The Abstract Arts, Framing Reality

Published 10/28/22 at billschmitt.substack.com, reprinted here with some modifications.

Previously on Substack … We talked about the “Brights” as a movement of liberal atheists who introduced themselves in New York Times commentary in 2003 and continued promoting their doctrines of illumination. Those ideas helped to set progressive agendas in societies around the world.

Today, I focus on a different group, no less influential but more informal, and in need of a name. Let’s call them the Abstractionists. Strax for short. Catchy? Yes, that’s the whole idea.

In pursuit of phronesis, or virtuous wisdom that serves the common good, we need to examine not only what we think about, but also how we think. Beyond categories like right vs. left, capitalist vs. socialist, or spiritual vs. secular, here is a way to analyze the “how” behind today’s polarization.

My thesis: Broadly speaking, human beings think about the world in two alternative ways—based on abstractions, or based on cold, hard facts. There is plenty of “intersectionality” between these options. Neither is perfect, both are needed. Critiques of either can go to extremes, and I hereby apologize if my critique does just that.

Consider these yin-and-yang scenarios.

Think of abstract art, in contrast to Renaissance art.

Think of the sixteen Myers-Briggs personality types, some of which might favor abstract understanding, some favoring the concrete.

Or think of the Catholic Church’s contextual protocols for judging sins “mortal” and behaviors “sinful,” while declining to condemn people as “evil.” In other circles, talk of sinful actions is broad-brush, but people can be slapped with hellish, demoralizing labels.

Think of teachers who praise their most avid students as diligent future scholars. They also identify a different group as unfocused, or falsely focused–namely, the party-goers, the kids who ask, “Will this be on the test?”

Or think of narcissists who see the world orbiting around them, in contrast to altruists who focus on others as neighbors in a literally wonder-full world.

Now consider the cognitive hodgepodge complicating American culture: relativism and moralism, atomized individualism and groupthink, indifference and activism, compassion and apathy, atheism and dogmatic fervor, entertaining distractions and paralyzing anxiety, demands for true information alongside blithe, blatant assertions of misinformation. This multidimensional pattern is such a perfect storm, or patchwork brainstorm, we might guess our meteorological charts have been melded with astrological charts.

People are simply more complex than superficial analysis can explain. The process of thinking can become chaotic unless we build our intellectual house on rock. We shouldn’t settle for a makeshift shack. While some minds are soaring through 5-G internet, some are watching cat videos. Our ideal brain food is a healthy balance of abstract and detailed diets; we need to watch what we’re eating–and to be honest about what we are serving up for others.

British writer G.K. Chesterton said thinking is a hard job that humans often try to avoid and must develop a skill for. We need to work at it, he warned in the Illustrated London News in 1914: “If you think wrong, you go wrong.”

Chesterton suffered from depression as a young man. In his darkest moments, nothing made sense, but he realized his intellect (and faith) could function so long as he started with a first principle. This had to be an assumption, with some degree of abstraction, but he could use that as the launch pad for a constant flow of well-grounded reasoning—purposeful thinking which made him one of the 20th century’s great truth-seekers.

According to Dale Ahlquist, a scholar of Chesterton, this nascent Abstractionist rebooted by making one initial, confident statement, namely that existence is better than non-existence. He then found renewal on a pilgrimage toward meaningful existence, radiating curiosity about the essence of nearly every subject. He also became a Catholic, relishing the paradoxes and connections he discovered in the world’s fine points.

One dictionary meaning of abstract is “existent in thought or theory but having no physical existence or concrete examples.” The word often implies the lack of a purpose, direction, or sense of completion. An idea, motivation, or action described as abstract has little inherent value. It can be redefined, or even made up. It imposes few demands on a person if the person so desires.

Today’s culture encourages abstract thinking of all kinds. It immerses leaders and audiences in mixed messages, seriocomic situations, emotional theatrics, hybrids of fear and frolic, artificial or virtual reality, dopamine hits, a marketplace of ideas and idiocy. As discussed in a previous Substack, politics currently has less to do with policy issues and problem-solving than with imagery and propaganda designed to make voters say, “That’s the candidate for me!”

The fire hose of information pushes constructively creative individuals to connect to, add to, contextualize, and utilize every fact they can acquire, embracing existence and uncovering value-added meanings. But others fear the fire hose; its stream of content causes “information inflation” (to coin a phrase), prompting Abstractionists to devalue and discard “irrelevant” data, along with opportunities to link and hyperlink with other people and ideas. For these one-track minds, ignorance—and indifference—are bliss.

In secular American politics, and other institutions, the dark side of the abstract arts is not only convenient, but a source of false empowerment. All-in (or nothing-in) Abstractionists will still start out with a guiding assumption, but it may be a self-serving, righteous-sounding slogan, scheme, or strategy. It seems to offer self-aggrandizement and reputational gain, but it has no ambition for the common good.

Whatever they build or promise, the skills of the Strax create in a deconstructive way, manipulating words, ideas, truths, and people. They can level hyperbolic charges against opponents, without concern for those whom they demonize or injure.

Abstractionists, after all, tend to see their words and actions as performative tactics bringing them closer to their short-term goals, not as concrete realities with serious, long-term impacts. Casually taking one step at a time, focused on the ephemeral, they might easily forgive their allies’ errors and cheer for fleeting causes while watching opponents suffer for their enduring principles.

The Strax game is thriving in a post-truth marketplace where the “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Muzak reminds us that “nothing really matters.” Orchestrators in this bazaar—including politicians, advocacy groups, elite donors, communicators, and other influencers—supply their minions with marching orders, talking points, and timely strategic tips, which must be adhered to, but not necessarily understood or believed. The orchestrators may be ideological. Many of their followers are more idea-illogical.

Of course, cold, hard facts will occasionally contradict and interrupt Strax plans, endangering their short-term gains. But those addicted to this method of dealing with reality will try to stay the course, instead tweaking their strategies and meanings. They will rely on others’ limited attention span, forgetfulness, distraction, denial, and confirmation bias.

What of those concrete thinkers in the population who prefer deeper inquiry, purpose, and connection-making to the maximum level their skills allow? The Strax strategy allows for their pre-emptory embarrassment, intimidation, and cancellation.

Abstractionists enjoy another advantage—the ease of measuring their own success. Ironically, they use tools that resemble cold, hard facts—namely scorecards of accomplishments. The checking of boxes is a high priority. They concoct simple metrics which look objective, indeed fundamental, but are applied subjectively.

Leaders atop the Abstractionist pyramid will ask their loyal loiterers: How many of our strategic goals did you achieve? Did you stay well-aligned with the prescribed group-think, reverse-projection, and virtue signals? Those responding will say yes, or “guilty with an explanation.” Asked if they have encountered opposition, they will boast, “Never is heard a discouraging word.”

This false brand of “management thinking” flourishes in many corners of a post-truth society, far beyond the political scene we observe through pundits’ eyes. By the way, it is not limited to those who hold “progressive” values. Indeed, some of those values have real merit; they should be part of commonplace, wide-ranging conversations about “what we think” in the public arena. But many prospective interlocutors have been intimidated or neutered.

Again, the bigger stumbling block is “how we think.” At this moment in America’s political history, it seems Abstractionists hold many of the cards and are playing them in favor of progressivism. One might argue progressive approaches are an all-too-easy fit with vague Strax argumentation. As Chesterton wrote, “Progress is a useless word, for progress takes for granted an already defined direction, and it is exactly about the direction that we disagree.”” 

The grading system which doyens of detail apply to themselves is much tougher. They look at quality as well as quantity of outcomes, plus various impacts across a whole integrated, interactive spectrum of people, principles, values, and purposes to be accomplished. They insist on asking, “Are we progressing toward a more rational existence?”

The pursuit of meaning is the key; we try to think well in order to enhance our existence, to exist for a good purpose. It is vital for those who measure success through reason and faith, using cold, hard facts tied to reality and a greater good, to pursue ongoing, charitable dialogue with Abstractionists.

We who crave a renaissance must continue conducting, explaining, and promoting our alternative approach to the Strax world. Ironically, those who employ pragmatic, utilitarian reasons rather than intellectual reasoning will decry our goals—informed by faith, hope, love, and truth—as utterly abstract and impractical, even extremist or supremacist, while we see their “practicalities” as tragically blind to the richness of reality.

The Catholic Church, with its embrace of natural law as a guide for what is seen and unseen, with its insight into the panorama of grace, beauty, truth, and goodness perduring in the created world, is the best response to the Strax manifesto of “progress” through autonomous self-creation.

The Church’s not-so-secret weapon is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, consecrated in the hands of a priest at the altar. Even though many Catholics tell pollsters the bread and wine, transubstantiated into Christ’s body and blood according to 2,000 years of teaching, can be described as symbols, deep down we know that empty ritual and performance art would not have kept our families coming back on our knees for millennia. We acknowledge our weakness in the face of a mindblowing, transcendent reality, and we ask God to “help our unbelief” because we know we need to share truth as a blessing in our lives.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is undertaking a three-year initiative to renew appreciation of the Real Presence dogma grounded in the Word becoming flesh, saying “This is my body,” and bestowing unique, unquenchable dignity on human life.

Why? This Catholic sacrament of resilient communion and community reminds doyens of detail how to think rightly so that things might not go horrendously wrong for us—in this life and the next. We hold on to Christ, and Christ holds on to us.

We are all potential Abstractionists, but we have the Eucharist as a bulwark. As those disinclined toward substantial reality and unitive insight try to slow or stop our pilgrimage, the Host in our churches, in our hearts, and in our communities of faith and reason can be the rock-solid resource allowing us to say to the Strax, “This far and no further.”

Please think about it.

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Right Side of History? Wrong Side of Mystery?

Published in Substack on 10/15/22 at billschmitt.substack.com

Religion is making a lot of news. Some pundits say its conventional forms are a remedy for the chaos in society today. Some say religiosity has morphed into a secular theology particularly common in the “woke” culture.

Do-it-yourself theologians are crowning their political allies as righteous and condemning their opponents as evil. “They know not what they do,” as Luke’s Gospel puts it, because they are members of generations which were largely un-catechized. They don’t know their alt-religion is a religion at all. To the degree it is, it misleads them and society at large.

Huge percentages of the population are now growing up, or simply growing older, without positive experiences of God and religion in their lives. This is tragic because, as St. Augustine said, the human impulse toward religion is deeply ingrained: Our hearts were created for God, and they are restless until they find Him.

The search for Him, or a substitute, proceeds on various levels. Some folks assiduously dig for meaning and true happiness in their lives, naturally gravitating toward time-tested, “conventional” answers from philosophy and theology. But in recent decades, much of the practice of religion has been poorly taught or modeled by churches, ministers, families, and cultures. It has been too easily replaced by a therapeutic, intellectually lazy and hazy, self-centered and post-truth understanding of life.

American society has allowed the DIY religious impulse to grow among people all along the political and cultural spectrum, but progressive or “woke” folks seem recently to have embraced it with fervor. Influential sectors of society have helped them build structures and practices embodying their theology.

Like most people, they desire faith-like features that give them a sense of right and wrong, a sense that they are on the right side. They so far have missed developing a relationship of endless discovery with the loving God, so they have experienced religion as static, even irrelevant.

Many of those disenchanted with religious practice still demand a measure of stability, but their houses built on sand rely upon contrived, narcissistic foundations: My truth is what matters. I know what I need to know. I am right, good, and in control. My self-confirmation is more practical, intelligent, and rewarding, the disenchanted say, than the established religions I have perceived among old-timers and various “deplorables”!

Indeed, these aspirants to pragmatic religiosity say, we can enjoy the same benefits we accuse those backward believers of inventing. The deplorables send out signals of old-fashioned virtues and values. They exercise a judgmentalism born of moral superiority. But we know better!

Yes, the pragmatists have adopted similar traits, displaying a sense of infallibility while canceling advocates of traditional principles, trying to paralyze them with shame, guilt, and fear. Alt-religionists, who have not done their homework of prayer, suffering, and learning, have become what might be called “secular clericalists” at the top of a hierarchy resembling the Tower of Babel.

The do-it-yourselfers know they need to lead their lives “on the right side of history.” But, they ask, why invest time, talent, and treasure to appreciate real history? That stuff is being rewritten (or ignored)! Instead, history is a magical force that sweeps elite humans into a new and improved future.

Today’s oversimplified religious impulses empower the DIY crusaders to establish dogmas, rituals, and communities of solidarity. They grant privileges to adherents and impose punishments on opponents. But they don’t realize a crusade must be based on solidarity and communion, not anything-goes autonomy.

Of course, our circumstances should never become violent or take the form of religion vs. religion. Creeds of progressive values (or other values from elsewhere on the political spectrum) have become popular nowadays because they offer bonding and encouragement to a world where economic, political, health-based, and spirit-based forces have left many souls needy. We must be genuinely sympathetic toward those trapped by addictions, poverty, physical and mental health crises, and disconnection and despair.

Loving responses to such people include compassion, self-sacrifice, encounters of affirmation, and maximum patience with their complaints and demands.

But the needy now clustered under the “woke” hierarchy have gained such a critical mass—enabled by politicians, activists, the greedy, the power-hungry—that many well-intentioned people have become enablers, quietly allowing the secular shepherds and sheep of DIY religion to make broadly harmful changes in social mores and rational discourse. Theologian Scott Hahn has called this a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” response among Catholics.

Why must we resist the DIY toolkit for self-centered religion? The box has no room for forgiveness, empathy, or merciful love; the misled manufacturers assume individuals can block out sin, shame, and sorrow on their own.

Nor does the kit include a God with whom we can be in a helping, healing relationship through good times and bad. Alt-religion designers see this role played by governments, corporations, technologies, social-justice policies, and groups we call our allies. These components cannot heal by making people immune from guilt, shame, and fear; they only make the scourges worse.

Sooner or later, the inadequacy of this DIY toolkit becomes obvious. Remember, many of the “woke” already have given up on religion once, failing to appreciate the real thing. They might be prone to give up on an alt-religion, too, if it does not meet the high standards of their cost-benefit calculus. They may become alt-heretics, returning to the humbling mysteries of more “conventional” faith, if the magical force of history does not propel them to demigod status..

Meanwhile, followers of Christ can provide a valuable, authentic alternative. We must model strong relationships with the Lord and with each other, in families, parishes, and communities. These still draw stability from our humble pursuits of truth and love, our patience with reality’s ups and downs, and our reaching out for supernatural hope. Fortunately, these resources remain available to all through the Catholic Church.

We can respond to the DIY impulse not merely with the aforementioned compassion, but also with a “tough love” that reveals the truths and principles we stand up for. This confidence will give the lie to the alt-theologians who wrongly condemned old-timers’ “pretenses” of faith. Charitably, without combativeness, we can help the disenchanted to see that the common good benefits when the Holy Spirit acts and reality wins.

They will see that their toolkit succeeded only in assembling what is called an ouroborosa snake swallowing its own tail. These newly hopeful “heretics” will abandon their post-truth doctrines. They will stop merely imitating religion when even secularized people around them are acknowledging (along with old-timers, going back to America’s founders) that a healthy society needs God.

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The Foresight Saga

Published on 9/1/22 at billschmitt.substack.com.

The prescient 1977 book Mediaworld, written by John M. Phelan, who taught my Broadcasting 101 course at Fordham, defined propaganda as “the control of behavior through the control of belief.” Phelan wrote, “The evil of propaganda is not that it is false. It is its indifference to the very question of truth. Human expression is seen merely as a means, as an instrument, to get people to do what is desired.”

Phelan rightly complained that the understanding of “issues” has changed. Politicians, along with media and marketing practitioners, have reacted to a more complex world and a widespread materialism that tends to dehumanize and manipulate audiences. They have also helped to infect public discourse with a propaganda state of mind, and we all have played a part.

In the old days, my media studies professor argued, issues emerged at clear crisis points to help shape communities into “purposeful publics” that would seek out and debate relevant information, leading to a decision on how to solve a particular problem. Issues could be phrased crisply: Shall we do this or that? Fish or cut bait!

Then dawned the era of “programming the public,”according to Phelan. Political candidates—especially at levels beyond local government—adopted stands “not on issues of policy, but on deeply divisive cultural clashes of fundamental principles” and the values with which people identified, such as anti-sexism, counterculturalism, or free enterprise. With help from advocacy groups, lobbyists, and others, it seems we started paying attention less to the issue at hand and more to the lenses through which we could see and experience the issue.

(This foreshadowed Justice Anthony Kennedy’s famous statement in a 1990s Supreme Court decision: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”)

Phelan observed: “Issues were beginning to melt and fade into vague wraiths of attitudes toward the meaning of life in general.” Specific policy questions became “promptings for the public unveiling of personality traits—compassion, sincerity, vigor, wit, intelligence.”

This disconnection from the virtues of wisdom and participative problem-solving fostered propaganda as a higher priority. Now, the goal is not to win over hearts and minds with facts, but to “manipulate drives and needs” through mechanistic assumptions about what the “public” will respond to, what “product” they will buy to find relief, and where they will place blame.

Those marketing these products/programs/candidates/ideas to generate alliances, Phelan said, tend to see the people they influence as children to be guided, rather than unique, valued individuals who deserve to be informed, served, and empowered.

Accountability wanes. What’s more, if the propagandistic “easy answer” fails to yield the promised improvement, the next step is to point a finger toward a segment of the public so that the product and its marketers escape blame. “Whatever is said effectively” becomes the “truth,” and morality is defined as “the assigning of responsibility to others.”

Phelan foresaw today’s retreat into inauthentic, performative leadership: “Politicians perform for audiences who will mark them on their charm and, above all, on their sincerity.” Imagine him putting air-quotes around “sincerity.”

As I reread these pages in Mediaworld recently, I pondered how principles of civic duty, healthy debate, and robust democracy are in conflict with propaganda. Ironically, propaganda itself has become a hot topic; back-and-forth allegations of thought-manipulation, domestic and foreign, sometimes garner more attention than the realities being assaulted.

Can we observe the propaganda state of mind as a factor in the pandemic-management controversies which have arisen since 2020? When some government leaders took aggressive stands on masks, injections, and lockdowns, did they aim to promote hopeful obedience by projecting strong governance and infallible expertise?

Did they over-perform the trait of certitude despite the ongoing stream of scientific doubts and incomplete information about Covid developments”? Could they have tried harder to boost knowledge, solidarity, and encouragement at the grass roots by calibrating their exercises of power and controls on information to the latest discoveries, mysteries, and needs for reasoned resilience?

Perhaps in an age that has lost its ability to define issues in a constructive binary way, we are clumsy in our attempts to “meet the moment” of crisis. When are urgent mandates and stark decisions called for? When is it time to take a pause and avoid jumping to the most negative conclusions?

Governments need to trust their citizens, and vice versa, but this comes from seeing reason and prudence at work. Leaders who pander may get rewarded for treating the public as children. But, without honesty and moderation on both sides, the public will resent being treated like kids, whether it be spoiling them rotten or imposing disciplines they do not understand.

Civics courses of the future should include careful study of books about the qualities of true leadership. Those qualities usually include possessing and sharing a meaningful vision, as well as a sense of purposeful teamwork. Our media world has imparted false lessons. Keeping up appearances and forming unproductive alliances are insufficient strategies for surviving tough times.

Along with books on “how to be a leader,” I would recommend that any up-to-date civics class also study John Phelan’s Mediaworld from 1977.

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Privilege Has its Memberships

This two-part blog post combines (and adapts) commentaries written for my regular contributions to “Substack” (found at billschmitt.substack.com). The pair of reflections, which carried dates of August 16 and September 15, respectively, appeared under my Substack title, “Phronesis in Pieces.” Please see the end of this post for a few words about phronesis.

Part One, Mid-August: The Blessed Mother

Our pastor at Our Lady of Victory Parish in upstate New York used a potentially controversial word in describing the feast of Mary’s Assumption, which Catholics celebrate on August 15. He said the Lord extended to His mother the great privilege of joining Him in a way not yet afforded to other human beings—instead of dying an earthly death, being raised, body and soul, into heaven for all eternity.

Merriam-Webster gives this definition of privilege: “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor … especially, such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office.”

Our culture speaks today of a privilege that attaches to people because of their skin color. I will not argue about this meaning, but let me note that privilege, in the minds of Merriam-Webster and my pastor, is something granted directly to a particular person by dint of special circumstances.

The unusual idea of the humble Mary of Nazareth receiving a privilege prompts a couple of thoughts.

First, her assumption into heaven was not the first privilege God gave to Mary. She said yes when offered the amazing role of mother to Jesus, and she had already been granted liberation from the human curse of original sin. These were privileges that were hardly luxurious; as the Blessed Mother, she suffered a great deal and provided a lifetime of loving service to the Holy Family and to the Apostles.

When privilege is granted as part of an important role to be played, we can see clearly that privilege is best experienced as a gift that has been earned or which entails responsibility. It is not a pre-existing condition destined for ill effects. Some kinds of privilege, including skin color, definitely can be misused (because humans other than Mary still have our full complement of sinfulness); we need to treat privilege as a purposeful blessing to be re-gifted.

Second, let’s examine the privileges we have received in order to discern clues to the mission of love God has in mind for us. He is the giver of all gifts, skin-deep and far beyond. And He has others in mind when He gives us gifts.

Our New York pastor offered a beautiful idea. He recalled how, when he was a kid, he came home from school every day and knew that his mom would be home to welcome him. During those years when it was less common for both spouses to have paid jobs, there were few things that reflected the strength of family love better than the mom’s sure presence.

This blessing gave our priest, Fr. Tom Morrette, a special sense of the love found in God’s family. He commented that the Catholic belief in Mary’s privileged body-and-soul presence with her son is a comfort to all of us. No matter our earthly circumstances, we know we have our Blessed Mother caring and interceding for us in heaven, right up to our own deaths. In other words, we can say what Fr. Morrette was able to say throughout his childhood: “Mom’s home.”

Part Two, Mid-September: Queen Elizabeth II

The juxtaposition of two news stories on September 11—abundant updates about Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, looking back a couple of days, plus the commemorations of the terror attacks of 2001, looking back a couple of decades—set up a restless sabbath filled with homework for the heart.

A few thoughts emerged for me on that recent day. But first, a bit of background.

The British monarchy has never struck me with inspiration or frustration on a large scale. But I am fascinated by the style of leadership and followership which appreciates dignity, rigor, and aspiration in Great Britain’s collective mind frame. These qualities can be doorways to phronesis. I now understand how Queen Elizabeth practiced, or at least fostered, phronesis over a lifetime. She helped her commonwealth to “stay calm and carry on.”

Meanwhile, regarding 9/11, calmness is not my greatest attribute. My personal experiences on that day, starting when I witnessed from three blocks away the fiery crash of the “first plane” into the World Trade Center, somehow make phronesis visceral for me. I shed tears every year when certain sights and sorrows rush back via the TV documentaries, especially as people’s lives change forever amid chaos unleashed by irrational hatred.

On this 21st anniversary, thoughts crowded my head as I looked for meaningful linkages.

President Biden gave a speech connecting Queen Elizabeth’s compassion to sentiments of the day of terror. He quoted her insight, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” He also tied the continuing defense of the United States together with a summons to defend democracy anew.

I must say, the events I viewed in those documentaries, looking back at 9/11, did not prompt me to think about democracy per se. I do see democratic politics as a sine qua non for our beloved country. They are prized principles of wise governance like those I studied long ago at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. But what I recalled most from 9/11 were the lessons about solidarity, vulnerability, and compassion which Americans retaught each other that day. I remember admiring key parts of the national culture that resides upstream from politics.

The suffering, resilience, and solidarity captured in memories and TV programs are found in the cultural headwaters which feed our democratic processes still today.

You might have read my previous Substack about two categories of national leaders, called “head of state” and “head of government.” In the United States, the election of wise and good “heads of government” is an essential democratic duty.

Our founders wrote down key values to instruct us, and they established in the Executive Branch a presidential office which can be said to integrate the functions of head of government and head of state. Many candidates for the White House these days might easily dismiss that second function—the duty to edify.

Queen Elizabeth II received only the “head of state” role, but she fulfilled it with magnificent clarity and charity, motivated by an oath she made to God. She represented the qualities of phronesis to other nations of the world, and she reflected those qualities to her own royal subjects. She personified tradition and remembrance, sharing her Commonwealth’s good times and bad, showing how grief and love go together.

For me, this was a thought worth connecting to the anniversary of the terror attacks. On days of crisis and fear, which occur much more frequently than 9/11 anniversaries, doesn’t a nation need a head of state just as a family needs to know that “mom’s here” and “dad’s here”?

September 11 this year reminded me that America’s paradigm for national sovereignty does not promise us the same privilege—access to a person with the duty and capacity to edify. Our “chief executive” has been granted certain privileges of administrative power and process, but these are not privileges which one would call “all in the family”—able to be passed along, conveyed through relationship.

An American president can and should try to keep elevating our country, acting as a “head of state” who sees the big picture of transcendent values and common-good virtues. But, in lieu of special aspirations and graces, he or she will be mostly a downstream dweller, dealing in politics, speaking of democracy, not its components.

Presidents need to tap into culture flowing from a community of diverse communities. They are wise to avoid the accumulated sludge of propaganda and relativism which gathers on top of otherwise lively waters.

Ultimately, it is up to the individual to grasp the sometimes-painful privilege of being one’s own head of state, and one’s head of government. We play these roles collectively in a democratic key, milling around in the hills and valleys, discovering ourselves as ambassadors among others, filling out the panoramic picture we are expected to present and represent.

Toward that goal, we can utilize resources of tradition and remembrance—lessons learned from good people, messages of faith and dignity from trusted institutions, and TV documentaries showing us how a day of terror can bring out our inner statesman.

Our reactions to life’s joys and sorrows will be shaped by our relationship with God. Like Queen Elizabeth II, we only need to accept, and properly exercise, the privilege of being His.

Phronesis can be defined as practical wisdom that leads to virtuous action, with an eye toward the common good. Cardinal Robert Sarah’s describes this well in his excellent address for the 2022 commencement ceremonies at Christendom College. The insights were published in May in Catholic World Report. Cardinal Sarah did not use the term “phronesis,” but the magazine attached the word as an identifying tag for his text.

The pursuit of phronesis, now an avid avocation of mine, can occur in the world of secular philosophy. But I believe it thrives in a Catholic context of urgent evangelization, offering American society a gift we need, a process that can add structure and purpose to the decision-making essential for reining in today’s intellectual, emotional, and spiritual chaos.

xxx

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Pronounced Flaws in Our Messages

(This was also published on August 6 as the first segment of my newsletter at billschmitt.substack.com)

Words demand good stewardship. They are multi-dimensional containers of meaning. Never have they been more definition-fluid, and never have they shown more definition-intersectionality, thanks to the creativity Americans bring to our vocabulary.

Good communicators must be ready to hit the dictionary websites at a moment’s notice to avoid not only embarrassing errors, but also accidental insults. In an instructive example of this danger, hot from the week’s headlines, Beyonce removed the word “spazz” in her song “Heated” after the disabilities community raised concerns.

But our responsibility toward words goes beyond their meanings. This must be said: Our roles in the clear, respectful, informative communication of messages extends to pronunciation.

I am always surprised at how newscasters and others in the audio and video media seem to take lightly their duty of correct pronunciation. In cases of breaking news, we can forgive journalists if they mispronounce a word that has sprung suddenly from obscurity into prominence. However, they should make it their homework to learn the proper vocalization—and to glimpse its connection to a language, a culture, and a history, not to mention a person!

The recent drone attack on al-Qaeda leader Ayam al-Zawahiri presented a challenge. One YouTube clip offered a pronunciation that sounded authentic but did not become widespread.

Why? It’s complicated. There is often a tension between a simplified Americanization of “foreign” sounds and a complex, distracting dive into the voices of native speakers. News anchors may strive for both an accurate vocalization and an accessible, recognizable version. They will repeat what other anchors, news sources, and news audiences are saying themselves. They also need to feel comfortable with their own pronunciation for the sake of personal consistency. But favoring the familiar may literally and figuratively send the wrong message. We all should exhibit habits of independent research, intercultural learning, and the honoring of different voices.

The Internet provides pronunciation guides that promote global standardization. One handy website belongs to the Voice of America news service. VOA compiles an updated list of recent problematic words, accompanying each with a phonetic spelling and an audio clip.

However, even this is not always a simple solution. For example, the VOA site accompanies the Ukrainian capital’s name, Kyiv, with a phonetic spell-out that suggests it is a two-syllable word, not too different from the old Kiev, while the audio clip slides those two sounds together to yield the now-commonplace “Keev.”

While many difficulties may arise in covering international news translated from numerous languages, sometimes I can see no reason other than indifference to explain cases of mispronunciation. Presenters aim to say something clever and contentious before they consider what is correct and contributive.

A few months ago, journalists carelessly told us about the “omnicron” variant of Covid-19. That misreading didn’t even get close to the more legitimate debates about more precise and understandable vocalizations of “omicron,” an omnipresent Greek letter. See Pfizer’s Greek-born CEO speak out.

We also continue to hear about “fentanol,” with a sound akin to “fentinawl,” when the actual word is “fentanyl,” with the last syllable sounded as “ill.”

We see, or rather hear, the need for better pronunciation everywhere. Lectors in church need to rehearse and study the Bible passages they will read so that congregations truly benefit when “faith comes by hearing.”

At an All Souls Day liturgy several years ago, a lector read the names of the congregation’s family members who had died during the past year. Because there was no apparent rehearsal or research, we could hear that many of the ethnic surnames were clumsily mangled. I considered this an unintentional slap at families’ members and memories.

Let’s hope that people from all walks of life will realize that our pronunciations, like our awareness of meanings, deserve greater attention for the sake of fruitful, dignified communication about people and the world. Sadly, we must realize our first task is to salvage the art of conversation itself.

Signs of a mass-market interest in grammar might offer us hope that words still matter. You can find a newly published book, Ellen Jovin’s Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarianjoining a “sharp, funny grammar guide” from 2020 called Dreyer’s English and a clever classic about punctuation from 2004 titled Eats, Shoots and Leavesby Lynne Truss. The book by Benjamin Dreyer has even spawned a “grammar geek” home game called “Stet!”.

When all is said and done, any campaign for better vocalization is a campaign for diligence and curiosity, outreach and collaboration—as well as a campaign against sloppy, disrespectful thinking—among speakers and listeners alike. As vocabularies and perspectives become more complex and polarized, this should be campaign season. We do so declare!

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Hang-Ups About Spiderman on Film

(Also published on August 5 as the first segment of my newsletter at billschmitt.substack.com)

My “Spidey sense” was tingling as I finally watched the Spiderman: No Way Home film. I watched it on DVD, not the web.

As an avid fan of this superhero’s 15-cent comic books years ago, I loved the movie’s ability to remember, and draw the best from, the expansive history of Peter Parker.

The latest plot forced Parker, a role model who shines in the “Marvel universe” firmament, to survive a not-very-friendly neighborhood where mysterious menaces battered him incessantly. Audiences saw hypnotic, hyperactive scenes of chaotic violence, deadly hatred, and misshapen lives.

These long action segments, understandably enervating to someone not weaned on a procession of Spiderman products, prompted my book- and symphony-loving wife to comment on younger theater-goers who have consumed the film’s confusion and destruction.

As we watched in our living room, she said compassionately, “No wonder kids are the way they are today.”

This is food for thought. Our society has casually wondered for decades whether deaths on TV shows were affecting kids’ behavior. Now, we face a tougher debate: Is today’s menu of immersive movies, video games, pornography, and other distortions of reality, revisited and binge-watched incessantly, feeding trends of anxiety, depression, and nihilistic anger—toward self, others, the world, and God?

We tend to dismiss these influences as parts of the cultural ocean in which we swim. A spoonful of sugar, in the form of nostalgia for beloved heroes and addictive dopamine hits, helps this bitter medicine go down. Countless customers take not only this medicine, but actual drugs with such acknowledged side-effects as violent ideation.

I will still defend this film because I saw it reaffirming the humble integrity of Spiderman. I observed good conquering evil and marginalized folks—misunderstood teenagers and super-villains alike—overcoming unjust drags on the human spirit.

Admittedly, younger fans may see these battles through different lenses with a less rosy hue. Also, while I saw low-resolution depictions of affection and friendship, complete with clever buddy-movie rapport, other generations may focus on the high-definition kaleidoscope of strange beauty, exhaustion, and adrenalin. Does the dollop of sweetness leave an impression?

But I will offer one additional defense. Peter Parker’s “life verse” seems to be a maxim he learned from his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is a profound message, rooted in the Bible (Luke 12:48).

Of course, I must again question my Spidey sense. Young audiences can learn about humility from Peter, but does he shine a light on responsibility to the common good, on higher authorities shaping our reason and goodness, or on bland virtues like prudence and patience?

Perhaps a film like No Way Home challenges society to initiate cross-generational conversations about what Baby Boomers and young adults see in Spiderman. In the human and earthly ecology envisioned by Pope Francis, this spider has a certain dignity and an important role. It is our responsibility to reflect on that and to appreciate how each amazing creature fits into a wide-screen view.

Although Peter Parker can be a uniting figure, as he is in the movie, we must ask what bonds he is forging. His artificial reality ideally would resonate with actual responsibility to our society and our humanity. Otherwise, is his story more destructive than constructive as a cultural artifact?

May he still build a web of hope. A mere roller-coaster ride through the multiverse is not even what Peter himself craves. He just seeks a way toward the happiness that only a true home can provide.

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Gone Fission: This TV Spot is the Bomb!

See this commentary and others packaged in my latest entry at billschmitt.substack.com — and consider subscribing.

(Published in the blog of the Magis Center on July 28)

This month, the world got to watch a public service announcement released by New York City’s emergency management office. It offers steps to take when a nuclear attack has occurred. News reports suggested that this message—dealing indirectly with one of the “third rails” of public discourse, namely death– left many of its viewers concerned, or at least confused.

I will not try to read the minds of the PSA’s producers or audiences. My reaction focuses on an axiom I learned as a member of the Knights of Columbus, an international fraternal organization that seeks to build up and activate the spiritual lives of Catholic men. The Knights included in their instructions a simple two-word Latin phrase: “Memento Mori” or “Remember Death.”

As a 2020 article from Catholic Digest discusses, the somber reminder tells us that meditating upon one’s mortality and the prospect of death can be a clarifying exercise for the mind and heart.

With help from the PSA, New Yorkers can contemplate a sobering piece of “bad news,” or at least the fact that various forms of very bad news can and do arise in everyday life. Let’s be fair to the city’s office of emergency preparedness. They dwell much less on the tragedy of a nuclear attack than on the tactics for surviving that attack.

The announcement is still flawed, in my opinion, because it offers simplified tips centered on going indoors, staying indoors, and monitoring updates and advice from the government. Our presenter closes with encouraging words: “You’ve got this.”

I wonder whether that is so. If a blackout ensues, for example, can the population access such media as the “Notify NYC” website the presenter promotes? Isn’t this false hope?

I find nothing false, hopeless, or simplified about the Church’s alternative approach to the ultimate “bad news.” We know that, without the acknowledgment and anticipation of evil occurrences, people will not appreciate how good the “Good News” really is. I refer to the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ and the path toward happiness in this life and in eternal life.

Our reflections on the “four last things”—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—help to see the high stakes in our worldly existence. They add a sense of purpose and urgency to our decisions and behaviors. They suggest that we must ground our lives in truth and practical wisdom (phronesis!).

They also add clarity and extra dimensions of hope and wonderment when we turn to John 3:16 and read that God the Father wants to give us eternal life through His son; Christ accompanies us as we work out our salvation with a loving embrace of the Holy Spirit’s gifts.

These empowering instruments for the survivability of individuals and the whole human race are sure things. We must understand and use them well, so the Bible and the Church have provided limitless information on what to do and why.

Much of this time-tested information comes in bite-size pieces, resembling prophetic PSAs, if only we will pay attention. The virtues and resources described are valuable in good times and bad, they ease our fear rather than kindle it, and they do not shut down in power outages.

This leads me to one additional reaction, in the form of a suggestion. Those seeking to evangelize the culture, enriching its survivability through timely and timeless insights, should think more like journalists—at least in one sense. Memorable messages for spiritual growth often have a “news hook” that works like this: “Did you see x? Our faith and reason teach us this can mean y. Therefore, let’s do z.”

Religious leaders, please seize the opportunity to mention New York’s recent PSA jeremiad, encourage people to view and ponder it, and then offer more meaningful, reasonable instruction and conversation. Let’s talk about what we are saying—through our governments’ strategies and our global situations. Let’s consider the real messages about our fragility and responsibility.

Our faith is relevant to the end-times and to any personal “end time” that disrupts our lives. We need saintly guides and solid guidance to help us act upon the most enduring truths, including the four final truths. Otherwise, “blind guides” will offer only odd little tidbits of fact that strand us as demigods in idle seclusion, waiting for updates.

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Crash of Symbols

My reporting for the June 25, 2022 issue of The Tablet, Brooklyn’s Catholic diocesan newspaper, reminded me that only one-third of U.S. Catholics say they believe in the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine consecrated at every Mass. A Pew Research Center study in 2019 found that 69 percent of self-identified Catholics understand the Eucharist to be only a “symbol,” not the substance, of Christ’s body and blood.

This sad finding has helped to prompt the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to initiate this year a National Eucharistic Revival, with a major campaign planned to teach people what the Church believes and why. I am fully on-board with this effort, which could bring people back to church, rekindle a desire for intimate relationships with Jesus, and boost our outreach to a materialistic society, highlighting a sense of mystery, awe, and the community/communion of love.

While hopeful, I must acknowledge that the three aforementioned goals are clues to the huge obstacles this Revival faces. I fear that, to some unknown degree, confusion about the core of the Catholic liturgy is rooted less in poor catechetics and more in a meta-problem stunting our culture and today’s frame of mind.

The problem I posit, speaking partly as a devil’s advocate, is this: Today, everything is treated as a symbol. Think back to the landmark “Queen” song, Bohemian Rhapsody, which we discussed in Substack (June 13). The band sings: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” and “Nothing really matters.”

I fear we are so accustomed to symbolic messages, behaviors, policies, and promises, much of our awareness of reality has been “caught in a landslide.” Advocates for various positions use dramatic scripts and simplified impressions to argue their cases; before conversations dig too deeply into facts and genuine interaction, many are inclined to shut down debate through cancellations and demonization.

The clouding of shared understanding and common ground is symbolized—there’s that word again—by the statement, “This is my truth.” In an age of virtual participation, manipulated media, and artificial reality, people satisfy themselves too often with taking the “right” stand, presenting images of a happy or meaningful life, and “going through the motions” to “get by.”

For people who have chosen this attitude, or adapted to it, symbols and truth are essentially the same thing. Symbolic gestures become shortcuts to power in the political-emotional arena.

Our “utility belts,” our handy tools for expressing ourselves effectively in everyday life, include: words and phrases with pre-defined meanings, as well as cleverly crafted slogans and talking points; emojis and memes; images, photos, faces, dramatic scenes; ten-second videos that go viral; and much more. These things can seem awfully real and influential, but they are only representations—often, unreliable and unsatisfying representations—of truths where enduring power and meaning reside.

Even our colleges, families, and personal development efforts have failed to push us toward a more profound sense of hope or a purposeful vision of ultimate fulfillment.

Some Catholics may even assume that an entirely symbolic view of the Mass is as close to “the truth” as human beings can get. They cannot imagine the rewards of aiming higher, taking leaps of faith. They may be well-intentioned, but we need to help them “see” what they are missing: the option to participate in the Kingdom of God as pilgrims and, then, as saints in heaven.

In a Church and world where too many leaders and followers have proclaimed one paradigm and lived another, we may take too lightly our allegiance to clear-cut ideals like the Ten Commandments and the transubstantiation-symbolism distinction. Discerning and living out these ideals seems much too difficult as we go with the flow of information tsunamis, swimming past salvation.

Our politicians and other influencers have modeled for us a spirit of hypocrisy and doublethink that takes the name of “leadership,” “getting things done,”  “success,” or “keeping their promises.”

This is at least one part of the challenge Catholics will face during the three years of America’s Eucharistic Revival. It is a remarkable irony that a religion often condemned as fictitious, two-faced, or disempowering is committed to the mission of reviving culture at its core. We must struggle on behalf of the way, the truth, and the life: the authentically substantial, the community-building power of shared truth and trust, leading to love and justice on earth and eternal salvation beyond. Every time we worship the Lord at the altar, we can help to satisfy the soul’s need for liberation from the “false presence” of mere symbols.

Image from ClipSafari.com collection of Creative Commons designs.

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Notes for “Saints and Scholars” Presentation

Dear Prof. Albarran and Students:

It was an honor and pleasure to talk with you yesterday as part of Holy Cross College’s annual “Saints and Scholars” program. Here are some notes to amplify the thoughts I shared with you about journalism and the field of communications. I called my presentation “To be Catholic Is to Communicate.” You communicated so well, your questions and aspirations were uplifting to me.

  • Who is Bill Schmitt?

Latest story for The Tablet: online news

Blog at OnWord.net

Podcast at “ThatsSoSecondMillennium.net”

Links to recent multimedia content

CV and Professional Experience Summary

Linked-In Profile

Newsletter at BillSchmitt.Substack.com

  • Three reasons to think and learn about communications skills:
  • Communication in all its forms—spanning news, entertainment, design for all media, technological support, artwork, music, and more—constitutes a huge industry or field, with many valuable uses for your talents and skills.
  • Good communication will be part of any routes you pursue into scholarship, the career world, family life, service to others, and your faith. Some thoughts about communication skills: Grow your effectiveness in writing, speaking, presenting your thoughts and ideas to colleagues and audiences. Be comfortable and civil in dialogue and conversation. Listen well. Be avid and patient with learning, wonder, and the willingness to be surprised.  
  • Communication is an ideal path to something we all crave: the truth, which adds meaning, stability, and hope to our lives. We can’t find truth by ourselves. It’s a two-way street and a team effort.
  • Why care about truth? A secular reason and a spiritual reason:
  • Secular: Truth is a glue that holds people together—and it holds us together by anchoring us in a reality so much larger than ourselves.
  • Truth provides common ground for conversation and cooperation to experience life more fully and pursue worldly life / eternal life more successfully. Truth is our truth, not “my truth” alone. The free marketplace of ideas, where different thoughts and insights are exchanged among unique people with individual dignity, builds our ability to think, to know, and live together constructively. John Stuart Mill was a pioneering thinker about this.
  • Our society is vulnerable to our fascination with artificial reality and alternate realities, potentially found through technology or through harmful behavior with drugs, etc. Replacing personal contact and authentic experiences with tools that may “empower” us runs the risk of separating us from others and from encounters with others.
  • Spiritual: If we are on earth to serve God and bring the love of God to others, truth is a major instrument, even if some reality is not appealing. Our hearts are restless until they rest with God because we are hard-wired to want the most truth, beauty, and goodness, and we’re prompted to look beyond our material/secular/consumerist experience.
  • Why I love journalism:
  • Learn interesting things, meet interesting people, convey interesting stories that help other people, and get paid. Indulge you curiosity.
  • Reality wins. As Shakespeare said, “The truth will out.”
  • US founders realized that a well-informed public and pursuit of the common good were essential to America’s liberties and flourishing.

Why I love Catholic communications:

It’s a big enterprise within the universal Church, employing many people of diverse talents and backgrounds, communicating truth in the full spectrum of multimedia ways, including attention to artwork, music, and the value of beauty. Opportunities for important, satisfying, creative work.

The Church’s mission of evangelization, to spread the Good News, is especially crucial today, and it must use all the means available. The desire to reach audiences is not profit-driven, but more prophet-driven.

With the cycle of generations, there are many baby-boomer workers gradually retiring, and they need to be replaced. Young Catholics who believe in the Church’s work and have a grounding in the knowledge and practice of their faith can find the opportunities for continued learning and service very rewarding while they get to apply a wide range of skills and technologies. Moreover, you can bring new energy and perspectives to the work for the betterment of the Church as human institution—and for the love of the Church as divine institution.

  • Podcasts and online resources:

Grotto Network, from Notre Dame

Aleteia

DeSales Media: The Tablet, “Currents TV,” Online content/design

Beliefnet

Churchpop

Word on Fire Network: Bishop Robert Barron

Magis Center

Credible Catholic: Answers to Questions about Faith

Spokestreet: Podcasts that Invite

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Research Report Prompted Bishops to Start National Campaign

(Story by Bill Schmitt published in The Tablet of the Diocese of Brooklyn, June 25, 2022)

The backstory of the National Eucharistic Revival planned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) includes surprising statistics from a Pew Research Center study revealing beliefs on a subject at the heart of the Church’s mission.

Pew, a nationally recognized, secular, nonpartisan organization that says its objective research is dedicated to “holding a mirror to society,” conducted a 2019 online survey of religious views held by Americans citing membership in various faiths.

Among its findings:

“Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’ ” Instead, 69% of self-described Catholics believe “the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’ ”

This conflicts with the Catholic teaching known by many as transubstantiation — the doctrine that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are “truly, really, and substantially” present in the Eucharist. Christ becomes present by the transformation of the whole substance of the bread into His body and whole substance of the wine into His blood.

Among all the Pew respondents, regardless of their faith, 34% were correct in saying Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Meanwhile, 55% called the sacramental teaching symbolic, and 11% had no answer.

The Pew survey dug deeper among Catholic respondents regarding the teaching of Christ’s real presence. Researchers found that most Catholics who believe in transubstantiation know this is Church teaching. Most Catholics who believe the sacrament is symbolic do not know about the teaching.

Only 50% of Catholics answered this question correctly:

Which of the following best de- scribes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion? (Actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ / Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ / Not sure/ No answer.)

“Overall, 43% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the Church,” Pew reported on its website.

Probing further, the researchers said, “About six-in-ten (63%) of the most observant Catholics — those who attend Mass at least once a week — accept the Church’s teaching about transubstantiation. Still, even among this most observant group of Catholics, “roughly one-third (37%) don’t believe the Communion bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood.”

Among Catholics who do not at- tend Mass weekly, “large majorities” say the sacrament is symbolic only. And 22% of all Catholics reject the idea of transubstantiation even though they know it is Church teaching.

Belief in the real presence “is most common among older Catholics,” although those reducing it to symbolism constitute majorities in every age group, according to Pew. Among those age 60 and over, 61% say the bread and wine are only symbols.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 1374 and 1375, describes the real presence this way:

“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as ‘the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.’ In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ, is truly, really and substantially contained.’

“… It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.”

story reprinted with permission from The Tablet … see this and other stories by Bill Schmitt at the Tablet website

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