Dictators, Mafia Dons & Controlling the Spigot

Earlier, told a little story that addressed something I thought rather funny – that people seemed bent out of shape by how rich these military dictators get. As if the kind of guy who seizes power by force should a) be expected to nonetheless keep his avarice well in check; and, more important,  b) control a country by force without controlling every dollar in it, as much as possible. That’s not the way it works.

It’s that second point that should concern us. When you read about the Mafia, or Roman Patriarchs, or English Kings, or Military Dictators, or the actual communists history has given to us (not the theoretical ones, who behave like saints without any moral baggage) one thing comes up over and over: their fingers are in everything.

Imagine you live out in the Roman countryside in the 2nd century. Do you think you could simply set up shop in a village and do business? The local Roman patriarch – head of the noble family that, in effect, provides for all law and order and ‘public’ works in his turf? He’d hear all about it within hours of your attempt to go into business, and, moreover, the locals would probably not buy from you until the social order was clear to everybody.  You’d be expected to ‘pay your respects’ to the patriarch, get his permission, acknowledge his lordship and check in with him daily, eat occasional meals with him (symbolically acknowledging that he is your benefactor), and send a little money his way, as part of the business venture you and he have entered into by way of him allowing you to run a business on his turf.

Now, change the name, time and place as appropriate, and the rules still hold. In order to do business, you’ll need the permission of the mafia don, the local representatives of the military dictator or king, or the local communist party boss  – and it will cost you. Us peons, over the ages, have loved powerful kings who have kept a lid on the local nobles, because that’s been the best possible outcome for the little guy – you pay the price, they more or less leave you alone. Same goes with life under a mafia don, a military dictator, and so on – prior to the outbreak of representative democracy, the best one could hope for was a strong central leader – strong enough that nobody dared challenge him – who took his cut, let his henchmen, um, nobles take their cut, but kept the overall take to a level where it wasn’t too big a hardship on the peasants.

What you didn’t want is warfare – civil war, in the case of kings, violent coups in the case of military dictators, or gang warfare in the case of mafias. Those are horrible for little people. So, please, a strong king!

But back to the weird, anti-entropic state of representative democracy. Social gravity, as it were, is always tugging towards the default position (in large countries – we’re not talking tribes, here, which have a different dynamic). And, I think, people who are aware of history see it – and become ‘conservative’ in a sense only loosely related to how that term is used politically. They see the state of freedom under a representative democracy for the fragile, unnatural thing it is, and so oppose anything that moves toward a more natural, restful state, socially speaking.

The king, the patriarch, the don, the thug – all, in the end, get their power from control of the money spigot, backed by the threat of violence. What they cannot long tolerate and survive is centers of power – wealth – that are independent, that cannot be turned off by them. The ‘conservative’ mentioned above is the one who wants to maintain as many of those independent centers of power as practical, who sees them as the guarantors of his freedom, given that modern governments exceed the ‘way too powerful to be threatened by any likely coalition of lords’ threshold by an order of magnitude or 3.

On the other hand, efforts to make sure that every dollar anyone has flows through one spigot  – that has to be opposed. If it’s not tyranny itself, it’s holding hands with it. In this sense, ‘progressive’, when it means in practice wanting to funnel everything through a central spigot, is the opposite of ‘conservative’ as used here.

Lenten Homilies – Penance

What’s with the mortal fear, expressed from pulpits for years now, that people might do some, you know, actual penance over Lent? I mean, every Lent for as long as I can remember, the First Sunday homily has been all about how it’s the spirit that counts, and that, if you insist on giving something up, you must remember that it’s not making reparations or the good of accepting suffering in God’s name we’re after, but getting ourselves out of the way so that God may speak to us.

OK, I get it. But would it kill the homilist to say: for thousands of years, over many cultures and religious traditions, but especially in the tradition of the Children of Abraham, our Fathers in Faith, and indeed in our own 2000 year tradition as well, it has been considered a good thing to fast, pray and give alms. So, we should do so especially this Lent.

And, further (going way out on a limb here) it would be a good thing for *you*, this Lent, to give up trivial pleasures for the sake of doing penance, because, as St. Paul says, we should unite our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ, to ‘make up what is lacking’ in those sufferings – namely, our free-will acceptance of our share, the roll set aside for us by god for our purification and His glorification. It’s how we imitate Christ. It’s how we become more Christ-like.

Are priests scared they’d be drowning in a sea of self-flagellating penitentes if they said this? Like that’s a huge problem these days? What’s the worry?

Music at Mass Review: 1st Sunday of Lent (03-13-11)

There wasn’t any. Music, that is.

Due to a confluence of forces beyond my control, my daughters and I attended Mass at Parish D – the next closest parish to our house after A, B & C, one my wife and I frequent for daily Mass because it is the closest parish that has one early enough for working people to attend and still get to work on time. I avoid this parish otherwise.

The church itself is of the Talk Show Set school of church architecture: amphitheater-style seating with a long, narrow-ish sanctuary that has this sort of a feel to it – 

I could go on. The best aspect of the building, IMHO, is that it is clearly not built to last – it’s stucco and wood and carpet, and so won’t outlive the current generation. The day will come when the ‘fix-it-or-replace-it’ decision has to be made, and, one prays, by that time maybe some sense will have returned to the addled brains of whoever it is that approves of designs like this. (More likely, the now graying heads containing the drug-addled brains that approved this design will be replaced by much younger heads not so befogged.)

It’s hard to imagine anyone not on the original building committee will feel anything like the degree of affection for this building required to win the ‘fix-it’ side of the argument.

One basic, functional problem with building churches that could easily double for a talk show set is that the celebrant is now tempted to *act* as a talk show host. That’s bad enough, but the kicker is that he’s the only one up there to interview. Um, not even Johnny Carson could be interesting day in and day out interviewing himself.

Thank God we don’t go to Mass to hear what the priest has to say.

York Minster

After reading this on Fr. Z’s blog, I jokingly asked my wife if she wanted to fly to England for a couple days to attend. She said ‘why don’t you go?’

Weeelllll – with 2 kids in college, money is a bit tight for something like this – like, real tight. But here’s some of the reasons I’m still thinking about it:


It’s even better in person. When I spent a few hours in York back in ’79, I hadn’t yet heard of St. Margaret Clitherow, so I didn’t visit her shrine in the Shambles (how can you not like a time and place where you could live in an area known as ‘the Shambles’? ) And I get choked up thinking of a high Latin Mass with William Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices being sung in such a glorious place, one deprived of this musical, liturgical – and sacramental – glory for almost 5 hundred years.

We’re going to see exactly how desperate I am to be there in the next day or so.

And I’d feel real guilty about not taking my wife.


In Defense of Billionaire Dictators

No, really:

It seems people assume that a Gadaffi or a Mubarak got fabulously wealthy by abusing their office as unelected military dictator, an interesting concept on several levels. I suggest that fabulous wealth or the evident ability to get it is rather a necessary prerequisite of becoming an unelected military dictator. Subtle distinction, I know, but bear with me.

In a book called something like ‘The Oxford Short History of England”, one of the authors describes early English history like this: you had a number of nobles – tribe leaders, really – who each had designs on kingship, meaning, in effect, they each thought they could beat the neighboring tribe leaders and take their stuff. Problem was, each tribe leader was surrounded by other tribe leaders who were thinking the exact same thing.

What to do, what to do? Call a standoff, and focus on agriculture? Hey, these are the English we’re talking about here.

So, intrigue: Lord A would get together with Lords B, C, and D with the following proposition: help me take out Lords E and F, let me be King, and I’ll richly reward you with spoils.

A tempting propositi0n. But, in politics, it’s always prudent to ask: what about Act II? What’s that look like?

Lords A-D defeat Lords E & F, Lord A becomes King, and Lords B-D get a cut of the spoils. Now, Lords G – M have been keeping tabs on all this, and aren’t about to let it go unchallenged. King A knows this – and so, he goes back to Lords B-D, and maybe even recruits some more Lords, with the promise of, again, a share in the loot if they win. (And a certain grisly death if they loose, but the Marketing Dept probably didn’t emphasize that too much in the brochures.)

But now, wait a second – the King really needs the help of his allied Lords, and they know it – so who’s in the strong position for bargaining? So Lords B-D get promised a good healthy chunk of the loot, and help the king again. Note that it really doesn’t matter who wins or who loses – the dynamics stay the same. Lords keep teaming up to fight each other, motivated by the chance to get some spoils (and, of course, the desire to NOT be the target of the despoiling.)

Once in a while, a strong King would emerge, and and his loyal Lords would conquer all or most of the surrounding Lords. Now for Act III – how does the King keep the loyalty of his allied Lords? The King is dependent of his Lords to rule – in total, they have the most troops and probably the most wealth. He can keep them in line by force one at a time, but not en mass. In fact, the Lords are natural allies *against* the King, exactly because the King is motivated to try to pick them off one-by-one and take their stuff so that he doesn’t need to keep buying them off – and the Lords know this.

In this game, the King is doomed. There’s no one left to loot, so he can no longer promise his allies spoils, and his allies fear him most of all. Eventually, the game starts over: Some number of Lords get together and pick off some parts of the Kingdom, share out the spoils, and a civil war ensues, etc.

How did this ever end? Potential kings realized that, in order for this to work, the king had to end up not merely being the richest Lord, but his wealth had to dwarf the wealth of any reasonable-sized set of his Lords – a reasonable sized set of Lords being the largest group that could practically get together to oppose him. Eventually, this state was reached.

Anyway, now the game changes – the best strategy for a Lord at this point is to be a loyal subject of the King, to do everything he can to help the king trust him, and, above all, to avoid looking like he might have designs on the throne. The King could pick off any Lord he wanted, and it would be difficult for the other Lords to do anything about it – they’d have to gang up, ambush the guy, and impose a Magna Carta. Or something.

Back to present: there’s really not much difference between an old school King and an unelected military dictator, apart from taste in clothing, except for one thing: there are ways in the modern world to keep getting loot without having to keep conquering people: oil and foreign aide, for example. The key for the military dictator is making sure he’s the spigot through which all this wealth flows – that way, he can buy the loyal and cut off the disloyal, he can pay the troops he needs to keep everybody in line.But is has to be completely under his control – if anyone else can get at the cash without going through him, he’s in trouble.

So, Q.E.D. – military dictators are going to be richest guy by far in the countries they rule, as much as possible controlling every dollar. If they don’t they won’t be around very long.

The World is Made of Styrofoam Balls and Pipe Cleaners

Consider this picture:

These are Styrofoam models of a couple molecules, ubiquitous in grade school and high school chemistry classes, at least back in my day. Their usefulness as a teaching tool is evident – they show the elemental composition of the molecule and the relationships between the various elements. Balls of different sizes and colors represent the different elements. You can even get fancy, and use multiple silver pipe cleaners to show carbon bonds.

All and all, a young student can learn a lot about molecules via Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners.

Now, imagine if some angry pedant were to walk into a 7th grade classroom and start railing against Styrofoam ball molecules:

“Come on, you can’t really believe that the Universe is made up of Styrofoam balls and pipe cleaners! Only an idiot could believe that! We KNOW that molecules are tiny, so tiny that it takes trillions of them to make even a single Styrofoam ball! And atoms aren’t different colors – they’re smaller than the wavelength of visible color, so it’s meaningless to even say an atom is red or blue or green! And molecular bonds aren’t solid like a pipe cleaner – they are electromagnetic phenomena! All of you Styrofoam ball believers are idiots!”

Now imagine that you, a startled 7th grade teacher, tried to reason with this guy, pointing out that the Styrofoam model is merely intended to convey a few basic ideas about molecules, and that no one believes that the world is made up of Styrofoam molecules, and that, while his observations were all quite true, in order to teach them the student would first of all have to have *some* idea of the basic properties of molecules so that they would have some idea what you are talking about – and that’s all the model was hoping to convey.

But, being angry and on his high horse, he won’t listen. Nobody goes away happy.

Absurd? OK, then check out this:

This is the beautiful image of God the Father creating Adam from the Sistine Chapel. God is depicted as a vigorous old man floating in the sky, attended to by angels, with Eve held beneath his left arm. This masterpiece is intended to convey a few basic ideas about God (and a couple more advanced ones, as well). First off, he is not a physical being – we know this because physical beings don’t float in the air. He is strong – look at those arms! He is Lord of Hosts – see all the angels. And, subtly, He has Eve in mind even as he creates Adam – Adam may be first in time, but he and Eve are essentially one idea.

Now our cranky critic walks in:

“You’re telling me God is some magical old man floating in the sky? What kind of idiot believes that? And he just floats on down and creates Adam and Eve? Come ON – you know that’s a myth! We KNOW man evolved just like all the other animals and plants! And isn’t obvious that, by making God a man, you are simply projecting your wishes into some daddy that will take care of you? You people are all idiots!”

You, a startled theology teacher, might say: Nobody believes God is an old man in the sky. We believe Him to be a spirit, outside of time and space, in Whom we live and move and have our being.  He’s not even a ‘he’ in any of the limited senses of masculinity we can understand. But, if you are going to paint a picture, the painting will be of something, and a powerful father figure is a very good way to get across some basic ideas – that God is powerful, that He is our father, that He created heaven and earth and everything that fills them.  Only once the student has those basic ideas in place can he understand what God is like, insofar as we can understand Him at all.

We know how this song ends.