Rome’s Peculiar Position on Zero Tolerance

As everybody knows, the Roman Catholic Church has a sexual abuse problem. It is besieged by lawsuits from former alter boys and others. It appears that many of the abusers, instead of being punished, were moved to other dioceses. Sometimes, they were ordered to seek psychiatric treatment or counseling, and sometimes not. In many cases, their crimes were covered up and hidden by the church hierarchy. In some cases, the church hierarchy simply denied that anything untoward had happened. In too many cases, priests went on to abuse other children after they had been caught once, twice, or several times.

There might or might not be a distinction to be made between consensual affairs between priests and teenaged boys, and younger boys who clearly could not or did not give consent. The church tried to make that distinction in many cases.

The American Bishops, prodded into action by wide publicity and a public outcry, have proposed a new set of guidelines and rules that is based on the principle of “zero tolerance”. Rome, astonishingly, has rejected it.

I say “astonishingly” because the mass herds of mindless conformists that comprise middle management in most companies and institutions flock to “zero tolerance” like lawyers to litigation. It’s how they earn their bread and butter. It’s the consensus. It’s the gist of popular opinion. It’s the bureaucrat’s hot-tub- a steaming, comfortable wash of feminist theory, righteous conservative paranoia, and muddled legalisms. It means that we are virtuous and pure and strong and moral. It really means, we have no ability to make a rational, reasonable judgment based on facts. If you deny being a witch, then you must be a witch.

Rome worries about two things: that the Bishop’s proposal doesn’t distinguish between types or degrees of abuse, or between real abuse and stupidity, and that it doesn’t leave any room for a rather fundamental component of the Christian faith: grace. In other words, forgiveness. Zero tolerance means that the slightest allegation against a priest, substantiated or not, will result in suspension or worse, and there can be no forgiveness, even for an offender who recognizes his sin and asks for grace.

And it must be said– some of the advocates of “zero tolerance” (like the fundamentalists who wanted Bill Clinton impeached) will argue that they “forgive” the sinner, but not the sin. That is a lie. That is not the Christian idea of forgiveness. Read your bible: when Christ demands that his followers forgive their enemies, he leaves no room for revenge or “justice” or retribution. Someone strikes you on the cheek? You turn the other cheek. You forgive the sinner and you do forgive the sin.

If you forgave someone who had assaulted or robbed you, in Israel in 33 AD, that person was freed: the sentence was over, because you forgave the offender.  Look it up: it’s true.

Rome also has expressed concern about the fact that the zero tolerance policy is adopted, rather wholesale, from public and private institutions in America. The church is not the government or IBM. It takes the word of God as it’s constitution, and the living presence of Christ as it’s inspiration. The American Bishop’s abuse policy sounds much like something that could have come out of McDonald’s Corporation or the YMCA.  If Rome accepted this policy, it would be to admit that the very wellspring of church leadership and authority is incapable of producing a authentic Christian response to the crisis in the church.

Some people would say, well, yes. It can’t. Rome, of course, could never accept that, the same way lawyers could never accept that laws could be simple and understandable.

But I’m not unsympathetic. In fact, I think Rome is right. Zero tolerance is one of the stupidest ideas of our society. It’s a code word, really. It’s bulldozer logic. It gives all of the power to accusers and strips the accused of all recourse. It treats offenses that really are minor the same way it treats serious offenses.

Thus, a kindergarten student is suspended from school and charged with “sexual harassment” for kissing a classmate.  Yes, this really happened.

It is a response to a real problem. There really are people out there who abuse positions of trust for sexual purposes. Too often, those people, when caught, have received trifling punishments, or no punishment at all. Sometimes, the person alleging the abuse received the punishment– losing his or her job, or being accused of lying.

The real solution is to do the hard work of sorting out the trivial from the serious, the truth from exaggeration, the substantial from the trite.

What zero tolerance means is that we now believe that accusers never lie and that is obviously not true, was never true, and never will be true.

School Portrait Pimps

What is going on here?

Your kid has to go to school. It’s required by law. It doesn’t matter whether your kid goes to a private school or public school, he or she is required by law to be there until he or she is 16.

So, while we’ve got your kid, we’re going to take an assembly-line picture and you have to buy it.

You don’t actually have to buy it. I lied. You can choose to be “different’ and disappoint your child and not buy it or you can buy it. If you’re poor, you might not buy it because it is fairly expensive, especially if you take the “package”. If you take a picture with your own camera, it might cost you fifty cents. But the school photographers charge a lot more than that for a basic print. And, of course, they always offer you packages.  You can’t just pick the one you want: you must buy the package that contains the one you want.  They offer you these little wallet-sized photos that your kids can hand out to all their friends and you can mail to your relatives. Buy it. And you can buy the deluxe glamour photo if you want. That’s really expensive.

The portrait pimps operate extremely efficiently. They are not interested in getting a personalized shot of your kid. They don’t want to waste any time at all following your kid around to see what she does, who her friends are, or which piece of playground equipment is her favorite. No, the kids are marched into a room,– assembly line style– and snapped in about 45 seconds. They are snapped in front of a cookie-cutter non-descript amorphous background. The photos are printed for everyone even if you don’t ask to see the larger prints. They are sent home– the teachers have to get the photos to the kids and force them to take them home. You have to see them. Your kids see them. Your kids friends see them. Buy.

I saw a really remarkable set of school photographs once. They were photos I would have liked to have. It was taken at Calvin Memorial Christian School in the early 1960’s. The photos were taken of each student at their desks or in their classrooms at an activity. Then they were all printed on one 5 X 7, in black and white. It was an amazing photo. You were immediately struck by the diversity of poses and expressions. It was filled with character and revelation and colour, even though it was black and white.

You can just imagine what the Portrait Studio Pimps would think of that. Lord almighty! You’d have to go into each classroom with a camera and think about each of 20 or 25 or 30 shots. You’d have to take time to do it right. You have to compose the shot, set the aperture and shutter speed, focus, aim, and shoot.  It must have also taken more time to print. And then, of course, you lose the rubber-stamp enlargements that are so lucrative to sell to the fond parents.

The company that comes in to take and sell the photos does not have any competition. I questioned the idea once when I was a teacher in Chatham I was told that it would be impractical to have numerous companies compete. The school negotiates with and chooses a vendor and they have exclusive access to the students and teachers for that year.

Does it even matter? Are you happy about the fact that your child is photographed in exactly the same style, with the same background, and the same lighting, as 40 million other children in every town, city, and hicksville on the entire continent?

Of course, it does have the unintended bizarre side effect of collectivizing public memory of school children. The image of our children at school is that frozen, bland, colourless portrait photo of an awkward nervous kid sitting in front of a strange cameraman because the teacher told him or her to. It’s almost like a tattoo or a uniform or, yes, a rubber stamp. Approved. Collectivized. A certified consumer.

Why is it impractical? Because the photo studios don’t want to ask parents first if they want to have a picture taken of their children in front of a colourless, characterless backdrop and if they would be willing to pay $50 for a “package” of prints. If they did that, some parents might reasonably say “no”. By forcing all students to have shots taken and then handing out the pictures at school and forcing the children to take them home, you have to believe, you guarantee much higher sales. Of course it’s practical. It just doesn’t guarantee enough profits to the company selling the photos.

Why do schools allow this?  The yearbook.  Yes, they get the standardized cookie-cutter roster shots of every kid in every class for the yearbook.  Indispensable.

I always feel bullied by this system. I don’t like cookie-cutter photos, and I don’t like them being shoved down my throat by people who care as much about your kid as they do about photography– nil. I think the schools should take the upper hand here and start dictating terms. Stop using the cookie-cutter approach. Get out there into the classrooms on the new “annual photography day” and start taking pictures of students doing what they do at school, studying, listening, interacting, being smart-alecks, getting stumped, whatever. Use digital cameras so film cost is not an issue, and students can pick the best shot to use for their “official” school photo.

October 13, 2002

The technical quality of school portraits is not very bad, usually. The faces are well-lit, and a large format camera is usually used, so the pictures are sharp and accurate. For many families in the 1960’s, it might well be the best technical photos they have.

But with the vastly increased popularity of 35mm cameras, however, that little niche is no longer quite so prominent, and I suspect a lot of families no longer bother with the school portraits. They take their own very good pictures.

The newer digital cameras offer excellent picture quality and would allow school photographers to take as many shots as they need to to get a good one. They can load them all onto a computer and then print out exactly as many as parents request, instead trying to shove “packages” down our throats.


We Were Soldiers: The Lies We Tell Ourselves

I don’t know how many ways it needs to be said, but Hollywood’s passion for fibbing while claiming to tell a “true” story is and always will be one of the most contemptible facets of modern American culture. We just can’t stand the truth.

I’m not talking about factual errors, or even the not unreasonable telescoping of events into a cinematic time-frame. I’m talking about exaggeration and distortion.

In the story told in “We Were Soldiers”, Lt. Col. Moore’s 1st Battalion/7th Cavalry command position was almost over-run when Company C failed to hold off advancing PAVN. It was an exciting battle sequence, and allowed the movie to show Moore himself in action.

In real life, Company C decimated the PAVN so badly that the attack never reached the command position.

In “We Were Soldiers”, the breakaway 29-man platoon led by Lt. Herrick chases a PAVN “scout” off onto a ridge where they are cut off from the rest of “C Company”. In real life, they were chasing nobody: they merely advanced too far. I suspect Director Randall Wallace thought it would be more exciting to show them chasing somebody.  Better yet, it would make Lt. Herrick look less stupid.

In the movie, only one man appears to be left alive of the 29 in the breakaway platoon. In reality, 20 of the men were still alive. That’s a rather big fib. Only 9 of the men were killed, though 13 were wounded, including the platoon leader.

In “We Were Soldiers”, victory is dramatized by Lt. Col. Moore leading his troops up to the PAVN command bunker area, as Lt. Col Nguyen Huu An flees his command post in the tunnels. That did not happen. Nor did the dramatic confrontation between Moore and the PAVN machine gun position (with the exciting arrival of the helicopters at just the right instant). Didn’t happen. Why is it in there? I don’t know. To show that helicopters are good?

A French Bugle was found, a few days after the events of the movie, in the same general area. I don’t care about that inaccuracy. It’s close enough, and it doesn’t materially affect your perception of the events at Ia Drang.

In 1965, the Huey “slicks” did not have machine guns mounted on their sides. An infantry man with an M16 defended each side of the chopper. Not as impressive cinematically, I guess.

A few days after Ia Drang, a far more horrendous battle took place as the relief battalion was about to be airlifted out, near a landing zone designated Albany. The 2nd Battalion/7th Calvary was spread out in a long column of 400 – 500 yards when attacked by surprise by a fresh regiment of PAVN. According to Jack Smith, most of the early casualties were due to friendly fire as panicked soldiers surrounded by PAVN snipers fired everywhere and anywhere. After a horrendous three-day battle, the survivors were air-lifted out. Casualties: 151 killed, 121 wounded.

Hal Moore, Jack Smith (son of Howard K. Smith, the ABC newsman), and other soldiers of the U.S. 7th Calvary travelled to Viet Nam in October 1993 to meet with their PAVN counterparts at the scene of the battle. There are pictures of them standing together and shaking hands.

There is something wonderful and even beautiful about such a moment. Men who once tried to kill each other in fierce battle now wisely shake hands and share memories. But there is something also deeply disturbing about it, and what is disturbing is not the shaking of hands and the smiles in the group photos. The disturbing part is that these friendly gatherings betray the utter purposelessness of Ia Drang, and every other battle of the Viet Nam War and almost every other war. In the truest sense of the word, the soldiers at Ia Drang were absurd.

The Toilet Web

When the computer revolution started about 30 years ago, some of us wondered, conscientiously, whether there would be enough jobs for people in the future. The visionaries spoke of automated assembly lines, robotic miners, and intelligent vacuum cleaners. In this utopia of mechanical bliss, what would everybody do for a living?

The answer is here. We would invent, design, manufacture, and service talking toilets.

You may scoff. Well, maybe you won’t. Maybe you already have one of those toilets that sprays your butt with soap and warm water after you’ve relieved yourself, and plays soft music, and warms up the bathroom for you. But if you don’t, let the excitement build.

Japanese companies lead the way, as they did with transistor radios and VCRs. Toto is one the leading manufacturers in Japan (60% of the domestic market) and brags about a toilet that is responsive to voice commands. What exactly would you like to command your toilet to do? Open the lid. Spray hotter water and more soap. Massage your butt. You name it.

Oh but wait. Is that all you imagine a 21st century toilet can do? You don’t think big enough! The 21st century toilet samples your urine, your weight, and your blood pressure, and sends it’s findings off to your doctor via the Internet! Yes, we finally have the ultimate browser, and it aint Internet Explorer, and it aint the ESPN website.

So the next time you get depressed thinking about the limitations of human endeavor, and the failure of our culture to reach greater heights of enlightened reflection, consider the toilet browser and rejoice in the infinite potential of human aspirations.

And don’t forget to wipe.