Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Billionaire Fantasies

As if Tom Steyer hasn't done enough mischief with his ill-advised campaign to promote another 1990s-style, partisan impeachment of a president, now we have Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame proposing himself as a plausible "independent" candidate for president. What fantasies are generated when one has too much money! Schultz's "candidacy" highlights at least three contemporary problems with how we purport to govern ourselves.

First and most obvious is the excessive and hence dangerous role that money plays in our politics. Having money has always been an advantage, although not necessarily a decisive one. John Kennedy could probably never have risen to the presidency without his (that is, his father's) money. On the other hand, his contemporary Nelson Rockefeller still couldn't achieve his goal, for all his millions. Schultz's millions won't elect him president anymore than Steyer's wealth will win him the impeachment effort he so craves. But both can throw their money around, get lots of attention, and so seriously distort the political and electoral processes.

The second, not unrelated, problem is the furtherance of the strangely popular notion that business success qualifies one for political success. There is a reason, of course, why prior to President Trump all his predecessors had had some political or military experience prior to moving to the White House. Even if Trump had really been the successful businessman he presented himself as, that would not have provided him with relevant experience to prepare him for the job of governing. Honestly, even if a candidate has had a successful business career, why should that qualify him or her for political office? Business is about the pursuit of private gain. Politics is about the public interest, the common good, even at the cost of private individuals' private interests. Besides the peculiar American admiration for successful businessmen, this also reflects the problematic notion that an "outsider" can fix things. By now we have elected enough such "outsider" candidates that we should know better!

The third problem is the persistent fantasy that "independent" or third-party candidates can actually win - or that they even represent a serious constituency. Most such "independent" or third party candidates are marginal figures who represent hardly anyone and thankfully have no substantive effect on the election. On the other hand, there have been candidates who have impacted the election by taking too many votes from one major candidate and thus throwing the election to the other. Theodore Roosevelt effectively elected Woodrow Wilson in 1912, something he certainly lived to regret. In Florida in 2000 Ralph Nader's curious candidacy is generally thought to have elected George W. Bush, and we all know how that turned out!. The fact is that, in our presidential as opposed to parliamentary system (in which coalitions are only possible within parties before the election rather than among parties after) and where the vote is significantly distorted by the winner-take-all system (especially in the electoral college), it is almost impossible for an "independent" or third-party candidate to win, but it remains quite possible for him or her to affect the outcome.

A personal confession: almost 40 years ago, in my earlier career, I voted for an "independent" candidate, Congressman John Anderson, in the 1980 presidential election. Since at the time I was a professor of political science, presumably I knew better. In fact, I knew perfectly well that such candidates cannot win but can distort the election so as to elect the candidate they are most opposed to, which is of course exactly what happened. Although I knew better, it was a typical - typically foolish - case of voting one's heart over one's head. I had voted for Senator Ted Kennedy in the primary and was so angry that Carter had won the nomination that I could not bring myself to vote for him in the general election. So I wasted my vote. (As it happened, the election was a landslide and Anderson's quixotic candidacy had no real impact.)

An "independent" Schultz candidacy is premised on the morally dubious notion that because one has money to spend one should do so and the equally dubious notion that being a successful entrepreneur and/or an "outsider" constitutes some sort of qualification for office. It is also premised on the factually questionable notion that there actually exists some sort of "independent" constituency somewhere out there, whereas in fact we know that most so-called independents - if and when they actually vote - effectively lean toward one party or the other. If anything, there are probably fewer genuine "swing" voters today than in earlier elections, as evidenced by the obvious decline in ticket-splitting.

Of course, it is possible that there are voters not completely at home in the party of their choice, who in some alternate universe would prefer a more centrist party. There is evidently considerable popular support for more left-leaning economic policies. What gets in the way of the party that (sometimes) advocates for them is that party's accidental association with certain extreme social and cultural  policies. If the electoral system would accommodate it, a centrist party that advocated significantly higher taxes on the rich, more extensive healthcare for all (e.g., "Medicare for All"), and similar policies, but which was decidedly less extreme on social and cultural issues, might well have a real chance. (Subtract the personality issues and the rhetorical bombast, and one could argue that Trump campaigned in part as such a"centrist" alternative candidate in 2016, although he has obviously not governed as such a "centrist" president since taking office.) Ironically, however, Schultz seems to want a centrist party that advocates almost the exact opposite - a very liberal social and cultural stance combined with pro-rich economic policies - a combination for which there seems to be little or no really significant constituency.

I like Starbucks coffee a lot, and wish its former CEO all the best in his personal and professional life, but I hope he spends his money on better projects than a quixotic quest for the presidency that would likely accomplish little good and could run the risk of causing considerable mischief!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

"The State of the Union is not Good"

If President Trump had had any prior political experience, and if he knew anything about how government works, and if he had behaved himself the way a president is supposed to behave, he would be most likely be giving his State of the Union tonight as originally scheduled, solemnly addressing not just Congress but a TV audience the size of which would be every attention-seeking celebrity's dream. 

After 35 days of pointless posturing at the expense of thousands of ordinary citizens, the President surrendered to political reality. The Government has now reopened, and soon the President will belatedly get to give his Sate of the Union Address. 

Unfortunately, such speeches (complete with all the jumping up and down that accompanies them) are so spectacularly predictable that the most interesting thing about this year's State of the Union may be precisely the fact that it is not happening on schedule.

Obligated by the Constitution from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient, recent Presidents have happily informed Congress that the State of our Union is "good" or "strong" or some other such platitude. I can only remember one exception, which is memorable for precisely that reason. 

On January 15, 1975, President Gerald Ford - thanks to Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal an Accidental President since the previous August - addressed the 94th Congress. He recounted how 26 years earlier as a freshman congressman he had listened to President Harry Truman announce, "I am happy to report to this 81st Congress that the state of the Union is good. Our Nation is better able than ever before to meet the needs of the American people, and to give them their fair chance in the pursuit of happiness. [It] is foremost among the nations of the world in the search for peace." Ford then continued: "Today, that freshman Member from Michigan stands where Mr. Truman stood, and I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good." He then went on to list some of the various problems then besetting the country - among them unemployment, recession, inflation, the deficit, the national debt, energy dependence, and "politics as usual" in Washington.

Well, we survived the seventies, but that decade's political failures culminated in the disastrous election of 1980 election and the consequent undermining of what was left of the post-war political, social, and cultural consensus that from 1945 to 1970 had supported what was probably the most broadly and equally shared period of progress in American history. And now we have reaped the whirlwind caused by our retreat from the ethos of that era, of which the mid-1970s crises President Ford acknowledged have proved to be but a harbinger.

Right now our country could really use a serious State of the Union speech - not the usual platitudinous performance punctuated by predictable congressional jumping up and down. Right now our country could really use an honest assessment of the political, social, cultural, and moral mess we are in, honestly assessed so as to invite some serious attempt to address our collective failings and somehow start over again.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Fulfilled in Our Hearing

The Gospel [Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21] we just heard took place in the otherwise ordinary setting of a Sabbath service in the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown, and it was as an ordinary member of the community that he took his turn reading the scripture (just as members of this congregation did here moments ago).

The passage Jesus read was familiar enough.  They had probably heard it many times, and had no reason to suppose that this time would be any different – any more than many of us, coming to Mass Sunday after Sunday, expect anything extraordinary to happen. The surprise was not what Jesus had read, but rather his unexpected announcement that the prophet’s words were being fulfilled then and there: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Our reading today ends on that somewhat cheerful note, but the rest of the story [Luke 4:21-30] (which we’ll hear next week) tells how Jesus’ audience were first amazed at his words, but then turned against him and, filled with fury, drove him out of the town, and tried to throw him off the hilltop on which Nazareth was built. But Jesus, we are told, passed through the midst of them and went away.

Jesus’ audience’s amazement really shouldn’t surprise us, since surprise is one thing we usually least expect. And, since human history probably produces more bad news than good news, genuinely good news (if and when it comes) usually comes as a surprise. It doesn’t fit our ordinary expectations, and it is those ordinary expectations that govern our reactions most of the time. For the congregation at Nazareth to have expected Isaiah’s words to be fulfilled in their hearing, that would have been surprising. Hence their amazed reaction to Jesus’ surprising invitation to them to change their expectations!

For us today, too, the contrast can be quite as upsetting between Jesus’ amazing message and our present situation – natural disasters, climate change and our collective failure to face up to it, partisan fighting and political dysfunction, economic inequality, social conflicts, scandals and mutual recriminations even (sadly) within the Church itself.

Hence the understandable skepticism of those who have a hard time reconciling the good news the Church proclaims with the ordinary old news of our day-to-day world. We all know people who, tragically, are no longer actively involved in the life of the Church. There are many reasons why this happens – getting married, moving away, boredom, indifference, personal quarrels, national politics, and increasingly in our sadly post-Christian society not having really learned what being Church is all about in the first place, having heard the good news in a way that sounded like bad news or often enough like no news at all..

Then again many active, faithfully practicing Catholics may experience similar doubts, difficulties, conflicts, and questions. In that sense, there might not be a whole lot of difference between the two groups – any more than there was between those who spoke highly of Jesus in the Gospel story and those who were all filled with fury at him. If anything, the story seems to suggest they were really the same people – speaking highly of Jesus one minute, then all filled with fury the next – just as any one of us can be very committed and enthusiastic one day, but then something happens to make us angry or indifferent.

Ultimately, for us now, as for them then, the difference comes down to Jesus himself – Jesus who clearly made himself the issue, setting the stage for everything that followed. Ultimately, what solidifies our commitment and makes the Church effective in the world is how our expectations of life have been changed by Jesus himself, who in turn challenges us to share those changed expectations with the world he has chosen to be a part of and so remains with us in his Church, where life’s ordinary old news has become God’s good news.
In that Church, we are all, as St. Paul says [1 Corinthians 12:12-30], baptized into one body – Christ’s body – Christ’s face for the world to see, God’s word for the world to hear. The Church’s mission is a communal effort, as in different ways and at different times we come together with our many different experiences and needs, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and anxieties, to form a community of faith, hope, and love to continue Christ’s life and work in our world. We all share in that mission – from which we benefit and to which we contribute according to our circumstances.

Contributing to the mission of the Church is about much more than money, of course; but (as long as we live in a world in which resources are limited and things cost) money is inevitably a part of it. And so, as your pastor, my special task today is to ask you to make a pledge next week to this year’s Annual Bishop’s Appeal. 

Abruptly put that way, it may seem like a change of subject - but not really. Doing our share, both individually and as a community to support the mission of the Church has always been part of being the Church. In Saint Paul’s letters, for example, there are a number of references to the collection he was taking up to support the Mother Church in Jerusalem.

In the excerpt from his 1st letter to the Corinthians, from which we just heard, Saint Paul stressed the importance of unity – that there be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. Later on in the same letter, Paul wrote: Now in regard to the collection for the holy ones, you also should do as I ordered the churches of Galatia. On the first day of the week each of you should set aside and save whatever one can afford [1 Corinthians 16:1].

Saint Paul was doing two things. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were in real need, and Paul wanted his somewhat better-off Gentile Christian converts to help them out. But he also wanted the different local communities to understand that they were all part of one Church, all on the same journey together, all caring for and supporting one another, and in the process spreading the kingdom’s frontiers farther out into the world.

Paul took this responsibility very seriously, as an essential expression of what it means to be a Church community, what it means to be diverse and different people all united in one Church, one Body of Christ. That is the same spirit in which we need to approach our annual Bishop’s Appeal, which is our annual opportunity as individuals and parishes to unite our efforts as one local Church here in East Tennessee to meet the multiple needs of the diocese for mission, education, charity, and service to so many people with so many needs.
Our parish is where we experience Church most intimately, and that is why we all love our parish and support it in so many ways, not just financial. But our parish is but one part of our local Church in East Tennessee, the Diocese of Knoxville, apart from which our parish would not even exist. So we all have to come together as a local Church, as a diocese, to make possible the things the Church needs to do. Your participation in the annual Bishop’s Appeal will help support the essential (but expensive) work of training seminarians along with the next generation of deacons and other parish leaders. It will enable essential diocesan programs for sacramental preparation and religious education, and will continue to make possible the Church’s vital social outreach to the thousands of clients served each year through our Catholic Charities, which responds to so many human needs in our communities. None of this happens automatically. It’s all ultimately up to us to make it all happen.

The Bishop’s Appeal is not just another “special collection.” It is at the heart of who we are and what we are called to do in the world.

Many of you have contributed in the past and have already received a letter in the mail. Maybe you have already sent in your pledge. If so, thank you. If you haven’t yet, you’ll have a chance to pledge next Sunday. Once again, our assigned parish goal this year will be $52,200. So please give it serious thought this week.

The Paulist Fathers have been privileged to serve the Church in Tennessee for over a century, starting with 50+ years of mission outreach in Middle Tennessee.  For another 50+ years, the Paulist Fathers maintained a major mission parish in Memphis. And, since 1973, we have been busy here in Knoxville, sharing the good news of Christ and the life of his Church in this city’s downtown and at its university, through our commitment to the life and mission of the Church here in East Tennessee in the Diocese of Knoxville. So I invite you to be attentive and generous in your response when our Bishop, carrying on the same tradition started by Saint Paul, makes his annual appeal to you next week.

The Bishop’s Appeal is obviously not the only thing we do as the Catholic Church in East Tennessee. But it is an important part of making all those other things we do possible.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time and the Annual Bishop's Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 27, 2019.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Preacher of the truth to the whole world

In 1954, the Commission for the Reform of the Liturgy seriously discussed abolishing today's feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul. Considering that the final outcome of the calendar reform, we should probably consider ourselves lucky that it somehow survived when so many other even more ancient observances were pointlessly obliterated.

Of course, most saints are celebrated on the anniversary of their death; and, if the saint was a martyr, that itself is often his or her principal claim on our attention. Paul was in fact martyred in Rome along with the Apostle Peter, and the two are indeed celebrated together every year on June 29. But then, every January 25, there is this atypically additional celebration of St. Paul – focused on the event in his life that we now commonly call his “conversion.” That great event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and put him on an equal footing with the others to whom the Risen Lord had appeared, highlighting 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 - Predicator veritatis in universo mundo (Preacher of the truth to the whole world).

Until then, Paul had been, 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 critical issues which confronted the apostolic 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 - the Roman Catholic Church.

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 continues to serve as a model. The world has changed a lot since Paul’s time, but the Church’s mission - our mission - remains the same.

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.

Photo: Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Outrage! Outrage! OUTRAGE!

I suppose that, in an ideal world, everyone would be content and so there would be nothing to protest about and hence no demonstrations in the streets. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world and, this side of the eschaton, are not likely to do so. Hence, people will be discontented, and some will protest and demonstrate - as in this society they have every right to do. By inclination (and perhaps also as a consequence of having previously studied and taught political science), I am more biased in favor of political action (starting with voting) and less inclined to symbolic and expressive political gestures. But symbolic and expressive political gestures have their legitimate place; and, in any case, we live in a free society where symbolic and expressive political behaviors such as protests and demonstrations are every citizen's right.

So let us stipulate at the outset that everyone who participated in the now famous events at the Lincoln Memorial last week, events that have sparked so much predictable outrage on both sides of our great national political divide, everyone who participated had every right to be there protesting and demonstrating for his or her cause, whatever anyone else thinks of that cause. Of course, that does not absolve any of them from reasonable expectations of proper behavior, standards of which, however, continue to decline in this age of social media and mass-produced outrage And therein lies much of the problem. Twitter, for example, as John Gehring recently wrote in Commonweal has become "a performance space where we showcase our polished outrage and virtue."

Not having been there, I must, like most Americans, rely on conflicting accounts of the incident. It seems fair, however, to infer that the acute confrontation began with the provocative behavior and language of the "Black Hebrew Israelites," which at some point led to Nathan Phillips getting involved, which resulted in the widely viewed image of his apparent personal confrontation with one of the high school students. Accounts differ and continue to confuse about what exactly transpired, who said or did what, and who was provoking or reacting to provocations. As is often the case, there may be plenty of blame to go around. Meanwhile, the Diocese of Covington has wisely pledged an "independent, third-party investigation," and should be lauded for doing so.

The high school students may or may not have been engaging, as the Commonweal article insists, "in a form of harassment." Yet clearly some questions need to be raised. Obviously, a lot has changed since I was their age, but now as then there must be some expected standards of appropriate behavior to which students are expected to conform -  at least on occasions such as this when they are publicly representing their institution in a very visible way

In the long sweep of human history, adolescence is a newly invented concept. It cannot be construed to absolve adolescents of any and all responsibility for their actions. But it does diminish responsibility - certainly in our society and certainly when they suddenly find themselves far from home in a strange situation that must have been bewildering at best and likely frightening as well. But with that diminished responsibility comes increased responsibility - remote as well as proximate - on the part of relevant adults. I think Gehring's Commonweal article somewhat overstates its case on several points, but I echo his obvious question: "Where are the adults chaperoning these students? Teachers or parents are nowhere to be seen. If a few clear-headed grownups had moved the students along, the situation could have been defused." This question is so obvious that I am amazed it has not been everyone' first reaction. 

Adult responsibility in such a situation is remote as well as proximate, however, which brings us inevitably to the matter of the MAGA hats some students seem to have worn and which may have helped trigger the initial hostile reaction to them. What kind of preparation, instruction, guidance, or (since this was a Catholic school) catechesis did they receive before their trip to Washington? Certainly students are citizens with a personal right to express themselves, but they were there as the representatives of their school, and the adults remotely as well as proximately responsible for their behavior should have known better than to permit wearing MAGA hats to the March! 

At minimum, someone in a position of responsibility should have recognized how provocative such hats would be. It is one thing for a student personally to choose to identify with the despised policies of an unpopular president. It is quite another thing for him to act in a way that identifies his entire school with such policies and with a president opposed by the majority of Americans. If such a student was ignorant of this, that only raises more questions about what those responsible have been teaching or failing to teach.

And, given the dramatic disconnect between the president's policies and the moral values one would like to think they are being taught at such a school, the issue of adult responsibility for their preparation, instruction, guidance, and catechesis seems that much more significant.

Of course, the students were in Washington to participate in a political demonstration. But they were there to participate in a very specific political demonstration - the annual March for Life. They were not there to advocate for Trump's border wall, and had no business identifying their school - much less the March itself - with Trump's border wall or any other administration policy. By doing so, they not only hurt the image of their school but they also did damage to the March for Life and insulted those of their fellow marchers  who believe as passionately in the human dignity of immigrants and other victims of the policies represented by those  hats. And, if they didn't understand that, where again were the adults who should have taught them?

Sadly, so far at least, the main thing we have learned from this horrendous episode is that we as a nation are increasingly divided into two teams and that, whatever happens, it is all about being outraged at the other side, about real or suitably simulated outrage, outrage, and ever more OUTRAGE! 

Monday, January 21, 2019

An Increasingly Dangerous Precedent

"A nation as large and complex as the United States, with its world-spanning obligations and interconnections, requires both the Republicans and Democrats to be serious and responsible governing parties. If moderation remains long absent from one party, let alone both, the consequences are likely to be dire." So warned Yale historian Geoffrey Kabaservice in his magisterial account of the Republican party's self-destructive recent history (Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, Oxford, 2012, p. 401). Note that date! He wrote those words when Donald Trump was still just largely a local New York phenomenon, whom hardly anyone seriously imagined would ever get anywhere near the White House! Trump's absence from Kabaservice's narrative highlights the complex history of the "conservative" movement's acquisition of complete control over the Republican party and with it the resulting destruction of that party's ability to govern - an inability now dramatically on display as the Trump shutdown enters the record books as the longest in our country's history.

By definition, a government "shutdown" is bizarre. It is also a relatively new tactic in American politics, the rise of which parallels the rise of the contemporary Republican party. This particular shutdown is especially bizarre because the outgoing Republican Congress had seemed to be on the verge of avoiding it, until the President panicked after some harsh words from right-wing commentators - and accordingly abandoned any attempt to govern the country in favor of campaign posturing.

Now he and his sidekicks in the Senate (and elsewhere) speak of "crisis" and "emergency." Of course, "crisis" and even "emergency" would be fair descriptions of the difficulties and dangers to which the country and so many individual citizens have been subjected as a result of this "shutdown." But of course, "crisis" and "emergency" in no way describe what the President and his supporters have chosen to apply those inflammatory words to describe. If there is any  "crisis" or "emergency" at the southern border and in immigration policy more generally, those terms apply essentially to the problems the President himself and his misguided immigration posturing have created over the last two years.

The abject subservience of Republican Senators to their White House master has indeed resulted in a crisis of constitutional democratic governance. The President's threat earlier in the "shutdown" to go around Congress completely by declaring a "state of emergency" was, so to speak, just the icing on the poisoned cake congressional Republicans have baked. And it speaks volumes about our constitutional dysfunction that some have actually suggested such a "state of emergency" could serve as a viable exit from the absurd logjam the "shutdown" has created.

The "shutdown" has created all sorts of serious problems for real people - first of all, for federal employees and contractors, but also for those dependent on government services (recipients of food stamps or income tax refunds, for example, and in the long run for all of us). For this reason alone, it is an unconscionable policy pursued by a particular President seeing to impose an unpopular policy he had no hope of achieving any other way.

Above and beyond these immediate problems, however, this lengthy crisis is creating a dangerous political precedent. The longer the President gets away with keeping the government "shutdown," behavior that has appropriately been characterized as holding society hostage (with all the moral opprobrium that rightly accompanies the concept of hostage-taking), the more dangerous the precedent that is being set. If this President gets away with it this time, what is to stop this President - or any future President - from doing this, seeking to circumvent congress and ordinary constitutional processes, whenever he (or the talk-show hosts who set his agenda) want to impose an extreme and unpopular policy they have no other way of enacting?

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Running for President

In 1960, John . Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on January 2. Eight years later, his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, announced his candidacy on March 16. Such a timetable would, of course, be inconceivable today. Already in January 2019, several candidates have publicly declared themselves for the 2020 Democratic nomination, and numerous other potential candidates are waiting in the wings and may soon announce themselves. Not all these candidates are equally plausible, of course, but everyone seems to take it for granted that this business of announcing a year ahead of time is somehow necessary. Which, sadly, seems to be true.

For this sorry state of affairs, we can blame the media, of course, and the 24-hour news cycle and the internet age, etc. We can also blame the decline of political parties - in particular, the decline of party nominating conventions. In Kennedy's day, the goal was to amass sufficient support to win at the party's convention. Nowadays, the convention is largely just a formality, the winner having emerged earlier from a series of primaries and caucuses, which have conspired to advance the process chronologically, while also - by taking the decision-making away from experienced party leaders and giving it to increasingly ideologically motivated primary voters and caucus goers - has helped push both parties farther to their respective extremes, which catastrophic consequences for governance.

What is to be done? Not much. The train has long since left the station. We are in for a long campaign. and, if past experience provides any precedent, we can count on the coverage to focus on ephemeral matters - remember the media's disastrous obsession with Hillary Clinton's emails - and to do little to move the nation toward creating a climate out of which effective governing will be likely to result. Ultimately, we voters are the culprits, having signaled in so many ways that this is, above all, an entertainment culture, in which we have settled comfortably into the role of consumers instead of citizens with moral responsibilities to one another and to the common good.

Meanwhile basic government functions are not getting done. Even when the government has not been shutdown, Congress has continued to abdicate its responsibilities, and the media and the voters have continued to treat politics as a spectator sport rather than as a vehicle for coming together to govern the country.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Madame Speaker Says NO to SOTU

The State of the Union message is a constitutionally mandated obligation of the President to report to Congress (intended by the Constitution to be the pre-eminent and more representative branch).  The Constitution's Article 2, Section 3, commands that the President “from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The message is a mandate. The address is  not. The address - an American version of a royal Speech from the The Throne - goes all the way back to George Washington, but was subsequently discontinued by Thomas Jefferson, finally being revived again a little more than a century ago by Woodrow Wilson. Its inherently monarchical style invests our (stylistically at least) republican government with welcome dignity and gravitas, however much the applauding and jumping up and down on cue may detract from that dignity. And, in the hands of an effective communicator who appreciates the symbolic power and resonance of the occasion, it can be a formidable political tool.

Whether for the State of the Union or any other comparable occasion, however, when the President comes to Congress to address the elected representatives of the American people, he comes at their invitation - an invitation freely extended by the Speaker and, apparently, withdrawn by the present Speaker in the context of the current partial government shutdown. Indeed, would not the pomp and pageantry of a State of the Union seem somewhat incongruous with so many departments of the federal government incapacitated and so many of those charged to guarantee the event's safety and security scandalously unpaid?

The media has done a credible job of highlighting the pain of so many workers and contractors whose day-to-day livelihoods and long-term prospects have been jeopardized by the Trump shutdown. It has been somewhat less effective, perhaps, at highlighting the wider social damage the Trump shutdown is doing and at creating a corresponding sense of urgency about resolving it. Skipping the SOTU show may help to accomplish both. The President may not appreciate the meaning of missing a paycheck in the life of a TSA agent or a member of the Coast Guard or anyone else who can't just ask one's father for a million-dollar loan. But he appreciates TV and surely knows what he would be missing. 

Of course, he can find other options to speak his message, but any alternative would inevitably lack not only the regal pretense but the unifying, ostensibly non-partisan pretense which is integral to the State of the Union's efficacy as well as its charm.

Personally, I like ritual and ceremony. As a citizen, I appreciate their immense value and the value of tradition and continuity in keeping society going from generation to generation and bonding a common community from disparate individuals. For all its flaws (e.g., the above-mentioned "applauding and jumping up and down on cue"), the State of the Union ritual is a valuable symbol of our identity as a nation that both embraces and transcends the short-term politics of the any particular present moment. Yet this is, as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said "no ordinary time," and perhaps nothing would more immediately demonstrate the damage this presidency has done not just to our short-term politics but to the values of our nation than canceling Trump's SOTU show.

Monday, January 14, 2019

On the Basis of Sex (The Movie)

On the Basis of Sex is a dramatization of the life and early career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones). It starts in 1956 with Ginsburg as a first-year student at Harvard Law School. When her husband Martin, a second-year student, falls ill, Ruth attends both her classes and his, takes notes and transcribes lectures, while caring for both Martin and their infant daughter. Martin recovers and becomes a successful tax lawyer in New York, while Ruth transfers to Columbia to take care of her family while finishing law school. Those who know her story (or who saw the documentary RBG) already know how important her family has been for her and what a successful relationship she had with her husband, all of which this film does a good job keeping in focus.

She graduates at the top of her class, but is unable to find a job at a law firm because none are willing to hire a woman. Instead, she takes a job as a professor at Rutgers Law School, and teaches "The Law And Sex Discrimination." In 1970, Martin brings a tax law case to Ruth's attention - the case of a Denver man denied a caregiver tax deduction because Section 214 of the Internal Revenue Code limited that deduction to "a woman, a widower or divorce, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized." Ruth sees this case as an opportunity to challenge laws that assume that men will work to provide for their families, and that women will stay home to care for their husbands and children. Most of the movie is taken up with her preparation for this case and her Argument at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

As the film ends we learn that the appellate court found unanimously in her client's favor, that she went on to co-found the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU, and in 1993 became an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, confirmed almost unanimously (something almost inconceivable today). The final scene shows the actual Justice Ginsburg walking up the steps of the Supreme Court building.

Although the oral argument scenes attempt to create some suspense, we know the outcome, and so there really is no suspense. The film focuses our attention on her determination and persistence (against seemingly incontrovertible odds) to bring the Law in step with the rapidly changing character of gender relations in contemporary society. It does so while effectively portraying Justice-to-be Ginsburg's actual real-life circumstances and family challenges, which themselves mirrored that changing society.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

An Important Debate for American "Conservatives"

Everybody (well, no, not everybody, but a lot of the people who make noise) has been talking about Tucker Carlsons's infamous "soliloquy." Since he is not someone I am in the habit of watching or listening to, I only gradually became aware of what Carlson had said, as more and more outraged "conservatives" came forward to defend the sanctity of their beloved "free market" and "personal responsibility" (the latter applying more often than not  mainly to the poor and middle classes but not to the high-roller recipients of federal bailouts in 2008 and other forms of government largesse over the years).

Actually, however, the contretemps Carlson initiated is important. It highlights the longstanding cleavage in American "conservatism" that has finally borne fruit in the Trump phenomenon. For decades now, "conservatives" have advocated and the Republican party has attempted to implement policies that have supported and reinforced the privileged status of those in society's upper reaches, usually at the expense of those below them in the social and economic hierarchy. Since such a program is hardly ever likely to appeal to any normal electoral majority, its proponents have had to appeal precisely to many voters who are definitely downscale in the social and economic hierarchy, appealing to them on "cultural" issues, appeals often tied to racial and religious resentments. As David Frum famously wrote: "The Republican party was built on a coalition of the nation's biggest winners from globalization and its biggest losers. the winners wrote the policy; the losers provided the votes" (Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, Harper Collins, 2018, p. 36) .

In important respects, the Trump victory could be interpreted as the "losers" overthrowing the "winners." In Frum's picturesque portrayal: "While the party elite coalesced upon more immigration, less secure health coverage, and one more Bush, the rank and file were frantically signalling: less immigration, better health coverage, and no more Bushes."

As the Republican party has been forced to rebrand itself as a Trumpist populist party, some "conservative" spokesmen have inevitably paralleled the process on the idea side. Hence Tucker Carlson's "soliloquy." What was significant about Carlson's speech - and what has provoked so much "conservative" angst - was his expansion of his cultural critique into an explicitly economic one, somewhere "conservatives" and Republicans more commonly resist going.. A Ross Douthat write in Sunday's NY Times, Carlson went "from a critique of liberal cosmopolitanism into a critique of libertarianism, from a lament for the decline of the family to an argument that this decline can be laid at the feet of consumer capitalism as well as social liberalism."

Now such arguments are not new, of course, not new at all. They have been a staple of old-fashioned, "romantic," traditionalist, "Tory," and often Christian conservatism, which typically laments these developments. And they have been inherent as well in Marxist analysis, which generally applauded such developments as sweeping away older restraints on the way to ultimate human liberation. What is unusual is hearing such arguments in the context of American market-oriented "conservatism" (which is, of course, an American adaptation of what is more commonly called classical liberalism). Seeing a certain type of American "conservative" arguing as Carlson has - or being forced to respond to him - is refreshing. 

If nothing else, this argument is voicing and translating to a more serious venue some of the concerns that lie at the heart of contemporary "populism" - both in the U.S. and elsewhere. If those concerns are ever to be adequately addressed, and if the movement that has voiced them is ever to be a positive force, as opposed to becoming mainly a vehicle for racism and bigotry, then more "conservative" thinkers need to preoccupy themselves with those concerns. And the existing "establishment" of "conservative" thinkers needs, therefore, to recognize that the 1980s are long gone and start re-thinking its inherited agenda.  

Just as the American Left has had to come to terms with the fact that there are actual problems that public policy and government action cannot completely resolve, likewise the existing "establishment" of "conservative" thinkers needs to recognize at long last that public policy and government action are absolutely necessary to address successfully American society's social, economic, political, cultural, and moral wounds - and will be, if anything more necessary in the aftermath of the Trump era.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

"The President Has Chosen Fear"

Among my childhood memories from the early years of television were the occasional presidential addresses televised from the White House. Perhaps the most famous (because the crisis was so acute) was President Kennedy's October 1962 televised Oval Office Address at the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But such solemn speeches were already a nation tradition going back (in my memory) at least to President Eisenhower, who addressed the nation on critical occasions, for example, when he sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the court order integrating the high school there. 

The memorable thing about such speeches was their solemnity. The President spoke from his desk, as we were reminded at the end when the invisible voice of the commentator would conclude by saying something like. "You have been listening to an address by the President of the United States. The President spoke from the Oval Office in the White House in Washington. And now, our national anthem." 

Times have changed - not necessarily for the better. Presidents have changed - likewise. 

After almost two years in the White House (during which his party controlled the Congress but never gave him his "wall), President Trump has finally attempted to make his case using this old-fashioned method, perhaps hoping that the very formality and presidential dignity, which he has repeatedly eschewed and even mocked, might come to his assistance on this occasion. Certainly sitting at his desk and speaking calmly and from a prepared (and presumably vetted) text represent an improvement in his presidential style. Yet, masquerading as a Presidential Address was something that in the end still seemed really more like a campaign speech. (In this, it was not unlike the contrast between traditional presidential visits to troops in war zones and Trump's Christmas campaign speech in Iraq.)

"Border security" is a sensitive issue. Like the proverbial motherhood and apple pie, hardly anyone is against it. In fact, contrary to the impression the President tried to give, both parties have supported improvements in border security. But the debate about "border security" (as opposed to the actual reality, which is less controversial) has to some extent become a a surrogate for the debate we should be having as a society about how best to respond to differing perceptions about present and future immigration, which is both an actual reality with complicated social consequences and an emotional symbol for feelings about societal change.

As a nation, we have repeatedly failed to address both immigration's actual and symbolic dimensions in recent decades, each failure to enact comprehensive immigration legislation leaving the situation more challenging for the country over the long term. The result has been demagoguery in place of rational debate, and increasingly inhumane and ineffective governmental actions.

Had Trump been more like a more traditional politician, he would probably be remembered for having highlighted many Americans' increased anxiety about immigration's impact, and he would probably have succeeded in getting credit for increasing "border security" in return for bipartisan negotiation and agreement on other sensible policies, such as DACA, etc. All of which could have been accomplished without the absurdity of a partial government shutdown and all the human suffering and social harm that has accompanied it.

But, as Speaker Pelosi pointed out accurately in her response, instead "the President has chosen fear." 

As a result, refugees and immigrants have been the losers. Federal employees have been the losers. Citizens who depend on specific government services have been the losers. In the end, democratic constitutional governance has been the loser, along with morality, common sense, and the standing of the United States.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

We Three Kings

Entering our church today, you will have noticed an alteration in the nativity scene, in which the shepherds have been joined by the magi. (In the actual story, of course, the shepherds came and went on the same day and so were long gone by the time the magi arrived on the scene.) 

In the United States, sadly, Epiphany often seems more like some sort of vestigial postscript to Christmas, which itself has become a vestigial postscript to Black Friday, Christmas shopping, and Christmas Eve. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older even than Christmas itself, and it still ranks as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. And this year, we even get to celebrate it on its traditional and proper day, which means we really had 12 Days of Christmas this year!

In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day. Epiphany in the East is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the formal and visible beginning of his mission as an adult. Here in the West, we postpone the commemoration of Christ’s baptism until next Sunday, focusing today almost exclusively on the story of the magi.

Who were the magi? The title “magi” suggests that they were wise, learned men, maybe Zoroastrian priests, probably from Persia, perhaps astrologers. Beyond that, however, we really know next to nothing at all about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings), nor even their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as three, which in time came to represent the three then-known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe - and the three ages of human life – youth, maturity, and old age).

We may be very curious about such matters, but Matthew’s Gospel tells us none of these things. It does, however, tell us what it is important for us to know about the magi.

First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, that is, Gentiles, pagans. As such, they represent the majority of the human race – past and present – in a world in which (as we just heard from the Prophet Isaiah) darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples [Isaiah 60:2]. In other words, the magi had only human, natural knowledge, and sought, as Saint Paul said in his famous speech to a pagan audience in Athens, the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone [Acts 17:24-25]. Pope Benedict XVI called the pagan magi “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age.”

But, next, the account also tells us that, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, for the whole story our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, the one and only Savior of the world. It tells us that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself not in astrological signs but in the history of Israel. Thus, it was to Jerusalem, Israel’s holy city, that the magi came to learn the full significance of the star – a meaning revealed in the Jewish scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah prophesied in today’s 1st reading: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance [Isaiah 60:3].

By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point. When Herod heard the Magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him – troubled, not overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? Then as now, the same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threatening challenge it posed to their power and priorities.

And then there were the chief priests and scribes whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. So none of them did the obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did!

Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!

And another warning of what happens when supposedly religious people put their trust in tyrants, when they ally themselves with unworthy political rulers in order to acquire or retain political power or influence in society. Not for nothing does Psalm 146 warn: Put not your trust in princes. Then as now, supposedly religious people, like those Jerusalem chief priests and scribes allied with Herod, presumably knew the words of that psalm, but they totally and tragically missed its point! They remind me of something Reinhold Niebuhr wrote 50 years ago about clergy who get too close to unworthy political figures "It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties."

The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. “The Christian life,” Thomas Merton once wrote [March 3, 1950] “is a continual discovery of Christ in new and unexpected places. And these discoveries are sometimes more profitable when you find Him in something you had tended to overlook and even despise. Then the awakening is purer and its effect more keen, because He was so close at hand.”

The magi set out as authentic pilgrims and so found what they were seeking – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage, the homage due to a true king. In the traditional Roman liturgy, for centuries when these words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was required to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi.

As for the magi, we never hear anything about them again. We know only that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem, so to speak, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay put in Bethlehem, any more than the earlier arriving shepherds did. Instead they went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before; but, thanks to what they had experienced, they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we like the magi must also be different now from whatever we would otherwise have been.

Every January, after the holidays, we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary activities – at home, at school, at work, whatever and wherever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been.

Long before there were funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual date which the Roman Liturgy assigned to announce the date of Easter and other important dates in the coming year, thus putting the entire year and all of human time in its proper perspective.

None of us, of course, can even begin to foresee what this new year will bring, whether for better or for worse. Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain and challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to travel with the magi – to go on pilgrimage with then to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us, first, to Christ, and, then, thanks to Christ, on that new way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being invited to find and to follow.

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 6, 2019.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The 116th Congress

At noon today, in obedience to the U.S. Constitution and the recently expressed will of the electorate, the 116th Congress will convene. Importantly, this will mark a return to "divided government," thanks to the restoration of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. while the Republicans retain the Senate and the White House. This could and perhaps should mean a return to the Founders' vision of the Executive and Legislative as co-equal branches of government, each defending its institutional prerogatives and thus checking the other. 

This, of course, has largely ceased to be the case in our present political era thanks to the development of political parties (which the Constitution did not envision) and the modern evolution of those parties from broad coalitions to narrowly ideological, hyper-partisan cults, concerned with uncritically supporting or opposing the president's agenda rather than with the institutional independence of Congress. A positive interpretation of this development might be to say that the congressional parties have been acting as if ours were a parliamentary system. Now, parliamentary systems have much to recommend them, and on balance I have always believed that a parliamentary system would be the better model in many ways. But that can't change the fact that our government is not structured as a parliamentary system, is not designed to work that way, and cannot consistently work that way.

But neither can it work the way it was intended, A modern government depends on executive initiative and leadership (another argument for a parliamentary system). Not only is Congress ill equipped to exercise such initiative and leadership (regardless of the constitution's clear intent), but its members are increasingly allergic to such a role and prefer to abdicate as much as possible to the executive and the judiciary. 

And then there is the perennial problem of the Senate - a predicament accurately diagnosed by Alexis de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago: "If the minority of the nation preponderates in the Senate, it may paralyse the decision of the majority represented in  the other House, which is contrary to the spirit of constitutional government" (Democracy in America, volume 1, chapter 8). 

At present, the only branch of our entire federal government which represents the majority of the American electorate is the House of Representatives. It will be up to the new House to live up to that challenge and function as the ultimate check on our unpredictable and unconstrained president and our unrepresentative and presidentially compliant Senate.