Category: General

There is a fascinating article from City Journal‘s Myron Magnet titled, “Mr. Sammler’s City,” which gives some insight and background to Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. This is one of Bellow’s novels I read for my research on Henderson the Rain King, and Magnet’s piece serves as an excellent primer.

Here’s a sample:

Sammler, for his part, can’t help recalling that almost all modern revolutions, from the Jacobins to the Nazis and the Communists, have ended with the streets running with blood, because murder has been at their heart, rather than an incidental means to an end. For revolutionary leaders like Stalin, “the really great prize of power was unobstructed enjoyment of murder,” while the revolutionary masses in turn “loved the man strong enough to take blood guilt on himself. For them an elite must prove itself in this ability to murder.”

Each modern revolution (the American one alone excepted) overturned civilization’s ultimate restraint and became “a conspiracy against the sacredness of life.”

As they say, read the whole thing. And then go read the book.

Colonel Robinson Risner 1973 – Retired as Brigadier General in 1976

“I want to show that the smartest and the bravest rely on their faith in God and our way of life,” was Robinson Risner’s answer to why he wrote The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese. 2008 marks the 35th anniversary of the release of American prisoners of war from North Vietnam and the publication of Risner’s often horrific but ultimately triumphant account.

Many books written by and about American military prisoners during the Vietnam War focus on the deep Christian faith of many of these captives. Their prayers and cries to God depict desperate circumstances, but also a sustaining and unwavering faith in the face of horrendous torture and cruelty. Risner’s account expresses a beautifully simple faith. By simple I mean he absolutely believed in the power of prayer and for God to give him strength to endure his dark trial. He notes in his book:

To make it, I prayed by the hour. It was automatic, almost subconscious. I did not ask God to take me out of it. I prayed he would give me strength to endure it. When it would get so bad that I did not think I could stand it, I would ask God to ease it and somehow I would make it. He kept me.

Finally, though, the pain and aching increased to where I did not think I could stand it any longer. One day I prayed, ‘Lord, I have to some relief from this pain.’ I quoted the Biblical verse that He would hear us and that we would never be called upon to take more than we could bear.

Risner was shot down twice over North Vietnam. He was captured the second time in September of 1965 and taken to the Hanoi Hilton. As a senior ranking officer Risner was marked for additional torture and solitary confinement while in prison. Eventually he would spend a number of years in solitary confinement.

Risner was also featured on a Time Magazine Cover in April of 1965 as an American pilot serving in Vietnam. Risner’s picture on the cover of Time undoubtedly contributed to his abuse and the resolve of the North Vietnamese to break his spirit and beliefs. The North Vietnamese felt he was a celebrity figure in America, and breaking him would lessen the resolve of others who looked to him for leadership. Senator John McCain, the most well known prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton, credited Robinson Risner as one of the leaders who helped sustain him and that Risner would always be a hero to him.

Risner and other senior officers orchestrated a campaign of resistance to limit and sabotage the use of military prisoners for propaganda purposes and to maintain a military posture and morale all despite continued torture. Risner showed his resolve after spending 32 days in stocks attached to his bed, and forced to lie in his own waste. When he was brought to his first torture session his arms were bound and his shoulders were pulled out of his sockets. Then his feet were hoisted up behind him, and his ribs were separated. Risner tried to slam his head against the cement in order to knock himself out because the pain was so unbearable. Risner describes the pain as incredibly horrific and the screams were so deep and vicious he did not think they were his own.

He discusses a time when he was in stocks for so long he had to get out and by prayer he says he was able to unlock them. Another time he prayed for the annoying prison speaker to stop its incessant noise and it ceased. Risner’s book is full of fascinating stories and the will of so many American fighters to always resist in whatever way they could. He talks about the importance of communication, the tap code, and how it saved lives.

Risner was especially adroit at showing little emotion when the North Vietnamese tried a carrot and stick approach. In fact, when American prisoners finally felt like they were going to leave for real after being informed, they showed no emotion. They would not give their captors the satisfaction. (more…)

This is just a brief note to mark today the third anniversary of the PowerBlog. We’ve worked hard to bring a variety of viewpoints and thoughtful perspectives to bear on a range of topics, with an attempt to keep the focus generally on issues we think would be of interest to our readers. The last few months have seen a number of new contributors crack the PowerBlog lineup, and we’re pleased with the results. We hope you are too.

In the future we plan to bring you more book and movie reviews and more translations and opinions from our international contributors, while continuing to bring attention to the intersection between religion and liberty. As always, suggestions for improvement, questions, and comments are welcome. We also want to continue to engage more thoughtfully and purposefully the vast potential of social networking, Web 2.0 and beyond.

For keeping us abreast of the current trends and continually making innovative changes to the blog’s functional and aesthetic structure, special recognition goes to our webmaster Jonathan Spalink. His advice and insight has been solicited by numerous folks duly impressed with his work.

Thanks to the faithful and occasional readers of the PowerBlog for providing us a lively forum in which to engage the issues of the day. Without you, none of this would be worthwhile.

Acton Institute PowerBlog

Last night as I was driving to an appointment, I was listening to our local NPR affiliate here in Grand Rapids, and specifically to the show Marketplace. I happened to hear a story about how the government and economists were concerned that the money given to taxpayers via the “economic stimulus package” may actually be used for purposes other than retail spending, thereby not causing the intended “stimulus.” Not the first story of this sort that I’ve heard over the last few weeks.

The difference in this story was that it was being reported that the IRS was now being proactive in ensuring that the stimulus money was being spent “properly” by actually spending the money in advance for a certain class of taxpayers who had been identified as likely to not spend their rebates.

Naturally, I found the story outrageous. So outrageous, in fact, that I was talking back to my radio, and in fact probably talked right over the most important part of the story.

So today, when I noticed that Jordan Ballor had written a post on spending the stimulus, my mind immediately jumped to the outrageous story from the radio. I found the story link on the web, grabbed a few quotes from the transcript of the story that (I thought) I had heard in full, and posted away.

Only to have Jordan direct my attention a few moments later to the last line of the story:

Oh, c’mon, check your calendars, everybody.

Wow, did I feel stupid. Still do, actually.

Anyway, I didn’t have time at the moment to add a correction to the post as we were all busy packing up after today’s Chicago event, so I pulled the post off the blog. Now that I’m off the road, however, I’m re-posting it so that I can really embrace my stupidity. After the jump, enjoy a laugh at my expense. (more…)

Blog author: dwbosch
Thursday, March 27, 2008
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This bit in this week’s Telegraph nails something I’ve been wrangling with for a while. Maybe you men out there can relate:

Many men believe the world is now dominated by women and that they have lost their role in society, fuelling feelings of depression and being undervalued. Research shows the extent to which men have had to change within one or two generations, adapting to new rules and different expectations. Asked what it meant to be a man in the 21st century, more than half thought society was turning them into “waxed and coiffed metrosexuals”, and 52 per cent say they had to live according to women’s rules. What they apparently want is what some American academics have dubbed a “menaissance” – a return to manliness, where figures such as Sir Winston Churchill were models of manhood.

It’s not a “feminization” thing really, and to push back here isn’t being chauvinistic. Most guys are cool with being softer around the edges especially when we connect it to loving our wives and daughters in ways that are meaningful to them.

But our culture has fallen into the trap of thinking husbands are supposed to love the way they do. We’re supposed to be our wife’s best girlfriend, with a winkie and chest hair added as a bonus. After all, we rationalize, it’s our wives who understand what love is all about, and men who don’t climb on board their way of thinking are dufuses or oafs and are certainly not interested in the relationship

But that doesn’t really cut it, does it guys.

A girlfriend that sometimes leaves the toilet seat up? That’s not what you really want either, is it gals.

A brother in our church’s men’s group stuck a copy of Emerson Eggerichs Love & Respect in my hands a couple months ago. Was up most of the night reading it. Also listened to an audio interview by James “What Wives Wished Their Husbands Knew About Women” Dobson, who essentially smacked himself in the forehead for promoting the husbands-must-think-like-wives mantra for so long that he missed the obvious.

It’s the point that the Telegraph’s reporterette finally gets to at the bottom of her article cited above:

Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard professor and America’s best known political philosopher, who tackles the topic in his book Manliness, says the issue is ignored. “A man has to be embarrassed about being a man. I am trying to bring back the word manliness. It’s not respected,” he said.

Men, says Eggerichs, are built for honor and respect. It’s as much our “love language” as when our wives wish we’d listen to them talk about their day or – hubba hubba – do the dishes or laundry.

(more…)

Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
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In the Catholic Church, the Easter Vigil liturgy is usually the ceremony during which catechumens (non-Christians) and candidates (non-Catholic Christians) are respectively baptized and received into the Church. In Rome this Easter there was a particularly noteworthy baptism, presided over by Pope Benedict. Magdi Allam is an Italian journalist who converted from Islam to Christianity. Instead of taking the common route of doing so as inconspicuously as possible—an approach that is perfectly reasonable given the risks entailed by such a move—Allam decided to permit his conversion to be a public affair and issued a statement about it prior to the event. It is an extraordinary document, containing an account of the working of God’s grace in his life as well as a ringing declaration of religious freedom. Here is one paragraph, in which Allam acknowledges the danger he faces:

I know what I am headed for but I face my destiny with my head held high, standing upright and with the interior solidity of one who has the certainty of his faith. And I will be more so after the courageous and historical gesture of the Pope, who, as soon has he knew of my desire, immediately agreed to personally impart the Christian sacraments of initiation to me. His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims.

Zenit has the news story here and the full text of the statement here.

One of the most frustrating things about politics is the use of simplistic labels to categorize political beliefs-in particular, the terms “conservative” and “liberal.”

Instead of a “left-right” political spectrum, Libertarians are quick to note that people embrace various degrees of freedom (or government) in two separate realms: economic markets and personal or social behaviors. A popular and useful “two-dimensional” quiz along these lines is available at www.theadvocates.org/quiz.

A two-dimensional quiz results in four categories. Conservatives are described as those who prefer a large degree of economic freedom, but significant limits on personal freedom. Liberals are those who prefer a large degree of personal freedom, but significant limits on economic freedom. “Statists” want a lot of government intervention in both realms. Libertarians favor minimal government involvement in both realms.

While a two-dimensional quiz is preferable to a one-dimensional spectrum, it still falls short in that it reduces complex policy preferences into relatively narrow categories.

In particular, the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are immediately complicated by the fact that there are various types of each. At the end of the day, unless adjectives are added to these one-word labels, they are not particularly helpful for drawing lines in shifting political sands.

Some pundits are quick to make such distinctions. And so, for example, they commonly make references to more specific groups like fiscal conservatives and environmentalists.

But many others use the simple but muddy terms, adding to the confusion. Perhaps it is a desire to unify things under a single label. Perhaps it is driven by a desire to make politics into an “us vs. them” (conservative vs. liberal) contest. In any case, the tendency to use simplistic labels is more tempting under three circumstances.

First, when the general public does not pay much attention to politics (as is common), then labels are a convenient though flawed way to communicate about politics with most people. At some level, this is as unavoidable as the 30-second “sound-bite.” The fact of the matter is that most people are busy mowing their lawns and raising their kids and aren’t going to give much time to thinking about politics. Thankfully, we live in a country where this is possible!

Second, labels will be more prevalent when politics are not likely to solve much in terms of policy. Quick labels allow politicians to distract the general public from the inability of politics to address certain problems.

Third, when much is at stake in terms of political power, labels allow a political party to shore up its base and demonize its opponents. When combined with a general inability of politics to address our problems, the result will be more demonization — and shoring up the base indirectly by criticizing “them.”

As such, labels often encourage people to focus on who (or what) they oppose instead of who (or what) they support. We see a lot of this today. For example, people routinely vote for “the lesser of two evils” rather than avidly supporting a certain candidate.

From there, the essay continues by describing different types of libertarians, different types of conservatives, and different types of liberals.

Forever known for his signature, the American Founding Father John Hancock (1737-93) was also staunch opponent of unnecessary or excessive taxation. “They have no right [The Crown] to put their hands in my pocket,” Hancock said. He strongly believed even after the American Revolution, that Congress, like Parliament, could use taxes as a form of tyranny.

As Governor of Massachusetts, Hancock sided with the people over and against over zealous tax appropriators and collectors. Hancock argued farmers and tradesmen would never be able to pay their taxes if their land and property were confiscated. He barred government officials from imprisoning farmers too poor to pay taxes. In addition to his views on taxes, Hancock supported cuts in government spending.

Hancock inherited a substantial amount of wealth from merchant trading, a business started by his uncle known as the “House of Hancock.” Hancock’s father, a minister, died when he was just a child. He was raised by his wealthy uncle and aunt. Their wealth gave him a first class education.

Hancock went on to increase the assets and income of his uncle’s business, when he took control of the enterprise. He was quite possibly the richest man in the American Colonies. Hancock enjoyed owning the finest home, attire, furniture, coaches, and wines. As a fault, he could even show a comical attachment to material possessions from time to time. He once organized a military party to challenge the British during the revolutionary war, his part in the conflict was only to last a few weeks and was close to his home, still he galloped to battle with six carriages behind him carrying his finest warrior apparel and the finest French wines. Patriot Generals poked fun at his unnecessary show of pomp and pageantry. Still he fretted, when he realized he was missing a pair of imported leather boots.

While his wealth was immense, so was his generosity. Hundreds of colonists depended on his business for their economic livelihood. In addition, he helped his own ambitious employees start their own entrepreneurial endeavors. He gave lavishly to local churches, charities, the arts, assisted widows, and paid for the schooling of orphans. Hancock also spent his own wealth on public works and aesthetic improvements for the city of Boston.

His enormous popularity was in fact, to a large degree, due to his substantial giving. Hancock was also known for treating others with the characteristics of Christian principles. He treated those of modest means with the same respect as those who had access to wealth and power. Several authors have affectionately referred to him “As a man of the people.” A German officer who fought for the British was astounded at the way he befriended and talked to the very poorest citizens of Boston. (more…)

Blog author: eschansberg
Saturday, March 15, 2008
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The title of Curtis White’s provocative but flawed essay in Harpers

As an intro to his primary topic (politics), White has some provocative things to say about the contemporary (American) understanding of our “beliefs”…

The most bewildering and yet revealing gesture of a truly fundamental American theology takes place when an individual stands forth and proclaims, “This is my belief”. Making such a simple and familiar statement implies at least three important things. First, it implies that I have a right to my belief. Whether this right is God-given, one of the laws of nature, or simply something we wrangled politically out of the process of constitution-making, it is something we believe we have. Second, my statement carries with it the expectation that you ought to respect my belief, or at least my right to it, even if my belief makes no sense to you at all. Third, and most important, my belief doesn’t have to make sense in order to carry legitimacy.

And now to how this relates to politics…

On the basis of this belief I not only will claim the right to order my own life but also will feel free, without embarrassment, to enforce my belief universally through the election of politicians and through the sponsorship of legislation…

What we require of belief is not that it make sense but that it be sincere. This is so even for our more secular convictions….Clearly, this is not the spirituality of a centralized orthodoxy. It is a sort of workshop spirituality that you can get with a cereal-box top and five dollars. And yet in our culture, to suggest that such belief is not deserving of respect makes people anxious…

Consequently, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that our truest belief is the credo of heresy itself. It is heresy without an orthodoxy. It is heresy as an orthodoxy. The entitlement to belief is the right of each to his own heresy….For Nietzsche, European nihilism was the failure of any form of belief (a condition that church attendance in Europe presently testifies to). But American nihilism is something different. Our nihilism is our capacity to believe in everything and anything all at once. It’s all good!…

Once reduced to the status of a commodity, our anything-goes, do-it-yourself spirituality cannot have very much to say about the more directly nihilistic conviction that we should all be free to do whatever we like as well, each of us pursuing our right to our isolated happinesses. Worse yet: for that form of legal individual known as the corporation, the pursuit of happiness can mean fishing with factory trawlers, clear-cutting forests, and spreading toxins across the countryside with all the zeal of a child sprinkling candies on a cupcake.

Let me jump in here by saying that White is correct insofar as he goes. But it’s odd to point out corporations (and in a part I excised, “social morality” interest groups) without pointing to the role of special interest groups in politics– rather than corporations or concerned citizens per se.

And now, White goes with a relatively obscure but effective Biblical reference. Among other things, this gives him the title to his essay…

Aren’t these the false gods that Isaiah and Jeremiah confronted, the cults of the “hot air gods”? The gods that couldn’t scare birds from a cucumber patch? Belief of every kind and cult, self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement of every degree, all flourish. And yet God is abandoned. For first and foremost, “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isaiah 30:18). And that is the problem that we ought to have at heart: our richness of belief masks a culture that is grotesquely unjust.

“Grotesquely unjust”…Preach it, brother! Given the differences in our worldviews and his limited training in political economy and economics, I don’t think we point to the same set of policy issues. In any case, he’s right on the proverbial nose with his critique…

White does see some good news:

A more positive way of looking at the situation I have described is to say that through the concept of religious freedom, American political culture has succeeded in mediating the competing claims of true religion and idolatry. If it has not purged the hatred from this distinction, it has at least prohibited most of the violence. And if there is wisdom in this, it is less the wisdom of benevolence than the pragmatism of imperial policing….

But then he gets silly on us…

Capitalism has been so successful in this orchestration of reality that it has even created the illusion that, in spite of every fact, the Market works for all of us, or will eventually. In spite of the fact that the poor are ever greater in number, and that education, health care, and retirement are ever more inaccessible, the majority of Americans persist in believing (with all the obliviousness of Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss) that our economic system is “the best of all possible worlds”. This is a form of wishful and magical thinking no stranger than the belief that a statue of the Madonna can cry.

Here, White reveals his bias and ignorance– or his “wishful and magical thinking” (if he prefers). He’s pointing the finger at the Market. But all three of these realms are largely controlled by the Government! And in each of those, it is clear that Government involvement has caused vast damage to the poor. I love it when people blame “capitalism” to embrace government– when government is so heavily involved already!

His last three words are “the Market God”. But White is blind to his own idolatry– a blind critique of markets (not that some critique is not available to him) and a blind, idolatrous embrace of “the Government God”.

Robert George in the November 2007 issue of Touchstone on democracy, Catholic social teaching, and the confusion of means and ends…

Catholicism…preaches democratic ideals and promotes democratic institutions in the political sphere….

This teaching is put forth not as a mere prudential matter…but as a matter of justice in the dealings of human beings with one another. At is core is the idea that of all systems of political governance, democracy best comports with the foundational anthropological and moral truth that every human being, as a creature fashioned in the very image and likeness of God, possesses a profound, inherent, and equal dignity.

The principle of basic human equality demands not only that the interests of all be taken into account, without discrimination, in distributing the benefits and burdens of common life, but also that all competent adults have a voice in deciding between options for political choice…

Democracy, however, is fundamentally a means rather than an end in itself….[T]he common good of political society is fundamentally an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good.

In this respect, the common good of political society is unlike the common life of the family and the koinonia of the church. The point of political society is provided by the ends or purposes it serves. The state, whether constituted democratically or otherwise, is fundamentally a means to those ends; it is in no sense an end in itself.

By contrast, the family and the church, though they may also be means to many valuable ends, are not mere means….

From there, George continues by repeating John Paul II’s caution against idolatry toward government and democracy– as well as his warning that unjust ends accomplished through democracy are ungodly. Despite the common reference to polling results– and although majority vote may legitimize a viewpoint in the secular realm– the right-ness of something cannot be determined by such a criterion.