Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Think Editor, Not Oatmeal

I was reminded at mass tonight that today is the 50th anniversary of the election of Pope John XXIII, the martini-drinking, cigarette-smoking, jolly Italian pope who called Vatican II and is beloved by pretty much everyone who knew him.

It's also the 50th anniversary of the death of Fr. Wilfrid Parsons, SJ. No, it's not the guy from Cocoon and Quaker Oatmeal -- that's Wilford Brimley. Wilfrid Parsons was editor of America from 1925-1936. Before I went to Australia I did some research on Fr. Parsons. There's a great story about him and his secretary. Apparently, he had a female secretary. I know, it's shocking. What is a priest doing working closely with ... a woman?

So, of course, the Jesuit Curia in Rome ordered he had to fire her. This, although Parsons said she was both good at her job and really needed the money. (She was newly married.)

Fine, he fires her, and replaces her with a man. Problem solved? You'd think. Except, the replacement was a non-Catholic. The provincial was not pleased. He prohibited Parsons from entering into a permanent contract with the man. His fears, apparently, were that a non-Catholic should not be seeing confidential material from America. Parsons tried to explain that the secretary only handles magazine correspondence, and has no contact with Vatican missile codes, the secret phone number for Fr. General or other "top secret" information. Still, the Provincial would not relent: "Even as a magazine-secretary I do not at all like the idea of having a non-Catholic since much magazine correspondence (that never gets into ‘copy’) may be of a nature that we do not wish non-Catholics to see.”

Talk about different times....

The other interesting piece of trivia about Parsons' run is that he began what is still the standard acceptance procedure of America: a submitted article is given to at least two editors, who give their opinion, and then it is passed to the editor-in-chief. If either editor says yes, the editor-in-chief is free to take it or refuse it. If both say no, he must pass.

Actually, in looking for a photo of Parsons online, I found one more little tidbit. In Nov, 1935, he wrote this letter to Time, criticizing its reporting:

I think you ought to know that you got off on the wrong foot on your Cleveland Eucharistic Congress story (TIME, Sept. 30). Whatever your good intentions were, from this editorial desk I have heard complaints about it from all over the U. S., and they seem to be growing in volume. Many readers of your paper, spontaneously and without any collusion, saw in the story many a sly dig against the Church and its personalities. You see, once it gets into people's minds that you have no respect for anything, they see in all of your airy remarks something sinister or at least unfriendly. Watch your adjectives!


Editor America New York City

Time responded:
Never were TIME'S intentions more sincere than in its effort to report thoroughly, seriously and fairly the preparations for Cleveland's Eucharistic Congress. Thoroughly astonished and disturbed was TIME, therefore, when it learned that its report had displeased many Catholic readers. If offense was given, TIME is more than sorry.—ED.

Do I sense some sarcasm in those abundant, earnest adjectives?

In May, 1935, Time reported another battle with Parsons:
Many a U. S. radio listener, one night last March, heard the first program in a 13-week series sponsored by the Mexican Government Tourist Bureau to advertise Mexico as a vacation spot. Lasting 15 minutes, the program went out over 15 stations of National Broadcasting Co.'s "Blue" network, covering the States East of the Mississippi, North of North Carolina. Angel Mercado's band tinkled Mexican popular tunes. In English, an announcer blurbed Mexico. In Spanish, a singer recited a poem to a musical accompaniment.

Not until last week did non-Spanish-speaking listeners learn that, translated, the poem went as follows:

Oh—the night I spent there
At the side of a girl
Of graceful and regal bearing,
Firm and wide proportions.
Later she sang to me,
Interspersing her song with kisses,
Some war song,
To the accompaniment of my guitar.
And then my heart
With enthusiasm filled
As if at the call of arms
In conflict had engaged.
But my greatest pleasure
Was when she disrobed of her flowing gown.
Like a flexible branch
She disclosed her beauty
An early rose
Which had broken loose from its bud
Boasting of all its beauty.

Knowledge of what the verses were all about might never have been spread but for the alertness of a Manhattan Jesuit, Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, editor-in-chief of America. From acquaintances who heard the broadcast he learned that the verses were only part of a long poem called En Elogio de Silves (A Eulogy of Silves), written by one Al-Motamid, an 11th Century Arab roue who lived in Seville. For Spaniards the piece parallels "Frankie & Johnnie." Further, Father Parsons learned that after the poem's recital the narrator sniggered coarsely, exclaimed: "But why go on? You know what happened!"

At once Father Parsons protested to NBC, which offered a number of explanations to the effect that someone should have been more vigilant. Father Parsons protested to the Federal Communications Commission, which started the motions of a routine investigation. Sixteen Catholic & non-Catholic Congressmen excitedly demanded that the Commission summarily revoke the licenses of all stations that broadcast the Mexican program.

Parsons was apparently very involved with the creation of the Legion of Decency and the Production Code for Hollywood films, which dictated the moral standards for Hollywood films for 20 years. Fellow editor Joseph Breen left America to work as head censor in Hollywood. For some time he was the most powerful man in Hollywood.

"He's Going to Ruin the World"

Yesterday John Oliver from the Daily Show did a story on the reactions people have to the candidate they're not voting for. It's remarkable how incredibly similar the reactions are -- X is going to ruin the country, I'm scared for my children, etc. I've posted the video below. (New feature!) It's a really useful challenge to pretty much all of us. It turns out those crazy (fill in the blank) from (fill in the blank) supporting (fill in the blank) are really just like us.

Monday, October 27, 2008

More Election Videos

I gotta say, there's more great videos out there about the election than I know what to do with. Here's a couple great ones for you.

For those looking for a flashback to the "ancient past".

Or the more recent past.

Or have you seen this one about voting? The first minute, you're gonna love it. The second, you'll be thinking up a parody. (I hope to have one online very soon.) The third minute, your'e going to just hate it. And you'll never feel so so grateful for Sarah Silverman and that guy from Superbad. And then you're going to be thinking up parodies again, and wondering, where was that one that McDermott said he was working on. And then you're going to get to the end, and you'll feel better, until you see Dustin Hoffman again, and then you're just gonna be sick and wish you could pelt him with Rubik's Cubes.

One more week.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Wouldn't It Be Nice?

Two weeks and one day to the election....

In other news:

As of yesterday, there's a new Catholic news website available. It's called CathNewsUSA. CathNews gathers stories on Catholic issues in the U.S. from both Catholic sources such as Catholic News Service and Catholic News Agency, and secular sources such as Newsweek, USA Today and Foreign Policy. If you're into Catholic news, it's a great resource, and one that's not already present in the US. The idea comes from Fr. Michael Kelly, an Australian Jesuit who began a similar service for the church in Australia, where it's been very successful.

Today's stories include the statement by the archbishop of St. Louis that voters will have to account for their vote on Judgment Day; alternate dismissals being prepared for the end of Mass; Bishop Wenski's efforts toward a more humane immigration policy, and more.

Just a little Catholic heads-up.

Did I mention it's two weeks and one day to the election ?

And did you all see Sarah Palin Saturday night? If not, check them out here and here.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jury Duty, Day 1

I had my first experience of jury duty today. I'd say there were about 100 of us in a long room with varnished pressed wood walls. We sat there pretty much all day, waiting to be called. But nothing happened. So we go again tomorrow, and then maybe we go home.

I asked the clerk, this wonderful bloke who looked like he just got poured out of the bar next door, and had a wonderfully mellow way about him (unlike the guard at the entrance of the building, who kept barking at us to get into two lines -- like it mattered) - What's the craziest excuse you've ever heard to get out of jury duty, once they're here. He told me, "Well, today, someone told me the toilet seats are unacceptable, they need to leave.

For real.

Apparently, don't try that at home. It doesn't work.

The funny thing is, it feels like our lives are so saturated with law shows and movies, you're interpreting everything around you in a weirdly dramatic way. So for instance, coming back from lunch I dropped my water bottle. And the first thought I had was, Will anyone think this is some kind of signal I'm making? Hello, crazy. Or when I was leaving for lunch I kept thinking someone was going to come up to me and talk about "the case". Except I didn't have a case. I had been sitting in the room watching music videos on my iPod and cackling over "Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog" (which, if you haven't seen it, go get it at iTunes. Some great musical numbers).

So again, hello, crazy.

If I do get on a case, after each witness I'm going to make that Law & Order sound effect. "Your witness." "DUN-DUN." It must be done.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Friends Don't Let Friends...

I don't know if you've seen this web video about the election; it's very funny.

And just to be clear -- if the McCain/Palin campaign produced funny videos (other than their own interviews), I would post them, too. This is the best I've found.

By the way, as the election season draws to a close and you're pining away for some of the great viral videos of the last year, I've just posted them all in a little piece for America about the phenomenon. Enjoy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Spiritual Reflections on the Financial Crisis

Here's that article by my friend Andy Hamilton, SJ, on the financial crisis.
The wage of sin is the death of the market

It is interesting that the Churches have had little to say about the financial crisis and the behaviour that caused it. After all it has put at risk the lives of people throughout the world no less than do abortion, euthanasia or gambling. And Christian faith, with its insights into sin and salvation, offers some rich material for reflection.

Sin is popularly seen simply as the breaking of God's laws. But at a deeper level sin is the pursuit of values that sell your humanity short. That pursuit typically both corrodes your humanity and undermines the conditions that permit you to pursue cheap values. This process can be seen in the financial crisis.

The root of the financial crisis was greed — seeking individual financial gain in ways that did not respect the common good. The symbols of greed were spectacular. Monstrous salaries of CEOs, for example, and takeovers that transferred fees to the engineers and debt to the companies.

But greed was not confined to the top end. Funds demanded that companies produce short-term profits, led in turn by their members who wanted spectacular superannuation growth.

The way in which greed saps the humanity of the greedy and injures the welfare of ordinary human beings and of societies is evident enough. It is less recognised that unfettered greed destroys the conditions under which the market itself can function and under which the greedy can reward themselves.

If they are to function, financial markets require confidence. They are based on credit, and we give credit only to people whom we believe to be credible, and only if we believe creditable the processes by which we give credit. If we believe that people in the market are trying to rip us off and can rely on shonky processes to do so, we shall refuse credit. Without credit financial markets collapse.

Greed alone does not destroy trust and confidence. But it breeds a fatal lack of responsibility. We accept responsibility for our own gains but refuse responsibility for others' losses. The evasion of responsibility creates bad process. We make a legal and commercial framework that diffuses responsibility. When we need to reckon our debts and our credits, we shall be unable to do so. Confidence and credit will disappear from the market.

In this financial crisis evasion of responsibility has been refined into an art form. The slicing of debt into instruments that make it impossible to determine who has responsibility is a clear example. So is the propensity of banks to press money on those who cannot repay and the failure of board to resign after approving policies that gutted their companies and employees.

So the wage of sin is the death of the market and consequent real deaths in a world that relies on credit. That is where the parallels with Christian theology get interesting. There too the cycle of sin begets irresponsibility, and irresponsibility begets a doomed world. Salvation needs to come from outside by the intervention of a beneficent creator. He must take responsibility for debts owed in an altruistic and painful way. Thus is the working of greed and irresponsibility healed, doom averted, and credit restored. Sinners will be inspired to another and better way of life.

It all sounds familiar, doesn't it? The Reserve takes on all bad debts, and market players are freed from the consequences of their greed and irresponsibility. So salvation comes to the market whose devotees henceforth eschew greed, are responsible, and look to the common good. The market can be trusted to regulate itself.

Sound likely? Or in the market does salvation merely mean that the greed and irresponsibility are spectacularly rewarded?
In Christian faith, of course, there is the little business of original sin. People continue to sin, so that even after they come to faith life is a school for learning altruism. That experience suggests that financial markets will continue to encourage greed. So they need to be carefully structured in order that they don't foul their own nest of confidence as well as smearing those who depend on them.

Churches have a lot to say about markets. They ought to humour as children those who tell us to trust the markets to regulate themselves. Greed is part of the human condition. It does not offer salvation. That is something altogether different and better.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Lilies and Lehman Brothers

Yesterday the Dow dropped over 500 points. Today I read in the paper that specialists think we've almost hit bottom. And in many articles recently I notice the term "cratering" peppers the text. A bleak term, conjuring for me the desolate landscape of the moon. A peer told me yesterday, "Cratering -- it's what's left after a massive explosion."

Which is funny, because to me the situation has none of the immediacy or clarity of an explosion. Things aren't happening all at once; anything but. Rather it feels in New York as though we're all witnesses to the slow-motion collapse of a building, floor by floor. This isn't a bomb going off, it's dominoes, phantom, in the dark dominoes where you're not exactly sure what touches on what or what might be the next to lose its steadiness. While we were caught up with evaluating our $850 billion bailout, the European banks began to wobble significantly. And if we react too soon or dramatically, we may escalate the whole thing. There's little clarity about how to react at all.

The media, as far as I can tell, points to consumer fear as that which is driving things forward, even as it creates special title sequences like "Economy in Peril," with urgent music and reportage scarier than a Wes Craven movie. Perhaps our situation can cause the American scene to do some soul searching about more than just the portfolio of our investments.

Strangely, as I walk through Manhattan streets these days, things seem much the same as always. One still hears the familiar sirens of police cars going to a crime scene; passersby hurry down the sidewalks, irrespective of signals or other pedestrians; vendors sell ice cream and hot dogs on the street corners. And tourists wander through Midtown, where I live, hand in hand, off to see a show or wonder at the nighttime pulse of Times Square.

Lehman Brothers may have collapsed; the name has changed on the door. But the building still stands, bold and eye-catching as ever with its wrap-around two-story TV screens. Doormen still stand outside the doors, and investment bankers zip in and out as on the run as ever. So, too, AIG, Morgan Stanley, and on and on.

If there's a change to be heard, it's maybe a change in key. What was confident and energized still appears so, but the chord that sounds now introduces a note of question or uncertainty. What is this world that we're all so tied into ? It lives and dies on our commitment to it, but it is all it's cracked up to be? What is happening and what does it all mean?

And commentators can talk about consumers ruled by fear, but I must say, when I take my wallet out of my pocket, I am thinking of what I am doing in a different way. The act of spending itself stands out in a new way.

At a talk last Friday Thomas Frank from the Wall Street Journal commented on the he notion of greed that many have talked about. He argues, "It's not greed, it's the structure. There’s layer upon layer of culprits, from the people who appraised your house to the people who handed out the subprime mortgages like candy."

The lesson to be learned is not about who to trust, but the perils of deregulation: "This is what the system will do if we let it. When you stop the regulation, this is what people will do. The greed is in the structure."

A buddy of mine from Australia recently wrote an article about the spiritual dimensions of all this. I'll post it on this blog tomorrow.

Jesus took care of the sparrows and the lilies that live but a day. If them, how much more will he take care of you.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Gallows Humor

Have you seen The Financial Brackets?

I have the Federal Reserve against the Queen of England in the Finals. Queen wins by the Crown Jewels.

Idle Thoughts

While I sit comfortably in my Starbucks couch and muse over our financial crisis, a number of things rumble on through. Like the hand wave at church:

A couple weeks ago I attended a daily mass in a Manhattan church. Pretty big church, people spread out, but enough people present so that everyone was just a couple pews from everyone else, at most.

At the Sign of Peace, many people just stood in place and gave a polite wave. Often they were just a few feet from one another, but they wouldn't reach out their hand.

Have you had this experience? I'm guessing that you have. I'm thinking of writing a little article about it, and talking about the value of shaking off the inertia and actually shaking hands with people you don't know.

How do you feel about the hand wave? Any thoughts or personal reflections on the Sign of Peace?


The other idle thought -- after my post about poetry, my friend Ken wrote: "Beautiful. And sad. I don't know what to think. My brain is full anyway with political whateverness, impending financial doom, visions of a post-apocalyptic world with people driving around in shopping carts, and--in the midst of all of this--the presence of the Cubs and the Brewers in the playoffs. Surely we are living in end times."

I have to say, the idea of driving around in shopping carts sounds AWESOME. But the contents of Ken's mind resonated with me. And I thought, we should all have ourselves a little poem to work with to fend off the demons.

Here's one I like.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps his purse shut:
when death comes
like the measle pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited the world.

Mary Oliver