Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Along for a Bad Ride

One of the things that puts Greece in such a bad situation is that it's significantly poorer, more corrupt, and less market oriented than the rest of Europe, yet it's in a currency union run by France and Germany. The more affluent EU countries set the monetary policy, but if the result is that Greece is trapped in an economic malaise, they don't provide tax money's to run Greece's safety net as unemployment spikes above 25%.

The US also has regions which are economic backwaters compared to the places where decisions are made, the difference is just that the federal and state governments end up having to provide a certain amount of funding to keep the lights on. Still, having your lights kept on while the regulations and economy are set to someone else's convenience and your detriment are no fun. People are not happier stuck on handouts than they would be with a good job in a thriving local economy.

This struck me tangentially while reading a Megan McArdle piece on New York State's decision to raise the minimum wage for workers at fast food chains with 30 or more locations to $15/hr -- a decision which probably makes a lot of sense in the affluent parts of the state near New York City, but rather less so in the northern and western parts of the state where average wages and cost of living are much lower.

I've joked that New York state is "West Virginia lashed to Connecticut," but economically, that description is not far off. The rural north is so economically depressed that prisons are fondly regarded as sources of employment, and the deindustrializing western portion of the state has many of the same problems, plus large brownfield areas from long-departed factories that no one can afford to clean up, and a structural overhang of buildings, government programs and people left over from flusher times. The more young people depart in search of work elsewhere, the worse the problems become, as the depleted tax base struggles to provide for the old and the poor who have been left behind.

It's not fair to say that these problems are all caused by Albany. Upstate New York is a cold, snowy place far from the coast, and those places have been declining for decades. On the other hand, it is completely fair to say that Albany has made the problem much worse, by layering on taxing, spending and regulatory mandates that may be affordable in a downstate region driven by easy-flowing financial industry profits, but are catastrophic in a region struggling to hold onto its last manufacturing jobs. And Albany's policies make it impossible for upstate to leverage the assets it does have -- such as an incredible number of colleges graduating educated workers, and lower wages that could potentially attract new businesses -- into some sort of recovery.

Being a west coast boy, I always kind of forget that New York state is quite large and mostly unlike New York City -- though California is much the same, with vast swathes of sparsely populated inland areas (with an agricultural economy) seeing their state run by a few densely populated cities on the coast. The layout and history of New York are different, but disparity is similar. Buffalo and Rochester are about as close geographically to Cleveland and Pittsburgh as they are to New York City, and in economy they're much close to the rust belt metropolises than to the finance, fashion and media empires of the city.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Blocking the Action

The wonder of it is that I, who hate packing kids in the car, who would rather stay home than go just about anywhere, signed up without a second thought to haul the kids 2.5 hours down to Cincinnati twice a week for play rehearsals, on weeks when we didn't have service camp, drama camp, Backyard Bible Camp, or VBS. And yet, not so surprising at that, considering that I wrote the play, a youth group musical about the book of Job, and that I completely revised the script for this, the 18-year revival of the original production, and that I'm helping to direct.

"What I really want to do is direct!" is a creative cliche by now, and yet there's a reason that directing has such allure. If you like instant gratification, it doesn't get much more immediate than telling your actor, "What if you try saying the line this way?" or "Turn your head to look at her before you speak," or "This time, try NOT to get mad and see how that changes the scene" -- and suddenly, there's another, more complex layer of drama, a more honest reaction, a deeper nuance to a simple statement. Of course, sometimes you suggest a change, and it falls completely flat, but even that failure helps you to clarify your vision: Okay, this bit of comic relief needs to be toned down so it doesn't overwhelm the action; this moment of tension doesn't fit with the pacing of this act; a minor character entering at this moment pulls focus away from the tension we're building in the scene. The essence of drama is change, and the role of the director is to manage the pace and flow of that change.

I don't know what it's like directing professionals, but from years of experience, I do know that when you're directing a show for kids, blocking is key. Blocking is more than just movement around the stage, though it's crucial that everyone knows where they're going, and why. It's building pictures that tell the story of the play in images. And it's the way I tell the audience what's important in the scene, and where they should focus. Ever been to see a show and found that it was almost painful to look at the action on stage? Often that boils down to not having a clear focus on stage. Good blocking can cover a multitude of acting sins. It can tell the story despite the actors.

Here's an exercise I've used before with kids. Imagine two people, A and B.

A: Sorry I'm late.
B: That's okay.

A simple bit of dialogue, which can mean exactly what it says: A apologizes, B doesn't mind. We might picture this as A and B facing each other.

Now, picture A facing B and B facing forward. That puts a different spin on the words. B is cold, perhaps. What happens if A is facing B and B is turned completely away? What if B turns before saying the line? Afterward?

What if A and B are both facing forward?
Or, what if A is turned away and B is turned toward A?
What if A says the line, B turns toward A, and A turns away?

All these different ways of blocking this snippet of dialogue tell a story which may or may not conflict with the literal sense of the words. Often, body language tells the true story of a scene, while dialogue is loaded with subtext and subterfuge.

Other blocking tactics are cat and mouse, and power positions. Cat and mouse has to do with who is chasing whom. Which person drives the action? Which person is retreating? Power positions are familiar to anyone who's ever been on a job interview. Who has the power position: the person sitting safely behind the desk, or the person standing awkwardly in the middle of the room? In the court room, the judge has the power position, raised above everyone else. There isn't one pure language of power positions: standing isn't always powerful; sitting isn't always weaker; being higher isn't always more powerful than being lower. But it's helpful for young actors to  power positions to create pictures that enhance the drama.

So, in our production of Job, we've used several of these techniques. Job sometimes stands isolated from everyone else. His wife turns away from him when he tries to comfort her over the death of their children. When one of Job's friends goes on and on about how Job should handle his suffering, he gives his monologue down stage, to the audience, oblivious to the actual misery of Job behind him. When Satan tempts Job, he plays cat to Job's mouse, but when Job rejects those temptations, he takes a power position downstage while Satan slinks upstage. All of these are small workmanlike details, but they matter on stage. They make a difference between a show that grabs the audience, and a show that is too blah to remember.

I find this stuff fascinating. This is why I never regret my theater degree, even though I've barely ever made any money off it. (Come to that, during the short time I worked professionally in Los Angeles, I made less than I've ever made at any job, and I've rarely made more than minimum wage.) And when our show opens on Sunday night, I will have helped to create something tangible that will refresh the minds and souls of 300 people while making them participants in an age-old philosophical and theological dialogue. Not a bad way to spend summer vacation, overall.

Briefly Reviewed: The Caine Mutiny

When we moved into our house, we inherited a number of books, among them two fat volumes The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. I knew nothing of these, but since I was already starting to think about the idea of a massive novel of military history, I kept them around when we sold or donated many of the others. Reading about Wouk, I discovered that his most famous novel is actually The Caine Mutiny, which also has the virtue of being slightly shorter, so when I heard that Julie and Scott were going to be discussing The Caine Mutiny on A Good Story is Hard to Find, I decided it was time to dip in and see how Wouk's writing was.

The Caine Mutiny, published in 1951, is the most famous novel by Herman Wouk, who himself served on a destroyer mine sweeper (the same class of ship as the fictional Caine in the novel) during World War II. It follows the experiences of young Willie Keith, a young man with a Princeton education and a wealthy family who joins the navy mostly to avoid being drafted into the army.

[some mild spoilers follow but I've avoided revealing points of suspense]

Life in the navy quickly has a good effect on Keith, who before the war is wiling away his time playing piano in seedy nightclubs and dating a singer whom he strings along in a relationship despite being determined not to marry her left he embarrass his family.

However, when he's assigned to active duty after training Keith ends up on the Caine, a WW1 era destroyer made over as a minesweeper -- a rusty, obsolete ship with a captain Willie takes for a clod and a crew that tends to slovenliness. When a new captain, Lieutenant Commander Queeg is assigned to the Caine, Midshipman Keith hopes the new captain will whip things into shape and at last bring them into the "real navy". However, Captain Queeg's increasingly incompetent and paranoid behavior soon leads all the officers and crew to dislike him, and eventually his executive officer relieves of him duty on the grounds of mental illness in the titular "mutiny" when Queegs actions seem to endanger the ship's safety during a typhoon.

The novel goes on to deal with the trial of the officers for mutiny, the end of the war, and the resolution of Kieth's on-again-off-again romance with May Wynn, his girlfriend from before the war.

I enjoyed the book a lot. It kept me turning rapt throughout and I constantly found excuses to go back to it. It does interesting things with character and narrative. While told in the third person, and with omniscient elements, Keith is definitely our viewpoint character, and our understanding of various characters develops and changes significantly and Keith himself matures, learns his duty, and develops his understanding of the navy and of the war. Wouk's prose is a times dazzling, and there are some very evocative and perceptive sections of description dealing with the war and how the experiences of the men in it are shaped so much by their particular place and role. It's not great literature nor overly literary -- no one will rhapsodize about it as some sort of exotic prose confection -- but it's a well written book which you can definitely see earning it's Pulitzer. Lurking in the background is the sense of the import of the events. Wouk is a Jewish writer, and as narrator he a couple times turns back to the ongoing work of the holocaust going on in the background with little regard from the characters, except in a key speech by the Jewish lawyer and fight pilot who agrees to defend the Caine mutineers at their court martial.

The thing which I most wish Wouk had done a better job on was filling in some of what he assumed about the importance of the structure and running of the navy. Wouk does an almost gleeful job of showing us just how bad and unstable an officer Queeg is. And yet, the judgement of the author seems to be that relieving him of command is the wrong thing to do. As a civilian reader seventy years later, this seems almost shocking -- perhaps the more so because so many books and movies which include court martials resolve with the trope that of course the heroes were right to stand up as individuals against mindless obedience to authority. Maybe to 1951s audience with so many civilians who had spent a few years in the military recently, it seemed more obvious why Wouk came to this conclusion, but for me at this distance, I wish that he'd gone into it more deeply, and I want to understand it. Often, now that I'm at a level in a fairly large company where I see the working of executives frequently, the generic beefing of non-managers strikes me as failing to understand the way that things really work at that level. If I were going to try to do a business novel, one of my aims would be to try to make that insider's perspective more understandable to someone who hasn't been there.

With the WW2 navy, I haven't been there, and I wish that Wouk had assumed that a bit more and helped to put me through his thinking on the matter so that I could understand his perspective better.

I also enjoyed listening to Scott and Julie discuss the novel over at A Good Story is Hard to Find: http://agoodstoryishardtofind.blogspot.com/2015/07/good-story-112-caine-mutiny-novel.html

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Days Are Just Packed

When I decided to take six weeks off from posting novel installments, I was anticipating something of a rest. They say that a change is as good as one, so perhaps I've had one, but there's been precious little free time here.

This marks the second night that MrsDarwin and the kids are off in Cincinnati for play rehearsals, but tonight my solitary bachelorhood was broken by my father-in-law stopping by on the way back from trip to upstate New York. We had a quiet dinner, two fathers eating left overs in an empty house, and we talked. Dad has just finished reading Lord of the Rings for the first time via audiobook. He'd seen the LotR movies with his youngest kids, but never read the books, and so over the last few gift giving occasions we'd been feeding him the three volumes on audiobook.

As we talked about the books I stepped over to the library for books and showed him maps to clear up a few questions he had about where things were taking place. It was a closing of the generational gap. A number of the Tolkien books and atlases we have in our library are from his own father, who read and loved the Middle Earth long before. When Cat's grandfather died, a number of his books came to us: military history books for me, Tolkien books for both of us. The love of Tolkien had skipped a generation on that side of the family, and now we were making it whole.

I pointed out features of the familiar maps. When I was in junior high and high school I had a poster of Tolkien's map for Lord of the Rings hanging on my wall. It was a love a picked up from my own father and mother, who had met in the Mythopoeic Society -- a group for the reading and discussion of Tolkien, Lewis and Williams -- when they were in college back in the early '70s. And then books had, in turn, been one of the things that brought MrsDarwin and me together in college. Back then I re-read Lord of the Rings every year. MrsDarwin had read it once during middle school, but after a year of college with me, she went home and read it again.

Books lace through our lives. The other day I found our thirteen-year-old daughter glum and sulky. Her siblings were annoying her, and she had read all her library books. I went and pulled her a stack of books that I had loved at that age from the shelves. Go. Read. Love the books that I have loved. Even if you don't have another volume of your favorite series about wandering tribes of feral cats, you can have joy. You can share something with me. She looked at the books skeptically. You can't always count on a parent who recommends books to you. They may be trying to turn you into them. They may be recommending books with kissing in them. Can't be too careful. Still...

Upstairs that night I'd found the next oldest, who had been silent for the last few hours, buried in the final pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There's some kissing in that book, and she'd read it before. "How's it going?" I asked. There was a vague murmur. "Decided to re-read the last book?" I asked.

"No. I was just reading a bit from the middle. Then I didn't stop."

That's how it's been, lately. We're in the middle, and it doesn't stop.

I got home the last night the family was still here with me. William, eighteen months old, walked out to me, down the driveway, crowing the way that only an eighteen month old does, his hands in the air. No one is quite as glad to see you as a child that age. The mind stretches back. Recognition. You are Daddy. Yet your arrival is a surprise.

It doesn't surprise the older children when I arrive. But they begin to have interests not so far from our interests. "You left," says Sean Connery as Indiana Jones's father, "just as you were getting interesting."

They're interesting, but they haven't left yet. Haven't checked out. Haven't stopped caring.

At times, these seem like those precious, golden years before... Something.

I don't know what.

"I don't trust good times," my father used to tell me. "I'm too Irish. I believe in fate."

He's dead now. Cancer. Before sixty.

I believe in fate too. I can't trust it. But I hope. Maybe, somehow, the golden years stretch longer. I don't know how long. We don't control the sands of time. I don't know if God controls the fates now, or if He left them at their job, with their distaff, spinning the thread of history, unknowable, unaccountable, uncontrovertible.

Sometimes I tell myself that the fact that things are so good, our children are so happy, we are so in love: it can't last. Some balance of fate is being thrown off and because we're too happy, too fortunate, the quarter coming up heads time after time, it will have to turn. I'll lose my job or get some incurable disease or an asteroid will strike and destroy civilization. Somehow the happiness of these times will be too much and demand some revenge from fate. But perhaps the world doesn't hinge on us. Perhaps some universal accounting will pass us by and miss our imbalance. Perhaps these happy, golden days will stretch on and on. Perhaps we'll read our books and love our loves and spend our summer and be left in peace to see our children share our faith and loves and world. Perhaps somehow as the world surges around us we'll be the point of calm which remains stable. Perhaps we'll remain healthy and at peace with all our children. Perhaps I'll finish my novel, and my wife will revise hers, and we'll find people who want to publish them and...

No. I'm spinning some sort of wish fulfillment story, and that's never the most interesting kind.

I don't control the story in this book. I'm not the Author. All I hope, a loyal reader of these pages, is that somehow, whatever trial may lie ahead, these characters turn out well. I want the best for them. Please. A happy ending. However many trials and sufferings come between, that's the kind of ending that I like.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Scandal of the Cross

There was a fair amount of discussion generated last week when Bolivian president Evo Morales gave Pope Francis a crucifix depicting Jesus crucified on a hammer and sickle. This crucifix had been made by a radical Spanish Jesuit priest named Luis Espinal who was killed in 1980 in a political assassination during the unrest after the fall of the military government of Bolivia.


Not surprisingly, many people considered the combination of the symbol of communism -- an atheistic and oppressive ideology which has been espoused by governments responsible for around a hundred million killings over the last century -- with the symbol of Christianity to be offensive, and there was a certain amount of discussion as to whether Pope Francis considered the gift offensive. Some held that in photographs and video the pope looked taken aback at the gift, and people also argued that one could hear him say in a low voice "that is not right" as he was given the present. However, an enterprising reporter asked the pope about the gift during the flight back to Rome, and Pope Francis professed himself un-offended.

“I was curious, I didn't know Fr. Espinal was a sculptor and also a poet. I learned about it in these past few days, I saw it and for me it was a surprise. It can be categorised as a form protest art. In Buenos Aires, some years ago, there was an exhibition displaying the works of a good sculptor, a creative Argentine who is now dead. It was protest art, and I remember one piece was a crucified Christ on a falling bomber: a criticism against Christianity but because of its alliance with imperialism. I would qualify it as protest art, that in some cases can be offensive. In this particular case, Fr. Espinal was killed in 1980. This was a time when Liberation Theology had many different branches. One of these branches used the Marxist analysis of reality and Fr. Espinal shared these ideas. I knew this because that year I was rector of the theology faculty and we talked a lot about it.” In the same year, the Society’s general, Fr. Arrupe, sent a letter to the Jesuits asking them to stop the Marxist analysis of reality and four years later, in 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the first document, which is critical, and the second, which opens up to more Christian viewpoints. Espinal was an enthusiast of this Marxist analysis and he produced this work. His poetry also belongs to that genre. It was his life, his way of thinking. He was a special man abounding in human genius, a man of good faith. Let us interpret it this way: I understand this piece and I did not find it offensive. I carry it with me. I left the decorative honours which President Morales gave me behind… I have never accepted such decorations but Morales acted in good faith, to please me, so I thought of it as coming from the people. I prayed it over and I thought I would leave them with Our Lady of Copacabana, so they go to the shrine. The wooden Christ I took with me.”

(The Shrine of Our Lady of Copacabana, incidentally, is apparently the source of one of a number of disputes between the Bolivian bishops and the socialist government of Evo Morales. In 2006 Morales's party seized land which belonged to the shrine and had been given to it to provide the shrine with a supporting income. Whether Pope Francis's choice to regard Morales's other presents as gifts of the people, and to leave them at that particular shrine, seems to portray any sort of message to those within the Bolivian context I do not know. Other areas of dispute between the Church and state in Bolivia include Evo Morales's attempts to declare Bolivia a secular state, to remove most holy days from the list of national holidays, and to secularize education.)

Francis's description of the piece as protest art, and his comparison to a piece showing Christ crucified on a bomber, is interesting, though I have to say that the example he gives strikes me as rather different. Showing Christ crucified on a bomber seems to suggest a message that the bomber is a tool of execution and torture used by an imperial power, just as the cross was in fact a tool of execution and torture used by the Roman Empire. Indeed, an interpretation along these lines did strike me as soon as I saw pictures of this "Marxist crucifix": There's something in a little way appropriate in making an analogy between the cruel violence of crucifixion and the cruel violence which communism visited upon the world, including upon many Christians.

But as the pope says, Espinal was a believer in a heavily Marxist approach to Christianity, and Evo Morales is himself an avowed socialist, leader of a political party named Movement for Socialism (MAS). Clearly, the intent of the original sculptor of the piece, and Morales in giving it to Francis, was not to suggest that communism crucifies Christ. Rather, it seems clear that the intent is more to suggest that socialism is an instrument of salvation, just as the cross, and Christ's suffering and death on it, was the instrument of our salvation.

What this helps to underline is the curious place which the cross holds in our Christian iconography, one which is so familiar to us that we forget how strange it is. We believe, after all, that Jesus, true God and true man, was falsely accused by his own people and unjustly executed by the state. The cross was a horrific means of execution, one which often caused people to suffer publicly for days before finally dying in agony. As such, the cross was a grisly and shameful symbol, and for our sins, our savior was put upon one and to suffer and die.

Sometimes a persecuted group will take a symbol of persecution as their own in order to make a point. For instance, in the Vietnam novel Matterhorn, several black soldiers make a point of wearing nooses make of cord around their necks as a reference to lynching and an accusation of racism against those around them. That is now, however, how Christians view the cross. Our use of the symbol is far more radical, and shows how seriously the Church takes the idea that salvation was won for us through Christ's suffering and death: we have adopted this instrument of death and cruelty as a thing of beauty.

It did not happen all at once. In the Christian art from the era of persecution, there are very few portrayals of the cross. Indeed, one of the earliest depictions linking the cross with Christianity is a piece of apparently anti-Christian graffiti carved in a plaster wall in Rome around 200 A.D., the Alexamenos Graffito, which portrays a man standing before a crucified man with the head of a donkey, captioned "Alexamenos worships his god".


Clearly, the graffiti artist thought that for a god to be crucified was shameful, and for someone to worship a god who had been crucified was foolish. Christians may not have agreed, but in their art of the period you are more likely to see the chi rho symbol, the fish, the shepherd, or depictions of the last supper than any kind of crucifixion scene. However, after Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and banned crucifixion, and his mother St. Helena discovered the relics of the true cross, which became a site of pilgrimage, depictions of the cross and the crucifix began to appear in Christian art.

Today there is no symbol more identified with Christianity than the cross. We have made something once at least as shocking as the gallows or the guillotine the symbol of our faith, and we have done so not our of protest or irony, but because it is through this suffering that we are redeemed.

That is why Espinal and Morales both saw a crucifix depicting Christ nailed to a hammer and sickle as something which suggested Marxism was a positive thing, rather than a thing of cruelty and suffering. And it is why I would disagree with the Holy Father and find the crucifix offensive. Perhaps the Holy Father has a far greater ability to put himself in the place of others than I. Perhaps his background in Central and South America, provides a different perspective than a grounding in European history, where the killing fields of communism are rivaled only by those of communism in Asia. Perhaps both.

I think the message of the art is clear: Marxism saves. It takes the strange, scandalous new message which Christianity has applied to an ancient instrument of killing, and substitutes the symbol of Marxism to say: By this sign, your salvation comes into the world.

But in fact, Marxism kills. It has killed scores of millions.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 12-3

This took a lot longer than I'd expected, both because of some scheduling conflicts and because it took me a little longer to think out how to show the point Walter reaches by the end of this chapter.

This marks the end of Chapter 12 and the end of Part 2. This part weights in at 75,000 words, with the novel as a whole now 167,000 words long. There remains Part 3 which consists of five full length chapters (13 to 17) and three short, single installment chapters (18-20) which will bring Volume One (and 1914) to its end. I'm expecting Part 3 to run 90-100k words, bringing the whole first novel in at 260,000 words. (That's longer than any volume of Lord of the Rings, the same length as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but shorter than a volume of Follet's Century Trilogy or than Jeff Shaara's WW1 novel To The Last Man.)

I'm going to be taking an extended break from posting installments through most of the rest of the summer, though I will continue writing at a slower pace so that I'll be ready to post regularly when I come back. I'm targeting August 23rd to start posting installments again. Chapter 13 will focus on Natalie.

And of course, thank you everyone who is reading. I value knowing that you are out there.


North of the Aisne River, Near Tracy-le-Mont, France. September 21st, 1914. “Come on, Sergeant Heuber. The replacements have arrived,” said Leutnant Weber.

Walter tossed down his hand of cards on top of the tricks he’d taken.

“What? When I’m about to Schneider you?” Georg asked. “Did you ask the Leutnant to come save you?”

“You can have my money that’s on the table,” Walter replied, standing up.

“Money my ass. I want off of watch tonight. That’s my stakes.”

Alfred tossed down his own hand on the crate they had been using as a card table and picked up a fresh bottle of wine out of which he began to work the cork.

“Don’t hit the bottle too hard,” Walter said. “I’ll be calling the korporalschaft together when I get back and I want you two able to stand.”

In answer, Alfred pulled the cork with a pop and took a swig directly from the bottle before handing it to Georg. Walter followed Leutnant Weber out of the cottage in which the three friends had been staying. From the outside, the cottage still had its tidy, country charm: whitewashed plaster walls and red tiled roof, a pear tree trained across the trelise on the south wall. It was the inside which bore clear signs of the constant cycle of men who had passed through over the last month.

“You still think that Georg has the makings of a gefreiter?” the Leutnant asked.

“I don’t know, sir. The men all like him. He’s calm under fire. But, as you saw…” Walter shrugged. “Perhaps responsibility would steady him a bit.”

“If you don’t know, then why are you considering him?”

“I only have six men left, sir. Alfred is steadier, but he’s quiet and he’s been drinking hard since we fell back. Willi’s a good man, but definitely no leader.” He ran through the rest of the men under his command. “He may use his sway with the men to make jokes or complain, but Georg clearly can lead. If I’m to pick any of the veterans, he’s the one I’d pick.”

“Let’s see what you have in the way of replacements and then you can make your decision.”

Leutnant Bachmeier joined them with two sergeants from 3rd Zug. Bachmeier and Weber were the only two remaining commissioned officers in 5th Kompanie. Fate had brought a 155mm high explosive shell directly onto the kompanie command tent on the second day of the French attempt to storm the German positions on the plateau north of the Aisne River, and in an instant the kompanie and 1st Zug both had lost their commanders. Now Leutnant Weber commanded the kompanie and sergeants Gehrig and Kohl led 1st and 2nd Zugs respectively.

The replacements were drawn up in column on a trampled wheat field. They had marched just six miles that morning from the nearest rail line -- at last German trains were running on the tracks of occupied France and Belgium -- and they still looked fresh. Many of them were eighteen or nineteen-year-old volunteers, too young to have been called up for their two years service before the war. The Landsturm NCOs who had been called up to train them, men in their forties and fifties whose active service days had been in the 1880s and ‘90s, had no experience with the weapons and tactics of the last fifteen years, but they did know how to inspect and drill, and so the volunteers arrived knowing how to march in formation and with their faces smoothly shaved or sporting neatly trimmed mustaches. Some looked as if they required little touch of the razor at all.

Walter was conscious of the three days grizzle on his own face. Some of the other sergeants had beards of several weeks standing.

Weber’s contingent were not the only officers drawing near to the ranks of men in clean, new uniforms, unfaded by the sun and rain. The replacements were destined for companies throughout the 82nd Reserve Infantry Regiment. Twelve hundred men, who would bring the regiment nearly back to strength after the five days of hard fighting at the Battle of the Marne and another three days of determined French attacks the week before along the new German line just north of the Aisne.

An officer with a notebook in hand approached the knot of men from 5th Kompanie and Leutnant Weber told him which unit they were from.

“Very good, Leutnant. Your men are over here.”

There were just over a hundred men drawn up in a column, a leutnant pacing up and down before them. The officer made introductions:

“Leutnant Weber, this is Leutnant Maurer, your officer replacement. Leutnant Maurer, Leutnant Weber is acting commander of the 5th Kompanie.”

The two officers exchanged salutes while the NCOs watched, wondering whether the thin, spectacled officer would replace Gehrig or Kohl as a zug commander. Then Leutnant Maurer produced his own notebook and began to read of lists of men assigned to each unit. Walter in due turn received his allotment for 7th Korporalschaft: ten men, one of whom wore the collar tabs of a gefreiter.

“What’s your name, Gefreiter?” Walter asked.

“Herman Reise, sir,” the young man replied. He looked barely more than a boy: two or three inches shorter than Walter, with a wiry frame, high cheekbones and and dark, curly hair cropped short.

“No need to ‘sir’ me,” Walter replied. “I’m just a sergeant.”

It was intended to make things less formal, but from the way Reise squared his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry, Sergeant,” he could see that it had affected the young man differently than such a comment would the men who had been with the korporalschaft since the beginning and seen Walter promoted to gefreiter and then sergeant.

After asking each man’s name and then ordering them to fall in, Walter led the group back to meet the rest of the korporalschaft.

[continue reading]

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

History Book History vs Personal History


I wrote a little while back about the fraught place that the memory of the Confederacy holds in the memories of different people within the United States. One of the elements of this is what we might call the difference between "history book" history, the reasons why major events took place as they might be recounted in some grade school history textbook, and history was it was experienced by people. I ran across a post today which is a good example of this. Rebecca Frech writes:
Once upon a time in the South, there were a couple fellas named Dubose, a father and his boy, who were fighting for the Confederacy. Neither one owned a single slave. In fact, no one in their family had owned a slave (according to the census records I read through) since the elder one’s grand-daddy had been a boy in Alabama. The family had sold the plantation and moved to Louisiana and then on to Texas. These were just a couple of cowboys in what was then called The Great Horse Desert (the South Texas area just west of Corpus Christi and down to the Rio Grande.) They didn’t rush off to war when Sumter fell. They stayed home – herding cattle and growing cotton.
...
It took the Yankee blockades of the Texas Gulf Coast to get our fellas to start thinking war. It wasn’t until they were unable to get their cotton and livestock to market and their kids got hungry that they made any move against the Union at all. Once they’d starved long enough and watched a season’s cotton mildew in the barn, they chose to avoid outright conflict with Union Troops, and opted to join up with Capt Richard King’s men in running the Union’s blockades.

Capt King and his men ran an elaborate scheme of taking the cotton for the entire Confederacy from the Texas/Louisiana border all of the way across Texas to Brownsville were they evaded capture by shipping out under a Mexican flag. King’s men ensured that the South had the money to keep fighting, and his men included their own crops in the shipments and made a little profit.

The Yankees were not a fan of their cleverness, and burned down the houses and running off or shooting the herds of cattle belonging to the men riding with King. The Dubose place (our homestead) was burned twice, with one of the youngest daughters dying in the second fire.

It was then that they went to join what history remembers as the Civil War, and my Grandmother still bitterly refers to as “The War of Northern Aggression.” For the people in South Texas, and other parts of the state, it was. We’d avoided war until we were starved, our homes burned over our heads, and our livelihoods destroyed. Then they did the only sane thing they could, they took up arms and joined the fight against the men who were leading an assault on their families.

If I were in their position, I can’t see that we would have any choice but to fight against such tyranny.

In any case, my ancestors did take up guns against the Union, fought at Gettysburg, lost friends and loved ones along the way, and eventually returned home to the ruined Texas homestead where they went back to farming cotton and raising cows.

It’s hard for me to look back at the reality of why my family fought for the Confederacy and see the Hateful Heritage and shame that popular culture seems to think should be my birthright as a Southerner. I’m not at all offended that my kinfolk were Johnny Rebs. I am, instead, proud that they tried to stay out of the mess until the Yankees brought the fight down here and forced it upon them....
[whole post can be read here]

Now, at a history book level, it's clear why it is that Texas seceded from the Union, and the answer is: slavery. Texas explained this in its document stating reasons for secession, passed by the state in Feb. 2nd, 1981:
[Texas] was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association. But what has been the course of the government of the United States, and of the people and authorities of the non-slave-holding States, since our connection with them?

The controlling majority of the Federal Government, under various pretences and disguises, has so administered the same as to exclude the citizens of the Southern States, unless under odious and unconstitutional restrictions, from all the immense territory owned in common by all the States on the Pacific Ocean, for the avowed purpose of acquiring sufficient power in the common government to use it as a means of destroying the institutions of Texas and her sister slaveholding States.
...
In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.
...
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights [emphasis in the original]; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.
That is why Texas and the other Confederate states seceded. That is why there was a war being fought between the Northern and Southern states. And that's why the Union navy was blockading Texas.

But war isn't like a social media campaign. People didn't identify with the Union or Confederacy by imposing flag filters over their profile pictures on Facebook based on whether they liked slavery or not. And as Frech describes in her piece of family history, wars have a way of finding people and involving them.

You win a war by destroying armies and by capturing territory or resources. That process (even short of the conscription which is also often used to fill the ranks of armies) involves people who might not care much about the original purpose of the war, or who might even disagree with it. Nor is this uniquely the case with the American Civil War. Virtually all wars are like this. Nor can people be expected to forget that their ancestors and people and think of them instead as totems of an ideology.

The challenge in teaching history is to deal with both the grand causes and the personal. It's a problem when history textbooks make it sound as if the Civil War really didn't have much to do with the question of slavery. But for the differences between North and South on the issue, the Civil War would not have happened. And yet, it's equally important to understand the reasons why individual people lived and fought as they did. That can be a much more varied set of stories, and one which often lacks clear good and bad guys.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

How the Steamroller Will Hit the Church

There have been a lot of suggestions going around that in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage nationally, the Catholic Church in the US should announce that priests will no longer perform civil marriages.

In order to be treated as married under the law in the United States, you need to file a witnessed marriage license in your state. The way it worked for us in California was: you go down to your city hall or other government building to pick the license up. The city clerk fills it out but then leaves the final signatures blank. You take the form with you and give it to the priest who is performing your marriage. After the ceremony, the priest signs the form, asserting that he has performed a marriage ceremony for you. It's then signed by husband, wife, and two witnesses and filed with the state. At that point, the man and woman are considered married in the eyes of the law. Obviously, it's not just priests that can process a marriage license for the state. Any kind of religious minister (Christian or non) can, as can "non denominational" ministers of their own religion. You can also have a strictly civil ceremony performed by a city official.

The theory among some Catholic circles seems to be that since the priest is performing a civil marriage by signing the marriage license, and since same sex couples can now get civilly married, if priests continue to sign marriage licenses they will set themselves up to be forced to perform same sex marriages.

Being penalized for not performing same sex marriages is not the first thing that Catholic organizations need to worry about in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling. The first step will be an uptick in suits against Catholic organizations demanding equal treatment of civilly married same sex couples. We've already seen this go down with Catholic-run adoption organizations being shut down in places like Massachusetts and Illinois for not placing children with same sex couples. That will increase. A lot. Expect Catholic organizations to be forced pretty quickly to provide spousal benefits to same sex partners, and expect a lot of Catholic charities that get government funds to help with their work to lose their funding in retaliation for not recognizing same sex marriage.

But I do think that there will come a point, though perhaps not for ten years or so, when penalties start to be imposed on churches that do not endorse same sex marriage. And I don't think that refusing to sign civil marriage certificates will help one bit.

Here's how I think it will go down: The test case will come at St. Wishy-Washy parish, in a state which has a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. There's that nice, older, same sex couple that everyone basically knows about, but no one ever says anything rude about -- except that nasty rules-obsessed fellow who objects when Father amends the creed to make it more gender inclusive. Pat is a Eucharistic minister. Sam leads the choir at the 5:30 mass and leads the inquiry sessions at RCIA. They're always there to help out in every big parish activity and everyone likes them. One day, they file paperwork for marriage prep and ask to reserve the church for their wedding and the hall for the reception. Maybe that new secretary accidentally books it and takes a deposit check before realizing. Maybe it's just believable at first that Fr. Trendy would celebrate the ceremony on his own authority. But of course, it's not worth the poor man's retirement to have the bishop find out about this one. He tell them he can't do it and he returns Pat and Sam's check to them.

That's when the lawsuit gets filed. Nothing against Fr. Trendy, of course. They know that he probably would agree with them if he was free to speak his mind. But Christ's message of love will be held captive by the institutional hierarchy until they're attacked the only place they understand: their wallets.

The argument: The church is a public accommodation providing marriage services to its members. There are few members of the parish more active than Pat and Sam. Neither has been married before. The only thing preventing St. Wishy Washy from performing the same service for Pat and Sam which it provides for any other couple that shows up wanting the same ceremony and the same reception in the hall is homophobic prejudice. Their lawyer cites scholarly books claiming that same sex marriages were celebrated in the early church, and brings up the cases of Catholic priests who celebrated weddings for same sex couples more recently. Sure, some of these letter were punished by bigoted bishops, but others were not. It is clearly the case that the Catholics can celebrate same sex marriages, they just choose not to because of bigotry.

The court professes itself unable to say what the nature of a sacrament is, and whether or not what the Church says it does when it marries a couple occurs when the same words are said over a same sex couple, but it is clear to the court that the parish is in the business of providing a certain ceremony to couples in the parish who get married, and that they are only refusing to do this for Pat and Sam because of prejudice. The court thus sides with Pat and Sam and imposes heavy financial damages.

A wave of copy-cat cases follow, and the church is slowly bled of resources. Some cases win, some lose, but in all too many cases the parishes have made clear that they have no real issue with people living in same sex relationships, and thus arguments that their stand is based on conviction fall flat. It is clear that the "we don't marry same sex couples" rule is being imposed based on nothing but dusty bigotry.


There's a group out there which is very, very determined to win cultural and moral legitimacy for homosexual relationships, and to punish those who do not share those beliefs. Currently that group is at the cultural helm. In time, it will crumble and lose its ascendancy simply because it is not compatible with the realities of human nature. However, until that happens, the marriage equality group will not be satisfied by seeing Catholic priests stop signing civil marriage licenses, while continuing to celebrate religious marriage ceremonies only for opposite sex couples.  They're not stupid, and it's recognition they want, not getting priests to stop signing a form for straight couples.  Nor would "separating" civil and religious marriage be coherent from a Catholic point of view. Indeed, a non-Catholic couple who get married in front of a city clerk are (absent obstacles such as already being married to someone else or being of the same sex) viewed by the Church as being married, since the Church does not recognize there as being two levels of marriage.  So the idea of "getting out of the civil marriage business" fails to protect us from the looming threat, while at the same time abandoning our Catholic principles as to the nature of marriage.  There is no reason to do it.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

If the American Revolution Hadn't Happened

It's heading into the 4th of July Weekend, which means that it's time for a couple well meaning articles on the reasons why the United States is a terrible idea. Vox serves one up with an article listing three reasons why the author thinks a world in which the American Revolution never happened would have been a better place. His reasons are:

1) Abolition would have happened faster if the colonies were still controlled by Britain. (Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1834.)

2) The American Indians would have been marginally better treated if the US had been like Canada. (This seems like a bit of a reach in that Canada was pretty rough on its native peoples when they were on land they actually wanted. I also was amused when he cited Mexico being less hard on the Comanches than the US was since sane people, including other Indian tribes, generally wanted to be hard on the Comanches. The Comanches were bad news.)

3) A British America would probably have been a parliamentary democracy, and the author thinks they are superior to republican forms of government because they are less prone to deadlock and less likely to descend into dictatorships.

That last one I'll leave alone as it's just another example of the odd fixation of the American left with the idea that if only we had a parliamentary for of government they'd get their own way. What I found tantalizing about the piece was, of course, the chance to think alternative history for a bit, which is always fun.

I think my favorite scenario for how his scenario would play out is:

The Southern Colonies stage successful a late American Revolution in the 1830s to protect slavery. Without the North to restrain them, the American Republic expands into Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America in a slave economy empire. Slavery is eventually abolished in name around 1900 in the American Republic, but it's replaced with a rigorous apartheid regime.

When the Great War breaks out, Britain is able to draw on the manpower reserves of the North American Dominions, which include the northern colonies, which remained loyal to the crown but are also less populated, less industrial, and less rich than the Northeast US in our timestream.

However, Imperial Germany allies with the American Republic in order to open up a second American front against Britain. While the Western Front descends into trench warfare, the massive American Front sees freewheeling warfare along the lines of the historical Eastern Front in WW1. The Allies and Central Powers fight to exhaustion and reach an armistice, but with both Europe and America decimated. Roll the dice to decide who gets socialist revolutions, and Japan becomes the major power in the Pacific even earlier with no American counterweight.

I suppose it shows Britain really has totally lost its imperial power cred now, if people are fantasizing about how giving the Empire more land, people, and resources would have made the world a kinder and gentler place. It's fun trying to imagine the reaction to this piece around 1900.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Greece and the Euro: The Dangers of a Sort-Of Union

Banks and financial markets are shut down in Greece for the next week, until the country holds a referendum on Sunday to decide whether or not to accept the financial austerity measures which would be imposed on it if it is to remain in the Euro and continue to borrow money. After years of low simmering crisis, they may mark the point where Greece finally bails on the Euro. If so, it will mark the failure of an attempt at European semi-union which was designed to provide the benefits of a US style "united states" without actually having to... well, unify states.

The idea of a true United States of Europe goes back a good ways. Where you mark the beginning depends in part on where you put the dividing line between attempts to conquer all of Europe and attempts to unite it. Napoleon envisioned a united Europe, but he envisioned it as an empire which he rules, though with varying degrees of local autonomy. During World War One, many writers imagined that once the war had purged Europe of militarism, the way would be ready for a united Europe. French soldier Eugene Emmanuel Lemercier wrote in a letter to his mother in 1914:
Nov. 15, 1914: “Let me go a little into details concerning my views of a better future to be brought about by this war. These events are preparing the budding of a new life -- the United States of Europe. When this conflict is ended, those who have performed all their filial duties towards their country will find themselves brought face to face with still greater responsibilities, which cannot be realized at the present moment. But here is the paramount duty -- to try now to make the future secure. They must stretch every muscle to do away with all the causes of trouble between nations. The French Revolution, notwithstanding its shortcomings, certain backward steps in practical things, some weakness in its constructive measures, nevertheless impressed on humanity what was meant by national unity. Now the horrors of this war must do the same thing for European unity, for race unity. This new condition can be brought about only through suffering, spoliation, contests for years to come; but there can be no question that the door has been opened on a new horizon.”
(His posthumously published letters can be read here.)
After the war, however, it proved that far from burning away the last obstacles to a United Europe, the slaughter had created new resentments and barriers to such a union. After World War Two, which was in many ways simply a continuation of the first, there was a desire for a united Europe among the liberal leadership that took charge of the Western democracies. However, this time things moved very slowly. Things took several steps around 2000 when the Euro was introduced, passports were no longer required for travel between EU countries, etc. However, although the EU has a single currency and a united banking system, it definitely is not a union on the order of the United States of America, and this seems to be creating tensions that could well destroy it. Understanding this requires thinking about the various components that go into a modern union such as our own, as it's developed during the 227 years since our constitution was written and the 150 years since our Civil War was won.

We have a national currency, the US Dollar, which our government backs by its faith and credit. That currency is used by the US to collect taxes and to pay for anything the government buys (wages, goods, etc.) The states all use that currency as well.

Since the federal government issues the currency, it has the ability to inflate the currency by issuing more than it brings in. However, it usually does not do this. Instead, it borrows money. Since the US has a very good history of paying on its debt, we're able to borrow very large amounts of money at very low interest. The states do not have the option of printing money and inflating the currency, and they are also prohibited from declaring bankruptcy by the contract clause of the Constitution and by the US bankruptcy code. As a result, states potentially have to take draconian cuts to staff and services if their income falls significantly short of our their outlays. The federal government, however, can mitigate this to a great extent in the modern US, because total Federal spending is greater than state and local spending combined. Many government programs and services are paid for directly or indirectly by the Federal Government. This means that while states may have to take severe cuts if they run into financial problems, there's a limit to just how bad things can get for citizens within the state.

This works in part because there's a fairly strong feeling that "we're all Americans" and so while there are arguments about how much the government should be spending, and occasionally people will put together maps of "giver" and "taker" states based on the ratio of federal taxes collected to federal spending by state, people don't actually get incredibly upset about helping our fellow Americans. Currently the state with the highest unemployment is West Virginia at 7.2%, while the lowest state rate is Nebraska at 2.6% (source), but the taxes of people working in Nebraska help cover the unemployment benefits of those not working in West Virginia.

The EU is a much less tight union than the USA, and people seem to think of themselves as French, German or Greek first and as European second. The structure of the union reflects that. There's one currency, and you can travel from one country to another and work in other countries within the union without needing a visa or passport. However, spending is pretty much all done at the state level, not at the EU level. Thus, although the German unemployment rate is 4.7% and the Greek unemployment rate is 25%, Greece needs to figure out how to solve its own unemployment problems. German taxes do not go to pay Greek unemployment benefits.

In addition to using a common currency, the governments of the member states all get to borrow money on common terms, but in return they're expected to behave with common responsibility. During the first decade or so after the currency was put in place, it seemed like this was going pretty well, and the Greek government took advantage of its new borrowing terms to fill the gap resulting from a social democratic sized social safety net combined with a culture of tax evasion. (They even covered up how bad their debt ratio was getting, allowing them to get further into debt than they should have according to EU agreements.) However, when the global economy hit the skids, weak economies such as Greece was things slow down much more than countries like Germany, and so Greece saw its already large gap between tax collections and government spending balloon as more people needed government benefits and fewer people paid taxes. (After all, when 25%+ of your workforce is unemployed, there are a lot less people to tax.)

With their own currency, Greece could have devalued their currency, making their exports more competitive in other countries and making tourism in Greece more attractive to foreigners (both of these because Greek money would be worth less compared to the currency of other countries.) However, with the Euro that's impossible for Greece and they're effectively stuck. They can't use inflation to kickstart their economy and their tax and spend system seems to have gone into a death spiral where people don't pay taxes because they're making no money, and because everyone is out of work they need government money to help people out.
While sticking with the Euro and living through long term austerity in hopes that eventually they'll figure out how to get their economy growing again is a painful prospect, getting out of the currency union is likely to be deeply chaotic in the short term. There hasn't been a Greek currency in fifteen years.
To make they conversion, they would need to freeze everyone's financial assets and forcibly convert them into Greek Drachmas (or whatever they decided to name the new national currency.) Of course, people wouldn't want to have to make the switch, because the value of the Euro will doubtless remain fairly stable, while the whole point of switching to the Drachma would be to allow its value to fall at first in order to reset the Greek economy. So if the vote on austerity is "no", it's possible the Greek banks will remain closed until the new currency is declared in order to prevent a run on the banks.

Of course, it may also be that the Greeks will vote to accept the austerity program that will allow their government to stay in the Euro and keep borrowing.

Either way, this serves to underscore the difficulty of easing into a union such as that of the United States. The nations of Europe have a lot of differences and independent history which naturally make them reluctant to enter a union as close as that of the USA. However, by trying to have a currency union similar to that of the USA while not having the centralized taxing and spending authority of the Federal Government, they've created a whole other set of problems which may cause the union to splinter or at least shrink down to a couple core countries with similar economic strengths.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Great War, Vol 1, Chapter 12-2

There's one more Walter section to go, which I'll have up within less than a week, and that will mark the end of Part 2. I'm going to take a break during July and catch up on good things like sleep. But when I get back, we'll head East and pick up with Natalie.


Near Etrepilly, France. September 9th, 1914. Walter took his canteen and poured it over Alfred’s face, the water coursing away the blood and grime.

“Is that better?” Walter asked, crouching over his friend.

Alfred’s eyes were set, staring past Walter. His jaw trembled, as if he were chattering from the cold despite the hot September afternoon. He made no move to wipe his face, the water running down in rivulets and dripping off his chin. Walter dabbed at him with a handkerchief, a lingering trapping of civilization, his initials sewn into it by his mother in red thread.

“I thought that I’d lost my eyes,” Alfred said. “The shell burst, I heard the whistling of the shrapnel, and then I felt something hit my face and I couldn’t see anything. It was…” His eyes met Walter’s and he started to cry as he had not even on the day that his brother had been killed. Great wracking sobs, which left his face twisted in horror as they poured forth. “I reached up to touch my ruined face, and I felt hair. It was his scalp. God. His scalp was blown off and hit my face.”

His voice gave out and he relapsed into helpless sobs.

Walter put his hands on his friend’s shoulders, pulling him close, their foreheads touching. He knew, as he felt Alfred’s body shaking, that the man was done, at least for now. Perhaps later he would be ready to fight, but for today he had given already everything that a man could give. If he did not get out of the line, Alfred would sob here until he was killed, or until he lost consciousness and received the blessing of oblivion. Yet Walter knew that if he simply told Alfred to go to the rear, he would refuse. He must find some errand on which to send the man that would allow him to leave the battlefield with his pride intact.

[Continue reading]

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Flag, A War, and Remembrance

A week ago, a 21-year-old loner who had become involved with White Supremacist groups went to a bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After an hour, he pulled out a gun and murdered nine people. This kind of racial terror attack on a Black church in some ways evokes the church burnings of 1960s, but there is an encouraging difference: In attacks such as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, witnesses often refused to talk, and perpetrators escaped prosecution for years. In this case, even the murderer's own family assisted law enforcement. There is no longer sympathy or tolerance for racial terror attacks. That's a change, and an important one, which should not be forgotten in the inevitable jockeying for political advantage which follows a shocking national event.

One area in which controversy has flared up is the display of the confederate flag. At the South Carolina state capitol, governor Nikki Haley (herself of Sikh ancestry, and thus a sign of how much this deep Southern state has changed since the 1960s) ordered that the US and South Carolina flags at the capitol be lowered to half mast to acknowledge the tragedy in Charleston. However, a nearby Confederate battle flag at a memorial to Confederate soldiers was not lowered: it can't be, as it is chained to the top of the pole in accordance with the contentious compromise which resulted in its removal from the state capitol building fourteen years ago.

Confederate Battle Flag flying at the Confederate
Memorial near the South Carolina Capitol Building

The connection between the Confederate flag and the killer in Charleston is not tenuous. He posted multiple pictures of himself online holding a Confederate flag, including one in which he poses with both the flag and a handgun. (He also posted a picture of himself burning the American flag.) And while not all people with an attachment to the memory of the Confederacy are attached to its history and to its flag for racial reasons, it's not by chance that some white supremacists also like the Confederate flag. The Confederacy as founded specifically to protect the institution of slavery. Some apologists try hard to soft pedal this, but reading the declarations which the seceding states wrote to justify their actions makes it clear that right from the beginning, in 1861, slavery was the primary reason for Southern secession -- even at a time when the North was not by any means yet radicalized enough by the war to endorse the abolition of slavery.

There have been a number of calls for the Confederate flag to be taken down and Governor Haley has asked the state legislature to repeal the legislation which mandated its display at the memorial. I think this is a good idea. The Confederate flag is rightly seen by Black Americans as symbolizing slavery and racism, and it is, after all, the symbol of a group which rebelled against our government, fired upon our army, and resulted in the bloodiest war in American history.

So I think it would be a good idea if the state of South Carolina did not fly the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds, even at a memorial to Confederate soldiers. However, as with many such topics of discussion, this seems to quickly turn into an opportunity for moral preening and for vindictiveness. Over at the conservative National Review, editor Jason Lee Steorts has a piece arguing in strong terms against any respect ever being given anywhere to the Confederate flag or the memory of the Confederacy.
The Confederacy was a rebellion founded on the incoherent idea that the sovereign authority of the United States might be shucked off at the states’ pleasure, and the Confederacy’s primary reason for being was to preserve racial slavery — that is, to violate natural rights rather than to secure them. That is what Confederate soldiers fought for. Whatever else their battle flag may mean, it has to mean that. It did not become a banner of white supremacy in the mid 20th century when racial segregationists took it up. It was a banner of white supremacy, and of lawlessness, from the beginning.

And that is more than enough to disqualify it from respectability. Valor and skill deployed in the service of evil do not deserve honor. If your ancestors fought for the Confederacy, I do not respect their “service” or their “sacrifice.” I can accept that some of them may not have grasped the enormity of the Confederate project, and so are not to be blamed personally, but neither should they be celebrated. Citizens of the nation they rebelled against should consider it a breach of civic manners to display with sympathy the symbols of their cause. And there simply should not exist memorials specifically to Confederate soldiers. The telling of history does not require them. There should be memorials, rather, of the Civil War, with the American flag flying over them.

Over at the The New Republic (which since its change in ownership is always eager for the latest left-wing hot take) Brian Beutler wrote a piece a couple months ago on the anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant which has received a lot of linkage over the last week, proposing that the defeat of the Confederacy be made a national holiday, that army bases named after Confederate generals be re-named, that the president no longer lay a wreath on both the Union and Confederate war memorials at Arlington on memorial day, that Confederate memorials be taken off the list of historical landmarks, and even that the grave stones of Confederate soldiers no longer be maintained.

I think this is wrong for two reasons.

First, it's cheap virtue. Identifying long after the fact with the right side of a struggle requires no particular effort or sacrifice, and flogging both the memory of the Confederacy and the modern South can be an easy way for modern Americans to forget about the all too recent and real ways in which our country has oppressed Black Americans.

Second, though, this kind of "good guys and bad guys" approach to history misses the tragic sense of history which is so important in understanding the way that real people have lived in other times and places. Not all Southerners sided with the Confederacy. Obviously, Black Southerners were not fans, and those who could escape in some cases fought for the North. But around 100,000 Southern Whites also went so far as to go north and fight for the Union. However, in general, those who were from the South fought for the South.

Yes, the South absolutely did secede because of slavery, and yet at a human level, people do not fight only or even primarily for ideas, they fight for their region and for their friends and family. There is no easy separation between "fought for slavery" and "fought for Southern independence" because they were both different and the same. People legitimately fought for their homes and for their way of living, and yet even for the large number of Southern soldiers who were not slave owners, home and culture could not be easily separated from the racial subjugation which was the economic and political cause of the war. Those who fought for the South cannot be separated from slavery, and yet they did not fight only for slavery, nor can our modern rejection of slavery allow people to completely separate from their history.

Historical connection is a funny thing. I'm five generations separated from the quarter of my ancestry that came from Ireland, and yet due to cultural connections and a common faith, when I read about the Easter Rising or the Black and Tans or some other example of fighting between the Irish and English, I instantly feel myself emotionally involved on the Irish side. And that's despite the fact that I'm at least three generations separated from any disadvantages stemming from Irish ancestry. Despite the fact that I have never in my live been to Ireland. In the South, people are still living near their history. A huge number of Southern whites fought in a devastating war, many died, and in the end they lost. Their region was occupied for ten years, and it remained economically backward compared to the North for another hundred years and more. Liberals in particular like to point out that Southern states are mostly net receivers of Federal money and top the lists of the percent of population on food stamps, but that's partly to say that in some ways the economic impact of defeat and humiliation are still with the South.

Does that make the Southern cause in the Civil War any better? No. But it does explain why (in the US no less than in parts of the world like the Balkans or the Middle East) we are still living with history. Defeat and humiliation create cultural scars -- and not only in foreign countries or among people who belong to racial minorities -- and one of the responses to those scars is to identify strongly with history and with what one can identify as good in it. The memory of Southern pride and nobility is in part a response to Southern defeat. Liberals can understand this when it's said about people in some far away country, but somehow when it comes to those they don't like in their own country, some seem convinced that if they could just stomp on the defeated a bit more it would go away.

Somehow in the US these discussions always go back to the increasingly mythologized "good war": World War II. I've seen a number of people ask why it is that we haven't banned the Confederate flag, just like the Nazi flag was banned in Germany after WW2. The first answer is: As Americans we have commitments to personal freedom that we don't necessarily extend to defeated peoples. The idea of banning anything (including Nazi symbols) as thoroughly in the US as the has been done in modern Germany runs contrary to our current interpretation of our Bill of Rights.

It is true, however, that we and our allies (you know, those arm and cuddly people like Joseph Stalin) were pretty ruthless in stamping out any attachment to the Nazi regime. I'm not sure why the WW1 peace has the reputation of being so much more punitive. It's in WW2 that we completely crushed and then replaced the German government, ethnically cleansed whole areas of the country and gave them to other nations, and wrote pacifism and rejection of the previous regime into the German constitution. We had good reasons for doing it, but it was a brutal business stamping all pride out of a people, and even so people can't walk away from their history. You don't lose five million men and simply forget about it. Recently I watched a German historical drama mini series, Generation War, which had been billed as a sort of German version of the hit American WW2 series Band of Brothers. It's a moderately good series, and worth watching. Some accused it of whitewashing German participation in the war. That's both true and false. It shows just as honestly as any American WW2 drama the horrific things done by German forces during the war, but at the same time it works very hard to separate its characters into "good Germans" who are swept up in the war but come to realize it's evil and Nazis who are the ones directing all the evil. There are bits of truth to this, but the extent to which it shows ordinary Germans out of sympathy with the Nazis is, quite honestly, a stretch. (The series' bigger area of real unfairness is in its portrayal of Polish characters, particularly the non-communist resistance fighters.) Yet what we see here is a culture's attempt to sort out real suffering and sacrifice from the evils related to it -- even when those evils are of the most extreme kind.

While the German example is perhaps the "good" one of stamping out cultural connection and memory, other attempts to do this relating to World War 2 have gone less well. The extent to which the communist Yugoslav regime tried to modify memories of the war, pretending that the only resistance to the Nazis came from Tito's communist partisans and that any non-communist groups were fascist, resulted in a sort of historical blowback when the communist regime fell in the early '90s. For decades people had resented being told to forget their dead if they had not been communists. As the communist regime fell and nationalism swelled, out came the symbols of the nationalist Balkan movements of the 1940s.

WW2 era memories have also been uncovered in some of the Baltic states. For instance, there are celebrations of Latvian Legion Day, and their resistance against invading communist forces. There's just one catch: the Latvian Legion resisted the communists as a Waffen SS unit. And here we come to one of the key dangers of trying to crush out all regional pride and remembrance. After the communist regime insisted for decades that only fascists and Nazis would oppose them and have any positive memory of those who resisted communist invasion, some of those who remained attached to their region, their dead, and their history have taken them at their word and decided that fascism wasn't so bad.

In the end, I think there are several things which, in justice and in humanity, we need to keep in mind:

Symbols matter, and history matters. This means that the symbols of the Confederacy will ever be painful to those citizens of our country who have suffered from slavery and racial oppression. It also means that a partial attachment to the history and the dead of the Confederacy will not go away among their descendants.

I think that people need to think seriously about the message they are sending before they fly a Confederate flag, or wear clothing or use gear emblazoned with the symbols of the Confederacy.  They are symbols with a dark side.

And yet, proposing that memorials and graves be left to oblivion lacks basic humanity. The experiences and sacrifices of those who fought and died for the Confederacy deserve to be remembered and memorialized with dignity because they are human. And people who want to carry vindictiveness beyond the grave, to leave graves unmarked and sacrifices without memorials, need to consider that if you tell someone that they must choose to either despise their history, region, and ancestors or endorse racial resentment -- they may drive some people to pick racial resentment.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Making Marriage Hard

Arguments within the church continue at a low simmer as various factions prepare for the second round of the Synod on the Family in October. Some groups seem convinced that the synod can change (either explicitly or in practice) the teachings of the Church on issues such as the indissolubility of marriage, same sex marriage, etc.

On the matter of doctrine, I believe that the Church cannot change, and in matters of discipline I hope that the bishops will not choose to make changes which would lend the appearance of doctrinal change, confusing a world already far too confused on the nature of marriage.

With all this tension in the air, it was a surprise to me to read a piece I agree with in the National Catholic Reporter on the issue of making the process of getting married within the Church less burdensome. This isn't dealing with the "hot button" issues like changing the annulment process, but rather the ways in which the bureaucracy of  large parishes and the American bias towards massive wedding celebrations have come together to make it increasingly hard for couples to get married.

A May 25, 2012, NCR report looked at church-led efforts to address the growing challenge of getting young Catholic couples to a Catholic altar. In that story, San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy, now bishop of San Diego, spoke of church requirements -- among them the six-month advance notice, marriage preparation costs and wedding location rules -- that "throw up a lot of barriers."
...
Following their December 2013 engagement, Katie Hernandez and Philip Trejo did what most Catholic couples do: began searching for a date and parish for their wedding.

They first turned to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lancaster, Calif. -- Katie's home parish, where her mother has worked since 2000 and where Philip worked for five years. Despite those connections, the response they received was the same one her sister had heard six years earlier: If you're not registered parishioners, you can't get married here.

Frustrated, the couple moved quickly to find a new church, turning to St. Mary Catholic Church, where Katie has taught physical education for two years. At the Palmdale, Calif., parish, they found a more welcoming environment, something Katie credited to her job and friendship with pastor Fr. Vaughn Winters.

Though they secured a church, the hurdles didn't disappear, with the process appearing at times more bureaucratic than sacramental. Both Katie and Philip had difficulty tracking down their sacramental records, with a priest at one point telling Katie she couldn't get married until proof was presented. A list of various fees that compounded as they went through the six-month marriage preparation had her wondering, "It's a sacrament, and we're paying for what?"

Later, she witnessed a priest move another wedding because the bride hadn't paid the proper deposit -- a rescheduling that benefited Katie, but left her thinking, "That's crazy. How do we do these things to people?"
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Karmen and Eduardo Mayorga had been married around two years when they decided in 2013 to have their union blessed in the Catholic church. By then, the couple had an established life together: They shared a home and Karmen had become a mother to Eduardo's three children.

When they approached their parish priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in El Paso, Texas, he informed them that Eduardo, who was baptized in the Catholic church but raised in the Jehovah's Witness faith, must first receive the sacraments of Communion and confirmation. While friends thought the blessing could come first, the El Paso diocese told Karmen that marriage preparation requirements differed from parish to parish.

Work conflicts led the Mayorgas to explore taking sacramental classes at other parishes. In the process, the response of some parish staff and priests was more administrative than congratulatory. It felt to Karmen more "like getting your driver's license" than prepping for a sacrament.
These sorts of stories rang familiar from back when we were trying to get married, as well as dealing with baptisms at some parishes in which the process seemed more designed to check boxes on a form than to grant children the graces of baptism promptly.

We lucked out in our own preparations to get married. The difficulty was that we were graduating college in Ohio and moving out to the Los Angeles area, where we wanted to get married as soon as possible. We weren't members of a parish and several parishes had rules that you had to have been a registered parishioner for six months before you could sign up to get married in the parish and begin yet another six month waiting period between when you asked to get married and when you could actually get married. Luckily, my parents' parish was willing to treat us as parishioners, so we got on the marriage schedule during our senior year of college and were married six weeks after graduating.

Other barriers can be financial. Sometimes the required marriage prep classes come with fees. The parish where we got married required that couples hire the parish approved wedding coordinator to organize things.

A number of these rules are put in place to deal with the problem that at times people who are not practicing Catholic want to use the church as the setting for a big church wedding. Others are designed to try to keep people from entering into marriages that are likely to fall apart later.

I'm sympathetic to these lines of thinking. Marriage is a sacrament, and we want people to be taking it seriously despite a culture in which far too often people do not. And yet, if we allow how parishes deal with weddings to seem like they are acting as gatekeeper to a huge, fancy ceremony -- doling it out only to those who show themselves deserving by jumping through certain administrative hoops -- I fear that we inadvertently reinforce the tendency already all too common in our culture to view marriage as a capstone achievement: First you live together, you get a good job, you buy a house, and get ready to have kids, and then you get married to show that you've "arrived" in life and are ready to settle down and be a successful family.

It's encouraging that people perceive marriage as something they want to "get right", but since we know that having sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin, we don't want to be encouraging people to live together until their household has sufficiently "arrived" to bless it with marriage.

In this area, I think there are two things we should think about:

First, a number of the hurdles, in regards to both time and money, are designed to manage the scheduling of the church for large "church weddings". However, the sacrament itself does not require an organist, white dress, phalanx of bridesmaids and groomsmen, and hundreds of guests. There is absolutely nothing to prevent a Catholic marriage from being celebrated quietly: priest, couple, witnesses, perhaps a few family and friends. In our culture of conspicuous consumption, there may not at first be much desire for such a quiet ceremony, but it should at least be clearly presented as an option, rather than making one Friday night wedding and two to three during the course of Saturday be some sort of a hard cap on the number of weddings which can be performed in a large parish.

Second, we need to take a serious look at some of the requirements which are put up in order to make sure people are serious about marriage, and ask ourselves if they are actually doing anything to help prevent people from entering into vows that they will not keep. All things considered, we went to a pretty decent set of marriage prep classes, and yet the only effect they had on our relationship was to prevent us from participating in the play the theater was putting on our last semester of college (the marriage prep classes overlapped with rehearsals.) Maybe other couples who hadn't had three years of dating to think through issues ("Have you talked about how you will manage finances?") received some benefit, but I kind of wonder. It often seems to me that this is more an exercise in do-something-ism: We should do something to help make sure that people understand the nature of Catholic marriage and that those likely to divorce don't get married. This is something. Therefore, we should do this.

But is it helping? Is telling couple to wait six months and attend a couple of desultory classes really going to do much to inspire fidelity to the Church's view of marriage or to help those with serious relationship problems to realize it in time?

A particular area in which it seems like there should be some streamlining, especially if people are not trying to schedule a big church ceremony, is when people are trying to get an existing union of some sort blessed: whether that's a marriage outside the Church, or a situation in which people who are nor married have been living together for some time and perhaps have children together.

Obviously, if there's a situation in which either the man or woman is possibly already married, there is a need to stop and look at whether that was a valid marriage and thus whether they can be married in the Church at all. However, if no such impediment exists, a delay means either asking a couple who have been living as if married for some time to stop doing so (which needless to say would involve various relationship challenges) or else winking at the fact that they are not married (which is morally a problem.)

In cases where the couple have simply been living in sin together, some hold that they should be encouraged to separate and live chastely for some period of time before being married. I used to have a lot of sympathy with this approach. However, more recently I've come to think that this is misguided. Marriage is not a reward for living chastely prior to marriage, it is a vow to live together as husband and wife, open to children, until death. If people have been living together in an un-blessed version of such a relationship, telling them to break up their household and live apart in order to be able to receive the sacrament so that they can then live together again seems a wrongheaded approach, and one which puts up unnecessary barriers before people who are making an attempt to right their lives in the eyes of the Lord. The solution, I think, is simply to insist that they make a proper confession, receive absolution for their sins, and then marry them quickly and quietly.

There's a similar tendency these days, if a couple has become pregnant out of wedlock, to insist on the couple waiting for a significant period before getting married, sometimes until a certain amount of time after the baby is born. I think one of the ideas here is to make sure that the couple does not feel unduly pressured by the pregnancy to get married, perhaps only later to decide that they're not actually willing to stick by the vows they entered into so quickly. Another perhaps goes back to the big-event-scheduling approach to marriage: why should you get priority and be able to bump someone else's slot in a crowded schedule just because you got pregnant? Clearly, it would be a problem to bump some other couple's wedding so that a pregnant couple could have a big church wedding sooner rather than later. However, setting aside the question of event planning, which is arguably not how we should be thinking about the sacrament anyway: If a couple is going to raise a family together, and is already expecting a child, I'm not clear that telling them to live apart through pregnancy, or asking them to live together "as brother and sister", or tacitly encouraging them to live together in sin is particularly good for them. What is being accomplished? Why not simply marry them and let them get started with living as the family which they have so precipitously formed?

It assuredly is a big problem that for many Catholics, living together outside of marriage seems like a reasonable thing to do. However, I don't think that we necessarily help that situation when we make it increasingly difficult to get married.