Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.
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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.
The movie Spotlight depicts how the Boston Globe in 2002 broke the story that the Boston archdiocese was covering up the abuse of children by scores of priests. Coincidently, one of the abusers portrayed in the film, former priest Ronald Paquin, was just last month released from state custody after serving a criminal sentence for repeatedly raping an altar boy over a three-year-period beginning when the victim was twelve. (Paquin also admitted to molesting fourteen other boys.) Medical specialists determined Paquin no longer met the legal criteria for “sexual dangerousness,” and so the district attorney’s office had to withdraw its bid to keep him in custody.
“The church thinks in centuries,” one character remarks in Spotlight, and in watching it I thought of all the people—if you aren’t one you probably know one—who’ve decided to take the very long view themselves. Mark Ruffalo plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes; in one scene, after learning of the archdiocese’s systematic cover-up, he says he used to like going to Mass as a child, and that he’d always expected to go back someday. “But now…” he says, leaving the obvious unspoken: Never.
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.
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.
Right now we’re featuring two new pieces on the homepage.
Robert Mickens, in his first post-synod Letter from Rome, looks at the importance Pope Francis places on his role not just as Bishop of Rome but as Primate of Italy. There’s a not-to-be-overlooked significance to this, Mickens writes, especially given new and “surprising” episcopal appointments to the major archdioceses of Bologna and Palermo.
Mark Shields, appearing on PBS Newshour Friday night , expressed genuine respect for Paul Ryan’s desire to preserve the time he has with his family should he become, as seems likely, House speaker next week. “Admirably,” Shields said, “he wants to spend time with his children, who are in their formative and teen years.” Sympathies dispensed with, he then made the obvious observation, with a dose of sarcasm for good measure. “Would that he would extend this to all parents. And I’m sure he will, now that he’s about to be speaker.”
Paid family and parental leave, as many know, is something the Republican Party has consistently opposed. When President Obama appealed for family-leave legislation in his 2015 State of the Union address, the GOP either laughed it off with ignorant jokes about “European economies” or made their familiar noises about “over-regulation” and “federal mandates” suffocating American businesses. That line of thinking stretches back pretty far. For illustrative purposes, let’s look only to 1993, when the Family Medical and Leave Act–which mandated twelve weeks leave, unpaid, for illness and a new child–became law under the Clinton administration. “America’s business owners are a resilient bunch, but let there be no doubt, [this legislation] will be the demise of some,” predicted one lawmaker. “And as that occurs, the light of freedom will grow dimmer.” That was Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, whom Ryan is about to replace as speaker. If nothing else, the consistency of the messaging across the decades can be appreciated.
Ryan has not only internalized that messaging, of course, but owing to acknowledged policy prowess has perhaps more than any GOP lawmaker worked to enshrine such miserliness.
Featured at the Washington Post is Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s review of St. Paul, the new book from the “popular and prolific authority on religion,” Karen Armstrong. Armstrong, according to Paul (Baumann),
Our Fall Books issue is live, and right now we’re featuring Marilynne Robinson’s “Awakening,” an essay excerpted from her soon-to-be-published collection of new writing, The Givenness of Things. Robinson writes she has come to realize that, after America’s First and Second Great Awakenings, there followed a third in the latter half of the twentieth century.