Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Madame Speaker Says NO to SOTU

The State of the Union message is a constitutionally mandated obligation of the President to report to Congress (intended by the Constitution to be the pre-eminent and more representative branch).  The Constitution's Article 2, Section 3, commands that the President “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The message is a mandate. The address is  not. The address - an American version of a royal Speech from the The Throne - goes all the way back to George Washington, but was subsequently discontinued by Thomas Jefferson, finally being revived again a little more than a century ago by Woodrow Wilson. Its inherently monarchical style invests our (stylistically at least) republican government with welcome dignity and gravitas, however much the applauding and jumping up and down on cue may detract from that dignity. And, in the hands of an effective communicator who appreciates the symbolic power and resonance of the occasion, it can be a formidable political tool.

Whether for the State of the Union or any other comparable occasion, however, when the President comes to Congress to address the elected representatives of the American people, he comes at their invitation - an invitation freely extended by the Speaker and, apparently, withdrawn by the present Speaker in the context of the current partial government shutdown. Indeed, would not the pomp and pageantry of a State of the Union seem somewhat incongruous with so many departments of the federal government incapacitated and so many of those charged to guarantee the event's safety and security scandalously unpaid?

The media has done a credible job of highlighting the pain of so many workers and contractors whose day-to-day livelihoods and long-term prospects have been jeopardized by the Trump shutdown. It has been somewhat less effective, perhaps, at highlighting the wider social damage the Trump shutdown is doing and at creating a corresponding sense of urgency about resolving it. Skipping the SOTU show may help to accomplish both. The President may not appreciate the meaning of missing a paycheck in the life of a TSA agent or a member of the Coast Guard or anyone else who can't just ask one's father for a million-dollar loan. But he appreciates TV and surely knows what he would be missing. 

Of course, he can find other options to speak his message, but any alternative would inevitably lack not only the regal pretense but the unifying, ostensibly non-partisan pretense which is integral to the State of the Union's efficacy as well as its charm.

Personally, I like ritual and ceremony. As a citizen, I appreciate their immense value and the value of tradition and continuity in keeping society going from generation to generation and bonding a common community from disparate individuals. For all its flaws (e.g., the above-mentioned "applauding and jumping up and down on cue"), the State of the Union ritual is a valuable symbol of our identity as a nation that both embraces and transcends the short-term politics of the any particular present moment. Yet this is, as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said "no ordinary time," and perhaps nothing would more immediately demonstrate the damage this presidency has done not just to our short-term politics but to the values of our nation than canceling Trump's SOTU show.

Monday, January 14, 2019

On the Basis of Sex (The Movie)

On the Basis of Sex is a dramatization of the life and early career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones). It starts in 1956 with Ginsburg as a first-year student at Harvard Law School. When her husband Martin, a second-year student, falls ill, Ruth attends both her classes and his, takes notes and transcribes lectures, while caring for both Martin and their infant daughter. Martin recovers and becomes a successful tax lawyer in New York, while Ruth transfers to Columbia to take care of her family while finishing law school. Those who know her story (or who saw the documentary RBG) already know how important her family has been for her and what a successful relationship she had with her husband, all of which this film does a good job keeping in focus.

She graduates at the top of her class, but is unable to find a job at a law firm because none are willing to hire a woman. Instead, she takes a job as a professor at Rutgers Law School, and teaches "The Law And Sex Discrimination." In 1970, Martin brings a tax law case to Ruth's attention - the case of a Denver man denied a caregiver tax deduction because Section 214 of the Internal Revenue Code limited that deduction to "a woman, a widower or divorce, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized." Ruth sees this case as an opportunity to challenge laws that assume that men will work to provide for their families, and that women will stay home to care for their husbands and children. Most of the movie is taken up with her preparation for this case and her Argument at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

As the film ends we learn that the appellate court found unanimously in her client's favor, that she went on to co-found the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU, and in 1993 became an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, confirmed almost unanimously (something almost inconceivable today). The final scene shows the actual Justice Ginsburg walking up the steps of the Supreme Court building.

Although the oral argument scenes attempt to create some suspense, we know the outcome, and so there really is no suspense. The film focuses our attention on her determination and persistence (against seemingly incontrovertible odds) to bring the Law in step with the rapidly changing character of gender relations in contemporary society. It does so while effectively portraying Justice-to-be Ginsburg's actual real-life circumstances and family challenges, which themselves mirrored that changing society.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

An Important Debate for American "Conservatives"

Everybody (well, no, not everybody, but a lot of the people who make noise) has been talking about Tucker Carlsons's infamous "soliloquy." Since he is not someone I am in the habit of watching or listening to, I only gradually became aware of what Carlson had said, as more and more outraged "conservatives" came forward to defend the sanctity of their beloved "free market" and "personal responsibility" (the latter applying more often than not  mainly to the poor and middle classes but not to the high-roller recipients of federal bailouts in 2008 and other forms of government largesse over the years).

Actually, however, the contretemps Carlson initiated is important. It highlights the longstanding cleavage in American "conservatism" that has finally borne fruit in the Trump phenomenon. For decades now, "conservatives" have advocated and the Republican party has attempted to implement policies that have supported and reinforced the privileged status of those in society's upper reaches, usually at the expense of those below them in the social and economic hierarchy. Since such a program is hardly ever likely to appeal to any normal electoral majority, its proponents have had to appeal precisely to many voters who are definitely downscale in the social and economic hierarchy, appealing to them on "cultural" issues, appeals often tied to racial and religious resentments. As David Frum famously wrote: "The Republican party was built on a coalition of the nation's biggest winners from globalization and its biggest losers. the winners wrote the policy; the losers provided the votes" (Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, Harper Collins, 2018, p. 36) .

In important respects, the Trump victory could be interpreted as the "losers" overthrowing the "winners." In Frum's picturesque portrayal: "While the party elite coalesced upon more immigration, less secure health coverage, and one more Bush, the rank and file were frantically signalling: less immigration, better health coverage, and no more Bushes."

As the Republican party has been forced to rebrand itself as a Trumpist populist party, some "conservative" spokesmen have inevitably paralleled the process on the idea side. Hence Tucker Carlson's "soliloquy." What was significant about Carlson's speech - and what has provoked so much "conservative" angst - was his expansion of his cultural critique into an explicitly economic one, somewhere "conservatives" and Republicans more commonly resist going.. A Ross Douthat write in Sunday's NY Times, Carlson went "from a critique of liberal cosmopolitanism into a critique of libertarianism, from a lament for the decline of the family to an argument that this decline can be laid at the feet of consumer capitalism as well as social liberalism."

Now such arguments are not new, of course, not new at all. They have been a staple of old-fashioned, "romantic," traditionalist, "Tory," and often Christian conservatism, which typically laments these developments. And they have been inherent as well in Marxist analysis, which generally applauded such developments as sweeping away older restraints on the way to ultimate human liberation. What is unusual is hearing such arguments in the context of American market-oriented "conservatism" (which is, of course, an American adaptation of what is more commonly called classical liberalism). Seeing a certain type of American "conservative" arguing as Carlson has - or being forced to respond to him - is refreshing. 

If nothing else, this argument is voicing and translating to a more serious venue some of the concerns that lie at the heart of contemporary "populism" - both in the U.S. and elsewhere. If those concerns are ever to be adequately addressed, and if the movement that has voiced them is ever to be a positive force, as opposed to becoming mainly a vehicle for racism and bigotry, then more "conservative" thinkers need to preoccupy themselves with those concerns. And the existing "establishment" of "conservative" thinkers needs, therefore, to recognize that the 1980s are long gone and start re-thinking its inherited agenda.  

Just as the American Left has had to come to terms with the fact that there are actual problems that public policy and government action cannot completely resolve, likewise the existing "establishment" of "conservative" thinkers needs to recognize at long last that public policy and government action are absolutely necessary to address successfully American society's social, economic, political, cultural, and moral wounds - and will be, if anything more necessary in the aftermath of the Trump era.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

"The President Has Chosen Fear"

Among my childhood memories from the early years of television were the occasional presidential addresses televised from the White House. Perhaps the most famous (because the crisis was so acute) was President Kennedy's October 1962 televised Oval Office Address at the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But such solemn speeches were already a nation tradition going back (in my memory) at least to President Eisenhower, who addressed the nation on critical occasions, for example, when he sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the court order integrating the high school there. 

The memorable thing about such speeches was their solemnity. The President spoke from his desk, as we were reminded at the end when the invisible voice of the commentator would conclude by saying something like. "You have been listening to an address by the President of the United States. The President spoke from the Oval Office in the White House in Washington. And now, our national anthem." 

Times have changed - not necessarily for the better. Presidents have changed - likewise. 

After almost two years in the White House (during which his party controlled the Congress but never gave him his "wall), President Trump has finally attempted to make his case using this old-fashioned method, perhaps hoping that the very formality and presidential dignity, which he has repeatedly eschewed and even mocked, might come to his assistance on this occasion. Certainly sitting at his desk and speaking calmly and from a prepared (and presumably vetted) text represent an improvement in his presidential style. Yet, masquerading as a Presidential Address was something that in the end still seemed really more like a campaign speech. (In this, it was not unlike the contrast between traditional presidential visits to troops in war zones and Trump's Christmas campaign speech in Iraq.)

"Border security" is a sensitive issue. Like the proverbial motherhood and apple pie, hardly anyone is against it. In fact, contrary to the impression the President tried to give, both parties have supported improvements in border security. But the debate about "border security" (as opposed to the actual reality, which is less controversial) has to some extent become a a surrogate for the debate we should be having as a society about how best to respond to differing perceptions about present and future immigration, which is both an actual reality with complicated social consequences and an emotional symbol for feelings about societal change.

As a nation, we have repeatedly failed to address both immigration's actual and symbolic dimensions in recent decades, each failure to enact comprehensive immigration legislation leaving the situation more challenging for the country over the long term. The result has been demagoguery in place of rational debate, and increasingly inhumane and ineffective governmental actions.

Had Trump been more like a more traditional politician, he would probably be remembered for having highlighted many Americans' increased anxiety about immigration's impact, and he would probably have succeeded in getting credit for increasing "border security" in return for bipartisan negotiation and agreement on other sensible policies, such as DACA, etc. All of which could have been accomplished without the absurdity of a partial government shutdown and all the human suffering and social harm that has accompanied it.

But, as Speaker Pelosi pointed out accurately in her response, instead "the President has chosen fear." 

As a result, refugees and immigrants have been the losers. Federal employees have been the losers. Citizens who depend on specific government services have been the losers. In the end, democratic constitutional governance has been the loser, along with morality, common sense, and the standing of the United States.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

We Three Kings

Entering our church today, you will have noticed an alteration in the nativity scene, in which the shepherds have been joined by the magi. (In the actual story, of course, the shepherds came and went on the same day and so were long gone by the time the magi arrived on the scene.) 

In the United States, sadly, Epiphany often seems more like some sort of vestigial postscript to Christmas, which itself has become a vestigial postscript to Black Friday, Christmas shopping, and Christmas Eve. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older even than Christmas itself, and it still ranks as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. And this year, we even get to celebrate it on its traditional and proper day, which means we really had 12 Days of Christmas this year!

In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day. Epiphany in the East is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the formal and visible beginning of his mission as an adult. Here in the West, we postpone the commemoration of Christ’s baptism until next Sunday, focusing today almost exclusively on the story of the magi.

Who were the magi? The title “magi” suggests that they were wise, learned men, maybe Zoroastrian priests, probably from Persia, perhaps astrologers. Beyond that, however, we really know next to nothing at all about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings), nor even their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as three, which in time came to represent the three then-known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe - and the three ages of human life – youth, maturity, and old age).

We may be very curious about such matters, but Matthew’s Gospel tells us none of these things. It does, however, tell us what it is important for us to know about the magi.

First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, that is, Gentiles, pagans. As such, they represent the majority of the human race – past and present – in a world in which (as we just heard from the Prophet Isaiah) darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples [Isaiah 60:2]. In other words, the magi had only human, natural knowledge, and sought, as Saint Paul said in his famous speech to a pagan audience in Athens, the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone [Acts 17:24-25]. Pope Benedict XVI called the pagan magi “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age.”

But, next, the account also tells us that, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, for the whole story our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world. It tells us that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself not in astrological signs but in the history of Israel. Thus, it was to Jerusalem, Israel’s holy city, that the magi came to learn the full significance of the star – a meaning revealed in the Jewish scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah prophesied in today’s 1st reading: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance [Isaiah 60:3].

By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him – troubled, not overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? Then as now, the same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities.

And then there were the chief priests and scribes whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. So none of them did the obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did!

Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!

And another warning of what happens when supposedly religious people put their trust in tyrants, when they ally themselves with unworthy political rulers in order to acquire or retain political power or influence in society. Not for nothing does Psalm 146 warn: Put not your trust in princes. Then as now, supposedly religious people, like those Jerusalem chief priests and scribes allied with Herod, presumably knew the words of that psalm, but they totally and tragically missed its point! They remind me of something Reinhold Niebuhr wrote 50 years ago about clergy who get too close to unworthy political figures "It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties."

The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. “The Christian life,” Thomas Merton once wrote [March 3, 1950] “is a continual discovery of Christ in new and unexpected places. And these discoveries are sometimes more profitable when you find Him in something you had tended to overlook and even despise. Then the awakening is purer and its effect more keen, because He was so close at hand.”

The magi set out as authentic pilgrims and so found what they were seeking – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage, the homage due to a true king. In the traditional Roman liturgy, for centuries when these words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was required to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi.

As for the magi, we never hear anything about them again. We know only that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem, so to speak, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay put in Bethlehem, any more than the earlier arriving shepherds did. Instead they went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before; but, thanks to what they had experienced, they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we like the magi must also be different now from whatever we would otherwise have been.

Every January, after the holidays, we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary activities – at home, at school, at work, whatever and wherever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been.

Long before there were funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual date which the Roman Liturgy assigned to announce the date of Easter and other important dates in the coming year, thus putting the entire year and all of human time in its proper perspective.

None of us, of course, can even begin to foresee what this new year will bring, whether for better or for worse. Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain and challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to travel with the magi – to go on pilgrimage with then to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us, first, to Christ, and, then, thanks to Christ, on that new way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being invited to find and to follow.

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 6, 2019.