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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.)

Going, Going, Not Quite Gone

With summer approaching, a note on three pastimes that were staples of my youth – time-capsule American pleasures, one still thriving even as the other two sink into the mists of time.  

I was aimed in this nostalgic direction by a totally delightful article by the incomparable Dan Barry, in the New York Times ten days ago, titled “The Lost Art of Duckpin Bowling.” In part a profile of Amy Bisson Sykes, the world’s top female duckpin bowler, it’s also a funny and nostalgic look at a vanishing world.

Having spent much of my life in Connecticut, I was unaware what a local phenomenon the sport of duckpin bowling is (by the way, if you chortle at the idea of duckpin bowling as a sport, please take a look at Amy Sykes’ strapping physique). Its origins trace to the 1890s, in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and Barry’s article reaches back into duckpin lore, retrieving tales of the nimble-footed “pin boys,” who cleared away fallen pins and set new ones, and the local tinkerer whose invention, the automatic pinsetter, ultimately put them out of business. Live by technology, die by technology: since those machines are no longer produced for duckpin bowling, no new lanes can be built -- and the closing of an alley brings other owners in like a swarm of vultures, Barry explains, to scavenge parts.

So duckpin bowling is dying out: from a peak of over 450 alleys a half century ago, the nation is down to just 41. One of them, Ducks on the Avenue, is right here in my own neighborhood in Hartford. It’s a windowless basement room, next to the CVS, where we have twice held our daughter’s birthday party (bad pizza, funny hats, beer for the grownups), and from whose open door arises the signature explosive clonk and clatter of falling duckpins, taking me back to similar parties of my own half a century ago, at Family Bowl in Waterford, CT. It’s a sound that to me will forever mean childhood.

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How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist - Paul Ryan Edition

Donald Trump has been making racist statements for decades, but only in recent weeks has he become the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican party. Now when Trump makes racist statements, every Republican politican in the country gets asked for their own thoughts about it. Fortunately for them, Speaker Paul Ryan stepped up this week and gave an example worth emulating for how to handle what could be a regular occurence in the coming months.

1 - At a Tuesday press conference Ryan said plainly and unequivocally, "I am not going to defend these kind of comments because they are indefensible. Claiming a person can’t do their job because of their race is sort of like the textbook definition of a racist comment."

2 - When asked on Fox News if he was calling Trump a racist, Ryan replied, "No, I’m not. I’m saying his comment was. I don’t know what’s in his heart. I can’t speak to that whatsoever. What I’m saying is to suggest that a person’s race disqualifies them to do their job is textbook. That’s what I’m saying."

3 - Then Ryan went on Good Morning America Friday morning and repeated his position:

"I have [spoken to Trump] and explained exactly what I thought about that comment. I said it publicly and I said it privately.

"This is something that needs to be condemned. That comment is beyond the pale. That's not political correctness -- suggesting someone can't do their job because of their race or ethnicity, that's not a politically incorrect thing to do. That's just a wrong thing to say, and I hope he gets that."

Notice how Speaker Ryan sticks to what New York cultural commentator Jay Smooth labeled the "What They Did" conversation in his classic 2008 video, "How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist" and skillfully avoids getting drawn into the "What The Are" conversation:

"The 'What They Did' conversation focuses strictly on the person's words and actions, and explaining why what they did and what they said was unacceptable. This is also known as the 'That Thing You Said Was Racist' conversation, and that's the conversation you want to have."

There's another conversation to be had about whether, why and how to support a candidate who keeps doing racist things.  (See Megan McArdle and Jonathan Chait's recent columns for two thoughtful and differing viewpoints on that topic.) But for now let's give credit to Speaker Ryan where credit is due, for his forthright and repeated denunciation of Trump's racist behavior.

Unashamedly Black, Unapologetically Muslim, Unmistakably American

Better and better prepared writers than I have written beautifully and powerfully about Muhammad Ali in the days since his death.  Among them are:

Jeet Heer in The New Republic, "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Victory Came When He Didn't Fight":

During his rich and complicated life, Muhammad Ali did many things good and bad. But the finest thing he ever did was standing, in the face of fierce public condemnation, against a foolish and criminal war. RIP.

Kara Brown on Jezebel, "If You Don't See Blackness, You Didn't See Muhammad Ali":

There is no deep and true respect for Muhammad Ali that does not also come with a deep and true respect for his blackness. And to love Muhammad Ali, you must also love his love for his people. Those who attempt to draw attention away from Ali’s blackness—whether deliberately, carelessly, or by delicate omission—do so because they either cannot or choose not to love black people. They can’t understand that Ali’s blackness was integral to what made him great. A white Ali would not have been possible, nor would he have meant nearly as much to the world.

Charles Pierce in Sports Illustrated, "The Essential American":

In 1849, in a letter to his publisher, Herman Melville made the point that, “The Declaration Of Independence makes a difference.” He meant that it changed how people should think about themselves, and how they should express themselves. He was talking about the contradiction in the nation’s birth, and he meant that the measure of an American must be how willing he is in his public life to call Jefferson’s great bluff. I am created equal? I have certain unalienable rights? OK, watch me exercise them to their fullest. Or is your country a lie? Raise or call?

That was the implicit message of Muhammad Ali’s life. He was a great American athlete. He was an essential American. He was a powerful pivot in American history. He was such a better American citizen than were the people who denigrated him for his brashness, who spat on his religion, who called him a coward because he wouldn’t be an accessory to mindless slaughter, and who hounded him out of his profession at the height of his powers and influence. They were the American government. He was America, the great and self-evident contradiction of a nation, and that, as Melville warned us, makes all the difference.

Consider this an open thread to reflect on Ali's life and times...and our own. #GOAT #RIP

Darwin's Team

Sunday night I watched Game 2 of the NBA finals, in which the Golden State Warriors crushed LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers by thirty points. The Warriors are led by MVP guard Steph Curry and his sure-shootin’ sidekick, Klay Thompson. This backcourt Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid shot their way through a season of prolific scoring, breaking records right and left. Winning their first 24 games (a record) and 54 straight home games over the past two seasons (another record), the team this year managed to notch a record 73 victories while losing only nine games, eclipsing the mark set in 1995-96 by the Chicago Bulls and their incandescent hero, Michael Jordan.

The records Golden State broke this year are the very definition of dominance. And they did it with a thrills-and-frills style, centered on Steph Curry’s virtuoso game, that frequently inspired awe. You can see a sampling of Curry’s impossible wizardry here. He is the kind of player whose feats of shooting and ball handling leave fans agog.

And yet I’m hesitant to embrace the team... so much so, in fact, that for the first time ever – strange feeling! -- I’m rooting for LeBron. Partly it’s an instinctive preference for the underdog. Partly it’s a grudging reaction to the smirk that Curry wears on his face (not his fault, I know, he’s just enjoying himself; but I guess I prefer intensity as an athlete’s default expression). Partly it’s the team’s status as the project of a group of Silicon Valley venture-capitalist investors, gazillionaires who pride themselves on taking a hyper-corporate approach to the team’s success (you can read about their approach in a terrific Times Magazine article here.)

But mostly my grudging response concerns the core feature of the Warrior’s genius. Their success on the court reflects an extreme reliance on three-point shooting – a long-distance bombardment the likes of which the pro game has never seen. To understand the extent of it, look at Curry’s numbers. Three years ago he set an all-time NBA record by making 272 three-point shots. Last year he broke it by making 286. This year he broke it again... making 402! An article from the Times’ statistics-based column, “The Upshot,” reveals graphically how Curry’s use of – and success with – the three-point shot is literally off the charts.

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A Jobless Future?

People who warn about a future of "technological unemployment," in which most human labor has been replaced by machines, are often described as if they were Chicken Little, frantically predicting what others have frantically—and falsely—predicted for at least a couple of centuries. What if the more pertinent folktale was the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf? Such predictions have been false so many times before that we have been lulled into supposing they will always be false. What if one day, when we have almost ceased to believe in wolves, one finally arrives?

Of course, in the case of mass technological unemployment, the arrival is not likely to be sudden. It could be that we are already seeing the first signs of it. That is the possibility that Eduardo Porter considers in his latest column for the New York Times. Porter references the work of Wassily Leontief, one of the few economists of his time who was seriously concerned about the obselescence of labor. Leontief responded to those who dismissed this concern by reminding them of what had already happened to another species that once played a major role in the economy: the horse. Porter writes:

Horses hung around in the labor force for quite some time after they were first challenged by “modern” communications technologies like the telegraph and the railroad, hauling stuff and people around farms and cities. But when the internal combustion engine came along, horses—as a critical component of the world economy—were history.

Cutting horses’ oat rations might have delayed their replacement by tractors, but it wouldn’t have stopped it. All that was left to do, for those who cared for 20 million newly unemployed horses, was to put them out to pasture.

In 1915 there were about twenty million horses in the United States. By 1959 there were only four and a half million.

At the time, most economists dismissed Leontief's argument, and it isn't hard to see why. Human laborers can be retrained to do all kinds of jobs. Horses can do only a few kinds of physical work: they can pull and they can carry—that's about it. But the force of the analogy doesn't depend on the very limited similarity between human labor and horsepower. It depends on the similarity between the disruptive force of the internal combustion engine and that of machine learning. Because of the engine, at a certain point machines could do more efficiently almost everything horses had done. Today, many economists who have reflected on the potential of machine learning worry that robots will one day be able to do most jobs that human beings do now, including many white-collar jobs that have long been considered immune to automation.

Why should economists worry about this? Whatever our feelings about horses, do we really regret the advent of tractors and automobiles? Didn't life become much better when work horses were put to pasture?

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Explain Ireland

The Second in our series: "What's happening in the Old Country?"

As I explain here, "Take That Max Weber: Learning About Ireland from a German Novelist," we are about to go off on a trip to Ireland. We have never been. Among many books, our cram course included Irish Journal by Heinrich BÖLL, a delightful and brief account of visits he made in the early '50s.

But German novelists (or sociologists) don't know everything. You all must know something too. What to make of the Irish?


"God, Country, Notre Dame," Take Three; Or, Some Thoughts about Colleges and the Common Good

It’s alumni weekend at Notre Dame. I’m not an alum, but I’m on campus for a meeting of the Catholic Social Teaching (or Thought or Traditions) Research and Learning Initiative, which involves faculty from a dozen or so Catholic colleges and universities across the country, from coast to coast. We’re here on a “writing retreat” to push some of our projects along. One project is a rubric to assess student appropriation of CST, another an oral history on student understanding of CST at various institutions, another an investigation of obstacles and opportunities for the realization of CST principles in institutional infrastructures, policies, and practices: more concretely, such matters as employment policies, the use of adjunct and other contingent faculty, responses to unionization efforts, board composition and education, and strategic planning priorities.

The intersection of our meeting with the alumni reunion has proven fortuitous. For example, I shared a cab from the airport with an alumna from the class of 1976, which includes the first cohort of undergraduate women at Notre Dame. This alumna also happens to be the CEO of a nonprofit lender or “enterprise fund” that seeks to help small, emerging businesses unable to secure normal bank financing. In other words—in CST terms, drawn from John Paul II and reiterated by Francis—her work cuts against an economy of exclusion. It says no, though in an imaginatively positive way, to “the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” She joined us for discussion on Friday.

With so many alums about, I’ve also found myself thinking about the intersection of “God, Country, Notre Dame,” words inscribed in stone on the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Not being a Notre Dame alum—and having grown up blocks from Villanova—these words have struck me, on earlier visits to Notre Dame, as something of an unholy trinity: way too rah-rah for my tastes; tainted by football fandom and an untoward assurance of divine favor. (Not only did I grow up blocks from Villanova, but my own fandom for Villanova basketball sometimes compromises my “epistemic integrity,” as the philosopher Simon Keller argues that loyalty often will do….)

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From the current issue of n+1, George Blaustein on Antonin Scalia and American Religion:

The Supreme Court is our Holy See. The court promises stability, tradition, and ancient-sounding Latin rituals. In costumes of somber glory, it speaks ex cathedra on the meaning of the Constitution, and for some reason we believe it has the authority to do so. Marbury v. Madison is our First Vatican Council. Judicial review resembles papal infallibility, and is, in the end, as fragile as papal infallibility (although we rarely reflect on that fragility). The nomination of a Supreme Court justice is the closest thing the United States has to the election of a pope: from an extremely narrow pool of judicial cardinals and insiders comes a new statesman in robes. He (usually he) is presented to the public in the Rose Garden, America’s balcony of St. Peter’s, ready to assume a lifetime position. His face will be new to most of the millions who are now his flock, but his every past action and utterance will be combed for clues to our future.

Over at Dissent, Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal explain what the Bernie Sanders campaign owes to the work of the political economist Karl Polanyi:

Sanders’s particular notion of a political revolution—in which people use democracy to change the rules governing our national political economy—is very Polanyian. Polanyi’s socialism has a certain modern appeal when the more traditionally Marxist idea of having the state seize the means of production has been abandoned even by most who identify as socialists. Instead, Polanyi’s relevance for today lies in his arguments that markets need to be subjected to democratic control, that human beings resist being transformed fully into commodities, and a fully realized market society is both impossible, undesirable, and at odds with genuine liberty and freedom.

In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, writing about bitcoin, begins by asking, "What is money?":

Consider the UK’s most common paper money, the English five or ten or twenty quid note. On one side we have a famous dead person: Elizabeth Fry or Charles Darwin or Adam Smith, depending on whether it’s a five or ten or twenty. On the other we have a picture of the queen, and just above that the words ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of’, and then the value of the note, and the signature of the cashier of the Bank of England.

It’s worth thinking about that promise to ‘pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds’. When we parse it, it’s not clear what it means. Ten pounds of what? We’ve already got ten pounds. That’s exactly what we’re holding in our hand. It doesn’t mean, pay the bearer on demand ten pounds’ worth of gold: the link between currency and gold was ended in 1971, and anyway, Gordon Brown sold off the Bank of England’s gold reserves in the 1990s.

The fact is, there’s no answer to the question, ten pounds of what? The ten pound note is worth what it claims it is because the state, in the form of the Bank of England, says so, and we choose to believe it.

The whole long article is worth reading, especially the part about Yap, a remote group of islands in Micronesia where the people use large stones called fei as money. The fei are made out of limestone on a neigboring island and brought back to Yap by boat.

It has sometimes happened to the Yapese that their boats are hit by stormy weather on the way back from Palau, and to save their own lives, the men have to chuck the big stones overboard. But when they get back to Palau they report what happened, and everyone accepts it, and the ownership of the stone is assigned to whoever quarried it, and the stone can still be used as a valid form of money because ownership can be exchanged even though the actual stone is five miles down at the bottom of the Pacific.

Explain Poland

Way down below in a discussion of Putin, Ukraine, Russia, and authoritarianism, one of our regulars Stanley Kopacz asks what's going on in Poland. Is Poland authoritarian or is the conservative party now in power turning to authoritarian methods. Dan Bilefsky at the NYTimes (June 2, 2016) reports a critical decision by the EU on the issue of an independent judiciary:

"The European Union’s executive branch chastised Poland on Wednesday after determining that it had failed to uphold the rule of law, a rare intervention that reflected increasing alarm in the West about the government’s commitment to democratic norms."

Any Poland watchers here who can weigh in on the question of Poland and authoritarian issues?