Archived Posts 2009 » Page 45 of 45 | Acton PowerBlog

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Thursday, January 8, 2009

First Things has announced that Father Richard John Neuhaus died this morning.

I am hardly qualified to write a eulogy, having never met the man. No doubt others, including one or two Acton colleagues who knew him better, will perform this service admirably. But I feel compelled to offer a few words, as I have long admired Fr. Neuhaus and his vital work, in particular the journal he edited for many years, First Things (FT).

In the mid-1990s, I was a graduate student in history at the University of Pennsylvania. I was surrounded by smart people who, with some exceptions, disagreed profoundly with most of my own views on religion, culture, and public life (to use FT’s trinitarian formula). I am grateful for that interaction and for the intellectual stimulus that Penn provided, but I was also lonely and desperate for some intellectual sustenance from a perspective both more conservative politically and more orthodox theologically. Browsing through the library one day, I came across FT. (How it had taken me so long to discover it, I don’t know.) Under the circumstances, it seemed to be literally a godsend. Social policy, science, academia–it tackled all the contentious issues at the front of my consciousness as an inexperienced but aspiring scholar who needed allies and guides as I sought to make sense of the relationship between faith and reason. It did so at a level of intelligence, clarity, and civility consistently higher than any other publication I’ve ever encountered.

From that day–when I could afford a subscription to only one periodical–to the present, I have been a devoted FT reader. And to no part of the journal have I been more devoted than Fr. Neuhaus’s monthly roundup of religion, culture, and public life, The Public Square. For more than ten years it has provoked me to thought, laughter, and (not very often) disagreement. For Fr. Neuhaus and for the journal he inspired, I am sincerely grateful. I never met him, but I feel that I’ve lost a longtime companion.

I’m ambivalent about the value of term limits, but one thing that can certainly be counted in their favor is that they (at some point at least), force lawmakers to go out and try to make a living in the economic environment which they helped to shape. In Michigan, nearly half of the 110-member House of Representatives will consist of new members. Of the 46 new members, 44 are coming from seats that were open because of term limits.

And now we have reports that ex-legislators are having a tough time finding private sector jobs in the state. As the AP reports, “The task of finding new gigs will be tougher than usual for this year’s crop of term-limited lawmakers because of Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate, which in November reached 9.6 percent — the highest monthly rate since March 1992.”

It’s been said that those who can’t do, teach. But sometimes those who can’t do, legislate. That’s in part an argument in favor term-limits, part-time legislatures, and something other than a system that encourages the formation of career politicians.

I recognize that serving in government is an important and even a divine calling. Still, I have a hard time finding a great deal of sympathy for those who after a break from the private sector have to face up to the real-world employment situation. You reap what you sow.

Health care reform is likely to move back into the public eye as a new Congress and a new Obama administration prepare to start work this month. In this week’s Acton Commentary, Dr. Don Condit argues for a move away from employer funded health care benefits to a portable system. “Corporate human resources departments should not be viewed as the main source of support for Americans’ health care,” he writes. “The iniquitous government subsidy for employer-based health care could be redirected to help those without access to affordable health care, by virtue of poverty or chronic disease.”

Read this commentary over at the Acton website and post your comments below.

Perhaps the most striking theme of Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s autobiography My Grandfather’s Son is just how many obstacles Thomas had to overcome to reach the high judicial position he currently holds. Thomas was born into poverty, abandoned by his father, and was raised in the segregated South all before achieving the American Dream. At the same time, it was Thomas’s poverty-stricken circumstances that would help propel him to a world of greater opportunity. Because of his mother’s poverty, when Thomas was seven, he and his brother were sent to live with his grandfather Myers Anderson, a no nonsense and self-disciplined man who announced upon their arrival, “The damn vacation is over.”

While I have never been a big fan of autobiographies, Thomas’s story is one that absolutely needs to be told, if for no other reason than to fully respond to the damaging allegations made by his former colleague Anita Hill. But there is so much here to think about, especially for somebody like myself who attended school at Ole Miss, an institution wrapped in the consciousness of race. In a Southern Studies class in college while discussing the history of lynchings, the professor asked if we could cite examples of any modern day lynchings. I immediately remembered Thomas’s quote about his confirmation hearings being a “high tech lynching” and offered Thomas’s name. Of course I knew this was perhaps the last name the professor wanted to hear, which is why I offered it, thereby getting out in front of and spoiling her liberal moralism of the day. She casually made a snide comment about Thomas and said “that doesn’t count.” I only smiled as I knew I had successfully pointed out that Thomas was in fact one of the few black men allowed to be aggressively attacked by white liberals in academia.

Growing up, his grandfather made sacrifices so Thomas and his brother could attend Catholic schools, this allowed him opportunities he might never have had coming out of the public school system. Thomas later turned his attention to studying for the priesthood. As a seminarian Thomas declared:

It seemed self-evident to both of us that the treatment of blacks in America cried out for the unequivocal condemnation of a righteous institution that proclaimed the inherent equality of all men. Yet the Church remained silent, and its silence haunted me. I have often thought that my life might well have followed a different route had the Church been as adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now.

After leaving seminary, Thomas transferred to College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and experimented in left wing politics. Also Thomas found New England to be far less honest about race than in the American South, declaring, “I bristled at the self-righteous sanctimony with which so many of the northerners at Yale glibly discussed the South’s racial problems.” He also pointed out that it was in Boston, not Georgia, that he was first called a deeply offensive racial slur. Thomas left Yale Law School with a negative view of his alma mater. His intention at the time was to return to South Georgia to practice law.

Thomas however ended up on the staff of Missouri Attorney General and former U.S. Senator John Danforth in Jefferson City in 1974. Danforth, an ordained Episcopal Priest, who went on to become a U.S. Senator, would become a life-long mentor and a valuable ally during Thomas’s Supreme Court hearings. The stories Thomas tells of his own drinking problem and financial indebtedness are all fascinating. His first marriage turns out to not be successful, but he goes into little detail, which may be commendable just in keeping a private matter, just that.

Thomas also delves into the Anita Hill fiasco, describing her by his own account as a less than average employee, and somebody who virtually nobody liked. The chaotic nature of the hearings pushed Thomas back even closer to his faith and he noted:

The more hopeless things appeared and the more vulnerable I felt, the more I turned to God’s comforting embrace, and over time my focus became primarily God centered. The words of the Apostle Paul were not far from my mind: ‘Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.’

He decides to end his autobiographical account during the day he is sworn at the U.S. Supreme Court, which might be disappointing to some of the more policy wonkish readers. After reading his unique account I was left with a couple profound thoughts. I had another professor in college who said to the class while we were reading Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick and Mark the Match Boy , that the stories were not really believable, but rather bad capitalist propaganda. The novel immediately came back to me after reading Thomas’s account, here is a man who overcame even so much more to rise to the very top of his field. Few stories can better personify the American dream, and very few stories provide better imagery of defying the odds.

Thomas’s book is at times inspiring, sad, yet ultimately triumphant. He had a very fractured relationship with the grandfather who raised him. Not until his grandfather’s death, did he ultimately appreciate the lessons, love, and discipline Myers Anderson taught him. It’s by only reading this book will you understand how somebody with a third grade education taught a Yale Law School graduate and Supreme Court Justice so much about life, and yes even conservatism.

It is the new year and the time of reflection is upon us. In 2008, we witnessed a revolutionary left-liberal presidential victory and the onset of substantial economic challenges.

Under the circumstances, I thought now might be a good time to propose a list of outstanding books for the intellectually curious friend or fellow traveler.

I would not dare attempt to put these in order based on excellence. Just consider it a series of number ones.

1. Lancelot by Walker Percy — A southern moderate-liberal is slowly fading out of his own life. He doesn’t know what his purpose is or where his marriage and family are going. But then, something strange happens. He discovers there is such a thing as evil. Percy won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, but Lancelot is my favorite.

2. Witness by Whittaker Chambers — Surely, the greatest memoir of any man of the right. Possibly, the greatest memoir ever. I once tried to copy out the passages that meant the most to me and ended up just typing in whole pages at a time. For those too young to know, Chambers was an American traitor loyal to the Communist cause, who left the Communists for what he felt was the losing side. He had to do it because of his recovered belief in God. In the course of his life, he became a senior editor of Time magazine and ultimately defeated Alger Hiss in legal battles over Hiss’s identity as a communist agent. Since Frost/Nixon is hot, you might also know that Richard Nixon’s presidency would likely never have happened without his championing of Chambers’ cause.

3. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand — I can’t resist putting Chambers and Rand together, especially since Chambers was the instrument William F. Buckley used to read Rand out of the conservative movement. As a Christian, I find Rand’s work antithetical to my own sensibilities, but I have to admit its power. Besides, this is a conservative-libertarian list and she can’t be left off. On the other hand, as literature, it cannot rank with the greats. I still remember the moment when John Galt grabs a microphone to speak to the nation . . . and one hundred pages later is wrapping it up!

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre — This is arguably the finest and most readable piece of political philosophy I have ever encountered. Anyone who wonders why our political discourse has become so poisonous and incommensurate should read this work. So, for that matter, should anyone interested in answering John Rawls. George W. Bush would have known long ago that “the new tone” was destined to fail, if only he’d read his MacIntyre.

5. Anarchy, Utopia, and the State by Robert Nozick — I’ll make this one simple. Robert Nozick provides the most convincing case for a minimalist state that I’ve ever seen. You can break your head on his symbols and formulas, but bear with it because you WILL get it if you keep reading. Even if you were only to read the short portion where he tells his “tale of the slave” you will be confirmed in your libertarian instincts.

6. Man and the State by Jacques Maritain — This collection of lectures about the relationship between the individual, the culture, and the state contains the kind of essential thought we wish every politician understood. Careful, wise, insightful. You will understand many things better after reading Maritain. If you would like to read political philosophy, but have been afraid to start, this may be your entry point.

7. Stained Glass by William F. Buckley — William F. Buckley is dead and I don’t feel so good, myself. However, I am comforted by reading his best works. This Blackford Oakes heart of the Cold War novel is one of his strongest entries. You want to see the kind of chess match the Soviets and Americans were playing? Then, read this Buckley spy novel.

8. The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer — Would you like to know who was the prince of the Christian conservatives? It wasn’t Falwell or Robertson. It was Francis Schaeffer. The missionary who set up a Swiss Chalet spent years arguing with college students in Europe. Along the way, he formed a convincing apologetic for the existence of God and the reality of values. (I am almost required to point out that Schaeffer was wrong in his critique of certain figures. So, I said it. Still, this book is great stuff.)

9. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis — I could have chosen almost any title by C.S. Lewis, so I picked the one that had the greatest emotional impact on me. Perelandra is the second book of Lewis’s space trilogy (underappreciated next to Narnia). The story centers around the drama of Adam and Eve being replayed on a new planet with an earthman there to witness it. Utterly compelling and, of course, full to bursting with philosophical and spiritual meaning.

I like Robert Samuelson’s recent column about the difficulty (impossibility?) of accurately analyzing economic reality, let alone predicting its future. Over the past several months a few people, mistaking me for someone who knows a great deal about economics, have asked what I think about the financial crisis, the stock market, the recession, etc. My response is usually something along the lines of the following: Anyone who pretends to know and understand completely the causes of the economic meltdown and/or how to “fix” it, is either not very smart or is selling something (e.g., political schemes or financial advice).

It is a bitter pill for modern man–maybe contemporary Americans, especially–to swallow, but the fact is we can’t control the economy, even if we have “learned the lessons” of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stagflation of the 1970s, and the tech bubble of the 1990s. And often enough our efforts to manage and control it aggravate whatever problem we’re trying to address.

Recognizing this truth can be depressing, or it can be freeing.

It’s a reminder to all who are even occasionally viewed, described, or invoked as “experts” always to wield our opinions with humility. It won’t stop us from pontificating, but it should prevent anyone from taking us too seriously.

To substantiate this claim about the ignorance of the experts, here is an enjoyable summary of the worst economic predictions of 2008, courtesy of Business Week. (My fave: “I think you’ll see [oil prices at] $150 a barrel by the end of the year” —T. Boone Pickens, June 20, 2008.)

Here’s to an equally unpredictable 2009.