Race, Individualism, Thomas Paine, and Bill de Blasio

For Christmas, Aloysius sent me Yuval Levin’s fascinating study (I think it’s just a popularization of his Chicago dissertation, with Leon Kass) The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left.  It’s a fascinating introduction to Burke; Paine is more of a foil than an equal partner.

The only problem is that the subtitle is quite a stretch.  Paine makes such a good foil precisely because both Right and Left now speak the individualist, deracinated, universalist, rationalist language of Thomas Paine: comparing Burke to his contemporary Paine is a nice way to compare Burke to all of our contemporaries, Left and Right.  There are probably pockets of Burkean (or, sub-Burkean) thinking (or, sub-thinking) in parts of the populace: perhaps some Evangelicals, and patriots, and good old boys.  Perhaps some aspect of the old “silent majority” works off of a mistrust of rationalism and univeralism and far-away people.  But the politicians, and the media, and more importantly, the language of our politics, is so thoroughly imbued with Paine’s individualism that no one, so far as I know, articulates a Burkean perspective.

I’m not going to waste time here talking about Buchanan and the Old Right.  Put it this way: xenophobia is as close to Burke as hatred of others is to love of neighbors.

I’d like to try to apply this a little to our thinking about race and poverty.

Last night I saw (through my local newspaper’s web site!) New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  De Blasio is a hard-core radical, about as far from Burke as you can get: openly joking about his love of Che Gueverra and his hope that Biblical plagues will descend on the Upper East Side.  (I know these were jokes . . . but gosh, there was no hedging, not the slightest acknowledgment how profoundly wrong, and destructive, such ideas are.)  I think Bill de Blasio is really going to hurt New York City.

But, ironically, I have to agree with many of the things he said.

Most interesting was his commentary on “Stop and Frisk.”  This is the Bloomberg-era policy whereby people can be stopped by the police, just for how they look, and subjected to a personal search without a warrant.  Not surprisingly, what it means in practice is that the police have carte blanche (so to speak) to shake down young black men.  In addition to the general feeling of unfairness – how would you like to be doing nothing wrong, and shaken down purely because of the color of your skin? how would it make you feel about your society? about the police? – Stewart made a good point: young black men and young white men might well be committing the same crime: for example, carrying marijuana.  But the young white man will get away with it, because he will not be stopped and frisked.  Indeed, though I don’t understand the details, de Blasio claimed that the frisk creates a new crime: something like, the young black man is committing a worse crime by displaying the marijuana than he would be by merely carrying it.

Of course, no one should break the law – that’s the point of laws.  But unequal enforcement of the law, by catching young black men but not young white men, seems a bit unfair.

Alright, now, here’s the interesting, Burkean part.  De Blasio’s argument was that this is undemocratic.  He’s kind of goofy, kind of naïve, but also pretty good at summoning this democratic, Tom Paine rage.  To de Blasio, the problem is that individuals should be treated as individuals.  The unfortunate fact of race, from the Thomas Paine, individualist perspective, is that it allows people to identify you with a group, when in fact no one should be identified with a group.  You are just an individual, who happens to be black, walking down the street: the police should see the individual, not the black.

From the equally Tom Paine-conservative point of view – most conservatives today, and almost all conservative discourse, is stuck in individualism – the response, the defense of stop and frisk, is an interesting mirror image.  On the one hand, they say that it is reasonable to racially profile.  In fact, black men commit more crime.  Interesting: the enforcement issue does challenge this claim: maybe it’s not that more black men commit crime, just that more black men are caught when they commit crime.  But the conservative will say that we have a good individualist law-enforcement structure.  For the most part, the policeman, even if he has stopped a person for superficial reasons, is able to make a judgment about the individual, not the group, as is the judge: conservatives say that the stopping part might be racist, but after that, the black man will be treated as an individual, judged on his individual merits, and therefore there’s no problem.

Moreover, they say black men should behave as individuals.  Don’t dress like a black man – if you wear a hoodie, for example, you are fair game – don’t hang out in black neighborhoods (or look black in a white neighborhood), get out of the place you came from, and eliminate all sense that you are part of the black group.  Just act like an individual.  Again, on the margins, some racism will endure – the taxi driver, sometimes even the cop, might make the rational judgment that you are more likely to be dangerous than the white man next to you – but (a) Tom Paine conservatives just pretend this doesn’t happen: see no evil, hear no evil! if I pretend these things don’t happen, the black men will be fine! and (b) on balance, if we allow taxi drivers to use their individual good judgment and black men to act like individuals and leave behind any kind of racial group-think or self-identification with a community-of-origin, this is the greatest path out of racism.  Pretend that there are no groups, and eventually there won’t be.

My point thus far is simply that both sides are speaking the language of radical individualism.  De Blasio and the opponents of stop-and-frisk think it’s wrong to treat black men as black, and not just as men.  Conservative defenders of stop-and-frisk think it’s wrong for black men to act black, and wrong to prevent police men from using their good judgment, precisely because ultimately, good judgment will always transcend race: maybe we’ll stop him for being black, but we would never convict him for that.

(And anyway, somehow individualism always slides, ironically but inevitably, into the greatest good for the greatest number: so what if a few individuals suffer, as long as most people benefit.  Conservatives and liberals don’t differ on the principle, just on the application: conservatives think crime is the greatest threat to the greatest number, liberals think discrimination is; conservatives are willing to have a few suffer discrimination in order to prevent crime for the many, liberals are willing to have a few suffer crime in order to prevent discrimination for the many.)

But what about if we view the problem from the perspective – I’m not sure it’s exactly Burkean, but it’s Aristotelian, and Thomist, and traditional, and Catholic . . . and perhaps more urban? – that people are part of communities.  A black man is black, just as a kid from Wisconsin is from Wisconsin, and a man in New Jersey is in New Jersey, etc.  (He can’t escape being black – but neither can I escape being from Wisconsin.)

We might find, first, that we do indeed have responsibilities to our neighbors.  Not just responsibilities to create (as de Blasio says) “a democratic society,” a world of radical individualism – but, to the contrary, a responsibility to create community.  I can never say, in the name of “the greater number,” that it’s okay if someone suffers (whether it’s the young black man suffering discrimination, or other people suffering crime), because I am always my brothers’ keeper: all of them.  We are responsible to build an inclusive community: not to allow individualism, but to draw people together.

And second, yes, communities do have problems, and we need to address them.  That means (on the side of those in favor of stop and frisk) that yes, of course it’s true, people from some communities are more likely to commit crimes, and it is ridiculous to conduct policing as if those communal realities are not true.  Someone from a broken, crime-ridden community, lacking opportunity and basic access to jobs, education, and even simple human respect, is disproportionately likely to commit crimes.  As is someone from a community in which literally centuries of the master race tearing apart families, whether through slave sales and rape, or through the more benign public housing system, welfare marriage anti-incentives, and the provision of pornography, abortion, divorce, and pre-marital sex on demand.  Yup, people from that community are more likely to commit crimes, and it is not unreasonable for police to “profile” a person as coming from such a community.

On the other hand, (on the side of those opposed to stop and frisk) this is not the fault of the individuals.  To punish someone for coming from a bad family and a bad community is kind of stupid and pointless.  We might need to protect society from them, but you know, there actually are “root causes” (a phrase that makes Tom Paine conservatives shudder).  Even if stop and frisk is in itself a wise protection of public safety, it’s a pretty foolish way to deal with a problem that goes much deeper than the individuals who are being stopped and frisked, to radical problems of communities.  And to tell a black man to just “stop” being part of his community of origin is (a) pointless and stupid, because impossible and (b) destructive, part of the problem.  That’s the whole problem: centuries of black communities being torn apart by the master race.

And you know, stop and frisk, though immediately dealing with a real public safety issue, may actually be exacerbating the root causes, by continuing to undermine a community that already has problems.

Some other time we can talk about other forms of “affirmative action,” ways to support communities, instead of undermining them.  (De Blasio quotes one good principle “you can’t break the law to enforce the law”: the principle is Bill Bratton’s, not his.  And Bratton was, ahem, a Giuliani discovery.)

But for today, the point is, Left and Right are approaching this perspective from the same, Thomas Paine perspective of radical individualism.  Which doesn’t fix the problem, and isn’t conducitve to a healthy society.


A Crisis of Communal Commitment, part two: Specifics

 Yesterday we considered Francis’s bigger concern, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, about a “crisis of communal commitment”: that is, the way that individualism undermines both the secular culture and the missionary impulse of Catholics who are infected by that culture.


Need it be pointed out that many voices on the Right use “individualism” as one of their favorite descriptors of their philosophy?  Or that you cannot be an individualist and (a) commit to Christ, (b) commit to the Church, (c) commit to Catholic moral teachings on anything at all, or (d) commit to evangelizing other people?  At the very least, there’s a tension.


Today, we will consider some of the concrete things Francis says in his four brief but arresting sections on economics.




Section One: “No to an economy of exclusion”


Francis’s first, two-paragraph section considers what it means when an economy leaves some people out.  The question here, he says, is not merely about exploiting people, but excluding them.  What does it mean if some people are truly “without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape”?


No, my dear American readers, pause for a moment before we talk about economic systems.  The first point is not about how this happens, but what can happen.  What happens if there are some who truly cannot escape poverty?  What would we as Americans say of a system – let us imagine it is in some other part of the world – where some people really are left out, really do not have any means of escape?  Can we agree that this would be bad?


Second, consider that this exists even in some parts of America.  Forget, for a moment, the reasons.  Much has been written of late about Appalachia, and the old Scots-Irish who live in radical destitution there.  There are places without jobs and without prospects.  It isn’t good to be there.  And, of course, this is true in our inner cities, too.  In much of Newark – and many other cities – there are whole neighborhoods of boarded-up houses; the schools are covered in graffiti; conversation on the bus is about getting welfare and spending it on drugs; there are no healthy families or communities.  What a horrible place to live.


And the streets are so radically violent.  On Christmas Day in Newark, a thirteen-year-old girl, one who was doing well in our terrible schools, and had just gotten a Kindle for Christmas because she loved to read, got randomly shot and killed taking out the trash.  What a horrible, horrible place.


Well, you say, people should get out.  Ah, but how?  Children in bad non-families need help, or they end up like their parents, and the thugs who run their streets.  On the rare occasion that I go to the soup kitchen, it is filled with people with disabilities who have never left Newark, never worked, have no skills, and aren’t sure what’s out there to go to.  Where would you go in that position?  Something needs to happen.


Francis has two things to say about this.  First, he says “trickle-down theories” that claim “economic growth” will “inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness” “express a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”  He doesn’t say anything against economic growth!  But he does say it does not inevitably bring in those who are excluded.   Economic growth by itself doesn’t help the kid with a drug-addled mom in a violent neighborhood where no one works, no one has intact families, the schools are a disaster, and the streets are ruled by thugs.  And yes, such places exist.  At the very least, we need to offer education – fine, yes, I totally agree, education using some market-based principles of accountability! but with public money, and some kind of public accountability – and sometimes we need to give a kid a chance even if he is a risk.  There is no substitute for compassion.


The market may allow compassion, but it can’t replace it.  Partly because those with economic power are not always good people.  Many times, in fact, they manipulate the government in ways that hurt the poor.  A conservative can agree with Francis on that.  A rich society in which the powerful manipulate the government for their own advantage is not going to get that kid out of poverty.  But neither is a rich society in which the rich are allowed to cheat and exploit the poor.  Paying a kid to be your drug runner, or prostitute, is exploitation.  A person in a desperate situation, especially a person without skills or virtues, can be used in a lot of throw-away ways.  Economic growth doesn’t necessarily trickle down, without basic, enforced laws protecting the weak, a decent educational system, and some simple Christian charity.


But the deeper point is that economic trickle-down is not the highest good anyway.  The deeper problem is that “the culture of prosperity deadens us.”  Endless focus on economic growth leaves us more interested in new gadgets from Apple than in “lives stunted for lack of opportunity.”


Consider this: even if trickle-down economics always worked, what would be the danger to our souls, if we always saw care for the poor as “someone else’s responsibility”?  The deeper problem is not economic growth, but a crisis of communal commitment.  We need to feel that we are our brother’s keeper.  Else, at the very least, the sap will be sucked out of our evangelization efforts.


Let alone when “an elderly homeless person dies of exposure” – and yes, that happens in America, too – and we don’t even put it in the news.  If our economic system were really inclusive, wouldn’t we be shocked that that could happen?  If we were really living in a system that always helped the poor, wouldn’t it be big news to hear that people were dying in the streets?




Section Two: “No to the new idolatry of money”


“One cause of this situation,” says Francis, “is found in our relationship with money.”  Economic growth itself is defined in purely monetary terms.  Paul VI’s famous (or, if you are some kinds of “conservative,” perhaps infamous) encyclical Populorum Progressio, asks, shouldn’t “economic growth” be defined by people actually living happier, fuller lives?


Now, surely material things are part of happiness: at a minimum, books, houses, medical care, wine.  We want that kind of economic growth.  The problem is when “man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”  There’s more to life.  An economy that “grows” by allowing more consumption, but does not “grow” by producing a healthier culture, grows into deformity.  We need to consider “the primacy of the human person,” and shape our economic and other social goals around actually taking care of real people.


Beware of economic dialogues (and economic commentators, for example, on the radio) that never allow you to ask the question how economic “growth” is affecting the culture.


By the way, too, notice how Francis defines the “absolute autonomy of the marketplace.”  The things he particularly points out are the accumulation of national debt, especially by poor countries (though we could point out that in our own country, we are passing debt on to our poor children), “widespread corruption, and self-serving tax evasion.”  These are things conservatives oppose.  Fine!  Agree with Francis!  Frame your politics not in terms of individualism, but in terms of the need of public authority to battle corruption and public debt, as matters of the common good.  True conservatism is not about radical individualism.




Section Three: “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves”


The financial system is a great servant, but a terrible master.  “Money must serve, not rule!”  We want an educational system that teaches students how to be economically productive, sure – but, more importantly, teaches them how to be real members of society, real human beings.  And notice that both Left and Right tend to talk about education in terms of nothing but economic productivity: STEM vs. culture.  Jeb Bush is a great bad guy on this: someone who seems like he should know better, but talks all the time about education as if there is no other good than money making.


In short, beware any statement that treats ethics “as counterproductive,” as if it’s dangerous to talk about moral responsibility.  Now of course, there’s a lot of demagoguing about moral responsibility, a lot of people who talk a talk they don’t walk, just to feel self-righteous.  Fine, reject them.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about ethics, including economic ethics.  A good business does good business – but it also cares for its employees when they suffer tragedy, gives people a chance even when they might not deserve it, and looks for opportunities to serve underprivileged communities: all things “outside the categories of the marketplace,” but not outside the categories of a Catholic businessman.


We should think about economics not just in terms of what we can get, but of how we exercise stewardship, for the good of all.  Money as a servant of our own integral development, and moral development.




Section Four: “No to the inequality which spawns violence”


Conservatives bristle at talk about economic inequality.  Indeed, since Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum (1891), the Church has insisted that true economic equality is impossible.  People have different economic abilities, different gifts.  And the world is an unequal place.  We shouldn’t expect everything to turn out equal.  Is Francis a socialist?!


No.  Actually, he talks here about “equal opportunities,” and again about society “leaving a part of itself on the fringes.”


The “which” in “No to the inequality which spawns violence” is, by itself, grammatically ambiguous.  Does he mean “no to inequality – which always spawns violence” (a “which” that is non-restrictive, merely parenthetical) or “no to the kinds of inequality that spawn violence” (a “which” that is restrictive, defining which inequality we mean)?


He does say that “without equal opportunities the different forms of aggression and conflict find a fertile terrain for growth and eventually explode”: that is, when people don’t feel they have any “means of escape” (as in section one, above), they get frustrated and do violent things.  That kind of inequality, he thinks, does “spawn violence.”  But I think you will search in vain (at least in this document) for a place where Francis says that every difference between rich and poor necessarily spawns violence.


His concern is that “the poor and the poorer peoples [i.e., nations] are accused of violence”; too often, he thinks we “blame the poor” for all violence.  But do we ask why there is so much violence?  If we see a city like Newark, which is truly violent, do we ask how we can help, or do we just say “those people are animals” and leave them to kill one another?  Francis focuses especially on plans of “heightened security”: Jane Jacobs has a humorous line about driving through the inner city like we’re on safari, in big armed vehicles.


Francis says, on the one hand, that this is a false hope: to blame large swathes of society for being violent and then hope we can hide from them is not a very good way of protecting ourselves.  Perhaps we should address the reasons for the violence, just out of self-interest.


On the other hand, our personal security isn’t the highest good anyway: what does it do to the soul of a culture, the soul of a Church, and our missionary fire when we proclaim that large swathes of the human race are beyond redemption?  That “those people” are just dangerous, and we should stay away? – the  standard advice given by Catholics at my university.


This doesn’t mean we pat people on the head when they commit crimes; it doesn’t mean simplistic government handout programs (most of which share in the radical disregard for the people they claim to serve); and it doesn’t mean socialism.  It does mean that we realize that a lack of opportunity is awfully frustrating – and many people in our society, and many societies around the world, lack the opportunities we were given.


Charity means reaching out to them.  It means being disturbed when we see the homeless die on the street, or when we see segments of society given over to criminality.  This is not just an economic issue, but it absolutely includes economics.  We are our brothers keepers.  Let the secular “crisis of communal commitment” never make us forget.

A Crisis of Communal Commitment, part one: the Bigger Picture

Pope Francis’s first major document, Evangelii Gaudium (Lumen Fidei was mostly written by his predecessor), makes some bold statements about economics.  I think this would be an appropriate place to explain and defend what the Pope is saying; it comes very close to the heart of the New Urban Traditionalist project.

The first thing that must briefly be said is that Francis and Benedict XVI (and John Paul II and the previous popes, for that matter) have pretty similar points of view.  Many people have said that before.  But what is said too little is that the key difference between the two men is that Francis is a disciplinarian and Benedict was a bit of a squish.

Two things about Benedict have caused us to overlook this.  First, people assume Cardinal Ratzinger’s old job, as chief doctrinal enforcer, means that he himself was into enforcement.  To the contrary, Ratzinger as priest, as cardinal, and as pope was always on the side of tolerance: even his complaint about relativism was that it was a dictatorship!  As a scholar, he was highly eclectic and adamantly opposed to traditional methods of theology.  He often said he liked Augustine, but the deeper point was that he didn’t like Thomas Aquinas or the scholastic tradition.  (His position on this necessarily softened as pope.)  His theology sheds all the harsh parts of Augustine, but keeps the part that is in dialogue.  As Prefect of CDF, “Grand Inquisitor,” it was his job to enforce, but he did precious little of that.  That’s probably why John Paul II chose him: because he did not want his papacy to be marked by enforcement.  As pope, Benedict constantly let himself be misinterpreted.  He let his economic message, remarkably similar to Francis’s, be completely ignored.  His theological message – love, hope, love – was mostly pushed to the side because more political people, on both ends of the spectrum, prefered to cast him as an arch-conservative.  But this has much more to do with the manipulation of his documents than with what he actually said.  His actual point about the Tridentine Mass, for example, is that it should be tolerated in a regime of legitimate diversity.  Only the media – both conservative and liberal – twisted that into a promotion of traditionalist intolerance.

And this is the second misleading thing about Pope Ratzinger.  Yes, he liked traditional things in the liturgy.  This is not a post on his liturgical teachings, but let me just say, as a scholar of the topic: his constant refrain was that we should tolerate more traditional forms, though he never promoted them.  What he says is that the new Missal is a legitimate development of the old, so they shouldn’t be pitted against one another.  That silence in the Mass is a possibility.  That Latin is a good thing to know.  He liked ad orientem liturgy, but his argument for it is wonderfully liberal and anti-clericalist.  But just as much as he “promoted” tolerance on the Tridentine Mass, so he promoted tolerance of the Anglican liturgy: with married priests, deep Protestant influences, and radically vernacular liturgy.

The “problem” with Francis is not that he is a liberal, and not that he is tolerant.  The problem is that he is an old-school-Jesuit enforcer, and we are used to a pope who let us paint him in our own image.  Benedict wrote three encyclicals.  The second was on Hope: largely ignored, and mostly apolitical in any sense of the word.  The first and third were both on charity.  The third was entirely on Catholic social teaching; the second half of the first was on Catholic social teaching.  Thus fully half of his encylicals – one and a half out of three – was Catholic social teaching.  (The other half was beautiful, but purely spiritual, and largely academic.)  The main reason people think he was silent on social teaching is because it didn’t fit the narrative: conservatives didn’t like what he said, and quickly swept it under the carpet.  So we pretend he was a culture warrior.

Francis, meanwhile, will not allow us to ignore his economic message.  That’s the difference between Francis and Benedict: Benedict let us ignore him, Francis rubs our face in his message. Otherwise, they are saying the same thing.  I don’t mean to condemn either one, just to properly identify the difference.  Francis is not insulting because of what he is saying: he is insulting because he actually makes us hear the teachinf of the the last century – or two – of popes.


Let us, then, consider Francis’s central point on economics, as he expresses it in the second chapter of Evangelii Gaudium.  Today’s we’ll see the bigger point, tomorrow we’ll look at the specifics.  The title of the chapter is “Amid the Crisis of Communal Commitment.”  The goal of the chapter, Francis says in its introduction, is to discuss “the context in which we all have to live and work.”  In a bigger document on evangelization, Francis pauses here to ask, Where are we?  What temptations and challenges do we, and the people we are evangelizing, face?

Francis’s answer is not principally economic.  The bigger concern is named in the title of the chapter: we have “a crisis of communal commitment.”  This should not be a particularly controversial point.  What distinguishes our age from all before is its radical individualism, including a materialism that ignores other people.  This is a challenge to evangelization: a challenge because people do not see why they should have to be “part” of a Church instead of seeking God on their own; do not see why they should be bound by a moral code.

And, even deeper, Francis says, those within the Church face a parallel problem.  Put it this way: if you search the writings of Pope Francis, I think you will find that what he thinks is “new” about the so-called “new evangelization” is not the techniques.  It’s not that now we use “new” music, new media, or whatever.  No, what needs to be new, in his mind, is our energy.  We within the Church have largely given up on evangelization.  Certainly there is the “liberal” problem of lukewarm Christians who no longer see any reason to “impose” our views on others.

But there is a “conservative” problem, too.  Within the Church, it is striking how often supposedly “orthodox” people say they are just waiting for their enemies in the Church to “die off.”  We need not evangelize, or reawaken, those “liberal nuns.”  We just hope they’ll die and go away.  Dioceses and many Christians now believe that there are certain parts of the population – and, I hate to say it, but especially the economically poor parts – that are not worth evangelizing.

Here in Newark – just to speak of what I know – there is an old parish …  Well, I will delete what I just wrote, since it is very critical of people I know and love, and I’m working on not being over-critical.  Anyway, the gist of it is, in my personal experience, it seems that even some of our brightest orthodox stars are more interested in evangelizing rich people like themselves than in the poor of Newark.

And I don’t think this is unique to Newark.

It is striking how often “new evangelization” actually means “music (or other media) that makes me feel comfortable, and doesn’t challenge me, and makes me feel good about myself.”  Striking, too, how often orthodox Catholics identify “morality” with political causes that don’t affect their day-to-day life.  Abortion is a horrible crime – but not a temptation for me, and there are other moral commitments that we don’t talk much about.

We have a crisis of communal commitment.  We need a radical rediscovery of what it means to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ.


This second chapter, on “A Crisis of Communal Commitment,” has two parts: “Some Challenges of Today’s World,” then “Temptations faced by Pastoral Workers.”  The introduction sums up the two parts as “processes of dehumanization” and “factors which can restrain or weaken the impulse of missionary renewal.”  In other words, the crisis of communal commitment is dehumanizing the broader culture, and that filters through to sap the energies of apostolic workers within the Church.

The second half, on specifically Christian challenges, sees “the challenge of a missionary spirituality” being undermined by “selfishness and spiritual sloth” and “sterile pessimism.”  Instead of “new relationships brought by Christ,” Francis sees a temptation to “spiritual worldliness” and “warring among ourselves.”  All of this is nicely summed up by the chapter heading “A Crisis of Communal Commitment.”

But the temptations that affect the Church are coming from the bigger crisis of communal commitment in the secular world.  Francis’s diagnosis of that challenge is divided into seven sub-heads, but we can further divide it into two parts.  First there are four subheads about economics.  Then there are three about other cultural challenges.  In all, there are eight paragraphs on economics, fifteen on other cultural problems.  The economics sections come first, and are stated boldly: Francis refuses to let us ignore this point.  But in fact, they are not the main point, not the bulk of what he says.


In this context, we can perhaps appreciate the headings of those four sections: “No to an economy of exclusion,” “No to the new idolatry of money,” “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves,” and “No to the inequality which spawns violence.”  On the one hand, make no doubt about it: what Francis says is controversial and challenging.  And yes, he means us.  It has been suggested, with the ultimate patronizing tone toward the Pope, that Francis is only talking about the third world.  No: he thinks these are dangers everywhere, part of a worldwide crisis of communal commitment.  Yes, he means to make us uncomfortable.  He thinks we have a problem.  That we ignored Benedict when he said the same thing suggests that the two popes are right, and that the point needs to be made boldly.

On the other hand, the heading under which all these things must be considered is “a crisis of communal commitment.”  An economy that excludes, the idolatry of money, a financial system that rules society, and not just any inequality, but an inequality which spawns violence (by leaving a part of society “on the fringes”): these are the economic elements of a secular culture of radical individualism.  This isn’t about the mechanics of economics.  It’s about culture.  When Catholics submit to these things, they submit to the cultural crisis of cultural commitment.

Tomorrow we’ll read some of what Francis specifically says about all this.

The Economic Heritage of Slavery

Aloysius has shared with me an electronic copy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s book-length 1963 study Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City.  Senator Moynihan was truly one of America’s greatest thinkers, a guy who understood New York and understood America.  Every page of this book is worth sharing, but here’s a passage about the economic disadvantages of blacks in the time just before LBJ.  Needless to say, I don’t think the War on Poverty did anything but exacerabate these problems; though Moynihan writes about the early 1960s, much of what he says seems even more true today.


I will only editorialize by saying that, against the conservatives, we need to recognize that blacks really do have the deck stacked against them; a person born into this community does not have an equal playing field with those in other communities.  But against the liberals, we need to realize that this is a serious cultural problem that actually needs to be dealt with, not with hand outs, but with a much deeper cultural strategy.  But that’s for another post.  For now, Moynihan.


There were in 1940 only small groups of professionals and clerical and sales workers. But perhaps^
most striking was the almost complete absence of a business class, and this is still true today. The small shopkeeper, small manufacturer, or small entrepreneur of any kind has played such an important role in the rise of immigrant groups in America that its absence from the Negro community warrants some discussion. The small shopkeepers and manufacturers are important to a group for more than
the greater income they bring in. Very often, as a matter of fact, the Italian or Jewish shopkeeper made less than the skilled worker. But as against the worker, each businessman had the possibility, slim though it was, of achieving influence and perhaps wealth. The small businessman generally has access to that special world of credit which may give him for a while greater resources than a job. He learns

about credit and finance and develops skills that are of value in a complex economy. He learns too about the world of local politics, and although he is generally its victim, he may also learn how to influence it, for mean and unimportant ends, perhaps, but this knowledge may be valuable to an entire community. 

The small businessman creates jobs. In the depression, the network of Jewish businesses meant jobs for
Jewish young men and women—poor paying, but still jobs. The impoverished businessman still needed a delivery boy, the small furniture manufacturer needed someone to help with the upholstery, the linoleum retailer someone to help him lay it. These were not only jobs, they also taught skills. In addition, the small businessman had patronage—for salesmen, truck drivers, other businessmen. In most cases
the patronage stayed within the ethnic group. The Chinese restaurant uses Chinese laundries, gets its provisions from Chinese food suppliers, provides orders for Chinese noodle makers. The Jewish store owner gives a break to his relative who is trying to work up a living as a salesman. The Jewish liquor-store owner has a natural link to the Jewish liquor salesman. These jobs as salesmen are often the best the
society offers to people without special skills and special education. As such, they can be important to Negroes, as the picket lines before liquor stores in Harlem in i960, demanding the use of Negro liquor salesmen, attested. A Negro action committee threatened that the pickets would soon be in front of the grocery stores. But how different matters would be if Negroes owned the grocery stores they patronized to begin with, as most groups in the past have, and as Puerto Ricans today do.

One may scoff at the small businessman as pursuing an illusion—who can fight the A 8c P? For a community, however, regardless of what the balance sheet showed, the small businessman was important.
Much has been written about the failure of the Negro to develop an entrepreneurial class.  In the

early 19oo’s, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, one an accommodationist and the other a militant, both exhorted the Negro to go into business, to develop wealth and power. Today Negro business is if anything less important than fifty years ago. The catering business, in which Negroes played a role of some significance in the late nineteenth century, has declined and fallen into other hands. The only important forms of Negro business are beauty parlors, barber shops, the preparation of special cosmetics,
and undertaking parlors. Negro insurance companies (which once developed because Negroes found it hard to get insurance from established companies), banks, the Negro press, Negro real estate, whatever their importance symbolically, are of small importance economically in supplying jobs, economic contacts, skills. Perhaps one may make an exception to some extent for real estate, for a sizable amount of savings has been invested in houses and business property, and there are now a good number of real estate brokers and operators. And yet, this is for the most part all on a remarkably small scale. When anything even as extensive as a building of an apartment house is planned by a group of Negroes, this is news in the community newspapers.

There are some obvious explanations for lack of Negro businesses. Negroes emerging from slavery
had no experience with money, and had no occasion to develop the skill in the planning and foresight that even the smallest businessman must have. In this respect, the European peasant, whose standard of living may have been as low as a slave’s, was better off, for he had to market his produce and manage a small stock of money and goods. The upper class of slaves, the house servants who might have been given some small education, had as models the lavish expenditure of a plantation society, and it was easier for them to observe the processes of consumption than those of production and marketing.


The freed slaves and later the migrants to the North were absolutely without financial resources, even the scanty sums needed for tiny businesses. They met unbending prejudice and discrimination in their efforts to get stock, capital, or space for rent. Yet surely there were in the great Negro city that grew up in Harlem in the 1920’s opportunities for the business-minded to get a foothold by serving their own, as so many ethnic groups had done before them. But other factors came into play to inhibit the rise of Negro businessmen.

One of them was that the Negro, while a migrant, was not like the immigrants bearing a foreign culture, with special needs that might give rise to a market. There was no local demand for a Buitoni and a La Rosa to make pasta, for a Goodman and a Manischevitz and a Schapiro to supply matzos and kosher wine. The only demand was for undertakers, hairdressers, and cosmetics. As we know, in time these small beginnings in supplying members of one’s own ethnic community might grow into sizable enterprises which laid fee on a world of customers that extended beyond the initial ethnic base.


Perhaps another way in which Negroes differed from European immigrant groups was that they did
not develop the same kind of clannishness, they did not have the same close family ties, that in other groups created little pools for ethnic businessmen and professionals to tap. There was little clubbing together of the South Carolinians versus the North Carolinians versus the Virginians—life in these places was either not different enough, or the basis of the differences was not attractive enough, to create strong local 
groups with strong local attachments. The Negro family was not strong enough to create those extended clans that elsewhere were most helpful for businessmen and professionals. Negroes often say, “Everyone else sticks together, but we knock each other down. There is no trust among us.” This is a stereotype and probably has the same degree of truth that most stereotypes have, that is, a good deal. Without a special language and culture, and without the historical experiences that create an elan and a morale, what
is there to lead them to build their own life, to patronize their own? The one great exception to this is the Negro church, and it is perhaps no accident that tight churchlike groupings among the Negroes have often branched out into business enterprise, as was true of Father Divine and Daddy Grace and is now true of the Nation of Islam.

Sherlock Holmes on City versus Country

From “The Adventure of the Copper Beaches.”  Thanks to Hypatia, who has been reading Holmes voraciously.


           By eleven o’clock the next day we were well upon our way to the old English capital.  Holmes had been buried in the morning papers all the way down, but after we had passed the Hampshire border he threw them down and began to admire the scenery.  It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east.  The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy.  All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and grey roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

            “Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

            But Holmes shook his head gravely.

            “Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject.  You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty.  I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

            “Good heavens!” I cried.  “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

            “They always fill me with a certain horror.  It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

            “You horrify me!”

            “But the reason is very obvious.  The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish.  There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard’s blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock.  But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law.  Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.  Had this lady who appeals to us for help gone to live in Winchester, I should never have had a fear for her.  It is the five miles of country which makes the danger.”  

The Land of My Sojourn

Rich Mullins was one of our country’s finest singer-songwriters.  The below is from the “legacy” side of his monumental, A Liturgy, A Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band.  

I don’t think I can improve on his insights.  In fact, sometimes I wonder if everything I’m writing is just commentary on this.  

But for those who are poetically impaired — and because the poetry here is a little difficult — a brief synopsis:

The three verses take us through three images of America: the highways cutting into the mountains; the promises of the New Jersey shoreline; and the agedness, both of the old cities and the old countryside.  The bridge gives the punchline: “nobody tells you, when you get born here, how much you’re going to love it, and how you’ll never belong here.”  The land of our sojourn is unspeakably beautiful — and impermanent.  “So I’ll call you my country, and be longing for my home, and I wish I could take you there with me.”  All three verses speak of promise: both in nature, but especially in man.  And of this world’s inability to fulfill that promise.


The Land of My Sojourn

And the coal trucks come a-runnin’ 
With their bellies full of coal 
And their big wheels a-hummin’ 
Down this road that lies open

Like the soul of a woman 
Who hid the spies who were lookin’ 
For the land of the milk and the honey 
And this road she is a woman 
She was made from a rib 
Cut from the sides of these mountains 
Oh these great sleeping Adams 
Who are lonely even here in paradise 
Lonely for somebody to kiss them 

And I’ll sing my song  
In the land of my sojourn 

And the lady in the harbor 
She still holds her torch out 
To those huddled masses who are 
Yearning for a freedom that still eludes them 
The immigrant’s children see their brightest dreams shattered 
Here on the New Jersey shoreline in the 
Greed and the glitter of those high-tech casinos 
But some mendicants wander off into a cathedral 
And they stoop in the silence 
And there their prayers are still whispered 

And I’ll sing their song 
In the land of my sojourn 

Nobody tells you when you get born here 
How much you’ll come to love it 
And how you’ll never belong here 
So I call you my country 
And I’ll be lonely for my home 
And I wish that I could take you there with me 

And down the brown brick spine of some dirty blind alley 
All those drain pipes are drippin’ out the last Sons Of Thunder 
While off in the distance the smoke stacks 
Were belching back this city’s best answer 

And the countryside was pocked 
With all of those mail pouch posters 
Thrown up on the rotting sideboards of 
These rundown stables like the one that Christ was born in 
When the old world started dying 
And the new world started coming on 

And I’ll sing His song, and I’ll sing His song 
In the land of my sojourn 

The Procession as Paradigm


On Sunday I had the opportunity to go with my kids on a religious procession.  Newark is a wasteland in many ways, but this is one way our city is truly grand: lots and lots of Catholic ethnic communities with their feastday processions.  Even our poor old church, the Italians, has a couple each year: certainly our patronness, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel.  (The shrine of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Naples is the last thing many of them saw as they left their home country, so the devotion to her is big among American Italians.)  I don’t know what various reasons the Portuguese process for: certainly plenty for Our Lady of Fatima. 


But this one was the Peruvians, a relatively new group, who have established a parallel congregation, with Spanish Masses, etc., in our parish.  Il Señor de los Milagros – the Lord of miracles? – is a beloved image in Peru.  I don’t know the story.  I do know that the procession in Lima lasts about twenty hours and attracts some 300,000 people. 


Here in Newark, we have a float big enough to be carried on the shoulders of about twenty guys, with the image of Señor de los Milagros on the front, a very Peruvian image of Mary on the back, plus lots of flowers, bells, purple costumes for los devotos, women in white veils carrying incense above their heads, and vendors hawking Peruvian food alongside. 


The kids really enjoy this kind of thing.  When my four-year-old asked if it was time to go find some food, the seven- and nine-year-olds said, “but we just got here!”  So we walked awhile longer behind the float, listening to the march music blasted from speakers on top of an suv behind us, and watching the float sway back and forth in the sort of dance that the carriers do: a pretty good rocking back and forth, and a very slow progress forward, with many stops.  Crowds gather on stoops to watch; people pray, especially the rosary; many of us just watch and let the wheels gently turn; and people chat, as much as they can with the loud Peruvian music.  It’s very festive.




It struck me what a fine image of the Church such a procession is.  At the center is Jesus, and his blessed Mother.  And all around are the devoted.  Yes, Mass itself is the most perfect image of the Church, but in some ways it stands out more clearly here, because the procession is so very voluntary and public.


The procession is voluntary: people come and go as they please.  Some people are very involved, with the purple habitos costumes, carrying the float, organizing the music and the stops, carrying the incense – though even those people seemed to be coming and going.  Other people are very marginal, standing on their stoops, just watching the crowd go by.  A group of early-teenagers went by in the other direction, on their way to the park; some of them made the sign of the Cross as they passed by, most of them didn’t.


What struck me was how personal, how individual faith is, at least in one sense.  Even in a crowd of 300,000, as it is in Lima, every single member of the procession is someone making the choice to be there.  And so it is as the Church processes through history: the whole massive crowd of us is just a bunch of individuals making choices.  The choices are not all equal: not all equally devoted; not all equally sincere; various mixed motives.  But there we are, the Church, processing through history.  And whatever the imperfection of our devotion and our motives, we are gathered around the image of Jesus and his mother: somehow, imperfectly, related to the mystery of the Incarnation, at the center of history.




At the same time, the procession is profoundly public.  The walls of the Church do have a symbolic significance: a sign of the ultimate choice for or against, the difference between being inside or out.  And yet at Mass the symbolism is imperfect, since we know that many who are inside the walls are hardly inside the Church, and many outside are more perfectly inside. 


The procession displays this in a nicer way.  A clearer sense that while Jesus and his body the Church process through history, we are all at varying degrees of remove: some following tenaciously, but many on the margins; all the world, in fact, somehow on the margins of the Church, at least watching the procession going by and grappling with what it means.  The distinction of in and out is not so clear.


And even within, it is clear that motives are mixed – and that this is complicated.  On the one hand, to carry the float, to walk in the procession, is a clear sign of devotion.  On the other hand, some of us gaze more carefully than do others on Jesus and Mary, the center.  Many, it is true, join the procession for reasons other than intensity of personal love for Jesus. 


And yet this too is a salvific mystery, not easy to sort out.  At Mass, it can be tempting to say that people are there for the “wrong” reason.  In the procession . . . well, we realize that “right” and “wrong” motives are very complicatedly tied together.  Whatever your motive, however much you come for the festival, or the fraternity, or just the pure spectacle, to carry that burden, to walk that slow walk of the Church through history, is to be somehow bound up in the mystery of the Church, the mystery of Christ.  Jesus can work with that.


The profoundly public nature of the procession nicely displays the complicatedness of “in” and “out” of the Church.




I thought of a line from Pope Francis, about the bishop marching before the Church, leading the way; amidst the Church, gathering them together; and behind the Church, gathering up those who have scattered.  This mystery of the Church is on display so very nicely in the procession.  Which, I suppose, is one of the reasons he so emphasizes the importance of “popular devotions.”  As important as liturgy and morality are, in a way, the procession more profoundly displays what the Church is.




Well now, this is a blog about new urban traditionalism, not theology.  (By the way, readers who are interested can see a new blog about Catholic spirituality at professorjohnston.com.  I endorse what Professor Johnston is doing.) 


But I hope the connections are clear.  The procession emphasizes the public nature of being human. For all our failings, the processions come to Newark because this works in the city; the city is public, communal, processional, in a way the suburbs, and to some extent even the small towns, never can be.


The city, too, is diverse.  There is not one Newark procession, but so very many, and so very many different kinds.  Along with the ethnic Catholic ones, of course, there are rallies, especially led by the black community, for peace, for justice, etc.  In every case, the logic of the procession is still there.  Suburb distinguishes “in” and “out” in a way that is not truly human.  You shouldn’t have to find a parking space in order to witness the Church, or the political community.


We need to figure this out.  We need to figure out popular devotions, and processions, in this post-traditional world.  It is another lovely thing about processions and cities that we can work this out in indirect ways.  It is not the case that you must either be Peruvian or not; part of this team or that.  As we Americans follow the Peruvians, we can learn from them, learn to do our own processions.  My kids and I have been joining the Franciscans of the Renewal – a lot of white kids from the suburbs – as they work out their own “new urban traditionalism” in processions and popular festivals in Harlem and the Bronx. 


This is the way forward, the path the Church must walk, and the path that those who care about culture must walk.  We have to learn from one another, and create new processions, processions that post-Peruvians, post-Italians, and post-sexual revolution Midwesterners like myself can walk as we rediscover what it means to live in community, in history, in relation to one another, to truth, and to God.  

The Late-Twentieth-Century Ponzi Scheme

A prominent economist argues today in the New York Times that “We are reaching end times for Western affluence.”  Like many others recently have, he makes a case that the old normal – the post-War growth that everyone thought would last forever – was an unsustainable anomaly.

These arguments largely sound like their built on the claim that economic growth was not real – but in fact, there have been real advances, huge advances, in quality of life, from the very concrete advances in medicine (lowered infant mortality, for one, is no illusion), to massively increased mobility, in every definition of the word, to greater literacy (even if education is watered down in other ways), to the massive burst of technology.  These things are real.

Nor can they be easily passed off as Ponzi schemes, where the future is somehow mortgaged to pay for the present.  Somehow there was actual work done to create all these advances.  The work, again, is real – and though money can be borrowed from the future, work cannot.  Whatever is going on with debt, it does not negate the fact that people really invented real things and then really built them and really distributed them.

Unless we can explain how that work was borrowed from the future . . . .

Our New York Times author claims that global trade, financial innovations, social safety nets, the entrance of women into the market, and improvements in education are all one-off improvements that can never be repeated.  The claim sounds a bit like the guy in the 1950s who argued there would never be a market for more than five computers: short-sighted, as if innovations were fine for yesteryear, but because I can’t imagine the innovations of tomorrow, there won’t be any.  And in any case, those five innovations he listed in many ways continue, and continue to expand.  So I don’t think his argument explains how post-War economic growth could be a Ponzi scheme.

No . . . but unfortunately, I do think there are answers in terms of social conservatism (for lack of a better word).

One kind of Ponzi scheme is the loss of beauty, including the beauty o religion.  Sure, everyone can have a house – if we make all the houses cheap and ugly.  We have voluntarily done something like the Chinese Cultural Revolution, pressing (perhaps) massive numbers of our artists and artisans, truly educated thinkers, and religious leaders into “economic” service. 

80,000 people work for Apple, with a revenue of some $150 billion per year.  I don’t even know what such numbers mean.  But put it this way: while everybody oohs and ahs about the aesthetics of Apple products, that’s $150 billion and 80,000 smart, talented people who are making little electronic widgets instead of, you know, actual really beautiful things.  Imagine what real beauty could be produced if we used that $150 billion dollars a year and 80,000 smart, talented people to, for example, visit the sick, build beautiful public art, teach kids to read Shakespeare, etc.  And Apple’s  just one tiny slice of the problem. 

In this sense, it’s not so much a Ponzi scheme as a reinvestment.  If you take all of your investment out of beauty, then yes, you have the resources for great “economic growth.”  But what kind of growth do you get?  Ugly growth.  What kind of “quality of life”?  Ugly quality of life.

There are something like 60 million children in America.  If we just killed off Apple – only Apple – we could devote another $2,500/year to every single one of them.

But that brings us to the real Ponzi scheme: children.

There are two problems: we don’t have children, and we don’t care for them.  In both cases, we really are borrowing work from the future.  Every mother who stays home with her children is investing her entire career in the future of the country.  Every mother who does not stay home is giving us all of that work now – economic growth! – at the cost of all she could do for her children. 

I don’t mean to make a point about women’s rights of self-determination.  Fine, whatever.  My point is: a massive explanation of economic growth in the post-War period is that suddenly a huge amount of labor that used to go into educating the next generation of the culture has been withdrawn, and put into economic growth now. 

That really is a Ponzi scheme. 

The bill comes due, first, in our entitlements crisis: when suddenly everyone wants to retire, and there is not a next generation both to pay taxes to support them and to do their work.  What will happen to “economic growth” when the next generation all have to work in health care for the previous generation?  Who will build aesthetically pleasing Apple gizmos?  Who will work on infant mortality, ever-expanding transportation networks, and teaching people to read?  Answer: a lot fewer people. That’s math.

But the other, deeper problem, is cultural.  Just before I started this paragraph, I was called away from the computer to care for a child in bed.  That’s annoying.  If we talk about “liberation,” “personal fulfillment,” and especially “women’s liberation,” we will say, people shouldn’t “have” to worry about children.  They should be “free” to go out and develop themselves: play with their fancy computers.  We get more economic growth, today, if, instead of tending to all the little needs of our children, we farm them out to electronic devices and crowd-control groups (aka “daycare” and public schooling), and most of all, if we just don’t have children.

What does society get out of parents tending their children – and, above all, from stay-at-home mothers?

My wife just answered that question.  When my child called from his bed, I groaned, and said, “why does he do this?”  And my wife said, “he just wants assurance, wants to know that we are here.”

The price of not parenting our children is that we will end up with unparented adults.  In fact, we are ending up with them already.  Some of them unload automatic weapons on crowds of movie goers.  Others do more insidious things: financial predation, destructive social behaviors like pornography and mindless television, and even political stupidity.  Unparented children proclaim that government has no interest in the family; that economics is all about me me me; that we don’t need to think about the future; and that we can throw temper-tantrums in Washington. 

The barbarians are at the gates.  The problem is, they are on the inside of the gates.  They are our own unparented children. 

This is the great Ponzi scheme of late-twentieth-century “economic growth.”  We have taken away the resources that should be invested in raising children, and spent them on ever fancier iPods.

Social Conservatism and the Poor

I recently made a rare trip to a soup kitchen here in Newark.  I wish I could say I help out frequently, but actually, I’ve only been there once.


I asked what I could do to help.  The friars who run the kitchen said, just talk to people.  They told me, in fact, that they had had an FBI briefing on gang warfare, and even the FBI had said, you know, what people really need is just someone to talk to.  They have no one, and that’s the deeper social problem underlying all the other stuff: gangs, drugs, violence – we could add abortion, prostitution, etc. 


So I sat and had lunch with one guy, and then sat with another guy while he ate his lunch.  I just asked questions.  I’m pretty naive, and I’m sure I looked it, but I just asked them about life: about Newark, about where they’re from, their family, what they like, etc.  I talked to the second guy for a long time – before a woman, eating alone at the other end of the table, jumped up and came over to talk to him.


The common theme, of the two men and the woman: they have no family.  Or anyway, their families don’t take care of them.  They also have medical issues, “disabilities,” mostly psychological, I think, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s cause or effect of their other problems.  They have government help—they use “disability” to mean a monthly check from the government (“I’ve got disability”) – but their families have abandoned them.  And that, they say, in all their simplicity – maybe they were conning me, telling me what I want to hear, knowing I hang out with the Franciscans? but I think they were just talking honestly – that is the real problem: no family.


Or, deeper, they have dysfunctional families.




It has me thinking about policy.  On the one hand, social conservatives seem to be proven right that an awful lot comes back to the family.  Hilary Clinton wrote, It Takes a Village (to raise a child), and Rick Santorum came back with It Takes a Family.  (Though neither of their economic plans actually believes the titles of their books: Hilary wants a big government, not a village; Santorum’s book, too, focuses more on government carrots and sticks to get single mothers to be economically productive than on families.)


It does take a family.  These people need mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins to help them through, to give them support: economic support, yes, but even more, a place to crash, someone to talk to, the moral oomph to get through very serious challenges.  To think that people should be able to get through these challenges – mental disabilities, along with joblessness, and other personal crises – without a family network to support them is absurd.  The government can send a check, but it can’t love you, and it especially can’t love you unconditionally, when you’re really falling apart.  It takes a family. 


It was striking at the end of lunch.  The older man I was talking to agreed to take the younger woman from the other end of the table into his home.  He has an extra bedroom (I have no idea how he affords that: definitely very poor), and he is generous.  And she had been staying with “a friend” (male) who had somehow let her down – but more importantly, in a slum building where the plumbing had been turned off a long time ago(!) and the electricity was just recently killed as well.  Yikes.  The generosity of this older man was wonderful.


On the other hand: that’s not family.  It’s lovely to imagine, Dickens-like, that the poor will just team up, in line for a welfare check or at a soup kitchen, and live happily ever after.  But two broken people, without resources, economic, personal, emotional, or whatever, unrelated to one another – without the family bonds of unconditional love . . . gosh, it was hard to know what to think of this arrangement.  Very hard to imagine it ends well.  I can imagine a lot of scenarios, but that they will take care of one another long term?  That is a pipe dream.  It takes a family.




On the other hand, to say “it takes a family” is a bit deceptive.  First, because fine: now what?  What policies do we prescribe?  It’s tempting for a faithful Catholic to say, let’s just outlaw divorce and anything else that destroys marriages: pornography, immodesty (which encourages people to get sexually involved for the wrong reasons), etc. 


But geez: the deeper problem in a lot of these families, I think, is abuse.  What on earth kind of policy can solve this?  Should we tell the battered woman that she’s forced to stay with the abusive, no-help husband?  The social conservative might say: yes, if they know they have to stay together, they’ll be more careful about whom they marry in the first place, and they’ll figure things out.  And anyway, divorce rarely works out better than the first marriage: now you have a single mother with abuse in her background, and a predilection for picking abusive men . . . and what’s going to happen next?  So let’s just outlaw divorce, and let that take care of things.


But I can sure appreciate the liberal who says, you know, get her out of that situation.  People change.  A foolish young girl (and her children) who marries a bad guy should not be sentenced to stay with that mistake forever.  She might learn something for the next time around.  And he could have changed, too: sometimes a guy starts out okay, and then goes south.  And anyway, sometimes single mothers do alright.  (The social conservative, of course, says, yes, when she has a good family behind her!  But the liberal says, fine, but let her out of this abusive situation.) 


My take-away is: marriage and family is the most important institution.  It has to be protected, in every way we can.  But gosh, we have to realize: just outlawing divorce doesn’t fix these situations.  Even without divorce – and in some cases, arguably, especially without divorce – you will have bad family situations, emotionally scarred children, and ultimately, people with “disabilities” and no one to fall back on.  Social conservatism alone doesn’t fix the problem.




Or rather, perhaps, if we really believe it takes a family to raise a child, we need to realize that it takes a village to protect a family.  It takes a village with good social laws, too – but those laws don’t make a village.  They don’t make a community.  The laws can come from very far away, a possibility highlighting how naked they still leave the family. 


What does a family in crisis most need?  They need a village.  They need a community around them.  Yes, they need extended family.  But they also need good neighbors: models for the children that their parents’ failures are not the only reality.  Shoulders to cry on.  Friends and potential spouses who don’t come from such a devastated background.  Yes, it takes a family to raise a child – but it takes a village to support a family, especially through crisis.


Well, my regular readers can probably guess where I’m going with this.  My conclusion is, above all, that we need healthy, family-friendly cities.  Suburban isolation doesn’t solve the problem of family breakdown; it doesn’t create a village to support families in crisis; it just sweeps the problems under the rug.  (Am I exaggerating when I say I see this problem in all the suburban shooting sprees?)  Oh, sure, it partially insulates families from other families’ crises – but that is a short-term solution, if we don’t work to heal the crises.  Gradually media, education, politics allow the contagion of family breakdown to penetrate even the walls of the suburban fortress.


Families need neighbors: neighbors they see (and thus a public culture, which defines the difference between sidewalk cities and garage suburbs), and enough neighbors that they can find the people they need for particular crises: six families on a cul de sac does not guarantee that everyone will have the support they need.  Maybe this works in a small town, where at least you’re stuck with one another, even if you aren’t good matches for one another.  But in the suburbs, it’s just so easy to avoid one another.  Yes, the cities let you avoid one another.  But they also provide options: enough neighbors, and visible enough neighbors, that you might actually find a shoulder you can cry on – or someone who wants to shoot hoops, or smoke a cigar, or go get their nails done, or listen to jazz, or whatever it is you need.


So let me modify Hilary Clinton’s adage: it takes a neighborhood.  The real failure for the urban poor is the utter collapse of the neighborhoods that should be supporting the families that should be supporting them.




How do we support neighborhoods?  Well, that’s another post.  But maybe the first thing we should realize is that cities need to cater to families, not vice versa.  For example, rather than the city saying, “if you want to live here, family, you have to pay, you have to accept our culture, and you have to use our school system,” perhaps they should say the opposite: we realize that the city so desperately needs families, in order to build neighborhoods, that it gives families a financial break, molds its culture to help them, and gives them choices in education. 


Am I back to traditional GOP policies?  Only sort of.  Because too often the Republicans treat these things – things like tax breaks and educational choice – as ultra-individualism.  You should be able to live wherever you want, do whatever you want, and support no one.  To the contrary, what I’m saying is, the government should pay you for the ways you are supporting other people.  Tax breaks for families (yes, and businesses), not just for whoever has money.  Tax breaks for living in neighborhoods – and yes, I would fund those urban tax breaks in part by raising taxes on those who choose to live in responsibility-free suburbs.  Education choice as an urban policy: not a way to let people do whatever they want, but a way to urge people to do what society needs them to do: bring their families back to our failing neighborhoods. 


True social conservatism, it is true, is not about individual liberty.  It is about social policies and economic policies focused on building a virtuous society.  Not just trickle-down economics (though that has some advantages), but trickle-down virtue: support the poor by supporting strong neighborhoods of families.


A Catholic Apocalypse

                The radical Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, i think, has said that a hundred, or even fifty years from now, they will know that we are Christians by our bad teeth and genetically incorrect hair and eye color.  The secular world will engineer a perfect new man, beautiful, strong, and intelligent.  The wisdom of the world ultimately does not save, of course, but it will relegate those who believe in a higher wisdom to whatever is the opposite of the elite.

                I recently heard a Catholic bishop quoted (by a recent convert from Protestant radicalism) as saying he expects to die in his bed, but he expects his successor to die in a prison cell, and his successor’s successor to be martyred in the street.  The idea was received, by a zealous Catholic crowd, with the glee of the zealous crowd. 

                And among Catholics there are those who interpret Pope Benedict’s occasional references to a nineteenth-century historian’s ideas about a “creative minority” as if the plan for the next century should be to hunker down and hide, heading for the hills, if not literally, at least figuratively.  We cannot combat the secular culture, they say.  In the most recent iteration, this thinking says we should give up on the fight over marriage law, since obviously homosexuality is the wave of the future, and just do our own thing in our own little communities. 

                There is truth in all these ideas.  But I think they have a common root; that root is precisely Hauerwas’s radicalism, which sees in the Cross the denial of nature (and nature’s God), and ultimately sells short the doctrine of Creation.


                To the contrary, the denial of God, and of God’s creation, creates not an elite, but a mindless mob: not power, but impotence.  “Worldly wisdom” is, and was always meant to be understood as, an oxymoron.

                Consider the Super Man our secular culture is preparing: no Christopher Reeves.  At the root of gay marriage, and of the crisis in heterosexual marriage that preceded it, is a radical failure to care for our children.  Whatever romantic tripe the secular culture may offer (and many Christians may mindlessly repeat), marriage exists for one and ultimately only one reason: to surround the procreative act with a context in which children have half a chance of growing up with some sense of reality.  To deny “traditional” (or, better, “natural”) marriage is ultimately nothing but to say that our culture refuses to take the most basic steps to provide for the upbringing of children.

                Thus the Super Man of tomorrow will grow up without two parents.  Perhaps he is born to a single mother; perhaps he is born from some variant of a test tube; perhaps his parents will break their faith with one and another – and so with him – sometime in his life.  In any case, he grows up with his most fundamental life lesson being that this generation has no responsibility to the next.  He grows up without a mother and a father to teach him what it means to be human – with all the things nature has equipped mother and father to teach.  (In my opinion, that means sense and sensibility, sensitivity to others and a rationality that is not too sensitive.)  Rather than learning that life begins and ends in community, he learns that it’s every man for his miserable, childish self.  And rather than learning that there is a natural order, he learns that there is nothing but immediate sensuality.

                (I say all of this having grown up without a father, and now discovering how crippled I am as I try to raise my own children.)

                His early childhood is symbolized by the cartoon Dora the Explorer: absolute tripe.  His parents care so very little about him that they soothe their conscience with the idea that Dora speaks a couple words of Spanish (or that another television show teaches reading, or even that his pre-K program makes him look really smart).  But is this intelligence?  Of course not.  It’s an abdication of educational responsibility in favor of educational consumerism: parents demand what feels good in the very immediate present rather than thinking about the emotional, moral, and genuine intellectual good of the young child.

                His subsequent education is based on politics.  He is taught to pay homage to the slogans that allow maximal selfishness for the elder generation.  Art, and anything that might teach him judgment, is eliminated.  Education is reduced to skills.  Building anything is looked down upon.  Thinking is looked down upon.  Real intelligence means knowing that it’s all relative.  This culminates with the stupidity of college, where the liberal arts – including both basic thinking and basic communication skills – are replaced with “STEM”: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

                Consider three very close relatives of mine who majored in STEM (and grew up watching television, and whose parents were not faithful to one another).  Two of them (one majored in tech – computing – the other in engineering) do “high-frequency trading”: that is, they use computers to manipulate the stock market.  If you very quickly buy and sell massive quantities of stocks, you can provoke false rises in prices and multiply very small profits into very large ones.  

                My other relative who did STEM has spent his early years out of college making big money playing internet poker.

                This is Science-Technology-Engineering-Math in a world where faithful parents are replaced by Dora the Explorer.  No one makes anything, worries about the consequences of their actions, thinks long term, or worries about society.  At least two of these relatives admit that what they do is wrong, but none of them can see any reason to do anything else.

               (Of course, on top of upbringing, we could say much about their life as adults – but it would be more of the same: just as they were raised without families, they can’t conceive of family now; just as they were raised without real education, they cannot conceive of anything intelligent now.)


                The New Man does not threaten us with persecution.  He is too bored with himself to threaten anyone else.  He may occasionally go on a Columbine rampage, but there is no target, because there is no thinking.   Oh, sure, he finds Christianity very vaguely threatening.  But everything is vague, and there are neither the organizational skills nor the seriousness nor the relationships necessary to bring about a serious persecution.

                Nor are these going to be the people with good teeth.  The characters I mention are all pretty athletic – but they live on fast food and literally sleep curled up on the couch with their laptops.   Rather than nice teeth, these guys are more likely to end up with the caved-in nose of the coke addict, the scarred veins of a heroin addict, or the skin problems of a meth addict.  And though they might well genetically engineer their children if they had any, they are so caught up in pornography that if they ever managed to conceive, they would probably abort.  Homosexuality is again a nice metahpor: the future Super Man is sterile.


                To be sure, Christians most always be ready for persecution, and in the short term, there will surely be some martyrs.  But in the Book of Revelation, the Apoclypse is marked not so much by human persecution as by destruction of the earth and spiritual persecution of the saints. 

                What we have to look forward to is not political attacks from people with perfect skin and genetically engineered eye color.  What we have to look forward to is the collapse of a society that has lost its mind.  That will be terrible indeed – but the terror of being surrounded by stupidity.  The great suffering of the saints will be not political persecution, but the sadness of seeing clearly how stupid it all is, and mourning for the loss of the foolish.

                In the Catholic understanding, creation and God go hand in hand.  Those who deny God destroy themselves.