Tag Archives: America

I’m Not Cool – But I’m Cool With That

Yesterday morning I was sitting outside at a cafe, when a group of college-aged young women walked by.  One of them turned around, came over to me, and asked if she could take my picture.  She explained that she was a fashion design student from Norway, and that she was assembling photographs of people she spotted on the street, to use in one of her projects.  After she snapped my picture, I wondered whether she thought I was cool, when the reality is that I’m far from it.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when I realized the fact that I’m not cool.  Although it might have been when I started sporting rather thick glasses around the age of 6, it was more likely a bit later, when I discovered that I had disastrously poor hand-eye coordination.  This ended up making me the last one to be picked for teams in just about every gym class all the way through high school – meaning that I was decidedly NOT cool.  Obviously, there was no way this poor, deluded design student could have known that, when she asked me to sit still and keep looking serious.

Following my experience as Norway’s latest fashion inspiration, I dropped by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to view their new photography exhibition, American Cool.  Among the pictures of men and women considered “cool” in their time, some were obvious (James Dean), some were questionable (Audrey Hepburn), and some were noticeable by their absence (Janis Joplin).   There was even a bit of “geek chic”, in an image of Steve Jobs riding a Harley.  Of course, certain Americans seemed to possess an almost eternal font of the elusive elixir of coolness as they aged: Lauren Bacall comes to mind, as does Miles Davis, both of whom were featured in the show.

What struck me, as I looked at decades’ worth of photographs of the anointed cool, was that the term “cool” itself was part of a fundamental change in how we value ourselves, and each other.  Consider the evolution of American advertising over the course of the 20th century, for example.  There was a shift away from the notion that maturity and sophistication are aspirational virtues, to a belief that being young and trendy – or at least, being perceived as such – is better than being old and established.  Today commercials for cars, pharmaceuticals, and financial planning products aimed at the retiring Baby Boomers try to portray their target audience as still being hip, even if some of them now need hip replacements.

Today’s trend-setter may well be tomorrow’s has-been, but the desire to be thought of as cool is something which many Americans continue to factor into their daily lives well past adolescence and into adulthood.  The desire to be cool can influence the choices we make about where to eat, where to live, what type of sneakers we wear, and so on.  Something that others determine to be “cool” is often perceived as being better than the available alternatives, even when in real terms there is little or nothing distinguishing about it.

The risk for all of us is, that the pursuit of coolness can prove as shallow as it seems.  It can take away from our opportunities to make the best use of the talents and opportunities we’ve been given, if we’re worried about how we will be perceived.  It can also cloud our ability to form sound opinions based on substantive arguments, rather than on appeals to our vanity.  We already see this problem emerging among heavy consumers of online media: why bother building a relationship with your neighbors, when the people in your online neighborhood seem so much cooler?

To be fair, someone who runs into me on the street may take issue with the childhood self-realization described above.  After all, I’m just as likely to be wearing my favorite biker jacket, from the same company that made them for (the very cool) Marlon Brando back in the day, as I am the standard Washingtonian uniform of blue blazer and khakis.  Of course as an adult, I know that there’s a time to wear the former, and a time to wear the latter, so that being perceived by others as cool is ultimately irrelevant to the task I’m performing.

I’d be dishonest if I said I wasn’t at least a tiny bit conscious of the fact that being thought of as cool is flattering, however ungrounded in truth that designation may actually be.  Let’s face it: everyone secretly likes being told that they’re cool.  It’s a social imprimatur, telling us that we’re relevant, noticeable, or influential in some way.

Yet in my own life, the coolest people I know are those who do what they love because they feel called to do it, not because others will think them cool.  They look for ways to act for good on behalf of those whom they love, regardless of whether they receive any public recognition for those actions.  They may not have all the answers, but they are willing to seek them out, while at the same time showing respect and compassion toward those who come into their lives.  When it comes down to it, these are the people whom we ought to be emulating on the inside, whatever may be considered cool on the outside.

And if that means I’m still not cool, then I’m cool with that.

"Steve McQueen" by William Claxton (1962)

“Steve McQueen” by William Claxton (1962)
Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC

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A Message from Mrs. Kennedy

Fifty years ago yesterday, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy went on camera for the first time following the assassination and funeral of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, to thank the nation for the outpouring of support she and her children received.  This brief film was shown around the country in movie theatres as a newsreel, and exists in two different versions – one showing Mrs. Kennedy seated with Robert and Edward Kennedy, and the other of her shown from the side.  Both are worth watching, since the effect on the viewer, or at least on this viewer, changes based on the angle, the lighting, and the closeness of the camera lens.

Now the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts has announced that more of those very condolence messages which Mrs. Kennedy received will be made available to scholars and researchers.  Some items in the collection are quite remarkable indeed. For example, there is a letter from the mother of one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama only a few months before.

Whatever one thinks of the Kennedys, politically or otherwise, anyone who has experienced a great loss in their life can appreciate how these pieces of paper – cards, notes, letters, photographs – are simultaneously both hurtful and helpful.  They hurt, obviously, because the reader is reminded of their loss, and can be reminded of it again and again, should they choose to hold on to the documents.  Yet at the same time they can help, because they also remind the sufferer that they are not alone, whatever it is they may be going through.  It is then when humanity and decency are so important, in those moments when the widow or orphan is feeling they have nothing to hold on to as they attempt to go on with their lives.

Although JFK’s assassination was over 50 years ago, the images and words which Americans associate with that event continue to have an impact on the national consciousness. This message by Mrs. Kennedy was only about a minute long, and yet when one considers what had happened less than two months earlier – and the fact that she was only 34 years old at the time – her grace was truly remarkable.  It reinforced the public’s perception of her bravery as a young widow in overwhelming circumstances.  Yet it also showed that she really did appreciate the prayers and encouragement she received, and that she felt a duty to acknowledge that kindness publicly. It is quite a piece of history.

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences

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Celebrating Catholicism in American Culture

Following on from yesterday’s post, we move to a more positive topic, which is what you can do to shake up people’s misconceptions about Catholicism.  Standing up and defending the Church is critical at this time, when the Church seems to be attacked in the press and on social media every five minutes.  Yet admittedly, some of us are better at fighting these kinds of fights than others.

Truthfully what all Catholics ought to be doing is not looking to plunge into great battles in the world of public opinion, but rather engaging in what we are supposed to be doing, which is evangelizing to those around us.  It is far easier to get into often-anonymous fights on social media, or even publish scurrilous blog posts such as the one which U.S. News had the misfortune to give the go-ahead, than it is to calmly and respectfully discuss Catholicism with one’s friends and neighbors.  And even though there is unquestionably a time for arguing, even strident arguing, more often it is through a self-confident witness that we will change minds and hearts.

A few years ago for example, I was rather surprised to be informed by a Protestant friend that Catholics do not believe in the Holy Spirit. I pointed out that the whole Trinitarian “thing” was our idea.  His counter was, that even if Catholics did believe in the existence of the Holy Spirit, we did not believe that He was God.

After wondering for a moment why therefore I had bothered about being Confirmed, or celebrated the Feast of Pentecost for decades, I realized that mere argument was not going to be enough.  I challenged my friend to attend Mass with me the following Sunday, so that he could see and hear for himself what Catholics actually believe about the Holy Spirit. To his credit, being a very smart and good fellow, he agreed.

I did not look at the readings for that Sunday in advance of our visit, but I do recall that before we left for church I prayed to the Holy Spirit, asking him to let us have a good Mass, and one that would open my friend’s eyes a little regarding what he misunderstood about Catholicism.  I was rather pleased to discover when we got there that it just so happened all of the Scripture readings at Mass that particular Sunday – and the hymns, to boot – were about the Holy Spirit. That, in combination with the set prayers and blessings which we regularly pray such as the Nicene Creed, persuaded my friend that he had indeed been misinformed.

Inviting your non-Catholic friends to come to Mass with you can be a good thing, particularly if you have a generally solid parish, but what about reaching those who are not interested in darkening the door of the Church at all? This is why cultural literacy has always been such an important issue for Catholics in this country, and something which we need to encourage more Catholics to take on as a virtue.  The study of history, literature, science, and the arts reveals a wealth of material stemming from Catholic spirituality, philosophy, and creativity, which all too often non-Catholics and even many Catholics themselves are completely unaware of.

For example, the Nativity scenes which everyone just finished packing away until next year, can all trace their origins to the first such scene, which was put up by St. Francis of Assisi.  The celebration of Mardi Gras (or “Fat Tuesday”) which, hard to believe, is just over a month away, is a Catholic tradition that arose from the practice of having a last celebration of feasting on rich food and drink, before the beginning of the Catholic penitential season of Lent on Ash Wednesday.  You know those little raised bumps called “braille”, which help the blind to read and to get around on things like elevators and trains?  They were invented by a deeply devout, blind Catholic named Louis Braille, who played the organ at Mass every day and received Holy Communion on his deathbed.  And even those who are fans of sports teams at the large, secular state universities like Alabama and Oregon owe the very existence of those schools to Catholics, who founded the original universities in places like Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, and Oxford on which all subsequent universities are modeled.

So much of what Catholicism has given to the world is all around us, and yet we never take the time to point it out to others.  I suspect this is often because those of us who are inside the Church could do with some more curiosity about the Faith, but also because we often have no idea what those outside the Church have actually been taught about us.  And when we do find out what is being said behind our collective backs, as it were, we are so shocked at what others think that we do or believe, that we are at a loss to know how to respond.

Fortunately, Americans today live in an age of terrific resources, available to all for the price of a monthly internet connection.  From websites and forums, to videocasts and podcasts, to blogs and online publications, if you want to take an active interest in learning about your Church, so that you can then turn around and share that knowledge with others, you can do so at any time.  And what’s more, you can do so from the comfort of your own home, at your leisure, in a way which your Catholic ancestors could not even have imagined.

The responsibility of what you do with that information of course, is yours.  While you may use it to try to win an argument on Reddit or Twitter, in the end it may be even more productive for you to try using it to persuade someone you actually know in real life, around the water cooler or over the back fence, that perhaps Catholicism really isn’t what organizations like the (alleged) mainstream media keep saying that it is.  A Catholic who is interested in his Faith can serve as a reputable resource for not only defending the Church in the public square, but perhaps more importantly in bringing to others a sense of appreciation for the many good things which Catholicism has brought to America, and indeed to all of Western Civilization.

"Dove of the Holy Spirit" by Giusto di Giovanni de' Menabuoi (c. 1360-70) Baptistery, Padua

Detail of “Dove of the Holy Spirit” by Giusto di Giovanni de’ Menabuoi (c. 1360-70)
Baptistery, Padua

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On the Lingering Stench of American Anti-Catholicsm

You know that things must be rather bad indeed, when several atheist friends send you an article full of anti-Catholic nonsense from a prominent national publication, and ask you to comment on it.  I am of course referring to an opinion piece by a formerly obscure author, recently published on US News and World Report’s blog.  No doubt the editors of that publication are having a whale of time right now responding to the likes of the Catholic Anti-Defamation League, the Bishops’ Conference, and angry readers.

Far better writers than I, including Elizabeth Scalia at Patheos and Ed Morrissey over at Hot Air, have taken apart the arguments contained in the now-infamous article, and I direct the reader to their respective responses.  Not only did the author of the piece exhibit a gross misunderstanding of Catholicism, but her factual and logical errors render her work practically unreadable.  Yet however nauseating the piece was, it provides us with a tremendous teaching opportunity to remind Catholics and non-Catholics alike how far we have had to come in this country.

For those outside the Church, we Catholics may seem somewhat strange and mysterious. The “Pope Francis Effect” aside, apart from things like the annual screening of “The Sound of Music” on television, it is entirely possible to grow up in some parts of America having little or no exposure to Catholic life.  It is why entertainments full of anti-Catholic lies and nonsense, such as the work of Dan Brown, can capture the imaginations of so many people.  There is a regrettable, lingering perception in some corners of our culture that Catholics are practicing evil, secret rites revealed only to a few.  Regrettably, these lingering doubts have had consequences in American cultural and political life.

Back in 1928 for example, when New York Governor Al Smith – a Catholic – was running for President against incumbent Herbert Hoover, many feared Smith would try to overturn the 18th Amendment, i.e. Prohibition, which itself had become law partially as the result of widespread American anti-Catholicism.  Politicians, church groups, the Klan, and the mainstream media fell over themselves tossing out anti-Catholic vitriol.

The press in particular had a field day going after Catholics, printing scurrilous opinion pieces and vicious political cartoons, speculating that Smith was, among other things, intending to build a secret tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean to connect the White House to the Vatican, or that the Pope would attend Cabinet meetings to order Smith on how to act.  Smith personally and Catholics in general were denounced in Congress, such as in this rather astonishing speech given on the floor of the Senate by Senator Thomas J. Heflin of Alabama:

Wake up, Americans! Gird your loins for political battle, the like of which you here not seen in all the tide of time in this country. Get ready for this battle. The Roman Catholics of every country on the earth are backing his campaign. Already they are spending money in the South buying up newspapers, seeking to control the vehicles that carry the news to the people. They are sending writers down there from New York and other places to misrepresent and slander our State, all this to build a foundation on which to work for Al Smith for President. The Roman Catholic edict has gone forth in secret articles, “Al Smith is to be made President.” Doctor McDaniel said: “Of all countries the Pope wants to control this country.” “The Knights of Columbus slogan,“ said Doctor Chapman, . . . ”is make America Catholic.” Here they tell you in their book that they will force the propaganda of Protestants to cease, they will lay the heavy hand of a Catholic state upon you and crush the life out of Protestantism in America.

Congressional Record (January 28, 1928), 1st Session, 70th Congress, vol. 69, pt. 2, 1654–55, 1658.

The tradition which the author of the U.S. News piece grows out of is, regrettably, rather a long one in American history.  Fortunately, today reasonable Americans can presumably agree that there is something deeply disturbing about citing the religion of the majority of the justices of the Supreme Court as a basis for denouncing that body.  Substitute “race” for “religion” in the forgoing, and you will see what I mean.  It should therefore be very easy to dismiss such arguments out of hand as the labored ramblings of a poorly formed mind.

However for those of us within the Church, the challenge is a bit more difficult.  It is easy to leap to the defense of Holy Mother Church, but it is perhaps not so easy to dispel lingering notions about Catholicism among our non-Catholic brethren in this country.  There is still a pungent odor of anti-Catholicism wafting about certain corners of our society, which would permit a piece like this to be greenlighted and published in a mainstream publication.  And I suspect it remains so, because we Catholics are simply not good at explaining who and what we are, and are not, not only to those outside the Church but even to ourselves.

Perhaps then here we need to close on a positive point, by encouraging Catholics to reach out to their friends and show them what Catholicism actually is, and what it is not.  So for tomorrow’s blog post, I will share a positive example of how I was able to do just that in my own life, and perhaps provide some encouragement for you to try doing the same.  There is nothing like first-hand experience for bringing people together.

Illustration from Harper’s magazine of Catholic Bishops as crocodiles, 1876.

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The Servant of All, or of None: Why Kathleen Sebelius Must Go

This morning when the alarm clock radio went off, as is often the case the first thing I heard was not the classical music for which I listen to this particular radio station, but rather a summary of news headlines from NPR.  The second of these headlines included an audio clip from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who was defending herself against calls for her resignation as a result of the thus-far tortured attempts to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.  Rarely do I sit bolt upright in bed because of something I hear on the news, but in this case it would have been difficult to do otherwise.

“The majority of people calling for me to resign,” Secretary Sebelius commented at a press conference, “I would say are people who I don’t work for. And who do not want this program to work in the first place.”  You can watch Secretary Sebelius actually making this comment by following this link.

Sometimes one can almost audibly hear someone’s career hitting the skids, and this is one of those moments.

Over the course of her service in both elected and appointed government office, Secretary Sebelius has done many things which those of a different political persuasion from hers have taken issue with.  That of course is the nature of politics, and indeed of representative democracy.  She has also taken on a rather antipathetic view of her own Catholic faith, a view which she appears to value more than the fraternal correction she has received on numerous occasions from many of her fellow Catholics, including her own bishop.  One can debate whether and to what extent an individual’s religious beliefs become relevant to their place in the public square, or the obligation of public officials who are Catholics to adhere to the tenets of their faith.  I will leave that to those more adept than I at addressing such matters, and refer you for example to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia’s superbly-written book on this subject, “Render Unto Caesar”.

However in this case we are no longer dealing only with someone who has headed off in a policy direction which runs counter to and in fact openly attacks the institutions of her own faith, but someone who does not appear to understand the basic principles of civics, as practiced in the United States.  For as any reasonable American must acknowledge, regardless of their political affiliation, a public servant is the servant of all.  Secretary Sebelius is not simply the employee of the person who appointed her to the position which she presently holds, or of the political party which she happens to belong to, or of those who happen to agree with the policies she is attempting to implement.  She is, whether she likes it or not, here to serve all of us.

It cannot be that we simply accept or ignore the revelation that someone who was appointed to serve all of the people of this country equally has concluded that, in fact, she must only serve those whom she personally prefers.  This is not simply bad governance, it is the very definition of arrogance.  It betrays what is clearly a deeply-held, personal belief, spoken perhaps without thought as to its implications, but nevertheless revealing of the philosophical principles of the speaker,  that to be a public servant is to be selective in one’s servitude.

Our American system of government cannot function when our public servants are only capable of serving those whose views mirror their own.  So when a public servant of the people of the United States cannot come to grips with that fundamental concept, then that servant must either step down or be dismissed.  There are no two ways about it.

Whatever happens with respect to the implementation of Obamacare, clearly Secretary Sebelius has revealed by her own words that she is personally incapable of continuing to serve all of the American people effectively.  If she cannot serve all of us, then she should not be permitted to serve any of us.  And for her own sake, as a fellow Catholic, I hope that when she does leave, as she now must, she will take the time to reflect on what she has done during her time in office, not only with respect to the principles of civil governance, but particularly with regard to the Church to which she belongs.  Let us hope that her replacement, whoever that will be, will be more willing and able to serve the people of this country effectively and professionally.

HHS

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