Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ramon Llull, Lust, and Al Islam

Blessed Ramon Llull (1232 - 1316)
But Jesus Christ, of his great clemency, Five times upon the cross appeared to me, That I might think upon him lovingly, And cause his name proclaimed abroad to

I'm trying to slide in under the wire here. As Liam has pointed out, this is the tail end of Blessed Ramon Llull week, and he has invited his various correspondents to offer up posts on Ramon Llull, the spelling and typing of whose name I find most vexing.

Not being a philospher by trade nor training, and being left mystified by the mystical manifestations of Kabbalah, I'll point out one of the more mundane aspects of Llull.

A pleasure seeker and a dillettante in his youth, Llull underwent a conversion at around the age of 30. Blatantly stealing from this article:

It is reported that Lull's conversion was precipitated by a shock. He tried to lure a beautiful woman into a few moments of pleasure in bed with him. With quiet dignity, the woman revealed her breast to him--cancer-eaten. In a flash, he saw the futility of his lusts, and later transferred his love to the eternal Christ.

Pope Benedict, in his speech at Regensburg, was attempting to entice the secular West and the Dar Al Islam to a scholarly debate about reason, with the firm belief that Christianity will not be contradicted by pure reason. In this aspect, he was very similar in his aims and goals to Ramon Llull, who set out in his proofs, as Liam pointed out, "to write the best book in the world."

He developed a passion to win Moslems to Christ and took up the challenge of the Grand Mufti of Bugia: "If you hold that the law of Christ is true and that of Mohammed false, you must prove it by necessary reasons,"--that is, by air-tight

Convinced that true reason could produce no results contradictory to true faith, Lull poured his intelligence into philosophy. The result was a philosophy of "combination" by which he thought all knowledge could be derived by combining every idea with every other idea. Although admired for centuries because it was clever, his Ars Magna ultimately proved to be a dead end. But Lull went beyond mere philosophy. His passion was too deep to stop with scholarly games.

The first crusades had failed. Lull crisscrossed Europe, urging kings, popes, and cardinals to develop mission schools and evangelize Islam. "Missionaries will convert the world by preaching, but also through the shedding of tears and blood and with great labor, and through a bitter death," he said. His three-point plan was simple. First, missionaries must obtain a comprehensive knowledge of Arabic and other mid-eastern languages. Then they must study Islamic literature until they could refute any Muslim argument. Finally they must give their lives in witness to Christ. He convinced the pope to allow Christian universities to teach the Jewish and Islamic
languages and literature.

Lull followed this plan himself. He established a missionary school and personally studied Islamic lore. Three times he sailed to Islamic countries to reason with Islamic scholars. The first time he was exported just when he had won several Imams (Moslem religious leaders) to request baptism. The second time he was imprisoned for six months. On this day August 14, 1314, when he was in his eighties, he sailed a third time for Islamic North Africa. For a year he preached Christ and the Trinity openly but then was brutally stoned. Christian merchants carried the broken man aboard their ship. Probably he died in sight of Majorca.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Forever Conspiracy and the Family Jewels

No, not those family jewels, sunshine…

This week, the CIA announced that it was releasing files that had been long-held classified called “The Family Jewels”, supposedly shedding light on some of the more unsavory CIA activities of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s… all kinds of stuff about assassination plots, coups, and other black arts of spy-vs-spy skullduggery. I’m not sure what the point of all this is at this point in time. Are they trying to make us think they aren’t into anything shady right now?

My 60’s reminiscing continues… Sam Cooke, my playlist, Martin Luther King…. About a week or two ago, I was browsing in a bookstore, and came across a new book by David Talbot called Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.

A lot of people look at an older, bloated, and somewhat dissipated Teddy Kennedy today and see him as a comical figure. The Wizard of “Uhs” who can’t put a coherent thought together without a prepared script (which is unjust, because TK will go down in history as one of the most titanic figures in the history of the U.S. Senate, and I’m not talking about his girth). This is a shame, because it makes people who should know better forget what sharp minds of great acuity JFK and RFK had. In addition, they were fearless and had great toughness. The downside was that they could be secretive and quite ruthless, especially Bobby.

November 22, 1963, the day that JFK was assassinated, was one of my earliest conscious memories. I was over in my friend’s sandbox across the street, and my mother called me home, very agitated. I stayed glued to her side, watching the drama unfold on television over the next few days as she tearfully explained to me as best as she could what was going on. When I saw Jack Ruby shoot Oswald, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

That day was one of those turning points in history (there’s a term for it, I can’t recall right now what it is). It marked a complete paradigm shift. The world after 1963 was never the same as it was before 1963. It was the end of naïve optimism that things would always get better, and it was the end of unquestioning trust in the government.

Getting back to Talbot’s book… I did one of those standing 20-minute first chapter reads and I was fascinated. When Bobby Kennedy got the call from FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover that his brother had been shot, he was at his suburban home in Hickory Hill Virginia.

Talbot writes…
On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Robert F. Kennedy--J.F.K.'s younger brother, Attorney General and devoted watchman--was eating lunch at Hickory Hill, his Virginia home, when he got the news from Dallas. It was his archenemy, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, of all people, who phoned to tell him. "The President's been shot," Hoover curtly said. Bobby later recalled, "I think he told me with pleasure."
Later on, Hoover called and told him just as bluntly, “The President is dead.”

It has been known for a long time that Bobby Kennedy never thought much of the Warren Commission Report, and had his own theories about what happened, but according to Talbot, Bobby sussed the whole thing out with his quick analytical mind right there that afternoon in Hickory Hill, with a series of quick rapid-fire phone calls and a backyard interrogation of CIA Director John McCone. He was like a whirlwind that day and all that night, breaking the news to his mother and the rest of the family, meeting Jackie and holding it all together for her sake, being present at and supervising several aspects of his brother’s autopsy, and removing some personal effects of his brother’s from the WhiteHouse that could have proven embarrassing. What I hadn’t known and found interesting (according to the author’s claim), was that by the end of the afternoon he had reached a conclusion on the conspiracy he thought was responsible for his brother’s death. His conclusion was that it was a combination of rogue elements of the CIA working with certain alienated Cuban exiles (those who had felt betrayed by JFK in the Bay of Pigs fiasco), and elements of the Mafia who had been enlisted in efforts with the former two groups to assassinate Fidel Castro in Cuba. Bobby, of course, was in a better position to know than almost anyone, because he himself had coordinated some of those efforts. A classic case of “blowback”. The guilt haunted Bobby, and he changed profoundly in the next few years as a result. The RFK who was assassinated himself in June of 1968 was a very different man from the tough, combative Attorney General in November of 1963.

There is a whole cottage industry, of course, over the JFK assassination and various conspiracy theories and rebuttals. I used to read some of these books around the time I was in High school. I still find it interesting. My own opinion? I think there was a conspiracy of some kind, probably along the lines that the author claims RFK held to. That’s why I’ve never had too much respect for “Mr. Single-Bullet Theory”, Arlen Specter, a member of the Warren Commission… I do think Lee Harvey Oswald was involved as one of the shooters. Lee Harvey Oswald himself said to police and reporters. “I’m just a patsy.” I think he was… Not in the sense that he was not involved, but to me had the look of a man who knew he'd been had. Who knew he’d been set up to take the fall.

This week in Time Magazine, there are dueling interviews on whether or not the assassination was a conspiracy; one by David Talbot, and one by Vincent Bugliosi, the well-known crackerjack prosecutor of the Charles Manson murder case and author of Helter Skelter. In his book Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy , he claims to prove that there was no conspiracy, and that Oswald was in fact the lone gunman. I don’t think the controversy will ever die down.

On a lighter note, here is one of my favorite scenes from the indie movie Slackers.. The JFK assassination buff…

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Even More True 40 Years Later

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Riverside Church, NYC April 4, 1967
From his speech:
In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. ... I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. ... A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from reordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
...and said in Oslo, when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize...

I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.

This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.

I believe that even amid today's motor bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land.

"And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid."

I still believe that we shall overcome.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Jesus and the Hard Road

Sometimes he asks us to take it... Touching another third rail by posting about abortion.

The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people,
"Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?"
-- John 4:28-29

Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more."
--John 8: 10-11

I don't spend a lot of time posting here about sexual ethics. For one thing, I'm a middle-aged husband and father of six. My single bachelor days are a long, long time behind me, so I'd feel a little silly going on about these things with bloggers who tend to be significantly younger than I am. How am I to know what kind of suffering people have gone through in their lives, and what kind of pain I can cause with a careless remark?

Maybe the fact that I helped out with the diapers for more than 12 straight years takes a little bit of racy gloss off the whole topic of sex. I never thought I'd say this, but I think I may have finally reached the age where it isn't on my mind all the time. Furthermore, as far as my own reading of the Gospel is concerned, I don't think it was an obsessive topic with Jesus either, in his parables or in terms of how he described what the Kingdom of God is like.

Nevertheless, after blogging for over a year, I have to make note of the fact that matters related to sexual ethics still generate a swirl of controversy around the Church, and on the blogs most definitely, so maybe I have to weigh in a little more than I have. I've tried to make this blog a little different from what can be commonly found out there. I've probably been pussy-footing around the topic of abortion too much in particular... Besides, more accurately, abortion is a human rights issue more than a sexual issue. As with homosexuality, I'm not looking for a debate, I'll just express a point of view. It isn't around legality, who you are allowed and not allowed to vote for, what the laws should be in a pluralistic society, etc... Just some thoughts about what it is and what I think Jesus would say.

The Didache is very old. It is one of the earliest Christian documents ever found, and even though it doesn't have canonical status, it can rightly be regarded as a sort of very early Christian catechism. It states quite clearly, in unmistakeable contra-point to the prevailing cultural norms to be found in the Greco-Roman world:
You shall not procure abortion, nor destroy a newborn child"
-- Didache 2:2
Everyone knows the Church's stand on this. On this particular point I am on board entirely. I will never budge on it. I am not lukewarm about it. Here is a personal view being offered, however, based not on encylicals, catechisms, the magisterium, natural law, or anything of that sort, although those must all be taken most seriously. We may not all have the right to read scripture and interpret it any way we like, but I think we all can discern and get a sense of whom Jesus is when we read and meditate on the Gospels. The acronym WWJD has become almost trite, elicits a few chuckles these days, and skirts the real issue of WDJD (What Did Jesus Do), but my WWJD take is this...

Jesus can forgive anything, no matter how many times, but it certainly doesn't mean that he can countenance anything. Jesus reached out to sinners in particular; they were in fact the ones who most needed him as he himself pointed out. The Jesus I read in the Gospels is one who would never turn away a repentant heart, but at the same time, he was a straight talker about what he saw as well. The Samaritan woman at the well, somewhat haughty by virtue of the fact that she was the holder of the water, believed that she was in control of the situation, but Jesus turned it around on her. She thought she held the water that he needed. No, he had the water she needed. He doesn't condemn, he doesn't scold, but he points out calmly and without equivocation that the man she is living in with is not her husband... In another incident, the woman caught in adultery is saved by Jesus with the utmost gentleness and compassion, and although he does not condemn her, he clearly instructs her not to sin again.

To my eyes, Jesus always says yes to life, abundant life for all, and to what is most human in us. He always stands with the vulnerable, the outsider, those who are a burden to others, the powerless, the defenseless, and the voiceless. The voiceless would most certainly include those whom God sees being knitted in their mother's wombs. Destruction, violence, and negative solutions to problems are never his way. In many cases, that way includes picking up a cross and following him. Sometimes it is a hard road he asks us to take in being life-affirming. Try as I might, I cannot imagine a scenario where a woman, no matter how hard pressed she might be by the circumstances, could approach Jesus on this and that his counsel to her would be, yes, terminating the pregnancy would be the acceptable way to go (bear in mind, I'm not talking about a common-sense situation like an ectopic pregnancy, where neither the woman nor the child could possibly survive). I just cannot imagine it.

I think that Jesus would hear with love, compassion, and complete understanding whatever the fear, desperation, subjugation or hardship around the situation might happen to be (btw, I have lots of weaknesses and may be hypocritical in some ways, but I'm no pretend plaster saint hypocrite who's never lived in the real world; I know what such fear can be), but to me, Jesus is always looking for us to stand firm in trust and faith, and not necessarily the easiest way out.

Look also at his own situation for a clue. His mother Mary, probably no more than 14 or 15 years old... Betrothed, yet pregnant. She had absolutely everything to lose. Everything to lose, perhaps even her own life, yet she trusted God completely and said yes. Conceived after being visited by angel? Who could believe such a story? Joseph kept quiet, but do you ever wonder how quiet it really was in a small town? Is it possible that Jesus grow up surrounded by rumor, whisperings, mutterings, and innuendo about his paternity? The fact that rumors later came up about "Pantera" the Roman soldier leads one to believe that this pregnancy may not have been a secret in Nazareth.

Fascinating and often quite unexpected the way God works... The very fact that God became incarnate through a young unwed mother in difficult straights should not be a sign that is lost upon us.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Taking a Hiatus

Then again, maybe I'm not.

Never mind. It was brief.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Benedict vs. Neusner on Jesus

There's so much I'd like to blog about, but so little time... I've got quite a backlog of topics going, but every now and then something pops up that needs to be timely or catches my imagination for some reason.

I know I must sound like a shill for Tom Ashbrook's On-Point program on radio station WBUR, but the guy really does run fantastic interviews with the top-newsmakers of the day, and the topics are always lively and fascinating. You could run a fine blog just by responding to the show he does every day. A particular case in point is the radio interview he had with Rabbi Jacob Neusner the other day.

In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict made it clear that he had felt challenged by the views expressed by the scholar-Rabbi he respects the most, who happens to be Jacob Neusner. A few years ago Neusner had written a book called
A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, explaining why, if he had heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount, he would have remained within the Pharisaical school of Judaism which was the forerunner of today's Rabbinical Judaism, and would not have been a follower of Jesus. In marketing the book, Neusner had suggested that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger be asked to contribute a blurb for the back cover and the Cardinal enthusiastically obliged. It was with some surprise, however, that Rabbi Neusner noticed that the Pope had taken his work as a jumping-off point for a debate on Jesus.

What I find interesting, is that both men seem to relish the prospect and opportunity for a disputation. As Rabbi Neusner points out in his article My Argument with the Pope, disputations between Jewish and Christian scholars are nothing new, although they had fallen out of use in the past couple of centuries, as social conciliation took preference over advancing truth-claims. He points out that in the Middle Ages, Christians often forced these disputations, with the deck ultimately stacked in their own favor ("they had the swords"). He seems to welcome the opportunity to have a new kind of disputation now (in the interview with Ashbrook, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus stands in as a spokesman for the Catholic side). In this willingness to offer a confrontational apologetic, confident that a debate with Christians can be held outside of the ever-looming spectre of anti-semitic violence, he seems to operate in the same vein as David Klinghoffer, the author of Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, but with authentic scholarship.

It's not surprising that first-rate scholars like Benedict and Neusner look to each other for debate. In a way, they are kindred spirits, placing Truth as the ultimate goal of any honest dialogue, and disdainful of the relativism and reluctance to offend that accompanies modernity.

There is one aspect of this, though, that bothers me a little bit. As we know, Benedict is not without his critics among other Catholic scholars, and as the Wikipedia writeup on him referenced above indicates, Rabbi Neusner is not without scholarly detractors either (the Wiki article referenced above mentions well-known academic critics such as E.P. Sanders and Hyam Maccoby, for example, and others, such as Amy Jill-Levine with Jesus the Misunderstood Jew, and Brad Young with Jesus the Jewish Theologian would somewhat contradict Neusner). Based upon the fact that they are both such well-known figures, this "debate" between them draws attention away from the fact that there has been a tremendous amount of progressive and fruitful discussion going on between Christian and Jewish academics on these points for decades, especially in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Much of this discussion is done in a irenic fashion in a mutually respectful tone (without caving in on what is essential to each), and it utilizes something that I think is critically missing from the argument between Benedict and Neusner - appreciation for the historical-critical method. Both of them seem to mistrust it and make short thrift of it (although, not having actually read these books, I could be wrong). They both seem to accept prima facie that the current incarnations of Roman Catholicism and Rabbinical Judaism are both the proper starting points and ending points for the parameters of the discussion. The other scholarly dialogues I've mentioned, which include people like Daniel Boyarin, Amy Jill-Levine, David Wolpe, Ruth Langer, Stephen Pope, Brendan Byrne, John Pawlikowski, and Eugene Fisher, recognize the fact that Second Temple Judaism in the time of Jesus was diverse and complex (with competing groups like the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, Hellenists, and proto-Christians), and seek to understand Jesus more fully in the context of what was happening to it within the occupation by the Roman Empire and the aura of intense apocalyptic messianism at that time. I hold no contempt nor timidity towards seeking Truth, but I'm more inclined to think that these types of dicussions are more likely to be more beneficial towards the edification and mutual understanding of both Jews and Christians alike, than re-hashing the disputes of the Middle Ages with the hope of no swords being brandished.

Links on the topic of Jewish-Christian relations:

A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity (which notably, does not have Rabbi Neusner as a signatory)

1. Jews and Christians worship the same God.

2. Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book--
the Bible (what Jews call "Tanakh" and Christians call the "Old Testament").

3. Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.

4. Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.

5. Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.

6. The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.

7. A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.

8. Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace. Jews and Christians, each in their own way, recognize the unredeemed state of the world as reflected in the persistence of persecution, poverty, and human degradation and misery.

PDF Excerpt from Neusner's Book

PDF Excerpt from Benedict's Book

Jewish-Christian Relations

Center For Jewish-Christian Learning

Website of Mark Nanos, a Jewish New Testament Scholar who's written for the Catholic Biblical Quarterly

Saturday, June 16, 2007

An Evening with William A. Barry, SJ

At the end of May, Crystal put up a post called William Barry & riders on prayers. It was about a book she'd been reading by the spiritual writer, psychologist, and former Jesuit Provincial of the New England Province, William A. Barry, SJ. The book is called Paying Attention to God: Discernment in Prayer.

Just as a matter of coincidence, the Book Club at my parish happened to be reading this book as well. I wasn't involved, and I haven't read the book yet, but the director of the club invited Fr. Barry to come to our parish to speak about his book, and last Thursday night he showed up and spoke to a small group of about 25 people or so. I had the pleasure of enjoying a short chat with him before his presentation, about my brother-in-law (a Jesuit scholastic studying in London), and the recent developments that have arisen around the work of Jon Sobrino. I also told him that a blogging correspondent friend of mine in California had read his book and spoken highly of it. :-)

You'll have to forgive me if my notes and my commentary on the talk seem sketchy, but I haven't read the book yet.

As he began, Fr. Barry made it clear that he had not prepared a talk on the book per se, but assumed that most of the people attending had read it, and that he would turn the floor over to us and would be glad to try to answer any questions that we might have.

One of the things that immediately came up was what he himself described as a "controversial" aspect of the book. Apparently there is some discussion in the book about women and their feelings about women's ordination. When asked about this, he said that all he could do is speak from his own experience. He said he once wrote an article about what he had heard from women who felt called in this regard. He sent it in to America, and they sent it back. He sent it to Commonweal, and they said it was wonderful, but sent it back saying that a woman should have written it... He sent it to the National Catholic Reporter and never heard anything. He sent it to The Tablet, and they published it the next week. He said his own experience was built upon the contact he had with people he directed and people he worked with. He told the story of a woman he'd heard from once, a married woman who had gone on a retreat, and felt an overwhelming call from God to be a priest. Wrestling with this dilemma later on led her to experience a stretch of spiritual dryness. Fr. Barry pointed out that it is a hierarchical Church, and that ultimately the authorities have to decide, but unless they listen to experiences, they will never know all the things they need to know in order to make informed decisions. Faced with the inevitable question about what the laity can do to provoke or force change in the Church, Fr. Barry did seem to indicate that it really does ultimately depend upon a change of heart within those in leadership positions in the hierarchy.

Moving onto the thrust of the book and a discussion on prayer, Fr. Barry pointed out that the great spiritual writers in the history of the Church felt compelled to write because their experience of God was different from what others had said and written about who and what God was. For example, there was a gradual realization, moving from the Old Testament to the New Testament, that God is not a tribal God, but rather that he was a God for all, and that his chosen race was to be the Light of the World. We are essentially a branch of Judaism that believes that the Messiah has come.

Someone told Fr. Barry that he appreciated what he had written in the book about death and dying, because we are in denial about it. Fr. Barry tended to agree, and mentioned that many Jesuits would not want to live where he lives (The Campion Center in Weston, MA), but that he finds grace in it . With many retired priests in residence, there have been several deaths just in the last few weeks. A few years back he faced a serious challenge - cancer in the vocal chords. He had a cousin with the same cancer. Fr. Barry is doing better now, and told a story about how shortly afterwards, just before leaving for a retreat, he was walking outside after a terrible incident he'd had with some people he was in charge of supervising, and the thought suddenly flew through his head "You could be dead now", and he couldn't help but to laugh. He said it was always important to remember that the central image in our faith is of Christ on the cross, a crucified, suffering victim, a victim of a Roman execution.

Not having read the book, I asked if the Spiritual Exercises, the Examen Prayer, and the Discernment of Spirits were still very much an aspect of his prayer life and something that he would recommend as still relevant for today. He said yes, very much so, even if there was some medieval imagery in it that might be obsolete. He said that the Ignatian exercises were very much a part of his own prayer life, and that he has always been careful about what he writes, and often questions himself. He must always ask himself and humbly ask God if he is right. He doesn't want to lead anyone astray. He said that the Examen and Discernment are still very useful today. He pointed out how Ignatius Loyola, a military man, described the Enemy as a general laying siege to a city, looking for weak points to assault and exploit. In some cases, this weakness may be a poor self image. In others, a tendency towards scruples...

Fr. Barry, in response to one question mentioned how important it is for us to have sympathy for God. Think of God not only for what he puts up with, but also for what he keeps in existence (murderers, cheats, pedophiles, other types of predators).

There was a good amount of discussion that came up from the audience about fear-based religion vs. grace-based religion. Some of the older members of the audience wanted to know how the the Church could move away from the fear-based model of their youth. Younger members of the audience, who denied any experience of being brought up in this climate of fear being spoken of, wanted to know what the Church could do to make better known its rich intellectual tradition to a generation that has no knowledge of the faith. Fr. Barry had some sympathy for both parties. He tends to think that, unfortunately, bad news sells better than good news. Fire & brimstone can be a better sell than the opposite. He says he has done what he can do in his books and in his spiritual direction to get away from fear-based religion, but he does have sympathy for those who bemoan a collapse in catechesis. He also laments that we went through a phase of teaching "only that God is love..." and " all hearts and flowers", adding "God has standards too." (for those who think he might be an ultra-liberal for discussing women's ordination, or just by virtue of being a Jesuit, I will say that his expression darkened perceptibly when I offered the opinion that although they are similar in a lot of ways, the last pope led us with his personal motto "Be Not Afraid", while the current pope seems to be afraid of everything). He also has sympathy for people in leadership positions in the Church. We are polarized because things don't work anymore. Looking at the "Signs of the Times", this is a difficult, challenging, and dark time. Now we have a chance to see if we believe in God. Now is the time to see if we really trust in God or not. We are not meant to believe in the Church, or in the Jesuits, or whatever... We are meant to believe in God. The Church and the sacraments are instruments for us to meet God.

In regard to praying to God for what we need... People in the audience indicated how they'd been brought up not to pray for specific things, but to conform and to accept God's will. Fr. Barry voiced a pet peeve of his, of how we offer all of these Prayers of the Faithful on very specific matters, and then the priest sums up all with "God grant us all these needs, but only if it is your will. You know what is best for us." Look back to our older tradition... Like Abraham and Job, challenge God to be just. Like Jacob, wrestle with God. Tell God what you want and what you need, while recognizing that God is ultimately a mystery. Communicate and build a relationship. It is a lot like a human relationship. The closer we get to people, the more we can tell them about intimate things, and the opposite is also true. When you find there are things you can't say, or won't say, you grow estranged and grow apart.

As we were wrapping up, one Jesuit-educated gentleman thanked Fr. Barry and the Jesuits, and expressed his view that in his opinion, they were still the cream of the crop (even in these days of reduced numbers). Fr. Barry thanked him, but he also spoke a bit about the danger he and his brother Jesuits needed to be aware of in thinking that they were something quite special, and he pointed out:"St. Ignatius Loyola cautioned that the Society was not founded by human means nor carried on by human means, but by the grace of God..." Nevertheless, Fr. Barry also said at another juncture, "Ignatian Spirituality is world affirming, and the Project of God depends upon us saying Yes".

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Taking a Brief Hiatus From Nonviolence

The Greatest 3-Round Fight in Professional Boxing History.
Tommy "Hit Man" Hearns challenges "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler for the Middleweight Title - April 15, 1985

I guess this one is for the guys only. If any of the ladies (or anyone else) wants to take me to task for giving "sport" status to an activity that has the goal of separating another man from his senses, I suppose that's fair.

Well, cut me a little slack for this... I was a wrestler in High School, after all... I do still have a bit of a martial spirit. This post is dedicated to John Haynes, who's a boxing fan.

I was in Lisbon when this fight took place, and I was stunned when I saw the result in the papers the next morning. I was a big fan of Marvin's but I wasn't sure he he was going to be able to stand up to Hearns.

Poor Tommy. He had sort of a glass jaw (as we found out in Round 3). If he had any kind of chin at all, he might have gone down as the best pound-for-pound fighter of all time. As for Marvin, this fight took a lot out of him too. This warrior was never quite the same afterwards.

Round 1

Round 2

Round 3

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Sam Cooke - Gospel Singer

A few nights ago, I happened to catch a great program on New Hampshire Public Television, Sam Cooke - Legend. I've always been a big Sam Cooke fan. He was a soul singer just a few short years before anyone really knew what soul music was. With his smooth vocals and matinee-idol good looks, he had great crossover appeal between black and white audiences alike with hit songs like You Send Me, Cupid, What a Wonderful World, Bring It On Home to Me, Chain Gang, Twistin' the Night Away, and Another Saturday Night. Just when his career had really hit a peak, his infant son died in a swimming pool accident, and tragically, you might say he went off the deep end himself. He died at the age of 33, killed in a stupid incident at a motel.

I was aware that he had been in a vocal gospel group before he had embarked on his career in secular music. I owned a couple of the cassettes. What I didn't know was that he had already achieved wide fame in this role. The program made it clear that when he he stepped in as the lead singer for this group, known as "Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers", from 1951 until 1956, they became the biggest gospel music act in the country.

When he left to pursue a career in secular music, it caused quite a scandal and commotion among his devoted fans, in much the same way that it caused a scandal when Ray Charles started playing secular music in the gospel style too.

Normally, I don't care much for gospel music on the rare occasions when I hear it, but in the case of Sam Cooke and his backing combo, I make an exception. Sam Cooke just had the kind of voice that made you feel really good when you heard it. I loved the way he could effortlessly move up and down the scale, picking any note out of the air that he wanted to with ease. In combination with the earthier, grittier voices of his backups, it works pretty well... Here is a playlist of Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers - a musical panoply of born-again theology, with all of the substitutionary atonement you could ever want to sink your teeth into. "You ought to try my Savior, until the end..."

Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers

1) Must Jesus Bear This Cross Alone?
2) He's My Friend Until The End
3) Jesus Paid The Debt
4) I'm Gonna Build On That Shore
5) Jesus, I'll Never Forget
6) Peace In The Valley

Friday, June 08, 2007

Outsourcing Mania Gone Over the Top: The Privatization of Government as a Threat to Democracy

"The business of America is business." Cool... That's fine, but does the business of government have to be business too?

Roman Ruins with the Arch of Titus, by Giovanni Paolo Panini 1734

“Government isn’t the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
-- Ronald Reagan


Well, I guess that's true inasmuch as the private sector has totally co-opted it. To the extent that the government is hoovering out the contents of my wallet, that would be largely due to the influence of corporations that have successfully externalized a good amount of their costs by shifting their tax burden off of themselves and onto you and me. As for my livelihood, the machinations of the private sector certainly do present a bigger opportunity, but also a much bigger threat to me than the public sector ever could. Nearly all of America's social problems have their root origins in the economic upheaval caused by the "creative destruction" of markets.

I'd say about 95% of everything intelligent on television that's worth watching is on public television. The only radio I can bear to listen to these days is public radio. I can't take the din, clamor, and inane chatter to be found on other stations anymore. As for what the kids watch and listen to, the public stations are about the only ones you can trust to have relatively safe content and the absence of the relentless and incessant child-targeted marketing campaigns that sell and promote the exact kind of values that responsible parents seek to avoid being imparted to their children.

I remember when my friend Fred's family became the first one I knew to get cable television in the mid-1970s.

Me: Why in the world are you guys paying for TV when TV is already free? All of these movies are going to come out on regular TV eventually anway.

Fred: Yeah, but on cable TV you never have to watch any commercials.

What a joke... But hey, why should the public have a right to public airwaves anyhow, when someone can own them? It's just the same kind of question that companies like AT&T are asking today... Why should all you web-surfing slackers out there feel entitled to getting a free ride on their wires? What's that you say? You already pay an ISP? Yes, but that's not the point, according to them...

Let's eliminate all those Blue Laws... Think of all the money that can be made on Sunday. As for the poor saps who have reservations about working on Sundays, well heck, that's their problem, who really believes in these superstitions anymore? Besides, the clerks need the extra money to make the rent, because we pay them so little to begin with. Maybe we should make an 8th day of the week, or even a 9th and a 10th on the calendar. Think of the additional revenue we can book every month.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is seriously looking at a proposal to privatize California's lottery system. Why should this regressive tax on the poor be operated inefficiently by government bureaucrats when there is so much money that could be be raked off the top by the private company that gets to sink its claws into it? Long live Robin-Hood-In-Reverse.

For years the economic policy of the Fed has been to encourage cost-cutting that holds wages down, and Wall Street loves nothing better than layoffs. The inflation that would presumably be caused by wage hikes is the biggest bugaboo to be feared. In spite of that, the cost of health care and college tuition are skyrocketing by leaps and bounds, even at state-run universities. Why? Are R&D, technology, and capital expenditures on infrastructure the cause? Is is pharmaceuticals? The expense for the umpteenth Cialis ad you've seen on TV? It's hard for me to see how. I suspect that somebody is getting loaded from all this, and I'm not sure who it is. A few of you are academics who visit here. Are you guys getting big raises and great big bonuses every year out of these boosts in tuition costs? Are y'all professors rolling in dough?

I've already posted about the outsourcing of war and parallels to ancient Rome. In this month's Vanity Fair, there is an article by Cullen Murphy called The Sack of Washington, which is a distillation of his book Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America.

Some excerpts.

Comparisons of America and Rome are everywhere these days, whether deploring an over-extended military, social decadence, or illegal immigration. A more disturbing—and largely ignored—similarity lies in the wholesale privatization of the U.S. government, which has blurred the line between public good and personal gain. In an excerpt from his new book, Cullen Murphy charts a dynamic that is more dangerous than corruption, unprecedented in scale, and visible everywhere from Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq war, to the justice system.

Everyone gets it whenever a comparison of Rome and America is drawn—for instance, the offhand allusion to welfare and televised sports as "bread and circuses," or to illegal immigrants as "barbarian hordes." If reference is made to an "imperial presidency," or to the deployment abroad of "American legions," no one raises an eyebrow and wonders what you could possibly be talking about. Invoke the phrase "decline and fall" and thoughts turn simultaneously to the Roman past and the American present.

One core similarity is almost always overlooked—it has to do with "privatization," which sometimes means "corruption," though it's actually a far broader phenomenon. Rome had trouble maintaining a distinction between public and private responsibilities—and between public and private resources. The line between these is never fixed, anywhere. But when it becomes too hazy, or fades altogether, central government becomes impossible to steer. It took a long time to happen, but the fraying connection between imperial will and concrete action is a big part of What Went Wrong in ancient Rome. America has in recent years embarked on a privatization binge like no other in its history, putting into private hands all manner of activities that once were thought to be public tasks—overseeing the nation's highways, patrolling its neighborhoods, inspecting its food, protecting its borders. This may make sense in the short term—and sometimes, like Rome, we may have no choice in the matter. But how will the consequences play out over decades, or centuries? In all likelihood, very badly.

Tthe Latin word suffragium.. originally meant "voting tablet" or "ballot." The original meaning went back to the days of the Roman Republic, which had possessed modest elements of democracy. The citizens of Rome, by means of the suffragium, could exercise their influence in electing people to certain offices. In practice, the great men of Rome controlled large blocs of votes, corresponding to their patronage networks. Over time Rome's republican forms of government calcified into empty ritual or withered away entirely. Suffragium meaning "ballot" no longer served any real political function. But the web of patrons and clients was still the Roman system's substructure, and in this context suffragium came to mean the pressure that could be exerted on one's behalf by a powerful man, whether to obtain a job or to influence a court case or to secure a contract. To ask a patron for this form of intervention and to exert suffragium on behalf of a client would have been a routine social interaction...

Now stir large amounts of money into this system. It is not a great conceptual distance to move from the idea of exercising suffragium because of an age-old sense of reciprocal duty to that of exercising it because doing so could be lucrative. And this, indeed, is where the future lies, the idea of quid pro quo eventually becoming so accepted and ingrained that emperors stop trying to halt the practice and instead seek to contain it by codifying it. Thus, in the fourth century, decrees are promulgated to ensure that the person seeking the quid actually delivers the quo. Before long, suffragium has changed its meaning once again. Now it refers not to the influence brought to bear but to the money being paid for it: "a gift, payment or bribe." By empire's end, all public transactions require the payment of money, and the pursuit of money and personal advancement has become the purpose of all public jobs.

The arc traced by suffragium covers not just the political history of Rome but its social and military history. It goes to the heart of a question that is only just starting to be asked in America: Where is the boundary between public good and private advantage, between "ours" and "mine"? From this question others follow: What happens when public and private interests are not aligned? Which outsiders, if any, should be allowed to put their hands on the machinery of government? How can governments exert collective power if the levers and winches and cogs lie increasingly outside public control?

Rome's wealthiest class, the senatorial aristocracy, constituted by one estimate two-thousandths of 1 percent of the population; then came the equestrian class, with perhaps a tenth of a percent. Collectively these people owned almost everything. Americans are well aware of the nation's worsening income inequality, with those in the top 1 percent earning nearly 50 times more a year than those in the bottom 20 percent. The average C.E.O. earns more than 400 times as much as a typical worker. In Rome, the gap between the elite and everyone else was on the order of 5,000 or 10,000 to 1. ("Nothing is more unfair than equality," observed a very comfortable Pliny the Younger, who would have felt at home in many Washington circles.) The expectation in Rome was that affluent citizens, as individuals rather than as taxpayers, should provide for community needs. Did the city require another aqueduct? New roads? A stadium? Some magnate would surely provide it—in return, implicitly, for a measure of public power, and, of course, for ample public recognition. Inscriptions on countless marble fragments attest to such generosity—an early version of "Brought to you by … "

On Rome's edifice of private giving—whether with the seemliness of an Andrew Carnegie or the vulgarity of a Donald Trump—an empire was built. The Roman system was a remarkable contrivance. But it contained the seeds of its own destruction. For one thing, it fostered an expectation that "others" would always provide. If public amenities came into being through private munificence—and if these in turn served to enhance private glory—then why should the public pay for their upkeep? This way of doing business "did not work for the common benefit of the overall urban fabric," writes one historian, much less nurture a sense of common purpose and shared responsibility. I've seen the same mind-set at work within my state, Massachusetts, in hardscrabble mill towns whose philanthropic founding families have departed, where local taxpayers resist the idea that support of libraries and hospitals must now rest with the community as a whole. Moreover, even at its most uncorrupted, the patronage system was greased by small considerations: "It was a genial, oily, present-giving world," Ramsay MacMullen writes.

Now gradually remove from all this any sense of public spirit or public obligation and replace it at every level of government—in the barracks, the courts, the city councils, the provincial prefectures—with an attitude of "What's in it for me?"

How does the buying and selling of influence hollow out government? Some make the argument that, whatever its moral shortcomings, the profit motive, including its corrupt dimension, is in fact an efficient economic mechanism: it gets things done….But as MacMullen points out, for a government to be effective on a national or an imperial scale, there needs to be a presumption that information is traveling accurately up and down the administrative chain of command, and that every link in the chain between a command and its execution is reliable and strong. Putting power into private hands frequently ends up breaking that link. Making the exercise of power contingent on payment by definition breaks the link.

..As in Rome, privatization still includes turning over government departments to incompetent cronies, empowering private individuals at the expense of public intentions. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, staffed by inexperienced political appointees and unable to cope with the Hurricane Katrina disaster, is only the most prominent instance.

But the dominant form of privatization today is something relatively new, at least in its dimensions. Government on its stupendous modern scale—regulating every industry; re-distributing treasure from one sector of society to another; forecasting the weather and mapping the human genome—simply did not exist in ancient Rome. Because the extent of government is larger, privatization has more scope. Its most pervasive form is perfectly legal: the hiring of profit-making companies by the thousands to do government jobs. The ostensible motives may be pure, but the result is to diminish government's capacity. For one thing, government loses the ability to perform certain functions; it's hard to un-privatize. Moreover, the effect in every case is to insert an independent agent, with its own interests to consider and protect, into the space between public will and public outcome—a dynamic that represents a potential "diverting of governmental force" far more systemic and insidious than outright venality.

Privatization along these lines has occurred most decisively in America and Britain. In 1976 a book was published in the United States called The Shadow Government, written by Daniel Guttman and Barry Willner; its subtitle spoke ominously of "the government's multi-billion-dollar giveaway" of decision-making authority. Government agencies, the authors warned, were farming out various functions to high-priced consultants, secretive think tanks, and corporate vested interests—accountable to no one! And "outsourcing" was not the only issue. Some parts of the government, they went on, might even be sold off completely—turned into private businesses! The process was "cloaked in contractual and other formal approvals by the various executive departments," but make no mistake: it amounted to nothing less than a "drive to merge Government and business power to the advantage of the latter."

A little more than a decade later, the shadow government was out of the shadow. There is a plausible rationale for privatization—one that often makes sense in the short run and for specific tasks. Private contractors may be able to operate more efficiently than government agencies do. Marketplace signals may prove to be more direct and powerful than bureaucratic ones. And why shouldn't the government hire outside specialists for help with certain chores, the way any household or business does? In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan created a presidential commission on privatization to study not how the boundary between public and private might be bolstered but how it could be pushed out of the way even further, to give private interests more opportunity to move in. The same idea surfaces in the "re-inventing government" movement taken up by the Clinton administration: "We would do well," one proponent wrote, "to glory in the blurring of public and private and not keep trying to draw a disappearing line in the water." Since then privatization has affected every aspect of American public life.

The most visible surge in government outsourcing has come in the realm of the military. Rome hired barbarian soldiers to make up for its acute manpower shortages (not a good long-run solution, history would show). America is hiring private military companies for the very same reason—not the Visigothi or the Ostrogothi but the Halliburtoni and Wackenhuti. Conan the Barbarian has become Conan the Contractor. But in fact every facet of "personal security" is increasingly in the hands of private business. It was not until the mid–19th century that America's urban governments, by setting up local police forces, managed to make an ordinary person's safety a matter of real public responsibility. This was a major advance, though perhaps only temporary. No one with money relies on such guarantees any longer (nor did they in Rome, where police forces as we know them were virtually nonexistent). More and more people have withdrawn into protected enclaves. Private security is a major growth industry; in 1960 there were more police officers than hired security guards in America, whereas today private guards outnumber the police by a margin of 50 percent. Individuals may owe nominal allegiance to a town or a state, but their true oath of fealty is to Securitas or Guardsmark.

One of the chief obligations of any government is simply to dispense justice—to resolve disputes, oversee legal business, mete out punishment. These functions were once held in private hands. After a stint as a public responsibility, they are now migrating back. Lawyers and clients increasingly shun the civil courts—congested, expensive, fickle—and instead buy themselves some private arbitration, provided by a growing cadre of profitable "rent-a-judge" companies. As for the criminal-justice system, those sentenced to prison may very well do their time in a private facility, run on behalf of state and federal governments and operated by a company with some former public official in its management to grease the wheels. Faced with rising numbers of inmates, and unwilling to raise taxes to build more public prisons, governments at all levels have found that the easy, cost-effective way is to turn the prison industry over to the private sector: to a behemoth such as the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America, or to one of many smaller companies.

America's public colleges and universities are fast losing their public character. These institutions were created under the terms of an act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, providing federal land grants to the states as a basis for public financing of higher education. But state support is diminishing. Nationwide, state legislatures are picking up only about two-thirds of the annual cost of public higher education. For the University of Illinois, the figure is 25 percent. For the University of Michigan, it's 18 percent. What makes up the difference in funding? To a large degree it's money from private donors and private corporations, creating an incipient "academic-industrial complex" at public and private institutions alike. You can't escape the signs. At the University of California at Berkeley, one administrator is officially known as the Bank of America Dean of the Haas School of Business. But for a conviction or two, Rice University would have had a Ken Lay Center for the Study of Markets in Transition, endowed by the late former chairman of Enron. Much money for universities comes with strings attached—for instance, the power to push research in certain directions and perhaps away from others, and the ownership of patents deriving from sponsored research.

Sociologists have a term for what is occurring: they call it the "externalization of state functions." Water and sewage systems are being privatized, as are airports and highways and public hospitals. Voucher programs and charter schools are a way of shifting education toward the private sector. The protection of nuclear waste is in private hands. Meat inspection is done largely by the meatpacking companies themselves. Americans were up in arms last year when they learned that DP World, a company in the United Arab Emirates, would soon be in control of the terminals at half a dozen major U.S. seaports—only to discover that the privatization of terminal operations at American ports had begun three decades ago, and that 80 percent of them were already operated by foreign companies, the largest of which is Chinese. Serious proposals to privatize portions of Social Security have been on the table, and the new Medicare prescription-drug plan effectively puts an enormous government program into the hands of private insurance and drug companies.

Many services that used to be provided free of charge now must be paid for—government by user fee. Detailed statistical data from the Census Bureau and other agencies were once available to everyone; now they're being sold, mainly for marketing purposes, and often at prices that only private corporations can afford. The vaults of the Smithsonian were once open to documentary-film makers regardless of provenance and financing. Now an agreement between the Smithsonian and the cable company Showtime has created something called the Smithsonian Networks, which has jurisdiction over, and priority access to, certain kinds of material.

Is there any government function that can't be transferred to some private party? A considerable amount of tax collection is now done, in effect, by casinos; rather than raise taxes to pay for services, legislatures legalize gambling and then take a rake-off from the profits earned by private casino companies. It's "tax farming" for the modern age, recalling the hated Roman practice of selling the right to collect taxes to private individuals (including the apostle Matthew in the Gospels), who were then allowed to keep anything over what they had agreed to collect for the government. As the recent revelations about torture have made clear, even official interrogations for national-security purposes have been outsourced—in this instance to other countries through the process known as "extraordinary rendition." The sale of naming rights for public facilities and other amenities attracts notice mostly for the ungainly nomenclature that results—mutants such as the Mitsubishi Wild Wetland Trail, at the New York Botanical Garden, in the Bronx, and Whataburger Field, in Corpus Christi. To attract more corporate underwriting, the Department of the Interior has proposed that America's national parks be liberally opened up to the sale of naming rights. No one is suggesting that there will soon be a J. Crew Cape Cod National Seashore. But might there be a Sherwin-Williams Painted Desert Trailhead?

An analyst at Johns Hopkins observes, "Contractors have become so big and entrenched that it's a fiction that the government maintains any control." One obvious recent example is the rebuilding effort in Iraq. To supply the army or provide other services, traders and contractors often traveled with Roman legions; Julius Caesar had such a person with him during the Gallic Wars, explicitly "for the sake of business." There may have been no alternative to giving the reconstruction job in Iraq to private corporations, including giant combines such as Bechtel and Halliburton, but the result has been an effort that defies management or accountability. The evidence of widespread corruption in the Iraq rebuilding effort is beyond dispute. Corruption aside, private companies are exempt from many regulations that would apply to government agencies. The records of private companies can't be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. They can use foreign subsidiaries to avoid laws meant to restrain American companies. Before the war, Halliburton itself used subsidiaries to do business with Iran, Iraq, and Libya, despite official American trade sanctions against all three countries.

More and more secret intelligence work—translation, airborne surveillance, computing, interrogation, analysis, reporting, briefing—is being farmed out to private entities. Not only is the intelligence community becoming further fragmented, but, because the new jobs pay so well, a "spy drain" is drawing officers out of the public sector and into the private market. And the drain isn't restricted to spies: at least 90 former top officials at the Department of Homeland Security and the White House Office of Homeland Security are now working for private companies in the domestic-security business. Meanwhile, the government seems poised to turn the job of border police over to multi-national contractors, a task that will in turn be subcontracted out to dozens of smaller companies. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman were among the corporations that indicated they would submit bids to build a high-tech "virtual fence" along the Mexican border, with an array of motion detectors, satellite monitors, and aerial drones. (Boeing eventually won.) A Homeland Security official conceded the abdication of government leadership, saying to the companies, "We're asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business."

One study from the late 1990s suggests that the "privatization rate"—the rate at which public functions are being outsourced—is roughly doubling every year. On paper the federal workforce nationwide, leaving the military aside, appears to total about two million people. But if you add in all the people in the private sector doing essentially government jobs with federal grants and contracts, then the figure rises by 10.5 million. The commercialization of government probably explains why so many Washington entities are now referred to as shops: "lobby shop," "counterterrorism shop." There's no question that in certain ways the private sector can outperform the public sector. Users of Federal Express, U.P.S., and DHL would sooner renounce citizenship than go back to relying only on the U.S. Postal Service. The problem is the cumulative effect of privatization across the board—projected out over decades, over a century, over two—and the leaching of management capacity from government. This is the same "misdirection" of government force that MacMullen discerns in Rome: easier to observe in retrospect, when the whole film is available, than in the brief, real-time clip any of us is allowed to see.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

FOX's 24, Terror Plots, and Attitudes Towards Torture

"I want them in Guantanamo where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they're on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is, we ought to double Guantanamo."
-- Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney

"You say that nuclear devices have gone off in the United States, more are planned, and we're wondering about whether waterboarding would be a bad thing to do? I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that time!"
-- Presidential Candidate Tom Tancredo

I used to be a big fan of FOX's TV show 24, at least during the 2005 and 2006 seasons, but during the past year I began to have serious second thoughts as it became somewhat schizophrenic and increasingly disturbing.

On the one hand, the writers seem to want to point out the dangers of stereotyping, of scapegoating, and the potential peril of having ultra-conservative, Nixonian rogue elements working against the rule of law in the White House.

On the other hand, they glorify violence and torture, and worse yet, try to give the impression that torture actually works. Even if we were willing to throw our ideals and Constitution into the trash, interrogation experts from other western democracies seem to know better. They know that for the most part, it does not, or that it at least has points of diminishing returns and is often counter-productive. It was a bit disturbing to me to learn that Dick Cheney watches and likes this show... Who knew he had that kind of time on his hands?

Plus, on a less serious level:

- Having a nuclear device actually go off on American soil was way, way over the top...
- Having Jack kill fellow CTU-agent Curtis was wrong... just plain wrong...

The writers, the director, and Kiefer Sutherland himself (who plays the elite counter-terrorist "Mr. Fix-it" Jack Bauer) came under increasing criticism this season for the all-pervasive "finger-snapping" torture elements that could be found in the program week in and week out. It was being noted that US interrogators, officers, and troops were looking at the Jack Bauer model of interrogation as one to emulate in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, with harmful results. The producers seem non-committal about where they are going to go with this. The 24-hour format of the show lends itself to this approach almost out of necessity.

Looking past the show itself, it leads to a larger question of how we actually come to look at the use of torture in our society in a post-9/11 world. You see the comments from two of the Republican candidates above. A little while ago, Mike McG had pointed out to me some disturbing numbers about how Americans, and Catholics in particular, look at torture. According to this Pew Study, 21 % of Catholics said that it was "often" justified to torture terror suspects and 35% said it was "sometimes" justified. This 56% majority number was sufficiently higher than the public as a whole (15% and 31 % respectively).

This, in spite of the fact that the Catechism states (no Inquisition wisecracks, please):

2297 ... Torture, which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.

2298 In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

What are American now willing to accept? I can't recall where I read the following, but it was a narrative that went somewhat along these lines:

Imagine a Special Forces/Northern Alliance Team holding a group of three hardcore Taliban or Al Qaeda prisoners in late 2001, after then-CIA operative Cofer Black had insisted that "the gloves had been taken off."

(To the first prisoner)
"Where's Osama bin Laden"

"I don't know."

"Sorry, wrong answer." Bang

(To the second prisoner)
"Where's Osama bin Laden"

"I saw him in Khost about a month ago."

"Nope. Too long ago. That's not good enough..." Bang

(At this point the third prisoner starts talking and can hardly be stopped)

Alright, then. Where is Osama bin Laden in 2007? Still at-large, which underlines another problem with torture, even if one was able to equivocate over the moral issues associated with it. Tortured suspects have a tendency to tell their interrogators what they want to hear, if they can be made to speak at all, which means a lot of what you get out of tortured suspects is garbage.

An Atlantic article by Mark Bowden, The Dark Art of Interrogation, which is actually somewhat sympathetic to the Bush administration's approach towards interrogation in some ways, points out some of the pitfalls of using torture:

Fear works. It is more effective than any drug, tactic, or torture device. According to unnamed scientific studies cited by the CIA's Kubark Manual (it is frightening to think what these experiments might have been), most people cope with pain better than they think they will. As people become more familiar with pain, they become conditioned to it. Those who have suffered more physical pain than others—from being beaten frequently as a child, for example, or suffering a painful illness—may adapt to it and come to fear it less. So once interrogators resort to actual torture, they are apt to lose ground.

"The threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself," the manual says.
The threat to inflict pain, for example, can trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain ... Sustained long enough, a strong fear of anything vague or unknown induces regression, whereas the materialization of the fear, the infliction of some form of punishment, is likely to come as a relief. The subject finds that he can hold out, and his resistances are strengthened.

Furthermore, if a prisoner is subjected to pain after other methods have failed, it is a signal that the interrogation process may be nearing an end. "He may then decide that if he can just hold out against this final assault, he will win the struggle and his freedom," the manual concludes. Even if severe pain does elicit information, it can be false, which is particularly troublesome to interrogators seeking intelligence rather than a confession. Much useful information is time-sensitive, and running down false leads or arresting innocents wastes time.

By similar logic, the manual discourages threatening a prisoner with death. As a tactic "it is often found to be worse than useless," the manual says, because the sense of despair it induces can make the prisoner withdraw into depression—or, in some cases, see an honorable way out of his predicament...

Religious extremists are the hardest cases. They ponder in their own private space, performing a kind of self-hypnosis. They are usually well educated. Their lives are financially and emotionally tidy. They tend to live in an ascetic manner, and to look down on nonbelievers. They tend to be physically and mentally strong, and not to be influenced by material things—by either the incentives or the disincentives available in prison. Often the rightness of their cause trumps all else, so they can commit any outrage—lie, cheat, steal, betray, kill—without remorse. Yet under suffi-cient duress, Koubi says, most men of even this kind will eventually break—most, but not all. Some cannot be broken.

"They are very rare," (an Israeli interrogator) says, "but in some cases the more aggressive you get, and the worse things get, the more these men will withdraw into their own world, until you cannot reach them."

On the Drudge website, I've noticed there is often a link to Newsmax, which is hawking a sensationalist book called The Day of Islam, by Paul Williams The blurb states:

FBI Director Robert Mueller, in an interview with NewsMax, confirmed Williams' main claim. Mueller said al-Qaida's paramount goal is clear: to detonate a nuclear device that would kill hundreds of thousands of Americans...

Mueller told NewsMax that at times, the threat feels so real he lies awake at night thinking about the prospect.

Williams maintains that al-Qaida is not content on blowing up one nuclear device or even simply a "dirty" nuke — but wants to explode real nuclear devices in seven U.S. cities simultaneously.

Williams says these cities are New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, Miami, Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles.

Suppose for the sake of argument, that the Williams book is credible. What if such a scenario was to unfold? What would the response of this country be? (Even if, apparently, a bunch of us posting and reading here wouldn't live to see the aftermath)

Is the fear that keeps Mueller awake at night the same fear that lets Americans accept the idea of torture, even if torture is part of what makes the scenario that is so feared more likely to occur? In addition, if such nukes did go off here, with no return address, what would the response be? What should it be?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Recommended Posts

French theologian Yves Congar OP, once sanctioned and disgraced, later rehabilitated and eventually elevated to cardinal

Recent and noteworthy posts on other blogs with regard to living and thinking in the Church... Please see Cura Animarum on Freedom and Dissent, and Steve Bogner on Irritation and Obedience.

From the link above on Congar:
The road to such high ecclesiastical honors, which he never personally sought, however, was filled with much private pain and public humiliation. In a 1956 moving letter to his mother, he poured out his heart in writing about the toll that the silencing took on him personally: “Practically speaking, they have destroyed me as far as it was possible. Everything I believed and had worked on has been taken away…They have not, of course, hurt my body; nor have they touched my soul or forced me to do anything. But a person is not limited to his skin and his soul. When someone is a doctrinal apostle, he is his action, he is his friendships, he is his relationships, he is his social outreach; they have taken all that away from me. All that is now at a standstill, and in that way I have been profoundly wounded. They have reduced me to nothing and so they have for all practical purposes destroyed me. When, at certain times, I look back on everything I had hoped to be and to do, on what I had begun to do, I am overtaken by an immense heartsickness.”

Congar had a great appreciation for the virtue of patience and the role of the cross in the life of the would-be reformer which rings true even today: The cross is the condition of every holy work. God himself is at work in what to us seems a cross. Only by its means do our lives acquire a certain genuineness and depth…Only when a man has suffered for his conviction does he attain in them a certain force, a certain quality of the undeniable and, at the same time, the right to be heard and respected.”

Congar also appreciated the crucial role of history as it shapes the Church and its teachings over the ages: Congar believed that a knowledge of history was the best way to ensure confidence in the Church. “Acquiring knowledge of history,” he wrote, “is the surest way of acquiring confidence in the church. History teaches that nothing is new and that the church has survived sadder and more difficult situations. History is a school of wisdom and of limitless patience.”

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Dedication of the Billy Graham Library

Photo by Michael Collopy

The Billy Graham Library was dedicated on May 31st. A few ex-Presidents attended and spoke. Graham joked about how it sounded like he was attending his own funeral.

There's an interesting audio piece on it on NPR. Billy Graham is a good man. I have a lot of respect for him.