Lots of folks are calling for civility these days, an understandable response to a shrill and polarized political climate. In his First Inaugural Address, as the Civil War loomed, Abraham Lincoln spoke of “the better angels of our nature.” He wanted to smooth the way for reconciliation. Seven-term Senator Orrin Hatch used that image in his farewell speech on the Senate floor. He urged his fellow senators that “we listen to our better angels; that we recommit ourselves to comity; that we restore civility to the public discourse.”
I admire the sentiment. Civility is an admirable quality. It means having the habits and manners necessary for living in close contact with one’s fellow citizens. A civil person is well-mannered and capable of easing the friction of social interactions. One could say that civility is a habit of peacemaking in the inevitable rough-and-tumble of life. Civility is not averse to competition, nor to conflict over substantive matters. But someone who has civility avoids unnecessary clashes, takes some of the sting out of those that are necessary, and repairs breaches when possible. So, yes, we need civility. Without it the civitas, the arena of public life, heads toward the naked struggle for wealth, power, and position.
But calls for civility are rarely innocent. Last fall, a disordered person sent bombs to leading Democratic politicians. President Trump urged civility. A few days later, speaking at a campaign rally, former President Barack Obama went on the attack: “I’m hoping you think it’s wrong to hear people spend years, months, vilifying people, questioning their patriotism, calling them enemies of the people—and then suddenly you’re concerned about civility. Please.” In the countdown to the midterm elections last fall, Nancy Pelosi harrumphed about “Trump’s daily lack of civility.” Chuck Schumer captured this wonderfully circular line of attacking one’s adversary with charges of incivility, saying, “harassment of political opponents” is “not American.”
Schumer’s suggestion that Trump is un-American is the height of subtlety these days. A crude derogation of Trump’s intelligence, motives, and character has been far more frequent, indeed relentless, since he came down the escalator. It seems not a day goes by when he is not described as an idiot, a racist, a crypto-fascist, a misogynist, or as having some other gross defect of character. How can these statements be regarded as civil ways to treat a political candidate who won the presidency? But the ongoing attacks on Trump do not “read” as incivility, while his counterattacks do. The reason is simple: Pelosi and Schumer have the cultural high ground, as evidenced by the fact that so many Republican elites share their view of Trump and join the chorus of condemnation.
The influential twentieth-century sociologist Norbert Elias observed that “a strict code of manners” has great importance for elites. It is “an instrument of prestige, but it is also . . . an instrument of power.” Correct manners set apart the well-bred few from the demotic many. They help elites recognize one another: “Ah, he’s one of us.” And good manners regulate intense elite competition. This has an important, stabilizing function, which is why those like Orrin Hatch want their legislative colleagues to recover civility. But elite manners have an outward-facing role as well. They are tools for ruling out challengers as ill-bred, crude, and vulgar, which is to say, illegitimate. This, too, functions to stabilize public life by certifying who can and cannot speak about public affairs. This ruling-out function is evident in today’s use of civility. Populists of all stripes throughout the West, and not just Trump, are described as racist, fascist, authoritarian. These terms signal that populists are not legitimate political adversaries. They are dangerous and illegitimate upstarts, uncivil by definition.
Elias had no illusions. He understood the importance of manners and social hierarchies. The alternative is either the chaos of a culturally unregulated social order or the totalitarianism of a politically imposed order based on raw power rather than habit and sentiment. Nonetheless, Elias sought sociological self-awareness. We need to grasp the social function of notions such as civility and other social virtues such as decency, courtesy, and politeness. They are qualities that help maintain social affairs by smoothing over the rough spots of public life. And they keep politics in bounds by drawing a bright line between those who have a legitimate say in public affairs and those who don’t, the rulers and the ruled.
In eighteenth-century France, the ruling elite emphasized politesse and civilité: discreet speech and exquisite manners. These social virtues masked the ruthless pursuit of power and status in the royal court and elsewhere in French society. The effect was to soften and humanize the social milieu of the leadership class. Politesse also served as a barrier to entry into the elite and its high-stakes game of competition for superordination.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous praise of the “noble savage” was a direct attack on the social order embodied in, and enforced by, the virtues of politesse and civilité. His frank writing about emotions, especially romantic ones, along with his tell-all Confessions, shocked and thrilled his readers. With Rousseau, an “unmannered” style came into vogue, which of course soon became its own elaborately articulated ethic of authenticity. This anti-mannered code of manners is very much with us today, so much so that the exemplary, admired nobleman or haute bourgeois Frenchman of the eighteenth century would, today, be regarded as a snob, a bore, and a fake.
When it comes to manners such as decency and civility, we are undoubtedly in another phase of change in the United States. As I’ve noted in these pages, to a degree unimaginable to my grandparents, well-educated, professionally successful, and powerful people are extraordinarily foul-mouthed. Is it possible to watch a Hollywood awards show without listening to a blistering attack on somebody (most likely the president) complete with f-bombs? The same can be said about clothing. Billionaires wear T-shirts and running shoes. People board airplanes in their pajamas. There has been a decades-long process of casualization and crudification, not just in society as a whole, but also in elite manners, which strongly suggests that we won’t see a return of the gentlemanly atmosphere of the Senate chamber Orrin Hatch fondly remembers.
There’s a place for nostalgia. It’s useful to recall what’s good that has been lost—and to urge its recovery. But this is not the place for me to argue for the virtues of my grandparents’ world (which were estimable). Rather, I want to gain a measure of understanding. What is behind the powerful trend toward casualization and crudification? Why is it happening?
It’s not obvious that it should be taking place. Consider the men’s suit. It’s a relatively simple sartorial code, not fussy or difficult to maintain. It also does a good job hiding the extra pounds that accumulate around the waist as a man ages. A middle-aged guy with an average build can look good in a suit, unlike in a T-shirt and jeans, which expose the stomach paunch and flabby arms. And why the crude, demotic speech? I worked as a carpenter in Greenwich Village after college. My crew boss was a salty character from New Hampshire whose creative use of profanity bordered on the poetic. In the race to the bottom, he was certain to win. Those in my social class were much better off sticking to a competition that rewards erudition and prizes compound sentences. But we’ve done otherwise.
In The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff speculates that postwar adults came to feel that the demands of culture were too burdensome. They wanted to loosen things up and create space for the “real me.” It’s easier to go easy on yourself. For a long time, I thought that explanation sufficient. Isn’t the universal law of human behavior one of self-regarding hedonism?
Actually, no. The more I look at what is going on in our society, the less adequate Rieff’s analysis seems. It’s not the case that elite people go easy on themselves. Now that men have set aside traditional suits, middle-aged (and older) males go to gyms, hire personal trainers, and undertake diet regimes that my father and grandfather could only have looked upon with wonderment. The entire domain of food has become a matter of intense scrutiny and self-discipline for elites. And, of course, status competition in education and professional success is ruthless and relentless—ratcheted up to the nth degree by a hall-of-mirrors competition over who has and has not “sold out.” So, no, things have not loosened up, the graying baby boomer self-conceit notwithstanding.
Reading Norbert Elias’s two-volume history of manners, The Civilizing Process, helps us see that manners change, yes, but not in accord with a simple metric of strictness or casualness, duty or hedonism, other-regard or self-regard. Things don’t relax; they shift. The couture of upper-class English gentry relaxed as the nineteenth century progressed, but their sexual morality became more severe and their verbal prudishness more pronounced. A similar shift has happened over the last two generations, at least among Western elites.
Consider pronouns. When I was young, I was taught to be anxious not to blurt out obscene words. That’s become far less imperative. Instead, we police pronouns to the point that the singular “they” has become a solecism almost universally embraced as a safe refuge from censure. It is the equivalent of old euphemisms such as “number two” and “restroom.” We take it for granted, not feeling “they” to be an awkward and artificial verbal habit. But that’s the point of manners. For those who have them, they are “natural.” Those who lack them and say words like “mankind” are seen as gauche and indecent.
We have a similar system of elaborate manners when it comes to words about race and ethnicity. These are elements of a larger trend toward openly political markers of civility and gentility. These markers revolve around “inclusivity,” the quality or trait that has become the sine qua non of elite respectability. The old Protestant denominations that minister to the elite proclaim it. The toniest private schools congratulate themselves on their commitment to inclusion, as do the most selective universities. It is a mantra for Fortune 500 companies. During the reign of Louis XIV, no Frenchman would be admitted to high society without politesse. Today, no American is permitted into our leading institutions without the very different but equally prized habit of inclusivity—and for the very same reason. Like politesse, inclusivity is thought to ease, disguise, and protect the relentless pursuit of wealth, power, and status by elites.
The prominence of inclusivity helps explain the trend toward casualness and crudity. Our elites relax the old boundaries between the leaders and the led, between the establishment insiders and the outsiders. This allows the wellborn and highly placed to engage in the ostentatious display of inclusivity. Jeff Bezos dresses casually. Like a peacock withdrawing his colorful feathers, he is signaling to society that, aside from a net worth in excess of $100 billion, he’s just like everyone else. The speech habits of elite people follow a similar trajectory. The well-bred person in twenty-first-century America manifests his elite status by adopting the latest gestures and phrases that promise to “break down boundaries”—or if not adopting, at least signaling his support and patronage of those who do. This is why the New York Times can publish editorials with harsh, aggressive rhetoric of “subaltern voices” raging against supposed oppressors without imagining itself uncivil in tone. The sharp blows are seen as crucial for promoting inclusivity, the cardinal virtue of our leadership class.
The paradox is plain to see. One includes, but only those who include. Those who lack the quality of inclusivity must be excluded in order to maintain unblemished that which is worthy, noble, and meritorious—the spirit of inclusion. But the paradox is not debilitating. This is the way elites always operate. The medieval knight is chivalrous, but only to those deserving of his regard. The low and mendacious must be dealt with firmly. The French aristocrat is polite to those who share his politesse, but not to the indocile servants who get the back of his hand.
Moreover, it won’t do to criticize inclusivity as an ever-changing standard. Barack Obama flipped from opposing gay marriage to supporting it without any expression of dismay or confession of past errors. This, too, is the way elite manners operate, as anyone who grew up in the final days of WASP elite culture knows. Elias shows how chivalry and politesse evolve toward ever greater refinement in order to maintain the boundary between elite and non-elite, who are always aping their betters in the hope of admittance. The same holds for inclusivity. “LGBT” adds more and more letters because its program is a status marker that needs to stay ahead of mass adoption, not a political or moral philosophy.
For these reasons, it’s naive to think calls for civility are nonpartisan. Elite manners always have political valences. These manners revolve around the main functions of elites that concern the civitas, the city, most centrally its governance. A leadership class must be capable of maintaining peace and comity amid struggles for power and prestige. Civility describes that capacity. Its specific content has varied over the centuries. Chivalry, ritual politeness, codes of honor, and other hallmarks of civility have in different times and places provided a reliable, humanizing framework for power competition. Civility—whatever its substantive expression at any particular historical moment—is also a crucial boundary marker. It establishes a distinction between those whom we may trust to rule and those whom we cannot trust. It distinguishes those fit to rule from those unfit. This is the root meaning of “civil” and “uncivil.” A civil person properly takes up the affairs of the civitas. He can be trusted to do so responsibly and with an eye toward the common good. (My use of “he” indicates that I’m suspect in this regard.) By contrast, the latter should not be permitted to govern.
This brings us to our present, fractious, political moment, not just in the United States, but also in the West more broadly. For the last two generations, our elites have adopted an inclusive ethos. It’s evident in the casualization and crudification of their outward modes of life. It’s also evident in their characteristic turns of phrase. In 1991, the man of impeccable elite manners, George H. W. Bush, addressed the United Nations, praising “open trade, open borders, and, most importantly, open minds.” This habit of mind invariably defines “civility” as the spirit of inclusion. “Incivility” means one or another expression of “exclusion.” It’s overzealous, perhaps, to promise, as did newly elected House Representative Rashida Tlaib, to impeach “the mother****er.” But for today’s elite, that does not count as incivility. By contrast, were the Senate Majority Leader to refer to a man who dresses as a woman with the pronoun “he,” alarm bells would sound and serious people in positions of power would wonder whether he was fit to lead the Republican party.
Populism has many forms. But of this we can be certain: It is anti-establishment by definition. Today, populism is challenging more than establishment-endorsed policies. It is attacking the elite system of manners by challenging the politesse of inclusivity. Our leadership class senses this, which is why elite journalists, establishment politicians, and prominent academics so quickly reframe votes about national sovereignty (Brexit) and immigration policy (Salvini in Italy, Orbán in Hungary, Trump in the United States) as expressions of racism, xenophobia, and other crimes of exclusion. By establishment standards, these are illegitimate sentiments. They are “uncivil” and thus sure signs of someone’s unfitness for any role or influence in the civitas.
Count me among the skeptics of today’s elite system of manners. One defect of the ethos of inclusivity is that, unlike chivalry, politesse, honor, and other traditional systems of manners, it encourages elite self-delusion. Their commitment to casualization and crudification allows them to imagine they are not, in fact, elite. This is a dangerous fantasy, because it leads to entitlement without responsibility, noblesse without oblige.
Another defect is the politicization of manners, not in the sense of making them prerequisites for elite status, a political function of manners whatever their content, but by turning political views themselves into status markers. To be well-mannered these days means having certain progressive political opinions, not necessarily about economic matters, but certainly about cultural ones. This transparent partisanship can’t help but make calls for the restoration of decency and civility ring hollow.
I’m in favor of basic decency and I’m against personal attacks. We could do with more sober rhetoric in the public square and a great deal less attention to social media, where the race to the bottom is at once a sprint and a never-ending marathon. In these times of intensifying political conflict, we need to harken to the better angels of our nature, not least the true angels who are messengers of love. But we also need to be clear-eyed about civility. It is an establishment virtue. Calls for civility invariably aim at shoring up elite control over who can and cannot take part in public affairs. These calls are not abstract appeals to virtue. They are meant to limn the boundaries between who is and is not qualified to govern, who is and is not authorized to speak. Ready appeals to epithets of racism, xenophobia, fascism, homophobia, and authoritarianism make this function obvious. They are not words of engagement; they are uttered to disqualify.
As Peter Hitchens argued in our pages, the jurors in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in all likelihood did not grasp D. H. Lawrence’s euphemisms for sodomy because they had come to adulthood in a society that did not speak of such things. Manners have changed a great deal since then. Today, we can only whisper in private that we think sodomy is a sin. This tells us what our standards of civility are these days, for a central function of civility is to dictate what can and cannot be said.
The dramatic shift in permitted speech about sodomy is part of a larger change. During the Obama administration, it became clear that elite manners now place traditional religious believers among the “haters” who should have no role in public life. The Republican establishment has not been willing to be so “uncivil” as to challenge this trend, though they promise to protect our religious freedom and freedom of conscience. The recent uproar over the confrontation at the March for Life between Catholic high school students from Covington, Kentucky, and Native American activists dramatized this situation nicely. Prominent conservative leaders rushed to denounce the incivility of the boys, which, in keeping with our times, turned on the presumption of racist, xenophobic faux pas, when in fact the circumstances of the encounter suggest otherwise. But their error was understandable. They were eager to prove their membership in the elite by taking up its manners, which in 2019 means denouncing “exclusion” and other transgressions of inclusivity.
This puts us in a hard spot. We care about the body politic, which means caring about the decency and integrity of public debate. At the same time, the language of civility—crucial for regulating and pacifying civic life, as Elias makes clear—is almost always arrayed against us. It is used to weaken our voices, if not silence them. It even turns us into tools of progressive aggression, causing us to attack our allies when they stumble (or when the media portray them as stumbling), using the wrong fork (pronoun) or drinking from the wrong kind of wine glass (not reading from the approved script when speaking of race, sex, or ethnicity).
In this situation, it is tempting to retreat from the rough sport of politics. It is painful to enter the public square only to be targeted by the civility police and ranged among the rubes and unfit. Practical politics in antiestablishment coalitions has also become daunting. It can be exhausting to have to account for every misstep, blunder, or crudity that the establishment system of manners identifies and targets as disqualifying. (David Duke spoke to somebody who knows somebody who worked on the Trump campaign . . .) Meanwhile, establishment favorites get light treatment. We are in constant danger of losing our way. As we reject establishment policing of civility and refuse to play the role of executioners of those among us who are deemed to have transgressed, we’ll find it more and more difficult to discern who is and is not “civil” in the deeper and truer sense of seeking to promote the common good, rather than their own careers, or worse, crackpot and dangerous ideologies.
Elias offers a consolation. Change comes, as the history of manners shows. Persistent, confident, and courageous outsiders reshape the elite consensus, as the labor of Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues demonstrated two generations ago. The current season of populism suggests the superannuation of today’s establishment. If we’re willing to endure establishment ire for the principles we know to be true, then we’ll play a role in shaping the new and more responsible standards of decency and civility.
Catholicism in China
“A new era for the Catholic Church in China began this past fall.” So writes Paul Mariani in a recent issue of America. Last September, Pope Francis OK’d a “provisional agreement” with the Chinese government. The text of the agreement remains secret, but the main element has been revealed: “It appears the Chinese government will have a voice in the selection of bishops.”
This marks a fundamental break from the Catholic Church’s continuous efforts since the French Revolution. One of the main thrusts of those efforts was to assume full control of the selection of bishops. This meant breaking down old procedures by which secular authorities in Europe could nominate or veto candidates for episcopal office. The Vatican II Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops states that the Church herself has sole authority to appoint and install bishops. It says that “no more rights or privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation for the office of bishop [shall] be granted to civil authorities.” As Mariani notes, the Vatican’s agreement with the Chinese government is precisely a concession of these rights or privileges.
Why this compromise on a fundamental principle? The reasons rest in the distinctive history of the Catholic Church in China. A permanent mission to China was established at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It endured through the centuries in China, governed by European leadership. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Vatican incorporated Chinese Catholics into the hierarchy. “In 1926 Pope Pius XI, the ‘pope of missions,’ consecrated the first six Chinese bishops of modern times.” Amid the tumult of war, first with the Japanese and then a civil war, the process of “indigenization” continued. By the time Mao emerged victorious in the conflict with Nationalist forces and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, half the bishops in China were of Chinese descent.
Mao was not kind to Chinese Catholics. Along with other independent entities in Communist China, the Catholic Church was suppressed. Mao “soon nationalized church property and expelled both Catholic and Protestant missionaries.” The Communist party required Chinese Catholics to renounce ties to the Vatican. In 1951, the papal representative was expelled. “Sino-Vatican relations were locked in mutual recriminations.”
The Communist government adopted a two-pronged strategy. It persecuted and imprisoned Catholics, hoping to suppress Christianity altogether. It also established a “Patriotic Association” of Catholics as an alternative structure that could be closely controlled by the party. To lend legitimacy to the Patriotic church, in 1958 “the government staged the consecration of some bishops without papal approval.” Thus began a now decades-long schism in the Chinese Church with a government-selected hierarchy in nominal control of the Patriotic Church and a Vatican-selected hierarchy governing the underground Church.
After Mao’s death, Chinese society became more open. Some church property was restored and imprisoned bishops were released. This did not repair the breach, however. “The churches soon emerged from the shadows—as did the vicious divisions between the ‘underground’ and ‘patriotic’ churches.” Over time, however, a modus vivendi developed. Since the beginning of this century, many bishops consecrated in the Patriotic Church have sought to be reconciled with Rome, and in most cases Rome has accepted them. This has led to a confusing ecclesial situation in China. As Mariani reports, on the eve of the provisional agreement this fall, “There were about 100 bishops in China, 30 of them still not recognized by the government.” Of these thirty, some were under house arrest or have “disappeared,” while others functioned in relative freedom. Nearly seventy of the one hundred were recognized by both the Chinese government and the Vatican. There were only seven not reconciled with Rome and thus, in the eyes of the Church, illegitimate. “Needless to say, this a highly irregular state for the church.”
Although we don’t know for sure, given the secrecy of the Vatican’s diplomacy with the Chinese government, it appears that last year Pope Francis received and accepted requests from the seven recusant bishops to be recognized by Rome. This means that from Rome’s perspective, all the bishops functioning in China are legitimate. “This was the main public fruit of the provisional accord,” Mariani concludes, though he points out that some say this has not truly regularized the Chinese hierarchy. Instead, “The chaff has been renamed as wheat.” And, of course, the thirty bishops of the underground Church remain unrecognized by the Chinese government and are thus vulnerable to renewed persecution, setting up an unpleasant divide in the episcopacy between the protected and the unprotected. No doubt the Vatican “hopes that the status of the 30 bishops not recognized by the Chinese government can be normalized,” which would be a major accomplishment. It’s a hope that depends upon what the Chinese government is willing to do. Is this hope well-founded? Mariani is less than confident. “It would be naïve in the extreme to think that the Chinese government wants any positive outcomes for the church.”
More is at stake than regularizing the status of Catholic bishops in China. “As the Vatican has made clear,” Mariani reports, “all of these efforts are designed to assist in the evangelization of the Chinese people.” Catholic leaders are concerned about the relative stagnation of growth among Chinese Catholics, estimated to be some ten to twelve million today. By contrast, Protestantism in China has expanded rapidly and is now thought to be sixty million strong. Perhaps this has little to do with the irregular and divided character of Catholicism in China. But it surely does not help, and doing something to break the logjam may be a fitting exercise of pastoral prudence, even at the cost of the principle of secular noninterference in church governance.
Again, Mariani has doubts. “After centuries of trying to get out from under the thumb of state power, why would the Vatican return to this state of affairs?” Rumors suggest that some of the seven bishops legitimized by the provisional agreement are not, ahem, exemplary. “Are these the ‘authentic shepherds’ that Pope Francis calls for?” Of the far greater number of government-appointed bishops reconciled with Rome at earlier points, Mariani wonders if they were chosen because of their pastoral talents, or because they had shown themselves pliable bureaucrats who will do the government’s bidding.
All of this raises a fundamental question. “Is the church the church of the diplomats and functionaries, or is it the church of the martyrs and prophets?” The provisional agreement seems to sell out the men and women who endured persecution for decades while remaining loyal to Rome:
An earlier generation of Chinese was told by church leaders to resist the Communist government and its intrusive religious policies to break ties with the pope. Many went to prison and others to their deaths. Now another generation of Chinese Catholics is told that the clandestine, unregistered church is not a normal way of proceeding. They are told to engage in encounter and not in confrontation. Where is the coherence here?
Mariani is judicious. He knows the Church’s history: “For centuries European governments named bishops in territories under their control or influence.” In a formal sense, although it sets aside the strictures of Vatican II and canon law, the provisional agreement seems not to transgress core theological principles. But he wonders about its prudence.
I share his concerns. We are not living in a season of government solicitude for Christians in China. Quite the opposite seems to be the case. In recent years, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has increased pressure on Christians, not relaxed it. And is concession to government power in the provisional agreement a wise precedent when the Church in the West is under increasing pressure to conform itself to the sexual revolution and the culture of death? Those in China who have stood strong in the past may become demoralized. “Are the prophets being sold out by the diplomats?” Mariani’s question is surely on the minds of many Chinese Catholics. It should be on our minds as well.
while we’re at it
♦ When it comes to abortion, we’re at a complete parting of the ways. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an abortion bill that parallels Roe’s “health of the woman” clause that permits abortions up to the moment of birth. It also allows certified midwives and physician assistants to perform abortions. Ohio, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Indiana have passed anti-discrimination laws prohibiting eugenic abortions that euthanize, in the womb, children with Down syndrome and other disabilities. Similar laws are in the works in other states. Much has been written about political polarization. In the cause of life, the moral stakes are now clearer than ever.
♦ Bishop of Albany Edward Scharfenberger penned a sharply worded open letter to Cuomo condemning the law and the governor’s support of it. He raised some important questions about the implications of the abortion bill’s radicalism:
If abortion is deemed a fundamental right in New York State, will the State then still be able to issue licenses to pro-life nurses or physicians? Will health facilities which do not provide abortions be certified? Will the law allow that even one dollar be given to maternity services without offering women the “choice” of abortion? These are unanswered questions, but I shudder to think of the consequences this law will wreak. You have already uttered harsh threats about the welcome you think pro-lifers are not entitled to in our state. Now you are demonstrating that you mean to write your warning into law. Will being pro-life one day be a hate crime in the State of New York?
We know how the culture of death answers those questions.
♦ At first I thought this was a real news story on the Israeli website The Daily Freier. It was about Adam G., who pledged to drink a shot of Scotch every time the rabbi at his reformed temple invoked tikkun olam during his sermon. A bystander reported:
I was sitting with Adam in the back of the Sanctuary by that table with all the old issues of Lilith, and things started okay. The Rabbi mentioned the canned food drive, and invoked Tikkun Olam, so Adam took a shot. Fine, whatever. Then the Rabbi kind of got on a roll. When he started talking about Trump, I knew Adam was in trouble. By the time the Rabbi got to his anecdote about meeting Beto O’Rourke at the Austin Rally for Justice, Adam was slurring his words. When the Rabbi started talking about the Fair-Trade Hummus at his Food Co-Op, Adam was on the floor. I started CPR, and everyone sang Bim-Bam until the paramedics arrived.
♦ Catholic League president Bill Donohue was invited to the Oxford Union to debate the resolution “The House Believes The Catholic Church Can Never Pay For Its Sins.” Until he was disinvited. Seems they wanted more, shall we say, “helpful voices” speaking against the resolution. One is to be Marci Hamilton, who has sued the Holy See and works to rescind statutes of limitations as they apply to priests but not public school teachers. As Donohue put it, “For the Oxford Union to treat her as a champion of the Catholic Church is analogous to selecting a supporter of the Klan to defend African Americans.”
♦ A video of a trans woman (or is it trans man—I can’t keep the nomenclature straight) went viral. He is yelling at the young clerk at a gaming store. The offense? The lad called him “sir.” He threatens the kid and then storms out, kicking over displays. The local TV station interviews him. He expresses pride in his outburst. “I would do it 100,000 times again.” It’s a small (and sad) episode, but it dramatizes an important fact about our moment. We are empowering very troubled people to positions of moral and cultural authority. This will not end well.
♦ Notre Dame president Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C., recently announced that the late-nineteenth-century murals that adorn the university’s Main Building and depict Christopher Columbus’s coming to the New World will be covered up. It is, as Jenkins put it, a “complex topic.” But the imperative of sensitivity and the need to acknowledge the “catastrophe” of Columbus’s arrival led to his decision. Altogether predictable university behavior. It follows the testicularly challenged pattern of leadership at the elite institutions among which Notre Dame wishes to count itself.
Meanwhile, in a matter that actually bears on present-day realities: As of this writing, Theodore McCarrick still has his honorary degree from Notre Dame.
♦ Hats off to Tucker Carlson for his bravura performance on January 3. He lit into elites: “We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule.” He took aim at both sides of the aisle. “One of the biggest lies our leaders tell us is that you can separate economics from everything else that matters. Economics is a topic for public debate. Family and faith and culture, meanwhile, those are personal matters. Both parties believe this.” But without strong faith and stable families the social fabric unravels. Surely it’s conservative to support what conserves society. Carlson accurately observes that as soon as one proposes policies that protect families, conservatives get nervous, or even denounce these policies as conservative social engineering. “Libertarians are sure to call any deviation from market fundamentalism a form of socialism.” What’s needed, Carlson continues, are leaders willing to address the real problems in our country. That means good economic policy, to be sure. But it also means formulating a cultural politics that aims at restoring the family.
♦ On January 23, long after it was widely acknowledged that the media storm about the boys from Covington Catholic was a shameful overreaction to events that had not occurred, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, published an op-ed in the local paper. He condemns the boys, not the media that distorted the events and not the activists who singled them out for retribution:
Without engaging the discussion about the context of the viral video or placing the blame entirely on these adolescents, it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies.
There we have it. As death threats and protests shut down Covington Catholic High School, Bishop Stowe does not want to blame the students “entirely.” But he very much wants to ensure that the media smear campaign succeeds, making it “indecent” for those who support Donald Trump to show their support in public.
♦ I’m proud to have the opportunity to publish Martin Mosebach’s powerful account of the men in orange who were martyred on the Mediterranean’s strand (“Baptism of Blood”). The feature article comes from The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs. I’m grateful to Peter Mommsen, head of Plough Publishing and editor of Plough quarterly, for arranging the translation and publication of The 21. It’s an arresting book that reminds us of the living power of our faith, a power greater than death’s false claim to lordship.
♦ We’re beholden to many false truisms. One is that our coasts are diverse places representative of the great mosaic of our country, while Middle America is boring and homogeneous. Not exactly. Echelon Insights crunched census data to come up with the twenty-five counties in the United States in which the mix of residents most precisely mirrors the country as a whole: race, political allegiance, income, educational level, religious affiliation, and age distribution. With the exception of two counties in Florida and one in Virginia that is home to an enormous naval base, they’re not ocean facing. Most are near mid-sized American cities, many in the Midwest. Douglas County, Nebraska, made the list. It’s where Omaha is located. I lived there for twenty years. One of the irritating features of fancy-pants places like New York is the ignorant assumption that people from Omaha live in an insular, white-bread bubble. The opposite is the case. New York County (the island of Manhattan) ranks among the least typical places in the United States. In truth, an Omaha resident has immediate, everyday experience with the actual diversity of the United States, not the paradoxical hyper-diverse homogeneity of places like New York.
♦ Peter Steinfels penned a detailed analysis of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse in most of the Catholic dioceses in that state. His Commonweal article, “The PA Grand-Jury Report: Not What It Seems,” concludes that the report fails to put the clerical abuse by priests and actions by bishops into anything like a coherent historical narrative. Had it done so, the report would have documented the dramatic changes brought by the 2002 Dallas Charter, which imposed strict standards for the treatment of accusations of clerical sexual abuse. Instead, the report makes sensational charges about the Church’s supposed inaction and cover-ups, when in fact over the last generation Catholic authorities became consistently more responsive and proactive in cleansing the priesthood of transgressors. As George Weigel notes on our website, the article is a definitive assessment. Highly recommended.
♦ Linda Nicolosi of Thousand Oaks, California, would like to form a ROFTERS group. To join the monthly discussions of the latest issue, get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gabriel Ozuna wants to organize a ROFTERS group in Rio Grande Valley, Texas. You can join by contacting him at email@example.com.
♦ I’m delighted to announce that we ended 2018 on a strong note. Our fall fundraising campaign brought in $651,305 from readers. I would like to extend my profound thanks to everyone who contributed last year. Your support is crucial for the success of First Things.