Friday, September 29, 2006

Coming Up on Fourteen Years…

The night that we met. A photo taken with my camera, Boston Harbor, June 28, 1991. The Archdiocese of Boston Young Adult Cruise. Note the body language. Jeff is moving in, getting a little cozy… Anne, well, she’s still a little skittish…

Anne and I were married on Nantucket Island on October 3rd, 1992. She had just turned 30 the day before (“Well, now she’s 30. Time to get married!”).

We’d met a little more than a year before on a “Young Adult Cruise” on Boston Harbor sponsored by the Archdiocese of Boston. In those days, pre-scandal, the Young Adult Ministry was fairly well booming.

Neither one of us had really wanted to go. We were in neighboring parishes at the time. She told her friends that it was the “Ship of Fools”, “Desperate Catholics afloat.” She was dragged along anyway.

By coincidence I was down by the waterfront, meeting for a drink with some consultant colleagues from work at a seafood restaurant. It was unbelievably hot that day, close to 100 degrees and very humid. I didn’t feel like hanging around for dinner, so I excused myself and meandered across Commercial Street and headed for the pier. I figured that out on the harbor, it was likely to be a much cooler spot than in the city itself. I picked up my ticket, and on ye ship O' fools I went.

The boat had a bar, and a decent DJ. All truth be told (and Anne knows), I was trying to chat up a friend of Anne’s, a tall, leggy brunette named Megan, but I really wasn’t getting anywhere. Anne and I happened to start a conversation right up at the bow of the ship, and after a while I trapped her there, enchanted. We spoke for hours. As we talked up there, an Aer Lingus flight from the airport roared over our heads, jetting to Ireland. I was supposed to be on that flight to attend a friend’s wedding in Cork, and to finish up some unfinished matters with someone else, but I’d had to cancel out (that’s another long complicated story). What a twist of fate.

At the time, both of our mothers were suffering from long struggles with illness, mine with cancer, and hers with diabetes. In a short amount of time, we found out that we had a lot in common, and that for both of us, faith, family, and commitment meant everything. Within eight months, both of our mothers were gone. When someone sticks with you through all of the vicissitudes involved in the loss of a parent, a strong, profound bond is built that can rarely be broken. You find out a lot about a person. Both of us appreciated the value of finding someone who would stick, no matter what the cost. In a lot of ways, I grew up that night in June in terms of knowing what I should be looking for, and just in the nick of time.

Anyhow, at the end of that evening, I asked Anne out, and this is how it went:

Jeff: I really had a nice time talking to you tonight. May I take you out to dinner sometime?

Anne: OK, sure.

Jeff: Can I have your number?

Anne: (Pause) I’m in the book.

Jeff: (Pause) Well, can you tell me your last name, so I don’t have to start with the letter A?

A lot of our friends find that kind of conversation between us to be typical, expected, and unsurprising. :-)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Reverse Snobbery

Here’s a nod to a couple of posts that the Minor Friar has put up recently. In Links, he put up a reference to a page with dozens of different images of Jesus, a page that certainly highlights how Jesus has come to mean different things to different people. Of all the images on that page, the one that I liked the best in the collection was the “Che” Jesus…

Now, I’m not saying that I’m an admirer of Che Guevara, but I do believe firmly that there was a radical and arguably apocalyptic side of Christ that has been emasculated, bled out, and softened in our popular piety. It wasn’t all sweetness all of the time. He had some pretty tough things to say at times, and the rich were often his target, but that leads me to Friar’s other post - St Vincent De Paul . Friar posits this challenge:
All of us who do charitable service, works of justice, or community organizing need to ask ourselves why we are doing these things on behalf of the poor. Is it because we love them? Or is it because we hate the rich? Or maybe it's because of our righteous indignation at the systemic injustice of this world. Or maybe, God forbid, it's our liberal guilt that motivates us.

Love is the only valid motive for our works of Christian service. Indeed, it's the only valid motive for anything. After all, it's the only motive God has ever known.

Well now, that’s food for thought… Food for thought. How much of our concern for the poor is really resentment towards the wealthy? How much of that anger is justified as righteous indignation at injustice in the world, and how much of it is petty jealousy? Can it sometimes be reverse snobbery?

By the way, my favorite pop art image of Jesus is Jesus the Carpenter by Frances Hook, although I’m not crazy about Hook’s other images of Jesus. An honorable mention goes to the image below of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I suppose I’m sentimental about it because I remember seeing this or a similar one on the wall of just about every house I ever stepped into in Ireland.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

T-Bone Walker... Beyond Cool...

Aaron Thibeaux “T-Bone” Walker 1910-1975
The inventor of urban, electrified blues

I still have a lot of vinyl records, but I don’t have a turntable anymore. Anne asks me, “Why do you keep all of these old records when you don’t have a record player? Can’t we get rid of them?” I just can’t bring myself to do it. I keep telling myself that eventually I’ll pick up a turntable on eBay or something…

I haven’t replaced all of my old collection with CDs, but there are some I have. One of my prized records, which I bought when I was about 18, was the complete set of recordings done by T-Bone Walker for the Imperial label between 1950 and 1954. The records were released on the Blue Note label. Recently I replaced these on CD - The Complete Imperial Recordings: 1950-1954.

T-Bone Walker was born in Texas in 1910 and raised in Dallas. The nickname “T-Bone” came form a corruption of his middle-name Thibeaux. He grew up listening to uncles and relatives who were musicians, and records by guitarists like Scrapper Blackwell and Lonnie Johnson. In Dallas, he served as the “lead boy” for family-friend and legendary blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, guiding him from tavern to tavern, where he would play for tips.

By the time he was a teenager, Walker had learned to play the guitar, banjo, and virtually every other stringed instrument he could get his hands on. Playing, singing, and dancing at carnivals and medicine shows around Texas and Oklahoma, he was earning his own keep. On this southwestern circuit, he became acquainted with the man who would later do for jazz guitar what he would do for blues guitar, Charlie Christian, who later became famous as a member of Benny Goodman’s orchestra.

Walker recalled, “Christian was playing his guitar and going to school. Whenever he’d go to school! We was really dropouts. Because we were making money, he wouldn’t go to school. We’d go dance and pass the hat and make money. We had a little routine of dancing that we did. Charlie would play guitar awhile and I’d play bass, and then we’d switch…. And then we’d go into our little dance. And his brother used to play piano with us, Edward Christian.”

Shortly before 1935, walker moved out to the west coast. It was there that he started playing amplified guitar. T-Bone Walker may not have been the first to record playing a true, amplified electric guitar, but he was among the first handful, and he claimed to have been the first to play one regularly in his act. ”I was out there four or five years on my own before they all started playing amplified… Oh, yes, I was before Charlie Christian on electric guitar. He was about the next one to have it.”

Walker’s exposure to the west coast also exposed him to a level of class and sophistication that he combined with his blues roots. Playing in Les Hite’s Cotton Club Band and with Cab Calloway, Walker learned to synthesize the Swing Band sound with the Blues.

Chicago is generally recognized as the Blues Mecca, but there were two distinctly different styles there. There was the South Side sound, harmonica driven, and characterized by bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, and Sonny Boy Williamson. It had its roots right in the Mississippi Delta. It was a country sound. The other was the West Side sound, guitar and horn driven, and characterized by bluesmen like B.B. King, Albert King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Magic Sam. It was more polished, urban, slick, and jazz-influenced than its South Side counterpart. T-Bone Walker was the primary influence on the West Side set, and also on other Texas bluesmen like Freddy King, Clarence “Gatemouth Brown, and Albert Collins.

With his crackerjack horn section, amplified guitar (designed to be as powerful solo instrument as the saxophone), smooth vocals, and ice-cream suits, Walker brought a sophistication to the blues. His influence on all generations of electric players was huge. If you hear T-Bone walker, you can hear him in Chuck Berry, and Chuck Berry can be heard in every Rock n’ Roll guitarist. His style might sound crude and simplistic with today’ ears, but at the time it was revolutionary, and bear in mind that he played with only two fingers on his fret hand. I also think he’s kind of fun to listen to because I can sort of sing along in the same key….

The song he is known best for is Call It Stormy Monday, which has been covered by innumerable bands.

Call It Stormy Monday
They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
Wednesday's worse, and Thursday's also sad

Yes the eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
Eagle flies on Friday, and Saturday I go out to play
Sunday I go to church, then I kneel down and pray

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on me
Lord have mercy, my heart's in misery
Crazy about my baby, yes, send her back to me

I don’t know if this Rhapsody playlist thing will work for you guys or not. I’d be interested in knowing if anyone who is interested can play it successfully. The songlist I’m trying to play is:

1) I Got the Blues
2) Strollin’ With Bone
3) The Sun went down
4) Lollie Lou
5) Welcome Blues (Say Pretty Baby)
6) Street Walkin’ woman
7) Got no Use For You

My Rhapsody Playlist

T-Bone Walker Guitar, Vocals
Edward Hale Alto Saxophone
Maxwell Davis Tenor Saxophone
Jim Wynn Baritone Saxophone
Eddie Hutcherson Trumpet
Zell Kindred Piano
R. S. Rankin Guitar
Buddy Woodson Bass
Robert Sims Drums
Baby Davis Vocals (Got No Use for You)

The showboat antics imitated later by others, like Jimi Hendrix.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Pope’s remarks. A Matter of the Academic Triumphing Over the Pastoral?

Crusaders vs. Saracens

What are Pope Benedict’s real opinions regarding Islam? Was Islam even an intended target of his remarks? Christopher Blosser is the webmaster for the Ratzingerfanclub. On his blog, Against the Grain, he has put up a very helpful post called So what DOES Pope Benedict XVI think about Islam?, in which he presents the remarks made when the Holy Father spoke at length about his opinions concerning Islam in Cologne on World Youth Day. They are worth taking a close look at.

Here is an audio interview I heard this morning concerning the whole flap with John Allen and author James Reston. I think John Allen does a pretty good job here of putting the whole thing in context. If there was an intended target in his speech, does it appear to have been Islam, or Western secularists steeped in scientism?

In trying to make a point about faith and reason, Benedict, who is uncomfortable criticizing the Church’s past or admitting Church errors, may have unwisely chosen Islam for an anecdote about faith and reason, without intending to target Islam at all. At first, I had a hard time believing that he may have chosen words carelessly, but I am wondering now if this was just an unintentional gaffe on his part. The Holy Father has spent most of his life in academia, and actually has very little pastoral experience. Did that lack of experience come into play here? Speaking in an academic setting, and having found a quote which seemed to fit the bill for what he was trying to say, did he simply fail to take into account what the effect of his words might be? Is that the real story behind the story?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

La Santísima Muerte

The border between the United States and Mexico is unlike any other. Nowhere else in the world is there a border between a first-world nation and a third-world nation where the income difference is as large as it is between these two nations… On September 5th, I heard a journalist named Charles Bowden on WBUR’s Here and Now program talking about the migration of people from Mexico to the United States, and how our typical proposed solutions to the problem of illegal immigration, from walls to guest worker visas, are bound to fail. According to Bowden, the complete collapse of the Mexican economy, essentially the failure of Mexico as a state, has led to a mass migration of people that is inexorable and beyond the power of either nation to control. The harder it is to get here, the more will die trying to get here, but they will still come. Bowden has been watching the border situation closely for over 20 years. As long as Mexico has no work the problem will endure, and NAFTA, which was promised as a panacea, has been an absolute catastrophe for Mexico.

I don’t know too much about Mexican Folk Religion, or about the syncretism between Catholicism and native Aztec and Mayan religions beyond knowing about the festival of the Mexican Day of the Dead. Apparently, however, there has been a new devotion to a new “saint” within the last 20 years, the Cult of La Santísima Muerte. Most Holy Death.

In Mother Jones (I can just hear my conservative friends... “Mother Jones?? Mother freaking Jones?? Alright, alright… Shut up) Charles Bowden covers the same material in an article called Exodus, in which he writes about the migration of biblical proportions and the skeletal La Santísima Muerte.


She waits by the fork in the road. El Puente del Comercio Mundial, the World Trade Bridge, is on the new truck highway that each day feeds 5,800 semis in and out of the twin cities of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas. This is all part of the SuperCorridor, a huge construction project designed to speed the flow of NAFTA trade. Big new ports on Mexico's Pacific coast will drain the freight from Long Beach and other California docks. The products of Asia will be unloaded in these harbors safe from the maritime unions and then sped north by Mexican truckers safe from the Teamsters union. The drivers will deliver these loads anywhere in the United States. At the moment, such Mexican truckers put in about 50 hours a week and earn around $1,100 a month. They all have wrecks, they all use drugs, and they all work like beasts–one run from Ensenada to Cancún takes five days and six nights and no one stops for sleep or anything else.

That is why she is here. The first little capilla appeared five years ago at the interchange of I–35 and the World Trade Bridge. Now there are three more chapels, each large enough for a man to enter. Trucks idle on the shoulder of the highway as men approach La Santísima Muerte, Most Holy Death. She is the saint for drug dealers and for truckers and for anyone else who understands that the game is not on the level and help is necessary for survival.

La Santísima Muerte has no flesh — her bony feet and hands reach out from her cloak. One hand holds a huge scythe, the other the world. She looks like death but promises a chance at life to those whirling in a world of death. In Nuevo Laredo, 230 people have been slaughtered in the last 16 months as a byproduct of the drug industry. In February 2006, two men entered the daily newspaper, sprayed the office with assault rifles (the lobby still has more than 20 bullet holes), cut down some staff, threw a grenade into the editor's office, and then left after 180 seconds of commentary. The paper decided to cease publishing stories on the cartels. When four cops were executed on a downtown street this past spring, the news was broken by Mexico City papers 700 miles to the south. Yesterday, a cop guarding the assistant police chief's house was mowed down. The paper buries this story in the back facing a feature on a local honey cooperative.

A trucker in his early 20s stands before La Santísima Muerte, his voice very soft as he speaks to her. He says, "She is just like us, except she has no flesh. She can speak to God. She has helped me many times."

Once he saw her standing by the road. She saves him when the highways are wet and saves him from wrecks and saves him from police and saves him from the many faces of death. He enters the main capilla, lights a cigarette, and leaves it burning for her. The altar is rich with candy bars and fruits and money.

He explains, "I have believed in Santa Muerte since I was 13 years old. If I tell you of her favors to me, I will never cease talking. I have a shrine to her in my house and offerings of rice, tomatoes, wine, apples, corn, and bullets."

A man of about 40 climbs down from his truck. He wears black, dark sunglasses, and a gold chain. He stands before La Santísima Muerte and softly speaks to her as he sprays her body with perfume. An expensive two–seater sports car rolls up. The occupants do not get out but sit in their machine a few feet from La Santísima Muerte, praying as the air conditioner roars. No one looks at them because everyone knows how expensive sports cars are earned here.

She first appeared during the late '90s in Tepito, the thieves' market of Mexico City, a zone of 37 blocks stuffed with contraband, whores, addicts, live sex shows, and violence. The priests were alarmed but could do nothing because La Santísima Muerte exuded tolerance. Women went to her to be safe from AIDS and to ensure their clients remained docile. Men sought protection from bullets. She spread north to the line and then spilled over into the ragged neighborhoods where migrants hid from view in the cities of America. The anthropologists pounced and concluded she had erupted from the long–dormant virus of Aztec death worship.

I think she is the saint of NAFTA. In 1994, the trade agreement first kicked in and within a year the numbers crawling through the wire began to spike. Within three years, La Santísima Muerte had entered the minds and hearts of those broken on this new notion called free trade. NAFTA crushed peasant farmers who could not compete with the torrent of cheap agricultural products flowing from American agribusinesses. Trade with China, Mexico's introduction to the global economy, swiftly wiped out traditional industries: toys, serapes, shoes, and so forth. Then the border plants, the maquiladoras where Mexicans assembled goods for American corporations, closed up shop and hightailed it to China where men and women work for one–fourth the wages of Mexicans. Juárez, the poster child of free trade, lost 72,620 jobs to China in less than three years, for example.

In Nuevo Laredo near the Rio Grande, a market stall sells statues of Christ, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Emiliano Zapata, and La Santísima Muerte–who outsells all the others combined. She touches more human behavior than the Border Patrol or Homeland Security or the DEA. She holds the whole world in her bony hand. For years, she succored the souls being displaced and hurled north, listened to their fears and hungers while politicians talked about slight adjustments in the global economy, while others spoke of guest worker programs, as some babbled about pathways to citizenship, as growing numbers rumbled about building big walls on the line, and still others explained the need for workers to perform tasks beneath the notice of native–born Americans. All this while, like the illegals themselves, she remained largely invisible to those who believed themselves to be in control. Most Holy Death is the real face of the migration, one kept safely off–camera, one never invited to be on the cable talk shows, one worshipped by men and women who scorn presidents.

The exportation of human beings by Mexico now reaches, officially, a half million souls a year. Or double that. Or triple that. What is for certain are the apprehensions by the Border Patrol (during one week this April, agents caught 12,434 people in the 262–mile Tucson Sector, for example). And that any reduction of poverty in Mexico takes two forms: the exportation of brown flesh to the United States, and the money those people send home to sustain the people, la gente, whom their government ignores.

Everything else is talk. And bad talk.

There are no honest players in this game. People cut the cards to fit their ideology. More Mexicans come north than either government admits. They do take jobs. (They say Mexicans take jobs Americans refuse to do. This is probably true in some instances. But in the mid–1960s slaughterhouse workers earned twice the current wage for their toil. Now such jobs are held by Mexicans.) They do commit crimes. And if the arrival of millions of poor people in the United States does not drive down wages, then surely there is a Nobel Prize to be earned in studying this remarkable exception to the law of supply and demand.

They are no longer migratory workers. And it is not seasonal labor. The people walking north all around me are not going home again. This is an exodus from a failed economy and a barbarous government and their journey is biblical.

And all the solutions in political play are idiocy. Worker permits? Demand at this moment is certainly the 12 million illegals in the United States today, and it climbs each year by maybe a million more. Open the border? Mexicans would be trampled to death by Asians storming up the open route and, also, by other Latin Americans, those folks the Border Patrol calls OTMs, Other Than Mexicans. Build a wall? The border consists of 1,951 miles of desert, mountains, and scrub, a zone legally traversed by 350 million people a year–the busiest border in the world. Employer sanctions to make illegals unemployable? Fine, then Mexicans go home and Mexico erupts and we have a destroyed nation on our southern border and even greater illegal migration. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution ripped apart a nation of 15 million souls. One out of 15 died. But 892,000 fled to the United States. Now there are 108 million Mexicans. Do the math.

There are piles of studies on these matters, studies that prove illegal migration benefits the United States, studies that prove it does not benefit the United States, studies that show it enhances the GDP or has little or no contribution to the GDP. There are plans to manage this migration and plans to stop it dead in its tracks. There are proposed solutions. And, of course, there are claims that we don't really need a solution, because mass migration is natural for a nation of immigrants and as American as apple pie.

But in the end, you don't get to pick solutions. You simply have choices, and by these choices you will discover who you really are. You can turn your back on poor people, or you can open your arms and welcome them into an increasingly crowded country and exhausted landscape.

I think this country already has too many people and that the ground under our feet is being murdered and the sky over our heads is being poisoned. I find these beliefs pointless when I stand on the line.

Across it flows the largest migration on earth. Nearly 15 percent of the Mexican workforce now resides in the United States. When the dust settles, this exodus will influence us more than the Iraq war. The war is who we are; the migrants are who we will be. For a century, the United States has tolerated and sponsored various nondemocratic rulers in Mexico. When Porfirio Díaz ruled as a dictator, we celebrated him. When the revolution came, we tried to corrupt and control various factions and repeatedly invaded. When a new dictatorship settled on Mexico disguised within single–party rule for 71 years, we celebrated it. When the students were butchered in Mexico City in 1968 on the eve of the Olympics, we focused on gold medals and ignored the murders. When Mexico became a narco state in the 1980s, we denied this fact. When NAFTA proved ruinous to most Mexicans, we denied this fact. And now as millions flee this charnel house, we pretend it is simply a mild structural readjustment of globalization, something that provides us cheap labor and grows that thing we call our economy.

For several decades now our economic theology has outsourced not only American jobs but also the reality that most people on this planet must endure. We buy clothes made by children and comment on the good price. Oceans have largely sheltered us from the consequences of our actions. But the Third World has finally said hello and this time not even a wall will keep it silent or at bay. What is happening on our southern border has penetrated our entire country and the border is simply a point where we watch the world race toward us at flood level. The issue is not securing a broken border any more than the real issue in New Orleans is building a better levee. Storms are rising, and the walls and levees are simply points where we taste their initial force as they move inland.

We have entered the future even as we pretend it is simply a version of our past.

One guy, 19, gives the basic biography of a pollo: "I have never been in the U.S. before. I plan to spend a couple of years, and then go back to Mexico. There are no jobs in Guerrero. Why even go to school? When you graduate, there are no jobs. Last week, in the state capital I saw 300 young schoolteachers demonstrate because they could find no jobs. I work in the fields. I can grow beans, corn, and squash.

"His eyes are anxious. He has heard Americans think people such as himself steal jobs from them. But he does not believe this because "people who have been in the United States tell me Americans don't work in the fields."

He has two worries: dying in the desert, and not finding a job. He's heard of the recent big marches and thinks people have a right to march.

"Why," he asks, "won't the U.S. let us work and then go home? We don't want to do anything bad to America. In my village, 20 percent of the people have gone to the U.S., and in the state, about 50 percent have gone. I've been in Altar two days waiting to cross."

This story plays out of mouth after mouth in the plaza. There is no work in Mexico. Do you know where Oregon is? Do you know where Tennessee is?

Juan Hernández, a dark Mixtec Indian who has already been caught once by the Border Patrol, explains, "There is no work, no rain, nothing to do in the fields. We are very poor there. I don't know what the U.S. is like," but, he adds, already 20 to 30 people from his village have gone to America.

Francisco Garcia, 39, has smooth skin, black hair and mustache, and the slack gut of a man who does not work in the fields. Until recently, he was the mayor of Altar. Now he works for the Catholic aid center for migrants six blocks off the plaza. Those defeated by the desert and the Border Patrol come here for food and shelter. And then they head north again — Garcia knows one migrant who tried 25 times before he succeeded. He thinks at least 90 percent of the migrants get through.

He explains that the traditional economy of Altar was cattle and farming. Now it is pollos and drugs. "The migrants are like a curtain that hides the money of the drug business." Almost all the people in the pollo industry — the people running phone services and boardinghouses, the coyotes — come from outside Altar.

He describes the people–smuggling business as like a string of rosary beads, with each bead a self–contained cell. In the Mexican south, men recruit pollos, then other men round them up and ship them on buses to, say, Altar. Here another cell plants them in flophouses and arranges van rides. Sixty miles north, another cell moves them through the wire. At the end of their desert trek, they brush against the next cell, which loads them in vans and takes them to stash houses.

Here a key representative of the coyote arrives, copies down names and phone numbers and destinations, makes the calls to tell the pollos' relatives of the charge. Sometimes these people double the price from what had been earlier agreed. After forking over half the fee, the pollos are loaded into vans according to their destinations. On arrival, another key figure appears, some blood kin of the coyote, who pockets the rest of the money. The top coyote remains in the shadows, Garcia says, an intelligent, cunning, and mysterious figure….

This year he thinks 800,000 Mexicans will pass through Altar on their way to El Norte. The sign behind his desk advises that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were migrants looking for a better life….

Down at the plaza, people line up at the public restroom (three pesos a visit). Outside, buses keep arriving and unloading people from the south. Two pollos stop at a stall to buy foot powder before climbing into a van. Vans depart more and more frequently. They will haul Mexicans until at least 8 p.m., people who, if everything goes per schedule, will move through the wire on Good Friday. Where the road leaves Altar and heads north into the desert stand three crosses. One says "Children," the next "Family," the third states that "2,800 have already died on this journey and how many more must die?" The town priest put them up. Then he was shipped to the Vatican where he couldn't make such a fuss….

The tired and frightened men and women crawling through the line soon become founts of money and wire $340 a month back home on average. This is the largest transfer of wealth to the poor in the history of the Western Hemisphere and it dwarfs all the American gestures of aid and all the revolutions that have filled the plazas of Latin America with tired statues. Remittances to Mexico alone are now estimated to be $20 billion a year, a figure much greater than tourism and rivaled only by the drug trade. (After the U.S. offered migrants amnesty in 1986, families reunited and the motive for remittances ended. Were remittances to dry up today — due to amnesty or a seriously toughened border — the Mexican economy could implode.)

This is also the largest teach–in of American values in history. Some 12 million illegals are studying law enforcement without massive corruption, contract law, the joys of homeownership, the existence of real public schools with real textbooks, the pleasures of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and recently, in the marches and protests, the strong drug of dissent. Beneath the Mexican and other flags in the demonstrations, a deep shift is taking place as strangers in a new land become part of that new land. American employers have inadvertently created the most affluent and politically active generation of poor people in the history of Latin America. Sending them home would detonate the nations they have come from. The politicians all know that….

The catholic casa del Migrante Nazareth sits on the Nuevo Laredo bank of the Rio Grande. Men can seek refuge here for three days, women sometimes for six. But these days, the Casa is seldom open for the migrants. The woman who answers the door says come back in five hours when a priest will stop by. For blocks near the Casa, men are sprawled on the sidewalks. She looks out at them and explains they are not migrants and so not her concern. Across the Mexican north a silent battle has been taking place between priests influenced by liberation theology and bishops picked by the increasingly conservative Vatican. Here liberation theology seems to be losing….

We want an answer, a solution. But there is only this fact: We either find a way to make their world better or they will come to our better world. At the moment, we insist on the wrong answer to the wrong question. And so, the Border Patrol will grow.There will be a wall. Tougher laws will be passed by Congress. And the people will keep coming.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Teens, Tech, Sex, and Cyber-bullies

What passes for teen literature these days.

Every once in a while we entertain guests overnight and we have teenagers or college students in the house. Inevitably, sometime after dinner has ended and adult conversation has gone on for awhile , I always get the question:

“Can I please use your internet?”

It seems to me that people under the age of 25 really have a hard time sustaining conversation for very long without having to get online and see what their friends are up to in cyberspace. I always feel squeamish about this request but I rarely refuse... We have the desktop in the family room in a very visible spot. I see these teenagers go online and all of a sudden there are chat windows popping up all over the place and all kinds of software flying across my screen that I’ve never seen before. In addition, as you are all well aware, they aren’t into going to bed early. If I hit the hay at 11:00 or so, there’s a good chance that they’ll still be clicking away well into the wee hours, and that makes me nervous. When I rebuilt my O/S last year I didn’t re-install Norton, because my subscription was almost up, and it slows things down too much. Therefore, I worry about where these guys go and what might wind up on my machine.

Last night I was lounging around watching Girl With a Peal Earring on the IFC when I heard Anne call me from the basement, where she was on the treadmill watching TV. She told me that I had to watch what was on Primetime on ABC.

What Are Teens Hiding on MySpace. Is the Social Networking Site a Menace to Kids or Getting a Bad Rap? (see video under "Cruel Kids, Tragic Ends", and "How Mean Can Teen Girls Be?")

It was a story about an awkward teen boy who had a few problems with depression. In fact, he was in contact with another male teen who was actually encouraging him to take his own life. In an unrelated matter, a number of teen girls from his school decided to yank his chain a bit. In a series of IM chats they gave him the impression that they were attracted to him and interested in him. When he responded positively, they turned on him and asked him how he possibly thought they could be interested in a “loser” like him. Between these two whipsaws, he killed himself. It was heartbreaking.

The Primetime program also took a look at the whole MySpace phenomenon, not only in the dangers posed to kids by adult predators, but also in the meanness, viciousness, and spoofs that occur with it, and how many kids are being devastated by the bullying from their peers. Primetime put together a controlled “role-playing” experiment in which a set of “popular” college-age boys and college-age/high-school age girls were in one group, and some slightly younger girls in were in the other group. They were given the latest in cell-phone and internet technology and left to go at it. I was amazed at how nasty things got so fast, and the boys in the experiment were stunned at how bold and forward the sexual references from the girls were. In short order, the messaging had gotten out of control….”slut… whore… bitch…”. Doctored photos… Even though they were supposed to be role-playing, feelings were getting hurt and tempers frayed. The college-age participants were also taken aback by the tech-savvy of the younger kids.

Anne has told me a few horror stories about neighbors who’ve found raunchy, explicit electronic trails left on their computers by babysitters. I don’t know…. I was in a fraternity in college and I thought I had seen and heard just about everything, but I guess things are at a whole new level now. Either that, or there are urban legends out there designed to either outrage, terrify, or titillate adults. I guess I am out of touch in a lot of ways. In even the mildest terms, just take the whole mainstream acceptance of tattoos, for example. It mystifies me. I think it’s barbarism. Where did it come from? If you go into a Barnes & Nobles now, the Romance Novel section isn’t quite what it used to be. Now there’s always a table filled with “chick porn.” I don’t get it, but maybe I’m just getting old. It’s not like it was written by Anais Nin.

In the Atlantic Online, there is an article by Caitlin Flanagan titled, Are You There God? It’s Me Monica. Flanagan explores girl-power, hooking-up, and how something that was once taboo became a favor reserved for special relationships, but has now become commonplace, casual, banal, and meaningless. A throwaway of an act. Almost a way to get rid of somebody. Is this what feminism was supposed to do? Flanagan makes tough accusations towards Planned Parenthood and other feminists.

I’m glad I’m older, and not coming of age now. Between all this and the puerile marketing they are actually making sex boring... When we were at summer camp as adolescents, just the sight of the girls in bathing suits was enough to send us swooning in a flood of hormones. Now, the young guys just seem jaded. Non-plussed. They’ve seen everything, and nothing affects them. As the father of three daughters, it worries me to think that they’ll someday be dating boys who’ve been exposed to all sorts of pornography we wouldn’t have ever dreamed of.

I also worry about my oldest daughters in this respect… They’re good kids, but they don’t run in the popular set. They are, however, very good at Drama, and they win big parts in school productions. Do I need to worry about them getting torn apart by alpha-girls? Do I need to worry about them setting up a MySpace without my knowing, or worse yet, a MySpace spoof that someone else makes about them? Ugh.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pope Benedict weighs in on Faith & Reason, and Jihad

A serious, grimly-determined looking Pope Benedict celebrates Mass in Regensburg.

Today, on NPR’s Morning Edition, Sylvia Poggioli reported about a speech Pope Benedict delivered yesterday in Regensburg, Germany.

Speaking at the university, the main theme of Benedict’s speech was how the development of science and philosophy in the West had caused it to marginalize and separate itself from faith, which has led to the secularization of Europe and fear in other continents. He said,
The world’s profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion from the divine, from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. A reason which is deaf to the divine and which relegates religion into the realm of subcultures is incapable of entering into the dialogue of cultures…

Today, when we have learned to recognize the pathologies and life-threatening diseases associated with religion and reason, and the ways that God’s image can be destroyed by hatred and fanaticism, it is important to state clearly the God in whom we believe…

Only this can free us from being afraid of God — which is ultimately at the root of modern atheism. Only this God saves us from being afraid of the world and from anxiety before the emptiness of life.

What really raised a few eyebrows in the speech, however, were some brief remarks he made about Islam and violence.

Making reference to a debate in Constantinople in 1391 between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and “a learned Persian”, he quoted the emperor as saying,
”Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached.”

In the Islamic world, these remarks may turn out to be incendiary. On the Lebanese website Campaign for Good Governance in Lebanon. The Center for Democracy and the Rule of Law, they carried the New York Times article written by Ian Fisher with the headline Pope Benedict, in inflamatory speech, assails all: secularism, Jihad, Islam and the Prophet.

Marco Politi, the Vatican expert for La Republicca said of the speech,
The text reveals his deep mistrust regarding the aggressive side of Islam…

Certainly he closes the door to an idea which was very dear to John Paul II — the idea that Christians, Jews and Muslims have the same God and have to pray together to the same God.

The Holy father’s upcoming trip to Turkey, whose proposed entry in the European Union he spoke out against, is going to be very interesting.

On NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, Sylvia Poggioli reports on how Benedict has been urging a return to faith in Germany.

Monday, September 11, 2006

I miss Mother’s advice…

Not only my own mother’s of course, but also that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died on September 5, 1997.

When I was younger I thought that the world was full of leaders in abundance, and that saints were rare.

Sometimes I wonder now if unknown, nameless saints are actually abounding. What seems fairly clear to me now, however, is that there are far fewer leaders around than I actually thought. There is a great dearth of real leaders in the world now, in a world desperately crying out for leadership. Mother Teresa was a rare combination of living sainthood and strong leadership.

The other day I was cleaning up some files on my laptop, and came across a Word document I’d saved from somewhere with quotes from Mother Teresa. I didn’t save the URL and I wasn’t able to find it again with a search, so I apologize to whoever the source was that pulled all of these together. It wasn’t me.

The following quotations are mostly from Mother Teresa's book "Words To Love By".
All souls need to be converted.
And if they accept God in their lives
they are converted.
To grow in holiness is a sign of conversion.
To grow in likeness of Christ is a sign of conversion.

I love all religions and am in love with my own.

Jesus has said very clearly:
I am the love to be loved
I am the life to be lived
I am the joy to be shared
I am the bread to be eaten
I am the blood to be drunk
I am the truth to be told
I am the light to be lit
I am the peace to be given.
Jesus is everything.

It hurt Jesus to love you and me.

Just allow people to see Jesus in you
to see how you pray
to see how you lead a pure life
to see how you deal with your family
to see how much peace there is in your family.
Then you can look straight into their eyes and say,
"This is the way."
You speak from life, you speak from experience.

Really, God is very much in love with us.

The work we do is only our love for Jesus in action.
And that action is our wholehearted and free service
--the gift to the poorest of the poor--
to Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor.

If we pray the work...
if we do it to Jesus
if we do it for Jesus
if we do it with Jesus...
that's what makes us content.

That is why I feel the Missionaries of Charity are real contemplatives
in the heart of the world.

I do this because I believe I am doing it for Jesus.
I am very sure that this is his work.
I am very sure.
I am very sure that it is he and not me.

I had the most extraordinary experience once in Bombay. There was a big conference about hunger. I was supposed to go to that meeting and I lost the way. Suddenly I came to that place, and right in front of the door to where hundreds of people were talking about food and hunger, I found a dying man.
I took him out and I took him home.
He died there.
He died of hunger.
And the people inside were talking about how in 15 years we will have so much food, so much this, so much that, and that man died.

We are trying to make our communities another Nazareth, where Jesus can come and rest awhile.

Jesus went about doing good And we are trying to imitate him now because I believe that God loves the world through us.

The sisters are always smiling and happy.
We are so free...we are so free.

By having nothing we will be able to give everything
--through the freedom of poverty.

Faith is a gift of God but God does not force himself.

Christians, Muslims, Hindus, believers and nonbelievers
have the opportunity with us to do works of love
have the opportunity with us to share the joy of
loving and come to realize God's presence.
Hindus become better Hindus.
Catholics become better Catholics.
Muslims become better Muslims.

Changing places is not the answer.
Changing occupations is not the answer.
The answer is to change our hearts.

And how do we change?
By praying.

Prayer is joy
prayer is love
prayer is peace.
You cannot explain it
you must experience prayer.
It is not impossible.
God gives it for the asking.
"Ask and you shall receive."

The beginning of prayer is silence...God speaking
in the silence of the heart. And then we start talking to God
from the fullness of the heart. And he listens.

The beginning of prayer is scripture...we listen to
God speaking. And then we begin to speak to him again
from the fullness of our heart. And he listens.
That is really prayer. Both sides listening and both sides

Allowing him to live his life in us
is prayer.
And the more we allow him
the more we grow in likeness of Christ.

We need prayer to understand God's love for us.

The fruit of prayer is a deepening faith.
And the fruit of faith is love.
And the fruit of love is service.

But to be able to pray we need silence
silence of the heart.
The soul needs time to go away and pray
to use the mouth
to use the eyes
to use the whole body.
And if we don't have that silence
then we don't know how to pray.

We have ups and downs and sickness and suffering.
That is part of the cross.
Anyone who imitates him to the full
must share in his passion also.

We must bring the child back, make the child feel wanted.
Without the child there is no hope.

A family in Australia with six or seven children talked
together and decided not to buy a new television. They
wanted to enjoy each other more completely.

Suffering is a gift of God
a gift that makes us most Christlike.
People must not accept suffering as punishment.

We have a great people among us,
only we do not know it.
They are the poorest of the poor--
the unwanted
the uncared for
the rejected
the alcoholics
the crippled
the blind
the sick
the dying--
people who have nothing and nobody.

Their very life is a prayer.
They continually intercede for us
without knowing it.
That's why I say that the Home for the Dying
(in Calcutta)
is a treasure house for the whole archdiocese.

Because we do not pray enough, we see only the
human part.
We don't see the divine.
And we resent it.

Jesus made himself the Bread of Life
to make sure we understand what he is saying
to satisfy our hunger for him
to satisfy our love for him.
Even that is not enough for him
so he makes himself the hungry one
so we can satisfy his hunger for our love.
And by doing to the poor what we are doing
we are satisfying his hunger for our love.

This is the true reason for our existence
to be the sunshine of God's love
to be the hope of eternal happiness.
That's all.

It is not how much we do
but how much love we put into the doing
--a lifelong sharing of love with others.

Christ is really living his passion in these homes.
In our people you can see Calvary.

I never look at the masses as my responsibility.
I look at the individual. I can love only one person at a time. I can
feed only one person at a time.
Just one, just one...
You get closer to Christ by coming closer to each
other. As Jesus said, "Whatever you do to the
least of my brethren, you do it to me."
So you begin...I begin.
I picked up one person--
maybe if I didn't pick up that one person I wouldn't have picked up 42,000.
The whole work is only a drop in the ocean. But if I didn't put the drop in,
the ocean would be one drop less.
Same thing for you
same thing in your family
same thing in the church where you go
just, one, one.

Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly
that our lives may only be a radiance of yours...
Shine through us
and be so in us
that every soul we come in contact with
may feel your presence in our soul....
Let us preach you without preaching
not by words, but by our example
by the catching force
the sympathetic influence of what we do
the evident fullness of the love our hearts bear to you.

Monday, September 04, 2006

La Dolce Vita for Cardinal Law?

In this month’s Boston Magazine there is an article about Bernard Cardinal Law, the former Cardinal of Boston, titled Our Man in Rome, by Francis X. Rocca. Some excerpts:
In his new home, Bernard Cardinal Law has built a pretty comfortable life for himself, presiding over a stunning basilica, mingling with admirers—and enjoying as much power as ever...

Nearly four years removed from the clergy sex-abuse crisis that finally forced him to resign as archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law remains a highly respected member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Rome. As archpriest of St. Mary Major, he runs one of the Eternal City’s four patriarchal basilicas, a post that offers him a worthy setting in which to express his well-known flair for liturgical ceremony. The church, which features a special altar reserved for the use of the pope, predates the fall of the Roman empire and contains 15 centuries’ worth of priceless art. Surely the man who raised a $1.5 million private donation to refurbish Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross appreciates the privilege of offering Mass surrounded by fifth-century mosaics and an ornate ceiling that is said to have been gilded with the first haul of ore Columbus brought back from the New World...

In December 2002, few would have predicted that Cardinal Law would have any future at all in Rome. Days after his resignation as archbishop of Boston, sources told John Allen, senior correspondent in Rome for the National Catholic Reporter, that a Vatican assignment was unlikely for someone so “politically wounded.” Some critics even called for Law to resign from the college of cardinals, something that had not occurred since 1927.

Law’s first position after leaving Boston hardly augured continued prominence within the Church: He became chaplain of a convent in Clinton, Maryland, trading stewardship of an archdiocese of 2.1 million Catholics for the company of a few nuns. The obscure job seemed intended both to humble him and to remove him from the public eye; though the convent was located in a suburb of Washington, DC, the cardinal was rarely seen in that city or Boston during the following year. He did not attend the installation of his successor, Archbishop Seán Patrick O’Malley, in July 2003. That November, for the first time in years, he skipped the semiannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the cardinal was hardly in seclusion. During those same months he made several trips to Rome, attending a historic Latin Mass at St. Mary Major as well as a Mass in St. Peter’s Square. A few weeks later, Law met with the pope—his first official audience since his resignation. On these sojourns, he also attended meetings of some of the Holy See’s highest administrative and policy-making bodies.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising the Vatican was unwilling to let the cardinal fade into irrelevance. Law had long been known as one of Pope John Paul II’s favorite American prelates, and though the ailing pontiff reportedly made few decisions for himself near the end of his life, his small circle of advisers clearly thought that the former archbishop of Boston deserved more dignified employment.

When the St. Mary Major appointment became official in May 2004, Law’s Boston critics blasted the move, accusing the Vatican of callousness at best, and at worst of rewarding Law’s efforts to cover up for predator priests. Few laypeople were convinced the cardinal had properly atoned for his sins. One abuse victim told the Globe: “I can’t even explain to you the pit I felt in my stomach.”

It was not only the position’s prestige that aroused objections, but the luxury that reportedly went with it. Internet chatter described the archpriest’s apartment, housed in a building attached to the basilica’s south side, as “palatial,” with “frescoes on the wall.” Those who’ve visited say the space consists of six or seven nicely appointed rooms—a far cry from the four-story mansion on Commonwealth Avenue that Law lived in here, but nonetheless a decent spread in the Esquilino neighborhood, where real estate easily runs upward of $400 per square foot….

Law again sparked controversy back in Boston the following April, when he celebrated a memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica. Many American Catholics were outraged to see Law so front and center. “We don’t believe it’s appropriate for him to be in any position of power or trust in the Church,” said Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests to reporters in St. Peter’s Square at the time of that Mass. “If things had happened differently in the United States, he might well have landed himself in jail.”

Law now sits on eight of the Curia’s “dicasteries,” or policy-implementing committees, a total far above average; Boston’s Archbishop Seán Cardinal O’Malley, for instance, is a member of only two. Cardinals living near Rome typically belong to more dicasteries than those overseas, so it is a measure of Law’s ambition that in his last year in Boston he served on no less than nine. Thanks to his new station, his participation is more intense than ever. “Since he’s in Rome he can attend the meetings on a regular basis,” says Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and scholar of church administration. “He couldn’t do that when he was in Boston. So his ability to influence has actually increased.”

The cardinal’s dicasterial work covers a broad range of policy areas, from Catholic teaching on the family, gender, and reproduction; to the governance of religious orders, such as the Franciscans and the Jesuits; to oversight of the church’s missionary work, including the appointment of bishops in much of Africa and Asia. He sits on the Congregation for Catholic Education, which issued last fall’s controversial document banning gay men from seminaries—a policy many commentators suggested was a response to the sex abuse crisis. As a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Law will have a say in the new English translation of the Mass, which U.S. bishops approved in June, a project beset by years of controversy over issues including the use of gender-neutral language. Father Reese speculates that Law could make a significant contribution to this particular debate: Despite his reputation as a conservative, the cardinal has a progressive record on questions such as inclusive wording and the role of altar girls.

By far the most consequential of Cardinal Law’s roles is his membership in the Congregation for Bishops. While the appointment of prelates is ultimately up to the pope, he chooses almost all of them on the recommendation of this body. Each of the congregation’s 36 members has a vote on appointments, but members reportedly defer to colleagues from a given country on appointments in that land. The congregation has five American members, though one, William Wakefield Cardinal Baum—Cardinal Law’s mentor in the early 1970s and one of his oldest friends in the hierarchy—reportedly suffers from failing eyesight and other ailments that limit his participation. Cardinal Law, therefore, is one of a handful of men in charge of choosing the hierarchy of the American church...

“It seems to me unfortunate that he is where he is,” says Philip F. Lawler, editor of the Lancaster-based Catholic World News, who worked for Law as editor of the archdiocesan newspaper in the late 1980s. “We’re still waiting for the evidence that he understands what happened in Boston. And if he doesn’t understand what caused his resignation, that raises questions for me about his perceptions of other problems, his ability to recognize what’s good for the Church.” Under Vatican policy, cardinals must give up their dicasterial work when they reach the age of 80. Law turns 75 this November.

In contrast with attitudes in Boston, where many see Law as hopelessly tainted and unrepentant, the mood at the dinner confirmed what those in Rome have seen these past few years: In his supposed exile, Cardinal Law has found a measure of forgiveness. “I don’t know anyone at the Vatican who would defend Law’s handling of the sex abuse case,” John Allen says. “But many people in Rome would say that he paid the price in the form of his resignation and that there’s no reason that he shouldn’t make a contribution.”

According to one Cardinal’s diary, Cardinal Law was reputed to have received one vote on the last ballot in the 2005 papal conclave.

The "Croc Hunter"

As I was driving to the office this morning (yes, Im taking care of a few things at the office on Labor Day), I heard on the radio that the famous Australian "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin died in a freak accident while filming on the Great Barrier Reef, stung in the heart by stingray barb.

I don't think my kids have heard about this yet. I think they will be very upset, but not especially shocked to hear this. The Kratt brothers (as in Zoboomafoo and Kratt's Creatures) always caution kids how important it is to give wild animals their space, not only for safety reasons, but out of respect for the dignity of the animals as well. This was not Irwin's approach.

I hadn't seen much of Steve Irwin, but I hate to say that I was always afraid that something like this might happen to him. It seemed to me that he took too many chances in pursuit of getting a good shot. Once we were on a family trip and we were watching his show on Animal Planet in a hotel room. Irwin was messing around with a hooded cobra, and let the snake spit its venom into his unprotected face, which he frantically washed out with a bottle of water (see some close calls here). Taken on another occasion, this video shows Irwin being bitten on the hand by a cobra (Correction... This was some other guy named Austin Stevens.) I wouldn't want my kids to imitate such behavior with animals, but I think they recognized the Australian bravado and bombast as being part of Irwin's whole appeal.

Still, he seemed like a very warm personality and to have had genuine interest in the appreciation and preservation of wildlife. His death is tragic. He was only 44, and is survived by a wife and two young children. My prayers go out to them. Crystal has a nice post about Steve Irwin here.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

FDR's First 100 Days and the Saving of Democracy

I have some friends who’ve visited my blog and read my posts, but have not commented. I think that some of them feel somewhat confused, disappointed, and maybe even a little bit betrayed by what they perceive as a leftward shift in my thinking in what they’ve seen posted here.

My friends should remember, however, that as much as I detested communism, I never held libertarianism in much higher esteem. They know I’ve never been comfortable with the Republican program based on the Milton Friedman/Frederich Hayek schools of economics. I’m a Keynesian.

I tend towards social conservatism and economic liberalism. I believe that a just society should have a safety net, but should actively pursue policies that discourage behaviors that often cause people to fall into it. Happily, my Church tends to agree with me. In my critiques of communism and consumerism, I believe that my thinking is very much in line with that of Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Conference of Bishops.

In American politics, however, my brand of populism is entirely unrepresented. In fact, both parties are increasingly trending towards the exact opposite – social liberalism and economic conservatism. The country is turning more and more towards libertarianism. The public seems entirely acquiescent in accepting policies that are bound to draw us back to the days of that great libertarian “utopia” that existed in 1930 under the Herbert Hoover administration – The Great Depression.

At one time, my thinking was represented by the Democratic Party. At one time the Democratic Party was first and foremost concerned with the economic prosperity of the common man and woman. Unfortunately, by the beginning of the 1970’s it turned its attention primarily towards the advancement of the particular causes of special interest groups and got lost in a swirl of racial, sexual, and gender politics. When control of the Democratic Convention in 1972 was wrested from the union bosses and the old guard, they lamented that the Democratic Party had become the party of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.” It still hasn’t recovered from this, the Viet Nam War, and the legacy of the party realignment in the South that resulted from the Civil Rights struggle.

I find the 1930’s one of the most fascinating decades in history. In Europe it was the scene of the great struggle between the two wings on the bird of totalitarianism – communism and fascism. In the United States, it was the ordeal of the Great Depression, and the cast of colorful characters who put their mark on that decade, people like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Walter Lippman, Will Rogers, Henry Ford, Dr. Francis Townsend, Al Smith, John J. Lewis, Walter Reuther, Father Charles Coughlin, Norman Vincent Peale, James Michael Curley, and the “Kingfisher”, Huey Long. It was the Golden Age of Hollywood, the radio program, and Big Band Swing. I guess that one of the reasons it resonates so much with me is that it was the era of my parent’s childhood, and my own upbringing was steeped in stories from my grandparents and parents about the hardships of that era. It is hard to appreciate today just how desperate people were during those days. In spite of the poverty, however, the real sense was conveyed that this was an era in which people really pulled together in the face of common adversity.

A small clip of of Bing Crosby’s 1932 hit, Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

They used to tell me I was building a dream
And so I followed the mob
When their was earth to plow or guns to bear
I was always there right on the job

They used to tell me I was building a dream
With peace and glory ahead
Why should I be standing in line
Just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, I made it run
Made it race against time
Once I built a railroad, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it's done
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Full of that Yankee-Doodly-dum
Half a million boots went sloggin' through Hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Say, don't you remember, they called me "Al"
It was "Al" all the time
Why don't you remember, I'm your pal
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?

Once in khaki suits, ah gee we looked swell
Full of that Yankee-Doodly-dum

Half a million boots went sloggin' through Hell
And I was the kid with the drum

Oh, say, don't you remember, they called me "Al"
It was "Al" all the time
Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

Back in June, Anthony Brooks held this On-Point radio interview with Jonathan Alter, Newsweek columnist and author of "The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope". It was a fascinating interview about the challenges FDR faced when he took office, and the prevailing mindset that had to be overcome. At that time, the conventional thinking was that the government owed people absolutely nothing. The huge masses of unemployed men, unemployed due to conditions outside of their control, were conditioned to believe that if they were without a job, it was entirely their fault. It represented a moral failing on their part, as titans of industry like Henry Ford constantly reminded them.

In the desperation caused by this unprecedented and intractable depression, many people became frustrated by this “hands-off” approach on the part of the government, and people started to look elsewhere for succor. Many people forget today that the term “Dictator” did not carry the same negative connotation back then that it does today. There were many thoughtful people in the 1930’s who were openly wondering if republics were finished. They wondered if capitalism had run its course, and if liberal democracy was going to be thrown on the trash heap of history, to be nudged aside by upcoming communism and fascism, which seemed to be “working”. The tide of history seemed to be on their side. At that time, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had admirers who pointed out how he’d made chronically inefficient Italy efficient, a place where the trains now ran on time. Similarly, throughout the 1930’s Hitler was looked upon with admiration by some as a man who had lifted Germany out of poverty and staggering hyper-inflation, putting his country back to work, and restoring pride in the nation. There were many, including the influential Walter Lippman, who urged FDR to assume dictatorial powers when he became president. He even urged him to raise his own private army if he needed to. FDR resisted those voices and temptations, as much as he may have been tempted.

In his Inaugural Address in 1932, he was is most famously remembered for having said:

Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself

This was not the line that drew the most applause in his speech. The line that drew the most applause was;

But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis--broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

Another interesting aspect of the speech that you don’t hear about much today was the spiritual element in it. He called it a “day of national consecration”, and said the following, which surprised me. I wish some politician would say it today:

The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.

FDR did act quickly and decisively in his first 100 days, but he resisted the call to suspend the Constitution. He did get into some hot water in his second term for trying to pack the Supreme Court, but backed off in the face of his opposition. Foremost, as the interview points out, he was not afraid to DO something. He experimented, and wasn’t afraid to try out new ideas. He was a man of great intellectual curiosity who wasn’t afraid to change course or to change his mind when presented with new information. A very stark contrast to the lack of effective leadership we see today.

Through the infusion of government capital, and the introduction of the WPA and massive public works projects, FDR was not only able to save the country from a socialist revolution and restore the pride and confidence of the public in putting people back to work, but the public works projects helped to modernize the infrastructure of the country. Dams, bridges, reforestation, highways, the Tennessee River Valley Authority… the evidence and the benefits of the projects are still with us today.

It is important to remember though, that FDR was not universally liked. There was a lot of grumbling about the “New Deal” being the “Raw Deal” or the “Jew Deal”. The NRA (National Recovery Act) as standing for “No Republicans Allowed”. If you were a businessman in those days, there was a lot not to like about him. My wife’s grandfather had his own successful filling station, and he turned out to be no admirer of FDR. I also once had a girlfriend whose father explained to me over the dinner table that the problem he had with FDR is that he was “a traitor to his class”. He also liked this ditty:

A little more than 5,000 years ago, Moses said, 'Hitch up your camel, lift up your shovel, mount your ass. I will lead you to the promised land.' Five thousand years later, Franklin Roosevelt said, 'Light up a Camel, lay down your shovel, sit on your ass. This is the promised land.'

(Actually, nowadays I’ve heard this codicil… Today, George Bush will outsource your camel, tax your shovel, kick your ass, and tell you there is no promised land.")

Now, my girlfriend's father was a good man, a decent man, a kind man. I often hear wealthy individuals decry “class warfare” when the people in the upper reaches of society are scrutinized and criticized, and yet, I’ve heard the same denounce FDR as “a traitor to his class”. Well into his administration, FDR would say,

A man in a silk hat fell off a pier and was drowning in the ocean. A bystander jumped off the pier and saved him, but the drowning man's silk hat floated away. The bystander was thanked profusely by the man for saving his life. But three years later, the same man attacked the bystander for not saving the silk hat!

The New Deal was a new social contract between the American government and the American people which led directly to our success in the Second World War and in the affluence that lifted all boats from the 1930’s into the 1970’s. The Republican Party never forgot it and never forgave it, and the corporate class was never willing to accept it. They have fought tooth and nail to win back everything they lost to labor in the 1930’s and they are succeeding. They have used social conservatives like myself for years in the effort, but I’m tired of being used and of seeing the economy and the future of this country being gutted.

In my own lifetime, I am seeing the middle class I was used to seeing as I was growing up disappearing. The gap in economic equity is growing, and it is ripping up the social cohesion of the country. There are now two kinds of town in America; ones that people desperately aspire to live in, and ones that people desperately aspire not to fall into. In the first kind of town, parents take their daughters to Belize on vacation and worry about if their daughters can get into private schools like Dana Hall so that they can go on to have the right kind of internships before they get a job. In the second kind of town, parents worry about their daughters getting tattoos and belly piercings and hope that their daughters don’t pregnant before they finish High School. In many instances, the families in the former made a good living out of marketing and selling vice to the families in the latter.
The Democratic Party seems a hopeless case, just as addicted to corporate money as the Republicans. Where is there to look for populism? Elaine Bernard of the Trade Union Program at Harvard notes,

The boss cannot fire you because of your race. The boss cannot fire you because of your gender. The boss cannot fire you because of your sexual preference or your disability. He can just fire you for no reason at all.