Candidate films / directors

For now, a somewhat arbitrary list of titles that floated into awareness.
Many of these were listed on the September 2022 Ministry Fair “Faith and Film” flyer.
Standing invitation to suggest others, add dates and directors, and importantly, to prune the list.
One model: Identify a set of themes/topics of common interest and then match films that correspond to these.

The Mission (1986)
Father Stu (2022)
Au revoir les enfants (1987)
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Midsommar (2019)
Io c’è (2018)
The Ruling Class (1972)
First Reformed (2017)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
Amour (2012)
Jesus of Montreal (1990)
Magnolia (1999)
Silence (2016)
Of Gods and Men (2010)
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Elmer Gantry (1960)
The Apostle (1997)
Shadowlands (1993)
The Seventh Seal (1957)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Gran Torino (2008)
Cider House Rules (1999)
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
News of the World (2020)
The Great Beauty (2013)
Amistad (1999)
Master Gardner
Dark Waters
Des Hommes et des Dieux
Breaking the Wave
The Tree of Life (2011)
Magnolia (1999)
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Dead Man Walking (1995)
Big Fish (2003)

Bergman, Lynch, Kubrick, Haynes, Van Sant, Schrader…..

Film group: personal interest

In science prison for decades, I have not spent much time watching films. This is a chance to catch up a bit, and learn from participants about things that make films memorable.
I may try to map to films a dozen characteristics of art, as outlined in The Art Instinct (2009) by Denis Dutton.
Note: Please consider things in “quotes” as placeholders for families of terms. You may prefer another member of the family than my choice.
I tend to “pull” books and films that I perceive with potential to “enrich” my “insights” for my set of the “big questions” of our lives, and in our context, relevance to my “faith journey.” I shy from dedicating my precious leisure time to books and media that are “pushed” into my awareness, appealing to an entertainment value, or popularity framings such as Oscar winners or NYT best sellers. Well, of course, some things pushed may be those I would pull in any case. Despite this seemingly pedantic stance, I am capable of simply enjoying a film, such as one enjoys a good meal, even including mood boosting romcoms. But in this context, rather than passive “watching” and “listening to,” I am eager to See images/scenes and Hear dialogues which can be anchored to my established views, or even better, which will surprise with novel and lasting insights. Whew! I hear you — over the top stodgy bla-bla. Yes, but we do not intend to exclude entertainment —
— see, for example, the hilarious Io c’è.
Nor exclude the varieties of the transporting, unexpected, experiences while seeing:
“…. movies are enriching, nourishing, rejuvenating, beautiful, weird, funny, exhilarating, terrifying, discombobulating, and any other adjective you care to throw at them.”
(quote from
While thoroughly embracing these experiences, we simply aim to focus our sight through a lens from the pew.

Film group resources

A place to collect website links, such as for film review sites, book titles, relevant podcasts.
September 2022 Ministry Fair “Faith and Film” flyer.

For now, only a few sources with some relevance.
To recall or discover titles: Various lists of top 10, 50 or 100, “All Time” (now over a century) or by genres or by recent year or decade. The oldest All Time lists may be from Variety in US, and so bias toward American films, and Sight and Sound (BFI) for the UK, with more preference for Brit and EU films, every 10 years since 1952, latest December 2022.
A list of lists includes Roger Ebert’s all time top ten, crafted in his fine style in 2012, the year before his Tree of Life was transplanted.

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, 2009, Denis Dutton
Transcendental Style in Film, 1972, 2018, Paul Schrader
Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, 1963, 2006, Gerhardus Van Der Leeuw
A Long, Long Way, 2020, Greg Garrett
Teaching Religion and Film, 2008, Gregory J. Watkins, ed.

America’s right wing intellectuals undergo illiberal transformation

America’s right wing intellectuals undergo illiberal transformation

By Marc-Olivier Bherer
(South Bend, Indiana; Steubenville, Ohio; and Washington, DC, special correspondent)
Published on November 5, 2022 at 12h00 14 min.

A nexus of American Catholic intellectuals are advocating a regime change to end abortion and fight the increased focus on identity issues, which they associate with liberal democracy.

Donald Trump haunts the American religious right. His likely candidacy for the presidency in 2024 is delighting authors who are working to apply a veneer of respectability to the democratic regression he embodies. Marginal until recently, the intellectual enterprise to reverse political liberalism, the philosophical project that has defined America, is gaining influence. A counter-model with the objective of restoring traditional hierarchies is being formulated. The November 8 midterm elections are a new test for the populism that has taken hold of the Republican Party. If a significant number of Trumpist candidates succeed, the theorists of this dark world will see their approach validated at the ballot box.
Brilliant scholars, political science professors and journalists are now quoting the great names of philosophy to justify their desire to see what they call “the regime” fall. Our times are described in apocalyptic terms.
In this radicalized context, a collective of traditionalist Catholic intellectuals has been most successful in theorizing the anger that is gripping religious voters. Some of these thinkers claim to be integralists, a current which aims to subject all of human existence and endeavors to Catholic truth. They have articulated a vision of the government that could be very useful to a right-wing movement that has long seen government as the problem but now wants to take back control of American society.
Patrick Deneen, born in 1964, is one of the leading members of this Catholic collective and a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana). Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Donald Trump in 2020, studied there. In June, she backed the decision to end constitutional protection for abortion. But she does not belong to the same movement as Mr. Deneen, as she is closer to the conventional right. Like five other members of the nine-member Supreme Court, she comes from the most influential legal organization in the United States, the Federalist Society. Its philosophy is conservative and libertarian, that is to say, radically opposed to government intervention.
Ms. Coney Barrett has joined a Catholic majority in the Supreme Court. Seven justices belong to that faith. Only one of them is not part of the conservative bloc, Sonia Sotomayor. Joe Biden is also a Catholic, albeit a left-wing one. All this attests to the intellectual and political influence of Catholicism in the US, particularly on the right. As Gene Zubovich, a researcher at the University of Toronto (Canada) and historian of the relationship between religion and politics in the US, said, “Evangelicals provide the votes, Catholics the brainpower.”

220 Catholic universities

Evangelicals constitute the largest group of believers in the US. They massively support the Republican Party. In order to engage the hardcore segment of this electorate, the campaign for the midterms is based, among other things, on religious themes. A recent poll conducted for Politico showed that 61 % of Republican voters are in favor of declaring Christianity the country’s official religion. Doug Mastriano, Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, argued in April that the separation of church and state is a myth. Catholics are a minority compared to evangelicals, but they have significant influence, especially through some 220 Catholic universities across the country. Not all professors employed at these institutions are ardent traditionalists, but some of them have been involved in the country’s political changes in order to give it a theoretical foundation.
Notre Dame is part of this vast network of Catholic universities. Behind the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on campus, a replica of the Lourdes grotto has been built and remains a place of devotion: the faithful kneel on the prie-Dieu and others do the same from the surrounding public benches. Made of stones assembled to form a nave, the grotto is dominated by a statue of the Holy Virgin, in front of which stands a sculpture representing Bernadette Soubirous. The founder of the university, French priest and missionary Edouard Sorin (1814-1893), vowed to have this replica built during one of his pilgrimages to Lourdes.
Patrick Deneen feels at home here. He found a vibrant community that allows him to exercise a very specific authority: denouncing liberal democracy. Since the publication of his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, he has established himself as one of the main opponents of that political project. The book has received so much attention that in 2018, it was included on Barack Obama’s annual summer reading list. Mr. Deneen’s next book will be entitled Regime Change: Toward a Postliberal Future, tobe published in the spring of 2023. As soon as it was announced, it shot to the top of Amazon’s pre-order lists.
William Kristol, Mr. Trump’s main opponent on the intellectual right and founder of The Weekly Standard magazine, which was once the bible for neoconservatism, is not convinced: “It’s all well and good to criticize political liberalism, but let’s not exaggerate. We’re not at the height of the crisis caused by the 1929 stock market crash.” Laura Field, a researcher at American University (Washington, DC) and a specialist in right-wing intellectual history, said that “Patrick Deneen gives a hyperbolic description of the evils caused by liberalism. He forgets that liberalism can provide solutions to those problems.”
Mr. Deneen owes much of his success to perfect timing. “He published his book Why Liberalism Failed at the right time,” said Joshua Tait, a historian of the American right. “In 2018, Trump’s election was still recent. Intellectual circles were still working to catch up with events to make sense of them. “With this book, Deneen was the first to reinterpret the ideas of the traditionalist current. He became a spokesman for that activist base that had always felt wronged within the conservative movement.” Since the 1980s, the Republican Party’s coalition has been based on a three-way marriage between hawks (supporters of a strong foreign policy), free-market economic advocates and religious traditionalists.
However, this last group has long felt that it has been cheated, as the Republican Party has done nothing to prevent the liberalization of morals and the transformation of the country. “Trump’s victory has allowed writers whose views were marginal to take center stage. The most radical Catholics can now make their voices heard,” said Matthew Continetti, a researcher at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank and author of The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.

‘Obvious decline’

Mr. Deneen does not care about those criticisms. On the bright autumn day when we met him in his office, he said he was full of hope: “The decline of the regime is so obvious that, for the first time in my life, I believe it is possible to think beyond liberal categories.” The collective of Catholic intellectuals bases their thinking on an illiberal viewpoint. This adjective was revived in the 1990s by the American journalist Fareed Zakaria to describe democracies where the rule of law and freedoms are under assault.
But that still nascent definition does not satisfy some researchers who are trying to better define the phenomenon. That is the case for political scientist Julian Waller, who participates in the work of the Illiberal Studies Program directed by historian Marlene Laruelle through the political science department of George Washington University (Washington, DC). Mr. Waller is very attentive to the activities of the Catholic intelligentsia and notes that their ideas fall under the label of illiberalism. “With this term, we designate a system of thought that is characterized above all by a radical opposition to liberalism and the desire to define a counter-project. That polymorphous ideology took shape in Europe, mainly in Hungary, and is now developing in the United States.”
Embracing this perspective constitutes a clean break with the American right as it was structured after World War II. Until recently, conservatism subscribed to the idea of progress, to liberalism and to its economic doctrine as reinterpreted by the American economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), among others, as a path to innovation. Ronald Reagan led his conservative revolution under that banner.
Today, different intellectual communities dream of an illiberal revolution. The Catholic collective is not alone in trying to define a counter-model. The national-conservative movement, which is present in several countries (mainly in Hungary and the US but also in Israel) combines tradition and nationalism. And the Claremont Institute, a think tank on the West Coast of the US, spreads an openly heinous narrative in the name of an American ideal supposedly compromised by multiculturalism. There exists a form of emulation in this ecosystem, and authoritarianism is at the forefront. Members of the Catholic collective maintain ambiguity on the subject. Mr. Deneen views Mr. Trump as a “flawed person” and said nothing about his intentions for 2024. He is much more vocal about Hungary, sharing selfies on social media taken with Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Mr. Deneen sees wokeness, “this religion of humanity” that replaces true religion, as a sign of civilization’s decay. According to him, the woke fervor was already germinating in the work of English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), one of the founders of liberalism that enabled the propagation of a form of theology of progress and of the individual. Originally, the ambition was to free humanity from the limits imposed on our rights by the state,” explained Mr. Deneen. Today, the quest for emancipation leads to the desire to get rid of all limits. “Against the arbitrary, one now reaches the point of asking for a constant intervention of the state, notably in the private sphere and with regard to the body.” Gay marriage, transhumanism and “transgenderism” are said to challenge the boundaries defined by nature.”

Populist politics

To make matters worse, according to him, there is nothing to be expected from elites trained in universities corrupted by gender studies or by the recent retelling of US history placing slavery at its center. A populist political agenda must be pursued, namely, to rein in universities, public administration and even private enterprise, all of which are guilty of leaning to the left. “The power of the ‘Demos,’ the people, must be used to counter the power of these institutions, which cannot be reformed by conventional means,” said Mr. Deneen. He praised the action of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who enacted a law removing Disney’s favorable status in the state. Mr. DeSantis criticized the company’s CEO for denouncing a law promoted by the governor prohibiting the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. In Mr. Deneen’s view, this kind of move is simply payback to the left for its bullying tactics, such as exaggerating the significance of the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol to control public debate. In this context, a counter-elite is needed to edify the people, to “ennoble” them, as he put it in 2019.
We caught up again with Mr. Deneen a few days later in a small town in Ohio, where he was to participate in a conference. Steubenville (population 18,000) is one of those urban centers that have become ghost towns due to relocations. The neoclassical buildings in the center of town are almost all that remains of the prosperity the old steel mills once brought. Opiate addiction is widespread. There was no sign that America was in the midst of an election campaign: few midterm posters lined the streets. On the hill overlooking the city, however, sits a tree-lined hamlet, the campus of Franciscan University. A banner reads, “End all abortions.” The recent Supreme Court ruling against abortion is not enough. Every state in the union is still free to allow the procedure. That is still too much for them.
The university is hosting a conference headlined “Restoring a Nation: The Common Good in the American Tradition” with Mr. Deneen and other speakers. About 250 people attended, including students, onlookers, lawyers and pro-life activists. The community, very active on social media, was happy to gather again. The event opened with the slogan of alter-globalization: “Another world is possible.” The enemy of American conservatism, the New Deal, was defended in Steubenville and Marxist authors were even quoted.
For two days, classical philosophy as well as Ultramontane Catholicism were also invoked to defend social and economic policies aimed at protecting the traditional family. Pope Francis was barely mentioned. Pope Leo XIII, who reigned from 1878 to 1903, was preferred. His legacy was reinterpreted to emphasize his role in defining the church’s social doctrine and his criticism of modern, more individualistic freedoms. In his time, he was a figure hated by conservatives because he recognized the autonomy of temporal power. The name of a French thinker was also regularly mentioned: philosopher Pierre Manent, who in recent years has clearly toughened his criticism of liberalism.

Natural law

The most anticipated speaker was undoubtedly Adrian Vermeule, a distinguished professor of constitutional law at Harvard. His colleague Samuel Moyn, a professor of legal history at Yale and an openly left-wing intellectual, called him “the most brilliant constitutional scholar of his generation” and uses his book Common Good Constitutionalism in his lectures. He also sees in him a valuable support coming from the right for national solidarity initiatives, public policies that are still strongly opposed by the Republican Party but which Mr. Vermeule supports. The Harvard professor is also valued by his colleague Cass Sunstein, another highly regarded legal and constitutional scholar who served in the Obama administration. They have co-authored several books.
In Steubenville, Mr. Vermeule stood for something else entirely. In the eyes of one anti-abortion activist I met, he represents “a Catholicism that flexes its muscles.” A specialist in administrative law, he defended torture authorized by the Bush administration during the Iraq war. His conversion to Catholicism in 2016 accelerated his break with the conservative establishment. In a country where values of the ruling class continue to be inspired by Protestantism and liberalism, adopting traditionalist Catholicism is a form of elite populism. Conversions are the latest craze, especially since the historical continuity of the Church of Rome provides the intellectual basis for building an oppositional discourse.
Mr. Vermeule draws precisely on the legal tradition inherited from Antiquity and Catholicism, more particularly from natural law, for which every society is governed by the same moral principles. In his writings, he also refers to the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) and the American legal philosopher Richard Dworkin (left, 1931-2013). He attacks the conservative constitutional doctrine of originalism, which intends to interpret the US Constitution in accordance with the intentions of its 18th-century authors. That theory of law dominates the Supreme Court today and serves to limit government action as much as possible.
The professor criticizes originalism for being too defensive in the face of liberalism. Unlike the right, he defends state intervention, with the ambition of remodeling society. He advocates a more robust approach, an illiberal legalism that is more substantive on a moral level, as he wrote in The Atlantic magazine in 2020, causing controversy. Against individualism, he wants a “common-good constitutionalism.”

A kind of mystique

In Steubenville, Mr. Vermeule revisited the powers vested in the head of state as defined by Justinian (born around 482, died in 565), a Byzantine emperor who left a considerable body of legal work but who also distinguished himself by his authoritarianism. In a professorial and monotonous tone, Mr. Vermeule explained that bureaucracy and executive power are best placed to defend the common good. The discourse, rich in references unknown to the general public, lends a kind of mystique to the populist reinvention of the state. A thinly veiled rejection of parliamentarianism is evident, with references to the corruption of the “senatorial class” of the Roman Empire: “Today, the relevance of the idea that an elite is incapable of governing honestly in the service of the public interest need not be explained.” In contrast, “the authority delegated to the executive branch and the resulting administration can be seen as a massive force deployed by the many to protect themselves from abuses by the few,” he said.
Julian Waller, a specialist in illiberalism who also attended Steubenville, noted that “Adrian Vermeule continues to be provocative, and his speech can be understood in many different ways. This is the first time he has gone so far in defining a counter-project that could resemble a democracy with extensive powers for the executive or an electoral dictatorship,” he said. After the conference, he explained that “democracies, constitutional monarchies, republics and a variety of other types of regimes can be and have been well organized, in [his] view.” Non-democratic political models, therefore, seem possible.
Until recently, Mr. Vermeule was an outspoken advocate of Catholic fundamentalism, the subjugation of temporal power to the spiritual power of the Vatican. Faced with scandal, he now prefers to speak of “political Catholicism,” a more ambiguous term. In 2020, he suggested on Twitter that the presidential election might have been rigged in favor of Joe Biden. He is now more cautious.
Sohrab Ahmari is the third most important figure of this collective. He is the one who works on popularizing their ideas. A former journalist in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal and then the New York Post, he converted to Catholicism in 2016. He announced his decision on social media with the hashtag #iamjacqueshamel, in reference to the priest murdered by a jihadist at the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. In March, he launched the magazine Compact with Matthew Schmitz, another traditionalist Catholic, and Edwin Aponte, a journalist who describes himself as a “populist Marxist.” The project brings together authors from the far left and the far right, including articles by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and Curtis Yarvin, a theorist of American-style techno-monarchism. “We want to have a robust debate,” said Sohrab Ahmari, although he said he disagrees with Mr. Yarvin. Mr. Ahmari is very much committed to social issues.

Trump supporters

In late September, he wrote an article with Matthew Schmitz, in which he says he still supports Donald Trump, specifically for that reason. “The Republican Party has not shed its economic Reaganism. With this article, we want to fight that trend.” When reminded that Joe Biden secured legislation far more favorable to American industry than Trump, he brushed the argument aside. “As a father, I don’t want my children to be exposed to gender ideology. For me, that’s visceral.” Faced with ideas imposed from above by the left, he believes Catholics in the US today suffer “dhimmitude,” the subjugation that religious minorities are said to have experienced in Islamic countries, according to a far-right understanding of history.
The last speaker in Steubenville was none other than J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for the Senate whose biography has been particularly noteworthy. He made a name for himself with his 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy, adapted to film by Netflix in 2020. In it, he recounts his childhood as a White boy in Ohio with an addict mother and a grandmother who came to his rescue. In 2016, Mr. Vance was opposed to Mr. Trump. He changed his position after entering the Senate race in 2021. Meanwhile, Mr. Vance converted to Catholicism in 2019. In Steubenville, he praised the quality of the intellectuals gathered, then revisited the role of money in politics: He said it is an indispensable resource for winning an election campaign. He can, for his part, count on the support of techno-billionaire Peter Thiel, one of the largest donors to the Republican Party for the midterms and a supporter of Donald Trump in 2016.
After a rather banal speech, Mr. Vance was warmly applauded. In a 2021 interview, he said that if Trump were re-elected, he would have to “fire every single mid-level bureaucrat, every civil servant in the administrative state, replace them with our people. And when the courts stop you, stand before the country, and say –quoting Andrew Jackson – ‘the chief justice has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.'”
Such a scenario is firmly rejected by Mr. Vermeule. No need for him to go that far, others are doing it for him. A keen observer of the radical right and vice president of policy studies at the center-right think tank Niskanen Center Geoffrey Kabaservice said, “America will never be a Catholic theocracy, but candidates like Vance are normalizing the idea that if Trump gets a second term he must go further in his attacks on our democratic institutions and norms.” In the United States, since Mr. Trump, intellectuals who build utopias are in danger of being overtaken by reality.

Credible Skills, or Hollow Credentials?

A recent coincidence: On the same day the NY Times reported that NYU ousted an adjunct professor after students’ complained that his organic chemistry class was too hard, my director summoned me, also now with adjunct status, to share the scuttlebutt on my teaching.

NYT editors solicited comments from students and profs, and published a summary of these, and quoted several:

Several things in these comments resonated. One that matches my view:

‘Part of this process is becoming adept at problem solving’
 …. attempting to gently lead the students through the process of problem solving. I explained at the beginning that it was meant as a dialogue, not a harassment. …. Now, questioning students in front of their peers is more or less considered unacceptable. It makes them “uncomfortable.” I consider myself a flexible, supportive instructor, sensitive to the needs of my students. …. I believe in learning. But part of this process is becoming adept at problem solving under challenging conditions. Barry Goldstein, 70, Westport, N.Y.

            I was stunned when I realized that all students in my upper level biology class this semester have little clue about how to read logarithmic scales. They are seniors majoring in science! I now feel that my responsibility is expanding beyond the subject matter of the course. Using examples from recent news graphics with log scales to provide insights on the spread of Covid and on disparities in research funding in the context of gun violence, students realized that the need to understand powers of ten, “logs,” goes beyond the classroom.

            Natural and social sciences engage flowcharts, graphic models with many interacting components, circular iterations, feedback loops, state changes. In biology, these span organismal life cycles (such as for viruses) to the chemical details through multistep reactions in the jaws of an enzyme’s active site. For molecular biology, most such schemes are at a charming intermediate level. A molecular key twisting a lock (an analogy that literally works) in a door on a cell’s surface leads to a Rube Goldberg theater production inside the cell, with a cast of characters playing out sequential, bifurcating and converging cascades of events, turning enzymes on or off, waking up dormant genes to make proteins needed for the jobs at hand and coming up, making decisions and sending signals to networked cells. These “pathways” are depicted in colorful diagrams of icons for components, and arrows that serve a few simple roles. They are maps of sorts showing temporal and spatial sequences, A activates B, then B signals C and D, D migrates into the nucleus and tickles the machinery to copy a message from DNA etc. I am struggling to get them to look at these pictures and describe in class in simple language the sequences of events. OK, they are not familiar with some of the components, although each has been discussed in class, but I fear the problem is deeper. And yes, this recitation in front of peers is démodé. But in the course topics, we look at the cellular nuts and bolts of stress. A bit is good, and helps to remember and so learn the subject.

            Conjecture: Part of their difficulty may be the reliance on GPS for navigation. We read frequently that youngsters cannot read maps, and often, well, so what? GPS is fine, and to some extent Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat applies. Yet, sometimes these discussions suggest that absence of reading skills for maps, and similar representations, may lead to other deficits. I wonder if in addition to the novelty of the complication of a set of molecular interactions, they lack some fundamental mindset to feel at home with such depictions. We would then have a mismatch between the set of brain states, capacities, available to me and those in their minds. They would certainly be surprised by my inability to do the simplest moves with video games. Many of the colorful schemes of biological pathways with their sets of sequential arrows are almost like animations. In a sense, you are moving through the cell, all the while at each step creating shape changes and movements within and between the components. And navigational choices are made, as actors at intersecting pathways, game-like, can modulate each others’ behavior. Instead of robotically obeying your phone’s GPS directions, it’s likely that habitually physically moving around in the world in a mode where your mind has a picture of your surroundings and the route you will follow would help to navigate schemes of events unfolding sequentially in time and place. Barbara Tversky’s Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought convincingly describes the experiments that might support this conjecture. She presents numerous examples of how our awareness of movement in our physical worlds is involved in effective learning, and teaching.

            There is also clearly a lack of motivation by the students to really learn the course’s subject, one of the most fascinating in the universe. They need only bag the credits, and with expectation of an A grade by default. At least my director has my back. She told me of her conversation with one of my students who at mid-semester, is heading for a B-ish grade. Over three years of gaming mainly MCQ exams (Multiple Choice Questions, and other short answer), his GPA is just shy of a perfect 4. His attitude: clearly, a sub-A must be the fault of the prof. The director was able to convince the student that getting a B in a tough course is not shameful, won’t hurt his aim to train in grad school for a career in healthcare, and then get a job in the understaffed profession he seeks to enter. She told the student, relax, and try to learn something for once. Another student told the director that the course is for a much higher level, not introductory as billed. This is a case of “down so far, it looks like up to me.” Currently she has failing grades in my course, her main interest appears to be non-scholastic activities occupying all of the hours from Friday afternoon to Monday morning, and yet has become an authority on where courses belong in a curriculum.

            Other comments in the NYT piece: “…..meeting with them individually and offering encouragement and referrals when they’re having trouble. ‘It’s extremely time-consuming and extremely rewarding,’ he said.” As I only have a few students, I set up one on one “Talk To Learn” “conversations” (TTL). I try to keep the stress sub-sweat as I guide them through topics including pathways, in a manner to get them to be comfortable with “reading” similar schemes even though each particular example is novel to them. Such skills are part of the “solfège” of biology. To the extent that they show improved understanding, they get a boost in their score for a previous exam that addressed the concepts we discuss. For me, the quote within the previous NYT comment is half correct: Yes, lots of my pro bono time. Yet after the struggle, although perhaps pleasurable for the student in getting a better grasp, and thus value beyond simply a better exam grade, I have yet to harvest much reward, as their gains appear thin and not robust over time.

            Another NYT commenter has a fine suggestion: “….. behavioral contracts for my students, clearly spelling out the time commitments needed to excel in my courses.” I may be doing a disservice by routinely testing with open notes exams. “Why bother studying the printouts of the lecture slides if I have them during the exam, and can just look up the answers?” So, at least for this course, why study anything other than plans for travel and recreation? The prerequisites for the course, three semesters of the fundamentals of biology, plus freshman level math, chemistry, physics and organic chemistry seem meaningless. Apparently, upper level biology profs are expected to teach at the level aimed for a science-naïve humanities student. OK, having passed the previous courses means that they had shown an ability to learn the course contents, and OK, we can’t expect them to recall most of this. But surely some terminology would have become familiar, at least for students riding a straight A average in their major. In my upper level course, when they encounter a term, such as “enzyme,” and notice that I am not taking time to explain generically what an enzyme is and does, you might at least expect a reflex to refresh, even if with Wikipedia. Apparently not. They are content that enzyme as a term in sentences or as an icon in a diagram somehow has something to do with other things in the sentence or paragraph, or has some relation with other elements in the schemes. For MCQ by rote, you simply keep some crammed memory of these things together, maybe with some association such as: when H is up, L is down. You don’t need to understand what H and L are, or their properties, or why they have such a reciprocal connection. The trouble is discovered on exam day. Open book exams are designed to probe such comprehension.

            “Oh, it’s so hard.” (Haidt’s coddled GenZ?) Well, if this has yet to appear to be a rant, now it will. Of course, it’s hard. This is an upper level course in a tough subject – it means doing some hard, deep, concentrated work to learn, to take initiatives to find background material that you need, and yes, motivation to learn, at least enough to avoid shiny red ears when you are asked to answer something in class. Now it’s my turn to go deep: time to concentrate to prep TTL sessions, with a goal to turn ears red, but without peers, then give feedback, then listen to refined phrasing, and repeat…. I do it, but balk at this. Yes, repetition is an essential part of learning, but my view, frozen in a Victorian age if you will: it’s the student’s job to spend most of the repeating time. This should lead to reinforcement of repeated awareness where her understanding is too shallow, and should give an appetite to dig in and seek a deeper view, if nothing else but to head off tedious repetition. Call this “thinking.” Not sure they have time to “think” – too much to absorb, too much pressure to shovel back fast reactions to fellow social media posters. And who needs to think when you have been seduced to believe that all knowledge is at your fingertips. Clever crafting of search terms becomes a version of supposed deep thinking.

            Yes, the current system, “sage on stage” lectures, is far from best for an ideal learning environment. Exams as timed assessments of isolated individuals are ill suited to prepare for careers when challenging efforts will be handled by teams. As the final comment from the last NYT poster says: “Faculty need training and support to change their practices; it is not OK to expect us to bootstrap a new way of teaching.” And of course, what about salaries that fit the time invested, and that honors the deep education that affords authority in front of a class? For myself, the compensation is not in the back pocket. Teaching keeps my neurons well greased in my professional retirement, like the NYU prof. But there must be good personal funding for career profs, especially those with big classes, who no doubt have chronic stress and every right to rant to the degree of many logs. Governmental subsidies are appropriate, at least beginning with the adjuncts whose homes are their vehicles. One example among many:

Piketty: Moving away from three-tier democracy

Thomas Piketty

Professor at EHESS (Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris) and the Paris School of Economics

According to the French economist, rebuilding a left-right divide centred on questions of redistribution and social inequality is the central issue of France’s legislative elections.

Moving away from three-tier democracy

Published on June 11, 2022 at 07h00, updated at 09h29 on June 11, 2022

Let us first recall the contours of the three-tier democracy, as expressed in the first round of the presidential elections. If we add up the various candidates from the left-wing and ecological parties, we obtain 32% of the votes for the left-wing bloc, which can be described as being in favour of social-planning or social-ecological. If we combine the votes cast for Macron and Pécresse, we also obtain 32% of the votes for the liberal or centre-right bloc. We get exactly the same score of 32% if we add up the three candidates of the nationalist or extreme right bloc (Le Pen,Zemmour,Dupont-Aignan). If we divide the 3% of the unclassifiable ruralist candidate (Lassale) between the three blocs, we arrive at three almost perfectly equal thirds.

This tripartition is partly explained by the specificities of the electoral system and the political history of the country, but its underpinnings are more general. It should be noted that the three-tier democracy does not mean the end of political divisions based on social class and divergent economic interests, quite the contrary. The liberal bloc achieves by far its best scores among the most socially advantaged voters, whatever the criterion used (income, wealth, education), especially among older people. The fact that this “bourgeois bloc” managed to attract a third of the vote is also due to the evolution of participation, which has become much higher among the wealthiest and oldest voters than among the rest of the population over the last few decades, which was not the case before. De facto, this bloc has combined the economic and wealthy elites, who used to vote for the centre-right, with the educated elites who have taken over the centre-left in many places since 1990, as theWorld Political Cleavages and Inequality Databaseshows. With equal participation across all socio-demographic groups, however, this bloc would only garner about a quarter of the vote and could not claim to govern alone. In contrast, the left-wing bloc would be in the lead, as it scores best among the working classes, and especially among the younger generation. The nationalist bloc would also be ahead, but only slightly, as its popular vote profile is more evenly spread among the age groups.

The great ideological families

In a way, one could say that this tri-partition recalls the three great ideological families that have structured political life for more than two centuries: Liberalism, nationalism and socialism. Since the Industrial Revolution, liberalism has been based on the market and the social dismantling of the economy, and has attracted the majority of the system’s winners. Nationalism responds to the resulting social crisis by reifying the nation and ethno-national solidarities, while socialism attempts, not without difficulty, to promote universalist emancipation through education, knowledge and power sharing. More generally, it has always been known that political conflict is structurally unstable and multidimensional (identity and religious cleavage, rural-urban cleavage, socio-economic cleavage, etc.) and cannot be reduced to an eternal one-dimensional left-right conflict reproducing itself identically over time. However, in many of the configurations observed in the past, or at least in those that have been retained, the social question took precedence and defined the main axis of the political conflict, opposing a social-internationalist left to a liberal-conservative right.

More on this topic:
Thomas Piketty: ‘The program adopted by left-wing parties marks return of social and fiscal justice’

The novelty of the current situation is that the social question has lost its intensity, partly because the left in power has watered down its transformative ambition and has often rallied to the liberalism that has triumphed since the fall of communism, so that the question of identity has taken over. What defines the three-tier democracy is first of all that the working classes are deeply divided around the migratory and post-colonial question: The young and urban working class electorate has a more ethnically mixed sociability and votes for the left-wing bloc; conversely, the less young and more rural working class electorate feels abandoned and turns to the nationalist bloc. The “bourgeois bloc” hopes to remain in power in perpetuity thanks to this division, but this is a risky and dangerous gamble, as the rhetoric deployed by the nationalist bloc (and often encouraged by the “bourgeois bloc”) leads to no constructive outcome and only exacerbates dead-end conflicts. Contrary to what the other two blocs claim, the left-wing bloc is by no means unaware of the question of insecurity: On the contrary, it is the most capable of gathering the fiscal resources to strengthen the police and the justice system. As for the accusation of communitarianism, it is particularly inane. If young people of immigrant origin vote massively for the left-wing bloc, it is because it is the only one to defend them against the prevailing racism and to take the question of discrimination seriously.

The return to a confrontation centred on the social question is a necessity, not because the working classes would always be right when confronted with the “bourgeois bloc” (it is never simple to fix the right cursor on the scale of redistribution), but because conflicts resolved through mediation by social class offer more grist for the mill and allow democracy to function. Let us hope that these elections will contribute to this.

Read his previous column:
Thomas Piketty: ‘We will not see the peaceful return of a reassuring left-right divide’

The Vyrus


Vyrus Vyrus, binding tight,
To our tissue day and night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

And what bellows, & what wants,
Could twist thine host’s primed response?
A gentle furnace, why require
Such sight unkind, a storm of fire?

Whence thy bloom, pressed to select
A deathless force to infect?
What dread hand? & Who to blame?
As thou on parting, spark host to flame.

What the template? what dread grasp,
As breath gives way to final gasp?
Did she smile her work to see?
Did she who blew Spirit make thee?

Vyrus Vyrus spiking tight,
To our tissue day and night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Notes: See the template, Blake’s The Tyger, below. Vocabulary is limited to that of Blake’s time. The “cytokine storm” that has been understood as the final, excessive, and lethal response of the immune sytem to a Cov-2 infection is echoed by “sight unkind, a storm.” This is one of about a dozen allusions to the technical terms and phrases of the Cov-2 infection cycle and viral evolution. The metaphor of the blacksmith’s forge is adapted to the fever induced by the infection. Blake’s concern with the problem of evil is copied, except with the evocation of a female deity.

“The Vyrus” was one of five winners of a Covid related poetry contest offered in the podcast This Week in Virology. Winners announced and poems read in a episode in December 2020.

The Tyger
William Blake, 1794

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Pentecost Poems / Christian Poets

During the forum on Pentecost, June 5, 2022, eight of these poems were presented by several volunteer readers, in the Parish Hall or via Zoom.
The request for readers:
If you would like to participate as a reader, please choose one or two from this list or suggest other poems.
The poem titles are links to web pages with the full text of the poems.
Please send a note including title(s) of poem(s) and poet(s) to:
You can read either if you join the forum in the Parish Hall, or if you connect with Zoom.

A compilation, Modern and Contemporary Poets of Christian Faith, lists many other poets, and includes a bibliography: Poetry Collections and Scholarship Involving Christian Faith or Scripture.

In the table, the years listed are either the year of a collection, or the year of first publication, when available.

Title / LinkPoetYearCollection / Series
Vespers (Even as you appeared to Moses, because) (one of 10 ‘Vespers’ by L.G.)Louise Glück1993Wild Iris
i thank You God for most this amazingE. E. Cummings1950Xaipe
Translation to French with commentary
Derek Walcott1987The Arkansas Testament
An Hymn to HumanityPhillis Wheatleyc. 1770The Poems of Phillis Wheatley
Cantar del Alma
Station Island XI (translation by S.H.)
San Juan de la Cruz
Seamus Heaney
16th c. 1984Station Island (Heaney)
God’s GrandeurGerard Manley Hopkins1877As Kingfishers Catch Fire
Veni CreatorCzeslaw Milosz1961Collected Poems 1931-1987
WhitsundayGeorge Herbert1633The Temple
SuddenlyR.S. Thomas1975Collected Poems 1945-90
Our Mother-tongue Is Love; A Sonnet for PentecostMalcolm Guite2012Sounding the Seasons
Psalm 48: Magnus DominusMalcolm Guite2021David’s Crown: A Poetic
Companion to the Psalms
Psalm 105: Confitemini DominoMalcolm Guite2021David’s Crown: A Poetic
Companion to the Psalms
The FireFranz Wright2006God’s Silence
To the Holy SpiritWendell Berry1980A Part
Can I see the buds that are swelling (Sabbaths 1999, I)Wendell Berry1999This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems
Speaking in TonguesMary Rose O’Reilly2006Half Wild
CaedmonDenise Levertov1985Breathing the Water
Little Gidding, movements IV-VT.S. Eliot1942Four Quartets
LightningMary Oliver1983American Primitive
From a WindowChristian Wiman2011Every Riven Thing
PentecostalLes Murray1974Lunch & Counter Lunch
Batter my heart, three-person’d God
(HS 14)
John Donne1610Holy Sonnets,
a collection of 19 sonnets
Hymne de PentecôtePierre Emmanuel
Athalie, Scene 1, L. 1-12Jean Racine
Le Flambeau VivantCharles Baudelaire1861Les Fleurs du Mal
(Ukrainian, The Holy Spirit)
Alexander Voititsky
(Олександр Войтицький)
2013In the Light of the Word
PentecostDana Gioia200399 Poems: New & Selected

Denazify signals anti-Semitism

Jason Stanley, Yale philosophy professor, author of How Propaganda Works and How Fascism Works, unpacks “deNazification”.

JS interviewed by Brooke Gladstone in the final segment of an On the Media podcast – excerpt of transcript below.      4 March 2022

Brooke G  37:29
This is on the media. I’m Brooke Gladstone. When Putin declared war on Ukraine in a televised speech last week. He said that with this occupation, Russia will, “seek to demilitarize and deNazify Ukraine.” But the Nazis Putin warned of aren’t the usual suspects of Neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism. Figures like David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including the one that claims the Jews orchestrated the 911 attacks didn’t come up. Nor did he mean someone like Aleksandr Dugin, the Russian Ultra nationalist political thinker, who writes in his book, Conservative Revolution, that, “The world of Judaica is a world hostile to us. To understand does not mean to forgive, but to vanquish.” Where much of the world sees anti-Semitism, Putin sees allies. He claims the real Nazis are members of the Ukrainian government like the freely elected and Jewish President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but according to Yale philosophy Professor Jason Stanley, that very absurdity ties into
one of the main anti-Semitic conspiracy theories
      prevalent in Eastern Europe
today, inspired by the likes of Duke and Dugin,                         that Jews were behind the Holocaust and
                use the Nazis to persecute white Christian Russians,
                       as Putin says is happening now.

Stanley says this mockery of the Holocaust is a dog whistle to
            drum up support for war among those who share
                        Putin’s vision for a fascist, Christian ethno state.

Jason Stanley  39:13
To understand Putin’s intentions, what we have to begin with is
            what [WWII historical] deNazification was:
                  Invading Germany, capturing the Nazi leaders, executing some, imprisoning others, and then replacing Nazi ideology systematically in schools and institutions with liberal democratic ideology.
So what does Putin mean by denazification?
            He’s going to invade Ukraine, put on show trials versus the trials of Nurnberg where he tries the leaders of Ukraine, execute some, imprison others, and then replace liberal democratic ideology with Christian nationalist fascist ideology.

Brooke G  39:58
DeNazification means to get the Nazis out. I mean, does he identify a different group, perhaps far right Christian nationalists as the true victims of the Nazis?

Jason Stanley  40:12
He needs to gather popular support and
            anti-Semitism is a popular base in Eastern Europe.
            This is not visible as much to those of us in the West.

Stanley also related these themes in a Guardian op ed:

Reflections on Implicit Bias Training

October 2, 2021

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the widespread BLM protests, the leadership of my Christian congregation considered various programs that would both boost the awareness of the persistent systemic racism throughout the United States, and ideally, motivate members to engage locally in activities that address social injustices, especially racism. The church accepted a member’s suggestion to engage for a modest fee an African-American guide who has extensive experience in leading cross-cultural Implicit Bias Training (IBT) courses in corporate and institutional settings. The guide established objectives and a syllabus, and programmed a series of six three hour zoom sessions (weekday evenings, 7-10 PM) spread out over a few months in Spring 2021, and an additional three hour session in Fall 2021.

The central questions of this report as concluding remarks:

Is this IBT course, or a variant a good choice for those congregants who are now prepared to join actions against injustices or to alleviate suffering? 
       No, these goals were peripheral to the course content. 

Is this IBT course is a good match for those who wish to develop practices of self-examination, and possibly of healing, as part of their quest toward joining actions against injustices?
       No, the foundational premises, for example, regarding inherited trauma are not well supported, and the particular techniques presented seemed inappropriate. The central view of participants was that the spirit of the members of our congregations is already at a level of readiness to contribute to fighting social injustices.

            For whites, Layla Saad “Me and White Supremacy” (MAWS).
            For BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color),
R. Menakem “My Grandmother’s Hands” (MGH).
I read both books to better grasp the framework of this IBT program.
The guide’s website has a remarkably rich set of resources on racism, including IBT.

Between sessions, we were asked to journal our thoughts and experiences, self-examine as guided by the books, and exercise prayerful forgiveness of the sources of our racism and feelings of white supremacy, namely, our parents, earlier ancestors, those who educated us, and who informed us.

            I was among a couple dozen people from our church, and other churches that interact with our parish, who volunteered to participate. Several clergy were part of the group. About a third of the participants identified as BIPOC or mixed race, but the majority were white of various Western cultural heritages. About two thirds of us attended the entire 18 hour core. The church leadership, for their June meeting, asked me to prepare this summary of my experience with the course.

            As the course unfolded, and thanks to numerous breakout group sessions, I appreciated the rich variety of reactions and experiences among us. I had not been faithful with all the additional activities that the guide requested, such as journaling, spending thorough time with the questions/exercises at the ends of the chapters in the readings, or taking time with the resources and activities on the web site of the course. Therefore, in good faith, for the report, I sought the input of others. After the 18 hours, eight people responded to my request to set up individual Zooms to give anonymous views. (See Annex 1 for details.) These conversations were lengthy and candid. I noted their comments, and learned opinions distant from my own, and novel insights to include in the report for our leadership.

Summary/Conclusions for the church leadership

            This report synthesizes my views with those of eight people who also completed the 18 hour core of the IBT course. We share a recognition of our duty in our Christian framework to discover any serious and widespread problems particular to our congregations, come up with local actions to address these, and to identify novel opportunities to boost the feelings of shared community for all congregants, and for those who may come our way. We appreciate the value of activities that augment our daily awareness and sensitivity to problems due to racism and exclusion of “out-groups”, either rooted in personal biases and attitudes, or due to historic and current systemic or institutional policies. In this sense, the 18 hours of course time, plus associated activities, achieved an announced meta-goal of IBT: “foundation for beginning this transformation” [of white racism]. None of the 9 people regretted having invested in IBT, as the time spent with these issues means that we have become more sensitive when we encounter individual and systemic exclusion. We expressed intentions to step in, both when confronted with such exclusion, and to work within our communities to proactively develop ways to promote inclusion. Nonetheless, we identified some shortcomings of the IBT program, and some of us are concerned about a possible mismatch between the scope of needs and aims in our parishes versus the overall content and approach of the type of course that this IBT program represents.

            What would we recommend for fellow parishioners who are able and willing to invest time toward boosting these behaviors and actions?

1. Implement suggestions for action that were generated by the IBT program? Yes

2. Repeat the IBT course for others, as it was presented?  No

3. Work with the IBT guide or other leaders to adapt the IBT-type goals and resources to work up a course specific for our congregation? Uncertain

4. Provide programs that were developed elsewhere and have been followed in other churches? To be considered

5. Explore other formats to continue ongoing discussion of these issues and actions?  Yes

IBT content

An Overview/Syllabus document was sent to us by the guide before the course began.

            This IBT program, including its focus on “racial healing,” falls into the general category of “diversity training,” programs that have been widely implemented in many organizations, typically to address some series of incidents of racial discrimination.

            Sessions included the guide’s presentation of key concepts and relevant sources with brief sets of breakout groups to exchange on various topics. She accented non-verbal body work designed to relax the tension that would build in us when exposed to various content in IBT, and more importantly to heal our inherent intergenerational trauma rooted in the racist actions of previous white generations or in the horrors experienced by the ancestors of black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), and of course, trauma due to ongoing experiences of both whites and BIPOC. Through various exercises we were encouraged to become aware of the trauma within all of us, and to engage various body movements toward healing. It was expected that confrontation with accounts of the terrible history of slavery, our embedded white supremacy and our benefits from white privilege, would lead to distress and tension. For each session “Guardians” were appointed who occasionally led relaxation or body-centered exercises to release the tension, which would help us on our path to “racial healing.”

Evaluation of content:

      Three important notes:

            – Many comments in this section reflect my personal reading and thinking on these issues, independently of the views the eight other Zoom-respondents.
            – Much of the critique here is about IBT in general, and so these comments are not pointed at the guide and should not be taken that way.
            – It may be that, simply by presenting such critique, I become open to appearing guilty of some of the covert racist thinking and behaviors as detailed, for example, in the book MAWS. So it goes. I will take my lumps. Some respondents expressed frustration with the content of this book, with its presumed knowledge of our uniformly held personal attitudes and emotions. Several felt that from the author’s perspective, we could do little that would be judged as genuinely righteous and honest.
And see a July 2021 New Yorker article that discusses the presumed persistent impossibility for whites to overcome racism.  

            The guide mentioned the evolution of IBT, notably until about five years ago, such courses were limited to teaching “racial literacy.” (See Annex 2.) In recent years some IBT courses have begun to offer “racial healing”, including somatic psychological approaches. We applaud the guide’s engagement with this evolution, recognizing that IBT continues in its development toward effective and actionable results.

            Underlying contradiction:

            A seeming contradiction in the premise of the course: The great task is to repair injustices, for example, as delineated by Reverend William Barber in a Vox article and in a commencement address. Rev. Barber presented similar themes in his homily at President Biden’s 2021 inauguration.

            Some of these injustices mainly affect BIPOC, and others affect, regardless of race or ethnicity, all the poor, and the victims of 1990’s WTO policies. Yet the focus of the 18 hour investment of the course was inward looking, on the cryptic, covert vestiges of racism that may remain unconsciously within our souls.

            Important: This perceived contradiction concerns the general approach of IBT, and thus is not explicitly directed at the 2021 course. It seems likely that most members of our church congregation are not afflicted with racist attitudes, at least not any that greatly matter in our context. There may well be habits leading to microaggressions felt by BIPOC, and severe enough to cause chronic discomfort. Certainly, we know from discussions within the parish that the experience of BIPOC in our church differs from  that of the typical white members, sometimes in ways of which the rest of us may be wholly unaware. All must remain alert and act toward ridding bad habits. Our outreach activities seek to improve the plight of the less privileged, and parishioners can continue to learn about institutional policies that further disadvantage those who are already struggling, as well as about behaviors that may unintentionally give offense or create a sense of exclusion. The IBT course content and especially the resources on its website did address societal problems.

For ideas toward alternate approaches for appropriate course material, see Annex 3.

Additional resources:
– Discussion of this contradiction and other features of IBT
IBT commentary including critique of a method of detection of implicit bias
Critique of White Fragility (WF), a popular book with themes similar to those in MAWS
NYT profile of author of WF
NY Mag. commentary on WF
Further comments on WF

Self-assessment of racist attitudes using a ladder metaphor

In early sessions, we were asked to position ourselves on metaphorical ladders depicting spectra of racist attitudes, where climbing to the top rung would make us bona fide anti-racists, even satisfying the demanding criteria of I. X. Kendi in his book “How to Be an Antiracist”.  Kendi argues that the historical developments of racist policies precede racist ideologies.

In a resource the guide provided, Dismantling Racism, dRworks, the lowest rung is “I’m normal,” “the innocence/ignorance stage,” for a person who is seemingly unaware of the systemic problems, yet, importantly, does not hold overtly racist views. In contrast, in the discussion of the degrees of feelings of white supremacy, MAWS, pp 44-45, quotes an overtly genocidal white supremacist as the “most extreme manifestation of white supremacist ideology,” and then places the participants in the IBT course in the same basket: “….lighter versions of this ideology ….. exist at more unconscious levels for progressive, we-are-all-one-race, peace-loving white people.” The guide presented the ladder of dRworks, but with an important distinction, namely, below the rung “I’m normal,” she added an overtly supremacist rung labeled: “White is civilized, Others are not. Nonwhites are defective or childish, not equal.” Although not as ugly as the extreme in MAWS, once again, the IBT participants, who accepted the challenge to discover their presumed covert racism, were placed in the same arena as those with overt racism. Most of the respondents felt that they were already well beyond any overt racial biases, and placed themselves toward the top of the ladders..

            A potentially misleading aspect of the ladders has functional consequences. Ladder images with equally spaced rungs give the impression that advancing from rung 2 of ignorant white privilege to rung 3, or from 5 to 6 or from 8 to 9 all have equal value. Yet, it is likely that progressives who are already at the top rungs of the ladder, and above some threshold of awareness of racism, will practice anti-racism and even engage in proactive efforts against injustices. Programs to guide them to discover, even perhaps successfully, lingering nuanced racist attitudes are unlikely to enhance their already established convictions in any meaningful way. Their time might be better devoted to pragmatic work against injustices. For folks on the bottom rungs, although advances away from the most blatant racism are clearly desirable, it is unlikely that moving between these rungs will motivate them toward any meaningful antiracist practices. Those in the middle rungs may be the best candidates for IBT training, with the greatest “bang for buck.” An example would be youth in communities permeated with racist ideation, but who are not yet embedded in a local racist brotherhood. See the graphic illustrating this non-linear relationship between individual progress toward anti-racism that matters and the position on a ladder.

Absence of narratives and appropriate role models with success stories

The guide most reasonably urged us to identify and display in our churches images depicting Jesus, Mary and disciples as black or at least as non-Caucasian. Such perspective both could remind white parishioners to practice inclusionary policies, and motivates BIPOC to feel more connected in the parish. Such “homophily” promotes classroom success of some black students when the teacher is black, and in some therapeutic contexts, improves compliance by black patients who are treated by black doctors.

In the same manner, this IBT group could have benefitted from stories of people like us whose investment with IBT led to changed outlooks and behavior. MAWS described a few individuals, but only to report how these examples displayed various racist attitudes. In all fairness, such cases may be very rare, as indicated in the above discussion of the people at the highest rungs of the ladder. In contrast, it’s easier to find cases, sadly too infrequently, of individuals who experienced dramatic and often rapid jumps from the lowest to the highest rungs. The “conversions” of Derek Black and white nationalists influenced by Daryl Davis are great examples. However, our IBT group did not accent presentation of folks with life trajectories similar to any of us and who changed in ways that matter via the IBT course. Nonetheless, a minority of respondents did report personal experience of positive change.

Objectives: clarity and pertinence to our needs/expectations, and extent achieved

These comments are based on the “Objectives” as presented by the guide, in a document of Objectives and Syllabus. Overall, the stated objectives were insufficiently specific, and some phrasing presented a list of buzzwords. Perhaps this lack of syllabus-like clarity is consistent with the emphasis on the expected fruits of nonverbal work with the objective of healing. This approach predominated in the first four sessions, as was announced in the syllabus.

– Overall comments from the nine: an inconsistent lack of clarity during the sessions about the objectives for the session, and often confusion about what was intended to occur in breakout groups.

– It is unfortunate that the guide did not initially consult with the participants about crafting objectives to meet our needs in the context of our church communities.

– Compounding this was an impression that whites were viewed as a homogeneous group, ignoring a wide diversity of relevant backgrounds and experiences, typical of our congregations. “Credentialing,” expression of previous positive interactions, friends, school, work, organizations, etc. with BIPOC would be interpreted in MAWS terms as “optical allyship”, by definition, something false.

Achievement of objectives?

It is certainly worthwhile that we examine ourselves, abandon for a time our assuredness about our beliefs, our supposed virtues, and our firmly held opinions on many matters. The IBT course constantly promoted such self-examination. Integrating this practice as a habit is more important than whether or not during the course we discovered imperfections in our beliefs, attitudes or practices. If we do encounter a situation where racism is at work, it is likely that we will be more prepared to speak or act to counter the racism. Such a mindset will also help when trying to convince others of flaws in their beliefs, and most importantly, when we enter a dialogue with others whose minds might be opened to change.

            That said, participants expressed a number of concerns about how and to what extent the course delivered on its central aims:

— Revelations of personal cryptic racism. As presented in MGH, and echoed by the guide, all whites are born with a chronic trauma due to ancestral racism, and for some, this is compounded by a racist upbringing. While cultural transmission is universally recognized, the notion of biological transmission of trauma over many generations is not credible, as discussed in the sections Methods and Annex 4.  Among our group, there were mixed views about the success of self-discovery of covert racism. Some recognized biases they had ignored. Overall, many remain in the camp of “white exceptionalism,” meaning a continuing view that what unfolded in the course does not apply to them in a manner that matters in important ways. Typically, this was simply because through various life experiences, many had already achieved an acceptable purging of personal racism. This suggests that the scope of the course was mismatched with our previous experiences that had raised our states of awareness and improved behavior in situations where racism may be in play.

— Actions to implement in our parishes: some good specific things, not all targeted directly at racism (for example, a method to create new social connections within a parish), and which would benefit those who feel some level of exclusion. Overall, however, the result was a thin set of expressed intentions, and these were not well fleshed out. Perhaps the supplementary final session in the Fall could reveal a wider set of actions.

— Because church services with welcoming congregations may serve as safe and comforting places for some BIPOC, some respondents were concerned that singling them out in any manner may remind them of a separateness, which they might feel or that could be provoked.

Personal objectives.

– A few people said that they would have welcomed integration of theology into the course.

– Triggering of emotional responses. Although most did not experience the expected emotions, a minority was disappointed that provocation of intense emotional responses did not occur.

– A frequently expressed motivation to join the course was simply to continue to learn the history of oppression. Some said they were disappointed that there was very little in the sessions on historical episodes. In all fairness, this aspect was not emphasized in the course objectives.

Critique of method to achieve goals

The main purposes of this report are to raise questions about the suitability of this IBT program for our communities, and discuss its foundational premises, which are centered on aims to reveal covert racism and then effect healing of the traumatic stress engendered by the racist attitudes. A secondary, much less important topic, concerns the methods for healing and their underlying justifications. My understanding of clinically accepted treatments for trauma is no deeper than a few things gleaned from the types of sources I consult for reliable discussions of scientific and medical issues. Some comments and links are in the section on Methods, and will no doubt appear naive to experienced practitioners. A brief summary: It was clear that a primary approach of the guide paralleled that of MGH, yet it was not apparent that this strategy, along with the blanket justification for its need, are well-founded (and see Annex 4).

Logistics and other issues

(Unless noted otherwise, comments reflect the majority of the nine whose comments are represented.)

– Three hour sessions on a weekday evening were felt to be too long.

– Some had wished for more time in the first sessions to get to know each other. Apparently self-description on the IBT website was intended for this, but breakouts would be better.

– Breakout groups: as noted above, participants were often uncertain about what to do, and the breakouts were too brief to develop meaningful back and forth dialogue, leaving no time to respond to statements of others.

– Several echoed a similar frustration immediately after breakouts when we expected some detailed discussion from the feedback of each breakout group. The guide invited a few comments, but she often did not respond, which a minority interpreted as a lack of expected empathy.

– Composition of groups and guides. A minority speculated that such a course, when focused on addressing a white audience, might be better led (or co-led) by a white person, one who had experienced the expected trajectory of the course, with revelation of biases, trauma, healing. This would be consistent with the recognized utility of “homophily”, the similarity bias. While in many contexts prejudicial, it might be preferable in some educational and medical contexts. See an article by experienced guides arguing that white guides may be best for white groups.

There were a variety of views, ranging from asking if such a course on white racism should include any BIPOC participants, to a suggestion that the course should have about half BIPOC and half white. Another suggestion: design a course for community leaders who are well advanced in their anti-racist understanding.

– Representations of Jesus as black: About half: too much time spent on this theme.

– Exercises for relaxation: Nearly all appreciated this, if nothing else as providing a break during the lengthy sessions and the pleasure of relaxing in synchrony with others. However, most did not consider that the relaxation was necessary for the purpose of responding to induced stressful responses, as such responses typically were not experienced.

– Guide’s website – Overall praise for extensive content where much could be learned. A minority gave great praise: a highly valuable component, even beyond the course itself.

– Healing strategies. A minority accepted these at face value without any question.

– Forgiveness exercises. Many “translated” forgive to “understand” as they see ancestors’ views as products of their times. A minority translated this to forgiving the ideas and attitudes as entities. Some appreciated the value of forgiving to “let go.”

– Use of books:  Most read all or most of MAWS or MGH, and many did at least some of the exercises. A few of us read both books. Some were disappointed that the books were never mentioned in the sessions nor chosen as a breakout topic.

– Role playing: Many were disappointed. There was only one exercise with no time to swap roles.

Final comments: key strengths of IBT, and a constant self-undermining risk

The people in this IBT course are all on the side of the guide, desiring to be her teammate in addressing social injustices. Despite this, her professional role was to root out imperfections in potential teammates that would hinder them from becoming top-notch anti-racists. Her efforts and successes in such revelations validate her identity, her roles, and contributions. However, course participants who feel that they are already on her side may feel resentment of such implicit criticism, potentially reducing her effectiveness as a teacher.

            (See Annex 5 for the background of these comments.)

            However, this risk is somewhat outweighed by simply the benefit of the time we spent with issues of racism. As noted in the introductory Summary, none of the nine regretted the time and energy invested in a reflective environment to promote awareness of racism.

The central questions of this report:

Is this IBT course, or a variant a good choice for those congregants who are now prepared to join actions against injustices or to alleviate suffering? 
       No, these goals were peripheral to the course content. 

Is this IBT course is a good match for those who wish to develop practices of self-examination, and possibly of healing, as part of their quest toward joining actions against injustices?
       No, the foundational premises, for example, regarding inherited trauma are not well supported, and the particular techniques presented seemed inappropriate. The central view of participants was that the spirit of the members of our congregations is already at a level of readiness to contribute to fighting social injustices.

Annex 1: Canvas method and validity

Rationale for canvassing: Admission: I was not a faithful student with suggested homework, for example, journaling. So, it would not be in good faith to claim that my views are representative of other participants.

            Several people attended some early sessions and then dropped, for reasons unknown to me. Spectrum of conjectured reasons: From a charitable view: the time investment was not possible with other obligations in their lives, and they stepped out with regret. To a pessimistic view: disappointment with the content of the three hour sessions or the book(s) or absence of essential “chemistry” with the guide or others in the course, or other discomforts. Either way their views could have been solicited, with the caveat that they did not experience the entire course. It seemed preferable to limit feedback from those who attended the full 18 hours (plus homework for many). I did not request comments from people who were associated in some manner with the guide.             In the conversations, I restrained from announcing my opinions. With some, I did give some views, but only after I had listened and noted highlights of theirs. I tried, no doubt imperfectly, to phrase questions in a manner that did not suggest my opinions.

Annex 2. Racial Literacy

Until recently, racial literacy was the core of IBT; racial healing is more recent.
FW Twine, A White Side of Black Britain 2010:  Racial literacy includes:

1. recognition of racism as a contemporary rather than historical problem,

2. consideration of the ways in which race and racism are influenced by other factors such as class, gender, and sexuality,

3. understanding of the cultural value of whiteness,

4. belief in the constructedness and socialization of racial identity,

5. development of language practices through which to discuss race, racism, and anti-racism, and

6. ability to decode race and racialism.

Annex 5. Risk of weakening the guide’s influence

Julia Galef is a leader among those promoting a revival of rationality in private discussion and public discourse. Like IBT aiming at sub-conscious attitudes, Galef urges us to be alert to our universally shared cognitive biases. A central theme in her book “The Scout Mindset” is that we would do well on occasion to “hide our identity”, namely to consider that we should challenge our confidence in our views, and interact with others in manners that reveal this self-challenge. She asks us to assess each of our actions on two axes:

1.  Do they have beneficial or detrimental impacts?
2.  Do they boost or challenge our identity?

She encourages actions with positive effects that also boost both our self-perception and how others see us (and it’s fine to announce these activities, but in a reserved manner). In some contexts, she suggests that we take stances that remove any emphasis on our identity. When we are not in tune with others on certain subjects, if we are able to discover any common ground, and even collaborate with compromise, at least initially, positive impacts can result. Likewise, while trying to convince others to accept our views, we step away from ourselves (“hiding our identity”) by first putting ourselves in their shoes and even seek compliments from them on how well we express their views.

A simple graphic, below, from Galef’s “The Scout Mindset,” illustrates the position of various activities on the two axes. Avoid the upper left sector: With those already on your side, criticizing them when they exhibit or express something less than perfect may further validate your identity, but is likely to have negative impacts.
Unfortunately, the respect for the authority of the guide was eroded for many participants in the IBT course due to occasional explict criticisms, but more fundamentaly, due to the foundational premises of the course, which were out of step with the particpants’ understanding of their current self-awareness and of the character of their congregations.

Annex 3. Other ways to invest effort and resources

When and in what contexts does an increase in the personal awareness of systemic racism matter?

    Suggested texts:

– IX Kendi 2006 Stamped From the Beginning, a history of racist policies and crimes from Aristotle to today. A key message: Racist policies precede development and rationalization of racist ideologies.

– Eric Foner   1988:  Reconstruction : America’s unfinished revolution, 1863-1877

            or Foner’s 1990 condensed:  A short history of Reconstruction, 1863-1877

– Choices of several books on the history of racism and support of slavery in churches.
Example: The Power Worshippers by Katherine Stewart

             – William Barber’s efforts and programs, as one of many examples for actions to counter injustices.

             – Lobby for government policies to improve the plight of the disenfranchised, no matter what race or ethnicity.

             – Green investing. Financial incentives might have more effect to aid disadvantaged people anywhere in the world than the things individuals do as a result of training to reveal implicit biases.

             – Google non-profit division exec – nearly every day doing something for inclusion:

                        Finance the darkest skin training set for AI-driven diagnosis of skin disease.

                        Push for support of public transportation instead of Google private transportation.

             – Applaud efforts by philanthropists who promote awareness, producing relevant documentaries and provide funding, e.g. the Montgomery, Alabama Peace and Justice Memorial of lynchings.

             – Do any of these provide inspiration for what our church could do?

Annex 4. Flawed notions of biological intergenerational transmission of trauma in MGH.

Some MGH content/quotes, often paraphrased, that were presented during the sessions, with comments:

“In the aftermath of highly stressful or traumatic situations, our soul nerve [vagus] and lizard brain may embed a reflexive trauma response in our bodies.” (“lizard brain” is no longer an accepted concept)

“… form of racialized trauma lives in the bodies of most white Americans.”

BTW, blanket statements about “Americans” are inappropriate (especially in today’s polarized US) as North America can be seen as composed of eleven historically rooted peoples, each with differing sets of values and moral foundations (Colin Woodard, American Nations, 2011).

The following observation is reasonable: “…intergenerational transmission” [of trauma originally inflicted on enslaved persons occurs via] “..  families in which one family member abuses or mistreats another, [or].. unsafe or abusive systems, structures, institutions, and/or cultural norms.” [systemic racism, oppression of the disadvantaged]. But MGH boldly claims that “trauma is passed on in our DNA expression, through the biochemistry of the human egg, sperm, and womb.” [and therefore] “This is why white-body supremacy continues to persist in America, …”

Based on numerous lab experiments with rodents, results from the field of “epigenetics” have conjectured that transgenerational transmission of anxiety and elevated stress can occur in humans via mechanisms involving chromosomes modified by molecular decorations that are transmissible for one to several generations. Any substantial contribution by such mechanisms to the well-being of even a single subsequent human generation is now doubted by many in the field, and convincing interpretations of seemingly relevant evidence have yet to appear.

Yet in MGH we find:
“This trauma goes back centuries—at least as far back as the Middle Ages—and has been passed down from one white body to another for dozens of generations. White bodies traumatized each other in Europe for centuries before they encountered Black and red bodies. This carnage and trauma profoundly affected white bodies and the expressions of their DNA. As we’ll see, this historical trauma is closely linked to the development of white-body supremacy in America.”

With respect to events affecting the womb: Yes, chemical toxins or maternal psychological stress can negatively affect a newborn, and lead to chronic persistent afflictions, involving changes in the sets of genes that are expressed, but there is little support that this is primarily rooted in epigenetic changes on chromosomes, and more importantly, little support that such effects would affect a following third generation, if parents were spared toxins and stresses.

Some references:

Quote from Kevin Mitchell podcast The Dissenter 486 June 2021 :
“People like their sciencing terms. Somehow these are used to give an aura of authority. ….. Certainly there are really long lasting serious transgenerational effects through cultural  and psychological means. There’s no need to bring in epigenetics to explain this, or in some way to give it a more sciency feel. It doesn’t need a molecular explanation when there are perfectly good cultural explanations. Epigenetic explanations actually trivializes the real societal and cultural consequences of things like slavery. Those consequences are still felt through viral memes and cultural transmission. You don’t need to reach for epigenetics to justify in some way the idea, or validate the idea that those things are happening.”

Cultural transmission and persistent systemic problems, less prominent in MGH, would more likely be the principal explanations when trauma is documented over many generations. In practice, stress from the systemic problems does not require transmission from a previous generation. Persistence of these problems leads to individuals in each generation becoming traumatized. The book does describe scoring adverse childhood experiences (ACE). Kids in challenged neighborhoods typically have high ACE scores. Attitudes and discrimination due to ACEism are pervasive, but do not always map directly to racism.

Methods of clinical trauma management

Along with the unconfirmed notion that bodies are born with inherited trauma, MGH’s author emphasizes the practices of somatic therapy for traumatic stress, “body work,” approaches that are not yet among those that enjoy the greatest level of evidential support.
A cursory survey in Google Scholar reveals that even the most widely used treatments for trauma, such as cognitive behavior therapy, do not reliably provide positive and lasting outcomes. NEJM, 2017: available at this link.

As in the challenging fields of nutrition and dietary research and recommendations, such absence of good therapies, plus the extreme, if not impossible, ability to conduct robust non-pharmaceutical clinical trials with convincingly appropriate controls and sufficient numbers of patients, invite many practitioners to admirably explore new approaches in their clinics, including recently trials with MDMA.
It is widely admitted by physicians that positive treatment outcomes often involve placebo effects, and that a trusted rapport between patient and practitioner can be essential. This is clearly even more important for psychological interventions. It is not surprising that various strategies to treat PTSD will have some success for many patients, as it is likely that a key factor is that a patient continues to work with a therapist when a good rapport is in place, and, if nothing else, the boost of hope that arrives when a patient is bumped up from a waiting list to appointments with a therapist. Optimistic expectations can go a long way toward perceptions of relief from suffering.

Numerous trauma therapists, who have become key opinion leaders, often with heavy doses of self promotion, have developed “brands” of treatments, with an accent on some central feature such as various types of body work. They praise each other’s books, and in the guise of scientific conferences, assemble to promote their work, in the absence of any critical voices.

In practice, many types of interactions occur in therapeutic sessions, so it is not clear if the promoted core of the brand is the primary feature responsible for any successful outcomes.

Despite the title of the bestseller The Body Knows the Score by B v d Kolk, hinting at a focus on body work as central to therapy, the book highlights numerous other approaches. Many of these address cognitive aspects, such as via role-playing, self-descriptions, cooperative community interactions, some exposure type work, etc. The “somatic” work includes touch, massage, dance and exercise, elements that have documented beneficial effects, whether embedded in a branded practice or not.

A relevant paper:  “Psychotherapies for PTSD: What Do They Have in Common?”
Co-authors are from several clinics in different countries.  “…..a number of evidence-based treatments are available. They differ in various ways; however, …. The currently available empirically supported psychotherapies for trauma survivors have a lot in common.” Commonalities identified by these clinicians include: psychoeducation, focus on emotion regulation and coping skills, memory processes, and cognitive processing, restructuring, or meaning making. The authors accent the importance of the cultures of the therapists and patients and thus “….recommend developing treatments that are tailored to the needs of different patient groups with regard to factors such as age, sex, culture, comorbidities, and type of trauma experience.”
            Even if covert racism were rampant in our communities, it remains uncertain if the healing strategies of this IBT program were suitably tailored to succeed for our group.

A general impression from this brief view of the literature: Patients with the most severe cases of PTSD suffered traumatic physical injuries. Somatic approaches that explicitly address these wounds would seem to make sense, at least intuitively. In contrast, in our particular communities, it is likely highly uncommon to have experienced a physically violent event that contributed to feelings of racism. As well described in MGH and in B v d Kolk’s book, psychological trauma does produce discomfort in our bodies via the autonomic nervous system, with signals conveyed by the vagus nerve. To justify the centrality of body work, the guide promoted the importance of another unsupported claim, “polyvagal theory,” (PVT) which attributes various unfounded roles to vagus nerve circuitry.

            In the wikipedia article for PVT, see references that challenge the bases of PVT.
            In addition to the problems with the science behind PVT, literature descriptions are loaded with incomprehensible language.

The tone of this essay is echoed by Kevin Mitchell, an Associate Professor of Genetics and Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, in an essay on ways to detect unreliable science publications.

Elements in this commentary address the ways that some branded therapies are presented. Mitchell refers to specific examples, including the problems with the credibility of transgenerational transmission of psychological trauma. These problems are also elaborated in Annex 4.