Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Swift Path to Despotism

Editor Mort Zuckerman often writes the editorials for U.S. News & World Report. Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don't, but they're always well-expressed and worth reading.

His editorial in the March 2009 issue is entitled No Time To Lose. He refers to the need for swift action by the federal government to get the credit system working again, and his call is for massive fiscal intervention. The truly telling line is in the middle of the piece: "Speed is crucial. Ideology has to be junked. The question is simply pragmatic."

That theme is being heard more and more in the public discussion of the nation's economic troubles, and it is frightening. Those pushing it are saying in essence that guiding principles of government can be bundled up as "ideology" and thrown in the trash in the name of economic expediency. Hard won ideals which were rigorously debated, and for which people strove and sacrificed and died, should simply be dismissed as a hindrance to preserving material prosperity.

There is no swifter way to despotism than this.

There was a time in this country when everyone knew our founding principles, and valued the importance of adhering to them. Economic trends were deemed less important that being true to our Constitution and heritage. The reason was that the principles of our government were the key to our freedoms, which were the key to all other goods in our society. This included, but was not limited to, economic freedom - which included the freedom to fail as well as succeed. Those principles did not include the idea that the government was responsible for insuring the economy worked a certain way (at least, not until FDR's New Deal, the success of which is under serious debate.)

But it seems that Mr. Zuckerman is willing to throw over these principles in the name of getting the economy "working again" - by which he specifically means lenders lending and borrowers borrowing. The idea that there might be good economic reasons that lenders aren't lending or borrowers borrowing seems to be dismissed as simply "ideology" that must be "junked". Perpetuation of the economic standards to which we must become accustomed is the important thing - anything that hinders that should be thrown overboard, or at least stashed deep in the hold until it can safely be brought out again.

Those who join this chorus are forgetting their history. Time and again through the ages people have handed over their freedoms to those who promised safety from some catastrophe, be it economic or military or social. There are big, dramatic examples such as the Nazi takeover of the Wiemar Republic in the 1930's, but there are far more little ones where some village or county or nation succumbs to the promises of some demagogue and hands over their rights in return for some safeguard. Of course, the tragic lesson is that they rarely get handed back.

Ironically, many of those now clamoring the loudest for massive government intervention in the economy are the same ones who raised so many concerns about the provisions of the Patriot Act and how it would lead to the erosion of our liberties and excessive government intrusion in our lives. If those concerns were valid, then there should be much more concern about “junking” our basic principles in the name of economic expediency. The freedoms which will be ultimately demanded in exchange for this temporary economic patch will far exceed anything the Patriot Act ever threatened.

Sadly, this is just whistling in the desert. The intervention of which Mr. Zuckerman speaks is a done deal. The American public has already been told from so many sources that it is necessary that they have given in and permitted it. The only question is how much more will be permitted, and how many more freedoms sacrificed, in the name of economics.

Our forefathers had an opportunity for economic security. Remaining in the British Empire and participating in the mercantile system would have been a certain way of increasing the wealth in the colonies. But they chose the risky path of founding a new country because they valued freedom more than economic security.

What a shame Mr. Zuckerman and those like him would “junk” their principles to step back into the clammy embrace of government-assured economic salvation.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The fate of us all

Most Christian traditions observe Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent. At Masses, services, and even as individuals Christians receive a smudge of ashes on their forehead along with an invocation. This is the only Christian ceremony that leaves a notably visible sign on a person.

Why ashes? Ashes aren't a sacrament, and there's no record of Jesus or the apostles either using ashes or commanding their use. But ashes are an ancient sign of repentance in both Jewish and pagan cultures. Deliberately making oneself dirty was a sign of distress, mourning, or lament.

This is the case with their usage on Ash Wednesday. The ashes are applied with an invocation, a command. The ancient formula is, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust you shall return." This is taken directly from Genesis 3:19, where God curses Adam for his disobedience, telling him that instead of the glorious immortality he was meant to enjoy with God, his immediate fate would be physical death. His body would return to the inanimate earth from which he was drawn. His inescapable fate, and the fate of all his descendants, would be death.

This is worth pondering. Ours is a culture that doesn't want to look at death. I've been at funerals where death wasn't mentioned once. We were there to "celebrate the life" of the deceased, and there were references to her "being at peace" and having "gone on". Even with the coffin right there in their midst, people didn't want to face the fact that they had been visited by death, and certainly didn't want to consider that the same fate awaited all attending.

Yet there is no more certain fate. Whatever will happen to any of us, we will all die. I may or may not ever touch the Eiffel Tower, see the Himalayas, play the violin, or skydive. It's even possible that I'll never pay any more taxes. But I will know death. It may be swift or it may be slow. I may have time to prepare for it, or it may take me unexpectedly. But death is the one experience we're all guaranteed. The day will come when my breath will shorten, my vision will darken, and I will die to this world.

This is worth pondering all by itself, without dragging in other considerations. Death will happen to us all. We will return to dust. Whether we received a smudge of ceremonial ashes on our forehead yesterday or not, stop today and ponder the fact that someday you will die. Your days on earth are numbered - and you don't know the number.

Not a real post

If anyone would like to read one of my stories, one is being serialized over at the Catholic Blog Fiction site. Check in often to sample works from a variety of authors!

Friday, February 20, 2009


The passage of this year is already picking up steam, and before we turn around it will be halfway gone. The next year turn will be into 2010, and the first decade of this century will be over.

As one who remembers the "Year 2000" problem that faced the computer industry, this almost stuns me. It's also startling to realize that there are children now in school who weren't even alive on September 11th, and youngsters in middles school for whom that day is a historical event they were told about, not an experience that is recalled. 2010. How quickly the years pass.

As a student of history, I'm fond of casting back and wondering about how things looked in other times. For instance, the approach of 2010 makes me wonder how things looked a century ago, in 1910. In that august year, the world's leading - and arguably sole - superpower was Britain. Their empire spanned the globe, their wealth outstripped anything before seen in history, their navy ruled the oceans, and their military was superior to anything on earth. They were (finally) at peace with their rebellious child the United States, which was still suffering growing pains. The civil war that had nearly torn that country in half was still within living memory, and they were struggling to digest the massive acquisition of land and immigrant population that had marked the 19th century. Though their feisty president Roosevelt had made a show of power and presence with his "Great White Fleet", it consisted of a mere 16 battleships. The United States was decades, probably generations, from being a world power even close to what Britain was.

Imagine if someone had stood in Trafalgar Square in 1910 and foretold that a mere 30 years hence, Britain would be suffering direct and devastating attacks on its own soil - something that had not happened for nearly a millennium - and would be scrambling to deflect the imminent danger of invasion. Imagine if that prophet had gone on to predict that within 40 years, Britain would be stripped of most of its empire, have its wealth severely depleted, and see its military so badly beaten that it would have had to appeal to the United States for aid not once but again and again. Imagine if that person had said that by the middle of the century, the flower of two generations of Britons would have been shredded on battlefields and oceans around the globe, and though they would be ultimately victorious, it would be at terrible cost to their homeland. Who would have believed such fantastic predictions?

And yet, that was precisely what happened. The Britain of 1910 was battered and supplanted within two generations, going from dominant world superpower to needy recipient of international generosity. To be sure, her citizens showed heroic resilience and steadfast courage, and made tremendous sacrifices to preserve their freedom, but Britain's international stature was permanently shaken. She was replaced on the international stage by the United States, of all nations!

This lightning-swift reversal of fortune for Britain – most of which happened between 1915 to 1945 – makes me wonder about the fate of the our country at the dawn of this century. Even without bringing in issues of Divine judgment and cultures reaping what they have sown, this example illustrates how quickly change can happen, and severe a catastrophe can be. Anyone who looks at the international political and diplomatic landscape and presumes that this is how things will be for a while should take a lesson from this slice of history.

Where will America – and the entire West – stand in 2050? God alone knows, but it is folly to presume that He will respect what we consider Great Nations and Robust Economies. As the 20th century proves, such things can topple with startling swiftness. Thus has it always been with the kingdoms of men.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Twisted Reality

I remember an interview I heard during the most recent presidential campaign. The furor over Barack Obama's pastor Jeremiah Wright had brought to the fore the popular conspiracy theory circulating in some cultures that the CIA had created AIDS as a weapon to reduce the black population. The interviewer had contacted a black congressman to discuss the situation in general and this belief in particular.

The interviewer was incredulous that anyone could give credence to such an outrageous idea, but the congressman assured him that many blacks subscribed to that belief. The interviewer asked flat out if he, the congressman, believed that the CIA had created AIDS. The congressman deflected the question with the assurance that it was widely and sincerely believed by a good number of blacks and others. This exchange went futilely back and forth several times as the interviewer pressed his guest as to whether he believed the theory, and the guest kept referring to the quantity of people who sincerely did.

Pondering this later, I realized that I was hearing a textbook collision between the classical mindset and the postmodern outlook. To the classically trained host, the important thing was the objective reality: did the CIA actually create the AIDS virus and conspire to disseminate it among the black community? If that was believed (or not), that belief or unbelief could be addressed with facts, documents, and other objective measures to establish what, if anything, had happened. The host was focusing on what actually happened – the belief about it could (and should) be brought into line with that history through exposure and evaluation of the facts.

But his guest was working from a postmodern frame of reference. To him, facts and objective reality were, if not irrelevant, than a distant second. The critical thing was how many people believed the story, how firmly they believed it, and what that belief would motivate them to. Since what people believe governs where they direct their wills, the nature and magnitude of belief is of pivotal importance to those seeking power in the political arena. If enough wills can be aligned, that can translate into political clout, and that's what matters. Issues such as truth – in this sense the question of whether the CIA actually did create and disseminate AIDS – are unimportant in comparison to the acquisition and manipulation of political power. This explains why the congressman kept dismissing almost flippantly the hosts persistent questions about whether he believed the CIA/AIDS conspiracy theory. To him, it didn't matter whether it was true or not. The important thing was how many people believed it, and what action that belief would translate into.

To me, it seems that the election of Barack Obama is the ultimate expression of this postmodern thinking – at least so far. On an objective level, this is someone who has no public executive experience at all, whose only political experience was as a state senator, and who didn't even complete his first term as junior United States Senator before beginning his presidential campaign. The question of whether he was qualified for the Presidency of the United States would seem to answer itself. But that didn't matter to the media who obediently presented the polished image he wanted them to, and it made no difference to the adoring crowds who melted before his public persona. What mattered to them was what they believed about him. He was the embodiment of hope, the reassurance that “Yes, we can!” effect change of some sort. The nature of that change, and what costs might be associated with it, were questions left unasked. They had to do with objective reality, and that was secondary, if not irrelevant. The important thing was that his supporters believed in him, and believed in him firmly! They projected their beliefs onto him, and then voted for the reality they believed they saw. This also explained the gushing, over-the-top response to his election and inauguration, even from parties for whom the language of jaded cynicism had become a native tongue. They were adoring a nonexistent being. There was no such man – he was the creation of their collective imaginations.

I think this is why the facade is cracking so badly so quickly within his first couple of weeks in office. As President of a country which has pretty much exhausted its international credit, is generally seen on the global stage as a political and military power in decline, and whose banking and finance system is showing itself to be a house of cards, Obama is going to have to deal with many unpleasant objective realities. No amount of firm belief by any number of people is going to deflect them. It's already becoming clear that his thin experience isn't equal to the task. The question that remains is what will happen when someone who rode to power on a wave of collective belief discovers that the force which put him into office can't help him deal with the problems that face him there? And what will his followers do when their vision of him begins slipping in light of his responses to the realities he must face?

History bears witness to how those kind of disillusionments turn out. It isn't pretty. I only hope our political and social system will be able to bear the strain.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Kneeling Tall

I recently had the privilege of attending a Catholic Men's Conference. There were about 1100 men, mostly from my archdiocese but also from surrounding ones. One of the speakers was a dedicated priest who had been one of the main drivers behind the Conferences for the seven years of their existence. We knew and loved this priest, deeply appreciating his wholehearted devotion to Christ and the example it set for us as men. When his talk was announced, the entire group of us sprang to our feet in a spontaneous ovation. He came forward and didn't even look at us, instead turning and kneeling, head bowed, toward the Tabernacle and the Crucifix above it. He stayed that way until the applause tapered off (which took some time), and when he rose, he pointed toward the Cross and reminded us, "If I've done anything good, it's been all Him."

Kneeling isn't done much these days. Our egos don't like it. But this brief, barely verbal sermon served as a reminder of what nobility and honor truly are, and how high a man stands when he kneels before the Throne of God and bows beneath His mighty sceptre. If that faithful priest perseveres, which I trust and pray he will, Christ Himself will raise him up and bestow on him the honor his fidelity deserves.

May we all grow in that kind of devotion and humility.