Thursday, January 28, 2016

Spotlight on Faith

Oscar season is upon us.  Now, with Spotlight nominated for several Academy Awards, attention has begun to return to this remarkable film.  But it seems not always to be the right sort of attention. Personally, I have heard Spotlight described as an attack.  I have heard people say that Catholics should be prepared to defend the Church against it.  And, it's not only me.  The Catholic Herald has a good piece this week on Spotlight director Tom McCarthy whose headline tells the sad story of how some people have received the film--"Spotlight Is Not an Attack on the Catholic Church."

For my own part, the film has not left my imagination since I saw it in December.  Spotlight is a deeply Catholic film, and it offers us something altogether unusual in a Hollywood movie: kerygma.  Spotlight proclaims a cinematic vision of a prophetic church.

Who are the good Catholics in Spotlight?

Not Cardinal Law.  He is a prince of the Church who tolerated and enabled the victimization of children to protect an institution.

The Catholic laypeople who supported the Archdiocese of Boston's charitable work, or who worked for its legal defense?  They also were willing to do anything to insulate the Archdiocese from the world, to maintain its fortress-ghetto identity against anyone who would question it.

The fallen-away Catholics of the Spotlight team?  Three of the four were raised Catholic and no longer practiced.  They were separated from the Sacraments and may not even have believed in God.  Yet their well-formed consciences, their deep regard for human persons, were evident in the sacrifices they made for the public good.  Their Catholicism might not have been good, but it was unmistakable.

What are the good institutions we find in Spotlight?  The Archdiocese?  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts?  The Globe?

These are important questions at this time in Church history.  Since the Middle Ages, the Church has seen itself in a privileged position next to other earthly institutions.  All authority comes from God (Rom. 13:1), and so down through the centuries, the Church has seen the sphere of social or political life and all worldly institutions as both separate from and subordinate to it.  As God's instrument on earth, the Church sees itself as a source of other authorities, higher than them, immune from their scrutiny or criticism.

Spotlight gets to the hard meaning of those attitudes in the real world.  Those who seek to end the Globe's investigation urge the reporting team to think of all the good the Church does.  The bishop in the opening sequence tells a victim's mother she should protect the Church's good work, urges her to keep silent.  It can be easy to think that the Church is not like other institutions or authorities.  It is tempting for Catholics to believe the Church has a special claim on good works, superior to others.  But those ideas are complicated by the good works done by the Spotlight team.  In fact, we see that all the time in life when government and other worldly institutions, people outside the Church, do good and holy work.

The truth of revelation subsists uniquely in the Roman Catholic Church.  Goodness does not.

Spotlight, therefore, comes as a call to the Church and to laypeople to re-think who is a good Catholic, and to re-evaluate what the Church is relative to other institutions.  If we answer this call, a profound series of changes in our attitudes must follow.  Those changes would stretch out into many directions--political, social, ecclesiological, theological.  Much of what we think we know about the Church and its relationship to us and the world would change, and yet the Church would not change at all.  This is the most important point.

The Church only would become more essentially what it is, a means of grace and sanctification, and a more full realization of the Church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council.

The question, then, is whether the institutional Church, with Catholic women and men, can answer the call of the Spirit issued through this film--in fact, a call issued by the abuse crisis.  Can we change our understanding of the Church and our relationship to it?

The reactions to Spotlight sometimes look like we have learned nothing.  We circle the wagons again, back into the same formation they used in Boston (and, many other places) for so many years.

Who are the good Catholics?  The ones watching this great film, and who made it, who see a glimmer of hope for a new day in the Church.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

United in Division

Originally submitted to USA Today on January 19, 2016

Poor Ted Cruz.

He has been calling Donald Trump out as a “counterfeit conservative.” He may even be right. But he hasn’t realized that does not matter.

Yes, it’s true that Donald Trump is incoherent. He is not a conservative or a liberal. In fact, much of what Trump says does not even make sense. Like his new partner, Sarah Palin, Trump baffles those of us that look for a political candidate who appreciates complexity or elevates the public conversation. But like Palin, that also is the secret of Trump’s success.

A convoluted political history has brought us here. Ronald Reagan forged a conservative coalition with his 1980 election. But that coalition was an uneasy partnership of evangelical Christians, pro-business conservatives, and national security hawks who were held together by the force of Reagan’s personality. As soon as Reagan left the scene, George H.W. Bush failed to hold them together. By the 1992 election, Pat Buchanan channeled a wavelength of anxiety and isolationism that seems familiar in 2016. Buchanan made clear how poorly Reagan’s coalition worked without Reagan.

Since 1992, the conversation among conservatives has become a strange game of one-upsmanship. Newt Gingrich led an upstart 1994 revolt against the Republican leadership, promising to be more conservative than the other conservatives. The term RINO (“Republican In Name Only”) was coined around this time to distinguish true conservatives from phony conservatives. Republican candidates routinely position themselves as an “authentic conservative” or a “real conservative” against their conservative opponents. The Tea Party Movement was about recovering a conservative memory of a lost America, getting back to something more authentic against the political (or, the Republican) “establishment.” Now there is Trump. And still, Cruz’s attacks amount to a distinction of a “true conservative” from a “counterfeit conservative.” But Cruz does not understand that Trump’s remarkable campaign has moved past that old game. We have entered a new moment in this political history.

Along the way from Buchanan to Trump, the anger and the sense of betrayal among their supporters has remained constant. Those voters have not been tracking issues or legislative voting records. They have been responding to a feeling—America is changing, leaving them behind, and they want things back the way they once were.

Being a “real conservative” never was about tax policy or pro-life politics. It always was about giving a voice to anxiety about changing values, demographics, and economics. Donald Trump has figured that out. Trump understands that he can succeed by channeling the anxieties of lower-income and less-educated white voters even if he never makes sense according to a Ronald Reagan or a William F. Buckley, Jr. definition of what conservatism is. In fact, the more incoherent Donald Trump is, the better off he is.

When Trump talks about repealing Obamacare to encourage more competition among health insurance companies and reduce healthcare costs, some of us want to say that sounds suspiciously like Obamacare. When Trump talks about getting another country to pay for a wall that would rival the pyramids for its ambition, some of us want to say that sounds unrealistic. When Trump talks about barring Muslims from entering the U.S., some of us condemn the obvious discrimination and point out it would be an ineffective way to secure ourselves against terrorism.

And, that is exactly what Trump wants. Every criticism of Trump, champion of an anxious slice of America, further draws the difference between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ that his campaign thrives on. Trump becomes more ‘conservative’ each time he is mocked or corrected or criticized by elites, intellectuals, and political professionals. In the end, the Trump phenomenon is not about anything Trump says—and, there is nothing so outrageous he can say that will upset his supporters. Rather, what we are witnessing is a new kind of political movement. Trump is not about issues and positions. Trump is about the division.

That’s why Sarah Palin’s endorsement is an important milestone in the Trump campaign. Palin was the first candidate on the national stage to stand entirely on the division between ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’ free from facts, substance, or a coherent position on the issues. Palin endures by flattering a “real America” that it is safely divided from the “spineless…Ivy League,” the “lamestream media,” and the “Hollywood Left.” Her endorsement of Trump is no surprise at all. It is a sort of homecoming.

The most dangerous myth in American politics is that it is explained by a division between Right and Left. It isn’t, and maybe it never was. Our politics is a free-for-all around issues of race and class and culture. We are tribal. Our tribal differences have clarified themselves now far beyond a simple Left and Right.

Trump and Palin understand us. Ted Cruz is way behind them. So are most of the other Republicans and political commentators.

And, while it still seems unlikely Donald Trump will become president, this new phase he has unleashed in our political life will not go away quietly.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Bottom Line on Race and Chicago

Originally written on December 31, 2015, and submitted to the Chicago Sun-Times.

I want to be careful about how I reply to a column that appeared in the Dec. 31 New York Times. Megan Stielstra wrote a good column (“What Should Chicago Celebrate?”) about the controversies surrounding Mayor Emanuel, the responses to the Laquan McDonald shooting, and their relationship to the city’s ugly, divided racial past.

I don’t want to give the impression that I am taking anything away from Stielstra’s conclusion that calls for “a final end to Chicago’s divided existence.” Actually, what I want to say is that it is even worse than she describes.

Stielstra calls up memories of “the name Daley…(both of them)” to link these recent problems to a political tradition of “Heavy-handed mayors” who wield clout based on ethnic and racial politics. But it’s not 1955 anymore, or 1983. Rahm Emanuel isn’t Richard J. Daley. In fact, Richard M. Daley wasn’t Richard J. Daley. The relationship between race and the city’s political establishment has become something more subtle, worse than it was.

Consider Emanuel, himself. His mother, Martha Smulevitz, was a civil rights activist. Emanuel was an early supporter and chief of staff for the first African-American president of the United States. The NAACP gave him a 95% rating on civil rights issues while he was in Congress. It is very hard to take seriously the idea that Mayor Emanuel is a racist, or that he would tolerate racism in his administration any more than in his home.

But then there are the facts we know about Laquan McDonald. Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago invites comparisons to the city five decades ago because so little has changed for its poorest, non-white citizens in the south side and west side neighborhoods. Things have changed among Chicago’s most comfortable citizens, though. Perhaps it is smarter for us to start there.

Racism still exists. But racism has changed. Chicago offers an instructive example of how it has changed. Once the city’s elites were prosperous, educated people whose parents, mostly, were immigrants and who felt close ties to an old neighborhood that they saw changing throughout the 1950s and 1960s. They used their influence to create a climate of institutional racism in the City of Chicago because they were startled by how the city was changing around them.

Who are the wealthy, educated elites today? Mostly, they are Baby Boomers or post-Boomers shaped by the Civil Rights Era. They are good liberal Democrats in the mold of Hillary and Bill Clinton, or Rahm Emanuel. They believe in racial equality, and they vote their beliefs. But where do the city’s wealthiest liberals live?

In 2014, Nicholas Pritzker listed a Gold Coast mansion for $10 million. The near north side is 72% white. Joe Mansueto of Morningstar lives in Lincoln Park, 83% white. Eric Lefkofsky of Groupon recently bought a stupendous $20 million mansion in Glencoe, 94% white.

I want to be sure I say I didn’t single these individuals out to accuse them of racism or being bad people in any way. I chose them because, in fact, the pattern of their political contributions suggests they are Democrats. Their giving and generosity point toward being very supportive of racial progress. Still, their wealth separates them from the people they want to help. That phenomenon goes farther than the very-rich.

Look to the voting patterns of the 2012 presidential election out in the suburbs. Over 70% of Schaumburg (median family income $85,000; 70% white) supported Obama/Biden. That was true also in Buffalo Grove (median family income $101,000; 80% white), and Obama carried Lake County (median family income $92,000, 75% white) by nine points.

The problem no longer is so simple as it was. Elites who perpetuate institutional racism today, themselves, almost certainly believe in racial equality. Limiting our discussion of Chicago’s divided condition to race overlooks the fact that the problems continue even as attitudes, largely, have changed.  To deal with this problem, we have to look at wealth and class.

To do that, we need to talk about why City Hall and Chicago’s elites  really targeted poor African-American and Latino communities for closing schools and mental health clinics. The reason is because those places do not support the city’s tourism base and they are not a part of the profiles written in brochures for Ariel, Boeing, or Citadel. Those communities are a hidden city, vulnerable to neglect because elites do not think of them as places that create local jobs, grow the local economy, or support the local tax base.

When you elect an investment banker with a 95% rating from the NAACP mayor of Chicago, you get an investment banker.

Chicago needs to take a long, hard look at itself. But no one who wants to see Chicago emerge from this crisis a better city can afford to overlook that the real problem no longer is race. At the root of the racial problem lies a problem of wealth inequality, and the dependence of politics on a financial sector that does not work for the whole city.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Trump and the Crazies

Here is a question to ponder seriously:

When poll numbers become available that reflect reactions to Donald Trump's comments about John McCain over the weekend, what will it mean if Trump is relatively undamaged and remains the frontrunner?

It's not a ridiculous question.

In a crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls, Trump leads the pack today with a measly 17%.  This big field lets that happen.

Republican strategist and longtime-ugliness enabler Frank Luntz, who interviewed Trump at the Ames event Saturday, told CBS this morning that Trump appeals to a "segment of American society," he "says what a lot of people are thinking."

One of those things Luntz said is true.  The other is not.  Both are important.

Trump does appeal to a segment of American society, but that's not "a lot of people."  Not even close.  Trump appeals to about 17% of the Republican primary electorate.  Going by 2012 numbers. Donald Trump appeals to approximately 3,400,000 registered voters.

If we go out to the level of the whole electorate and, again, go by 2012 numbers, Donald Trump appeals to a whopping 2.7%  of American voters.  Wow.

But none of that matters, especially at this early point.

The question is not whether Donald Trump is a fringe candidate.  He is a fringe candidate, by the numbers.  And, by the numbers, so are the rest of the Republican candidates.  There isn't a non-fringe candidate in the Republican field today.

The more important question is how much damage that "segment of American society" do?  How ugly will a committed fringe permit Donald Trump to make this campaign cycle?

And, the answer is that, if they stick together, they can do a lot of damage.

They probably will stick together, too.  It's not difficult to imagine that Trump appeals mostly to the committed crazies who fall for all the birther nonsense and death panel scare tactics, people who believe that most Mexican immigrants are "rapists."  This is the worst, ugliest, most un-American segment of the American electorate.  This is the place where we find Sheriff Joe Arpaio and  Rep. Louie Gohmert.  This is the place where we once found Sen. Joe McCarthy, Gov. George Wallace, and Richard Milhous Nixon.

This is the most virulent strain of vileness in American politics, and it has a long history.  It is stubbornly difficult to exterminate, and it has had a terrifically successful run during the presidency of Barack Obama.

There is not much reason to think that the crazies will back down now that their standard-bearer has doubled-down.  They're feeling powerful.

No doubt about it, this is terrible for the Republican Party.  But the Republicans will not nominate Donald Trump.  Even if Trump wins every caucus and primary (he will not win every caucus and primary), no Republican convention would nominate him.

Trump will have to step aside at some point.  And, at that point, he almost certainly will launch his independent bid for the presidency, taking the 3,400,000 crazies with him.

That probably won't be good news for the Republicans, either.

But it might be healthy for American politics, finally, to isolate this cancerous growth.  All the better to starve it off.


Monday, July 13, 2015

Id's No Problem for the Democrats

Donald Trump is a problem for the GOP.

Phil Gingrey, Todd Akin, and Richard Mourdock were a problem for the GOP.

Sarah Palin was a problem for the GOP.

Does anybody ever wonder why Democrats don't have these problems?

Let's be absolutely clear.  The Democrats have plenty of problems.  But they don't have this problem.  It's worth spending some time asking why.

Donald Trump's invocation of the Great Silent Majority this weekend was interesting.  Those of us who remember a little political history know that Richard Nixon summoned the "great silent majority" in a 1969 speech about ending the war in Vietnam.  He wanted their support for a foreign policy objective.  Nixon had nothing close to illegal immigration or 'taking our country back' in his mind during that speech.

But students of political history also know that the Great Silent Majority speech has come to mean something else.  The Nixon Campaign and the Nixon White House invented and perfected the art of dog-whistle politics, finding ways to say things to voters that cannot be said out loud.  The Nixon people figured out that messages can be sent in code, and the voters Nixon wanted to reach would understand what he meant.  Nixon's successful 1968 Southern Strategy depended on finding words and phrases that would convey the essential meaning of racist ideas without actually saying anything that would obviously offend anyone.

The Great Silent Majority, then, as the dog whistle announces it, are the blue collar middle-class that makes up the backbone of the American way of life.  Largely, they are white, Christian, and live in the predominantly Red States.  Republicans won in 1968 and since by figuring out how to say what they want to hear.

Because those tactics were successful, they developed and they bloomed.  The Republican strategist, Lee Atwater, described those tactics and their evolution in an interview you can listen to here:

Something interesting about Atwater's admissions is how even limited government and low taxes become dog whistles.

What makes a conservative a conservative?  That's a very interesting question.  But political ideas always have agreed about a few essentials--the importance of history and tradition, the preservation of social and individual rights against the state, and, more recently, a strong identification with the laissez-faire spirit of capitalism.

Small government and low taxes were comfortable ideas for conservatives before 1968.  Since 1968, they have this new meaning attached to them--even though they are "totally economic things" now they have the additional "byproduct" that "blacks get hurt worse than whites."

This is as good an illustration as can be found of how Nixon's Southern Strategy and the dog whistle have contaminated the Republican Party, perhaps, beyond cure.

In Freudian terms, the Id refers to the impulsive part of our personality, a needy and irrational unconscious that responds only to instincts.  The Id is the inner selfish monster that is contained in our personalities by what we learn from our parents and from others about how we need to control ourselves to live among other people.

For nearly fifty years, the Republicans have been blowing a dog whistle, speaking in coded languages that reach the unconscious minds of their voters with reassuring messages about a great, silent United States that still can be reclaimed from hippie protesters, or from civil rights activists, or from peace activists, or from socialists, or from President Obama, or from undocumented immigrants.

They have been cultivating a political Id, a needy and irrational political consciousness that rejects the realities of the world around it because those realities don't conform to the Id's demands.  The consequences are beginning to come into focus.

The Democrats don't have this problem, don't have to deal with these wacky people with dangerous ideas because those people aren't drawn to the Democrats.  The dog whistle pulls them in the other direction.

The Republican problem can be described many ways.  They have a candidate problem.  They have a demographic problem.  They have a brand problem.  But fixing any of those things won't be enough until the GOP faces the reality.

The Republicans have a personality disorder.

This can't go on forever.  "Where Id was, there Ego shall be."  But, until then, these are dark days for the Republicans and the Republic.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Missing the Target in Columbia

                South Carolinians, fire your assault rifles in celebration! The flag is down!!

                The South Carolina State Legislature, that august body which only a month ago failed to find money to repair the state’s lunar road surfaces and cut funding for mental health care, has succeeded to lower the flag of a hostile government.  They did this under the "brave" leadership of Gov. Nikki Haley, who with less-than-equal bravery not quite two years ago held fast that the flag posed no problem because no CEO ever had complained to her about it.

                The bar for profiles in courage isn't where it used to be.

                But that low bar for courage brought solutions at least at a superficial level.  South Carolina has managed to strike the most ugly and visible expression of an idea that motivated Dylann Roof.  Eliminating the idea, itself, will be more difficult.

                Maybe that's why it seems so strange that the discussion about eliminating the tools that made Roof's rampage possible has fallen into bleak and cowardly silence.

                The weeks leading up to the Confederate flag's removal have given us something useful.  We have seen the full catalog of justifications for the flag.  You know the chorus: It's heritage, not hate.  

                This fantastic person has distilled the defense of the flag to its essentials--the KKK and other racists are misusing the Confederate flag.  Don't think of the Confederate flag as a symbol of hate just because a bunch of racists do!  Really, it means something else!

                The flag's defenders have become skilled at the art of evasion and deception.  They've had to.  As the late-Republican strategist Lee Atwater put it when he described appealing to white, Southern voters--
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
                In the twenty-first century, no one could keep the Confederate flag flying by talking about slavery and race.  They had to change the conversation, talk about "heritage," make the KKK's devotion to the flag seem like an inexplicable coincidence.  That's a hell of a lot more abstract than slavery.

                The same sort of thing is true in our national conversation about guns.  Why shouldn't it be?  Oftentimes, the same people who are defending the flag are gun enthusiasts.

                The United States experiences abhorrent levels of urban gun crime.  We, practically alone in the developed world, see routine gun-related massacres on our home soil.  The United States is home to less than 5% of the world population, but owns one-third of the world's guns.  Guns in the home are much more likely to be used for suicide and domestic violence, or to cause an accidental death, than to protect a homeowner.

                Those are facts.  To avoid those facts requires something much more abstract.

                So, gun enthusiasts promote the fantastic lie that a gun is necessary for self defense even though an American is about 200 times more likely to be killed by a gun than they are to be killed by an intruder in their home.

                But the intruder-in-the-home scenario is a scary and completely abstract idea.  That makes it powerful.  Couple it with the myth of the American frontiersman, conquering nature with his rifle in his hand, and you have the perfect cocktail to thwart any rational policymaking about guns.

                Like all lies eventually do, the lies about the Confederate flag have collapsed.

                The only question left to ask is how many more people have to die needlessly before we begin to see through the lies we are told about guns.