The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Neon Gods We Made

Instead of the annual New Year's Eve wrap-up post, I think it's worth taking a little time to reflect on our era through a jaundiced eye (Yes, I'm deliberately hat-tipping Florence King).

Back when I was actively focusing my scholarship on the First Amendment's free speech clause, Collins's and Skover's The Death of Discourse expressed a deep concern that our culture was drowning in the trivial, the toxic, and the transactional. As I wrote at the time, their solution, that Government play the role of referee, downplaying some voices in order to heighten others, was simply incompatible with any recognizable notion of free speech, but the fundamental question they posed was one that has returned to haunt us.

The line "You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts" has been attributed to James Schlesinger or to Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But the empirical research of, among others, Matthew A. Baum suggests that:
[E]ven seemingly non-partisan political issues like public health are increasingly characterized by partisan polarization in public attitudes, and that such polarization is in part attributable, at least in part, to the breakdown of the information commons that characterized the American mass media from roughly the 1950s until the early 1990s. In its place has arisen an increasingly fragmented and niche-oriented media marketplace in which individuals are better able to limit their information exposure to attitudes and opinions that reinforce, rather than challenge, their preexisting beliefs.
And herein lies the rub. When we cannot even hold facts in common, whether related to swine flu and vaccination, as studied by Baum, or climate change, how is deliberative democracy to work?

In an era where we stop striving for objective truth--and, yes, we'll never fully get there--but the striving gets us closer to reality than just living in an echo chamber that tells us what we want to hear. That way leads only to epistemic closure, a willed inability to perceive the flaws in one's own belief system.

Then we'll truly be "People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening." And we will remake reality in our own self-image.

The problem of listening to only what we want to hear is a grave one. It is easy to find confirmation of what we already believe, and to reject those who differ from us with contempt, as either the enemy, or, if they have been on "our side" previously, as traitors. Just ask Alan Dershowitz, the staunch defender of the First Amendment who finds himself shunned by friends and even family. Now, I strongly disagree with Professor Dershowitz on the question of whether the President can commit obstruction of justice by abusing his presidential authority, but there's no reason to believe that Dershowitz, a lifelong champion of cvil liberties, holds the opinion in anything other than good faith.

Liberals. We believe in the right to be wrong, remember?

On the Right, Jennifer Rubin has been pilloried for deviations from a newly minted conservative orthodoxy. (This has been going on for a while for Rubin, notably.)

When we are not open to our allies when they disagree with us, how will we treat those who disagree with us more generally?

We have long been ideologically divided, but those divisions are both widening and intensifying.

Abraham Lincoln, running against Stephen Douglas, quoted Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels, in declaring that "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

So how do we keep our house standing?

As a liberal, it is very rare that I hear a conservative explain what liberals believe in a manner that recognize as accurately representing my views. This fails the test I have previously quoted from C.P. Snow's famous essay, "The Case of Leaves and the Serious Case":
If I enter into discussion on any topic, intellectual, moral, practical, or whatever combination you like, it matters very little what I feel for my opponent, or what he feels for me. But I am entitled to require--or if I am not so entitled then I have to beg to be excused--that he and I will observe some basic and simple rules. If he refers to words that I have said or written, he will quote them accurately. He will not attribute to me attitudes and opinions which I do not hold, and if he makes any such attributions, he will check them against the documentary evidence. He will be careful when referring to incidents in my biography, and he will be scrupulous about getting his facts right. Naturally, I have a duty to obey the same rules in return. Nothing could be much more prosaic or straightforward; but without these ground-rules, any kind of serious human exchange becomes impossible.
No doubt many conservatives would return the compliment, and demand that we too pass the Snow test.

And they would be right to do so, as we are if we require it of them.

Because the practice of "strawmanning," or recasting the opponent's argument in a form more easily rebuttable than the actual position held may be endemic, but along with the easy dismissal of inconvenient facts, it enables us to continue on in our own bubbles where all reason is with us--however you care to define us--and all folly is with them.

And that just isn't so.

So read the thinkers who disagree with you; Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that "To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized" person. Question your verities, your certitudes.

Remember the sage advice of Susan Howatch in Mystical Paths, when she asks "When was the last time you looked in the mirror and said 'I can be wrong'"?

Listen, don't just wait for a chance to rebut. Life isn't high school parliamentary debate.

And meet people who may disagree with you in areas where you have something in common. Anthony Powell was a high and dry Tory, yet people across the political spectrum gather each December in New York City to celebrate his birthday, enact scenes from his novels (I was generously reviewedas "Playing Bob Duport, manoeuvring petulantly in a wheelchair, . . . clench[ing] audience attention with a nastiness that entirely concealed his native good nature"). Go and find your fun with people who may not agree with you.

Make neighbors.

And may 2018 be a blessed one for you.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Cat Who Came in From the Cold: A Memorial

That's my favorite picture of Giles T. Katt, the cat who came in from the cold. Literally.

You see, back in 2000, I moved for a few years back out to Nassau County, and rented a back cottage (in this town, most of the properties had a main house and a smaller cottage in the rear). The cottage was two stories, and, while compact, quite cozy (The main property was rented to a woman and her daughter). Our next door neighbor, an elderly man, had let his cottage go to ruin, and it became what I called "Kittycat Central"--a gathering of all the feral cats in the neighborhood. My ex and I took to feeding them, and one in particular, a handsome young adult grey-and-white cat whom she called "Oliver" was a regular.

In the winter of 2001, the weather report warned of a blizzard, and so I made a frantic trip to buy groceries (the cupboard, while not quite bare, was pretty sparse). The snow began as I headed out, and was falling in earnest by the time I got back. As I finished unloading the car, the front door to the cottage propped open, in walked the grey-and-white cat, an unneutred feral male, leading a small group of kittens behind him. This is, in case you didn't know, not typical of unneutered feral males. The grey-and-white led the kittens in, found a corner of the cottage (right by the stairs) where the wind wasn't blowing, and settled the kittens in, molding them into a pool of fur, to share their body heat. He then lay down in front of them, crossed his paws (a gesture I was to see repeated for many years, had I but known it), cocked his head at me (ibid.), and shot me a look as if to say, "It's cold out there, mate. Let us stay, there's a good chap?"

How could I not?

And how could I not keep that cat?

I renamed him, for reasons that I think are obvious, Giles, and never has a cat been better named. When fights broke out among the kittens, Giles would protect the weaker cat, rearing up on his hind paws, and boxing the aggressor; when a cat came back from the vet, and other cats were shunning him or her, he would trot up to the sick cat, snuggle him or her, and reintegrate that cat into the family.

Later, when La Caterina and I joined our lives and households, her three cats (Elvis, Betty and Buster) and mine (Giles, Ethan, and Elspeth) had to find a modus vivendi. Giles formed a pact with Elvis, the Comfort Kitty, and together they enforced decency, fair play, and kindness.

Elvis is gone three years now, so too is Buster, whose relationship with Giles reminded me of the sometimes affectionate rivalry between the Ainley Master and the Fifth Doctor.

Now I've lost my Giles.

He started losing weight a couple months ago, and la C took him to the vet, whose treatments seemed at first to be helping. Then, a little over a week ago, la Caterina told me the vet had informed her that it was time to put him down. I drove down against some of the worst traffic I've ever faced--the trip took nearly double its usual length, but we got him to the vet--only to be told he was very slightly better. When la Caterina came upstate for Christmas this year (I'd had to come up early for a funeral), she brought Giles. He seemed weak but not unhappy during her visit, but was eating less and less. He cuddled a great deal with me, with la C, and her sister, who came up to be with us.

Last night, his respiration changed, into a wheezing groan, and he ate nothing. He joined me in the bed, and pressed against my side all night. Betty, normally quite territorial about the bed, looked at him intently for a moment--and then joined us. For that one night, Giles was lovingly enfolded by not just me, but by Betty, the last survivor of la C's litter.

This morning, his breathing was worse, and he took just two small licks of food. I made an emergency appointment with the excellent vet up here, and brought him in. The news couldn't have been more dire: Tumors were closing off his breathing, surrounding his thyroid, and in his abdomen.

It was time.

I won't say any more of what passed when Giles and I were alone together, or when the Doctor joined us, and gave him the anesthetic that gave him his release. I did my duty to the finest cat I have ever known, and that is all.

But I will add this: As he drifted into sleep, I whispered into his ear, "Thank you. Thank you for choosing my door."

Requiescat in pace, little friend of friends!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

"Doctor....I Let You Go": A Golden Age Ends

DOCTOR: Oh, there it is. Silly old universe. The more I save it the more it needs saving. It’s a treadmill.

[Tardis noise]

Yes, yes I know they’ll get it all wrong without me.

[Tardis noise]

Well, I suppose….one more lifetime won’t kill anyone. Well, except me.

[Theme from Heaven Sent, "Breaking the Wall"/Tardis noises]

You wait a moment, Doctor. Let’s get it right. I’ve got a few things to say to you. Basic stuff first.

Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise.

Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind. Oh, and….and you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No-one would understand it anyway. Except….

[He gasps, falls to the floor]

Except….children. Children can hear it. Sometimes – if their hearts are in the right place, and the stars are too. Children can hear your name.

Gasps, grunts more

But nobody else. Nobody else. Ever.

[Pulls himself off the floor, agonizingly.]

Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

[Theme crescendos, as in Heaven Sent.]

Doctor – I let you go.

And then it happens. The streams of energy, the column of flame, the revelation of the new Doctor--and her sudden, surprised gasp, of "Oh, brilliant," upon seeing her own new visage.


But I'm not here to celebrate the arrival of Jodie Whittaker just yet. You wait a moment, Doctor. Because first I have to say goodbye to my Doctor.

I've been a fan since I was a teen, and never thought that my old favorites would be shouldered aside by the angry Scot. The new series, well I've loved it since it began, but who could dethrone the Doctors of long ago, when I was so impressionable and innocent, and--young.

Peter Capaldi, that's who. With Steven Moffatt's writing, with his own tremendous acting, even when the scripts were less than perfect, the journey of the Doctor from emotionally disconnected to "hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise." The Doctor who punched his way through the wall because he had a duty of care, who couldn't give up on Missy, and never knew he had succeeded, with her dying to stand with him.

This last adventure, with no villains, much gentle humor, the two Doctors contrasting with each other, with a last run-around--it was a fitting send-off to the Doctor and the actor who pulled such emotion from his own depths that the young-ancient, weary-exuberant, old Doctor touched my heart in his last moments.

In an increasingly cruel world, the Doctor's last speech gives us words we so desperately need. And, we must hope, sets the expectations for his successor.

Long may she reign.


Jodie Whittaker is a superb actress, and "Oh, brilliant," with her wide eyes and a rapt smile is an encouraging welcome to the world of her era. And I'll be there for it, rooting for her and Chris Chibnall. If Chibnall can overcome the occasional misanthropy that makes his vision jar with Doctor Who, he has it in him to be a brilliant show runner, and to infuse the Whittaker era with a whole new brand of magic.

Welcome, Thirteen. Make it lucky thirteen for us. We're counting on you, Jodie. And you, Chris.

Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind.

And do it in your own way, Doctor.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Culture of Clericalism Remains

If you wonder whether the Roman Catholic Church has learned anything in the wake of the three waves of the sex abuse crisis, this report of the reaction to the death of Bernard Cardinal Law, whose persistent reassignment of accused priests and stonewalling forced his resignation as Archbishop of Boston, suggests that the culture that enabled abuse remains in place:
Make no mistake: There is a political battle underway in Catholicism today over child sexual abuse,” a veteran Vatican watcher, John L. Allen Jr., recently wrote in Crux, a website that specializes in the Vatican and Catholic Church. “And its outcome is uncertain.”

It is sometimes not clear which camp Pope Francis is in.

For many critics, Pope Francis has not made good on his early promise to remove the deep stain of child sex abuse from the church. A proposed tribunal to try bishops was scrapped. In June, Francis granted a leave of absence to Cardinal George Pell, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic prelate to be formally charged with sexual offenses, so that he could defend himself in Australia.

In September, the Vatican recalled Msgr. Carlo Alberto Capella, a high-ranking priest working as a diplomat in the Holy See’s embassy in Washington, after American authorities sought to strip his immunity and potentially charge him with possession of child pornography. The Vatican drew criticism for protecting its own by whisking the priest away, but said he would face investigation and perhaps trial in Vatican City. So far, no charges have been filed.

And this month, the three-year terms of members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors expired without any news of renewed terms or appointments, prompting The National Catholic Reporter to declare in an editorial: “That Francis has allowed this lapse to occur is worrisome.” The commission’s only abuse survivors had already left in frustration. Greg Burke, the Vatican spokesman, said, “The pope is working on it and will name members as soon as he can.”


At the conclusion of a funeral Mass for Cardinal Law on Thursday afternoon in St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis will preside over the Final Commendation and Farewell of the Funeral Liturgy.

Ultimately, he will be buried in the small chapel between the wooden confessionals, adorned with the relics of saints and a centuries-old crucifix. Cardinal Law renovated the place himself several years ago, and supporters like Monsignor Di Ciocco believe he deserves such a place of honor.

“It wasn’t that he was a pedophile,” said Monsignor Di Ciocco. “He found himself having to manage a difficult situation. It’s not that he himself behaved badly.

“In my times, there was a different instruction. If something happened in a family, it was the role of the father of a family to hide it. Now it is all about the media and saying sorry. It was natural that he defended his children, the priests. We can’t criticize what happened then with the mentality of today. It’s not fair.”
The Monsignor's remarks are very reminiscent of those of Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos in a 2001 letterbacking French Bishop Pierre Pican’s decision not to denounce a priest who was later sentenced to 18 years in jail for repeated rape of a boy and sexual assaults on 10 others:
“I congratulate you for not denouncing a priest to the civil administration,” Castrillon Hoyos said. “You have acted well and I am pleased to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and of all other bishops in the world, preferred prison to denouncing his son and priest.”

In it [the letter], the cardinal said relations between bishops and priests were not simply professional but had “very special links of spiritual paternity.” Bishops therefore had no obligation to testify against “a direct relative,” he stated.
I keep hoping for the day when Command and Coercion is out of date, irrelevant.

That date is not, alas, today.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord": A Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, December 10, 2017 at 5 pm.]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

One of the strange bits about being well ensconced in middle age is that fewer and fewer people get the pop cultural references that seem natural to me.

Take Godspell, for one. It opened in 1971, when I was five, and was huge in the 1970s, in the brief spring of Vatican II. Even in the early 1980s, my Roman Catholic high school was delighted to do a production, in which I most definitely did not get cast.

But it was pretty much inescapable for a boy growing up Roman Catholic on Long Island, and so, even though the words are different from those used in the NRSV, I can’t hear today's Gospel without translating it back to the King James:

Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

That’s how the play opens. First with one voice singing “pre—pare ye the way of the Lord,” over and over again, then with others joining him, until the whole cast assembles with a kinetic burst of energy, singing together.

Don’t worry. I’ll spare you.

We are, after all, Episcopalians. And in Church, too.

So that’s the 1970s version of the baptism of John.

Awash with happiness in the forgiveness of their sins, the slowly coalescing members of what will become the Jesus Movement are playful, silly, free.

The play tells a few parables, has a little drama, a little comedy, and then a surprisingly brutal if abstract version of the crucifixion.

And then, with no dramatization of the Resurrection, we get a different miracle. Voices singing again. The women singing “Long live God”—and no, I have no idea what that might mean, but anyway their voices are enough to encourage the men to sing, too.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” all the men in the cast sing, and the two groups begin re-energizing each other, women singing "Prepare ye," men singing "long live God," trading lyrics, and ending with a rousing version of the show’s breakout song, “Day by Day.”

But that was the 1970s.

It’s a little hard to watch Godspell without thinking it a little bit precious, and dated, but I want to suggest that this ending has something to say to us in 2017, something that John the Baptist would probably endorse.

The history of the Church, of Christianity itself, has been as cyclical as the play is. A burst of enthusiastic disciples have found a new way to live, a new way of being, from their rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. They abandon homes, occupations, their past lives and their old sins, to share this wonderfully freeing enlightenment, this joy that survives despite the fact that they are an oppressed people under the Roman Empire, a highly efficient and brutal example of what John Dominic Crossan called a domination system.

People flock to hear Jesus, and the disciples themselves are sent out to spread the Good News: sins can be forgiven, a fresh start is available, and God loves us, in our crazy, hurt, damaged selves, and calls to us to be at peace and made whole.

They come, and see Jesus heal the broken, laugh with the tax collector, defend the woman taken in adultery, challenge corrupt authority.

The moral and emotional horizon opens out before these followers of Jesus. He has come, he says, that people may have life and have it abundantly.

But the domination system doesn’t give up so easily. In an unholy alliance, the religious authorities collaborate with the Romans, and they move to crush Jesus.

And with skill and courage, and the support of the crowd, he fends them off—for a time.

But ultimately, they get him. Put him to the harshest death the law allows, a traitor’s death, and the disciples scatter, shattered.

The dream has died.

Until the women at the tomb, the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, the Eleven in the upper room, are brought back together by the voice that never gives up, the God who never loses faith in us, faithless as we can be, and calls them together again.

And after reassuring them, comforting them, Jesus breaks the news to them. It’s time to go out on the road again, and spread the word.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

And the cycle repeats again and again, though the characters change, and the contexts. It’s the Eleven original disciples, despite the threats of Saul of Tarsus. Then it’s the reformed Saul’s turn, though he’s now named Paul.

Again and again, this movement called the Church stands up against the world, and the cycle repeats, until the Church is the authorities, and it’s the mystics, like Julian of Norwich, the reformers like Luther, Wesley, or the Quaker George Fox, who bring back to the people of God that light, that Spirit, that we can lose sight of in the mundane day to day of existence.

The cycle repeats again and again, with Martin Luther King showing us how it’s done, with our own James Pike recognizing women deacons as the equal of male deacons, with the Philadelphia 11, the eleven women who burst the limits that male authorities set for them, and were ordained priests, with the help of three retired bishops.

For the record, their names were Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig.

By opening the door for other women, they brought an end to a patriarchal assumption in our branch of the universal church that women were to be governed by men, that men could and should decide what roles in life women were allowed to play, that women were properly controlled by men.

We’re seeing that holy burst of light again, now, as women refuse to accept harassment, abuse, violence and exploitation in the “Me, too” movement, and in the calling to account of powerful men who have abused their positions of privilege to abuse women. And, uneasily, we look around and see that even some of our champions, our heroes, have been guilty, and we are tainted by our loyalty to them over justice for those they have mistreated.

Because we are tempted to excuse those whom we respect, who have affected our lives for good, not seeing them in all their humanity—their fallen humanity as well as the good that is genuinely there. But even worse, we are tempted to excuse them because they are a reflection of us, we think. Whoever “us” is—politically, culturally, by race or gender.

And in that temptation comes another—to minimize the harm done to other human beings, the ones we don’t know. We can dismiss them as “no angels,” as I’ve heard done these past weeks, we can fall back on stereotypes or tropes.

And in so doing, we perpetuate the abuse. And, at the same time, we fail to answer the call to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.”

Because what does it mean to “prepare ye the way of the Lord?” If it’s to mean anything, it must mean to speak up against injustice, to treat others with the kindness and respect we would hope for ourselves to receive in hour of need, to stand with the vulnerable and the exploited.

But also to recognize our own complicity with the order that allows for oppression, to repent of our own sins and offenses against those who have been vulnerable and who we have failed to see, or worse, who we have not treated as we should have, and to recognize the times we have stood passively by when injustice has been done.

And that recognition can be searing.

And painful, too.

But there’s hope, you see, because the cycle starts again.

There’s a point to the Church Year, which started last week, and which really gets under way today. Now. Right here in this Chapel.

Because today is the day when that first voice, that lone voice, sings on a darkened stage. “Pre—pare ye the Way of the Lord,” and we are invited to join in.

To walk what the early Christians called “the Way” and, leaving our sins behind us, start anew, playing our part in the explosive burst of light that can transfigure the world.

Advent gives us the chance to hear that invitation.

How we answer is up to each of us.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.