Letters to the Editor: January-February 1986
Neither a Broken Raft nor the Lusitania
In the October issue, Dale Vree reluctantly announces that he may very well be a Distributist more precisely than a socialist. Since his total integrity has made him a valued friend, I find this news tantamount to hearing that my colleague has decided to cross a sea on a broken raft instead of the Lusitania. At least it shows some taste. The Distributists were cheery British artists and hearty farmers gracefully disdainful of the Fabianism of those vegetarian socialists who would have rationed even the milk and honey of Heaven had they believed such a place existed. The Distributists’ raft sank, as would any small vessel once G.K. Chesterton climbed aboard; but it took few down with it even as socialism sank half the world.
By the four reasons the Editor gives for tending to avoid the term Distributism, I expect he means to be provocative. But I always take his remarks seriously, which may be seriously silly on my part. First, he objects that he can hardly pronounce the word. This criterion would make just about any economic theory, including the Editor’s preferred “economic democracy,” virtually untenable by most Americans graduating from school today.
As for (2), that few people know what Distributism means, this must be ever more the case with socialism, which has come to mean whatever its disciples would like it to mean at the moment.
Guilt by association, he admits, is weak, but Vree still says (3) that the Distributists’ tints of fascism and anti-Semitism give him pause. Why then do not those dispositions among the socialists positively arrest him? And let us not only consider the more civilized instances. The famous National Socialist leader, Adolf Hitler, was more fascist and anti-Semitic than Hilaire Belloc. He admitted so in many of his anti-capitalist writings and evidenced so in many of his anti-capitalist actions. One should not further the myth that associates fascism with the free market.
Now if some would elevate a theory by calling it Democratic Socialism, others should be allowed to speak unhindered of Democratic Capitalism which, unlike the former, has the advantage of having worked.
The Editor’s fourth objection, to the Distributists’ “romanticism,” is considerable only if the romanticism is the bogus kind more accurately called escapism. The “back-to-the-land” romance may be impractical in the industrialized West, but it is no less delicate a daydream than the Christian Socialists’ rosy picture of heroic factory workers and gleaming grain elevators and trade-union leaders singing Depression songs while their rank and file turn Republican. Those halcyon flights remind me of Woody Guthrie admiring a flaking New Deal mural in some woebegone government post office.
This is enough said, but the economic-political preoccupations of the NOR lately fascinate few and bore many.
Rev. George William Rutler
Church of Our Lady of Victory, Memorial Church of Wall Street
New York, New York
DALE VREE REPLIES:
It is a curious boredom that propels one to pen an elegant letter — even if it is not clear whether you are damning Distributism with faint praise or poking fun at it for having sunk. In any case, it was no doubt utterly foolish of me to try to discriminate among the varieties of socialism in my October offering. As I said there: in America, to find something good to say about that “s” word only invites misunderstanding and worse. And so, not surprisingly, one gets vegetarian atheists, “half the world” (presumably world Bolshevism), fuzzy-minded Christian Socialists of bygone days, New Deal art, and even Adolf Hitler waved in one’s face by esteemed, intelligent, and friendly observers. Never mind that I wasn’t referring to any of the above.
But Adolf Hitler? Do you mean the Hitler who was financed by German industrialists and eased into power by German conservatives? The Hitler who destroyed the German labor movement and sent Germany’s socialists to the concentration camps and death chambers? Let us not be deceived by Depression-era demagoguery and gestures. If so, we will surely have to accept at face value Ronald Reagan’s less preposterous claim to being a New Deal labor union type and an heir to FDR. If, Fr. George, you must scrape the bottom of the barrel to find uncivilized socialist villains, let me help you: try Jim Jones or Pol Pot or Joseph Stalin or What’s-his-name who rules Ethiopia or the Soviet quisling in Afghanistan. There is an abundance of villains on the Left without having to invoke a right-wing extremist.
But as Sheldon Vanauken suggests elsewhere in this issue, the making of distinctions between superficially linked phenomena is indispensable to the intellectual enterprise. Bulgaria calls itself a “people’s democracy.” Does that fact discredit all professed democrats, from Konrad Adenauer to Woodrow Wilson? I dare say, George, there will be times in your life when you will find the making of distinctions to be helpful. Anyone who embraces Roman Catholicism, as you and I have recently done, will sooner or later have Torquemada, of Inquisition fame, thrown in his face.
It has often been asserted that the essence of Catholicism can be known by contemplating the Inquisition’s tortures, burnings, and expulsion of the Jews from Spain — or by perusing the catalogue of Catholic villains, rogues, sinners, or phonies (among whom are listed IRA terrorists, the Mafia, degenerate popes, pregnant nuns, Marxist theologians, and everyone’s favorite whipping boy, Adolf Hitler, who was a baptized Catholic who was never excommunicated, not even posthumously). Only if you refuse to make distinctions will you accept that the above “worst cases” tell us all we need to know about Catholicism, from St. Peter to John Paul. Likewise, only if you refuse to make distinctions will you accept that Adolf Hitler or Woody Guthrie tell us what we need to know about the moderate social democrats I was referring to, who in numerous countries from Austria to New Zealand seem to perform adequately enough these days to get elected and re-elected with some regularity. (As for Distributism, it is commonly understood that Belloc and Chesterton, the two most famous and popular Distributists, represent Distributism’s “best cases,” not its worst cases. In spite of which, I did not repudiate Distributism and all its works.)
The point of all this, old buddy, is that the refusal to distinguish can be a form of reasoning that is as full of holes as the torpedoed Lusitania.
I can’t really say how much the NOR has meant to my insight into the spiritual problems of our time. John C. Cort’s column is alone worth the subscription fee.
I’m not saying I agree with every word in the NOR, but even when I can’t agree with the “letter” of an article, I usually agree with its “spirit.”
I think I agree with Christopher Derrick (“A Chestertonian Adrift in an Ideological World,” Nov.), but his style is very elusive. I’m not Catholic, so I didn’t grasp all his references to the Second Vatican Council. I never found Chesterton so unclear.
Moreover, I found no reliance on Scripture in the article. I presume Derrick is opposed to both war and abortion. I’m pro-Derrick, but if he would use the Bible to make his points, then people of all denominations could follow his arguments.
By contrast, Fr. Henri J.M. Nouwen’s article (“Saying a Humble, Compassionate & Joyful ‘Yes’ to Life,” Nov.) fulfilled my need for Bible-based, detail-rich prose that is consistently pro-life.
Lois Holwerda Poppema
Mountain View, California
Food for Thought
Your November Editorial was eloquent and served to remind me of how much I value your publication.
I consider myself a political conservative; nevertheless, the NOR always gives me much food for thought, especially Henri J.M. Nouwen’s recent series on the spirituality of peacemaking.
I’ll be praying for the success of the NOR. Enclosed is my small contribution.
St. Mary’s Seminary
My heart is filled with gratitude to Henri J.M. Nouwen for his three-part series on the spirituality of peacemaking (Sept., Oct. & Nov.). He calls us to human solidarity and affirms that no matter what our skills and God-given gifts, we must use them for making peace around us, no matter how spectacular or humble our actions might be. Yes, “our hearts must burn with Love”!
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