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The Soul-Killing, Family-Destroying Curse of Pornography

From Aletiea

At their autumn meeting last week, the bishops of the United States approved draft language for a pastoral statement on the issue of pornography.  When released, the statement crafted by Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, along with his confreres on the USCCB’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth will be the Church’s latest salvo against the soul-killing, body-destroying curse of pornography. Just last September, the bishops called for a day of fasting on behalf of those addicted to or exploited by pornography. In their statement, the bishops cited a pastoral letter by Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington (VA), who wrote, “in my forty years as a priest, I have seen the evil of pornography spread like a plague throughout our culture.”

Bishop Loverde is right: we live in a culture of porn. Globally, the porn business is estimated to bring in at least $97 billion annually, with the US share accounting for $14 billion. That’s more than Apple Computer’s annual revenues for all the music, books, applications, movies, and television shows sold through iTunes. Gone, of course, are the days of the dirty movie theater in a rough part of town, and many of the “adult book stores” that once blighted urban areas and interstate exits have disappeared. That’s progress, but if anything the problem is far more insidious now than it has been in recent decades. Read the rest of this entry »

Is An Old Spectre Haunting Europe?

This piece appeared at Aleteia

Last month, during a vacation that took us to Rome and the Amalfi Coast, an affable 27-year-old named Vincenzo chauffeured my wife and me to a private tour of Pompeii. “Vinnie,” as he preferred to be called, picked us up at our hotel on the coast and drove us over the Lattari Mountains to the site of the excavations, and then drove us back a couple of hours later. Vinnie’s English was excellent and he was eager to talk. As we discussed the economic and cultural situation in Italy, Vinnie aimed salvo after salvo of bitter invective at the government, the Italian economic elite, the international banking system, the European Union (including Germany, which dominates it), and even the United States. To my American ears, it all sounded like a classic left-wing critique, and I figured that Vinnie, like many Italians, must be a member of one of the Left parties descended from the Italian Communist Party, which dissolved in 1991. Until, that is, Vinny offered his solution. “What Italy needs,” he said, “is another Mussolini. And most people I know agree with me.”

Frankly, I was floored. I have never heard an American, of the right or left, seriously call for the rise of a dictator. I had never heard a European do so either. But then I recalled that the past seventy years of Western European democracy has been a historical outlier, forged in the crucible of the Second World War, and that the popular desire for the man on a white horse is a perennial temptation in Europe, particularly during periods of economic and social crisis. The tradition goes back at least to Julius Caesar, who combined populist politics with a cult of personality and martial glory to make himself dictator in perpetuum, thereby dealing a fatal blow to the Roman Republic. That same combination of elements was in play during the rise of Napoleon I at the turn of the 19th Century, and again in the 1930s with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and several lesser dictators. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Capitalism Conservative?

This piece originally appeared at Aleteia

My wonderful Aleteia colleague, Fr. Dwight Longnecker, recently wrote an article asking the question, “Is Catholicism Conservative?” The piece was a favorable review of two new books by prominent Catholic intellectuals: Tea Party Catholic – The Catholic Case for Limited Government, A Free Economy, and Human Flourishing, by Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute; and Writing from Left to Right – My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, by the theologian Michael Novak, author of the seminal 1982 book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Both books offer a robust defense of American-style capitalism and attempt to square that system with Catholic Social Teaching as developed since Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Though Fr. Longnecker didn’t explicitly answer his title question, he seemed to conclude that Catholicism does indeed favor “conservatism,” at least as defined by Gregg and Novak. I’d like to offer a different point of view, and I’ll begin by asking a question quite different than the one posed by Fr. Longnecker: Is capitalism conservative?

In the run-up to the 1980 National Republican Convention that nominated Ronald Reagan for president, the columnist George Will wrote, “The Republican platform of 1980 stresses two themes that are not as harmonious as Republicans suppose. One is cultural conservatism. The other is capitalist dynamism. The latter dissolves the former. Capitalism undermines traditional social structures and values. Republicans see no connection between the cultural phenomena they deplore and the capitalist culture they promise to intensify.” Will was highlighting a truth that genuine conservatives used to know – namely, that capitalism, the eldest child of classical liberalism, is a revolutionary force that scours society of its traditional underpinnings, including religion, upends centuries of received wisdom, and destroys long-established social arrangements. Read the rest of this entry »

NSA Spying and the Tyranny of Good Intentions

This piece appeared at Aleteia

Questions about American intelligence agencies violating the privacy rights of citizens have been front-page news ever since the so-called “War on Terror” began in earnest following the September 11, 2001, attacks. During the early years of the Bush Administration, the controversy focused on warrantless wiretapping, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) practice of listening in on specific intercontinental telephone calls without authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). But as the agency has grown – it now employs over 30,000 workers and has contracts with up to 500 private companies – new concerns have been raised about the collection of vast amounts of personal data from ordinary American citizens. And Barack Obama, who came into office promising to curtail overreach by the intelligence community, appears instead to have become its chief instigator.

This past May, Edward Snowden, a 29 year-old analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton – an NSA contractor – walked off the job with a trove of secret government documents. He shared many of those with Glenn Greenwald, an American expatriate journalist who writes for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. Greenwald, a longtime critic of the American intelligence community, began to publish articles based on the information contained in Snowden’s documents.

It soon became clear that what we thought we knew about the NSA’s operations (and their implications for privacy rights) paled in comparison with what was really going on. The Snowden revelations included information about a program called PRISM, in which the NSA collected private user data sitting on the servers of social networking companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, AOL, Yahoo, and others.  Included were chat logs and emails through companies like Skype and Hotmail. The agency accomplished this collection by installing “fiber-optic splitters” on the information backbones of these companies, essentially creating a mirror of everything that traveled down those trunks. Read the rest of this entry »

A Syllabus of System Failures

This article appeared at Aleteia

Several years ago, I stood in line at a Hertz rental counter and pondered the breakdown of complex systems. I had just flown into an airport that serves a large, southeastern American city. It was midday, and the line at Hertz wasn’t particularly long; when I got there I was number eleven. There were three people behind the counter, but only one knew anything about the computerized reservation system, and this afternoon that system wasn’t working. And so I waited, along with a growing congregation of weary and increasingly frustrated travelers. In the end, it took me an hour and a half to get to the car I had reserved a month earlier.

In the big scheme of things, the incident at Hertz was a minor annoyance, but it occurred to me while waiting that the collapse of any complex system always begins with minor perturbations, detectable only at the margins of consciousness. Unless something intervenes to restore the system’s state, those wobbles deepen into wild oscillations that consume the thing itself until it comes to a shuddering, shrieking halt. Think of spinning plates slowing before their final death-wobble, or the tiny steering wheel shimmy that warns of wheels out of alignment. I saw the 90-minute wait at Hertz as a kind of warning wobble, not for the company itself but for the nation. If we can’t get rental cars right, I thought, we’re in trouble. Read the rest of this entry »

Lead Us Not Into Default … Or Austerity

This was first published at Aleteia

The partial government shutdown that kicked off on October 1 has been dominating the news lately, but an even greater crisis looms beginning October 17. That’s the date on which the federal government is expected to reach what’s known as the debt ceiling – the upper limit of what it may borrow to pay its bills, including service on the national debt.

Congress sets the ceiling, currently at $16.7 trillion dollars, and the Republican majority in the House is balking at raising it unless President Obama agrees to a major restructuring of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security, approval of the Keystone Pipeline, or some combination of those measures. For its part, the Obama Administration insists that there will be no negotiation.

This isn’t the first time that the debt ceiling has become a political football. The limit has been lifted 106 times since 1940, including 18 times under Ronald Reagan, six times under Bill Clinton and seven times under George Bush. It has also been raised three times already during the presidency of Barack Obama. Most of those adjustments in the government’s ability to borrow were accomplished without any real threat of default. But given the partisan bitterness that dominates Washington today, this could well be the year it happens.

If the debt ceiling isn’t lifted by October 17, the U.S. Government will have two choices: default or austerity.  Default means we would fail to pay interest on U.S. Treasuries and instead keep paying on entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare, and others. Austerity means the opposite: we would fail to make entitlement payments in favor of paying interest on the debt. Either scenario would have catastrophic consequences for the economy, but for different reasons. Read the rest of this entry »

Whither Obamacare? A Catholic Take on the Affordable Care Act

This appeared at Aleteia

Recent national polls suggest that the American people continue to be deeply divided over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare,” which will pass a significant milestone this week with the opening of state-based health care insurance exchanges. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in early September revealed that 44% of respondents believe the law is a bad idea, while 31% favor it. Those numbers are echoed in a similar poll conducted in late August by USA Today and the Pew Research Organization. But of the 1,000 respondents to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 30% claim they understand the law well or very well, while nearly 70% admit they don’t understand the law well at all, or only somewhat. That’s really no surprise given that the original legislation, as enacted, was 906 pages long.

Obamacare rests on four legs. First, there is the creation of health care insurance “exchanges” – marketplaces – in each state. In these exchanges, private insurers will compete for the business of individuals and families who do not now avail themselves of health care insurance through employers. This will include not only the presently uninsured, but self-employed people, low and moderate earners with only partial or expensive health care insurance, workers currently enrolled in subsidized public plans, and others. Read the rest of this entry »

Zimmerman: The Right Legal Verdict, But Was Justice Served?

This piece appeared at Aleteia

What are we to make of the trial of George Zimmerman, accused and declared not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin early last year? In the aftermath of the jury’s verdict, two camps seem to have formed. One views the acquittal as an injustice; a compounding of the original injustice committed by Zimmerman on the night Martin, an African-American teenager, was killed. The other views the verdict as faithful to the law, and therefore just. In my view both camps are wrong because their reactions are premised on the expectation that justice and the law necessarily have something to do with one another. In fact, despite our self-congratulatory use of the term “justice system,” there is no necessary correlation between the two. Or as J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary and notorious FBI Director, once put it, “justice is incidental to law and order.”

What is lacking in any attempt to wring either justice or injustice from the verdict in this case is knowledge: of what really happened between Martin and Zimmerman that evening and, most importantly, of what each was thinking and intended. It is precisely that knowledge that the jury lacked when it was charged with deciding the case. When that lack of knowledge is combined with the presumption of innocence, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the jury decided rightly according to Florida law. In order to find Zimmerman guilty, the jury would have had to pretend to know enough to overwhelm the presumption of evidence. But it would have been a pretense nonetheless, and therefore a contradiction of the law as it stands.  This, by the way, is a view shared by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the African-American columnist for The Atlantic magazine, who wrote on July 15 that, “based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter.” Coates arrived at his conclusion after examining the unique confluence of statutes that were applicable in this case, including the legal definition of an “aggressor,” Florida’s now famous “stand your ground” law, and the minimum threshold for a claim of self-defense. Read the rest of this entry »

Defend Us and Our Liberties

This was originally published at Aleteia

The Obama Administration is doing its best to prove the old adage that bad news comes in threes. Last week, the so-called “Benghazi Whistleblowers” testified before Congress, raising real questions about whether the Administration misrepresented the origin and nature of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya last September. Then the story broke that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative and Catholic groups, and perhaps even some individuals, for special scrutiny during the months and years leading up to the 2012 election.

This week, the Administration hit the trifecta when it was revealed that the Department of Justice (DOJ) had secretly obtained the records of 20 phone lines of Associated Press (AP) editors and reporters, including cell and home phones.  The seizures took place in April and May of 2012, but the AP was only notified late last week in a letter sent by Ronald Machen, the US Attorney for Washington, D.C. The letter offered no reason for the seizure, but the AP believes it is connected to an ongoing investigation into leaks that led to a May 7, 2012, AP story about the attempted bombing of an airliner. In the story, the AP reported that the plot, hatched in Yemen in the spring of 2012, had been foiled by a CIA operation in that country. In a statement issued Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder confirmed the investigation into a leak, which he said, “put the American people at risk and that is not hyperbole. Trying to determine who was responsible required very aggressive action.” Holder also said that he had recused himself from the decision of whether or not to seek a subpoena to seize the records. Read the rest of this entry »

The Power to Tax is the Power to Destroy

This piece originally appeared at Aleteia

Late yesterday, Michael McKenney, Acting Inspector General of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), released his findings in an investigation that the agency has targeted politically conservative groups since mid-2010. The 54-page report focuses on the work of the IRS’s “Determinations Unit,” which among other things assesses the legitimacy of applications for non-profit, tax-exempt status. In the report, McKenney’s office found that “inappropriate criteria were used to identify tax-exempt applications for review.” The report also finds that the IRS demanded information that is well outside the scope of what is required to determine whether an application is legitimate or not.

Specifically, the IRS routed all applications from groups with the terms “Tea Party,” Patriots,” or “9/12” in their names, as well as organizations whose concerns involved “government debt,” “government spending,” or “taxes.” (“9/12” refers to a group founded by radio and TV personality Glenn Beck.) The more than 300 groups identified for special scrutiny were consolidated in a spreadsheet that became known as the “Be On The Lookout” list, or BOLO. Applications on the BOLO list languished for long periods of time while the investigators demanded inappropriate information, such as lists of donors, members, and grantees. The agency also demanded that the groups provided detailed positions on public issues, the work histories of members, and information on other groups not parties to the applications. Read the rest of this entry »