Inequality and Agency
What is inequality? It’s the unbalanced distribution of power and control over wealth and innovation, government and culture, society and neighborhoods—over our lives. That distribution is changing in our society. We can all feel it. At this point the conversation is focused on income inequality. But that’s too narrow. The economic top 20 percent has gained a near monopoly on social capital. This moral and cultural inequality is a deeper problem, and more explosive.
Equality is a tricky notion. Its root political meaning is equality before the law, which means an impartial application of the legal code without regard to a citizen’s wealth, nationality, religion, or social standing. Its social meaning is more open-ended. Only utopians imagine that everyone can be the same or be treated in the same way. Instead, we use equality to describe an inclusive social order, one in which ordinary people count, have a say, and are involved in their society’s consequential activities and decisions. In a hierarchical society, those at the top do most of the shaping of affairs, not just in their own lives but in those of others as well. Social equality reflects a different ideal, one that empowers everyone to use their own agency.
We’re talking about inequality a lot these days not just because people are losing income but because so many are losing agency. Economic factors matter a great deal. Unemployment, credit card debt, an inability to pay rent, and general impoverishment narrow our options and in many cases make us dependent. But loss of agency is about more than money. Today’s progressive moral project strips ordinary people of traditional moral wisdom and diminishes their agency.
For most of American history, the Bible and the Judeo-Christian ethic had currency. In addition, we shared a common patriotic vocabulary anchored in our founding documents: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” This shared moral and civic vision empowered ordinary people to participate in the great conversation about how we should shape our common life. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged his racist adversaries with a two-pronged weapon: the Declaration of Independence and the teachings of Scripture, both of which the common man could engage, understand, and respond to.
In the past, elites did their part to sustain this civic, moral, and religious consensus. Predominantly liberal, the newsmen of the 1950s and 1960s nevertheless expressed their moral passion in the same classic, high-minded public vocabulary King used. They operated within our encompassing civil religion even as they took critical stances.
The effect was to include a wide range of people in the public conversation and promote an equality of moral imagination. Religion, morality, and civic myths: These are not the opiates of the masses, nor the mystifications the powerful use to ensure their dominion. On the contrary, they provide us with an inclusive common language of duty, responsibility, and accountability.
Nowadays, if you quote the Bible, you’ll be labeled a fundamentalist. If you affirm the Judeo-Christian ethic, you’re a bigot. One of the very popular high school American history textbooks, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States , works hard to discredit our founding myths and disenchant our civic vocabulary. Our debates are often dominated by a multicultural mindset that drains traditional moral language of its power. Moreover, the rules that flow from that mindset function like a secret code for the initiated. Tolerance is all-important—except when it comes to certain ideas and views. We’re to include everybody—but not those who don’t include. To be permitted to speak, one must conform to the super-subtle rules of progressives. It’s not homosexual, my benighted friend, it’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, questioning. . . .
The upshot is a public or civic inequality. To an unprecedented degree, our secular elites have a monopoly on culture that cannot be challenged by ordinary people. The same people who are falling behind in the global economy also find themselves culturally disempowered. That’s why Fox News can build a brand around populist resentment.
The relentless critiques of traditional moral wisdom have led to a personal loss of agency as well, one that gives rise to today’s most profound inequality: marriage inequality. As David and Amber Lapp painfully detailed in the last issue (“Alone in the New America”), stable marriage is desired by many young working-class people but seems inaccessible. Not only is grandpa’s high-paying union job at GM a remote dream for working-class young people in Youngstown, they also can’t secure the family stability he enjoyed. There’s a painful loss of agency when one feels marriage out of reach, especially when only a generation or two ago the dominant culture empowered people, making marriage seem natural, obvious, and almost automatic.
Thus today’s compound inequality. The same top end that gets the money also controls the new, postmodern ways of defining morality, culture, and public life. They have the social capital and moral agency necessary to get and stay married in the new culture they dominate. Given this glaring inequality, it’s a painful mockery that gay marriage, which is both based on and contributes to the progressive deconstruction of traditional moral wisdom, is being marketed as “marriage equality.”
Let’s talk about income inequality. It’s a real problem. But let’s also talk about the moral and civic inequality that progressivism is creating today. The signs of the times suggest that this inequality is more decisive. The most influential forms of populism today are cultural–religious. Globally, fundamentalism is on the rise because it promises agency to those who feel themselves increasingly dominated by Western and global forces. This is especially true in the Muslim world. In America, Tea Party populism wants to “take our country back.” From whom? Not billionaires, but the editors of the New York Times.
It’s not just the populist rebels who reveal the larger reality of our age. The editors of the New York Times intuit the deepest basis of their power. They are willing to pay higher taxes—or at least volunteer others to pay them. But a redistribution of cultural power? Not a chance. The same goes for faculty at universities. They’ll rally round the call for greater economic equality, but God forbid that a social or religious conservative should receive an appointment. That tells us a great deal about the inequalities and equalities that matter.
Our New Year is arbitrary. For Jews the year begins on the first day of the month of Tishrei on the Jewish lunar calendar. For the Chinese it’s a midwinter date, also determined by a lunar calendar. Ours is based on the Gregorian calendar. But we can’t help but feel it a new beginning, a time to make resolutions and redirect one’s life: an almost metaphysical moment. In that spirit the New York Times ran on December 30 an op-ed by Jennifer Finney Boylan. She writes of our desire to go to “a place where you could become, at last, the author of your own life.”
Author of your own life, agent of your destiny: For those downtrodden by poverty, sickness, and bad fortune, or in bondage to addictions, it’s a vision we should encourage. I think of Ronnie, who used to sit on an empty five-gallon bucket at the corner of 58th and First Avenue, quietly reciting his own rap poems while he panhandled. Tormented by mental illness and addictions, he wanted, desperately wanted, to be the author of his own life. That’s what he told me in so many words. Then he got very sick and wanted only to live. Then he disappeared.
Or I think of Daron, the oil field roughneck I knew who started buying motorcycles and powerboats, maxing out his credit cards, and putting himself deeply into debt. In his usual manic tone he explained, “I know it’s crazy, but it’s the only way I could stop that damned cocaine habit. Hee, hee, ain’t got no money for it now.”
Or. Or. Or.
Or there’s Ms. Boylan, who used to be Mr. Boylan. Her story is about finally finding “the love of my life,” a woman who helps him begin his life anew—as a woman. Now they have a New Year’s tradition. Along with their children, they climb French Mountain near Belgrade, Maine. It’s their place of new beginnings, their place to celebrate becoming the author of their own lives.
The inequality is patent. It’s not the teaching gigs at Johns Hopkins, vacations in Maine, or affirming partners in nontraditional relationships that glares. It’s the preoccupation with the new freedoms enjoyed by the one percent. As so many people lose their agency in postindustrial, postmodern America, we’re seeing an ever increasing enhancement of the agency of the top end. Whether it’s life in the womb, the meaning of marriage, or what it means to be a man or a woman, their freedom trumps. They can redefine whatever stands in the way of their being authors of their own lives.
Pius XII has become the papal piñata. In his influential 1963 play The Deputy, Rolf Hochhuth depicted him as a cold, cautious, aloof churchman unwilling to speak out against Nazi crimes. Some have risen to defend his reputation, documenting his efforts to save Jewish lives in Italy during the war. Much heat has been generated, little light.
In a new, scholarly biography, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII , Robert A. Ventresca gives us a dispassionate portrait. Born Eugenio Pacelli, Pius was a canon lawyer and diplomat, not a prophet or statesman. If we’re to understand his career and significance—and the early twentieth-century Church—we should set aside “Did he do enough?” counterfactuals. More illuminating (and germane) are his failures as a diplomat. Pacelli’s great focus was on Germany, and it was there that he failed in important ways.
His German diplomacy was shaped by two assumptions. The first, shared by many secular leaders of his time and almost universally among Church officials, was that communism posed the greatest threat to the Church and society. Therefore, it was natural that he also assumed—again, as did many secular leaders—that National Socialism, however regrettable its barbarism and excesses, could help fight communism.
This assumption led to a fateful miscalculation by Franz von Papen, the German Catholic aristocrat and Weimar-era politician. He worked to bring Hitler’s movement into the German government after the 1932 election that saw both the extreme left and the extreme right gain seats in the Reichstag. Papen assumed he could broker a power-sharing agreement between the Catholic Center party and the Nazis, creating a broad coalition on the right and thereby stymieing the left.
But Nazism was revolutionary, not conservative; totalitarian, not authoritarian; committed to redemptive violence, not coalition politics. There could be no balancing of party interests, no playing off right against left. Thus the tragedy as Europe careened toward war: Conservatives (Neville Chamberlain led Britain’s Conservative party) sought to contain Hitler in accord with the ordinary rules of the game that Hitler had no intention of playing.
Ventresca’s scholarship shows that Pacelli and his fellow Church diplomats saw German politics in 1932 and 1933 as did Papen. After the 1932 elections, Catholic politician and Center party leader Heinrich Brüning wanted to form a coalition government with the Social Democrats, a party on the left. The dangers of communism made Pacelli nervous. He undermined Brüning, which had the effect of empowering Papen and his strategy, thereby clearing the way for Hitler’s rise to power.
Pacelli’s diplomacy was based on another, even more powerful assumption that further aided Hitler’s rise to power: that the most important goal of the Catholic Church in Germany was to achieve a concordat, the technical term for a legal document defining the proper relations between the Church and the secular state.
In the final decades of the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, Catholicism was reorienting its political identity. Although as late as 1870 the Vatican exercised temporal authority over remnants of the Papal States, the French Revolution and Napoleonic conquests had largely destroyed the old fusion of sacred and secular power. Princes of the Church were no longer intimate partners with secular rulers. The new republican regimes were often antagonistic, as were bureaucratic and authoritarian monarchies like Prussian-dominated Germany.
Leo XIII recognized that the Church’s future rested in her independence as a moral and spiritual power. Pope from 1878 to 1903, he launched the modern encyclical tradition designed to shape public opinion and commended St. Thomas Aquinas, giving the Church her own distinctive social and intellectual character. In these and other ways, the Church stepped back from more than a millennium of close association with state power and began to reconstitute herself as a distinctive community in accord with her own principles and purposes. It was the era of renewed institutional integrity.
As a talented young priest in the Curia, Pacelli worked on the systemization of canon law that culminated in the 1917 Code. Although this seems a technical sideline, it was in fact a crucial step toward securing the Church’s sovereignty. No longer was the Church’s internal life ordered by a patchwork of old canon law that often combined sacred and secular authority. Now the Church’s law was entirely her own. She and she alone has jurisdiction over her affairs.
Where the 1917 Code concerned the internal life of the Church, concordats or treaties were negotiated to regularize relations to the modern states of Europe. They clarified the Church’s property rights, the autonomy of her educational programs, the scope of clerical privilege, and more. Without concordats the internal life of the Church remained vulnerable to secular domination and control.
Building this system became one of the great imperatives of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, which was the most powerful department in the Vatican in those decades. While papal nuncio in Germany after World War I, Pacelli sought to negotiate a concordat with the German government, but without success. In 1930 he was brought back to Rome to serve as the Vatican’s secretary of state, a position of importance second only to the pope’s. A concordat with Germany remained his great ambition.
In 1933, Hitler was made chancellor of Germany (aided in part by Pacelli’s undercutting of opposition in the Catholic Center party). Eager to consolidate his power, he recognized that the concordat was an overriding imperative for the Vatican. So Hitler put it on the fast track. Pacelli’s response was to throw all his efforts behind it. The Vatican’s diplomatic signals to German Catholics were crystal clear: Securing the concordat was to be the singular priority of the Church in Germany.
This had decisive consequences in the Reichstag. By making the concordat a priority, the Vatican was investing in Hitler’s ability to get the job done. Pacelli’s diplomacy said, in effect, that an empowered Hitler is good for the Church. Thus, taking its cues from Rome, the Catholic Center Party provided the crucial votes to support the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave Hitler the power to rule through emergency measures without legislative approval. The concordat was quickly concluded, to Pacelli’s delight—and Hitler was on his way to dictatorial power.
In his own career in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, Giovanni Montini, the future Paul VI and last of the twentieth-century diplomat popes, worked closely with Pius XII. He defended the reputation of his old boss: “History will vindicate the conduct of Pius XII when confronted with the criminal excesses of the Nazi regime.” About the war years, Ventrusca’s even-handed biography largely supports Montini’s claim.
However, about Hitler’s rise to power when Pacelli was the Vatican’s secretary of state, I’m not so sure. He misjudged (as did so many others) the evil Hitler represented. More importantly, his vision fixed on securing a concordat, he contributed to the passage of the 1933 Enabling Act that gave legal cover to Hitler’s ruthless drive toward totalitarian power. In so doing, I fear, he lost sight of the proper end of the Church’s diplomacy, which is to advance the truth of the Gospel, not the interests of the Church. This was a failure, and it’s silly to say otherwise out of a well-intentioned desire to defend the reputation of the papal office or the integrity of the Church.
Condemnation is also silly. Times have changed. We don’t see the Church and the world as Pacelli and his generation did. Now we put a much greater premium on the integrity of the Church’s public witness, which is exactly what Leo XIII had in mind as he worked to give the Church an independent legal, intellectual, and spiritual constitution. That shift was dramatically evident at the Second Vatican Council and may well be culminating in the pontificate of Francis.
We need to recognize that, far from standing in the way of this renewed concern with the Church’s public witness, Pacelli and his generation paved the way. Flawed, often one-sided, and blind to other considerations, they largely succeeded in securing the institutional independence of the Catholic Church. They gave us a place to stand, which is why we can now focus on taking stands.
Food and Class
Jesse Straight appreciates my analysis of elite self-regard and the ways the upper crust is reinterpreting morality to serve itself. But he runs the Whiffletree Farm in Warrenton, Virginia, where he raises organic free-range pigs, cattle, and chickens. This makes him less than happy with my “habit of, while poking fun at and exposing some of the frivolous, self-righteous, and self-indulgent ways of the elite, flippantly citing their ‘separate cuisine of organic, locally sourced food’ or ‘gourmet pickles,’ etc.”
His main points:
“One, some of us involved in well-raised, local food are not the wealthy liberal elite. I would know this as the rural, lots-of-kids, conservative, Catholic-convert, farmer who does not make much money. Many of our customers are like ourselves: conservative, religious, of modest income who are not foodies but are concerned about health.
“Second, of course there are silly, self-indulgent, self-righteous ‘foodie locavores,’ but there are silly people in any category. Well-raised, local food encourages an ethic of health and care: health of the land, animals, eaters, farmers, and community. In short, our work is about a life of holiness—respecting and caring for the gifts God has given us.”
I’m very glad to get some pushback from Farmer Straight. We’re in many ways quite simpatico. I’m all for the food revolution sweeping our country. Three decades ago the craft beer movement transformed the marketplace—and significantly improved the quality of my life. Now craft cheese is taking off, which is also a very good thing, as is the restoration of “heritage” hogs, which means pork with fat marbling that actually tastes good. About tomatoes I continue to despair.
In short, I too am a conservative, religious, Catholic-convert foodie who would enjoy sipping craft beer and discussing St. Thomas on Straight’s front porch. When I was living in Omaha, Nebraska, I bought a “quarter” every six months or so from a local farmer. (For the uninitiated, a “quarter” refers to one quarter of the meat from a recently slaughtered cow.) He has a beautiful family, a verdant spread, and a secret recipe for “finishing” his cattle. Good man. Happy cattle. Marvelous meat.
Yet I stand by my critical campaign against foodie hauteur. All things being equal, most people prefer better food. But only upper-middle-class Americans of a particular social background turn that preference into a life-defining philosophy with an elaborate scholastic vocabulary and many special doctrines. Food pride—pride in its superiority, pride in its ethical purity, pride in its health benefits—has become a significant mark of social class.
And not just pride, but an exquisite, neo-Puritan punctiliousness. I was in line at my local gourmet coffee shop (organic, of course) and overheard a woman interrogate the staff about the content and ethical standing of various pastries that I know from experience are exquisite. Unsatisfied with their answers, she sniffed and said, “Well, I’ll just have coffee.”
Nor do claims about health benefits have much substance. Shoppers at Whole Foods tend to be healthy because they’re well-to-do people who care about their health, not because they eat organic food. Healthy eating is something you can do with avocados raised in Israel, chicken from Tyson, and genetically modified rice.
I enjoy good food. I’m in favor of restoring a love of craft—may a thousand cheeses ripen! I dislike vast suburban grocery stores, and thrill to farmers’ markets. I’m a sucker for the myth of the family farm. I’m grateful that the foodie movement makes it possible for Straight and others to make a living, however modest, doing something they love. When it comes to tasteless pork, processed cheese, tomatoes hard as baseballs, and breads with characterless crusts, Viva la revolución!
But, please, let’s not confuse all this with virtue. It’s quite possible, and indeed common, for men who run highly mechanized farms to care for their land and animals, their neighbors and communities. A concern about health and the desire to make meals moments of communion can motivate those who shop at Costco. When it comes to food, the gate is wide, not narrow.
Conquering the World
A most serious temptation, one that impedes our contact with the Lord, is defeatism.” So observed then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in a talk he gave to priests, now part of a collection, Open Mind, Faithful Heart. I’m a magazine editor and culture warrior, not a parish priest, but I’ve often felt this temptation. After decades of struggling, we’ve made very little progress protecting children in the womb. Increasingly commentators say gay marriage has to be accepted as “inevitable.” Religious freedom is being threatened. More and more people live without feeling any need to go to church.
When I’m tired and demoralized I hear the Devil whisper: “It’s pointless, you know. You’ve lost. Why are you wasting your time? You could be doing some real good if you’d focus on something else.” Sometimes he continues: “It’s not really capitulation, you know. You should let the secular world go its own way. Anyway, prayer is more powerful than action.” Or he says, “You’ve got to maintain your viability as a public intellectual. Admit defeat and move on. People are tired of bitter battles over religion and morality in the public square. You’ll do more good if you’re part of the mainstream.”
But we must be confident, says Pope Francis. This does not mean confidence that tomorrow will bring news of great battles won. “Christian victory always involves the cross.” The way may be difficult. But Christ has triumphed over all worldly powers, even death. Francis quotes from 1 John 5:4–5, a particularly powerful passage that has bucked me up on many occasions: “Whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”