Letters to the Editor: October 2022
The Devolution of Human Communication
I read Jason M. Morgan’s column “’Tis Pity We’re All Whores” (Cultural Counterpoint, Jul.-Aug.) with great interest because I agreed from the get-go. In fact, I’ve been agreeing for two decades now. I was in high school when email became widely used, and I was scandalized that we had dropped the good and faithful pen, paper, and stamp. How could we ever be content with emails if we had the joyful experience of writing and receiving letters, postcards, and even the odd small package for birthdays or Christmas? Surely, mankind wouldn’t allow relationships to be debased by email?
Well, first it was email, then SMS, then swipes, and then likes — and human communication is still devolving.
The only people sensible enough to care about this might consider taking Morgan’s lead and “deleting” their accounts and “walking away” from social media, but 99 percent won’t. Do we leave the 99 percent to wallow in the gutter, and let them shape the world from that gutter? Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok are shaping the world, whether we like it or not. Is there no better and wiser way of resistance?
Can the Internet not be transformed? Should we not advocate for platforms that are not based on algorithms, followers, and likes but on quality of content? And if not, why not?
I enjoyed Jason M. Morgan’s column for two reasons.
The first is that he writes without the academic verbal pomposity that requires readers to have a dictionary at hand to understand the definition of every third word. In New York we used to say, “He tells it like it is.” The second reason is that Morgan has the pluck to rake social media over the coals.
I could have written Morgan’s next-to-last paragraph myself because it precisely reflects my feelings about social media. I quote Prof. Morgan: “Yes, boastfully, I declare: I have no social media. I have always been against it. Tweeting, Instagramming, and SnapChatting have always given me the creeps. I signed up for Facebook more than a dozen years ago to see some vacation photos a friend wanted to show me. Being on Facebook was like living in the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window. It gave me the willies. I bolted after a few months. Never looked back…. Don’t waste your one mortal existence counting likes in twisted fantasyland.”
I, too, signed up for Facebook in its early days and soon realized how moronic it is. I imagine my page is still floating around cyberspace because I never bothered to delete it.
If you do feel a need to share your business with the world, get a free WordPress website. It’s easy to do. And please don’t use the “I’m too old to learn that stuff” excuse. I’m 93, and I post an online newsletter every month. If I can do it, then erudite NOR readers can do it. It will help keep your brain sharp. The beautiful thing is, you can write and post photos of whatever you want, and you will never be locked out for spreading the new evil of our age, “misinformation.”
As a longtime user of social media, I read Jason M. Morgan’s screed against it two or three times. His criticisms are spot-on, and his antidotes well put. If I may suggest more alternatives to the Internet to accompany Morgan’s, there are plenty of opportunities to perform the corporal works of mercy. Every parish has a list of older or handicapped people who would welcome a daily or weekly telephone call or even an in-person visit. And there are plenty of soup kitchens and crisis-pregnancy centers that would be delighted to have more volunteers. This only scratches the surface of the need.
There is a larger history to the concept of “self-branding” as Morgan describes it that’s inherent to the social-media experience. The desire to “make a name for ourselves” is as old as the Tower of Babel. And the widespread desire to stand out from the crowd is a manifestation of the sin of pride; indeed, in hoping that this letter is published, I am probably falling prey to that very sin. That a term used to describe something done to cattle and slaves is now being applied to social-media users is telling.
Each of us, on one day or another, will stand up before God and give an account of our lives. I realized long ago that I did not want to have to tell Him that I spent the life He gave me clicking “like” on cat videos.
John F. Fay
JASON M. MORGAN REPLIES:
Barbara Morris pays me a compliment I won’t forget. In my day job, I find myself throwing curveballs and changeups, but in my NOR columns, I want to blaze right down the middle with every pitch. If I ever get a big head and try getting fancy in locution, I hope NOR readers will send me to the dugout. “Telling it like it is” is salvation for my wayward soul.
Morris makes an excellent point, namely, that the Internet is good for sharing what we write. That’s an important distinction. I wrote a paper recently for an academic conference about something called “Internet feudalism” (worth looking up, along with “digital Maoism”), in which I argue that the Internet is a good way to exchange information. I don’t see anything wrong with using the Internet as a means for sending and receiving articles and other research material. In fact, I use the Internet almost every day to find papers and documents in databases from around the world. My day job would be much, much harder if I had to flip through library catalog cards (remember those?) every time I wanted to get a back copy of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper from 1962.
The problems arise when we try to live our lives online. This necessarily disembodies us, turning us into spectral avatars that exist only in cyberspace. And it makes us prey to darker forces. When we lose our God-given identity as human beings, we fall into what Victor Davis Hanson called, in comparing Big Tech and Big Cotton, “the feudal politics of the new plantationists.” Silicon Valley is feudal to its core. It draws the world in as slaves to work its sprawling cyber fields. Not good. Not good for the soul, which needs a body to be human in this life.
God created me in this pudgy frame (well, probably the extra heaps of sugar I put in my coffee, not God, cause the pudginess), and it’s in this body that I must live the life I have been given. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so forth twist our lives into unreality. We lie just by logging on. We pretend to be something we’re not. I don’t mean we pretend to be models in Thailand or whatever, although there’s a lot of Photoshopping and dramatic poses that surely don’t reflect everyday life. I mean that when we upload images and correspond with others online, we pretend we are online. That’s weird and wrong. It draws us out of our bodies and turns us into oligarchs’ proprietary ghosts. No thank you. That would be like going to the library not to flip through the card catalog but to crawl up on the shelves and pretend to be one of the books.
John F. Fay gives advice I will take about the corporal works of mercy. What a beautiful reminder, from Fay and from the Church, that we live in the body and that our brothers and sisters live in the body, too. And Fay makes another excellent point: A symbol singed onto a bull’s rump is not a good metaphor for accentuating our individuality online. It should be obvious: We don’t brand ourselves; we are branded by others, as a mark of ownership. And who honestly wants that?
Julia Caline elegantly states the problem and asks a fundamental question. The Internet is debasing us. Can it be reformed? I would say probably not. The reason is that there’s no there there and, worse, no who there, no people on the Internet. (This goes back to “digital Maoism,” a phrase coined by Jaron Lanier in an essay — online! — I wish everyone would read.)
This ties into Morris’s final point. “Misinformation” is lying. In person, it is usually pretty easy to tell when someone isn’t telling the whole truth. Liars’ eyes dart. They perspire and fidget. They change the subject abruptly. They face social consequences, too, like losing friends and becoming isolated. But in the hive mind of the Internet (digital Maoism again!), “misinformation” is the default mode of discourse. It is all too easy to con non-people. It is all too easy to lie when you don’t have a body to betray you and can therefore let your imagination run wild.
To that point, I don’t think the famed “72 genders on Facebook” are a separate phenomenon that can be reformed. That’s because it is possible on Facebook, where nobody shows their real face, for there to be 72 genders. But that’s a fairytale that would be impossible to live out for anyone who has a human body made of flesh and bone. Online, it is all too easy to lie to others — and to ourselves — in this way. If we really want to stop the gender madness in America, we ought to try unplugging kids’ computers and making them go play outside. That’s how they stand at least a fighting chance of growing up sane and not thinking that they were born in the wrong body.
Unplugging is also how we learn to be good to one another, to love one another as Christ taught us. In person, I can recognize my brother or sister in Christ as a fellow human being, someone of infinite worth and dignity. Online, what’s the difference between a Twitter user and a Twitter bot? There isn’t one. Most of us act accordingly, by treating the online “Other” as a means to our own ends. That’s not good for the Other and not good for us.
I’ve been working on some projects recently about Emmanuel Levinas’s beautiful arguments about the importance of seeing the face of the Other and how ethics flows from that encounter, and also about object-oriented ontology, which I see as a way of jolting us out of our online madness. I hope to bring these things into future NOR columns, Deo volente.
In the meantime, please keep checking your mailbox, friends. The metal one, probably on a wooden stake driven into the ground outside your house or apartment. I’ll meet you there again in paper and ink soon enough!
Edifying & Salubrious
Rarely have I taken such surprised delight in an NOR article as I did in Karl Keating’s “A Life’s Worth of Failure, An Abundance of Gratitude” (Jul.-Aug.). Perhaps this reaction is a reflection, in part, of my advancing age and unavoidable inclination to begin taking stock as I look back over my own life.
Keating can count great achievements in his life as founder of the Catholic Answers apologetics apostolate and author of numerous works of great value to apologists. I remember first hearing him speak at a “Defending the Faith” conference in Steubenville, Ohio, where he remarked that “Protestants worship God in their way, and we Catholics worship God in His way.”
Nevertheless, I found Keating’s humble ruminations on his life’s failures and what he’s learned from them altogether edifying and salubrious. Keating writes well. His narrative is both fluid and captivating. His allusions (Gunsmoke, T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” Augustine’s City of God, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Dr. Johnson’s London and Samuel Johnson’s colorful lodgers) are wholly engaging.
Most of all, I appreciated his discussion of the value of Johnson’s work, and his quotation of Johnson’s daunting challenge that “a young man could make something of himself if he read five hours a day.” This, along with Keating’s admission to having two bookcases devoted to works by or about Johnson, reminded me of a lacuna in my own reading. I have yet to delve into a book by Samuel Johnson! I plan to remedy that.
Finally, Keating’s concluding reflection on the parable of the talents and the equivocity of the word talent, which can mean either money or a skill, reminds us that whether we have the former, we all have one sort or another of the latter, with which we hope to have done something “useful, good, or beautiful” by the time we come to give an account to our Lord.
Professor of Philosophy, Sacred Heart Major Seminary
A Failure of Papal Responsibility
Regarding the institution of the Novus Ordo Missae, Thomas Storck writes, “I’m far from sure that Paul VI didn’t have the authority to do what he did, even if his actions were gravely mistaken” (letters, Jul.-Aug.). There is absolutely no question that Pope Paul VI had the authority to do exactly what he did. As the chief lawgiver of the Church, the pope has unlimited authority over all aspects of the spiritual and temporal goods of the Church, and it is equally certain that he answers to no one, save the Trinity itself.
The pope’s authority over the goods of the Church is not what’s in question; rather, it’s his responsibility toward those goods. The pope has the authority to order the destruction of St. Peter’s Basilica and sell the resulting debris for scrap. He could order all Eastern-rite Catholics to dump the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and celebrate Mass according to the Roman rite. However, he has the responsibility to do neither of these things because of the serious material and spiritual destruction these actions would cause. When a man inherits the papal office, he becomes the custodian of all the Church possesses, and it is his responsibility to hand on that which he has received.
The Traditional Latin Mass dates, in nearly all its essentials, to at least the fourth century. Changes were made, of course, but the structure and ordinary prayers of that Mass had stood for centuries as a bulwark against heresy and a chain connecting succeeding generations of Christians to their ancestral roots. By imposing his new Mass on the Church and attempting (clumsily and unsuccessfully) to root out the ancient Mass, Paul VI failed in his responsibility toward the Church’s most prized possession: her mode of worship, “the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven,” as Fr. Frederick Faber, a 19th-century Oratorian and contemporary of John Henry Newman, famously called it. Paul VI’s abuse of power and total disregard for the obvious chaos and destruction his actions would cause represent perhaps the most serious dereliction of papal responsibility in the history of Christendom.
The balance between authority and responsibility is often delicate and difficult to maintain. In this case, however, there was no attempt at any sort of balance. Paul VI’s imposition of the Novus Ordo was an exercise of raw ecclesiastical power on an unsuspecting and, in many cases, unwilling faithful. Pope Benedict XVI, in Summorum Pontificum, tried to restore that balance, only to see his heroic effort undone by his successor, Pope Francis, in Traditionis Custodes. When papal power is abused to this degree, obedience to the diktat becomes an open question.
Obedience to papal command has long been a hallmark of Christian behavior. Indeed, the motto Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia (“Where Peter is, there is the Church”) has long been the standard of Christian unity. But the Church has seldom, if ever, in her history faced such a failure of papal responsibility. The consequences of this failure can no longer be denied, if, indeed, they ever could.
Regarding Ukraine, Francis Is Right
Pieter Vree reports on the “four scholars who have been solidly in Francis’s camp — including Massimo Faggioli, one of the Pope’s loudest American hype men,” who questioned the Pope for wondering “whether ‘NATO barking at Russia’s gate’ had compelled Putin to invade Ukraine” (“The Great Deformer,” New Oxford Notebook, Jul.-Aug.).
The answer to Francis’s question is yes. The United States and NATO have been plotting to get Ukraine and Georgia into NATO for the past 14 years. At its 2008 Bucharest summit, NATO openly declared that those two nations on the border of Russia “will become NATO members.” Putin has never made any declarations that he seeks to bring Ukraine under Moscow control, but he has said that if NATO advances to Russia’s doorstep, he will see that as an existential threat.
The West, under the leadership of the United States, has this insane idea of wanting to humiliate Russia; to this end, we have spent the past eight years training the Ukrainian military to the point where Ukraine is already almost effectively part of NATO. Whatever we think of Putin’s invasion as a response, he has said out loud over and over again that he would not stand for this.
So Francis was spot on, and The New York Times (presumably) is still cheerleading Joe Biden’s maniacal plan to humiliate Russia and bring catastrophe to the people of Ukraine.
Sheffield, South Yorkshire
PIETER VREE REPLIES:
In my subsequent column, “Neocon Hubris & the Battle for Ukraine” (Sept.), I explored this very topic. I must, however, offer a gentle corrective to Mr. Hanaghan’s timeline. The West’s “plot” to admit Ukraine to NATO predates 2008. As I recount in my column, Robert Kagan plumped for the plot two years earlier, during the halcyon days of high neoconservatism, as part of a messianic scheme to democratize the world. He wrote of Russia as a potential obstacle to “the West’s vision of humanity’s inexorable evolution toward democracy.”
A full seven years before that, the plot was already percolating. In fact, the brew was strong enough that Patrick J. Buchanan would warn, in his 1999 book A Republic, Not an Empire, that “by moving NATO onto Russia’s front porch, we have scheduled a twenty-first century confrontation.”
And that confrontation arrived right on time.
The fallout from Biden’s “mania” might not be limited to the poor, suffering people of Ukraine. It’s not difficult to imagine that Putin interprets America’s effort on behalf of Ukraine — training troops and spending billions of dollars in “security assistance” — as an act of aggression. And then what? Will we be facing the prospect of nuclear war with Russia, more than three decades after the end of the Cold War? And for what? For a rebooted, Bush-era fever dream that involves America dispensing blessed democracy to the benighted of the world?
A Blessing Behind Bars
I am writing to ask if I might be eligible for a scholarship subscription for indigent prisoners. I saw your ad in the National Catholic Register, and I thought many times about writing to ask if it might be possible to obtain a free subscription. But something stopped me — probably the fear of your saying no and my wasting a stamp.
Then, by chance, an inmate from a different part of the prison asked if I wanted to read his copy of the NOR. Of course, I said yes. And wow, what a great periodical you have! It is just as advertised, and just as I imagined it to be. Then I saw the Scholarship Fund notice in that issue. That was the answer to my prayer!
I am in a dorm with 52 men, and a few are Catholic. I started a Benedictine Oblate program here with the assistance of the priest and visiting deacon who used to come here a few years ago. We started with three men and now have over 15 attending weekly group-prayer meetings. I am sure the other men (Catholics and non-Catholics) in my dorm would learn something from reading the NOR. I believe it would make some non-Catholics question why they aren’t coming to Catholic services and RCIA.
I have no family here and no real support system. I have a zero balance in my trust fund, and I owe the courts $700. I have no means to pay for a subscription at this time, but I would be grateful for one from you.
Thank you for your dedication to informing us of important issues in our Church that need to be discussed and for enlightening the uninformed and the ignorant (as I am sometimes).
Peter John Ellington
Charles T. Terrell Unit
One of the members of the local parish brought your magazine to the prison. I love it. Prison does not make it easy to keep God in our hearts and our lives. Good and up-to-date information and stories about God’s work are hard to get in here. If you could help me receive the NOR on a regular basis, I would be most grateful. If you can’t, I understand.
May God work through you and me to help better others’ faith in Him.
French M. Robertson Unit
I would like to renew my subscription, preferably under the scholarship program. If that is no longer available, please advise as to the cost, and I will try to find a way to come up with the money.
As a “revert” from evangelical Christianity, I enjoy your magazine immensely and always find new and challenging content to think about. I appreciate the NOR’s perspective, as most of the magazines available through our prison chapel are of the evangelical/fundamentalist variety.
Wilfred H. Bergeron
New Hampshire State Prison
Concord, New Hampshire
I am so thankful to the NOR and all who donate to the Scholarship Fund. May God reward all of you!
During my incarceration, I have been seeking ways to make more spiritual use of my time and to lead a more ascetic lifestyle as an offering to God and Our Lady. It dawned on me that I could probably live a pretty monastic life under prison conditions. I had already made a full consecration to Our Lady and prayed the traditional Little Office. Then the Lord answered my prayers when I came across an article in the Tennessee Register, the official paper of the Diocese of Nashville, about a deacon who started a “monastic” order for inmates called the Order of St. Moses the Black (Ordo Sancti Mosis Nigri). The story of St. Moses the Black (or, in the Orthodox Church, St. Moses of Ethiopia) is very relatable to convicts. He is an ideal patron for a “monastic order” of convicts.
We have a rule, consisting of morning and evening prayer (the Divine Office), fasting and abstinence, daily recitation of the Liturgy of the Most Precious Blood, the Rosary and Jesus Prayer, and more. It’s not too difficult, and it’s very satisfying!
I thank the NOR and its readers for blessing inmates with scholarship subscriptions. St. Moses the Black, pray for us!
Patrick J. Corrigan
Turney Center Industrial Complex
Please renew my scholarship subscription. Thank you to all who make this possible. Multiple inmates, who comprise our small Catholic community in this location, read each issue. There is a “line” to read the one copy I receive each month.
Hardee Correctional Institution
Bowling Green, Florida
Thank you for continuing to send me a scholarship subscription. I read each issue cover to cover and then pass it on to another Catholic brother, and sometimes to a non-Catholic. One man converted after reading a few issues!
George Beto Unit
Tennessee Colony, Texas
Thank you for your offer of a one-year scholarship renewal, which I gratefully accept. My apologies for the delay in responding; our prison had been out of envelopes for some time.
The NOR has been a source of great comfort and motivation to me. I was raised in a different faith tradition, and I have to admit that my misconceptions about the Church were myriad. Through the kindness of a friend, I was introduced to the NOR here at the prison where I am serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. His instructive friendship and the conversations we’ve had on the topics in the NOR have done much to help me find purpose in my (hopefully redemptive) journey. I very much appreciate the spiritually and intellectually uplifting messages, as well as corrections to said misconceptions, found in the NOR.
I wish you success in continuing to help others — as you have helped me — finding or renewing a relationship with God.
High Desert State Prison
Indian Springs, Nevada
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