Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Florentines and us

"Running through the whole political writings of the Florentine philosophers and historians, we find the same belief in artificial and arbitrary alterations of the state. Machiavelli pronounces his opinion that, in spite of the corruption of Florence, a wise legislator might effect her salvation. Skill alone was needed." - J. A. Symonds, Renaissance in Italy, pp.102-3

So is it with modern day Americans. Washington is corrupt through and through, but if only we appointed the right man for the job, the system could be reformed. This conceit will fare no better for us than it did for the Florentines, though I expect our end shall not be rule by foreign power, but by division and discord.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Church and the cognitive elite

Charles Murray's latest book, Coming Apart, has been discussed much--and deservedly so. He argues that America is increasingly divided along class lines. There is a cognitive elite, who attend the same elite universities and intermarry. On the other side of the bell curve, an underclass is abandoning the core principles which have served America so well; this portends ill, not simply for the underclass, but for American society at large.

It occurred to me that this same division isn't playing out to the same degree in Catholic society--or, if it is, I haven't noticed it. I'm specifically referring to the priests, who could form a cognitive elite of sorts, but haven't, for a variety of reasons. Obviously, since priests don't marry, there isn't going to be any breeding among Catholic elites as there is in the secular world. But there are also no elite colleges that churn out priests. Certainly, the handful of conservative Catholic universities, such as Christendom and Thomas Aquinas college, produce a higher percentage of vocations to the priesthood, but these numbers are too small to counteract the wider trend.

In some sense, this is a good thing. Priests come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they need to if they are going to serve dioceses whose members do not belong to the cognitive elites. (Perhaps the elite priests are preaching in the superzips that Murray talks about. I travel a fair amount, so I'm exposed to a number of different priests in a given year, but I don't live in--or near--any of the superzips.) But there's a downside, too, in that, for many more intelligent Catholics, intellectually stimulating homilies can draw one to the Church. I know this because my apostate friends, who tend to be fairly bright, lament the lack of vigor in the dull sermons they've encountered.

It's unfair to priests to expect them to give a dynamic homily every Sunday; preaching is only one of the many tasks to which a priest must attend. And while Catholics like me would prefer a discussion of some finer point in Aquinas, there are many good Catholics who aren't overly intellectual in their approach to the Faith. As Peggy tells the young priest in an episode of Mad Men, "The sermon is the only part of the Mass in Engligh, and sometimes it's hard to tell." If the writers of the show have their facts straight, homilies were more intellectually robust prior to Vatican II, and most Catholics apostatized anyway.

This is all mere speculation on my part. The Church teaches that God calls His priests; we can be reasonably sure He knows what He's doing. But I can't help feel a bit nostalgic for a time when there were--more--intellectually formidable priests. Perhaps St. Ignatius could help his order reform themselves, and the Jesuits could again play that role. For the moment, the Church is blessed to have so impressive a mind as Benedict XVI to help guide Her. One hopes that there are little Ratzingers, unknown to all but their small parishes, who have a part to play in this thing yet.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

A Prophet of Lost Causes

Ordinarily, I am suspicious of biographies which are written while the subject is still alive. Time is often essential to clarify a person's place in history. Yet Timothy Stanley's biography of Pat Buchanan, titled The Crusader, is a worthy exception, for two reasons. First, and sadly, most of Buchanan's work is behind him. He may write a few more books yet--including, one hopes, his memoirs--but Pat and the paleo-conservatives seem to be cursed to wander in the political wilderness for the foreseeable future.

The second reason relates to the way Americans incorporate out knowledge of history into the narrative through which we practice politics. That narrative paints one side as the forces of good and the other of evil. Buchanan is ignored because he ill fits into the rigid dogma of left and right as diametrically opposed forces. That's unfortunate, because he has much to teach us.

After two brief chapters on Buchanan's early life, the first part of the book deals with the man as a mostly loyal Republican. Probably the most curious aspect of Buchanan's early policies was his hawkishness. In 1970, "Pat sent another memo to [President Nixon] saying that he should hit the antiwar protesters more... What the masses wanted [Buchanan] said, was a 'fighting president' not a 'professional president.'" Stanley also captures Buchanan at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where he watched Mayor Daley's police throttle protesters from atop a balcony with the writer Norman Mailer. To the latter's shouts of "Pigs! Fascists!" Buchanan returned, "Hey, you've missed one!"

In the second part of the book, we see Buchanan assert himself against a wayward party. Believing that the Republicans had lost their way, he ran against the incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992, which set the stage for a more serious, but likewise abortive, attempt to secure the nomination in 1996. The disastrous Reform Party run in 2000 is recounted as well. Ever the populist, Pat longed for a return to the social cohesion of the 1950's, perceived or real. To that end, he denounced NAFTA and argued for a tariff to protect manufacturing jobs. Whether or not Buchanan's policies would have helped is a matter of debate; what is irrefutable is that fewer and fewer Americans now work in the manufacturing sector.

In 1991, Pat added a new phrase to the political lexicon: vulture capitalism. In Stanley's summation: "Socialism was dumb, but unfettered capitalism was evil... At the center of the family was a gainfully employed father." Conservatism exists to protect the family; ergo, it had a duty to restrain corporatist forces that threatened to tear families apart.

Stanley highlights other better known aspects of his political philosophy. We see Pat as an accused racist and anti-Semite for his restrictionist views on immigration and his charges that the U.S. was conducting its foreign policy at the behest of the Israel lobby. The author reminds us that there are other sides to Pat, too.

The Crusader can make for a somber read, as when Pat says: "Mr. Dole put the interest of the big banks--Citibank, Chase Manhatten, Goldman Sachs--ahead of the American people." Truly, the Republic has been rotting for quite some time.

Most depressing of all is how little Pat's influence seems to be felt in today's Republican party, the party of war and vulture capitalism. The best that can be said is that some of Buchanan's positions are shared by libertarians such as Ron Paul. Having been banned from MSNBC for heresy against the secular orthodoxy, Buchanan's influence is likely to diminish even further. One suspects that Pat understands; for as Frederick D. Wilhelmsen observed, "Christendom is honor and the fatherland and man with his back to the wall. It is the glory of lost causes and the splendor of certain defeat."