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The veteran Catholic editor A. E. P. (Ed) Wall begins his Easter message: “Jesus Christ, whose name is heard in careless expletives by the vocabulary-challenged in TV and film, we know you as Eternal.” He’s on to something.

The status of a language determines the status of a culture. And contemporary culture seems less capable of dealing with what words like Jesus Christ and God really mean. In the old catechesis Catholics categorized bad language as vulgar (“Hell,” “damn” and bathroom expletives), profane (“God damn it!”) and obscene (the F word, etc.). But now we can hear “Jesus Christ” on television talk shows—“Jesus, Christ, I was so drunk that night that…”—or on subway cars—“Jesus Christ, who does he think he is?”


And “O my God!” has been twittered down to “OMG,” which simply signals astonishment, indignation or ridicule. Words that traditionally have reached out in prayer—“O my God, save me from this situation”—are trivialized to express passing annoyance: “OMG, my hair is a mess.”

What can be done? Not much, formally. It would not help for the bishops in concert to condemn vulgarity, profanity or even obscenity, as if all expletives were sinful. God is not hurt. But we are. When we diminish the full meaning of sacred words, we diminish ourselves and cut ourselves off from our meanings.

Teens and Torture

According to an American Red Cross study, almost 60 percent of U.S. teenagers think forms of torture like waterboarding and prolonged sleep deprivation are acceptable; and more than half approve of killing captured enemies when the enemies have killed Americans. How do we explain this streak of brutality?

First, it is in the air and in our homes. The dominant American moral philosophy is not Christian, with its emphasis on human dignity and forgiveness. It is a primitive utilitarianism: Whatever works for me is O.K. to do.

Second, it is in the streets. From schoolyard bullying to gang protocols to fraternity initiations, the assumption is that force rules: Break the code and we break your neck.

But the pervasive influence is the media. The “torture porn” film genre: teenagers in an old house are terrified and dismembered by a bloodthirsty killer. A video game ends with the enemy’s guts spread on the pavement. In eight seasons of “24,” the ruthless “hero,” Jack Bauer, who tortured even his own brother, killed 266 people onscreen to protect us from “terrorism.” Clearly “24” was in the spirit of the Bush era, which made torture integral to national policy, arguing the old “ticking bomb” scenario despite international law and the testimony that torture never works.

But for those young people who have not been taught much morality and have seen films where severed heads go flying in a purple splash of gore, torture is “cool.”

Anthropogenic Apocalypse?

At a conference in Copenhagen on May 4 about Arctic warming, scientists stressed that people at all levels of society need to be concerned about the “anthropogenic” impact on the environment. It is just that they would rather not put it in those exact terms. James White, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, urged the conference’s crowd of nearly 400 scientists to use simple language when communicating their latest research to the general public. The U.S. climate scientist Robert Corell suggested substituting human-caused for words like anthropogenic so that the basic message gets across more clearly: increasing greenhouse gases will adversely affect the earth’s climate.

Recent projections reported at the conference are cause for alarm and increased urgency. Melting ice in the Arctic will increase global sea levels by five feet within the next century, a projection higher than previously thought. The rising waters could cause billions of dollars’ worth of damage, not to mention displacement of people, particularly the poor, who lack resources to relocate or rebuild. As it stands, the world is not on track to handle these changes.

While getting the message out is extremely important, speaking more clearly about the problems faced is only half the battle. The global community must move from debate and discussion to collective action, quickly and decisively, with an emphasis on curbing the use of fossil fuels. If we do not work harder to conserve energy, we put the most vulnerable people on our planet at risk. Plain and simple.


As Others See Us

In an interview with The Times of London, the renowned biblical scholar and retired Anglican bishop N. T. Wright has struck out at the killing of Osama bin Laden as an act of U.S. exceptionalism. “America is allowed to do it,” he said, “but the rest of us are not.” President Obama, he continued, “has enacted one of America’s most powerful myths, the vigilante executing ‘redemptive violence’ against a notorious outlaw.”

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C Walter Mattingly
7 years 8 months ago
Here America overlooks the possibility that some/many of these teenagers whom it claims support waterboarding (does America include in this group the hundreds of American troops still routinely waterboarded in the current administration in the same fashion as the 3 terrorist murders were in the former administration, or only the latter?) are among the many Americans who don't believe such waterboarding is torture at all. They may object to torture; they just reasonably conclude this isn't an example of such.
They may reasonably be deemed less obtuse and brutal than our editors are quick to condemn them for being.
It would be interesting to ask this group that didn't object to scaring unarmed committed terrorist murderers by waterboarding them, in the manner we do our own troops in training, in a (successful) attempt to have them reveal their current plans to murder more American civilians, causing them no physical or psychological harm in the process, if they considered shooting a captured unarmed terrorist murderer in the head on the spot to, what-keep safe those same innocent American citizens?
Deanna Hebert
7 years 8 months ago
I'm having a little trouble here.  It seems to me there are three issues to respond to, not one.

Has our culture become comfortable with using God's name in vain and what we used to call "coarse language".  Yes, it has.  If the question here is why, we must look toward our tolerance to many things changing.  Do mother's and father's tolerate abhorrent and rude behavior from their children, lack of respect in attitude and clothing AND vocabulary?  You bet.  Have our churches done the same?  Absolutely.  Do the television programs we allow in our homes add to this behavior?  Without a doubt. Here the question to me becomes, who's in charge?  Are we teaching our children as tiny ones respect not only for us as parents, for their teachers, their Parish Priests and their fellow man, but also for themselves?

To me the next issue is related to the first.  Once again, how well do we respect and teach that respect our mother earth?  Let's quite messing around here.  For these two issues I will tell you what my children know.  When I see a child out of control in a grocery store, wearing inappropriate clothing - especially in Church - using foul language or treating someone else with disrespect or violence my only comment is, Where is your mother?!!

The last issue to me doesn't relate to the first two at all.  War is what it is.  Our family has the honor to say we have served this country in every single military action since the Revolutionary War.  We have protected the rights of Americans to use foolish language, to express their personal opinions and to live freely in this fine country.  A Navy Seal team dealt with Ben Ladin, not the CIA.  Whole different realm of reality.  

You know what?  At my great old age of 59 with many wonderful grandchildren looking to serve their country and a son-in-law in Afghanistan right now, this tolerance nonsense is getting on my very last nerve. 
7 years 8 months ago
I always thought when Patton's Army charged toward Hitler The British always admired our American "Exceptionalism" as they suffered from his rocket attacks on London during our generosity of the American lend-lease program.
We killed a tyrant then and we have killed one now. Each caused death to innocent population.
Our General Sherman of our Civil War fame said most clearly war is is hell... We must engage in acts of war to further prevent it.
Sometimes bullets replace ethereal thoughts.
Ana Blasucci
7 years 7 months ago
Teens and kids, especially boys, have always thought such things as military operations, executions, explosions, torture, etc., are "cool."  An unfortunate but transient condition.  They, we, grow out of it, absent some clinical mental illness.  Perspective is gained, and appreciation of suffering.  It all happened well before video games and personal computers, when Lawrence Welk still enjoyed good t.v. ratings, and when the most violent thing on t.v. was an old-fashioned detective drama with no bad words.
Don't be over eager to find things for which to be morally outraged at your fellow Americans (remember the title of your publication).  Sometimes you turn over a rock, and all that's under it is soil.
Worse, though, is your characterization (for which I truly would like to know the source) of the prevailing American moral philosophy as a "primitive utilitarianism."  Primitive, no less.
You lot are well versed in citing statistics, but have you ever met any people?  It seems that the most common denominator of American moral philosophy is a Judeo-Christian-Deist decency, prioritized to where ones' self interest is seen to when not interfering overmuch with that of others, but which attention turns to others' needs in time of trouble. 
Look at the American responses to crises, at the national, state, local, and individual levels.  And of course, this philosophy is built on by those adhering to a full faith.
It might be time to bring in a guest editorial board for a few issues, until the current one can decide whether it has become jaded, and, perhaps, a bit snarling. 


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