Friday, December 18, 2009

Ethnicity in America: A Couple of Songs

In a post last May, I outlined a theory on how the Civil Rights movement was used to defeat ethnicity. Before Civil Rights, “race” described not the color of one’s skin or one’s genetic make-up – not anything merely physical – but culture: Italian, Irish, Polish, Russian, WASP. Civil Rights effectively eliminated all the immigrant ethnicities, collapsing American into Black and an amorphous White, WASP by default. Civil Rights killed off the ethnic neighborhoods.
Consider our new home, the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. Fifty years ago, our older neighbors tell us, our street was Italian: in language, in cuisine, in religion, in culture. Now most of the Italians have fled to the suburbs, where a few pasta dishes and a funny name are all that distinguish them from the WASP culture that they once threatened. I think that’s a loss. I think peculiar culture is healthy, human – and important for preserving the more profound aspects of culture, morality and religion. The ultra-individualism of post-ethnic America leaves little room for tradition, reverence, mystery. And it leaves us isolated, like our old Italian baker around the corner: sometimes his old buddies come in from the suburbs; much of the time he sits alone in his shop, his family’s religion, language, and culture left behind in the days when he had a community.
The death of ethnicity, I submit, hasn’t been good for race relations. Black culture remains different, as it always was: ethnic culture. But that difference, I think, is harder for a homogenous majority-white culture to accept than it was for the ethnics of yesteryear, who were used to difference, who knew how to be uncomfortable with something without thinking it should be eliminated, “assimilated.” But I digress.
Today I would like to address a problem with this ethnic narrative: it threatens to forever pigeonhole people as Portuguese, Italian, or German. I think my point may most clearly be made through two songs that reflect the ethnic background of my wife’s and my families.
My wife’s grandfather is from old Irish Newport, Rhode Island. My wife isn't sure whether it was his parents or his grandparents who were the immigrants, but they certainly lived in old ethnic America, where the cops were all from the neighborhood, and where it was a bit of a scandal when he went after my wife’s Austrian-WASP grandmother.
Grandpa O’Connors is a good-old-fashioned Irish tenor, and at a recent family gathering he got everyone to join him in singing “an Irish lullaby.”
Over in Killarney
Many years ago,
Me Mither sang a song to me
In tones so sweet and low.
Just a simple little ditty,
In her good ould Irish way,
And I'd give the world if she could sing
That song to me this day.
"Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, hush now, don't you cry!
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, Too-ra-loo-ra-li,
Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral, that's an Irish lullaby."
(Recording here.)
Very sweet. Here’s the problem: do you suppose anyone in Ireland ever sang “that’s an Irish lullaby”? Do you suppose they would have sung it in English? At first glance, this would appear to be, not a traditional song brought over from the home country, but a distinctly American glance backwards.
A small amount of research shows that it was written by a certain James Royce Shannon – birth name James Royce, “Shannon” added to make him sound Irish – of Michigan. He wrote it for a show in New York in 1913. Irish? Well, as near as I can tell, he was a Scottish-Rite Freemason – both ethnically and religiously committed to the destruction of Irish Catholicism.
Does that make it a bad song? Of course not. It’s lovely. Perhaps it’s even musically Irish. But this is hardly the survival of old-country traditions, hardly a bulwark of particularity and mysticism. With all due respect to Grandpa, it would seem to appeal to an Irish-ness that is Irish only in sentiment, but pretty well assimilated. An Irish-ness that doesn't remember Ireland.
And the song raises a further problem. Do you suppose back in County Kerry, they thought of themselves as “Irish”? I’m not sure. I’d guess they more often thought of themselves as being from Farranfore, Balleyheigue, or Lixnaw.
Enter another grandfather, this one mine. My family is thoroughly WASP. It’s been amusing for me, living now in New Jersey, with its heavily immigrant past, to try to explain to people that my family isn’t from anywhere – at least not anywhere overseas. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana. One set of my grandpa’s grandparents may (or may not) have come from Germany, and Grandma had a distant ancestor from Switzerland, but that isn’t too prominent in our family’s consciousness.
What’s important to Grandpa is that his parents met at the University of Wisconsin – where Grandpa and Grandma met, as did, incidentally, every one of Grandma and Grandpa's siblings and their spouses, my other grandparents, my step-father’s parents, my mom and dad, and later, my mom and step-father. I grew up an easy bike ride from UW. My grandfather somehow ended up with the copyright on a song you’ll surely never hear, entitled “My Home is in Madison” (“M-A-D-I-S-O-N, where the girls are the fairest the boys are the squarest of any home town I’ve been in”) – and it’s true, that’s our home. When my grandfather was getting ready to face death, he headed back to our “old country,” where his brothers were waiting for him.
My wife laughs that the fight song “On Wisconsin” (“plunge right through that line, run the ball clear down the field, boys, touchdown sure this time!”) along with its sequel, “If you want to be a Badger” (“just come along with me, by the bright shining light of the moon!”) are far more dear to my family, far more often used as bedtime songs and family-gathering rousers, than any “Irish lullaby” in her family. When I’m feeling nostalgic, I go to and click through all the old standards: “Varsity” (“U-rah-rah, Wisconsin! Praise to thee we sing!”), “You’ve Said It All” (“When you’ve said Wis-consin”), and “Songs to Thee, Wisconsin” (“Queen of all the West . . . May thy sons and daughters, in thy jubilee, See the dawn of greater, grander things to be”). When my grandfathers fought in World War II, I’m quite confident these were the songs that reminded them of their true homeland -- not anything about "purple mountain majesties."
I hope I’m not being prejudiced in favor of my family – though it is precisely such prejudice that I’m arguing for – when I say that I think this is about right. Ethnicity doesn’t mean wearing green on St. Patrick’s day, generations since the last person who knew what town in Ireland you came from – any more than my family’s culture is stuck endlessly in Danville, Illinois, or Duluth, Minnesota (the places my great-grandparents came from, before they met in Madison). It doesn’t mean allegiance to a vague nation like “Ireland”: a nation of four great provinces, thirty-two traditional counties, 32,000 square miles, and who knows how many thousands of little hometowns.
Ethnicity means being from somewhere in particular, with traditions, and roots. We don’t stay there forever – though it would do a lot for our culture if we could stay put for a few generations at a time. We should bring our traditions with us. My children, who have so far lived in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul, Minnesota, and who, I very much hope, will spend the rest of their childhoods – indeed, I hope, maybe much of their lives – in Newark, New Jersey, certainly know how to sing “On Wisconsin.” It’s where I’m from, who I am. But I doubt they’ll sing it to their children. They’ll root root root for the home team – Rutgers? Princeton? Seton Hall? – and, I pray, learn to think of themselves as from somewhere, with the traditions not only of our family but of our neighborhood.
An old definition (discussed in my May post) speaks of “A group of persons connected by common descent or origin; a family; a tribe or people; a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock.” Ethnicity means rootedness, knowing who you are and where you’re from, rejoicing in traditions, knowing that you are part of something bigger than yourself. The old immigrant populations give us a point of departure – but it is for our generations to live ethnicity in an American way, to be from Newark, or Madison, or Washington, just as our ancestors were not from Ireland, but Abbeydorney, Knocksnagoshel, or Derrynane, in County Kerry.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Execution of the Beltway Sniper

I suppose this should be a separate post, commenting on part of the last one.

As a committed, faithful Catholic who takes Catholic social thought seriously, and as a professional theologian well-read in the Catholic tradition, I fully approve of the execution of John Allen Muhammad.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is true, states, "If . . . bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good . . . ."

But this is intentionally vague language: what is meant by "the concrete conditions"? Does that phrase not specifically distinguish the problems of a particular time and place as against the more general demands of justice? Thus the conclusion begins, not "always," but "Re vera nostris diebus": Today, in fact . . . .

But the Catechism begins its treatment of capital punishment by stating:

"Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender. [Thus] the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertaiment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty . . . ."

We thus have an odd -- perhaps deliberately odd -- disjunction. On the one hand, the death penalty is unnecessary now because it is not necessary to protect other people. On the other hand, the death penalty is sanctioned by tradition not just, not even primarily, to protect other people, but for the sake of the offender.

And the tradition is full of stories of people converting precisely in the shadow of the gallows. Punishment is medicinal because it manifests the gravity of the crime and allows the criminal to make expiation, to redress the disorder caused by his offense. It is no coincidence, in light of this traditional teaching, endorsed by the Catechism, that the man to whom Jesus says, "Today you will be with me in paradise" is a criminal who "voluntarily accepts" his cross as just "expiation" for his crimes.

In this light, we might say it is the height of self-centeredness and injustice for liberals in our society -- who, along with their culture of death, have lost all conception of justice and virtue -- to try to deny a mass murderer the opportunity to suffer the just penalty of his offense. The true "correction of the offender" is not served by letting someone sit in jail for the rest of his life while society tells him we're afraid to think about the gravity of his crime. Ironically, Dead Man Walking, a film intended to be anti-death penalty, is a beautiful (if awful) depiction of precisely how the death penalty is society's way of expressing love for the criminal. Sean Penn's character, a reasonable depiction of many characters who have fallen to the depths of murderous depravity, is able to convert only in the shadow of the gallows.

I submit that it is a profoundly important aspect of social justice and serious Christian political philosophy that we value the conversion of the sinner over our own fears of getting our hands dirty. The political order exists to make people better, and to help them get to heaven.

I also submit that the key phrase in the John Paul II/Catechism concern about the death penalty might be "legitimate authority." John Paul II lived under the totalitarianism of the Soviets, with its absolute unconcern for the person -- including, certainly, for the "correction"and conversion of criminal offenders -- and then under the regime of liberal Old Europe, with its utter "loss of the sense of sin" (see John Paul's beautiful discussion of this at the end of Chapter Two in Dominum et Vivificantem). In these cases, capital punishment could never be approached as a kind of "redress," "expiation," and "medicine." But I simply assert: Virginia is a profoundly different culture from Soviet Russia.

Finally, I submit that Benedict XVI has intentionally made no mention whatsoever of John Paul's concerns about the death penalty, perhaps in light of a different cultural experience and a recognition that Soviet Russia does not define the modern world. In the 1950's, when these two great men were coming of age, the Soviet jackboots were crushing John Paul's Poland while the genuinely saintly Konrad Adenauer was prime minister of Benedict's West Germany; John Paul only emerged from behind the Iron Curtain when he was already an old man, in 1978, by which time all of Catholic Europe had fallen to secular liberalism. It does make for a different estimation of legitimate authority.

The Beltway Sniper and the Safety of Cities

On Tuesday of this week, John Allen Muhammed, the Beltway sniper, was executed.* I lived through the horror of those three weeks, when thirteen people were shot, ten of them killed, at random, in parking lots, gas stations, and other harmless places around the DC metro area.

Here's an interesting fact: it all happened in the suburbs. (Here's a list.) Okay, one shooting was on Georgia Ave., yards from the Maryland border. But it's interesting: urban folks were not the victims.

Why not? Because the sniper had to hide where no one could see him. There was one shooting very close to where we lived. The sniper sat in a vacant parking lot across a freeway from the Home Depot parking lot where his victim was getting into the car.

Here's where he sat:

View Larger Map

And here's where he shot:

View Larger Map

I really don't think is rocket science: the sniper needed vacant places. He found them in the suburbs; they are much harder to find in the city, and do not exist in truly urban neighborhoods.

We hear much of violent crime in the city, and are made to believe that every city dweller is likely to be the victim of stray bullets. My boss has warned me to lock my car doors and drive through red lights in Newark, since it's so likely that one of those scary black people will tear me from my car. But, I'm sorry folks, those incidents of random violence, though they happen, are extremely rare.

Think about this: South Orange Ave. in Newark (where my boss fears to tread) is about seventy feet across (from store front to store front). My body is (rounding up) maybe two feet across. Thus if I am standing directly perpendicular to a random gun shot flying down the street, my chances are less than one in thirty-five that it will hit any part of my person. That's if I happen to be standing where there is random gun fire. And of course if the gun is not pointed perfectly level, the shot will go over my head or his the ground before it gets me.

On the other hand, I-280 (an alternative route to work) has two lanes of traffic going each way; my car takes up one of those lanes. Thus my chances are 50/50 that an out-of-control car (such as a drunk driver) will hit me. And cars never go over your head, and are at least as deadly as bullets.

And honestly, what happens more often, random gun fire, or drunk drivers? I'm sorry to tell you that random gun fire is exceedingly uncommon, even in Newark.

At our very worst (and we are much improved) Newark had 161 murders among 280,000 residents; in an average year, New Jersey sees 771 traffic fatalities among its 8,700,000. Thus the average Newarker has a 1/1,700 chance of getting murder; the average Jerseyite has a 1/11,000 chance of dying on the freeway. If murders were as random as freeway accidents, you'd be 6.7 times safer living out of the city. But don't you think the randomness makes up for that small proportion? If nothing else, a freeway life is only marginally safer than a city life without freeways.

By the way, our working-class neighborhood of Newark (my family is well below the median income for the state of New Jersey) has a murder rate of about 1/12,000. Which makes you less likely to get killed in a decent neighborhood of Newark then on the freeway. And again, which is more random? Somebody has to point a gun at you to murder you; they only have to be playing with their cell phone or GPS to kill you on the freeway. I'll take my walkable neighborhood and my commute down South Orange Ave.

Perhaps the reason cities seem so much scarier than freeways is just the irony that what is less common sticks out in your mind more. When you hear that somebody's been killed on the freeway, you shrug: happens all the time. When someone gets murdered, it goes on the front page. That doesn't mean it's more common; quite the contrary.

*See the next post for a commentary on the execution of John Allen Muhammad.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Safe Place to Raise Our Children

One of the most compelling arguments against city living, I think, is the argument about protecting our children. A couple neighborhoods ago, we literally watched drug deals out our front window, right next to where our children play. The language was foul. Our immediate neighborhood was relatively safe, but shootings were frequent a few blocks away (anyone unfamiliar with the intense localism of city living would have said the shootings were in our neighborhood).

We live in a much better neighborhood now, but still there is pornographic graffiti all over the park. A very nice, but not very solid, neighbor gave our kids a bunch of comic books that were, ahem, not up to our standards of purity for our children's eyes. They weren't especially bad -- but it wasn't what I want my children to read. And if they get that stuff when they're four, it certainly makes me wonder what they will encounter when they're teenagers.

City life subjects us to all sorts of bad influences. It's no surprise that many people flee to the suburbs and the country, to protect their children.

But a recent discussion highlights the fallacy of that solution. My wife participates in an on-line community of homeschooling Catholic mothers -- diverse in many ways, but all solid Catholic moms, serious about doing what's best for their children. Recently a conversation came up that has come up many times before.

A mom writes in to say, hey, our closest parish is forty-five minutes away, but the priest is terrible; I'm getting to where I really can't subject my children to his bad preaching (or worse). And then they discuss their two or three options. In the many iterations of this conversation, there is typically an okay parish, but it's two hours away, and they're not sure they can make it to Mass every week (let alone every day). And lots of moms write in to say how they deal with similar situations.

We sit in our dense urban community, where we presently have (I do not exaggerate) eight parishes within a one-mile walk of us, and think, what an odd situation. Sometimes we try to think through the options, but end up shrugging our shoulders: it's hard to imagine having so few. At more lucid (or aggressive) moments, we think, if you really care about your children, maybe you shouldn't be putting your family in that situation. A thought, I suppose, parallel to what our peers in the country would say about us, if we complained about drug dealers and inappropriate magazines and graffiti: why don't you just move.

It is very uncommon for a family in the country to be bound there by a job -- jobs usually aren't any closer than parishes. Typically, they have moved to the middle of nowhere because they think it's a healthier environment for their children. But is it?

Perhaps they should live somewhere else. But where? Of course the immediate standard aspiration is, if only we could live in a tiny community where everyone is perfect. We know people who have tried to form such communities, in various situations: a suburban sub-development of only solid Catholics; a small town with one great parish; even, on occasion, attempts at building a farming community.

My first, and most natural, objection to those plans is on grounds of fideism. It is good to have Catholic friends and neighbors, to be sure -- but it's also good to have a soccer team, music teachers, theater, bookstores. It's good to have a decent hospital nearby (and I know people in these situations who have had major hospital problems, because their little utopia can't provide its own health care).

Dare I say it? It's even good just to have pagan neighbors, both to witness to and to learn from. In my experience, faith means more especially for children when they can see the depravity of their neighbors, the weakness of secular arguments, and even the frustration of the world around them -- when they care about people who don't have faith. A completely sheltered faith is not always the strongest faith. Some sheltering is necessary, of course -- but total sheltering from the outside world?

To put the same objection differently, lay people are not monks. There is an important place for those who flee the world and live only for prayer. But the Church is very explicit that such is not the vocation of the laity. We live to sanctify the world, to engage in politics, and culture, and labor, to witness to those who do not already have the faith. Abandoning that secular vocation of the laity is not good for grown-ups, and I do not see how it is a good way to teach children. The monastic vocation is itself corrupted (at least according to the teaching of the Catholic Church) if the world is treated as entirely evil. The laity are not monks, and monks need the witness of the laity.

But a second objection to the head-for-the-hills school of Christianity rests on the actual experience of monks. One cannot read far in monastic literature before one finds that even monasteries are not full of perfect people. St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, was asked to lead more than one community that subsequently tried to kill him. That seems odd -- but it is the universal experience of monasticism. That has something to do with why monks are called monks -- from monos, alone: the monk submits to a rule, not because he thinks it will surround him with perfect people, but in order to seek God, as it were, on a single path. There are no communities of perfect people.

The experience of various Catholic communes makes this very concrete for the laity. I know quite well a small-town super-parish built almost entirely on the charisma of one man, a Ph.D. in theology. But that man is now senile, and dying. Now what? Is it good for a family to be in such need to one charismatic leader? And is that Catholic? To make things worse, the man's theology is not especially sound. He propounds many things as Church teaching which are not Church teaching, and which are sometimes directly contrary to Church teaching. My friends who are in this situation are not theologians; what can they do but submit to their hero's opinion? They are in good will: but they have put themselves in a situation where one man's error becomes their Gospel, because he is the only show in town.

Similarly, if we move to a perfect parish: what if the priest falls ill? What if he's weak on some points? Do these people realize that everyone has weaknesses, that the Church has never recommended that you submit yourself wholly to any mere mortal? (Even a monastic abbot is elected by the community, and hedged by many external authorities; and the classic understanding of monastic obedience is external not internal -- one always has the right to question the abbot's judgment, and so ultimately to leave, in extreme cases.)

A perfect suburban Catholic sub-development always runs the risk that one of the six families you've built your entire world around might turn out bad. There are no communities of perfect people.

That's not to say we shouldn't have friends. We should. We must. But friendship should lead us outward, into society. We should seek a place where we can make friends, not a place where we are left alone, whether to our own devices (in perfect rural isolation), or to fallible human pastors, charismatic leaders, and friends.

Living in the city subjects my family to certain risks, against which I must protect them. I might stay away from some graffiti, and from certain neighbors. I certainly need to train my children to discern right from wrong (though I submit that the drug dealers and playground graffiti really aren't all that tantalizing, especially to someone who has any life at all).

But in the city, I have resources. In the city, I don't have to be friends with everyone I see. In the city we can turn away from certain bad influences and towards others. In any form of commune, one can only flee from one bad influence by fleeing one's entire life. I just don't see how that makes for a safe place to raise our children.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Nets, the Rock . . . and the Parking Lots

Things are looking good for bringing the NBA New Jersey Nets to Newark's Prudential Center (known locally as The Rock). The Nets currently play at the Meadowlands -- "meadow" being Northeastern New Jersey's euphemism for the broad swaths of swamp that have prevented serious urban development, for good or for ill, in much of an otherwise-dense area. In other words, the Meadowlands is a bunch of sports complexes surrounded by a beautiful expanse of not much of anything.

The Nets are planning to leave the Meadowlands for a new stadium in Brooklyn, but that stadium has yet to be built, and is currently mired in an eminent-domain court case; it might never happen. In the meantime, it looks like the Nets might come to Newark, at least for a couple years.

There would be considerable advantages for the city. The costs of the Prudential Center are already mostly in place, so almost all the tax revenue brought in by basketball tickets goes straight to the bank for the people of Newark. Last year over 620,000 people attended Nets home games, with tickets ranging from $10 to $500; that's a lot of tax revenue.

It's also a lot of potential business for Newark's downtown and the stadium area. Here's a satellite image of that area (sorry, I couldn't get googlemaps to get rid of the bubble):

It's actually a little hard to make out the stadium itself; I think it's the longish shiny building to the left and slightly above the red 'A.' Just behind the "Map - Sat - Ter" buttons are some tall buildings: that's downtown. And a little further down the right side of the screen is Newark Penn Station; the train tracks come out beneath and slightly to the left, toward the bottom of the image. Newark Penn runs fast, cheap PATH trains to several stops in Manhattan, about half an hour away; it is also a hub of the vast NJ Transit system, with slightly less cheap trains arriving from all over the state.

Which is all to say, this site is very different from the Meadowlands. Here, the stadium is connected to a city, a city that could greatly benefit not only from ticket tax revenue, but also from people coming to bars, restaurants, and even shops around the Prudential Center. And here the stadium is two blocks away from a major transit hub.

And yet notice one other detail on that map: blocks and blocks of parking lots.

The parking lots change the stadium from an asset to a liability for Newark's downtown area. This stadium could potentially draw hundreds of thousands of basketball fans every year. It already brings in about 640,000 fans of the NHL New Jersey Devils hockey team (40 home games a year x almost 16,000 people per game), plus fans of a smalltime soccer team and a local college basketball team, and concerts such as (in the next couple weeks) a couple shows by teen-pop star Miley Cyrus and no fewer than eight performances of Disney on Ice. This place should be surrounded by businesses catering to all these literally millions of visitors to Newark.

But what they find is just what we who live in the city find: blocks and blocks of parking lots. I recently attended an evening event at Newark City Hall - just across one of those parking lots from the Rock and less than a mile from my home. I would gladly have walked, if I were walking through blocks of businesses, homes, and people. But I am not foolish enough to walk at night through empty blocks of parking lots. And we cannot expect Newark's visitors to be stupid enough to cross all those parking lots before getting to area businesses. It isn't interesting, and it isn't safe.
Take out the parking lots. Sell them to whoever wants to be near the stadium. There might be a market for housing, there's surely a market for bars and restaurants, there might even be a market for retail. Let people park at one of the 163 other stations in the New Jersey Transit system, and take the train to Newark.

The Prudential Center ought to tie in with the neighborhoods around it. Businesses around the stadium ought to lure visitors out toward the neighborhoods -- downtown, the beautiful "Coast" to the South, the Ironbound -- and lure people from the neighborhoods in toward the stadium.

Our neighborhood, the Ironbound, just over those train tracks to the east, is one of the healthiest, most vibrant residential and restaurant neighborhoods in Newark. People from the neighborhood should be walking to events at the Pru, and frequenting the businesses that surround it. And businesses between the Pru and the train tracks ought to be encouraging visitors to venture east, until some of them start to cross the tracks and stimulate businesses in the Ironbound.

Instead, the parking lots serve as a "border vacuum," sucking life out of everything around them. The train tracks are a liability for the neighborhoods already: they make for a full block of walking with nothing to do, no decent people around, etc. If there was life on both sides, people would cross under. Instead, there are blocks and blocks of parking lots, sucking life even out of the train-track border of our neighborhood.

Here's the punchline: Cities need to cater to pedestrians. If you have public transportation, use it, to give people more access to the street. And be mindful of the negative effect of requiring pedestrians to cross blocks and blocks of nothing in order to get from one place to another. It isn't interesting, it isn't safe, and it sucks the life out of an urban environment.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Police and the Problem of Big Government

To my readers (if any are left), I apologize for the long absence. In August my family relocated to Newark, New Jersey (hopefully for good), and it's taken a couple months to get my feet back on the ground.

As in many American cities, one of the central issues here in Newark is policing. Newark has had a terrible history of violent crime, but in the last few years, since Cory Booker was elected mayor in 2006, we have consistently had the fastest drops in violent crime of any city in the nation -- a dubious distinction.

Cheers to Mayor Booker for that accomplishment. Crime, especially violent crime, is a scourge, on so many levels. It takes a brave man -- and Cory Booker is truly a brave man -- to take this fight seriously, to stand behind the police, to be willing to do things that might be unpopular in order to make a city where people can live ordinary lives. Booker has drawn the ire of the ACLU -- and cheers to him for having the courage and wear withal to do it.

It is often said that defending the physical safety of its citizens is a government's most fundamental task -- whether the fight is gang warfare, invasion by a foreign power, terrorism, abortion, or domestic violence. And truly, the fight against violence brings out with remarkable clarity the extent to which our life is essentially common. As much as we'd like to think of ourselves as individuals, without safe streets, which none of us can provide for ourselves, our life as individuals can never get started. We are truly political animals.

I note that Jane Jacobs begins her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with the problem of safe streets. Begins -- but does not end there.

All this said, I'd like to highlight a problem with policing, a problem ironic, because it pits the core of limited-government conservatism against conservatism's love for law and order. I hope we can resolve this opposition -- but first we must recognize it.

As laid out by Friedrich Hayek, the central problem with big government is the limitations of its vision. On the most innocent level, this is simply a recognition that even the best people have blind spots. Give a New Englander authority over the nation, and he's unlikely to appreciate the unique circumstances of Arkansas. Give a medical doctor authority, and he will tend to preference medical issues over non-medical. He's likely to preference his own methods, too: perhaps the rule of experts over the common sense of the average man, the medical concerns he's dealt with over those he hasn't, the friends he knows over the obscure faces he's never seen. The best banker can't possibly know all the people who are deserving of loans; the best doctor can't possibly know about every new treatment, and what's best for every individual; and the most enlightened city planner can't foresee every little business that will flourish in his city, and every way that people will use a public space.

Military man John McCain -- not my favorite politician, but a more or less decent guy -- had a lot more to say about military issues than, say, economics. That's not because he's a bad person. It's because he's a limited human being. Human beings have limits. A well-ordered polis does not limit the common good to the limited view of any individual, but does its best to spread authority among as many actors as possible. This, in my opinion, is by far the strongest argument for devolution of power, limited government, a free market, the free press, etc.: not so that people can define their own universes, but so that the common good can be served in more ways than any individual or centralized committee could see.

This problem is greatly exacerbated by the problem of political corruption. Give the government the authority to distribute healthcare dollars, and the smart politician, the guy who wants to win elections, is going to put his emphasis on political winners in health care. Scapegoat smokers, because they don't have enough votes to stop you. Give lots of money to the trendiest treatment of the trendiest disease, and don't waste money on things that only serve a small group. The market turns out to be much more "public minded" than politicians, because politicians need only please 51%, whereas the market seeks out every little niche and corner where there are dollars to spend, and dollars appear in every niche and corner where people have needs. Beyond the problem of limited vision, government centralization creates the problem of limited will: the will to serve majority blocs, who can get you elected, at the expense of minority blocs, who can't stop you.

All of this, I'm afraid, applies also to centralized policing. I suspect the black community's allergy to Big Police owes something to this instinct, even if it may be mixed with certain aspects of corruption in their own community.

So Mayor Booker goes after murders, because that's a Big Statistic, drawing attention from the people who fund campaigns, giving you something you can hold onto in a stump speech, and a clear legacy. Of course it is good to have fewer murders. But at what cost?

That's the problem: there are costs. There is, first of all, a manpower cost. If all the police are chasing murderers, who will catch the shoplifters, the people who run stoplights (quite a pandemic in Newark), the people who put pornographic graffiti on the playground where my almost-reading children want to play? If all the government staff are backing the police, who will take care of the trash on the streets, the grossly out-of-date tax assessments, the new-business approvals?

Then there is the monetary cost. Mayor Booker is funding his police push by raising taxes, especially property taxes. Of course I want the police to have enough funding to catch every murderer on our streets, and to get guns off the streets. But raising property taxes just makes it that much harder for honest people to afford to live here. It's one more push for families like mine to leave for more affordable places. It's a very limited vision that thinks the police can stop crime if you drive responsible people out of town.

Finally, there's the problem of public trust. This plays out a little differently in Newark, because Mayor Booker is black, but there is a distinct feeling of racism in Big Policing -- and it's not surprising, because even here, the police chief is white, the police are disproportionately white, and the people who get arrested are disproportionately black. Even Mayor Booker has been accused of being "not really" black.

Of course there's some foolishness mixed into this racial issue. Folks like Al Sharpton seem to claim that black people can't be held accountable for crimes, that the only reason to prosecute a black murderer is racism, that racism is the only explanation for there being more black people convicted of violent crimes. That's all boloney. The legacy of slavery is terrible, and does put many black people in a much more desperate situation than the typical white American -- but having racism somewhere at crime's roots does not make the prosecution of crime racist. That thinking only perpetuates the evil legacy.

Nonetheless, Sharpton's rage points out a problem. Big centralized policing creates a feeling of us vs. them. When the folks in the West and South Wards of Newark see the white police rolling in, crime fighting seems like an imposition from the outside. Cooperating in the prosecution of crime looks like siding with the outsiders against your neighbors; it should be siding with your neighborhood against the people who tear it down. And by a perverse logic, if the police are from Outside, breaking the law comes to seem like a sign of being truly local.

This is all usually framed as black vs. white, and there's truth to that. But more fundamentally, it's the neighborhood (the 'hood) against City Hall, our community against people from outside our community, the local vs. the distant. And that's not an unreasonable way to feel.

The general conservative, limited-government arguments made above apply here, too. The guy in City Hall, for all his good will -- and let me say, I think Cory Booker has a heck of a lot of good will, and I really respect him as a truly public-spirited man -- just can't know all the issues in the community. The folks in Fairmount (a neighborhood where a woman was just shot crossing the street) know things about their violent crimes, and about other aspects of their community, that Cory Booker just can't know. It's not that he's a bad person. It's that he doesn't live there, and even the best man can't understand what he can't see.

Big Policing means taking away local initiative: by sometimes draconian police policies; by taxing away the money that would let people invest in what matters to their neighborhood, whether it be a community center, a church, or a new barbecue place or barber shop; by taking away a sense of local self-government and moving it to an authority trying to make decisions for 280,000 human beings across some twenty-five square miles.

And all of this at least creates the feeling that a minority -- our neighborhood -- is being sacrificed to the majority. It starts to feel like someone whose ultimate responsibility is 51% of the votes is looking at Fairmount, not as an organic community, but as "only" 10,000 votes, most of them not paying attention. Mayor Booker needs the backing of national figures (Hilary Clinton just came out as a fan) so he can get national money and national tv time. I believe he thinks he's doing the right thing -- but it's easy for the community to feel like the things that matter to the Mayor aren't the little things that help their neighborhood.

So if Big Policing isn't the solution, what is? This might sound liberal, but I'd back off policing a bit and focus on the "root causes" of crime. Our city has terrible education and a terrible economy. That creates desperation. Even worse, though, it creates an environment that people want to flee. We're home schoolers, so we're not worried about the schools, but a city that taxes the middle class out of existence in order to fund mandatory schools where children doesn't learn . . . that's not a city that attracts helpful people. If you want to stop crime, you'll be much better off with a community of strong neighborhood businesses and strong families than with twenty more police officers chasing murderers.

Of course, Mayor Booker believes that fighting crime serves this end as well: good people aren't going to come to, or stay in, a violent city. But he can fight crime all he wants, and the families and businesses still aren't going to come if taxes make it unaffordable and the schools make it unconscionable. The vast majority of crime isn't random; there are ways to avoid it, even in a violent city. But taxes and bad schools are much harder to avoid. Good people are never going to come if you raise taxes and make schools a distant second priority while you chase after violent criminals. And the violent criminals aren't going to go away if the city has nothing to offer but police chasing after them.

In addition to making good people a priority, a mayor might try a decentralized approach to fighting crime. Rather than City Hall vs. the neighborhood, it should be the neighborhood policing itself. How? If there are violent criminals on the street, citizens should have a right to defend themselves. They should have a (Constitutional) right to bear arms, at least to defend their own home against assault. And they should have the right to organize their own community police force. I'll save for another post some strategies for decentralized crime fighting, but suffice it to say that most motor-vehicle violations can be reported by citizens, rather than police chasing after citizens; so can littering, and graffiti; and the only way to stop the sale of drugs is to get the neighborhood involved. Distribute cameras (they're already distributed, in the form of cell phones), and let a centralized court sort out what neighbors report. Let neighborhoods -- the smaller the better -- elect their own police chiefs, rather than putting all the authority 280,000 people away.

More than anything, let people know that law and order is the jurisdiction of neighbors, not a distant authority.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Instruments of Worship

The purpose of this blog is to explore the complimentary relationship between the Christian religion and human flourishing, to show that this world makes greater sense in light of heaven, and vice versa. I spend a lot of time trying to establish a realist politics and economics in order to show that social flourishing, one of the highest forms of human life, is rooted in an objective creation. But this isn't meant to be an exclusively political blog. The life of the citizen, political life, social life, human life, is not just politics and economics.

So today, a bit about church music.

The opening question is this: are some musical instruments more appropriate to worship than others? The Church -- especially in Vatican II's decree on liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium -- while making undefined allowance for other forms of music, says that the organ and Gregorian chant have "pride of place" in Catholic worship. Why? What is so special about the organ?

Years ago, I came across an interesting clue flipping through a book of old Church pronouncements. Sometime in the early middle ages (I don't remember when) it was decreed that rhythmic music is inappropriate to worship. I think the reasoning had to do with texts. Chant -- that is, non-rhythmic music -- takes a pre-established text and adds music. But rhythmic music has to fit the text to the rhythm, as every would-be poet has discovered.

Take an example, from my background in the Catholic charismatic renewal. I should point out, in the course of this argument, that I first discovered Catholic doctrine and real worship in the context of "praise-and-worship" speaking-in-tongues guitar music. There are good solid Catholics on the side I'm arguing against.

The community I was a part of was atypical among guitar-music communities because they really used solid texts, mostly Scriptural, focused on God, not on the singer. We sang a setting of the Te Deum, for example. When my wife, whose sensibilities are far more traditional, first encounterd this community, in the context of a wedding Mass, she was amazed at how well liturgical guitar music could be done.

Romans 12
But take this example. One song we sang quoted the latter chapters of Romans at length, and mostly pretty literally. One line quoted this verse of Scripture (in the NAB translation):

Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.

Except in the song it said

Do not allow your minds to be conformed to this age, but let your hearts be ruled by his Spirit.

The difference, I'm afraid, is not insignificant. The "mind" has been moved. In Paul's text, "conformity to the age" is a problem that afflicts the whole of our "selves" (in the Greek, it's the verb suschematizesthe, a passive verb -- "yourselves" -- saying, let not your "schema," your shape, go "with," or be like, this age). We are rescued from this problem by the "transformation of our minds" (here, it's metamorphousthe, an interesting switch from "schema" to "morphe": both words about shape, though I think morphe is a more radical sort of "form"). Our minds should be transformed "that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect."

But in the song, the problem of conformity seems specifically limited to the "mind," while liberation has nothing to do with the mind; indeed, rather than learning to discern what is good, we are just to be ruled by the Spirit. I have nothing against being ruled by the Spirit(!), but this is not the Biblical text. And if you only knew the song, you'd be inclined to think that the real opposition is mind (bad) vs. a more "spiritual" way of life that gets our mind out of the way -- there's no more "discernment" in the song. That, in fact, is directly contrary to the Biblical text.

Now, it could be that the author of the song was directly trying to contradict the Bible. But honestly, the song tries to quote the Bible. The problem is that the rhythm of the song demands a change in the text. The "selves" vs. "minds" thing could have fit the rhythm, but "let your minds be ruled by the Spirit" fits the song, whereas "transform yourselves by the renewal of your mind" just doesn't. And honestly, once you get to a blunt statement of the Spirit "ruling," renewal of the mind so that you can discern what is good seems sort of irrelevant. Who needs minds and discernment when you are "ruled"?

I hope I'm not being too convoluted if I say that the way this text gets transformed is actually a pretty neat summary of the problem of rhythmic music. Christianity is a textual religion. We are transformed -- ruled by the Spirit! -- precisely through the words of the sacred text, which renew our mind. The problem of rhythmic music is that we "conform" to a beat that, if not necessarily wicked in itself, is simply not the beat of Scripture. Our minds cannot be transformed (and ruled!) by the Scripture if we demand that everything conform to the beat.

That, I think, is why the Church at one time banned rhythmic music in the liturgy. Whether or not rhythm is inherently bad, the liturgy is meant to be about Biblical texts. To be a Christian is to refuse to change the text to match the beat.

Ratzinger's Take
In A New Song for the Lord, I think, Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) gives another take, more general, on the same idea. He says that worship, and indeed all of human fulfillment, has to do with moving upward, into the realm of intelligibility. The difference between "good" and "bad" music is precisely whether it brings the mind down into the realm of the emotions or whether it elevates the emotions into the realm of the mind.

Music, by its nature, is emotional. But -- to make a strong assertion -- I think the music of Bach especially, and most classical music, brings one into a contemplation of form. The brilliant thing about good classical music is that there is an overarching form, a global vision in which each part plays a role. You can't listen to a snippet of Beethoven's Seventh, or Ninth, and really understand what it's about. The Ninth is a great example: the famous chorus at the end requires an entire symphony to ascend to its climax. Beethoven's greatest hits is, frankly, not: it's no longer Beethoven's vision. Contemplation of the form descends into a catchy melody.

Of course every rock music song also has a form. The lyrics, the repetitions, the hooks are usually part of some bigger picture, so that Sting sings "don't stand, don't stand so, don't stand so close to me" as part of a longer song. But let's be honest: it isn't rocket science. Churning out a "good" song just doesn't take the kind of concentration, meditation, and care that a great symphony requires, nor does listening to it. You listen to the Police because it's easy and fun. You listen to Bach because it isn't. You listen to rock music because you like the way it makes you feel. You listen to Beethoven, if you ever learn to listen to him, because it raises your feelings into the realm of your mind.

This puts an important new spin, of course, on the old argument that jazz, or even heavy metal, or whatever, is great music because it takes a lot of work. I don't doubt that some of these musicians have worked very hard to learn their skills. But I do doubt that the end result is intellectual the way that great classical music is. In the end, the primary draw of heavy metal is not the contemplative exaltation it creates but, I think, the opposite. Jazz? I don't know, but I think it's closer to drawing you into the rhythm than to drawing your emotions up into your mind. To the extent that's true, all the work that goes into it is just a further degradation of the mind.

As a classically trained pianist, I was surprised years ago to learn that the piano is classified as a "percussive" instrument. Drums -- percussion -- demand a lot of skill and can be fascinating, but they are not harmonic. The piano, on the other hand, is the most harmonic single instrument of all. You can play up to 88 notes, in any combination, limited only by the number of fingers you're using (and it's not uncommon to play two notes simultaneously with the thumb). Piano can be a great classical instrument, I think, precisely because of this harmonic complexity.

Nonetheless, the piano is played by hitting keys that cause hammers to hit strings. It is therefore percussion -- a fact especially notable when the piano is used as an accompanying instrument. In order to make noise, the piano has to keep pounding away: it is inherently rhythmic.

I discovered just how significant this is singing hymns accompanied by an especially good organist at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington. Where the piano beats, the organ sings. Even though most modern hymnody is metrical and rhythmic, a fine organist is able to phrase the hymns the way the human voice does. The piano makes you keep moving. The organ helps you sing. The organ is capable even of arhythmic chant. I think this is fundamentally the reason the Church gives the organ "pride of place." And it is the reason churches with piano accompanists seem necessarily to end up doing bad church music: it becomes a matter of rhythm, of the music dominating the text and the musicians dominating the singers, instead of vice versa. Much as I love the piano, it is not a hymn instrument.

All the more the guitar. Now, I have experienced the guitar being used like a psaltery -- one of the most ancient and exalted instruments of worship. But in this use, the guitar strums a few chords in order to accompany chant. The rhythmic strumming that defines guitar music as we know it is eliminated. (And of course there is no tradition of rhythmic music for the psaltery.) Again, the question is what direction the music leads. Does the text disappear into the rhythm, the singer into the music, or vice versa?

It is no coincidence that where rhythmic instruments are used for worship, the texts tend -- though not always -- not only to depart from Scripture and tradition, but to depart from thoughtfulness and a focus on God, and to descend into a focus on ourselves. Contemplation is about seeing the other; emotion for its own sake is about me me me. There's not a lot of room for uncomfortable things, not a lot of interest in seeing the face of God.

Music engages the emotions. An ancient proverb (wrongly, I think, attributed to St. Augustine) says "he who sings, prays twice," probably because the body and the emotions are brought up into the mind's worship. But it ain't necessarily so. When music is drawn into prayer, we pray twice. When prayer is drowned by music, we pray not at all.

Precisely because it engages us, music drills a text into us. Many of us still have to sing the ABCs to remember the order of the alphabet, or the Salve Regina to remember that great (arhythmic) Marian hymn. In such contexts, the music supports the text. But what text? If the text is theologically sloppy, or misquotes the Scripture, we remember the misquotation better than the Scripture.

Music can exalt, but it can also depress. Here too there is an objective order, to be learned and discerned, and only through this discernment can we be freed from this age's demands of conformity.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Income Inequality and Culture

Pieper famously argued that leisure is the basis of culture. Though his argument is rich, the fundamental point is obvious enough. Culture needs space for its creation. Without time, real time, apart from immediate concerns, the many facets of culture have no room to thrive: whether the fine arts or folk music, conversation, writing, or religion. Culture needs space.

I was reflecting today on the lovely way the Latin language treats this. What we call business the Latins called negotium (from which, obviously, we get negotiation: business dealing). But negotium is actually a compound word: it is the neg-ation of otium, leisure. So in Latin, business is literally "no time for leisure"; nice, above all, because it presents leisure as the activity, the fullness to be negated, whereas we too often think of leisure as just vacant space. Of course, our language contains a similar point, though less obvious to our etymology-deaf ears. Business (say it, maybe, with a British accent?) is just busy-ness, not having time for other stuff.

Of course, I don't want to take this too far. I think business is a lovely thing in and of itself. But the point remains: culture needs space.

Culture and Wealth
I'd like to suggest a new twist on this: in order to have space, culture needs income inequality. I think the more obvious (though not obvious enough) aspect of this is that culture requires the rich. Great cultural figures -- most great authors, almost all great musicians and artists -- typically have patrons. Without the Medicis -- gross bankers! -- there is no Florence, almost no Renaissance (though, of course, they got a lot of help from the merchants in Venice). Michalengelo, da Vinci, and Botticelli are nothing without Florence, both to give them their daily bread and to give them their materials. Writers don't need materials, but they still need to eat. And it is only too obvious that living on the popular sales of your work produces Danielle Steele and Time Magazine, not Dante and Petrarch.

The rise of high music makes it even more clear. Without the Esterhazy's, there's no Haydn, without King George, no Handel. Bach had a series of patrons -- the Duke of Weimar, the city of Muelhausen, the Prince of Anhalt-Coethen, the great merchant city of Leipzig, and finally Frederick II -- but his career almost proves the point. No one of these patrons was sufficient to create the man who is perhaps the pinnacle of western music. He could not be discovered by the King until he had been recognized by the Duke -- and several others. This is precisely the argument for riches: however limited the oligarchy may be, it at least diffuses judgment more than centralized government does, so that there are dozens of possible patrons, dozens of opportunities for a genius to be discovered. But most of them will overlook the genius; and if there is only one centralized authority, the genius's career will be over.

Culture needs riches because oligarchy multiplies opportunities for patronage, and minimizes the ability of one tin ear to end a great man's career.

(In case you're wondering: Mozart started under the patronage of his local prince-archbishop, then got his big break when another oligarch archbishop brought him to Vienna. Beethoven was discovered by the Elector of Bonn, then managed his career in Vienna through a host of noblemen: the Count von Waldstein, Prince Joseph Franz Lobkowitz of Bohemia, Prince Karl Alois Lichnowsky of Prussia, and King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia, among others. Dvorak came to America under the patronage of the New York philanthropist Jeannette Thurber, and even Copland got his start through the very first Guggenheim fellowships -- funded by money made in the mining industry. Etc.)

So art, culture, needs wealth. But interestingly enough, I think art needs poverty, as well. Copland, to take but one example, lived on the Upper West Side in the 1920's -- a neighborhood rough enough that liberals subsequently plowed it under to build their art park. He'd spent the beginning of the decade in gay Paris. Paris was gay, of course, because it was cheap, and poor. That great flood of 1920's American writers and artists went there because it was a place they could afford to be writers and artists: even with Guggenheim fellowships, etc., creating culture rarely pays, especially when you're getting started.

Plow it Under?
Apparently there's a move about to plow certain derelict urban neighborhoods under. The theory is that these places are ultimate dives, never going to recover, and we'd do better just to return them to wilderness. There are a lot of problems with this idea, but one of them is cultural.

I lived in such a neighborhood a couple years ago. H St. NE was once one of the great thoroughfares of black DC, a thriving area of shops and night life. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., these neighborhoods suffered riots roughly proportionate to their importance to the black community; H St. was one of the most devastated neighborhoods in the country. In 2007, when we moved there, most of the businesses were still burned-out shells, the surrounding neighborhood filled with derelicts, drugs, litter, and more burned-down properties than you'd ever want to see. But it was coming back. H St. has recently become a place for alternative Washington nightlife: a couple of experimental theaters, some odd-ball performance bars, some great new restaurants. (Really great!)

Now, most of this stuff wasn't super positive -- I wasn't real tempted to check out the Rock and Roll Hotel or the Palace of Wonders -- but for one thing, it is an essential part of cultural activity that many things be tried and most fail, and for another thing, that's more a reflection on the sorry state of our culture in general. Rome wasn't built in a day, and if the new architects of culture have only rock and roll and camp to build upon, well, that isn't their fault.

But anyway H St. wasn't rich even in its heyday. That's what made it H St. I don't know of any great H St. cultural icons, but U St., the other great black thoroughfare of old Washington, was home to Duke Ellington, and both these places were echoes of the Harlem Renaissance. 1920's Harlem, of course, like 1920's Paris, was a cheap place -- the end of the New York subway lines, the least desirable place in urban New York City -- where people could go to experiment. (Copland's part of the Upper West Side was close by.) Harlem thrived because poor populations, in this case black ones, could go there and survive, and even find some great community, despite their lack of means. Jazz thrived there in large part because musicians could afford the rent. And though Jazz might not be the highest of high culture, it's really the best America did in the 20th century: apart from writing (which is always cheaper for the artist, for a couple reasons), the only real living school of art in its time.

Middle Class Art?
Income inequality sounds like a bad thing. (I haven't gotten to read the new encyclical, which proportedly makes that argument -- but I will tantalize you by saying that Rerum Novarum, the opening salvo of modern Catholic social thought, whatever anyone may tell you, explicitly argues that income inequality is a good thing and that anyone arguing to the contrary is betraying the Gospel.) But I don't think art, real culture of any kind, can survive without it.

Imagine a perfectly middle class society. Where, first, would you go to find funding for your art? There are only two options: the government, or the mass market. Frankly, I think both of these are more likely to give us pats on the head and demagogery than real art. They are not designed to discover artistic genius or appreciate real quality. Hoping that a centralized committee will give the good posts to good people is not hope I can believe in.

But equally problematic, if we really waged war on poverty, where would the artists go? I chose to live in the H St. neighborhood because I could afford to live there and pursue my idealistic dreams of writing and the intellectual life. Plow down these neighborhoods -- literally or metaphorically -- and I'm stuck, along with greater men like Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Ernest Hemingway, Ella Fitzgerald, Mozart, and J.S. Bach, having to give up on making culture and get a job that will pay the rent somewhere respectable.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Person and Leadership

This afternoon we learned that Mark Sanford, Republican governor of South Carolina and married father of four, took off over Fathers Day weekend to spend some time with his paramour in Argentina. It's unfortunate, because he was one of the more interesting up-and-coming conservatives who might run for President (though honestly, I always doubted his connection with the cultural side of conservatism -- the most important). But it is also an interesting case in point on the relationship between persons and leadership.

Over at National Review Online, ever more libertarian and neo-con than conservative, the conversation is ranging between two poles. Some are saying, gosh, who cares. We shouldn't worry about the personal lives of politicians. (Interestingly, this is often followed by, "and they shouldn't worry about ours": pure libertarianism, the very negation of conservatism.) Of course, even these people admit that Sanford's disappearing for five days with no contact information while he's supposed to be governing a state is probably disqualifying for higher office. But the initial argument stands: why do we care about a politician's personal life?

To which others at National Review respond (predictably echoing their editorial preference during last year's presidential primary), if we want squeaky-clean politicians, then go Mitt!

Both arguments show how far National Review has fallen from true conservatism. More on that another time: this post is about the importance of the personal, not National Review.

Personal things matter in our politicians for two reasons. First, as a measure of the man we are putting in charge of office. This event reveals a lot about Mark Sanford. Above all, that he is a creep: and we can expect that to inform his judgment on various issues. We can't determine everything about a leader based on his answers on an issues questionaire, both because politicians aren't always entirely forthcoming, and because we never know what issues will come up.

When George Bush was first elected, we had no idea there would be a terrorist attack; no idea when Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist would die and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor would step down, or who was available to replace them, or who would not step down, or what issues would be on the table; no idea what developments there would be in biotech, or in the development of the gay marriage debate; no idea that he would have majorities in both Houses of Congress, then lose them both in 2006 -- etc.

We use every datum we have to judge what kind of person we are considering for election, and whether we can trust their judgment. Will they be true to their promises? (Most politicians aren't: but in what ways?) What will be their priorities, and how hard and effectively will they work to advance them? And how does what we know extrapolate to all the issues that we haven't even considered yet? We do learn a lot about a guy when we find out he's flying to Argentina to ditch his wife and four school-aged children. We learn about his values and his character. Why should we ignore that information?

The other significant aspect of such lessons is not about how a leader will behave, but what he says about our nation. A president fooling around with interns in the Oval Office is not just unprofessional, it's gross. Symbols matter. It's not surprising that some of the people who say we shouldn't care about a politician's personal life also say we shouldn't care about our own. The kind of men we elect is a profound statement about how we think of ourselves as a nation. To elect someone who is personally corrupt is a very strong statement of moral relativism. It's not surprising that libertarians are okay with that -- but conservatives are not, cannot be.

And this figure-head aspect effects not only our own culture, but the culture of other countries as well. To send a philanderer to speak to the Muslim world, for example, does send a message about what kind of values back up our foreign policy. Muslims are rightly suspect of a country that so often presents itself as anti-moral. And people in socially liberal countries in Europe take the measure of our country based on the people we choose to represent us. Do we want to be a nation of perverts, or a nation of high moral values? What do we want to promote in the world? Those are of course matters of political debate. But there should be no question where conservatives stand in such debates.

So the morals of our leaders matters both with regard to their personal competence and their symbolic value. But unfortunately, this cuts against "squeaky-clean Mitt Romney," too. On a symbolic level, Christians are uncomfortable with electing a Mormon president. Why? Because it suggests a moral equivalence between Christianity and this made-up, anti-Trinitarian (honestly, anti-theistic), anti-Biblical religion. We would rather have a bad Christian than someone who is not a Christian at all -- because we believe this is a Christian nation, and we believe that matters.

It matters, not as a matter of intolerance -- such that we would drive Mormons, Muslims, and other non-Christians out of the country -- but, among other things, precisely as the reason for our tolerance. We believe we are tolerant because we are Christians. It's clear that many in the "conservative" press don't understand that argument. But for many Christians and conservatives, Christianity does actually matter, also on a social and political level.

Romney's Mormonism also cuts against him as a suggestion of his character. Mormonism is a perfectly respectable way to live one's life: clean, family-oriented, neighborly. Those are good things. But on a theological and philosophical level, Mormonism is loony. Is that judgmental? Of course it is. (Again: to say that people should not be judgmental about philosophical positions is a profound statement of philosophical and theological relativism. That relativism is central to American liberalism -- but it is antithetical to conservatism.) To live by a nonsensical religion says something about a person's philosophical coherence.

As neighbors, even as friends, fine. I know some perfectly lovely Mormons. But at the helm of my country, I want someone who is a clear thinker, especially in matters of philosophy. There are a lot of issues in politics that require much more sophisticated thinking than does running a bank. I'd love to have Mitt Romney as my banker -- or, perhaps, my Treasury Secretary. But thinking through matters of Constitutional Law, or foreign policy, or even tax policy? It makes me nervous.

Ultimately, all the issues questionaires are just one more contribution to the fundamental question for a democracy: what kind of man are we thinking about electing? The personal is not irrelevant. It is the most important of all.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Liberalism and the Pro-Life Movement

This post is going to be critical of the recently deceased Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (priest of the Archdiocese of New York, best known for founding and editing First Things), so let me begin by saying: Fr. Neuhaus was a great man. He did an awful lot to help me understand conservatism and the connections between faith and politics -- in fact, between faith and all of life. He is responsible for all sorts of conversions of all sorts of people in all sorts of directions. And he was one of the most cultured voices of our time (which, unfortunately, is kind of a back-handed compliment). That said . . .

Fr. Neuhaus used to describe his movement from the Democratic Party of the 1960's to the Republican Party almost entirely in terms of abortion. As far as I can tell, he wasn't all that interested in economics, and though he had sympathies with and friends in the so-called "neo-conservative" (really, neo-Wilsonian) camp on foreign policy, I don't think he was that interested in foreign policy, either. Perhaps it would be fair to say that he was firmly agnostic about issues of foreign policy and economics, but very committed to what is now known as "conservatism" in social issues, and therefore thought there was no good reason to vote for the pro-choice party against the pro-life one. You might say he was a single-issue voter -- and one of the most eloquent voices for that position.

Before criticizing part of his argument, let me say that there is much to be said for this calculus. I am a convinced free-market economic conservative, but I must admit: the cultural issues are much more black and white. And we might say that making cultural issues (especially life and marriage) our "single issue" is not about dismissing the importance of other issues so much as dismissing the clarity of them. A politician who holds tight to murky economic and foreign-policy theories -- Keynsianism, pacificism, Wilsonianism, or whatever -- but can't see the gross injustice of murdering the unborn . . . well, I would not entrust that moral compass with babysitting my children, let alone running my country. Whatever may be going on in Ted Kennedy's heart . . . gosh, do you really want someone that screwed up to run your country? So I'm with Fr. Neuhaus so far.

But here's the critique. Fr. Neuhaus always (and frequently!) described the pro-life movement as just the next-step in civil rights. 1960's liberalism, he claimed, was about "expanding the circle of inclusion." First we recognize that blacks are people too, and deserve full respect, then we recognize that even the tiny unborn are people, and we extend the protection of law to include them, too. As Fr. Neuhaus sees it -- and I think a lot of other people see it this way too, even stripes of conservative Catholics who don't generally like Fr. Neuhaus -- opposing abortion is just about extending legal protection to ever broader circles of human persons.

A Critique
The first tip-off to what's wrong with this approach is historical. The civil rights movement was about universal suffrage, the right to vote. That idea was only dimly conceived even at the founding of the United States. Even the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, passed in 1868 to enforce the gains of the Civil War, did not demand that blacks be allowed to vote. It guarantees that due process of law will proceed any deprivation of "life, liberty, or property" (which are, by the way, called "privileges," not "rights"); it guarantees "the equal protection of the laws" -- but when it comes to voting, it just says that if a State deprives any class ("of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens" ) of "the right to vote," then the State will proportionately lose representation in Congress.

Another amendment, number Fifteen, was required to give suffrage to all (male citizens of the right age), regardless of race "or color." (Apparently the two words did not have the same meaning.) This was in the revolutionary fervor of 1870. But it is remarkable that, for all the power of the Fourteenth Amendment, it clearly did not extend universal suffrage.

Abortion, on the other hand, has been considered grossly immoral since the beginning of Christian civilization, including documents from the first and second centuries. (I can speak, perhaps, as the world expert on an issue of particular interest: Joe Biden noted some peculiarities in Thomas Aquinas's embryology, and on the technical question of why exactly abortion is wrong -- but Thomas nonetheless held that early abortion was "lustful cruelty or cruel lust;" those who commit very early abortions "directly will the death of their own child, even before it lives;" and thus they are rightly called, among other things, fornicators, prostitutes, or adulterers. And that is only for very early abortions: about forty days in -- not half way through the first trimester -- abortion becomes full blown murder, says St. Thomas. Sorry Mr. Vice President, not a partial-birth pro-choice ally.)

So here's the problem for Fr. Neuhaus's narrative: Christians have always, from the very beginning, opposed abortion, but the notion of univeral suffrage, civil rights of any kind, or even the wrongness of slavery are distinctly modern -- in some sense, even post-Christian, and certainly do not originate in the Catholic Church. All to say, we don't need to talk about "expanding the circle of inclusion" in order to explain why abortion is wrong.

If we believe (as Catholics do, though many Protestants don't) that the most important moral issues are included in the Deposit of Faith, given once for all by Our Lord himself, and maintained always by his Church, we have to conclude that abortion -- and, yes, marriage, and the right of parents to educate their own children -- are issues of a wholly different order, far more black-and-white than anything (except lynching) in the Civil Rights movement.

Similarly if we believe (as the Greeks did, and most of the Christian tradition), that moral truth is discovered by the insight of upright people, not by any kind of progressive "science," then there's no reason to think that new moral issues would be discovered only in the 20th century. Good people have always known right and wrong; Civil Rights is just a different kind of issue.

That's not to say, of course, that I oppose giving blacks the vote. I am very much in favor! Just to say, these are not part of the same story. The pro-life "movement" does not take its origin in the march to civil rights.

Indeed, the greater problem here is the very notion of a "march," or progress.

It is often noted -- especially by people like Fr. Neuhaus -- that the word "liberalism" has gone through at least three very distinct, seemingly contradictory phases. In the nineteenth century (and still, in some Eur0pean discourses) "liberalism" went with what we now call the Free Market. Liberals were laissez-faire in economics.

But by the time of Presidents Wilson and FDR, the word was reappropriated (apparently) by the very opposite movement: liberalism came to mean economic progressivism, government entering in to redistribute wealth and protect the poor through vigorous regulation.

And then about the time Nixon was clobbering George McGovern, in 1972, liberalism "suddenly" stopped being interested in the intense moralism of the FDR-LBJ years, and suddenly latched on to Woodstock, sexual libertinism, and all that.

How confusing! Fr. Neuhaus showed little interest in the 19th century incarnation, but was quite chagrined that the great social concern of mid-20th century liberalism had given way to the libertinism of late-20th century Democrat politics. Can't we just resurrect LBJ, and his march of individual rights?

Well, what Fr. Neuhaus's narrative fails to see is the driving coherence of liberalism through all three stages. Liberalism originally -- and still -- fundamentally means Progress, "liberty" from ancient prejudice. Conservatism is a very good name for the opposite of liberalism -- whatever it is that conservatives want to conserve (and that's a story for another day), they "stand athwart history yelling stop!" in the famous opening slogan of National Review. The fundamental disagreement is whether human history is fundamentally about progress or . . . not.

19th-century liberals originally thought that the free economy would be the best way to subvert the traditional order, disengage from traditional morality, and religion, and aesthetics, and move on to the New Age. That's ironic, because in the late-18th century Adam Smith and Edmund Burke had already been arguing precisely the opposite -- but this is a post about liberalism, not conservatism. In any case, late in the 19th century, the liberals -- that is, those who wanted to overthrow the old order -- shifted from the free market to the State economy. They could do this because liberalism was never about economics. It was about social change. That included some things we find good -- like the abolition of slavery, maybe universal suffrage (I'll discuss that another time), etc. -- but it also included the race to contraception and abortion (from early on!), the elimination of Christianity, etc.

Of course, many Christians came along for the ride. I know nothing about the thinking of Woodrow Wilson and FDR as men, though reliable sources claim they would be appalled at the crazies surrounding George McGovern. But look at the role of the Catholic Church. When the New Deal came along, the Church saw it as a way of caring for the poor. In that sense, it was not "liberal" at all: the Church has always believed in the obligation for the rich to take care of the poor.

For a couple decades -- roughly 1952-1968? -- liberalism's primary aim was "racial" justice: more social than economic. The Church's embrace of this movement involved idealism, to be sure: the Church has always taught that human nature is independent of skin color. In fact, for Thomas Aquinas, skin color, black or white, is one of his favorite examples of something "accidental," something that doesn't touch one's essential nature. He used it, not because skin color was a big issue in his day, but because it wasn't: medievals wouldn't think of depriving someone of the protection of law on account of skin color. It just wouldn't occur to them.

(The race issue did appear in the 16th century, when Spanish colonists debated whether American Indians had souls. But it is important to note that this debate pitted Thomists and the papacy, who were both militant defenders of the humanity of the Indians, against the nationalist and economic goals of the Spanish crown: tradition stood on the side of the Indians. Which is why even Foucault could say that racism is a distinctly modern phenomenon, only really taking off in the 19th century.)

So the Church's horse in the Civil Rights Movement was not liberal but conservative: they were fighting for a return to Christian civilization. And thus they sided with the liberals, who had distinctly different goals. But we have to be clear: very few people outside the Catholic Church -- and, honestly, not even that many people within the Catholic Church -- viewed this as tradition against modernity. For the majority, Civil Rights was about progress: liberalism.

(The states rights issue is distinct, but I can't get into that here.)

And, it really has to be said, Church leaders have always played Realpolitik, usually badly. There was idealism in Catholic support for the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement -- but there was also cynicism. Catholics supported economic justice: but in this country, they also took the side of the poor because they were poor. In the 1930s, Catholics were still a distinctly foreign, lower-class, labor population. And like many, they sided with the New Deal not just because they thought it was Right, but because they thought it was good for Number One. (I just heard a lecture about the biography of Fr. John Ryan, Catholic chaplain of the New Deal. Not exactly objective.)

A similar thing happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was idealism, to be sure. But there was also positioning. On the one hand, Catholics weren't particularly conservative when it came to the United States. Although I think we've come to realize how good the US model is for the Catholic Church, the country has anti-Catholicism deep in its roots, from the religious establishments of the 18th century to the Know Nothings and public-school movements of the 19th century to the anti-immigration push throughout the 20th century. Subverting the old order seemed like a good thing -- kind of like President Bush ousted Saddam Hussein, figuring we must be able to do better than that guy. This kind of Catholic "liberalism" wasn't exactly idealistic: it just hoped it would come out ahead.

On the other hand, Catholics were also trying to become mainstream, and the Civil Rights Movement seemed like a good horse to ride into town. In 1928, Catholic Presidential candidate Al Smith was treated to burning crosses and electoral disaster. In 1960, JFK eked out a victory. World War II had provided a great way for Catholics to show that they were good Americans, too -- so after the war, Catholic leaders jumped on any bandwagon they could find, hoping to gain cultural tolerance. Again, this isn't exactly idealistic. It's more parallel to all the times in the middle ages when the Church sided with one king against another because they hoped to advance their own cause -- or to the Church's Ostpolitik in the mid-20th century, which agreed to be quiet about the evils of Communism, not out of any philosophical seriousness, but because they feared a Reagan/John Paul kind of opposition would result in reprisals. (It didn't.)

Of course, Father Neuhaus wasn't a Catholic when he was marching alongside Martin Luther King. But there was probably something of the same thinking. On the one hand, he honestly believed that racism was contrary to the Bible -- and thus, however poorly Fr. Neuhaus may describe his own thinking, it was conservative, not liberal, pushing for a restoration of ancient values, not "progress." And on the other hand, he wanted to hook Christianity's wagon to the best horse, and he thought this was a good way to make Christianity popular. More on that in a minute.

But we shouldn't be surprised that liberalism turned on us. Church Realpolitik is perennially unsuccessful. (In Catholic doctrine, infallibity extends only to faith and morals -- not to politics.) Marching alongside Fr. Neuhaus and other Christian Civil Rights folk were people who saw this as the latest battle in the March of History, the newest progress, yet another way to overthrow the Ancien Regime. When you look at it, I think it's intuitively obvious: LBJ's "Great Society" was not about perennial values, it was about progress. The youth of the '60s rose, not to work with their parents, but to overthrow them. They yearned for a new age. For Richard John Neuhaus and some people like him, Selma and Woodstock were polar opposites -- but for an awful lot of people, it was all part of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

It was all part of liberalism: a belief in unbridled progress, a belief that history moves from darkness to light. And in that project, the fact that marriage, parenthood, and the sanctity of life are ancient values is precisely an argument against them. To a true liberal, calling monogamous marriage "traditional" is argument enough for its abolition. Forward to a new age! At the very least, people infected with liberalism see no reason for deference to what is old.

Today's Pro-Life Movement
Today, the pro-life movement is crippled by the same mistakes as the mid-century Church. Fr. Neuhaus claims that opposing abortion is part of the march for Civil Rights, expanding the circle of inclusion. And the pro-life movement has swallowed that argument, hook, line, and sinker. We speak of abortion as a matter of individual rights.

This is, of course, utterly untraditional language -- because the tradition has never viewed persons primarily as Individuals, nor does it speak of people primarily in terms of "rights." Rights is a category of modern political discourse. It has a place in highly technical documents like the US Constitution. But traditional morality is about obligations, debts -- and relationships, not Individuals.

To speak of abortion as a matter of individual rights is also (I hate to say it) absurd -- because motherhood is not an individual thing. As long as the baby is in utero, those two individuals are inseparable; you can't pit one "person's" rights against the other's. "Leave that baby alone" is a ridiculous thing to say to the person whose womb it is inhabiting.

Why does the pro-life movement insist that abortion is a matter of individual rights? Perhaps because, like the mid-century Church, it thinks it can jump on the bandwagon of liberalism and seem less old fashioned. Oddly enough, we could criticize those old ladies holding up pictures of aborted fetuses for trying too hard to be liked. Opposing abortion is not like sticking up for the Tibetans -- or marching at Selma. It's not a matter of sticking up for the voiceless and powerless against the mean and powerful. (Though the abortion industry is mean and powerful.)

Because, above all, opposing abortion is not about the forward march of individual rights. It is, quite the contrary, a matter of standing athwart history yelling "stop!" It is a matter of voicing the timeless truth -- timeless, because written in Nature itself -- that mothers are inseparable from their babies, women inseparable from their motherhood, the person inseparable from her body. Abortion is violence against women.

Does it match liberal rhetoric to say we should prevent people from doing themselves harm? No. Is it dashingly modern to say that women should be bound by childbearing? No. Is it cutting edge to say that some things are just wrong? Of course not.

But what the pro-life movement has to realize -- what the Church has to realize -- is that we're not liberals. We're not about progress. There are places for progress: sewage, transportation, communication. But morality is not a place for progress: because human nature is always the same; because moderns are no more moral than the ancients; because the Deposit of Faith is once for all.

And we have to realize that we have something worth buying. What is ancient, traditional, perennial, and eternal is actually pretty attractive. We stand on the street corners shouting that we're the next great thing in Liberal Progress and Individual Rights, and we might even convince ourselves (as I think Fr. Neuhaus did), but ultimately, the reason people are pro-life is because they realize that abortion is not a matter of one person against another, but that it's just plain wrong, contrary to Nature, contrary to a woman's nature. It's not woman vs. baby. It's the abortionist against both.

And you know, I think people are interested in hearing perennial truths. Nature is actually a pretty attractive idea. We don't need to be liberals to win elections, or hearts.