Baron Scalia

Culture, Justice, Media, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Tony always believed in a certain sort
of intercessory prayer; ironically
each sainted martyr was a pharisee;
the letter was the spirit, he’d retort,
to the grace-besotted pleaders at his court;
was it wit? he was as chronically
mean as a country-club drunk, comically
self-indulgent as he’d wink and snort
that José, the barman, was a fag; he doesn’t
mean to be mean, his foursome buddies say;
that’s just Tony! He’d give you the shirt off his back,
well, anyway, he helped my kid out; he wasn’t
a ballbreaker; he made the problem go away;
good to his friends until his heart attack.

A Parliament of Fowls

Culture, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized

So sore, ywis, that whan I on him thinke,
Nat woot I wel wher that I flete or sinke.

During the Middle Ages, people thought
that Valentine’s, or thereabouts, would mark
the date when birds paired off, each lark to lark,
each life-pair-bonded waterfowl not
quite sure their spouse would like the card they’ve bought;
should they’ve considered jewelery? trips? The spark
of a single season’s mating faded to the dark
mornings in winter; they woke together, fought
for the first shower and who would walk the dog,
who would make the bed and do the dishes
from the dinner that they’d thrown the night before,
while all the years became a catalog
of various compromises; yet one wishes
for this forever. The swans are never bored.

Goldman Sacks Rome

Culture, Economy, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them.

-Matthew 4:8

That’s what they offered.

-Hillary Clinton

The Spirit brought her out, and the devil said
some of these rider reqs are quite obscene:
a private jet and caviar in the green
room? We usually do business class instead;
a good hotel, of course, and comfy bed,
but a whole floor and a fleet of limousines?
eunuch attendants and a host of seraphim?
payment in blood? the final triumph of the dead?
She shrugged. Look, Satan, one accrues,
when one is such an avatar of ex-
cellence and obviously deservèd fame,
some costs and expectations; retinues
aren’t cheap these days; they require sex,
feeding, jobs, and booze to treat the shame.

Made Flesh

Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, War and Politics

“If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

-Dr. Harold N. Bornstein, M.D., P.C

We are all flesh: we live; we die. The seasons
slip through our notice. My God, it’s Christmas! We
have only just remembered to trash the tree
from last year. Of all the brief reasons
to be glad, despite the body’s daily treasons—
its aching mornings and sniffling nights—they flee,
my thoughts, first, to this: that we are free
of immortality, which makes heathens
of the divine principalities, for they
can neither aspire nor want nor hope nor change;
they can’t make their fortune or lose weight,
and nothing escapes their notice: a single day
is a century. Their lives are intolerably strange.
They do not really live. Instead, they hate.

Paris, ailleurs

Justice, Poetry, Religion, War and Politics

Abundant peace from heaven, and life, for all
of us; but if not this, O God, if You
are real then grant us less, and if not, do
it anyway: that we will not fall
for the same false lessons as before; we will call
our mothers and email our friends; we’ll renew
our marriage vows and sex lives. We try too
hard to be more than simply good and stall
in our moral progress every time we think
we must defeat evil with will instead
of opening our doors and being kind, letting
our neighbors know our names, having a drink
with our estranged brothers, giving the dead
our Kaddish; those who killed them our forgetting.

Shabbos Goy

Culture, Justice, Media, Religion, War and Politics

“The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order,” Judge Bunning said. “If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems.”

When I was younger, I was more strident in my atheism. If I lacked the misogyny and gross prejudice—against Islam in particular—that qualify a person for the “New Atheist” label, then I nevertheless held to their practice of swashbuckling into almost any conversation, dull sword drawn, ready to declare that Holy Books hopelessly self-contradict; all those eternal truths are changeable and historically contingent; the notion of any kind of supreme and omnipotent being refutes itself under the simplest tests of logic; and oh, by the way, the Inquisition etc. were very, very bad. All of these arguments are simultaneously true and facile; faith exempts itself from these little eructations of materialism, which doesn’t make it correct but does make it in a sense immune to correctness as a category. In the last decade, my atheism has both deepened and softened. I suspect that had I encountered the right rabbi at the right time in my early twenties, when my passionate anti-religion burned hottest, then I might have been salvaged by grace. Now I tend to view religion, and at least some of the religious, with sympathy, which puts my soul beyond their reach, although it does sometimes force me to remind people that I know there are no gods and just appreciate the poetry.

This long caveat is to say that I have some sympathy for Kim Davis, though not because she’s in the right in her imagined protest. The idea that an agent of the government can nullify the law and obviate the constitutional rights of citizens due to her own private beliefs is manifestly silly. In the immortal formulation of your Catholic hero and mine, Antonin Scalia, you are entitled to your beliefs but not to your government job. Yes, even government employees, even elected officials, can engage in civil disobedience, but you don’t get to ride the First Amendment freely into your pension, especially not by violating its first clause in the delusional belief that in so doing you’re defending its second. As plenty of folks have pointed out, it was well within her small power to deputize some other row officer to sign off on these Satanic permits; that she refused to do so out of a let-us-say theologically suspect belief in the transitive property of the rendered-unto-Caesar suggests a desire to force the issue to a head. The Supreme Court is ironically responsible for this mess: its sloppy Hobby Lobby decision has convinced every minor divine in America that mere belief in whatever puts diplomatic plates on his prejudices.

But the Supreme Court is responsible, and it seems to me that any reasonably dull person, which is to say most Americans, who occasionally tunes into cable news, could easily draw this same conclusion: that “deeply held faith” abrogates temporal law. Egged on in this incorrect belief by unscrupulous legal counsel, you can just imagine how a person like Kim Davis could come to see herself as a hero and a martyr. Unlike her counsel, I don’t actually imagine that Davis holds any particular animus toward gays in particular, but rather has just a vague, foreboding sense of the inevitable decline of the familiar order of things. I grew up in a dying Appalachian coal town in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, and I knew plenty of women like Kim Davis. They went to the Church of Abundant Life and believed that Jews were going to hell, although one suggested to my mother that our family might be among the 144,000 to be bodily assumed into Heaven on the Rapture’s eve. They thought homosexuality was an abomination, but they were on perfectly good terms with the chubby homo who feathered and teased out their hair at Bangz. Democrats hadn’t done shit when the mines closed, so they drifted toward George Bush and learned to blame the unions and weren’t entirely wrong in either case. The Kim Davises of the world can’t do shit about the decline of Eastern Kentucky, but by God, this one of them can take a stand against things bein’ different. Correctness as a category does not apply.

Now, your regional sob story and hopelessly convoluted sexual ethics don’t entitle you to discriminate from your elected office, but I have the inescapable feeling that by holding her in contempt and tossing her in the clink, Judge Bunning did precisely the wrong thing. He was correct to observe that a pecuniary penalty would have had no impact; political allies of her lawyers would have made fines immaterial to her. And yes, courts do need a mechanism for enforcing compliance with their orders. But it strikes me that if Bunning could just wave his federal wand and allow others to issue the permits, then I see no reason why he couldn’t do the same without the cell. Despite her protestations to the contrary—that these certificates are somehow invalid without her signature—no one believes that the boys down at the Social Security Office are going to take her word over the order of a federal judge. I’ve seen some commentary on the convoluted authority to issue these permits in Kentucky, but state permitting statutes don’t trump the constitution, and their misapplication doesn’t invalidate gays’ right to marry.

If anything, to have simply swatted away her feckless protest and instructed someone else to marry the couples in question would have been a more fitting, biting, and deserved punishment. Let her whine impotently from behind the permits & licenses desk down at the county office while the janitor signs off under the authority of the US District Court. She will be neither hero nor martyr, and in a few months, she’ll wonder why she ever made such a fuss. Instead, I fear we’ve created another dumb saint in a country that seems to me to be drowning in dumb sanctimony. We must learn to love our enemies enough that the only punishment we desire in their defeat is their irrelevance. That would suffice.

Ronald Raven Signs a Piece of Legislation

Media, Poetry, Religion, Things that Actually Happen, War and Politics

Never more than a few wing’s beats
away; the poor pigeons warble that
they’ve lost the parking lot where they grew fat
to the loud and faster Corvidae who bleat
an almost-human language; the raven defeats
the mere flocked and fearful flights of cat-
harassed and bread-fed winged rats
of the city by being them but more: he eats
what they eat; lives where they live; but he
collects in his nests a bright collection, this
strange habit of display, half warning
and half fetish. De-natured doves, we,
really, are the pigeons; how we miss
the lost evening cliffs. But the raven is morning.

Out of the Frying Pan and into the Friar

Culture, Economy, Media, Religion, Science, The Life of the Mind


I’ve always had a soft spot for Catholicism, as I do for all things Roman. I love its unrepentant, if cheerfully unacknowledged, paganism; I like that it manages to be both particular and ecumenical, with a vast canonical universe, unlike so much dour Protestantism, which has only the Bible and manages to treat all of the Book’s magnificent poetry like an instruction diagram for the assembly of a confusing piece of Scandinavian furniture. I like its camp and its kitsch. And like a lot of folks these days, I like this Pope. Seems like a decent fellow, although the obsequious puffery of his transcendent moral authority by non-Catholic liberal types every time he says anything to broadly accords with their political preferences strikes me as supremely odd—not that there’s anything wrong with proposing a useful political alliance, but rather because it so frequently and quickly shades into an argument from authority.

Here admitted: I don’t like the phrase “climate change,” not because I dispute the general underlying truth and reality to which it refers, but because the phrase itself is so distressingly market-tested, so anodyne, so wooly and amoral and abstract. It hardly inspires a rush to the barricades, and it reeks of the sort of ineffectual political non-postures that gave us, for example, the huge loser designation “pro-choice”—a place, ironically, where the Pope’s biological credentials seem suddenly less burnishable to a lot of the same people pleased with his stance on ecology. And, apropos this very item, the Pope’s insistence that population growth and population control are ecologically insignificant compared to the “consumerism” of wealthy nations is faintly incredible. Though he rightly criticizes the blind faith in technological fixes, the crackpot conviction that we can invent our way out of the problem via electric cars or whatever, a future as mere facsimile of the present, only, uh, “sustainable,” one hardly needs to be a vulgar Malthusian to understand that the ongoing addition of billions and billions more humans—and the attendant need to get them water and food and shelter and clothing—is a large problem in our larger complex of problems. In other words, there is a deep contradiction at the heart of Francis’s correct criticism of the notion of salvation via technological innovation: he too, in his way, is praying for an electric car. What is lacking is an act of really radical imagination, which would suggest that a harmonious and truly sustainable human society would be not simply different, but unrecognizable—unrecognizable in its conduct, yes, but also and more importantly in its scale.

None of this is really meant to single Francis out for criticism. I really do like the guy, admire much of what he says, and as regards his Franciscan ideas about a human ecology, I sympathize and at least partially agree. Compared to the national leadership of our larger and more influential countries, and certainly compared to the greenwashing corporate sector, the Pope’s statements are worthy of much of the praise that they’ve garnered. But, to use a business metaphor I’m otherwise fond of mocking, the idea that they’ve disrupted anything is incorrect. It’s just regular competition in an existing space.

The Tool of Athens

Culture, Media, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, War and Politics

“Nothing matters if we aren’t safe.”

-Marco Rubio

Nothing matters if we aren’t safe; our lives
are emptied by the scent of risk; our passions,
proximate to chance, all strictly rationed;
it cannot be enough merely to thrive,
to love our families, like our work, survive;
it’s insufficient that our God has fashioned
us to perish. Ours will be the Athens
of the modern world, a reborn state derived
from the demos, although I find democracies,
even within strict limits are a bit
too chancy. Nothing ventured? Nothing lost.
Elect me! I will be your Pericles,
though rarely modest and without the wit,
without the chance of gain, but without cost.

Middlebrow March

Culture, Justice, Media, Religion, War and Politics

Fairly regularly, the online commentariat will erupt with frustration at the truism that you can’t get fired from the Op-Ed page for being wrong. If anything, a record of incompetence burnishes a career. Someone takes to Twitter and thunders that Newspaper Columnist is the only profession with real lifetime tenure. Well, that and Justice of the Supreme Court, another venerated institution that proves the truer truism: people rise to the level of their incompetence. There is, of course, an odd, often unvoiced conviction underlying these complaints: that in the Wild-Western private sector, people get bunged out for being incompetent all the time. This is part of a broad myth about corporate efficacy that anyone who’s ever actually met the C-suite occupants and corporate board placeholders of many a major corporation—or, frankly, just worked in any office anywhere—knows to be completely untrue. The smartest people in business do frequently get fired, yes, but it’s when the latest round of right-sizing cans the smart toilers on the lower end of the pay scale. The cream rises, yes. What that really means is that fat floats. David Brooks doesn’t get an endowed chair at Sulzberger University in spite of his mediocrity. All of the institutional incentives are designed to reward it. It is the curricula of his vita.

Brooks has lately invented himself as a kind of genteel moralist, and you can imagine him cast by George Eliot as a gently satiric country priest whose bit of Greek impresses the parish but makes him an object of fun at the manor. To be fair, few of us are really willing to pursue our moral sentiments to their most rigorous ends, and the elision of coherence and consistency in our criticisms of other people’s politics and philosophies is its own kind of error. Nevertheless, there is something not just comical, but slightly sinister, in a man who corrals his timid approval of “cop cams” with a dozen caveats about the value, and virtue, of privacy. Eleven months ago, he made “vast data sweeps” a pillar of privacy! Now he’s worried that some patrolman’s Go-Pro video of a domestic will wind up on YouTube.

“Cop-cams strike a blow for truth, but they strike a blow against relationships.” I won’t be the first to observe that Brooks’s turn to moralism coincided with a divorce. Maybe it’s unkind to psychoanalyze, but, after all, the man is very publicly lying on the couch several times a week. I think you find, in Brooks’s soft authoritarianism, his Matryoshka society of nested obligations, one overriding conviction, which is that too much truth kills a relationship, and wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we all just drank our cocktails at five and pretended nothing was wrong? His “zone [of] half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve” sounds an awful lot like the moment the brain requires to tell the wife that yes, of course she looks lovely in that dress or, oh, dear, I’m going to be working late tonight, so don’t wait up. And in fact, I agree with him in broad principle; we are all due some space to be furtive little shits, only not when that secrecy possesses, and uses, a gun.