Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Friendship of Christ: Chapter 11, Christ in the Sufferer; and Chapter 12, Christ Our Friend Crucified (Part I)

I think that "Christ in the Sufferer" must disappoint many who turn to it in hope, at least if the few comments in our little reading group were to be believed.  

Some of us, being sufferers ourselves, are looking for instructions on what to do with our own suffering.  We have been told that we ought to unite our sufferings to Christ's.  We may have been told that we ought to "offer up" our sufferings, perhaps on behalf of some other soul; for example, one person reported being taught that suffering should be offered "for the poor souls in Purgatory."

But exactly how one does this is always left unsaid.

Others of us, and I count myself among them, may be searching for help learning what to do with other people's suffering.  We may feel helpless faced by the suffering around us:  faraway suffering that we only read about, or a suffering person right in front of us, whether it is a stranger or a loved one.  Maybe it is our appointed duty to do something particular to help; it can be a relief to know it; but perhaps what we can do is useless or incomplete, and then we are still left with suffering we can't help.  Or maybe we don't know what to do:  to say "it's not my job" seems wrong, and yet the fear that we might make it worse if we don't understand what we are doing is not an ungrounded one (see:  book of Job)!  Faced with a third suggestion, that we should suffer-with the sufferer, com-passion-ate ourselves... if we are not naturally feelers of others' feelings, how can we make ourselves do it?

There seem to be no easy answers here either.

And Benson's chapter does not help us.  He remains distant from the sufferer.  He does not help the sufferer, and he does not help the one who would serve the sufferer.   What are we to make of this?
I did not feel quite as alienated by Benson's take on suffering as most of the group did, but this was not a chapter that resonated with the readership. Fortunately, Benson is about to move from a philosophical discussion of suffering to ground zero: Christ our Friend Crucified.

***

And the first word of our friend, crucified, is, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I. "...they know not what they do." This, Benson argues, is key, because it's very clear in the gospels that the various characters involved in the Passion thought they knew what they were doing: buying themselves peace by putting an innocent man to death. 

Drilling down even further, their error, and the error of all humanity, was that they thought they were doing it. The whole sordid soap opera of the Passion, all the tawdry human motivations on display, the strategies, the alliances, the manipulations, the key players the priests and Pilate, with Jesus as a pawn in their war: nothing more than surface-level dust. And deep underneath it all, on the cosmic level, God himself was willing each sacrifice and step of suffering to undo every tangled surface evil, undoing each deed as the people who thought themselves the chief players enacted them. They knew not what they did because they thought Jesus was truly weak and powerless. They knew they were hurting a man, but they didn't know they were hurting God. And because of that, he forgives them.

II. ...As we should forgive those who trespass against us. As Jesus suffered, so his body, the Church, suffers at the hands of the world. The Church suffers both for being Christlike and unChristlike. As it is unChristlike, as its members sin against each other and the community in ways both hugely evil and almost invisibly petty, this suffering is a purification. As it is Christlike, as it is persecuted even in the midst of providing Christ's love and mercy to a world that lashes out in its own pain, it suffers as Christ does -- which is, Benson points out, by forgiving its persecutors.
This prayer, then, is one which we can take upon our own lips.... We have abused the French Republic and the Portuguese revolutionaries, and the Italian Freemasons, and the Spanish anarchists, and the Irish Orangemen long enough. In the very point of our agony we must learn to pray: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
I won't add any specific modern groups, because each person thinks the Church is being persecuted by his or her own enemies. The point is: pray for those enemies. Jesus thinks that they know not what they do, which must be enough for us.

III. And so we come to the real sting of the section: where Jesus forgives me, individually, not as his enemy, but as his friend.
We confess to a little sloth and lethargy, a little avarice, a little lack of generosity. We "know what we do," in part: we know we are not faithful fo our highest inspirations, that we have not done all that we might, that we have shown a little self-will, a little malice, and little pardonable temper. And we confess these things, and give an easy absolution. And yet we know not what we do. We do not know how urgent is the need of God how tremendous are the issues He has committed to our care, how enormous is the value of every soul -- of every act and word and thought that help to shape the destinies of such a soul. We do not know how here, in these minute opportunities of every day, lie the germ of new worlds that may be born to God, or crushed in embryo by our carelessness.

First of all, ouch, because Benson has just accurately and publicly dissected my last confession. 

Second, as a constant Friend, Jesus forgives us for repeatedly refusing his help in rekindling our first love for him. Benson sketches the arc of soul whose first ecstatic bliss who gradually grows colder and world-weary, letting its love for Jesus become a static memory rather than a living, changing, deepening relationship. But doesn't that same drama also play out moment by moment and second by second? Things are easy, and we see the future in a straight line from that moment, and rejoice, even just a little. Things turn harder, and we see the future in a straight line from that moment, and despair, even just a little. We create the future -- and the past -- in our own image, without knowing what we do. And as long as we relinquish that creation to Jesus and accept what he gives in return, we hold onto his friendship. And as long as we cling to our scripted joys or sorrows, we refuse the real opportunities to participate in his joy and suffering -- which is, in the end, the true work of a friend.

***

Next: the second and third words of Christ crucified.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sweat of My Brow

Last week was a scheduled week off lessons for us, and I had so many plans for my leisure time. I would rewrite the first chapter of Strange Plots. I would build a bookcase, for which I already have all the material to hand. I would write a letter a day for Lent, and get up and say Morning Prayer and do all the dishes each night after dinner.

What I forget when making these pretty plans is that I actually have a full-time job, which is running a household, and that this job does not go away simply because I declare a week off. And since the other adult in the house also has a full-time job, that means that certain maintenance activities that need to be done in daylight hours fall to me. 

So: I spent hours last week shoveling the snow that would not stop falling. I could have fired up the snow blower, but I've never used it, and the shovel has no learning curve. For me, that is: I sent my 12yo son out to shovel one day and ended up redoing the job, which is why I just did it myself the next time.

I spent time up on a ladder on the porch roof, removing snow and doing non-OSHA approved activities with a hammer, sharp screwdriver, and a heat gun to clear the ice dam that was making water back up under the slates and drip into the kitchen. 

Both of these were exhausting jobs, and instead of shaking off the snow and diving right into to creative work, I put in a certain amount of recovery time (cocooned in a comforter trying to restore feeling to my frozen extremities, in the case of ladderwork on the porch roof on the north side of the house, which does not have the aerobic component of snow shoveling).

So much for physical labor, but I also spent the week in constant prayer for and worry about conditions in Texas. Long-time blog readers will know that we lived just north of Austin for years, and many friends were in rather dire straits for several days. Each night as I snuggled in my warm blankets I prayed for those who were without heat; each morning for those without water. And so, the only part of my grand vacation plan I achieved was saying Morning Prayer before I suited up and went out to wrestle with the elements, feeling like offering up my work was the only thing I could do for my friends far away.

As to the dishes, I have been chipping away at them in the evenings, but this resolve also reveals to me the weaknesses in my housekeeping, because when you have eight people using dishes during the day, you can't clear the dinner dishes until you clear the lunch dishes, which you can't clear until you clear the breakfast dishes, which is definitely not happening regularly. "Make your kids do them, MrsDarwin!" you say, to which I say, A, I do, many days, and B) you frickin' come to my house and guide children to maturity day after day for eighteen years, and maybe there will be days when you too wish things would happen without your having to make them happen. And some days they do, and for that I'm very grateful to my big girls.

As to writing: I've forgotten how, and have spent fruitless time staring at a page not even sure how to put down a word to capture what I already know I want to say, and that is why I'm writing here, to build up those muscles again. "In pain shall you labor," said God to Man, "by the sweat of your brow shall you get your bread." And don't I rue it, until that sweat is the only thing I have to offer in solidarity with those far away. Then, work is a gift -- not to God, who requires nothing, but to us who want to feel like we're doing something

But even if that is taken away, then we are most like Christ, on the cross, offering himself through helplessness. And so every moment is a gift. It's just not usually the gift we asked for. But I'll tell you what -- if I'd had my perfect week of writing and bookshelving, I bet I wouldn't have been faithful to my Morning Prayer. And in the end, that's the only thing I did last week that will endure through eternity.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Snow Day

"I will write something clever," I said, and then I sat down and my hips began protesting because for the last few days, all I have done is shovel snow. And it's a great workout -- I'll see your Crossfit and raise you a load of packing snow -- but my wrists are sore.

So here: A Snow Day, in Photos.

This morning I came downstairs and discovered water on the counter, dripping in from the top of the windows looking out onto the screened-in porch.


The screens roll down from a box above the window, so any time water gets in a box, you have to worry about rust.


What's above that window, MrsDarwin? Glad you asked! The porch roof is covered with two feet of packed snow, except for this mound here, which is about four feet high. The snow covers the edge of the rubber roof of the porch. Could it be melting snow that was dripping down through the roof into the kitchen? Should someone climb out onto the roof to inspect it, and shovel off the weight of snow?


These windows are in our stairwell which overlooks the porch roof. I did not choose to unscrew the storm windows and force open the casements into the snow. No, I chose to open a bedroom window, put out a stepladder, and hoist myself out and down.


Understand that my hips are wider than the opening. I have spared you all video, though my 12yo son longed to record my contortions as I put my one foot onto the ladder while my other leg was still on the window sill, and the ladder sank into the snow.


That's the bottom step of the ladder, without sinking down through all the layers of snow.


And here's that mound. I took a couple of whacks at it before I remembered to get a picture.

"Mom, look up here!" my son yelled from the bedroom, and then he cackled and used my phone against me.


After all that, however, the likely culprit for the leak is our frozen-solid gutter.



The gutter which has icicles forming at the soffits, indicating water inside. 


At which point I took no more photos because I was tired, and I went inside and the dripping had stopped as mysteriously as it started, and then I sat around and stared at my phone for a while and then went out and shoveled the driveway again because it was still snowing.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Anti-Sacramental House

This morning I opened the door, took a nose-cracking sniff at the 0 degree air, and shut myself back in the snug house. Our power grid, optimized for winter performance, is working as it ought, and the water flows both hot and cold. We are not chilly, but if we were, we have winter coats and snow pants and boots for almost everyone. But we shiver in impotent sympathy for our friends in Texas, whose houses are build to shed heat, not retain it, whose heating relies on electricity from a grid never designed to withstand temperatures this low. 

A friend in the Dallas area recently built a house which included a fireplace. The fireplace, which is completely enclosed, runs on gas, with an electric starter. She asked the builders if she could pay extra to get a wood burning fireplace. No can do, she was told. You could put a wood burning fireplace outside, where burning wood belongs, but it was not allowed to include the safety hazard of a fire area designed to heat while safely venting smoke outside. Why would anyone even want such a thing, in Texas?

This week people are dying from carbon monoxide poisoning from trying to heat their homes with fire without an area specifically designed to safely vent smoke outside.

I said that Texas houses were built to shed heat, and that's true in a sense, but let me tell you about the suburban box we lived in, north of Austin. Nowhere, in this house built in a region where there are routinely weeks above 100 degrees in the summer, were there windows on opposite walls to promote a cross-breeze. The house was not designed for air circulation. It was designed for air conditioning. Without electricity, the house barely functioned. The windows neither ventilated nor let in much light; the fireplace (gas, but we never had a gas log and so burned wood for a scenic blaze) was mostly for show, built into a tall open space where any heat it might generate quickly dispersed. Vestigial features, for plugged-in humans.

Such boxes are cheap to build, which is why they're built. They're not unique to Texas, of course; that's just where I lived in one. I don't know what we would have done in a historic cold snap, because we never had one in the seven years we lived there. I do know that if we'd had to heat our house for days on end without electricity, we could have burned every stick of furniture in the house without generating enough warmth to heat beyond the hearth, because the fireplace wasn't made to be functional. It was included in the house mainly to add a bullet point to the real estate list. It was anti-sacramental -- it effected the opposite of what it signified.

I don't know what changes will be made once Texas regains power and takes stock. People are suffering, and the immediate alleviation of that suffering is the first step. But maybe, this and other disasters will cause a rethinking of the very concept of house as aiding survival, not actively working against it.

Please, please pray for Texas, and all without power, water, heat, and food.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Friendship of Christ: Chapter 9, Christ in the Sinner, and Chapter 10, Christ in the Average Man

 For Chapter 9, Christ in the Sinner, Erin reflects on a scripture passage in which the sinner and the saint are mirror images of each other:

Christ was crucified between two thieves, or revolutionaries, or both; between two Sinners. 

Christ died on the cross between a Sinner and a Saint. 

I think it is a little bit unfair to contemplate the Good Thief and think merely, "I am contemplating a Sinner."  It's not wrong—with few exceptions, all saints are sinners—but we are ignoring two things when we do this.  First, we are contemplating the Good Thief from a perspective that knows he is really a Saint as well; second, there is a perfectly appropriate example of a Sinner right there on Christ's other side

There will never be a better example of how Christ is reflected both in the Saint and in the Sinner.  The three men look alike in their agonies from the feet of the crosses.  Benson says, "For the crucifix and the Sinner are profoundly, and not merely superficially, alike in this—that both are what the rebellious self-will of man has made of the Image of God..."  Melanie Bettinelli and I have discussed this concept before as the concept of the "damaged icon."

So let's look at the other man.

***

Erin highlights Benson's point that the Saint and the Sinner are, in fact, mirror images of each other, and both openly mirror Christ. As Jesus said, "When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself." His lifting up on the cross was as Sin itself, and yet it is Christ as Sin that draws all men. 

What about everyone else who's neither Saint nor Sinner?

What about all the schlubs who are neither saints nor sinners? The folks just kinda doing their thing, living lives of quiet desperation, or not so quiet desperation, or maybe not desperate at all because they're good people, right? The jerk on the bus trying to impress a bored girl with some long story? The person holding up the check-out line to argue with the cashier about coupons? The clerk at the DMV who's spent the last five minutes gossiping with a co-worker about her sister-in-law while you're stuck in line? The people who are shallow, petty, ignorant, frustrating, self-absorbed?

All Christ.

Benson draws on the parable of the Last Judgment, with its separation of the sheep from the goats, and the ignorance -- "it would seem genuine and sincere ignorance," he notes -- of those being judged. The sheep are truly puzzled that they have been serving Christ all their lives. The goats are truly puzzled that they have not actually been serving Christ.

(Christians, note well: they did not realize that the way they were spending their lives was not actually serving Christ. Which means that they, who knew him, so they thought, thought also that they were serving him with deeds that he did not recognize.)

"But the explanation is not so difficult," Benson says.

It is that the ignorance is not complete. For it is a universal fact of experience that we all feel an instinctive drawing towards our neighbour which we cannot reject without a sense of moral guilt. It may be that owing to ignorance or wilful rejection of light a man may fail to understand or believe the Fatherhood of God and the claims of Jesus Christ; it may even be that he sincerely believes himself justified intellectually in explicitly denying those truths; but no man ever yet has lived a wholly selfish life from the beginning, no man has ever yet deliberately refused to love his neighbour or to deny the Brotherhood of man, without a consciousness, at soe period at least, that he is outraging his highest instincts. Christians know that the Second Greatest Commandment draws its force only from the First; yet, as a matter of fact, in spite of this, it is perfectly certain that though some men fail, for one reason or another, to feel the force of the First, no man has ever yet, without a sense of guilt, totally rejected the Second.

...Here then is an undeniable fact. The man who does not keep the Second Commandment cannot even implicitly be keeping the First: the man who rejects Christ in man cannot accept Christ as God." (emphasis added)

Finding Christ in the average person -- as he or she is right now -- "to do this perfectly and consistently is Sanctity."

Benson makes what I increasingly believe is a truth universally unacknowledged: that doing big exciting things because they are exciting is antithetical to Christianity. Not that projects large in scale can never be undertaken, of course -- but that the thrill of any given venture has nothing to do with whether or not God wills it, and indeed the thrill may be inversely proportionate to the call. 

...it is, therefore, a very real spiritual snare that we should mistake Christ's gifts for Christ, religiosity for religion, and the joys possible on earth for the joys awaiting us in heaven -- in a word, that we should mistake the saying of "Lord! Lord!" for the "doing the Will of the Father who is in Heaven." Continually and persistently, therefore, we have to test our progress by practical results. I find it easier and easier to worship Christ in the Tabernacle: do I therefore find it easier and easier to serve Christ in my neighbour? For, if not, I am making no real progress at all. I am not advancing, that is to say, along the whole line: I am pushing forward one department of my life to the expense of the rest: I am not developing my own Friendship with Christ: I am developing, rather, my own conception of His Friendship (which is a totally different thing).

Which leads back to the schlubs. We each have our own conception of what is attractive, even if it is one the World does not share; we each have our own way of seeing the diamond in the rough or hidden worth. Most people do not fall into our private category of loveability, and indeed, our private categories are irrelevant to a person's absolute worth in Christ. Better to learn and live this truth on earth than discover it to our horror at the separation of the sheep and the goats.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

The Great Nothing-Conspiracy of the 2020 Election

 

Time Magazine has a much-shared piece entitled "The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election".  It's been shared around a lot on social media.  On the right, I most often see it shared with the comment, "See, now they're admitting they stole the election" or "No Republican will ever be able to win national office again; the fix is in."  So I figured I'd do what a lot of people sharing the article perhaps hadn't done and read the article -- not the just the headline but the entire thing.  Having finished it, I'm surprised at how little it has to say.

The oft quoted opening summary goes:

The handshake between business and labor was just one component of a vast, cross-partisan campaign to protect the election–an extraordinary shadow effort dedicated not to winning the vote but to ensuring it would be free and fair, credible and uncorrupted. For more than a year, a loosely organized coalition of operatives scrambled to shore up America’s institutions as they came under simultaneous attack from a remorseless pandemic and an autocratically inclined President. Though much of this activity took place on the left, it was separate from the Biden campaign and crossed ideological lines, with crucial contributions by nonpartisan and conservative actors. The scenario the shadow campaigners were desperate to stop was not a Trump victory. It was an election so calamitous that no result could be discerned at all, a failure of the central act of democratic self-governance that has been a hallmark of America since its founding.
...
This is the inside story of the conspiracy to save the 2020 election, based on access to the group’s inner workings, never-before-seen documents and interviews with dozens of those involved from across the political spectrum. It is the story of an unprecedented, creative and determined campaign whose success also reveals how close the nation came to disaster. “Every attempt to interfere with the proper outcome of the election was defeated,” says Ian Bassin, co-founder of Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan rule-of-law advocacy group. “But it’s massively important for the country to understand that it didn’t happen accidentally. The system didn’t work magically. Democracy is not self-executing.”

But what does the story actually show? 

It partly follows the efforts of Mike Podhorzer, an AFL-CIO political advisor who put together an informal group to share ideas on how to deal with what he considered to be the two most likely outcomes of the election: "Trump losing and refusing to concede, and Trump winning the Electoral College (despite losing the popular vote) by corrupting the voting process in key states."

Now, I think it's worth pausing a moment to think about those two alternatives, because what they highlight is that he wasn't prepared to think about the possibility that Trump might just plain win the election.  He seems to be implying that if Trump won again via a narrow margin in key electoral vote states, this would be "by corrupting the voting process in key states".  In other words, what we're hearing from here is the mirror image of the "stop the steal" crowd -- people not willing to admit it's possible to lose.

You might think this was pointing towards dark revelations of how this "shadow campaign" tilted the election towards Biden.  But what follows is...  not very exciting.  Members of the group helped get funding for masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer for poll workers.  Others supported campaigns to get mail-in voting approved more widely by states and to encourage people to make sure of it if they had COVID related concerns about voting in person.  They promoted news about how the counting would likely look: if the in-person votes were counted first, the counts would at first look Trump-heavy, and then as mail-in ballots were counted the count would shift towards Biden.  They encouraged people to report disinformation to platforms like Facebook and Twitter rather than writing explainers enouncing it because the denunciations tended to just make the disinformation spread faster.

It makes a great deal of some rather anodyne moments.  Such as the AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce putting out a joint statement saying: “It is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws.  We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual.”

After the election, the left-leaning parts of the network encouraged their allies not to stage big post election protests, lest they turn violent.  

The article also tries to give the activists a lot of credit for focusing attention on a few of the "pressure points" in the election counting and certification process:

Election boards were one pressure point; another was GOP-controlled legislatures, who Trump believed could declare the election void and appoint their own electors. And so the President invited the GOP leaders of the Michigan legislature, House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate majority leader Mike Shirkey, to Washington on Nov. 20.

It was a perilous moment. If Chatfield and Shirkey agreed to do Trump’s bidding, Republicans in other states might be similarly bullied. “I was concerned things were going to get weird,” says Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP executive director turned anti-Trump activist. Norm Eisen describes it as “the scariest moment” of the entire election.

The democracy defenders launched a full-court press. Protect Democracy’s local contacts researched the lawmakers’ personal and political motives. Issue One ran television ads in Lansing. The Chamber’s Bradley kept close tabs on the process. Wamp, the former Republican Congressman, called his former colleague Mike Rogers, who wrote an op-ed for the Detroit newspapers urging officials to honor the will of the voters. Three former Michigan governors–Republicans John Engler and Rick Snyder and Democrat Jennifer Granholm–jointly called for Michigan’s electoral votes to be cast free of pressure from the White House. Engler, a former head of the Business Roundtable, made phone calls to influential donors and fellow GOP elder statesmen who could press the lawmakers privately.

 Maybe these efforts were a factor.  Maybe not.  I think it's worth noting that although many GOP politicians who were in a position to win points with angry and fearful GOP voters by grandstanding about the election did so (looking at you, Ted Cruz) none of the GOP state officials and GOP-appointed judges who had parts to play in the election drama caved to the hysteria and conspiracy theories.  Even the electoral vote objections on January 6th, disgraceful as they were, had no path to changing the election results.  These were drama-only events which served to create hatred and division but did not actually have any chance to change the election result.  

That's not to say that it's bad or even useless that a lot of people put time and effort into trying to make sure that the election moved forward smoothly.  After all, a democracy is a government of and by the people, and out state works not merely because "the state" does things but because many organizations and informal networks throughout society support the working of democracy.  (As a side note, this is why it's hard to "spread democracy" in places that do not have a culture and history which support it.)

But I think it's important to note that the fear-inspired reactions to this piece from left and right are both wrong.  No, we didn't come within a hair's breadth of having our democratic institutions collapse; we just had a very contentious election that some people did not like the results of.  And no, this is not proof that a dark conspiracy of elites and big tech now will control all elections, it's just a puff piece about some people who think they did their part to keep democracy working.

There is probably an important lesson to be learned here in terms of the sorts of organizing that will be important in the future.  Just as Trump's organization in some ways drew lessons from the way that Obama organized his successful campaigns, there are probably useful lessons to be learned from this group left, right, and center.  But what people should not take from this is that not dark forces control it all and there's no point in bothering to vote anymore because the fix is in.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

We Need the Classics

The NY Times had a longform piece this last week about Princeton Classics professor Dan-el Padilla Peralta and the movement of which he is a part to re-form what the discipline of Classics is about, or whether it exists at all.  I've felt the strong desire to say something about it, through I've struggled a bit with what, because my main reaction to it was that it is terribly sad.

As framing, the article uses an incident at a Society for Classical Studies conference two years ago which I recall reading about at the time, at which a dispute broke out during a panel on "The Future of Classics".  The Times's description is pretty surface level.  You can get a more full version of it reading this piece by the woman the Times frames as the villain of the encounter.  After describing the panel, she describes her comments as follows:

I only wanted to make four very brief points, but I felt compelled to state at the beginning that we could not abandon the ancient languages because then we would have nothing left of our field—of all the egregiously shocking things I had just heard, that seemed to be the one that most cried out to be challenged. I then attempted to say the following:

1) It is important to stand up for Classics as a discipline, and promote it as the political, literary, historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and artistic foundation of Western Civilization, and the basis of European history, tradition, culture, and religion. It gave us the concepts of liberty, equality, and democracy, which we should teach and promote. We should not apologize for our field;

2) It is important to go back to teaching undergraduates about the great classical authors—Cicero, the Athenian dramatists, Homer, Demosthenes, the Greek and Roman historians, Plato, and Aristotle—in English translation in introductory courses;

3) One way of promoting Classics is to offer more survey courses that cover many subject areas (epic, tragedy, comedy, rhetoric, philosophy, history, political theory, and art history), or to concentrate on one area such as in Freshmen seminars, or through western civilization classes;

4) It should help with securing funding from administrators to argue that such survey courses are highly cost-effective: a student could learn a tremendous amount even if such a survey were the only Classics course taken. On the other hand, a seminar that concentrated on the close reading of a few texts would prove beneficial for all students.

Unfortunately, I was interrupted in the middle of my first point by Sarah Bond, who forcefully insisted: “We are not Western Civilization!”

 After additional back and forth which gets heated, Padilla responds:

“Here’s what I have to say about the vision of classics that you outlined,” he said. “I want nothing to do with it. I hope the field dies that you’ve outlined, and that it dies as swiftly as possible.”

The Times article then goes back to trace Padilla's career: from his childhood in an illegal immigration family from the Dominican Republican where in a homeless shelter library he found a book entitled “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome” and was so fascinated by it that he took the book and never returned it to the library, to the point in 1994 when a photographer documenting another shelter in which Padilla's family was living saw the nine year old boy reading a biography of Napoleon and started talking to him and eventually helped him get a scholarship to an elite New York prep school called Collegiate.  There he started taking Greek and Latin.

At Collegiate, Padilla began taking Latin and Greek and found himself overwhelmed by the emotive power of classical texts; he was captivated by the sting of Greek philosophy, the heat and action of epic. Padilla told none of his new friends that he was undocumented. “There were some conversations I simply wasn’t ready to have,” he has said in an interview. When his classmates joked about immigrants, Padilla sometimes thought of a poem he had read by the Greek lyricist Archilochus, about a soldier who throws his shield in a bush and flees the battlefield. “At least I got myself safely out,” the soldier says. “Why should I care for that shield? Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.” Don’t expose yourself, he thought. There would be other battles.

 After Collegiate Padilla got a scholarship to Princeton where he studied Classics, to Oxford for his masters, and to Stanford for his PhD.  He now teaches Classics at Princeton.  But he's apparently taken an increasingly politicized approach to the field, which he sees as being tied up with notions of white superiority and unrealistic visions of history.

Padilla found himself frustrated by the manner in which scholars were trying to combat Trumpian rhetoric. In November 2015, he wrote an essay for Eidolon, an online classics journal, clarifying that in Rome, as in the United States, paeans to multiculturalism coexisted with hatred of foreigners. Defending a client in court, Cicero argued that “denying foreigners access to our city is patently inhumane,” but ancient authors also recount the expulsions of whole “suspect” populations, including a roundup of Jews in 139 B.C., who were not considered “suitable enough to live alongside Romans.” Padilla argues that exposing untruths about antiquity, while important, is not enough: Explaining that an almighty, lily-white Roman Empire never existed will not stop white nationalists from pining for its return. The job of classicists is not to “point out the howlers,” he said on a 2017 panel. “To simply take the position of the teacher, the qualified classicist who knows things and can point to these mistakes, is not sufficient.” Dismantling structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition will require more than fact-checking; it will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.

To find that story, Padilla is advocating reforms that would “explode the canon” and “overhaul the discipline from nuts to bolts,” including doing away with the label “classics” altogether.

 ...

Privately, even some sympathetic classicists worry that Padilla’s approach will only hasten the field’s decline. “I’ve spoken to undergrad majors who say that they feel ashamed to tell their friends they’re studying classics,” Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, told me. “I think it’s sad.” He noted that the classical tradition has often been put to radical and disruptive uses. Civil rights movements and marginalized groups across the world have drawn inspiration from ancient texts in their fights for equality, from African-Americans to Irish Republicans to Haitian revolutionaries, who viewed their leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a Black Spartacus. The heroines of Greek tragedy — untamed, righteous, destructive women like Euripides’ Medea — became symbols of patriarchal resistance for feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, and the descriptions of same-sex love in the poetry of Sappho and in the Platonic dialogues gave hope and solace to gay writers like Oscar Wilde.

“I very much admire Dan-el’s work, and like him, I deplore the lack of diversity in the classical profession,” Mary Beard told me via email. But “to ‘condemn’ classical culture would be as simplistic as to offer it unconditional admiration.”

 At this points the Times tries to give a summary of what it describes as the "fantastical, unhinged quality" of Enlightenment admiration for the Classics, though what the NY Times seems to miss is that Greek and Roman works were in fact read throughout Middle Ages and Renaissance, though the attitude towards them changed.  Reading and caring about Greek and Roman philosophy, law, tragedy, and epic was hardly something new and strange which was suddenly invented to bolster ideas of white superiority in the 18th century.  These works had retained a hold in European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cultures since the time they were current.  

The article contrasts one of Padilla's older colleagues with Padilla's own changing views of his discipline and his own history of learning.

For many, inside the academy and out, the answer to that question is yes. Denis Feeney, Padilla’s colleague at Princeton, believes that society would “lose a great deal” if classics was abandoned. Feeney is 65, and after he retires this year, he says, his first desire is to sit down with Homer again. “In some moods, I feel that this is just a moment of despair, and people are trying to find significance even if it only comes from self-accusation,” he told me. “I’m not sure that there is a discipline that is exempt from the fact that it is part of the history of this country. How distinctly wicked is classics? I don’t know that it is.” 

...

Padilla has said that he “cringes” when he remembers his youthful desire to be transformed by the classical tradition. Today he describes his discovery of the textbook at the Chinatown shelter as a sinister encounter, as though the book had been lying in wait for him. He compares the experience to a scene in one of Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, when Mr. Auld, Douglass’s owner in Baltimore, chastises his wife for helping Douglass learn to read: “ ‘Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave.’” In that moment, Douglass says he understood that literacy was what separated white men from Black — “a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things.” “I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing,” Douglass writes. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” Learning the secret only deepened his sense of exclusion.

Padilla, like Douglass, now sees the moment of absorption into the classical, literary tradition as simultaneous with his apprehension of racial difference; he can no longer find pride or comfort in having used it to bring himself out of poverty. He permits himself no such relief. “Claiming dignity within this system of structural oppression,” Padilla has said, “requires full buy-in into its logic of valuation.” He refuses to “praise the architects of that trauma as having done right by you at the end.”

 I was not a particularly distinguished classics undergraduate.  I'd taken Latin in high school, and at college I tested into 300 level Latin when I entered as a History major, so I signed up to take a class (I forget what it was even billed as) which turned out to focus on Lucretius's philosophical poem De Rerum Natura.  It's fairly difficult Latin, and a poem about philosophical materialism and Epicurus's theory of atoms is perhaps not the most engaging.  But somehow I loved it.  Struggling through Latin poetry and the sometimes very alien thought that produced it gave a powerful sense of reaching through a dark mirror to encounter the thinking and world of a person who lived a century before Christ.  

I switched my major from History to Classics and started taking Greek my sophomore year.  With it's different alphabet and harsher sounds, and classical period several centuries before the Roman flowering of the first centuries BC and AD, Greek even more fed that feeling of reaching far across the centuries to try to encounter someone alien and sometimes profound and beautiful.  

One of my key regrets is that of the Greek reading courses I was able to take my senior year, I didn't get the chance to read Homer or Hesiod.  As I've raised children, built a career, written novels and this blog, one thing I have not done is kept my ancient languages up at all.  Over the years they've slipped gradually away, though I remember some words and a lot of grammatical structures.  (I was always weaker in vocabulary than grammar.)  

But some day, I keep telling myself, I'll set aside the time to knock the dust off my Greek and finally read Homer in Greek -- an epic that even to the classical era Greeks (300-500 BC) was ancient and alien in some ways.  

This, to me, is why Classics and indeed all deep studies of history and culture are valuable.  They put us in contact with other people in different places and times.  They let us see those things in humanity which are the same even in very different conditions, and they let us see the things which we take for granted and yet can be so very different.  

At root, these studies are the study of humanity.  Of human experiences and ideas and beliefs and feelings.  We too are humans, all too much in danger of being stranded in our own time and seeing everything through that time's lens.  We need the study of Classics, and of other places and eras too.  There is, I think, something truly special about the Greek and Roman classical periods.  There are certain times and places in the world's history where there has been an unusual flowering of human thought and culture.  And rather than seeing that particular flowering in ancient Greece and Rome as something which is the particular patrimony of "white" people (a category which surely would have seemed strange to the Greeks and Romans themselves) I think it's important to see it which is accessible to all humanity.  Goodness knows, my ancestors in no way came from Greece or Italy.  Nor do I have any Russian ancestors to justify my appreciation for Tolstoy.  And while I have some mongrel English ancestry mixed in with the Irish side of the family, I get the impression (though it's hard to know, as the family tree vanishes into obscurity pretty quickly) they were not the Jane Austen reading types.  

These great works are not the owned inheritance of specific races or cultures, but rather the shared patrimony of all those who are willing to take and read.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Letter? I Hardly Know Her!

It's the first Friday in February, and it's bitter cold with about a foot of snow piled up outside, which means it is absolutely the wrong time to take stock of your life and decide with Qeheloth that all is vanity. No momentous decisions should be made in February, because February is a sham even in normal years. February is a time for waiting it out.

I have been waiting it out for a while now. My laptop has been commandeered by children for class and for games and for external socialization (as opposed to socializing with one's innumerable siblings), and I find it hard to say no to these essentially okay things. But as a result I'm writing less. My handy dandy notebook disappeared into the void a while ago, and my life has become more and more uncharted. The pace of daily events has slowed to a crawl, as people are not inclined to do more grunt work than Mom gets out of them by sitting on them, and sitting on innumerable children grows wearing after a while, even if they are all your own darlings. 

As a result, we have a very relaxed pace of life around here -- a February pace, you might say. Many good things come from this. My three-year-old has started playing long involved games with his little men, and will even sometimes pick them all up unasked and put them back in the nice wooden box they came in. My six-year-old, previously a rebel at the piano, has discovered a silly song in his book and is working himself to learn it. The ten-year-old with dyslexia has had a jump in her reading abilities and is reading books on her own. The twelve-year-old just ripped through Watership Down, devours books, and is finally learning some grammar and spelling because he wants to send messages to friends. The teen girls keep their own schedules and have found ways to connect with friends even in these hard days for companionship. If I can take any credit for these things, it's that I run the kind of household where people have time to do what they want, an anarchic paradise.

I have taken to trying to get out of the house once a day, lest I atrophy completely. (How odd this statement would have sounded in the days of drama practice and baseball and tae kwon do and youth group.) Most days this involves a walk around the block with Darwin, where we get our needed time alone to talk. But the snow accumulation and sub-freezing temperatures militate against this right now and -- get this! -- I don't actually have a pair of boots for snow walking. I did buy a pair a while ago, but they ended up fitting one of my daughters better, and I just never got my own pair. There's no reason I can't get a new pair, except each particular moment is not the moment I want to deal with it.

This past week, Darwin, who has not found the new work-at-home regime conducive to his style of doing business, decided there was no reason that he couldn't go into work a few days a week, when the building is standing practically empty. It makes a lot of sense, and will probably add some needed structure to our days. But as I stood in the kitchen with many small fry needing things from me -- each making the most reasonable, unobjectionable requests, so why is Mom impatient?, only there are six of them and one of me -- I thought, "But I'll still be here, every day."

All of which is to say: it must be time for Lenten Letters.

If you'd like a letter from me during Lent -- handwritten, and I've even just refilled my fountain pen -- please send me your address at darwincatholic (at) gmail.com. Last year, as the lockdown took full effect and we all went a little nuts, I got behind schedule and the last comers ended up getting postcards from Yellowstone in July. This year I'll try to be more disciplined. (Long-time readers can stop laughing now.)

Last year I asked people to tell me a bit about themselves so I could tailor my letters. Anyone is welcome to do that (and I loved reading your notes!) but the reality is that I'm just going to write about what I'm going to write about that day, so don't feel obligated. I'm just looking forward to knowing that there are other people out there who also feel the need of some real human contact in February.

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 8: Christ in the Saint

 Previous: Chapter 7, Christ in the Priest

You are the light of the world. -- Matthew 5:14

I often tell my religious ed classes that each person is a unique, irreplaceable, unrepeatable example of God's creative love -- a glimpse into God that we'll never get any other way. Like the facets on the tiny diamonds in my wedding ring, each revealing something new about the stone, every person has the potential to shine forth some part of God's creative power that has been hidden until now. When the facets are crystal clear, they allow light to pour through them in every color. 

I'm pleased to see that Benson uses this image as well:

They [the saints] have, by the help of grace, hewn at the stone of their human nature, by mortification, by effort, by prayer--even by the final strokes of martyrdom itself--until, little by little, or all at once by sudden heroism, there has emerged from the gross material, not the angel of Michael Angelo, not merely a copy of the Perfect Model; but, in a real sense, that actual Model Himself. It is He Who has lived in them, as really, though in another manner, as in the Sacrament of the altar; it is He Who now appears in them in the culmination of their sanctity, visible to all who have eyes to see. Certainly it is not He Himself, pure and simple; since there still remains in every saint that film or glass of his own personal identity which God gave him and can never take away. For it is exactly for the sake of this personal identity, and for the service which it renders to the promulgation of Christ upon earth, that the saint has been created and sanctified. To stare upon the Sun unveiled is to be struck blind, or at least to be so dazzled by excess of light as to see nothing. In the saints, therefore--through their individual characters and temperaments, as through prismatic glass--we see the All-holy Character of Christ, the white brilliancy of His Absolute Perfection, not distorted or diluted, but rather analysed and dissected that we may understand it the better. 

It is the lifelong struggle of humans to realize that the imperfections that we consider "ours" -- the yearning to cling to some pleasure, the death-like grasp on The Plan, the small tendencies to comfort and security and power that manifest themselves in self-absorption and lies and the little ways we use other people -- do not truly add any flavor to our character or interesting edge to our personalities. Every person on earth -- except the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom Benson rightly devotes the first half of this chapter -- has known the bitter pleasure of clutching some favored sin closely to ward off the suffocating dullness of sanctity. If I give up this stupid thing, which gives me some fleeting pleasure, what is left? The long boring slog to heaven.

The saints are proof that surrender does not bring death. Each had to shed a layer of earthly scum -- St. Francis had to molt off the whole dead skin; St. Therese had to chip and scrub at the thin dulling film on the window. And what they received back was not a bland robotic persona, but their own amazing personalities, strengthened, honed, and brilliant. Every bad thing given to God is purified; every good thing is given back a hundred-fold. The saints are not more naturally gifted than everyone else. They just keep giving what they have to God, and God keeps giving them themselves.

Lately, when I've been assailed with temptations -- not to do cruel or evil things, but to do good in fun and interesting ways that God has not asked of me right now -- I've handed them to God, saying, "Give this back to me in Heaven." If all good comes from God -- if God is truly all-good -- then nothing good can be lost. Every love is already his and will return to him. Our gifts are already his, as in the parable of the servants and the talents. The saints know: everything is his.

Once learn that Christ is All, and not merely one among ten thousand--that is, He is All--that there is no glory or grace anywhere that is not His, no perfection that is not relative to His Absoluteness, no colour that is not an element of His Whiteness, no sound that is not in the scale of His Music--once, that is, to rise to what it is that we mean when we name him God; once escape from that modern spirit of rationalizing away His Deity in the hope of seeing His Humanity; and behold! "all things are yours... and you are Christ's: and Christ is God's."

Next: Erin on Chapter 9: Christ in the Sinner 

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 7: Christ in the Priest

 Previous: Chapter 6, Christ in the Church

Christ in the Priest was a chapter that I enjoyed reading, and yet didn't resonate with me in the way that earlier chapters have, so I'm glad that Erin is writing about it:

A good part of this chapter is a defense of the priesthood.  I'm concerned mainly with what it means to find friendship with Christ in the priest---and it seems to me that by this Benson means friendship with Christ in the priesthood and its attributes, friendship with Christ-as-the-High-Priest.  Because of course friendship with Christ can be found in the human personality of any particular priest you happen to meet or know; I suspect, though, that we are going to meet this particular image of Christ in later chapters, such as "Christ in the Saint," "Christ in the Sinner," "Christ in the Average Man."  Because of course a given priest could be any of those things, and God help him, he may eventually be all three.

The priest is a man whose job is to willingly do the will of God.  All of us have the job to do that!  But the particular version of this, for the priest, is---at very particular and crucial moments---to submit his own personality totally to the personality of Christ; to accept with John the Baptist, "I must decrease, and he must increase;" and to give God permission to use his hands, his voice.  Christ "energizes,"  Christ "exercis[es] the prerogative of mercy," Christ "mak[es] himself present in...the Sacrament."  The priest consents. 

So where is the friendship?

[Christ] exhibits, in that atmosphere that has grown up about the priesthood, through the instincts of the faithful rather than through the precise instructions of the Church, attributes of His own Divine character, in sympathy with which constitutes the friendship of those who love Him.

I think when people talk about having that "personal relationship with Christ," it is very easy for them to be picturing a relationship with the human nature and character of Christ only:  the same sort of imagination that gives us the parlor-game of "Which historical character would you like to have dinner with?"  We close our eyes and there is Jesus, copied from a picture we saw once, in sandals and tunic, sitting in our living room.  We try to make friends with this Jesus.  Even if we imagine a Jesus speaking in our interior hearts, it's a human-sounding voice. We try to make that connection feel as like a human friendship as possible.  When it really does feel like that, we understand it to be a grace and a consolation.

And it's not wrong!

But we must also make friends with the Divine character of Christ.  And for that we have not much in the way of models from practical experience.  

Benson is telling us that friendship with Christ is also "sympathy with attributes of His own Divine character," and that we are able to develop some of this by having a devotion to the priesthood.

Next: Chapter 8, Christ in the Saint 

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Making It In The Stock Market

The stock market has been all over the news this week, because of a quixotic trading flash mob which rose up out of Reddit to cause losses to hedge funds and drive up the stock price of GameStop.  What is going on?

GameStop is, of course, a chain of brick-and-mortar retail stores which sells video games and related merchandise, and which buys trade-in video game cartridges back and then resells them.  During the last decade, their sales have flattened and then begun to decline, due not only to the overall decline in brick-and-mortar retail but also to the fact that many current gaming systems can buy new games online and download them without ever purchasing a cartridge.  By last fall, their stock was trading at around $4 per share and they were losing money.  However, there was a range of consensus of the company's direction.  Wall Street analysts had published price targets for the stock ranging from $3.50 to $33.  After a series of executive turnovers, the company had a new CEO and Michael Burry of "The Big Short" fame had invested in several million shares of the company and was pushing for various changes to improve the business.

Against this background, a big name user in a Reddit subreddit known as r/wallstreetbets began posting back in 2019 about how he had invested just over $50,000 in call options (bets that a stock will increase to above a target price by a specific date -- in this case the target was $8 per share and the due date was January 2021) on GameStop.  This user, whose somewhat colorful handle can be abbreviated DFV, posted repeatedly about his investment, and there was considerable excitement as the stock did indeed begin to rise, passing his target price in Sept 2020 and continuing up.  

At some point, two additional things happened: Lots of other people (r/wallstreetbets has several million users) wanted in on the action, and it became known on the subreddit that several large hedge funds had taken out shorts against GameStop.  

A short is a financial instrument where the buyer of the short borrows a stock at the current price and sells it, committing to give the stock back (called covering the short) at the market price of some future date.  So, if you short 100 shares of ACME when it's trading at $10 per share, and you cover when the share price has dropped to $5, you make $500.  If you shorted at $10 and the stock became totally worthless, you'd make $1000.  However, if you short at $10 and ACME shares go up to $100, your losses are $9000.  So a short can be very risky.  Your upside is limited and you could have infinite downside.  Shorting is also sometimes seen as a very negative thing to do.  After all, you're profiting off the company doing badly.  Back in the 2007/2008 banks asked (and the government agreed) for a temporary ban on shorting financial stocks, because hedge funds were making money betting that the big banks would go down.  (This didn't help -- the stocks continued to go down because the banks were teetering on the edge of insolvency, and it was only the bailout that saved them.)

What happened next is what created the huge news story.  Huge numbers of investors from reddit began buying GameStop shares, bidding up the price.  As they drove up the price, this made the hedge funds which had shorted GameStop lose money.  And the goal was not just to make them lose money, but to make them cover their shorts, realizing their losses.  If the hedge funds covered their shorts (by buying shares) this would drive up the price of the stock still further in an effect called a "short squeeze".  

Step one: destroy hedge funds
Step two: profit

Of course, there's a step three out there as well, which people don't seem to be thinking about as much: The price of GameStop collapses.  

Why?

At root, GameStop is a company which is not likely to grow dramatically in the future.  In 2020 it had $6.5B in sales and lost $471M.  It hasn't made a profit since 2018.  Even if current management manages to turn it around, it'll still be a retail chain with limited growth potential.  How crazy is the current valuation of GameStop?  As of today GameStop had a market cap (the total value of all outstanding shares) of $22B.  That makes it just short of the supermarket chain Kroger, with a market cap of $26B.  But by comparison, Kroger had sales of $122B in 2020 and profits of $1.7B.  Is there any reason to think that GameStop will become anywhere near as big or as profitable as Kroger?

Stocks sell for what people are willing to pay for them.  Usually, what people are willing to pay for them is in some way connected to how much the underlying company makes now, or how much people imagine it may make in the future. Clearly, this can at times result in wild swings, because people are constantly reassessing what they believe the future will be like.  There is nothing magically true about market prices.  But in the long run, companies that grow in revenue and profitability tend to increase in share price, while those that shrink tend to fall.  

Once people cease to desire to own GameStop stock for the online glory of it, the value will fall to the level which is justified by the company's actual prospects.  If I had to guess, that level is almost certainly less than 1/10th the $328 at which the stock closed today.  And of course, that suggests a rather uncomfortable fact: a lot of people have bought the stock at $350 or $200 or $100, etc. and all of those people are going to lose a lot of money.  So while I have no particular sympathy for the hedge funds which have suffered massive losses on their shorts against GameStop (they should have know they were playing a very risky game) I'm concerned about the people who are portraying this as some sort of a huge uprising which shows that the "little guy" can make money on the stock market just like the pros.  It is true that some people will come out of this having made a lot of money.  It is true that manipulating stock prices through the madness of herd behavior is something that pros had succeeded in doing in the past.  But in the long term, making smart moves during panics is not the way to make money on the stock market.  The way to make money on the stock market is to identify companies that will grow to become a lot bigger and more profitable than they are now, and to invest in those companies.  

Don't believe me?  Allow me to tell a story.

Back in 1996 I was heading into my senior year of high school, and I was 18 years old.  I was fascinated by what I'd read about the stock market, and I was a deep, deep believer in Mac computers.  I'd just bought myself one of the first color PowerBook laptops, planning to write a novel on it during my senior year of high school and then take it to college with me.  (I did do both of these things.)  Apple was not doing well financially at that time.  It was during the period after Steve Jobs was fired (he returned in 1997.)  But I was convinced that Macs were wonderful and that somehow Apple would prosper.  So I raided my college savings for $2,000 and invested that money via an online brokerage in Apple stock.  If you adjust for the splits that have happened since that time, the price of that stock was about $0.20 per share.  

By 1999 that $2,000 had grown to about $10,000, and I thought I was pretty brilliant.  I sold $3,000 of the stock and bought my first car, a 1989 Honda Accord, so I could get a better paying job off campus during my senior year of college.  And I "balanced" my portfolio by selling some more of the Apple stock and buying shares in other companies.  Looking back, those decisions cost me a lot of money, but I didn't have any kind of foreknowledge.  

In 2002, as we were a young married couple in Los Angeles expecting our first baby and struggling with college debt and high rent, I was advised to sell the stock (which had languished despite the recent introduction of the first iPod) and get out of debt.  I did sell the stock, and I did pay off our credit card debt (it would be another decade before we cleared our student debt) but I moved some of the remaining money into a Roth IRA and put it back into Apple stock.  And one other thing.  I had an argument with by boss about whether Amazon would ever make a profit, or if it was another .com that would go bust.  I was the one who believed in Amazon, because I'd been a loyal customer for a couple years.  So I bought a few hundred dollars of Amazon stock.  At the time, it was trading for about $20/share.

During most of the intervening years, I ignored that Roth IRA.  Occasionally I messed around with it, balancing the two main stock positions against an S&P 500 fund and occasional other stocks I was interested in.  Looking back, all those "balancing" positions were bad in the long run, but again, I had no way of know thing.  

When the pandemic hit, I sold virtually all of my stock in mid February, thinking that the stock market would go down by 50% of more.  It went down a lot, but not that much.  In the process, I made some dumb decisions trying to temporarily money it into something "pandemic proof" (during March, practically nothing was pandemic proof) when I should have just kept it in cash.  In the end, I put money back into Apple and Amazon, but not nearly as much of it.  I took some time to read and research, and I decided to put 40% of my money into large, mostly tech stocks (with a lot of that being Apple and Amazon again, but some Google, Facebook, Tesla, etc.) another 40% into stocks and funds which (at the prices I was able to pick them up in the spring) paid dividends ranging from 7% to 15% of the what they cost me; and the last 20% into "small cap" stocks which currently had market caps under $10B but had the potential to grow 10x or more in the coming decade.  My theory was that while I had benefitted from the massive growth of Apple and Amazon, with both of these companies being worth more than a trillion in total capitalization, it was unlikely that they'd be growing by powers of ten in the future.  Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google may grow faster than the economy as a whole in the future, but they are now such a big part of the economy they can hardly grow multiple times faster than the economy.  So I reasoned that I would need to start looking for the next big growth stocks.  And since I didn't have any particular insight this time (nor any guarantee of being lucky again) it seemed like it was best to go wider.  And my reason for putting 40% of the portfolio into high dividend stocks was that I wanted them to produce about five thousand dollars in cash every year which I could turn around and invest in new small cap stocks without having to sell the holdings I already had.  

I bring all this up not to argue that I am particularly brilliant, but rather to argue that one doesn't have to be particularly brilliant.  I made both picks out of brand loyalty, thinking they were well run companies that had a great product that would do better in the future.  Apple stock has increased 65880% since I first bought it.  Amazon has increased 16085%.  I did a lot of things which worked against that growth.  I took money out, "rebalanced" into an S&P 500 fund, and invested money in companies that went out of business such as SpaceDev and MP3.com  But even so, the remains of that $2000 that I invested at age 18 were as of close of market today worth $162k.  (I have a separate 401k from my various jobs over the years which is invested more conservatively.)  Even with all that dilution, that's a 8000% increase.  For comparison, legendary investor Warren Buffet delivered a 4209% increase in Bershire Hathaway stock during his first 25 years on the market.  (I used that number because the last 25 years have been a more lackluster 999%, though even that is more than twice the increase of the S&P500 over that time.)  

Again, my point is not that I'm brilliant, because I'm not.  My point, rather, is this: the little guy investor does not need to join a roiling crowd to beat the market.  If the little guy does some solid research, invests in what he knows and believes in, follows the fundamentals, and ignores the temptation to get caught up in frenzies, he can outperform the market and even outperform the big institutional investors.  He won't turn huge profits inside of a month, but that's not generally how the stock market works.  

So I lay all this out transparently to say: You do not have to join an online swarm and manipulate the market to get ahead as a small investor.  Indeed, doing so puts you at risk of being one of the people holding the bag when the bubble pops.  Buy and hold solid companies.  Wait for the years to pass.  Do some intelligent maintenance.  Keep looking for the company which is still comparatively small (when I bought Apple and Amazon, both were under $10B in market cap) but which may grow huge.  That's really all it takes.  It's not that hard.  Please don't try do get in on a market manipulation scheme instead.  It's a lot harder to play that game right than it is to identify some basically solid companies and just let time pass.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 6: Christ in the Church

 Previous: Erin on Chapter 5, Christ in the Eucharist

***

I am the Vine, you the branches. (John 15:5)

For no one hates his own flesh bur rather nourishes it and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:29-31)

Benson emphasizes at the beginning of the chapter that, from a human perspective, focusing solely on our individual relationship with Jesus can lead to "spiritual disaster".

Now there is scarcely anything so  difficult of diagnosis and so easily misunderstood as certain impulses and instincts of the spiritual life. Modern psychologists remind us of what St. Ignatius taught three centuries ago, with regard to the bewildering difficulty of distinguishing the action of that hidden part of our human natures not usually under the direct attention of the consciousness, from the action of God. Impulses and desires rise within the soul, which seem to bear every mark of a Divine Origin; it is only when they are obeyed or gratified that we discover that often, after all, they have risen from self -- from association, or memory, or education, or even from hidden pride and self-interest -- and lead to spiritual disaster. It needs a very pure intention as well as great spiritual discernment always to recognize the Divine Voice; always to penetrate the disguise of one who, in the higher stages of spiritual progress, so often presents himself as an "Angel of Light".

Sartre famously proclaimed that "Hell is other people", but I would posit that Hell is being trapped in one's own head. We cannot see ourselves rightly solely from the inside. We are not made to be seen solely from the inside. "It is not good that the man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).

Julian of Norwich, the great English mystic, reveals a vision of Christ saving humanity in which all people are seen as one, as Adam. God does not see humanity as fractured, but as a whole, each human as an essential and irreplaceable element of the one Man. When Adam fell, all fell. When Christ, the perfect Man, came and fulfilled his Father's will, all were saved. We are, corporately, one body.

The Church, too, despite her appearance to our fallen eyes as a banal and unsavory collection of sinful humans, is, corporately, One Body, and Benson emphasizes: that Body is Christ. The Church is Christ. When we interact with the Church, we interact with Christ. And Christ bears a thousand thousand wounds, and sometimes there is "no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Is. 53:2). People grow to hate the Church, because of what its human members have done; they grow to hate it as anorexia makes a woman hate her own body, or depression makes a man hate his every thought and impulse.

But Jesus does not hate the Church, and indeed speaks of it not just as an entity, but as an individual. It is his bride; it is himself: the two become one flesh. We, corporate humanity, are the bride, and the Church is the marriage through which Christ continually gives himself and joins himself to us. 

This, then, is the Catholic position; and it is one not only necessitated by common-sense, but declared by our Lord's own words even more explicitly that is any promise of His to "abide" with the individual. To no single man did Christ ever say explicitly, "I am with thee always," except, in a sense, to Peter, His Vicar on earth.

Here, then, we have the only possible reconciliation of the fact that Christ is with the soul, and speaks to the soul, and the fact that is is exceedingly difficult for that soul, even in matters of life and death, alway to know certainly whether it is the Voice of Christ which speaks, or some merely human, or even diabolical, impulse. According to the Catholic system, there is another Presence of Christ, to which the soul also has access, to which He has promised guarantees which He never promised to the individual. In a word, He has promised His Presence on earth, dwelling in a mystical Society or Body; it is through that Body of Christ that His Voice actually speaks, exteriorly and authoritatively; and it is only by submission to that Voice that we can test these private intimations and ideas, as to whether they are indeed of God or not.

Benson proclaims: it is not enough to know Christ interiorly, when he has given himself to us also in an exterior form, the Church; that the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Church is the same person revealing himself to us over time.

Thus, the process of conforming our minds to the teaching and traditions of the Church. Our judgment is not infallible; we see that every day in a million minor ways. Our desires, though sincere, though educated, though acute, must be tested. Our love needs a foundation if it is not to be blown away in the first storm. 

This foundation is friendship with the Church, with the Church as Christ himself. It is not enough to delude ourselves that we love the Church because we follow one charismatic preacher who claims to speak in her name; because we agree with one sharp prophet who claims to puncture all her false pride in the name of love; because we are part of some faction which holds itself a purer expression of Catholicism. It is the Church we must be friends with, learning her teachings, tracing her through history, loving humanity through her as Christ does.

Benson's last point is addressed to the person who rebels against this submission as an obliteration of his judgment and gifts, his individuality. He frames it in intellectual terms, as perhaps his own experience of converting in the scholarly setting of the Oxford movement warrants, but today I wonder if a more common objection might be to befriending the Church when it seems a place to shelter evil, an institutional cover for child abuse and sexual control. The glamor and mystique of the institution seem designed to blind the faithful and take advantage of them.

Yet, if the Church is Christ himself, the glamor is like the purple mantle the soldiers draped over Jesus, covering his torn body. And when the robe is ripped off, each wound is torn open and revealed in its horror. The mantle must be ripped off. The soldiers will gamble for it as Christ hangs dying. But that is not the end. Christ's resurrected, glorified body is beautiful and whole. His transformed garments are more dazzling than the tawdry Roman cloak. The wounds must be revealed before they can be healed. But Christ, whether bleeding and stinking on the Cross, or glorified and majestic, is the same, and his body must be loved always.

Next: Erin on Chapter 7: Christ in the Priest

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter Five: Christ in the Eucharist

 Erin writes about "Christ in the Eucharist":

When I opened my book to read the chapter, I expected it to be a chapter about encountering Christ in the reception of Holy Communion.  In fact I began taking notes speculating about the usefulness of this chapter to people who, for one reason or another, may not receive:  the very young, those living where access to Communion is restricted, those in irregular marriages or other situations which preclude reception of the sacrament, and even those who are not Catholics.  Especially when I encountered the paragraph:

Jesus Christ, then, dwells in our tabernacles to-day as surely as he dwelt in Nazareth, and in the very same Human Nature; and He dwells there, largely, for this very purpose—that he may make himself accessible to all who know him interiorly and desire to know him more perfectly.

You see, that adjective:  "accessible!"  I thought I had found an objection.  In the act of Holy Communion, Jesus is most assuredly not accessible to all, at least not immediately. 

But in fact the chapter is not really about Communion.  It is divided into three parts, according to which Benson treats of three different ways which human beings may know Jesus our Friend in the Eucharist.  (Consuming Him not, in fact, being necessary to the knowledge!)  And those three different modes of knowing our Friend are as material object, the work of human hands; as Sacrificed Victim; and as Food.

We may know Him in these forms merely by contemplating the Eucharist itself, or by contemplating the behavior of believers:  our design of churches and chapels with the Tabernacle at the focal point, our reverential handling of the matter, the words of consecration, our adoration, our processions, our hymnody, our careful attention to how one must prepare to receive... even, maybe, in the pastoral barriers that keep some people from reception of the Eucharist.  It is our treatment of the Eucharist that communicates its meaning to the curious onlooker.  

***

"It is this Presence which causes that astounding difference of atmosphere, confessed even by Non-Catholics, between Catholic churches and all others. So marked is this difference that a thousand explanations have to be framed to account for it. It is the suggestiveness of the single point of light burning there! It is the preternatural artistic skill with which the churches are ordered! It is the smell of ancient incense! It is anything and everything except that which we Catholics know it to be -- the actual bodily Presence of the Fairest of the children of men, drawing His friends to Himself!"

Today is January 22, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, and hence a day of prayer for all lives lost to abortion. At St. Joseph Cathedral in Columbus, as in so many churches in so many cities, a Pro-life Mass was held today, celebrated by the bishop and attended by many people, including families with small children, all peacefully praying. I know many families who were there.

And then a pack of "reproduction rights activists" stormed in with signs, got up in front of the altar, and screamed at women and children about the church teaching hate.

The Catholic Church is not the only religious organization in America that stands against abortion. So why not invade the Baptist pro-life memorial prayer service? The Anglican service? The Methodist service?

Because of the Eucharist.

The one who absorbed their hate was Jesus, the dweller in the tabernacle. In the Eucharist, he makes himself utterly defenseless, completely vulnerable to being chewed up by our outrage, our contempt, our self-righteousness. Anyone can kick him. He can be stolen, trampled on, spat out, spat on. His humility is bizarre, offensive, outrageous. Why doesn't he fight back? Why doesn't he take care of himself? If he's God, why doesn't he come off that cross?

And yet he doesn't. He remains, small, consumable, completely Divine. "I am the Bread of Life," Jesus tells us, and that life draws those who love him and those who hate him. And day after day he allows us to grind him up as bread, whether in obedience to his command to take and eat, or in wailing and gnashing of teeth. 


 

Sunday, January 17, 2021

A Movement of Lies and The Cowardice of Leading From Behind

In the months since the election, hard-core Trump supporters are increasingly living in a different world from the rest of us.  Many of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th (as well as millions more who stayed at home) believe that Trump actually won the presidential election, and that Biden and the Democrats stole the election with the support of a shadowy conspiracy of powerful elites.  

Most of the claims that are being floated around "proving" the election was stolen are easily refuted by even brief research, and I've tried to do my share in rebutting these claims.  (HereHereHere. Here. And a collaborative compilation with Letters From Cato here.)  But one of the things that these last couple months have made clear is that most people do not sit down and evaluate claims like this on their own.  Most people trust what "their side" is saying.  And in this case, "their side" is led by President Trump who seems to be mentally incapable of admitted than he lost.  

As soon as his election night lead (which was the result of some key states counting election day votes, which leaned Republican, first and mail-in ballots, which leaned Democratic, later) began to disappear, Trump began to amplify and embroider any theory which came his way suggesting that he hadn't actually lost the election.  The increasingly closed world of right wing TV, radio, and internet content happily provided and amplified more theories.  And the result has been that a great many people on the right have allowed themselves to fall for the theory that with so many claims about election fraud floating around there must be something to it even if any given theory can be shown to be false.

This could probably have been counteracted early if a lot of other leaders on the right (people who, unlike the average citizen, know a lot about how elections and election law work) had spoken out.  However, nearly all Republican leaders have taken the cowardly political approach of "leading from behind".  Even though they know that Trump lost the election and cannot salvage that loss through legal maneuvering, governors, senators, and congressmen, as well as media figures, have played the "let's wait for the process" and "Trump deserves his day in court" game in order to avoid offending the voters whom they want to appeal to again in 2022 or 2024.  They've hoped the voters would eventually figure out on their own that Trump lost, or that someone else would do the hard work of breaking it to them, and that they would not have to be the ones who were disliked by voters for not "fighting for" Trump.  (How bad has this been?  Representative Meijer R-MI told the Dispatch podcast that based on his own conversations with fellow Republican lawmakers, the number who actually believed the election had been stolen was "in the teens", and yet 147 voted to object to electoral votes.)

But if all the party leaders sit around and wait for the voters to get over Trump on their own, the voters will not recover for quite some time.  People may react negatively (especially after all this time) to being told the truth, but as we saw with the storming of the Capitol, if you leave people thinking that the election is being stolen from the, they may act drastically.

Of course, central to all this is the fact that Trump himself is and always was wholly unsuitable to public office.  He simply does not have the integrity of character we'd want to see in a political leader.  If Trump were not lying to the public, claiming to have won an election which he didn't win, if he'd stepped forward once the votes had been counted and conceded, then other Republicans would not be having to figure out how to act when Trump is telling his voters that he didn't really lose.  But this is where we are, and our political leaders need to step up and act like leaders.

Politicians want to be liked by the voters.  Voters don't usually like people who tell them things they don't want to hear.  So it's easy to see why most politicians have learned to tell voters what they want to hear (or at least not tell them what they don't want to hear) and hope that someone else will do the hard work for them.  Politicians are rewarded for acting this way.  Say you have two GOP leaders.  One tells people that Trump has lost and should concede.  The other tells people that Trump may still win in court and we should wait and see.  Since GOP voters don't want Trump to have lost, they will of course like the one who tells them that they didn't lose.  Even if they eventually accept that Trump lost, they'll still often dislike the politician who told them what they didn't want to hear.  He didn't fight.  He was with the other side.  He didn't stick with them.

I don't know of any solution to this trap.  What I am saying political leaders should do is something which will make people like them less than someone who behaves without integrity.  (Nor will the other side give them any quarter for having integrity.)  But we've also seen the terrible results of political leaders deciding to sit back and not tell their voters hard truths.  The voters will not figure it out on their own.  They will listen to rabble rousers who tell them what they want to hear.  And when we let rabble rousers spread lies, those lies have consequences.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Coup That Wasn't Really

Many are calling the storming of the US Capitol on Jan 6th by a violent mob an attempted coup by President Trump.  There is a certain logic to this, in that Trump told the crowd that he needed them to pressure congress and Vice President Pence in order to win the election and that, "if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore."  That crowd proceeded to storm the Capitol, violently assaulting the Capitol Police, and even reached the Senate chamber (though not till after lawmakers had been successfully evacuated to a safe location.)  

But it's also a bit odd to call it a coup.  A coup, after all, is an attempt to usurp control of the government by means of military force.  And yet, what the mob which attacked the Capitol did (whether it was anticipated and intended by Trump or not) is not an action which could have resulted in Trump maintaining control of the government past Biden's scheduled inauguration on January 20th. It's perhaps a very slight exaggeration to say that the recognition of the electoral votes by the Vice President and Congress is a purely ceremonial moment, but it's certainly not a point at which the result of the election is in question.  Even if the mob had somehow taken the Vice President and key legislators hostage and compelled them to vote Trump the winner, that would in no way have changed the outcome of the election.  The election is administered by the states.  At the point that the state legislatures certified their electoral votes, the election was for all intents and purposes over.  Trying to intervene at the point that Congress recognized the votes would be like trying to use force to make the person in charge of presenting the medals after an Olympic event to give the gold to the second place winner.  Even if successful, there is no reason why the world would go on to recognize anyone other than the first place winner as having been victorious.  

This points to what would have to happen for a coup to actually be successful.  Why would a mob which temporarily seized control of congress not be able to simply rule the country and install whoever they wanted as president?  Because the overall machinery of the US government, including its ability to use force, is still loyal to our constitutional form of government.  If a violent mob took possession of the Capitol and streamed out via their phones a video of their leader proclaiming "I am the captain now!" from the Senate chamber, we'd simply send in a SWAT team, clear them out, and return to our previously scheduled constitutional republic.

For a president to actually seize power coup, he'd need to be backed by both a military and a governmental bureaucracy that was willing to obey him even if he was remaining president in violation of the law.  This is why would-be strongmen cultivate generals and state officers and make sure that those officials are loyal to them over the normal processes of state.  

Were a president to try to seize power via his backing by crowds, he would need the crowds to be both willing to fight the state's power structure and capable of overcoming it.  How easy that would be depends greatly on how willing the military and governmental elite are to change the structure of government.  This means that countries which are already suffering a massive loss of confidence are most easily subject to toppling by angry crowds.  Think, for instance, of the collapsing USSR.  When crowds in the satellite countries which the USSR had long occupied rose up and occupied key installations such as radio stations and government buildings, the military often proved unwilling to engage in the mass killing it would have taken to dislodge the mob, and the local civil service was willing enough to shift their allegiance away from a form of government already seen as illegitimate and failed.  Countries with a long history of unelected government also often have military leaders and officials who are ready to get behind a leader with the backing of populist crowds.  In the US, I would argue, our military and civil servants are probably some of the most attached to the current system of government of any country in the world.  And Trump in particular did the exact opposite of endearing himself to the military and civil service.  No one in those careers was thinking, "Wow, I'd really be willing to risk everything to keep Trump in charge rather than letting the duly elected new president take office."

But I'm really not sure that Trump realizes any of this.  Twitter and big rallies brought him the presidency, and the fact that he won in 2016 despite polling and elite consensus seems to have given him and his movement confidence that these same tools could keep him in power.  

The deepest problem with the Trump presidency is, paradoxically, also what will keep him from being able to successfully remain in power contrary to law: he really doesn't seem to understand how the state works.  

Trump did figure out elections in some instinctual way that people need to do a lot more thinking about.  He saw that you can in fact win without getting bogged down in the defensive, lawyerly non-statements in which politicians so often communicate.  He also saw that you can kick over a lot of what a political party claims to stand for if you figure out how to appear to the tribal sense of a critical mass of its supporters.  

But at the same time Trump has never seemed particularly clear on how our constitution structures the state, nor on how large organizations in general work.  Yeah, he's run the Trump Organization (as his conglomeration of family businesses is called), and he's popularized his management of that through The Apprentice, but although the amount of money controlled is fairly large the number of people is pretty small and ruled primarily by fiat and personal loyalty.  That's how he's tried to run the government too, and the result has looked a lot like a body rejecting a transplanted organ.

I suppose we're lucky that Trump isn't someone who understands how to set the stage for a coup.  I don't see much evidence that it's any kind of integrity that's holding him back.  So someone might ask why it's worth writing about how this wasn't at all close to being a successful coup if Trump and the crazy periphery of his supporters thought they were in fact doing something that could alter who serves as president for the next four years.  Isn't that close enough to a coup to merit the name even if their methods were not capable of achieving their aims?  But I think it's worth considering because I think that if we want to protect and maintain our republic it's important to understand how it works at a basic level.  On both sides of our political spectrum there are too many people right now who don't seem to understand how basic elements of our government works: how elections are conducted, what the various levels of government (city, county, state, federal) do, how policing operates, the separation of powers, etc.  We'd do well to better understand those things and how to work the changes we want to see within those structures lest we allow our frustrations with our inability enact change lead us to gradually destroy the state which has served us for so long.