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Monday Morning Links: March 30

Tuesday's deadline in talks over Iran's nuclear program is fast approaching. Whether or not Iran will ship its stockpile of fuel is becoming a key element in the negotiations. A brief rundown from BBC news. Confused about which countries are friends or enemies with other countries in the Middle East? This graph at The Atlantic will make it all clear.

As the Senate takes their two-week spring recess, Loretta Lynch's nomination as Attorney General is further delayed. But the Republicans are in a bind. From the New York Times: "Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, now finds himself in the conundrum that has bedeviled his counterpart in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio: Members of his party will vote no on Ms. Lynch but hope “yes” — that she will squeak through." 

The Daily Show has a new host. He is 31-year old Trevor Noah, and CNN has a clip of his appearance on the show.

At the science magazine Nautilus, neuroscience can help us understand how music warps our sense of time. There are clips of music to boot.

Mark Noll reviews Matthew Sutton's book American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism at Books and Culture. Noll sets Sutton's characterization of how evangelicals treat the end times against Grant Wacker's take on Billy Graham.

 

Seymour Hersh visits My Lai

While preparing a lesson about libel for my journalism students, I recently leafed through articles I had written on Gen. William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against CBS News in 1984. CBS had accused the general of deliberately underestimating the enemy’s troop strength during the Vietnam war, thus giving a false impression that the war was winnable. Westmoreland, charging that his honor had been impugned by slanted reportage, file a defamation suit.

My recollection is that both sides fared poorly in the courtroom battle. The evidence demonstrated some shoddy journalism on CBS’s part, with outtakes showing that interviews were quoted very selectively. But the testimony from Westmoreland’s chief of intelligence also showed that he had delayed reporting a higher enemy troop strength to Washington out of fear it would be a “political bombshell.” Rather than submit the case to the jury, Westmoreland settled the suit without collecting any damages. One press room colleague said, that CBS "framed him for something he did."

Seymour Hersh’s article in the March 30 New Yorker, “The Scene of the Crime: a reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past,” revisits the question of how important truths about the war were covered up. It’s a chilling piece in which Hersh recounts how he reported on the massacre at My Lai on March 16, 1968, when U.S. troops rounded up and executed women, children and elderly people. Returning to the scene of the crime, he visited a Vietnamese museum dedicated to the massacre and reports:

The museum’s count, no longer in dispute, is five hundred and four victims, from two hundred and forty-seven families. Twenty-four families were obliterated—–three generations murdered, with no survivors. Among the dead were a hundred and eighty-two women, seventeen of them pregnant. A hundred and seventy-three children were executed, including fifty-six infants. Sixty older men died.

 

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Selling the Bible in Cinéma Vérité

Flannery O'Connor said of her short story "Good Country People" that Hulga, the "lady Ph.D." whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman, is forced to face not just the physical affliction the object represents but also a spiritual one, namely "her own belief in nothing." Albert Maysles, who died earlier this month and who with his brother David made seminal and semi-notorious documentaries like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, depicts no loss of limb, literal or symbolic, in 1969's cinéma vérité landmark, Salesman. But the door-to-door peddler of Bibles who emerges as the central figure of the film confronts no less significant a crisis of the spirit.

Paul Brennan and the other salesmen of Salesman seem not to have grabbed viewers the way Big Edie and Little Edie Beale or Mick Jagger and the Stones at Altamont have over the years. But since Maysles's death Salesman has received a fair amount of mention and was even recently aired by Turner Classic Movies (it's also part of the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on Hulu). Pay no attention to synopses that make throwaway allusions to Willy Loman; consider Salesman an early prototype for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. There's a similar adrenaline-and-anxiety-fueled mood, with manufactured optimism verging on self-delusion as the salesmen alternately hail and curse a system under which they're free to make money using nothing but their wits.

Of course, the big difference is that Salesman, shot with handheld cameras in black-and-white and ambient sound, isn't scripted drama. That the products being sold are the Bible, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Missal, and other Catholic publications adds a whole other component: The quartet documented by the Maysles seem obligated to place special faith in what they're peddling -- after all, these aren't vacuum cleaners.

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Ignatian LGBTQ & Ally conference turns two

Tonight at Georgetown University the second annual IgnatianQ conference kicks off a weekend of lectures, breakout sessions, dialogues and keynotes that uniquely focus on LGBTQ issues and Jesuit values, aiming to create a community of people active in their faith, community and campus, who continue conversations. The first IgnatianQ (after ivyQ) was hosted by Fordham last year—created, planned and organized entirely by students. It grew from one conversation between two people on a roof to a three-day dialogue of 96 participants traveling from six different Jesuit schools to attend. And now it's in it's second year.

Bolstered by the University’s mission statement and the powers vested in academic freedom, the group of organizers approached the Theology department first with a 12 page proposal they’d carefully put together through months of weekly meetings, unsure and anxious about how well it’d go over. They not only received “overwhelming support” of the idea for IgnatianQ but also a keynote speaker, $300, and a room to hold meetings on campus—legitimacy. Soon enough many other departments signed on and they had enough money and backing to let real preparations for the conference begin. Anthony, one of the originators, remembers with slight disbelief meeting with the University vice president, who’d need to talk with the president (both priests) who’d need to approve the conference. “I told him ‘I pray that the politics of man do not interfere with the work of the holy spirit in organizing this conference’” Plainly, “Don’t let your reservations about the word queer get in the way of what these students need right now.” And they didn’t.

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Kumbaya nervous breakdown (cont.)

In Wednesday's post I asked: what next for U.S.-Israeli ties? 

Among the comments, J.P. Farry posted this grim but perhaps realistic analysis: "The reaction of so many Israelis to Obama's response to Bibi's election eve statement reflects their long-standing expectation that US Presidents are supposed to cut Israeli prime ministers "a lot of slack" given the tumultuous character of Israeli politics.

"We now know that almost every President since 1948 has experienced periods of frlustration with Israeli prime ministers  But past presidents, by either their silence or direct statements, have never questioned the "good intentions" of Israeli leaders in pursuing a 2-state solution. Obama has just said he ls not going to provide this "cover"--even when Bibi offered him a second chance to indirectly and discretely testify to Bibi's "peace credentials."  (At the same time, Obama's Chief of Staff, in addressing the J-Street Convention, referred to the need to end "50 years of occupation."  -- The "O" word is not supposed to spoken in DC.--)

"Israeli leaders since the Oslo Agreement  20 years ago have been realists.  Accepting a 2-state agreement poses security and political risks that maintaining "the occupation"--particularly as it now exists--would not seem to involve. Bibi, in his slip of the tongue on the eve of the election--admitted what no Israeli leader has previously dared to admit--the "status quo" (the "occupation") is the best of all probable world that the Israelis can hope for.

"Why not!  The US has reconstructed the PA security forces so they are more effective in maintaining order on the West Bank; settlements can be incrementally expanded with limited and passing objections; Israeli intelligence agents have effectively infilltrated Palestinian society; and  "international donors" (the US, EU and Arab League) provide over a billion dollars a year to alliviate the harshest economic consequences of the "occupation."

 "At the moment, the Palestinians seem to have only one bargaining chip: the threat of another "Infitada." (It would seem inevitable that such an uprising would be treated as the projection of Islamic State violence and quickly and harshly suppressed by both the Israelis and Americans.)

"If Obama had remained silent--(or if he now agrees to publically sing "kumbaya" with Bibi)--we might be able to retain the tatered "hope" that a     2-state solution is within reach as soon as there is a Palestinian partner who shares Bibi's willingness to negotiate. Bibi's comments (and Obama's response) make it impossible for us to continue with this self-deception.

"Bibi's (and Obama's) candor present the Palestinians (as well as the Europeans and the other financial supporters of the Palestinians) with a changed diplomatic context.  However it is not at all clear that the sudden interjection of candor into this implacable conflict will open up new avenues for the non-violent dismantling of Israeli's "best probable solution"-- the occupation.

"While candor is toxic for self-deception, it may only trigger the creation of new self-deceptions."

And if you're up for more, check out the Forward on what American-Israeli lobbying groups should be doing.... a bit of bury your head in the sand, maybe this will go away.

"Listen & Other Stories" by Liam Callanan

Fiction fans, you may remember Liam Callanan's short story "Exhibit A," which we had the good fortune -- and good taste -- to publish in Commonweal last summer. (If not, go ahead and read it now.) I'm pleased to inform you that our good taste has been validated by the Council for Wisconsin Writers, which has recognized "Exhibit A" with honorable mention for its Zona Gale Award for Short Fiction. Update: here's an exclusive quote from the judges' citation, guaranteed to make you want to read or reread: "Liam Callanan's 'Exhibit A' is an unlikely love story set among an animatronic Marie Curie and Tesla's coil. By turns bizarre and intimate, Callanan's story is a gem worthy of its own display in the Hall of Wonders."

If you liked "Exhibit A" (not to mention Liam Callanan's other writing for Commonweal), you'll be glad to know that it's included in Listen & Other Stories, Callanan's new collection of short fiction from Four Way Books. Milwaukee-area readers can celebrate its launch tomorrow night, March 27, at Boswell Book Company. If you should make it to that or any of the stops on the Listen tour --New Yorkers have two chances, April 19 and May 7 -- be sure to tell the author that Commonweal sent you.

Let's hear it for Fanny Howe's nomination

This week, the Man Booker International Prize announced their shortlist for the £60,000 award, and the only American who made the cut was the poet, novelist and essayist Fanny Howe. Howe was nominated for her sixteenth book of poetry, Second Childhood, released by Graywolf press. As if we needed another reason to be curious about it, it also made Anthony Domestico's list of the Best Books of 2014,

Howe is a Catholic writer. She encountered the faith through her second husband's mother, and converted after they had divorced. Adding any adjective before "writer" can be dangerous, as though it classifies the work in a pre-determined way, but be assured Howe's poems, essays and fiction don't tip the scales into annoying piety, and it is the opposite of didactic. Suggesting that she's a writer who happens to be Catholic would ignore how faith shapes her work's subject and its form. Liberation theology presses on her imagination (in one of her novels especially, appropriately titled Saving History). In her poetry, her sense of time is especially distinctive. In her essay, "Footsteps Over Ground," she writes:

The calendar year for daily working life is the same for all of us, but there is a second calendar: the church calendar that refers to the birth, murder, and resurrection of Jesus, which is an absolutely archetypal story, a poetic rendition of any human life. The Mass, with its readings from the Gospel stories, and the the Eucharistic rite, repeated for centuries, is an account of the cooperation of transcendence with the ordinary. If it is an opiate, all the better.

In the liturgy's repetition, Howe finds a place to return to outside chronological time. Time is not a straight line or a circle, as we often hear, but a spiral. She writes what she calls spiral or series poems that return to the same place from another direction, as though the reader and the speaker were disoriented in a forest. In her essay "Bewilderment" she explains that these poems come from "my experience of non-sequential, but intensely connected, time-periods and the way they impact on each other, but lead nowhere."

Her poem "A Hymn" is an example, beginning with an epigraph by Dostoevsky that sets the tone for the bewilderment Howe is interested in. 

When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I'm even pleased that I'm falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.
          —Fyodor Dostoevsky

I traveled to the page where scripture meets fiction.
The paper slept but the night in me woke up.

Black letters were now alive
and collectible in a material crawl.

I could not decipher their intentions anymore.
To what end did their shapes come forth?

Read the rest of the poem at The Poetry Foundation.  It will be worth your (strange, out of sequence) time.

Compare and Contrast: A Spanish Recruitment Video for the Priesthood

The immensely learned Rita Ferrone has called attention to a recruitment video (in Spanish with English subtitles) that is very different in tone than that of Father Barron. I think a compare and contrast is in order.

What struck me most was the invitational quality of this video. The candidates are being invited into a mystery, not a clearly defined web of doctrinal propositions or a certain command and control structure. It inivtes to a kind of camaraderie of service,  I think. 

No kumbaya for the nervous breakdown

Read the editors' sane, balanced and forthright editorial on Netanyahu's election and the fall-out. Then read the comments virtually charging CWL with anti-S. Talk about swarming! [NB: I am not an editor! Didn't write it!]

Then look at Jodi Rudoren in Wednesday's Times about Israelis having a nervous breakdown over the Obama Administration's straight talking about the state of the two-state solution. The nerve of President Cool. "The president’s harsh words have been deemed by some to be patronizing and disrespectful not only to Mr. Netanyahu but also to the voters who rewarded his uncompromising stances with a resounding mandate for a fourth term."  "Patronizing!" "Disrespectful!" Wow. Pots and Kettles!

Then here's a little something "Washington Sits Shiva for the 2-State Solution" from Mondoweiss (somethimes charged with being a self-hating J, akin to anti-S). "Israeli PM Netanyahu’s dismissal of the two-state solution in the last days of the election campaign in Israel is having a huge and beneficial effect on the discussion of the conflict inside the United States. Yesterday President Obama leaped on the PM’s comments at a press conference, stating severely that the two-state solution is not going to happen in the next “several” years, and we have to deal with that reality, and no one’s going to get anywhere by singing “kumbaya.”

What next? Your policy proposals.

5 ways to apologize for your homeless-irrigation system.

Like most people who think it’s a bad idea to spray homeless people with water in order to move them along, I found myself rather surprised by last week’s news that the cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco had been doing just that for the past two years. The archdiocese’s response was swift. The day the story broke it hired a crisis communications consultant, began dismantling the homeless irrigation system, and issued a statement that included an apology. Obviously when a Catholic church is discovered to have been regularly dousing the poor with water—for whatever reason—it has a major PR problem. Facing such a crisis, a church’s best bet is to admit the mistake, explain how it happened, and offer sincere apologies to the offended. In other words, stop digging. But that’s not exactly what the Archdiocese of San Francisco did, and that’s why it’s hard to accept the words it arranged in the form of an apology. How might it have been more convincing? Let’s count the ways.

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What's on the website

Featured right now on the website: Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he reports on preparations for Holy Week at the Vatican (Francis will "wash the feet of inmates at the Rebibbia Detention Centre on the outskirts of Rome. And, as in the past, some of them will be women"), as well as on new comments from Cardinal Kasper on mercy, expectations for the October synod, and Francis's feelings about clericalism ("he hates it!"). Read the whole Letter from Rome here.

Also, our editors on the electoral victory of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the "ugliness of democratic politics":

As happens all too often in democracies, Netanyahu’s scorched-earth politics won the day. ... However, building bridges to his domestic political rivals may be easier than repairing his relationship with the Obama administration.

Predictably enough, Netanyahu has already retreated from his pre-election rejection of a two-state solution and apologized for his remarks about Arab Israelis. How sincere his recantations are remains to be seen; the White House appears skeptical. Netanyahu’s credibility could hardly be lower. His cynical and expedient rejection of a Palestinian state made a mockery of the Obama administration’s efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Allying himself with congressional Republicans to sabotage negotiations with Iran put traditional bipartisan support for Israel at risk. Should the administration and its international partners succeed in striking a deal with Iran, Netanyahu’s opposition is now a foregone conclusion. In other words, although the U.S. commitment to Israel’s military defense is not in jeopardy, it seems clear that the interests of the two nations are beginning to diverge in important ways.

Read all of "An Ugly Business" here.

Lee Kuan Yew: Pragmatism for Whom?

In the recent commentary marking the death of Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew, one characteristic of the late statesman has received much attention: his pragmatism.

The March 23 edition of the New York Times features a piece by Roger Cohen grandiloquently proclaiming that “the 20th century produced few greater statesmen and perhaps no greater pragmatist” and an op-ed by Ali Wyne, who writes that “in leading Singapore, [Lee] was, above all, a pragmatist.” The Economist’s obituary of Lee (featured in yesterday's Monday Morning Links) is slightly more descriptive, “for [Lee] ideology always took second place to a pragmatic appreciation of how power works.” Even an article critical of Lee’s authoritarianism acknowledges his “trademark pragmatism.”

In attempting to define Lee’s pragmatism, Roger Cohen writes that “Lee had one basic yardstick for policy: Does it work?” Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) Cohen does not ask the important follow-up question: “For whom?” British economist Nigel Harris, writing in 1978, sheds some light on this question:

Singapore’s economy relies heavily on an Untouchable caste of immigrant workers (possibly 120,000 in all, with an unknown number of “illegal” immigrants), most of them from neighbouring Malaysia, but with others from Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Immigration is divided between low and high paid labour. The first enters on three year work permits (six month work permits for jobs in construction). Work permit holders have no right of permanent settlement, may not change their jobs for three years (if they lose their job, they are liable to deportation), are not eligible for public housing or welfare and medical services; many, six to a room, housed in makeshift shacks near their worksite, work seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, for a pittance. They are forbidden to hold trade union office, and militancy can also evoke deportation. Work permit holders are forbidden to marry without special permission from the labour commissioner; permission may only be granted to those who have worked five years in Singapore with a “clean” record and who sign a bond accepting that both partners to the marriage agree to be sterilized after a second child is born. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew justified the policy on straight 1930s “eugenics” grounds that “The better educated and more rational” are not replacing themselves because of their low birth rate; whereas “a multiple replacement rate at the bottom [leads to] a gradual lowering of the general quality of the population.”

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Romero Vive

On this anniversary of Romero's death, I want to share one of my favorite pictures of him. In many ways it is the same image whether or not the priest in black figures in the center of the photo. Romero is famously quoted saying "If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people" weeks before he was shot while saying mass. Pass through any poor neighborhood in El Salvador (which is about 90% of the country) and you see evidence of this in hundreds of colorful murals painted in his honor. Behind these Romero-painted walls are often community centers, schools, clinics. Inside certain walls tens (in some places hundreds) of photos of the local dead hang to be remembered. 

One such community center, or comunidad de base, in the San Ramon neighborhood of the capital San Salvador is named Pueblo de Dios en camino (the "people of God walking" or "on the path"). The reason Pueblo exists is to meet the needs of the community. I do not know the full scope of the programs they provide but I know they are essential. My role when I visited weekly during my semester abroad was to accompany and learn from a "delegate of the word" named Hector. We carried sacks of rice, sugar, sometimes beans, sometimes nothing two miles up the steep side of the San Salvador volcano to an isolated community of Evangelical Christians who'd remained on the land they once came to as hired coffee harvesters. The farm has since moved to more profitable soil, and the people of Las Nubes ("the clouds") remain in tin-roof huts with no running water, electricity, or right to the land that would enable them to demand these things. Hector spent the day sitting in plastic chairs in the cleanly swept dirt-floor living rooms of these families and listened to their needs. Listening was essential before deciding on the right action; Romero practiced and preached this. Pueblo began organizing a system to pipe water from a tank at the base of the volcano up to Las Nubes in 2010. They completed it last year. It is one of many similar projects.

On Sundays they have Mass (or "Celebration of the Word"), with or without a priest. For a while it was two Belgian priests who came to visit, I was told on my first day there by the woman in charge--but no one here had seen them for a while. "It's not important, because we have the body of Christ here," she said. The readings follow the liturgical calendar. Each week a different member of the community is selected to share how the gospel reading "was lived" that week for him or her (Romero was quoted often, often more than the gospel). At the appropriate time, a large amount of bread was distributed to each of the families, and we drank SalvaCola out of Styrofoam cups. 

Six months in El Salvador, the country where Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed for practicing his faith, taught me the true meaning of church. Romero's upcoming beatification means, for many people, a just truth finally becoming officially true. His prediction was correct. 

Barron: Basketball, Heroism, and Holiness

I have no doubt Father Robert Barron is having a tough time with the change in papacy, as well as the change in the Archbishop of Chicago. His sensibilities seem far more attuned to the JPII and Benedict eras than the poor church of the poor called for by Francis.  That's fine- we all don't need the same sensibilities. 

Still, a friend called my attention to this video about the priesthood and it left me, well, flummoxed -  and a little uncomfortable, to tell the truth. The values seem, well, really off.  I think basketball is a fine sport-- but a model for heroic priesthood? There are priests dying for the faith in the Middle East. And it is all JPII -- just a brief shot of Francis, which is visually jarring since the shot only emphasizes the vast differences in liturgical sensibilities between Barron, who seems to follow Ratzinger's style, and the current papacy.

As a recruitment tool, the video seems to be in the middle of a time warp. JPII has been dead for a decade now and the last ten years of his life were not the model of vigor and physical strength that probably brought men of Father Barron's age to the priesthood.  Francis is the pope now- -and by all accounts, pretty popular. Why not use him as the centerpiece of a recruiting video?

update: I watched the video a second time: there are no women--the candidates are interacting only with men. The emphasis is on the celebration of the Eucharist-- no baptism, no anointing of the sick, no penance, no sacraments of marriage.  There is virtually no Church. The priest is a lone romantic figure, standing beside a lake. There are no corporal or spiritual works of mercy portrayed. There is no one old, no one messy, no one uncoordinated. And no one too short to play basketball. It looks like a recruiting tool for the Legion of Christ-- maybe that's the source of my discomfort.

Can any one help me make sense of this? Is this code to say: "come to Mundelein and you won't have to pay any attention to Francis's pesky rejection of clerical privilege?" Or does it reflect the view that Francis's popularity doesn't translate into vocations?

And really: why basketball?

Ted Cruz: Ability, will, but maybe no way

Whether Ted Cruz can be president is a different question than whether he will be. The answer to the first is a definitive yes, at least on eligibility. Though Cruz was born in Canada, his mother was born in the United States, which makes him an American citizen. Cruz in this way is like John McCain (birthplace: Panama Canal Zone) and George Romney (birthplace: Mexico): children of U.S.-born parents, and thus able to run for U.S. president.  And like this guy (birthplace: Hawaii).

The answer to the second question is almost as definitive: Cruz, who Monday became the first candidate to officially enter the race with a midnight Tweet and a midmorning address at evangelical Liberty University, will almost certainly not be president. The fact that he announced so early in some ways speaks to this: With money already heading to such likely candidates as Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, Cruz couldn’t afford to wait much longer. Additionally, the GOP’s distaste for its own still-first-term senator, over stunts like the non-filibuster over the Affordable Care Act and his role in shutting down the government in 2013, is well known. Cruz did place in third in last month’s CPAC straw poll (after Walker and Paul), suggesting to some he might have early primary promise, but by many accounts he remains “the most hated man in the senate” and not very much liked in general

Cruz made his announcement at Liberty’s weekly convocation, student attendance at which is mandatory. The ovations he received, however, seemed spontaneous, with applause greeting his calls to abolish the IRS, abolish Obamacare, abolish same-sex marriage…. “It’s time for truth, for liberty … a time to reclaim the constitution of the United States,” he said. “Reclaim the promise of America. Reclaim the mandate, the hope and opportunity … we stand together for liberty…. The answer will not come from Washington but from people of faith and lovers of liberty….” The Aaron Tippin song “Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagles Fly” played when Cruz finished speaking. (Lyric snip: “I was born by God’s dear grace/in an extraordinary place/where the stars and stripes and eagles fly” – something Canadian citizens might be surprised to learn about their country.)

Liberty the university was established by Jerry Falwell, and the school called Cruz’s decision to announce his candidacy there “fitting, as [he] has joked that ‘I’m Cuban, Irish and Italian, and yet somehow I ended up Southern Baptist.’” The university nonetheless noted it is by law prohibited from endorsing candidates, and indeed more from the GOP are likely to stop by in the course of the campaign, just as others have in previous ones. Cruz’s fondness for overheated rhetoric (“your world’s on fire,” he insisted at a New Hampshire speech last week) prompts David Ludwig at The Atlantic to call him characteristic of what Richard Hofstadter identified as the paranoid style of American politics. But that seems to assign more to Cruz than he should be called on to bear. He doesn’t appear to believe in his paranoid claims in the way, say, of Ron Paul, and maybe not even of Rand, whose relatively formidable presence was visible at Monday’s Liberty event: a row of attendees in bright-red “I Stand with Rand” t-shirts, ruining what otherwise might have made fine campaign footage of Cruz and his smiling, waving family (video here, at about the 35:50 mark).

Monday Morning Links: March 23

Today, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras will meet with Angela Merkel in Berlin in talks that will address concerns that Greece is running out of money, and surely address Greece's plan for financial reform. From BBC news:

The new crisis comes less than a month after the German parliament approved a four-month extension of rescue finance for Greece while the new government attempts to enact economic reforms.

But relations between Germany and Greece have since deteriorated, with Greece threatening to seize German property as compensation for a Nazi atrocities in World War Two.

Just after midnight, with a tweet and a video, Ted Cruz announced his plan to run for president, becoming the first major candidate to officially enter the race.

The Economist describes Lee Kuan Yew's legacy, founder of Singapore who died this weekend at the age of 91. 

Stephanie Mencimer writes in Mother Jones about mental illness and the death penalty in light of Scott Panetti's case.

"So how do judges decide whether a prisoner is too delusional for a civilized society to execute? Often, it turns out, they rely on psychiatrists whose recommendations seem to have little basis in science—hired guns whose testimony can give pro-death-penalty jurists cover for rulings that otherwise would seem to contradict the dictates of the Supreme Court." 

The Guardian writes about the $10,000 donation BP’s Political Action Committee gave to Jim Inhofe, the same Republican senator who tossed a snowball in the Senate floor to express skepticism about climate change.

While this Atlantic piece is from last week, James Parker on G. K. Chesterton is an introduction to the author's many paradoxes, and it's eminently readable.

Has the National Review Lost Touch with the Christian Tradition?

National Review founder William F. Buckley with an early edition of the magazine

For my 18th birthday I got a subscription to National Review from my grandfather. When I thanked him he replied brusquely, "You've spent your whole life in that house getting one side of the story. I thought it was time you heard the other side."

As I was preparing to go to college in a faraway city, that was music to my ears—I was moving out of my parents' house anyway, and this meant I'd be exposed to even more new ideas. As the year went on however, I read each new issue with a growing sense of disappointment: not because the ideas were conservative, but because so many of the articles were just flat-out illogical and poorly argued.

Those memories came flooding back when reading David French's article, "Is Obama Really a Christian?", in the current issue of the magazine. What's most striking—and disappointing—about the piece is its smallness of mind.  When all the huffing and puffing is done about Rev. Wright, Black liberation theology, and the callers to Christian radio shows who are (still) convinced the president is a Muslim, French's argument boils down to the fact that President Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ...and acts like it.

Barack Obama may believe in black-liberation theology, or he may not. He may have a close relationship with God, or he may not. We can’t know his heart. But when it comes to his civic religion, President Obama is his church’s—and liberal Christianity’s—great and mighty instrument.

In reaching that conclusion, French betrays a startling degree of ignorance about the UCC and the broader Christian tradition. As Charlie Pierce noted on Esquire's Politics blog,

The UCC is a direct theological descendant of the Congregationalism that brought the Pilgrims here. Gradually, after the Great Awakening of the mid-18th Century, while losing people to Unitarianism, the Congregationalists began to merge with other denominations until the UCC was formed. But, right from the time the Pilgrims got on the boat, the church had a tradition of self-governance and a fundamental revulsion at the notion of an ecclesiastical hierarchy. It's not the New-Age-y self-help group that (French) seems to think it is. That the UCC is extensively involved in various causes that give the author the willies is his problem, not the church's.

Except for a passing mention that some Catholics didn't agree with some of Bill Clinton's policies, French demonstrates no awareness of Christian theology, traditions or practices outside of those within the relatively narrow confines of American Protestantism in recent decades. If only he'd been writing for a journal of serious conservative intellectual thought, maybe he'd have found an editor to introduce him to a world of Christian conservatism and orthodoxy that extended beyond his own experience.

Dante's Ontology

A few years back I reviewed for Commonweal a fine collection of essays on Dante Alighieri. One of the essays in Dante's Commedia: Theology as Poetry spoke of Dante's debt to Neoplatonic metaphysics and said:

This is an ontology of the "image" or "icon," in which the sensible cosmos is viewed as a likeness of the intelligible reality that is its source.

Yesterday's New York Times made an intriguing reference to Dante's "ontology" – though a different Dante, in a different city, not Florence, but the Big Apple. The Times reports:

Dante’s parents, the mayor and his wife, Chirlane McCray, came out on Saturday to watch some of the preliminary rounds of the tournament, held at Stuyvesant High School by the New York State Debate Coaches Association.

The issue was environmental preservation, and Dante and his debate partner prevailed with an appeal to – ontology! The report continues:

Dante and Samuel argued that people should stop viewing the ocean as only a resource to be exploited. To make their case, they leaned heavily on ontology, a branch of metaphysics, as high schoolers will do. Though their argument was far too deep to be encapsulated in a newspaper article, suffice it to say that the judges, unlike some parents, followed it just fine.

Now, though readers of the Times may find themselves befuddled by such esoteric metaphysics, it should be well within the comfort zone of dotCommonwealers. So how about signing Dante up to comment on the Pope's forthcoming Encyclical on the Environment? An ontological mindset may move us beyond the predictable polarizations it's bound to produce.

Pope Francis accepts Cardinal Keith O'Brien's resignation.

Today the Holy See announced that Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Scotland has resigned the "rights and privileges" of being a cardinal. The news follows the conclusion of a Vatican investigation of allegations that O'Brien sexually harrassed adult men, including a seminarian, and carried on a long-term sexual relationship with a priest. O'Brien, once an outspoken critic of homosexuality, resigned as archbishop of Edinburgh in 2013, admitting that "many times" his sexual conduct had "fallen below the standards expected of me as a priest, archbishop, and cardinal.” And he recused himself from the conclave that elected Pope Francis. Until now, O'Brien had been living in a seaside home apparantly enjoying the rights and privileges of a cardinal. Not anymore. He won't be able to participate in any more conclaves, or act as an adviser to the pope. Still, O'Brien gets to keep his title, even if he's permitted to wear his red hat and vestments only in private.

This is "an extraordinarily decisive act of governance that combines justice with mercy," according to Gerard O'Collins. Andrea Tornielli called the pope's decision "courageous." It may be merciful and it's certainly extraordinary (the last time a cardinal resigned was in 1927). But is it decisive? Courageous? I have my doubts.

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Soaking the Homeless - Update

After the day-long media storm over news that San Francisco’s Saint Mary’s Cathedral had for two years been using a watering system to douse homeless people sheltering in its alcoves, the archdiocese has issued an apology and states that the system has been removed. 

(Update: Bishop William Justice, who is also the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, addresses the press in this video clip. "Nobody mentioned anything for two years," he says at one point. "Not that that makes it right.")

The cathedral, the home church of Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, installed the system about two years ago after learning about its effectiveness in the city’s financial district “as a safety, security and cleanliness measure.” The sprinklers, mounted about thirty feet high in four locations, would activate automatically every thirty to sixty minutes, for more than a minute, simultaneously in all locations. There were no signs to warn those gathered below that such a system was in use, though according to archdiocese spokesperson Larry Kramer, “No Trespassing” signs had been posted.

At the time of installation, the cathedral felt it was “fighting a losing battle against crack pipes and condoms and human waste,” Kramer said. The cathedral had tried extra lighting and security guards, without success, according to Kramer, who acknowledged there was “hesitation” about other methods – including gates to close off the areas in question. When asked whether the cathedral would have continued its practice of dousing homeless people if not for Wednesday’s report by a local radio station, Kramer allowed that that was a “fair” assumption. The method “worked,” he said, though it is unclear how well, given that homeless people were still sheltering in these areas, in some cases using umbrellas.

Though the archdiocese says it tried to get homeless people to move to other areas at the cathedral, it has not specifically identified those locations. Further, the system, according to reports, did not in fact clean the alcove areas: because no drainage system was installed, water would simply collect where it fell. The cathedral also installed the system without acquiring necessary city permits; it may also violate water-use laws in California, which is in its fourth year of damaging drought. Asked why or how the cathedral could have undertaken installation of a system of such scope in such a prominent structure, without permits, Kramer said the “why when and how of the original decision remains fuzzy.” He said that the cathedral – “normally assiduous” about process -- had acquired retroactive permitting for the original installation as it prepared to dismantle the system yesterday.

There’s more than what publicity people call “unfortunate optics” here. That a Catholic church could treat vulnerable people gathered on its own steps with such disregard is bad enough on its own, but there’s something additionally troubling about it being expressed so, well, cowardly -- from above, without warning, and automatically activated: set it, and forget it. Think about how those who approved the system and countenanced its continued operation might not have been all that far away, perhaps sleeping, and almost certainly dry.

But, said Kramer: “As human beings, they felt terrible.”

There may yet be more to come on this.