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Rushkoff: The Popes Have the Operating System for the New Economy

The best reason for Commonweal readers to go out and purchase Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, is that the heroes at the end of the book turn out to be… the popes! The “new operating system” Rushkoff recommends turns out to be a variation on the fundamental vision of distributism – the wide, dispersed ownership and exchange of productive assets. He is quick to reassure his readers that “we don’t need to convert to Catholicism or even approve of Vatican doctrine” in order to appropriate their insights. Rather, the value in the papal social encyclicals is that “they remember”; that is, they retain “a memory of the wheels of commerce that preceded the engines of the industrial age.” Rushkoff’s book is particularly important for two reasons: first, he does not simply equate distributism with a back-to-the-land agrarianism, and second, he offers a way beyond the disturbing polarities that have emerged with Sanders, Trump, and Brexit.

This is because Rushkoff’s book, while accessible, is not simple. Too often, debates about any topic get forced into a simple pro- and anti- polarity, focused on a single magic bullet (and often enough, a single demon to be expelled). Worse, such debates too often “fight the last war” – and so Sanders’s solutions look like a Scandinavian playbook, while Trump’s yearn for a rebuilt manufacturing economy via protectionism and immigrant exclusion. These solutions are not all wrong, especially in their diagnoses of what has happened – the Sanders/Trump alliance against trade deals evidences this. There is a “tell it like it is” attraction here.

Rushkoff’s book, by contrast, insists on grappling with the present situation, which above all is one of massive technological change – higher minimum wages and barriers to foreign goods won’t create jobs if robots can do them. But this is not an anti-technology book; to borrow Pope Francis’s phrase from Laudato Si’, it’s an anti-technocratic-paradigm book. In his encyclical, Francis insists that technology itself is not bad, but that it becomes problematic when it becomes an end in itself – which, as he goes on to say, means an end for those who stand to profit from it. When Francis claims that “technology is not neutral,” he means that technological choices are in fact choices about “the kind of society we want.”

Rushkoff’s book is invaluable for fleshing out the technocratic paradigm problem, from the place of one who is extremely knowledgeable about technology. In essence, the book’s thesis can be boiled down into two key points. First, digital technologies can either promote wide, dispersed sharing or contribute to even more centralized power. The key is whether they are designed as “platform monopolies” or as peer-to-peer resources. And his second insight is that the digital economy has become more and more oriented to the development of platform monopolies because these are the form of businesses demanded by the returns needed to satisfy the “old operating system” of the existing economic system. Platform monopolies ultimately squeeze out small producers, first by casualizing their labor, and then by dispensing with it altogether. Uber is just a bridge, Rushkoff insists, to Google’s driverless cars. There is a kind of double reinforcing effect here, in narrowing ever more the labor market to those with highly-specialized operating skills, and then in narrowing capital return to fewer and fewer “winners.” In essence, he is summarizing what an economy looks like when labor ultimately serves capital, rather than capital serving labor. The goal is “removing humans from the equation.”

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Virtues for Civil Society: Humility

If you are reading about virtues for civil society for the first time, you might want to catch up on two prior entries: I began with civility and then toleration

As I start on this installment, I am not surprised that many of the comments are about the limits of tolerance and civility. I appreciate these issues, but inasmuch as I wrote this series because I believed there was too little virtue in civil discourse, I am not really that interested in matters pertaining to having too much of these virtues, though others may, pace Popper.

In fact, if we remember from Aristotle that virtue is the mean, as in the mean between extremes, then too little virtue or too much virtue is in itself often a tendency toward its contrary vice. Moreover, the virtue of prudence helps us to set the mean for a proper tolerance, a proper civility, etc.  

I am saving prudence for the end, because, after all, it helps us to set the mean for all the other virtues (except charity, of course). So while people are debating or practicing the limits of tolerance or civility, I am just interested in some civility, some tolerance, which I think is largely missing in our political climate.

I do want to add, however, that I don’t use toleration negatively, as many of the commentators do when talking about their limits of tolerance, as in tolerating climate change deniers. I am arguing that the virtue of tolerance is present not only in the face of positions that we might find absurd, but rather in every instance in civil discourse when we are open minded, magnanimous, or interested in other’s points of view. Still, toleration does not mean per se to accept another’s position,  but rather just an openness to another’s point of view.

Finally, I do not think that toleration and civility are adequate in themselves for civil discourse, whence I am offering a whole set of virtues.  So now to our third virtue, humility.

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The Timid Souls and Their Drowsy Minds

The ample talents of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have been put to better use than with the short story about the 2016 election she has written for this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. “The Arrangements,” set in the run-up to the Republican convention, centers on a day in the life of Melania Trump as she plans a dinner party for her parents, her husband, and a few close guests. “Melania decided she would order the flowers herself” is the familiar-sounding opening line, and in a close third-person narrative we experience through the consciousness of the fictionalized potential first lady what it’s like to be married to the presumptive Republican nominee—while also dealing with children and adult step-children, florists, Pilates instructors, and the pressures of an unlikely presidential campaign.

A lark? A plunge?  An unneeded exercise—another in an ineffectual but still-expanding regimen—in subjecting the candidate to scorn? As has been noted elsewhere, the likely Republican nominee has shown imperviousness to slings and arrows of this and lower sorts, while proving adept at returning fire and deploying other unsuspected skills on the campaign trail (I will not mention here his flair for apophasis). Besides, would anyone who’s supposed to “appreciate” the Mrs. Dalloway framing (or anyone who’d read Adichie or Virginia Woolf in the first place, or the New York Times Book Review itself) be influenced either way? In empathizing with its protagonist, it necessarily does the opposite with her husband. So who does a piece like this aim to persuade?

The abundance of other, similar material speaks to the broader shortcomings in the coverage of this candidacy. Yes, reputable outlets are turning out more solid reporting on suspicious bankruptcies, overstated charitable giving, and possibly fraudulent business practices. And yes, satire can be an effective mode of puncturing an over-inflated public figure, even when the satire might not be mistaken for Aristophanes or Voltaire, H. L. Mencken or Jon Stewart. Yet there remains a tendency toward complacent dismissiveness, which simultaneously showers with free publicity a candidate regarded as a legitimate threat to stability and security. (It was estimated that as of mid-May, the equivalent of nearly $3 billion in free media had been doled out to him.) Some recent polls may bring comfort to those hoping for a more qualified person in the White House, others may not, but either way polls aren’t election results. If this is no joke, then why the practice of so lazily treating it like one?

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Is There a Place for ‘Catholic Internationalism’?

Last week was an interesting time to be in Ireland attending the Loyola Institute’s conference at Trinity College Dublin, “The Role of the Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?” Pope Francis was on a historic trip to Armenia, the Pan-Orthodox Council was underway in Crete, and the Brexit referendum was being held in the United Kingdom. (For good measure, Vice President Joseph Biden showed up on the last day of the conference, although the timing was coincidental: He was at Trinity receiving an honorary degree.)

The conference had international appeal and featured speakers from a number of different countries; among those present were Commonweal’s Peter and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels. The location was also notable, in that Ireland is geographically at the junction between continental Europe and North America, and is undergoing transition from a solidly and proudly Catholic country to one in which the role of religion and the church has changed, and not only because of the sex abuse scandal. I left the conference with three distinct impressions of the current debate on the role of the Catholic Church in modern society.

The first was of the divide between European Catholicism and North American Catholicism on perceptions of secular modernity. Many Americans, for instance, see as problematic the unproblematic acceptance of secularity in European Catholicism since the mid-20th century. But Europe is more secular than the United States for a reason, with European Catholics viewing secularity and especially the secular state as a guarantee against the manipulation of religion for political purposes and of the church by the state—authentic concerns after fascism and Nazism. In the United States, meanwhile, a kind of new political Augustinianism has taken root, with radical orthodoxy and the recent shift in the reception of Vatican II undoing the reframing of the relationship between the temporal and the supernatural that the council, along with Gaudium et spes, had introduced.

The second impression concerns the ecclesiological consequences of two different visions of modernity.

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Virtues for Civil Society: Tolerance

I have initiated a blog series on the virtues for civil society. In my first entry, I proposed the virtue of “civility” which I noted is what keeps us from barbarousness. Emphasizing that it’s a virtue, I added that it is marked more by a sense of proportionality or mutuality of respect than by fixed rules of politeness that often can exclude others. I added that this sense of proportionality was publicly, not privately estimated, at least inasmuch as we are talking about civil, public discourse.

As I turn to the second virtue, I acknowledge that I don’t think that virtues automatically conform with one another. In fact, I think that virtues can conflict, just as virtuous persons can conflict. So I try to take one virtue at a time as I offer the different ones that I think we need for contemporary civil discourse. But I will come back to that “conflict” later when I turn to prudence.  More on that later…

Now I turn to tolerance noting that I might need to overcome some bias that some people today might have who think of tolerance as somehow connoting arrogance, condescension, or something else, not worthy of it being a virtue.

Tolerance, historically, has had a very positive meaning. To be tolerant is to be open to understanding, to be willing to listen and learn, to allow other opinions, and more than that, to try to understand them. A tolerant person welcomes diversity, appreciates pluralism, believes that differences help us to promote a better society. Tolerant persons are more inclined to heterogeneity than homogeneity: they believe that different approaches bring us in sum better solutions.

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Brexit & Millennial Condescension

Much has been said about the generational divide in the results of the Brexit vote—the tendency of Remain supporters to be in their twenties and thirties, and those voting Leave to be fifty-five or older. Online especially, the young are shouting at the old for condemning them to a future that Leave voters will not have to witness, for sacrificing the stability and cosmopolitanism of the European Union to their racist parochialism. A scroll through my Facebook feed reveals frustration, shock, and despair among my fellow millennials. Buzzfeed, that vanguard of the young, distractible, and vaguely liberal, produces punchy listicles such as “19 Times Tumblr Absolutely Nailed Brexit,” “27 Brexit Tweets Guaranteed to Make You Laugh, Cry, or Probably Both,” and “If the Media Said What anti-Brexit Voters Really Feel,” and they are widely shared among my friends and acquaintances. Also given much attention was the segment on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, in which Oliver wonders a little too earnestly, “If leaving is so universally seen as a bad idea, then who the f**k is in favor of it?”

If you asked anyone belonging to the demographic matching my age (mid-twenties), class (middle), education level (advanced degree), and place of origin (urban Northeast), the only possible response to the Brexit vote is incredulity. How could so many people vote so stupidly when everyone knows the right answer is to stay in the EU? Why would so many Britons want to leave an international organization when everyone recognizes it benefits them and the rest of our world?

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Food & Identity Politics

The slogan “the personal is political” traces to student-protest and feminist movements of the 1960s, and was an attempt to close the gap between public and private politics—between one’s theoretical commitments to society and the daily power dynamics of workplace and family. More recently the sentiment has dovetailed with identity politics, in the process migrating from such nuts-and-bolts questions as Who does the housework? to unexpected issues... like food.

Our relationship to what we ingest—that most personal of relationships—has become broadly politicized. Class, nutrition, and school lunches; the sins of industrial food production; the struggle for fair treatment of restaurant workers and farm laborers; the ongoing controversies over genetic modifications, force-fed geese, or animal rights more generally: bit by bit we have enlarged the “seeing beyond the table” dimension of culinary life. A good deal of this is salutary, in my opinion anyway.

Then there’s the identity-politics part, and the increasingly large role that what we eat—and don’t eat—plays in our self-understanding. Columnist Roger Cohen, in a mildly snarky New York Times essay last fall titled “This Column is Gluten-Free,” set out to tweak what he considered the potential for self-indulgence in this trend. He noted the explosive rise in diagnoses of celiac disease in recent years “among the global middle class,” and continued:

Special dietary needs are all the rage. Allergies, real or imagined, multiply. One in five Britons now claim some form of intolerance, yet a 2010 Portsmouth University study found the claims were often unfounded. The narcissism of minor differences finds expression in the food-intolerance explosion: Having a special dietary requirement is one way to feel special in the prevailing “me” culture.

“Where people wanted to change the world, now they want to change their bodies,” Cohen concludes. “The epidemic of food intolerance has gone way over the top.”  

Do you agree? I’m certainly tempted.  I know, I know, I can hear the outrage—where do you get off, criticizing people’s allergies? And yes, clearly there exist true sufferers who experience intestinal misery when they eat gluten. But the contrarian in me sees how food choices in our culture have become  badges of political affiliation, moral status claims, even rerouted hopes for salvation. If politically you’re the sort of pre-postmod citizen who focuses on such, well, lunch-pail issues as equal pay, economic inequality, the gutting of labor unions, racial discrimination in hiring and housing, and so on, the therapeutic wing of the progressive American sensibility may seem misguided and even precious, and especially when it comes to food.

I should mention that I’m a restaurant reviewer for the New York Times, was for years a writer for Bon Appétit, and am an avid cook and restaurant habitué. Yet I wince when the excellent Times food writer Kim Severson praises the “philosophy” of famed Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters for holding “that the most political act we can commit is to eat delicious food that is produced in a way that is sustainable, that doesn’t exploit workers and is eaten slowly and with reverence.”

The most political act we can commit—eating delicious food? Certainly there’s something askew in that. And what is askew relates to large trends in our culture. While gluttony is generally held to consist in morbid overeating, it’s worth reminding ourselves that historical conceptions of this vice, including the Catholic Church’s, have been more expansive, including not only eating too much but also, as Aquinas noted, too eagerly. Gluttons are overly preoccupied with food, to the point of glorifying it; as Paul says in Phillippians, “their god is their stomach.” And—from the cult of the chef to the fifteen-course tasting meal that costs an average worker’s weekly pay—there’s a lot of that going around these days.  

One can view the politicized-food phenomenon as a cultural iceberg whose uppermost tip consists of such challenging and rewarding texts as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, David Foster Wallace’s classic on killing lobsters, Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2009 polemic, Eating Animals—or B.R. Myers’ sarcastic, barbed broadsides against foodie excesses in his Atlantic essays, “Hard to Swallow” and “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies,” in which he issues blasts of mockery against what he calls “the idolatry of food.” These texts exist in productive and sometimes abrasive conversation with one another.

Far, far below this textual tip of the iceberg, at the mundane level of What We’re Doing This Weekend, is the challenge of organizing a dinner party. Here, the already formidable problem of trying to find a night when everyone can get together has been greatly compounded by the detailed list of dietary restrictions, avoidances, objections, concerns, and plain old dislikes that dinner guests now freely issue.

Recently I set out to host a small dinner for Molly, myself, and three other couples. Having expended several emails and deployed Venn diagrams in order to discover the unique overlapping free night in the next ten weeks of everyone’s packed schedules, I circulated an email inquiring about “any culinary restrictions or aversions.” Oops! What I got back from the three invited husbands sounded like Bachelors # 1, 2, and 3 introducing themselves in some crazed Culinary Dating Game. Number 1 listed “mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, shrimp, shellfish, any meat with bones, broccoli, artichokes, and [for his wife] avocado, red beans, raw onions.” Number 2 offered that he eats “fish, cheese, eggs, legumes, but not order mammalia,” while his wife “suffers from mild oral allergy syndrome, so raw vegetables or anything tartar would not be to her preference. And mayonnaise is verboten.” Finally, Number 3 informed me that “I am not a red meat or pork eater, and my wife is allergic to avocado.” He added that if I made red meat, he’d be happy to just eat extra veggies, and offered the hope that "this doesn’t sound too fussy."

Too fussy? No, just impossible! These guests include some of my very best friends, people whose company I enjoy and whose kindness, loyalty, wit, and other stellar qualities I can vouch for. But reading their emails, I found myself laughing helplessly. More and more these days, the beleaguered host throws up his hands. How ever to design a meal around the finicky predilections of the dairy-free, gluten-free, lactose-intolerant, vegetarian, vegan, shellfish-spurning, sugar-avoiding, order-mammalia-worshiping herd of Morris the Cats that make up the American dinner party these days?

When it comes to your friends and their food intolerances, where is the line that demarcates necessary sympathy from sensible skepticism on this issue? And whatever happened to simply eating what is on your plate?

New Issue, Now Live

Our July 8 issue just went live, and it happens to be our annual Fiction issue. In addition to Anthony Domestico’s interview with C. E. Morgan, which we posted in May, here are some highlights.

First, we have a short story by Valerie Sayers about love, illness, art, and time. Here’s a peek:

“Once upon a middle-aged time, reader, Diego O’Dowd and I lived together in an artists’ co-op I’d founded back in the days when artists in downtown Manhattan bought decrepit lofts, unsafe at any price, with money they begged from respectable relatives.”

Read all of “Company” here.

Then, Edward T. Wheeler reviews Andrew O’Hagan’s novel The Illuminations, a meditation on fractured memory and familial connection. Wheeler praises O’Hagan’s flexibility between narrative voices that eventually weave together as the characters do. He writes:

“O’Hagan takes on our fear of the blank of demented senescence. In Anne we see what a visitor to any loved one in a nursing home witnesses—the pieces of a former whole, the furtive self-glimpses of a mind confused by its own reflection. There is dignity in that faltering consciousness. O’Hagan offers a conditional hope mediated by the memory of a life lived before.”

Read the whole review here.

Finally, Paul Lakeland reviews Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, her new book on six writers reckoning with death and mortality. While Roiphe offers many insights in her authors, particularly James Salter, she falters when she brings herself into the story. Lakeland asks:

“Is this principally a researched work of literary journalism, or a memoir? The author’s serious illnesses in early life may help her get close to death in the lives on which she is focused. Yet her obsession with death is less compelling to us than it is to her, and that’s a problem.”

Read the whole review here.

Make sure you check out the full table of contents here, and if you need to catch up on back issues, you can find them all here.

Virtues for Civil Society: Civility

Civil society depends on virtues. Society is not civil without them. Today, they seem everywhere to be in short supply and at the risk of seeming platitudinous, or worse, sanctimonious, I will proffer several virtues that might put a variety of events, including Brexit and the forthcoming US election, in a more socially responsible context. Every other day, I will post a new one. Today is the most foundational, civility.     

On Thursday, June 23, on WGBH Tom Ashcroft hosted a program on Mob Internet Shaming. Throughout the forty-six minute program, there was a refrain from callers who roughly argued that there are no rules for tweeting or other postings on social media. The host and those interviewed were clearly not disposed to the refrain, but for the duration of the program, no one on either side of the debate mentioned the necessity of civility in their replies.       

Years ago I thought that civility was a minimalist virtue, in that it expects so little. Then I was editing with the Mennonite theologian, Joseph Kotva, an ecumenical collection of essays on virtues that could be used for the churches. We called it, Practice what You Preach. Among the contributors, Vigen Guroian submitted an essay to us on civility, that made me first think, couldn’t you give us something more?  Instead, he presented a Christological “debate” in the Armenian church that desperately needed civility. The overall tone of the debate lacked a great deal of proportionality. There was no warrant for the outbursts, the personal assaults, etc.   

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Brexit and the Generational Divide

The British vote to leave the EU clearly has many fathers. A system of global financial capitalism that has exclusion and inequality in its architecture. The premature implementation of monetary union, which—lacking adequate fiscal or financial integration—magnified the effects of financial crisis. A shift toward a technocratic paradigm ever more distant from the concerns of people, hindering their participation. The greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, brought about by climate change and disastrous military intervention.

These are all valid concerns. They all played some part in turning the British people against the EU. But there is another factor, a cultural factor reflected in a stark generational divide. Evidence suggests that support for leaving the EU was concentrated among people over 50. Among the 18-24 year olds, 75 percent opposed Brexit. So it can’t be just concerns about economic insecurity or the democratic deficit, issues that affect all generations. There’s also an ugly undertone of nationalistic xenophobia at play here. Indeed, what drove the leave vote seems to have been more cultural than economic—to put it bluntly, fear and loathing over rising immigration and greater cultural diversity. This is exactly the same dynamic playing out across the Atlantic with the rise of Trump—a cultural backlash of older whiter people lashing out against demographic forces that they see as threatening their historically privileged position.  

We should not underestimate the destructive force of these generational antics. It goes well beyond looking at the world through ethnicity-tinted glasses. Brexit is just the latest move by a generation that inherited a remarkable postwar achievement in social/Christian democracy—on both sides of the Atlantic—and trashed it. A generation that sought maximum freedom with minimum responsibility. The generation of Reagan and Thatcher, habituated in putting personal gain over the common good—choosing tax cuts for themselves over investment in the future (making sure their own benefits were untouched, of course) and refusing to do anything about climate change because of the sheer inconvenience. To misquote Auden, it’s been a low, dishonest few decades.

Catholic social teaching, of course, emphasizes solidarity within generations and between generations—this is a key point of Laudato Si’. We are told to stand with the poor and excluded of both today and tomorrow, through a “new and universal solidarity” that does not freeze people out based on race or nationality. And Catholic social teaching strongly supports supranational institutions, on grounds of both solidarity and subsidiarity.

On this point, the EU is a special case. It is a Catholic experiment—its foundation lies in Catholic social teaching and its founding fathers were sincere Catholics. Its aim was to permanently end conflict through peaceful economic cooperation—linking arms instead of locking swords. For sure, there are huge problems with the current structure and direction of the EU that need to be fixed. But this cannot justify simply walking away from this enormous achievement in a temper tantrum.

The sad fact is that the younger people will be the ones dealing with the consequences of their parents’ tantrum. It is their future at stake. It’s the same dynamic across the board. The infrastructure is crumbling. There is no serious attempt to come up with the money to invest in sustainable development. The baby boomers will not be around to witness the worst consequences of their irresponsibility—especially when it comes to climate change. But so many of them don’t seem to care.

It’s time to put our faith in the much-maligned millennials, I think. They might be our only hope.


Elsewhere: Brexit Roundup

Well, it's happening: The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union, and British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation. Roger Cohen isn't pleased: "My nephew wrote on Facebook that he had never been less proud of his country. I feel the same way about the country I grew up in and left." Cohen describes Brexit as "a leap in the dark," but it is not, he concedes, a bolt from the blue: it is the expression of a resentment that has been building up for some time:

This resentment has its roots in many things but may be summed up as a revolt against global capitalism. To heck with the experts and political correctness was the predominant mood in the end. A majority of Britons had no time for the politicians that brought the world a disastrous war in Iraq, the 2008 financial meltdown, European austerity, stagnant working-class wages, high immigration and tax havens for the super-rich.

Christopher Caldwell of the Weekly Standard takes a much more sanguine view: this was, he insists, about democracy—and about the refusal of ordinary Brits to be cowed by elites in London and Brussels. It will be a costly refusal, he acknowledges, but that does not make it a bad one:

Britain is, as David Cameron said in his resignation statement, a "special country." Its citizens are going to pay a price for flouting markets and European bureaucracies. They have gambled that what they now recover—control of their own laws—makes that price worth paying. Look at their history. They are probably right.

The British economist Simon Wren-Lewis disagrees. He regards the outcome of the referendum as a product of fear and irrationality, and blames the British press for having given the Brexiteers a free pass:

The tabloid press has groomed its readers for Brexit. If any good is to come out of this, it will involve defeating most of the tabloid press, and then forever reducing their influence.[...]

There is also a very big warning here for the US. Clinton may be ahead now, but do not underestimate the power of the media (which is still giving Trump much more coverage) to turn that around.

(As Caldwell points out, one of those grubby tabloids, the Mail on Sunday, said in an editorial exactly what Wren-Lewis wanted the press to say: "The great chorus of economists, businessmen, educators, historians, scientists and others who have urged that we remain in the EU cannot simply be brushed off as if their opinions are so much babble." One lesson to be drawn from the referendum: be careful with those cannot's.)

Finally, Owen Jones, a British journalist on the left who opposed Brexit, writes in the Guardian that his fellow Remainers should avoid demonizing, or condescending to, those who voted to leave the E.U.

Many of the nearly half of the British people who voted remain now feel scared and angry, ready to lash out at their fellow citizens. But this will make things worse. Many of the leavers already felt marginalised, ignored and hated. The contempt—and sometimes snobbery—now being shown about leavers on social media was already felt by these communities, and contributed to this verdict. Millions of Britons feel that a metropolitan elite rules the roost which not only doesn’t understand their values and lives, but actively hates them. If Britain is to have a future, this escalating culture war has to be stopped. The people of Britain have spoken. That is democracy, and we now have to make the country’s verdict work.

If the left has a future in Britain, it must confront its own cultural and political disconnect with the lives and communities of working-class people. It must prepare for how it responds to a renewed offensive by an ascendant Tory right. On the continent, movements championing a more democratic and just Europe are more important than ever. None of this is easy—but it is necessary. Grieve now if you must, but prepare for the great challenges ahead.

Elsewhere: Brexit Edition

In a few hours we'll know whether the United Kingdom will remain a part of the European Union. The U.S. media has been full of arguments against "Brexit." Here are two good pieces in favor of it—one from the left (by a Briton who teaches political theory at Harvard) and one from the right.

Richard Tuck, writing in Dissent, argues that "the British left risks throwing away the one institution which it has, historically, been able to use effectively—the democratic state—in favor of a constitutional order tailor-made for the interests of global capitalism and managerial politics."

As the jurisprudence of the EU has developed, it has consistently undermined standard left policies such as state aid to industries and nationalization. Constitutional structures that are largely outside the reach of citizens have, in the modern world, tended almost invariably to block the kind of radical policies that the left has traditionally believed in. The central fact about the EU, which the British governing class has never really got its head around, is that it creates a written constitution and ancillary juridical structures that are extremely hard to alter.[...]

Many of my English friends on the left reply...with despair: nothing can now be done to change the situation, the forces of globalization are too strong, the political culture of Britain is too conservative. Membership of the EU offers shelter, despite its patent lack of democracy and its basic sympathy with capitalism. But this is to rationalize defeat. There have been times in living memory when the left in Britain could assert itself successfully, but those were times when it understood the nature of Britain’s political structures and could use them. The lack of political possibilities perceived by so many people today is the result of quite specific decisions, above all to enter the EU, and I see no reason why reversing that decision would not open up real possibilities for the left in Britain again.

At the Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty, an American conservative, also endorses Brexit:

Europe is a tangled failure of undemocratic bureaucracy. The European Commission, which makes an alarming number of laws Britons must abide by (perhaps as much as 60 percent of them in recent years), is an unelected body. The European Parliament has no mechanism for repealing laws, no properly organized opposition at all. As many Leave campaigners never tire of pointing out, plenty of commissioners are chosen to serve only after they have been defeated in their own national elections. Men like Neil Kinnock lost successive elections in Britain, only to get a promotion to the European Commission.

At every level, the EU lacks the kinds of institutionalized opposition or checks on power that are the hard-won victories of the people in their national parliaments. You see it in the impotent European Parliament that acts as a rubber stamp for the Commission, or the unanswerable and supreme European Court of Justice. The history of the EU is a history of making countries vote repeatedly on treaties they have rejected until they accept them.

The argument, then, is not so much between the left and the right as between those who are committed to democracy and those who regard it as a luxury that Europe can't always afford in a time of economic globalization and rising rightwing populism. Some opponents of Brexit simply ignore the EU's lack of democratic accountability, focusing entirely on the xenophobia of some of Brexit's conservative supporters and warning that British independence will threaten Europe's peace and prosperity. Others acknowledge that the EU is (by design) not a very democratic institution, only to brush this fact aside because...peace and prosperity.

New Stories on the Website

Although our print publishing schedule might slow down a little over the summer, we’re featuring three new stories in the website you’ll want to check out.

First, Robert Mickens reports in his Letter from Rome on Pope Francis’s address that provoked some uproar by suggesting that “great majority of sacramental marriages are null.” Mickens sets these remarks in their context within the address, including the pope’s emphasis that he was speaking “as a pastor.” Mickens emphasizes, “Not as a theologian or philosopher. Not as a university professor or an enforcer of correct doctrine or pure ideals.” The pope, in his own words, is an evangelical realist.

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Paul Ryan, Clever Fellow

The Internet is abuzz with the rumor that Paul Ryan wants to reintroduce pre-existing health condition denials of insurance into the American health care system. In fact, that's not the plan. But has Ryan finally figured out a way that the Republicans can attack Obamacare in a way that sticks?

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Rape, Doubt and Prudence

I’m going to wade again into the turbulent and tricky waters of campus sexual violence. My alma mater, Amherst College, got a lot of press when a student’s harrowing account of date rape went viral three years ago. Some statistics suggest that as many as 1 in 5 female college students will be sexually assaulted during their college years. More recently, when I wrote about the disinviting of a rap artist whose misogynist lyrics offended many at Trinity College, an acquaintance who teaches there reproached me for failing to grasp the “campus rape culture” that colleges suffer under today. What is going on?

The case causing the most recent uproar concerns the conviction of Brock Turner, a 20-year-old member of the swim team at Stanford, on three counts of felony sexual assault. (A local newspaper article gives links to relevant statements and documents.) Turner was arrested after two Swedish grad students found him lying on top of an unconscious and partly unclothed woman in an area behind a dumpster near a campus fraternity. The two, seeing Turner “thrusting” on top of the motionless woman, intervened and then held him until police arrived. As was revealed in the subsequent investigation and trial, Turner and the woman had met – for the first time -- that night at a party at which both drank heavily. The woman, not herself a Stanford student but a recent college graduate visiting her younger sister, had a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit and remembered nothing when she awoke hours later. Turner had a level twice the legal limit. A jury convicted him of assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman and sexually penetrating an intoxicated and unconscious person with a foreign object (his finger).

Two factors have boosted the case’s prominence. One is the leniency of the sentence the judge handed out -- just six months in prison, far less than the possible 14-year maximum. The second is a 7-page letter read in court by the victim. Her statement gained wide sympathy and attention – a CNN anchor read its 7000-word entirety on air – and is worth reading (here) for its eloquent anguish and searing, focused indignation. Its righteous anger contrasted sharply with the judge’s statement at sentencing, which cited Brock Turner’s remorse, argued that his drunkenness reduced his “moral culpability,” asserted that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,” and predicted that “he will not be a danger to others.”

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Queer Lives Matter

In the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, one of the questions roiling the Catholic blogosphere is: does it matter if Church officials mention that Pulse is a gay club? 


Here's why. On one hand, the central tragedy here is the loss of 49 lives, young people going out to dance on a Saturday night. Any attack on innocents is a horrific assault on our common humanity. The Pope's response captured that well, without noting that it was a gay club that was targeted. Likewise USCCB president Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz. Likewise Orlando Bishop John Noonan. Likewise when Catholic Charities of Central Florida stepped up to offer financial assistance to victims and their families in the wake of the shooting. To express condolences and call for prayers and offer assistance are all admirable things, to be sure. It should also be noted that some of these statements were released very soon after the attack, when the shooter's motives were unclear. Perhaps they thought it might be a coincidence that it was a gay club and that it was Latin Night. 

But this was no random attack, as LGBTQ people and their allies suspected (or knew) immediately.

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I’ve written about gun violence and gun rights at length before, so this time I’ll be brief. In fact, I mostly want readers to look at a single image. Sometimes a graph is worth a thousand words.

A quick thought before I link to it. When I take up a controversial political or social topic, I try to scrutinize my own position and comprehend its basis and implications. In the “gun control” debates—I don’t like that term, but I’m not going to play the name game—the questions for my side would include: Can you show persuasively that any measure you’re proposing would have likely prevented Orlando, Newtown, Columbine and the rest, and/or would likely substantially reduce any category of U.S. gun deaths?  And can you outline how much governmental intrusion into freedoms you’re willing to tolerate (for instance, via so-called “no buy” lists based on mental-illness criteria and/or affiliations or contacts with extremist groups) in order to accomplish these reductions? Where would you draw the line?   

One has to note, ruefully, that such policy questions for people on my side are problems created in the first place by the glut of guns in the U.S. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s important to fashion proposals that aren’t just feel-good measures.

For the other side, the question is simpler. The day after Orlando, the New York Times published an article comparing the incidence of U.S. gun deaths with other wealthy countries. The text of the article uses freak disasters to highlight the discrepancy. For instance, in Japan you're as likely to be killed by a gun as by lightning. In Spain it’s heat prostration. But the most striking comparison is pictorial. The graph in the article shows how wildly out of whack our gun death rate is in comparison with our peer group. It is a graphic definition of the word “outlier.”

The question for gun-rights advocates would be this: Can we agree that the enormous discrepancy between  our country and the rest of the world, and the 30,000 or so gun deaths it represents, is a serious problem—or are you willing to accept it as an unfortunate but inevitable cost of mass gun ownership? If you agree that it is a problem we have to address, how do you propose to do so? And if your proposal is to add still more guns into the mix, please explain how doing so will increase safety, since both statistical analyses and common sense suggest the opposite.

Finally, as an unrelated footnote, I have to draw attention to a remark made by Donald Trump after Orlando, and quoted almost in passing in a Times editorial. Summing up the implications of the shooting, Trump called for President Obama to resign, charging—cryptically, as the Times noted—that “we’re being led by a man who either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind.”

Did I hear that right? If so, then the Republican candidate for president just accused the sitting president—via a smarmy innuendo just vague enough to allow for deniability—of harboring sympathies for, if not colluding outright with, Islamic terrorists who commit mass murder. Such reckless, darkly conspiratorial and slanderous remarks clearly resonate with Trump’s base; how much traction they will gain with the other 80 percent of Americans remains to be seen.

Data on Faith, Faith in Data?

According to the Diocese of Raleigh, just 5 percent of North Carolina’s approximately 420,000 Catholics are native to the state. Thus about 399,000 have arrived from somewhere else, helping not only to double North Carolina’s Catholic population over the last two decades, but also to foster the hopeful notion that Catholicism is thriving in certain parts of the nation. Indeed, the South in general has seen an uptick in its Catholic population, with 27 percent of the nation’s Catholics now residing there, up from 24 percent in 2004, according to Pew. In the same period, those figures dropped from 29 percent to 26 percent in the Northeast, and from 24 to 21 percent in the Midwest, strongholds built over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries thanks in no small part to Irish, Italian, and other European immigrants and their first- and second-generation descendents.

Who’s fueling the southern boomlet? To a large extent, immigrants—the majority from Mexico and Central America, and many of the rest from Vietnam and the Philippines. But a significant number of the non-native Catholics are transplants from those old strongholds up north, including retirees lured by the weather and lower cost of living, as well as young professionals lured by jobs in corporate centers like Charlotte, North Carolina; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Atlanta. Those cities and their surrounding suburbs are of course growing in general. The population of North Carolina’s southeastern Brunswick County, for example, is projected to hit nearly 130,000 in 2019, almost double what it was at the turn of the millennium. (By way of disclosure and illustration, I have family in the region, and when I visit I am struck by the number of people I meet who are originally from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Illinois, many Catholic. This anecdotal evidence adds flesh to impersonal statistics indicating that the rise in the South’s Catholic population is tied to the drop in the North’s.)  

The demographic shift is seen in some areas as an opportunity to try new approaches to establishing and nurturing vibrant Catholic communities. Regional characteristics and behaviors like relatively low population densities and the entrenched driving lifestyle, for instance, could guide capital planning and resource allocation in a way that might mitigate against what seems in retrospect the “overbuilding” of churches and other infrastructure in the northern cities and suburbs, the closures and consolidations of which have been painful for those whose parishes had defined their communities. The multicultural quality of congregations could offer (and in many cases, already is offering) new opportunities for cross-cultural outreach and enrichment. And the South’s largely Christian culture might itself factor in. Interviewees in a recent report on Catholicism in the southern United States by OSV Newsweekly spoke of finding it easier to be open and “intentional” about faith given evangelical, black Protestant, and mainline Protestant neighbors who live theirs so outwardly. An Atlanta-area woman originally from New York said being challenged by Protestant friends on why she’s Catholic has “really pushed me to figure out and to learn why we do what we do.” Up north, she said, you answered the question by saying “because mommy does it and grandma does it. And that’s all you need to know.”

But positive regional trends continue to run up against larger general ones.

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Gordon Marino on Muhammad Ali

Now up on the homepage is a tribute to Muhammad Ali by frequent Commonweal contributor Gordon Marino. As many dotCommonweal readers know, Marino is not only a philosophy professor; he's also a professional boxing trainer. As a teenager "with boxing aspirations," Marino disliked Ali—partly because of the way Ali taunted his opponents (especially other black boxers), but above all because he did not conform to Marino's idea of what a heavy-weight boxer should be. "With his almost feminine good looks, his flitting about the ring, and his incessant jibber-jabber, he was at odds with the code of strong-and-silent masculinity that I instinctively revered." But eventually Ali won Marino over—not with his famous charm but with his character:

There are a few rare people who see themselves as the sun and the moon, but who are still somehow able to get outside their own orbit and care about others. For all his bluster about being the greatest and most beautiful, Ali was no narcissist: he noticed the people around him.

When I travelled to Louisville for the opening of the Ali Center in 2005, I met one person after another whose life had been pushed in a new direction by a fortuitous encounter with Ali. One fellow in his fifties told me that many years earlier he had given Ali a cookie. The champ, who had a sweet tooth, thought it was delicious and helped get the man started in what would become a thriving business. Howard Bingham, who would become of one of Ali’s lifelong friends, told me the tale of bumping into Ali in 1962 in Los Angeles. At the time, Bingham was a fledgling photographer. By giving him access, Ali catapulted him into a stellar career behind the lens. Over the course of the event, I heard many other testimonies from folks Ali had simply put his arms around at a difficult moment. Like a great cornerman, he gave them the fortitude to deal with the foe of a disease or a death in the family.

Read the whole thing here.

Commonweal Interviews, in the News

Sunday night in New York, the Tony award for best play went to The Humans, by Stephen Karam (it also took best featured actress, best featured actor, and best set design). Mollie Wilson O’Reilly interviewed Karam for Commonweal back in February of this year. Among other things, the playwright spoke of compassion, prayer, and how faith and fear figure into his work. There’s more for Karam in 2016, including an adaption of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard set to premiere on Broadway in the fall, along with two films. You can read Mollie’s interview with the acclaimed (and busy) Stephen Karam here.

In the New York Times Book Review this weekend, John Williams wrote on The Sport of Kings author C. E. Morgan, whom he notes “has never divulged much about her biography.” True in so far as it goes—although she shared a relatively good amount about herself with Anthony Domestico in a Commonweal interview in May. Williams cites Tony’s interview in his write-up and zeroes in on some key quotes, but you’ll want to read the entire thing on our site if you haven’t already. (It will also be featured in the print edition of our upcoming Summer Fiction issue.)