Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 24, 2014

Our democracy’s greatest threat – our disillusionment

It has been boasted of as the biggest democratic event in the history of mankind. Half the world – at least – is going to the polls over these two months to elect local government assemblies, national assemblies, international assemblies, or heads of states.

All the countries in the European Union are heading into elections on the 23rd of next month to elect a new European Parliament. In many of them elections for local assemblies are also taking place. Why does this civic right and duty, which should be an inspiring, hope-filled and uplifting experience, induce such a distasteful feeling and even disgust in our hearts?

As those of us living in Dublin, Ireland, made our way to work yesterday through streets which overnight were festooned with banks of posters pinned to streetlamps, our hearts sank.  A myriad of smiling and determined faces stared at us from these lampposts, asking us to give them our “number one” vote. Could that sense of disgust, that sense of wanting to look the other way, be in some way connected with the disillusionment of the people of Ireland – I cannot readily speak for other parts of the world – over the past few years which is reflected in opinion poll surveys showing ever decreasing support for the nation’s political establishment. This is a disillusionment bred out of the experience of broken promises, lies and corruption which is what a large section of the Irish electorate now associates with its political parties.

Ireland you are not alone. Across the Irish Sea the same disillusionment is being experienced. Jeremy O’Grady, editor of The Week writes in the current issue:

What a disquieting maxim it is: “honesty is the best policy”. Blam: just like that, a virtue is demoted to a stratagem. Yet even as a stratagem, few of our politicians seem to have much faith in it. They act as if dishonesty always has a better pay-off.

He is loath to accept that they’re devoted to telling lies. However, the Daily Telegraph columnist, Peter Oborne is less shy about pointing the finger in this direction. Oborne maintains that in Britain, since the time of John Major’s premiership, lies and politicians have been constant bedfellows. Oborne has written a book on the subject, The Rise of Political Lying, in which he says “mendacity and deception” have become the norm, adding that British politics “now lives in a post-truth environment”.

O’Grady, while clearly not liking the politicians edging away from virtue, faults them on simple pragmatic grounds. This isn’t just unvirtuous: it’s a strategic error. So move over Machiavelli. I believe honesty does pay. I honestly do.

But is there any hope of Aristotle – or even Plato – replacing Machiavelli? Not much, unless the voters of the world look all these smiling and determined faces and ask them to make themselves accountable to the Truth with their deeds, not pretending to do so behind a veil of false promises. Our feelings of hopelessness in the face of their past deceit and hypocrisy is the first thing they have to address before they begin to make new promises about what they are going to do in the future. Only then will we have any chance of being able to walk out into our streets and not be reminded, with every few yards we travel, of sad betrayals of misplaced trust.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 22, 2014

Thinking about it… Free speech


From Mark Steyn’s disturbing article on freedom of speech in The Spectator:

Erin Ching, a student at 60-grand-a-year Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, ….in her college newspaper the other day: ‘What really bothered me is the whole idea that at a liberal arts college we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion.’ Yeah, who needs that? There speaks the voice of a generation: celebrate diversity by enforcing conformity.

The article is here.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 22, 2014

Cameron ‘does God’, but…


Charles Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph about the attacks on David Cameron which followed his Church Times article describing Britain as a Christian country, noted some inconsistencies in the Prime Minister’s thinking. Specifically, he pointed out how Cameron has sold out on one of the country’s most valuable Christian institutions, marriage.

Of all the human institutions developed in the light of Christianity, marriage has been the most abiding. It is because of Christianity that marriage became a lifelong and increasingly equal bond between one man and one woman, chiefly in order to bring up children lovingly. Without Christian teaching, it was not much more than a property deal about women (with sex thrown in), made between men.

Because he wanted to be seen to modernise his party, Mr Cameron decided to introduce single-sex marriage. In rushing forward to do so, he made no attempt to reflect on the Christian heritage which he now extols. He never seems to have thought about why the relationship between a man and a woman might not, in fact, be the same as that between a man and a man or a woman and a woman.

Although an exemplary parent himself, he did not consider how refounding marriage on a quite different basis could endanger the rights of children. The people who framed his new law started – too late – to consider what marriage law actually involves and found that the law of consummation, central to the definition of marriage, could not apply to any same-sex act. Quite unintentionally, marriage has been redefined, with sex taken out of it. The good Christian Mr Cameron has trivialised and de-Christianised our greatest social bond without meaning to. Not surprisingly, he chose not to speak about marriage at all in his Church Times article last week: he would not have known what to say.

Moore’s Telegraph article is here.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 21, 2014

Culture and its enemies

Culture, mass culture or mass hysteria

Strange bedfellows: culture, mass culture and hysteria

Richard Hoggart died recently, aged 95. He was the author of The Uses of Literacy (1957), one of the most influential books published in the decades following the Second World War. It was a study of working-class culture and the impact of what could be called the Cultural Revolution – not Mao’s monstrosity – which followed that war in the 50s and 60s of the last century. For Hoggart, however, there was within this Cultural Revolution a large helping of what he saw as monstrous as well.

As the Daily Telegraph noted in its obituary of Hoggart, “In the 1950s it had become fashionable to argue that a newly affluent worker was emerging who was becoming middle-class in lifestyle and political attitudes. Hoggart saw the cultural impact of such developments as almost entirely negative.”

Hoggart’s view and apparent pessimism were disparaged by many and mocked by others. However, in the month in which he died another fierce critic of aspects of our contemporary culture described the world in which we live now in terms which can only serve to make us see Hoggart’s words as profoundly prophetic.  David Bentley Hart, in his First Things withering assessment of Adam Gopnik’s now famous article on religious belief in The New Yorker, sees the current vogue in atheism as partly derived from some of the same things which Hoggart railed against. In Hart’s terms,  this is “the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players.”

Hoggart was a scholarship boy, orphaned at eight years of age, who came from a very poor family in Leeds in England. In The Uses of Literacy he described how the old, tightly-knit working-class culture of his boyhood — of stuffy front rooms, allotments, back-to-back housing and charabanc trips — was breaking up in the face of an Americanised mass culture of tabloid newspapers, advertising, jukeboxes and Hollywood. “The hedonistic but passive barbarian, who rides in a fifty-horse-power bus for three pence, to see a five-million dollar film for one-and-eightpence, is not simply a social oddity; he is a portent,”

Was he a portent of what Bentley Hart was to describe this month? Perhaps.

“Everything,” Bentley Hart writes…  “is idle chatter—and we live in an age of idle chatter. Lay the blame where you will: the internet, 940 television channels, social media, the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, whatever you like. Almost all public discourse is now instantaneous, fluently aimless, deeply uninformed, and immune to logical rigor. What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends—not with a bang but a whimper.”

For Hoggart, ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties popular culture was not some kind of new Renaissance but was “full of corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions”, tending towards a view of the world “in which progress is conceived as a seeking of material possessions, equality as a moral levelling and freedom as the ground for endless irresponsible pleasure”.

He railed against that icon of the age, “milk bars”, probably the Anglo Saxon equivalent of the “drug store” hangout of the Jets and the Sharks of West Side Story. These he saw as inducing “a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk”. The manipulation of generations by those he called he called “the mass publicists” was so all-pervasive that genuine native popular culture was destroyed by the toxic confection produced by these.

Hoggart wrote in the 19th-century Arnoldian tradition of radical idealism, with its strong sense of moral values. He was passionate about culture but disdainful of modern mass culture – which for him lacked the essential humanist ingredients of genuine culture. He believed in the transformative value of great literature but held that for that to thrive: “In a democracy which is highly commercialised you have to give people critical literacy. If you don’t do that, you might as well pack it in.”

His thought in some respects might be echoed in the ideas of Pope Benedict XVI on the evil of relativism. Relativism for Hoggart “leads to populism which then leads to levelling and so to reductionism of all kinds, from food to moral judgments”. In Hoggart’s judgement, those who might argue that the Beatles and Beethoven could occupy the same plane of appreciation represented a “loony terminus”.

Perhaps the irony inherent in the life’s work of Richard Hoggart is that in his attempt to correct the evils he saw overtaking our cultural life, he pioneered the discipline of “cultural studies”. He is seen by many as the father of this discipline. This was then taken over by the theorists of mass culture who proceeded to install the Goddess of Relativism on the high altars of all our universities and thus created the very desert which David Bentley Hart describes.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 19, 2014

The Catholic Church is blue in the face reminding us of this

Anguish. But why?

How painful this must be for Anglican Christians who believe themselves to be members of a Church founded by Jesus Christ? Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury sets his doctrinal compass by judging who or who will not continue to follow his example rather than by the moral compass set by Jesus Christ himself.

In a  Daily Telegraph article we are told: Although indicating that he was sympathetic to calls for the Church to publicly honour gay relationships, the Archbishop says that it is “impossible” for some followers in Africa to support homosexuality. In the interview, the leader of the Anglican Church, which has 77 million followers globally, speaks movingly of the persecution faced by Christians in parts of the world. He indicates that the Church must not take a step that would cut off these groups, most of them in the third world, however much this angers parts of society in Britain.

Following that way of thinking Christ might have said to those faithful disciples who remained with him after others walked away when he promised the Eucharist: I cannot give you this great gift of my body because these others who would like to follow me find it “impossible” to accept it.

Archbishop Welby’s followers surely expect him to decide on what he should teach and legislate for in these matters on the basis of what is right or wrong, what is sinful, and not on how many people here or there find something possible or impossible.

Welby acknowledges that in the past people experiencing same-sex attraction have suffered at the hands of others, Christians and non Christians. That this should have happened was never, and never will be, part of authentic Christian teaching. The principle which governs a Christian’s attitude to all this derives from Christ’s own example when he said to the woman taken in adultery: Go and sin no more.

The sexual attraction which led that woman to the act of adultery was not sinful. Its indulgence, her response to that attraction in an adulterous act – whether in mind or in body – was what was sinful.  Christ did not fudge that.

Homosexual attraction is not in itself sinful. The Catholic Church is blue in the face reminding us of this. The indulgence of that attraction in acts – again in mind or in body – is sinful. No amount of head-counting, opinion polling, counting who does or does not find something “impossible”, will change that.

Christians in Africa have their own deeply rooted customs and social practices to cope with which are alien to Christianity. At some future date we might have a sub-Saharan occupant in the See of St. Augustine in Canterbury. If there were pressure from his flocks in Africa asking the Christian Church to bend its moral laws and come to terms with polygamy, it would be a very weak and flawed response on his part to offer as a reason for not doing so that people of another culture would find that “impossible” to accept.

A moral teaching which seeks to operate on this kind of criteria will soon wither away.



In the aftermath of Irish Television’s failed attempt to do a hatchet job on the Pure in Heart movement – which organises speakers to go into Catholic schools giving presentations of Catholic Church teaching on the morality of sexual behaviours – further afield the same onslaught against orthodox Catholic teaching is taking place.

In Wakefield Rhode Island in the US, controversy has erupted at a Roman Catholic school after students and parents reacted with outrage to Church teaching on sexuality as presented at a school assembly. This follows the same pattern as events at a school in Charlotte, North Carolina some weeks earlier.

Meanwhile in Paris a French government minister accuses those who assert the teaching of the Catholic Church of trying to wage an ideological war from another era. In all cases the story seems to be the same. As with Irish Television’s presentation, orthodox teachers are misquoted and Catholic teaching is represented in grotesque forms, all the better, it seems to facilitate its consignment to the rubbish dump of history.

In Rhode Island Father Francis “Rocky” Hoffman spoke to students at The Prout School and in the course of his talk, he apparently made comments critical of homosexuality and divorce that some students found offensive. There has been uproar and some Catholic observers feel let down by the Diocese of Providence’s spokesman on the issue who has seemed to agree with Hoffman’s critics. They see the controversy as part of a growing tendency to rage against Catholics for simply professing Church teaching on marriage and homosexuality.

There is as yet no response from Bishop Thomas Tobin, a bishop known for his strong defence of Church teaching on life and family, to clarify the diocese’s position.

Administrators at Prout, however, issued written and verbal apologies to parents and students alike after a number of parents expressed anger about the content of Fr. Hoffman’s presentation, and that they weren’t notified in advance. Some are openly calling for Principal David Carradini’s resignation over the matter. A transcript of what Fr. Hoffman actually said in the discussions with the students is no yet available, but as one source, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, commented, it could hardly be stronger than what Sacred Scripture itself says.

“What did Fr. Hoffman say that was so horrible? Could he have been harsher than the Bible?” the priest asked, quoting Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.”

“Could his talk have been more challenging than Matthew 5:32: ‘But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’?”

In a separate post, Zuhlsdorf lamented, “If you speak in public now with any clarity about the Church’s teachings on sexuality, marriage, etc., or avert to conclusions which rational people reach about the same derived from the Natural Law, you will be met with fury.”

The incident at Prout is reminiscent of the recent furor at Charlotte Catholic High School in North Carolina, where comments made by Sister Jane Dominic Laurel that were critical of divorce and homosexuality provoked anger among students and parents, leading to a contentious meeting between diocesan and school officials and parents that attracted roughly 1,000 people. That controversy became so heated that Sr. Laurel, a professor at Aquinas College, has taken a sabbatical from her teaching and speaking duties.

The similarity between the two stories has led some Catholic bloggers to accuse diocesan and school officials in both locations of throwing those who dare to promote unpopular Church doctrines “under the bus.”

“Catholic education’s easy bargain of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ concerning dissent against Church teachings and morality has coalesced into ‘outrage’ from parents and students when high schools try to teach and enforce Church teachings,” wrote Rebecca Hamilton of the Public Catholic blog. “Bishops, when faced with these angry mobs have turned to the time-honored bureaucratic practice of court-martial-the-private/fire-the-secretary/shoot-the-messenger. Sister Mary Tracy resigned in Seattle. Sister Jane Dominic Laurel took a sabbatical in North Carolina. Father Rocky Hoffman hasn’t been cashiered the way the nuns were, but he has been properly apologized for to the mob.”

“The response to angry mobs demanding that Catholic schools not teach Catholic teaching has been to wave the white flag and toss the hapless offender who committed the crime of doing what the Church says we should all do under the bus,” Hamilton wrote. “If every Catholic who believes what the Church teaches gets thrown under the bus for being politically incorrect enough to say so in public, we’re going to need a lot bigger bus.”

Meanwhile a school in Paris is to be investigated after complaints from parents and teachers of a similar nature.

Benoit Hamon, the education minister, has ordered an inspection of the Gerson school in the 16th arrondissement, saying there is evidence that pupils are being subjected to “an ideological war from another era”.

It is alleged that members of a group called Alliance Vita or “Life Alliance told sixth formers that women who used birth control were “semi-murderers” and abortion was “tantamount to murder”, according to a parent quoted in Le Parisien newspaper.

Alliance Vita said its members had been invited by the school to address pupils about topics including in-vitro fertilisation and surrogacy. “Some want the subject of abortion to remain taboo but abortion is a genuine issue in society that should be discussed with young people,” the group said in a statement.

While allegations fly around about what was said or not said – including an allegation that the school is being taken over by Opus Dei, a prelature of the Catholic Church, a statement from the school board of management said the Alliance Vita had merely “taken part in extra-curricular sessions,” adding that it had received no complaints from teachers or pupils.

Philippe Person, the headmaster, said: “It’s possible that two members of the school faculty belong to Opus Dei out of 150 teachers and staff”.

That does not sound too much like a take-over.


Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 16, 2014

Sad fate of poetry in our education system

Billy Collins

The point of reading a poem is not to try to “solve” it. Still, that quantifiable process of demystification is precisely what teachers are encouraged to teach students, often in lieu of curating a powerful experience through literature. The literature itself becomes secondary, boiled down to its Cliff’s Notes demi-glace. 

These are the words of a teacher who confesses that 16 years after enjoying a high school literary education rich in poetry, I am a literature teacher who barely teaches it. So far this year, my 12th grade literature students have read nearly 200,000 words for my class. Poems have accounted for no more than 100.

This is a shame—not just because poetry is important to teach, but also because poetry is important for the teaching of writing and reading.

Andres Simmons is an American and he is writing in The Atlantic. He explores  the fate of poetry in the modern classroom – and the fate of the students deprived of a good education through poetry, deprived of one of  the richest and enriching means of expressing our understanding and feelings about the human condition that there is.

In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.

Yet poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.

He admits that one of the biggest problems is that teachers either shy away from the proper method of introducing their students to poetry or lack the skills to do so.

Either of these failures leads the temptation to disembowel a poem’s meaning and diminish the personal, even transcendent, experience of reading a poem. He quotes Billy Collins who characterizes the latter as a “deadening” act that obscures the poem beneath the puffed-up importance of its interpretation. In his poem “Introduction to Poetry,” Collins writes:  “all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it./They begin beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means.”

Sad fate.


Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 15, 2014

‘The Goldfinch’ – a worthy Pulitzer winner


Great news just out. The BBC and a multitude of other media reports that Donna Tartt has just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A really worthy winner.

Tartt’s 784-page bestseller The Goldfinch, which was named Amazon’s 2013 book of the year, is set in modern Manhattan and tells the story of a young orphan coming to terms with the death of his mother. – BBC

But it does so much more than tell a story. It enriches the reader in a myriad of ways.

Columbia University, which awards the prize, said judges described it as “a beautifully written coming-of-age novel … that stimulates the mind and touches the heart.

The book, which is in the running for this year’s Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK, beat two other nominees, The Son by Philip Meyer and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis.

Fans of Tartt had waited a decade since her second novel The Little Friend, which many had found disappointing after her strong 1992 debut The Secret History.

“The only thing I am sorry about is that Willie Morris and Barry Hannah aren’t here,” said Tartt, referring to two authors who were her early mentors.

“They would have loved this,” she added.

Reviewed here some months ago.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 15, 2014

Something rotten in the state of… pretty-well everywhere

ELISE HILTON on MONDAY, APRIL 14, commented on Ross Douthat’s most recent musings on our toxic culture. She was writing on the Acton Institute blog.

Both of them, Douthat and Hilton (pictured), are alerting us to a much deeper malaise in our civilisation than this or that threatened value which we might consider important – regard for life, marriage, family and freedom of conscience. It is as though we have now abandoned our Geneva protocol about the manner in which our disagreements should be resolved in the culture wars. One side in the war has now opted for the indiscriminate use of poison gas as a way to eliminate the enemy.

The organizations focused on by Douthat and Hilton – giant corporations and universities – Harvard, Brandeis, Mozilla, most recently – have now created atmospheres of toxic untruths: what we say isn’t really what we mean. We are using words that mean something, but we aren’t using them that way. We will say “diversity” but mean “lock-step.” We’ll say “academic justice” but mean “only liberals need apply.” This, Douthat says, is what is bothering him: the toxic lies of what is now liberalism.

Douthat’s problem isn’t so much that these organisations have taken illiberal measures against people in the name of liberalsim:it’s that those charged with publicly discussing the issues seem so bent on lying.

Posted by: Michael Kirke | April 14, 2014

“Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinking…”

David Quinn, in his Irish Independent column on Friday reflected on Irish independence in the context of what the people of Scotland are currently contemplating – separation from the United Kingdom. He speculated on Facebook that what he had to say might not be acceptable to some people.

The debate generated on Facebook was a reasonable one – as far as I could see. To it I contributed the following, agreeing with David’s point of view:

True, it is easier to be wise after an event – and more so 100 years after. But better late then never, and I’m afraid that for some of our countrymen it looks like never.
War brings out the worst in many people. If it is a foolish unnecessary war – which with hindsight surely we must say, and as David points out, a war for our independence truly was – then we must hold those who launch it in some was responsible for the crimes it engenders.
The questions of government, good government, ways in which we are governed, are practical questions. When they become ideological and doctrinaire the practicalities are lost sight of and we are in danger of losing our reason.
The people of Scotland are going to look reality in the eye and I’m sure they will make the right decision. It is a great pity we departed from that path in 1916. Nevertheless, Let’s get on with it now as best we can. We cannot change the past – but we can make a reasonable fist at determining the future.
We on these islands – with our brothers and sisters in the greater anglophone world – have a deep and shared heritage. We are in fact a people. We have shades of green, red and blue – but we are still a people. History has made us this and no amount of ideological posturing will change that.

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