Immigrant Terrorists

April 23, 2013 at 10:34 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A friend from Zürich said recently in an email that she was waiting for me to write something about the Boston Marathon bombings, but seriously, what’s left to say? Even now, more than a week later, the statistical odds of turning on the radio and hearing about anything else are close to zero. Today’s endlessly repeated secular antiphon is “…charged and could face the death penalty.”

I have been thinking, however, about a related matter,–efforts by Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa and others to link the Boston bombings to the current conversation about U.S. immigration reform. “While we don’t yet know the immigration status of people who have terrorized the communities in Massachusetts, when we find out, it will help shed light on the weaknesses of our system,” Grassley stated in opening remarks in a Senate hearing on immigration last Friday. Since then, some of our more distinguished news outlets have begun using the felicitous phrase,  “immigrant terrorists.”

I can’t help wondering whether Senator Grassley and his allies, as they attempt to link contemporary immigrants with terrorism, are aware of the rich history of  “immigrant terrorism” by the white-ethnic ancestors of some of our most conservative, not to say right-wing, politicians. I’m thinking specifically of the Draft Riots of July, 1863, in which mobs of white-ethnic immigrants, the majority of them Irish Catholics, rioted across Manhattan in response to the implementation of the draft law passed the previous March. According to historian James M. McPherson, at least 120 civilians were killed, at least eleven black men were lynched, and two thousand people were injured. Property damage in today’s dollars is estimated at between fifteen and seventy-five million dollars.

Like most acts of violence, the causes of the Draft Riots are complex. A major factor was the Draft Law’s three hundred dollar “commutation” fee which allowed individuals to escape being drafted by paying the equivalent, in today’s money, of $11,100. The vast majority of New York Irish had emigrated during or after the Irish Potato Famine a decade before and were desperately poor, living in the basements of filthy tenements, and dying of diseases like typhus and diphtheria. They could about as easily pay eleven thousand dollars as they could pay eleven million. They were also convinced that emancipated slaves would take their already lousy-paying jobs. Indeed, the shipping industry had not long before the riots used black men to break a dockworkers strike. It also probably wasn’t much help that an ardently abolitionist British government had used the Potato Famine to force poor Irish farmers in huge numbers to give up their acreage and emigrate (many of them to New York City).

By mentioning these motivating factors I do not in any sense mean to justify the New York Draft Riots, which historians regularly characterize as “the largest civil insurrection in American history.” Violence is violence.

I do wonder, however, what the results might have been if Republican legislators had used those riots to exclude white-ethnic immigrants from the U.S. in the years to follow. They would never have done so, of course; they needed such immigrants to continue building the railroads and bridges and sky-scrapers that would house and otherwise enable the Anglo-American barons of industrial capitalism.

But if the politicians had outlawed further Irish immigration, who knows what distinguished figures might not have made it onto the American stage. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, you say? Indeed. But also Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan and a number of other contemporary Irish-American right-wingers who will, one suspects, have all too much to say about “immigrant terrorists” in the days to come.


Sister Trouble Coming!

April 19, 2013 at 10:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Well, I am turning out to be a very hip and trendy writer. In an article in the New York Times on Wednesday, Leslie Kaufman holds forth on the practice of an increasing number of authors publishing their own books instead of using commercial publishers. The next day, I uploaded the manuscript of my new book, Sister Trouble: The Vatican, the Bishops, and U.S. Nuns, onto the CreateSpace webpage. (CreateSpace is the self-publishing arm of Amazon.) I have to admit, I’m pretty excited.

I began thinking about self-publishing after a meeting with an editor at an academic publishing house here in New York several years back. The editor was about 35, a pleasant young woman. But after I explained my proposed project, a biography of a Catholic sister who had in the 1970s been the executive director of the recently much-maligned Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she assured me that no publishing house would ever publish a book with the name of this “obscure figure” in the title. I will not tell you what I thought to say in response, but the first word in the phrase has four letters in it and the second three. What the young woman was saying, of course, was that there’s no money to be made in biographies of figures less well-known than Oprah. So much for people on the ground in American religious history.

Sister Trouble  is a collection of articles that I have written, for the most part, since the Vatican launched a visitation of U.S. Catholic women’s religious congregations and the investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in 2009. They appeared in a number of periodicals and then some appeared subsequently on this blog page. Read together, they provide a pretty good overall picture of what’s gone down between the Vatican and the nuns, and, of course, what I think about it. Other articles I wrote in the late 1990s; I’m republishing them now to make clear why I care as much as I do about what’s been happening to the sisters. A longer piece uses the gender theory of the distinguished feminist theorist Judith Butler to argue that what’s really got the boys riled up–and has done throughout the history of Christianity–is that nuns, by standing on the boundary between male clergy and “female” laypeople, mess up the ostensibly clear distinctions between genders. God forbid that we should have any ambiguity in that department! I mean, Jesus is male, and the church is female, right??

Sister Trouble will be available for sale on Amazon. Since I am no longer funding the publishing industry, it will be reasonably priced. I’m told it takes CreateSpace two to three months to design the cover and lay out the text, so that would mean the book will be available in the middle of the summer, more or less. You can bet I’ll be letting you know. I also hope to travel around a bit and talk about the book, probably in the fall, so maybe we can drink some bubbly together and toast the good sisters.

Stay tuned.

Whose Story of Climate?

April 15, 2013 at 11:46 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I was more or less grandmothered in to the environmental movement when I began spending time at the Grail’s organic farm and conference center outside Cincinnati in the late 1960s. Some of my readers will recall my blogpost back in 2011 about taking care of the chickens there. As a result of my training at Grailville, I have been washing, reusing and recycling plastic bags for forty-five years, more or less.

But then, a decade or so ago, I became intensely  aware of the ecological crises that are imminent—the world water crisis, and climate change. So in addition to writing about Catholicism, my other mania, I also do a certain amount of writing about the environment.

Today I share with you a review of a 2012 book about the climate; it was published this month in Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the United States.

The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change. By E. Kirsten Peters. Prometheus Books, 2012. Hardback, 290 pp. $26.00.

At one level, The Whole Story of Climate by geologist E. Kirsten Peters of Washington State University is “a history of Earth’s climate and…of how scientists learned about climate.” Readers like me, wary of abstruse scientific writing, will be pleasantly surprised by the narrative drive of Peters’s book. Who would have thought it possible to fashion the rise and fall of temperature over millions of years into a page-turner?

An example of the author’s gift for making science accessible is her use of a football field to explain the history of climate. The far end of the gridiron represents the start of the Pleistocene Era, 1.8 million years ago, while the other end is today. Each 5.5 yards (100,000 years) there’s an Ice Age, followed by a warmer period. Six and half yards from our end zone there’s an even warmer period, followed by several yards of bitter cold, and then our own, warm but not the warmest, Holocene Epoch. The point of the football field—and the rest of the book—is to show us that over its entire history, climate has changed repeatedly, and radically. Moreover, Peters argues, it’s much more likely that we’re on the verge of another cold snap than a warm one.

At one level, then, The Whole Story of Climate is a well-written, accessible book that provides readers with a much-needed wider context for the debate over climate change currently taking place. At another level, however, there’s a good deal in this book that readers should be wary of. This is so because it’s virtually impossible to have a dispassionate scientific discussion about climate change in our time. Peters herself rails repeatedly throughout The Whole Story against the misrepresentations of climate change by “journalists” who, in her reading, fail to communicate to the public that climate change is natural, and that calls for mitigation of global warming by expensive sustainable fuels are baseless. Yet Peters herself is a journalist—her book bio mentions that she, as “the Roc Doc,” writes a syndicated newspaper column—and surely the book’s title is a journalistic, not a scientific one. No reputable scientific work is titled “The Whole Story of” anything.

I also have some concerns about the perspective geology itself brings to the dangers of climate change.  Fairly early on in the book Peters states that “geologists take as a sacred responsibility the task of understanding, identifying, and providing energy sources for our societies” (89). The use of the word “sacred” is striking here, and one suspects that the fuels geologists are sacredly committed to providing are fossil fuels, a commitment that may make it difficult to advocate for solar and wind energy.

More to the point, geologists necessarily think in terms of millions, or even billions, of years, within which the extinction of species is not a big deal. Peters does admit from time to time that the increasing level of greenhouse gases could be a serious problem; that, in fact, it could precipitate the flipping of Earth’s climate into an era of either extreme heat or extreme cold. And her discussion, in the concluding chapter, of the possibility of a 3% reduction is greenhouse gases by extinguishing the thousands of underground coal fires around the world alone makes the previous 242 pages worthwhile. Why, I join her in asking, aren’t we doing something about this?

Finally, though, the harm likely to occur in the near future as a result of a warming planet concerns Peters a good deal less than the very long range climate picture and the ideological wars between geologists and other environmental scientists. At the end of the book, for example, she spends less than a page acknowledging that global warming through 2100 is likely to have many more negative consequences for the poor in places like Africa and the Middle East than for people like us in Europe and North America.

But she spends eighteen pages accusing (non-geologist) environmental scientists of dishonesty by virtue of being in the pay of big-government and comparing them to Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” based on a mistake in the 2001 Third Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I can’t help thinking that the people here in New York whose lives were upended by Hurricane Sandy, as well as the Pacific Islanders whose cultures are being washed away by sea level rise, are a lot more concerned about the “short term” implications of global warming than Peters is.

American Catholicism 50% Off

April 3, 2013 at 9:43 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A friend of mine recently published a book, and she’s doing a great job of marketing it–calling libraries, giving talks, getting people like me to review it.

Myself, I am terrible at marketing. It feels so pushy asking people to pay attention to my book, and by extension, me. This is precisely why I write–to avoid having to do such things.

But I am trying to emulate my friend. So here’s the deal: during the month of April, my book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross: Sexuality, Mourning, and the Future of American Catholicism, is on sale for 50% off. And since you read my blog, you know you’re interested in what I write about–in this case, the sex/gender conflicts within US Catholicism and how we might move beyond them. The book traces these conflicts and their possible resolution through fiction, memoirs, and essays by a number of  noted U.S. Catholic writers, including James Carroll, the novelist Mary Gordon, and the gay Latino essayist Richard Rodriguez.

Regarding my book, Philip Jenkins of Penn State writes, Tracing the Sign of the Cross “is a genuinely  pathbreaking book, offering an innovative interpretation of the worldview of contemporary American Catholics…offering valuable insight into the agendas, conscious or otherwise, of so many of those engaged in the culture wars that have raged within American Catholicism in recent decades.”

To read more about it, you can click on the Columbia University Press webpage, and to order it for $22.50 instead of $45.00, use the coupon code SALE when you check out.

There’s also an interview I did about the book in 2009 on the Columbia University Press webpage.

Happy reading.

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.