While We’re At It (March 2014)
♦ “Imagine Living in a Socialist USA” demands the cover of the latest issue of the Indypendent, a lefty paper published in Brooklyn, and besides the articles on that subject and transgender rock bands is one on the paper’s “all-time NFL non-conformist team — rebels, idealists and iconoclasts who . . . remind us that there’s more to life than winning.”
Among the eight players it includes is . . . you won’t expect this: Tim Tebow. He’s “a devout fundamentalist,” the paper explains, but “in the hedonistic world of the NFL, Tebow has stood out for being such a square. What other NFL quarterback, for instance, would proudly acknowledge he was still a virgin who was saving himself for marriage?” Speaks well of newspaper and player.
♦ In the story on transgender rock bands, the paper also uses the term trans* (with the asterisk). A note at the end explains: “While the term ‘transgender’ was preferred for the better part of the last 20 years, its suffix can easily call to mind the male/female binary. ‘Trans*’ seeks to widen the scope of the term by deliberately encompassing all non-cisgender identities, including but not limited to transgender, genderqueer, genderfluid, transsexual, non-gendered, bigender . . . and more.” (I left out the rude term, whose meaning I can’t figure out anyway.)
♦ In this month’s Public Square, the editor comments on the way many people talk about farming and eating, illustrating (this is me not him) the way verbally adept people tend to confuse taste with virtue, and the fact that some people compete at both. In “Let Them Eat Kale,” the New York Observer reports that rich and powerful males in the city compete to lose more weight and eat a more disciplined (read: straitened) diet than their peers, a trend someone in the story calls “manorexic.”
“Thin is the new luxury,” a real estate developer tells the writer. A couple decades ago, “The women looked after their weight, but the men were large,” he said, naming two very big men — physicallyand economically big, he means — from the eighties. “They could eat prodigious amounts of food. Their girth was considered powerful.”
Today, “old-school fat is considered slothful. Old school was prime rib, new school is parmesan-roasted kale. . . . Just like people used to frown on smoking, now they frown on bad eating.”
Count us old-school.
♦ “I look at eating as fuel. Eating is not social. It’s a fuel event,” says another friend of the writer’s, described as “ripped,” who when invited to other peoples’ homes for dinner smuggles in fruit and nuts in his wife’s purse. Sometimes, he brags, he brings his own food and cooks his meals in his host’s kitchen, apparently without asking.
I was taught, as undoubtedly many of you were, to eat what your hosts give you and pretend to like it, no matter how vile it was. It was a way of honoring them for their kindness. It was just good manners. But the man whose belly is his god has no interest in good manners.
The writer asks his “ripped” friend if he feels embarrassed cooking his own food because he won’t eat his host’s. “I would never be embarrassed. I’m embarrassed for them and the way they eat.”
♦ A lesson for literary critics. In “Where Does Writing Come From?,” published in Granta, the novelist Richard Ford mentioned his pleasure at a critic’s “singling out for approval my choice of adjectives, which seemed to him surprising and expansive and of benefit to the story.” One example he (the critic) noted was “He looked on her in an old-eyed way.”
A little later, packing up his manuscripts, Ford happened to see “the page and the very commended phrase ‘old-eyed,’ and to notice that somehow in the rounds of fatigued retyping that used to precede a writer’s final sign-off on a book in the days before word processors, the original and rather dully hybridized ‘cold-eyed’ had somehow lost its ‘c’ and become ‘old-eyed,’ only nobody’d noticed since they both made a kind of sense.”
♦ “When he deals with Catholics, Goldhagen becomes an outright conspiracy-monger,” explains David Mikics on the website Tablet (whose slogan is “A new read on Jewish life”). He’s writing about Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s The Devil That Never Dies. Goldhagen claims that the Church’s private reaction to the stories about priestly sexual failures “was to blame the Jews,” quoting as evidence one (one) bishop, and claiming that the Church formally but insincerely repudiated him.
Mikics, a professor of English at the University of Houston, responds: Goldhagen “slips easily, and dangerously, from the ravings of one bishop to a claim, offered without a shred of evidence, that the Vatican remains secretly anti-Semitic, even when it speaks out against Jew-hatred. It’s hard not to feel that what Goldhagen does to the church is exactly what anti-Semites do to Jews.”
♦ But Goldhagen is on to something else. As Mikics notes, “Today’s canonical form of anti-Semitism is formally directed at the State of Israel.”“In the anti-Zionist’s eyes,” he explains, “actual Israeli wrongs are generally not akin to the wrongs committed by other sovereign states, like America, China, or Greece, but rather metastasize into proof of monstrous guilt. Goldhagen is right to say that Jews alone live in a country that is seen by large parts of the world as ‘self-invalidating.’”
Palestinian suffering becomes (the phrase is Goldhagen’s) the “unifying symbol” for many people “who have never been troubled by oppression of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria, or the fate of the world’s many other stateless peoples, like the Kurds, Tamils, Tibetans, or Chechens.”
♦ “That makes a difference,” said my friend at lunch, his eyes narrowing. We’d been discussing going to a Yankees game next year, as he grew up in New York, and he’d asked cheerfully if I was a Pirates fan, as we’d lived in Pittsburgh so long. No, I said, I grew up in Massachusetts and so . . .
After a few seconds of silence he recovered and said that the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, a frequent sight at Fenway and a man whose baseball passions are properly ordered, says that when he gets to heaven as he hopes to do, he will ask God two questions: Why did he allow evil and why did he favor the Yankees?
These are, of course, the same question.
♦ For those who care, in the office we have three Red Sox fans and one Yankees fan (he grew up in Brooklyn so he can’t help it). Readers interested in pursuing the Yankees as a problem of theodicy will want to read David Bentley Hart’s “A Perfect Game” from the August/September 2010 issue. Hart is an Orioles fan.
♦ Writing in the New Republic, John McWhorter grouses at those (this would be us) who reject the “misuse” (his ironic quotes) of literally to make a point more emphatically. His short piece follows the usual pattern: Some people get way too upset about this, words change their meaning, people know what the new use means, and sometimes the new use is creative, plus people in the past sometimes used it this way, here are some examples to show how silly resistance is, and anyway would you want to talk the language of Shakespeare?, so stop complaining. He finishes his caricature of the objections with “the grammar snobs bleat.”
It seems to us that the misuse of literally is a particularly bad example to choose, since the misused word has changed from one with a specific and useful meaning to a lazy way of emphasizing a point. The new use doesn’t gain us anything.
McWhorter himself gives an example from the vice president: “The American people literally stood on the brink of a new depression.” Biden’s literally doesn’t add anything to the sentence, even as emphasis, and worse, using the word this way makes the use of it temporarily ambiguous, until the reader figures out whether the writer meant literally literally, which he should not have to do.
It’s no more grammar snobbery to object to the sloppy and pointless mixing of meanings than it would be woodworking snobbery for a carpenter to object to an awl being used as a plane. We just like our tools to work right.
♦ We’ve written a couple of times (in April of last year and January of this) about New York City’s Human Rights Commission harassing Hasidic-owned stores for having a dress policy, which the commission pursued even after an administrative court struck down their first attempt to condemn the owners for religious discrimination. Hasidic Jews value modesty, their dress code requested modesty, therefore they were imposing their religion on others, was the argument. The new mayor wisely avoided taking a position when asked at a press conference by saying, “We want to respect every community in everything we do.”
Undaunted, the commission, threatening the owners with a reported $75,000 in fines, insisted on putting them on trial for discriminating against women as a protected class. Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard reports that the commission folded right before the trial, after extracting a promise from the owners that they’d make clear on their signs that they didn’t discriminate on the grounds of sex etc.
It’s a kind of “I promise I don’t beat my wife and I promise I’ll never do it again” statement, but you can see why the owners accepted it. It was them against the state, and the state has a lot more time and money and who can trust the courts in this kind of case?
Commission chair Patricia L. Gattling said in her official statement that “Today, the NYC Commission on Human Rights settled the cases it had filed in August 2012 against seven businesses on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn based on gender and religious discrimination — the posting of signs in the store windows that discriminated against women.” Then she explained that “representatives from the stores agreed that if they were to post new signs in their windows, they would say that while modest dress is appreciated, all individuals are welcome to enter the stores free from discrimination. The Commission is satisfied that the store owners understand their obligations under the NYC Human Rights Law.”
You will notice that Gattling presents the case as a victory for the commission and implies that the owners were and have admitted to being guilty. Contemptible.
♦ Rights-talk settles only so much. Before the federal court as we write is a case brought by the U.S. Attorney against a co-op building on the Lower East Side for refusing a woman permission to keep a stray pit bull she adopted. Stephanie Aaron’s psychiatrist says the dog is good for her mental health (and we’re sure that’s true because how could it not be?), but the co-op requires “prior written consent” to keep a dog, which she didn’t have because, she says, she never realized how much good having a dog would do. The state’s Commission on Human Rights rejected her case but the Department of Housing and Urban Development intervened. Hence the court case.
The Fair Housing Act requires owners to make “reasonable accommodation” for disabled people’s needs but does not define “reasonable” beyond what “may be necessary” to give the disabled person “equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” The Americans with Disabilities Act enforces the right to have service animals, but rules out “dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake, let her have the dog, is the normal reaction. She says she needs it, there are other dogs in the building, so don’t be so neurotic about the rules. But even ignoring the fact that she bought into a building whose rules she accepted and now wants to change the deal unilaterally, what, as the article itself notes, about other tenants who are allergic to dogs, or suffer from asthma, or are just scared of dogs, and who perhaps bought into the building partly for that reason? Don’t they have the right not to have a dog imposed on them?
And don’t the people who obey the rules that make co-operative life possible have the right to expect others to do so? What does it do to the trust needed for such enterprises when people can get the courts to change the rules everyone had agreed to?
♦ As the editor often points out, in the West, the market economy has triumphed. You have to look very hard to find a classic socialist in any responsible public position in any Western country, though you can find many in the universities and enterprises like the Indypendent, where one’s beliefs don’t face being tested in reality.
We were not surprised to read in the New York Times, in an article by the editorial director of Le Monde, that when asked last May whether he was a social democrat or a socialist, French president François Hollande said, “You are asking me to say who I am. This is a tough question!” At a press conference in the middle of January, he “finally came out” (that’s the writer’s way of putting it), admitting, “I am a social democrat.”
If a French socialist isn’t a socialist, then, well, that’s one jig that’s completely up.
♦ News you can use, depending on who you are: On the CNN website under the lead story one morning, “Kansas Court: Your sperm, your responsibility,” which had the subhead “Artificial insemination done without a doctor,” were links to two related stories, the first of which was: “Don’t let this happen to you.” Okay.
♦ The five best punctuation marks in literature, according to a website called Vulture, include the parentheses in Nabokov’s Lolita: “My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three”; and the colon in the opening to Dickens’ Christmas Carol: “Marley was dead: to begin with.”
My friend Mike Aquilina suggests the period in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation”: “‘I am not,’ she said tearfully, ‘a wart hog. From hell.’” I’m also fond of the conversation in one of Wodehouse’s books when the two male characters, supposed to be looking for a lost child or something like that, pass a pub:
♦ “With the pale white ridge of my crescent-shaped fingernail, I lift the thin silver slice of my laptop screen. I witness its quiet journey from the darkness of sleep mode to the radiant promise of the login page,” begins our friend and writer Randy Boyagoda’s review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, published in the Financial Times and nominated (the review, I mean) by the website The Omnivore as one of their hatchet jobs of the year.
We’d say Randy used a scalpel rather than a hatchet, but in any case, the lead paragraph continues: “I take a small sip from the glass sitting beside my computer, which dwells upon a scored wooden writing desk. When I take the glass into my warm palm, it is cold and heavy. It is full of a clear liquid. It is water. It tastes of nothing, and everything. Before this first sip has entered me, I am reminded of a question, a memory, a truth: have I been reading a lot of Jhumpa Lahiri lately? The question is its own journey, its own answer.”
♦ Blip, Blue, Chevy, Fairy, Feline, Harlowe, Kinzly, Kalliope, Kiwi, Nyx, Tulip, and Ziggo; Ajax, Apollo, Cheese, Daxx, Holmes, Hurricane, Kazz, Kodiak, Panda, Stetson, and Zion, were the oddest names given to at least three children last year, according to a website called BabyCenter. For reasons we don’t know, the annual list of most popular baby names interested our founder, so here we continue the tradition.
The list of most popular girls names tends to the classic, beginning with Sophia, Emma, Olivia, and Isabella, before making a slightly exotic turn to Mia and then Ava. The boys names (all but one are two syllables) are also all classic names, several Irish, before Jayden at number seven, but it’s followed by Ethan, Jacob, and Jack. The top three are Jackson, Aiden, and Liam.
The official list will be released by the Social Security Administration in May.
♦ And in New York City, Jayden, the name of actor Will Smith’s son, came in number one — with Jaden at number seventy-one — followed by Ethan, Jacob, Daniel, and Matthew. Muhammad was number seven. Joseph is the most common name for white babies (though eleventh overall) and Ryan for Asian and Pacific Islander boys.
Sophia was the number one girl’s name, followed by Isabella — the number one name for the last three years, presumably thanks to the Twilight book and movie series — Emma, Olivia, and Emily. Biblical names Sarah and Leah came in eighth and ninth.
♦ “Contrarianism is what Conservatism does,” Peregrine Worsthorne, a son of the English establishment, once editor of the Sunday Telegraph, and Conservative party grandee, explained in the Spectator. “It hasn’t got an ideology. We are people who instinctively know the right thing to do. We don’t look it up in a book.”
Some more traditionalist conservatives may like the sound of this, but ought to remember that Worsthorne disliked conservative hero Margaret Thatcher, because (this is my summary but I think a fair one) she operated by principles, and that he’s in favor of same-sex marriage, because conservatives have to accommodate the times.
I’m not so inclined to trust the establishment’s instincts, and would suggest that the mixture or balance or melding of that kind of conservatism with rigorous political thinking was part of the genius of Irving Kristol and neoconservatism.
♦ Our gifted assistant editor Matthew Cantirino, writing a comment in the margin of a manuscript he was editing, which came to me when he finished, asked what is it with conservatives and the use of the word “robust.” Our writers overuse it, the editor overuses it, I overuse it.
In the sense that only the sick man thinks much about health, it suggests many conservatives, religious and political, suspect or fear that their movement is weak, that its response to challenges is likely to be a slow waving of the hands and a fluttery sigh. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but we’ve banished the word from our pages.
♦ “He’s been a bit naive,” wrote the editor on Pope Francis in the December Public Square, while admitting he’s also been “a bit astute.” Francis’ words “have given unhelpful encouragement to those who would like the Catholic Church to surrender and accept the dominance of our secular elite.”
I’m not so sure Francis is as naive as Rusty and many others think. As I wrote about Benedict, the press has a settled narrative through which it interprets the papacy. The pope can’t do much if anything to change it.
For Benedict, it began with the “God’s Rottweiler” nonsense and when that proved unusable because it was so clearly untrue, a new narrative developed, reaching maturity about five years into his papacy. The new story claimed that Benedict is old and feeble and an intellectual out of place, who just can’t run the Church. It’s the patronizing story, not the insulting one, and all the more effective because the writer who tells it usually feigns sympathy.
The press frames every story about Francis as a break with the rigidity, dogmatism, etc., of his predecessors — Benedict’s back in the doghouse, so to speak — and the latest example of a new caring, open, pastoral (read: lenient) Catholicism. Whatever he says, with whatever qualifications he includes, that is the story the press will give the world.
Francis seems to understand this and decided to speak as he thinks he ought to speak, in the hope that over time his message will get out. It’s a risky strategy, but not a naive one.
♦ The always useful website GetReligion explained this with helpful details. Everyone knows Francis’ statement that the Church can’t be “obsessed” about abortion, Terry Mattingly notes, but pretty much no one — no one who reads the New York Times, say — knows about a statement he made a few days later to a group of Catholic gynecologists. It’s typical of other statements he’s made, equally uncovered in the papers.
Speaking of the enslaving culture of waste that “requires the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker,” Francis insisted that “attention to human life in its totality has become a real priority of the Magisterium of the Church in recent years, particularly to the most defenseless, that is, the disabled, the sick, the unborn child, the child, the elderly who are life’s most defenseless.”
He continues: “Each child who is unborn, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who, even before he was born, and then as soon as he was born, experienced the rejection of the world.”
That’s not the story you’ll read in the major newspapers. It doesn’t fit the narrative. But we can’t complain that Francis hasn’t spoken clearly.
♦ I have no opinion on climate change, formerly global warming, because I don’t have time, much less the ability, to master the subject. All three views make sense: that man produces so much carbon that we’re driving up the temperature at a dangerous rate, that something else is driving up the temperature and we can’t do anything about it, or that we’re not driving up the temperature, or not driving it up very fast, though many people say or think we are because they will benefit from people believing that.
I am concerned by what seems to me a rather blithe dismissal by the global warmers of the human costs of their policies. As are some scientists.
Writing in a letter to the Spectator, a group of English scientists associated with the Global Warming Policy Foundation complains that in a meeting with scientists from the Royal Society, “The Royal Society team claimed to know little about the economic costs and benefits of climate change and climate policy” and yet Sir Brian Hoskins, the team’s chairman, “suggests the impacts of climate change to be far graver than the impacts of rapid decarbonization . . . while wholly disregarding the much more certain human and economic costs of the policies he advocates.”
Members of the GWPF include MIT’s Richard Lindzen, a climate scientist, the economist David Henderson, and Richard Tol, a professor of the economics of climate change at the Free University of Amsterdam.
♦ Between the religious belief in revelation and the secular rejection lies a popular middle ground, “the spiritual world picture,” Ross Douthat explains in his New York Times column, using the Christmas story as an example. It “keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.”
This, he explains, “is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our ‘God bless America’ civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.”
This kind of religion “lacks the biblical picture’s resources and rigor, but it makes up for them in flexibility. A doctrine challenged by science can be abandoned; a commandment that clashes with modern attitudes ignored; the problem of evil washed away in a New Age bath.”
♦ What Douthat calls the secular picture offers a “fusion of scientific materialism and liberal egalitarianism — the crèche without the star, the shepherds’ importance without the angels’ blessing.” It translates Christianity’s revolutionary egalitarianism into “the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.”
One can understand the appeal, because the good man’s moral passions last even when he has lost his faith in the supernatural, but as Douthat points out, “its cosmology does not harmonize at allwith its moral picture.” This philosophy “proposes a purely physical and purposeless universe, inhabited by evolutionary accidents whose sense of self is probably illusory. And yet it then continues to insist on moral and political absolutes with all the vigor of a 17th-century New England preacher. And the rope bridges flung across this chasm — the scientific-sounding logic of utilitarianism, the Darwinian justifications for altruism — tend to waft, gently, into a logical abyss.” In other words, these secularists cheat.
♦ Papal and episcopal political statements tend to the general, to principles the application of which is left to laymen, and reasonably enough. But it wasn’t always so, and perhaps shouldn’t be so now. Archbishop of Mainz Christian Ketteler, for example, in 1869 proposed to the German bishops a program to “eliminate or at any rate diminish the evils of our present system.” Among his seven proposals were prohibiting child labor in factories and limiting the working hours of all workers, which included keeping Sunday as a day of rest; closing unsanitary workplaces; requiring the companies to take care of disabled workers; and the appointment of state inspectors. The proposals also included the separation of the sexes in the workplace, undoubtedly to protect women.
His writing influenced Pope Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum. He was, Leo wrote, “our great predecessor.”
♦ David Hart points out, responding to last month’s item in which I said he had been too hard on one of his critics, that he had criticized the man’s views, not, as I’d written, the man himself, and that he’d been fair.
♦ A few resources readers may want to know about:
The latest issue of Participatio, the annual online journal of the T. F. Torrance Theological Fellowship, takes up Torrance’s relation to Orthodoxy. The volume includes a personal memoir by one of Torrance’s students, now an Orthodox priest; nine substantial papers on subjects like St. Athanasius and the rationality of the cosmos; a review of the letters between Torrance and Georges Florovsky; and two articles by Torrance himself, “The Relevance of Orthodoxy” and “The Orthodox Church in Great Britain.” See tftorrance.org.
The Catholic Artists Society is sponsoring a series of lectures on “the art of the beautiful” with the Dominican chaplains to New York University. The speakers have included Peter Cameron, editor of Magnificat, and Anthony Esolen, and their talks are available online. See catholicartistssociety.org.
And then there’s the Reformation21 website, run by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and featuring our friend and writer Carl Trueman. See reformation21.org.
♦ Writing on our weblog “First Thoughts,” Carl Trueman notes that John Henry Newman’s brother Francis advocated (allegedly) beneficent suicide in a letter to the Spectator way back in 1873 and that the magazine published an eloquent rebuttal. Francis, a major public intellectual of his day, promoted what he called “the church of the future,” which he expected would replace traditional Christianity with a non-dogmatic religion of good works and fellow-feeling. (See the first Douthat item above.)
A little surprisingly, writes Carl, neither the arguments for nor against have changed. “Why is it that Francis Newman’s case seems so much more compelling today? The answer is that, of the two brothers, it was Francis, not John, who was the harbinger of the ‘church of the future’ as manifested in the wider mores of a society driven by sentiment, tastefulness, and the concomitant pragmatic and emotive ethics with which we are now sadly all too familiar.”
♦ Writing with his son Stephen, a photographer, and the art historian Elizabeth Lev, our board member, writer, and friend George Weigel has written Roman Pilgrimage, a book on the station churches of Rome suitable for use in Lent. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, it reflects on the readings for the Mass of the day and the Office of Readings (that’s the elder Weigel) as well as providing a history of each church (that’s Lev), with some lovely color photos of the churches (that’s the young Weigel). A very nice mixture of devotion and learning, and aesthetic pleasure to boot.
♦ This for those interested in how magazines work. My son Christopher pointed out that the initial capital letters on a two-page spread in Dana Gioia’s “Catholic Writer” spelled “a wit.” Which was kind of nice. Accidental, but nice.
And then I thought: Suppose some day we accidentally spelled out a rude four-letter word? Now, after the magazine is laid out, one of the junior fellows reads through the magazine to make sure we haven’t accidentally made a word that will embarrass us. It’s a small thing, and probably paranoid, but here paranoia equals prudence.