Friday, April 20, 2012

Nuns Sent to the Office

The current mess in the American Catholic Church has definite parallels to the general American political mess, with its sudden and violent moves to the farthest right and the reaction to the reactionaries.  But by its nature, and by my experience, it suggests dimensions that aren't always clear in the larger political culture.

By its nature it reminds us of moral dimensions and moral stakes involved in politics.  It reminds us of the moral --I think you can call it moral--call of the American founding documents, and of the practical conflicts this sometimes creates for American Catholics when their church leaders conflict with the moral basis of the country.

By experience, I see it with the education of twelve years in Catholic schools and my own involvement then in the Church, as well as reflecting on it all today.  And today, reading about some of the current--very current--controversies involving the Church, I reflected on the halls of high school, and how at a certain point there, imagining the Inquisition was not difficult.

The controversies involve: the Vatican coming down strong on the umbrella organization of U.S. Catholic nuns for insufficient zeal in attacking gay rights, abortion etc. in favor of too much progressive talk, particularly in listening to discussions at their convention that question and run counter to their orthodoxy. 

Believe me, it's a little hard for me to conceptualize nuns as champions of free speech and free thought, in the vanguard of progressive values and advocacy, but it is apparently so. (Apparently one change is that the nuns are more in control of the institutions they used to serve, for free.)  The response however is familiar.  It is also part of a pattern, some believe, in the current Pope being who many thought he was going to be when he became Pope in 2005, this century's Grand Inquistor.  It is happening when a far rightist Holocaust denier and his organization separated from the Church are apparently being welcomed back.   

Part of the trouble the nuns are in may well be their support of universal healthcare (something about healing the sick) and specifically the Affordable Care Act. (Operative graphs of the USA Today story: "(Many bishops were angered when LCWR and Network, along with the Catholic Health Association, endorsed President Obama's health care reform over the bishops' objections. LCWR and Network recently endorsed Obama's compromise with the bishop over a mandate to provide insurance coverage for birth control for employees at religious institutions, even as the bishops continue to fight it.")

  That refers to the U.S. Catholic bishops, and they have been all over the place on this, with some condemning especially the legal inclusion of the same health care provisions for employees of Catholic institutions serving the public as everybody else in the USA.  But the Bishops have also (as a group) condemned the rightist Paul Ryan budget for cutting food stamps and other provisions for the poor as "unjustified and wrong."

Ryan pushed back, saying this wasn't the view of all the Bishops.  He was probably thinking of the Bishop of Peoria, who distinguished himself this week by preaching from the pulpit at halftime of the Mass, likening President Obama to Hitler and Stalin for following an extremist path in oppressing the Church.  He should be--but probably won't be--getting another object lesson in the American Way, because making political statements in favor of or opposed to a candidate is a violation of the statutes granting the Church tax exempt status. 

So, ever since the kerfluffle over the contraception coverage, and viewing the disease of partisan religion imposing itself on the electoral process, I've been sent back in memory to my high school days, when our teachers (nuns and priests) kept repeating that you can't legislate morality.  Our President when my my h.s. sentence started (but not for long) was Kennedy, and the separation of Church and State was a principle it was impolitic to dispute.  It was also the time of Pope John XXIII (also not for long) and the Vatican Council, representing something of a liberalizing trend--bringing the Church into the 20th century--but also reemphasizing the moral need to address world hunger, disease and suffering caused by economic conditions, and the beginning of a moral case for concern over the world's natural environment. 

The current Pope represents movement in the opposite direction, but upon reflection there is one thing the two eras have in common: things are changing, and positive change--because there is a lot of it in the world--roils up the reactionaries, threatens the comfortable, and they in turn strengthen the most dogmatic.  There was strong conflict just in that strange high school building, not only among the nuns and priests and students there, but I'd bet within the nuns and priests themselves.  They contradicted themselves all the time.  Some of it was hypocrisy, some of it was probably confusion.  But that's where I learned the terrible energy and unrelenting force of righteous persecution.

It was happening when they couldn't quite keep the historical facts of the Inquisition hidden anymore.  What was in the textbooks was bad enough, but I was daring enough to read more about it at the public library, though only in the Catholic Encyclopedia, because I didn't want to fall into Error promoted by some agnostic intellectuals or, maybe worse, Protestants.  And what I read there was truly hair-raising.

As those nuns are learning now, the Catholic Church's official doctrine on the final supremacy of individual conscience, and the individual responsibility for his or her own soul, can become secondary, irrelevant or worse when the fervid fury of the Inquisition takes hold.  Then everything dark and treacherous about the uncontrolled unconscious, the nature of institutions and the panic of crowds is unleashed.

The Church has always been in conflict with itself.  There may be more like the Bishop of Peoria, but there was Dorothy Day, and the nuns and priests (more nuns than priests probably) who have sacrificed to make compassion and service their guiding principles.  I'm not a member anymore, but I know whose side I'm on.       

  Photo: Cesar Chavez, Coretta Scott King, Dorothy Day           

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Richie Richney's unforced error while supposedly campaigning on the theme of supporting small business in suburban Pittsburgh is already legend--and a video by the PA Dems.  He turned his nose up at cookies baked at a locally famous bakery, the kind of small business he was supposedly promoting.  It brought a day's fame to the baker who was obviously afraid to criticize the Rom., since he's an R himself. 

But it did elicit this classic line from Politico reporter John Heilman about Romney: "He is not comfortable, in many case, around ordinary human beings."

And a final word, about this week's polls.  They varied from CNN which showed President Obama with a 9 point lead, to NBC with 6 point lead, to several with smaller leads, to the NY Times as tied.  The margin of error is large for all of them.  Only the Gallup tracking poll has shown Romney with a lead, and I've seen the explanation from others in the polling business to the effect that Gallup uses a "likely voter" profile that skews heavily away from many groups that actually did vote for President Obama in 2008.  "Likely voter" models are not considered useful until after the political conventions.  I don't know about the Times poll, though.   

Romney's Business Plan

After but a week of the unofficial general election campaign, what do we know about what kind of candidate Mitt Romney is going to be?

Well, clearly he's going to be negative, at least for now and probably forever.  He's going around to speak behind podiums with words on them that are about President Obama and not about him.  That's a sign, literally.  But given that, what kind of negative is he going to be?  In this it seems he is going to be a uniquely disgusting candidate.

He's arrogant and dismissive in a way that no presidential candidate in my lifetime has been.  His message to President Obama to "start packing" gives you the tone.  Some have tied this to his personality, his sense of entitlement, but it's more than that.  Among the many polls that came out this week, two went into depth on characteristics and several polled categories of voters.  In characteristics--likeable, trustworthy, leadership, etc.--President Obama scored very high and Romney low.  But strategists can't put names to characteristics, while they can to categories or groups.  And nearly all the polls show that Romney is losing badly with women voters.  Enthusiasm among African Americans for President Obama is high.  And polls show that President Obama has an enormous lead among Latinos--for example, the Pew study which is more conservative in its outcomes than the CNN and NBC polls this week. 

So what category does that leave Romney?  White males.  So his dismissive tone may well be strategic, as it plays into racism that permeates that category from top to bottom.  It's worth noting that however small a percentage is overtly or generally racist, there is the more widespread tendency to pick a scapegoat from another group when things aren't going well.  Things haven't been going well for a long time for white men who've lost the entitlement they assumed--it is their standard of "fairness." It's our standard, I should say, except I'm aware of its unconscious workings enough to keep it from influencing too many of my political thoughts.  But if the economy does not improve fast enough, the irrational could take over--and that's what Richney's campaign is betting on.

But before I leave this let me assert again: the way he is doing this is not only deeply insulting, it's never been done before to my knowledge by one presidential candidate about another, let alone a sitting President, in a general election campaign since World War II at least.  Candidates might routinely talk about their opponent lacking experience, or being too young. But even though lots of people openly said that GW Bush was a dim bulb, neither Al Gore nor John Kerry ever said it, or even implied it.  They didn't say he was in over his head, although a lot of people thought so (which made the Saturday Night Live caricature so instantly popular even in the 2000 campaign.)  Romney is saying so, using those words.  Is it actually a coincidence that the first instance of this is a ultra-wealthy white man talking about the first black President?        

So what else have we learned about what candidate Richney will say?  We know he lies, frequently, in both large and small ways.  We are used to the kinds of political lies called exaggeration, selective memory and facts, "spin."  But Romney lies about almost everything--so frequently that the media can't keep up correcting those lies.

  Here's my favorite lie this week.  Romney justified not releasing more than one year of tax returns (plus his estimated taxes for this year) by saying that John Kerry only released two years.  He was lying, by a factor of ten.  When he ran for President, Kerry released not 3 or 5 or 10 years of returns, but 20.   Now think about this.  Romney volunteered an untrue factual statement (unnecessarily) and didn't correct it.  When has President Obama done this?  He failed to make a correct context for his remark about a Supreme Court action being "unprecedented" and he repeated a story from old history books about a long-gone President that turned out to be contradicted by new history books.  But an outright factual lie like this?  Yet Romney does this almost every day.

Lawrence O'Donnell has been forthright--and mercifully funny as well-- about Romney's lying but he also alerted me to this column by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post:

"A marathon of debates and an eon of campaigning have toughened and honed Romney. He commands the heights of great assurance, and he knows, as some of us learn too late in life, that the truth is not always a moral obligation but sometimes merely what works. He often cites his business background as commending him for the presidency. That’s his forgivable absurdity. Instead, what his career has given him is the businessman’s concept of self — that what he does is not who he is. This is what enables the slumlord to be a charitable man. This is what enables the corporate raider to endow his university. Business is business. It’s what you do. It is not who you are. Lying isn’t a sin. It’s a business plan."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Space Shuttle Discovery hitchhiking on a NASA airplane made a beauty pass low over
Washington, DC yesterday (where, by the way, the temp has been near 90 this week.)   That's a building at the Smithsonian, which is Discovery's
ultimate destination. (Sort of.  They've moved the Air and Space Musuem out near Dulles airport.) Photo by Jeff Malet. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Postal Post

It's tax day, for some reason, April 17, but I headed for the Post Office on Monday to send in my extension by certified mail.  I filed an extension just like Rich Richney and for the same reason: I'm trying to lie and hide my way to the White House while my obscenely rich friends buy it for me.  Anyway, I conversed with the clerk--one of our characteristic still-comely women I imagine first got their p.o. gig as hippie chicks back in the day--and she noted that tax day used to be a much bigger deal at the old p.o.  I recall that some post offices stayed open until midnight on April 15, and even had an employee outside being handed returns from cars, like a Santa at Christmastime taking donations and handing out candy. 

Not anymore.  The place was emptier than usual, if anything.  Lots of electronic filing she said.  Me, I'm with Kurt Vonnegut on this.  Vonnegut used to buy his manila envelopes at a local store one at a time, and take his manuscripts or whatever to the local post office branch, just to interact with real people.  (He  had a crush on the post office clerk.)  I do enough stuff on the computer machine and most of the time it's a blessing.  But there are these little local things I like to do as always.

As for the Post Office, the recent Congressional stupidities forcing cutbacks has meant our mail is being sorted in another state now.  Perhaps as a consequence, we've had a run of confusion.  We've been regularly getting mail for an address with the same street number but another street.  One alarming day, it was all the mail we got.  And we've gotten some of ours that obviously went somewhere else first.  Counting on the integrity of the mail is a bedrock for confidence in the national government.  A lot of people have already lost it, which might help explain a lot.  Now it seems all the federal government via Congress does is loot the Postal Service, which for all its flaws is and has been just about the only true equal opportunity more or less meritocracy employer in many small places and probably not a few large ones.

Yesterday we did get a note of apology apparently from our mail carrier promising that the problem is being addressed.  At least that's the gist of it, as the note was not very legible or coherent.  But it seemed sincere.  We didn't have this problem when we had the same carrier on this route.  I chatted with him a few times.  He liked to talk about UFOs.  But he knew the route and never tried to jam stuff into the box that won't fit, but came up to the front porch and left it where he knew we'd find it. It's not always remembered that big government can enable people to make things work, and have a life in their community.