Archive: Apr 2016

On Those Who Yearn to Bern What You’ve Earned

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Yesterday I saw the poster pictured above in the rear window of a parked car. I live in San Francisco, so it is by no means the first pro-Bernie Sanders poster I have seen. It was, however, the first time I had seen this specific version. It made me feel as though my head were about to explode.

I’m a pretty analytical person, and when I encounter things that don’t compute, it more or less drives me bonkers. This poster is a magnificent magilla of nonsensical sloganeering. It’s a simple enough message; it asks us to believe that voting for Sanders will “end inequality.” How is that absurd, you ask? Let me count the ways!

Let’s begin with the obvious, face-value logical fallacy. Strictly speaking, the poster should say: “Elect Bernie to End Inequality.” Simply handing in a ballot cannot “end inequality” in and of itself.

You’re probably thinking, “Pish posh, she’s just getting hung up on semantics.” Perhaps, but this is not the only problem with the poster. It makes several assumptions, some of which are quite far-fetched: 1). inequality exists, 2). it is problematic, 3). it can be solved, and 4). a politician/the government should solve it.

The poster does not specify which flavor of inequality Bernie Sanders will supposedly abolish, but his main campaign message seems to revolve around “income inequality,” so let’s assume this is the arena in which The Bern proposes to demonstrate his messianic powers.

Dictionary.com gives two particularly relevant definitions of “inequality”: “1). the condition of being unequal; lack of equality; disparity,” and: “4). injustice; partiality.” Obviously, not everyone in this country makes the same amount of money; in that sense, most people would agree that the first definition is fitting vis-a-vis “income inequality.”

However, the people who do the most complaining about income inequality act as though definition number 4 is most appropriate–as though the fact that we are all paid differing wages is due to some unjust aspect of our culture or political system.

But is that really the case? To answer that question, let us compare two vastly different jobs: that of a fast-food drive-thru cashier and a vice president at a major oil company. I’m choosing these jobs because I have an immediate family member working in each position, and I’m familiar with what they do.

The oil company VP went to university (a state school) on a scholarship. He kept his grades up the whole way through, and started working for the oil company as an entry-level accountant after graduation. He worked his way up from the bottom of the ladder–he put in 25 years of loyal service to the same company before he was promoted to vice president. During his tenure as VP, he has managed multi-billion dollar international projects and teams of employees numbering in the thousands.

The fast-food cashier never finished high school, although she did get her GED. She is over 50, and the only job she has had outside of fast food was truck driving. She has no special training or post high school education–her primary assets are her remarkable warmth and kindness, lovable personality, and sincere faith.

The VP invested many years in building up his education and on-the-job experience to get where he is today. The cashier has never really demonstrated any ambition to get further “ahead” than where she already is. The oil company exec works 60+ hour weeks, and often has to travel internationally, which takes him away from his family. The fast food employee works the same shift every day, and a set 35 hours per week, every week. The VP has a lot more responsibility on his shoulders than the cashier–if he makes a mistake, thousands of employees could be negatively affected, and millions of dollars lost; if the cashier makes a mistake, it is unlikely to make more than a few dollars’ difference to a handful of people, tops. Furthermore, oil is a commodity that, like it or not, is essential to our current way of life; fast food, on the other hand, is in no way necessary to our existence–indeed, one could easily argue that we’d all be better off without it.

Now, can you honestly argue that these two people deserve the same salary? How exactly would this work? Do we pay the VP fast food wages? Or the cashier executive wages? Do we split the difference?

If executives made the same salary as fast food workers, there would be no incentive for them to get the training required to become executives in the first place. And why on earth would they take on the increased risk of heart disease and other stress-related ailments if there weren’t an equivalent reward? No, if they’re going to earn fast-food money, they will only be willing to take on fast-food responsibilities. That’s how these things work. You generally get what you pay for–and, conversely, you give in proportion to your compensation. Even Uncle Joe Stalin understood this–he made sure skilled workers were paid more than their unskilled counterparts.

So why not raise the wages of fast food workers? Ah, this is one of my favorites. It’s a “solution” so universally beloved, and about which complete ignorance almost universally prevails, even though there is a mountain of evidence demonstrating the ill effects of hiking the minimum wage, and every Economics 101 course explains in simple English why this strategy will always fail. Let’s walk through the steps.

 

The supply and demand lines represent the labor market–the supply of workers and employers’ demand for them. They intersect at the equilibrium wage (W0), which is determined by market forces. When a higher minimum wage (W1) is imposed, supply and demand no longer intersect; the demand for workers shrinks, and the number of job-seekers (the labor supply) rises. The higher the minimum wage is, the greater the gap between labor supply and labor demand. The gap between labor supply (L1) and labor demand (L2) represents the unemployed.

 

Firstly, when the cost of workers, especially unskilled workers, goes up, demand decreases, and supply increases. In other words, when our fast-food cashier suddenly costs $15/hr, rather than $7.25/hr, her employer is going to look for ways to either replace her with a machine, reduce overall staff levels and have fewer employees do more work, or some combination thereof. The boss’s labor budget doesn’t double just because the minimum wage doubled. He or she will have to do more with less. People will lose their jobs, and/or full-time workers will be reduced to part-time status. Period. And the businesses that will be hardest hit are the small, local, family-owned businesses, not the major chains.

If a business can’t get by with half the number of staff or labor hours (and most can’t), they must raise their prices to accommodate the increase in the cost of production. Because all sorts of businesses rely on minimum wage employees at some point in the chain of production and distribution, prices of just about everything wind up going up right along with the minimum wage. This means that, for the minimum-wage workers who were lucky enough to keep their jobs, the wage increase doesn’t end up being an increase in real income, because the cost of living rises in lock-step with the increase in the minimum wage. So they may have more money after the wage hike, but it doesn’t go as far as it did before.

And if you don’t believe me, just look at what’s happened in Seattle since they passed their minimum wage hike. They’ve seen price increases, 15% surcharges at restaurants to cover increased labor costs, increased unemployment, and business closures. Furthermore, since everything costs more, the wage increase hasn’t been sufficient to allow welfare recipients to get by without government assistance, but it has made their incomes too high for them to qualify for help–so they are asking to work fewer hours in order to maintain their aid.

Clearly, it makes no sense to artificially raise the cashier’s wages. In fact, it would be shooting her in the foot. So maybe we should just take some of the money that the VP has earned through hard work and perseverance, and hand it over to the cashier, who has made no effort to acquire more skills to get a better job. Is that just? Sounds an awful lot like criminal theft to me.

And that’s the problem with the direct re-distribution of wealth. It commits a wrong (theft of property from its rightful owners–a violation of the 7th Commandment) in an attempt to achieve a virtuous end (alleviating poverty). As The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just … An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (1753, 9).

So yes, income inequality does exist, but I’m not so sure it’s a problem that needs solving–by the government or anybody else. Should we feed the hungry? Yes, indubitably. Clothe the naked? Care for the sick? Shelter the homeless? Obviously we should do all of these. But with stolen funds? Should we punish the rich for being successful and give away their stuff to people who have less stuff, just so they can acquire more stuff? Why?

Jesus taught us that we should detach ourselves from worldly possessions–the desire to redistribute wealth seems to me to be the diametrical opposite of this teaching. It betrays a worldview that places ownership of material things and the acquisition of possessions ahead of what is actually important–our spiritual growth. What the cashier needs, and wants most, is not a flat-screen TV or a nicer car–she wants to be closer to God. So, in that sense, she has everything she needs already. Giving her more “wealth” is irrelevant.

Why can’t we simply be content to be different, and accept that, in reality, we are not equal anywhere but in the eyes of God–which, after all, is the only place that really matters? Some of us are better singers, some more beautiful, others faster runners, a few are mind-bogglingly intelligent, and, yes, some have skills or circumstances that have allowed them to accumulate more wealth than others. Why is that no longer okay? What is the intrinsic evil in our simply being different from one another? And why are the very people who claim to celebrate diversity in the loudest and most insistent fashion trying the hardest to erase the colorful palette of human variation in favor of a drab gray conformity, all in the name of “equality?”

As for me, I’ll prefer the bright, beautiful, divinely created, infinite variety of human “inequality” to the artificially imposed monochromatic dictatorship of “equality” any time, anywhere. And that’s why I will never vote for the likes of I’ll-Bern-What-You’ve-Earned Sanders, or any of his ilk.

 

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Eeny Meeny Miney Mosey – How Relativism and Intellectual Sloth Crippled a Generation

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This September, I will celebrate my 20th work anniversary as a nanny. Over my two decades in childcare, I’ve managed to figure out which child-rearing styles work, and which don’t, by observing both immediate and long-term results. I have also had the chance to witness the ways in which cultural trends influence parenting choices.

My conclusions? Let’s just say the prognosis is troubling. One need look no further than one’s local college campus for evidence.

Consider, for example, the phrases “micro-aggression,” “trigger warning,” and “safe space.” They are now common parlance on university campuses all over the nation, and they are far more insidious than they at first appear. They are part of a package of terminology that is the first-born ideological child of the Millennial generation, and their purpose is to protect said generation’s fragile-as-a-snowflake feelings from any thought, word, or deed which might offend them, or simply cause slight discomfort.

Do you remember the fairy tale about the princess and the pea? It’s kind of like that. Think of this generation as the princess, and their manufactured phraseology as the mountain of mattresses designed to protect them from the pesky, picayune pea of opposing opinions and points-of-view.

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A “micro-aggression” is a statement or action that is not overtly hostile or ill-intended, but which might (often by far-fetched extrapolation) have some hidden and/or misconstrued meaning that could ruffle a few feathers. For example, asking a pregnant woman anything related to the child inside her is a “micro-aggression,” because she may not plan to keep that child, and talking about it may give her the baby blues. Essentially, a “micro-aggressor” is a parade-rainer.

“Micro-aggressions” are to be meticulously avoided, but if one cannot find any other way to communicate one’s point, he or she should first issue a “trigger warning.” This is a kind of heads-up that something potentially offensive/uncomfortable is about to be said or done – in other words, it’s an announcement that the Sunshine and Lollipops Show is taking a commercial break.

A “safe space” is a place wherein no “micro-aggressions” are allowed (and, hence, I suppose, no “trigger warnings” are necessary). I imagine the ideal “safe space” to be a sort of sparkly la-la-land where “Kumbaya” plays on an endless loop, and everybody is ego-secure, perfectly affirmed in their beliefs and emotions, and barefoot (because nobody ever steps on anyone else’s toes).

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Does this sound crazy and completely unrealistic to you? Well, brace yourself, because universities all over the nation are scrambling to transform their campuses into “safe spaces.” Dissenters are routinely sued, publicly humiliated, demoted, and/or fired. And there’s no end in sight. It might have come 30 years later than he predicted, but George Orwell’s dystopian vision is starting to take shape right here on American soil.

So what brought us to this decidedly un-pretty pass? For me, there’s no mystery whatsoever, because I have been watching this drama unfold since back when the Millennials’ must-have accessory was manufactured by Huggies.

If you want to understand why they are behaving so cartoonishly, just put yourself in their shoes and time-travel back to childhood. You’re a toddler, and it’s the late 1990’s. On a regular basis—and in a sugary sing-song voice, no less—you are told that you can do and be anything you want. Get used to it, because this is going to go on for the duration.

And speaking of anything you want, that’s pretty much what you’re given; every time you cry, mommy, or daddy, or miscellaneous alternative parental unit, rushes to give you whatever it is you’re hankering for, because they are supremely anxious to turn off the tears and turn on the smiles. And if they put up any resistance, you just cry louder, kick harder, make a scene in the department store – whatever the situation calls for – until they give in. Yep, you have them wrapped around your finger; you’ve been the real head of the household since before you could talk.

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At school, you never lose a race, or fail a test, or write a lousy essay – because nobody’s allowed to lose or fail. Instead, you get a ribbon for participation when you come in last, a happy-faced star for completing the assignment, and a compliment from your teacher on your “conversational” writing style. When your grades (if you go to one of those really backward schools that still uses such a barbaric system of judgment) are so atrocious that you really should be held back a year, you are passed on anyway, because being older than your peers might make you feel awkward.

Heaven forbid!

In short, your skin has never been allowed to grow thicker as a result of the occasional scrape across a bump on the road of life, because the adults in your world have made their hair gray anticipating those bumps, and putting up detour signs directing you down smooth, pothole-free paths. What’s more, they have lined up along the roadside to cheer like you just cured cancer every time you pick your nose. In fact, stroking your ego – they call it “building your self-esteem” – has been the primary goal of the adults who care for you.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Fast-forward back to the present. We are now stuck with a generation of young people that have never had to pick themselves up after a fall, self-soothe after emotional trauma (including the micro-traumas caused by “micro-aggressions”), or mine a failure for learning experience to help shape tomorrow’s success. Nor have they ever had to work for rewards – all they have had to do in order to be showered with trophies, and ribbons, and awards is get out of bed and show up to events with their clothes on – although out here in San Francisco, there are lots of folks working really hard to do away with the latter criterion.

Since no one has ever taught them how to cope with the stress of life’s inevitable problems, we shouldn’t be surprised that Millennials are behaving as if they are psychologically and emotionally incompetent. That’s exactly the problem. They are like untethered, helium-filled balloons being batted about by gusts of wind; their massive heads are fully inflated by overstuffed egos, but they have no practical, experience-built muscle to anchor them and prevent them from getting carried away by the frenzied tide of the academic ideology du jour. And the first big storm they encounter is going to completely blow them away.

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It’s tempting to point the finger at the parents and teachers (and nannies) who raised this generation, but the problem goes back further than that, and is much more panoramic in scope. The parenting style that produced this pretentious, emotionally fragile, experientially bankrupt, and functionally inept generation was, and is, a product of the culture at large.

A culture built upon the premise that all beliefs, opinions, and perceptions of reality are equally valid leads naturally and inevitably to the death of analytical inquiry; if there is no objective truth, then there is no need to think things through in order to tease it out. In such an environment, critical thinking becomes a revolutionary, even heretical act, because it implies that the nature of truth is binary – i.e., ideas and beliefs are either true or false, end of story –  rather than some sort of amorphous, all-inclusive spectrum.

In this kind of culture, one may invent one’s own definition of truth by picking and choosing in eeny-meeny-miney-mo fashion the concepts and precepts which produce warm-and-fuzzy feelings, rather than the ones which are logical and supported by verifiable evidence; and one is highly unlikely to analyze the validity of this concocted hodge-podge moral code, since acedia is the status quo, and rocking the boat is frowned upon.

These circumstances lead naturally to the everyone-gets-a-ribbon method of child-rearing; after all, everything and everyone is exactly equal. Nobody can be an exceptional achiever, because that would imply he or she has a gift more valuable than others’ abilities in that area. Furthermore, since we can define truth and reality any which way we please, we are free to re-define losing as merely a different kind of winning, failure as an alternative form of success.

A culture that enshrines the pursuit of “feeling good” and the indulgence of impulse leads naturally to a child-rearing style that prioritizes self-esteem above everything else, and demonizes hurt feelings and emotional discomfort; if a fleeting, ephemeral feeling of well-being is the true basis for and meaning of happiness, it must be pursued at any cost, and anything which interferes is, by definition, bad and/or wrong.

A culture which has replaced the pursuit of God with the pursuit of material goods leads naturally to a child-rearing style that emphasizes material solutions to emotional/psychological pain – because what good is prayer as a solution to distress if no one is listening on the other end? And besides, isn’t it easier to guzzle a few cocktails, or go on a shopping spree, than it is to relinquish control to God and wait for a resolution according to His timeline? Giving a child a cookie or buying it a new toy in order to stop its crying is merely the pee-wee version of the same philosophy.

A culture which has substituted worldly success for an eternity with Our Lord as the ultimate goal of life leads naturally to a child-rearing style that anathemizes setbacks and failure; after all, if this life is not just the opening act, but, rather, the main event, then one can only define and evaluate oneself by means of one’s achievements in the eyes of the world; to fail by its standards is to fail as a human being.

A culture that has re-written, or erased entirely, the history of salvation, and has therefore robbed suffering of its redemptive meaning, leads naturally to a child-rearing style that white-washes weakness and avoids anything and everything that might cause difficulty, discomfort, or disquietude; if nothing can be gained or achieved through suffering and struggle, then of course every means available should be utilized to snuff it out.

And, lastly, a culture which has become intellectually and morally lazy, which has ceased to question its own assumptions, stopped policing its own behavior according to time-honored definitions of right and wrong, and stopped thinking critically about its own underpinnings, is doomed to prance down the yellow brick road of fallacy, through the poppy field of delusion, and right off the side of a cliff.

Perhaps this sounds a bit doom-and-gloom to you. Well, just think ahead a couple of decades, and imagine what things will be like when the hurt-feelings generation is running the show, and gets down to the business of turning your space into their “safe space.” And, as if that thought isn’t frightening enough, be aware of this: the parenting style that produced the “don’t-micro-agress-against-my-triggers-or-I’ll-sue-you” generation is still the primary method being employed today.

It’s going to be a long haul, folks. Fasten your safety belts and cling to Holy Mother Church, because that is the only true safe space on Earth. And if you have children, let them skin their knees from time to time, and for heaven’s sake, never give them a trophy just for showing up.

 

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On Cuckoo Captains and Seemingly Sinking Ships: Lessons from The Caine Mutiny

You don’t work with a captain because you like the way he parts his hair. You work with him because he’s got the job, or you’re no good.

– Lt. Barney Greenwald, The Caine Mutiny

Like [Noah’s] Ark, the Catholic Church is not perfect. It’s not tidy, clean, and odor-free. It has plenty of problems and challenges and unruly passengers, but it’s still the ‘ark of salvation’ given to us by God…

– Patrick Madrid, Catholic apologist

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I have a dear friend who recently hop-scotched his way out of the Catholic Church and into Russian Orthodoxy. His stated reason? He has lost faith in the infallibility of the Pope.

I was catechized, baptized, and Confirmed with this friend. I know him pretty well. He has always impressed me, ever since our earliest conversations, in which he – a then-catechumen, mind you – casually and comfortably discussed the works of Church fathers and various Council documents.

I can safely say that this guy is no dope. He put in a lot of intellectual legwork prior to making the decision to become Catholic. And yet, he fell into one of the most unsophisticated traps in the Devil’s bag of tricks.

It makes me want to crack him over the head with a heavy book.

Last night, I re-watched The Caine Mutiny, the classic tale of a mentally ill captain and the men who seize control from him during a vicious typhoon. I couldn’t help but think that Lieutenant Barney Greenwald must have felt exactly the same way about his clients as I feel about my friend when assigned the task of defending them against charges of mutiny. One of the first things he says to the pair is: “I think what you’ve done stinks.” Later, he admits that he would prefer to be prosecuting them.

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To be fair, Lt. Maryk and Ensign Keith – the accused – were clearly dealing with a captain of unsound mind. Immediately upon assuming command of the Caine, Captain Queeg makes a series of mistakes, cowardly decisions, and paranoid outbursts; he is unwilling to accept responsibility for the consequences of these actions, and shifts the blame onto his underlings in a brusque, bullying manner. We can certainly understand the men’s anxiety at having Cpt. Queeg in command during the typhoon, given his previous track record, and the fact that lives are at stake.

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And, to be fair to my friend, we are currently dealing with a Pope who has the most exasperating habit of making vague, equivocal, and even downright problematic remarks, which have the unfortunate result of misleading the masses into thinking he is radically changing unchangeable fundamentals of Catholic teaching. I suppose this Pope’s behavior could cause well-meaning and intelligent people to doubt his infallibility—assuming these people don’t understand the nuances of that particular dogma, which does not assure that everything the Pope says will be perfectly correct. Rather, the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs that infallibility is gifted to the Pope only when “he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals” (891 – emphasis added). In other words, off-the-cuff remarks made during interviews and press conferences are not covered under this particular divine insurance policy.

Given that the Caine seemed certain to founder under Cpt. Queeg’s cockeyed command, surely Lt. Maryk was justified in seizing control of the ship? Likewise, given the bewildering behavior of our current Pope, is it not understandable if people – like my friend, for example – throw up their hands in hopeless vexation and go in search of greener pastures?

The answer to both questions is an unqualified No. And here’s why.

Lt. Greenwald makes an astute point when he reminds the officers of the Caine that they had ample opportunity to exert respectful influence over their captain prior to their usurpation of his position; in fact, Cpt. Queeg directly requested their help in his own awkward, socially stunted way after one of his gaffes. However, instead of trying to maneuver the captain onto more sane, stable ground, the officers focused on his flaws, and ruminated on their resentment, so that, when a crisis developed, they were primed to lash out against their lawfully appointed, if imperfect, commander.

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In parallel, as Catholics, if we don’t approve of our Pope’s words or actions, it is our duty to pray for the man, and petition him with our grievances. He cannot do a more satisfactory job if he has no input or prayerful support from his flock. It does no good to endlessly complain about the situation amongst ourselves, fixating on our discontent, without ever trying to proactively improve the situation through the means accorded to us.

Secondly, for both sailors and lay Catholics, it is pure insolence to disdain the chain of command. The Navy and the Church are organizations with complex hierarchies designed to maintain order and streamline operations. The mechanisms in place for the selection and promotion of authority figures are time-worn and battle-tested; they got to be this way for good reasons. That’s not to say mistakes don’t happen, or that once-good apples don’t sometimes turn rotten, but in general, the systems of both institutions deserve our respect.

When Ens. Keith testifies during Lt. Maryk’s trial, he insists that the Caine was “in imminent danger of foundering,” and that it was therefore necessary to take control of the ship. “Have you ever been in a ship that foundered?” the prosecutor asks. Ens. Keith admits he has not. “Mister Keith, how long have you been in the Navy?” Ens. Keith states that he has been in a little over a year. “Lt. Commander Queeg has served over eight years. I ask you, which of you is better qualified to judge if a ship is foundering?”

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Both sailors convinced they can run the Navy better than the Admirals, and lay Catholics who believe they can run the Church better than the Pope, are guilty of grave hubris. From where we’re sitting, with the knowledge available to us, it may seem as though we coulda-shoulda-woulda done things better than the higher-ups in any given situation. But we never have all the facts, and our superiors have, well, a superior level of experience. As the prosecutor suggested to Ens. Keith, doesn’t that alone put them in a better position to make important judgment calls?

In the Church’s case, our superiors have been selected by God, and there is always a reason for everything He does. We may not understand exactly what that reason is, and that might drive us a little bit crazy. But having the humility to silence those “I-have-a-better-plan” voices, relax, and follow God’s plan instead, can work wonders for one’s sanity.

Furthermore, we Catholics have a massive leg up on those poor fellas aboard the Caine; we have God’s promise that He will not allow our ship to sink. Make no mistake—a monstrous typhoon is coming (if it has not already arrived); this world is doomed, and at some point in the not-too-distant future it may well seem to all of us beleaguered crewmen that the ship is about to go down. That’s when we must remind ourselves who built the ship in the first place, and that He didn’t build it just so He could watch it crash into little pieces a couple thousand years down the line.

And besides, look at our alternatives. The waters surrounding us are black, bottomless, and churning violently. If one jumps ship directly into them, one hasn’t got a chance. If one hops onto some stray semblance of a passing vessel, one is taking an equal risk. In all likelihood, given the current socio-political climate, one will be jumping onto some version of Hitchcock’s Lifeboat—it will either be commandeered by an idealistic but inept Marxist type who inadvertently sets a course to nowhere; or handed over to a fascist type who, singing gaily and confidently all the while, pilots his fellow passengers directly into imprisonment and slavery. But that’s fodder for another review.

The fact is, there is only one ship built by Christ and guaranteed to outlast the culture wars of this turbulent world. Everything else on the waters is just so much flotsam and jetsam. And only a fool clings to driftwood when he could be aboard a battleship.

So, even if the waves seem impossibly high, and even if we wind up with a Cpt. Queeg at the helm every now and then, the wise sailor will maintain his post and carry on with his assigned tasks—patiently, prayerfully, and unpretentiously—until we reach the shores of Paradise.

 

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Portrait of Iniquity: Sin and Redemption in The Picture of Dorian Gray

“Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices; there are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands, even.”

– Oscar Wilde

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In the main, the more scandalous aspects of Oscar Wilde’s life are the ones that have been widely publicized, even celebrated. Relatively few people know about his other side—that which sincerely struggled with questions of faith. For example, it’s true that he went to prison for moral misconduct; it is also true that he read the works of Dante, Newman, and Augustine while incarcerated.

Wilde demonstrated a lifelong fascination with and attraction to Catholicism, ultimately leading to his deathbed conversion. His work and witticisms clearly demonstrate familiarity with and fondness for Catholic teaching and tradition, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is no exception. Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with its plot. In 1945, MGM released a film adaptation; this review addresses the film as a stand-alone work.

There are three principal characters: Dorian Gray himself; Basil Hallward, painter of the picture referenced in the title; and ne’er-do-well gadabout Lord Henry Wotton. Basil and Lord Henry are Dorian’s closest associates. For Dorian, their function is parallel to that of the cartoon angel and devil that appear over Daffy Duck’s shoulders when he faces a dilemma. Basil is Dorian’s shoulder angel. He has “a passion for virtue” and dispenses sound advice founded on solid moral principles. Lord Henry, on the other hand, is Dorian’s shoulder devil, forever smooth-talking him into sundry mischief.

Unfortunately for both Dorian and those within his orbit, Dorian almost always listens to the silver-tongued devil rather than the less eloquently cunning and more innocently wise angel. Granted, Lord Henry makes his case in so shrewd and slick a fashion, one might easily conclude that nothing sounding so good could possibly be bad.

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For example, Lord Henry is apt to drop quick quips such as, “I like persons better than principles, and persons with no principles better than anything”; and, “No civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man ever knows what a pleasure is.” His wordplay is first-rate, but, as the Duchess says, “Lord Henry’s ideas are … delightful, but they are not to be taken seriously.”

Dorian apparently didn’t get that memo, because Lord Henry easily convinces him that “youth is the one thing worth having.” When Dorian first sees his portrait, he laments that the youthful image thereupon will remain unchanged, while he will grow old, and causally remarks that it would be nice if things were the other way around. Lord Henry warns Dorian that the cat statue on a nearby table is actually “one of the 73 great gods of Egypt,” and advises Dorian not to express such a sentiment in the idol’s presence, because it “is quite capable of granting your wish.”

But on the single occasion where Dorian actually should heed Lord Henry’s advice, he chooses instead to double down on his original statement. He repeats the wish—now a prayer because it is purposely directed to a supernatural entity—and escalates the gravity of the petition by offering his soul as payment.

The ill effects of this idolatrous act begin immediately. Restless and insatiable, Dorian starts spending his evenings “wander[ing] through the half-world of London,” attempting to put Lord Henry’s hedonistic philosophy into practice.

It is on one of these nocturnal prowls that he makes an unlikely acquaintance—a kind, pure-hearted vaudeville singer named Sibyl Vane. Sibyl sees only good in Dorian, and her own simple virtue inspires him to reform. The two fall in love, and Dorian proposes marriage.

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Enter the shoulder devil. Lord Henry is ultimately successful in his bid to snuff out Dorian’s budding virtue; indeed, Dorian behaves so cruelly toward Sibyl that she is driven to despair, and meets a tragic end.

At this point, we see the first change in the portrait. Dorian notices “a touch of cruelty in the mouth.” The shocking revelation that the painting is “an emblem of his own conscience” inspires Dorian to “let it instruct him.” He resolves to make amends; meanwhile, he screens off the portrait.

Like clockwork, his shoulder devil again arrives on the scene. With his signature cajolery, Lord Henry convinces Dorian to forget the whole episode with Sibyl, and instead occupy himself with pleasurable diversions. Dorian doesn’t require much coaxing to return to his intemperate ways.

Time passes, and rumors spread. Basil is deeply troubled by the gossip about Dorian’s behavior, and confronts him. He names a litany of people who’ve been harmed by Dorian. Basil supposes there is no way to know what really goes on within Dorian’s mind and heart. To know that, he says, he would have to see Dorian’s soul.

“You’re the one man in the world who is entitled to know everything about me,” Dorian replies, alluding to Basil’s role as creator of the portrait. He decides to show Basil the transformation that has taken place thereupon.

This is the third time we, the audience, see the painting. This time, the figure it depicts is a brutal monstrosity. However, the hideousness is not used gratuitously or for mere shock value, but, rather, is employed with calculated purpose. It’s intended to drive home the theme of the film: sin is grotesque.

Like Dorian, we rarely confront the full scope of its ugliness, preferring to screen off its unseemliness and avoid facing our true selves. This is why we need tools like the examination of conscience to help us assess our standing in the eyes of God. For Dorian, the portrait serves this purpose; although his specific deeds are not depicted, their spiritually disfiguring effects are illustrated in disturbing detail.

“It was as if some moral leprosy were eating the thing away,” Basil thinks as he inspects it. Aloud, he says: “If this is what you’ve done with your life, it’s far worse than anything that’s been said of you.” Basil then offers the obvious solution: “Do you know how to pray, Dorian?” His words fall on deaf ears, however, and yet more casualties are added to the heap of Dorian’s victims.

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Everyone Dorian touches is led to ruin, and he couldn’t care less … until he decides to marry Gladys, Basil’s daughter. This is a bit of history repeating. Like Sibyl, she is kind and pure-hearted. Also like Sibyl, she sees only the best in Dorian. Ultimately, her presence in his life starts to bring out what little good is left in him. As their marriage approaches, we find him musing, “I sometimes think I’d give anything if I could change and grow old like other people.” This is the exact opposite of his original wish/prayer in the first act of the film. His nights are haunted by guilt and nightmares about past misdeeds.

He decides to confront the painting, confront his conscience, confront himself. As he examines the monstrous image, he resolves to destroy the painting in order to break the spell, and take back upon himself the effects of age and sin. However, there is a connection between his body, his soul, and the painting, and when he slashes the painting, his body is mortally wounded.

He uses his dying breaths to pray, “Pray Father forgive me for I have sinned, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” And as he prays, the painting is restored to its original unbesmirched beauty, while Dorian’s face metamorphoses into the grisly visage it ought rightly to be.

Boiled down to its essence, this film is an exploration of, and cautionary tale against, the spiritually mutilating nature of sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man” (1855). As Dorian’s sins grow increasingly grave, he becomes ever more callous–even hateful–toward others, even so-called loved ones.

Born of two acts of idolatry–Dorian’s prayer to the false Egyptian god and his narcissistic worship of his own youth and beauty–the portrait is a prison which both incarcerates and exhibits Dorian’s disfigured soul. Dorian feels contrite each time he sees the portrait—and who among us, if we could see the marks of sin upon our own souls, would not feel likewise? And just as we ignore and hide from the full effects of our sins by means of countless justifications and obfuscations, Dorian conceals his portrait with a screen, mortified at the thought of anyone seeing his true face, which even he finds repugnant.

Ultimately, Dorian repents, and throws himself on God’s mercy—so, in a sense, the film has a happy ending. Nonetheless, Dorian dies alone in a terrible fashion; his life as a whole does not provide an example anyone will likely wish to imitate. His deathbed prayer to the one true God is quite possibly his sole thoroughly well-intended and praiseworthy act—and it is presented as such.

In terms of suitability for children, the pronounced grotesqueness of the painting (and some of Dorian’s misbehavior, though the majority is merely suggested) is probably sufficient reason to forestall showing this film to children until they are a bit older–perhaps teenaged? As with all media, it’s best to watch it yourself first, and thus make a fully informed decision. Happy screening!

 

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Calvary on the Docks: Catholic Themes in On the Waterfront

“You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? … It’s making the love of a buck, the cushy job, more important than the love of man. It’s forgetting that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ. But remember, Christ is always with you … And He’s saying with all of you, if you do it to the least of mine, you do it to me.”

-Father Barry, On the Waterfront

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Though it may at first glance seem like nothing more than a sophisticated gangster movie, Elia Kazan’s 1954 film On the Waterfront has profoundly Catholic themes simmering just below the story’s surface. In fact, it can be argued that the film is a meditation on the Communion of Saints masquerading as a tale about a labor union commandeered by truly grave sinners. Don’t expect to hear the phrase “communion of saints” uttered by any of the characters, because you won’t find it within the script. However, this concept is both implicit and incessant; it is embroidered over the entire fabric of the film.

The basic plot follows Terry Malloy on his journey from small-time thug to star witness before the waterfront crime commission. In the opening scenes, John Friendly—the corrupt boss of the local longshoremen’s union—and his gang of crooks murder Joey Doyle, a union member who was set to testify against them. Terry plays a small, but integral, part in the killing. Of course, there is no evidence linking any of the perpetrators to the crime. The victim’s sister, Edie, is determined to bring the killers to justice. The local priest, Father Barry, also gets involved, encouraging members to stand up against union corruption.

Most of the characters in On the Waterfront are members of the union, which should, in theory, provide various benefits in exchange for their contributions. The same characters, knowingly or not, are also part of a less-tangible, more abstract, but equally real, and far more important organization, so to speak—the Communion of Saints. Two characters in the film are attuned to this reality and behave accordingly; both are practicing Catholics—Father Barry and Edie. These two characters act as champions of virtue, persuading others to become better citizens.

Within the microcosm of the film, good citizenship within the Communion of Saints can be attained by devoting proper attention to the Four Cs: Charity, Conscience, Confession, and Conversion. The film’s hero, Terry Malloy, journeys through all four.

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Charity

After Terry advises Edie to abandon the search for Joey’s killers, he justifies his position, saying, “I’m only trying to help you out. I’m trying to keep you from getting hurt, what more do you want me to do?” Edie responds: “Much more. Much, much, much more.” Indeed, in the moral code of the film, the Golden Rule is of foremost importance, and people are honor-bound to assist others. After all, as Edie says: “Shouldn’t everybody care about everybody else? I mean, isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?”

Father Barry states the film’s philosophy well:

Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up … Every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man, tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen – it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen, keeps silent about something he knows has happened, shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of Our Lord …

Putting the duty to actively care for others more succinctly, Edie asks, “Did you ever hear of a saint hiding in a church?”

Conversely, the failure to act charitably toward others is painted as a grave offense with harsh consequences. “That’s what makes people mean and difficult,” Edie opines. “People don’t care enough about them.” We find Terry, in contrast to Edie, living in a decidedly uncharitable manner at the film’s outset; when Edie asks him whether he is on the side of the gangsters or those whom they oppress, he replies: “Me? I’m with me.” He even tries to convert Edie to his self-centered mentality: “Quit worrying about the truth all the time and start worrying about yourself.” Her response to this suggestion, which runs completely counter to both the morality of the film and Catholic doctrine, is to connect Terry’s low social status with his egocentric ethos: “No wonder everybody calls you a bum.”

Terry got to be a bum, not only through his lack of charity toward others, but also due to others’ lack of charity toward him. In Terry’s famous monologue, he confronts his brother Charley for failing to stand up to his mob associates, and instead encouraging Terry to take the dive that prematurely ended his boxing career. “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.” With abject regret, he continues, “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Terry has no particular accomplishments or assets. The only person who respects him is a neighborhood kid; everybody else considers him a bum, just as Edie said. The reason? “It was you, Charley,” Terry bluntly concludes. Had Charley acted charitably toward Terry, things might have turned out differently.

 

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Conscience:

As we grow in charity, our consciences become better-attuned. This is certainly true of Terry Malloy. As he begins to learn about the importance of charity–principally from his associations with Edie and Father Barry–he begins to feel pangs of conscience for his role in Joey Doyle’s murder.

The film emphasizes the importance of a well-formed conscience directly and repeatedly. When Terry goes to Father Barry for advice, Father Barry at first speaks passionately about Terry’s “brothers,” who are being exploited by the very men Terry’s silence protects—again, alluding to the Communion of Saints. Then he cuts himself off, saying, “Nevermind. I’m not asking you to do anything, it’s your own conscience that’s got to do the asking.” A mere fifteen minutes later Edie says something similar: “I don’t want you to do anything. You let your conscience tell you what to do.”

A properly formed conscience is, in fact, so important that it has its own totem: Joey Doyle’s jacket. Pop Doyle passes it from Joey, who was set to be the first conscientious actor against the mob, to Kayo Dugan. Over the course of the time Dugan has the jacket, his conscience is shaped, and he makes a turnabout; he shifts from believing Joey should have “learn[ed] to keep his mouth shut,” to being the next man in line to testify. After Dugan is murdered for breaking his silence, the jacket is handed over to Terry. He, in turn, experiences a similar conscientious transformation, leading to his own testimony before the commission, and, ultimately, his final showdown with John Friendly.

 

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Confession:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that every sin, no matter how private or personal, harms the entirety of the Communion of Saints (953). The normal method for seeking absolution is via Confession. Likewise, in On the Waterfront, confession of covert criminal activity is essential to restoring the health of the community, the entirety of which is damaged by said crimes. One might say the entire story hangs on the importance of this principle: only Terry’s confession of two key crimes/sins—namely, Joey Doyle’s murder, and John Friendly’s racketeering operations—can restore proper order based on charity, and rectify the harm done to the community.

After receiving Joey’s jacket, Terry takes the first steps toward confession. Most appropriately, Terry first seeks his priest after deciding to come clean. But, just as in the Confiteor we confess our sins before all the saints, Terry cannot confess to Father Barry alone. Indeed, the latter advises Terry to immediately confess his part in Joey Doyle’s murder to Edie, which Terry does. Interestingly, this second confession is almost entirely drowned out by the sound of a steamship whistle, making it, like the confessions of our fellow parishioners, confidential. The parallels between Terry’s confession to Edie and those of a sacramental nature are amplified by the two select phrases we are allowed to hear: “Honest to God,” and “I swear to God.”

Terry’s final confession, of course, must be before the general public—the entire Communion of Saints—in the form of his testimony before the crime commission.

 

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Conversion:

All of the above steps lead naturally toward conversion. In this overtly secular film, however, conversion is not explicitly religious in nature, but, rather, is manifested by a transformation from egocentrism and apathy to dynamic charity and virtuous action.

We first witness the beginnings of Terry’s conversion process during Father Barry’s impromptu eulogy of Kayo Dugan. When one of John Friendly’s trigger men throws garbage at Father Barry, Terry scolds him, saying, “Hey, don’t do that,” and “Let him finish.” When the same hood tries to throw something else, Terry socks him in the face. He does all of this in the sight of John Friendly and his union thugs—all of whom have been, up to this point, Terry’s associates.

The next major step in Terry’s conversion process comes when he decides not to pursue violent revenge against John Friendly for murdering his brother Charley. Instead, he chooses to take the high road and seek justice by testifying before the crime commission. His actual testimony is yet another big step—he names Joey Doyle’s killers in front of the murderers themselves, as well as a packed courtroom and rolling cameras. These two steps demonstrate his transformation from a self-centered, opportunist bum to a responsible citizen within the Communion of Saints.

But the ultimate evidence of this change occurs during the final showdown with John Friendly at the film’s finale. Friendly has a whole crew of hired muscle to help him win his fistfight with Terry, and Terry is inevitably beaten nearly unconscious. The other longshoremen, however, are moved by Terry’s courage and integrity, and decide to take a stand of their own—they refuse to go back to work unless Terry, who has been blackballed by Friendly, goes with them. Bruised, bloodied, and dizzy with pain, Terry drags himself down the dock and onto the job, affirming the men’s ultimatum, and effectively destroying Friendly’s grip on the union in one swift stroke.

Terry hereby performs the preeminent act of charity—he sacrifices himself for the sake of others. In the closing scene, he and his fellow longshoremen march through the warehouse door, just as though they were marching through the gates of heaven. The final image is that of the door closing, with John Friendly vociferously on the outside.

As stated before, this is an overtly secular film; however, there are clearly strong Catholic themes woven throughout. Furthermore, it indubitably promotes virtue, in stark contrast to the vast volume of vice spewing from most modern blockbusters. Although some of the content makes the film too gritty for children, I believe most adult Catholics will find it to be edifying, perhaps even inspiring. In these outrageously self-centered times, any creative work that reminds us of our connectedness with, and obligations to, the rest of humanity can be like a cool, clean drink of water on a parched tongue. If you find yourself feeling thirsty, give On the Waterfront a try.

 

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