Sunday, December 22, 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Stop the presses ... reaching the end of life is unpleasant

Dying is not, I hope, such a big deal if you are not sick. (Knock on wood!) But nearing the end of your productive life without having been President of the United States or won a Nobel Prize or even have some modest recognition, makes one wonder what it was all for.

If you're a guy and you had a traditional marriage (that has fallen apart), whatever great deeds of your kids are really, at most, influenced by your wife. You were just putting a roof over your family and bringing home the bacon. Not luxuriously.

If you have worked in in a certain field nearly 30 years it's galling when people ask you if you work with an employee of yours.

If you ended up in an obscure field so obscure that people will tell you to your face "that's boring." That's disappointing.

You're 60-something and you have nothing to show for anything you did.

And, of course, there are resentful people who hate you or envy you or are just mean to you. Some of it deserved, no doubt.

What was it all for? Why doesn't it just end, already?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Defying the militarism in this society is difficult but it forces people to think

Allow me to respond to several criticisms (not including the swear words and simple insults offered by those apparently incapable of thought) to my jeremiad against Veterans' Day and the supposedly hallowed and heroic status of people in uniform or discharged from the military.

I will concede to one heckler that the federal government defines as “veteran” anyone who “any person, who served honorably on active duty in the armed forces of the United States.” However, there is no reason to have a day that honors drivers, clerks and cooks in military uniform — rather than people who saw bullets fly — if there is no honoring their civilian peers.

The next set of complaints — actually whining — was about money.

One cranky note was sounded about the fact that military men and women pay for their uniforms. That’s actually true. However, the alleged heroism of the deed vanishes once one learns that these payments are reimbursed: the military clothing allowance tables below are effective as of October 1, 2012 through September 30th, 2013 for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps was between $2,031.69 for females in the Navy to $1,464.04 for Air Force men.

Plus, there‘s a civilian clothing allowance. No civilian job has these benefits. Just like almost no civilian job includes
  • housing; 
  • a basement-price shopping mall (aka the PX); 
  • a education system for the employee’s kids;
  • moving expenses and opportunities to see the world free and meet interesting people (in the Vietnam War era the  joke added: then kill them); and
  •  lavish, life-long free health care.
The other cash complaint was retirement pay. The whiner cited a friend’s $1,018 military retirement check. Setting aside the ex-uniformed retirement double- and triple-dipping (military, plus post-military civilian civil service, plus social security), let’s recall that the military retirement sum is about twice what is paid to the average poor mother with two children, none of whom ever killed anyone and also more than some people’s social security in old age.

Finally, there’s the excuse deemed inadmissible at the Nuremberg trials: we were following orders.

The modern American version that we should really complain to politicians whom the veterans obeyed. Hiding behind the skirts of the politicians might have worked during the draft and only for those unprincipled enough not to declare conscientious objector status, damn the consequences.

Today, every individual in the military is a volunteer. Don’t want to kill people? Don’t join the military. It’s a choice. Quit whining.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Let's stop glorifying the killing of people all over the world by supposed "heroes"

Only one more shopping day until the deluge of maudlin bathos about "heroes" who went all over the world killing other people. I prefer Canada's Remembrance Day to the U.S. Veterans' Day and the post-9/11 abuse of the word "hero."

Let's take this in parts. Veterans of war are, generally speaking, people who trained to, and were prepared for, killing other human beings on command. That's institutionalized murder.

War is simply wrong by any standard. Without soldiers willing to shoot there would be no wars.
 To glorify veterans has a myriad of problems.
  • First, you don't get to be a "veteran" just by wearing a uniform. You have to go to actual war. People who were posted in Germany or Korea during the Vietnam War are not veterans.
  • Second, people in uniform volunteer for it and are paid handsomely, so it's a job; if they deserve a special day, let's have a Garbage Collector Day since they protect our health risking their own by exposure to noxious materials. People in uniform get 
    • discounted food and housing (plus clothing, remember the uniform?);
    • health care unrivalled by anything available to civilians; and
    • a pension and lifelong benefits.
  • Third, veterans are not automatically heroes. That's why even the military has medals for heroism and not every GI Joe or Jane gets one. Heroism involves valor, prowess, gallantry, bravery, courage, daring and fortitude. Just sitting on your but in a uniform doesn't cut it.
Veterans are few and far between and they are no more deserving than other citizens who do as much or more for the national community without killing anyone.

In sum, for these and other reasons, November 11 should be reserved for remembering the horrors of war, which is brought on by those willing to kill on command. We recall the tragedy of war in hopes it will never happen again.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ah, back to work on serious stuff, like how wrong anti-Islamist prejudice is!

Lately, I’ve been coming across astounding venom against Islam, not from the usual suspects such as Tea Party yahoos and right-wingers, but from allegedly intelligent people such as atheists, Christians duty-bound to be compassionate and tolerant and supposedly enlightened Westerners.

There are three avenues of the demonization of Islam.

Atheists claim that Islam is evil—yes, “evil”—because it is a religion and all religious people get into or cause conflicts. This presupposes that atheists are all sterling pacifists fit to lead a Quaker meeting, a claim just slightly demolished by the 100 million deaths tolled by one Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin and one Mao Zedong, both atheists. And no, the Inquisition, Spanish or English (the Inquisition functioned in Britain, too), didn't even come close in 600 years of existence.

Another typical argument views Islam as the religion of Al Qaeda. Or of the Palestinian “terrorists”—for more on how much the overused T-word bothers me, click here. This is where the atheist criticism of Christianity makes (some) sense, as does (some) Arab criticism of Israel. Quite a few historical figures and institutions have abused the faith in the Prince of Peace, or the God of Abraham, for decidedly nefarious purposes (e.g., the Inquisition, noted above, and Israel's behavior under militarist conservatives).

A third line of attack blames Islam for the Arab world’s decidedly oppressive social attitudes toward women—which, we enlightened Westerners have not completely chucked (witness U.S. Republican Party stalwarts on the subject of “legitimate rape” in that distant galaxy during the 2008 election eons ago).

Sure, Osama bin Laden and pals invoked one similar version of Islam,by definition,  a religion of peace. And sure, there are many conflicts in which belligerents invoke God. Finally, sure, the Arab world is very different from ours and I, personally, wouldn’t choose their customs.

But, if you are so rationalist, atheists, shouldn’t you be able to think your way to distinguish between hate-filled extremists and mainstream adherents to a faith?

Also, fellow American, if you are so hell-bent on decrying Islam on “terror,” what's our excuse, given our Jeffersonian and Wilsonian ideals, for the uniquely dehumanizing institution of Southern slavery or the recurrent denial of self-determination to nations such as Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, just to name a few?

Finally, Westerners, where is your enlightened thought when it comes to realizing that all cultural attitudes, customs and traditions—yes, even ours—are not exactly absolute philosophical truths (which have yet to be proven to be in anyone’s possession), so that what we find shocking isn’t ipso facto wrongheaded?

Dig for answers in your brains, your consciences and your anthropological understanding.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Forty years later, the other Sept. 11 still sears


There were two reasons I cheered in November 1970, when Salvador Allende, a socialist, was democratically elected in Chile. Neither proved true in large part as a result of what Americans might call the "other" Sept. 11: that of the Chilean coup in 1973, 40 years ago today.

First and foremost, I thought the election of a socialist in Latin America, where I had lived for eight years, would at last bring profound social change where it was needed in a peaceful way. This would silence the two groups of naysayers of the day.

In one corner were those who thought defending democracy was worth a little and temporary dictatorship supported by overt or covert U.S. military intervention. Democracy was at the heart of Western Christian civilization (I think they capitalized all three), which was besieged by the Russian atheist hordes.

I was Western and democratic-minded, or at least I liked to speak out. I was Christian to the point of toying with becoming a man of the cloth. I was civilized enough to have a chancery in my head, telling me which fork to use and whom to seat where. The Russians seemed a brutish cabbage culture with a funny alphabet; their Communism might not be bad in principle, but atheism was, always!

Opposing those naysayers and what might be called my nurtured sympathies were those who were willing to bring about change at any cost. Let rivers of the oppressors' blood flow through the streets until at last only the disinherited could claim their right share of Earth's bounty and what they could fashion from it with worker muscles.

This, too, appealed to me. I had tutored children in the dirty, smelly appalling shanty towns of Buenos Aires that were so very appropriately called "Misery Villages" (Villa Miserias). I had wandered into fairly rough industrial districts as a volunteer to teach (of all the useless skills!) English, to rough-hewn men from a sweaty world of machinery, factories and unions.

In those days change was blowin' in the wind, wasn’t it? I had been moved to tears reading Maxim Gorky's The Mother, in which revolutionary characters distributed Bibles as fodder for workers' consciousness raising. The Latin American bishops' letter from Medellín a year earlier had practically blessed what some called a "Christian revolution."

My problem was with violence and dictatorship of the proletariat, which always ended up being anything but. I could not brook brute force and compulsion as the seed of a better world.

Allende's Chile squared the circle. Those Chileans went and elected (what’s more peacefully democratic than that?) a socialist (I didn't doubt the need for thoroughgoing change).

Oh, yes, you're wondering about my second reason to cheer. It was peevish glee at the presumptive ruin of the career of an international bureaucrat I thought had personally hurt my family. The man was Chilean, not a socialist and not likely to get along well with the new people in Santiago.

I was wrong on both counts.

Allende was blocked at every step (although to be fair, his sense of symbolism was sometimes a little naïve) and he died fighting Chilean army, whose Prussian uniforms at the time lent Santiago the air of a Hollywood set for a World War II film.

The general who followed him had coined in 1965 a name for an entirely new form of government, "the National Security State," a martial law rule that may have been Western, but was sorely lacking in civilization or Christianity. This kind of regime displaced, with U.S. approval (remember Nixon and Ford?), admittedly weak democracies in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay and later in Central America.

So much for peaceful democratic change!

The bureaucrat, you ask? He did fine and managed the political mambo with both Allende and Pinochet. Bureaucrats, like rats, are survivors.

So we come to 40 years later.

I think back and am left with a verse from the song by Uruguayan singer Jorge Drexler, "Al otro lado del río" (On the other side of the river):

Sobre todo, creo que
no todo está perdido.
Tanta lágrima, tanta lágrima, y yo
soy un vaso vacío...


(Above all, I believe that
all is not lost
So many tears, so many tears and I
am an empty vessel ...)


Friday, August 16, 2013

Gee, I hope the pope is a smarter Jesuit than James Martin!

A friend called my attention to USCCB Blog sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops1 on Google's dime, apparently. The most recent entry features "Three Steps to Reduce Income Disparities," supposedly personal advice that is assinine as only a cleric can write. This one claims to know something about the economy.

Here is the personal prescription "to reduce income disparities": 1) Educate yourself; 2) Pay a just wage. 3) Honor human dignity.

Oh, sure! I went to college and I have covered poverty for 30 years and -- shazam! -- income disparities were reduced. Not!

As to paying just wages, the pay of the 243 million U.S. workers in this country, is set by roughly 27 million people (11 percent of the workforce) in the U.S. economy who actually control wages and salaries2. In other words, item number 2 can only be put into practice by about 1 in 10 people.

Lastly, there's the matter of "honor" for "human dignity." I swear I hold human dignity in high regard; in fact, last I checked I was human myself. Which worker's wage just went up and which Fortune 500 CEO saw his pay sliced down to human scale because I said I honor human dignity? Well, speak up, I can't hear you.

So zero, zero and, to be different, nought.

Now if the author of these practical hints for making income less unequal was, say, the good Father Joe O'Brien, an imaginary but proverbial classic Irish-American parish priest who can't tell Keynes from Friedman, OK, I'd give him a pass. Priests don't know spit about money (except how to cajole for it) and bishops think that good management is saving string.

But no, Father James Martin, SJ, takes the time to brag that " I worked for six years at General Electric in their finance department. Before that, I studied at the Wharton School of Business, where I majored in finance, which also meant taking courses in accounting, management, securities, bonds and real estate."

Then he has the gall to write: "Why am I telling you this? Not to brag, but to establish a bit of bona fides when it come to talking about the economy, about business and about work on this Labor Day."

Really? Wharton does not teach enough about the economy that a graduate can't tell that these three pieces of "advice" are, to be polite, smellier that taurine excrement?

And, hey, he has that SJ for "Society of Jesus" (aka the Jesuits) after his name. The Jesuits are supposed to be smart. You sure he's not a Dominican or Franciscan or ... gasp! ... a lowly diocesan priest?


1. Truth in labelling: I was an employee from very, very long ago.
2. Truth in labelling, again: I am an employer and I do decide wages and salaries.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Sex trumps democracy with gay marriage but locked ballot boxes

It only dawned upon me in 2008 that the all-Monica news of 1998 was really a cover for the dismantling of safeguards against the reckless speculation that led to our current long economic slump. One would think we would learn, but here it is happening in front of our eyes all over again.

In the late 1990s, Bill Clinton was allowed Oval Office oral sex, which had no bearing whatsoever on national policy, in exchange for signing away the economy to big banks. Now, the same Supreme Court that gave corporations the right to buy elections has handed the white Republican South a get-out-of-jail-free card whenever its politicians want to win against the will of voters who are too dark, too poor or too liberal.

The Clinton presidential pen's ink was just barely dry on Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, as was the spunk on Monica Lewinsky's blue dress, when investment bankers were freed to go on the spree that eventually gave us the Wall Street crash of 2008. The 1999 law was the final nail in the coffin of the Glass–Steagall Act, the 1930s statute that barred the merger of banks, brokerage houses and insurance companies, which was one of the major causes of the Great Depression, as well as our current lesser one.

Similarly, this past week four white bigots on the Supreme Court, plus one hell of a self-hating Uncle Tom, gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the signature legal achievements of the civil rights movement. The court effectively ended federal supervision of states with a historical record in living memory of denying the most essential democratic right to African-Americans, Hispanics, women or whomever fancy tickles them.

The powers that be are smart, no doubt about it in these allegedly post-racial days.

They gave us the Monica circus when they wanted to set us up for an economic free fall. Now, in exchange for a free hand to white Republican to suppress the black and Hispanic vote, they give us the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday to serenade us with an unquestionably beautiful rendition of our national anthem.

Makes one want to sing those immortal words: O, say, can you see, how they screwed us again ...

The court opened the legal door another slim crack for gay marriage, very slightly, very indirectly, putting no finality to the issue in a majority of the states. They gave gays and lesbians the right to eventually have nasty divorces and rampaging child custody battles just like the heterosexual idiots who get a marriage license.

Woot! Woot!

Gay marriage will cure the creeping socioeconomic inequality and the coming vast underclass of dark, underpaid masses turned away at the voting station.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Something very good happened

Surprise! Not everything is bad and going to the dogs. Some very basic good things happened if you have a long enough perspective. I was reminded of this in a very clever op-ed piece by restaurant critic Phyllis Richman in The Washington Post.

I’ll give your the WaPo’s teaser (the whole piece is well worth reading):
In 1961, Phyllis Richman applied to graduate school at Harvard. She received a letter asking how she would balance a career in city planning with her ‘responsibilities’ to her husband and possible future family. Fifty-two years later, she responds.
Read the whole piece here.

Living as we do in the Orwellian world of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—where the reigning slogans were WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH— it is hard to believe that anything has improved, as on a daily basis we witness progressive deterioration of everything.

After all, we live in a time of
  • peace characterized by war on "terror";
  • promotion of a morbid consumption that wipes out ever lower inflation-adjusted slave wages, plunging us into the "freedom" of bankruptcy; and
  • ignorance yawning as wide as the Grand Canyon, with news coming in the form of either comedic satire or biased propaganda.
And Big Brother is watching us.

It doesn’t surprise me, actually. In the real year 1984, the United States had an actor play acting the role of president with scripts very obviously provided by the "them" who produce and direct our society.

Why should things have improved since then?

The Oval Office since then saw: a man who had coined the term “Reaganomics” claiming he was not in the loop when it was implemented by his running mate; a man whose “centrism” was suspiciously helpful to the greatest orgy Wall Street had ever had; a man who invented a war to justify two invasions without bringing the criminals charged with the defining event to justice; and, finally today, a man who fooled us but good that he would bring change.

1984 was never meant to be a futuristic novel. Orwell picked his title as a play on 1948, the year he finished writing the novel. 1984 is now, a fact I found hard to believe when I first read it in my idealistic adolescence.

So, yes, our present is terribly bleak. But a funny thing happened on the way to this bleakness.

Women stopped being universally regarded as baby-making and housekeeping serfs. Black people, and all peoples who were not white-bread American, stopped being universally regarded as a permanent underclass whose exceptional members make great entertainers and athletes.

More recently, we learn that the world is ahead of schedule in meeting one of the U.N. eight Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2001: extreme poverty has been halved.

What else that is unquestionably a move forward is happening? Shouldn't we be more aware of the sustained progress we are making?

I don't mean we should be taken in by the feel-good advertising of the iPhone, although I love that gentle piano, or any corporation's claim to doing good while doing (obscenely and disproportionately) well.

Let's not be naive. But would it kill us to smell some of the roses in our garden?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bathos should be banned in Boston

Let’s put a stop to the Boston bathos. It’s cheap and meaningless. Yes, the Marathon bombing was a dramatic crime, with pain and sadness and now sheer puzzlement at why it came about. However, it was not the crime of the century: the century is young and so far 9/11 casts a long shadow on it.

So let's not inflate the significance of every last detail and every last bystander. Certainly, let's not create "sacred" public space (isn't that unconstitutional, anyway?).

Death is one of the most common human experiences. Maybe we should learn to talk about it normally. Let's stop spending our lives pretending death doesn't exist. Let's -- gasp! -- tell the children.

Death and taxes, said Ben Franklin. Love and death, said Woody Allen (at the very end of "Sleeper"). Certainties. Inevitable. Painful.

Significance inflation is a phenomenon I date back to the death of Princess Diana.

Remember the sea of white wrapping paper in front of Buckingham Palace? (One should take the wrapping off when leaving flowers; the flowers will wilt and bio-degrade on their own, but the wrapping is just more fodder for landfills.)

In the United States, 9/11 and the phony "war on terror" brought us instant “heroes” -- just add tears and stir.

Getting shot while in uniform makes you very unlucky. It’s sad for the family and as a human being it’s a loss to all of us. But it’s not heroic unless there was actual heroism involved. Heroism involves  valor, prowess, gallantry, bravery, courage, daring and fortitude.

The MIT guard shot dead, mostly as part of a misdeed going sour, was surely a decent person, but nothing in what happened suggests heroism on his part.

Lastly, let’s not canonize pretty young women when they unknowingly happen to be at the wrong place and the wrong time. Joan of Arc was young, and some say beautiful and courageous, but she actually sought out the struggle that got her martyred. To be a martyr is to give witness to a conviction or faith to the point of death; it involves a conscious choice.

The death of the young bystander was, again, bad luck. A fluke. I was painfully embarrassed by maudlin public display put on by her mother.

In sum, now that the adrenalin is down, let's be sensible.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Welcome to Hell, Margaret Thatcher

Meet your buddies Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger and all the merry crew who stole from the mouths of miners' and steelworkers' children in the 1980s, to give to barons, dukes and captains of industry.

Welcome to hell, bitch. Roast until your skin becomes a carpet of boils each one standing for each union you destroyed, every worker family you dispossessed.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Abolish all legal marriage

The Anarchists were right. Marriage, like wage slavery, is a legal device designed to oppress women. Now it is being claimed by gays. Rather than open up this instrument of oppression and discontent to gays, why not simply get the State out of the business of weddings?

Of course, the Anarchists would have abolished the State, in favor of voluntary social associations. That might be going too far. Or perhaps not?

But let's not get distracted from my main point: marriage under civil law in a religiously neutral system of government is, at best, a contract. It does not have a track record of working very well and as soon as people found a way to get out of it, they have done so in enormous numbers.

In the United States, one out of every two marriages ends in divorce. By various soundings, a majority of men and women admit to adultery. Domestic violence is a rampant social problem.

Why have marriage at all?

I'm not saying people would be forbidden to go to a church and promise the lifelong fidelity that most will not observe. Go, have your church wedding with all the nine yards -- or do some ceremony on a hilltop reciting poetry or whatever.

Why do I, and every taxpayer you don't know, have to be involved in this?

I'm not saying that we should abandon all child protection laws that are built around marriage. Children still need all the protection society can offer -- which at present is not stellar.

Nor am I saying that cohabiting couples should not have a claim to insurance for cohabiters, or parents or whatever; nor that a longstanding cohabiter should have some priority in inheritance.

Nor am I saying abolish love. Although, seriously, what does marriage under civil law have to with love?

Just abolish the pretense that the State has an inherent interest in marriage that it does not have. Marriage may be a religious idea, but the State has no business with religion -- nor, I would argue, marriage.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Argentine reaction to the new pope reminds me why I left

In the streets they celebrated the election to St. Peter's chair of Argentine as if it were a soccer championship. At the same time, others began to sling mud made out of murky allegations without facts or dates. This is Argentina I left in 1970, never again to reside in its territory. 

How much ignorance! How much bile!


There are nations that have been staunchly Catholic, mostly out of rebellion: Ireland and Quebec against English Protestantism; Poland, Slovakia and Croatia against the Orthodox Russian Empire (later the Soviet Communists). However, they are exceptions and Catholicism has declined among them at about the same rate as the influence of the heretical invader.


However, in Argentina, and Latin America in general, the Church is colonial. The Catholicism of the majority is largely confined to rites of passage: baptism, wedding and burial. In the Pampas, the traditional gaucho greeting was "Hail Mary Purest," to which the newcomer was expected to reply "Conceived without sin." Was it faith or custom?

  
The nominally Catholic Argentines, who make up 90-something percent of the population since time immemorial, have received little or nothing of the content of the faith. There's a mixture of popular piety, superstition and remnants of pre-Christian religions that mixes Lent with Carnival, with the African orixa gods with saints, the decals of the Virgin next to that of the pinup of the moment, and Argentine Indian blessed Ceferino Namuncurá with "San Perón." 

Behold the mass that this week "won" the papal "world cup." As always with Argentina and Latin America, however, there are also conventional thinkers who hate the Church for ideological reasons; their information is no better than that of the flock. 

There's no anticlericalism more rabid than that of traditionally Catholic countries. See Garibaldi, Voltaire and Unamuno in Italy, France and Spain. In Argentina, Italianized by a huge influx of migrants from 1880-1914 and the two post-war periods, there is a huge motherlode that comes from the famous Anarchist Errico Malatesta, who emigrated there, along with other persecuted ideas of Europe. 

For them, it's enough to find photos of Jorge Bergoglio, in his role of national superior of the Jesuits and later bishop, with the first de facto head of state under the 1976-83 military regime -- both portrayed in liturgical or protocolary circumstances -- to argue that the new pope is a "murderer". I know perfectly well that Gen. Jorge Videla was tried in open court and, with plenty of evidence, found guilty of active participation in more than 5,000 kidnappings and murders.

However, in the case of Bergoglio there haven't been trials nor even proof of anything remotely criminal. There were inquiries and investigations, both official and unofficial; none of them unearthed the proverbial smoking gun proving complicity in what the Argentine military called the "dirty war". 

Gossip is not enough to condemn him, but the Argentine lumpen intelligentsia don't let the absence of facts get in the way of conclusions. 

Let me be clear. Bergoglio is and has been part of a clerical leadership that fundamentally tends toward conservatism in theology, philosophy and their vision of society. The hierarchy Argentina is a sea of ​​Thomists at the service of last absolute monarch in the world. One cannot quote expect revolution from them. 

I confess that this conservatism was one of the factors that influenced me to abandon what might have been be a priestly vocation that I felt in that bygone era when lights sparkled in the post-conciliar Church then reading "the signs of the times." 

I refer to the encyclical Populorum Progressio and the Latin American bishops' social justice cry in the Declaration of Medellin. I have in mind Dom Helder Câmara, the Brazilian bishop who advocated treating atheist Marx as Thomas Aquinas dealt with pagan Aristotle. Or Gustavo Gutierrez, the scribe of the liberation theology that was spawned in basic ecclesial communities, or Carlos Mugica, the priest of the slums of Buenos Aires -- I met both very briefly. Finally, I recall Camilo Torres, the Colombian guerrilla priest whose death with machine gun in the hand is still a sign of contradiction to me. 

Were they exceptions? Or are those like them, like Francis of Assisi or Francis Xavier, the minority that actually became Christian. 

All this is debatable. What is indisputable it's not a crime to be a dogmatic Pope, such as Francisco I.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Secularism USA

As a former resident of Quebec (1970s), and in partial (and belated) response to a post by my good friend Bill (see here), I'd say I witnessed the effects of the Revolution Tranquille in declericalizing and secularizing the province. I can't quite see a parallel in the United States for two reasons:

(a) Quebec, like Ireland and Poland, was fiercely Catholic as a matter of national identity because it faced a Protestant conqueror (in the case of Poland, one that was Orthodox, later Communist, but in an Orthodox way). Remove the British and the Russians and religious fervor waned. Poland legalized abortion just a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed.

(b) The USA is a predominantly Protestant society, with a Protestant epistemology. Protestantism itself was the major secularizing force in northwestern Europe, transforming religion from an artifact controlled by a clerical caste based in Rome to an assertion of the freedom to engage in individualistic profession of an endless variety of idea systems.

The origin of secularism in Christian Europe across confessional lines lies, paradoxically, in Christianity. The Christian acceptance of nominalism in its ranks between the third and sixth centuries of our era, when missionaries started converting entire Barbarian tribes by convincing their king or chieftain sowed the seeds of secularism.


Christendom (RIP...DG!) was an edifice built on compulsory religious affiliation that never developed authentic deep roots of faith among the mass of Europeans. They were what we would call cultural Christians and nothing more. The continued existence of pagan shrines throughout supposedly Christianized Europe as late as the 12th and 13th centuries gives witness to this.

Enter industrialization and capitalism, both arguably the children of Protestantism (see Weber), and the Church and churches lost the working class. That happened in the 19th century.

What we have witnessed in our lifetime is a belated echo in America, where religion was socially compulsory, a matter of manners more than conviction. Among urban, educated Americans the compulsion has slackened to the point that religious ignorance is the prevailing coin of the realm. Maybe that's more honest.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Catholic blackmail isn't the real papal news

Catholic blackmail isn't news, but the level it has verifiably hit is. As someone who once worked within the structure, let me explain.

Blackmail runs rampant throughout the church. In our day of high public standards and behavior that falls below even the most private ethical realms of the confessional, the number of supposedly chaste and celibate clerics caught with their fingers in the sexual cookie jar is high.

Years ago, I did everything in my meager power to prevent the elevation to cardinal of one archbishop who had long been blackmailed by one then-prominent Catholic layman. Although -- deo gratias! -- the weakness in that case involved adult women.

We don't yet have a good handle on the number of clerics who died of AIDS linked to sexual contact, but I suspect that will one day shock the world.

What did you expect, that "Father" was a saint? He's just a guy. Even Joseph Ratzinger put on his Hitler Youth uniform pants one leg at a time. There are trousers underneath the ceremonial clerical dresses and underneath the clothes a full complement of testosterone.

Think you're far away from that? Next time you go to church watch the people who collect baskets. Is there one who has been doing this forever? That man, it usually is a man (just like Catholic priests are usually men), is probably skimming off the collections protected by knowledge of a sexual indiscretion committed by the pastor, or one of the priests in the parish staff.

Oldest scam in the book. Those candle- and incense-smelling men who are always in church, who are long-time church employees although they seem to do nothing. They're blackmailers.

Notice priests coming out to collect the baskets at the offertory? A countermeasure. Grab the dough before anyone else gets it.

Corruption is highest, of course, in the rich countries, where the Church is rich: in the United States and Europe. As bank robber Willie Sutton reputedly said, that's where the money is. And let's be fair, this happens in other churches, although usually it's more naked larceny.

The national office of the  Episcopal Church had a classic accountant-skims-off-millions scandal a few years ago.

But how can you embarrass the Catholic Church after the Borgia pope? A Nazi pope? Done that and seemingly no one except me wondered what the cardinals were smoking that day.

What appears to have shocked even Ratzinger out of the papacy is not mere corruption, but corruption involving bishops and those who could be pope, cardinals. Of course, corrupt bishops and even popes are not new. Any more than corrupt politicians.

What's new is that more get caught out publicly and that the public expects them to fall on their proverbial swords. Especially if the cookies in the forbidden sexual jar are boys.



Saturday, January 26, 2013

Poetry eulogy proves editors aren't obsolete

Call it the case of the edited blog. In the print version of The Washington Post, there was a sober meditation on the uses and popularity of poetry, in the paper's appropriately named blog site, Compost, there was a rant.

Obviously, the blog was the brain fart of one Alexandra Petri. This young woman who professes omniscience after all of three years out of Harvard (two years less than my younger son, a fellow former Cantabrigidian), rose (descended?) in 2010 from Post intern to Post blogger. I see her byline occasionally on the op-ed page when even Eugene Robinson has nothing left to say.

Her piece in this morning's printed paper, headlined "Ode to an Obsolete Art," offered an uncharacteristically humble and sober outtake from the fact of a poem being read at the second Obama inauguration.

She calls poetry "a field that may well be obsolete." Lest one take her for her usual smart-ass self, she then declares
I say this lovingly as a member of the print media. If poetry is dead, we are in the next ward wheezing noisily.
But sometimes I worry about poetry.
I was delighted, as a journalist of more than three decades, to see that she seems to be maturing.

Reviewing the literary form's history she makes obligatory stops by Homer and Shelley. Predictably, she completely elides past the ancient rhyming and metered forms as mnemonic artifacts in a world in which most history was oral.

I would give you a link, but the moribund Post forces you to sign in to see the printed paper online (how's that for not getting it?). I just couldn't bother.

But wait!

Online, in the Compost site I found not one but two pieces, the first "Is Poetry dead?" Here is an unedited version of what saw print. Colorful, lazy and flatulently narcissistic as all blogs are (this is not journalism, folks!)

Here is the Alexandra Petri her Post patron fell in love with, all-knowing and arrogant as ever ...
Still I think there is a question to be asked. You can tell that a medium is still vital by posing the question: Can it change anything?
Can a poem still change anything?
You'll also find that the millions who spend their time commenting on newspaper websites had already given her the just recompense by the time the printed piece appeared. In her follow-up blog post ('Poetry is not dead,' says poetry), she sheepily warns that saying "poetry is dead" will result in zealots "sonetting" on one's lawn.

Petri's follow-up is a semi-chastised, quirkily funny blogiad, fine as far as it goes, but still not journalism.

The moral of the story?

Clearly, editors aren't obsolete. They can turn an online rant into a thoughtful printed piece. Not quite the lesson she intended, yet true.