Cucumber Time

Our title today does not refer to harvesting longish green vegetables from the garden. Cucumbers came in weeks ago (in the D.C. area, rather poorly this year because of hard rains.) No, the phrase is an older way of referring to the “Silly Season,” the time in summer when politics and other activities die down temporarily, at least in theory. Reality hasn’t exactly followed the theory this year. (See: Afghanistan, COVID, the U.S.—Mexico border crisis, spiking murder and crime statistics, wildfires, hurricanes, Latin Mass scuffles, clerics on GRINDR, etc.) Things are so somber on so many fronts at this rag end of Summer 2021 that to call these days “silly” would be an insult to wide swaths of acute human suffering.

But there is a sense in which this season is still “silly.” Another feature of Cucumber Time – again in theory – is that the lack of serious events is supposed to drive the media to invent virtually weightless “news” stories to fill space. There’s much of real consequence to write about these days, but our ever-ready MSM has maintained the most sacred elements of the Silly Season, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

It’s no secret that MSM basically stopped being “news” outlets the past few years and turned into highly partisan outlets – mostly of a liberal/left bent. They’ve turned passing political matters – parties, elections, movements like BLM, Critical Race Theory, even vaccinations and face masks – into quasi-religious crusades. So, in some respects, it’s welcome relief when they engage in “silly” stories.

The Wall Street Journal – one of the lesser offenders, in partisan terms – took a deep dive into a burning topic this weekend: “What makes us love the pain of hot peppers?” I confess to having a strong and longstanding personal interest in the matter. But I’m sad to report that the author of the article, after wide consultation with a panoply of experts in various fields, concludes that the “science” on the subject doesn’t seem “settled.” Some maintain that, like so much else that doesn’t make sense, it must serve some evolutionary purpose. (Darwin, forever!) Others argue that we just like the chemical buzz. So, here’s a thought. The National Institutes of Health fund many marginally “scientific” studies. They’ve paid for putting shrimp on treadmills, studied “why bowlers smile,” for one reason or another. Studying the mystical attractions of hot peppers would be a sound practical use of taxpayers’ dollars.

The Washington Post, by contrast this weekend, took a more serious subject – threats to democracy and civil society worldwide (Afghanistan, Myanmar, China, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Belarus, and more) – and managed to turn it “silly.” No mention of Islam or Communism or other toxic ideas, just a list of places where generic “governments” generically “threaten” people. But it saved the silliest sting for the tail: “An urgent goal for President Biden’s democracy summit in December is to identify practical measures to reverse this trend and lend support to the courageous people on the front lines of the fight.”


You didn’t know that this gabfest was scheduled? Or that it might achieve so much? The Post refers you to the White House announcement of August 11 – unfortunately, just before the troubles in Kabul, when staff claimed that the president “has rebuilt our alliances with our democratic partners and allies.” And seems to believe that the claim about the president was or might sometime in the future actually be true.

In the spirit of bipartisanship, let’s stipulate that a utopian proposal like this – a dozen countries in two days! – by Republicans would be equally silly.

But perhaps the silliest story of this season appeared in the Gray Lady: The New York Times. I’ve been trying to take brief vacations from the news the past few weeks and missed this until I saw a “news” story about the Times’ story in Italy’s equivalent of the NYT, Corriere della Sera. (Foreign media pay undue attention to our American news, even at its silliest.)

At Harvard, the new chief chaplain on campus now is an atheist – or more accurately a Jewish man who has “studied theology” but doesn’t believe in God (though he does value things “spiritual”). According to the Times, he was elected to his post by the unanimous vote of the 40 chaplains at the university. His chief qualification seems to be – in the words of another chaplain – that he’s “known for wanting to keep lines of communication open between different faiths.”

That’s a supreme value in many liberal precincts. There’s some question whether that can really be the case, however, because he himself has said, “We don’t look to a god for answers. . . .We are each other’s answers.” Which stance would seem to cut off at least some “lines of communication,” not only with other chaplains but a good number of students who don’t regard themselves as one another’s saviors.

And a jaundiced eye might look at the recent history of the various forms of secular humanism around the world and object that its “answers” turn out pretty bad. But in this silly season, the Times shows little interest in investigating any of this.

Harvard’s current motto is Veritas (“Truth”) – earlier Veritas pro Christo et ecclesia (“Truth for Christ and the church”). The American Catholic novelist Walker Percy once remarked that Harvard hasn’t been anywhere near “the truth” in years. Percy died in 1990, a good thing, since he’s been spared the chin-pulling rationalizations of this latest, silly jousting with truth.

Many young people now are Nones (no religious affiliation). Chaplains must, of course, deal with that fact. But atheistic Nonery leading a “chaplaincy” at our most prestigious institution of higher learning (with others likely to follow) makes little sense, and strains the ordinary meaning of an otherwise sound English word.

There’s still a week until Labor Day, seven days of “Cucumber” Time in which to entertain one another with our endless human capacity for amusements. After that, we’ll all get back to very serious business. Or will we?


*Image: Still Life with Cucumbers, Tomatoes and Vessels by Luis Egidio Meléndez, 1774 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.