There has been much back and forth on budgetary matters vis a vis campaign 2012. I have just finished reading David Wessel, Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget. It is a clear and concise look at the federal budget, how it grew, proposed remedies for the deficit (and why they’re so hard to implement), and the politics that keep us from resolving the problem. Wessel, a WSJ reporter and columnist, writes clearly and at times wittily. Not Paul Krugman (my favorite), but that would be a plus for some! Available on Kindle. Not long!
Archive for August, 2012
Now on the website, two new takes on the Ryan pick.
William Pfaff looks at the implications for U.S. foreign policy:
Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan seem close to the hawkish ideology that gave the United States its present military deployments in Asia and Central Asia … But they seem to have no clear intellectual position at all, which is to say that they might easily become the instruments of others with aggressive ideologies of their own. Certainly the Netanyahu government in Israel counts far more on the Republicans than on Barack Obama to endorse or reinforce any Israeli attack on Iran, and Mr. Romney himself has announced that in his mind Jerusalem already belongs whole and entire to Israel.
E.J. Dionne, meanwhile, looks at how down-ballot GOP candidates are putting distance between themselves and the vice presidential pick:
There is the idea of having Paul Ryan on the Republican ticket, and then there is the reality.
If conservative ideologues are over the moon at having their favorite conviction politician as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate, many Republican professionals — particularly those running this fall — are petrified. They freely express private fears that Democrats will succeed in Ryanizing the entire GOP.
That anxiety may be justified, according to Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium. His polling numbers indicate that if the subject of GOP budget priorities remains at the forefront of the campaign, the probability of Democrats retaining control of the Senate rises to 82% — from 52% if there is no “Ryan effect.” His summation: “Romney effectively threw Congress under the bus to get a possible (but not guaranteed) advantage for himself.”
War and rumors of war continue to bubble up in the Israeli press:
- Israeli officials declare the sanctions against Iran are not working and urge Europe and the U.S. to agree. Since the harshest measures only went into effect in July, this seems a bit premature.
- Defense Minister Barak cites U.S. intelligence showing that Iran has made significant progress toward a nuclear bomb. There is no confirmation on the U.S. side and Secretary of Defense Panetta says they do not have a nuclear weapon.
- Prime Minister Netanyahu will meet with President Obama late in September and tell him that Israel will attack Iran before the November election. He expects the U.S. to join in. Will Obama have the guts to say No, I’m sticking with diplomacy?
How serious are these rumors? What is the point of their conspiratorial air? Would Netanyahu actually threaten Obama: Go to war or lose the election?
More: August 18: Gary Sick, long-time Iran-Israel expert and professor at Columbia has this to say: “an Israeli (or American) attack would very likely leave the situation much worse than it was before taking military action. Israel’s security would not be improved; in fact, it might be imperiled by the negative response of even Israel’s closest allies. And Iran’s creeping approach to nuclear capability might turn into a sprint.
“This awareness of the “day after” effect has persuaded many security specialists that an Israeli attack would be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory.”
UPDATE August 18: Stephen Walt: “the recurring talk of “closing windows,” “red lines,” “zones of immunity,” and the like is a political ploy, designed to stifle diplomacy, strengthen sanctions, and gradually inch the United States closer and closer to a commitment to use force. The Israelis know that they cannot do the job themselves, and their larger aim is to keep attention riveted on Tehran (and not on settlement expansion) and to make sure that if war does come, the United States does the heavy lifting. In short, all this war talk is a bluff, but one can scarcely blame Israel for employing a tactic that keeps working so well. It’s our fault we keep falling for it [bf mine].”
UPDATE August 17: The Kabuki Dance continues: “It remains unclear to what extent Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak are serious about attacking, or whether the idea is more to use the credible threat of an attack to press Washington and rest of world into imposing tougher sanctions on Iran or even into declaring a commitment to American-led military action at some later date.” NYTimes Does have the whiff of blackmail, does it not?
Earlier links below the fold.
Now that the GOP has gone all serious on us about the economy, it is interesting to see a substantive criticism of Paul Ryan’s economic policies (and record) by a significant figure on the Right. David Stockman was Reagan’s Budget Director and one of the fathers of “supply side” economics. And he is angry.
This article is important, because we need to remember that there aren’t just two alternatives. Each economic alternative (Obama’s and Romney’s) represents various possibilities from within the Right and the Left, and these should be addressed too.
John Allen has posted an intriguing column on the future of the “center-left” within the Catholic Church in the United States. He notes that there are a large number of American Catholics who, while not enamored of recent positions taken by the U.S. bishops, are nevertheless committed to working “within the system” so to speak. Allen suggests that the center-left could build stronger relationships with the bishops by offering, for example, strong public support for the bishops’ position on the HHS’ definition of a “religious employer.”
As he often does, Allen had me nodding along thoughtfully until I came to his penultimate paragraph
Once upon a time, when the tone-setting camp among the bishops came out of center-left circles, it was the conservatives and the center-right that had to be intentional about building relationships. Today the shoe is on the other foot, and showing “surprising support” at least seems a possibility worth pondering.
Allen seems to be suggesting that, once-upon-a-time, conservatives were able to expand their influence among the bishops by “building relationships.” This is, to put it mildly, a curious reading of history. I think a more accurate assessment would be that conservatives expanded their influence by openly opposing “center-left” bishops where they could, going around those bishops to Rome where they could not, and doing everything they could to ensure that future bishops would be “center-right” if not simply “right.”
Consider the debate over the U.S. bishops’ two major pastoral letters of the 1980s, The Challenge of Peace (1983) and Economic Justice for All (1986). Did conservative opponents of these documents confine themselves to offering “surprising support” for certain elements while critiquing others? They did not. In addition to complaining bitterly to anyone in Rome who would listen, conservatives also organized public opposition. In response to Economic Justice for All, for example, Michael Novak and Bill Simon drafted (and convinced a number of business leaders to sign) “The Lay Letter,” which accused the bishops of having an inadequate grasp of the principles of a market economy.
The recent debate over the new English translation of the Roman Missal is another case in point. Opponents of the 1998 ICEL translation did not simply “dialogue” with the bishops who favored it. They went around them, lobbying bishops who were on the fence, encouraging opponents to write letters to both U.S. bishops and various officials in Rome. They supported the work of Vox Clara, which at the time of its formation was an explicit effort to weaken the control of the liturgy committees of the individual episcopal conferences, which were largely “center-left” in orientation and supportive of the ICEL’s work.
The long-term strategy, of course, has been to replace center-left bishops with men of a more conservative stripe, rendering “dialogue” unnecessary. At one point, this meant the replacement of center-left bishops like Terrence Cooke with center-right bishops like John O’Connor, who combined staunch pro-life advocacy with an equally staunch support of organized labor. The recent trend of appointments is toward even stronger conservatives and may reflect the influence of the American cardinals on the Congregation for Bishops: Law, Stafford, Burke, and Rigali.
My point in recounting this history is less to criticize the center-right than to correct Allen’s misreading of recent ecclesiastical history. The uncomfortable truth is that no-holds-barred theological conflict is a recurrent feature of church history. Am I suggesting, then, that “center left” Catholics should adopt the bare-knuckled tactics of their conservative counterparts rather than the dialogue favored by Allen?
I am not, for the simple reason that I can’t imagine it being effective. Nor, however, can I imagine Allen’s approach yielding any substantive benefits for the center left. The truth is that, like the South after Gettysburg, the left has been defeated and little is left but to negotiate the terms of its surrender.
In the 1980s, center-left bishops had to listen to the center-right because they had the ear of Rome. The center-left has the ear of no one. They have nothing that the bishops really need and probably nothing that the bishops want. They have no leverage.
Allen suggests that “center left” probably describes the majority of American Catholics and perhaps a super-majority of those working in Catholic institutions, such as chancery offices, Catholic Charities, etc. This is true, but it is changing. We have had a fair amount of episcopal turnover in California in the last few years, and the trend is unmistakable. Older, largely “center-left” staff are retiring or leaving and being replaced by younger, more self-consciously “orthodox” Catholics.
It’s true that the majority of rank-and-file Catholics are probably “center left” in orientation. But what of it? Younger Catholics, for the most part, are simply not attached enough to the Church as an institution to think “institutionally” about their theological commitments. Communal dialogue is something you engage in because you have a community. The majority of younger Catholics—like a majority of younger Christians—are spiritual consumers. If they are dissatisfied, they will choose “exit” rather than “voice.”
But surely, I hear some readers suggesting, the drifting away of millions of American Catholics will cause the hierarchy to sit up and take notice, in the same way that the “loss of the working class” in 19th century Europe galvanized the forces of reform within the Church of that time.
Perhaps. But that was a different time. Those bishops were living at the beginning of the collapse of European Christianity. Today’s bishops are living the aftermath of that collapse. They have no illusions that “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith” as Hilaire Belloc once put it. They are fully prepared to see the Church in West decline in size, both relatively and absolutely. Do they truly wish for this outcome? I do not believe that they do. But they do not believe (nor do I, for the record) that any liberalization of the Church’s contested teachings will arrest that decline.
Do I mean to suggest that the center-left has no future, that it is, to use Cardinal George’s description of liberal Catholicism, “an exhausted project?” I do not believe that either. Theologically, the left is that portion of the Church that asks the question “is the Gospel being heard?” just as the right is that portion of the Church that asks the question “is the Gospel being heard?” It goes back to Paul and James and the Council of Jerusalem and the tension will be with us always.
In the short term, though (which for most of those reading this means the rest of our lives), those of a “center left” persuasion within the Church will need to take a very long view. They will need to be able to work creatively in an environment that may well become almost as hostile to them as the anti-Modernist era was to an earlier generation of reformers. It will not be work for those unwilling to suffer under ecclesiastical discipline or for those who take refuge in easy optimism. Anything put forward must be both deeply grounded in the Tradition and intellectually rigorous. Ultimately—and most importantly—the work will require a deep trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.
First the good news: We don’t have to worry this year about the intellectual qualifications of the GOP vice-presidential candidate — or about the judgment of a presidential candidate who would choose an unqualified running mate. Of course, it was always highly unlikely that Mitt Romney was going to repeat that particular mistake.
Now the bad news: By putting Paul Ryan on the ticket, Romney has underlined his prior commitment to Ryan’s budget plan, which would gut Medicaid, transform Medicare into a voucher program, and reduce all federal discretionary spending — including defense spending — to 3.5 percent of GDP. We now spend more than 4 percent of GDP on the Department of Defense alone, and both Romney and Ryan have pledged to protect the military from further cuts. That would leave the federal government with less than nothing to spend on everything else except for entitlements: roads and bridges, education, food safety, you name it.
Ryan and his defenders say we have no choice. We must either behave as adults and scale back basic public programs or risk losing them altogether. They say this because they know most Americans would reject Ryan’s plan if it were presented as a choice — the choice between dismantling the federal government and raising taxes on the rich and upper middle class, whose effective tax rates are now at their lowest level in decades.
Ryan has always been in favor of scrapping or privatizing federal programs for reasons that have little to do with fiscal necessity. He was, for example, behind a 2005 plan to privatize Social Security, which went nowhere. He was also in favor of the Bush administration’s tax cuts and wars, which did as much as anything else to cause our current fiscal problems. Ryan believes, as a matter of principle, that the federal government has no business taking care of the old, the sick, and the destitute. Each state, not the United States, can deal with the needs of such people. Or, better, churches and voluntary associations can take care of them. (Food stamps? Are there no church-basement homeless shelters, no soup kitchens?). Better still, those in need can learn to take care of themselves, as the good Lord intended, because no one is free who isn’t self-sufficient. On that point, at least, the divine Author of our liberties is in complete agreement with Ayn Rand.
Ryan has carefully distanced himself from Rand, a hero of his youth. He’s never been an objectivist, he now insists. How could he be? He’s a Catholic. He just likes her novels for the way they dramatize the evil of “collectivism,” Ryan’s pejorative term for the commonweal. Still, the question remains: Would someone who knew nothing about Ryan but had studied his budget be more likely to think it had been inspired by the Sermon on the Mount or Atlas Shrugged? As I wrote here a few months ago:
I have no doubt Ryan goes to Mass every week, loves his wife and children, and is truly contrite about his recent enthusiasm for the works of Ayn Rand.The problem isn’t Ryan’s personal piety; it’s his policy priorities. Make that “priority.” For all his grim talk about our national-debt emergency, Ryan’s new budget, like his old budget, is really organized around the single imperative of reducing taxes, especially for the rich. It is very specific about this: it would bring down the top personal income-tax rate from 35 to 25 percent and reduce corporate taxes to the same rate. True, it promises to offset the effect of these lower rates by closing loopholes, but these loopholes are left unspecified (as they almost always are). Ryan has specifically promised not to close one of the most egregious loopholes, the one that allows income on capital to be taxed at 15 percent. To make up for the revenue lost because of the tax cuts, Congress would have to find $700 billion worth of other loopholes to close. But don’t worry: Ryan and the rest of the GOP congressional caucus will figure that out later.
If the national debt is really the looming catastrophe Ryan says it is — a catastrophe in which “the poor would be hit the first and the worst,” as Ryan put it in his recent speech at Georgetown — then you might expect he’d at least be willing to consider raising tax rates, which are as low as they’ve been in fifty years. You would certainly not expect him to lower them still further. But it is possible that Ryan still believes, against all the available evidence, that cutting taxes will automatically lead to economic growth, which will in turn help bring down the deficit and benefit the poor. In which case he is not a Randian (Rand hated all superstition) but a practitioner of voodoo, bent on reanimating our inert economy by bleeding the federal government.
Even if Ryan’s budget didn’t hurt the poor — indeed, even if it somehow helped them — this would be no more than a happy accident. The point is not, and never has been, to help the poor. The point is to shrink the government and lower taxes. If this helps the poor, so much the better; if it doesn’t, sauve qui peut.
With the calm, understated, diplomatic tone for which he is so widely known (I kid), Esquire’s Charlie Pierce picks up on an Eli Lake story in The Daily Beast about how Elliott Abrams is one of Paul Ryan’s foreign policy tutors, and observes:
“Maybe, during a break at his next foreign-policy briefing, Paul Ryan, devout Catholic, can ask his primary foreign-policy mentor whether the guy’s feelings about gunning down archbishops in the middle of mass have evolved over the years.”
Pierce refers to Abrams’ role in the Reagan administration’s (criminal) Central American policy—a policy that abetted not only the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, but also the killing of American nuns and lay missonaries, as well as Jesuit priests and their housekeepers.
At the very least, it’s a reminder that there were, and still are, parts of the world where the Catholic Church is one of the few institutions whose leaders speak and act for justice at the risk of their own lives. (And that there were, and still are, parts of the world where those lives are considered “collateral damage” by American neoconservatives.)
Picking Palin: McCain’s Folly, or “crazy like a fox”?
In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul devoted a lengthy section (14:1-15:6) to tensions within the Christian community there. J.D.G. Dunn interprets the situation as arising from the return to Rome of Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Rome in 49 but who now, back in Rome after the death of Claudius in 54, found that Gentile Christians were in the majority in the communities. Obstacles had arisen in the way or re-integrating the returnees into the small communities. The one group felt obliged to continue to observe traditional dietary rules and feasts, bearers of their Jewish-Christian identity; these were not part of the Christian identity of the other group. What was at stake, one scholar wrote, was “the complex issue of the continuity and discontinuity between Judaism and Christian belief.”
St. Paul clearly states his own view: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14), and from his own perspective he regards those clinging to the old traditions as “weak in faith” (14:1) and those who agree with him as “the strong” (15:1). What is striking, however, is the even-handed way in which he wishes the tensions to be addressed: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains condemn the one who eats” (14:6). Dunn comments:
There is a sharp psychological insight here, since more or less any grouping that shares a common ideology will have a spectrum of opinion in their understanding and implementation of that ideology, and the temptation will always be what Paul saw it to be: For those embracing a tighter understanding to regard others who disagreed as apostates from ‘the true faith’, and for those interpreting the common ideology more loosely to despise the more scrupulous for their narrow-mindedness and rigidity. The modern attitudes of and to the various fundamentalisms of twenty-first-century religions provide all the illustration that might be needed.
Paul devotes 14:4-12 largely to the “weak in faith,” and 14:13-15:6 to the “strong.” He urges the latter:
Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. … Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble…. We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good , to build him up. For Christ did not please himself.
And his prayer and injunction for all is:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney named Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on Saturday morning as his choice for vice-presidential candidate. The Times story.
It may be wishful thinking on my part, but I think this is the end of the campaign. Sure Ryan is young, personable, and socially skilled–more so than Romney. And sure, he’s the intellectual hero of the tea party congressional delegation. And sure, like the rest of us he is a Cafeteria Catholic. And yes, he is a white male. But, this does not look like a winning combination.
UPDATE: Nate Silver does the numbers and sees this as a risky (but perhaps necessary) move; the Romney campaign saw itself losing and jumped for Ryan.
The presidential address Pat Farrell, OSF, delivered yesterday to the 2012 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is online for you to read: “Navigating the Shifts.” (That link will take you to a page where you can download the .pdf.) It’s prayerful, thoughtful, calm — about what you’d expect, in other words, given the sisters’ responses to controversy in recent months. Not reactionary, but still strong. Here are some significant passages, which to me are good reminders of what it is Catholics have come to admire so much about the sisters, and of what’s valuable in their particular form of witness to life in Christ:
There is an inherent existential tension between the complementary roles of hierarchy and religious which is not likely to change. In an ideal ecclesial world, the different roles are held in creative tension, with mutual respect and appreciation, in an enviroment of open dialogue, for the building up of the whole Church. The doctrinal assessment suggests that we are not currently living in an ideal ecclesial world.
Considering again the large and small shifts of our time, what would a prophetic response to the doctrinal assessment look like? I think it would be humble, but not submissive; rooted in a solid sense of ourselves, but not self-righteous; truthful, but gentle and absolutely fearless. It would ask probing questions. Are we being invited to some appropriate pruning, and would we open to it? Is this doctrinal assessment process an expression of concern or an attempt to control? Concern is based in love and invites unity. Control through fear and intimidation would be an abuse of power. Does the institutional legitimacy of canonical recognition empower us to live prophetically? Does it allow us the freedom to question with informed consciences? Does it really welcome feedback in a Church that claims to honor the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful?
We who are in positions of leadership are constantly challenged to honor a
wide spectrum of opinions. We have learned a lot about creating community from diversity, and about celebrating differences. We have come to trust divergent opinions as powerful pathways to greater clarity. Our commitment to community compels us to do that, as together we seek the common good. We have effectively moved from a hierarchically structured lifestyle in our congregations to a more horizontal model. It is quite amazing, considering the rigidity from which we evolved. The participative structures and collaborative leadership models we have developed have been empowering, lifegiving. These models may very well be the gift we now bring to the Church and the world.
Speaking to the Knights of Columbus: “For Catholic voters in November, Lori advises, “The question to ask is this: Are any of the candidates of either party, or independents, standing for something that is intrinsically evil, evil no matter what the circumstances? If that’s the case, a Catholic, regardless of his party affiliation, shouldn’t be voting for such a person.”
The latest scholarship indicates that St. Paul was concerned about the character of many of the so-called conversations in the blogosphere when he wrote these words, which serve as the second reading for this Sunday’s liturgy:
Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.
So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.
Hey, if he can heal the sick from beyond the grave, he might be able to get Romney elected:
Now on the website, E.J. Dionne Jr.’s challenge to conservatives who rail against Obamacare:
Here’s a chance for all who think Obamacare is a socialist Big Government scheme to put their money where their ideology is: If you truly hate the Affordable Care Act, you must send back any of those rebate checks you receive from your insurance companies thanks to the new law. …
Big bad government is forcing those nice insurance companies to give people a break. From what you say, you see this as socialism, a case of the heavy hand of Washington meddling with the right of contract. You cannot possibly keep this money. So stand up for those oppressed insurers and give them their rebates back!
E.J. also has a few words for Mitt Romney on his supposed support for states’ rights. Read the whole thing here.
Milton gave the devil all the best lines, and the devil gave them to Gore Vidal.
It’s now fashionable to talk about a writer’s “voice,” but Vidal was a reminder that it’s style — as much an invention as an endowment — that matters most. His voice, the one you heard on television, was languid, supercilious, self-pleased. His style — what you saw on the page — was virtuosic: witty and serious (not by turns but at the same time), erudite but not ponderous, both periodic and pithy. Above all, it was elegant. It must have galled him that most people under forty may know him best for his televised spat with William F. Buckley, Jr., at the 1968 Democratic Convention (viewed over 700,000 time on YouTube), or his weird paternal sympathy for Timothy McVeigh, or his public falling-out with the man he had designated his “dauphin,” Christopher Hitchens. Vidal was first of all a writer, and first among writers who did, or tried to do, what he did. Here is a typical passage from his earliest essay, “The Twelve Caesars,” written in 1952, though not published till 1959 (in the Nation):
One understands of course why the role of the individual in history is instinctively played down by a would-be egalitarian society. We are, quite naturally, afraid of being victimized by reckless adventurers. To avoid this we have created the myth of the ineluctable mass (“other-directedness”) which governs all. Science, we are told, is not a matter of individual inquiry but of collective effort. Even the surface storminess of our elections disguises a fundamental indifference to human personality: if not this man, then that one; it’s all the same; life will go on. Up to a point there is some virtue in this; and though none can deny that there is a prevailing grayness in our placid land, it is certainly better to be non-ruled by mediocrities than enslaved by Caesars. But to deny the dark nature of human personality is not only fatuous but dangerous. For in our insistence on the surrender of private will (“inner-directedness”) to a conception of the human race as some sort of virus in the stream of time, unaffected by individual deeds, we have been made vulnerable not only to boredom, to that sense of meaninglessness which more than anything else is the characteristic of our age, but vulnerable to the first messiah who offers the young and bored some splendid prospect, some Caesarian certainty. That is the political danger, and it is a real one.
There it all is, from the first: the weary and authoritative tone, the perfect rhythm, the metaphors (“virus in the stream of time”). Not all of the judgments hold up — they were, after all, judgments about another time, another America — but the writing does. No wonder John Gross included this essay, essentially a book review, in his Oxford Book of Essays. It deserves to be stitched together with the work of Hazlitt, Dr. Johnson, and Orwell.
Vidal did not mellow with age. On the contrary, his work became angrier, more acerbic. Nothing seemed to delight him more than his own impiety. Here he is writing about sex in 1991:
When people were few and the environment was hostile, it is understandable that we should have put together a Book about a Skygod that we had created in our own image — a breathtaking bit of solipsism, but why not? The notion is comforting, and there were no book reviewers at the time of publication, while later ones, if they wrote bad Book reviews, were regularly condemned to death by natural lawyers employing earthly hit men, as Salman Rushdie can testify. Then our Skygod told us to multiply in a world that he had put together just for us, with dominion over every living thing. Hence the solemn wrecking of a planet that, in time, will do to us what we have done to it.
Eat your heart out, Ambrose Bierce. Vidal himself was triumphantly heartless. “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”
Arrogance, cynicism, and malice (roughly in that order) were the condition of Vidal’s brilliance. His friends and admirers would call him honest. And that’s true, too. He was also courageous in his way. Courageous and arrogant, honest and malicious, cynical and — about his own youth at least — sentimental. Vidal was Exhibit A in the case against the Unity of the Virtues. He was promiscuous in everything, combining whatever was to hand. He was a snob and a populist, an exquisite and a fogy. He balanced charm and mephitic gloom as perfectly as he balanced his sentences. He never really had a dauphin, never could have. He was the beginning of a line and the end of one, which would not have disappointed him.
The Nation‘s Liliana Segura on the execution of a mentally retarded man in Texas, which took place yesterday after the Supreme Court declined to intervene. (Segura wrote her post before the execution and updated it afterward.) The state of Texas did not deny that fifty-four-year-old Marvin Wilson was disabled.
It just does not believe that Wilson is disabled enough not to be executed in Texas—a flagrant violation of the 2002 Supreme Court ruling in Atkins v. Virginia, which held that “the mentally retarded should be categorically excluded from execution,” period.[...][A] man who has been diagnosed with an IQ of 61 and who sucked his thumb well into adulthood now faces the prospect of being strapped to a gurney and injected with lethal chemicals until he is pronounced dead. “It doesn’t usually get to this point when you have an Atkins claim this strong,” his lawyer, Lee Kovarsky, told me over the phone on Sunday. “This claim is really sort of the worst of the worst.”
Kovarsky grew up in Texas and has seen his share of death row injustices. Yet, clients like his are hardly exceptional. “If getting the death penalty is like getting struck by lightning,” he says, drawing on Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quote about the arbitrariness of capital punishment, “then it seems to strike offenders with MR a lot. Because their disability prevents them from effectively disputing guilt or culpability, they end up on death row for some of the least aggravated first-degree murders that are tried to verdict.”
Indeed, a list compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center shows forty-four such prisoners executed before Atkins, noting that some claiming intellectual disability have been killed since then. Others, like Johnny Paul Penry—a man with an IQ of 56 who did not know how many hours there were in a day, still believed in Santa Claus and came within days of execution in 2000—are now imprisoned for life.
William Galston on the GOP’s philosophy of voter suppression. Most conservatives say tightening registration procedures is simply a matter of preventing voter fraud (which all the evidence suggests is exceedingly uncommon). But other conservatives are frank about their belief that some kinds of Americans should be discouraged from voting.
Some arch-conservatives have gone so far as to argue that encouraging the poor to vote actually undermines just and limited government, because the poor will use their political power to take economic resources from those who are not poor. One such conservative, Matthew Vadum, put it this way:
Why are left-wing activist groups so keen on registering the poor to vote? Because they know that the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians . . . . Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.
This is a classic argument against democracy that traces all the way back to the Greeks. It disappeared from serious American political discourse when states eliminated their property qualifications for voting nearly two centuries ago. In practice, America’s poor have opted for the American Dream of equal opportunity over aggressively redistributionist politics—witness their rejection of stringent estate taxes, a stance most liberals regard as patently self-defeating and view with incomprehension. Read the rest of this entry »
In my commentary on Peter Steinfels’ article below, I was quick to dismiss the (mostly) conservative suggestion that the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church could be attributed, in part, to the ordination of homosexual men to the priesthood. While I still think it is problematic to let such a claim stand, the most recent installment of The Immanent Frame series on “Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church” raises some important questions concerning the place of homosexuality in a complete analysis of cases of Catholic sexual abuse.
Kent Brintnall looks at the case of Paul Richard Shanley, who “is one of the most notorious abusive priests from the Boston archdiocese.” Before this, however, Brintnall describes Shanley’s success in the 60′s and 70′s at building ministries for homeless and gay youth in the city, and his popular advocacy of gay rights, which made him “celebrated as a charismatic, hardworking, radical priest.” As Steinfels points out, the fact that an abuser would be a charismatic and productive member of his community is not necessarily surprising. For Brintnall, however, Shanley’s concern for and identification with those who were struggling to understand their own sexuality in a culture that would have preferred them to remain silent, and the real pastoral relief that Shanley was able to provide, even in the context of clearly abusive relationships, makes his case particularly confounding.
Amusing as it was to see David Cameron give Mitt Romney (and poor Salt Lake City) the back of his hand, Romney’s offending remark about the British government’s preparations for the Olympic Games was fairly inoffensive — a problem not so much of what he said as of where he said it and when. (OK, perhaps it was also a problem of who was saying it, since, coming from Romney, mild worries about London’s readiness for the Olympics were bound to be taken as yet another reminder of his heroic rescue of the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a feat he often talks about as if it were his strongest qualification for the presidency.) Anyway, the remark was at most a gaffe; it deserves to be forgotten soon, and almost certainly will be.
Romney’s comment, in a prepared speech, about the cultural superiority of Israelis to Palestinians was not a gaffe. It was the honest expression of the candidate’s worldview, according to which one may measure the health of a whole people’s culture by their GDP: healthy cultures produce lots of wealth, while poverty is evidence of cultural inanition. Or as Romney put it: “Culture makes all the difference.”
This rule about the wealth of nations is an extension of Romney’s more familiar ideas about the wealth of individuals, according to which a person of good character will produce lots of wealth, as long as the government doesn’t get in the way.
Many people have already pointed out that the Palestinian economy is hobbled by severe trade restriction imposed by Israel. Of course the Palestinians themselves have been quick to point this out, but if you are disinclined to take their word for it, you can ask the Central Intelligence Agency. As the New York Times reported last week, the CIA’s World Factbook states that “Israeli closure policies continue to disrupt labor and trade flows, industrial capacity, and basic commerce, eroding the productive capacity” of the Palestinian economy.
The Romney camp has complained that the Associated Press “grossly mischaracterized” the candidate’s remarks. This suggests — but stops short of actually asserting — that Romney never spoke the words that got him into so much trouble. The speech, say Romney’s handlers, was not as bad as the media are making it sound. You see, their candidate was not singling out the Palestinians; he applied the same perverse metric to other poor countries. Here’s what he said:
As you come here and you see the G.D.P. per capita, for instance, in Israel, which is about $21,000, and compare that with the G.D.P. per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality. And that is also between other countries that are near or next to each other. Chile and Ecuador, Mexico and the United States.
Surely it’s a bad sign that the Romney team thinks the last sentence in this passage makes it less offensive, or more credible. The thought here seems to be that you can control for the importance of geographical difference by comparing only countries that are “near or next to each other”: since Mexico borders on the United States, for example, it can have no excuse for being so much poorer. History has passed its unanswerable judgment on Mexican culture: Not good enough, or at least not as good (despite leftover pockets of Mormon virtue?).
Romney might say his pet theory is simply a prescription for success. To me, it sounds like another blasé rationalization of inequality and — especially in the case of the Palestinians — injustice. And obviously that’s how Romney’s advisors were afraid it would sound to many Americans. Hence their pathetic attempt to cast doubt on the the accuracy of the AP story.
The Immanent Frame has been continuing to post a series of articles from the “Sex Abuse and the Study of Religion” conference hosted at Yale by Kathryn Lofton last September. I commented on Lofton’s provocative opening post here. In that piece, she argued that for scholars of religion the perpetration and cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church ought to be understood, among other things, as a case of religious praxis. Given that the abuse took place in the context of theologically coded relationships, often occurred in ecclesial spaces, and was systematically covered-up by a hierarchy who claim a divine mandate to protect the institution from scandal, Lofton argued that an analysis of the abuse crisis that explains it primarily against the backdrop of secular culture, as the John Jay reports did, is short-sighted.
Not surprisingly, Lofton’s piece raised several difficult questions concerning the substantive role of theological rhetoric in the perpetration and cover-up of abuse. Was theology simply deployed by abusers to “rationalize” their behavior, or is there something problematic in some of the Church’s traditional theological tropes themselves that lent moral plausibility to such abuse? Did the clinical language of psychopathology give clarity or confusion to those charged with responding to cases of abuse? Was the perpetuation of abuse aided by the monarchical ecclesiology of the Church, or was it caused precisely by the more permissive, democratizing, and secularizing influences of Vatican II? Mark Jordan addresses these questions in his recent contribution to the forum. Here’s a key paragraph on the first question:
The possibility of authorizing abuse theologically follows too easily from the always exceptional status claimed for modern church power. In modern Catholic contexts, official languages often pretend to be exempt from qualification, questioning, or appeal. They are absolute languages. They function in a state of exception. When that rhetorical character is extended to traditional images of a masculinized God or angel who ravishes—rapes—souls that are gendered as feminine, then erotic domination seems to receive divine blessing. I’m not objecting to mystical writing. I’m pointing to a consequence of moving older mystical or liturgical languages into a modern system that endows some church speech with an incontestable and literal authority. Under a regime that claims divine exemption for its decrees, mustn’t erotic metaphors of divine domination sometimes seem to authorize sexual demands by priests? Turn the question around: imagine what you would have to change in present claims for church language to prevent the violent misapplication of old metaphors for God’s love.
The whole thing is definitely worth a read, along with the other pieces that have been posted so far.
Update: A comment on Peter Steinfels’ related article (subscribers) in the recent issue of Commonweal after the jump…
The Al Smith Dinner, that is — President Obama, that’s who, and many pro-lifers are none too happy about Cardinal Dolan extending the invitation:
The Rev. Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, a leading abortion opponent based in Staten Island, said Monday (Aug. 6) that “the polite putting aside of differences for a while amounts to scandal.”
“There comes a time when enough is enough and we can no longer afford to give people a reason to doubt our position as a Church,” Pavone wrote in an email. “So no, I don’t think the invitation is appropriate at this time.”
“Better to cancel the event than have it become another cause for scandal in the Catholic Church,” Randy Engel, head of the U.S. Coalition for Life, told LifeNews.com, an anti-abortion website.
Given all that has passed between the hierarchy and the president, and between Dolan and Obama personally, I’d say the invitation was a bold move. The Al Smith Dinner used to be a demilitarized zone, politically speaking, but Cardinal O’Connor did not extend invites to the presidential candidates in 1996 because it would have meant inviting Bill Clinton, and Cardinal Egan did not invite either candidate in 2004 because it would have meant inviting John Kerry.
Egan did invite Obama in 2008, to the chagrin of some. Chagrin on steroids this year.
My full story at RNS is here.
Head over to the website for a look out our new issue, which has just gone live. Some of the highlights:
Peter Steinfels reflects on evolving responses to sexual abuse, across institutions and over time; Wayne Sheridan on how mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals affect the poor and uninsured; and J. Bryan Hehir on U.S. foreign policy in a time of austerity (subscription required for all of those, but all definitely worth it). Plus, as previously noted, Tom Quigley on Benedict in Cuba, the editors on Mitt Romney’s tax-return reluctance, and Jeff Madrick on the big (and important) differences between Romney and Barack Obama. And a whole lot more.
In the midst of our many blog conversations about the situation of the Catholic Church today, I’ve been alerted to a study that is being conducted by researchers at Fordham University to better understand how and why baptized Catholics make deep changes in their beliefs and practices. To find out more, visit the survey site. Sounds like an important question for the Church to get more clarity about.
I am late in getting to posting this review of Katharine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” her fascinating account of life in a Mumbai slum. The book was just going into print during the tail end of my stay in New Delhi, and so I didn’t get a chance to read it while I was there. Based on years of research, interviews, and observation of a slum near the Mumbai airport, the book (whose title refers to an advertisement on a wall that borders the slum) does more than any other I have read to bring to life the world of the Indian underclass.
India is a country with so many poor, and poverty of such demoralizing severity, that it can only be described by introducing gradations of poverty that we in the west could never imagine. To put it into perspective, a Big Mac meal in New Delhi (it is actually called a Maharaja Mac and is made with chicken) costs around $4. But the Indian government counts as “poor” only those people who make under $1 a day. When you pass shanty encampments in India, you will notice that some of the more longstanding communities have electricity or even satellite TV. Some have running water and public toilets. Others have none of these services. In the United States, we would consider someone living in a tent on public land to be “homeless,” but in India the title is reserved for those who live on the street without any fixed place to put up shelter to protect them from the elements.
In her book, Boo captures these many subtle nuances of Indian poverty. She does it while also showing how India’s economic dynamism is providing new avenues of mobility, however limited. Most of all, she shows how the weight of pervasive corruption in the Indian government and society, from the police to the public schools to Catholic and evangelical charities, falls hardest on those at the bottom of Indian society. She describes a nun who sells donated goods, doctors who sell diagnoses, and politicians who view development programs as nothing more than ways to further line their pockets. She tells the stories of children whose deaths are fraudulently attributed to tuberculosis by police who see no opportunity for profit in investigating their murders.
The book is written in a novelistic style, following the story of Abdul, a Muslim trash picker who is falsely accused of driving his neighbor to burn herself to death with kerosene. Through Abdul’s ordeal, Boo shows us the many textures of his community. There are lessons in her book for everyone, whether they are interested in India specifically, poverty generally, or the limits of deprivation to which human beings can be pushed while still maintaining hope and dignity. The book induced feelings of hope and awe, as well as despair and guilt.
Six former U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See have endorsed Mitt Romney for president: Frank Shakespeare (1986-1989); Tom Melady (1989-1993); Ray Flynn (1993-1997); Jim Nicholson (2001-2005); Francis Rooney (2005-2008); Mary Ann Glendon (2008-2009). Their statement of support focused on religious liberty mentions the contraceptive mandate and the importance of the Christian conscience in the moral life of the nation (this site has the statement; news story here).
Since the Vatican seems to have operated in a cocoon about the sex-abuse crisis in the U.S. (and later in its own backyard), you have to wonder whether any of these eminent Catholics ever mentioned the issue while in Rome. Perhaps the first three had little inkling, but the last three….
Sr. Pat Farrell is head of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and so is at the heart of the showdown with the Vatican over its plan to take control of the organization that represents most communities of American sisters.
Sr. Pat, like the bishops who are in charge of the takeover plan, has spoken publicly about the controversy and the LCWR’s views on Rome’s criticisms and the membership’s plans to develop a communal response (they will meet next week in St. Louis; I’ll be there and should be filing daily).
But what has been missing in large part is an exploration of the spiritual context and experience that Sr. Pat Farrell (like many of the sisters) is speaking from — that biography both informs the story and serves as kind of response in itself to some of the criticisms.
Farrell was reluctant to speak about her life in Chile and El Salvador during some terrible times in those countries but she finally relented (thanks to the entreaties of her fine friends) and here is a taste of the story we ran at Religion News Service:
The Catholic Church in Chile those days [NOTE: 1980, when she arrived], from the hierarchy to the laity, was a leading voice for human rights, standing “with the people on the margins,” she recalled. It made an indelible impression.
“It was far and away the most wonderful experience of church I’ve ever had,” Farrell said. “It was a situation that just made me proud to be a Catholic.”
But Farrell was restless again, and knew there was a great need in El Salvador – and great risk. If Chile was a repressive state in the 1980s, El Salvador was in open civil war, and Catholic priests and religious were on the front lines.
Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford was one of four Catholic missionary women who were tortured, raped and murdered by a Salvadoran military death squad in 1980. That happened just months after Ford had arrived in El Salvador from Chile. One of her last tasks before leaving Santiago was helping Farrell learn the ropes.
When word of Ford’s murder reached Farrell, she said she actually felt “strengthened.”
“I thought if she could be faithful to the end, giving her life, then maybe the rest of us, who are not too different from her, can be faithful to what is being asked of us,” Farrell recalled.
Read the rest here.
Now featured on our website: Jeff Madrick on why this year’s election could be the most important since 1932 (in spite of progressives’ disappointment with Obama, “the alternative is far, far worse“), and Tom Quigley on the differences (and similarities) between the visits of Popes Benedict and John Paul II to Cuba.
From Tom’s piece:
Benedict’s visit was a time to celebrate the slow and orderly emergence of civil society in a country still under the yoke of an oppressive, outmoded ideology. In Cuba there has been a gradual process of civil society achieving greater space, a process accelerated since Raúl became head of state in 2008. There is so much more open debate, so much more entrepreneurial innovation, so much more freedom than could have been imagined at the time of John Paul II’s visit in 1998.
Also, Commonweal‘s editors comment on the “strangely defensive stance” of Mitt Romney when it comes to questions over his finances.
Everywhere I go lay Catholics are concelebrating at Sunday Mass.
I’ve noticed it for years now. I notice it more in the summer when, for various reasons, we’re often at a different parish and/or in a different part of the country. By now I’ve noticed it in so many different kinds of parishes—large, medium, small; urban, suburban, rural; affluent, middle-class, working-class, poor; across a wide range of ethnicities, racial identities and liturgical styles—it’s become something I look for when I’m in a new (to me) parish: who’s concelebrating Mass here?
Almost always the answer is—somebody. Usually (but not always) elderly. Usually (but not always) female. When the priest prays over the bread and wine, she’ll have a hand slightly extended, palm up, towards the altar, and she’ll be quietly reciting the prayer of consecration with the priest.
Or at least that’s what it looks like to me. Generally it’s the kind of thing that’s done so quietly and unobtrusively that you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for it. (You also wouldn’t notice if you were praying more intently yourself, but that’s a different story.)
Anyway, has anyone else noticed this? How long has it been going on? What (if anything) does it mean?
Ronald Dworkin on the Affordable Care Act in the New York Review of Books. It’s a tax, you say? So what?
For centuries the most powerful and influential argument for social justice has been essentially an insurance-based argument. Justice within a political community requires that the most catastrophic risks of economic and social life be pooled. Everyone should be required to acquit his moral responsibilities to fellow citizens, as well as to guard against his own misfortune, by paying into a fund from which those who are in the end unlucky may draw. This conception of social insurance has been the rationale of the great social democracies of Europe and Canada, and taxation has been the traditional—indeed the only effective—means of pooling those risks. Insurance has been the rationale, in this country, of all our great welfare programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, federal disaster relief, among many others.
The Affordable Care Act, out of assumed political necessity, is different—but only on the surface. It uses private rather than public insurance, and it shuns the label of tax. But it is in essence just another, long-overdue, program of risk-pooling. It is therefore irrelevant that young, healthy people are less likely immediately to need the benefits the program provides. Yes, the act will save many of them from catastrophe later in their lives. But the present justification for asking them to participate is not self-interest but fairness.[...]
The national power to tax is not just a mechanism for financing armies and courts. It is an indispensible means of creating one nation, indivisible, with fairness for all.
[B]oth these books end with a slightly more than sidelong glance at religious language as one of the sources for resistance. Doctrine, ritual and narrative are the basic currency of religion; whether or not you believe the doctrines or find the rituals viable or tell the stories, it may be important to grasp what it is that these things conserve in human existence. To argue that one of the main social advantages of religion is that it preserves a rationale for finding some things funny is a bit counter-intuitive; but it is no more eccentric than the recognition that without a vivid sense of what is, non-negotiably, due to the dignity of any and every person, we shan’t find some things outrageous either. Solemnity, apathy and triviality are the default settings of a lot of current cultural discourse; which suggests that a reinfusion of the comic and the tragic is a basic aspect of what we need…. [T]he door is opened in both these studies to seeing religion as something other than just a set of failed explanations or incomprehensible taboos. And religious qualms around some high-profile public questions (euthanasia, abortion) are best understood as arguments rooted in a deep aversion to anything that encourages us to think of our bodies as a form of property…. [I]t is important that even the non-believer grasp that arguments based on the right to do what I like with what I “own” need some hard scrutiny in a world where commodification has become so much the prevailing trend.
Finally, in the August issue of Harper‘s, Thomas Frank on the “higher-ed game” (available here to subscibers):
Americans have figured out that universities exist in order to man the gates of social class, and we pay our princely tuition rates in order to obtain just one thing: the degree, the golden ticket, the capital-C Credential. Doubters might scoff that a college diploma is by the year turning into an emptier signifier. Nonetheless, that hollow Credential is what draws many of the young to campus, where they will contend for one of the coveted spots in that gilded, gated suburb in the sky. Choosing the winners and losers is a task we have delegated to largely unregulated institutions housed in fake Gothic buildings, which have long since suppressed any qualms they once felt about tying a one-hundred-thousand-dollar anvil around the neck of a trusting teenager.