Thursday, February 23, 2012

Satan, Santorum, and the Media

All candidates for political office, especially the presidency, have to eat some of their words. They try to reach a particular audience at any given time and place, and can wind up saying things to appeal to that audience that will not, to put it mildly in this case, have general appeal. Rick Santorum, undergoing for the first time the scrutiny applied to a frontrunner for a major party’s nomination for the presidency, has learned what Pope Benedict learned after his Regensburg speech that raised an uproar in the Muslim world: national or international figures never have just the one audience sitting in front of them. Media attention will make sure of that. When Rick Santorum spoke at Ave Maria University in southwestern Florida in 2008 he did not have frontrunner status in the GOP race, but he wanted a higher profile nationally at the very least, else why give the speech in the first place? The uproar around the fact that the text has resurfaced arises from his referencing Satan as the agent of evil in the contemporary world. Catholics know this language well, as, one suspects, do Baptists and evangelicals. The media, however, has rightly drawn attention to the fact that Santorum spoke as a Catholic at a (reactionary) Catholic institution, parenthetical adjective mine. That parenthetical adjective speaks volumes that the media has largely glossed over either for lack of interest or because of Ave Maria’s notoriety, one must assume. Catholics, however, might reasonably find it very interesting. One need not avidly read John Allen’s or Ruth Chittister’s columns in The National Catholic Reporter (NCR) to realize that one can speak of, shall we say, Catholics and Catholics. Simply put, Santorum speaks for the minority of Catholics who do not use contraceptives and who protest at Planned Parenthood offices on the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, yet again upon us. This Catholic blogger, who has faced off with Santorum’s ilk from the other side of the fence, quite literally, very much wants people not to lose sight of that distinction. Santorum uses the language of the Catechism and follows the teachings of the Magisterium to the letter. He stands for a certain kind of very conservative Catholic, a type the rest of us know, understand, often respect, and who can sometimes drive us quietly crazy with their literalist, lock-step reverence for Vatican abstractions removed from the realities of many people’s lives. Not all people’s lives, for sure, but those of more Catholics than one might think if one just listened to Santorum, at Ave Maria or in Mesa, Arizona or wherever. When John F. Kennedy ran for the presidency in 1960, his Catholicism scared many in the press and the electorate. They feared he would take orders from Pope John XXIII, the instigator of the Second Vatican Council and not such a bad guy from whom to take orders, as it happened. Kennedy neither received nor took such orders, however; one wonders if Santorum has the same sort of relationship with Benedict XVI, a very different pope. Not that he would take orders, but that he respects a pope with a very narrow and hostile perspective on the secular world—this should indeed cause concern. Less apocalyptically, the media would do everyone a service by inserting the adjective conservative every time they mention Santorum’s particular brand of Catholicism. Such a simple move would increase the accuracy of their reporting. It would also get the rest of us off the hook for language we do not normally use, ideas we do not commonly employ in everyday discourse, and views we may not necessarily share with a vocal minority in the Church. Put another way, we may recognize Santorum as one of our own, but we do not have to embrace him and all his rhetoric.

Chapel Hill, NC
February 22, 2012

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pardon Me

I do not ordinarily write in praise of Republican ex-governors of Mississippi, particularly dyed-in-the-wool conservatives such as Haley Barbour. I certainly tend not to come to their defense in the face of widespread social outrage as a result of a decision they have made or an action they have taken. All precedent, however, exists for the breaking. As most of you know by now, Haley Barbour pardoned over a hundred criminals under the jurisdiction of various wings of the Mississippi penal system, including parole boards. The decision provoked outrage not because it covered parolees, but because it freed four convicted murderers who can now, if the pardons stick—which they may not—vote, work, and, the real rub, purchase guns ostensibly so they can hunt. Coverage of this case that I have seen on CNN focuses on two principal issues. First, indignation over the release of men who did horrible things, and the fear of people who see themselves as potential further victims. Second, a technicality Barbour ignored, namely the publication a month in advance of the requests for pardon, not made in this case. In this case, the public and the press see Barbour as running roughshod over the law. Technicalities to some degree aside, I beg to differ. The technicality first. One can imagine the governor reasoning as follows. If the large number of pardon requests became public, particularly those of the murderers, Barbour might have had his hands tied in advance of forgiving so many, ostensibly one reason for the law requiring publication in the first place. He probably foresaw the firestorm and elected to risk the consequences, a luxury available to a truly retiring politician. He has no need of votes anymore. Which brings us to the second issue. Barbour made a fundamental judgment based on the notion that the penal system can reform its inmates, not just punish them with incarceration. Or rather, that some inmates reform themselves. Unlike those appalled by his decision, he asserted the remarkable position that if Christian values have any sway in this society—witness Mississippi’s position smack in the middle of the Bible belt—they must apply unilaterally, not just when they seem convenient. I generally disagree with Haley Barbour’s positions on any number of issues, but my respect for him has risen immeasurably. Here we have a man acting on his principles, and having his name taken in vain for it, as though Portia has proclaimed that “the quality of mercy is not strained” and thousands of Shylocks insist instead on their pound of flesh and nothing less. Phil Ochs once sang that Mississippi should “find another country to be part of,” a sentiment that will no doubt fall on self-righteously deaf ears in Jackson and beyond. The shame, though, lies not in the actions of a man willing to put forgiveness and faith in humanity ahead of insistence on the letter of the law, but in the shrill, frightened voices of those who cannot, will not see his point, who deny forgiveness any role in our legal system, especially insofar as it involves murderers. If we have come so far as to deny any hope for the humanity of those who commit inhuman acts, what does that say about our humanity? I used to make the drive from Lynchburg, Virginia to Charlottesville and back fairly regularly on Friday afternoons. Coming back I would often see a large, smiling black man standing on the side of the road and waving enthusiastically to passing motorists on US Rt. 29. For a year or so I thought him surely mad or retarded. It turns out he had killed someone, gone to jail, and gained release in circumstances none of which I know well. He had sworn to himself to do penance for his past every day by trying to make folks smile. I came to really regret those days when I drove by at the wrong time and missed him. Haley Barbour knew some of these pardoned men, including at least one murderer but I believe all four, from a governor’s mansion work detail. Surely prison officials thought highly of these individuals to send them on work release in the first place. As Barbour said, these guys worked around his own grandchildren. Haley Barbour saw the justice in forgiveness. Why can the rest of us not trust his judgment and respect his acting on his convictions within his powers as governor? Has forgiveness come to seem so na├»ve in our cynical world?

Chapel Hill, NC
January 14, 2012

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Faith

How do we define faith? As in faith in someone or something, faith that one can believe our leaders, faith in our own integrity and, ultimately, in God or some formulation of spirituality. Some, of course, profess to have no faith, at least not of the spiritual variety. God help them.
Few questions in our lives trump those that arise around what we find worthy of our faith. For many these never get beyond personal relationships and issues, matters such as politics having either no interest or yielding no figures considered worthy of trust. That way, one fears, lies despair, the absence of or emotionally absent refusal to hope. Such a malaise, for example, lies behind our lack of confidence in Congress at the moment.
Just as those in whom we have faith must earn it, we have to earn the ability to have faith. Four years ago Mother Teresa’s diaries revealed her struggles with faith, struggles that caused some shock among those who misunderstand the way faith works in our lives. Not a steady state, it eludes us at times in the face of events that confound it. Faithfulness does not imply immunity from such moments, it describes the steadfastness with which one fights against them.
I remember with some poignancy an acknowledgment of and exhortation to persist in this fight to preserve faith and the forms it takes in our lives. I had just entered a monastic community outside of Charleston, South Carolina as a prospective member, or postulant, postulating or hypothesizing myself as a monk, if you will. One of the older brothers who had recently transferred from another order leaned toward me one day in the hall that ran through the infirmary. In a monastic version of a famous scene from The Graduate—“One word: plastics”—he spoke one word to me: “Persevere.” Take everything that comes at you and keep going, no matter what. Expect difficulties and get past them.
I think of that advice often, albeit at the time I did not take it, leaving the monastery ten months later. So many times we have faith in the wrong thing, or in the right thing or person but for the wrong reason. The left-wing deserters from the Obama bandwagon come to mind as an example of misconstrued faith, faith that Obama would mirror their own desires perfectly. As a yoga classmate lamented recently, we do not come by perfection easily; perhaps we should prick ourselves when we think we have found it.
A Dominican friar recently gave an Advent retreat at my church. In his first talk he mentioned the opposition between fantasy, based in despair, and hope or faith, which yield imagination. It struck me as a useful model for me, however imperiled any such generalization and most binary oppositions as a genre of thought. My own thinking certainly bears out his logic. When I lurch from idea to idea now, I try to interrogate its motivation. It has become a useful exercise.
Faith acknowledges the positive in life, the fact that good exists, that our lot can improve, past or present evidence to the contrary. Faith does not expect crazy chances to triumph, but quiet perseverance. Faith does not give into despair, but fights it valiantly. Faith respects the steadfast and does not require the spectacular.
I wonder if our current malaise does not reveal a crisis of faith, a tendency to yield to despair. We need to recognize this crisis before we truly lose our bearings. If we do, God help us.

Chapel Hill, NC
December 23, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Meds

I watch a certain amount of CNN’s newscasts; apology complete. Over the weekend they ran a story that reiterated one that has cropped up in many forms in recent years: do we over-diagnose and over-medicate kids for psychological and behavioral disorders, autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) leading the pack? The question seems to admit the easy answer of “yes.” Too easy. For complex patterns of sometimes intertwined behavioral sets, no easy answer can account for all variables, let alone all outcomes, benign or otherwise.

Usually in such instances one can simply defer to the professionals, but in the case of childhood behavioral maladies we lack the consensus of opinion to render that recourse viable. The problem begins with the fact that kids will by definition sometimes come in an unruly package. Defining when that unruliness crosses a line to pathology poses problems even for professionals, let alone putting a name on the transgression, given the resemblances among the identifiable disorders, and the genetic relatedness of some. Autism and ADHD, for instance, share a chromosomal allele.
The plot thickens when we add medications to the story, for to some battered parents and teachers they seem to offer that elusive quark, the “quick fix.” And here some professionals object with many layfolk that we use too many meds too freely. Perhaps; and no wonder, since some really work, or seem to, or do for a time before our systems acclimate to them—the case with Ritalin, the wonder-drug of ADHD.

But at this point the story can get weird. Some argue that the alleged fact of ADHD’s or autism’s over-diagnosis—I have heard this case made by professionals particularly with reference to ADHD—suggests that the disorder really does not exist. I suppose Psychology Departments leave the teaching of logic to Philosophy Departments, but such thinking has serious ramifications for those who have a truly clinical case of whatever behavioral nexus we might consider.
I have gone through a couple of diagnoses as an adult—ADHD and manic-depressive illness, or bipolar disorder—that both illuminate and confuse the issue. The fact that doctors and other professionals find these disorders hard to diagnose, or may get stuck in a one-size-fits-all diagnostic rut or fad, does not eliminate the pain of those so diagnosed, the pain the meds can and often do ameliorate.

Often. Not always. I remember Prozac as though through a cloud of jello, and Depakote as a ruthless secretary re-filing the folders of my brain at painful will one weekend. Wellbutrin helped my depression but probably made me manic, or rather facilitated the emergence of a manic episode that cost me a career I had worked very hard to nurture. So, no, think not of all meds as benign for all patients. In the trial-and-error world of medicating, one claims universal efficacy for a drug at the risk of one’s reputation for sanity.

On the other hand, once having established that I do not tolerate lithium—it nearly killed me—my new combination of meds works quite well. I could have given up after lithium, but so could the mother of a child mentioned in the CNN segment, until she found the right professional with right answer for her child after he had received the supposed death sentence of severe autism. Instead she found a doctor who diagnosed the child as having ADHD, and successfully medicated him.
Health professionals forget at their peril—and their patients’—that they have lives in their hands, not classroom abstractions. And we forget that though diagnostic fads no doubt live longish and prosper, to dismiss the diagnosis as such misses the point: that some of us need some version of it at some time in our lives to flourish. Punish those who give out Ritalin as candy, but remember that the diagnosis of ADHD did not develop in a first-grade classroom, but in the practices of those who know something whereof they speak, and have the compassion to persist through their mistakes.

Chapel Hill, NC
December 5, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Clannishness of Sport

Human societies have long organized themselves into some variant of the clan. Medieval Genoa built itself around a series of alberghi, not inns as the word means now but urban redoubts for the major clans and their adherents. My own Liaosingh ancestors in Ireland fought as major vassals to the ruling lord against the British interlopers. You belong to a clan, you follow the policies and customs of the clan, or face disgrace.
Certain of our institutions suggest nostalgia for such belonging, which of course has its benefits. Sport is one of a long list of half-hearted attempts we make to recreate clannish safety. Half-hearted, because the allegiances run so shallow and the symbols seem so wan. Forget about the precision of heraldry, tracing the etiology of an intercourse of families. We have Carolina blue, Harvard (and Alabama) crimson, Stanford cardinal red. Notre Dame has two colors, Marian blue and Irish green; talk about imprecision.
The obviousness of the clan-sport affiliation in American society hits home hard at Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions play football on Thanksgiving Day itself, and countless arch-rivalries play out on collegiate fields over the following weekends, culminating in the Army-Navy game, the one that most resembles a true clan rivalry, heraldic meanings and all.
Plenty of writers have weighed in on this subject, but it took on particular significance for me in an incident that occurred yesterday. My dog Abby and I went to the library; well, Abby went as far as the parking lot. Said lot actually belongs to a shopping mall, the temporary home of the library during new construction. The same lot also serves as a “park and ride” location for football games at UNC-Chapel Hill. Yesterday they played their rival from the next town, the Duke Blue Devils (dark blue, as opposed to Carolina’s sky blue). Their fans occupied little patches of clannish turf as they celebrated the occasion in that most American of locations, the parking lot of a shopping mall. Shallowness incarnate.
If the Gospel according to Matthew has forty-two begats, intercollegiate football has, for all intents and purposes, one: tailgating. I commented to a Duke fan that doing it in a parking lot seemed so odd, what with the stadium a couple of miles away from us. As a child and then a graduate student, I tailgated at that very clannish rivalry, the Harvard-Yale game, in Yale Bowl’s sprawling practice field which doubles as a parking lot on game days, or used to, anyway. Chateaubriand, rack of lamb, pasta, burgers, you name it, washed down by anything from Heineken or Sierra Nevada to Chateau Lynch-Bages, a very good Medoc from the village of St.-Estephe, I think. Doing it at a shopping mall reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s wonderful line when he reveals the origins of his hero Earnest “in a handbag.”
One group from Duke took all this rather seriously, with pitch-the-hackey-sack games and, of course, a football tossed around with admittedly no little grace. Abby provided the liminal moment, the edge at which it all made sense. We had approached the Dukies from the other, open end of the grass island they had occupied, when Abby unceremoniously pooped. I scrambled to cover her leavings, to the relief of the rather caustic revelers. Little did they know that by the time I got back to the scene of Abby’s “crime” with some pine needles from the base of a tree, said scene eluded me. Abby had unwittingly passed judgment on the whole proceedings and I left that judgment undisturbed; who knows whether the Dukies did.
I write all this with a mild sneer, but nobody shot anybody at a football game yesterday, as happened at a Walmart the day before, retailers’ Black Friday, the day of profits. Nobody got trampled, as also happened on Black Friday and as has happened at European football (aka soccer in this country) matches. And yet a drum major at Florida A&M University died of hazing injuries this week, clannish behavior at its worst: you want to belong, let’s see if you can take the punishment belonging requires.
That death casts a pall on the whole pastime. Football games across the country should have had a moment of silence, but did not, at least not the three games of which I saw various parts, all played by predominantly white schools, unlike the predominantly black A&M. Football and its halftime ceremonies should not be worth dying for, and such deaths as occur bear acknowledgment, at the very least. Such acknowledgment, however, generally occurs only within the clan. Outsiders be damned, at least for sixty minutes of (American) football.

Chapel Hill, NC
11/27/11

Penn State

Only one reason occurs to me as valid for wading into the mess that a single sexual predator has wrought in a college town obsessed with its football team: a fresh perspective. Hear me out; I think I have one.
Thus far we can only write about those on whose behavior in the Sandusky affair we have some at least alleged facts. For better or worse, that pretty much eliminates the victims, about whom we know very little at this point. That leaves Sandusky himself, Paterno, the Athletic Director, the Vice-President for Business Affairs, and the President. We will return to this group shortly, but one remains, a graduate assistant at the time of his remarks to Paterno about what he saw in the shower. McQueary has become an assistant coach, and given paid administrative leave.
Most observers see the issue for all these men as one of not going to at least campus police if not the legal authorities with what they knew of Sandusky’s pederasty, however they obtained that knowledge. I spent twenty years in academia, and really want to know what this argument has to do with the way college administrators conduct business. Has nobody noticed that a V.P. for business got involved as the Athletic Director’s superior?
Colleges and universities like to police themselves, to control embarrassing information that might cost them contributions. Football generates enormous sums and inspires intense loyalty at Penn State. Under no circumstances would any administrator at any academic institution want to go to the police, though a minority would anyway, as the right thing to do. Did the others learn nothing from the Catholic church’s pederasty scandal? Obviously not, at least at Penn State.
This case has complexities nobody has yet fully comprehended, but one individual clearly deserves to have his name cleared. Who on earth can reasonably expect a graduate assistant to go over the head of his boss, the beloved Joe Paterno, and approach the police? To think so flies in the face of collegiate hierarchies. He did his duty by telling Paterno, who did his by telling the A.D., at which point the buck gets harder to pass, but surely he or the V.P. should have gone to the police.
The fact that they did not condemns both them and the notion of separation of academia and state that the academy wants desperately to preserve. I still do not know if Paterno deserved getting the sack. The three above him in the pecking order surely did.


Chapel Hill, NC
November 12, 2011

Another Hospital Story...

… but not mine. The stories of this week—the second of the Herman Cain sexual harassment/assault saga, the first of the child rape tragedy at Penn State, and more heroically that of Veterans’ (or Armistice) Day—have overwhelmed the emotions of many. The Cain story has strengthened paranoia on both sides of split allegiances; the Penn State tragedy has produced as many allegiances as players, excepting any sympathy for the alleged perpetrator. Only the stories of vets seem to offer any reinforcement to our sense of humanity.
Not all vets’ stories end happily, obviously, but enough end with some reason for inspiration that they remain compelling in the telling and retelling, and particularly in the hearing. Perhaps some seek to escape the horror of war, or to overcome or even whitewash it. I suppose in a sense mine does all three, particularly because of a central element of it: my father never made it any further than Camp Croft, South Carolina, and a surgeon’s scalpel in Atlanta. My story also differs from most in that although my father plays the central role, a doctor played the role of hero.
My story takes place during World War II, at least the crux of it does, but involves two men who never fought a lick. The first of the dramatis personae, Russ Lynch, my father, played multiple sports in high school, a year of prep school, and college: football in the fall through his freshman year at Boston University (B.U.) after not making the team at Bowdoin College, hockey most winters except that freshman year at B.U., and baseball in the spring. Not only did those sports shape his life, they—at least football—may have delayed his death.
His freshman year at B.U. Dad, who played end in a two-way scheme tore the cartilage in his knee. The coach, thinking to do him a favor, brought the 160-pound convalescent the assignments for guard for the next fall. My father, his scholarship on the line, told the coach to get lost, rather less politely. Word reached the hockey coach, who saved his career by offering him the insane choice of playing hockey beginning his sophomore year. He took it, lame knee and all. He played defense for a year, then his natural position of center his last two years, captaining the squad as a senior.
I loved all his hockey stories as a kid, though he always left out the part about not making the football team at Bowdoin, whose campus and libraries I came to know many years later. That failure shamed him. Another did not: his failure to fight fascism in Europe or imperialism in the Pacific. In fact, he found it rather amusing, and a cause of gratitude.
My father turned thirty-one in early January of 1942, old for conscription into the military but not automatically exempt. Three separate doctors in three separate drafts found my father unfit because of his right knee, as well as his age. A fourth doctor in a fourth draft disagreed. The war bore on and the military needed men, period, fitness be damned.
En route to boot camp in South Carolina my father received his assignment as second man on a bazooka in heavy infantry. Perfect for a guy with a bum knee.
It gets worse. On the first day at Camp Croft, Dad had to climb and then jump off a twenty-foot wall on an obstacle. He warned his sergeant that his knee would not stand the fall. The sergeant took him for a slacker. He climbed and jumped, and his knee gave out so excruciatingly that when the sergeant tried to get him up with a swift kick Dad convinced the man he would risk his life if that boot touched my father. The sergeant got the point, finally.
The Army then did something remarkable. Instead of shipping Dad home, they hospitalized him. An orthopaedic surgeon looked at him. The doctor had developed a series of operations to reconstruct knees injured like my Dad’s. He offered my father six months in the hospital on the Army in Atlanta. My father became a guinea pig, and the surgeon improved my father’s quality of life immeasurably. I often thought of that story while watching my parents dance beautifully at our favorite restaurant on summer vacation.
So, yes, I grieve for the fallen, the amputated, the post-traumatic stressed, and weep with joy at those who return at least physically whole to spouse and kids and parents and siblings. I always used to think Dad cheated his way out of the war somehow, thus cheating me out of war stories to relish as another episode in my private cult of hero-worship. In reality, of course, that idiot drill sergeant and that inventive orthopod prevented my father—and possibly me—from being cheated out of a life.

Chapel Hill, NC
November 12, 2011