Those Radical Conservative Catholics

Ross DouthatI love liberalism in its most general sense. The thing about liberalism is that it is fearless. A liberal is not afraid of change. This probably explains why political conservatives are so effected by fear. It also explains their jingoism and the belief that America must spend as much as the rest of the world combined on its military. This isn’t the thinking of the brave; it is the thinking of the coward. So it just makes sense that God would be very liberal. After all, the universe is constantly changing. And we would have to assume that God is brave.

So when Pope Francis beatified the very liberal “Vatican II” Pope Paul VI, he said, “God is not afraid of new things.” (It was Pope John XXIII who started Vatican II, and Pope Paul VI who completed it.) It’s sad that he had to remind believers about this. But then, let’s face it, it isn’t God that is conservative; it is churches. People get those things mixed up. Churches claim that they have their holy documents and they can’t be questioned, because they don’t want the churches’ authority questioned. It has little if anything to do with what the people in those churches actually believe about God.

Right now, there is a big dust-up in the Catholic Church. Pope Francis just sent the conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke packing. Basically, he made him retire. He moved him from the very important and powerful position at the head of the Holy See’s highest court and put him in a ceremonial position that is normally given to retired cardinals. It was expected. Francis is trying to make the church less hostile to everyone and Burke has been running around saying, “There is a strong sense that the church is like a ship without a rudder.” Burke, you may remember, was the American archbishop who was denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians. He’s a real charmer. And humble too!

My great concern is that Ross Douthat be on a suicide watch. Over the last year, the conservative Catholic who (in yet another example of conservative affirmative action) writes for The New York Times has gotten more are more shrill in his concern about schism in the church. Two weeks ago, he wrote, The Pope and the Precipice. What I find interesting is that people like Douthat just take their conservative approach to the church as given. And in Douthat’s case, that’s understandable. He was born in 1979 — a year into Pope John Paul II’s reign. So he’s only known conservative popes. But that isn’t all there is to the Catholic Church, or it would still be burning people at the stake.

Tom Gallagher at the Nation Catholic Reporter call this bunk, Contra Douthat: We Are Not on the Edge of a Precipice. He even asked the rhetorical question, “Is Douthat really threatening the pope and calling for both an insurrection against Pope Francis and a schism?” Well, yes; he is. It isn’t the first time, either. Douthat has made it abundantly clear that the dedication of conservative Catholics to the church is dependent upon the church doing what the conservative Cathlics want.

This is entirely typical of American conservatives in a general sense. We see that political conservatives are patriotic only to their conception of “America.” When it comes to the actual America, they are more interested in talking armed insurrection if their fabled “America” is not honored. It is even more bizarre to see this in religion. But I think it really all comes down to this idea that The Truth™ is defined at some point in the conservative’s life — normally in childhood. And they never get past that and to the mature understanding that all things in life are fluid. (And a brief look at history will show that it is for the best!)

What’s sad and funny is that Douthat approves of Vatican II. Yet there were lots of conservative Catholics just like him who left the church because of it. But Douthat noted that Vatican II was approved overwhelmingly. The problem, as usual, is that Douthat has “a little knowledge.” Shortly after his article appeared, John O’Malley schooled Douthat on the matter:

Yes, they finally passed with that degree of unanimity. But before they reached that point they were so hotly contested and seen as such radical changes in Catholic tradition that the Secretariat for Christian Unity, the body at the council responsible for them, seriously considered withdrawing them from the agenda rather than risk a vote.

If you are interested in the Catholic Church at all, I recommend reading O’Malley’s article. I also suggest reading it if enjoy seeing an immature upstart thwacked up side the head. O’Malley noted that Douthat was equating “conservative” with “orthodox” and that he was implicitly equating “liberal” with “heterodox.” That’s an excellent point. That is exactly what he is doing. Because as usual with American conservatives, Douthat thinks that he defines The Truth™. O’Malley is a different kind of conservative:

Finally, what are we to make of this: “Remember there is another pope still living!”? “Another pope still living!” This sounds like a threat. Are Mr Douthat and the like-minded Catholics for whom he speaks appealing to a pope more to their liking over a pope less to their liking? If so, the statement has a regrettable sinister ring. Or what? Let’s hope that Ross Douthat does not mean his reminder to be as schism-suggesting and radically un-Catholic as it sounds to my conservative ears.

But I’m still worried about Douthat. I thought a lot of stupid things when I was 34. I would hate to lose him. If we are very lucky, he might mature into someone more like Garry Wills.

Update (10 November 2014 11:56 am)

Charlie Pierce has a few choice words for the young Douthat:

If Douthat and the church’s conservatives are feeling a little tender in the nether regions over what’s happened to a crank like Raymond Burke, well, hell, I can sympathize. I have lived through the silencing of Teilhard de Chardin, the betrayal of the promise of the Second Vatican Council, the disciplining of Hans Kung, the witch-hunt against Edward Schillebeeckx, the command that Father Robert Drinan leave the Congress, the condemnation of the Central American liberation theologians, some of whom were the only people standing between the poor and the US-sponsored savagery of the Reagan-era death squads, the way that late St. John Paul II (abetted by then-Cardinal Ratzinger) cracked down on American theologians.  I did not leave the church or threaten schism.

Mitch McConnell’s Cunning Plan

Mitch McConnellJonathan Cohn tried to throw a little cold water on the Republican triumphalism last week, McConnell Didn’t Win Everything. His argument is that the Republicans paid a big price for their win on Tuesday. There are two parts of this. McConnell’s scorched earth “oppose everything” approach to the Obama administration meant that the Republicans had no input into the quite substantial legislative successes of the first two years. We could go further than that and see that Obama now feels he can do rather a lot through executive action because he has no real relationship with with the Congressional Republicans. It isn’t as though they are going to scream any more (or less) regardless of what he does.

The second part of Cohn’s argument is kind of funny: McConnell failed in his primary goal. Remember, McConnell didn’t say, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is to take control of the Senate in six years”; he said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” So even though it has got to be sweet to have this victory that was a long time in coming, it was not the success he had planned.

I think I would go in an even more extreme direction. McConnell has been a complete failure. He didn’t manage to take the Senate in 2010. In 2012, he actually lost seats, even though the fundamentals were good for him. The only way that his cunning plan can be seen as a success is if the Republicans keep the Senate and take the White House in 2016 — a result that is not even likely, much less assured.

Of course, now we have the ever wrong Megan McArdle who wants to know, Does Obama Even Know How to Negotiate? She says that Obama isn’t being nice after “McConnell’s rather gracious remarks.” I mean, can you imagine? McConnell has said publicly that he’s willing to work with the president! Obama should bend over to kiss his ring (and other things). Of course, we know that over the years McConnell has made similar vanilla statements about working together, and they always mean the same thing: if Obama is willing to do exactly what McConnell wants, they have a deal. (In theory.) Obama is just treating him the same way. The difference is that Obama actually has the power to do things by himself.

McArdle’s main argument is that since McConnell isn’t an ideologue, Obama will be able to make deals with him. Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns, & Money tears this argument to pieces:

The argument stands reality on its head. An ideologue you can potentially negotiate with, but someone who’s opposed in principle to making a deal with you is a different story. The idea that McConnell is going to suddenly drop his blanket opposition to giving Obama any legislative accomplishments now that he’s the majority leader is absurd. And even if Mitch McConnell suddenly turned into a 60s Republican minority leader, the chances that Boehner could deliver the votes for any significant non-budget legislation acceptable to Obama are less than nothing.

The truth is that McConnell’s plan has always been to maximize his power. Critical to that plan is to put a Republican in the White House in 2016. And that means doing what he has done for the last six years: stop the Democrats from doing anything at all. As I’ve discussed in the past, this is probably a bad plan. All the Republicans have really succeeded at is slowing the economic recovery so that by 2016, we will probably have a better economic recovery, making a Democratic win far more likely. But McConnell is not going to change his plan now. And even if he did, it is probably too late.

Economic Populism Only Defense for Fake Kind

Thomas FrankWith Sunday comes another article by Thomas Frank, and I was very interested to hear what he had to say. After all, he sounded semi-hopeful last week when it looked like the Kansas voters might finally have had too much and would through out Sam Brownback from office. Yet the incompetent ideologue managed to stay in office, beating the extremely moderate Democrat Paul Davis by just short of four percentage points. But really, what is there to say? Frank has said as much himself: there is no line in the sand; for much of the American middle class, there is no level of incompetence and the total disregard of the interests of the people that will hurt a politician with an R after his name. In most states, the poor are reliably Democratic. But that’s not true in Kansas; even there they pull the lever for the Republican. Because freedom or innocent babies or something.

Well, this week, Frank doesn’t have anything much to say about Kansas other than to talk about the robo-calls, The GOP’s Poisonous Double-Speak. He lists low turnout first as a reason for the bad election results. But his main interest is the fake-populism of the Republican Party. And I’ll admit, in a general sense, it has been a very big thing. After all, why was the Tea Party — those angry middle-class voters — so dedicated to the interests of the power elite? But I think the reason for this is just that conservative rage is strong and aimed at some diffuse “other.” So they were always going to find a conservative agenda to follow.

Frank’s conclusion is this:

We are living in a new, oligarchic world — an endless downward spiral for the kind of voters who put FDR in the White House four times — and it’s time for the party’s leadership to notice the changed situation. Many of our modern, post-partisan Democrats are about as well adapted to the current climate of economic fury and apprehension as an alligator is to the icy waters of the Arctic. They need to evolve, and quickly.

But I’m afraid we may be in “Old Man Yells at Cloud” territory here. It’s true. Of the two parties, only the Democrats have any kind of claim to economic populism. But it is the Republicans who manage to actually use it as an electoral tool — even if they never come close to it in terms of policy. And it isn’t like the issue hasn’t been out there. Thomas Frank himself has been making this argument. This was more or less the argument he made in 2004 with What’s the Matter with Kansas? And it is exactly the argument he made in 2011 with Pity the Billionaire.

Old Man Yells at CloudWe can rack our brains and try to figure out how the Democrats could use economic populism to its advantage. But I think that is missing the point. It isn’t that the Democrats can’t figure out how to use economic populism. It is that they think they already own the brand of “economic populism” too much for the comfort of their billionaire funders. This always reminds me of a line from The Right Stuff, “Our Germans are better than their Germans.” That is pretty much the Democrats’ line, “Our billionaires are better than their billionaires.” But as far as I can tell, they are only better in that they are pro-choice and pro-gay. In terms of economics, they don’t really seem to be different. And that means economically speaking, the Democratic Party isn’t much different from the Republican Party.

Look: I’m not saying that the parties are the same. Clearly, the Democratic Party is the one we need to work on. But it does need to be worked on. We, the Democratic base, have to force the Democratic Party to take a hard left turn into the heart of economic populism. The Republicans’ fake-populism on economic issues will remain powerful as long as real economic populism is not offered by the Democratic Party.

Education Reform Billie and Mindy Can’t Abide

Linda Darling-HammondIn contrast to European and Asian nations, which fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest US school districts spend nearly ten times more than the poorest, and spending ratios of three to one are common within states.

These disparities reinforce the wide inequalities in income among families, with the most resources being spent on children from the wealthiest communities and the fewest on the children of the poor, especially in high-minority communities. This reality creates the disparities in educational outcomes that plague the United States and ultimately weaken the nation.

From the time southern states made it illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, African Americans, Native Americans, and, frequently, Mexican Americans faced de facto and de jure exclusion from public schools throughout the nation and experienced much lower quality education.

These disparities have continued. In 1991, Jonathan Kozel’s Savage Inequalities described the stark differences between segregated urban schools and their suburban counterparts, which generally spent twice as much: places like Goudy Elementary School, which served an African American student population in Chicago, using “15-year-old textbooks in which Richard Nixon is still president” and “no science labs, no art or music teachers… [and] two working bathrooms for some 700 children,” in contrast with schools in the neighboring town of New Trier (more than 98 percent white), where students had access to “superior labs… up-to-date technology… seven gyms [and] an Olympic pool.”

More than a decade later, school spending in New Trier, at nearly $15,000 per student, still far exceeded the $8,500 per student available in Chicago for a population with many more special needs. Nationwide, many cities spend only half of what their wealthier suburbs can spend.

—Linda Darling-Hammond
Educational Quality and Equality
in Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin BannekerOn this day in 1731, the American astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker was born. He was self-taught and known mostly for his popular almanacs and ephemeris work. The son of a free born black woman and an ex-slave father, he was something of a cause célèbre among the abolitionist movement — both in the United States and overseas. In fact, William Wilberforce discussed Banneker in the House of Commons in his fight to end the slave trade.

Banneker was an outspoken abolitionist. In fact, he used his almanacs to push his ideas on that subject as well as other liberal issues. Included in his 1793 almanac was a correspondence that he had with Thomas Jefferson. It is quite interesting. When he first wrote to Jefferson, Banneker didn’t pull any punches. He confronted Jefferson about his public statements against slavery and his continued private participation and profit in it. Jefferson responded politely.

But what’s most interesting is that in later years, after Benneker was long dead, Jefferson showed how small minded he could be. Clearly, Benneker’s criticisms had stung. In a letter to Joel Barlow, he claimed the letter from Benneker “shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.” Yes, very common of him to mentioned Jefferson’s hypocrisy. Jefferson, being the racist he always was, claimed that Benneker must have been helped in his work by a local Quaker benefactor. There certainly was a mind of very common stature among the two and it certainly wasn’t Benneker.

Happy birthday Benjamin Banneker!