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As expected, Pope John Paul II, in his sweeping apologies for the mistreatment of Jews by Christians through the ages, said nothing about the “silence” of his predecessor, Pius XII, about the Holocaust of the Jews during World War II. Many commentators, Jewish and gentile, are therefore calling the new apologies insufficient.

Even the New York Times, forgetting its own praise of Pius during the war for his condemnations of racial persecution, has joined the chorus of calumny. Pius has become the target of a virulent hate campaign that began with the play The Deputy in 1963 and has recently gained new impetus from a book smearing Pius as “Hitler’s Pope.”

Hitler himself would have found this judgment surprising; he called Pius a “mouthpiece of the Jews.” Israel Zolli, Grand Rabbi of Rome during the war, agreed with Hitler on this point: he was so grateful for Pius’s efforts to save Jews that he became a Catholic after the war and took Pius’s baptismal name, Eugenio, as his own. When Pius died in 1958, many Jewish leaders, including Golda Meir, praised him profusely.

What has happened since 1958 to obscure Pius’s good deeds and blacken his name? The facts haven’t changed; but popular perspective has.

True, Pius never specifically condemned “the Holocaust”; he never heard the term used as we now use it. It came into use only after the war — in fact, only years after his death. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who did virtually nothing to save Jews from Nazis, never referred to the persecution as “the Holocaust” either and said very little about it in any terms. But, being liberal heroes, they have been pardoned. Spain’s Francisco Franco saved tens of thousands of Jews but, like Pius, was a “reactionary” Catholic and is thus ineligible for liberal praise.

A thoughtful book by the historian Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (published by Houghton Mifflin), reminds us not only that the term the Holocaust is of recent origin but also that it represents a very recent way of thinking.

During the 1940s, the persecution of the Jews was not neatly separated, in people’s minds, from the enormous welter of violence that was World War II. Novick observes that “throughout the war (and, as we will see, for some time thereafter) what we now call the Holocaust was neither a distinct entity nor particularly salient. The murder of European Jewry, insofar as it was understood or acknowledged, was just one among the countless dimensions of a conflict that was consuming the lives of tens of millions around the globe. It was not ‘the Holocaust’; it was simply the (underestimated) Jewish fraction of the holocaust then engulfing the world.”

He repeats the point emphatically: “What we now call ‘the Holocaust’ … seemed to most people at the time simply the Jewish portion of the worldwide holocaust that had consumed between fifty and sixty million victims.”

Even Jewish groups didn’t make the kind of vocal protest Pius is now being condemned for failing to make. They preferred to speak in more general terms of the various victims of Nazism. Novick quotes them as speaking in rhetorically inclusive lists — “the Czechs, the Poles, the Jews, the Russians” or “Catholics, Protestants, Jews” — that gave the impression that the Jews were only one among many Nazi target groups. Only much later did Jewish suffering gain preeminence in popular understanding. Wartime decorum resisted singling out specific ethnic groups; that was felt to be the Nazis’ game.

From a Catholic perspective, it’s more surprising that Pius said so little about Communism, the bombing of cities, and nuclear weapons. He could easily have discouraged Catholics from fighting for the Allied cause if he’d been “Hitler’s Pope.” Throughout the war, in fact, he ignored Hitler’s pleas for a condemnation of Communism, though before and after the war he was militantly anti-Communist.

Millions of Catholics fought and died on the Allied side. One wonders whether they would have been so ready to make sacrifices if they had known that after the war countless of their fellow Catholics would fall under Communist rule, while their Pope and their Church would be smeared as Hitler’s accomplices.

 
• Category: History, Ideology • Tags: Catholic Church, Jews 
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The other day a writer I greatly esteem, lauding a new biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote a sentence that left me near apoplexy: that “of Roosevelt’s greatness there can be no question.”

In the first place, I think it’s always risky to say there is no room for a second opinion on matters where second opinions are common among intelligent and sensitive people. Think of all the Bush administration spokesmen who said not only that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a danger to this country, but, more fatally, that there was “no doubt” of this.

Well, millions saw room for doubt. I was only one of them. It was presumptuous to assert a consensus where none existed; and anyway, today’s consensus — what Everybody Knows — can evaporate mighty fast tomorrow.

So I think it is overreaching a bit to say that there is no question of the greatness of the man who gave the world the atomic bomb, made war on civilian populations, befriended Stalin’s Soviet Union, lied flagrantly to the public, vandalized the Constitution, centralized power, illegally put innocent American citizens into concentration camps, debased the currency … you get the drift. There is in fact some question as to his greatness and always has been. Was he elected unanimously? To read the encomia, you’d think he faced no rational opposition from those who remembered this country’s historical principles.

Nor does the new biography (if the review is any guide) give any evidence to warrant the verdict of “greatness” outweighing Roosevelt’s notorious crimes. It seems to offer one more mere list of crises that he, as they say, “led the nation through.”

What a vacuous expression! But how else can he be praised? Think of the ludicrous debates over his memorial a few years ago. Should it show his wheelchair? His cigarette holder? In the end, about all that was left of him was his famous “jaunty grin.” His more fatuous admirers never omit mention of that “jaunty grin,” which seems to have ended the Great Depression.

Put it this way: In what respect did Roosevelt leave this country, or Europe, freer than it had been before him? Of course emotional eulogies followed his death. But after 62 years, it is high time they stopped.

Monarchy is long gone, but many Americans still want to worship their allegedly great leaders. Popular polls rank John Kennedy near the top of the list, a judgment few sober historians share. The spirit of American Idol isn’t confined to talentless singers. It animates American democracy.

As a mental exercise, read the most serious thinkers among the American Founders — Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton — and try to imagine how they would have evaluated Roosevelt and his legacy. They fell far this side of perfection, but they listened to themselves and measured their words carefully. I don’t think anyone would call them childish. None of them ranked jauntiness high among the republican virtues.

I know of no indication that Roosevelt ever studied or even read The Federalist Papers. If he did, they certainly left no impression on him. He governed as if they had never been written. It is impossible to imagine him conversing intelligently with their authors. Their whole spirit was alien to him.

Consider one passage from Federalist No. 62, written by Madison: “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood; if they be repealed or revised before they are promulg[at]ed, or undergo such incessant changes that no man who knows what the law is to-day can guess what it will be to-morrow. Law is defined to be a rule of action; but how can that be a rule, which is little known and less fixed?”

Right or wrong, some real thought went into these words; and they are worth reflecting on before you set about building a utopia.

Now try to square that with the barrage of New Deal legislation, modeled on Italian fascism, which is always cited among Roosevelt’s great achievements. Yet his celebrants speak as if he had known, built on, and superseded the work of this republic’s Founders, none of which is remotely the case.

For them, his “greatness” is simply a given. No question.

 
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Last week a friend dropped by with a big gift: the opulent new Modern Library edition of the works of Shakespeare, more than 2,000 pages long, produced in conjunction with the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose excellent Coriolanus my friend, his father, and I had just seen at the Kennedy Center two weeks earlier.

As if I needed another Shakespeare book! I’ve collected editions of Shakespeare since high school, and I already owned dozens, dating back over generations: Yale, Riverside, Pelican I and II, Oxford I and II, Arden, Cambridge, Norton, and on and on. Editors include G.B. Harrison, Hardin Craig, G.L. Kittredge, John Dover Wilson, Stephen Greenblatt, David Bevington, and the team of Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. (If you know all the plays almost by heart, you too may be qualified to edit Shakespeare.)

These are just some of the single-volume editions in my personal Shakespeare library (roughly 3,000 books); I also have the Signet, Penguin, Washington Square Press (I and II), and other series in individual paperbacks. Plus collections of such marginal and apocryphal plays as The Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, and Sir Thomas More, which I’m sure bear Shakespeare’s hand but which aren’t usually included in “complete” volumes of his works. And lots of duplicates too.

So when a new edition of Shakespeare comes out, I’m not the man to pass it up. And I was delighted with my friend’s splendid gift.

I understand there are some literate people who have only one edition of Shakespeare and are content with that. I regard them with the sort of mystified pity a Saudi sheik might feel for a poor Idaho monogamist. How can these folks bear to live in such deprivation?

But the editor of this hefty new volume is a man I thought I had a score to settle with, Jonathan Bate of Warwick University. Ten years ago, Bate gave my own book, Alias Shakespeare, a blistering and, I thought, unfair review. He scornfully rejected the very possibility that “Shakespeare” was a pen name for the real author. Now was my chance to get even.

In that spirit, I spent a long evening studying his edition, at first in the hope of catching his errors. And I did find a few; Bate is still a little shaky on the Sonnets and of course the whole authorship question. He still calls alternative authorship views “conspiracy theories,” which is silly, especially for a man as intelligent as he is. (Using a pen name requires very little conspiring. It’s done every day. I’ve done it myself several times.)

But setting these points aside, the more I read, the clearer it became that Bate’s edition is incomparably superior to all the rest. His knowledge of textual problems and previous commentary seems to me prodigious in its detail and thoroughness; see, for example, what he says about successive early texts of Richard III. And his comments on individual plays are unfailingly perceptive. He’s about equally fine as scholar and critic; few excel in both roles, with their very different requirements. Bate is like an all-star shortstop who can also serve as an outstanding relief pitcher.

I’ve never learned so much about Shakespeare in one night. I’d read hundreds of books about him, one of which Bate himself wrote some years back, and I figured I pretty much knew all there was to know, except for the most arcane lore, of interest only to pedants.

No other edition has ever impressed me so much. Its virtues far outweigh its flaws; I think those flaws are serious enough to mention, but by the time I went to bed they hardly seemed to matter. I wanted to thank the man I’d started out wanting to cut down to size.

I felt I could afford to throw away several hundred books I’ve been hoarding for decades. Oh, I’ll keep them, but mostly out of habit; I no longer really need them. But if you want just one Shakespeare, Bate’s is the one to get, a bargain at $65. Its format is also handsome and readable.

What about that lousy review of my book? I can’t let that pass. But if Hamlet could delay his revenge, I guess I can let mine wait a while.

Just watch your back, Professor Bate.

 
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Am I the only one who still remembers Manuel Noriega? He’s one of the reasons we have a Department of Defense. When he was running Panama, the first President George Bush (am I the only one who still remembers him too?) decided he was such a threat, like Hitler (of course you remember him!), that we had to invade Panama. Remember? The Panamanians do.

Well, we faced a stark choice. We could fight them down there, or we could fight them up here. President Bush didn’t hesitate. It runs in the family.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (whose name, at least, you surely remember) once observed, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Only one more generation to go! All the Bushes, if you ask me, are as eloquent as whoopie cushions.

The senior President Bush was suspected, if not exactly accused, of anti-Semitism by the distinguished anti-Semite hunter Norman Podhoretz. The Podhoretzian definition of anti-Semitism is admittedly pretty comprehensive, roughly coterminous with mankind (he tends to say “anti- Semite” where most of us would say “homo sapiens” or “featherless biped”), except for a tiny sliver, who are mostly, one gathers, self-hating Jews. (If Podhoretz ran a charm school, most of the young ladies would graduate with cauliflower ears.)

Of course there are gradations of anti-Semitism, running all the way from the bellowing Hitler at one extreme to the sly Ivy League critics of Israel at the other, with Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, the pope (any pope), and Britney Spears falling somewhere in the middle. Not that they’re really all that different, and neither, at least to the Podhoretzian mind, are you.

Anti-Semitism is worse than misanthropy, of course. Bombing a city is merely misanthropic, whereas telling crude Jew jokes is anti-Semitic. Don Imus can explain the difference.

And then there is homophobia, the benighted belief that anal intercourse with strangers is in any way immoral, unnatural, or unsanitary. It is to be carefully distinguished from violence against homeless people, or hobophobia. By now there must also be a special word for the hatred of gay homeless people, a national problem, but I’ve been out of academia so long I don’t know what it is.

Have we mentioned pedophobia? This is the bigoted view that it’s wrong for adults to have sexual relations with children. Except when the adult is a Catholic priest. Then it is a praiseworthy view. But even priests should be allowed to be women, or marry women, or both. That didn’t come out quite right, but I think you know what I meant to say.

As Christopher Hitchens points out, the Catholic Church has a long record of promoting war and also opposing it, and likewise promoting pedophilia and also condemning it. You can see why he’s upset that a church with such a sanguinary past is now against the Iraq war, which he favors.

Listening to Hitchens (if he does), the Pope must feel like King Lear’s Fool: “I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are. They’ll have me whipped for speaking true; thou’lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace.”

Atheists can be hard to satisfy. Does anyone remember Stalin? He and Trotsky just could never seem to satisfy each other, and Hitchens, when I knew him years ago, was a Trotskyist, though I guess he has lately become disillusioned with Trotsky too. Well, who wouldn’t? How about a little credit for those of us — ahem! — who never had any illusions about him in the first place?

I also remember when Hitchens was humbly beseeching the Sandinista thugs to pretty please permit a little free speech in their little kingdom. Why didn’t Noriega command that kind of deference from our bold, bad-boy dissenter? Well, neither did Mother Teresa. If every word he spoke were true, his demeanor would still be a lie.

Anyway, reading the economist Henry Hazlitt in college, I realized that war is, morality aside, a huge waste of money. I’m no pacifist, mind you. When the jihadist camels are massed on our borders, I’ll grab my musket as fast as the next man.

The people who begin wars always lose them, and rightly so. Always, without exception. We know this because that’s what the winners tell us when a war (alias “defense effort”) ends. Has any victor ever said, mopping his laurel-bound brow in relief, “Golly, we were lucky to get away with starting that one”? Is that what Lincoln said? I think I’d remember if he had.

When I started this column, that’s what I meant to say. As you probably sensed.

 
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Two years ago, after foot surgery, I started walking with a cane. The ankle has healed, but I’ve kept the cane. I like it. It helps my balance, it’s funny, and it strengthens my faith.

In this allegedly Darwinian world, where life is a ruthless competition for survival, my cane is magic. It causes young people, fitter than I am for physical existence, to call me “sir” and hold doors and show me a respect I’ve never enjoyed before. Nobody ever told me a stick of wood could exert such spiritual power. I think I’ll keep it.

Admit it, you atheists: the sight of an old geezer with a cane brings out something sweet in you that, according to Darwin, can’t be there. The truth is that love for others is a profound instinct, a powerful atavism so to speak, harder to resist than hate.

Of course we all want to survive. But we want just as strongly for others to survive too. Darwinism can’t explain the environmentalist movement (though I think it’s misguided). Nor can it explain why we write wills giving all we can to those who outlive us. Nor the Bill Gates foundation. Nor the sacrifices of parents who give their lives for their children. Nor the willingness of some people to suffer so that other people won’t kill unborn children. Nor nuns and priests who consecrate themselves to God in lives of charity and chastity (the pay isn’t all that good). Nor a hundred other forms of altruism.

Altruism sticks in the craws of the reductionists who think man is, and ought to be, selfish. Ayn Rand tried in vain to persuade us that Moses and Jesus were wrong, that altruism is bad, and that selfishness is a virtue. She failed to make much of a dent in the popularity of St. Francis of Assisi.

Frustrating, isn’t it? We’re all selfish by nature, but we’re so sheepish about it that we reserve our most fervent admiration for people like the man who, without even stopping to think, throws himself in front of an onrushing subway train to save the life of a total stranger. If, rationally speaking, he’s a fool, nobody says so; or even thinks so.

Animals may do that sort of thing for their own young, but not for other animals they’ve never met. The altruism of cows, for example, is pretty narrowly circumscribed, and bulls leave even more to be desired. Samuel Johnson once observed that if a bull could talk, it might say, “Here I am with this cow and this grass; what being could enjoy better felicity?” Touché.

Man is separated from the beasts by the faculty of reason, of course — the point the old philosophers used to harp on; but I prefer to stress his capacity for praise and appreciation, disinterested joy in things outside himself. A boy in love doesn’t just desire the girl; he may not even desire her at all. He simply marvels that so lovely a creature can exist, as he may marvel at Mozart’s music or Shakespeare’s poetry, things that offer nothing beyond themselves to desire.

As I write these words, I’m listening to a stunning recording: Laurence Olivier reading the Psalms in the King James translation. They tempt me to superlatives, of course, but the real point is that I can’t think of, or even imagine, anything comparable in the animal kingdom. There are no analogies. Bulls don’t praise cows, let alone their Creator.

Explaining the phenomenon of praise is a real challenge for the Darwinian; it doesn’t appear to confer any particular advantage in that ruthless struggle for survival we’re always hearing about.

I can understand why atheists think religion does a lot of evil, because sometimes it surely does. But they never explain why man wastes so much time and energy in activities they insist are pointless and have no biological utility. If we found all the cattle in the pasture dancing and mooing in unison, wouldn’t we be curious about why they were behaving in this extraordinary fashion?

I suppose killing your own children makes some sort of sense from an atheistic and Darwinian point of view. If survival is a ruthless competition, your kids are your competitors, right? No wonder Darwin’s legions are in favor of this “choice.” It accords perfectly, methinks, with Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness.”

 
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How the mighty are fallen! Or falling, anyway. Tony Blair is finished. George W. Bush is being deserted by the party he has wrecked, the submerging Republican majority. And Rudy Giuliani, only recently the front-runner for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, looks like a goner. Thanks to Pope Benedict, he probably has no hope of capturing the White House now.

Bush, of course, is the central figure in this contagion of ruin. Blair’s loyalty to Bush — he warned his fellow Englishmen that Saddam Hussein’s fearsome arsenal might strike them within 45 minutes — destroyed the plausibility of everything else he said. And Giuliani, a rodent who lacks the sense to desert the sinking ship, is now paying the price for his nakedly cynical betrayal of the Catholic faith.

“I hate abortion,” he has said lately; and everyone knows this is a naked lie. For nearly two decades his words and deeds have been emphatically proclaiming the precise opposite. No observer in his right mind would even suggest that Rudy Giuliani had the faintest moral qualms about feticide.

He has eagerly courted pro-abortion groups, called abortion “a constitutional right,” opposed restrictions on gruesome late-term killings of unborn children, applauded President Clinton’s veto of such restrictions, advocated forcing taxpayers to subsidize abortion, and more. His record couldn’t be more unequivocal.

Needless to say, he adds to all this the standard hypocrisy of modern abortion advocates: he has studiously avoided describing abortion with such plain Anglo-Saxon words as kill, death, and blood.

Here it’s instructive to read Book VII of the Politics of the great pagan philosopher Aristotle, who frankly recommends both abortion and infanticide in certain situations; refreshingly free of modern cant, he says simply that as a matter of good government, crippled infants should not be raised. Don’t expect such candor from a Giuliani.

Enter the Pope. Speaking in Brazil, without mentioning Giuliani by name, he made it clear that “the killing of an innocent child is incompatible with being in communion with the body of Christ” — a pointed reminder that a politician who promotes abortion has excommunicated himself.

This won’t stop the much-married Giuliani from continuing to gobble the sacraments of the Church — he evidently cares more about staying in favor with the New York Yankees than about fidelity to his professed religion — but it will certainly stop many Republicans, especially the Catholics he has lately been trying to woo, from voting for him in the party primaries.

In fact, Giuliani attacked Pope John Paul II in 1996 for condemning Clinton’s veto of the late-term abortion ban. Now he says his own positions on abortion — public positions, mind you — “are between me and my confessor.” So why make them public at all? Why not keep them private, in the intimacy of the confessional?

You have to wonder how often Giuliani visits that confessional, anyway. What does he think he needs to confess? Lukewarm support of Bush? He doesn’t appear to be a man who lets his religion cause him much inconvenience. His idea of charity is “public funding for abortions for poor women.”

Well, each of us has to apply the Sermon on the Mount in his own way. And nobody can say the abortion-hating Giuliani hasn’t found a way that is both original and unique.

Liberals accuse the Catholic Church and the popes of failing to speak out against evil, especially Nazism. Their favorite target is Pope Pius XII, whom the Nazi press in fact called “a mouthpiece for the Jews.” But of course they are not always delighted when the Church does speak out; then they accuse it of butting into politics and violating the separation of church and state.

Giuliani, a liberal who wants to be taken for a conservative, assures us that he won’t be taking orders from the Pope (just in case you were worried). Here’s hoping he won’t let that confessor push him around, either. We can only hope — and of course pray — that it’s not the same confessor who gives Nancy Pelosi her marching orders.

I wonder how Aristotle would define a Catholic these days. We can only guess, but I think he’d agree that papist is usually a misnomer.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Catholic Church 
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The most beautiful religious movie I’ve ever seen is the 1947 French film Monsieur Vincent, which dramatizes the later life of St. Vincent de Paul, best known for his organizational genius in ministering to the poor.

It ends with a wise insight. The dying priest, played by the great Pierre Fresnay, tells a young nun always to keep her lovely smile: “Unless the poor know we love them, they will never forgive us for helping them.”

Excellent advice. I’ve known devout but obtuse Christians who have soured their own works of charity by unconsciously humiliating the people they meant to help — with scolding or moralism, or by wounding their fragile self-respect. No need to act morally superior to a starving beggar.

Sometimes I think the other side could use a bit of the same counsel. Too often today, the high and holy cause of unbelief is threatened by the smug sanctimony of the atheists.

Consider Christopher Hitchens, author of the new book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, whose title is perhaps self-explanatory. Religion poisons everything? Everything? Bach and Mozart? Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman?

And what about atheists like Stalin? Hitchens is ready for that one, citing Orwell: “A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy.” Besides, we may note, Stalin went to a seminary, where maybe he picked some bad thinking habits, which he couldn’t shake off when he stopped believing in God. Even bad atheists, it seems, can be chalked up to religion.

Now Hitchens himself, born English and naturalized American, is a learned and eloquent man. (I’ve debated him on politics, and I have the scars to prove it.) But when he gets on the subject of religion — any and all religion, mind you — he turns plain silly. Like so many of his breed, he seems to think he can settle an argument with a combination of British suavity and British snot. After reading him, I’m always surer I know whom he hates (or, less often, loves) than what he thinks.

And being erudite, he argues with impressive inductiveness, citing the usual horrors and then some — crusades, inquisitions, wars, jihads, Jim Jones, Jimmy Swaggart, 9/11, et cetera, filing them all under the same heading, Religion, as if they were all instigated by the same agency. (And let’s not forget the Scopes trial.)

It may seem ironic that Hitchens, a fierce defender of the Iraq war, blames religion for war, when the last two popes have opposed both Iraq wars; but then, he also seems to blame the popes for opposing them. As Huck Finn might put it, and as Hitchens would surely agree, popes is mostly a bad lot.

When you come right down to it, Hitchens’s case against religion is a more impersonal form of the old Phil Donahue argument, which may be summarized thus: Mean old nuns whacked my knuckles with a ruler, ergo God does not exist. This is less inductive reasoning than simple free association with a grudge. Religion reminds Christopher Hitchens of a lot of bad memories, even if they are historical rather than autobiographical. That is, they are bad things he’s read about, not necessarily experienced himself. Somehow I’d expected a more rigorous argument.

Now taking the broad view, I agree that, as a historical matter, a lot of boys, over the centuries, have had their knuckles whacked by a lot of nuns. But, waiving the question whether some of those boys brought it on themselves (especially if religion has an inherent tendency to produce bad boys like Donahue), we still await a demonstration that mean nuns can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount. And here, unless I am mistaken, lies the fatal lacuna in Hitchens’s thesis.

And here I return to the practical problem. If you really think belief in God or gods has always caused so much suffering (such as the Trojan War, a quagmire which I, as a Catholic, would have opposed from the start), then it seems to me that you ought to propagate atheism seriously — not just out of vanity to show how clever you are, but out of those same humanitarian motives to which you say religion is repugnant, and by which you claim to be driven. No need to humiliate the poor believers, is there?

But Hitchens still believes in Darwin and the Iraq war. Me, I still run with the popes, but I must say I admire his faith.

 
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Thirty years ago, Laurence Olivier said a startling thing. He’d just seen the musical Sugar Babies, starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, and he pronounced Rooney “my favorite actor.”

I thought Olivier was joking, or maybe sarcastically putting down his rivals in the classical theater. I took Rooney for a minor Hollywood has-been, more notable for his eight marriages than for any achievement. (N.B.: Rooney is now late in his ninth decade, and as far as I know his eighth marriage is still going strong.)

But Lord Larry was serious, and he was right. He knew what it takes to go out on a stage and lift an audience’s hearts. When he saw Rooney, he recognized a greatness that deserved honor.

Mickey Rooney, born in 1920, was a child prodigy of entertainment — singing, dancing, acting. By 1934 he was a movie veteran who had done Shakespeare — starring as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s excellent film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A couple of years later, still in his mid teens, he was featured in what became the immensely popular Andy Hardy series, often co-starring with another amazingly versatile young talent: Judy Garland.

Rooney and Garland were synonyms, and close pals. Today she is the legend; he is all but forgotten. He was Hollywood’s top box-office draw for five straight years, against competitors like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. He was world-famous and an Academy Award winner by age 20, long before Olivier, 13 years his senior. He could hold his own in straight drama with Spencer Tracy, his Oscar-winning co-star (as Father Flanagan) in Boys Town; the five-foot-three Rooney played the defiant juvenile delinquent.

Right after adolescence he commenced his eventful connubial life. His second wife was the big, voluptuous Ava Gardner. Many years and several wives later, he remembered her fondly. He showed up drunk on the old Tonight Show. It was broadcast live in those days, and any host but the flamboyant Jack Paar would have had the tact to whisk him off during a commercial break. Remember, this was the dull, repressed 1950s.

Instead, Paar took advantage of the moment to ask the question on everyone’s mind: “Tell us, Mickey, what is Ava Gardner really like?” Rooney did not disappoint. “Jack,” he slurred, “Ava Gardner is more woman than you will ever know.” The audience went berserk.

Rooney was no longer a superstar by then, but people still remembered when he had been. Now he was taking any role he could get. He was too old to play Huck Finn, too small for Coriolanus. But he could play Baby Face Nelson. Or whatever. And whatever he did, he did it well — drama, comedy, musical, dancing. Audiences remembered him and were glad to see him. He’d never stopped being a lovable, gutsy performer. Give him an audience and he was magic.

Critics didn’t adore him the way they adored Chaplin or, in France, Jerry Lewis. It might have jump-started his fading career if he’d become at least a victim of McCarthyism. No such luck. He just seemed to fade away in plain sight, for no better reason than that a whole style of cheerful entertainment had gone out of fashion. It was the era of Brando, except that Brando could make a comeback after a long slump and he’d still be hailed as a genius.

Not Rooney. He’d still show up for the Academy Awards ceremony every year, like an inexplicably jolly ghost from another epoch, bald and chubby. Now and then he even got a break, as in The Black Stallion in 1979, where he was still brilliant and moving; and in Sugar Babies he showed on the stage that he was also still much more than a fine character actor on film. If the greatest actor in the world was in the audience, after all those years Mickey Rooney could put a lump in his throat and make him grateful to be there.

Olivier said he never really learned to act until he realized he had to love both his character and his audience. Is there any really great performer of whom that isn’t true? You can see it even in brief film clips of little Mickey Rooney tap-dancing. That tiny boy had already learned the secret so many never learn. Love is the secret it does no good to keep.

 
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Guess what this is about: Ruth Marcus, a pundit for the Washington Post, uses the abstract word procedure eleven times in a single column. She doesn’t use the word kill even once!

If you guessed that she is writing about abortion, you are correct. More specifically, she’s defending gruesome late-term abortions against a recent ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court.

No good progressive-minded liberal feminist would refer to a “procedure” in which the child’s skull is crushed and its brains sucked out as “killing.” It’s not as if someone winds up dead, is it?

The liberal conscience must rank among the wonders of the modern world. How do you defend a “procedure” so hideous that even most abortionists refuse to perform it? Ms. Marcus doesn’t defend it directly. Instead, she heaps angry sarcasm on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s recent majority opinion in Gonzales v. Carhart upholding state laws that outlaw this grim “procedure.”

With cutting wit, she refers to Kennedy as a “poor dear,” adding, “And I thought women were the ones who were supposed to be bad at science…. Indeed, Kennedy seems to be as weak at math as he is at science.” Oof! Take that, Kennedy!

Actually, Ms. Marcus doesn’t show that Kennedy is weak at either math or science, nor does she explain how she would know (or why it would be relevant) if he were; she just keeps piling on the catty wisecracks, proving only that she is irritable and, more important, morally callous. As for qualms about the deadly practice in question, Ms. Marcus dismisses these as “the moral whims of the majority.”

“Moral whims”? Most people would be sickened if they witnessed what Ms. Marcus is pleased to call this “procedure.” Killing, with its suggestion of blood and pain, sounds so abrupt. That’s why abortion advocates always try to muffle the plain facts in Orwellian euphemisms about “terminating pregnancies.” You don’t want to watch. And they don’t want you to see, even in your mind’s eye.

When you listen to liberals discussing abortion, you wonder how on earth they ever managed to get the public to confuse liberalism with compassion. I suppose it’s a sort of trick, like the stage magician’s misdirection. They keep you watching one thing so you don’t notice the other.

Stereotypes help, of course. In the case of abortion, the trick is to keep our minds on poor black inner-city girls, unmarried and pregnant, while diverting our attention from the real subject: the poor little shavers who, ineligible for liberal pity, are to be destroyed by the, er, procedure.

This has the added advantage of appealing, ever so subtly, to the sort of race and class prejudices liberals profess to deplore. Do we really want to encourage “those people” to breed? This angle emerges when we hear the cost/benefit argument for state-subsidized abortion: It’s cheaper than welfare!

From this point of view, a quick, timely, low-cost abortion today saves the taxpayer thousands of welfare dollars over the next two decades. Calculation, as well as “compassion,” argues for encouraging the poor to abort their children — and for having the state pick up the tab for the, er, procedure.

I have never, ever heard of poor inner-city blacks demanding subsidized abortions for themselves. So I can only wonder why so many affluent suburban whites, including liberals, are so eager to provide them. I suppose humanitarianism may explain it. In the case of Ms. Marcus, compassion seems to have run amok.

According to Jean-Paul Sartre, hell is other people; and I suspect that many of us secretly agree with this candidly misanthropic credo. (That’s what I like about the French: they don’t bother to hide their feelings, not even their nasty ones.)

Abortion is one way of controlling all those “other people,” who tend to reproduce with such annoying fertility; and I guess it takes a compassionate American like Ms. Marcus to say she favors aborting children for their own good.

We speak freely of “killing” some things, such as crabgrass, cancerous cells, and the germs that cause bad breath; but when we do away with kids in their mothers’ wombs, it’s just a “procedure.”

In this age of candor and explicitness, why such anomalous delicacy? Maybe it deserves a special name. I wonder what Adolf Hitler would call it. “Abortion denial”?

 
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Even before they’d finished mopping up the blood at Virginia Tech, the Washington Post had some editorial counsel for Virginia: Adopt tougher gun control laws.

Thanks for the free advice, guys! If we citizens of Jefferson’s state adopt laws as strict as Washington’s, maybe we can get our murder rate down — possibly as low as Washington’s!

There is a danger that such editorials could feed an unfortunate stereotype: that liberals never learn, never take responsibility for the wreckage their policies produce.

Liberals and their “progressive” cousins, socialists and the unlamented Marxists, have always had one great gift: the ability to start stampedes. A murder spree always sets them off on gun control. In between atrocities, they revert to their normal default panics about global warming or nuclear winter. Whatever.

And let’s not forget their furor over Don Imus’s three-word atrocity. Leave it to Barack Obama, who has enjoyed his own liberal stampede, to liken Imus’s “verbal violence” to a madman’s murder spree. Obama is often described as “young,” though he is a middle-aged man, 45 years old; and I think I know why. He reminds you of the champion high-school orator, the bright, well-behaved boy who knows how to intone the platitudes the grownups love. He can see metaphorical violence everywhere except in skull-crushing late-term abortions.

Every alleged crisis provokes the progressive-minded fadsters to call for a massive increase in state power: economic depression, poverty, racism, gun violence, you name it — such evils must be not merely contained, but “eliminated,” posthaste, along with their “root causes.” (As far as I know, there is no such thing as a crisis that warrants hasty, or even eventual, government reduction.)

And behold the results! Our inner cities look like war zones — of the endless War on Poverty. This is only one of the myriad consequences of going progressive. The Great Society! And old folks may recall that striking down laws against abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy was going to make the horrid practice “safe, legal — and rare.” Today we have a million abortions a year, and the progressives who used to deplore it now insist that it’s a “fundamental human and constitutional right” — through all nine months.

A century ago, the Catholic poet Charles Peguy made a profound and prescient observation: “We will never know how many acts of cowardice have been motivated by the fear of seeming not sufficiently progressive.”

Even supposed conservatives now adopt the progressive style: the first President Bush with his New World Order and War on Drugs, his son with his War on Terror and enormous expansion of the colossal centralized state. The latter speaks of “eliminating tyranny from the earth”; implanting democracy in the Middle East would be only the beginning, spreading “freedom” (undefined) contagiously.

Both Bushes have left Americans themselves less free than before. And no wonder. Both look back with nostalgia to the worst war of all time, World War II, during which the United States fought side by side with Stalin and created the world’s most terrible weapons of mass murder.

Abortion and nuclear weapons have lost much of their power to horrify. Like Macbeth, we “have supped full with horrors,” except that Macbeth still realizes what he has done and knows what should horrify him.

The modern world’s case is worse. When you habitually violate your principles, you don’t just harden your conscience; you risk losing it altogether. You even wind up forgetting what your principles used to be.

Within living memory (though just barely), nearly all Christians agreed that contraception was immoral. Then, in 1931, the conservative Church of England decided that, though it was wrong in principle, exceptions could be made, but only for (say) married couples who couldn’t afford more children than they already had.

The Anglicans tried to uphold the principle of chastity — but with a few exceptions. But today, few Christians reject contraception. Only the Catholic Church, basically, still condemns it, but few Catholic priests dare to preach against it. That would seem “not sufficiently progressive.” Few even remember why chastity was ever considered a virtue.

It’s not that most people have changed their minds. Most people seldom use their minds; they merely follow fashion. We are now seeing what happens a generation or two after a fad catches on and goes unopposed.

You can call it progress. I prefer to call it amnesia. No wonder G.K. Chesterton said that “only the Catholic Church can save a man from the degraded slavery of being a child of his time.”

 
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