Of Many Things

Last week some boys were rummaging through the attic of a once grand Victorian mansion on Chestnut Place in the old neighborhood. The house had fallen into foreclosure in 2007. They unpacked cartons of hitherto unpublished correspondence between the nephew who owned the house through the mid-1970s and an older uncle who visited very rarely but wrote regularly from all over the world. The letters explored the murky depths of human behavior and the clouds of self-deception that make life seem normal when it is not.

One was written in the summer of 1973, when the Vietnam War was coming to an end and the Watergate hearings were underway, just after the American Indian Movement and federal agents engaged in battle at Wounded Knee and about the time Ian Paisley and his followers broke up the first sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly. There was discontent everywhere, stoked anger leapt into flames in unexpected places, and the highest authorities in the land couldn’t keep what was hidden in darkness from being brought to light.


I share here a portion of one of the nephew’s letters that may offer perspective on this, our latest summer of discontent.

Dear Uncle,

We have a moment of great opportunity. The commotion that was aroused five years ago has entered a new phase. Feelings of insecurity mix with dread anticipation of the powerful tumbling from their heights. Old resentments send the middle-aged into the streets and stir young people to violence; and without reconciliation, the hoped-for settlement of old scores promises only decades more unrest. Vengeance is becoming more and more acceptable under the guise of justice.

Everyman sees television as a blessing; but we both know it will prove a curse. Trivial content will drive out serious fare, and in the absence of moral guidance estheticism will displace the old ways, leaving only raw sensation. Popular culture will be awash in violence. Experts absolve it, saying viewers can distinguish entertainment from reality; but step by step, as our opponents say, souls coarsen. A fascination with the sensations of fine dining will be muddled with the gluttony of pie-eating contests and the hunt for exotically repulsive menus. Musicals will be made of cannibalism; and they will think it smart.

Empathy, that great bulwark of nature holding people back from a war of all against all, withers, to be replaced by endemic rivalry. Not many years hence the game shows of today will be replaced by fantasies of competition plotted with scheming and treachery. Graduates of Jebusite colleges, former Jebusites foremost among them, will make rants more acceptable than reasoned discourse. What a reversal for our relentless old enemies’ fantasy of educating the best and the brightest in service of the neighbor.

Controversy without argument will fill the airwaves. Venting will become commonplace, and ears will “itch,” as our great adversary Saul wrote—we have to give him credit for an exact metaphor—“itch” to hear the latest outrage. Peddling hate will become a religious duty, and what wrong-thinking people take for progress in overcoming prejudice will be reversed. Self-anointed prophets—thank you, Master, for seducing them—claiming “the Spirit” speaks through them, will look everywhere to find others to hate, ostracize and persecute. The Knights of the White Sheets and Flaming Crosses will rise again. Millions will live by rage.

They believe it can’t happen again. “Never again,” they say. But you and I know how it begins.

Your devoted nephew,


This local reporter acknowledges his debt to the boys on Chestnut Place, the late C. S. Lewis and the archfiend Screwtape.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pro-life advocates participate in the annual March for Life in Washington January 2017. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Describing abortion as a “key social evil” in the United States, the Jesuits say: “The most fundamental building block of a just social order is respect for human life.”
America StaffJanuary 19, 2018
Men carry a replica of Peru's most revered religious icon, the "Lord of Miracles," during an Oct. 18, 2017 procession in Lima. Each year thousands of Catholics gather to commemorate the image's survival in a 17th-century earthquake that destroyed Lima. (CNS photo/Mariana Bazo, Reuters)
Father Ernesto Cavassa was provincial of the Jesuits in Peru from 1998 to 2004, and president of the Conference of Latin American Jesuit Provincials from 2005 to 2012.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 18, 2018
For over 45 years, Feminists for Life has been committed to ending the practice and legality of abortion and promoting the feminism of Susan B. Anthony.
Serrin M. FosterJanuary 18, 2018
A President Donald Trump supporter is see seen at the annual March for Life in Washington Jan. 27. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
During their tenure in office, President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush all addressed the march via telephone or a radio hookup from the Oval Office.
Catholic News ServiceJanuary 18, 2018