Tuesday, May 26, 2009


May 28, 2009

"Witnesses described pervasive abuse as part of their daily lives.... In addition to being hit and beaten, witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned and held under water."
Guantanamo? No. Irish orphanages and reform schools.
Last week, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, appointed by the Irish government, issued its final report after nine years of investigation: 2,600 pages of evidence from the files of over 200 institutions and the testimonies of both staff and residents. The document focuses on the state of these schools over a 60-year period, from the 1930's until the last of them were closed in the 1990's, but traces the history back through the mid-nineteenth century.
Though funded and ostensibly overseen by the government, they were owned and operated by Catholic religious orders, primarily the ironically named Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy. According to the report, instances of abuse, both physical and sexual, were "endemic." They were also kept hidden from the eye of the world by a tight compact of secrecy between the government and the Catholic hierarchy. But as John Banville, who attended middle-class Catholic day schools in Dublin in the 1950's (schools outside the scope of the report), wrote in the New York Times, in Ireland "everybody knew" — or rather, as he said in his closing paragraph, "We knew, and did not know."
What could have brought about this sad narrative? After all, the religious orders that staffed those schools were founded by people appalled by the cruelties visited upon orphaned and abandoned children. Edmund Rice established the Irish Christian Brothers specifically to provide a free education to the poor in a caring, supportive atmosphere. "He was adamant," the report states in its background study, "there should be no physical punishment, which he found contrary to his own spirit. In 1820 he wrote, ‘Unless for some faults which rarely occur, corporal punishment is never inflicted.'" Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831 for similar reasons.
Beginning with the potato famine of 1845, the number of poor and orphaned children increased exponentially, and the number of religious Brothers and Sisters, young men and women themselves seeking refuge from destitution, did too. The British government, hoping to avoid entanglement in Catholic-Protestant rivalry, chose not to operate orphanages and reform schools directly but rather to fund denominational organizations to take care of their own. With money flowing, such institutions proliferated, and the policy was continued by independent Ireland in the twentieth century.
As with all institutions, these congregations of Brothers and Sisters may have veered from their founders' visions because of the pressures of rapid expansion. With lopsidedly disproportionate student-teacher ratios — over a hundred to one in many cases — the schools shifted emphasis from personal care to sweat-shop management, enforcing order by regimentation and the rod. What developed, insidiously and mostly unintentionally, was a culture of cruelty that perpetuated itself from one generation to the next. Ideals of Christian Mercy were buried in the same kind of Victorian expediency that Dickens described in Oliver Twist. Uneducated and unenlightened, newly-professed religious were thrown into packs of wolves — and soon became wolves themselves.
Isolated in their schools, away from the "temptations of the world," they found their own temptations in their own world. And bound by their vow of obedience to their superiors, they disclosed nothing.
There was another element, too — the influence of Jansenism on the Irish religious mentality. A Catholic version of Calvinism propounded by Cornelius Jansen in the seventeenth century, it asserted the essential depravity of the human race and the predestination by God of some to heaven, others to hell. Though condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church, this theology crept into the bones of the Irish and found telling expression in the schools. As Banville writes: "The doctrine of original sin was ingrained in us from our earliest years, and we borrowed from Protestantism the concepts of the elect and the unelect. If children were sent to orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, it must be because they were destined for it, and must belong there. What happened to them within those unscalable walls was no concern of ours."
They knew, and did not know.
Banville acknowledges but does not cite "some notable exceptions" to this attitude. I'll give you one of my own in the next column.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


May 21, 2009

Is the pope Catholic? Is Notre Dame?
You bet. While other colleges with origins in the Catholic Church have been in identity crisis for decades, emphasizing "inclusivity" and relegating their religion to the campus ministry office, Notre Dame University has remained unabashedly proud of the Church and the culture of Catholicism as central to campus life.
That's why it was quite a shocking surprise that the president of Notre Dame, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, invited the president of the United States to speak at the school's commencement exercises. It was also a surprise that Barack Obama accepted.
Both men keenly knew what a fire this could set, a U.S. president committed to abortion rights taking the dias in the intellectual heart of American Catholicism. For months, various bishops had fumed and called on Jenkins to withdraw the invitation, and various Obama supporters had called on him to withdraw the acceptance, fearing a confrontation that might distract from, if not derail, his social and economic agenda.
Neither man backed down.
Introducing the president last Sunday, Jenkins remarked that "he knows well that we are fully supporters of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
"Others might have avoided this venue for that reason," he continued. "But President Obama is not one who stops talking to those who differ from him."
He quoted the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that "respect and love ought to be extended to those who think or act differently than we do in social, political, and even religious matters."
On that the two presidents stood together.
"When we open up our hearts and our minds to those who do not think precisely as we do or believe precisely what we believe," Obama said in his address, "that's when we discover at least the possibility of common ground."
The possibility of common ground, at least for now, lies not in the essence of the abortion debate — the ontological question of when a human fetus becomes a human being with human rights protectable by law — but in nurturing a social environment that reduces the likelihood of abortions in the first place. In his speech, Obama mentioned making adoption easier and providing "care and support for women who do carry their children to term" — things that the Catholic bishops have long encouraged. He called for means to "reduce unwanted pregnancies" — an oblique allusion to birth control, which the hierarchy opposes but most Catholics support — and for a "sensible conscience clause" for those hospitals and medical personnel that oppose abortion — something that Catholic institutions have demanded and abortion- rights opponents oppose.
What Obama did at Notre Dame was to soften the terms of the debate, appealing to the sensibilities of most Americans, who see abortion neither as murder nor as a woman's unrestricted "right to choose." The mood of the country today — and this includes very many Catholics — is not confrontatory but conciliatory, a pulling back from the ideological extremes and a seeking of a middle path that recognizes both the necessity for medically-safe abortion and responsible restrictions of its use.
Obama's appearance at Notre Dame could not have been more timely, for it focused the nation's attention both on his recent appointment of a White House task force to study the issue and on his upcoming nomination of a Supreme Court justice. The explicit goal of the task force is to seek that heretofore elusive "common ground," and it may be the case that Obama will select a jurist with a common-ground approach as well.
Beyond the possibility of common ground in establishing a public policy that encourages birth and discourages abortion, is it also possible for Obama to initiate a civil and sober national discussion on the essential question of abortion, the ontological one? When asked by pastor Rick Warren during the September debate with John McCain, "At what point does a baby get human rights?" Obama jokingly responded that answering that question "is above my pay grade." He later apologized for his flippancy, saying instead that "I do not presume to be able to answer these kinds of theological questions."
Actually, these questions are for most people not theological but philosophical; they arise not from religious belief but from natural intuitions about human identity. The conclusions of Roe v. Wade, themselves a philosophical attempt at an answer that has long been ignored in the shouting, should be brought up and examined by every citizen, regardless of pay grade.
"We know," Obama recognized at Notre Dame, "that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory." Now may be the time for us honestly to air our complexities and contradictions and seek not just the common ground but the common good.
It's the spirit of Notre Dame.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


May 14, 2009

The calls come frequently now: "Where can I buy your honey?"
I've been keeping bees at Genesis Park Community Garden here in the South Bronx for a decade, and word has leaked to the internet: Food bloggers wax poetic over the honeys these bees produce, people Google around for "local honey Bronx" and turn up my name.
Those who call me in the spring usually do not much care how the honey tastes. They want it for medicine.
As they introduce themselves over the phone, even their speech betrays them: Wheezing and congested, they've got pollen allergies. They tell me they've heard through the allergy grapevine that honey from their vicinity can lessen or even cure their affliction. Finding chemical medications either ineffective or repulsive, they're looking for an alternative, natural therapy.
Bees make honey from the nectar of flowering plants, and here in the Northeast, the flower season runs from late March through October. I harvest honey in small batches beginning in June and ending in early fall. By the time allergy season hits hard in May, I have little left to spare. As the eat-locally movement spreads, demand for the bees' magical product leaves me sold out by Christmas. But I always keep back a few jars to distribute to the desperate at dandelion time.
Whether local honey is effective against pollen allergies is unsupported by strict scientific research, mostly because there has been so little of it. As with other natural remedies, honey as a therapeutic agent has been ignored by the medical establishment — understandably, knowing where research money comes from and whither it goes. The website of the National Honey Board, which should have an interest in such things, cites only one peer-reviewed study, done at the University of Connecticut in 2002, in which 36 allergic subjects, divided into three groups, took a daily tablespoon of either local honey, generic honey, or a corn-syrup placebo with synthetic honey flavoring over a 30- week period; the researchers found no difference in the relief of their symptoms.
On the other hand, practitioners of naturopathic medicine quite unanimously assert the contrary: that local honey — and "local" is a relative term; some say a hundred-mile radius is local enough — is "immunotherapeutic," a kind of natural vaccination against pollen allergies. The microscopic pollen grains that waft unseen through the air in spring and fall and trigger allergic reactions are also brought back by bees from their foraging flights and find their way into the honey they make. Eating a spoonful of this honey every day for several weeks before the pollen onslaught allows the immune system gradually to build up tolerance for the invader and minimize or eliminate the reactions.
It makes perfect sense — that's just how a tuberculosis or flu vaccine works.
I find certain problems with this theory, from a beekeeper's standpoint. First, most of the types of pollen that have been identified as principal allergens — right now in New York City, maple, oak, and birch trees are the main culprits — are of little interest to honeybees, because these plants rely on airborne, not insect, pollination. If bees bring these spores back to their honey-factory, it must be in minuscule quantities: Rather than packing them into the pollen-baskets on their legs to be used for food, as they do with attractive plants, they may pick them up incidentally, the tiny grains getting caught in the hairs on their bodies as they fly. But who knows? Perhaps even minute amounts of these pollens present in honey may be enough to placate the immune system.
Second, each allergenic plant blooms only for a matter of days or weeks; thus the honey I harvest in June would contain a different pollen-set than the honey I harvest in August.
These arguments don't seem to bother those who take Bronx honey as medication. They are not fussy as to time of harvest; all the honeys seem to work equally well. I have tracked a number of these clients — you can't really call them customers — over the years, and most of them tell stories of weaning themselves completely off chemical medications with a daily dose of this honey, beginning in February. When I'm in full summertime production, they'll buy cases of honey in advance.
One interesting bit of evidence in support of the vaccination theory comes from a woman in the North Bronx who feels a tingling on her tongue when she takes her daily dose — what I would judge as a mild allergic reaction, like you get from a flu shot.
Of course, it could all be due to the placebo effect — but as research on many more serious afflictions has consistently shown, placebos quite often work, mind vanquishing matter.
Future studies may yet confirm the immunotherapy theory, but, as with the cause, the cure for allergies may be all in your head.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


May 7, 2009

It's been a cold, rainy spring in New York this year. Nature's annual flower show, so often spectacular, is muted in the chilly mists. Early May still feels like early April.

The successions of blooms have appeared later and lingered longer; rather than coming in short bursts that explode like fireworks in warm, sunny years, the colors this season blend into each other like an Impressionist painting.

The first wave of spring is already gone; the cherry and magnolia trees are leafing out, and most of the daffodils are withered and brown. Dogwoods and tulips and tree-peonies have taken their place, and the aliums and irises are sending up stalks that will open soon.

There is much more to look forward to: azaleas and rhododendrons and bush-peonies this month, and roses all into the fall.

For many people of a melancholic cast, the momentum of springtime joy stalls at the daffodils. This prodigious symbol of new life after months of winter barrenness only reminds them of winter barrenness to come. You see this mood broadly in Robert Frost's familiar poem:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Filtered through a consciousness that sees the present only as future past, the cycles of nature are inverted: growth is decline, the sun sets at its rising.

The psychological paradox of the daffodil has preoccupied many poets, the darkest of whom is certainly the seventeenth- century clergyman Robert Herrick:

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attained his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the evensong;
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with you along.

We have short time to stay, as you,
We have as short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die,
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer's rain;
Or as the pearls of morning's dew,
Ne'er to be found again.

You wonder what his Easter sermons were like.

Or consider Ted Hughes, no stranger to the depressive disposition, who published his own "Daffodils" in 1998, a year before his death at age 68 and 35 years after the suicide of his wife Sylvia Plath:

Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember. . . .

We knew we'd live for ever. We had not learned
What a fleeting glance of the everlasting
Daffodils are. Never identified
The nuptial flight of the rarest ephemera -
Our own days! . . .

Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.

There are ways to stall while appearing to act. The carpe diem philosophy, usually thought of as a call to live lustily and existentially, is actually melancholia in disguise, as famously epitomized in another Herrick poem:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

Seize the day! — and watch it crumble in your hand.

The opposite of carpe diem, while appearing to be alike, is the way of Zen Buddhism, the training of the consciousness to live in the present moment, the only real tense. Doing so liberates the self from memory and expectation, the shackles of ever-unfulfilled desire. The cherry tree is cultivated as the centerpiece of the Zen garden precisely because its flowers fade so quickly; they are unspeaking teachers of mindfulness in the immediate.

Then there are ways of integrating time. People who don't stall at the daffodils are invigorated by change. They live their lives as nature does, at ease with time's passage, exulting in each unique beauty of the seasons, preserving the moment in their memories and drawing strength, not regret, from their recollection. This is the rather uncharacteristic sentiment of the usually wistful Romantic poet William Wordsworth's encounter with daffodils:

For oft, when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils.

Avid gardeners must surely have the most holistic attitude toward life, enjoying the present while seeing the past as pathway to the future. As the tulips reach their height, they are busy clipping off the spent stalks of their daffodils and throwing them into the compost pile — to be turned by worms into new soil for next spring. "Deadheading," they call it.

That typographical poet, e. e. cummings, may have been a gardener:

in time of daffodils(who know
the goal of living is to grow)
forgetting why,remember how . . . .

and in a mystery to be
(when time from time shall set us free)
forgetting me,remember me


April 30,2009

Shortly after 10 a.m. on Monday, a Boeing 747 marked Air Force One flew low over Manhattan, dogged by two fighter jets. Within minutes, people began pouring out of downtown office buildings, some rushing down 20 flights of stairs. It was a publicity photo-shoot, but not even the mayor knew that. To those in the skyscrapers, it looked like 9/11 all over again.
Fortunately, there were no injuries stemming from this event, but there could well have been. In the rush down the stairwells, one trip and fall could have led to many.
Panic causes immediate, reactive behavior. With no time to think, adrenalin-fueled acts of self-preservation often result in self-destruction.
Panic affects institutions too, but it works in an institutional way.
The 9/11 attacks threw the nation and its leadership into dazed confusion. There was no discrete enemy, no threatening nation, no army or missile silos to focus a retaliation — just some mysterious underground network of radicals using commercial aircraft as weapons of mass destruction. The supposedly invincible superpower, laden with the highest-tech conventional weaponry, was flummoxed.
Pressed for action, any action, the Bush administration set the juggernaut of institutional panic moving. By calling their initial response a war — the "War on Terror," a mere metaphor, like the "War on Drugs" — they were then compelled to pick some nation to set their conventional war-making machinery against. In less than a month, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, using a prepackaged Pentagon plan to overthrow the Taliban government, all the while claiming it would root out the elusive, highly mobile leadership of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, harbored somewhere there. Panic had forced the use of the wrong tools for the task.
Pressed for action on the domestic front too, the Congress hastily cobbled together a collection of freestanding agencies into the ungainly and unworkable Office of Homeland Security, with its orange alerts and duct-tape advisories. It equally hastily fashioned the so-called Patriot Act, which broadly expanded domestic surveillance. Into this atmosphere of panic entered G. W. Bush's oedipal obsession with finishing his father's job in Iraq in the name of flushing out Al Qaeda — a contrived connection that tapped the well of panic once more and bogged down the American military on two fronts.
It should come as no surprise that White House lawyers started drafting memos justifying the torture of terror suspects as early as January 2002. It is all of a piece, another example of how the initial panic, where the end of self-preservation seems at the moment to justify any means, was codified into policy.
So develops the banality of evil.
What is truly surprising is that the U.S. did not abrogate all its guarantees of civil liberties and barrel headlong into fascism, as has happened so often to other countries in recent history. The resilience of the Constitution once again saved us at the brink.
Should the authors of the torture memos, or those higher up that approved them, or those down below that carried them out, be investigated? Yes. Should they be prosecuted? No.
Prosecution is not the right route because almost everyone in government shares complicity in the torture policy, including Democrats in Congress who were briefed on the subject early on and uttered no word of opposition at the time. To a greater or lesser degree, the entire nation was caught in the web of institutionalized panic, from which we are just beginning to set ourselves free. To prosecute some lets all others off the hook.
An official investigation of the entire dynamic of post-9/11 institutional trauma, including but not limited to detainee torture, is imperative, to mark on the national memory how panic can so easily lead to perversion. Like responders who constantly drill to react automatically and effectively in the moment of emergency, the country as a whole should take this as an opportunity to examine its past actions and prepare itself for the inevitable next crisis.