Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 2007

November 2007

Are We Rome?

By Cullen Mur­phy

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Pages: 262

Price: $24

Review Author: Mitchell Kalpakgian

Is modern America another example of imperial Rome, and does ancient history illuminate the political and cultural fortunes of the U.S. in the 21st century? Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? poses a significant question, speculates about the fate of America, and ponders the important lessons that the history of the Roman Empire offers for the American global hegemony. An erudite scholar of classical Rome and thoroughly knowledgeable about the political issues of the day, the former Editor of The Atlantic Monthly and current Editor of Vanity Fair offers thoughtful reflection on and incisive analysis of American politics with a searching comparison of the two cultures and their two epochs. His final conclusion, however, does not penetrate to the heart of the matter.

In separate chapters, the book compares the two capitals, Rome and Washington, the military strength of both nations, the patronage and cronyism that shaped the political business of the governments, the foreign policy of Rome toward barbarians and the perspective of the U.S. toward other cultures, and the imperial aspirations of both countries. The comparisons are striking: “Rome and America are the most powerful actors in their world…. Their power includes both military might and the ‘soft power’ of language, culture, commerce, technology, and laws.” Both societies are multicultural melting pots “open to newcomers, willing to absorb the genes and lifestyles and gods of everyone else, and to grant citizenship to incoming tribes from all corners of the earth.” Both nations regard themselves as “cities on a hill,” as a chosen race, whose fate is determined by divine authority; both Rome and Washington imagine themselves as the center of the universe, for “as all roads once led to Rome, all computer tanks lead to Washington.” Given these many parallels, what wisdom does the comparison between the Roman Empire and American hegemony yield?

Murphy warns of the dangers of self-delusion. Shortly before the fall of Rome in A.D. 476, the Roman Senate inscribed on newly minted coins Roma Invicta (“Rome Invincible”) — an attitude of denial that Murphy also detects in Washington: “Newsweek ran a cover story in 2005 called ‘Bush in the Bubble,’ because the president and his advisers seemed to be living inside a membrane that kept certain viewpoints in and certain realities out.” Murphy also locates a common problem in both empires: powerful military forces with imperialist notions without the manpower or financial resources adequate to the task, a problem he calls “imperial overstretch.” Murphy also identifies an age-old problem of governments, the “old-boy” system of cronyism, favoritism, bribery, and corruption, “the buying and selling of influence” that destroy the notion of the common good for the sake of private interests. Just as Rome was guilty of patronage, Washington practices “outsourcing” to private businesses in its “multi-billion dollar giveaway” to consultants and think tanks “accountable to no one.”

The Roman attitude toward foreigners and barbarians was one of indifference and scorn — “the Roman disinclination either to understand the minds or credit the capabilities of people unlike themselves” — a smugness that led to several military disasters. The American version of this arrogance is the “messianic streak” to remake the Arab world in the image of American democracy and free markets. So is America Rome, and does history simply repeat itself?

Murphy argues that Rome did not “fall” or disappear because of these problems, but that her decline continued by way of permutation and assimilation: “For generation upon generation, in the aftermath of the empire as before it, life was for more people what it always is: a series of incremental adaptations that only the passage of centuries reveals to have been a radical departure….” This is the same hopeful future that he foresees for America, for American government is “more adaptable, just, and robust than anything Rome came up with in a thousand years. Elections remain a check on power, a crude but as yet sacred way to reorient the compass.” With this conclusion, Cullen’s vigorous, engaging, richly informative argument succumbs to naïve optimism in the face of America’s astounding moral crisis — the unjust war in Iraq, widespread sexual debauchery, and the reign of the Culture of Death — moral issues that the book circumvents. Can America merely evolve, assimilate, and adapt in the midst of rampant divorce and cohabitation, fatherless families, successful agitation for “gay marriage,” the deaths of over 50 million preborn children in the genocide of abortion, and judicial tyranny that bypasses the legislative, democratic process? Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil is not a moral stance that advances a civilization.

Are We Rome? raises many significant issues and uses ethical criteria to judge Rome and America, but it is too “nice,” too tolerant, too non-judgmental in its assessment of both Rome and America’s grave moral vices.

Do Men Mother?: Fatherhood, Care and Domestic Responsibility

By Andrea Doucet

Publisher: University of Toronto Press

Pages: 304

Price: $32

Review Author: Michael S. Rose

I marvel at the fact that we now need books penned by sociologists and anthropologists to confirm what we all once knew and took for granted: that there are significant differences between the sexes. Not just physical and biological differences between men and women — you will recall that women can give birth, men can grow beards — but also in terms of personality, growth, natural ability, and instinct. That girls learn differently than boys ought to be common knowledge. That women socialize differently than men is so obvious it’s almost impolite to mention it.

The “conflation of the sexes” proposition is not new. The assumption that women are vastly different from men was long ago turned on its head. In fact, this late-20th-century phenomenon spawned its own line of literature at least a decade ago. This “gender equality” genre represents two sides of the argument. On one side, the forklift feminists and their male enablers claim that natural differences between the sexes are negligible beyond the “birth vs. beard” absolute. They posit that any apparent differences between men and women can be attributed to environmental factors. Men would be more like women, their argument runs, if they would just embrace feminine traits such as affection, connection, and caring. Women, for their part, would be more masculine if they suppressed these female instincts in favor of focused aggressiveness.

The other side of the argument boldly states the obvious: First, that men and women are indeed different beings, and second, that the sexes are complementary. God had something quite specific in mind when He made the conscious decision to create an Adam and an Eve. Mother Nature is serious business, and it is instructive to note that she has both faith and science firmly on her side. Nevertheless, a whole generation now seems to have accepted the heresy of androgyny, and not without consequences.

For one, if society is ready to accept that no significant differences between the sexes exist, we’re ready to socially reconstruct the definition and institution of marriage to accommodate same-sex unions. Many people see this cause — same-sex “marriage” — as the defining issue of our time, and devote much of their waking hours to advancing this social agenda. Everyone has heard of “gay” activism and its various offshoots — transgender, transsexual, bisexual activism. Much less is known, however, of what might well be called “role-reversal activism.” Accepting the premise that the differences between the sexes are negligible, certain heterosexuals (for lack of a better term, those who don’t claim to be “gay” and aren’t motivated by advancing a homosexual agenda) are promoting the idea of man-as-woman and woman-as-man. Although the fringe extremists, including some self-hating males, advocate developing artificial wombs for men so that they can bear the full labor of maternity, role-reversal activists focus more on social, cultural and familial role reversal of the sexes. Woman-as-man was popularized by the Women’s Lib movement of the 1970s, when it asked a simple question: Why can’t the woman be the breadwinner? Newer is the concept of man-as-woman. One of the many operative questions here is: Why can’t a father be the “mother” to his children? Apparently these people have never seen Mr. Mom, the 1983 family comedy starring Michael Keaton that illustrated, albeit superficially, the sheer ridiculousness of the proposal. Crazy as it might sound to some, the Mr. Mom syndrome (dad stays at home, while mom is out in the corporate world winning the bread) is a growing fad, whose practitioners see it as a symbol of their evolutionary progressiveness.

Andrea Doucet, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Ottawa’s Carleton University, argues in Do Men Mother?: Fatherhood, Care and Domestic Responsibility that the sex (she actually uses the term “gender,” since the word “sex” denotes natural differences) of the person doesn’t matter when it comes to “mothering” children. Nor does she find it odd that modern Canadian couples apparently use economics rather than nature to decide who will “stay at home” with the baby. In most of the cases she discusses, couples jointly decided that Dad should stay at home if Mom had a better-paying job or a more lucrative career. Doucet states that she believes men should become more involved and “in tune” with their children, and that’s admirable. But that doesn’t mean a father should quit his job and assume the role Mother Nature reserved for his wife. For Doucet, who says she’s influenced by American feminist philosopher Sara Ruddick, mother and father are interchangeable; a man is, or can be, just as good at “mothering” as a woman.

Oh, what an insult to mothers and motherhood! I wonder if Doucet will be surprised when Do Men Mother? sends a steady stream of angry stay-at-home moms knocking at her door high up in her Canadian ivory tower. After all, Doucet’s research seems to conveniently neglect even the most obvious facts of biology and physiology. Perhaps the indignant women-mothers will point out to her that their husbands have no breasts — for starters.

Saving Those Damned Catholics

By Judie Brown

Publisher: Xlibris (www.all.org)

Pages: 238

Price: $18.99

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

Judie Brown, President of the American Life League, dispenses some testy straight talk regarding the declining numbers of faithful in the pews and the protection of predator priests. Saving Those Damned Catholics delivers an unequivocal message: These two premier ills afflicting the Church can be laid at the feet of clergy and hierarchy, whose neglect in delivering definitive clarifications of the confusing issues that arose after Vatican II led many Catholics into “cafeteria” temptations regarding liturgical observances, and whose acquiescence in the clerical sex-abuse scandals demoralized the entire flock.

Pope Paul VI’s organization of the Papal Birth Control Commission in 1965 (composed of bishops, priests, and laymen) became a star attraction for journalists, and its very formation led people to conclude that the use of artificial birth control was open to debate and far from settled. Brown invests considerable space showing that many Catholics perceived uncertainty in their leaders regarding birth control, and regarded it as a matter for personal conscience once the Papal Commission itself supported contraception. When Pope Paul’s verdict went against the Commission’s recommendation, the decision appeared to be a political rebuke. Brown asserts, and history proves, that the Church has never recovered from the turmoil. Dermott J. Mullan called this “The Catholic Hiroshima” (NOR, Sept. 2001).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which Brown refers to scornfully as a public-relations board, is accused of issuing “gobbledygook that baffles so many Catholics,” in lieu of clear, precise guidance. On fire as she identifies errant bishops and priests, Brown frequently employs a question-and-answer format that serves up confounding statements by these leaders. The neglect of vigorous instruction on sin, salvation, and damnation in Sunday sermons is a major focus.

A discussion of the current state of Catholic schools brought to mind abuses that saw remediation after Vatican II. Little children were sometimes driven to fear in parochial schools during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s by an overwhelming emphasis on martyrdom and the obsession with preparations for a happy death. Many legalistic bookkeeping exercises examining classifications of sins, levels of Hell, degrees of Heaven, torments of Purgatory, and the abyss of Limbo were toned down in elementary classrooms after Vatican II. Unfortunately, over-corrections of this old teaching model left serious voids in catechetical instruction and inflicted embarrassing affectations on the faithful: the contrived rah-rah of handshaking at the Sign of Peace, and the cheap superficiality of clapping after Baptisms, Confirmations, and choir numbers support Brown’s case for feel-good religion run amok.

Other leadership fiascos by media-loving bishops who follow the way of the wallet are documented, such as widespread “ethics of life” abuses in Catholic hospitals, lax oversight of curricula in parochial schools and Catholic universities, timidity in attacking abortion, and the reluctance to engage Catholic politicians and talking heads in the media who publicly refute Church doctrine. It is astounding to observe how Catholicism (or Catholicism-lite?) is often presented by the media as an ethnic or cultural marker first, and a religious one second — similar to Judaism.

Brown’s blistering assessment of homosexuality among priests and seminarians confirms a collapse of authority, and many clergymen remain unruffled by people’s rage at the calculated, systematic protection of homosexual predators and the odious cover-ups of their crimes by members of the hierarchy. Most of these crimes — not acts of sexual “misconduct,” but crimes — were committed by known homosexuals. Brown recalls that in 1961 “the Vatican Sacred Congregation for Religious prohibited the admission of homosexuals to the diocesan priesthood and religious orders.” After reading this section, readers might wonder whether Holy Orders were truly conferred on homosexual priests, since Church teaching forbids their ordination. If homosexuals are “ordained,” it would appear that their ordinations are false because Church law prohibits homosexuals from receiving this Sacrament at all. Identical logic forms the foundation for annulments. Finding that the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, falsely conferred on ineligible candidates, did not actually occur, is a tenet now commonly invoked.

Although prescriptions of tough love for Catholic relativists ripple through this volume, tough love requires a unified authority with the consistency and will to structure reform. Reforming oneself takes self-discipline; reforming communities takes hardy, unblemished leadership. Brown believes that shepherds with feet of clay can do neither.

The Natural Family: A Manifesto

By Allan Carlson and Paul Mero

Publisher: Spence

Pages: 271

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Dan Flaherty

It is perhaps the most endearing cultural portrait: a mother and father in a peaceful and stable home with a houseful of children running about. It is the portrait of the traditional family — or the “natural family” as Allan Carlson and Paul Mero more accurately describe it. They have written The Natural Family: A Manifesto as a ringing affirmation of this portrait and how best to advance its interests in the public square.

The shift from an agrarian-based to an industrial economy had profound consequences on family life. In the agrarian economy the unique differences between men and women were necessary to the effective functioning of the farm. But the industrial order demanded something different: interchangeable parts. That meant the end of valuing the differences between the sexes. It also meant women who worked no longer did so from home. In the early part of the 20th century, policymaking in Europe and the U.S. was aimed at mitigating these effects. These efforts drew inspiration from Catholic social teaching, particularly Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.

“Family wage” became the operative phrase in Europe; in the U.S., efforts to protect the family came under the title of “child welfare.” But the goal was the same: a system that paid the father a sufficient income to allow the mother to stay at home. The New Deal programs of Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the Depression were a prime example. FDR’s National Recovery Act, for example, codified wage scales paying men 30 percent more than women, and his Works Progress Administration denounced the employment of women with dependent children. Add to that the “survivor’s benefits” and “homemaker’s pensions” paid to widows by a fledgling Social Security, and you have a program decidedly friendly to the natural family. The fruits were seen in a steady rise of the marriage rate between 1935 and 1963.

Policy shifted as anti-family ideologies gained in power and influence after the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Carlson and Mero write that revolutionary ideologies have always seen it necessary to attack the natural family. They show that industrialization was a core part of Hitler’s program and that marriage was actually chosen as a means of resisting the Nazi regime. They note that Karl Marx attacked the family structure, and that the thinkers of the French Revolution, such as Rousseau, also sought to exalt the individual above marriage and the family. They might have further noted a pattern among ethnic U.S. Catholics, with their roots in the Democratic Party, who are being besieged by the radicals on the Right to exchange their heritage for a purer form of individualistic conservatism. But Carlson and Mero achieve their goal of demonstrating a clear pattern wherein revolutionaries seek to sever family sentiments and loyalty as a precondition for launching their attacks.

The Natural Family shows that its subject, far from being unpopular or biased to a particular culture or faith, enjoys wide-ranging support. Majorities in all regions and all cultures affirm the family as the fundamental building block of society.

Carlson and Mero reel off data from a variety of studies that demonstrate that the children of two-parent families perform better, both in school and socially, thus making the natural family the pragmatic, as well as the principled, option. While this information is helpful and supportive of its overall thesis, it reveals a key weak point in the book. Too often, whether drawing on studies or putting forth policy proposals, the authors descend into a recitation of factual litanies. Consequently, it becomes easy for the broader storyline to become lost amid a sea of often redundant data.

Carlson and Mero also lay out the case for the family-owned business. They show that employees of these enterprises tend to be happier in their careers, and employment conditions are generally more conducive to a balanced family life. The small family-owned firm is threatened by corporate move-ins, however, and the reader is reminded of a double injustice — not only is the family business threatened by a corporate competitor, but as taxpayers, they must often subsidize it, through the array of benefits and inducements typically showered upon a corporation by the government.

The Natural Family takes a harsh view of the efforts of pro-family forces in recent decades. The authors state quite candidly that the movement has failed, that it has focused on the wrong goals and does not present a positive vision. Nevertheless, The Natural Family stresses hope over fear, and constructive change over a culture of perpetual complaint. That alone makes it a worthy read.

The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion

By Robert Spencer

Publisher: Regnery

Pages: 224

Price: $27.95

Review Author: Paul Bower

Robert Spencer now ranks among the top ten men wanted by al-Qaeda. In his latest book, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion, the controversial author doesn’t pull his punches. He wages an all-out intellectual war against the world’s fastest growing religion.

Spencer makes his case for the incompatibility of the traditional Muslim ethos with a free society by consulting a vast array of Islamic holy texts with which most Westerners are wholly unfamiliar. At times surprisingly sensational, these texts deal with the stoning of women found guilty of adultery (a practice still in place in Iran, among other countries), the legal age of marriage (still nine years old for girls, and 14 years old for boys in Iran), and the rather blatant anti-Semitic rhetoric found in both the Qur’an and the Hadith (“verily the Jews are [Mu­hammad’s] enemies,” quotes one of the Hadith).

Spencer’s extensive researching of classic Islamic texts is somewhat daunting at first, leaving one amazed at the sheer number of contradictory accounts of the Prophet’s life, each equally accepted by the faithful as being true. In The Truth About Mu­hammad, Spencer focuses as much on the Hadith as he does on the Qur’an. The collected works of early Muslim clerics who supplied biographical and contextual background for the events described by the Qur’an, the Hadith are the absolute authority on any debate between Muslims concerning the meaning of events found in the Qur’an. By giving context to Muhammad’s sometimes unconscionable acts (most famously, marrying a nine-year-old girl when he was in his early 50s), the Hadith create a cultural landscape that adds scope to the sometimes confusing Qur’an, which jumps from scene to scene in the Prophet’s life, often leaving out the names of people who recur (or maybe don’t) throughout the work.

Spencer makes clear that he is not attacking every single person who practices the Muslim faith, only those reactionary individuals who take the Prophet’s life as the literal blueprint for a holy existence in this earthly life. By refusing to update the more unsavory specific practices of their religion, orthodox Muslims find themselves completely alien in any country that adheres to post-Enlightenment ideology. Responding to those who would suggest that Islam is a tolerant religion of peace, at least when it comes to Christians and Jews, Spencer states, “the preponderance of the testimony that the Prophet of Islam left in the Qur’an and Hadith favors not tolerance or harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims, but just the opposite.” His well-documented array of examples of truly brutal acts by current leaders in the Muslim world gives credence to his idea that the practices and doctrine of early Islam are still very much revered by Muslims who have presumably acclimated themselves to the 21st century. Keeping in mind the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in November 2004, The Truth About Muhammad further proves that ideals present in the early days of Islam are in toto contrary to Western liberalism.

Spencer’s somewhat invective tone notwithstanding, The Truth About Muhammad is without a doubt an essential resource, a reliable and duly documented account of who Muhammad really was, and a challenge to those who would assume that his actions and his life are perfectly just within the framework of Western society.

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