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Like many, I have been following the debate between R. R. Reno and Robert Miller about conservatism and the alleged triumph of capitalism. As I follow their debate, in the back of my mind is a phrase I heard soon after Pope Francis was elected: the Pope gets his “oxygen” from the slums :

 In Argentina, they say that if you want to understand the priestly soul of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then you have to know the villas miserias , literally “villas of misery,” meaning the slums in Buenos Aires where the poorest of the poor are found.

According to Fr. Juan Isasmendi, who lives and works in one of the villas, this is where the future Pope Francis filled his lungs with the “oxygen” he needed to think about what the church ought to be.

Where do we get our oxygen? When Reno says there needs to be a moral, principled, non-utilitarian case for capitalism, I hear it as a variation on the question of what we’re breathing. What animates our arguments? In part, it’s a question about motives. And I think Reno is right to worry about the oxygen in our culture.

From a recent issue of the New Yorker [ April 29 ], comparing journalism about the Great Depression with reporting about our own Great Recession today:

Marxism, for writers in the nineteen-thirties, gave the ruins of the Great Depression a certain glamour. In reporting on the mill town of Lawrence, Massachusetts, Wilson believed that he was getting closer to the heart of history: the workers and their default leaders weren’t marginal losers – they were the prophets of the future. But, for a media culture without such political commitments, this second depression has interest chiefly through the filter of élite experience. The American jitters belong to the likes of Hank Paulson, Richard Fuld, Angelo Mozilo, and Timothy Geithner. Some have suffered damaged reputations; a few have seen their net worth drop; none have had to hunt for food in garbage cans.

Christians generally aren’t Marxists and ought not to be in the glamour business, but I think we can take the point: Our media culture today does not draw its oxygen from the poor. That should worry us, because even if Christians are a dissenting minority, we live in this culture and our imaginations are formed by it.

As we follow the debate between Reno and Miller, I think it matters why we’re interested in capitalism. It matters who we love, what we’re trying to conserve, who we know, and who are friends are. Where do we get our oxygen?

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