Florence To Tourists: Become A Criminal, Will Train

In the beauty contest of stupid ideas, this one has to be a contender for Miss Universe.

The Opera Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, which oversees a number of major tourist attractions in the Tuscan capital, has launched an app called Autography, which allows visitors to leave virtual graffiti on some of the city’s most iconic monuments. The idea came about as a way to combat real-life graffiti, which the non-profit has to spend considerable time and money scrubbing clean. Users will be able to scribble their names, messages, and so on onto virtual images of Florence’s Cathedral, Baptistery, and other buildings using a program called Autography, which promises to store their scrawls in a permanent database that will be accessible to other visitors. The graffiti, it is noted, will be screened – i.e. curated – for anything in the way of “insults, unauthorized material or judged inappropriate.”

The reader will need to bear with me, because this is a truly radical concept, but surely such graffiti is, by its very nature, insulting, unauthorized, and inappropriate, regardless of its content.

Here in the Nation’s Capital, we don’t seem to suffer from the same degree of loutishness in our public spaces, at least not yet. The notion that one would go down to the Jefferson Memorial during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and find all of the pillars tagged, is practically unimaginable. When such acts do occur, they are appropriately dealt with.

Yet if you have visited Europe in recent years, it seems as though the battle between weak authorities and brazen criminals was conceded to the latter long ago. Practically every church door is covered with graffiti, and shop owners now go to the trouble of paying miscreants to come and spray-paint their roll-down doors, so as to try to reduce the level of cleanup they will have to do later. It reminds me of how the later, more decadent Roman emperors would bribe barbarian tribes, in order to keep them from sacking Rome.

Part of the ill-informed philosophy behind efforts such as Autography, of course, stems from the artistic establishment’s lionization of guerilla graffiti artists such as Bansky, whose appeal I have never understood. Creating art by spray-painting a photoshopped image from a template onto public or private property is hardly the work of genius. The tolerance or in some cases active encouragement of this practice has led to a kind of mutually assured destruction by government and the arts, in which common decency, historic preservation, and the rule of law are forced to take a back seat to expressions of personal selfishness.

Will the Opera’s plan work? Logic would dictate that those who are most of a mind to place graffiti on a cathedral bell tower are highly unlikely to say to themselves and their cohort, “Hey, let’s go check out that new app where we can pretend to draw our names on a wall.” Moreover, the risk here is that those who would never normally engage in such behavior will now try it, and find the experience so intoxicating that they will subsequently want to try it out in real life. Virtual reality, after all, is no substitute for experience.

Most of us do not view defacing public or private property as a laudable activity. It is a behavior which demonstrates a fundamental lack of charity toward others, which is particularly ironic in a house of Christian worship. For while ultimately the fault for this galactically stupid idea lies with the Opera, the Archdiocese of Florence should be of ashamed of itself for even consenting to be a part of such an ill-conceived plan, in which the walls of its sacred buildings are to become the proving ground for future antisocial nonsense.


Graffiti inside the lantern of the Duomo, Florence


A Grateful Appreciation of Professor Charles E. Rice

R.I.P. Professor Charles E. Rice (1921 - 2015)

R.I.P. Professor Charles E. Rice
(1921 – 2015)

On February 26th, Professor Charles E. Rice of the University of Notre Dame Law School died at the age of 83. He was a legend among Notre Dame students, and well-known among both jurists and Catholic thinkers for his writing, his advocacy on behalf of human life, and his sharp, incisive sense of humor.  You can read more about his achievements in this press release from Notre Dame, but I wanted to share some of my own thoughts and experiences of the man, as has my fellow Domer Diana von Glahn over on Patheos.

I was assigned to Professor Rice for Torts I my first semester of law school at Notre Dame. Being somewhat stubborn, I did not appreciate his teaching style, at first. Why was he so brusque? Why did he insist on our memorizing his outlines and repeating the exact terms that he would use in class? We weren’t primary school students learning our multiplication tables! To put it mildly, he got on my nerves.

When  it came time to take the final for Torts I, I did not write down the answers the way Professor Rice had wanted us to. The inevitable then happened. He called me into his office, a few days before we went home for Christmas break, and said “Not only did you fail…you failed SPECTACULARLY. No one has EVER failed my exam as low as you have.”

He pointed out that he could make me repeat the course, or he could let me take the exam again, even though I wouldn’t get any quality points for it. I agreed to the latter, and he asked how long I would need to prepare for the exam. I told him a week. On the day, I retook the exam, and got an “A”.

Now, most people would have left well enough alone, at this point, having ruined their Quality Point Index. They would have switched into another section for Torts II in the Spring. However, I am not like most people.

So the first day of Spring Semester, Professor Rice walked into the classroom, and saw me sitting there. On the way out afterwards, he asked why I didn’t seek to transfer into another section, given my experience in Torts I. I told him I was happy to take the second half of Torts with him, since he was a good teacher, although I still disagreed with his teaching method. He seemed surprised, but I stayed.

You can guess what happened: I failed the final again.

We sat in his office that May and after telling me, “You’re a stubborn SOB”, Professor Rice asked how I wanted to handle the latest “F”. A week later, having memorized all the notes like everyone else had, I took the exam again. This time I believe I got either an A- or B+. Again, the issue wasn’t that I was incapable of understanding the material, but rather my refusal to give into the practice of rote memorization as being dispositive of one’s ability to practice law.

In time however, I came to realize that Professor Rice was right to teach the 1st year students the way he did. Most students who are not going to cut it as lawyers drop out after the 1st semester, and certainly by the end of 1st year. The amount of reading, memorization, and regurgitation that goes on is enormous. Frankly, as harsh as it is, if you cannot make it through that part of law school, then you should be doing something else.

After surviving first year, Professor Rice became my faculty advisor, my mentor, and my friend. I studied Jurisprudence with him my 3rd year, and also did a directed readings thesis with him. Sometimes I would drop by his office just to hang out and watch him smoke his pipe, while we would talk about things that mattered to both of us – like good books, weird court decisions, interesting saints and popes, and so on.

Later, Professor Rice wrote my recommendation for my Master’s program after law school, as well as for my first job out of graduate school. He was a character reference for my bar admission, as well as for my current job. When I moved back to DC after several years away, and had to build a network of contacts all over again, he introduced me to a friend of his who has over the years become one of the truest friends I’ve made in this town. In fact, said gentleman was the one who contacted me on Wednesday to let me know that Professor Rice had died.

I never saw Professor Rice in person again after I left South Bend, We stayed in touch via email, postcards, Christmas cards, and even the occasional phone call. Sometimes, he would drop me a note after reading one of my blog posts to tell me I’d done a good job, which would make my day. Whenever I would see him on television or in print, I would proudly point him out and tell people who he was, if they didn’t already know.

By no means was I Professor Rice’s prize student. However I think he took a shine to me because I was willing to be different, and to do what I believed needed to be done, even if it meant not being like or being liked by everyone else.  That was something which he himself had to deal with at times in his own career, though obviously on a far more profound scale than my puny efforts to date. Yet just to be around him, to engage him in conversation, and to be encouraged by him, was to be persuaded that all is not lost – at least, not yet.

More than what he taught me in lecture halls or seminars or office hours, what I learned from Professor Rice over the years during which I have been privileged to know him is that being a Christian man in an anti-Christian age is not going to be easy. And you know what – who cares? We should go do it anyway.

God bless you, Charlie, and thanks, always.

Crazy in Divorce: Why A Ruined Marriage Is No Fun

Does the following headline disturb you?

Single sensation: A breakup with Jay Z could push Beyoncé’s career to even greater heights
If it comes down to a split, being a cool, fierce single mom could make the singer more popular than ever

In breathless tones the accompanying article, published today, provides reasons why the possible divorce of two very famous entertainers might turn out to be a sound professional move for both parties.  Against my better judgment in directing you to read it, I’d like to take a moment to point out why you should find such an argument to be insane.

To begin with, the piece tells us that if her marriage breaks up, Beyoncé will be able to spend time doing exciting, glamorous things, such as associate with other celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.  [N.B. I should point out that this is something which she already does anyway, but there you are.]  As a “fierce” and “cool” single mother, the article speculates that she would only gain more fans than she already possesses.  To some extent the author is probably correct, albeit callously so.

The report goes on to reassure the reader that financially, should the couple divorce, “Bey” will recover quickly, since she achieved her fame and fortune independently of her husband.  A “crisis coach” quoted in the piece advises that, “if more cheating rumors come out, and she looks like she is standing by her man, that might hurt her more, professionally, than leaving him.” If indeed infidelity is to blame here, cheating on one’s spouse could also prove to be possible future entertainment material for both performers, the article concludes, telling us that Jay-Z “for his part, can cleverly profit off of this breakup by teasing the reasons in song lyrics.”

I do not know, or frankly care, enough about either Beyoncé’s or Jay-Z’s personal life to weigh in on what may or may not have happened to their marriage.  I do, however, have a word or two to say about the rather bizarre, underlying premise of this news item, which is that divorce can be viewed as fun and profitable for everyone involved, if examined through the funhouse mirror distortions of our present, celebrity-obsessed culture.  This is madness.

For starters, none of the people I know who have had to go through a divorce found the experience to have been one which they would wish upon someone else, no matter how “amicable” the proceedings.  Divorce is, in fact, the exact opposite of being amicable.  It is a formalized recognition of at least some degree of permanent enmity, which prevents the parties from staying together.

When they seek a divorce, instead of simply choosing to live apart from each other, a couple is asking for formal recognition by society that they have profound, insurmountable differences, which must result in the dissolution of their marriage.  Through our system of laws, we have created a technical process by which this result can be achieved.  Yet whatever may go on in public, and no matter how civilized the proceedings, we do not know the range of emotions and problems which those contemplating or actually going through with a divorce may be experiencing, that may affect them for the rest of their lives.

It’s true that in some cases, divorce may be the only solution to an utterly destroyed marriage.  However, we need to realize the fundamental fact that when a divorce takes place, a family unit breaks down.  Our society is built on the bedrock of family life which, when it crumbles, causes the entire social structure built upon it to be weakened.  To give the impression that divorce can be fun and profitable therefore, is not only to belittle the sorrows of those who have gone through it, but to further chip away at what is supposed to keep us from descending into social chaos.

Marriages fall into ruin quite often these days; for some, it has become little more than an expensive excuse for throwing a costume party every few years, as the mood strikes.  Better journalism, and indeed better citizenship, demands that we stop treating both marriage and divorce so lightly.  Divorce is not, nor should it be, a cause for celebration and excitement, no matter whose divorce we are talking about.

Detail of "Capriccio with Roman Ruins" by Francesco Guardi (c. 1760-1770) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail of “Capriccio with Roman Ruins” by Francesco Guardi (c. 1760-1770)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London