Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Professors and Political Prudence

I am a professor at a marginally Catholic college in New Jersey. Here's an interesting story about the weakness of professorial, and liberal, thinking about politics.

At a recent Faculty Senate meeting the following was proposed:

"Be it resolved that the members of the Seton Hall University Faculty Senate strenuously object to having Governor Chris Christie as the University's 2011 commencement speaker. The Governor's educational policies, which have resulted in the firing of teachers and closing down of both enrichment and basic skills programs, make his appearance at an event celebrating academic achievement singularly inappropriate."

I was one of the leaders of the opposition. I stated that I might be willing to support a statement that said we wanted to avoid political speakers at graduation -- because there will obviously be division, which is a distraction -- but that I certainly couldn't support the second sentence, which claims as indisputable that Gov. Christie is opposed to education. I noted that I am a homeowner and father of small children in Newark, where our liberal Democrat mayor, Corey Booker, also a political rock star (Christie and Booker were the only governor and mayor named to Time's admittedly stupid list of 100 most influential people in the world) has stood together with Gov. Christie as a champion of desperately-needed reform for our urban schools.

I should have added, but was behind on my news reading and afraid to speak out too much against the liberals in our faculty, that Christie has also recently been applauded for his work on urban schools reform by Oprah, Pres. Obama's Secretary of Education (who said Christie and Booker have made Newark the cutting edge of urban school reform), the head of Facebook (who gave our city an enormous amount of money for schools, saying it was entirely because of his respect for Christie and Booker on this issue), Bill and Melinda Gates (who also have given us a lot of money), and the Harvard Graduate School of Education (where, according to our generally anti-Christie local newspaper, Christie was applauded loudly for his willingness to take on the teachers' unions in favor of urban kids). He is speaking soon at the Princeton Graduate School of Education, though beyond the invite, we don't yet know how much applause he'll get.

Others faculty members jumped in with a standard, though somewhat weak, conservative argument: we need to distinguish between truly black-and-white moral issues (read: abortion) vs. prudential things, about which honest people can disagree (read: almost anything but abortion). More on that in a moment.

One leader among the liberals proclaimed that she was going to protest by not going to graduation. I guess that's her way of "celebrating academic achievement."

We won the vote decisively: the Faculty Senate did not censure Gov. Christie.

I was at a lunch earlier this week in which the woman who proposed the censure, an enthusiastic though not very well-formed Catholic, discussed the issue with another senator sitting across the table from me, in a voice I was sure to hear.

Their argument was, in itself, worthy. They said they get frustrated about the "prudential" distinction, because it seems to cover too much. I think their argument was that prudence is so infused with principle that at some point, you have to say that making concretely bad decisions indicates not only bad prudence, but also bad intent. They applied this so as to say that if conservatives don't agree with them on *how* to care for the poor, it must ultimately indicate a disagreement on *whether* to care for the poor. Gov. Christie, for example, has been battling he state Supreme Court on whether he can take away a lot of state money from urban schools. Surely, their argument goes, this is not just a matter of prudence, but of principle: he doesn't care about those schools.

I agree with the basic premise about prudence and principle, though I would handle it with a light touch. And, of course, I would draw the opposite conclusion: liberal policies have been so disastrous for our cities, the black community, our schools, our families, the poor, and, to a lesser extent, immigrants that at some point we have to question whether they really care about these things at all. I would argue (as Amity Shlaes gently argues in her marvelous history The Forgotten Man) that since FDR, liberals have been more interested in getting votes -- from cities, blacks, the poor, and immigrants -- than in doing anything to really help: ultimate cynicism.

But let us keep our touch light: because I do not think my colleagues at the table feel that way at all. They really do care about the poor. However misguided, they really do think that being liberal and caring for the poor are one and the same. Ultimately, there's something corrupt in their principles; but let us not be too quick to impugn motives.

And so let us turn the tables back again, to where liberals are on the attack and conservatives appear to hate the poor. The two colleagues I was talking to were reasonable, gentle, fair people -- even if I think they are a bit shallow in their thinking about politics. But another colleague roared in with something about Paul Ryan's "death vouchers." He was incoherent, but I think he's claiming that since the conservative hero in the House is proposing that, several years down the road, we replace Medicare with vouchers, so that seniors would buy their own private insurance; and since this colleague thinks that private insurance obviously means they won't get adequate care; and since, let's face it, liberals are stung by the rhetorical power of conservative claims about Obama's "death panels," in which government bureaucrats decide which life-saving treatments people can get (in a parallel way, I couldn't help but notice how much the liberals in the Senate were desperately trying to create a mirror-image of conservative furor over the militantly pro-abortion Pres. Obama speaking at Notre Dame: how they wish they had an issue like abortion!); for all these reasons, this professor believes that Paul Ryan actually wants to throw Grandma off a cliff.

A liberal ad shows Paul Ryan pushing Grandma off a cliff.

Now here's my point, and it's a point that conservatives should also take to heart.

Alright, fine, I agree with the argument for my colleagues' main premise: yes, it's true that principle suffuses prudence such that bad political decisions may reflect not only bad prudence but also ill intent. At some point, if a policy throws people off a cliff, you begin to wonder whether the policy-maker is trying to do that.

But on the minor premise, I must urge caution. My colleagues, who only speak to liberal professors who agree with them, are so insulated as to think that their friends in the teachers' unions, who vehemently oppose Gov. Christie, are the only voices worth hearing. The teachers' unions think Christie is throwing -- well, let us not say "the children," but more vaguely, "the schools" off a cliff; therefore Christie must be doing that; therefore he must want to do that. Lots of suppressed premises here. The key point is, in our little postmodern echo chambers, it can sometimes seem like everyone agrees on a prudential point, and so we assume that when people disagree with us on prudence, there must be issues of principle. What's fascinating is that these academics, who are basically intelligent, informed people, are utterly unaware that Harvard, Princeton, Oprah, Bill Gates, Pres. Obama, and Corey Booker all disagree with them on the prudential point. My colleagues assume Christie is alone in his thinking.

Once you see that he is not alone, you have to at least appreciate that, whether or not you ultimately agree with his proposals (which, for example, say that funding is SO completely not part of the problem that he'll radically cut funding while he pursues other possibly beneficial policies), you have to acknowledge that people of good will can disagree on prudential applications. Ditto with Paul Ryan throwing Grandma off a cliff: some of us really do care about grandmothers, and also support Paul Ryan.

So of course it's true -- conservatives beware! -- that prudential disagreements cannot cover all sins. Bad prudence can be an indication of bad principle, and we cannot simply say that it's a matter of personal opinion when we see radically bad decisions. Nevertheless, we must be careful -- conservatives again beware! -- to recognize that sometimes people whose motives we really can't impugn may actually disagree with us on prudential matters. We can't hide behind prudence, but neither can we make it into a crystal-clear indication of what's in people's hearts.

I will add a postscript: The liberals of course become passionate defenders of Church teaching when it comes to economic issues. Every time something involves paying us or our friends more, liberal academics at Catholic colleges (at least this one) suddenly forget all their fears about the separation of Church and state and the illegitimacy of Church teaching impinging on academic freedom, and suddenly proclaim that this is a Catholic college, and we need to obey Catholic social teaching.

What they mean, of course, is that they have a vague idea that Pius XI's 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, rightly seen as the Magna Carta of Catholic economic policy, says something about a living wage: that we need to make sure the poor have enough money to live on. The liberal who boycotted graduation has said that it's a matter of Catholic social teaching that professors should be paid enough to live close to campus in incredibly expensive Northeast New Jersey (by which, of course, she does not mean that they should be paid enough to live near us in Newark, which she abhors as a hell-hole).

What they don't know is that in that very section -- a very key section -- of Quadragesimo Anno, the Pope (a) repudiates any notion of a minimum wage as being vastly too reductive; (b) says that wages must take into account the needs of the workers along with the viability of the business, which provides jobs, and the ultimate price of the goods that business provides for society, which it would be wrong to make too expensive through unreasonably high wages; and (c) defines the living wage as a key issue precisely because of what Pius XI and other popes prior to John Paul II (who liberals hate, but who was quiet on this point) perceived as the radical importance of making sure that women stay home with their children instead of going to work! I don't think the liberals really want to defend that idea of the living wage!

Quadragesimo Anno also, of course, is militant in its opposition to the growing powers of the state, over-taxation, and the loss of local autonomy through the encroachment of higher levels of government. And concludes that what's most important is that workers are cared for spiritually, go on spiritual retreats, and see their Catholic identity as entirely defining their sense of community. Liberals really shouldn't quote Catholic social thought.