Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Happy Empire Day!

Today is Queen Victoria's birthday. It would have been her 192nd, but all good things must come to an end, and in the case of her life, that happened in 1901. However, the day lived on as Empire Day, a celebration of the British Empire.

Perhaps you are wondering why I, an American, am celebrating the Empire. After all, isn't American Independence Day a repudiation of the Empire? Americans sometimes think of themselves as heirs to the British tradition of representative government, trial by jury and free enterprise. Less often do modern day Americans think of themselves as heirs to the Empire, but I am willing to argue just that.

Let me highlight this phenomenon with regard to just one imperial possession, India. As a child, I grew up playing both Parcheesi and Carrom; at the time I knew that the former was Indian in origin (known there as "Pachisi"), but I found out only last year that the latter is also an Indian game. As a child I also played chess (a game of Indian origin, though much earlier than the Empire) and I once came upon a special variant of the game called Maharaja. What is striking, in retrospect, is that at a young age I knew what a maharaja was, probably because of this comic. Likewise, as a child I was taught to despise thugs, wash my hair with shampoo and wear pajamas, though I had no idea that any of these words came from Hindi. As an adult I took to wearing seersucker, including on my visit to Jordan (another imperial holding, taken from the Turks by imperial troops, but I digress); this too is a product of the Raj. The world is simply too interconnected for Americans to think they have nothing to do with Britain's historical role in Africa, Asia and far-flung corners of the world.

In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day and since 1976 the Commonwealth has celebrated it on the second Monday in March. But being a man of history, I have a certain nostalgia for the old things. This is not to say that all the Empire did was good or right, but today we choose to remember it at its best; tomorrow we can criticize, if we must.

Today's image of Queen Victoria comes from BritishMonarchs.co.uk. The lovely map comes from the University of West Georgia's Readings in the History of the British Empire. Lovely though it be, it does not show the Empire at its fullest extent; for that, click here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Speaking the Truth About Homosexuality

This week there has been a bit of a storm in the Texas A&M History Department, one in which I find myself somewhat conflicted.

The story began when Rep. Wayne Christian introduced an amendment into the Texas legislature requiring that if universities use state money to fund "a gender and sexuality center," they must also spend an equal amount on a center promoting "family and traditional values". The amendment passed the Texas House. In an age of tight budgets, that means organizations like A&M's GLBT Resource Center would likely get the ax, rather than adding another center to the university's costs.

The A&M Student Senate then introduced and passed a resolution supporting Rep. Christian's amendment, though the Student Body President vetoed it.

On May 9th the faculty of the Department of Anthropology unanimously issued a statement:

We ask that the administration address the recent series of events surrounding the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender (GLBT) community on campus. We, as faculty, condemn the recent TAMU Student Senate Bill.... By suggesting that students seeking guidance from the GLBT Resource Center are not represented by the terms “family”, “tradition”, or “values”, this bill blatantly goes against Texas A&M’s commitment to a diverse, unified campus that incorporates multiple perspectives as part of Aggie tradition and values. Other recent events -- such as the secret recording and then broadcasting of GLBT meetings on YouTube -- ostracize GLBT students from the safe space that the TAMU campus should be.... We acknowledge that these current events have incited a sense of fear and mistrust among the GLBT community. We reach out with empathy to all those affected and remain committed to addressing injustice as members of the campus community and as anthropologists.... We ask that the administration provide accountability by releasing a statement expressing the University’s commitment to GLBT and other underrepresented groups.

This was followed by letters of support for the GLBT community and Resource Center from the Dean and the Vice President for Student Affairs. Prof. Killingsworth, Head of the English Department, stated that "a groundswell of support from faculty, staff and students in the Department of English" had prompted him to write as well. "Many members of the English Department have expressed a desire to sign a petition," he wrote, "but in the interest of acting quickly, I have decided not to collect those signatures at this time."

Then the History Department got in on the act, writing its own letter. The draft, currently collecting feedback and soon signatures, reads as follows:

In 1965, Texas A&M head football coach Gene Stallings claimed that adding African American football players to the team would promote disunity. The same year, the first thirteen women to enroll at A&M appeared in the yearbook with their portraits arranged in the form of a question mark, illustrating the student editors’ anxiety about the place of women in Aggieland.

We, members of the Department of History, wish to add our voices to those who have spoken out against the attacks on the GLBT Resource Center. These attacks echo the divisive sentiments voiced four decades ago, that diversity somehow threatens the unity of the Aggie community. Since then, Texas A&M has grown richer through welcoming and recognizing the diversity that is Texas and the nation.

We wish to expose the lie that a GLBT resource center somehow resides outside of the values that define the Aggie community. GLBT students have been struggling for a home on campus since 1976. The university must ensure that GLBT students are a welcome part of the Aggie community. That women and African American students are an indispensible part of Texas A&M has been answered with a resounding yes. This process of inclusion must continue. Texas A&M is not complete without its GLBT members.

The chorus of supportive emails from the faculty was thunderous. But I did not join it.

The teaching of the Catholic Church is both clear and moderate. It is not bigoted or hateful, but it is uncompromising:

Homosexuality... has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Per this teaching, I am happy to affirm the dignity and respect due to everyone on our campus. Indeed, I am called to do so. But I cannot suggest that homosexual behavior is anything other than what it is: disordered, unnatural and immoral. If a university cannot teach the truth about the human person, what are we doing?

A colleague commented to me, "Well, we have to show that we're progressive." I was reminded of recent comments by Pope Benedict XVI. (He spoke primarily about liturgy, but his statement applies here as well): "Not infrequently tradition and progress are clumsily opposed. In reality, the two concepts are integrated." There is no need for conflict here: one may uphold the dignity of all people - including members of the A&M GLBT community - without abandoning the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church and all Christendom that homosexual acts are wrong.

Yet the History Department's draft - whether its writers intended it or not - potentially encourages that conflict by stating that "we wish to expose the lie that a GLBT resource center somehow resides outside of the values that define the Aggie community." It is only a small step to conclude that Christian faith is not an Aggie value, and may even be opposed to them.

I was also reminded of J. M. Wilson's comments on the proposed legislation. No one backing the amendment actually expects universities to set up "family and traditional values" centers. But why not? As he points out, living chastity on a college campus - where hormone-fueled singles are surrounded by attractive scantly-attired sex-seeking young people - is hardly an easy thing. But while universities offer support for all manner of sexual activity, there is precious little support for abstinence. Nor, for that matter, is there any support for those living the married life. Perhaps the argument is made that various churches support such groups off-campus, but there are also off-campus groups supporting the GLBT community. Likewise, one might ask: does having Christianity supporting you somehow make the chaste no longer members of the university community? And if they are members of the community, should they not be supported? This has been the argument in favor of the GLBT Resource Center; why can it not also be used in favor of "family and traditional values"?

With all this in mind, I was strongly inclined to reply to the faculty and graduate students of my department - in the most careful Thomas More-esque language I could muster - but I declined to do so.

When Prof. Killingsworth, Head of the English Department, wrote about a petition in support of the GLBT Resource Center, he noted that "many others do not feel that they can safely sign their names to such a petition". I fear just the opposite - that those who oppose such a petition, for whatever reason - will be labeled bigots and homophobes and shunned by their academic colleagues. The Vice President's letter quoted Ernest Boyer's definition that "a college or university, at its best, is an open, honest community, a place where freedom of expression is uncompromisingly protected and where civility is powerfully affirmed." It is a sad comment on the academy that I did not feel I could entrust my professors with honest views.

Hat tips to Earthly City, The Magdalene Sisters and the ever-vigilant Maggie Perry for the links.

They Don't Build Them Like They Used To

The Abbey of St. Wandrille is located in Normandy and was originally founded in 649. Looted by the Vikings in 858, sacked by the Huguenots in 1562, secularized by the Jacobins in 1790, and suppressed by the Third Republic in 1901, the monastery has had a stormy history. The monks have had to abandon it and go into exile on several occasions, most recently from 1901 to 1931.

This Benedictine abbey once boasted a magnificent Gothic church, but a tower collapsed in 1631 and in the 1800's the church was quarried for its stone. Only ruins remain. Rather than try to restore it, the monks in the 1960's purchased a 14th-century farm building from a nearby manor, transported it to the monastery grounds, and converted it into a chapel. The stone exterior is similar enough to that of many old rural churches, except for the somewhat unusual set of double doors in the west façade.

The light flooding in through the windows above the altar and the central location of the crucifix give this church an austere beauty.

The rafters, though, are a reminder that the church used to be a barn. And that is the most remarkable fact about St. Wandrille: This medieval barn, which was originally intended simply to store grain, was constructed so sturdily that it has stood for over half a millennium, and was designed with such grace that it could be turned into a church in the 20th century.

The photograph comes from this site.
The abbey's French Wikipedia page gives a detailed history.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Who Should Govern?

One of the most important and enduring questions of political philosophy is, ‘Who should govern?’ If we take ‘politics’ to refer not only to government but to the whole life of the city, the question of who should govern includes not only who should be president or mayor, but also admiral, CEO, high school principal and countless other roles.

The question of who should govern is often intertwined with the question of how they should be selected. Democracy is an answer to the question of selection, but it does not tell us whom we should elect, or why. Likewise, the ancients enjoyed dividing regimes into those governed by the one, the few and the many. This distinction, though helpful, most directly answers the question, ‘How many should govern?’ Shy of truly universal and direct democracy, someone will be excluded from some portion of governing; on what basis do we select those who do participate?

These matters were rattling around in my head when a friend asked me to name historical heavyweights (of the modern era) who were born into privilege. The question implied that those descended from previous governors ought to govern, and are broadly capable of doing so, by virtue of nature or training. I was surprised, however, to find that some of the first people to come to mind were self-made men, whose titles followed, not preceded, their success. William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke’s father was only a minor nobleman. Sir Francis Drake, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Lord Burghley were all more or less middle class men who were knighted for their hard work and intelligence. Admiral Lord Nelson was the son of an Anglican priest; Sir Winston Churchill was not born a knight (though he was the grandson of a duke). This is not to say that those born into privilege cannot also be accomplished leaders; Pitt the Younger, Lord Louis Mountbatten, Carl Gustaf von Rosen, Otto von Habsburg, Fra’ Andrew Bertie and Fra’ Matthew Festing come to mind.

Who, then, should govern? Are we limited to exploring historical examples, or are there principles we can identify?

Having turned over the question a few times, I have settled on a three-fold answer: Equality. Hierarchy. Merit.

There is a logical sequence to these three ideas. Before all else, we must acknowledge the fundamental equality of all men. Common experience teaches that death comes for all of us; divine revelation teaches that we are all made in the divine image. Any further statement about who should govern or in what manner must take into account this basic equality, in dignity and in death.

Though all men are equal, they are not the same. Some are stronger, some are faster, some are more intelligent. A football coach would be a fool to consider his linemen and wide receivers interchangeable; likewise, he would be a fool to play his first and third strings for equal amounts of time, simply on the basis of their equal human dignity. The natural result of such differences among men is hierarchy. We must be clear that this hierarchy is circumscribed by the deeper human equality, and pertains only to certain qualities or functions. The fastest receiver may have a right to be in the starting line-up; he does not have a right, by virtue of his speed, to dictate morality to the third string receivers. Thus, those who reject hierarchy altogether are in error, but so are those who slavishly support it in all things.

If hierarchy naturally exists, within a broader framework of equality, who should be in its upper echelons? Here I contend that merit is the operative principle. This may seem obvious; if we are to have three strings on a football team, who wouldn’t put the fast receivers in the first string? But if this is obvious with regard to football, it is often less clear with regard to politics. As already suggested, the question of who is meritorious is often confused with how they are selected. This is not simply a matter of semantics, but can cloud our thinking.

The democrat, for example, is interested in experience and honesty, but would usually tell you that he votes for someone with whom he agrees on key issues. Notice, however, that the question has become self-referential: merit is defined primarily by views, which are measured against the individual voter. The voter does not ask, ‘Does this candidate conform himself to reality?’ but ‘Does he conform to me?’ (I have observed similar behavior from my colleagues in the historical profession. When asked what they thought of a given author, they frequently reply, ‘I liked Smith. I agreed with his main points.’ To which I sometimes respond, ‘I don’t care if you agreed with him or not. Is he right?’) While most voters would like to think that their own views conform to reality, and therefore candidates who conform to the voter also, by extension, conform to reality, I cannot help but think that our discourse has become so self-referential as to forget about the broader criteria of merit or reality.

Aristocrats are liable to be similarly confused about merit. They would, of course, argue – as my friend’s question implied – that a family history near the top of the hierarchy produces men who are more meritorious. But this too is frequently reduced to a shorthand that tradition or birth should dictate who governs, and as a consequence is in danger of forgetting why they should govern. Even so-call meritocrats often reduce merit to the means by which it is measured: civil service exams, years of experience or outcomes of one’s previous work. These may be good measures, but can easily become fossilized, forgetting about merit. Likewise, one must remember that poor examinations or faulty rubrics will inadequately assess merit.

Frankly, I have no silver bullet for determining merit. It is an elusive thing which is not easily defined, measured or agreed upon. But I think we would do well to at least keep the discussion focused on merit, rather than allowing peripheral matters to take center stage.

The prudent man, when choosing a leader – of a city, a nation, an academic department or a business unit – should recall that leaders govern those who are fundamentally their equals, though it is permissible and even advisable that particular individuals exercise leadership in certain areas. Finally, those choosing leaders, seeking that elusive quality of merit, would do well to find someone who conforms himself to reality, who comes from a tradition of excellence and who has demonstrated his capacity in education and outcomes.

If you want to accuse me of giving a bland and platitudinous conclusion to one of the most lively questions of political philosophy, next time you are at a political rally, try shouting, ‘Equality! Hierarchy! Merit!’ You might have some explaining to do.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Open Letter to the President and Board of UD

President Keefe and Members of the Board of Trustees,

Two months ago Pat Fagan's article, "Trouble at the University of Dallas?", set off a firestorm of criticism of the new undergraduate pastoral ministry major. I was among those critics, and I remain skeptical of the program. Nevertheless, I would like to highlight two positive elements of this brouhaha, and suggest a lesson learned.

Firstly, the outpouring of comments from current students and alumni should be seen as a strength. The UD community takes pride in its school, is committed to its orthodoxy and is concerned about its future. Those are good things, things of which the administration of any Catholic university should be proud. I have no doubt that some criticisms may have been imprudent, impolite or ill-informed. I apologize if my own were. But this should not blind us to the positive dimensions of this outpouring nor to the many thoughtful and sincere discussions it prompted.

Secondly, I was very grateful to see the strong response of our bishops, particularly Bishop Farrell's comments. The active engagement of the bishop is a significant element of the university's life, one that has sometimes been missing in the past. Hearing him articulate a forceful commitment to orthodoxy and to evangelization was welcome indeed.

Finally, however, let me suggest that the university's strong defense of the new program was late in coming. I take a keen interest in the affairs of my alma mater, but never saw any communication about the new program. An early announcement that the new program was being considered, and that it had the approval of both bishops, the faculty senate and a committee including members of the Theology Department, would have gone a long way toward denting criticism and grounding the subsequent discussion. The absence of information is, sadly, not an invitation to silence, but to conspiracy theory and rumor. I, and the overwhelming majority of alumni, would like to think the best of our university and its administration. Communicating early and often helps us do that.

Just this morning I spoke with a faculty member of the Bush School of Government and Public Service here at Texas A&M. On learning that I had attended the University of Dallas, he praised its education. Clearly, our reputation precedes us. My thoughts, prayers, and, yes, dollars, are with UD; I hope that the best years are yet to come.

Faithfully yours,

Aaron Linderman, ‘06

Those just now joining the discussion may also find some of these stories of interest:

* Crack in the Wall of Orthodoxy? - National Catholic Register
* Announcement of new Pastoral Ministry Major - University of Dallas
* About the Pastoral Ministry Major - University of Dallas
* UD grads: What's Going On? - And Sometimes Tea blog