Monday, October 31, 2022

America Haunted

Halloween (as we now know it, in its reinvented 20th-century form) is a somewhat silly, happy holiday. It is all about festivity and fun - with a residual of traditional transgressive behavior, mediated through modernity's ever-present spirit of narcissism, its haunting spirit safely tamed. 

In the fairy tales with which we in my generation grew up, while the ending was usually a happily-ever-after one, the route to that happy ending was strewn with wicked witches and other formidably frightening forces. I remember as a child thinking how lucky we were to live in the present rather than once-upon-a-time when all those wicked witches and dragons and monsters were a regular threat. Of course, as I eventually learned, the witches and monsters were not literally real. But what they represented, the real evils lurking in the world for so much of human history, tormenting human beings and frustrating human hopes, were very real. 

Christianity claimed to have overcome the demonic powers through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and so started the process of disenchanting our experience of nature, which we increasingly aspired to control and tame to meet our increasing needs. Paradoxically now, nature (now completely disenchanted) has been transformed by our efforts to tame it, into an even more threatening apocalyptic monster in the form of humanly unintended but humanly caused climate change.

The Christian concept of Halloween as the celebration of God's triumph over the demonic has been increasingly replaced by a resurgent paganism, in which the demonic is celebrated as benevolent and even fun. Most of us no longer fear literal ghosts. Yet everywhere we are haunted by evil spirits of our own creation, which like nature in the form of climate change, are coming back to haunt us.

America this Halloween is haunted. We are haunted still by zombie ideologies (Reaganism, Marxism) that continue to block us from understanding (let alone responding to) contemporary problems. Way worse, however, we are haunted by our mutual hatreds and the cultural civil war which the worst among us have for decades now been encouraging us to fight. We are haunted by a contrived illusion of an American greatness that has divided us, weakened us, and made us weaker in the eyes of the rest of the world. And we are haunted by our own narcissistic self-absorption which more than anything else separates us from one another and paralyzes the collective action called for to slay the dragons of our day.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

Armageddon Time (The Movie)


Armageddon Time is a "coming-of-age" movie, featuring sixth-grader Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) learning some of life's hard lessons in a hard place (Queens, NY) in a hard time (the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980). One could summarize by saying highlights how sad it is to be a kid, how sad it is to be in school (two schools in this instance, one public, one private), how sad it is in an anti-semitic world to be a Jew, how said it is in a racist society to be Black (as is Paul's only real school friend Johnny, played by Jaylin Webb), how said it is to be working-class (like Paul's repairman father Irving, played by Jeremy Strong), how said it is to be a family (Paul's world), and how sad it is not to have a family (Johnny's world).

Perhaps not unlike many other sixth-grade boys on the eve of adolescence, Paul is unhappy. His bad behavior at dinner towards his mother, Esther (Anne Hathaway), a home economics teacher and PTA president, highlights how unpleasant and, more poignantly, incomprehensible this can be for everyone else. The one thing that seems to energize Paul is art, and he dreams of being an artist. He does, apparently, have some talent in that department, but otherwise he seems to dwell in a fantasy world, in which he believes the Beatles will soon get back together. His Black friend knows better than Paul that the deck is stacked against him, but he too has his fantasies. (He collects NASA mission patches and wants to be an astronaut.)

Paul's parents' solution to Paul's problems (and his racially alarming choice of friend) is a fancy private school, paid for by his loving grandparents. Esther's father, Aaron (Anthony Hopkins), is old and wise and gentle and discerning, and he seems to be the one adult who can connect with Paul. He understands Paul's unhappiness, but he also understands how dangerously unfair life is - especially for Jews. He encourages Paul to follow his dream, but also to live in reality - a complicated lesson to learn at any age.

Paul's new, fancy school for upward-mobile Queens kids is portrayed as a beneficiary of Fred Trump's patronage. (Yes, that's Fred, the former President's thoroughly obnoxious father.) Fred Trump and his daughter (the former President's sister, now a federal judge) articulate in words what the entire film expresses in multiple ways. Paul learns the value of hard work and self-sufficiency, but also that the deck is stacked, the game is rigged, and who you know (and what connections you make now for the future) may matter most. For that reason alone, Paul may be better off going to the fancy private school, whether or not he is actually any happier there. (For what it's worth, his artistic talent is also more likely to get recognized there.)

The whole movie takes place within a few, rapidly moving, autumn months - between the start of the school year and Election Day 1980. A lot happens in that short time, We get to know the characters surprisingly well. Unsurprisingly, they turn out to be somewhat more complex than we might initially have expected. That short span of time is full of harsh lessons for Paul (unsurprisingly at Johnny's expense) about race and class, power and status, and the inescapable importance of social connections.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Fascism, Then and Now


Fewer political insults have been thrown around with such widespread abandon in recent years as fascist. Just as right-wingers uninhibitedly label those they oppose as socialist or communist, those on the left like to use the epithet fascist with dismaying frequency. One important difference is that socialist and communist have reasonably recognizable meanings, however much many right-wingers are either ignorant of those meanings or maliciously misuse those words, characterizing as communist more or less anyone or anything they happen not to like. In contrast, fascist is a word with much more historical ambiguity about it. It has been used to describe regimes as varied as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Falangist Spain, Peronist Argentina,  Horthy's - and now Orban's - Hungary, and even Putin's Russia. Such wide-ranging application across such historically different regimes really does encourage inconsistent usage and, worse, usage simply as a negative-sounding, content-less term of opprobrium.

In the narrowest sense, of course, fascist applies primarily to the unique 20th-century political phenomenon that invented the term and applied it to itself - the distinctive political movement created and led by Benito Mussolini in interwar Italy. Mussolini himself didn't march in the famous "March on Rome" (which wasn't much of a march in any case). In fact, he came to power relatively peacefully (and completely legally), having been appointed prime minister by the king in what might have initially appeared to many contemporaries as yet one more governmental shuffle. Be that as it may, today is the 100th anniversary of what the Fascist movement immortalized as its "March on Rome," the beginning of Italy's almost 21-year era fascista - a good day to reflect again on varieties of fascism, then and now.

There were many factors which facilitated the Fascist movement's rise in Italy in the aftermath of the Great War, but one which must never be underestimated was simply the overall failure of 1861-1922 Italian liberal constitutionalism,* its failure to deliver for most citizens. Then as now, liberal constitutional government's inability or failure to deliver benefits for its citizens tends to produce a populist disillusionment with traditional liberal political parties and the political process. Italy's King was not alone in appreciating Mussolini as an alternative to what he was reported to have called "the low game of the parties." Then as now, never underestimate the political power of grievance to upend everything else!

Likewise, after Mussolini had accomplished what no traditional liberal government had been able to accomplish and had reconciled Church and State in a way which seemed to satisfy both, Pope Pius XI joined the chorus and called him the man "sent by Providence." Then as now, it is helpful to have religion on one's side. Then as now, one of liberalism's most famous failures, as Sheldon Wolin wisely once observed, was its having discarded in religion “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 University Press, 2004), p. 542.] We continue to experience the consequences of this failure in our contemporary "culture war."

The immediate aftermath of the First World War was, by any measure, a critical time throughout Europe. That obviously included Italy, the weakest of the "Great Powers," then still a fragile, barely unified kingdom. Italian communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci had famously followed Marx in considering the war "the catastrophe of the capitalist world." In retrospect, we can recognize how Europe's post-war was also, in effect, the catastrophe of capitalism's classical accomplice, liberal constitutionalism. At the same time, although Mussolini himself was an ex-socialist of sorts, the movement, as it developed, evolved in an anti-socialist direction, a search instead for an illiberal, reformed version of capitalism, less burdened by democratic and constitutional constraints, what one expert historian has called a tempered version of the inherited liberal world - "slimmer, more efficient, less yielding and clement, more modern." [R.J.B. Bosworth, Mussolini's Italy: Life under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 (NY: Penguin, 2006), pp. 152-153.]

An analogous mentality may be discerned in contemporary variations of "conservative nationalism" or "nationalist conservatism," with its populist appeal to the left-out and it
s elitist cult of strongman-induced unity. (Fittingly, the word fascism is derived from the Roman fasces - the tightly bundled sticks and axe which Roman lictors carried in front of the consuls, signifying unity through forceful authority.)

Italian fascism faced a constant push-and-pull relationship with the pre-existing order. Italy remained a traditional monarchy with a state Church, institutions which constantly counterbalanced fascist aspirations to totalitarian control, in spite of which (or perhaps because of which) Mussolini, more than any other dictator then or since, liked to refer to his system as totalitarian. Like fascist Italy, the playbook for contemporary authoritarian movements which share at least some of the features and aspirations of classical fascism - e.g., Orban's Hungary - have to reckon with whatever traditional elements still have to be accommodated in some way. (Even Putin, however much he may aspire to rule as a Tsar, cloaks his rule in the symbolic structures of liberal democracy - e.g. the recent sham referenda in occupied Ukraine. And President Trump, for all his authoritarian aspirations, was frequently frustrated by traditional institutions - the military, the judiciary, the civil service - nowadays collectively called constitutional "guardrails") Of course, then as now, authoritarian strongmen and would-be strongmen suffer frequently from increasing detachment from their societies' realities and residual institutional and cultural complexities. The Ciano Diaries are a good illustration of this in the case of Italian fascism, highlighting how Mussolini minimized the long-term potential of both Throne and Altar as effective challenges to his totalitarian aspirations.

Just as one cannot speak of Italian fascism without mentioning Mussolini, it seems characteristic of other fascisms and quasi-fascisms that they reflect the specific imprint of their particular national strongmen. The longest-lasting fascist strongman, Spain's Francisco Franco, for example, acquired power through a bloody civil war which scarred Spain for decades (and scars it still). Unsurprisingly, therefore, although organized street violence and the threat of violence were integral to Mussolini's movement, Franco's rule was ultimately much more violent and repressive than Mussolini's. Quite unlike the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, Italy had not been "wrenched out of joint," the result being Italian fascism's relative "softness, compromise, confusion," and "lack of rigor" [Bosworth, p. 109.].

On the other hand, Franco proved more practical about the perils of an alliance with Nazi Germany and had the strategic sense to stay out of World War II, thus remaining in power for decades and dying peacefully in his bed. Mussolini and Franco's Hungarian contemporary Mikl√≥s Horthy - an admiral in a country without a navy, the royal regent of a kingdom without a king - could perhaps not have so easily escaped an alliance with neighboring Nazi Germany. Hungary's contemporary strongman, Victor Orban, on the other hand, seems more like Franco in this regard, rather risk-averse when it comes to international conflict.

So, when one worries now about the prospects for an American fascism, it is very much the personal characteristics of any relevant would-be strongman that attract attention, against the omnipresent background of the real and perceived failures of the existing system. Here, the history of the uniquely chaotic Trump presidency complicates matters a lot, since, on the one hand, he clearly seemed to fit an authoritarian model, but, on the other hand, he had little by way of ideology or political philosophy apart from that. One could characterize Trump more as a symptom of what has been happening on the U.S. political Right, but nonetheless an historically decisive symptom of something very serious, regardless of whether or not it is usefully characterized as Fascism. There is a movement now, for which there seems to be little prospect of turning back, which clearly does aspire to the effective control of state power with more of an agenda than mere personal score-settling, even if this has meant moving away from the American Right's traditional aversion to "big government." And this is happening, as Jonathan Chait has written, not so much because they have "changed their policy goals," but because they have "lost faith in the potential for normal politics." ["How To make a Semi-Fascist Party," New York Magazine, October 12, 2022]

In that one particular respect at least, in this loss of faith in normal politics, the United States in 2022 does really resemble Italy in 1922.

*I prefer the term "liberal constitutionalism" to "liberal democracy," in recognition of the newly unified Italian kingdom's democratic deficits. Thus, for example, universal male suffrage (for men 30 and older) was only adopted in 1912 and first implemented in the elections of 1913. Following the Great War, in 1918 the electorate was expanded to all male citizens 21 and older or who had served in the army. (Women's suffrage was introduced in 1945 and implemented for the first time in the 1946 referendum.)

Photo: Italy's King Victor Emmanuel III with his Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini, The National WWII Museum, New Orleans.

Monday, October 24, 2022

A Cheer for British Democracy

Soon and very soon, British Prime Minister Liz Truss will leave 10 Downing Street for good, and some other Conservative party politician (perhaps the Establishment candidate she defeated for the leadership last time, or perhaps even the PM she replaced) will accept the King's commission to move into Downing Street and try to clean up the mess the Conservatives have created. Truss has the distinction of being the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. That distinction was famously captured by a certain YouTube post which featured a head of lettuce and asked, “Will Liz Truss outlast this lettuce?" As we now know, the lettuce won. 

We also know that it was Truss's total faith in and commitment to a Thatcherite-Reaganite ideology that was her immediate undoing. She who worshipped at the altar of the free market has now been vanquished by that very same free market. Amen! 

Watching the travails of the UK from the west side of the Atlantic, one is tempted to highlight how bad things seem to be over there, what a shambles British society and politics have become, and what a governing failure the Conservative party (which won an amazing majority and a major mandate only three years ago) has proved to be. And there is something to all that, of course. On the other hand, Truss's fate demonstrates that British democracy still works - and works way better in some ways than our American variant.

It is, of course, in the nature of a parliamentary political system to be more responsive to the public. That is why it is called "responsible government." (Queen Victoria supposedly once lamented in a letter to her daughter, the German Empress, that it seemed to her unfortunate that there should have to be a change of government from one party to another for no better reason than the number of votes!)

The American presidential-congressional system with its rigidly fixed terms and other institutional constraints is intended to function differently and is explicitly designed to be much less responsive. And so it has been, and obviously not at all to democracy's advantage. In the modern U.S., only the President can provide effective political leadership. Hence the importance of a political party's winning the presidency, which remains, as JFK famously put it, "the center of action." For such action to happen, however, the president must have effective cooperation from Congress. But a party can win the presidency without winning control of Congress, and our bizarre political culture makes it more likely than not that the party in power may well lose control of Congress midway through a president's term, a prospect we may experience again with the new Congress that will convene on January 3. For the majority party to acquire effective control of Congress, it must also overcome such institutional obstacles as gerrymandering of House districts and the absurd institution known as the U.S. Senate, which, unlike the Canadian Senate or the British House of Lords, retains sufficient power to be a permanent obstacle to enacting anything remotely resembling the popular will. And even nominal majority-party control of  both houses of Congress runs against certain recently created obstacles with no basis in the constitution, such as the Senate filibuster.

All this is exacerbated, of course, by the "Great Sort" and the resulting affective political polarization in American society. (According to recent polling, approximately 80% of each party believes it would be catastrophic for the other party to win.) Not only British political institutions but British political culture foster a more unified society and electorate than in the United States. Here, there are now, in effect, two different societies coexisting side-by-side, characterized by their mutual disdain for each other, informed by separate sources of information, and motivated by contrasting moral codes. As a result, even if the institutions of American government were not already prejudiced as they now are in favor of a reactionary rural minority, a genuinely democratically representative Congress would likely be close to evenly divided much of the time, with ensuing perilous consequences for democratic governance. 

At least Liz Truss wanted to govern, albeit in an unfortunately bad way. The U.S. Republican party has no ambition to govern per se, only to wield power to damage its enemies, which, of course, happen to represent the growing and more productive portions of society. This is not a recipe for solving any of the serious social problems which beset this country and the wider world, such as, for example, climate change and the next pandemic, or even a united front against our foreign foes in Russia and China.

Whether the next British government will rise to the occasion, or whether another party will have to take charge with a new electoral mandate, only time can tell. What one can say, however, is that effective democratic governance remains within the realm of possibility in the U.K. in a way and to a degree which at present completely eludes us in the United States.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

"Armageddon" - Then and Now?

Sixty years ago today, on Monday, October 22, 1962, I came home from school as usual. My mother had already left to go to work at her job in Macy's downtown, leaving my younger sister and me at home with our grandmother. And, as she usually did on Mondays, my mother called us from work. But, unusually that Monday, she told me to be sure to watch the President's speech later that evening on TV, to find out if we were going to go to war. That was my first alert to what was the opening salvo in what quickly came to be called "The Cuban Missile Crisis." (Conventional reckoning dates the crisis as beginning on October 16 and ending on October 29. It was on October 16 that President Kennedy had learned of the presence of Soviet offensive missiles in Cuba. But the crisis became public only on October 22, when Kennedy addressed the nation and announced the American response to this aggressive Soviet action.)

The Cuban Missile Crisis was probably the closest the world has yet come to nuclear war. We were all scared. There's a telling scene in the movie Thirteen Days (2000), when the Kevin O'Donnell character passes a church, sees a long line for confessions, and then gets on line himself. That captures how many of us felt and reacted at the time.

Recently, President Biden referenced that frightening experience in his October 6 "Armageddon" speech in New York, responding to Russian Tsar Vladimir Putin's threats to employ "tactical" nuclear weapons in his war of aggression against Ukraine. The President referred twice in his comments to our collective memory of that dangerous episode in international relations, which evoked the realistic possibility of nuclear confrontation.

Putin is so utterly unpredictable and basically barbaric that the possibility of his breaking the historic (post-1945) nuclear taboo and resorting to nuclear weapons clearly cannot be ruled out. What would that mean? The fact is we really don't know. 

We don't know, in part, because the taboo against using nuclear weapons and the underlying assumption that nuclear weapons are uniquely problematic is rooted in our Cold War experience, when what was envisioned was a total nuclear conflagration - "Mutually Assured Destruction." For the most part, the possibility of limited employment of "tactical" nuclear weapons in a battlefield context has not been realistically entertained. How such a limited use of "tactical" nuclear weapons might play out and what responses might ensue remain unknown.

Back in the bad old days of the Cold War, when we worried for real about "Mutually Assured Destruction," we used to have regular civil defense drills, which required us to run and hide if we were outdoors, and to hide under our desks if we were in school. The fear of nuclear war was real and palpable. And yet, at the same time, life went on. We went to school and planned for the future. People fell in love and got married. People bought cars and moved to the suburbs. As it was in the days of Noah, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage [Matthew 24:37-38]

And so it is again now.

Thursday, October 20, 2022



Fans of MSNBC's Morning Joe are familiar with the historically oriented and occasionally reassuring commentary of historian and presidential biographer Jon Meacham, currently  the Canon Historian of Washington's National Cathedral. (How many cathedral chapters anywhere have a canon historian?) Meacham, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House, has now addressed the crisis of our present moment by means of a re-examination of our Civil War president, Abraham Lincoln, in The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (NY: Random House, 2022).

"Driven by the convictions that the Union was sacred and that slavery was wrong," writes Meacham, Lincoln was instrumental in saving one and in destroying the other, expanding freedom and preserving an experiment in popular government that nearly came to an end on his watch. In him we can engage not only the possibilities and the limitations of the presidency, but the possibilities and limitations of America itself."

Lincoln is always relevant. Recently, however, renewed rumblings of secession - if only as performative anti-politics - should serve to remind us how relevant Lincoln remains. Thus, Texas Senator Ted Cruz recently proclaimed with unabashed absurdity: "Now, listen, if the Democrats end the filibuster, if they fundamentally destroy the country, if they pack the Supreme Court, if they make D.C. a state, if they federalize elections and massively expand voter fraud, there may come a point where it’s hopeless.” Comparing that to the mid-19th-century debates about slavery, one is tempted to recall Karl Marx's famous observation in The Eighteenth Brumaire that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

Cruz et al. may appear farcical, but our crisis is not. Hence, Lincoln's abiding relevance for us.

Meacham is especially eager to highlight the moral and religious dimensions to Lincoln, but he begins and ends with Lincoln as a politician. "Lincoln made his living practicing law, but politics was his vocation." For Meacham, "while Lincoln cannot be wrenched from the context of his particular times, his story illuminates the ways and means of politics, the marshaling of power in a democracy, the durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to help shape events." Lincoln remains worthy of our study, Meacham argues, "not because he was perfect but because he was a man whose inconsistencies resonate even now. So, too, does his bigness."

Unlike many Americans, then and now (and especially in between), Lincoln left little doubt that he understood the fundamental root cause of the war as slavery and the aspirations of what was often called the slave power. Thus, the 1864 Republican convention which renominated Lincoln (whose reelection was far from a foregone conclusion) resolved: “That as slavery was the cause, and now constitutes the strength of this Rebellion, justice and the National safety demand its utter and complete extirpation from the soil of the Republic.” 

What may be news to many is the extent to which the southern pro-slavery cause was not just preservationist but expansionist. "White Southerners dreamed of a slave empire headquartered in the American South but stretching to Cuba, to Mexico, and other parts of Central and South America. Such a white-dominated new nation, a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper wrote, would ensure slaveholders 'a great destiny'.” Lincoln understood this, as early as his opposition to the Mexican War (1846-1848) and continuing through his unyielding commitment to emancipation during his reelection campaign and during the subsequent peace "negotiations." As late as Lincoln's famous February 3, 1865, meeting with the Confederate negotiators on The River Queen, Alexander Stephens tried (unsuccessfully) to interest Lincoln in a joint campaign against the French in Mexico.

That Lincoln came from frontier poverty is a truism with which we are all familiar. What Meacham does is to highlight the link between Lincoln's class background ("materially and emotionally impoverished") and his long-term opposition to slavery. The experience of poor white workers, like Lincoln's father, led, as one contemporary commented, to a conviction that “slavery oppresses the poorer classes, making their poverty and social disrepute a permanent condition through the degradation which it affixes to labor.”

One could probably write an entire book about Lincoln's religious beliefs, and indeed much of Meacham's book focuses on Lincoln's religious beliefs and their relationship to his ideas about slavery. “Probably it is to be my lot to go on in a twilight,” Lincoln reportedly remarked as a young man, “feeling and reasoning my way through life, as questioning, doubting Thomas did.” That said, "Lincoln’s acceptance of the moral case against slavery and his rejection of the passivity of Calvinistic predestination would help determine the course of his life, and of the nation’s.

As a young man, Lincoln had heard regular anti-slavery Baptist sermons. "The emphasis on emancipation in the Baptist world of the upper South," Meacham argues, "was founded on a straightforward application of the biblical understanding of human equality." And equality (as in the famous formulation of the Declaration of Independence) was supremely central to Lincoln.

Meacham emphasizes ""that the Lincoln of the White House years became more religiously inclined, attending services with some regularity and meeting with ministers and congregants." He seems especially to have been influenced by Washington' New York Avenue Presbyterian Church's Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley, a Princeton Presbyterian. Through Gurley, Lincoln received "an immersion in a Presbyterian theology in which God was an active participant in the affairs of the world. Gurley also saw the battle for Union as a holy cause, as did the minister’s old teacher, Charles Hodge of Princeton." Of course, many southerners had a different take on God's designs and, anticipating some contemporary right-wing rhetoric about the modern Democratic party, called the Republican party “essentially infidel!”

To a Tennessee woman, whose Confederate husband was a prisoner of war, Lincoln famously said: “You say your husband is a religious man; tell him when you meet him, that I say I am not much of a judge of religion, but that, my opinion, the religion that sets men to rebel and fight against their government, because, as they think, that government does not sufficiently help some men to eat their bread on the sweat of other men’s faces, is not the sort of religion upon which people can get to heaven!”

To the amazement of many, the United States successfully conducted a presidential election in 1864 even with a Civil War going on. Obviously with an eye to contemporary concerns, Meacham emphasizes Lincoln's commitment to the constitutional principle of elections and to the peaceful transfer of presidential power. "It was a credit to the constitutional system that the election went forward—and that President Lincoln was committed to accepting an outcome adverse to his own interests." In another nod to contemporary challenges to democracy, Meacham notes that "some states with strong Democratic state governments—including Indiana, Illinois, and New Jersey—refused to authorize absentee voting." In the end, despite Democratic obstructionism, "Lincoln received 78 percent of the soldier absentee ballots in comparison to the 53 percent share of the vote that he received from the general population of those same states. The men in uniform had stood with their commander in chief."

Lincoln, Meacham wants us to appreciate, "kept America’s democratic project alive. He did not do so alone. Innumerable ordinary people made sacrifices, even unto death, to preserve the Union against the designs of the rebel South. But Lincoln was essential, and his ultimate vision of the nation—that the country should be free of slavery—was informed by a moral understanding. To him, America ought to seek to practice the principles of the Declaration of Independence as fully as possible, for the alternatives were so much worse."

And that, undoubtedly, remains Lincoln's core relevance today as the nation and system he saved experience renewed versions of the threats he fought against so effectively.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

The Unending Debate about Vatican II


On the occasion of this past week's 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I confined myself to recalling Pope Saint John XXIII's hopes for what the Council could accomplish, rooted in his appreciation of the great accomplishments of the Council of Trent. Opening the Council in 1962, he revisited the role of ecumenical councils in the history of the Church. Whenever Councils are held, he declared, they "solemnly proclaim this union with Christ and his Church, and they spread everywhere the light of truth, give correct guidance to the lives of individuals, of families, and of societies, stir up and fortify spiritual energies, and continually raise minds towards true and eternal goods." Undoubtedly, I observed, he hoped that something similar would result from this Council. Implicitly, I suggested that something different, something less inspiring may have resulted, contrary to Pope John's hopes and expectations. I assumed - correctly as it turned out - that others with greater knowledge and intellectual credentials would soon address these issues.

And so they have. In a well worth repeated reading essay in The NY Times ("How Catholics Became Prisoners of Vatican II," October 12, 2022), Ross Douthat tried to cut through the ideological fog which gets in the way of any serious discussion of this subject. He contends that "the council poses a continuing challenge, it creates intractable-seeming divisions, and it leaves contemporary Catholicism facing a set of problems and dilemmas that Providence has not yet seen fit to resolve."

Specifically, he makes three claims that are intended to be taken together as a whole. "First, the council was necessary. ... in the sense that the church of 1962 needed significant adaptations, significant rethinking and reform. These adaptations needed to be backward-looking: The death of throne-and-altar politics, the rise of modern liberalism and the horror of the Holocaust all required fuller responses from the church. And they also needed to be forward-looking, in the sense that Catholicism in the early 1960s had only just begun to reckon with globalization and decolonization, with the information age and the social revolutions touched off by the invention of the contraceptive pill. ... but Vatican II was called at a moment when the need for such change was about to become particularly acute."

Second, accepting the Council on its own terms, on the terms it set for itself, "The council was a failure. ... It was supposed to make the church more dynamic, more attractive to modern people, more evangelistic, less closed off and stale and self-referential. It did none of these things. The church declined everywhere in the developed world after Vatican II, under conservative and liberal popes alike — but the decline was swiftest where the council’s influence was strongest."

There is, of course, nothing new about this claim. It was being made by those with reservations about the Council already in the 1960s, the facts Douthat points to having become indisputable by the 1970s at the latest. (Balancing this, many have long argued that the Council was interpreted and implemented differently in the "Global South," with better outcomes, but that is a separate discussion.) Different people still have different takes on exactly what happened in the calamitous aftermath of the Council and why. That is only to be expected. Yet, as Zac Davis put it bluntly in America ("Did Vatican II Fail? Are we allowed to ask the question?" October 12, 2022), "To act like there are no open questions about the council's relationship to the state of the church is an act of denialism and pearl-clutching." All too often, Davis reminds us, "we are blinded by ideology to our own particular interpretation or idea of how things should be."

An unfortunate example of such "pearl-clutching" may perhaps be seen in Michael Sean Winters' polemical response to Douthat ("Vatican II at 60: Is Pope Francis or Ross Douthat right?" NCR, October 14, 2022). Unsurprisingly Winters wants to identify his position with that of the Pope. He quotes Pope Francis. "Yet let us be careful: both the 'progressivism' that lines up behind the world and the 'traditionalism' that longs for a bygone world are not evidence of love, but of infidelity. They are forms of a Pelagian selfishness that puts out own tastes and plans above the love that pleases God, the simple, humble and faithful love that Jesus asked of Peter." Winters somewhat confuses the issue with a further riff on Pelagianism, which he strangely links to "the Calvinism of dominant colonial culture." Of course, any self-respecting Calvinist would be horrified by any such connection! Ultimately, however, all such name-calling is beside the point and really just gets in the way of what we ought to be talking about.

Winters acknowledges that both progressivism and traditionalism have proved problematic - the former adopting "attitudes and ideas with no "Catholic pedigree" and the latter having "too often collaborated with fascism." But both of these are straw men. Progressive preoccupations with "non-binary sexual identity issues" are an easy target, as were 20th-century Catholic integralist fascists and neo-fascists. Neither fully nor fairly represents the progressive and traditionalist critiques, both of which are at least partly legitimate, and both of which can claim authentic Catholic and conciliar roots.

The perpetual "pearl-clutching" about whether Vatican II was the ecclesiastical equivalent of Trump's "perfect phone call" can get us nowhere. One reason is Douthat's third point, which is that "The council cannot be undone" in the sense that the world has irretrievably changed and - as I often like to say in response to extreme liturgical traditionalism, Catholics now live and express and very different sensibility, very different from that of 60 years ago. 

What Douthat means is "that there is no simple path back. Not back to the style of papal authority that both John Paul II and Francis have tried to exercise — the former to restore tradition, the latter to suppress it — only to find themselves frustrated by the ungovernability of the modern church. Not to the kind of thick inherited Catholic cultures that still existed down to the middle of the 20th century, and whose subsequent unraveling, while inevitable to some extent, was clearly accelerated by the church’s own internal iconoclasm. Not to the moral and doctrinal synthesis, stamped with the promise of infallibility and consistency, that the church’s conservatives have spent the last two generations insisting still exists, but that in the Francis era has proved so unstable that those same conservatives have ended up feuding with the pope himself."

Winters dismisses Douthat's argument as "only a rightwing talking point." But the problems Douthat highlights will not go away by cavalierly dismissing them with such "pearl-clutching" wish fulfillment." Whether the current condition of the Church is because of the Council or in spite of the Council, it factually remains the opposite of what the Council aspired to. and that is the reality which must be accepted as the context within which all evangelization, "new" or re-evangelization, and just plain old pastoral ministry and pastoral care must take place.

In the realm of "secular" politics, polarization makes a certain sort of sense, since the point of politics is to acquire and use political power (hopefully for some telos above and beyond the mere possession fo power and the dispossession of one's rivals). Unfortunately, for 60 years now, the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath have been filtered through a polarized political binary, that began with the politicized journalism of "Xavier Rynne" and has continued virtually unabated ever since. Yet the Church is not supposed to be primarily about the acquisition of political power. Only when that secular purpose has been subordinated, will we make any authentic progress in re-evangelizing ourselves and our society.

Zac Davis favorably cites Pope Francis' request that we prepare for the upcoming Holy Year by rereading the Council's four Constitutions. That's a fine idea - provided we are willing to get beyond our present polarized political binary about the words and the "spirit" of those four documents. The Church today in the United States and Europe is no longer the community it was when those constitutions were written and for which those constitutions were written. they were written in a very different society at a very different time. Nor does the Church today meaningfully resemble any community that those constitutions appeared to aspire to.

Contrary to the claims of progressives and traditionalists both, that is not the end of the story. But it is where we must begin.

Friday, October 14, 2022

The Tudors at the Met


The fantastic new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, takes us back to one of the most formative periods in British history, the 118-year reign of the Tudor dynasty, the last five exclusively English monarchs (before the Scottish King James VI claimed the crown of England as the great-grandson of a Tudor princess). As we all once learned - whether in school or from various Showtime and Starz dramatic series - Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian claimant to the throne defeated the Yorkist King Richard III (himself a usurper at his Yorkist nephew Edward V's expense) at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and began the eventful era of Tudor rule as Henry VII. In school, we were once taught that Henry VII's subsequent marriage to Elizabeth of York ended the Wars of the Roses by uniting the two competing dynasties, and began a new era of post-medieval stability for England.

In fact, however, the Tudors' claim was never completely secure. Hence, the second Tudor king's obsession with securing a male heir, which resulted in the mother of all Brexits, Henry VIII's secession from the Catholic Church. With the new complication of religion, the succession crisis only intensified. Henry VIII's three legitimate heirs all sat on the throne, and the last of them, Elizabeth, reigned long enough (1558-1603) and gloriously enough to preside over England's "Elizabethan Age - and to be portrayed in the ad for this exhibit (photo above). But all three died childless, and the Tudors gave way to the Scottish Stuarts (also descended from Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, the common ancestors of all British royalty ever since).

Still the Tudors continue to fascinate - both for their personal problems and for the centuries of religious strife they unleashed, as well as for the modern commercial kingdom (and eventually empire) which became their legacy. 

Delayed by the pandemic, The Tudors is an appropriately impressive exhibition, adequate to the bold grandeur of the Tudors and their era and to the widespread fascination in this country with the Tudors and their era. (Perhaps the American fascination is only appropriate, since the founder of the Tudor dynasty was the first to claim some sort of sovereignty - albeit at the time mostly nominal - over any part of North America, a sovereignty that has expanded and contracted under his successors but still survives in part, if again only mostly nominal.)

The exhibition reflects the high courtly fashions of the Renaissance, a time when Europe was still (at least until the Reformation) really united culturally, and it revels in Renaissance splendor. Tudor England hosted an international community of artists, some 100 of whose famous and not so famous works are on display in this exhibition. We see Tudor propaganda in tapestries and aristocratic genealogies, and ecclesial splendor in liturgical vestments. And, of course, we see portraits of the five Tudor monarchs and of other contemporaries, some of whom most of us may have never heard of. We see the most famous martyrs of the Tudor era - a familiar portrait of Saint Thomas More and a bust of Saint John Fisher, the leading statesman and the only bishop to remain religiously faithful against the depredations of the Tudor tyrant. 

England under the Tudors was a small, only modestly significant kingdom, in the process of transforming itself into a major commercial and naval power and eventually an empire. (It is perhaps no accident that it was the second Tudor monarch who chose to act on the curious claim, rex est imperator in regno suo!) The artistic creativity of the era both reflected and reinforced the claims and aspirations of an unsurprisingly insecure but amazingly successful dynasty.


Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Final Hearing


For, be the constitution of a government what it may, if there be within its jurisdiction a single man who is not subject to the law, all the rest are necessarily at his discretion.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 
Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, 
Dedication to the Republic of Geneva, 1754.

Barring something resembling an electoral miracle, the Republicans will likely regain control of the House of Representatives, putting an end to the life and work of the House Select January 6 Committee come January 3. With the clock clearly ticking, the Committee has held its ninth and presumptively final public hearing, a dramatic two-and-one-half-hour session with no new witnesses but with more hitherto unseen video from that dreadful day, ending with the unanimous committee vote to subpoena the person at the center of it all - Donald Trump.

After all the committee has heard, with hours of testimony, much of it from Republicans, the case has clearly been made that Trump, although he knew he had lost the election, nonetheless orchestrated a scenario which resulted in a violent mob, some of whom were armed, attacking the Capitol in order to prevent the Congress from carrying out it prescribed constitutional function of counting the electoral votes, thus in effect seeking to disrupt the normal, peaceful transfer of power. There have been presidents who have, for one reason or other, absented themselves from their successors' inaugurations, but there has never in our 200+ years of presidential transitions been a president who has attempted to overthrow an election and prevent his successor's replacing him. The malice of what occurred was, if anything, exacerbated by the physical danger the president's actions posed for Capitol police personnel, for members of Congress, and, most shockingly, for the Vice President, whom the mob was led to believe was the ultimate culprit for not intervening (unconstitutionally) to, in effect, appoint a president other than the one elected by the members of the electoral college.

In the process, the hearings have highlighted some of Trump's enablers. But in the end it all came back to Trump, back to where it started, to what Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren called a “plan concocted in advance to convince his supporters that he won.” The heroine of the committee, Congresswoman Liz Cheney warned that what we escaped this time could conceivably succeed next time. She called for accountability.

Yet accountability remains elusive. And not just because the committee will likely go out of business soon - although the imminent danger of a Republican-run House highlights the wider dimension of our national division which will further frustrate any accountability on the part of the political party which enabled Trump to get to January 6 and has enabled him, not only to escape all accountability, but to continue to be the menace to the constitution and democracy that he remains.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Con Man - The Latest Trump Book

Once again, there seems to be no end in sight to books about Donald Trump, just as there seems to be no in sight to his presence in U.S. politics and the destructive damage done, day in and day out, by his persistent presence. The latest contribution to the Trump genre is Maggie Haberman’s Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America. Haberman is a long-time, native New York City journalist, who comes from the same New York scene in which Trump emerged and who has accordingly covered Trump for decades, having worked  for all three NYC dailies, The NY Post, The NY Daily News, and The NY Times (where she won a Puliltzer). Unsurprisingly, therefore, the primary merit of her book is the attention she pays to the first part of the book's title - The Making of Donald Trump - the story of Trump before his presidency. We are well into the book by the time we get to the 2016 campaign, but by then we know him well, and we also appreciate how Trump expected to operate as president much the same way he had in his unedifying New York and New Jersey real estate development endeavors.

Like many other non-elite New Yorkers, I really only started paying attention to Trump in the 1980s. That, of course, was a critical moment. When Haberman calls Trump "frozen in time," the time at issue is 190s NYC. It was in the 1980s that Trump opened Trump Tower, successfully restored the Wollman Rink in Central Park, inappropriately inserted himself into the racial charge Central park jogger case, and he ended the decade divorcing his first wife Ivanna on the front pages of New York's newspapers. By then I know that he was a rich, seemingly successful, real estate developer who liked attention. I did not yet know the sorry story of his dysfunctional family life. Nor did I know such minor matters about his youth that Haberman mentions, such as that he started at Fordham University while I was in high school nearby, or that what he had really wanted was to study film at USC. (His lifelong successful manipulation of the media suggests he learned whatever he needed to learn without going to film school!)

We are in, by now, very familiar territory when Trump finally, if unexpectedly, makes it to the White House. So we learn how Trump arrived in Washington knowing virtually no one other than fellow New Yorkers like Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (to whose campaigns he had donated), how "Trump had no idea what he believed in,"  how Jared Kushner "sought to establish himself as the most consequential gatekeeper of the presidency," how liberal groups still "had hopes for a version of Trump that ultimately did not exist," and how many of Trump's advisers recognized the abnormality of his behavior."

Given her focus on New York and Trump's pre-presidential life, Haberman had expected him to return to New York more often. (I for one had certainly never anticipated his almost complete self-exile from his home in his post-presidency.) At this point, there is little new to be reported about Trump's White House years, but the author's New York angle highlights what might otherwise attract less notice - how, for example, "the early stages of the pandemic became real for Trump because they struck the place he knew best," and how, as NY's governor grew more prominent in the early weeks of the pandemic, Trump seemed "drawn to Cuomo, a familiar presence from his past as much as someone who was in the news himself."

When it came to the campaign, given all the nonsense Trump himself and many right-wingers have peddled about Biden's mental fitness, it is revealing to read how "Biden and Trump spoke briefly at the beginning of April, at Biden’s initiation, to discuss the pandemic. Despite mocking Biden’s mental acuity for months, Trump told advisers he did not detect anything odd during the phone call."

And, however, shockingly unprecedented in terms of American political culture Trump's post-election behavior has been, Haberman highlights how coherent it has been with Trump's pre-presidential story. For example, on his successor's Inauguration Day, "Trump began his attempted comeback, as he had all of his previous ones, by refusing to concede that anything was wrong. On the flight to Florida, Trump spoke with Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel and vented his fury at her party, suggesting he might form one of his own. McDaniel pointed out all the party resources from which he had already benefited and that those would not be available to him as a third-party candidate." 

And, in one of his post-presidential interviews with the author, he remained as he had long been back in New York. Thus, "reflecting on the meaning of having been president of the United States, his first impulse was not to mention public service, or what he felt he’d accomplished, only that it appeared to be a vehicle for fame, and that many experiences were only worth having if someone else envied them."

As for his larger impact on American politics, society, and culture, Haberman sums him up with this variation on a famous formula: "When the tide sank, all boats were lowered."

What more need anyone say?

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Vatican II + 60

Today is the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope Saint John XXIII, whom the Church calendar commemorates today. It is well known that Pope Saint John XXIII had been thinking about the possibility of a council for some time prior to his surprise announcement of his plan in January 1959. As a young priest, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had served as secretary to the Bishop of Bergamo and taught Church history in the seminary, immersing himself in accounts of the vigorous religious renewal of the Church in Lombardy thanks to the Council of Trent, which he himself later characterized as a time of potent reawakening of energy unequaled in any other period of church history. There seems little reason to doubt that, as pope, he hoped to promote a similar reawakening of energy through the means of another council.

Nor was this idea unique to him. Because of the Italian conquest of Rome in September 1870, the First Vatican Council had adjourned with its work unfinished. Once the Roman Question had been satisfactorily solved, thanks to the Reconciliation achieved by Mussolini, there were multiple suggestions at the highest levels for another ecumenical council to complete its work in the 20th century. Roncalli may or may not have been aware of those proposals, but he was a close friend of Dom Lambert Beauduin. According to Thomas Stransky, "during their frequent private evenings together in Paris, when the future pope was nuncio to France, the two of them fantasized about the need and possibility of another ecumenical council." And Joseph Komonchak has suggested that the possibility of a Council may have been discussed during the 1958 conclave. Cardinal Ottaviani later claimed that he and Cardinal Ruffini had suggested the idea of a council to Cardinal Roncalli during the conclave. Cologne's Cardinal Frings in his subsequent memoir claimed to have said to his secretary as they were returning home from the conclave that he had a feeling that a Council would take place soon.

Whatever the influences, Pope John did indeed call a council early in his pontificate, and after more than three years of preparation the Council convened 60 years ago today on October 11, 1962, the feast (as it then was) of the Maternity of Mary. Komonchak calls him "a man with a deep historical consciousness," and he credits "this combination of historical awareness and of a conviction of a need to embrace new challenges and opportunities that was to mark the whole pontificate of John XXIII and to lead him in the course of the Council's preparation and first session to make the decisions that enabled it to live up to the hopes he set in it."

As was unfortunately often the case, Yves Congar was grumpy on the Council's opening day. He left the Basilica during the Opening Mass, thus missing the Pope's famous opening address. That speech has rightly been remembered as expressing the Pope's personal hopes and aspirations for the Council. Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, the Pope began, "Mother Church rejoices that by a singular gift of divine Providence, the long-for day has finally dawned on which, under the protection of the Virgin Mother of God, whose maternal dignity is celebrated today, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, is solemnly opened here beside the tomb of St. Peter." (Believe it or not, after 60 years, there is still no official Vatican English translation of this memorable speech! So I am using that by Jospeh Komonchak - available at

In his address, Pope John revisited the role of ecumenical councils in the history of the Church. Whenever Councils are held, he declared, they "solemnly proclaim this union with Christ and his Church, and they spread everywhere the light of truth, give correct guidance to the lives of individuals, of families, and of societies, stir up and fortify spiritual energies, and continually raise minds towards true and eternal goods." Undoubtedly he hoped that something similar would result from this Council. 

There was, also, a second speech which Pope John gave that day, which offers its own unique insight into Pope John's character and piety. That evening, a torchlight procession of thousands of people came to Saint Peter's Square in celebration of the Council's opening earlier that day. Pope John had not planned an address, but seeing the crowd he went to his window and spoke extemporaneously. He began with a now famous reference to the light of the moon, which has given it the name, Discorso alla Luna"I hear your voices. Mine is only a single voice. But what resounds here is the voice of the whole world; here all the world is represented. One might even say that the moon rushed here this evening – Look at her high up there – to behold this spectacle." 

It was a very short and casual talk, in which he expressed fundamental spiritual sentiments such as this: "Let us continue, therefore, to love each other, to love each other so, by looking at each other in our encounters with one another: taking up what unites us and setting aside anything that might keep us in a bit of difficulty." After mentioning the Council of Ephesus (on the feast which celebrated the dogma of Mary's divine motherhood, affirmed at Ephesus in 431), his speech briefly referenced that day's opening of the Council: "This morning there was a spectacle that not even the Basilica of Saint Peter’s – which has four centuries of history – could ever have contemplated. We belong, therefore, a time in which we are sensitive to the voices that come from above: and we want to be faithful and to stand according to the directions which our Blessed Christ has given us."

The conclusion of the Pope's talk is itself also famous. "When you go back home, you will find your children: and give them a hug and say, “This is a hug from the Pope. You will find some tears that need to be dried: speak a good word: 'The Pope is with us, especially in times of sadness and bitterness.' And then all together let us encourage one another: singing, breathing, weeping, but always full of faith in Christ who helps us and who listens to us, let us continue on our journey."

Photo: Discorso alla Luna. Notizie/Italia/News.

Discorso alla Luna Translation Copyright 2012 Fr. Stefano Penna and Br. Scott Surrency OFM Cap.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Columbus Day

Thanks to the absurd Uniform Holidays Act of 1968, today is Columbus Day (the federal holiday). The real Columbus Day, of course, comes later this week on October 12, the actual 530th anniversary of the Spanish explorer's first landing in what we now call the Americas. That was an event of monumental world-historical significance, with admittedly catastrophic consequences for many of the original populations of the Americas and an array of complex consequences for the rest of the world, which would not otherwise exist in its present form. There are, therefore, multiple significations to Columbus Day, all of which deserve to be studied, discussed, and debated - among them also its significance as a constitutive building block of an alternative to the prevalent WASP-centric account of the American founding.

In addition, for various historical, cultural, and religious reasons, Columbus Day has acquired a special significance for the celebration of Italian-American identity. 

I have written previously about the abiding significance of Columbus Day for Italian-Americans and others at:

Photo: Statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle, New York City.