Rod Dreher

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The Town That Makes Priests


I kept waiting for this CNN program hosted by Lisa Ling to say, “Surprise! Here’s the dark secret!” But it didn’t. It’s genuinely inspiring, so much so that even Ling seeems to have been moved by the example of these men.

This episode of Ling’s program focuses on Fowler, Michigan, a town of 1,200 that has a reputation of producing priests, even in this time of lean vocations. Ling spends time with several of the young men from the town who have become priests, and one 19 year old who’s in seminary. It’s really something else. The best part is an interview with Father Mathias Thelen, 32, a former football star at Fowler’s high school. He was ordained in 2010. At about the 26-minute mark in the show, Ling asks him how the Scandal affected his sense of calling to the priesthood. He says:

“Right after the scandals broke in the church, I remember thinking to myself is this really what I want? Do I really want to step into the church here? There are two responses to evil. Either I allowed that evil to in a sense discourage me from doing good or I actually use that as a motivation to do all the more the will of God. And so, I actually used the scandal as something which propelled me forward in proclaiming God to a world that is hurting.”

It’s something else to see how solid he is, and how convicted.

Later, when Ling talks to a group of seminarians, the Scandal comes up. One of the men says that their generation is going to have to be the one that rebuilds. This is a burden they accept. Powerful stuff. Watch it and be inspired.

I found the show through a tweet by Nicholas Cotta, who tweeted that watching that program makes him think that I might be right — presumably about the Benedict Option. How is it that this little farming community can produce so many priests? The show doesn’t really answer that question, but you can see that this is an overwhelmingly Catholic town that takes its faith seriously. People go to church. They talk about Jesus Christ, and they’re not embarrassed or cagey. It’s nothing fancy, just good country people who believe, and who believe as a community. Somehow, they have found a way to hold on, and not only to hold on, but to bear astonishing fruit.

Whatever they’re doing, we all need more of it.

The show is called This Is Life with Lisa Ling. I really have to give Ling and CNN credit here for a well-done show. She asked some hard questions of the young priests and seminarians — I wish she had asked them questions that gave us more of a sense of what they believe, and how they place themselves within the Church — but she let them speak for themselves, and it ended up being the most positive portrayal of the Catholic priesthood that I have seen on TV news since I can’t remember when. Even if you’re not Catholic, if you find yourself despairing of the state of religious life in the US, watch that program and see what the young men of Fowler, Michigan, are creating: hope.


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Obama’s Reckless Amnesty

'Illegal'? What's 'illegal'? (Photo: Danette Carnahan/Shutterstock)
'Illegal'? What's 'illegal'? (Photo: Danette Carnahan/Shutterstock)

I do not follow the immigration debate closely, so I do not have a well-informed opinion about the amnesty President Obama just declared for 5 million illegal immigrants, who are in this country in defiance of its laws. But I am gobsmacked that this or any other president would issue an executive order on something as massive as this, without having Congress behind him. It really is outrageous — and the Democrats are going to reap the whirlwind.

Here’s Zoltan Hajnal in The New York Times:

President Obama’s executive order eliminating the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants is good policy. It is the right thing to do. But it is a dangerous move for the Democratic Party.

Yes, immigration is an important issue for most Latinos and Asian-Americans. And yes, 63 percent of Latinos and 66 percent of Asian- Americans voted for Democratic candidates for Congress in the midterms. The executive order could solidify and expand that support for years to come.

But Latinos and Asian-Americans made up only 11 percent of the electorate. Even if immigration were the only issue driving their vote — and it most certainly was not — it could have shifted the national partisan balance of power by only a few percentage points.

Whites, meanwhile, accounted for 75 percent of the electorate. Far more than any other group, whites will decide the fate of the parties in the years to come. Unfortunately for the Democratic Party, the data suggest that immigration very much matters for whites.

Immigrants are moving to almost every corner of the nation. They usually look different from the white majority. And, irrespective of the facts, the dominant narrative maintains that immigrants rely heavily on public services like welfare, education and health care, that immigrants take jobs from native-born workers and lower their wages, and that immigration is leading to cultural decline.

Polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of white Americans view illegal immigration as a serious problem. A third think immigration over all is bad for the country.

Even if you favor the policy Obama is imposing, you had better think long and hard about the meaning of this move by a president. As Ross Douthat said on Sunday:

No defender of Obama’s proposed move has successfully explained why it wouldn’t be a model for a future president interested in unilateral rewrites of other areas of public policy (the tax code, for instance) where sweeping applications of “discretion” could achieve partisan victories by fiat. No liberal has persuasively explained how, after spending the last Republican administration complaining about presidential “signing statements,” it makes sense for the left to begin applying Cheneyite theories of executive power on domestic policy debates.

Especially debates in which the executive branch is effectively acting in direct defiance of the electoral process. This is where the administration has entered extraordinarily brazen territory, since part of its original case for taking these steps was that they supposedly serve the public will, which only yahoos and congressional Republicans oppose.

This argument was specious before; now it looks ridiculous.

Lo, this didn’t take long. Look at this now airing on Louisiana airwaves:

To be clear, linking to that ad does not imply TAC’s endorsement of a candidate. We do not endorse candidates. I’m linking to it to show you how the GOP Senate candidate is pouncing on the Obama amnesty to pound his Democratic opponent. Landrieu didn’t have much of a chance before, but the only question raised by the Obama amnesty is whether or not he’ll break 60 percent on election day. Well, this question too: is this ad a preview of the GOP’s 2016 strategy?

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The Return of Mormon Polygamy?

LDS Prophet Joseph Smith (R) shows Brigham Young the way (Photo credit: Action Sports Photography/Shutterstock)
LDS Prophet Joseph Smith (R) shows Brigham Young the way (Photo credit: Action Sports Photography/Shutterstock)


Ross Douthat has a thought-provoking reflection on the future of religion, both globally and in America. He says that it’s dangerous to assume that the future will look like the present, only moreso. Which Catholics in 1940 would have foreseen something as epochal as the Second Vatican Council, coming just 20 years later? Who could have anticipated that China is on track to having the largest Christian population in the world, and that Africa would be sending missionaries to the West? But here we are. Douthat calls attention to Will Saletan’s Slate piece saying that the Mormon Church has a clear theological method to change doctrine, has done so (on polygamy and other issues), and will do it on homosexuality eventually. Saletan points out that the Mormons have a history of changing doctrine to make it easier for them to get along in American society.

Douthat comes at it from a different place:

So context matters — and while I don’t know how many Mormons would frame it exactly this way, I think one way to read that context is to look at the revelation suspending polygamy and see God basically blessing a political-cultural bargain between the Latter Day Saints and the United States, in which Mormons would be granted the liberty required to thrive in return for adapting themselves to American familial norms … as adapt they did, becoming the archetype of 1950s bourgeois normality and then remaining archetypal long after that norm had ceased to meaningfully exist.

But if that bargain was real, and not only real but divinely-sanctioned, then what should pious Mormons today make of the fact that the United States now seems to be going back on the deal? How should they respond to the possibility that their faith is becoming effectively alien again, developing another “marriage problem,” because it still hews to the terms of the original deal even as American culture demands assent to a very different, effectively post-biblical, understanding of what marriage is supposed to be? Saletan sketches one possible response, in which Mormons simply accept the new bargain, the new terms, and adapt once again. But that’s the Whig’s view of history, in which everyone responds to new incentives by rushing in the same direction. If you take the example of Mormonism’s founding fathers seriously, you might just as easily say, the bargain has been broken, therefore the revelation that helped seal it no longer applies, therefore we can go our own divinely-sanctioned way again even as the wider culture rushes in another direction. And the end result might not a L.D.S. church that evolves toward, say, the current Congregationalist or Unitarian view of marriage; it might be an L.D.S. church that has much more trouble sweeping polygamy to its margins (especially if civil laws against the practice fall), and that suddenly has to deal with powerful fundamentalist currents, a powerful fundamentalist wing, in ways that would have been hard to imagine before the same-sex marriage debate began.

What do you Mormon readers think of this?

It’s a provocative thought: if traditional marriage is no longer exclusive in law and culture in the United States, and if the American people have come to believe (as we have) that marriage is something we have the right to redefine as we wish, then why shouldn’t the polygamous instinct buried deep within the LDS faith not reassert itself? If I were a Mormon inclined to return to the fundamentals of my faith, I would wonder why, exactly, honoring the old bargain still mattered.

On a theological level, I suppose, it matters because polygamy is officially forbidden within the LDS faith, but as Douthat said, it is entirely conceivable that the church’s Prophet could receive a new revelation — and there is no reason to believe, as Saletan does, that that revelation will affirm something as radical as same-sex marriage, which, unlike polygamy, has no precedent in human history, much less in Mormon history.

Let’s speculate, à la mode Douthat, about other unlikely but plausible religious scenarios that could emerge in the decades to come. Since the Synod on the Family, I’ve received several e-mails from Catholics asking about Orthodoxy. I’ve received more of them since the Synod than I have in the entire eight years since I left the Catholic Church for Orthodoxy. Not one of these readers mentioned the Synod as a catalyst, but I can’t help thinking that it was, given the timing of these queries. My guess as to what’s going on is that quite a few conservative or tradition-minded Catholics have been enduring a great deal of nonsense at the parish level — priests and laity who don’t seem to believe the Catholic faith, bad liturgy, ugly music, and the usual complaints — but found the strength to put up with it because of their convictions, and because they believed that however fallen the local diocese or parish was, Rome was a solid rock.

Now, under Pope Francis, they fear they may have been wrong. One reader wrote to say that he and his wife sacrificed economically and otherwise to teach their kids the Catholic faith in its fullness, and did so in a diocese where, he said, they had nothing but opposition, both active and passive, from the institutional church. Now the kids are grown, and all have fallen away from the faith. The reader is left nowadays wondering if what he believed so strongly about the truth of Catholicism was ever true — hence his question about Orthodoxy.

Again, not one word about Pope Francis from this reader, or from any of the others who wrote. But my sense is that something about this Pope and his actions since ascending the papacy serves as the final straw for more than a few beleaguered conservative Catholics, and has allowed them to entertain thoughts that they had previously suppressed.

I don’t believe we are going to see a huge number of conversions from Catholicism to Orthodoxy anytime soon. But I think that if Francis is followed by another pope in his mold, it’s entirely plausible that American Orthodoxy could see a significant number of former Catholics come into its ranks. I personally know quite a few Catholics who long for what the Orthodox Church has: a beautiful, deeply reverent liturgy, a strong mystical sense in its corporate worship, traditional Christian morals, and undeniable apostolicity, which means the sacraments are valid from a Catholic point of view. They remain Catholic because they believe Catholicism is true. As the Catholic writer John Zmirak has said, if they cease to believe that Catholicism is true, at least in its ecclesiology, then what is to keep them from coming East?

Let me be clear: I don’t want to debate in this thread whether or not Catholicism or Orthodoxy is true. What I would like to talk about is the possibility that the liberalization within US society (and, in the Catholic case, the liberalization, real or perceived, within the Church), could pave the way for big changes that seem unlikely now, but are yet plausible. And please, don’t leave it with Mormonism and Catholicism. Feel free to speculate on the futures of other forms of Christianity, or other faiths.

In the next 30 or 40 years I have left to live, I expect to see liberal forms of religion die out, and conservative forms become more conservative — this, while the great mass of the American people drift steadily into secularism. Pope Benedict XVI predicted this for Europe, and I think we are only a generation behind our Old World forefathers. What’s going to be interesting is to see in what ways that intensifying conservatism among religious believers expresses itself. I think we may all be in for some surprises, as Douthat’s speculative post indicates.

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‘Stuck’ As Default of the Poor


In the “Poor and Foolish” thread, I put this Note From Rod on a reader’s comment:

[NFR: ...If you are living in poverty, and cannot afford to have more babies, or your having babies would be a heavy burden on the children you already have, then you are a fool if you continue to have sex, or continue to have sex without contraception. Period. The end. I cannot even believe this is a point of contention. People are not animals; we have free will. -- RD]

A reader named Maria filed this thoughtful and informative comment in response:

Rod, I agree with you on almost everything, but this is one of those times that I don’t (though of course people aren’t animals and have free will), after working as a yearlong, full-time volunteer/case manager for low-income pregnant and parenting women in Washington, D.C.

It all comes down to sex. There is a huge difference in the way most lower-income people with whom I worked thought about sex and the way my friends and I grew up thinking about sex.

I grew up in an upper-middle class family with two stable, loving, working, married parents. Besides learning in this environment and in Catholic schools that sex and marriage (or at least commitment) go together, I learned from a very early age that I have agency over my choices regarding sex, that having sex has consequences that could deter me from pursuing what I want out of life: an education, a career, a stable environment, a healthy family, spiritual integrity.

Most importantly, I learned by how I was treated at home and by the example of my parents that I have inherent value regardless of what anyone thinks of me, regardless of whether I’m in a relationship or not. I learned that I should HAVE goals in the first place.

The women I worked with in D.C. — many of whom continued getting pregnant and having kids after multiple fathers had ended up abandoning them or in jail — did not grow up understanding sex in this way, nor did they grow up cultivating a healthy self-esteem in the way I had.

Many of them did not grow up with fathers, and were never taught that “hey, you’re a beautiful person; you don’t need to have sex with the first guy who comes around and makes you feel special.” Many of them were abused – physically/emotionally/sexually – as children, which impacted how they viewed themselves and their own sense of agency. Most did not seem to know what a healthy relationship was or think that it was possible for them to have one.

The biggest thing – many of the young women had never seen another example in their own families or communities! They had never SEEN their mothers or sisters or fathers decide, “hey, these lifestyle decisions aren’t healthy, I’m going to make some better choices.” One woman – mother of 6 small children who had 2 or 3 different fathers between them- once flat-out asked me about my own experiences, and was utterly SHOCKED when I told her I hadn’t had sex yet, even though I have a boyfriend. She wasn’t disrespectful or condescending, she was just shocked; she hadn’t seen it done before. The choice not to have sex is never presented as an option! (It should also be noted that many of the men feel that condoms are emasculating or just refuse to use them, leaving the burden of contraception entirely on the woman.)

One 16-year-old mom who dropped out of school to take care of her baby and is living with her boyfriend (who also dropped out of school and works more than full-time) has birth control that is causing her to be depressed and even suicidal at times, but she said she can’t use condoms because she’s allergic to latex, and she thinks if she told her boyfriend she wanted to stop having sex for a while, he would dump her and move along to the next girl. Right now, he is the only support she and her baby have. She was born outside the U.S. but came here as a child, and because she didn’t finish high school, she’s not eligible for the Dream Act benefits for the right to work in the U.S. Meanwhile, she can’t find daycare for her baby, so she can’t return to school. She’s utterly stuck. What’s going to happen to her? Her baby is likely going to grow up thinking that “stuck” is default.

I don’t mean this as a lecture but just wanted to voice some of the things I’ve seen in this regard. I realize I’ve gotten away from the original thread discussion.

I totally reject the left’s “whenever you feel ready, consent is all that matters, just use protection!” approach to sex and agree with you that stable, two-parent families (assisted by economic opportunity and good education) is really the only solution to these types of problems. I just don’t think you can dismiss people as fools when they have grown up thinking in a completely different way about sex and inevitability.

I really appreciate this comment. It reminds me of something a friend of mine who taught in a rural school in the Deep South told me once about her middle-school students. All of them were poor, all were black. She herself was once a welfare mom during a hard period of her life, and felt a special burden in her heart to help these kids avoid what she went through.

She told me that it was incredibly despairing to try to reach them. None of them seemed to believe her when she told them that if they worked hard in school and stayed on the straight and narrow, they could go to college and better themselves. She said pretty much all the girls wanted nothing more than to get pregnant by some boy — they said so in class, without shame — and the boys saw their own manhood as tied up in getting a girl pregnant. Marriage was not on anybody’s mind. Your story, Maria, reminds me a lot of what my friend said. She told me she might as well have been talking to them in a foreign language. One day during a conversation about this, she told the female students that dropping out of school to care for your baby is almost guaranteed to condemn them and their children to lives of welfare dependency.

“They didn’t care,” my friend said. Welfare was a way of life for these kids. That’s all they had ever known. It was normal. That’s when my friend knew the power of what she was up against.

The point I was trying to make is that the only real way any of this changes is for kids to come to believe that they aren’t fated to live that way. There may be no one in their lives to offer them a way out, and even if someone does, like my teacher friend, the pressures on them to reject the message in a bottle they’ve found are powerful. I think about the young black woman I wrote about in Little Way who had to leave her family far behind in order to pursue her education and break the cycle of poverty (which she did), because they wanted to tear her down and prevent her from succeeding.

From what you’ve seen, Maria, do you have a better solution? I’m not blaming these kids for reacting to the world in the way they have been conditioned by the adults who have failed them, but I am saying that the culture they carry in their heads, their habitus, condemns them to repeat the mistakes of their parents, and sets their own children up for the same thing. Income redistribution is not going to change that. How could you possibly redistribute income enough, and invent government programs sufficient to ameliorate the direct and secondary effects of single parenthood on a child’s long-term economic well being (e.g., given that their educational achievement will have something to do with their own financial success and stability)?

UPDATE: Great comment from reader RB:

I am trying to see things from a hypothetical poor student’s point of view, as much as I’m able, because I’d want to help such children, too.

The analogy that popped to mind was that of a college professor exhorting students to what they must do to grow and succeed, because otherwise they’ll be stuck in a middle-class lifestyle. I know I would remain unimpressed and unconvinced.

I’m so accustomed to how I relate to my husband, procure and prepare food, and raise my children that I likely could not go back to the Japan of my father’s birth even if my father and grandmother convinced me it was best, and even though I spent years there as a small child.

Heck, I haven’t even taken my big family camping, because even that feels like changing to a different life, different tribe. I think, taking care of 7 kids, including the two diapered toddlers, is challenging enough in my nice middle-class home–can I do this, while pretending to be homeless, in the rain? Most days I feel like I work hard enough without feeling cocky enough to say, Hey, time to level up and make it twice harder for a totally unknown result!

My friends who camp with their families assure me that everyone feels closer to God and learns self-reliance, and it’s totally possible to do with babies, and their happy attitudes and personal success are just enough for me to be willing to learn more, but not quite enough to take the plunge in the current cold weather. I’ll wait for sunnier skies before risking it.

A teacher can exhort her kids all year, but it’s when she loves them, and with her concern welcomes them into her different country, invites thrm in to see what it’s like, that they may consider emigration, because they’ve seen what life is like there, and how people get their food and make it.

This is what I do with friends who are nervous about not having baked bread or sewn things before–I just invite them into my home and apprentice them for a few hours.

I think this is why we are called to break bread with different people, because sharing that taste of life, and how to bake it, is more convincing than lots of passionate description of it, and warnings about the unsuitability of the old bread, and disapproval.

At least, that’s what it would take for me. The boy on the other thread sounds like the sort of son that yesteryear families woukd have been lucky to have. My FIL grew up in a large, poor family on a farm, and as a kid was able to drive tractor with one hand and shoot a pheasant for dinner with the other. He acquired his master’s degree based on an athletic scholarship and supported by coyote pelt bounties. (He’s shot that many.)

My husband has the same skills, same coked-up-mule work ethic, STEM college degree, middle-class job, we live in the same town, but are half as successful. My FIL is having to partially support his children, who are, like him, smart, hard workers. Like the boy’s family on the other thread, we still have economically obsolete values and we regard our kids as our greatest joy even if by newer values we should have had only two, or none at all. (Which is so sad. These are my favorite people–I can’t imagine life without them.)

So what would it take for me to give up my current family/resource management values? A great deal. I liked butchering a deer with my husband last night and baking bread. I like helping friends with their garden. I like the old ways because I think they nourish human families and spirits, and I’ll cling bitterly to them ;) even despite the economic reality that it’s become nearly impossible to provender a family through legal hunting and fishing in the manner people could a generation or two ago might. Like the boy on the other thread, my FIL values family and that helps us a great deal. Family is everything. Many consider me no better than the boy’s mother, for all that I am married and my husband loves me and provides. I’m still economic deadweight, to the new way of thinking.

So there is the question of converting people from unhappy chaos to happier order, and my answer is through one-on-one friendship. I think churches and 12-step recovery has that well addressed. But how to persuade people to leave family behind, avoid family formation, for the sake of economic success? Especially when the delays in family formation get longer and it becomes a new normal to expect people to become secular monastics so as to be better workers? I’m not convinced. I wouldn’t be able to persuade someone to leave their family for economic reasons because I am just as “bad” as they are. I’m with Erin Manning on this. I’d rather put my energy into changing to system to better reflect values that lead to human flourishing, than in trying to turn kids into economic cogs and trade one kind of bottom-rung servitude for another. Sheer economic self-interest wouldn’t work at this point anyway; those whom I know on welfare often live as high or higher than the frugal families I know who refuse assistance because they value work. Only their antiquated values keep them off the dole.

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Bill Murray Misses The Latin Mass

If you didn’t already love Bill Murray, here’s something sure to make you repent: check out this excerpt from a Guardian piece on him and his new film:

His parents were Irish Catholics; one of his sisters is a nun. This conspicuous religion adds to his broad church appeal (there’s a citation from the Christian Science Monitor on his golfing memoirs). You don’t need to ask if his faith is important to him. He talks about how 19th-century candidates risk not getting canonised because the church is keen to push ahead with the likes of John Paul II and Mother Teresa. “I think they’re just trying to get current and hot,” he smiles.

One new saint he does approve of is Pope John XXIII (who died in 1963). “I’ll buy that one, he’s my guy; an extraordinary joyous Florentine who changed the order. I’m not sure all those changes were right. I tend to disagree with what they call the new mass. I think we lost something by losing the Latin. Now if you go to a Catholic mass even just in Harlem it can be in Spanish, it can be in Ethiopian, it can be in any number of languages. The shape of it, the pictures, are the same but the words aren’t the same.”

Isn’t it good for people to understand it? “I guess,” he says, shaking his head. “But there’s a vibration to those words. If you’ve been in the business long enough you know what they mean anyway. And I really miss the music – the power of it, y’know? Yikes! Sacred music has an affect on your brain.” Instead, he says, we get “folk songs … top 40 stuff … oh, brother….”

Sit quoque cor nostrum beatum!

And may the heart of the reader who sent this item to me also be blessed.

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The Age of Anti-Politics

Blogger Stumbling and Mumbling writes about how nobody is interested in real politics anymore. Excerpt:

 - There is little debate about the question of how to organize society’s institutions, and merely an unquestioning assumption that top-down hierarchy with a strong leader is the correct structure. More generally, there is little interest in the key questions of politics: how is power exercised? How should it be exercised?

These examples might seem very different. But they show that the turn away from politics which Julie describes is by no means confined to feminism.

It would be tempting here to say that what’s displaced proper politics is mere tribalism. But I fear that underlying this is something else - narcissism. From feminists calling out a guy for wearing a dodgy shirt to Ukippers demanding free parking and a return to the 1950s, we see a demand that everyone defer to one’s own wishes. In this sense, what lies behind anti-politics is the rise of individualism. What Robert Wyatt sang 30 years ago is even more true now. This is the age of self - and this suits capitalism just fine.

The reader who e-mailed this link adds:

1. Our dominant political ideology, at least among elites, is left liberalism. But the aims of that ideology are seriously at odds with reality. I’m not particularly a cheerleader for capitalism, but, on the economic front, there is really only so much the government can do for people before it starts to make things noticeably worse, and attempts to do things like abolish or even significantly minimize gender roles are doomed to fail. So, you get a lot of posturing, emphasis on symbolic issues like gay marriage*, and attacks on individuals who fail to be sufficiently PC. It’s a sort of impotent rage. Shirtgate etc.

Left liberals sure like to talk a lot about systemic change, but they seem to have completely abandoned any attempt at it.

*As a traditionalist, I’m fine with an emphasis on the symbolic, but I wonder what liberals are doing with such an emphasis.

2. A good deal of this comes down to contradictions on the left. The only way to root out “racists” from say the teaching profession would require giving authorities the power to fire people more easily. That’s not exactly going to go down well with teacher’s unions. Likewise, actually putting away significantly more rapists would require lowering the burden of proof in criminal cases. That’s really problematic from the perspective of liberalism too. For example, you’re going to end up putting away a lot of minority men, if you do that.

So, the system remains the same.

About Alasdair MacIntyre’s perspective on modern politics:

It is also the case, according to MacIntyre, that those involved in these philosophical and political debates claim to be using premises that are objective, based on reason, and universally applicable. Many of them even believe these claims, misunderstanding the nature of their particular inadequate modern philosophy, just as the people in MacIntyre’s post-disaster world misunderstand what it means to be doing real science. But what they are really doing, whether they recognize it or not, is using the language of morality to try to gain their own preferences. They are not trying to persuade others by reasoned argument, because a reasoned argument about morality would require a shared agreement on the good for human beings in the same way that reasoned arguments in the sciences rely on shared agreement about what counts as a scientific definition and a scientific practice. This agreement about the good for human beings does not exist in the modern world (in fact, the modern world is in many ways defined by its absence) and so any attempt at reasoned argument about morality or moral issues is doomed to fail. Other parties to the argument are fully aware that they are simply trying to gain the outcome they prefer using whatever methods happen to be the most effective. (Below there will be more discussion of these people; they are the ones who tend to be most successful as the modern world measures success.) Because we cannot agree on the premises of morality or what morality should aim at, we cannot agree about what counts as a reasoned argument, and since reasoned argument is impossible, all that remains for any individual is to attempt to manipulate other people’s emotions and attitudes to get them to comply with one’s own wishes.

MacIntyre claims that protest and indignation are hallmarks of public “debate” in the modern world. Since no one can ever win an argument – because there’s no agreement about how someone could “win” – anyone can resort to protesting; since no one can ever lose an argument – how can they, if no one can win? – anyone can become indignant if they don’t get their way. If no one can persuade anyone else to do what they want, then only coercion, whether open or hidden (for example, in the form of deception) remains. This is why, MacIntyre says, political arguments are not just interminable but extremely loud and angry, and why modern politics is simply a form of civil war.

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A Final Post About Shirtgate


I think we’re all pretty much done with Shirtgate, don’t you? Still, I don’t want to let it pass without bringing to your attention Conor Friedersdorf’s long analysis of Shirtgate at the Atlantic. He invents an idealized civil dialogue between people on both sides of the issue, friendly antagonists who actually learn something and get somewhere. This kind of exchange only happens in fantasyland, alas. But it’s worth reading.

Conor faults left-wingers for overreacting to Shirtgate, but he also faults Glenn Reynolds, Boris Johnson, and me for overreacting. He says:

That’s one driver of dysfunction: the desire of competing tribes in the culture war to cast themselves as the victims and their antagonists as the lynch mob. Had the scientist made his television appearance in a pro-abortion t-shirt or a Che Guevara tank-top, an identical cycle would’ve ensued but with tribal roles reversed.

Notice that my intention here isn’t to dismiss what I take to be the core concern that Dreher, Reynolds, and Johnson have, down beneath all of the hyperbolic posturing. While the scientist in this case wasn’t drummed out of a job or polite company for an alleged transgression against social justice, it isn’t unheard of for digital mobs to victimize people, whether female gaming journalists or Brendan Eich or the conservative bloggers who suffered the ordeal of having their homes SWATed. There are differences that distinguish those controversies, but one similarity is that no one anticipated any of those mobs when they first came to claim a scalp, and no one could quite tell which individual would be targeted next.

I think it’s undeniable that people on the Right are susceptible to claiming victimhood when they don’t deserve it, but I don’t agree with Conor that my post, or the columns by BoJo and Instapundit, are hyperbolic or trivial. What triggered my ire was not the initial complaint about Taylor, which is about what you would expect, but the fact that a distinguished scientist who had just done a mind-blowingly astonishing thing — helped lead a team that remotely landed a spaceship on a comet! — had been shamed by feminist loons into weeping on television and expressing his remorse for having worn a garish Hawaiian shirt.

I can’t speak for the others, but had he worn a Che Guevara or pro-abortion shirt to the press conference, I might have noticed it, but I wouldn’t have gone into ideological convulsions at the sight of it. Anybody who has spent any time around scientists or nerds knows how peculiar they can be, and how silly their politics, cultural and otherwise, can be. I would have thought the same thing I thought when I saw Taylor’s gaudy cheesecake shirt: I can’t believe a grown man who is also a distinguished scientist would go out in public dressed like that. 

Roll your eyes and move on.

What incensed me was the fact that a man who had achieved such an incredible thing for humanity was reduced to a blubbering, knee-biting idiot by the howling feminist mob. It is a terrible thing for public life that this kind of thing can happen. It is an example of microaggressions humiliating people who have done nothing seriously wrong, and maybe nothing wrong at all.

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How to Make Victims

UCLA graduate students coalesce. (Photo credit: Thanamat Somwan/Shutterstock)
UCLA graduate students coalesce. (Photo credit: Thanamat Somwan/Shutterstock)

Heather Mac Donald, in that way she has, writes a powerful, damning piece about how the culture at UCLA is turning out a generation of young people crippled by racial paranoia. Excerpts:

UCLA education professor emeritus Val Rust was involved in multiculturalism long before the concept even existed. A pioneer in the field of comparative education, which studies different countries’ educational systems, Rust has spent over four decades mentoring students from around the world and assisting in international development efforts. He has received virtually every honor awarded by the Society of Comparative and International Education. His former students are unanimous in their praise for his compassion and integrity. “He’s been an amazing mentor to me,” says Cathryn Dhanatya, an assistant dean for research at the USC Rossiter School of Education. “I’ve never experienced anything remotely malicious or negative in terms of how he views students and how he wants them to succeed.” Rosalind Raby, director of the California Colleges for International Education, says that Rust pushes you to “reexamine your own thought processes. There is no one more sensitive to the issue of cross-cultural understanding.” A spring 2013 newsletter from UCLA’s ed school celebrated Rust’s career and featured numerous testimonials about his warmth and support for students.

It was therefore ironic that Rust’s graduate-level class in dissertation preparation was the target of student protest just a few months later—ironic, but in the fevered context of the UCLA education school, not surprising. The school, which trumpets its “social-justice” mission at every opportunity, is a cauldron of simmering racial tensions. Students specializing in “critical race theory”—an intellectually vacuous import from law schools—play the race card incessantly against their fellow students and their professors, leading to an atmosphere of nervous self-censorship. Foreign students are particularly shell-shocked by the school’s climate. “The Asians are just terrified,” says a recent graduate. “They walk into this hyper-racialized environment and have no idea what’s going on. Their attitude in class is: ‘I don’t want to talk. Please don’t make me talk!’ ”


Val Rust’s dissertation-prep class had devolved into a highly charged arena of competing victim ideologies, impenetrable to anyone outside academia. For example: Were white feminists who use “standpoint theory”—a feminist critique of allegedly male-centered epistemology—illegitimately appropriating the “testimonial” genre used by Chicana feminists to narrate their stories of oppression? Rust took little part in these “methodological” disputes—if one can describe “Chicana testimonials” as a scholarly “method”—but let the more theoretically up-to-date students hash it out among themselves. Other debates centered on the political implications of punctuation. Rust had changed a student’s capitalization of the word “indigenous” in her dissertation proposal to the lowercase, thus allegedly showing disrespect for the student’s ideological point of view. Tensions arose over Rust’s insistence that students use the more academic Chicago Manual of Style for citation format; some students felt that the less formal American Psychological Association conventions better reflected their political commitments. During one of these heated discussions, Rust reached over and patted the arm of the class’s most vociferous critical race–theory advocate to try to calm him down—a gesture typical of the physically demonstrative Rust, who is prone to hugs. The student, Kenjus Watson, dramatically jerked his arm away, as a burst of nervous energy coursed through the room.

After each of these debates, the self-professed “students of color” exchanged e-mails about their treatment by the class’s “whites.” (Asians are not considered “persons of color” on college campuses, presumably because they are academically successful.) Finally, on November 14, 2013, the class’s five “students of color,” accompanied by “students of color” from elsewhere at UCLA, as well as by reporters and photographers from the campus newspaper, made their surprise entrance into Rust’s class as a “collective statement of Resistance by Graduate Students of Color.” The protesters formed a circle around Rust and the remaining five students (one American, two Europeans, and two Asian nationals) and read aloud their “Day of Action Statement.” That statement suggests that Rust’s modest efforts to help students with their writing faced obstacles too great to overcome.

The Day of Action Statement contains hardly a sentence without some awkwardness of grammar or usage. “The silence on the repeated assailment of our work by white female colleagues, our professor’s failure to acknowledge and assuage the escalating hostility directed at the onlyMale of Color in this cohort, as well as his own repeated questioning of this male’s intellectual and professional decisions all support a complacency in this hostile and unsafe climate for Scholars of Color,” the manifesto asserts. The Day of Action Statement denounces the class’s “racial microaggressions,” which it claims have been “directed at our epistemologies, our intellectual rigor and to a misconstruction of the methodological genealogies that we have shared with the class.” (Though it has only caught on in recent years, the “microaggression” concept was first coined in the 1970s by a black psychiatrist.) Reaching its peroration, the statement unleashes a few more linguistic head-scratchers: “It is, at its most benign, disingenuous to the next generations of Scholars of Color to not seek material and systematic changes in this department. It is a toxic, unsafe and intellectually stifling environment at its current worse.”

The Ph.D. candidates who authored this statement are at the threshold of a career in academia—and not just any career in academia but one teaching teachers. The Day of Action Statement should have been a wake-up call to the school’s authorities—not about UCLA’s “hostile racial climate” but about their own pedagogical failure to prepare students for scholarly writing and advising. Rust is hardly the first professor to be criticized for his efforts to help students write. “Asking for better grammar is inflammatory in the school,” says an occasional T.A. “You have to give an A or you’re a racist.”

The authorities chose a different course.

Read the whole thing. It’s terrifying, and yes, Stalinist: all it takes for a distinguished professor to be thrown under the bus at the age of 79 by UCLA is groundless, militantly ignorant accusations by racial minorities in the grip of vigilance against microaggressions. And it did not stop with this one professor. Like I said, read the whole thing. It’s staggering to think of how savagely politicized that campus is, and how mere accusations, however flimsy, if lodged by a person of color, can have such dramatic effects.

Who could possibly want to attend UCLA knowing that this is how the administration reacts to mere accusations? Who could possibly want to teach there? Woe to the schools that hire these graduates who took Professor Rust’s scalp. They will be poison to any department or group with which they work in the future. And this kind of thing is not limited to UCLA, and its effects not limited to campuses. Mac Donald:

The universities’ encouragement of victimology has wider implications beyond the campus. The same imperative to repress any acknowledgment of black academic underachievement as the cause of black underrepresentation in higher education is more fatefully at work in repressing awareness of disproportionate black criminality as the cause of black overrepresentation in the criminal-justice system. When a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot an unarmed black teen in August 2014, for example, the media suppressed any information about the incident that complicated its favored narrative about police brutality, all the while pumping out strained stories about racism in law enforcement and public life more generally. The result was days of violence, looting, and arson, from a populace that had been told at every opportunity that it is the target of ubiquitous discrimination.

Colleges today are determined to preserve in many of their students the thin skin and solipsism of adolescence, rather than turning them into dispassionate adults. They build ever more monumental bureaucracies to indulge those traits. By now, of course, many of the adults running colleges are indistinguishable from their eggshell plaintiff students. The rest of us bear the costs, in the maintenance of public policies founded on an equally spurious victimology.

Again, read the whole story.  Years ago, in a former job, when I was accused of a complete ridiculous microaggression by a colleague who counted as a member of an oppressed group. I made a point of avoiding that colleague after that, and shutting myself off from any but the most necessary interactions — this, for fear that something I might say or do would set the colleague off, and lead that person to denounce me to the HR department. Knowing the culture of that company, I feared I would be treated exactly as UCLA treated Prof. Rust.

UPDATE: It occurs to me that from a Dantean point of view, the perpetrators of the “microaggression” culture are worthy of the pits of the Inferno because they make normal human bonds of community impossible. Everyone has to be on guard all the time, lest the most innocent, ordinary thing they say be taken by these bullies to be evidence of racist (sexist, anti-gay, whatever) aggression, and therefore cause to destroy a career or a reputation.

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‘Forget It, Jake, It’s Cosbytown’

Here’s a commendable reflection by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who did a piece for The Atlantic on Bill Cosby seven years ago. TNC says in the course of his reporting, he had to confront the rape allegations against Cosby — they aren’t new — but because they weren’t part of his focus on this piece, and because it would have required a lot of reporting he hadn’t planned to do, he didn’t pursue them. Excerpt:

The Bill Cosby piece was my first shot writing for a big national magazine. I had been writing for 12 financially insecure years. By 2007, when I finished my first draft, I had lost three jobs in seven years. I had just been laid-off by Time magazine. My kid was getting older. I was subsisting off unemployment checks and someone else’s salary. A voice in my head was, indeed, pushing me to do something more expansive and broader in its implication, something that did not just question Cosby’s moralizing, but weighed it against the acts which I believed he committed. But Cosby was such a big target that I thought it was only a matter of time before someone published a hard-hitting, investigative piece. And besides, I had in my hand the longest, best, and most personally challenging piece I’d ever written.

It was not enough.

I have often thought about how those women would have felt had they read my piece. The subject was morality—and yet one of the biggest accusations of immorality was left for a few sentences, was rendered invisible.

I don’t have many writing regrets. But this is one of them. I regret not saying what I thought of the accusations, and then pursuing those thoughts. I regret it because the lack of pursuit puts me in league with people who either looked away, or did not look hard enough. I take it as a personal admonition to always go there, to never flinch, to never look away.

Read the whole thing. It’s admirable.

I can’t say that I’ve had anything in my professional background that put me to the test quite like this, but I am certain I would have performed no better than TNC did under the same circumstances.

The only thing sort of like this from my career is my moral certainty that a number of accusations made privately against a certain prominent Roman Catholic bishop were and are true. I began learning about these allegations in the spring of 2002. This bishop’s behavior — sexual harassment of seminarians and priests, including in at least one case I know about, a rape — is known relatively widely within elite church circles, both clerical and lay. I could not get a single person to go on the record telling what they knew, nor could I get any legal documents. The story went unreported. It makes me sick that this bishop got away with it. With all these alleged Cosby victims coming out and putting their name to allegations against him, I found myself hoping just the other day that some of this bishop’s victims will do the same.

The problem is that as far as I know, the victims are all priests, and they have a reasonable fear of retribution if they come forward. Still do, I imagine. I know of at least three prominent Catholic laymen who have personal knowledge of these crimes, but who would not talk about it in 2002. They cannot be hurt professionally by telling the truth about this bishop. I hope their consciences are troubling them today, and they will speak out.

I regret that I did not push harder back in the day to find someone willing to talk, or to unearth documents. I was living in New York City, and would have had to travel to get the information. I had no car, and no budget for travel. There were a thousand other things on my plate at the time, stories that were much easier to report. I let this one slip.

The story is still out there. Why don’t I go after it now? Because the bishop is retired, and because I wrecked myself spiritually and emotionally with the clerical sexual abuse story a decade ago, and don’t want to revisit it. To be clear: I never saw a document proving this bishop’s guilt, or spoke to a victim. I only heard story after story, from priests and laymen with first-hand knowledge of the bishop’s dark deeds. To believe this man was innocent would have required believing that a number of people, most of them unknown to each other, were lying.

No small number of journalists on this beat know who I’m talking about; this is one of the worst-kept secrets in church-beat journalism. I hope a journalist who is in a position to do the reporting will think about the Cosby story, and what those victims have gone through, and will find it within himself or herself to do the digging necessary to bring this story to light. And I hope he or she is working for a news organization that will broadcast or publish the results of the investigation. Because even though this bishop is not in power any longer, the real story now is how so many people in his dioceses and beyond — even in the Vatican — knew exactly what kind of predator he was, and did nothing about it.

I don’t feel regret like TNC does, exactly. But I do feel some self-reproach, because a powerful man who abused his authority to force sex on vulnerable men — men who knew he could have had them thrown out of the priesthood, or denied ordination, had they refused him — sleeps untroubled in his bed, and I did not do everything I could have done to expose his wrongdoing when it might have mattered.

Then again, it might not have mattered. A couple of years ago, I helped a journalist working with a major news organization (not one I have ever worked for) on this story. He dug up court documents and got on the record interviews with victims. He had the bishop nailed — and an editor killed the story before publication. Why? The reporter himself has no idea why it happened. I hope that that editor’s conscience is bothering him these days. He protected a predator. Is protecting a predator.

Somebody in this blog’s comments said the other day that people like Bill Cosby get away with it because nobody wants to live in a world in which Bill Cosby is a rapist. This is an important principle that explains a lot of looking the other way, and why victims of certain figures never come forward. There are too many complicated entanglements preventing justice from being known. All of us have interests and illusions that we would rather sacrifice others for than see challenged. And as TNC indicates, we often don’t even know when we’re doing it. Forget it, Jake, it’s Cosbytown.

UPDATE: I can hear readers now, “So why don’t you name the guy, if he’s done all these horrible things?” The same reason I never wrote the story: I don’t have solid proof in my hand, proof that I can cite in a story. It is possible, however unlikely, that he is innocent. If someone makes a public allegation, or files a lawsuit, with publicly accessible documents, I’ll be very pleased to write about it. But so far, to my knowledge, none of that has happened. Cosby’s story only got traction recently when one of his alleged victims came forward and used her name. That brought others forward. Most journalists, whatever their beat, know awful things about people they cover that are incontrovertibly true, or that they believe are true, but that they cannot broadcast or publish because the standard is — rightly — quite high. I bring up this particular case to illustrate how the powerful can get away with things like this, even if the media have solid reason to believe the accusations they’re hearing about behind the scenes are true.


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The Tao of the Traditional Family


I cannot say enough good things about the address Lord Sacks, the retired Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, gave to the recent ecumenical gathering in the Vatican devoted to the family. Maybe it is enough to say that if you read nothing else today, or this week, make certain that you read his speech. It begins like this:

I want this morning to begin our conversation by one way of telling the story of the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world. There are of course many ways of telling the story, and this is just one. But to me it is a story of seven key moments, each of them surprising and unexpected.

The first, according to a report in the press on 20th October of this year, took place in a lake in Scotland 385 million years ago. It was then, according to this new discovery, that two fish came together to perform the first instance of sexual reproduction known to science. Until then all life had propagated itself asexually, by cell division, budding, fragmentation or parthenogenesis, all of which are far simpler and more economical than the division of life into male and female, each with a different role in creating and sustaining life.

5139292683_556a3e0744_mWhen we consider, even in the animal kingdom, how much effort and energy the coming together of male and female takes, in terms of displays, courtship rituals, rivalries and violence, it is astonishing that sexual reproduction ever happened at all. Biologists are still not quite sure why it did. Some say to offer protection against parasites, or immunities against disease. Others say it’s simply that the meeting of opposites generates diversity. But one way or another, the fish in Scotland discovered something new and beautiful that’s been copied ever since by virtually all advanced forms of life. Life begins when male and female meet and embrace.

He goes on to trace the evolution of the idea of monogamy, and the traditional family, which in Lord Sacks view is the unfolding of God’s plan. More:

It seems that among hunter gatherers, pair bonding was the norm. Then came
agriculture, and economic surplus, and cities and civilisation, and for the first time sharp inequalities began to emerge between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The great ziggurats of Mesopotamia and pyramids of ancient Egypt, with their broad base and narrow top, were monumental statements in stone of a hierarchical society in which the few had power over the many. And the most obvious expression of power among alpha males whether human or primate, is to dominate access to fertile women and thus maximise the handing on of your genes to the next generation. Hence polygamy, which exists in 95 per cent of mammal species and 75 per cent of cultures known to anthropology. Polygamy is the ultimate expression of inequality because it means that many males never get the chance to have a wife and child. And sexual envy has been, throughout history, among animals as well as humans, a prime driver of violence.

That is what makes the first chapter of Genesis so revolutionary with its
statement that every human being, regardless of class, colour, culture or creed, is in the image and likeness of God himself. We know that in the ancient world it was rulers, kings, emperors and pharaohs who were held to be in the image of God. So what Genesis was saying was that we are all royalty. We each have equal dignity in the kingdom of faith under the sovereignty of God.

From this it follows that we each have an equal right to form a marriage and have children, which is why, regardless of how we read the story of Adam and Eve – and there are differences between Jewish and Christian readings – the norm presupposed by that story is: one woman, one man. Or as the Bible itself says: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

Monogamy did not immediately become the norm, even within the world of the Bible. But many of its most famous stories, about the tension between Sarah and Hagar, or Leah and Rachel and their children, or David and Bathsheba, or Solomon’s many wives, are all critiques that point the way to monogamy.

And then:

What was new and remarkable in the Hebrew Bible was the idea that love, not just fairness, is the driving principle of the moral life. Three loves. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might.” “Love your neighbour as yourself.” And, repeated no less than 36 times in the Mosaic books, “Love the stranger because you know what it feels like to be a stranger.” Or to put it another way: just as God created the natural world in love and forgiveness, so we are charged with creating the social world in love and forgiveness. And that love is a flame lit in marriage and the family. Morality is the love between husband and wife, parent and child, extended outward to the world.

The fifth development shaped the entire structure of Jewish experience. In ancient Israel an originally secular form of agreement, called a covenant, was taken and transformed into a new way of thinking about the relationship between God and humanity, in the case of Noah, and between God and a people in the case of Abraham and later the Israelites at Mount Sinai. A covenant is like a marriage. It is a mutual pledge of loyalty and trust between two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, to work together to achieve together what neither can achieve alone. And there is one thing even God cannot achieve alone, which is to live within the human heart. That needs us.

One more quote:

What made the traditional family remarkable, a work of high religious art, is what it brought together: sexual drive, physical desire, friendship, companionship, emotional kinship and love, the begetting of children and their protection and care, their early education and induction into an identity and a history. Seldom has any institution woven together so many different drives and desires, roles and responsibilities. It made sense of the world and gave it a human face, the face of love.

For a whole variety of reasons, some to do with medical developments like birth control, in vitro fertilisation and other genetic interventions, some to do with moral change like the idea that we are free to do whatever we like so long as it does not harm others, some to do with a transfer of responsibilities from the individual to the state, and other and more profound changes in the culture of the West, almost everything that marriage once brought together has now been split apart. Sex has been divorced from love, love from commitment, marriage from having children, and having children from responsibility for their care.

Read the whole thing.  The rabbi’s conclusion is so beautiful and true that it very nearly brought tears to my eyes. If you are confused or in despair about love and the traditional family in this time of atomization, chaos, and confusion, Lord Sacks’s speech will give you clarity, solace, and a sense of mission.

In the same way, I cannot commend to you strongly enough this 16-minute video, produced by the Vatican for the gathering; it’s part of a series called “Humanum”. I learned about it through C.C. Pecknold, who rightly praises its production values to the moon. This is superb storytelling:

In the video, Boston College philosopher Peter Kreeft says:

The masculine and the feminine are cosmological. They are not limited to humans, or even just to animals. Every language that I know of, except English, has masculine or feminine nouns . . . the sun and moon, the day and night, the water and the rocks . . . but most today think this is a projection of our sexuality into the universe. That makes us strangers to the universe. The God who invented human sexuality also invented the universe; the two fit. It’s a much happier philosophy: we fit the nature of things.

Do you see what I mean by Tao? Monogamy and the traditional family is built into the nature of created order, for the flourishing of humankind. When I wrote that the same-sex marriage revolution is “cosmological,” this is what I was talking about.

Here is a link to the entire six-part Humanum series. I intend to watch them all. If the rest of them are as good as the first episode, then the Humanum series ought to be watched by every family and every Sunday school/CCD class. It is a terrific articulation of the traditional, and traditional Christian, worldview on the importance of monogamy, marriage, and complementarity. I intend to watch them together with my children. I hope you will too.

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