Friday, September 08, 2006

The apples don't fall far from the tree ...

Today is the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary. For some odd reason it brings to mind something I experienced about ten years ago. During my very minor 15 minutes of fame following the publication of Violence Unveiled, I was invited to take part in a gathering of the people who run the world, the powerful, the wealthy, the famous. It was all very heady. I ended up on a panel with Michel Gorbachev, chatting away about how to save the world. Well, you can imagine.

It was pretty clear then, and it became perfectly clear very shortly thereafter, that the conference was where Enlightenment liberalism had come to die, as its capacity to comprehend historical events and exert control over them was slipping inexorably away.

The conference was limited to perhaps two hundred participants, but the grand finale was open to the public and it attracted a large crowd. Dictated by ideological protocol of the most inviolable sort, it was a plenary session consisting of the superstar warhorses of the early days of feminism: Bella Abzug, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan (I think she was there), and I don’t remember who all. Included in the group, however, was Jane Goodall, the English primatologist and anthropologist. The women spoke in turn, each baiting the sympathetic audience with rhetorical flourishes that grew more radical and more hysterical with each speaker. All the clich├ęs were there, punctuated by gales of laughter and applause. (The ironic incongruity of self-designated “prophets” being hailed by a wildly applauding audience was completely lost on all concerned.)

As it happened, Jane Goodall was the last to speak. She rose from her seat, stood ramrod straight and spoke softly and calmly, in complete contrast to the histrionics of those with whom she shared the stage. What she said was something like this (I paraphrase from memory):

As for what my fellow speakers have said: it’s not my area of expertise. I am an ethnologist who has spent many years studying primates in Africa. What I know about is the behavior of apes and gorillas and chimpanzees. What I can say that may be pertinent to this august gathering is this: when one studies the maturation of primates, trying to assess what would appear to be the requirements for successful or “happy” transitions into primate adulthood, it becomes clear that the single most important indicator of healthy adaptation is the quality of care and affection that infant and adolescent primate has received from its mother.

With that, Ms. Goodall sat down. You could have heard a pin drop in this auditorium of thousands of people.

Today, as I said, is the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary. To be fully incarnate, as Christ was, is to be subject to all the viscidities of human existence, one being the enormous influence on one’s life of one’s parents, most especially in the early years the mother’s influence.

All the affection the Church has shown for Mary over the centuries was reflected in the simple, calm words Dr. Goodall spoke those years ago. The great cathedrals of Europe and elsewhere, dedicated as a great many of them are to Mary, testify to the simple truth Jane Goodall spoke.

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