The Case Against Notre Dame Trustee Cathie Black


“For we let our young men and women go out unarmed, in a day when armor was never so necessary.  By teaching them all to read, we have left them at the mercy of the printed word.  By the invention of the film and the radio, we have made certain that no aversion to reading shall secure them from the incessant battery of words, words, words.   They do not know what the words mean; they do not know how to ward them off or blunt their edge or fling them back; they are a prey to words in their emotions instead of being the masters of them in their intellects.”
– Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning, 1947

“Catholic Universities will seek to discern and evaluate both the aspirations and the contradictions of modern culture, in order to make it more suited to the total development of individuals and peoples.  In particular, it is recommended that by means of appropriate studies, the impact of modern technology and especially of the mass media on persons, the family, and the institutions and whole of modern culture be studied deeply.”
– John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990


Trustee Black

In the springtime of 2011, Notre Dame Trustee Cathie Black resigned from her position as New York City Schools Chancellor.

Appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the magazine industry veteran faced stiff public criticism for her lack of education experience and stepped down after only 95 days on the job.

Thanks to a freedom of information act disclosure, the public has been given an insider’s view of the fight by Black to retain her appointment.  In one particular email chain, Black plans to persuade a skeptical public through a celebrity endorsement from Oprah Winfrey.

Mayor’s aid to Cathie Black:  “Please call Oprah.  She’s received both emails from you and Gayle and would like to clarify who she should call and what she should say.”

Cathie Black:  “[I] know that you and Dennis Walcott have been talking also by email.  All of this is coming down to the wire.  What Dennis hopes to do is a brief exclusive telephone call with adam lisberg of the Daily News in which Oprah would offer her support.”

Mayor’s aid (later):  “Walking past the newsstand this afternoon, I was surprised to learn that we succeeded . . . “

The front page headline in the New York Daily News that day read:

Unknown-2“O Backs Cathie.  Talk-show queen gushes over Bloomy’s controversial pick” 

This questionable mass media tactic contradicts the academic ethos of a would-be chancellor.  Its tabloid style is a kind of “battery of words, words, words” to which education reformist Dorothy Sayers might have referred.

In fact, the entire episode of Black’s selection and rejection as Chancellor raises questions about her role as an ND Trustee.

As an executive with deep ties to the media industry, does her presence endanger the institutional autonomy and truth-based discourse that are essential to the Catholic university model?

Does she by her attitudes and judgement threaten the integrity of academic speech and expression at Notre Dame?

In the end, does she help improve, or contribute to a hollowing out of, Notre Dame’s culture?

Despite her high-profile failure in New York, this May the Board of Trustees extended an honor not extended to all Trustees, elevating Black to Trustee Emeritus.  Thus, it is timely to try to understand more clearly the nature of her role in ND governance.

Back in Black:  Her Career and Background

As Chairman of Hearst Magazines through 2010, Black supervised a portfolio of iconic American titles, including Cosmopolitan, O – The Oprah Magazine, Seventeen, Town and Country, Esquire, Popular Mechanics and others.

She began her career in advertising sales for Holiday magazine, and in 1979 became the first female publisher of a US weekly consumer magazine, New York.  From 1983, as President and Publisher of USA Today and Executive Vice President of its parent company, Gannett, Black oversaw the paper’s breakout success.

Black’s resume impresses greatly for its trajectory as well as her board and community activism.

Black is a member of the international think tank Council on Foreign Relations and in addition serves or has served on the following boards:  IBM, The United Way, The Coca-Cola Company, The Advertising Council, Trinity University, The Kent School, the Harlem Village Academies Charter School and others.

Checkout Counter Journalism vs. University Speechimages-3

Both Notre Dame and the magazine industry rely predominantly on the same kind of toolkit — one built on language — in pursuit of their respective end goals.

The commercial nature of Hearst’s journalistic content and ad copy is well-accepted and even celebrated as part of the fabric of modern culture.

But when commercial speech is co-mingled with university speech, as can happen when a magazine executive acts in a governance role, the latter can become tainted.

According to the official NYC Schools Chancellor Announcement, regarding her impact at Notre Dame, Black “has been involved in educational issues affecting the university, and in approving curriculum changes, and high level institutional appointments.”

While it’s difficult to know the full scope of influence of a Trustee, a good place to start would be the issues, curricula changes, and personnel decisions that Black claims to have influenced.

Likewise, given her role on the University Relations and Public Affairs and Communications Committee, one could easily wonder how Black has impacted the ND Administration’s approach to managing its relationship with alumni, students, and other stakeholders who are often reached through the media.

Given the University’s penchant for self promotion, we might wonder about Black’s contribution to a strategy that, while it creates a polished “product,” obfuscates more than it reveals, and tends to bury the need for institutional self-reflection that would only be possible with a more truthful public discourse.

Hearst:  Planting Political Memes in Pop Cultureimages-2

In a speech several years ago in Atlanta, ND President Jenkins spoke of the importance of epistemic humility when discoursing with those who hold spiritual beliefs different from one’s own.  By comparison Hearst Corporation appears to embrace an attitude of epistemic hubris.  The company’s media rarely blush as they crow over developments in fashion, beauty and, yes, even geopolitics.

In fact, the incongruity of Esquire Magazine, the sexy monthly that dishes on Beautiful Women, Men’s Fashion, Best Music and Drink Recipes, owning the beat on the world’s number one terrorist can truly cause one to question the order of things.

In February 1999 when Osama bin Laden was still an obscurity to most Americans, Esquire threw a coming out party for him.  The imaginatively titled  Greetings, America.  My Name is Osama Bin Laden.  A Conversation with the most dangerous man in the world titillated with an intimate, even glamorous, account of the up-and-coming evil-doer.  But its length at 7,000-plus words begged the question of where Bin Laden found his publicist.  In other words how did an unknown terrorist lay claim to a novella in a mainstream American fashion rag?

More recently Esquire scored a first person account of the Bin Laden takedown from the US Navy Seal assassin himself.

In The Man Who Killed Osama Bin Laden…is Screwed, February 2013a single, non-independent, anonymous source furnished a gripping though unsubstantiated tale.  This combination would fail to meet normal journalistic standards and the even higher standards of an academic environment as at Notre Dame.

Importantly, the story seemingly offered confirmatory evidence of the Bin Laden assassination itself–that corpse-less event that our leaders watched in real-time but which was declared on faith to the American public without DNA and other physical evidence, despite appeals for such evidence by the major media.

If one harbors doubts that American pop culture can be susceptible to propaganda, he should recall that the 1980’s film Rambo III was dedicated to “the gallant people of Afghanistan” and that the film romanticized the groups that are today’s Taliban and Al Qaeda.  This is not to say that shifting strategic winds can’t warrant shifting alliances; only that the placement of national geostrategy memes in mainstream American entertainment cannot happen by chance.

In the two examples above this writer believes Esquire and Hearst have served as conduits for disinformation.  Hearst has a strong historical association with ‘yellow journalism‘–a kind of catch-all for interweaving fantasy with fact to mobilize public opinion around already-fixed foreign policies.  With magazine product and other media in one hundred countries, Hearst has a tremendous capacity to touch the public mind.

Council on Foreign Relations and Control of Education

Unknown-4Had Black simply brought her vast Hearst Corp experience to Notre Dame, she would be less conspicuous, but when one looks at Hearst, her NYC Schools appointment, and her ND Trusteeship in combination with her Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) membership, he is forced to wonder about Black’s integrated world view and where Notre Dame fits.

To the extent they conflict, how would Black choose to priority-rank the value systems of each of these institutions?  In particular, would she place Notre Dame higher than Hearst and the Council on Foreign Relations?  Or would ND fall below the other two?

If the latter, this implies that Notre Dame’s research complex and its undergraduate student experience could be subordinated to some degree, both in context and content, to powerful political and commercial interests.

Indeed, CFR’s desire to subordinate educational autonomy at the primary and secondary schools level appears in a recent CFR Education Task Force report co-authored by Black’s predecessor at NYC Public Schools, Joel Klein.  The report recommended an increased presence in the traditionally locally-controlled public education sphere by the national security apparatus, including Department of Defense and the intelligence services, in the name of national security.  These proposed widespread measures would include:  expanding the State Standards Program known as Common Core from two subject matter areas to five; subjecting standards to review by the Defense Policy Board which advises the US Secretary of Defense; implementing centralized tracking of student grades and test results; implementing an annual national security readiness audit of schools; and conducting periodic national media advertising campaigns linking student performance to national security.

Besides the eerie 1930’s Europe feeling the report engenders, these recommendations have troublesome implications in terms of who controls American public education — parents, families and local communities, or military intelligence and a private think tank.

Closing ThoughtsUnknown-3

In his 1990 directive on the Catholic university, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II highlighted the importance of academia acting as a carrier for truth and as a cultural resistant to the mass media industry.

The document described a winner takes all battle for no less than control over the meaning of the human person.

In such a battle, it is too much to ask this longtime media executive to balance opposing imperatives:  one that, clouded by profit and power, bends language toward its own ends; and the other that, to harmonize faith and reason in a search for truth, relies on speech and expression uncontrolled by outside interests, and the sacrosanctity of words.

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Notre Dame Professor: “Two Cheers for Drones”

Droney SaysIn a November op-ed piece in the Irish Rover, “Two Cheers for Drones: The ethics of UAV’s in the war on terror,” Notre Dame political science Professor Michael Desch argued for the ethics of drone warfare.  In doing so, he omitted discussion of key moral features of the drone question.  In addition, his professional relationship with the CIA and Department of State calls into question his objectivity.

Professor Desch begins by invoking the Catholic Tradition for Just War and outlines his arguments as follows:

Given that al Qaeda declared war on us on February 1998 and launched a series of escalating attacks on our embassies, warships, and finally our territory itself on September 11, 2001, our military response fits the requirements of a just decision to go to war, which include that it be conducted by the proper authority (the US government), with right intention (to destroy al Qaeda), that it have a reasonable chance of success, that the end be proportional to means employed, and that it be the last resort.

As Americans, we are deeply familiar with Desch’s premise that our primary justification for invading Afghanistan rests with the terror attacks of and leading up to 9/11.  However, Desch’s characterization of the Tradition’s requirements failed to include the overarching requirement, which is that war be defensive in nature—“legitimate defense by military force” according to the Catholic Catechism.  The Church is clear, therefore, that wars of aggression violate the principles of Just War.

More specifically, in the case of the Afghanistan War, a drone hotspot, a review of publicly available information leading up to the US invasion suggests that it was a war of aggression.  The goals appear to be three-fold: to seek retribution for a failed pipeline venture, to cause a change of regime, and to secure the country for transit and extraction of oil and other natural resources.

Kabobs and Boiled Peanuts:  The Taliban Go To Texas

A senior delegation from the Taliban movement in Afghanistan is in the United States for talks with an international energy company that wants to construct a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan to Pakistan.  A spokesman for the company, Unocal [Union Oil Company of California], said the Taliban were expected to spend several days at the company’s headquarters in Sugarland, Texas.  Unocal says it has agreements both with Turkmenistan to sell its gas and with Pakistan to buy it.  A BBC regional correspondent says the proposal to build a pipeline across Afghanistan is part of an international scramble to profit from developing the rich energy resources of the Caspian Sea.  (Source: BBC, Taliban in Texas for talks on gas pipeline, Dec. 4, 1997.)

The pipeline deal would later fall apart over the price the consortium would pay to the Taliban, and military threats ensued.

Your Choice:  A Carpet of Gold or a Carpet of Bombs

Until now, former French intelligence officer Jean-Charles Brisard and intelligence analyst Guillaume Dasquie report, ‘the oil and gas reserves of Central Asia have been controlled by Russia.  The Bush government wanted to change all that.’ However, confronted with the Taliban’s refusal to accept US conditions,’this rationale of energy security changed into a military one.’  In an interview in Paris, Brisard noted that ‘At one moment during the negotiations, the US representatives told the Taliban, either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs.’ (Source: War on Truth, Ahmed, 2005)

In light of demonstrated motive and intent for a war of aggression, the idea that the war was defensive in nature becomes tenuous.  Given the involvement of many countries as planning sites for the 9/11 attacks that we did not later invade, including Germany, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the Philippines, the terror attacks appear to have been used as a pretext for a campaign that had been long planned for Afghanistan.

Many public reports circulated regarding such plans prior to 9/11, the following being one example.

India and Iran will only play the role of ‘facilitator’ while the US and Russia will combat the Taliban from the front with the help of two Central Asian countries, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan… Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will lead the ground attack with a strong military backup of the US and Russia. Vital Taliban installations and military assets will be targeted. India and Iran will provide logistic support. (Source: India Reacts, June 2001, as quoted in War on Truth, Ahmed)

On Proportionality and Chances for Success

The aggression question notwithstanding, let’s consider Desch’s other arguments.  After his general argument for going to war, he moves on to address the drone question more directly and touts the ability of drones to save American lives and reduce collateral damage.

The United States also has very capable Special Operations Forces, such as the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six which can operate surgically against terrorist figures.  But the failed Ranger/Delta operation in Mogadishu in 1993 makes clear that such operations can easily go very wrong, not only in terms of friendly casualties (19 US soldiers were killed and almost 100 were wounded) but also in terms of collateral damage…

In a speech in Atlanta one year before his resignation, General David Petraeus promoted drones with great enthusiasm, also proclaiming a lowered risk to American troops.

But the nature of drone warfare does not square with these characterizations of it.

"In the Crosshairs" by artist Johanna Poethig

Collateral Damage:  In the Crosshairs           by Johanna Poethig

I would challenge the General and the Professor on the grounds that removing the human agent from war, as is the effect of grounding the pilot, automates the taking of life.  This carries two ominous consequences.

First, the identity of the pilot as the bombardier of record has long provided a coincidental governor on the morality of conflict.  Separating the pilot from the aircraft inserts moral distance from the event, as the chain of responsibility for the killing grows longer and more convoluted according to the many specialized roles drone missions entail.

Second, the risk that pilots would normally incur presumably acts as a forcing mechanism for mission selectivity which accounts for the worth and safety of the pilot.  Eliminating this mechanism could cause otherwise marginal or even reckless missions to proceed unchecked.

Though difficult to confirm due to the secrecy of the drone program, one would therefore expect a disturbing combination of: less accountability, more missions, and more cumulative collateral damage and noncombatant casualties.

Desch adds further color to his theme of discriminate warfare:

In terms of conducting the war justly through discriminate and proportional operations, Obama’s approach has also been more in accord with the Tradition’s requirements.  Indeed, armed unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) are among the most discriminate of all weapons. … Consider the alternatives: the Air Force and Navy also have highly accurate laser-guided bombs that they have used to target al Qaeda figures, but the smallest of these has over 10 times the explosive power of the Hellfire Missile, raising significant chances for collateral damage and the harming of non-combatants.

But even a former Petraeus aid has made competing assertions.

David Kilcullen, the counter-insurgency expert who had worked closely with Gen. David Petraeus and is currently in charge of the US/NATO military operations in Afghanistan, said that only 2 percent of those killed in drone attacks had been ‘jihadists.’  Kilcullen noted that the use of drones is ‘not moral’ and only serves to provide ‘more recruits for militant movements that have grown exponentially as drone attacks have increased.’ (Source: Hellfire from the Sky:  The targeting of civilians by unmanned drones has increased in President Obama’s tenure, Frontline Magazine, November 2010)

Analysis such as that put forth by Professor Desch calls into further question Notre Dame’s moral autonomy.  In this case he misses a real opportunity to draw on his insider’s background to contribute fresh analysis on the drone topic.  His writing serves only to distribute prepackaged ideas that hew closely to current policy to a campus environment already suffering from a captive administration and controlled messaging.

*     *     *     *
1.  Professor Desch’s CV.  See page 18 for consulting relationships.
2.  Little noted in public reporting on the Afghanistan War is that prior to joining Bush’s cabinet as National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice worked for Chevron Corp., an interested party in the pipeline deal, and later the acquirer of Unocal.
3.  I didn’t treat each requirement for Just War noted by Desch, however, there is an interesting argument against the Last Resort claim by Desch.  Laili Helms, the niece of former CIA head and longtime US Senator Richard Helms, served as a hired Taliban representative in the US and indicated the Taliban had tried to give up bin Laden but to no avail.   

Helms described one incident after another in which, she claimed, the Taliban agreed to give up bin Laden to the US, only to be rebuffed by the State Department.  On one occasion, she said, the Taliban agreed to give the US coordinates for his campsite, leaving enough time so the Yanks could whack Al Qaeda’s leader with a missile before he moved.  The proposal, she claims, was nixed.  The State Department denied receiving any such offer. (Source: Village Voice, The French Connection, 2-8 January 2002, Interview with authors of Bin Laden:  the Forbidden Truth, Brisard and Dasquie,)

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Looking Back: Did Osama’s Death Announcement Warrant a Kegger?

Notre Dame students react to Osama bin Laden's Death Announcement
Notre Dame students react to Osama bin Laden’s Death Announcement, May 2, 2011 (Source: The Observer)

It’s a question of epistemology:  how do you know what you know?  Given that these students came of age in the Homeland Security era, their deference to official media does not surprise.  But their response seems very shipyard worker or trade school student:  knee-jerk, emotional, unquestioning.

If we pause and look back, we might remember the story as uncomfortably sterile.  It began with a made-for-TV SEAL Commando raid and ended with an unannounced burial at sea.  But it seemed inorganic and lacked dimensionality.  Photos of the President watching as a spectator thousands of miles away felt surreal.  Thin and electronic, there was little bloodtrail as killings go.  It even lacked a corpse and evidence thereof:

Though the Abbottabad raid has been described in great detail by U.S. officials, no physical evidence constituting actual “proof of death” has been offered to the public, neither to journalists nor to independent third parties who have requested this information through the Freedom of Information Act.  Numerous organizations filed FOIA requests seeking at least a partial release of photographs, videos, and/or DNA test results, including The Associated Press, Reuters, CBS News, Judicial Watch, Politico, Fox News, Citizens United, and NPR.  On April 26, 2012, Judge James E. Boasberg held that the Department of Defense was not required to release any evidence to the public. (Source:  Wikipedia)

Despite a sole source problem, the media blitzed the public with mimeographs of the official report, and the public and these students bought it.  Later, after their FOIA requests were denied, none of these major media organizations retracted the story.  This degrading of reality from that which is physically observed to that which is simply reported emasculates language of its ability to help us discover and convey truth.  The truth in this case is that we simply cannot know when, where or under what circumstances Osama bin Laden expired.

Is this a case of deverbalization?  Easy for you to say.

On May 1, 2011, the New York Times’ newsbreaking headline  Bin Laden Is Dead, Obama Says made clear the Times understood the distinction between Bin Laden dying, and making the claim.  Their need to attribute to Obama calls into question the assertion, and is fundamentally different than a headline like “Bin Laden Is Dead, According to Evidence.”  Obama understood this distinction – that the story’s credibility would swing on the Administration’s narrative – because the Administration made the decision to suppress the physical evidence.

The idea that unsubstantiated claims should be embraced as fact recalls Karl Rove’s dictum that the Executive Branch doesn’t respond to reality, it creates it.  From a 2004 interview with NYT Magazine’s Ron Suskind:

[Rove] said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” 

At its heart, therefore, this story presents a language problem with serious repercussion, as no other person figured in more heavily to the dramatic shift in foreign policy and American public life since September 11, 2001.  Without the integrity of language in tact, the public lacks a factual context to evaluate a decade of national security policies.

To deverbalize a society is to dehumanize it.  A loss of verbal integrity plunges society into a social darkness of varying degrees, ultimately mutilating the fundamental way in which people relate to one another.  Language can mutilate the thought process.  Seen in this light, language is everything.

– Theologian J. Daryl Charles, The New Verbal Order

Neil Postman, in a classic work, noted that communicating through language requires serious effort that is often undercut by our own infatuation with being entertained:

Learning to be critical and to think conceptually and rigorously do not come easily to the young but are hard-fought victories. . . Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other.  They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and comercials.

– Amusing Ourselves to Death:  Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman, 1985

Just Me Asking:  Is free inquiry at Notre Dame dead? 

If young scholars as these can be moved to spontaneous celebration by fantastic but unsubstantiated Presidential decrees, and if the hollowing out of language itself is an enabler, one could imagine darker forms of mobilization of the young, the ignorant and other socially disenfranchised groups.

But how about that guarantor of dissent and speech – the University:  can it offer a back channel to truth and integrity to deliver us to terra firma?

There was a time when geographical isolation and distance offered communities like Notre Dame time to catch their breath and authenticate incoming news.  But media ubiquity has compressed time and warped geography.  In this case the pure abstraction of Osama bin Laden evinced persuasive power far greater than the tremendous physical distances that news had to travel, distance which normally would have intervened on the side of reticence.

If natural barriers have fallen, then institutions like on-campus reporting could fill the gap to help students see past image to reality when truth is in question.  But at Notre Dame, it fails to do so, as University Administration control over The Observer denies students the opportunity to deliberate, to question, and to form their own narrative based on rigorous study of history and primary sources.

Student writers and their editors thus reprint and recycle Associated Press stories, which are a secondary news source, and are captive to the language, predisposition and point of view of their sources.  This photo is but one example, where the staff photographer sought out examples of student behavior confirmatory to the official report, while surely there were more open-minded students whose response might have revealed doubts.

While most are familiar with Orwell’s 1984 and its warnings, few are aware that Christian author CS Lewis also weighed in on the dangers of ceding control over language, as he related truthful language to the foundational layer of a traditional value system.

Hitherto the plans of the educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them – how Plato would have every infant ‘a bastard nursed in a bureau’, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry, – we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.  But the manmoulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irrestistible scientific technique:  we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please. . . A dogmatic belief in objective value is [therefore] necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

– CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 1944

If this discussion seems esoteric, I’ll close with a few practical suggestions.  If you are a university student at Notre Dame or elsewhere, think about using your time as a student to build a reverence for language and history, and apply that context to news accounts and other media when trying to assess the world around you.  It takes courage to make independent judgements about the quality of such information and to form individual opinions accordingly.  Few of your peers do it, and the journey will be worth the effort.

If you are an adult professional, this is a call to reflect on the role of language in the commons, how its emasculation threatens our fundamental ability to communicate with one another, and to recognize that distortion of speech is a primary currency of the War on Terror (the other being fear), and that perhaps each of us should search for practical ways based on our own professional skills and social position to resist these attempts.

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Stephen Colbert Speaks at Fordham U: Why?

         In a September joint appearance at Fordham University, the Comedy Central personality and New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan swept the Catholic student body into a delirium of funny.  

Such an odd and powerful couple. 

While many motives could be attributed to such an event, most benign, it’s important to cast a critical eye when powerful people meet on a public stage.  Doing so, and using history as guide, how might one contextualize this holy media experience?  I’ll provide one view and admit asmuch that my approach is speculative though based on patterns that have been seen before.

First, an analogy might help frame the idea: 

The VIETNAM ERA COLD WAR was to New York Cardinal Spellman was to the Miracle at Fatima AS today’s WAR ON TERROR is to New York Cardinal Dolan is to Stephen Colbert.

Comparing Colbert to the appearance of the Virgin Mary to three Portuguese children in 1917 might seem strange to say the least but please consider this idea:  that both Colbert and the Fatima appearance were media designed to manipulate public opinion in their respective eras.  In both eras, the results were the advancement of support for geopolitical objectives.

From the day in 1917 of the Fatima miracle forward, Mary’s “prophesy” of the Catholicization of Soviet Russia was productized and distributed as media to affect public opinion throughout the Cold War.  The Vietnam War and Cardinal Francis Spellman’s support for US policy and the Catholic Dictator Ngo Dinh Diem was one such campaign of many. 

During that war, the official icon of Mary’s appearance, a statue, was paraded through the streets of Saigon in South Vietnam to catalyze anti-Communist, pro-Catholic sentiment, a campaign which eventually caught the Buddhist majority, pro democracy nationalists, and other innocent Vietnamese in its crosshairs of internment camps and assassinations.

Today’s media delivery mechanisms have shifted but are used by the powerful toward the same ends.  In this case, amidst a culture infatuated with entertaining itself, Colbert signed up as conduit for the Cardinal, legitimizing his image and ideas, delivered within the trojan horse of laughter. 

No account I’ve read offered a serious historical interpretation; all regurgitated the careful choreography of the event’s organizers.  For several examples, see here, here and here.  In effect, the duo serenaded one another with scripted laugh lines, softening the audience and suggesting an embrace of Official Media and a higher power. 

Why does this matter?

Since the events of 9/11, Cardinal Dolan has consistently stumped for the War on Terror, despite all its Orwellian vagaries and disregard for the foundational attributes of constitutional government.  He used the power of the pulpit at Notre Dame after a football game in 2011 to memorialize the ten-year anniversary of 9/11  and even drew inspiration to fight terrorism from the gospel reading.  This was too much and has invited cynical interpretations such as my own.

Consumers of events such as the Colbert-Dolan love fest best beware, because they are not an audience so much as targets.

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Jim Tressel’s Implosion and ESPN Metaphysics

In a Sports Illustrated article from an earlier era, Notre Dame President Fr. Hesburgh warned that college football should be “kept within proper bounds of time, place and emphasis.”

Christian author C.S. Lewis likewise laid out the inadequacy of newspaper reporting.

“…I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read newspapers.  Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be known before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance.”

How would Hesburgh and Lewis react to ESPN’s reporting on the Tressel affair?

As is well known, the former Ohio State Coach’s demise resulted in stiff penalties for him and the entire Ohio State football program.  During the episode, ESPN has maintained a somber beat throughout, and in this case invoked heavy Christian symbology to describe Tressel’s infractions:

“Instead of arguing its innocence, Ohio State admitted to its sins — or more accurately, former coach Jim Tressel’s sins.”

“Former Ohio State Coach, Jim Tressel, who was forced to resign in May, committed the ultimate sin for a college coach when he withheld information about the scandal from OSU officials and NCAA investigators.”

“Now Meyer and the rest of the Buckeyes get to pay for Tressel’s sins.”

“It might not be a new day for the NCAA but it certainly is a breath of fresh air.   Even a program like Ohio State isn’t immune from paying the price for its sins.”

Language is important.  To employ spiritual analogues in the service of commerce can distort society’s thought life, and recalls the challenges of proportionality and emphasis issued by Hesburgh and Lewis. 

Because ESPN benefits economically from the current absence of a collective bargaining agreement for student athletes, it is particularly conflicted in its dual role as a steward of language and a marketer of college sports.  In other words, buyer beware. 

While Tressel may have sinned against his maker while breaking the rules, it’s not clear he did so against the NCAA, which is in the end an ephemeral entity, neither person nor God. 

While this style of reporting has succeeded in maintaining public opinion against Tressel and in favor of the NCAA, does it not dilute our understanding of the absolute in favor of the relative, the eternal in favor of the temporal?

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Who sacked Notre Dame’s moral autonomy?

“Father Hesburgh made his position on the war very clear Friday afternoon as he introduced Senator Charles Goodell to a group of over 350 students in the Stepan Center.  ‘If I had the wisdom and the power I would stop the war tonight before midnight, ‘ Hesburgh stated.  The remark was followed by over twenty seconds of applause.”   
                                            – The Observer, October 13, 1969

Long time Notre Dame President Father Theodore Hesburgh was unusually politically active by today’s standards.  He was anti-Vietnam, anti-draft, and heavily involved in the civil rights movement.  He flexed the University’s moral muscle unashamedly, and was considered a potential running mate to the anti-war George McGovern in 1972.

Today, after ten years of war and $1 trillion of spending, ND’s administration is strangely silent.  Through its media choreography, it implicitly endorses our wars in Central Asia, the Middle East, and domestically — a notable shift from its posture during Vietnam — but in terms of using actual rhetoric or better yet, university policy, it does nothing.  This myopic approach is disappointing. 

Reclaiming its moral autonomy is important in that both University and Country would benefit from intellectual independence, genuine inquiry and, when warranted, thoughtful dissent.

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Is Rashard Mendenhall the John Lennon of the War on Terror?

In May, when the US announced it had killed Osama bin Laden, the Pittsburgh Steelers running back caused a stir with controversial tweets.

The official response was harsh. The Steelers organization issued a rebuke. Champion pulled its endorsement deal. And the Associated Press went after Mendenhall’s character. No mainstream business or political leader stood behind him or his right to air his thoughts.

The incident calls to mind another celebrity’s treatment in another era.

During the Vietnam War the FBI and the INS prosecuted a campaign to deport John Lennon from the US on the basis of visa violations. The episode grew into an extended, painful fight for Lennon, and even caused him to fear for his life.

Since then, the government’s intention to stifle dissent, and the campaign’s Constitutional abuses, have been widely acknowledged.

“The case against John Lennon by the FBI and the INS and by President Nixon and all his people was that John Lennon was disloyal to the United States of America and what it stood for. The real disloyalty was Nixon’s, Hoover’s, the INS’, and all the people who were implicated… because of their perversion, [their] distortion of the Constitution, their violation of the basic principles. That was the greatest disloyalty to this country.”
             – Mario Cuomo, former Governor, New York

“Looking back, it was horrible what we did. We were being used by the government to stop dissent, just plain and simple.”
             – John “Jack” C. Ryan, FBI Agent, 1966-87

Mendenhall’s tweets and my responses follow.

1. “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side . . .”

2. “We’ll never know what really happened.  I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.”

3. “For those of you who say you want to see Bin Laden burn in hell and piss on his ashes, I ask how would God feel about your heart?”

4. “There is not an ignorant bone in my body.  I just encourage you to #think.”

In the first and third tweets, Mendenhall poses valid questions to any one who believes in Natural Law, Universal Values, or Practical Reason.  Indeed, the Notre Dame student newspaper echoed similar themes in the days after the death announcement, with students and scholars decrying such celebrations on ND’s campus. Here is one such heartfelt view.

The second tweet contains two thoughts.  On the first, even 9/11 Commissioner Bob Kerrey harbors doubts that we know what really happened.  “There are ample reasons to suspect that there may be some alternative to what we outlined in our version.” Commissioner Max Cleland went further and resigned from the Commission, calling the investigation compromised.  “One of these days we will have to get the full story because the 9-11 issue is so important to America.”  Both men exude credibility, having served the country in Vietnam and as US Senators.

Mendenhall’s second thought in his second tweet is supported by the laws of physics.  According to the 9/11 Commission’s special NIST report on World Trade Center Building 7, neither a diesel fuel fire in the basement nor structural damage from debris from the towers’ collapse accounted for the implosion though both were proposed as initial explanations.  Rather, secondary fires fueled by office paper and office furniture caused the modern, steel framed building to collapse.  These are absurd claims.  Furthermore, NIST admitted that its conclusions were based on very little physical evidence.  To read this government report, published SEVEN years after 9/11, and only after challenges from a disbelieving public, see here, where the report’s authors struggle to explain what they admit to be “the first known instance of the total collapse of a tall building primarily due to fires.”  

After reading through a number of Mendenhall’s tweets, it is my opinion that he is a remarkably open-minded, intelligent person.  His insight clearly threatened the media-government complex and the campaign against him aimed to stifle further dissent and preclude any wider impact on public opinion.

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Notre Dame Football as a Platform for State Iconography

That’s not Touchdown Jesus between the uprights. Flyovers have become an exhilarating but unquestioned part of game day activities, calling into question the proper line between patriotism and militarism.  In the age of drone aircraft, one wonders as well whether fans and alumni would celebrate without skepticism unmanned fighter jet flyovers.  

In the fourth quarter of the Michigan State football game on September 17th South Bend Police Sergeant Tim McCarthy warmly incanted that physicians AND drivers are similar in that they both need patients.

If traffic safety requires patience, patriotism calls for reticence.

Following close losses to South Florida and Michigan, the convincing victory over MSU was welcome. But using the game to memorialize the tenth anniversary of 9/11 raised disconcerting questions.

From the fighter jet flyover to the flag waving musical selections such as God Bless the USA, the emotional programming ran thick. The information campaign continued awkwardly after the game under the roof of the Basilica where New York Archbishop Dolan surreptitiously appeared as guest celebrant and high priest of patriotism.  His presence endorsed the official narrative of the last ten years, and in his sermon he connected the events of 9/11 to the gospel reading.

Carrying out the 9/11 theme a week AFTER the anniversary (9/10 was an AWAY game) especially begged the question of motive and why ND had such a responsibility.

New developments continue to challenge the official narrative of the events of that day, calling for skepticism toward the interpretations and policies that have resulted. This September, 9/11 Congressional Joint Inquiry Chairman and former Senator Bob Graham entered new evidence into the public arena of the presence of multiple Saudi handlers in the country at the time of the attacks as well as a cover-up of such presence. On the 10th anniversary, pronouncements such as these raise non-trivial questions.  Could the FBI have taken different actions to stop the attacks?  Why did we invade Afghanistan when Saudi Arabia’s direct role had been known from the start?  One would expect the university’s programming choices to reflect new developments as history becomes more clear.

In an earlier post, I recalled ND President Fr. Hesburgh’s prescient warning in 1966 that ND football should be bounded by the proper “emphasis.” That constraint should seem to apply in regards to the extent to which the program is used to mass market political ideas to influence public opinion — public opinion in the stadium seats and in the millions of viewer homes.

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Student Indebtedness as a Planned Response from 1960’s

Noam Chomsky connects 1960’s student activism to the shackles of debt pressed on today’s university students.

“Elite sectors and centers of power want students to be passive and apathetic. One of the reasons for the very sharp rise in tuition is to kind of capture students. You know, if you come out of college with a huge debt, you’re gonna have to work it off. I mean, you’re gonna have to become a corporate lawyer or go into business or something. And you won’t have time for engaged activism. The students of the sixties could take off a year or two and devote it to activism and think, ‘Okay, I’ll get back into my career later on.’ Now, that’s much harder today. And not by accident. These are disciplinary techniques.”

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Fr. Hesburgh’s Warning on College Football

Hesburgh’s words, as excerpted from Sports Illustrated, Dec. 12, 1966, describe college football in terms of social justice and equality of opportunity.  In beautifully crafted prose, he placed spiritually and ethically-based  limits around the game.  I believe his framework is relevant today and illuminates a need for introspection by fans, players, and schools alike. 

“…So another football season passes, with all its very real excitement, effort, hope, youthful optimism and ultimate success, the national championship. You have lived with it and through it. The cheers all fade away into the dusk. The tissue-draped trees and lawns are cleaned up again for the last time. We return to the real and hard world of books, quizzes and work yet to be done before the Christmas vacation begins. The stadium, stark and silent, is etched against a gray, wintry sky. Close by, the library beckons with its myriad lights.

Was it all worthwhile, in this time and in this place? I think so, if we see the deeper meaning of it all. Reality is enriched by fantasy, if fantasy is allowed to illuminate reality, but not to engulf it.  In another age, as harsh as our own, there were jousts and jesters, tournaments and trials of skill and strength to lighten the harshness and illumine the lessons of life. A football season has all the same qualities for our day. Life would be dull indeed without these interludes which, in their own mid-20th-century American way, can explain life to us, make it more deeply understandable and, therefore, livable.

I say all of this in the face of those who, in a seemingly superior intellectual fashion, depreciate, denigrate and deplore the football season in our land. Collision on the gridiron is still better, I believe, than violence in the streets. Both have their own relationship to equality of opportunity in the United States, one positive and one negative.

I would hope that in the larger university community in the United States we might see the football season, with all its appeal to young and old alike, in the perspective of a larger meaning of learning, and education, and life.  The football season can, of course, be overdone, wrenched out of all perspective, so that even the fantastic becomes the phantasmagoric, as is done by prolonging the season unduly, indulging in an increasing orgy of bowl games, the psychedelic dreammakers of collegiate football.

Kept within proper bounds of time, place and emphasis, I believe strongly that the football season is indeed worthwhile.  The noise is ephemeral and does die away. The display, the spectacle, the color, the excitement linger only in memory. But the spirit, the will to excel and the will to win perdure. These human qualities are larger and much more important than the passing events that occasion them, just as the ebb and flow of all our daily efforts add up to something greater and more enduring if they create within each one of us a person who grows, who understands, who really lives, who does not merely survive, but who prevails for a larger, more meaningful victory in time and, hopefully, in eternity as well.”

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