Is President Obama Mature Enough For Harold And The Purple Crayon?

The Obamas got out to a fine bookstore on upper Connecticut Avenue today, Politics and Prose. He bought 21 books on Small Business Saturday, for “every age from 5 to 52,” he said. In his sixth year as President, George W. Bush, against type, said he was reading Albert Camus‘ The Stranger. Could Barack Obama, at 52 and at almost the same stage of presidenthood, be capable of drawing inspiration from Harold And The Purple Crayon? This could be a good omen for the healthcare website, as Harold models a fruitful integration of imaginative and managerial capabilities.

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You May As Well Deny That Hypocrisy Is The Tribute Vice Pays To Virtue, Cardinal Dolan

Denying the axiom of La Rochefoucauld that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue would seem to be an uphill battle for any politician, including a church politician such as the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan. Yet Dolan jumped right into “of course I can’t handle the truth” territory in an interview on Meet the Press this weekend when he said that the Catholic Church has been “outmarketed” on the gay marriage issue, and “caricatured” as anti-gay.

Oh please, who do you think you’re foolin’?

The Secular Trend Toward Secularity, or Do Blue Laws Make Us Happier?

In Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, blue laws prohibit most retail activity on Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I am not aware of empirical research correlating this restriction with greater vs. lesser happiness.  Rhode Island is so small, anyway, that driving to Connecticut to shop might not take long.  And much of Massachusetts is less than an hour’s drive to either New Hampshire, Vermont, or Connecticut.  Residents of down east Maine would have a tougher time making it to a physical store, if online shopping isn’t enough to float their boats.  If it weren’t so cold up there, I might head to Bar Harbor to ask people how happy they are today.

In the other forty-seven states, marts are already open, perhaps partly because Thanksgiving never falls later than November 28 (since 1939, at least, when retailers prevailed upon FDR to move up the date, causing much scandal at the time).  In a larger sense, the secular trend is toward secularity, even on Thanksgiving Day.  We (outside of three New England states, at any rate) are no longer living in a premodern age where commandment and counsel are so closely linked that, as Remi Brague has written, “law bathed in counsel as in a nourishing environment.  Counsel preceded the law that was based upon it, but it also surpassed the law by adding a further stage to it.  On the one hand, the law was what had to be observed to assure the full deployment of a nature that, by that fact, realized what counsel wanted.  On the other hand, counsel, in the form of evangelical advice, led to reaching beyond the minimal demands stated in the law and to striving for perfection….With the modern age, the two poles of law and counsel separate, each going its own way in a pursuit of extremes” (The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea, 232-33).  Except, of course, for Reverend Billy of The Church of Stop Shopping, who has heroically refused to separate divine commands from counsels of prudence.

Our contemporary insistence on freedom from constraint and commandment can, remarkably, often still coexist with good deportment.  And yet the “binding tie of cohesive sentiment” Felix Frankfurter evoked in 1940 as “the ultimate foundation of a free society” seems precious and elusive sometimes.  Perhaps it is a good sign when an Elkhart, Indiana Pizza Hut manager is fired, then rehired amid outcry, for refusing to open up the restaurant today.  Here’s hoping no one is trampled to death in a mall this year.

Are Finite Corporations Capable of the Infinite?

If you thought the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision was, shall we say, whimsical in its affirmation of corporate personality and free speech rights, get ready for Hobby Lobby to up the ante.  The chain of arts-and-crafts stores objects to providing contraceptive coverage as required by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.  Their claim is that for-profit corporations have a right to free exercise of their religious beliefs.  One appeals court, the 10th Circuit, ruled in their favor, citing “the First Amendment logic of Citizens United.”  The federal government’s brief to the appeals court noted that “no court has ever found a for-profit company to be a religious organization for purposes of federal law.”

While Justice Kennedy‘s claim in the 2010 decision that the free flow of corporate money into political campaigns would create neither corruption nor even the appearance of corruption seemed dubious at the time and ludicrous in light of subsequent events, he has a chance to redeem himself this time.  He has a chance to set fair and balanced rules of the game that apply to artificial corporate persons as well as actual natural persons. It’s simple: corporations are not just persons with free speech rights, they can be spiritual beings with religious convictions that deserve protection.  OK so far?  Then corporations are capable of self-transcendence and self-giving love, as well as selfishness and depravity. They can suffer, and even be crucified. But now the shoe of limited liability–so convenient for corporate well-being–no longer fits, does it?  Unless the Supreme Court wants to acquit, I mean abolish, the death penalty for “persons.”

P.S. This blog takes no position on the Lutheran/Calvinist dispute on whether finite humans are/are not capable of the infinite (finitum capax/non capax infinitum).

The Canaanites May Have Been Idolatrous, But They Sure Didn’t Use Mega Purple

The recent news of archaeological discovery of 3700-year-old jars of wine (or the residue: tartaric acid, honey, cinnamon bark, etc.) may lead some to say, how wonderful that man has always progressed through the ages, and thank goodness we now drink the pure product of fermented grapes.

Well, then as now, fine wine means luxury product, then for royal banquets, now for the meritocracy or the one percent, as you wish. Though wine is more available in some parts of the world today, then as now, the masses take their ease primarily with beer or ale. And lest you look down on honey and cinnamon bark, by the way, search these terms: mega purple, innerstave, and sweet boost complex boost intense boost. You are forewarned–may make you wish you were a Canaanite after all.

Incomprehensibility–Good Thing Or Bad Thing?

Today’s National Catholic Reporter reports that an “international group of prominent Catholic theologians have called the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality ‘incomprehensible’ and and are asking bishops around the world to take seriously the expertise of lay people” in preparing for the bishops’ meeting next year in Rome.  Leaving aside the question of which Vatican department is competent to decide who possesses sexual expertise, there is a more fundamental issue at stake.  Is incomprehensibility a problem?

German theologian Karl Rahner, who was a leading figure among the European theologian “experts” at Vatican II, wrote in his “Investigation of the Incomprehensibility of God in St. Thomas Aquinas” that God’s incomprehensibility is due to “the disproportion, even in the case of the beatific vision, between the self-communication of the infinite God…and the finite character of the beholder on the other, who remains limited even when raised up by grace and the light of glory and given the capacity to have the beatific vision.”  This might initially seem disheartening, mightn’t it?  But Rahner assures us that we only “find the reality we call faith, hope and love” when we surrender ourselves “unconditionally to this incomprehensibility as the true source of [our] own fulfillment” (Theological Investigations, vol. 16, 244-55).

Suffice it to say that the theologians’ statement, which originated in Louvain, Belgium, is addressed to what they see as bad incomprehensibility.  Pope Francis has rattled some cages, making some apprehensive and others expectant.  The October 2014 synod of bishops seems likely to be when rubber meets road with readily comprehensible loosening of restrictions on divorced and remarried Catholics.

Defiant Healthcare.gov Still Refusing To Leak Black Friday Deals

What, they expect us to pay retail? Everybody has “leaked” their Black Friday doorbuster deals. Everybody but Healthcare.gov. Tons of stores are gonna open on Thanksgiving night this year, and give deals right then and there. Of course if I get trampled before I buy my health care plan by some people who want that iPad mini Retina even more than me, I could find myself out of health insurance and also have to admit that I am unworthy of the extra pixel density of the new model.

Rob Ford, Healer Of Dualisms

Canadians who may be thinking of casting Toronto Mayor Rob Ford out of office and out of the sight of a perplexed but very amused world–think twice before you do anything rash!  For Mayor Ford has made such multiplicitous contributions to Western civilization already, as Saturday Night Live demonstrated last night.  He is doubtless poised to make further and even more felicitous public utterances.  Do you dare to muzzle him now?

Allow me to assemble a bit of supporting evidence.  As Freud told us, the twin pillars of civilized life are lieben und arbeiten, to love and to work.  Who better to exemplify these Freudian verities than Rob Ford qua Mayor Ford?  Were he unemployed, he might well descend into unbalanced and uncouth behavior.  As David Hume wrote in his mid-eighteenth century Essays, “men…kept in perpetual occupation enjoy as their reward the occupation itself, as well as those pleasures which are the fruit of their labour.  The mind acquires new vigour; enlarges its powers and faculties; and…satisfies its natural appetites” (hat tip to Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life, p. 94).  Who could possibly accuse Mayor Ford of failing to satisfy his “natural appetites”?

Speaking of which, and giving Canadian bilingualism its just due, what better guide to love than the maxims of Francois, duc de la Rochefoucauld: “il est difficile de definer l’amour….in the body it is only a hidden and delicate desire to possess what one loves after many mysteries.”  The delicacy of Rob Ford can hardly be overstated, although la Rochefoucauld did also caution that “everybody complains of his memory, and nobody complains of his judgment.”

As Mayor Ford announced Wednesday, “I ask for forgiveness, I’ve apologized and I want to move on.”  This seemingly straightforward utterance in reality raises a series of profound linguistic, epistemological, anthropological, and even ontological questions.  Epistemological/linguistic: the Mayor’s remark includes an expression of intention as well as a command, and as such, as Elizabeth Anscombe observed in her 1957 classic on agency, action, mind, and language, Intention, it thus involves prediction.  The mayor’s injudicious comments on Thursday, which are regrettably far too vulgar for me to repeat, unfortunately vitiated the predictive content he expressed the day before.  As he himself noted in the midst of Thursday’s hurly-burly, “I effed up.”

Or, to borrow (and perhaps abuse) categories employed by the great Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age, Mayor Ford is a living exemplar of a pre-modern “porous” self,  vulnerable and healable, living in a world still full of enchantment. The Toronto city council appears to be full of modern, disenchanted, bounded, “buffered” selves, in Taylor’s terms.  Tant pis for them.

Finally, the ontological issue.  French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote poignantly that “what is man in nature?  A nothing compared to the infinite, a whole compared to the nothing, a middle point between all and nothing, infinitely removed from an understanding of the extremes; and the end of things and their principles are unattainably hidden from him in impenetrable secrecy.”  Canadians, do you not see that Rob Ford may be the one who can finally overcome our “disproportion” and heal the dualisms that bedevil us?  Do not go down the road Pascal feared: “because they failed to contemplate these infinites, men have rashly undertaken to probe into nature as if there were some proportion between themselves and her.”  O Canada, Mayor Ford is a man who is most definitely not “infinitely removed from an understanding of the extremes.”  Do not probe into him too deeply.  He said all he has left in his closet is one coathanger.  Beware of prescribing the imprescriptible, I tell you.

What? You doubt that he has actually asked for forgiveness yet?  You are probably right, and yet you elected him.  Before you beat the dog, find who its master is by looking in the mirror.  And thus heed the Albanian proverb, a pig won’t spare even the most beautiful fruit (Ford being the fruit, don’t deny it–hat tip to David Crystal’s collection, As They Say In Zanzibar).  Moreover crab apples make good jelly too.  And never bolt your door with a boiled carrot.  Do not blame your own cabbage.  And if the hippo blocks the ford, no one can cross.  He (the Ford) may, as Ben Franklin knew, have been too free with Sir John Strawberry, scalded his head pan, and eaten a toad and a half for breakfast. So what?

“End Of Retirement”?

The 401(k) statement started out well enough. My “projected benefit at retirement” would be umpty-ump dollars a month! Terrific! And then it said this was based on a few assumptions. Fair enough, thought I. Somethin’-somethin’ annual rate of return and a little dab of inflation. So far so good, I suppose. But then: anticipated end of retirement at age 90. Not at all sure I like the sound of that. Sounds unsettlingly final. Maybe I’d better not start retiring in the first place.

And what about all those promises that if I like my health plan I won’t have to change it? But “end of retirement” makes it sound like things might not work out the way I was hoping. Now they say there might be an administrative fix or even a legislative tweak. Sure hope that means I can keep my “no-frills” coverage forever and won’t have to die after all.

Canada Expelled From Turtle Island

I am sorry to say that Canada has been expelled from Turtle Island effective immediately, on account of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford‘s remarks yesterday.

OK I lied. Actually I am so proud to belong to a civilized and sensible nation, the United States, not a land of horrid vulgar barbarians like Canada. Our National Public Radio, I am pleased to say, referred to Ford’s live Canadian TV press conference Thursday as “vulgar” without deigning to quote him directly. We are a modest and polite people, we Americans, and we will simply have nothing more to do with embarrassing countries.

Longstanding Journalistic Substitute For Thought Explodes

Toronto Mayor Bob Ford achieved another first today.  By calling himself a “role model” for kids in the midst of a City Council attempt at intervention, he has retired for good the longtime placeholder and buzzword for slothful journalists, “defiant.” Specialists are seeking a substitute even now.  Can you help?

Could Bill Clinton and Joe Manchin Worry About A Health Plan For Mayor Rob Ford And Leave Obama Be For Just Another Month Or So?

Takes a lot of guts to point out the obvious about the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, doesn’t it, Mr. Clinton?  And you too, Manchin.  But watch out you’re not being too cute by half, Mr. Bill.  Why not take a page from your successor (or Winston Churchill)  and take up painting, and maintain a little political silence (though W., I am sorry to say, is speaking this week at a fundraiser for Messianic Jews in Texas–oops).  Your failure and Hillary’s failure to pass universal health care isn’t held against you by anyone with sense–nobody else had complete success either (though LBJ gets way too little honor on this, because of Vietnam) and the current law is nowhere near universal.  But it sure will be held against you if you succeed in provoking mass Democratic panic, so soon after the Republicans made such fools of themselves while Harry Reid held his caucus together.  Maybe Obamacare will be so unworkable that it will implode, but may it not be on your head.

Why Justices Scalia, Alito, and Thomas Will Be Wearing Burqas Over Their Hijabs Going Forward

As a sign of their judicial modesty, if reports in the aftermath of oral argument in the latest public prayer case are accurate.  Chief Justice Roberts is said to be dismayed, worried sick that they will be impeached by irate Tea Partying Republicans in the House of Representatives.  But Scalia let Roberts know he oughta grow a thicker skin and get over it.  “You call this coercion?” yelled Scalia.  “You can’t handle coercion, John.  You let Obamacare survive, but no way are you gonna stand in the way of mandatory prayer for anybody who wants a zoning variance or a septic tank permit.  We could care less what James Madison thought about it.  And by the way, I don’t know about your friends, but my Tea Party buddies are all about Sharia law.”

Justice Scalia is also said to have persuaded two of his hitherto Roman Catholic brethren that it was high time to abandon that squishy enterprise for the true faith.  Alito suggested Eastern Orthodoxy, but Scalia told him “not good enough.”  So Wahhabists r Them, that is if the NYC print edition of The Onion is to be believed.  Say what?–there is no print edition any more?

Where Are Our Prayer Curators?

Curating most anything is very cool these days, I think.  So why were so many of our Supreme Courters seemingly so afraid of curating our public prayers?  Don’t we pay them the big bucks to settle tough issues like this?

To answer–and to get a bit serious–a little history first.  Thirty years ago, the Court last undertook to rule on legislative prayer, in a case out of Nebraska, which had paid a chaplain (same denomination, Presbyterian, for sixteen years in a row!) out of public funds.  Chief Justice Burger, platitudinous and conformist as ever, delivered the 6-3 majority opinion, which was heavy on legislative prayer’s “unique history,” its “deeply embedded” status and its supposed easy “coexist[ence] with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom” (Marsh v. Chambers, 1983).  Justice William Brennan‘s dissent in the Marsh case acknowledged that the “limited rationale” of the decision “should pose little threat to the overall fate of the Establishment Clause,” and averred that 20 years earlier, in a concurring opinion striking down official prayer in public schools, he himself had come “very close to endorsing essentially the result reached…today.”  Brennan then wrote: “I was wrong then and…the Court is wrong today.”  Not a common sight in Supreme Court opinions then or now!

Brennan’s dissent pointed out that the Burger majority opinion “makes no pretense of subjecting Nebraska’s practice of legislative prayer to any of the formal ‘tests’ that have traditionally structured our inquiry under the Establishment Clause….it simply confirms that the Court is carving out an exception to the Establishment Clause rather than reshaping Establishment Clause doctrine to accommodate legislative prayer.”  What should be obvious, according to Brennan, is “that, if the Court were to judge legislative prayer through the unsentimental eye of our settled doctrine, it would have to strike it down as a clear violation of the Establishment Clause.”  Brennan then set off on a lengthy explanation of the principles and purposes of “separation” and “neutrality” implicit in the Clause: guaranteeing the individual right to conscience, keeping the state from interfering in the autonomy of religious life, preventing the trivialization and degradation of religion which occurs when it gets too closely attached to governmental bodies, and finally keeping important and sensitive religious issues from becoming political battlegrounds.  Justice Brennan went on to detail how “the imperatives of separation and neutrality are not limited to the relationship of government to religious institutions or denominations, but extend as well to the relationship of government to religious beliefs and practices.”  He refuted the ahistorical talking point that his view of the Establishment Clause is “a recent concoction of an overreaching judiciary,” citing none other than James Madison (his post-presidential “Detached Memoranda”).   Brennan concluded his dissent by quoting de Toqueville on the strikingly beneficial mutuality of the spirits of religion and freedom in the United States of the 1830s, which Toqueville’s informants agreed was due to the complete separation of church and state.  “More recent history,” wrote Brennan, “has only confirmed de Toqueville’s observations.  If the Court had struck down legislative prayer today, it would likely have stimulated a furious reaction.  But it would also, I am convinced, have invigorated both the ‘spirit of religion’ and the ‘spirit of freedom.’  I respectfully dissent.”

That was thirty years ago. The oral argument in Town of Greece v. Galloway appears to me to signal an outcome not too different from Marsh.  Those who seemed inclined to uphold the western New York town’s practice since 1999 of beginning town board meetings with prayer justified themselves by worrying about censoring speech (Kennedy, whose fetish for applying First Amendment absolutism inappropriately is getting on my last nerve), by pooh-poohing the element of coercion (Scalia and perhaps Alito), or by worrying about overturning a longstanding practice (though sectarian prayer just started in 1999–the previous town supervisor was mindful enough to begin with a moment of silence).

Justice Sotomayor got at the heart of the flim-flammery of pretending that Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and practically everybody (except atheists–though in 2013 American religious “nones” appear to outnumber all non-Christians) were all welcome to join the festivities when she got the town’s lawyer to admit that Christian clergy led the prayer on average 11 out of 12 months each year even after the court challenge began! According to the 2nd Circuit Appeals Court ruling, there was an outbreak of pluralism in 2008, with four non-Christian prayers out of twelve, and then a reversion to the pre-lawsuit all-Christian norm for at least a year and a half (Galloway v. town of Greece, 681 F.3d 20).

Regarding the curating of curates’ and others’ public prayers, I now propose a moment (or a day) of silence and mindfulness–which is only to say I hope to have more to say in a little while.

Defiant Supreme Court Still Beginning Each And Every Day With Vulgar Petitionary Prayer

Just days after floundering solemnly, as only they can, through oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court is persisting in its vulgar and idolatrous practice of insolently petitioning G-d to save them and the United States.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway earlier this week, seven of the nine Supreme Court justices struggled to decide what, if any, prayers, ought to pass constitutional muster in the town meetings of Greece, New York. Clarence Thomas‘s silence may well have been an endorsement of Gullah-Buddhist syncretism. Antonin Scalia, who crossed the bridge from judging to trolling a long while ago–and who has lurked under that bridge ever since–chose this week, as usual, to embody two parts Mayor Rob Ford and three parts Emperor Theodosius (died 395 CE, and who, more than Constantine, made Christianity the official church of the Roman Empire).

But the other seven really seemed flummoxed, and I sympathize. Our country is perhaps blessed with much continuity and civility in its religiosity, but it is markedly more religiously pluralistic than just thirty years ago, when the Marsh case allowed prayers to continue in Nebraska’s legislature (uniquely, in the U.S., unicameral–is this unusual unity unpleasant for unregenerate utopian unbelievers? Undoubtedly). Ulteriority, or lack of it, was the key to the Marsh decision, which approved prayers so long as “government does not act with improper motive in selecting prayer-givers or exploit the prayer opportunity to proselytize, advance, or disparage any one faith or belief.” Some of the justices, e.g. frequent swing voter Anthony Kennedy, seemed reluctant to dive into the mudpit of “parsing prayers” this time around, but what is their alternative? One week of prayer for the monotheists, and then as many weeks for the polytheists as they have deities? That would be just as sensible as some of the proposals put forth in oral argument. Decision expected by next June.

“A Dispirited America” Decides To Move To New Jersey

Hundreds of millions of non-New Jerseyan Americans are on the move this morning, after watching Chris Christie declare in his victory speech last night that their lives would continue to be miserable and empty unless–well, let him tell it: “Tonight, a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington, looks to New Jersey.”

Little did Christie know just how “dispirited” we are who have never had the privilege of seeing New Jersey. We are on the roads. We are all coming to Jersey. Be it by I-95, I-80, or the old Lincoln Highway, we are bound and determined to see Pennsauken and Vineland and Paramus before we die. And when we all reach New Jersey, we can all work together, as Chris Christie yells at us that we must. And, much as happened to Iberia in Nobel Prize-winning novelist Jose Saramago‘s The Stone Raft, then New Jersey will detach itself, beginning with the Ironbound district of Newark, then from the Palisades to the Meadowlands, and then all along the Delaware River, and we will all float out into the Atlantic. And no one will be left in Nebraska, of which Chris Christie’s favorite entertainer, Bruce Springsteen, sang many years ago. And Chris Christie will finally apprehend that there is no longer any point in running for President.

How Much Is That Duck Boat In The Window?

Having warmed up by purchasing a cigar-store statue that was apparently speaking to him on a San Francisco street earlier this year, Red Sox pitcher Jake Peavy hauled off and bought the whole duck boat he had just ridden in during the amphibious duck boat victory parade in Boston Saturday.

Actually he didn’t really need to ask how much. His salary would probably buy at least a duck boat apiece for his whole family with extra room for cigar-store impulse buys. Duck boat pricing information on the internet looks inconclusive to me, though one seller on yachtworld.com, according to Boston Business Journal, listed a 1945 DUKW for $115,000 (D is for 1942, U for utility, K for all-wheel drive, W for the two powered rear axles). Peavy pitches well enough to earn over fourteen million dollars a year. So even though he is legally blind without corrective lenses, I have to figure he didn’t want a little duck boat, he wanted the full-size. And I doubt his wife, even if so inclined, is going to be able to get it out of the yard (on second thought it’ll be a nice substitute for a canoe on the bayous near Mobile), although it does mean the next victory parade, may it be soon, may be a little cramped with one fewer boat for the players.

Merkel Invites Snowden To Speak At Brandenburg Gate; Obama Counters With Broadway Ticker -Tape Parade Offer

It hasn’t quite come to that yet. But would Edward Snowden–who is a civilian, not subject as far as I know to a military trial, really be convicted by an American jury today? I am not advising him to come back to the United States, but I suspect that few politicians or prosecutors, from President Obama on down, would feel confident attacking Snowden right now. Not so much because sympathy for what he did is necessarily so strong, but unease if not anger about what the NSA has done to privacy, twelve years after 2001, has become so widespread that jury nullification would be a very live possibility. I have little doubt that Snowden broke laws. I do not think he stood on solid ground when he asserted in his October 31 letter to Hans-Christian Stroebele, a German lawmaker, that “my government continues to treat dissent as defection, and seeks to criminalize political speech with felony charges.” That strikes me as a bit much–or, in another sense, as too little, in that the stakes should probably be even higher than Snowden claimed. The NSA may well continue to evade oversight, but the agency has shown it has little sense of prudent self-restraint with the latest revelations this week. It sends exactly the wrong signal to an out-of-control child, or intellence agency as the case may be, to not put in the hard work and diligence needed to set limits in a firm, fair way. Are we the people and our representatives up to setting limits on our overfed, idiot savant, gargantuan yet immature national surveillance state?