Friday, January 28, 2022

The Quiet Light

The Quiet Light is the title of a 1950 novel (photo) by Louis de Wohl, which told the story of the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose feast the Church celebrates today. De Wohl set his story in the complicated and contentious context of the lives and conflicts of 13th-century medieval European nobility (notably Thomas's own family), and the battle between the Pope and the Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (Stupor mundi). De Wohl's novel explores that world through the observations and experiences of a fictional English knight, Piers Rudde, and Robin, his squire, who somewhat improbably get involved in the fortunes of the aristocratic Aquino family in Italy - including especially the family's pious and super smart youngest son, the future Saint Thomas. De Wohl's novel fed my great hunger for tales about a world which was simultaneously so different and very far away from my own but also (because of the Catholic connection) so apparently accessible and comprehensible. De Wohl followed The Quiet Light with several other Catholic-themed historical novels, among them one about Saint Augustine (The Restless Flame) and another about Cassius Longinius (The Spear) - all three of which I read in high school - and a novel about Don Juan of Austria and the Battle of Lepanto (The Last Crusader), which I just recently read last year in connection with a local Catholic book club.

The Church rightly celebrates Saint Thomas's great contribution to the intellectual life of the Church, his contribution to the great medieval "synthesis of faith and reason." which involved the belated appropriation of Aristotle's philosophy in the Latin world. Where would Catholic social and political thought have been without Aristotle's vocabulary about citizenship and friendship. for example? 

Thus, the political and cultural conflict The Quiet Light portrays between the overlapping worlds of Frederich II and Saint Thomas is more than just an interesting literary dimension of the drama. It illustrates the secular alternative to what Aquinas accomplished. Frederick II is portrayed as what a later age would characterize as a figure of Enlightenment. He is genuinely interested in ideas - new ideas, especially imported ideas, ideas imported from the culturally more advanced (at that time) Islamic world. Aristotle reentered Europe in that era first through Arab philosophers and scientists. So the burning intellectual and cultural question was whether and how to integrate the increasingly attractive Aristotelian-Arab intellectual culture into Western Latin Christian civilization, for which it appeared to pose significant challenges along with opportunities. Frederick and Thomas represented radically alternate approaches to this movement of interpenetration and integration. Thomas's approach did a great service to the Church and for Western Latin Christian society. Frederick's approach represented an early anticipation of post-Christian, syncretistic, secular modernity.

Among the 37 Doctors of the Church, Saint Thomas is celebrated both as the "Angelic Doctor" (Doctor Angelicus) and also, for fairly obvious reasons, as the "Common Doctor," i.e., "universal teacher" (Doctor Communis). In his youth, however, he was supposedly nicknamed "the Dumb Ox," which famously became the title of G.K. Chesterton's wonderful little 1933 book about Saint Thomas's life and thought, which we also read when I was in school.

But one advantage of coming at Aquinas through a novel like The Quiet Light was that no one could conceivably imagine him as some sort of "ivory tower intellectual" (whatever that silly expression means), someone disconnected from the social conflicts and struggles of his time. Ultimately even more fundamental to appreciating Thomas the scholar and Thomas the exemplar of high medieval life and culture, of course, was Saint Thomas the priest, the Dominican friar, sharing his religious order's life of contemplative prayer with the world. One is directly reminded of that at every celebration of Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, when all sort of people join together to sing those wonderful Latin hymns which Saint Thomas composed as part of the Office for Corpus Christi.

For centuries, the Church celebrated Thomas's feast on March 7, the anniversary of his death in 1274. De Wohl's novel created a fictional scene in which he imagines Thomas  celebrating Mass one March 7 and lamenting that it wasn't a saint's day. Actually, in fact, in Thomas's time it would have been the feast of the 3rd-century North African martyrs Saints Felicity and Perpetua. When Saint Thomas was added to the calendar, Perpetua and Felicity were reduced to a commemoration, but then in 1908 they got their own feast day again, anticipated on March 6. As graduate students in 1974, we celebrated the 700th anniversary of Saint Thomas's death with the late Professor Paul Sigmund (who had recently spoken at a conference commemorating the anniversary) at dinner at the Princeton Graduate College. 

The 1960 calendar reform in the Roman Rite gave liturgical precedence to the lenten weekdays effectively reducing Saint Thomas to a mere commemoration in the lenten Mass and Office. But then the 1969 calendar reform of Pope Saint Paul VI resolved this awkwardness by moving Thomas' memorial outside the lenten season. That was how Saint Thomas got moved to today, the anniversary of the transfer of his relics to Toulouse in 1369. My guess is that that is how "Catholic Schools Week" likewise migrated to the end of January, because, of course, Saint Thomas is also the patron saint of Catholic schools.

Besides eucharistic hymns, Saint Thomas also composed prayers, for example this one of which I am especially fond: 

Grant, O Lord my God, that I may never fall away in success or in failure; that I may not be prideful in prosperity nor dejected in adversity. Let me rejoice only in what unites us and sorrow only in what separates us. May I strive to please no one or fear to displease anyone except Yourself. May I see always the things that are eternal and never those that are only temporal. May I shun any joy that is without You and never seek any that is beside You. O Lord, may I delight in any work I do for You and tire of any rest that is apart from You. My God, let me direct my heart towards You, and in my failings, always repent with a purpose of amendment.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Gilded Age on HBO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo: The New York Times)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

A Preacher of Truth in the Whole World


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Catholic Discordance (The Book)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 21, 2022

Wannsee + 80


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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 20, 2022

One Year In


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 17, 2022

Eight Days in May (The Book)


There seems to be no end in sight to our fascination with World Wr II - certainly not to my fascination with it. Hence, I spent some of this holiday weekend with Eight Days in May: the Final Collapse of the Third Reich, by Volker Ullrich, tr. Jefferson Chase. As its title suggests, this is a day-by-day account of the eight days (May 1-8, 1945) between Hitler's suicide on April 30 and V-E Day and the reenactment in Berlin on May 9 of Germany's already accomplished surrender in order to satisfy Stalin's vanity (definitely a harbinger of conflicts to come).

That alone would make an interesting book. But this eight-day journey includes retrospective and prospective accounts, contributing a more complete context than would be possible in a strict eight-day chronology. Still, between Hitler's cowardly exit and the jubilation of V-E Day, a surprising amount happened. Unlike the dramatic cessation of conflict on the Western Front at the end of World War I, the end of the Second World War was spread out over time, with complete chaos (dramatically portrayed by the author) in significant parts of the Reich while at the same time and somewhat confusingly the German occupation persisted intact until the final moment in Scandinavia and parts of the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, the rump Reich government, led from Flensburg by Hitler's "successor," Admiral Karl Dönitz, continued to pretend to operate even after it had performed its one essential function of unconditional surrender.

Ullrich characterizes this unique week as a kind of historical pause "the gap between no longer and not yet," and amazingly appropriate formulation.
From a distance now of more than 76 years, it is a challenge for those of us who obviously have no memory of those dramatic events to appreciate all that happened - from the fanatical last stands of the defeated, to the final deaths and lucky survivals of the many civilian victims, to the complex maneuvers of the victors. Ullrich supplies those recollections for us with copious detail.

At some point, the fascination with World War II will wane. But that will be a loss for the world. As Thomas Merton once wrote: 'What a tragedy to forget Hitler and Stalin and their total corruption of the moral sense" [May 7, 1961, Journals, volume 4, p. 116].

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Wildland: the Making of America's Fury (The Book)


Journalist Evan Osnos writes for The New Yorker and is a fellow at Brookings. Before that, however, he spent a decade reporting first from the Middle East and then from China. (His first book Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith, in the New China won the National Book award in 2014). In 2013, he and his wife returned from China, and he set out to investigate how America had changed in the 21st century. There are many books - many good books - about the Trump era, but Osnos' analysis stands out precisely for his highly personal approach, which focuses primarily on people in three particular locations - wealthy Greenwich, Connecticut, where Osnos grew up, Clarksburg, West Virginia, a small but once thriving Appalachian industrial town where he worked his first newspaper job, and Chicago, Illinois, where he became a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune

Wildland: The Making of America's Fury (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) presents Trump's presidency less as the primary cause of our deep national divide but rather as the fruit of developing divisions into separate and significantly unequal components. In many ways the beating heart of his account is the stories of characters encountered along the way who personify what has happened to America in this century. There are parallels in the experiences of the characters, all of whom in varying ways embody some element of isolation from the larger society, but also radical difference due to our increasing economic inequality and America's perennial problem of racial disparities.

On a macro-level, this is an account (another account) of how wealthy Americans have used the system to advance themselves at the expense of society, and of the failures and complicities of our supposedly democratic political system - the same system that empowered Republican senators representing a mere 14.5% of the country's population to acquit the impeached President Trump. With an acute appreciation of immediate relevance (aided by his familiarity with West Virginia), he highlights the problem posed by someone like Senator Joe Manchin, who famously shot at climate-change legislation in a campaign ad when he ran for the Senate in 2010. "For decades, politicians had been photographed with guns, but this was the first time anyone had assassinated a piece of proposed legislation on film."

Literarily, the book is a treasury of memorable phrases describing an America "losing a habit of mind, a capacity to envision a common good." Trump's fans are "a confederacy of the frustrated - less a constituency than a loose alliance of citizens who were breaking faith with the institutions of American politics and economics." Trump's "ideas were riven by contradiction ... yet that was a reflection of voters' often incoherent sets of convictions." Trump "mastered the national iconography of politics and divorced it from the actual conditions on the ground." Trump's rise was less "a hostile takeover," than "a joint venture, in which members of America's elite accepted the terms of Trumpism as the price of power." Trump "exposed the personal ambition that drove so many in Washington." Then came the pandemic "revealing the full scope of America's institutional disrepair - the cruelties of the economy, the disparities of systemic racism, the skittering, malleable minds of a public trained to doubt the 'body of fact'." The country's failure to confront the pandemic was "a malfunction of elite imagination." Meanwhile "a mutant definition of freedom fueled a resistance to social distancing." The mob on January 6 "was a maskless congregation of the rebellious, the devout, the bored, and the bitter." Trump's departure on January 20 was "like his presidency, a hasty, fractious improvisation."   Some of "America's most powerful people" shared "a blindness to the ways in which we had supercharged our capacity to do harm."

Monday, January 10, 2022

Don't Look Up (The Movie)


Its production having been delayed by the pandemic, Don't Look Up is a newly released satirical sci-fi film, advertised as an allegory about climate change and about government and popular culture's inattention to this problem and generally endemic lack of seriousness. It stars Leonardo DiCapiro and Jennifer Lawrence as two midwestern astronomers who discover a new comet and who then try to warn a Trump-like President (Meryl Streep) and the rest of the country about the comet, which is on course to hit the earth in six months' time and possibly extinguish human life (or at least human civilization) when it does so. As of last week, Don't Look Up was the third most watched Netflix film ever, which may say something about the film's appeal but perhaps also about its topicality - not only as an allegory about the climate crisis but also about our more immediate experience of the global pandemic and cynicism about governments' inadequate responses and the wider failure of much of our ambient popular and elite cultures in confronting this crisis - and presumably any crisis of comparable seriousness.

As satire it certainly works, if somewhat formulaic and unsurprising in its extreme cynicism about everything from the sheer silliness and mind-numbing stupidity of daytime TV to capitalist greed and the corrupt character of the rest of our elite culture, including legacy prestige institutions and science aligned with government, and finally to how the zone gets flooded (to adapt a Steve Bannon phrase) with misinformation and disinformation and even (in this case) comet denialism. In an especially apt nod to our present predicament, it even illustrates the pattern of elitist contempt that underlies the manipulation of populist rhetoric.

It also offers some serious stuff about what matters most in life, and about how different people deal with disaster and die as they lived.

A troubling but entertainingly suggestive film for this terrible time in which we now find ourselves!

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Heaven Has Opened


Traditionally, churches have been built facing east, and the standard location for the baptismal font has been the northwest corner. For various reasons, this church was built facing a different direction; but internally the traditional alignment was followed for the font (designed by the great American artist  John LaFarge in 1891). So the baptismal font was originally located in what is actually the southeast corner (but which would be the northwest corner if the church faced east). In the 1980s, the font was moved, but the original site can still be immediately identified by Alvin Alfred Lee’s copy of Bellini’s painting The Baptism of Christ, portraying Jesus’ Baptism by John, the theme of today’s feast.

At Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River, God the Father officially identified Jesus as his Son, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Analogously, at our baptism, through the gift of the same Holy Spirit, we in turn identify ourselves with the Son, and so share in our own way in his relationship with his Father. So Jesus’ baptism anticipates the baptism that has elevated us to a new status in relation to the Father and so empowered us to continue Christ’s life and mission in our world though his Church.

That said, the focus of today’s celebration is primarily on Jesus’ baptism, not ours - and actually mainly about what followed after Jesus had been baptized and was praying, when heaven was opened for a revelation of his status as the eternal Son of God. While God the Father’s words themselves seem to have been addressed directly to Jesus alone, the event itself has been recounted for our benefit. In this revelation, in this “epiphany,” we get a glimpse of the hitherto hidden, inner life of God, now suddenly revealed in what God is doing, for us, through Jesus’ mission as messiah.

Something really new and wonderful is happening here. Heaven has opened. The barrier between heaven and earth, between God and us, has been breached, and the (until now) invisible God has not only spoken, but has become visible for us as his Son, who has revealed God to us in a way we would never otherwise have known - in what Saint Paul, writing to Titus, called the kindness and generous love of God our savior. We are invited to accept God’s kindness and generous love ourselves, as his own people, prepared to be transformed, as Saint Paul put it - eager to do what is good.

It is no accident that we heard the very same words of Saint Paul on Christmas itself. Although the cycle of Christmas-related festivals doesn’t completely conclude until we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord on February 2, today celebrates the fulfillment of the Christmas season. Measured by the secular time by which we rule our lives, today may seem like some sort of post-holiday afterthought. Actually, however, the identification of Jesus as the Son of God and the revelation of the kindness and generous love of God our savior in Jesus’ public mission are what the whole Advent-Christmas season has been leading up to.

Those wiser than I about such things say that Isaiah’s words, typically translated as speak tenderly to Jerusalem, may more literally mean “to speak to the heart” – as in, “to convince.” The human heart was understood by Isaiah’s contemporaries as the organ of thought and reasoning, God is here being spoken of as trying to convince Israel of the reality of his concern.

It wasn’t just ancient Israel that had a hard time and so needed convincing, of course.  Even the most cursory look at the state of the world – one year after the insurrection and entering the third year of this covid pandemic -belies any credible “happy days are here again” fantasies. If something new and wonderful really is happening here, it is going to take some convincing. It requires nothing less than the kindness and generous love of God our savior appearing personally in God’s Son.

In my opinion, the biggest stumbling block to faith is not so much science or evolution or any of those sorts of things (important though those issues may genuinely be), but rather the all-too vivid contrast between what we actually experience and what we profess to believe - between the seemingly endless cycle of human suffering so many actually experience and this seemingly contrary-to-fact belief in a future full of hope, and, more personally perhaps, between my ordinary somewhat self-absorbed life and being part of a people eager to do what is good, the belief that something new and wonderful really can happen and is happening, that the kindness and generous love of God our savior really have appeared. The fact is that we would never have had any reason to believe in such a thing, to hope for such a thing, even to suspect such a thing, if God himself had not told us, if God’s Son had not actually shown us - by becoming one of us. And that is what the Christmas season celebrates so seriously. We would never have experienced this, had it not been for the mission which the Son of God began on our behalf at his baptism, the same mission he challenges us to continue in our world today through his holy Church.

Homily for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, January 9, 2022. (The scripture references are to the proper readings for this feast in Year "C" - Isaiah 40:1-5. 9-11; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22.)

Photo: Baptism of Christ (c. 1500-1502), a painting by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) in the Chiesa di Santa Corona, Vicenza, Italy.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Our Fragile Polis


It was one year ago today that the trajectory of American history changed - perhaps permanently. Unexpectedly for many, January 6, 2021, revealed the radical fragility of our republic.

Of course, the warning signs were actually already abundant - signs warning about the immediate insurrectionist threat, and signs warning about the underlying, long-term decline in constitutional norms and our increasing "democratic deficit." History tells us, however, that we are seldom prepared for challenges we have not yet experienced and hence don't explicitly expect.

History also warns us of the fragility of all political systems. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution were well acquainted with ancient history and with classical political theories about the almost inevitable decline of political systems - in particular the decline of democratic constitutions into populist-based tyrannies. They were well acquainted as well with the historical attempt to remedy that dynamic by means of what has traditionally been termed a "mixed constitution." Hence, their move to counterbalance the revolutionary radicalism of 1776 with the stabilizing constitutionalism of 1787. At its best (as my onetime academic mentor wrote), "Aristotelian constitutional theory might be defined as the attempt to encourage political stability and moderation, not by denying class rule, but by ameliorating or restraining class power by the rule of law and by 'mixing' the basic elements so as to promote inclusiveness, lessen resentments, and moderate the exercise of power" [Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded edition, 2004, p. 404].

Historically, the Roman Republic (at least as memorialized by political theorists like Polybius) had been the classic example of this effort. In the end, however, even the Roman Republic proved insufficiently equipped to cope with the challenges of having become an enormous empire. It was left to James Madison to reimagine a large republic as actually an advantage. "Extend the sphere," Madison famously asserted in The Federalist, 10, "and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other."

The challenge of 21st-century political space is very different, however, from that of 18th-century political space. Modernity has outpaced the supposed advantages Madison inferred from size, and it may be therefore that 18th-century institutions are proving less fit for the task - not unlike the Roman Republic's failure to cope with the challenges of an increasingly extended empire. Indeed, didn't Machiavelli himself, recalling Rome's experience, warn against the inevitable difficulty in trying to manage a republic that expands into an "empire" [The Discourses, I, 6]?

An important illustration of this is evident in the fact that, whereas Madison and his fellow Framers worried about an out-of-control majority, our current predicament reflects rather the unbalanced power of an out-of-control, politically panicked minority. The faction that sought to overthrow constitutional government on January 6, 2021, both those who violently invaded the Capitol from outside and those on the inside who voted to overthrow the results of the 2020 election, represented only a minority - never a majority - of Americans. In fact, the Republican party has become so unrepresentative of this country that it last won the popular vote in a presidential election almost 20 years ago in 2004, and before that had not done so since 1988. So both Republican presidents who have thus been installed in the White House in the last 30 years have represented only a minority of voters and were installed contrary to the expressed will of the majority of those who voted (and, in one case, thanks also to the connivance of our out-of-control Supreme Court).

So, whereas Madison, et al., were worried about an imagined tyranny of the majority, the violent insurrection one year ago represented the opposite. It was, in fact, just the most dramatic manifestation of a much more clear and present danger, the tyranny of a minority, which being less and less capable of winning power by means of elections and less and less able or willing to attempt to persuade others, now seeks to delegitimize and corrupt the electoral process itself. The alienation of this minority from constitutional norms is culturally conditioned, of course, by numerous factors. But this increasing tyranny of the minority is facilitated by certain specific institutional defects, some rooted in the constitution itself. These defects have rendered constitutional governance increasingly ineffective, ultimately depriving it of its main sources of moral and political legitimacy, with obviously catastrophic consequences for constitutional government and for the society that constitution and government are supposed to serve.

Unlike the notoriously problematic Electoral College and the much more unjustifiable equality of states in the Senate, some anti-majoritarian institutional defects are not constitutionally mandated at all and actually contradict the clear intent of the constitution. Gerrymandering, while largely legal, goes against the clear constitutional intent underlying the House of Representatives, which was obviously intended to be the primary democratic element in the federal system. As for the filibuster, that largely 20th-century aberration directly contradicts the constitution's clear expectation that the Senate would make decisions by majority vote - with the explicit exceptions of overriding presidential vetoes, ratifying treaties, expelling fellow Senators, and amending the constitution. A two-thirds "supermajority" is required for such special activities, but for ordinary matters - e.g., lawmaking and confirming presidential nominations - the constitution presumes an ordinary majority vote (hence the provision for vice-presidential tie-breaking). The Senate's inability to eliminate the filibuster reflects not constitutional constraints but the majority's timid indifference to the intent of the constitution even in the face of the minority's increasingly unrepresentative character and dangerously despotic aspirations. The Democrats have deservedly been criticized for failing to try to reform the Electoral Vote Count Act, for example, but in fact no such necessary reform can be enacted without first eliminating the filibuster!

Admittedly, Donald Trump presented an almost unprecedented crisis situation. Even so, our sorry situation is more than - and worse than - the short-term aberrations of one particular pied-piper "populist" president.

These are serious, built-in, systemic, institutional failings which have been long-term problems for constitutional government's ability to serve society, with all that such failure implies for popular legitimacy and support. January 6, 2021, however, highlighted a more immediate fundamental crisis for American society. The Republican party authoritarian minority has set out on a dangerous path, the likes of which we have not seen before - at least not since the Confederate refusal to accept Abraham Lincoln's election. (Unlike Trump, et al., the Confederates did not deny that Lincoln had actually been legally elected. Even so, they experienced his victory as such an existential threat to their slaveholding way of life that they rejected the constitutional system and quit the country.)

It is dangerously tempting to dismiss some of what has happened and what is still happening, as just a Trump clown show, which it is in many ways. But the attempt to overthrow our political system was not, is not, funny. And Democrats and other non-Republicans continue to ignore or trivialize this threat to constitutional government at their - and the country's - peril.

And indication of our constitutional timidity and institutional inertia is the trajectory of constitutional amendments in the 20th century - from the 16th amendment in 1913 to the 26th amendment in 1971. The general trajectory of those amendments was an expansion of the democratic dimensions of our system - the graduated income tax, the poplar election of senators, the extension of the vote to women, to residents of the District of Columbia (at the presidential level), and to citizens aged 18-20, and the elimination of the poll tax. But then that trajectory stopped. The last such amendment took effect in 1971. Then came the disastrous election of 1980 and the 40-year process of diminishing the democratic dimensions of our system, which has brought us to where we are now.

The Pearl Harbor syndrome - an understandable inability to anticipate something that had never happened before - may explain some of the unpreparedness for January 6, 2021. But it cannot excuse unpreparedness on the way to January 6, 2025. Just as the Confederates' "Lost Cause" continued to corrupt American politics for a full century after the Civil War, Trump's "Lost Cause" will continue corrupting American politics until either it triumphs on January 6, 2025, or Democrats and other non-Republicans respond with measures to protect elections in particular and constitutional and democratic norms in general.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022


One indication of an idea having entered the cultural mainstream is when it appears in The NY Times. In a "Guest Essay" (what used to be called an "Op-Ed") in The NY Times online on December 29 (and then in the January 3 print edition), contributing opinion writer Christopher Caldwell in "Is the West Becoming Pagan Again?" examined the contention of French Catholic philosopher and author Chantel Delsol, in her 2021 book La Fin de la Chrétienté, that the current cultural transition represents what she calls a "normative inversion," reversing the fourth-century "normative inversion" from Roman paganism to Christianity. I have not read Delsol's book, but I did find a recent English-language article by her online, entitled "The End of Christianity," which seems to summarize her argument. 

[Her article can be accessed at:]

As I understand it, Delsol does not contend that Christianity, per se, as a religious faith, is ending but what we commonly call "Christendom," what Caldwell calls "Christian civilization." That reality emerged from Christianity's replacement of Roman paganism in the fourth century and has been fighting for its survival since the 18th century. According to Delsol, the Dutch, British, and American revolutions "installed stable regimes and created societies where politics and religion supported each other." The French Revolution, however, "led to a perpetual war between church and state," leading to "sinister excesses" on the state side, while on the other side, "reduced to the status of a public enemy and perpetually in revolt against the new laws and customs," the church has been "slowly withering away."  

There is obviously hardly anything new in this analysis. What is interesting is her view that the 21st century is no less religious for no longer being Christian. "Other religions have taken over the scene." Indeed, she insists that "as long as humanity is imperfect and mortal (thus until the end of time, no doubt despite the fabrications of post-humanism), it will give itself religions, wisdom, and morals. Only the extreme and fleeting rationalization of the Enlightenment, detached from reality, could believe in the future of atheism." Moreover, "as soon as Christianity fell, all kinds of other gods took its place." 

This too is not necessarily a novel notion. One is reminded of Chesterton's comment: “When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in everything.”

What is happening now, she suggests, is a paradigm shift analogous to what happened in the fourth century, when Christianity replaced Roman paganism, a complete reversal that was both philosophical and moral. Since the 18th century, the dominant paradigm is shifting again. "The present tense tells the story of the return of the great Pan - we have come full circle." As an example she uses the practice of divorce, "quick and easy" in pagan Rome until banned by Christian emperors. The Revolution legalized divorce in France in 1792. The Restoration revoked that in 1816, but divorce was reestablished in 1884. Vichy restricted divorce in 1941, but in post-war France the divorce laws became progressively more lax until resembling the mutual consent divorce regime of pre-Christian pagan Rome. "Christendom defends itself, and mobilizes all its ardour to maintain the legislative and penal power of its mores. Yet whatever happens and despite some episodic successes, the tide has been rising for two centuries, always in the same direction, and never stopping."

Meanwhile, "the currents that defend ancient morals, although supported by many voters, have difficulty finding representatives or rather find only extremist representatives, such as Donald Trump. The fate of a current condemned by history is to become more and more extremist, to lose its most competent defenders, and finally, by a sort of disastrous process, to end up resembling the description of tis adversaries."

That last observation, obviously so relevant to the religious situation in the United States, highlights the danger to Christian religion itself whenever religion aspires to advance its imagined interests by alliance with secular political power. 

Against that, Delsol suggests a Christianity that abandons "the reign of force" inventing "another mode of being than that of hegemony," in which mission is no longer "synonymous with conquest."