Category Archives: Faith and Reason

Phone It In

“My cellphone is my best friend.”  Carrie Underwood

When exactly the phone evolved from our tool to our master is murky.

kids on phones from httpswww.smartcitiesworld.netnewsnewssmartphones-smarter-than-humans-1468Years ago, I was on the road often in Maine and carried a pager. That was my introduction to being always on call. Prior to that, I would call my office for messages a couple times a day. I knew where the best payphones were in many towns and cities. My favorites were hanging on a wall by a table on which I could spread out necessary supporting documents and notes in a warm café with good coffee, free refills, and a tolerant owner. I kept the numbers of several of them in my planner and could schedule incoming calls.

The next connectivity upgrade was a bag phone with a separate dialer and a handset like an old home phone; the handset had an attached springy coiled cord. The whole contraption weighed about as much as a gallon of milk, took up most of the passenger seat, and plugged into my cigarette lighter in the car. Back when we called them cigarette lighters, they were in the pull-down ash tray back when cars came equipped with pull-down ash trays and cigarette lighters in the consoles. [i]

All that bulky equipment soon became obsolete with the advent of flip phones, so that we were even more immediately on call if we had service, which in rural Maine was somewhere between intermittent and completely dead. One bar was considered a strong signal. To dump an inconvenient call delivering a problem to which I yet had no answer was simple. Hang up, call back later, and blame it on a tower switch out. Excuses and dropped calls today are much harder to justify with plenty of signal strength bars almost everywhere. Crinkling aluminum foil in the microphone in a pretty good imitation of static and lamenting in a fading voice that “I’m losing you!” lacks all credibility.

Now, of course, smart phones with five bar signals provide instant access to every possible means of messaging and data inundation; they are in everybody’s pockets or mounted on our dashboards and beyond anyone’s ability to sip from the waterfall of information without nearly drowning. What once were just phones to call home now boast exponentially more computing power than Apollo 11. As I often complained when I was working for a living, “The good news is that I am always connected, and the bad news is that I am always connected.” Privacy is an anachronism. As is peace and time to contemplate beyond the next beep or ringtone.

“It is okay to own a technology, what is not okay is to be owned by technology.” Abhijit Naskar, Mucize Insan*: When The World is Family  * Human Miracle

To watch kids waiting for the school bus is to watch kids who have overdeveloped thumbs watching tiny screens.[ii] Or for that matter to watch many families in restaurants. They don’t talk, they text. And not to one another, but to some other disembodied person not present at the table about some trivial occurrence entirely irrelevant to real life in most cases – a joke, a clever quip, a meme, a whine, a perceived slight, a social media post, a satirical remark, some gossip about another disembodied mutual acquaintance who is the victim flavor of the day, or passing along a link to a video that is supposed to amuse or outrage or indoctrinate us further into a culture that has left us abandoned to alienated hollow existences in isolated bubble survival pods. Always connected. Always alone.

Recently I was discussing this curious and deadening experience, and I remembered visiting a school where the phones were collected at the door until the end of the day. They were monitored for emergency calls from parents. No phones in classes. Ever. I’ve attended business training where phones were required to be shut off and woe to the poor clown who had an amusing loud ringtone sound in his pocket during the class.

But far more common is the school today with phones in every pocket, and in classes that are not in good order with a weak teacher, students openly watch them, text their friends two rows over, or even listen to their derivative, repetitive music through earbuds that never leave their rapidly emptying heads.

Failure to learn is reflected in plummeting test scores and in graduating students with a working knowledge of imaginary gender fluidity, bogus ideologies, and deviant sexual practices, but most could not identify a poem by Keats, whether music was composed by Mozart or Aaron Copeland, if a painting was created by Caravaggio or Turner or even who Thomas Paine or John Milton or Aristotle or Emily Dickenson or Aristophanes were and why they were important. Or used to be.

Analogous to the “always connected” mode of existence being good news and bad news, the instant availability of data and information is similarly good news and bad news. No guarantees that either the data or the information is true is only part of the problem. Our attention spans are provably attenuating, and the younger we are the more they have diminished.  We want to be informed and informed now. A dismayingly high percentage of Gen Z folks get their information, including their current events and news from TikTok[iii]. The shorter and more entertaining the video, the better.

Fewer and fewer have time for deep (or any) analysis as we jump our monkey minds from one subject to another, following links as the algorithms lead us around to best monetize our incessant clicks. Our comprehension is becoming as compromised as our attention span. More information? Certainly. More understanding or dare we say wisdom? Of course not. TikTok and the like are the most addictive form of bait and designed to be such. Format and algorithms lure us to sweep from one video to the next, all increasingly customized as the servers ‘learn’ our habits to push us to the next one. And a few tenths of a cent at a time glean millions of dollars a day. The data of our preferences are collected on TikTok and accessed in China every day. For what purposes we do not know.[iv]

Another potentially ruinous effect in a democracy is the rising noise of woefully ignorant social media commentary afflicted with the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Dunning-Kruger studied and verified the human tendency deluged with superficial entertaining “news” sources; we possess a deep self-assurance that not only are we right, but that we think we know a lot more than we actually do about extremely complex issues. Confirmation bias has been taken to a new plateau of false confidence. We are unaware and untutored in subtlety and nuance, especially if presented as counterpoint to our impregnable ignorance and expertise. Our self-confidence is without foundation and based on very little.

The various social media platforms have algorithms written by genius exploiters that store what we like and lead us click by monetized click to more of what we like, thus confirming us in ever more superficial knowledge what we believe we know. Exacerbated by an ideologically tilted SEME (Search Engine Manipulation Effect)[v], we are lured step by enticing step down the path we think we want to go.

Click. Click. Click.                                                   Click.

“The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.” Sir James Jeans[vi]

As a personal sidebar, I was particularly vexed by a TikTok video shared on Facebook put out by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Heavily redacted information masquerading as enlightenment confirms us in our incandescent ignorance. His long evident animus towards religion of any kind notwithstanding, he could have least offered a fair-minded assessment of the origins of science that he believes debunks what he sees as illiteracy and superstition. In a somewhat long piece (at least long for TikTok attenuated attention spans) on a bowdlerized history of math and science, his only mention of medieval Christianity is to bemoan what he describes as the main activity of the benighted times: disemboweling heretics. He may be a lively media figure and even a credible astrophysicist, but his knowledge of history is deliberately vacuous. His knowledge of the philosophical roots and history of science nonexistent or at least unapparent, and his theology sophomoric.

No mention of the development of science in Western universities, encouraged, and supported by the Church.[vii] No mention of the scientists and mathematicians who laid the groundwork for modern science and were either ordained clergy, monks, or devout believers. Roger Bacon is credited for inventing the scientific method, which is a metaphysical and empirical construct that cannot be proven or disproven by its own tools. Isaac Newton developed the calculus that enabled current physics and cosmology. Gregor Mendel discovered genetics. Nicolaus Copernicus uncovered our heliocentric solar system. And in the last century Father Georges Lemaitre developed the math for the “Big Bang Theory.” deGrasse Tyson fails to mention the underlying metaphysical concept of the intelligibility of the universe, the assumption that undergirds all of science.[viii]

Voices like his try to persuade us that truth resides solely in the material, and what can be proven or disproven by science. Such voices might explain the tones of stringed instruments in mathematical terms of vibrations per second, the degree of tension in the strings, and the plucking or bow that sounds them. Charts and diagrams to follow. But such reductionism loses the truth and beauty of music found in Bach or Mozart or in Luciano Pavarotti’s voice or for that matter in the compelling artistry of Doc Watson or Emmy Lou Harris. Perhaps they would “explain” Michelangelo in the chemistry of pigments used to color the buon fresco technique on Sistine Chapel ceiling. Such a forlorn and pinched attenuation of our human power to soar and our capacity for joy.

“Religion — or rather theology — is, I think, the great integrating discipline. It takes the insights of science — doesn’t tell science what to think — but it takes science’s insights and understandings, it takes the insights of morality, takes the insights of aesthetics, the study of beauty. The wonderful order or pattern of the world that science discovers and rejoices in is a reflection, indeed, of the mind of the creator, whose will and purpose lie behind the world. Our moral intuitions, our intimations of God’s good and perfect will, our experiences of beauty, I believe, are sharing in the joy of the creator, the creation. You can soon see the gross inadequacy of thinking that science can tell you everything that you could possibly know.” Sir John Polkinghorne, Interview on PBS.[ix]

I enjoy and employ access to the world’s knowledge as much as most of us and would not like to forego the privilege unknown to all generations before mine. However, subtle, deliberate, and credible lies and confusion abound on the screen that sits in our pockets, luring us like Sirens to the shore. A recent article in Wired magazine suggested Silicone Valley has gained a seat at the table with Jerusalem and Athens in shaping Western culture. See the link in the footnotes below with the Wired article by Luke Burgis on “The Three City Problem of Modern Life.”[x]

How we manage that will form or deform our culture in the decades ahead. As my father who died in 1982 would not recognize the world we inhabit now. Neither, I expect, would I recognize what will befall us forty years from now.

Click. Click. Clickclickclickclickclick. Clicks at the lunch table surrounded by others doing the same. Clicks in the classroom. Clicks on the bus.  Clicks while sitting silently with those with whom in better times we would converse. Clicks. Desultory or urgent. Clicks in their never to be satisfied quest for distraction, entertainment, and their pitiful consolations.

Clicks trying to fill the void in our hearts that can only be filled as Augustine wrote 1,600 years ago: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.[xi]

Wishing a most blessed and peaceful time of Giving Thanks to all.

“I’ve been wanderin’ through this land

Doin’ the best I can

Trying’ to find what I was meant to do

And the people that I see

Look as worried as can be

And it looks like they are wonderin’, too 

And I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound, where I’m bound

Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.”  Tom Paxton [xii]    

[i] Picture from https//www.smartcitiesworld.netnewsnewssmartphones-smarter-than-humans-1468

[ii] Future Humans May Have Abnormalities From Using Technology Too Much, “Interesting Engineering”

[iii] Over a quarter of Americans under 30 get their news from TikTok, Pew Research

[iv] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emilybakerwhite/tiktok-tapes-us-user-data-china-bytedance-access

[v] Does the Search Engine Manipulation Effect Have an Impact on Elections (PNAS – Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

[vi] Sir James Jeans knighted for contributions to mathematics and astrophysics, development of quantum theory and stellar structure. Author of “Philosophy and Physics.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Jeans

[vii] https://catholicscientists.org/scientists-of-the-past/

[viii] Why The Supposed Conflict between Science and Religion is Tragic Nonsense (Robert Barron)

[ix] Sir John Polkinghorne resigned his prestigious chair at Cambridge as a mathematician and physicist to pursue additional education and credentials as an Anglican priest and theologian. Prior to that he studied and contributed to the development of the theory of quarks and elemental particles. In addition to his position as a senior fellow at Cambridge, he spent time at Stanford, Princeton, Berkley, and CERN in Geneva.

[x] Link to Luke Burgis Wired article  The problem is that unlike Athens and Jerusalem which focus on rationality and religion (analyzing the relationship between science, philosophy, and a moral code), Silicone Valley’s ethic is utilitarianism. Does it work? Does it make money?   Quotes from the article:   “The question of whether Athens is incompatible with Jerusalem—the relationship between these two cities, which symbolize two different ways of approaching reality—is a question that humanity has wrestled with for millennia. The Catholic Church arrived at a synthesis between the two, with the late Pope John Paul II writing that faith and reason are like “two wings on which the human soul rises to the contemplation of the truth… But today there is a third city affecting the other two. Silicon Valley, this third city, is not governed primarily by reason (it is practically the mark of a great entrepreneur to not be “reasonable”), nor by the things of the soul (the dominant belief seems to be a form of materialism). It is a place, rather, governed by the creation of value. And a large component of value is utility—whether something is useful, or is at least perceived as good or beneficial.”

[xi] From Augustine’s “Confessions.”

[xii] I like the Nanci Griffith interpretation of Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound

As with the last post, below are multiple links to varied articles detailing some of the issues called into question.

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Some related links of interest (at least to me).

The Chicago School of Media article on Smartphones

Balsamo argues for a connection between the user and the smartphone that is even more fundamental than McLuhan’s extension of the senses. In contrast to McLuhan’s definition of media, she states that she pulls the smartphone into her very essence, stating “I incorporate it as a prosthetic extension of my corporeal being. Not merely an extension of my ear, as McLuhan would have argued, it is me. My body/myself—my iPhone/myself. I become the cyborg I always wanted to be.”

TikTok’s Greatest Asset is not its Algorithm, It’s Your Phone (Wired)

Rather than see specificity and device limitations as an inconvenient hurdle to omnipresence, TikTok embeds itself within them—taking advantage of the fact that mobile technology limits how people engage with content and leaning into these constraints (e.g. the user only sees one video at a time and can only proceed linearly to the next video by swiping). This narrow focus enables a “flow state” to open up between the platform and spectator, as attention is entirely channeled to the content at hand. The immediacy created by this user-platform flow allows TikTok to forgo the reflective processing associated with active viewership. The distance necessary for critical intervention and interpretation is trampled under the continual stream of curated short-form video and the addictively mindless infinite scroll. When presented in this nonstop succession, the video (a high-bandwidth medium that combines text, visuals, music, and movement) is amplified, saturating the viewer with a deluge of information. There is no time to think about what you just saw because as soon as the clip ends, you’re on to the next one. The spectator is rendered a consummate consumer, rather than a viewer tasked with engaging and unpacking the content they’re seeing—on TikTok, Chayka writes, “you don’t have to think, only react,” as the platform has already done the hard work of analysis and selection. As critics writing on algorithmic identity first noted, when everything is running smoothly, the user feels completely synchronous with the platform..

Terms of misuse: What data does TikTok collect on its U.S users? Dot.LA

 Like other social media giants, TikTok gobbles up a lot of user information. To start, TikTok receives names, ages, phone numbers and emails when people sign up for the service. The app also knows users’ approximate locations and mobile device identifiers, such as IP addresses.

Germain told dot.LA the most valuable info may come from the way users interact with the video sharing app. TikTok is quite good at figuring out peoples’ interests based on the videos or accounts they’ve previously liked or followed. Those insights are useful for advertisers and—potentially—for spreading political messages, Germain noted.

“This vast trove of data that every social media company has—on what people are interested in, what makes them upset, what makes them happy—is incredibly valuable,” he said.

How TikTok reads your mind NY Times  (may be a paywall)

There are four main goals for TikTok’s algorithm: 户价值, 户价值 (长期), 作者价值, and 平台价值, which the company translates as “user value,” “long-term user value,” “creator value,” and “platform value.”

That set of goals is drawn from a frank and revealing document for company employees that offers new details of how the most successful video app in the world has built such an entertaining — some would say addictive — product.

The document, headed “TikTok Algo 101,” was produced by TikTok’s engineering team in Beijing. A company spokeswoman, Hilary McQuaide, confirmed its authenticity, and said it was written to explain to nontechnical employees how the algorithm works. The document offers a new level of detail about the dominant video app, providing a revealing glimpse both of the app’s mathematical core and insight into the company’s understanding of human nature — our tendencies toward boredom, our sensitivity to cultural cues — that help explain why it’s so hard to put down. The document also lifts the curtain on the company’s seamless connection to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, at a time when the U.S. Department of Commerce is preparing a report on whether TikTok poses a security risk to the United States.

FCC Commissioner says US should ban TikTok  Axios

What he’s saying: “I don’t believe there is a path forward for anything other than a ban,” Carr said, citing recent revelations about how TikTok and ByteDance handle U.S. user data.

Carr highlighted concerns about U.S. data flowing back to China and the risk of a state actor using TikTok to covertly influence political processes in the United States.

There simply isn’t “a world in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party],” Carr said.

Carr sent letters to Apple and Google in June asking the companies to remove the apps from their stores due to concerns about data flowing back to China.

Why Are Our Attention Spans Shortening? https://www.wsj.com/articles/attention-spans-shortening-tiktok-social-media-gen-z-millenials-reading-education-focus-11667336185

TikTok is the most detrimental thing to happen to our attention spans. It’s an endless cycle of bright colors and catchy sounds meant to be consumed faster than our brains can process the content. Why are we always on our phones? Because tech moguls and social-media developers designed a piece of technology so addicting and damaging that we can’t handle concentrating on real life.

We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for being easily distracted; developers created this technology to be addictive. But we can resist by making real efforts to slow down our consumption. Reading a book is an easy and simple solution because it forces us to concentrate on the words on the page. There’s nowhere to scroll.

—Maddie Heinz, Macalester College, English and political science

Modern liberalism’s advancement of efficiency and corporate interests, under the intellectual guise of human flourishing, have contributed to this problem. Replacing God, community and family with individualism has left people looking within themselves to find meaning that is not there.

How will we pursue what is honorable, chivalrous and beautiful if we cannot maintain an attention span longer than eight seconds? Romantic virtues aside, millennials and Gen Z are experiencing astronomical levels of anxiety and depression. Could a lack of self-agency and control contribute to these heightened feelings of anxiety and vanity? An inability to put aside pleasure is apparent in our declining marriage rate: If individuals struggle to devote seconds of attention to a task, how will they devote the rest of their lives to a partner?

We are responsible for addressing this attention span crisis, lest the corporations drugging our society continue confining us to Brave New World-style slavery.

—Chanidu Gamage, The University of British Columbia, political science

Teen girls developing movement tics. Doctors say TikTok may be a factor  WSJ (may be a paywall)

Teenage girls across the globe have been showing up at doctors’ offices with tics—physical jerking movements and verbal outbursts—since the start of the pandemic.

Movement-disorder doctors were stumped at first. Girls with tics are rare, and these teens had an unusually high number of them, which had developed suddenly. After months of studying the patients and consulting with one another, experts at top pediatric hospitals in the U.S., Canada, Australia and the U.K. discovered that most of the girls had something in common: TikTok.

Technology and the Soul: The Spiritual Lessons of Digital Distraction  Public Discourse, Joshua Hochschild

The age of digital media has unleashed a profoundly threatening human experiment. By drawing us to waste not only our time, but our attention, social media seduces us to waste our souls. Our brightest engineers have trained our most powerful technology to act with the psychological craftiness of demons. Neuroscience helps us understand how digital media is changing us, but we need a more classical language about the soul to understand, and protect ourselves from, the most ominous of these changes.

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Summer’s End

“April, dressed in all his trim, hath put a spirit of youth in everything.” Sonnet 98, William Shakespeare

Weaver Cove Sunset 3Back in April, the sun rose earlier each day on the eastern horizon and set later and farther to the north on the western horizon until the summer solstice sprinted by on June 21st. The daylight prior to the solstice persists a few minutes longer each day in felicitous, tiny, precious increments. Early mornings are more welcoming, and evening sunsets linger. Here on our little island, the sun rises over the Sakonnet River or the Atlantic out on Sachuest Beach and sets over Narragansett Bay.

We sometimes take sandwiches to watch it sink red and pink and orange behind Conanicut Island to the south in the winter or Prudence Island in the summer at the Weaver Cove boat landing off Burma Road that runs along the west side of our island. Herring gulls, ospreys, and various diving and dabbling waterfowl often join us: cormorants, Northern diving ducks, harlequins, scoters, and loons.

The delicate greens of spring give way to lush summer foliage, then gaudy autumn golds and reds, and end once again in the sparse, naked beauty of winter branches black against cold skies and snowy fields. The seasons flow effortlessly one to the other. The spring miracle is as inevitable as winter, hardwired into genes of living things and into the orbit and tilt of our beautiful blue ball.

The startling pink of abundantly flowering cherries follow the magnolias and dogwoods. Bradford pears planted in half the commercial landscapes on the island burst forth in white once again. In May the petals begin to fade and fall, then cascade, covering ground and windshield. Pink petal decorated cars are often seen on East Main Road and Wapping Road and Indian Road. By August we are greeted each day with the last of the hydrangeas, Black Eye Susans, the pinks of Rose of Sharon, some unlikely, startling, hardy hibiscus, and the splendor of Trees of Heaven.

“He says the early petal-fall in past

 When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers

On sunny days a moment overcast;

And comes that other fall we name the fall.”  The Oven Bird, Robert Frost

Now, when I open the shades to the morning, I begin to track early rising Orion with Betelgeuse and Rigel in the pre-dawn Southern sky; his signature belt and sword are tilted from the angles that will soon help dominate winter skies. The seasons are moving on for 2022, and it’s time to get the winter’s firewood into the shed.

We are a couple of months past the summer solstice for 2022 and each day gets just an inconspicuous bit shorter. Not much, at first, but later towards December, the foreshortening accelerates once again to begin the long climb back towards another flowering. The passing seasons prompt thoughts of the gift of light. I am reminded that the darkness is not a thing unto itself, but a privation. St. Francis taught that no depth of darkness can defeat the light of one candle.

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars, The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” Fyodor Dostoevsky

Evil has no substance of its own but is a privation, a negation, a denial of Good. What is a candle that cannot be extinguished by the depth of evil? I am reminded of one: the non-violent, gentle light of forgiveness. Selfishness, violence, hatred, divisiveness, rancor, vitriol, fierce anger, the depths of human cruelty, even murder ultimately surrender to forgiveness. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Every time we pray that so often recited prayer by habit, we commit ourselves to a promise and an agreement that is not always easy to keep. A promise we should not ignore or neglect.

“Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing,” spoken from the bloody pulpit of the Cross. Roman subjects quaked at the threat of it. The Cross symbolized the worst that human beings can do to one another. And yet the response of a mighty God to those who killed Him so terribly was not triumphant vengeance by fierce angelic riders seeking retribution, but the final soft word that defeats the darkness. He descended to the bottom of human suffering and returned the pain, not with justice, but with Love.

“Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’” John 8:12

Little is more powerful than genuine forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a sentiment, but a decision, a grace filled act of the will. Nothing answers hatred as effectively or more powerfully. The Cross is the symbol and the actuality of cruelty, fear, vindictiveness, and violence unlike almost any other. And it was overcome only and for all of us by Resurrection, forgiveness, and the Light.

 “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Anyone who claims to be in the light

but hates his brother

is still in the dark.

But anyone who loves his brother is living in the light

and need not be afraid of stumbling;

unlike the man who hates his brother and is in the darkness,

not knowing where he is going,

because it is too dark to see.” 1 John 2:9-11

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A Tree Falls

“Here is a quick and generally reliable rule to follow. If people have always said it, it is probably true; it is the distilled wisdom of the ages. If people have not always said it, but everybody is saying it now, it is probably a lie; it is the concentrated madness of the moment.” Anthony Esolen, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture

18989409_web1_downed-treeWEBWe often sit and pray after morning Mass in the Fatima grove across the driveway from our parish chapel.  A week or so ago, we heard a loud rending of wood and a crash down the street. There had been no sound of saw or axe, just the destruction. Later we looked for the cause of the disturbance. A large weeping willow had split apart and two thirds of it blocked a nearby road. I thought of the old philosophical question from Dr. George Berkeley, an Anglican Bishop and philosopher in the 1600s, about a tree falling in the woods and whether it made a noise if there was no one there to hear it. It does.

I wondered how could the old tree that had survived many thunderstorms, hurricanes, Nor’easters, blizzards, and rogue winds over fifty years, judging by its size, just collapse without notice? That morning in the quiet of early summer blooming, a final tiny weight of water borne up from its roots or perhaps the addition of a single cell in one leaf or a crow building a nest or a squirrel fleeing a shadow delivered the last groaning increment, an unsupportable weight. Or was it long festering inner rot and flaw in its structure that gave way, and the grace and beauty of the tree was destroyed, good only now for cutting up and clearing off the road? I’ll never know what finished it off, but there it was.

Not just trees collapse after decades of weakening.

One of the better articles of dozens I read on the January 6 hearings observed that we are looking futilely for legal or even political solutions to a more fundamental problem, solutions those things cannot possibly provide. We don’t need better laws or policies or politicians; we need better Americans, better citizens. Whether Proud Boys or Antifa thugs or obscene gay pride marchers or arrogant narcissist politicians: progressive ideologues or overtly corrupt self-serving ones, they are merely different aspects of the same disease.

The great majority of Americans get up each morning, attempt to work hard quietly to support themselves and their families, and come home to do the best they can to form the next generation in the best way they know how. But they get little help from educational institutions, politicians, and most media, social or otherwise.

The same article by Kevin Williamson[i] contains a link to a profound T.S. Eliot poem:

“If we give in to the fantasy that we can legislate our way out of this mess or prosecute our way back to republican virtue, we are only ‘dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.’ That is a project that inevitably will end in failure and disappointment. Being good citizens is not easy but maintaining a free society without good citizens is impossible.”

We have replaced objective reality with subjective desires.  Rather than the hard work of discerning reality and conforming ourselves to it, we wish to conform reality to ourselves. Rather than seeking to discern the Good, the True and the Beautiful, we rely for guidance from the false, gossamer gods of Tolerance, the Socially Acceptable, and the Culturally Relevant. We look for validation in counting responding emoticons to copy and pasted or ragged and derivative social media posts.

The long slog of learning and reading and thinking and self-reflection is subverted by slogans and clever derision of those with whom we disagree. We don’t listen and debate ideas respectfully, we shout down with bull horns and air horns and screaming obscenities those people who have ideas that question current orthodoxy.

Our hearts and wills are not inclined to virtue, but to our self-driven will. Our minds and discernment are not inclined to knowledge and wisdom, but to factoids and catchphrases to support our causes. Our imagination is not captivated by and seeking out objective beauty in nature or art, but we look for entertainments and distractions.

We hear incessant calls for self-fulfillment, not self-sacrifice for the greater good. We try to fill the hole in our heart with that which cannot possibly heal.

The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;

Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;

Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,

All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God .

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust. T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”

Part II

This week the January 6 hearings were deposed by the demise of Roe v Wade, systematically demolished in its pretense by Justice Alito’s Dobbs v Jackson Health brilliantly written decision. After initial euphoria that day with all the excitement of a small avalanche of emails, articles, and posts, the next morning I woke up deflated like post big game blues. The disappointment gave way to a sad resolve, which soon transitioned to a familiar fierce determination.

When the Dobbs v Jackson Health decision was announced, I was elated because I had thought I would not live to see the lies of Roe refuted and overturned so convincingly by the court. Joy was tempered by the realization that much of the good work of our Rhode Island Right To Life founders was excised from the body of our laws by pink shirt abortion zealots and thugs storming the statehouse and its offices with airhorns and screaming slogans intimidating our legislature in 2019. The trigger laws that would have been immediately in effect to protect life in RI were wiped away.

Nearly four generations of Americans, most of our population, grew up and were formed under the auspices of Roe. While certainly not the sole source of their confusion and alienation, Roe contributed significantly to a culture that has absorbed two very dangerous false premises.

The first is that sex is primarily for pleasure and recreation and secondarily is for strengthening commit-ments, and finally way down on the list is for its teleological purpose in nature of perpetuating our species.

The second premise that we passed along to our heirs for fifty years is that once we have determined that conceiving a child is a problem to be solved rather than a commitment, responsibility, and gift to be cherished, the solution is either a contraceptive one or a violent one. We re-created our version of truth and taught our children that the violence of abortion is a “right” to be maintained at all costs, and when faced with an unwelcome pregnancy the cold clinical violence is not just a necessary evil, but a positive good.

We have much work ahead to support and to protect vulnerable mothers and unborn children here once again. We have “miles to go before we sleep.” May God bless the many good hearts and minds who will never give up.

There is an image.

The temple was finally relinquished by the vandals and the despoilers after almost fifty years of hostile occupation. They left the roof burned and collapsed, the walls cracked into ruins, the floor littered with the remnants of charred roof beams, broken pieces of sacred and beautiful art.  Dead things and the waste of animals soiled the floor tiles. Something foul was in the corner; there were small bones embedded in the mound. Paper refuse and the remains of barbarian camps.

With resignation and meager hope, I began to sweep the floor with an old broom.

Others drift in then stream in to help clean up the mess. Some erect staging and demo the west wall until only solid blocks remain, then they start in with fresh mortar and new bricks.  A straight spruce log is dragged on to the swept floor. Some of us begin to shape it into a new roof beam with a two-handed draw knife and a forged adze.

As night falls, family members come and bring us food: hardy, simple and delicious. Someone starts to play a fiddle, another a guitar. One clear trained woman’s voice begins to sing. Ragged at first, we join in:

As I went down in the river to pray

Studying about that good ol’ way

And who shall wear the starry crown?

Good Lord show me the way!

 

O sisters let’s go down

Let’s go down, come on down

O sisters let’s go down

Down in the river to pray.

 By the third verse we were sounding better, with some complex harmony, by the fifth verse we soared with hundreds of voices. I thought I could hear my father singing. By the end of it there were angels in the chorus.[ii]

The woman who started the singing and her husband, one of the carpenters, said they had to gather their kids who had been engaged in a raucous pick-up baseball game near us, take them home, read a few stories aloud, say prayers together, and put them to bed. Others began to head home to attend to other chores and get some rest. They looked back and waved. ‘We’ll see you in the morning.”  I knew they would return.

“Until the sexual revolution, most people understood that customs and laws regarding sex were customs and laws to strengthen or at least to protect the family, and that the family was not something created by the State, but was its own small kingdom, a natural society, founded in the bodily nature of man.”  Anthony Esolen, Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity

[i] January 6 Hearings are a story without a hero

[ii] Alison Krauss – Down In the River to Pray

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Christmas Letter 2021

                                                                                                                          

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me.”                                                                     

St. John Henry Newman                                                                                         

Christmas 2021

NativityA rainy December Saturday is the perfect time for reflection and to get a short Christmas letter together. We said last goodbyes to some good friends in 2021, three in the last two months. We’ll miss their company and just knowing they are there. We’ve joined in prayer for each that they have been welcomed home. “Well done, My good and faithful servant.” Each one was unique and precious and unrepeatable and irreplaceable. As we turn the corner into our fourth quarter century, this Christmas and end of year season, natural for reflection, has special poignancy.

Not to lapse too deeply into Irish maudlin, but at nearly seventy-six, we are mindful that the road ahead is nowhere near as long as that which is receding in the rearview mirror. This stretch of road is not a regret; but as Bill Belichick would tell us, “It is what it is.” We benefit greatly from the perspective of how dear each new sunrise is. Another Belichick aphorism is, “You are what your record says you are.” Again, not as troubling as it once might have been. Well into our eighth decade, what once seemed so critical to happiness, success, keeping score, and keeping on track has simplified and become less frantic, more at peace: small acts of kindness are not so small, a smile from a stranger, a smile from a friend, a smile from our beloved so much more meaningful. And each of you ever more significant to us.

Our former pastor at St. Patrick Church on Smith Hill in Providence, Father James, presided over one such funeral this week. He reminded us that happiness comes not from temporal achievements or the praise of others or the accumulation of stuff or success at bending the will of others. Happiness is derived from virtue, wonderment and gratitude. Wonderment at the true and beautiful that envelops us with natural marvels and good companions for the journey. Gratitude in our hearts as often as we can gather it to ourselves. None of it limited by time.

We have much to be grateful for surrounded by the wonder of natural things here on Aquidneck Island. Not the spectacular Colorado mountains where we lived so many years ago or the mountains and lakes of Maine where we lived many years after that, but the salt marshes, farmland and wooded trails, and, of course, the river and the ocean beaches. We scarce can take it in.

And more. So much more. Four grown children who have made many more good choices than lamented ones and matured into decent, loving human beings. Seven grandchildren from one to thirteen, each rare and wonderful with their own grace, eccentricities, goofiness, wonder of life, and childlike beauty. A parish church we can walk to with plenty to keep us spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally well-nourished with purposeful activity, friendships, worship, and life. And our greatest blessing right here in our two-bedroom downsized bungalow: fifty-five years shared together in our cherished marriage next month. The radiant heat from the woodstove heats our home on blustery cold New England winter days, and plenty of wood is cut and split in the woodshed. Twinkling, joyful, brightly colored lights around the doors, in the windows, and along the rail of the deck. The wooden creche made for us with careful attention by Rita’s Dad and filled with the exquisite ceramic figures of the Nativity made by Jack’s mother so many years ago.

Life is full here in Portsmouth.

Let us resolve to be makers of peace, gratitude and love for one another; may we be welcoming havens for each other and unafraid of the future and not regretful of the past. God is good.

God’s blessings on you and yours and a most Merry Christmas,       

 Love in Christ,

—– Psalm 46:10     Be still and know that I am God —–

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All of Nature is God’s Art

“All of Nature is God’s Art”  Attributed to Dante Alighieri.

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Norman Bird SanctuaryA local townsperson from forty or so years ago in Mount Vernon, Maine, taught in the English Department at the University of Maine. She grumbled to us once at one of her parties that the brilliant fall gold and red display of maples and birch and poplar was disturbingly garish, a vulgar excess that lures the tourists. The leaf peepers travel by the busload to northern New England and upstate New York each year to gawk and to raise the rates in the hotels and restaurants, filling the hospitality business gaps between the summer lakes splendor and the ski season. The leaf colors are enabled by the slow final ruin of the chlorophyll [ii]at summer’s end. The splendid trees benefit the local economy, but their beauty backs up the lines at the breakfast haunts of the regulars, so I understand her peevish response. Small inconvenience, really, though, and a good trade off anytime.

I have come also to appreciate more the muted burnt umber and crimsons of the late oaks and the more refined yellows of the beeches of late fall. The maples, ashes, birch, and poplar have abandoned their now brown leaves to lawns, gutters on our house, and forest floors. The oaks too slowly give up their summer, and the winter branches appear with their intricacy, delicacy, order, design, and strength displaying ever more clearly. The latent beauty in the structure of the tree emerges, the form developed year over year, cell by cell, a miracle of biology and geometry and design. Rarely in nature are purpose, structure, and function unrelated; what serves beauty, serves also for essence, form, and survival. The winter sky provides a perfect backdrop to feature the winter bare tree branches. As much as I take delight in the fragile spring green and flowers, the lush summer foliage, and the autumn brilliance, the spare precision of the naked branches is most welcome. Their quiet and deep peace signal the annual winter retreat.

“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.”  Galileo Galilei   

Ellie's winter tree in pastelsIt has been written that the Holy Spirit is the Love proceeding from the Father and the Son within the Community of Love that is the Trinity of the Godhead.  One of the key stories in the Christmas narratives occurs when Mary comes to help her also pregnant cousin after Mary began carrying the Christ child within her. In the presence of the baby Jesus, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; she was participating in the mysterious inner life of God. Human beings as their most noble calling possess the capacity to share in that inner life.

So how do these seemingly unrelated thoughts connect to the fall displays in New England and our capacity to be taken by them?  I suggest this: that human beings possess the power of creating beauty and appreciating natural beauty by the same capacity that was imbued in them as being made in the “image and likeness of God.” This capacity is not simply a function of neurons and synapses but is spiritual in its origins; our relation to beauty is miracle.

An eleven-year-old girl[iii] has the same spiritual capacity as Michelangelo or Da Vinci or you and me.Ellie's chipmunk None of us likely has the same degree or skill or eye, but the capacity for beauty exists by our nature. Imago Dei, in the Image of God, are undeserved gifts to us in our nature and our souls. The senses are there; the mind is there; the heart is there; the soul is there for all of us.

Let us rejoice and wonder and be grateful as our eyes, our hearts and our souls are full.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. Anne Frank, “The Diary of a Young Girl”

[ii] As the days shorten and the nights lengthen at the end of the summer, this signals the trees to create an abscission layer which hardens the tender ends of the twigs to protect them when the leaves finally fall. This response to the diminishing light cuts off the supply of nutrients necessary to replenish the chlorophyll in the leaves. When it stops replenishing, the leaf begins to die. Chlorophyll constantly breaks down as it participates in the photosynthesis that produces nutrients for the tree and remarkably replenishes the sweet air that we sense near them as the photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide and water on the input side and “exhales” pure oxygen along with the glucose that provides the tree with all its energy. Chlorophyll also makes the leaves green. As it breaks down toward the end of the season, the carotenoids and anthocyanins show forth. Carotenoids were present all summer but were masked by the power of the green. In the fall, they get to show off their stuff before the leaves wither and fall.

[iii] Drawings by Elena Barek, who is eleven. Granddaughter with an eye, a heart, and a soul. Winter tree in pastels and Chipmunk in pencil.

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Freedom From Religion Part Two

“You might be a rock ‘n’ roll addict prancing on the stage

You might have drugs at your command, women in a cage

You may be a business man or some high-degree thief

They may call you doctor or they may call you chief

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes you are

You’re gonna have to serve somebody….”  Bob Dylan, Gotta Serve Somebody[i]

 

Before we explore where “Freedom From Religion” is leading us to, we might ask what is it leading us from? Human beings are by our nature religious, and we will find a religion irrespective of our denials that our orthodoxy is orthodoxy. Even if it is secular progressive atheism or a version of Star Wars Manichean dogma, we are hard wired for religion, and we gotta serve somebody. If our determination for postmodern marginalizing of ancient faith is the goal, what will we do to fill the gap in our center? And without doubt there is a hole in our hearts, an existential alienation and loneliness that we try to avoid thinking about with distractions, entertainments, and busyness.

The concept of “praising God” is a starting point to examine what we are leaving behind.

Halal

The derivation of words and their original context are worth understanding. The Hebrew “halal” means “praise.” From it is derived “Alleluia!” or “Praise God!” Christian belief is that rightly ordered praise is the true end of our liturgy and our lives. What does that mean? God is not an easily dismissed straw man: the old, bearded man on a remote throne so rightly derided by the new atheist. True God does not need our praise. God, Who is “ipsum esse,” the very act of “being” itself, does not need our anything.

So why would He require that we praise Him? Since He only wants our good, then rightly ordered praise must rebound to our benefit. We find a clue in the derivation of the Hebrew word “halal.” The original pictograph on the left in the figure shows the image of a man pointing upward at something amazing. (Remember that written Hebrew reads right to left.) The repeated figures represent shepherd’s crooks and were used to indicate “pointing the way.” The figure in the middle of the graphic shows the pictograph evolved into ancient Hebrew, so “praise” derives from “directing us to something amazing.”

Thus, we may ascertain that “praise” has more to do with pointing us in the right direction than obsequious flattery and telling God He is great. And what might that direction be? To diminish our frail and foible prone egos and center our lives on one thing: there is a God, and I’m not Him. And to know this is to know everything.[ii]

 

“Jesus said to his disciples:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,

where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.

But store up treasures in heaven,

where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.’” Gospel according to Matthew

 

What substitutes will plug the hole in our heart? Most of our efforts are not evil in themselves, indeed most of our substitutes are goods raised above their station. Distractions, entertainments, diversions are among them. Playing and watching sports or theater or music are good things, unless they wedge their way into becoming our focus, our center, the primary occupier of our attention and time. Perhaps one of the four Thomas Aquinas wrote about: honor, power, pleasure, and wealth can rise to the occasion and fill the gap. None of these is inherently bad. Acting in a manner to be liked and respected is a positive; craving the approval and praise of others is not. Accumulating sufficient power to achieve good ends, to influence others in a positive way is a good thing, but as Baron John Dalberg-Acton famously remarked over a century ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Seeking comfort for self and family, a warm house on a cold day, the solace of another human body held close, a great meal with friends are good things; hedonistic obsession is not. Wealth can be used to provide for ourselves and our families, to fund charitable good works, all of which are good things in themselves. It is when they become the center, the center falls apart. In the end, they all can become mere addictions that require ever increasing doses to achieve ever more diminishing highs.[iii]

Another word for “praise” in this context is “worship.” Rightly ordered worship means putting what alone merits being at our center in our center. From the Old English ‘weorthscipe’ to the later English ‘worth-ship,’ meaning worthiness or an acknowledgement of worth. What is at our center? What is of prime importance to our heart? Where do we seek solace and peace?

“The leper here stands, not so much for the socially ostracized, but for the one who has wandered away from right worship, the one who is no longer able or willing to worship the true God. What’s so important about worship? To worship is to order the whole of your life toward the living God, and, in doing so, to become interiorly and exteriorly rightly ordered. To worship is to signal to yourself what your life is finally about. It’s nothing that God needs, but it is very much something that we need.”  Bishop Robert Barron writing about Jesus healing the leper.

 

Leonardo baby in the womb

Infant in the womb. Courtesy of leonardodavinci.net

Arguably the first of the two most grievous victims of our post Christian culture are the dignity and intrinsic worth of each human person, including pre-born human beings. The second is the concept of sin itself with individual responsibility, which has escaped our thinking entirely. The former will take more than a blog post, but perhaps the latter can be explored or at least the discussion begun.

Our times are dominated by subjective and emotive decision making, a radical materialist philosophy with its attendant aggressive secularism that countenances no dissent, and what Cardinal Josef Ratzinger famously called “the dictatorship of relativism.”[iv] These have left us with the belief that the important solutions are only found in ideology, science, or by social and government intervention on behalf of one of the many splintered constituencies of grievance politics. Capitalism and free markets will solve all our problems if given free rein. Socialism and the advantaging of the disadvantaged and oppressed will bring us justice and peace. Science will answer all our riddles and provide all the wisdom we need. Despite all evidence in the last century that none of these will serve, our arguments cling to one or more of these assumptions whispering error into our ears.

Prior to the cataclysms of the bloodiest century in human history, the seeds of the secular and materialist revolution that transformed our society were already well planted and sprouted in earnest. In 1910, when G.K. Chesterton was among the most respected writers in the Western world, the Times of London sent out an inquiry to many of those luminaries asking one question. An essayist of peerless skills, Chesterton famously responded with the shortest essay of his life, two words to answer the question, “What is wrong with the world today?” The ‘prince of paradox’ answered, “I am,”

Without sin and acknowledgment of my personal responsibility for my own pride, selfishness, my utilitarian use of others, seeking my own advantage to the detriment of others, then my attempts to address the plight of the group which we want to benefit will remain rooted in my own ego, self-focus, and helping myself to feel superior to the ignorant un-woke guy who fails to see what is so obvious to me. Christianity from the beginning means that our own weaknesses are beyond our ability to fix and that we need a Savior to remedy them. A profound Pelagianism informs our culture and our thinking: we don’t need help, we can earn our salvation however we define it here and now or later, and we can become our best selves by our own efforts and our own self will. “I’m basically a good person, right?”

Therefore, by the wisdom of our tired world, the mercy of God is unnecessary. A serious look inward and honest assessment is uncomfortable and “I’m OK, You’re OK” anyway. So, jump up to the podium, grab a sign, march to City Hall or the Capital, post our wisdom on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, and together we can resolve the injustices of the world. Would that this were possible, but until I address the rottenness at my own core and turn to the only possible remedy for them, my efforts, however commendable, will remain a “noisy gong.”[v]

The Good News is that the remedy is at hand, and that salvation can’t possibly be earned.  “All the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.[vi]” Redemption, filling the hole in my heart, peace, joy, and true freedom is free for the asking. [vii]  In the end, it is only necessary to ask one question. “Is this true?” Everything else follows.

“People are often unreasonable and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. For you see, in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.” St. Teresa of Calcutta

[i] Gotta Serve Somebody, Bob Dylan

[ii] Psalm 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (New International Version translation) Not obsequious trembling and fear, but reverential awe: perspective, not cowardly groveling.

[iii] “With this there grows / In my most ill-composed affection such / A stanchless avarice that, were I king, / I should cut off the nobles for their lands, / Desire his jewels and this other’s house: / And my more-having would be as a sauce / To make me hunger more” Macbeth, William Shakespeare

[iv] For a beginning analysis of what a “dictatorship of relativism” effects in the culture, read Roger Kimball’s introduction to a symposium in New Criterion in 2009: “The Dictatorship of Relativism: Who Will Stand Up for Western Values Now?”

[v] 1 Corinthians 13:1-2  13 “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” New American Standard Bible 1995 translation.

[vi] Piers Plowman, William Langland 1332-1384

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Freedom From Religion Part One

Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth savin’

And you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’ [i] “The Times They Are A Changing” Bob Dylan 1964 

ClassroomMost of us, including me, were panicky as our date on the calendar approached, although there was no preparation possible. We did not know the script, only that we needed to report to the principal’s administrative office five minutes before school started and face the microphone that transmitted our voice to fifty speakers and every classroom and hallway.

Each morning before classes started in junior high school (now middle school) and high school while we were in our home rooms, announcements were made by a senior about the day’s activities in the school, what was on the menu for lunch in the cafeteria, where the yellow, uncomfortable bus without seatbelts would wait after school for those who wanted to go to the hockey game, and other prosaic details about our shared lives. We passed along the schedule and agenda items from a single bullet points page that the principal’s secretary prepared. Finally, we would call the school to silence and begin our school day with a short prayer, a Bible reading, and the Pledge of Allegiance Under God.

The prayers were basic and ended, as I remember, with the “Lord’s Prayer.” The Protestant kids would continue with “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever and ever, Amen.” The Catholic kids in the classrooms would remain respectfully silent after “But deliver us from evil,” which always seems like a good idea anyway, as rare is the person who foregoes a little extra protection from evil. A few remained silent for the “Lord’s Prayer,” but most of the Jewish kids would join in; the familiar beautiful thoughts had been first prayed by an obscure Jewish rabbi a couple of thousand years ago[ii]. The Bible reading was usually from a Psalm common to both Jewish and Christian traditions. I know some who feigned teenage boredom with the whole thing, but I knew no one who was offended. To my knowledge, none of the other kids admonished those who did not join in – their prerogative and none of our business as to why.  We had our heads down and did not notice. After all, the tradition, especially in the Eastern part of the country, was as old as public schools in America.

They cried out, “Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”  The Gospel According to John, 19:15[iii]

Glendalough,_Lower_Valley_3All of this changed in 1962 with the Supreme Court decision Engel v. Vitale followed a year later with Abington School District v. Schempp which banned Bible reading in schools. Engel arose not from a groundswell of grass roots support, but from a small group of parents in Nassau County in New York who took issue with the Regent’s Prayer, which was composed collaboratively by a group of ministers, priests, and rabbis. Then it was endorsed by the New York School Boards Association and the New York Association of Judges of Children’s Courts for use in the public schools. A less offensive prayer would be hard to find: Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.”  Eleven of the thirteen lower court judges who considered the case ruled in favor of its constitutionality. However, the Supreme Court struck it down.

Common knowledge, which is often wrong, holds that the profound cultural changes we have lived through bubbled up from the bottom. Quite to the contrary, the transformation has been led from the top down and much of the change effected initially by judicial action as it discovered never thought of constitutional wrinkles one after another[iv]. Wave after wave eroded what had been solid ground for the first two centuries of our history until it turned to quicksand. As John Adams [v]memorably said, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This wisdom and the understanding of the necessary people who can sustain a republic were accepted by the great majority of our citizens then. No longer of course.

Decision upon decision from Engel through Roe to Obergefell and many others pared away the wisdom of millennia until the full narrative was revealed. The original Jeffersonian “wall of separation” no longer merely proscribes a direct state affiliation with a particular church. Religion now is barely tolerated and relegated to the private, the weak-minded, and the superstitious. Consciences informed by religion should decorously remain silent in the “naked public square.”[vi] The robust “freedom of religion” enshrined in the First Amendment has morphed into a much weaker “freedom of worship,” and then only if it stays locked behind the walls of our church or synagogue or mosque like an embarrassing uncle. Lest we mistake the marginalization of Christian religions as a side effect, we need to understand that this is not an incremental decrepitude, but a usurpation. There is a new church in the land, a deliberate replacement, a secular “progressive” church of the state with its own sacraments, edicts, commandments, and sacred ideas, ruthlessly enforced with enormous power by Puritans who make the Salem witch trials look halfhearted. And woe unto us if we are not paying attention.

Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children…” The Gospel According to Luke, 23:28

[i][i] Happy 80th birthday, Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. From 57 years ago:  The Times They Are A Changing’  On his eightieth birthday, he has an interesting birthday well-wisher, singing a Dylan tune: Every Grain of Sand

[ii] Although the rabbi escaped obscurity and gained quite a bit of notoriety after rival religious leaders conspired with the state to murder Him, and He confounded them by rising from the dead.

[iii] Biblical quotes are from the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE)

[iv] Such nonsense and creative interpretation are replete in these decisions: “emanations and penumbras” of a constitutional right to privacy was most well-known. Or Judge Anthony Kennedy’s notorious fiat “mystery passage” in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which pontificated that one has “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Really? No objective reality that transcends and precedes subjective experience? Kennedy’s ruling read much more like some beer and bong saturated midnight session in a graduate dorm, or the faculty lunchroom self-congratulatory proclamations of orthodox progressive tripe than ably articulated legal reasoning.

[v] This was not to say that all the founders and authors of the Constitution were regular church goers. Only 17% of Americans were such when the country was founded. However, almost all citizens subscribed to the understanding that such a form of government could only survive if the people being governed were grounded by a transcendent and common moral compact that called all of them to ready sacrifice for something greater than themselves.

[vi] “Naked public square” is a term coined by Father Richard John Neuhaus decades ago in the journal he founded, “First Things.” Father Neuhaus was describing a secular public arena for debate that increasingly sought to muzzle religious voices.

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I Met a Guy

“But how could you live and have no story to tell?”  Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights

Hope - Flower in a parched landHow many of our stories start with “I met a guy?” Just as this one will. We were in the backyard of my daughter’s home in California earlier this spring during a birthday block party and cookout in the cul-de-sac out front for a neighbor turning ninety. One of their neighbors drifted in to see some of the yard improvements completed to adapt to the needs of two small active girls during a pandemic. Rodney’s daughter came as well, and the three girls ran helter-skelter testing the limits of swings, water tables, trapezes, trampolines, and slides. While the children joyfully yelped and played, we became acquainted in the way strangers sometimes do in unplanned encounters.

He was a tall African immigrant with an open demeanor and a pleasant face well accustomed to an easy smile. In early remarks, Rodney told me he was a field implementer for a large software company who pre-COVID travelled frequently to help customers install their manufacturing and business controlling software. He educated owners, trained managers, and taught line employees how to get the most out of their expensive investment.

I told him I had worked with folks like him and been involved several times in my career with traumatic “go live” transitions to new company operating systems. We agreed immediately that the most vexing challenge was employee resistance to the whole trying process of redoing almost every aspect of how everyone does their job, accesses the data they need, and controls what they need to control. Even if their old operating system was obsolete and nearly useless, line employees and managers developed their own “work arounds” for its deficiencies and were comfortable with, proud of, and dependent on those accommodations. His is a tough job. A positive outcome, despite huge investment and commitment from owners, is not guaranteed and can fail, causing no end of unhappy employers and employees.

We struck a quick and mutual understanding with that short, comfortable chat, and he decided to open the door to a deeper conversation, for which I will be grateful for a long time. Rodney emigrated from the United Kingdom when he enrolled at Boston University, majoring in finance. After graduating, he took a job with Fidelity researching corporations and evaluating potential investments. He told me he was disheartened in an aggressive and highly competitive position; after three years of difficult paid post graduate education in the ways of business, he found a new job as a trainer and manufacturing software implementation project manager and enjoyed it. All a typical exploratory career path story — understandable given his laid back, sunny personality, and obvious strong communication skills. He relished engaging with real people and helping them.

Then came the rest of the story. He grew up in a prosperous home in Uganda, one of twelve children of three wives, and the son of the man who occupied the desk analogous to the one held by the Chairperson of the Fed in the United States. His father’s boss was Idi Amin, one the cruelest of African dictators and a murderous psychopath[i]. Complicating his position, his father remained grandfathered in his job from when his tribe and religion (Catholicism) had held sway prior to the coup and takeover by Amin’s tribe and Muslim religion. He precariously balanced there for a while due to his merit, experience, and profound understanding of the complexities of currency and finance.

Rodney explained to me that in Uganda, as in many African countries, tribe and religion were defining characteristics that established all relationships. If your tribe and religion were in power, your job, lifestyle, prosperity, and social position were comfortable. Corruption is a given, and to survive you must acquiesce in it. If you were not well connected to the current government, you were lucky to feed and shelter your family at a subsistence level. When politics and power changed hands, often violently, prospects could transform overnight, not just those at the head of the government, but everyone down the line.

Amin accepted Rodney’s father because of his reputation and skills, but incrementally ratcheted up pressure to increase the money supply and leverage in an inflationary, ruinous manner to fund Amin’s vision of power, armaments, and control. Rodney’s father advised, cajoled, and ultimately refused to ruin the country’s economy. Shortly afterwards, he was disappeared. Rodney never saw his father or two of the wives again. His own mother and all twelve of the children fled in the middle of the night with the clothes on their backs, running for their lives. He was ten years old.

They shuttled from sanctuary to sanctuary in small Catholic parishes, traveling on foot always at night for several hundred miles until they finally crossed into Kenya and found relative safety in a crowded refugee camp. For the next year, they met with authorities and worked to find a permanent home. Several times his mother was offered the option to split up the children – four to the UK, four to Canada, and four to Australia. Each time she insisted that they stay together. Eventually her determination won out, and they emigrated intact to England. From there he rebuilt his life, pursued his education, and began his career, eventually meeting his wife in the United States, and together settling with their children in California.

“Tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”  Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

When next I am tempted to self-pity or whining about some petty inconvenience or slight, I will recall his story. Rodney’s inner joy, trust, and upbeat demeanor are not put on, nor is it a pollyannish denial of the cruelty and alienation inflicted so often on the defenseless. He has seen it in person. Not flimsy optimism, but hope, and hope as a virtue and a soul deep choice in how he faces forward each day.

We talked for another half hour or so. He remains a practicing Catholic, and his faith and trust is not just a Sunday habit; he has a devotion to the Eucharist that sustains and strengthens him. He and his wife volunteer at a local refugee center affiliated with his parish, ministering as best they can to the flood of immigrants, documented and otherwise, that live in Southern California. The distress and fear he encounters do not dishearten him; they ennoble him.

The previous week a Somalian[ii] man came to him for help pursuing a refugee status. Should he be deported back to Somalia, where persecution and murder of Catholics and other Christians is commonplace, he would most likely be killed and die in a prolonged and painful way.

Somehow the Somalian had cobbled together enough for an unorthodox plane ticket and managed passage to Brazil in an overcrowded plane. Once in Brazil and COVID desolation, he found no further aid or direction for a new life, so he started walking. And how he walked. He walked through the rest of South America to Columbia, crossing each perilous border. Pressing ever northward, he traversed the entire span of Central America: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and finally across the heavily guarded border into Mexico. At every juncture, he risked prison, deportation, further exploitation, or death – foraging for food along the way – over 4,300 miles. Once in Mexico, there followed another 1,900 miles of dusty, hot roads through that dangerous country, always headed toward his dreamt about promised land of the United States. Rodney told me that after he and his wife heard the harrowing details, they arranged for another friend, an attorney, to try and help the distressed man stay, but his new friend’s security is far from assured. Rodney told me that he had to leave the room soon afterwards so his tears could not be seen.

Rodney told me if ever he ever went back to Uganda, he would necessarily have to adapt to living a corrupt life of bribery and kickbacks as the only means of survival, so absent unimaginable cultural transformation there, he will never again return to the magnificent geography and biological diversity of the land of his birth. 

Remarkably, he carries no burden of bitter resentments over the murder of his father or the ordeal of hundreds of miles of fear filled night walking. He nurtures only gratitude for the strength and courage of his mother and the help given along the way of their desperate pilgrimage by poor rural parishioners risking their lives to provide shelter. The opportunity and promised freedom in the country that adopted him drew them ever onward, was real, and they made it[iii]. And our country is better for welcoming him.

 Most especially, he treasures the miracles of his wife, his family, and the faith that saw him through. He is compelled by love to give back some of the love he received and serve those who are suffering similar calamities. He recognizes in them a yearning for freedom, a yearning with which he can empathize in his heart as few others can.  

“The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.”  Richard Rohr

[i] Supreme Commander/President Amin assumed control Uganda in a military coup in 1971 when his military record of corruption was about to be investigated by the first Milton Obote administration. One of Amin’s favorite methods of “fraternal correction” was personally administered with a three-pound hammer, which he would wield with his strong arm until there were very few square inches of unpulped flesh left on the poor soul being disciplined. Or the screams stopped. Whichever came first. During his reign of terror, Uganda was appointed to join the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, joining China, Russia, Pakistan and other stalwarts of human freedom.

[ii] Persecution of Christians in Somalia: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/somalia/

[iii] The latest Homeland Security data compiled through 2019 shows over 549,000 immigrants from African nations were granted permanent resident (green card) status in the United States from 2015 to 2019, and an additional 816,000 primarily minority green card holders from Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Haiti. At an average of 1.1 million total green cards issued per year, just these two predominantly black demographic areas account for about 25% of all new legal permanent residents in that five-year period. Apparently both the immigrants and immigration officials seem to be blissfully unaware of the “systemic racism” for which the U.S. is so often condemned in academic lounges and political rallies. https://www.dailysignal.com/2021/05/13/coming-to-america-africans-caribbeans-flock-to-systemically-racist-us/

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Transcendent

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo Buonarroti

On Pentecost Sunday in May of 1972, Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-born Australian geologist, attacked with a hammer and seriously damaged Michelangelo’s marble Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City[i]. He was never charged with a crime, but in a pretrial hearing he was found mentally incompetent. Sentenced to two years in an Italian mental institution out of “One Flew Out of a Cuckoo’s Nest,[ii] he underwent twelve electro-shock treatments, was eventually released, and immediately was deported back to Australia where he faded into obscurity. The Pieta had one exquisite eyelid and the nose of the Blessed Virgin smashed off, her right hand broken to pieces and her left arm and hand smashed and knocked off. A painstaking restoration that took eight months ensued with over a hundred pieces, including many tiny chips carefully collected at the site. Some pieces stolen by tourists at the scene were never recovered and had to be reconstructed.

Why such a massive endeavor of many skilled artists and art historians to fix a busted-up statue[iii] that a madman took a geologist’s hammer to? In just one aspect of the effort, to perfectly match the stone, like a graft in a careful reconstruction of a damaged human being, a small block was removed from her back to reconstruct her nose from the exact mold made of the statue before the attack. Donations from around the world funded the rescue project[iv].

Michelangelo only signed this one sculpture in his life and told others the large block of marble he located after a long search in Tuscan Carrera quarries was the single most perfect piece of stone he had ever found. He began an almost two-year project with a broad chisel and chipped away large pieces of marble. Slowly, carefully with exquisite attention to the least detail, he refined his work to tiny careful strokes with small tools and polishing until, as he once said, only the piece in his vision that had been potential in the stone from the beginning was revealed. From the folds of her garment, the veins in the dead Christ’s arm, the realism of her eyes and suffering of her soul, the Pietà is unique in skill, conception, and accomplishment. Considered by many the most important sculpture of the Italian Renaissance, this marvel merged the classical ideal of beauty with the astonishing naturalism and skill that made his art priceless and irreplaceable. This fortuitous marriage of the natural beauty of marble and genius is unique. No effort at restoration could be too diligent.[v]

“One thing a person cannot do, no matter how rigorous his analysis or heroic his imagination, is draw up a list of things that would never occur to him.” Economist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling

Why would the anger and insanity[vi] of an extremely bright troubled man express itself in such radical iconoclasm with a mad passion to destroy beauty? Perhaps that can never be answered either in our current batch of angry iconoclasts or ever. Beauty evokes the transcendent, and beauty is objective in the hearts of human beings. There are subjective modes and varying ideas of what exactly is beautiful, but Beauty itself resonates whether in nature, sculpture, painting, music, or the eyes of our beloved.

“Transcendent” derives from the Latin meaning “climbing over.” From what, we ask? To where, we wonder?  I read recently that we mistake heaven as “somewhere” else, and the more accurate insight is “somehow” else. Not a different place, but a different manner of being entirely outside of time or space.

In a time long ago when Michelangelo, Dante, and Shakespeare roamed the earth, the “transcendentals” were three: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. All were aspects of the nature of God to those who understood themselves to be creatures fashioned in Love. Now we understand ourselves to be lucky sentient conglomerations of organized protoplasm and beneath that random collections of molecules, atoms, quarks, quantum variations and energy fields. Accidentally sentient. Protoplasm organized by Whom, we dare not speak.

As to the True, that has disappeared into a pit of radical skepticism. “There is your truth and my truth and who knows?” The Good has melted away into the miasma of the “dictatorship of relativism.”[vii] “Who are you to tell me how to pursue what I desire, etc.” But Beauty still holds its own, and desecrating beauty still offends some deep aspect of our humanity. And Beauty draws us to God.

Bishop Robert Barron describes this far better in a passage from his newest book, “Renewing Our Hope,”[viii] which I advise you to buy immediately and explore in depth:

”Following Dietrich von Hildebrand, we should say that the truly beautiful is an objective value, to be sharply distinguished from what is merely subjectively satisfying.[ix]  This means that the beautiful does not merely entertain; rather it invades, chooses and changes the one to whom it deigns to appear. It is not absorbed into subjectivity; it re-arranges and re-directs subjectivity, sending it on a trajectory toward the open sea of the Beautiful itself.”

 Well before the war that defined him, Winston Churchill wrote an essay in which he imagined a future where mankind had secured a life of great pleasure, wealth, and convenience. But, Churchill wondered, would that be sufficient for happiness?

Learning to infuse our souls with the reality of the transcendentals Beauty, Goodness and Truth and their Author is the basis for our final happiness.

“What did they know more than we know about the answers to the simple questions which man has asked since the earliest dawn of reason—‘Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? Whither are we going?’ No material progress, even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” Winston Churchill, 1931

[i] https://youtu.be/QmngGZmkPKI

[ii] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/332613.One_Flew_Over_the_Cuckoo_s_Nest

[iii] http://www.italianrenaissance.org/michelangelos-pieta/

[iv] Reuters article on the damage and the restoration.

[v] Controversy surrounded the restoration. Some maintained the marks of violence should be left unrepaired to signify the violence of the times. Others said restoration should leave lines and signs of repair for authenticity, but finally due to the uniqueness and precious nature of the work, the decision was to make the restoration as flawless as possible.

[vi] While striking twelve blows with his hammer, Toth alternatively screamed he was Jesus Christ and Michelangelo.

[vii] Phrase from Benedict XVI. “In recent years I find myself noting, how the more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance. Political correctness … seeks to establish the domain of a single way of thinking and speaking. Its relativism creates the illusion that it has reached greater heights than the loftiest philosophical achievements of the past. It presents itself as the only way to think and speak — if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. … I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition of a new pseudo-enlightenment, which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.” Without Roots, Joseph Ratzinger, New York, Basic Books, 2006

[viii] Renewing Our Hope, Robert Barron, Washington, DC, The Catholic University of America Press, 2020, https://bishopbarronbooks.com/renewing-our-hope

[ix]  Christian Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand, New York, David McKay Company, Inc., 1953

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Truth Over Facts

“We choose truth over facts!”  from a former Vice President Joe Biden campaign speech[i]

Mistakenly believed to be one of Joe Biden’s frequent verbal gaffes, his talking point is instructive and defines the reality of political life across the ideological spectrum: the narrative is all encompassing. The truth is what we say it is, and the facts be damned. Facts, particularly statistics, [ii]are leavened, kneaded, baked, and circulated to influence the social media mob and especially voters to push us to get off our recliners and out of our summer hammocks. Confusion thrives: what has suffered most is universal credibility. We do not believe much of what we see and hear. We strive to discern what to believe out of the onslaught of data and information that hits our screens and speakers every day. But more often, we filter what we read and hear through our “mythscape,” our accepted narrative, retain what fits it and reject what does not. We give that filtering a serious sounding name: “confirmation bias,” but attribute it as a shortcoming of others and never one of our own.

A project manager with two large apartment construction contracts going once emailed me[iii] on a Friday afternoon after an exceptionally outrageous week, “Would someone please throw a tent over this circus?” It stuck immediately as the motto of our group, and it seems to me suits our current situation.

“Would someone please throw a tent over this circus!”

George Weigel in his excellent 2018 book, “Fragility of Order,” comments on the historian Christopher Clark’s study of the origins of the First World War that in so many ways was not only the first act of the bloodiest century  of human history, but like all good plays, was what spawned so much of  what followed. “Christopher Clark usefully reminds us that, in seeking to understand how such a cataclysm could have begun, we must reckon with the fact that all the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections, and interests masquerading as maxims.” When we filter our new experience through our “mythscape,” we merely render social media debate farcical. However, when our leaders will not (or lack the ability to) put in the hard work, study, and introspection necessary to understand complex reality and then offer us their banal wisdom as predictable regurgitation of their narrative, disasters inevitably follow.

”Order, it has become clear, is a very fragile thing; and order is especially vulnerable under the cultural conditions of a postmodern world unsure about its grasp on the truth of anything.” George Weigel from the introduction to “The Fragility of Order.” Ignatius Press, 2018

We tend to hold our beliefs as binary: One predominant narrative without exception or the other. Is it not possible that reasoned arguments could be made, listening could be our first response, and the purpose of discussion is to put aside our embedded presuppositions and work mutually to discover some objective truth about these matters? Every issue seems to bleed over into rote political diatribes and expands quickly into all the contending issues.  We start out talking about racial injustice and within a sentence or two we are citing the talking points of Trumpism or anti-Trumpism, transgender pronouns and abortion. As an exercise, sticking to one subject means examining some of the assumptions of both common narratives regarding one complex emotional issue.    

The current frenzied muddle of destroyed statues, looted stores, brutally slain arrested men, sincere non-violent protestors, and pandering politicians wearing Ghanaian Kente ceremonial cloths is just the most recent version, albeit a poignant and troublesome one. Because it has become a circus, does not mean we just can wait it out until the next headline grabbing tragedy pushes it below the fold of the front page.

One narrative’s axiom is that the police are hunting and shooting black men, so the cops should be defunded and gutted with the money being redistributed to social programs. A common statistic cited is that a black man is 2.5 times more likely to be shot by a cop than a white one. Is that a valid reading of the numbers? On first look, black men comprise 6% of the population and are consistently year after year 23% to 25% of those killed by police while being arrested,[iv] so that makes sense. On a second look, black men account for 53% of the murder arrests in a year and 52% of robberies. [v]Most of those crimes are black on black. An in-depth Harvard Economics study in 2018 by Roland Fryer, found no evidence of racial trends in those killed by police once arrest statistics were factored in.[vi]

Perhaps what needs to be looked at is how the poverty and desperation and alienation of black men account for such a high percentage of violent crime. A major contributing factor is that over 72% of black children are raised in single family homes, up from 21% in 1960. [vii]While children in single family homes are up across all demographics, in black families, it is a catastrophic rise. Another study found that for every 10% increase in the rate of single parent households, there is a 17% rise in crime rates. Study after study shows the best environment for children regarding educational and career success as well as lower incarceration rates and almost all other indices is a household with both a father and a mother. Not even close. A single mother is five times more likely to wind up below the poverty line than one with a spouse.

As we redistribute funds from police services to social programs, we must try to anticipate the unintended consequences of those programs.[viii] After Lyndon Johnson’s poverty and welfare programs became institutionalized with their “no man in the house” rule as a qualifier to  receive aid, the single-family rate among the poor in general and especially in black families soared.   Great care must be taken in designing salvation from the government, and most of all with programs that have a hidden agenda to secure votes.[ix]

Surveys also show most law-abiding black citizens with high violent crime rates in their neighborhoods do not want to see a lowered police presence.[x] When terrorists with semi-automatic weapons start killing dozens in night clubs in Miami or country concerts in Las Vegas or someone is cruising our streets murdering our neighbors in drive-by shootings, do we really want the best option to be sending in the community organizers?

“We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world.” –- Helen Keller  

 Now fairness demands an examination of one of the alternative narrative’s truisms: that there is no evidence of systemic racism and unjustified excessive police force employed against minorities.  The same Harvard study that finds no racial trends in those killed by police shows remarkable racial tendencies in the use of force, excessive or otherwise, during confrontations with police. So, shootings, no correlation, which is not surprising when we realize that those decisions are made in fractions of a second as a response to a perceived threat. But there is a full 50% increased chance of force being used by police against minorities than against white suspects. Is this due to minorities offering resistance or seeking confrontation? The study found that among those who remain compliant during police interactions, there is a 21% greater risk of force being used against minorities. Black men are not being unreasonable when they are wary about any interaction with police.  Whether that is evidence of rogue cops that are not culled from the troop due to over-protective unions or timid supervisors or whether it is evidence of systemic racism is not addressed by the study, but the statistics are clear.

When we consider that some of the most egregious recent examples of deaths of black men caused by police are not shootings, but arrests gone bad, the propensity for police using force with minorities gives us great cause for concern. George Floyd was killed when a cop knelt on his neck and throttled his breathing for eight and a half minutes. Eric Garner died in a police choke hold in NYC in 2014. Nor are white men exempt from excessive force. Joseph Hutchinson was killed when a Dallas County sheriff’s deputy knelt on his neck, cutting off his breath after he acted erratically in a police station. The rules need to change on proper use of force in every department and police officers with disciplinary actions against them for excessive force need to find another job or go to jail. Some things are one and out.

For those of us sheltered from the black experience, several recent articles call out an inherent bias built into our assumptions if we are not black, no matter how innocent we judge ourselves to be of it. A black Catholic priest tells of being in a grocery store in his ‘civvies’ without his collar and being followed around by security, and that this was not a unique experience for him. A black off duty policeman out of uniform tells of being pulled over by other police several times when he was driving through a white neighborhood and breaking no traffic laws.

The most moving was an enlightening article explaining what is meant by white privilege by a professional young black writer chronicling  her experiences growing up and in school at UCLA and Harvard.[xi] She relates in detail the incidents that are most illustrative, then ends each with a quote to tie them together. Below are a few of those quotes. I cannot do the article’s detail justice; please take the time to read it. White privilege was something I told myself was exaggerated. I was wrong.

  • if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the assumption that when you’ve achieved something it’s only because it was taken away from a white person who “deserved it,” you have white privilege.
  • if no one has ever questioned your intellectual capabilities or attendance at an elite institution based solely on your skin color, you have white privilege.
  • if you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege.

A personal anecdote causes me no small embarrassment. Recently I was waiting at a busy discount gas outlet. The lines were long. Two ahead of me was a sparkling luxury car worth five times more than any auto I have ever owned. The line was held up as the fueling of the sedan was taking a long time, and I was growing increasingly impatient. I could not see the person pumping gas. When it was full, the owner moved to return the hose to the pump, and the driver was a younger black guy.  I was resentful of the wait and of the luxury car owner. Was my first thought that he was a partner in a law firm or managed a portion of a hedge fund or owned a real estate development company or was a cardiac surgeon? No. My first thought was wondering if he played for the Patriots or the Red Sox, and if I recognized him. My assumption was not what it may have been had he been a young white guy holding up the line.

I congratulate myself that I’ve never worn a white sheet and pointy hat; I’ve never knowingly discriminated against anyone in the workplace or socially because of race; I’ve demonstrated for civil rights: I am superior to those that do espouse such ignorant and mean spirited beliefs, right? But am I free of innate prejudice buried deep? I think not. I have more listening to do. A lot more listening to do.

“Gradually it was disclosed to me the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. . . . And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.” Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn


[i] Jolting Joe and his Freudian slip.

[ii] Mark Twain: “There are lies, damn lies and statistics.”

[iii] For younger readers, emailing was what we did last century instead of texting or posting pictures on Instagram.

[iv] See Washington Post comprehensive compilation of all police caused deaths. I put the listing into a spreadsheet to make it easier to analyze with a Pivot Table.  Every name, every weapon they carried, if any, how they died and their race. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/

[v] Here is a link to the FBI tracking of crime rates for various offenses by race. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/topic-pages/tables/table-43 Consistent percentages within a narrow range since 2015. The latest complete one is 2018, which I also put into a spreadsheet to do some analysis. I’ll email those downloaded spreadsheets with the totals to  anyone who  wants them.

[vi] Here is the abstract from the Harvard study: This paper explores racial differences in police use of force. On nonlethal uses of force, blacks and Hispanics are more than 50 percent more likely to experience some form of force in interactions with police. Adding controls that account for important context and civilian behavior reduces, but cannot fully explain, these disparities. On the most extreme use of force—officer-involved shootings—we find no racial differences either in the raw data or when contextual factors are taken into account. We argue that the patterns in the data are consistent with a model in which police officers are utility maximizers, a fraction of whom have a preference for discrimination, who incur relatively high expected costs of officer-involved shootings.

The full report can be found easily on line in PDF form at this link: https://www.nber.org/papers/w24238

[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_family_structure

[viii] When Rita was working as a student nurse at the old inner city Boston City Hospital, the head nurse on her floor with thirty years’ experience was discussing the new Johnson Aid to  Families with Dependent Children war on poverty welfare program with its ‘no man in the house’ restriction on which families could collect. She presciently told Rita that it would be the ruination of the black family. Truer words, etc.

[ix] https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/lbj-voting-democratic/

[x] https://www.wsj.com/articles/america-has-a-silent-black-majority-11592348214

[xi] https://www.yesmagazine.org/opinion/2017/09/08/my-white-friend-asked-me-on-facebook-to-explain-white-privilege-i-decided-to-be-honest/

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