Orbiting Dicta

Category Archives: Culture and Society

Doctor… Who?

Joseph Epstein’s mean-spirited op-ed piece on whether Jill Biden can call herself “Doctor” ignited a small firestorm of protest among academics (among others).  Epstein, known for his anti-feminist leanings, was for a time an adjunct lecturer in English at Northwestern University, and may just be suffering a bit from Ph.D. envy, as he lacks one.

It is true that Dr. Jill does not have a medical degree and has not delivered any babies.  But I wonder if Epstein, especially as a whilom adjunct lecturer in English, would also agitate for renaming Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”? And there’s the case of Roger Bacon, known for centuries as “Doctor Mirabilis.” A Franciscan friar, it is highly doubtful that he delivered any babies either. As for Dr. Phil, I’m not in a position to say other than that his degree is not in medicine. (I don’t recall Epstein inveighing against Dr. Phil’s use of the title, which is curious.)

Northwestern’s embarrassed English department has recently distanced itself from its one-time adjunct lecturer. Epstein may be expected to write an op-ed column for the Wall Street Journal on whether academic institutions should be called “universities” even if they have medical schools.

Déjà vu all over again

When I was a lot younger than my college students today, the US TV viewing public sat  in their living rooms enthralled for 177 episodes of a half-hour espionage thriller called “I Led Three Lives,” about a real-life double-agent of the FBI named Herbert Philbrick.  He wrote a factual autobiography with the same name published in 1952, which I and thousands of other Americans happily devoured.  The TV program ran for three years between 1953 and 1956. By today’s standards, that would be considered a phenomenon.

In any case, it was about Russian Communists trying (and succeeding) to infiltrate the United States on practically every level, something really and avidly investigated by the House Unamerican Activities Committee until its decline in the late 1950s, and especially by the Senate investigations associated with and often led by the Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, who subsequently lent his name to the frenzied “witch-hunts” of later times.

The Philbrick story factually and serially ended with a sensational trial in 1949 that resulted in the conviction of eleven Americans accused of acting to overthrow the government.  Undercover agent Herb Philbrick was a surprise witness whose testimony, with that of several other double-agents, sealed the fate of the defendants.

Flash forward to the Angelina Jolie thriller, Salt (2010) and the riveting TV drama series The Americans, starting in 2013 and still running. Stimulating spy stuff, full of bad Russians bent on inflicting mortal damage to the USA.  And now… oops?  The Mueller Indictments seem to be a return to the past — Russian agents actively recruiting and “duping” Americans in an attempt to bring down the Republic… or at least make it really miserable, apparently with notable success.

Did the KGB and its successors learn something from all that TV and film coverage of past decades?  Or did Americans fail to?  In any case, we have the repeated assurance from the highest levels of government that “There was no collusion. Absolutely no collusion.”  Rest easy.  It’s all make believe. Fake news.  Or maybe not.

Guardians of the Theological Galaxy (Vol. 2)

Having braved throngs of small children and big adults to see the latest Marvel-Disney installment of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (Vol. 2), it occurred to me about halfway through the film that I was witnessing either a blatant and potentially offensive religious rip-off or a brilliant bit of  parody, or possibly a prophetic satire aimed at simplistic Christian incarnationalism.  (See what comes of too much education?)

Apart from kill-joy spoilerism, suffice it to say that the main plot, imbedded among a host of hyperkinetic subplots, focuses on the siring of a divine-human hybrid on an unsuspecting young woman in a rural backwater by what appears to be an all-powerful celestial and seemingly immortal if not exactly eternal Being who longs for a Son with Whom He can rule the universe. Said semi-divine Son doesn’t have a clue who He really is and in fact is taken to be a common thief and consort of rabble until His awakening. (It’s clear He’s awakened because His eyes go strange. A sure sign.) Happily for orthodox Christians, the theology is di-theistic, not Trinitarian. The Holy Spirit is nowhere to be found.  Maybe…

As satire, willful or otherwise, the film powerfully puts down the notion of a humanesque divinity intent on ruling the universe by actually merging with it… a sort of crazy-eyed pantheism.  In a possible glance toward Process theology, this is no omniscient, really almighty, infinite, actually eternal, and ubiquitous spiritual presence, but an evolving deity… and not a very nice one at that.  But in a deft move borrowed from STAR WARS and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, the locus of divine power is luckily found, whacked, and all ends more or less well in a paean to true fatherhood (motherhood having been sacrificed to the needs of plot development).

All in all, it was not the most appropriate film to watch on a Mother’s Day afternoon, but it did transcend MOMMIE DEAREST. It was also a lot of hyperkinetic fun.

The View from Here: Remembering the Somme

For a while today attention in the UK and Ireland shifted from Brexit, economic woes, political maneuvering, and scandal to war – the First World War and specifically the Battle of the Somme. It began at 7:30 on the morning of July 1st, 1916, on the western front along the Somme River at multiple points centering on Thiepval Ridge, where the great cemetery and memorial now stand.  The battle lasted over four months with no substantial advantage to either side but at the cost of more lives lost and men wounded than in any war of the western world to date.  Over a million soldiers were either killed or wounded.
After the Armistice, here in the Republic of Ireland, where the Rising of 1916 took place in the midst of the war, little attention was paid to the fallen  or wounded, for the world had profoundly changed.  For decades in many families and communities, their names were not even mentioned.  They fought and more than 3500 died in that single battle for King and Country, but neither were now the focus of Irish patriotism. (By the end of the war, it is thought that between 35,000 and 50,000 Irish soldiers were killed or wounded, a significant number in a population of just over three million persons.)
That attitude changed significantly as the centenary of both the First World War and then the Rising approached.  Long overdue recognition began to be paid to those who had made the selfless sacrifice of life and limb in a “war to end all wars.”
One notable recent project, My Adopted Soldier, was begun several years ago in Co. Donegal by Gerry Moore, a secondary school history teacher.  His students selected an Irish soldier by name and began to research his life as a way of understanding the historical reality of the “Great War.”   The idea spread.  Eventually it involved a student from every county in Ireland who elected to research their “adopted soldier,” visiting his home, meeting with his living relatives if they could be found, and eventually traveling to the great cemetery of the Somme at Thiepval where 72,000 Allied and German soldiers lay buried.  There the students placed a bit of soil from the soldier’s native place on his grave. (See the project web site, www.myadoptedsoldier.com for a comprehensive report.)

Today ceremonies of commemoration were held in Dublin, Cork, Belfast, and throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.  Members of the English royal family, the President of Ireland, and other military and civilian dignitaries made speeches and laid wreathes on the monuments. Cannons were fired, rifles barked their salutes, and bugles played.  But the most memorable event for me was learning about the life-changing project undertaken by the students of Ireland who in most cases are about the same age as the brave men they so beautifully honored.

Terry Pratchett has met his Mort

Sir Terry Pratchett was for a long while (pre-J.K. Rowling) England’s best-selling author, and for good reason.  Although not well known at the time in the U.S., his work – mainly the very long series of Discworld novels – had a loyal and widespread readership.  I met him briefly at a conference and was charmed by his wit, his humanity, and intelligence.  He was something of a rascal, but a brilliant one.  One of my favorites of his books, Good Omens, which he wrote in league with that other maverick genius, Neil Gaiman, was far better than the work it spoofed.  And Thief of Time, a Discworld novel, is a marvelous romp but at the same time (so to speak) a probing philosophical, yea theological exploration.

Diagnosed a few years ago with early Alzheimer’s Disease, Pratchett investigated and agitated for the right to die, but in the end died at home in the good company of his family.  He will be greatly missed but long remembered for his wonderful contributions to the art of loving satire and deeply humane observations on the human estate.  Mort, be not proud, but relish your new companion.  After all, he turned even you into a pretty lovable character.

Listen to Grandma Clinton

As measles spreads through the land and the politicians now weigh in (not a Christie jibe, really), it’s a very good thing Rand Paul gave up the practice of medicine.  He was an ophthalmologist, however, not an epidemiologist.  But he still sees more clearly than everyone else… except when it comes to vaccines.  (Note to Rand Paul: a lot of kids fell out of trees and broke their arms after getting vaccinated, but that isn’t WHY they broke their arms.)  At least Gov. Christie judiciously came down on both sides of the issue.

Listen to Grandma Clinton: GET YOUR KIDS VACCINATED.


If anyone has any lingering doubts that football is now the official American religion, please review the post-game events, especially the ceremonial procession of the Vince Lombardi trophy, which was adored and lovingly kissed and touched by the Patriots as it was carried reverently through the worshipful ranks.  I haven’t seen such devotion since the relics of Saint Therese were brought to New York….

It has everything – vast gathering places, mobs of the faithful ready to sacrifice anything to attend major feast day celebrations, priests, high priests, acolytes (of both genders – at least), invocations, rubrics, holydays of obligation, canonizations, excommunications, saints and sinners, and scandals involving both major and minor clergy.  There’s music and spectacle, official and unofficial historians, and commentators galore. And lots and lots of money.  What’s not to love?

Marching Forward

In Ulster the marching season is officially over, and this summer it came off more peacefully than most.  But on Saturday the largest parade of them all took place in Belfast – the Gay Pride parade.  Or more accurately the LGBT Pride Parade, which is in fact the largest of such events in the British Isles.  There was another in Stockholm, which was also huge and well-supported, but… Belfast?  It’s hopefully reassuring that there can be a parade in that divided city that doesn’t involve shouting, Molotov cocktails, burning cars, tear gas, and rubber bullets.

Granted, a few staunch members of the Righteous Elect displayed banners condemning all and sundry to the fires of hell.  One banner-bearing protester described the whole business as an abomination.  That parades which extol bigotry, religious intolerance, cultural prejudice, and political suppression might be less than virtuous somehow escaped his notice.

But such expostulations were few and the raucous, colorful march was mercifully free of violence and vituperation.  Unionists and Republicans appear to have more in common than one might suspect.

A Note to Mr. Boehner

Dear John,

The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” to you) was passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and upheld (mostly) by the most conservative Supreme Court in the past century or two.  It is the Law of the Land.  I understand that you do not like it.  Please get over it and stop destroying the economic health of the nation by your refusal to allow a clean vote on financing the government. That’s not your job. Passing legislation is.  Time to get to work.

Your friend,


Still the Party of No

According to the Oct. 3 New York Times, “the 26 Republican-dominated states not participating in an expansion of Medicaid are home to a disproportionate share of the nation’s poorest uninsured residents. Eight million will be stranded without insurance.”

Of course the Republicans are against the Affordable Care Act (AKA “Obamacare”). They opposed the League of Nations, organized labor, minimum wage legislation, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Equal Rights Amendment, the International Court of Criminal Justice, Affirmative Action, a host of environmental protection protocols (not to mention the EPA itself), the UN treaty on the rights of the disabled, expanding the GI Bill of Rights, same-sex marriage, and gun control legislation. Time to cut the Republicans some slack.  They’re just being consistent.