Rectifying Names

a blog on publishing by Bruce Fingerhut

     1. Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
     2. The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”
     3. “So, indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”
     4. The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
     5. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
     6. “When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
     7. “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

Analects of Confucius, XIII Tsze-lu, Chapter 3, James Legge, translator

“All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” - January 14, 2013

This famous line from Benito Mussolini was his simplified understanding of fascism.

People confuse the economic programs of fascism v. socialism. In the simplest definition I know, fascism exists when the means of production, to use Marx’s term, are in private corporate hands, but controlled by the state, for the benefit of the state. Socialism, on the other hand, exists when the state owns the means of production directly. The best way for me to give you a way of remembering this difference is to tell you of the way my high-school physics teacher differentiated chemistry from physics. He said, “If is smells, it’s chemistry. If it doesn’t work, if’s physics.” Change “chemistry” to “fascism” and “physics” with “socialism,” and you have a working definition for both of these economic disasters.

These two theories, born in economics, whether they evolve or our understanding of them evolves, eventually are understood as political theories. Neither has worked for long as an economic success, though fascism can last a long time before society collapses. In my understanding, the political changes we are witnessing in our country is not socialist but rather a (so far rather tame) form of fascism.

Like those from many other ages who think that the world was made new with their appearance, we may be under the false idea that socialism and fascism are wholly new. They are not, though the names are fairly new.

Socialism, I think, is the proof in political terms of original sin. How else to take Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results? Socialism has been tried for thousands of years, including most definitely the founders of Christianity and the experiment that became the United States. It pops up in rich societies and poor, promoted by educated people and illiterates. It attracts people whose motivation is love of neighbor and those who distrust everyone, for reasons of altruism (please note, I’m not saying “charity”) and for reasons of punishment. The New Testament contains passages that are pro-socialist (“they had everything in common.”  Acts 4:32; cf. Acts 2:44) and those that are anti-socialist (“If any one will not work, let him not eat.” 2 Thessalonians 2:10).

Many may find that holding everything in common an inducement to happiness, but the experiment is usually abandoned over time. This is an important factor, because the one recurring aspect of socialism is that it does not work. Over time, free people almost always notice this, as they grow poorer in spirit and in abundance, and they often very peacefully change their minds. Indeed, what seems inextricably the case with human beings and socialism is that eventually they either abandon it or amend it to account for human nature, which (1) ties people together in tight bonds more likely as families rather than as societies and (2) takes into consideration that individuals have varying levels of talents, ambitions, energy, and responsibility. In short, though the worth of each may be acknowledged by God, humans tend to judge one another by characteristics, some inborn and some developed, that set one person apart from another. The answer given by the Dodo bird in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland about who won a competition that no one kept track of was, “Everyone has won, and all must have prizes.” This works especially well with small children and those who listen to Dodo birds . . . but to none other. Most adults abide more closely to St. Paul: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

Fascism, though, is another case entirely. Because it intertwines the rules of the state and the private economic entity (in modern times, we call it the corporation, though we can see this way of governing thousands of years ago, before the age of corporations), because, we might say, it creates accomplices from private people for the benefit of the state (and, of course, themselves), it creates a living and growing cadre of the powerful to dominate society. These people offer what could be called secondary benefits to a vast and perhaps unwashed populace, who together manage a force of numbers to enlarge and direct a center, a state, in which Mussolini’s dictum is enshrine.

Soon bread and circuses will suffice to keep the secondary beneficiaries loyal. Extricating one's way out of fascism must be much more difficult than doing so from socialism, if the record of man’s history is any proof. Socialisms come and socialisms go, like the women in the room talking of Michelangelo. Fascist societies, on the other hand, fall by their own internal greed and corruption or  change through violence.

So what does all this gloomy talk have to do with publishing? Plenty, I fear, but that’s a topic for another time (soon).

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Principles and Interests - January 7, 2013

I’ve long said, in a form that purposely calls to mind the greatest punster I’ve ever known, Ralph McInerny, that if you have no principles, you’re stuck with interests. That saying becomes more prescient every day as we witness the hardening of interests in our politics and the diminishment of principles. But just as is the case with our way of handling money, whether as expenditure or investment (please note, I am not using “investment” in the way that has become the norm for some politicians, as a synonym for spending, but in its original meaning, as a way of husbanding ones savings), principal is needed before interest can be realized.

That was then; this is now. In politics today, principle is an impediment to interest. It is through and for interest that decisions are made. Principle, as a prerequisite, much less motivator, for one’s action, is for suckers. The entire operation has the distasteful aura of Lenin’s definition of politics: kto kvo (“who whom”) . . . who is the subject and who the object of action?

With the loss of principle, programs and policies take a backseat to expediency. What matters is not what was decided but only who decided it. The results are frightening. “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.” Orwell made it clear in 1984 that rewriting the past means that there will be no future. “Who controls the present controls the past; who controls the past controls the future.”

Americans have long been celebrity-conscious. I won’t say “too celebrity-conscious” simply because, from my point of view, that would be a redundancy. Occasionally we apply celebrity to politicians, but almost always after the deaths of those politicians, which is far less dangerous to the Republic than applying it to a living human being. In an age when principle has been dissolved into interest, when the what has been subsumed into the who, when the past is reworked into a lie strong enough to control the future, what is being created is a product that seemingly has no process.

I know that I’ve spoken before on these pages of product as superior to process. That is true when we deal with “things,” and I include books in that category. But when it comes to actions of people, process is paramount, since people were meant for action, not merely existence. We’ve been taught this over and over in life and in the words of sages. Who is my brother? If the answer lies in being over doing, then the Good Samaritan has nothing to teach us. But the answer in the country recently has become more and more that offered Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “I give you a new commandment: Love the farthest.”

“Love the farthest” is about as far from the Good Samaritan as one can imagine. It celebrates the group over the person, categorizing the person by race, color, and income instead of by actions. But none of us will be judged in the end by these categories; we will be judged by what we did.

If our politicians spread division, envy, and even hatred, in the end we, who voted them in, are at fault, a fault that our Republic offers possible remedies in elections.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that being a Christian is like being lost in a deep and dark forest, a fearful condition. Every 100 yards or so the trail splits; one way leads out while the other leads further into the forest. For some the trial lasts a lifetime, for others, freedom themselves much earlier, but for each, the opportunity to change our ways and straighten out our prospects is only a few steps away.

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Happy New Year - December 31, 2012

The smartest man who ever lived wrote[1] that while there are actions and purposes (e.g., honor, pleasure, reason) that we choose to do for themselves, we also choose them for the sake of happiness, but it is only happiness among all the choices in our lives that we choose solely for itself and never for the sake of any other purpose.  

So perhaps I need not dwell on convincing you to seek happiness, since everyone seeks happiness, even those rare humans who are unhappy and damned happy to be unhappy. In short, no sane person acts to make himself unhappy. We may well argue that people do odd and even awful things to make themselves happy and, in our understanding, may be doing actions that are bound to make them unhappy, but we should not argue that they are doing so because they are searching for unhappiness.

People disagree, of course, on what makes them happy, but I think most of the difficulties we have with others is that we do not understand their motivation in pursuing happiness. Without this understanding how can we make sense of politicians, for example? Is it merely the nature of politicians to be irrational so that they don’t understand that no one has ever spent himself into prosperity, or is it that I am being irrational to think that they care about that at all? The federal government spends $113,000 per second (that is not a typo . . . it takes more time than a second to say “$113,000 per second”). Meanwhile, the federal government takes in income of less than $57,900 per second. (To put this in a personal perspective, let us reduce that $113,000 expenses to 1 cent. If the income per second were the same percentage as it is above, that would mean that you’d lose only $161,587 per year.) Einstein’s famous definition of insanity, to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results, seems to be apropos here.

So, assuming no politicians are reading this blog, I think I’m safe in saying that there is no real need for me to urge you to seek happiness. But perhaps there is need for us to concern ourselves with what is it that makes us happy. Aristotle spent the rest of the Nicomachean Ethics on this. I’d like to compress that wonderful work into one sentence: we should seek to do what we are supposed to do. (I know, I know, this doesn’t obviate our need to read Aristotle, since he’ll give us a pathway to what it means to do what we’re supposed to do.) It may well take us a lifetime to learn what “supposed to do” means in the context of our talents and, let me add, our conscience. I have great sympathy for the vast array of answers that can be given. It took me the equivalent of two generations to find out what I wanted to do when I grew up. Now, I find myself hoping, even planning, not to grow up.

Let me give but one small answer among many, which may be helpful for some, though not all. When Laila and I were engaged to be married, she asked but one favor from me: to bring up our children as Christians. Though I was born and raised in a Jewish family, by that time I called myself an agnostic . . . not the kind of searching agnostic that one admires but an indifferent agnostic who, frankly, used that term because I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist. I took the equivalent of a nanosecond to agree to her request, and the reason was simple: she has something and I had nothing, and something is better than nothing.

That something is better than nothing may be a great discovery for some people. For me, just thinking about it helps me conflate doing what I’m supposed to do with such matters as realizing where my strengths and weaknesses are, doing the right thing by my family and friends, and, in the words of Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” remembering “The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.”

Happy New Year!

[1] I say “wrote” though the common understanding is that Aristotle’s works are the notes his students took while they walked and talked (they were known as the Peripatetic School because of these actions). Now think of a teacher you know who would like to base his reputation on the notes from his grad students.


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O Bethlehem - December 24, 2012

I visited Israel for a summer when I was in high school . . . in other words, a long time ago. We were not allowed to visit much of the historic areas because in those days Jordan would not allow anyone from Israel to enter their land; this included most of the Old City of Jerusalem and a little village that we could see only through binoculars once we traveled a small amount south of Jerusalem Bethlehem.

Bethlehem was a small place in the Bible, from the time of King David through the birth of Jesus, and it remains a small place, seemingly nondescript, to this day. Yet its fame came from major events that occurred there.

[1] The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, seeing I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”

                                                                                    1 Samuel 16:1

The one God chose was David, the youngest of Jesse’s many sons and so inconsequential that when Samuel came to anoint the chosen one of God, Jesse did not bother to bring David back from shepherding his flocks. Samuel had to ask after David, since God did not signal to him that any of the other sons had been chosen. David became the greatest of the kings of Israel, a renowned warrior and leader, and perhaps the most outstanding poet who ever lived.

The New Testament begins (in the Gospel of Matthew) with a genealogy chart, tracing the origins of St. Joseph, the human father of Jesus (the Old Testament begins with a type of genealogy chart too, the chart of the world’s beginning). In Matthew, we find that Joseph (and therefore Jesus) was of the House of David.

[4] And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David,

                                                                                    Luke 2:4

Joseph, of course, was forced to travel to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus had decreed that all the world was to be taxed, and the way taxes were collected then was for the head of family to travel to area of his family’s origin. In Joseph’s case, being of the line of David, they traveled to Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Early in Matthew we find out that sinister forces were monitoring the entire situation.

[1] Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying,
[2] “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.”
[3] When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;
[4] and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.
[5] They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:

[6] ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”

                                                                                                Matthew 2:1–6

The promise of David, a man of great talents and celebrated failures, would finally be fulfilled by a child born in a manger.

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A First Gauntlet and A Final Gladness - December 10, 2012

Each December since 2001, my wife Laila and I put together a celebration on the anniversary month of St. Augustine’s Press’s founding in 1996; we call it the St. Augustine’s Symposium. In July of 2001, after having raised four children in a tiny house, we followed our counterintuition and bought a house three times the size of the first one, the idea being that our children would get married, have children, and come and visit. It has worked out splendidly, so much so that we regret not doing it a decade earlier. Without the large house, we couldn’t have the Symposium, since it is a dinner party (and for many a Christmas party) for perhaps fifty people.

As for creating Symposium, I say “we” advisedly. I pick the topic and the book and author we wish to honor, invite many friends and colleagues, both local and from far away, and Laila does everything else. She even came up with the idea for the Symposium in the first place. It is, I fear, in keeping with our early departmentalization of duties, in which she is in charge of all the secondary decisions, such as where we would live and how many children we would have, and I handle the primary decisions, such as what our relations with Red China would be.

Anyway, this year’s Symposium, held this past Saturday, featured the upcoming title For Notre Dame: Battling for the Heart and Soul of a Catholic University by Fr. Wilson (“Bill”) Miscamble, a brave and outstanding priest, scholar, and friend, who is certainly the most popular (and possibly the most unpopular) person on campus. You can get a sense of the flavor of his book in the first few paragraphs of his introduction:

          This is a book for all those who love Notre Dame and are interested in its past, present, and future. It is a book that asks its readers to reflect deeply about the ongoing struggle to determine the university’s present mission and future course. This struggle is not readily apparent to those who visit the campus briefly and experience its picture-postcard beauty and then participate in a wonderful liturgy or a well-staged academic conference. It is also well disguised by the university’s relentless institutional self-promotion. It is not even always obvious to many of the undergraduates who blithely enjoy their four years under the dome. Nonetheless, the struggle is very real, and its outcome will shape whether or not Notre Dame will be a Catholic university in a meaningful sense in future decades.

            Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university has been the subject of significant debate and dispute for at least the past four decades. This book raises serious questions about the path that Notre Dame has pursued and presently follows. It holds that the Catholic mission and identity of Notre Dame have suffered and, indeed, are at risk. This view will not receive the approbation of the Notre Dame public relations machine and those it serves. No doubt the book will attract some censure from those who resent any criticism of the university, however well grounded. But I do not aim to placate those who bear responsibility for Notre Dame’s current situation. Instead, I seek to deepen understanding of the university so that its fundamental challenges can be faced honestly and a better course charted for it. The debate also relates to and is in some ways a microcosm of larger conflicts in the culture, the church, and Catholic higher education. Tracking the debate at Notre Dame casts some light on elements of those broader areas.

            I have been a participant, to some extent, in what I call the battle for the heart and soul of Notre Dame for well over two decades, and this collection brings together some of my written and spoken contributions to this debate. Read together, I trust these essays and talks will provide insight not only for those—both friend and (metaphorical) foe alike—who have contributed in various ways to the debate, but also to those who come to it afresh with true concern for Notre Dame.

Reading For Notre Dame requires us to come to grips with the idea that we may love institutions, ideas, gestures, even intentions, if only we are able to personify them, to make them a part of our life with others, with friends and family and dogs and, especially, God. And we find that anything loved must be loved for a reason . . . good or bad, high or low, God-like or dog-like, but a reason nonetheless. What we love becomes part of us, and we are here to do our best, to be our best, to demand our best, though we fall daily.

If For Notre Dame is a beginning, how beautiful and fulfilling is the end we find in the Final Lecture of the inimitable Fr. James V. Schall, who gave his farewell lecture at Georgetown the evening before the Symposium, a lecture that requires wide circulation. He called it “A Final Gladness,” and it caps a career of this greatest living essayist in our language with his own exemplary love of learning and ideas and institutions that gladden the heart just to know that such a man exists. To know him is to know what great privilege is, to know the mercy of God, and to read him is to know him. Read A Final Gladness.

This blog is late this week because of the Symposium, so I beg your pardon and say that the blog will return on Monday, Christmas Eve.

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Falling Expectations - December 3, 2012

In graduate school, I first heard about the theory of rising expectations, which, in its political-theory iteration (there is a similar theory in economics) says that revolutions and political disruptions occur when times are improving, not when they are at their worst. Good examples could be made for the two central violent revolutions in modern Western history, the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Both occurred after a relatively moderate changeover in rulers, and improvements in living conditions were in the works and definite improvement in freedom of action were already advanced.

The theory posits that it is not when people are beaten down by strong dictatorial powers that engender the most dissatisfaction and impatience for improvement, but when the improvement had already begun, and peoples’ impatience for faster improvement brought about demands and, in these cases, violence.

If rising expectations can bring about a revolution, what about those times that can best be understood as periods of falling expectations, which I take to be our own time? If rising expectations bring about the highs of our bipolar politics, does falling expectations bring about the lows? Rising expectations occur when there has been an upswing in fortune; falling expectations occur when the bottom has been reached and no rise is foreseen. Rising expectations lead to political action; falling expectation leads to quietism

I contend that this “theory” may help explain the predicament that the country finds itself in lately, when majorities say that the economy is their principal concern, that they have little confidence in the current political “leadership,” and then vote to reelect that leadership. There have been many hypotheses for this: the strength of the Democrats’ ability to get out their base, the low turnout, the inability of Republicans to connect with voters, the rise of minorities who typically vote for Democrats, etc. But none of these clear up the conundrum we find ourselves in, since a majority of those who voted for President Obama don’t seem to have confidence in his leadership or the future.

I see this in the book business: huge numbers of books printed (2 million new titles in 2011) at a time of insecurity and retrenchment.

Falling expectations may be our near-term future as well as an answer to the present. After all, in the recent election, there was no “I have a plan,” à la Nixon, going on. In a very real way, the present administration is an outstanding example of the unique combination of deceitfulness in tactics and openness in strategy. There is no plan in the normal meaning of plan, because the end result of the tactics, which is the all-important part of the plan, seems to have nothing to do with the economy or jobs or deficits or anything connected thereto. It seems to be wholly a plan for the future of party power over the government.

So if hope and change are not the guidelines to voters’ actions in reelecting a president that the majority agrees is a failing president, what is it that drives people to vote this way? I see two possibilities (or a combination of both): the Empathy Factor (“he cares about me and will help me”) and class warfare (“he will punish those whom I envy”).

Class warfare is the bread and butter of European politics, but it has never worked consistently for very long in America (the longest example by far was the New Deal, which presided over the Great Depression . . . please note that the 1930s depression took place throughout the “first world,” but only in one country was it called the “Great Depression”). It can last for an election or two, but in the end, Americans have, in the past, proven to be more interested in advancement than in punishment.

What about the Empathy Factor? I think this may be tied to what I see as a unique form of charity, the one that occurs from the left. It was beautifully put by Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, a rewriting of the New Testament with a new Jesus. There, Zarathustra says, “I give you a new commandment: Love the Farthest.”

The Empathy Factor works consistently only when charity (another word for “love”) involves loving the farthest. And what is loving the farthest? Let me give you a recent example: When the memorial service took place for fallen Benghazi hero, Tyrone Woods, the president shook hands with Charles Woods, Tyrone’s father. The father later said it was “like shaking hands with a dead fish.” It would be hard to deny that Tyrone Woods was among the farthest.

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Winners and Losers - November 26, 2012

Many years ago, I came to South Bend to go to grad school at Notre Dame (you thought maybe it was for the weather?). I already had my Masters, but the real awakening took place at the first class of the first day at Notre Dame, when I came in late and quietly slid my way into Gerhart Niemeyer’s class on the Concept of Nature and Political Order. The students were discussing Aristotle’s Physics, and it might just as well have been in Greek for all I understood of it that day. I sat there, an A student, completely baffled, and I realized that all my “academic” education heretofore had served but one purpose . . . to get me into that classroom. From then on, I had to start anew. It was revelatory and invigorating at the same time, sort of like what Descartes must have felt (or, at least, gave us to believe he must have felt) when he said he was starting all over with methodical doubt and owed nothing to all the work that had been done before. (That, of course, was bullshit, but I have to admit it was heady and exciting bullshit.)

I owe a lot to Notre Dame, to the people I met there and the work that was done there and to the very aura of the place. I was an agnostic of the worst sort when I came there . . . not someone who is searching but someone so indifferent and secure in his insecurity that I knew I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist. Much has changed in my life since then, and all that is good in my growth has come from my wife and the people and ideas and authors I “met” at Notre Dame. It’s true that some of the worst people I ever knew were at Notre Dame, but it’s also true that almost all of the best people I ever knew were there too. And Gresham is quite wrong when his theory is applied to more than money: the good will drive out the bad if you have but a little hope or faith or love.

You may not believe it after reading what I’m about to write, but I am not a big football fan, probably the least in my family, save for a completely indifferent daughter-in-law. But I have to admit that I like the way Notre Dame is playing this year. Perhaps it comes from my coaching soccer for so long. I was picked by the league president because my eight-year-old son’s team lacked a coach and my name, beginning with an F, came early on the list he was calling to find someone who would take over. I had played one hour (yes, one hour) in organized soccer in my entire life. All I remembered was that, since I was slow, they placed me as a fullback. When years later, I was faced with coaching a team and did the usual thing of reading up on the game that, in this country, fathers learn from their sons and daughters, I realized that soccer was a defensive game, and you shouldn’t put your slowest and worst players in defense bur rather your most talented.

Notre Dame is playing football like a soccer team this year, with the greatest hero, among many, being their center linebacker, Manti Te’o, a Hawaiian Mormon leading the Fighting Irish. He is backed up by wonderful defensive players, and the spirit of the defense, where players must expend  much more energy and thinking to succeed than those on offense, is manifest.

Notre Dame has allowed a touchdown on 24.1 percent of their opponents’ red zone drives this season, the lowest percentage of any FBS team in the last eight seasons. Notre Dame's opponents have but seven touchdowns and yielded five turnovers in 29 red-zone possessions this year. The fact that they have given up but seven touchdowns but 13 field goals in the red zone indicates that they have learned the lesson of manhood, to bend but not to break.

It is a lesson that I am used to championing in publishing, a business that is difficult in good times and can be devastating in bad (the same, it should be noted, exists for the author of the next Discourse on the Method). Bend, don’t break. In football and publishing and in most of life, the winning or losing team is easy to spot after the event takes place, but the winners and losers among the players themselves are not always so easy to spot, since that comes from something within, and the greatest winner may be on a team with an 0-12 record.

One last point: Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz all won the National Championship on their third year of coaching at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly is now in his third year.

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The Remnant - November 19, 2012

“Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.”                                                                                                                              Jeremiah 23:3

Being part of a remnant means being among those who have outlasted adversity and survived. Of course, being part of a remnant may well be arduous, almost always a little (or more than a little) dangerous, and without solice.

For myself, I am part of the world of the book, and yet I cannot help but think that I am among the remnant. Books have never been so popular and ubiquitous, but there is a gnawing in the gut that somehow books have become, like Hamlet’s read, mere “words, words, words.”

In 2005, in America alone, over 172,000 individual titles were produced. To put that in perspective, that means that a new title was published every three minutes 24/7 for the entire year. Amazing . . . until you learn that in 2011, that number rose to 2 million! That upped the production to one new title every 16 seconds, day and night, all year long. It also means that a new title was produced for every 155 people in the country, including children.

Please tell me who reads these books? Who writes these books? And if we’re so learned, why ain’t we smart?

Two of the greatest dystopias of the 20th century wove amazing plots around the very nature of words and books. In George Orwell’s 1984, the party’s program was to control thought by controlling words, shortening the number of words and the meanings of words with each new edition of “Newspeak.” It ends without any real hope for the future.

In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (named for the amount of heat needed to burn paper), the powers sought to control thought by destroying the books themselves. Yet it ended with hope, when people would memorize the contents of a book so that they could recite it to others. The ideas lived on, while the book itself went up in smoke.

So while we are swimming in books, like Scrooge McDuck playing with all his coins, we have a majority of voters thinking that raising taxes in the slowest recovery in modern history, with real unemployment and underemployment at rates rivaling the Carter years and a first-time credit downgrade – that doing all this would help fix the economy and create more jobs.  At this rate, if we soon produce 5 million books a year, we’ll be as dumb as rocks.

I know a non sequitur when I hear it, even when I create it. After all, we publish what is surely the best logic text in English (Socratic Logic). But one might be forgiven for hoping that a plethora of books, even in down times, should add to the sum total of understanding. But it is clear, as we all should have learned at our mother’s knee or at least from a decent teacher, that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. And nowadays even knowledge has been largely supplanted by information, and information by data. 

I remember way back in my high-school days, people bragged about the public schools in Montgomery County, Md, where I went to school, saying it was the second-best school system in the country (the best was some county in Southern California, if you can believe that). I knew that this boast could not be true, unless Webster suddenly published a new meaning for “best.” I have a feeling that the current crop of students, despite being hailed as the world’s smartest and highest achieving, know the score as well as I did way back in those halcyon days. As Honest Abe said, you can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time. For the past several months, many of us have been concerned about the fooling all of the people some of the time, but I suppose, since this is a blog about publishing, that I should call us back to the first clause, the one about fooling some of the people all the time.

How is it possible to fool some of the people all the time in an Age of the Data Glut? Even the dopiest people can manipulate a video game. In fact, I suspect that most of the dopiest people manipulate video games. But can that ward off being a fool?

How, then, do we traverse the desert of data into the high plains of wisdom? One of the first distinctions one learns in Philosophy 101 is the difference between necessary and sufficient. With regard to wisdom, we might all have an idea about what is necessary but I doubt whether very many would gainsay to give a complete answer to what was sufficient.

Perhaps there are people whose DNA gives them a heads-up in being wise, though I doubt it. The smartest guy in the Old Testament, whose very name is synonymous with wisdom, when asked by God to name what he would have God give him, chose wisdom. Maybe it was because he asked for wisdom that he achieved it. Most of us would surely ask for more stuff, more pleasure, more time.

In general, though, we think of wisdom as something acquired, often over an entire lifetime, rather than inherited from parents. And in the West, we tend to think of wisdom as something that is communicable (certain Eastern traditions seem to lead you to think that the quieter you are, the more likely you will be judged wise).

So, if wisdom is shown to others and acquired within the wise through communication, it deals with words, and if the words are for more than the few around you, it means that the words must be written as well as spoken (please, Socrates, great and wise beyond my understanding, forgive me).

If this is the case, one might well be convinced that a rise in the number and popularity of books would be a symptom, or even cause, of the flowering of wisdom. It just ain’t so. Why it ain’t so is best left for another time.

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The Still Small Voice - November 11, 2012

This past Thursday I gave a talk in Reno, NV, to a group of Catholic business people, who several times a year invite someone over to speak on a topic they wish that might be of interest to the life of coping with our common needs. The speakers are given wide latitude. I could not talk the young man who formed the group and invited me that I was the wrong one to speak there since I live the life of a hermit, sitting in front of a computer for 14 hours a day, six days a week, and would likely bore everyone unmercifully.

But he said that he particularly liked something he heard from an interview I had on the program The Journey Home, that when I started St. Augustine’s Press, I realized from my own failures in the past that I should not try to “figure out the market” but rather publish books I wanted to read and hope that there are others out there like me.

I decided to start my talk with a joke. I am told that many speakers begin talks with a joke, but I have a feeling my situation was different, since it was not a joke told to highlight a talk but a talk made to highlight the joke.

I was born and raised Jewish, and one thing practically all Jews share in common is that they are surrounded with people who tell jokes. I have heard thousands of Jewish jokes in my life. This one is my favorite; it is filled with the bathos and pathos so necessary for a perfect Jewish joke, with the usual misunderstandings. It was told to me by a Mormon.

There was an elderly man who was not feeling well, so he went to his doctor to find out what was wrong. The doctor examined him, and told him to get dressed and come into his office. There he said, “Max, I have something very serious to tell you. You have herpes.”

Well, Max didn’t flinch or scream or cry when he heard these words. Of course, he might well have done so if he knew what herpes was. But he could not admit that. So he went to the font of knowledge in his life, his wife, Sadie, and asked her.

“So, Sadie, the doctor tells me I have herpes. So tell me, is it bad?”

“Max,” she said, “To tell you the truth, I never heard of herpes, but I’ll look it up in the dictionary, and I’ll find out.”

So she takes out the dictionary, finds the word, and a wry smile crosses her lips:

“Max, Max, you got nothing to worry about. Says right here in the book, herpes is a disease of the gentiles.”

The gentiles appear in both the Old and the New Testament, and though there are big differences in how they are treated, in all cases they were seen as the other. They are the people from the other side of the hill who have their own gods. The Hebrews in the Old Testament were “The Chosen People,” chosen by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one the Hebrews insisted was not just another god from another valley but rather the only true God. On the other hand, there was no mechanism for them to incorporate the gentiles into their society, since the Hebrews had no right to choose. They followed a universal God, but only in a parochial way. Their relationship with the gentiles was largely either to ignore them or to fight them.

Initially, the gentiles were just as foreign to the followers of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.  But the distinction between the way the Hebrews reacted to the gentiles and the way the followers of Christ ended up acting led the way to immense changes. In Acts we learn about the dispute between St. Paul and St. Peter and others, with Peter speaking for following the words of Jesus, who said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 15:24; cf. Mark 7:27). Paul, on the other hand, spoke up for following Jesus’ acts, including the way he treated the woman he addressed above, when he approved of her faith when she begged him to save her daughter despite not being from the House of Israel, saying that even the dogs “eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.”

In so doing, Paul, who was to be called the light of the gentiles, transformed our understanding of the gentiles from being wholly “other” into a people who could become “us.” The universal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob became the center of the world’s only universal religion.

So getting back to the original understanding of gentiles, what could be the disease of the gentiles? It is the attraction to false gods. This could be fought with conversion and evangelism, but in the world we live in now, the attraction is always with us, and very strong, in my opinion. Please note that I am not talking about the decline of Christian orthodoxy or even the decline in general religious orthodoxy. Rather, it is the action of attributing god-like characteristics to the works or perhaps even just to the “charisma” of ordinary men and women. The twentieth century, which my mentor Gerhart Niemeyer called the Terrible Century, was replete in deifying one monstrous totalitarian after another; nowadays we may do so for rock stars, athletes, and other persons of, at best, un-god-like accomplishments.

Those of us who view this rather cult-like behavior may well feel quite alone. Just think of the Prophet Elijah, having bested and then slaughtered the priests of Baal and then threatened with death by Jezebel, he escaped to roam aimlessly, planted himself under a broom tree and prayed to God to take his life. God instead sent an angel to feed and encourage him and tell him to go where he was directed, which was Mt. Horeb, where Moses had received the Law. There God spoke with him, and Elijah complained that the people had forsaken God’s covenant, thrown down His altars, and slain his prophets and “I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”

God then said, “Stand upon the mount before the Lord.”  The rest of the passage goes like this: And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Elijah thus learned that even in the humble areas of our lives, God exists. The still small voice of grace, not just the trumpets and the angelic choruses, tell us we are not alone. Sort of like publishing books that I want to read in the hope that I am not alone and then realizing that this is true. The realization that we are not alone may well be the antidote to the Disease of the Gentiles.

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Returning to Normalcy - November 4, 2012

If you have no principle, the only thing left is interest. Pardon the pun . . . it was intentional.

What does it mean nowadays to be a journalist? I think this interminable election season has spewed forth a rather minimalist answer. If we did not know before, we know now that the greatest power the media has may not be what is said but what is left unsaid, indeed what is spiked. It has been a demoralizing exhibition, and we can all be grateful that there are so many alternative sources of information now, even though many of these outlets are less than trustworthy.

Three of our four children live in Chicagoland. If I were writing this just for them, I would say “vote early and often,” but I am assuming that most people who read this blog are not from Chicago and would actually be shocked to find their aldermen and judges in prison. (Of course, that may well be the saving grace of living in Chicago.) So for you . . . just vote.

In any case, much of this tawdry display will so be over soon. It will be good for all these television and newspaper masters of the universe to go back to pretending to be journalists.

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