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What Do We Care About When We Care About Catholic Identity?

From 2010-2013 I taught at Mount St. Mary's University, now the center of a massive controversy prompted by the actions of its new president, Simon Newman, an MBA-possessing former businessman who, since taking over his current position, has:

  • Abruptly cut off a retirement benefit that had been promised for years to the university's long-time faculty and -- more importantly -- hourly staff;
  • Made dismissive statements about the value of liberal study, and pushed the university to cut back its liberal arts requirements;
  • Abruptly dismissed from his administrative position Joshua Hochschild, then dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a well-respected professor who had sought to strengthen liberal study and Catholic identity at the Mount, and had corrected the president's rhetoric and resisted some of his calls for change;
  • Encouraged faculty to think of struggling students as animals who needed to be executed, rather than human persons who needed their help;
  • Created a plan to dismiss 20-25 freshmen -- about 5% of a typical entering class at the Mount -- in order to improve the university's self-reported retention statistics;
  • Devised to this end a survey in which students would describe the extent to which e.g. they felt depressed, unliked, and financially unstable during the early weeks of the semester, intending to pitch this survey to students as a tool for self-understanding but then use it to identify those unlikely to succeed, accepting as "collateral damage" those it might mistakenly sweep up;
  • Dismissed from his administrative position David Rehm, then provost of the university, who challenged the president's judgment;
  • Fired Edward Egan, an untenured professor and advisor to the Mount's student newspaper, apparently for his role in helping that paper break the story of Newman's "retention" efforts; and
  • Fired Thane Naberhaus, a tenured professor, for what was described as a violation of his "duty of loyalty" to Mount St. Mary's.

I am told that Newman has also halted publication by the student newspaper that broke many of these stories and forcefully defended its coverage of them in response to criticism by the administration and board of trustees.

There is more, but this is enough to make my point.

In a sane world, the above would be evidence that the president at Mount St. Mary's, and the board of trustees that enables him (note that this board includes numerous priests and bishops, many of whom have been contacted repeatedly about these matters), are working actively to undermine the Catholic mission of an institution that has been praised by the Cardinal Newman Society for its "earnest commitment to authentic Catholic teaching and students’ personal development."

In such a world, the fact that the Mount is bound by the teachings that "charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1789), and that in the context of the Catholic university "the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected" (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, II.2.iv), would be enough for the Cardinal Newman Society to withdraw this endorsement.

In our world? Well, in our world we get this:

The Cardinal Newman Society, which encourages Catholic colleges to stay close to church teachings, has long been a fan of Mount St. Mary's, and includes it among the institutions it recommends. Many critics of Mount St. Mary's have said that its recent actions are inconsistent with the church's teachings on how people should be treated. The Cardinal Newman Society frequently issues news releases criticizing Catholic colleges for inviting to campus speakers who favor abortion rights or allowing student groups to stage The Vagina Monologues. A spokesman said that the society is doing one of its periodic reviews on which colleges it recommends, but that it would have no comment on Mount St. Mary's.

Our Nation Stands On Ashes

I had planned a simple, short post to call your attention to the Ignatian Solidarity Network and its new group blog, Lift Every Voice: A Lenten Journey toward Racial Justice.  Prof. M. Shawn Copeland is the one contributor I know and in my experience, anything she writes is worth reading. [The initial post is already up, and it's a lovely, powerful and direct meditation by Kaya Oakes.  Sample: "We burned this country into existence, forged it from fire, nourished it with blood. Our nation stands on ashes."]

At least, that was my plan before Princeton University Prof. Imani Perry was pulled over, arrested, patted down, and handcuffed to a table, apparently because of a three-year old parking ticket.  Memories came flooding back when reading her Facebook post and her tweets about the incident—memories of Perry as a soft-spoken, luminescently intelligent teenager, with a deeply rooted, broadly inclusive empathy for others.  The closing words of her statement are characteristic of her humility, sense of perspective and well-banked fire for justice:

I must admit I am somewhat ashamed that my story will get more attention than those of others who have experienced things far worse that merit our response. But I hope against hope that the attention my story has received, and the fact that many people will give me the benefit of the doubt because of my profession, my small build, my attachment to elite universities, and because prominent people will vouch for my integrity and responsibility, can be converted into something more important. I hope that this circle of attention will be part of a deeper reckoning with how and why police officers behave the way they do, especially towards those of us whose flesh is dark.

Living as we do, in this time and place, there's no Lenten repentance that is complete without a conscious, active and repeated turning away from America's original sin of racism.

Lenten Reflections 2016

Through the Lenten season, Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak, a longtime Commonweal contributor, will be providing excerpts of his translations of the writing of St. Augustine. A new reflection will appear every day, at the Lenten Reflections 2016 page. You can get to the page from anywhere on our site; just look for the Lenten Reflections 2016 link in our blue Trending Topics bar at the top of this or any page. And make sure to come each day, now through Easter, for a new reflection.

My Minivan Is My.....?

Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life.  Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass.  “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.  

The answers to that question are complex and manifold.  A small share of an answer may be linked to how many of our parishes and dioceses chose to celebrate the Year itself.  For the most part, it was seen as an opportunity to say a much deserved word of thanks to men and women religious for their service and their lives of witness.  Those words, while sincere, often had the tone of an elegy, an acknowledgment that many religious communities may have reached the point of irreversible decline.

What I generally did not hear from the pulpit or the episcopal chair was any sustained argument aimed at the Catholic laity for why religious life--a life dedicated to the “perfection of charity” through the practice of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience--remains integral to Christian witness in the modern world.   This way of life, rooted in the example of Jesus himself, has been part of the Church from the very beginning.  To use an overworked metaphor, a Church without communities committed to the practice of the counsels is a Church breathing with only one lung.

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Pope Francis & Patriarch Kirill: Diplomatic 'Controversies,' Ecumenical Concerns

The announcement of the two-hour meeting to be held between Pope Francis and Patriarch of Moscow Kirill on Friday in Cuba has brought a lot of excitement—along with some criticism over Francis’s decision to have the meeting at all. There are three basic lines of critique.

First, there’s the political-diplomatic dimension of the meeting. The pope is going to meet the leader of a church that is seen more and more as part of the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and an ideological support for his neo-imperial foreign policy. This criticism stresses the risks to Francis’s credibility, especially if considering the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in supporting Putin’s military actions in Syria and in Ukraine. (Kirill was, however, more cautious about Ukraine, given the potential consequences of the loss of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine for inter-Orthodox relations between Moscow and Kiev).

Second, there’s the internal politics of the Orthodox churches, in light not only of the historical rivalries between Moscow and Constantinople for supremacy within Eastern Orthodoxy, but also of the upcoming Great Synod of the Orthodox Churches on the Greek island of Crete in June. Some see Francis as naïve in regard as to how the patriarchate of Moscow could use the meeting to assert a new supremacy at a critical time for the future of the Orthodox churches. Here too the war in Ukraine factors into the equation.

Third, there’s the ecumenical dimension of the meeting. The Russian Orthodox Church has been far less engaged in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church than the patriarch of Constantinople has; in agreeing to meet with Kirill, Francis is accused of sitting at the table with a leader who has not shown the minimum amount of ecumenical spirit required to start a conversation with the pope.

Francis is a risk-taker, and this meeting certainly involves risks.

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Marco Rubio: In Your Heart You Know He's Trite

For some time now I've found myself resistant to the charms of Marco Rubio. At a certain level of abstraction, of course, I can grasp the possibility of a young Hispanic from an electorally significant state being the great Republican hope. In the age of Trump, Rubio can even offer the appearance of moderation – he strikes a pose of optimism more than anger, backed up by an “inspiring” biography. And after all, didn't he once support a relatively compassionate approach to immigration reform?

In reality, Rubio is a fanatical rightwinger: an unreconstructed neoconservative in foreign policy – his presidential campaign even adopted the shopworn “new American century” line once peddled by Bill Kristol – who pledges to repeal Obamacare while also proposing massive, irresponsible tax cuts three times the size of George W. Bush’s. His rhetoric about Muslims, as Max Fischer put it, includes “dog-whistling of breathtaking and Trump-level proportions.” Which is of a piece with his litany of nasty accusations about President Obama. (For a helpful rundown of Rubio’s hard right agenda, see Damon Linker’s helpful column here.)

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NFL, CTE, SB50

One by one, the gridiron gods of my youth are proving terribly mortal. It is not just that a lot of ex-football players are dying. It is how they are dying. Their brains, to put it non-technically, have been turned to mush by the game they love. What’s taking these heroes out is not the silent artillery of time, but the loud cacophony of shoulder pads, helmets and human bodies.

Every week, it seems, the ranks of pro football players lost to chronic traumatic encephalopathy acquires a new victim.  This Super Bowl week it was Ken “The Snake” Stabler, the former Raiders QB, who died last summer and whose family offered up his brain for study. And many of those still living are sunk in hopeless dementia -- like Willie Wood, the superlative defensive back for the Packers of the Lombardi glory years, who can no longer recall the stellar interception he made in the first Super Bowl fifty years ago. Or anything else, for that matter.

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Last Night's Democratic Debate: A Narrow Win for Sanders

Last night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire was the most sharply-drawn, heated contest of the primary season. With only Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the stage, the debate offered little chance for either candidate to evade pointed criticisms or simply fade into the background for a few minutes. Other candidates weren't there to interrupt the Sanders-Clinton exchanges, change the subject, or plead for more time. It was one of the most absorbing primary debates I can remember watching. Sanders and Clinton deserve credit for this, of course, but so do the moderators: Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd asked tough questions but never drew undue attention to themselves. 

Here's why the debate was a narrow win for Sanders.

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Memento Mori

We took an uncharacteristic winter break: seven days in Florida. New England weather has been mild, but today a winter storm is filling up the path to the house and the garden with wet, heavy snow. The air is white with it. Thirty-six hours ago we sat in eighty degree weather listening to the carillon at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wells, a nature retreat given to the nation by a publishing magnate.  The Spanish  Moss on the live oaks filtered the sun, palm trees and magnolias added to the canopy, and what are for us summer bedding plants bloomed in the borders. A garden Idyll. We went South not primarily for the weather but to stay with friends we had not seen in some time. They, of course, are displaced from here to there, from the North to the South, from the Winter to the perpetual – what? Semi-tropical cycle, one that is kind to old bones and poor circulation.

The farther south and west we travelled along the Gulf coast, the more of us there were, retired people happy in the warmth, the air conditioned cars, golf courses, and planned communities. And as the streets broadened, lined by palm trees and tidy grass verges, the screening walls grew longer, and the security gates became stately, almost elegant. If security is allied to uniformity, then the odd-one-out is by definition not uniform:  the pressure to fit-in is the atmosphere. 

A designed development seems a massive civil engineering effort. In a flat land of high water tables any community that offers water features, golf courses, and a landscape design that gives way to views if not vistas that always hint of water, how are anomalous flooding storms controlled? The uniformity of the houses surrounded by restrictions on plantings (as well as by the restricting size of the lots) makes for a comparative sameness, a leveling uniformity.  How does one achieve distinction within limitation? Identity comes by way of comparison of small things. The landscape alters with the progress of the phases of development; apparent waste land is marked by the uprights of utility connections, green sewer links, and surveyors’ stakes. This land is my land, this land will be their land, if they can raise the money for the lot.

A crystalized moment: a shining, late model sedan, the passenger rear door framing a carefully dressed older woman wearing a cardigan that offset her pearls and her short white hair. Her gaze was distantly eager, clearly a spectator of the world opened to her by her window. I thought the foursome of which she formed one member was on the way to lunch, driving retirement to its leisurely rewards, and intent on joining or recognizing the many other foursomes in similar cars driving to inevitably similar destinations - All of them, us, happy in the end-of-days’ sun.

Memento mori. The irony of Florida is that every retirement community exists in a necessary denial, perhaps aided by the constant summer of the seasons. The December of life requires sun block. The reflecting mirror of the swimming pool had me fleeing from my image repeated again on the pool deck in the persons of so many others. We came home. The snow knows its own.

The Rabbi and the Two Pockets

At Tuesday's town forum, Rabbi Spira-Savit, in asking Clinton a question, quoted what turns out to be a Hasidic story of two notes, one in each pocket: "How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?” His question to Hillary elicited a thoughtful answer about balancing ego and humility. It turns out that the rabbi is part of an interfaith clergy group that decided to engage the candidates about moral and spiritual questions. I wonder what they will ask Trump and Cruz. The Forward has an interview with the rabbi.

And speaking of clergy. At the same town-hall forum, there was a clergyman with a Roman collar (could have been Episcopal, but I don't think so). My guess is he was Catholic. He was not applauding when the cameras panned the audience and when Hillary got into her mantra about discrimination against women, workers, minorities, immigrants, and LGBTs [Correction: when Hillary got into her mantra about Planned Parenthood and abortion], he was shaking his head vigorously. I am guessing it was the last in that litany that he might have been objecting to, but since the Forward hasn't interviewed him, it's hard to know.

Finally, last night's debate was robust and got at some heretofore unvoiced issues. Did you notice what they were? The Times's print headline this morning: "Democrats Clash on Money's Role in Bitter Debate"; same story online "Democrats Duel...." Bitter? Not really. Duel? Yes. And a good one.

 

Capitalism Without Tears

Here is a tiny but very interesting article, especially considering its source.

With capitalism,

...profit margins should naturally mean-revert and oscillate. The existence of fat margins should encourage new competitors and pricing cycles that cause those margins to erode; conversely, at the bottom of the cycle, low margins should lead to weaker players exiting the business and giving stronger companies more breathing space. If that cycle doesn't continue, something strange is taking place.  

We can discuss this. Regarding the articles I recently wrote about the Obamacare Co-Ops, one of the problems here may be that there has now been so much monopolization in capitalism that new players can simply not afford the costs of entering the market to compete. And what this would mean, of course, is that the "free market" is both disappearing and incapable of being recovered by anything other than political (as opposed to economic) activity.

On a related note, the head of Goldman Sachs has been watching Bernie Sanders and he doesn't like what he sees.

For many, this will count as a ringing endorsement.

On the subject of a President Hillary Clinton, Mr. Blankfein is coy.

Hillary and Bernie: Come to Jesus Moments

Thomas Mann, calm and coherent observer of our political system and Senior Fellow at Brookings, has a succinct overview of the 2016 election, namely the major difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. Though he's focused on tonight's debate (February 4) between Clinton and Sanders, he directs attention to the radicalization of the Republican party and the need for an electable Democrat. In service of electability, he does not hesitate to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the two Democrats.

"While he caucuses with them in the Senate, Sanders is not a Democrat. His socialist identity, even of the northern European social democratic variety, comes with considerable baggage in an American setting. His views and positions cluster at the liberal extreme in Congress. His rousing call for a “democratic revolution” has a romantic appeal but can be jarring in a country known for its pragmatism, incrementalism, and skepticism of utopias.

"Clinton bears the scars of decades of political attacks and investigations. Years of experience campaigning and governing at the highest levels of government gives her unmatched visibility but familiarity can breed contempt. Public anxiety generated by economic and social dislocation has been channeled by politicians into an inchoate and angry anti-Washington, anti-establishment sentiment that sits uncomfortably with political dynasties."

J.J. Goldberg of the Forward has a brilliant analysis of the Bernie situation: Why Bernie Needs a Come-to-Jesus Moment. (No, it is not a Jews for Jesus ploy.) Why blacks and working-class white might not rally to his candidacy, though for different reasons.

How Politics Has Divided American Views of Islam

A survey by Pew Research Center has found a disturbingly sharp partisan divide in how Americans view Islam. Some 70 percent of Democrats agreed that the next president should "be careful not to criticize Islam as a whole" when discussing Islamic extremists while only 29 percent of Republicans did. Some two-thirds of the Republicans agreed instead that the next president should "speak bluntly" about Islam even if critical of it as a whole, while just 22 percent of Democrats fell into this group.

That may not surprise you, given the anti-Muslim rhetoric in the Republican presidential primary, which contrasts with a stirring speech President Obama gave today at a Baltimore mosque about Muslims in America. But Pew notes that the last time it looked into this topic, back in 2002, there was little difference in the views of Republicans and Democrats.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric became part of the extreme right's brief against Obama, and the toxin spread through much of the Republican body politic. It's partisan, not ideological: conservative and moderate Democrats largely say (64 percent) that the next president shouldn't criticize Islam as a whole, according to the poll. 

Nationally, 50 percent of those surveyed favor the "not to criticize Islam as a whole" approach -- while 46 percent of Catholics do. Forty percent nationally favor the president who'd "speak bluntly," while 43 percent of Catholics do.

In Baltimore, Obama thanked Muslim Americans for their contributions to America, called for more favorable portrayal of Muslims in entertainment media, and urged that other religious groups extend their concern for religious freedom to protection of Islam. 

"And of course, recently, we’ve heard inexcusable political rhetoric against Muslim Americans that has no place in our country," he said. "No surprise, then, that threats and harassment of Muslim Americans have surged."

 

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In the Borough of Former Churches

Walk down almost any block in the part of Brooklyn where I live and it’s possible to see a building that once had a religious connection now being used for something else. Arches and spires are obvious indications of former houses of worship, but sometimes a Latin inscription above the lintel or a stone cross on the roof are the only evidence of original purpose. One statistic says twenty Brooklyn churches have been converted into condominiums over the past twenty years, but the scope and pace of redevelopment makes that count seem conservative, or outdated. In the few square blocks around me there are at least five such conversions, of varying degrees of luxury. Some years ago an acquaintance of mine, much bolder than I, confronted a resident leaving one of these buildings. “So how does it feel living in a deconsecrated church?” she demanded. No response was forthcoming—an exhibit of self-restraint, I think now.

I’ve officially lived just over half my life in what is still called the borough of churches, and, full disclosure, my wife and I even once looked at an apartment cantilevered into the sanctuary of a stately stone structure on what realtors still call “a lovely tree-lined street.” We’d just had our first child; we liked the neighborhood; we didn’t want to move to New Jersey. If the place was overpriced then, there’s no way to describe it now. And anyway, how would it have felt to live in a deconsecrated church?

Conversion and reuse is nothing new, obviously, and it’s not just churches—the structure too expensive to maintain, the lot too valuable to hold onto—that have come to function as something else. Parish schools and rectories, convents and hospitals: these also succumb to prevailing demographic and economic pressures, or, depending on your outlook, are made monetizable. People with ties to the community once defined by such places will naturally feel different about this than those who are seeking a home in a coveted neighborhood with good schools; both see it differently from the developer who’s swooped in to tap the financial exponentialities.

Novelist Colm Tóibín has said it was the very sense of the Irish having disappeared from these streets that helped him render so indelibly the environs of 2009’s Brooklyn (the film version of which was released last year)—that and having made himself a regular at a nearby church's 9 a.m. Sunday Mass. Just over a century ago the immediate neighborhood held the largest single concentration of Italians in the country, but by 1998, in the phrasing of the official history of the local parish, “many had left the railroad apartments of South Brooklyn for the lawns and pitched roofs in Long Island, Staten Island, [and] New Jersey.”

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Augustine in Lent Again

As I've done before, I'll be sending during Lent translated excerpts from St. Augustine, most of them from his sermons. Last year I sent a note explaining how I came to do this and providing a very short introduction to Augustine the Preacher, which you can find here.

Say a prayer, please. I leave this evening for a Vatican-sponsored seminar on how to increase opportunities and institutions for greater co-responsibility in the Church, a meeting designed to help meet the reform-program of Pope Francis. Oremus.

Bibliophilia... and Phobia

I’m staring at an enticing and intimidating pile of packages on the floor of my study. It’s enticing because those packages contain the sixteen novels that are finalists for an annual fiction contest called The Tournament of Books. It’s intimidating because I have to read those novels – all sixteen of them -- in the next six weeks. That’s the deadline for a ToB discussion I’m joining on Connecticut Public Radio’s Colin McEnroe Show.

I did the show last year (you can listen here), and it was both fun and productive. Inevitably in reading a basket of novels, you encounter writers you haven’t read before, and if you really like one, you gratefully begin that strange, charmed, one-way relationship with a writer whose fiction you fall for: this kindred spirit you know only through his or her words.

I love books; they’re both my profession and my passion. Over the years I’ve written two of them and bought thousands. You know the kind of house where every scrap of wall space hosts a bookshelf? That’s our house. But too much of a good thing can become, well, too much, even for the booklover; and every now and then I feel overwhelmed, not merely by the number of books I have to read, but by the number of books, period. At these moments I’m afflicted by an acute form of bibliophobia.

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Furies on the Loose

Phew! Iowa over. On to New Hampshire. The New York Times's opinionized front-page newsish story has this: "Fury Shakes the Iowa Caucus."

All those Iowans at the celebratory campaign events looked pretty cheerful to me. Is that enthusiasim being called "Fury."

In his "virtual tie" speech, Bernie Sanders extended his critique of Establishment econnomics and politics to include the Media. Right on Bernie! 

The more this election is hyped and "furyiezed" by the media—well, the more money the media will make. Readers and viewers, however you get your news, get something resembling Reality TV.

Political junkies like me are grateful for the coverage (so many debates), but how will this turn out, when the furies have to be put back into their concrete box?

Our Theological Books Issue

Our Theological Books issue is now live. You can read Terrence W. Tilley on Luke Timothy Johnson's The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art; Maria Bowler on The Good Book, which features thirty-four writers writing about "biblical texts ranging from the whole of the Psalms to a single parable"; Steven Englund on Paul Misner's Catholic Labor Movements in Europe; and Tara Isabella Burton on the "moments of aching spirtuality" to be found in the travel writing of Bruce Chatwin. And more -- which you can find in the full table of contents

Obamacare in Flames - Part Three - The Plague on All Our Houses

The Attacks on both Obamacare in particular and our healthcare system in general are fragmented and hard to talk about in a very systematic manner. People have specific things that they think are great and that they think are terrible. They focus on these to criticize or glorify the whole. I find this infuriating. To fix things, we have to know exactly how things work, and what and what doesn't work well. My response, then, will be broken into parts which I hope will make sense when you put them all together.

The questions are whether Obamacare has been worth it, can it survive, should it be replaced, and what should replace it.  To answer these questions, I think we have to go back to some basic concepts. Hold on. It's going to get ugly.

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The Hillary/Bernie Imaginaries

There is more to elections than the candidate's policies and positions. Nodding off during the last Democratic debate, I had this imaginary: Hillary reminds people of their mothers; if they love/like their mothers, she'll do okay. Bernie reminds people of their grandfathers; and he'll do well with those who admire their grandfathers. 

Another piece of imaginary: why do polls show younger people going for Bernie and older people going for Hillary (this may be giving polls more credence than they deserve).

Peggy Noonan in the WSJ ((1/30/16) speculates that young people have gone through a terrifying economic upheaval (2008 and all that), and they want change; they are not fans of Wall Street, free markets, etc., low taxes and a good business environment. On the other hand, older voters have seen good times come and go and aren't so keen on change that goes by the name of socialism (even democratic socialism). She may be onto something there. Another element in this calculus could be that older voters really did have to cope with change in the 1960s and '70s (Vietnam, Civil Rights, Women's Movement, demonstrations, riots, etc.), and may not be big fans of the kind of change they see Bernie Sanders proposing, even if they sound like good ideas.