Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Strike while the iron

Mister Rogers defending PBS to the US Senate

Fred Rogers appearing before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969

A short while ago musician Elaine Fine posted this video and wrote a lovely essay about it.  It is worth the read:

Grand Cultural Shift: Watch Fred Rogers talking to the Senate

The content may call to the minds of readers my recent essay Their heart is far from me and in vain they do worship me, which contained some consideration of Federal funding for programs that a couple of Congressmen considered lacking in practicality, and on this topic one of Ms. Fine's questions is apt: could such a moment as what we see in that video happen on Capitol Hill today?  Indeed most especially in light of that, the final seconds of the video and in particular the concluding words of Subcommittee Chairman John O. Pastore are poignant enough to bring a tear to the eye of even a hardened man.  The content of this wonderful video calls to my own hardened heart something else too.

I once saw a little boy, sitting on the floor before the family television set, cry when Mister Rogers' Neighborhood ended.  I thought it touching, and his young mother told me that he did that every time the program was over.  As far as I could tell then, he was a gentle and very intelligent soul, that very young fellow.  He is now a man, and, alas, he has not come into adulthood all that well.  He is no criminal—not as far as I know anyway—and he does not even really have any reputation for being shady or nasty—again, not as far as I know—but there is now a disturbing void in this fellow's personality.  He does what he does to manage his worldly affairs, and that he does well.  Why, I'll even say that in many practical matters he's a far cry more adept than I have ever been, possessed as he is of an ability to do what he wants with a cool and remarkable efficiency, and perhaps he is in some way aided in this by his major character deficit.  He has many happy acquaintances, he is a skilled glad-hander, and he is rarely exposed for his heartlessness to those whom he deals with, probably because circumstances rarely call upon him to exercise to the harm of others what is by now his deeply rooted selfishness and inability to relate in any intimate way to anyone.  On those occasions, however, when the circumstances do—when getting what he wants requires the abuse of another or when the needs of another require the slightest sympathy or sacrifice from him—he is contemptible.

In my work in the criminal justice systems (and I use the plural, by the way, because the caprice one finds between offices and jurisdictions defies the unity we aspire to in our rules and statutes) and also but more rarely in other legal areas, I see one universal quality to every man who can't quite get it together: he had an abusive father, or he had no father at all.  I say this with no artful stretch of the facts: in every instance where I have known the background of an offender or of just some poor loser who through bad but not criminal habits fell into the crosshairs of "the system," his daddy had beat him or abandoned him.  Now, by the time such a poor kid finds his way into adulthood, what can one say of the chap?  With maturity comes the capacity to exercise choice.  So a fellow doesn't work hard enough to pay his bills on time? or drinks himself half to death? or fathers six children by four mothers? or engages in criminal acts of violence? or just languishes in the perfectly harmless kind of solitary misery that is anything but harmless and is indeed almost certainly an offense to God as well as to the man himself?  Well, by golly, he's a man, and he makes his choices.

The thing is, the right choices and the responsible habits are a lot harder for people who have been neglected, abused, or otherwise from youth habituated into this or that odious, reprobate, or at least unseemly set of ways.  There is another thing too: even if there should be no institutional punishment for such a soul, punishment is built right into his existence: he suffers the punishment himself, if he has sufficient conscience, or he inflicts it upon others.  And where did it all begin?

That young man who wept when his beloved Mister Rogers said goodby had some problems in that family of his.  Deplorable problems, and his father, alongside what I surmise to be a shocking absence of any spiritual or moral guidance, was one of them.  That he may now be at the very worst a non-violent psychopath who rarely has any need to hurt anyone is a blessing, I suppose.  At least he's not a criminal.

* * *

One of the purposes of criminal sentencing is punishment,1 and that is instructive here.  If you're like me and hence know a whole lot of pithy quotes from venerable and ancient sources that you otherwise have no education in, then you may be acquainted with the famous line from the beginning of Corpus Iuris Civilis, the Body of Civil Law compiled under Emperor Justinian I and owing some credit (including for this quote) to the jurist Ulpian (Gnaeus Domitius Annius Ulpianus): Iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens [or tribuendi]: that is, Justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render every man his due.  Does a man who brings evil upon another not have as his due some consequence that may chasten or rehabilitate him—or indeed just habilitate for starters the soul who hardly ever knew the right practice in the first place—just as those who are harmed have some restoration and protection from further harm as their due?  This is not an inherently pessimistic or spiteful principle of punishment to the wrongdoer.  To the contrary, at its most righteous, it has the aspiration to rid a bad man of what makes him bad—the pain of chastening is, after all, corrective—while it seeks to provide remedy and shelter to those whom he has harmed, and truly in this it properly regards the dignity of all.  At the end of the age the angels will cast the children of the evil one into the fire, but now, before the final judgment, is every bad man just so much chaff to be gathered and burned for the sake of the harvest?  (See and cf., for example, Matthew 3 and 13.)  Punishment without mercy has such finality that the judge who would impose it ought to regard it as vigilantly as he should his very life, for it demands that all hope for the offender is truly lost.

When I was in law school, I wanted to become a prosecutor, and my late Greek-American mother, who, although she spoke English fluently, always had a few words and phrases that were marvelously all her own, was very proud of this and liked to tell people, "My son is going to be a persecutor."  (I have of course instead gone on to work on the opposite side in my criminal practice.)  Little did my mother realize, at least when she was first saying it, her charming word choice reflects the worst that we find and not just in legal practice: in all walks, anyone who regards bad men and surmises what they are really made of and what ought to be done with them runs the grave risk of walking into Pharisaism with a clear eye to the horizon of persecution.  It is true—and this essay does not argue against it—that a man who is not a lunatic is able to grasp the consequences of his deeds, and that he is able to choose to do what is good and to eschew what is evil, but it is equally true that we are creatures of habit, all of us, and we do and continue to do what we are accustomed to, what we have been trained to do, and whatever we are convinced works for us or are convinced is inevitable to us (and we are also often mistaken about these two convictions).

If a man has been trained from his youth, through abuse or abject neglect or false indoctrination, to regard himself or others as inherently evil and adulterous and to behave accordingly, how reasonable is it to think that he makes his moral choices with the same clarity and rigor as one who was not been thus abused, neglected, or deceived?  If one raises one's children in an environment of mistrust, a place where those who should love you break their promises and then even tell you with a straight face that they have kept them (a favorite practice of the habitually deceitful), where is the surprise in finding that these children become adults who are both mistrustful and inclined to practice deceit themselves?  A man who is not a lunatic makes his choices with awareness of their consequences, yes, but a man who is not taught how to repent, who knows no fervent motive to repent, for whom truth is the label on a pack of lies, will not have the means to reorient his spiritual mind to the good, which is what repentance (μετάνοια) means, and he will have a devil of a time recognizing truth, because his vision has been clouded by a lifetime of lies.  Even a few ingenuous tears for the kindhearted Fred Rogers can't so easily wash away the insidious opacity of a degenerate upbringing.

* * *

I would at this point, if I followed a certain practice I have well established in prior essays, having just now concluded in this essay a discussion that did not have me as the subject, take a moment for some more subjective remarks, a word or two about my own sorrows, secure in the knowledge that I have avoided being altogether self-absorbed by having given what I hope is a more objective commentary in the prior part of the essay.  It is not, mind you, a practice I find fault with, but it is one I shall exercise here in a somewhat different way.  I don't know whether the practice will hold for any future essays.

The last essay I wrote took a lot out of me.  A few other posts have been painful to write too, and, really, every labor for the last year has had a consistent difficulty that is usually not inherent to the labor: it is the milieu that I live in.  A reader said to me in a private message a few months ago, making reference to the church and its cartoonishly odious pastor whom I discussed in Batter my heart, three person'd God, "[I]t sounds like that church sort of undid you."  Indeed.  It hasn't helped things any, while my Orthodox parish ignored and abandoned me, to have roamed a bit through the nitwit Christian blogosphere, the pervasive degeneracy of which constitutes a better argument in favor of the Doctrine of Total Depravity than any of the actual arguments that any Calvinistic bloggers have ever written.2  I am further burdened also by the current season and many of its commemorations.  I wrote a bit about those in my last essay, but among those that I did not mention was my birthday, which came and went this fall without a mention.  I have always been a solitary sort, and that particular oversight is one I have been accustomed to for a long time.  Indeed for all of my adult life, with, to be sure, one or two transient exceptions, my mother was the only one besides me who remembered my birthday, and she's been dead for several years.  Since this one has been an especially crummy year, this causes me grief now that it had not caused before.  Readers can get some sense of what made the year bad from other entries in this Lost Reef, and there is of course a good deal more to it that I have not dared to write in these pages.

In case any of you should wish to play online detective, by the way: the boy I mentioned at the top of this post was not a veiled version of myself.  I have known his family for some years, and the moment of his tears was a poignant one that planted itself firmly in my memory.  So, seeing Mister Rogers a few hours ago and reading Elaine Fine's reminiscence easily called the poignant tale and the later sad developments to mind.

1 In the State of Ohio's Revised Code, for instance: "The overriding purposes of felony sentencing are to protect the public from future crime by the offender and others and to punish the offender using the minimum sanctions that the court determines accomplish those purposes without imposing an unnecessary burden on state or local government resources." R.C. § 2929.11(A).  That the law prescribes "minimum sanctions" needed in order to "accomplish those purposes" should be fascinating to anyone acquainted with those courts that show a predilection (or, in the statutorily unrelated matter of Federally mandatory sentences, a legislated requirement) to assume the worst, ignore mitigation, and punish maximally.  A foible, to be sure, one can also find in a good many folk who have never donned the black robes.
2 It is worth mentioning that Mister Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, but he taught children that they had good in them, and he said that God loved that goodness, so, whatever his understanding of this point of Calvinism, one would scarcely expect to find anywhere in his work a view of Depravity so severe and so noxious as, say, "the devilish theology that naturally arises out of our children’s sinful hearts."  See The Devilish Perfidy That Arises out of David P. Murray's Response to a Dumb Article by Peter Enns.


  1. your time-tested hypothesis is in accordance with my experience in christian ministry--either the absence of a father or the presence of a disastrous one leads to most if not all behavioral, emotional, and psychological difficulties in both men and women. i have, however, noted that a negative experience with a father or the absence of a father is not a guarantee of problems--far from it. it is just that the potential for difficulties grows exponentially when the father is a negative impact upon a child's life.

    1. One of the exercises given to the men at a shelter I am acquainted with is for them to write letters to mother or father—letters of course that are never meant to be sent—concerning all of what has burdened them from how they were raised. Of course fathers specifically are the "recipients" of a good many of these. The men seem to regard the exercise as very helpful, many a tear shed over it, and also a revelation in many cases: little had they given it a good think just how badly their daddies had jacked them up.

  2. "It hasn't helped things any, while my Orthodox parish ignored and abandoned me, to have roamed a bit through the nitwit Christian blogosphere, the pervasive degeneracy of which constitutes a better argument in favor of the Doctrine of Total Depravity than any of the actual arguments that any Calvinistic bloggers have ever written."


    Speaking as a father, it is the greatest grief to see my failures as a parent re-assert themselves in my children. It is nearly as great a grief to have as my most earnest hope that my sons will escape the patterns I can see in myself. I have often wondered why God saw fit to give me children when I was so ill-equipped a steward of them. Though I am not an alcoholic or druggie or unfaithful or absent, there is quite enough in my life to disqualify me as a parent. And yet they are grown now and I have cause to rejoice in God's grace to them over-riding so much they got from me. For me, I am myself the most convincing proof of total depravity.
    I have found, now that I am getting old, that I can be much more forgiving to my own father. He did the best he could, and I wish I had appreciated it sooner. I no longer feel that he failed me as I once did. He was a good man in spite of it all and I owe him a great debt.

    I was in the generation before Mr. Rogers so I never saw one of his shows. Thank you for posting the video.

    1. When people say the famous Jesus prayer in English, there is almost invariably a discrepancy in the translation that I find significant: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," they usually say. In Greek, however, it is the definite article in the last phrase: "the sinner." Besides being a more accurate translation, that phrase underscores the required humility and focus on one's own sinfulness, rather than even so little as an implicit acknowledgement of whatever sinfulness anyone else may also have.

      On top of just mentioning something that is interesting and perhaps somewhat edifying, I am reminded of this by the self-examination of your comment. We should, of course, strive not to sin, and I take it as silly boilerplate to regard voluntary sin as inevitable, notwithstanding that we are all sinners. Having sinned, however, do we consider our sin? We're all ill-equipped to one degree or another for the offices and relationships we hold in this life. You, however, consider this, and you maintain relationships with your children—relationships also, I surmise, that benefit from your examination of your faults. This is a fine thing.

      So, as you point out, you were no addict or adulterer, and you didn't abandon anyone, and this stands in stark contrast to some of the far worse examples I have known. You have most probably known a nice number of such examples too. When the damage is done with impunity and the offender moves on without remorse, the harm is far worse than when a relationship of love continues, and circumspect men do what they can to love one another, even if they have fallen short at any time.

    2. Thank you for your kind reply. It was presumptuous of me to comment as I did. What you pointed out about the Jesus prayer is very helpful.
      I think that in heaven when He wipes away every tear, the tears will not be the ones that come from the pain inflicted on us but the ones that come from the pain we have inflicted on others. I don't know how it is possible.

    3. Gee whiz, Carroll, I didn't think your comment was presumptuous. You're just about the most well-mannered commentator on the Internet. Think nothing ill of anything you've said here.

      I think I've told you this one story (but I'll say it again—perhaps someone else will stop by and see this comment too), among the most repeated stories of Orthodox monks, about Father Sisoës, who was on his death bed whispering. His disciples asked what he was saying, and he said that he was asking the angels to let him remain a while longer in order to repent. Surely, his disciples said in surprise, you have repented already! And his reply: I fear that I have not even begun to repent. Very shortly after saying that he died.

  3. I'm sorry, this comment has nothing to do with your post. I just encountered a song I had forgotten all about that I find profoundly moving. It is The Transfiguration by Sufjan Stevens. I think he uses children's instruments or toy instruments on it. I find much of his music deeply stirring, but this perhaps most of all.

    1. You're always welcome to use the Contact form as well, if you want to reach me privately, but I don't mind the comment. I'll be sure to look into the song. Thanks for the recommendation.