Groupthink in a nutshell

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Peter Thiel, in his interview with Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, seems to put the group-think bubble in a nutshell – if that’s not mixing my metaphors too much.

Thiel became the pariah of Silicon Valley – and further afield – when he opted for Donald Trump in the US election. Dowd conducted a long interview with him and in it sets the apparent craziness of American politics over the past year in a context which makes it all seem quite sensible, even if full of risk. That is perhaps the best context for a healthy politics in any country.

He recalls that he went through a lot of “meta” debates about Mr. Trump in Silicon Valley. “One of my good friends said, ‘Peter, do you realize how crazy this is, how everybody thinks this is crazy?’ I was like: ‘Well, why am I wrong? What’s substantively wrong with this?’ And it all got referred back to ‘Everybody thinks Trump’s really crazy.’ So it’s like there’s a shortcut, which is: ‘I don’t need to explain it. It’s good enough that everybody thinks something. If everybody thinks this is crazy, I don’t even have to explain to you why it’s crazy. You should just change your mind.’”

Thiel is undoubtedly one of those influencers in the culture which, If they didn’t exist, we would have had to invent them. But thank heavens he does exist – because no one on the planet could ever have invented this one.

The frightening thing about conventional wisdom is how stupid it can be. Thiel is one of those who defy conventional wisdom and who is a force which will hopefully expose the fallacies of the illiberal-left dictatorship of our time and bring the sheep who have been duped by it back to some semblance of rational humanity.

The first crack in the whole illiberal-left monolith has already appeared in the very environment from which Thiel himself comes. He thinks the bigger tech companies all want to get a little bit off the ledge that they had gotten on, he said when asked how he had managed to get so many of them to turn up to a meeting with the President-elect in Trump Tower.

“Normally, if you’re a C.E.O. of a big company, you tend to be somewhat apolitical or politically pretty bland. But this year, it was this competition for who could be more anti-Trump. ‘If Trump wins, I will eat my sock.’ ‘I will eat my shoe.’ ‘I will eat my shoe, and then I will walk barefoot to Mexico to emigrate and leave the country.’

“Somehow, I think Silicon Valley got even more spun up than Manhattan. There were hedge fund people I spoke to about a week after the election. They hadn’t supported Trump. But all of a sudden, they sort of changed their minds. The stock market went up, and they were like, ‘Yes, actually, I don’t understand why I was against him all year long.’”

We might wonder when the Hillary fan club of  ‘famous actors’ from Hollywood might take the same message on board. Despite the satirical drubbing they got in the Save The Day parodies, they will probably remain as vain and opinionated as their trivial pursuits and the toxic star-system condition them to be. The only cure for that condition might be a dent in their box-office receipts. That might bring them to their senses.

Read Dowd’s full interview here.

This is where we are but does anyone know what to do about it?


Today’s New York Times tells a story which, when you read between the lines, is not news about what has just happened. It is about what is going to happen. Add it to the story of a few days ago when British security chiefs warned us that their concern is not about whether that country will be subject to another terrorist assault, but when it will happen. The result you get when you tot up this sum is that we are under siege. Alarmism? No. Just alarm.

It is all the more alarming when we seem not to have the slightest notion of how to protect ourselves from an enemy whose ruthlessness, with each new atrocity, exceeds the one which went before. At the moment all we seem to hear from our governments are expressions of horror, condemnation, and outrage in which all the superlatives have been exhausted and sound banal.

Empty platitudes of defiance and promises of ‘no surrender’ are all we get by way of coherent policy – and they’re no policy at all. Where are the leaders who are going to deal with this? Where are the ideas about how to deal with this. If they do not emerge soon we are at the eve of destruction as the Roman world was in the face of the barbarian onslaught of the 5th and 6th centuries. In the world in which we live, given the pace at which things can move now, our destruction will be fast and furious to a degree which will make progress of the fall of the Roman Empire look like a snail’s pace.

The only policy the international community seems to have in place currently is that of defeating ISIS on the ground in the Middle East. How effective those policies are remains to be seen. ISIS now, however, has clearly opened up a second and far more deadly front – a front that is not a front at all but a lethal virus. It is this strategy that has us all at sea and through which so much havoc can be wreaked that it can truly destroy us.

The Times flagged its story this morning in its daily briefing newsletter with this:

Believing he was answering a holy call, Harry Sarfo left his home in the working-class city of Bremen last year and drove for four straight days to reach the territory controlled by the Islamic State in Syria.He barely had time to settle in before members of the Islamic State’s secret service, wearing masks over their faces, came to inform him and his German friend that they no longer wanted Europeans to come to Syria. Where they were really needed was back home, to help carry out the group’s plan of waging terrorism across the globe.

“He was speaking openly about the situation, saying that they have loads of people living in European countries and waiting for commands to attack the European people,” Mr. Sarfo recounted on Monday, in an interview with The New York Times conducted in English inside the maximum-security prison near Bremen. “And that was before the Brussels attacks, before the Paris attacks.”

Read more »

In Britain today we have an example of the futile gestures which passes for policy when it was announced and reported on Channel 4 News that:

Hundreds more armed police, with handguns and semi-automatic weapons, will be put on patrol around London’s major landmarks – as the Met police chief promised to help reassure the public and deter terror attacks.

A Chesterton for our times?

Ross Douthat

How we should learn learn to stop complaining and love the New York Times! How could we not, for it has given us a Chesterton for our times. Who would have believed it? It did not begin this week – but it certainly reached a new level of power this week.  The latest shining of this new and welcome light began last Monday with the  First Things Erasmus lecture in New York City. Then today we have a penetrating column, a veritable gauntlet for the cause of orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church thrown at the feet of its heterodox academic theologians, in one of the free world’s greatest liberal newspapers.

We are talking about New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. His star as an interpreter, explainer and sometimes warrior in the culture battles of our time has been rising for a number of years. Since his move to the Times a handful of years ago it has reached super-nova dimensions.

Don’t buy the jibe that he is the Times’ token conservative. The Times is a genuinely liberal paper and as such will inevitably give voice to – and at its top level may also sincerely subscribe to – a view of human nature which is wide of an accurate reading of the real nature of the human condition. But its first ideal is to  try to give voice to intelligent human beings who are seeking the truth. This it will generally do regardless of what the paper’s own view of the truth at any time might be. The Times may even be as confused as Pilate was about the very possibility of Truth. Its starting point is, however, unarguably a good ideal, one which is at the very heart of our civilization. Because of a commitment to this ideal we can hear the voice of Ross Douthat.

This week Douthat gave us a razor-sharp analysis – for me at any rate – of where the “Catholic moment” is today. This was the 28th Annual Erasmus Lecture. It presents a challenge to be sensible, honest and continuously courageous in thinking about where we have been, where we are and where we are going with out Christian civilization yesterday, today and tomorrow.

You can watch and listen to this lecture here courtesy of First Things (firstthings.com). Now in its 28th year, the Erasmus Lecture has been bringing world-renowned speakers to New York—including Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Gilbert Meilaender, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks—to address an audience of over five hundred people each year.

Ross Douthat, who like Chesterton – but without the semantic and rhetorical fun and games – is nothing if not provocative, is the author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Free Press, 2012), Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class (Hyperion, 2005), and the co-author, with Reihan Salam, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (Doubleday, 2008).

Last week he was challenged by a group of academic theologians who must surely now regret their silly passing remark casting doubt on his “authority” to speak about religion at all since he had no qualification in theology. In fact they did not challenge him. They complained behind his back – like true liberals – to the New York Times for giving him a platform at all on “their” subject. Today he answers their silliness – silliness which all honest people will laugh at but which nevertheless they should also take seriously, as he does. He begins:

I read with interest your widely-publicized letter to my editors this week, in which you objected to my recent coverage of Roman Catholic controversies, complained that I was making unfounded accusations of heresy (both “subtly” and “openly”!), and deplored this newspaper’s willingness to let someone lacking theological credentials opine on debates within our church. I was appropriately impressed with the dozens of academic names who signed the letter on the Daily Theology site, and the distinguished institutions (Georgetown, Boston College, Villanova) represented on the list.

I have great respect for your vocation. Let me try to explain mine.

A columnist has two tasks: To explain and to provoke. The first requires giving readers a sense of the stakes in a given controversy, and why it might deserve a moment of their fragmenting attention span. The second requires taking a clear position on that controversy, the better to induce the feelings (solidarity, stimulation, blinding rage) that persuade people to read, return, and re-subscribe.

Both his lecture, his column today and on many other occasions, make compelling reading.

He concludes today’s column, making reference to their elitist and Gnostic jibe, where they imply that all these things are above his pay grade and that he does not understand them because he is not a theologian: “…indeed I am not. But neither is Catholicism supposed to be an esoteric religion, its teachings accessible only to academic adepts.”

What is their real position on doctrine and the teaching of the Church, he asks? He suspects that it is that almost anything Catholic can change when the times require it, and “developing” doctrine just means keeping up with capital-H History, no matter how much of the New Testament is left behind. He concludes:

As I noted earlier, the columnist’s task is to be provocative. So I must tell you, openly and not subtly, that this view sounds like heresy by any reasonable definition of the term.

Now it may be that today’s heretics are prophets, the church will indeed be revolutionized, and my objections will be ground under with the rest of conservative Catholicism. But if that happens, it will take hard grinding, not just soft words and academic rank-pulling. It will require a bitter civil war.

And so, my dear professors: Welcome to the battlefield.

It is good to have another Chesterton among us.

So who is obsessed then?

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The real story revealed by the brouhaha over “that” interview is what it tells us about much of the international secularist media and it’s take on the Christian message. The interview is a moving and penetrating reflection on that message, our response to it, and ways in which we might be transmitting it to each other. For the media, deaf and blind to the spirit which moves the man who gave it, it was about obsession with sex.

In 12,000 words, about 18 pages printed out, the Pope mentions abortion and homosexuality a total of three times. As has been pointed out, a search for other buzzwords shows that Pope Francis referred to God 37 times, Jesus 26 times and St. Ignatius 15 times. As Word On Fire’s Fr. Steve Grunow said on American radio, “Pope Francis referred to Italian and German opera more than he did abortion and homosexuality.”

Wake up! There is no obsession with sex in the teaching of the Catholic Church. What there is, however, is an obsession by the media with the teachng of the Catholic Church on human sexual behaviour. This is plainly because the consensus on this realm of human behaviour within the media generally is deeply resentful of the Christian understanding and teaching on the nature and purpose of human sexuality.

The media pursues this obsession by reporting incessantly on every utterance from the Church on the subject, every sign of any rebellion or resistance to it inside the Church, to the exclusion of the rest of the entire corpus of its teaching on the Decalogue. It would be unfair if the Pope were to blame his bishops for an obsession just because the media grossly distorts the balance of everything they teach, from pastoral letter to pastoral letter, from homily to homily, day after day, year after year. He hasn’t, and they are adding to their distortion by putting words into his mouth. If anyone has a case to answer about obsessions, it is the media.

Kathryn Jean Lopez – in a rare exception in the flood of coverage on the Pops’s interview – points out in a piece she wrote for Fox News that not everything in the world is about sex and politics. That message may take the Irish Times, The New York Times, the BBC, among many more media prganizations, a few more homilies and interviews with Pope Francis to understand. As Shelia Liaugminas concludes on her blog on MercatorNet, “The Catholic Church – or at least those preachers and teachers who are outspoken on matters concerning human sexuality, especially when catechetical discussions are turned into clashes in the public square for political or cultural reasons – is often accused of being obsessed with sex. But the obsession might just be the media’s.” I dont think there is any “might” about it.

The threatening conflagration of the Islamic world

David Brooks had an interesting – and worrying – article in the New York Times on August 29, in which he quoted this assessment of the Arab crisis which – in more optimistic times – we used to call the Arab Spring.

The strife appears to be spreading. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upward. Reports in The Times and elsewhere have said that many Iraqis fear their country is sliding back to the worst of the chaos experienced in the last decade. Even Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected. “It could become a regional religious war similar to that witnessed in Iraq 2006-2008, but far wider and without the moderating influence of American forces,” wrote Gary Grappo, a retired senior Foreign Service officer with long experience in the region.

“It has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations,” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote recently. “The Sunni versus Alawite civil war in Syria is increasingly interacting with the Sunni versus Shiite tensions in the Gulf that are edging Iraq back toward civil war. They also interact with the Sunni-Shiite, Maronite and other confessional struggles in Lebanon.”

The borders of Islam remain bloody but the heartlands of the Middle East and North Africa now seem far more threatening. The dimensions, the character, and the irrationality of this conflict are such that the rest of the world may have little option other than looking on in horror.

Us and them, or all for one and one for all?

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Reflecting on the end of an 18 year tour of duty for the New York Times in London, Sarah Lyall writes about English people’s search for identity and meaning: “Who are we, and what is our place in the world? It wasn’t until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games last summer, with its music medleys and dancing nurses and quotes from Shakespeare and references to Mary Poppins and sly inclusion of the queen and depictions of the Industrial Revolution and compendiums of key moments in British television history, that the country seemed to have found some sort of answer.

It was a bold, ecstatic celebration of all sorts of things — individuality, creativity, quirkiness, sense of humor, playfulness, rebelliousness and competence in the face of potential chaos — and more than anything I have ever seen, it seemed to sum up what was great about Britain.”
What she does not tell us is that this particular answer was the masterwork of the son of Irish immigrants, Danny Boyle.

Which might seem to suggest that stereotypes are funny things and should always be taken with a pinch of salt. Taken to extremes they can even poison us.

Sarah Lyall’s full article, full of sharp insight, is here.

Is this not a very flawed vision of mankind, society and its laws?

Problems ahead for Lady Justice?

The New York Times this weekend gave us its considered views on the state of the marriage battle in the culture wars. It embodies a very flawed vision of mankind, society and the institution of marriage. If lawmakers continue on the path some of them seem determined to follow, propelled by this kind of media thinking, are they laying the basis for a great deal of confusion and trouble in decades to come?

As historic and welcome as we found the Supreme Court’s two recent decisions on same-sex marriage, the Times tells us, they served to emphasize the lingering inequality for millions of gay and lesbian Americans who do not live in the 13 states that enforce the right of all adult Americans to marry the person of their choosing.

If it is inequality to deny it to two people of the same sex whose sexual urges mover them in that direction why is it not inequality to refuse to legitimize the marriage of three persons whose sexual urges move them to want to legitimize such a relationship as a marriage? No just reason can be given for this discrimination. Sexual difference is the only real basis for the existence of the institution of marriage. Ignore this difference and confusion and dysfunction seem inevitable.

 In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, they complain, is standing by his 2012 veto of a measure to allow gay couples to marry and is refusing to free Republican legislators to follow their conscience on an override vote. Mr. Christie is imposing a large ideological tax on thousands of couples and their families whose interests he is supposed to protect. He is depriving them of federal benefits, which their tax payments help underwrite.

Why should sex only and not all loving relationship be the basis for the provision of these benefits? Logic suggests that any registered committed loving relationship should merit receiving them. Christie’s case can be clearly seen as based on fiscal logic and an understanding that making a sexual relationship the sole basis for these benefits would he inherently discriminatory.

Certainly, The Times editorial judges, the Supreme Court propelled the nation toward greater equality in late June with two 5-to-4 rulings that restored same-sex marriage in California and struck down the central provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, the dreadful 1996 law that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples married in states that permit it.

It is a very unequal equality so long as it has nothing more than sexual partnership as its basis.

The Times tells us that by disposing of the California case on narrow procedural grounds, the Supreme Court  perpetuated a mean and irrational patchwork in which duly wed couples may not be considered married when they cross state borders.

This whole movement is creating an utterly irrational and discriminatory patchwork which will ultimately undermine all the laws and institutions which society has put in place over centuries to facilitate orderly social and family relationships. The result will be that there will no longer be any fundamental basis for the laws governing polygamy/polyandry.

Eliminating that unfair system, the Times argues, will require a multipronged effort — to add more states to the list of 13 that permit same-sex marriage and to challenge remaining state laws that violate the standards of equal protection as the Defense of Marriage Act did. Last Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a challenge to a Pennsylvania law that allows marriage only between a man and a woman and rejects other states’ marriage equality laws.

“Eliminating that unfair system” will simply compound further unfairness if it is based on nothing more than sexual relationships. To be truly fair it should be based on all relationships of mutual commitment of love and support.

They commend the Obama administration which the see moving with commendable diligence and speed to extend benefits like health care, life insurance and immigration rights to gay and lesbian married couple,…benefits like vision, dental and long-term care insurance and survivors’ annuities.

On what rational basis can the same benefits be denied to couples in other diverse “family” – their much vaunted love for “diversity” seems a very restricted one – arrangements entailing permanent commitments? What they envisage will leave us with a very flawed and inherently unjust law. It is not based on any proper understanding of equality. The concept of equality espoused by the gay and lesbian advocates is totally flawed because it is giving equal status to two different things.

The problem as it affects entitlement to benefits is that once the difference, nature’s own “diversity”, between the sexes is denied then a new definition of equality is accepted and should be absolutely applied. If not, these laws will be unjust and the unjust distribution of benefits which they will lead to will eventually be challenged. If the courts are just they will be overturned in one way or another.

The discrimination is only beginning. The only just way forward in this needlessly created morass would seem to be to forget about marriage as the ground on which all these benefits, rights, etc., are granted and institute a fair and universal system based on all forms of committed relationships. That may cause fiscal turmoil, but if it does, so be it. That is the price which will have to be paid for accepting an equality which ignores the differences between the sexes and the special arrangements which millennia of human experience have guided humanity to put in place to cater for the needs which flow from these differences, this beautiful and glorious diversity.

Is this a case of a sad but congenital blindness to a reality they cannot comprehend?

In the final volume of his masterly trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, writes of how the replies of Jesus to Pilate in his interrogation “must have seemed like madness to the Roman judge. And yet he could not shake off the mysterious impression left by this man, so different from those he had met before who had resisted Roman domination and fought for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel.”

 

It is difficult not to see similar bewilderment lurking in the hearts and minds of the thousands of media functionaries who were milling around St. Peter’s basilica and the Vatican since that historic day, 11 of February, 2013. In the six or seven weeks since then the world’s media vainly – for the most part – tried to grapple with realities which they were fascinated by but which they simply could not comprehend. Just as Pilate was bewildered by the idea that Christ was a king in the sense that he, Pilate, understood kingship, they were looking at a group of men assembling in Rome to elect the ruler of an entity which they only half understood. Essentially they read it all in terms of purely human politics. As a consequence they missed the entire plot.

 

The New York Times of 11 March gave us what might be a textbook example of how the application of political language takes you only so far in this drama, and how, when you reach a certain point, if you persist with it, it simply leads you into a dead end.

 

Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo began their “analysis” piece for the Times by telling us that the cardinals who would enter the papal conclave on Tuesday of that week would walk into the Sistine Chapel in a single file. That would be something deceptive, for “beneath the orderly display, they were split into competing line-ups and power blocs that will determine which man among them emerges as pope.”

 

Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy was, for example, described by Goodstein and Povoledo, as “a top contender for pope among some in the conclave.” Marlon Brando famously muttered to Rod Steiger, his older brother in On the Waterfront, “I could’a been a contender”, meaning a contender for a boxing title. This was not a boxing match. This was not a title fight, not even a contest in any meaningful sense of the word. This was a meeting in which over a hundred men who have given their lives to the service of Christ and his Church were going to look among themselves for the one whom they deemed, in their hearts and minds, would most faithfully and effectively lead and sustain that Church in the mission which its founder gave them.

 

Nothing of this understanding, nothing, was evident in the 1,500 or so words penned by Goodstein and Povoledo on that Sunday and filed to the Times. From beginning to end they read the drama – and a papal conclave is high drama, no doubt – unfolding before them as power bloc pitted against power bloc in pursuit of the control of a political and administrative structure serving an end which to them was very ill-understood indeed.

 

“The main divide”, they said, “pits the cardinals who work in the Vatican, the Romans, against the reformers, the cardinals who want the next pope to tackle what they see as the Vatican’s corruption, inefficiency and reluctance to share power and information with bishops from around the world.” What had all that to do with the billion and more ordinary people who want to follow the teaching of Christ, receive his sacraments daily and weekly and be helped to make their way through this world to a promised eternal life? Serving these people is the sole and ultimate object of this institution and the raison d’etre of those men walking into the Sistine Chapel on the morning of 12 March.

 

The faithful of the Catholic Church throughout the world, within hours of the white smoke appearing, were at peace once again. Indeed, as the smoke appeared, the cheers from the thousands in the square told us that they were once again in the place they wanted to be and that they knew that God’s ordained instruments had once again chosen a shepherd in his own mould to care for all their needs.

 

When the secularist world’s reading of the history and the reality of the Catholic Church is not naively political, it is driven by the media’s own very unbalanced and self-created image of the reality of the institution, its problems and its crises in the world today.

 

The next pontiff, Goodstein and Povoledo said, “must unite an increasingly globalized church paralyzed by scandal and mismanagement under the spotlight in a fast-moving media age (my italics). And among the cardinals, they said, there is no obvious single successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who rattled the church by resigning last month at age 85”. Obvious to whom? The short and decisive conclave showed precisely the contrary. The cardinals, after their days of prayerful conversation and reflection walked into the Sistine Chapel with much more unity of intent and purpose than the watching world imagined.

 

But who really thinks the Catholic Church is paralysed? No one who looks at the phenomenal growth of the Church in different parts of the world could say it is paralyzed. It may be challenged to keep up with this; it is being challenged by the decline of the faith in the old world  – a decline brought about primarily by the growth of materialism, indifference and the lure of hedonism and only very marginally by the weakness its members see in each other.

 

Of course the lure of hedonism has infected servants of the Church. Of course there has been scandal, but there has always been scandal. Two thousand years ago followers of Christ were told “How terrible it will be for the world due to its temptations to sin! Temptations to sin are bound to happen, but how terrible it will be for that person who causes someone to sin!” Holier than thou media is one of the phenomena of our time, and while the abandon with which sinners are stoned from the media’s so-called high moral ground today is occasionally halted by exposures like those at the BBC in the Saville affair, the stones keep raining down.

 

The Church, for its part, has never wavered in its teaching on what is and what is not sinful. It knows all too well that it is populated by sinners but it also knows that its God-given task is to help those sinners to repentance and forgiveness in Christ’s name. It forgives repentant sinners but remains constant on what is sinful, despite pressure from many quarters through modern media to move with the spirit of the age and abandon the Way, the Truth and the Life of which it is the mystical incarnation.

 

The Church certainly has to find new ways of more effectively managing the challenges it faces but it is far from paralysed. As for the Church being rattled by Pope Benedict’s abdication, that is about as far from the truth as you could get. The pilgrims, 200,000 of them, who came to his final audience in St. Peter’s Square on 27 February were not rattled – and they represented millions more. Surprised, no doubt; puzzled perhaps, for a short time; but ultimately profoundly grateful for a magnificent example of humility and wisdom which in the end could only be interpreted as coming from one source, his prayer and the grace of him whose vicar he has been.

 

And that is the missing link in all the volumes of deliberations we have been absorbing from the world’s media in the days and weeks since 11 February – as the world in its very limited wisdom tries to work out the “madness” of the Wisdom of Catholic Church.

Perhaps we might hope for some change in all this now following the new Holy Father’s words of encouragement to 5000 journalists on the Saturday following his election?  Pope Francis was nothing if not positive when he offered

“A particularly heart-felt thanks… to those who have been able to observe and present these events in the Church’s history while keeping in mind the most just perspective in which they must be read, that of faith. Historical events almost always require a complex reading that, at times, can also include the dimension of faith.

 “Ecclesial events are certainly not more complicated than political or economic ones. But they have one particularly fundamental characteristic: they answer to a logic that is not mainly that of, so to speak, worldly categories, and this is precisely why it is not easy to interpret and communicate them to a wide and varied audience. In fact, the Church, although it is certainly also a human, historical institution with all that that entails, does not have a political nature but is essentially spiritual: it is the people of God, the holy people of God who walk toward the encounter with Jesus Christ. Only by putting oneself in this perspective can one fully explain how the Catholic Church works.”

  “Christ is the Church’s Shepherd, but His presence in history moves through human freedom. Among these, one is chosen to serve as his Vicar, Successor of the Apostle Peter, but Christ is the centre, the fundamental reference, the heart of the Church! Without Him, neither Peter nor the Church would exist or have a reason for being. As Benedict XVI repeated often, Christ is present and leads His Church. In everything that has happened, the protagonist is, ultimately, the Holy Spirit. He has inspired Benedict XVI’s decision for the good of the Church; He has guided the cardinals in their prayers and in their election. Dear friends, it is important to take due account of this interpretive horizon, this hermeneutic, to bring the heart of the events of these days into focus.”

 Might we hope that those words would be printed out and pinned up over his or her desk by every journalist planning to write authoritatively about the Church in future? Without the perspective given in that message they will continue to write little better than worthless nonsense.

In defence of Ironic Man

“Irony”, Stanley Fish told us in the New York Times (January 28) “is a stance of distance that pays a compliment to both its producer and consumer. The ironist knows what other, more naïve, observers do not: that surfaces are deceptive, that the real story is not what presents itself, that conventional pieties are sentimental fictions.” Fish is taking his fellow critics to task for their love of irony and their mauling of the new movie version of the stage musical version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, “Les Misérables”. The movie, like the musical, is devoid of irony.

This is a thought-provoking piece – not so much along the lines of his thoughts as along other, perhaps opposing, lines. Fish is essentially defending the musical and particularly its recent cinematic incarnation against nearly all the “serious” critics of the world. Let us leave Victor Hugo’s novel on which the musical is based out of this. The novel is an indisputable masterpiece. The musical bears but the most tenuous connection to it – as any examination of its very extraordinary genesis will reveal.

What Fish has to say about the musical is interesting enough but what is really interesting is what he has to say about irony and the great divide between a life examined through an ironic prism (or is it prison) and a life which is devoid of this sense. Life in the former mode is presented as one in which we encounter and deal with anguish, doubt, uncertainty; life in the latter mode is one of simplicity, certainty and untrammelled feeling. But is it as simple as that? What worried me not a little was the thought that the two main authorities whom Fish quoted in support of the unexamined raw emotional life, Mark Rothko and David Foster Wallace, both tragically took their own lives as their ultimate response to the vision of the world which they embraced. Fish makes no mention of this.

Post-modern irony seems to me an excessive and misguided expression of a very real perception of the fact that there is much more to the world and the human condition than meets the eye. In some way it seems to mock our folly in not seeing what we should see – but does not want to do anything about it. However, a genuine ironic stance is no more than an approach we take to getting beyond the surface of appearances to the reality underlying them.

The common cultural mode today is one in which we respond with enthusiasm and abandon to the superficial emotionalism of popular entertainment. This is typified by our consumption of pop music, Hollywood film and television, musicals since the 1970s – when Andrew Lloyd Weber and the likes of  ‘Les Misérables’ became the cultural phenomenon of the late 20th century. The parallel emergence of the multi-billion spectator-sport industry is another of its manifestations. All this consumption is devoid of that vital question-mark which distinguishes the response of the thinking creature from the unthinking creature.  We either feel good or bad about something. That is all there is to it. Sentiment is put above all else and when that happens sentimentalism becomes the core value of our ideology. Sentimentalism is, as D.H.Lawrence defined it, the working off on yourself of feelings you haven’t really got. That is the ultimate destructive self-deception.

Since the consumers of these products are in fact creatures destined to think and not just to feel, when they are deprived of the challenge to do so they will not then bother to think. Their culture deprives them of the opportunity to develop that vital habit of being which is necessary for the fulfilment of their true nature. Ultimately this will leave them with a vision of their existence which will appear meaningless. The consequences of that may be the response of Rothko and Wallace, and so many others who have taken the same nihilistic path for the same nihilistic reason.

Does all this help explain in part the apparent readiness of Western societies to embrace euthanasia, abortion, and many other life choices which only make sense when perception itself is limited to the surface appearances of our existence? Does this explain the appalling superficiality of Barack Obama’s presidency and in particular the content of his second inaugural address. His appeal to the superficial and the emotional is relentless. The speech, as fork-tongued as it was banal, paid lip-service to the ideals of the Founding Fathers but the connections between his sentimental politics and their real-life politics were remote. He gushed:

“The patriots of 1776 did not fight to replace the tyranny of a king with the privileges of a few, or the rule of a mob. They gave to us a republic, a government of, and by, and for the people. Entrusting each generation to keep safe our founding creed. And for more than 200 years we have. Through blood drawn by lash, and blood drawn by sword, we noted that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half slave, and half free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together… For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

OK, it is just a speech, but as Janet Daly reflected in her article in The Daily Telegraph last weekend, it is a speech which chillingly betrays a fundamental change in the very nature of our democracy. While it was superficial and trite it was no less significant for that – indeed, that its trite message could pass for real political thought and be a harbinger for a new political reality was what was frighteningly historic about it in her eyes. For her it was a coming to America of the same trite political thought which New Labour brought to British politics in 1997.

“The core message was pounded home relentlessly: American government”, she wrote, “is now in the redistribution and welfare-provision business, and this is not (contrary to appearances) at variance with the founding fathers’ conception of a nation that is inherently opposed to state interference and domination over the individual. This is the new credo of American nationhood: the government, not the community or the household, will be the moral arbiter of social virtue. The traditional suspicion of the overweening power of the state is now a thing of the past. Democracy is about electing a government that will be there to protect you from hardship, shelter you from the storm and absolve you from sin. Well, no, maybe not that last one – but the concept of the state as moral saviour is not so remote from this, is it?”

And what has this to do with Stanley Fish? Perhaps this: nurture our society on superficial sentimentalism and feed it nothing more demanding than emotional highs and lows and you will take away our capacity for irony. With our sense of irony gone, and with it the capacity to see beyond superficial appearances, we will have to live with the spectre of a world in which we are represented by people who think in the way Obama thinks. We will see no hope beyond the quagmire of superficial emotionalism and sentimentalism in which they are threatening to engulf us. Our sense of irony at least gives us a gateway to a deeper and truer reading of our condition and some prospect of redemption.

It’s not about “cold fish” or “wet fish” – it’s about people’s lives, stupid

What a breath of fresh air this sober analysis is after the rantings of Paul Krugman  and utterly blinkered wishful thinking of Lara Marlow in the Irish Times and her other platforms.

Liberalism’s Glass Jaw by ROSS DOUTHAT in today’s New York Times calmly and coolly exposes the bubbly substance of everything that Obama stands for and shows us that the real problem with all this is not Obama himself but the fragile ideology he stands on. We can only hope that while he has been able to fool a majority of the people to get  one term in office he will not be able to fool enough of them to get a second.

As Doubthat reads it, all of Obama’s signature accomplishments have tended to have the same weakness in common: They have been weighed down by interest-group payoffs and compromised by concessions to powerful insiders, from big pharma (which stands to profit handsomely from the health care bill) to the biggest banks (which were mostly protected by the Dodd-Frank financial reform).

It may have been an empty rhetorical gesture, but the fact that Romney could actually out-populist the president on “too big to fail” during the last debate speaks to the Obama-era tendency for liberalism to blur into a kind of corporatism, in which big government intertwines with big business rather than restraining it.

Doubthat does not mention his social policy “evolutions” and the concessions he has risked making to the gay lobby on marriage, the ease with which he has slipped into assuming that Christian consciences on sexual morality issues can be tossed around the ring like so many rag dolls. But he might have done. These were the cotton wool compassionate gestures which Obama has allowed to distract him from really grappling with the more difficult challenges of getting the country back on its feet.

One hopes that the American electorate will get well beyond the preoccupation which some in the media have tried to focus on – whether it is Romney as a “cold fish”, or Obama as a “wet fish” – and look at the real issues of substance which Doubthat summarizes here.