Calling Their Bluff

Faith draws on far more resources of head and heart than the formal reasoning that flashes through our frontal cortex can account for. Religious sentiment and habits of piety formed in early life can lay down trails we will endlessly retrace in future decades. Conversely, pieties denied us when we were young will be harder to imbibe when we are old, like foreign languages. When the Church finally gets around to reversing the liturgical abuses of the 1970s, and today’s middle-agers learn to kneel for Holy Communion on the tongue, it will feel distinctly strange — off-putting, as the new, more honest translation of the Novus Ordo Mass is sure to prove. This is all to the good; anyone who gets run off from the Sacrament because he has to pray it in reverent language, and humble himself to receive it, shouldn’t.

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Youthful habit has its impact, if only because it lays down all manner of neural pathways in the brain — and modern neurology backs up Aristotle on the structure and power of habit. (For a ringing endorsement both of free will and Aristotelian ethics, pick up the marvelously readable The Brain That Changes Itself.) It’s the prayers we used to drone as eight-year-olds at morning novenas in Catholic school that still bring tears to my eyes. As a kid, I had no clear idea what it meant to call Our Lady the “mother of the Word Incarnate.” In fact, what I deduced was that the Virgin Mary had coined a new word — “incarnate” — much as a Channel 9 announcer had coined “the Amazing Mets.” I wondered just why her neologism was so impressive, but the fact that we repeated this prayer on our knees in a cavernous lower church while incense swirled around us told me it was indeed a very big deal — and I made it my business to find out why some day.

Growing up Catholic in the 1970s, I developed all sorts of religious associations, some of them better than others. For instance, at the “folk Masses” to which my parents would drag me — held in our school’s dingy lunchroom — I was puzzled by some of the sacred songs the guitarist pleaded with us to sing, such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Scanning the lyrics in vain for their religious significance, I remember reasoning: They were full of florid imagery, seemingly made no sense, and we were singing them in church, so . . . they must be from the Old Testament, like all that other weird stuff we recited. Ah, with what joy we’d intone those Responsorial Psalms:

“O Lord, you anoint us with the oils of Bashan, as you slew the trolls of Niffleheim.”

O Lord, you anoint us with the oils of Bashan, as you slew the trolls of Niffleheim.

I wondered who was this “B. Dylan” fellow who’d written some of our songs. I figured he must be some obscure church composer, the 1970s precursor to “M. Haugen.” So I really was shocked to find out, many years later, that after making his start penning folk hymns for Mass, Mr. Dylan had made quite a career as a singer/songwriter. It’s nice when Christian artists can break out of their ghetto.


Of course, since I grew up in the Diocese of Brooklyn under the late, great Bishop Francis Mugavero, I was steeped in two other core aspects of lay Catholic life: Annulments and illegal gambling. Rather than reinvent the roulette wheel, let me steal from one of my rambling memoirs of adolescence:

I told [the alumnus interviewing me for Yale] how at that time in Queens, the diocese made up its deficits by holding all-night, high-stakes poker games at Catholic grammar schools. The Irish cops wouldn’t crack down on them, so the games metastasized, and soon filled up every parish in driving distance. And my mother attended so many, that to this day when I hear phrases like “St. Sebastian,” “St. Rita,” “Most Precious Blood” and “Corpus Christi,” my first thought is: Oh crap, another poker game. We’ll be eating Spam again this week.

All this took place in the late days of the long-lived, much-loved . . . Bishop Francis Mugavero — who died in 1991 with a spotless record: He’d never turned down an annulment.

I described how the cafeterias at schools from Astoria to Glendale filled up three nights per week — including Fridays in Lent. On one of these sacred evenings, when the priest who sold the poker chips started handing out bologna sandwiches, my mother rebuked him: “It’s bad enough you’re having this game two days before Palm Sunday,” she rasped. “And bad enough that I’m here. But now you’re serving us meat?” So the pastor stood up and gave every poker player in the room a “special dispensation” to eat his sandwiches.

This youthful exposure to compulsive, sacred gambling had its effects: I’d sooner saw off a finger than buy a scratch-off lottery ticket, and I still gag at bologna sandwiches. And I learned from Mother Church’s poker games about the psychology of bluffing. This frequently comes in handy in my intellectual life and political writing, since — as I’ve learned — the more confident someone appears in his position, the more likely it is that he:

a) hasn’t thought it through and considered the real objections;

b) has soaked in his ideas through mindless social osmosis, via sound bytes on NPR or Fox News, or from alarmist e-mails forwarded to him by his cousin;

c) has taken this position to suit his personal interests, social aspirations, or party loyalties; and

d) will respond to thoughtful criticism by digging in his heels, impugning your motives, and accusing you of lying.

In other words, such people are bluffing, and the key thing is to line up all your cards and call them on it. Not that it will persuade the genuine blowhards — given original sin, that’s typically too much to ask for. But calling the bluff of bloviators may well help innocent third parties see through their smokescreens and open them up to alternate arguments. There are many, many issues on which people are bluffing and need to be called — and over the next few weeks, I’ll be trying this exercise on advocates of feminism, multiculturalism, Christian/Muslim “dialogue,” and open borders.


But for today let me pick up one hand that sits there on the green felt poker layout that is today’s intellectual life — and slip you, dear reader, a couple of high cards under the table. Today, let’s think about climate change — the subject that gets leftist filmmakers in England so excited that they fantasize about blowing up small children who resist them.

If you get in an argument over global warming, chances are you won’t get anywhere — since even the world’s leading experts can’t seem to agree. You don’t have the time to track down all the arguments. And anyway, math is hard. So here’s a ready response to ecological alarmists who are using an open scientific question as a pretext to confiscate huge chunks of Western wealth through schemes like “cap and trade.”

It might seem the prudent thing to bend over backward, just in case the climate alarmists are right. We do only have the one planet. But you remember past hysterias — like the “new ice age” feared by President Jimmy Carter, mass starvation in the 1970s thanks to “overpopulation”. . . and how about those guys you know from the homeschooling gun show who were so spooked by Y2K that they built survivalist bunkers and stocked them up with 20 years of canned food and ammo? Some of those families are still eating those franks ‘n’ beans.

So call the alarmists’ bluff. Tell them you’d be happy to accommodate their fears by passing a “carbon tax.” All emitters of carbon into the atmosphere — from coal plants to soccer moms driving to work — would pay a tax on their activities. This would make less polluting energy sources more competitive. Hybrid cars might start to appeal as something more than a purchased purple heart. Better still, weaning ourselves away from oil (which is running out someday anyway) will cut into the tottering piles of cash we send fundamentalist Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, which they spend building terror-friendly mosques in western Ohio.

Unlike cap-and-trade plans, a carbon tax wouldn’t offer sweet deals to fatcat companies, or benefit filthy factories in China and India (which are, of course, exempt). There’s just one problem with it: It’s a tax. For it to have any hope of making wind farms or hamster treadmills viable alternatives to oil, it would have to be a pretty stiff tax, too.

By now, your ecologist friend’s eyes should start glazing over, as he dreams of giving more food-stamps to illegal aliens for use at organic co-ops. So — and here’s the kicker — to keep the carbon tax from becoming crippling, it would have to replace other taxes. The policy-wonky term for this is “revenue neutral.” Every dollar the government took in from the carbon tax should be cut from income or property taxes, across the board. That way, you should explain, the carbon tax isn’t being used merely as pretext to redistribute income and grow the government. No, it’s tightly focused on actually saving the planet. At this point, your friend will likely throw his Prius into reverse. He won’t take the deal — which will prove he was never serious about “global warming” in the first place. He just saw this crisis as an excuse to annex large chunks of the economy — which is what you suspected anyway.

On the other hand, if the person you’re talking to takes the deal, and agrees to offset carbon taxes with other tax cuts, that tells you he is intellectually honest. At that point, it’s worth listening to his other arguments, and each of you might learn something from a frank and sincere exchange. The key is to get him to lay all his cards on the table.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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