Tuesday, April 25, 2017


I have just recently read Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. The title plays on the Clinton campaign's mission to shatter what she herself labelled "the highest, hardest glass ceiling," but which instead ended up leaving that ceiling solidly in place, shattering instead both Clinton's and the Democratic party's hopes and expectations for 2016 (meanwhile saddling the country with the Trump presidency). The authors covered the campaign primarily through "background" interviews and a commitment to wait until after the election to go in print. It is interesting to speculate how the book would read had Clinton won (as most observers, including the authors) had once expected her to do!

For all their criticism of Clinton and of her campaign, the authors remind the reader at the outset that Clinton "collected nearly 65.9 million votes - more than any Republican nominee in American history, just 64, 822 fewer than Barack Obama in 2012, and almost 3 million more than Donald Trump. And she did that while facing a set of trials and tribulations unlike any other in American campaign history: a partisan congressional investigation; a primary opponent who attacked her character; a rogue FBI director; the rank misogyny of her Republican rival; a media that scrutinized her every move while failing to get that Republican rival to turn over his tax returns; and even a Kremlin-based campaign to defeat her." 

That is actually quite a lot! Unfortunately, it turned out to be not quite enough. So the book becomes a kind of autopsy of what is rightly called a "doomed campaign."

Indeed, it is striking how pervasive that sense of doom is throughout the book. Hillary herself is described as someone who "over the course of her life, no matter how good things got for her, she was always waiting for the other shoe to drop." And then then there is the staffer's gloomy mantra repeated periodically: "We're not allowed to have nice things."

People who obsess about the sport of politics, which is disproportionately what most political coverage in the media focuses on, will revel in reading about the dysfunctional features of the campaign itself, the conflicts and competition among staffers, all the usual fare of political coverage. And, in its own way, of course, that is interesting. Even more interesting to me is the conflict between two approaches to political campaigning - presented in the book as a somewhat generational divide between politics as "science" and politics as "art." In this account, Clinton's campaign manager Robby Mook personifies the scientific, data-driven approach, while older, more experienced politicians like campaign chairman John Podesta and, above all, Bill Clinton himself personify the more traditional "art" of politics. It was Bill Clinton, for example, more than anyone else, who seemed to appreciate "the transatlantic phenomenon of populist rage."

The account reveals a Hillary Clinton who was superbly qualified for the presidency but who was never all that good at what it takes to win it. It is, I've often observed, one of the curious constants of the human condition that some people are liked no matter what they do, while others just can't pass the likable test, no matter what they do. That this itself may reflect a characteristic weakness on the part of human beings in general - and political electorates in particular - does not make it any less true, even if it does make it that much more poignant.

But, even in politics, being likable isn't everything. Clinton did, after all, still win many more votes than Trump. which ought to count for something. While the book inevitably highlights Hillary's personal difficulties in making herself liked, her campaign's real problems lay elsewhere. 

And there were lots of elsewheres, as the book's account demonstrates. There was James Comey. There were the Russians. And there was the enormous harm done to the Democratic party's cause in 2016 by non-Democrat Bernie Sanders' mean anti-Clinton campaign. (The authors call Sanders' campaign "a character assassination.") 

Indeed, Bernie Sanders' populist attack from the left was largely a mirror image of Trump's populist attack from the right. Recognizing the power of the populist threat was something that "Bill Clinton and the older set within the campaign" perceived much better than others. Hence their (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to move the campaign in the direction of "more contact with voters outside the demographic wheelhouse that created the safe path to winning the nomination."

Herein lay Hillary's greatest failure, the failure to grasp "that Trump had tapped into a vein of the electorate that Hillary couldn't locate - and, just as important, that his much narrower focus within the Electoral college provided a viable path to victory." In Clinton's case, this was especially tragic, because the people she was "doing nothing to inspire" were precisely "the poor, rural, and working class voters who had so identified with her husband."

Hillary had her faults. Her staffers had their faults. But the ultimate fault was what still bedevils the Democratic party as it struggles to find a way forward - a fundamental state of being out-of-touch that has separated the party from its traditional base of support, even as it has sunk itself deeper and deeper into the swamp of elitist identity politics. Fixing that disconnect is, I suspect, imperative if the party is to regain power. Addressing that issue is infinitely more important (and ultimately even more interesting) than the predictable preoccupation with who in the campaign said what about whom!

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Restless Heart Finds a Home

In the proper liturgical calendar of the Augustinian Order, today is observed as the feast of the Conversion of Saint Augustine. Historically, it was during the Easter Vigil celebration in the Cathedral of Milan, on the night of April 24-25, 387, that the 32-year old Augustine was baptized by Saint Ambrose - along with his 15-year old son, Adeodatus, and his lifelong friend, the "brother of his heart," Alypius. (Photo: The Baptism of Saint Augustine by late 14th, early 15th-century Sienese painter Niccolo di Pietro.) Augustine's baptism completed his now famous journey back to the Catholic faith of his childhood (the faith of his mother, Monica) and the beginning of his new life as a Catholic philosopher and theologian, and eventually a Bishop in his native North Africa and Doctor of the Church. 

The charming medieval legend that the Church's great hymn of thanksgiving, Te Deum laudamus, was originally spontaneously composed (each one composing alternate verses) by Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine on the occasion of Augustine's baptism that Easter night in 387 is, of course, just that, a legend. Still, if Saints Ambrose and Augustine had spontaneously composed a hymn of thanksgiving, what better choice than the Te Deum? And who better to compose it that way than those two great Latin Doctors?

The familiar story of Augustine's conversion was recounted by Augustine himself a little more than a decade later in the first 9 books of his Confessions. It remains as compelling an account now as it was then. Augustine's Confessions reveal in thoroughly deliberate detail the character of Augustine's religious experiences and what it means to become a member of the Church community. 

Augustine did not invent autobiography. According to Tacitus, such writing was already antiquitatus usitatum in the Roman Republic. But Augustine's Confessions clearly constituted something different - no mere memoir such as the great (and not so great) commonly compose to justify themselves before their contemporaries and before history. Addressed to God, Augustine's account has God for its ultimate hero. God's grace is at the basis of Augustine's successful journey and leads him to its happy conclusion. It is a totally religious work, and the events recounted - for example, an otherwise apparently trivial theft of pears by an unemployed and mischievous teenager - are included because of their religious significance and emphasized exclusively in accordance with that significance.

Augustine's conversion involved a journey of several years through several different philosophical schools of thought - among them, skepticism, Manicheanism, and, most importantly, neo-Platonism.  But, as importantly, it was mediated through the Catholic Christian community to which he was exposed and toward which he was increasingly drawn. That community was represented in his life by two overwhelmingly signifiant figures - his mother Monica, who represented what we would today call "popular piety," and Ambrose, who influenced Augustine intellectually but also in his ecclesiastical role as a bishop shepherding his community in Milan through its ordinary and some extraordinary challenges, and thus modeling for him the role he too would eventually be called to play in the Church.

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rest sin you (Augustine, Confessions, Book One, Chapter One).

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Saint George's Day

Today, Saint George’s Day, is the Pope’s Onomastico (Name Day). Name days still have a certain resonance in Catholic countries and cultures, and in the Vatican itself the papal Onomastico is annually observed as a legal holiday.

All we know for certain about Saint George himself is that he was martyred in the East at the beginning of the 4th century. He was widely venerated in both East and West long before tradition turned the onetime Roman soldier into a medieval knight. In Rome itself, the second Lenten station - the day after Ash Wednesday - is at the ancient Church of San Giorgio in Velabro, which I have written about before. It is one of those wonderful old Roman churches that I would likely never have gotten to see the inside of, were it not for the venerable Roman tradition of the Lenten stations.

(Saint George is famously the patron saint of England, whose flag is the red cross of St George on a white field. It is thus one component of the UK's "Union Flag" - the combined crosses of Saints George, Andrew, and Patrick. In that form, St George's cross continues to appear on a number of flags throughout the Commonwealth, and on its own the red-on-white cross of Saint George also appears above the shield in Ontario's Provincial flag.)

Saint Peter Damian (1007-1072), praised Saint George as a man who abandoned one army for another, who gave up the rank of tribune to enlist as a soldier for Christ, and who plunged into the thick of the battle, an ardent soldier for Christ.

Medieval tradition portrayed Saint George as a gallant knight who slayed a monstrous dragon. According to Jacobus de Voragine’s famous 13th-century compendium The Golden Legend, George encountered the dragon in Silena in Libya. For some time the dragon had terrorized the town with its poisonous breath. To appease it, the townspeople had sacrificed first their sheep, then their children, and were on the verge of sacrificing the King’s daughter, when George appeared on the scene. George captured the dragon and promised the terrified citizens that he would slay it if they accepted Christ and received Baptism. Unsurprisingly, the king and all the people did so, and George indeed slew the dragon. Before leaving he instructed the king to care for the Church, to honor the priests, to assist devoutly at the Divine Office, and to keep the poor in mind always.

In the Book of Revelation, the Dragon is, of course, the classic image of the Evil One, Satan, the Devil, against whom, as Pope Francis himself has so frequently reminded us, the Christian life is a continuous battle.  

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day 2017

I have always had a certain fondness for Earth Day, perhaps because I can so vividly remember participating in the first Earth Day celebration in 1970 (photo). Back then it was fun (as a lot more things were back then). Now, however, as the calamitous consequences of climate change become more incontrovertibly evident (even as our current government's response to it stands out for its increasing ignorance and stupidity), the occasion seems so much more somber. Certainly the theme for this year - Environmental and Climate Literacy - could hardly be more timely!

Since I started this blogging routine, Earth Day has also served as a suitable occasion to recall - and mourn the loss of - the Church's traditional Rogation Days, which traditionally were observed on April 25 (the "Greater Litanies") and on the three days before the Ascension (the "Lesser Litanies"). I have previously written here [Cuckoo Day April 25, 2012] about the pre-Christian roots of the "Greater Litanies" in the ancient Roman Robigalia festival, one of ancient Rome's significant spring agricultural commemorations.

As I noted back then,  ancient peoples appreciated (so much better than we) their dependence on the natural seasons and the harvest. The change in religion from paganism to Christianity redirected the focus of people's prayers to the true Creator God. But that didn't change their appreciation of their dependence on nature, or their need for a successful harvest, or the catechetical value of ritualizing that on traditional days. And so I also suggested that, in the light of contemporary environmental degradation and the dangers to human civilization posed by climate change's devastating effects, perhaps the bureaucrats who invented our late 20th-century Roman Liturgy may have made a critical mistake in their abandonment of such reminders of our connection - and dependence - on nature. Today's environmental woes (famines, droughts, floods, storms, fires, etc.) and the many social and political crises and conflicts which stem from them wholly or in part seriously threaten our physical world and the human architecture of civilization that has made our planet special. Having been so frivolously discarded half a century ago, the Rogation Days are undoubtedly gone for good, but the case for recovering and retrieving their spirit seems to me to be, if anything, even more obvious than it was then!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Honoring the "New Martyrs"

At 5:00 p.m. Rome time tomorrow, Pope Francis will honor the “new martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries” during a liturgy of the word at the community of Sant’ Egidio’s 10th-century Church of St Bartholomew on Rome’s Tiber Island (la Basilica di San Bartolomeo all'Isola). Founded by Emperor Otto III to house the relics of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, the basilica (photo) is on the site of a former temple of Aesculapius. Since the Great Jubilee of 2000, the basilica has also served as a shrine to the many “new martyrs" of the 20th and 21st centuries.

According to a statement released by the Sant' Egidio Community: "The Pope's prayer in a place, which - since the Jubilee of 2000, at John Paul II's behest - contains the memoirs of contemporary martyrs, takes on a very special significance in these times marked by the suffering of so many Christians in the world and by the light of Easter."

Among the “new martyrs” memorialized on Tiber Island is the French priest, Father Jacques Hamel, who was murdered by two Muslims claiming allegiance to the Islamic State while he was celebrating Mass in his Normandy church on July 26 last year.  At last week’s Chrism Mass the Archbishop of Rouen announced the opening of the Cause for Father Hamel’s Canonization. (Normally there is a five-year waiting period after someone has died before an official Cause can begin, but Pope Francis has given a dispensation from this norm in Father Hamel’s case.) After Father Hamel’s murder last year, Pope Francis identified him as part of a “chain of martyrs … Christians, who suffer today — be it in prison, in death or by torture — for not denying Jesus Christ.”

Last September, the Archbishop of Rouen added Father Hamel's Breviary to the collection of "relics" of these modern "martyrs" that are kept in the Tiber Island basilica. Some of the other mementos of these modern "martyrs" include a missal used by Blessed Oscar Romero, the rock that killed the Polish priest Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, and a letter written by one of the Trappist monks of the Our Lady of the Atlas monastery in Algeria (whose story was told in the 2010 movie Of Gods and Men).

Of course, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen many more who have died for the Catholic faith in addition to those famous figures we have all heard of.