Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
By this author
Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On hand for the jubilee celebration will be Barack Obama. Last November, on the night it was learned that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president spoke briefly on the rule of law and the need for peaceful protest. He went on to say: "What is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down."
What would seem a blow against entrenched denialism was struck earlier this week when the Justice Department released its report detailing civil rights abuses by Ferguson's police force and municipal officials -- practices that Conor Friedersdorf likened to the kind of criminality favored by the Mafia. The repugnance of the behaviors documented (including taser attacks, canine attacks, physical and verbal intimidation, unlawful detainment, and implementation of an extortionate system of compounding fines for minor traffic violations, all targeting people of color) support the analogy. Not all municipalities resemble Ferguson; the problem is that any do. “What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” the president reiterated Friday. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.” Meanwhile, criticism of the Justice Department's report from certain quarters as politically motivated isn't just off-base, or offensive; it also simultaneously reflects and reinforces what's illustrated by the findings.
Last year, which in addition to the police-related death of Michael Brown also saw those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley, marked as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. The 1989 release was preceded by a stream of ugly commentary masquerading as criticism from nominally reputable pundits and reviewers who took issue with the movie's climactic depiction of a riot. David Denby: "If some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible." Joe Klein: "David Dinkins [then running for mayor of New York] will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, which opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)."
Can the bedroom of an eleven-year-old girl be objectively a “mess”? To a pair of exhausted, exasperated working parents the answer is obvious. But when the girl in question notes that “mess” is a value claim and thus is not a matter of fact but an opinion, the point must be grudgingly conceded -- though allowance may still be withheld.
Pride in the growing ability of your child to articulate the difference between fact and opinion is tempered by the realization that it’s being turned against you, and that it will soon be deployed in disagreements inevitably more fraught than whether the dirty socks and Taylor Swift t-shirt need to be picked up right now. That my daughter has learned this skill in school on one level validates our decision to enroll her where we did, though on another it suggests continued vigilance is warranted: The Common Core curriculum, under fire from numerous quarters for a number of reasons, is now also getting the attention of moral philosophers who say it “embeds a misleading distinction between fact and opinion.” From Justin P. McBrayer at The Stone blog of The New York Times:
[O]ur public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.
The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my [second-grade] son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth.
McBrayer says he’d realized many of his college students already don’t believe in moral facts, and that conversations with other philosophy professors suggest “the overwhelming majority of college freshmen … view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” The implications are obvious and relevant to the recent discussion here concerning curricula at Catholic universities. Concerns about moral relativism in academia are established, though, and it’s too soon to know how anything specifically inculcated by Common Core will have an effect. College students were cheating, for example, long before Common Core; so were corporate executives; so were spouses. But it bears watching, of course, given that millions of students in more than forty states are being educated according to the standards -- which themselves might have arisen out of the academic environment McBrayer describes.
Plus, given the pace of technological development, it might one day be not just human beings that need moral compassing.
Today we're proud to begin featuring Joseph A. Komonchak's 2015 Lenten Reflections, which you can find on the website at this dedicated page. Now through Easter, a new reflection will be posted daily, so please make sure to bookmark this special page for easy reading.
How should one approach Shadows in the Night, the new Bob Dylan collection of American standards once sung by Frank Sinatra? With curiosity, of course, or curiosity tinged with dread, or a roll of the eyes at the adoption of this latest persona. Or, if you're among the legions of indefatigable disciples and completists, with advance purchase and ravenous consumption. After a critic friend warned me a couple of months ago the disc would include "Some Enchanted Evening" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, we traded emails trying to one-up each other with versions of the lyric "once you have found her never let her go" in imagined Dylanese (his winning entry: "Once yubba fondue Lehigh Lego glue"). Thus add ridicule to one of the possible prejudgments, though both of us should have known better than to underestimate Dylan.
Which isn't to say Shadows in the Night is a great record. Everyone has accepted that a new Blood on the Tracks or Desire, to say nothing of Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited, is not in the cards. But of the studio recordings it's no Infidels or Knocked Out Loaded or Shot of Love; four listens in, I can say easily and with relief that it's not an embarrassment. It's definitely weird; it may even be good.
Critic James Wood once said about John Updike that “all of his books suggest a belief that life will go on, that it will be thickly unvaried, that things will not come to a stop." The "very form" of the Rabbit series, according to Wood, "incarnates a belief that stories can be continued.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to post on Andrew Sullivan’s announced retirement from blogging until it became clear whether the Daily Dish would go on without him. Today the answer came: It won’t. Sullivan this morning announced that Friday will be the Dish’s last day.
There’s been a number of encomia to Sullivan and his blog written since last week. His announcement has also elicited critiques and rehashes of previous critiques on his writing career (going back decades) and his editorial decision-making. It’s ground worth covering but also well-covered and won’t get more coverage in this post – though there may be some who have a thing or two to say.
I came around to regular reading of Sullivan’s blog about the time he was rethinking his position on the war in Iraq. Hard to say exactly what it was that made his site the first one I checked every day, or the one I soon began to check most often. But I do recall finding his site much less shrill (believe it or not) and somewhat more reasoned than those then breaking through on the left-leaning side of the blogosphere. (I’d count Matthew Yglesias as another who at the time was reliably providing a safe place of sensible commentary.) I liked that he posted on a range of serious matters and a number of others that were less so. I liked how he said what he had to say on same-sex marriage, torture, Abu Ghraib, and Dick Cheney, Michael Moore, and the Clintons. I was willing to give him even more leeway on his obsession with the story of Trig Palin’s birth and the woman who could have been vice president. I thought he captured and in some ways reflected what at the time was being characterized as the Obama phenomenon. I was also interested in his public Catholicism, and in his public hashing out of where his pronouncements and positions might put him in opposition to its tenets or most vocal adherents, or in line with them.
“It is trying on liberals in Dilton,” reads the first line of Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Barber,” which could with tweaking aptly apply to the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign season for those maybe uninclined to vote for one of the score or so of potential Republican candidates. The GOP’s field of declared and undeclared are riding the usual hobby horses--Obamacare, “big government,” Obamacare, public schools, moral collapse, Obamacare—with some already honing their grievances into slogans, sound bites, and hashtags. Does “Bubble-ville vs. Bubba-ville” work for you?
Best-selling author Mike Huckabee thinks it will. Well, maybe not for you, but hopefully for the fractious choir he’s preaching to with his newest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. “Bubble-ville” describes the population of Americans associated with the iniquitous and elite “nerve centers” of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.; “Bubba-ville,” everywhere else—“the flyover country” that “more often than not votes red instead of blue, roots for the Cowboys in the NFL and the Cardinals in the National League, and has three or more bibles in every house.” (The characterization invites debate, but, to use a construction for which Huckabee shows fondness: I digress.)
GGG&G, in short, makes use of a simple construct to capitalize on resentments by reaffirming the preconceptions and prejudices of its intended audience. Neither polemic nor screed, it’s mainly a book-length unspooling of commentary that’s also needlessly broken into chapters, though if it weren’t, then readers would be deprived of nominally edifying (if not necessarily organizing) headings like “The New American Outcasts: People Who Put Faith and Family First” and “Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!” (this following one bemoaning “The Culture of Crude”). His musings are at times entertainingly wrought. In places he risks naughty ethno-religious offense: “I can see the look of horror on the faces of friends of mine who have spent their lives in New York City when I talk about owning a wide variety of firearms: It’s the look one would get announcing in a synagogue that one owns a bacon factory” (it’s an image he uses more than once). In places he’s more plainly insulting, as when contending that Beyoncé is unwittingly allowing herself to be pimped out by her husband, Jay-Z. Sometimes he’s hilarious:
The announcement Friday that 2014 was Earth's warmest year on record prompted responses from some who accept the scientific evidence of climate change that this should finally convince those who don't.
Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?
“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"
McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.