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Terrorist Droning

As people who are terrified by terrorist attacks often forget, terrorism by a military organization is a purely military tactic. Military tactics have defined goals to which are allocated certain resources.  The terrorism is done for a specific end.  It is not done for its own sake.  To combat it, we need to understand what the end might be, so we don't end up being manipulated by terror, which is the point of terror as a military strategy.

One way to understand how it works is to look at a situation where it did work; an episode when it was an effective military strategy.  And one of the most famous in recent years was in 1946, when a Jewish terror attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem killed 91 people and changed the nature of the conflict in Palestine.

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Virtues for Civil Discourse: Solidarity

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on five prior entries: civility, tolerance, humility, justice and mercy. Today, I want to turn to the sixth virtue, solidarity.

I learned of solidarity by being the son of a New York City police officer.  From my father’s work, I learned about a set of relationships that were neither with family nor friends, but rather with “partners” or fellow officers on the “force.”  These were the people with whom dad enjoyed a certain solidarity, a tangible and very evident one.  At any family event there were aunts and uncles and cousins, there were friends and neighbors, but there was also my dad’s partner, Frank Tornabene and his wife Joan, who fit in just as easily as everyone else.  Frank was never identified as anything but “my partner,” a term filled with meaning.  

At family parties my dad would tell stories from the force, that were always livelier when Frank was there.  My dad was a great raconteur; I heard every type of story from police chases to interrogations to cover-ups.  I developed an appreciation for his vocabulary---at six years of age I knew what a “perp” (aka perpetrator) was.  I am sure that his love for humanity and fairness that so animated those stories is what moved me to be in the field I am in today.  

Later, when he worked in Manhattan South homicide, I would walk into his office in lower Manhattan, and as I did, I knew that everyone knew who I was because like every cop, Dad shared his family with his squad.  From his stories, I knew who they were, and I knew that everyone there had “each other’s back.” There in those offices and from those stories, I learned what solidarity was like.   I was learning about the police force in all these stories and from them I knew that cops relied on one another, reflexively.  They didn’t give it a second thought.  

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Was Tim Kaine "Ruined for Life"?

From humble beginnings 60 years ago in south-central Alaska, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps has grown to become the largest lay Catholic full-time volunteer program in the world. Committing themselves to the four core values of JVC---spirituality, simple living, community and social justice---young volunteers, most of them recent college graduates, spend a year (or two, or three) living together, and working with and for the poor and needy in over 40 US cities and 6 countries around the world.

FJVs (former Jesuit volunteers) often laughingly refer to having been "ruined for life" by the experience*. By "ruined for life" they mean that the experience wrought such a profound change within them that it changed---in many cases permanently and for the better---the direction of their lives.

One of those FJVs is Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine who is now the Democratic candidate for vice-president. Kaine spent some time in 1980-81 as part of the JVC community in El Progreso, Honduras.

I'd be curious to know if there are any FJVs and/or Virginians who can offer any perspective on Sen. Kaine and the extent to which his JVC experience may have shaped his career in public office.  (We can also use this as an open thread for reactions to Sen. Kaine's nomination.)

Existence and Pre-existence

The first three words of the first item of Donald Trump's healthcare plan are "Completely repeal Obamacare".

I was surprised to see this stated so starkly and unambiguously.  Because if this were to happen, along with everything else, the pre-existing condition ban would go away.  This could cause several million people, including people in mid-treatment, to lose their insurance.  And many of these people are people paying their own premiums with no subsidy from the government.

Most people think they know what "pre-existing condition" meant.  But it was far worse and more complicated than most people know.  The pre-existing condition problem was part of an overall underwriting philosophy that covered both individual policies and small groups (defined as 2 to 50 employees).  The Affordable Care Act not only eliminated pre-existing conditions as a means to deny coverage, it eliminated the underwriting of small groups, which had been underwritten in a way that carried the pre-existing condition philosophy into the commercial group market itself.  To explain how this worked, and what it would mean to go back to the way things were until only recently, I'd like to tell you a story about how I think I saw the old system kill someone once.

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How to Change the World

It's a tall order, changing the world, especially when the subject is race. But it didn’t surprise me that Bryan Stevenson had ideas - four of them, in fact - worth listening to when I heard him speak earlier this year.

Stevenson is executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and author of Just Mercy, an engrossing and deeply disturbing memoir about his baptism as a young lawyer into the fight against class- and race-based malpractice in our criminal justice system.

CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently recommended the book, sending me back to notes I made during Stevenson's April speech at Connecticut College.

Just Mercy was a "One Book, One Region" selection for my area, meaning individuals and organizations were encouraged to read and discuss it. If any book deserves to be a "One Book, One Nation" selection, this is it.

I had already read Mercy, attracted in part by its links to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson didn't intend to make that link, but one of the case histories he lays out is that of Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman in Monroe, Alabama. Monroe, you may recall, was Lee's home and the model for the town in Mockingbird.

McMillian's case doesn't precisely mirror that of Mockingbird's fictional Tom Robinson, but how he was convicted and sentenced to death is equally egregious.

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The Catholic Vote: Big Changes in Four Years

The notion that Catholics and evangelical Christians could be forged into a singular political force certainly takes a hit in a new Pew poll that finds them going in distinctly opposite directions in this year's presidential race. Another vanishing factor in this year's presidential race is the idea that there is a significant divide between Catholics who attend Mass weekly -- and are supposedly more conservative and loyal to the bishops' agenda -- and those who don't.

In a poll released this week, Pew finds that white evangelical Christians favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by a startling 78 percent to 17 percent. Trump is 5 points ahead of where Mitt Romney was at this point in the 2012 campaign. Catholics favor Clinton over Trump, 56 percent to 39 percent. Clinton is 7 points ahead of where Barack Obama was at this point of the 2012 campaign. (Trump leads among non-Hispanic white Catholics, 50-46; Clinton leads among Hispanic Catholics, 77-16.)

In June 2012, Romney led Obama among weekly churchgoers -- narrowly among Catholics, 48-45. He trailed Obama among Catholics who attended less often. There is a significant shift in the 2016 race. Catholics who attend Mass weekly strongly favor Clinton over Trump (57-38). So do those who attend less often (56-40). While Trump holds a 4-point lead among white Catholics., it appears that Latino Catholics are taking the Catholic vote with them.

Pew has identified an amazing shift in the Catholic vote, which is often described as a swing vote. Pope Francis has to be considered as a possible factor: In 2012, before his papacy, many Catholic bishops were essentially campaigning against Obama by emphasizing issues such as religious freedom and abortion. This time, we've had the pope and the presumed Republican nominee embroiled in a controversy over immigration.  Another factor is the candidate: Trump's  nasty, nativist campaign seems to have  triggered a negative response in ta significant bloc of Catholic voters who might otherwise have favored a Republican. George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" appealed to many Catholic voters.  The Trump campaign is neither.

The caveat here is that the poll was taken (June 15-26) before the results of the FBI investigation of Clinton and her emails was announced.  It shows Clinton leading overall 51-42. Some more recent polls have shown a tightened race.




Hillary Attempts to Add Alka-Seltzer to the Healthcare Stew

Hillary Clinton has now updated her health care proposal.  In addition to the usual promises to improve quality and cut costs and prices blah, blah, blah that all the politicians are making, there are two possibly substantive proposals.  The first is that people might be allowed to go on Medicare from age 55.  The second is a mysterious thing called the “public option”.

The lowering of the eligibility age for Medicare (ironic in a climate of raising the Social Security eligibility age) seems pretty straightforward in that she didn’t specify that this new age group would get anything other than standard Medicare.  But the “public option” could change the rules of the healthcare game, depending on what it really is.  And she left some clues.  Let’s take a closer look.

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Donald Trump and the Death of Objectivity

Objectivity: the word tends to draw snickers nowadays. Many would say objectivity isn't even possible. Nonetheless, there are observers who still strive to be objective or at least to be seen as objective. That includes old-school reporters like me, judges, historians or other academics (depending on their fields, it seems).

 But now the last bastions of objectivity seem to be falling to the Donald Trump phenomenon. The nation's best historians, a Supreme Court justice, and some journalists have dropped the measured style of communication that objectivity seems to require and denounced Trump as a danger to the nation. As Jim Dwyer reported in The New York Times, historians such as David McCullough, Robert A. Caro, Ron Chernow, David Levering Lewis, William E. Leuchtenberg and Vicki Lynn Ruiz have formed a group essentially to oppose Trump's candidacy.

McCullough said he reached out to Ken Burns saying that

despite 40 years of avoiding advocacy in his work, he no longer had “the luxury of neutrality or ‘balance’ or even of bemused disdain.” After a few conversations, Mr. McCullough said, the two men came up with a plan: “Why don’t we see if we can round up some other people who care about the American story, and who have given so much of their life’s work to it, see if they are willing to step out and make themselves heard.”

They formed a group, Historians on Donald Trump.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has also denounced Trump, of course, a move many have questioned. Despite the deep partisan divide in the court, it seems many of us still hold out the hope that the justices are objective. As The New York Times editorialized, "Washington is more than partisan enough without the spectacle of a Supreme Court justice flinging herself into the mosh pit."

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Guns and White Identity

What motivates the gun movement in the United States? To me, the answer has always seemed obvious—the legacy of a “primitive liberalism” that exalts the autonomy of each individual over the idea of a common good that ties people together through reciprocal rights and responsibilities. This comes not only in a Lockean flavor, which celebrates each individual as king of his castle, but also in a darker, stronger Hobbesian flavor—whereby social interaction takes the form of a war of all against all.  

But recent events have convinced me that the original sin of racism also plays a role. What’s clear is that the US gun movement has become a movement centered around white identity. Studies do show a correlation between gun zealotry and white racial resentment. It is no surprise that gun crackdowns tend to come in response to black men owning and wielding firearms. It is no surprise that both gun sales and pro-gun rhetoric rose dramatically upon the election of Barack Obama. And it is no surprise that the NRA gets uncharacteristically tongue-tied when a black man is killed by police for carrying a legal firearm.

Part of this is straightforward: if you refuse to accept a whole race as full and equal members of the community, and you are habituated by centuries of racism to think of this race as particularly prone to violence and criminality, then arming yourself doesn’t seem too strange. And because you don’t feel like you belong to a shared community, you are more willing to tolerate the destruction of black lives that comes from the toxic admixture of a mountain of guns combined with a deep legacy of institutional racism and social exclusion.

But there’s more to it. It is now abundantly clear that owning and brandishing a legal gun is something a white person can do with impunity, but a black person cannot. The tragic death of Philandro Castile really brings this home. As does the well-document different reactions to white men and black men who “open carry” in the same area. Thus guns become a way of displaying racial superiority, especially at a time when more “traditional” displays are no longer an option.

Guns therefore seem to serve a two-fold purpose for white identity—modulating fear and magnifying privilege. The answer is course is to end both racism and the scourge of guns. 

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Mercy

If you are reading about virtues for civil discourse for the first time, you might want to catch up on four prior entries: civility, tolerancehumility, and justice. Today, I want to turn to the fifth virtue, mercy which I call “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”      

Since the Gospel reading today is the Good Samaritan parable I thought I would reflect with you on that parable. But I would like to do it today—that is, after a week of racist killings in the US. I want to suggest that if mercy is “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another,” entering into civic discourse is an act of mercy!     

But, we should not be thinking of ourselves as simply being merciful when we enter into civic discourse. We should think of entering into the civic discourse just as Jesus wants us to hear his parable of the Good Samaritan. That is, that we allow ourselves to be decentered.  

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The Other Side of the Pond: Things Aren't Great There Either

The continuing fall-out from Brexit only gets worse, everyday becoming more surrealistic. Many Americans are probably getting a little bored with the foolishness of England's political class about which Sarah Lyall in the NYTimes gives a rundown that echoes scenes from "Monty Python." Oliver Letwin, the cabinet minister appointed to oversee the process, told a parliamentary committee that he had "no idea" what was going to happen because the government had not planned for Brexit to win.

The most serious and sober assessment I have come across is in Der Spiegel on line and helpfully available to all us English-speakers in our own language. I was stunned by this quote: "Politically, the EU referendum was the most expensive bad bet made by a British prime minister in decades. Cameron will go down in history like Lord North, the premier who accidentally lost the colonies in America." Was it really an accident? Inattention to details-- (perhaps a bit like Mrs. Clinton's use of a private server for State Department business)?

Historical analogies aside, Christopher Scheuermann gives a sober analysis of how seriously Germany and Chancellor Angela Merkel are taking the prospect of an EU without Britain. The U.S. should be equally concerned and attentive.

Virtues for Civil Discourse: Justice

If you are reading about virtues for civil society for the first time, you might want to catch up on three prior entries: civility, toleration and humility.  In today’s blog I want to propose, as others before me have also done, that the entire purpose of civil discourse is the promotion of justice.  This insight is often forgotten, in part, because in our contemporary world, civil discourse is simply viewed as the autonomous right to say whatever one wants in the public arena.  While that right to free speech is guaranteed in many contemporary democracies, the purpose of civic discourse is not to provide the opportunity to bloviate, but to promote the well being of human society as a whole and of all its members.    

We know that ethics itself exists for human flourishment, that is, ethics exists to improve the well being of each and every one of us.  The future of human society, its common good, depends then on a civic discourse that promotes that ethical search to enrich and develop the common good and the world in which we find it.  Here we can think, for instance, of those discourses that sought to improve the well being of all and yielded significant designs toward that end: the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thomas Aquinas recognized the virtue of justice as being about giving to each their due.  In more contemporary theories, John Rawls has understood justice to be about fairness.  There’s a lot of resonance with fairness since a child’s first moral perception is usually expressed as, “That’s not fair.”   When a child makes that expression, the child in all probability is trying to make her/his first entrance into civic discourse.  

The humanity of this insight is that while the child is capable of recognizing that fairness is in jeopardy, but the child often cannot name what specifically would be fair.  Still, the child’s remark reminds us, that the child has been dependent on and the recipient of fair distribution until this one day, when something provokes the child to question whether the daily modes of distribution are fair.

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Death Wish: The Politics of American Healthcare

Bernie wanted a single payer system: Medicare for All.  Hillary wants to tinker with Obamacare in a slow transition to God knows what.  Trump wants voters, but has no plan.  But Ryan does and his plan is to keep alive the part of Obamacare that everyone likes (no pre-existing conditions), but to separate the sick voters who want things he doesn’t think they deserve from those young healthy voters who might go Red in the future.

As for the electorate, like the American girls in the Rolling Stones song, they “want everything in the world that you can possibly imagine”.  Some for just themselves and some for everybody.

Sorry.  Nobody is going anywhere.  Bernie was right about single payer, but it’s not enough to just get elected.  One must also rule.  President Bernie would never have been able to lift that rock, for reasons I shall go into.  Hillary knows she has to rule, so in her usual cunning fashion she is setting the bar as low as possible for herself right at the start.  And Trump/Ryan are looking for a neutron bomb that will kill all the really sick people and leave a core of friendly voters and all the businesses standing.

What would we need to do to fix things and why can’t we do it?  Read below.  And weep.  I’ll try to keep this one simple.


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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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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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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.