Most American presidents, unless they leave office in disgrace, are honored by having airports, schools, libraries, streets, and even whole cities named after them. The city of San Francisco has saluted President George W. Bush in a singular way—by naming a sewage-treatment plant after him.
Of course, this reminds us that the city on the Bay has long since made itself a synonym for disgusting vice. It can hardly insult Bush as much as it has already insulted the great saint for whom it is named. Few of us pause to reflect on that, and on why it was first called as it still is.
The same might be said of many other American cities that in more pious times were given names of religious significance: Providence, Corpus Christi, San Diego, St. Paul, St. Louis, San Jose (and St. Joseph), Santa Monica, Salem, San Antonio, Santa Fe, St. Augustine, San Pablo, St. Petersburg, San Clemente, San Gabriel, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Sacramento, and many others, right down to Hell (Michigan).
Catholics used to name their children after saints; Protestants, after such Old Testament figures as Aaron and Abraham. It was also common to name a child in honor of parents, ancestors, relatives, and patriotic heroes. Today Americans attach little meaning to words and names; hence the amazing profusion of girls named Kimberly, Britney, and Chelsea. (I don’t know of a St. Kimberly, or of an Old Testament matriarch called Britney. On the other hand, the ancient names David, Ruth, Saul, Naomi, Judith, and Solomon are still common among Jews.)
Among the little mysteries of our time is the phrase we now find on so many questionnaires: “religious preference.” Preference? Well, I’m a Catholic, but sometimes, in certain moods, I might prefer to be something else—a Unitarian or a Muslim, perhaps. I like Mormons, but I’ve never been in the mood to be one, even briefly. In Saudi Arabia, I understand, you are seldom asked which religion you “prefer”—the options are severely limited, and you’d better prefer Islam, if you know what’s good for you. Religion is seen in those parts not as a matter of taste, but of truth.
One of the curious results of Bush’s presidency is that a few months from now the United States may have, for the first time, a president with a Muslim name, something few of us would have predicted right after September 11, 2001. For all the wild fervor he has inspired, Obama is a routine liberal whose credo may be summed up in the view that genocide is “right-wing,” whereas unlimited feticide is “enlightened.” The notion that he represents a substantial departure from traditional politics is grimly risible. He enjoys the highest ratings from liberal and pro-abortion groups, differing from others of his sorry breed only in camouflage; insofar as it is up to him, the decimation of the American population, especially the black population, will continue undeflected by this putatively “black” president.
Needless to say, nothing I say against Obama should be construed as implying a preference for John McCain. As the old maxim has it, if God had intended us to vote, he would have given us candidates. As Scott McConnell has noted, “Virtually the entire bipartisan Washington establishment [including both Obama and McCain] now considers it normal that the United States spends as much militarily as the rest of the world combined.” Yes, roughly half a trillion dollars per year—on “defense,” which now means preparations for mass murder. The state’s lexicon is full of words that serve to justify its power: defense, security, safety, protection, health, service. —Has your internal revenue servant come to your door lately?
The American Conservative recently published a thoughtful symposium on World War II, which all its contributors agreed was a needless and disastrous conflict—anything but the “good war” of our official propaganda. Yet none of them raised what I thought was the most obvious objection of all: that it brought us into the age of nuclear weapons.
What does it say about us that we have got used to so dreadful a fact? I am merely asking, not accusing or beating my own breast. What has modern man become? The question invites meditation. Why don’t these apocalyptic weapons give us nightmares?
A really radical politician could outrage left and right by saying what Jesus Himself might say: that abortion and nuclear arms represent the two poles of what Pope John Paul II termed the modern world’s “culture of death.” Political parties are now defined by which categories of human life they regard as expendable. Killing may not exactly be the purpose of politics, but it seems to be the most natural result.
I am always amazed at how many people never stop to ponder the simple truth that government by the state must mean coercion. As Lenin said, the big question is who is going to do what to whom. Just as the art of a stage magician is to make you watch one hand while the other does the sleight, so a skilled politician makes you forget that any promises he makes will have to be kept by force; that is, making A do something for B that he does not willingly choose to do. Obama is the latest master of this dismal game. May he be honored by a hundred sewage-treatment plants.