‘The Death of Expertise’: Tom Nichols offers great read for understanding our slow-motion cultural implosion

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A book called The Death of Expertise came out not too long ago. The best way to describe it for regular readers of this blog is as follows: It’s as if author Tom Nichols read my mind and then put all my disparate thoughts on Western civilization’s slow-motion car crash into a nice package. His understanding of how modern technology, social media, and left-wing academics exacerbate the problem is, unfortunately for future generations, on point.

I spend a lot of time on social media for work, and over the years I have seen a disturbing trend take place on the internet and college campuses. A toxic brew of left-wing “social justice” indoctrination on American campuses mixed with digital echo chambers, available to men and women of all political stripes, slowly boiled. (We’ve seen the effects of this during the U.S. presidential inauguration protests, the Berkeley riots, and the insanity at Evergreen State College in Washington state.)

Mr. Nichols, however, is one of the few people I’ve seen who has a firm grasp of the dangerous social dynamics at play beneath the surface. Like your friendly neighborhood blogger, he seems to think a miracle is needed to stave off an ugly future.

“I fear we are witnessing the death of the ideal of expertise itself, a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laypeople, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

Attacks on established knowledge and the subsequent rash of poor information in the general public are sometimes amusing. Sometimes they’re even hilarious.  Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. […] When life and death are involved, however, it’s a lot less funny. […]

The overall trend is one of ideological segregation enabled by the ability to end a friendship with a click instead of a face-to-face discussion.

Underlying much of this ill temper is a false sense of equality and the illusion of egalitarianism created by the immediacy of social media. I have a Twitter account and a Facebook page, and so do you, so we’re peers, aren’t we? After all, if a top reporter at a major newspaper, a diplomat at the Kennedy School, a scientist at a research hospital, and your Aunt Rose from Reno all have an online presence, then all of their viewers are just so many messages speeding past your eyes. Every opinion is only as good as the last posting on a home page.

In the age of social media, people using the Internet assume that everyone is equally intelligent or informed merely by virtue of being online. — Tom Nichols,The Death of Expertise (Oxford University Press, 2017). Pages 3, 129.

Boom.

Across every personal and professional level of my life I have witnessed the proliferation of this mentality. Google gives people a false sense superiority. A five-second search that allows a man to throw out a random factoids convinces him that he’s an expert when, in reality, his depth of breadth of knowledge is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Social media offers a one-two punch of perniciousness: It encourages people to dehumanize the guy on the other side of the screen while simultaneously fostering false pride and moral superiority. That, dear reader, is a recipe for violence.

Mr. Nichols’ book is by no means perfect (he sometimes shows off his own ideological blind spots by unfairly framing certain political issues), but it is still highly worth your time. It’s the perfect book to sit down with for a few hours by the pool or at the beach. Check it out if you want to better understand our widening political divide, or if you just like slightly terrifying reading material.

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Thomas Merton’s ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ a classic for the well-read man of faith

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Not too long ago I was sitting at the kitchen table with my wife after Mass and she told me that I seemed restless. I agreed, and when we started to dig down into the reasons why, one of them was the kind of “dumbed down” Catholicism that Bishop Robert Barron criticizes so eloquently on his YouTube channel.

I sometimes sit in Church on Sunday and listen to our priest deliver the same New York Jets joke that he has used at least three times in the last 18 months. I’ll hear another priest tell well-prepared homilies that seem to concentrate on feel-goodisms (e.g., “Make someone smile and you’ll bring them closer to God”), instead of anything substantive. It’s maddening to know that there is a wealth of intellectual treasures in the Catholic Church, but for some weird reason priests never seem to challenge people in the pews to pick up a good book and read.

It boggles my mind that I have never — in nearly 38 years — heard a priest on Sunday tell me to read Saint Augustine’s ConfessionsC.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Aquinas, or a whole host of intellectual giants who have helped me over the years to understand my faith on a deeper level — and to cogently share it with those in my circle of friends. I searched out the above-mentioned authors because at some point in time I realized that I had to take as much personal responsibility with my spiritual health as I have with my physical and mental development over the years.

And it is here, dear reader, where Trappist monk Thomas Merton enters the equation. Long story short, his autobiography is a must-read for anyone who has drifted away from the Church because they received too many helpings of “dumbed down Catholicism” without realizing how much stimulating content was within reach.

Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of Saint Augustine’s Confessions and now they know that I fully endorse Merton. But what they don’t know is that one of the reasons these men resonate with me is because the flaws they both acknowledge — their spiritual deficiencies — have been my own.

Merton says:

“Where was my will? ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,’ and I had not laid up any treasures for myself in heaven. They were all on earth. I wanted to be a writer, a poet, a critic, a professor. I wanted to enjoy all kinds of pleasures of the intellect and of the senses and in order to have these pleasures I did not hesitate to place myself in situations which I knew would end in spiritual disaster — although generally I was so blinded by my own appetites that I never even clearly considered this fact until it was too late, and the damage was done.

Of course, as far as my ambitions went, their objects were all right in themselves. There is nothing wrong in being a writer or a poet — at least I hope there is not: but the harm lies in wanting to be one for the gratification of one’s own ambitions, and merely in order to bring oneself up to the level demanded by his own internal self-idolatry. Because I was writing for myself and for the world, the things I wrote were rank with the passions and selfishness and sin from which they sprang. An evil tree brings forth evil fruits, when it brings forth fruit at all,” (Merton, Thomas. 253).

Who knew that a deceased monk could peg me to the wall and make me weep like no man who walks the earth? You exposed me to all the world, Thomas Merton. Touché! But I thank you, because I am better for it.

The point here is not so much to treat this blog as a confessional booth (although in many ways it is), but to point out just how imperative it is to read the best and the brightest that has ever been written. If you really want to see spiritual growth, then you must put in the same type of time and effort that you do with any other endeavor deemed important.

If you are a Catholic or a lapsed Catholic, then I highly recommend Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. If you are not Catholic but you are interested in exploring this kind of subject matter, then I would start out with C.S. Lewis since it’s easier to step into a warm bath than a brisk pool.

Regardless which route you take, the point remains: Get reading!

Related:

Americans need to read more Saint Augustine and listen to less Mike Huckabee

The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics’: Pay a small price for the work of an intellectual giant

G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Everlasting Man’ — perfect Easter reading

‘Letters to a Young Catholic’: George Weigel hits a literary home run

‘Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging’: Junger’s must-read explains why America is tearing itself apart

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Roughly 17 years ago I exited the military after a stint as a mechanized infantryman in the U.S. Army. Even though the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and the nation’s “long war” had not yet begun, I found myself having a difficult time with the transition to civilian life. Understanding why I missed my old platoon — and why I felt a growing fear and sadness for the country I loved — took years (and a blog like this) to figure out, but author and former war reporter Sebastian Junger articulates it all in his must-read book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

Americans who have not lived under a rock for the past 20 years have witnessed the slow-motion implosion of our culture.

  • Cable news pundits obsessively talk of “red states” and “blue states.”
  • The politics of personal destruction reigns supreme.
  • Saying “all lives matter” is interpreted in a Twilight Zone-ish twist by millions of people as somehow racist.
  • Americans watch carefully constructed social-media feeds that tell them all Republicans are the equivalent of Darth Vader, or that all Democrats have shrines to Fidel Castro in their bedroom.

In short, the modern world is deficient in something that is causing tens-of-millions of people to feel isolated, alone, and empty. The void is filled with confusion, and that in turn fuels the kind of anger and hate that was the hallmark of the 2016 election cycle.

Why is it that many soldiers and civilians who have lived through war sometimes get nostalgic for it?

What are the consequences for society when a person “living in a modern city or suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day — or an entire life — mostly encountering complete strangers”?

Why are we often surrounded by others, yet “feel deeply, dangerously alone”?

One of the answers can be found in tribal societies. And no, your friendly neighborhood blogger is not saying Native Americans should have won the clash of civilizations at our nation’s inception. I am merely saying, like Mr. Junger, that we can learn from their ability to provide “the three pillars of self-determination — autonomy, competence, and community.”

Mr. Junger writes:

“After World War II, many Londoners claimed to miss the exciting and perilous days of the Blitz. (“I wouldn’t mind having an evening like it, say, once a week — ordinarily there’s no excitement,” one man commented to Mass-Observation about the air raids), and the war that is missed doesn’t even have to be a shooting war: “I am a survivor of the AIDS epidemic,” an American man wrote in 2014 on the comment board of an online lecture about war. “Now that AIDS is no longer a death sentence, I must admit that I miss those days of extreme brotherhood…which led to deep emotions and understandings that are above anything I have felt since the plague years.”

What people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender. There are obvious stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation, so during disasters there is a net gain in well-being. Most primates, including humans, are intensely social, and there are very few instances of lone primates surviving in the wild. …

Whatever the technological advances of modern society — and they’re near miraculous — the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.” — (Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (New York: Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2016), 92-93.

Tribe covers issues like PTSD, depression, and anxiety among combat veterans, but it would be a big mistake to solely think of it as a book for the military community. It is much more than that, because it is a blueprint for getting the nation on a path to cultural healing.

The author continues:

“The eternal argument over so-called entitlement programs — and, more broadly, over liberal and conservative thought — will never be resolved because each side represents an ancient and absolutely essential component of our evolutionary past.

So how do you unify a secure, wealthy country that has sunk into a zero-sum political game with itself? How do you make veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place? […] I put the question to Rachel Yehuda of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. …

“if you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different — you underscore your shared humanity,” she told me. “I’m appalled by how much people focus on differences. Why are you focusing on how different you are from one another, and not on the things that unite us?” […]

Reviling people you share a combat outpost with is an incredibly stupid thing to do, and public figures who imagine their nation isn’t, potentially, one huge combat outpost are deluding themselves. (127-128).

Tribe is by no means “the” answer to the nation’s deep-seated cultural problems, but it is a significant piece of the puzzle. To get a good look at the big picture, I suggest pairing Mr. Junger’s quick-read with George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic. Each book provides a template for transcending dead-end partisan bickering, and in turn getting America efficiently focused on  becoming a more-perfect union.

‘Hostage to the Devil’: Malachi Martin’s masterwork on possession, exorcism more than a must-read for Catholics

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Former Jesuit priest Malachi Martin died in 1999, but he wrote one of the most comprehensive books on possession and exorcism in 1976 — Hostage To The Devil. Those who are unfamiliar with the man’s work may dismiss Hostage as fare for old school Catholics, but it is much more than that. Anyone who is interested in humanity’s struggle with morality, truth, free will, sex and gender, spirit and psyche would do themselves a favor by purchasing it soon.

Regular readers of this blog know that the intersection of politics and popular culture are covered on a regular basis. Movies, music and comic books are reviewed, but at the heart of it all is a fight against moral relativism.

The message is simple: Good and Evil exist. To deny that, or to pretend as though a man can go through life making morally neutral decisions, is to walk down a road of confusion. And, as Fr. Malachi notes, confusion seems to be a “prime weapon of evil.”

The author says:

“The surest effect of possession in an individual — the most obvious and striking effect common to all possessed persons, whether observed or apart from Exorcism — is the great loss in human quality, in humanness.

Curiously enough, the difficulty in talking nowadays about possession and describing its progress and effects in those attacked does not come from the weird, bizarre, or ‘unimaginable’ happens that may accompany possession.

The difficulty comes, instead, from the insistence of latter-day opinion makers that the religious view of good and evil is outdated; that the personality of each man, woman, and child exists only as a cross section of single traits and attributes best revealed in scores we achieve in psychological tests; that the truest and purest models for our behavior come from ‘lower animals’ and from ‘natural man,’ a mythical invention that has never existed and that we cannot imagine. …

Even though our coverage of these questions concerning Jesus and Lucifer must be brief due to limitations of space, we are not merely indulging in a comforting cliché when we make one observation: The best that latter-day prophets and modern doom sayers seem able to do with these matters is to ignore them and tell us to do the same. They cannot prove them false, but only increase their efforts to persuade us so. And for all their mighty efforts, they cannot repair the damage they do in this way to our humanness.,” Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1992), 409, 411-412.

In short, the bulk of Hostage deals with five cases:

  • Zio’s Friend and the Smiler — 29
  • Father Bones and Mister Natch — 83
  • The Virgin and the Girl-Fixer — 173
  • Uncle Ponto and the Mushroom-Souper — 249
  • The Rooster and the Tortoise — 321

As readers can see by the pagination, trying to respectfully break down any one of these cases in a book review would be difficult. Exhaustive interviews were conducted with all parties involved, written records were examined, and hours upon hours of audio recordings analyzed.

What is important to know before buying the book — particularly for skeptics — is that Fr. Martin is not an intellectual slouch. He is a very intelligent man. He is serious, and the content within Hostage is extremely disturbing.

The fact of the matter is that possession is nothing like Americans see in Hollywood movies. It is much more insidious than that because bodiless beings that can glean knowledge from eternity are not stupid. Possession is a process by which patient demons wait for an entry point, exploit confusion, and ultimately seize control when victims voluntarily present their souls on a silver platter.

Exacerbating this threat is a culture that grants Satan “the ultimate camouflage” — the belief that he does not exist.

“Raised more and more in an atmosphere where moral criticism is not merely out of fashion, but prohibited, [we] swim with little help in a veritable sea of pornography. Not merely sexual pornography, but the pornography of unmitigated self-interest. Whether spoken or acted out without explanation, the dominant question of the younger generations among us is, What can you do for me? What can my parents, my friends, my acquaintances, my enemies, my government, my country, do for me?

The difficulty is that as individuals and as a society, we are no longer willing — many of us are no longer able — to give an answer to that question that will satisfy anyone for long. …

Not to believe in evil is not be be armed against it. To disbelieve is to be disarmed. If your will does not accept the existence of evil, you are rendered incapable of resisting evil. Those with no capacity of resistance become prime targets for Possession,” (Preface, XIII, XIV, XV).

As Fr. Martin says, “no one wants to believe in evil, really, above all, not in an evil being, an evil spirit,” because acknowledging that places a perpetual responsibility on our shoulders.

“That [disbelief] is the opening through which [Satan] crawls, stilling all suspicions, making everything seem normal and natural. This is the ‘thought,’ the unwariness of the ordinary human being which amounts to a disinclination to believe in evil. And, if you do not believe in evil, how can you believe in or even know what good is?” (389)

Hostage is an amazing book. Anyone who is remotely spiritual should read it, but they must be forewarned that it will leave them shaken to the core.

If you have any questions about the cases covered by Fr. Martin, then feel free to ask in the comments section below.

Red Platoon: Clinton Romesha’s combat memoir will floor you. Buy it — now

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One of the rarest things on earth is the perfect blending between a warrior and a scholar. To meet such a man or to read his wisdom on the written page is truly a blessing, which is why I search … and search … and search for those moments. It is safe to say that Clinton Romesha, Medal of Honor recipient and author of Red Platoon, unequivocally belongs in that elite group. His memoir is exquisitely written, which feels somewhat odd to say given the subject matter.

For those who are unfamiliar with Mr. Romesha’s story — or, rather, the story of the men deployed to Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in Afghanistan on Oct. 3, 2009 — it is the stuff of legend. The former Staff Sergeant and his comrades were told to man an outpost that was in every way imaginable a death trap, and then when all their worst fears came true the majority of them found a way to survive.

Here is an excerpt that in many ways sums up what the book is about:

In 1958, a soldier named J. Glenn Gray wrote a book about soldiers in combat called The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. Gray, who was drafted into the army as a private in May 1941, was discharged as a second lieutenant in October 1945 after having seen fighting in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany. His book, which is both obscure and revered, touches on something that would later strike me as relevant to what was now unfolding at Keating as our counterassault came in danger of unraveling.

Gray wrote with elegance and precision about how the essence of combat basically boils down to an exchange of trust between two men — or two groups of men — each of whom are providing support by fire for the other. This simple agreement — you move while I shoot at the guys who are trying to kill you, then I will move while you shoot at the guys who are trying to kill me — depends on a willingness to place one’s life into the hands of someone else while in turn taking responsibility for that person’s life in your own hands. When this pact is executed well, it is not only extraordinarily effective but also tends to create a bond between men who enter into it that may stand as the most powerful connection they will ever experience to another human being.

There is, however, one thing that Gray doesn’t explore in his book, which is what can happen when one of the two parties who are supposed to be working in tandem fails — for whatever reason, legitimate or not — to keep his end of the deal. That was what appeared to be taking place right then with Hill’s machine-gun team.” — Clinton Romesha, Red Platoon (New York, Penguin Random House LLC, 2016), 243-244.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. It seems awkward to call a wartime memoir “flawless” (How does one give glowing reviews to true story where men died gruesome deaths without seeming inconsiderate or detached?), but that seems to be the best adjective to use.

Red Platoon is powerful, organized, thrilling, poignant, inspirational and educational all at the same time. It is intelligent, but relatable to a wide audience. It is honest, but respectful to all Americans involved — regardless of how they handled themselves on the battlefield.

In short, buy the book. It is awesome, and probably something I will come back to for many years to come.

RELATED: ‘Black Hawk Down’: Read the book because the movie can never do the men who died justice

‘Black Hawk Down’: Read the book because the movie can never do the men who died justice

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If you ask most people what they think of Black Hawk Down, then the vast majority of the time the response you’ll get will probably be something along the lines of, “Good movie.” That is understandable, given that it was a blockbuster film in 2001 produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott.

If you are like me, then perhaps you’ve always had an itch regarding the movie and, more importantly, the event — the downing of two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and the subsequent deaths of 18 American soldiers Oct. 3-4, 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Sure, it made for a night out at the theater, but perhaps you’ve felt that it was somehow insulting to only know the tale through its Bruckheimerization.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have been working on a book in my spare time that will eventually see the light of day (we’re at the artwork stage now, so hang tight!). There are parts of the novel that required knowledge of Task Force Ranger, and at some point I admitted to myself that it would be literary heresy to not read Mark Bowden’s masterpiece to assist with authenticity. It is safe to say that there probably is not a more comprehensive retelling of the ill-fated attempt to capture two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

And if you do not think any of this is still relevant, then I suggest you start reading The New York Times. The paper reported Sunday in a piece titled In Somalia, U.S. Escalates a Shadow War:

The Obama administration has intensified a clandestine war in Somalia over the past year, using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.

Hundreds of American troops now rotate through makeshift bases in Somalia, the largest military presence since the United States pulled out of the country after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993. …

In March, an American airstrike killed more than 150 Shabab fighters at what military officials called a “graduation ceremony,” one of the single deadliest American airstrikes in any country in recent years. But an airstrike last month killed more than a dozen Somali government soldiers, who were American allies against the Shabab.

Outraged Somali officials said the Americans had been duped by clan rivals and fed bad intelligence, laying bare the complexities of waging a shadow war in Somalia. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the Pentagon was investigating the strike.

Who, exactly, are we fighting? Why are we there? Should we be there?

Mr. Bowden’s book provides many of the answers, which unfortunately raise more questions:

“In books and movies when a soldier shot a man for the first time he went through a moment of soul searching. Waddell didn’t give it a second thought. He just reacted. he thought the man was dead. He had just folded. Startled by Waddell’s shot, Nelson hadn’t seen the man drop. Waddell pointed to where he had fallen and the machine gunner stood up, lifted his big gun, and pumped a few more rounds into the man’s body to make sure. Then they both ran for better cover.

They found it behind a burned out-car. Peering out from underneath toward the north now, Nelson saw a Somali with a gun lying prone on the street between two kneeling women. The shooter had the barrel of this weapon between the women’s legs, and there were four children actually sitting on him. He was completely shielded in noncombatants, taking full cynical advantage of the Americans’ decency.

“Check it out, John,” he told Waddell, who scooted over for a look.

“What do you want to do?” Waddell asked.

“I can’t get that guy through those people.”

So Nelson threw a flashbang, and the group fled so fast the man left his gun in the dirt.” — Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down (New York: Grove Press, 1999), 46.

If you want to know what it’s like to have an entire city honed in on killing you and those you hold dear, then I suggest reading Black Hawk Down. The book can be a bit arduous at times — it’s like trying to eat a steak the size of your head — but there is no escaping it because a.) Mr. Bowden leaves no stone unturned, and b.) the experience for the men on the ground was grueling.

Perhaps the best endorsement of the book that I can give is this: I did not know much about the author before picking up the book, and was surprised to find out he is not a veteran. He’s just a reporter who did a damn good job telling a story.

Black Hawk Down is a book about courage and fear, the nature of war, success and failure on the battlefield, and most importantly the experiences of the men who fought valiantly to save one another in situation that was so surreal that it seem like “a movie.”

 It was not a movie — it happened — which is why those who care about national defense issues should read it sooner rather than later.

Kudos to Mr. Bowden for writing a book that will be read by military men and women for generations to come.

‘Letters to a Young Catholic’: George Weigel hits a literary home run

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George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic is a wonderful book, but oddly enough I must begin this review by griping about the title — it’s something that Catholics of any age should read. In fact, the publisher does not lie by billing the book as “a modern spiritual classic,” which is why I recommend it to anyone who is interested in such issues.

Like many Catholic kids, my parents took me to Mass every Sunday growing up. And, like many Catholic kids, I was not exposed to the writings of G.K. Chesterton, George Weigel or other intellectual heavyweights. What I did have access to were kind adults who lacked the ability to articulate the faith in a way that “clicked” for me. I drifted from the Church as a young man and did not come back until I learned many painful lessons. If I were exposed to a book like this as a teenager then it probably would have saved me a lot of lost time, although I admit to having a largely impenetrable chip on my shoulder in those days. (And yes, I know that some of you would argue that it’s still there!)

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Letters to a Young Catholic is that in many ways it doubles as a must-read for those who are wondering why America’s political institutions are crumbling before our eyes. The way in which the author travels the globe, goes back in time, covers essential questions about the Catholic faith that all young people ask, and then ties it into our contemporary political landscape is like watching a gymnast who puts everything out on the floor before the judges — and nails it.

Mr. Weigel writes:

If American popular and high culture could ever agree on a theme song that captured the idea of freedom driving much of contemporary life, it would almost certainly be Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” I did it my way seems to sum up the widespread notion that freedom is a matter of asserting myself and my will — that freedom is really about choice, not about what we choose and why. Suggest that certain choices are just incompatible with human dignity and with growth in goodness, and you’ll get some very strange looks these days, whether on campus or in the workplace.

Catholicism has a different idea of freedom. In the Catholic idea of freedom, freedom and goodness go together. A great contemporary moral theologian, Father Servais Pinckaers, OP, explained all this. […] Learning to play the piano, he reminded us, is a tedious, even dreary business at first: well do I remember my own distaste for a book of technique-strengthening tortures entitled Scales, Chords, and Arpeggios. But after doing one’s exercises for a while, what originally seemed like a burden comes into clearer focus — learning to do the right thing in the right way is actually liberating. You can play anything you like, even the most difficult pieces. You can make new music on your own. Sure, Father Pinckaers writes, anybody can pound away on a piano. But that’s a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom,” not a truly human freedom. …

I did it my way teaches us an idea of freedom that Father Pinckaers calls “the freedom of indifference.” Doing things “my way,” just because it’s my way, is like banging idiotically on the piano or talking gibberish. The richer, nobler idea of freedom the Catholic Church proposes is what Father Pinckaers calls freedom for excellence — the freedom to do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons, as a matter of habit. That’s the truly human way. Because that’s the kind of freedom that satisfies our natural desire for happiness, which itself reflects our desire for God, who is all Good, all the way.  […] What’s all this got to do with democracy? Everything. Freedom untethered from moral truth will eventually become freedom’s worst enemy. — Weigel, George. Letters to a Young Catholic. Basic Books, 2015. 305-306.

A friend of mine texted me on Monday and said she hoped that I would cover the first U.S. presidential debate on the blog. In many ways, the text from Mr. Weigel’s book shown here tells us everything we need to know.

Why is America forced to choose between a woman who should be wearing an orange jumpsuit in a federal prison, and an egomaniac with occasionally orange skin?

Answer: Because America long ago decided it wanted to untether freedom from moral truth.

There really is no way to read Letters to a Young Catholic and not have a crystal clear understanding as to why civil society in the U.S. is unraveling. Our cultural influencers embrace a kind of nihilism “that enjoys itself on the way to oblivion, convinced that all of this — the world, us, relationships, sex, beauty, history — is really just a cosmic joke,” and we are now paying the price.

Mr. Weigel counters that “against the nihilist claim that nothing is really of consequence, Catholicism insists that everything is of consequence, because everything has been redeemed by Christ. And if you believe that, it changes the way you see things. It changes the way everything looks.”

If for no other reason, wayward Catholics should read this book to realize that what they thought was Catholicism growing up was in all likelihood a grossly watered down version of the Faith that denied them knowledge of its true richness and beauty. There are numerous reasons for this, and the author does a masterful job spelling it all out. I found myself thinking, “Finally! Someone who gets it,” and I am sure you will too.

Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’: Holocaust memoir a must-read along with Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’

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Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 that the world must never forget what happened because “if we forget, we are all guilty, we are accomplices.” His memoir, Night, is a must-read for anyone who understands — as he did — that “we must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Perhaps one of the most important take-aways from the book is just how averse humans are to acknowledging evil — real evil — when it is in their midst.

Mr. Wiesel’s account of how his hometown in Transylvania reacted to the Nazi threat is surreal. It is hard to imagine just how far men while go to deny the truth when the truth may require a call to arms.

The author wrote:

“The Germans were already in our town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out — and the Jews of Sighet were smiling.

‘The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal…’

(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?) …

Little by little life returned to ‘normal.’ The barbed wire that encircled us like a wall did not fill us with fear. In fact, we felt this was not a bad thing; were were entirely among ourselves. A small Jewish republic … A Jewish Council was appointed, as well as a Jewish police force, a welfare agency, a labor committee, a health agency — a whole government apparatus.

People thought this was a good thing.” (Elie Wiesel. Night. Hill and Wang. 10-12.)

The one man in town who tried to warn everyone was treated like a madman, which ironically took him to the edge of sanity. It was not long afterward that Mr. Wiesel would be shipped off to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald.

The horrors that Mr. Wiesel endured are too numerous to list in a single blog post, but it is imperative to note why Nazi torture was a special kind of evil: It took root in the souls of its victims, who then turned on one another.

“In the wagon where the bread had landed, a battle had ensued. Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails.

A crowd of workmen and curious passersby had formed all along the train. They had undoubtedly never seen a train with this kind of cargo. Soon, pieces of bread were falling into the wagons from all sides. And the spectators observed these emaciated creatures ready to kill for a crust of bread.” (101.)

Night is a powerful book that understandably simmers with rage and anger, hate and sorrow. It is a book that everyone should read, but it should not be completed without also making time for Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Mr. Wiesel’s memoir shows his self-described “rebellion” against God, while Mr. Frankl chronicles how spiritual growth is possible — even in an Auschwitz death camp.

“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying. …

We had realized [suffering’s] hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, ‘Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!’ (How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of ‘getting through’ suffering as others would talk of ‘getting through work.’ …

There was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that.”  (Victor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 1959, 1962, 1984, 1992, 2006. 77, 78.)

In short, both books are essential reading for the man or woman who loves freedom, abhors tyranny, and understands the importance of history. The memoirs can be purchased for $10 or less, which is an unbeatable bargain given the wisdom each contains.

‘Proof of Heaven’: Neurosurgeon turns NDE into fascinating read for skeptics, believers

Proof of Heaven

Skeptics have fascinated me for many years because they will often hear a supernatural story from a trusted source — a long-time friend who no history of mental illness or a reason to lie — and still find ways to dismiss it. Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who also worked at Harvard Medical School in Boston, was one of those skeptics until he contracted a case of E. coli meningitis, which attacked his brain and left him in a coma for seven days.

What makes Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife such a compelling read is that its author a.) was a secular man, b.) is a doctor who specializes in the brain, and c.) knows that his illness attacked the very parts of the brain that give skeptics an “out” in terms of believing that neath death experiences (NDEs) offer proof of the spirit world.

Dr. Alexander’s NDE is important because he isn’t just some random guy who drowned and was resuscitated; it is important because he knows about “endogenous glutamate blockade with excitotoxicity,” the limbic system, the lateral amygdala, N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) “dumps,” cortical function, etc.

In short, he is not a man who can be “out-scienced” because he has dedicated his life to medicine.

Random blog posts by a lucid dreamer who was visited by a floating purple orb can be easily dismissed — but a Near Death Experience by a neurosurgeon with over 25 years experience, who uses science to back his claims, is much more difficult to deny.

Dr. Alexander says at one point:

Depending on whom you talk to, consciousness is either the greatest mystery facing scientific enquiry, or a total non-problem. What’s surprising is just how many more scientists think it’s the latter. For many — maybe most — scientists, consciousness isn’t really worth worry about because it is just a by-product of physical processes. Many scientists go further, saying that not only is consciousness a secondary phenomenon, but that in addition, it’s not even real.

Many leaders in the neuroscience of consciousness and the philosophy of the mind, however, would beg to differ. Over the last few decades, they have come to recognize that ‘hard problem of consciousness.’

Like many other scientific skeptics, I refused to even review the data relevant to the questions concerning these [supernatural] phenomena. I prejudged the data, and those providing it, because my limited perspective failed to provide the foggiest notion of how such things might actually happen. Those who assert that there is no evidence for phenomena indicative of extended consciousness, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are willfully ignorant. They believe they know the truth without needing to look at the facts.”

For those still stuck in the trap of scientific skepticism, I recommend the book Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century, published in 2007. The evidence for out-of-body consciousness is well presented in this rigorous scientific analysis. Irreducible Mind is a landmark opus from a highly reputable group, the Division of Perceptual Studies, based at the University of Virginia.” — Eben Alexander, Proof of Heaven, (Simon and Schuster, 2012), 151-153.

I do not want to spoil any details of the doctor’s experience in the spirit realm, so I will refrain from mentioning them here. I will say, however, that Proof of Heaven is a quick and worthwhile read for anyone interested in the subject matter. The paperback edition is $16 for a new copy, but it is money well spent.

‘The White Donkey’: Iraq War veteran’s graphic novel a powerful read

White Donkey

For  years this blog has tried to make the case that a comic book can be much more than “just” a comic book. For years this blog has tried to make the case that the industry would benefit if it employed, say, men like Terminal Lance creator Maximilian Uriarte. His New York Times bestseller, “The White Donkey,” should officially put that debate to rest.

“The White Donkey” is the story about Abe, a young man who left his small Oregon town in search of … something. He wasn’t quiet sure what he was looking for, but he thought he might find it in the United States Marine Corps as an infantryman. Abe, his best buddy Jesus Garcia, and the rest of their battalion are eventually deployed to Iraq. There is not much more I can say without spoiling the book other than to note its honesty rivals National Book Award Winner Redeployment,” by Phil Klay.

White Donkey Garcia

Every so often a critic comes to this blog and says something along the lines of, “You write about popular culture because you wanted to make it in Hollywood and never did.”

Yes, I did go to USC upon exiting the Army as a mechanized infantryman, but nothing could be further from the truth regarding professional regrets. In fact, a better personal attack would be that I exited the military prior to 9/11, didn’t have the courage to re-enlist after the Twin Towers fell, and that it still haunts me to this day.

There actually is some truth to that — I carried a ton of guilt with me for years after 9/11, which was exacerbated after a friend of mine, Hector Leija, had his head blown off in Iraq by a sniper. I disclose these details because readers need to know that everything that happens to “Abe” prior to his deployment is eerily close to what I experienced as a peace time soldier (i.e., it’s authentic). The characters, situations, and confrontations Abe navigates in many ways mirror my own.

I see myself in Abe (except the atheist part), and cannot help but wonder what I would be like had I stayed in military.

White Donkey leave

If you’re looking for a book with intelligence and emotional weight, then check out “The White Donkey.” If you’re looking for a book that can help civilians better understand returning war veterans, PTSD, and the other burdens they might be carrying, then Uriarte’s work is a must-read. One can only hope that he continues telling tales for many years to come.