I Must Have A Floater In My Eye

Or else we are living through some kind of absurdistan overload (hat tip to novelist Gary Shteyngart). I could swear that I read the mayor of San Diego wants his city to pay for defending him against sexual abuse lawsuits, perhaps on the theory that sexual harassment is part of his job description. And that Edward Snowden’s lawyer has given him some light summer reading: Dostoevsky‘s Crime and Punishment, with a “dessert” course of Chekhov. Moreover, I seem to read that Anthony Weiner is still in the “race” to succeed Bloomberg in New York City, and that The New York Times is utterly unable to cover his campaign because it refuses to quote what Weiner’s communications director called a campaign intern. I refuse to use the bad words too, on the grounds that I would like to become a life development coach for the entire Weiner “campaign operation” as they traverse the many–beyond five for sure–stages of grief.

And I could swear that Cardinal Dolan went on the Today show yesterday to say that he was unsurprised by Pope Francis using the word “gay” (he did use the English word gay, speaking otherwise in romance languages) and “who am I to judge” in the same sentence, because there is no change in doctrine, just a “beautifully tender way” of expressing the same old news of “the immorality, in God’s view, of any sexual expression outside of a man and a woman in lifelong marriage.” Why am I not expecting Dolan to actually take himself seriously and give a series of sermons denouncing the intrinsically disordered lives of a huge percentage of New York Catholics? And why, when he says that he and the Catholic Church do not judge people but rather actions, do I think that he expects Matthew Shepherd is headed to the fiery pit ahead of a church prince who may well have shielded sexual abusers in Milwaukee in order to avoid scandalizing the faithful. If that is what happened, I have good news and bad news for Dolan. Good news: maybe there is no God. Bad news: maybe God exists and is just. Meister Eckhart said centuries ago, “the just are so set on justice that were God not just they would not care a fig for God.” The converse is true for dirty rotten Cardinals.

Who Are We To Judge What The Fresh Pope of Copacabana Is Thinking?

Someone once said that if the Archbishop of Canterbury says he believes in God, that is all in the way of normal business; but if he says he does not believe in God, he is probably speaking honestly. Pope Francis, fresh off a rockstar Mass on Copacabana beach in Rio, said in a mid-air interview en route back to Babylon–Rome, pardon me–that “if someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Who am I to judge? So much for authoritative magisterial mediation of the boundaries of heaven, hell, and purgatory? Seems like most every day is casual day for Francis. In all–or some–seriousness, I think he is actually trying to focus on the big issues of global poverty and suffering, and revitalizing the Roman Catholic Church’s life in light of that focus. I imagine that making news now with comments on sexuality is his way of moving toward his plans to fry bigger fish.

Very Brief Therapy in Quiet Rooms

No, I am not referring to the mayor of San Diego, who laughably proposes to efface his years of disgraceful behavior with two weeks of therapy. Nor Anthony Weiner, who has probably moved forward beyond brief therapy and is not easy to associate with quiet rooms.

Instead I have in mind the unusually frank public responses this week by former Justice John Paul Stevens and current Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA Notorious R.B.G., as I explained in an earlier post) to the Shelby County v. Holder majority opinion by John Roberts that invalidated section 4 and may have effectively gutted section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The message I take from both Ginsburg’s AP interview (and her dissent last month) and Stevens’ New York Review of Books article on Gary May’s Bending Toward Justice is that Roberts is judging in haste, asserting power that does not belong to him under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments; and more fundamentally that Roberts is misreading, misjudging, and foreshortening the vexed and troubled history that made and makes the VRA so needful. In short he has no patience for more than a brief therapy of less than 50 years, for a problem that has existed in more or less brutal forms for nearly 400 years here.

Reading a series of memos John Roberts wrote as a Justice Department employee in 1981 and 1982 as Congress was in the process of reauthorizing the VRA shows that he was impatient even then to restrict the uses of what Justice Ginsburg memorably called the VRA’s “umbrella.” Section 2 of the VRA, according to him, was good enough (he does not explicitly say “for the colored people”). An “effects test” for voting discrimination is “unacceptable,” as it would be “fairly easy to demonstrate that such practices (as at-large voting) have the effect of diluting black voting strength”–and we Republicans cannot accept that practices favorable to us should be deemed illegal, is the message. According to Roberts’ memo to the Attorney General on December 22, 1981, the Fifteenth Amendment “safeguards the right to vote only against purposeful or intentional discrimination on account of race or color.” The actual Fifteenth Amendment says no such thing: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” That’s it, from beginning to end.

The young Roberts was insistent that “something must be done to educate Senators on the seriousness of this problem” (the horrors of adding an effects test to the good-enough-for-black-folks section 2, given that section 5, already in Roberts’ sights, had such a test). They need either a written warning along lines suggested by Roberts, or else a “thorough campaign of meetings (should be) undertaken.” One can imagine John Roberts in a quiet room with Republican Senators giving them brief therapy on their own political future–by saying that the therapy provided by the Voting Rights Act for just seventeen years, at that point, had gone far enough.

Has John Roberts succeeded in drawing the veil over the second Reconstruction? Stick around and see, as lawsuits and countersuits begin in Texas, and likely several other states.

Moral High Ground Hits New Low

Hand him over and we will not torture him or execute him. No, this is not a tribal warlord in one of the ‘stans. This is the Attorney General of the United States today, telling Russia that we are not going to abuse or kill Edward Snowden.

Our Opaque President’s Virtuoso Performance

President Obama’s dramatic monologue on the Trayvon Martin case in the context of the experiences of black people under suspicion and surveillance, including himself, reminded me of some words written decades ago–before Barack Obama lived in Hyde Park–by Charles H. Long while he was a professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. Long wrote in his book of articles and essays, Significations, of the need of oppressed peoples to come to terms with their opacity in a world where the deity is white and transparent and darkness is an index of sinfulness. Commenting on both Hegel‘s master-slave dialectic and DuBois’ double-consciousness, Long points out that “the slaves had to come to terms with the opaqueness of their condition and at the same time oppose it. They had to experience the truth of their negativity and at the same time transform and create an-other reality. Given the limitations imposed upon them, they created on the level of the religious consciousness.” Long goes on to evaluate the “theologies opaque” of black American and native American writers as part and parcel of the “new liberation theologies…that carry a familiar Enlightenment ring.”

Barack Obama has (setting aside for the moment the startling unfolding saga of actual public debate over the surveillance state) presented himself consistently in nonracial or transracial terms, as a man who transcends any supposed antithesis between Enlightenment and faith, in short as a normally transparent person, at least compared to his mad dog opposition. But in order to respond authentically to the verdict of not guilty in Trayvon Martin’s killing, Obama did something we had not seen before: present himself not as a President who happens to be African-American but as a black man in America who happens to President, with the opacity–to white Americans–that comes with such a self-presentation. I hope I can say without being picayune that as important as it may be for white Americans to try to “wring bias” out of ourselves, it could be at least as important to just let the strange feeling of opacity come over us simply by imagining Barack Obama as a 35- or 40-year old being followed while shopping at Marshall Field’s in the Loop.

Oppugnancy In The Defense of Oppugnancy Is In Fact A Vice

How far will the Republican majority in the House continue their oppugnant ways in the face of polls that show a majority of Americans likely to vote getting fed up with them? Yes, gerrymandering and redistricting have done quite a bit to insulate them, and fear of facing a righter-than-thou primary opponent makes deal-cutting complicated. But Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK) and Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) are neither fools nor anything other than conservatives. Burr said today that it is nuts to threaten to shut down the government unless the health care law is defunded, and Cole called the shutdown threat a “temper tantrum.” Their frank critiques of Republican extremism are significant signals, I think, of the beginnings of a climbdown. Norman Ornstein and Bruce Bartlett, among others, are sensible, nonliberal, and fair-minded critics of GOP oppugnancy (hat tip re this rare word to Charles H. Long, history of religions scholar) and of the rampant and whorish conventional wisdom of false equivalence–but the real action is when deeply right-wing elected Republicans point to an exit strategy from lunacy.

Why Am I Feeling So Threadbare and Theoretical?

Because the UK’s Telegraph has spoken: “Everyone Can Celebrate a Child Born to Be King.” Perhaps they are right to say that the “widespread rejoicing…deserves to be taken seriously for what it is…. We all know very well what a prince is. And yet it has to be spelt out.” Okeley Dokely, hit me with your best shot. “The arguments of republicans…are threadbare and theoretical, whereas the benefits of the monarchy have been tried and tested.” Ouch–how in the world have we gotten through the last two hundred thirty-seven years? What about Ben Franklin? Mr. “a republic, if you can keep it,” himself–what would he do to stifle these little Britons? Quite the technophile, our Ben; would he send in the drones against these monarchists?

Then again Kim Jong-Un leads a democratic people’s republic.

John Boehner Dilates Upon Legislation And Judgment

Mr. Speaker Boehner says we should judge the House not on how many laws they have passed but rather on how many they have repealed. No problem. You may be red hot, but you have not repealed diddly squat. Now what?

Great News Out of UK–Puffin Pairs On the Rise!

For the first time I can recall there is only one “top story” on the Guardian Android app. But why not shine a little light on another heartening story underneath the screaming headlines about the new Prince of Cambridge. “Puffin Numbers Show Encouraging Recovery,” say the Guardian and BBC News. On the Farne Islands, just off the Northumberland coast, the population is up eight percent since 2008 to almost 40,000 pairs of puffins. Yes they are beyond cute.

NRA and ALEC Stand Their Ground And Then Some

Representatives of the National Rifle Association and ALEC may or may not have responded to the Zimmerman verdict by expressing concern that although the system worked well and George Zimmerman has his gun back, not enough black male teenagers are yet sufficiently armed. “Sundown laws and slavery are so yesterday’s news, and we support the right of black folk to stand their ground too. We have pretty much maxed out on sowing fear and terror in the white community. We need to expand or die, or expand and die. Whatever. The more guns the merrier. I am talking about market penetration and liberty here. No retreat!”

This ought to be satire, but see Jelani Cobb, discussing the NRA ad featuring Colion Noir.

The Deep State Stands Its Ground

On Friday the NSA‘s FISA court authorization to collect metadata on (at least) all American phone conversations, which was due to expire July 19 at 5 pm, was renewed. Surprise! The oracular press release from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was reported by the Guardian.

Robert Lady, former CIA Milan station chief, was convicted in absentia by Italy for the 2003 kidnapping, in Italy, and “rendering” (read: delivered unto torturers in Egypt) of an Egyptian who was living in Italy after having been granted political asylum from the Mubarak regime by Italy. Mr. Lady was recently located in Panama. Italy requested that he be extradited to serve his prison sentence. But Panama put him on a plane to the U.S. a couple of days ago, reports Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian yesterday. The moral high ground regarding the rule of law seems to be expendable.

Brian Hauck of the Dept. of Justice asserted Friday before a federal judge that “Americans targeted overseas do have rights” but “they could not be enforced in court either before or after the Americans were killed.” Hauck noted that decisions on targeting “are made at the highest levels of the executive branch, with robust consultation with Congress,” to which (Republican-appointed) judge Rosemary Collyer replied, “No, no, no. The executive is not an effective check on the executive with regard to an individual’s rights. you cannot ask a judge to hold that only the Executive will check himself… (The Constitutional limit) is the courthouse door. And yet you say there is no courthouse door” (sources Scotusblog, Guardian, NYT, NPR blog The Two-Way).

The judge in the Bradley Manning trial upheld the validity the other day of the “aiding the enemy” charge. The problem with this from a First Amendment standpoint is that it amounts to defining the media as the enemy (see Harvard Law professor Yochai Benkler’s comment piece published in the July 19 Guardian expanding on this), which is what the dni.gov press release implied as well. Probably not a good omen for our future as a democratic republic.

Will the veneer of legality in all these distinct but related stories be thoughtlessly equated with constitutional legitimacy? The deep state is counting on it.

France Profonde?

NYT columnist Maureen Dowd seems to be enjoying writing from Paris on the ways of the Parisians and extrapolating from  that to make generalizations about the French. Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic is also in Paris, grappling with French language immersion and the American way of “justice.” I would like to recommend a recently translated work by one of the earliest recorders of the Muslim encounter with the ways of post-Enlightenment Europe. Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi’s Account of a Stay in France by an Egyptian Cleric (1826-1831) was translated by Daniel L. Newman and published in paper in 2011 as An Imam in Paris. Al-Tahtawi writes: “You should know that the Parisians distinguish themselves from many Christians by their keen intelligence, profound perceptiveness and depth of mind when treating recondite issues….they are in no way prisoners of tradition. Rather, they always wish to know the origin of things, while seeking proof to support it, to the extent that the common people among them can also read and write and, like others penetrate deep matters….So, the masses in this country are not like some herd of animals as in most barbarous countries….The character traits of the French include curiosity, the passion for all things new…especially when it comes to clothing….To this day, not a single fashion has stuck with them….The men are slaves to the women here, and under their command….the French are among those whose decision about whether something is good or bad is based solely on reason. I should like to add here that they reject anything that transcends the rational….Despite the fact that they drink…alcoholic beverages, they do not often eulogize (them) in their poetry and, unlike the Arabs, they do not have many words to refer to wine. They take pleasure in its essence and features without imagining any hidden meaning, similes, or hyperbole….The French have the utmost respect for matters related to correspondence. Nobody can open a letter that is addressed to someone else, even if the person is suspected of something….you should know that this people is divided in terms of their opinion into two major parts: the Royalists and the Liberals.” Plus ca change, n’est-ce pas?

Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary Breakout!

Multiple sources reported that Pope Francis is offering to pardon your sins–yes, you, I am talkin’ to you, unless you have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, and how likely is that–on Twitter. You do not have to go to Vatican City anymore, it would seem. But only Mashable, to my knowledge, has offered this clarification: “a previous version of this story said Pope Francis will pardon sins via Twitter. But plenary indulgences grant pardon from punishment due to sins which have already been absolved. We regret the error.” Mashable, you are not the only folks who regret the error! For a brief shining moment, the world seemed hospitable… And then… Back to the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary! That is one of three Vatican tribunals (stop thinking about Monty Python right now)–one hopes that they did not lead the editors of Mashable down the primrose path on this delicate point. For details see the fine work by Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory. Or Dante.

The Defiant Majority

Last week, in another installment of his “False Equivalence Watch,” James Fallows of The Atlantic called out the NYT for an untenably ignorant portion of its account of Congressional paralysis: “in both the Senate, controlled by Democrats, and the House, under the rule of Republicans, the minority is largely powerless to do anything but protest.” The Times did later change the story, but without issuing any sort of correction or indication of a change, to reflect the actual asymmetry between the House Democrats and the “Senate Republicans (who) at least have the power to filibuster…” A minor point, perhaps, except that it is part and parcel of the reflexive world-weary conventional wisdom of “a pox on both your houses.” True often enough, but in this case it is pertinent that there were 16 filibusters between 1840 and 1900, and over 130 in just 2009 and 2010. Fair-minded reporting cannot evaluate Mitch McConnell and his fellow Senate Republicans’ record as anything but a wild deviation from all historical norms, in response to a President and Senate in many ways at least as conservative as the Republican norm of the 1970s and even 1980s.

Today’s NYT has a headline referring to Harry Reid as “defiant and uncompromising.” For what, exactly, bearing in mind he is the Majority Leader of the Senate? For “pushing through a rules change to end filibusters of executive branch nominations” by ensuring up-or-down-votes on a twice-elected President’s capacity to select the staff he wants? This is not even about Supreme Court nominations or lifetime federal judgeships, nor about any laws that would help prevent, heaven forbid, gun violence.

The Times notes correctly that “in recent decades, both parties have escalated the use of the filibuster and other delaying tactics,” and acknowledges that “since Mr. Obama became president, Senate Republicans have gone especially far with the filibuster.” That is quite a bland way of admitting the truly remarkable and unprecedented way Senator McConnell and his Republican colleagues have ground Senate actions very nearly to a halt.

Does any of this matter to regular people? Only if you work for a living. You do not need to belong to a union, for example, to have some stake in the existence of a fuctioning National Labor Relations Board, not to mention a Consumer Protection agency with real authority.

As demographic changes continue, expect to see more sly, sh-t-eating references to the “defiant” majority.

Florida Fails at Ditch Duty

Maintaining drainage ditches is a responsibility, if sometimes a tedious one, of landowners. Maintaining the moral drainage ditch is a part of the duties of government. Florida failed in several ways to dam and control the flow. When Angela Corey, the Florida state attorney assigned to the Zimmerman case, gave her bizarre, smiley public statement after the verdict last evening, I wondered how anyone paying any attention could possibly think that the state had really provided “due process” of law here, as Corey claimed with an attitude of fiddle-de-dee satisfaction. I am not criticizing the jurors. The prosecutors failed in their duty of care, which was to provide a coherent portrait of the obvious. Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Roberto Martinez, in a Miami Herald “Other Views” column, laid it out: “The man thought the teen looked suspicious. The man called the police to report his suspicions… The man was told by the police not to chase and pursue the teen. The man decided to chase and pursue the teen anyway. The man was carrying a loaded gun. The teen was not carrying a gun. The teen was not carrying any weapon. The teen was carrying candy. The teen was not committing any crime. The teen was not trespassing… The man and the teen met in a physical confrontation… The man shot the teen… The shot from the man’s gun killed the teen. There is no evidence that the teen was committing a crime or about to commit a crime. But for the man chasing and pursuing the teen, there would have been no physical confrontation…but for the man’s negligence in carrying a loaded gun and chasing and pursuing the teen, after being told not to by the police, there would have been no physical confrontation and the teen would be alive. No reasonably careful person would do what the man did, and that should be obvious to everyone. And, that is without considering anyone’s race.”

The race to the nasty, brutish, and short bottom represented by the NRA and ALEC-sponsored so-called stand-your-ground laws is a big problem, but even so, the state of Florida failed miserably to even present the case for simple and equal justice here.

First Amendment Zones

The Miami-Dade Police Department, in anticipation of a verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, has set up two “First Amendment zones,” one in Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Liberty City, Miami, and the other south of the city in Goulds, Florida (source: Miami New Times, which notes that “all of America is technically covered by the First Amendment”).

Ex-Pope B16 Excommunicates Self, Applies for Theological Asylum in Russian Orthodox Church

An ex-Papal shocker today. Full disclosure: I have small Latin, less Greek, and even less facility with the Cyrillic alphabet, but if my translation of Pope Benedict’s remarks is accurate, the last straw for the former Roman pontiff was the news that Pope Francis is insisting on the removal of the statue of himself that went up outside the cathedral in Buenos Aires just a couple of weeks ago. “This guy Francis has zero respect for the veneration of icons. It’s as if he never heard of the condemnation of iconoclasm by the 7th Ecumenical Council of 787. Francis is so clueless about the difference between veneration and adoration he might as well be a Protestant! For heaven’s sake, this is theologically below the Mendoza line. If this is the way Francis is going to roll I am outta here. Going the full Byzantine, and more. That Vladimir, he is a true man’s man. And that Edward S., so young! And so very thin!” At this point Benedict fainted.

Seeing Race in Sanford

Charles Blow asks in his NYT column today how we (we black, Asian, Hispanic, and white Americans) would be likely to frame and perceive the trial of Trayvon Martin–oops, of George Zimmerman–if the races and ethnicities were reversed, and if the dead young black male were a dead light-skinned blonde female. Blow asks: “Are we acculturated to grant some citizens the right to feel fear while systematically denying that right to others?”

African-Americans can hardly avoid seeing and hearing the media expectation (egging on?) of rioting after a not guilty verdict.

George Zimmerman said in a Fox TV interview that his killing of Martin “was all God’s plan,” not to be second-guessed.

Juan Williams writes today on foxnews.com that Trayvon Martin can no longer “speak for himself and get beyond the box of racial stereotypes the media built for him” or escape the “racial slander” the media has attached to the case. Zimmerman, having declined the chance to testify, is going to “carry his box of racial stereotypes around until his death…. Whatever the final verdict… . There are no winners here.”

And we live in the land of the free? How much does our sense of liberty depend on the privilege of feeling chosen to play Cain rather than Abel?

Francis: No iPhone, No E-Class, No Logo–We Barefootin’

Pope Francis wasn’t fooling around when he said he was staying in the city (that would be Rome) for the summer. Rome was not a fashionable summer spot 2000 years ago, nor is it today. But Francis has been busy, not just massaging Benedict’s draft encyclical a bit, but giving regular homilies. Oh, and making two popes saints. In a reconciling move, the Roman Catholic Church gets both Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II. It looked as if JP2 was going to get sanctified first, but Francis, in a bold stroke, said my man Roncalli don’t need no stinking second miracle.

Francis also said the other day that Christians don’t need no regular ID cards either–because of the freedom that the message of reconciliation and grace brings, “we are saved in Jesus Christ! And no one can take this identity card from us. That’s my name: son of God! What a wonderful identity card! Marital status: free! So be it!” Marvelous, and regarding his marital status, could he be saying to to the Roman Curia you are not my daddy?

And just yesterday Francis fired a shot across the bow of the dominant “culture of the provisional,” advising future priests and nuns to avoid seeking the “the latest smartphone, the fastest car.” Unconfirmed tweets from the event claimed that Francis would be funding acquisitions of some up-to-date artworks from his fees for Verizon and Vodafone‘s new ad campaign with the Pope personally promoting thirty-year no-cancellation-allowed phone contracts.

The Magisterial Laziness of “The Light of Faith”

Does the post heading mean I think Pope Francis’s honeymoon is over? Not necessarily, because near the beginning of the first papal encyclical to go out under his name he acknowledges that his predecessor Benedict XVI is the real author and that he just added a few touches. Other than the clear reference to Benedict by Francis in section 7, we could resort to parsing the text with some quick redaction criticism, but suffice to say the voice of Francis seems apparent mainly toward the end of the document. We can thus withhold judgment on Francis’s theological priorities for now–or assess his theology via his homilies (which have been widely reported on, sometimes without benefit of official Vatican publication, almost like samizdat; another sign of Francis bypassing Curial filtration), not to mention all the tweets.

How could I possibly charge J. Ratzinger/Benedict with lightness and laziness, when he has seemed so unbearably heavy and serious for so long? Because while he undeniably produces detailed exegeses of many Scriptural passages as well as ante-Nicene and post-Nicene Patriarchal texts, with special reference to Augustine (a real pity, by the way, that Pope Benedict never did get around to an ex cathedra reversal of the condemnation of Jansenism), Ratzinger displays inexcusable laziness of two kinds. First, he pretends to transcend the onesidedness of Nietzsche (section 2), Wittgenstein (27), Greek thought (29), and the Enlightenment (3)–but typically by setting up straw men, so as to facilitate proof of the superior comprehensive Truth of the magisterium. For example, he announces that “slowly but surely, it would become evident that the light of autonomous reason is not enough to illumine the future”(3), as if that’s where the serious discussion really stands, and as if the only alternative to naive belief in enlightenment-as-both-necessary-and-sufficient is “vigilance in ensuring that the deposit of faith is passed on in its entirety” (48). Second, Ratzinger’s transparent horror at the pluralism of the actual world drives him to hysterical panic in section 13. He notes approvingly that “Martin Buber once cited a definition of idolatry proposed by the rabbi of Kock: idolatry is ‘when a face addresses a face which is not a face.'” Ratzinger might well have taken the chance right there to offer an interpretation of Emmanuel Levinas on the face of the Other. But no, off he goes into a rant: “Once man has lost his fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires…a myriad of unconnected instants…an aimless passing from one lord to another…a plethora of paths leading nowhere…a vast labyrinth.” Goodness gracious! Makes one just want to give up and admit that Prada is the one true shoe.

The gravitas of this papal encyclical on faith is marred if not overshadowed by a sometimes defensive and authoritarian tone. A fitting coda well described by Eugene C. Kennedy today in the National Catholic Reporter: “Why is it that, although Pope Francis only entered our lives a season ago and Pope Benedict XVI spent eight long–and I mean long–years as our Holy Father, does Francis seem like someone we have known a long time while we may say of Benedict what the Irish say of Johnny, that we hardly knew ye?” Speaking not at all as an insider, that seems to sum it up well. The time of sinners in the hands of an angry old Ratzinger is done. If Pope Francis threw Benedict a bone by publishing this encyclical, that might be a meritorious, generous act. If Francis really buys into the whole magisterium-focused package of Lumen Fidei, well, then he would not be the happy warrior he appears to be. Guess the next ecumenical council (in case you missed the secret announcement, it starts next fall) will tell.

Wine Snobbery Faces Dismal Future

On the NYT website this morning, the top health story, and #2 science story, is “Scientists Fabricate Rudimentary Human Livers.” Researchers in Japan “caution that these are early days and this is still very much basic research.” They can’t fool wine snobs, who are thoroughly panicked. While unlimited beverage alcohol consumption with few health consequences might seem to the thoughtless an unmixed blessing, such is not the case for the true “amateur” of wine. What purpose remains in distinguishing the finest terroirs of summertime French pink? Who can really care any longer about sub-sub librarianship of grand cru differentiation? Dr. Hillel Tobias of NYU Medical School, and chairman of the American Liver Foundation‘s national medical advisory committee, may believe in his heart that this is “a major breakthrough of monumental significance,” but there are losers as well as winners here.

The recent Guardian story claiming that wine tasting is “junk science” was troublesome. But it could be that a study of 6000 blind tastings in the Journal of Wine Economics had design flaws. If Dr. James Hutchinson of the Royal Society of Chemistry says that there’s “a lot of nonsense and emperor’s new clothes in the wine world,” well, we might say go stuff your royal society… But free replacement livers? Ya-hoo for the undiscriminating palate, perhaps–but for snobbery, an unending nightmare.

Who You Calling “Abducted by Imperialism”?

I am not sure if the President of Bolivia was forced to land in Vienna, longtime crossroads of spies, because of French and/or Portugese compliance with American imperial pressure. I am not sure if the Austrian search of the plane was contrary to international law. I do not know if Tom Hanks has already signed up to for his role in The Terminal Episode 2. I do not know if Air Force One smuggled George W. Bush, or Dick Cheney, or anyone else accused by anyone of being a war criminal, aboard its flight from Tanzania back to Andrews Air Force Base yesterday, or whether any nation attempted to deny Air Force One the use of its airspace. I do not know the plot of John Le Carre‘s next novel. I do not know how upset the French and Germans are that the NSA is bugging them in a big way. I do not know if Rand Paul will keep fighting for free trade with Ecuador and Bolivia so we can keep getting cheap flowers and cocaine.

I do know–or so says Google’s doodle–that Franz Kafka was born 130 years ago today.

No He Can’t Handle the Truth

James Clapper, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, actually said he forgot about section 215 of the Patriot Act when he gave the least untruthful answer to Congress he could about NSA surveillance. Even though it might disturb him, maybe he oughta read more Noam Chomsky.

The United States Have Been… But Not Since Gettysburg

The authenticity of a statement released by Wikileaks today and attributed to Edward Snowden is in doubt, as several journalists doubted any American would use plural verbs for America. “Snowden” wrote that “for decades the United States have been one of the strongest”–and let’s stop the charade right there. No American, however disoriented in a faraway country, is likely to lose his or grip on our native speech pattern. The voice is supposedly the voice of Snowden, but the hands seem to be the hands of Assange–seeking a blessing obscure to me. But the telltale non-American grammar reminded me, on this 150-year anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, of something I heard years ago about American usage before and after the Civil War. Before the war, Americans would say “the United States have been…” After the war, “the United States,” more and more, became singular–even as the “unfinished work… the great task remaining before us… a new birth of freedom” still stretches out ahead.