth-Century Limited, the crack train that ran between New York and Chicago. He was available to take dictation and prepare documents for passengers. These would be included in mailbags that, hung outside the speeding train, were snatched by hooks at various stations and sent on their way by the Post Office.

My father lost that job when the Great Depression began and my mother and he struggled through the first years of their marriage (in 1930) as he looked for jobs. Eventually he was hired as a court stenographer in the Rockland County Courthouse, a job he continued in for some thirty-five years.

He was very good at his job, very fast at shorthand and at typing. In a sense his work was only half-done when he came home, because then he had to sit at his typewriter and turn what looked to me like scribbles into perfectly clean and readable type. These were the days before copying machines, and if more than one copy was needed, he would use as many as five or six sheets of carbon paper to make them. I can still see him, if he made a typo, having to correct it on all the copies. We children all learned how to proof-read and help him.

My father was not as good at other tasks, although God knows he tried to save money by taking on other projects inside our large house or out in the backyard. Once he built a kind of outside fireplace out of cinder blocks where we could burn our garbage–this was long before recycling and restrictions on outdoor fires. He was frustrated because he couldn’t put a nice cement facing on the blocks, something that masons could do so easily. “But then,” he said, “they probably can’t type 200 words a minute either.”

He had a favorite saying if something he was working on didn’t turn out as perfect as he wanted it to be: “Well, a blind man on a galloping horse couldn’t notice it.” I looked up the expression and found that it’s original meaning was the opposite of the one he gave it. If you wanted to say that something was completely obvious, you’d say, “Lord, a blind man on a galloping horse could see that!” But I also like my father’s use of the image, and when something my brother and I are working on doesn’t turn out quite the way we wanted, one of us is sure to say, “A blind man on a galloping horse couldn’t tell the difference.”

Any other words of wisdom gleaned from your childhood?

Now on the website

There's new content on the website.

First, E.J. Dionne Jr. explains why Donald Trump should win an award for exposing the double-standards of certain politicans: "For Republicans, Trump was a genius until he wasn’t."

The bowing before Trump, you’ll recall, was happening when the man was the midwife of birtherism. Over and over, he questioned whether President Obama was eligible to be in office because he had allegedly not been born in the United States....

The whole thing is worth a read.

Also, we've made available the best interviews conducted by Commonweal since 1939—including Woody Allen, Jorge Luis Borges, Mary Gordon, (Sister) Elizabeth McAlister, Christian Wiman, and Mario Cuomo. The list spans seventy-six years, five popes, and thirteen U.S. presidents. Each interview covers a broad range of topics, but all share the Commonweal style of putting faith in dialogue with contemporary culture in multifarious forms.

See the full list here.

Moral Voices from The East

On Monday afternoon we finished, here in Bangalore, our first ever Pan-Asian Conference of Theological Ethicists: “Doing Catholic Theological Ethics in a Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Asian Context.”  There were 95 ethicists, among whom were 14 plenary speakers and another 36 presenting paper during concurrent sessions.

One of the finest plenary sessions, “Doing Interfaith Ethics in Asia” involved three speakers from countries where Catholics are very much a minority. Delivering a flawless paper, “A God by any other name,” Sharon Bong covered the trajectory of lawsuits filed by the Catholic church in Malaysia against its government’s decision to permit only Muslims to use the word “Allah” in referencing God. For twenty centuries, Malay-speaking Christian Malaysians have used “Allah” as their word for God, easily predating the Muslim use of the word. In 2008, the Catholic press was banned from using the word, or else it would forfeit licensing. With a final court decision ultimately upholding the government ban, Bong entertained whether forgiveness or resistance marks the proper ethical response.

Haruko Okano from Japan proposed an argument on how feminist Catholic writings on “moral responsibility” could help contemporary Japanese ethics. Explaining how much a shaming culture inhibits any autonomous accountability, Okano considered how often a Japanese apology is a face-saving action that has little to do with assuming personal or social moral culpability. When asked what was the meaning of the Japanese apology for World War II, she answered that it was a way of simply saying, let bygones be bygones, a reply that left the audience speechless.

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