Home/Rod Dreher

British Youth Choose Communist Over Gladstone

William Gladstone, reformist prime minister (Source)

On Tuesday, outside a pizza restaurant in Budapest, I met a woman whose rural farm family had everything stolen from them by the Communists. Her grandfather buried the family jewelry somewhere on the farm, but forgot where. A neighbor who knew this ratted him out to the authorities, who led the grandfather around the farm with a pistol to his head, trying to get him to remember. Grandfather did two prison terms. The family went into exile, with nothing.

“Every family in this country has such a story,” she told me.

When I arrived back home, I wrote about this for the blog, and then spent some time online reading about the 1956 uprising against the Soviet occupiers. It is a story of sheer heroism and self-sacrificial patriotism. Here is a good, brief account of it. Excerpt:

Meanwhile, on 31 October, Khrushchev announced the Soviet government’s intention to hold discussions with the Hungarian government on the subject of Soviet troops on Hungarian territory. He even invited Nagy to send over a delegation to Moscow to start the negotiations. The people of Hungary rejoiced – they had done it; they had cowed the Soviet monster; they had forced the Soviet tanks back out of the country.

The following day, 1 November, without informing the Hungarians, Khrushchev changed his mind. Nagy, he concluded, had gone too far; this went much further than Poland. China’s Chairman Mao, who had been heckling Khrushchev for being weak, encouraged him to take a firmer line. As Mao pointed out, if Nagy delivered on these reforms, what sort of message would it send to other members of the Eastern Bloc? Its very foundation would be at risk. The Soviet leader decided to fight back after all.

On 1 November, receiving reports that Soviet tanks were back on Hungarian soil, Nagy confronted the Soviet Union’s ambassador in Hungary, Yuri Andropov. Andropov, who would become USSR’s premier from 12 November 1982 to his death, aged 69, on 9 February 1984, assured Nagy that the reports were false – there were no Soviet tanks on Hungarian soil. Indeed, two days’ later, the Soviet military command invited a Hungarian government delegation to attend a meeting to discuss the Soviet Union’s complete withdrawal from Hungary. The delegation, headed by Pal Maleter, arrived for the meeting. The meeting was nothing more than a ruse – Maleter and his delegation were immediately placed under arrest.

Friday 2 November was All Souls’ Day, the day people remember the dead. Church bells rang sombre tones, people lit candles and black flags hung everywhere.

At 9.30 p.m. on 3 November, in an operation codenamed ‘Whirlwind’, Soviet troops re-entered Hungary and approached the capital. In the early hours of Sunday 4th, the Soviets seized all the vital points of communication. By the time the insurgents had mustered, it was already too late. Together with the Hungarian army, they fought back but this time the Soviets were prepared – infantry, artillery, tanks and even air strikes decimated the city. The tanks reduced to rubble every building from which a single shot was fired.

As the city fell about him, Nagy appeared on Radio Budapest at 5.20 on the morning of 4 November:

‘This is Imre Nagy speaking. Today at daybreak Soviet forces started an attack against our capital, obviously with the intention to overthrow the legal Hungarian democratic government. Our troops are still fighting; the Government is still in its place. I notify the people of our country and the entire world of this fact.’

And that was it. Nagy’s voice disappeared – no one ever heard it again. Seconds later, the National Anthem played, not the communist version but the anthem that brought tears to patriotic hearts. A couple hours later, at 8.10, Radio Budapest broadcast its last appeal, ‘Help Hungary… help, help, help,’ before being taken off air.

The ‘entire world’ that Nagy had appealed to, ignored him. Western powers spoke loud words; the US condemned the attack as a ‘monstrous crime’; John Foster Dulles, the US Secretary of State, said, ‘To all those suffering under communist slavery, let us say you can count on us’. In the event, the US did nothing – the risks of venturing into an Eastern European conflict, and the potential for escalation, were too great. Great Britain and France were distracted by the emerging crisis over the Suez Canal and the US by presidential elections. The aid never materialised.

Soviet communism held Hungary captive for 33 more years. People who lived through it all have lessons for us today, as I write about in Live Not By Lies. Excerpt:

Defending the right to speak and write freely, even when it costs you something, is the duty of every free person. So says Mária Wittner, a hero of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation. A communist court sentenced Wittner, then only twenty, to death, though this was later commuted to life imprisonment.

“Once I said to one of the guards in prison, ‘You are lying.’ For that alone, I was taken to trial again,” remembers the feisty Wittner. “The state prosecutor said to me, ‘Wittner, why did you accuse the guard of being a liar? Why didn’t you just say, ‘You’re not telling the truth’? I said, ‘It matters that we speak plainly.’”

For her insolence, Wittner was sent back to prison with extra punishments. She had to sleep on a wooden bed with no mattress and was given reduced rations. By the time her sentence was commuted and she was released, Wittner weighed scarcely one hundred pounds. Nevertheless, she insists that a broken body is a price worth paying for a strong and undefiled spirit.

“We live in a world of lies, whether we want it or not. That’s just the case. But you shouldn’t accommodate to it,” she tells me as I sit at her table in suburban Budapest. “You will be surrounded by lies—you don’t have a choice. Don’t assimilate to it. It’s an individual decision for each person. If you want to live in fear, or if you want to live in the freedom of the soul. If your soul is free, then your thoughts are free, and then your words are going to be free.”

Under hard totalitarianism, dissenters like Wittner paid a hard price for their freedom, but the terms of the bargain were clear. Under soft totalitarianism, it is more difficult to see the costs of compromising your conscience, but as Mária Wittner insists, you can’t escape the decisions. You have to live in a world of lies, but it’s your choice as to whether that world lives in you.

Here she was on the streets of Budapest in 1956:

And here she is today:

Maria Wittner: Hungarian patriot and hero of the 1956 revolution, in her home in 2019

More:

Mária Wittner, now in her eighties, is regarded by her countrymen as a national hero for fighting the Soviets when they invaded Hungary in 1956. She was only a teenager then. The communist regime arrested her shortly after she turned twenty, and a year later, sentenced her to death. Her sentence was later reduced because of her youth. But she endured terrible grief and pain in her eight months on death row.

“There was an execution either every day or every other day, by hanging,” she tells me. “The people who were being brought to the execution, each one said their name aloud and left some sort of message in their final words. Some sang the national anthem, others praised their country, there were people saying, “Avenge me!”

There were days when several people were hanged, even seven a day. Wittner’s friend Catherine was also sentenced to death. They spent Catherine’s last night together in the cell, and said their final goodbyes after sunrise. Wittner explains:

The guards took her. The last sight I saw of her was that she straightened herself up and went with her back ramrod straight. The door closed, and then I was left alone. I started to bang on the door, shouting, “Bring her back!” even though I knew perfectly well that it wouldn’t matter. Then I fainted. When I came to my senses, I swore to myself that I will never be silent about what I have seen, if I have the opportunity to bear witness.

This, she believes, is why her life was spared: so that she could to tell the world what the communists did to people like her.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about fear, as such,” she says. “What is fear? Someone who is afraid is going to be made to do the most evil things. If someone is not afraid to say no, if your soul is free, there is nothing they can do to you.”

The old woman looks at me across her kitchen table with piercing eyes. “In the end, those who are afraid always end up worse than the courageous.”

After reading about the 1956 events, I took one look through the UK papers before turning in. There, to my very great shock, I found this:

Woke students have forced Liverpool University to rebrand an accommodation block named after William Gladstone because of his family’s links to slavery.

Gladstone Halls will be renamed after racial inequality campaigner Dorothy Kuya, who was the city’s first community slavery officer.

But the move has caused fury among members of the faculty, with politics professor Dr David Jeffrey slamming the decision as ‘shameful’.

He added: ‘Liverpool University is shamefully going ahead with renaming Gladstone Hall. Named after one of our greatest Prime Ministers and one of Liverpool’s most consequential political exports.

‘He worked for the abolition of slavery and never owned slaves himself.’

Gladstone – the British prime minister between 1868 and 1894 – never owned slaves himself, but his family had links to the trade.

The move to change the name of the halls was first touted in 2017, when students signed an online petition.

Alisha Raithatha, from Birmingham, spent her first year at Liverpool University living in the Roscoe and Gladstone Halls.

She did not realise Gladstone’s links to slavery until making a trip to the city’s slavery museum.

‘I didn’t realise — I don’t think anybody did,’ she told the Liverpool Echo. ‘I looked it up and realised William Gladstone wasn’t in favour of abolishing slavery. I was a bit disgusted to live in the building without realising that history.’

So she began a petition on the Liverpool Guild of Students’ website, explaining she was ‘horrified’ by the news about Gladstone’s past.

‘We believe,’ the petition said, that ‘someone with this controversial background should not have a university hall named after them, especially in a city where we try hard not to forget the atrocities that took place on our docks.’

In a follow up tweet after the final decision was made in March, Dr David added: ‘We’re post-truth. It doesn’t matter what the facts are, if you can kick up a storm on social media you can bully your way to getting what you want.

‘Liverpool’s going to be a historically barren place if you erase everyone who was even close to someone who owned slaves.’

Gladstone, a Liberal politician, once campaigned for compensation for slave owners after the abolition of the horrific practice but also dubbed slavery the ‘foulest crime.’

The university halls will be now named after Liverpudlian race campaigner Ms Kuya.

Dorothy Kuya was a leading member of the Communist Party of Britain. She is being honored by these students for her work against racism in Britain, but that cannot begin to blot out her great moral crime. The British CP was founded on Lenin’s orders, and slavishly followed Moscow’s line. When Stalin signed a peace treaty with Hitler, it suddenly switched to oppose fighting Hitler. Then, when Hitler attacked the USSR, the CP of Britain was back onside. Dorothy Kuya stayed with the party after the 1956 Hungary invasion. She stayed with the party after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. She stayed with the party after the Cambridge spy ring betrayed her own country for the Soviets. She stayed with the party after the publication of The Gulag Archipelago. To her dying day, Kuya supported the ideology for whose principles scores of millions were murdered.

Gladstone? The 19th century liberal was one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers. He condemned the slave trade. But his father made money in part from slavery, so that makes him an untouchable, according to these British students, for whom “antiracism” is such a sacred cause that it absolves its proponents of any moral crimes.

I would love to see someone take Maria Wittner and other heroes of 1956 to Liverpool to tell those students what Communism is. I’m serious. They ought to name a hall there after Maria Wittner, who put her life on the line to oppose totalitarianism. If this initiative in Liverpool doesn’t shock the conscience of those who are old enough to remember Communism, and compel us to retrieve the truth from the memory hole, we are well and truly lost. In Live Not By Lies, I mention a conversation with a young California woman who told me that she has become a Communist. “What about the gulags?” I said to her. She had no idea what I was talking about!

And now, in Liverpool, the young prefer a lifelong lackey of brute Soviet power to William Gladstone. In last night’s post recounting the conversation I had with the Hungarian woman at the restaurant, I recalled her saying that she had lived for a time in Britain, but left in part because she couldn’t stand the constant social tension there over race. She got tired of being told that she was privileged because she’s white. She said she tried to defend herself by saying that her family was ruined by Communism, and so forth, but these British antagonists refused to hear it. She is white, and that’s all they felt that they needed to know.

Ideas have consequences, folks. Here in Hungary, people ask me about my book. I tell them it has sold well despite an almost total blackout from the mainstream media. I have nothing to complain about — as I said, the book is selling well — but it is quite telling that nobody in the mainstream media wants to hear what those who survived Communism are saying about what the woke are doing to our country. I have an interview scheduled for a Hungarian TV show later today. I’m going to try to find an opportunity to talk about this moral atrocity in Liverpool, and urge Hungarians who remember to speak out, loudly. 

I know this blog has a readership among US and UK journalists. Not all of them are woke, or water-carriers for the illiberal Left. Y’all, come on: tell the stories of these people! Listen to what they are saying! Ignore my book if you like — that’s fine, I’ve made my money from it — but don’t ignore Maria Wittner, and all the others. They have something vital to tell us. If you can’t see what the students of Liverpool have done — and what the administrators of that college have allowed them to do — and be shocked by what it says about the loss of historical memory, then you are part of the problem.

What a strange thing to be sitting in a former Communist country, watching all this play out in the West. This period feels like I imagine the 1930s did, that “low, dishonest decade” (Auden). I’m going to spend as much time as I have here in Hungary to find more people like Maria Wittner, and write about them in this space.

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James Matthew Wilson Lights A Candle

James Matthew Wilson, poet and co-founder of a new Catholic MFA program (Courtesy JMW)

Earlier this spring, the University of St. Thomas in Houston announced the founding of a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. What sets it apart is that it will be thoroughly Catholic, and led by one of the most gifted poets alive today, James Matthew Wilson, who is leaving Villanova University to help run the program. I’ve known James for some time now, as we became friends when I lived in Philadelphia. He is a deeply literate man, and a thoroughly orthodox Catholic. I sat in one of his Villanova undergraduate classes once, and saw that he is one of the most gifted teachers I’ve ever been around.

When he sprang the news about the new MFA program on me, I asked James if he would give me an interview about it when he had the time. He consented, and over the past few days, I’ve been sending him questions, and he’s been sending me answers. Talking with James about this program is important to me, because I spend so much time lamenting the collapse of the academic humanities. Here, for once, is some truly good — no, great — news.

The interview follows:

 

ROD DREHER: What is the new MFA program about? Why were you interested in it?

 

JAMES MATTHEW WILSON: The MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas is in some ways a first of its kind. Master of Fine Arts programs have been around for a number of decades, and they are often a wonderful opportunity for aspiring writers to hone and develop their craft, to achieve greater discipline and concentration, and to expand their knowledge of the canons of great literature and the philosophy behind it. Many of the conventions of contemporary literary writing are unsatisfactory and uninspiring, however, and much of the academy, as is only too well known, is hostile both to a classical vision of the liberal and fine arts and to a Christian vision of the world.

 

The result has been damaging and in two different ways. First, contemporary literature, which does have many strengths, is nonetheless impoverished of the spiritual and intellectual depth that makes books worth reading and which, indeed, makes books life-changing. Second, many persons, Christians included, who love literature and want to make a good work, find themselves pushed aside or excluded altogether in the contemporary literary world.

 

This damaging situation has been changing, and in some ways for the better. Over the last several years, many writers, both established and aspiring, have been attempting to restore greater breadth and depth and also a surer sense of formal excellence to contemporary letters. Our program will first and foremost serve to give those developments an institutional home. We want ever interested writer who cares about the craft and traditions of poetry, the short story, the novel, and good writing of any kind, to feel welcome in our doors.

 

But we want to establish that home in a distinctive way. Namely, we see the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition as a great, capacious, indeed universal vision, that embraces everything good in human history, thought, art, and literature and seeks to hold it together. The Catholic literary tradition embraces with delight the concrete, the particular, the “secular,” and, in a word, all that is Incarnate. But it also insists that those things are good in themselves precisely insofar as they belong to a larger order, the realm of the cosmos and of creation. In being themselves they reveal an infinity beyond themselves. Isn’t that what it’s like to see something beautiful? To read something powerful? We say to ourselves, “It is good that you exist!” And then we plunge in and realize that nothing exists alone, that one thing leads to another, and that beauty in particular leads us by its light all the way up to the foot of God’s throne.

 

Ours will be the first MFA program that roots itself in the Catholic literary tradition. We are at the service of the Church, but we are also at the service of the world. You don’t have to be Catholic to fall in love with Flannery O’Connor’s work; you just have to have a soul. We want to help writers create new works that will appeal to anyone with a soul. It seems strange to suggest that this is not the consensus vision of MFA programs in general, but I don’t think it is. For this reason I think many aspiring writers, who were previously uninterested in pursuing an MFA degree, will seek us out.

 

They may seek us out for still another reason. We are primarily an online, no-residency program. Most aspiring writers have other things going on in their lives. They have families and professions, but they want to write and publish a book. We aim to make that possible. And we aim to make it possible while approximating as closely as possible to traditional in-person, residential academic study. While our degree can be completed online, we will have residential opportunities up to twice a year. Writers are a lonesome bunch; many a writer does not even know another person who engages with the art. We want to help such people meet each other and help one another become better.

 

When I was asked to start this program, I said yes right away. I know there is a good number of contemporary scholars and intellectuals trying to build up alternative institutions of liberal learning that can stand apart from, and even athwart, the present intellectual, political, and bureaucratic decline of the academy as a whole. As important as the liberal arts are — and they are the most important possible thing — we are no less in need of institutions that support the fine arts: the making of new works that continue and deepen our tradition, that keep the past alive by making something new. My whole life has been given to defending and advancing both the liberal arts and the fine arts and to showing how integral they are to one another. Here is my chance to put that life on the line, as it were, for the sake of building something new.

 

Speaking of building institutions, my colleague Joshua Hren started Wiseblood Books from scratch seven years ago. It’s now a flourishing small press inspired by John Paul II’s Letter to Artists, where the Sainted Pope calls us to discover “new epiphanies of beauty. I myself have an imprint, Colosseum Books, with the Franciscan University Press, and we published new poetry and books of criticism that exemplify the spirit we aim to spread through our new MFA program. Sam Hazo, Andrew Frisardi, and Maryann Corbett have appeared or will appear in our poetry series. We have just published two monographs on Dana Gioia and Rhina P. Espaillat. The MFA program will collaborate with Colosseum to produce a new literary journal. That will serve to give our students some experience in editing during their time in the program. I won’t go into the conferences, retreats, and summer institutes that are also in the works, but I wanted to emphasize that this program is part of a broader project to renew literature, to broaden its readership, and to bring new works into publication.

A lot of readers are going to be startled by your claim that this is the first MFA program rooted in the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition. What about all the Catholic universities in the country?

 

Well, it actually is reasonable that there have not been such programs before, but we need to consider why. Many Catholic universities have MFA programs. I am a graduate of one. But the programs themselves may not be informed by the Catholic mission of the university in any noticeable way. Many MFA programs have faculty who are Catholic, and in the work of some of those faculty you can discern the influence of Catholicism on the writers. And sometimes those two things overlap: Valerie Sayers taught at Notre Dame for decades. Ron Hansen teaches at Santa Clara, a Jesuit university. They are both Catholic novelists — and Ron is an ordained deacon of the Church. I do not wish to give the impression that there is a total absence from such programs of Catholic influence or inspiration.
We aim to do something a little different. Our workshops will operate the way the workshops of any reputable MFA program do: the center of the workshop is the students’ own work and we simply seek to learn the craft by understanding that work and by trying to discuss it and make it better. Most MFA programs simply ask their students to choose this or that graduate seminar to take alongside the workshop. Here’s where we do something better. We’ve designed a coherent, unified curriculum specifically intended to help writers see what has been done and to envision what can be done with the vast landscape of the Catholic tradition. All our students will learn the craft of literature, but also the philosophy of art and beauty that help us to understand how art works and why it has the power it often has. They will also learn both the classics of the western tradition and take seminars focused on the Catholic presence in American literary practice, the (western) European Catholic revival — and beyond that, to study the Catholic presence in eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. The main focus is the tradition nearer to hand, because our focus is on helping artist develop the tradition that’s closest to hand, but we also aim to comprehend the whole. The result of this curriculum will be that our students will acquire the kind of rich, unified knowledge of literary practice, philosophy, and theology most suitable to a practicing writer. They’ll be well prepared to work in teaching and publishing as well.
Looking at academia from the outside, it has seemed to me that one good way to destroy your love of literature is to study it at an American university. How fair is this view? And how has this “we murder to dissect” approach to literary study manifested itself in creative writing programs?


Let me answer that question in two ways, first with reference to our program, and second, at a more general level.
We have designed a program that will help our students to see things whole, but from the specific viewpoint of makers — of practicing artists rather than disinterested scholars. One aspect of the program Joshua Hren and I are particularly excited about is the kind of essays and non-fiction prose this curriculum will help our students cultivate. The average graduate seminar has nothing to offer an MFA student. Even at its best, most advanced scholarship in literature pursues fairly arcane questions far removed from, not to say totally indifferent to, what most people love about literature. Because our seminars are integrated into the MFA program and are not part of a traditional literature department, they will also have the specific end of cultivating our students as writers. We want to revive the tradition of literary criticism as what you might call a lay, amateur, or simply human endeavor. The best literary criticism has, traditionally, been itself of great literary value. Think of Johnson’s Lives, Hazlitt’s memoirs on his first acquaintance with poets; think of Wordsworth’s, or Arnold’s, or Tate’s, or Winters’s Eliot’s essays in criticism, or O’Connor’s “Mystery and Manners.” These are nothing other than the mind of a master of the craft entirely focused on understanding the nature and the workings of that craft. Consider also the role that reviews play — they are the real foundation stone of criticism. We aim to help our students master these absolutely essential kinds of critical writing, which are important for the flourishing of literature, and we aim to leave aside the more specifically academic sort of criticism, at least to the extent that it does not enter into the living tradition of literature.
My early experience was that MFA students, aspiring writers all, and doctoral students, future professors had nothing to say to each other. The scholars looked at the thoughts of the writers as impressionistic irrelevancies, and the artists became kind of philistine in response, expressing contempt for every kind of scholarly observation. Both these positions are wrong. Good writers should form the capacity to writing in an interesting and lively manner about writing, and they can do so as long as they keep in mind, first, their own orientation to the making of a new good work and, second, the irreducibly social nature of literature which is represented by the intelligent lay reader who will welcome something new as long as it is good.
There’s much to be said of the contemporary academy and almost all of it negative. One consolation I sometimes take is that many of the most arcane and intellectually irrelevant movements in modern criticism simply find no place in the undergraduate classroom. It’s not that the professor wouldn’t go on and on about “Renaissance self-fashioning” or the “panopticon,” or the “subaltern,” if the opportunity were afforded; but, often enough, it’s task enough just to help students see how pretty are the last two paragraphs of The Great Gatsby. There simply isn’t time to do anything else. But this consolation only goes so far. As years have passed, fewer contemporary scholars of any kind seem to have even a residual sense of the beauty of things. Literature is already a dead thing to them. How far this extends I don’t really know. I think a lot of professors who teach literature from a stridently ideological perspective really do admire the works they teach, but they have a guilty conscience, and so they try to convince themselves that the beauty they can’t help but admire is justified because it has something to do with “justice.” And of course it does have something to do with justice, even if not in the way they think it does.
As I said a minute ago, I think literary criticism in the traditional sense of the term has played, continues to play, and ought to play a role in the life of every writer and of every reader. The challenge is to avoid two kinds of perversion. First, there is the perversion of pedantry, where what is studied or discussed could find no possible place in the normal, essential human activity of understanding reality and making our souls adequate to truth and to God himself. But, second, there is the perversion of ideology, where the scholar’s concern is neither with the good of the work studied nor the human good of knowing the truth and being transformed — saved and set free — by it. In that case, the work itself gets pillaged, plundered, and raped in the name of some political agenda that brooks no competition: all must be subordinated to its politically transformative aim.
The great poet, philosopher, and biologist Goethe spent a great deal of time contemplating what Wordsworth later expressed as “we murder to dissect.” Goethe believed human beings should study the natural world — be believed in biology. Study was essential. But there’s a kind of study that reduces living things to a corpse so that they may be the better dismembered and analyzed, and then there is the study that by the power of imagination seeks to seek things in their fullness — and not just the fullness of this or that moment, but in the whole drama of their existence. For Goethe, to use the imagination to imagine a spinner seed growing up to a maple tree and, in reverse order, to trace backward from the full-grown maple to the sapling and the seed — for him, this was a contemplative and imaginative act by way of which we entered into the divine mystery of nature and became better, richer, more thoughtful human beings. When we reject pedantry and ideology, we do not reject thoughtfulness. In fact, we save thoughtfulness from its abuses.
Could you say a little more about the Catholic intellectual and literary tradition? What makes a novel “Catholic”? And what kind of distinct writing would you expect successful graduates of your program — Catholic or non-Catholic — to produce? 
The fine arts force us to realize something that other kinds of doing and knowing don’t. There really is a one, best way to make a bicycle. Bicycle-making is a convergent problem, to use E.F. Schumacher’s term. Philosophy and Theology are in a certain sense convergent, too. There is one truth to which both disciplines give us a certain insight. There will be better and worse answers to the kinds of questions we ask in those fields, and some of the time there will even be a final answer that requires no further elaboration. But we have known that answer to many fundamental questions for millennia. Aquinas’s demonstration that human happiness is the contemplation of God admits no persuasive rivals (except of course the wholesale denial of there being such a thing as human happiness). But even when we know a truth of philosophy and theology it may be elaborated, nuanced, explored, and most certainly it may — and needs to be — represented to help us view it with fresh eyes. How much more is it the case, then, with the arts? We want a perfect novel, a perfect poem, but the perfect form of any of these will never be the last or final poem or novel. And, in fact, when we encounter a perfect work it will lead us to want other, different works to deepen, complement, refresh, or maybe merely ruffle our experience of the perfect. This is a long way of saying that one thing to be avoided is any pat definition of the Catholic tradition.
But we can certainly say a few things. First, and most generally, the Catholic tradition jams open the gates of reality; it insists that whatever you see with the eye of your body is only the tip of the iceberg of the world, and the world is the tip of the iceberg of the cosmos, and the cosmos is not even the tip of the iceberg of the Kingdom of God — much less God himself. Everyone who sees the secular not as “objective” and “neutral” but as provincial, narrow, and flat will recognize the value of our program — and will be welcome to participate in it too. I know a lot of Baptists who love O’Connor and Percy and Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, or Tolkien or Andre Dubus, or Elizabeth Jennings and Czeslaw Milosz. These are our patron saints, and the patron saints of those Baptists, too, so I know such people will feel at home with us.
What we are first trying to do is create a place where art with vision can take place: vision for the invisible and the way God hides in the shadows, but also people with a vision for the visibly supernatural, the way the whole world is filled with the grandeur of God. If not everyone has that vision, many do, and many who have that vision struggle to find a way to give it expression in good art. Our first task is to expand the canons of good art until they become adequate to the fullness of reality, including heavenly glory and the depths of sin.
Many people, including myself, talk about a specifically Catholic imagination, but that’s a broader and in fact a distinct category from the literary imagination. The Catholic imagination refers to what Coleridge meant by the “primary imagination,” that is, a way of seeing the world. The literary imagination refers to what Coleridge calls the “secondary imagination.” That is, it refers to the imagination we employ in the making of a work of art, to represent some part of the world. The weakness of our day is that the only aspect of the primary imagination, including of the Catholic, that the literary imagination manages to represent with any success are the things of doubt and suffering. All of that is important, very important, but it is not the whole of reality. So, we really want to create the conditions within our program where doubt and suffering and sin are well expressed, as it were, but so also is glory, the joy of holiness, and the humility and beauty of devotion. All these things can and need to belong to good literature. Present conventions make it easier for the darker side of things to find representation, and understandably so (suffering is a perennial theme of art). Our chief aim is to see that literature comes to represent ever more fully and in ever better, or at least new, ways the heights and the depths of reality.
Much contemporary literature flattens things out and pretends that there’s simply nothing to reality that needs the interpretation and manifestation of the arts. Dissatisfied with silence, artists then go hunting for new causes in the flattened, secular terrain of things, and so make justice an aesthetic principle to give themselves some sense of purpose, or at least something to talk about. We wish to restore the vertical dimension and with good reason. Even from the merely practical viewpoint of the artist, the vertical dimension of reality has always been the sole justification of the arts. For, the arts propose that being thoughtful, reflecting on a re-presentation of reality, is something worth doing. It’s only worth doing if there’s more to reality than surface.
One often hears about the Catholic imagination as distinguished from the Protestant imagination, and that is a valuable distinction to make about which I’ve written pretty extensively. But Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic whose “Wise Blood” is in some ways a pretty exact portrait of Southern Evangelicalism. This is why we have to distinguish between the “primary” and “secondary” imaginations. Authors do not, or do not always, tell things straight. They don’t necessarily write about themselves or the world as they see it. The imagination is farther flung, more various, more exploratory, and also more curious a thing than that. In our present moment, the important thing is to recover culture and imagination from the anti-culture that has no place for imagination. We need, again, to recover spiritual and intellectual debt and also a sense that craft and form, doing a good job in the making of a work of art, is worth doing for its own sake and also because it is a way of discovering the order and drama of the world, of seeing the splendor of truth and changing one’s life in response.
In what ways will the Catholic tradition find expression in the program, exactly?
Well, to begin with, we’ll look back to the Catholic intellectual and literary revival of the last century in order to draw inspiration, but also to figure out what worked and didn’t work in such works and at such a time. Paul Claudel and Sigrid Undset have a lot to teach us. But we also will steep students in the longer tradition. Everyone will know Virgil, Augustine, Plato, Pseudo-Dionysius, Dante, Aquinas, Manzoni, Ratzinger, and others by the time they finish the program. They’ll be reading Charles Baxter and Marilynne Robinson, and Yvor Winters and Wallace Stevens, too, to name but a few of those who can’t really be said to stand somewhere in the Catholic literary tradition but who have offered great insights or representative works that every Catholic, that every serious artist, ought to learn. They will have read these great poems and stories and memoirs. They will also have a firm knowledge in the philosophy of art and beauty that the Catholic tradition and its antecedents give to us. You hear the word “literary theory” tossed around as a slur, and with good reason, because what passes under that label is often atrocious, unintelligible, vicious when it can be understood, and dull almost always. But accounting for how art works, and what it means for beauty to be a reality, a property of being as such, is something an artist benefits from knowing. It helps right the ship and orient it on a true course.
Finally, who is your ideal student? Not every believing Catholic, or Christian, who wants to write has the talent for it, and not everyone with the writing gift would benefit from the University of St. Thomas program. So, who is this for? 
We have a broad range of students in mind. We are primarily an online program specifically so that those who are otherwise engaged in family and professional life can carve out time and discipline for their writing. We hope that by founding this program, we’ll be making it possible for a great number of people with interest and talent but a shortage of time to fulfill their literary ambitions. But Joshua and I are pretty unusual characters in the contemporary academy and literary world. We think life in the Church is as good as it gets and the one path to sanctity. A great number of people, especially younger people, who are in a position to up and move for graduate school would do so if they could only find the right program. But, well, they can’t. We want to be the one program to which such people apply. They will know who they are; they’ll simply look at the curriculum we’ve designed and recognize immediately that we’re what they were looking for but had despaired of finding. We are working hard to make that possible for them, not just in terms of time but cost as well.
When I first met the poet Dana Gioia, almost two decades ago, we were talking about the poetry I was trying to write and at the end of the conversation, he said, “You shouldn’t be doing this alone.” He connected me with a writers’ conference and many good things followed from there. Many writers, as I said before, are trying to do their work alone. But literature is a social reality. It involves communication and communion. And so, most writers would benefit from our program simply because they’ll have a chance to talk shop with fellow apprentices to the craft. They’ll also get to learn from people like Dana Gioia, Abigail Rine Favale, Catharine Savage Brosman, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and other writers and scholars who are making significant contributions to contemporary letters. For some people, such contacts don’t matter. For most of us — even solitary people like me — they are vital and enriching.
I had a very good writers group in my own early years. In fact, of a group of five, all went on to have some kind of career as writers. We had two convictions: craft mattered and stories could change your life. We didn’t agree on much else and we didn’t agree on why encounters with beauty do what they do and are as important as they are. But we didn’t have to agree on everything to enter into communion on these important points. It was hard for me to find those fellows, years ago, and I bet it is harder now. Cultural decline has consequences, including the isolation of those people who don’t see the downward slope, grab a sled, and take the plunge. But amid the slough of despond, we also have a very vital intellectual and artistic culture here and there, in pockets. For those people we have started this program, and are praying they find us and join us.
Thanks, James, and good luck with the program launch.
Readers, if you are interested in finding out more information about the University of St. Thomas MFA program in Creative Writing, visit the website. 

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Budapest Diary

I just made it home from having dinner al fresco with a Sicilian friend from church. He took me to an Italian place he likes. I had my first Dreher beer of this Budapest trip. Dreher is a Hungarian brand, founded by Anton Dreher, the Austrian who invented Vienna-style lager. They say it “dree-herr”. Anyway, the food was good, and as we left our table to walk home on this cool night, my Sicilian pal saw sitting behind us a woman who was a former colleague at a company in Budapest. She is Hungarian, but speaks Italian. Off they went chatting in his native tongue. It fell to me to talk to her dining companion, a Hungarian whose name I won’t use, just to be on the safe side. I’ll call her Eva. My good fortune — she turned out to be really interesting.

Eva, who must be in her late twenties or early thirties, talked about how frustrating the Covid crisis has been — nothing surprising there. Eventually we got around to talking about politics, just general things. She said that she has grown weary of the Orban government, “but the Left, my God, they are really crazy. They have nothing to offer — they just oppose whatever the government supports. We could stand to have a smart opposition here. The government has a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, which means that they can do whatever they want. That’s not good for them, and it’s not good for democracy. But the Left is hopelessly bad.”

She works for an international business, and said she had lived for a few years in England, but got out in part because she was so wearied by the social tension. “The racial stuff was bad,” she said. “Over and over, black people in England kept telling me how privileged I was. I told them, ‘Do you know that I come from a country that was communist? Nobody had anything!’ None of that mattered. All they could see was that I am white, and that meant I am guilty.”

I told her about my recent book, and that this was exactly the kind of thing that made people in the US who had lived with Communism and gotten out say that a form of totalitarianism is emerging in America. The idea that your individual guilt or innocence doesn’t matter, that only your class, or your race, or some other characteristic, determined whether you are Good or Evil — that was how it was under Communism, and that’s how it is becoming in the West.

“Absolutely,” she said. Then she told me that her family had owned land in the countryside, and were prosperous farmers (“They were like kulaks — do you know the word?”). They had everything taken from them when the Communists took over. Her grandfather buried the family jewelry somewhere on the farm, but forgot about where. One of the neighbors knew he had buried it, and informed the police. They marched him around the farm with a gun to his head, ordering him to show them the jewelry, but he genuinely couldn’t remember. He did a couple of jail terms, she said. The family lost everything.

“Every family in this country has a similar story,” she said.

Eva said that it grieves her that so few people today know what Communism was, and how many lives it destroyed. This is why a version of it is coming back. I could have talked to her all night. She told me that she had once been in Australia, and was tasked with organizing an event for Hungarians who had fought in the 1956 rebellion against Soviet occupation. These ’56ers were heroes to her, and it was a privilege to do this to honor them. Eva said that they all came up to her afterward, expressing their gratitude with high emotion. They were just so pleased that what they had gone through, and what it meant, had not been forgotten. Their reaction overwhelmed her, Eva said, and made her proud to have taken part in giving something back.

UPDATE: I should have added this. On the long walk to our neighborhood, the Sicilian mentioned that he was leaving later this week for another EU country to look for work. Now that you’re leaving, what do you think of Budapest? I asked.

“It’s a beautiful city. It’s not like so many other European cities. If you go to Rome, it looks like the Third World on the streets. We don’t recognize our own countries anymore. These immigrants keep coming. Nobody wants them there, but nobody stops them.”

I brought up the letter that twenty retired French army generals had signed, warning of civil war in France over Islamist control of suburbs. Do you think civil war is possible in France? I asked.

“France, I don’t know. It is possible in Italy.”

“But you don’t have the Islamist problem that France does.”

“No, but a civil war in Italy would be fought for different reasons. If you go to Rome, you will see police with machine guns everywhere. It’s the same in other cities in Europe.”

“Yes, a reader of my blog posted in the comments a photo he took outside of his window in Brussels. It showed two soldiers, or maybe police officers, with machine guns. You don’t see that in the US. But then, we don’t have the problem with radical Islam that Europe does.”

“You will see the same thing in my town in Sicily,” he said. “Do you think we have Islamic terrorism in Sicily?”

“I guess not.”

“Those police with the big guns are not there to protect us from Islamists. They are there to protect government officials from the people.”

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It’s The Little Things

In this propaganda video from Seventeen magazine, a 'non-binary' female explains that her chosen pronouns are as much a non-negotiable reality as her arms or her legs

A reader writes:

Here’s a follow-up of sorts to the e-mail I sent you a couple weeks ago with the RiteAid vaccine form asking for “sex assigned at birth.” The screenshot below is from Activity Hero (activityhero.com), a very popular site that parents use to find and sign up for children’s day camps, classes, and other activities. Many organizations use its services and direct you there to register and pay. As I was updating my children’s profiles, I noticed some new choices — see the screenshot below. I’ve removed identifying information. I clicked on “Custom” for gender and for “How do you prefer to be addressed?” to show the boxes that appear for entering your child’s “custom gender” and “custom pronoun.” (It’s not clear from the way it’s presented, but they are asking for the child’s gender and pronoun, not “yours.” And of course they really mean “referred to” rather than “addressed.”)
Once something like this starts to spread, there’s no stopping it these days. The wide array of sex/gender/pronoun options will very quickly become the new norm, and resisters and stragglers will be a-woke-n by hook or by crook to the need to go beyond the binary boxes we’ve been forced into all these millenia. I mean, why wouldn’t you adopt the new, inclusive scheme? It doesn’t hurt anyone to offer the choices — but it may save a child’s life. Do you really hate trans people that much?
And once it’s established — who will change the forms (bathroom doors, etc.) back to the old ways, even if the trans-fad passes? The ratchet effect will apply, and we’ll be stuck with it for a very long time.
It’s the little things that let you know how far the revolution has advanced, and that advance the revolution. An intake form at a children’s activity website. It’s a very minor thing at first glance, but in truth, it’s not a minor thing at all. This is an example of framing — that is, of setting the terms by which people interpret reality. The idea that sex and gender are something different, and that gender is entirely mutable, according to individual will — this is a sign that this lie has become embedded in the social and psychological fabric of everyday reality. And, as the reader indicates, it is going to be very hard to unlearn this lie.
What do we do about it? France, thank God, is not as far gone as we Americans are down this insane path. Look:
This is not a ban; this is a desire to ban, and I am skeptical of his stated motivation. Still, at least the French government is trying to defend its people, and to defend reality.
The US government is lost, and so are most American institutions. So what do we Americans do? From Live Not By Lies:

In Poland, Skibiński explains, the only long-lasting social institutions that existed were the church and the family. In the twentieth century, the twin totalitarianisms tried to capture and destroy the Polish Catholic Church. Communism attempted to break apart the family by maintaining a monopoly on education and teaching young people to be dependent on the state. It also sought to lure the young away from the church by convincing them that the state would be the guarantors of their sexual freedom.

“The thing is, now such tendencies come from the West, which we have always looked up to, and regarded as a safe place,” he says. “But now many Poles start to develop the awareness that the West is no longer safe for us.

“What we see now is an attempt to destroy the last surviving communities: the family, the church, and the nation. This is one connection between liberalism and communist theory.”

Skibiński focuses on language as a preserver of cultural memory. We know that communists forbade people to talk about history in unapproved ways. This is a tactic today’s progressives use as well, especially within universities.

What is harder for contemporary people to appreciate is how we are repeating the Marxist habit of falsifying language, hollowing out familiar words and replacing them with a new, highly ideological meaning. Propaganda not only changes the way we think about politics and contemporary life but it also conditions what a culture judges worth remembering.

I mention the way liberals today deploy neutral-sounding, or even positive, words like dialogue and tolerance to disarm and ultimately defeat unaware conservatives. And they imbue other words and phrases—hierarchy, for example, or traditional family—with negative connotations.

Recalling life under communism, the professor continues, “The people who lived only within such a linguistic sphere, who didn’t know any other way to speak, they could really start believing in this way of using of words. If a word carries with it negative baggage, it becomes impossible to have a discussion about the phenomenon.”

Teaching current generations of college students who grew up in the postcommunist era is challenging because they do not have a natural immunity to the ideological abuse of language. “For me, it’s obvious. I remember this false use of language. But for our students, it’s impossible to understand.”

How did people keep hold of reality under communist conditions? How do they know not only what to remember but how to remember it? The answer was to create distinct small communities—especially families and religious fellowships—in which it was possible both to speak truthfully and to embody truth.

“They had social spaces where the real meaning of words was preserved,” he says. “For me, it’s less important to argue with such a view of the world”—progressivism, he means—“than to describe reality as it is. For example, our task is to show people what a normal, monogamous family looks like.”

To paraphrase Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is not by winning an argument but by keeping yourself grounded in reality that you carry on the human heritage.

We have to insist among ourselves, at least, that we call things by their true names. We have to teach our children, as Vaclav and Kamila Benda did, as anticommunist dissidents in Prague, that the picture of the world given to us by the world is a malevolently constructed lie. This is very difficult to do, and most people will not want to do it. Most people will capitulate. Most people capitulated to the Communist lie.

But what choice is there? Look at the stakes. Live not by lies.

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In The Navy

Still from 'In The Navy' by the Village People (1979) (Source)

A reader writes, in response to my earlier CIA goes woke post:

If the CIA and the military have been conquered by Wokeness, then the culture war has been won by the Left. Take a look at what the Navy decided to celebrate recently:
The reader continues:
I highly doubt these four were assigned to a crew and discovered by happenstance they were all gay. This was deliberate and a sign that LGBTQ not only serve openly in the military, but their culture and politics are the de facto norm in the services. The Navy clearly set this up as a propaganda move. You don’t have to harbor any ill will towards those in the LGBTQ community to know this is totally unbecoming of military professionalism and a sure sign our military isn’t any different from those of any other totalitarian society of yesteryear. A military consumed by ideology isn’t any kind of profession of arms.
Honestly, I don’t know how this helicopter would perform in a war. I don’t know how well our military as a whole would perform in a major-power conflict like the one the Pentagon is preparing for. What I do know is that our military and intelligence services can no longer be relied upon. History has proven, time and again, that militaries that become politicized tend to be very ineffective and are veritable meat-grinders of human life. If they’re good at anything, they’re good at suppressing their own people and, even there, they’re not all that effective. Like so much of our population, the military is in a performative stage, thinking they can do and say almost anything but there won’t be any actual consequences for it. Likewise, the leadership is letting it all happen because, as Gray Connolly said recently (I can’t find the tweet, unfortunately), they effectively sell themselves to the highest bidder, be it in politics or the private sector.
Rod, this isn’t a professional military. Not by a long shot. The only reason the military still has a veneer of professionalism is because of there are still men and women at the lower levels, who do all the hard work, who still hold that line without being distracted by the Wokeness. But how much longer can they do so? A glass ceiling has been put in place where it’s impossible for anyone to advance unless they keep their mouths shut and “perform” the prescribed dance. Some of them manage to do it, but many can’t and won’t.
Meanwhile, in France, the military is threatening a coup d’etat to prevent the downfall of the country. At this point, I have to wonder, what’s worse? A military willing to take over our government at will? Or a military that’ll just stand by as our country self-destructs?
The reader is referring to a recent open letter signed by twenty retired French generals, appearing in Valeurs Actuelles, a conservative French magazine. Note that these generals are retired, not active duty. Here’s the Google Translate version of the letter:

Mr President,
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Government,
Ladies and Gentlemen, Members of Parliament,

The hour is serious, France is in danger, several mortal dangers threaten it. We who, even in retirement, remain soldiers of France, cannot, in the current circumstances, remain indifferent to the fate of our beautiful country.

Our tricolor flags are not just a piece of cloth, they symbolize the tradition, through the ages, of those who, whatever their skin color or their faith, served France and gave their lives for it. On these flags, we find in gold letters the words “Honor and Fatherland”. However, our honor today lies in the denunciation of the disintegration which strikes our homeland.

– Discrimination which, through a certain anti-racism, is displayed with a single goal: to create on our soil a malaise, even hatred between the communities. Today, some speak of racialism, indigenism and decolonial theories, but through these terms it is the racial war that these hateful and fanatic partisans want. They despise our country, its traditions, its culture, and want to see it dissolve by taking away its past and its history. Thus they attack, through statues, ancient military and civilian glories by analyzing words that are centuries old.

– Discrimination which, with Islamism and the suburban hordes, leads to the detachment of multiple plots of the nation to transform them into territories subject to dogmas contrary to our constitution. However, each Frenchman, whatever his belief or his non-belief, is everywhere at home in France; there cannot and must not exist any city, any district where the laws of the Republic do not apply.

– Discrimination, because hatred takes precedence over brotherhood during demonstrations where the power uses the police as auxiliary agents and scapegoats in the face of French people in yellow vests expressing their despair. This while infiltrated and hooded individuals ransack businesses and threaten these same police forces. However, the latter only apply the directives, sometimes contradictory, given by you, the rulers.

Perils are mounting, violence is increasing day by day. Who would have predicted ten years ago that a professor would one day be beheaded when he left college? However, we, servants of the Nation, who have always been ready to put our skin at the end of our engagement — as required by our military state, cannot be in front of such acts of the passive spectators.

Also, those who lead our country must imperatively find the courage necessary to eradicate these dangers. To do this, it is often sufficient to apply existing laws without weakness. Do not forget that, like us, a large majority of our fellow citizens are overwhelmed by your dabbling and guilty silence.

As Cardinal Mercier, Primate of Belgium, said: “When prudence is everywhere, courage is nowhere. “ So, ladies and gentlemen, enough stalling, the situation is serious, work is enormous; do not waste time and know that we are ready to support policies which will take into consideration the safeguard of the nation.

On the other hand, if nothing is done, laxity will continue to spread inexorably in society, ultimately causing an explosion and the intervention of our active comrades in a perilous mission of protecting our civilizational values ​​and safeguarding our compatriots on the national territory.

As we can see, it is no longer time to procrastinate, otherwise, tomorrow the civil war will put an end to this growing chaos, and the deaths, for which you will bear the responsibility, will number in the thousands.

The letter caused a sensation in France. An opinion poll taken after its release showed that 58 percent of French voters — including almost half of President Macron’s voters — supported the letter.Here’s a Nathan Pinkoski piece from First Things explaining the context. Excerpts:

From an American perspective, the whole text is astonishing. It would be impossible to find twenty retired American generals, let alone two, who would dare suggest that the logic of “antiracism” entails racial warfare.

But in France, the letter speaks to conventional political debates. Macron and his ministers now launch regular attacks on antiracism and identity politics, arguing that this American-made ideology threatens national unity and the integrity of the Republic. A recent poll indicates that 74 percent of the French think “antiracism” has the opposite effect. It is also not unusual to speak about the threat of war, even civil war, breaking out on French soil. In 2015, after Islamists killed 130 people on the streets of Paris, President François Hollande declared that France was at war. In 2016, Patrick Calvar, the head of DGSI (France’s internal security agency) said that France was “on the edge of a civil war.” And another group of generals has just released a short report on how a “hybrid war” has been declared against France.

As a result, it is unlikely that the letter will change much of the national conversation. Still, it is significant because it raises the question of what role the army now plays in France’s beleaguered Republic, what role it has historically played, and what parallels exist.

Pinkoski explains how, since World War II, the stability of various French governments have depended on the Army. More:

Moreover, the army is under considerable duress. Since the 2015 Muslim attacks in Paris, the French army patrols the entire country. Having decided to give up machine guns at the frontiers to allow open borders, France now has machine guns on every street corner. The army patrols cities, train stations, and airports. It defends schools and synagogues, and appears in front of churches during Christian holidays. Unlike in the past few decades, the French now feel closer to the army because they see more of it; the regularity of the Islamist attacks reminds them why the soldiers are there, and they are grateful. Unlike the police, who have spent the past year issuing fines for not wearing masks, the army preserves its reputation.

Of course “antiracism” instigates racism. The French are correct on this. But in the US, some of our own military leadership is pushing Ibram X. Kendi’s crackpot antiracist book. The US Navy advises its sailors to read the book. And there’s more.Macron and other French leaders are entirely justified in wanting to keep this insane, society-destroying ideology out of their country.

Keep in mind that the reader who e-mailed me that isn’t objecting to gays in the military. He’s objecting to the military centering LGBT cultural politics. Just do your job and fly the damn helicopter, not the damn flag.

Anyway, I guess there’s no possibility that any of our retired generals will sign a letter telling the military to get its head out of its woke rear end and focus on fighting actual wars, not the culture war. A friend who works in the national security field messaged me to say:

I think as the West becomes more and more ideological we are going to be very surprised by how many countries choose Russia or China over an increasingly decaying West.

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CIA & The Woke Totalitarian Generation

Unnamed intersectional agent in CIA recruitment video

You have to watch this. You really do. It’s jaw-dropping. It’s a new CIA recruitment ad:

She is an unnamed Latina Millennial who says she has been “diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder,” and is “cisgender.” She goes on to say, “I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise,” and that she had doubts about her place at the agency, but then decided she would refuse “to internalize misguided, patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be.”

Here’s one in which a CIA librarian talks about how awesome it is that he can talk about being gay at work, and how affirming the CIA is:

Here’s a clip from a blind woman talking about how she feared rejection when she applied at the CIA, but it’s such a caring and inclusive employer that it all worked out. A still from her video:

She doesn’t mention she’s gay, or pro-LGBT, but the agency wants to make sure you know that she can advertise that at work.

Here’s a testimonial from a black female Millennial who says how important it was that an “ally” at the agency stood up for her. She loves working at CIA because, she says, there are people there committed to “holding CIA accountable for the diversity and inclusion that it champions.”

What’s going on here? The CIA has gone woke? Seems like it. As absurd as it is, this tells us something about the kind of people the CIA wants to recruit. Notice how important identity is to these people. The Latina has no problem advertising her mental problems, which is fine, I guess, but why would the CIA want to emphasize that being mentally ill is no barrier to success at the agency? I mean, I’m grateful that the agency recognizes that non-neurotypical people can still contribute, but it’s a very strange thing to feature in a recruitment ad. I suppose they must recognize that a lot of Millennials are nervous wrecks. But honestly, is it a good idea to telegraph to the world that the CIA is administered by people with anxiety disorders? It is telling that the agency touts this woman’s trauma as part of her identity.

I recall a conversation I had once with a European friend who did graduate work at Harvard. He said the thing that impressed him the most about the students there was how emotionally and psychologically fragile these American elites are — even as they have no doubt at all that they are meant to run the world. This anxious cisgender intersectional Latina CIA officer strikes me as an embodiment of what he’s talking about.

If I were a non-woke person, I wouldn’t go anywhere near the CIA seeking employment. The CIA seems to have discovered what Woke Capitalists have done: if you co-opt the cultural left, you no longer have to worry about them. But personnel, inevitably, is policy. Now we will have the US intelligence agency working to advance wokeness overseas. The agency might want to put out feelers to Donovan Barnes, a Georgetown undergraduate student of Arabic who opines in the campus newspaper that language students have a responsibility to make Arabic woke. Excerpt:

While the current gender-neutral standard in Arabic may have its flaws, the standard remains an option for nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people. The push for gender inclusivity in Arabic is ongoing, and the Georgetown community must facilitate the conversation on gender inclusivity within Arabic courses. Deviation from the norm would certainly raise some traditionalist eyebrows, however, and not in a curious, eager-to-accommodate way.

Arabic has historical and contemporary ties with Islam and religious tradition, and it may be challenging to deviate from the language’s norms. Nonetheless, Arabic speakers whose gender identities do not align with the norms of the language should not have to compromise their identity. They deserve representation.

Acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in Arabic-speaking countries is low. Many countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen have laws forbidding LGBTQ+ behavior. Societal acceptance of all gender identities is an ongoing battle, but creating gender-inclusive pronouns in all languages is a significant step in achieving equality. A 2019 study showed an increase in support for the LGBTQ+ community when language included gender-neutral options. A more inclusive society begins with more inclusive language. Encouraging language exploration would uplift the LGBTQ+ community and contribute to a safer, more inclusive environment for the community.

Institutions of higher learning like Georgetown can and should be at the forefront of this gender-inclusive conversation. Instructors can encourage student experimentation and the eventual standardization of gender-neutral language and pronouns in Arabic courses. Students can help their LGBTQ+ peers feel included and valid through language exploration. Organizations like the Georgetown University Press — a university-affiliated publisher of books and journals — can include gender-neutral language in their Arabic education materials. Students, instructors and publications can set the precedent for all others to follow.

Cultural imperialism, woke-style. He’ll fit in well at the new CIA.

But seriously, the CIA might find a recruitment boon among the Snitchiest Generation:

And:

This is the generation that Woke Capitalism has learned to exploit. From Live Not By Lies:

The embrace of aggressive social progressivism by big business is one of the most underappreciated stories of the last two decades. Critics call it “woke capitalism,” a snarky theft of the left-wing slang term indicating progressive enlightenment. Woke capitalism is now the most transformative agent within the religion of social justice, because it unites progressive ideology with the most potent force in American life: consumerism and making money.

In his 2018 letter to investors, Larry Fink, CEO of the global investment company BlackRock, said that corporate social responsibility is now part of the cost of doing business.

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” Fink wrote. “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”

Poll results about consumer expectations back Fink up. Millennials and Generation Z customers are especially prone to seeing their consumer expenditures as part of creating a socially conscious personal brand identity. For many companies, then, signaling progressive virtues to consumers is a smart business move in the same way that signaling all-American patriotism would have been to corporations in the 1950s.

But what counts as a “positive contribution to society”? Corporations like to brand themselves as being in favor of a predictable constellation of causes, all of them guiding stars of the progressive cosmos. Woke capitalist branding harnesses the unmatched propaganda resources of the advertising industry to send the message, both explicitly and implicitly: the beliefs of social conservatives and religious traditionalists are obstacles to the social good.

The US military is woking up, as we know. Now the CIA is woking up as a champion of “diversity and inclusion,” and angst-ridden intersectionality. You can be sure that the FBI and NSA are doing so, or soon will be. We are now in the process of uniting American military and intelligence power to progressive social causes. Gosh, what could go wrong?

UPDATE: A reader who is in a position to know what he’s talking about — I’ll leave it at that — tells me that this is exactly the kind of strategy that Woke Capital has been pursuing, but adapted to the intelligence field. The idea is that if the CIA emphasizes cultural progressivism, the Left won’t care about the security state growing. And, my source says, the CIA is just mirroring the recruiting strategy of prestige colleges.

The source says conservatives should give up this false and outdated idea that the intelligence services are naturally conservative. They aren’t. The leadership class is completely woke, and selects for people who adhere to cultural progressivism. They really do believe it, and don’t want the status quo challenged.
My source said that it’s no surprise that our people can’t understand actual foreign societies and cultures. They are far too committed to viewing the world through the lens of critical theory and adjacent ideologies. And the GOP says nothing about it, because either their national security experts agree, or they’re listening to marketing people who say that “diversity and inclusion” is the only way to appeal to Millennials.

The key point, said my source, is that the committed woke are very active and have massive cultural influence. We can expect more CIA intelligence failures, based on the inability of many of its woke analysts and officers to understand the world as it is, as opposed to the world as they wish it were.

I was out in an open-air bar last night in Budapest, a place frequented by foreigners. The place, Szimpla Kert, has a reputation as a cool, innovative place — it opened in the ruins of a factory — and I wanted to see what it was all about. I ended up having a conversation with a western European who moved to Budapest for business. He said that the difference between what Hungary really is, versus what people in western Europe believe it is, is massive. He described his former colleagues in elite circles of his previous industry as being completely hysterical about Viktor Orban. They think he’s a devil, and that Hungary is semi-fascist. He’s been living here for a couple of years, and said it’s total propaganda — but that EU types and other European elites really do believe it, and act as if it were true.

I had earlier met an American Jewish academic who is here doing research, who told me that he was startled to discover that the common view back in US academic circles that Viktor Orban and the Fidesz Party traffick in antisemitism is nonsense. It’s 100 percent because he criticizes George Soros. The US Jewish professor recalled a conversation he had with a Hungarian rabbi, who told him that Jews here feel quite safe. If you want to go to a country where Jews are terrified of antisemitic violence, France is the place, and the antisemites are French Muslims. But this is not something we can talk about comfortably. It’s much easier to vilify Orban, who is facing down a culturally progressive, billionaire Jewish globalist who is spending a fortune to try to change Hungary to fit his own vision of how the world ought to be — a vision that goes hand in glove with how the Eurocratic elites think the world ought to be.

There are reasons to find fault with Viktor Orban’s governance, but the idea that he has turned his country into a right-wing autocracy is just nuts. There is an actual election next year, one that Fidesz might lose. I’ve heard a few Fidesz supporters talking about what they will do if this happens, and they have to go into opposition. I have heard exactly no one talking about suspending the election if Orban loses. If he and his party were autocrats, they would be speaking that way. Remember how when the Hungarian parliament gave Orban emergency powers to deal with Covid, our media freaked out and said ah ha! now we see the fascism in the Hungarian system! We didn’t hear much from them after the crisis abated, and the parliament rescinded his emergency powers. When the crisis flared again, they gave him those powers back. I’m not sure where things stand now, but look, all of Europe is under strict lockdown now — but Hungary is now opening up again. I went to Orthodox Easter services on Sunday, and into an open-air bar last night. Now restaurants are allowed to serve people inside, provided the customers can prove that they’ve been vaccinated.

In the bar last night, my European interlocutor said, “The reason we are able to drink in this bar tonight, and people in other EU countries can’t, is because of Viktor Orban. He looks after his own people. He saw how the EU was screwing around, and said to hell with it, we’ll get vaccines from the Russians.”

Look, I’ve only been in this country for two weeks, so God knows I’m no expert. Still, it is really something to be here on the ground, and to see with your own eyes how different the reality is from what we read about in the US media. My bar interlocutor said to me that his Hungarian experience has been a real education for him in the prejudices of business, academic, media, and governing elites of western Europe — and how unreliable their analysis is. Similarly, I would not be surprised if woke US intelligence really does think Orban is some sort of fascist, and is working to undermine the government. It’s the cultural conservatism of the Visegrad countries that the US and western European elites hate the most. How likely do you think the woke CIA analysts are to get an accurate read on a country whose democratically elected leadership they regard as backwards bigots? This class of person can’t even understand their own country beyond the deep blue bubble. You think they understand Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic?

Keep in mind the CIA’s new recruiting campaign seems to be recruiting in the same way that US media companies recruit. Nobody in newsroom management ever thinks about viewpoint diversity. Ever. Nobody ever thinks that prioritizing “diversity” over actual ability hurts the mission of the organization. You’re a bigot if you even suggest such a thing.

And it shows.

If the culture inside the CIA is anything like the culture inside newsrooms in that way, then we are in real trouble.

UPDATE.2: This is funny:

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Pascha Rage Against The Machine

Interior of Szimpla Kert, a "ruin bar" in Budapest's Jewish quarter

I didn’t realize until just now that I didn’t take any photos at Pascha services today! It was beautiful, but boy, how strange it was to realize that my parish back home in Baton Rouge had celebrated Pascha before we did in Budapest (because the nighttime Covid curfew meant no midnight services). Just before I left for church this morning, my Catholic friend Anna sent me this 1916 poem by the Hungarian Catholic poet Mihaly Babits. It’s called “Before Easter,” and was written in the midst of World War I.

If my lips shred to pieces – oh, courage!
this wild, wild burgeoning month of March,
drinking excitement with trees all excited,
drunk with seething, tantalising,
intoxicating,
blood-bearing, salt-scented March winds,
by grey, heavy skies,
enmeshed in the murderous mill wheel;

if my lips shred to pieces – more courage!
if bleeding raw with the song, and if
drowned by the thunderous Mill, my song
cannot be heard but merely tasted
by tasting the pain,
even so, give me yet more courage
– oceans of blood! –
bring the bitter song of bloodshed!

God, we have now heroes to glorify!
the mighty giants’ blind, bloody victories,
engines and red-hot gun barrels
busily packed with cold compresses
for their dreadful exercise:
but I will sing no paean to victory,
the rough-shod iron tread of trampling triumph
is as paltry to me,
as the deadly mill of the tyrant:

the teeming, pregnant winds of March, mighty rush,
fresh tingling blood, won’t let me salute the mad
death-machines, monstrous mills, rather
lovemaking, people, and the living
swiftly flowing, racy blood:
and if my lips are torn to shreds – give courage!
in these salty, blood-scented March winds,
by grey heavy skies,
enmeshed in the murderous mill wheel,

where mighty thrones and nations grind to dust,
century old boundaries,
iron shackles and ancient beliefs
crumble into smithereens,
flesh and the soul in double demise,
as gangrenous sores
are spat in the face of the virginal moon
and one rotation of the wheel
ends a generation:

I will not praise the mighty machine
now in March when in the air,
excited by the blustering wind
keenly we sense the moistness,
taste the sap rising, precious Magyar
blood to awaken:
my mouth, as I swallowed the sharp salty spray
flaked into sores,
saying verse is a curse of a pain now.

but if my lips shred to pieces, oh courage!
Magyar song soars in the month of March,
blood-red songs fly, ride the tempest!
I scorn the victor’s glorious fame,
the blind hero, the folk-machine,
the one, who spells death wherever he goes,
whose gaze can maim, paralyse the word,
whose touch betokens slavery,
but I’ll sing, anyone who may come,

the one, the first, who comes to pronounce the word,
the one, who first will dare to say it aloud,
thunder it, oh fearless, fearless,
that wondrous word, so waited for
by hundreds of thousands, holy,
mankind-redeeming, breath-restoring,
nation-salvaging, gate-opening,
liberating, precious word:
it’s enough! it’s enough! enough now!
come peace! come peace!

peace, oh peace again!
Let us breathe again!
Those who sleep shall rest asleep,
those who live keep coping,
the poor hero buried deep,
the poor people hoping.
Ring the churchbells to the sky,
glory, alleluia,
bring us blossoms, new-born March,
bountiful renewer!
Some shall go their work to do,
some their dead to witness,
may God give us bread and wine,
wine to bring forgiveness!

Oh peace! come peace!
we want peace again!
Let us breathe again!
The dead do not seek revenge,
the dead do not mind us.
Brothers, if we stay alive,
leave the past behind us.
Who was guilty? never ask,
plant the fields with flowers,
let us love and understand
this great world of ours:
some shall go their work to do,
some their dead to witness:
may God give us bread and wine,
drink up, to forgiveness!

It reduced me to tears. Isn’t that incredible? Part of the reason it got to me was that just last night, I was reading Norman Stone’s history of Hungary, the chapters about World War I, and what it did to this country.

Mihaly Babits (1883-1941)

But more importantly, I also thought about Paul Kingsnorth’s view that the great enemy of humanity today is The Machine. From his recent essay about Simone Weil:

Two years after Weil’s book was published, C. S. Lewis – no progressive he – had one of the characters in his novel This Hideous Strength make clear that there was no escape from this brave new world:

The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.

Well, the dark-winged chickens are back home now, and they are roosting on our Western shoulders, and I want to use the first few of my essays here to explore how we all got – pardon my French, Simone – covered in shit. How can we prise apart, if we can, the intersection of the Industrial Revolution, enclosure, colonialism at home and abroad, the collapse of religion, the objectification and abuse of nature, the decline of rooted and local ways of seeing, the rise of Enlightenment liberalism and the consequent flowering of me-first individualism, and the final triumph (and thus coming defeat) of the money-power of techno-capitalism? Phew. Better people than me have tried, and I won’t be able to add anything new to the mix. But I want to try and lay some of it out clumsily on this table for my own satisfaction, and I’ll be happy to be corrected by others if my knife makes the wrong cut.

However we dissect it, I believe that the heart of our global crisis – cultural, ecological and spiritual – is this ongoing process of mass uprooting. We could simply call this process modernity, which is not a time period so much as a myth (more on that another time.) But I prefer to call it the Machine, a name which I have stolen from smarter writers. I want to look into its workings (and into some of those writers) in coming essays, but for now it is enough to say that this Machine – this intersection of money power, state power and increasingly coercive and manipulative technologies – constitutes an ongoing war against roots and against limits. Its momentum is always forward, and it will not stop until it has conquered and transformed the world.

To do that, it must bulldoze everything Simone Weil valued, and everything I value too: rooted human communities, wild nature, human nature, human freedom, mythic ways of seeing, beauty, faith and all the older and truer values which until yesterday, in terms of human history, were the values of every culture on Earth. This, I think, is what the writer Arundhati Roy was evoking when she once wrote of ‘the profound, unfathomable thing we have lost.’

Because we are all uprooted now. The power of the ‘global economy’ – another euphemism for the Machine – demolishes borders and boundaries, traditions and cultures, languages and ways of seeing wherever it goes. Record numbers of people are on the move as a result, and as the population increases and climate change bites, those numbers will rise everywhere, churning cultures and nations into entirely new shapes or no shapes at all. Even if you are living where your forefathers have lived for generations, you can bet that that smartphone you gave your child will unmoor them more effectively than any bulldozer. The majority of humanity is now living in megacities, cut off from non-human nature, plugged into the Machine, controlled by it, reduced to it.

This process accelerates under its own steam because, as Weil explained, ‘whoever is uprooted himself uproots others’, thus feeding the cycle. The more of us are pulled, or pushed, away from our cultures, traditions and places – if we had them in the first place – the more we take that restlessness out with us into the world. If you have ever wondered why it is de rigeur amongst Western cultural elites to demonise roots and glorify movement, to downplay cohesion and talk up diversity, to deny links with the past and strike out instead for a future that never quite arrives – well, I’d say that this is at least part of the explanation.

Re-read that Mihaly Babits poem “Before Easter” again, and wherever Babits writes about the Machine, substitute Paul Kingsnorth’s definition. You’ll see maybe why the Babits verse moved me to tears. Babits denounced the Machine of war that destroyed nations and ancient beliefs. Our Machine is bloodless (so far), but even more destructive. And yet, Babits, a faithful Catholic, saw renewal in the spring, and in Easter.

This evening I met a new friend for a beer at Szimpla Kert, the first and most famous of Budapest’s “ruin bars.” It’s been around for almost 20 years. This Atlas Obscura post gives you the history:

Walking into Szimpla Kert in Budapest’s District VII is a bit like stumbling into the world’s most interesting junkyard. The former factory has multiple levels and a maze of different rooms, each its own curiosity shop. Now a pub, its decor is a hodgepodge of items, including a kangaroo statue, a Trabant car (in which you can sit and drink), and a bathtub cut open on one side to serve as a couch. There’s graffiti on the walls, and the exposed brick conceals nothing of the building’s structural core. Disco balls hang overhead, as do upturned chairs, and plants sprout up in its large, open-air garden. There’s a method to this madness, which is to elevate items that might be considered junk to the stature of high design.

Szimpla Kert, Budapest’s first “ruin bar,” opened in an abandoned factory in 2002, a far cry from elegantly outfitted trendy watering holes. Ruin bars have since become some of the coolest spots in the Hungarian city, seen as successful endeavors at repurposing decaying urban structures into lively communal spaces. But some of these buildings have tragic histories that cannot be overlooked, especially in District VII (also known as Erzsébetváros), which was previously Budapest’s Jewish quarter. Szimpla Kert’s space in particular was once a brick and furnace (some sources say fireplace) factory. By some accounts, the Jewish factory owners were deported during World War II, and the building went through several iterations, becoming a furniture factory and a multi-family residence, before it was vacated completely.

The past cannot be undone. But there is something special in the ruin of this factory. It’s a lovely, tattered place, with a friendly vibe. Maybe the photo from my seat at Szimpla Kert is appropriate for this post, because it’s a kind of resurrection story. It ain’t church, but there’s life there. Ring the church bells to the sky! Christ is risen! Truly he is risen! Krisztus feltamadt! Valóban feltámadt!

 

 

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View From Your Table

Budapest, Hungary

“I would like to taste a Hungarian wine, something dry and minerally.”

“Sir, we only serve Hungarian wines here.”

“Fantastic!”

Vinikli, one of my new favorite places here. It’s a wine bar and a bike shop, and a coffee shop, and it’s not far from where I live in the city. My son Matthew, who is a biking fanatic, and who arrives here next week, is going to live there, basically. This I predict.

By the way, I went out today to replenish the sourdough supply from Aran Bakery, which makes the best sourdough I have ever tasted, ever, ever, ever.

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Beauty, Brokenness, And Bill Willis

Still from the documentary 'Bill Willis'

[Note to readers: Today is Orthodox Good Friday, so I won’t be posting. I do want to share something with you, though. I wrote this on my subscription-only Daily Dreher Substack newsletter this week (subscribe here if you like). So many people responded favorably to it, and several readers urged me to share it on this blog, to leaven the doom and gloom of late. So here it is. I wish my Orthodox readers a blessed Paschal weekend. — RD]

The other night at dinner, my host, noting that I am from the American South, mentioned that he had once known a Southerner when he lived in Marrakesh. “Have you ever heard of Bill Willis?” he asked. No, I said, I have not. Bill Willis was a decorator to elites living in Marrakesh, and that meant some of the biggest society names of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a close friend and interior designer for Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, the Gettys, the Agnellis, and others. My host said he visited Bill at home once, and admired a piece of furniture. Bill quipped that he had stolen it from Mick Jagger.

Back home, I looked up Bill Willis, and found this remarkable 30-minute documentary about his life and work in Marrakesh. It is many things, but to my eyes, above all, it is a glimpse into the messy workings of grace.

Bill Willis

Bill Willis (1936-2009) was born in Memphis. There’s a disturbing anecdote early in the film told rather bluntly by an artist who knew him in Marrakesh, in which Bill, as an adolescent boy, wanders away from home, and to the wrong side of the tracks. An older black man picks him up, and forces the boy to perform oral sex on him. Bill relayed that story to the artist later in life, telling her that all he has ever wanted to do in life was … that.

From that traumatic beginning, Bill set out for Europe as a young man, looking for adventure. He decided to become a kept man for wealthy patrons, and eventually made his way to Morocco. There he fell in with a fast, rich crowd. He lived a life of sex, drugs, drink, and general dissolution. In fact, Pierre Bergé testifies in the film that Bill never achieved the full due of his talent because of this complete lack of personal discipline. He wasted away so much of his potential in partying.

And yet, look at some of the breathtaking interior landscapes Bill did manage to create:

You get the idea. I really do hope you will watch the film — there are many more such images of overwhelming sumptuousness. Bill Willis was an aesthete of prodigious talent.

Yet there is fathomless melancholy in his story. Accompanied by Willis’s former housekeeper, and his former professional collaborator, the filmmakers visit his old house, which is falling into ruin. You see that all that beauty ultimately faded, as all beauty must (about half the people interviewed in this film are now dead). Isham, the housekeeper, points out that his former master used to stare out over the cemetery behind the house, and would say that he felt most comfortable among the dead. Isham says Bill was a sad man. Isham weeps.

Bill Willis’s story is as good an example of any as to the necessity to separate the artist from his art. Over on my blog, I lament the cancellation by W.W. Norton of its published biography of the late novelist Philip Roth, after a number of (as yet unproven) accusations of sexual assault against biographer Blake Bailey were lodged. Even if the allegations are true, that tells us nothing at all about the quality of Bailey’s biography of Roth. It is — or rather, it was — well understood that it is an elementary mistake to judge the quality of a work by the moral character of the one who made it. After all, what kind of blind man would reject a Caravaggio because the artist was a murderer, a brawler, a deadbeat, and a sexual rebel (including perhaps a purloiner of boys for sexual pleasure)?


That is one of Caravaggio’s most famous canvases, depicting the moment Jesus of Nazareth called the tax collector Matthew to follow him. Why did Jesus choose a tax collector, an ignoble profession? Well, why did the eternal and all-powerful God choose to incarnate as an itinerant rabbi from the lowlife town of Nazareth? Why did God bless the dissolute Bill Willis with a divine gift of aesthetic prowess, while leaving well-behaved and untroubled men with none? Why Mozart, but not Salieri?

It is a mystery. But that’s how the world really is. You cannot explain this mystery in a satisfying way, but you can recognize it, and enter into it. Artistic genius does not absolve one’s sins, but neither does one’s sins negate artistic genius.

Pierre Bergé describes Bill as a “dilettante,” a word that brings to mind Truman Capote, another flamboyantly gay Southern man who fell in with the European rich, and who was a shallow, self-centered aesthete who was capable of writing the most gossamer sentences. This passage from a 1948 sketch Capote wrote about traveling to Europe is one of my favorite passages from his writing, and since first reading it in my twenties, it has become a creed for me and my European travels:

In London a young artist said to me, “How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it — yes, for you there is only the beauty.”

Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined: it was desperate to feel that one could never be a part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people; and then gradually I realized I did not have to be a part of it: rather, it could be a part of me. The sudden garden, opera night, wild children snatching flowers and running up a darkening street, a wreath for the dead and nuns in noon light, music from the piazza, a Paris pianola and fireworks on La Grande Nuit, the heart-shaking surprise of mountain visions and water views (lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes, the Mediterranean flickering at the bottoms of cliffs), forsaken far-off towers falling in twilight and candles igniting the jeweled corpse of St. Zeno of Verona — all a part of me, elements for the making of my own perspective.

Lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes. That very line rose in my mind as I peered out the window of an airplane flying over the Swiss Alps, beholding the beauty of mountain lakes below. Not a line from the Bible. Not a line from Shakespeare. A line from a gay Alabama dilettante who wasted his talent in high-society living, booze, pills, and gossip. Such is life.

How did the divine light shine through the disorder and brokenness of Bill Willis’s imagination, and in its projection reveal extraordinary beauty and harmony? It is easier for us — well, for Americans, at least — to consider a story like Oskar Schindler’s, and to understand the grace that allowed a sleazy German profiteer to deceive the Nazis and save the lives of hundreds of Jews. That was a moral act. We are much less comfortable trying to reconcile aesthetic achievement with personal vice. I think this says something about our very American distrust of beauty, thinking of it as merely a matter of pleasure.

When you see Bill Willis’s interiors, yes, there is undoubtedly sumptuary pleasure in the lines, the patterns, the lighting, the textures, and so forth. But there is more. I wrote about this in a December 30 newsletter. Excerpt:

Thinking about Chartres, about Dante, and about Penrose tilings, brings to mind a quality of beauty identified by Elaine Scarry, in her wonderful little book On Beauty And Being Just. She writes that all beautiful things share an “impulse toward begetting.

It is impossible to conceive of a beautiful thing that does not have this attribute. The homely word “replication” has been used here because it reminds us that the benign impulse toward creation results not just in famous paintings but in everyday acts of staring; it also reminds us that the generative object continues, in some sense, to be present in the newly begotten object. It may be startling to speak of the Divine Comedy or the Mona Lisa as “a replication” since they are so unprecedented, but the word recalls the fact that something, or someone, gave rise to their creation and remains silently present in the newborn object.

For Dante, the generative impulse behind the Divine Comedy was his love of Beatrice and her beauty — but, as she tells him when they are reunited at the peak of the mountain of Purgatory, he erred grievously when he made an idol of her, instead of seeing her iconographically: as a medium through which the glory of God shone, and a sign pointing him to the divine origin of all beauty and love.

Sir Roger Penrose found that the design beauty of what would come to be known as Penrose tiling produced fruits in mathematical computation. For me, the beauty of Chartres generated religious conversion, and new life. Later, the beauty of the Divine Comedy served as map and a guide leading me out of a period of great despair. The beauty of my wife led me to marriage (23 years ago tomorrow), and has produced three children. And on and on.

What is so wonderful — literally, wonder-full — about the Divine Comedy is how Dante reveals that life is a pilgrimage towards greater revelation of light, of beauty, of harmonious order, and of love. All of these are the same thing in God. As Dante progresses through Paradiso, his ability to see depends on his growing in holiness. He is too weak spiritually to behold the full glory of God, shining through the heavenly beings; the divine light shining through their forms would annihilate him. Gradually, though, as his intellect, his nous, become illumined, he is able to perceive more truth, behold greater love, become more united to God, and filled with the Light.

What was God doing in the soul of Bill Willis, who had the ability to perceive and to replicate beauty? To rest one’s eyes in a Willis interior landscape, in a spirit of contemplation, is to sense the goodness of life, to feel the consolation of harmony, and to perceive within oneself a capacity for life. To some of us, that is a mercy as meaningful as a morsel of bread given by a missionary to a hungry beggar.

I hope the soul of Bill Willis is at rest in Paradise, with Caravaggio, with Billie Holiday, and with all other artists who fared poorly in bearing the moral burdens that come with the ambiguous blessing of enormous aesthetic perceptiveness, and artistic talent. Kierkegaard said that an artist is like someone who is tormented alive in the public square, with the public marveling at the beauty of his screams and cries. Maybe that’s how it was for Bill Willis. Maybe that’s why his extreme aesthetic gifts and his inability to resist sex, drugs, and drink, came from the same place.

I’m not saying that God excuses the sins of men and women like Bill Willis because of their artistic talent. I am saying, though, that contemplating the works of a Bill Willis in light of the life he led gives one a certain perspective on “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Had Willis created ugliness, we would have thought: of course. But he didn’t; he created beauty that testified to the glory and goodness of life … and in several ways, the poor man longed for death. Like I said, a mystery. Once more, watch Bill Willis and make up your own mind.

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Finland Persecutes Christian Lawmaker

Päivi Räsänen, Lutheran, Finnish MP, and indicted hate criminal (CBN)

I had breakfast this morning in Budapest with a Hungarian-American businessman who follows my work, and reached out to invite me to meet him. “You look just like your Twitter photo,” he said when we met. He has been living in Budapest for some time, and conducts business internationally. Though born in the US, he grew up speaking Hungarian (his parents fled Communism), so he’s got the skills that enable him to flourish in transcontinental business.

We talked about many things, but at one point, he said, “My mother still lives in America. She tells me that it’s not the same country I left.” Of course he follows the US media, and told me that it is infuriating to read how Hungary is portrayed.

“You are sitting next to the Fifth Avenue of Budapest,” he said, referring to nearby Andrassy Avenue. “The only people Western journalists ever seem to talk to live within a two-mile radius of this street.”

Later, as I was headed home from work, I thought about how someone could stand on Andrassy holding a sign saying, “Viktor Orban, Go To Hell,” and nothing would happen to them. What do you think would happen to someone standing on the corner of Fifth and 45th in Manhattan, holding up a sign saying, “Black Lives Matter Sucks,” or “Homosexuality Is A Sin”? Yet Hungary is the illiberal horror show, we are told.

I can tell you what would happen to you in the liberal democracy of Finland if you said homosexuality is a sin. It happened on this very day to Päivi Räsänen, a Finnish Lutheran member of Parliament. Here’s the press release from the state prosecutor. Google Translate version is below:

The Prosecutor General has filed charges against MP Päivi Räsänen for three incitements against a group of people, and against Juhana Pohjola, an agent and board member of the Finnish Luther Foundation, for incitement against a group of people.

… The charges are based on three different sets of issues.

Räsänen has written, “God created them as men and women. Gay relationships challenge the Christian conception of man.” In her writing, Räsänen has presented opinions and information that denigrate homosexuals. Among other things, Räsänen has claimed that homosexuality is a scientifically proven disorder of psychosexual development. Pohjola has published the article on the websites of the Finnish Luther Foundation and the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission.

In addition, Räsänen has published on her Twitter and Instagram account and Facebook page an opinion that denigrates homosexuals, according to which homosexuality is a shame and a sin. [Note: She tweeted out a Bible verse. — RD]

Räsänen, on the program of the Yle Puhe radio channel, in its episode “What did Jesus think about gays?” made derogatory statements about homosexuals. In it, Räsänen has said that if homosexuality is genetic, then it is a genetic degeneration and a genetic disease that causes the disease. In Räsänen’s view, homosexuals are also not created by God like heterosexuals.

According to the indictment, the statements further specified in Räsänen’s indictments are derogatory and discriminatory against homosexuals. The statements violate the equality and dignity of homosexuals, so they transcend the boundaries of freedom of speech and religion.

The Attorney General believes that Räsänen’s statements are likely to cause intolerance, contempt and hatred towards homosexuals.

Ever seen Päivi Räsänen speak? She is a small, middle-aged woman of surpassing gentleness — but she has more courage than tens of thousands of Finnish Christians who are afraid to take her side. Here is a good report from Dale Hurd at CBN just over a year ago, explaining the background of the investigation. Hear Päivi talk for yourself:

In 2019, I published an interview I did with Dr. Räsänen about the investigation. Here, by the way, is the tweet that got her criminally charged today (“Kirkko” is “church”; she’s calling out her own ecclesial body for endorsing the Pride celebration):

 

And so, in the liberal democratic nation of Finland, a Lutheran woman who is a member of Parliament has now been indicted for hate speech because she proclaimed Biblical teaching. There is absolutely no question that if American liberals could get away with it (that is, if not for the First Amendment), they would do the same thing.

But remember your catechism: countries like Hungary are the real illiberal democracies. All the people who write me constantly, telling me how afraid they are for their jobs and livelihoods if their employers or co-workers found out that they don’t endorse Black Lives Matter, or don’t agree with gender ideology — they officially don’t exist. The New York Times and the Washington Post never, ever pay attention to them. Nor, of course, do the networks, or NPR. The fact that the state prosecutor in Finland is going to put on trial a 61-year-old former Minister of the Interior for tweeting a Bible verse critical of homosexuality, and for writing a pamphlet 15 years ago laying out the traditional Christian view of marriage, will not even make the news back home. We Americans are being gaslighted by our own illiberal left-wing media.

But now you know about the persecution of Päivi Räsänen, because you read it here. Write a polite but firm letter to Ms. Raija Toiviainen, the Prosecutor General, at: valtakunnansyyttaja.syyttaja — at — oikeus.fi

Also, send a polite but firm letter to the Finnish ambassador to the US, His Excellency Mikko Hautala, at sanomat.was — at — formin.fi

It is outrageous that this anti-Christian persecution is happening, especially in a liberal democracy. Shame on Finland. You are better than this. I hope that the Finnish church finds its voice to stand up for Dr. Räsänen. Certainly Christians in the US and other countries have absolutely nothing to lose by speaking out for her.

UPDATE: Dr. Räsänen has made a public statement:

Yesterday morning, I received by phone the information that the Prosecutor General has decided to prosecute me in three cases. The application for summons has been delivered to the District Court of Helsinki. I am accused of criminal agitation against a minority group, which carries the sentence of a fine or imprisonment for a maximum of two years. The three charges filed against me are about the following cases. Firstly, a pamphlet I wrote in 2004 “Male and female He created them – Homosexual relationships challenge the Christian concept of humanity”. A charge have also been filed against Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola, the Dean of Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland. The Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland was in charge of publishing the pamphlet.

The second charge is about a tweet I published 17 June 2019 in my social media accounts. In addition to Twitter, I published my tweet in Facebook and Instagram. In the tweet, I questioned the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s official affiliation with Helsinki LGBT Pride 2019 and accompanied my publication with a photo of Bible, from the Letter to the Romans 1:24-27. The third charge is about my views presented in one program of the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation, when I visited a talk show series hosted by Ruben Stiller and discussed the topic “What would Jesus think about homosexuals?”.

The decision of the Prosecutor General is surprising, even shocking. I do not think I have committed threatening, defaming or insulting a minority group. In all these three cases, the question is about the Bible’s teaching about marriage and sexuality. Ultimately, the three charges brought against me have to do with whether it is allowed in Finland to express your conviction that is based on the traditional teaching of the Bible and Christian churches. I do not see I would have in any way defamed homosexuals whose human dignity and human rights I have constantly said to respect and defend. The Bible’s teaching is, however, very clear in the teaching that marriage is a union between man and wife and that practicing homosexuality is against God’s will.

The Apostle Paul’s teaching is not only about defending marriage between man and woman, but about how a human being is saved into eternal life. If the teachings of God’s word about sin are rejected, also the whole core of Christian faith is made empty: the precious sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the sake of everyone’s sins and the way He opened into eternity.

There is a difficulty here far greater than a sentence of a fine or an imprisonment: a demand for censorship: an order to remove my social media postings or a ban on the publication of the pamphlet. If one defies the court’s verdict, it leads to demands of penalty payments. This sort of judgement would open up an avenue leading to further publication bans for similar texts and modern book burnings.

It is noteworthy that with regard to the pamphlet case and the tv episode with Stiller, the police stated that there was no reason to suspect a crime. The pre-trial investigation should not have even been commenced according to their decision. The police stated in their decision: “if some of the views in the Bible were to be regarded as per se fulfilling the criteria of an agitation offense, the dissemination of or making the Bible available would in principle be punishable as an offense of agitation.” This has deeply to do with free speech and freedom of religion.

I will go to the court with a peaceful and brave mind, trusting that Finland is a constitutional state where the freedoms of speech and religion, which both are guaranteed in international agreements and in our constitution, are respected. A conviction based on the Christian faith is more than [a superficial] opinion. The early Christians did not renounce their faith in lions’ caves, why should I then renounce my faith in a court room. I will not step back from my conviction nor from my writings. I do not apologize for the writings of the Apostle Paul either. I am ready to defend freedom speech and religion as far as is necessary.

The offence of agitation requires intentionality. In our Criminal Code the concept of intentionality is placed as criteria regarding the purpose of the author and the fact that the author perceives the nature of the act as a culpable legal infringement. In evaluating guilt, one must strive to genuinely understand the background and purpose of the author. As a Member of Parliament, I has been involved in the enactment of this precise amendment to our legislation.  It did not even come to mind that my tweet or my opinions based on Christianity could be defamatory or insulting in any aspect.

I want to encourage others to use their freedom of speech and religion. This indictment shows that right now is the time to defend these foundational freedoms and rights.

The Prosecutor General has previously publicly told that she has, because of my cases, received inappropriate messages. I hope that no insulting messages would be targeted against her.

 

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