Sunday, March 25, 2007

Greeley-Neuhaus Thesis

Contemporary Catholicism in the United States is a cultural moving target. Any institution of seventy-some million souls is obviously going to contain within it a lot of internal diversity, but the Church is almost unique in holding together polar opposites, harmoniously or otherwise. It is both liberal and conservative, regal and humble, beautiful and also mind-numbingly banal.

This polarity within Church in the United States has several intertwined aspects, and it just occurred to me recently that they are personified by two of its prominent priests, Rev. Andrew Greeley and Rev. Richard John Neuhaus.

On one hand, Fr. Greeley represents the Church of immigrants, the Church of small neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves, the Church as a cultural bulwark protecting and speaking for its members in the culture at large, and the Church of the Left. Fr. Neuhaus represents the opposite in every particular, the Church of the cosmopolitan and urbane, the Church of converts, the church of doctrines, and the Church of the Right.

I don't know if there's necessarily any reason why such things have to be associated together in this way, but as it happens they are in the U.S., and that has some interesting consequences that are otherwise inexplicable. One of them being the unease, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, felt by a substantial number of those who earn their livelihood in chanceries or Catholic universities, over the fact that Catholics in the US have been trending Republican for the a couple of decades now. In short, these people essentially reject the GOP for having cooties.

Catholics have increasingly tended to support the Right in domestic politics because the ties binding them the Democratic Party have gotten progressively weaker, and because the Right has successfully appealed to many Catholics as the political home for Catholic values. But even as the Catholic ghettos have long since disappeared from our major cities, the ghetto mentality has remained in the minds of many Catholic intellectuals.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Home of the brave

As a redblooded patriotic American, I don't want to let too much time pass since my last post, since I fear it might give a negative impression of the USA, and enough other people are playing that game already.

It is true, I believe, that foreigners in general (and Poles in particular) are "tougher" than Americans. But the flip side of that coin is that America works harder than the rest of the world. This is something that I don't think most Americans themselves appreciate. No one necessarily states the case directly, but the underlying train of thought is that all the attention spent on Anna Nicole Smith's autopsy or American Idol has turned us into lazy couch potatoes. But it's just not so, as anyone who has worked in Europe for a significant period of time will tell you.

This has very interesting spiritual causes and consequences. Because of our affluence and autonomy, a typical American's aspirations for success are real and legitimate. Not all of them become reality of course, but in general they are not delusions or pipe dreams. In fact this is a significant part of our inculturation as Americans. Our culture believes in the possibility of success because so many of us as individuals believe it. And, we as individuals believe it because we live in a culture that's suffused with that belief.

That last part is so important because most of the impact is below the conscious level. It's not that we recite a creed of homage to the Donald Trump or Tony Robbins every day. Instead, over the long haul we as Americans tend find useful and productive ways to go about our business instead of wasting our energy complaining that the deck of life is stacked against us. For those of you sweating through 10 hours a day in Dilbert-style cubicle land, you should know that no matter how it looks from the inside, you are likely working harder and smarter than your counterparties overseas.

This is a substantial reason why America has the role in the world that it does. Whenever a new or previously unseen problem occurs, a person essentially has two choices. He can either avoid the problem, pretend it really isn't there, or he can concentrate his energy toward it. The ability to concentrate energy toward the problem is a substantial spiritual resource, and we as Americans are blessed to have more than our share of it. As I read history, WWII was the last major worldwide crisis that most of the civilized world mobilized together to solve a common problem. Since then, the so-called "developed" nations have largely gone in the tank while America has done its best to sort out the big ticket issues by itself. The struggle against Communism, the stagflation and sclerotic taxes of the 70s, the reform of the welfare state, all of these things fit this pattern.

And now we're in Iraq, which has of course been interpreted a thousand different ways. But perhaps the most important one is to realize that America, in fits and starts and with plenty of mistakes along the way, is rising to the challenge of engaging the Islamic world.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why Poland, pt. 2

Well, a few months ago, I returned to Chicago to take another trading job, and my study of Polish has suffered somewhat, though I am still perservering. I have already tried to answer this once on the blog, and I stand by what I wrote:

But this is still incomplete. It only dealt with big-picture issues and sheds very little light on what an American visiting Poland is likely to see.

It is worth noting that my trips to Poland are strictly as a tourist. I am something of an enthusiast of Polish culture, but my name notwithstanding, I know very well that I am not Polish. So my interest in Poland is not about blood and roots.

Instead, Poles (like many foreigners) are in some way tougher than us. We all know that in America, the rough edges of life have been smoothed away by a combination an affluent economy and the nanny state. But this post is not intended to be some "Woe are they" tearjerker either, just the opposite in fact. It's really about the fact that people endure all sorts of privation with just a minimum of complaining, and without allowing it to interfere with completing their daily business. You might be tempted to think that this is because they don't know any better, they haven't been exposed to anything different. But that's not so. Poland exists in largely the same cultural orbit that we do, and travel has been liberalized for some time.

This is not intended to be some generic celebration of multiculturalism or the universal brotherhood of mankind. The Poles are very much "like" us, except that in some ways they have more resources than us, and in others they have less.

Whiter Mitt?

Because of the uncertain legacy of George W. Bush (and lack of a sitting VP as an active candidate), the GOP Presidential race is more up for grabs now that I can ever recall it having been. And one wildcard in this deck is Mitt Romney. Mitt is a legit candidate, but he has two real strikes against him. First of course, he's a Mormon, which is a legitimate issue and a negative. Second, which hasn't been emphasized enough, is that he's from Massachusetts. Politicians from the BayState, especially Presidential candidates, always seem to lack an appreciation of the nature of political reality in the rest of the country. Put them together, and in a normal year Mitt would be a goner.

But this is not a normal year, so he stays in the picture. McCain is in the middle of imploding. He's been around enough so that he's not fresh and mavericky anymore. Plus, he has no real strengths. I don't expect him to be a contender by the time Iowa rolls around.

Here's the thing that people aren't realizing. Rudy is also a weak candidate. His support is a mile wide and an inch deep. So far all we've heard about is the conservative base of the party coming around to the thought that he might be acceptable in spite of his stands on abortion or gay rights or whatever. What we haven't heard yet is that his supposed strength, the War on Terror and security issues, is not all it's cracked up to be.

It's all the result of his leadership of New York City post 9/11. Inspiring as that was, it has very little if anything to do with the challenges of the US wrt to Islam or jihadism or anything else, and we don't have any idea how he would handle them. All we have left is that Rudy is a general tough guy, and that's just not enough. Counterintuitive as it may seem, I think Mitt is the frontrunner right now.

And here's another loop. To be successful, I think he needs to run from the center or the left. Or to put it better, he needs to run toward his previous apostasies on abortion, etc, instead of trying to hide them. Ie, "I used to think that the difficulties of an unwanted pregnancy justified the choice of termination, but now we know blah blah..." This way, he can hold to conservative positions on social issues without appearing to be at the service of the Religious Right. If he can pull this off, this puts some northeastern states back in play for the general election while still holding the GOP base.

Finally Mitt needs to get his ass to Iowa and compete there, he might even win. With his odd sort of background, he's going to do best at the retail level, and Iowa is retail. Without a successful showing in Iowa, anything he does in New Hampshire will get discounted a little bit because he's from a neighboring state.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Great White Defendant

Tom Wolfe invented the theory of the Great White Defendant in his novel Bonfire of the Vanities about twenty years ago. The point being, that prosecutors feel the singe of conscience for enforcing the laws against minority groups, that on the rare occasion when they do get a privileged white defendant in their sight, they pursue him like Ahab going after the whale.

Well today, in the person of Scooter Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Richard Cheney, the Great White Defendant was convicted. The case, and its entire associated cultural environment, was a traveshamockery. The impetus of the case was the leak that Valerie Plame, wife of Ambassador Joe Wilson, was in the employ of the CIA.

As it happens, the leak was not a crime, nor was Libby the leaker. He was convicted on very technical charges of "lying" to a grand jury regarding really irrelevant arcana. I write "lying" because the case against him was essentially based on the compelled testimony of a few reporters against him, whose testimony he was not successfully able to impeach, at least partially because of adverse rulings from the trial judge.

But who cares? As this episode quickly fades into history, the Left will quickly forget all the details of the case (intentionally so, in fact) to emphasize that the Libby was convicted of four out of five felony counts. They, and Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald got their man. Everything else is details, and tedious details at that.