The Heat Is On
I’d like to add a point to William Anderson’s “Some Like It Warm” (February 2010). The belief held by those who are left of center that peer review is always reliable runs up against other leftist beliefs. One is that the criminal-justice system is not reliable. Our criminal-justice system is open (for the most part) to public scrutiny and includes many checks and balances, including the use of a judge, a jury, and defense attorneys, and a procedure for appealing any decision to a higher court. Peer review, by contrast, is closed to public scrutiny and has no checks and balances. Any rational person who is skeptical of our criminal-justice system ought to be even more skeptical of peer review.
Mount Vernon, Ohio
I found William Anderson’s February article deeply underwhelming. He seems to believe that simply questioning the validity, integrity, and intentions of those who warn us of climate change constitutes valid criticism. Objecting to the claim that the reality of climate change is the scientific consensus, Anderson writes: “One needs to know nothing of the physics, chemistry, or biology of climate science to judge this frequently heard assertion as plainly false.” Really? One need know nothing of science to make such a sweeping judgment? The author merely claims that there are many climate-change skeptics of “eminence and probity” but does not name a single one. Anderson goes on to question the peer-review process and the validity of the data, and raises questions of “deliberate fraud and hoax,” but does not back up any of these assertions with examples, studies, or sound reasoning.
Simply to assert something does not make it true, and to question something does not make it truly questionable. Anderson concludes his piece by stating that the burden of proof “firmly rests with those whose remedy requires an overturning of economic and political assumptions without precedent.” This gets at the heart of the conservative aversion to climate change, namely, an assumption that it is really just propaganda for liberal social change. But who said that to believe in human-created climate change is to believe in the need for a liberal agenda? And regardless of who said that, why accept it without question?
I respect First Things because of its tradition of sound thinking, even when it is not always thinking I agree with. Please see to it that pieces that broach the subject of climate change are of higher quality in the future.
Los Angeles, California
I was heartened to read the first paragraph of the article by Harvard’s William Anderson on climate change. He was certainly right to say that “testable hypotheses” have been eclipsed by “acrimonious accusations and appeals to authority. ” First Things has been guilty of contributing to the heat, but it could now make an important positive contribution.
Alas, the piece as a whole does nothing to advance the debate. It makes a long string of accusations that climate researchers do not adequately state their sources or open them to review. However, the author himself does not state his sources or open his charges to review.
Indeed, it is quite mysterious who “Harvard’s William Anderson” may be. A few minutes on several of Harvard’s many websites turned up at least four individuals named William Anderson. Does this William Anderson fail to state his full affiliation because he wishes to obscure the fact that his academic background does not qualify him to make the assertions he makes?
I teach strategic management in a business school, and based on business-school research that has documented the frequent failures of experts making forecasts of systems that involve uncertainty, I am deeply saddened by efforts to say that “the science is settled” on climate change. To make a contribution to the debate, however, you have to provide details and sources.
Why does First Things which is so profoundly interesting on other matters, feel it has to publish slovenly attacks on climate researchers? In this case, First Things is clearly guilty of bearing false witness against its neighbors, the climate scientists. The climate scientists may have committed profound sins, but the witness in this article is no witness at all.
Robert Chapman Wood
San Jose, California
For a journal that often minimizes the danger of climate change and dismisses the need, eloquently championed by Benedict XVI, to act aggressively in addressing it, I was very happy to see you come over to the side of both faith and reason by publishing William Anderson’s satire of global-warming deniers. It was a devastating caricature of the movement’s usual arguments—scientists are equally divided, the evidence is a tangle and could mean anything, data pointing to warming is likely fixed, and so on.
Many people have written detailed responses to the sophistry and cheap relativism (“experts disagree, so who’s to say what’s true?”) offered by global-warming deniers, but I think Anderson’s exaggerated parody of their arguments is one of the most effective rejoinders to appear in some time. Thank you for running it.
William Anderson replies:
I fully concur with John Pepple’s observation and thank him for his comments.
In reply to my other interlocutors, it would seem that the gravamen of our disagreement has to do with the proper location of the burden of proof. With respect to catastrophic climate change, it seems to me self-evident that the burden falls more heavily on those who make the claim than those who are skeptical, given that nothing remotely like this has happened before.
There is indeed a robust debate, of which the length of my article would not permit detailed explication. Interested parties on each side could benefit from study of the neutral and peerless website climatedebatedaily.com. It will quickly be obvious that the question is in no way settled, and that people of eminence and integrity inhabit both sides.
Thanks to Joseph Bottum (“American Exceptionalism and American Religion,” January 2010) for calling attention to the “paradoxical” nature of conservative Americans. Consider Utah, an oft-noted example of within-America exceptionalism. From recent national polling data (Gallup, CDC, U.S. Census, and so on) we learn that Utah paradoxically leads the nation in both well-being and depression, has the lowest levels of neuroticism, and the sixth highest suicide rate (as I reported in my presentation, “Paradoxical Geographic Variation in Psychological Characteristics,” at the February 18–22, 2010, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, California).
Perhaps, from such data, there is a sociological test of Bottum’s hypotheses that it is the “wildness and wackiness of American religion that created the historical oddity of American exceptionalism.” Now all we have to do is define “wildness” and “wackiness” in a reliable and valid religious sense.
Thomas W. Draper
In January’s Public Square, Joseph Bottum writes that the nation has lost the “collective vocabulary for explaining, in nonsectarian terms, why some restrictions and not others are compatible with a healthy individual liberty.” One word would help our collective vocabulary immensely: Impossible.
As in, marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman is impossible. As in, I am not against marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman; rather, it is impossible. This is not easily categorized as nasty homophobic nonsense.
The word impossible expresses my view of this issue with considerable precision and concision. Most people will understand this response intuitively without a philosophical dissertation. Proponents will respond that, of course, such marriage is possible, but that requires some level of recognition that an expanded definition must be used.
Paul J. Cella
The Breadth of Scandal
While Joseph Bottum’s defense of the Catholic Church’s stance regarding communion and pro-abortion candidates is excellent, the much-neglected issue of scandal should also be addressed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2286–2287, states that those “who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals” or “anyone who uses power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal.”
Thus, by virtue of their leadership position, Catholic politicians who enact laws that enable the death of unborn babies are guilty of scandal. That all bishops do not act as Bishop Thomas Tobin has, and address the scandalous actions of politicians who act contrary to Catholic teachings while claiming to be Catholics in good standing, is in itself a scandal and a sin of omission.
Mount Pleasant, Michigan
Circling the Square
Commenting on Benedict XVI’s endorsement of the International Theological Commission (ITC)’s 2007 document on infants who die without baptism, Joseph Bottum says that “Benedict explained why limbo is unnecessary . . . for Catholics to believe in” (“The Papal Difference,” February 2010). But ascribing the commission’s explanation to the Holy Father himself could suggest magisterial status—something the said document no more enjoys than does, say, Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth. An ITC document, even with papal endorsement, has no authority, pace Mr. Bottum, to “downgrade” or “toss aside” an existing doctrine.
Indeed, it seems questionable whether even the Catechism of the Catholic Church has the authority officially to change Catholic teaching on those rare occasions when it enunciates some doctrinal novelty. For a catechism is intended to be a pastoral, educationally oriented compendium of already existing and settled doctrine. Its authority depends on that of previous teachings of the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium that it can appeal to.
Now, in stating that Catholics are “permitted to hope” for the salvation of infants dying without baptism, the Catechism (#1261) cites not one previous magisterial statement—for the very good reason that there are none to cite. The Catechism is at odds with the only previous universal catechism of the Church, that of the Council of Trent, which affirmed categorically that “no means for attaining salvation remains for infant children other than baptism” (II, II, 33).
And that teaching certainly did have previous magisterial authority behind it: As early as 417 Pope St. Innocent I rejected as “utterly foolish” (perfatuum) the idea that unbaptized infants may be saved, and their exclusion from heaven remained the firm doctrine of the ordinary magisterium in both East and West until at least the pontificate of Pius XII, who confirmed the catechism of Trent’s teaching in a 1951 allocution. Pope Sixtus V affirmed, in a 1588 constitution, that the “certain” destiny of aborted (and therefore unbaptized) infants is exclusion from the beatific vision. And according to the 1860 Provincial Council of Cologne, whose acts were subsequently confirmed by the See of Peter, “faith teaches [fides docet] that infants, since they are not capable of this desire [for baptism], are excluded from the heavenly kingdom” if they die without the sacrament.
Is Benedict XVI aware of the above documents from Catholic tradition ruling out that “hope” which the new Catechism permits? If he has trusted and depended on theological advice like that given him by the International Theological Commission, probably not. For, astonishingly, not one of the five statements mentioned in the previous paragraph is referred to in the ITC’s thirty-eight-page study. While the natural happiness of limbo was and is only a hypothesis, that is the case only because the Church never condemned St. Augustine’s alternative hypothesis (revived by some Catholic theologians as recently as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries) that unbaptized infants suffer, albeit very mildly, in hell. Both permissible hypotheses excluded them eternally from heaven. The Church traditionally taught that exclusion as doctrine, not mere opinion.
Brian W. Harrison
St. Louis, Missouri
Regarding Joseph Bottum’s prediction (The Public Square, February 2010) that over the next decade, the most visible battlegrounds of American religion are going to be the Catholic colleges and hospitals, I would ask: Does he take issue with those who see, in the crusade against global warming, a religious phenomenon?
James W. Ceaser describes the climate alarmists (Weekly Standard, January 25, 2010) as converts to a “Religion of Humanity,” the roots of which he traces back to the nineteenth century and Auguste Comte. Comte’s disciples, he says, are seekers of a secular salvation through the supposed wisdom of the scientific and managerial elite. They have for decades been fanning the flames of their enthusiasm with lurid predictions of an ecological apocalypse, and in 2007–2008 they came together around a would-be messiah. Their indulgence toward elite shenanigans, their fury toward dissenters, and their uninterest in the record of earlier population and environmental scares would seem amply to confirm Bottum’s statement that “reason alone has never been enough to motivate reliably the embodied soul and ensouled body that is a human being.”
Reason, of course, must be the weapon of choice for those who work to expose bad science. But is it unreasonable, in this task of criticism, to argue ad hominem as well? To deplore and ridicule behaviors expected from cultists but shocking in scientists? Here it becomes important whether the idea of a secular religion is widely understood and accepted. Some of Bottum’s writing seems to suggest that he does not accept that idea: “All the contemporary religious look, in their own ways, to the Catholic Church for the institutional weight to anchor the public role of religion in America.”
If Ceaser’s description of the global-warming movement is sound, he has pointed out a sizable (and influential) group of contemporary religious who look to the federal government, not the Catholic Church, for the institutional weight to anchor a very public role for a new religion. His article illustrates a rhetorical counterstrategy. Traditionally religious persons have been the frequent targets of ad hominem attacks since the French Revolution. Are they so forgiving that they will take offense on behalf of opponents surprised to be portrayed as religious zealots? Are they too scrupulous to tolerate those who employ a logical fallacy in a good cause? Are they so possessive of the word religion that they will suffer no pejorative use of it?
I note that a little later in his monthly essay, Bottum mentions, with apparent approval, a dismissive reference to “the church of Al Gore.” I would inquire of him whether he sees here the potential for unnecessary disputes among those who agree in deploring not only climate alarmism, but also, more generally, what liberalism has become.
Romans as the Christians See Them
Assuming that “Cicero Superstar” (January 2010) was not a satire, may I say, please, that it was a strange piece to run in a supposedly Christian journal, although he is “impressive” in a very anti-Christian way. As Glendon tells it (my words, not hers), while a consul, Cicero was a murderer who “ordered five of the [Catiline] co-conspirators to be executed without trial.” He also deplored the fact that he was tortured because, among other things, there was no “justice in the court.”
Although he did not participate in the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar, “he approved the coup as necessary” and “came to regret that the assassins had not disposed of [murdered] Antony as well as Caesar.” No surprise then that Antony ordered Cicero put to death.
Glendon also notes that Cicero “sent away” his second wife, Publilia, because she was not as grief stricken as he was when his daughter died in childbirth.
She might also have noted that Cicero—like the other philosophers of his time who went around babbling about the good, the true, and the beautiful—never once denounced or called for a halt to the murderous gladiatorial games in which tens of thousands of innocent human beings and animals were slaughtered.
Finally, Glendon alludes (in paraphrase) to Cicero’s belief that, despite the disadvantages in his life, all of them were outweighed “by the honor and satisfaction of a life devoted to one’s country and fellow men”—except, I guess, for the five fellow men he ordered put to death without trial, and for that wife he dumped for no defensible reason.
I’ll never understand why any Christian would ever write admiringly about a Cicero or any of the other ancient philosophers. They are, after all, the folks St. Paul warns us about in Colossians 2:8: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”
Thanks to Mary Ann Glendon for her timely piece on Cicero. Timely, for we have witnessed the rise of a new Triumvirate in our own res publica: Pompous, Crassly, and Seizer (Obama, Reid, and Pelosi) are subordinating all to their lust for power.
Glendon reminds us of the high calling of public office, especially in dire times, for it requires that leaders have philosophical wisdom, moral virtue, and audacious courage. Is there any one in our Senate who will oppose this new Triumvirate of despotic demagogues? Is there anyone who values the weal of the patria more than his own glory?
David P. Goldman’s inflammatory accusation of anti-Semitism on the part of a British court (“Disorder in the Court,” January 2010) is unhelpful to his cause and written in apparent ignorance of the context. The dispute is an educational one, based on school choice. School choice is a highly disputed area with wide variations among policies adopted by Western democratic countries. Many Western countries, like the United States, do not permit any state funding at all for religious schools. The rejection of Jewish schools altogether is not anti-Semitic. Fully funded independent schools in Sweden must follow the same regulations as public schools. In the Netherlands, faith-based schools receive full funding but must accept all students regardless of religion and must follow essentially the same national program.
The province of Ontario, Canada, provides full funding for Catholic schools but none for Jewish or other faith-based schools. That policy contravenes the U.N. Charter of Rights and is clearly prejudicial to faith groups with less electoral clout, but it is not, directly or indirectly, anti-Semitic. (It may reflect some public prejudice against Muslims and fundamentalist Christians.)
Even the funded Catholic high schools are not free to select “genuine” Catholics. The schools must admit non-Catholics. That policy is not anti-Catholic. Rather, it is a reflection of the proposition that any parent (and child) should have the equal right to attend a school that receives state funding.
England and Wales have what is likely the most generous jurisdiction in the funding of religious schools. The Jewish school in question is a fully funded school and is still apparently permitted to reject non-Jewish students. To permit it to reject students whose Jewish descent is controversial (illegitimate in the eyes of the majority) would diminish even further the rights of children, their parents, and society.
In virtually no other country is the right being demanded so violently by Goldman and others recognized. Are all those other countries even more anti-Semitic than England and Wales?
One other important issue concerning access should be considered, irrespective of the matter of public funding. Parents should have a legitimate right to enroll their children in any public school suited to their educational needs and capacities. But the acceptance of a school’s right to select its students by its own criteria is dangerous. Consider a school run by a narrow sect. That right would permit the school to expel a child for the alleged sins of the parents. Indeed, the school would be able to use that power to threaten parents, implicitly or explicitly, should they fail to support any undertaking announced by the school. Society has an interest in not permitting children to be used as pawns in narrow religious battles.
Port Hope, Ontario
David P. Goldman replies:
The British Supreme Court’s ruling that the religious definition of Jewish identity is racist has nothing whatever to do with public funding of the Jewish Free School. It applies equally to the many privately funded Jewish schools in the United Kingdom and threatens the integrity of schools that do not take a penny of public money just as much as it does the Jewish Free School, which does receive public funds. Precisely this point was made by the British government in a brief to the Court. Whether or not religious schools should accept public funding is an interesting and important topic but is irrelevant in the present case.
Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth, says David Hart (“The Dawkins Evolution,” January 2010), “is an ideal précis of the evolutionary sciences and the current state of evolutionary theory that can be recommended for the convinced and the unconvinced alike.” Dawkins is describing evolutionary observations while “insisting in its entirely immanent causal mechanisms.”
I hear no counterargument to this position in the review, but I hear a criticism of intelligent design for insisting on the transcendence that must be inherent to the process. To anyone not prejudiced against any transcendental principle in the universe, Dawkins’ book should be titled The Greatest Miracle on Earth and evolutionary theory mentioned as one more reason for believing in “God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”
Consider what we are told to believe by Dawkins about our origins: Here is a rock. A portion of this rock, by exposure to rain and shine through time, becomes a human being. This rock-now-become-a-human-being is capable of tracing back its origin to the time when it was a rock; trace its origin back further to the star in the core of which it was conceived, back even before that time when it was only potentially contained in the singularity that exploded at the Big Bang to become our universe. This is absurd.
But let us assume that the above description of our origins is how we came to be. Is that the whole story, the whole truth? It cannot be. It is incapable of accounting for our lives, incapable of accounting for purpose, freedom, and will. It seems to me self-evident that intelligent design is, then, contrary to Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins, not “an argument from personal incredulity,” but an attempt to understand, based on the evidence of our existence, the miracle that is us.
I would respectfully disagree with David Hart’s statement that young-Earth creationism is contradicted by “the entire known universe and every datum it comprises.” It is important to recognize the distinction between data produced in the present by the scientific method of investigation and the projection of those data into the unknown past. In order to make a hypothesis about what happened in the past, scientists must make a priori assumptions, which are by their nature unverifiable.
I would suggest to Hart that many of the data sets used by the biological, physical, and geological sciences are equivocal when investigating unwitnessed events in the past and can verify more than one hypothesis of origins, depending on the assumptions. For example, under the old-Earth/Darwinian paradigm, the fossil record can be viewed as a record of appearance and disappearance of organisms in time, while under the young-Earth/special creation paradigm, it becomes a record of worldwide catastrophic burial and ecological zonation. In the biological realm, similarity of organ systems between organisms could have resulted from common descent or from a common designer.
In addition, data exist that flatly contradict the old-Earth paradigm. For example, the discovery of soft tissue in fossils is increasing. Bone marrow and muscle tissue have been found in dinosaur fossils thought to be 65 million to 70 million years old. Organic material is not supposed to last that long, based on present decay rates. Universally, scientists never question the presumed age of the specimen; instead, they either express amazement that such material could last for so long or devise ad hoc explanations to account for the anomaly. It would be interesting to carbon date some of that soft tissue and see what the results are.
A more accurate statement by Hart would be that biologic, physical, and geologic data seem to point to evolution and an old age for the universe given certain assumptions, but that anomalies do exist that contradict those assumptions. As people of faith, the readers of this magazine are not constrained to the purely naturalistic theory of origins that Richard Dawkins must assent to. A more potent and reasonable methodology would be to realize, at the beginning of any investigation, what our assumptions are and to keep an open mind as to the results.
Vero Beach, Florida
David B. Hart replies:
And here I was simply trying to say something vaguely nice about someone I have treated so roughly in the past. I appreciate the passion animating these letters but would still recommend a somewhat more deliberate approach to these matters.
In regard to Jackie Lee’s letter: No, there is no good evidence that might lead us to doubt the vast age of the cosmos or of the Earth, or of the immensity of the geological epochs that have led to this moment. Every scientific measure of physical reality confirms that young-Earth creationism is something credible only to the willfully or accidentally ignorant. The notion that dinosaurs might have existed some time within the historical frame of the world as posited by the young-Earth crowd is simply ludicrous; if they were concurrent with the earliest periods of recorded history and the earliest phases of civilization, I think someone would have mentioned them, and a few of their remains would be found in—oh, I don’t know—Mohenjo Daro.
Luis Caso needs to consider at a somewhat deeper level what the difference between transcendence and immanence is. The reason many believers object to intelligent-design theory is precisely because it fails to understand the distinction. In place of the creator God—whose one transcendent act of creation donates being to all that is, and sustains everything in being, and underlies the rational order of creation—ID deals with some sort of large, immanent cosmic technician who acts as a discrete cause among the discrete causes of nature.
From a purely theological point of view, it is a repellant idea: a universum that is not causally complete in itself (a defective whole, that is) and a God reduced to the role of a finite demiurge. The other problem with ID theory, alas, is that it is logically—not just empirically—impossible to verify. That said, Caso will, I hope, be glad to learn that I share his belief that a purely materialist account of the existence of the universe, of cosmic order, and of consciousness is quite absurd. But Dawkins’ book does not really deal with those larger questions, which is a mercy.
Where’s the Love?
Bruce Marshall’s essay “Treasures in Heaven” (January 2010) barely mentions love, leaving an enormous void in an otherwise excellent article. The Bible tells us “God is Love” (1 John 4:16). In their Exhaustive Concordance, Edward Goodrick and John Kohlenberger need 49.5 column inches of small print to list all the references to love in the New International Version translation.
Giving that pleases God must be founded on love alone—not on fear, not in response to any command to give, and certainly not in the hope of gaining brownie points with God. In the dramatic morning encounter between the Risen Christ and Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Christ did not say, as he well might have, “Hey, Pete, you owe me one.” Instead, he said, “Simon, son of John, do you love me? . . . Feed my lambs. . . . Simon, son of John, do you love me? . . . Tend my sheep. . . . Simon, son of John, do you love me? . . . Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–19). The denial in the high priest’s courtyard had been forgiven; it was water over the dam, and Christ was telling Peter (and us) that his kingdom is to be founded on love.
St. Paul makes the crucial role of love unmistakably clear in his famous ode to love, where he writes, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). A gift intended only to lay up treasure in heaven, not made out of love for God or for his suffering creatures, is no gift, but an investment.
So where does this leave us, since the Bible in many, many places admonishes God’s people to give to the poor and promises generous rewards, both here on earth and in heaven, to those who give? The best clue may lie in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he tells us, “For we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). Good works do not save; rather, good works identify the sinner who has, through faith, been recreated as God’s workmanship. These works grow automatically out of genuine faith, and the promised rewards automatically follow.
No doubt Marshall assumes the reader understands the need for love, and intends his words only to emphasize the need for action. But the casual reader is likely to interpret his essay as a guide to heaven that spares fastidious souls the need to love the unwashed, unruly, and often ungrateful wretches who, Christ promises, will always be with us. That mistake has been made often enough in the past that current writers should beware and exercise preemptive caution.
I read “Treasures in Heaven” by Bruce D. Marshall and respectfully disagree with his conclusion. What is more merciful, Christ’s allowing us a small share in the great redemptive act accomplished by him, or God’s forgiveness of our sins by fiat? The former includes all manner of suffering here and hereafter; the latter opens the gates of Heaven to one and all. Jesus says, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” (Matt. 7:13). Forgiveness by fiat saves all from destruction, irrespective of conduct, from the holiest saints to the most heinous of sinners. However, that is not what God intended, and I will not quibble with God.
Peter J. Witiuk
Edison, New Jersey
Bruce Marshall replies:
Leon Billig is surely right about the centrality of love when it comes to merit and treasure in heaven. We should be cautious, though, about trying to draw a sharp line between love and good works. One who intends to make a loan doesn’t actually become a creditor—a believer, who trusts another—until he hands over the money. Likewise we actually have love when we do the works of love, including kindness to the unwashed and patience with the ungrateful. Just this love yields heavenly treasure.
Like Peter Witiuk I am unwilling to second-guess God—not least about what does, and doesn’t, count as mercy.
Boys ’R’ Us
Sally Thomas’ article on war toys (“The Killer Instinct,” January 2010) reminds me of a time years ago when my wife and I were living in a house in one of those gentrified neighborhoods peopled by young math professors and massage therapists. A very nice, quiet, peace-loving couple from around the corner advised us that, since we now had a young son—they had two—we should not buy him guns of any kind. “It teaches boys that it is okay to be violent!” we were told. Not two weeks later, I drove by their house, and outside in front were their two boys, blasting away at something in the trees, with sticks.
Some years later, son number two would spread out on the floor a host of marbles lined up in rows, as I read aloud. He’d listen, but he’d also practice military maneuvers complete, I must say, with sound effects.
I have had opportunities to observe perhaps some of the effects of these “war games” on my boys. All of these have had to do with their coming to the aid of someone being bullied. The trick is for them to understand how violence can come to be used without “committing an evil.”
I was most enlightened to learn that the previous generation of feminists had it all woefully and terribly wrong. From Sally Thomas I discovered the plain fact of “a boy’s natural drive to stab and shoot and smash,” while Phyllis Schlafly impressed on me, once again, the “culture’s glorification of single moms,” with the various “financial incentives” it heaps on them.
Thank goodness for these prophets crying out in the wilderness! The next time I pass by a “domestic-violence bureaucracy,” or encounter one of the multitude of glorified and wealthy single mothers I know, or collect a paycheck that is on par with my male colleagues for my labor, I must remember to curse feminism, take off my shoes, and crouch back into the kitchen where I belong! Evidently, according to our writers, I must also drag my daughter with me, and leave my son to his “killer instincts.”
Jane Barter Moulaison
Sally Thomas responds:
My thanks to Bruce Gee, whose comments remind me of something I thought of too late to insert it into the article: that a far more effective rendering of the literature assignment asking a boy to empathize with a bullied character would be to ask the boy to imagine what he would do if he saw others bullying the character in question.
When this article appeared online, I was not entirely surprised by the number of readers who suggested that my line of reasoning would certainly end in my unleashing, and encouraging others to unleash, a generation of violent predators on an unsuspecting world. I would worry more if I had ever seen any evidence of this outcome in any boy of my acquaintance. The other day I was watching my own seven-year-old son, the one who as a toddler liked to yank on his baby sister’s head, playing with a little boy who’s about four. They had been running around—let’s face it, probably pretending to shoot each other—and were walking together across the grass, my son’s arm draped protectively across his smaller friend’s shoulders.
That’s what I see, over and over, in my sons and the sons of my friends. They’re the boys who ask their sisters to dance at the prom, and who initiate elaborate games with children they’ve just met on the playground. They’re the boys who visit the elderly neighbors. They’re the boys who go out of their way to include the profoundly disabled young man who joined our Scout troop last fall.
Playing with guns and swords and moving Risk game-pieces around the house in world-domination maneuvers has had absolutely no detrimental effect that I can see on their capacity for kindness and empathy. My point was, and my belief remains, that male goodness is no less good for being male, and attempts to remake that goodness in a gender-bent image merely serve to root out chivalry with the drives it is meant to temper.
I was surprised by the response of readers like Jane Moulaison who seem to assume that granting boyness to boys deprives girls of . . . something. I am the mother of two daughters as well as two sons, so I have a vested interest in girls and the world they will inherit as women. Contrary to the fevered imaginings of one online reader, I don’t actually beat my daughters black and blue for ironing “Little Precious”’ cassock wrong; the one person in my house who does any ironing at all on a regular basis is my husband.
My boys as well as my girls have learned to cook, wash dishes, and clean house, and I can report that all perform the latter two activities, at any rate, with an absolutely fair and equitable amount of moaning. I rest in the hope that all my future children-in-law will be grateful.
My elder daughter, at sixteen, translates a mean Latin passage and has her eye on college classics programs. My younger daughter, aged six, who formerly provided hours of bobblehead fun to her brother behind my back, has become—well, the kind of person who can take care of herself, let’s put it that way. The brother who tormented her is today her best friend and constant companion in tree climbing, fort building, and football throwing, if not in feather-boa wearing.
The feminists can relax: I don’t think there’s really a finitude of personal strength and integrity floating about the universe, to be warred over by gender factions. That said, I have every interest in rearing my daughters to be strong women. Theirs will be a difficult and lonely world, however, if there are no heroic men to share their burdens.
If I Had a Hammer
If one extracts from Lauren Weiner’s article (“Where Have all the Lefties Gone?” January 2010) her underlying message or theme, one comes to several points. The first is that there was no poverty or injustice during the prewar period. The agitation came from abroad. This denies that homegrown Americans could have a social conscience, need I say a Catholic one, to complain in song or by other means about social injustice. Her unstated assumption is that it is wrong to complain, and that complaints are controlled by our enemies. I am now reading the uncensored version of Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. Weiner’s argument has been used before.
Second, her attitude—expressed by the absences in what she said as well as the actual text—is that the labor movement was communist controlled and, indirectly, that it was not American. How can a Catholic magazine allow a text of this sort?
Lastly, she equates any form of sympathy or empathy for others in worse straits with communistic propaganda. Any idea of expressed social responsibility in song is related to communistic “agitprop” of some direct or indirect form.
Weiner’s response will be that she did not “say” this or that. But in her article, the “decision tree” of choices for those with a social consciousness (including Catholics, I might add) has been carefully closed by innuendo and indirect accusations.
Lauren Weiner replies:
Complaining, to use Paul Caron’s word, is a mainstay of folk music. His saying that I think it wrong to point out injustice, an activity so integral to this music I like, makes me want to . . . well, complain. (Working title of the folk song I am writing about this situation: “Willfully Misconstrued Blues.”)
I don’t equate having a social conscience with being a communist. That would be odd since it’s clear that giving up one’s communist views can do wonders for the social conscience. So it was—and surely Caron knows this—with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. And with two of my other heroes, the writer Whittaker Chambers and the civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin, the latter of whom I mentioned in my article because he sang in a folk group as a young man.
Rustin found out that America’s failure to respect the rights of black people bothered the Communist Party but only to a point. During his brief membership in the Young Communist League, he was warned by the labor leader A. Philip Randolph that the Reds were not really interested in civil rights. Rustin led the YCL’s Committee Against Discrimination in the Armed Forces. His committee was shut down by party leaders after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, turning Stalin into Hitler’s enemy and America’s ally, and turning Stalin’s enthusiasts in this country from bitter pacifists into exuberant war supporters. As part of this foreign-dictated change in favor of the Allies, the American Communist Party no longer wanted to disturb the U.S. military with reform demands. Rustin quit the YCL in protest.
The U.S. labor movement, as I wrote, threw off the party’s influence. As I also wrote, prominent folk singers of the 1960s adopted the Red folkies’ love of old-time music, but their politics did not really take. That was a good thing, and I would be surprised if Caron did not agree.
Who can say what will be thought, a half century from now, of Steve Earle’s music, or Billy Bragg’s, or the folk side of Tom Morello’s repertoire (he of the band Rage Against the Machine—now there’s a complaining moniker for you). It is unlikely that future cultural commentators will be able to look at their lyrics and thereby chart changes in a political party line, news headline by news headline, as we can with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Alan Lomax. Yet there will be retrospective interest in the folkies of our time as there is, during our time, in the Bolshevik balladeers of yesteryear. Not to look, not to chart—in other words to have the utter singularity of the Bolshevik balladeers be covered over by the sands of time—is to flee from understanding. Why should we do that?
Lost in Translation
I have great respect for the literary judgment of my good friend Laurance Wieder, who is himself a superb poet. His sketch of Ariosto in February 2010 (“Fast and Furioso”—wonderful title) is the most inviting introduction I have seen. But when he turns to David Slavitt’s new translation of Orlando Furioso, something other than literary judgment seems to be at work.
With reference to several other translators of the poem, Wieder writes: “All these beneficiaries of Slavitt’s contumely, living and dead, share one attribute: completeness. It may seem an odd quibble, but finishing the job might have rescued this sorry enterprise. Pleading production costs, this self-proclaimed broadener of what he calls Ariosto’s Anglophone audience defaces even the poem’s architecture. Translation stops at canto 34.”
In my copy of Slavitt’s version, translation doesn’t stop at canto 34. Canto 35 is omitted, canto 36 is translated in part, canto 37 is omitted, cantos 38 and 39 are translated in part, cantos 40 through 45 are omitted, and the volume concludes with a partial translation of canto 46.
About the alleged completeness of the other versions Wieder mentions: Slavitt’s most distinguished predecessor was Sir John Harington, whose splendid sixteenth-century translation gave me my first taste of Ariosto. In the introduction to his 1962 edition of Harington, Graham Hough says that “his tendency is to abbreviation and compression. He often runs two or three of Ariosto’s stanzas into one. Sometimes he omits whole passages, and shortens battles and genealogies, which evidently bored him. Almost all his cantos are a li
ttle shorter than the originals. In return, he occasionally expands—oddly enough in moral and devotional passages.”
Laurance Wieder replies:
It’s true that after Canto 34 of his Orlando, David Slavitt intersperses summaries of entire books with occasional passages of his peculiar version of Ariosto, until he arrives at “Acheron’s foul banks and the gloomy land / of those who blasphemed and were full of pride / and arrogance until the day they died.”
Nonetheless, incomplete is incomplete. While Harington’s may not be a faithful, line-for-line rendering of Ariosto, it is a complete poem in itself, as John Wilson’s pleasure in the Renaissance text attests.