Saturday, January 7, 2017
"Sobering Thoughts" and Catholic universities: A short reply to Mary Leary, Rob Vischer, and Timothy Snyder
In her recent post ("Sobering Thoughts for 2017"), Mary writes that "America appears to be facing such a test starting in 2017. The scene is set for the masses to excuse the normalization of the objectification of other human beings by those in power." And, she links to a piece by Timothy Snyder called "What You Can Do to Save America from Tyranny," which lists a number of "lessons from across the fearful 20th century, adapted to the circumstances of today," that the author hopes will help Americans "learn from [Europeans'] experience" and so not "yield to fascism, Nazism or communism." Building on some of Mary's thoughts, Rob Vischer posted here about the role and responsibilities of "Catholic universities in the Trump Era."
It's not news that that I did not support the candidacy of Donald Trump and I think I've been clear-eyed about what I take to be the facts that he is unsuited for, unprepared for, and unworthy of the Presidency. Many of the proposals he endorsed, proposed, or flirted with are immoral and/or foolish; they should be opposed and I hope they will be rejected.
As I see it, the "normalization of the objectification of other human beings by those in power" -- which Mary strongly and correctly reminds us must be resisted -- and also what Mary rightly calls "harmful efforts to silence debate on important issues" were underway before the election and during the Obama administration, and were supported by Mrs. Clinton and many of her supporters. There's a case to be made, in fact, that support for this "normalization" and "objectification", and a commitment to silencing debate on certain questions, have become non-negotiable, bedrock positions -- positions more important than, say, constraining the use of military force through law, responding to material and social poverty, or protecting the human rights of vulnerable populations in other lands -- for the base and funders of her party. The demonization and "othering" by Trump and some of his supporters of, say, immigrants or Muslims is wrong and inexcusable, but so was and is the no-small-amount of "othering" in the smug dismissals by activists and comedian-commentators of religious conservatives and Rust Belt-dwelling so-called "downscale voters." This is not a "tu quoque" or equivalence point; it is intended only as a suggestion that 2017 might not so much be bringing new challenges for Catholic citizens as re-presenting ongoing challenges in different forms.
In addition, in my view, much of the advice shared by Snyder (e.g., "Be Kind to Our Language", "Defend an Institution", etc.) has been appropriate for the last eight years -- a time in which celebrity culture, the academy, and the press were strikingly complacent regarding undemocratic and overreaching exercises of executive and administrative power -- and would have been valuable and important had Mrs. Clinton been elected. (His identification of the Southern Poverty Law Center -- which regularly identifies mainstream religious beliefs and traditional moral positions as "hateful" and "bigoted" -- as a "good cause" to which we should donate seems like bad advice, regardless of the election's outcome.) I tend to think that -- notwithstanding the enthusiasm for Trump among the repulsive "alt-right" -- it is unhelpful and inaccurate to equate the election of Trump with (quoting Snyder) 20th century Europeans' "yield[ing] to fascism, Nazism or communism," but, in any event, "making eye contact" and "believing in truth" seem like valuable suggestions at any time.
Rob asked about the role of Catholic universities in "the Trump era." I think it remains to be seen whether we have entered an "era" of Trump or have instead been confronted, temporarily, with the result of some deeply flawed campaign tactics, in a few counties in a few states, by a deeply flawed candidate. In any event, my sense, like Rob's is that "the potential good of collaboration outweighs the danger of normalization unless and until President Trump acts to implement some of the more noxious policy proposals that he floated on the campaign trail." Not having supported Trump, I intend to have no reservations about criticizing him and his proposals when it is called for (and I'm sure it will be). However, I expect that (for example) his appointees to the federal bench and to important positions in the Departments of Education, HHS, and Justice will be (by my lights and for issues like education reform, religious freedom, and abortion) better than Mrs. Clinton's would have been and I don't think his (to put it mildly) many flaws and failings require me (or anyone else) to reject whatever benefits can be had from his having won.
Finally: I think that Mary is exactly right that, too often, those who "raise questions about those in power . . . have been met with ridicule and attacks" and that "[s]uch attacks are designed to silence." St. Stephen the Martyr, pray for us.