Pharming for Profit Part One

‘Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it – would they let me – since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in.” Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”

In a terrible hot summer when I was nine or ten, my mother did not allow her then five children out of the yard because the plague had come to my hometown, and no one knew what to do about it. No pick-up baseball games or stickball with a chalked strike zone on the cement of the school wall as we usually played almost every day. The town swimming pool was drained and closed with locked gates and warning signs. Life Magazine had cover stories and pictures of the paralyzed kept breathing through a tube loaded contraption called an “Iron Lung.” The patient victim was laid on their back looking up with only their head exposed, a seal around their necks and haunted eyes; a mirror was suspended at an angle attached to the mouth of the machine so they could see visitors.

The white and chrome gleaming artificial lung alternated pressure and non-pressure to fill and empty the lungs with an ominous repetitive pumping sound as it filled and emptied the chamber enclosing their body, reminding all with every pulsation of fragility and mortality. White and chrome cylinders the size of coffins with thick windows so the doctors could monitor the movements of the chest, but a harkening to the rack in a wicked baron’s castle troubled all who saw them. After the disease ran its course, some of the afflicted would regain their strength, some would die, and some would pass the rest of their lives with metal braces on their withered legs to enable them to get around. We’d see them lurching about and avert our eyes. Polio. Polio. Polio. Polio. Fear in whispered conversations among the mothers of the neighborhood. Like practicing by futilely ducking under our school desks for a Cold War nuclear drill, polio left a mark on all the children who went through that summer.

When Jonas Salk tested and developed his vaccination a year or so later, we lined up for the shots at the town Blackburn Memorial Hall.  All the school nurses administered them when we came back in the fall for any who had missed the first round. Jubilation. Freedom to roam and swim and play pick up baseball. Polio shots were added to smallpox inoculations with their telltale irregular round scar on our upper arms as regular immunization against that with which we had no other defense. Vaccinations. Miracles.

But something has gone amiss, and like all man-made miracles they can run awry with unforeseen, powerful consequences, especially when the miracles intertwine with political agendas, social engineering and money.

“This is the first time in medicine’s history the drug industry has placed at our disposal a powerful, disease-producing chemical for use in the healthy rather than the sick.” Dr. Herbert Ratner, so called Senate “Nelson Pill Hearings,” 1970

Dr. Ratner will reappear in a later post, and probably more than two for this is complicated. Drawing analogies between vaccinations and birth control pills will take some explanation, but for now, we will stick with the former and postpone the latter. But analogy does exist, and the implications are alarming. His quote almost fifty years ago was prophetic; limiting his observations to just the Pill was optimistic. What could be a better business model for big Pharma than producing something highly profitable for healthy people, not just the sick? There is a much larger market with the well.

Both before and after the polio terror, most of us developed normal immunity to what were called normal “childhood illnesses” through exposure, various rashes, fevers, swellings and outbreaks. I had them all: mumps both sides, measles, chicken pox and rubella, along with the usual panoply of flus, stomach bugs and fifty or so upper respiratory infections. During this rite of passage, we acquired for the most part lifetime immunity. Deaths from these diseases were very rare and usually in people otherwise compromised by poor health. I never heard of anybody dying from one of them; most, like me, rested quietly, isolated as much as possible in rooms shared with siblings with some books and a hovering mother bringing sweet drinks, Jello in our favorite flavor (I liked the red stuff) and whatever else we could stand until the symptoms passed. Our siblings usually wound up sick too. Sometimes we skipped a few days of school unless we were unlucky enough to catch one during vacations. If we developed a spectacular rash or swollen glands, there were pictures taken for family albums to torture us as adolescents at gatherings and with prospective spouses.

Vaccinations do not grant lifetime immunity in most cases and require booster shots (whatever that means) from time to time, which most adults do not get. Most adults in their thirties think they are fully immune because of their childhood inoculation, but they are wrong.  Childhood diseases incurred as an adult are more severe, more unpleasant and can carry more serious consequences.

We had two vaccinations: smallpox and a combination diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT) in a few stages. Before we were two, we had five shots and never more than one in an office visit. Later came polio, first as shot, later taken orally.  In 1986, there were twelve shots. Today there are fifty-four with multiple shots for some and kids get up to five in one visit. Check the attached schedule. [i] What was when I was a kid a small part of the pharmaceutical industry is now almost twenty percent of their revenue and a fifty-billion-dollar monster revenue producer. And miracle of miracles for a business, the vaccine producers are indemnified against any losses by a Federal piece of legislation called the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986. Can’t be sued. Skate free from any threat to their guaranteed profits. Any claims go into something called the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) that was set up after lots of claims had the pharmaceutical corporations threatening to stop producing them. The government in its capacity as grand nanny decided that the public interest was best served by covering the tail side of Big Pharma. Did you know that? [ii]More next time.

One more piece of data to mull over before the next chapter: the flood of children with chronic diseases [iii] breaks down like this: children born before 1989 when the new vaccine protocols vastly expanded are afflicted with a chronic illness at a 12.8% rate. Those born after 1989 are stricken at a 54% rate. [iv]Bet you didn’t know that either.

Hopefully without drawing the quick and understandable wrath of either the proponents or the anti-vaxxers and being immediately consigned to the crazies, we will explore this a bit more in the next post.  Please hold your fire until then.

“The truth is, of course, that Mr. Shaw is cruelly hampered by the fact that he cannot tell any lie unless he thinks it is the truth.” G.K. Chesterton. From the introduction to “Orthodoxy” about his good friend and frequent debating opponent, the Progressive, George Bernard Shaw.

[i] From the Children’s Health Defense organization: CDC Recommended Vaccine Schedule

[ii] Would be like if the car companies came up with a pure hydrogen powered car that fixed much of the CO2 emissions terror and fit right in with the anthropogenic climate change scare agenda. Trouble is in some very rare instances they would explode into tiny pieces, killing everyone in a 100’ radius. Then the government to push the progressive rock up the hill passes legislation to indemnify the car companies from damages, so that they’ll keep making the damn things. Far-fetched? Maybe. The good of the many outweighs the assured harm to the tiny few.

[iii] They’re the neuro-developmental diseases, ADD, ADHD, language delays, speech delays, tics, Tourette Syndrome, ASD, and autism. The auto-immune disorders, Guillan-Barre, multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. The anaphylactic diseases, food allergies, rhinitis, asthma, and eczema. (From a speech this year by Robert Kennedy Jr.)

[iv] Ibid

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Lil’ Rhody Part 2

“Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.” Will Rogers

Senate President Ruggerio and House Speaker Mattiello (from WPRO 2015)

The last post ended with Rhode Island’s colorful rogue, Buddy Cianci, long time Providence mayor and failed gubernatorial candidate. This time up, the current gray denizens inhabiting the Rhode Island statehouse make their appearance. Long dominated by the Democrat Party, Rhode Island politics are inbred and clubby on a need to know basis. Outsiders and voters don’t need to know.

Much has been written about ‘deep state’ bureaucracy in Washington: privileged, secretive and shielded from view, intensely ideological, entitled, entrenched, metastasizing relentlessly and ruthless in its self-regard and self-preservation.  Each state has its own version; Rhode Island is no exception.

When Rita worked as Executive Director of Rhode Island Right to Life, she was a registered lobbyist and stalked the corridors of the statehouse discussing pending legislation relevant to her organization with state reps and senators and occasionally governors and Federal reps and senators.  On one of her first visits to the Statehouse, Rita was anxious to learn the ways of the labyrinth.  She went to the office of a friend, who was office manager to the Democrat Senate Majority Leader, who eventually quit under a cloud. Under a cloud is how many incumbents reluctantly fade away in Rhode Island.

While she was there, a confidant of her friend and recently in her probationary period as a new state employee, rushed through the door and breathlessly exclaimed, “I got my benefits!” She had the enthusiasm of someone who just hit the lottery. And in a way, she had. Lifetime health care and pension benefits, and even though grossly underfunded by a legislature reluctant to disclose the full costs of employee sinecures to the voters, the promise was at least there for permanent security. “I got my benefits!” translated as “I am now deeply ensconced in the elite cadre of protected forever state workers!” Or in short, “Hallelujah, hallelujah, there is a God!![i]

After Rita left her friend’s office, she made her way down the stairs past another public employee sitting at a naked desktop in an empty corridor waiting for his benefits. On his desk was nothing: no phone, no computer, no paper, not even a magazine. He did not look embarrassed or bored or apologetic to be doing absolutely nothing. He was friendly in an offhanded, distracted way and seemed confident that there would be no negative repercussions for his lack of productive work. These things will work themselves out. Eventually. No one had asked him to do anything or defined his job for him, but his paycheck would clear on Friday – the reward for shoe leather expended in some key office holder’s campaign no doubt. Thus, were Rita’s first lessons in Rhode Island state governance completed.

Please understand there are many highly skilled professionals who work hard every day as public employees, and we are fortunate they do, especially in jobs protecting the environment, clean air and water, health and safety. But there are others who tarnish the great ones, which should offend the productive workers and the voters.

“One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” Niccolo Machiavelli

Last post Rhode Island was lauded as the ‘Most Peaceful’ state in the country. Lil’ Rhody shows on some other lists. It ranks sixth highest in total tax burden on its citizens[ii], not a great surprise as all the others at the top are similarly Democrat controlled. Democrats are the party of coercive government solutions to social problems, irrespective of evidence that the state can positively influence them. The Law of Unintended Consequences is as real as gravity, especially when complicated with vote pandering and political posturing. Rhode island is well situated as well in the top tier of public employees per capita[iii].

In a couple of other categories, though, Rhode Island does not sit on the top of the pyramid. In the annual CNBC study of the states that grow jobs and induce new businesses to move in, Rhode Island climbed a notch or two out of the cellar a year ago, but for 2019 dropped into its accustomed spot, fiftieth out of fifty.[iv] We bleed jobs in Rhode Island, and subsequently we hemorrhage population and are in danger of losing one of our two House of Representative seats. More alarming, what we are losing is our young people, so the population demographic is aging. The state spends lavishly to educate our young and hosts several excellent universities, but their graduates head to Texas, Arizona, North Carolina or even neighboring Massachusetts for far better job prospects.

Anyone who has driven Rhode Island potholed roads and over or under its rusted steel and pitted concrete bridges is not surprised at another national ranking. Again, fiftieth out of fifty for infrastructure[v]. That’s right. Sixth in tax burden, fiftieth in infrastructure and business development. Taxpayer money is sucked into the spongy conduits of government: nepotism and connected public jobs, underfunded and unaffordable pension plans for public employees and underwriting bonds for ill advised, but politically attractive private businesses like Curt Schilling’s sports video games debacle. The black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is more attractive as an investment.

The legislative session for 2018-2019 slowly ramped up after the fund-raising gatherings called “times” and the election furor subsided. Obviously, the most urgent priority for legislators must have been lowering taxes for its beleaguered constituents and addressing the sorry business environment and dangerous bridge situation. Maybe in a happier parallel universe. In Rhode Island, this past session was dominated by authorizing open season on our tiniest and most vulnerable human beings. Urged on by prominent media outlets in the state like the Providence Journal and local TV stations, after several months of contentious hearings, and through the contrivance of previously professed pro-life Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and enthusiastic abortion advocate Governor Gina Raimondo, the Reproductive Privacy Act was passed. Pink shirted screaming bullies shouted down committee hearings and briefly invaded the Senate President’s office. They picketed the homes of swing committee members and with van mounted loudspeakers called them out as hating women to their neighbors and children.

The various backroom Machiavellian maneuvers are beyond the scope of this post.  Attached is a more detailed history for any more curious (or masochistic) readers.[vi]  Some brief clarifying notes:

  • The bill mimics one written by lawyers hired by NARAL and Planned Parenthood, which funded and organized pink shirted assault and publicity. It mirrors similar bills passed in Vermont and New York. The Reproductive Privacy bill had little to do with privacy (it couldn’t have been more public) and nothing to do with reproduction. On the contrary; its singular focus was on violently inhibiting it.
  • It allows abortion for any reason in any form up to the moment of birth. 73% of voters oppose such late term abortions, but the supporters want no restrictions. The bill prohibits any rules regarding abortion clinics, including authorizing some who are not doctors to perform them.
  • Several times the bill was stopped in committee votes, only to be resurrected by its proponents in backroom manipulations. At one point, in violation of Senate rules, the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee which heard all the late-night testimony, when it became apparent the bill would be defeated again, unilaterally switched it to another committee stacked in its favor that heard no testimony. That was only one instance of several similar moves that kept the bill alive.
  • After a Senate hearing killed one version of the bill, the pink shirts stormed the Senate President’s office demanding that he intervene despite his long professed pro-life stance. Viewers of the evening news were treated to the sight of him with face frozen in fear being escorted from his office by Capital Police[vii].

In my youth a young Democrat Senator, John F Kennedy, launched his career with his wartime heroics and the publication of his Pulitzer Prize winning book about major political figures in American history from all parties who risked their political fortunes and lives to stand up for what was right. “Profiles in Courage” once defined what Democrat politics stood for. There were very few profiles in courage in the Rhode Island statehouse this year. Cowards who feared losing their privileges and influence or their gavel collapsed under pressure and sanctioned sacrifices of babies to a culture obsessed with pleasure and irresponsibility regarding its consequences.

“The promise given is a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.”  Niccolo Machiavelli

[i] Retiree benefits were altered for those retiring after 2008, capping state reimbursement for health care after 65 to 80% of costs. Prior to that, retired state employees with long service would receive 100%.

[ii] https://wallethub.com/edu/states-with-highest-lowest-tax-burden/20494/

[iii] https://www.governing.com/gov-data/public-workforce-salaries/states-most-government-workers-public-employees-by-job-type.html

[iv] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/09/why-rhode-island-is-the-worst-state-for-business-in-2019.html

[v] https://www.forconstructionpros.com/asphalt/news/21017738/all-50-states-ranked-by-worst-crumbling-infrastructure

[vi] See the attached synopsis of the history of this bill. Link to document.

[vii] https://www.facebook.com/WPRI12/videos/watch-senate-president-dominick-ruggerio-had-to-be-escorted-from-his-office-as-p/442724003171604/

 

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Lil’ Rhody

“Louisiana loses 30 miles off our coast a year. We lost 100 miles last year off our coast thanks to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We have lost a size of land equivalent to the entire state of Rhode Island.”  Bobby Jindal (former governor)

Rhode Island has its own miles of beaches and estuaries. Through a series of circumstances that were in retrospect fortuitous, we have recently retired on Aquidneck Island near some sublime geography like mile long Sachuest Beach (Second Beach), Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, Norman Bird Sanctuary, and over the Mount Hope bridge into Bristol an Audubon refuge with an adjacent bike path through estuary and coastline that runs fifteen miles along Narragansett Bay. Although smaller than some ranches in Texas, Rhode Island is a lovely place to live.

One of the original thirteen colonies, tiny Rhode Island possesses the cockiness of a persistent undaunted underdog. Nearby to us, Newport was occupied for a time by British troops during the Revolutionary War after they defeated a small contingent of colonials in our town of Portsmouth on the north end of Aquidneck Island. Mansions were commandeered by British officers and are still gainfully inhabited by locals; one is now the Newport Art Museum. The International Tennis Hall of Fame is located on Bellevue Avenue along with its “cottages” like The Elms and The Breakers. Newport is on the south end of Aquidneck with a long history and many homes from the early eighteenth century and a few from the seventeenth. The oldest still open tavern in the country, the White Horse Tavern, is in Newport, built in 1652 and a tavern since 1673. The Declaration of Independence was read from the balcony of the Old Colony House (Original Rhode Island State House) a few hundred yards away. Fine dining, lively pubs and sailboats in the harbor abound. The America’s Cup races have been held in the waters here.

Rhode Island was just recognized as the most peaceful state in the union by USA Today[i], based on its lowest composite violent crime rate. We have come a long way since Raymond Patriarca[ii] ruled New England organized crime from his lawn chair on the sidewalk outside his vending machine distribution company on Federal Hill. Very little, if any, violent street crime, at least crime not authorized by Raymond, occurred on Federal Hill then, but for different reasons. Muggers may or may not have been successful in their felonious intent towards some Rolex wearing out of state patron of one of the fabled Federal Hill Italian restaurants, however no second attempts by the perpetrator were recorded. Nor were their bodies usually identified, even if scattered pieces were discovered in the Johnston landfill.

Irony is the mother’s milk of Rhode Island. The long list of governors, congressmen and mayors of at least four cities that went to prison just since we have lived here rivals any collection of woeful miscreants in the country. But a few were memorable and contributed to Lil’ Rhody’s ambiance.  One of the Federal prosecutors who put Raymond Senior away for good was a young firebrand, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. Buddy eventually rode his hard charger reputation to become Mayor of Providence for multiple terms. Twice he lost his mayoralty, both for his own felony convictions. The first time was for straightening out a contractor who had slept with Buddy’s wife during the separation, but before the divorce. This correction was aided by a fireplace implement and (perhaps) a lighted cigarette extinguished on the face of the guy who made Buddy a cuckold. Buddy served no time but lost his job. He took advantage of his temporary ineligibility for office to become a hugely successful radio talk show host while he waited for his parole to wind down: witty, charming, quick and funny, he knew where all the political bodies were buried. His regular callers ranged from shock jock Don Imus and experts on government waste and budgets to Joe the Barber who knew everyone worth knowing among Rhode Island’s panoply of fascinating characters.

When his parole was completed, he easily won reelection swatting away the neophyte pretenders like annoying horseflies on Salty Brine Beach. During his tenure, the city was transformed from potholes and litter into a show place. The Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers, long imprisoned by concrete and steel conduits and buried by pavement, were dug out and exposed to the sunlight after a century. The confluence of the reborn rivers merge into the Providence River and now play host to gondolas and Waterfire events with music in the adjacent streets. The roads were well maintained, the schools were highly rated. The fire department was one of the best small city units in the country, all while keeping the tax rates low for longtime residents. Mayor Cianci loved his city; his politicking skills and reading of crowds that frequently gathered at his events were legend. We have a picture of him with his arm around our youngest daughter in her baseball uniform at an opening day event. Meg said he was nice and smelled of cigars. He was dressed in pressed jeans and a Providence sweatshirt, managing another city event picking up winter litter along the city roadsides. Ironically, he often held court at one of the Federal Hill restaurant’s sidewalk tables talking to anyone who stopped by. Everyone called him Buddy. His enemies called him Vincent. No one called him Vinny that I ever heard.

His second felony conviction for criminal corruption ended his string of terms after new Federal prosecutors investigated the Mayor’s office for a variety of offenses like cash in envelopes for parking lot permits, liquor licenses not renewed after the Mayor was blackballed by an exclusive and snooty East Side brandy and cigar men’s club and sweetheart snow plowing contract deals. No specific bribe was ever credited to Buddy, but his city hall administrators were knee deep. He rewarded personal loyalty with appointments and trust, and his courtiers profited. The RICO conspiracy due to the stench of his associates brought him down. He spent five years in a Federal prison without public complaint (don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time) and then was almost reelected to a third set of mayoral terms. Now in full disclosure with his famous toupee discarded, his luck ran out, and his independent run after the Republican Party disowned him fell short in a three-way race.

Back at the radio station to much acclaim and enthusiastic welcome from his loyal constituents, Buddy fell ill while on the air and died shortly thereafter to be mourned by most of the city. Despised by the progressive politicians who circled him constantly like a pack of jackals stalking an aging lion, he reveled in ridiculing their pretentions and hypocrisy. A particularly egregious representative of their ilk, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a doctrinaire and unctuous progressive, was always referred on the air as Weldon Shitehouse[iii] whenever Buddy would eviscerate him for some profoundly stupid ideological remark the hapless Senator solemnly opined. I still miss Buddy. The annual oldest in the country Fourth of July parade in Bristol will never be the same without him riding by in the convertible pointing to and greeting those he knew at every turn. The world is less interesting without him.

“Political corruption is to Rhode Island as smog is to people who live in Los Angeles: nobody complains of its absence, but when it rolls around everyone feels right at home.” Phillip Gourevitch, “The New Yorker”

Space and the beleaguered reader’s patience and attention span prohibit more for this post. The next one will address the soulless landscape of the current batch of more sinister and cowardly politicians who this year enacted some truly despicable legislation with a series of backroom power moves. More adventures in the Ocean State to follow.

 

[i] https://patch.com/rhode-island/newport/rhode-island-named-most-peaceful-state-u-s

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raymond_L._S._Patriarca

[iii] https://legalinsurrection.com/2018/09/senator-sheldon-whitehouse-grilled-brett-kavanaugh-about-a-yearbook-fart-joke-seriously/

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Weltschmerz

“In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows.” Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke, 1790

In the seventeenth century the French author Francois de La Rochefoucauld famously wrote that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. I wonder if the hypocrites who prompted the quote cared whether they were caught out. Recent events in the Rhode Island legislature indicate that the current batch of hypocrites want only to avoid a memorable line that will make the Providence Journal or WPRI in the five o’clock news and show up in their opponent’s talking points in the next election. Little heed seems to be paid to how conspicuous is their cynical hypocrisy to listeners, only matters if it will cost them votes. Hypocrisy is expected, even celebrated, if it’s sufficiently clever and the goals align with the progressive vision.

A Providence legislator, Dan McKearnan, speaking on the floor of the House said that his “deep faith” (Catholic} informed his advocacy and that he trusted women to “make holy choices.” Holy choices. The choices they would make when the legislation passed would be to kill or not to kill their offspring, to “terminate” their pregnancy, which the legislation (H5125a,) sanctioned up to the moment of birth. Forty weeks. Full term, a full four months past viability. A fetus one second, someone’s baby the next. Or someone’s tiny corpse.

In a television news debate on the bill that has passed the House and is waiting Senate action, Rabbi Sarah Mack stated that the bill was a victory for freedom and rightly favored “existing life.” Existing life. Must have cut those boring embryology courses in school. Every major embryology text marks conception as the beginning of human life.  So, science was not her strength, but did she sleep in when they covered Jeremiah 1:5? “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born, I set you apart.” Perhaps Rabbi Mack stayed too late at lunch playing bridge in the dining commons when her professor taught Isaiah 49:1. “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother He named my name.” Or returned late from Fort Lauderdale on spring break when they reviewed the exegesis on Psalm 139:13. “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” She said, and rightly so, that it was not right that religion should dictate legislation. However, when legislation first ignores science and then fails to make a moral judgment informed by a conscience formed by faith or justice or reason or protection of the most vulnerable, well, that’s a sadder tale.

“We have obligations to mankind at large, which are not in consequence of any voluntary pact. They arise from the relation of man to man, and the relation of man to God, which are not matters of choice.” Edmund Burke

The bill was named the Reproductive Privacy Act, which is a further irony in that it is concerned with not with “reproduction,” but with its lethal inhibition. The “privacy” allusion is a tip of the hat to Roe v. Wade, which cited privacy as the foundation for usurping every state’s authority and instantly negated all legislation controlling abortion. The slippery ground for a privacy foundation was created by citing the Griswold v. Connecticut contraception case. One of the most infamous passages in Supreme Court history proposed this nonsense: “The foregoing cases suggest that specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance.  Various guarantees create zones of privacy.” So, the Supreme Court decision that has spelled doom for sixty million pre-born Americans is sustained by a gauzy contrivance of emanations, penumbras and zones of privacy, suspended on a spider’s web.

A second spider’s web, upon which hangs the first, is the blind certainty that supports the progressive enterprise: the myth of human perfectionism – that progress is linear and will always move us closer towards some ideal future where human frailty and tendency towards prejudice, violence, using others for personal gain or pleasure will diminish to nothing as enlightened (and coercive) governance leads us to the promised land. Just the history in our own times, especially in the century immediately preceding this one, when various Utopian ideologies delivered the bloodiest hundred years in human history. The twentieth century alone provides the evidence that such beliefs are at best naïve, and at worst deliberate utilitarian delusions in pursuit of a totalitarian agenda.

The natural heir to that bloody century is our own. War, oppression, human trafficking are obvious and persistent horrors. Far worse is the dehumanization of a whole class of human beings, and it has wrought the highest tally, the single highest cause of death in the world and in our country last year that overwhelms the toll of any other. Disease, war, murder, terrorism, cancer, starvation, unclean waters are eclipsed in their body counts. Simply pronounce that yet-to-be-born humans are not human, and we contrive a cardboard culture that promises human fulfillment based on the lie of autonomy. We will secure economic futures built on killing our own children, feed our worst self-absorbed selves, and let it metastasize[i]. The largest single cause of death in the world in 2018 was abortion – 42 million, with over a million of those tiny victims in our own country.  Eleven million and counting rapidly year to date this year.[ii] We masquerade it as medical care, yet once exposed to the light sickens all who see it.[iii] Set up the kill and call it freedom, call it liberation, even call it virtue. “Weep not for me, (mothers of Jerusalem), weep for yourselves and for your children.”

“The Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time—for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with its eternal rays. Hence the encouragement we have given to all those schemes of thought such as Creative Evolution, Scientific Humanism, or Communism, which fix men’s attention on the Future, on the very core of temporality. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the Future. Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.” C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, (New York: Macmillan Co.,1943), p.xv

[i] For a good article on the metastasis, see in this week’s Public Discourse, the article by Anthony Esolen: When Reason Does Not Suffice: Why Our Culture Still Accepts Abortion https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2019/04/50665/

[ii] From the Worldometers site.

[iii] From the true story of Abby Johnson, former employee of the year and director of a Texas Planned Parenthood facility. In “Unplanned” she tells her story. Here is the pivotal scene that changed her life. Watch it reflect. https://youtu.be/Z9bMwP2CLP8

 

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CRISPR Critters

“I don’t know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know.” East of Eden, John Steinbeck

We have recently taken the plunge having long ago resigned ourselves to the reality that there is no privacy anymore. Spitting into a tube and mailing it off to 23 Ancestry, our DNA sequence has been typed and available for analysis. Among the findings on me was that I have deep in my genome a tiny percentage of Italian and Portuguese ancestry. No longer can Rita lay sole claim to a Mediterranean heritage. Our DNA sequences will join millions of others cataloged in servers and can be used for everything from medical research, predicting potential health risks and tracking ethnic backgrounds to catching criminals.

DNA databases have been subpoenaed and used to close some old cold cases, including catching a 1973 serial killer, Joseph DeAngelo. Mr. DeAngelo hadn’t even been typed, but his relatives had, and when investigators interviewed the relatives, Mr. DeAngelo figuratively and literally came under the microscope. The investigative team subpoenaed a DNA sample from him in a decades old hunt for the killer. He came up 99.99 percent as the guy. More than likely, he’s breathed the last free air of his life.

A caution about our well tracked future is whether genetic markers would make their way to health insurance providers, or in some Brave New World, whether these indicators could be used to hike premiums for those with certain predispositions. Or worse, deny coverage entirely. May already be happening beneath the radar. This will be adjudicated, precedent established, and hysterical editorials will be written. Count on it.

“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled.“ 

The Times They Are A-Changin,’ Bob Dylan

Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, wanted to find a cure for HIV AIDS, surely a positive pursuit. He developed a new vein to explore. Why not, instead of curing the disease, make people who cannot get it? He hypothesized the way to do that was to alter a specific gene, CCR5. Using CRSPIR[i] technology on an embryo, he cut and pasted, then implanted tiny humans in a willing (or not) uterus and grew some people. He grew two — twin girls and maybe a third later. Once the word leaked to the international press that He was altering the DNA in genes and making designer babies, the Chinese government reacted with righteous horror, as did many. The government claimed that it was not aware of the extent of his tinkering, and that no authorization was given to implant the babies, only to grow them awhile, see what happens and kill them. He must have saved up his milk money and found some other dark funding for his enterprise. There was even talk of capital punishment for He Jiankui, not an uncommon solution to an embarrassment in China. Last week credible evidence was found by other scientists looking at grant studies that there was Chinese government funding for his research from the start, all of it. Color me surprised. Once a method of customizing human beings is perfected, can Superman soldiers be far behind? Or IQs exceeding 300? Or mutant tireless and uncomplaining laborers? Or any number of permutations of designer people? How will science ethics hold fast with trillions of dollars were at stake? Aldous Huxley writ large. The commodification of human beings continues apace.

Last week another story ran that Crispr Therapeutics and its partner Vertex Pharmaceuticals[ii] had treated a rare blood genetic disease, beta thalassemia, with a one-time application of a CRISPR invader. More trials with human beings and unintended consequences be damned. The same team has started a similar study for sickle cell anemia, a genetic plague that is especially deadly in the African American community. The shares of both companies soared. A new world is upon us, and riches are there for the brave of heart. What could possibly go wrong with purposeful, profitable tweaking of the basic building blocks of human life? Not with a bang, but a whimper.

**********************************************************************************

I had a dream — a murky vision — of emerging after a long walk in a desolate wood – gnarled ancient trees without leaves – and coming upon a clearing with a dried-up spring and an abandoned house with weathered wood plank walls and a door partially ajar hanging off just the bottom hinge. With some difficulty I pushed through the door and found only a scarred pine table and a tipped over ladder-back chair. On the table were a stale crust of bitten bread, a few broken crayons, a half-burned candle fixed in wax and yellowed books with bent back pages. A story I’ll never know.

‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form

Come in, she said

I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.  Shelter From the Storm, Bob Dylan

[i] CRISPIR is the acronym for “clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” It is powerful and terrifying tool that mimics how a type of bacteria ‘learns’ to recognize and defend against a virus. In the bacteria, the “remembered” RNA sequence cuts the DNA of a virus it has learned to defend against into pieces, rendering it harmless. The new technology uses specific RNA sequences to cut and replace targeted sequences of DNA in a cell, including an embryo, and “fixes” or otherwise alters that embryo’s DNA, its chromosomes, its genes, what makes it, it.

[ii] https://finance.yahoo.com/news/crispr-infuses-first-human-landmark-132242277.html

 

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Going To The Dogs

“To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs.” Aldous Huxley

Deluged in conflicting statistics, we have become inured to shock and confirmed in our protective cocoon of skepticism. Occasionally, however, a set of statistics stops me cold. I read the other day that there are just under ninety million dogs in the United States along with over ninety-four million cats.[i] Juxtaposed with other readily available statistics, that one gave me pause. For instance, there are around eighty-two million human beings under the age of twenty in our country.[ii] So, we have many more dogs than young people. And the ratio of dogs to young people has climbed appreciably year after year. What does that say to us?  Or about us?[iii]

Now before you tag me with the ‘dog hater’ label, I like dogs, having had dog pets both as a kid and as an adult.  I am curious though as to the implications of the statistics. Let’s look together at some other stats that may bear on our discussion.

Our United States fertility rate in 2017 was 1,765.5, or just over seventeen hundred babies born per thousand women over their lifetimes.[iv] To sustain our population at current levels takes 2,100. Since we are also living longer, like almost all the countries in the Western world we have an aging population. What does that forecast for social programs like Social Security and Medicare? Just after the Second World War in 1945, there were forty-one workers contributing to the funds for every retiree. Today that number is below 2.9 and projected to be 2.3 by 2030. Thus, there is much talk about correcting these programs, but so far not the political will to take the necessary and painful steps to fix them.

The fertility rates vary widely from state to state. The more left leaning states most disinclined politically to adjust the social services problem are in the Northeast and West Coast; they also trail the pack with the lowest fertility rates. Why progressives are having far fewer children than more moderate and conservative citizens is another topic worth exploring.  Not to succumb to the distractions of cowardly politicians, but as John Adams so famously stated, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

One would think that fewer children must mean we treat the children we do have much better, with greater consideration and commitment to our relationships between the parents and to the children’s well-being, right? Well, sometimes. In aggregate, though, since 1970 and the advent of the paradigm shift in our culture regarding child bearing and marriage for life, the percentage of children being raised by someone other than their biological parents in a first marriage has doubled from 27% to 54%. [v]

“Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.” Ann Landers

Several quotes spring to mind as I think of these numbers. Bob Dylan in his megahit, “Lay, Lady, Lay” wrote this refrain: “Lay, lady, lay; lay across my big brass bed.” It echoes the beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti[vi] from the fifties: “Let’s lie down somewheres, baby.” Compare and contrast with Shakespeare’s oft quoted Sonnet 116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments. Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken,

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come:

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Who among us does not enjoy the sights and signs of children, signs of hope, wonder and life? Does a decline in those willing to bear children, raise children, lay down their lives for children and their spouses signify effervescing hope, wonder and life?  A final question for our consideration comes from a talk we heard from Dr. Janet Smith about twenty-five years ago. In it she spoke of marriage and families. She asked if some of the rewritten vows that were popular at the time were troubling.

Like the difference between “Lay, lady, lay” and “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” is there a difference between, “we’ll hang out and support one another as long as we are mutually fulfilled and feel content in each other’s company,” and “in sickness and health, rich or poor, good times or bad until death do us part.” Dr. Smith taught (paraphrased in my memory), that traditional vows promised openness to life and a forever commitment. They promised the difference between “lets lie down somewheres, baby” and “I want to get to know you ever more deeply, trust you more deeply, respect you more deeply, love you for your sake, not mine, grow old together with you and share all things and paths with you, come what may. I want our beautiful love when expressed in our physical intimacy empowered to co-create with God’s help another eternal human being who looks a lot like you, then love and raise that unique tiny person into maturity together.” What have we gained by mistaking license for freedom? What have we lost?

“A dog is a pitiful thing, depending wholly on companionship, and utterly lost except in packs or by the side of his master. Leave him alone, and he does not know what to do except bark and howl and trot about till sheer exhaustion forces him to sleep.” H.P. Lovecraft

[i] Insurance Information Institute – Pet statistics

[ii] U.S. Census Bureau statistics on U.S. Population by Age Group

[iii] P.D. James, celebrated author of the Adam Dalgleish mystery series wrote a terrifying dystopian novel about a future society with an infertility crisis. Children of Men was made into a well-received Clive Owen’s movie in 1992. In it desperate mothers in hope wheeled dogs around in baby carriages. I’ve seen a few of those around here.

[iv] “Fertility Rate Varies Widely Across U.S”, Brianna Abbott, Wall Street Journal, January 10, 2019

[v] Pew Research Group – “Fewer than half of U.S. Kids Today live in Traditional Families

[vi] Ferlinghetti was lesser known that his fellow “beat” writers like Alan Ginsburg or Jack Kerouac, but in my youth was widely read. I still must have his “Coney Island of the Mind” somewhere in mislaid box of books.

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Frogs, Hot Water and A Whip of Cords

“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”  Mark Twain

Having used a frog and boiling water metaphor to comment on gradual acceptance of radical change, I was disappointed when I learned that when put to the test (don’t ask), the story doesn’t hold water. If you put a frog into cold water in a pot and slowly bring it to a boil, absent a lid, the frog will hop out when it gets uncomfortable, and if you throw a frog into boiling water, it will do what lobsters do in similar circumstances, except not as tasty. But the lessons to us humans from the myth of frogs and boiling water applied to changing culture are true. We can be brought slowly to a boil and not notice.

At Mass recently, a visiting retired Columban[i] missionary priest with a hint of his Irish pedigree in the lilt of his speech said this, “If we do things over a long period that are wrong, they become right.” What is true in individuals is true in society. He was speaking of the Gospel reading from Luke relating the story of Jesus driving the money changers from the Temple. Over many decades the selling of animals for profit to be sacrificed by pilgrims in the Temple had become accepted practice, as was the chicanery of money changers cheating foreigners in the exchange rate to swap their foreign coins for local coins to buy their sacrifices. In another version with more detail in John’s Gospel, Jesus first made a whip of cords, lashing many cords together, which took some time to do. He burst into the Temple outer court with daunting ferocity that terrified the merchants, who certainly outnumbered Him. He drove out the sheep, the cattle and the money changers, turning over their tables and scattering their coins. He shouted to the lesser merchants selling pigeons (poor pilgrims could only afford to buy a bird to sacrifice) to “Take these things away, do not make my Father’s house a den of thieves.”

On the Shroud of Turin,[ii] the mysterious photographic negative image shows a broad shouldered, strong, crucified man. Jesus was a carpenter, a construction worker, not a clerk, and looking at this image we can picture him in a righteous fury intimidating the cheats of the Temple marketplace. This deliberate act to overthrow years of accepted corruption was what set the course of the Temple authorities in their determination to destroy Him in a conspiracy with the power of the Roman Empire and judgement seat of Pontius Pilate.

What Jesus chose as his target was a symbol of the dishonored Temple culture and the self-serving blindness of its administrators. What analogies can we find today, and who is going to wield the whip of cords to such effect? And who will stand to be crucified?

“There’s a battle outside

And it is ragin’.

It’ll soon shake your windows

And rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’.” Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin,’ 1963

 

Lines have become blurred and grey is fashionable, but sometimes friends must talk in primary colors. What we lived in the sexual revolution and its aftermath started in fire and now is embers and ashes. Embers that are best left without new fuel and fresh oxygen.

As the first century Jewish culture had accepted gradually the commercialization of their worship, what grotesqueness have we accepted without a backward glance or embarrassment? Let me suggest the degradation of marriage and families over seventy years or so has led us incrementally, a few degrees at a time into a sanguine acceptance of unreality in what is natural in human beings, especially regarding all things sexual and even in the structure of our bodies. This has not been an accidental dance, but carefully choreographed and plotted step by step, well-funded in its implementation. Not only have we normalized the abnormal, we have made it inviolable; any questioning of this new orthodoxy is deemed not just ignorant, it is called hate speech. In some jurisdictions it is prosecutable, and lives can be laid waste. We insulate heresy to the new orthodoxy in parentheses and issue trigger warnings. Well, please take heed and be so warned. The adults must speak plainly, and the kids should leave the room, although they too are proselytized with great zeal every day.

The cascade of small stones and mud down the slope now has caused us to lose our footing regarding the immutable binary nature of the structure of our bodies. Rather than male and female, we are fungible with exchangeable parts. The XX and XY chromosomes in every cell in our body have failed us, and though they cannot and will not be changed, the results of their labor can be maimed if it suits our tortured desires. With mutilating surgeries and injections of hormone cocktails unknown in nature, we create permanently infertile mockeries with no hope of resolving into new life[iii]. Worse, rather than love and guide our children as their XX and XY chromosomes determine, when we hear their childish confusions and attempts to make sense of it all, we encourage the muddle and inflict these doomed experiments on them. Finally, we congratulate ourselves on our tolerance, and make that a god. To speak common sense regarding this tragedy is banned from the marketplace of ideas[iv].

Once we started down the road of separating the natural functions of human sexuality, of cleaving with a broad-ax childbearing from pleasure and intimacy, the landslide began: half of marriages failing across all demographics and geographies, rainbow coalitions, billion-dollar pornography empires (prostitution with a camera running) spilling into our entertainments, sexual assaults and harassment commonplace, domestic violence increases, renegade commitment phobic men, the normalizing of what was once considered degenerate and dehumanizing, large investment now into development of ever more “realistic” sex robots that completely disengage sex from human contact – the whole sorry, sordid panoply. Where is that whip of cords when you need one?

“I am a Roman Catholic. I believe that sex is both natural and holy. Its nature is reproductive. It is holy, because it is the act that brings into being another person made in the image of God. But our enemies believe neither of these things. They have said that the act is or can be merely recreational. They have said that the act implies no difference between the male and the female. They have said that it has nothing essentially to do with babies. They have even said that there is nothing wrong with its being impersonal: hence, not solely pornography, but also the delight of waking up the next morning to ask the name of the person with whom you have soiled the bed.” Anthony Esolen[v]

[i] Columban missionary order celebrates its hundredth anniversary.

[ii] See earlier blog post, Shrouded

[iii] Petition from pediatricians to uphold scientific definition of sex

[iv] Teacher fired for not calling a “transgendered” student by the prescribed pronoun

[v] Crisis Magazine, “Contemporary Culture is Not Just Unreal – It is Irreal” Oct 18, 2018

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Ride That Photon

At the speed of light, propagation of TIME stops. So, a photon does not travel forever because our concept of time does not hold true for it. Photons do not experience passage of time. Victor Mazmanian, retired Associate Professor of Physics, U.S. Air Force Academy quoted from an answer to a Quora question, “How can light travel forever?” 

I confess that I am a Quora stalker, mostly science, history and philosophy. Never have I posed or answered a question. Perhaps I will work up my courage to do so. When I read the for the most part well informed questions and answers, for now, I am content to learn and to wonder. I follow a few of the contributors like my friend Bob Cormack[i] from Colorado. Mostly though I am eclectic and follow my curiosity. That probably qualifies me as a geek in its current definition.[ii]

The Quora article I linked above is clear and simple without being simplistic about complex subjects like the quantum packets of energy called photons that are always either in motion at the speed of light or non-existent when they stop moving. For photons, time does not exist because at their velocity, time does not pass, a “trip” of twenty light years is a flash without so much as a nanosecond transpiring from their perspective.  The math of the quantum physics and relativity will remain well beyond this humble blogger’s aptitude, but the concepts and inspiration to the imagination are mine to play with.[iii]

If we were able to transform and hitch a ride on a photon, a form of time travel would be possible. Astronomers recently discovered a rocky planet circling Proxima Centauri, a mere twelve light years away. With current technology, this would be a journey of about 544 centuries at fifty two thousand miles an hour, which was what the New Horizon Pluto probe attained. It took New Horizon about nine and half years to get to Pluto. Even at the speed of light, should we be able to travel that fast, a round trip to Proxima Centauri would take a couple of dozen years. Upon our return, we would have not aged a day or perceived any passage of time, but our friends and families would be decades older. Or not here at all.

Please dont make fun when I tell you something true.  Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway

John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist and doctoral advisor to many, including Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, proposed that as we learn more and more about the universe, we will see that it is informational, more like a computer than a machine. Or more like a mind. Wheeler revived the study of general relativity after World War II, invented the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” and was involved with Feynman and others in the development of quantum mechanics. Many current physicists now subscribe to this “informational” understanding of the universe and believe it is the path to eventually uncovering a unified theory of physics, resolving the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory. Wheeler said this during a eulogy of mathematician Hermann Weyl in 1986, “Time, among all concepts in the world of physics, puts up the greatest resistance to being dethroned from ideal continuum to the world of the discrete, of information, of bits… Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than ‘time.’ Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time. To uncover the deep and hidden connection between time and existence….is a task for the future.” [iv]

The essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of difficulty, so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation: it comes effortlessly and without trouble.  Dr. Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture English translation, Random House, 1963

For God, time is not linear, rather more like a photon perceives it than like we perceive it. All of time is seen at once, as now, beyond humans to even conceive of His gaze. How this is understood in terms of free will and pre-destination, I’ll leave to the theologians. For this post, I’d like to consider where humans may find some common ground with this view of the cosmos.

The ancients and medieval philosophers taught that human knowledge is gained in two ways, which they named ratio and intellectus. Ratio was what we would now call a left brain activity, rational, discursive, leading to conclusions and requiring lots of work or study. Intellectus is more right brain, wholeness, intuitive, contemplative and receptive. The difference might be perceived in coming upon a vista like the Grand Canyon. Our left brain is curious and studies the mile-deep cliffs of the Grand Canyon dropping to the Colorado River: geological eras with their names and characteristics, rising and receding seas, the crushing together and uplift of tectonic plates and layer upon layer of aggregated stones and fossils. This is learning with ratio.

Intellectus is content to take it all in, to be silent, to think long thoughts or no thoughts at all, to grasp the canyon as beautiful in and of itself: objectively valuable, not just subjectively satisfying[v]. Ratio has to do with the temporal, with the investment of our precious time and work. Intellectus has to do with the eternal, outside of time.  Like for the photon, time stops, or rather there is no time that matters.

Gazing in wonder and gratitude at beauty changes the beholder. Contemplation, absorbed in the beauty with mind emptying peace, but filled with instantaneous knowledge and understanding, is of the soul, as well as the will and mind. I believe it is in this that we can imperfectly understand the concept of human uniqueness. We are made in Imago Dei, in the Image of God. When we perceive, however minutely, as God perceives, outside of time, we participate in our limited fashion in the Divine.  Captivated by the beauty when we visited the Grand Canyon a few winters ago, my inner voice echoed an ancient voice, “I am Beauty itself, gratuitous and without limit. Rest in Me. Trust in Me. Do not be afraid.”

Can we ever expect to understand existence? Clues we have, and work to do, to make headway on this issue. Surely someday, we can believe, we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we have been so blind so long? John Archibald Wheeler in his famous it for bit talk.

[i] I introduced readers of this blog to Bob Cormack six years ago. Acrophobia: Tale of Two Bobs.

[ii] Originally “geek” denoted a carnival freak who entertained by biting the heads off live chickens. To date, I have not indulged in that fowl slaughter.

[iii] , Before any physics geniuses complain that I am not qualified to remark on the details of the science, I agree completely. But the minutiae are not the point of the post.

[iv] Wheeler, John Archibald, 1986 “Hermann Weyl and the Unity of Knowledge.” American Scientist, 74:366-375

[v] See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s view of truth and beauty with the distinction of the “subjectively satisfying” from the “objectively valuable” as explained briefly by Bishop Robert Barron. Von Hildebrand, a Catholic moral theologian, was once called by Adolph Hitler his number one enemy and had to flee for his life when the Third Reich annexed Austria. Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age, Robert Barron, Word on Fire website.

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Nice!

“We are apt to judge things by mere appearances, and those deceive. This isn’t always because people want to deceive. It is a feature of our frailty, sinful or not. We are imitative creatures. In our dress, our walk, the lilt of our speech, our choice of words, our posture, and even in things we think are solid results of our dispassionate thought, such as our politics, we are in part play-actors.” Anthony Esolen[i]

We have managed to place as the pinnacle of human morality something ill-defined we call “nice.” As in “She’s a nice person.” or the universal anodyne conversation concluding, “Have a nice day.” What does that mean? Why not, “Have a day full of wonder and joy and meaning.” Or “Have a day without stress or turmoil or pain or panic.” Or if you have truly caused me pain or disillusionment or great inconvenience, “Have a terrifying day when someone drops a piano on you from a great height.” Wouldn’t a little honesty at least be an improvement?

Nice has ousted virtue, and it’s a whitewashed, formless, artificial sweetener substitute like Coffee Mate or pickleball or synthesized Bob Dylan tunes on hold. Now before you are outraged and respond with, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with nice?”, let me clarify. Nice is fine, so are crisp, hot, salted McDonald’s French fries when we are achingly hungry, but is it the best we can do? Nice is an improvement over nasty just as civility would be an improvement in our public discourse, especially political speech and social media posts. Nice is better than irritable, rude, mean, bullying or drivers in Boston[ii]. But it is not heroic, is not very challenging, is not more than a superficial communal construct or even much better than not spitting in the soup. “Nice” is a lukewarm, whimpering standard with “standard” as either a measure by which to gauge our conduct or a flag under which we can march into battle.

To be nice is to expect nice: a social contract quid pro quo. Please don’t hurt me, and I’ll try very hard not to hurt or embarrass or challenge you. I’ll leave you alone to whatever vices you want to pursue so long as I don’t have to see them, or they don’t directly affect me in my living room or bedroom, and you leave me to follow my predilections. To seek to live virtuously is different than aspiring to be nice. Virtue has no immediate expectation of reward; it is lived for its own sake. The classical Greek philosophers like Aristotle or medieval geniuses like Thomas Aquinas would tell us that to be virtuous, to know, seek and live the objective right is the beginning of the path to human happiness. Nice doesn’t make you happy, nice merely allows you to be less memorable when gossip circulates at the coffee shop. Virtue is sometimes visible and memorable, but not always. Sometimes it is most vital when no one sees it at all or ever will.

Too often our civility, our niceness, is merely imitative so that we will be liked. Nothing wrong with being liked, and strangers will speak well of us, but it is not enough. Not nearly enough. Serial killers can be nice, until they are not.[iii]

“The doctrine of virtue… has things to say about this person; it speaks both of the kind of being which is his when he enters the world, as a consequence of his createdness, and the kind of being he ought to strive toward and attain to– by being prudent, just, temperate, and brave.  The doctrine of virtue is one form of the doctrine of obligation, but one by nature free of regimentation and restriction” Dr. Josef Pieper, “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc, 1954

Dr. Pieper wrote brilliantly of the cardinal virtues: prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Prudence in judgement and behavior, temperance in demeanor and our daily interactions, just and fair in our assessments and courageous, not fearless, but in the face of our fears.  Many other virtues can lend understanding to the cardinals [iv], standards by which we can not only pattern our actions and our speech, but our thoughts and our will, our habits and our consciences. Over our lifetimes habits become our character and our destiny, so developing those habits of virtue forms us, either accidentally as circumstances channel us or deliberately, as we choose and battle to attain.

None of us, especially your faithful blogger, is faultless in this pursuit, but we can aspire to an ideal instead of a deadening, tepid nonentity like niceness. As the marksmen will tell us, “Aim small, miss small.”  To be most fully human in the image of our Creator is a heroic challenge and worthy of a precious lifetime: a quest without equal and uniquely ours with our individual quirks, weaknesses and flaws. Nice is irrelevant when one is on a great journey and mission. Our journey, our mission, our one life is an arduous and imperfect quest that, if achieved, will leave us spent, scarred, battered and fulfilled.

When Bilbo and Frodo confronted evil in the epic quests of their lives in Tolkien’s “Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, they were imperfect and sometimes irresolute heroes, but in the end heroes nonetheless. As we can be. Our victory is not in fearlessly charging into the fray heedless of the risks, but in persisting through the hundred decisions we make daily to do or not do, to say or not say, yes, even to think or not think – or at least to linger in those thoughts. Nice is not an idea large enough to forge our armor and our weapons for the epic, unique quest that is our one life. Virtue is.

“Tolkien’s work illuminates how moral weakness is the real problem of the human condition, not moral dilemmas and uncertainty. The latter are rare, the former is ubiquitous. I rarely do wrong because I do not know what is right; I often do wrong because it is fun, easy, or otherwise attractive.”  Nathanael Blake[v]

 

[i] Genuine Faith Requires More Than Niceness, Anthony Esolen, Crisis Magazine, September 11, 2018

[ii] Last fall I was confused at a rotary in the Back Bay of Boston. The layout had changed since the last time I had circumnavigated this roundabout; I slowed for a few seconds and had to make a decision. And we had Rhode Island plates. A couple of guys in a black BMW careened around us; fists with one finger prominently extended instantly shot out of both the driver’s and passenger’s window, and the driver screamed angrily that I was a “f’ing moron.” Not just a garden variety moron, so I took some consolation in that. Rita and I both burst out laughing, which probably confirmed their assessment.

[iii] Adolf Hitler was reputedly very nice to dogs especially, but animals in general, and they liked him.  See linked picture.

[iv] The Virtues Project

[v] Living With Morals: A Review of The Fall of Gondolin, Nathanael Blake, Public Discourse, November 1, 2018

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Scarborough Marsh

“The total size is approximately 3,000 acres making it Maine’s largest contiguous saltmarsh. It is fed by three major tributaries: the Scarborough, Nonesuch, and Libby Rivers.” Audubon Society website[i]

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