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Dear Intelligent American,


A suggestion right out of the box: Maybe read this missive while listening to, playing softly in the background, Frankie Yankovic squeezing out the toe-tapping “Pennsylvania Polka.”


Comes tomorrow (February 3) that most Catholic-y of Days, the Feast of Saint Blaise. For those of a certain age, and parochial-school background, it meant a priest would come to the classroom, brandishing two crisscrossing candles, and engage in the ancient “sacramental” by placing them at the throat of each child, intoning, “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Goodbye, laryngitis!


The lore of this 4th-century holy man is that Blaise, wrenched from his Turkish hermit cave by the pagan, persecuting governor, when dragged off for execution, performed a miracle on a little boy, choking on a fish bone. Centuries later, more lore, this the kind expounded annually by factoid-expert kids: I hoid last year dat a goil got her hair boint ’cause da priest lit da candles!


More lore, of the American kind: Returning to today, (Friday, February 2) the good people of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, will gather at Gobbler’s Knob and engage in the annual ritual of spring/winter prognosticating, as judged by Phil, a disturbed (from sleep, but maybe emotionally too) groundhog.


These are the delightful community traditions we must hold on to, no?


One more tradition: The annual viewing of the classic 1993 film Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell (and Stephen Tobolowsky, who played one of cinema’s great bit parts, “Needlenose” Ned Ryerson). And for a wonderful analysis of the movie, consider Jonah Goldberg’s wonderful 2005 National Review essay, A Movie for All Time.”


Six More Weeks of Excerpts!


1. At Tablet Magazine, Marco Roth reads The Merchant of Venice and finds Shylock worthy of contemplation at a time of rampant atrocities. From the essay


This ability to give voice to the “reasons” of passions in all their fervor, is what makes Shakespeare modern, or “ahead of his time,” or “the inventor of the human,” as Harold Bloom argued, with Shylock, Hamlet, and Falstaff as crucial examples. But it is more likely that contemporary audiences heard these pleadings as a special kind of rhetoric: variations of a “devil’s argument.” The play baits the audience with the possibility of sympathizing with Shylock, much in the way—according to Stanley Fish in Surprised by Sin—Milton baited his audience into sympathizing with Satan. Like Satan, Shylock may get some of the best lines, but “in context,” as certain former university presidents might say. For the Jew in a world ultimately ruled by a gentile god and gentile justice, there’s neither equality of condition nor chance of redemption.


A “fair” or outwardly persuasive rhetoric or appearance that conceals a shady, malevolent, or foul intention and essence unites the play’s marriage plot with the secondary Shylock plot or counterplot. Bassanio, when he has to choose among the caskets, foreshadows Shylock’s later trial, “So may the outward shows be least themselves, / —The world is still deceived with ornament— / In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt, / but being seasoned with gracious voice / obscures the show of evil.” So at least suggests the long dead J.R. Brown in his rather genteel (gentile?) midcentury introduction (1955) that still lives in zombie reprint in the 2005 Arden edition I had closest to hand. (Arden intro: Lii). The Jew can both look and talk like any other person, but inside he lacks grace. The Jew is “unfair,” so it is not (to the Elizabethan mind, at least) unfair to discriminate against the Jew.


Taking this interpretation to its logical conclusion would mean that the play pushes its audience to judge not by appearances or performance but by the invisible interior or content of the character. On stage, however, the results of these nuanced distinctions often align with and reaffirm instinctive and superficial prejudice.


2. At The European Conservative, fan favorite Daniel J. Mahoney regards Sebastian Morello’s new book, which finds openness to grace a necessity for conservatism. From the review:


There are three connecting threads that tie together the book as a whole: a sympathetic but not uncritical dialogue with the late Roger Scruton (Morello’s mentor and doctoral advisor) about the inherent connection between religion and conservatism; a careful examination of “conservative arguments for religion by establishment” made in distinct but overlapping ways by Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre; and, with the help of the later writings of Roger Scruton, a rich articulation of human beings as persons, subjects always to be understood in relation to other persons and to the Divine Person who is Creator and Moral Governor of the universe.


Conservatism so understood draws on the wisdom inherent in tradition without succumbing to mere traditionalism. Only when conservatism acknowledges the givenness of things, and thus the transformative effects of grace freely bestowed, can it truly sustain and renew a civilization fitting for persons endowed with free will but always under the benign—and just—judgment of God. Conservatism so understood combines political sociology and political philosophy with a political theology that is sensitive to the requirements of prudence and particularity informed by truths and goods that are never merely relative. If the Enlightenment, in its unalloyed forms, aimed to liberate the human will from salutary restraints and the superintendence of the Good, the conservatism that arose in response to the French Revolution self-consciously aims to recover the subordination of the human will to truth and goodness. It recognizes that the ends and purposes that ought to inform the exercise of human freedom are in no essential respect invented by human beings.


3. At The American Conservative, Helen Andrews points to the struggles of rebuilding Ukraine, a country that has not recovered well from its Communist past. From the article:


One of the most important facts about Ukraine is that, uniquely among eastern European nations, its economy did not recover after the fall of communism. Every other post-communist economy had a rough time in the 1990s but soon returned to prosperity—even Russia, where the poverty of the 1990s was extreme. Poland tripled its GDP per capita between 1991 and 2013. Ukraine, by contrast, had a smaller economy in 2013 than it had in 1991.


The reason for this dismal performance is political. Communism is a system that, by its nature, breeds corruption. During the transition to capitalism, each post-communist country found its own way to tame the networks of bribery and self-dealing that had grown up under the old system, either by leaning into the free market as Poland did or by taming the oligarchs politically as Vladimir Putin did. Ukraine chose neither. Its oligarchs remained powerful and numerous.


The country’s position between east and west made some things difficult, but it also could have worked to Ukraine’s advantage. Savvy leaders could have played the two geopolitical sides off each other, gaining benefits from each camp as it tried to woo Ukraine’s favor, in order to achieve economic development. But the entrenched corruption of Ukraine’s oligarchs prevented this. Any investment was quickly stolen or squandered.


4. More TEC: On the centennial of his birth, Jake Welch reflects on Lenin’s devastating legacy. From the piece:


To give the devil his due, Lenin was and remains a hero to many, portrayed as the great revolutionary who, with little but his indefatigable will, inspired his fellow countrymen to overthrow the Czarist order, one of the most oppressive and arbitrary rules in modern history. And, indeed, Lenin was a remarkable individual, possessing a ferocious intellect and political cunning. Like the other great men of the early 20th century who maximised the capacity of the new means of communication, Lenin was all-consuming in his oratory: captivating, eloquent, and forceful. Better still for his age, he possessed the much rarer gift of collecting esoteric ideas and condensing them into comprehensible doctrines capable of being understood and adopted by the working man.


The adulation must stop there, however, for his ferocious intellect still had its limitations. Upon meeting the man, Bertrand Russell noted that “[Lenin] seemed . . . a reincarnation of Cromwell: absolute orthodoxy. He thought a proposition could be proved by quoting a text in Marx, and he was quite incapable of supposing that there could be anything in Marx that wasn’t right.” Lenin never went much further than the doctrines of Marx and his followers. He wrote extensively throughout his life on Marx and revolution, rarely going beyond those subjects. He was, then, a pertinacious idealogue; one who, contrary to what many of his admirers both then and now believe, was undoubtedly responsible for creating one of—if not the—most brutal, destructive, and barbaric totalitarian regimes ever to have existed. He laid the ideological foundations in his exiled writings for decades and took the liberty of constructing them once he assumed total control of the Russian state.


5. At The American Spectator, Matthew Omolesky confronts a Communist Chinese scholar’s claim that Aristotle has been a figment of History’s imagination. From the commentary


Imagine my surprise upon learning, contrary to popular belief and received opinion, that the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle never existed. The vast Corpus Aristotelicum, including the Metaphysics, the Politics, the Poetics, and the Nicomachean Ethics—all medieval forgeries. Aristotle’s studies at Plato’s Academy, his founding of the Peripatetic school, his botanical and zoological research alongside Theophrastus on the isle of Lesbos, his stint as the head of the royal Academy of Macedon, his tutorship of the future rulers Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, and Cassander—all fabrications. His falling out with Alexander, his flight from Athens, his death and burial in Chalcis—never happened. . . . All this came as a rude awakening for me, and likely for you as well, dear reader, for it would seem that the very origins of Western philosophy and political science have been invented out of whole cloth. Is the better part of Western history itself a tissue of wanton falsehoods? And how could we have been so naïve for century after century?


This groundbreaking revelation, which could shake our civilization to the very foundations, comes courtesy of the distinguished Chinese scholar Jin Canrong, Professor and Associate Dean at the School of International Studies of Renmin University, former visiting professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald Ford School of Public Policy, and author of some one hundred academic papers, six hundred mass media articles, and seven books. Jin is no mere dry-as-dust academic, however, serving as he does in the capacity of Chair Professor of the Forum of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Adviser for the United Front Department and Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, and Adviser on Public Diplomacy for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. . . .


We have long been fed the story that Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroës, and other medieval intellectuals based their critical organic method of philosophical analysis on the pioneering work of Aristotle. If Jin Canrong is to be believed, then those philosophers were actually the ones inventing Aristotle. Pierce the flimsy veil of Western history, Jin suggests, and you will doubtless find more insidious, heretofore unquestioned lies. It is not hard to see why his social media post went viral in communist and Han chauvinist circles.


6. At National Review, Thomas Powers explains how the civil rights movement eventually awakened in being awoken. From the essay: 


First, pedantic moralizing is a necessary, obvious, and essential feature of the new order. Anti-discrimination law seeks very directly to alter the hearts and minds of citizens. The EEOC has always held education to be one of its two main aims (the other being “law enforcement”). Today, the EEOC Training Institute offers civil-rights instruction to the public and private sectors alike—as do other offices in other agencies of the federal government. Multicultural education, backed by state laws and accreditation policies, has been a requirement of teacher-education training since the 1970s. The most visible effort of moral and civic education associated with anti-discrimination is of course diversity training delivered in the workplace and, through Title IX and other legal requirements, in our schools and universities. There is even a Supreme Court decision that stands for diversity training. In Kolstad v. American Dental Association (1999), Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stressed that “the purposes underlying Title VII are . . . advanced where employers are encouraged to . . . educate their personnel on Title VII’s prohibitions.”


Second, the intrusion of our fellow citizens acting to enforce the imperatives of anti-discrimination in every domain of life is a direct consequence of the law. This is visible in the new offices and officers that were needed to carry out the mandates of the new order. Offices of equal opportunity (or, today, of diversity, equity, and inclusion) and myriad other institutions (diversity task forces, bias-incident response teams, workplace-responsibility committees, equity teams) work under the supervision of necessary agents of the new order (equal-opportunity and DEI officers, Title IX officers, the “chief diversity officer”). When organized in the bureaucracy of some large employer or educational institution, the work that is done here certainly looks—and in some sense is—“official”: formulating and publicizing internal policies, assessing the status or climate of the institution and those operating within it, monitoring bias-reporting systems, fielding discrimination and harassment claims, conducting investigations, keeping records, and meting out consequences. But while the agents of this large effort wield considerable authority, they operate in only a semiofficial capacity that makes distinguishing public from private very difficult.


7. At RealClearEducation, the great Bruno Manno embraces National School Choice Week by sharing a quartet of facts. Here’s one:  


Fact 3: School choice makes schools better. There is extensive research evidence on the effects that school choice programs have on traditional schools. Many feared that giving families more choices of schools would undermine traditional public schools. A recent book by Cara Fitzpatrick titled The Death of Public Schools concludes the opposite: “Contrary to what some critics claim, traditional public schools have seen some positive effects from competition.” The Fordham Institute has chronicled these studies of competitive effects, including those that examine the results of charter school competition and private school competition. And a recent National Bureau of Economic Research study of a Los Angeles school district public school choice program shows improved student outcomes and narrowed achievement and college enrollment gaps between traditional district schools with attendance boundaries and district choice schools without attendance boundaries. The Fordham report concludes: “We should root for all these [policies because they are] generally good for families taking advantage of greater options, while also helping to improve traditional public schools.”


8. At Law & Liberty, John O. McGinnis points to poor governance as one of the key reasons America’s top universities are failing. From the essay:


Because of the restricted selections process, most elite university boards of trustees are birds of a feather—chosen for their social and ideological compatibility, resulting in group think, however diverse the ethnicity and gender of their members may be. At poorer universities and other nonprofits scrounging for support, the need for big donors provides a check on this insularity. The rich, particularly the newly rich who are especially grateful to their alma mater, made their money from a variety of industries and are likely to have more diverse views of the world.


But because Harvard sits on an endowment of 50 billion dollars, its trustees do not need to incentivize all the biggest donors by putting them on the board. They can pick and choose. And, like a club, they will be wary of those who might want to argue about fundamental matters. That kind of disagreement makes for a far less pleasant time in what, after all, is an avocation. When the profit motive is absent, people substitute other satisfactions, and one of the greatest is associating with people who reinforce the notion that one has sound and laudable views of the world.


And in our current environment, the built-in tendency toward conformity on university boards means left-liberal homogeneity. For instance, the twelve members of the Harvard Corporation are headed by Penny Pritzker, Obama’s Commerce Secretary. Another Obama official on the board, as well as a former Democratic appointee of the California Supreme Court who now heads up a left-wing foundation. Ninety-nine percent of the campaign contributions of members of the Corporation went to Democrats.


9. At Quillette, Maarten Boudry offers Seven Laws that answer the question: If life is better than ever before, then why does the world seem so depressing? Here is the second law


In our universe, too, bad news travels exceptionally fast—especially since the age of mass communication.


Imagine what would have happened had a devastating tsunami struck South-East Asia 500 years ago, during the time of Erasmus. People in Western Europe would have learned nothing about this tragedy, except perhaps some vague and unverifiable stories, told months later by a returning traveler who survived the destruction or sent dispatches back home. But when a similar tsunami hit in 2011, you could watch footage of the devastation on social media within minutes, and within half an hour it was featured in a news segment on CNN, which was watched across the globe.


No matter how much progress the world achieves, there will always be enough catastrophes to fill the evening news. If you rummage through a large enough haystack, you’re bound to find a few needles. And because our brains rely on the availability heuristic—i.e., we tend to estimate the probability of an event based on how easy it is to bring similar events to mind—we massively overestimate the occurrence rates of carjackings, terrorist attacks, brutal murders, shark attacks, and pretty much every catastrophe. For a more realistic perspective, Johan Norberg recommends only following local news, in order to shrink your frame of reference back down to the size it would have been before the age of telecommunication: “Since they only cover a very small geographical area, it is more difficult for them to find horrible stories.”


Nobody exploits the Law of the Velocity of Bad News more effectively than terrorists, which also explains why terrorism is a quintessentially modern phenomenon. Terrorists cannot usually physically harm more than a few dozen people at a time (9/11 was an exception). But they can terrify millions in one fell swoop, especially if they target famous locations that millions of people have visited. As the political scientist James L. Payne explains: “With the terrorism of modern times, publicity is the focus of the violent deed. Perpetrators are aiming for mass media coverage.”


10. Rock of Ageing . . .: At World, Jennifer Patterson finds society needs a refresher course on growing old, a thing best thought of as a vocation. From the piece


Is there a constructive Christian outlook on aging that can help? Is it possible to navigate purposefully and not just drift anxiously toward the looming reality of life’s end? The answer is yes, and none of us is too young to contemplate a Biblical outlook on growing old. Our perspective on aging will shape our own life paths, our relationships with our elders, and our outlook on public policy questions about the value of human life.


The book of Hebrews refers to a “Sabbath rest” that goes beyond the concept of a weekly reverential respite from work. This Sabbath rest is the object of all our living, whether in Sunday worship or weekday work, and the fulfillment of all our striving. It is eternal life in communion with God. The early church father Augustine reflected on growing old as preparation for eternal Sabbath rest. More recently, theologian Autumn Alcott Ridenour expands on that idea to address our contemporary context in her book Sabbath Rest as Vocation: Aging Toward Death.


Aging is a vocation, suggests Ridenour. She invites us to consider this vocation, or calling, as a preparation for Sabbath rest, which is the ultimate calling of those in Christ. As with all our callings throughout life, growing old presents us with opportunities for action as well as realities we must accept. In other words, aging bids us to grow in both active and passive virtues, says Ridenour. Elders have a treasury of wisdom that youth lack and a sense of perspective on life’s chapters that the middle-aged have not yet gained. Likewise, age brings changes for which the older need others to come alongside. Young or old, we need to accompany one another through these phases of life.


11. . . . Cleft for Me: At First Things, Elizabeth Corey reflects on middle age, and discovers consolation amongst the grey hairs. From the article


One other consolation I have discovered in middle age is an appreciation for the daily and the ordinary. In addition to whatever great and meaningful deeds any of us might perform, a well-lived life requires the unrecognized, humble, quiet, repetitive tasks that maintain existence adequately and well. We must shop, cook, clean, and repair. Although some people might want to brush aside all this (supposedly) menial work as unimportant or unworthy, without it any home or institution begins to crumble: Its paint peels, its gutters sag, its structure becomes unsound.


The very ordinariness of these daily tasks can become a source of pleasure, precisely because we know that many days are not at all ordinary. A child faces a crisis or a parent takes a fall; someone close to us receives a frightening diagnosis; or we ourselves are in an accident. At times like these we long for the ordinary, and we appreciate it when it returns. There is nothing like a Saturday on which we are left to do as we please and be thankful for the goods we possess: a house to clean, a child to take to soccer practice, friends who come for dinner.


There is also an important analogy here: The physical maintenance I have described is not so different from the work required to maintain other kinds of institutions, from churches and schools to businesses and voluntary associations. This work of maintenance is especially appropriate for those of us in midlife, who can see and appreciate the benefits we have received. In preserving these benefits for future generations, we are curators and custodians, people engaged in deeply “conservative” activities.


12. At The American Mind, Joshua Hendrickson worries that America’s institutions are unwinding. From the commentary


Perhaps it would make it easier to sleep at night if there was evidence of an intellectual and professional class capable of dealing with the consequences of fragility. Unfortunately, there is no evidence for that. The public schools and the universities have been largely taken over by ideology and the need for rectification of social injustice. The students produced by this system and indoctrinated in this ideology now form the ruling class. They are overwhelmingly represented in government bureaucracies and the media.


The consequences are straightforward. The last two decades in the United States have been marked by one institutional failure after another, most notably when the financial crisis revealed the failures of government bureaucracies tasked with regulating the financial sector and when the pandemic revealed the public health bureaucracy as devoid of leadership, knowledge, or general competence. These failures are caused by the fact that U.S. institutions no longer select for competence, capability, or intelligence. The ideology has so permeated society that it is now a central characteristic of the ruling class. One’s position in the regime and broader society is dictated by adherence to the regime’s ideology. Institutions select for those who can utter the correct shibboleths.


The implications are important. Catastrophe can occur even without inherent fragility in the system. Unknown unknowns cannot be anticipated, by definition. Regardless of the source of catastrophe, capable and competent leadership can potentially bring a state through the difficulties and even make it stronger on the other side. There is no sign that this is even a possibility at present. Time and again, these institutions demonstrate that they are populated by those unprepared, unqualified, or otherwise incapable of dealing with catastrophe.


Lucky 13. At the Pikes Peak Courier, staff report on the waning days of the mayor of nearby Divide, Colorado—his name is Clyde, and the lame duck is a donkey. From the article:


In 2010, a board member of [Teller County Regional Animal Shelter] saw a story about another small town that has raised funds by allowing people to “vote” for an animal for mayor by making a small donation for each vote. The election has become a big fundraiser for the shelter.


Every two years, anyone from anywhere can help decide the next mayor of Divide. The election creates goodwill, exposure for the non-profits and businesses that sponsor the candidates and essential funds to support the small but mighty animal shelter at the same time.


“People are encouraged to vote as often as they want for their favorite candidates! We’ve had cats, dogs, a wolf and most recently a mammoth donkey as our mayors,” Ruyak said.


Clyde has been a huge supporter of TCRAS during his term of office. He has attended every major TCRAS event, dressed up and ready to meet his constituents, supporters and fans.


Bonus. At The Lamp, Tess Owen tells of her small Oregon hometown, a place with a religious past, and present. From the reflection:


During the same war, Saint Paul received the near-miraculous grace of not losing a single member. Many attribute this gift to the twenty-four-hour Eucharistic Adoration organized by parishioners to pray for their safety. My sister heard this story from a member of her Bible study, which was itself organized by the current parish priest. A kind and serious man who studied Russian literature in college, he possesses a strong devotion to Our Lord in the Eucharist and has once again started offering regular Adoration.


The community remains very tight-knit to this day. Five of my six older sisters have been married at Saint Paul, but no one has married into Saint Paul. This, along with my parents’ decision to educate their conspicuously large family somewhere other than Saint Paul’s parochial school, and to supplement our catechesis at a Dominican parish in Portland, has perhaps contributed to a lingering sense of separateness from the community. The town is small, and the parish even smaller, meaning such differences often felt more pronounced.


The widespread lockdowns in 2020 actually strengthened my family’s involvement with the parish. They certainly helped me become more grateful for her continued ministry. I, like so many others, found that the loss of the ability to receive the sacraments regularly heightened my appreciation for them. While many churches in Portland were obliged to comply with stricter lockdown rules, Saint Paul was allowed to open up earlier than most. Even more than my dad’s frequent tributes to the early settlers and missionaries, it was regularly attending Saint Paul during this time that finally opened my eyes to the immensity of their sacrifice. My dad had gently pointed it out so many times before, but I understand now: I owe a significant part of my faith to them.


For the Good of the Order


Uno. Even fundraising mavens need to be dispelled of prejudices about (against!) the value of direct mail marketing. Are you a maven? Or maybe simply a curious nonprofit worker bee determined to help your organization fund its mission? Whatever role you play, do join the Center for Civil Society on Thursday, February 15, from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m., Eastern, via Zoom of course, for a free webinar—featuring AmPhil all-stars Austin Detwiler, Mark Diggs, and Therese Beigel—covering the ins and outs of direct mail marketing. Learn more and sign up right here.


Due. Speaking of consequential webinars, on Thursday, March 7, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m., Eastern, C4CS will be hosting a “Givers, Doers, & Thinkers” webinar on “Elements of Grant Writing.” This is a tried-and-true course that is heavy on the wisdom and tips—such as the common errors found in grant proposals (and how to avoid them). If you write grants for your nonprofit, or if no one in your shop does (but someone ought to) then attending this important “Master Class” is a must. Get complete information right here.


Tre. At Philanthropy Daily, James Davenport brings the wisdom in a great piece on how nonprofit missions need to be stated (to prospective donors) in “strong and clear language.” Read it here.


Department of Bad Jokes


Q: How did Quasimodo cure his sore throat?


A: He gargoyled.


A Dios


Pray for those American soldiers, in harm’s way, who last week made the ultimate sacrifice in Jordan, and those alongside who were wounded.


May the Alpha and Omega Encompass Us,


Jack Fowler, who can be found coughing at jfowler@amphil.com.

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