It’s Wednesday (Lilla Will Return)

The desire to write, or more rather blog, has been in short supply as of late, the reasons for which are many. Since announcing that I planned to write on Mark Lilla’s recent work, The Last and Future Liberal, Islamic jihadists continue spreading terror in Europe, a lone nut job massacred over 50 people in Las Vegas, and the Major League Baseball Playoffs began. My personal life, which is undergoing more than a few upheavals, has, by necessity, been the center of my attention more than writing words or, sadly, reading books. My hope to make 2017 a “Year of 100 Books” jumped the rails a couple months back and at this point, I’m going to be happy if I hit 70 (though at this juncture, where I can’t seem to bring myself to finish one every two weeks, it’s going to be a struggle). The will right itself. It always does. Even now as I type I can see flashes of normalcy, even peace, in my life. How long that lasts remains to be seen; I am feeling uncharacteristically optimistic.

Distracted though I have been, it has not been an unproductive state of distraction. One of the glorious side effects of steering clear of blogging and, by extension, most social media (outside of pro-wrestling forums and news streams) is that you can mostly avoid things like the senseless and hyperbolic fallout over the recent “Filial Correction” of Pope Francis or which Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction has broken communion with another. (Truth be told, I don’t know if this has happened recently; I just assume it’s a semi-annual occurrence.) I saw that the irascible David Bentley Hart gave a lecture on “Orthodoxy in America.” My suspicion, without having yet seen it, is that it ticked more than a few people off.

So, without religious news to fill my brain and crush my heart, I took time to read two recent books by that most edifying of American jurists, Richard A. Posner. (I forgot to mention that in my time away, he managed to shock the legal world by retiring as Senior Judge for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.) In the span of a month, Posner released two books on the federal judiciary (one self-published), neither of which is particularly flattering toward the American legal system. And that’s fine. While I found a great deal to disagree with in both books, including Posner’s childish swipes at legal theorist and Catholic convert extraordinaire Adrian Vermeule, it occurred to me that Posner has no heir apparent on the bench or in the academy. Sure, there are more than a few rookie and veteran legal academics who seek to publish at a Posnerian pace, but arguably none are close to achieving Posner’s gadfly status. As for the judiciary, while Posner’s jurisprudence has been maddeningly inconsistent, flippant, and self-absorbed at times (some would argue “most of the time”), his lucid writing style and frank approach to the inadequacies of law to contemplate an increasingly complex world will be missed. His decisionmaking? Eh, not so much.

Posner today, as he was for me over a decade ago, is really just a gateway drug into the larger world of legal scholarship—a world I have largely ignored for the past five years. Having put one foot back into the legal world recently, I have felt strangely compelled to start catching up on all that I’ve missed even if, practically speaking, most legal scholarship is bereft of utility. Lawyers, many of whom haven’t read a law review article since it was assigned to them in school, perhaps need toolkits comprised of basic economic knowledge, empirical research methods, and a bit of theory for flash, often lack the time and/or inclination to read anything they can’t bill a client for. (In fact, as I discovered recently, there are lawyers who, despite graduating law school and passing the bar, can’t be bothered to read court rules closely enough to realize that you must serve a complaint on an opposing party. Perhaps he thought people just regularly pop their heads into the local district court to see if there is a pending suit against them.) For my part, I would be pleased if lawyers just spent a bit of time learning Roman law, if only because it might assist them in putting together a coherent argument. But I digress…

Thank you as always dear reader(s) for reading the byproduct of my mental wanderings. I know that I have pledged to “get back on track” more times than any soul need recall, but maybe, just maybe, this is where I turn the corner. Or maybe life, as it is wont to do, gets in the way of simple pleasures like reflecting on the world around me and offering up a thought or two which, whether you agree or not, at least keeps you coming back for more.

Lilla on Liberalism – Prologue

Mark Lilla, whose attitude and intellectual posture generate equal parts admiration and annoyance for more than a decade, is never short of things to say. Whether its dismantling the cult of Derrida and introducing Americans to the “European” Leo Strauss in the pages of The New York Review of Books or chronicling the deep theologico-political problem afoot in contemporary France, Lilla rarely fails to bring his erudition to bear. Unfortunately, he sometimes brings his obnoxious arrogance as well. For instance, his review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation was an unfortunate blend of generalizations and dismissals even if Lilla’s observations on narratives of decline wasn’t entirely off the mark. And that’s the thing: Lilla is seldom off the mark entirely; he just sometimes overlooks (or omits) arguments and facts unhelpful to his positions. Consider, for example, his brief book The Stillborn God. Ostensibly a critical history of the intersection of religion and politics in modernity, the work is guilty of the “slight oversight” of leaving out the Catholic Church.

Now Lilla returns with a bit of political soul searching, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla, who self-identifies as a liberal in the largely American sense, believes that liberalism has foregone a vision of the common good in favor of tethering itself to identity politics. At the same time, it is also a critique of the individualism of contemporary liberalism, specifically where politics is bound up with the self and what is good for the individual based on his preferences, whims, orientations, etc. The Once and Future Liberal is as pithy as it is powerful; it is a call to action, nay, repentance for American liberalism, one which will no doubt be difficult to hear at this juncture in history.

Not being a liberal in any sense whatsoever, I approached Lilla’s work with integralist, but not unsympathetic, eyes. It is rare that any political, social, or religious movement comes to terms honestly with its own failures in the hope of building itself back up. While portions of Lilla’s book contain obvious finger pointing, it is not unfair finger pointing. Liberal elites within the Democratic Party and society at large should be held accountable for the bad ideological bets made since the collapse of the New Deal-Great Society project in the 1970s. The question now is whether there are liberals with Lilla’s knack for self-criticism and imaginative rethinking who are willing to take up his call for a refreshed liberalism.

In the next four web-log posts, I will consider Lilla’s argument in The Once and Future Liberal on a chapter by chapter basis, including the Introduction. Are there important details Lilla omits from his work? What, if any, lessons can Catholics faithful to the Church’s social magisterium take away from Lilla’s observations? And, above all, is Lilla’s hope for liberalism renewed even desirable at this stage in history? Or does his critique ultimately point beyond itself to what comes after liberalism?

Some More Unpopular Remarks on Alcohol

A post from last month, “An Unpopular Remark on Alcohol,” received some negative feedback on social media, partially because certain individuals thought I was calling for a return to the temperance movement. Nothing could be further from the truth. Still, I would be remiss if I did not state that I continue to be suspicious of the “alcoholism-as-Catholicism” mentality that is still present in and around the Church. Moreover, no one with eyes to see can deny the “drink [insert craft spirit/beer]-as-sign-of-sophistication” posturing that is all the rage these days, not just among Catholics, but certain brands of hipster Protestants and Eastern Orthodox as well. Far be it for me, of course, to ruin anyone’s fun. For the life of me, I don’t know how anyone is supposed to imbibe from the wells of contemporary Catholic writing without a stiff chaser. However, instead of single-barrel bourbon or the latest quadruple hops IPA, let me suggest that the tripe which fills Catholic bookshelves today is best paired with either Wild Turkey or Miller High Life.

In 1933, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) linked arms with a pro-temperance movement to stop the purchase and use of alcohol and tobacco. According to the account from Stepan Bandera: The Life and Aftermath of a Ukrainian Nationalist, “OUN activists urged Ukrainians to publicly pledge that they would not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Drinkers who could not resist buying alcohol were beaten up. Taverns were demolished.” Ah, the good old days.

In reality, the OUN had little concern with temperance per se, even though Bandera, their leader, was not a fan of alcohol. What’s striking about this little snippet from history is that it would likely appall many Catholics today to learn that any of their religious forebears could not only perceive problems with alcohol, but would take active measures to see its use diminished within society. I have heard over the years from more than a few gents that to be “anti-alcohol” is, in essence, to be “anti-Catholic.” When I pressed one young fellow on this point, he ultimately defended his position by pointing to the alcohol content in communion wine. This is where we are in 2017, folks.

At the close of business, it is less alcohol per se which is the problem and more the attitude most Catholics believe they have to have toward it. How many of us have heard, “I can hold my liquor, I’m [insert random ethnic identity here]”? I wonder how many of them still feel “Chestertonian” when they are vomiting last night’s gin into the toilet the following morning.

A Remark on Malick’s Song to Song

Terrence Malick’s cinematic achievements, which includes nine films, have grown increasingly abstract, if not opaque, in recent years. After two decades of silence following his highly praised Days of Heaven, Malick returned with The Thin Red Line (TRL) and The New World (TNW) before falling silent again. Since 2011’s Tree of Life (TOL), Malick has been on something of tear, releasing four more films in the span of six years. Many critics, including some of Malick’s longtime admirers, were nonplussed. How could the man who had unsettled and enchanted audiences with nature’s indifference—and transcendence of—man’s inhumanity to man in TRL and created one of the greatest films of the 00s in TNW descended into student-film madness wrapped in trite philosophical-religious sentimentality devoid of coherent plots? Defenders of Malick argue that such criticism does not apply to TOL, and they’re probably right. While digressive and ethereal at points, TOL recapitulates portions of the Book of Job while returning to one of Malick’s favorite themes, namely the luminosity of creation and the grace to be found in everyday life.

Song to Song (STS), Malick’s latest offering, is far less easy to follow and comprehend than TOL or its predecessors. Set against the backdrop of the Austin, Texas music scene, STS primarily follows the destructive love patterns of four individuals—two male, two female—while blending in musician cameos from the likes of Iggy Pop, Flea, and Patti Smith. Michael Fassbender’s Cook, a philandering record producer whose immense wealth is inversely proportional to the vacuity of his soul, is a rarity for a Malick movie: a truly irredeemable character. Even Nick Nolte’s Colonel Gordon Tall in TRL, who orders a reckless and bloody assault in the hopes of impressing his superiors, is warranted some sympathy; after years of bootlicking and sacrifice, Malick’s version of the Battle of Guadalcanal is his final moment to shine, to prove to himself and his family that his martial life wasn’t a failure. Cook, on the other hand, feeds on the bodies and souls of those lured by his hollow promises of love and success. There is something almost satanic about Cook, the way he is often found leering at his prey, studying the faults of others before moving in to exploit them for his own personal satisfaction.

Less revolting, though not completely so, is Ryan Gosling’s BV, a musician who locks arm with Cook while carrying on a painful romance with Cook’s former assistant, Rooney Mara’s Faye. Faye, as the story unveils, has—and continues—to carry on a sexual relationship with Cook even while trying to be with BV. Faye is as close to a central character as STS is allowed to have, and while many of her voiceovers early in the film come across as sophomoric brooding mixed with half-formed musings, by the film’s end she becomes Malick’s conduit for mercy, love, and forgiveness. Left on the peripheries is Natalie Portman’s Rhonda, STS’s only obvious Christian (albeit superficially so) whose relationship with Cook ends in tragedy.

While often linear, it should be noted that STS’s final act cuts back and forth in time, a device whose power is marred by Malick’s failure to draw clear lines of demarcation between past, present, and future. The ending, which borders on the fantastical, may be just that—an idea, a hope, a longing for a love that never ends, a love that endures all things with patience and humility. That message, though beautiful, is difficult to trace through the movie’s earlier acts, some of which are shockingly gratuitous for a Malick movie.. Love his work or hate it, Malick has often favored subtle intimacy over graphic depictions of sexuality. His choice to rely on the latter in this movie can be interpreted in a number of ways, the most charitable view being his desire to juxtapose transient carnality with transcendent love. The less charitable view is that Malick, now into his 70s, has simply become a dirty old man.

Strain on the Free Market

Over at First Things, my friend Andrew Strain has a fresh piece up, “Free Markets and Unicorns.” Strain is skeptical of the neoliberal narrative that “the market is a self-regulating mechanism sufficient unto itself, a system naturally suited to achieve the best outcomes overall.” In other words, free markets, according to some contemporary strands of economic ideology, maximize social welfare while public regulation, what with its risk of being captured by special interests, impedes such gains. As Strain, leaning on David Ciepley, points out, the market as we see it today relies on both private initiative and public cooperation with those initiatives. For instance, corporations are, today, considered a “natural” part of the market, though their makeup, character, and liability for potential harms they may cause are calibrated by public law. The entire post is well worth reading.

While I agree with Strain’s position, I can already see the rebuttals on the horizon. Those who lean libertarian will argue that it is unnecessary for there to be public regulation of corporations; corporations should always be the outcome of private initiative secured by contract. To the extent corporations do wrong, those wrongs can and ought to be addressed by private law, specifically tort law or, in certain instances, contract law. For example, a corporation that pollutes a river which causes X amount of damage to homes and farms down that river can be held accountable under a theory of strict liability; if they break it, they buy it. Similarly, if a corporation defrauds shareholders or fails to deliver on a good or service it has contractually obligated itself to, then the terms of the respective contract will dictate the damages to be awarded.

This is not a new position. In one of his early books, Simple Rules for a Complex World, Richard Epstein—arguably the premiere libertarian legal theorist of the last 50 years—sought to dispose of the complex web of public regulatory measures in favor of a comparatively simpler system of private law governed by tort, contract, and property. Whether they know it or not, many libertarians (and neoliberals) hold fast to Epstein’s thesis when pushing back against public regulation; they’re just not as articulate as Epstein is. What Epstein and his epigones miss, however, is that a system of private law, particularly in common-law countries, is not neutral. It is informed by decades, if not centuries, of assumptions and ideologies that tend to shift with the development (or distortion) of social norms. For Epstein’s libertarian schema of private law to work, the freedom of contract must be nearly absolute (coercion and fraud don’t count), as are property rights. But why make either absolute? A pre-legal argument has to be constructed for that, and too often the argument is assumed rather than made.

None of this detracts from Strain’s position, of course. Perhaps in a subsequent piece he will meet these and other lines of criticism that are sure to come on the heels of his piece. Make no mistake about it. Despite the radical shifts in our understanding of the origins of “economic science,” the unpredictability and volatility of global markets, radical shifts in attitude around the world toward capitalism, and the unnerving realization that neoliberalism has failed to unite the world and cease conflict through the establishment of an international marketplace fueled by free trade, neoliberal ideology, in both its moderate and radical forms, remains alive and well.

An Unpopular Remark on Alcohol

Over the past six years, I must say that one of the most annoying aspects of contemporary Catholic culture, at least as I see it in the United States among those 10 years north or south of my age (37), is this sense that in order to be a “true Catholic gentleman” or, worse, a “true Catholic (pseudo-)intellectual” one must posture with cigars, bourbon, and craft beers (preferably of the Quadruple Hops Belgian Style Cherry Blended Whiskey Barrel Aged IPA variety). In fact, it’s not just so much posturing as it is consuming all of these things in so gluttonous a manner as to make Chesterton blush. And truth in point, it is probably Chesterton and Belloc—or certain conceptions surrounding these two towering figures of British Catholicism—that leads unsuspecting young men down a false pathway of sophistication where the spirit to be consumed is more crucial than the point of theology to be discussed. Moreover, let’s be honest. Most of those who claim to have some professional-academic knowledge of theology or philosophy typically lie about what they’ve read and understood; the booze just makes it easier for them to fib while deadening the senses of their fellow man to call them out on it. The end result is not just a deadening of the senses, but a descent into parody—one which Catholics should be thankful that no one outside the fold notices or apparently cares.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with indulging a bit here and there. As one priest in Chicago told me, the virtue of being Catholic is that you can drink, smoke, spit, swear, and chew—all in moderation. Moderation, unfortunately, seems to be in short supply these days judging by some of the spectacles I have witnessed and the innumerable others I have heard about. I think perhaps this is less a problem among previous generations who both understood the proper limits of consumption and did so because they properly understood the Catholic tradition which, in merry times, they come together to discuss. I consider it a privilege to have spent time among such men; it’s a sobering contrast to the obnoxious bantering of millennials and gen X’rs fueled by the latest concoction emanating from a microbrewery which, if successful, will soon become another subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch. (As an aside, it should be known that on the hierarchy of things in life one is allowed to be snobbish about (e.g. classical music, wine, and art), microbrew snobbery is 19 rungs down the ladder from pro-wrestling snobbery.)

Some may say it is unfair for me to make mention of this given my own restraints, but I disagree. Had I not, for a time, bought into the idea that alcohol—and lots of it—was part of contemporary Catholic culture (just as it is indeed very much part of contemporary Eastern Orthodox culture), I might have faced up to my problem a lot sooner, or at least not exacerbated it as the years went by. Granted, much of that was my fault; I am a grownup and I realize full well that many people drink regularly without being ensnared by fermented beverages. Another Chicago priest, this one a member of the Antiochican Archdiocese, remarked that if you can’t give up drinking during the fasting seasons of the Byzantine Rite (Advent, Great Lent, Apostle’s Fast, etc.), then you have a problem. I wonder: how many young Catholics, Latins and Easterners alike, could hold themselves to such a standard? Would they even want to try? And if they failed, would they admit defeat and seek help, both spiritually in the confessional and naturally through programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or individual counseling?