‘Perfection and satisfaction are the same thing’

I’ll share the second of three excerpts from Fr. Luigi Giuassani’s book “Christ, God’s Companionship with Man” today, from his writing on “The Risk of Education,” and on the pursuit of happiness:

Our insistence is upon the education in criticism: a child received a patrimony from the past, communicated to him by engaging him in a present experience, which presents that past, giving reasons for what it says. Then he must take that past and its explanations and evaluate them, comparing them with what he finds in his heart and say, “it’s true” or “it’s not true” or “I doubt it.” Through this process, with the help of companionship (without this companionship, man would be at the mercy of the tempests and fickleness of his heart, in the instinctive understanding of the word “heart”), he can say “yes” or he can say “no.” In doing so, he takes on his stature as a man.

Too often, we have been afraid of this critical capacity. Others, those who were afraid of it, have wielded it without understanding it well, and have used it poorly. Criticism has become equated with negativity, as has questioning something that someone has told you. If I tell you something, then you question it, asking yourself, “Is it true?,” this has been equated with doubt or rejection of what was said. The identity of a question with definitive doubt has been disastrous for young people’s identity today.

Doubts bring the search for truth to an end (which may or may not last), but a question, or a problem, is an invitation to understand what is in front of us, to discover something new that is good and true; it is an invitation to a richer and more mature sense of fulfillment.

Without these three factors: tradition, an experience lived in the present and the reasons for it, and criticism—I’m so thankful to my father, who always taught me to look at things and ask why; who would tell me each night before going to bed, “You always have to ask why. Ask yourself why,” (though he said it for very different reasons)—young people will be like fragile leaves far from the branch that supports them, subject to the changes of the strongest wind; subject to public opinion manufactured by whoever is in power: “Where are you going?” as the Italian poet Leopardi wrote.

Our goal is to free young people from the mental slavery that binds them, from the conformity in which their thoughts are enslaved by the opinions of others.

From my first day of teaching, I always said, “I’m not here so that you can take my ideas as your own; I’m here to teach you a true method that you can use to judge the things I will tell you. And what I have to tell you is the result of a long experience, of a two-thousand-year-old history.”

We have been careful to respect this method throughout our efforts to educate and have tried to clearly explain the reason for the method: to demonstrate the relevance of faith to answer life’s needs. Through my education at home and my time of formation in seminary, and later through my own meditation, I was thoroughly persuaded that a faith that could not be found or confirmed in present experience, that was not useful to its needs, would not be a faith capable of standing up in a world in which everything, everything, says the opposite. This opposition was so deep that, for a long time, even theology became a victim of the diluting of truth.

Our goal is to show the relevance of faith to answer the needs of life, and therefore—this “therefore” is very important for me—to demonstrate the reasonableness of the faith, but we must give a precise definition to understand reason. To say that faith exalts our reason is to say that faith corresponds to the fundamental and original needs of every human heart. We see the use of the word “heart” to describe what we might call “reason” in the Bible. Faith responds to the original needs of the human heart, which are the same for everyone: the need for truth, beauty, goodness, justice, love, and one’s complete satisfaction, which—as I often emphasize with young people—refers to the same thing as one’s “perfection.” (In Latin, satisfacere or satisfieri mean the same thing as perficere, or perfection. Perfection and satisfaction are the same thing, as are happiness and eternity.)

So when we say something is reasonable, we mean that it corresponds to the fundamental needs of the human heart, those needs that man—whether he wants to or not, or is aware of them or not—uses to judge everything, with varying degrees of success.

Considering all we have said, to give the reasons for faith means to constantly expand upon and deepen our description of the effect that Christ’s presence has on the world…

“Perfection and satisfaction are the same thing, as are happiness and eternity.”

There’s something radical in the idea that America’s idea of the “pursuit of happiness” could perfectly sync with the Catholic pursuit of perfection; of the highest good; of beatitude.

The judicial usurpation of politics

First Things November 1996 symposium, The Judicial Usurpation of Politics, might as well have been written today:

Articles on “judicial arrogance” and the “judicial usurpation of power” are not new. The following symposium addresses those questions, often in fresh ways, but also moves beyond them. The symposium is, in part, an extension of the argument set forth in our May 1996 editorial, “The Ninth Circuit’s Fatal Overreach.” The Federal District Court’s decision favoring doctor-assisted suicide, we said, could be fatal not only to many people who are old, sick, or disabled, but also to popular support for our present system of government.

This symposium addresses many similarly troubling judicial actions that add up to an entrenched pattern of government by judges that is nothing less than the usurpation of politics. The question here explored, in full awareness of its far-reaching consequences, is whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime.

Americans are not accustomed to speaking of a regime. Regimes are what other nations have. The American tradition abhors the notion of the rulers and the ruled. We do not live under a government, never mind under a regime; we are the government. The traditions of democratic self-governance are powerful in our civics textbooks and in popular consciousness. This symposium asks whether we may be deceiving ourselves and, if we are, what are the implications of that self-deception. By the word “regime” we mean the actual, existing system of government. The question that is the title of this symposium is in no way hyperbolic. The subject before us is the end of democracy.

Since the defeat of communism, some have spoken of the end of history. By that they mean, inter alia, that the great controversies about the best form of governance are over: there is no alternative to democracy. Perhaps that, too, is wishful thinking and self-deception. Perhaps the United States, for so long the primary bearer of the democratic idea, has itself betrayed that idea and become something else. If so, the chief evidence of that betrayal is the judicial usurpation of politics.

Politics, Aristotle teaches, is free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? Democratic politics means that “the people” deliberate and decide that question. In the American constitutional order the people do that through debate, elections, and representative political institutions. But is that true today? Has it been true for, say, the last fifty years? Is it not in fact the judiciary that deliberates and answers the really important questions entailed in the question, How ought we to order our life together? Again and again, questions that are properly political are legalized, and even speciously constitutionalized. This symposium is an urgent call for the repoliticizing of the American regime. Some of the authors fear the call may come too late.

The emergence of democratic theory and practice has a long and complicated history, and one can cite many crucial turning points. One such is the 1604 declaration of Parliament to James I: “The voice of the people, in the things of their knowledge, is as the voice of God.” We hold that only the voice of God is to be treated as the voice of God, but with respect to political sovereignty that declaration is a keystone of democratic government. Washington, Madison, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and the other founders were adamant about the competence—meaning both the authority and capacity—of the people to govern themselves. They had no illusions that the people would always decide rightly, but they would not invest the power to decide in a ruling elite. The democracy they devised was a republican system of limited government, with checks and balances, including judicial review, and representative means for the expression of the voice of the people. But always the principle was clear: legitimate government is government by the consent of the governed. The founders called this order an experiment, and it is in the nature of experiments that they can fail.

The questions addressed have venerable precedent. The American experiment intended to remedy the abuses of an earlier regime. The Declaration of Independence was not addressed to “light and transient causes” or occasional “evils [that] are sufferable.” Rather, it says: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The following essays are certain about the “long train of abuses and usurpations,” and about the prospect—some might say the present reality—of despotism. Like our authors, we are much less certain about what can or should be done about it.

The proposition examined in the following articles is this: The government of the United States of America no longer governs by the consent of the governed. With respect to the American people, the judiciary has in effect declared that the most important questions about how we ought to order our life together are outside the purview of “things of their knowledge.” Not that judges necessarily claim greater knowledge; they simply claim, and exercise, the power to decide. The citizens of this democratic republic are deemed to lack the competence for self-government. The Supreme Court itself—notably in the Casey decision of 1992-has raised the alarm about the legitimacy of law in the present regime. Its proposed solution is that citizens should defer to the decisions of the Court. Our authors do not consent to that solution. The twelfth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Harlan Fiske Stone (1872-1946), expressed his anxiety: “While unconstitutional exercise of power by the executive or legislative branches of the Government is subject to judicial restraint, the only check upon our own exercise of power is our own sense of restraint.” The courts have not, and perhaps cannot, restrain themselves, and it may be that in the present regime no other effective restraints are available. If so, we are witnessing the end of democracy.

I spoke with Charlie Camosy recently, and he commented on the strangeness that is Congress’s obsession with, on the one hand, party-obsessed pitched battles, and on the other, deference to executive power in most of the ways that are of truly grave importance. In short, the legislative branch hasn’t sought to check the executive branch for a very long time. And no one is checking the judicial branch.

A central reason for the political anxiety of American life since the end of the Cold War might be that “checks and balances” seem to no longer be in effect.

A patriotic parade

Childe Hassam’s “Allies Day, May 1917” hangs in the National Gallery of Art on Constitution Avenue:

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If you look on this far long enough, you’re transported to that time in America—a time before the Great War shattered the faith of Western nations and when the Anglosphere was still a living reality; when Western nations were connected by deeper ties than commerce and economics. National Gallery of Art offers this:

A patriotic whirlwind overtook mid–town Manhattan as America entered the First World War in the spring of 1917. On Fifth Avenue, the British Union Jack, the French Tricolor, and Stars and Stripes were displayed prominently during parades honoring America’s allies. The colorful pageantry inspired Childe Hassam, who dedicated this picture “to the coming together of [our] three peoples in the fight for democracy.” Hassam’s flag paintings were first shown as a group in New York’s Durand–Ruel Gallery in November 1918, just four days after the armistice was declared. Thus, the works, originally created to herald America’s entry into the war, also served to commemorate its victorious resolution.

Hassam had studied in Paris from 1886–1889 and was strongly influenced by the impressionists. In many respects, Allies Day resembles the vibrant boulevard paintings of Monet and Pissarro. Like these contemporary French artists, Haassam selected a high vantage point overlooking a crowded urban thoroughfare to achieve an illusion of dramatic spatial recession. But, rather than using daubs of shimmering pigment to dissolve form, he applied fluid parallel paint strokes to create an architectonic patterning. Although he shared the impressionists’ interest in bright colors, broken brushwork, and modern themes, Hassam’s overall approach was less theoretical and his pictorial forms remained far more substantial than those of his European contemporaries.

September 11th, 18 years later

It’s September 11th. We’re sharing and remembering the events of that day, and as I do every year I remember where I was: a freshman in high school, watching the World Trade Center ablaze during my second period history class. But how do you commemorate September 11th if you don’t remember it—because you were too young, or because you’ve become ideologically warped? Daniel Byman writes:

Today’s students … lack a sense of historical perspective. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was an average of more than one airplane hijacking per week globally, and those two decades saw hundreds of bombings in the United States by groups ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to the Weather Underground. Indeed, on U.S. soil, both terrorist incidents and fatalities are down in the post-9/11 era compared with the years before.

However, because 9/11 defines what a terrorist incident can do, a bombing or shooting, especially if done by a Muslim in the name of jihad, looms far larger in the imagination than it did in the past. It is hard for students to picture a country remaining relatively calm about a 1970s-level pace of attacks. It is also difficult for them to imagine a U.S. government with only dozens, not tens of thousands, of counterterrorism officers.

Although most students would be loath to admit it, based on class discussions they often seem to agree with Trump on some of his assumptions about how to respond to the terrorism threat. They are skeptical of intervention in the Middle East, especially on a massive scale. However, they also accept a grinding set of miniature wars, with air strikes and special-operations force deployments in much of the Muslim world on a near constant basis. They are also comfortable working with dictatorships in the Middle East, seeing this as a necessary price for counterterrorism cooperation. Perhaps most important, they often see every emergence of a jihadi group as a potential threat to the United States, and thus Islamic State-linked attacks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sri Lanka are seen as proof of a continued danger to the United States.

The events of 9/11 are increasingly a memory, and without education that memory can easily become a caricature. Americans who are not fortunate enough to study at an elite university are particularly susceptible to vague threats being used to justify unnecessary government spending or an administration’s preferred policy, without a recognition of how the dangers facing the country have changed since 2001. Capturing all the nuances surrounding 9/11 is vital, but the proper response today also requires recognizing that terrorism is constantly evolving, and when it strikes again it may not come from an expected or familiar source.

‘One life, that my dear land may live’

Happy Labor Day weekend—an appropriate time for honoring our country and those who forged her. Do you know the story of Nathan Hale? Here’s William Ordway Partridge’s tribute:

One hero dies—a thousand new ones rise,
As flowers are sown where perfect blossoms fall;
Then quite unknown, the name of Hale now cries
Wherever duty sounds her silent call.

With head erect he moves and stately pace,
To meet an awful doom—no ribald jest
Brings scorn or hate to that exalted face:
His thoughts are far away, poised and at rest;

Now on the scaffold see him turn and bid
Farewell to home, and all his heart holds dear.
Majestic presence!—all man’s weakness hid,
And all his strength in that last hour made clear:
“My sole regret, that it is mine to give
Only one life, that my dear land may live.”

Limits on federal spending

Michael J. New offers common sense on federal spending:

The recent budget deal that was agreed to by President Trump and Congressional leaders has fiscal conservatives livid. This deal raises discretionary spending caps by over $300 billion over two years and effectively repeals the budget caps that were established as part of the Budget Control Act in 2011. The frustration of budget hawks is certainly understandable. While the rest of the budget has grown in recent years, non-defense discretionary spending has actually fallen in constant dollars since 2011. However, seasoned observers of fiscal policy knew it was unlikely to last. After all, there is plenty of evidence that legislatures, including Congress, have been unable to place effective long term limits on the growth of spending.

Indeed, after triple digit budget deficits became commonplace in the 1980s, Congress adopted the Gramm Rudman Hollings Act in 1985. This piece of legislation established declining deficit targets every year and triggered automatic spending cuts if those targets were not met. Half the cuts were to come from defense spending, and half the cuts were to come from domestic programs. While Gramm Rudman Hollings did result in some short term spending cuts, its main outcome was creative accounting. Congress often pushed spending into future fiscal years to create phantom spending cuts to stay within the deficit targets. When the economy slowed down, the deficit targets became too difficult to reach, and the legislation was scrapped in 1990. …

Fiscal conservatives should revisit pursuing a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of the results of elections, Congress has shown no ability to place effective long term limits on spending. A balanced budget amendment or another constitutional fiscal limit might be the only effective long-term strategy to limit the growth of government. America’s long term fiscal outlook looks especially bleak due to rapidly growing entitlement programs. Indeed, a balanced budget amendment might as well be the only strategy to get Congress to seriously discuss reforming rapidly expanding programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and shore up America’s fiscal future.

We are acting as if there will be no consequence for our bipartisan monetary policies. Kicking the can down the road…

Civil public discourse

I’m flying back from San Francisco, on a nonstop flight to Washington Reagan. Thanks to United’s WiFi I’m working throughout the flight. And I’m also reading Emmett McGroarty, who asks whether civil public discourse is presently possible:

Over the last 20 years, public discourse has tended toward the shrill and irrational, punctuated with occasional violence. No sharing of opinions. Don’t ask questions.  No discussion of points of view. Empathy is dead. Socialization—an essential human activity—is regulated by the mob, and its walls are shrinking.

Does the form or practice of our government have anything to do with this dystopia?

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville made a few observations worth mulling.

The structure of our government, he noted, preserved the power of the townships, most notably in New England but everywhere resting on the “same idea.” It preserved the natural order. Man, Tocqueville declared, “makes kingdoms and creates republics; the township appears to issue directly from the hands of God.”

“It is in the township, at the center of ordinary relations in life, that desires for esteem, the need of real interests, the taste for power and for attention, come to be concentrated; these passions, which so often trouble society, change character when they can be expressed so near the domestic hearth and in a way in the bosom of the family.” It is through local governance that the individual “gets a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and finally assembles clear and practical ideas on the nature of his duties as well as the extent of his rights.”

“Local freedoms, which make many citizens put value on the affection of their neighbors and those close to them, therefore constantly bring men closer to one another, despite the instincts that separate them, and force them to aid each other.”

As the Catechism observes, participation in civic life “develops the qualities of the person . . . and helps guarantee his rights” (par. 1882).  This subsidiarity—embracing socialization—leads to solidarity.

Given a century of increased centralization—taking more and more power away from local communities, should discord and rancor in the public square and on college campuses be such a surprise?

Critiquing libertarianism

J.D. Vance critiques libertarianism’s obsession with free choice, divorced from outcomes:

I grew up in a pretty rough environment, and what the American dream meant to me was that I had a decent enough job to support my family and that I could be a good husband and a good father. That’s what I most wanted out of my life. It wasn’t the American dream of the striver. It wasn’t the American dream, frankly, that I think animates much of this town. I didn’t care if I went to an Ivy League law school, I didn’t care if I wrote a best-selling book, I didn’t care if I had a lot of money. What I wanted was to be able to give my family and my children the things that I hadn’t had as a kid: That was the sense in which the American dream mattered most to me.

That American dream is undoubtedly in decline. I want to talk a little bit about why I think that’s happening and what a conservative politics has to do in response, but I think a first step is to distinguish between a conservative politics and a libertarian politics. I don’t mean to criticize libertarianism. I first learned about conservatism as an idea from Friedrich Hayek. The Road to Serfdom is one of the best books that I’ve ever read about conservative thought. But in an important way I believe that conservatives have outsourced our economic and domestic policy thinking to libertarians.

Because that is such a loaded word, and because labels mean different things to different people, I want to define it as precisely as I can. So if you don’t consider yourself a libertarian under this definition, I apologize: What I’m going after is the view that so long as public outcomes and social goods are produced by free individual choices, we shouldn’t be too concerned about what those goods ultimately produce. For example, in Silicon Valley, it is common for neuroscientists to make much more at technology companies like Apple and Facebook—where they quite literally are making money addicting our children to devices and applications that warp their brains—than neuroscientists who are trying to cure Alzheimer’s.

I know a lot of libertarians will say, “that is the consequence of free choices,” or “that is the consequence of people buying and selling labor on an open market and so long as there isn’t any government coercion in that relationship, we shouldn’t be so concerned about it.” But what I’m arguing is that conservatives should be concerned about it. We should be concerned that our economy is geared more toward developing applications than curing terrible diseases. We should care about a whole host of public goods, and should actually be willing to use politics and political power to accomplish some of those public goods.

Americans who share faith

Matthew Schmitz writes on the recent National Conservatism conference and immigration:

Culture is centered around cult. To the extent that it binds us together, it is a form of religio. America was at the time of its founding an overwhelmingly Christian nation. It would seem, then, that a Chinese Christian dissident, or a Nigerian fleeing Boko Haram, has much less cultural distance from America and its founding than do most present-day Canadians or Swedes.

… It is doubtful that its affirmation of equal dignity can be sustained without belief in the God who made man in his image.

If this Christian vision is simply reactionary, it will fail. If it manages to be aspirational and forward-looking, it has a chance to succeed. In the 1960s, America belatedly chose its Christian identity – what Martin Luther King called “the sacred heritage of our nation” – over white supremacy. In the same period, America’s self-consciously Protestant and unashamedly anti-Catholic identity collapsed with the election of JFK. A truly Christian vision of America would build on these achievements, rather than seeking to revive a white Protestant past.

Such a vision leads to radically different conclusions on immigration than those reached by [Amy] Wax. Catholic migrants from Central America now have more in common with our Puritan forebears than do most Europeans. Their Church still proclaims the bodily resurrection of Christ, still believes in original sin and predestination, still opposes the evil of contraception. These are things the Puritans professed but many Protestant bodies, and many residents of formerly Protestant states – including Wax’s favoured “First World” countries – no longer believe. Central Americans should be favoured over Europeans under any immigration policy based on cultural distance.

That said, discussing immigration risks distracting us from our country’s most important divide. The greatest cultural distance is not between natives and migrants but between a religious, patriotic, multi-racial working class and a secular, progressive, and largely white elite. Our country’s opinion-makers hate faith, revile patriotism and contemn family. People loyal to what is most noble in the American heritage have less in common with them than with almost any migrant.

Knowledge and political taboos

Carla Marinucci writes on what I consider to be surprising debate in California over a decision to spend an enormous amount of money on literal whitewashing:

A San Francisco school board decision to spend $600,000 to paint over a New Deal-era mural of George Washington as a slave owner is fueling a family feud among Democrats…

“I think of myself as liberal, progressive, and have been all my life — but I’m just sort of stunned by this,’’ veteran Democratic strategist Bob Shrum said Sunday. “We have a little more important things to do — like defeating Donald Trump — than to whitewash a mural.” …

The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously last month to paint over all 13 panels of the 1600 sq. ft. mural “Life of Washington,’’ a historic work commissioned during the New Deal that depicts George Washington as a slave owner. The move came after several vocal protesters demanded the move at a public meeting, saying their children were “traumatized” by depictions of the nation’s first president standing over the images of dead Native Americans. …

Democratic strategist Mike Semler — who has advised Senator Dianne Feinstein and who has taught public policy at Cal State University Sacramento — this weekend sent out an emergency email alert seeking support for an effort to back a ballot measure to save the mural. He said the effort, dubbed the Coalition to Protect Public Art, aims to solicit funds to initiate a ballot measure designed to protect this art, “and perhaps other New Deal art in San Francisco’’ which may also be targeted. …

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, in a recent San Francisco Chronicle column, likened the school board supporters’ and tactics to the worst of Trump‘s backers. He noted the vocal group seeking to destroy the painting did so by bullying the recent school board meeting with a claim to be “traumatized by the mural.”

“They’re clearly traumatized by something,’’ he wrote. “They’d be horrified by the comparison, but they’re really no different from the most boorish of President Trump’s supporters.”

Brown said that his own daughter, Sydney, a Washington High graduate “was never traumatized by Arnautoff’s painting — as a matter of fact, it generated conversations at home that otherwise would not have occurred. It was a learning experience for her, and for me.” …

“Was Washington a slave owner? Yes. Did he command troops that killed Native Americans? Yes,’’ says Shrum. “But George Washington — it seems stupid to have to say it — performed an incredible service for this country. We wouldn’t be here without him.’’

This brings me back to Michael Brenden Dougherty’s prediction that, even before the last of the Confederate monuments are removed, the next step in the logic of civic whitewashing will be the removal of the founders. An unacknowledged aspect of this attempt to reshape the public landscape is that it works against a “knowledge of self” for future Americans, who will simply be ignorant of certain key aspects (both good and bad) of our country’s past.

Political taboos, to the extent that they set parts of American history as “off limits,” have the effect not simply of destroying awareness of those off-limits aspect, but also of destroying knowledge broadly, in the sense that fluency with one’s past is impossible if there are gaps in one’s memory.