About five years ago, “protecting the shield” became a thing. The phrase was introduced and repeated over and over by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — he was “protecting the shield” whenever he had to discipline a player or wayward owner. He “protects the shield” when he negotiates with the unions, hugs a first-round draft pick, or cuts league ties with Bradley Cooper. “Protecting the shield” is his way of dramatizing his solemn, possibly chivalrous duty to the league, its image, and its billions of dollars of annual revenue, and he has said it so many times, you’d be forgiven for thinking the words actually make sense. Every workplace wants you to feel like you’re part of a community. For the modern NFL, it’s Goodell’s mythical shield — that red, white, and blue logo — that is every player’s Constitution, Holy Bible, and secret handshake. It’s a shield Goodell protects to the tune of $30 million a year. It’s a shield that shields you from wondering how perverse it is that your workplace is asking for you to protect it — but from what?
Has a professional sports league ever had a worse year than the NFL in 2013?1 Consider everything that has happened since the Ravens won the Super Bowl. The most prominent controversy involves the most basic physics of the sport. In October, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada published League of Denial, a book exploring the NFL’s generally negligent attitude toward the neurological disease suffered by many former players. When ESPN backed out of the book’s companion Frontline documentary,2 it only amplified the sense of widespread conspiracy. Two feature films about the NFL and concussions are in the works as well. In late August, the league agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by 4,500 ex-players spanning multiple generations. Some have opted out, either in hopes of a larger individual payout or to force the NFL into disclosing what it actually knew. Others are beginning to realize their initial suspicions were correct: The NFL got off cheap.
One way to understand professional sports is as the commodification of innocence. If that sounds like a contradiction, then welcome to the irony at the heart of fandom — welcome to human nature, too. We’re forever being sold what’s essentially the vision we first had as children, this bright, clean world of colorful uniforms and fair play and stars who are good people and stars who love their teams. We know this vision is false and we buy it anyway. We believe it and we don’t believe it. We create a little space in our heads in which it’s allowed to seem kind of true, and then we never quite close that space, even when it’s under siege from everything else in our experience.
It’s always been this way — the first instance of corruption in sports I’ve personally written about took place in 1810, in a championship fight in a muddy field outside London, at a time when sportswriters were piously selling boxing as an incubator of national virtue. (It was racist and full of crushing head injuries, so about as virtuous as the British Empire overall, I guess.) Now an entire talk-radio alt-culture exists to skiff across the murky channel between what we know and what we refuse to disbelieve. Vinny and the Pooch on 570 AM — their whole act is built on the idea that no one’s been around more blocks, or in uglier cars: that no B.S. is thick enough to fool them. They tell it like it is. But when they start ranting about how one guy or another is a clown or a disgrace, it’s usually for a sin that would maybe surprise a 10-year-old. Their pseudo-cynic routine indulges both sides of your double consciousness: First it makes you feel knowing, then it plays to your apple-pie fantasies.
My friend Jose Mena in Ethika Politika:
Pope Francis has caused quite a stir in the mainstream media and in many American Catholic circles, first with the interviewhe gave after World Youth Day, then with the release of his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, and most recently by being named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. There has been quite a bit of fuss and consternation over whether the new pope means to create rupture between himself and his predecessors, and about how we ought to fit him into our contemporary understanding of what the papacy is.
It is not enough to point out (as many have been inclined to do) the fact that Pope Francis’ statements, whether regarding the pursuit and accumulation of wealth or the status of queer persons within the Church, are deeply consonant with a century’s worth of Catholic social teaching or millennia of doctrine. For American observers, to emphasize that Pope Francis is no different on these issues than Bishop Emeritus of Rome Benedict XVI or Blessed John Paul II does nothing to treat the underlying disease. There is a critical mistake that pervades the American understanding of the scriptural, theological, and philosophical underpinnings of the Catholic worldview that tends to lead us into considerable error as we approach it.
In most of the early reactions to Pope Francis’ papacy, one finds the severely confused notion that Catholic social teaching is readily reducible to American political categories, American conundrums, American parties, or American positions—that somehow, there is an easy one-to-one mapping between, say, Ronald Reagan and John Paul the Great, or between Pope Francis and Lyndon Johnson.
The theory of the unmorality of art has established itself firmly in the strictly artistic classes. They are free to produce anything they like. They are free to write a “Paradise Lost” in which Satan shall conquer God. They are free to write a “Divine Comedy” in which heaven shall be under the floor of hell.
And what have they done? Have they produced in their universality anything grander or more beautiful than the things uttered by the fierce Ghibbeline Catholic, by the rigid Puritan schoolmaster? We know that they have produced only a few roundels. Milton does not merely beat them at his piety, he beats them at their own irreverence. In all their little books of verse you will not find a finer defiance of God than Satan’s. Nor will you find the grandeur of paganism felt as that fiery Christian felt it who described Faranata lifting his head as in disdain of hell.
And the reason is very obvious. Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.
From Luther’s pamphlet On the Freedom of the Christian:
Your see, however, which is called the Court of Rome, and which neither you nor any man can deny to be more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom, and quite, as I believe, of a lost, desperate, and hopeless impiety, this I have verily abominated, and have felt indignant that the people of Christ should be cheated under your name and the pretext of the Church of Rome; and so I have resisted, and will resist, as long as the spirit of faith shall live in me. Not that I am striving after impossibilities, or hoping that by my labours alone, against the furious opposition of so many flatterers, any good can be done in that most disordered Babylon; but that I feel myself a debtor to my brethren, and am bound to take thought for them, that fewer of them may be ruined, or that their ruin may be less complete, by the plagues of Rome.
For many years now, nothing else has overflowed from Rome into the world— as you are not ignorant— than the laying waste of goods, of bodies, and of souls, and the worst examples of all the worst things. These things are clearer than the light to all men; and the Church of Rome, formerly the most holy of all Churches, has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.
Meanwhile you, Leo, are sitting like a lamb in the midst of wolves, like Daniel in the midst of lions, and, with Ezekiel, you dwell among scorpions. What opposition can you alone make to these monstrous evils? Take to yourself three or four of the most learned and best of the cardinals. What are these among so many? You would all perish by poison before you could undertake to decide on a remedy. It is all over with the Court of Rome; the wrath of God has come upon her to the uttermost. She hates councils; she dreads to be reformed; she cannot restrain the madness of her impiety; she fills up the sentence passed on her mother, of whom it is said, “We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed; let us forsake her.” It had been your duty and that of your cardinals to apply a remedy to these evils, but this gout laughs at the physician’s hand, and the chariot does not obey the reins. Under the influence of these feelings, I have always grieved that you, most excellent Leo, who were worthy of a better age, have been made pontiff in this. For the Roman Court is not worthy of you and those like you, but of Satan himself, who in truth is more the ruler in that Babylon than you are.
Read this quote from O’Donovan and you’re basically equipped to understand both the Obama administration and the left’s reaction to the Obama administration:
Liberal historicism, in order to remain liberal, has to cultivate movements of social dissent. This is not the place to speak of the intellectual roots, part Christian part rationalist, of the liberal political thought of the West, nor of the logical and historical necessities which have driven it to assume a historicist form. It is enough to observe that once liberalism is clothed in historicist garb, it has to pinch itself, as it were, to find out if it is still alive. Only the passionate antitheses of resentment and refusal remain to convince it that cultural history is more, after all, than the triumphal progress of an all-encompassing state. Protest, rather than administrative evolution, must be the engine that propels history forward on its way, the tool with which we fashion the raw material of past and present experience into the artefact of our own future.
O’Donovan (and keep in mind that this was written in 1986) :
Man’s relation to his own natural constitution is radically affected by the historicist point of view. And here we will take as our paradigm a natural institution of which the New Testament has a good deal to say, the institution of marriage. Jesus taught (as Saint Matthew reports) that “he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Matt. 19:4-5) In attempting to understand him Christians have classically believed that in the ordinance of marriage there was given an end for human relationships, a teleological structure which was a fact of creation and therefore not negotiable. The dimorphic organization of human sexuality, the particular attraction of two adults of the opposite sex and of different parents, the setting up of a home distinct from the parental home and the uniting of their lives in a shared life (from which Jesus concluded the unnaturalness of divorce): these form a pattern of human fulfillment which serves the wider end of enabling procreation to occur in a context of affection and loyalty. Whatever happens in history, Christians have wished to say, this is what marriage really is. Particular cultures may have distorted it; individuals may fall short of it. It is to their cost in either case; for it reasserts itself as God’s creative intention for human relationships on earth; and it will be with us, in one form or another, as our natural good until (but not after) the kingdom of God shall appear.
A historicist account, on the other hand, must argue that this “natural good” is not given transhistorically at all, but is the product of cultural development peculiar to a certain time and place. (In developing the argument it will presumably lay stress on the variety of patterns of erotic relationship which have been maintained in other cultural milieux than that of classical Christianity. It is worth observing that not all variations are relevant to the discussion: there are numerous cultural variations which do not affect the basic structure of marriage; and there are others which do, but which raise problems for the culture that sufficiently demonstrate their unfittingness for human fulfillment.) By making marriage an item of cultural history in this way, historicism necessarily raises a question about it. However well it thrives today, it is moving towards some kind of metamorphosis. Historicism makes all created goods appear putatively outmoded. So that if there are currents of dissatisfaction evident in a society’s practice of marriage, such as might be indicated by a high divorce rate or a prominent homosexual culture, they will be treated with great seriousness as signs of the evolution for which the institution is destined. Even if they do not represent the direction in which that evolution must eventually move, they will be welcomed because they bring the question of marriage and its alternatives to the level of conscious choice, and so assist in the transformation of natural relationships into cultural projects, as “history becomes conscious of itself.”
One more time… written in 1986.
In Resurrection and Moral Order, O’Donovan defines “historicism” this way:
The heart of historicism can be expressed in the thesis that all teleology is historical teleology. The concept of an “end,” it is held, is essentially a concept of development in time. Nothing can have a “point,” unless it is a historical point; there is no point in the regularities of nature as such. … The natural exists only to be superseded: everything within it serves only a supernatural end, the end of history. That may be conceived as the kingdom of heaven; it may be conceived as the communist paradise; or (as especially in liberal historicism) it may simply be an undefined term of self-justifying change, receding infinitely like the horizon as we approach it. But in each case natural order and natural meanings are understood only as moments in the historical process. They are to be dissolved and reconstituted by that process, and their value lies not in any integrity of their own but in being raw material for transformation.
Turning to some practical applications of historicism, O’Donovan looks at man’s relationship to nature within a historicist framework:
In man’s dealings with nature historicism invariably promotes a strong tendency to intervene and manipulate. The logic of this is simple: the ends of natural life which human action should respect are no longer understood to be given objectively in nature itself, but to be conferred upon nature by the interpretation of a human culture. But that culture serves its own historical end. In so far as that end is to become consciously directive, intervention becomes a necessity.
O’Donovan then goes on to shrewdly note that both industrialization–which is what naturally comes to mind when reading the above–and many modern Green movements amount to the same thing:
It is not, however, that it can never be right to let alone. Rather, “letting alone,” has itself come to be understood as a special form of “intervention,” and a case has to be made for this form of intervention rather than another. The burden of proof has shifted, so that it has to be borne by those who would let alone rather than those who would intervene; and they have to discharge their burden by arguing, in quite alien terms, that letting alone would be the most effective form of intervention in this case. To see how letting alone can also be a form of intervention, consider the phenomenon of the “wilderness park,” well known on continents that have seen a rapid expansion of human civilization in the last century. An area of previously unbroken wilderness is marked out on a map; a fence is built round it, a gate gives access to it, and a road, with car-parking facilities, brings traffic to the gate. Inside it professional gamekeepers “manage” the stocks of wildlife and ensure the maintenance of a properly balanced wilderness ecology. Thus even wilderness becomes hominized.
Hope you enjoyed the music. Had to end this with something from Handel’s Messiah. Back to regular posting tomorrow. Merry Christmas!
From the London Symphony Orchestra and the Tenebrae choir:
From the Winchester Cathedral Choir:
From St. George’s Cathedral, Perth Australia: