Congratulations to Pope Francis on his selection as Time’s Person Of The Year. I was going to post on it, but I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say that wouldn’t start another round of complaining among commenters about the same old stuff. So, I’ll leave it at a genuine good for you, Holy Father, and move on … to the old pope, Benedict, who displayed his magisterial awesomeness by answering an atheist professor’s book-length letter to him. Excerpts:
Now, I can certainly understand that you consider the conception of the primordial and creative Reason as a Person with its own “I” to be an anthropomorphism; this seems to be a reduction of the grandeur, for us inconceivable, of the Logos. The Trinitarian faith of the Church whose presentation in my book you recount objectively, to some extent also expresses the totally different, mysterious aspect of God, which we may intuit only from afar. Here I would like to recall the statement of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, as he is called, who once said that philosophical minds certainly experience a kind of revulsion before biblical anthropomorphisms since they consider them inadequate.
However, these enlightened persons run the risk of taking their own philosophical conceptions of God as adequate and of forgetting that their own philosophical ideas are also infinitely far from the reality of the “totally Other.” Thus these anthropomorphisms are needed in order to overcome the arrogance of thought; indeed, it must be said that, in some respects, anthropomorphism more closely approaches the reality of God than mere concepts. Moreover, what the Fourth Lateran Council said in 1215 still applies, i.e. that every concept of God can only be analogical and that dissimilarity with the true God is always infinitely greater than likeness.
That said, it must still be maintained that a divine Logos also must be conscious and, in this sense, a Subject and a Person. An objective reason always presupposes a subject, a reason which is conscious of itself.
On page 53 of your book you say that this distinction, which in 1968 could still seem justified, is no longer tenable faced with today’s reality of artificial intelligence. On this point you do not convince me at all. Artificial intelligence, in fact, is obviously an intelligence transmitted by conscious subjects, an intelligence placed in equipment. It has a clear origin, in fact, in the intelligence of the human creators of such equipment.
Lastly, I cannot follow you at all, if from the start you do not write Logos with a capital ‘L’ but rather the mathematical logos in lower case (page 85). The Logos that stands at the beginning of all things is a Logos above all logoi.
Of course, the transition from the logoi to the Logos made by the Christian faith together with the great Greek philosophers is a leap that cannot be simply demonstrated: It leads from empiricism to metaphysics and with this to another level of thought and reality. But this leap is at least as logical as your dispute against it. I also think that whoever cannot make this leap should yet regard it as a serious question. This is the crucial point in my conversation with you, a point to which I will return again at the end: I would expect someone who is seriously searching at least to admit the possibility of that “perhaps” of which, following Martin Buber, I spoke at the beginning of my book. Both parties to the discussion should continue their search. It seems to me, however, that you interrupt the quest in a dogmatic way and no longer ask, but rather claim to teach me.
Love that deft but gentle way of saying, Professor, the Church has dealt with objections like yours before; this ain’t our first rodeo. I liked this too:
If we may not remain silent about evil in the Church, then neither should we keep silent about the great shining path of goodness and purity which the Christian faith has traced out over the course of the centuries. We need to remember the great and pure figures which the faith has produced — from Benedict of Nursia and his sister Scholastica, to Francis and Claire of Assisi, to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, to the great saints of charity like Vincent de Paul and Camillo de Lellis, to Mother Teresa of Calcutta and the great and noble figures of nineteenth century Turin. It is also true today that faith moves many people to selfless love, to service to others, to sincerity and to justice. You cannot know how many forms of selfless assistance to the suffering are realized through the service of the Church and its faithful. If you were to take away everything that is done from these motives, it would cause a far-reaching social collapse. Lastly, neither should one keep silent regarding the artistic beauty which the faith has given to the world: nowhere is it better seen than in Italy. Think also of the music which has been inspired by faith, from Gregorian chant to Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Bruckner, Brahms, and so on.
Read the whole thing. What a man, that Joseph Ratzinger.
The United States has suspended the delivery of nonlethal aid to the Syrian opposition in northern Syria after concluding that some of it has fallen into the hands of extremist Islamic fighters, American officials said on Wednesday.
But … but … freedom fighters!
A quick note here to update you on the Walker Percy Weekend literary festival we have coming up in the early summer. We will be launching a Kickstarter campaign after the first of the year to raise some money to underwrite expenses. We’ve got a list of corporate sponsors, but we’re still in serious need of more help. If you personally or your company would like to make a tax-deductible contribution to help support the event, we would absolutely welcome your gift. The contribution would be tax-deductible because the Walker Percy Weekend is sponsored by the Julius Freyhan Foundation, a 501(c)(3) arts and culture charity. (The event is also intended as a fundraiser for the Freyhan Foundation.)
We need to nail down the participants in the panels, something I’ll be doing in the next few days. Everything is going very well otherwise. It would be a tremendous load off our minds — we, the organizers, I mean — if we could know that we had all our expenses covered. Please e-mail me at rod.dreher (at) gmail.com if you would like to help, or want more information.
A reader writes to ask:
I’m almost 29, married, have two kids, and am a convert to Orthodox Christianity. I consider myself pretty devout, am well educated (AB in philosophy from a prestigious liberal arts university), and firmly adhere to the Church’s teaching on the body, sexuality, and marriage (my wife and I are big fans of the Catholic Church’s theology of the body, Humanae Vitae, etc., and are well-versed in those terms and arguments).
My youngest sister is almost 23 and just graduated from a Jesuit university with a theater degree. She recently decided to move into an apartment with her boyfriend. She’s somewhat antipathetic towards “organized religion,” though she prays regularly – something she claims validated her decision to move in with her boyfriend.
We were both raised in a mainline protestant church and were regularly involved in church growing up. Our parents are still together. They raised us well and taught us the faith from day one, if not always in the most thoughtful or deepest of ways. That’s to say, we were definitely raised Christian, taught right from wrong, and (as is relevant here) taught that sex is for marriage. But the version of Christianity I mostly recall hearing growing up could be summarized, “God sent Jesus to earth to teach us about him and show us how to live a good life and love each other and died on the cross to save us from our sins and if we believe in him and try to live a good life like he taught, then we can live forever with God in heaven.” It’s not technically wrong, but most can see there is a lot lacking.
All that’s to preface and explain this oddity: despite a common Christian upbringing in a stable and loving home, and only six years between us in age, my sister and I have fallen firmly on the opposite sides of the millennial divide – me strongly religious, and her thoroughly (if unwittingly) in the Moral Therapeutic Deism camp.
So my question is: how am I supposed to talk to my sister about human sexuality, marriage, and the faith? That is, how can I do so persuasively? Can my views even be translated to something that would hold the attention of an MTD millennial?
My gut instinct has been simply to proceed with an abundance of love. I reached out to my sister recently to remind her of my love for her, regardless of her choices, as well as my hope that, even when we disagree, she would be willing to defend those choices. This has, rather fortuitously, opened up an opportunity for genuine dialogue between us on these topics.
I’ve been racking my brain (and prayer rope), searching for the right way to frame things, but have yet to settle on anything. Any thoughts/advice you or your readers could offer would be greatly appreciated. And while it will be helpful for me, personally, I think it is also of general importance to all Christians, as my question is essentially, “How do we evangelize millennials?”
Thoughts? The problem here — well, a problem here — is that MTD allows for just about anything goes on sexual ethics, and that is absolutely not what normative historical Christianity teaches.
(Non-Christians, if you only want to troll, please withhold your commentary, or I will do it for you.)
The Romanian Orthodox Church has exhumed the body of the priest George Calciu, seven years after his death. They have discovered that the body has not decayed — you can see video here from Romanian TV (don’t worry, it’s not gory; you can see his bare feet, though).
To the Orthodox, this confirms Father George’s sanctity. Not every saint’s body is incorrupt, but every incorrupt body (it is believed) belongs to a saint. To be clear, you didn’t need to see an incorrupt body to know that Father George was a holy man. He suffered unimaginable horrors for the faith at the hands of Ceaucescu. The video I’ve embedded above is the first 10 minutes of a documentary about the Romanian gulag. It is terrifying — and most of us Americans have no idea about it. Father George speaks at about the four-minute mark.
Earlier this year, I quoted from an interview with Father George in which he spoke of the witness of Constantin Oprisan, a fellow inmate. It gives you a glimpse of what life was like for the prisoners of the communists. Elsewhere, Wesley J. Smith recalls Father George’s example:
Fr. George’s faith was more mature and well formed than during his first imprisonment, and this time, despite beatings, torture, and deprivation, he did not break. At one point, he was so exhausted from unremitting interrogation that he could not even recall the Lord’s Prayer. “Then I remembered that there is a prayer to Jesus Christ: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.’ . . . I was no longer scared . . . and I was able to resist.”
He spent years in solitary. He knew nothing of his family, and they, nothing of him. One night, Fr. George heard the joyful peal of many church bells: It was Easter. Early the next morning, the worst guard in the prison—who delighted in torture—entered the priest’s cell. He should have turned his face to the wall. Instead, Fr. George looked his tormenter boldly in the eye and proclaimed, “Christ is risen!” Rather than delivering a blow, the guard paused, and blurted out, “In Truth He is Risen!” and nervously backed out of the cell.
That was when Fr. George experienced a vision of what Orthodox theology calls the Uncreated Light:
He shut the door and I was petrified, because of what he had said. And little by little, I saw myself full of Light. The board against the wall was shining like the sun; everything in my cell was full of light. I cannot explain in words the happiness that invaded me then. I can explain nothing. It simply happened. I have no merit.
When Fr. George was put in a cell with two criminals ordered to murder him, he instead converted them to Christ. By this time, Ceauescu was under pressure from Western leaders to not harm the dissenting priest. As a consequence, he was released to house arrest in 1984, and the next year exiled to America where he spent the rest of his life in freedom.
Fr. Calciu lived what he preached. He did not hate his persecutors. Rather, he prayed for them daily and trusted in God’s mercy for their salvation. He also found joy. In her introduction to the book, Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of Calciu’s spiritual children writes of Fr. Calciu, “He had a beaming smile. He was often amused by life, and ready to laugh. . . . Fr. George was joyful. . . . He was naturally affectionate, and would hold my hand or anyone’s . . . just beaming with a radiant smile.”
So, again, if the exhumation had discovered a skeleton, it would have made no difference; we know from his life and his words that Father George was a holy man. But now we have an incorrupt body — that is, a body that was not embalmed, but is in a perfect, or near-perfect, state of preservation. What do you do with that fact?
If you’re Orthodox, you know what incorruptibility means. Same if you’re Catholic; there are incorrupt Catholic saints. If you’re in Paris, for example, go to the convent church on the rue du Bac, and see the incorrupt body of St. Catherine Labouré. Over 50 years after her death, the Catholic Church exhumed the mystic’s body, and found it had not decayed. You can see it now on display in a glass coffin under an altar at the rue du Bac church.
That one’s a great example, actually, of a theological challenge posed to both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. St. Catherine is most known for having received alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary, declaring herself “the Immaculate Conception.” Orthodox Christianity rejects the doctrine that Mary was conceived without sin. Yet Orthodoxy produces incorrupt saints as well. Sanctity does not ultimately depend on perfect theological orthodoxy, it would seem. I bet if you exhumed the graves of particularly holy Protestants, there would be some incorrupt bodies among them.
Anyway, the important thing is not this apparent miracle involving the preservation of Father George’s body. The important thing is what this miracle points to, which is the life he led, and the One for whom he led it.
A juvenile court judge sentenced 16-year-old Ethan Couch to 10 years’ probation Tuesday for the drunken driving crash that killed four people.
Judge Jean Boyd could have sentenced Couch to 20 years behind bars.
Youth pastor Brian Jennings; mother and daughter Hollie and Shelby Boyles; and 24-year-old Breanna Mitchell died in the June 15 accident.
Boyd told the teen that he is responsible for what happened, but she didn’t believe he would receive the necessary therapy in jail.
Prior to sentencing, a psychologist called by the defense, Dr. G. Dick Miller, testified that Couch’s life could be salvaged with one to two years’ treatment and no contact with his parents.
Investigators said Couch was driving a pickup truck between 68 and 70 miles-per-hour in a 40 mph zone. The four who died were standing on the side of the road outside their vehicle. Nine others were hurt.
Miller said Couch’s parents gave him “freedoms no young person should have.” He called Couch a product of “affluenza,” where his family felt that wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.
He said Couch got whatever he wanted. As an example, Miller said Couch’s parents gave no punishment after police ticketed the then-15-year-old when he was found in a parked pickup with a passed out, undressed, 14-year-old girl.
Miller also pointed out that Couch was allowed to drive at age 13. He said the teen was emotionally flat and needed years of therapy.
At the time of the fatal wreck, Couch had a blood alcohol content of 0.24, said Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson, four times the legal limit for an adult.
Unbelievable. Disgusting. This poor little rich kid killed four people — four people! — and because he suffered from “affluenza,” he won’t serve a day in jail. Not one day. Good work, Dr. G. Dick Miller and Judge Jean Boyd. Even William Zanzinger got more time.
(Thanks to the reader who sent this to me.)
The Catholic writer and journalist Phil Lawler grieves the collapse of Catholic culture in this country, and what it means to future generations. Excerpt:
A legacy can be lost. The capital accumulated through generations of diligence and sacrifice can be frittered away in a generation. If our children do not learn to appreciate the value of the Catholic tradition, they will not be able to teach their own children—even if they are inclined to do so.
Years ago, when our children were young, my family moved into the same town where I had lived as a grammar-school child. Introducing myself to the pastor, I mentioned that I hoped the parochial school, which had been shuttered for years, could someday be reopened. I cannot forget his reply: “We need to keep it closed for this generation, so that we’re ready to re-open it for the next.” At the time I was too stunned to reply, but if I had had my wits about me, I would have made two points. First, I am responsible for the education of my children, now; I cannot wait for another generation. Second, if my children and their contemporaries do not know the benefits of a Catholic education, they will have no incentive to revive the old parish school. Sure enough, in that town—which now has a larger and more affluent Catholic population than in my early years there—the school buildings have been razed and replaced by a parking lot.
Many of my grammar-school classmates still live in that town, and have raised their own children there. Some still attend Mass at the parish church where I was baptized and confirmed. But few of their adult children can be found in the pews. It is no longer safe to assume that the children of practicing Catholics will themselves be practicing Catholics—nor even that they will know what they are missing as they drift away from the faith. Writing in Commonweal in November 2013, the psychologist Sidney Callahan reflected:
Looking back I see that there was no structured way in our parish for my children to get what I had gotten in my intellectual journey to the Catholic faith. I always had access to the sophisticated historical, intellectual, and theological dimensions of the faith.
Something precious has been stolen: from my children, from my neighbors, even from me. This is a grave injustice. I will not tolerate it. Will you?
I read this, then looked for the Sidney Callahan essay. It’s good. Here’s how it opens:
Today alienated Catholics do not gently “lapse” or nostalgically “fall away,” they decisively and definitively leave for good. Forget “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” or a “Come Home for Easter” campaign. Every poll shows the nonreligiously affiliated—now called “nones”—increasing in number. That number includes all my grown children. But it wasn’t always this way.
In 1967, my husband Dan and I, along with our five sons and one daughter (all born between 1955 and ’65), could be found each Sunday at Mass. Everyone was baptized, the three oldest confirmed. I had been teaching in the CCD program for seven years. We were a full-court-press Catholic family, members of the Christian Family Movement (observe, judge, act), Catholic Worker enthusiasts, and eager advocates of Vatican II reforms. Dan was an editor of Commonweal and we both wrote for and participated in exciting Catholic intellectual circles. Forty-six years later, I sit alone in the same pew on Sundays, and have been doing so for decades. I remain a grateful Catholic convert, while everyone else in the family is long gone from the church.
In hindsight, I can now see how crucially important Catholic peer groups are for faith development. In our town the educated professionals were mostly secular or Jewish, the Catholics mostly working-class people. Going through the excellent public schools, none of my children had a close Catholic friend or peer group that could support his or her faith. Did we choose the wrong town, the wrong parish, and the wrong schools?
The whole Commonweal series on raising Catholic kids is worth your while, even if you’re not Catholic. The problems Catholic parents face are not so different from those all of us religiously observant parents face in this culture.
There was a time in my life as a Catholic Christian when I would have written off Sidney Callahan as one of those Catholics who didn’t push back hard enough against the 1960s on behalf of her kids. That was before I had kids, and had to contend with how hard it is to raise Christian children in this culture. I have older Christian friends who did everything right, or so it seems to me, but whose adult children have left the faith. There is no formula. Seems that the best we can hope to do is to better our odds. I remember walking through Philly one day with a faithful, highly engaged Catholic friend of my generation. He has kids as I do, and is raising them in the faith. But I remember him being fairly shell-shocked in advance by what’s coming. He knew a lot more than most about the situation in the archdiocese, and said something haunting to me on that walk. I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it, but it was something to the effect of, “I don’t know what’s going to be left for them.” His kids, he meant. He knew, my friend, that the patrimony of generations was falling apart.
I cannot imagine that I would have done better than Sidney Callahan when confronted by the tempest that swept over the culture back then, and swept up her children too. I hope to learn from her painful experience, though.
Perhaps the most necessary lesson is never to take anything for granted. The institutions, the practices, the customs that you think will be there forever will not necessarily be, not without concerted effort. If you don’t give your kids a strong countercultural grounding, there’s a much stronger culture out there ready to fill the void.
UPDATE: I’m adding this comment from the thread below because I think it is so profoundly sad, and important to recognize:
All four of my grandparents were religious loyal Catholics, as were all their children. All four of my wife’s grandparents were also Catholic as were all their children. All my and my wife’s cousins and brothers and sisters Catholic (about 30 of us). Our sons were active in Catholic Boy Scouts, attended Catholic grade and high schools (and even colleges) and we were very active in the parish.
Next generation of children, nieces and nephews, numbering in excess of 100–zero practicing Catholics.
My personal eperience is similar to Gretchen’s. The clergy sex abuse is institutionalized. The entire institution is essentially an organized crime ring.
The bishops was well aware of the pedophiles in our parish and at the catholic high school–they were on restricted ministry, not to be around children. That restriction was observed entirely in the breach. The priests who baptized my children, heard their confessions, gave them first communion, married me and my wife, buried my wife, married me and my second wife and who served as high school principals—all child abusers. I have since apologized to my sons for encouraging them to serve as altar servers to pedophiles.
The lies are so fundamental that anything the church says about any subject is very likely to be infected.
I don’t trust the church with my children’s physical safety. Why would I trust it with my children’s souls?
I remember precisely the dull luster of Mr. Nakazawa’s mackerel and the way its initial firmness gave way to a minor-key note of pickled fish and a major-key richness that kept building the longer I chewed. I can feel the warmth of just-poached blue shrimp from the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, which had a flavor that was deep, clean and delicate at the same time. I can tell you about the burning-leaf smell of skipjack smoked over smoldering hay until it becomes a softer, aquatic version of aged Italian speck.
OK, stop right there. You’re reading this and thinking that this is ultra-pretentious. But read on:
We don’t normally think of one sushi piece as wildly different from the next, apart from the inherent qualities of the main ingredient. But one of the points made by the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” was that a driven, obsessed chef will treat each sea creature as a unique challenge. He’ll ask, how can I make the best piece of horse mackerel anyone has ever tasted? When Jiro Ono dreamed of sushi, what he saw were new dishes waiting to be invented.
In the movie, Mr. Nakazawa was the young apprentice who cried when Mr. Ono conceded that he had finally made an acceptable egg custard. With his shaved scalp, bowed head, downturned eyes and meek acceptance of Mr. Ono’s criticisms, he gave the impression of a novice Zen monk who was accustomed to abuse in the name of enlightenment. (He also gave you the idea that Jiro could be kind of a pill.)
Mr. Nakazawa must have learned something, because his fish often tastes as if it has been coaxed along until it’s as delicious as it’s ever going to get. Each slice has a slightly different temperature, affecting flavor and texture, whether it spreads on your tongue or stays firm and chewy. All good sushi chefs do this, but Mr. Nakazawa seems to be able to hit any point on the thermometer with an assassin’s aim, locating a temperature for yellowtail belly that makes its buttery richness into a time-release pleasure bomb.
This is fine criticism, because Wells explains why Chef Daisuke Nakazawa is able to achieve the pinnacle of success as a sushi chef. I like sushi a lot, but don’t love it, so I doubt I would be able to appreciate artistry at the level Wells describes here. But I do like good cooking, and I did watch Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (it’s on Netflix streaming, and I loved, I mean really loved, the film’s portrait of Jiro Ono, who comes off as more of a monk than a chef. You get from that film what is possible when natural talent blends with slavish devotion to one’s craft — or, if you prefer, to one’s art. You also get a sense of what working at that level of artistry costs a man. You don’t have to love sushi to appreciate the beauty of an artist working at the top of his game.
I should add that as a journalist who has had to write criticism before, reading Pete Wells’s review is also to encounter artistry. I wrote about movies, and I think I was good, but very far from great, because that stuff is hard. Everybody thinks they could do it, but if you asked them to sit down and write 700 words explaining why a film worked, or didn’t, while also offering enough of a plot summary to inform the reader without spoilers, and without boring the reader senseless, they couldn’t begin to do it. Try it sometime. Try explaining coherently and efficiently why the last movie you saw that you liked worked well. Anyway, it was a great pleasure to read Wells’s review, and an even greater pleasure to know that there is a chef in New York who works at that level of greatness. I’m certain I will never have the opportunity to eat there, but it makes me happy to know that a restaurant like Sushi Nakazawa, and a chef like Daisuke Nakazawa, exist.
Look what came in the mail today! One of you kind readers sent me that book as a Christmas present. I was so excited to receive it, because I had been thinking about buying this very book, having recently learned that the eminent Traditionalist philosopher Burckhardt had written a study about Chartres. What an incredibly thoughtful present (and it was also thoughtful to include a book for my kids, too). I won’t say the reader’s name because people don’t always like their names publicized, but if he wants to step forward, by all means do. I am truly grateful for this Christmas present (these Christmas presents), and grateful to God for giving me such wonderful readers. I hope to be in the position one day to repay this reader’s kindness.
Just this morning I saw the Atlantic‘s compilation of the best books its editors read this year. What I liked about their list is that it doesn’t limit itself to books published in 2013. Rather, it lists the single best book each editor read in 2013, no matter when the book was first published.
For me, unquestionably this is The Divine Comedy, by Dante. Here’s what the New Yorker‘s Joan Acocella said about the translation I read (well, that I’m reading; I’m still on the Paradiso), back in 2007:
If you haven’t yet read the Divine Comedy—you know who you are—now is the time, because Robert and Jean Hollander have just completed a beautiful translation of the astonishing fourteenth-century poem. The Hollanders’ Inferno was published in 2000, their Purgatorio in 2003. Now their Paradiso (Doubleday; $40) is out. It is more idiomatic than any other English version I know. At the same time, it is lofty, the more so for being plain. Jean Hollander, a poet, was in charge of the verse; Robert Hollander, her husband, oversaw its accuracy. The notes are by Robert, who is a Dante scholar and a professor emeritus at Princeton, where he taught the Divine Comedy for forty-two years.
Acocella advises buying the Hollander translation, but also, if you can swing it, ponying up for the older Ciardi translation, because its notes are much better (and you do have to have notes to really understand the poem and its references).
So, why was the Commedia the best book I read in 2013? Because it is perhaps the most astonishing thing I’ve ever read, in terms of its vaulting literary ambition and sheer imaginative power. It’s like a medieval cathedral constructed out of verse. It seems like all of life is in that long poem. I knew the basic story, and expected something like a medieval morality play, with simple characterization, and crude moralizing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dante is an Italian Catholic of the High Middle Ages, but he is also one of the few artists in human history who can truly be said to have spoken to and about that which is universal to all men. Aside from the sheer literary, philosophical, and theological pleasure it has given me, the Commedia has also been — and in fact, is foremost — a story about a seeker trying to make sense of his life and its tragedies, to understand how they came about (especially what role he played), and how they might be redeemed under Heaven. I needed Dante at this time in my life. And in that light, if the Commedia cannot at some deep level speak to you, you don’t know what it’s like to live.
That’s my best book of 2013, and why I chose it. How about you? What’s the best book you read this year? Please explain why. You only need a few lines, but really, let us know why you chose it.
The writer’s group PEN surveyed its membership recently to ask if revelations of NSA surveillance has had a “chilling affect” on their writing. I listened to an NPR story about the PEN report this morning; the transcript is not yet online, but you can hear David Green’s report here (the transcript will appear there later today). Sixteen percent of the over 500 US writers surveyed say they have avoided writing about potentially risky topics because of the NSA revelations, and 11 percent have considered doing so.
On Morning Edition, the writer David Simon called b.s. on this response, saying that his fellow writers are being hysterical. I couldn’t agree more. They only wish they were important enough for the NSA to monitor. The fact is, the government really doesn’t give a rat’s rear end about American writers. They don’t have to; writers don’t threaten the government, not in the way Vaclav Havel or Alexander Solzhenitsyn threatened their governments. I wish it weren’t so, but the truth is, most American writers are irrelevant to politics and public life today. The government doesn’t much care what writers have to say because the public doesn’t much care what writers have to say. It is the fondest wish of many writers to be taken seriously enough to be the victims of McCarthyite surveillance.
On the radio this morning, novelist Azar Nafisi, taking the opposite side from Simon, said that artists are often the canary in the cultural coal mine — the point here being that if writers are censoring themselves out of fear of the government, then the rest of us should be worried. Sorry, I don’t buy it — and I say that as a writer who has been alarmed by the NSA revelations, who has written critically about the NSA, and who works for a magazine that has been quite critical of the NSA and the national security state. I think it’s probably true that journalists have been specially targeted by the NSA, in a way that should alarm free-speech defenders. But novelists? Come on. Walker Percy had their number when he once essayed:
My own suspicion is that many American writers secretly envy writers like Solzhenitsyn, who get sent to the Gulag camps for their writings, keep writing on toilet paper, take on the whole bloody state — and win. The total freedom of writers in this country can be distressing. What a burden to bear, that the government not only allows us complete freedom — even freedom for atrocities like MacBird! — but, like ninety-five percent of Americans, couldn’t care less what we write. Oh, you lucky Dostoevskys, with your firing squads (imagine shooting an American writer!), exiles, prison camps, nuthouses. True, American writers are often regarded as nuts but as harmless ones. So the exile has to be self-imposed — which has its drawbacks. One goes storming off, holes up in Montmartre or Algiers, cursing McCarthyism, racism, TV, shopping centers, consumerism, and no one pays the slightest attention. Months, years, later, one saunters back, hands in pockets, eyes averted — but no one is looking now either.
In its report, PEN writes:
Part of what makes self-censorship so troubling is the impossibility of knowing precisely what is lost to society because of it. We will never know what books or articles may have been written that would have shaped the world’s thinking on a particular topic if they are not written because potential authors are afraid that their work would invite retribution.
Please. Such self-important drama. I could be wrong here, but I think that anything not written by a contemporary American writer because he is afraid of the NSA is not something society will suffer from not having. If fear of the NSA prevents, say, Alice Walker from bloviating about cultural politics, well, that’s a point in the NSA’s favor.
Besides which, if you are so afraid of the NSA that you don’t write a book or give a speech on something that matters to you as a writer, the most useful thing someone can say to you is: Nut up.
UPDATE: In fact, if you think about it, who is more at risk of having her writing career damaged by something she was written: an American writer who publishes a book or article highly critical of the US national security establishment, or an American writer who publishes a book or article highly critical of gay rights, or progressive feminist and racial orthodoxies? Would your career be more in danger as a writer for defending Edward Snowden, or Pope Benedict XVI?