Read For Yourself

Recently I was watching C-Span Book TV ‘s coverage of author Robert Richardson at the 2013 Key West Literary Seminar.  As I was suffering from a rather potent bout of insomnia, the thought of listening to some old hippies rattle on about how they do not like the mess they have made of our society seemed to be the best way to put me to sleep under the circumstances.  Much of Mr. Richardson’s presentation was what one would expect., in that  we were condemned to a random rattling off of quotations from other writers, with a single adjective attached to each indicating his approval.  This sort of presentation is of course designed not so much to enlighten, as to impress the audience with the amount of books the lecturer has read.

During his presentation, Mr. Richardson recounted the passage in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” in which one of the brothers justifies his quasi-atheistic views, doubtless as a foil for the author himself or at least some of his thought process, since if you have read other works by Dostoevsky you know that he was something of a mixed bag when it comes to his opinions on religion.  A story is recounted about an 8-year-old boy who is quite literally hounded to death, with a gruesome punishment for a minor misdeed, before the eyes of his own mother.  If God allows such things to happen, the story concludes, then the recounter of the tale was not interested in having anything to do with him.

That attitude, according to Mr. Richardson, aptly reflects his own views on the subject as well.  The rather obvious rejoinder to this of course, at least for the Christian, is that Mr. Richardson’s argument is something of a cop-out, since God Himself was brutally and unjustly killed before the eyes of His Mother on Calvary.  It also assumes that the concept of free will is something which must be imposed or lifted at will, as if God is playing a chess match with human playing pieces.  Be that as it may, such a simplistic and rather narcissistic understanding of the Divine is regrettably not uncommon among the so-called intelligentsia who dominate our universities, publishing houses, and media outlets.

For forty years or so we have witnessed the build-up of an intellectual establishment built not on universal truths, let alone intellect, but rather on relative opinions, and Mr. Richardson is merely one cog in that infernal machine.  We have seen the effect of the worship of Priapus instead of God, for example, in the enormous amount of sexually transmitted disease that runs rampant through our society which, as a very wise theology teacher of my acquaintance pointed out the other evening, no one seems to talk about.  The supposed freedom granted by the Sexual Revolution has in fact enslaved us to, among other things, the pharmaceutical industry.  This chasing after temporary personal pleasure in lieu of preparing for eternity, following millennia of human intellectual endeavors to instill virtues of self-control and self-sacrifice, has had a devastating impact on our world.

Yet there is something to be said for the example of those like Mr. Richardson, who stand at podiums and preach their gospels of nothingness, and that is the fact that they do actually read.  They may largely be reading a lot of garbage bound between two covers and presented as books, but nevertheless they do undertake the effort to continue to work on the exercise of their minds  through the exploration of writing.  Of course, part of the reason many otherwise educated younger people do not read today, is precisely because they had professors like Mr. Richardson in college.  If you are burdened with a teacher who turns you off to the world of literature by insisting that everything is about oppression and sex, there can be no better barrier to raise to the concept of reading as a form of ongoing education and the formation of ideas.

Fortunately, there are remedies to the situation.  I have always found that one of the best ways to critically evaluate a work of fiction, biography, and so on which you cannot bring yourself to agree with, is to always keep in mind the question of whether the author actually understands the truth he is rejecting.  I do not have to agree with a writer’s point of view in order to be able to find merit or even truth in his work.  This is not an easy task, of course, yet if you know what you believe, then you can be at the ready when you perceive that a scrivener or a professor is trying to convince you that they are right, and you are merely ignorant.  (How one establishes what is right and what is wrong when everything is supposedly relative is another matter entirely.)

By no means am I suggesting that you go off and read the collected works of Engels and Marx, unless of course you are a glutton for punishment, or for that matter wish to fully know thy enemy.  After all, without having at least some idea of what the devil looks like, when he tells you there is no such thing as personal accountability for example, you will be hard-pressed to recognize him when he presents himself in one of his countless guises.  Just as the lawyer in the courtroom needs to be able to anticipate his opponent’s argument in order to be able to successfully defeat it, it is insufficient to say that simply because part of what an author believes or concludes is incorrect, that it is therefore impossible to gain anything from his work.’

It is often unpleasant to read the work of those who are still fighting the culture wars that led our society into the morass in which it wallows in at present.  However to back away and give those digging us in, ever deeper, into such muck is not helpful either.  One may be able to refute Mr. Richardson – and indeed Dostoevsky – without having read any of their work, but it would be a difficult endeavor to sustain over a long period.

Thus while it is certainly inadvisable to take your views on the question of eternal life from those who write novels, or indeed biographies of existentialists, it is important to at least be somewhat familiar with such thinkers, however misguided they may be.  It is through a systematic emphasis on the dumbing down of Western society, paradoxically as access to higher education has never been more widespread, that we have found ourselves in a culture that is rather shallow, materialistic, and interested largely in the seeking of personal pleasure, much like the ancient pagan societies we emerged out of.  The fight to make us into a fat, lazy, and ignorant society which can be easily controlled and placated has very nearly been achieved.

In order to take back this battle then,  you cannot rely solely on your wits: you must work. And by work, I mean you must read.  Read all of the writers you love and admire, yes, but also take the time to read those whom you are suspicious of, and do so with a critical eye as to why you find them so untrustworthy.  It is entirely possible to examine what the world is trying to sell you as truth, without actually buying into its message in the process.  And unlike Mr. Richardson, I would posit that reading someone like Emerson does not require that you actually throw yourself head-first into Walden Pond.

3ages (800x600)
“The Three Ages of Man” by Giorgione (c. 1500-1501)
Pitti, Florence

When It’s Not Only A Game

The fact that it is now baseball season in the United States means little or nothing to me, however heretical that view is considered to be in this country.  To be fair, I do not worship at the altar of baseball any more than I do those of most other athletic endeavors. That being said, this is one of those rare occasions when you will be able to read a sports-related post from me, in response to a deplorable event which took place over the weekend.

I suspect most of my readers are unaware of the fact that the annual event known as “The Boat Race”, between students from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, took place this past Saturday.  Every year two teams of rowers set out to race each other along the Thames, in a competition that has been held in London since 1856.  It was an event I attended when I lived on the other side of the pond, since I had a number of friends who had rowed for Oxford, though truth be told I was not particularly interested in it apart from the social aspect.

On Saturday I happened to catch the race on television, which I watched more out of nostalgia than anything else.  It was a very close race indeed, for much of the course, when probably about 2/3 of the way through the race suddenly came to a halt.  Someone was swimming in The Thames, and came very close to one of the boats.  Had it not been for the swift action of the teams, he could have been injured, or killed.

It turns out that this individual was – not surprisingly – a leftist protester, who was decrying the elitism of the event by employing the sort of anti-social behavior which of late we have come to expect, and for some inexplicable reason to tolerate.  It is also not surprising that, like most of these sorts of protesters, it turns out this individual is something of a joke, having attended the prestigious and pricey London School of Economics, and is moreover an active member of the Royal Society of Arts.  My friend Tim Stanley, a Cambridge alumnus with whom I was furiously texting about the event as it unfolded, shared some of his thoughts about the matter on his blog post for The Telegraph.

As a Yankee rather than a Brit, and as a non-athlete, I cannot speak with authority as to what took place, even though it was pretty obvious that even when the race resumed, this disruption ruined the event and it ended terribly. However as a human being, I can certainly share a thought or two, and particularly as someone who in general has little or no interest in athletic competition whatsoever, yet recognizes its value.  No doubt some of my readers will find what follows to be judgemental, and if you are one of them then I welcome you to leave comments saying as much, so that we can discuss the matter further.

Putting aside for the moment the very serious, physical danger that this person put both himself and the crews on the river in as a result of his actions, in which he and others could have been killed or injured, his stated intent is irrelevant, and I will not consider it herein. If you wish to read why he claims he did what he did, you are welcome to read it elsewhere, and then dismiss it for the utter rubbish it is.

The real reason he did this, whatever protestations one might lodge to the contrary, was that this person wanted to engage in the very same selfishness which he paradoxically claims to be protesting against. If he found the event, its sponsors, and participants, to be elitist, what has he made himself by becoming a media personality and drawing attention to himself? For surely he is no longer a humble man of the people – or at least, the people who hold degrees from LSE and are members of exclusive clubs.

The ones I could not help feeling sorry in all of this were the athletes.  They had trained for this event for months leading up to the competition. They sacrificed sleep, rest, food that one would actually like to eat, and suffered all sorts of physical injuries and mental and emotional stress, in order to get ready for the race.  As someone who is decidedly not an athlete in any way, I cannot even begin to imagine the disappointment of how what had been a well-matched, exciting competition that had started out with a bang, ended in a whimper.

The point of participating in a team sport, of course, is that it is an exercise in not only trying to get your body as healthy as possible, but also to learn how to work with others – indeed, sometimes individuals very different from you – in order to achieve a common goal.  It is no accident that the lessons athletes have the opportunity to learn in being part of a team are helpful in all aspects of life. This includes venues such as one’s profession, representative government, community activities, and the like.

The idea of tempering individualism through teamwork, helping to work toward a collective goal, directly leads to the creation of civilization and culture. The individual and the team have to work in balance with one another, or everything falls apart. Too much individualism, and you get anarchy; too little, and you get communism. Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals, or modern suspension bridges may have had a single designer behind them, but they were not built by that one man acting independently, any more than Mozart could have performed all of the instruments in one of his symphonies simultaneously, or Steinbeck could have written, printed, and distributed all of his novels by himself.

This is not to say that the lone protester cannot be a voice for change or a symbol of what is good, in the face of unrelenting evil. One need only look at people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer or St. Maximilian Kolbe to see that this is the case. Yet here, all that the protester in question has done is to ruin something that was perfectly good: an athletic competition between two schools. No one was forcing him to watch it, or to purchase anything in order to be able to watch it. He could have peacefully sat and viewed the race on the river bank, on television, or ignored it altogether, as he wished. There was nothing compulsory about this event.

Instead, this person chose to act out of selfishness, to ruin a once-in-a-lifetime event for groups of young people who had no quarrel with him, and who were not doing anything evil. By acting as he did, this man proved himself to be, in truth, nothing more than a child; he is no different from one who kicks over another’s sand castle at the beach, just for the sake of drawing attention to himself, while simultaneously intentionally seeking to hurt the other. He is, unfortunately, all too representative of the society that produced him, and which continues to believe that behaving like an arse is somehow going to change the world, when in fact all it does is make those of us who do not behave in this way the more resolute not to follow his example, nor listen to his views.

So in the end, albeit paradoxically, one has to say it: good for you, Thames swimmer. You have no doubt helped the cause of law and order, conservatism, and disdain for so-called “progressive” causes more than any letter to the editor which you might have published in The Guardian, or some similar birdcage liner publication. For that, at least, we can be grateful to you, even if it is no comfort to the student athletes at Oxford and Cambridge who suffered as a result of your selfishness and immaturity.

Poster for the 1923 Boat Race by Charles Paine
London Transport Museum

Beating Them At Their Own Game

For many years much of the news out of Spain, at least as reported by the allegedly “mainstream” media, has been rather bad.  The most recent evidence of this was last summer, in the laughably awful media coverage of World Youth Day in Madrid.  Yet rather than throw up our hands and ask, “What can we do?”, a new story out today from Spain should give us not only cause to hope that all is not lost in that country, but also provide us with a good lesson on how to use new media to our advantage.

It was a real pleasure this morning to read that, for the second year in a row, city authorities in Madrid have denied a group of atheists, anarchists, and other leftists a permit to march in protest of the Church on Holy Thursday. In rendering their decision the authorities issued a press release which states, in part [translation mine]:

The date, time, and place chosen by the organizers, although in principle having a legitimate purpose, in reality is being sought for a demonstration on a day of special significance for Catholics, in the same place and time when many religious ceremonies will be held, and which indicates, at the very least, a clear intent of provocation.

For those of my readers who are not Catholic, or who have not been in Spain during Holy Week, a little explanation is in order. It is a very ancient tradition in Spain for the major towns and cities to hold religious processions during Holy Week, i.e. the period from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. This is the holiest time of the year for Christians, as we remember the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However these processions are not simply parades, like one might have for a sporting event or secular holiday. Most of these very special processions feature gigantic parade floats decorated with hundreds of flowers and candles, and bearing life-sized crucifixes, tableaux showing scenes from the Bible, or figures of the Virgin Mary and other Christian saints. The processional groups accompanying these floats, which are usually the property of individual churches across each city, are huge, and include such people as clerics, musicians, local dignitaries, and so on. For example, Spanish actor Antonio Banderas has, for many years, participated in the Holy Week processions in his home city of Málaga, in southern Spain. Thousands of people attend these processions, or watch them on television, and those on Holy Thursday, when Catholics commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist, take place on one of the most important days of this very important week.

As the authorities correctly held, the only reason why a group of leftists would want to hold an anti-Catholic protest march in downtown Madrid on Holy Thursday, in the middle of the sort of atmosphere I have just described, would be to try to pick a fight with those participating in or watching the religious processions. I am obviously very pleased that the local government had the sense to see sense on this point. However it should come as no surprise to anyone that the “mainstream” media in Spain has been wringing its hands and whinging about this decision all morning.

In tone, the reporting on this has been similar to Pope Benedict’s recent visits to Spain, when the media deliberately ignored or under-reported on the tremendous numbers of people who came to cheer the head of the Catholic Church. In 2010 such gatherings happened in Santiago de Compostela, home of one of the most important historical religious sites in Christendom, as might have been expected. However it happened again in ultra-hip Barcelona, which has a long history of anti-clericism, when the Pope came to dedicate the famous Sagrada Familia basilica, and it happened again the following year in the supposedly swinging capital of Madrid during World Youth Day. The result was reporting that so downplayed the numbers supporting the Pope, and so played up the tiny number of those protesting his visit, that the media frankly covered themselves in shame by being unable to hide their bias against Catholicism.

Of course, Catholics in Spain are not alone in experiencing this kind of biased reporting: it happens to any group which large news organizations do not like. For example, apparently the presence of around half a million people at the March for Life in Washington earlier this year, peacefully protesting against legalized infanticide, did not deserve mainstream media coverage. We can complain about it, as I certainly did, but the reality is that this type of reporting is not going to change, at least not anytime soon. So how we do we beat them at their own game?

The answer, it seems to me, is in fact what you are doing right now: making use of new media. If the role of the so-called mainstream media is to question authority, then I would suggest that one important role for new media content providers is to question the mainstream media. Where needed, it is now possible to produce media content that dismisses mainstream media coverage of events and issues that matter to us, as being biased and fundamentally untrustworthy.  Through the use of blogging for example, in both macro and micro format, anyone can be a reporter or commentator.

Yet that reporting via new media platforms will not have any real impact if those who read it do not take on the task of sharing that content with others. Therefore if you care about an issue, and feel as though the mainstream media is misreporting, burying, or otherwise ignoring that issue, even if you yourself are not a new media content producer, you have an important role to play. By sharing that content with others, you can help to get the word out that, among other things, maybe The New York Times or The BBC is not the best place to get your news on the Catholic Church.

Combining the tools available to us through new media with the wider outreach possible through social media can provide greater encouragement to those who find themselves questioning news reporting on issues that matter to them. And as bizarre as it might seem to state, the type of biased reporting which we are questioning – or at least I am – in fact provides a wonderful opportunity to draw attention to that bias. We live in an age where we are no longer bound to accept, due to a lack of alternatives and as a kind of secular gospel, what we are told to think about an event, or a subject, or a policy, by the mainstream media outlets. Therefore, let us use their content, as untrustworthy as it often is, to create our own.

Part of a Holy Week procession passing through central Madrid