Join Your Local Historical Society

A few months ago, I saw a notice on Facebook about an open house day at our small New England town’s historical society, focusing on the history of the town’s fire department over the last hundred years or so. It would also include a chance for the kids to see our town’s fire equipment and meet firefighters, which I always encourage1, and so we stopped by.

It was a nice little event that only took about 20 minutes out of our Saturday. We met the firefighters and the Boy Scouts who organized it as well as the folks who run the town’s historical society. After chatting with them a bit, I ended up joining the society for a whopping $10 in annual dues.

Lots of small towns have historical societies, especially in the older parts of the country, and I encourage others to join like we did. We get a monthly newsletter that highlights events in the couple-hundred-year history of my adopted (and the kids’ actual) hometown and the knowledge that we are helping to preserve the past. It makes a difference to know that our town has a past as we look to the future.

I love knowing that the road called Johns Avenue is called that because there was a convenience store on the spot 100 years ago owned by a man named John.

Supporting the small institutions of your hometown is a nice lesson for the kids in civic duties and responsibility and community spirit. It’s also a reminder to me that being an American citizen isn’t just about what happens in Washington, DC, or even Boston, but is first and foremost what happens in the little town where I live among the people I call neighbors.

  1. We encourage the kids to get to know and recognize our local emergency services personnel so that they aren’t strangers to them. We also encourage them to pray for them in our bedtime prayers.

That All May Not Be Lost: Considering The Benedict Option

For a number of years now, I’ve been hearing about the Benedict Option—an idea, a movement, a prescription, a diagnosis, and now a book—put forward by the writer Rod Dreher to mark out how he believes traditional and conservative people should deal with what society has become.

I met Rod and his wife more than a decade ago after we’d corresponded a bit online. I was in Dallas with Melanie when we were still dating and Rod was living there with his family. He and his wife graciously invited us to their home and we had a great evening. He’d not yet published his earlier book Crunchy Cons, about the different kinds of political and social conservatives than we usually saw portrayed in the media, but I know he’d already begun exploring the ideas that would result in the Benedict Option.

Around the same time, Dreher had been struggling as a Catholic with the sex-abuse scandal in the Church and how to reconcile the attitudes and behavior of even those bishops we consider the “good” ones in dealing with the crisis with the divine nature of the Church. It’s a struggle that would eventually lead Rod out of the Catholic Church into Eastern Orthodoxy. In some ways, that struggle is also at the root of the Benedict Option.

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Why is Nudity at the Children’s Theatre Okay?

Sometimes you see a news story and you realize that the people involved have their heads so buried in the own worldview that they can’t see how asinine the situation is.

The Boston Children’s Theater–an organization dedicated to putting on plays for children–is doing a performance of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

That’s the first point at which someone should have questioned the artistic director’s judgment.

They included in the play a scene in which an adult man gets naked in front of the audience … of children. Is this not indecent exposure in front of children? This is the second moment someone should have stepped in. Of course, when some board members objected, it wasn’t because of the nudity per se, but because they weren’t consulted first. It’s really about turf, not appropriateness.

Now the artistic director is screaming censorship because he wasn’t allowed to parade a naked adult male in front of children, he’s been laid off (maybe temporarily, maybe not), a board member has resigned, and the cast and staff are on strike.

And those of us who are actual parents are aghast at the whole thing. What kind of parent would take a child to one of Boston Children’s Theatre performances now given their display of an appalling lack of judgement?

Meanwhile the director is defending his decision to include the nudity.

“We do have shows that are much more traditional children’s fare, and we also do shows that challenge the boundaries of children’s theater,’’ he said.

Why? Why do you need to challenge the boundaries? The boundaries are there for a reason, to protect children and their innocence. This part of the wider trend in society to further sexualize children at younger and younger ages. After all, they want to start sex education in kindergarten. I wouldn’t doubt someone is already doing it. By high school, we just assume that they’re having hookup sex and there’s no use expecting them to do otherwise.

Judge a society by how it protects its children. In our society, if they survive legalized abortion, they can expect have their innocence and childhood assaulted well into their extended adolescence in their 20s.

Groucho Was Right; The Club That Wanted Me As a Member

I received a LinkedIn connection request followed by an email from a young woman recently. She works for a “social university” as a city community manager, she said, and would I be interested in becoming a member? She told me that she’d looked at my background and based on it she thought I’d get a lot out of it and would be a good addition.

I’m not a credulous person. I know what a spammer and a scam look like, and this didn’t seem to fit that bill. And while I’m not easily flattered, I decided to look into it out of curiosity. The organization is called Ivy, and it describes itself as a sort of salon of the internet age. Located in 7 cities so far with tens of thousands of members, it’s an elite club that offers intellectual and cultural experiences, an opportunity to network with movers and shakers, and a chance at bonding and friendship through social experiences. Their list of associated “thought leaders” is a who’s who of business, academia, culture, and entertainment. It also feels like a real world response to social networking by those who grew up in the social media age, offering amazing experiences to people in person, and not mediated through devices.

But I don’t understand why anyone would think I’d be a good fit. Granted, the idea of an opportunity to engage in regular intellectual activities with top scientists and academics and artists and business leaders and authors sounds fascinating. Meeting the actor who played Harry Potter sounds like fun. Going to art galleries and plays and operas and concerts, too. But one look at the way they describe themselves on their website and what they show in their photos and videos leads me to an inescapable conclusion: This isn’t for me or people like me. Read More and Comment

Why Fund the Arts?

President Trump has proposed de-funding the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other budget items conservatives have been dying to get rid off for decades. Liberals are understandably upset and the debate has centered around the controversial and offensive artworks that the NEA has sponsored in the past, as well as the weird art they still promote sometimes.

Jazz Shaw at Hot Air says this is precisely the wrong argument to have. He argues that the NEA should be done away not because they supported weird or offensive art, but because the federal government shouldn’t be supporting art at all.

The arts, like everything else in society, can rise and fall on their own merit. The reason that we don’t have tremendous federal funding supporting the creation of blockbuster Hollywood movies is that such offerings tend to be popular and the business of making them is profitable. Creating paintings, sculpture, poetry or theatrical performances may not be as profitable, but if it has value to sufficient people, patrons may be found to support the work. If no such patronage is forthcoming then perhaps the “art” is better left to the lonely artist toiling away in their studio.

Unfortunately, Shaw is wrong because this is precisely why we should have public support of the arts, especially those less commercially viable forms. Look, I think NEA funding can be reduced or even eliminated, because I think having a federal bureaucracy as gatekeeper for the arts has been disastrous (cf. Mapplethrope and Serrano as Shaw references them).

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Shouting Them Down

I wrote in my previous blog post about the loss of the principle of the right to be wrong, meaning it’s okay for someone to disagree with us or for us to believe them to be wrong, yet still remain cordial, polite, and even friends. I’ve also written about the need to extend to others the benefit of the doubt, to assume good intentions in others or give the best possible interpretation of their motives until you learn otherwise. These are necessary for a civil society to operate.

Another disturbing trend, however, makes even those two principles impossible. I’m speaking of the epidemic of shouting, cursing, and yelling as a substitute for debate. I’m not even talking about two people sitting down over coffee ending up in a shouting match. I’m referring to the widespread practice of people showing up at a meeting or rally or speech and harassing those present by shouting and chanting and disrupting the proceedings. Usually there’s no attempt to change minds or present an opposing point of view. Rather it’s an attempt to intimidate or just frustrate their opponents, to bait them and anger them with no clear end in mind.

I work for Massachusetts Citizens for Life and, of course, my work involves an issue (or issues) that sees great emotion on either side. In January, we held our annual Assembly for Life, a gathering held in Boston’s Faneuil Hall that has its roots in an interfaith prayer event. While it’s not specifically a prayer service now, it still retains elements in the choice of speakers and topics and by including opening and closing prayers. After our rally had begun and we’d heard from one or two speakers, an obviously coordinated group of young people scattered through the audience rose to their feet, stood on chairs and began chanting pro-abortion slogans. The audience of pro-lifers responded mainly with prayer and rueful head shakes. Eventually they were escorted from the premises by the police.

What did they accomplish? Was there a single pro-lifer in the room whose mind was moved even one iota by the disruptive display? There were no neutral attendees to be swayed by one side or the other. There were no TV cameras to capture their yelling to be broadcast into living rooms. In the end it was all for naught.

We see this time and again. Last year, the screaming happened with some frequency at presidential rallies. The Democratic convention even saw some of it from Bernie Sanders’ delegates who didn’t like their party’s process. There is hours of YouTube footage of people yelling and screaming and chanting at one kind of event or another that they oppose. Heck, there’s a whole genre of video depicting so-called “scream-ins” where some gather to just scream at no one.

This kind of display isn’t intended to convince or educate. It’s just a way to express emotion and perhaps to make it impossible for the other to be heard. Yet another way that the current climate is making a civil society impossible.

The performances must stop. Just because someone else is saying things I do not like does not mean I need to say anything. My silence in the face of speech I think is wrong is not in fact complicity. Silence in the face of others’ bad actions could be, but not when they’re simply saying things I disagree with. For the sake of a civil society other people have the right to be wrong. The good news is so do you.

The Right to Be Wrong

Last week, the controversial academic and author Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve among other works, was invited to speak at Middlebury College in Vermont. However, before he could even begin, the audience began booing and hissing, making it impossible to continue. The college moved him to a TV studio where he made his talk as a streaming video, but after he came out of the building, he and another professor were attacked by a group of thugs.

The same kind of story has been repeated over and over in recent years and has reached a fever pitch after this past election. College campuses are in a constant uproar whenever a controversial speaker attempts to talk resulting in audience disruptions, property destruction, and mob violence, with professors often at their head. The high-minded and longstanding principles of free speech and open academic inquiry seem to have been lost in favor of safe spaces and countering (non-liberal) micro-aggressions.

In a truly civil society, the one we used to live in, if you disagreed with someone else’s views, you could either engage them in a civil debate or ignore them, but you’d acknowledge their right to be wrong. But not any more. In today’s uncivil society, you are not allowed to be wrong. If you hold wrong beliefs—i.e. wrong according to my measure—then you must either change your mind or be destroyed, one way or the other.

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A Civil Discourse of Personal Affront

Because the world needs another armchair sociologist to diagnose what’s wrong with society, I’m going to tell you a difficult truth: When something bad happens in the world, it’s not about you. When someone posts a critical meme, it’s not about you.

What regularly happens on my social media is that someone posts a meme or link to an article or a news report and people lose their minds. They are offended or outraged or triggered. Here’s a real world example: “Your great-grandparents had eight kids. Your grandparents had four. Your parents had two. You had an abortion and a dog.”

Now, that’s rude. It’s trying to make a point—and maybe a good point about demographic changes or a lack of openness to life or something similar—but it fails because it’s wrapped in an outer layer of judgmentalism and lack of tact.

In a civil society, we would note that it’s rude and then move on. We ignore it and don’t grace it with a response.

In our current society, we take it personally. We fire back in the comments. We mock. We spit vitriol and fire. We declaim that in our case we haven’t had multiple children because of fertility issues and how can you be so hurtful? Or we haven’t had children because we’re not ready to make that leap. Or we love our dog. Or my grandparents had one child and so you’re attacking my lovely grandma who was a saint.

A civil society functions not because everyone is nice to everyone else all the time. Given human nature, that sort of place can’t exist. Civil society functions because we let occasional failures in social graces and basic kindness pass by unheeded. We smooth out the bumps in social discourse, perhaps by giving the benefit of the doubt or silently—silently!—resolving to not give that person the opportunity to be rude again.

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The First American Chaplain Killed in WWII

Fr. Aloysius Schmitt died on December 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor just after celebrating Mass on the USS Oklahoma. He was among the men trapped inside after the battleship capsized and helped a dozen men escape through a porthole, but he died because he couldn’t fit. (I can sympathize.)

He was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and had a ship, the USS Schmitt named for him.

Thanks to DNA testing, his remains have been identified and he is returning home this month to Iowa to be interred in a chapel dedicated in his honor.

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