Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"The World's Most Dangerous Man" (the Book)

One doesn't need to read Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough:: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (Simon and Schuster) to know that private wealth is bad and that being rich is what we commonly used to call "a near occasion of sin." To know that, all one needs to do is read scripture and listen to Jesus's words, which repeatedly made that point (a message much of modern Christianity has forgotten or ignored in favor of other subjects on which Jesus had much less to say). Nor need one read her book to wonder whether the present President of the United States may well be what his niece describes. That said, her book helpfully amplifies the picture we already have.

What would otherwise be a biography based on insider family gossip, in the hands of  a niece who is also a qualified clinical psychologist, becomes a psychological portrait of President Trump by a relative who combines her direct firsthand family experience with clinical analysis. Unsurprisingly, when one family member turns against another in this way, there is a inevitably some sad family history in the background and some element of getting back at others in the clan. The author herself acknowledges worrying about this: "I concluded that if  spoke publicly about my uncle,  would be painted as a disgruntled niece looking to cash in or settle a score." Mary is the daughter of Fred Jr. (the President's older brother) who is presented as having been badly broken down by his domineering father, Fred Sr. (the patriarch of the family business, the son of the successful immigrant Trump from Germany who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic). Mary's father famously left the family business to become a pilot, but eventually became an alcoholic and lost this job and his marriage and died at 42. It was Uncle Donald who lived up to his father's brutal expectations and was amply rewarded for it, whereas, when Fred Sr. died, Fred Jr.'s children (the author and her brother, Fred) were excluded from his will. This in turn led to the litigation which led to the supposed non-disclosure agreement, which was the basis for the Trump family's efforts to stop her book. 

Trump's pathologies, if that is what they are, have been on public display for decades. This sad story about horrible rich people, once salacious local entertainment for New Yorkers, has acquired world-historical significance because of the unlikely election of Uncle Donald as president in 2016. It is as if the HBO series Succession's story of how one mean old capitalist damaged all of his children - but most especially the son who most desperately sought to please and succeed him - has come to life off-screen. As someone once said to me about the family drama of another problematic New York politician, Why does anyone bother to write fiction?

I understand what the author is attempting, but personally I would probably have preferred less psychological jargon. Sometimes I felt I was taking a tour of the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 finding every diagnostic category that could be applied to the Donald.  At the outset she assures us he meets the "nine criteria" for narcissism. Frankly I find all that clinical diagnostic language almost numbing, whereas the actual story she tells is so raw that the ultimate tragedy of it all almost tells itself. (The psychological approach does, however, add intriguing insights - such as her view that Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Mitch McConnell all "bear more than a passing psychological resemblance to Fred," Donald's father.)

It is a sad, Succession-style story of family dysfunction (facilitated by wealth), which has allegedly left the author's uncle "incapable of growing, learning, or evolving, unable to regulate his emotions, moderate his responses, or take in and synthesize information." We have become more than usually accustomed to political tell-all books by observers of this Administration. Here the President's public presentation mirrors the family story - in Mary's words turning "this country into a macro version of my malignantly dysfunctional family." This book brings us inside the story, and invites us to survey the many cracks in the family portrait. 

The author quotes an article calling her uncle "Frankenstein without a conscience," but then applies that to the President's father, who is in many ways the ultimate villain in the story. - "a high-functioning sociopath" who "seemed to have no emotional needs at all." The damaged son in turn damages the entire nation, his niece argues. "The atmosphere of division my grandfather created in the Trump family is the water in which Donald has always swum, and division continues to benefit him at the expense of everyone else. It's wearing the country down just as it did my father, changing us even when it leaves Donald unaltered. It's weakening our ability to be kind or believe in forgiveness, concepts that have never had any meaning for him."

If Fred, Sr. is the villain, the victim - or, rather, the main victim, inasmuch as everyone is is a victim to some extent - is the author's father, Fred, Jr. ("Freddy"), whose unhappy life story is retold in all its tragic detail, whose father simultaneously told him "that he had to be an unqualified success and that he never could be." Slowly but surely, the second son replace his older brother as the center of their father's world. "Fred accepted Donald's arrogance and bullying - after he actually started to notice them - because he identified with the impulses."

While much of the story of Donald's rise may be familiar, his niece effectively dismantles any mythology of merit, making it very clear how much Donald depended on his father - not just his father's money but his political and other connections. As for minor members of the clan, Mary uses their deference to their father's preference for Donald to illustrate the same sycophancy that establishment Republicans would eventually come to display. 

The sad story of the fight over the will and the medical insurance just highlights what we, of course, already know. "If your only currency is money, that's the only lens through which you determine worth."

The moral of the story? We knew that already. Private wealth is bad, and being rich is what we commonly used to call "a near occasion of sin."

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Seeding the Good News in a Bad News World

A sower went out to sow [Matthew 13:1-23]. How many times have we heard this particular parable? One of my teachers used to be fond of citing that familiar opening line to illustrate how we have become so accustomed to hearing certain parables that, when we hear a familiar line like that, we assume we already know what follows and how it is going to end, and so tend to tune out the rest – which, of course, is one of the very things this parable may be warning us against!

Having lived virtually all my life in cities, parables about famers sowing seed sound somewhat exotic to me – and, maybe even somewhat strange. What exactly is the farmer doing? Why does he sow his seed in such a helter-skelter way? Of course, Jesus’ actual hearers – the original audience for this parable - would have understood. Israel’s arid climate and rocky soil are not very farmer-friendly. Finding in advance the pockets of good fertile soil, with the limited technology available to traditional agriculture, would have been be very difficult - and inefficient. Throwing the seed all over the place may mean a lot will be wasted, but it probably guarantees that some will fall on good soil and take root and produce fruit. So what may seem like inefficiency to us turns out to be really quite efficient indeed!

Jesus uses this familiar fact to say something about how God produces fruit in the world, reaching out to us with extravagant generosity, recognizing that maybe not everyone will respond – or, having responded, really persevere. Even so, he reveals himself as widely as possible, in many and various ways. He does that because that is who God is and how God acts – and how he expects his Church to behave in imitation of him. And that is why God’s extravagant generosity invites such an extravagantly faithful response on our part – producing fruit as much as a hundred-fold.
We talk a lot in the Church nowadays about evangelization as the essential mission of the Church. Perhaps we talk too much about it, if in fact all we do is talk. We honor and celebrate the great missionaries of the past who travelled to India and Japan like Saint Francis Xavier or from France to Canada like Saints John de Brebeuf and Isaac Jogues or from Spain to California like Saint Junipero Serra in search of pockets of fertile soil in which to plant the Gospel.

But we do have to travel to far off mission lands. One of the most challenging realities about contemporary Catholic life in our own country is that for every new adult member who responds to the invitation to join the Church, some six or more leave. If we Catholics constitute at present a somewhat shrinking 20 percent of the national population, at least another half as many or more Americans describe themselves as “former Catholics.”

Well before the pandemic took over our lives, Sunday Mass attendance was declining dramatically. And, since 2000, Catholic marriage rates are down almost 50%, infant baptisms are down 40% percent, and adult baptisms more than 50%.
So, wherever we turn, we meet not only those who have never yet heard the Word, but also those who have heard it and forgotten it, and also those for whom the Good News isn’t news at all, or (even worse) those who have heard it in a way which has made it sound more like bad news than good news.

As American Catholics we need to examine our consciences concerning the ways we have allowed the good news to be heard as bad news by so many in our society. Like the farmer in the Gospel, we are commanded to continue to reach out as God does – sharing our story in every possible way, without preconceptions or preconditions, undoing whatever bad news has gotten in the way with the amazingly good news of God’s extravagant generosity.

As the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, once wrote, in a letter to Orestes Brownson: “If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them.  The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true, permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds.  But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.”

Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 12, 2020.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Reason for Notre Dame

I still remember where i was when I heard of the tragic Notre Dame fire on the Monday of Holy Week one year ago. Like many others I applauded President Macron's commitment to rebuild the great cathedral. He created some anxiety, however, with his hint that he favored some sort of "contemporary gesture," something neither the cathedral nor the contemporary world is in any further need of!.

Apparently, his commitment to a quick reconstruction - in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics - may have been decisive in protecting the cathedral from those who want to replace its spire with something more modern. (There have even been proposals suggesting a swimming pool on the cathedral's roof!) According to the announcement made this week, it seems the cathedral's reconstruction will respect its original medieval Gothic design - and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc's 19th-century Gothic spire, which replaced the original medieval one, which had been removed in the previous century.

It is obviously appropriate to build modern buildings in modern styles. If there is a problem with modern architectural styles it is not that they are modern but their style - or lack thereof. However one responds to modern architecture - and there are obviously many different examples of modern architecture from beautiful to bland to ugly -  it is not some modern building that is being reconstructed. Nor is Notre Dame just another example of medieval beauty, of which there would remain many in the world even were Notre Dame not to be rebuilt. More importantly, Notre Dame expresses a medieval cultural and religious sensibility, the loss of which has made modernity more impoverished than most moderns may willingly acknowledge. It is a sensibility which needs to be experienced, in the ways in which such a medieval building is intended to be experienced, in order to fill some of the void that sadly stands at the heart of modern experience.

I don't typically quote Rod Dreher, but what he recently wrote ("Weird Christianity," May 20, 2020) about his first encounter with Chartres Cathedral expresses something of what a church like Notre Dame is meant to do - and still can do even in this cold and soulless age:

"It wasn’t until I stumbled into the Chartres cathedral at age 17, on a tour group, that I was confronted by a form of Christianity that overwhelmed me. Nothing in my life in small-town America in the late 20th century had prepared me for the grandeur of God made manifest in that Gothic cathedral. What kind of Christianity inspires men to build this kind of temple? That was probably the first time in my life that I was truly struck by awe, in the old-fashioned sense. I remember standing there, in the center of the labyrinth, looking all around at the stained-glass windows, the arches, and the vaults, thinking, 'God does exist — and He wants me'.”

That is why it is so important that places like Notre Dame be rebuilt and maintained. That is why the real Notre Dame - not one with a "contemporary gesture" - is so very needed now, as much as it was back in 1345, maybe even more so.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The Challenge of Retrieving the American Founding

American audiences applaud King George III's bravura performance in Hamilton. But however much we may sing his song and secretly wonder whether what he was saying would turn out to be the truth, we all know who is going to win and whom we are supposed to be rooting for. After the Revolution, the Loyalists largely left, and there was really no one left to challenge the fundamentals of the founding consensus. 

According to the common view that Louis Hartz famously formulated in 1955 in The Liberal Tradition in America, the U.S. had no feudal past and hence no French-style social revolution - and no Tory-like political party to propose alternatives to the established Liberal consensus. Americans might be federalists or anti-federalists, Republicans or Democrats, but they are all classical Liberals at heart, all operating within the commonly accepted liberal republican consensus.

And how could it be otherwise? Without a monarch and a shared history of centuries of common experiences and values, with what could this new nation hold itself together, especially as more and more people from all over the world with all sorts of different historical experiences kept joining? It had to be some sort of common civic identity rooted in a common consensus based on the foundation the founders had laid.

The one conspicuous exception was, of course, the ante-bellum South, whose slave-owning ruling elite fancied themselves faux aristocrats and self-consciously developed a distinctly anti-Liberal ideology in order to justify slavery and eventually secession. But that exception was eradicated - at least in theory - by the Union victory in the Civil War.

Another philosophical framework that might have offered a somewhat more subtle alternative to ideological American Liberalism - focused less on the individual and more on social solidarity and the common good - might have been Catholicism. But the Catholics who immigrated to America for the most part knew next to nothing about such ideas. And what Catholics came to care most about politically was becoming as American as possible - Catholic Americans but primarily Americans.

So there never has been any significant ethical and philosophical foundation on which to build American society other than the founding narrative. It may be flawed, but all narratives are  at least to some degree. Think of the French Republic’s famous history textbook, taught throughout the French colonial empire, which began its narrative with the words Nos ancêtres les Gaulois (" Our ancestors the Gauls").

The issue then is not inventing some new national narrative, as 20th-century totalitarians tired so hard to do. (That they were notoriously unsuccessful was evident, for example, in how much about the Soviet State could be best explained by remembering Russia.) The issue is rather how to retrieve our already very powerful and attractive national narrative with some mix of honesty and inclusion. A musical like Hamilton is admittedly entertainment, but it is also a powerful and effective exercise in civic education, which attempts to retrieve the founding narrative in an accessible and inclusive manner.

Retrieving the founding narrative in an accessible and inclusive direction differs from destroying or undermining that narrative. That (ironically) is what our present president seems intent on doing, not only by his undermining of traditional American liberal political norms but by his thoughtless identification of that narrative with its ideological enemies, the Confederates whose statues and flag he is so ridiculously defending.

The same could be said of the other extreme for which vandalizing statues and symbols seems a substitute for serious engagement with the  removed issues at hand. Of course, Confederate monuments should never have ben erected, ere eventually erected with malevolent intent, and should certainly be promptly removed. But vandalizing statues of other historic figures is a largely pointless exercise which substitutes exhilarating destruction for the harder work of constructing something new. The structures that actually do need to be undone are such social evils as over-policing, zoning laws and other policies that maintain residential and educational segregation, a distorted health care system that spends more than other nations with poorer outcomes, etc. Such efforts at political and social reconstruction would be best undertaken within a common commitment to the long-term promise of the founding narrative and would in turn renew that narrative for a better national future.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

SCOTUS Gets It Right on the Electoral College

Ever since the disastrous elections of 2000 and 2016, in which the candidate rejected by the popular vote received a majority of the electoral college vote, there has been increased dissatisfaction expressed about our electoral college system. It is not quite clear how best to reform or replace it, what form of direct popular election would work best, or what its unintended side effects might be. But there is probably a considerable consensus that the present system should at least operate the way we expect it to - with electors voting for their party's nominee. That's what we presume will happen when we call the election in November, a full month before the electors actually cast their ballots.

Apparently the Supreme Court agrees with this common expectation. According to yesterday's unanimous decision in Chiafalo v. Washington, states may (as 32 states plus DC now do) require electors to vote as expected and also (if the state chooses to) sanction them if they don't. By 1832, every state except one (South Carolina) had switched to popular election of electors, and the system we have since come to take for granted has assumed that the electors will vote as expected. Citing an earlier precedent, Justice Kagan's opinion allows this "long settled and established practice" to have "great weight in a proper interpretation of constitutional provisions" - in this case the provision allowing states to appoint electors  "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct."

Undoubtedly, it was the intent of the Framers for electors to exercise their own judgment. They would, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations." Already by the election of 1800, however, the political party system had developed to provide that "information and discernment" for voters.

There were several so-called "faithless electors" in 2016. What on election night in November had seemed like a 306-232 win for Trump turned into a 304-227 tally - not enough to alter the expected result, but certainly one additional discredit to our system (in trouble enough already).

Making it more likely that that the system will work the way we expect it to may be small consolation to the increasing number of Americans who no longer want a system which works in effect to disenfranchise so many citizens and which twice in two decades has produced a president rejected by the majority of voters. But surely improving that system should not depend on the arbitrary caprice of individual electors displaying even greater contempt for the will of the voters. That much, at least, we should all be able to agree on.