The wheat and weeds in my heart

I was startled to realize that even some of the things I think of as wheat are really weeds.

What kind of things? Righteous indignation that goes on too long, feeding on itself, delighting in itself. Vigilance that turns into paranoia and unseemly scrutiny of friends. An important political argument that takes so much time and energy that I have nothing left for my family. Whistling in the dark that finally stops hoping for comfort and starts revelling in the darkness.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Is silence consent? Virtue vs. virtue signalling

Yesterday, I tussled with some friends over the issue of “virtue signalling.”

In the immediate aftermath of the hideous events in Charlottesville, my social media was flooded with friends passionately denouncing racism and white supremacism. Some of the denunciations included an exhortation for all decent folk to do the same: You must speak up. You must take a stand. You must say something. Silence is consent.

Then followed a wave of irritable scoffers who refused to join in the mass denunciation. Their arguments were pretty solid: Of course we reject racism. Of course we’re anti-Nazi. It doesn’t do any good to say so on social media. The only reason you’d do so is to get your social piety card punched, and that’s just cheap and gross. Tomorrow it’ll be another thing that we’re all required to say. Who can keep up? Let’s just talk about what interests us, and refuse to be pushed around by a mob, even if the mob is correct.

Let’s untangle this a bit.

There are most certainly some folks who latch on to every cause, and their passion never rises above virtue signalling. They never act, but they never stop patting themselves on the back for saying the right thing when it’s popular to say it (and somehow, they never feel the urge to speak up when their cause is unpopular). One day, they’re slapping a flag overlay on their profile picture; the next day, they’re wearing safety pins; the next, they’re insisting that everyone stop what they’re doing and sign a useless change.org petition. And that’s all they do. They endlessly congratulate themselves as they flit from one cause to the next, from passion to passion, never seeming to notice that they stopped talking about yesterday’s all-consuming cause as soon as the hashtag stopped trending.

This is pure virtue signalling, and it’s gross. It changes nothing, it means nothing, and it’s actually counterproductive, as it relieves us from truly thinking, engaging, and acting. It’s the ultimate participation trophy: Hooray, you had the courage to be on Twitter and retweet something popular! Go put your feet up, you warrior, you.

So, phooey on this.

There is, however, another large group of people who were saying things very similar to what the virtue signallers were saying: I reject racism. I denounce Nazis. They don’t belong here; they don’t speak for me. America is better than this.

These folks felt like that had to say something, because they were confronted with something so monstrous and incomprehensible, they could not be silent. They wanted to do something, and there was nothing to be done — nothing but saying something. So they said something.

This isn’t virtue signalling. This is the normal, healthy response of a human being who feels appropriate sorrow, appropriate outrage toward aggressors, and appropriate compassion toward victims. It would be best, and truly virtuous, to follow up a public statement with some kind of action —  praying, perhaps, or getting more involved in local politics, or sending a note to someone who identifies with the victim. But there’s nothing inherently odious or insincere about responding to evil with a loud, public “Hell, no.”

I have heard from people who identify with the victims — from people raising black kids, for instance — that it gives them great comfort to hear a crowd of people loudly defending them. It would hurt, and be frightening, not to hear it. That in itself is good reason to speak up.

I have also heard from people who’ve said, “I have been too timid to speak up in the past. I’ve let racist jokes slide, and I’ve let insults go unchallenged. Now I see where silence leads, and I’m not going to be silent anymore.” This isn’t posturing; this is conversion of heart. Not virtue signalling, but a sign of actual virtue.

Mere words aren’t always empty, even if they’re popular words.

But what about the claim that silence is consent? This is more complicated. We have heard over and over that evil triumphs when good men do nothing. If an individual is silent, that may not mean that he consents to evil, but if every single individual decides that he’s going to sit this one out because everyone already knows that racism is bad . . . well, if that worked, we’d have a lot fewer names to remember on Memorial Day. And Holocaust Remembrance Day. And so on. If everyone is silent except the ones chanting, “Sieg heil,” then yes, silence is consent.

At the same time, when everyone is shouting at the same time, very little gets heard. When the crowd is screaming at you to start screaming, too, it’s hard to think, and impossible to say something more nuanced than “HELL NO.” And sometimes we expend all our energy in screaming, and then it’s hard to feel we have to do something else, such as actually doing something.

So, sometimes thoughtful, reasonable, courageous people don’t say anything in public. This doesn’t mean they’re cowards, and it doesn’t mean they’re complicit. It doesn’t mean they’re privately rooting for evil.

At the same time, sometimes thoughtful, reasonable, courageous people feel like they cannot be silent in public. This doesn’t mean they are smug, shallow, social justice warriors who are only in it for the applause.

If it’s wrong to demand that Every0ne Use the Hashtag Now Or Else You Are the Problem, it’s also wrong to demand that Everyone Shut Up Because We Know Why You’re Flapping Your Useless SJW Lips. We would all do well to give each other a little clearance when something horrible happens. People respond differently to trauma. This is a feature of social discourse, not a bug.

When we demand unanimity — either of speech or of silence — we’re making ourselves weaker, not stronger. When everyone is saying (or refusing to say) the same thing, we’re like a flock of cloned sheep: A single superbug can take us all out, bam.

Of course, all of the above applies to private people. But if it’s your job to speak out, like if you’re the president of the United States, then you have a clear obligation to condemn specific evil acts and specific evil groups, and silence or vagueness is rightly construed as consent. Damn.

But for the rest of us? You could always just split the difference and let your sousaphone do the talking.

God bless the sousaphone man. More like him, please. And more wiggle room for each other, please, as we hash out our response to the intolerable.

Let’s resist kneejerkifying history

Every few weeks, a group of enlightened teenagers, who have been raised since birth to believe such-and-such is wrong, will get together and demand that a long-dead man should be punished for not having been raised since his birth two hundred years ago to believe that such-and-such is wrong.

Sometimes, they’re onto something. I wouldn’t want to spend my afternoons bathed in the hues of a stained glass black man kneeling before John Calhoun. (I wouldn’t smash a window depicting slavery, but I would put up a fuss.) There’s a fine line between acknowledging the past and condoning its errors.

But it sure does get old to hear that Abraham Lincoln was “not the great emancipator” because his stated main goal was to preserve the union, and because he was against interracial marriage. No: Lincoln was a white man was born in 1809, and he thought like a white man born in 1809; and he was a great and good man.

Same thing for great thinkers of the Catholic Church. You refuse to employ your super-fine mind in the same room as Thomas Aquinas just because he had some dumb or hinky ideas about the ladies? Your loss. The rest of us don’t have much time to be offended; we’re too busy trying to keep up.

Just as irritating as the knee-jerk judgment of the past? The wholly unearned smugness that often goes along with that judgment. Let’s be fair: If I can’t blame Lincoln for thinking like everyone thought when he was alive, then why should I laud you for thinking like everyone thinks now? You’re not a courageous free-thinker for wearing an anti-racist T-shirt in 2016. You’re just someone who noticed that “NOH8” or “BLM” or whatever is trending right now.

Even worse than wagging our fingers at history is when we try to protect our paper-thin skins by blotting out the past altogether. What a horrible, self-defeating error. If our country is guilty of crimes, then there is one foolproof way to ensure that we repeat them, and that is to erase all evidence of them, to cleanse our living space of any exposure to them. Your body won’t fight back against a disease if you spend each day bathing in Purell, and the same is true for our collective soul as a country. You must endure some exposure.

Well, here’s an encouraging spot of sanity: Yale announces new procedure for renaming of university buildings. They’re not going to refuse to hear any argument against honoring a historical figure who held troubling views; but neither are they going to knuckle under to the mob and despise greatness when it comes dressed in historical clothing that clashes with current political fashion.

In an interview with NPR yesterday, Yale dean Jonathan Holloway said:

The fact is as human actors we’re all flawed. So I really wonder if you are going to be using the Oregon test [which applies strict, inflexible criteria] against historic figures who are operating in a world in which you – people did not even know or worry about the experiences or views of women or immigrants or minorities, you’re going to fail the test pretty quickly. And so I think any renaming test has to be mindful of the present and the past and also the future in trying to sort out what its litmus tests are going to be.

To my mind, when we wonder if we should honor someone who held views that most people now despise, there are four issues to be considered:

  1. Were these views widespread and unchallenged at the time? Would the person in question have to be an outrageously original and insightful thinker to even consider holding a different point of view?
  2. Are the unpleasant views he held even relevant to why he is being honored today? Are we honoring him for all aspects of his entire life, or can we say, “Even though he was terribly wrong about this issue, his achievements in that other field are immense and indisputable”?
  3. If he did do great things, were the bad things he did so bad (even if they were in an entirely different field from the great things) that they overshadow what was great?
  4. Have we done our research, really? Or have we just read a line or two off some Buzzfeed compilation of the Daily Snit?

Yale is apparently taking a measured approach to challenges from people laboring under what Halloway calls the “arrogance of your contemporary moment,”and is trying to slow down that locomotive of self-congratulatory outrage. He wants, if you can imagine such a thing in an institute of higher learning, for complainants to thoughtfully and dispassionately contextualize history, rather than just reflexively scratching whatever the current mob considers itchiest.

It’s especially admirable that Yale is choosing to do this now, in post election 2016. With Trump as president, and the alt right ascending, we’re likely to see more and more re-legitimization of historical figures who truly ought to be intolerable to everyone today — not because of current, changeable sensibilities, but because their views were intolerable to decent people even while they were alive.

I expect that a president who reportedly kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches at his bedside (just for the articles, you understand. He doesn’t even notice the pictures) will breathe new life and vigor into old, deservedly condemned causes. We’ve already seen some efforts, from a population indispensable to Trump’s victory, to reanimate fetid corpses of egregious racism, anti-semitism, denial of Bosnian genocide, and more. Confederate flag sales skyrocketed in 2015Trump himself praised the “strength” of China’s response to Tianamen Square; and Trump openly admired Saddam Hussein’s efficiency in dealing with his enemies.

This man is now our president, our representative to the rest of the world.

Anticipating the battles to come, we might be tempted to suit up with an extra, protective layer of righteous indignation. If we’re going to be led by a man who dabbles in horrors, we might decide ahead of time that we’ll have a prophylactic zero tolerance policy against anything and anyone that smacks of his ugly ideals.

But let’s not. Let’s not respond to kneejerk politics by jerking the knee in the other direction. This country isn’t over yet. We’re still writing our history, still making adjustments, still figuring out who we are. Let’s take a clue from Yale, and slow down, do our research, think things through — and above all, not respond to unthinking rhetoric with more unthinking rhetoric.

In an absurdly awful election, where there could be no winning for the American people, we lost. Yes, we did. But that doesn’t mean we need to surrender. We still have time.

 

Brilliant men in dark boxes

Anybody remember when this happened?

 

 

PIC statue behind box

 

This was back in 2011, when the NAACP hid a prominent statue of George Washington inside a wooden box during a MLK Day rally, offering the terminally lame excuse that the box that shielded the crowd from Washington’s face would make a more suitable backdrop for the rally’s speakers.   The NAACP denies any intention of disrespect, but their narrow view of history is no secret:  anyone who owned slaves is a racist, and anyone who is a racist cannot be called a great man.  This is what is taught in history class, and several generations have been nourished on these junk food ideas.

Students are taught that they must not squander their exquisite admiration on someone who owned slaves.  They are taught, by implication, that it’s not enough for a man to give up his family and his safety for the noble cause of independence.  It’s not enough to inspire and command.  It’s not even enough to triumph in a way that directly benefits millions of people today.

He must also be . . . EVERYTHING MAN.

He must leap out of his time, and see with the eyes of every possible future type of enlightenment.  Did he accomplish the massive victories that his generation desperately needed?  Not good enough.  We also require him to be the role model for solving any type of conflict that might ever turn up, or else he’s no good to us.  Into the box you go, little George.  You don’t impress us anymore.

Where else do we see this same lazy, self-absorbed analysis of history?  In the sour voices that grumble over John Paul II’s beatification.   He may have been good, they say, but oh, he was not great.  Oh, sure, he was very charismatic and all.  He clearly prayed a lot, and that’s commendable.  But what a hash he made of the Church!  It’s all his fault!  He’s the one who wrote all those lame hymns, he’s the one who offered free butch haircuts to nuns, if you’ll recall.  And who can forget those Woodstock-style World Youth Day rallies, where he encouraged the youth to hold hands during the Our Father?  Never mind that the number of Catholics worldwide grew from 700 million to 1.2 billion while he was Pope — the guy was a squish, a pushover, a washout.

Listen to me.  God sends certain men to achieve certain great deeds while they live.  They are not responsible for what future generations may require:  that is up to the heroes born of those generations.  Great men are great because they do what needs to be done at the time.  They put their own desires and frailties aside, and they make the world new with their particular strengths, their particular form of brilliance.  Heck, that’s what Martin Luther King Jr. did.  A holy man?  No.  He was a serial adulterer.  And Washington owned slaves, and John Paul II allowed the monster Maciel to flourish.

But they were great men.  They took their personal, God-given talents and turned them into something immense — something that made the world better.

It’s not just that we should forgive the wrong they did because they did so much good (although that is also true).  No.  I’m saying that these men were good in the way that they were designed to be good, great according to their own natures.  George Washington’s great strength wasn’t as an abolitionist, you know?  John Paul II’s great strength wasn’t as a disciplinarian.  It wasn’t his calling.

Do we criticize Fra Angelico for not figuring out how to split the atom?  Or do we sneer at Herman Melville because he couldn’t outrun Carl Lewis?  I mean, what do we want from these guys?  And can’t we even imagine that whatever  heroes we admire today may someday be judged harshly by our great great grandchildren — and wouldn’t that seem unfair?  Men are men, and they live when they live.   Who is good enough for us?  Who can escape our endlessly dissatisfied dissection?

There was only one perfect Man.   The other great men of the world — Washington, King, John Paul II, and any hero you can name — are only mirrors, who catch and show to us a little bit of His radiant light.  The world is dark enough already.  Let’s not become so enlightened that we spend our time setting up boxes around the brilliance of great men.

 

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This post originally ran in 2011.