That old-time religion

“The beloved village priest, that staple figure of Romantic fiction, was a very rare breed [in 18th-century rural France]. In most people’s minds, the man in black was supposed to be useful, like a doctor, a snake-catcher or a witch. He should be willing to write inaccurate letters of recommendation, to read the newspaper, and to explain government decrees. He should also be able to pull strings in the spirit world, influence the weather and cure people and animals of rabies. [...] Naturally, this put the priest in a tricky position. If he refused to ring the bells to prevent a hailstorm, he was useless. If he rang the bells and it hailed anyway, he was inept.”

“Jesus Christ was a relatively minor figure [in 19th-century eastern Brittany, relative to the Virgin Mary and the Devil]. In the not-so-distant past, he had walked the land dispensing practical advice. He was known to have been a beggar, which explained his resourcefulness and cunning. In pseudo-Gospel stories–told as though they were local events–Jesus would try to beat some sense into his muddle-headed sidekick, Saint Peter: ‘You fool! You never blab about an animal’s faults at the fair before selling it and getting your hands on the money!'”

–Graham Robb, The Discovery of France : A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (New York : W. W. Norton, 2007), pgs. 127, 131.

“The Pseudo-Dionysius’s works were a triumph of the Neoplatonist imagination. In an age of science like our own, they seem wildly fanciful. The lists of seraphim, cherubim, thrones, powers, and the other grades of angelic beings seem like an elaborate fantasy game. However, in an age of faith like the early Middle Ages, with monastic imaginations starved for new stimuli, they were a stunning revelation.

–Arthur Herman, The Cave and the Light : Plato versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization (New York : Random House, 2013), pgs. 213-214.

“[The ability to transfer debts to another person is] what determines money’s value–and why money, even though it is nothing but credit, cannot just be created at will by anyone. For sellers to accept buyers’ IOUs in payment, they must be convinced of two things. They must have reason to believe that the debtor whose obligation they are about to accept will, if it comes to it, be able to satisfy their claim: they must believe, in other words, that the money’s issuer is creditworthy. This much would be enough to sustain the existence of bilateral credit. The test for money is more stringent. For credit to become money, sellers must also trust that third parties will be willing to accept the debtor’s IOU in payment as well. They must believe that it is, and will remain indefinitely, transferable–that the market for this money is liquid. Depending on how powerful are the reasons to believe these two things, it will be easier or harder for an issuer’s IOUs to circulate as money.”

– Felix Martin, Money : The Unauthorized Biography (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), pg. 28.


By inscribing dollar bills with “This Note is Legal Tender for All Debts, Public and Private,” the United States government, because of its ability to both honor and enforce that inscription, can persuade people around the world to use those bills in their daily commerce in a way that a random guy with a laser printer could never match.

The right to conquer

“Precisely because chivalric ideals had little relevance for modern pike-and-artillery warfare, they became all the more cherished by those who dreamed of far-off lands. Places in that vast unknown territory called the ‘Indies’ that were either uninhabited or occupied by pagans rightfully belonged to the Church. It was the obligation of Christian monarchs and knights to bring them into due submission and to turn the natives’ labors to the rightful profit of their godly conquerors.”

– Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution : America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2011), pg. 70.

Is this rationale for dispossessing others much different from the rationale used by venture capitalists who buy companies, break them up in the name of “efficiency,” and suck out profit regardless of how well the broken pieces (and the broken people whose lives were invested in those companies) go on to do?

How did Joseph Vincent Paterno gain so much power over Pennsylvania State University that the top officials of that university would agree to cover up (and thus enable) child molestation in order to protect Paterno’s chance to set the college football record for most coaching wins?

An essay written by a 2001 Penn State alumnus and published by CNN provides insight. To paraphrase the essay in a sentence: JoePa made us better than other people, and we are still better than other people. (Please do read the essay: It’s a study in baseless, pompous arrogance.)

Paterno got tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people to believe that he was making them better than other people, fostering an illusion that they were virtuous merely by association with his virtue, and he could count on their decisive support in every battle he had within the university.

First he gave them pride. And now he’s given them a fall.

A Loss of Innocence

On September 18, 1986, a student at Benicia High School in Benicia, California was shot and killed by her ex-boyfriend after an on-campus quarrel. I was a high school sports reporter for the Benicia Herald in 1986-87, and wrote the following column for the newspaper, which it published on September 21. At the request of a high school classmate who remembered it after the Aurora shootings, I am posting it online.

A loss of innocence

I hear about it all the time. A rumor spreads, a boyfriend gets jealous, starts an argument with his girlfriend, and kills her. But it always happens somewhere else. In San Francisco, Oakland, Fremont, Richmond, any big city…but never here. How could it happen here? This is a small town. Most people move here to get away from that sort of violence, to go somewhere where the streets are clean, the citizens are friendly and the schools are safe. Benicia’s always been that kind of town. It still is. But you wouldn’t have known it Thursday.

It’s been said that the worst time in a person’s life is the day he loses his innocence. The day he realizes that the world by its very nature is a place where sadness and death are a daily fact of life that touches all of us, regardless of who or where we are. Some claim that no one has any innocence [any more], that all the violence and death we see on television has numbed us to any sense of loss about death. I wish those people who believe that could have been at Benicia High School Thursday afternoon.

I never knew Heather Dunn. I’d heard an occasional comment about her flaws, but what else do people ever talk about? All I knew was that she was a reasonably good-looking sophomore who had a couple of friends that I knew. Nothing that would set her apart in my mind from any number of people at Benicia High. Until Thursday.

I only knew Leonard Rubio slightly. He was a good football player last year, but not someone who was particularly violent or hot-tempered off the field. If you’d asked my opinion of him, I would have described him as a young man who had been a credit to his high school and had a good future ahead of him. Until Thursday.

A happy couple, or at least as happy as a high school couple could be. The three-year age difference didn’t bode well for a good future between the two, but it was just a high school romance, and who ever thinks about the future anyway? Until Thursday.

When the news came, it was a shock. Most people in the school knew either Dunn or Rubio, and most couldn’t understand how it could have happened. We didn’t even need to know who Heather Dunn was to be shocked. Some people walked around stunned. Others gossiped about the why and how of the murder. Students who wouldn’t have cringed or screamed at the worst bloodbath in a horror flick cried. But everyone had one question on their minds. Why here?

The students of Benicia High School lost a lot on Thursday. Some lost a friend, others a classmate, still others their faith in the safety and isolation of Benicia. But for many of us, it was the day we lost our innocence.

Four questions frequently asked about the Penn State scandal:

Why are innocent fans being punished? The fans aren’t innocent. Who gave Joseph Vincent Paterno the power to tell the leaders of a major state university how to do things, and cheered him on for 40 years every time he did? Creating a graven idol with Coke bottle glasses and naming it “JoePa” was a foolish thing to do, and people who do foolish things often get punished in this world.

Why are players who had nothing to do with it being punished? They’re not being punished. They just have to make a choice. The ones who prefer to be on a winning team can transfer to another school without penalty. The ones who prefer to remain part of the Penn State family can stay in State College and finish their college education for free whether they play or not. Were the players under the illusion that Penn State would have a winning team for their entire time there? Sure. But a lot of illusions about Penn State have been shattered in the last year, and the illusions of those players are hardly important in the overall scheme of things.

Isn’t taking the wins away a meaningless and spiteful gesture? Joseph Vincent Paterno sacrificed at least two boys to get those wins and set a record; sacrificed boys who were molested after he knew enough to stop it, but also knew that stopping it would put his job at risk. If you don’t understand why taking away those wins and that record was the most important thing the NCAA had to do, then you don’t understand the full horror of the Penn State scandal. The current Penn State leadership is giving every sign that they understand it, and they deserve credit.

Isn’t Paterno’s legacy being unfairly tarnished? After Joseph Vincent Paterno testified to a grand jury in the Sandusky case but before the indictments were announced, he secretly negotiated with Penn State a multi-million-dollar contract buyout in case he “chose” to retire after the 2011 season. Does a man who game-plans like that deserve a legacy?


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