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The Library of Congress has announced that W.S. Merwin will be America’s next poet laureate. About his poetry, there is something to say—but less, perhaps, than you might think, given the prizes he’s won. Still, you remember poems like his one about the expatriate who realizes it’s time to go home:
Already I defend hotly
Certain of our indefensible faults,
Resent being reminded; already in my mind
Our language becomes freighted with a richness
No common tongue could offer, while the mountains
Are like nowhere on earth, and the wide rivers.
Over at National Review, our widely read friend John J. Miller observes, “A few years ago, I wrote about his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m no expert on his other work, but he strikes me as a good choice.”
It would not have been possible for me ever to trust someone who acquired office by the shameful means Mr. Bush and his abettors resorted to in the last presidential election. His nonentity was rapidly becoming more apparent than ever when the catastrophe of September 11, 2001, provided him and his handlers with a role for him, that of “wartime leader,” which they, and he in turn, were quick to exploit. This role was used at once to silence all criticism of the man and his words as unpatriotic, and to provide the auspices for a sustained assault upon civil liberties, environmental protections and general welfare.
The perpetuation of this role of “wartime leader” is the primary reason—more important even than the greed for oilfields and the wish to blot out his father’s failure—for the present determination to visit war upon Iraq, kill and maim countless people, and antagonize much of the world of which Mr. Bush had not heard until recently.
The real iniquities of Saddam Hussein should be recognized, in this context, as the pretexts they are. His earlier atrocities went unmentioned as long as he was an ally of former Republican administrations, which were happy, in their time, to supply him with weapons.
I think that someone who was maneuvered into office against the will of the electorate, as Mr. Bush was, should be allowed to make no governmental decisions (including judicial appointments) that might outlast his questionable term, and if the reasons for war were many times greater than they have been said to be I would oppose anything of the kind under such “leadership.” To arrange a war in order to be re-elected outdoes even the means employed in the last presidential election. Mr. Bush and his plans are a greater danger to the United States than Saddam Hussein.
At the very least, can’t we suggest that Merwin was wrong about the whole “silence all criticism of the man” line? I mean, for his criticism, Merwin was so silenced that his anti-Bush harangue was printed in The Nation, his publisher brought out new editions of his work, and he’s just been made poet laureate. It seems no amount of nutty overstatement in those days is ever going to be held against those who uttered it.
In my inbox today, a press release about a new documentary, Huxley on Huxley, which is being released on July 26, the anniversary of Aldous Huxley’s birthday.
Huxley was a force, of course—but who now reads such novels as Crome Yellow or After Many a Summer Dies the Swan? He was a truly fine essayist—the New Criterion ran a good review when the collected essays were published back in 2003—but that, too, is not the Huxley anyone much reads.
The Perennial Philosophy may still have some fans, but, really, only Brave New World still lives.
Want a measure of how faded the rest of the once-popular instantiations of Huxley have become? The new documentary focuses on The Doors of Perception, which was taken up as a hippie classic back in the day. And interviewed for the film are such figures as Ram Dass and Huston Smith.
Ram Dass and Huston Smith. Yes, Ram Dass and Huston Smith. Funny how time goes by.
I grow old, I grow old.
I shall wear my dhoti rolled
and walk along the Institute’s halls . . .
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the books, the LSD, the tea,
Among the yoga classes, among some stretching of you and me,
Would it have been worth while, . . .
If Aldous, settling a Zafu pillow beneath his head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”
The Supreme Court delivered its ruling in the Christian Legal Society case today. At first reading, it looks pretty bad—and so our friend Rick Garnett writes:
The Court handed down its opinion in the Christian Legal Society case this morning. By a 5-4 vote, the Court upheld a rule requiring officially recognized student groups at Hastings College of the Law to “accept all comers” as members and leaders. As Justice Alito explains in his dissent, this rule is not the rule that was actually applied to the Christian Legal Society when it was denied official recognition for insisting that its members and leaders affirm a Christian statement of belief. Instead, this “accept all comers” rule—which, even if it were in fact the rule, would be a very silly rule—seems to have been seized upon in order to make less apparent the extent to which Hastings was singling out the Christian Legal Society, its views, and the views of other such groups, for special disapproval. (Justice Stevens’ concurring opinion is more candid in expressing this disapproval.)
The opinion and outcome is, I think, deeply disappointing. (Note: I filed, with Tom Berg, an amicus brief in the case.) Like Justice Alito, “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that today’s decision is a serious setback for freedom of expression in this country.” What is particularly unsettling, even ominous, is that the Court—and Justice Kennedy in his concurring opinion—seems entirely unable to understand (or perhaps simply does not believe) that it is not invidious, and it is not contrary to dialogue, diversity, education, etc., for associations to act in accord with a shared, distinctive ethos.
Down at the end of this post, about Connecticut’s attempt to fine Catholic protesters for not being registered as lobbyists, Jeff Milyo makes the obvious—but new to me—observation that, used as a modifier in a fused noun phrase, the word social should basically be read as meaning not:
social worker, etc.
In the official White House proclamation for Father’s Day, President Obama throws in what looks like a surprisingly casual cheer for same-sex unions, as “two father” families: “nurturing families come in many forms, and children may be raised by a father and mother, a single father, two fathers, a step father, a grandfather, or caring guardian.”
I’ve understood for some time that I’m almost alone among our friends in opposing the death penalty as currently applied in the United States, and there is certainly room for disagreement. First Things exists as a forum for this kind of debate, after all. Back in 2001, Cardinal Dulles wrote one of his typically careful and reasoned analyses of Catholicism’s relation to capital punishment, and in 2002, Justice Antonin Scalia added “God’s Justice and Ours,” measuring his reaction to objections to executions. I recommend both these pro-death-penalty pieces to those interested in the debate—along, of course, with my own 2005 development of a new argument against the barbaric and horrifying use we are making of death to bring “closure” (that awful word) to the families of the victims of those we execute.
In response to Steve, I do have to say that the first half of his comment is simply misplaced, arguing against some position that I never said and never held. The issue I bring up over and over is how a state that understands itself to be founded on a secular social contract gains authority to administer divine justice. That it has the authority to administer ordinary social justice, I said several times, as I said repeatedly that such ordinary justice may sometimes require the death of a malefactor.
In fact, we can increase Steve’s point about the legitimate purposes of punishment in a modern democratic state. As I’ve written, we sentence criminals to achieve social justice: Offenders must be withdrawn from society for a period sufficient to allow them to realize the wrongness of their actions—and sufficient to protect society from them until they learn that lesson. Meanwhile, we reestablish social order and repress private vengeance. Along the way, we also instruct ordinary citizens about the general majesty of the law and the particular evil of the criminal’s offense. All of this is legitimate, all with sufficient derived authority, and all may require the death, for example, of the murderous escape artist.
But by executing murderers for retribution, we are trying to tell a different story: a story with poetic closure, a tale of punishment that fits the crime. When the state imposes prison or fines, it acts as the agent and enforcer of normal social justice, with powers derived from and limited by the social contract of its citizens. When the state sets out to kill a killer, it becomes instead an actor in a drama about righteous vengeance.
The death penalty is not in line with the other punishments imposed in the United States. It is a leap out to a different story and a different account of justice. Think about it this way: Where beside the death penalty are criminals sentenced to their crime? No American court orders assailants to be punched, or tax cheats to be defrauded, or rapists to be raped. But the killer must be killed—because it is just that he be killed.
As, indeed, it is. But under any Christian account of political theory, how does a modern democracy gain authority to act on this high level?
Steve writes, “Romans 13 does not, I agree, legitimize punishing any and every crime by the death penalty. But no one in his right mind ever said that it did.” But people have said something akin to this, Steve, with regard to murder, and they have said it over and over again. Note the letter to in reply to my 2005 article that says Evangelium Vitae’s worries about the death penalty proves that Catholicism is a “defective faith.” Note the commenter on my article today who says he suspects that not only is Ronnie Lee Gardner in Hell but I am bound there, too, for my unwillingness to see justice done. People with a strong sense of justice know that murders need to die, and an unexecuted murderer is an affront.
Steve concludes, “The Catholic Church has taught quite explicitly at least since the time of St. Augustine, and continues to teach, that the state does have the right in some circumstances to use the death penalty. . . . I do think that we must be careful that the force of our moral passion not bend out of shape or even break the framework of moral analysis so carefully constructed over two millennia of theological reflection.”
But I said many times that in some cases the death penalty may be necessary. And—here I get up on my soap box, again—it wasn’t me that broke the framework of moral analysis, Steve. If you want that, how about a government that licenses abortion not just as the removal of a non-life, but explicitly in the name of a national refusal to accept metaphysical foundations? That’s what the Casey decision says, and where does that leave the retributive place of the death penalty?
Nowhere, is the only answer—nowhere except as the reply to a tort, the judicial ordering of repayment not to society but individuals. We are using the death penalty as a kind of court of equity, a small-claims court writing huge claims of justice in blood.
My friend Manolo the Shoeblogger—one of the great Internet prose stylists of our time—has an idea:
It is Monday, and coming back from the Pilates this morning you ran into your old frenemy, Jenny, who described for you at great and exhausting length her new workout regime: the form of acrobatic “hot” yoga, which involves contorting oneself into the variety of unlikely positions, in the room heated to 120 humid degrees, while the small Indian man shouts quasi-religious non sequiturs at you.
“Inward, you will take your awareness now…”
Frankly, you would probably be more interested in yoga (Jenny does look great) except as the Roman Catholic you already have the mystical religion, thank you very much, and are not in need of the second more exotic one.
And then, on your way back to the office, it hits you: Catholic Yoga!
A conversation tonight reminded me of a scene I saw in South Dakota a few years ago: A pair of German tourists in the Black Hills, attempting to separate a mother buffalo from her new spring calf, so they could pose their children with the calf for a photograph.
The scene is still vivid in my memory. The mother buffalo snorting, the herd starting to look up and circle around her, the males beginning to stamp. Our attempt to call the tourists away loudly enough that they understood their danger, but not loudly enough to add to the buffalos’ reaction. In the end, the mother began to swing her head, knocking against the woman and, thankfully, causing the family to run back to their car.
Now, my question, meant seriously. How many generations do people have to be removed from rural life before they forget, to this extent, one of the most ancient lessons of humankind: Don’t get between an animal and her young? Especially not in the spring.
The opening of a Moscow Metro station named after Fyodor Dostoevsky has been postponed after complaints that murals decorating the platform walls are too depressing. The images, drawn from the 19th-century novelist’s works, could prompt depressed commuters to kill themselves, critics say.
One scene, right, depicts a man preparing to hit a woman with an axe while another lays dying at his feet—inspired by Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Another shows a man holding a gun to his head—based on The Devils, in which Kirillov commits suicide as a declaration of freedom. A stern portrait of the author is also among the Florentine mosaics.
One wants to mock the decision to protect Russians from these scenes. And yet, they are Russians, after all, and given to a certain melancholy that the government probably shouldn’t encourage.
There’s also this note in the story: “The controversy has also forced Metro chiefs to postpone the opening of another new station, Marina Roscha, the next stop along from Dostoevsky.”
“The next stop along from Dostoevsky.” The next stop along from Dostoevsky.
I want to thank Wheaton College, out here in Illinois, for inviting me to give this year’s commencement address.
I recognize that, as a practicing Catholic, I was a difficult choice for the school to make—since Wheaton College is, after all, the school so well featured in the movieProzac Nation. A school with such a strong tradition of openness to atheism, polymorphous sexuality, and the rejection of religious affiliation.
It is fitting that your school should boast such famous alumni as, um, let’s see now. The list says Ken Babby, whom I don’t actually know, but he’s listed as the youngest senior officer in the history of the Washington Post, which is sure something.
And Dr. Mary Ellen Avery, and former New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman, and literary agent Esther Newberg, again whom I don’t know but I’m sure she’s famous. Oscar-nominated actress Catherine Keener, too.
All of you should be enormously proud that you are graduating from school, as many famous people did, most of them anyway, and I’m grateful that you would have a Catholic like me in to speak about the challenges facing America’s new graduates as they enter the world after being trained in Feminist Criticism and Introduction to Film Studies.
I . . . um, I’m sorry, what? You mean that there is more than one Wheaton College? That the Evangelical one in Illinois isn’t the former women’s college in Massachusetts?
A friend sends along a link to a New York Timesarticle about naming: “Giving one’s offspring odd, random or deliberately misspelled names is a form of mistreatment that also hurts the rest of society.”
Remembering his fascination with American naming habits, she adds, “I am sure Fr. Neuhaus is chuckling up there.”
I am getting bombarded with the Venter “crated life” stuff today and, eh. I think it was a big deal when (seven years ago?) they made their “minimal” genome, and you could see where they were going then. But this isn’t such a big deal now becuase well, it’s what we do all the time: you pop in a new bit of DNA, sometimes one you made by solid state synthesis, and replace stuff that’s in the cell already. OK, they replaced everything. But it’s different in scale not kind whatever Venter says.
Which seems about right. Why has the popular press lifted up Venter’s bacterium instead of, say, such recent work as the creation of a 21-amino-acid mouse?
If I had to take a guess, I say that it has something to with the perception that Venter somehow shows God isn’t necessary for creation—the possibility, in other words, of ironic headlines like the one above.
The Dalai Lama says, “Still I am a Marxist,” on his arrival in New York. It’s true that “Millions of people’s living standards improved” in China because of capitalism, but Marxism has “moral ethics, whereas capitalism is only how to make profits.”
The advice columnist at Salon receives a letter from a woman worried about her father’s conservatism:
This is not the man I grew up with. I think he fears a future he cannot control, and longs for a past that never existed. He is responding to this existential crisis with fear, anger and paranoia. I feel for his situation, but cannot respect the viewpoint it generates. We are at a point where we can barely speak about current events or politics without deeply offending one another. I feel I cannot reconcile myself to his beliefs, and I know it is profoundly changing our relationship. How can I help him embrace a progressive, inclusive future? How do I bring back rationality, sensitivity and temperance into our discussions?
And the advice columnist in reply does plenty of preaching to the choir about how that evil Fox News is destroying America by leading into darkness people like this old man.
But interestingly, the columnist also, and primarily, writes:
I think a better question to ask is, “How can I be closer to my father?”
From my inbox, a press release about a new book, in which “Author discusses science, psychology and spiritual enlightenment.” And why not? “Imagine what your life would be like without fear. Imagine living a life filled with love, peace and understanding.”
Who could object? The author, the press release continues, has “summarized his 40 years of research on the subject of how people can reach enlightenment.” He has, you see, a ” knack for making complex things simple,” and in his new book, “he explains that not only is enlightenment possible, but that enlightenment is our birthright, and it’s not hard to attain—we already have it. We just need to uncover it.”
The press release concludes, “Can we interest you in taking a look and possibly doing a story or an interview”?
Arlen Specter slips away, defeated yesterday in his attempt to gain the Democratic nomination for what would have been a sixth term in the Senate.
We could speak here of his failures and his oddities, his political life from the Warren Commission, to the Bork and Thomas confirmation hearings, and down to his switch, at the end, from Republican to Democrat. His support for abortion was a key, once or twice, to losses by the pro-life movement, and no one in the conservative world will remember him fondly. He was a hack’s hack, and he lived mostly off his luck.
But maybe it’s also worth thinking for a moment about such luck. Aristotle counts luck as a virtue, and H.L. Mencken’s classic little essay on Calvin Coolidge is a reflection on its manifestation in American political life.
How lucky was Specter? He spent thirty years in the Senate—the longest tenure in the history of a state that’s been around since the Founding. And he was not once the most significant, or popular, or electable figure in the state. From Tom Gola’s time to Bob Casey Jr.’s time, Specter was always a second fiddle.
A second fiddle, though, who always got played. Like a horse on the nod, he always seemed to slip by at the last minute, while the others got the bad bounce and the sun in their eyes and the unfortunate break.
Until yesterday, when Specter’s luck finally ran out.