Archive for April, 2012

Three weeks ago today I returned from visiting my mother in a hospice in northern Michigan. Two days after that my sister called me to say that my mom would not make it through the night. Just about every day since I have heard the same, but she continues to hang on by an ever-slimmer thread. I had planned on making the 10 hour drive last week, but then the nurses began a morphine drip for the pain and said that she would not regain consciousness. My sisters urged me not to come at that point.  And while it has been an excruciating wait here, my heart really goes out to my two sisters, who have been keeping vigil for weeks.

And then, two days ago, my bride received a phone call. Her mother, who was 56, had died in North Carolina. At this point no cause of death has been determined.

Obviously, this is a lot. I will not be posting here until things settle.

Some may find it bitter that so much death is visiting us in this, the Pascha time, when the Church celebrates Resurrection.

Not me; I find great comfort in the icon of the Resurrection, in the hope that one day Christ will reach out and free us all from the prison of Death, and bring us into the beauty of a resurrected, perfect Life.

Pray for all of us.

Update: I got the long awaited call from my sister yesterday, about an hour after I wrote this post: my mother died, peacefully and without struggle. Lord have mercy…

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Congressman Paul Ryan, who has long publicly admired Ayn Rand, is now attempting to distance  himself from her. In an interview in The National Review, published on Thursday, Ryan said “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.” He further described as “a myth” the notion that he is an Ayn Rand acolyte.

Where oh where did such a “myth” arise? Perhaps from statements the congressman has made in the past? Such as:

“I give out Atlas Shrugged as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it.”


“Ayn Rand, more than anybody else, did a fantastic job explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and that, to me, is what matters most.”


“The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.”

Or perhaps from his own recorded words:

At any rate, if his conversion from Rand to Thomas is sincere, I look forward to seeing this reflected in his politics. Perhaps he will revise his proposed budget, which slashes social programs while leaving military spending intact, and which lowers taxes on the wealthiest.

After all, it was St Thomas Aquinas who said   Man should not consider his material possession his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.

And:  Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals(Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”

The thought of Ayn Rand is the polar opposite of the thought of St Thomas and the Catholic Church. Her ethics, quite literally, are the ethics of Antichrist.  Ignoring for the moment Mr Ryan’s attempt to rewrite his well-documented history, if he is sincere in turning from Rand to Aquinas we can expect to see this reflected in his political and economic views. If it is not, we can safely assume that this is just the latest attempt by yet another right wing Catholic to misappropriate Catholic terminology, to fool the unwary, and to hijack Catholic social teaching.

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Life on Minimum Wage

At work yesterday I found, in at a townhouse complex, a pay stub that someone had slipped into the outgoing mail. It is not uncommon for people to do this when they find something with an address on it. It was from McDonald’s, and it belonged to a woman on my new route. I glanced at it. The woman had worked 61.14 hours. Her take home pay?  $392.10.

At first I thought this was a long week, but when I mentioned it to someone at work he said that it was most likely a biweekly paycheck for a part time worker. Doing the math (minimum wage in Ohio is $7.70 an hour) I realized that this was probably the case. Still, to work  for such a pittance seems like a huge injustice. Fast food workers work hard, harder than most wealthy people ever will. Their insurance plans, which they pay for, are a joke, with ridiculously low caps on payments. They get no paid sick leave or vacations. While sometimes one sees a sort of camaraderie in the work crews, it is not uncommon to see nasty bosses making already difficult lives miserable.

I am, as I said, new to the route. I don’t know the woman, don’t know if she is young or old, married or single, childless or a mother. But I do know that no one, in justice, should receive such low pay for such long and hard work.

And I felt a wave of guilt; I often complain about the difficulties of supporting a big family on my modest income, but really, I have it good beyond measure compared to someone eking out a living on minimum wage. This little glimpse into another’s life was humbling and made me thankful.

It also made me angry. I know the obstacles to organizing labor unions for fast food and other oppressed workers are huge; the law does not favor labor. But it is to be devoutly hoped that some workers will try, and that labor unions will see the organizing of the “poorest of the poor” workers as a priority.

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Noblesse Oblige

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This is the first of a series for a new feature on this blog, where I will present the iconography of gifted contemporary iconographers.

I have “known” Nikolai Tsai online for several years, beginning on an iconography discussion forum we both frequented. This was around ten years ago, when Nikolai was first starting to accept commissions from churches. By chance, one of his commissions was for St Mary Magdalene Orthodox Church in Fenton, Michigan, my home town.

Mr Tsai, whose given name is Brian, is a convert to the Orthodox Church. He has studied under master iconographers Dmitry Shkolnik, Xenia Pokrovsky, and Marek Czarnecki. He resides in San Francisco. An interview with Nikolai can be found here.

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From the 41st Jefferson Lecture of the National Edowment for the Humanities, delivered April 23 2012:

  “Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.”

Read the rest here.

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When I received the latest issue of The American Conservative the other day one article in particular caught my attention, an interview with Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry. It caught my eye because I had been friends with the congressman’s wife, Celeste, when I lived in Virginia. I had heard through the grapevine that she had married a man who had been elected to Congress, but had heard nothing since.

I had last seen her in 1994, when I first moved to Ohio and visited her in Steubenville, where she was living and working as a nanny to the children of Scott and Kimberly Hahn. After going out for lunch with her that was also the occasion of my only lengthy conversation with Dr Hahn. He is a likeable guy, and at that time he was sound on Catholic social teaching, which I had never heard him address publicly. I was disappointed to learn recently that his wife was deeply involved in the Republican Party in their county, and that they had supported Rick Santorum for president.

Anyway I read Rod Dreher’s interview with Congressman Fortenberry, which he of course titled “Crunchy Congressman”. Mr Dreher has been milking that term for ten years now, sounding, to switch metaphors, like a one-note Neil Young guitar solo, only without the imagination and passion that Mr Young brings to his craft.

But as I read the interview I was impressed; Mr Fortenberry seemed like the first Catholic politician I had ever seen who had more than a superficial acquaintance with the Church’s social teaching, and the only Republican one who used the word “subsidiarity” not as a cloak for individualistic market ideology but as it was meant to be used: to mean localism, smallness, and an ethos of freedom within a broader framework of  solidarity. He favored policies that encouraged small farms and ones that helped aspiring farmers to buy land and get started, and otherwise seemed to have a genuine vision of a well ordered society.

I was pretty inspired by his words, and found him on Facebook. I sent a message complimenting him on the interview and asking him about foreign policy and immigration, which Mr Dreher did not touch on and which are the two issues where a Republican Catholic is likely to allow nationalism to trump faith.

He didn’t respond.

I googled his name and found a site that chronicles the votes and positions of elected officials.

And was I disappointed.

He voted for the Ryan budget, which slashes social programs and leaves military spending untouched, and which cuts taxes for the wealthy while raising them for the poorest Americans.  He voted for the war in Iraq and for the Patriot Act. He voted for warrantless wiretapping and other post 9/11 assaults on our freedoms. He rated a perfect rating by an anti-immigration organization and voted for fences along the Mexican border. (To his credit, he also has a perfect antiabortion voting record).

In other words, however eloquent and visionary he sounded in the interview, when it came down to voting his record was pure Right Republican, and pure nationalist.

Why did this surprise me? I long ago concluded that Rod Dreher’s “crunchy” was a con, a superficial cover for a neoconservative core. So why would I expect anything more from someone he publicly praises?

Or perhaps in spite of his record Congressman Fortenberry is evolving, growing more into harmony with the teachings of the Church?

I certainly hope and pray this is the case.

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Twenty Years of Folly

“To survey the past 20 years from our present, much reduced vantage point is to be struck above all by the once cherished, now discarded illusions littering the landscape. Prominent among those shattered illusions are the following:

  1. The insistence that history has a discernible purpose, made manifest by the evolving American experiment that is destined to prevail universally
  2. The conviction that the United States is called upon to exercise “global leadership” and that our governing elites possess the capacity to do so effectively
  3. The assurance that U.S.-promoted globalization will produce unprecedented wealth while simultaneously contributing to global peace and harmony, with the American people thereby assured of both greater prosperity and greater security
  4. The notion that a self-regulated or minimally regulated market produces the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens
  5. The belief that America’s privileged place in the international order relieves the United States of any obligation to live within its means
  6. The expectation that in times of crisis, the American people and their leaders will selflessly unite, setting aside partisan differences to act in the common good
  7. The claim, for too long indulged by conservatives, that the Republican Party takes seriously the preservation of traditional values
  8. Perhaps above all, the belief that the United States, having mastered the art of war, can quickly and economically overcome any foe, high-tech precision weapons and superior professionalism offering a surefire recipe for victory.

Not one of these is true. No amount of recalibration or reformulation or trying harder next time will make any of them true. To pretend otherwise serves no purpose. To escape from our era of ideological fantasy requires acknowledging this reality—facing the dismal consequences that 20 years of American arrogance and misjudgment have yielded. Seldom has a nation relinquished a position of advantage as quickly and recklessly as has the United States in just the past two decades.”

More, from Andrew Bacevich, here.

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