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Last Things

By David Mills | November 2020
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org). He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and writes the “Catholic Sense” column for diocesan newspapers.

Sitting in a hospital waiting room the other day waiting for a friend who was getting tests with the TV blaring, I couldn’t help but watch it. You want to feel America is doomed? Don’t worry about sexual behavior or our consuming political hatreds, just see how astonishingly trivial daytime television is.

Also how pathetically, heartbreakingly foolish some people are.

Also how many Americans must have malfunctioning digestive systems.

 

Swedish scholar Erik Sidenvall in After Anti-Catholicism? addresses the broader question of whether modernity naturally brought tolerance by focusing on the English response to Newman from his conversion to his death. (I quoted from the book last month.) Sidenvall is less successful answering the theoretical question than in describing the responses to the man who’d been (depending on one’s opinion) either so brave and bold or so reckless, rebellious, and ridiculous as to leave the good Protestant Church of England for the whorish, papist Church of Rome.

Newman upset everyone in 1845 when he entered the Church. When he died 45 years later, the major newspapers and magazines of the day were generally kind, even treating him as a great Englishman. Still very wrong about religion, of course, and therefore for all his gifts not an important thinker, because Catholicism is so wrong.

Sidenvall points out that the smaller publications, local and religious, that better represented the average Englishman’s views, were not so kind. Newman’s “desertion” still rankled, and Catholicism still appalled. However great a man Newman might have been, he had put his gifts to bad use. The Catholic Church was still an enemy.

 

The establishment’s response has been taken by historians as the pleasing story of reconciliation after decades of estrangement, because Newman and Catholicism had proved not so dangerous after all, and the English establishment is magnanimous. Everyone loves the story of the prodigal son welcomed home, especially when it makes the forgiving father (the English establishment) look so good.

I think it means something else. It was an attempt to reduce Newman’s influence, by patronizing him as a bright and well-intended failure, and by bringing him into the fold and pretending he and his Church weren’t a threat. How different could Catholicism really be, people would think, if even The Times, that organ of the establishment, spoke so warmly of the man?

 

Secularists and Protestants still do this. Sometimes they claim that after the Second Vatican Council the Church no longer believes all that divisive stuff. A few years ago, I watched a Presbyterian minister tell an adult education class that the Catholic Church used to look down on everyone and now recognized that the differences don’t matter and we’re all Christians together. A polite Catholic priest tried to correct him, but the minister buried him in good feelings.

The minister wanted to assure his people that they had nothing to fear from the Catholics. But in doing that, he also told them they had no reason to join the Catholics. Which was, I think, at some level the point.

 

If any of you want another reason to complain about modernity, look at the horror of teams from Dallas and Tampa Bay playing for the Stanley Cup.

 

Went down to our local place the other night to watch a game. The county requires you to order food before you can order a drink, so I get the spicy sausage soup, which reminds me that my genetic heritage is entirely northern European. The first spoonful sets me coughing, and I’m hoping no one thinks I’m sick. No one does.

Between periods, the 30-somethings at one table start talking about Chick-fil-A. They all seem to be fans. One man with a backward baseball cap, which is actually unusual now, says, “I drive up, and I’m like, why is no one talking to me? I sit there and then…it’s Sunday. I’m like, f***, it’s Sunday. Oh yeah, I forgot that commandment where Jesus says, ‘No waffle fries on Sunday.’”

No one makes fun of Chick-fil-A. The Sunday closing is played for laughs, but accepted as an eccentricity, like your uncle’s weird taste in ties. If Chick-fil-A wants to close on Sundays, they can close on Sundays.

 

The religion isn’t resented, as it is in other circles, but accepted. One friend I thought sensible declared the company’s policy “sanctimonious,” and other people speak even more contemptuously. They’re all political liberals. But liberals who reject the basic liberal insight that the good society depends on people letting other people do what they think best. Within limits, of course, but the limits prevent people from harming others, not making them do what you want them to do.

The people in this townie bar speak for old-fashioned live-and-let-live liberalism, when the wealthier and more educated don’t. A liberal icon from the 1950s like Lionel Trilling would find them intellectually more sympathetic than most of his successors on the Columbia faculty.

 

In September, I asked readers to name a conservative and liberal they respected, and I gave some of the choices I got when I asked the question on my Facebook page. (I’d taken the idea from the sociologist George Yancey, who is someone whose writings on race and on “Christianophobia” I much commend.) I probably should have said “leftist” rather than “liberal,” because many of the most interesting thinkers on the Left don’t hold to what we call liberalism.

Our beloved editor, Pieter Vree, named Dietrich von Hildebrand as the conservative and Christopher Lasch as the liberal (and secondarily, Tom Wolfe and Oliver Sacks). Lasch, he noted, “could qualify as ‘both,’ but he would more properly be placed in a ‘neither’ category.”

Several NOR writers sent lists. Casey Chalk chose Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, though noting that neither quite fits the category. Frederick W. Marks chose Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus of Nazareth. Richard Upsher Smith Jr. named Paul Shorey and Sir Moses Finley. William Tighe offered Rod Dreher and (like the editor and others) Christopher Lasch. And, he added, as “Mere Catholic,” me. A. James McAdams offered David Brooks and David Leonhart as “moderate, sensible people who are interested in the common good.”

From John Davenport: Sir Robert Peel and William Ewart Gladstone. He offered Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt as examples of both.

More lists next month, including Catholic apologist Karl Keating’s. If you’d like to send your choices, email them to pietervree@newoxfordreview.org.

 

Craig McEwan sent the most unexpected pair I’ve seen. On the Right he admires General Francisco Franco. El Caudillo “stepped into the lead of the military takeover of Spain to save his Church and nation from the ravages of communism. Never a fascist, Franco initially allied himself with Germany and Italy in his successful attempt to end atheist-led campaigns to exterminate Spain’s Catholic Church. By never fully joining the Axis powers, he saved his country from destruction by Allied forces and the almost certain re-dominance of communist governance after World War II. Franco’s traditionalistic record in saving the Spain of Christendom has continually been besmirched by Western liberals and Marxist propagandists in the Soviet Union and beyond.”

McEwan’s liberal was General Lê Đức Anh, called “The Tiger of Cambodia.” He explains: “Vietnamese General Anh, a hardline communist, invaded Kampuchea in 1978 and helped stop the genocide of the Cambodian people by eradicating their own Khmer Rouge. He also allowed humanitarian aid and food to be distributed to the starving populace. Anh’s invasion was prompted by attacks from Pol Pot’s forces on communist Vietnam.”

 

My choice of a leftist was the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. I like his writing in part because he understands power and sees through the popular mythology by which regimes hold power in democratic societies. Here’s one example. In an entry in A Chronicle of Crisis 2011-2016, he explains that a Western government doesn’t want to make its people feel confident in their future. It wants to increase their anxiety.

He calls this “securitization” and describes it as “a conjurer’s trick.” It shifts “anxiety from problems which the governments are incapable of handling (or are not keen to try) to problems which the governments may be seen, daily and on thousands of screens, to be eagerly and (sometimes) successfully tackling.”

Governments don’t want to talk about issues of “safety and well-being” like employment. Those they don’t do so well in preserving. They do want to talk about terrorist threats, because issues like that keep people worried and voting for the government. And for a long time. “After all,” he notes, “the ultimate victory in that fight remains a distant (and thoroughly doubtful) prospect.”

The governments play on our natural desire to know the enemy. We feel more secure fearing an enemy we know than one we don’t know. “If coupled with a focus on a specific, visible and tangible adversary,” Bauman writes, “intensification of fear is somewhat more endurable than in the case of dispersed, scattered, floating fears of unknown origin. It may even prove to be, perversely, a satisfactory sort of experience…. The more powerful and scheming the enemy appears, the higher the heroic status of those who declare war on him.”

 

This kind of insight helps especially because many Catholics trying to apply Catholic social teaching apply it without seeing how much they assume about the nature of things. About the state in particular. They assume, for example, that governments read the world relatively well and propose their policies accordingly.

They do not think of the state cynically enough. To the extent that they question the dominant narrative, they question the other side’s version, not their own. As we’ve seen these past few months while the battle for the presidency intensified, they see the other party as the problem. If only their party gains power and lives up to its promises, the world will get better.

This mistake leaves politically conservative Catholics thinking the Democrats favor socialism, and not seeing that the party is nearly as neoliberal as the Republican Party. It leaves politically liberal Catholics thinking the Republicans favor libertarianism, and not seeing that the party is nearly as statist as the Democratic Party. Both believe the crucial matter is the competition between parties, not Christians acting as aliens in a strange land.

It leaves both missing the challenge Peter Maurin’s and Dorothy Day’s anarchism presents, of challenging the system by living outside it. To put it another way, Catholics who don’t understand the modern state give to Caesar more than belongs to Caesar.

 

Making a similar point was Reinhold Niebuhr, who said in 1948, “The vast pattern of historical destiny is either a realm of complete confusion or it is under a more powerful sovereignty than our own will or the combination of any number of human wills.” Christians believe that Providence governs the world, even if we don’t see it.

“We may,” he continues, “therefore approach the future with serenity rather than hysteria, knowing that neither life nor death — things present nor things to come — shall be able to separate us from the love of God. Without such a faith mankind oscillates between an optimism which places a too great reliance upon the strength of the human will and a pessimism which has discovered the inability of the human will to bend historical destiny to human will.”

 

I was feeling pleased a couple evenings ago that our third child was going to visit our second and his wife, and feeling relieved that she was taking the train instead of driving, and then realized that the train leaves at 5:20 AM. So at 4:05, as the alarm went off, I was trying to remember the previous night’s pleased feelings. I woke up easily but not happily.

Then followed what has become a marital ritual: My wife who last night said she would get up to go with us, and when I said she wouldn’t, said of course she would, and when I said she always says that and never goes, said this time she meant it, mumbled sleepily that she wouldn’t be going.

That, kids, is marriage.

 

A conservative friend said that he thought of libertarians of any sort as primarily motivated by hatred of “the Left.” They operate at “degrees or stages of advancement in delusion and maladjustment.” I didn’t think that fair.

Libertarianism can be a reasoned and plausible understanding of the way the world works, distinct from both conservatism and liberalism. I distinguish pragmatic libertarianism, which is based on a real desire for the greatest good and a particular understanding of how that is achieved, from ideological libertarianism, which expresses all sorts of appalling beliefs, not least hyper-individualism and social Darwinism. To adhere to the second reveals a moral failure.

The pragmatic libertarian thinks this is the way the world works, and if you want good to be done in the world you have to accept that, the way a rocket scientist accepts gravity and drag. The ideological libertarian has committed himself to some form of individualism and absolutized personal freedom as the ultimate and perhaps only good. He depends on the same understanding of the world as the pragmatic libertarian but adds to it other commitments.

Take, for example, what most of us call price gouging. The pragmatic libertarian will argue that sharply raising the price of a rare good helps make sure that the people who most need it get it. That’s what prices do, whether they rise or drop. (I don’t agree with this, but it’s a reasonable argument.) The ideological libertarian doesn’t care. If you own the good thing, sell it for what you can get. If you have bread, and people are starving, sell it to the rich anyway. You don’t need to do anything for the needy.

My friend said he’d never met the first type. I have. I’ve known several, all Christians. But they tend to avoid calling themselves libertarian in public because they don’t want to be associated with the second. However, some of them did have more of the second type in them than they realized, because they could rationalize it as “realism.”

 

Two excellent discussions of racial matters from two leading black Catholic voices recently appeared. In one, the National Catholic Register’s film reviewer Stephen Greydanus interviews marriage speaker Damon Clarke Owens. In the other, Stephen Adubato interviews EWTN’s Gloria Purvis, who has suffered a lot of abuse from Catholics who don’t want to hear about racism.

“We have everything in our Catholic faith,” Owens argues. “The sacramentality, the Christological anthropology, the understanding of the human person, of virtue, of the story of salvation. That’s the only paradigm that’s going to address fully these -isms: racism, sexism, all these things now and for eternity.” But, as he points out, Catholics aren’t so eager to address them, and never have been.

Purvis speaks of her family’s heritage. “We never could look to the government for real protection. Having lived through slavery, abolition, reconstruction…the hostility toward our existence, our ability to move about unencumbered and not having the protection of the law. But we still trusted in God, and we persevered. [Why are we willing] to jettison who we are for something as small as temporal political power? Do we serve a mighty God or not?”

To find them, google “conversation race Damon Clarke Owens” and “Gloria Purvis racism, lure of the devil.”

 

Wise advice from Terry Pratchet’s The Wee Free Men. (Which I haven’t read, but a friend sent it to me after I’d complained about people thinking they could write well without practice.) Miss Tick offers Tiffany advice.

“Now…if you trust in yourself…”

“Yes?”

“…and believe in your dreams…”

“Yes?”

“…and follow your star…,” Miss Tick went on.

“Yes?”

“…you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy. Goodbye.”

 

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