Monday, July 8, 2024

Democrats in Crisis, Democratic Crisis


A year or so ago, someone tweeted, “God gave Democrats hands so they could wring them in political anxiety. They should consider using them, for a change, to applaud.” Until recently, I largely shared that view. There is, indeed, a lot to applaud. Joe Biden has been an extremely consequential president - more successful than any of his recent, more charismatic predecessors, probably the best president in my lifetime since LBJ. His historic accomplishments deserve plenty of applause. That said, however, the issue facing the Democrats right now - and facing democracy right now - has changed.

The Democrats as a party have a challenge, which they themselves claim is to save democracy as we have known it. That democracy is in crisis right now as it has not been since our 19th-century Civil War, and salvaging it right now will require a robust campaign on the part of the Democrats. Yet the Democrats themselves now appear to be in a crisis as to how to proceed going forward.

It seems increasingly likely that President Biden, despite all that he has accomplished, will be an ineffective messenger, ill equipped to conduct the campaign that needs to be conducted. This is obviously regrettable. It is at least arguable that he is still quite competent to serve effectively as president. But being president and getting elected president are two very different full-time jobs, which require somewhat different sets of skills. As JFK supposedly said, the first job of a good president is to get elected. It appears increasingly unlikely that President Biden will be able to do that this year.

That may be an unfair assessment. It is certainly unfair that so many voters don't credit Biden for his accomplishments. But, fair or not, it seems increasingly unlikely that the President will be able to conduct the vigorous campaign that needs to be conducted to defeat the opposition. My impression may be wrong. The much wiser analysts and pundits who are saying something similar may also be wrong. But betting on Biden at this point in the crisis of democracy may just be too great a risk to take, if any other alternatives appear available.

“If the Lord Almighty came down and said, ‘Joe, get outta the race,’ I’d get outta the race. The Lord Almighty’s not comin’ down,” an apparently defiant President Biden famously said in a recent interview. his interlocutor, George Stephanopoulos said in response, "I agree that the Lord Almighty’s not gonna come down.”  Actually, God can make his will known in a multitude of ways -  including (more normally) through ordinary experience (e.g. aging and illness) and the shared human wisdom available through the good advice offered by others. 

Better, perhaps, to leave God out of this discussion! For the issue is not, as Biden seems to be suggesting, being morally convinced that he is doing his best, but rather what is actually needed and called for in this present crisis situation. And that is a strong candidate who can prosecute the case in a vigorous campaign.

"Strong and wrong beats weak and right," Bill Clinton famously said in 2022. Against his "strong and wrong opponent," Biden's "weak and right" posture risks losing not just the White House but down ballot as well. What is required is an upgrade to "strong and right," which at this point almost certainly requires another candidate.

An LBJ-style withdrawal from the race would be a patriotic, public-spirited cap to a distinguished political career and could allow the Democrats the novel opportunity to have a good, old-fashioned convention at which they come to a consensus on a ticket and emerge united and energetic - an exercise in party democracy in an effort to salvage American democracy.

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Dr. Fauci's Journey


Had the covid pandemic never occurred, Dr. Anthony Fauci’s career would still have been highly consequential, but I suspect many of us might never have heard of him. He might perhaps still have written a memoir, but most of us might never have read it. But the 2020 covid pandemic transformed him, in his own words, into “a political lightning rod—a figure who represents hope to so many and evil to some.” The result is that his already consequential career became even more so, and almost everyone has heard of him, and many more will - and should - read this memoir. 

Dr. Fauci was born on Christmas Eve 1940. His parents were first-generation Italian-Americans. His pharmacist father, of Sicilian descent, was a graduate of Columbia University. His mother, of Neapolitan descent, was a graduate off Hunter College. The Faucis lived in Bensonhurst and later in Dyer Heights. Anthony experienced the delights of growing up in a close-knit Italian family and attended Catholic school taught by Dominican sisters and then Regis High School in Manhattan, New York's "most academically elite Catholic high school, run by Jesuit priests," who "provided an atmosphere steeped in intellectual curiosity and academic excellence," where he studied Latin and Greek and played on the basketball team. rom Regis, he went on to the Jesuit-run Holy Cross College in Massachusetts, then "nationally known as one of the top premedical programs among Catholic colleges, or for that matter among any schools in the country." He entered Cornell Medical School in 1962 and calls medical school "one of the happiest, most fulfilling periods of my life." Fauci clearly feels good about his background and formative experiences and uses this memoir to highlight "code of service to others instilled in me by my parents, followed by the 'Men for Others' theme of Regis High School, strengthened by my experience with the Jesuits at Holy Cross," all of which "culminated with the extraordinary medical training at Cornell." After graduation, he went to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), doing research and seeing patients in infectious diseases and clinical immunology. That set the stage in turn for an extraordinary career, which eventually earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2008. After a year back in New York York as chief medical resident, he went to NIH as the head of his own laboratory "doing basic and clinical research on the interface between infectious diseases and the human immune response" - providential preparation for the eventual HIV/AIDS crisis, which is the overall preoccupation of the second part of the book.

Our obsession with the present might tempt a reader to skip from Fauci's formative experiences directly to his encounter with the covid pandemic which pushed him into such a position of prominence. But it would be a mistake to skip over his important earlier experiences - especially his experience in responding to HIV/AIDS (which also includes his account of meeting and marrying his wife). In the early years of the AIDS crisis, Fauci famously became a target of activists, who perceived that the federal government was failing them ACT-UP's Larry Kramer famously wrote I call you murderers: An open letter to an incompetent idiot, Dr. Anthony Fauci.” Kramer's "rationale for the attack," Fauci acknowledges, was that he "had not demanded enough money for AIDS.” In fact, Fauci "had requested from Congress and the president the largest increase in resources given to an NIH institute since the famous ‘war on cancer’ in the 1970s.”

Yet, even while ready to defend much of his record, Fauci found the attacks a learning experience. When activists protested, Fauci made a crucial decision to meet with some of the demonstrators. “This was the first time in anyone’s memory that a government official had invited them to sit down and talk on equal terms and on government turf.” As a result, the activists “played an increasingly important role in shaping my thinking and policy in these areas.” This in turn led to an expansion of the availability of experimental treatments for AIDS beyond the traditional confines of clinical trials. "Word spread quickly that I was someone who cared about them and that I was willing to be an advocate for them in dealing with the faceless bureaucracy of the federal government."

Dr. Fauci's career continued, and he got to see HIV go from death sentence to manageable chronic disease (at least in the richer countries of the world). After the HIV/AIDS crisis came other challenges. By chance, he was in Manhattan on "the Day the World Changed" (September 11, 2001). The preoccupation with global terrorism, in turn, highlighted new challenges and dangers - among them, Ebola and Zika. Those stories are not uninteresting. But, by now, my guess is that most readers will be eager to move on to the climactic final episode of Fauci's pubic health career, which began famously in early 2020. 

Already in January, Fauci "had the sense that something large and frightening was on the horizon." Very soon, he "became the de facto public face of the country’s battle with the disease." This proved problematic when, for example, the advice one mask-wearing was changed. "People associate science with absolutes that are immutable, when in fact science is a process that continually uncovers new information." As a result, Fauci explains, "as new information evolves, the process of science allows for self-correction."

Although Fauci's focus is on the pandemic and how he and his colleagues responded to it, there is no way of avoiding focusing on Donald Trup's role. "I think," he writes, "Donald Trump thought that COVID would be temporary: a little time goes by, the outbreak is over, everyone goes back to work, and the election cycle can begin. He could not have imagined that the pandemic would go on for such a long time. I believe this explains why he repeatedly asked Deb, Bob, and me whether COVID resembled the flu. He desperately wanted the pandemic to disappear just as flu does at the end of the flu season." Gradually, Fauci came to understand, "that even though a contingent of bright and dedicated public servants filled the offices of the West Wing and the Executive Office Building, this was not the White House I had known since the Reagan administration."

Eventually, Fauci would become identified with the political opposition to Trump. "The problem, of course, was that while millions of Americans appreciated or admired me, a hard-core group saw me as a nay-saying bureaucrat who deliberately, even maliciously, was undermining President Trump. They loved and supported the president and regarded me as the enemy." Trump, meanwhile, increasingly tried "to wish away COVID with solutions that had no scientific basis." Moreover, being identified so widely with the opposition to Trump took a personal toll in the dangers and threats that he and his family faced.

Looking ahead, Dr. Fauci warns "new pandemics will certainly emerge in the future. This is why it is so critical to prepare for the unpredictable, or, as I have often said, expect the unexpected." More than some impending public health disaster, however, he worries "about the crisis of truth in my country and to some extent throughout the world, which has the potential to make these disasters so much worse. We are living in an era in which information that is patently untrue gets repeated enough times that it becomes part of our everyday dialogue and starts to sound true and in a time in which lies are normalized and people invent their own set of facts."

In other words, the divided, polarized society we have become, a development he got to observe more up close and personally than most of us.

“At times, I am deeply disturbed about the state of our society,” Fauci writes near the end of his book. “We have seen complete fabrications become some people’s accepted reality.” If this “crisis of truth” persists, the effects of future pandemics will be much worse. 


Friday, July 5, 2024

The UK Election


To no one's surprise, the Leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer has been summoned by the King to form a new government in the wake of his party's landslide victory in yesterday's election. (The UK just conducted an election campaign in exactly six weeks. Why can't the US do something similar?)

The Labour landslide (412 seats in the House of Commons, a 170-seat majority) had been expected. The corresponding catastrophic shattering of the Conservatives had likewise been expected. In the last General Election in 2019, the Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats against a severely weakened Labour Party. If nothing else, these results confirm the volatility of the electorate and how quickly things can change in a democratic polity.

British politics are British politics, not American or French or anything else. One cannot uncritically extrapolate the results of one country's election as directly reflective of politics in other places. But there are, I think, some obvious observations one can make. 

In France, voters seem to be voting rightward, in Britain leftward. What both have in common appears to be an anger against the government in power. This is obviously not the best time to be an incumbent seeking reelection, which may (in part at least) explain some of President Joe Biden's poor poll numbers, which were already problematic even before last week's debate. There seems to be a kind of generic anger among voters reflecting the widespread perception that things are not going well, that people are not doing well, at least not so well as they should, at least as well as should perhaps be expected in our prosperous society - and that the established parties have repeatedly failed to address those popular anxieties.

All over the "West," voters seem angry and willing to turn in whatever direction promises change of some sort or other. Indeed, while the Conservatives clearly lost in Britain, Labour's vote share was not some magnificent improvement on its perilous performance. Instead, many votes apparently went to other parties and "Independents" - including the new radical right Reform party and a smattering of far-left, pro-Palestinian Independents. (The one part of the UK where Labour seriously increased its vote share was Scotland, to the well deserved detriment of the Scottish Nation Party. Labour'sScottish resurgence was a welcome vote for the Union.) Turnout among voters was also low, which may send its own ominous message.

Again, political trends are not directly transferable from one national context to another, but the widespread (and in many instanced well justified) anger of voters at currently ruling elites has to be acknowledged as a critical factor in the current US campaign - and perhaps the biggest challenge to preventing a Trump restoration. US Democrats would do well to tone down their counter-productive obsessions with identity politics and focus more forcefully on ordinary people's concerns.

Thursday, July 4, 2024

Our Unhappy Birthday


It is usually claimed that just one-third of the colonists actively supported independence in the Revolutionary War. Unlike our poll-driven contemporary society, it is really hard to know. On the other hand, we do have some sense about how many of our countrymen may be feeling today as we, somewhat unhappily, celebrate our 248th birthday. 

Of course, most of us are really happy to have won life's lottery and to have been born in this country. The multitudes from all over the world who have immigrated here - and continue to do so at this time  - are the most effective testimony that this is still in so many ways the place to be. (I remember how one of my immigrant uncles practically used to tear up during the National Anthem.)

That said, however, there are a lot of Americans for whom the "American Dream" does not seem to have been fulfilled. Rage and resentment have replaced politics for many, who have found an alternative to patriotism in nationalism and an alternative to true religion in political Christianity. As Marilynne Robinson has written, resentment "is what anger becomes when its legitimacy is not acknowledged" ("Agreeing to Our Harm," The New York Review of Books, July 19, 2024). The overwhelming long-term failure of elites across the board to acknowledge the legitimate anger of those who feel disrespected by bipartisan elites has done overwhelming harm to our national conversation. Moreover, even those relatively well positioned enough to escape Trump's political religion of resentment, are anxious at best. For what may be the first time in America's happier history, many parents believe their children will likely be less well off than than their parents. 

Meanwhile, on this hallowed historic date, which commemorates the American commitment to citizen-centered republicanism, we find ourselves reeling from our increasingly and blatantly partisan Supreme Court's anti-originalist, anti-textualist decision to invest Donald Trump with a quasi-regal, pseudo-sacral status, something we as a nation have consistently resisted doing for centuries. A mere 50 years ago, President Richard Nixon was pressured to resign as a consequence of criminal behavior. And, although he later (1977) claimed, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” at least when he resigned in 1974 he obviously recognized that he could in fact be prosecuted for his crimes, and so he gratefully accepted a presidential pardon, the granting of which in turn reflected the complete recognition on the part of the Executive branch that presidents remain subject to the legal process. But now the Supreme Court has effectively accepted Nixon's later claim - contrary to all of American history and jurisprudence.

The crisis created by the danger of a second Trump presidency is exacerbated, of course, by anxieties about President Biden's ability to win another election and decisively defeat Trump. Democrats have rightly faulted the Republican Party for having transformed itself into a slavish personality cult, devoid of any public purpose apart from the empowerment of one man. But is something dangerously similar at work among the Democrats as well? Doubts about President Biden's ability to defeat Trump were already widespread even before last week's catastrophe on the debate stage and are presumably to blame, at least in part, for his consistently low approval rating. Biden's successful record as president is undeniable. Since the debate, however, the doubts about Biden's electability will likely only increase. 

Obviously, Trump and Biden are two extremely different presidents with very different personal and histories. Only one of them has a long and commendable record regarding service to this country. But if Democrats all start falling quickly into line, ignoring increasing concerns about Biden's electability, they will risk elevating exaggerated tribal loyalty to their leader above all else - this despite the fact that they have hitherto been presenting themselves as the public-spirited, non-tribal, patriotic alternative to Trumpism. 

One of the purposes of a political party is to subordinate personal ambition to collective effort in order to offer authentic political alternatives to the voters. By turning their party into a cult of personality, the Republicans have already failed that requirement. Are the Democrats now also in danger of doing something similar? (As of this date, there are some signs the Democrats may yet step up to the needs of the moment, ultimately to the credit of both Biden and his party.)

Our national holiday, as John Adams famously said, should be celebrated with Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other.” (And, of course, with hot dogs!) Americans will certainly celebrate this day, as we are accustomed to do, but birthdays have been happier than this one feels right now!

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Go In Peace!


Church law requires those charged with the responsibility of leadership in religious communities at stated times to visit their members and those entrusted to their care. This is an ancient prescription in the life of the Church that dates way back to a time when personal visits were very time-consuming and otherwise difficult and challenging, but they were nonetheless seen as necessary and desirable for communication and community. Nowadays, we communicate much more frequently and in many varied ways. Even so, direct personal face-to-face interaction retains a certain privileged status. Indeed, as you are undoubtedly aware, there is a lot of concern in our society today about the breakdown and failure of interpersonal interactions, thanks to the dominance of technological alternatives. However modern we may be or want to be, nothing quite can replace personal presence in human relations.

And so it was also in today's Gospel passage [Mark 5:21-43] in which Jesus has been called upon in desperation to visit a home where a young girl is sick, at the point of death, a visit he happily makes even after the girl is reported as dead. Along the way, he has another important interpersonal encounter, also initiated by someone in severe distress. 

Ancient people typically treated blood as sacred, the repository of life. Being sacred, it was presumed to be dangerous, with all the dread and awe that typically surround the sacred in traditional societies. So, the plight of someone afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years was much more than a merely medical condition. It set I motion whole set of social and religious restrictions, that gave her illness had a public, social dimension, rendering her ritually unclean, effectively excluding her from the community. Imagine living like that for 12 years! Imagine what that would do to her sense of herself – and her relations with others! What happens to a person when the very way one is has been socially defined as dangerous?


Suddenly, into all this sadness and suffering, into this burdened woman’s world, walked Jesus, famous already for his powerful acts of healing, revealing what kind of God our God really is, a God who (as we just heard in the 1st reading) does not rejoice in the destruction of the living [Wisdom 1:13]

Somehow, something about Jesus’ personal presence empowered her to take a chance. Taking advantage of the cover provided by the crowd, she boldly touched Jesus’ cloak. And immediately her bold faith was rewarded. 

What the expensive medical establishment could not accomplish in 12 years, Jesus cured in an instant – and for free! And, in the process, Jesus set her free, not only from her illness, but from all its catastrophic social consequences and its oppressive emotional and psychological burdens.

Jesus had recognized in her a Daughter of Israel, a member of God’s People. And, because she was a member of God’s People, she deserved to be included in the community. Jesus. therefore, would not permit her healing to remain private. (Obviously in that crowded scene it certainly could have remained hidden.) 

And so she fell down before Jesus and told him the whole truth. She said what needed to be said; and in response Jesus promised her liberation from her suffering and told her to “Go in peace.”

In a little while, we too will be told to “Go in peace.” Jesus’ words were not meant to comfort just one woman who happened to have been afflicted with hemorrhages for 12 years and just happened one day to touch his clothes!

Jesus’ words are equally addressed to all of us today - whatever hidden or not-so-hidden burdens we bear, whatever sad (or not so sad) secrets define us - to do as she did, to take the chance that she took, and so experience in our own lives (in some instances, perhaps for the very first time) the coming of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of healing and honesty, and so begin to become ourselves active agents of God’s kingdom’s reconciliation and peace.

Homily for the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Austin Church, Austin, TX, June 30, 2024.