Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Gilded Age on HBO

Famous forever already as the creator of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes has now added to his résumé a new historical drama, The Gilded Age, set in New York during the so-called "Gilded Age," the boom years of 1880s. The series has nine episodes, the first of which, "Never The New," was aired on HBO last night.

It was the 1970s British series Upstairs, Downstairs that first set the standard for such enterprises. Downton Abbey, while very different in certain respects, reprised the Upstairs, Downstairs motif of an upper-class English family and their servants, going through the ordinary stresses of family life magnified by the complications of historical change. Both series spanned British history from the late Edwardian era through the traumatic experience of World War I to the 1920s. Both endeared themselves to their audiences through the incredibly interesting and well-played characters (both upstairs and down) as well as through the equally interesting experience of watching and epoch dramatic historical changes and the impact of those changes of a traditional way of life going from a social norm to a no longer normative relic of a bygone past, a pst not really missed in practice but much romanticized in theory.

Setting The Gilded Age in New York in the boom years of 1880s breaks that mold, no matter how many rich people, fancy houses, beautiful outfits, and servants still populate the screen. Fellowes, et al., have assembled a fantastic cast, who should be able to do wonders with this story. And perhaps they will. The first episode basically introduces everybody and the thematic storyline and leaves us wondering what more there is for them to do.

In a sense, The Gilded Age is ill-served by comparisons with either Downton Abbey or its illustrious predecessor Upstairs, Downstairs. First of all, it is not about actual aristocracy and all the deference that accompanies it, because it cannot be. It is set in the U.S., which however unequal a society simply did not have the appropriate feudal cultural inheritance. Secondly, whereas the more famous British series were about aristocracy in a slow process of historical decline, this series seems as much about a pseudo-aristocracy (the "old money" families with pedigrees back to colonial times) being replaced by an oligarchy of "new money." While the rise of the "middle classes" was an underlying Downton Abbey theme (e.g., Cousin Matthew's "middle-class" background and ideas, Lady Mary's  unsuitable fiancé Richard Calysle, Lady Edith's lover Michael Gregson, etc.), The Gilded Age is inherently about the rise of the new class of plutocrats, who are more "middle class" in background and outlook compared with the "old money" they are displacing, who are, of course, less aristocratic than they pretend to be.

The Gilded Age recalls a real period in American history. Of course, what was ultimately much more interesting about the 'new money" dominance was not its displacement of a pseudo-aristocracy of "old money" but rather its destruction of whatever was left of the earlier egalitarianism of the colonial, founding, and Jacksonian eras. That would make a less interesting interpersonal drama. Hopefully, the series can make more interesting the alternative, if somewhat contrived, interpersonal drama of competition among complacent rich women resisting the rise of ambitious rich women.

Because this is HBO and because this is 2022, the series seems to be aiming at a more contemporary feel in regard to the range of issues addressed. Unlike Europeans, who have an authentic feudal heritage and hence understand class, Americans tend to resist acknowledging the reality of class and class conflict. Race. on the other hand, has been a conflict in American history from its beginning, and has often served as a surrogate for what might otherwise be class conflicts. The Gilded Age presents itself primarily as a class conflict within the ultra-rich, but very early on introduces the complex and fraught issue of race through the seemingly improbable friendship between two of the main characters, through whom we get to see some of the challenges and difficulties of being Black (albeit northern, somewhat middle-class Black) in post-Civil War ebulliently capitalist New York. Whatever the series will do with that dimension of the story, it has the potential to enrich the interactions of otherwise apparently one-dimensional characters. The same, potentially, for the series' (equally improbable) foray into sexual diversity in late 19th-century upper-class experience.

After only one episode, while aspects of the storyline are obvious and where individual characters are headed also seems obvious, it remains to be seen how they will be developed and what surprises may still be in store.

(Photo: The New York Times)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

A Preacher of Truth in the Whole World


On July 7, 1858, Servant of God Isaac Hecker together with 3 others founded the Society of Missionary Priests of Saint Paul the Apostle, known ever since as “The Paulist Fathers.” Three days later they were assigned by Archbishop John Hughes the pastoral care of a new west-side parish, named for Saint Paul the Apostle. For more than 160 years, this parish - together with the Paulist Fathers’ life as a religious community in the Church and their wider missionary outreach - have been blessed by the patronage of Saint Paul the Apostle, the feast of whose Conversion we anticipate today.

Most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death. If the saint was a martyr, that itself is often his or her principal claim on our attention. Along with the Apostle Peter, Paul was martyred in Rome, the subject of Robert Reid’s impressive painting above the altar of Saint Paul on the south side of the church. Saints Peter and Paul are celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January, there is this additional celebration of Saint Paul – focused on the event in his life that we now commonly call his “conversion.” That great event, monumentally portrayed by Lumen Martin Winter over the main entrance to the church [photo], transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Christ had appeared. Now as then, that event highlights for us what it means to be converted to Christ, to become a disciple of Jesus, his witness in the world, and an apostle sent with mission to evangelize, to make disciples of all peoples.  He became what the beautiful mosaic on the floor of the church behind the altar here calls “A Preacher of Truth in the whole world.” No wonder Hecker and his friends chose Paul as their patron!

To understand Paul and appreciate his impact, we do well to remember that Paul was, first and foremost, a devout Jew, well educated in the Law, a Pharisee, that is, a member of the group most zealous about religious observance. But he was also a Greek-speaking Jew, from what we call the Diaspora, those living outside the land of Israel. He grew up in what is today Turkey, in a Greek city, and enjoyed Roman citizenship.

All of this was very important, because one of the great issues which confronted the 1st century Church was figuring out how Jews and Gentiles were connected in God’s plan for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ – and how Jews and Gentiles should relate to one another within the one community of the Church. The way this issue was eventually resolved (thanks in no small part to Paul) helped transform what would otherwise have been a small Jewish sect into the biggest and longest-lasting multi-cultural institution in the world.

What Paul experienced when he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus was a revelation of God’s plan to include all people in the promises originally made to Abraham and his descendants and now being finally fulfilled in Jesus. The God who revealed himself to Paul in the person of Jesus was the same God whom Paul had always served so enthusiastically as a Jew. What changed was that now Paul recognized Jesus as the One, though whom all people are included in God’s plan of salvation.

And because the newly converted Paul now understood that it was Jesus that ultimately mattered, he also recognized no conflict between Gentile culture and faith in Christ. For the pagan peoples of the Roman Empire, that was good news indeed. It’s easy to see why Paul’s mission was so successful among different types of people and why he appealed to Hecker as a model – Hecker who was so convinced that the Catholic Church was just what American culture needed. The world has changed a lot since Hecker’s time (not to mention Paul’s time), but the Church’s mission - our mission - remains the same.

Paul had what Hecker so much wanted his Paulists to have, what Hecker called “zeal for souls.” Paul was not one of the original 12. He wasn’t there when Jesus said to his disciples: “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”  But he absorbed those words as surely as if they had been initially addressed to him – as we also must do.

As Pope Saint John Paul II famously said: “Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him.”

Homily for the (Anticipated) Parish Patronal Solemnity of the Conversion of Saint Paul,              Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, January 23, 2022.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Catholic Discordance (The Book)

"Massimo Borghesi leads us through a very readable analysis of the neoconservative, largely American, detractors of the magisterium of Francis. ... the defenders of capitalism ... who overly identify the faith with its moral teachings." So writes Bishop John Stowe, the wonderful Bishop of Lexington, Kentucky, on the front page of Catholic Discordance: Neoconservatism vs. the Field Hospital Church of Pope Francis (Liturgical Press, 2021), by Massimo Borghesi, translated by Barry Hudock. Borghesi is professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Perugia and author of The Mind of Pope Francis (2018), also translated by Barry Hudock.

Borghesi's book is about Pope Francis and his agenda, but focuses on Francis' pontificate through the lens of what he sees as the "delusional example of the theological-political Manichaeism circulating in some segments of the church" - notably U.S. neoconservative Catholicism. Personally, I wonder whether he overuses (maybe even misuses) the word Manichaeism much too much. Indeed, the word might well be just as applicable to some alternate factions to which Borghesi is more sympathetic. On the other hand, his emphasis on the apocalyptic aspect of such movements seems more apt, as when he describes "the ideological framework that permeates so much of American Catholicism, one of culture wars, end-time struggle—children of light versus children of darkness."

Apart from an excursus on American neoconservatives' attempts to exercise influence in Italy, the author's dominant focus is very much on the U.S. situation and its influence. The "misunderstanding" he diagnoses as "the foundation of the Catholic neoconservative, or Christianist, position" is "the identification of faith with Western civilization. This was denounced by Jacques Maritain in 1936, in his book Integral Humanism."

Borghesi invokes all three of the most recent popes - John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis - as a consistent alternative to American Catholic neoconservatism. My favorite papal quote he takes form Pope Benedict: "the New Testament is aware of political ethics but not of political theology.” Borghesi's basic warning "is that every time a theological movement follows a political one, it shares its successes and defeats; it gives up its own autonomy. This is the fate of political theologies."

The book is especially useful for its historical treatment of the trajectory of American Catholic neoconservatism. "which since the 1980s has taken the place of the Catho-Marxist messianism of the 1970s," and "is a conservative political theology, a right-wing variant of left-wing political theology." In Borghesi's rendering of recent Roman Catholic history, in the years after Vatican II, "which were marked by intense theological disputes and, in some segments, an attempt to understand Christianity through a Marxist lens—the church seemed to establish, with the pontificate of John Paul II, a renewed sense of identity and balance." The future Pope Francis was attracted to John Paul's "path by which the church could avoid the two siren calls of reactionism and revolution."

A particularly insightful aspect of Borgghesi's analysis is that with Communism's fall, the moral dimension of anti-communist ideology was lost, which "explains why the era of globalization coincides with a much more radical secularization of Western life than occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. The primacy of the economy, with a new type of financial capitalism, coincides with the decline of politics, ethics, and religion. The ideal that stood in contradistinction with Marxist ideology disappeared, and a cynical and soulless pragmatism based on an individualistic, Hobbesian-Darwinist anthropology triumphed. Faced with this 'anthropological mutation,' which had been clearly foreseen in the 1970s by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the church stood bewildered and unprepared." In the U.S., "The secularization of the North American landscape and in particular of the Democratic Party pushed Catholics into the Republican sphere, with its typically Protestant combination of defense of the family and the free market." 

One key to this, which is sometimes insufficiently emphasized, is that, being on the left after the fall of communism, has "meant cultivating an individualistic, radical liberalism that elevated physical and individual desires as a model of human progress in general. Poverty, social inequalities, workers’ rights, economic justice, and collaboration between the state and civil society in management of the economy disappeared from the view of the new left. It became libertarian and pleasure-seeking, measuring quality of life solely by one’s personal sense of psychosocial well-being." In this context, the Church increasingly embraced "conservative positions, in reaction to a relativistic and optimistic postmodernism, coincided with an ecclesial “retreat,” a closure from and distrust of a world perceived as hostile, alien, enemy."

The dangerous irony in this was that this militant "dialectical model," with its dismissal of "mission and dialogue," applied only to a narrow set of "life issues." In other areas, "a decisive conformism reigned. The rejection of the spirit of secularization was accompanied by an unconditional embrace of a capitalist model, which, ironically, was the real engine of the very secularization that was supposed to be the enemy. Hence the impotence of a struggle that bears within itself a contradiction: opposition to the relativism and individualism created by economic processes that are accepted enthusiastically."

His historical account focuses especially on figures like Michael Novak (author in 1982 of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism), who, Borghesi argues, advocated "a Catholicism modeled on the American lifestyle." For Borghesi's Novak, "cooperation between capitalism and modern Christianity excludes the idea of solidarity. It also excludes any critical appraisal of the liberal model." It is a bourgeois Christianity, in which "it is the economy that dictates the ethical model rather than vice versa."

Novak was part of "a very active group of intellectuals who, in the span of a few years, managed to establish themselves as the shapers of the American Catholic conscience." This group, which also famously included former liberal Lutheran minister and convert to Catholicism, Fr. Richard Neuhaus, "was part of a neoconservative galaxy dotted with intellectuals, disappointed by the left and by the politics of the Democratic Party."

One of the noteworthy things these intellectuals did, according to Borghesi, was to distort papal teaching - notably Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus. "The result was that a text that was strongly critical of neocapitalism came to be understood as an apologetics manual of the same." This distortion of Catholic social teaching has been a hallmark of this movement. Borghesi, in contrast, stresses the anti-capitalist continuity of papal teaching from Pope Paul VI through Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI to Pope Francis. whose Evangelii Gaudium "cast sharp doubt on the Catholic neoconservative agenda and criticized its assumptions plainly." Borghesi highlights the contrast between Francis's Church in uscita [going out] and the "ecclesial introversion" he opposes.

For Borghesi, Francis "is a pope who truly expresses the intimate popular-Christian religiosity of Latin America and, precisely for this reason, stands outside the ideological dialectic typical of Catholicism between progressives and reactionaries" and "overturns the Catholic neoconservative model wholly polarized by moral issues."

Faced with the opposition by Pope Francis, "the neoconservative movement, with its dual religious and secular soul," seem to have formed an unlikely alliance: "the strange alliance between conservative liberals and Catholic reactionaries hostile to the Second Vatican Council that would constitute the shock wave against the Francis pontificate. Conservative liberals and Catholic traditionalists—diametrically opposed on the topic of the value of modernity—combined forces in the ethical battle against relativism and in unquestioning fidelity to the western capitalist model."

The ultimate example of Catholic neoconservatism's intellectual decline as an ideology is, of course, the political alliance with Trump, to whose fate it seems increasingly tied.

"Like any political theology, Catholic Americanism depended on the fate of the power to which it linked itself."

Friday, January 21, 2022

Wannsee + 80


Yesterday, I watched a webinar commemorating the 80th anniversary of the infamous Wannsee Conference. That January 20, 1942 event was so named for its meeting place in a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee (photo), at which senior Nazi German government officials planned and coordinated the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," which resulted in the deportation and eventual mass murder of most of the Jews of German-occupied Europe. This bureaucratic conference of 15 Nazi officials from Germany and occupied Eastern Europe (8 of them with doctorates in law) was convened by Reinhard Heydrich, the "plenipotentiary" for what the webinar speaker called "the logistics of committing murder." Indeed, it was less the end-goal of extermination but the methods of implementation that were discussed at Wansee and that the conference almost immediately so infamously set in motion .

I was reminded of something Tony Judt once wrote in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, that, in those countries occupied by the Germans, World War II was particularly a war against civilians. Some 19 million civilians died as a consequence of that war. Of these, of course, some 6 million were Europe's Jews, whose complete annihilation had become an explicit German war aim.

By the time of the Wannsee Conference, the Soviet army had recently begun its counter-offensive and the U.S had entered the war. In retrospect, we might consider those events to have marked a turning point, but that was hardly fully obvious as yet. The Germans were still in effective control of most of Europe, and that effective control enabled the amazing bureaucratic efficiency that characterized the deportations and eventual exterminations now known as the Holocaust and which continued even when it was already obvious that the war was lost. Mass murder is infinitely evil, but there was something superlatively evil about the bureaucratic efficiency and pathological normalcy that characterized the planning and implementation of Wannsee's Final Solution. Adolf Eichmann himself later recounted how he and the others relaxed, smoking and drinking cognac, after the conference.

The webinar speaker spoke of "the palpable sense of the presence of evil" that seems to permeate the conference room even today. It is that "palpable sense of the presence of evil" that historical memory connects us to, which is why the serious study of history is so vital.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

One Year In


Early in 1978, I and a couple of my academic colleagues on the political science faculty at the university where we were teaching staged a panel discussion on President Jimmy Carter's just completed first year in office. It was essentially an excuse for us to play pundits for the edification or entertainment of our undergraduate students. I don't think any of us then thought of the one-year anniversary as much more than a convenient occasion for commentary. Politics was already changing, but it was still very different then from what it has since become, and it was still comprehensible in the conventional ways we then understood. 

Part of that then still conventional understanding was that first-term presidents typically take up to two years to get up to speed and that the third year is, therefore, often the most productive (before the distraction of the next presidential campaign takes over in the fourth year). Of course, politics is completely different now. Campaigning is constant, and politicking rather than policy-making is increasingly the main frame of reference through which the media interprets political life. Congress is increasingly less a partner in policy-maklng and more a forum for political posturing, making it more an obstacle to the president's agenda than was once routinely the case. The permanent campaign precludes any presidential "honeymoon," while the looming prospect of losing congress to the opposition party in the mid-term election (as happened to both Obama and Trump) makes the first year the only year in which enacting the president's agenda through legislation is a realistic hope.

So, in this deformed political context, where does President Biden stand at this critical juncture one year in? His standing in the polls at this point is lower than that of most recent presidents (Trump excepted), and media coverage (which is what the polls reflect and reinforce) has been increasingly negative. Punditry presumes a certain sort of historical determinism, in its expectations about the midterms, which may well prove true, but less because of historical inevitability and more because of the Democrats' demonstrated political failures.

Some of that is the fault of the Administration's own messaging. After all, the Biden Administration did get a major covid relief bill passed and its infrastructure bill passed, accomplishments worth bragging about. Instead, however, it has pursued a much more ambitious agenda, which may well reflect the preference of many (maybe most) Americans, but which always had little chance of success in our unrepresentative, inherently antidemocratic Congress. Perhaps those policy goals should have been pursued anyway and maybe could have been pursued more successfully in a more moderate manner. But two unexpected developments just prior to Biden's inaugural made that strategy less likely.

When Biden won the election in November 2020, it was evident that Democrats would retain only a modest majority in the House, and it was widely expected that they would remain the minority in the Senate. The peculiar dysfunctions then at work within the Republican party provided an unexpected opportunity to win not just one but both Georgia Senate seats in the January 5 run-off election. This surprise created an evenly divided Senate, with Democrats in procedural control thanks to the Vice President's tie-breaking vote. This made it possible to imagine improbable legislative outcomes, which would have been completely impossible to expect prior to January 5. To this exaggerated expectation of a path to a more transformative presidency (as if Biden were a new FDR or LBJ, both of whom, of course, had enormous, not razor-thin, congressional majorities) was added the inevitable reaction against the January 6 insurrection attempt. 

Yet it became clear fairly quickly that there were limits to what this very narrow congressional majority could actually be counted on to accomplish. The disgraceful behavior of Senators Manchin and Sinema has been the ongoing media soap-opera, into which the Biden Administration has allowed itself to be trapped. In fact, however, both senators had been fairly clear all year about where they stood. Persuading them to vote to end or modify the filibuster may be an honorable goal, but it was always unlikely to succeed. So, other than reinforcing the loyalty of the Democratic party base, the constant struggle to pass what had no real hope of being passed, has only made the Biden Administration and the Democrats look like ineffective losers (in spite of the major bills that were successfully passed but were largely ignored instead of bragged about).

While the FDR/LBJ analogy is irrelevant in any case because they had such large majorities (which /Biden lacks), there is another reason why the analogy fails. The model of American politics that FDR and LBJ practiced was famously a politics of persuasion. Both understood the need to persuade others, and both were very good at it. How good at it Biden might be in their circumstances is pure speculation. There is at present practically no one to persuade. Biden's Mitch McConnell is not LBJ's Everett Dirksen. Republicans are largely united in their commitment to oppose Biden simply for the sake of opposing. Likewise, someone like Senator Manchin is largely. impervious to persuasion as a conservative Democrat in a radically Republican state.

If it is still true that presidential power is the power to persuade, the object of persuasion is no longer Congress but the public (in large part filtered through the media), who must somehow be persuaded to evaluate the President and his party differently from how politicians and pundits do. Biden may yet do this (and hopefully will be able to do so before the midterm and a fortiori before the 2024 election), but he has no successfully done so as yet. Democrats must also cure themselves of their fatal obsession with the presidency and rediscover how to build up their party base at all levels of government - especially at the local and state levels - and in a larger area of the country.

The midterms are still many months away, and a possible Biden-Trump rematch is still years away. That is an eternity in politics. So much may happen between now and then, including the completely unanticipated (as was covid at the beginning of 2020). How the present pandemic will play itself out remains to be seen. No one saw omicron on the horizon last fall when we were all anticipating an imminent end to the pandemic. More problematically, the Biden team did not anticipate wither the extent of Republican opposition to the covid vaccine or the resulting need to continue mass testing. But the Democrats could have avoided (or at least prudently retreated from) being identified, for example, as the party of closed schools - a policy pursued by some teachers' unions (an excessively powerful part of the Democratic coalition) but not welcomed by parents and demonstrably damaging to students.

Meanwhile, assuming we can attain a satisfactory modus vivendi with covid, Biden's problem will be the perennial problem for contemporary Democratic presidents - persuading ordinary voters that the Christmas tree of social benefits Democrats are attempting to provide for them matter more than the cultural grievances and racial resentments which Republicans are all about exploiting in order to keep the country conflicted and divided to the greater advantage of the richest among us.