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?

Chris Benoit

I have never been shy about the fact that I am a fan of the sport of professional wrestling and have been for nearly three decades. I have seen plenty of wrestlers come and go over the years, including the companies they worked for. I was there on the front lines watching during the so-called “Monday Night Wars” when Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) almost succeeded in running Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) into the ground. The business in America had never been hotter, with performers like Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Mick Foley, and Goldberg eventually becoming household names. Veterans also carried the business at that time, including Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall, though they were also assisted by one of the greatest pools of international talent ever assembled. Though it took WWE a few years to get on board, WCW’s supporting cast was comprised of individuals like Rey Mysterio Jr. who, arguably, revolutionized the way fans and promoters thought about athleticism and size in the ring. Hungry young talent like Chris Jericho got their start filling out the middle of the card and men like Eddie Guerrero, whose charisma matched his pure in-ring talent, set the stage for later success. And then there was Chris Benoit, dubbed the “Rabid Wolverine,” who was arguably the greatest professional wrestler of his generation—a position he would hold until 10 years ago when he murdered his wife and son before killing himself.

For years, numerous friends, girlfriends, and acquaintances have questioned my love of pro-wrestling and the lengths I would go to see it. Before the age of ready-at-hand streaming services, the only way I could consume wrestling outside of the major companies on cable was to use the two 4-head VCRs I purchased to record and copy American graps to trade with anonymous names on the Internet. During my high school and college years, I acquired a massive library of VHS tapes packed with wrestling from Mexico, Japan, and Europe, not to mention historic bouts from the days when American wrestling was regional and not broadcasted nationally. The video quality ranged from “alright” (at  best) to “atrocious,” but I didn’t care. Mitsuharu Misawa had a Match of the Year bout with Toshiaki Kawada in Tokyo and I was going to see it—even if took me four months to get the tape.

When people shook their heads at me, I could always go to my tapes and pull out 3-4 with matches that I knew would change their minds, no matter how visceral their contempt for wrestling was. Invariably, one of those matches would feature Benoit, a performer who never let his stature get in the way of making you believe that he could tear through any opponent under all circumstances. Whether matched up with a junior heavyweight in Japan, a technical master from Europe, or a brawler in America, Benoit could effortlessly match styles. While some wrestlers take it down a few notches when performing in front of small crowds or with the TV cameras off, Benoit never could. His passion was for professional wrestling and he never let anyone in the audience forget it. Sometimes that meant demonstrating his cardio conditioning by doing 15 minute sprints in the ring; at other times it meant showing off his technical prowess, floating between holds and lockups to remind the audience of pro-wrestling’s catch-as-catch can roots. But when he felt compelled, giving the audience a show meant diving head first off the top rope night after night; taking unprotected chair shots to the front and back of the head; and never letting a concussion get in the way of a good match.

When news broke of what Benoit had done, speculation immediately began that the cause of his actions was roid rage. It was no secret to even non-fans of the sport that wrestlers often looked to a needle to assist them in the gym. Since the 1980s in particular and the ascendency of guys like Hogan and the late Ultimate Warrior, image was essential to success; being larger than life was just part of the job. Benoit, who would have a hard time cresting 200lbs. on his own, blew up his physique in order to better fit in once he started wrestling in the United States. And so it was natural for people to conclude that his “routine” got the best of him. It made for the best story, namely that wrestling is full of roided-up pseudo-athletes whose work glorified violence, including violence against women. The Benoit tragedy was a perfect example of life imitating art; the low-brow “male soap opera” of wrestling had become all too real. Only that wasn’t the full story. An autopsy on Benoit proved that he had the brain of an octogenarian with dementia; years of head trauma had taken its toll. While it is impossible to know for sure why Benoit did what he did or excuse his actions by merely pointing to autopsy results, Benoit’s actions spurred WWE and other wrestling companies into being more proactive about preventing concussions and medically screening concussed performers before sending them back into the ring. The reforms have been far from perfect, but the situation today is far better than it was a decade ago.

Following his death, WWE effectively scrubbed Benoit from history, removing his name from their website and broadcasts; pulling all of his merchandise off the shelves; and never releasing any footage of him on DVD. With the advent of the WWE Network in 2014—the company’s 24-hour streaming service and video archive—Benoit’s matches become accessible again, though it is still impossible to track them down through the Network’s search engine; you have to know what you’re looking for to find him.

Part of me wishes I could say I never went back to watch another Benoit match, but that would be a lie. While I don’t remember the first time I watched Benoit wrestle again, I doubt I waited that long. For me, between the ropes, Benoit was as good as there has ever been. One of my happiest moments as a wrestling fan took place at WrestleMania XX in 2004 when he stood in the middle of the ring, embraced by his real-life friend Eddie Guerrero, holding the WWE World Championship. It was the culmination of one of the most brilliant wrestling careers in history, one that spanned the globe and left behind a treasury of some of the greatest bouts ever to take place in the squared circle. And then, three years later, Benoit, his wife, and his young son were all dead. All of the classic matches in the world against the likes of Jushin Liger, The Great Sasuke, Kurt Angle, Shawn Michaels, etc. cannot make up for Benoit’s horrible actions. And yet to deny his role in shaping a generation’s understanding of what great wrestling is cannot be overlooked either. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any up-and-coming grappler ever achieving any level of excellence without spending hours studying Benoit’s matches. His intensity, psychology, and raw athleticism, when packaged together, were unparalleled. They may never be matched again.

Today, when my sons want to watch some great wrestling, I don’t have to rummage through piles of tapes in boxes; everything I want is just a few clicks away. I have shown them some of the premier matches in history, but not a single one has included Chris Benoit. One day, if their interest in the sport abides, I will have to tell them about Benoit and what he did—both in and outside of the ring. However, once again I cannot lie. When I am alone and need a refresher on what greatness in pro-wrestling is, the easiest choice I can make is to turn on a Benoit bout, suspend disbelief, and get lost in the artistry of it all.