• “You can’t come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral.” So Deirdre Sullivan’s father taught her. For her, she said, speaking on NPR, going to funerals was partly a duty and partly a matter of learning to do things for others when doing them wasn’t convenient, like going to “the painfully under-attended birthday party” and visiting someone in the hospital during happy hour.
It bears fruit, this discipline. When she was sixteen, she went to the funeral home by herself, unwillingly, for her fifth-grade math teacher. “It was worse than I thought it would be: I was the only kid there. When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson’s shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, ‘Sorry about all this,’ and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered twenty years ago, Miss Emerson’s mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.”
• This reminds us of the moving story Matt Labash told in the Weekly Standard about Haiti after the earthquake, and the work of Fr. Rick Frechette, who spent much of his time saying funerals for the often unnamed and unmourned dead, for whom “death with dignity entails being buried five-to-a-cardboard-coffin.” Titled “Love Among the Ruins,” the story is painful and beautiful at the same time.
Near the end of the article, he tells of standing with the priest in a cemetery while he buries the nameless dead. Labash turns to him and tells him it seems futile. “Why do this? However horrible their lives were, this isn’t going to change that. Why spend so much time and energy serving people who’ll never know they’ve been served? Frechette thinks about it a long while, then says, ‘If the dead are garbage, then the living are walking garbage.’”
Or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal act of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.”
• “Your life is going to be about something—or it’s going to be about nothing,” declares a fellow named Bob Avakian, in a tract of sorts we picked up the other day. “And there is nothing greater your life can be about than contributing whatever you can to the revolutionary transformation of society and the world, to put an end to all systems and relations of oppression and exploitation and all the unnecessary suffering and destruction that goes along with them.”
It sounds rather evangelical, though Avakian is, as you may have guessed, a leftist, and in fact the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party—which seems, if we understand Revolution, the broadsheet on whose back page that quote appears, to think Mao too conservative. We picked up the paper from a bright, friendly young woman as we strolled through Occupy Wall Street.
A Christian could agree with every word, while noting that the revolutionary transformation for which Avakian hopes will only arrive when God wills it. But then, as has often been observed, Marxism is secularized Christianity. Indeed, Revolution marks the snippets from Avakian’s book BAsics [sic] by chapter and verse. This quote is taken from “BAsics 5:23.”
Such leftism comes, indeed, with a prophet, if not a messiah. Avakian asks—in BAsics, chapter six, verse eleven—why he and his work are so important and explains that communism can’t be reached “without leadership—leadership that, in relation to this goal, embodies the most advanced understanding and methodology—and what is concentrated in this person, yes, but most fundamentally in the body of work and method and approach of Bob Avakian represents that leadership.” (The wonky grammar is his.)
The party, he continues, teaches that “certain individual revolutionaries emerge as a concentration of this process, and themselves become a concentrated expression of the best qualities of revolutionary leadership—including a selfless dedication to the revolutionary cause and deep love of the masses, as well as a strong grasp of the scientific methodology needed to unleash the masses and chart the path of revolution in line with their objective interests.”
The pope doesn’t talk about himself like this. But then he’s just the servant of the servants of God, not the concentration of the historical process.
• Critics of neoconservatism don’t seem to grasp that support for a market economy and limited government doesn’t express a romantic or idealistic view of business but a realistic view of government. (And a realistic view of business, too, but that’s a subject for another day.) Government has its limits, as we argued last month in discussing the failures of urban planning.
It also tends to serve those who can exploit its weaknesses most effectively, which means that it harms those who can’t. Take the Solyndra bankruptcy, well analyzed by Matthew Continetti in the Weekly Standard.
A company that didn’t deserve the money got a lot of it, and, as Continetti explains, “In today’s economy, risks are socialized while profit is privatized. . . . If Solyndra had taken off, its private investors would have become extraordinarily rich. But it failed—and the American taxpayer has to foot the bill. And many other bills, too. The Solyndra loan was part of a $38.6 billion program to aid green energy that the Washington Post claims has created exactly 3545 jobs. (That’s $10,888,575 in loans per job, for those of you without a calculator.)”
The market, we would argue, will apportion rewards and risks more justly. Not perfectly—it’s a fallen world—but you (and your children) (and your grandchildren and great-grandchildren and perhaps several generations beyond them) will not be on the hook for someone else’s failure.
• What do you do with the press, part one. “The real problem with investigative journalism, and one of the reasons there isn’t as much of it as its partisans so desperately desire, is that it often doesn’t pan out,” observes John Podhoretz, once of the Weekly Standard and now editor of Commentary, discussing a Washington Post hit job on Senator Marco Rubio. The writer, a Manuel Roig-Franzia, claimed that Rubio misled voters into thinking his parents fled Castro.
As it happens, he didn’t. The best evidence the reporter could offer is that Rubio once said they came to America in 1959 instead of 1956. As Podhoretz notes, this doesn’t help the reporter’s case, since Castro didn’t come to power until the last day of that year.
So what’s a newspaper to do? The reporter has spent all that time on the story, the editors have put in hours talking about it, the newspaper has spent thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands of dollars on expenses, not to mention the reporter’s salary, for a story that didn’t pan out. What they tend to do is run the best story they can, unfair as it may be, especially if the target is a conservative or a Republican.
There’s no real downside for the newspaper, even though the story “is irresponsible, unfair to the subject, and a betrayal of the reader who isn’t paying close enough attention to see how weak the story is. But in 2011, good or bad, fair or unfair, a hit job on Marco Rubio sure will generate lots and lots of Tweets. It will also generate more of the cynicism about journalism so many non-journalists feel, and heighten the disgust for liberal bias that animates so much conservative activism.”
As we said, there’s no real or at least no immediately tangible downside for the newspaper in publishing a story like this, since the growing reservations of the fair-minded will not affect sales or ads, not for a while, anyway. But it makes people more cynical than they already are—cynical about politicians, and cynical about newspapers—and cynicism corrodes the cynical, even when they have reason to be, and for that the Washington Post bears responsibility.
And not, to be fair, only the Washington Post and its ideological allies. The hysteria of some conservative groups—Obama is a Secret Muslim! And a Secret Socialist! Who wasn’t even born here!—has also done a lot to make people cynical about American political life.
• What do you do with the press, part two. “Birth control sharpens memory, study finds,” blared the headline on the Fox News website. Only the article itself reports the opposite. Women on the pill remember the broad story, women who aren’t remember the broad story, and the details.
Fox offers a sex column on its website and is, shall we say, invested in the sexual revolution and its necessary technology. We suspect some careless editor, dimly assuming that contraception is an uncomplicated good, seized upon the story the way an alcoholic seizes upon the latest report that wine is good for your heart. At some point they did change the headline, but only to the less inaccurate but lede burying “Can birth control affect your memory?”
• You could, we suspect, have heard a pin drop. The Rev. Brien Koehler, rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, was preaching about patience, forgiveness, faithfulness, the need to examine your life, all that stuff. It was a Sunday in early September and he turned to 9/11, noting that if we really thought about the children being aborted, “the national shock, grief, and reaction would be as solid, unified, and committed as was our national resolve after 9/11.”
And then he said:
I have been convicted by God about my own response to this for all the years that I have been ordained, at least up to today. For thirty-five years I’ve been a pro-life thinker. But for thirty-five years I’ve also accepted abortion as a given in America. It has, in popular thinking, become a matter of private behavior and decision, beyond scrutiny and beyond criticism. The truth is that it is as wrong today in the early twenty-first century as it was wrong in the first century. And I am sorry to say that this is the first time I’ve ever said so in a sermon.
• This artist’s paintings are sentimental rubbish, said one friend. And he’s a bad man, said another. The artist’s character doesn’t matter, countered a third, just his art, and offered Mark Twain as an example.
It’s an old question, the relation of an artist’s character to his art, and we would say that even if they’re not integral to each other, they’re not separable either. Twain was a bad man, yes, in some ways, but he was the same mixture of good and bad as the rest of us, and every other artist and writer who ever lived, including the saintly ones. Out of which part did his writing come, and wouldn’t that vary from work to work and even within the works—even, sometimes, within the same sentences? What was his drive to perfect his writing and craft but an expression of a real love of the good, though undoubtedly mixed with some idea of the practical benefits (fame, fortune) of writing well?
Which is not to ignore the benefits of holiness even to the artistic vocation. The better a man is, all other things being equal, the better an artist or writer he will be, because the better he is, the wiser he will be, the more accurately will he understand the world, the deeper will he see. Think of what we learn from the stories of Flannery O’Connor, a lesser writer than Twain, certainly, but one who knew something very important about the world he didn’t.
• In this month’s “Public Square,” the editor shares his reflections on the failure of the 9/11 Memorial to remember what it should remember. The famous architect Frank Gehry’s design for an Eisenhower Memorial on the Mall in Washington—featuring large screens surrounding a statue of Eisenhower as a barefoot boy—has stirred similar feelings.
At a recent public meeting, a man told Gehry that he thought the design represents “permanent winter,” and more pointedly, “death and nihilism.” The design, he said, is “a total rejection of the past and tradition and, honestly, of everything that Eisenhower himself stood for.” The audience applauded, but Gehry didn’t say anything.
The design may have some merit as an abstract form. There is something eerie and evocative about screening an outdoor space. But to the extent it is supposed to be a monument, it’s a monument to the vision of its designer, not the remarkable public service of its subject. It speaks more of Gehry’s “boldness” (and the “boldness” of those who approve the design) than of Eisenhower’s integrity and bravery.
• About half of American girls eleven to seventeen regularly watch “reality” TV, with another 30 percent watching it sometimes. And it’s (surprise!) bad for them, according to a study sponsored by the Girl Scout Research Institute. Thirty-eight percent of these girls think a girl’s value is based on how she looks, for example, compared with 28 percent of those who don’t watch reality television (and 28 percent is disturbing enough). Almost 40 percent of the first group but only 24 percent of the second group believe “you have to lie to get ahead” (and 24 percent is bad enough).
The reason we can guess. What you see, if you see it often enough, begins to feel normal—even if you start watching it because you think it’s not.
• In “The Enduring City,” his article in this issue, Wilfred McClay celebrates Jane Jacobs’ understanding of urban life in her classic work The Death and Life of American Cities. Not everyone has learned her lessons about man’s ability to create good neighborhoods naturally.
The government of New South Wales, for one. A classic “garden suburb” in Sydney, which sounds like a new urbanist ideal, is being changed forever by the state government’s imposition of high-rise apartments and businesses. The state government insists on changing the neighborhood because its planners believe in “a peculiar density ideology,” writes Joel Kotkin. This ideology insists that “everything from the necessities of economic competition to limited resources requires ‘cramming’ future populations in ever smaller spaces. It doesn’t matter that the population might object.”
In Australia, the state governments control most planning and have discouraged suburban growth—to the benefit, Kotkin notes, of developers (and presumably of the politicians whose campaigns they support) and the detriment of middle-class people, who now face some of the world’s highest housing prices. Higher, he notes, than an expensive American city like Seattle, and in a nation in which only 0.2 percent of the land is urbanized. In Sydney, the cost of a home relative to income has doubled in the last twenty years, from five years of a median income to almost ten.
One reason for favoring urban density over suburban spaciousness is that the suburbs are (so the planners believe) going to die. Suburban life can’t be sustained, for many reasons, from demographic changes to the end of cheap gas, which will force people to move into the city because they won’t be able to drive there. Why this requires wrecking the suburbs now is not clear. Plus it’s probably not true anyway.
A second reason is that (so the planners believe) urban life uses less energy than suburban life, because people walk instead of drive, etc. However, as Kotkin reports, researchers at the University of South Australia recently found that people in cities, “who travel, eat out more and consume more goods per capita, also consume more energy, once things like elevators and common areas are factored in, than the suburbanites living in townhouses or single-family homes.”
It may be that the enduring city requires an enduring suburb.
• Benedictine College has produced a list of America’s ten “Greatest Catholic Intellectuals,” and it is, we have to say, an odd list, and tilted to the present as such lists always are. No Alasdair MacIntyre or Antonin Scalia, just to name two enormously influential Catholic intellectuals writing now?
In any case, we are pleased to see that it includes not only our founder Richard John Neuhaus but four others closely associated with the magazine: Avery Dulles, George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, and Robert P. George.
• We hate euphemisms, when they’re ways of hiding a truth people don’t want to see or, more to the point, don’t want others to see. As many people have noted often enough, one of the signs that Americans are not nearly so pro-choice as the lifestyle left claims is the wide use of such verbal screens to hide from sight what the abortionist is actually doing. He says he terminates a pregnancy, not a child.
Wesley Smith recently wrote on his weblog Secondhand Smoke about hearing the speaker at a bioethics conference extolling “the virtue of ‘reducing’ triplets into twins, after IVF resulted in too many embryos implanting.” Wesley was not pleased. He was also the next speaker.
“The guy really had me seeing red,” he writes. “So, when my turn came, I went off script. ‘Selective reduction doesn’t turn triplets into ‘twins,’ I said. ‘It kills one of the three siblings. The remaining two are still triplets, only one is dead.’”
Speaking of babies, a friend writes wondering about the term “reproductive freedom.” If you’re looking for an abortion, she writes, haven’t you already reproduced?
• “We’ve moved past the Catholic issue thanks largely to that speech,” says the syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, praising John F. Kennedy’s famous speech—a.k.a. his capitulation—to the Southern Baptists in Houston in 1960. He goes on to endorse another Kennedy’s words on the same subject, making the same point: Edward Kennedy, speaking at Liberty Baptist College in 1983. “We must never,” Kennedy declared, “judge the fitness of individuals to govern on the basis of where they worship, whether they follow Christ or Moses, whether they are called ‘born again’ or ‘ungodly.’”
Well, yes, we would say, and no. It’s one thing to follow Christ or Moses (Christ having, you may remember, a certain relation to Moses). But there are other authorities whose claims we would question. The problem may not yet be a live one because nearly every American follows a religion whose moral beliefs don’t really conflict that much. Even on abortion, that most contentious issue, the pro-choice side generally holds to an idea of the good the pro-life people will recognize, while condemning the method by which it is to be achieved.
The question of religious freedom is one of the most difficult and delicate of questions in a pluralistic society, and the tide is currently running against it. But the way to defend religious freedom is not to pretend that religious commitments do not matter, and do not matter to our political life.
• This reminds us of one of the great passages from G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. In “The Crime of the Communist,” the urbane, worldly master of an Oxford college tells Father Brown that he prefers the old adage “For forms of faith let graceless zealots fight; he can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.” That can’t be true, Father Brown replies:
How can his life be in the right, if his whole view of life is wrong? That’s a modern muddle that arose because people didn’t know how much views of life can differ. Baptists and Methodists knew they didn’t differ very much in morality; but then they didn’t differ very much in religion or philosophy. It’s quite different when you pass from the Baptists to the Anabaptists; or from the Theosophists to the Thugs. Heresy always does affect morality, if it’s heretical enough. I suppose a man may honestly believe that thieving isn’t wrong. But what’s the good of saying that he honestly believes in dishonesty?
• The French poet and playwright Paul Claudel is, despite what many think unfortunate political views, still read “because of a rare quality: unflinching jubilance,” writes the poet Eric Ormsby in an essay on Claudel in the New Criterion. Claudel’s Catholicism, he writes, “enabled him to hold fast to his belief in an ultimate and enduring joy.”
This world, this life, were only the opening acts in a theatre of eternity. “Like everyone else,” he once wrote, “I will never die” (though he added wryly, “Death is a disagreeable formality but all its candidates are accepted”). There was nothing facile, nothing sloppy, in this firmly held faith; it demanded toughness of the mind. As a result, his characters, sinners as well as saints—the two aren’t always immediately distinguishable in his work—remain credible because each one stands in an aura of radiant obduracy.
“Radiant obduracy,” yes, there’s a fruit of the Spirit, or at least of the Faith.
• The basement looks very empty now, with the rows and rows of barren shelves. The Theological Book Network came by and removed Richard John Neuhaus’ library from the home in which he’d lived for thirty-some years. For a very good cause, we hasten to say: TBN will be distributing the library to theological libraries in the developing world, which otherwise would not have the books they need to train future priests and ministers. For information on TBN’s good work—once commended in these pages by Fr. Neuhaus himself—see theologicalbooknetwork.org.
• Readers of C. S. Lewis will want to know about the first, and as far as we know only, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to his writing. Sehnsucht is edited by Fuller Theological Seminary’s Grayson Carter and includes on its board scholars like Christopher Mitchell, director of Wheaton College’s Wade Collection, and Michael Ward, author of the groundbreaking Planet Narnia.
Recent issues have included essays comparing Lewis’ view of Scripture with Barth’s, and his view of suffering with Rousseau’s, and his conversion with C. E. M. Joad’s; discussing magic in the Narnia Chronicles; and explaining why Father Christmas appears in Narnia; as well as a host of book reviews. For more information, see wipfandstock.com/journal/sehnsucht.
The timing was probably unintentional, but still pleasing: The editor stood in Columbia University’s St. Paul Chapel to give the Thomas Merton Lecture twenty years after Fr. Richard John Neuhaus gave it. R. R. Reno’s lecture, titled “Loving the Law: What Christians Can Learn from Jews,” will be published in a future issue.
Sponsored by the Catholic Ministry at Columbia University, the lecture is given every October. Recent lecturers have included several other people from our circle, including Avery Dulles (twice), Michael Novak, George Weigel, Robert P. George, Stephen M. Barr, and Robert Louis Wilken.
One other thing: As it happens, Fr. Neuhaus preached often in the chapel. Twenty-three of his sermons can be heard at columbia.edu/cu/earl/ccm/resources_archive.html (go to the bottom of the page).
• And speaking of Fr. Neuhaus, as longtime readers will remember, he ended this part of the magazine with an appeal for your help in finding new readers. So, if you know people you think ought to be reading First Things, please send us their names and addresses. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 35 East 21st Street, New York, NY 10010. We are grateful for your help.
while we’re at it sources: Funeral going: thisibelieve.org/essay/8. Haitian funerals: Weekly Standard, March 1, 2010. Catholic funerals: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2300. Leftist religion: Revolution, August 28, 2011. Government failures: Weekly Standard, September 26, 2011. Press bias, part one: www.commentarymagazine.com, October 21, 2011. Fox’s headlines: foxnews.com, September 20, 2011. Gehry’s memorial: news.beloblog.com/ProJo_Blogs/architecturehereandthere, October 11, 2011. Unreal TV: blog.girlscouts.org, October 13, 2011. Australian planners: joelkotkin.com, October 18, 2011. Catholic intellectuals: thegregorian.org/blog, October 10, 2011. Smith contra euphemism: firstthings.com/blogs/secondhandsmoke, August 15, 2011. Thomas on religion: articles.baltimoresun.com, October 16, 2011. Claudel’s obduracy: New Criterion, September 2011.
wwai tips: Matthew Cantirino, Joe Carter, Gregory Laughlin, Kamilla Ludwig, Wilfred M. McClay, and Matthew Schmitz.