Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Ken Follett Rant

I'm glad to know that a blogger I like, The Happy Catholic, has tossed Pillars of the Earth into the doorstop bin. I've wanted to say something about Ken Follet ever since I read Pillars when it first came out in hardback, a very long time ago. Now that I've become a blowhard with a blog, I can say it.

Ken Follet can't write historical fiction. One of the chief tasks of historical fiction is to allow the reader to see the past the way it was lived, not to reinforce his prejudices about the past. It's a tough job. None of us lived in older days. Our access to ancient worldviews can come from our culture, our religion, and a lot of quality time spent studying history. Sometimes people have a "sixth sense" about these things. They can just tell that "it wasn't that way." I don't know how well I score on that scale, but I do know that Pillars of the Earth is crap.

Pillars is crap because it leaves the reader with no real idea what it might have been like to have lived in medieval England. What the reader does have is a very good idea what it's like to be a modern, Starbucks-besotted yuppie who's thinking about life in medieval England. Each turn of Pillar's pages leads to a trite new confirmation of what the reader already believes about the past -- it was worse then, except for the parts that are like now. And so our Pillar(ied) "heroes" are put through their modern paces; righteous indignation at the arbitrary power-game called organized religion; unreasonable prohibitions on sex and birth control; feverish, Howard-Roark style work on a giant building project whose only significance is to provide a setting for individual talent and craftsmanship. One really has no idea why, particularly, the story had to be set in medieval England as opposed to, say, Bayonne, New Jersey in 1978.

That's part of the novel's charm, of course -- maybe all of it. Everyone likes to think their preoccupations and perceptions have been the common dream of mankind throughout the ages. Pillars of the Earth reassures us that everyone who's ever lived has the same aspirations and dreams we do. If you hadn't noticed yet, that warm cozy feeling comes from leading a life that's the envy of the ages. Everyone knows the third world wants our democracy and our capitalism, so why should we hestitate conclude that medieval Frenchmen and Sung Dynasty Chinese would want them just as badly? And why shouldn't we hold in contempt those wogs (historical or otherwise) who dare(d) to question the onward march of human progress that created and sustains the American middle class?

I don't have my copy of Pillars handy. But here's a sample of Follet's historical vision from his best-selling Eye of the Needle. Describing the temporary lair of Henry Faber, Needle's arch-villain, Follett gives us a thumbnail sketch of a whole century: "The building in which he lived . . . was a Victorian brick house at one end of a terrace of six. The houses were high, narrow, and dark, like the minds of the men for whom they had been built."

That's Follett's view in a nutshell. Thank goodness we're not like those nasty dead Victorians! We're not high, but lowbrow. We hate narrow-mindedness, and rightly prefer indifference to anything but out own pleasure. Our lives, illuminated by the gleaming brilliance of the television screen, are justly secured by the power of Olympus and happily lived with the morals of Bloomsbury. We are the pinnacle of history and the envy of former ages.

None of this is very noticeable when Follett confines himself to characters who are modern. Their narcissism melds easily with the brutal dictatorship of relativism in which they live and move and have their being. Thus each of them usually finds meaning and happiness in an utterly personal, one may even say selfish, vision of themselves and their times. In Lie Down with Lions our heroine is moved by sexual excitement and marital infidelity; Communism, democracy, and "high, narrow" thinking about the goods and evils thereof have nothing to do it. Ditto for Elene Fontana in Key to Rebecca. Ditto for Alex Wollf in Key to Rebecca. Ditto for Sonja in Key to Rebecca. Ditto for Charlotte Walden in The Man from St. Petersburg. Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.

In contrast, Follett portrays men like David Rose, who did his best to stop Henry Faber from thwarting the Allies' D-Day plans, as a bitchy, juvenile, useless fellow who knows nothing about women and -- therefore -- even less about orgasms. It takes Faber only one day to seduce Rose's wife, stranted on a North Sea island without sex due to her husband's paraplegia and his constant bitter rejection of her emotional advances. (One is left wondering, for the question holds no interest for Follett, whether a paralyzed man can have any marital feelings at all if he's incapable of full participation in the Great Quest for Meaning).

Because Rose discovers Faber's spying, and because Faber's having it off with his wife, Rose tries to stop Faber from taking his vital, clandestine photographs to Germany by U-Boat. But Faber overcomes the British paralytic and provides a suitably-Stracheyan epitaph: "David Rose had been something of a fool, also a braggart and a poor husband, and he had died screaming for mercy; but he had been a brave man, and he had died for his country . . .." Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Not in Follett's world, where it may be good to die for sex, revenge, or anything else -- as long as it isn't something "high, narrow, and dark" like stopping Hitler.

Ken Follett has written a lot of novels. I haven't read them all. But I think I've read enough. It's been said that the difference between a good novel and a bad one is that good novels tell you about their characters, and bad novels tell you about their authors. In like fashion, good historical fiction tells you about the mores of the past; bad historical fiction, like Follett's, tells you only about the mores of the present. I have nothing against what one of my friends called, "mind candy" -- bright, frothy novels that excite with sentiment rather than burdening the mind with drama. But I get irritated when they're passed off to a gullible public as "breathtaking" pieces of historical imagination. They're not. They're mind candy. And a diet of candy isn't good for anyone. Time for healthier fare -- Robert Graves, Marguerite Yourcenar,, Mary Renault, Michael Shaara, Sharon Kay Penman . . . . . .

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


As the day nears, and preparations leave me little time to write, let me just say that I thank God for allowing me to be part of the United States of America. There are so many things to cherish in this country. I, like other patriots, spend more time and ascii being vexed at her flaws. But even those flaws are mostly the exesses of her virtues:
I love America's pragmatism, but not her amorality;

I love her undauntable courage, but not her fickle wrath;

I love America's enthusiasm for the individual, not her cawing maelstrom of egotism;

I love her speedy power, but not her heedless arrogance;

I love America's optimism, but not her vanity;

I love her free and easy ways, but not her licentious indifference . . . .

I love her.
And I thank God that my life is forever written into her story, however small my thread may be. I could not imagine my life as an English life, or a story from the subcontinent or the vast reaches of Asia. I am an American in my bones and in my blood. Uproot me, and I would die from pining.

God bless the United States of America. I would rather be a citizen of the United States of America than a king or noble in any other country. Good Russians or Thais will feel no slight, for they, too, are justly proud of their homelands, and will never be chagrined at the destiny of their births. But the cathedral of the nations spreads God's design across many colors and forms. And so I taste a light that Europe or Africa will never know, and shout with joy.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

If You Haven't Been To Mass Today (And for the Week

Please take a minute, read this, and add this to your prayers. Thanks. Mary Herboth's brother is dying of cancer. It seems nothing can be done except the best things like prayer and the sacraments.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Looking for Something to Pray Over?

Here's one.

Here's another.

I'll pray that one group retain its courage, and that the other group finds it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

My Golem's Name Is "McCarthy"

I remember an old story about the golem, a creature in Jewish folklore which could be made from inanimate materials only by the greatest sages, who used them to fight pogroms and anti-Semitism. The main problem was keeping the golem from turning on its creators. I recalled the legend when I read this story courtesy of the Drudge Report. The ADL is issuing a wake-up call to the Jewish community. It has a list of hundreds (perhaps millions) of card-carrying Evangelicals who have infiltrated our institutions and halls of government, and who are using their influence to destroy the country. As Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director puts it:
"What we're seeing is a pervasive, intensive assault on the traditional balance between religion and state in this country" . . . "They're trying to bring Christianity to all aspects of American life. They're not just talking just about God and religious values but about Jesus and about Christian values."
I didn't know there was a difference, when it came to "the traditional balance between religion and state in this country." That "traditional balance" has always exiled and outlawed any talk about God and religious values -- Christian, Jewish, or otherwise -- from the public forum. Government at all levels has, for the past sixty years or so, built a "wall of separation," between "Church and state" that includes synagogues, ashrams, and mosques. It is stupid at best, and disingenuous at worst, to suggest that this anti-religious attitude welcomes "God and religious values," and is endangered only when people mention "Jesus and Christian values."

True to form, the ADL has produced its own questionable poll supporting its position. It is, of course, tailor made to elicit answers that can seem threatening to non-Christian religious minorities. For example, the ADL trumpets alarm over this result:
Sixty-nine percent of Evangelicals and 60 percent of weekly churchgoers said there should be "organized" prayer in public schools, according to the survey, and 89 percent of Evangelicals agreed that religious symbols "like the Ten Commandments" should be displayed in public buildings.
I wasn't aware that displaying the Ten Commandments is an act of anti-Semitic exclusion. More to the point, however, is that the ADL (among its many unclarities in the poll) apparently didn't want to ask the respondents whether they thought "organized prayer" meant prayers voluntarily organized and attended by student groups, or mandatory, "gun-at-your-head" recitations of the Nicene Creed. If I were worried about an impending Evangelical theocracy, I'd want to know that.

The rhetoric -- communicated, no doubt, faithfully by The Jewish Week -- is full of code-words that telegraph the ADL's intended course.
Warning that the evangelical right has made alarming gains . . . .

ADL policy [of] attacking several prominent religious right groups and challenging their motives . . . .

national Jewish summit to respond to the growing challenge . . . . .

But even more threatening . . . . .

More ominously . . . .

naming names, and judging the motives of leading conservative Christian groups . . . .

get-tough approach

Jewish groups have been ‘seduced' by the Evangelicals' support for Israel, even as those groups pursue the ‘Christianization' of the nation'
The Nazis are back (as though they'd ever been absent from the ADL's version of history). They're trying to "Christianize" the nation, "seducing" the Jewish leadership with equivocal gestures and words, all the while pursuing "threatening, ominous, alarming" aims with questionable (anti-Semitic) motives that call for all-out Jewish effort to "get tough."

I confess to a great lack of sympathy with this approach, as much as I admire it as a brilliant example of mass politics.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Congress and a former ADL official, agreed that a collective re-evaluation of Jewish church-state strategies is in order . . .

He conceded that "Jews have always fared badly in systems where religion is allied with the government. But I just don't see that there is a serious move to do that in this country. I'm not frightened by the issue of whether the Ten Commandments should be in public buildings."
There's far more of Rabbi Korn's sage and excellent observations than I've quoted, but I quoted this small piece to point something out.

Jews have not "always fared badly" in systems where religion is allied with the government. The Lutheran Church, it's interesting to note, is the official, state-supported religion of Sweden and Denmark.
Denmark was the only occupied country that actively resisted the Nazi regime's attempts to deport its Jewish citizens. On September 28, 1943, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, a German diplomat, secretly informed the Danish resistance that the Nazis were planning to deport the Danish Jews. The Danes responded quickly, organizing a nationwide effort to smuggle the Jews by sea to neutral Sweden. Warned of the German plans, Jews began to leave Copenhagen, where most of the 8,000 Jews in Denmark lived, and other cities, by train, car, and on foot. With the help of the Danish people, they found hiding places in homes, hospitals, and [gasp! official state] churches. Within a two week period fishermen helped ferry 7,220 Danish Jews and 680 non-Jewish family members to safety across the narrow body of water separating Denmark from Sweden.

The Danish rescue effort was unique because it was nationwide. It was not completely successful, however. Almost 500 Danish Jews were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Yet even of these Jews, all but 51 survived the Holocaust, largely because Danish officials pressured the Germans with their concerns for the well-being of those who had been deported. The Danes proved that widespread support for Jews and resistance to Nazi policies could save lives.
Israel is another counter-example that comes to mind rather handily -- Israel is a good day's walk from the ultra-secular model of Church-State separation being touted by Mr. Foxman as the be-all and end-all of human civilization. It would be interesting -- and perhaps will be interesting -- to see the secularist ideals promoted by the ADL's campaign met by some pithy comparisons between Evangelical political influence in America and Jewish religious influence in Israeli politics, or between the supposedly-malign project of "Christianizing" America and the supposedly-benign project of "Zionizing" Palestine.

That sort of heated rhetoric is what Foxman and the ADL hope to provoke. They've already taken the first steps with their axe-handle rhetoric and vexing innuendos. If evangelicals reply in kind, it will only serve to fuel the ADL's paranoic framework and create cause to question the bona fides of any Jewish group which refuses to join the fray. In a world of bitter suspicion and antagonistic relationships, everyone turns to the men who can "name names" and "get tough." As I said, it's a brilliant piece of mass politics. So was McCarthyism. It's playing with fire, and I hope everyone declines the ADL's invitation to strike a match and that we follow instead the civilized approach of Rabbi Korn:
Instead of raising the level of confrontation, he said, "we should be thinking about how to develop a nuanced relationship with the religious right. We should be giving them support and praise for the wonderful things they are doing for Israel, and still manage to be strong where we disagree with them on our domestic agenda."
There have been times when Jewish attempts to build a liveable society through secularism goaded Christians into demonizing them as a culture-destroying race bent on undermining wholesome values. Let's not invite that old, vile rhetoric to emerge -- on either side -- again.

Monday, November 14, 2005

My Ultimate 1950s Sci-Fi Movie Weekend

Destination Moon (1950)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
When Worlds Collide (1951)
War of the Worlds (1953)
Them! (1954)
This Island Earth(1955)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
The Fly (1958)

and . . . . and . . . .


Forbidden Planet (1956)!!!!!!!!!

If only I had the time to sit down in front of the Interocitor with a few cold ones. Ah well, Klaatu Barada Nikto, y'all!

Saturday, November 12, 2005

For Veterans' Day

I saw that the Curt Jester put up a hymn for Veterans' Day. I appreciated that sentiment and his apt choice. Inasmuch, however, as Veterans Day has been employed in my neck of the woods as an occasion to drape red-white-and-blue bunting around the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq and some of its more dishonorable attempts to fight (the other guy's) terrorism, here's my selection:
God of our fathers, known of old--
Lord of our far-flung battle line
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe--
Such boasting as the Gentiles use
Or lesser breeds without the law--
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget - lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard--
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard--
For frantic boast and foolish word,
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord!
-- Rudyard Kipling, "Recessional."
More Tooting

Since it's beginning on July 8, 2003, The Dossier passed the 150K mark for hits (151,435 as of today). We've had 111,687 visits (more than twenty minutes' spent on the site), 1,049 this week. That means about 74% of our visitors are serious readers of the material I generate (that's a compromise between the phrase "brilliance I radiate" and "bilge I bloviate"). Thanks, y'all, for your appreciation.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

School Days

Today's my first day of student teaching. (Your prayers would be appreciated!!)

For what it's worth, here's an journal entry I wrote on education:

Educating Children for the Malabar Front

One of the things I noticed about Professor Shulman's presentation to EDU 201 the other week was the virtually-complete absence of the learning methods we've been studying in EDU 302 & 404, and which we're experiencing in EDU 201. Aside from a few "microsocratics" and a couple of Q&As there wasn't any vigorous interaction between the students and Professor Shulman. There weren't any small groups, no role-playing exercises, no collaborative or cooperative efforts. Professor Shulman remain seated and motionless for the first 45 minutes of the class, and while I suspect he stood and "painted the room" as a (very) subtle energy shift, the muted technique didn't change the essential format -- the dicactive lecture we're taught to use almost as a last resort.[1]

And yet, to use Professor Frederick's phrase, the lecture was very lively, an "interior dialogue" between Professor Shulman and each of us.

So why, on this most auspicious day, one eagerly anticipated by all of us Constructivists, did we default to the didactic-lecture format? Shouldn't we have been treated to a brilliant expose of all those exciting strategies we've been studying? Shouldn't we have seen at least one power-point slide? I think the answer is, "No," perhaps even, "Hell no."

Like actors, or policemen, or trial lawyers, what we're studying is methods, the techniques of teaching. And like actors, or policemen on a traffic stop, or lawyers before juries, if we do it right people won't notice 90% of what's going on. Few people waiting on the roadside for a traffic ticket notice the cop's surreptitious hand pushing on the trunk to see if it will open because there's contraband or someone hiding inside. Nor will they notice the cautious approach from the driver's or passenger's blind-side, meant to allow the officer time to observe someone reaching for a weapon or hiding something under the seat. When we see George C. Scott deliver his speech before that huge American flag well, by God, we think it's George S. Patton himself growling at us; we don't notice the acting, the acting is invisible. That's true for teaching, too. The method should be invisible, or at least unobtrusive, because it's not the point of what's happening.

That brings me back to Professor Shulman's lecture. Mostly, I thought, it dealt with "meta-issues" such as the purposes and value of comparative / hierarchical grading. His indictment of law school pedagogy as "corrupt" was all too charitable.[2] The first semester our grades came out, not only friendships realigned, but some romantic relationships as well. That's not counting students who let their spouses put them through law school before "better dealing" themselves into new marriages with classmates. I remember one student at the law school telling us that he'd asked the lawyers who were interviewing him for a job what kind of wife would fit into the social life of the firm. He thought the question displayed complete loyalty and put him up over the others. Somewhere out there is a very lucky woman, because he didn't get the job. I wonder if he was beat out by another classmate who asked whether having children fit into the firm's social life.

Most people in my experience tend to think that "corruption" means exchanging something good, true, or beautiful for money. That definition's too limited. "Corruption," to my way of thinking, means exchanging something good, true or beautiful for something that's less true, good, or beautiful. Money just happens to be the most common medium of exchange. It's good to get high grades. It's good to have a well-paying job with a prestigious law firm. But it's corrupt to trade higher, finer things like home and family for them. I think law schools provide that acculturation for their students, playing off the James Bryan Conant / John F. Kennedy "best and brightest" acculturation that preceded it in the lives of their students.

Lawyers, like educators, have immense power. What future can come from legal men trained in the mold of Cromwell rather than Thomas More? I know a lawyer whose firm routinely takes cases that violate his religious principles; he's told to work on them or take a walk. He walked. If he'd stayed, he'd have been corrupt, trading his identity for a mess of 401(K) pottage. I know a Supreme Court Justice who takes pride in his conservative, Catholic credentials -- and then writes articles claiming that the teaching of the Catholic Church against the death penalty doesn't bind his conscience, because if it did, he'd have to resign from the Supreme Court.[3] I recall CS Lewis wondering, in Perelandra, how many college professors have lost their souls pursuing the high opinion of their colleagues. I remember the Sermon on the Mount: "Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets." (Luke 6:25). If professional schools were to teach anything valuable, they would teach that. It could be said that the greatest soul-killing myth in the American religion is the identity of virtue and worldly success. I'm glad Professor Shulman lifted a corner of that shroud last Tuesday.

Shulman's cross-cultural comparison of the dilemma of a teacher under the American and Soviet spheres of education was bold, and apt. History, for example, is supposed to be what Herodotus said it was, an investigation, not a memorized group of "just-so tales" cobbled together by mono-multi-stereo- cultural lobbying groups. I have no problem with his solution, either, so long as it's done without hypocrisy or dissembling. I'm not going to teach the spread of Buddhism in Ceylon just because somebody on the state standards committe wrote a doctoral thesis about it. Nor am I going to portray Western Civilization as being particularly shameful or worse than Asian civilization. My World Civilization book has a good deal on the Western slave trade, and nothing on the ancient and long-running Chinese custom of foot-binding (abolished, interestingly enough, by a fascist government). I'm not saying that every conscientious teacher ought to go stalking around the school, fiery-eyed with a chip on his shoulder, itching for the chance to duke it out over some principle or other. I'm saying that members of the learned professions have a constant obligation to exercise an inner moral vigilance, and to perpetually entertain the possibility that this vigilance will demand resistance, perhaps even a donnybrook or two, with corruption.

The rant having ended, I return to the reason I started writing this little thing to begin with. Why, if the topics were so important, didn't Professor Shulman dazzle us with constructivism? I venture the opinion that it's because all the tips and tricks, all the glittering methodology of collaborative classrooms, cooperative learning, "jigsawing" and the like exist because they are deliberately-inefficient ways of teaching. Professor Shulman's didactic lecture was delivered in ideal circumstances. He was a learned and experienced professional speaking to an audience on a theme in which we were already interested and highly-knowledgeable.[4] As liberally-educated men and women, we also shared a common fund of knowledge and experience with Professor Shulman. He did not have to explain what "communism" was in order to make his point about government censorship of education in Czechoslovakia, and had he quoted Shakespeare we would all at least have known he was quoting something, and we all had the verbal and intellectual skills to take his meaning even if we weren't personally familiar with the reference. In short, that classroom was an ideal instructional environment because we were linked, if you will, by superconducting lines of communication.

Our readings (in both EDU 201 and 302; I've given up trying to keep it all separate and entered a sort of syllabus-induced fugue state) undeniably suggest that the exclusive use of didactic lectures is a thing of the past. It is described often as a holdover from medieval times. But in the Middle Ages, the only people with access to higher education had already become literate in at least one second language (Latin) or more (Greek and Hebrew). They were thoroughly-versed in a base corpus of knowledge drawn from Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, classical (mostly Roman) authors, etc., a corpus which is decidedly smaller than our own. On the other half of the educational spectrum, even local schooling tended to focus mostly on the children of wealthy (or at least comfortable) families, and usually ended with acquiring enough Latin to read legal documents and international correspondence. Martin Luther expressed the general view admirably, "A boy should pass one or two hours a day at school and let him have the rest of his time for learning a trade in his father's house. . . . So also girls should have an hour a day at school." Likewise, the law implementing compulsory attendance at school passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1496, applied only to children of the nobility and freeholders (families with their own land), and then only to the point where the children acquired "perfect Latin."

The United States seems, not a unique example of the project, but certainly the first and most prominent of a nation embracing an ideal of universal education as part of the national raison d'etre. From Jefferson through Dewey and beyond, our society has considered "education" (however variously conceived in terms of content or method) to be synonymous with the entire American project. I venture to suggest that because of this egalitarian passion the United States undertook to do for education what Napoleon did for military service, transforming a state function that had been sharply restricted along class lines into a national program of total participation involving all strata of society. One recalls in this connection the strong militaristic tinge that has accompanied American educational reform. Intelligence testing became popular as a result of its use by the American military in WWI, and gained new impetus when schools were enlisted in the national project of defeating Communism and vindicating the American Way.
Our final word, perhaps better characterized as a plea, is that all segments of our population give attention to the implementation of our recommendations. . . . Help should come from students themselves; from parents, teachers, and school boards; from colleges and universities; from local, State, and Federal officials; from teachers' and administrators' organizations; from industrial and labor councils; and from other groups with interest in and responsibility for educational reform.

It is their America, and the America of all of us, that is at risk; it is to each of us that this imperative is addressed. It is by our willingness to take up the challenge, and our resolve to see it through, that America's place in the world will be either secured or forfeited. Americans have succeeded before and so we shall again.
-- "A Final Word," excerpted from A Nation at Risk.
The quoted passage is, in a very Napoleonic sense, a "revolutionary" vision of education in which the state is general to a social army fighting to preserve the motherland against forces that would deprive her of her rightfully-glorious place in world history.

This observation, if true, leads to a number of questions about whether American education, as practiced and popularly conceived, is an example of civilization or merely systematic barbarism. With regard to the immediate point, however, the enlistment of the nation in an "education army" poses some of the same issues for learning and teaching that technology posed for the military establishments of the 19th and 20th centuries. It's an interesting fact, recorded in William Manchester's Dreadnaught, that in 1850 the British Army conducted a study proving conclusively that in the hands of properly-trained troops, the longbow was superior to the rifle in accuracy, rate of fire, and effectiveness at killing or incapacitating an opposing force. The obstacle, as the British realized, which prohibited re-equipping the army with longbows was that effective training in the weapon required literally years of exhaustive tutelage; in the days of Crecy and Agincourt skill in the longbow was often handed down from father to son, giving rise to English family names like Archer, Bowman, Fletcher, Butt, Buttson, and the like.[5] In contrast to competent military bowmanship, riflery can be practiced at an acceptably-effective level with only months, perhaps even weeks, of drill. The rifle, and not the longbow, was the eminently suitable weapon for modern military establishments, which must be capable of enlisting and training huge numbers of soldiers quickly drawn from all classes and conditions of society.

Although that old debate has long been settled by technological advances, the human dynamic it highlights remains a feature of mass politics and therefore mass education. The most efficient, most effective method of teaching -- the lecture, that "inner dialogue," the oral essay, perhaps joined with a truly Socratic dialogue -- can't be relied on to train the "conscript armies" of modern students. The gap in training and experience between student and instructor is too great. (And that, by the way, assumes a lot about instructors which is not, strictly speaking, true). As the infantry of the 1850s no longer came from backgrounds which provided training in the skills necessary to use the longbow, the modern student no longer comes from backgrounds which provide training in the skills necessary to listen to a good lecture or meaningfully participate in a socratic exchange. In the last century, it was realized that some basic training in riflery took less time to impart just enough skill to work on the battlefield, and now we're realizing that the eight-minute sound-bite (accompanied by appropriate audio-visual stimulus) takes less time to impart just enough skill to work in the modern factory. When the Founding Fathers spoke of standing armies as a threat to liberty, perhaps they spoke more truly than even they suspected.

I still wonder at the point of it all. The purpose of our own education as teachers has been forcefully stated as the development of the whole child, but I wonder . . . development into what? The question doesn't seem to require much by way of critical thinking skills in the educational establishment. That's not a judgment, however much it may sound like one; an alienated, culturally-bereft, materialistic society is justifiably intolerant of moral debates or moral didacticism. In that respect, the concentration of educational activity into a state system operating under secularist principles has been a subtle and brilliant method of driving "higher-order moral thinking" out of education altogether. Moreover, the resulting absence of teleological explanations of human existence which exceed materialist priorities carries its own powerful message, one which is all the more powerful because it's never expressly stated and thereby subjected to examination. The educated man's picture of human life becomes a closed circle in which he both eats to live and lives to eat. Leisure, and all the higher levels of human meaning it presupposes, is trivialized into a pleasant hobby at best, a dangerous eccentricity at worst. Thus we wonder, astonished, at the prevailing attitude among teenagers that knowledge and wisdom are not worth the candle, that accelerated and high-order intellectual performance is an example of uncouth bad taste, even an implied insult directed at everyone else.

Perhaps that's as it ought to be. The Revolutionary Army can hardly be expected to question the purpose of its own existence. Maybe it's better to turn all of America's schools into well-funded, cleaner, bowdlerized versions of Seward Park High[6] -- holding pens for thousands of unreflective, other-directed, morally-ignorant young people subjected to a frequent barrages of inducements to enlist in the army. Whichever army -- the one fighting the war on poverty, the one fighting the war on drugs, the war on terror, the war on Saddam, the war on intolerance (by which is usually meant moral objections raised to materialist / secularist priorities). Someday we might even wrap all those wars into a neat catch-phrase, something like "the Malabar Front." It's easier to run a society along those lines. It's certainly much easier to run a school.

[1] This bespeaks no inherent prejudice against the method, as I hope my observations explain. IMHO, the de-emphasis on didacticism and lecture is due in no small part to their familiarity and ease of use; under stress, any person will default to his or her training. Most of us have seen didactic lecturing for the better part of our entire academic careers. (That goes for law school, too; what passed as "Socratic method" at IU in my day was "Socratic" only in that it made one long for a draught of hemlock). Our course of instruction is, I think, intended to "skip over" the brilliant oral essay on the theory that any of us can speechify things fairly well already, and we ought to be conditioned so that the stress of a classroom causes a default to other methods.

[2] If I were reading this from the pen of another, I'd think, "sour grapes." Maybe. I wouldn't say my stint in law school even remotely resembled a star academic performance. But I did write on to the Law Review, was selected to represent the school on the ABA Moot Court Team, and I was elected to the Order of Barristers by the faculty. I also went on to clerk for two federal judges, one at the District Court level and another on the U.S. Court of Appeals. I do have biases that influence this appreciation of law school, but GPA-envy isn't among them.

[3] Antonin Scalia, "God's Justice and Ours," First Things, May, 2002.

[4] That's a comparative judgment, of course, but it's comparatively right.

[5] The first names require no elaboration. As to the others, fletchers were skilled artisans who "fletched," or manufactured, arrows; "Butt," "Butts" and "Buttson" are all derived from a term in archery for a place of practice or target.

[6] The high school featured in this book.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Canadian Cowardice

Via Fr. Dowd, we learn that Canada's debating whether to create a programmatic, state-sanctioned approach to killing the sick and mentally ill. Fr. Dowd's blog has all the details, as well as good observations about what it all can mean for Canada. I'm not Canadian. But I thought I'd sit in the gallery for the Parliamentary debate via the links on Fr. Dowd's site. Here's what I think about it.

Ms. Francine Lalonde moved for the bill to go forward. It is time, she said, for Canada to join the progressive and forward-thinking nations who kill the incurably sick, the socially useless, among their populations:
Death is never a mercy. To characterize death as merciful is to invest it with nearly altruistic qualities, with tenderness, which is a kind of anthropomorphizing, as if death has a personality and we can alter its features, render it more kindly, make of it even a friend.

Merciful death — it was for the best ... at least he's not suffering any more — is but a shallow platitude, seized upon most eagerly by those who cannot otherwise admit their own relief in being released from the exhausting burden, emotional and otherwise but essentially vicarious, of illness and infirmities and frailty; of how awful life looks, wasting and desiccated and necrotic, when it's trickling away.

This is, I think, the unbearable heaviness of being.

Of growing old and feeble, or not even so old but terribly sick, losing one's faculties, one's mobility, one's mind — reverting, yes, to the helplessness of infancy. But it is inevitably the healthy who recoil from this, as if even death were a preferable alterative to such dependency and deterioration.

We project our revulsion — which is essentially rooted in fear of our own mortality — and convince ourselves that somebody else would be better off dead because look, just look, at how wretched their existence has become or will become. And that says a great deal about the value that we subtract from a life when it is no longer vigorous and productive; when it just lies there, maybe thinking, maybe dreaming, maybe remembering.

Little wonder that the sick and dying begin to see themselves as valueless, too, abhorrent, ashamed, unworthy because they can no longer walk or talk or feed themselves.
Oh, sorry, that's not Ms. Lalonde. It's Rosie Dimanno writing in the Toronto Star. I thought it might be interesting to look at Ms. Dimanno's editorial first, because so many of its themes are echoed by Ms. Lalonde's argument for the bill.

Take, for example, Ms. Lalonde's brilliant , languid praise for the artistic beauty of being murdered by your family physician:
"The experience of doctors who look after individuals who have been allowed to be helped to die in countries that have passed legislation in this regard is enlightening. One might infer that, knowing that they will be able to get help to die with dignity when they reach the point where their life has definitely become unbearable, it will be easier for people to live fully a painful end of life or a life of extreme limitations because they feel imprisoned in their bodies. As Félix Leclerc reminded us, death is full of life."
Now this really is good rhetoric. A lot of arguments against euthanasia legislation are focused on the dignity of life and its inextricable end in a (hopefully natural) death. What Ms. Lalonde's just done is plant her flag on the same moral high-ground by plausibly using the same line of thought to justify suicide. If, she says, the pro-life bunch are right and death really is part of life, then why not follow the idea where it leads us? If we use our freedom and our medical technology to help us live as we wish, why not continue using them in order to die as we wish?

I thought Ms. Lalonde's reference to Felix Leclerc was curious. The only Leclerc I know fought the Germans in WWII. So I read up on him as much as I could, which isn't much, because just about everything on him is in French. He's a famous artist, a prominent figure in Québécois culture, a folk-singer whose work apparently helped make it "okay" to be French in Canada. That last bit's no small achievement, from what I understand; there's a lot of Anglo-Gallic tension in Canada, and it's tough to find an American analogy. As near as I can gather, it's as though Americans lived in a society where the words "white trash," "trailer-court" and "redneck" applied to French-speaking people. I found this in the Canadian Encyclopedia:
The lyrics of the songs [in Leclerc's considerable repertoire] . . . speak to men of themselves. The naturalistic and mythical aspects of man's origins have been retained. He draws inspiration from the elements - water, earth, sun, fire, and wind - and his themes reflect a love of animals and nature. . . . His poetry, simple and direct, conveys a tragic vision of existence. To him the tragic character of humanity is rooted in nature. Human effort occasionally may lead to death under the yoke . . . but at the same time it provides a link with the beyond and adds a spiritual dimension to everyday actions and indeed to life in general. Nature is omnipresent in Leclerc's songs. The seasons provide the backdrop to the recurring themes of escape, death, God, woman, and country.
That doesn't sound very healthy to me. "[N]aturalistic and mythical aspects of man's origins . . . tragic vision of existence . . . . character of humanity rooted in nature . . . recurring themes of escape and death . . . " It all sounds like something Silverweed might sing in the Warren of Shining Wires.

Of course I may be greatly maligning Leclerc's work, and I apologize for it if I have. His view of the world may have no connection with Ms. Lalonde's -- "death is full of life" is the kind of brass-plated bromide that occupies the place ordinarily reserved for intelligence in the minds of legislators and sophomore English-lit majors. It may not be a distinct theme which Ms. Lalonde picked up from Leclerc's ouvre.

Still, I mention it because one thing Francis Schaeffer taught me is that culture and religious philosophy are inseparable and that secularism is a religious philosophy. I mention it because one thing John Paul II taught me is that all this has been wrapped up in a culture of death. Why shouldn't a culture of death have its own hymns, its own poetic insights? It should, and it does; while Leclerc's chansons may not be a part of all that, Ms. Lalonde's lyrical transmutation of death into a life-giving apotheosis certainly fits the bill. It goes beyond the prosaic, utilitarian arguments about socially-assisted killing, although Ms. Lalonde uses them too. It makes murder and self-murder into holy things, experiences of the transcendent available to anyone with enough personal religious excellence and will to use a syringe.

Ask Ms. Lalonde whether men and women should try to become the best people they can be, and you'll see the road she's paving. It runs straight into a great Canadian abattoir where the troublesome poor, the expensively sick, and the embarrassingly demented can redeem themselves by producing more "life" for Canada. A maple-leaf mockery of the Crucifixion, that, and how Satan must be chuckling over it. From Druid to Aztec, and now to Québécois -- encouraging human society to murderously sacrifice their own in the name of good harvests and life-giving plenty has always been one of his little tricks. What else can we expect to enter secularism's garnished house, swept clean of all religious dogma? Nothing, nothing at all, except for Ms. Lalonde and her own blasphemous chanson about the recurring themes of escape and death.

The isolated voices now singing through Ms. Lalonde and only a handful of others will swell to a vast chorus as more Canadians enter the melody. Canada, they will sing, why do you tarry? If self-inflicted death produces so much life, why should you restrict its gift to the least among you? Why should people have to wait until they are suffering before they give more life to our great country? Some may have to wait, one supposes, if society's needs demand their continued physical presence. Doctors and nurses who kill the weak and sick, and the grave-diggers who bury the mess, certainly fall in that category. But that just proves life is a burden to be carried for others, one which should be shed at the earliest opportunity. Far better to glorify oneself and one's country, to give oneself in the very flower of one's youth and strength . . . . . Oh, yes, Satan will get them to mock every stage on the Via Dolorosa, especially carrying of the cross.

He'll do it because he has to, and he has to because there's truth in Ms. Dimanno's words. It's not good to be sick and dying. It's not pleasant. It's not even tolerable most of the time. What kind of society would expect its members, and their families, to go through all that? To find out, one merely has to ask whether any of the things Ms. Lalonde herself might value -- womens' sufferage, the end of slavery, the survival of native peoples -- were gained without equal degrees of suffering. What will become of those great achievements, or of others yet to be attained, when we no longer value suffering? If the right and duty to live one's life to the bitter end can be an unnecessary and intolerable burden, why then all the rights which come with life can be unnecessary and intolerable too. How kind of the state to relieve us of all that stress, all that strain, all that suffering!

But, as the death-mongers will say, the sick and dying aren't suffering for any cause, they're suffering for no reason at all. It's one thing to praise dead soldiers, wounded civil-rights marchers, men and women who chose to suffer for something noble. The others kind of suffering, well, it's just humiliating. The real noble suffering is done by the family and the doctors who decide to kill grandmamma for the greater glory of Canada. It's quite understandable, once you make the same twisted assumptions that lie behind Ms. Lalonde's smiling face. Officers guarding Auschwitz used to routinely commiserate about how difficult the job was, how much it took out of one, and about the special kind of moral bravery required to keep the bath- houses and crematoria running at maximum capacity. But the killing had purpose you see -- it was for the greater glory of the German Volk and the Thousand-Year Reich. On the other hand, a Jewish life was a canker, the eruption of a disease. Everybody said so. Best to wipe out that pitiable species altogether.

To think that way, one must first deprive another human being of the non-negotiable, intrinsic value of his life -- all of his life, including everything that happens in it. Mr. Jason Kenney, another member of Parliament, saw this quite clearly:
[H]uman dignity, which is the basis of our civilizational belief in the sanctity of human life, is ontological, that is to say, an essential and inseparable characteristic of human personhood, of human existence. To legalize or seek to legitimize the deliberate taking of innocent human life as this bill seeks to do is to commit the gravest offence possible against the human person. In short, it would turn a society such as ours, grounded as it is in the objective existential understanding of human dignity, on its head.
The place of human dignity in social thought is either a fixed, non-negotiable element of the universe, like a spherical planet called Earth, or it isn't. If it is, then you can't kill people just because you've developed your own flat-earth theory of dignity that makes them into disposable snot-rags. It doesn't matter if we're killing them because we've got a new lyrical theory of dignity that makes their deaths into beautiful things; we've still made them into disposable people because we've made a world where the value of anyone's life is negotiable within the state, dictated by the state.

Whether or not they know it, the people who allow themselves to die naturally from incurable illness in Canadian hospitals or homes are soldiers fighting against that disgusting vision of life. They're soldiers whose sacrifices are every bit as noble as the ones who fell at Dieppe and Juno Beach. Nobody wants to do that. I don't want to do it. I don't want anyone in my family to do it. But what difference does that make? Some things in life you have to do even if you don't want to do them. You have to do them even if they're gruesome, terrible, beyond anything that can reasonably be expected to be borne. That may be a shock to Ms. Lalonde. They didn't like hearing it in the Warren of Shining Wires, either. Nobody likes hearing it. That's beside the point. Because if we run life on the basis of what we like or don't like to hear, we'll end up with a society very different from the one Ms. Lalonde thinks she's building. The Germans found that out, in no small measure because Canadians taught it to them. It's sad to see Canada going the same way now.

People who live or die amidst physical or mental circumstances that seem unendurably grotesque teach us real lessons about the glorious nature of human life. They do it because we have to pay attention to them, take care of them, listening to our consciences when their suffering asks us questions about the real meaning of human dignity. We have to do that because their lives, their voices, are "ontological," non-negotiable parts of our own lives. We can't turn them off like displeasing pop songs. Canadians are free to choose otherwise, of course. They can choose to be a nation of cowards who kill other cowards because some more cowards talked a lot of juvenile bosh about life-giving death and merciful murder. God knows, Americans couldn't judge them for it if they did. But we can mourn the loss of a good example as I, for one, will mourn it. I still hope the bill will be defeated. It depends, I guess, on whether Canadians have more guts than their politicians.

Friday, November 04, 2005

This Week's Eureka Convergence Award

Only a worldview which believes in a visible, transmittable Christendom--an identifiable and complete social order marked by objective divinely-instituted and maintained signs (that is signs whose validity is not determined by merely subjective criteria) and possessing public authority which refuses to be just one more voice in a "marketplace of ideas"--can truly stand against Secularism.
-- Tim Enloe, Societas Christiana
Or, in other words:
CONDEMNED: "The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization."
-- Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors

Great minds think alike, eh?