Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Diversity in Higher Education

For decades now conservatives have sought to argue against "diversity" claims in higher education. It turns out all along that they should have been defending actual diversity against the faux diversity of those contemporary proponents of diversity that actually seeks to culminate in monoculture. That is, contemporary mainstream arguments for diversity seek to make every institution of higher education to be completely identical - populated by tolerant liberal individualists. The argument for diversity masks an agenda that seeks homogeneity.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico gets to the heart of this claim in his argument on the "Catholic identity crisis" at top Catholic institutions of higher education. These institutions have the opportunity - and the history and some remnant of culture - to afford actual diversity in higher education.

Rev. Sirico forcefully concludes: "We have come to the point that the most significant contribution Georgetown or Notre Dame could make to society’s diversity would be to become, once again, Catholic — and not be embarrassed about it. The Church in general and the Jesuits in particular have in their own history heroic examples of martyrs refusing to submit to secular authority and dying for the faith (such as Edmund Campion, S.J., at the hands of Elizabeth I). The least these campus authorities can do is not take active measures to undermine their own identity."

Now, he notes that the distinctively Catholic position makes it fall into what is now an increasingly politically incorrect or what is deemed by many to be an insufficiently-progressed view toward many hot-button issues. Nominal Catholics, he writes, "are embarrassed by the distinctiveness of their more faithful brethren who observe fast days, don’t approve of abortion, think marriage is what their grandparents thought it was, and hold conservative views on the other hot-button issues that Catholics in public life frequently get asked about by reporters." For a wide swath of not-so-committed Catholics - not to mention those outside the fold - these particular issues, mostly connected to issues of sexuality, comprise the narrow core of what it means to be Catholic.

A significant challenge faced by those who would argue on behalf of a far more robust and distinctive Catholic identity (to start with, at schools like Georgetown and Notre Dame) is to show how these "hot-button" issues are part of a more comprehensive web of Catholic belief. There is a danger that, in defining Catholicism in terms of specific culture war issues, the faith becomes too narrowly focused on sexual matters that many people regard as nothing more than a matter of individual choice. However, when framed in the wider context of the fabric of the society in which we live - the call for responsibility, people of good moral character, generational obligation, a belief in the governance of nature and the need for responsible stewardship of the natural world - suddenly those issues relating to family and sexuality become part of a much larger fabric and are not viewed in isolation, as tends to be the approach by mainstream discussions of the faith. Similarly, Catholic education is not reducible to classes on Catholic doctrine, but involves a very different approach to education overall that avoids the kinds of narrow specialization that dominates most college campuses. For this reason such an education would be based on a very different standard of excellence - centered on the education of the whole person, including not merely an academic training, but the moral character of our students, the kind of character that should be lauded in the wake of the moral turpitude of so many of the graduates of elite schools who were responsible for the financial collapse - than that all-too narrow and divided conception of "excellence" that dominates at the secular schools of the nation.

In sum, leading Catholics must themselves be more clear and more forceful and comprehensive when they address what it is they are defending and what it is they are promoting. Lest it be understood to be the religion of sexual prudery, leading Catholic voices need to do a better job of telling the whole story. It's a great story, and a powerful one, but right now it could use some better storytellers.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Mary Ann Glendon Declines Laetare Medal

Stunning news this morning: Mary Ann Glendon has declined to receive the Laetare Medal at the upcoming graduation ceremony at the University of Notre Dame. There had been much speculation about what she might have to say in the presence of President Obama. We'll never know - unfortunately, perhaps, though one cannot gainsay the reasons on which she based her refusal to attend.

A passage in her letter is a not so veiled criticism of my own institution, Georgetown University, and others like it: "Finally, with recent news reports that other Catholic schools are similarly choosing to disregard the bishops’ guidelines, I am concerned that Notre Dame’s example could have an unfortunate ripple effect." Given the recent prominence of the news that Catholic symbols were covered during a recent speech by President Obama at Georgetown, and more recently the conferral of an award upon Vice President Biden at an event hosted by Georgetown's Law Center, Mary Ann Glendon's concerns strike very close to this home. Are any Georgetown's administrators paying attention?

There is also one part of her letter that really ought to focus the attention of leaders at Catholic institutions:

Then I learned that “talking points” issued by Notre Dame in response to widespread criticism of its decision included two statements implying that my acceptance speech would somehow balance the event:

• “President Obama won’t be doing all the talking. Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, will be speaking as the recipient of the Laetare Medal.”

• “We think having the president come to Notre Dame, see our graduates, meet our leaders, and hear a talk from Mary Ann Glendon is a good thing for the president and for the causes we care about.”

While Glendon does not emphasize one direction that these statements could be taken, the tactic is clear and widespread: it is enough for Catholic institutions to have some voice on campus that "represents" the Catholic view, and the very presence of such a voice is sufficient both to signal the soundness of the institution's Catholic identity as well as permitting the inclusion of any and all non- or even anti-Catholic voices. It's as if what's being said is: "Don't worry about all that stuff that indicates we are not Catholic - we have Program X over here, or Professor Q over there." What this thin and bankrupt argument seeks in fact to obfuscate is the absence of an actual dominant and defining Catholic culture and governing philosophy on campus. What it seeks to veil is that a large number of "Catholic" institutions seek to be indistinguishable from their secular and disaffiliated counterparts with a light sprinkling of some Catholic program or symbols that purport to show their distinctiveness. Meanwhile - as the student guides of the campus tours at Georgetown always seek to point out to prospective students and their families - we all know that this school is not REALLY Catholic - ::wink-wink:: - so don't worry. It's all just for show.

Will there be any official at the Notre Dame graduation who will approach the occasion in anything like the way President Bollinger of Columbia University did when Columbia hosted Iran's President Ahmadinejad? Hosting a political dignitary does not mean that university officials must be uncritical of the stances of any such dignitary. Of course, Notre Dame's occasion is different because it is a graduation - indeed, for this precise reason Mary Ann Glendon decided to decline the Laetare Medal - but even at such a ceremony there could be some brief words by Notre Dame's President or other official noting Catholic teachings that are wholly at odds with various of President Obama's stances. It might actually become what University leaders claim to embrace - a "teaching moment," one that would encourage "critical thinking." One suspects that it will rather be a fawning love-fest, and the absence of Mary Ann Glendon means that a moment for real "critical thinking" will have been lost.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Bamboozling of David Brooks

In his most recent column, David Brooks writes of the remarkably conservative nature of President Obama’s recent pronouncements on the economy. Rather than sounding like and “economic liberal” – concerned above all with the equalization of wealth – President Obama “sounded like a cultural conservative.”

“America once had a responsible economic culture, Obama argued. People used to save their pennies to buy their dream houses. Banks used to lend by ‘traditional standards.’ Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used to stick to their ‘traditional mandate.’ Companies like AIG used to limit themselves to the ‘traditional insurance business.’

“But these traditions broke down, Obama continued. They were swamped by irresponsibility. Businesspeople chased ‘short-term profits’ over long-term investments. Smart people spent more time manipulating numbers and symbols rather than actually making things. Americans consumed too much and saved too little. America became corrupted by ‘excessive debt,’ ‘reckless speculation’ and ‘fleeting profits.’”

Brooks continues that “if Republicans aren’t nervous, they should be. Obama is arguing for his activist agenda not on the basis of class-consciousness, which is alien to America, but as a defense of middle-class morality, which is central to it. Obama is positioning the Democrats as the party of order, responsibility and small-town values. If he pulls this mantle away from the Republicans, it would be the greatest train robbery in American politics.”

Tut tut, David. We are now coming out of a period when the central message of the Republican Party – which was regnant in the Presidency during twenty of the past twenty-nine years – was a that of “individual responsibility,” “family values,” and the valorization of the traditional virtues over forms of liberal irresponsibility. Over that same time period what we have decisively witnessed is the overall decline of all of these desiderata. Whether in the economy, the role of the family, adherence to traditional religious belief, or the health of “small towns,” we have witnessed a steady and breathtakingly rapid decline of every measure of “traditional” ways of life. Relying on the virtues purportedly generated by the “Free Market” rather than “Big Government,” Republicans were willing to accommodate themselves to the myriad ways that the expansion of the particular market system they generally supported actively undermined the very virtues to which they were simultaneously paying lip service. Now we are being told that it is in fact Big Government that can supply the necessary underpinnings for shoring up “traditional values.” Really? Given this woeful disconnect between the rhetoric of a regnant Party and the actual facts on the ground in the world, why should we credit for a moment the extolling of “traditional values” in one speech, now by a Democrat? Yes, Brooks is right that Republicans have reason to be fearful, inasmuch as his “traditionalist” rhetoric represents a serious political threat. But, should conservatives be heartened? At the very least we might be curious whether there seems to be evidence of “money” where the President’s mouth is. And, by this test, I see as little evidence of an actual commitment to the realization of a traditional culture that actually supports traditional values of the sort commended by President Obama as I have in the past thirty years dominated by “conservatives.”

In his Georgetown speech, President Obama argued that the new rock-solid foundation of the economy would be built on five pillars: increased regulation of the financial industry; increased investment in education emphasizing science and technology; policies that will encourage alternative “renewable” energy; a plan that will move toward universal health care; and savings in the budget to bring down the national debt. Where in this list do we see firm and striking evidence of a turn to “traditional values” and greater “responsibility?” In every case – certainly in the particulars – what we are actually being offered is further expansion of the existing order, an order that fosters the opposite of the kind of culture that cultivates and reinforces “order, responsibility and small-town values.” For starters, where is the recommendation here that will encourage the preservation of small towns? Where are the commendations of policies that will reverse the tendencies toward abstraction, generational neglect, short-term thinking and the meritocratic race for material markers of success that have been so instrumental in fostering a culture of disorder, irresponsibility and values of itinerancy and placelessness?

To take just a few examples, increased regulation of the financial industry will not in itself promote more “responsibility.” Many have observed that even before the crisis that the financial industry was one of the most regulated industries in the country: in part what was lacking was the political desire or will to enforce the regulation in the midst of what appeared to be a financial boom, but more fundamentally it is the very structure of the current financial and broader economic system that encourages the very opposite of responsibility. The abstraction of the financial markets – the separation of “producers” from “consumers” and the geographical separation between production and consumption – induces a profound ignorance about the actual effects of our activities as “consumers” or “investors,” and is the very precondition for the most profound form of ignorance and irresponsibility. Where in the President’s policy proposals do we see efforts to reconnect products with the localities from which they are derived – for instance, an effort to encourage banks to retain mortgages based within their localities and for which they will be responsible for the lives of those loans? That’s the kind of policy that encourages “small-town values” of thrift and responsibility – precisely because those activities are lodged in a place – and it is just this kind of activity that the President is in no way whatsoever interested in promoting, that would in fact go against his deepest inclinations to promote separation and placelessness.

Or, take the commendation of a policy encouraging investments in renewable energies. The background assumption in this proposal is to “incentivize” the market to come up with energy solutions that will allow us to continue to live and act in precisely the way we have been living. Encouraging the expansion of our highly mobile and disassociated lives is at its heart the very source of the evisceration of small towns that are the source of “small town values.” Moreover, Obama encourages the creation of “home-grown” alternatives, which has meant for him the promotion of further increases in corn-based ethanol (after all, he was a Senator from Illinois…). This form of energy production is demonstrably inefficient and destructive of the farmland on which it is practiced. What is above all missing in the various proposals relating to energy is even the passing suggestion that we should consider policies that encourage us to change our behavior – living closer to the places where we work and shop, driving less, being more invested in our particular places and communities. Effectively Obama is suggesting – just as much as George Bush the First – that “the American way of life is non-negotiable.”

Or, consider his argument on behalf of investments in education in science and technology. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Obama framed this discussion as an appeal for Americans to begin “making things” again – to become makers rather than manipulators of numbers. However, what this proposal effectively commends is the actual relief from an emphasis on “making things.” It is another form of manipulation – in this case, the manipulation of nature – that is aimed at liberating us in many of its forms from responsibility to the consequences of our actions. Science is actually a replacement for responsibility: rather than being called upon to change our activities where they prove destructive, we aspire to the creation of technologies that will relieve the worst effects of our damaging actions. Obama’s endorsement of an abortion regime is one major indicator of this fact: our ability to clinically end a child’s life is the desirable means by which we escape responsibility for our sexual behavior. If Obama were serious about “responsibility” in this domain, he would encourage ways and patterns of life that encourage courtship and marriage. At the very least, he might roll out a serious program in which the resources of the Federal government would be devoted to making it possible for every mother who carried an unwanted baby to give that child up for adoption, cost free. But that would be to ask people to act responsibly. Similarly, in many other instances - whether global warming, oil depletion, the consequences of industrial farming, a bad financial system (one go on almost indefinitely) – the solution lies always in devising some mechanism (technological or regulatory) that will manage the effects our irresponsibility, not call on us to change our actions in ways that encourage responsibility. There is remarkable consistency in the willful desire to avoid considering the meaning and consequences of our actions, and of calling for the fostering (or even outright new creation) of those culturally sound conditions that foster traditional values.

Where is there a commendation for "investments" in education that promote responsibility and stewardship? That encourage students to return to their places of origin and give back to their home communities? That discourage careerism based on the prospects of outsized financial rewards, and the willingness to cut moral corners that was so evident among our best and brightest who were working for the discredited and bankrupt Wall Street firms? Laws and regulations won't foster these sorts of "values": at best, in a morally bankrupt environment, all they will do is foster extensive efforts to get around regulation.

In looking more closely at the disconnect between words and actions, there is essentially NO difference between the Republican presidencies of the past thirty years and Obama’s administration of “change.” Indeed, there is no fundamental difference in the masterful effort to obfuscate the expansion of a society of disconnection and abstraction with the rhetoric of “traditional values.” There IS a cynical effort to marshal political support by means of widespread sympathy with, even longing for, a society that generates and reinforces those political values, even as proposed policies are designed at every turn to undermine the conditions that might actually foster the sorts of values that are being rhetorically valorized. “Conservatives” are rightly frustrated and stymied because President Obama has indeed stolen from their own playbook. However, Obama stole not only a page, but the entire book, including the manual that lays out not only the tactic, but the endgame. Thus, even as Obama won the nomination in part because he spoke the anxieties of the ordinary working classes by suggesting that he would seek renegotiation of existing Free Trade agreements – even that he would reassess the entire Free Trade regime – more recently he has signaled his desire to continue business as usual, further increasing the separation of production from consumption and further eviscerating the stability of small towns that embody the values that he purportedly cherishes. No different from Reagan or Bush I or Clinton or Bush II before him: say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.

The economic policy speech at Georgetown embodied exactly the same tactic as his earlier speech there (delivered without the Presidential prerogative of covering up the name of the Messiah) – to which he referred at the outset of his most recent speech. In that earlier speech – which I wrote about at the time, and in which I even had a minor role to play – Senator Obama began by criticizing then President Bush’s woeful failure to call for civic sacrifice after the attacks of 9/11. Instead, he pointed out, President Bush encouraged us to go shopping. Senator Obama spoke with rhetorical brilliance of the central need for a new civic ethic, one devoted the pursuit of the common good. And then – he gave us his proposals in the areas of energy reform. First, he said, there should be legislation to increase CAFE standards – that is, increase the minimum miles per gallon of automobiles. Second (and familiarly), he called for the increased production of ethanol. At the conclusion of the speech, I had the opportunity to pose a question to Senator Obama, in which I challenged him to articulate in what way his policies would result in any actual achievement of sacrifice and common good that he had so eloquently extolled in the first part of his speech. And, revealingly, Senator Obama at first hemmed and hawed, and finally answered that it wouldn’t be possible to ask people who were struggling so mightily with the high price of gas to change their behaviors – such as consider ways to live closer to work. The entire game was there in his answer – and smart folks like David Brooks should be in the forefront of demanding better answers than this sort. Yet, we can little expect those sorts of follow-up questions, since most of the President’s “conservative” critics essentially agree with the game. Thus they are shut out, even as they know he’s really one of them. Different crooner, same lyrics – the song remains the same.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tea Parties

As posted yesterday at Front Porch Republic:

Last week's motley collection of protests against taxation, centralization and the Government are now old news, but their spirit remains perennially relevant. Invoked in the name of the original "Boston Tea Party," the patchwork of local Tea Parties sought to revive the spirit of protest against a distant and arbitrary government. While a number of commentators have rightly noted that this most recent set of "tea parties" did not share a central feature of the original Boston tea party - namely, a protest against "taxation without representation" - in a deeper sense, there is a profound continuity between these two protests, even if the circumstances and the particular governments in question are radically different. While in our current age we are citizens of an representative democracy in which all of us (except for DC citizens) can claim the right and privilege representation, in fact we are individually less represented than ever, more subject to titanic forces over which we exercise little if any control, and frustrated at the sense of impotence and irrelevance that the impersonality and massness of modern political and economic life thrusts inescapably upon us. The tea parties were wildly incapable of articulating the true sources of this frustration, but the frustration is real and our "leaders" are well advised not to ignore those frustrations. Indeed, it presents a moment of enormous danger as well as possibility: from this frustration might arise a populist demagogue who could foment destructive revolutionary impulses that are ill-directed and aimed solely at denunciations of "elites," the wealthy, and liberals. However, an able spokesman might possibly be able to give articulate voice to these frustrations, one that transcends contemporary Left/Right distinctions and above all - like the original Boston Tea Party - rests on demands for a true and significant form of self-government.

Ironically, the protests are directed against Government precisely because government is the one potentially responsive large-scale agent in the modern world. "The people" theoretically can exercise some degree of control over large private entities such as corporations - particularly in the form of boycotts or "market"demands - but such institutions are largely insulated from direct popular pressure unless such pressure can be sustained in ways that are difficult in modern mass society. A far more promising avenue is anger directed at "Guvment," at once born of frustration at its disdain toward and neglect of the concerns of ordinary citizens, and the understanding that the most responsive modern institution toward such anger is likely to be government.

At the same time, the national government is a massive and largely impersonal organization. Like most modern organizations, it is composed of innumerable faceless functionaries whose job is largely to render all problems and concerns subject to administrative logic and "rationalization." Government is largely something we perceive to be "out there": even those of us who regularly vote know that our vote is a tiny fraction of actual sovereignty, and that even changes in representatives will result in small actual changes to the daily grind of the administrative State. While we are theoretically citizens, we regard Government as something alien and separate from us, an entity hardly comprehensible and barely under control. Programming ranging from the X-Files to "24" capture our fears that the government is actually run by shadowy figures who aim to harm us - and, at the same time, that the only source of our potential salvation are other government functionaries who, for some inexplicable and old-fashioned noble reason - have the interest of ordinary people at heart. Agents Mulder and
Scully, and Jack Bauer spend as much time fighting against their own government as they do against external agents who mean us harm. Government is thus the source of our fear and our ire, and the only institution with some modicum of public spirited heroism that might combat those internally destructive forces.

We should understand that "the system" was designed to render us relatively politically insignificant and inert (or, "tractable") while, it was hoped, any potential frustrations from that public irrelevance would be obviated by great potentials for private success, particularly economic opportunities and prosperity. The modern liberal project of mass legitimating "democracy" was a wager designed to purchase our acquiescence to political insignificance in favor of private satisfactions. It was the literal reversal of the ancient and Christian counsels that private satisfactions needed forms of restraint whose sources derived from publically defined conceptions of common weal, and at their most expansive demanded a strong degree of publically shaped and determined self-government.

This wager has proven itself to be enormously successful: liberated of age-old prohibitions against self-aggrandizement, pride, lust, and self-seeking, and told instead that what had formerly been regarded as slavish, hubristic or sinful behavior was now the very basis of what constituted the public "virtue" (in Mandeville's articulation, "private vices" led to "publick virtues," a summary that lie at the heart of John Locke's political formulation and Adam Smith's economic theories in The Wealth of Nations), the modern wager sought to achieve a high degree of public irrelevancy by means of private satiations. One must marvel at how well this wager has borne out.

However, as I have argued elsewhere, this wager rested at the deepest level upon the premise of eternal economic growth and expansion of "opportunity." The rising inequality of the citizenry, combined with their public irrelevance, required a backdrop in which one's relative position was always subject to radical improvement (or, potentially, shattering failure). Private material satiation was not sufficient, since such satiation was always relative: a few would be demonstrably more "satiated" than the many, and absent the prospect that increased opportunities for satiation would be potentially available to those in a comparatively less "satiated" condition, modern liberalism realized that discontent with our actual insignificance and lack of public and political dignity could quickly take the upper hand. For this reason, every contemporary political leader - regardless of party or ideology - regards it as the primary and uncontested aim of contemporary policy to maintain growth. Absent such growth, not only is any politician's term of office likely to be brief, but the actual legitimacy of the entire political and economic system is likely to be put under enormous stress and threat.

The recent Tea Parties were generally born of poorly articulated frustration, but at base that frustration derives from the felt sense of public indignity and irrelevance. To maintain a system of endless growth, modern structures - whether public or private - have necessarily undergone accelerated consolidation. The demands for market efficiencies and economies of scale have provided the logical impetus at ever-greater massification and centralization, and the evisceration of significant local forms of governance or economic arrangements. At every turn the modern citizen - theoretically the source of all political legitimacy and the director of modern policy - is in fact everywhere deprived of the actual capacity to exercise any meaningful control over their own fates or the basic decisions that would guide their lives. We are implicitly told that this is a good bargain - we are relieved of the burdens of self-government while being told that smart and clever people distant and unknown to us are working hard to ensure that our futures will be better and brighter. Amid profound cognitive dissonance, we attack government for depriving us of any significant voice in our own future, unaware that what we actually crave is a truer form of self-government. This frustration is understood by the distant powers to be a call for further rationalization, further consolidation and renewed efforts to ensure a future of economic growth and opportunities for material satiation. For many of us shaped by these deep set of modern presuppositions, we somewhat accept that our happiness lies in these increases of private satiation - and thus, many of the Tea Partiers demanded less government intervention in the private realm - even as they pointed often to a deep dissatisfaction to the apparent discounting of our contemporary selfish actions against the prospects of future generations. I can't help but hear in the frustration of many who gathered in these Tea Parties an echo of the original participants of the Boston Tea Party, namely a call for the opportunity to govern ourselves. What was striking was that this call was not directed against a dictatorial and unelected King, but a government elected by the populace. Still, its distance was just real as that which once separated us from the British Crown, as was the felt sense that decisions being made by those distant leaders were being taken without any real regard for the lives and destinies of ordinary citizens far flung and diversely placed. More to the point, the decisions of the distant government appear to be made for the advantage of the well-placed, those favored by the Government because of their positions of prominence. Government seems to willfully demonstrate our irrelevance and impotence.

In today's New York Times Tom Brokaw calls for greater efficiencies in the governing of the local places of America. He notes with disappointment the resistance of local politicians to recent proposals to consolidate "inefficient" local governments in the State of New York - citing "parochialism" and what must be antiquated resistance to "evolution" - and calls for the elimination of many of the local institutions of higher education in declining parts of the country like the Dakotas, proposing instead their consolidation into "The Dakota Territory College System." He decries the inefficiencies of so many local governments and institutions, holdovers, he asserts, from "the early 20th-century when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close to home during harvest season."

Brokaw - that chronicler of "The Greatest Generation" that did so much to dismantle the localities of our nation in the oil and auto rush of the 1950's - sees only inefficiencies and antiquated resistance to "progress" or "evolution." Quite remarkably, his short memory overlooks our recent experience with $140/barrel oil, and the sudden "new" experience of travel not being quite so easy as we'd grown accustomed to in roughly 30-40 years - a very short time in human history, and one that hardly justifies dismantling those local communities that pre-existed the age of oil and will be desperately needed when we depart that short-lived era. But perhaps more importantly, these institutions are the starved remnants of a period of far greater self-government and the places where a sense of common weal and public good could be articulated by actual citizens. While largely eviscerated by the logic of our age, our impulse should not be to further dismantle them, but to strengthen those local places that still exist while thinking inventively and experimentally to create new places where a felt-sense of self-government can be fostered and cultivated. We should reject calls for "efficiency" and instead install in its place calls for "citizenship."

Indeed, if anything should be learned from our current crisis, it is that the very apparent "efficiencies" of larger and more consolidated entities actually decrease our capacity to govern ourselves. The current frustrations of our many "Tea Parties" is surely derived from the palpable sense that things have spun wholly out of control and ordinary citizens are being asked to bankroll a system that is almost wholly ungovernable. Consider this (remarkable!) concluding line from Brokaw's op-ed: "If this is a reset, it's time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today's realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th-century. If we demand this from General Motors, we should ask no less than ourselves." What is truly remarkable - and willfully self-blinding - about this statement is the idea that a further consolidation of our remaining local institutions would be akin to efforts of the central government to shore up or bail out that massive and "too big to fail" organization, General Motors. If anything, the example of General Motors - not to mention AIG and Fannie Mae and Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers - should instruct us not to put all of our eggs into baskets much larger than that which a small set of humans can reasonably be expected to eat. If anything, this "reset" should consist of the obvious instruction that we should be downsizing and decentralizing, retaining and encouraging actual diversities based in local circumstance rather than encouraging the creation of monolithic and homogeneous organizations of such massiveness that they are barely governable and hardly function. Above all, we should avoid further centralization in the name of efficiency that simultaneously leaves the citizenry with a sense of insignificance, powerlessness, irrelevance and indignity. If a deepening of this condition represents the outcome of "evolved" 21st-century progress, then I say we should rather embrace that 18th-century sentiment that inspired the original Tea Parties, and again demand nothing short of real liberty.

Not to be Outdone...

Georgetown appears jealous of all the attention that Notre Dame has received, and seems to wish to show that it is more an apostate university than our midwest counterpart. Word just received from "The Corner" is that Georgetown Law Center, in conjunction with "Legal Momentum" - founded as NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund - will confer on Vice-President Joseph Biden the "Legal Momentum Award" for his work on the Violence Against Women Act.

I don't seek to gainsay Vice-President Biden's work on behalf of women, but the conferral of this honor is in direct violation of the U.S. bishops’ 2004 mandate in “Catholics in Political Life”: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.” The "Legal Momentum" foundation has every right to confer any award it wishes on the Vice-President, but the Vice-President's strenuous pro-abortion stance is sufficient reason not to give him the platform that is being provided by the Georgetown Law Center. Following on the heels of the covering of the IHS and cross during President Obama's speech in Gaston Hall last week, it appears that Georgetown is committed to the effort of wresting attention away from Notre Dame's scandal.

What particularly strikes me about this event is that the award originates from an entity outside of Georgetown, but the event itself is being hosted at - and presumably paid for by - Georgetown University. There seems to be no question worthy of being raised over the appropriateness of the University conferring legitimacy upon the activities of an activist organization - at least when the activism is toward an end that seems to conform to the predilections of the university's leaders. However, when there is an effort on behalf of some to establish activities or programs within the university in an opposite political direction, severe denunciations rain down upon any such "politicized" agenda. A striking recent example of this hypocritical call for a neutral and a-political academic environment in response to a doctrinally appropriate activity on a Catholic campus was articulated in this article by Notre Dame theologian Jean Porter in criticism of the creation of a Fund to Protect Human Life at Notre Dame. As its director, philosophy professor David Solomon pointed out in response, many of a univerity's activities can be seen as having a broadly educative impact that demands engagement by faculty and the broader institution. Yet, in this case, something like the Fund to Protect Human Life - which is in keeping with the Catholic identity of Notre Dame - is attacked for being political - for violating the necessary objectivity required of the academic project - while the conferral of an honor from an outside organization upon Vice-President Biden at Georgetown is presumptively to be regarded by the various administrations and faculties as unproblematic recognition of public service. At the very least, these instances should disabuse us of the notion that we are dealing with even-handed and neutral definitions, and rather recognize that what is contained in them is a positive assertion of what is regarded as good and defensible (or, alternatively, unjustified and undesirable). That some of the core political beliefs of these politicians contradict a central teaching of the Church ought to be sufficient reason to withhold the conferral of honors by leading Catholic universities. That they receive these awards reveals profoundly the scandal of capitulation of our leading Catholic universities to a broken and degraded culture.

(h/t Matthew Franck)

Friday, April 17, 2009

More on The Cover Up

My colleague, Rev. James V. Schall S.J. is always worth reading, but little has been better than his wise and sobering thoughts on the "cover up" of the Christian symbols that were requested by President Obama's team and acquiesced to by the administration of Georgetown University. See his thoughts here, along with the hilarious satire of a not-so-unrealistic Presidential memo that might well precede President' Obama's visit to the Vatican.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Photo Op

Recently there have been a series of acts of vandalism in which sacred art at Georgetown has been defaced, including twice the vandalization of the statue of the Virgin of Fatima near the front gates of the University.

Thus it comes as a surprise to learn that, at some point before President Obama's speech in historic Gaston Hall on the campus of Georgetown, someone appears to have covered in black cloth the letters "IHS" and cross that are displayed directly above the speaker's head at the center of the stage (compare the photos above). [Update: It was apparently members of the White House team, with consent of the administration of Georgetown University, that covered over these symbols of Christian and Catholic faith]. In light of the calls of the leaders of the University that the University community demonstrate renewed respect for the sacred symbols of our Catholic tradition, it is a tremendous disappointment that this obscuring of the Cross and the name of Jesus Christ was permitted to take place.

I am deeply disappointed that the President would have so wished to have a certain "neutral" backdrop that he would have been willing to have his team cover sacred symbols of a major world faith. It's hard to imagine that his team would have done the same at a Jewish or Muslim institution. I'm even more disappointed that my own institution, Georgetown University, would have agreed to allow symbols of our faith to be covered. We certainly owe respect to the wishes of a visiting dignitary such as the President of the nation, but the wishes of Caesar do not obviate our commitments to our faith and to our God. We should have had the courage of our convictions - or convictions, to start with - and declined the request to cover the Cross and the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ. As hosts, we had that right and prerogative to decline the request, and there were other spaces in the DC area where the Obama team would not have had to commit such an offensive act to attain the appearance of secular purity. Georgetown should have been willing to allow the speech to take place elsewhere if the President's team was unwilling to have him speak under the Cross - under God. Better to be true to God than to Caesar. I fear the University sought the favor of the wrong King - shame on us.

[This is an updated entry in light of the recent press releases about this incident that have come from the White House and the University].

Go (IH)Shopping

I posted this essay at Front Porch Republic yesterday, and thought I would do so here. It affords a more considered response to the President's speech at Georgetown.

Yesterday our President spoke at length about the economy at the school at which I teach, Georgetown University. A nominally Catholic University, it might rightly have been the place where a new vision for a humane economy might have been advanced. It might have been a stage on which the great teachings of the Catholic tradition about an economy that is subordinate to concerns about commonweal based upon a true understanding of human nature and natural limits might have been advanced - rather than a stage on which the symbols of Jesus Christ were obscured so not to disturb the viewing audience from any inconvenient symbol of the actual Messiah. Widely touted as an opportunity for the President to lay out a new vision for the economic future of the nation, instead it was a commitment to do more of the same, albeit with more centralized control and command, with an aim to “restoring” an economy whose sole purpose is to generate a wasteland of consumerism, debt-driven distraction, endless hedonic opportunities and the destruction of human communities everywhere in the name of efficiency, meritocracy and opportunity.

The President began with an overview of the causes of our current economic crisis. It was an explanation that was correct in all particulars and wrong on all the fundamentals. The economic collapse, he argued, had its roots in abuses in the housing market, a bubble that was inflated by means of cheap credit, greedy lenders, foolish and often duplicitous borrowers and - above all, according to his narrative - scoundrels on Wall Street. All this was true in its particulars, though none of it was fundamentally true as an explanation of how we have gotten here. The housing bubble was simply yet another in a string of bubbles that has come to define the American economy over roughly the past forty or fifty years. We have replaced an actual economy with this “bubble” economy because of a deep, pervasive, and wholly unjustified expectation that we deserved to live as well or better than that “greatest generation” who happened to live in a time of extraordinary and exceptional (and temporary) national wealth. In that decade or two after World War II, America attained a remarkable position in the world, with its industrial machinery wholly intact and ready to roll, a national and worldwide market poised to buy American goods, and a resource base that appeared to be limitless. All competition lay in the smoking ruins of post-War Europe. It was during this time that the modern American economic system was born, one with expansive pension programs, a rising middle class, the creation and growth of the American suburbs, the automobile and trucking culture that allowed them to flourish (and which was supplied extensively by the industrial system), and growing consolidation of industry to achieve economies of scale. Industry worked closely with Government to achieve a de facto national industrial policy, with enough wealth and prosperity to go around for everyone to have a healthy cut of the pie. Indeed, Government preferred a few large industrial actors with which to interact, to decrease transaction costs and simplify the legislative and regulatory processes, just as those big actors preferred a landscape of only a few large competitors rather than numerous smaller ones. The transformation of the American landscape was undertaken in earnest, with small retailers being displaced by a few large ones, with small industries being eaten up by a few big ones, and with small farmers leaving the fields in droves to be replaced by a few large agricultural conglomerates. The foundations of the imperative of “too big to fail” was laid during this period.

This golden period - if it can truly be considered one - could not last. It was built, above all, upon a base of endless cheap oil. The new national economy rested upon a national (and increasingly) international system of trucking and then shipping, with supply chains extending thousands of miles, permitting the homogenization of the national and increasingly international economic system. Much of the modern economy rested upon the spreading of the suburban dream - a dream that rested above all upon the transformation of frugal workers and citizens into “consumers” - sustained first by installment plans and then easy credit - and the transformation of farmland into housing tracts. The ugliness of this new landscape was beyond description, though we largely came to accept it as “normal,” sequestering it to particularly unsightly intersections while maintaining the illusion that we lived on country estates (albeit, only by means of six lane feeder roads that took us past the commercial blight and defiled farmland, into “communities” of cul-de-sacs and three car garages). This oil-drenched world was suddenly thrown into doubt in the early 1970s, when America for the first time confronted the hard truth that had been articulated by M. King Hubbert in 1956 - that in the early 1970s the United States would reach peak oil production and cease to the the world’s swing producer of oil. From that point forward, we would produce less oil than each preceding year. Yet this inconvenient fact was a challenge to our purported birthright - a right of permanent upward prosperity - so we denied it, electing a President who told us that there were no limits, that it was “morning in America,” and who traded American military protection for a steady flow of oil from the sands of the Middle East (a place we now consider a home away from home, for that reason…).

And so, we are told, our current economic crisis is due to a few bad loans made by a few bad eggs who work on Wall Street. What is neglected in this explanation is a broader and deeper perspective: our current crisis is due to the fact that we have, as a civilization, refused to live within our means - and the means afforded us by the natural world - over roughly the past 50 years. Mistaking a temporary glut of post-war wealth and resource plenty as a permanent condition, we are told by our leaders - indeed, we demand of them that they tell us - that we can continue to have it all, costless plenitude. Yet these past thirty-odd years of our “economy” have been one in which we have maintained our wealth simultaneously by transferring the accumulated national wealth abroad, importing oil and debt, while refusing to face the mounting costs of this exercise - including its costs in the form of a massive military presence that was the only real guarantor and bargaining chip on our bankrupt side of the bargain. Meanwhile we continue to dismantle those cultural institutions that once taught restraint and limits - many of them religious, since they are an offense, above all, to our sense of sexual entitlement - in an effort to achieve ever more perfect individual autonomy.

Meantime, the American citizenry - scratch that, consumerdom, or consumerdumb - has all the while been willing to trade away any actual political and civic liberty for the sake of a guarantee of two cars, a plywood and aluminum siding house in the burbs, a college education (a.k.a. four year binge) for their children, and 401Ks that grew at a healthy 10% a year, no matter how an economy that grew only 2-3% a year was producing such outsize stock market returns. Enjoying our returns in the various markets in which we participated - stocks, bonds, real estate - we didn’t ask too many questions, not even when the national savings rate dipped to -2% in the late 90s. Everything seemed to be going along just fine. Yes, 9/11 was disturbing to everyone, but the President told us to go shopping, and we were good at that. We were really good at that.

Yesterday the President told us that we were going to have to become again a nation that worked - and my ears perked up - until he described precisely what he meant. By work, more of us are to become scientists and engineers. That is, more of us are to become the kinds of workers who make it possible for the rest of us not to work, to engage in the sort of work that lies at the heart of the modern project, namely of extracting from a recalcitrant nature its secrets so that we can enjoy the “relief of the human estate.” More of us are to engage in that project that is being taken up readily by our Chinese and Indian competitors, to transform our world ever more into a useful commodity for our pleasure and enjoyment. Americans must cease trying to make easy money at the casinos of Wall Street and instead seek to extend the mastery and dominion of nature so that the rest of us will not have to work or think too hard about what makes living possible or even worthwhile. Fewer traders, more lab coats. Above all, no jobs that actually demand work. Top scientists are working to eliminate any possible drudgery from our lives, especially the need to do things with our hands, make or repair our own stuff, understand for ourselves how the world works and how we can best live in it.

And so, we were told yesterday, we must restore our economy to its former glory. Yes, there will be more regulation, more government management of health care. Yes, we will have cap-and-trade policies which will allow polluters to buy the right to pollute from those who pollute less (this is a policy that is generally favored by industry - far above the idea that there simply be a tax on carbon producing fuels, a far simpler solution, and one far more likely to change actual behaviors). But, in all the most fundamental respects, we were told yesterday that it remains the policy of the United States to maintain and expand its modern economic project of growth, use of resources, and above all, the pursuit of material plenty. We are told, above all, that we should STILL go shopping.

We live in the belief that we define our own futures according to our own lights - that the hallmark of American citizenship is the freedom to define your own end and your own ideals. Yet we are fundamentally blinkered to the way that our broader culture defines us, particularly how it defines us above all as certain kinds of homo economicus. We are consumers. Constantly that is the term employed to describe us, and few of us blink or find anything peculiar or objectionable to that label. How odd if a newscaster were to wonder what will be the response of America’s “producers” or “laborers” or - God forbid - “citizens.” Yet, having until recently achieved “success” that would have been unimaginable to most previous generations - having wallowed in material plenty that seemed to come at a small price for those who weren’t calculating properly - where was our satisfaction, our contentment, our happiness? Did we think the next shopping trip would land us that one possession, finally, that we had hitherto lacked? Did we think that one trip to Cancun would finally give us that sense of fulfillment that had eluded us? Did we think that finale of American Idol would finally ensconce us with a sense of cultural achievement?

Are we so empty now - now that our economy has imploded - that we need to fulfill ourselves anew? Is our landscape so lovely - dotted by endless parking lots and horizontal stores that consume acres of farmland - that we must continue its expansion? Are our houses sufficiently homes that we expand “home ownership” so that everyone can attain their birthright of a two hour commute and a fertilized lawn? Are our cubicle or assembly line jobs so rewarding that we are desperate for employment at any cost to actual mental and physical stimulation and reward? What in the world are we doing?

In the meantime, lest the viewers be disturbed, the President covered up the IHS and cross above his head that would have otherwise been visible during his speech at Georgetown. And perhaps it was proper and meet to do so, since even the intimation of Christ’s presence would have suggested a competitor to the profane economy that he was professing and praising. It would have represented a truer alternative to our own commitments, an aspiration to something better and higher than a culture devoted to plastic implements at everyday low prices. He was right to understand that nothing ought to distract us from restoring this economy on the terms in which it has operated over the past half-century - for a glimpse outside of its narrow confines might alert us to its utter absurdity, vapidity, and self-delusion. Any such realization would be a disaster for the America we have come to accept, an America defined by a thousand choices except the choice not to be a consumer. If you think otherwise, we will force you to be free - if only on tax day, when your dollars are even now being procured to be spent to stimulate an economy meant to keep you in torpor. Go shopping. The alternative - to look around and see what we’re doing - is too grim to face.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Fool's Errand

This blawg tends toward high seriousness and some measure of apocalypticism, so - in the spirit of the day - I invite you to enjoy this irreverent piece from that pious man, Jason Peters, over on the Front Porch. I think he has the right idea - the "other side" loves battles to be fought on the plain of moral indignation and high dudgeon. The best response is to laugh at them.

WARNING: Do not, like me, sip coffee while reading, unless you enjoy the sensation of heated beverage passing through the nasal cavity...