Watch Out for “Fallout”!

December 31, 2020 at 4:12 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

(The following is a review that appears in the Winter 2021:125 edition of Kerux, the newsletter of Pax
Christi Metro New York.)

Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.  By Lesley M.M Blume.185 pp. Simon and Schuster. 2020. $27.00.

Just before the seventy-fifty anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, I took my copy of John Hersey’s Hiroshima down from the bookshelf where it had been for years and read it. As an old friend was given to saying, I mostly don’t read my books; I feel warmly toward them.

But with Hiroshima, I decided it was time. And when I read it, I was blown away, primarily by Hersey’s brilliant interweaving of the personal, devastating stories of five Hiroshima residents who underwent the catastrophe. 

So when I heard Lesley Blume being interviewed on “Fresh Air” about her new book, Fallout, which documents how John Hersey uncovered the details of the effects of the US bombing of Hiroshima and the massive cover-up of that bombing, I had to go out and buy a copy. 

Blume is a journalist and an award-winning non-fiction writer. She begins Fallout by laying out the details of the bombing of Hiroshima and the media’s early coverage of the news, as well as how the government convinced the public that the bomb was a conventional weapon and downplayed the effects of radiation. She then follows Hersey’s journey to Hiroshima in May 1946, almost a year after the bombing. 

Blume also details the significant challenges that faced Hersey and the New Yorker editor, Wallace Shawn, regarding the publication of Hiroshima, navigating, as they had to, the rabbit warrens of federal approval. But when they did master those challenges, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the publication of Hiroshima, first in one entire issue of the New Yorker the following December, and subsequently in the millions of copies sold in English and many other languages.

Hersey played a major role in helping to prevent nuclear war since the end of World War II, and his book has inspired generations of activists. This is so, in large part, because he told the overlapping stories of the effects of the bombing on the lives of five actual human beings, “victims whose eyeballs had melted and run down their cheeks, others whose skin hung from their bodies or slipped off their hands like gloves,” He enabled them “to speak for themselves,” as Nick Turse notes in his detailed “Tom Dispatch” review of the Blume volume. (

The story Blume tells of Hersey’s writing and publishing Hiroshima is itself a galvanizing read. Yet her emphasis on the government cover-up of the dire effects of nuclear war is now more important than ever, because we are in a new—or perhaps an ongoing—era of such obfuscation. You are perhaps unaware, for example, because almost everyone is, that the threat of nuclear war, and the massive build-up of nuclear weapons after the previous limited downsizing of our nuclear arsenal, was hardly mentioned in the recent presidential campaigns or their news coverage. 

Yet Donald Trump and his administration were hell-bent on pulling the US out of various nuclear treaties that had modestly lessened the nuclear threat for some years, while the military budget has expanded steadily since well before that administration.  A billion dollars went into research last year on something called “hypersonic weapons systems.” ( They are named that because they travel so much faster than the speed of sound that they can “dodge defenses and keep an adversary guessing about the target.” This at a time when the federal government failed to support states, local governments, and struggling families during the pandemic.

Is it any wonder that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists puts the Doomsday Clock at one hundred seconds to midnight, closer than it has ever been since they started using the clock in 1947?

I imagine that a lot of us are working hard on very important issues like the effects of the pandemic, ending wars, and Black Lives Matter.  But we also need to start organizing and working relentlessly to change the behavior of the US government on nuclear weapons.  The survival of humanity depends on it.





December 5, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Authoritarianism,, violence, | Leave a comment
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Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present. By Ruth Ben-Ghiat. 384 pp. W.W. Norton & Co. 2020. $28.95.

When I began reading Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s new book, I assumed, given the subtitle, that it would comprise a series of biographies of 20th and 21st century authoritarian leaders, from Mussolini to our own DJT. I was mistaken, though the book does include details of the lives of an amazing number of such men, seventeen in all.

Instead of biographies, Ben-Ghiat offers a nuanced analysis of authoritarian regimes from 1922 to 2020 and the characteristics of the strongmen who ruled during these years. She begins by showing how such strongmen have undermined or destroyed democracy across three successive eras. First there were the fascist dictators who took power, in part at least because of the horrors of World War I: Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. She next lays out the coup-empowered regimes between 1950 and 1990 that generated strongmen like Gaddafi in Libya, Pinochet in Chile, and Sese Seko in Zaire. She then details the era of elected strongmen, from Berlusconi in Italy, to Erdogan in Turkey, to Putin in Russia, to Donald Trump in the US.

Part II shifts from the historical eras that produced recent strongmen to the tools that such men use to seduce the masses. These include propaganda, corruption, and violence. An important part of strongman propaganda is having “direct communication channels with the public, allowing them to pose as authentic interpreters of the popular will.” We know exactly what’s she’s talking about there!  

Another big part of strongmanism is tyrants taking over profitable businesses, laundering money, and making clandestine real estate investments. As for violence, much is known about Hitler’s concentration camps but less about Franco’s execution of 50,000 Spaniards, as well the Italian fascist genocide of Libyans, torture in Chilean stadiums under Pinochet, and the murder of Libyan journalists under Gaddafi.  More recently elected dictators use subtler forms of violence, like the murder of dissenters after the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, and the Putin government’s poisoning of critics. As for our own soon-to-be former president, Ben-Ghiat links the huge annual increase in US hate-crimes since 2016 to Trump’s rallies instructing his followers to see violence as positive. His policies of mass incarceration of immigrants continued those of previous administrations but were much more brutal.  Then, in August 2019, thousands of Trump Facebook ads warning of an immigrant “invasion” ceased, after a White nationalist shot dead twenty-one people in an El Paso Walmart, having written that the attack was a response to the “Hispanic invasion.” And Ben-Ghiat doesn’t mention, as far as I can remember, Trump’s retaliation against government employees who dare to contradict him, but that’s a kind of violence too. Not to mention the more than a quarter-million people dead thus far from Covid-19. 

The chapter I was most taken with, however, is Ben-Ghiat’s exploration of toxic virility as a strongman characteristic. Many strongmen boast of their virile powers, appear bare-chested in photographs, brag of their control of women, and appeal to ordinary men by making them feel better about their own sexual transgressions. They also often come into power after an increase in women’s status in society–remember Hilary Clinton?  A 1933 sculpture of Mussolini’s profile resembled the tip of a penis, and was so popular, people bought copies for their coffee table. And lest you dismiss any connections between then and now, Steve Bannon is Mussolini’s great admirer! Interestingly enough, this “masculinist” dimension of Ben-Ghiat’s analysis has been dismissed by several otherwise enthusiastic male reviewers.

One of the things that I really love about Strongmen, however, is that it ends by detailing how many of the autocrats she studied were brought down by people who once supported them.  But she stresses that even after strongmen fall, they remain as “traces within the body of their people.” This is especially so because many of the enablers of strongmen rewrite them as freestanding demons, individually responsible for the evils that, in fact, required massive collaboration to unleash. To counter future authoritarianism, she tells us, we must prioritize “accountability and transparency in government.” She also emphasizes the role of the US in the establishment of authoritarianism around the world, since Mussolini. All this demands serious consideration as we move into the Biden administration.

This review appeared in the December 2020 issue of Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the USA.


December 2, 2020 at 2:59 pm | Posted in women | 3 Comments
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Womanpriest: Tradition and Transgression in the Contemporary Roman Catholic Church. By Jill Peterfeso. NY, NY: Fordham University Press, 2020. 272 pp. Paperback. $30.00.

I became involved with the women’s ordination movement in 1975 when two of the leaders of the Grail, on the staff of whose organic farm I was serving at the time, told me I was going with them to the first women’s Ordination Conference in Detroit. I was not terribly interested in the issue at the time, but those were the days when people still actually obeyed orders.  So I went, and the conference transformed my understanding of the issue. 

Seventeen years later, when I was beginning my doctoral studies at Temple, I became involved in the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference through Regina Bannan. From there I became a member of the national Women’s Ordination Conference board and served as president of the board for several years.

But I was not enthusiastic about the first Roman Catholic Womanpriest (RCWP) ordinations on the Danube in 2002, or the ordinations in North America and elsewhere that followed. In those days I more or less belonged to the Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza “ordination is subordination” school.

But Jill Peterfeso’s splendid new book, Womanpriest, has forced me to reconsider that position. The book is an ethnographic study of members of the RCWP group that burst on the public stage in 2002, and of the Association of Roman Catholic Womanpriests (ARCWP) that more or less split off from the original group in 2010.  Ethnography is based on field work with a particular group, involving interviews, observation, data collection, etc. But Peterfeso expands this into a kind of dialogic ethnography in which she includes, especially in the introduction and conclusion, some of her own experiences in womanpriest communities, and how this has influenced her own Catholic identity 

Peterfeso draws from her research a number of themes that embody and clarify the reality and impact of RCWP and ARCWP on contemporary Roman Catholicism.  In chapter 1 she details the ways in which womanpriests use the deeply personal narrative of “calling” to dispute the Vatican’s claim that their ordinations are illegitimate. Focusing on the centrality of the experience of “being called” in the lives of five prominent womanpriests, Victoria Rue, Juanita Cordero, Gabriella Velardi Ward, Mary Grace Crowley-Koch, and Kathleen Kunster, Peterfeso argues that such narratives enable these womanpriests to dispute Rome’s claim that only men are “called”, and that they are nothing but activist agitators. Rather they are multidimensional, faithful, reflective women who, in order to obey God’s call, must disobey a patriarchal institution.

Peterfeso begins chapter 2 with the story of a Havertown priest writing to our own SEPA-WOC, claiming that WOC members are not “true Catholics.” She goes on to show that the retention of “Roman Catholic” in the title of the group demonstrates a commitment to Roman Catholic identity, and the ways in which Roman Catholicism since Vatican II has sent out mixed messages, bringing the word “conscience” into the Catholic vernacular as well as refusing women who feel called the right to follow their consciences. Recent Roman Catholic history is precisely what inspires womanpriests to craft ways to make Roman Catholicism work.

These methods combine “conflict and creativity” (chapter 3). In response to what they perceive as the decline of the celibate-male-priest-centered Western Roman Catholicism, womanpriests create “discipleship of equals” communities that give members a way of moving their Catholicism to a better, fuller expression. But such creativity brings conflict with it, as when ARCWP split from RCWP over issues of governance, particularly how to have leadership without authoritarianism.

Womanpriest ordinations (chapter 4) are a prime instance of such creativity and conflict, demonstrating as they do womanpriests’ location on the line between reforming and transforming the institution. Such ordinations elicit not only Vatican condemnation as “contra legem,” but also feminist theological critique for its ostensible collusion in institutional “subordination.” But they also focus badly needed public attention on the issue of women’s subordination in the institutional church, and this is no small achievement.

The emphasis on the centrality of the community in the celebration of the sacraments is another of the transformative effects of womanpriest leadership (chapter 5). Here, too, however, creativity and conflict overlap, with some participants seeing the ontological nature of the sacraments and apostolic succession as more important than community participation. But in this case, as in many others, the most significant thing, in Peterfeso’s estimation, is that womanpriests engage in actions, not just argumentation. (And there’s a photo of our own Eileen DiFranco in the middle of the chapter!).

Peterfeso’s next chapter examines how womanpriests’ reality as “worker priests,” due to the unavailability of congregational salaries, facilitates their involvement with other groups and church leaders, roles that can be both inspiring and confusing. Then, in chapter 7, Peterfeso explores, in a way that I find deeply moving, how the actual bodies of womanpriests have the potential to reposition the gendered, sexual and sacred natures of the priesthood, a revisioning that is especially needed in light of the sex abuse crisis.

What is, for me, however, the most moving part of Womanpriest is Peterfeso’s concluding chapter, in which she brings into clear view the dialogic dimension of her ethnographic research. She does so by returning to material in the introductory chapter about her involvement in a womanpriest congregation in St. Louis, Therese of Divine Peace Inclusive Roman Catholic Community.  Initially, Peterfeso was unable to decide what to make of the womanpriest Masses there. Did they remind her of the thousands of Catholic services she had attended throughout her life or did they unsettle her because womanpriest culture is unlike the Catholicism that she knew?” Such concerns led her into a reexamination of larger questions about Roman Catholicism as well as about women and religious authority.

By the end of her research, however, Peterfeso realizes that her initial uncertainty about the womanpriest phenomenon had receded considerably. At the beginning, for example, she missed kneelers—RCWP liturgies are rarely in churches. She also had mixed feelings about the “enthusiastic affection” of RCWP liturgies which deviated from the relative anonymity of standard Catholic Masses. Gradually, she came to like engaging more directly with others, as in shared homilies, concelebration of the Eucharist, and interacting more before and after the liturgy. Her research also made her more unhappy about the many manifestations of the institutional church’s “history of viewing women as less holy than men.” Ultimately, she writes, “Like the Roman Catholic liturgy, like the Catholic liturgical calendar, my annual visits to Therese are becoming ritualized. I find comfort in this familiarity” (120).

These shifts in her personal assessment of the womanpriest phenomenon did not stop Peterfeso, scholar that she is, from raising further critical questions, such as those about the whole future of the womanpriest movement—its small, aging membership, for example—or about conflicting attitudes toward women in the fastest growing part of the church, the Global South. But the shift in her own perceptions illustrates graphically her compelling argument that participating in a womanpriest community, and experiencing a womanpriest celebrating the liturgy, is one of the surest ways to bring people around to supporting women’s ordination.

It is not possible, even in a long review like this one, to do justice to the careful and original thinking Jill Peterfeso brings to the issue that is so important to us, women’s ordination. But if what I have written here doesn’t send you dashing out (or dashing on-line!) to buy a copy of Womanpriest, consider this: I now think that ordination isn’t always subordination. And I think that dancing back and forth across the line between tradition and transgression may well be just the strategy we need to reform the Roman Catholic Church.

This review appeared in the Nov. 2020 to February 2021 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

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