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

Sunday, May 29, 2022

Book Review: Before They Were Authors/Artists



A couple weeks ago, our eight year old brought home from the library a picture book/comic called Before They Were Artists, which told the stories of the childhood and illustrating careers of six illustrators. 

The format was very engaging, with six to eight page biographies of each illustrator, and most of the illustrators had done books which the kids were familiar with (Wanda Gag wrote Millions of Cats, Maurice Sendak we have nearly all the books of, Tove Jansson wrote the Moomin Troll books, and Hayao Miyazaki is by far our favorite animator.) The book was a bit eager to point out the illustrators who were gay or lesbian (which stood out more as it was otherwise fairly circumspect about people's family circumstances) but those mentions were brief and since our eleven year old (who'd already read the book herself) was upset by them I simply glossed over those bits when reading to the children as a group.

Something the kids did not notice, but that I did, was that the author of the book was clearly at pains to make sure that they checked their diversity boxes. having male and female illustrators was pretty easy. Hayao Miyazaki is primarily an animator, though he also illustrated manga, but he's a brilliant way to check the Asian box.  But it seemed like it stuck out that the Hispanic and Black illustrators they picked had done books that we'd never heard of (Jerry Pinkney and Yuyi Morales). Perhaps I'm being unfair here. Maybe it's hard to find examples. As a child of the 80s and 90s, a Black man, LeVar Burton was the face of children's books to me, and it seemed like a number of Reading Rainbow books had Hispanic or Black characters, so I assumed that at least some of them must have had Black or Hispanic authors. Maybe it was hard to find more commonly known examples, or maybe my selection of known picture books is out of date, but it strikes me in particular because of what I found in the next book.

They liked the book enough that when they saw from the back cover that the same author had written another book called Before They Were Authors.  They didn't have a copy at our local library, but we requested it from the system and they got it in within a couple days.  This one was actually written first (2019, while the book on illustrators is from 2021) and it discusses ten authors.

The format is similarly attractive.

A page from the Madeleine L'Engle Bio

The kids were also excited that it contained some authors they know and like: Dr. Seuss, J. K. Rowling, Beatrix Potter, Gene Luen Yang (who wrote the outstanding Boxers & Saints) and C. S. Lewis.

Each bio has a cover portrait with a quote and then a four page biography. 

Here, however, the efforts at diversity created some odd fits.  All of the authors covered are children's authors, except Maya Angelou and Sandra Cisneros, who are the only Black or Hispanic authors covered. Again, maybe it's harder than I'm thinking to find Black and Hispanic authors who wrote well known children's books. But it does almost seem like they came up with eight children's authors and then just googled "famous Black author" and "famous Hispanic author" to fill the remaining slots.

It does also have occasional odd circumlocutions or omissions. For instance, it says of Maya Angelou, "At the age of seven, a terrible crisis occurred while she stayed with her mother in St. Louis. Maya quit speaking for five years."  The "terrible crisis" was the Angelou was sexually abused. I can understand why the author did not want to describe that in a children's book, but in that case it seems odd to include it in this elliptical way. Another example was in the biography of J. K. Rowling, where it said, "These years were darkened by her mother's diagnosis with a serious disease." the which disease remains unnamed even as it describes the mother's death and it's devastating effect of Rowling. The disease was multiple sclerosis.

Perhaps the most impressive exactly of evasion, however, is that in the entire biograph of C. S. Lewis, the author manages to never mention Christianity. 

The basic concept and layout of the books is good. The kids wanted to like them. I wish some of the other elements had been better.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

The People Demand a Solution

 There is a cycle where, after a tragedy like a school shooting which gathers massive national media attention, people say things like: "Don't tell me that we can't pass a law to prevent this. We've cut car deaths by 50% over the last forty years by making cars safer.  We can make guns safer and stop tragedies like this if we can stop the gun lobby!"

Of course, one key difference with the "making cars safer" scenario is that usually, people do not intend to cause injury with their cars. That's why we call them "traffic accidents". When people do intend to kill people with their cars, the improvements in air bags and crumple zones do not necessarily make things any better.

There are some proposed laws that might help to some extent. "Red flag laws" which allow people to report someone to law enforcement for unstable behavior and have their guns temporarily confiscated (or have them temporarily added to a list of people who will not be able to pass a gun-purchase background check) show a certain amount of promise. We already have laws that keep felons and people who have been involuntarily committed for mental illness from buying guns.  Having a way to "flag" people who have frequently threatened those around them and acted unstable (as many mass shooters do) seems basically sensible. Though of course, the issue is: will fallible people do what they need to do to make the system work? New York State has a red flag law on the books, but no one bothered to "flag" the Buffalo shooter, even though he had check himself into a hospital talking about killing people and scared people at his college with weird and threatening behavior.

Other suggestions seem rooted in ignorance about how guns work. For instance, some people are very committed to the idea of banning "high capacity magazines", often meaning magazines that hold more than ten rounds. This doesn't strike me as particularly helpful in fighting crime because 1) most crimes don't actually involve shooting lots of rounds, though mass shootings do and 2) changing magazines is really fast and easy, so while it might make a difference in an active shootout (this is why police favor large magazines -- they don't want to be the first to have to change mags in a gunfight) most mass killings involve the murderer going around shooting unarmed people, which means having to change mags more often probably wouldn't save lives.

30rd vs 10rd AR magazines

But here's what I find myself wondering: To what extent is the feeling that terrible things happen and "we're not doing anything" corrosive on the body politic?

To me, with the view that decisions about laws are often balances between bad alternative, and the basic idea that human nature is deeply flawed and our society sick in many ways, it is not particularly shocking to think that there are terrible things that happen which cannot be easily prevented by some new law.

However, for many people I see online, the idea that something terrible happens and we don't immediately come together to pass a law to prevent it seems like it breaks something in their view of the world, and they conclude that tragedies must happen because the other 50% of Americans are so evil that they want them to happen.

Which got me wondering about a question so cynical that even as a cynical person I find it pretty appalling, but here it is:

The political script seems to be that after a major shooting, a majority of people desperately want to "do something" while the minority of people who are very committed to voting based on guns rights point out that most of those things wouldn't work very well, and since deeply committed minorities willing to vote on the basis of one issue carry more than the usual electoral weight, nothing happens. This makes a lot of people think that the political system is broken and that their political opponents are evil people who want innocent people killed, and our culture and politics just keep getting worse.

What if, instead, gun advocates agreed to collaborate in passing some measure which would not significantly restrict legal use of guns by law abiding gun owners, but which would be "doing something". 

What would be different?

Well, for one thing, people would no longer feel like we're a country which is incapable of "doing something" about mass killings of innocent people. Given that the extent to which everyone in society hates each other has corrosive effects on our country, this in itself might have some benefits.

But it might also cause the opinion-making industry to obsess over mass shootings less, which, perversely, might actually result in fewer mass shootings since it appears that to some extent mass shootings result from a sort of "social contagion" where troubled young men hear about mass shootings because of our society's obsession with them and then proceed to follow the mass shooting script in order to express their own unhappiness and anger at society.

I'm not ready to propose this as a solution. The idea of proposing that we do something that I don't think would work for the purpose of gulling the public into feeling like we as a society are addressing major problems is just too cynical for me to get behind right now. But given that gun control advocates themselves frequently seem to propose actions that would arguably to little or nothing to reduce crime, and then get everyone very upset about the idea that "we as a society are not willing to do anything", I can't help wondering if picking some kind of measure which wouldn't cause inconvenience to law abiding gun owners and getting behind it in a big way just to make people feel like "something" is being done would do less harm to society than refusing to do anything (even if for the righteous reason that all of the "somethings" proposed are harmful or useless.)

Look, after all, at the frankly silly things we go through every time we get on a plane, which almost certainly do not make us any safer from terrorism.  And yet, we don't have the corrosive effect of half the populace being convinced "we don't care enough to do anything about terrorism". Maybe that's the entire purpose of the security theater in airports, and maybe in some appalling sense it's valuable to society.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Prayers, from A to Z

 Long-time readers will be familiar with commenter (and friend-of-Darwins) Bob the Ape, who has a gift for composing clever verse. Yesterday I learned that Bob has been diagnosed with prostate cancer that has metastasized to his bones. His family would be grateful for the prayers of all fellow DarwinCatholic readers.

Over the past couple of years, Bob has been sending stories to my children, each loosely themed around a letter of the alphabet. Recently he published the whole collection in an illustrated volume: Unexpected Tales from A to Z. We'd like to give a copy to two lucky commenters, to be selected from the old hat on Friday. And on the dedication page, our winners can find the names of all seven Darwin children!

(UPDATE: The winners are Heather and Erica!)


To crib from my Amazon review: This charming and clever collection of tales is perfect for family snuggling. The stories all stand on their own and are just the right length for bedtime reading. Young readers will enjoy Robert Wenson's sweeping imagination, which takes them from old New Orleans (Esme and the Eloquent Eggplant) to the fictional kingdom of Perinnia (Reynard and the Robotic Robberies), to ancient Greece (Xenophon and the Xanthios Xiphios), to all around the whole world (Yolanda and the Yak Yoghurt). Along the way are daring escapes, dastardly villains, settings historical and fantastic, and an assortment of resourceful and brave young heroes and heroines. Sarah Neville's illustrations provide just the right flourish for each tale.

As a sample, here is a favorite tale here, featuring turnips, dastardly doggerel, and a lad's quest to clear his father's name.


Victor and the Vanishing Versifier

by Robert Wenson

Once upon a time a boy named Victor lived in a town called Rootburg, which was the chief city of the province of Neepshire, which in turn was an outlying province of the Kingdom of Brassica.

Neepshire was a farming province.  Its principal — in fact, its only — crop was turnips.  Everyone who had a farm, or even a garden, grew turnips.  The holiday that everyone looked forward to was the great Turnip Festival.  The only people who didn't grow turnips busied themselves with making turnip soup, turnip butter, turnip jelly, turnip vodka, and turnip-flavored bacon.  (Once someone suggested making bacon-flavored turnips instead, but he changed his mind after a few months in a rest home.)

Victor's father, Hector Daviot, was the head of the Turnip Growers' Association.  His uncle Donald Daviot was Captain of the Provincial Guard and so, after the Royal Governor, one of the most important men in Neepshire.

At the time of this story the Royal Governor was Sir Archibald MacLaurey.  His duties as governor were few and simple: at the Turnip Festival he was the judge of the turnip competition and presided at the closing banquet, where he had the honor of eating the ceremonial bowl of mashed turnips and toasting the success of the crop with a glass of turnip wine.  The rest of the year he made sure that the roads were safe from turnip bandits (there had once been an outbreak of turnip banditry some 300 years earlier) and inspecting the border defenses in case the enemies of the kingdom decided to invade Neepshire and seize the turnip crop (although the idea of doing so had never occurred to any of them).

Victor's Uncle Donald often stopped by for a visit.  One day he came in and said, "I have some news.  Sir Archibald has said he won't be able to attend the Turnip Festival next week because he's ill."

"Won't that spoil the festival, Uncle Donald?" asked Victor.

"Oh, no," replied his uncle.  "We'll just postpone it until he's better."

A few days later Uncle Donald had another bit of news.  "Sir Archibald has announced that he's ending the Royal Greenhouse Project for Improving Turnips.  He wants them to work on improving broccoli instead."

"Won't that upset the turnip growers, Father?" asked Victor.

"Good heavens, no," replied Hector Daviot.  "The project was a silly idea from the start.  Our turnips can't be improved — they are already as good as turnips can possibly be."

A few days later Uncle Donald had another bit of news.  "Tomorrow, Sir Archibald is going to issue a proclamation.  It will be printed in the Rootburg Daily Advertiser and Turnip News, but the gist of it is that there will be a tax on turnips, effective immediately."

"But suppose the turnip farmers can't pay the tax?" asked Victor.

"That won't be a problem," said Uncle Donald.  "The law of the kingdom is that taxes on crops can be paid with money, or with a share of the crop."

A week later the Daily Advertiser and Turnip News reported that the new tax had collected two and a half ducats and 3,262 undersized or slightly damaged turnips.

Sir Archibald's health having improved, the Turnip Festival belatedly took place and was a rousing success.  At the closing banquet the Royal Governor swallowed his last spoonful of mashed turnips and stood up, a glass of turnip wine in one hand and some notes of his speech in the other.

"Gentlemen — ladies — esteemed farmers," he began.   It is my great honor and —"  He looked at his notes.  "Unalloyed pleasure to stand before you on this —"  He looked at his notes again.  "Most auspicious and gladsome occasion.  Let us raise our glasses and drink to —"  He looked at his notes again.  "Hateful Sir Archibald —"  He stopped and looked closely at the page he had been reading.

"SOMEONE has MEDDLED with my SPEECH!" he roared angrily.  He flung away his notes, turned, and strode out of the banquet hall.

Someone picked up the notes to find out what had so upset Sir Archibald.  Word soon spread that a prankster had inserted a page on which was written,

Hateful Sir Archibald, you who conspire

To injure those who turnips raise,

Take heed and repent, lest a destiny dire

Should darken the rest of your days.

The prankster, it seemed, was not content with one feat.  In the morning a verse, written in chalk, was found on the front door of the Governor's house.  It read,

MacLaurey, MacLaurey, you silly old fool —

The wrath of the turnip shall shorten your rule.

The offending words were quickly erased and a guard posted at the door.  Sir Archibald issued a proclamation that spies and saboteurs were at work and set off on an unscheduled inspection of the border defenses.

Two days later the citizens of Rootburg caught sight of an odd shape, dark against the morning sky, floating in the air several miles away.  A brisk breeze carried it toward the town.  Soon its nature became clear: it was a large balloon.  From it was suspended a bedsheet spread out on a wooden frame.  On the bedsheet were daubed the words,

Archibald, the man of woe;

Archibald, the turnips' foe;

Archibald has got to go!

When Sir Archibald returned to Rootburg and learned of this latest affront, he at once ordered that Hector Daviot be brought to him.

"These infamies must cease immediately!" he stormed.  "I am making you, the head of the Turnip Growers' Association, personally responsible.  If there is one more incident, you'll go to jail."

"But how am I to prevent them?" protested Victor's father.  "I have done none of these things; neither has anyone that I know."

"PER-son-al-ly re-SPON-si-ble," repeated the Royal Governor, frowning terribly.

Unfortunately, that very night a verse was tacked to a lamp post outside the Daviot House:

Baby Archie saw a turnip,

Baby Archie got a scare.

Now you run away from turnips —

Face us, coward, if you dare!

Sir Archibald kept his promise and Victor's father went to jail.

This did no good.  The following morning Governor MacLaurey sat down to breakfast only to find a paper folded inside his napkin.  Unfolding it, he read,

This sentence upon you, oh tyrant MacLaurey,

Unjust in your words and unjust in your deeds,

Repulsive, repugnant, a gross reprobate.

Nowise can it help you to cringe and say "Sorry,"

Implacably toward you Nemesis speeds.

Prepare — if you can — for your horrible fate.

"This is too much!" cried the Governor.  "Get me the Captain of the Guard — at once!"  He paced back and forth impatiently, looking at the clock every five seconds, until Donald Daviot came in.

"We're going to smash this conspiracy!" screamed Sir Archibald.  "First, I want a curfew from sundown to sunrise: anyone outside his home during that time will be arrested and thrown in jail.  Second, I want the entire Guard to patrol the streets of Rootburg every night.  Third, I'm announcing a reward of a thousand ducats for whoever catches the criminal.  And fourth, I want a new breakfast — this one is cold."

The curfew was proclaimed and the Guard patrolled the town every night.  Several people were arrested and thrown in jail (where, together with Victor's father, they got up a glee club and sang songs all day long — always beginning with the national anthem and ending with "Hail to the Turnips" — to the great annoyance of the jailers).

But to no avail.  Somehow, the prankster got out every night, left a taunting verse somewhere, and disappeared before the Guard got there.

With Victor's father in jail, Uncle Donald stopped by to visit each evening, before going out with the Guard, to make sure that Victor and his mother were all right.

"I tell you, Victor," he said one night, putting a roll of paper on the table and sitting down, "I hope we get this vanishing versifier soon.  It's bad enough that Governor MacLaurey comes to headquarters every day and shouts and yells and demands to know what we're doing to catch the villain — but I'm not getting enough sleep, and my feet are sore from walking on the cobblestones.  And every night we just miss him.  We hear the tapping as he tacks up another taunt and run towards it — but when we get there he's gone.  Or we find a verse on a wall and the paint's still wet or chalk dust is still floating in the air.  It's as if he already knows —"  He picked up the roll of paper, shook it, and put it down again.  "— What's on our charts."

"What is on the charts?" asked Victor.

"The streets we're patrolling each night.  Every night we go a different route."

"Maybe he does know," said Victor.

"How?  I make up a fresh chart each day at headquarters.  None of the guards sees it.  Only I know where we'll be that night."

"And until you catch up with him, Father stays in jail," said Victor sadly.  "Wait a minute…I have an idea.  Suppose he does know.  Let me go with you.  I'll walk the same route you do, but a few minutes ahead.  I'll go very quietly so he doesn't hear me coming —"

"And if he sees you, I doubt he'd suspect a boy," said Uncle Donald.  "Why not give it a try?  Nothing else has worked so far.  Tomorrow I'll make two charts, one for me and one for you."

And so the next night Victor went out on patrol with Uncle Donald and the Guard.  He walked and walked, until the night was almost over and he began to think his idea was a failure.  Then he turned a corner —

And saw ahead of him a figure scribbling on the sidewalk.  It was clad all in black, with a black cloak, a large black hat, and a black scarf wound about its face so that only its eyes were visible.  It paused in its scribbling for a moment and Victor heard a sinister giggle; then it resumed its work.

Victor crept up behind the figure.  He grabbed hold of its cloak and began shouting as loudly as he could, "I've got him!  Come quickly!"

"What's this?" hissed the prankster.  "Let go, let go!  You'll spoil everything!"  It struggled and shook but Victor hung on to the cloak.

Uncle Donald came running around the corner, followed by the Guard.  They seized the prankster and held him tightly.  "Good work, Victor," said Uncle Donald.  "We'll take this fellow back to headquarters and see who he is."

The prankster did not resist but went quietly with them back to headquarters.  "One of you, go and fetch the Governor," said Uncle Donald.  "Get him out of bed if you have to.  Tell him we've caught the villain."

"No need for that," said the prankster.  "The Governor is here already."  He removed his hat and scarf, revealing himself to be Sir Archibald MacLaurey.  "You might be good enough to release the prisoners from jail and bring them here so that I can apologize."

"What about the reward?" asked Victor.

"Oh, yes — I suppose you're entitled to the reward," said Sir Archibald.  "A thousand ducats it was, I recall.  If I'd known that I was going to be caught, I wouldn't have made it so much."

When Sir Archibald had finished apologizing to the people he had thrown in jail, Hector Daviot asked, "Why did you put up all those verses against yourself?"

"I hate it here," said Sir Archibald.  "It's a hundred miles from anywhere, it's horribly dull, and I absolutely loathe turnips.  My parents used to make me eat turnips when I was a child, and if I complained I got a second helping and no dessert.  And now every year at the Turnip Festival I have to choke down a great bowlful of them and smile like I'm enjoying it when I feel like gagging.

"I thought if I could make myself unpopular enough you would complain to the King and he'd remove me as Governor and take me home to the capital."

"Why didn't you just quit?" asked Victor.

"The King doesn't like quitters," replied Sir Archibald.  "If he only thought I did a poor job he might give me a second chance — but if I quit, he'd never want to see me again."

"Well, why didn’t you say so?" asked Hector Daviot.

In response to an urgent telegram from Sir Archibald, the King himself came to Neepshire.  As soon as the royal train puffed into the station at Rootburg, Victor, who had been keeping watch, ran to tell the crowd gathered in the street before the Governor's house.  When the King's carriage came in sight the crowd, led by Victor's father, began shouting "Down with the Governor!" and "Down with Sir Archibald!" and pelting the house with turnips (the turnips had been provided by Sir Archibald out of the 3,262 collected several weeks ago and now more or less spoiled).

The Guard came and cleared a way for the King to enter the house.  Soon he came out, accompanied by Sir Archibald.  They got into the carriage and drove to the railway station.  The people of Rootburg followed, laughing and cheering.

"The people certainly seem happy to see you go," remarked the King.

"Indeed," replied Sir Archibald.  "They think it a very good joke."

Several months later, Sir Archibald was getting ready to go to Court, where the King was going to appoint him as Royal Governor of another province.  He had just buttoned his waistcoat when a knock came on the door.  It was a messenger, delivering a small but heavy parcel.

Sir Archibald opened the parcel.  Inside was a large and fancy gold watch and chain.  There was also a note:

Dear Sir Archibald,

On behalf of the Turnip Growers' Association and the people of Neepshire I have the great pleasure of presenting you with this small token of our esteem.  (We would rather have presented it at the time of your departure, but doing so would not really have been in keeping with the spirit of the occasion.)


Hector Daviot, President


"Well, that's an uncommonly handsome gesture," said Sir Archibald to himself.  "I think I shall wear it to Court…Of course, if anyone asks, I shall say only that it was a present from some good friends."

"By Jove," said the King.  "That's the finest watch I've ever seen."

"Perfectly smashing," said the Queen.

"I wish I had one," said the Crown Prince.

"Holy Mackerel!" exclaimed the Royal Keeper of Timepieces.  He took hold of Sir Archibald's arm and pulled him over to a window where the light was better.  "Let me see it!"

Sir Archibald handed over the watch.  The Keeper examined it closely.  "I haven't seen one of these in years," he said.  "I didn't know they even made them any more."

"What is it then?" asked Sir Archibald.

"It's a turnip watch," said the Keeper.

* * * THE END * * *

Monday, May 23, 2022

Ellis Island: The Dream of America

This past Saturday, I had the privilege of participating in the Central Ohio Symphony's concert performance of Ellis Island: The Dream of America, by Peter Boyer. This piece features seven stories taken from the remembrances of people who immigrated through Ellis Island, spoken over poignant musical themes. I portrayed the fifth immigrant, Helen Rosenthal, who came from Poland by way of Belgium during WWII, and I also recited The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus at the finale.

The second half of the concert featured Pacho Flores, hailed as one of today's greatest trumpeters, performing a mix of Baroque and Latin selections, on a range of different brass instruments. His tone was so beautiful, I felt like I was floating on a cloud of sound every time he played. One of the many thrills of watching live performances is catching the little details that get scrubbed from recordings, such as the small rattles and clicks of the trumpet keys or the little intake of breath right before a phrase. Every time Pacho finished a movement, he would look out at the audience and grin, and we grinned right back. It was a joyous evening, and I was glad to be a part of it.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Bad Management and Unrealistic Expectations - Thoughts on WOF Controversy

 There has been some noise online lately about troubles at Bishops Barron's ministry, Word on Fire. To briefly summarize:

Word on Fire  employed a former body builder and model named Joe Gloor, who was listed as their highest paid employee on their 2020 IRS Form 990 (though it's worth noting, by corporate standards the salaries listed are all quite modest, I've commonly seen managers paid at this level.) According to a series of posts by Chris Damien and a pair of statements released by Word on Fire (first and rather spicily written second) four women came to Word on Fire with complaints that Gloor had engaged in sexual misconduct.  In both their first brief statement (which does not name Gloor but speaks of "one of its employees") and the second longer statement, Word on Fire makes clear that these complaints related to his personal life and did not involve any WOF employees.

WOF put Gloor on leave and hired an outside investigator to look into the complaints. Their second statement describes the conclusion as: "As a result of the investigation, which concluded that no crimes had been committed, the board sub-committee members determined nevertheless that it was appropriate for Word on Fire to terminate Gloor’s employment." 

Bishop Barron led a video conference in which WOF employees were informed about Gloor's dismissal. Some employees reportedly objected to the tone Barron's discussion of the complaints which led to Gloor's dismissal, saying that he described them as accusers rather than victims, that he seemed more concerned about Gloor and about PR than about the women who had made the complaints, and that he named one of them in the call. One employee reportedly recorded the meeting without the knowledge of others, and used that recording to bring his concerns to the attention of Chris Damian, who published them. Word on Fire says in their second statement that they investigated this recording and leak, and that the leaker resigned before this investigation was concluded.

Several other WOF employees have since resigned for reasons in some sense connected with the incident. Elizabeth Scalia discusses her reasons for leaving Word on Fire in this blog post.

This has been an interesting sequence of events to watch play out as someone who has been impressed with much of Bishop Barron's output over the years, but also as someone who has always worked in the secular world, never for a Catholic organization. 

Several times during my career I've seen highly placed people in the company be investigated for misconduct. In every case, the investigations have been fairly secretive, and the announcement of the results has been vague. In no case has the output of such an investigation been detailed enough to allow people to make their own decisions about whether the company did the right thing. Rumor is always active in these situations, but clear explanations were scarce.

Also, in each case the accusations have been about actions which occurred between employees and/or on company time. Some of these were clearly in the realm of harassment. One example I recall had to do with a senior executive having speculating about racial and sexual topics in front of employees who were made uncomfortable by the discussion. Another involved someone hiring escorts while at a hotel for a company event. Other examples were the result of conduct unbecoming at company events, such as getting into a drunken brawl at a company sponsored event. 

But I've certainly never heard of a situation where someone unconnected with the company came to the company with a complaint about the behavior of an employee in their personal life and got the company to investigate it. 

So how does this situation look from the vantage point of an outsider to the world of Catholic employment?

My first impression is that Word on Fire probably does not have very disciplined hiring and management. 

This perhaps isn't shocking in an organization which as grown very quickly. IRS filings show Word on Fire growing from spending $400k on wages and benefits in 2012 to $2.6M in 2020. Just from 2019 to 2020 wage and benefit expenses went up almost a million dollars. Given that WOF has a number of remote employees who do writing, editing and production work (some of whom appear to work part time) it's likely this translates into managing a lot of people. That's hard to do, and the sort of people who would be good at running a small ministry would not necessarily be the same people who would be good at managing a large and growing organization.

Some of the resignation letters and comments quoted by Damien suggest that WOF may have built up a somewhat oddly assorted staff who may not have all had the same vision of the organization. And, of course, central to this whole incident is the decision to hire an ex-body builder and model (who turned out to have a messy personal life) as one of the most senior employees of the organization.

Some reported complaints by employees in Damien's pieces also suggest a workplace in which Gloor and others felt comfortable discussing marriage and women in a way that made some female employees uncomfortable. Aside from there being a virtue in simply not having a crass workplace, this also suggests (to me as someone working in the secular business world) a workplace which is overly casual and lacking in a sense of what is and is not work-appropriate conversation.

Finally, the second Word on fire statement in particular reads as fairly hot-headed and unprofessional. I suspect that the authors are correct in their intuition that a fair amount of the energy with which the situation was being reported on was driven by people who had never liked Word on Fire in the first place. Barron has long been a target both for extremely traditionalist Catholics (who are angered by his Balthasarian view that one may dare to hope that all might be saved) and by progressive Catholics who are angered by his support for Catholic teachings on sexual morality, his discussion of some cultural topics, and seemingly the very existence of a Catholicism which is not simply a slightly ritualized form of social justice activism. And yet, the best way to respond to the metaphorical baying of dogs is not to get down on all fours and bark back. And barking back is pretty much what the second WOF statement seems to do. It suggests a somewhat defensive and off-balance self-estimate of the organization and its place in the world.

The second thing that struck me is that everyone involved seems to have an implicit belief that Catholic organizations should insist on hiring and maintaining only employees who hit some specific standard of personal moral behavior. 

It's interesting that this is the substance of an attack on WOF which is generally coming from the left. After all, we're used to a certain sort of Catholic organization controversy where an institution fires an employee for failing to live up to Catholic sexual teachings and more progressive Catholics object that this is unmerciful. 

Perhaps what confuses the situation in this case is that the discussion of Gloor's dismissal is being framed as if it were an accusation of either workplace sexual misconduct or clerical sexual abuse. However, the alleged misconduct apparently did not occur in the workplace or with a co-worker, and Gloor is most certainly not a cleric.

If an ex-girlfriend of mine (or even several) were to come to my employer and allege that I had engaged in sexual misconduct towards them, my company would doubtless refer them to the police. There is not an expectation that companies will act as the primary arbiters of whether their employees have behaved with sexual propriety on their own time.

Obviously, one of the things which contributed to the clerical sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church has been that on many occasions people would come to Church authorities with reports that a priest had sexually abused someone, and the Church would act as if it were the correct entity to investigate and deal with the abuse -- and then instead cover up the abuse.

Further, people seem increasingly to be coming to the conclusion that a sexual relationship between a priest and a member of the faithful is never "just" a sexual failing. Because a priest is always a priest, if he enters into a sexual relationship with a member of the faithful there is always some sense in which he does so as a priest, and a such as someone who wields spiritual authority.

There are cases when a non-cleric's sexual sins would be seen in similar light. Obviously, anyone using their position in the Church to sexually abuse children is using the Church to commit abuse. But there are situations in which a layperson might be seen as using the authority of a Church position to take sexual advantage of an adult.

But to all appearances, this does not seem to be a case in which Gloor used his position as an employee of Word on Fire as a sort of authority position to take advantage of someone sexually, it is rather simply that he is accused of sexual misbehavior with another adult in the context of some sort of outside-of-work event or relationship. 

That being the case, the only explanation for why people believe this is Word on Fire's business is that they believe that it's important that Catholic organizations seek not to employ people who do not conduct themselves according to sexual morality.

I will note as a side issue that some of the complaints about WOF are normal workplace complaints, such as that Gloor and others discussed marriage and women in ways that made other employees uncomfortable. This is a normal and legitimate workplace complaint, and one which should be addressed, but I'd note that it's been presented as a side issue to the Gloor investigation and firing and not as the primary complaint.

The third and last thing that struck me is that there appears to be operative here (and in other assorted and often vicious squabbles about the doings of Catholic organizations) some idea that if an organization has a Catholic purpose, that both its employees and Catholics more widely have a special stake in it and thus deserve to have an unusual degree of insight into how the organization conducts itself.

As I said, it seems a bit odd from a secular point of view that the complaints about Gloor's non-work behavior are considered WOF's business in the first place. But imagining it to be the organization's business, my experience has always been that investigations and punishments of workplace misbehavior are dealt with fairly quietly, and not with a degree of explanation which would allow every bystander to make their own decisions about whether the company acted correctly. And yet, we see Chris Damien laying out suggestions about how in his mind Word on Fire needs to institute all sorts of new policies of radical transparency. 

Perhaps it is just that when a controversy is mainly playing out among online pundits, they will naturally imagine solutions which make it easy for pundits to monitor and weigh in. But I've seen this in enough instances that I think often when people work for a mission-driven organization, they expect an unusual degree of transparency so that they can decide for themselves whether the organization is living up to its mission.

I think it's worth thinking about that assumption, however, as one thinks about how Catholic organizations should operate. Word on Fire sounds like they probably need to work on their organizational culture, and maybe need some HR rules in order to manage a workforce the size that they now have. However, any organization which lays itself totally open to internal and external review of every workplace controversy is probably going to become a very uncomfortable place to work in over time. Privacy is something most of us value quite a bit, especially when we are on the receiving end of a controversy.

Having gone to Steubenville, I know a lot of people who have worked for Catholic organizations at some point. In general, the wisdom I've always heard is that Catholic organizations feature low pay, long hours, and particularly toxic organizational cultures, the result of people expecting so much of them and fighting so hard over what they ought to do. It seems to me that in avoiding these workplace explosions, and in seeking to have Catholic workplaces which are livable, people would do well to think about the following things:

1) How do you go about hiring and managing people? Assuming that so long as we're all good people, we will all get along will not do. And while some unusual hiring decisions may make sense, having clear job descriptions, clear hiring criteria, and clear definitions of performance is a way of making life easier for people, not harder. Hiring people because they are friends or hiring people as a personal favor will, in larger organizations, tend to lead to problems in the long run.

2) An organization should have clear standards on what conduct is expected of employees inside and outside of work. At a Catholic organization, that may mean that someone might be fired for behavior outside of work which was at odds with Catholic moral teaching, but there should be a clear understanding of what the difference is between behavior the organization is responsible for and behavior which simply marks out the employee as not living in a manner which suggests belief in the mission of the organization. If it is the sort of role in which it is possible to use the authority of the role to take sexual advantage of someone outside the organization, it would be necessary to be clear on that specifically, separate from the obvious unacceptability of workplace misconduct.

3) Organizations should think about the degree of transparency they believe is appropriate to their mission, and employees and Catholics generally should think about the amount of transparency which is realistically to be expected, balancing curiosity and the desire to personally assure that things are being done right with the necessity of having a livable workplace for all involved. Often this will mean that our curiosity and desire to satisfying conclusions to drama will not be met.

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Kristin Lavransdatter at 100

Sigrid Undset, ca. 1905

Up today at Plough: my piece on the parallels between the tumultuous marriage at the heart of Kristin Lavransdatter, the Nobel Prize-winning saga of medieval Norway, and author Sigrid Undset's own relationship with her husband, painter Anders Castus Svarstad.

In May 1919, the thirty-seven-year-old Norwegian author Sigrid Undset was at a crossroads. Her family had just been evicted from their apartment in Kristiania (now Oslo), and although her husband, the painter Anders Castus Svarstad, had promised to purchase a house for the family, he had not done it in time. Two babies and three teenage stepchildren, without a stable shelter – and as usual, the responsibility for the blended family fell entirely on her shoulders. After seven years of marriage, she could no longer deceive herself that Svarstad’s chronic evasion of responsibility was a high-minded indication of artistic temperament. She knew now that if her health failed, Svarstad would dump her children in an orphanage, just as he had done at first with his older children when he divorced their mother to marry her. And she was pregnant again.

The strain wore on Undset as she struggled to keep her own literary career afloat, writing essays and translating literature late into the night. Then, at least, she was free from managing both infants and her teenage stepdaughters, juggling finances and housekeeping, worrying about her baby’s epileptic fits and her stepson’s mental delays, and reckoning the emotional toll of marriage to a man whose aloof preoccupation had once been her romantic ideal. Before her marriage she had been Norway’s most celebrated woman author, acclaimed for Fru Marta Oulie and Jenny, both “scandalous” tales of modern women breaking taboos; and Gunnar’s Daughter, a short historical novel in the style of her beloved sagas. She had attempted, on and off through these past years, to write an even more ambitious saga, a rich evocation of the world of medieval Norway that her archeologist father had brought to life for her. Now she had no home to write in, and, for all intents and purposes, no husband.

Three years later, Undset would astound the world with the publication of the epic saga Kristin Lavransdatter, composed in a burst of creative energy in the house she bought herself. The writing of her masterpiece, at once an effortless immersion into its historical period and a keen account of moral choices played out and compounded over time, marked a turning point in Undset’s life, crystallizing her decision to convert to Catholicism in 1924, and winning her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1928. Although her childhood and education gave her a unique advantage in bringing fourteenth-century Norway to life for a modern audience, it was her own complicated relationship with Svarstad that provided the model for Kristin and Erlend’s passionate, scorched-earth relationship, and her own spiritual yearnings that found voice in Kristin’s prayers.


As I researched Undset and Svarstad's relationship, I came across Svarstad's Wikipedia entry, which claimed, "In 1908, he was accused of sexual misconduct and rape by several women, who claimed Svarstad had raped them. He was convicted three years later and served several months in prison." This would mean that when Undset met Svarstad in Rome a year later, not only would she had have to turn a blind eye to his being a married man, but that after they'd both returned to Norway, in the year before Svarstad's divorce went through and Undset married him, he was doing prison time for assault. It would seem unbelievable that Undset would be unaware of this -- if it is true.

However, the link in the Wikipedia article was defunct when I researched it, and there was nothing else online, in English or Norwegian, to even suggest that Svarstad spent time in prison for rape and harassment -- no old articles, no linking of the Norwegian word for rape with Svarstad, not even a hint of an accusation anywhere but the Wikipedia article and its dead link. No biography of Undset that I could find mentioned this claim -- a charge so immense that any Undset scholar would spill gallons of ink analyzing it, if it could be corroborated. 

As I could find no source for the claim, or even any support for it, I couldn't include it in the article. I have neither time, opportunity, nor the facility with Norwegian to research old prison records or read through the archives of Kristiana's newspapers. But how odd that the claim should have been made at all. 

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Do College Degrees Pay?

The Biden administration has recently floated the idea of instituting a program to pay back people's college debt. As a parent who has made significant sacrifices over the last couple years to avoid our college student having to take out any debt in her first two years of college, I have to admit this seems a little frustrating.  I could have just borrowed that $10k and never had to pay it back!  

But beyond my emotional reaction to the situation, the justice of funneling billions of dollars to pay off college graduates (traditionally among the wealthier half of Americans) seemed questionable to me.  However, several people suggested that it is not in fact that case that college graduates make more than other Americans anymore, so I wanted to take a look at the facts.

At it happens, the Cooperative Election Study of 2020 provides data from a 61,000 person survey which asks questions about income, level of education, and student debut, so it's possible to see what the facts of the matter are.

First question: do Americans with college degrees make more money in general?

Yes, they do. 59% of people with only a high school degree have family incomes of $50k or less, compared to 42% of those with a two year degree and only 25% of those with a four year degree. 50% of those with a four year degree have a family income of $70k or more, while 28% of those with some college do and only 18% of those with only a high school degree. (The survey only has family income, not individual income, so I'm using the statistic which is available.

Is this only true for older people?

No. For people in their 20s, income is still higher for those with more education.

Same for people in their 30s

Same for Black Americans

Looking strictly at student debt, those with and without debt are fairly similar in income

But how about when we compare younger people with and without student debt by education level?

There are some differences here. 50% of those with some college but no debt make less than $50k, while 55% of those with some college and debt make less than $50k. Only 23% of those who have a four year degree and no debt make less than $50k, while 33% of those have a four year degree and do have debt make less than $50k.  Some of this, of course, is almost certainly cause and effect: those who make more money can pay their debt off faster.  Additionally, people who come form wealthier families often go on to make more money themselfs.

However, those who go to take on debt to earn a four year degree are still more likely to make higher incomes than those who did not earn a degree but avoided debt. 41% of  people in their 20s and 30s with debt and a four year degree make $70k or more, while only 13% of those with only a high school degree make more than $70k per year.

Overall, it does seem true that people with college degrees make more money, even if they take on debt to do so. This does not mean that everyone should follow that path. But overall, those with college degrees are likely to be more affluent than those without.