Thursday, May 13, 2021
Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Tuesday, May 11, 2021
As more and more Americans get vaccinated, it is now clearly time - or at least very close to time - for most of us to start trying to live somewhat normally again (whatever "normal" might actually mean in a post-pandemic world). As someone who has not entered a restaurant since March 7, 2020, nor been to a movie theater, I need to hear that message as much as anyone. About 14 months ago, as the covid-19 pandemic spread uncontrollably and seemed poised either to kill us or totally take over the lives of those it didn't kill, we did the only thing we could. We responded by locking ourselves in a cage, guarded by distance, masks, and an abundant, obsessive-compulsive, overuse of hand sanitizer. That all made perfect sense at the time.
But that was then, and now is now. Thanks to the scientific miracle of highly effective vaccines developed with unprecedented speed, it is possible to stop the transmission of the virus - assuming, of course, people all get vaccinated. Sadly, many people around the world do not yet have that opportunity, and until they do the virus will to some extent remain a a real and permanent threat to all of humanity. Sadly, too, there are many who now have the opportunity to get vaccinated but have not done so for political reasons. The only morally response to that is to require proof of vaccination - for schools, for example, much as has long been the case with regard to other vaccinations.
But, back to my problem. After 14 months, it has become easy to stay inside and not go anywhere. Too easy. And, all too often, the impression has sometimes been given that getting vaccinated makes little difference and that one should still maintain distance, wear a mask, etc. Of course, as long as there are unvaccinated people among us, some of those precautions may still make sense in certain settings. As long as I can't be confident that absolutely everyone on the bus has been fully vaccinated, I want the bus to require everyone to wear a mask. That makes sense.
But it also makes sense to start unlocking one's personal cage. Once you have been vaccinated and your family and friends as well, what then should you be doing? For sure, still wear a mask on the bus - for society's sake. But, as importantly, take that bus and go somewhere!
Sunday, May 9, 2021
“If a prerequisite for leading our conference is continuing to lie to our voters, then Liz [Cheney] is not the best fit,” according to Ohio Representative Anthony Gonzalez, one of the nine other Republican House members who, with Cheney, chose to acknowledge their Emperor's lack of clothes and accordingly voted to impeach President Trump in January. Clearly, lying is indeed now a prerequisite for whatever passes for "leadership" among the Trump personality-cult that is the contemporary opposition party. When Utah Republicans booed their Senator and 2012 presidential standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, who as senator twice voted to convict Trump, they called him (of all absurd things) a "communist." Romney responded “aren’t you embarrassed?” Obviously, most Republicans are not.
Indeed, whatever one thinks of the "severely conservative" (as he called himself in 2012) Romney (of whom I am no more a fan than I am of Liz Cheney, neither of whom could I ever imagine voting for), he is obviously no "communist." Calling rival American politicians "communist" was always a bizarre and unprincipled tactic even in the worst years of the Cold War. Its evident absurdity three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union just exemplifies even further the fantasy world which the Trump cult increasingly inhabits and its commitment to lies and more lies. One of the many ironies of our current crisis is that that Trump cult's organizational expression in the contemporary Republican party, in its sectarian character and its indifference to truth, increasingly rather resembles the only actual "communist" entity of any remaining significance still in existence, the Chinese Communist Party. And both seem to be devoted to Lenin's infamous call to employ "a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, and scorn toward those who disagree with us.”
The overused (and at times tiresome) terminological distinction between being both/and as opposed to either/or nonetheless has some real meaning and value in politics. A healthy, well balanced society needs both its left and right wings, both progressive advocacy and cautious conservatism. If the Left's political purpose is to push society forward towards a more just and equitable future, the Right's role is to steer society prudently according to the truth of human nature and the lessons of human history. Even if the United States somehow survives the Republican party's Trumpist abandonment of constitutional democratic norms of governance (a survival which is by no means a certainty at this stage), the absence of anything resembling a serious conservative opposition party has already decisively damaged American politics for a long time to come.
(Photo: The Emperor's New Clothes, Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, Hans Christian Andersen's first illustrator.)
Friday, May 7, 2021
A friend of mine once characterized Mother's Day as "a conspiracy of florists and greeting card companies." It is hard to disagree completely with that characterization; but, as with most such witticisms, it gets the story only partly right.
A more pointed critique would be that Mother's Day (and Father's Day and, for that matter, the way we obsessively "honor" our veterans) are all examples of our very American tendency to "honor" people in symbolic, virtue-signaling ways, which are completely contradicted by prevailing public policies. Somehow a society that falls all over itself to "honor" mothers every May manages to have the least pro-family, pro-mother, pro-child policies of any other comparably advanced society.
This disconnect may matter more than ever right now, when the Great Recession followed by a global Pandemic have highlighted the hopeless dysfunction and inequality in our society and the damage done in particular to children and families. And, speaking of children and families, have we not noticed that marriages are fewer, family-formation is down and our national birthrate is shockingly low (the lowest since 1979)?
So maybe Mother's Day might be reimagined as an occasion for actually thinking about (and eventually doing something about) this disastrous state of affairs. In which case, all the money spent to enrich those florists and greeting card companies might turn out to be well spent!
Tuesday, May 4, 2021
When I was in college and grad school in the late 1960s and early-mid1970s, Karl Marx, who would be 203 years old today, was all the rage - in particular, the writings and ideas of the so-called "Young" Marx - the Feuerbachian transformer of Hegeliansm and theorist of Entfremdung ("alienation"), popularized by "Frankfurt School" critical theorists like Theodore Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Jurgen Habermas. Simultaneously critical of both capitalism and of Leninist communism, and turned on by existentialism and Freudianism and whatever else seemed to fill in the gaps, my generation of students absorbed the vocabulary and some of the substance of the "Young" Marx's critique of society, starting with Ludwig Feuerbach's critique of religion.
Even then, however, the real-world prospects for any transformation of the world in any way that even remotely resembled Marxist categories appeared increasingly unlikely - and, if any thing, even less so after the collapse of the pseudo-Marxist Soviet regime two decades later.
As my one-time mentor Sheldon Wolin wrote in 2004, Marx's "predictions of the inevitable collapse/overthrow of advanced capitalism by a successful working-class revolution seem a relic of nineteenth-century romanticism. Instead of a steady growth in proletarian power, let alone in revolutionary ardor, organized labor underwent a dramatic, seemingly irreversible decline during the latter half of the twentieth century, suggesting that it is the workers who have been defeated - but by a different revolution" [Politics and Vision, Princeton U. Pr., 2004, p. 407].
Back in my day, "old left" ideas about proletarian revolution were giving way to "new left" alternative "revolutionary" identities, much as traditional liberal and social democratic commitments to the working classes have since been replaced by the vagaries and superficialities of "woke" progressivism.
Yet Marxist language and categories continue to enjoy a remarkable shelf life. For me, what remains interesting and viable from the historical wreckage of Marxism is what was perhaps Marx's main observation and insight - his recognition and appreciation of capitalism as the ultimate global agent of modernity's destruction of all that preceded it.
As Ferris Jabr wrote in last Sunday's NY Times Magazine, "significantly elongating life without sustaining well-being is pointless" ["How Long Can We Live?"] Analogously, that is what global capitalism has done, it has radically improved human productive capacity, while radically altering and undermining the spiritual and moral dimensions of human life and the political character of society, thus preventing the political order from remedying the damage inflicted by capitalism on its citizens and (as we have more recently come to appreciate) upon our common home, the natural world. Thus, to quote Wolin again, Marx "set out to probe the question of why the state failed to promote that generality of shared advantages and burdens for its members which, according to Hegel, was the true mark of the political [p.412].
That probe remains the preeminent challenge for any post-capitalist political theory, as, analogously, the post-capitalist practical political challenge must be to rebuild a constituency to maximize rational political action and to minimize capitalist market mystification that disempowers citizens, as the governing political orthodoxies have been doing in American politics since 1980.
Monday, May 3, 2021
Alberto Melloni, professor of history of Christianity at the University of Modena/Reggio Emilia, has written an interesting and provocative piece in the April 24 issue of The Tablet, "How to Elect a Pope," in which he argues for reforms in the current conclave procedure. He makes some very valid and useful points. Unfortunately he begins with an apocalyptic scenario, which he says "demands an urgent revision of the rules," a scenario the risks of which he himself acknowledges no revision in the rules would effectively eliminate.
Melloni worries, rightly, that "well funded and well organised lobbyists and campaigners" and "powerful pressure groups or the emperors of social media" may in effect wield the infamous "veto," which Catholic monarchs wielded in papal elections as recently as 1903. His greatest fear seems to be the "revelation" of some supposed past behavior "rendering a newly elected pope unsuitable for office," the very thing that was attempted in 2013 when accusations were thrown against the new Pope Francis about his behavior during Argentina's 1970's "Dirty War." He is right that all such risks cannot be eliminated, and my guess is that, barring the highly implausible election of a very young, totally unknown prelate, who had never said or done anything of note, such scenarios will be increasingly likely, because that is the world and media universe we are now living in.
That said, Melloni does raise some other important concerns and does make some very sensible suggestions to address them. At present, we have more cardinals than ever, from more far away places than ever - a far cry from when there were only a few cardinals all or most of whom lived in Rome and participate in the government of the Church. At the same time, the cardinals seldom meet together, and have not done so now for some time. This means that a conclave could be composed of cardinals most of whom do not know each other and have little experience of interacting with one another. That alone would make it hard for them individually to decide whom to vote for and for sufficient votes to coalesce around an appropriate choice. All of which seem to highlight Melloni's fear of outside pressures in the pre-conclave.
So Melloni proposes that the cardinals (all of them, including the non-electors) should all live together at Santa Marta from the time they arrive. This would help them get to know one another and hopefully offer "more opportunities for genuine dialogue." Less logically in my opinion, he then proposes to restrict the general congregations to the cardinal electors alone. This might make the meetings somewhat more manageable in terms of size, but might also diminish the quality of the discussion by eliminating some of the most experienced voices. He further would exclude all cardinals over 75, further diminishing the pool of experienced participants. Had such a rule been in force, we would, of course, have no Pope Francis and would have never had Pope Saint John XXIII (and possibly no Vatican II). I am all for reforming the process, but not necessarily by reducing either the number of participants or the number of papabili.
To my mind, his most important proposal and the one most likely to produce real benefit is to start with only one ballot per day, gradually increasing the number if the conclave continues beyond a few days. As he points out, the two 21st-century conclaves "each lasted less than 28 hours." Quick conclaves please the press, but do not promote deliberation and discernment and do not necessarily benefit the Church. They favor obvious front-runners, especially so given the already mentioned ignorance so many cardinals may have about one another and about the multiplicity of options they might have if they took the time to consider them all.
I am sure some might fear that a longer conclave would give the impression of a Church divided and conflicted (which, of course, happens to be the case right now anyway, something everyone already knows about). To me, that is either a rationalization for our contemporary shortened attention span or yet another unjustified concession to the media and its politicized and sensationalized agenda. In fact, I think a conclave that lasted as long as a full week might well offer the necessary opportunities for deliberation, debate, and discernment, which really should be the point of a conclave.
Melloni's bottom-line is that he wants to avoid the risks to the Church posed by conclaves "such as we had in 2005 and 2013, run according to the same rules and in the same conditions, but with a group of cardinals even less familiar with each other, and perhaps even more emotionally exposed and vulnerable to external pressures and manoeuverings." On that, I think, he is right.
Most modern popes have tinkered with the electoral process. Pope Francis would do well to slow down the next conclave by implementing Melloni's proposals regarding the number and frequency of ballots.
Sunday, May 2, 2021
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2021.
Every day during this and every Easter season, the Church at Mass reads from the Acts of the Apostles – the evangelist Luke’s account of how the Risen Christ’s parting gift of the Holy Spirit transformed a small group of 120 disciples into a missionary movement that spread from Jerusalem to Rome and how that small Jewish sect became a world Church with a universal mission.
Saturday, May 1, 2021
From pre-Christian springtime fertility festival to the day designated by the Second International for its Marxist-themed workers' holiday, May Day has been all things to all people. In 1955, Pope Pius XII tried to compete with the Communist workers' holiday by establishing a new liturgical feast of Saint Joseph the Worker (Sanctus Joseph Opifex). While the new festival failed, obviously, to outperform the more popular May Day, in the process it did displace in the Catholic calendar another relatively modern feast, that of the Patronage of Saint Joseph, celebrated in the 19th century on the Third Sunday after Easter and in the 20th century on the Third Wednesday after Easter. Pius XII's ineffective innovation still survives - somewhat vestigially and not much noticed - in the contemporary calendar. That said, its annual occurrence in this Year of Saint Joseph offers another occasion to consider Saint Joseph's significance.
In 2005, the newly elected Pope Benedict XVI (whose own name was, of course, Joseph) made the best of what the calendar offered, somewhat counterfactually calling this observance in honor of Saint Joseph the Worker "a liturgical Memorial very dear to the Christian people." Recalling how it had been established "to highlight the importance of work and of the presence of Christ and his Church in the working world," he expressed his "hope that work will be available, especially for young people, and that working conditions may be ever more respectful of the dignity of the human person." Sixteen years later, after a world-wide economic recession, a pandemic, and other more prosaic efforts by global capitalism and the elites it enriches to diminish further the power of workers and all respect for the dignity of the human person, Pope Benedict's words seem as significant today as they were then. The approaching 130th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's famous encyclical Rerum Novarum two weeks from today further highlights the need for new responses to these persistent problems which have particularly characterized the past 40 years.
(Photo: Saint Joseph's Altar, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY)