My view of our affairs is admittedly affected by the geographical distance I have from them – I live in Rome – and coloured by many years’ close experience of our ecclesiastical politics. Nevertheless, when it comes to America and the Church, the ills that have befallen each have infected the other, so that anything one might say to the one body would bear on the other, for good or for ill.
Many are the voices that decry the “politicisation” of our age. A natural contrarian, I should like to stake out the opposite case: it is our abhorrence of politics – our allergy, almost, to “things of the city” – that is chiefly responsible for most of our ills.
That America is a “City on a Hill” is a trope older even than the Puritan settlement of our New England shores. Daniel Boorstin called the Atlantic route to the New World a “path from Babylon to Zion”, which I have taken as another way of saying that the crossing was an act of pilgrimage, one the Puritans clearly interpreted as exodus. When they got where they were going, however, they discovered “waste and howling wilderness” as Samuel Danforth rather lately put it (in 1670). So, they had not made Zion after all. At least, they’d not made it yet.
The vision of gleaming alabaster cities “undimmed by human tears” continues to inform our self-understanding, but our forebears had recovered a sense of that city’s being beyond history and beyond the reach of human endeavour. I think we’ve lost that sense of being in history, and are feeling the effects of the loss the more, as we more stubbornly refuse to acknowledge it.
The Puritan penchant for excluding others from society, which marked our early history, has not gone away. It merely went to ground. It emerges from time to time, and is in vogue these days, right and left. The progressive element in society, who insist they are on the right side of history, would leave their fellows behind or steamroll them if they are in the way. The conservative element – often as nostalgic for a past that never was, as their progressive fellows are pining for a future that will always elude them – will not only resist the efforts of their progressive fellows, but will treat their fellows as enemies in any case.
The presumption of community is at risk of failing, in other words, and how is a national conversation to come from that?
I’m not sure I believe in national conversations. People will talk about what they want to talk about, which when they’re talking about politics rarely means a real conversation. It’s generally an exercise in tribalism, either affirming how good we are or declaring how horrible are our enemies. Even the people who ought to models of judicious, fair, balanced discourse, our public intellectuals, are all in for one side, and mainly give us smarter versions of Facebook arguments.
And I’m not sure how much things have really changed in that regard. Our “national conversation” wasn’t all that cordial in the past. And when it was – in the 50s, say – it was so because radical voices were suppressed and marginalised. Americans agreed on a lot of things everyone thought self-evident, like the goodness of American power and the evils of “Socialism”; the economy was growing and bringing many into the middle class; and a genial liberalism dominated the main organs of opinion. We also had an utterly evil enemy, the Soviet Union, to unite against and with which to highlight our virtues in comparison. The churches that ought to have offered a different understanding, were complaisant and happy agents of the mainstream. As the Catholic historian Jim Hitchcock said somewhere, the 50s’ characteristic sin was pride, with the inevitable results.
Black Americans had started demanding equal rights, and that roiled things a little, but not as much as it would. Everyone else could be perfectly happy affirming civil rights when it was a matter of changing the south’s racist laws and structures. Many soon wouldn’t be so happy when they realised civil rights was also a matter of changing their own racist laws and structures. And then Vietnam turned into such a mess, and American young men started being killed and maimed in what was increasingly seen as a pointless enterprise created not just by the hitherto trusted best and brightest but by that 50s vision of America.
As a result, I don’t have the confidence in America that my parents had. My mother grew up very poor, and first the New Deal and then the expanding wealth of the 50s gave her a life she didn’t expect to have. She thought America could do anything. My father mostly agreed, with qualifications. I don’t. I tend to agree with the voices what “national conversation” we’ve had has mostly suppressed. My children and their peers think as I do, if not more so. Three of the four, anyway.
For many and various reasons, our “national conversation” got worse and worse. Now we don’t have one, except in the sense that people yelling at each somewhat antiphonally is a conversation. The “presumption of community” you say “is at risk of failing” has already failed. The unity Americans felt after 9/11 – and nothing unites a people like an enemy that evil – didn’t last long. It lasted until we had to get back to dealing with all the divisive questions.
Which brings me to your second paragraph. I think you’re right to call for real politics. That’s the only kind of national conversation that makes any sense. But I’m not sure even politics gets us very far anymore. I think you’re dreaming here.
I do take your point. Your points, in fact. All of them. When it comes to the question whether we even have a national conversation, I am reminded of Stanley Cavell’s question: is there is an America to speak of?
In my book The Soul of a Nation, I discuss two treatments Cavell gives to The Philadelphia Story – which he takes as obviously a metaphor for the story of Philadelphia, of what happened there, hence for the question whether it still matters or ever did – a comedy of divorce and remarriage. The heroine, Tracy Lord (played by Katherine Hepburn) says to her once-and-future husband: “Oh, Dext, I’m such an unholy mess of a girl.” Her husband – deliciously named CK Dexter Haven and delightfully played by Cary Grant – replies: “Why, that’s no good, that’s not even conversation.”
The subject of conversation is one that interests both of us. I wrote about it in this issue – the general subject, not our shared interest or specific exchange (page 18) – and you and I are talking now. It does seem that, as a nation, we are always risking or experiencing estrangement, and always trying (not) to find our way(s) back to one another.
While we are looking for something to talk about, we alternate between yelling and giving each other the silent treatment. I do wonder whether one of the really great ills of social media – about which you wrote recently for Chapter House – is that they leave us nowhere to go fishing or tinker with cars or just sit and drink beer for the weekend.
In any case, civic friendship takes work. That’s hopelessly trite, but there it is. It is work we’ve sloughed for too long. Even if we haven’t lost the will for it beyond recovery, I do wonder with you whether we shall find the wherewithal – whether, as I also asked in Soul of a Nation, there is still a “we” to speak of. I suspect neither of us is particularly sanguine about our prospects, but – as often happens in marital rapprochements – we get ourselves to a place from which to address the great things, by focusing on the small.
Anyway, I wish I were there with you, and that maybe has to count for something?
Not to be cynical, but I don’t see Catholics, much less anyone else, getting to “a place from which [we can] address the great things, by focusing on the small”. People have settled too happily into their political commitments to talk reasonably. And they feel those commitments to be ultimate, almost eschatological. Why talk with people they think on the side of the Antichrist?
My own attempts just to lay out the rules by which we think about voting have not gone over so well with the Catholic right. It doesn’t matter to them what the Church teaches about voting. It doesn’t matter what then-Cardinal Ratzinger said, even though he’s their hero otherwise. It matters whether you support Trump. If you don’t, you must be a “pro-abort” or a Biden supporter.
People who will cheer homilies telling us that this world is not our home treat politics as if it were salvific. Real Catholics vote as they do.
You can’t talk with them. And they don’t like politics. They remind me of the character type described by the late Zygmunt Bauman – a man too little read by Catholics – in This Is Not a Diary: people who want “an orderly, clean and transparent world in which good and evil, beauty and ugliness, truth and lie are neatly separated from each other and never mix, so we can be sure how things are, where to go and how to proceed; we dream of a world in which judgments and decisions can be made without the arduous labour of understanding.” This produces ideologies, “those dense curtains that stop looking short of seeing”.
So I think the question gets back to politics as the only possible conversation. Not an ideal one, not what we’d want, but the only workable way of engaging our disagreements. Politics engages the world we live in and affects real human lives. Including the social spending that reduces abortions.
Politics gives us some chance of changing the things we oppose. Like the abortion regime. As Bauman wrote in another book, 44 Letters From the Liquid Modern World, man, “the most variable of variables; and the least predictable among unpredictables”, can change the future. We must “join forces and pool our efforts in order to cause future events to conform to what we desire, and to steer clear of undesirable scenarios … [T]his is the sole strategy that gives us a chance of winning battles. Not the perfect solution, but the only one available.”
I think that’s what we’re left with. It’s depressing that Catholics don’t speak with a single voice. But that’s where we are.
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