Posts Tagged ‘William Blake’

An Interview with Daniel Berrigan, S. J.

May 13, 2016


Daniel Berrigan, S. J. died on April 30, ten days shy of his 95th birthday, ending an extraordinary life of creativity, commitment and courage. The following interview was conducted in late 2000 and published in part in January 2001. I send it out again in its complete form for those who may have never heard Dan Berrigan’s voice as well as for those, like myself and thousands of others, who will miss it dearly.


To wed, even for a day, one’s beliefs with corresponding acts is perhaps the most difficult, dangerous, and noble endeavor any person can undertake. This is all the more so when said convictions run counter to the given order, laws, and culture of the age. To integrate one’s principles in such a fashion over the course of a lifetime is thus at the very least extraordinary, if not sublime. Exactly such an endeavor, however, has been the life’s work of Fr. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., who now enters the ninth decade of his life as vital as ever. Along with his brother Philip, a former Josephite priest who has spent ten of his last 30 years in federal prisons for various acts of civil disobedience (and who is currently serving a two-year stint in a Ohio for “vandalizing” a Navy guided missile destroyer), Daniel has for the past 40 years strived, regardless of personal cost, to force America to live up to its ideals and to forge a new, higher, and truly spiritual consciousness unto this land which, for some reason, never tires of calling itself “Christian.” In the process, like few before them, the Berrigan brothers have scandalized church as well as state, drawing the wrath of both—a revealing and interesting double whammy if there ever was one.

Indeed, in what would set off one of the most disgraceful judicial actions of the past century, the brothers Berrigan drove the normally staid and silently vicious J. Edgar Hoover into a state of frenzy. With no evidence other than some purloined personal letters and the word of a paid FBI convict informant, and in direct violation of the Bill of Rights, the FBI king publicly denounced them at a U.S. Senate hearing, thus successfully forcing their indictments as leaders of a conspiracy to kidnap then Presidential Advisor (and hopefully future convicted war criminal) Henry Kissinger. That Hoover came close to succeeding—despite the fact that at the time of the alleged conspiracy both Daniel and Philip were imprisoned (for invading a Baltimore Selective Service Office and ritualistically burning hundreds of draft cards)—was nothing short of disturbing. (See The FBI and the Berrigans, by Jack Nelson and Ronald Ostrow.) The brothers, however, prevailed.
The fifth of six sons of a German mother and an Irish father, Daniel was born in 1921 in Two Harbors, Minnesota, and raised in upstate New York. Accepted by the Jesuit order at 18 and ordained as a priest of the Roman Catholic Church at 33, Berrigan had his first brush with activism while living among the Worker Priests movement of France in the mid 1940s. Two decades later, Berrigan’s own activism against the war and for the poor found him exiled to South America by superiors in his own Jesuit order. The exile ended due to a sustained public outcry by Berrigan’s supporters, and upon his return his activism increased, as did his arrests and imprisonments. After the Vietnam War ended, the brothers Berrigan founded the Plowshares Movement, and they continue to lead anti-nuclear protests around the country.

It’s been said that one can tell the make of a man by the company he keeps. Among Daniel’s dearest friends and allies were Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and Howard Zinn to name but a few. More importantly, there is virtually no humane and intelligent movement of the last four decades—from civil rights to the death penalty, from Vietnam to the Irish Hunger Strikers, from the suffering of AIDS victims to the starvation of the children of Iraq, where Daniel has not lent his presence, his voice and if, need be, his freedom. Daniel Berrigan served two years at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut for his activities opposing the Vietnam War. Despite strident governments efforts and a near fatal illness while incarcerated, Daniel was not corrected. Indeed, like his Biblical namesake, who was sent to hungry lions for refusing to obey idiot laws and kneel before human gods, Berrigan has withstood all pressure to break his will and get him to betray his beliefs. Along the way, Berrigan has also found time to become (in no particular order) a prize-winning poet, acclaimed playwright, fugitive, convict, professor, theologian, actor, author of fifty odd books, and always and ever the rarest form of our species a man of almost frightening and certainly humbling integrity and a fearless, indomitable friend to those in need.
I met Fr. Berrigan at his small but comfortable flat among the Jesuit Community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where he’s resided for the past two decades. Asked to describe his work these days, Fr. Berrigan replied casually that he spends “lots of writing and teaching and doing retreat work…and getting arrested, which is the one I’m proudest of.” Taller than you’d think, graceful, and capable of moving from utter seriousness to the mischievous and back again in a matter of moments, Daniel Berrigan keeps one on his toes in a most delightful and witty manner. For one who has devoted his life to the eradication of the suffering of others, Daniel Berrigan has suffered enormously and does so these days each time he contemplates that, once again, his beloved brother and friend Philip is imprisoned, that once again needless afflictions are cast upon the already afflicted, that once again the Church fails to live up to its creed, that once again America has acted barbarically. But Daniel Berrigan likes to laugh and Daniel Berrigan does so often. Above all, Daniel Berrigan believes and, in believing, acts.

dan old images


Patrick Walsh: How would you define your work?

Daniel Berrigan: Well, well, lets see here … there’s a lot of writing and teaching thought I’m not teaching this semester and around the country with retreat work, biblical retreats all over the place and getting arrested. that the one I’m proudest of.

PW How many times have you been arrested?

DB I don’t know. I’ve run out of toes and fingers.

PW I believe its in the hundreds.

DB Could be.

PW The transformation of Christianity from an small and obscure renegade Jewish cult whose leader is put to death by the occupying Roman Empire to its emergence as the guiding force of that very empire is, from any rational stand point, wholly and utterly absurd. Yet it happened. The Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church has arguably been both the most emancipatory and repressive force in Western or even world history. It is more than strange that the same force that brought forth and formed a St. Francis could also bring forth a Juan de Torquemada, a Hildegard von Bingen, and a Borgia Pope, and in your life time a Fr. Coughlin and a Dorothy Day. How would you explain that?

DB (Laughs) I’m gonna run for the john! ( Pause ) I don’t know, it just seems to me that this is the biggest show in town. Under that umbrella is every human species, every human exemplar, every human scoundrel and you know, its all there. And I think that inevitable that it all be there. Even thought we should cringe. I never thought I would see what I’m seeing today as far as the church is concerned. I never thought that I would see Jesuits murdered around the world. and this kind of Pope, and certainly in my younger years I never dreamed I would meet the likes of Dorothy Day or Merton or Chavez or so many others . I never dreamed of being in a community of this quality. So you really run the spectrum of emotional life and hope and near despair and its really kind of rough at times but it also very wonderful. Let me give you an example of how hard it can be and how marvelous. I have a Jesuit brother in prison out of this community and my own brother is in prison and that’s very tough. That’s very tough. It’s almost beyond, my vocabulary to tell you how tough it is. At the same time it s lifeline and its important and crucial to this community that this go on. It makes us all dig deeper. It makes us more serious about our place in the world. And in the church. And it brings home to us the pain of being human.

PW Has your relationship to the mainstream church has it changed greatly or have you always been outside the mainstream.

DB Well, everything about the church is filtered through the Jesuits, which is a great protection and gives us a lot of room. In fact, I often felt that we (Jesuits) have really as much freedom as we can stomach and some of us can’t stomach a great deal of it but that’s our problem. Not the Churches.

PW What kinds of freedom don’t want to take advantage of?

DB I think that’s that a very large question because it moves in so many directions. I think that what we rejoice most in among n one another is intellectual curiosity and some kind of stirring of the imagination about life today and about where we are, where we are in the scheme of things and that’s one kind of freedom you have to take the official rhetoric as a kind of blueprint for life and kind of work through things yourself … with others. I think there is level of trust here that’s really quite extraordinary. And then there this freedom from the law which I think every one in the community honors. Not everybody gets arrested but they support those who do with all their heart.

PW Jesus showed a great respect for women and, if there were excluded from his twelve chosen disciples, they certainly play a large and important role in the Gospels. Before it’s institutionalization Christianity may have well have been the was the first religion to grant women equal spiritual status. It seems a fact that in the early formative years of the church or more accurately the forming as yet Catholic churches, the role of women was scarcely different from that of men even to the point of women serving as leaders of the church, even as bishops. And yet, over time as the Church grew, and consolidated its power women became both demeaned and exalted in a way that is somehow different and weirder than a mere contradiction. The same organization that eventually worshipped the Virgin Mary and referred to itself with utter sincerity as “Mother Church”, held that women’s place in it was small and utterly powerless. This point not only did not escape the more brilliant minds that the Church produced. It was promulgated by them.

Following are two passages of Tertullian, a hugely influential Church father. “The Son of God was crucified. (I am unashamed of it because men must needs be ashamed of it. ) And the Son of God died. It is by all means to be believed because it is absurd. And he was buried and rose again the fact is certain because it is impossible.”

Now, these are words that could only have been produced by a mind that has somehow moved past the shackles of logical thought into some kind of visionary perception of reality. And yet, the same mind produced the following: “Do you not realize that Eve is you? The curse God produced on your sex still weighs on the world. You are the devil’s gateway. You desecrated the fatal tree. You first betrayed the law of God. The image of God, the man Adam, you broke him, it was child’s play to you. You deserved death and it was the Son of God who had to die.”

DB Oh my, how horrible! From the sublime to the horrible. It leaves you kind of speechless. That was really seeding that kind of imagery into history and remains in essence as regards women in the church. Someone like myself is constantly encountering extraordinary women who feel this to the marrow , this kind of exclusion , what one Jesuit called apartheid around the alter and it’s a bitter pill. And some take it and walk around and some take it and stand there and both are occurring On the other hand, this is a quote from an ordained Protestant women who runs a retreat where I go twice a year in Penn and she’s ordained in the United Church of Christ and she says the most interesting people who come to that retreat house both as presenters and as participants are Catholic women and she concludes that as an ordained women that there is a certain strength and virtue that comes from being at the edge rather than in the center and that Catholic women in many way are proceeding with their own agenda which is higher education especially theological education and all sorts of innovation, liturgically , among themselves. In no sense could I justify what is going on from above but on the other hand it seems to me it does have certain compensations and that I have tasted that in my own life that not to be at the front side of the power and privilege keeps one lean and mean. My father used to say, Well boys,” – he would address us oracularly – “a lean horse for a long race.” And he lived to be well over ninety. And he was lean. And mean. (Laughs )

The world's most lovable felon.

The world’s most lovable felon.

PW In my experience, Catholicism seems to effect people more deeply that the other Christian sect. Take a figure like Joyce who was defined by the church in reverse or Graham Greene’s character Pinky in Brighten Beach who says something like, ” When a Catholic goes bad, they become evil. “Do you find that Catholicism has a peculiar hold on those who are raised it?

DB Oh it does and you can’t walk around without ricocheting off it … I couldn’t not say that it ever leaves one unaffected, whatever the decision, whatever the direction one takes. And it’s like being a Jesuit. I mean, you can never be the same even if you walk away. It brands the soul.

PW James Joyce answered famously when he was asked if he was a Catholic, ” Oh no, I’m a Jesuit.”

DB (Laughs) What a nice saying! That’s’ really great! I went looking for some memento of his in the Jesuit school there — Clongowes? — and interestingly enough I couldn’t finds any record on the walls and I thought this was really strange. And I was very stirred up by this kind of — what can I call it ? — ignorance and fear or dread. I love the Irish Jesuits but somebody official, somebody agreed that for all these years Joyce would not be commemorated there.

PW How long ago was this?

DB Oh… a decade ago.

PW Things have changed or what?

DB Things have changed at least outside of the Church. If you now walk along the streets of Dublin they now have plaques and quotes for this scene in Ulysses or that scene in Ulysses and so on. Within the church, I don’t know. Joyce was never officially banned in Ireland, you just could not find him. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t available. That was their solution. but now you can find him all over the place. They sell posters and they’re finally proud of him.

PW You write about the “trivializing of evil and its secular counterpart “Gnostic psychoanalyses.” Could you explain that?

DB Well, just to step back a bit, I’ve often talked about this from the point of view of the Bible .. the one who gets the divine sin gets great power. I always said during the Vietnam War that I couldn’t win because the Catholics — this was in the early stages of the war right up till maybe 1968 — were fiercely against abortion and pro war. And when I faced a secular audience it was exactly the opposite . And I was speaking from a place that would protect the unborn as well as the adults. And that was very, very tough for quite a while. I run for the hill when psychoanalysis starts in a conversation or . I love to ask these people what is their definition of a healthy person and you really can’t get very far . It all kind of squeezed into “me, I and mine.” That’s not really very close to the way I see a healthy person which I would see largely in terms of lifelines and connections.

PW And the things that people do in their lives is that what you mean by lifelines and connections. Their rootedness in the world?

DB Well, yeah I would put it a little differently. I mean standing by one another especially in cruel circumstances. It’s another point of view of non-betrayal because that’s really the style of the hour, betrayal.

PW But betrayal is no longer seen as betrayal. I hear all the time, things like, “Well that’s the way it is” or a look that says, “O poor child you don’t yet understand the world.” As if that kind of attitude is superior to the one that you’re speaking about. DB It seems to me it implies the same thing when it’s betraying the other by down putting or these accusations of immaturity or romanticism or whoever.

PW What is your idea of the demonic? Is it a physical thing? A spiritual thing or both?

DB It seems to have been crazily real to Jesus and what one is to make of it, again, I guess it can be psychologized out of existence what we call the demonic. I like ( Protestant lay theologian William) Stringfellow’s view of it and he would say simply that it is the spirit of death, and the pursuit of death as a social or personal goal. And when this gets into a huge apparatus like the military or the White House and those kind of monsters you’ve got the active and virulent and institutionalized pursuit of death as a goal. Get rid of some people and you’ll get rid of problems. So let’s go.

PW You mean like the war machine and the death penalty…?

DB All that stuff. Yes. None of it makes any sense and it makes less and less of it all the time. There’ s a little bit coming out now about Kissinger in Harpers….
(Berrigan is referring to “The Case Against Henry Kissinger, Part One: The Making of A War Criminal ” by Christopher Hitchens published in Harpers Magazine, February 2001. Hitchens elaborated on his thesis in The Trial of Henry Kissinger. A Similar argument appeared in the August 15, 2001 Village Voice under the title “Manhattan’s Milosevic ( How You Can Arrest Henry Kissinger For War Crimes “) by James Ridgeway. It has taken some 30 odd years, and millions of needless deaths but it appears, at length, that at least some of the world is beginning to understand at least some of the perspectives of the Berrigans. -ed )

PW ( Sarcastically )You were part of a plot to kill Kissinger, right ?

DB Oh…no kidnap him. We were going to do a citizens arrest I understand. Of course I was in prison so I’m not sure how I was supposed to do it

PW You’re a very wily fellow!

DB But I thought it would have been a good idea. But it always takes a long time, doesn’t it, for anything approaching clarity or justice and a whole generation of wicked official is dead and he’s still hanging around but……
(In November, 1970, J. Edgar Hoover publicly denounced the brother Berrigan’s and others as members of a fictional conspiracy called the Catholic Resistance to Save Lives who planned to dismantle the electrical system of Washington and, for good measure, kidnap then presidential aide and architect of the Vietnam war, Henry Kissinger. Against the advice of his own top advisors, Hoover rammed the fantasy into an indictment and thus a protracted trial in Harrisburg PA. As the trial got underway, mysteriously, and without explanation, Daniel went from the ringleader to an equally mystifying status as ” un-indicted coconspirator” and the government focused largely on Philip Berrigan. Both Berrigan’s were imprisoned at the time of the alleged conspiracy. The charges carried with them life sentences without parole and ended in a mistrial. -Ed )

PW In all your words, the one time I felt bitterness creep into your writing was in your description of the conspiracy trial in Harrisburg when the government got a stooge, a paid informer….

DB Right, Boyd Douglas.

PW And at that point your diction, the tone of your writing changed.

DB Really? Well that interesting. Hmmm…. I guess I was still feeling it.

PW You wrote that you should reach out and touch this guy ( Douglas ) because he was a victim of the victimizers but you couldn’t do and that you would have to leave it to Christ to forgive this guy it.

DB Well, I could now … and recalling that and putting it so adamantly I wish I had given it more time, maybe.

PW Well, what I thought while reading it was that your love for your brother was so great and this guy was putting the hammer to him and trying to put him away for life and …

DB Oh yeah. And very nearly succeeded.

February 1968, New York, USA --- The Reverend Daniel Berrigan, 46, (left), a Cornell University instructor and Howard Zinn, 45, Boston University professor, leave Kennedy Airport here on January 31st for Hanoi.  They represent an American peace committee allegedly asked by the North Vietnamese to send escorts for three U>S> fliers being released. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

February 1968, New York, USA — The Reverend Daniel Berrigan, 46, (left), a Cornell University instructor and Howard Zinn, 45, Boston University professor, leave Kennedy Airport here on January 31st for Hanoi. They represent an American peace committee allegedly asked by the North Vietnamese to send escorts for three U>S> fliers being released. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

PW What to you is the purpose of prayer?

DB Well as far as I can understand it doesn’t have any purpose. Prayer is prayer is prayer. It’s perhaps equivalent to asking what is the purpose of God. My own theory is that God is useless. And so is prayer. That is to say, such realities are not to be put to this or that use. Other wise, you get Bush evoking religion and wanting to give millions of dollars to idiots.

PW In other words, it’s outside of the realm of the practical ,its unearthly as such shouldn’t be approached in terms of usefulness?

DB It can’t be without theology poisoning it.

PW I came upon an ad for the rosary in which your name was used.

DB Well, that’s nice. I have one right here. (Reaches to the arm of his chair where he retrieves a set of red rosary beads.)

PW You‘ve written that , “Every Christian requires the shadow or light of a Jew upon life: a presence, a Shekinah, a friendship something of the ancient blood mingling with his own, as blood of parent and child mingle.” Could you elaborate on this?

DB Well you could start with Jesus and go right up to my Jesuit friend Steve Kelly who ‘s in prison, in fact, in solitary.

PW For what?

DB Well, he and my brother Philip and two other poured their blood on depleted uranium shells in Maryland. But I brought up Kelly because I was around Kelly a good deal. I’m missing this guy who really quite a number, everything about him, his body language and his sense of humor and gestures and all that stuff wasn’t Irish at all. And I’m sort of watching this guy and listening to him and all that and I said, ” Kelly, what is it with this name Kelly? You’re not Irish at all. You’re Jewish! And he said, you know I was adopted by the Kelly’s, right? Now I think there’s a certain continuity here about the people I’m attracted to, the people that will walk with me. It’s very Jewish. It’s very single minded. Even the guards down there in Maryland (guarding Rev. Kelly ), they have this kind of grudging admiration for this guy. “Hey, he don’t give in, does he?” And of course we know Kelly very well and he sure doesn’t give in.

It’s not to make an ethic thing out it but to recognize a sort bloodline of the spirit which I feel very deeply about and which I constantly find very fine an experience… though I’m not very proud of the state of Israel right now …. and that’s the understatement of the millennium. I was at this thing right here in the city with James Carroll who’s just written this enormous tome, called The Sword of Constantine on Jews and Catholics, Judaism and the church. Anyway he was in town, the book was making a big splash and he gave this talk and then there was this panel which included a Jewish women and a Catholic women. I’m sitting there in the front row because Carroll and I have been friends for 30 years and I’m listening in a stupor of disbelief because for two and half hours the word “Palestinian” is never mentioned. And this is so outrageous, so outrageous. He ( James Carroll ) called the next day and, you know, “Thanks for coming” and “What did you think of the evening?” and all that. And I said what I just said. He agreed but I let it drop, just let it drop.

PW There’s an atmosphere of fear around that subject and I know that you were hounded for a year for a speech you gave defending the rights of Palestinians.

DB Oh yeah …..the memory lingers. You know I was reading this pro- Palestinian essay by Dr. (Edward ) Said and the remarkable thing about the essay was it was about his sadness for the state of Israel.

PW As both a poet and a theologian how would you explain the absence of physical description in the Bible. Outside of an occasional mentioning of some characters beauty or strength or Samson’s hair, we have little if any idea of what these figures, look like. What do you think of this absence signifies?

DB you mean in both Bibles, the Hebrew and the Christian?

PW We don’t know what Moses looked like, we don’t know what Jesus looked like.

DB I’ve never even given much thought to that but it seems to me ,at least on the surface that there’s a connection between the very, very old prohibitions against images. For instance, Ezekiel barely got into the Hebrew canon because he spoke of images he saw. The rule was you could tell only what you heard but you could never tell what you saw. For this same reason Daniel was demoted in the Hebrew bible from the Prophets to something amorphous called ” Writings.”

PW What are your thoughts on the Gospel of Thomas? In this work there is not only an absence physical description but also no action whatsoever. No passion. No crucifixion. Merely the so called “wisdom sayings” and very, very enigmatic sayings at that. What do you make of this?

DB Well, I can’t say I’ve really gone into that (The Gospel of Thomas). I can’t add a great deal to it. Stories, stories, stores. Maybe I found it a little bit too direct and felt a little inhibited that there wasn’t some activity going on there. I kind of proceed on the assumption that in the Christian Bible, that I had had was all I needed.

PW Jesus spoke in parables In a very real sense, the speaking of parables posits an enormous respect for their audience, forcing them to think and expecting if not forcing them to do so. Parables are a very, very demanding form both for the creator and the receiver. What does it mean to you that the Jesus of the Synoptic gospels choose to speak in parables?

DB First of all I like him more for it. (Laughs ) He has my approval! (Laughs) O My ! Well, it just seems to me that among great things that Jesus was setting a pattern about the acquisition of knowledge or insight or new directions or the freeing of the imagination. Respecting, honoring the imagination. I think that is pretty much gone and what has taken over is the Law. The message of Jesus is altogether prophetic. He never once quotes the Book of Samuel or the Book of Kings or any of that. He quotes Isaiah all the time and the other prophets. They fire his imagination. They free him up to say, I’m like that and commands that message to those who hear it. And I think that there’s a direct connection between the loss of that power of imagining reality and the emergence of stereotypical lawgivers. If the one skill dies the other non-skill takes over.

I was just thinking about, again, ones own experience, and I grew up in a family where there was very little promulgation of the Law. Daddo ( his father Thomas Berrigan) did some of it but there wasn’t any kind of verbal urgency about being virtuous. We were brought up by example which I think required enormous patience because we used to be savage but it took. It took. It really did. Eventually.

PW Both D.H. Lawrence in The Man Who Died and Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ said they wrote their books because they wanted to create a Christ who was both fully human and fully divine. I find this dubious as even a cursory ready of the Gospels will disclose a Jesus who is at times frightened, proud, angry, confused and so on. Nonetheless, what both Kazantzakis and Lawrence do add to the portrait of Jesus is sexuality which one definitively does not find in the Gospels and that is substantial. Why do you think there is no mention of any sexuality in Jesus of the Gospels?

DB Haven’t thought about it lately. As I understand things, the form of the Gospels that we have in out hands is a proclamation either to the a community or to the world and my question is, was that ( knowledge ) necessary? Was that crucial to that purpose that we want a certain version of God incarnate? We have knowledge of sexuality available in other parts of the scriptures. But Jesus chose this way and… I don’t know. We have Peter a married man, and we have Paul a married man and others. I just hope, and I guess one can only engage in hope, that it wasn’t out of a sense that this was a superior way to God. It was His way to God and as we find in our Jesuit community there’s a certain freedom in that, a certain freedom. It’s not easy but it does free us from the material in one way. I don’t know. It’s all speculation. ( Pause)
By the way I detested that movie The Last Temptation of Christ. Just horrible. I was one of the so called “religious leaders” who were invited to an advance screening of that film and I decided to go because I wanted to see how bad it would be. They really did everything to butter us up. They had this very elaborate lunch ahead of time. And we were racing across town in danger of our lives being pursued by these crazies who were trying to stop the film.

PW They were after you?

DB No, they were after the whole crowd of clergy who were going to see it. And, to compound things in the middle of a summer day, you know quite bright, the theater was struck by lightening and the lights out and the screen went out.

PW Is that so? The Big Fellow was angry!

DB ( Laughs) Yes, they had to bring out the director to stem the tide because no one knew what the hell was up and he began talking about the film and it was ridiculous.

PW Why did you think it was so horrible?

DB It was vulgar. Scorsese, is that the directors name? I thought that the film that came closest to portraying Jesus and one that I view with great affection is the Italian Gospel According to St. Matthew. The director was murdered later. He was a gay guy. (Pier Paolo Pasolini – ed.). And he dedicated the film to Pope John XXIII though he was a non-believer himself. And he used all amateurs and made it in Spain and it was just very powerful.


PW It’s obvious to anyone who has read your work the great love, affection and respect you had for ( Catholic Worker founder ) Dorothy Day? When did you first meet her and what was your first association with the Catholic Worker?
DB Well, we pretty much grew up with the Catholic Worker newspaper.

PW “We” meaning your family? DB Yeah. It always ended up in our house somehow, probably through relatives. But that started it. And there was a very close affinity, without anyone ever formulating it between the ethos of the paper and the way we were living. And that “we” being my mother. The open door policy and the hungry man at the table and people over night. People for longer periods during The Depression. So that was very interesting. Now as far as meeting her, I was teaching in Jersey and I would bring students over to the Worker. That was in the late 40s and she was still very vigorous and youthful. I was sort of on the edge of things but then I came back after being in Europe for a while and started teaching in Brooklyn and then I got very close to her… bringing students to her.

PW Where in Brooklyn?

DB A Jesuit school called Brooklyn Prep which is now Medger Evers Collage and then around the time of Pope John XXlll in the 60’s when those encyclicals came out (Pacem In Terris/ Peace on Earth and Mater Et Magistra/ Christianity and Social Progress.) and she was really, really so moved and exalted by those writings and so was I. I was teaching them in collage by then. And we got together in the city here and had a panel on the Upper West side here on Pope John and his writings, his world view and all that. So that was very nice and I felt very honored to be in her presence and … yapping away. Then she came to my college and we had a community going called the International house. I was living with the students and we had built a chapel in the basement and we were having liturgies that were held nowhere else, with all the table facing outward and all that. And that was a very lovely time and she came fro that mass and was a great hit with the students .I still remember we were sitting around eating afterwards, I think ham and eggs or something like that and I noticed her quietly toward the end of the meal taking this cold toast and making a sandwich with the cold eggs wrapping it a napkin. and she announced ,” that to eat on the bus on the way home” (Laughs) And I thought, this is so terrific. She was so consistent and unobtrusive. But clear.

PW (Arch conservative) Francis Spellman would have been the cardinal though a large period of her life. Did he actively try to undermine her work?

DB Well, as nearly as I remember he called her in only once and he wanted her to drop the word “Catholic” for the Catholic Worker and obviously it was about the war question and she had also been interfering in a strike, a grave diggers strike, on the side of the unions. He (Spellman) was breaking the strike. And she said he never gave her a direct command to drop the word “Catholic.” She later said, “If the Cardinal had said drop it, I would have dropped it.” Somehow she got him off the topic. He didn’t know what to make of this women. She had him off kilter.

PW The Catholic worker seems a real anomaly in today’s ultra material world, especially when there are so many Catholics who are doing well financially and yet here’s this one group holding on to this tradition…

DB Well, it not just holding on to the tradition, it’s flourishing. They’ve doubled the number of houses that had when Dorothy was alive. They’re springing up all over the world. It’s an answer to an increasingly empty Catholicism, for those who have an aversion to traditional Catholicism and the search for roots and for discipline that says,” this service to the poor makes sense.” Dorothy had it all. I was a slow learner in her corner. I think I was greatly inhibited and I had Jesuits that were telling me to keep away from her as they told me to keep away from Merton and it really became a kind of battle of turfs. (Commandingly), “This women is entering very complicated questions of war and peace. She’s OK among the poor but…” And it just made me more curious and I kept saying, there must be something there if they don’t like her. And all these distinguished Jesuits — I shouldn’t say all of them but one of them has stayed in my mind who would say about (Thomas ) Merton — ( Commandingly ) ” That Monk! That monk is entering into very complex questions. War! Racism! He should be on his knees!” So that would send me back to Merton.

PW In commenting on the struggles and trials of Dorothy Day, you’ve written that of ” hardly less trying …than the immediate disorder of street people, the mentally afflicted, the furious the defeated and the violent …were ” , the insurgents who invaded the Worker with their own brand of Catholicism: The Way Things Should Be”. What do you mean by this?

DB Well, that started really with the Second World War. It took different forms as time went on and all that but it started with her insistence that we don’t have a “good war”. Your latest war is not my good war. She was so clear. And Catholic Worker houses closed and the subscriptions to the paper fell. And she just went on the same. You know, “Not in my name.” . That was one form in the 40’s. Then in the 60’s, after things picked up a bit, the invasion I remember because I was living here (in New York) at the time was a sort of hedonism of drugs and sex and so forth. Young people getting in there with that and she was appalled. Conversion is a very difficult process.
( Note: Day, raised an Episcopalian spent years as a Communist and bohemian. ) And I think the whole thing took years for her to get a kind of a balanced ethic — about sexuality especially. She was kind of a Graham Greene character in a way. That one novel which I thought was really awful … The End of the Affair. The women that is converted and gives up her lover? Well, that was Dorothy’s story. She connected those ideas that a conversion meant you had to give up someone. And then she took that into certain arenas of her life and she began to excommunicate from her orbit people like my brother, a priest who got married, people who were divorced. Anyway, she told me toward the end of her life that that behavior was awful and that she bitterly regretted that kind of treatment of people. And she had written everyone apologizing and saying,” Please come back. You’re welcome to my friendship,” and so on. And then, she said, “And you know, I’m visiting Foster ( her former lover and the father of her child ) everyday and we’re holding hands like young lovers.” That’s her.

PW Dorothy Day didn’t vote. Do you think that non-voting is a legitimate course of action?

DB I have never voted. My brother Philip said,” If voting made any difference it would be illegal” — A dictum in which I heartily agree. The word vote you know is a very interesting thing and its from the Latin and its a participle of the verb to vow which I find very interesting: To vow.
So the original idea is that one vowed one’s life in a certain direction and that was a casting of a vote for life, on behalf on life and it originally took the form of a votive, a votive offering and we get our word devotion from it and there’s a lovely, lovely kind of development in that whole idea. I think to be a Jesuit is to cast a vote. We take vows. Married people take vows. That’s the words at it deepest and best.

Q You’ve spent a long time ministering to AIDS victims, many of who were gay which remains anathema to the Catholic Church. You’ve also written passionately in defense of Jesuit psychologist and philosopher John McNeil, a founding member of the Catholic gay organization Dignity and author of The Homosexual and the Church which argued from a Biblical standpoint that gays had a place and voice in the church. McNeil was soon to be silenced and later dismissed from the Jesuit order altogether. How to you account for this. This seems to be intellectual violence of a very high and sophisticated order. How do you account for it? What does the church fear in such a position as McNeill’s?

DB Well, lets step back a bit. You know I come to recall some very painful history here. Did you read his (McNeil’s) autobiography? He gives a whole chapter to his connection with this community. And he speaks of us and especially myself with great affection and gratitudewhich he should cause that’s what he found here. See, I sort of went out on a rotten limb …when McNeil got into trouble and it looked as thought things were going to get worse I made a proposal and I said I would write an article in his defense but he would have to releases to me all the documents that the Roman curia ordered kept to himself.

Q Church documents?

DB Yeah. Warnings. Pronunciations. You know, “Don’t try that again, ” and all that stuff. And he had, I think, foolishly obeyed. And that was in violation of anything that I can understand in sense of community, your own community which was not the Roman Curia. It was us. Well, he agreed which for John was quite a step. And so I wrote this article in Commonweal. I didn’t know if the sky would fall or what would happen. They (my Jesuit superiors ) didn’t do anything. They just chose to ignore it which was probably sensible. Like most difficult stories, it s a very long and complex one. My experience is that if one has a community, if one is responsible in a community, the community will be responsible for me in a crisis. But you can’t live elsewhere and drop by now and again.

PW Was the church afraid of him and his conclusions?

DB I thought John made a very solid case from scripture. I don’t know what to say except fear. Too many ghosts in the closets. I don’t know. That what strikes me. Its not in the spirit of Jesus, God knows that.

Q There’s a recent book out about Thomas Merton called Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton which puts forth the intriguing argument that the key to Merton’s thought and spiritual development was the work of William Blake. Now it’s true that Blake was a Christian but certainly not a Catholic and there is no disguising his antipathy toward both organized religion and the clergy. How did Merton reconcile that?

DB Well first of all when Merton first fell before Blake he was a freewheeling nonbeliever. I never talked to Merton about Blake which was strange, you know… I guess we had too much to talk about. It just seemed to me that Blake rushed into a vacuum in Merton’s life and Columbia and the kind of life he was leading simply wasn’t working for him and he really didn’t know much of any thing of alternatives. He was on his way, obviously, he was on his way, through some remarkable friends mainly but it seems to me that Blake among others, living and dead, offer that alternate spit to inhabit his soul.

PW What did you learn from Merton?

DB Well, how many hours to you have? ( Laughs ) This kind of friendship is once in a lifetime. As with Dorothy as with my brother. I didn’t go down there (to Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky where Merton lived ) as a pupil to the master. I was his other side. I was his equal. And he knew it and I knew it. So we realized that the chemistry was good and I went every year often for several days. He had lived so differently than myself, in all sorts of ways, his early years were very akin to Dorothy Days’. They both lived in up in all sorts of ways and each had a child. He had a child in England and the best anyone knows the mother and child were killed in the bombing in London. My thing was entirely different.

As they say in the old hagiographies, ” I rather never knew the world, then left it.” I came into the Order at 18. I didn’t have enough time to be bad! So… I didn’t realize how deep this was going until he was dead. And then I was just devastated. I was devastated for 10 years. I was functional from 68 to about 78. I went out and all but I was couldn’t talk about it to friends or publicly for 10 years. I just… something died. I couldn’t make any sense of it. It was just too much. I could have been hit worse if Philip had died. And then, you know. I recovered. After 10 years, I can remember the first time was up here at St. John the Divine I gave a big public talk on Merton in 78. I guess I had to learn the hard way how deep friendship goes and just like cutting a way a Siamese twin. Augustine says somewhere, he had a friend die, and he called him, “the other half of my soul”. That was Merton to me.

PW Merton began publishing The Seven Story Mountain in The New Yorker. Do you think you can be that straight forward and spiritual today and still be published in a magazine like that?

DB There was a very crazy thing going on even when that book( The Seven Story Mountain ) was hitting the bestseller lists. It was never recorded in the bestseller list in The New York Times. I still remember the shock when that publisher took out a full-page ad in the Times disputing this fact and wondering why. They didn’t want a religious book that popular.

PW Or maybe that brilliant. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time in the last decade or so writing about the prophets. What to you is the work of a prophet and how would you define a prophet ?

DB Well, I think he or she is a truth teller and who says it and pays up.
( Pause ) Or down.

PW Did you think Merton a prophet?
DB Well, I kind of cringe from these words about friends. Merton? If a prophet is a truth teller who pays out, Merton is one, yeah.
And Dorothy was one.
And my brother is one.

PW Do you know Blake’s definition of a prophet: The prophet is the voice of “righteous indignation”

DB I’ll have to remember that. That’s beautiful.

Fame and Infamy

Fame and Infamy

PW You have written of the “infection of clericalism” — heavy if not astonishing words coming from a cleric. Could you define what you mean by that?

DB What I meant was a sub culture that’s now pretty well dissipated I think. But it was a very vulnerable thing, lets say, up to the Second Vatican Council. I mean it looked on this business of the priesthood as power, a form of power instead of an invitation to service. And power corrupts and I saw that on every level.

PW You have moved from abstract thought to concrete acts – would you agree with this?

DB Yeah, So what?

PW I was reading in one of your Georgetown Poems where you have the line “money dreaming of money”. What you’ve done is captured the application of the human unto an abstraction at a time machines are given more and more human qualities. Or so it seems to me.

DB Bertolt Brecht has a marvelous poem where he says,” When one of my friends died there was an out cry; when ten of my friends died there was less of an outcry; when 1000 died there were no outcry”. (Sadly) So true. So true. As Madeline Albright of the State Department notably said when she was asked about the children dying in Iraq: ” We think it’s worth the cost.” But she isn’t paying it so…

PW Bringing attention to he suffering in Iraq is one of the things you’re currently involved with?

DB We had a big thing here on the tenth anniversary of the sanctions and 18 of us were arrested at the US Mission to the UN. They’re (the police and the state) coming down harder and harder on civil disobedience here. It’s disturbing.

PW Could you elaborate?

DB Well, they now use the expression,” You’re going through the system”. What that means is that you can spends upwards of two days in the Tombs
( jail ) sleepless and being shunted around before you even get to court. They used to just give you a summons at the precinct. We were moved down Manhattan in a chain gang, nine here and nine there.

PW You were chained together?

DB Oh yeah, chained together. And then we were trying to manipulate these stairways in the tombs and all it was very rough. And the three Jesuits involved, we opted for a trial, we wanted to try to get these issues out about the children of Iraq. So we opted for a trial and they agreed and we went back about two weeks later, the three of us and they got rid of us right away.

PW They didn’t want a trial?

DB There was agreement, clearly, that that the police would not show up as witnesses and they knew that the arrests were illegal anyway because we were never warned, just rounded up. So this women prosecutor gets up and sounds this wacko sentence off: “The prosecution urges dismissal because we cannot prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Laughs)

PW You’ve been hounded not only by the law but exiled by your own church and your own order. You’ve ridiculed the Catholic Church as “the church compatible” and as a “holy morgue “. And yet you here you are, 79 years of age, still within it. Why? This may be a hopelessly secular question but why did you not simply leave?

DB I don’t know if it was pure cussedness but that was certainly in there. I really felt that this is my church, this is my order, If they want me out that’s their problem, not mine. This is where I belong. Watch the Cadillac’s go by. (Laughs.) It just never became an option. It had no appeal for me. After all, one has to know where one is going if one you’re’ leaving and I had nowhere to go.

Q You also had a great love for the church ?

DB (reluctantly) Yeah…. My church.

dan soul mages-1

copyright January 2001

St Francis In Brooklyn

January 17, 2015


Given the intellectual and spiritual brutality of the world we have created, given the shocking and devastating success of those who have locked us into a culture in which we are constantly reminded that the most sacrosanct human attribute is efficiency and the loftiest goal is the accumulation of money and power over others; given the logical and inevitable immiseration of the overwhelming percentage of people in an economy designed to move wealth and all decision making power upwards to fewer and fewer hands; given a world in which most of us are economically strangled, all of us politically abandoned, in which surveillance is increasingly a norm and data is divine, given all this, it is extraordinarily easy to fall into depression or despair or something worse, namely surrender.

To be frank, I struggle with to one degree or another with depression and despair just about daily these days. Just as frankly, I don’t trust the judgment of anyone who doesn’t.

The weight and the ways of the world we have created press down on us, invades us, informs us, twists us, and degrades us and our children in ways that would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago, partly because the technology needed to do so had yet to be invented or mass marketed. Party because the world is a far crueler place than it was twenty years ago. We have been changed and not for the better. The rise of the internet and the global triumph and consolidation of far right politics (regardless of the party or fig leaf) is not an accident. The promise of the “information highway” as emancipation has, as yet, proved false if not out right farcical. It has proved highly efficient, however, in sending out the same message — if you are not rich, famous, or powerful, you are as nothing — in an infinite variety of forms.

With all this, when I read about the exhibition relating to St. Francis of Assisi being held in Brooklyn, I knew I had to go. When I was a child a devout aunt read to me from The Book of Saints and no saint (not even my namesake who rid the Emerald Isle of snakes) touched my childhood soul more deeply and hauntingly than St Francis. He was a rich kid who saw past his time into another place, giving away all to dedicate his life to the poor. He was an environmentalist 700 years before the words passed the lips of man, a communist 500 years before Marx moved past Hegel. He was a poet and madman and a spirit.
He was a beautiful and sublime reminder of the presence of the Other, the World Elsewhere, the divine spark.

I went to Brooklyn and I looked and, in glimpses, I saw. There in the silent room, were 12th and 13th century Bibles and breviaries and manuscripts from Assisi. There was a gigantic version of what we would call a songbook. There was a version of Francis’ lovely Canticle of the Sun. Above all, there was in every page a silent rebuke to the radically degenerate and brutal vision of human existence we abide and in which we are incubating our children.

And there was something else: something that the ruthless cunning and vulgarity of the world we have created is constantly threatening to expiate or extinguish. There in those works was a physical reminder of spiritual transcendence.

There in those works were reminders that the same spark, wanted and unwanted, horrific and all comforting, forever calling, forever present forever, that had ignited Francis had ignited Buddha and Rumi and Teresa of Avila and William Blake and Mother Jones and Dorothy Day and Allen Ginsberg and Daniel Berrigan and Abraham Heschel and Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King and compelled and propelled them to do what they did. Each in their way saw past the vulgarity and brutality of the world into a higher reality and acted at whatever cost to bring that higher state into being. Each knew that political change could never occur without spiritual change and that a spiritual change that did not reject a culture of exploitation and domination was a lie. Each knew that one has to be simultaneously transcendent and rooted. Each knew that such is a perpetual struggle, but the only struggle worth struggling for.

I stood in the room with those manuscripts for a long time acknowledging that the same spark lay also in me, equally wanted and unwanted, horrific and all comforting, forever calling, forever present, forever and with it the same choices and responsibilities.

I walked out of that room far into a cold January evening, far, very far, from where I wanted to be, but far more alive then when I had entered. And I knew somehow that the spirit of Francis had reached out across the ages and past my fears and touched me.

A Teacher’s Thoughts Inspired by the “Philosophers Camp on Education Reform”

May 4, 2014


As I write, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Joe Williams, executive director of Education Reform Now, Senator Mary Landrieu, film maker M. Night Shyamalan and other non-educators are ensconced in the bucolic bosom of Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, New York to “convene Camp Philos.” The non-educators, who compare their $1000 board meeting to an 1858 meeting of Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Russell Lowell, are engaged in what they have billed, straight faced, as a “Philosophers Camp on Education Reform, ” “ three Spring days of fun, fellowship, and strategy with the nation’s thought leaders on education reform.”

“Thought leaders.”

I swear I am not making this up.

Needless to say, anyone who can convince themselves that they could place the words “Philosopher’s Camp “ before the words, “education reform”, in the same breath as they are comparing themselves with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is well nigh in need of a good teacher, a course in philosophy 101, or at the very least, a dictionary.

On the other hand the event – which achieves a kind of horrible sublimity in its sheer vulgarity — is perfectly consistent with the tactics of the long stealth campaign to privatize the school system that built America. Of the privatizers many repugnant tactics, none is more consistent, intrinsic or effective than the conscious manipulation of language and images. In this way does a half assed experiment, hatched up in secret by shills and testing companies and financed by a ruthless billionaire, come to be known as the miraculous Common Core State Standards, the answer to all that ails us, the solution to all problems, the alpha and the omega. In this way does the almost biblical struggle for civil rights come to be employed by the privatizers’ public relations department as a tool to strip teachers of the right to due process and undermine unions. In this way does the word “philosophy”, one of the most transcendent and spiritually charged words in any language, come to be used in Lake Placid, as a fig leaf for yet the latest episode in the most rapacious campaign against a vital public trust in American history.

The privatizers know little or nothing of education but they do know, as Orwell knew, that those who control the language control reality. See his “Politics and the English Language.”

Cuomo, coming off orchestrating what is surely the most egregiously unfair education law in the history of New York state, is the “honorary chairman” of the philosophical retreat. It troubles the philosophical Chairman Governor not at all that no educator was invited to Camp Philos, nor even that those who attempted to attend were summarily rejected, one and all.

Still, even as I find the privatizers among the most cynical, ignorant and narcissistic people on the face of the earth, I must admit there is one place in which I agree with them, even as I radically disagree with their methods and ends and even as they would disagree with me till the end of time.

Like the “reformers “, if for radically diffent reasons, I too agree that the public school system as it has been operating for decades has, in some essential ways, failed America.
Further, I would state unambiguously that this failure is generational and so long standing as to be invisible.

I would define the failure as philosophical in both nature and cause. Allow me to elaborate. Education is, in its essence, a philosophical endeaver. Yes, of course we need to insure that our citizens gain the practical skills that will enable them to navigate the always unknown road ahead. Yes, of course, it means that schools must do all they can to insure our students have the requisite skills to gain employment in an ever more frighteningly competitive world in which jobs are now routinely “out-sourced” or mechanized out of existance altogether. That said, education is not job training. Job training is a wonderful thing and a necessity but it is not education. Education serves a much larger, deeper, and more vital role, and that is where the philosophical element, directly or indirectly, enters into the picture. Accordingly, in the front and center of our education system should be some variations of the following questions:
What, as a society, do we value ?
What kind of a people are we ?
What do we really believe in ?
Do we live our beliefs ?
What kind of citizens do we wish to produce ?
What does it mean to be educated ?
What, if anything, are our responsibilities to each other ?
How are we to live together ?

Andrew Cuomo and his pals omitted  discussion of the Death of Socrates  at the Philosopher's Camp on Education Reform]

Andrew Cuomo and his pals omitted discussion of the Death of Socrates at the Philosopher’s Camp on Education Reform]

In America we have reduced education to job training.

Were it within my power to do so, I would immediately and unapologetically do all I could do to introduce the study of philosophy on some level beginning in the third grade, the age of my daughter as of this writing. And I would make it an essential part of the curriculum in every grade until high school graduation. Implicit with this undertaking would be the understanding that some may not grasp the meaning of the study for years if at all but all would benefit from the exposure as surely as they would exposure to the history of art and music and architecture.

If I have seen a little further,” wrote Issac Newton, “ it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Children would begin with a study of the word: “philo,” which means “love. “Sophia,” which means “wisdom.” Let them spend a week, a month, a year — whatever it takes – discussing and attempting to grasp those two words alone and the concept of those together, and you cannot help but have a child with an imagination larger because it is more unleashed than before. Help a child understand that this thing called “wisdom” exists and is real and has been honored and revered by the civilized since the beginning of civilization, that it has nothing to do with the accumulation of material wealth, nothing to do with gaining power over others, nothing to do with competition or control, and you have opened the portals of that child’s mind. And you have done something else: you have given a child a way of seeing that affords he or she some mode of mental protection against a corporate assault that, for many, begins at the moment of consciousness. Worse, the assault is designed to wed that struggling to be formed identity with a product, now and forevermore.

The study of philosphy would not merely help make our children “college and career ready”
( what ever those weasel words actually mean), it might help them to understand this mystery called Life in all of its paradoxical, tragic and wonderous nature. It is the epitome of critical thinking.

We now live in a nation where most citizens seem to believe that the word “philosophy” is synonymous with “opinion.” We have all heard vulgar examples in statements such as, “My philosophy is to hit guy before he hits you”, or some such foolishness. It is, I would argue, the absence of philosophical knowledge that has contributed to much of America’s horrible and dangerous confusion of technology with science, data with knowledge and knowledge with wisdom. Most of all it has led to the savage idea that knowedge is power rather than liberation from the need for power.
This is worse than sad. No decent society, never mind an alleged democracy, can exist in this kind of mass confusion.
And, yes, many of these same people are products of the public school system and yes, that school system failed them. And it continues to fail them. But rest assured: it will fail them that much further under a system dominated by the likes of the privatizers.

When I have asked my students why they go to school and why they study, overwhelmingly they reply with some variation of “ to do well on the test.” This is sick but it is hardly an accident. But why should they think differently? We are now in the process of incubating our children with this shrunken head madness.

It is, indeed, a kind of crime: the crime of starving the imaginations of millions of children by sheer neglect. And it is a crime that the miraculous Common Core will not only not correct but will, in fact, perpetuate.

I do not believe in magical thinking. (I leave that for the proponents of the Common Core.) I am well aware that the study of philosophy will not automatically and magically make thing better for all. Pre-Nazi Germany had the most rigorous school curriculum in the Western world but it did little to stop millions from embracing Hitler. Something more is needed. That said, I know this: the absence of something as immense as philosophy can only diminish this nation. As I see it, the problem is ecological. By this I mean if you deprive a child of philosophical awareness you do not get child minus philosophy. You get someone radically different and radically weaker. You get a person whose imagination, the key to all, has been severely diminished.

The purpose of education is not to be found in the vulgar slogan, “knowledge is power. ” Indeed, the absence of philosophy is one reason why that slogan is so readily swallowed in our increasingly competitive, miserable, punitive land and is in the very name of the KIPP charter empire. Philosophers and artists and spiritual geniuses have known for thousands of years that education is many things but above all, it is the emancipation of the human imagination: the purpose of education is freedom.

As I write, Governor Andrew Cuomo, Joe Williams, executive director of Education Reform Now, Senator Mary Landrieu, film maker M. Night Shyamalan and other non-educators are ensconced in the bucolic bosom of Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, New York, making a mock of the language that they use, discussing the creation of conditions that mock the very idea of freedom and positing efficacy, compliance, control and profit above all things. They are mocking, that is, the very essence of philosophy. This they do in the name of education. This they do in the name of children. This they do under the aegis of philosophy.

“All that is now proved was once only imagined”, wrote William Blake. I revere Blake as much as any soul who has ever walked this earth but, considering the combination of unimaginable fortunes wed to political power that is determined not only to privatize education but to use the educational system as THE vehicle to permanantly forge the character of America into a corporate fiefdom, it is at this moment very, very hard to imagine a happy ending to this horrific story. And yet, as souls like Blake and Kant and Hegel and Camus and Arendt knew, our imaginations are the only faculties that can possibly sustain us, as they are the only ones that ever have.

We must honor our lives and our language, and by doing so outlast the bastards and expose them for what they are.

Addendum: I’ve just found out that Andrew Cuomo, apparently at the last minute and doubtless to the great disappointment of his hosts, decided it was a better idea to philosophize with his fellow philosophers via video screen. Hmmmmmm. I’m guessing Cuomo got the willies from reports of hundreds of teachers and parents so filled with disgust with the man that they were willing to brave the rain to make sure he got their message, loud and clear. Cuomo may have been frightened of a repeat of what happened when he showed up recently on Long Island, as reported with relish on Perdido Street School. Good. It’s about time this treacherous invertebrate started to get his comeuppance.

Musings On Corporate Education Reform: In the Absence of Trust Grows Sickness

May 19, 2013

A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
William Blake
The Auguries of Innocence.


Insofar as an absence is as dynamic as a presence, a sane society that wishes to remain more or less healthy need be exceedingly careful of the things we remove, that much the more if those things are vital human needs removed from vital human institutions. The absence of beauty from a building, for example, does not create building minus beauty. It creates something radically different and profoundly diminished. Such changes can be said to be environmental and they are thus as subtle, unpredictable and dangerous as the removal of a species of insect from the rain forest. We now know that such a removal will create chaos even if we do not know when or where as the removal creates a chain of events outside of the logic of cause and effect. Such a removal, that is, may manifest itself in the Tundra ten, twenty, thirty years after the change.
If this is true with the removal of an insect, how much truer must it be with the removal of as primal and vital a human need as trust in an institution of learning ?

The most degrading and increasingly explicit message from the corporate reform campaign to American public school teachers can be boiled down to the following four words: We don’t trust you. We don’t trust you to teach your students. We don’t trust you to test your students. We don’t trust you to mark the standardized tests that we manufacture for your students. We don’t trust you to know your subject. We don’t trust you to have standards so we have provided standards for you that you will be punished for not following.
If fact, we don’t really trust you to do much of anything at all except the things that we tell you to do and even these we don’t trust you to do. And this is why we reserve the right to micro manage every aspect of your professional life

Of course, this is not the language that is employed to get their message through. The corporate reformers speak, incessantly, of accountability and more accountability – all of which is conveniently quantified on standardized tests and reduced to sacred and all revealing data.

Why do you need trust when you have accountability ?

Of course, only a vulgar mind would confuse trust with accountability. Accountability is the thing you need when you have already banished or you are incapable of trust.
And this is to say nothing of Bill Gate’s moronic totalitarian notions concerning students wearing galvanic bracelets to measure involvement in the lesson or placing teachers under video surveillance under the pretense of sharing the practices of master teachers.

In whatever form it takes, the message is the same: You, Mr. or Ms. Teacher are a person wholly unworthy of trust.

And don’t think for a moment that the students don’t also understand this.

For an additional kick in the head, the very same “reformers” who have institutionalized distrust of teachers demand themselves to be trusted unconditionally (or at the very least, unconditionally obeyed) even as they perform untested experiment after untested experiment on America’s unknowing children.

Consider the fact that Bill Gate’s Common Core Standards which are now remaking American public schools from coast to coast have never even been field tested.
Consider the fact that Valve Added Metric (VAM ) evaluation schemes which will determine the livelihoods of millions of teachers are wholly unscientific and akin to a roll of the dice.
Consider the obsession with merit pay despite a century of failed attempts to prove it somehow improves teacher quality.
Consider the fact that there is no evidence that any of the corporate reform schemes improves anything other than the bank accounts of their proponents.
And on it goes.

It is difficult at times, I will admit, in the face of all this not to fall into despair. Battling systemic degradation on a daily basis wears one down. I see it in the faces of my colleagues more and more and I do not know where or how it will end. Individuals so predatory that they have amassed the wealth of entire nations, at the same time that they have essentially harnessed the political machinery of the state, are neither easily defeated nor likely to admit they are wrong. Ever. No matter what. Observer Michael Bloomberg. Or Bill Gates. Or Eli Broad. Or their political operatives, Rahm Emmanuel or Andrew Cuomo or Chris Christie or Cory Booker, or the biggest catch of them all, Barack Obama.
I do not know where this will go. I do know this though, and I know it in the marrow of my bones: any society that systemically institutionalizes distrust of a profession as vital as teachers has entered a state of moral, intellectual and spiritual decay of a terrifying order. It is an order that true visionaries like Blake prophesied and knew would not long survive.
Nor should it.


Images of May Day in New York

May 1, 2013

I love May Day. Everything about it.

Occupy Lives.

Occupy Lives.

United Auto Workers were in the house.

United Auto Workers were in the house.

Veterans For Peace

Veterans For Peace

Here's a fella who don't like them commies at all.

Here’s a fella who don’t like them commies at all.



We want our lives back.

We want our lives back.

Granny makes the scene.

Granny makes the scene.


"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

What is now proved was once only imagined."   William Blake

What is now proved was once only imagined.”
William Blake