Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Godfather


While I was away I was saddened to hear about the passing away of the “Godfather of Soul”, James Brown, on Christmas Day. I don’t know why, but it seems appropriate to me that “The Godfatha” would pass on Christmas.

Brown liked to cultivate a bit of a macho, revenge-obsessed image regarding payback, and had a bit of a checkered history with the law, but there is at least one thing he should always be remembered for... He was performing in concert at the Boston Garden the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated, and in his appeal to the crowd that night, he pled with them not to do injustice to Dr. King’s memory by responding violently, and his appeal had a lot to do with why Boston did not erupt with the same level of destruction and violence that was seen in other American cities that week. By the way, Cowboyangel has an excellent post on a sermon on non-violence delivered by Martin Luther King, during the Christmas of 1967.

Here is a fuller version of Please Please Please, complete with the cape being placed upon his shoulders by his acolytes every time he collapses to his knees on stage.

Could James Brown get down? You bet. What ever happened to Soul Music anyway? Who took the Soul out of it? I suppose one could argue that Brown was a seminal figure in the formation of Hip-Hop, but he was so much better than these current pretenders. I loathe Rap and Hip-Hop. It’s a shame that the whole Hip-Hop genre of music didn’t pass away on Christmas instead of James Brown.

Other Milestones of 2006

Saddam Hussein Another act of brutality in a land already saturated with brutality. Hussein had stopped being a relevant factor in Iraq since his overthrow nearly four years ago. I’m not sure what his execution will accomplish at this point but the begetting of more violence.

Gerald Ford I had always like Gerald Ford and considered him a decent man. I was a little bit disappointed when the media posthumously released some information from some interview tapes he’d made a while back with some bitter and bitchy comments about his feelings towards other members of the Republican Party. They didn’t reflect well upon him in my opinion. It turns out that personal friendship had a lot more to do with his pardon of Richard Nixon than we’d previously been led to believe, and apparently his definition of what constituted a “hard right” Republican was based solely upon one holding to an anti-abortion position.

This is just the kind of comfortable, self-satisfied, morally obtuse libertarian thinking in the Republican Party that I can’t stand…. But I don’t wish to speak badly of the dead. The Fords have done some good things for charity. Besides, I actually agree with the late Jerry Ford that the Pro-Life plank doesn’t have a natural home in the Republican Party. Folks like James Dobson in the Bible Belt may think the G.O.P. belongs to them, but I’m not fooled for a minute. it still belongs to country-club golfers. It always has and it always will.

Ed Bradley This was a huge loss. Ed Bradley was a man of grace, wit, and charm, and he was a superb investigative reporter. He will be missed.

John Kenneth Galbraith A brilliant economist and humanitarian.

Milton Friedman I can’t say he wasn’t brilliant, but he was a far too influential economist, and the effects have been pernicious.

Louis Rukeyser I was surprised to hear about this one. I remember having to sit through Wall Street Week on PBS many a Friday evening. I liked Rukeyser, but the topic is one I just can’t build a passion for, although perhaps I should. I have a lot of children to educate.

His passing reminds me of the passing of a beloved uncle of mine a few years ago. He was a brilliant investor, who watched his stocks and portfolio carefully on a daily basis, and he’d done very well. It was like a game with him. One night, he died of an embolism in an instant. What becomes of all that financial brilliance? To what end? What do we ultimately take with us when we go? We leave with our hands empty.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Off to Nantucket

Photo by Bill Kantor

I hope that everyone had a wonderful Christmas. Ours was great.

I see some very, very fine posts to catch up with and comment on, but we'll be gone for the next few days. We are not going to spend the rest of the week cooped up in the house getting cranky over the over-use of new video games and trying to find places for all the new toys to fit while we wait for a stomach flu to hit... We'll be heading to Nantucket for a few days before the end of the year. Until then, God Bless...

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Boy Jesus

Jesus portrayed as the Good Shepherd, c. 250

Back in 1999, Boston University Professor Paula Fredriksen wrote an outstanding, provocative, and fascinating book called Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. In that book she used a superb literary device in order to describe Second Temple Judaism. She opened a chapter on the Temple itself with several pages of a fictional account of Jesus (Yeshua) and his family heading down from Galilee to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. Yeshua is described as a young boy who will be advancing past the Temple's Court of the Women for the first time, proceeding into the inner Temple precincts with Joseph (Yosef) and James (Ya'akov) to actually watch the family's corban sacrifice for the Passover being made.

Although her trajectory and ultimate conclusion about Jesus is quite different from Fredriksen's, the popular author Anne Rice rice has picked up on this same theme and literary device and has presented it in a full book form in her novel Christ the Lord out of Egypt. I'm about halfway through it, and I recommend it highly.

Anne Rice of course, has been well known for her popular novels on vampire themes, and to a lesser degree, for her erotica. In a faith journey that has resulted in her coming back to the Catholic faith of her youth, she has decided to leave those topics behind her. She threw herself into the latest that was available in historical Jesus research in preparation for the book, yet stuck in her faith and intellect to the main elements of The Creed. Rice says:

"In 2002 I made up my mind that I would not write anything that wasn't for Christ"

In the end, Rice seems to consider her new book a gift, both to Christians and to non-Christian fans of her previous work. "This is a book I offer to all Christians," she writes, "to the fundamentalists, to the Roman Catholics, to the most liberal Christians in the hope that my embrace of more conservative doctrines will have some coherence for them in the here and now of the book...

In the book, the young boy Jesus, starting to come of age, struggles with his own sense of power, what he seems to know intuitively, and especially with what his own family members say about him in hushed tones. How you would accept this book of course, comes down to a large degree on whether you hold to a 'High Christology" (Jesus was always self aware, in control, and knew everything he ever needed to know), or whether you hold to a "Low Christology" (which emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, and suggests that he learned, grew, and struggled with certain matters, and had to accept certain things on faith).

Shown below are a couple of excerpts (I hope this isn't illegal or a violation of blog netiquette... If it is, can someone let me know?). In the first, the extended Holy Family has arrived in Jerusalem from Alexandria, and Jesus' uncle Cleopas is giving him some insight into who Mary is, and who Jesus is...

Afterwards, Cleopas wanted to talk to me and made everyone leave us alone. Aunt Mary just made a quitting gesture again and moved away to rest for a moment, and then went to other chores with the clearing away, and Aunt Salome was tending to Little James and the other children. Little Salome was helping with Baby Esther and Little Zoker whom she loved so much.

My mother came near to Cleopas. "Why, what are you going to say?" my mother asked him. She sat down on his left, not very close but close enough. "Why should we go away?" She said this in a kind way but she had something on her mind.

"You go away," he told her. He sounded like he had drunk himself drunk but he hadn't. He had drunk less wine than anybody else. "Jesus, come in so you can hear me if I whisper in your ear."
My mother refused to leave. "Don't you tempt him," my mother said.

"And what do you mean by that?" Cleopas asked. "You think I've come to the Holy City of Jerusalem to tempt him?"

Then he clutched at my arm. His fingers were burning.

"I'm going to tell you something," he said to me. "You remember it. This goes in your heart with the Law, you hear me? When she told me the angel had come, I believed her. The angel had come to her! I believed."

The angel-the angel who'd come in Nazareth. He'd come to her. That was what he'd said on the boat, wasn't it? But what did this mean?

My mother stared at him. His face was wet and his eyes very big. I could feel the fever in him. I could see it. He went on.

"I believed her," he said. "I am her brother, am I not? She was thirteen, betrothed to Joseph, and I tell you, she was never out of the sight of us outside of our house, never could there have been any chance of anyone being with her, you know what I'm saying to you, I mean a man. There was no chance, and I am her brother. Remember, I told you. I believed her." He lay back a little on the clothes bundled behind him. "A virgin child, a child in the service of the Temple of Jerusalem, to weave the great veil, with the other chosen ones, and then home under our eyes."

He shivered. He looked at her. His eyes stayed on her. She turned away, and then moved away. But not very far. She stayed there with her back to us, close to our cousin Elizabeth. Eizabeth was watching Cleopas, and watching me. I didn't know whether she heard him or not.

I didn't move. I looked down at Cleopas. His chest rose and fell with each rattling breath and again he shivered.

My mind was working, collecting every bit of knowledge I had ever learned that could help me make sense of what he had said. It was the mind of a child who had grown up sleeping in a room with men and women in that same room and in other rooms open to it, and sleeping in the open courtyard with the men and women in the heat of summer, and living always close with them, and hearing and seeing many things. My mind was working and working. But I couldn't make sense of all he'd said.

"You remember, what I said to you, that I believed!" he said.

"But you're not really sure, are you?" I whispered. His eyes opened wide and a new expression came over him, as if he was waking from his fever.

"And Joseph isn't either, is he?" I asked in the same whisper. "And that is why he never lies beside her." My words had come ahead of my thoughts. I was as surprised as he was by what I'd said. I felt chilled all over. Prickly all over. But I didn't try to change what I'd said.

He rose up on his elbow, and his face was close to mine.

"Turn it around," he said. He struggled for breath. "He never touches her because he does believe. Don't you see? How could he touch her after such a thing?" He smiled, and then he laughed in that low laugh of his, but no one else heard it. "And you?" he went on. "Must you grow up before you fulfill the prophecies? Yes, you must. And must you be a child first before you are a man? Yes. How else?" His eyes changed as if he stopped seeing things in front of him. Again he struggled for breath. "So it was with King David. Anointed, and then sent back to the flocks, a shepherd boy, wasn't it? Until such time as Saul sent for him. Until such time as the Lord God sent for him! Don't you see, that's what confounds them all! That you must grow up like any other child! And half the time they don't know what to do with you! And yes, I am sure! And have always been sure!"

He fell back again, tired, unable to go on, but his eyes never left me. He smiled and I heard his laughter. "Why do you laugh?" I asked.

He shrugged. "I am still amused," he answered. "Yes, amused. Did I see an angel? No, I did not. Maybe if I had, I wouldn't laugh, but then maybe again I would laugh all the more. My laughter is the way I speak, don't you think? Remember that. Ah, listen to them down in the streets. Over there, over here. They want justice. Vengeance. Did you hear all that? Herod did this. Herod did that. They've stoned Archelaus's soldiers! What does it matter to me now? I would like to breathe without it hurting me for one quarter of an hour!"

His hand came up, groping for me. He touched the back of my head, and I bent down and kissed his wet cheek.

Make this pain go away.

He drew in his breath, and then he appeared to drift and to sleep, and his chest began to rise and fall slowly and easily. I placed my hand on his chest and felt his heart. Strength for this little while. What harm is there in it?

When I moved away, I wanted to go to the edge of the roof. I wanted to cry. What had I done? Maybe nothing. But I didn't think it was nothing. And the things he'd said to me-what did they mean? How was I to understand these things?

I wanted the answers to questions, yes, but these words only made more questions, and my head hurt. I was afraid.

Later on that evening, Mary feels compelled to follow up on what Cleopas said to Jesus...

I couldn't see the stars for the mist. But the sight of all the torches of the city, tumbling uphill and downhill, and above all, the Temple rising like a mountain with its great fluttering torches drove every other thought from ' my mind.

A good feeling came over me, that in the Temple I would pray to understand all these words-not only what my uncle had said to me, but all the other things I had heard.

My mother came back. There was just room near the wall by me for my mother to kneel down and then to sink back on her heels:

The torchlight hit her face as she looked towards the Temple.

"Listen to me," she said.

"I am," I answered. I answered in Greek without thinking.

"What I have to say to you should have waited," she said. She spoke Greek as well.

With the noise in the streets, with the low nighttime talk on the roof, I could still hear her.

"But it can't wait now," she said. "My brother has seen to that. Would that he could suffer in silence. But it's never been his way to do anything in silence. So I say it. And you listen. Don't ask questions of me: Do as Joseph told you in that regard. But listen to what I say." "I am," I said again.

"You're not the child of an angel," she said. I nodded.

She turned towards me. The torchlight was in her eyes.

I said nothing.

"The angel said to me-that the power of the Lord would come over me," she said. "And so the shadow of the Lord came over me-I felt it-and then in time came the stirring of life inside me, and it was you."

I said nothing. She looked down.The noise of the city was gone. The torchlight made her look beautiful to me. Beautiful perhaps as Sarah looked to Pharaoh, beautiful as Rachel to Jacob. My mother was beautiful. Modest, but beautiful, no matter how many veils she wore to hide it, no matter how she bowed her head or blushed.

I wanted to be in her lap, in her arms, but I didn't move. It wasn't right to move or say a word.

"And so it happened," she said, looking up again. "I have never been with a man, not then, not now, nor will I ever. I am consecrated to the Lord."

I nodded.

"You can't understand this ... can you?" she asked. "You can't follow what I'm trying to tell you."

"I do follow," I said. "I do see." Joseph wasn't my father, yes, I knew. I had never called Joseph Father. Yes, he was my father according to the Law, and married to my mother, but he wasn't my father. And she was so like a girl always, and the other women like her older sisters, I knew, yes, I knew. "Anything is possible with the Lord," I said. "The Lord made Adam from the dust. Adam didn't even have a mother. The Lord can make a child with no father." I shrugged.

She shook her head. She wasn't like a girl now, but not like a woman either. She was soft and almost sad. When she spoke again, she didn't sound like herself.

"No matter what anyone ever says to you in Nazareth," she said, "remember what's been said tonight."

"People will say things ...?"

She closed her eyes.

"This is why you didn't want to go back there ... to Nazareth?" I asked.

She gave a deep breath. She put her hand over her mouth. She was amazed. She took a deep breath, and she was gentle:

"You haven't understood what I've said to you!" she whispered. She was hurt. I thought she might cry. "No, Mamma, I do see, I understand," I said at once. I didn't want her to be hurt. "The Lord can do anything."

She was disappointed, but then she looked at me and for my sake, she smiled.

"Mamma," I said. I reached out for her.

My head was pounding with thoughts. The sparrows, Eleazer dead in the street and rising living from the mat, too many other things, things slipping away in my mind, and my mind too full. And all Cleopas's words and what were they? You must grow up like any other child or was it Little David back to the flock until they called him? Don't let her be sad.

"I see. I know," I said to her. I smiled a little smile I never gave to anyone but to her if it was giving. More a little sign than a giving. She had her smile for me. A little thing.

And now, she shook off everything that had gone before, and she reached out for me.

I went up on my knees, and she did too, and she held me tight to her.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Fr. Raymond E. Brown on The Genealogy

The Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna c. 1495-1505

I hope to get a chance to post one more time again before Christmas, but if I don’t…

Blessings to all of you this Christmas, and may you have peace in your hearts and in your homes.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.

Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram,

Ram the father of Amminadab. Amminadab became the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon,

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz became the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Obed became the father of Jesse,

Jesse the father of David the king. David became the father of Solomon, whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.

Solomon became the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asaph.

Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, Joram the father of Uzziah.

Uzziah became the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.

Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amos, Amos the father of Josiah.

Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers at the time of the Babylonian exile.

After the Babylonian exile, Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,

Zerubbabel the father of Abiud. Abiud became the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor,

Azor the father of Zadok. Zadok became the father of Achim, Achim the father of Eliud,

Eliud the father of Eleazar. Eleazar became the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob,

Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.

Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah, fourteen generations…
-- Matthew 1: 1-17

Recently I've been looking over a small book by the late, great scripture scholar Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S. (what a great loss was dealt to the Church by his untimely death in 1998) called A Coming Christ in Advent: Essays on the Gospel Narratives Preparing for the Birth of Jesus : Matthew 1 and Luke 1.

I just thought I'd post a few excerpts of his thoughts about The Genealogy of Jesus, where again we see how God works though the human in ways unexpected, and in His ways through people unexpected.

This genealogy that opens Matthew's Gospel has one prin­cipal occurrence in liturgy, namely, on the Advent weekday December 17 which begins the pre-Christmas octave of in­fancy gospel readings. It was read more frequently in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, but often with disastrous results as the priest-celebrant stumbled over names and sometimes skipped large sections, under the pretense that the reading was a bor­ing and meaningless exercise. To the contrary I have been conducting a somewhat solitary campaign to make this Mat­thean genealogy a major Advent topic, even to the extent that, if I am invited to give a special pre-Christmas sermon, especially on an Advent Sunday, I go out of my way to make Matthew 1:1-17 the subject of the homily. The stunned look on the faces of the parish audience when I launch into the solemn list of begettings is proof that one of the prereq­uisites for effective preaching has been accomplished­…

If a Christian today were asked to tell someone who knows noth­ing about Christianity the basic story of Jesus Christ, where would he or she be likely to begin? I am willing to wager that not one in ten thousand would begin where the author of the Gospel that the church puts first begins - where the first line of the first page of the New Testament begins-with the majestic assurance: This is "the story of the begin­ning/the origin/the genesis of Jesus Christ."

For Matthew the origin of Jesus Christ starts with Abraham begetting Isaac! In other words the story of the He­brew patriarchs, of the kings of Judah, and of other Israelites is the opening stage of the story of Jesus Christ. That such an Old Testament component to the Jesus story would not occur to most Christians today is a sad commentary on how far we have moved from our ancestors' understanding of the good news. Matthew's list of people who are an integral part of the origin of Jesus Christ contains some of the most sig­nificant names in the biblical account of God's dealing with His people Israel, and I for one wish strongly that at least once a year their names were allowed to resound in the Christian church on a Sunday when all the worshiping New Testament people of God were there to hear…if one understood it correctly, this genealogy contains the essential theology of the Old and the New Testaments that the whole Church, Orthodox, Roman Catho­lic, and Protestant, should proclaim. Let me illustrate this by comments on the three sections of the genealogy.


"The story of the origin of Jesus Christ" begins with the pa­triarchal period when Abraham begets Isaac. With even a catechism knowledge of Bible stories the hearer might remember with a little puzzlement that Abraham had two sons of whom Ishmael was the older and wonder why the story of the origin of Jesus Christ does not involve the beget­ting of Ishmael who with his mother Hagar was the more abused figure…

The puzzling "story of the origin of Jesus Christ" goes on with Jacob begetting Judah and his brothers. Why is Judah singled out, and why ultimately is the Messiah from his tribe? Was not Joseph clearly the best of the brothers? Fa­vored by God with visionary dreams that aroused the hatred of the others, Joseph forgave their selling him into captivity in Egypt and saved them when they would have perished from starvation in the famine. Surely he is the embodiment of Jesus' story, not Judah who sold his brother and sought out prostitutes.
Matthew's choice of Isaac over Ishmael, of Jacob over Esau, of Judah over Joseph is faithful to the Old Testament insight that God frequently does not choose the best or the noble or the saintly. In other words, Matthew is faithful to an insight about a God who is not controlled by human merit but manifests His own unpredictable graciousness.


Does not the first section of Matthew's genealogy build up from Abraham to the high point of "David the king"? And does not the second section of the genealogy consist of the gloriously reigning Judean kings of the house of David? The answer to both those ques­tions invokes the basic biblical issue of God's values versus human appearances-"My thoughts are not your thoughts," says the Lord (Is 55:8).
Of the fourteen Judean kings that Matthew lists between David and the deportation only two (Hezekiah and Josiah) could be con­sidered as faithful to God's standards in the law code of Deuteronomy, which were applied to the monarchs by the author of the Books of Kings. The rest were an odd assort­ment of idolaters, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels.
There was, of course, the arranged murder of Bathshe­ba's husband so that David might possess the wife legally: Even more indicative of David's shrewd piety was his per­sonal innocence combined with mafia-like politics whereby his relatives murdered opponents for him. He seized Jerusa­lem, a city that henceforth belonged to him and no tribe, and moved the Ark of the Covenant there to give the blessing of religion to his consolidation of power. Indeed, he succeeded in writing a codicil to God's covenant with His people. Now the covenant no longer simply stated: "You will be my people and I will be your God, if you keep my command­ments"; it had an added condition: "and if you have a king of the house of David reigning over you"

This curious story of a Davidic monarchical institution that had divine origins but was frequently corrupt, venal, and uninspiring, was also part of "the story of the origin of Jesus Christ." Yes, that story involved not only individuals with their strengths and weaknesses like the patriarchs, but an in­stitution, an organization, a structure, indeed a hierarchy (literally, in Greek, a sacred order) embodied in absolute rul­ers… those of us who must be loyal both to the spontaneous grace of God and to a church with authority may get encouragement from this phase of Matthew's theology reflected in the incipient story of Jesus Christ.


What a cu­rious cast of characters this more genuine progress involves. Except for the first two (Shealtiel and Zerubbabel) and the last two (Joseph and Mary), they are a collection of unknown people whose names never made it into sacred history for having done something significant. In other words, while powerful rulers in the monarchy brought God's people to a low point in recorded history (deportation), unknown people, presumably also proportionately divided among saints and sinners, were the vehicles of restoration. Still another indica­tor of the unpredictability of God's grace is that He accom­plishes His purpose through those whom others regard as unimportant and forgettable.

Looking back at the analysis of Matthew's genealogy that I have just given, we see how extraordinarily comprehensive is its theology of the roots of Jesus' story in the Old Testament. The genealogy is more than retrospective and instructive, however. We must recognize that in acting in Jesus Christ God is consistent with His action in Abraham and David, in the patriarchs, in the kings, and in the unknown. But that is only one aspect of the story of Jesus Christ, a story that has a sequence as well as a beginning; and the ongoing aspects are what makes the genealogy "good news" for Matthew's audience and for us. If the beginning of the story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the sequence. This means not simply a Peter who denied Jesus or a Paul who persecuted him, but sinners and saints among those who would bear his name throughout the ages. If we realize that human beings have been empowered to preserve, proclaim, and convey the salvation brought by Jesus Christ throughout ongoing his­tory, the genealogy of the sequence of Jesus contains as pe­culiar an assortment of people as did the genealogy of the beginnings. The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the im­pure as well as the pure, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned-this God con­tinues to work through the same melange. If it was a chal­lenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew's genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the un­known characters of today are an essential part of the se­quence. A sense of being unimportant and too insignificant to contribute to the continuation of the story of Jesus Christ in the world is belied by the genealogy, and the proclamation of that genealogy in the Advent liturgy is designed to give us hope about our destiny and our importance. The message of the genealogy is an enabling invitation. The genealogy has also taught us that God did not hesitate to entrust to a monarchical institution an essential role in the story of His Son's origins-an authoritative institution (at times authoritarian) which He guaranteed with promises lest it fail but which was frequently led by corrupt, venal, stupid, and ineffective leaders, as well as sometimes by saints. He has not hesitated to entrust the sequence of the story to a hi­erarchically structured church, guaranteed with promises, but not free from its own share of the corrupt, the venal, the stu­pid, and the ineffective….

By stress­ing the all-powerful grace of God, the genealogy presents its greatest challenge to those who will accept only an idealized Jesus Christ whose story they would write only with straight lines and whose portrait they would paint only in pastel colors. If we look at the whole story and the total picture, the genealogy teaches us that the beginning was not thus; the Gospels teach us that his ministry was not thus; the his­tory of the church teaches us the sequence was not thus. That lesson is not a discouragement but an encouragement as we look forward to the liturgical coming of Christ. God's grace can work even with people like us. A meditation on "The story of the origin of Jesus Christ-Abraham fathered Isaac . . . Jesse fathered David the king . . . Achim fathered Eliud"- should convince reader and hearer that the authentic "story of the sequence of Jesus Christ" is that Jesus called Peter and Paul . . . Paul called Timothy . . . someone called you . . . and you must call someone else.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

A Christmas Meme

The Newborn by Georges de La Tour, 1645

The Ironic Catholic has posted a Christmas Meme and tagged whoever wants to play along. She was also kind enough to choose me for a photo caption winner this week. Here’s for trying my hand at the meme…

1. Egg Nog or Hot Chocolate? What, would Hot Mulled Cider be considered out of season by Christmas? Hot Chocolate over the course of the season I suppose, but Eggnog on Christmas Eve itself is the best.

2. Does Santa wrap presents or just sit them under the tree? Mrs Claus wraps them up, and he does a lot of the “some assembly required” on Christmas Eve with much cursing and gnashing of teeth, because unlike his trusty elves, he has two left thumbs and no mechanical aptitude.

3. Colored lights on tree/house or white? Colored lights all the way, baby. I get special pleasure out of that, because it’s such a pretentious white-light Yankee New England town.

4. Do you hang mistletoe? Ah… alas no, not in a long time. When I was younger I was afraid of being considered a perv for trying to steal a cheap kiss. Now I’m afraid of being considered a dirty old perv trying to steal a cheap kiss...

5. When do you put your decorations up? Usually the first weekend in December. We keep the outside lights going almost until the end of January, at Anne’s insistence.

6. What is your favorite holiday dish (excluding dessert)? Baked lasagna. Actually, that works for me all year too.

7. Favorite Holiday memory as a child: After watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, leaving milk and cookies for the reindeer, going to bed, turning on the candle window lights in my room, and being certain that I could hear hooves on the roof… Sneaking down at five in the morning with my siblings while my parents were still asleep.

I also remember the year when “Santa” relented and finally got me a G.I. Joe. My older brother got the new Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, which turned out to be way cooler.

8. When and how did you learn the truth about Santa? What do you mean by that? What are you trying to say?

9. Do you open a gift on Christmas Eve? Yes. Anne and I usually exchange one gift.

10. How do you decorate your Christmas tree? Colored lights and ornaments. No tinsel or garland anymore. As many old heirloom ornaments as can be found that aren’t broken yet, the better.

11. Snow? Love it or Dread it? Love it when it’s falling. Not much use for it after that. Love it on Christmas. I don’t mind a lot of snow during winter. I hate winters that are neither fish nor fowl... Freeze and melt, freeze and melt…

12. Can you ice skate? Not well. My ankles turn inwards. It put an early end to my childhood dream to play in the NHL and be the next Derek Sanderson.

13. Do you remember your favorite gift? A plastic football player set with a field that was about 2 and 1/2 feet by 6 feet.

14. What's the most exciting thing about the Holidays for you? Watching the excitement and joy in my kid’s faces.

15. What is your favorite Holiday Dessert? Anne’s hot apple pie, with vanilla ice cream

16. What is your favorite holiday tradition? Christmas Eve Dinner with my in-laws and cousins and exchanging gifts with them... Singing carols with my kids at bedtime all during advent.

17. What tops your tree? Cloth, hand-sewn angel.

18. Which do you prefer - giving or receiving? Well now, like the Ironic Catholic says, that all depends on what’s being given and received… ;-)

Giving, I suppose.

19. What is your favorite Christmas Song? O Come All Ye Faithful, especially the Latin part (Adeste Fidelis)

20. Candy Canes? Yeah, we even have them on the tree sometimes. There’s nothing like trying to peel them off the couch.

If I can be so bold as to be allowed to tag five, I tag Cowboyangel, Crystal, Liam, Steve, and Drew.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

My Linebacker

He’s not big, but he’s tough as nails…

It ain’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog… and if you don’t want to run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.

Speaking of linebackers, that reminds me of one of my favorite Super Bowl commercials – the one where “office linebacker Terry Tate” brought a little bit of discipline to the workplace. “Hey Janice!”


An anti-Zionist Orthodox Jew meets with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Usually, revisionist history takes a while.

When revisionist historians deal with genocide, they usually wait until the witnesses are dead and gone.

Not this time. Not when it comes to Jews, apparently. There are still people alive on this planet who carry the tatoos from the concentration camps on their arms, for crying out loud.

I'm not going to join the chorus of the many voices on the web attacking Islam and all Muslims. There are a million other places someone can go to read all that, but right is right, and wrong is wrong, and this absurd and disgusting Tehran Conference on the Holocaust must be roundly condemned by everyone everywhere, especially those who work hardest to preserve peace.

We have Iranians living in our neighborhood. They are good people. Decent people. My brother's sister in-law is married to an Iranian. They are a wonderful family. I believe there are many Iranians today who are very worried and concerned about where Ahmadinejad is trying to take them. One must speak up, though, to what Ahmadinejad is up to. If this man's recklessness continues to go unchecked, I'm increasingly convinced that a massive conflagration will be unavoidable - a conflagration with the potential to kill millions of people.

Ahmadinejad is jockeying to replace even old Khomenei-type conservatives like Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with his own brand of radicals in a bid to squash even a semblance of democracy in Iran. There are some hopeful signs that he is starting to run into resistance. Recently there have been student protests against him.

In the past decade and a half of foreign policy sleepwalking and lost opportunities, perhaps we should have made the effort to try to establish a dialogue with Mohammad Khatami when we had the chance.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Status Anxiety and its Discontents

Last night I was lounging around, flipping through our meager selection of channels, when I alighted upon a fascinating program on PBS World about Status Anxiety, narrated by Alain de Botton, the author of the book by the same name.

The segment I caught was Botton's study of the "Health and Wealth" Gospel movement, a particularly American phenomenon. Botton was fascinated at the prospect of scripture being used to make the case that wealth and riches were a sign of God's favor - that material richness was a sign of Godliness - a concept that Botton found inconsonant with how Christianity had theretofore been commonly understood in the European tradition.

Shown below are excerpts from a review of the book and an interview of Botton by Adam Baer of the Atlantic Monthly. According to Botton, the antidotes to our modern Status Anxiety are - Philosophy, Art, Politics, Religion, and Bohemia, because they help put things in perspective. Come to think of it, that does sound a lot like Crystals' blog!

Why do the successes of our peers drive us crazy? Alain de Botton, the author of Status Anxiety, explains.

In his new book, Status Anxiety, de Botton takes readers on a tour through the history of ideas—economic, sociological, and political - to tackle the problem of "status anxiety," which he characterizes as "a worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one."

This obsession with our place in society, de Botton writes, emerges from several sources: our fear of lovelessness; inflated expectations about what our lives should bring; our faith in meritocracy (which leads us to believe that modern day academic achievement sorts everyone into their rightful place), snobbery; and the fact that we are at the mercy of "fickle talent," luck, our employers, and the global economy. But status anxiety, he argues, can be cured—or at least mitigated—if we draw upon the resources of philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia as tools for putting the issue in perspective. For example, we can curb our urge to grasp after bigger, more impressive things and learn to appreciate our mundane lives, he argues, by exposing ourselves to art and literature that celebrates the beauty and dignity of the ordinary. Likewise, an understanding of the ideals that drive Western religion can help us relinquish our fixation on worldly success. And we could do worse, he suggests, than to heed the observations of astute social critics like the eighteenth-century French commentator Sébastien-Roch Nicolas Chamfort, who warned, "public opinion is the worst of all."

AB - The book begins by stating that "every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories ... the story of our quest for sexual love" and "the story of our quest for love from the world." Why is the latter in your estimate a "more secret and shameful tale"?

AdB - All of us are incredibly embarrassed by our more narcissistic elements. People go to great lengths to hide their narcissism. Narcissism is, in a way, a nasty word. But it's very normal. It's the desire for people to think well of us, and accord us respect. I think the reason that desire is so carefully hidden is because it can very easily provoke envy and anger in other people. … Modesty is a survival instinct. But deep down, everyone has a desire to feel significant. It's just something we're loathe to admit to.

AB - The Industrial Revolution and the middle class it spawned are identified in the book as two main accelerators of status anxiety. In hindsight, could we have avoided the onset of this problem and still progressed as a society, economically and technologically?

AdB - Probably not. When you think of a productive economy you're thinking of an anxious economy. You're looking at many, many people who are afraid about hanging on to their places. You can either lead a simple life - the Jeffersonian ideal of the independent farmer with his simple log cabin. Or you can lead a city life. It's your choice. I guess a Marxist would say that in the ideal future we would have a noble feudal community and high technology at the same time. But on the whole I think it's perceived as a choice. Productivity and GNP are linked to the anxieties of many, many individual workers. An economy like that of France - a so-called "unproductive economy" - is in a way a more relaxed economy. Any given country will be successful at some things and unsuccessful at others. France may be somewhat unsuccessful economically, but it's successful in its long lunch break. There's that choice.

AB - Why have modern populations proved to be so incapable of feeling content with what they have and how they're viewed by so-called "reference groups," the communities that they feel close to?

AdB - I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of what's normal—of what is an acceptable standard of everyday living. And of course the bar keeps being raised ever higher in modern society. Look at advertising: its sole function is to make us feel that certain things are missing from our lives. So today it's possible for someone to feel poor if they don't have air-conditioning or a flat-screen TV in a way that they wouldn't have fifty or even ten years ago. Our sense of what it is to be reasonably well-off keeps changing, keeps rising—even though all of us are much better off than people were hundreds of years ago. But no one compares themselves to someone who lived three-hundred years ago or to someone in sub-Saharan Africa. We take our points of reference from those around us: our friends, our family. These are the people who determine our feelings of success. Which is why Rousseau wrote that the best way to become rich is not by trying to make more money, but by separating yourself from anyone around you who has had the bad taste to become more successful than you. It's a facetious point, but it's also a serious one. Feelings of wealth are relative.

Look at the self-help section of American bookshops, where my books are occasionally found. There are basically two kinds of books on those shelves: the first kind are the ones that say, "You can make it, you can be anything you like, you can be a billionaire by Friday." Then there's the other kind that tells you how to cope with feelings of low self-esteem - how to be a friend to yourself. This is the modern United States: a society that tells everyone they can be extraordinary. That creates feelings of shame among those who don't feel extraordinary. I think it's interesting that in England three-hundred years ago, people at the bottom of society were called "unfortunates." Interesting word, "unfortunates." Nowadays they're called "losers." That tells us a lot about how things have changed.

AB - You propose gaining an understanding of the causes of desire for status as a way to curb it. Do you see that as the only way? I've noticed an increasing sense of serenity and perspective coming over my peers in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Could we be looking at a valley in the otherwise seemingly ever-upward-trending graph of status anxiety's progress? Could trauma be a solution?

AdB - Anything that restores perspective can be helpful. And by perspective I mean something that takes you away from the here and now of modern life, in which we're constantly surrounded by images of who's up and who's down. Now, that might be something as grim as the thought of death. 9/11, as we know, has been a giant memento mori hanging over the U.S. and the world: a reminder that death can find us very suddenly at any moment. That's a challenge to our workaday sense of needing to get on. People who have had a close brush with death tend to say that their priorities have been altered. What the neighbors think, and where you are on the ladder of life shifts in relevance. That's why the Christian moralists have traditionally stressed death as an agent that contributes positively to Judeo-Christian values. But of course it's very hard to keep the possibility of death constantly in the front of your mind, particularly when there are big corporations heavily invested in trying to get us to buy a new car, or go on holiday. They don't ask us to think about the grave nature of life. That kind of reminder tends to come from literature and art, and often has a hard time getting heard amid the clamor of all the media-driven messages.

AB - You suggest that the rise of meritocracy has trained us to see the rich as deserving of their fortunes rather than as sinful or corrupt. But, speaking for myself, in the wake of Enron and Martha Stewart, and given the state of modern government, I definitely consider more rich people than ever to be cheaters. I kind of always have.

AdB - That's interesting. It's not a typically American perspective. Americans usually tend to have this idea that we're moving toward some system of fair competition where there won't be any more Enrons, and the school system will make everything equal. Personally, I think the whole idea of meritocracy is bananas. I mean, the idea that you can create a society where you arrange people in descending order in relation to their merit as human beings, and give them money in relation to that system is completely illogical. Because there are so many factors that go into people's personalities. The modern worldview is that you can look at someone's resumé and make a judgment about how noble and worthwhile they are. Something's wrong with that: there are just too many other factors at play. I have a lot of sympathy for the old Christian view that the only person who can tell the worth of another human being is God, and He can only do that on the day of judgment. I think we need to be humble in judging other people, and in judging our own value. There's an arrogance that comes over people who think the system is just. The more just you think the system is, the crueler you're likely to be, because if you generally believe that those at the top deserve their success, you have to believe that those at the bottom deserve their failure. That's when you start talking about people as "losers," and saying things like, "Winners make their own luck." So there's a very nasty side to this otherwise very nice-sounding idea that we should make society fairer. Success is never totally deserved just as failure is never totally deserved. And I think there are too many overly happy billionaires who say things like, "No one ever helped me, so why should I help anyone else? Why should I pay taxes?" And one wants to say, "Yes, of course. But…"

AB - You say that there are five "unpredictable reasons never to count on either attaining or holding on to our desired position within a hierarchy." These include: dependence on fickle talent, luck, employers, an employer's profitability, and the global economy. In your view, to what extent is a person's ability to attain "success" dependent on savvy status-building strategy, as opposed to innate talent or merit?

AdB - I guess first of all, without being pedantic, we should examine the word "success." A person who's very successful in business might be very unsuccessful at reading Plato. Every time we use the word "success" it's a loaded word. But assuming that you're using the word in the modern economic sense, there is always a debate about how much to listen to other people. You hear business people say things like "I didn't listen to anyone about leaving this sector and now look at me." In publishing and art you hear this a lot too. Van Gogh, for example - everybody was telling him to get into a more productive line. But he didn't; he stuck with what he was doing. So aiming to please other people too directly can have a rather unproductive fate.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Vatican Upholds Nebraska Excommunications

I almost put up this post yesterday, but I hated to make a post like this on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The bishop of the Lincoln (NE) archdiocese, however, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, decided to use the eve of that Feast Day to announce that his 1996 declaration that the liberal Catholic group Call to Action stood under automatic excommunication was upheld by the Vatican in a letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re on November 24th. In rejecting CTA’s appeal, Cardinal Re told Bishop Bruskewitz that his ruling:
“was properly taken within your competence as pastor of that diocese…The judgment of the Holy See is that the activities of Call to Action in the course of these years are in contrast with the Catholic faith due to views and positions held which are unacceptable from a doctrinal and disciplinary standpoint…Thus to be a member of this association or to support it is irreconcilable with a coherent living of the Catholic faith.”
I’m not particularly fond of Call To Action. They are far, far to the left of where I stand, but I think the use of excommunication is ham-handed and unwarranted. Why does the Church still feel that it needs to impose truth by law and by silencing opposing voices within it by force? Wheat and tares grow together within the Church. Can’t the Truth stand on it’s own? Yes, the sight of the late middle-aged women in CTA going around ordaining each other is goofy, but what are the elements in the Creed that they dissent from? Where is the hierarchy’s sense of discernment? Are they trying to quash all possible sources of prophetic voice? I don’t agree with them on everything, but in some areas, CTA is dead-on right.

What bothers me more is the reaction of Cardinal Re and Rome rather than the actions of Bishop Bruskewitz himself. Nebraska is in the heart of the Bible Belt. Catholics who are living under a siege mentality sometimes feel like they need to “out-fundamentalist” the evangelicals. I know how that dynamic works, but there is evidence of some strangely retrograde thinking in Bruskewitz, which really makes you wonder about the current state of the hierarchy.

Bishop Bruskewitz does not allow altar girls or female EOMs in his archdiocese. Bring him here, and I’m going to have trouble keeping my faithful wife and my faithful daughters within the Church… In addition, the list of other groups that he listed in his declaration of automatic excommunication was interesting.
Although the Vatican letter only dealt with Call to Action, the other groups named by Bruskewitz were: Planned Parenthood, Society of St. Pius X, Hemlock Society, St. Michael the Archangel Chapel, Freemasons, Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, Eastern Star, Rainbow Girls and Catholics for a Free Choice.

Job’s Daughters, DeMolay, Eastern Star and Rainbow Girls all are affiliated with the Masons. Are Bruskewitz and the hierarchy still obsessed with freemasonry? A hundred years after the exteme anti-modernist Pian pontificates, and forty years after Vatican II, are they still fighting against the French Revolution and the enlightenment? The fact that some of these Masonic Groups were women’s organizations is somewhat indicative of a sense of misogyny on Bruskewitz’s part too.

Job’s Daughters


Eastern Star

Rainbow Girls

Wow. Daggers. Daggers pointed at the very heart of the Church. Why would anyone want to be a Catholic and a Mason at the same time anyhow?

The next time you go to a July 4th parade, watch out for those guys on the go-carts with the fezzes. And, Lord forbid, if a child of yours should ever suffer from serious burns, stay away from the Shriner’s Hospital if you care at all about your immortal souls.

I see mostly glee and cheering in Catholic blogdom over this announcement, although there was some outrage among traditionalists that the Society of St. Pius X was included under the same condemnation and under the same breath as CTA. There is quite a bit of irony in that, because the SSPX is probably the most anti-masonic organization on the planet, after the Ahmadinejad regime in Tehran, with whom they have much in common.

Here is CTA’s response to the news.

Enough of excommunications, at least until the episcopate learns to discipline themselves and their own priests. Just as a starting point of reference, as long as Bernard Cardinal Law is still a cardinal in good standing, with a plum assignment in one of Rome’s major basilicas, and positions on several dicasteries, I urge the CTA members in Nebraska to keep on going to Mass.

Are the VOTF next, for their questioning, for demanding accountability, and for being a gadly? I suspect that they are. If anyone out there signed up in the early days just to find out what they were all about, they might have to wind up answering for it.

Our hierarchy is a mess, and the center of the Church has utterly collapsed. The Second Vatican Council is becoming more and more of a dead letter every year. It is getting harder and harder not to take sides.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
-- William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Madonna and Child with a Scroll --Luca della Robbia (c. 1455)

And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

-- Luke 1 : 46 – 55

The dogmas of the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception are often touchy subjects when it comes to ecumenical dialogue. The scriptural evidence is scant. In the popular American imagination, it sometimes goes like this - Envision phlegmatic, sclerotic, old Italian men in the curial bureaucracy flitting around in the dusty papal apartments in their slippers, scheming up ways to keep Catholics in line and keep them from jumping ship. A Marian idea pops into the Pope’s head and he declares a dogma just because he thinks he can, and he knows the superstitious peasants will listen to him. When all else seems to be failing, up the Marian ante...

There may have been an element of that (phlegmatic old men they may have been), but it’s not really the way it happened. Energetic and vibrant young theologians had been debating these points for centuries, but it was the laity that was really responsible, because in each case the laity knew it was true, they prayed for it to be recognized, they asked for it, and they prevailed upon the heirarchy to declare it so. A similar thing happened during the Arian controversy. The laity had a better grasp on the truth than the episcopate did.

“I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church in its various constituents and functions per modum unius, manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of those channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect: granting at the same time fully, that the gift of discerning, discriminating, defining, promulgating, and enforcing any portion of that tradition resides solely in the Ecclesia docens.

In that time of immense confusion (the Arian controversy) the divine dogma of our Lord's divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved, far more by the Ecclesia docta than by the Ecclesia docens, that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission, while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism..."
-- Cardinal John Henry Newman

Plate from The Christ Child
-- Maud and Miska Petersham
Doubleday and Company, Inc. 1931

December 8th - Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Radio Chant

For all of you Gregorian Chant aficionados out there with high-speed connections, check out the link below for stereo-quality Gregorian Chant, available 24 x 7. There's an option for Andean music too.

or try...


Saturday, December 02, 2006

Advent 2006... Waiting

Works by N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945)

As we approach the First Sunday of Advent I’d like to post some images painted by my favorite American illustrator, N.C. Wyeth. Every morning, I drove close by the home he grew up in on my way to work. N.C. Wyeth in his own life and personality was as bold, daring, colorful, and dynamic as his illustrations.

Scribner's, "The Stable At The Inn" (1912)

And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
-- Luke 2: 4-7

“The Child” (1923)

Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest..
-- Luke 9 : 48

Ladies' Home Journal, "The Son Of Man" (1927)

When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
-- Luke 2: 39-40

”Age grows calculating, but youth is spendthrift in its generosity. Even if the boy trudged home hungry, he intended that Jesus should be fed. He gave his evening meal to the Master” (1929)

Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.
-- Luke 9: 16

Blessings this Advent Season to all of you.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Messianic Antinomianism in Iraq

Americans used to know how to do stuff.

Not that I’m taking away anything from the Young Repubs hired out of the Heritage Foundation who are putting in long hours in Baghdad’s isolated Green Zone trying to fix Iraq. I’m sure they’re working their hearts out, but I’ve seen this kind of frantic late-night flailing being done by young consultants in the corporate world too.

At the beginning of World War II, the undersized US Army was training with wooden cut-outs of rifles and tanks. At the end of World War II, America was the arsenal of democracy, with the world’s largest and best built flotilla of ships and hangars full of planes. The transition took place in less time than, oh, let’s see… the amount of time that we’ve been in Iraq. Even though there might not be enough body armor for all of the troops in Iraq yet, they are likely to tell you that the various contractors have made sure that the military cafeterias in Mosul have all of the ice cream they could possibly ever need.

I’m currently in the midst of reading George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate. America in Iraq. One of the things that has really struck me about the fiasco in Iraq is how similar it is to the devolution of corporate and government performance here in America itself over the past couple of decades.

If you put people in government who believe that government can’t do anything right, you have a sure-fire recipe for a self-fulfilling prophecy. It bemuses me why people who hold that view want to go into public service to begin with. “Vote for me, and I’ll make sure we don’t do anything”. This is why you wind up with hacks everywhere. This is why we see union-busters heading the Department of Labor. This why we see oil industry apologists who deny global warming working for this administration. This is why you have a guy who wants to dissolve the United Nations representing the US at the United Nations. This is why you get a guy who ran Arabian horse shows in charge of FEMA. I can’t say that the American venture in Iraq ever could have “worked” under any circumstances, but the incompetent and woeful federal response to Hurricane Katrina and the catalogue of errors in Iraq seem to me to be different manifestations of the same syndrome.

During World War II, the effort was led by brilliant, brilliant men like George Marshall who knew how to create, lead, and work within vertical beauracracies with great efficiency. From the prosecution of the war effort through the implementation of the Marshall Plan, American logistics worked hand-in-hand with enlightened government policy to achieve outstanding success. FDR’s team believed in government and what it could do. All was accomplished without a single computer, too. Typing pools, carbon copies, and filing cabinets. Amazing. Truth be told, from the Civil War onward, the enemies of the US Army never particularly feared the fighting skills of our citizen soldiers. What made us unstoppable was our unmatched skill at mass-production and logistics. We could always bring the most men and material to bear where they were needed most. Even during the Viet Nam War, I don’t ever remember hearing that there was no electricity in Saigon. Something has changed in the way we do things. I believe George Marshall would have been shocked, considering the size of our military budget, how many private contractors we use for various things in Iraq today, including security (actually, in that case, they should be called mercenaries, not contractors). After all, he had an Army Corps of Engineers to work with. Do we really even have an Army Corps of Engineers anymore? Do our universities even churn out American-born civil engineers in any noteworthy numbers, or are they all from somewhere else?

I don’t agree with the European/Arab critique that the United States was motivated to go into Iraq to “steal” their oil. That's not quite on the mark. It is nothing so sinister as that. It was all in the best of intentions. The neo-con set that has dominated the Republican Party since the Reagan era doesn’t want to steal oilfields. What they want, because they believe this as an article of faith in an almost religiously dogmatic way, is for everything in the world to be privatized. I’m convinced that if the war in Iraq had gone the way that George Bush expected it too, he’d be asking today for fast track authority to sign an Iraqi-American Free Trade Agreement.

In Packer’s book, you can read about the arrival of Paul Bremer in Iraq as the new head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, replacing the outgoing Jay Garner, wearing his Brooks Brothers suit and combat boots. Within a matter of days, and with very little consultation, Bremer made a series of fateful decisions (that almost everyone agrees in hindsight) fueled the insurgency and made the American mission in Iraq almost impossible to achieve. He extended the de-Baathification program down to much lower levels than had been done previously, he disbanded the Iraqi Army, and dismissed the interim government. In effect, he threw hundreds of thousands of people out of work overnight.

From what I can gather, Bremer was the kind of hard-charging CEO-type that is worshipped by a lot of people these days. A take-charge, “sense of urgency” kind of guy.

I’ve been in the corporate world for 25 years, and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the way people work. When I started out, there was a high premium on competence, earning respect, paying your dues, loyalty, and knowing your craft. People stayed at companies for a long time, moving up the ranks, so accountability was something everyone was aware of. You built a rep, a track record, and people had long memories. As the years went on, people started moving from company to company much more frequently. We went into the age of “get funded, work hard, screw up, get bought out, get rich.” A high premium was put on working long hours and slapping things together quickly and cheaply. A lot of executives dropped the paternalistic style, and earned their bonuses by slashing costs and demanding of their employees that they deliver better customer service regardless. If your employees didn’t respond positively, that was OK, you could just move on. You weren’t planning on staying there long anyway. You don’t have friends at work, just temporary associates. “So, I laid off a 25-year employee with a bunch of college tuitions to pay? That deadwood was old enough to be my father, he should have been doing something more challenging if he was any good at all. If he didn’t keep up his skills to get another job, that’s his problem, not mine. F___ him.” About ten years ago I noticed that a bunch of executives at the company where I worked were reading "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap’s Mean Business: How I Save Bad Companies and Make Good Companies Great as if it was sacred scripture. They wound up selling out friends and colleagues they’d been working with for decades. Of course, this was before Dunlap was indicted for shadily mis-reporting revenues on Sunbeam’s books.

Where am I going in a roundabout way? In a country where all institutions of authority had vanished, where the infrastructure was badly damaged by war and looting, where there was no industry, and where there was no security, Bremer made a series of “F___ you” decisions without seeming to reflect on the possible consequences. Did he reflect on the fact that in a country awash in weapons, that angry people might decide to rise up against us for it? A country psychologically demoralized from decades of totalitarianism and brutality? A country rife with conspiracy theories? Did his “sense of urgency” style preclude that? It wasn’t like laying off 52-year-old Americans.

The neo-con, libertarian Republican believes in the power of unfettered, laissez faire economics as a matter of unassailable truth. It is, in fact, their real religion no matter what other religion they claim to hold... It is a theology as much as it is a science for them. In addition to that is their firm conviction that everyone in the world really wants to be an American. Inside every one of these foreigners is an American struggling to get out. This conviction wasn’t limited to them in the past, of course. In the book Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, written back in the eighties, it was argued that American arrogance and hubris – this messianic belief that we can force freedom on the peoples of the world before they are ready for it, contributed to our downfall in Viet Nam.

In Packer’s book, I was struck by a reference to Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous Henny Penny speech that underlined the neo-con’s antinomian mentality and goes to the very heart of the problem with this administration’s whole policy regarding Iraq from day one.

From the Pentagon, flush with the success of his war plan, Rumsfeld regarded the rising chaos in Baghdad with equanimity. "Stuff happens," the official in charge of postwar Iraq said, "and it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

Rumsfeld's words, which soon became notorious, implied a whole political philosophy. The defense secretary looked upon anarchy and saw the early stages of democracy. In his view and that of others in the administration, but above all the president, freedom was the absence of constraint. Freedom existed in divinely endowed human nature, not in man-made institutions and laws. Remove a thirty-five-year-old tyranny and democracy will grow in its place, because people everywhere want to be free. There was no contingency for psychological demolition. What had been left out of the planning were the Iraqis themselves.

For Rumsfeld, this view was a matter of convenience more than anything else, since nothing in his career suggested that he had given the subject any thought. For others, including those working under him at the Pentagon, it was something like an article of faith, and when their critics used the word "theology" - as they often did – to describe the neoconservative approach to spreading democracy in the region, they weren't completely wrong. This faith defied both history and the live evidence on CNN. It led directly to the gutting and burning of all the key institutions of the Iraqi state…
…But the administration's failures in the weeks following the fall of Baghdad, which set Iraq's course after Saddam and continue to haunt the American effort today, were not entirely the result of constraints and mistakes. In a sense they were deliberate. If there was never a coherent postwar plan, it was because the people in Washington who mattered never intended to stay in Iraq. "Rummy and Wolfowitz and Feith did not believe the U.S. would need to run postconflict Iraq," said a Defense Department official. "Their plan was turn it over to these exiles very quickly and let them deal with the messes that came up. Garner was a fall guy for a bad strategy. He was doing exactly what Rummy wanted him to do. It was the strategy that failed."