Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Caring for Our Common Home

Since its designation by Pope Francis in 2015, September 1 has been observed annually as the World Day of Prayer for Care of Creation.

In his Message for tomorrow's observance, Pope Francis wrote:

If we learn how to listen, we can hear in the voice of creation a kind of dissonance. On the one hand, we can hear a sweet song in praise of our beloved Creator; on the other, an anguished plea, lamenting our mistreatment of this our common home.

Whence come the plea and laments? Prey to our consumerist excesses, the Pope observes, mother earth herself weeps and implores us to put an end to our abuses and to her destruction. Others cry and lament as well. There are also the poorest among us who are crying out. Exposed to the climate crisis, the poor feel even more gravely the impact of the drought, flooding, hurricanes and heat waves that are becoming ever more intense and frequent. And so screams the future. Feeling menaced by shortsighted and selfish actions, today’s young people are crying out, anxiously asking us adults to do everything possible to prevent, or at least limit, the collapse of our planet’s ecosystems.

Against this anxious background, Pope Francis articulates what the world's political leaders should already know, but seem so enfeebled when it comes to acting on what we know. The present state of decay of our common home merits the same attention as other global challenges such as grave health crises and wars. 

Fortunately, for a change, some (however modest) progress was made with Congress's passage of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. This legislation invests $369 billion in energy-focused climate programs over ten years. Its proponents estimate that it will reduce emissions by 40% by 2030, which (if that really happens) would be a significant step in the direction the world needs to go. At a very practical level, the law will continue electric vehicle tax credits, through which Americans can receive up to $4,000 in credits for a used electric car and $7,500 for a new one.

Of course, such steps are but a start. As such they represent as much a challenge as an accomplishment. And as persons of faith, we feel ourselves even more responsible for acting each day in accordance with the summons to conversion. So let us follow Pope Francis, Mindful of the exhortation of Saint Paul to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (cf. Rom 12:15). let us weep with the anguished plea of creation. Let us hear that plea and respond to it with deeds, so that we and future generations can continue to rejoice in creation’s sweet song of life and hope.

Photo: Monte Cimone, the highest mountain of the Italian Apennines (Wikipedia)

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The Inherent Limits of Liberal Democracy

For journalists, the Democratic party always appears to be in disarray. For political theorists, democracy itself, that is, the specific species liberal democracy, which we are more or less wedded to in the West, also appears to be in constant crisis.

One of the reasons we appear to be in such constant crisis is the apparent need of a modern democratic state for something common and shared as a collective identity. As diverse theorists in what is commonly called the civic tradition, from Aristotle to Hannah Arendt to Charles Taylor have argued, "free societies require a higher level of commitment and participation than despotic or authoritarian ones. citizens have to do for themselves, as it were, what otherwise the rulers would do for them. But this only happens if these citizens feel a strong bond of identification with their political community, and hence with those who share with them in this." [Charles Taylor, "A Tension in Modern Democracy," in  Democracy and Vision: Sheldon Wolin and the Vicissitudes of the Political, ed. Aryeh Botwinick and William E. Connolly, Princeton U. Pr. 2001, p. 81].

Some 60+ years ago, the great 20th-century student of political theory, Sheldon Wolin, highlighted what was easily missed but radically revelatory about the famous frontispiece from the 1651 edition of Leviathan (photo) by the paradigmatic 17th-century English philosopher of modern political, cultural, and social discontinuity, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Wolin first noted the obvious - the image of a thriving city, its peace and prosperity made possible by the political order created by the looming presence of powerful sovereign. Yet, a closer examination of that Hobbesian sovereign's image, Wolin observed, highlights how Hobbes's version of a body politic is completely composed of individual miniatures of the citizens of Hobbes's contractual commonwealth. Furthermore, "each subject is clearly discernible in the body of the sovereign. The citizens are not swallowed up in an anonymous mass, nor sacramentally merged into a mystical body. Each remains a discrete individual and each retains his identity in an absolute way" [Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought , 1960 ed, pp. 265-266, 2004 expanded ed., p. 238].

In his ambitious prescription for the modern state, Hobbes eschewed both the classical and Christian conception of the commonwealth as a natural society fitted to fulfill fundamental human needs in a quasi-sacramental organism (e.g., the medieval "body politic") and also the modern totalitarian state's subordination of citizens into an anonymous mass of interchangeable subjects. For all its admittedly authoritarian aspects, (mildly modified later in John Locke's adaptation), Hobbes's commonwealth clearly resembles the United States much more than it did, say, the Soviet Union. Indeed, Hobbes' picture of politics should resonate well in our contemporary context. For us, as for Hobbes, the political community (if we can even call it that) is no more than an artificial constitutional structure of (partly voluntary, partly involuntary) cooperation in order to facilitate the satisfactory fulfillment of each citizen's egoistic individualism, devoid of any truly shared and common higher aspiration.

Certainly, the imaginary Hobbesian commonwealth required citizens to sacrifice something for their common survival, but otherwise it largely left them - as all modern "liberal" societies strive to do - qualitatively unchanged, self-referential individuals. Our purposes are but the products of our passions. Our reason remains no more than rational calculation. Our sociability is but a politically constructed egoistic artifice. Unlike both the medieval conception of citizens as naturally dependent upon one another in their political body (much like the natural mutual dependence of the organs of their natural bodies) and Rousseau's sublimation of egoistic individualism in the totalitarian collective of the "general will," Hobbes highlighted the limited and contrived character of modern political obligations, in which the older idea of a shared "common good" has largely lost most of its meaning in the face of each individual's disconnected, autonomously self-defined particularity.

Hence, the widespread contemporary failure of increasingly abandoned traditional moral arguments, based on our mutual interdependence and natural obligations not to harm others - whether the issue be abortion or vaccinations or other pandemic precautions or a common commitment to caring for the planet as our common home. This development, like so much modern rights language, is rooted in the fatal early modern replacement of the political language of mutual human obligations by the radically anti-communitarian language of disconnected individual rights.

The solution, if there is one, cannot be in further reinforcing the presently predominant paradigm of individual disconnectedness but in retrieving from an older, pre-modern, ethical language of interconnectedness and mutual dependence an alternative paradigm within which we may relearn how to talk to one another, premised on who are together, rather than on who we are apart from one another. 

One way of formulating this in more modern language, which I find somewhat attractive, has been attempted by Charles Taylor (drawing in part on the diverse legacies of the likes of Emile Durkheim and Johann Gottfried Herder.) "The fullness of humanity," for Taylor, "comes not from the adding of differences but from the exchange and communion between them. Human beings achieve fullness not separately but together." Taylor locates theological sources behind this"in certain crucial Christian doctrines, e.g., the Trinity and the Communion of Saints." ["A Tension in Modern Democracy," p.90.]

Monday, August 29, 2022

History and Its Discontents

I am not an academic, let alone a professional historian. Thus, in the normal course of events, I probably would not even read - let alone comment on - an August 17 column, "IS HISTORY HISTORY? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present," by the President of the American Historical Association in the AHA's newsmagazine Perspectives on History, which (I presume) is primarily an internal publication intended for fellow members of the profession. What academic historians say to one another in their professional communications is normally of little or no direct interest to us non-academics - except, of course, when it concerns how we non-intellectuals also use and misuse history in our ordinary understanding of the world.

(The column can be found at

The author of the column a current AHA President is James H. Sweet,  Vilas-Jartz Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2004. He is a historian of Africa and the African diaspora, with a particular focus on the cultures and politics of enslaved Africans in the Americas, which explains some of the particular examples he employs in his column.

Sweet begins by recalling his predecessor Lynn Hunt's 2002 column "Against Presentism," which "lamented historians’ declining interest in topics prior to the 20th century, as well as our increasing tendency to interpret the past through the lens of the present." Echoing Hunt's worry form 20 years ago, Sweet worries whether "historical analyses are contained within an increasingly constrained temporality" and "interpretations of the recent past collapse into the familiar terms of contemporary debates." His concern is that often this novel history "ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines" and that an "allure of political relevance" is encouraging a "predictable" but "ahistorical" and unacceptable "sameness of the present in the past." 

This, in turn, has bled beyond the academy, resulting in "an overabundance of history, not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics." In this competing politics, history has become "a zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity," but "not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time." Americans, he argues, "have become accustomed to the idea of history as an evidentiary grab bag to articulate their political positions, a trend that can be seen in recent US Supreme Court decisions." He illustrates this with examples of Justice Thomas's recent egregious misuse of history in the Bruen case and Justice Alito's equally egregious misuse of history in Dobbs. "This is not history," he writes; "it is dilettantism."

History done with integrity, he argues "requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors. Historical questions often emanate out of present concerns, but the past interrupts, challenges, and contradicts the present in unpredictable ways. History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future. Rather, it is a way to study the messy, uneven process of change over time."

Professor Sweet's timely reflections reminded me of Archbishop Rowan Williams wonderful little book, Why Study the Past?: the Quest for the Historical Church (Eerdmans, 2005). Williams starts from the conviction that "good theology does not come from bad history." Thus in Church history, he argues, "traditionalists sometimes miss the point because they don't expect to be surprised by the past; progressives miss the point because they don't expect to be interested or questioned by it." Historical figures "are not modern people in fancy dress; they have to be listened to as they are, and not judged or dismissed - or claimed or enrolled as supporters - too rapidly." A particular concern for us when doing Church history has to be a consciousness that we are "engaging with fellow participants in prayer and eucharist, fellow readers of the same Scriptures, people in whom the same activity is going on, the activity of sanctifying grace.

American political history is obviously not Church history. The communion that connects us in the present to our predecessors in the past is not some sacramental one. Even so, especially insofar as those predecessors remain real and relevant to us, the temptation too quickly to judge or dismiss - or, alternately to claim or enroll as supporters in some contemporary cause - remains a dangerous temptation which needs to be resisted, especially when as now contemporary culture so eagerly seeks to collapse everything into the present moment.

Photo: Metropolitan Museum Art bust of Herodotus (c. 484 BCc. 425 BC), who is often called the "father of history" in the Western world.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Places at Table

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth [Act 3, Scene 4], when Macbeth welcomes the various Scottish lords to dinner, he automatically assumes that they all know who ranks where. He simply says: You know your own degrees; sit down. That’s the way it is in aristocratic societies. Everyone knows his or her proper place in the social order. That’s the way it is in all functioning societies. Revolutions overturn the established order, and in the process they sometimes produce a period of egalitarian chaos. But, sooner or later, life calms down and order is restored – a new and different order, perhaps better, perhaps worse, in which different people from a different class are on top, but a recognizably stratified system of social ranking nonetheless.

In today’s Gospel Jesus went to dine at a Pharisee’s home, and the people there were observing him carefully [Luke 14:1]. What do we suppose they were watching for? Were they like modern journalists, on the lookout for some word or gesture in which to trap him? What actually happened, however, was that they were so busy observing Jesus, they didn’t notice that he was watching them, and the social stratification among them as they were seating themselves at the table. They must have been quite taken aback by Jesus’ response, which echoed the Old Testament Book of Proverbs: Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of the great; for its better that you be told, “Come up closer,” than that you be humbled before the prince[Proverbs 25:6-7]

About 30 years ago, the mayor of a major American city was visiting Jerusalem, and the local mayor held a lunch in his honor, to which a certain American priest was invited. As he told me the story, he wandered in and just sat down where he saw some empty seats. No one paid any attention, until suddenly someone came up to him and said: “Father, here you are. You’re supposed to be at the head table!” As he followed her up to the head table, he noticed how some of the same people who had ignored him a few minutes before were now suddenly very interested in knowing who he was!

Of course, someone might do as Jesus recommends in a manipulative manner, posing as humble, hoping to receive a contrary compliment from others. Or, lacking what we nowadays call “self-esteem,” some might minimize their accomplishments and hope to be contradicted and so get the praise they think they deserve (but are afraid to claim for themselves). Of course, this can prove problematic, if your low self-esteem turns out to be accurate - if, when you take the lowest place, no one says, “move up.” Most of us, I suspect, might be reluctant to risk confirming that we do really belong down in the lowest place. So frightening is that prospect for most people, that, rather than risk it, we willingly spend much of our lives playing the dangerous game of constantly competing with one another for the next higher position, whatever form that might take.

The kingdom of God, however, as Jesus never seems to tire of trying to teach us, is about the complete reversal of all our ordinary priorities and values. It is not about claiming power, autonomy, self-esteem – any of those things that we value in our secular, consumerist, acquisitive, capitalist culture. Jesus’ somewhat strange lesson in table manners served as a lesson to us to rethink those priorities and values and adopt different definition of what is really important and what we should actually care about in life.

In the gospels, when Jesus is a guest at someone’s home, Jesus the guest typically tends to take over and act as host. This incident is no exception. Jesus, having instructed his audience on how to be a good guest, goes on to give advice on how to be a good host – advice which highlights what kind of host God himself is, which highlights God’s behavior toward us, inviting imitation in response.

The gospel began by telling us that the people were observing Jesus carefully. In some ways, the tragedy of so much of our history has been how much and how often we as Jesus’ disciples have failed to observe him carefully - and having observed him to imitate him.

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, August 28, 2022.



Saturday, August 27, 2022

Formed in the Home

The above photo (taken by me in 2012) shows the commemorative stone marker at the supposed site of Saint Monica's death in the old Roman port city of Ostia (now the archeological site Ostia Antica), where she died some months after her son Saint Augustine's baptism in 387. Saint Monica (331-387), whom the Church commemorates today, died happy - happy that she had lived to see her son Augustine baptized the previous Easter. The transition from Augustine as spiritual wanderer to Augustine as committed man of the Church also marked the beginning of the end of Monica's presence in his life, her role having been completed as she herself acknowledged. Thus, in one of their last conversations, Monica said to her son, "I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect, for I know that you have even renounced earthly happiness to become his servant" (Confessions, 9:10). Saint Monica is rightly remembered in the Church as a model of virtuous motherhood and persevering prayer. Meanwhile, her son went on to become the leading figure in Latin Christianity's theological tradition, and is celebrated in the Church as Doctor gratiae, the "Doctor of grace."

Augustine's father, Patricius, was a small landowner and member of the town council in the Roman-Berber city of Thagaste in present-day Algeria. He was devoted to his son and did much to further the education that would facilitate a brilliant career. But Patricius was a pagan (although a pagan married to a Christian, who became one himself late in life). Religiously, it was Monica, a devout, life-long Catholic, totally steeped in popular piety (as opposed to intellectual theology), who was the much more influential parent. (Monica was presumably named after the local non-Roman pagan goddess Mon, but she was completely Catholic. Augustine apparently had little direct experience of paganism and was unimpressed by what he saw of it while a student in Carthage, which is not to negate paganism's persistence and staying power among some Roman intellectuals who remained attached to their philosophical systems.) Everything we know about Monica comes from Augustine's Confessions, which pointedly minimized Patricius and highlighted Monica. 

Augustine was thus the product of a religiously and culturally "mixed marriage." That "mixed marriage" represented the two different directions actually available to Augustine  - the old Roman civic tradition, that represented the best of the past and was coming to an end, and the new tradition of Christian faith, that represented hope in the future. In Augustine's personal experience, his father personified the former and Monica the latter. Monica, moreover, didn't just represent residual impressions from Augustine's childhood religious experience. She served as a bridge connecting those impressions and that childhood experience with his active adult re-immersion in the public life of his time in the context of his increasing involvement in the communal life of the Church. 

As Paul Tillich pointed out, in his A History of Christian Thought, Monica's influence on Augustine meant the influence of Christian tradition. Tillich compared Augustine with Plato, who had written out of the tradition of the Athenian gentry to which he belonged, but which was coming to an end, whereas with Augustine the tradition was new. What we call Augustine's "conversion" involved a return to the religion of his childhood. Thus, Karl Adam,  in Saint Augustine: the Odyssey of his Soul, described Augustine's youthful religious conflicts as a fight against the Church already in his heart.

The relationship between Monica and Augustine illustrates the importance in life of what a social scientist might call primary socialization. Having sampled everything late Roman antiquity had to offer in terms of intellectual and spiritual options, Augustine in the end returned to the faith of his childhood, which he had learned from and to which he had been introduced by his mother. 

Infatuated as we moderns erroneously are with individual autonomy, we are more likely to emphasize how we develop physically, intellectually, and spiritually, how we grow and change and keep growing and changing throughout our lives. Yet what we learn and experience as children - in the family and in our early social surroundings - may be what sticks with us most in both acknowledged and unacknowledged ways. How we are formed in the home may have more to do with who we are and what we become and how we turn out than almost anything else that happens later. Augustine's effusive tribute to his mother, Monica, highlights how important such socialization is and how essential it is for a society (and for the Church community) to nurture that.

Of Saint Monica's famous son Saint Augustine (354-430), whom a grateful Church commemorates tomorrow, Henri Marrou once suggested that he is one of the few Christian thinkers whom non-Christians still seem to take seriously. Historically, of course, the specific circumstances of Augustine's time, among them the collapse of classical conceptions of social order and the cosmic catastrophe suggested by the fate of the city of Rome, all created an immediate need and set the stage for Augustine's most influential work. Still, something more was involved than was simply situational. If indeed Christian faith attaches certain specific requirements to one's thinking and action and imposes in the process a new form on the matter of social life, then Augustine was preeminently suited personally for his historical task. Having investigated many of the available intellectual and spiritual options of his time and having left them behind, Augustine experienced in his own life the full force of Christian faith's distinctive demands. 

In the aftermath of his baptism in 387, Augustine adopted a style of life recognizable to his contemporaries as philosophical. But already there were differences, signaling a subtle move from his previous neoplatonism. The participation of Monica in his and his companions' philosophical life (illustrated, for example, in Augustine's earliest Christian writings) immediately signified something new. 

Max Weber, in The Sociology of Religion, once observed that no religion ever resulted from intellectuals' chatter. Saint Monica's role in Augustine's transformation substituted for what was religiously defective amidst the admitted attractions of philosophy. She represented the alternative to be found in the authentic piety of the faith community. 

Despite her piety, Monica was a typical mother in her ambitions for her brilliant son, which was why no early marriage was arranged for him lest his upward mobility be hindered - something Augustine regretted and criticized his parents for, believing that marriage might have helped him in his struggle against concupiscence. Perhaps even more important than not arranging a marriage for him was the failure to have him baptized as a boy, because of the curious custom in North Africa at that time of delaying baptism. In particular, he reproached her for not having baptized him when he was ill as a child (Confessions I, 11). This would be an important lesson Augustine would take to heart later in life when he had to combat other rigorist tendencies in the Church and strenuously advocated for infant baptism.

The result was that, although a catechumen, Augustine was not quite a committed Catholic Christian, when he left home at 16 to begin his brilliant career, during which he investigated the leading intellectual and religious ideas of his time, resisting in his intellectual sophistication the idea that the truth might lie in the religion of his mother. Yet his mother remained a presence, eventually even following him to the Imperial Capital, Milan, where both came under the influence of the aristocratic bishop, Saint Ambrose. Hence the symbolic appropriateness of Monica's conclusion of her role in Augustine's early dialogue De beata vita (IV, 35) by her invocation of Saint Ambrose, who, perhaps more than anyone else in Augustine's experience, personally modeled Christian faith's transformative effect on classical romanitas.

In his Confessions, Augustine recalled a dream of Monica's which assured her of his eventual conversion (Confessions III, 1). In the end, it was Ambrose who finally baptized Augustine at Easter 387, bringing Augustine's "spiritual search" to its proper end and finally brought Monica's role in Augustine's life to its happy fulfillment - Monica who, as Augustine acknowledged so sensitively and grratefully (Confessions IX, 12), wept for him for so many years so that he might live in her sight (quae me multos annos fleverat, ut oculils suis viverem).

Friday, August 26, 2022

The Political Peril of Biden's Student Loan Policy

The City College of the City University of New York is the oldest of The City University’s 24 schools and was long considered the system’s flagship campus. Founded as the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847, it was the first free public college in the United States, intended to provide access to free higher education based on academic merit to the children of New York’s poor immigrant and working-class families. And, for over a century, many 2nd and 3rd-generation immigrant and working-class families made good use of the great opportunity which City College (commonly called “CCNY” or “City”) provided them. Because of its high academic standards, City was sometimes even called “the proletarian Harvard.” 

One of the many tragic results of New York's radically changed circumstances in the 1970s, at that time of urban social breakdown and dramatically diminished financial resources, was an end to the tradition of free tuition in 1976. In that era of increased transit fares and radically reduced public services, tuition at City was just one more example of the contemporary retreat from a politically responsible role for government at both the local and national levels.

I mention all this because I am a grateful graduate of City College (class of 1972), part of that last generation to benefit from New York's commitment to free education for its citizens. For me, at that particular moment in time, City College's free tuition was what made it possible for me to get a college education. Thus, I am a strong believer in the right of all citizens to an appropriate, low cost, good quality, post-secondary education. (That need not exclude some modest, manageable loans as a part of the overall package, as long as it remains the case that a college education is usually an economic benefit.)

So I am ambivalent and conflicted about President Biden's proposed program to relieve student debt - to cancel $10,000 in debt for those earning less than $125,000 per year and $20,000 for those who had received Pell grants for low-income families. I myself got through college (and also grad school) with fairly minimal student debt. I believe young people today should have a similar opportunity, and I am well aware how societal change has adversely impacted the cost of higher education. On the other hand, I am also aware that most people do not attend college. Approximately 38% of Americans over 25 have a four-year college degree, and some of them do have significant student debt. (Graduate and professional school graduates are another story.)

But this policy will be of no benefit to the majority of young adults who do not go to college at all, many of whom might reasonably resent this policy, which looks like a benefit targeted principally at an already advantaged (by virtue of expensive education) and largely predictably Democratic constituency. On which side does justice lie? It is hard to say. Certainly neither constituency has a monopoly on the fairness argument. 

I believe that it is in the public interest to promote post-secondary education - not just four-year college but all the other forms of post-secondary education. Our contemporary failure to do so has been part of a wider societal retreat from promoting the common good and has had widespread negative effects on generations of students' opportunities and on our society's overall health and economic and cultural competitiveness. At the same time, it is obviously not necessarily in the public interest to subsidize universities' constantly increasing tuition, especially while they engage in administrative expansion at the cost of educational retrenchment. This means that this one-time solution, while it may please an important Democratic party constituency at present,  offers no permanent prospect of solving the long-term problem of the escalating costs of higher education. As a public policy matter, this issue defies an easy either/or solution. 

That said, looking at the issue in terms of electoral politics, the Biden plan may also seem increasingly problematic. As Tom Nichols has written in The Atlantic ("Biden’s Student-Loan Gamble: Why loan forgiveness is politically risky," August 24, 2022), this seems like "a niche policy that will hand the Republicans a free issue in America’s ongoing culture and class war." According to Nichols, "the whole business seems like class-based special pleading for a very specific and small group residing mostly within the Democratic Party." As he sees it, the Democrats "are trying to buy a constituency that ought to be firmly in their camp. The point of a “base” is that it will vote for its own party come hell or high water. A 'base' that needs to be enticed with a $10,000 bonus isn’t, by definition, a base."

Of course, even "base" constituencies require service and make demands. There is obviously nothing wrong with government giving benefits to its supporters. Republican administrations do that regularly with tax-cuts for the rich. Yet whether any particular benefit is good public policy - or even good politics - is always a relevant question. Politically, the problem isn't that the party of college-educated elites rewards its supporters. The problem is being primarily the party of college-educated elites.

As I said above, I remain conflicted about the merits of such a policy. There might be a case for some modest debt forgiveness, which is apparently what Biden is offering (unlike the $50,000 debt-forgiveness some Democrats have argued for). Still, in this very at-risk election, when things suddenly seem to be starting to go more the Democrats' way, why hand this issue to the Republicans? 

In the end, in terms of how the politics will probably play out on this, therefore, I think I agree with Nichols, who sees this "as an unforced error" and hopes "that the Democrats do not make this a talking point in an election year. Republicans would be much happier debating college-debt forgiveness to households earning a quarter-million dollars a year instead of talking about how the GOP is a menace to American democracy."

Thursday, August 25, 2022

The Man Who Understood Democracy

For Americans who care about the past, present, and future of our democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville remains perennially relevant. This latest biography by French historian Olivier Zunz, The Man Who Understood Democracy: The Life of Alexis de Tocqueville (Princeton U. Pre., 2022), therefore, seems especially timely at this troubled moment in history.

Some 50 years ago, one of my City College professors impressed upon me how when de Tocqueville writes about America, while he is indeed really writing about America, he is also writing or at least thinking about France for an audience also likely to be thinking about France and about the dilemma of what is politically possible and desirable in the modern world. This may seem even more obviously so in the case of Democracy in America's second volume, composed at a greater distance in time from his 1831-1832 visit to the United States. If Democracy in America offered France a picture of one possible solution to the problematic of modern (i.e., post-aristocratic) politics, his final masterpiece, The Old Regime and the Revolution, revealed the deeper, darker dynamics of France's (and perhaps today America's also) long-term problem. The anxieties de Tocqueville rightly felt for France's future, for which he believed America's democratic experiment might offer hope, those anxieties are now our anxieties, which we rightly fear for America's problematic present and endangered future.

My grad school mentor, Sheldon Wolin, worked intensely on de Tocqueville, culminating in a densely difficult and very long 2002 book, Tocqueville Between Two Worlds: The Making of a Political and Theoretical Life (Princeton U. Pr.), which tackles important dimensions of de Tocqueville's political life and theoretical vision. But a biography it is not  - not in the sense that Zunz has now given us. And, as someone committed to an active political career, from which is theorizing was inseparable, de Tocqueville's actual life was central and still speaks to us today no other 19th-century comte does.

De Tocqueville lived the modern reality of the unprecedented break in what Zunz calls "the aristocratic chain connecting all parts of society." Hence his contemporary relevance, his conception of democracy as what Zunz terms "an act of the will on the part of every citizen - a project constantly in need of revitalization and of the strength provided by stable institutions." If, instead, some of us worry we may be increasingly more like what de Tocqueville discovered in his research into the ancien régime, then his story is only that much more relevant right now. 

Of course, much of what de Tocqueville admired about America is long gone. If anything, that makes his analysis all the more important, for his was a unique moment in American history, when, as Zinz notes, "the social revolution of Jacksonian democracy was transforming the constitutional principles that the founding generation had established."

Tocquevlle's adventurous political theory (what he called "a new political science" for "a world totally new")) was inseparable from the adventure of his life - an historically rooted aristocrat trapped in a revolutionary, increasingly egalitarian age, a Catholic with a weakened faith who recognized religion's essential role in society. It is this adventure story which Zunz so effectively chronicles, effectively mining multitudes of written sources. So we get to tour America with Tocqueville and Beaumont and report on that experience, then struggle with Tocqueville over whether and how to be politically engaged, eventually giving it all up under Napoleon III, while revealing through Tocqueville's late-life research into the pre-revolutionary regime how and why it all ended the way it did. 

American students of de Tocqueville's political theory tend typically to read his three main works - Democracy in America (1835, 1840), The Old Regime and the Revolution (1856), and his posthumously published Souvenirs (Recollections: The French Revolution of 1848 and Its Aftermath). Zunz draws upon and calls the reader's attention to Tocqueville's many letters and other incidental writings, as well as the letters and reflections of his contemporaries. A new reader with the merest acquaintance with Tocqueville will learn a lot from this book. Someone already well versed in Tocqueville's political theory will learn more.

Of particular interest to me is the author's account of Tocqueville's assessment of religion in relation to modern democracy, which resonates surprisingly well with the insights of the Paulist Fathers' founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker (1819-1888)De Tocqueville was the 19th century’s most famous foreign observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, including and especially American religion. Like de Tocqueville, the American-born convert to Catholicism, Isaac Hecker, appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections among individuals, the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their freedom, and the indispensable role of religion in accomplishing this. De Toqueville and Hecker came from completely different backgrounds, had very different experiences in the Catholic Church, and arrived at their conclusions by very different means, but both famously made the then counter-intuitive case for American democracy’s compatibility with Catholicism. In this, both countered classical liberalism's privatization of religion, which as Sheldon Wolin recognized, “discarded a potentially democratic element while deepening the rift between liberalism and democracy, a rift with political consequences” ( Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded edition, Princeton U. Pr., 2004, p. 542).

Like de Tocqueville, Hecker was well aware that his spiritual insights into American democracy’s compatibility with Catholicism and what Catholicism had to offer to America hardly corresponded to conventional wisdom – on either side of the Atlantic. However, he never wavered in his conviction that what he had found in Catholicism – and what he had been able to find only in Catholicism – could and would be America’s answer as well, in part because he was convinced that the versions of American Protestantism which he knew best (Calvinism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism) ultimately could not do so. And, as with de Tocqueville, Hecker’s faith in the compatibility of Catholicism and American institutions, surprising as it seemed to so many at the time, was paralleled by what must have seemed even more surprising, even more curious conviction (especially in an American context) about the long-term limitations of Protestantism. In part this reflected a partial perception of Protestant reality, rooted in a narrative of American religion which privileged  privileged New England Protestantism and its historical variants over other American religious experiences. 

Likewise, Zunz's account of de Tocqueville's encounter with American religion highlights his limited appreciation American Protestantism, which in so many ways also anticipated Hecker's comparably limited assessment:

"Tocqueville did not recognize the many signs of evangelical Protestantism in the popular neighborhoods where tract and Bible societies improvised revivals. ... He totally missed that Protestant denominational fragmentation rose out of an urgent desire for more authentic experiences of faith and repentance. ... Although Tocqueville ended up affirming in Democracy in America that the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty strengthened each other in Protestant America in a way that was inconceivable in Catholic France, he developed only a partial understanding of American Protestantism."

That said, Tocqueville provided a powerful path for understanding and celebrating the unique prospects for religion, particularly Catholicism, in democratic theory.

Meanwhile, in the toxic period of political polarization that preceded the U.S. Civil War, not only was French democracy dead, a casualty of Napoleon III's Second Empire, but "in America, torn apart by the slavery question, democracy seemed inadequate to the challenge the country faced." Zunz highlights Tocqueville's insightful challenge to American democracy in "the chapter on the 'three races' in which he unequivocally condemned the forced displacement of American Indians and the harsh realities of life for Blacks - slave or free." The divisive legacy of America's original sins still haunts the American democratic experiment which de Tocqueville understood and interpreted so well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Primary Day in NY


It seems that the West Side (in the person of Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. Jerry Nadler) has decisively defeated the East Side (in the person of Oversight Committee Chair, Rep. Carolyn Maloney) in the new 12th congressional district. Until this year, Nadler has represented the 10th congressional district, which has now narrowly nominated Dan Goldman, familiar from having been one of the lawyers in the impeachment case against President Trump. (Nadler could perhaps have avoided the unpleasant fight with Maloney had he been willing to compete for the open 10th-district seat, but he commendably wanted to continue to represent the area where he actually lives.)

Party primaries which these pit 30-year veteran incumbents against each other were a by-product of chaotic congressional redistricting - but no less harmful for that. In this case, of course, the two incumbents represented more or less the same establishment faction within the party - as opposed to the third candidate, Suraj Patel,  who called himself an "Obama Democrat, which presumably is code language for an "ageist" attack on his more senior incumbents. (Patel may have seen himself as a more extreme progressive than the two more senior incumbents, but Obama was extremely progressive only in the fevered imagination of those on the political Right.)

Even more problematic than Patel's ageism, however, was Maloney's resort to sexism, her absurd line about not sending a man to do a woman's job. Well, the voters have spoken. It's not a woman's job or a man's job or an older person's job or a younger person's job. It's just a Democrat's job!

Now, none of this is of much significance for the November elections. This is a "safe" district. Thus the election will not impact the party division in the House. (NY's loss of a seat may matter, but that is a different problem.) They final outcome of which party will congress is a much more important matter than which of these worthy and experience incumbents will be retired.

Most congressional districts are now "safe" districts, which is one of the decisive factors contributing to political polarization both in congress and in the country. In "safe" districts, primaries typically decide the election, but primaries typically have lower turnout, and it is typically the more intense party "base" voters who tend to outnumber more moderate voters in such primaries. When there are no "swing" voters to appeal to electorally, the incentive is to elect representatives who are more extreme, more interested in expressive politics (e.g., an AOC as opposed to the more mainstream, establishment Democrat she defeated in her 2018 primary.)

The one actual election to be fought yesterday, however, was in a "swing" district, a special election in the 19th congressional district in the Hudson Valley, noted for having swung Obama to Trump to Biden. There, Democrat Pat Ryan defeated Republican Marc Molinaro. What that says about November remains to be seen, but it is certainly an encouraging shot in the arm for Democrats everywhere.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Let us go then, you and I

I was in my senior year in high school - almost 60 years ago - when I first encountered the poetry of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), starting with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot's first published poem, published 50 years earlier in June 1915. How much or well I understood Prufrock at the time I can hardly recall. It was surely unlike any poem I had read or studied in English class before, and it must have seemed to me (parochial teenager that i then was) at first somewhat weird. But the poem's amazing use of language (and a poem is always about a special way of using language), the poem's hauntingly well chosen words - very old-aged sounding in someone still young then - have remained with me all these years. Many times, for no particular reason, I have readily recalled the poem's famous opening call to go nowhere: Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table. Or quoted the familiar: In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo. Or asked in jest in this season of the year: Do I dare to eat a peach? Or marked my birthday: I grow old ... O grow old.

It certainly says something about a powerful poem's way with words that it still resonates so much after so many non-poetic, very prosaic years.

I have returned to the awkward, isolated figure of Prufrock now and again as my own life circumstances seemed to suggest. Now, however, I can not only reread Prufrock at leisure, but I can also listen to the poet's voice via an old recording recycled on YouTube, and in so doing imagine my own voice struggling through what Eliot called "an expression of feeling of my own through this dim imaginary figure."

(Photo: Cover page of The Egoist Ltd's publication of Prufrock and Other Observations,1917.)

Monday, August 22, 2022

Salve Regina!

Contemporary Europe is currently blessed to have 2 reigning queens (UK and Denmark), 1 retired reigning queen (Netherlands), 4 queens consort (Belgium, Norway, Spain, Sweden), and 1 queen mother (Belgium). What a glorious array of queens, for which their countries must surely be grateful!

Today, however, the Church focuses her attention on the most glorious queen of all.

While devotion to Mary as queen is certainly ancient in the Church, today's feast dates only from the first-ever Marian Year 1954 and Pope Pius XII's encyclical letter Ad Caeli Reginam (October 11, 1954). In that encyclical, Pius XII exhorted all Christians to glory in being subjects of the Virgin Mother of God, who, while wielding royal power, is on fire with a mother's love (40). 

In the context of the time, the Pope lamented that in some countries of the world there are people who are unjustly persecuted for professing their Christian faith and who are deprived of their divine and human rights to freedom. Today we might think of Nicaragua and China, among other such places. For them, the Pope prayed, May the powerful Queen of creation, whose radiant glance banishes storms and tempests and brings back cloudless skies, look upon these her innocent and tormented children with eyes of mercy; may the Virgin, who is able to subdue violence beneath her foot, grant to them that they may soon enjoy the rightful freedom to practice their religion openly, so that, while serving the cause of the Gospel, they may also contribute to the strength and progress of nations by their harmonious cooperation, by the practice of extraordinary virtues which are a glowing example in the midst of bitter trials. (50).

Pius XII assigned the new feast to May 31. Pope Saint Paul VI's post-conciliar reorganization of the Roman Calendar transferred it to August 22, the Octave Day of the Assumption, a date which had also been considered for it back in the 1950s. In retrospect, the logic of linking Mary's Queenship with her Assumption seems immediately obvious. It highlights her ongoing intercessory role in the fullness of her heavenly glory, which, while implicit in the celebration of the Assumption, may risk getting under-emphasized in the doctrinal emphasis on Mary's bodily glorification. In the daily life of the Church on earth, it is Mary's ongoing intercessory role in the fullness of her heavenly glory that seems so immediately significant. Thus, the Second Vatican Council proclaimed: Taken up to heaven Mary does not lay aside her salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. (Lumen Gentium 62)

(For a brief image of Pope Pius XII proclaiming the feast of the Queenship of Mary and crowing her image, go to:

Photo: "The Coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary" by William Laurel Harris (1870-1924) at the Paulist "Mother Church" of Saint Paul the Apostle, New York. Harris' mural above the Blessed Virgin Mary's altar at the front of the church portrays Mary's crowning as Queen of Heaven by the Holy Trinity, surrounded by, among others, Saints Casimir, Clare, Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Luke, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Mary Magdalene, Augustine, Monica, Anthony of Padua, Bernard of Clairvaux, Philip Neri, Alphonsus Liguori, and John of the Cross.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Farewell Reliable Sources!


For 20+ years, CNN's show Reliable Sources has been a reliable staple of my Sunday routine. The show debuted in 1993, and for most (maybe all) these years it has had the Sunday morning 11:00 a.m. time slot. (Of course, since that has usually been my busiest time of the week, more often than not I have watched it later in the day, seldom however missing it however.) 

Long-time network journalist Bernard Kalb was the program's original host. Then, for many years, Howard Kurtz hosted the show - until he left CNN to join to join (ugh!) Fox in July 2013. In December 2013, New York Times reporter Brian Stelter became the program's permanent host. The show has been all about reviewing the media's coverage of the news ("a critical lens on the media"). Especially since Stelter took over the chair, its format has evolved along with the dominant technologies from the simpler panel show it started out as. This past week, however, CNN canceled the program, and Stelter announced his departure from the network. So, sadly, I will watch the show's final episode today. Sic transit gloria mundi!

Born in 1985 (when I was already in my last year of seminary, not to mention eight years out of grad school), 18-year old Brian Stelter started an anonymous blog about the cable-new industry in 2004, that quickly became a must-read for many. In his 20s, he was a NY Times reporter, from which perch he eventually made his leap to CNN and Reliable Sources host. Single and typically tie-less then, in 2014 he married Jamie Shupak, a traffic anchor for NY1 and now has two children and usually wears a tie. All to be applauded! 

Also to be applauded: Stelter and Reliable Sources soon became increasingly focused on the threat to the press and the overall damage done to democracy by both Trump and the right-wing media. In 2020, he published Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth (Simon and Shuster).

Stelter's stance fit in well with CNN's anti-"Big Lie" approach under Jeff Zucker, who was the president of CNN Worldwide. Zucker, however, was forced out earlier this year, to be replaced by Chris Licht, formerly executive producer of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, as well as CBS's executive vice president of special programming. At the time, Stelter expressed the worry that CNN's parent company Discovery "might stifle CNN journalists and steer away from calling out indecency and injustice."

What news I watch nowadays I watch on PBS and MSNBC. Reliable Sources was the only CNN show I still watch. It will be missed - not just by me but I suspect by many who have come to appreciate its unique focus on media matters and its vibrant critique of what has been happening in these United States of Trump.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Planting Trees in the Apennines?

"It is snowing. The Duce looks out of the window and is glad that it is snowing." So wrote Italy's Foreign Minister, Benito Mussolini's son-in-law, Count Galeazzo Ciano, on Christmas Eve 1940.  "This snow and cold are very good," he recorded Mussolini as saying. "One of the principal reasons I have desired the reforestation of the Apennines has been to make Italy colder and more snowy."*

Who knew Mussolini was an early prophet in the war against climate change? He might have done better to focus his energies there, rather than in his futile fight to create an Italian Mediterranean and African Empire!

Seriously, I have no idea how many trees actually got planted in the Apennines in the Duce's (inevitably short-term) reforestation program. The Apennines (Appennini), a mountain range extending the length of the Italian peninsula, do include some of the best preserved forests in Europe. Recent European climate patterns, however, suggest that perhaps he should have done more of it! Neither Italy nor the world needed Mussolini's monstrous empire nor his self-destructive alliance with Germany, but both Italy and the world would benefit from more trees, more snow, more cold. Consider the recent heat waves and wildfires in Europe, making that traditionally temperate continent suddenly more like perennially fire-threatened and increasingly drought-stricken California. Not necessarily quite the apocalypse - yet. But an ominous sign nonetheless, one which we have neglected - and keep neglecting - to our peril!

*The Ciano Diaries 1939-1943, ed. Hugh Gibson (Doubleday, 1945, Simon Publications 2001).

Photo: Monte Cimone, the highest mountain of the northern Apennines (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

After Wyoming

Nobody - certainly not Liz Cheney herself - was surprised Tuesday by the outcome of the Wyoming Republican primary. Still, it got as much attention as a closely contested election for a more major office in a more electorally significant state. And understandably so! As Donald Trump has successfully remade the Republican party into a politically dangerous personality cult, congresswoman Cheney has emerged as a uniquely powerful spokesperson for the defense of democratic constitutional politics. 

“Two years ago, I won this primary with 73 percent of the votes," Cheney reminded her audience as she conceded at an outdoor stage in Jackson. "I could easily have done the same again, the path was clear, but it would have required that I go along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election,” she continued, making her major point. “It would have required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel a democratic system and attack the foundations of our Republic. That was a path I could not and would not take. No House seat, no office in this land is more important than the principles that we are all sworn to protect. And I well understood the potential political consequences of abiding by my duty.”

How many of her congressional colleagues, for so many of whom nothing in the world would be worse than losing an election, must have watched with complete incomprehension as this daughter of a former Republican Vice President, who won her last election by a landslide and a year ago occupied the third highest post in the House Republican party caucus, threw it all away for the sake "of abiding by my duty.”

So what next for Cheney? Invoking Lincoln's losses before winning the presidency possibly portends her own presidential run. Of course, Cheney understands full well that there is no electoral path for her to become president. And she surely understands the peril to the republic from yet another third-party, "spoiler" candidate, replicating the damage done by the likes of Ralph Nader in 2000 and Jill Stein in 2016. On the other hand, imagine her running in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries, challenging Donald Trump's otherwise unobstructed path to another coronation!

Obviously, I have no special insight into her plans. Presumably she understands the evocative power of the Lincoln analogy. Lincoln led the new Republican party to victory. In the last - and only - "third party" presidential win, Lincoln's Republicans replaced the Whig party. Does she somehow envision a movement that can repeat history and do that to the Republicans? Probably not. Lots of ex-Whigs were drawn to the new party because of its stance on slavery. Trump may prove to be as divisive as was the issue of the expansion of slavery, but it is hard to imagine a comparable constituency in today's Republican party to be lured away by her. No, the only vehicle for fighting Trump's Republicans and preserving democratic constitutional government still viable in the present is the Democratic party, despite its divisions and the self-destructive chaos its character as a fractious coalition invites upon itself. 

Again, Cheney knows all these things. But, by running for president in the Republican primaries, she can aspire to replicate on an even larger stage her role on the January 6 committee as the sort of Socratic gadfly our society so desperately needs now. To quote Socrates himself in his Apology:

I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them, and they will never have another, if they kill me. And now, Athenians, I am not going to argue for my own sake, as you may think, but for yours, that you may not sin by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state; and the state is a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly  attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me.