Reading the newspaper summary of the life of Joseph Lemm—who was killed with five other American troops in Afghanistan two days ago—makes for a devastating reminder that the people we lose on these battlefields and outposts thousands of miles from home are the very best of us. We have no right to expect such people to be given to us in the first place; we certainly have no right to believe they will always be there to lay down their lives for our safety. And so we also have a duty (in which we are failing) to take care that their sacrifices are for causes that we truly cherish and will continue to defend. Continue reading Sacrifice in Afghanistan
The harbingers of civilizational collapse and impending apocalypse have become so very common as to encourage a serious case of the old ennui. There is little to generate surprise in the latest catastrophes and the daily litany of hopeless headlines. Yet once in a long while something can come along that compels even the most jaded fatalists among us to stop, back up, and say, “Mother of the Mother of God, what have we come to?”
The U.S. State Department has warned Americans abroad to steer clear of numerous sites in Italy that are apparently threatened by jihadist attacks. These include in particular the Vatican in Rome, and two sites in the city of Milan: the Duomo and La Scala opera house. The warning also mentions more general targets “such as churches, synagogues, restaurants, theatres, and hotels” in both Milan and Rome. Continue reading Bob Dylan Chooses Hired Guns Over Cancellations
Marking Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations, Canadian poet, songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen recites “In Flanders Fields,” a poem written in 1915 by John McCrae. (Below via YouTube, courtesy of Legion Magazine)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
It is in returning to that poem written during the “war to end all wars” that so many across the English-speaking world mark the sacrifices of soldiers not only in that war but in those that came after it, and those that keep coming. The 20th century was notable for the great technological progress made by humankind, and much of that progress was speedily employed to bring death on scales hitherto unheard of, both in the fields of war and in the realm of state tyranny. On reflection, we would realize it’s always been that way: people just got especially good at it in the 20th century. Is there any reason to think the 21st century will prove an exception to the trend?
Unfortunately, the evidence of human nature changing for the better seems a little hard to come by. And on the other hand the evidence for weapons of war of maximum lethality getting into the hands of those eager to employ them is all around, both in the headlines and between the lines of stories that get little attention.
McCrae’s poem, more resonant with each passing year, will continue to echo and frame new sorrows. There is something about what occurred in Word War I that foreshadowed later catastrophes. But the existence of such poetry reminds us that, as long as we can still seek worthy words to say, all is not lost.
Yours truly is not a particularly friendly guy, as his friends would readily attest. My dog, a fourteen pound mutt named Billie, is quite different: a friend to anyone who makes eye contact with her. She is also quite different in the level of concern she’s capable of showing to unknown passersby. Life in the big city involves walking past countless individuals in states of relative disrepair; these include the addicted, the mentally ill, the disabled, the genuinely homeless and those who (for whatever reason) find setting themselves up in a busy location with the right begging schtick to be a worthwhile occupation. Billie will greet anyone who greets her, and has taken time for some I’d certainly rather walk right by.
However, the truly remarkable thing is that her capacity for concern can go beyond those who actually greet her. Continue reading The Concern of a Canine
So there has been another act of nihilistic mass murder in America, this time at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where nine people were shot to death yesterday before the murderer himself was killed. And so there are many people crying, there are some people praying, and there are some taking sides in the political argument over gun control. Continue reading Paying God Back (in Oregon)
Forty years ago the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the practice of abortion was not merely permissible but was a fundamental right sitting somewhere between the lines of the Constitution, and one not to be restrained. The nation has lived with that since; some have been taking advantage of this right, some opposing it, with the larger portion of the body politic essentially turning their heads away. In the summer of 2015, we’ve had held before us a looking glass that shows us how far we’ve come, and it’s a lot like undraping the picture of Dorian Gray. Words are not remotely adequate for what we see, and I’ve personally been struggling to come up with any at all. Yet there could be no writing about anything else before giving expression to some kind of statement on this.
It’s been said many times and in many ways that a society ought to be judged by how it treats its weakest and most helpless. I think that’s true and fair. So this is how we in the United States of America treat our weakest, our most vulnerable and voiceless: We kill them before they’re able to scream. We decapitate them and ship their heads in boxes to be processed and used in laboratories, laughing at the thought of lab techs opening those boxes and seeing their little eyes still open. We cut through their faces while their hearts still beat in order to extract their brains at the most useful level of quality. We take care to crush these helpless babies to death either above or below their livers, so that those and other much-in-demand organs can be preserved and shipped off intact, to fetch the best prices. This we do to these weakest members of our society even while they rest in what is for any of us the safest and most comforting place that we can consciously or subconsciously conceive of. We can’t hear their screams as their place of ultimate nurture is violated by cold, sharp, killing instruments.
But it was said with authority long ago that the blood of an innocent who is murdered cries out from the very earth. Fifty-six million, and more every day. We not only enshrine the right to commit these acts in our law, and cherish it in our politics and our courts, but we help pay for it with the money we send to the Federal Treasury. Our dollar bills, splattered with “In God We Trust,” help keep these vile human abattoirs running.
We’ve known it, and yet these special revelations in the summer of 2015 of how far we’ve come are the greatest test of our complacency yet. And we’re failing again. It’s the complacency which has earned the condemnation.
There’s a difference between personal sin and national sin, isn’t there? The mothers coaxed into participating in this by our culture, absent the love and compassion that might have helped them in turn allow love and compassion to be provided to their babies: those mothers can repent and be forgiven, one by one. But what does the nation do to repent? It’s moot, because we’re not even close to that point. Yet the sin brings with it the seeds of the punishment. It doesn’t require a thunderbolt, and thunderbolts in any case would be far too kind. The punishment is playing out over time, albeit that the pace now seems to be quickening. A society that cherishes—that holds sweet and dear—the right to slice up living babies for convenience and profit has planted a deep sickness in its heart, and this nation is now caving in from all sides. Cherishing this obscene thing has corrupted our politics, our culture, our present and our future, in ways beyond measuring.
It’s very difficult for those who love America to face this. There’s so much that’s been great and good about this country and its people, and there is still so much goodness, side by side with the bad. But evil on this scale cannot go unanswered, and we should be most terrified if it did.
We’re guilty also of a particular kind of false deification in America, I think. We revere the founders, and the founding documents, sometimes as if those men were demigods and as if those papers were on the level of holy scripture. The men were in most respects admirable and intelligent figures, and they wrote relatively wise documents. But they did not create a perfect form of self-government, and in revering it too much we’ve fallen into a pit. A country founded in 1776 on the concept of human liberty compromised when it came to treating some people as being less than human, and that was a sin that reaped horrific retribution in the 1860s and the consequences of which still oppress us today. And a Declaration of Independence that declared “life” to be the first and most fundamental inalienable right endowed by our Creator has nonetheless allowed us to treat human life as if it is a product of our own making that we can dispose of and exploit for advantage and profit. We can blame the courts, but our system of government has given the Supreme Court that excessively lofty status, and our complacency has led us to ignore the consequences and avoid making the necessary correction.
Life goes on for the lucky, and there will continue to be things to celebrate (and write about), by the mercy still permitted to us. Yet, as much as we might love America, we’ve now, just in these past few months, received more than enough evidence that—while not negating any good that remains—America in 2015 is in a matter of unsurpassable importance an evil nation.
We still can’t hear them screaming.
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At this point, we don’t know their names, but four U.S. Marines were shot to death today in Chattanooga, Tennessee. From a news report:
After the shooting, the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that it was “enhancing the security posture at certain federal facilities, out of an abundance of caution.”
One of the pressing questions in the wake of this massacre is whether, out of an “abundance of caution,” the “security posture” of U.S. military installations will include the notion that these individuals who have volunteered to defend the nation, and on whom we depend to do so, will actually be permitted to carry firearms (because reports currently indicate that these murdered U.S. Marines were compelled by law to be defenseless). Continue reading Tennessee Blues
Today while re-reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s great work The Prophets, I came across this passage which put me in a “nothing-ever-changes” frame of mind:
Assyria has often been called the most ruthless nation of antiquity. For ages she plundered all peoples within her reach, like a lion which “filled his caves with prey and his dens with torn flesh” (Nah. 2:12 [H. 2:13]). Her warfare abounded in atrocities; cutting off the heads of conquered peoples was a common procedure. The kings of Assyria boasted of towns destroyed, dismantled or burned, leveled as if by a hurricane or reduced to a heap of rubble. The victors took away everything they could carry. Upon capturing a city …
And here Heschel quotes from a book of history by Georges Contenau:
… the king’s throne would be set up before the gates of the city and the prisoners would be paraded before him, led by the monarch of the captured town, who would undergo the most agonizing torture, such as having his eyes put out or confinement in a cage […] Sargon had the defeated king of Damascus burned alive before his eyes. The wives and daughters … were destined for the Assyrian harems and those who were not of noble blood were condemned to slavery. Meanwhile the soldiery had been massacring the population, and brought the heads of their victims into the king’s presence, where they were counted up by the scribes.
(And there’s more on the famous neighborliness of the ancient Assyrians at this link.)
Heschel goes on:
A few decades later, after the downfall of Assyria, it was Babylonia whose might and splendor held many nations in her spell. A state of intoxication, a voluntary madness, overcame the world, eager to join and to aid the destroyer, accessories to aggression.
As someone once said, there’s nothing new under the sun. We think we’ve gotten far beyond the point where cutting off someone’s head and waving it around is an effective way to win friends and influence people, and yet here we are well into the 21st century, and it’s an approach that is earning dividends and disciples in the age of Twitter and Instagram.
Well, at least, in this ever-changing world, there are some things we can still rely upon.
With reference to my previous post (Manifestly Wrong: Charleston, the Media, and Nihilism), Martin R. emails and says:
Since when is racism the same as nihilism? He shot those people because they were black, it’s as simple as that. It has nothing to do with atheism or anything else you used to distract from that.
Well, I differ. Accounts indicate that Dylann Storm Roof was a depressed, messed up 21 year-old who previously had black friends, who had drifted into isolation, and had contemplated out loud the idea of attacking a college. I don’t find him to be a credible harbinger of a resurgence of old fashioned white supremacism. The white supremacist narrative was the channel his sickness took, but as evil as that is, it was not the root of the sickness. Continue reading Racism versus Nihilism
It’s happened again—it happens every time, and there is no simple obvious solution that would prevent it from happening in the future, but it still needs to be said that the very worst thing that can be done in the aftermath of an act of horrific nihilistic violence such as occurred in Charleston, South Carolina a few days ago is to publish and propagate the “manifesto” of the perpetrator. This individual, a few moments before murdering these innocent people, had nothing but his own demented ramblings and photos of himself in his bedroom playing with a gun. By committing the mass murder, he has elevated this garbage in which he wallowed to the level of international news, for millions to peruse. How many similar sick souls are out there who are now encouraged all the more to take the same steps? We all should dread to think. Continue reading Manifestly Wrong: Charleston, the Media, and Nihilism
It’s been said both within and without the Vatican that Pope Francis’ encyclical regarding the environment and climate change is an effort to show that the Roman Catholic Church is on the side of science this time, as opposed to when, in the 17th century, scientist Galileo Galilei was accused of heresy by the Inquisition for claiming that the Earth revolved around the Sun (and was forced to deny his own science and put under house arrest for the balance of his life).
I would suggest, however, that this misses a fundamental point when it comes to comparing these two scientific and societal controversies: i.e. the relationship of the Earth to the Sun in astronomical terms versus the contemporary science of global warming a.k.a. climate change (which curiously enough some actually believe might really be about the relationship of the Earth to the Sun in climatological terms). Continue reading Pope Getting It Wrong on Galileo (Again)
Following the revelation that private personnel data (including Social Security numbers) for 4 million federal employees was siphoned from government databases by hackers, the Director of the Federal Office of Personnel Management, Katherine Archuleta actually issued this statement:
Protecting our Federal employee data from malicious cyber incidents is of the highest priority at OPM. We take very seriously our responsibility to secure the information stored in our systems, and in coordination with our agency partners, our experienced team is constantly identifying opportunities to further protect the data with which we are entrusted.
So it is “of the highest priority,” and a responsibility taken “very seriously,” to do exactly what they utterly failed to do, and they are “constantly identifying opportunities” to do more of the same. Continue reading A Hacked World and the Chinese Takeaway
Some female priests of the Church of England are reportedly advocating that liturgical texts ought to be changed to sometimes refer to God as “She,” instead of “He,” on the basis that God has no gender, and that to consistently refer to God as “He,” as has been traditional in Christianity, conveys the idea that maleness is somehow more divine, and that women are therefore lower on the spiritual ladder. Continue reading God: She, He, Or Gender Fluid?
Bella Haig is eighty years of age, and has been a server at Canter’s Deli in Los Angeles for fifty of those years. Early last Friday morning, she reportedly received the largest tip of her career, $150, from the lead singer of rock band U2. She didn’t know who he was when he came in with some friends after U2’s performance nearby, but when she approached to take their orders he asked her to recommend an appetizer. As she told CBS LA: Continue reading Advice on Tipping: Bono versus Les Moonves
52° (F), raw and raining is what it is on this June 2nd; the same as it was on June 1st. Now there are places getting much worse weather, so this is not any cry for sympathy. However, this is a beginning to summer unlike any yours truly has experienced in the last couple of decades in New York. The season may not officially begin until June 21st, but the warm 70° and 80°+ weather had always settled in for the long haul by the start of June. The current chilly snap feels like yet one more tentacle of this past winter that did not want to die, reaching up from the cold grave when we thought it had finally truly gone. Continue reading I Like New York in June
Anything Bob Dylan does continues to be grist for the media machine, as if he were a slightly more hirsute Taylor Swift, and the news that he would appear on the second to last episode of the “Late Night with David Letterman” show duly got the presses rolling. I was struck by the angle taken in New York’s Daily News, where, underneath a photo of the “legendary rocker” was this bit of editorializing: “The singer has been particularly obsessed with aging as his own career winds down.” Aside from begging for the observation that we all should be glad to have as many number one albums as Dylan when our careers are winding down, it made me wonder: Is Dylan really obsessed with aging? The article also states: Continue reading Bob Dylan: “Obsessed with Aging”?
Researchers at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan have been investigating whether rats are helpful to one another in times of trouble, and to what extent it might be said that they possess powers of empathy. To that end, they performed a series of experiments with rats in cages separated by a door that the rats could learn to open with their paws. They demonstrated that, in ordinary circumstances, a rat would not open the door to enable entry for another rat in the separate area of the cage. However, if the other rat were in distress—specifically by virtue of struggling in a pool of water—the rat in the dry area would tend to figure out how to open the door and allow that distressed rat inside to safety. Continue reading A Rat in Need …
Rest in peace, B.B. King, passed on at the age of 89. He essentially did something very simple, but to a very high and dedicated standard, and he kept working with his gift right up until the end. You can’t say better than that. But actually you can: You can also say he always seemed like an exceptionally nice man. Buddy Guy called him “the greatest guy I ever met,” and no doubt a lot of people will be remembering him similarly. Continue reading B.B. King Moves On
Frank Sinatra passed away on May 14th, 1998. I recall thinking at the time that with Sinatra gone, all bets were off—anything might now happen in this sad old world. (And I think the record would show that my fears in that respect have been proved entirely correct.) Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours
The canine influenza A H3N2 virus kicked off its run in Chicago, that toddlin’ town, several months back, and has been spreading across the Midwest. Today a case has been reported in Houston, Texas, so it seems that this virus has gone well and truly viral.