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The Real Problem with 'Faithful Citizenship'

At their current meeting, the USCCB is considering a new version of their document "Faithful Citizenship." Michael Sean Winters at NCR has a good commentary on the problems with the new draft, especially its reconfiguration of the previous seven headings into four and its continued misleading use of the term “intrinsically evil.” I have commented elsewhere on why discussions of “intrinsic evil” are misleading when dealing with public-policy matters. And the reconfiguration of topic headings is at least questionable. When presenting the previous seven headings in the classroom, I have always suggested that the special attention paid to the poor, to workers, and to creation are justified, since each of these represents a “constituency” that is uniquely vulnerable in a capitalist system. The bishops must lend an extra voice to those who are lacking power and therefore are vulnerable in the current system. Such a justification is consistent with other areas of concern, especially the unborn and the dying. To eliminate these headings is potentially to marginalize the already marginalized.

But the reconfiguration seems to me to indicate the deeper challenge the bishops face: abstraction. The new categories are  inarguably less specific than the old ones. Reading through the draft, one gets the feeling that (perhaps in order to produce a consensus document?) the bishops are trying to offer a presentation that resists partisan co-optation. They insist multiple times that all the issues must be considered together. In a spirit of charity, I won’t speculate about the possibility that such an insistance is itself a partisan move. However, even understood charitably, this retreat to abstraction isn’t the right way to address the existing problem. Do we really need another document that functions as a mini-encyclical or mini-catechesis on general themes in Catholic social teaching?

I wish the bishops could do something else: confront the real problem faithful Catholic citizens face in 2015. They should just say it: At this point, neither national party is acceptable, judged on the full range of teachings. Why can’t the bishops come right out and name this problem specifically? Certainly it would be easy enough for them to say that, at the national level, the Democratic party rejects their basic principles due to their positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, and that the party risks further entrenchment against the principles in the growing support for assisted suicide. But is it really any more controversial for the bishops to call out the Republican party for flagrantly ignoring basic principles of Catholic social teaching—especially on the critical and pressing issues of immigration and the environment? To be sure, these issues present real policy challenges, but to my knowledge, no one among the vast field of contenders for the Republican nomination has come out and forthrightly affirmed the basic principles of the Catholic tradition on immigration and the environment—even if they then might present policies that would be disagreeable. This is a fundamental problem with the typical use of the term "prudential judgment": what is open to prudential judgment are the merits of a particular policy approach. But the principles themselves are authoritative and should be affirmed. It would be refreshing to hear a Republican affirm Catholic principles on immigration, the environment, the right to health care, and the need for an economy that gives special attention to the needs of the poor. Again, there will still be policy differences. But in reality, Republicans reject the principles. Or at least they appear to—and if the appearance is wrong, they should be invited by the bishops to clarify their agreement on the basic principles.

Such a document would be a timely act of courage, which acknowledged the real challenges of the political world that actually exists in America in 2015. Moreover, perhaps such a document could be seen as a real challenge to partisans of both sides to admit the inadequacies of their respective positions. I do understand the instinct, when writing in our context, to write something that will be acceptable to everyone by making language more generic. But by writing a careful document reiterating abstractions, rather than addressing the actual political situation of the current two-party set-up, their words are more likely to continue the underlying partisan maneuvering (as people seek to exploit this or that abstraction for their advantage)…or to be ignored. A bold document that actually called parties to account might be controversial. But I’m pretty sure it would be less likely to be ignored.

Francis Has a Message for the Italian Church

Now well into the post-Synod period, we may yet learn if there will be a “Francis effect” on the U.S. bishops gathering in Baltimore for their annual general assembly (November 16-19). But something is definitely happening in the Italian church, which historically has focused on the special relationship between the pope and the Italian bishops.

Last week, Florence was temporarily the ecclesial capital of Italy, as 2,500 delegates from dioceses and associations convened for a gathering organized by the Italian bishops’ conference and held every ten years. It could prove to be the most important act of reception of Francis’s pontificate by the church in Italy.

This was the fifth ecclesial conference since 1976, and its theme was one chosen when Benedict was still pope: “In Jesus Christ the New Humanism.” But it looked more a “national synod” than the previous pre-cooked events, especially those of 1995 in Palermo and of 2006 in Verona. This is noteworthy because in post-Vatican II Italian Catholicism, the format of ecclesial conferences—tightly controlled by the bishops’ conference and the Vatican—is meant precisely to preclude resemblance to anything like a national synod (and thus to avoid something like German Catholicism’s “Würzburger Synode” of 1971 to 1975, an ecclesial event that dealt with the post-conciliar conversion of Joseph Ratzinger and his position within German theology).

Pope Francis gave a great speech to open the gathering, and in this sense we could say that the 2015 conference looked like the conference of 1985 in Loreto. Then, John Paul II gave clear instructions to the Italian Catholic church and to the bishops: change course from the dialogical ethos of the 1970s (a decade when 70 percent of Italians were dividing their votes evenly between the Christian-Democratic Party and the Communist Party) toward a more assertive Catholic church politically; emphasize the role of the elites and church movements (especially Communion and Liberation) and reject the more conciliar organizations of Italian Catholic laity (such as Catholic Action and Italian Catholic Boys and Girls Scouts); and re-Catholicize Italian culture and politics. Some called it John Paul II’s “Polish model” for the Italian church, and did it ever work. The early 1990s saw the end of the political dominance of Christian-Democratic Party in Italy and opened the door to media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated the political scene for the next twenty years.

But it is my impression that the ecclesial conference of Florence is actually closer to the first conference, of 1976, which took place at the end of a tumultuous decade of reception of Vatican II in Italy. Francis made clear in his remarks how he sees the future of the church: no to the dreams of conservatism and fundamentalism; no to the “surrogates of power and money”; a clear statement on the issue of the pro multis in the Missal (“The Lord shed his blood not for some, or for a few or for many but for all”); a call for a more dialogical and socially engaged Italian church.

But unlike John Paul II, Francis with his speech did not create a new paradigm.

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Translation as Meditation

MFA studies at the Iowa Writing Program took Aviya Kushner from the intimate world of her close reading of Hebrew scriptures to a first time encounter of the bible in English translation. Luckily, the dissonance that she encountered, caused by translations, was met with understanding, nay happy encouragement, by her teacher, Marylynne Robinson. Their discussion led Kushner to write The Grammar of God over a period of many years. She shaped the book into a personal account of meeting an interpretive world that had only fleeting resonance with the Hebrew she knew from childhood. A poet and an exegete, Kushner reads the Hebrew in direct English interlinear translation, and comments on what the bare substitution of English for Hebrew can never reveal. She then lists seriatim, five or more differing English translations of the same text, suggesting how each attempt tries to capture what the Hebrew says.

The philological study is not barren, rather meditative and prayerful. Every reader comes to the scriptures with a history. Kushner, raised as a Chassidic Jew with family lost in the Holocaust, traces the legacy of reading to the German city where her family disappeared – to be shot and buried in unmarked graves. Her account of her upbringing – her father a theoretical mathematician and her mother an expert in Ancient Near Eastern languages – stresses the interpretive traditions of the rabbis. She was born into the dialogue of centuries of commentary. Her brother can recite whole sections of the Torah from memory, and she spent years sometimes as a poetry student of Derek Walcott in Boston, or in other pursuits in Israel, and then in Iowa in the Writing Program, coming to terms with burden of her belief, her history, and her own aspirations as a writer.

This book is an invitation to challenge readings of familiar scriptural texts. All translators betray what they attempt to convey – this is a truism. But Kushner is particularly sensitive in her desire to show how English translators through the centuries struggled to open to believers that ancient text they so revered. Quite an experience – to be brought into the scholar’s understanding of Genesis, Psalms, and the Law. But this is passionate understanding, indeed.

C'est la guerre...

...So President Francois Hollande says this morning. The French must certainly feel under siege: At 11 AM the death toll in Paris is 127 and several hundred people have been wounded according to news stories. Le Monde

Calls for retaliation and revenge will follow. But against whom? And where? Hollande's closing of France's borders is likely the first in many such decisions in Europe, where free passage within the Eurozone is already under siege. Germany will certainly feel the pressure to increase its own security and the hundreds of thousands of refugees there are likely to be the objects.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the carnage in France and earlier in the week in Beirut as well as the Russian passenger jet over the Sinai. They have declared themselves the enemy. What follows?

As forthright as ISIS is and has been in its declaration of war, its sponsors manage to hide and obfuscate their own responsibility. I think of Saudi Arabia here, but others play a double game.

MORE: Obama is on his way to a G-20 meeting in Turkey, which is among the double gamers. Will the G-20 confront Turkish president Erdogan on his allowing ISIS transit into and out of Syria?  MORE 2: Greek officials are reporting that one of the suicide bombers with a Syrian passport passed through their border controls as an asylum seeker. He almost certainly passed through Turkey on his way to Greece. Attention [French pronounciation]! Mr. Erdogan!      MORE 3  The sane and reasonable Paul Pillar warns against the U.S. being "suckered" into being the sole opposition to ISIS in Syria and Iraq. A point made by the Democrats (all of them) in Saturday night's debate. Let's remember that when Hillary Clinton takes office in 2017.

Bad News Good News

The growing economic inequality of American life has been a bugbear of mine for a long time – friends tire of my diatribes on the subject – and I’m glad it has finally made its way into the mainstream political conversation. Now even Republican presidential candidates are talking about it. Of course, they are often talking about it in the way that a card sharp talks about his hand – to obfuscate, that is, and not to elucidate. (The excellent New Yorker writer George Packer writes about the conservative engagement with inequality here.) 

Most change happens incrementally, and the change in the past thirty years in the economic realities that sort out Americans has been gradual enough that it’s been hard to feel unfolding. But the numbers truly are astonishing: 45 million Americans live in poverty; and working and middle-class wages have stagnated even as income and wealth has flowed massively upward, concentrating 54% of total American wealth in the upper 3% percent and yielding in that fertile stratum, like some wacky proliferation of hothouse flora, whole new subspecies of the merely wealthy, the very wealthy, the super wealthy, and the colossally wealthy. These distinctions can seem mystifying to the rest of us. What does it mean to live in a country where the top ten percent have three times the collective wealth of the other 90%? Numbers don’t lie, but they can be hard to parse.

The human toll these changes have taken is registered in startling new research by two economists showing that death rates among less-educated middle-aged white Americans are not decreasing, but rising significantly – and not because of heart disease or cancer or diabetes or the other usual killers, but rather “by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”

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Family Meals

In yesterday’s audience Pope Francis continued his catechesis on the family by talking about family meals where, he said, people share not only food but affection, stories, events. He regards this element of life-together as a reliable thermometer by which to measure the health of relationships: if something’s going wrong, if there’s some hidden wound, this is quickly recognized at the table. “A family that hardly ever eats together, or in which people don’t talk but watch television or a smartphone, is not much of a family.” We are in danger of losing an important Christian symbol. 

"Christianity has a special vocation to life-together, everybody knows that. The Lord Jesus liked to teach at table, and he sometimes represented the Kingdom of God as a festive banquet. He also chose the table to leave the disciples his spiritual testament–he did this at supper–concentrated in the memorial of his Sacrifice, the gift of his Body and his Blood as the food and drink of salvation, which nourish true and lasting love.

"In this perspective we can say that the family is “at home” at Mass, precisely because it brings its own experience of life-together and opens it up to the grace of a universal life-together, of God’s love for the world. Sharing in the Eucharist, the family is purified of the temptation to close in upon itself; strengthened in love and fidelity, it broadens the boundaries of its own fellowship according to the heart of Christ."

It is hard today to recover the value of family meals. “People talk at table; people listen at table.” There’s no egoistic silence–everybody doing his own thing, watching TV or on the computer, and people aren’t talking.

I grew up in a large family, and it was rare when there were fewer than ten people around our dining room table. And, God knows, we talked!

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What Makes These Writers 'Unprofessionals'?

Moby-Dick sold all of two copies in the United States in 1876, and a total of 3,180 by the time it went out of print in 1887, a tally of futility that in the words of James Wood soon “narrowed Herman Melville into bitterness and savage daily obedience as a New York customs inspector.”

Melville--along with custodian/postal worker William Faulkner, insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens, editor-teacher-single-mother Toni Morrison--came to mind when reading the table of contents and introduction to The Unprofessionals, a new anthology of pieces that originally appeared in The Paris Review. Editor Lorin Stein sets up a superfluous distinction between “professional” writers and those who appear in these pages. The latter are apparently unconcerned with commercial riches--as evidenced by their commitment to short forms of fiction, essay, and poetry--unlike the many MFA students whose idea of success is to “leave school with a six-figure advance.” By this criterion, they’re unprofessionals--never mind their awards, their novels and book-length collections, or their masthead positions at well-known literary magazines. I’d wager that Melville--to say nothing of the many lesser-known and anonymous adjuncts, high school teachers, working mothers, service-industry employees, and others who struggle nobly to place work in respectable but low- or non-paying publications--would welcome so modest a designation if it came with the chance to appear alongside fellow scribblers Ben Lerner, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Zadie Smith, to name a few. They could also reasonably wonder whether being published by The Paris Review in the first place makes one a professional .

In any case, don’t blame the writers featured here. The work is almost uniformly excellent.

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How Far Should They Go?

Being a big fan of big government, I don't stop to ask, "Why Do They Want to Do That?"

This morning I stopped and asked when I read: "Public Housing Nationwide May Be Subject to Smoking Ban." The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development has long urged smoking bans in public housing, but it has left rule-making and enforcment to local authorities. Now the Dept. is insisting on a nation-wide ban in all public housing (New York City is cited as the biggest slacker). Is a mandatory no-smoking rule in public housing a wise move on the part of the FEDS? Would the ban be enforced in the nation's finest public house, the White House?

Another example: a school in Palatine, Illinois: a transgendered student plays on a girl's sports team and uses the girl's locker room. The school has provided a curtain behind which the student can change her clothes. The U.S. Dept. of Education argues that the school district "violated anti-discrimination laws when it did not allow a transgender student who identifies as a girl and participates on a girls’ sports team to change and shower in the girls’ locker room without restrictions." The curtain would have to go. Would the FEDS be prudent to hold off and see how local officials manage?  "Illinois District Violated Transgender Student’s Rights."

Experiencing the Fourth Republican Debate

It's hard to say who won tonight's Republican debate: with eight candidates on the main stage, what would that really mean? The chaos was better controlled – slightly – than with the original ten-person configuration we saw in August, but this evening you still could go a rather long time without hearing from a particular candidate. This necessarily gave the debate a somewhat disjointed feel, and made it hard for any single person to triumph.

This was the most substantive Republican debate so far. The questions were more focused, dealing mainly with taxes and the economy. The moderators asked for specifics. And the candidates called each other out, at least a few times, in reality-based ways: for example, Rand Paul noting that China was not part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, despite Donald Trump's insistence otherwise. There was the usual high quotient of craziness over deporting eleven million immigrants, repealing Obamacare, tithing-based tax systems, and other issues, but that craziness at least was explored more thoroughly than in previous debates.

Below are my two takeaways from tonight, each focusing on a pair of candidates:

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Boo Who at Yale

DotCommonweal readers may be forgiven for thinking that I’m obsessed with this topic, but events keep conspiring to focus public attention on the subject of political correctness and campus speech codes. And each time they do, I recall Jean Raber’s post to one of my earlier entries, in which she asked, in effect, What do people mean when they refer to “political correctness?”

What they mean is being amply illustrated on campuses this fall. I’ve already written about the turmoil at Wesleyan University, where students effectively sought to shut down the school paper after it ran an op-ed, written by a 31 year old undergraduate and Iraq War vet, critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently I wrote about various campus dust-ups over the issue of Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation.

Now Halloween is gone, but the Boo! controversy is continuing to convulse Yale University with events politically lurid enough to have been torn from the pages of a Tom Wolfe novel. The flap began when several students at one of Yale’s residential colleges complained to their house masters about what a downer it was to receive guidelines from Yale’s administration concerning Halloween costumes. Yale undergraduates live in dorms known as colleges; the residences have live-in advisors – typically faculty members – who play an in loco parentis function. The masters at Sillliman College are Nikolas and Erika Christakis; he is a physician and sociologist, she is a lecturer in childhood development and education. After fielding the complaint from dorm residents about the Halloween costume guidelines, she sat down and composed a lengthy and conspicuously thoughtful email in which she essentially agreed with them that the University should relax and, well, let Halloween be Halloween. Speaking, she said, as a child development researcher, she asked aloud, “What does this debate about Halloween costumes say about our view of young adults, of their strength and judgment?” and argued for basing costume decisions on individual prudence rather than administrative fiat. “[I]f you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended,” her email counseled. “Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society.” She sent the email to residents of Silliman.

And then all hell broke loose.

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It takes about five decades to get from my son’s school to the El station. If I’m being honest, I usually mumble and I’m often distracted. I’m sure I skip over some beads. I know I don’t match days to mysteries. But I do stick with it. It helps me breathe.

My sainted Irish grandmother taught me countless things, as sainted Irish grandmothers are prone to do. She taught me that I should root for the underdog, and that the world will always break my heart. Most importantly, she taught me how to pray. I’ve come to learn that only a life of prayer can help you make sense of underdogs and broken hearts. (She knew that, of course, but there were some dots I had to connect for myself.)

It probably has something to do with it being November and something to do with my mother now being a grandmother twice over, but I’ve been thinking of Gramzee more than usual lately. While I walk to the station in the morning I usually pause – how can you not? --  on blessedisthefruitofthywomb JESUS. But for the past few days, I’ve lingered an extra beat on nowanatthehourofour DEATH.

The dead don’t breathe, but the living do. Spoken prayers are, among other things, controlled and focused breaths. As I walk my mind wanders, my feet slip, my eyes check for cars and strollers, but my breath stays pretty regular.

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The Questions That Didn't Bark

Friday night's Democratic forum in South Carolina with Rachel Maddow had its moments of facts and fun. Maddow was top notch, so too Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton; Martin O'Malley not so much.

As good as it was, there were a number of conspicuous lacunae in the questions and comments.

One was the answer to Maddow's question about the Dems losing the Southern vote. No one seemed to remember Nixon's Southern Strategy or LBJ's warning that the Dems would lose the Southern vote for more than a generation because of the civil rights legislation he elbowed through the Congress and signed. No Dem hoping for some votes in this territory is going to mention racism--or so I suspect.

Second, there were several questions about the candidates' views on war-making, the draft, the war budget, etc. But no mention of the great turmoil this past Spring over the the Iran nuclear deal and Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu's vociferous and belligerent opposition along with the strenuous lobbying of AIPAC in support of his views. The PM is due to arrive in DC on Monday. What does he want? To apologize? Probably not. Possibly political Washington is gearing up to apologize to him.

Senator Clinton provided an opening welcome in an op ed piece in The Forward. 

The NYTimes gives a round-up of how some members of Congress hope to make amends for favoring the bill and supporting President Obama.

Paul Pillar takes note of the Israeli's government propenstiy to make provocative statements and insults and then retract them, including "Obama is anit-semitic."

Magnificence on Tiptoes

In Italy a few weeks ago I had an afternoon to tour the Tuscan city of Siena. I spent almost all of it in the cathedral. Its overwhelming beauty held me captive.

Architecturally, the Duomo combines Gothic and Romanesque themes, including the hallmark black-and-white striped campanile, a square bell tower with pyramidal roof ornamentation.  That zebra-striping -- black and white are the colors of the coat of arms of Siena -- continues in the cathedral’s gaudy interior with the marble columns of its towering nave arcades. The decorative ornateness of the place is mind-blowingly, excessively, even dizzyingly gorgeous, like a hallucination.

I craned my neck to take in the hexagonal dome with its trompe l’oeuil coffers, painted in blue with golden stars, far far above. Standing here you’re surrounded by a space so opulent, so stocked with artistic riches, you hardly know where to turn first. There is the altarpiece sculpture of St. Paul, by the young Michelangelo (who cast the face of Paul after his own likeness). Donatello’s bronze statue of St. John the Baptist is set in the eponymous cappella located in the left transept. Opposite, in the right transept, I spent half an hour sitting silently in the luminous Chapel of the Madonna del Voto, taking in the sculptures by Bernini and the painting of the Madonna supported by gilded bronze angels against a backdrop of brilliant blue lapis lazuli. 

But the greatest treasure on offer in the cathedral is not overhead, nor surrounding you on all sides, but beneath your feet: 56 etched and inlaid marble panels that make up the cathedral’s floor. Most are kept covered during the year, except for a two-month period every fall. Timing is everything, and I lucked out.

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Poll: 'Francis Effect' Influences U.S. Catholics on Global Warming

A new study done by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities has found that Pope Francis is influencing the conversation about global warming in the United States – especially among Catholics. It says:

In this report we conclude that, over the past six months, Americans –especially Catholic Americans –became more engaged in and concerned about global warming. Furthermore, our findings suggest that the Pope’s teachings about global warming contributed to an increase in public engagement on the issue, and influenced the conversation about global warming in America; we refer to this as The Francis Effect.

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Serious Problems at Catholic University's Business School

There’s something rotten at Catholic University’s business school. When it comes to authentic Catholic social teaching, its approach seems to follow that of Seinfeld’s George Costanza— “do the opposite.”

When Pope Francis is speaking passionately about how this economy kills, excludes, and destroys mother earth, this school is taking large sums of money from some of the most unvirtuous business interests in the US—the Koch brothers and other libertarians—and then taking positions favorable to their donors’ interests. In too many instances, the gospel they proclaim is the liberating power of free markets.

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New Stories, Peter Steinfels in Chicago

There are a lot of new things abuzz at Commonweal. Here's an update.

We've posted our November 13 issue to the website, featuring Paul Elie's essay on a "decisive instant in the gospel of John," and its many artistic renditions, from Caravaggio to Don DeLillo to Bach. Also in the issue: Joseph Sorrentino examines the failures of Mexican policies aimed to deter fleeing Central Americans from migrating north; Marine veteran Brad Hoff reflects on what Syrians won't forget—and what most Westerners never knew—about their homeland; Margaret O'Brien Steinfels reviews Mary Ziegler's history of some ten or so "lost" years in the abortion debate, After Roe; Robert K. Landers reviews biographer Scott Donaldson's The Impossible Craft—a "winning guide" to writing literary biography; and more.

We've gathered our best analysis and commentary on the Synod on the Family into one useful reading list that includes Grant Gallicho’s reports from Vatican City, Robert Mickens’s Letters from Rome, and a video of our September 2015 panel discussion on the synod, featuring Cathleen Kaveny and Margaret Farley. We will be continually updating it with new reflections (like those from Mary Lee Freeman on hopeful shifts in pastoral practice, Catherine Wolff on a "conspiracy" by faithful laity, and Karen Kilby on how the synod changed the way we see church authority), so keep checking back.

And most important: Monday November 9 Peter Steinfels, former Commonweal editor and author of A People Adrift, will be speaking at Loyola University Chicago about Pope Francis, family life, and sexuality after the synod. Get your tickets here (unless you're a student; then you get in free). If you can't make it, you can watch it live here beginning at 5:00pm EST. Tell your friends.


The Question of the Synod’s ‘Reception’

The “synodal process” as defined by Francis has become one of the markers of his pontificate. Until now, the concept of “reception” of the synod was not applied to synods, but mostly reserved for Vatican II and for the ecumenical councils—an ongoing process that is measured in decades and generations, not in months or years. But in fact it’s appropriate to talk about the “reception” of the synod recently concluded, which had something of a conciliar feel: free and honest debates, no scripted talking points, and no pre-cooked final report.

The Synod of Bishops as an institution is just fifty years old, and there is no track record of the reception of synods (the first one was celebrated in 1967), except maybe the Extraordinary Synod of 1985 on the reception of Vatican II. For all the other synods we can talk only of the reception of the apostolic exhortations that followed—documents that were not necessarily the fruit of synodal discussions, and certainly not the fruit of a two-year long synodal process like the one most recently concluded. The reception of synods before Francis was in the hands of an episcopate largely shaped—that is, appointed—by the pope who wrote the exhortation. The situation today is quite different.

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In Search of a 'Civil-Rights Republican'

Those who lived through it may find it hard to believe that Wednesday, November 4, marks just the thirty-fifth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election as president: All the praise, adoration, and incantatory recitation of his name in the time since make it feel a lot longer than three-plus decades. With election season underway, greater public devotions become obligatory, not only but especially when candidates debate against the backdrop of an Air Force One replica in the eponymous presidential library, where Reagan's name was mentioned forty-five times.

With the GOP’s national standard bearer having lost five out of six popular elections after Mitt Romney’s 2012 defeat, the party looked briefly into the mirror and issued a report on how to stop alienating voters it needed to win the White House. The recommendations were commonsensical and have thus been forgotten. Building walls, cutting taxes on the wealthy, demonizing Obama, demonizing Obama voters—these have much more appeal, and besides, Ronald Reagan.

Frustration with the Republicans’ continued inability to lure African American voters—their continued futility all but guaranteed in 2016—has prompted Theodore R. Johnson to offer an eminently reasonable, if less eminently realistic, prescription. Writing in The National Review, he calls for a civil-rights Republican, a national figure “strong on bedrock conservative principles as well as civil-rights protections [who] will win the support of black voters at levels the party hasn’t seen in generations.” I say reasonable, because Johnson premises his call on what the party itself might consider an inconvenient truth: “The stark polarization of the black electorate is a function of the evolution of [Republican and Democratic] stances on civil-rights protections. Period. There is no mystery here.” Republicans, he says, operate according to a fundamental misunderstanding of African Americans and what motivates their voting decisions; Republicans have accepted and perpetuated the “false narrative” that black voters support Democrats because they expect unearned benefits; Republicans “ignore history” when they point to the Constitution as a guarantor of civil rights given the failure of the 14th Amendment to “prevent the ‘separate but equal doctrine’ or statutory Jim Crow.” Johnson states that yes, voter ID laws passed in the aftermath of Shelby v. Holder have made “made voting more difficult for many blacks.” He points out that Republican attempts at outreach are “repeatedly undone by inadvisable strategic communication choices and a basic callousness about the black experience in America.” Not just reasonable, but almost bracing, in the pages of The National Review.

But realistic?

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Palestinian-Israeli Violence

J.J. Goldberg follows Israeli politics closely. In his latest column at the Forward, he examines Prime Minister Netanyahu's claims about Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who has since revised his remarks, originally claimed that the grand mufti gave Hitler the idea for the Holocaust. As Goldberg points out, Netanyahu's revised explanation has not exactly clarified matters. Since "today’s Palestinian leadership continues to revere Husseini and his legacy," the violence now spreading from Jerusalem is due to implacable Palestinian hatred of Israelies. IDF officers in charge of responding and controlling the violence have a different take.

Goldberg reports that "two active-duty IDF generals who are among the army’s top experts on Palestinian affairs spoke out publicly to state that Palestinian violence is driven to a considerable degree by anger at Israeli actions. One of the two went a step further, warning that only a serious Israeli diplomatic re-engagement with the Palestinians will help to quell such violence over the long term." One general specifically cited attacks by settlers against Palestinians as part of the cycle of violence now roiling the country

Read Golberg's story in the Forward before commenting.

Correctness Revisited

Weeks ago I posted a pair of entries, one on campus political correctness and the other on the Confederate-flag question of expunging memorials now viewed as morally benighted. Two current news items bring these topics back to mind. 

The first, explored in a Times article titled “Halloween Costume Correctness on Campus,” takes up the complexity of college trick-or-treating in an era of concern about “cultural appropriation.” Colleges have been informing undergraduates that when it comes to Halloween costumes, “Pocahontas, Caitlyn Jenner and Pancho Villa are no-nos” -- as are geisha girls and samurai warriors and just about any other get-up based on an ethnic, cultural or gender identity. Instead, students are being advised to opt for safe, non-human costumes: a cup of Starbucks coffee, to take one example, or a Crayola crayon.

The term “cultural appropriation,” the article explains, reflects the view “that the melding of cultures is often about which group has the power to take symbols, styles or language from another.” To that end, the University of Michigan posted a webpage advising against “the adoption of other cultural groups’ elements including clothing, symbols, art, music, religion, language, and social behavior,” in order to avoid “belittling the origin culture in a way that trivializes an entire way of life, turning it into an accessory or adopting it for entertainment.” The website suggests that you vet any proposed costume by asking yourself “How accurate and/or respectful is it to the culture/identity” it derives from. That’s a pretty high bar, and arguably a strange standard, to set for a costume extravaganza in which humor, excess, parody and fantasy are the goals. But concern about someone possibly taking offense is paramount on campus these days.

By way of illustrating cultural appropriation, the Times article refers to an imbroglio at the University of Louisville, where the university’s president and his wife hosted a Halloween party for guests dressed in sombreros, colorful ponchos and fake moustaches. A student newspaper called the costumes “racist,” and the University issued an apology. In a similar incident, two students at Clemson University recently complained about “Maximum Mexican  Night,” at which Mexican food was served in the dining halls (and, again, staff wore sombreros and fake moustaches.) The university issued a statement apologizing for the event’s “flattened cultural view of Mexican culture.”

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