The uncanny parallels

I try to keep this blog free of politics, but the last few weeks have brought out a series of very alarming parallels between the current situation in America and that in pre-Civil War Spain.

As Stanley G. Payne pointed out in great detail in his Spanish Civil War, by 1935 the Spanish Left reached a point where it believed that no other party should be allowed to govern Spain.  This repudiated the constitution that they themselves had written only recently.

Time and again, they broke laws, ignored customs and always chose to escalate rather than calm.  Payne goes through an entire checklist of "off ramps" the Left ignored, any one of which could have avoided the resulting carnage of war.

The fact of the matter is that it is difficult to push a war on people who don't want one.  The Man of Destiny series was written in calmer times, but I recognized that one of the fatal flaws in the Star Wars prequels was how arbitrary and random the start of the Clone War was.

Thus when I began telling my story, I spent all of the first book and half of the second chronicling the downward spiral, including opportunities for both sides to de-escalate.

All historical parallels are inexact and one can rightly note that the standard of living, technology, international reach of modern American cannot be compared with that of Spain in 1936. 

Still, I cannot deny that part of the frenzy that drove me to write Long Live Death was a desire to get out in front of events and supply the book as a cautionary tale.  Spain's leaders in 1936 did not have many examples of how a seemingly united and peaceful society can disintegrate into conflict.  We do, with not just Spain but the breakdown of Yugoslavia serving as grim reminders that the bonds that keep nations together can collapse with frightful speed.

I will conclude by asking those of a religious bent to include a plea for reconciliation, forgiveness and renewed unity in your prayers.  We need all the help we can get.

Memorial Day in semi-lockdown

I haven't commented here on Michigan's lockdown situation because the topic typically conjures of visceral reactions.

I bring it up today only because it's unavoidable.  There are no memorial services, no parades, none of the usual observances.

This I find difficult to take.

Michigan is sweltering under a heat wave, and it seems a lifetime away from the dark, cold days of early March when we were told millions would die of this new pestilence out of the East.

Would that we could loosen things up as fast as we cinched them down.

In any event, remember our Fallen and those who mourn for them.

Happy (Quarantined) Easter!

Amidst all that's going on, it's important to remember that the tomb is still empty.

With church services outlawed, our family has been going through the various liturgies as best we can.   If nothing else, my children have a commanding knowledge of the scriptures that are traditionally read this time of year.

I'm one of those Catholics who, now and again for perfectly awful (but I pretend they're good) reasons, skips going to mass.   Sometimes I go during the week to compensate.

I'm keenly feeling the absence.  It's just another element of the environment that leads to a general sense of irritation.  The only consolation is that the weather has been getting better and everyone in my family is okay (so far).

I hope you are similarly blessed and wish you and yours the happiest of Easters.  The doom and gloom will pass, because in the Big Story story, the Good Guys win.

Happy Easter!

Days of Disasters Passed

Though it seems far longer, Michigan's anti-pandemic measures are not even a week old.  The colleges went to remote classes a week ago, school was out last week, but subsequent orders regarding bars, theaters, churches and now nail salons are merely days old.

Things are moving quickly, but slowly.

Winston Churchill wrote that the thing that scared him most during World War II was the Battle of the Atlantic.  The heroism of Royal Air Force pilots and the unflinching courage of the British people could not prevail against the primordial forces of starvation.

There were no dramatic turning points to that battle, just lines on a chart.

That's where we are today - watching lines on a chart to see if we are winning or losing.  The moments of courage, fear and loss can tug at our hearts, but the real battlefield is an impersonal spreadsheet.

As I watch civil authorities struggle to pull resources together and fight an impersonal and implacable enemy, my mind goes back to the "war" against another, similar enemy.

In that case, it was an oil spill.

I guess that's what happens when you get old - you think you've seen it all before.  And maybe you have, but back then there were some people saying it was a sign of certain doom and others claiming it was nothing but hype.

The risk is when you think you've seen it before, and it looks like it, but you didn't.  There's something new, and doing things the same old way might not work.

I'm not one for overtly public professions of faith, but I hope you and yours are doing well and keeping your spirits up.  

A month of Good Fridays

Yesterday I participated in the traditional Lenten blood drive at our parish.  There was talk of canceling it but the need for blood has rarely been greater.

The parish was deserted.  The school has closed, the holy water is gone and there is an eerie air of desertion.  In many areas, mass itself has been suspended.

Normally this happens once a year, during the period between Good Friday and the Easter Vigil.  At that time the Church falls silent in memory of Christ's death and no sacraments are offered.

We are not quite there yet, but the pulse of the religious community has slowed considerably.

News accounts can focus on runs on toilet paper or the cancellation of sporting events, but it is the loss of fellowship, the removal of awards banquets, club meetings and other social events that hits hardest.

Perhaps the arrival of this tribulation during Lent is no coincidence.  Maybe a sign is being given for those who can see it.

A belated dedication

Because the editing process of The Vampires of Michigan was so prolonged, it was only after it went live that I realized I'd forgotten to make a dedication.

I pondered this while attending a memorial service for one of my uncles that passed away.  Speaking with my relations, many of whom I had not seen in years, I suddenly realized how closely the story hewed to family history.  I don't mean the whirlwind romance, but the larger issues of finding meaning in life and the choice between decadence and duty.

I've since updated both versions, but for those of you who already purchased the book (thank you!), I offer it below:

This book is dedicated to:


Jay, who has just awakened,

Noel, who held the line for so long, and

Blaise, who is finally at rest.

Is forgivesness dead?

Over the weekend I saw some chatter about an incident in Washington where some Catholic school kids were alleged to have behaved badly.

I have to admit, my first thought was : so what?  The whole point of adolescence is that we're learning to be adults and that means people are going to make mistakes and do stupid things.

Show me someone who doesn't make mistakes and I'll show you someone who does nothing (which is itself arguably a mistake).

I'm not on social media anymore, so the rising outrage largely passed me by.  I caught glimpses of it elsewhere and as time passed, it became clear that once again, things were not as they at first appeared.

It's low looking like the boys were the victims rather than the perpetrators, but the larger question is why does everyone get so worked up about this sort of thing?  Why is every alleged slight now a national emergency?

Today is the official recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, and if anyone had a reason to hold a grudge, it was him and his colleagues who worked to hard to end racial segregation.

Explicit in this movement was the concept of forgiveness, a moral absolution for past wrongs.

Dr. King was a Christian minister and perhaps Christianity's most striking feature is the emphasis on forgiveness and mercy.  Many faiths may praise these traits but Christianity requires them.

As we've become more secular, we've forgotten how important this is.  The social media world spends each and every day looking for someone new to be destroyed, and they pat themselves on the back with every life they've ruined.

It doesn't matter if there was a mistake, or if the story wasn't true or - and this is critical - the person who gave offense sincerely apologizes and expresses remorse.

In fact, doing that usually makes matters worse. 

I've seen a lot of disturbing trends in society over the years, but I think this is the worst because without mercy, we're unable to move forward, at which point life simply becomes one massive grudge match.  Who wants to live that way?

I think the best way to honor Dr. King today is to forgive someone, anyone.  Just let something pass.  Your soul will be healthier for it and the world will be a better place.

Movie Review: Risen

There been somewhat of a boom in biblical films over the past few years but I generally avoid them.  The primary reason is that I avoid new films in general but I also know that Hollywood hates Christianity.

The irony is that Hollywood is all about making money, and they know the Christian market is substantial, so they try to tap into it.  Even so they can’t resist the urge to sucker-punch their audience.

Anyone remember “The Golden Compass?”

This was supposed to be a monster hit and it came out on the heels of the wildly-successful first Narnia movie.  Family friendly!  Fantastic beasts in a kid’s story.

Oh, and totally anti-religion.  Strangely, Christians didn’t bring their kids to see it and the nascent franchise crashed and burned.

So when I saw “Risen” in the previews I was curious, but not enough to buy a ticket and go see it.

Last night I finally got around to watching it.

It’s excellent.

The reviews for it have been mixed, I assume because most critics hate the topic.  For those who don’t know (or forgot about it), “Risen” tells the tale of the Crucifixion and Resurrection from the point of view of a Roman military officer (played by Joseph Fiennes).

 This device allows the film to approach the subject skeptically, and (I think) show how people would really react if they saw these miracles happening.  Let’s face it:  If a guy was condemned to death, killed and then rose again, people would freak. 

If you’re a pagan and you see the power of God, you might be driven to drink trying to figure out what just happened.

I don’t want to give too much away, (even though if you’ve read the Gospels you know the story), but the varying ways people dealt with the situation just rang true.  Often we don’t see the miracle, just the aftermath, which I think is more powerful.

I would even go so far as to say this film is much better than Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”  It didn’t get the attention, but it should.

Though the comparison may seem odd, the last time I enjoyed a movie this thoroughly was “300.”  The tone and look was perfect.  I intend to watch it again this week with the kids.  It’s that good. 

Leah Remini and the Crisis of Scientology

For the last few weeks I’ve been watching A&E’s show about Scientology, hosted by Leah Remini.  I confess I had no idea who the woman even is – I had heard of some of her shows, but never watched them. 

I have to admit it is a very effective expose – far more detailed (and therefore disturbing) than HBO’s “Going Clear,” which I’ve also viewed.

“Going Clear” introduced me into the world of anti-Scientology, which I find fascinating.  There are a number of web sites out there, including Operation Clambake and one by someone named Tony Ortega, and they provide all manner of interesting material.

My first awareness of Scientology was those TV commercials in the 1980s, and I assumed “Dianetics” was just another self-help book.  I was a subscriber to Time magazine back when they ran their “Cult of Greed” article, but none of it really interested me.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found faith – and its perversions – more compelling.

It seems to me that Scientology went through several phases in its development.  The first was when it was marketed as a science – something new and modern, appropriate for the dawn of the Space Age.  L. Ron Hubbard was a pulp sci-fi author, and that was his comfort zone.

He made a bunch of money based on it, and that led to issues with the IRS.  Hubbard was a strange duck in many ways, and one of the fascinating contradictions is how he glorified and never really let go of his mediocre Navy career (the Church of Scientology is modeled on the Navy’s command structure, complete with uniforms, ranks and “flag bases”), yet at same time loathed the US government, particularly the IRS.  The guy was petitioning for disability checks all the while striking a pure libertarian pose.

It seems to me that the focus shifted during the 1960s and Scientology began to regard itself as a religion – no doubt partly to gain a tax exemption.  Still, growth appeared to have been steady and widespread into the 1970s.  New Age stuff was cool, and there were a lot of burned-out hippies seeking to reform and refocus their lives.

And then Hubbard got his foothold into Hollywood.

I think that was the heyday of ‘evangelical Scientology,’ and the 1980s marketing push was an act of desperation rather than a move flowing from confidence.

At any rate, the organization portrayed by both shows is one that is retrenching, authoritarian and almost entirely reliant on internal growth (members having kids and raising them in the faith) than creating converts.

Lots of stuff has been written about Hubbard himself, most of it outside Scientology being very unfavorable.  Watching the videos of him, the guy looks shifty – a master confidence man.  His own son said as much when he broke from the organization.

According to the family, at the end of his life, Hubbard was a prisoner of his own creation, trapped by the religion he created.  Obviously the Scientologists disagree, and claim their exalted founder continued to provide insight and leadership right up the moment when he shrugged off the mortal coil and ascended to the next level.

Hubbard’s critics accuse him of very manner of sin, pointing to his dabbling in the occult (including the practices of Aleister Crowley) and dubbing him a greedy master of deception.  I have to wonder, though, if deep down he didn’t want his mythology to be true. 

The best liars are the ones who can sell themselves on what they say.  I think he knew his work was bunk, but desperately wanted it to be true.  After all, how cool would it be if people really could transcend time and space and wage interstellar war for the salvation of the galaxy?

The propaganda I’ve seen for the Sea Org (a branch of Scientology) really pushes this angle and the fact that Hubbard went all-in on the whole Space Navy thing (he was the Commodore and correspondence uses military formats) shows to me at least that he was obsessed with living out his military fantasy.

When he died, one of his acolytes took over after a brief power struggle.  David Miscavige is widely reviled by the ex-Scientology community, some of whom actually still cling to its teachings.  To them, Miscavige is a heretic who made himself Pope.

In writing this, I suppose I’m risking retaliation by Scientology, since they tend to respond quickly and aggressively to any and all forms of criticism.  That’s a major focus on the show – how they use a policy called “fair game” to discredit and destroy their foes.

They seem to be pretty vigilant about it.  I notice that they already have a paid advertisement up at Google to discredit the A&E show, complete with a special domain.

The Federalist has been running stories about the show and a number of commenters keep derailing to conversation by attacking other religions.  This comment thread was hijacked by some virulent anti-Catholics who put laughably false allegations out there – ones that were easily refuted, but of course the goal wasn’t to turn people away from the Church but rather change the subject away from Scientology.  Mission accomplished.

Various people have thrown bricks at Scientology before, to little apparent effect, but I have to wonder if this time is different.  The number of defectors seems to be growing and a lot of them held pretty high rank.

The attacks against them also seem pretty weak.  A&E has provided all of them (and Remini reads portions during the show) and instead of discrediting the people, it makes Scientology look pretty bad.

I mean, every one of these formerly high-ranking people is accused of physical abuse and corruption.  But wait, I thought they had been in the thing for years?  I thought they had been “cleared.”  How could so many corrupt people rise so high?  A few of the defectors raised that point – if the leadership is a bunch of spouse-abusers, how did they get into positions of power?  Did no one spot this?

It’s possible to believe that a single bad apple could sneak through the vetting process, but when it keeps happening, one has to wonder:  How thorough is our training?  How enlightened are these people, really?

I think the crucial difference now is that information is so much easier to find.  Before, if I wanted to read about Scientology, I would have to go to a library and hope that some of these books were there.

Now (as I’ve shown above) the information on the internet is plentiful.  A few minutes of web searches will provide plenty of startling revelations for would-be converts.

To combat this, Scientology tries to keep its members from the internet.  This might work for people already raised in its confines, but the current generation is completely wired.  They have smart phones and surf constantly.  Trying to convince them that everything they read on the internet is a lie is a bit of a stretch.  I’m not saying that it is impossible, but if (for example) you buy a copy of “Dianetics” and want to learn more about it, what you find might not be encouraging.

It will be interesting to see what happens going forward.  The Remini show was supposed to have only six episodes but they added one and the final episode (next week) is now billed as a "season" rather than "series" finale.

It's hard for me to see how Scientology survives this onslaught.