Friday, June 24, 2016

The pope's poverty of thought

A while back, returning from his papal trip to Mexico, Pope Francis took the opportunity to revisit his vision of the Church as a “Church of the poor.” Among other things, he declared that “poverty is the great teaching” of Jesus, and finished by saying, “How I wish that Christians could kneel in veneration when a poor person enters the church.” Setting aside for a moment the fact that Christians venerate no man save God, the pontiff’s words seem to me, for all the world, like a return to the quaint romantic notion of the “noble savage,” the primitive who achieves a kind of sanctity by virtue of his lack of contact with the outside world.

And if that is what he actually believes, then I think we have a problem.

I'm bothered by this automatic linking of poverty and piety. For all the injunctions which Christ made about taking care of the poor, he never promised that poverty alone would see someone into heaven. Likewise, does the pontiff really mean to suggest that any opportunity to improve oneself, to emerge from poverty and possibly become successful in business (thereby affording the opportunity to help others out of poverty) should be eschewed in favor of remaining poor? As Steve Moore, wrote in Forbes last year: “What is the theological case for telling those in the poorest villages of the planet where people still live at subsistence levels, that they have a moral obligation to save the planet by staying poor and using less fossil fuels, less energy and electricity?" Like Moore, I fail to see the connection.

When he used such glowing terms to speak of the poor, Francis said nothing new. One can go back centuries to the times of Peter Martyr, who wrote of those noble savages that “They seem to live in that golden world of which old writers speak so much, wherein men lived simply and innocently, without enforcement of laws, without quarreling, judges, or libels, content only to satisfy nature.” Montaigne, fueling the fires of such romantic rhetoric, proclaimed more than a half century later that “In my opinion, what we actually see in these nations not only surpasses all the pictures which the poets have drawn of the Golden Age, and all their inventions representing the then happy state of mankind, but also the conception and desire of philosophy itself.”

And yet we know that is wasn’t case, in Martyr’s time any more than it is our own, that the poor were living saints simply because of their poverty. The very Spanish who ran across the New World, upon discovering cannibals in the Caribbean, came to view these “noble savages” as “devils in the form of men” and, shocked, found it necessary to forcibly convert them. While there may be a certain spiritual strength to living without, particularly when doing so by choice rather than circumstance*, the vast majority of poor people see poverty as a burden to overcome, a state in life above which one should rise.

*It’s true, however, that “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” When poverty finds you, rather than the other way around, it can and does serve to focus the mind, often to great holy effect.

By elevating poverty to a kind of religious vocation, the pope threatens to deny the existence of Original Sin – in other words, he creates out of poverty a second Garden of Eden, linking not just prosperity but financial security itself with a type of corruption of the human soul. Keep in mind, however, that if evil arose out of the Garden of Eden, good likewise emerged, as Milton notes in the Areopagitica, saying “It was out of the rind of one apple tasted that good and evil leapt forth into the world, like two twins cleaving together.” Keep in mind, as one linguist pointed out, that Milton was fond of puns and wordplay, and that the word taste itself is a reference to the Latin word “Sapere,” which means both “to taste” and “to know.” Are we, therefore, to posit from this that the two words, taste and know, are fatefully intertwined, that the knowledge brought forth from the forbidden apple consisted of both good and evil?

Of course we know that Latin is not the pope’s strong suit; nevertheless to carry out this analogy to its logical conclusion – though I stress that this is merely one logical conclusion, not a definitive one – we have to view the poor, the residents of this second Garden, not as good untainted by evil, but as ciphers, neither good nor evil but blank canvases upon which both will be imprinted, as soon as knowledge of the world is experienced. Is this really the analogy which the pope wishes to create?

Perhaps it is. In lionizing the poor, the pope takes his cue from Rafael Tello, a fellow Argentine, one of the founders of “a theology of the people,” who in looking at their lives wrote of their culture as one which “is celebrated as a popular form of permanent resistance against the oppressive forces of modern development.”  When the pope declares that “poverty is the great teaching” of Jesus, he of necessity places them back in the Garden; as Catholic writer Maureen Mullarkey writes, “In this euphoric apparition, the pueblo—the indigenous poor—are a primal entity. Poverty retains a hint of Eden, and the poor are themselves agents of redemption for the developed world.”

The implications of this are manifest. Writes Mullarkey,

Bergoglio has internalized Tello’s ecstatic vision of the poor as the collective completion of the Passion of Christ. They are co-operators of salvation (Albado: “cooperadores de la salvación”) and, hence, a gift from God. Christianity provides a scaffold for sacralizing a mestizo variant of the Marxist proletariat. Theology of the people blends class struggle and mysticism in the time-honored language of gospel concern for the poor.

Mullarkey shrewdly sees problems with this. “What is new in this mystique of the pueblo is its other-worldly intoxication with poverty, as if material deprivation conferred holiness.” [Emphasis mine] Not only are the poor burdened with having to redeem the fallen world, “[they] are revered insofar as they play the role of the People, actors in a paternalistic drama directed by marxisant superiors inclined to interpret affluence as a signal of moral defect.”

I like the phrase that she uses, the idea that “material deprivation conferred holiness.” No, it does not. Faith and the acting out of faith through living a spiritual life, performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, as well as willingly uniting one’s life and suffering to that of Christ, confers holiness. To equate holiness with poverty, especially when that poverty is something into which they’re borne, gives them a status based on something over which they have no control. You might even think of it as some kind of “unearned privilege” since they did nothing to achieve it, other than continue to remain poor. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?

I mentioned earlier this tricky bit about venerating people. This idea of playing favorites, as it were, is not just distasteful, it really runs contrary to God’s own character. The Old Testament provides an abundance of evidence to the contrary, particularly when it concerns the poor. Leviticus 19:15 teaches, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” Exodus 23:3 likewise commands, “Do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.” In other words, justice should be blind, and both rich and poor should be treated equally before the law.

James says in 2:4 warns, “Aren’t you discriminating against people and using a corrupt standard to make judgments?” While his warning applies specifically to favoring the rich over the poor (and is often stressed by today’s socially relevant Church), the opposite must be true as well, for Paul tells the Romans in 2:11 that “God does not show favoritism,” and again in Ephesians 6:9 says that “There is no favoritism with him.” Finally, Colossians 3:25 teaches God’s fairness in judgment: “Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.”

What are we to take from all this? While James in 2:5 continues, “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” this is, as one commentary points out, “likely an allusion to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount or Plain (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20). The poor are not inheriting the kingdom because they are better people than the rich, but because they put their trust in God. [Emphasis mine] Lacking the means to depend on themselves, or to curry favor with the rich, they have learned to depend on God.” And that’s it in a nutshell: what makes the poor the favored of God is not their poverty in and of itself, but their subsequent choice to put their trust not in the material goods of the world, but in God.

While the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, containing both good and evil, stained man irrevocably, but God did not fail to provide a solace. It is in the province of man, through free will, to use that knowledge, ill-gotten though it may have been, for the greater glory of God, by cooperation with Him in His grand design. From this divine partnership (if one can call it that) many great things have emerged. Someone, I don’t remember who, wrote once that we do not help the poor out of our own volition, but because Christ commands us to do it. James, in particular, demonstrates that good works are made possible by faith in Christ. It was part of His mission; therefore, it is part of ours as well. And it is that, as imitators of Christ – not by the mere fact of being born into the indigenous poor – which leads us to holiness and salvation.

Whittaker Chambers points out in his devastating review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that “if Man’s heroism (some will prefer to say: human dignity) no longer derives from God, or is not a function of that godless integrity which was a root of Nietzsche’s anguish, then Man becomes merely the most consuming of animals, with glut as the condition of his happiness and its replenishment his foremost activity.” If capitalism lacks a moral foundation, it becomes just another –ism. And so it is with the poor as well. True poverty does not qualify one as a saint, although it may well make one a saint. Likewise, true wealth cannot be measured with the Sign of the Dollar, but the Sign of the Cross.

Is it too much to draw from all this that wealth and poverty are themselves merely measuring devices of the world, and that the total draining of self to God – in other words, the self-induced poverty of everything save God – is what leads to salvation? If so, then Pope Francis ought perhaps to examine his thoughts more carefully. Remember, God judges all equally – does that not extend to the thoughts of popes as well?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Understanding the populist appeal of Donald Trump

Sometimes you find insight in the strangest places.

A lot of people, Rod Dreher foremost among them, have been trying to figure out and/or explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump: how he got to be a serious presidential candidate, why voters cast their lot with him despite his often contradictory messages, how he continues to confound the pundits despite his non-conformity with the conventional political wisdom.

Well, it just so happens I was perusing a potential addition to the Hadley Library the other day. It's a book called Reelpolitik II: Political Ideologies in '50s and '60s Films, by Beverly Merrill Kelley. (And before you ask, there is a Reelpolitik I, which covers the same topic in films of the '30s and '40s.) Despite the somewhat daunting title, Reelpolitik II is a readable, intellectually accessible look at how various political ideologies are displayed in eight movies of the era, from the Sam Fuller-directed The Steel Helmet (1951) to John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968), with several stops along the way.

One of those stops is in a city that serves as a thinly-disguised version of Boston, setting for the 1958 classic The Last Hurrah, directed by John Ford and starring Spencer Tracy as a big-city mayor, a veteran of the old school of politics, running for reelection for the last time. One of the best things about Kelley's book is that she takes the time to explain both the political context of each ideology - in this case populism - and the ways in which it relates to the movie, both on- and off-screen.

She starts with an account of how the seeds of populism can be traced as far back as Thomas Jefferson, who in 1824 wrote Henry Lee that "Men are naturally divided into two parties: (1) those who fear and distrust the people . . . [and] (2) those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe." Populism perhaps reached its peak in the 1890s with the presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, campaigns which took place in a time of "Rampant materialism, bottom-line morality, government corruption, and a total void in environmental responsibility" (sound familiar?), but can be seen in presidents such as Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln. The key to populism, Kelley writes, is in understanding that "prosperity percolates up from the bottom, as opposed to trickling down from the top."

Citing the ambiguity of the populist movement, Kelley then segues into a discussion of the films of three populist directors: Frank Capra, King Vidor, and John Ford. By showing how numerous biographers have either misunderstood or misidentified the political content emanating from these directors, Kelley makes several key points about populism that go a long way to explaining how we got to where we are in our present situation. For even though Trump has often said he is not a populist, it is the most compelling way in which we can analyze his rise.

First, both liberals and conservatives identify with populism. Conservatives find themselves attracted to populism's emphasis on order and tradition, and a hierarchical power structure that "not only is the most logical way to organize the world, but [also] reflects the design of the Creator and for the past ten millennia has proven the most effective means of governing." On the other hand, liberals identify with populism's acknowledgement of the need for reform, lest the common man exist as little more than "the understructure for those residing on Easy Street." Says Kelley, "They are willing to start at the bottom, but they also want to be assured of the chance to end up at the top."

Not surprisingly, given the appeal of populism to people of various ideological bents, "Populist politicians have a devil of a time bringing together such seemingly irreconcilable extremes," and in applying this analysis to Donald Trump's campaign, one can see how extraordinary a task he has accomplished in assembling such a diverse coalition of support. Nonetheless, despite the challenges, Kelley maintains that every president dating back to FDR, whether or not his personal story is that of a populist, has had to find a way to harness aspects of the populist strain in order to win election. Even FDR and JFK, who were themselves hardly populists, understood the necessity of appealing to populist nature. In the case of Kennedy, this task was helped by the birth of television as a campaign tool, allowing him to come into the homes of each American and present himself as a "man of the people." As Kennedy himself summed up in Profiles in Courage, "the true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people." It was that appeal, to (as one pundit put it) "man's better nature," that blended idealism and populism to serve as the foundation of Kennedy's New Frontier.

Conservatives who support Trump based on his attacks against the do-nothing Republican elites are often challenged by their man's support of particular welfare programs - but we shouldn't be surprised by that. Trump indeed is not looking to dismantle the welfare state, and why should he, for he simply speaks in true populist fashion. James Michael Curley, the real-life Boston mayor who was the model for The Last Hurrah's Frank Skeffington (played by Spencer Tracy), once cautioned that a politician should "always remember, for the person who comes to you [seeking help], that favor is the most important thing in the world. If he could take care of it himself, he wouldn't be coming to see you." The unholy alliance of Big Politics and Big Business, Trump asserts, is designed to line the pockets of the rich at the expense of the little guy - no wonder, then, that Trump does not include "Big Government" as one of the evils. Make it more efficient, make it more streamlined, but you're never going to be able to get rid of it as long as you have a system that puts the squeeze on the working class.

Liberals contend a man like Trump, with his wealth and power, can hardly be a man of the people, but here again we're playing on a different field. With the advent of television, Kelley says, "Image became more important than issues, and any candidate with a stuffed-to-the-seams war chest and the right political consultant could pass himself off as just about anything he wanted on TV." Certainly we live in an era when campaigns are basically made-for-TV affairs, and with that Trump has been able to massage his image to that of someone speaking for the disenfranchised. Regardless of the reality of the situation, whether or not Trump's positions would really solve anything, hardly matters. It is the TV image that counts, and Trump (who likely serves as his own political consultant) knows what to do.

So far we've looked at how populism draws from both liberal and conservative pools of support, something which Trump has certainly done. We know that the successful politician has to tap into this populism, again something at which Trump has succeeded. Does that mean that Trump is simply a demagogue, one who feeds on unfocused anger? Not really, once we look at just what it is that populism focuses on. According to Kelly, populism expresses "free-floating resentment of power, dug-in distrust of major institutions, and an impotent sense of personal alienation." Populists "burn for simple fairness, for a Sodom-and-Gomorra-like cleansing of the country's morals and a return to the innate wisdom of, by, and for the people." Further, we'll combine this with what Kelley sees as the three key points to modern populism: antiintellectualism, antimaterialism, and antimedia. If all this sounds to you like the themes upon which Trump's campaign is based, I think you'd be right.

Trump's critics might use "antiintellectualism" as a disparaging term to describe the relative lack of intelligence of Trump supporters, but this would miss the point altogether. The resentment of power and distrust of major institutions to which Kelley refers reflects the anger people feel at the inability, if not downright incompetence, of the "elite" which run such institutions and hold powerful positions in business and government. They may be at the top of their class, the smartest men and women in the room, Trump argues, and look where it's gotten you. Do you feel that the leadership provided by these people has made your life better, given you a better chance to succeed? (At this point, the answer is usually a deafening "NO!") These people think they're better than you, Trump says, but they aren't. Trump offers himself as an outsider, one who can come in and clean up the mistakes of the experts precisely because he isn't an expert in politics, and he isn't beholden to special interests in ways that they are. Now, this may or may not be true, but for our purposes that doesn't matter - what does is the message, and why it appeals. Truman once spoke out against "big-brass fancy hats," State Department "striped pants boys," and "fuddy-duddies." Update the lingo a bit, and these could be the very words coming from Trump's mouth.

Likewise, "antimaterialism." This may seem confusing, coming as it does from a successful businessman whose life seems to cry out excess, but again think about it for a moment. In arguing for tariffs, for limits on immigration, for policies that most corporate elites argue would result in higher prices, Trump's message implicitly attacks materialism. I don't care if Japanese cars are more affordable, it doesn't matter if outsourcing those manufacturing jobs means lower prices, the argument goes. What it does is detract from the greatness of America, from the ability of American workers to produce American goods to be purchased and used by American consumers. True or false, it contains an internal logic that incorporates the populist refrain.

Of course, antimedia has to be part of a populist message, and here Trump easily strikes a chord with his (frequently accurate) attacks on the mainstream media, which he sees as advancing their own agenda to the detriment of the country (in Fox's case) or telling outright lies about what goes on (the Washington Post, for example). This is an easy attack, since so many of the media elites also belong in the intellectual classification, and so by the time populists get around to considering them, they've already got at least one strike against them. Never mind that the same media which Trump excoriates is oftentimes responsible for providing the very coverage that has helped catapult Trump to the top of the Republican party; the message resounds with a large segment of the public.

Given all this, and this is just a small examination of Kelley's premise, which is itself a small survey of populism overall, should anyone be surprised at Trump's rise? He is the larger-than-life hero of his own story, but when one looks at movies like The Fountainhead, one sees just such heroes. Pundits chuckle at the contradictions in Trump's message, but considering the contradictory sources of populism's appeal, that shouldn't be a surprise.

There's one particular paragraph in Kelley's book (and keep in mind this is simply an introduction to discussion of The Last Hurrah so the reader can understand where the movie's coming from) that best describes the world we seem to live in, one with rules made by "ivy tower dwellers and subsequently employed by industry captains to justify 'the survival of the [economic] fittest.'"

Much as in the post-Enron culture of today, corporations had lost sight of ethics and commercial citizenship. They had forgotten that, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, they had been granted charters only if they promoted the public welfare. It didn't take long for avaricious businessmen to strike mutually beneficial deals with needy/greedy individual states. Promoters no longer had to prove their ventures advanced public welfare. The only obligation assumed by these corporations was to themselves, the only responsibility was to turn money into money. The rich ended up getting richer and the promise of a better life for all remained mostly unfulfilled.

That's the world that Donald Trump talks to, and the people who feel its effects are the ones who line up to vote for him. That Trump himself might be one of the "avaricious businessmen" makes no real difference; he's the unlikely man who speaks the message that the populists want and need to hear, and as history has shown time and time again, such messages often come from the most unlikely messengers. That we fail to understand history, that we ignore the past, is the only reason we can constantly be surprised by the present.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday Flashback: The role of hate

What with everything that's been going on this week, I thought the choice of this week's Friday Flashback would be an appropriate one, even though it's almost ten years old and most of the sources cited are ones I no longer follow. It shows, among other things, that tragedy is a constant in life, and that the emotions it produces are ancient and never-changing.

One of the more interesting issues raised by the Amish killings this week is the proper role of anger (or, more precisely, hatred) when reacting to this horror, as illustrated in a fascinating exchange in NRO's The Corner. Unfortunately, I think this is something that raises more questions than answers, so don't expect much in the way of definitive conclusions from me.

It actually begins outside The Corner, with Rod Dreher's comments about the now-famous grandfather of one of the victims, urging others "not to hate" the killer. Dreher describes himself as one who is not at the level of forgiveness exhibited by the grandfather but, "Please God, make me into the sort of man who could."

NRO's John Podhoretz picks up on this and starts the discussion. Podhoretz is a self-described "moderately observant Jew," which I note not as some kind of neocon jag (this isn't The Wanderer or New Oxford Review, after all) but as a background to the moral footing from which he comes. Podhoretz notes that while

I can certainly see the beauty and the moral seriousness that would follow from attempting to hew as closely as possible to Christ's example of unconditional love and forgiveness. All the same, this story disturbs me deeply — because there can be no question that anger can be as righteous as forgiveness. I'm not sure I would want to be someone who succeeded in rising above hatred of those who murder children.

I suspect this is a comment that most of us can identify with. Like Dreher, we fall short of such an elevated level of forgiveness, and like Podhoretz we share a concern as to whether we really should aspire to that level. So, agree with Podhoretz or not, we know where he's coming from.

John Derbyshire next chimes in on the discussion:

Back in the Bronze Age, when folk knew what was what, Hate—personified as the goddess Eris (after whom we have just named a new Solar System object)—played a key role in civilizational survival. . . Christian meekness certainly has its place in human affairs. So does Homeric ferocity.

As Derb elicidates in a further post, he does not mean to suggest that we should emulate everything from the Bronze Age (female slavery, for example). But, he adds, "I do believe it is foolish to attempt to deny essential human nature, of which the propensity to hate those who wrong us is an invariant component, today just as much as in the Bronze Age." And he concludes, in what I think is the most relevant sentence in the discussion,

A civilization that can't summon up some pretty widespread hatred for a man who lines up little girs and shoots them in their heads, after having been foiled in an attempt to molest them, is a civilization with a spring broken somewhere.

No question that hatred has been around for a long time, and is an essential part of human nature. But did Christ come to us to transcend those motivations which drove us in the past, and in the process to transform us from our baser human nature to a higher level of understanding and love? You could get a headache just thinking it over.

Some of Derb's loyal readers did think it over, and came up with more compelling thoughts. One, citing Piper's The Four Cardinal Virtues, offers this analysis:

You will find, under 'Temperance,' a discussion of The Power Of Wrath. It focuses on, among other things, a question that Aquinas asks in De Malo (On Evil) 'whether all wrath is evil?' Later on, Pieper continues: 'Lack of sensuality is not chastity; and incapacity for wrath has nothing to do with gentleness. Such incapacity not only is not a virtue, but, as St Thomas says, a fault: peccatum and vitium. ... Only the combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and
fall."

Podhoretz returns to the discussion with a link to a thoughtful story from First Things by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, on the different ways in which Christians and Jews view the role of hatred. Soloveichik, in recounting the story of Saul's hesitation in killing Agag, looks at the mischief performed by Agag, and sees in it a lesson similar to that noted by Derb's correspondent:

The message is that hate allows us to keep our guard up, to protect us. When we are facing those who seek nothing but our destruction, our hate reminds us who we are dealing with. When hate is appropriate, then it is not only virtuous, but essential for Jewish well–being.

Rabbi Soloveichik may be referring specifically to the survival of Israel in the Middle East tinderbox, but certainly in its broader sense he poses a question we all have to deal with, the same one that Podhoretz raises: what is the role of hate?

We dismiss the idea of vengeance as a suitable motivation for our actions (unless, of course, you're Mickey Spillane.) Indeed, those who defend capital punishment (as I do) often take pains to emphasize that the vengeance sought is not a desire to "settle the score" with the condemned on a personal level, but rather to express the collective outrage of the society toward the reprehensible actions which the condemned has taken. In doing so, we return once again to the concept of righteous anger, as a good and proper motivation for the actions of the state. It emphasizes the idea that intent is a key part of the discussion - that we must avoid the idea of the right action being taken for the wrong reason. Life often insists that we do things which we may find distasteful or unpleasant, but that when we do so our motives, as always, must be pure.

It has been argued, from the pulpit and elsewhere, that the Christian duty to forgive is tempered somewhat by the need for the accused to seek forgiveness. Such forgiveness, when accompanied by true contrition and remorse, demands our forgiveness as a just and proper response. But what happens when, as is the case in the Amish killings (and in so many other cases in our modern world) those conditions are not met? Soloveichik cites C.S. Lewis, who "detested" the idea that one could be eternally damned, "yet anyone who refuses to submit to salvation cannot ultimately be saved." Therefore, is our granting of forgiveness to one who does not seek it a sign of true charity, or a mocking of God's laws? And if it be the later, than what are we to do?

Maybe the closest thing we can come to in the form of an answer to these questions lies in another of the comments from the Amish community. In one of Get Religion's many fine pieces on the story, Mollie quotes a carpenter who offered, for my money, the most touching quote of the week: “I wish someone could have helped him out, poor soul. It’s obvious that something was troubling him.”

In his article, Rabbi Soloveichik returns to a quote from C.S. Lewis: “Christian charity,” he stresses, “counsels us to make every effort for the conversion of such a man: to prefer his conversion, at the peril of our own lives, perhaps of our own souls, to his punishment; to prefer it infinitely.” While we acknowledge the existence of Hell, we pray that all might be spared, even those for whom Hell appears a certainty.

In His last moments on the Cross, Christ forgave the Good Thief; He did not, however, spare his mortal life. The punishment, the thief noted, was a just one. And so perhaps hatred and vengeance are the wrong words to use after all, for they imply something eternal, unchangeable, irredeemible. Maybe anger was the right word, for in our righteous anger can be a just emotion, a display of God's justice and laws, much as the anger Christ displayed toward the moneychangers in the Temple. As the maxim goes, hate the sin, love the sinner. Our anger over the sinner's actions unites with our love for the sinner in a prayer for the sinner's repentance and redemption. And so we pray for the strength to forgive those who seek it; we pray for the conversation and salvation of the wicked; we pray for the fortitude to confront evil in a moral and just way. For us, prayer is the only answer to an issue that appears to offer only questions. If we're willing to accept it, most likely, it is enough.

Originally published October 6, 2006

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Divided we survive?

This is perhaps the most optimistic thing I've read in weeks. From Terry Teachout (H/T Rod Dreher):

Never before have I felt so strongly that Americans are talking past instead of to one another. It is, I fear, our future and our fate—which is why I have come to believe that I will live to see Red and Blue America negotiate a “soft disunion.” No, there won’t be a second civil war. I can’t imagine the citizens of Blue America waging a shooting war over much of anything, least of all continued union with people whom they disdain. (Red America is a different story.) But the gap that separates the two Americas has grown so deep and wide that I find it increasingly difficult to imagine their caring to function as a single nation for very much longer. If I’m right, then I expect that they will ultimately find a more or less polite way to stop doing so.

The main obstacle that stands in the way of the soft disunion of America is that Red and Blue America are not geographically disjunct, as were the North and South in the Civil War. Even in the biggest and reddest of states, there are deep-blue enclaves that have no wish to be absorbed into the whole. Perhaps they will be the West Berlins of the twenty-first century, tiny islands of dissent in vast seas of concord. But if the desire to separate is strong enough, then the problem will surely be solved one way or another. Abraham Lincoln said it: “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.” And so we may, sundered by inattention.

Teachout says this with regret, and Dreher is inclined to agree, but I see this as very hopeful. For the first time in quite a while, I see a possible way out of the disastrous collapse into which this country has fallen, destined to end with its inevitable end. I've felt for some time that a confrontation was inevitable, one that might end in Civil War (armed or unarmed), with the winner taking all. I used to think that, because of my age, I'd be unlikely to have to go through this, but in a remarkably short period of time I've come to see it as Teachout does, that it will happen in my lifetime, and it's been a sobering realization.

This way of thinking about the future changes things. Rather than living under an increasingly repressive government, one which feels no compunction about murdering its unborn, euthanizing its seniors (either outright or through rationed healthcare), not just legalizing but imposing the acceptance of unnatural acts on its population (with harsh punishment for those who don't go along) and crushing any semblance of religious freedom - if you're telling me there's a way out of this, even if it entails the dissolution of the formerly United States of America - all of a sudden, I can see a light at the end of the tunnel that isn't an oncoming train.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The "Country Music Television" Awards? Sorry, it was just more MTV raunch

It's well known that I am not a fan of MTV.  A close friend of mine from college had a cousin who was a CBS executive at its now-defunct Charlotte office when MTV Networks took over CBS cable operations and shut down that office.  I've also heard stories of the demise of the network's Nashville offices as their Nashville-oriented cable networks were surrendered to MTV and reassigned.  I knew something was fishy, but in light of last week's complaints about the CMT Music Awards, it proved correct what I had thought was the evils of MTV.

Like the College Football Playoff and even the NCAA Final Four and Championship Game, which have moved to pay television, the CMT Music Awards, in an effort to spin the ratings of a reduced audience thanks to pay television, aired on multiple different channels in their family.  In this case, the CMT Music Awards aired on various MTV channels, and I noticed at least three channels in MTV's group aired it (and they were not country music-related channels either).  The primary complaint appeared after Hispanic hip-hop star Armando "Pitbull" Pérez performed with dancers at Bridgestone Arena (above) in a routine that was a bit on the questionable side.   But this was normal for him, considering what I've learned since a 2009 dance performance by our adult jazz team that used one of his ditties that I later uncovered used automotive metaphors to refer to a certain part of a woman's body (and had the imagery of public indecency).  Later, another pop group from a short-lived US version of a British pop music programme (lasted only two seasons) performed.

This event displayed how MTV was making the CMT brand theirs since 2000 (read the first paragraph;  they also began developing what we know as Spike now, and I have never watched the modern Spike save for one a few minutes of the 2004 Long Beach Champ Car (fka CART) event that showed Bob Jenkins wasn't worth being on MTV;  he was tossed two events into the CART Champ Car season for a series in a deal that was split with HDNet for high-definition that eventually the owners gave up on MTV, one of the big mistakes that led to its demise in the later years of what Robin Miller calls The Split;  all of the video of the MTV broadcasts (and the 1998 Pep Boys IRL events on the former Nashville Network that MTV shut down to create Spike eventually, now belong to INDYCAR, and all of the former CBS/Ed Gaylord The Nashville Network NASCAR archives now belong to NASCAR Broadcasting), nothing more than an MTV light was evidenced by the announcement they were picking up a Lionsgate Entertainment and Disney series that ABC did not renew with a new season that will likely be even raunchier, coming even closer to TV-MA (the equivalent of an X rating in the movies) because MTV can go TV-MA, which ABC cannot because of broadcast decency standards. This awards show seemingly was a "MTV VMA Light," though it will probably never reach that level of sending people to the Oval Office.

The CMT Music Awards performance featuring Mr. Pérez was nothing short of pushing MTV's inappropriate styles on country music fans, and is another part of MTV's control of music that in a more serious way is why we are seeing inappropriate music and messages to children, meanwhile, the great masterworks of classical music, sacred song, and opera are being ignored.  MTV's control of popular music has led to such inappropriate acts such as Mr. Pérez and other questionable pop stars. It proves the point if you give MTV anything, they will make things worse.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Gordie Howe, R.I.P.

Mr. Hockey. Has there ever been a greater nickname in sports than that? I mean, The Great One is not bad, and there was The Bambino, and Wilt the Stilt, and Johnny U. Mention those nicknames, and immediately any sports fan will know who you're talking about. But those names all referred to the individual, as a diminution of the name or an emphasis on a particular trait or a play on words.

Mr. Hockey was different, in that the name was outward-looking rather than inward. It concentrated not on the individual but on the sport itself, and how it could be summed up in that one person. And for seven decades, nobody summed up hockey quite like Gordie Howe.

As CNN said today, Gordie Howe was "an iconic name that a casual and non-hockey fan would know," and for a sport that has always had niche status in the United States (except for cities that had hockey teams, and even there it was often a niche sport), that's saying something.

You don't get a name like "Mr. Hockey" for nothing, and Howe came by that name honestly. When he retired the first time, after 25 seasons playing what has always been a young man's sport, he was the all-time leader in goals, assists, points, and games played, and he'd already been venerated several times over. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and then came out of retirement to play with his two sons in the World Hockey Association, where he played for seven more seasons, finally retiring for good at the age of 52.*

*Although he did play one game for the minor league Detroit Vipers in 1997, when he was 69.

If statistics told the whole story, then he might well have been known simply as the greatest hockey player of all time, but his impact went beyond that. Just as Arnold Palmer had a drink named after him, Howe was honored with what was known as the "Gordie Howe hat trick," in which during the course of a game a player scored a goal, was credited with an assist, and received a penalty for fighting. Unlike many great goal scorers, Howe was not a lightweight, and didn't need a teammate to serve as his protector - his fists and elbows provided their own protection. A player once described his fists landing on an opponent as like chopping wood.

So he was a talented player, no question. If you only looked at what he did on the ice, you might have understood why he was held in such high regard. His greatness didn't end when he stepped off the ice, though. He was a gentleman to the fans, always pausing to sign autographs (a thousand an hour*), never thinking that the game owed him something, but hat it was he who owed the game everything. His dry wit was legendary; today the Detroit Free Press recalls how he used to tell French Canadian audiences that he was bilingual: "English and profanity." He lived most of his life in Michigan; with his wife Colleen, who was also his "agent, promoter and business partner," the Howes were indeed the First Family of hockey, which lasted until Colleen's death. You continually hear the words "modest," "unassuming," "a regular guy," when people talk about him. Children idolized him, and they retained that sense of awe and wonder when they became adults. He was a part of the city, a part of the fabric of Detroit.

*Another tribute: someone quipped that Gordie Howe autographs weren't that valuable, because he signed so many of them. You can't say that of very many athletes.

Some have mentioned how Howe helped retard the formation of the players union in the 1950s, reluctant to become involved because of his fear of offending Jack Adams, the Red Wings owner, with whom Howe was said to have something of a father-son relationship. Had Howe signed on to the union, it would almost certainly have had instant credibility. As it was, by the time the union did take root, many years later, the result was that salaries of hockey players were substantially lower than those in other sports, and Howe was by some estimates the lowest-paid superstar ever in sports. As the Free Press mentioned, the fact that he was not the most hated player in hockey because of his refusal to get involved is quite a testimony in and of itself.

Many years ago, there was a foolish poll in The Hockey News that had Gordie Howe as the third-greatest hockey player of all time, behind only Wayne Gretzky ("The Great One") and the legendary Bobby Orr. Both Gretzky and Orr voiced their opinions that Howe should have been number one, and while you might think, "what else could they say?" there's no evidence they had to stretch the truth to describe the way they felt. Both Gretzky and Orr revolutionized the sport, no question about it. But
Gordie Howe was a man who transcended it; Gretzky chose number 99 in tribute to Howe's 9. The Free Press relates how in Quebec City, "owners of a bar called GH 9 assumed the name required no explanation." His image and statistics appeared in a memorable episode of The Simpsons. They, too, knew people would recognize the name.* When his number was retired by the Red Wings in 1972, Vice President Spiro Agnew was in attendance.

*According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the producers first tried to use Johnny Unitas' image, but were unable to get them for free. I don't know this for a fact, but it's easy to imagine Howe asking himself if having his face appear in The Simpsons would help or hurt hockey, then concluding that the publicity could only help the game.

Although I've been a hockey fan most of my life, one of my great regrets is that I never got to see Howe play in person; the one time I had tickets to see the Red Wings play the hometown Minnesota North Stars, Howe was injured and did not play. I saw him countless times on TV, of course, even though the bulk of his career had taken place before I was born. No matter; by the time I started reading about the sport, Howe was already "Mr. Hockey."

In 2014 Howe, already suffering from dementia, had a massive stroke, and the end appeared near, but he began to rally after a controversial stem-cell treatment. The point is not to analyze whether or not the treatment did what was advertised - it's that one immediately had the thought that if anyone could defy the odds, it was him.

Today, time caught up, and Mr. Hockey passed away at the age of 88, with his family surrounding him. When John Wayne died, a newspaper headline in Japan read, "Mr. America is Dead," and everyone knew who they were referring to. Today, the headlines read "Mr. Hockey is Dead," and everyone knows who they're referring to. His legacy, however, will live on until there's nothing and nowhere left to live.

Mr. Hockey is dead, long live Mr. Hockey.

UPDATE: The Ringer's Katie Baker has this wonderful retrospective on why Gordie Howe was bigger than life, even during his lifetime.

Desmond Doss: WWII conscientious objector, Medal of Honor winner

DESMOND DOSS IS PRESENTED WITH THE MEDAL OF HONOR BY PRESIDENT HARRY S TRUMAN
To end this week, when there has been so much talk about Muhammad Ali and his place in history, I thought it might be nice to spend a few minutes on Desmond Doss, a man who ought to be known far more than he is. Perhaps he is; I was not familiar with him before today, when I read that Mel Gibson was directing a movie about him, and I consider myself a fairly well-read man, but maybe most people have heard of him and I've had my head in a hole or something.

Pfc Desmond Doss served as a medic in World War II. He was a conscientious objector, due to his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, but he did not refuse induction, nor did he spend the war behind a desk. In 1945, he was involved in the battle for Okinawa, one of the most brutal actions in the Pacific Theater. By the time it was all over, Doss had earned two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, as well as the Congressional Medal of Honor - the first time the Medal of Honor had ever been awarded to a conscientious objector. At this point, I think it's helpful to look at the citation that accompanied the award:

He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them 1 by 1 to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards of enemy forces in a cave's mouth, where he dressed his comrades' wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. On 21 May, in a night attack on high ground near Shuri, he remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover, fearlessly risking the chance that he would be mistaken for an infiltrating Japanese and giving aid to the injured until he was himself seriously wounded in the legs by the explosion of a grenade. Rather than call another aid man from cover, he cared for his own injuries and waited 5 hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to cover. The trio was caught in an enemy tank attack and Pfc. Doss, seeing a more critically wounded man nearby, crawled off the litter; and directed the bearers to give their first attention to the other man. Awaiting the litter bearers' return, he was again struck, this time suffering a compound fracture of 1 arm. With magnificent fortitude he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station. Through his outstanding bravery and unflinching determination in the face of desperately dangerous conditions Pfc. Doss saved the lives of many soldiers. His name became a symbol throughout the 77th Infantry Division for outstanding gallantry far above and beyond the call of duty.

Incredible, isn't it? Doss was discharged from the Army in 1946 and spent five years undergoing medical treatment for those injuries.

What this shows? Two things: first, Desmond Doss was a true hero, one who acted selflessly and with great courage. It's not reasonable to assume there are very many like him, or else everyone who served in the military would have the Medal of Honor. Second, You don't need to take up a weapon to be a hero. You don't need to kill your enemy to demonstrate your bravery. You don't have to shun military service altogether to be true to your beliefs.

So as you read the countless articles and listen to all the words spilled out in praise of Muhammad Ali, I thought it might be nice to remember men like Desmond Doss as well. Conscientious objector, Medal of Honor awardee, American hero.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Muhammad Ali, aka Cassius Clay, R.I.P.

It has been said that there is never a second chance to make a first impression. My first impression of Muhammad Ali was a negative one, and for the most part it has been the impression that has remained with me ever since.

The picture above is from "The Fight of the Century," March 8, 1971. It is the 15th and final round of the epic battle, and Joe Frazier, in the green trunks, is headed for his corner after having knocked Ali down, while referee Arthur Mercante prepares the count. Ali got up well before the 10-count, to no avail; the knockdown was the icing on the cake of a unanimous decision for Frazier, the winner and still champion. It was Frazier, the champ, who was the fighter with something to prove that night. Ali, as was his wont, had well and truly overshadowed him in the buildup to the bout, and because of the circumstances surrounding Ali's loss of the crown and Frazier's subsequent ascendancy to the throne, there were many who would not accept him as the real champion until he defeated Ali in the ring.

That fight seemed a true battle of good vs. evil, with a polarized America choosing sides between Frazier, the hard-working everyman who was either modest and unassuming or a tool of "The Man" taking on Ali, who - depending on who you listened to - was either an American-hating radical or a man who spoke truth on an unjust war. And believe me, everyone took sides. I may or may not have a TV Guide somewhere that has my mother's writing on it; she had kept score of the fight as we listed to round-by-round recaps on the radio (there was no home television), marking an "F" for Frazier, a "C" for Clay, whose conversion she never really bought. The Madison Square Garden crowd, which had started out chanting "Ali, Ali!" at the beginning, was shouting "Joe, Joe!" as the courageous Frazier won a brutal fight. Ali had lost, and there were many, many Americans who were glad. And then things began to change, and someone who was alive in the late '60s and remembered what was going on might find it just a bit ironic. For although Fitzgerald famously said there were no second acts in America, Muhammad Ali enjoyed a second act that not only defies precedent, it almost defies explanation.

Back when it all started, when this brash young man was called Cassius Clay, he had something going for him. He'd won a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, and as a pro he offered a style that was unique in boxing, that of the dancer with the quick hands. It wasn't unprecedented, but he was better at it than most. His shtick was something you either loved or hated - he liked to talk, and was good at it; he was called a "loudmouth" (such a charming, innocent phrase back then) who enjoyed predicting when his opponents would fall, often in bad verse.  Eventually, he worked his way up to a title shot against the champ, Sonny Liston, a thug and mob enforcer, one who had hardly endeared himself to the sporting public, but he seemed unbeatable nonetheless. Clay's victory was one of the great boxing upsets, and his youthful effervescence was seen by many as a breath of fresh air in a sport that for too long had been shrouded in corruption and cigar smoke.

Following that first fight, Clay announced that he would be changing his name and religion, adopting the faith of the radical Nation of Islam, founded by Malcolm X.* He refused military induction, reciting a list of grievances against America (many valid, to be sure) and pointing out the Viet Cong had never treated him as badly as had White America. (Probably because they didn't know who he was and hadn't had the chance to do something really bad to him, like killing him.) His popularity, already starting to wane as the public tired of his vaudeville act, fell further, even as the liberal elite, sensing a kindred soul in the fight against Vietnam, began the long process of rehabilitating his image. And of course his refusal to fight, whether principled or not, simply meant that another young American, probably black, had to go in his place. As a political act it might have had significance, although that significance is probably exaggerated today; for practical purposes, it changed nothing.

*Ali first announced that he would be known as "Cassius X," an idea ditched after he split with Malcolm X.

Anyone born in the last 40 years or so could be forgiven for seeing Ali as a lovable teddy bear, a combination of George Foreman and Shaquille O'Neal. That isn't how it was at the time, though. He was known for cruelly taunting his opponents, carrying Ernie Terrell (who had made the fatal mistake of referring to him as Clay) for several rounds after he could have knocked him out, inflicting unnecessary punishment while repeatedly yelling, "What's my name?" (Right) He also had this habit of coming up with names for his opponents that were not merely unflattering, they were often crude and insulting. For Joe Frazier, who had spoken out in favor of Ali's right to fight, his thanks was to be called a gorilla and an Uncle Tom. (Incidentally, Ali had promised that if he lost that first fight to Frazier, he would crawl across the ring on his knees and kiss Frazier's shoes; he didn't, of course. Like most bullies, he never backed up his words when things went against him.)

And always there was the incessant chattering, his motormouth travelling faster than the propeller on an Evenrud; writing at the American Spectator Larry Thornberry observed that "The doggerel verse he spouted, which some insist on calling poetry, was puerile and sub-junior high school grade." He used to say it wasn't bragging if he could back it up, and his sycophantic supporters agreed, but as Walter Brennan used to say in The Guns of Will Sonnett, "no brag, just fact." Maybe it was all an act with him - sportsmen are in the entertainment business, after all - and perhaps I might be able to overlook it, were it not for that meanness and crudity that was always just below the surface.

A big show was made when he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, already plagued by Parkinson's, and if his image hadn't already been rehabilitated, it surely was in that moment. Among other things, he was presented with a replacement gold medal for the one he had won in the 1956 Olympics and subsequently "lost." I don't recall anyone mentioning at the time that the reason he needed a replacement was because he claimed to have thrown the original in the Ohio River after being refused service at a whites-only restaurant. Some suggest that was simply a story he made up; his friend Bundini Brown later told a writer that "Honkies sure bought into that one!" and added that Ali had simply lost the medal. So even an act that was, if not noble, at least understandable, was a fraud. At the time of his death he was hailed as a hero of racial reform, yet the man once said that "No intelligent person wants to mix races.” Of Caucasians, he said "You're my enemy. My enemy is the white people!" After his conversion to Islam, he was quoted as saying, "I don’t need no white man’s Jesus."

If all of this makes it sound as if I wasn't a big fan of Muhammad Ali, I wasn't. I can recall only one time when I tolerated his winning a bout; it was the rematch with Leon Spinks, after the young man had upset Ali in a split decision to win the title. As time passed and it became plausible to think that Ali had lost the fight in order to guarantee a big gate for a rematch, I turned against Spinks for agreeing to a rematch so quickly (he was stripped of his title by one organization for ignoring a mandatory defense against the top contender), and so when Ali did win the title back for a third time, before an enormous crowd in the Superdome, I could at least tolerate it. He retired after that fight, but he was unable to stay away from the spotlight, and launched an extremely ill-advised comeback, which tarnished that reputation.

None of this is to say that Ali wasn't a gifted, even great fighter; the three fights against Frazier (only the first of which he lost) were memorable, particularly "The Thrilla in Manila." He beat George Foremen at a time when Foreman, like Sonny Liston before him, was thought unbeatable. He was a fighting champion, taking on all contenders and bringing title fights back to home television, if only for a time. Of course, even then one has to acknowledge the memorable time when Ali pressed the great Joe Louis (whom Ali had also referred to as an Uncle Tom). Joe, could you have beaten me, Ali kept asking, and although Louis was reluctant to be dragged into the conversation, he finally allowed as to how when he had been champion, sportswriters had looked at the quality of his opponents and accused him of going on what was called the "Bum of the Month" tour. "Are you calling me a bum?" Ali yelled, to which Louis replied, "I'm saying you would have been on the tour." That's my favorite story about Muhammad Ali, one that always makes me smile, and it's significant that in it, he's the butt of the joke.

Understand that I wished no ill on Ali. His fight against Parkinson's was courageous, and in his last years he truly became a figure to be pitied, even if pity was a quality he seldom showed others. It is a mistake to speculate on what happens to people when they die, what the state of their soul was, what the disposition of that soul was. As someone said, it's far above my paygrade. And so as any good Christian must, I pray that at the very end, when he was offered the choice, Ali chose to accept the loving God represented by Christ. We'll never know, unless we find out after our own particular judgment. But neither is it right to sanctify the deceased, to make them something less than human. We see too much of that in our touchy-feely society as it is, and each time we see someone given this treatment, it becomes less dignified. People change, after all, and it's likely that Ali changed many of his more racially-charged viewpoints (at least publicly). But we do him no favors by whitewashing the past, pretending that these things never happened. it's often a powerful moment when they do - whitewashing the past, pretending Ali wasn't like this, does him no favors. Oh well; that's the way we are nowadays.

Muhammad Ali, named after a famous abolitionist, was a man, with good points and bad. For whatever reason, I never fell under his spell, and since this is a personal blog with personal views, this is what you're going to get. If you don't like it, think of it at least as a corrective to the saccharine "journalism" you've heard too much about.

Here, in its entirety, is "The Fight of the Century," so heralded at the time that Frank Sinatra could only get in by taking photographs for Life magazine; Burt Lancaster earned his attendance by providing color commentary for Don Dunphy's blow-by-blow on the closed-circuit broadcast. It isn't shown nearly as often as Ali-Frazier III, so if you haven't seen it before, watch and appreciate what a battle it was - and what a fighter Joe Frazier was.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Flashback Friday: Crossing The Bridge

I wrote the majority of this piece back in 2007, in response to a movement by some liberals to “reduce the carbon footprint” on the planet by depopulating – in other words, humans must die (off) so the planet can live on. Taking it one step further, there’s the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which suggests that “everyone in the world should stop having kids all at once.” After all, this is only the logical extension of such thinking, isn't it?

What this reminded me of was D. Keith Mano’s brilliant, disturbing 1973 novel, The Bridge. Long out of print (as is, sadly, most of Mano’s work; the best place to find them is a used book store), The Bridge is set in the dystopian New York of 2035, where civil war has resulted in a world run by a radical environmentalist/totalitarian regime. In this world, all forms of life – “down to the merest microbe” – are considered equal. All acts of aggression – even disagreement – have been outlawed. The absurdity of their thinking is summed up in the words on a plaque outside the now-deserted and crumbling Yankee Stadium, “Where, in an age of brutality and ignorance, men presumed to compete against their brother men.” (Interestingly enough, Mano didn’t anticipate the use of inclusive language – which shows you that 1973 was, indeed, a long time ago.) Mano demonstrates the ruthlessness, indeed the inhumanity, of such inflexible thought with this exchange between two prisoners of the regime, discussing the consequences that followed when all automobiles were banned:

"It was after the road breakers came. After my brother died because there was no car to take him where the doctor was."

"Lots of people died like that."

"They said thousands had died in cars. It was better that one man should die because there were no cars."

Despite these and other decrees designed to, as we would put it today, “reduce the carbon footprint,” a mass genocide continues, to which the regime’s response is stark, and final:

Whereas it has been ascertained irrefutably by the Council's Emergency Committee on Respiration that the process of breathing has and will continue to destroy and maim innumerable forms of microscopic biological life, we of the Council, convened in full, have decided that man in good conscience can no longer permit this wanton destruction of our fellow creatures, whose right to exist is fully as great as ours. It is therefore decreed that men, in spontaneous free will and contrition, voluntarily accede to the termination of their species. . . It is hoped brethren, that you will donate your physical bodies to the earth in such a manner that the heinous crimes of murder and pollution committed by our race throughout history may in some small way find redress.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but one could almost imagine the names of some of our more prominent environmentalist/politicians being attached to a statement like that, don't you think?

From thereon in, The Bridge becomes something of an action thriller, with Mano's protagonist - the unlikely, but typically Manonian-named, Dominick Priest, who had been imprisoned for the crime of "competition" (playing chess) - on a quest to return to his home and his wife, a journey which will take him through a landscape run riot by decay, overflowing vegetation (remember, even cutting grass is a murderous crime) and wild, feral animals, and regime officials seeking to enforce the Council's mandatory suicide decree, culminating in a harrowing crossing of the remains of the George Washington Bridge.

Ultimately, what Priest represents is the resiliency of man, the urge to survive, the quality which is the bane not only of the Council, but of totalitarian regimes throughout history. Priest is not altogether a likable hero; Mano has chosen to portray him not as some kind of monastic crusader seeking to redeem the world, but as a man on a singular mission to live, with only a limited comprehension of the higher, existential meaning of life. As such, Priest is filled with all the foibles of man, and then some. This leads to a startling, indeed deeply disturbing (while at the same time somewhat satisfying) resolution, the consequences of which can be seen in an epilogue taking place years later.

Keith Mano has always been identified as a "Christian" novelist, and it is true that his Episcopal faith has made itself known through all of his books - from Take Five, in which a man slowly loses each of his five senses, to Bishop's Progress, featuring a confrontation between a lukewarm Episcopal Bishop and the devil, to Horn, a debate between the priest of an urban parish and a radical black leader. His most commercially successful novel, Topless, can best be summed up by the book's tag line: "Father Mike Wilson's having a bad day. He just found a headless body in his topless bar." As one might be able to gather from that last description, Mano's books have always been laced with a heavy dose of black humor.

It would be wrong to call these "comic novels," however, for the humor is mostly of the ironic sort, presenting a scenario that often borders on the absurd but merely serves as the setup for Mano's provocative probing, challenging questions on the meaning of life, and our ability (or lack thereof) to ascertain it. Religion - or faith, if you will - is never far from the surface but, despite that fact that most of Mano's protagonists are priests (in name or fact), the religiosity is not of the overt, preachy type that so often passes for "religious fiction" nowadays. It's more, as one critic put it, in the style of Waugh or Greene, probing into something deeper, and often darker – not just what it means to be a believer, but what it is to actually believe in anything.

Mano's books, while critically acclaimed, were for the most part less than commercially successful; he once recounted that his agent told him after his latest slow-seller that the only way he'd be able to get published again was under a pseudonym. His most recent novel, The Fergus Dialogues: A Meditation on the Gender of Christ, was published in 1998; since then, he has for the most part retreated from writing due to the onset of Parkinson's disease. And that is a shame, professionally as well as personally, because in novels such as The Bridge, Keith Mano proved himself to be not only a provocative novelist but a prescient one as well.

Since I wrote that, things seem to have gotten much worse. Look at the outcry about that gorilla killed in the Cincinnati Zoo. Let's set aside the question of culpability - aren't these critics saying pretty much the same thing as the rulers in The Bridge - that you can't attach superiority to human life over that of animals? Don't the Social Justice Warriors aspire to become the same humorless, fascistic rulers as those in The Bridge? Aren't we, day by day, becoming citizens of Keith Mano's dark world? The question is this: what kind of ending will our story have?

Originally published September 14, 2007

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Crazier things in sports

A little of this and that:

Five Days!  The American Hockey League Calder Cup, the oldest continuously awarded annual trophy in professional hockey (since 1937; the NHL Stanley Cup has only been annually given since 2006 - due to the lockout - while the ECHL championship has been annual since 1989, and the current Kelly Cup trophy since 1997), has an odd five-day break between Games 3 and 4 because of the NBA Finals logistics.  Even though the two teams (Hershey and Lake Erie) had been determined for a few days, the AHL could not announce the schedule until the NBA Western Conference Finals ended because Lake Erie plays at the Quicken Loans Arena.  The NBA has priority at the Cleveland arena, and the AHL had to wait until it was determined if the NBA Cavaliers had Games 1 and 2 or Games 3 and 4 to determine when the Hershey-Lake Erie series could be played.  As a result, the AHL series plays Monday, June 6, and will have to wait until both Games 3 and 4 in the NBA Finals are concluded before resuming Saturday, June 11 and playing the next day with no break, before the teams travel immediately to Hershey if necessary.

Clinton Yes, Trump No in Golf?  The PGA TOUR is planning to move the WGC Championship (formerly the Doral Open) out of Miami's Doral National, currently owned by The Trump Organisation, to Mexico City.  Now that sounds suspicious considering the Steinle incident and Mr. Trump's warning to illegals in Mexico traveling north in light of that San Francisco incident that we now understand was the game changer that gave him the Republican nomination.  Meanwhile, the TOUR has not said anything about the Clinton Foundation's name or support of the Desert Classic, known as the CareerBuilder Challenge benefiting the Clinton Foundation, formerly the Bob Hope Classic.  (Since the Clinton Foundation takeover, the event lost its uniqueness of being a five-round tournament; it plays a standard 72-hole format.)  Why is Clinton permitted by not Trump?

A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.  Or so it seemed, when a judge who is a fan of opera punished a man who turned his car into a gigantic boom box by making him listen to an entire opera. Now it seems another judge has taken inspiration from this in light of actions that took place after an ECHL game between Cincinnati and Fort Wayne!  Who says judges can't teach discipline?

The West Coast Control.  If it is not clear the West Coast is now in clear control nationally, note the NBA Finals have games starting past 9 PM ET.  These 9 PM ET games effectively ensure that the games will get too close to midnight on the East Coast.  For a sports league where the dominant two states of the past 20 years are Texas and California, that is not a problem.  But much of the nation will get too close -- despite MLB having complaints of World Series games going past 11 PM, why does the NBA not have the same problem with games going past 11:30 PM ET, past the late local news?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Bonnie is coming -- time to get some notes through!

Bonnie is ready to strike more fear to this waterlogged area after the Joaquim-related flooding that much of our Midlands has still not fully recovered (ask my fitness buddies the Marshas).  As I write this, I have a few random thoughts headed.

Not Suited For Prime Time Advertising.  The promos ABC is running for the post-Carlisle edition of To Tell The Truth, the first since the show's signature figure died in 2007, is very inappropriate. One promo has the panelists (including Betty White, who has now appeared in 21st century versions of Password and To Tell The Truth) asking which of the three taught a popular actor how to perform an inappropriate for broadcast routine in movies.

Why Game Show Revivals Are Not Reboots.  Mitchell has asked on It's About TV about bad television "reboots" when they are retellings that, if it was sci-fi related, would be appropriate because of the imagining of how we see the future in 30 years then and now are different.  (See the 1987 Mission: Impossible which had sci-fi influences, especially with Phelps' disc player, and even the command center.  That makes me ask if Peter Lenkov took a 25-year old proposed spinoff "Son of MacGyver" that never sold and toyed with it for a reboot that could be that plan that never got off the ground.) What was asked to those surveyed for Family Feud in 1976 is not the same type of question you expect in 2016 since he plays with CBS properties sold to Paramount by government mandate, and Paramount television properties returned to CBS following what was effectively an NFL-forced split after Super Bowl XXXVIII).  What type of deals we see on Let's Make a Deal in 2016 are not the same we would have seen in 1970.  And some pricing games on The Price Is Right in 2016 would not have made sense in 1985.  Yet two of the three most popular shows on television today are revivals of old game shows.  Think about it.

Missing Barney.  This Memorial Weekend of motorsport is the first since the death of Barney Hall in January.  Yet for two of the three voices that call the races, he was an influence.  Fans have found MRN audio to mix with the videos from classic races (note the 1980 National 500 in Charlotte -- are these the graphics we could see on NBC for the Rebel 500, which has a 1980's theme this year?), and note who is working with Barney in each broadcast.  Can you identify the voices that worked with him?




And just to take the radio influence one further, the track announcer for the thrilling Freedom 100 Indy Lights finish was none other than Bob Jenkins, one of two primary track announcers at Indianapolis.  Dave Calabro is the other.  The large crowd was able to listen to the track announcer, naturally.

The Trilogy to the Pens.  Pittsburgh did beat Washington in the Trilogy, with the rubber match ending up with the Capitals' prospect goaltender Vitek Vanecek (who effectively had to play the semifinal all alone after the more experienced goaltender was injured in the previous round) being peppered with three goals in the first five minutes of Game Seven of the ECHL Eastern Conference finals to let Wheeling, WV (Pittsburgh) beat Charleston, SC (Washington) in Game Seven and the final.  Earlier Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Pittsburgh) lost to Hershey (Washington), and of course Pittsburgh beat Washington.

Why Some States Celebrated Memorial Day on May 10 Instead?  This one's simple.  The federal Memorial Day was originally started for Union war dead in the Civil War.  Naturally, of course, some states were not in the nation as a result of secession.  Most of these states celebrate it on May 10. That's why the NASCAR Rebel 500 (now held in September) originally started as a Confederate Memorial Day event.

And With the Poor "Academic Teaching" of Today's Schools.  The hatred of this country, whether it is apologising to Japan for Hiroshima (remember they bombed Pearl Harbor -- note how the USS Arizona memorial is seen in Five-0's open, with it next to the USS Missouri), or defacing a Vietnam War memorial plaque in California, is part of the revisionism in teachings.  We ignore our heroes while the "new narrative" promotes sexual perversion month and why they are teaching this generation to advance all sorts of fake "genders" to confuse people.  We have lost our moral compass thanks to elites, and the majority is not allowed to speak.  Ask the over 75% in most states who marriage laws were treated as trash by judges representing only a few cities, most of which are not in the states in question.  Go figure.  It's Book of Judges egos.  But God's Word is "hate speech" under Shepard-Byrd, which is the standard of academia now.  Huh?
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