Encounters with the Archdruid

encounters with the archdruidEncounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee

For anyone engaged in the environmental movement David Brower does—or should—loom large. The first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Brower turned it into a political powerhouse. He was responsible for stopping dams in the Grand Canyon, in establishing nine national parks and seashores, and passing the Wilderness Act. More than that, he fought for a vision that is still debated, a vision of wilderness, of places that are untouched (as much as possible) by human intervention. He wanted to protect nature for its own sake.

Brower is the Archdruid of the title in McAphee’s book, from a developer’s sarcastic comment that he calls all preservationists druids. The book follows Brower and others on three expeditions—a mountain hike, an island off the Georgia coast, and down the Colorado—with people with wildly differing views. One a geologist for a mining company who thinks the only way possible for humanity is to continue to use minerals, especially copper, in great quantities and mine wherever we can, another a developer who has been pioneering beauty and nature in development and wants to build on an almost entirely uninhabited barrier island, the last the person who would be closest to Brower’s archnemesis, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, who led almost every one of the dams that Brower opposed.

I don’t know exactly what I expected with this book, but it wasn’t this exactly. I suppose I expected more nature writing, and less of the debates I remember from school on conservation vs. preservation. Many of the debates did seem a bit rote, with people—Brower and his foils in each section—falling back on sound bites and the same arguments many have heard before. Often, surprisingly, the developers are given more free rein to talk in the book than Brower, with him seeming to be assured in his path and offering only that he resists their arguments, and their view of humanity and what we need.

That being said, I still found the book fascinating. McPhee lets the subjects, and the natural world, speak for themselves, and doesn’t vilify the developers on the other side, so to speak. And it’s a wonderful history of environmentalism in the country, one that I would strongly recommend to anyone engaged in these debates today. As the Brower argues preservation with those who say that a bit of development won’t hurt, that we can build houses but keep most of nature, build a small mine and be responsible with the tailings, flood only a small percentage of the Grand Canyon, it was hard not to think of how much more we’ve learned about ecosystems, how important it is to have large tracts undisturbed, how even a responsible developer will by necessity kick out parts of nature we don’t even know we need. 

I also found that I greatly appreciated Brower’s arguments for preservation: That it’s what we should do. That we need wild places. That we need beautiful places. That we don’t need to build a dam. That our short-term gains are destroying things that took millenia to come into being. This was a criticism of

sierra club ad

A Sierra Club ad from Browers Time. 

Brower during his time. He pioneered using emotional ads to rile up environmentalists to save the west, even going so far with some to see Sierra Club lose its tax exempt status. (And while they lost that status, and were accused of being unreasonable and unfair and pushing away moderates, they went from 2000 members to 77000- nearly 2 million today- and became the leading environmental organization. Consider that the next time you read an article about a lefty group being uncivil or worried about losing moderates.)

 

In a day and age where we assign a cost and a benefit analysis to everything, where everything is talked about in investment, where even a question about whether or not to raise the sea levels enough that entire countries may disappear is caught up in the short-term price, reading a full-throated defense of nature for nature, a steadfast belief in intrinsic value, and a rejection of our utilitarian way of thinking refreshing. We could use far more David Browers today.

“Polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”
— David Brower

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Legend of Sleepy Hollow

legend of sleepy hollowLegend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories, Washington Irving

There is a part in the Sketch Book, at the end of a short story, “A Christmas Dinner”, where Irving reflects that these small reflections may not have enough to offer, and may not be serious enough.  They are not, after all, full of deep philosophy or new knowledge or serious thoughts and prescriptions for the way we live. He answers his imagined critics, “[I]n writing to amuse, if I fail the only evil can be in my own disappointment. If, however, I can by any lucky chance, in these days of evil, rub out one wrinkle from the brow of care, or beguile the heavy heart of one moment of sorrow; if I can now and then penetrate through the gathering film of misanthropy, prompt a benevolent view of human nature, and make my reader more in good humor with his fellow beings and himself sure, surely, I shall not then have written entirely in vain.” And, all I could think was, “God bless you, Washington Irving.” Friends, after reading Gulliver’s Travels and reports on climate change, after listening to current event podcasts and attending lobby events for immigrants and refugees, this book was exactly what I needed.

Despite the titular story, probably the most famous of Irving’s, this is much more Sketch Book than Sleepy Hollow. There are a handful of tall tales, including “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Specter Bridegroom”, but the others portions of the book are almost entirely Irving’s thoughts on regular events, slices of life he’s seen, personal stories he heard in the country, thoughts on the tourist sites of England, and other sketches as they’ve come to him. They are, by and large, enjoyable, and it would be difficult to find an author with an outlook more opposed to that of Swift. Irving relays syrupy tales of filial piety and parental love he hears in the country with barely a question of veracity. In his report of touring Stratford on Avon, as well as other parts of London, he responds to a difficult-to-believe tale by saying, “I am always of easy faith in such matters, and am ever willing to be deceived where the deceit is pleasant and costs nothing. I am therefore a ready believer in relics, legends and local anecdotes…and would advise all travelers who travel for their gratification to be the same.” It is obvious that Irving did not have even a whiff of cynicism about him, and would not have known what to do with such a feeling if he encountered it. Probably feel only pity for the person and then go on his merry way.

While much of Sketch Book is only tall tales Irving has written, or his enjoyable thoughts as he travels, there are a few points of seriousness, despite Irving’s protestations to the contrary. He has two essays on Native Americans, one talking about some of the heroes among the Native tribes, another reflecting on the plight of the Native Americans and the wrongs that have been done them. In discussing some of the heroes, heroes who fought the white colonists, Irving specifically mentions that many would prefer to think that these heroics, that bravery, family, and other such characteristics don’t exist among the tribe to better justify our mistreatment, but can any of us really say that this is the truth? Or that any of the settlers wouldn’t react the same say if someone came to their home? These, too, are not cynical, but rather lovingly written essays and entreaties to one’s better nature. And they serve as a reminder that in times of social sin, those who can accept the status quo—or even engage in the evil around us—would have everyone believe that ‘everyone’ feels the same, that respecting the rights of others or the existence of other races was never even an option, never discussed. But that is not the case. There are always those calling for the right thing to be done, in any age, and here is a record that even in the 1800s there were people, people who were hardly radicals, calling for respect for the Native American tribes.

Naturally, given my other reading materials, this is the sort of essay I tended to zero in on and meditate on, that most stuck with me for later. But while these essays were welcome and moving additions, by far the greater part of the book are the simpler sketches, the celebrations of ordinary life, of small acts of kindness and generosity, of the minor joys one can receive. It was a thoroughly enjoyable book, and even in its more serious sections radiated a benevolent view of human nature, a hope to appeal to our better natures, and a desire to “penetrate through the gathering film of nature.” I think we could all do with reading this book right now.

The Sixth Extinction

the-sixth-extinctionThe Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert

Based on all that we’ve been able to determine, the universe likes things to be fairly stable. There’s the occasional dramatic explosion from a supernova or galactic collision, but the are exceedingly rare, with galaxies and stars and solar systems and comets drifting around for billions or years more or less unchanged. While on a much faster time scale, life on Earth is also predicated on stability and predictability. Each organism on Earth more or less knows that challenges they’ll face from day to day—how they need to eat, what will be trying to eat them, what the air they breathe is like, etc. Every now and then a random genetic mutation turns up a better way to do things, or an earthquake separates two sides of a pond, and we eventually get a new species out of it. Even more rarely, a struggling species can’t compete with the new one, or their smaller pond, and a species winks out of existence. But this is rare, and mostly, there is a balance. But every now and then, something happens. A wobble brings us further from the sun or the main continent drifts too far south and the temperature change wipes out much of nascent life. A new group of organisms changes the chemical composition of the air and makes it toxic. A miles-wide asteroid hits the planet. And in that moment, everything changes. Thousands of species, genera, and whole families disappear, and with them entire ecosystems that seemed they would be there forever.

There have been five such major extinctions in the past. Under normal circumstances, the background extinction rate is roughly one extinction per million species years. So, for every million species, around 1 would go extinct each year. Families go extinct even more rarely. But under a major extinction event, over a period of thousands of years we’ll lose 70% or more of species, and up to 30% of families. By many measures, we are in another major extinction event right now, one that we ourselves are causing.

The reasons for the sixth extinction, which Elizabeth Kolbert outlines in painstaking, highly readable, and incredibly despairing detail, are many. Part of it is how easily we transport new fungus and bacteria from one place to the next. The fungus killing off bats through white-nose syndrome was most likely imported to the US from Europe. It’s wiped out up to 90% of the bat colonies in some areas and is threatening more than one previously common species with extinction.  Part of it is what we do on purpose—there is debate, but it seems likely we at the least contributed to the megafauna extinction thousands of years ago. Part of the extinction is habitat destruction. And some is the massive amount of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Climate change is a threat—and the likely cause of at least two previous major extinctions, when the climate changed more slowly than it is today—as is simply the increase in carbon and ocean acidification. It seems likely that at the rate the carbon is increasing in the ocean, coral simply won’t be able to form, well, coral. Even if the temperature doesn’t go up at all from where it is now.

This book wonderfully lays out a history of taxonomy, of the study of extinctions and evolution, changing views and knowledge of mass extinctions, and what we are seeing today. Each day we see evidence of the sixth extinction all around us, in animals and plants we no longer see out our window or find when fishing or hunting, and in the endless headlines of threats to different plants and animals. And yet seeing it all laid out so clearly is harrowing. Kolbert ends with a call to action, the last chapter is titled “The Thing with Feathers.” She clearly has to write this; this book is meant to be more than a witness and a eulogy to the world around us. And yet, even as an activist, it is increasingly difficult not to see how much climate change and species loss has already happened, and how much is still baked into the cake, so to see. It is frightening for me to contemplate what the future looks like for my children. And so difficult not to go through my days crying when I realize it is highlight likely that the coral reefs will be gone within my life time.

And yet I would still say to read this book. Kolbert has done a service to the world in writing it and creating a document that even a lay person can understand. Read the book and take action. Let us limit the destruction as much as we can. The sticker on my laptop says, “We need everyone everywhere doing everything all the time as quickly as possible.” Take it to heart; it’s the only way to save a recognizable world for our children.

The Benedict Option

benedict optionThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher

 

How can one be a faithful Christian in a world that is hostile to Christianity? That is the premise of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, a premise which has a pretty huge assumption baked into it, as you may notice. Dreher’s answer is to withdraw into our own small faith communities, following the example of St. Benedict and the Benedictine Monasteries. He suggests we support Christian* businesses, pull our kids out of public schools immediately, and create our own culture where we’ll be as cut off as possible from the impacts of the world. He think we need to brace ourselves for further attacks on Christianity*, and see Christians* continue to have to choose between being good Americans and good Christians*, and the continuing decline. The only way to survive, according to Dreher, is to withdraw into our Benedict Communities, a sanctuary, so to speak, to protect our endangered Christianity*.

Let me say upfront that I did not dislike this book as much as I expected to! The general concept of small faith communities is one that I am wholeheartedly in support of, and I think people trying to be good, to be faithful, and to do the right thing do need to support one another. I think that our current culture looks down on community and tends to discard anything that inconveniences us, and this is a problem. And I’m sympathetic to the challenges of raising children in a culture that seems to criticize my own values. I’m a parent, and I’m trying to raise my kids Catholic, raise them to be kind and giving to others, to realize they can’t have everything because its wasteful, to not be violent, and so on and so forth. And I was raised that way as well, and it was difficult! The outside culture tries to get in, and it can’t be avoided altogether. (Mom, Dad, I’m sorry for all of the times that we snuck out to go to Dougie Olson’s place to play Mortal Kombat.) (Also, I’m still not sorry for all the times I watched MTV. I maintain that that ban was unnecessary.) In my own house, we have constant parenting discussions about how much to let the kids pretend to shoot each other, what video games and shows to watch, and on a grown up level what it’s okay for us to invest in, and how much its okay to invest instead of donate.

So I can understand where Dreher is coming from. And I am a fan of the concept of small faith communities, and living intentionally.  Building stronger lay communities is incredibly valuable and important, both to strengthen the Church and for individuals looking for spirituality, friendship, and living out their values. All that said, though, everything about the way Rod Dreher seems to approach this is off. Let us state from the beginning that Christianity, and even Christianity*, is not under threat here in the United States. No one is going to be hauled off to jail for being Christian, there are no pogroms, no one is being fed to the lions. This is not the time of the martyrs (a time that is likely overstated anyway.) There are pressures against Christianity in our society, but threats against Christians—at least in the United States—are far overstated by the Drehers and Chaputs and Grahams of the world.

Then, again, a common theme among the Drehers of the world is that there is really only the one way that Christianity* is under threat, and that’s from the legality of gay marriage. Oh, sure, he makes a couple feints towards the importance of helping people, and of standing up to racism, but these are clearly thrown in. Again and again the horrors of legalizing gay marriage, of teaching respect for transgender individuals, and otherwise going against natural law are held up as the way Christians* will be wiped out.

I don’t understand this. At all. No one is making other people get gay married. And for all the fear that is brought up about this, no one will ever say the Church has to recognize gay marriage. Right now, a religious leader can refuse to officiate the marriage of anyone for any reason—notice how divorce has been legal for a very, very, very long time, but the Catholic Church still won’t remarry someone who’s legally been divorced? There are the constant fears of how religious liberty is being attacked because there may be laws saying that business owners have to serve someone with different religious beliefs, which are being fought over right now, true. But other than that changes to our beliefs, and changes to Church teaching on sexual issues, are for the most part not being forced on us.

And even if the sexual mores of our society have diverged from Catholic teaching (which happened a while ago, really), is this the greatest threat to Christianity? They have often diverged to a certain extent, at least in practice, but we go forward saying what the ideal is and what the Church teaches, and hope that at least the people in the pews will get it right. The Church has survived several societal shifts, major cultural changes, and massive amounts of corruption within our ranks (see, for instance, everything about the Renaissance, Inquisition, etc.).

Meanwhile, nationalism is on the rise, with increased antisemitism and racism. These are sins we have fought before, but there is ample evidence they are infecting our Church, as well as other Christian communities.  And worse, there is a seeming fear of addressing racism within our Church and an absence of clergy in the fight in a way that other social issues do not suffer from. From a religious liberty perspective, there were several bills introduced over the past few years in different states, and even in the US Congress, that would have made it illegal for church workers to assist undocumented migrants in need. To its great credit, the Church has been much stronger in standing up for migrants and refugees, but it was startling to see the conservative voices calling for the religious liberty to ignore this direct affront to our Church’s mission.

A capitalist, individualist society that tells us not to help people we see in need is a danger to our Christian identity. When businesses are penalized for paying workers a living wage, how can a committed Christian treat their workers fairly? Society based on convenience, rather that responsibilities and togetherness, is a great threat to the Church (probably one of the biggest reason people don’t show up in the pews.)  Society that is soaked in violence is a threat to the Church. There are many challenges we face.

And many small groups that have risen to address them! I was surprised that “third orders” didn’t come up at all in the book, basically lay people who have still taken vows and agreed to live by a religious orders rules, since they seem ready made for this discussion. The largest of the Third Orders currently the Lay Franciscans, who are dedicated to social justice principles. There are also lay Benedictines, though, and they don’t even get a mention. I’d think he’d want to give them a boost. Catholic worker houses seem to be relevant to this discussion, but I imagine they don’t conform to his idea of Christianity*. Heck, Amish communities seem to be dedicated on pulling away from society that would damage their religion. This idea of pulling away and creating your own faith community isn’t unique, and it’s a glaring absence that Dreher doesn’t discuss them.

One a broader note, though, pulling away entirely—and I should mention that the Catholic groups above still work within society constantly, they aren’t isolated—is antithetical to what it means to be Christian. Even if I agreed with Dreher on the worst threats facing Christianity* today; even if I agreed that we were facing an existential threat; I still wouldn’t be able to condone his suggestions. Because the fact is that we are called to be part of the world, to minister, to evangelize. And most of all, throughout Catholic teaching, we are taught that we are an Advent people. We are people of hope. We are not allowed to withdraw, to only tend to ourselves, to despair of society. We must live in the world and be a public witness, and do what we can to call others to us. And doing this while holding true to our teachings is a challenge, but it is ours to live. It does not matter the difficulties we may face, we are not called to despair and withdrawal, we are called to be Salt and Light.

*Relevant only for his particular brand of socially conservative Christianity.

Twitter and Tear Gas

twitter and tear gasTwitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protests, Zeynep Tufecki

Protest is the new brunch, here in Washington, DC. There’s plenty to protest, after all, and it’s easy to find one even for someone who wasn’t that involved before January 20, 2017.  A list of public events in Washington, DC will easily turn up half a dozen lunch time or after work protests for this week alone. The question that doesn’t always get answered, though, is what comes next.

For any engaged activists, Zeynep Tufecki’s book should be required reading. A Turkish national and long time activist and scholar–she’s been at encuentros with the Zapatistas and was part of the Battle of Seattle–Tufekci is broadly supportive of  left wing protests and uprisings, but wary of the new tools that we’re using. She celebrates how many people can be turned out for a march, or to show up in Gezi Park or Tahrir Square, or how activists can find each other, but is painfully aware of the limitations and new challenges these tools provide.

The primary limitation, as Tufecki, points out, is that 1) when activism is easier, it has less meaning–those of us who are activists know this already. A form e-mail has very little weight, since all politicians know it took two seconds to send. A call is better. A personal meeting is best. We’re seeing now an ease to turning out hundreds of people at a time that lessens the impact. 2) The work that went into organizing protests previously, the dozens of meetings, the hours of planning, the discussions, the time spent together, was valuable in and of itself in terms of building trust and building leaders. When we lose that, it makes it harder to move beyond the protest part of the movement.

Tufecki’s analogy here is how modern mountaineering equipment and oxygen tanks make it easier for a novice to climb Mt. Everest. More people than ever before can climb up the mountain, and it maintains impressive, even if less impressive than it was 70 years ago. But when a novice climbs, they’re less likely to be able to adapt or succeed if the run into trouble, even minor trouble that a more experienced mountain climber could overcome. Because someone with more experience and practice has developed the muscles and knowledge they need. Similarly, when a protest encounters a challenge or needs to enter its next phase, those organizing muscles are useful to adapt and move forward.

Twitter and Tear Gas is an incredibly insightful, and well researched, document of the new challenges that activists truly interested in change need to overcome. Tufecki celebrates some of the changes, including how much easier it is for activists to find each other, and the way that social media was able to break through some of the censorship that existed in middle Eastern and other countries. She’s very clear on the issues, though. One is that protest has an attraction in and of itself that brings people together, but it has limitations in moving things forward. There can only be sustained change if there is a goal and people know how they are going to achieve those goals. Instead, protests are attracting attendees who want change but don’t think that voting or participating in institutional options will ever change anything, a common thread among attendees at Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square, making it difficult to do anything besides protest. Additionally, protests that have sprung up suddenly with no central leadership or plan, which she refers to as “adhocracies” have the challenge of moving forward. She details how when the Turkish government wanted to negotiate with protestors at Gezi Park the movement couldn’t identify anyone, leading the Turkish government to invite people–meaning the leaders were decided by the government, not the movement.

She is also very clear on the power of protests. They can bring additional attention to an issue, as happened in the Arab Spring. They can also introduce activists to one another. She cites a fascinating study showing that after the initial Tea Party protests that happened around the United States, locations that had heavy rain–which depressed protest attendance–saw less subsequent turnout from Republicans than areas that had good weather, which swung Republican in the next election to a greater degree. Tufecki points out, however, that there was a clear engagement with attendees after the protests. She cites another study showing that while Tea Party members may be uninformed about what policies would actually do, or the actual statistics on immigration, crime, and so forth, they were more educated than many career politicians on the intricacies of how legislation was made, when the votes were, who was on each committee, etc.

As shown in the above example, the limitations of networked protests are ones that can be overcome, with effort, by movements. More challenging are the direct negatives of social media. Having only one or two companies with such control over spreading information is a huge challenge, as we already know. Facebook’s “real name” policy, one enforced only when there is a complaint, means that anyone can be targeted and have to jump through hoops to prove their name. Even more important, it means that LGBT activists, activists in oppressive governments, and others can be outed placing their lives at real risk. Twitter has its own issues regarding harassment, as almost everyone knows. One tweet noticed by the wrong person results in death threats, rape threats, doxing, and threats to one’s family. Twitter is unwilling to step in and put up meaningful barriers, pushing many people off of the platform, and giving others pause before they are engaged in advocacy.

And, of course, the way that social media can be used to push false information. Twitter and Tear Gas came out in 2017, but was written in the preceding two years. Given that, it’s a bit squirm inducing to read about how Turkey, Tunisia, and even China have moved from straight censorship to instead working to muddy the waters, pushing their own versions of stories, questioning media leaders, and seeking to make it difficult to know what’s happening by producing hundreds of questionable news articles. And reading of how Russian troll armies spread disinformation about NATO ahead of Sweden’s NATO vote was enough to send chills down my spine. What was incredible here was learning how every thing that was done to undermine the US elections was well known and documented in other contexts even before 2016, and yet we were fully exposed with no precautions, no challenges to the way Facebook did business, and no, or minimal effort, to track down and close down Russian trolls and bots.

There were areas I found lacking. She is a student of activist movements and history, clearly learning from US movements as well as others, and given that I would have hoped for a bit more on how people have overcome such issues before. The US has faced threats to trust in our institutions before. We were lied into a war before. Radio changed the way we interacted with the world once again, giving people more access to the outside world but also quickly taken up by people like Father Coughlin spreading vile lies. Pamphleteers and snake oil salesman showed that not everyone could be believed. What changed? Did the fever break on its own, or were their concrete steps that helped? If the latter, how can we adapt those steps for today’s world? And in general I would have liked more suggestions for change. Her chapter on the challenges of Twitter seemed to boil down to, “It’s good and bad, it’s hard to know what to do.” A position with which I sympathize, but I also know there are many people thinking about how to overcome that challenge and it would have been helpful to have an overview of some of their thoughts.

Overall, though, I thought this was an incredibly useful and insightful book that should be spread far and wide. In an era where we have five calls, Facebook Town Hall, and dozens and dozens of organizations to send us action alerts, while at the same time a bill polling at 12% passes the House and is stopped by the Senate by only 1 vote, it feels as if we are more connected and more separated from our elected officials than ever before. Twitter and Tear Gas helps to identify the new challenges we face so that we can organize more effectively and start to move forward and make change. Read this book before your next brunch.

The Constant Gardener

ConstantGardenerbookcoverThe Constant Gardener, John Le Carré

Oftentimes before I write one of these essays I look at other reviews of the book to help muddle through my own thoughts. Nothing helps me to sharpen and clarify my opinions after all as much as disagreeing with someone else. I look at reviews especially when it’s a) been a while since I finished the book and I want to refresh my memory and/or b) if it’s a book that came out more than a few years ago as I like to be reminded of the climate when it was released.

When reading reviews of The Constant Gardener I noticed two main things. Firstly, that every reviewer had to write about The Constant Gardener in relation to other books by John Le Carré. I haven’t read anything else by Le Carré–although I have two other books of his on my to-be-read shelves–so I’m afraid it will have to stand on its own for me. Secondly, that the reviewers all commented on this new type of book that Le Carré had struck upon, a novel that explored the wrong doings of corporations (as opposed to the cold war spy novels of previous years), and one that was meant to motivate people to action. The reviews all wonder whether this sort of intrigue, a person against a corporation, a book that was meant to anger us about an industry, could possibly take off. It’s so strange to hear now, when fighting against an evil corporation is the standard in so many novels and movies. I had no idea Le Carré was such a trend setter.
On to the book itself, read with none of that background knowledge, it was a very engaging read. Justin Quayle, the constant gardener of the title, is a quintessentially British character, quiet, gentlemanly, courteous, and content as a foreign service officer drifting along for his career. The kind of man who can be easily overlooked, with the best description being that his politeness is easily mistaken for weakness. A character I recognize as someone to be admired from many of the British mysteries and suspense novels I’ve read. His beautiful young wife, Tessa Quayle, who many suspected was having one or more affairs, is brutally murdered at the start of the book, leading Justin to search for the real reason she was killed, and carry on her work.

The book takes on, in a rather roundabout and fictional way, pharmaceutical companies, corruption with both donor nations and developing nations, and the use of donations and people in the developing world as guinea pigs for new drugs. This is what Tessa and Dr. Arnold Bluhm–who the rumor mill said she was sleeping with–had been tracking, with Tessa trying to find a way to bring attention to their bad works within the British government, naively insisting on working within the institutions.

And this was my biggest issue with the novel. Tessa is portrayed throughout as an activist, highly moral, tenacious, and brilliant (and rich and gorgeous and so on and so forth. She is the point of the whole novel and the plot point for Justin to start his part of the story, after all.) She is forward thinking encrypting her communications, sending additional letters to family for others to find, etc. And yet, the report that would expose these bad deeds, that Justin is trying to piece together, is never found. I just found it so difficult to believe that this brilliant lawyer, knowing that she’s fighting an amoral corporation with many resources and no scruples about silencing critics, wouldn’t have created a fail safe and sent the report off somewhere. Left a key for Justin to a safe deposit box? Mailed copies to her brother? Anything. It didn’t ring true to me. Apologies for nitpicking, but I’m afraid it’s what I do.

The second part that I thought didn’t quite work was this apparently brand new notion of a novel that would motivate people to future activism. Le Carré was obviously sincere about this, and wrote a follow up bit that’s in the book about how all of these pieces are true in their own way, and that these bad acts are happening around the world and primarily in Africa. However, the companies and occurrences were too generic in the book for me to feel that I could use them as a jumping off point, the activist groups fictionalized as well. There needed to be a bit more docu- to the -fiction for it to really work as the rallying call he intended.

As a book, though, I found it compelling-despite my issue with the MacGuffin at the center–and a suspenseful novel. Le Carré can craft a page turner, that is for sure, even if it’s a page turner far more subtle than other suspense or spy novels we might be used to. And I enjoyed the characters more than I thought. For anyone whose seen the movie, don’t let it discourage you. The relationships as written in the book made far more sense, Justin was more compelling, the various characters on the periphery were more rounded and intriguing, and overall I wanted to keep reading. Le Carré is not an optimistic man, I fear, and this book was no exception, and despite his novel decrying the neo-colonialism of capitalism and humanitarianism, there’s still more than a whiff of old colonial feeling in the book, leading to an air of sadness over the whole affair. It kept me thinking about the book well after I’d finished, though, which I always take as a good sign. I look forward to finishing the others on my to be read shelf and taking on some of his classics.

Strangers in a Strange Land

strangers in a strange land

Strangers in a Strange Land, Archbishop Charles Chaput

The problem with any critique that compares current society to past society, from an ethical and moral perspective, is that it is indisputable that most people are not only doing better but are treated far, far better today than they were even 30, 40 60 years ago or more. This isn’t to say that there are not critiques to be made of modern society, but those critiques lose almost all meaning when they are meant to show how progressives, or anyone else, have ruined society compared to years ago, rather than addressing these complaints as unique problems of our own time.

Chaput’s book, Strangers in a Strange Land, is full of these sort of nostalgic complaints, and joins the rank of others, such as Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, and all of Fox news, in asserting that gay marriage is the final evidence that society and religious liberty are broken today in ways that they never have been before. This book doesn’t just assert that there are challenges in society, just as there have been in every generation. No, the issues is that feminists, gay activists, and progressives are pushing an expanding of respect to include LGBT individuals and thus destroying society, especially compared to how civics worked back at the founding of the country. And this attack on tradition—although he calls it religious liberty, ignoring the liberty of the United Church of Christ, Unitarians, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Reform and Conservative Judaism, and others who allow for LGBT inclusion—is undermining our respect for one another and for the civic glue that holds the country together, threatening the democratic underpinnings of our society.

The problem, again, is that most categories of people have far more respect today than they did at the country’s founding—Catholics included! There is not only the obvious, such as that slavery does not exist today, although this should not be glossed over lightly. In almost every category outside of Protestant White Male, there is a level of respect, inclusion, and extension of humanity that didn’t exist before. It is only 40 years ago that in the US women couldn’t even have a credit card on their own. Religious minorities are more accepted today than ever before.  It is only a few decades ago that many clubs would still not allow Jews, and in the 30s the German American Bund, a Nazi sympathizer group, had great support. John F. Kennedy may have won the presidency, but his Catholicism was a point of actual debate in the country. And, a category that is far too often overlooked, those with cognitive or physical disabilities are included in society now, deemed worthy of respect. And it is the forces of progressivism that have made that possible.

It is not so long ago that anyone with a mental challenge or deviance of any kind would have been condemned to a likely horrific institution, with no health or decency standards, subject to rampant abuse and forced sterilization. Those with physical deformities would be outcast, perhaps gawked at. The Americans With Disabilities Act was only passed in 1990. Providing ways for those with learning disabilities to attend school and participate in society has only happened within the last 20-30 years. In Strangers Chaput rails against the throwaway culture that encourages the abortion of a baby shown to have Down syndrome or other cognitive disabilities, which I agree is an ethical and moral outrage. But would anyone really argue that abandoning them to institutions was not throwing these people away? That there is not more respect and options for those with challenges today than a generation ago?

And instead of critiquing the attack on life represented by aborting a baby who would be a challenge in life on on its own, he wraps it into a wider critique of a progressive culture, ignoring the fact that the progressive community that wants to see LGBT people extended rights and respect as full members of the human family and participants in society in many cases includes the same medical professionals and activists who fought for those with physical and mental disabilities.  It’s not that the progressive community has always showered itself in glory with people with disabilities (eugenics being the obvious, glaring example), or even that every aspect of the progressive community does so today. But in the last few decades extending respect and assistance to those in need, and extending the ethical concerns of society, has been a progressive pursuit.

Then, of course, there are the critiques of feminism, the assertion that somehow women are less respected due to contraception and pornography.* Plus an odd critique of an Obama era add showing how government would assist a single woman to get a college degree and a job that criticized the ad for saying a woman would then rely on government rather than a husband, rather than asserting that she should be doing such things on her own! He even includes a line about feminists fighting, “imagined boogeymen like patriarchy”, again ignoring that a short time ago a woman couldn’t by a car on her own. And until 1979, it was legal throughout the US for a man to rape his wife.

The suggestions that women are less respected now due to contraception are ridiculous and condescending. There is a reason women were the ones pushing for the legality of contraception, a reason women jumped at this opportunity—because they knew that controlling their own fertility was essential to controlling their own lives. And the Catholic Church acknowledges that healthy timing and spacing of children is important, or else natural family planning wouldn’t be permitted either (NFP). And his assertion, one that I’ve heard before, that anyone having sex while on contraception is destroying their experience somehow, that “contraceptive intimacy” is not intimacy is just as insulting. He asserts that “….their sexual contact is neither intimate nor fertile nor really mutual in any sense.” Now, listen, I actually don’t have a problem with church leaders making ethical or moral proclamations about married life, at least in the abstract, if they stick with ethical claims about contraception and reproduction. But it is simply ridiculous to assert that a priest has a better idea of what helps people be intimate and have a mutually respectful and happy marriage than the married couple themselves and there is a reason people continue to use contraception, including over 90% of Catholics. And that well over 80% of Catholics say that it shouldn’t be a moral issue. Make a better argument for natural family planning—the goal of which is to not be open to having kids at that time, by the way—don’t say that there’s no reason a married couple might want intimacy without a child *at that moment*.

This isn’t to say I disliked the book entirely. I actually really enjoyed some of the critiques of the breakdown of civics, and the importance of building a society together and respecting one another, which is part of what made some of the complaints about extending respect to LGBT individuals so jarring. I also think that Chaput does truly believe that Catholicism is called, in part, to respect others, embracing people in the love of Jesus, which he highlights in the book. Again, though, this is part of what was surprising. I understand that people are called to different issues, but this book was written at the end of the 2016 election cycle, when Donald Trump had been calling Mexicans rapists, threatening a ban on Muslim refugees, and saying that he would murder the families of terrorist (all against Catholic teaching, by the way, with racism and murder of innocents in war being ‘intrinsic evils’). It seems odd to say that the biggest attack on Christian belief in the country is a loosening of sexual mores.

I think that Chaput is sincere in his faith, and that he does see the importance of respecting each individual. Again, many of his general statements about the importance of truly living out and embracing our faith, about the importance of a civic life, about the need for the Church to stand up for what is right and not reflexively support the state, I agree with. Some of his other criticisms of the tendency of people to go along, and not be honest with ourselves and our beliefs, and represent those to others, struck me as well—I underlined many passages in this book. And on a wider note, I greatly respect that he wants to engage in society, rather than retreating, and that he sees the essential nature of the Church being one of hope, love and joy rather than despair and anger, which I find many a conservative leader retreating into. He shows an admirable willingness to engage those with whom he disagrees, to criticize hatred,  and to call out those on the right when necessary—his statement on Charlottesville was excellent. But I cannot agree with the underlying assumptions of his book, or that for the Church to be respected it means we cannot even allow the respect of those with a different belief that does not harm anyone other than possibly themselves.

What it comes down to is that I agree with a quote from Chaput, from page 210, that Christians need to love other persons as “living, unique, unrepeatable images of God’s own love, imbued with his dignity.” This is what we must try to live out in every part of our lives. And where that may challenge our moral theology, well, I defer to Jesus.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”–Matthew 22:37-40

 

 

*As an aside, I would love to one day do a side by side comparison of current Catholic critique of pornography with second wave feminist critiques of pornography. My strong suspicion is that there would be a good deal of overlap.