Book Review: “The Fool of New York City”, by Michael O’Brien

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 “I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect.” –Mark Twain

I read novels so rarely these days that it’s become a matter of embarrassment. A novel is hard for me to justify given the pile of books about “real” things waiting for me on my reading table. It’s not that I haven’t understood the place of great literature, intellectually, but the silent prejudice directing my personal reading habits has been this idea that a novel is an inferior device for communicating reality. (In my younger days I read some hideous novels.) It is long past time to disabuse myself of this notion: Michael O’Brien has forced me to turn the page, so to speak, which is something he is skilled at doing.

“The Fool of New York City” is a feat of the imagination. It’s not the strangest novel I have ever read, but it comes close, and the strangeness is all the more pronounced because of it’s very plausibility. “This is New York City, after all”, says one of his minor characters. O’Brien takes the reader on a gripping journey of mystery, adventure, tragedy and romance, with a knack for inserting the reader directly into the shoes of his protagonists. And who are these protagonists? The first is a giant nearly eight feet tall, a wholesome Iowa farm boy who landed in NYC on a basketball scholarship, but also a man with secrets; the second, a tormented soul he found nearly frozen in an abandoned building, an amnesiac with a cosmopolitan background and a tragic past he can’t remember. Together, they set off to discover the amnesiac’s true identity …

I can’t say much more than this without getting into spoiler territory. Read this delightful book. It’s comparatively short for an O’Brien novel, and it is infused with realities that one does well to contemplate.

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A Review of “Malcom Muggeridge: A Biography” by Gregory Wolfe

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“In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.” – St. Augustine

“Christ has created you because He wanted you. I know what you feel – terrible longing with dark emptiness. And yet He is the one in love with you.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta in a letter to Malcom Muggeridge

Generally speaking, modern people choose their religion so as to conform to the lives they are living. They believe as they live, rather than live as they believe.  This attempt to quiet their consciences can seem like a brave act of individual liberty in a society that glories in religious pluralism. But in a more Christian age, men did not deny the incongruity of their faith with the follies of their own lives. They knew that truth wasn’t going to change to suit them, and they forced themselves to live with the tension in the hopes that one day they would reform. Malcom Muggeridge was this pre-modern type of man. He lived badly for many years, but God refused to permit him the illusions modern men seem to enjoy.

The outline of Muggeridge’s life is well known. The son of a middle-class Fabian socialist, Malcom became impatient with the gradualism and hypocrisy of a socialist elite that didn’t have the stomach for revolution and, despite lip-service paid to egalitarianism and the plight of the working class, enjoyed lives of globe-trotting luxury and indulgence. He became a staunch communist and an open admirer of the Soviet Union. Upon graduation from Cambridge he traveled to India where he taught in the colonial schools, studied Hinduism and Islam, sympathized with Ghandi, and promoted Indian nationalism. Returning to England, he found work as a journalist and was assigned foreign correspondent to Moscow by the Manchester Guardian. He relished the opportunity to see Soviet communism up close. But what he learned in this revered “worker’s paradise” turned his enthusiasm into horror. Despite his own rhetorical excesses, Malcom discovered in himself a fierce hatred of cruelty and injustice. The barbaric inhumanity he witnessed in the name of atheistic communism turned him against every kind of mass ideological movement. He was furthermore aghast at the calculated dishonesty and, in some cases, the self-delusion of the Western intelligentsia when it came to the Soviet Union, upon which they projected their hopes and aspirations. It was also clear to him that these westerners relied upon the “success” of Marxism-Leninism for their reputations.

Malcom was the first to break the story of the Stalinist famine in the Ukraine, wherein four million perished by starvation and disease while their food – not only grain, but the food in every pantry! – was hauled away to feed more cooperative Russians. Those who resisted, or who were suspected of resistance, were simply shot. To keep the word from getting out, the border was sealed so that Ukrainians had no escape. On a clandestine and unauthorized trip to the Ukraine, Malcom watched starving peasants being loaded onto cattle trucks at gunpoint with their hands bound behind their backs. The story was censored at first, but Malcom would not be silent and became an implacable foe of communism for the rest of his life.

This courageous but unpopular act nearly cost Malcom his career. Still a man of the political Left, by this time the Left would no longer have him. He was barely employable as a journalist in England in all but the most pro-establishment Tory publications (which he detested politically) and gossip columns. His family struggled as he tried to pay the bills with various desperate writing gigs. The war came and he joined the armed forces as an intelligence officer, serving honorably. He returned to England and, by a series of unlikely employments and promotions, ended up a media star himself, landing finally at the BBC. During this time his politics moved further away from those of any party and developed into something that resembled a pragmatic libertarianism. He was clearly a gifted wordsmith, a master of the language, and an incisive commentator. The quality of his writing was recognized as superb. He was surprisingly adaptable as a compelling television presence. Malcom became widely respected – and also reviled – for his piercing criticism of those in positions of power and authority. His transparent sincerity was part of his appeal, once admitting “I hate government. I hate power. I think that man’s existence, insofar as he achieves anything, is to resist power, to minimize power, to devise systems of society in which power is the least exerted.” Toward the end of his career his wit, humor, and voice were known to all Englishman. His highly televised face was recognized everywhere.

And yet, beneath all of this worldly success, Malcom had long been miserable.

Malcom read the Bible secretly as a child, enthralled with the Christ-figure. While at Cambridge he embraced the religious skepticism of the day, but found himself drawn to mystics and even to the devout. His best friend was a serious Christian who became an Anglican clergyman. Malcom especially admired his asceticism and religious discipline. At the same time Malcom had fallen into the casual homosexuality of the elite, a phenomenon that was rife in England at the time, though he was still in love with a girl back home. (The extent to which casual male homosexuality was a staple of upper class English life has always eluded me, but it seems to have been ubiquitous for several generations even as it remained illegal. This must have had severe psychological effects on many of its practitioners.) His passions became unruly, particularly his sexual passions. When he married Kitty Dobbs, as good Fabian socialists they seriously considered having an “open marriage”. It might as well have been. Malcom’s sordid infidelities are too numerous to count; Kitty’s are less numerous but no less tragic. This compulsive behavior went on for decades, all through the highs and lows of his career. It always left him feeling empty, despairing, and lost. He and Kitty fought bitterly and constantly. As his family grew, he sought escape in projects that took him far from home. He attempted suicide at least once. He agonized over religious questions, and though he couldn’t bring himself to believe, he couldn’t bring himself to reject God altogether either.

Part of Malcom’s inner torment was his self-image as a permanent outsider. Painful in his youth, he tried hard to belong without success. Later he came to see his outsider status as having important advantages. He was in that sense a free man. As a writer he could say what he wanted to say, without worrying about who it might offend. He relished attacking the “establishment” and its acolytes, but extended his range of targets to anyone whom he felt exercised undue influence over others. Maintaining this posture required a spirit that lacked generosity. He was outside by choice now, and developed a sort of contempt for insiders. This gave him his freedom. Insiders are not free: they have to bow to their institutions and defend their absurdities. Or so Malcom thought. As applied to the Church, Malcom could not see himself accepting a set of doctrines that were above criticism or deferring to churchmen who were, in his estimation, just party men like all the others. The extreme patriotism after the war ended turned him off for similar reasons. You would never find Malcom Muggeridge waving a flag or a pom-pom. But his independence came at the price of arrogance, to the point where, after his acceptance of the Christian faith, he could no longer stand to watch himself on television, deploring this “terrible man” with a “certain arrogance about myself” and “completely lacking in humility”.

Malcom’s exceptional intelligence, energy, and productivity was driven by a force he didn’t understand.  The sheer volume impresses – books, plays, documentaries, interviews, hundreds of articles. He interviewed everyone from Churchill to MacArthur to Stalin’s daughter. His literary circles included all the men of letters of his time, being closest to George Orwell. He described his friend Graham Greene as a “saint who is trying unsuccessfully to be a sinner”; Hilaire Belloc as “not at all a serene man” nursing decades old grievances, and of whom, “having written about religion all of his life, there seemed to be very little in him”; and of Evelyn Waugh he said “I have formed the impression that he does not like me”, which was evidently true, although in fairness Waugh was a misanthrope who didn’t like anybody. Apart from Chesterton, whom he admired, the English Catholic literati did not impress Malcom as men whose Catholicism had changed them for the better. They left him curious but uninspired.

Behind the scenes of this busy public life was a titanic internal struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Even as Malcom gave in to the flesh, he would not surrender his mind. He began to see with increasing clarity how the ethos of liberalism had poisoned his own life, making himself and his loved ones miserable. What was previously a slow awakening became a torrent of awareness. He decried the comfortable materialism of his circumstances and longed for poverty and asceticism, for “the simple life”. He saw the rise of sexual promiscuity (with the implied dismissal of marriage), contraception, abortion, and euthanasia as signs of a decaying civilization with a Freudian death wish. He understood that the decline of Christian faith and respect for the Church was the source of these evils. He professed these insights publicly even as he continued to live according to his old habits.

Malcom plunged himself into research about this Jesus, this Man who haunted him all of his life and wouldn’t leave him any peace. The painful alienation and longing for God expressed in St. Augustine’s “Confessions” resonated with him acutely. He recalled with amazement the serene faith of the peasants he encountered in churches behind the iron curtain. He traveled to Lourdes and Palestine and was inspired by the faith of the Christian pilgrims, mostly of humble origins. He befriended a holy priest who ministered to the severely disabled. Finally, he sought out Mother Teresa, bewildered at this woman who accomplished so much with so little, who didn’t shrink from loving the unlovable, or touching the untouchable, and not for an idea or a set of abstract social principles, but for the love of a Person. The publicity-shy nun permitted him to make a television documentary about the works of her Missionaries of Charity, and to write a book about her – “Something Beautiful for God” – bringing her then obscure work to the attention of the world. Still unable to grasp Christ directly, Malcom was permitted to see Him through the life of a genuine saint, and in the faces of the world’s forgotten ones.

And then, in the twilight of his life, the old familiar pain of being an outsider looking in returned to him. He wanted what these Christians had, Who these Christians had, but didn’t know how to possess Him. He wanted to be counted among them, but still couldn’t bend the knee.

Malcom spent the remainder of his career defending and promoting a Christian worldview at every opportunity. Yet he remained apart. Malcom’s difficulties with the Catholic Church were a surprising combination of two things: 1) He was shocked and disappointed at the changes in the Church that seemed to have resulted from the Second Vatican Council. He saw religious life collapsing everywhere and moral teachings abandoned. 2) He was still a theological skeptic himself. Despite the post-conciliar liberalism that had no regard for doctrine, he was an honest man and would not join the Church if he didn’t accept its dogma. It’s not clear that he connected theological orthodoxy or liturgy with the moral precepts that concerned him. Nor is it clear that he worked very hard at theological understanding. This biographer suggests that Malcom was bored by theology. Although a reluctant moralist, he was fundamentally a poetic soul who seemed content with a mystical approach to the person of Jesus Christ.

Despite his distance from the Church, he began to call himself a Christian and tried to live like one. He established a daily prayer regimen. He gave up his womanizing, and further still, his drinking and smoking. He ate sparsely and became a vegetarian. He repaired his marriage to Kitty and tried to make things up to her. Their marriage became something beautiful and attractive, a hard-won prize. Their final years were spent in love, enjoying one another’s company and the company of friends, often reading the Pslams aloud to each other. Kitty would later write: “It is inevitable that in the course of time trouble and strife between man and wife should occur. This is for the most part due to our human vanity and egotism; but these differences can be overcome, and every reconciliation strengthens the bond of love.”

At long last, Malcom and Kitty received a letter from a respected priest and friend. In between formalities, the letter contained only one substantive line: “It is time.” Now 79 and 78 years old, respectively, this was all they needed. Malcom and Kitty Muggeridge formally entered the Catholic Church in November of 1982, finally at home and at peace. In July of 1990, Malcom suffered a crippling stroke. The state of his soul as a Christian penitent is manifest in the words he shouted that first night in the hospital: “Father, forgive me! Father, forgive me!” He died from complications four months later.

“A refuge from republican slavery in monarchical England” A Letter of Frederick Douglass from the United Kingdom (1st January 1846)

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Frederick Douglass

MY DEAR FRIEND GARRISON: Up to this time, I have given no direct expression of the views, feelings, and opinions which I have formed, respecting the character and condition of the people of this land. I have refrained thus, purposely. I wish to speak advisedly, and in order to do this, I have waited till, I trust, experience has brought my opinions to an intelligent maturity. I have been thus careful, not because I think what I say will have much effect in shaping the opinions of the world, but because whatever of influence I may possess, whether little or much, I wish it to go in the right direction, and according to truth. I hardly need say that, in speaking of Ireland, I shall be influenced by no prejudices in favor of America. I think my circumstances all forbid that. I have no end to serve, no creed to…

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Yes, Brooke Baldwin, pornography is worse than assault weapons

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The hysterical and unhinged Brooke Baldwin, purportedly a CNN “news” anchor, probably represents the views of a good many Americans in this segment. Nevermind that she crudely mischaracterizes the facts; let’s just focus on her misplaced outrage. How is it possible, she asks incredulously, for anyone to think that pornography is a greater public health crisis than assault weapons?

It’s very simple: pornography destroys more lives, with far more collateral damage, than assault weapons ever could. Pornography fuels a host of criminal activity from sex crimes to serial homicide. Pornography is strongly linked to political violence and radical ideologies from Nazism to Islamism. Pornography destroys marriages and families and nurtures a culture of promiscuity, resulting in a tidal wave of abortion, post-abortion emotional trauma, mental illness, abuse of women and children, and millions of fatherless young men whose numerous pathologies include higher rates of suicide, drug abuse, and criminal violence (such as, for example, shooting up schools with assault weapons). Most tragically, and quite unlike assault weapons, pornography unfailingly extinguishes the life of charity in the souls of its consumers.

Whatever one thinks about gun violence as a political issue, pornography is by far the more dangerous and urgent public health threat. And unlike the ownership of firearms, there is no moral or constitutional justification for allowing the dissemination of pornography on any level. Nothing much will change when it comes to America’s social ills – including gun violence – until the truth about pornography is frankly acknowledged and its proliferation effectively suppressed.

Critical thinking, observation, and virtue

In a recent conversation about the components of critical thinking, it was noted that the first necessary skill is observation, even prior to that of logic, and that one’s powers of observation are largely dependent upon virtue. I thought it a remarkable insight: critical thought – defined as the ability to get at the truth of things –  ultimately depends upon the virtue of the thinker. The powers of human reason are necessary but not sufficient, however well trained they might be.

How might this play out? Let’s take the following logical syllogism:

The Church teaches that deliberately taking a human life is, by definition, the sin of murder;
Capital punishment is the deliberate taking of a human life; 
Therefore, capital punishment is murder.

The syllogism itself works just fine, does it not? The logic is sound. The conclusion follows perfectly from the premises. And yet, the conclusion is false because the major premise is false. The major premise is not something derived from logical reasoning, but through simple observation. The Church does not, in fact, teach that deliberately taking a human life is murder in every case. The person making the argument was incorrect in his primary observation.

Now, it is certainly possible to be innocently wrong in one’s observations. We should never assume that getting an observation wrong automatically means a lack of virtue. But here’s where a lack of virtue might compromise one’s observations: confirmation bias. We fallen creatures tend to see what we want to see, what we expect to see, what works to our advantage somehow, and what makes sense of our preconceived ideas. Without virtue we’re not all that concerned about the facts. In the case of the syllogism concerning capital punishment:

  • Pride could lead to misinterpreting Church teaching – whether consciously or unconsciously – due to one’s personal beliefs or ideological commitments.
  • Irreverence could lead to treating the Church as a merely human institution whose moral teachings are malleable and in constant need of updating.
  • Rash judgment could lead to regurgitating something one has heard or read without due diligence.
  • Human respect could lead to distorting Church teaching in order to win an argument.
  • Un-repented sin could lead to minimizing the gravity of capital offenses as deserving of capital punishment.
  • Lack of charity could lead to blindly opposing the views of others merely because of who happens to hold them.

Every argument depends upon one or more premises that are essentially unprovable by means of argument. They are simply assumed to be true by observation or the claims of authority.  In order for these premises to be reliable, they must be approached with humility, integrity, discernment, and self-knowledge.

On the pre-eminence of France

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In the wake of yesterday’s Islamist attack on Paris, some people are saying “Yes, that’s bad, but why all this media attention for France? There are recent Islamist strikes in Lebanon, Nigeria, Indonesia, etc. Isn’t the focus on France at best Eurocentric, or at worst racist?”

I’m not a big fan of the American mainstream media, but I will say that the MSM isn’t wrong to give this story prominence and maximum coverage. In the first place, it’s impossible to report everything equally. Choices have to be made, priorities assigned. The Parisian attacks are objectively more important for the world – and for the United States – than similar events in other countries. Why?

France is the “Eldest Daughter of the Church”, an important progenitor of western civilization. There is no escaping the ubiquity of French influence on the civilization we have inherited.

What’s happening in France, a nation with an historically Christian identity, is uniquely instructive for every nation in the West.

France is central to Catholic prophecy, some of which can be reasonably understood to incorporate events like this.

Catholic France was an important ally in the founding of the American Republic.

France once ruled what is now American territory.

The French were some of the earliest American settlers and have had enormous influence on regional cultures in the United States.

Over 9 million Americans claim French ancestry, which is even more than the Scotch-Irish.

France is part of the NATO alliance with the United States.

It isn’t racism or Eurocentrism to make a French catastrophe like this one a media priority. Choices have to be made, priorities assigned. I may not have a drop of French blood, but that doesn’t stop me from acknowledging that France is more important to us – as Catholics, as citizens of the West, and as Americans – than are most countries in the world.

What is “radical Islam”?

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I’m kind of a stickler for using words properly, much to the chagrin of certain young people in my life.

It’s campaign season. Some candidates are saying that we are at war with “radical Islam”. Others deny this, or they change the subject.

However, I have a sneaking suspicion that even those who admit that civilization is at war with “radical Islam” don’t quite know what they are saying. They are probably trying to say that we are at war with “extremist Islam”, or some variation thereof – but not with Islam itself. Not with “true Islam” anyway, and certainly not with all Muslims. It’s a way of avoiding accusations of religious bigotry. “We’re only against the misguided Islam of the radicals, the fringies, the extremists, not the friendly Islam of most Muslims”.

But the word “radical” has no moral connotations apart from that which it describes. “Radical” is derived from the Latin word “radix”, meaning roots. A radical thing is an authentic thing, true to its roots, pure and unadulterated. “Radical Islam” is precisely true and authentic Islam, the real Islam, the Islam that is faithful to itself. Of course, like any religion, there are followers who stray from its roots – the liberals. Such followers are usually in the “mainstream” of modern societies.

What is a radical Muslim? A Muslim who is like Mohammed. He’s Osama bin Laden or “Jihadi John”. What is a radical Christian? A Christian who is like Jesus. He’s St. Francis of Assisi or St. Damien of Molokai. These are the “radicals”. The former are evil; the latter are holy. We prefer liberal and unfaithful Muslims, not radical Muslims. But we ought to prefer faithful and radical Christians.

Molly Criner: Another county clerk stands up to Obergefell

It would be helpful to have a list of county clerks who have had the courage to resist same-sex “marriage” since the Supreme Court decided Obergefell vs. Hodges in June. Kim Davis of Rowan County, Kentucky has been much in the news, having served 5 days in jail for her convictions, but she’s not the only clerk in the nation to take a principled stand. Shortly after the fateful court decision hit the press, Molly Criner of Irion County, Texas, announced her refusal to violate her Christian beliefs:

In today’s news, she re-affirmed her decision at a local Tea Party gathering:

“I could resign and that would help me, or I could let someone else on my staff do it and that would protect me,” she said. “But I went back and read my oath and realized that … I didn’t take an oath to protect me, I took an oath to defend, serve and protect the constitution of Texas and the United States.”

May Our Lord  bless and protect Molly Criner, and may her courage be an example for others.

 

Will the next president stop the coming persecution?

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This post by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf inspired a lively discussion with some erudite comments. One reader suggested that the next president, if sufficiently conservative, could head off the persecution that seems to be barreling towards us at breakneck speed. To that idea, a fellow named Dennis Martin responded:

“No president can change the trajectory. The bureaucracy can destroy any president it sets out to destroy. Even if a incredibly gifted president-leader managed to move reform legislation through Congress, the fundamentally lawless mentality of a rising majority of the culture would do a ‘non serviam’.

The Department of Justice is now loaded with radical civil service appointees who cannot be removed because of civil service protection. The federal appeals courts are loaded similarly because the Democrats politicized judicial appointments 30 years ago (Bork), denied George Bush many of his appointments, and then railroaded many of Obama’s during the last Congress. Beyond that the law schools are hopelessly politicized. The chatterati, the intellectuals, the journalists, the financial sector–all the movers and shakers are now post-Christian, deeply-contraceptive, deeply anti-nature and thus deeply lawless. They don’t realize it but they have no god but Power.

The problem is far beyond what even the most gifted single leader can address. We have a culture that is anti-culture, that hates law itself, hates nature itself. No, not everyone is like that but the elites of the culture and, in a curious but really not surprising way, also the hoi polloi in the ‘just gimme mine and leave me alone’ segments of the culture, are like that now.

Nature is real and powerful and in the end will reassert Herself as the truth from the Creator. Human nature, divine nature, natural law cannot be buried for ever. But they can be buried for the lifetimes of one or more generations–until the prosperity and comfort built up over centuries is finally dissipated and brutal scramble for survival sets in. The truths of Caritas and Creator will eventually be rediscovered, in desperation and calamity at the bottom. But not before much evil and bloodshed has been visited upon this and other lands.”

Absent a miracle from heaven on a grand scale, I have to agree with Mr. Martin. All is masterfully arranged. Everything is now in place, including a relentless and ubiquitous propaganda infrastructure. And while many Americans are still kindasorta sympathetic to Christian morality, insofar as it fits their favorite political narrative, that sympathy is hopelessly soft and easily swayed by the emotional manipulation of the Left. Not that “conservatives” don’t also resort to emotional manipulation, but grown-ups always fail when they try to be cool. When it comes to the same-sex “marriage” issue, the sob stories of the Left are more persuasive for a couple of reasons – first, most Americans accept Liberalism’s flawed assumptions about reality; and second, most Americans place a high premium on their own sexual freedom.

It seems ridiculous and surreal that something as marginal as homosexuality would trigger the demise of a great civilization. In 500 years, if this poor earth is still around, archaeologists and historians will be scratching their heads at this one.

Catholic economic and social doctrine is not libertarian

Rorate Caeli has an excellent post up today – “Truth be told: The Traditional Catholic position on the economy is not Libertarian”.

“Very few indeed have been making the case, a case that is true, that the positions stated by Pope Francis on economic and social matters are much closer to the Traditional Catholic position on the economy and the State than not. Indeed, it can be said unhesitatingly that this is one area in which the Pope will find mostly allies in Traditional Catholics. They know by heart, also as victims of injustice (including within the Church), that the doctrine of the Church regarding individual persons, society and economic relations, and individuals faced with government, is one which privileges ‘justice’ as its foundational aspect.”