Rod Dreher

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Ferguson Will Never Come Back

Whatever the cause or causes of the crisis in Ferguson, five, ten years from now, do you think life will be better or worse for the people remaining there because of the riots? Fred Siegel has no doubt:

Riots bring but one certainty—enormous economic and social costs. Businesses flee, taking jobs and tax revenues with them. Home values decline for all races, but particularly for blacks. Insurance costs rise and civic morale collapses. The black and white middle classes move out. Despite its busy port and enormous geographic assets, Newark, New Jersey has never fully recovered from its 1967 riot. This year, Newark elected as its mayor Ras Baraka, the son and political heir of Amiri Baraka—the intellectual inspiration for the 1967 unrest.

The story is similar in Detroit, which lost half its residents between 1967 and 2000. Civic authority was never restored after the late 1960s riots, which never really ended; they just continued in slow motion. “It got decided a long time ago in Detroit,” explained Adolph Mongo, advisor to the jailed former “hip-hop mayor,” Kwame Kilpatrick, that “the city belongs to the black man. The white man was a convenient target until there were no white men left in Detroit.” The upshot, explained Sam Riddle, an advisor to current congressman John Conyers, first elected in 1965, is that “the only difference between Detroit and the Third World in terms of corruption is that Detroit don’t have no goats in the streets.”

However unjust the provocation, burning down your own house is never a good idea. All the concern expressed by all the journalists, activists, and academics in the world will not replace the lost businesses and the lost middle class. The kind of people — black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and so forth — that you need around to build a viable and thriving neighborhood will leave, and they really don’t care what you think.

Imagine that the residents of Ferguson would have responded with non-violent resistance, and met the tear gas of the police with same.

Martin Luther King Jr. was not only a spiritual genius, he also saved America — black America and white America both — from a terrible fate. If the Palestinians ever produce a MLK, it will be a new world.

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Missing California’s Water As Its Wells Run Dry

A friend who just moved from southern California to Dallas said his two year old son has seen more rain in the past few days than he has seen his entire life in California. The WaPo reports that the exceptional drought in California has gotten so bad that the state is entering uncharted territory. The state is now drawing down its aquifers, which take much longer to replenish than lakes. Excerpts:

When those faltered, some switched on their well pumps, drawing up thousands of gallons from underground aquifers to prevent their walnut trees and alfalfa crops from drying up. Until the wells, too, began to fail.

Now, across California’s vital agricultural belt, nervousness over the state’s epic drought has given way to alarm. Streams and lakes have long since shriveled up in many parts of the state, and now the aquifers — always a backup source during the region’s periodic droughts — are being pumped away at rates that scientists say are both historic and unsustainable.

One state-owned well near Sacramento registered an astonishing 100-foot drop in three months as the water table, strained by new demand from farmers, homeowners and municipalities, sank to a record low. Other wells have simply dried up, in such numbers that local drilling companies are reporting backlogs of six to eight months to dig a new one.

In still other areas, aquifers are emptying so quickly that the land itself is subsiding, like cereal in a bowl after the milk has drained out.


“A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account,” Howitt said. “We’re acting like the super rich who have so much money they don’t need to balance their checkbook.”

The Golden State has always been a symbol for an America that does not have to live within natural limits. And now? I remember when I lived in Dallas, north Texas was suffering a very severe and prolonged drought. It was hard for us to think about having to seriously change our lifestyles because there wasn’t enough water to support our living as we wanted to live. That drought ended, but if the climate change forecasts are correct, drought will become a way of life for California and the American Southwest. Humankind is paying the price of believing that freedom means liberation from all limits.

Or maybe I’m just moralizing meteorology…

UPDATE: JamesP writes, worryingly:

I read that unless the rainfall and snowfall increase dramatically, the state has enough water only for two more years. This is a disaster for the state, for banks who will be sitting on billion$ in failed mortgages once the population has to leave to survive, for Americans who eat fresh fruit and vegetables, for the wine industry and treasured vineyards. How will the US economy absorb tens of millions of displaced and unemployed people? What happens when SF and LA become the next Detroits? (AZ, NE, and NM aren’t far behind.) What happens to politics when all of those blue state Californians move to other states? Will they make Texas purple or outright blue, or will they make the East Coast bluer than blue? Does Silicon Valley move to Austin and Seattle? This could really, really, really happen. If it happens in short order, we are looking at National Guard operations to distribute food and water and to deal with sanitation until folks can be moved out. Welfare will balloon. If I lived in CA, I’d have an escape plan in place right now, which would include renting until things resolve one way or another, or probably just getting out. Huge desalination plants are in the works, but not enough or soon enough. This situation is a national threat in so many ways.

When Jared Diamond picks up and leaves California, you’ll know it’s time to go.

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‘True Detective’: Walker Percy Noir

Over the weekend, Julie and I watched the pilot episode of True Detective, the gritty Louisiana serial drama starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two state police investigators who fall apart investigating an occult murder in a sugarcane field; it turns out to be a hunt for a serial killer. The show completed its first-season run, and is not on iTunes. I asked my Twitter followers if we should stick with it. The show is about staring into the abyss. I have no desire to spend too much time staring into the abyss, because I’m afraid it will stare back, as it once did. But McConaughey’s grim, philosophically inclined character, and his mesmerizing performance, intrigued me. (And I was not put off by the fact that nobody in this show’s Cajun Louisiana, at least in the first episode, speaks with a Cajun accent.) I saw enough of the show to conclude that it doesn’t look like it’s going to be bleak to no purpose. But who knows? I didn’t want to commit to it if all the show would do would be to descend into stylized nihilism, like Mad Men, with which I eventually grew bored.

A Twitter follower put me on to this post by Catholic blogger Paul Schumann, in which he says that if Walker Percy had written crime noir for television, True Detective is the kind of thing he would have written. I am going to post below as much of the review that I read; I stopped because I could see spoilers coming. This was enough to convince me to stick with the show:

Walker Percy enthusiasts have wondered when one of his novels would find its way to Hollywood. I am convinced the famed Southern Catholic author has already made his mark — but not in the way one might expect. The HBO series True Detective is an explicit and crude show at times that nonetheless is how I picture Walker Percy crime noir.

An obvious theme of True Detective is existentialism, most keenly felt by the audience through the monologues of Detective Rust Cohle and in a more blunt fashion through the experiences of Detective Martin Hart. Rust scoffs at belief in God but cannot make sense of life once he’s written off the Creator. It’s all seemingly pointless, a feeling accentuated by the personal tragedy of losing his young daughter in a car accident. His intense self-analysis is similar to that of another Percy character, Will Barrett, in The Last Gentleman.

Martin is an alcoholic womanizing Christian family man. Maggie Hart describes her detective husband as someone who “didn’t know who he was, so he didn’t know what he wanted.” This effectively sums up a typical problem of the Walker Percy character, especially The Moviegoer‘s Binx Bolling. The ennui of this Louisiana stockbroker persists no matter how many women he pursues or films he sees at the cinema. Martin Hart’s internal conflict continues, despite his seemingly stable job and family life. His is an unexamined life, marked by constantly following animal lust and an urge to drunkenness. His Christianity is the type suspicious of philosophy, theology, and science — preferring instead the brief emotional highs of the travelling preacher. It makes him feel good just as indulging in whiskey and women to bring him pleasure. It causes him no opportunity for self-reflection or, more critically, no examination of conscience. It may be just this sort of Christianity that another Southern Catholic author, Flannery O’Connor, believed to populate the “Christ-haunted South.”

If you’ve already seen True Detective‘s first season, read on. If not, and you’re interested in doing so. don’t click the link.

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We Need Both Jeremiah & Benedict

I’d like to offer a further comment to my remarks last week on Samuel Goldman’s “Jeremiah Option” and my Benedict Option. They are inspired, if that is the word, by the sad occasion of reading a Washington Post article reporting that conservative Christian leaders lament that there are no good Republican presidential candidates to get behind in 2016. Excerpt:

The disconnect between social conservatives and the GOP has become a “chasm,” said Gary Bauer, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 and is now head of the Campaign for Working Families. He pointed to the party’s two most recent presidential nominees, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, as examples of candidates who were touted initially as having broad appeal to centrists in the general election but ultimately never inspired evangelicals and lost.

“Values voters have been treated as the stepchildren of the family, while the party has wanted to get on with so-called more electorally popular ideas,” Bauer said. “The Republican base will not tolerate another candidate foisted upon us as a guy who can win.”

Oh, nonsense. Of course it will. Is there anything more predictable than politicized Evangelicals saying that the GOP has mistreated them, and they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? Reading that story is almost poignant, in that it depicts folks who don’t grasp how much the world has changed. I don’t mean to put down their concerns; in fact, I share most of them. The thought that electing the right Republican president is going to make a bit of difference in the moral state of the nation is by now almost touching in its utter naivete. Let me be clear: it’s not that Evangelicals are wrong to say the nation’s moral fabric is declining; from a socially and religiously conservative point of view, of course it is. Their error is in thinking that politics can have much of an effect on the core problem.

With that piece, and Goldman’s Jeremiah Option essay on my mind, I spent time over the weekend with the Jeremiah chapter in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s terrific book The Prophets, which was given to me as a gift by the class to whom I spoke in Wisconsin last year. Rabbi Heschel delves deeply into the Book of Jeremiah, who was the doomiest and gloomiest of the Hebrew prophets. He explores in particular the pathos of Jeremiah’s character: a gentle man who was called by God to thunder prophecies of ruin to Israel if they did not turn from their ways, and a man who loved his people deeply, but whose fate it was to draw their hatred for pointing out to them their own infidelity, and the punishment it was bringing down on them.

This is key. Jeremiah sounded to those who didn’t want to hear him like someone who hated Israel, but in fact his vehemence came from loving Israel. I wonder: to what extent does the concern and activism of religious and social conservatives (including myself) come from genuine love of America and Americans, and to what extent does it come from anger and despair? I am sure there is more of the latter than the former, and I am sure that we need to work on that.

More importantly to our purposes here, it is striking how Jeremiah insists that what ails Israel is a moral and spiritual crisis — but Israel’s leaders believe rather that it is a political crisis. Jeremiah shouts from the rooftops that Israel must repent, or judgment will come from God through the Babylonians. In fact, judgment cannot be delayed, Jeremiah says; God will deliver Israel into the hands of the Babylonians as punishment for Israel’s infidelity. The thing for Israel to do, says the prophet, is to believe that God is allowing the Babylonian Empire to rule Israel for His own purposes. The survival of Israel depends on its cooperating with the coming conquerors.

But the Israeli elites believe instead that they can protect themselves through politics and diplomacy. It is a near-fatal error, as the Babylonians break their resistance by destroying the Temple and carrying most of Israel off to captivity in Babylon.

What is the lesson for us today? In his Jeremiah Option essay, Goldman counsels religious conservatives to make their peace with the new world order in “Babylon,” as Jeremiah told captive Israel.

What is God saying? In the first place, he insists that the captives unpack their bags and get comfortable. True, God goes on to promise to redeem the captives in 70 years. But this can be interpreted to mean that none of the exiles then living would ever see their homes again. After all, the span that the Bible allots to a human life is threescore years and 10.

So the captives are to await redemption in God’s time rather than seeking to achieve it by human means. But this does not mean that that they are to keep their distance from Babylonian society until the promised day arrives. On the contrary, God commands them to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”

“Peace” could be read as the absence of conflict. But this doesn’t fully express God’s directive. In the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition more broadly, peace refers to flourishing and right order. What God is saying is that the exiles cannot prosper unless their neighbors do as well. For the time they are together, they must enjoy the blessings of peace in common.

Goldman encourages religious conservatives not to be separatists in this new Babylon, but to participate in the broader culture and work for its prosperity. He distinguishes this from the Benedict Option, in my opinion, chiefly in that he has a more optimistic belief that the exiles can avoid assimilation than I do. For more on this, see my post from last week. 

We Americans do not today have among us a Prophet Jeremiah to speak to us authoritatively about the will of God in our present circumstance. Nevertheless, it seems even more clear to me today, after thinking and reading over the weekend, that Goldman is substantially correct about the futility of seeking political solutions to problems that aren’t political. I still maintain that the Benedict Option is necessary to provide meaningful places and communities of cultural resistance to Babylon.

What does this mean practically? Here are some sketchy thoughts. I offer them to start a conversation, not end one:

1. Traditional Christians should quit lying to themselves (ourselves) about the possibility that politics can adequately address the core problems we identify in American culture. It’s not that politics are inconsequential, but rather that what can be achieved through politics is limited. It always was, of course, but now it is especially so. To place so much hope for cultural renewal in politics is to make the error of King Jehoiakim, who failed to understand the situation facing Israel for what it was. Heschel says that Jehoiakim was more interested in building palaces than pursuing renewal and righteousness. From Jeremiah 22:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,

And his upper rooms by injustice;

Who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing,

And does not give him his wages;

Who says, I will build myself a great house

With spacious upper rooms,

And cults out windows for it,

Paneling it with cedar,

And painting it with vermilion.

Do you think you are a king

Because you compete in cedar?

Do we think we are Christians because God has blessed us with material things and liberty? What use have we made of these blessings? Because we build megachurches, bishops’ palaces, McMansions for our own homes? Is it possible that God is judging us? I ask of all Christians, not just traditional ones? I ask it of myself.

2. If the core of our problems are moral and spiritual, then we must build the institutions and communal structures that will address those problems, and attempt to solve them. No politician, Republican or Democrat, saved anyone’s soul. Again, this is not to say that our religious beliefs do not have political consequences. They do. But it is to say that we have to keep straight in our minds what our goals are, and what the means to reach them are.

3. As a Christian and conservative, I have become interested in voting for the candidate who can most be trusted to work for the maximal protection of religious liberty and an autonomous sphere within which traditionalist Christians (and others) can work to build our own institutions (churches, schools, voluntary associations) that enable us to live out in common our conception of the moral life. This means that I will support a candidate who favors gay marriage rights if I believe that that candidate can be trusted to fight for religious liberty, and if that candidate is the most viable rightward candidate.

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‘Your Liberal And Democratic Principles Are Worth Nothing Here’

Archbishop Amel Nona, the Chaldean Catholic Archeparch of Mosul, gave an interview from exile to Corriere della Sera. The man was blunt:

Our sufferings today are the prelude of those you, Europeans and Western Christians, will also suffer in the near future. I lost my diocese. The physical setting of my apostolate has been occupied by Islamic radicals who want us converted or dead. But my community is still alive.

Please, try to understand us. Your liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here. You must consider again our reality in the Middle East, because you are welcoming in your countries an ever growing number of Muslims. Also you are in danger. You must take strong and courageous decisions, even at the cost of contradicting your principles. You think all men are equal, but that is not true: Islam does not say that all men are equal. Your values are not their values. If you do not understand this soon enough, you will become the victims of the enemy you have welcomed in your home.

[H/T: Rorate Caeli]

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View From Your Table

Belle Île, Bretagne, France

Belle Île, Bretagne, France

The very, very lucky reader writes:

Thought of you this morning. I have spent most of the summer in Europe, and we are on a small island off the coast of Brittany (the aptly named Belle Ile) for a couple of weeks. Many, many crepes / gallettes, and much cidre. This was our breakfast this morning — note what is in the front. Huitres for breakfast. Vive La France!

Breakfast oysters! France, man, is there any place better? Don’t answer unless you are going to say non.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The reader writes:

Wineberries (like raspberries, but smaller and not quite as tart) picked wild near the Schuylkill River, then baked with a honey almond flour crust. Served with coconut milk or fresh farm yogurt. Eaten in the backyard before catching fireflies.

That has to be one of the all-time great summer VFYTs, yes? Fireflies, berries, backyard.

Seattle, Washington

Seattle, Washington

The reader made a tomato-garlic-rosemary recipe from a previous VFYT, and writes:

I certainly don’t expect you to use it since it is hardly a view that anyone would find enchanting in any way. But it is my place in Seattle and a slice of my bachelor life. If I had found the DVD, Casablanca would be on the screen instead of the X-Box screen. The pasta is homemade using my Mom’s pasta maker that I inherited because she had pancreatic cancer at the same time I had leukemia. The Kindle is showing A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. And the 250 ml Erlenmeyer flask has my balsamic vinaigrette which I always mix myself.

Schattenhalb, Switzerland

Schattenhalb, Switzerland

Doesn’t that look amazing? Makes me think of Patrick Leigh Fermor. The reader writes:

While hiking across the Swiss Alps on the Via Alpina, stopped to lunch outside at the historic Hotel Rosenlaui and couldn’t resist ordering the “Goethe Teller”: baked potato, three kinds of local cheeses, a basket containing several types of local bread, cream of vegetable soup, an apple, prunes, cherries, apricots, and hazelnuts. Washed down with Rugen Brau beer from nearby Interlaken. Goethe stayed here, as did Nietzsche, Tolstoy and Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, Doyle wrote the hotel into The Final Problem (although my recollection is that only Dr. Watson made it to the hotel, Sherlock Holmes having tumbled over the nearby Reichenbach Falls with Dr. Moriarty).

Two Harbors, Minnesota

Two Harbors, Minnesota

Here’s an unusual one:


Followed by this one:

Dublin, Ireland

Dublin, Ireland

The reader who sent them both explains:

In May, I went the Emergency Room and was admitted to the Cardiac Intensive care unit for 3 days. Here’s the view from my table. My meal was comprised of clear liquids and gruel. The monitor in the background shows a strong pulse, normal blood pressure and great oxygen saturation levels, leading me to be discharged with a clean bill of health. Under such circumstances, gruel can taste like a gourmet meal.

I was discharged a week before I left for my Ireland vacation. The following is the view from our pub table in the Temple Bar, Dublin Ireland. The oysters were magnificent–huge, meaty and tender. They were the beginning of an evening “Traditional Music Pub Crawl.” We enjoyed a wonderful evening of irish music, song food and drink. I toasted your health and gave thanks for my own, with a Guinness, and of course, the oysters.

That’s marvelous! Thanks for your kind wishes, and the oysters and Guinness. I’m grateful that you are healthy and, um, stout. ;)

Jackson, Wyoming

Jackson, Wyoming

The reader writes:

Those are peanut shells. And g&Ts We are at the Q Roadhouse on a huge veranda overlooking a shady lawn where a bunch of happy kids are playing while their parents sit and sip cocktails. I think Wyoming folks are quite possibly the nicest people on the planet. We are on a road trip from Portland to St. Louis. Our radiator died today and if you ever break down, this is the place to do it. People really look out for each other out here.


Charlotte, North Carolina

Charlotte, North Carolina

The reader writes:

I visited NC this weekend and decided to take in a minor league baseball game. This is from BB&T Stadium in Charlotte, a day game last Friday between the Charlotte Knights and the Pawtucket Red Sox. It’s a really nice little stadium in uptown; cheap seats and a friendly crowd. It’s a shame they weren’t selling better beer as NC has some great micro-breweries but I don’t mind a Blue Moon from time to time.

And finally, a rule-breaking VFYT, because it shows faces, but in this case, I hope you’ll indulge me. Here are my mother and father tonight at the dinner we gave them in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary:

Starhill, Louisiana

Starhill, Louisiana

Starhill, Louisiana

Starhill, Louisiana

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The Sophomore Slump

Philosophy professor James K.A. Smith observes that some of the most promising college freshmen lose their edge in their sophomore year. From an open letter to a college freshman, warning him not to become one of those sophomores:

It’s not just that you’re a year wiser; you carry the air of the newly enlightened. Your curiosity has hardened into a misplaced confidence; your desire to learn has turned into a penchant to pronounce, as if wisdom were a race to being the quickest debunker. You used to wonder about the social vision behind Philip Larkin’s poetry, or whether Thomas Aquinas’s notion of natural law could really work in a secular age, but now you seem more intent on unmasking “micro-aggressions” and detecting colonial prejudice in a canon that you increasingly disdain.

I’ve seen it before—I see it every year. And I know where it is coming from.

I know those colleagues who confuse teaching with advocacy—those colleagues who think they are broadening your horizons and opening up your world and disabusing you of your former narrowness. Teachers who delight in debunking “traditional” values that your parents espouse, teachers for whom cultural criticism consists of scoffing at anything “conservative.”

They were my teachers, too. I know how it feels to be invited into this exclusive club. I understand the joy ride of liberal enlightenment. But what if they’re asking you to trade one sort of narrowness for another?

Read the whole thing. I’m thrilled to see Jamie appearing in the Wall Street Journal! More people should know about him and his work.

(By the way, I wrote this on Saturday night and am scheduling it to appear on Sunday. I’m continuing to observe a Sabbath away from the blog. I won’t be approving comments till Sunday night, after the dinner party we’re having for my mom and dad, to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Expect a VFYT. In fact, I’ve got a huge backlog of VFYTs to post. I hope you’re hungry.)

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The Seven Sleepers Revered By Muslims & Christians

Here’s something odd and wonderful. Tonight at the vespers service, we commemorated the Seven Sleepers Of Ephesus. Huh? Matthew whispered to me, “That sounds like a Ray Bradbury story.”

Have you heard of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus? I have never heard of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. When we made it home, we looked up the story online. The Seven Sleepers were young third-century Ephesian Christians who were facing the prospect of martyrdom under the pagan Emperor Decius. According to the legend, they hid in a cave on a nearby mountain, praying and waiting to be taken away and murdered for refusing to honor the pagan gods. Later, when Decius returned to Ephesus, he ordered the cave sealed by a rock, with the young men inside. Nearly 200 years later, after the empire had become Christian, the owner of the land where the cave was had the rock moved, and discovered that the young men had been sleeping for all that time. The story goes that the Seven Sleepers appeared in the city, said what happened to them, were seen by many, then died. The detailed account of the miracle is here. 

It’s a beautiful tale, one that is well known in the Middle East, and was widely known in the Christian West in the first millennium. Today, it is largely forgotten, even in Orthodoxy. John Sanidopoulos writes about them here. Sanidopoulos says it sounds like a myth or a legend, but there are enough historical details in the account, and it was celebrated by the church right after it supposedly happened, to make it more than something made up out of whole cloth. He cites the 1953 work by a modern scholar who doesn’t believe in the miracle, but who concluded based on historical analysis that something happened, and the people convinced themselves it was a miracle. Fascinating stuff.

Here’s an even more fascinating aspect of this story: a version of it is told in the Quran, where they are identified as the Sleepers Of The Cave.

The Seven Sleepers are considered the patron saint of those who suffer with insomnia. Archaeological digs in northern Europe and Iceland show the names of the Seven Sleepers inscribed on amulets and charms used to help the sleepless find rest.

The things you learn at church!




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General Majid, Who Gave His Life For Others

A riveting, moving report from Alissa J. Rubin, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who was badly injured in last week’s crash of an Iraqi Army helicopter bringing relief to the Yazidi refugees atop Mt. Sinjar. It was dictated from her hospital bed in Istanbul. Both her wrists were broken in the crash. Excerpt:

The pilot really made a big impression. You know, the Yazidis feel so betrayed by the Arab neighbors they had lived among for so many years; they all turned on the Yazidis when ISIS came. Many of the atrocities were carried out not by the militants but by their own neighbors.

Yet here was General Majid [Maj. Gen. Majid Ahmed Saadi -- RD], an Iraqi Arab himself, who was taking off from his own job — he was in charge of training for the Iraqi air force — to help these people.

He told me it was the most important thing he had done in his life, the most significant thing he had done in his 35 years of flying.

It was as if it gave his whole life meaning; he was especially moved by all the Yazidi children.

General Majid was the only person to die in the crash. As ever, the line between good and evil runs not between Arab Muslim and Yazidi, but down the middle of every human heart.

(Incidentally, this report, and the risks Alissa J. Rubin took to tell the story of helping the Yazidis, is making me reconsider ending my Times subscription. As much as I hate their biased cultural coverage, journalists like Rubin are professional heroes of mine, and I want to support them.)

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A Backgrounder For Dante’s Paradiso

A reader sends this lengthy but very, very helpful essay by Peter Kalkavage about Dante’s ParadisoIf you aren’t reading it, or even if you are, this is a great overview of the canticle, and a backgrounder for what’s going on in it, symbolically and narratively. Excerpts:

Order is everywhere in the Comedy. It is the permeation of the universe by divine intelligence and love. It is why the poem is a comedy. In the tragic view of life, we are not placed in the world but “thrown.” There is no order, no divine guidance, no proper place of things, no hope. There is only happening, suffering, and death. Dante’s poem seeks to defeat this tragic view by fiercely championing world-order grounded in divine goodness and wisdom. His term for this order is monarchia—monarchy or rule of the One. Order is precise. It must be so in order to be order. This precision is a source of joy. World-order, for Dante, is like a beautiful piece of music, a work by Palestrina or Bach, in which everything has been so perfectly adjusted that it is impossible to change a single note without ruining the whole. The comic victory over the tragic view of life—the triumph, one might say, of music—is signaled in all sorts of ways as we reach higher regions of Paradise. At one point the universe itself appears to smile (27.4-5)


Vergil is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, Beatrice through Heaven. How, then, does Beatrice guide? Clearly she guides, as Vergil did, by her enlightened speech. But she also guides because Dante is in love with her. She guides by her adorable aspect. This aspect has its focal point in Beatrice’s eyes. Throughout the Paradiso Dante lays special emphasis on the eyes of Beatrice. Her eyes are an image of the intellect in its highest capacity. They represent insight or the immediate apprehension of truth. This is the intuitive knowledge that angels have. We are not told what the eyes physically look like—their color, shape, and so forth. What is important is that they are firmly fixed, like the eye of an eagle, on God and on that point of the highest Heaven from which Beatrice has descended. Her gaze leads her lover not by a return gaze but by directing his gaze upward and beyond Beatrice herself. The ray of his vision must coalesce with hers. As Beatrice at one point tells Dante: “Not only in my eyes is Paradise” (28.21). The eyes of Beatrice are a corrective to the potentially obsessive character of romantic love. Such love can lead its devotees to seek Heaven in themselves alone, to make a heaven of their private desire and passion. The sad fruit of this kind of love is evident in the second circle of Hell, the circle of lust, where the lovers Paolo and Francesca are whipped around in an eternal storm. The eyes of Beatrice lead Dante away from this fate. They give his mind its proper focus and open him up to the whole of things and to the good of that whole. The eyes of Beatrice are the image of love as education. The image teaches us that to be “in love” is to be aroused by the presence of God in another human being, and that the whole point of love is to see more clearly the source and principle that is the cause of that love.

I love these lines:

The striking image reminds us that Heaven is a depth as well as a height, and that souls here are not so much soberly placed as passionately immersed. They are eternally drunk on the wine of their happiness.

A crucial point:

Weakness of will in the Paradiso is related to the broader theme of spiritual capacity. Souls were not made equal with respect to any of their capacities. No one human being excels at all things. Excellence itself in any one thing varies among its possessors in both degree and kind. Among the greatest composers, for example, one stands out for his beautiful counterpoint, the musical interweaving of individual vocal lines, another for his divinely inspired melodies. Creation is fine-tuned: “star differs from star in glory.” To insist on egalitarian leveling is to wish that Creation be undone. Deficiency in the lowest three degrees of Paradise is therefore different from the deficiency caused by sin. Sin is a distortion of our nature, whereas grades in Heaven manifest nature, that is, the specific nature of each individual among the blessed. Piccarda had only so much lungpower. She could take in only so much of the Holy Spirit—God’s spiritus or breath. So it is with each of us. If you offered Piccarda the chance to be higher up, she would be the first to tell you that this would destroy rather than increase her happiness. In Heaven she has perfect self-knowledge. Her very humility is a form of knowledge. She does not merely believe that she is limited but rather knows and celebrates her limit. She knows, furthermore, that this limit is bound up with the person God made Piccarda to be. If there were no limits, there would be no individual natures, no personality. To want Piccarda to want more is to wish that she did not exist.

Please do read the whole thing. I’m grateful to the reader who sent in the link.

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