Baylor University Professor and noted author Alan Jacobs has some words of his own concerning Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s (ESB) polarizing article on Pope Francis for The New Republic. Jacobs mainly echoes criticisms already leveled against ESB’s overly broad and uncharitable caricature of conservatives (political and religious), before closing with this curious paragraph:
Sad to say, I’ve already seen a number of responses from the right to Stoker Breunig’s essay that make her argument seem open-minded and gracious — maybe I’ll get to those in another post, though they’re too repulsive for me to want to think about them further. But it was curious to me how many of them focused on her youth, as though that were somehow disqualifying. It isn’t. But in any case, as I read the essay I didn’t think of the author’s youth because, to me, it did not seem to stem from a youthful mind. It closed doors, rather than opening them; it treated ancient and fundamental questions about the political life as though they were (“obviously”) settled; it dismissed people whose judgments differ from the author’s with a rhetorical wave of the hand (“unappealing”), not bothering to inquire into what those judgments’ best representatives think or why they think it. The essay seems to me to be afflicted by the impatience with other points of view that I associate with old age. Its greatest flaw, in its treatment of conservatism anyway, is its utter lack of intellectual curiosity.
Without claiming to have consumed the entire body of commentary on ESB’s article, I have seen none which write-off her piece solely, or even primarily, because of her youth. That she is young (relatively speaking) and inexperienced is a matter of public record, and for most of her critics it seems to be her lack of knowledge about points of Catholic doctrine, including the nature of the papacy and the Church’s social magisterium, which is leading them to drawn negative conclusions about the quality of her work. A shame it would be if Jacobs, in the midst of a post where he expresses understandable disappointment with ESB’s flick-of-the-wrist dismissal of conservatism, behaves no better when it comes to that anonymous body of ESB’s critics “from the right.” But maybe Jacobs has access to a wider body of blogs, online magazines, and social-media sites than I do. Perhaps they contain material which is “too repulsive for [anyone] to want to think about.” If so, it’s probably best he not remark any further on them.
As for Jacobs’s observation on the hallmarks of a youthful rather than an old mind, there is something attractive about it, though empirical reality appears to militate against a simpleminded identification of youth with openness. Thinking back on my own experience as an undergraduate and law student, I can’t recall running across a more concentrated body of intellectual automatons in my life — and I don’t mean just the professors. Sometime around their early 20s, and certainly by the time they entered law school, my peers had made their ideological bets, and if there was anything more to be done, it was to double down. Although I do not discount the possibility that there are young students-turned-young academics who exhibit openness during the early stages of their careers, they are few and far between when compared to those who plant their flags early and never cease to rally to them even when surrender would be the more prudent choice. Too much openness carries heavy opportunity costs after all. Conference invites, publication offers, grant dispersals, and, of course, tenure tends to depend a lot on branding; changing up the formula in media res is a risky business, regardless of how good the new ingredients might be.
I don’t want to freight Jacob’s observation with more than it was meant to handle, however. What I do wonder, though, is if the openness of youth that Jacobs seems to appreciate doesn’t invariably come packaged with a great deal of superficiality. Setting to the side her Pope Francis piece, it’s worth noting that ESB often exhibits a lot of interest in political conservatism, particularly its economic policy prescriptions, and she does a good job casting light on some of the morally questionable assumptions behind certain Republican approaches to wealth and poverty. She certainly can’t be slighted for ignoring political conservatism. Where she falters is on how well she understands what it is conservatives are actually pushing for and whether or not her practical suggestions, many of which are tired old administrative-state “solutions” that fail to take proper account of the Catholic Church’s social magisterium, are worth pursuing. In brief, her writing often exhibits a lack of sophistication with the issues she tackles — a sophistication which will likely come with the passing of time, so long as that time is given over to extensive study and reflection. Whether or not she will be allotted the time to do this as a staff writer for The New Republic, where new content is king, remains to be seen.