Eleven years ago, as another Christmas approached, I called up my favorite libertarian priest, The Rev. Robert Sirico, for some unique and principled seasonal advice.

Sirico is not your ordinary parish priest.

He is not only the pastor of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Parish in Grand Rapids, Mich., he’s the co-founder and president of The Acton Institute,

England's greatest Lord, Lord Acton.

England’s greatest Lord, Lord Acton.

a market-friendly think tank devoted to promoting “a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.”

Father Sirico sums up the purpose of the Acton Institute, by reminding us of the beliefs of its great and brilliant namesake and relentless advocate of human freedom,  John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1834-1902).

Lord Acton gave us much, much more than his most famous and always apt quote:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

Summing up his institute’s mission, Father Sirico says on his institute’s web site that, “Acton realized that economic freedom is essential to creating an environment in which religious freedom can flourish. But he also knew that the market can function only when people behave morally. So faith and freedom must go hand in hand. As he put it, ‘Liberty is the condition which makes it easy for conscience to govern.’ ”

Father Sirico has been a frequent contributor to the country’s top op-ed pages and a regular commentator on TV. Brooklyn-born, a lefty in his youth, he’s made it his extra-spiritual calling to educate future religious leaders about the principles — and moral virtues — of a free-market economy.

The Qs and the As:

Eleven years ago, when I was a real journalist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review doing a weekly Q&A with smart or important people like Father Sirico, I called up my favorite man of the cloth up and asked him about Christmas, gift giving and the health of Christianity.

Q: Why has Christianity been so successful for 2,000 years?

A: I think we have to understand that Christianity inherits a lot of its presupposition from Judaism, so we have to begin by linking Christianity to Judaism, which parenthetically is why Christianity has no place for anti-Semitism in it. I think that Christian and Jewish anthropology accounts for having laid the foundation for the building of societies that are free and virtuous. This understanding of who the human person is — in a transcendent dignity but a physical reality, a real-world embrace of contingency, of historical circumstance, indeed the emergence of economics — comes from this anthropological understanding. If I was to point to one thing, that would be the one thing that accounts for the success of Christianity and the building of Western Civilization.

Q: What or where are Christianity’s most important challenges today?

A: Today the greatest challenge of Christianity, both here in the United States and most acutely in Europe, is the challenge of secularism; the attempt to live off the legacy of Christianity without reference to its roots. What secularism does — and its moral companion, moral relativism — is attempt to have structures and appearance and success predicated on a Judeo-Christian ethic but without reference to the obligations and even the dogmatic formulations that are attendant and explicate those roots.

Q: Looking around the world, do you see Christianity gaining or losing its moral authority in our day-to-day lives, especially in politics and culture?

A: I think this is the struggle in the United States right now. In some sense, pockets of Christianity have lost a sense of moral authority. We’ve seen this in the mainline churches and to some extent in the more progressive elements of the Catholic Church– where these religious officials have substituted a confident proclamation of the traditions of the faith with a kind of politically correct and sociologically based agenda. So you see in the various statements of the religious headquarters a preoccupation with political, social issues — a kind of displacing of the theological paradigm, which is centered on God, on revelation, and in the case of Christianity, of Jesus Christ, with a sociological or psychological paradigm.

But the elements of Christianity that are growing are the traditional elements within Catholicism, in large part as the result of the encouragement of the model they received from Pope John Paul the Great and now Benedict the 16th and within evangelical Christianity, which has become rather sophisticated. It is not the kind of shad-belly, snake-handling, uneducated-preacher type any more. You have highly accomplished, intellectually sophisticated representatives of evangelic Christians.

Then on top of that, I think that the most interesting, exciting and vibrant dialogue that is occurring right withinreligious communities right now is occurring between evangelicals and traditional Roman Catholics … that is, Catholics who really believe in theteaching authority of the church.

Q: Does Christianity have anything to fear from Islam?

A: Let me say that this encounter with Islam, for Catholicism, is not a new thing. Catholicism has encountered Islam in its various phases and various traditions over the centuries…. The important thing that I think was underscored by the Regensburg speech in Germany by Pope Benedict is that we must come to an understanding that religion must utilize reason in order to create the opportunity for conversation. If we simply resort to violence in settling our religious disagreements, then very soon there is bloodshed and things that would undermine the basis of civil order.

This is a warning not just directed to the more extreme elements of Islam. The speech by Benedict was really a warning to the West, which is rejecting reason along with Christianity. You find that many philosophers, especially those of the deconstructionist model, no longer believe that the human mind, and hence reason, has the capacity to apprehend truth — that there is no truth. This is associated with moral relativism.

So the threat comes not just from fundamentalist Islam, jihadist Islam, but also from highly secularized elements of European and American culture. I would like to think that the more moderate elements of Islam, who are repulsed by the hedonism and the secularism they see, might be willing to find some common cause with traditional Christians in promoting a society that can remain virtuous and retain a religious reference point.

Q: Christianity and Islam — didn’t they coexist rather peacefully at some point?

A: There was a period of several hundred years where they did. In the strict reading of the Koran, Christians would have to pay a tax for being Christians. But being people of ‘the Book,’ they wouldn’t necessarily be executed. They were certainly seen in the book — in the Koran — as second-class citizens. The question is whether Islam can formulate, or reformulate, an understanding of themselves that has a sense of tolerance and makes the distinction between the power and authority of the religion and the legitimate secular authority. Christianity did this predicated on Jesus’ words ‘Render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.’ Islam apparently has greater difficulty in doing that. In one sense, Islam is awaiting its Augustine, it’s awaiting its Aquinas, to help formulate and develop these distinctions. That really is the debate: Can Islam develop? The more-jihadists say no, the text is written and is fixed and there is no exegesis. There is no development the way you had in Christianity. Therefore there is no distinction between power — which is coercive and external, namely government or legal — and authority, which is internal and moral — which would be the church’s role. Both power and authority are forms of constraint, but one is coercive and the other is based on persuasion.

Q: Christians complain about the commercialization of Christmas. Secularists complain about the cold-hearted immorality of the marketplace. Is capitalism a natural enemy of Christianity, or vice versa?

A: I don’t think capitalism is a natural enemy of Christianity. Capitalism is really an inadequate word; it only describes one dimension of what is really human freedom and choice in the economic sphere. Choice is morally neutral. It’s the chooser who can be moral or immoral, not the ability to make the choice. You have to have the ability to make the choice in order to choose. I think it is a mistake for religious leaders to condemn the free economy based on some of the results. What they may want to do is condemn the choices that people make and the lack of moral formation that they have.

But the notion of gift-giving as being sinful at Christmas is absurd. Where do we get gift-giving from? The Magi. They brought the gifts to Jesus. But I think it is very easy to lose focus on the core meaning of the season, which is human relationships. A part of that is economic, but not the whole of it.

Q: You recently wrote a column about how the act of gift-giving relies heavily on an economic system that allows free exchanges between individuals. Can you explain?

A: You can’t be generous with which you don’t first have — with which you have not first produced and possessed. So there is this moral dimension to it. The real danger is when you lose focus and the mere act is an end in itself, or the mere giving, or the mere buying, is an act in itself. This diminishes the understanding of who human beings are.

Q: Does that mean that it’s the end and not the means that matters? Usually it’s the other way around.

A: I think it’s both a means and the end. You have to be headed in the right direction — the end. You need to choose the appropriate means for that and I think market activity is an appropriate means to a right end. But economics as such does not have a moral reference point. By itself, economics tells us nothing about what is good and bad. It will only tell us what is in supply and what is scarce.In order to bring the moral reference point, you have to have human beings who are formed with a moral sensitivity.

Q: What’s the best Christmas gift anyone can give another person?

A: I think themselves. By that I mean love, relationship. Sometimes that will take the form of a material expression. The best gift is the gift of self, because in giving oneself, one is giving everything else. After all, this is what follows the model of Christ himself. In his condescension to come to Earth to be with us, he gives himself. There was a cute little takeoff of the Hallmark slogan years ago that Christians used — ‘God cared enough to give the very best.’ I don’t mean to be just poetic in saying it, but I think the best gift we can give people is ourselves.

I recently had the pleasure of being on Timothy Westmyer’s Super Critical podcast, which is a deep dive into pop culture that surrounds nuclear weapons. Westmyer is a lovely, funny dude who knows nuke-related real world stuff, and therefore can actually speak to SCIENCE. I can — and did — speak to Fallout-related stuff.

Behold!

Timothy has other intriguing episodes on depressing pieces of pop culture such as Threads. I’ve actually not yet tackled his Twilight Zone-themed episodes, even though I covered some of them on this very blog.

Give his podcast a listen. Hopefully you’ll find me on it again sometime. Heck, demanding to be a guest worked quite well the first time! (Literally demanded. Politely, but firmly. I regret nothing.)

ICP playing in front of the Lincoln Memorial

ICP playing in front of the Lincoln Memorial

I’d love to love Insane Clown Posse, if only because of my new-found respect for their song subject matter, and in fact, their general sensibility.

There are plenty of ICP songs about mystical carnival stuff. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope also have songs with subjects that run the gamut from Charles Whitman in the University of Texas tower, to critiques of prosperity doctrine preachers, to killing rednecks, to the everyday magic of everyday life. They’re guileless, but profane. They’re morbid-minded, but full of simple joy about basic things. All of that is a little bit…me. Even if I grew up nice and middle middle class, not bottom of the heap and fighting for self-respect like those two.

The amazing thing about ICP is that they have embraced everything uncool about themselves, and their fans by extension. Pride in poverty, in bad taste in cheap soda, pride about being mocked, and taking it back–saying yes, I am a clown, that’s ok, and turning that into not just a rabid fandom, but an entire subculture who, among their many siren calls, declares each other “Fam-a-ly!”

But it isn’t just their greasepaint clown garbe, their throwing cheap soda around, or their over-dependence on A-A-A-A rhymes. ICP also has a ridiculous, borderline spiritual mythology. First it was the dark carnival, and the Joker’s Cards albums that stressed the murderous stuff. Then the album containing the legendarily-mocked “Miracles” came out in 2010.

Another song off that album was about the end of the world. “It’s All Over” it has some of the usual ICP awkwardness (and Shaddy 2 Dope’s aggressive A-A-A-A breakdown is so unnecessary), but there’s something else going on that has captivated me.

In the video, our boys are in the middle of a city. Everyone else is panicking, but they’re not. Violent J repeats the sentiment that when all of this shit is going down–every possible apocalypse at once, because ICP can’t do anything halfway– my favorite being “aliens come and eat mankind” which proves that these are funny dudes, and have never gotten enough respect for that–he’s just going to “stand on the roof, spread my arms out, and sing.”

Near the end, is my favorite part. Violent J sings  “And you’re not missing anything when you’re gone/Plus seeing it all end and what goes on/To see this great world come to an end/Would be the next best to seeing it begin.”

In one of the tear-inducing pieces on Rogert Ebert a year or two before he died, he had a line, “I was perfectly happy before I was born.” That is to say, old Ebert didn’t fear death. Neither does ICP, it seems. The band is Christian — a supposed twist, that most ardent fans say that everyone should have seen coming — and this casualness towards the end of things could be seen as a Christian confidence in being saved. But it doesn’t come off that way, even if Shaggy introduces things with an evil revival preacher voices. The perspective, still, it comes off more human than religious. More “Can the Circle be Unbroken” than God is Not Dead because the band is accepting the end, but not spitting all over feelings and life the way that hideous movie does.

It’s a funny song, crammed with armageddon overkill, so it’s hard to highlight just one source of doom. However, it doesn’t feel like a mere joke or an alienating belief in God having their backs (and no one else’s), and that’s it. In fact, the song clarifies that “God has had enough of our shit.”

Like even the best ICP songs, this one is a big mess. But it sounds like the mess that these two guys are — it is them, not something made in a hitmaker’s factory. The realness of ICP, even after notoriety and the mantle of “worst band of all time” is obvious after a day of research, and a day spent with the most passionate Juggalos congregated in DC. For a lot of Juggalos, it’s about the scene and the acceptance perhaps more than the music. But there are moments in the music, too. This is a very strange song about death, and the death of everything and everyone, and of all things, it’s kind of comforting and optimistic. People are losing their minds and screaming, and Shaggy and J are just walking and listening to music on their headphones. It’s got the commendable swagger of Benjamin Guggenheim saying “we are dressed in our best, and prepared to go down as gentlemen” as the Titanic listed and sank.

Plus, I really like the moment when Shaggy sits on a park bench and checks out the one woman who seems more upset about the end of the world thing, but then kind of exasperated about being checked out. I am still not sure what’s happening there, but it’s hilarious.

Update: for me on ICP, check out my Spiked Online piece on the Juggalo March on Washington.

  • sprigleBuy a copy of my father’s book about a journalistic, humanitarian, muckraking adventure in the Jim Crow South. Ray Sprigle is a forgotten great of journalism, and he made a Black Like Me trip in 1948, before just about anyone was bothering to do anything about the country’s race problem, and when “enlightened” people thought the best solution was to keep things separate, but be more polite and “equal” about it. 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story that Exposed the Jim Crow South tells the tale of Sprigle, his guide John Wesley Dobbs, and other amazing, and sadly-forgotten characters. Read it!
  • Alexis; Pennsylvania, July, 2012.

    Alexis; Pennsylvania, July, 2012.

    Donate money so that my beloved friend Alexis can see! It’s the transhumanist future, baby, and legally blind people like Alexis can be helped by devices such as eSite. She needs to raise $15,000 and I promise, she’s worth it. (I mean, not to rank people or anything, but I have a pro-Alexis bias.)

lonesomeroad

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Zach Fountain, Seth Wilson, and I are going to release monthly paranormal, paranoia, and country music-stlye chats. We may move on to a guest or two.

Next one will be on aliens. Several will be on aliens, in fact.

It’s also on iTunes! — thanks to Zach.

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Tune in! It’s a free excuse for me to hang out with my internet friends here, and the talk is going to be good and scary.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

One of my many jobs as a newspaper journalist included interviewing smart, interesting people about specialized, controversial subjects like climate change.

In 2007 I interviewed Timothy Ball, a Canadian climatologist who has been fighting the good fight against global warming insanity for years. He is a climate skeptic with a Ph.D. in climatology from the University of London who taught at the University of Winnipeg for 28 years.

It’s easy to see why Ball has made no friends among global warming alarmists. He says that the widely propagated “fact” that humans are contributing to global warming is the “greatest deception in the history of science.”

Like most sensible scientists, he says there’s global warming but it’s caused by the sun, not mankind, and that its effects will be good for us earthlings, not catastrophic.

When I spoke to Ball in 2007, the good-humored Canadian pointed out that his home island, Victoria, in British Columbia, was connected to the mainland 8,000 years ago when the sea level was 500 feet lower.

He and I talked about global warming, ice ages and sea levels. Here are highlights:


Q: What is your strongest or best argument that global warming  is not “very likely” to be caused by SUVs and Al Gore’s private planes?

A: I guess the best argument is that global warming has occurred, but it began in 1680, if you want to take the latest long-term warming, and the climate changes all the time. It began in 1680, in the middle of what’s called “The Little Ice Age” when there was three feet of ice on the Thames River in London. And the demand for furs of course drove the fur trade. The world has warmed up until recently, and that warming trend doesn’t fit with the CO2 record at all; it fits with the sun-spot data. Of course they are ignoring the sun because they want to focus on CO2.

The other thing that you are seeing going on is that they have switched from talking about global warming to talking about climate change. The reason for that is since 1998 the global temperature has gone down — only marginally, but it has gone down. In the meantime, of course, CO2 has increased in the atmosphere and human production has increased. So you’ve got what Huxley called the great bane of science — “a lovely hypothesis destroyed by an ugly fact.” So by switching to climate change, it allows them to point at any weather event — whether it’s warming, cooling, hotter, dryer, wetter, windier, whatever — and say it is due to humans. Of course, it’s absolutely rubbish.

Q: What is the most exaggerated and unnecessary worry about global warming or climate change?

A: I think the fact that it is presented as all negative. Of course, it’s the one thing they focus on because the public, with the huge well of common sense that is out there, would sort of say, “Well, I don’t understand the science, but, gee, I wouldn’t mind a warmer world, especially if I was living in Canada or Russia.” They have to touch something in the warming that becomes a very big negative for the people, and so they focus on, “Oh, the glaciers are going to melt and the sea levels are going to rise.” In fact, there are an awful lot of positive things. For example, longer frost-free seasons across many of the northern countries, less energy used because you don’t need to keep your houses warm in the winter.

Q: Is the globe warming and what is the cause?

A: Yeah, the world has been warming since 1680 and the cause is changes in the sun. But in their computer models they hardly talk about the sun at all and in the IPCC summary for policy-makers they don’t talk about the sun at all. And of course, if they put the sun into their formula in their computer models, it swamps out the human portion of CO2, so they can’t possibly do that.

Q: Is the rising CO2 level the cause of global warming or the result of it?

A: That’s a very good question because in the theory the claim is that if CO2 goes up, temperature will go up. The ice core record of the last 420,000 years shows exactly the opposite. It shows that the temperature changes before the CO2. So the fundamental assumption of the theory is wrong. That means the theory is wrong. … But the theory that human CO2 would lead to runaway global warming became a fact right away, and scientists like myself who dared to question it were immediately accused of being paid by the oil companies or didn’t care about the children or the future or anything else.

Q: Have you ever accepted money from an oil company?

A: No. No. I wish I did get some. I wouldn’t have to drive a ’92 car and live in a leaky apartment bloc.

Q: Why are sea levels rising and should we worry?

A: Sea levels have been rising for the last 10,000 years. In fact, 8,000 years ago, sea level was almost 500 feet lower than it is today. It’s been rising gradually over that time. It’s risen very slightly in the modern record, but it has risen no more rapidly than it has in the last 8,000 years. One of the factors that people forget is that most of the ice is already in the ocean, and so if you understand Archimedes’ Principle, when that ice melts it simply replaces the space that the ice occupied — even if the ice caps melt completely. What they do is they say if we estimate the volume of water in Antarctica and Greenland, then we add that to the existing ocean level. But that’s not the way it works at all. But it does work for panic and for sea-level rises of 20 feet, like Gore claims.

Q: Why are the sea levels rising, just because we are in a warming period?

A: Yes. We are in an inter-glacial. Just 22,000 years ago, which is what some people can get their minds around, Canada and parts of the northern U.S. were covered with an ice sheet larger than the current Antarctic ice sheet. That ice sheet was over a mile thick in central Canada. All of that ice melted in 5,000 years. There was another ice sheet over Europe and a couple more in Asia. As that ice has melted, it’s run back into the oceans and of course that’s what’s filled up the oceans. But if you drilled down in Antarctica, you go down almost 8,000 feet below sea level. That ice below sea level, if it melts, is not going to raise sea level.

Q: Is there any aspect of global warming alarmism that you are worried about?

A: There are a couple of very minor things. I’m interested in and need more research done on commercial jet aircraft flying in the stratosphere. The research that’s been done so far says no, it’s not an issue, but I think the jury is out on that still.The other concern I have is that we’re totally preparing for warming. The whole world is preparing for warming, but I mentioned that we have been cooling since 1998 and the climate scientists that I respected — particularly the Russians and Chinese — are predicting that we’re going to be much, much cooler by 2030. So we’ve got completely the wrong adaptive strategy.

Q: Is it not inevitable that we will have another ice age?

A: Yes, I think there is another ice age coming, because the major causes of the ice ages are changes in the orbit of the Earth around the sun and changes in the tilt of the Earth. Those are things we’ve known about for 150 years.

Q: If someone asked you where he should go to get a good antidote on the mainstream media’s spin on global warming, where should he go?

A: There are three Web sites I have some respect for. One is the one I helped set up by a group of very frustrated professional scientists who are retired. That’s called Friendsofscience.org. It has deliberately tried to focus on the science only. The second site that I think provides the science side of it very, very well is CO2Science.org, and that’s run by Sherwood Idso, who is the world expert on the relationship between plant growth and CO2. The third, which is a little more irreverent and maybe still slightly on the technical side for the general public, is JunkScience.com.

Q: If you had to calm the fears of a small grandchild or a student about the threat of global warming, what would you tell him?

A: First of all, I probably wouldn’t tell him anything. As I tell audiences, the minute somebody starts saying “Oh, the children are going to die and the grandchildren are going to have no future,” they have now played the emotional and fear card. Just like in the U.S., it’s almost like the race card. It’s not to say that it isn’t valid in some cases. But the minute you play that card, you are now taking the issues and the debates out of the rational and logical and reasonable and sensible and calm into the emotional and hysterical.

To give you an example, I was talking to a group in Saskatoon and a woman came up after and she said, “I agree with you totally. We were having a party for my 7-year-old. I went into the kitchen and there was a bang in the living room. I went back and a balloon had exploded. The kids were crying and I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ And they said, ‘There’s going to be another hole in the ozone.’”

It’s completely false. There never were holes in the ozone, by the way. But when we start laying those kinds of problems onto shoulders that are very narrow, that is criminal. My comment to her was, I said, “Look, let the kids get on with the party. Give them another beer. Let ’em enjoy themselves.”

So I wouldn’t raise these kinds of fear with the children. What I would do with my children and grandchildren is what I’m trying to do with the public and say, “Look, here’s the other side of the story. Make sure you get all of the information before you start running off and screaming ‘wolf, wolf, wolf.’”