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A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

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dotCommonweal Blog

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.

Read the whole thing here.

Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:

…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.

Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?

Read the whole editorial here.

Catch E.J. Dionne and Barack Obama

Online at the Georgetown Catholic-Evangelical Conference on Poverty....

There's a tab at the upper left of the screen to watch the whole discussion, which begins at about five minutes. Catch it.

Ed Chambers, RIP

Since word emerged from the west of Ireland about Ed Chambers' death on April 26, the small, generally taciturn, online world of professional community organizers has been buzzing with reminiscences, tributes, and most of all, stories about the bluff, hard-edged and (though he often kept it well-hidden) big-hearted man who was one of the unsung heroes of public life in the United States over the past 50 years.

As Samuel Freedman, who came to know Chambers and the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) intimately when working on his terrific 1994 book, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, wrote earlier this week, "If Alinsky was the Jesus of community organizing, the galvanizing standard-bearer, Chambers was its St. Paul, transforming radical theology into organized religion. He did not invent community organizing as we know it in America—that was Alinsky’s achievement—but he made it professional and permanent, a purposeful career rather than a sacrificial calling."

Saul Alinsky's role in community organizing can get overstated and it's easy to see why.  Alinsky was a colorful character with a keen intellect and a great way with words.  Perhaps most importantly he wrote books---Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971)---in which he defined his work as "community organizing".  But as scholars like Theda Skopcol have documented, "community organizing" has been part of the American cultural and political DNA since before the birth of the republic.  Alinsky's genius was to take what he'd learned from CIO organizers around Chicago in the 1930s, apply it to the daily lives and experience of working-class city dwellers in mid-20th century urban America, and create a common vocabulary for the work.

But Alinsky had no interest in or talent for building long-lasting community organizations.  He also had little interest in nurturing and developing the next generation of professional organizers. 

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Bagels, doughnuts, and scones

If Mike Huckabee violated campaign finance laws, would anyone take note? And who would do anything about it?

The answer to the first question is yes: As reported in The Washington Post, the Campaign Legal Center has called out Huckabee on the first day of his presidential candidacy for a remark he made during his announcement speech: “I will be funded and fueled not by the billionaires, but by working people who will find out that $15- and $25-a-month contributions can take us from Hope to higher ground… . Now, rest assured [he said to laughter], if you want to give a million dollars, please do it.” According to the center, that’s a violation, joke or not, since candidates for federal office can solicit amounts no larger than $5,000. And if he was suggesting that people direct their donations to a Super PAC, that would also have been a violation: Super PACs are independent of candidates, and fundraising for them must stop once a potential candidate becomes an announced one. Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Martin O’Malley are two presumed presidential candidates whose Super PACs continue to raise money while they linger on the sidelines, which is precisely (some say) why they continue to linger on the sidelines.

A million here, a million there—once it might have soon begun to add up. Yet with the Koch brothers pledging to funnel close to $900 million into the 2016 election (having already amassed $250 million at an event earlier this year), notions of what constitutes “real money” might need to be reconsidered. Huckabee’s modest request could cause him some trouble, assuming there was a bipartisan body set up to monitor and enforce such things. If you said that’s what the Federal Election Commission was for, you wouldn’t be incorrect, but you’d be overstating its ability to do so, and maybe even its interest in doing so. As reported this past weekend, the FEC is effectively neutered, its three Republican and three Democratic members in a “perpetual deadlock.” The FEC chairwoman bluntly states that the likelihood of enforcing campaign finance regulations in the 2016 presidential election is “slim” – this when about $10 billion in total spending is expected, an amount loosed in large part via the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Democrats on the commission want more oversight on just where the money is coming from; Republicans say there's nothing to see here. Where members did manage to compromise was on what would be served to eat at a recent event commemorating the FEC’s fortieth anniversary: one side wanted bagels, the other doughnuts, so they settled on both.

It’s campaign season in the United Kingdom as well, where rules are somewhat more stringent: No party can spend more than about $30 million in the year ahead of the election. In the last cycle, the Conservatives spent $25 million and Labour less than half that. The Center for Responsive Politics says American presidential candidates spent about as much money on raising money in 2012 as the two main British parties spent on their entire campaigns in 2010. There is no TV or radio advertising in British elections (though spending on digital ads is rising). Even then, parties and candidates tend to have money left over. Maybe enough for scones? 

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

Thank you, Freddie Gray

CNS photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, Reuters

Thank you, Freddie Gray.

You did not choose to be sacrificed but, God willing, your death, and the reactions to it in Baltimore and around the nation, will reawaken your fellow citizens to ugly realities that so many of us have tried so mightily to avoid.

Your fatal injuries while in police custody—under circumstances that make it impossible for anyone to credibly blame you—have done what the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and even twelve-year-old Tamir Rice could not do: remove any ambiguity about agency.

Your sad history of childhood exposure to lead paint shines a light on a hazard that has afflicted untold numbers of poor children, especially black children, raised in housing that literally cripples them mentally, shortens their lives substantially, and diminishes the quality of the time they do have.

And whether you would have willed it or not, the riot—or was it a rebellion?—touched off by your death has focused minds on America’s urban tinderboxes in a way that no presidential speech (assuming there had been one) or civil-rights leader’s sermon has been able to since…well, within recent memory.

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More new stories on the website

E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

Hebdo & PEN, the Archbishop & the Quran

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Luz said this week he will stop inking images of the prophet Muhammad, explaining that it no longer interests him: “I got tired of it, just like I got tired of drawing Sarkozy.” His announcement comes as France also follows the case of Sarah K., the fifteen-year-old student sent home for wearing a long skirt her principal deemed an “ostentatious sign” of the girl’s Muslim faith – an action the Collective Against Islamophobia in France called “really an excessive interpretation” of the 2004 law prohibiting students to wear visible signs of their religious affiliation to school.

Meanwhile, the public spat among authors continues ahead of next week’s PEN gala in New York, where Charlie Hebdo will receive the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award “for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.” Six writers scheduled as table hosts announced over the weekend they would not attend the event, including Francine Prose, a former president of PEN American Center. About two dozen more writers (including Joyce Carol Oates and Junot Diaz) have since added their names as signatories to a public letter of protest over the award: “PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression,” reads the letter, “but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the western world.” Prose and the five others who first withdrew have come under fire from, among others, Salman Rushdie -- who has called them “fellow travelers” of “fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.” (He used some other choice words too.) To which Prose has responded:

Why is it so difficult for people to make fine distinctions? … [We] stand fully behind Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever they want without being censored, and of course without the use of violence to enforce their silence. … But the giving of an award suggests that one admires and respects the value of the work being honored, responses quite difficult to summon for the work of Charlie Hebdo. Provocation is simply not the same as heroism.

There’s a more irenic exchange going on at John Carroll University, as can be heard in a segment from today’s NPR Morning Edition on retired archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, an expert on Islam currently teaching a class on the Quran.

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New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the homepage.

First, Robert Mickens reports in his weekly letter from Rome that Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila will replace Honduran Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga as president of Caritas Internationalis,"the church’s leading advocate of Catholic social teaching and human development in the international arena."

And, provoking “volcanic enthusiasm” from leading women in Rome, Pope Francis has been confronting historical gender bias and economic discrimination against women during his Wednesday audiences.

...what is sure to surprise some, [the pope] refused to blame the crisis of marriage on the women’s liberation movement, though he didn’t use those exact words. “Many people hold that the changes these past decades were put into motion by the emancipation of women. But this argument is not valid, either. It’s an insult!” he said, again to loud applause. “It’s a form of machismo, which always tries to dominate women.”

Read the entire "Letter from Rome" here

Second, the editors comment on the pope’s ousting of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012 and how it might mean that the era of “tolerating bishops who fail to protect the most vulnerable under their care has come to an end. This pope will hold them to account.” Some have criticized Francis for taking too long to remove Finn, but:

Francis is running a church with five thousand bishops. In order to educate himself about the controversy in Kansas City, a diocese of about 133,000 in a country he’s never visited, Francis initiated an investigation last September. He allowed that process to run its course, despite increasingly strenuous calls to sack Finn. The pope’s favored methods of listening and deliberation—most evident in the Synod on the Family—are themselves instruments of justice.

Read the entire editorial, “Held to Account,” here.

Transcending polarization

What can be done about polarization in the American Catholic Church? A conference next week at the University of Notre Dame aims to address the causes of polarization and advance ideas for healing some its wounds.

Monday night’s opening panel will be live-streamed here, with contributions from Most Rev. Daniel Flores (Bishop of Brownsville), Rev. John Jenkins, CSC (President, Notre Dame), Prof. Julie Hanlon Rubio (theology, St. Louis Univ.), Prof. Christian Smith (sociology, Notre Dame), and Michael Sean Winters (journalist for The Tablet and the National Catholic Reporter).

This will be followed by Tuesday sessions and working groups. I’ll be part of a group proposing constructive actions that can be taken to heal divisions in the church. In preparing for that, I’ve been working through some of the causes of political polarization in the United States, to see which of these might have explanatory power for polarization in the church.

Political scientists agree that the United States has become increasingly polarized over the past forty years. Analyzing the possible causes has become a hot topic for peer-reviewed scholarship, op-ed pages, and blogs. (Some recent round-ups of scholarship can be found here and here.)  Was polarization catalyzed by Roe v. Wade? Or Bush v. Gore? Or the partisan onslaught of 24-hour cable news? In any case, it’s hard to remember the map before it showed red and blue states.

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Deciding not to have children

How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.

Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”

That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.

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Estate tax unpopular not just with rich

The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on repealing the federal estate tax, and while more Republicans favor this repeal than Democrats, I can’t be equally sure the rich favor it more than the poor. The reason is a conversation I had as a reporter in the mid-1990s with the late George McGovern, who lost the presidency so soundly in 1972.

I was interviewing McGovern about his book chronicling his daughter’s tragic death, not about taxes. But when I mentioned that I had cast my first presidential vote for him, we talked a while about national debates that never go away.

Although “income inequality” wasn’t a term then in use, the issue has always been with us. One way to lessen income inequality is the estate tax, designed to ensure that vast fortunes don’t stay wholly within certain families, thereby building up the wealth gap for generations to come.

McGovern specifically brought the estate tax up, not me. During his presidential campaign he had advocated raising the tax, he said, and one of his biggest surprises was the vigorous resistance he encountered among the poor and middle class, people who would likely never have to pay it.

Whether they had money or not, McGovern said, they thought someday they might. And if that day ever came, they wanted their heirs to hold onto every bit of it.

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Any liberals for religious freedom?

Are there still liberals willing to speak up for religious freedom?  I don’t know whether the religious freedom bill passed and signed in Indiana last week—and now reportedly up for revision—is a good measure.  I do know that, however one precisely balances out the pros and cons of the bill, it does involve religious freedom. 

That was not the perspective of the front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which framed the bill as one more tactic for discriminating against gay couples.  Conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage were “invoking ‘religious freedom’ as their last line of defense.”

No doubt some conservatives would invoke anything short of global warning as a last-line defense against same-sex marriage.  But is it really beyond imagining that many conservatives and non-conservatives, too, might be genuinely agitated about religious freedom for its own sake?   Certainly beyond imagining by Hillary Clinton, who was quick to tweet, “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today.”  Beyond imagining by all the technology, business, and sports and entertainment eminences now bullying Indiana with boycotts, not that these folks ever cared much (or knew much) about religious freedom in the first place.

The Times news story devoted almost two thirds of its coverage to these critics, far more than to any supporters or to Indiana’s governor. It did spare two paragraphs for a quote from Douglas Laycock, one of the nation’s foremost church-state scholars. “The hysteria over this law is so unjustified,” he said, rejecting the anti-gay sentiments being attributed to it.

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Ted Cruz: Ability, will, but maybe no way

Whether Ted Cruz can be president is a different question than whether he will be. The answer to the first is a definitive yes, at least on eligibility. Though Cruz was born in Canada, his mother was born in the United States, which makes him an American citizen. Cruz in this way is like John McCain (birthplace: Panama Canal Zone) and George Romney (birthplace: Mexico): children of U.S.-born parents, and thus able to run for U.S. president.  And like this guy (birthplace: Hawaii).

The answer to the second question is almost as definitive: Cruz, who Monday became the first candidate to officially enter the race with a midnight Tweet and a midmorning address at evangelical Liberty University, will almost certainly not be president. The fact that he announced so early in some ways speaks to this: With money already heading to such likely candidates as Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, Cruz couldn’t afford to wait much longer. Additionally, the GOP’s distaste for its own still-first-term senator, over stunts like the non-filibuster over the Affordable Care Act and his role in shutting down the government in 2013, is well known. Cruz did place in third in last month’s CPAC straw poll (after Walker and Paul), suggesting to some he might have early primary promise, but by many accounts he remains “the most hated man in the senate” and not very much liked in general

Cruz made his announcement at Liberty’s weekly convocation, student attendance at which is mandatory. The ovations he received, however, seemed spontaneous, with applause greeting his calls to abolish the IRS, abolish Obamacare, abolish same-sex marriage…. “It’s time for truth, for liberty … a time to reclaim the constitution of the United States,” he said. “Reclaim the promise of America. Reclaim the mandate, the hope and opportunity … we stand together for liberty…. The answer will not come from Washington but from people of faith and lovers of liberty….” The Aaron Tippin song “Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagles Fly” played when Cruz finished speaking. (Lyric snip: “I was born by God’s dear grace/in an extraordinary place/where the stars and stripes and eagles fly” – something Canadian citizens might be surprised to learn about their country.)

Liberty the university was established by Jerry Falwell, and the school called Cruz’s decision to announce his candidacy there “fitting, as [he] has joked that ‘I’m Cuban, Irish and Italian, and yet somehow I ended up Southern Baptist.’” The university nonetheless noted it is by law prohibited from endorsing candidates, and indeed more from the GOP are likely to stop by in the course of the campaign, just as others have in previous ones. Cruz’s fondness for overheated rhetoric (“your world’s on fire,” he insisted at a New Hampshire speech last week) prompts David Ludwig at The Atlantic to call him characteristic of what Richard Hofstadter identified as the paranoid style of American politics. But that seems to assign more to Cruz than he should be called on to bear. He doesn’t appear to believe in his paranoid claims in the way, say, of Ron Paul, and maybe not even of Rand, whose relatively formidable presence was visible at Monday’s Liberty event: a row of attendees in bright-red “I Stand with Rand” t-shirts, ruining what otherwise might have made fine campaign footage of Cruz and his smiling, waving family (video here, at about the 35:50 mark).

More than just the Ryan budget redux?

Republicans in the House and Senate this week released their respective budget plans, and though they differ in the details they’re similar in their aims – namely, to use the deficit and the debt as justification for tax cuts for high earners and corporations and significant spending cuts in social programs. Leave aside the question of whether the deficit and the debt require such attention (plenty think they don’t, including the Obama administration); what House and Senate Republicans have proposed are essentially reboots of the Paul Ryan (2012 and 2014) franchises.

Which if you liked, then this you might love. Medicare becomes a voucher (i.e., “partially privatized”) program. Medicaid becomes a block-grant program. SNAP (food stamps) becomes a block-grant program. Dodd-Frank restrictions on Wall Street get watered down. And – wait for it – the Affordable Care Act is, finally, once and for all, repealed.

Much of this of course is dressed up in language making it sound sensible, maybe even noble: block-grants give states flexibility and improve efficiency; repeal of Obamacare equates to “patient-centered reform.” Few details are offered, though plenty of figures are tossed about – many of which can only be met with suspicion if not outright incredulity.Though the proposal calls for the repeal of Obamacare, it still counts as going toward the coffers the $2 trillion the law’s tax increases provide. Though the House and Senate plans assume deficit reductions of $147 billion to $164 billion from economic growth stemming from proposed cuts in taxes and spending, these numbers have been generated through the technical sleight of hand known as dynamic scoring. There’s also something in the House proposal being referred to as the “magic asterisk” – a provision for saving $1.1 trillion over ten years “by reducing outlays for mandatory spending other than on health care and Social Security.” No one’s quite sure where those cuts would come from, but they’d have to come from somewhere to meet the goal of $5.5 trillion in overall savings.

Early reviews on the Republican budget proposals: “If the budget resolution released on Tuesday by House Republicans is a road map to a “Stronger America,” as its title proclaims, it’s hard to imagine what the path to a diminished America would look like”; “[This is a] slumlord's budget, an evictor's budget, an auctioneer's budget of a kind that emptied towns all over the Great Plains. It assumes the existence of a propertied class and a servile class, both of them eternal and immutable”; “[I]t lays out a virtual war on the poor and middle class” and as such is “a bracing statement of Republican ideology.”

For his part, the president is disappointed that neither Republican proposal calls for investment in education, infrastructure, or research, and that neither is a “budget that reflects the future.” How much of that the Democratic minority can negotiate for remains to be seen, as does its overall ability to challenge Republican plans that according to Charles P. Pierce “solidify further the burgeoning oligarchy that is devouring the republic.”

Virtue among the rich and poor

In a recent column, David Brooks wades into the debate on the huge gaps in income and opportunity that have arisen in the United States. He focuses on the plight of the poor, and his argument is essentially that the problem is not so much money and policies as norms and virtues.

In other words, he blames the poor for their own plight, and Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig immediately pounces. She argues, quite persuasively, that the moral values of the poor do not differ from the moral values of the rich, and that what keeps the poor down is daily grind of poverty and its soul-destroying burden. On this point, Paul Krugman is in complete agreement—he had noted for a while that social dysfunction can be traced to collapse in decent jobs rather than a collapse in virtue.

But I think that Brooks nonetheless makes a good observation. The cause of much of our social and economic malaise is indeed a breakdown in social norms, the habituation of some wholly unvirtuous behavior. He’s right that we need to look at this through the lens of virtue ethics, especially when he asks core questions like: are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good?

The only problem is, Brooks singles out the poor, when the real culprits are the rich. The real breakdown in social norms over the past few decades has come from the top.

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Drawing a bath for organized labor.

On Monday, Governor Scott Walker made Wisconsin the twenty-fifth state to enact “right to work” legislation. The law is not a jobs program. Neither is it a workers' bill of rights. It permits private-sector workers to opt out of paying fees to unions that negotiate their wages. In other words, it allows such employees to be freeloaders. Federal law already lets employees refuse to join a union, but in states without right-to-work laws employees must pay “fair share” fees to the union that secured their contract. For decades, right-to-work laws have been signed by governors across the South and West. But only recently have Republicans been able to pass them in the labor-strong states of the upper Midwest; Michigan and Indiana adopted right-to-work in 2012, and the new GOP governor of Illinois ran on it. President Barack Obama decried the Wisconsin law as “anti-worker.” The day after Walker signed the bill, the AFL-CIO, along with two other unions, filed a lawsuit challenging the statute—a pro-forma protest. Union leaders know that similar lawsuits in other states have always failed.

Given the Republican dominance of the Wisconsin legislature, the bill’s passage was a fait accompli. But the state senate and assembly held hearings anyway, during which a parade of critics—who vastly outnumbered supporters—voiced their concerns about right-to-work. Union members condemned the measure as an attack on labor. A bankruptcy attorney winkingly begged the legislature to pass the bill because it would be good for his business. And in written testimony the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) delivered a stirring defense of labor unions, affirming over a century of church teaching promoting their expansion. Or at least that’s what one might expect Catholic bishops to say about anti-union legislation. Instead, Wisconsin’s bishops offered what amounted to an extended shrug.

Quoting from its 2015 public-policy position paper, the WCC insisted that “the economy must serve people, not the other way around.” It continued: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers, owners, and others must be respected.” Those are the kinds of noises one expects to hear from bishops of a church whose popes have promoted labor unions for over a century. “There are not a few associations of this nature,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in Rerum novarum (1891), and still “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.” Leo’s wish has not been granted. In Wisconsin, for example, the percentage of employees who belong to unions has dropped from 14.2 percent in 2010, before Walker became governor, to 11.7 percent last year. Yet, reading the WCC’s testimony, it’s not easy to tell whether the bishops think that’s a bad thing.

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What's Changed Since Selma?

Saturday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On hand for the jubilee celebration will be Barack Obama. Last November, on the night it was learned that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president spoke briefly on the rule of law and the need for peaceful protest. He went on to say: "What is also true is that there are still problems, and communities of color aren't just making these problems up. Separating that from this particular decision, there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion. I don't think that's the norm. I don't think that's true for the majority of communities or the vast majority of law enforcement officials. But these are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down." 

What would seem a blow against entrenched denialism was struck earlier this week when the Justice Department released its report detailing civil rights abuses by Ferguson's police force and municipal officials -- practices that Conor Friedersdorf likened to the kind of criminality favored by the Mafia. The repugnance of the behaviors documented (including taser attacks, canine attacks, physical and verbal intimidation, unlawful detainment, and implementation of an extortionate system of compounding fines for minor traffic violations, all targeting people of color) support the analogy. Not all municipalities resemble Ferguson; the problem is that any do. “What happened in Ferguson is not a complete aberration,” the president reiterated Friday. “It’s not just a one-time thing. It’s something that happens.” Meanwhile, criticism of the Justice Department's report from certain quarters as politically motivated isn't just off-base, or offensive; it also simultaneously reflects and reinforces what's illustrated by the findings.

Last year, which in addition to the police-related death of Michael Brown also saw those of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Akai Gurley, marked as well the twenty-fifth anniversary of Spike Lee's film Do the Right Thing. The 1989 release was preceded by a stream of ugly commentary masquerading as criticism from nominally reputable pundits and reviewers who took issue with the movie's climactic depiction of a riot. David Denby: "If some audiences go wild, he's partly responsible." Joe Klein: "David Dinkins [then running for mayor of New York] will also have to pay the price for Spike Lee's reckless new movie about a summer race riot in Brooklyn, which opens June 30 (in not too many theaters near you, one hopes)."

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Moral Relativism & Super-Intelligence

It's not actually messy, you only think it's messy

Can the bedroom of an eleven-year-old girl be objectively a “mess”? To a pair of exhausted, exasperated working parents the answer is obvious. But when the girl in question notes that “mess” is a value claim and thus is not a matter of fact but an opinion, the point must be grudgingly conceded -- though allowance may still be withheld.

Pride in the growing ability of your child to articulate the difference between fact and opinion is tempered by the realization that it’s being turned against you, and that it will soon be deployed in disagreements inevitably more fraught than whether the dirty socks and Taylor Swift t-shirt need to be picked up right now. That my daughter has learned this skill in school on one level validates our decision to enroll her where we did, though on another it suggests continued vigilance is warranted: The Common Core curriculum, under fire from numerous quarters for a number of reasons, is now also getting the attention of moral philosophers who say it “embeds a misleading distinction between fact and opinion.” From Justin P. McBrayer at The Stone blog of The New York Times:

[O]ur public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

The inconsistency in this curriculum is obvious. For example, at the outset of the school year, my [second-grade] son brought home a list of student rights and responsibilities. Had he already read the lesson on fact vs. opinion, he might have noted that the supposed rights of other students were based on no more than opinions. According to the school’s curriculum, it certainly wasn’t true that his classmates deserved to be treated a particular way — that would make it a fact. Similarly, it wasn’t really true that he had any responsibilities — that would be to make a value claim a truth.

McBrayer says he’d realized many of his college students already don’t believe in moral facts, and that conversations with other philosophy professors suggest “the overwhelming majority of college freshmen … view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” The implications are obvious and relevant to the recent discussion here concerning curricula at Catholic universities. Concerns about moral relativism in academia are established, though, and it’s too soon to know how anything specifically inculcated by Common Core will have an effect. College students were cheating, for example, long before Common Core; so were corporate executives; so were spouses. But it bears watching, of course, given that millions of students in more than forty states are being educated according to the standards -- which themselves might have arisen out of the academic environment McBrayer describes.

Plus, given the pace of technological development, it might one day be not just human beings that need moral compassing.

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