May Posts


Friday, May 20, 2005

Looking the Other Way. Here's the pro-war Andrew Sullivan (5/18) on how our incursion into the Middle East is leading to American de-sensitization and moral degradation:

So when we have reports of an alleged desecration of the Koran, whom are we supposed to find credible? Before this war started, I wouldn't have even considered the possibility that the U.S. was guilty. But, given the enormous evidence of abuse that stares us in the face, doubt is now the only operative position to take. The sad truth is: this administration has forfeited our trust in its management of the military's interrogation processes. They forfeited it not simply because of the evidence of widespread abuse and memos that expanded the range of interrogation techniques, but by the record of accountability. Anyone with real power or influence was let off the hook in the Abu Ghraib fiasco; no serious external inquiry was allowed; Rumsfeld wasn't allowed to resign; Sanchez is in place; Gonzales is rewarded for loyalty; the Republican Congress completely looked the other way; last year, John Kerry cowardly avoided the subject. We couldn't even get a law passed forbidding the CIA from using torture. And what I find remarkable is that interrogatory abuse is now taken for granted, even by defenders of the administration. Here's Jonah Goldberg today:

But what on earth was gained by Newsweek's decision to publish the story — whether it was true or not? Were we unaware that interrogators at Gitmo aren't playing bean bag with detainees?

No we were not unaware. We were just looking the other way. So yesterday's outrage becomes today's world-weary assumption. This is how liberty dies - with scattered, knee-jerk applause.

This is how propaganda works. It slowly makes us comfortable with the unconscionable. Americans think they are morally superior to the rest of the world, but our refusal to look at the evil that we have unleashed may be a path festooned with patriotic rationalizations but nevertheless leads to even more horrible moral failures.

I'm glad the New York Times, which has been anything but "liberal" in the course of its Pravda-like reporting of the administration line on the war, this morning at least is helping us to look at what we'd rather not see. This story was particularly appalling:.

Mr. Dilawar asked for a drink of water, and one of the two interrogators, Specialist Joshua R. Claus, 21, picked up a large plastic bottle. But first he punched a hole in the bottom, the interpreter said, so as the prisoner fumbled weakly with the cap, the water poured out over his orange prison scrubs. The soldier then grabbed the bottle back and began squirting the water forcefully into Mr. Dilawar's face.

" Come on, drink!" the interpreter said Specialist Claus had shouted, as the prisoner gagged on the spray. "Drink!"

At the interrogators' behest, a guard tried to force the young man to his knees. But his legs, which had been pummeled by guards for several days, could no longer bend. An interrogator told Mr. Dilawar that he could see a doctor after they finished with him. When he was finally sent back to his cell, though, the guards were instructed only to chain the prisoner back to the ceiling.

" Leave him up," one of the guards quoted Specialist Claus as saying.

Several hours passed before an emergency room doctor finally saw Mr. Dilawar. By then he was dead, his body beginning to stiffen. It would be many months before Army investigators learned a final horrific detail: Most of the interrogators had believed Mr. Dilawar was an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the American base at the wrong time.

Are these guys simply aberrant sadists? I'm sure they think of themselves as patriots. Are they just the few bad apples that need to be identified and punished? Or are they simply doing what they understand to be their jobs? The Times article goes on:

Although incidents of prisoner abuse at Bagram in 2002, including some details of the two men's deaths, have been previously reported, American officials have characterized them as isolated problems that were thoroughly investigated. And many of the officers and soldiers interviewed in the Dilawar investigation said the large majority of detainees at Bagram were compliant and reasonably well treated.

"What we have learned through the course of all these investigations is that there were people who clearly violated anyone's standard for humane treatment," said the Pentagon's chief spokesman, Larry Di Rita. "We're finding some cases that were not close calls."

Yet the Bagram file includes ample testimony that harsh treatment by some interrogators was routine and that guards could strike shackled detainees with virtual impunity. Prisoners considered important or troublesome were also handcuffed and chained to the ceilings and doors of their cells, sometimes for long periods, an action Army prosecutors recently classified as criminal assault.

Some of the mistreatment was quite obvious, the file suggests. Senior officers frequently toured the detention center, and several of them acknowledged seeing prisoners chained up for punishment or to deprive them of sleep. Shortly before the two deaths, observers from the International Committee of the Red Cross specifically complained to the military authorities at Bagram about the shackling of prisoners in "fixed positions," documents show.

Even though military investigators learned soon after Mr. Dilawar's death that he had been abused by at least two interrogators, the Army's criminal inquiry moved slowly. Meanwhile, many of the Bagram interrogators, led by the same operations officer, Capt. Carolyn A. Wood, were redeployed to Iraq and in July 2003 took charge of interrogations at the Abu Ghraib prison. According to a high-level Army inquiry last year, Captain Wood applied techniques there that were "remarkably similar" to those used at Bagram.

None of us are in a position to judge the moral culpability of any individual's actions. That's between him or her and God. But we can judge whether what they did was legal or illegal, and we can judge the morality of the policies they thought they were following. I do not want to hear any cliches about war being a dirty business. This kind of thing, apart from being morally disgusting, is stupid and counterproductive. The appalling stupidity and moral obtuseness of it all is what is most depressing. This is completely against what America is supposed to stand for. We re-elected this egregiously obtuse administration after we found out about Abu Ghraib, and so we're all morally complicit in these outrages.

And we're just skimming the surface. Wait till all the stuff about Gitmo comes out. Then we'll find out what we're really made of. But then again, maybe we just won't care. We'll just have become so desensitized, nothing we learn will make a difference.


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Quote of the Day.

As I’ve argued from the beginning of this terrible period, we make a mistake in responding to terrorism with the rhetoric and language and reference of "war." Terrorism should be treated as a criminal problem, not a problem of warfare. That doesn’t mean that our response to it doesn’t need to be massive, international, forceful, even violent, but it needs to be a police response, not a war response. And this is a basic division among people in their response to the war on terrorism. The terrorists are glorified by declaring them a national war enemy. And we play right into the script written by Osama bin Laden, whom we have turned into a mythic figure.

Look what’s happened. This astounding phenomenon, this massive military power, the United States of America, which spends more on its military than all the other nations in the world combined, depending on how you count -- we’re absolutely stymied by an impoverished, well-armed, but poorly organized group of rag-tag misfits who’ve come together from a dozen different nations, without any overt structure of command. This group of people has stymied the United States of America? That’s what war has gotten us. It’s unbelievably stupid.--James Carroll

In declaring a war we've unleashed the dogs of war, and we are diminished, not ennobled, by what we have loosed upon the people of the Middle East.


Sunday, May 15, 2005

America Magazine Brouhaha. It's small in the great scheme of things, but the Vatican's forcing of Fr. Thomas Reese from his editorship of the Jesuit-run America Magazine is likely to have a significant ripple effect. But The Rev. Raymond Schroth, a professor at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, helps me here to restrain my typical knee-jerk response to matters like this by giving me some historical perspective: He said that

he and his fellow Jesuits, the church's largest religious order and traditionally among the most independent-minded, had grown accustomed to periodic crackdowns.

" This is sort of a cyclic thing," he said. He noted that America had had its editor removed at the Vatican's behest once before, in 1955. The editor, the Rev. Robert C. Hartnett, had annoyed the church hierarchy for years with his sharp criticisms of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

My confidence thus fortified in the Vatican's wisdom in such matters, I nevertheless think the question still has to be asked: What were they thinking? Apparently Reese's big mistake, according to Richard John Neuhaus, the thoughtful conservative editor of First Things, was "that he thought being balanced and fair required the publication of freestanding articles that were clearly in opposition to church teaching and policy.” "Clearly in opposition" is a debatable phrase to describe honest Catholics struggling to figure things out in the light of their faith, but it was the point counterpoint nature of his approach that the Vatican found so offensive--the suggestiton that articles questioning church teaching could stand on equal footing with articles that defended it.

Well, okay, God forbid that the faithful should be confused, especially the low-IQ types, so typical of America's readership, who need to be held by the hand. But Reese is a very well-respected priest and journalist who is no controversialist. His motives are not rooted in creating sparks to sell copy, but to help thinking Catholics to think for themselves. As a Commonweal editorial points out:

In a church with a more confident and magnanimous hierarchy, Reese’s prominence would be seen as a great asset, not a threat. Instead, Reese’s dismissal, following so closely his increased exposure during the conclave, has become front-page news. As a consequence, the first thing many Americans are now likely to associate with Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy will be yet another act of Vatican repression. Does this mean that the zeal with which then-Cardinal Ratzinger harried theologians while head of the CDF will continue during his papacy?

So we seem to be going into one of those cycles where if you're a Catholic, only the sheepish can feel at home. By the way, sheepishness and humility, as I spoke of it in the post below, are not the same thing.

P.S. My best wishes in what promises to be a difficult job for Drew Christiansen, S.J., who moves from his position as Assoicate Editor into the editor's position. He was a teacher and friend to me in our graduate school days, and there are few who are more intelligent, fair-minded, and persistent in their work for justice.


Friday, May 13, 2005

What is Morality For? I've been struggling to put my finger on why I find the morality of the fundamentalists and dogmatists so offensive. And the main thing I come up with, and it's implied in what I've written about it in the last several months, is that it is counterfeit morality. This is not to say that the people who practice this counterfeit morality are not sincere. Sincerity has very little to do with genuine moral behavior.

The young fanatic Maoists in the cultural Revolution were quite sincere in believing they were doing the right thing for their country. The same is true for the devotion that is at the bottom of Islamic terrorism. All those who died in Jonestown were quite sincere in their belief that Jim Jones was their savior. There is a kind of sincere idealism that leads lots of people into behavior that propagandists tell them is moral, but which is profoundly immoral and destructive. And I see the idealism that is often characteristic of the people who are attracted to mainstream fundamentalism and dogmatism, insofar as it is belief in someone else's propaganda, as having a similar alienating and destructive effect in the soul.

Counterfeit morality is all about appearing good and being approved by the group, whoever that group might be. It's about feeling good about oneself as reflected in the social mirror. A genuine morality is about becoming good--deeply, genuinely good. Not just going through the motions--but being there. You can't just decide to be good, but you can decide to undertake the task by which one grows in goodness. And that is always a task that begins in humility and ends in love.

Such an undertaking, therefore, never has any room for self-righteousness or the sanctimonious condemnation of others who behave in ways that we don't approve. A counterfeit morality comes from the desire to believe that we are better than we are. In order to feel better about ouselves we need to have people upon whom we can look down. When we see people we care about acting in a self-destructive way, we feel dismay, not self-righteous. There's a difference when we love the wrongdoer, isn't there? Or there should be. There is an inverse relationship between real love and the sanctimony that is all about social approval and disapproval. Real love always trumps whatever tendencies we have to sanctimony, and we all have them.

This is the essence of Phariseeism and of the whited-sepulcher syndrome that comes with it. ("...for ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones..." Matthew 23:27 ) And one the the most telling characteristics of whited sepulcher syndrome is resentment and hatred toward those who do not conform to the moral standards that one sets for himself. The psychological reason for this is well understood. We project onto others the unsavory parts of ourselves we refuse to acknowledge. We see in others what we cannot bear to see in ourselves. And we hate it.

That's why the path to a genuine morality begins in humility; it begins with owning our projections, with recognizing how deluded we are about our own goodness, and in recognizing that however moral we may appear to others, it is nothing but whited-sepulcher syndrome if there hasn't been a resurrection of the dead, rotting corpse inside. And when that corpse comes back to life, his attitude is more like that of the Father toward his prodigal son than that of the attitude of his brother. The Father, who is the image of deep, radiant goodness, longs for everyone to be good as he is good. And the point of the story is that the younger son is closer to becoming truly good because at least he recognizes how far from goodness he is, whereas the older son thinks he's already arrived. I would not say that the younger son is a better man than the older at the end of the story, but he has a better chance of becoming a truly good man because he has come to see himself more realistically.

What is this thing rotting inside the whited sepulcher? I think of it as the fallen image. We were all created in the image and likeness of God. It's in that that our dignity as human beings lies. But the image is like a mirror that has been shattered and must be restored. It's a heap of bones that must be reassembled and called back to life. And this is what in Christian language we mean by the difference between the natural man and the regenerate man. The natural man is well understood, and he operates according to laws and principles which the Darwinians and Nietzscheans have explained accurately and well. For them there is no image of God, shattered or whole, in the soul.

But the regenerate man or woman is the natural man "plus." And the "plus" is the thing that makes all the difference. It's this small subtle thing that starts growing in the soul, something the size of a mustard seed, but which as it grows has this tendency to turn things upside down or inside out. It is in this sense that we become Logos bearers. We grow the Logos, or image or reflection of the Logos, in the soul soil within. This growth is not something that happens overnight. It is a slow process. It's not something that we can will, although it requires our effort. As a gardener does not provide the life force that makes his flowers grow, he must nevertheless work diligently to drain and prepare the soil, and when the seeds germinate to keep his plot free of weeds and to nourish it with fertilizer and water. He must be vigilant to chase away the pests that would infect and destroy his plants.

Most of us are lazy gardeners when it comes to the care we must give for the growing of this new man or woman inside. I know I am. It's all the more difficult if we don't understand the nature of the task. But I have been privileged to meet a few people in whom this growth within advanced to a degree that I know I shall never attain. And to be with them is to bask in the radiance of the true, deep goodness. So the same is true for us if we are to have any success in restoring the shattered image within.



Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Healthy Superego. In recent posts I've had mostly negative things to say about what, picking up from Lasch, I call the Party of the Superego. I don't think the superego is dispensable; it's essential. "We stand on the shoulders of giants," St. Bernard of Clairvaux said. It was true in the twelfth century, and it's true now. Or to put it another way, we all need to honor our father and mother, at least insofar as they are the ones through whom the tradition, the legacy of giants, is passed onto us.

The Superego is the way the individual psyche internalizes its enculturation, and it is that legacy of greatness that plays an essential role in our psyche shaping our ideals and our taboos. It is the condensation of the tradition in our in our individual psyches, and as such it is not something to be dismissed or trivialized. A healthy Superego is a great gift because it's the trellis that shapes our soul and establishes healthful habits that enable us to live without having to reinvent the wheel. And so the healthfulness of the operation of the Superego in our individual and collective psyches depends on the quality of the culture into which we have been enculturated.

And this is where the problem lies, because very little of what is genuinely lifegiving from the giants of the past is being passed onto us. We inherit moral codes, but they don't seem to have any purposes, except to provide for a modicum of social order. Healthy enculturation into a vibrant culture cannot be confused with brainwashing and any form of indoctrination by propaganda. And so it is important to understand the difference between being brainwashed and being enculturated in a healthy way. Those who are brainwashed, even if it is brainwashed into the forms of traditional morality that has stood the test of time, are profoundly alienated.

They are robotic and compliant to authority. Their thinking is rigid and conformist. They are easily manipulated. They follow the crowd rather than their own instincts. They are as if hypnotized and they respond predictably to symbolic prompts when delivered by "respected" political and religious leaders. Such people lack courage, originality, spirit. They follow the course of least resistance, which is to melt into the mass. This is what Nietzsche means by the condition of the Last Man. Such people are brainwashed into sedated complacency.

The person who has been enculturated in a healthy way honors those who have gone before him and is grateful for the legacy that has come to him from them. He has been taught by his parents and his teachers what true greatness of soul is and how freedom, boldness, spirited virtu are the marks of a life well lived. Such a person is enlivened and inspired by the great men and women who have achieved freedom and virtue in their lives and he seeks to achieve what they have achieved. Such a person is trained to think for himself and warned about not falling into the trap of being rebellious as a way to affirm one's ego or to feel big, but always encouraged to resist and to challenge, propaganda and any idea system whose purpose is to sedate or to promote complacency.

So my problem is not with the superego as such, but with the kind of superego our culture tends to produce. In order to have healthy enculturation, you have to have a healthy culture. Thoughtful conservatives are correct to be concerned that our children are being enculturated into a decadent culture that reinforces narcissistic, impulse-driven behavior that is unhealthy by any human standard. This decadence is, of course, economically driven, and it's part of what we all have to live with in a culture dominated by market forces.

The problem with too many American conservatives in the Party of the Superego, in my view, is that they want their cake and to eat it to. They want virtue and they want affluence; they want to build their castle of virtue on a swamp, and it doesn't work and their virtue reeks of hypocrisy. The Party of the Id, of course thinks life in the swamp is fine. But radical Augustinians like Joseph Ratzinger want nothing to do with the swamp. They want instead to build a castle of virtue that hovers over the swamp in midair and to which people can fly up to be saved from drowning in the swamp.

I am something of an Augustinian myself, but building castles in the air, in my view, is a misunderstanding of the task of the Church and of Christians. In my view the task is work in the swamp to reclaim it, and on the land once it is drained to build modest, soulful, beautiful communities. First comes the draining part--purification. Then comes the building part--illumination. Then comes the eschatological consummation--union. Most of us are in the first stage if we've begun this work at all, and it's not much fun. But you can't drain it if you're not waist deep in it. Hovering over it simply gives one the illuson of purity.

And the historical Church, whatever its ambitions to be the City of God, has shown an equal capacity to operate according to the logic of the City of Man. I believe the Church, paraticularly the Catholic Church, has a hugely important historical role to play in the earth's evolution; but it has got to develop a more realistic idea about what that role is. Right now, in my opinion, the mentality of its leadership is more of a hindrance than a help. Hope lies elsewhere. Look to the periphery, not the center.


Quote of the Day.

"Once the minority of House and Senate are comfortable in their minority status, they will have no problem socializing with the Republicans. Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant. But when they've been 'fixed,' then they are happy and sedate. They are contented and cheerful." Grover Norquist quoted today in E.J. Dionne.

The bully boys of the GOP understand the logic of domination. If you think that Norqist is an extremist who doesn't represent the majority mentality, you're probably right. But he does represent the minority mentality which is driving policy and which has successfully "persuaded" the more moderate GOP legislators to march in lockstep conformity with its extremist agenda.

These guys are brutal. They are not to be reasoned with. They will adopt a posture of reasonableness when it suits them for propaganda purposes, but they know what they want and they are our to "fix" the whole country. Pretty soon we'll all be happy and sedate, and they can do as they please with no resistance at all from the rest of us.


Friday, May 6, 2005

A Parable from Tomberg's Meditations:

Some people are near the bed of a sick person and give their opinions on his state and his prospects. One of them says:"He is not ill. It is his nature which is manifesting in this fashion. His state is only natural." Another says:"His illness is temporary. It will be followed naturally by the re-establishment of his health. Cycles of sickness and health follow one after the other. This is the law of destiny." A third says:"The illness is incurable. He is suffering in vain. It would be better to put an end to his suffering and to give him, through pity, death." The last one begins to speak: "His illness is fatal. He will not recover at all without help from outside. It will be necessary to renew his blood, for his blood is infected. I shall let his blood and then give him a transfusion of blood. I shall give my blood for the transfusion." And the end of the story is that after treating him accordingly, the ill person--being healed--gets up. . . .

Now these three attitudes towards the world--historically manifested in pagan Hellenism [and its heir, Enlightenment rationalism--jw], in Hindu Brahmanism, and in Buddhism--are distinguished from the fourth, i.e. that of active intervention with a view to accomplishing the work of the purification and regeneration of the world, in that they lack the therapeutic impulse and faith in therapy, whilst the attitude which is manifested historically in the prophetic religions (Iranian, Judaic and Islamic) and in the religion of salvation (Christianity), where renewal of the world is the motive force and final aim, is essentially therapeutic. It is the fourth person of our parable--he who acts, healing the illness through a transfusion of his blood--who represents the Christian attitude, which includes and realizes those of the prophetic religions. The Christian ideal is the renewal of the world--"a new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21.1), i.e., universal resurrection. Meditiations on the Tarot, pp. 556-57

But it should also be said that once the patient is up and about, he or she has work to do. Human agents are required for this work, which is not only about saving humans, but also the earth and everything that lives on it. Our task is to understand what our small role is in contributing to that outcome, and to do our part. The more conscious we can be about that, the more effective and disciplined we will be, for this is a task, however modest or seemingly inconsequential, that must be freely chosen and then chosen again, and then again and again.


Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Spiritual Freedom II. I can see how what I wrote in my first post of this title could be interpreted as a defense of a normless antinomianism. I’m not a Nietzschean. But I do think the Nietzsche was grappling with central issues relating to human identity, human purposes, and the role human freedom plays in the achievement of those purposes and that identity (for identity is an achievement, not a given--we are as yet only seedling human beings).

Freedom is at the very heart of what it means to be human, and everything depends on how we exercise it. And our exercise of it depends on our understanding of the goals toward which its exercise should be directed. Nietzsche grasped the central importance of freedom and of its exercise in achieving human identity, but for him it was a form that was filled with the wrong content--the will to power, which follows the Darwinian logic of the serpent. Freedom for the Christian is filled with the Logos, which follows the gracious logic of the dove, but the logic of the dove still has to operate in a world which is for the most part dominated by the will-to-power logic of the serpent.

That's what it means when Christians say we live in a fallen world. That's what it means when we say that the will to power is the dynamic that shapes the real world as oppsoed to any idealistic pie in the sky world that utopians might speak about. And they are right. The will to power is a force that shapes our experienece and our own motivations in more ways than we would like to think about. But as with everything in our instincutal life, it ought not to be repressed but to be redeemed. The task is not to kill the serpent in all of us, but to subordinate its energies to the purposes of the dove.

And the same is true for the the approach we need to take toward the exercise of freedom. I understand how the Party of the Superego is uncomfortable with Nietzschean freedom. And I would never defend its excesses. But I would defend the idea that it s better to be free, even in the Nietzschean sense, than to refuse freedom for the sheepish safety of the Last Man crowd. The challenge is not to suppress freedom, but to redirect its use toward nobler purposes.

The Nietzschean is in many ways a good candidate for Christian freedom, even though it usually requires shipwreck of some kind to cause in him the counter transvaluation of values, which is the second naivete I have spoken about elsewhere. (I'll parse that out another time.) Both Nietzschean and Logos bearer are self-transcenders, men and women who are "overcomers." But both have different goals toward which the exercise of their freedom is directed. In biblical images the first seeks, consciously or unconsciously, Babylon; the second, consciously or unconsciously, the New Jerusalem. In a fallen world the natural tendency is toward Babylon.

Ok. So that's all very cosmic, or to use my somewhat pretentious blog subtitle, "eschatological"--having to do with the end toward which all of history points. But I've stuck with that subtitle, despite my getting some well-intentioned criticism of my using it, because it really underlies everything that this blog is about. And that is to understand the meaning of what we do now in the context of where it's all going, to develop some sense of human/historical purposefulness in the light cast upon it by its Omega point.

Now I certainly don't claim to know where it's all going, but I do think we have resources to think about it that are consistent with what I described as the core (Catholic) Christian beliefs. But it requires thinking about those beliefs differently but not in a way that undermines their fundamental truth. So for the time being, anyway, I'm going to leave politics aside and develop some theological themes that relate to the eschatological dimension of the blogging that I've done here but which have not been made yet explicit. I'm probably going to lose some readers in doing so, but in the long run I think this is what makes this blog different and gives it whatever value it might have.

Political blogs are a dime a dozen, and while some are better than others, most are pretty predictable because the underlying metanarrative of the blogger or columnist is well understood. The basic problem for politics right now is that it has no genuinely compelling metanarrative that calls upon people to work toward humanly ennobling goals. For whatever it's worth, I'm going to lay out my ideas about the shape that I think such a metanarrative should take.

Next post: In praise of the Superego. It's not all rigidity and repression. It can be a source of life and freedom, too.


April Posts