The Economist reports on a new study by psychologists that looks into the problem of abuse of power. The researchers attempt to “answer the question of whether power tends to corrupt, as Lord Acton’s dictum has it, or whether it merely attracts the corruptible.”
These results, then, suggest that the powerful do indeed behave hypocritically, condemning the transgressions of others more than they condemn their own. Which comes as no great surprise, although it is always nice to have everyday observation confirmed by systematic analysis. But another everyday observation is that powerful people who have been caught out often show little sign of contrition. It is not just that they abuse the system; they also seem to feel entitled to abuse it.
It should be obvious that developments within a social institution as fundamental as marriage will have an economic impact. Sorting out cause and effect in such cases is no easy matter, however; the temptation is to draw easy and simplistic connections. A suitably sophisticated analysis comes from Fr. John Flynn at Zenit. Flynn reports on a study by the National Marriage Project. Lots of interesting tidbits here, not all of them exclusively related to family issues. Among them: 75% of job losses during the current recession in the US have been concentrated among men without a college education; college-educated women are now more likely to marry and less likely to divorce than their less educated counterparts; extramarital affairs and alcohol/drug abuse are the only factors more strongly predictive of divorce than the feeling that one’s spouse is financially irresponsible.
Some years ago, I was engaged in a conversation at a religious communicators convention with a liberal/progressive activist who was having trouble understanding how the market could actually be a force for good. Finally, he defaulted to the question that — to him at least — would settle the matter. “So,” he asked, “does the Acton Institute work for social justice?” My response, of course, was, “You bet we do.”
The problem with this brief exchange was that we obviously didn’t understand social justice in the same terms. It was a failure to communicate at the communicators convention. And truth be told, there are probably fewer phrases that are thrown around so loosely, that are so heavily freighted with ideological baggage. Liberal/progressives use social justice as a shibboleth that offers affiliation with the tribe of those who advocate statist solutions, whatever else it might mean to them. Conservatives tend merely to shun its use.
A lot of that confusion promises to be cleared up with the release of an outstanding new resource called Seek Social Justice: Transforming Lives In Need from the Heritage Foundation. This resource includes a DVD and companion study guide (available free of charge) and can also be viewed on the Web site. You’ll recognize a lot of the names in this series from their association with Acton over the years as staff members, scholars, speakers at conferences, and policy experts. People like Anthony Bradley, an Acton Research Fellow, Marvin Olasky, Rudy Carrasco, Chuck Colson, Jay Richards, and Robert L. Woodson Jr.
Here’s an excerpt from the study guide (download here).
Regrettably, ideas offered in the name of social justice have sometimes misdiagnosed the problem and had unintended consequences that hurt the very people they intended to help. That’s because they have assessed poverty primarily as a material problem.
Programs based on this assumption have kept those willing to help at arm’s length from those in need, often looking first to government and substituting impersonal handouts for personal care and real transformation. Jumping into action without thoughtful consideration has led to damaging results.
Somehow in the urgency to dedicate our lives—or even a few hours or dollars—to a good cause, we’re missing something. We’re missing something about who we are at our core as human beings; we’re missing something about the complex and relational nature of poverty. Though motivated by good intentions, we need a better framework for understanding and engaging the issues surrounding human need and social breakdown.
When it comes to translating good intentions into actions that really make a difference, we need to understand the nature and context of the problem. That begins with correctly diagnosing the suffering we see around us. In the United States, poverty and social breakdown are often rooted in problems that are deeper than a lack of money or material possessions. The poor in America typically suffer in different ways than the poor in developing countries, where corrupt governments, the missing rule of law, unstable financial systems, food shortages due to famine, and the absence of basic health care systems exacerbate extreme material deprivation. Unique conditions call for a different approach in developing nations.
The lessons are equipped with readings, which will take the student deeper into the subject matter. This is from Michael Novak’s “Defining Social Justice” (First Things, December 2000):
The virtue of social justice allows for people of good will to reach different—even opposing—practical judgments about the material content of the common good (ends) and how to get there (means). Such differences are the stuff of politics.
We must rule out any use of “social justice” that does not attach to the habits (that is, virtues) of individuals. Social justice is a virtue, an attribute of individuals, or it is a fraud. And if Tocqueville is right that “the principle of association is the first law of democracy,” then social justice is the first virtue of democracy, for it is the habit of putting the principle of association into daily practice.
Kudos to the Heritage Foundation, lead writer Ryan Messmore, and all of the contributors and editors behind Seek Social Justice.
Over the past five years, many conservatives and religiously-inclined people have been turning to the works of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton as part of an effort to rethink the nature of economic life. Both these figures wrote about many other things than economics – and some would say that, for all their insights as Christian apologists, economics was never their strong point. Indeed many of their economic writings were heavily criticized when they were initially published in Britain and the United States. Here is an example of one such critique that appeared when Belloc’s The Servile State was first published under an American imprint in 1947. It repays close reading.
Having proved by logic that capitalism, socialism and collectivism all tend inevitably to bring the servile state to pass, Belloc comes to speak of the solution and there his distributive state fails him. The way back to that state of society in which ownership of “the springs of life” shall be happily universal is a road of appalling difficulties. They are perhaps insurmountable. Suppose you think of doing it boldly, as to say, “all shall own,” instead of saying, as the collectivists would, “none shall own.” Very good. But by what scale of justice shall this new ownership be apportioned among the people? What will the people do with it? How would you keep the many from selling it back to the few?
What made this son of Scottish parents both great and memorable, however, was not simply a long career in government. Indeed, as a devoutly religious man he always put service to God ahead of service to country and felt that what he did as a politician should be unequivocally faithful to both. What made Gladstone great and memorable was what he actually accomplished while he served in government. Biographer Magnus says Gladstone “achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions.”
Today, when a citizen is elected with a mandate to cut the government down to size, but ends up moderating his positions while in power, conventional wisdom credits him with having “grown in office.” Gladstone “grew” but in precisely the opposite direction. When he entered Parliament at age 22 in 1832, Gladstone was a protectionist on trade, a defender of the state-subsidized Church of England, an opponent of reform and a protector of the status quo. By 1850, he had become an ardent advocate of free trade and by 1890 had reduced Britain’s tariffs from 1,200 to just 12.
Gladstone slashed government spending, taxes, and regulations. He ended state subsidies for the Church of England in Ireland. He pushed through reforms that allowed Jews and Catholics to serve in Parliament and that extended the vote to millions of taxpaying workers who had previously been denied the franchise. He extolled the virtues of self-help and private charity. And he lived what he preached. Even as prime minister, Gladstone was so moved by the degraded plight of London prostitutes that he would search the streets of London to talk them out of their destructive occupation.
This photo is of Acton spending time with the Gladstone family at Tegernsee in 1879. Tegernsee was a spa town in the Bavarian Alps. Acton died there in 1902. In the photo Acton is seated at the right with his hat in hand, William Gladstone is seated on the bench at the left. Mary Gladstone is standing just behind her father.
NRO’s Corner published my article on Pope Benedict’s recent remarks to Brazilian bishops on liberation theology:
It went almost unnoticed, but on December 5, Benedict XVI articulated one of the most stinging rebukes of a particular theological school ever made by a pope. Addressing a visiting group of Brazilian bishops, Benedict followed some mild comments about Catholic education with some very sharp and deeply critical remarks about liberation theology and its effects upon the Catholic Church.
After stressing how certain liberation theologians drew heavily upon Marxist concepts, the pope described these ideas as “deceitful.” This is very strong language for a pope. But Benedict then underscored the damage that liberation theology did to the Catholic Church. “The more or less visible consequences,” he told the bishops, “of that approach — characterised by rebellion, division, dissent, offence and anarchy — still linger today, producing great suffering and a serious loss of vital energies in your diocesan communities.”
Today, even some of liberation theology’s most outspoken advocates freely admit that it has collapsed, including in Latin America. Once considered avant-garde, it is now generally confined to clergy and laity of a certain age who wield ever-decreasing influence within the Church. Nonetheless, Benedict XVI clearly believes it’s worth underscoring just how much harm it inflicted upon the Catholic Church.
For a start, there’s little question that liberation theology was a disaster for Catholic evangelization. There’s a saying in Latin America that sums this up: “The Church opted for the poor, and the poor opted for the Pentecostals.”
In short, while many Catholic clergy were preaching class war, many of those on whose behalf the war was supposedly being waged decided that they weren’t so interested in learning about Marx or listening to a language of hate. They simply wanted to learn about Jesus Christ and his love for all people (regardless of economic status). They found this in many evangelical communities.
A second major impact was upon the formation of Catholic clergy in parts of Latin America. Instead of being immersed in the fullness of the Catholic faith’s intellectual richness, many Catholic seminarians in the 1970s and 1980s read Marx’s Das Kapital and refused to look at such “bourgeois” literature such Augustine’s City of God or Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae.
This undermined the Church’s ability to witness to Christ in Latin America, not least because some clergy reduced Christ to the status of a heroic but less than divine urban guerrilla and weren’t especially interested in explaining Catholicism’s tenets to their flocks.
Then there has been the effect upon the Church’s ability to engage the new Latin American economic world that emerged as the region opened itself to markets in the 1990s. Certainly much of this liberalization was poorly executed and marred by corruption. Nonetheless, as The Economist recently reported, countries like Brazil — once liberation theology’s epicenter — are emerging as global economic players and helping millions of people out of poverty in the process. The smartest thing that Brazil’s left-wing President Lula da Silva ever did was to not dismantle most of his predecessor’s economic reforms.
Unfortunately, one legacy of liberation theology is the inability of some Catholic clergy to relate to people working in the business world. Ironically, business executives are far more likely to practice their Catholicism than many other Latin Americans. Yet liberation theology has left a residue of distrust of business leaders among some Catholic clergy — and vice versa. Distrust is no basis for engagement, let alone evangelization.
The good news is that the Church in Latin America is more than halfway along the road to recovery. Anyone who talks to younger priests and seminarians there today quickly learns that they have absorbed the devastating critiques of liberation theology produced by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in the 1980s. If anything, they tend to regard liberation theologians, like the ex-priest Leonardo Boff, as heretical irrelevancies.
Indeed, figures such as Boff must be dismayed that the Catholic Church has emerged as the most outspoken opponent of populist-leftists such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. As Michael Novak observed in Will It Liberate? (1986), liberation theologians were notoriously vague when it came to practical policy proposals. But if any group embodies the liberationists’ economic agenda, it is surely the populist Left, which is currently providing us with case studies of how to drive economies into the ground faster than you can say “Fidel Castro.”
As time passes, liberation theology is well on its way to being consigned to the long list of Christian heterodoxies, ranging from Arianism to Hans-Küngism. But as Benedict XVI understands, ideas matter — including incoherent and destructive ideas such as liberation theology. Until the Catholic Church addresses the legacy of this defunct ideology — to give liberation theology its proper designation — its ability to speak to the Latin America of the future will be impaired.
Enter Howard Zinn – an author, professor and American historian – who, with the help of Hollywood and the History Channel, intends to change the way our pre-K through high school children learn American history [beginning with "a new documentary, entitled The People Speak, to be aired December 13th at 8pm on the History Channel.”]. …
Zinn has spent a lifetime teaching college students about the evils of capitalism, the promise of Marxism, and his version of American history – a history that has, in his view, been kept from students. …
Perhaps due to their one-sided perspective of America’s past, Zinn’s history books have largely been limited to colleges and universities, until now. In the press release announcing the broadcast, HISTORY introduced a partnership with VOICES Of A People’s History Of The United States, a nonprofit led by Zinn that bares the same name as his companion book, to help get his special brand of history into classrooms. …
Brian Jones, a New York teacher and actor, is a board member of VOICES and has also played the lead in Zinn’s play Marx in SoHo. … he extols the benefits of this one man play as a tool to introduce people to Marx’s ideas….
Jones is also a regular contributor to Socialist Worker, International Socialist Review, and speaks regularly on the beneficial principles of Marxism, including this year at the 2009 Socialism Conference. He recently gave a speech on the failure of capitalism, proclaiming that “Marx is back.”
Sarah Knopp, a Los Angeles high school teacher, is also on Zinn’s Teacher Advisory Board. Like Jones, Knopp is also a regular contributor to International Socialist Review, Socialist Worker, is an active member in The International Socialist Organization, and was also a speaker at the 2009 Socialist Conference. …
Then there is Jesse Sharkey, a schoolteacher in Chicago. Sharkey is another of Zinn’s Teacher Advisory Board Members and … a contributor to— Socialist Worker.
This is the group that the History Channel is working with “to develop enhanced, co-branded curriculums for a countrywide educational initiative.” …
I am not advocating that we spare our kids the harsh truths of American history, but I am suggesting, given Zinn’s far-left political affiliation, this project is designed to breakdown our vulnerable children’s views of American principles so that they can be built back up in a socialist vision. …
It is not surprising to me that there are groups sympathetic to Marx’s ideas throughout our country. What is surprising is that the most powerful persuasion machine in the world (Hollywood) and the History Channel would provide Zinn such a prominent soapbox to stealthily build a case for a destructive ideology to our children, and as a result mainstream his ideas with the magic of cool music, graphics, and celebrity. Groups that push Marx’s philosophy are like a virtual organism that will not die off even when stung by the undeniable historical evidence showing human behavior makes such a system unsustainable. If we let this virtual organism into our grade schools, it will take decades for our kids to unlearn the ideology.
… When a reporter asked Zinn, “In writing A People’s History, what were you calling for? A quiet revolution?” Zinn responded: “A quiet revolution is a good way of putting it. From the bottom up. Not a revolution in the classical sense of a seizure of power, but rather from people beginning to take power from within the institutions. In the workplace, the workers would take power to control the conditions of their lives. It would be a democratic socialism.”
Counter bad documentaries with good ones. And if you want to do more at this gift-giving time of the year, consider helping the Acton Institute in its ongoing struggle to promote the free and virtuous society.
By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
Got the socialism blues? Worried that a friend or maybe a teenage son or daughter may contract a nasty case of it? Marvin Olasky at World magazine recommends former Acton research fellow Jay Richards’ 2009 HarperOne book, Money Greed and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and not the Problem:
Among the myths Richards demolishes: The Nirvana Myth (contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its real alternatives), the Piety Myth (focusing on good intentions rather than results), and the Materialist and Zero-Sum Game Myths (believing that wealth is not created but simply transferred).
Richards, one of that rare breed with a theology doctorate but an understanding of economics, also points out the errors of the Greed Myth (believing that the essence of capitalism is greed), the Usury Myth (that charging interest on money is immoral), and the Freeze-Frame Myth (that what’s happening now regarding population, income, natural resources, or so on, will always happen).
Want to administer some of the immunizations in delicious DVD form? Try a high-quality, narrative-driven Acton documentary that was irenic enough to air on scores of PBS stations around the country but with enough red meat to also air on Fox Business: The Call of the Entrepreneurshows why entrepreneurs and capitalism are part of the solution, and why socialism delivers the opposite of what it promises. The story of Jimmy Lai–the boy who escaped Communist China, founded a media empire, and confronted the Chinese leaders behind the Tiananmen Square Massacre–is alone worth the price of admission.
I linked Daniel Crandall’s fine commentary on the paucity of films devoted to the Gulag in this week’s Acton News & Commentary (sign up here). But do to an, ahem, editing error the link did not send readers to The Gulag Lives On – But Not in Our Culture on OrthodoxyToday.org. Crandall also discusses the paintings of Nikolai Getman, whose work based on Gulag life is on display at the Heritage Foundation through Dec. 10. As Heritage explains it, “Getman began painting the scenes in secret once freed in 1953 after eight years’ forced labor in Siberia and Kolyma. His own crime? He’d been in the company of a fellow artist who had mocked Stalin with a tiny drawing.” Crandall asks an important question in his article:
Films that use the gulag as a plot device are few and far between. In 1968, there was The Shoes of the Fisherman, in which a Catholic priest imprisoned in a Siberian gulag is released. Central to that film, however, is a potential war between Russia and China, not the “labor camp” the priest leaves behind. Just referring to the prison as a “labor camp” diminishes its impact and pushes it into the character’s back-story. The one film that comes to mind, in which the gulag does play a significant role, is 2003’s I am David. A young boy escapes from a Bulgarian communist prison camp and travels across Europe in order to find the family he was viciously torn from as a child. Most of the film’s action is set in 1950s Europe, but there are several revealing scenes of life in the gulag under the boot of communist oppression.
So why so many excellent films set in or around the Holocaust and so few films using any gulag, be it Soviet, Chinese, North Korean, Cuban, etc.?