By Charlie Johnston
As things get crazier, living prudent and calm discernment becomes more, not less important. As Abraham Lincoln said in his House Divided Speech in 1858, just over two years before the American Civil War broke out, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.”
Since a whole lot of people who would rather sound smart than actually be smart are making all sorts of absurd claims, here are a few tips on improving normal temporal discernment. First, when looking at a website, if the author does not give his real or entire name, don’t read a word of it. If he has a disclaimer saying that everything there is “one man’s opinion,” don’t read a word of it. He takes no responsibility for the factual claims he makes and is probably just making it up as he goes along. If you fall for this, you make yourself his chump.
Second, you do not need to become an expert to grasp the basic principles of even the most complicated subjects. Once you do get a handle on basic principles, you can ask intelligent questions, posit intelligent theories about the subject, get reasonable explanations for any pieces of the discipline that are genuinely counter-intuitive, and make solid judgments on whether you are getting good information. In 2006 Democrats were touting embryonic stem cells as the miracle cure for everything – and using it to justify abortion and argue that anyone who was against it was a heartless ogre who wanted people to die. I knew nothing about microbiology, but I DID know that all the effective therapies were coming from adult stem cells – and none from embryonic stem cells…that this was wholly a bait-and-switch operation. So I went to work, putting together a concise memo that would help Republicans bat the issue away and, ideally, make it too dangerous for Democrats to keep pushing. I distributed it to some clients and friends on Capitol Hill. It got a much wider distribution than I expected. Several Congressmen later told me that it was that memo that put a dagger in the left’s efforts to promote embryonic stem cell research. One Congressman passed the memo on to a left-leaning woman in his district who was on the Board of Directors of a big research hospital. She got my phone number from him and called to thank me, telling me that her hospital raised money off of embryonic stem cell claims because it was sexy, but many felt guilty because the truth was that ALL the breakthroughs were coming from adult stem cells – and this seven-page memo showed how to make that case clearly and unimpeachably.
Because I was dealing with subjects that I was NOT expert in, I submitted the memo to a prominent Constitutional lawyer, a prominent Canon lawyer, and a prominent microbiologist at a southwestern university to be vetted – to make sure the suppositions I made were accurate before I distributed it. Both of the lawyers concurred that my interpretations of the law were reasonable. The microbiologist offered a minor change in emphasis to me, but no substantive changes. Then, in one of the sweetest unintended compliments I ever got, she casually asked me where I taught. When I told her that I neither taught nor had any formal background in microbiology, she thought I was gaslighting her. Now I had read about a dozen formal pieces on the matter before I put together the memo – but I would have been completely lost in technical calculations. My point is that you do not have to become an expert to make rational judgments outside your area of expertise. We do it every day on things that are important to us. You don’t have to be a mechanical genius to know whether your car is running right or not.
Almost every discipline has an internal logic to it – an internal logic you can grasp and make extrapolations from once you get the basic principles. Then you need an expert or two to help you with those pieces that are genuinely counter-intuitive. I do not suggest you routinely do this, but on something vitally important to your future, you ought to do it…and perhaps develop the discipline of being able to pull up and read raw data. It is not much harder than reading an old-fashioned roadmap.
A shorter way to vet the info you get is to keep tabs on the track record of prior claims made by the entity you are getting information from. I used to keep tabs on CNN. Why wouldn’t I? In the 90’s and early 2000’s it was a great source for breaking news events throughout the world. But now, almost every major claim it makes is proven to be false within about six weeks. Why would I continue to seek information from an outlet that almost always gets it wrong? Are they intentionally gaslighting me or are they just that incompetent? Who cares. I don’t have time for that. They are unreliable in big ways on a regular basis – so I don’t rely on them.
Even on sites that have a great track record that I do trust, I occasionally make random raw data dives to verify what is being asserted. Two sites that I trust almost implicitly are The Federalist for temporal analysis and The Catholic Thing for insight into matters of the faith. It is not because they are pretty or likeable or agree with what I already think; it is because they take care to get it right and consistently stand the test of examination. Pay attention and remember what a site was saying six weeks ago. Everybody gets it wrong sometimes, especially when you publish regularly. Do they acknowledge it candidly and openly when they have erred? If not, flee from them. It is more important to them that you think they are smart than to give you good information. When they are wrong, are they at least in the ballpark – or are they wildly and consistently wrong? If the latter, they are probably living in a fantasy land of their own devising – and you would be well-advised to steer clear of them. Any site that routinely insults dissenters rather than formulating good arguments is useless to me – and to you. They usually resort to insult because they are incapable of coherent argument. Don’t waste time with them.
When I was in politics, I used to advise my clients early on that, “your enemies may wound you, but your friends can kill you.” I was talking, specifically, about the assertions that both camps make. You tend to vet everything your opponents say, but there is a tendency to want to believe every statement of fact your friends offer if it is congenial to your existing mindset…so you can get lax in vetting it. Vet everything.
I know this takes a lot of time. Yet it is a slow day indeed when I don’t get at least 20 long videos and articles sent to me that I just HAVE to read to know the REAL truth. It is a rare occasion when even five of these things pass the basic smell test. So I think to myself, if you have time to routinely watch two-hour hair-raising videos of pure fantasy posing as fact, if you would spend one-tenth of the time you waste on this spiritual and temporal junk food learning basic principles about subjects that are important to you, you would not so easily be frightened or fooled. It is mundane, I know, but is incredibly productive – and helps you to be a sign of hope instead of constantly running around with your hair on fire.
I am utterly disgusted with the multitude of “prophetic” voices that have nothing to offer but fear, itself. To listen to many of them, we are nothing but passive pawns waiting for God to decide whether we are good little pets to be protected or bad little pets to be destroyed. For heaven’s sakes, we are the children of God, made fully a part of the Divine Family by the Incarnation of Christ. We are God’s hands and feet on Earth. Yes, I have said consistently to my Priests in private for a quarter of a century and here publicly for six years that we face a great Storm ahead because of our infidelity. I have also said that the Storm is the outward manifestation of God’s renewal of the faith of the world – and that He calls us to participate with Him in clearing the way for the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart. The Lord has work for us, if we will accept it, and many of us are busy worrying about where we fit in His pecking order. If you want to know an infallible way to determine where you fit in the Lord’s pecking order, go to the Gospel of John 14:21: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
So, bottom line, He calls us to go forth and evangelize effectively so as to bring as many of our brothers to Christ as we can – and to defend the faithful against those who will not relent in persecuting them. He calls us to participate with Him. When we worry about whether we will sit at His right hand or His left, we have lost the narrative entirely (Mark 10:37). I have blue collar sensibilities. All I know is to do my best to tackle the work at hand, right before me, and trust that God is true to His promises. That is all I have ever known with complete certainty. “…we beg you brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.”-2 Thessalonians 2:1-2
There is work to be done. Proclaim the kingdom with conviction and clarity to inspire all you encounter with new hope and new resolve. Acknowledge God, take the next right step and be a sign of hope to those around you. Defend the faith, hearten the faithful, defend the faithful. There is enough gaslighting going on at every level of human endeavor without us gaslighting ourselves. The Lord already told us how to be among His elect in the passage from John I quoted above. What you will get here is commentary and exhortations on how to live that well in troubled times. That is enough.
I am delighted that my friend, Kay Clarity, has finished and released her song, “Star of the Sea.”In ancient times, mariners looked to the “star of the sea” to help them navigate their way safely to port. In these troubled times, Our Lady, Holy Mary, is our sure Stella Maris, Star of the Sea,, to help us navigate the storm safely into the port which is her Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Strife and storms are unending in this world – but the only true never-ending story is the one opened up for us by Jesus Christ, through His cross and resurrection. It opened up the gates of eternity to us, as part of the family. With calm and steadfast hearts, may we share the fondest hope of Our Lord’s heart – that all may be one, that all will come to Him – and let us cast out into the deep to help gather as many as we can for the harvest of heaven.
My friend, Desmond Birch, sent me a fragment from the Rev. Fulton J. Sheen’s Easter homily of 1930. It is well worth repeating here. Though 90 years old, it captures the heart of our aspirations today:
“Sunday morning came, and it was one of calm, like the sleep of innocents, and the clear, benign air seemed almost as if it had been stirred by angels’ wings. Mary walked in the garden and someone near her spoke a word, and pronounced it longingly, wistfully, in that touching and unforgettable voice which had called her so many times: “Mary.” And to this one and only word, she made an answer, a word and only one: “Rabboni.” And as she fell at His knees in the dewy grass and clasped in her hands those bare feet, she saw two scars, two red-lined marks of nails — for Christ was now walking in the glory of His new Easter morn.
“That was the first Easter Day. Centuries have whirled away since, and on this new Easter Day as I turn from that garden to the altar, I behold placed over the tabernacle, on this Resurrection Day, the image, not of a Risen Savior, but the image of a dying one, to teach me that Christ lives over again in His Church, and that the Church, like Christ, not only lives, not only dies, but always rises from the dead. She is in love with death as a condition of birth; and with her, as with Christ, unless there is a Good Friday in her life, there will never be an Easter Sunday; unless there is the crown of thorns there will never be the halo of light; and unless there is the Cross there will never be the empty tomb.
“In other words, every now and then the Church must be crucified by an unbelieving world and buried as dead, only to rise again. She never does anything but die, and for that peculiar reason she never does anything but live. Every now and then the very life seems to have gone out of her; she is palled with death; her blood seems to have been sapped out of her; her enemies seal the tomb, roll a stone in front of her grave, and say: “The Church will never rise again!” But somehow or other she does rise again.At least a dozen times in history, the world has buried the Church and each time she has come to life again. . . .
“It is a strange but certain fact that the Church is never so weak as when she is powerful with the world; never so poor as when she is rich with the riches of the world; never so foolish as when she is wise with the fancies of the world. She is strongest with Divine Help when she is weakest with human power, for like Peter she is given the miraculous draught of fishes when she admits by her own power she has labored all the night and taken nothing.
“When her discipline, her spirit of saintliness, her zeal for Christ, her vigils, and her mortifications, become a thing of less importance, the world makes the fatal mistake of believing that her soul is dead and her faith is departed. Not so! The faith, even in those days of lesser prayer, is solid – for it is the faith of the centuries, the faith of Jesus Christ. What may be weak is her discipline, her prayerfulness, and her saintliness, for these are of men, whereas her faith is of God. A renewal of spirit, then, will come not by changing her way of thinking, for that is divine, but her way of acting, for that is human.
“But the world, failing to make this distinction between the Divine and the human in her, as it failed to make it in Christ, takes her for dead. To the world, her very life seems spent, her heart pierced, her body drained; in its eyes she is just as dead as the Master when taken down from the cross, and there is nothing left to do but to lay her in the sepulchre. . . .
“There emerges, then, from her history one great and wonderful lesson and it is this: Christ rose from the dead, not because He is man, but because He is God. The Church rises from the sepulchre in which violent hands or passing errors would inter her, not because she is human, but because she is Divine. Nothing can rise from the dead except Divinity. The world should profit by experience and give up expecting the Church to die. If a bell had been tolled on a thousand different occasions and the funeral never took place, men would soon begin to regard the funeral as a joke. So it is with the Church. The notice of her execution has been posted but the execution has never taken place. Science killed her and still she was there. History interred her, but still she was alive. Modernism slew her, but still she lived.
“Even civilizations are born, rise to greatness, then decline, suffer, and die; but they never rise again. But the Church does rise again; in fact she is constantly finding her way out of the grave because she had a Captain who found His way out of the grave. The world may expect her to become tired, to be weak when she becomes powerful, to become poor when she is rich, but the world need never expect her to die. The world should give up looking for the extinction of that which so many times has been vainly extinguished.
“Like a mighty oak tree which has stood for twenty centuries she bears fresh green foliage for each new age, that the age may come and enjoy the refreshing benediction of its shade. The flowers that open their chalices of perfume this spring are not old things, but new things on an old root. Such is the Church. She is reborn to each new age, and hence is the only new thing in the world. . . .
“She will go on dying and living again and in each recurring cycle of a Good Friday and an Easter Sunday her one aim in life will be to preach Christ and Him Crucified. . . .To bring the peace of Christ to the souls of our countrymen. There will be no weapons to make that peace an armed peace, but there will be two insignificant instruments used, which have been used from the beginning, and they will be the instruments Our Lord taught His Apostles to use, namely those of fishermen and shepherds. I might say, therefore, we will go on “by hook and by crook” and the hook will be the hook of the fisherman, and the crook will be the crook of the shepherd; and with the hook we will catch souls for Christ, and with the crook we will keep them, even to the end of time; for as fishers of men and shepherds of souls we are committed to the high destiny of making Christ the King of human hearts, and with only the sign of Jonas the prophet, the fulfillment of that destiny can never be doubted, for if truth wins, Christ wins; if truth… Ah! But truth can’t lose.”