Friday, June 2, 2023

The Deal Is Done - Until Next Time

The shouting will continue, of course, but the crucial voting is done. All that remains is the signing. After all the angst about default and holding the country hostage, our pathetic political system seems has done what it does all too often -pulled a last minute "deal" out of a hat. Is it any wonder voters hardly take this process seriously? (With calamitous consequences for the eventual day when the system finally fails!)

The predictable "sky is falling" run up to expected default seems all that much more weird in this instance, given how simple it actually was to negotiate the deal in the end - once the parties had decided that they were actually willing to do so - and then how modest the ingredients of the negotiated compromise actually are. Once again, our forever underestimated President Biden has shown himself adept at negotiating with a Congress controlled by the other party - one of his main campaign claims in both the last and presumably the next presidential election. And, for what it is worth, to give the Devil his due, Speaker McCarthy acted like a Speaker rather than as an agent of the misnamed "Freedom Caucus."

If excessive debt really were the problem that Republicans allege it to be, they have nonetheless kept off the table the most obvious solution to that problem - raising taxes. That leaves cuts in discretionary spending (a small slice of the total budget and not the main driver of the debt) as the only negotiable item in the Republicans' toolbox. For all the Republican posturing, however, the "cuts" in spending, while unjust and cruel in the case of food stamps work requirements for older adults and downright idiotic in the case of the IRS, were in the end rather modest. Most importantly, some of President Biden's major accomplishments, like the Inflation Reduction Act, remain.

But, as long as the Democrats stupidly keep failing to abolish the debt ceiling when they get the chance, the debt ceiling will remain as a ready weapon for Republican extortion. No president of either party should have to negotiate to avoid defaulting on the nation's financial obligations, but it will likely happen again and again as long as the debt ceiling remains in place as a ready-to-hand lethal weapon, further confirming once again how little sense the Biden Administration's adherence to antiquated notions of bipartisanship ultimately may be in the long term.

As historian Jacques Barzun is alleged to have said: "When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent."

Thursday, June 1, 2023



In our principal contemporary calculation, summer will not officially begin in our northern hemisphere for another three weeks, when the summer solstice occurs on June 21 at approximately 10:58 a.m. EDT. According to one traditional medieval way of calculating the seasons (which sees the solstice or equinox at the season's mid-point instead of its beginning) summer began on May 1. That said, in our American secular society today, we have become accustomed to treating Memorial Day (or, more precisely, the Memorial Day "holiday weekend") as the de facto beginning of summer, what I call the cultural (as opposed to the astronomical or meteorological) summer, which extends (again culturally) from the Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.

An added complication to what gets culturally considered as "summer" is the variation in school schedules around the country. I have long believed that the school "summer vacation" is an unjustifiable anachronism that needs to give way to year round schooling. That said, in this part of the country, where elementary and high schools end their academic year in late June and start in early September, "summer" is mainly July and August. In other areas, the school year ends in May and starts in early August. So, for example, when I was in Tennessee for 10 years, we treated June and July as the summer months, and August was "back to normal" month.

I am old enough to remember when spring was really still spring, which meant that, while by June 1 we might already have hot summer weather, we also might not. This year, for whatever reasons, we have been enjoying a relatively mild spring, that seems to have helped put off as long as possible the onset of summer's enervating heat and humidity. That said, with the temperature supposed to be hitting the 80s today, summer (however mild so far) is certainly here. And the ominous predictions in the news are for a seriously hot rest of the summer. According to Tuesday's NY Times: "Ocean temperatures, soil moisture, forecast models and long-term trends are all contributing factors in predicting a warmer-than-normal summer this year. The coasts of New England could be hot because the Atlantic Ocean already feels like summer, while the center of scorching temperatures will once again almost certainly be the Southwest."

 About all that, well, time will tell.

(Photo: June from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is widely considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination. The illustration depicts summer fieldwork against the background of  the Palais de la Cité and the Sainte Chapelle.)

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Carrying Him into the World


After the horrible hiatus of the covid pandemic and despite its continuing dangers, more and more people have been traveling here, there, and everywhere. And, among those many trips, some certainly are visits with family and friends.

Now, as we all well know, family visits are not always what we would like them to be – especially, perhaps, in this fraught period of political polarization and division, when it may be a challenge not to cause or exacerbate conflict! Sometimes, we visit only grudgingly – more a matter of duty than desire. How fitting, then, to hear today about a visit by one person whose motives, we know, were never mixed! 

The traditional site of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home is the little town of Ein Karem, some 5 miles west of Jerusalem – a journey at that time of several days from Galilee through Samaria to Judea. Obviously, we cannot know now exactly what Mary may have thought or felt as she undertook that difficult journey. The story says she set out in haste. No procrastination, no putting off what might seem merely a dutiful but burdensome social obligation. Perhaps, she sought to draw on the wisdom and strength of her older relative. Surely, she must have wanted to make contact (in a world without Twitter) with the only other person who had thus far been let in on God’s great plan, that was even then quite literally taking shape in the bodies of these two remarkable women.

Instead of shouting her good news to the world (which until then had reproached her for being childless), Elizabeth was waiting silently for the miracle’s full meaning to make itself known. Instead of cautiously keeping quiet, Mary rushed to tell all to Elizabeth, thus showing her own complete confidence in God who had totally taken over her life.

Back in 5th century North Africa, one of the great Doctors of the Church, St. Augustine, said: “If God’s Word had not become flesh and had not dwelt among us, we would have had to believe that there was no connection between God and humanity, and we would have been in despair.”

The God for whom Elizabeth silently waited for so long, the God whom Mary carried in her womb so faithfully, has come at last to live with us. In the process, he connects us not only with himself but with one another. As he brought Mary and Elizabeth together, filled with the Holy Spirit, so he leads us to one another and unites us, thought the same Holy Spirit, in a new community, formed by faith, directed by hope, and alive with love. And we, as a result, must never let things be the same again!

And they won’t be - and we won’t have reason to despair ever again - if, like Elizabeth, when we hear him coming, we offer him the hospitality of our hearts, and if, like Mary, having conceived him in our hearts, we are willing to carry him into the world with confidence – so that Christ can truly be our hope and become so for all the world.


Homily for the feast of the Visitation, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, May 31, 2023.

Photo: Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

American Christianity's Fate (The Book)


It is perhaps a paradox of contemporary society and politics that "Americans in the twenty-first century find themselves in an increasingly secular society saddled with an increasingly religious politics." Paradox or not, David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of History Emeritus at Berkeley proposes to explain this phenomenon from within the larger scope and context of the history of American religion, specifically American Protestant Christianity, in Christianity's American Fate: How Religion Became More conservative and Society More Secular (Princeton University Press, 2022).

Many associate the increasing power and politicization of conservative evangelicalism, but Hollinger stresses that "Trump took advantage of a white evangelical culture that was well in place before he came along and is likely to remain a factor in American public life after he is gone." But evangelicalism has long been in competition with another strain of American Protestantism, what we typically call "mainline" or even "liberal" Protestantism, but which the author labels "Ecumenical Protestantism," which "channeled through Christianity the Enlightenment's perspective on belief and its generous view of human capabilities." Contrary to what he sees as the popular view "that evangelical churches flourished because they made greater demands on the faithful," he argues that "ecumenical" churches sought to impose greater social obligations, "especially the imperative to extend civil equality to nonwhites," while "Evangelicalism made it easy to avoid the challenges of an ethnoracially diverse society and a scientifically informed culture." A more nuanced position perhaps might acknowledge that more conservative Churches have been more demanding in matters of belief and sexual morality, while liberal Churches have put more emphasis on social justice and accepting the challenges of modern science.

In any case, he contends that the once powerful mainline American Christianity has been "hollowed out" by the departure of those he calls "post-Protestants" (among whom he includes himself), who have been replaced  "by white evangelicals allied with conservative Catholics on issues of sexuality gender, and the limits of civic authority." In large measure, much of the book is an account of how this came to be.

He adopts Martin E. Marty's terminology of American Protestantism's "two-party system," which persisted throughout the 20th century and into the present century. Two important changes which opened things up, he argues were Jewish immigration and the broadening experience of American Protestant missions abroad. Urbanization also played a role as did the increasing de-Christianization of academia, which he sees as somewhat Jewish-influenced, along with the increasing replacement of ministers "by mental health professionals as authorities for dealing with personal problems." During the interwar years, the Protestant "two-party system was on full display." At its post-war zenith, the liberal, "ecumenical" party "took for granted that Protestant Christianity was the proper foundation for world order and that it was up to Americans to establish it."

To a certain extent, ecumenical Protestantism's impulse "to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it," opened it to increasing secularizing challenge. a gap developed between "cosmopolitan leaders" and small town and rural laity and pastors, and the growth in higher education encouraged an exodus of young people out of the more liberal churches, while those who remained began to have fewer children. Ecumenical leaders "abandoned to opportunistic evangelicals the classic missionary goal of conversion, the powerful claim of a proprietary relationship to the American nation, and a host of other aspirations to which many white Americans remains attached," meanwhile accommodating "perspectives on women and the family that reduced their capacity to reproduce themselves."

By the 21st century, "post-Protestants and post-Catholics began to go on record about their lack of religious affiliation." (More than one-third of born Catholics no longer identify as such in the U.S., and about 17% of such post-Catholics profess no affiliation.)

Meanwhile, the "transformation of the global Christina profile" has "greatly strengthened the claims of American evangelicals that they - not the mainliners - were the true exemplars of the ancient faith." This may be exacerbated by the liberal churches' relative decline in interest in issues of economic inequality in favor of identity politics and a suspicion of the older "universalist ideology that had been a defining feature of ecumenical Protestantism, and that served as a justification for its progressive engagements of the 1940s, 950s, and 1960s."

What the author considers the most significant challenge to conservative Christianity's increasing dominance in the U.S. is "the vitality of African American Protestantism." African -American Christians are often doctrinally conservative evangelicals, but African Americans "have had a worldly education in American social practices that inoculated them against many of the ideas white evangelicals found compatible with evangelically flavored theologies."

Apart from historical interest, why should contemporary secular liberals like this book's the "post-Protestant" author care about all this? The author is clearly an advocate for a liberal secularized fulfillment of the spirit of ecumenical Protestantism, which he worries is now in retreat as evangelical Protestantism increases in political power, imperiling (in his understanding) the variant of democratic politics which political and cultural liberals have cherished. Thus, he revealingly regards the 1940s "conscience exceptions" to conscription as not a threat to democracy, but he does see a threat in the contemporary application religious liberty (which he revealingly puts in quotes) to groups he is less ideologically sympathetic to. Of course, he is correct in recognizing that in the contemporary intersection of and conflict between religious liberty and an increasingly intrusive anti-discriminatory legal regime lies one of today's great religious and cultural battlefields, the resolution of which will in part depend upon the extent ot which religion continues to be valued by enough of contemporary society for it to continued to occupy the privileges accorded it by the Constitution.

Even apart from specifically spiritual reasons, religion remains a powerful force for many people, as the author acknowledges, because "churches have long been vital centers of community, sustainers of cultural tradition, and settings in which to contemplate some of life's terrors and enigmas."

The author concludes with the curious claim that "American Protestants have always been subject to conflicting appeals, voiced by two of Christianity's greatest figures, the Apostle Paul and Immanuel Kant." I wonder whether even the "ecumenical" Protestants whose heritage the author would apparently like to see a revitalized version of to compete with the now dominant evangelical form of contemporary Protestantism would so readily accord Kant a position - as a Christian figure - on a par with Saint Paul. Perhaps the inability to locate an alternative to evangelical Christian politics in a more universally recognizable manifestation of authentic Christianity than Kant highlights the very problem the author aspires to resolve!

Monday, May 29, 2023


Spoiler Alert: If, for whatever reason, you have not yet watched the series finale of Succession, read no farther. And, whether you read this or not, by all means watch the series finale!

I was right about at least one thing. Unsurprisingly, Lucas Mattsson did betray Shiv. That pales in comparison, of course, only to Shiv's final betrayal of Kendall; but it perfectly facilitates the alternately heart-warming and sad scenes of the "sibs" in their semi-final reconciliation and their final breakup. What a way to end the series!

It is hard to end a successful series. Finales do not always live up to a series' promise. But this one did.

At last, it is time to answer the question that has been the leitmotif of the entire season: Who will replace Logan as Waystar CEO? In reality, however, the actual corporate succession was always a secondary theme to the intra-family destructive dynamic among the sibs and their collection of comparably damaged underlings. For all their horribleness as people and the harm they have done to the world, they still remain people like us - richer than we will ever be but otherwise like us - desperately desiring love and respect and repeatedly (and finally) failing decisively to achieve either.

Stipulate again that that these are all very bad people. The poison has really dripped through, to quote Kendall. Nor are any of the "sibs" suitable to run the company. "I love you," Logan said, in his last words to his children, "but you are not serious people." That said, the "sibs" qualify as traditionally tragic figures whose well deserved unhappy fate nonetheless moves us profoundly. At one point or other I have rooted for each of them to win something (if not necessarily CEO, but at least something). From day one, of course, the story has revolved around Kendall's arc - a promised heir, repeatedly frustrated, a failed son who periodically rises to the occasion only to fall again. Kendall began the series with lots of money but unfulfilled aspirations and self-induced failures and ends it even more money but having lost everything else - his lifelong ambition (since age seven) to be CEO, his father, obviously, but also his wife and his children and, of course, his siblings. He could yet start his own business and maybe do any number of other things with his billions, but he will always be alone and unloved.  All he has left is Colin (not unlike his father at the beginning of this fourth season). Colin's life also appears empty (and he could conceivably yet perhaps turn on Kendall and report him to the authorities for his  misadventure with the waiter!).

Meanwhile, Shiv - having dethroned Kendall at the very moment that was supposed to be crowned - seems ready to settle down in her new subordinate role as wife of the new crime boss. ("Boss" may be too flattering to Tom, who admittedly has gotten the high status he always wanted, but he will likely have little power and lots of humiliation. What normal person would choose to be a "pain sponge" for a boss who wants to have sex with your wife?) Shiv's betrayal of Kendall clears the way for her to reengage with her hitherto at best transactional marriage. ("Are you interested in a real relationship?” she had earlier asked Tom.)  Will Tom and Shiv stay together and raise the next generation of damaged failsons? Will Shiv, who is not as smart as she thinks she is but is still smarter than her "empty suit" husband, become the power behind Tom's uneasy throne?

And what of Roman? From the start he seemed to have the least promise, and he also ends up at the end very rich but also very alone. He seems personally undone and truly done with it all. Of course, he is still rich enough to do any number of interesting things with his life and his billions, but he doesn't really seem to want to do anything at all, now that the poisoned CEO chalice has eluded him also. Perhaps, that passivity is liberation? As Kendall said to Roman, "Maybe you're well adjusted, and I'm a business psycho." More importantly, Roman got to utter the self-evident (but seldom admitted) truth when, during the climactic sibling conflict scene, he acknowledged, "we're nothing."

The finale opens with the two sides (Kendall and Roman vs. Shiv and Mattsson) armed and ready for battle before the board meeting. We've been through enough with this family to know that a lot will happen in the episode and that the sides may switch, maybe more than once, and that the seemingly predestined winners will likely lose. Along the way, however, we get treated to the family's most incredible highs and lows. Roman, having been injured in his atypical encounter with the non-rich world, has fled to his mother. Shiv and Kendall fly there too in order to win Roman over. (It still amazes me how these people can just get up and get into a private plane and jet off somewhere as if it were just the most normal thing in the world!)

While with their mother, they learn the truth about Mattsson's plans and so forge an alliance. In the process, they reenact what seems to have been something of a childhood game, which reminds us yet again that these three were really once kids together, and that at some level they still hunger to recapture that childhood closeness. Even Caroline seems to soften enough to express some pleasure at seeing them apparently on the same side. (Wisely, she thinks the GoJo deal may be an opportunity for them to free themselves.) Those family feelings get reinforced in one of the series' relatively rare, but very charming familial scenes. In their father's (now Connor's) apartment, they all watch a video of Logan and some of his cronies all acting like normal, nice, fun-loving human beings, all of which triggers their own childhood memories and they (for the last time in the series and perhaps for the last time ever in their lives) share a tender moment and hold hands together. Part of me would have liked it to end there, as if that could possibly be perpetuated, as if Waystar and the succession struggle could disappear and these people could really just become a functional family. But there were enough minutes left to suggest something more had to happen, and so, seemingly inevitably, came the traumatic, tragic ending.

So much has been said about Succession's relationship to our present decadent social reality. In the end, it seems to me that, above and beyond what it may be saying about rich media moguls and dysfunctional failsons, it combines the universal story of our human desires for love and respect, often corrupted by our own or others' tragic flaws, often frustrated by our own mistakes (and, dare one say, sins) with a painfully on-point presentation of our contemporary American society, governed by greed, dominated by the entire panoply of the Devils "works and pomps."