Another Buckley has passed, and with him, graciousness and civility

When great ones pass, may they pass the torch.

I have seen a number of very moving and inspiring testimonials lately to great people who have recently passed from this world, written by those who knew and learned from them and knew how to write well of those lasting impressions. We can learn from those, and what we learn is of great and lasting value, especially the more their witness to charity and dignity is lacking in this cultural climate.

Michael Cook wrote this about Brian Harradine.

Brian began as a union organiser and Labor Party stalwart in Tasmania and rose to national prominence by dint of hard work and his steely intellect. But in 1975 he was expelled from the Party for denouncing Communist infiltration. It was a bitter blow, but he immediately stood for the Senate as an Independent and was elected easily.

Look at his witness and adherence to principles, and tenacity in not only defending but advancing them.

He spent the next 30 years in the Federal Parliament, where he fought tirelessly for his constituents and for causes that he believed in passionately – workers’ rights, Aboriginal rights, the rights of the family, and the rights of the unborn. I don’t think that there has ever been an Australian politician who fought harder and longer for the pro-life cause than Brian Harradine.

He also knew what families are all about. In 1980 his wife died, leaving him with six children. A couple of years later he married Marian, a widow with seven. The family of 15 lived in a modest house in a modest suburb.

Being an independent in Canberra was a lonely job. But all the parties respected his conviction and toughness. They had to. From 1996 to 1999 he and another independent held the balance of power and the government ate humble pie to secure his vote. He was unpretentious but he knew how to leverage his position and he drove a hard bargain…

He was also a man with a deep Catholic faith which kept him smiling through hard times at home, disappointments in politics and his years of illness. I shall miss him.

And so will the world, those who knew him and those who never did, because now they will not. Except through those who carry on the virtues and character he embodied.

Kathleen Parker wrote this about Reid Buckley.

He was, as I wrote in a long-ago Town and Country profile of him, a force of nature — driven by an insatiable curiosity, a joy of learning, and apparently a need to salvage what he could of Western intellectual tradition by infecting others with his passion. The Buckley School of Public Speaking has been a tiny incubator where minds were nourished during a brief respite from the mundane and then released back into the world with the sublime command to go forth and multiply.

Reid was nourished in turn by the transformation of students who under his tutelage morphed from timid mumblers into Shakespearean actors. Reid taught confident articulation by applying the debate skills he mastered first at Yale, where he was president of the debate club, and later as an itinerant debater opposite his liberal counterpart, Max Lerner. The two performed formal debates on college campuses during the 1960s, disagreeing civilly on the issues of the day.

The transformation wasn’t only practical but also spiritual. There was something magical and transcendent about entering Reid’s world. He immanentized the eschaton even though, theologically and politically, he opposed such utopian fantasies. Perhaps it was the intoxication of jasmine growing along the school’s antebellum porch. Or maybe it was the smell of hundreds of books, a fair portion of which were written by various Buckleys. Mostly, I think, it was exposure to knowledge, truth, and beauty, and delight in feeling a part of something truly special. He raised your game and made you want to be a better human being.

Of how many people can that be said today, with such reverent and eloquent tones?

Reid might not have known who Oprah was, but he could quote Thomas Merton or Socrates or Yeats with the ease of mortals ordering dressing on the side. A devout Catholic, he was serious about his faith but counted atheists among his friends. Ultra-conservative, he claimed most of his friends were liberals because they were more fun. Ultimately, he was a sensualist in love with beauty in all its forms.

This all seems like a bygone era, right? It shouldn’t and needn’t be, especially because the intellectual progeny who spent time in that world are still in this one, disagreeable and uncivil as it is.

To the 5,000-plus students who passed through his school, he was the lamplighter who waved the burning torch and showed the way out of the subterranean tunnels of rigid thinking. If, alas, I am a tad verbose in my praise, please pardon the indulgence. My cup runneth over.

However, it continues to spill forth…

There’s so much more to say. He was a novelist, essayist, and raconteur, a friend to movie stars, bullfighters, and everyday folks. If he had a snobbish bone, he kept it well hidden. His charm lay partly in his eager willingness to accept all men and women as his equals, intellectual and otherwise. He was the happiest of warriors, madly (madly!) in love with his Spanish wife, Tasa, to whom he professed his love nearly every time they spoke. (He did this in Spanish, but I listen in Spanish.)

A devoted father to their ten children, he called family meetings when any child had a problem to solve. He cherished weekends riding a tractor on his farm, inviting friends to stash and drink wine at his country cellar, and summers writing in his beloved Spain. More than anything, he loved his family, his God, and, by no means least, his dogs — all of them regulars at the school.

This is the fullness of a life well lived, and I was riveted by the account of it, inspired by the sheer nobility of such a witness to discipline, study, hard work, teaching, mentoring, conversing, debating, socializing and sharing, treating everyone with equal dignity and humanity. In other words, a gifted intellect who realized his gifts, a believer who lived his beliefs in every fiber of his living and being, and therefore witnessing faith, hope and charity. To the end, when it was clear it was the end.

When another staff member, Caroline Avinger, visited, Reid urged her not to be sad. “We’re believers, dearest,” he said. “We know how the story ends.”

We are all inconsolably sad, anyway. With Reid Buckley’s earthly departure, Western civilization has lost one of its fiercest gladiators and God has gained the delightful company of one of his most joyful servants. Reid’s parting words at the end of each seminar seem a fitting close to these recollections and a testament to an examined life well lived:

Through your efforts you have advanced in a mighty and terrible power, the art of persuasion. It can be used equally to advance good or evil. May you exercise this power always in the love of truth, decency, and the defense of the poor and weak.

Do you own to a god, may He be your witness and your judge should you betray this trust; if you do not own to a god, may your conscience be your scourge and also your salvation. And so help you, may the lucidity of your reason be guided by the purity of your heart.

Amen.

Yes. Indeed.

Evil will not have the last word

But in what passes as public discourse, it will keep trying.

So my last post below wondered aloud whether we’re still able to disagree with civil discourse, or not. It was kind of a rhetorical exercise, because the reality has been obvious for a while now, rendering the term ‘civil discourse’ almost quaint.

Since then, we went through what Christians have traditionally known and observed as Holy Week, and Jews the Passover. A time of spiritual reflection and prayer, of sacrifice and service, of shared humanity and salvation history.

But some believers and non-believers alike have either kept one foot in both that realm and the rough cut real world, or kept wholly and entirely flailing in the cultural abyss that gets no one anywhere but falling downward. Time and again, political power brokers have derided the lack of civil discourse and called for it as a new campaign, just after another tragic crime of some sort. And less than a week later it’s back to politically partisan sniping with media as complicit messenger.

On the news consumer level, people go at the messenger and each other in comments sections, or com-boxes, as if words have no meaning or whatever meaning suddenly assigned them for pragmatic purposes, as if there are no consequences for actions which include the act of character assassination or at least denigration. Pope Benedict often warned that modern man lives as if God does not exist, a re-statement of different Psalms decrying people acting ‘as if there is no God’.

Who will stop this?

Pope Francis is among the latest to try. Here are a few of his messages from the holiest days of the liturgical year.

Good Friday:

“In the Cross we see the monstrosity of man, when we allow ourselves to be guided by evil; but we also see the immensity of God’s mercy who does not treat us according to our sins, but according to His mercy”. This was the message at the heart of Pope Francis’ brief unscripted address Friday evening as he presided at the traditional “Via Crucis”, or Way of the Cross, service at Rome’s ancient Colosseum.

His scripted messages are already like little darts, targeted at our follies of idolatry (including making our own ideas into false idols, our opinions into little gods, until we’re so turned in on ourselves and ‘self-referential’ we lose side of ‘the other’ and feed into ‘the globalization of indifference’). His unscripted ones seem like deep sighs or sudden impulses that cry out to our shared humanity – shared, he’s quick to claim, by him – to stop and look and see, to listen and hear, to drop what we’re doing and be still, and then maybe notice that the ‘existential peripheries’ to which he urges us to go, to show the face of love to others, might be right in front of us.

However…and this is important to get…the ‘culture of encounter’ he keeps calling us to create, does not mean jumping into the culture of confrontation.

Easter Vigil:

Returning to Galilee, he noted, “means above all to return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey.”

“From that flame I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters,” the Pope said, highlighting how “that flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.”

That’s a good place to pause and take a good look at how we’re doing with that, Christian and anyone of goodwill. Are we bringing more heat than light? Do the flames we light ignite joy? Or do they singe and burn, causing distress?

Pope Francis then explained that there is “a more existential ‘Galilee’” in the life of every Christian after baptism, which is “the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission.”

Christians should pay attention. Non-Christians can benefit from a good existential message about recalling the first time they experienced the transcendent, a higher power they knew was not them and beyond them. For all, it’s the first encounter with the power of love and redemption.

Addressing those in attendance, the Roman Pontiff encouraged each to ask themselves: “What is my Galilee? Where is my Galilee? Did it go away or I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Have I gone off on roads and paths which made me forget it?”…

“This is not to go back in time; it is not a kind of nostalgia,” the pontiff clarified, but rather “it is returning to our first love, in order to receive the fire which Jesus has kindled in the world and to bring that fire to all people, to the very ends of the earth.”

Again, encounter the fire and consider what we’re doing with it.

Easter Sunday:

“The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death,” he preached on April 20.

The Holy Father emphasized the power of God’s “unconditional and faithful love” for every human situation, praying for the many areas of the world suffering from violence or conflicts, and urging Christians to seek paths of peace and reconciliation…

“In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast… “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.”

So now that we’ve celebrated Easter, and the Passover comes to completion, and those who don’t observe but have watched and felt something, whether longing or fulfillment, hope in the face of despair, seeing so many of the world’s believers recall the depths of human trials give them over to the heights of divine triumph and celebrate the mystery and gift of it all…here’s a question.

Have we been changed? Do we want to be? For believers, the Resurrection is the ultimate ‘re-set’. Love finds a way.

Giffords and Tucson one year later

A picture is worth a thousand words. Look at this one of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband on the one-year anniversary of the Tucson shooting.

It seems miraculous that she survived being shot in the head at pointblank range. That she led the Pledge of Allegiance at the memorial event made it a public witness of timely importance.

She limped to the podium, and husband Mark Kelly helped lift her left hand over her heart. After months of intensive speech therapy, Giffords recited the pledge with the audience, head held high and a smile on her face as she punched each word.

Her husband reminded us what the nation thought we learned that day but soon forgot.

“Those of us who survived were forever changed by that moment,” Kelly said. “For the past year, we’ve had new realities to live with, the reality and pain of letting go of the past.

“There’s a reality that life is unpredictable, and that even in the best of times, our cherished friends, the good, the caring, the innocent among us, the closest and dearest people we know, can be taken from us,” he said.

Earlier in the day, a crowd of people at St. Augustine Cathedral recited the 23rd Psalm and watched as relatives of the six dead walked solemnly down the aisle with a single red rose, placing the flowers in a vase in front of a picture of a heart.

“Even in the midst of this troubling year, the healing, the courage that we have experienced in our community — each one of us can notice how our cups overflow with the blessings of our lives,” said Stephanie Aaron, Giffords’ rabbi.

Hundreds of people at the cathedral — including Gov. Jan Brewer — stood and chanted, “We remember, we remember, we remember with grateful hearts.” Some closed their eyes while others held each other.

One of those who lost his life that day was Judge John Roll, who attended Mass at that cathedral almost daily before he showed up ‘at the wrong place at the wrong time.’

It’s important that we remember what happened in Arizona one year ago, for the inestimable and transcendent value and dignity of every single life.

And for the call it prompted politicians and members of the media to make, for civility. That didn’t last a week. But one year later we have a precious reminder we didn’t have then…the joyful face of Gabby Giffords.

‘Fact-lite partisan outrage’

So it’s not just a heated atmosphere in the runup to the mid-term election? Rage is the new ‘politics as usual’  in Washington politics?

That’s what Politico is saying.

Responsible people in power and in the mainstream media are only beginning to grapple with this new environment — in which facts hardly matter except as they can be used as weapon or shield in a nonstop ideological war. Do you dive into the next fact-lite partisan outrage — or do you stay out and risk looking slow, stupid or irrelevant? No one is close to figuring it out.

I’ll take the risk, and believe that remaining fact-based, truth-oriented and civil is still relevant. Respect for dignity attracts.

Restore civility

Please.

I intended to post this Thomas Reeve’s commentary on the culture wars since it was first out, but in the meantime, it has practically gone viral and set a new record for views on Mercatornet. Now that tells us a lot, and hopefully, all good. That people are connecting so readily with the message of civility (and our name-calling culture) and passing it on to others may just be a sign that we’re trying to turn things around.

Examples of uncivilized blather abound. For example, if one has serious objections to the public display and approval of sodomy, one is called a “homophobe.” Opponents of racial preferences are branded “racists.” (Blacks who find special favors demeaning and patronizing are called a variety of vile names.) To believe that a pregnant mother bears a person rather than a thing is to be labeled a “religious extremist.” The same label is applied to people who believe that organized religion should participate in the public square.

If you object to even one feminist dogma, you’re a “sexist.” Support efforts to purge the public airwaves of obscenity and violence and you’re a “bigot,” just like the “dummies” who believe in objective right and wrong…Those wishing to restrain propagandizing in the classroom are called “right wingers,” and are often shunned by colleagues. Those who oppose the nanny state are labeled “uncaring,” “inhumane,” and the like. Using the “n” word is one or another brand of racism—unless, of course, the word is used by African-Americans themselves, which it often is. Spending huge sums of tax dollars to save the economy is labeled Socialism. And on and on.

This is so familiar, right? And so refreshing to hear someone call things what they are, put clear and objective words to the clouds of disingenuous rhetoric in political and social arguments, and point to the fact that they are precisely arguments and not debates because they lack civil discourse. Flame throwers “substitute banalities for thought,” Reeves says, and he is exactly right.

And it gets better…..he asks that we get past using generalities when making an argument or giving speeches but talk about ideas and back them up with specifics.

A democracy requires its citizens to think rather than simply obey. All people in a free society benefit when discourse is civil, which means that it should be reasoned, fact-filled, specific, and respectful of the highest moral standards the country has traditionally embraced. Let us think and speak clearly and with the best of intentions.

Yes, let’s have clarity with charity.

Pass it on. Thank you.