Orbiting Dicta

Category Archives: Culture and Society


Annie’s Psalm

The death of Anne McCaffrey on Monday at the age of 85 was a great loss to her family, friends, colleagues, and the millions of fans (generations of them) who were devoted to her Dragonriders books and other works.  She was a remarkable woman because of her talent as a captivating story-teller, but especially as a friend, mother, and irrepressibly wonderful human being.  They don’t come much better.

The following is a brief reflection I was asked to give at her service on Saturday, Nov. 26 in Ireland.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want;
he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Psalm 23:1-6

The Lord was her shepherd.  No one else could have gotten away with it so long.  If she did occasionally want — it was her own amazing generosity that led to it.  A couple of times, she asked me for a short term cash loan because she has literally given away every coin in her purse.  An authentic Christian, she also preferred anonymity, and I know that in making some truly heroic donations, she insisted on not letting the left hand know what the right was doing.

Although they became home to a collection of remarkable horses, dogs, and cats, her pastures were always green.  On the other hand, the waters around her were not always still, in fact rarely, but with a guiding hand, she sometimes seemed to walk on them.  Her faith was not little.

Annie had a way of choosing the road not taken, which today is perhaps too often the path of righteousness, but she would be the first to guffaw at the suggestion.  She was the least hypocritical of women, but hated even the semblance of evil.  She didn’t fear it, but often railed against it.  Nevertheless, she was not always a strict judge of human character because she preferred to believe that people were more righteous than in fact they were.  When she was cheated, it hurt, but it failed to make her bitter, or lessen her faith in human decency.

Even so, I’m sure she’s had a few words with God about his staff, who did not always comfort her as much as they should have, but it’s sometimes hard even for God to get good staff these days.  I was chuffed to say the least when back in 1981, she did not find me totally wanting but invited me back to Dragonhold as a kind of an occasional Weyr chaplain.  We sometimes even talked about religion, the Church, and, yes, God.  Several times I helped her with exasperated fans who wanted religion on Pern, but when after her Sis’ death Annie introduced a religious element in a short story she was working on, her daughter Gigi and I calmed the waters a bit, lest she appear to go overboard.  She could be very enthusiastic.

Annie didn’t always wait for God to prepare a table in the presence of anyone, much less enemies — if she had any; she got there first.  And if her cup occasionally overflowed a little with good Chardonnay, it was more often the cup of kindness and mercy that made her blessed with family, friends, colleagues, and that strange cloud of witnesses called “fans,” over 3 million of whom have now tapped into Google about the death of the Dragonlady of Pern, who has found a lasting dwelling place not only in the Lord’s house but in those millions and millions of hearts.

Too Big?

When does big get too big?  When your antlers grew so huge that you can’t get through the trees or hold your head up and you go extinct like the great Irish elk.  Or when a political entity becomes so spread out that it becomes ungovernable, such as the Greek, Roman, and British Empires (among others: don’t forget Napoleon and Hitler).  Or when a company grows so voracious and unwieldy that it breaks up or implodes, witness the old Bell system, Enron, General Motors, and AIG, for instance.

Most of the world’s giant corporations today are banks and oil companies.  But Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is not exactly small potatoes.  Next only to the Walt Disney Corporation, it is the largest media organization on the planet.  It is also a public corporation, but managed to escape the kind of shareholder scrutiny that might have prevented the recent meltdown.

Rupert Murdoch, the media baron of all media barons, claimed before the British Parliament that the scandal-ridden News of the World, the most successful English-language newspaper in the world, represented only 1% of his imperial holdings.  But it takes only a single straw to break a bactrian back, so the saying goes.

Size does matter, even in the computer age.  Small, as E. F. Schumacher famously said, is beautiful.  The opposite may also be true, as we watch the reach of the ambitious and powerful exceed their grasp. It doesn’t take much for big — really, really big — to become morally, spiritually, and even legally ugly.  Google and Walmart, please take note!

Ireland versus Rome

On Wednesday, July 13, the Irish government finally released the “Cloyne Report” from the commission investigating claims of child sexual abuse and the subsequent cover-up in one of Ireland’s largest dioceses.  The former Archbishop of Cloyne, John McGee (a career Vatican bureaucrat and former personal secretary to Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II,) was eventually forced to resign his see in March 2010, after two years of voluble resistance.  The 400-page report details what many of the faithful in the Cork diocese already knew — that McGee and others in the diocesan curia had persistently and willfully failed to implement child protection policies mandated by the Vatican while protecting priests accused of molesting children.  Worse, this was done with the apparent connivance of the Vatican itself, which in a statement of bewildering double-think claimed that the stringent guidelines issued by the Irish church and followed carefully in many dioceses were merely “a study guide.”  On top of it all, it is clear that McGee lied to state authorities when he claimed that the diocese had reported all cases of sex abuse as required by law and the Church’s own mandates.

The fallout from the revelations has been dire.  McGee himself is in hiding and his vicar general, Msgr. Denis O’Callaghan, now in retirement, has expressed remorse for his gross mishandling of the situation.  There have been calls in the Irish parliament for the expulsion of the papal nuncio, whose contributions during the crisis have been negligible if not actually obfuscating, and it is likely that the proposed papal visit to Ireland next year will be canceled.  In a further move against clerical abuse of privilege, legislation is pending that will make it a crime for priests to withhold any information about sex abuse, even if revealed in confession.  This is a Rubicon almost unthinkable in a Catholic country, much less a civilized one in which at the very least professional confidentiality is more than a label.  The proposal is, on the other hand, eloquent testimony to the depth of the loss of faith in the institutional church on this island if not to the success of elementary catechesis.

Ireland will remain a Catholic nation insofar as the vast majority of its citizens will still indicate on official forms that they are members of the Roman Catholic Church. People will still go to church.  Thousands of pilgrims will flock to Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday in July, thousands more to St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island during the year, and of course the shrine at Knock will remain popular among native Irish and tourists. But like France, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, Ireland will very likely remain Catholic with a difference for a long time to come.

Two Faces of Northern Ireland

The new Star of County Down is without question 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, whose stunning victory at the U.S. Open Golf Championships at Bethesda was duly celebrated when he returned triumphantly to his home town, called appropriately enough, Holywood (only one L, but pronounced the same).  The second youngest winner in history, McIlroy is only a year older than Bobby Jones, the legendary amateur who won in 1923.  And he follows last year’s winner, also from Northern Ireland, Graeme McDowell.

In all the hullabaloo, little was said about McIlroy’s religion. A Catholic boy reared in a largely Protestant area of Ireland, McIlroy is about as far as one can get from the rock-throwing, clenched-fist, angry young Catholics of East Belfast.  Those were in evidence just two days after the US Open, following a surprising outburst of  Unionist violence at the beginning of what is traditionally known as “the marching season,” several weeks in late June and July during which the Orange Order repeats to the extent allowed by law (and then some) the Protestant victory over the Catholic supporters of  James II and the Battle of the Boyne.  That was in 1690, but from the force of feeling still evidence in bonfires and the banging of giant drums as marchers parade through Catholic neighborhoods, it could have been last year.

After several years of relative peace, the violence caught most people by surprise as Catholic homes were targeted with paint bombs and bricks.  When the police moved in, their vehicles were set alight and the riot commenced.  Nationalist “dissidents” were quick to respond.  Eventually shots were fired, but although a reporter was wounded in the leg, no one was killed –this time.

Talks between Unionist and Nationalist leaders restored a measure of calm to East Belfast.  But the marching season has barely begun.  The weeks’ unsettling disturbances obscured for a time the joy and rightful pride of County Down, but McIlroy’s achievement will far outlast the sad images of sectarian conflict in the north.  Please God, his will be the face of a new Northern Ireland.

The Longest Day

Here in Ireland, the sun sets late – about two hours later than it does in the US. And it rises earlier, as well, especially at the solstice.  But it’s this mid-summer night that will seem long.  Wimbledon aside, it is tonight’s vote of confidence in the Greek parliament that has European eyes fixed on the news channels.  If Prime Minister Papandreou loses the vote, Greece may well be headed toward an inevitable default on its massive debts, and the European Union has based its offer of a second bailout on the stern austerity budget and increased taxes that are the burr under the saddle of popular resistance in Athens and elsewhere.

Should Greece default, economists are wary that Spain, Portugal, and Ireland will head in the same direction as the monetary house of euro-cards begins to totter.  France, Germany, and England will be adversely affected as well, despite some evident whistling in the dark.

The back-story is worth exploring.  Volumes will be written about it in years to come.  For now, the simplest explanation gets down to a familiar refrain: irresponsible financial policies, dodgy bank loans, lack of regulation, and a massive failure of accountability.  Call it “2008, the Sequel.”

As the cost of living goes up and the standard of living goes down here in Ireland as elsewhere, it’s difficult to resist citing an ancient adage that sophisticated financiers (and politicians) might well consider: “the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” [1 Timothy 6:10].

If that seems naïve, here’s another more homely version: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Stay tuned.

Guns

Another 12-year-old was shot on the streets of Chicago last night.  If more guns are the answer, someone is asking the wrong question.

Blame in Gilead?

Pollsters tell us that President Obama’s “ratings” rise and fall with gas prices, wars in the Middle East, and the perception of how the economy is going.   That’s like blaming Noah for the Flood.

Walking Like an Egyptian

Never mind that the Egyptian political and social earthquake was largely unforeseen by both reporters and political pundits, at least until shock waves from the Tunisian revolt began to spread through the Arab world, creating shudders even in relatively far-off and clamped-down Iran.  Hosni Mubarak may have been a dictator, despot, and possibly a crook (how much money went missing into Swiss bank accounts??).  But he was, in no small way, “our” dictator, despot, and (possible) crook.  He kept the lid on.  He didn’t bother the Israelis.  He happily accepted billions in equipment from the US military-industrial complex.  It isn’t entirely clear what Mubarak did with all that stuff, but it helped create jobs here. End of story.

As the Egyptian people celebrate what we can only hope will be a lasting leap forward into the difficult if liberating waters of democracy, observers have cast around for similar examples – if not too far back.  It is unlikely that radio demagogues will recall the popular democratic revolutions over the past century and a half that ended in the imposition of new dictatorial regimes because of US interference.  Cuba and Panama immediately come to mind, but Chile and the Iranian revolution that originally ousted the Shah should not be forgotten. A very helpful primer in this regard is Stephen Kinzer’s eyebrow-raising historical account, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2007).

But an even better example of a popular democratic uprising, a peaceful protest that ended in the flight of a dynastic tyrant and his entourage occurred in 1986 in the Philippines – one of those countries the US complicitly handed over to a friendly dictator after their struggle for independence – in this case first from Spain then from the US – as with Cuba.  Ferdinand Marcos and his compulsively shoe-buying first lady not only fled to Hawaii thanks to the US, but almost managed to hang onto the billions of dollars they had siphoned out of the country into secret Swiss coffers and US banks.

I knew many Filipinos and Filipinas who participated in the revolution, which at the time was dubbed “People Power.”  Almost unanimously, they agreed that the long vigils in the dark hours of the night, as thousands of citizens surrounded Radio Veritas and the free TV station, then carrying only their rosaries for protection confronted tanks and soldiers, was the greatest spiritual adventure of their lives.  Here, too, faith played a leading role in the non-violent revolt, which was set in motion by the words of Cardinal Jaime Sin, who called on ordinary citizens to position themselves between the army and the radio and TV stations.  Many of the subsequent non-violent revolutions in Eastern Europe that eventually brought down the Iron Curtain drew hope from the “People Power” Revolution.

At this point, it seems to me that in regard to Egypt, the freedom-loving world has less to fear from the Muslim Brotherhood than from the forces of reaction that prefer an accommodation with the wealthy and powerful.   The Philippines has clung to its democratic victory against great odds.  May Egypt do likewise.

Food for Thought

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

 The Treaty of Tripoli, 3 January 1797.

 Authored by American diplomat Joel Barlow in 1796, the …treaty was sent to the floor of the Senate, June 7, 1797, where it was read aloud in its entirety and unanimously approved. John Adams, having seen the treaty, signed it and proudly proclaimed it to the Nation.

 http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/treaty_tripoli.html

Transparency

There’s nothing like a big whistle-blower leak to quiet the loose talk among politicians about “transparency,” which for a while was the principal buzz-word around Washington and in state capitols and corporate board rooms.  That seems to be especially important when it comes to “overlooking” war casualties (AKA atrocities), child sexual abuse, and the source of funding for political campaigns.

Divulging critical information kept secret for security purposes is a different matter, especially when the safety of military personnel and civilians is at stake.  That includes revealing the identity of intelligence agents such as Valerie Plame, whose story is portrayed in the new film Fair Game.

Knowing where the difference lies between the right to know and the need for secrecy is a crucial if challenging task.  But not one to leave solely in the custody of those who have most to gain from keeping the electorate in the dark.

True enough — what we don’t know won’t hurt them.  But it’s pretty hard to bamboozle an informed electorate just as it’s not too difficult to manipulate one that gets what information it has in sounds bites and attack ads.

Along those lines, I am vastly enjoying Charles Seife’s new book, Proofiness, in which he shows with admirable clarity how dishing up a few impressive-looking “statistics” persuades the naive, innocent, and uncritical that the claims attached thereto must be true, when in fact they very frequently aren’t.  Political candidates and demagogues (not always a distinct subset of the former category) are particularly adept at this fine art – and growing more so, it would appear.

It might be a good idea to check out Seife’s book before election day.  Otherwise, welcome to Teapot Dome Redux….