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Sunday Night Journal — December 30, 2012

This will be the last Sunday Night Journal, at least in this form—I'm holding open the possibility of reviving it as a simple journal, not a weekly essay. I’ve kept it going for eight years, from 2004 through 2012, with a year off in 2009. And now I want to turn my attention to other projects, including longer forms of writing, which I’ve found myself unable to do with the weekly deadline of the Journal always facing me. The blog will continue, only without that weekly feature, and I hope those who have enjoyed the Journal will still find the blog worth reading.

I’ve produced quite a number of words in those eight years and some of them are worth preserving. My daughter Clare and I are working on a book which will include what we consider the best of them. To be called Sunday Light, it will be produced in both electronic and paper forms, and should be available within six months at least.

I said after the election in November that I wasn’t going to write about politics until the end of the year. I’m going to jump the gun by a couple of days now, as it seems fitting for the last Sunday Night Journal to be an attempt to discern the direction of the broad sweep of history even as we are swept along with it.

***

The Dearest Freshness

The basic question in life is "What is actually going on?" and it often requires a great deal of time to pass before one can find the answers.

--Kenneth Minogue

That remark is the opening of an essay, “A March of Folly,” from a recent issue of The New Criterion. The essay concerns the true nature, implications, and effects, including those not necessarily intended or foreseen, of the feminist and homosexual rights movements. (It’s not available online.) It’s an interesting and I think mostly accurate view, the gist of which can be inferred from the rest of the paragraph:

That is why I have only just begun to understand what is actually at stake in the proposal to recognize civil partnerships as “marriages.” And the clue came when I discovered that Stonewall, the homosexual rights group in Britain, was proposing a memorandum that the terms “husband” and “wife” should be removed from the 1973 Marriage Act and replaced by “parties to the marriage.” This apparently trivial bit of semantics carries a large moral significance.

Hardly trivial, and “large moral significance” is an understatement. This is official madness, and already those who object to it are being treated as the mad ones, suffering from “homophobia,” which is, conveniently for those wishing to eliminate it, both an illness and a moral fault. Should such proposals become established norms in our society, it will have undergone a change at least as far-reaching as, say, the Protestant Reformation, or the Enlightenment.

It’s also an understatement to say that we live in an age of great change, some for the better and some for worse, and it is often difficult to discern what the most significant and powerful forces are: as that opening sentence says, “What is actually going on?” I’ve thought about that question a lot over the course of my life, and in relation specifically to my country it has been particularly on my mind since the recent presidential election.

A great many people on both sides think the election marked a decisive shift. Progressives rejoiced at the apparent solidifying of their hold on power, and conservatives mourned for the same reason. What really happened? It is certainly not the case that the election alone decided anything permanent, and those to the left of conventional progressives scoff, with good reason, at the notion that it represents some sort of triumph of their views. At any time during George W. Bush’s presidency many on the left were convinced that the nation was turning into a “theocracy.” Or at least they said they were—personally I never really believed that they really believed it; it seemed rather a sort of ghost story they told themselves, enjoying the thrill of fear without actually being threatened, and justifying in their minds the feverish hatred they felt toward their political enemies. Similarly, I’ve heard many conservatives say that we’re now a “socialist” country, which makes actual socialists laugh. But to say that each of these charges is greatly exaggerated doesn’t mean that something big isn’t happening. For the most part broad and deep social changes do not happen suddenly or turn on one or two major events; rather, an incident such as Luther’s propagation of his famous theses becomes in retrospect a symbolic moment.

Supposing Barack Obama’s second term were to be seen, a hundred years from now, as having a similar importance, what would be the change that it was deemed to signify? What is actually going on? It is most certainly not the case that progressive forces have now achieved their final victory over conservative ones. But it may be that the balance has tipped in that direction.

I’ve discussed here before my view that when the religious right emerged in this country in the mid-1970s it was fundamentally mistaken about the nature of the situation. Jerry Falwell’s choice of a name for his organization, The Moral Majority, encapsulates his assumptions. Rather than reformulate that appraisal I’ll quote myself:

[Falwell] thought that a small number of radicals—hippies, feminists, etc.—had seized control of some of our most visible institutions (the press, especially), and were forcing the agenda of the sexual revolution on a mostly unwilling, mostly conservative Christian population. And that the task before him was to awaken those people to the fact that their society was under attack, and get them to use their political strength to reverse the sexual revolution, at least to the extent that it was becoming institutionalized, most obviously with the legalization of abortion.

But he was wrong. The sexual revolution may have flowered in the ‘60s, and hippies and feminists may have been its most visible advocates (along with Hugh Hefner), but its roots were much deeper. And in any case much of the mainstream soon embraced it quite readily. By the time Falwell attempted to rally socially conservative Christians, they were not the majority (if they ever had been).

Something similar has, I think, occurred in the secular arena regarding the common conception of what the United States is and what people believe it should be. The two contending forces, which are broadly labelled conservative and progressive, right and left, Republican and Democrat, now seem to have very different visions, two very different things in mind when they speak of American ideals.

The conservative view—again, speaking very broadly—is that this nation is a fundamentally good thing, that its Constitution defines an admirable form of republican government which assumes a citizenry competent and responsible enough to make its own decisions, and that the powers of the government are delegated to it by the people and strictly limited. Moreover, at one remove from formal government, conservatives admire American culture: its entrepreneurial spirit, its dynamism, its commitment to the twin virtues of liberty and responsibility, its diversity (in the real and not the cant-racial sense), its religiosity—and, of course, its wealth and power, Sensible conservatives recognize the dark side of American history and the great number of things that are always in need of reform, but wish to preserve, not replace, the fundamental structure and character of what they like to refer to as the American idea. (“A nation with the soul of a church,” Chesterton said.)

Progressives in general do not value these things very much, or do not believe that they actually exist, or define them in altogether different ways (e.g. “diversity,” which means racial diversity only and expects uniformity of thought). They regard the American idea as an endlessly unfolding promise of liberation. Above all, the dominant forces of progressivism as it exists today reject the idea of a competent and responsible citizenry, and of sovereignty as residing ultimately there. It sees the state, in the form of the national government, as the competent and responsible party, and the people as its clients, almost as its children. (Years ago I heard the very progressive Fr. Robert Drinan, S.J., make this analogy explicitly, and favorably.) It divides the people into three classes: oppressors, victims, and those enlightened ones who know how things ought to be run, and who should rightly exercise political and cultural authority in the best interests of all. It sees the great task of politics as involving the duty of the third class to protect the second class from the first class.

Those who once constituted the American norm or type—middle-class people of European extraction—are loosely considered to be in the oppressor class (except when it is useful to treat them as victims). They are seen as always ready to inflict some sort of harm on some one, and left to their own ways would make most of the nation outside the big cities an arena for their oppression of others (“women and minorities”). They must be restrained by Washington by means of a uniform code of finely detailed law regulating almost every aspect of life, the one major exception being sexual expression of any sort. The requirements of this task, not the Constitution, are the final determinant of what is permitted to the government. (The oppressor class does not, as one might expect, in the progressive scheme include rich people as such, because quite a large proportion of the very wealthy hold progressive views, which as generally held today do not include anything which would make them less wealthy.)

This, in a nutshell, is the conservative view of the situation, and I think it’s roughly accurate, though one necessarily paints with a broad brush to cover a large area quickly. A common analysis, often similar in substance from both sides, holds that progressives and victims now constitute a permanent majority which will permanently seize power and remake the country—fundamentally transform it, as Mr. Obama promised before the 2008 election.

Like the Moral Majority in the 1970s, the conservative faction had thought that it could counter this force by appealing to old American virtues, or at least to a consensus of what those virtues ought to be: self-reliance, self-restraint, religion, reverence for the Constitution, voluntary and local action for the common good, personal responsibility, etc. But it may, like the Moral Majority, be mistaking the nature of the situation: believing that what is needed is simply to remind Americans of who they are and what their country means, when in fact such ideals no longer mean much to a very large number of people, who view appeals to them as either amusing in their simple-minded earnestness or sinister, a cover for oppressive intentions.

If this change is permanent, it’s a big one. In essence it is another in a long series of proofs of the adage that people who will not rule themselves will be ruled by others. It changes the nature of the relationship between the people and their government, who are now properly to be called rulers; the people are not citizens in the old sense but dependents whose essential relationship to the state, which is considered to be identical with “society,” consists in paying taxes and receiving “benefits.” It carries along with it a redefinition of what the word “democracy” means in the American context. The conservative meaning is that it denotes the power of the citizenry to decide who will operate the machinery of which the Constitution is the design. The progressive meaning is that the majority is entitled to make the rules. And the rules they want to make are circumscribed not by the Constitution, but by the needs of the day.

(The extent to which the Republican Party, as the electoral representative of the conservative side, constitutes a terrible witness for the virtues it espouses is certainly a part of the picture, but my guess is that it’s not a decisive part. That is, I don’t think it would have much more appeal than it does even if it did not have this problem.)

I don’t mean to be painting this as a question of good vs. evil. The traditional view of America certainly has its problems, and progressives are often honestly attempting to address them (as opposed to pursuing utopia). Call it bad vs. worse, then, from the Christian point of view, because progressivism is now a fundamentally anti-Christian force, and is becoming more aggressively so. It views Christianity as one of the oppressors from which the state must protect the people, and seeks to eliminate it as a cultural and political force. And so if this election really did represent a turning point in American history, we can expect many more attacks on religious liberty like those made by the Obama administration (in the cause of sexual freedom, of course, as that seems to be the one progressive absolute).

Even if it’s too early to tell whether progressivism has really achieved any sort of permanent victory, the increasing secularization of society can’t be denied, and moreover what I’m broadly calling the conservative force has strong anti-Christian elements (e.g. most varieties of libertarianism). So it would seem that the future of Christianity in the United States appears to be troubled at best.

But I’m not here to play Cassandra. All the above is only a prologue to a thought suggested by the title of this piece, from a line in Hopkins’ well-known poem “God’s Grandeur,” a line which has come to me often over the past few months:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.

He was speaking of nature, but his words are equally true of the Christian faith—and why shouldn’t they be, since both spring from the same source? The American system may indeed pass away, and if I live to see the time when the change can’t be denied, I’ll mourn it. But this country is, after all, one of the many temporary and at best partially successful human attempts to establish a decent worldly order. The life of faith will continue, alongside the life of the world but apart, and the new situation will be accompanied by new expressions of it. The living waters will continue to feed the green shoots of new life, producing flowers never seen before by human eyes, though familiar and beloved in the eyes of God.

Comments

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That last paragraph was a good last paragraph. The last sentence was a really good last sentence.

Now, I won't have anything to look forward to at work on Mondays, so I think I just won't go to work on Mondays.

AMDG

Thank you.

Happy to be of service.

I guess I just don't get it, but aren't there many Christians on the "progressive" side of things, like most of the Jesuits I know, for instance? Are they anti-Christian and anti-Religion?

Yup

Certainly. Like I said, I was painting with a broad brush--there are a lot of exceptions and anomalies. Also, it's not a matter of specific political positions, but a whole mind-set. However, to the extent that Christians ally or identify themselves with secular progressivism as a movement, I think they're making a mistake.

"Certainly" is a reply to your first question, Stu, not the second one.

Relevant factoid:

In Orleans Parish - which for those unfamiliar with the geography of New Orleans includes both Central City (known for having one of the highest murder rates in the city), and the Garden District (mansions of the upper-upper-middle-class) - 80.3% of voters chose Obama in the last election.

In Louisiana as a whole, Obama got 40.6% percent of the vote.

I don't know what this means for the future, but that kind of division can't be good.

No, and the thing is, people are digging in on the divisions, and ramping up the anger.

Also, given the fact that the general pattern has been that 95% or more of black people vote for Obama, that Orleans Parish number indicates that considerably fewer than 80% of the white people voted for Obama. You'd have to know the racial breakdown to have an idea of how many fewer.

One interesting thing is that if you look at the county-by-county breakdown nationwide, you'll find that B.O. was elected almost entirely as an urban president. He won in the cities, lost everywhere else. That's not a good sign either.

No, not at all a good sign.

In the cities, especially the bigger ones, is where you find the combination of rich white and poor non-white as majority. For both of those groups, the rest of America is a foreign country, frequently a hated and feared one.

This article says the big change is in the voting pattern of "dense inner suburbs":

"Although rural regions dominate the map of the contiguous United States, an overwhelming majority of Americans live in urban and suburban areas. Democrats have long dominated dense urban cores. But Democrats increasingly dominate dense inner suburbs—as opposed to sprawling outer suburbs, where Republicans still hold their own—as well, and the share of the population concentrated in dense suburban counties is steadily increasing. This is true not only among Latino, black, and Asian voters living in these communities, but of white voters as well."

And this is largely because voters in the inner suburbs now focus on things "like the quality of local public schools, traffic congestion, and whether or not they are climbing the economic ladder as fast as they’d like. Republicans are seen as staunch opponents of tax increases, but most middle-income households find that the tax burden is a less pressing issue than the cost of medical insurance or even the cost of commuting. Lisa Margonelli, author of Oil on the Brain, recently noted that a typical family of four earning $50,000 will spend $7,900 a year on cars and gasoline, a staggering sum that outweighs what this same family spends on taxes and medical care."

Anyway, worth a read.

That is interesting. "...John Judis and Ruy Teixeira referred to these communities as post-industrial “ideopolises,” in which economic life revolves around college-educated professionals working in knowledge-intensive services and the less-skilled workers who meet their various needs."

That sounds like these areas are simply extending the urban paradigm further out: affluent mostly white people and not-so-affluent, not-so-white service workers.

The point about the cost of cars and gasoline is very valid, but I don't really see how it favors either party. *Except* insofar as it becomes a demagogically exploitable thing, in which case it favors the Democrats.

There was a really interesting post at National Review Online a few days ago, which I couldn't hope to find now, in which one of their writers noted how many of his conservative Romney-supporting acquaintances felt that Romney is indeed, as the Democrats said, a guy who does not understand the middle class, the strains we face, etc. Obama doesn't either, but he's more adept at manipulating. Romney really was a pretty awful candidate in many respects, as were the other Republicans. If they weren't objectively awful, they were fatally flawed, from the national politics point of view, because so vulnerable to Democratic demagoguery, like Santorum.

The best piece I read about the debacle was this one by James Kurth. He said that the economics of Republicanism had become pseudo-conservative in economics (Friedman instead of Hayek - I didn't know they were different),pseudo-conservative in foreign policy (neo-con, interventionist), and pseudo-conservative in social ethics (all talk, no action). One could disagree with many points in the argument, especially what he says about immigration, butit's an interesting piece.

https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:2VSpDc0iN0UJ:www.fpri.org/docs/Kurth_-_Crisis_of_American_Conservatism.pdf+kurth+foreign+policy+pseudo+conservative&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESg5CYcperi4Am0FR4zqSsDbXWq_xS_giFdJNafuBJRjkCM2oEuqtOMeCUNTirWbTPdM6LG0gFOKSAJwCXPgq1dy9DS0SDyOKrH-f_Yj1rTfQgUE64pcWNqPkbNvh09YFO4MnNS7&sig=AHIEtbSMjCgRJIh2of1nHPycO-71GDdbQw

I can't believe that taxes for a family of four making $50K could be significantly less than $7,500. They have to pay about $3,600 in SSN Tax before they even begin to pay Income Tax. You can economize on cars and gas, but not on taxes.

AMDG

I'm in a hurry, but just briefly: I keep reading this figure from conservatives that some huge percentage of people, over 40%, don't pay any net federal income tax. I don't know if that's true or not. Still, even if it's only ("only") a couple of thousand, those are not the only taxes.

About that diagnosis of conservatism, I don't have time to read it now, but I pretty much agree with your summary, except I don't know the difference between Friedman and Hayek either.

But she (Lisa Margonelli) specifically cited a family of 4 with an income of $50,000. They definitely pay tax.

AMDG

I finally took the trouble to track down the source of that claim about 40-plus% paying no income tax. It appears to be this. According to this, the pay-no-income-tax threshold is somewhere around $45,000, depending on number of children. I don't even know what "child tax credit" refers to but it seems to be something beyond the standard child deduction.

But I have many times heard right-wingers say "40% [46%, whatever] of the population pays no taxes," rather than "no income tax," and build a huge, and frankly somewhat repulsive, myth about "freeloaders" based on that. When it may be true that they pay little to no *income* tax, as you say there's that 7.5% right off the top. So $50,000 gross income = $3,750 in SS tax, which is just barely less than half of the $7900. Even if they *don't* pay any income tax, if you added up all the other taxes (property, sales, etc.) it would probably bring that somewhere into the same neighborhood as the transportation expense. And as you said there's no negotiating that.

The $7900 does seem high to me. I think I spend roughly $2500 a year on gas (just me, not me & wife), and I probably drive more than most people--minimum 250-300 miles per week just getting back and forth to work, plus my car requires premium gas and gets only about 25mpg. But that's more than compensated for by the fact that it's paid for. And while I think 25mpg is pretty poor mileage, it's apparently better than a lot of those SUVs and pickups that so many people drive. I strongly suspect that many or most people *could* spend considerably less on cars & gas, but are determined to have a big new car. And don't want to change their driving habits.

$50k is not what it once was and the concept that a family of four on this modest income might be seen by some as "freeloaders" is appalling.

And they are hardly "freeloaders" if they are responsibly bringing up the next generation.

We drove to (and from) a party in Germany yesterday. There not being a speed limit on the Autobahn does make it rather expensive.

Well, they typically meant "freeloaders" in the narrow context of the income tax. Still, it's pretty offensive. The Republicans in general have been utterly incapable of creating the impression that they understand the stresses, financial and otherwise, on families below, roughly, the median income. Since by definition that's half the families, that's a lot of people. Many of them probably do, and in general have more genuine sympathy for those people than do rich liberals, but they don't communicate it. Paul Ryan, for all his Rand-fan-ness, might be an exception--both in impression and reality.

To hear some right-wingers (I resist calling them conservatives) talk, you would think that 46% are all on welfare.

Believe me, I know exactly what $50K is, and what you pay in taxes.

AMDG

Well, our family earning $50K should have economized on their cars, and paid more attention to their taxes.

The Act does not extend the "payroll tax holiday," so the employee Social Security tax rate will go from 4.2 percent back to 6.2 percent up to the 2013 taxable wage limit of $113,700. As a result, a worker earning $50,000 per year will now see $1,000 less in their net take-home pay as compared to 2012.

AMDG

Are you saying this has come as a surprise? You must not read enough right-wing blogs.:-)

Somehow Obama left this out when he was crowing about having prevented a middle-class tax increase. It's been explained away by his supporters as not really a tax increase, just a restoration of a previous rate. But that's what would have happened with income tax, too--taxes would have gone back to where they were before Bush's "tax cuts for the rich."

Yeah, I think it comes down to resentment of beauty. And resentment of beauty is easier to hide than resentment of, say, intelligence or courage. One hides it under some virtue.

An obviously misplaced comment!

Yes, I assumed so--and not that you had suddenly come to share Ayn Rand's views about the envy-driven urge to tax the rich and beautiful.:-)

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