Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
By this author
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condominiums over the past twenty years, but the scope and pace of redevelopment makes that count seem conservative, or outdated.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.”
The acknowledgments page may seem an odd starting point for assessing a novel, but in the case of Thomas Mallon’s Finale, set during Ronald Reagan’s second term as president, it is a useful place to begin.
On the night of September 11, 2001, I got a phone call from a relative who’d seen IRA bombings in London, which she recounted in talking to me about what had happened in New York and Washington earlier that day. Not that these were comparable, she said, but terrorism was an unfortunate reality and that people in places likely to be targeted should be watchful, not scared. I agreed in principle but, with smoke hanging over my neighborhood and rumors still rampant, fear was tough to put aside.
President Obama’s response to Americans’ worry over terrorism—which by some reports is higher now than it has been since the weeks following 9/11—is portrayed on the right as singularly out of touch and insensitive, and even among some supporters as something less than adequate. The issue is getting specific attention in the run-up to his State of the Union address tonight (the last SOTU of his presidency), with some wondering whether he will use the occasion to challenge notions of his perceived indifference to anxieties and concerns over terrorism. But if he does, how should he do it?
The New York Times today explains the difficulty a president faces in appealing to reason, noting what Obama most likely won’t say: that “Americans are more likely to die in a car crash, drown in a bathtub or be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist” and that the “Islamic State does not pose an existential threat to the United States.” And there is no way he could say that “a certain number of relatively low-level terrorist attacks may be inevitable” and that Americans may have to adapt to it, as Israelis have, or as my relative said that night in 2001, Londoners had.
It would be good, though, if the president was able to say these things, and more.
The trouble with justified optimism is that it’s sometimes accompanied by the foolish kind. Many acknowledge the accomplishments of the Paris climate summit in December—getting close to 200 hundred nations to agree on a basic if nonbinding framework for combatting climate change is no small feat—but also note the significant challenges that remain. Yet with all the necessary reminders and caveats come excited pronouncements on the unnamed innovations that will save the planet from ourselves, and expressions of faith in their inevitability.
You can hear it in the statement of Secretary of State John Kerry after the close of the summit: “It won’t be governments that actually make the decision” about how to tackle climate change, he said—“It will be the genius of the American spirit. It will be business unleashed.” You can hear it in the words of Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, whose city increasingly finds itself endangered by rising sea levels:
“I believe in human innovation,” he said. “If, thirty or forty years ago, I’d told you that you were going to be able to communicate with your friends around the world by looking at your watch or with an iPad or an iPhone, you would think I was out of my mind.” Thirty or forty years from now, he said, “We’re going to have innovative solutions to fight back against sea-level rise that we cannot even imagine today.”
Of course, belief in American ingenuity is as old as belief in American exceptionalism, if not the same thing. But when it comes to climate change, waiting for innovation to come to the rescue amounts to a kind of complacency, the exceptionally American kind that arises from abiding belief in the beneficence of the market.
An essay from a nun seeking forgiveness from a former student, a series of pieces on seminary training and sexual formation, and an in-depth critical examination of William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: these were some of the stories you helped make the most read on the Commonweal website in 2015. Below, the complete list of our ten most read stories of the year.
Inside the Seminary (Paul Blaschko)
Armed with my Ferrante (Elena) and my Levi (Carlo) and various guides and phrasebooks, I had plenty of Italy-specific reading to enjoy while visiting the southern region of Puglia last summer. Instead I spent most of the time with the biography of a singer-songwriter from Winter Haven, Florida, who died of a drug overdose when I was eight years old.
I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.
Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.
We’ve just posted our latest issue to the website. Among the highlights: J. Peter Nixon on the state of Obamacare, two years in; Cathleen Kaveny on the right to life vs.
If the prospect of your annual encounter with Dickens, O’Henry, or Jean Shepherd isn't providing the usual anticipatory joy this Christmas season, consider Richard Yates. True, spending time with the author of Revolutionary Road and other generally gloomy tales of domestic discord might seem counterintuitive. Even fans bemoan his projected self-hatred, with novelist Richard Russo (in the introduction to The Collected Stories) allowing that there “may be some truth to the charge” by critics that Yates revels “in the failures his characters must endure.”
Yet I’d submit there’s something to be gained, even or especially at this time of year, from reading two Yates stories in particular. One is “Fun with a Stranger.” It will probably resonate with anybody who can recall what it was like to be a child stuck in a classroom at this time of year. I actually hadn’t thought about “Fun with a Stranger” for a while, until my daughter recently complained that her seventh-grade class would not be having a Christmas party. So I told her an abridged version of Yates’s story, about a class of third-graders under the tutelage of the “strict and humorless” Miss Snell, a woman of sixty or so who “seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust.” She’s a recognizable type—“preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming... and, worst of all, coming to school without ‘proper supplies.’” The children fear and dislike her, yet “they could not hate her, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own.... [they had] a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her.”
The story is driven by the teacher's promise of a classroom celebration on the last day before Christmas vacation, with a possible surprise in the bargain.
Something I’ve never quite been able to figure out about the powerful individual financial interests behind charter schools is just why those backers are so keen on charters and, correspondingly, so supportive of massive cuts in the funding of public education. One theory is that they stand to profit from the adoption, purchase, and licensing by charter schools of various educational products and services in which they have a stake. And yet that doesn’t seem to fully explain the fervor they exhibit for their cause; something is missing from the equation, no matter the stated desire to address (contestable) claims about an educational system in “crisis.”
Evidently, it’s also a mystery to Michael Massing. Why, the former executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review asks in The New York Review of Books, “have so many billionaires concluded that charter schools are the best way to fix the system?” And, just as importantly: “What are the implications of having such a small group with so little expertise in the field of education exercising such influence in it?” Because he doesn’t have the answer, he proposes a way to work toward one: harness digital technology for a new form of journalism that would “lift the veil off the super-rich and lay bare their power.”
Billionaires, as Massing doesn't need to remind us, are “shaping policy, influencing opinion, promoting favorite causes,” and not just when it comes to education. More than ever before the super-rich are pouring their money into national and state political races, and funding targeted campaigns on discrete issues like regulatory and tax “reform,” climate science, and even foreign diplomacy—all as they manage to shield themselves from scrutiny. Yet journalists, Massing states, “have largely let them get away with it.” His proposal: “[B]roadly based [websites] dedicated to covering the power elite,” at which data on spending by billionaires is collected, collated, and tracked, the information presented in regularly updated tables and charts, and linked to the latest news about which member of the 1 percent is contributing money (and how much) to which cause or politician.
Massing distinguishes his envisioned operation from social-media-enabled grassroots reporting and well-intentioned but undersized watchdogs like Muckety and SourceWatch. He calls for sufficiently funded, nonpartisan organizations with dedicated staff committed not just to breaking the story but also to pursuing it, so that the nexus of wealth and policy is fully exposed as the danger it is to American democracy. There necessarily remain questions about implementation and effectiveness, but for now it represents as good a plan as there is for publicizing information that urgently needs to be publicized.
How urgent is illustrated by one recent example: a New York Times article this week on the influence of billionaires in the 2014 election of Illinois governor Bruce Rauner and the policies he’s pursued since.
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