• It’s amazing what’s left out of obituaries. On August 8, 2010, actress Patricia Neal died, at age eighty-four. The next day her obituary appeared in the New York Times, where reporter Aljean Harmetz discussed Neal’s life and career in detail. Neal won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the film, Hud (1963). She later made a remarkable recovery from a series of strokes that she had in 1965.
In 1949 the twenty-three-year-old Neal appeared in The Fountainhead, an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel, with Gary Cooper. During the filming, Neal fell in love with the older (and married) Cooper, and the two began a three-year affair. Neal eventually became pregnant. Under pressure from Cooper and in fear that having a child out of wedlock would destroy her career, Patricia Neal had an abortion.
In her book, As I Am: An Autobiography (1983), Neal recalled the guilt she experienced. “But for over thirty years, alone, in the night, I cried,” she wrote. “For years and years I cried over that baby. And whenever I had too much to drink, I would remember that I had not allowed him to exist. I admired Ingrid Bergman for having her [illegitimate] son. She had guts. I did not. And I regret it with all my heart. If I had only one thing to do over in my life, I would have that baby.”
Harmetz mentions Neal’s abortion and briefly quotes her regrets from her autobiography. But here is what Harmetz doesn’t mention. Neal eventually converted to Catholicism (as did Cooper). She also became a pro-life activist. In 2007 Neal served as the honorary co-chair for the twenty-second Annual Charity Ball for Life. According to Msgr. James Lisante, who celebrated Neal’s funeral Mass, Neal often told women who were thinking about having an abortion: “Don’t make my mistake. Let your baby live.”
• An often-heard argument against same-sex marriage revolves around the rhetorical question, “If same-sex marriage is allowed, on what grounds can polygamy and polyamory be banned?” It’s a pretty solid reducio ad absurdam: From your premise follows a conclusion we can all agree is absurd; your premise, therefore, cannot be true.
The argument assumes, however, that we can all agree on the absurdity of the absurd. In Canada—where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005—the marriage debate has moved on to this very question. The British Columbia Supreme Court will consider the legality of the province’s laws after two members of a Mormon community in Bountiful, British Columbia, were charged with polygamy. The case will center primarily on religious freedom, but it may provide an opportunity to rethink the justification for banning polygamy.
“The problem,” says Queen’s University law professor Beverley Baines, “is that Canadian culture has changed significantly and there are many people living secretly in polygamous relationships. There is an assumption that polygamy is bad for women and children—but as long as it’s a crime, no one is going to belly up and say they’re living in the relationship. Until they decriminalize it we can’t know if it’s harmful in Canada.”
The case has raised the hackles of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, which is seeking a court decision that makes a distinction between patriarchal polygamous relations and “loving consensual relationships” that just happen to involve three or more people. “We wish to testify,” proclaims one polyamorist, “that multiple conjugal relationships are a viable option in a free society, specifically when the power of decision-making and freedom of sexual expression are evenly distributed among the individuals involved.”
You’ve heard of Prop 8? Think of this as Prop 9.
• In 2006 Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, and Gary Ginsberg, currently an executive vice president of Time Warner Inc., began compiling a list of the fifty most influential rabbis in the United States. Since 2007 the list has been published yearly in Newsweek. According to the 2010 list, the three most influential rabbis in America are, from first to third, Yehuda Krinsky, leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement; Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, which represents more than nine hundred synagogues, with 1.5 million members; and Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
What criteria do Lynton and Ginsberg use in rating the individual rabbis? The two judges employ a simple point system. According to Newsweek, rabbis are awarded ten points in each of the following categories: their “media presence,” their status as “leaders within their communities,” whether they are “considered leaders in Judaism or their movements,” whether they “have made an impact on Judaism in their career,” whether they have “made a greater impact beyond the Jewish community and their rabbinical training,” and how large their constituencies are. Rabbis get twenty points in each of two important categories: “Are they known nationally / internationally?” and “Do they have political / social influence?”
To their credit, Lynton and Ginsberg acknowledge that their criteria are unscientific and their list is subjective. The list’s shortcomings are confirmed by its exclusion of Rabbi Jacob Neusner, the Distinguished Service Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Neusner hasn’t made the list a single time, even though a 2007 profile in Time magazine states: “Neusner is an empire builder, a central figure in wrestling an examination of Judaism into America’s universities. He accomplished this through brilliance (he developed his own secularly comprehensible synthesis of rabbinics), superhuman productivity (he has written more than 950 books, although he will admit to a certain reprocessing of material) and a knack for grooming gifted protégés who now run Jewish studies at top schools.”
In his book Jesus of Nazareth (2007), Pope Benedict XVI discusses Rabbi Neusner’s classic text A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (1993) in detail. In fact, when the pope was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he provided a cover blurb for the first edition of A Rabbi Talks with Jesus: “By far, the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade. The absolute honesty, the precision of analysis, the union of respect for the other party with carefully grounded loyalty to one’s own position characterize the book and make it a challenge especially to Christians, who will have to ponder the analysis of the contrast between Moses and Jesus.”
On the basis of Rabbi Neusner’s vast body of scholarly work, contributions to Catholic–Jewish dialogue, and international reputation as a top scholar of Judaism, he certainly merited inclusion in the Newsweek list.
• In August, Damian Thompson, the London Daily Telegraph blogs editor, drew attention to a column that Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco wrote for the Italian magazine L’Espresso in 1994. In his essay Eco discussed the differences between Apple Macintosh computers (Macs, as they’re now known) and personal computers (PCs) using the MS-DOS operating system. (By the mid-1990s, Microsoft Windows gradually replaced MS-DOS in PCs.)
“The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers,” Eco wrote. “I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant.”
What made Macs, which we use here at First Things, Catholic? “Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits,” Eco observed. “It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach—if not the kingdom of Heaven—the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.”
According to Eco, the now-obsolete MS-DOS was Protestant—even Calvinistic: “It allows free interpretation of Scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation,” Eco wrote. “To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.”
To his credit, Eco acknowledged the development of Windows, which “represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral.” With Windows, he explained, it was still possible to switch back to DOS “to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions.” This did not happen, however; MS-DOS went the way of liberation theology.
We sometimes wonder whether the venerable UNIX operating system, first developed in 1969 and still in use today in advanced programming, is Jewish.
• This one takes the prize. A clearly distressed new mother, seeking to take leave of her newborn under North Carolina’s Safe Surrender law, made the mistake of leaving the child outside the entrance of her local Planned Parenthood clinic. Tragically, the premature infant did not survive the abandonment; it died on the doorstep.
The clinic’s reaction was, to put it gently, twisted. With its workers apparently distraught after having encountered the dead infant, the clinic closed its doors the following day and sought counseling for staff members who witnessed the child’s last moments. Employees whose business it was to snuff out the lives of infants just weeks or months younger than this poor abandoned child needed counseling when they witnessed an unvarnished reminder of their trade. It figures.
• We’re always interested in what celebrities, the philosopher kings of our time, have to say about ethics. It seems Brad Pitt is a consequentialist through and through. Although ordinarily he opposes capital punishment, he says, he was “willing to look at it again” for British Petroleum executives, in view of April’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. If our lives exist on a thread, at the pleasure of celebrity ethical monarchs, and if the scale of destruction is the measure of retributive justice, we wonder about other possible candidates for capital punishment in Pitt’s juridical scheme. The authors of the sexual revolution, perhaps? Or the CEOs of automotive corporations?
• Good news from the world of science for teachers who struggle to engage their students’ attention: A yawn that seems to pass from face to face across a classroom, much as the wave passes across the sections of a football stadium, is not necessarily a sign of apathy for the subject matter. It shows, rather, the young scholars’ empathy for one another. Researchers at the University of Connecticut have found that “Children under the age of four and youngsters with autism do not suffer from infectious yawning because they do not experience the same levels of empathy” as other people.
So, teachers, when next you stand before a classroom full of students with their mouths agape like hippos, rest assured that they may not be (at least not all of them) bored with your lesson. They may be displaying “a high level of social evolution” by placing themselves in the shoes of one of their fellows—who may, in fact, be bored with you.
while we’re at it sources: Patricia Neal, New York Times, August 9, 2010; lifesitenews.com, August 10, 2010; Patricia Neal, As I Am; charityballforlife.eventjournal.com. Marriage, Winnipeg Free Press, August 24, 2010; National Post (Canada), January 6, 2009. Tax professor, The Atlantic online, September 19, 2010. Influential rabbis, Newsweek, June 28, 2010; Time, May 24, 2007; cover blurb, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. Umberto Eco, blogs.telegraph.co.uk, August 12, 2010; Espresso, September 30, 1994. Name changer, Chicago Tribune. August 7, 2010. Abandoned baby, lifenews.com, September 14, 2010. Brad Pitt’s justice, New York Post, August 23, 2010. Yawning, Telegraph (UK), September 15, 2010.
wwai tips: Joseph A. Bingham, Dimitri Cavalli, Meghan Duke, Kevin Staley-Joyce.