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Catholics and Collective Bargaining

Catholics and Collective Bargaining

May 13, 2022 | 2,564 words | Economics, Politics, Religion

It always fascinates me when successful, fiscally conservative Catholics express an unbridled distain for organized labor on ideological grounds. To hear them tell it, unions are nothing but an affront to individual liberty and self-determination, two hallmarks of the American lexicon.

These folks hold fast to an unshakeable belief in the effectiveness of an unregulated free market to determine appropriate wage rates and compensation packages. If someone is unhappy with the terms of their employment, such as what they are being paid, they are free to seek work elsewhere. This is the conventional wisdom espoused by libertarians. And all successful, fiscally-conservative Catholics are libertarian at heart.

Because our free-wheeling economy generates so much opportunity, freedom of movement is all a libertarian asks of an economic system. Since they enjoy considerable leverage on the job, and have attractive options should they choose to leave, “freedom” is the only other ingredient required to ensure their continued prosperity. They don’t need or want a third party in the picture, as that would only impede their ambition.

But not everyone who works for a living has such options. In fact, most people who toil for their daily bread lack anything even remotely resembling leverage at their place of employment. They experience a dearth of alternatives should they decide to leave, or be unceremoniously let go.

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Economists are fond of touting the steady increase in living standards enjoyed by average citizens since 1800, offering this as proof we live in the best of all possible worlds. But access to a wide array of cheap consumer goods doesn’t guarantee happiness or provide meaning. Nor has it changed the basic rules of economic engagement, which remain an ethical free-for-all. The Darwinian nature of our economic life favors the clever and the advantaged. And let’s give those go-getters credit, for they have made the most of the opportunity.

But all those who are not quite as clever, and not so advantaged, are left to go begging when it comes to receiving equitable compensation for their efforts. To say nothing of having a voice in how business policies are developed and implemented. The run-of-the-mill employee is given very little consideration at work. Being passed over in this way tends to negatively impact one’s inherent sense of dignity.

The struggle for dignity and a decent wage is as old as time. It’s a puzzle we as a society have not yet fully solved, despite the dramatic uptick in living standards since 1800. And we’ve fallen into the familiar habit of discussing the problem in strictly binary terms, as either a liberal or conservative issue. This is not bringing us any closer to a satisfactory resolution.

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Not all successful Catholics are fiscally conservative, and not all who oppose organized labor do so on ideological grounds. Some have first-hand experience with labor unions, and have grown weary of their influence based on up-close, personal interaction.

When such friends hear me support the concept of collective bargaining, they frequently assume their rough-and-tumble exchanges with union types trumps what they take to be my naïve, pie-in-the-sky assumptions. But my position on this subject is based on much more than assumptions. I have been a union-affiliated contractor in the construction trades for going on 25 years now.

I agree with critics who say there is a lot not to like about the current state of organized labor. Union leadership often comes into negotiations with a huge chip on its shoulder, wanting to fight over every stupid little line item in the contract. They almost seem to disagree just to be disagreeable.

To which I say: If you had your head kicked in for the last one hundred and fifty years, you might be a little combative entering a negotiation, too.

And one also can’t help noticing how union leadership often lacks any semblance of real leadership ability. They’ve usually risen through the ranks, which is generally a good thing. But even the most enthusiastic line worker or local organizer needs to be coached up at some point, to avoid finding himself or herself in over their heads.

On the other hand, critics of organized labor should be willing to admit unions are not solely responsible for the “us-versus- them” mentality that seems to hang over every labor negotiation like a death pall. Ownership too often enters these negotiations with one overriding objective in mind: to give their lower tier production people as little as possible.

Today’s labor unions can be faulted for all of the above. But their obvious flaws should not disqualify them from consideration. Unions still have the potential to serve as a much-needed counter-balance. They can help our free-market society take major strides in the direction of economic justice.

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My point here is simply this: The theory behind collective bargaining and organized labor is still sound, even if the actual practice of today’s unions leaves a lot to be desired. Rather than continuing to criticize union leadership as being stuck in the Dark Ages, may I suggest an alternative to the successful Catholic business advocate?

Ownership and management could be a lot more transparent with the rank-and-file, and take a more collaborative approach in its planning and execution. Making people feel they are more than interchangeable parts might go a long way toward easing tensions at contract time. This will require a major re-think, along with a serious re-allocation of resources, in order to change a given corporation’s culture. Just referring to employees as “associates” and hanging a few inspirational posters in hallways and break rooms will not get it done.

Ownership should also be prepared to extend profit-sharing to its line workers, instead of treating them as an afterthought who should be content with crumbs from the table. This, too, will require buy-in on the part of upper management and investors.

And consider this: What if a wave of successful, fiscally conservative Catholics were to switch sides, so to speak. What if a few of these die-hard libertarians were to dedicate themselves to the cause of economic justice and join the union movement. Their management savvy could help union regulars steer things in a more enlightened and collaborative direction.

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How today’s “conservative” or “traditional” or “orthodox” Catholics became outspoken critics of organized labor on ideological grounds, when their parents or grandparents were once staunch union supporters, is tale that’s been told many times.

The popular scenario has the conversion starting with the Democratic embrace of legalized abortion after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. A generation of devout working-class Catholics, along with their now upwardly-mobile cousins, signed on as “Regan Democrats” in the presidential election of 1980. The Republicans had staked their claim to being “the party of life” as a strategic demographic move, just in the nick of time.

This is the conventional narrative we are all familiar with. But the corruption of the Catholic mind, away from economic justice in favor of economic freedom, was in the works long before Ronald Regan became president, or the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling on abortion.

For a deeper dive we should go back to the 1930s, and not settle for the familiar 1980s version. In trying to mop up the mess left by the infamous stock market crash of October 1929, Pius X promulgated his papal encyclical Quadragessimo Anno (QA) in 1931. The following year, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the presidency in a landslide over Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover.

QA was a continuation of the Catholic Church’s critique of the built-in inequities to be found in free-market capitalism. This formal analysis was first begun in 1891 by Leo XIII, when he addressed the excesses of the Gilded Age and the Robber Barons in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (RN). Both works contain a prescription for how economics might be done differently, to more effectively promote the common good.

FDR, for his part, entered the White House as a life-long devotee of what his Episcopalian and Methodist brethren refer to as the Social Gospel. He was first exposed at age 14, when he left home to attend the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts.

His inner circle of advisors felt the same way. Consider Frances Perkins, a long-time friend and the first woman to ever serve in a presidential cabinet. She was Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945, and is widely acknowledged as the chief architect behind Social Security. Along with being a major contributor to many other ground-breaking pieces of “safety net” legislation.

It was FDR’s unique intellectual pedigree that allowed him to immediately recognize a kindred spirit in Pius X, whom he described as being “just as radical as I am” when it came to looking out for the little guy.

Conservatives at the time did not much care for FDR’s proclivities in this area of public policy. They vehemently protested his administration’s attempt to revive the economy and help millions of forgotten fellow citizens, attempts they derided as a decent into socialism.

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The irony is that while the Episcopalians and Methodists in the Roosevelt administration were channeling Catholic social teaching on economics, many of its fiercest critics were Catholic intellectuals who based their opposition to the New Deal on strictly constitutional grounds.

One such intellectual was Clarence Manion, who published Lessons in Liberty in 1939, when he was teaching law at the University of Notre Dame. He made a powerful argument for the Christian origins of the United States, citing the Founders insistence on individual liberty as the embodiment of Catholic teaching on the dignity of every human being.

Manion established what would become a favorite talking point for conservative Catholics in the decades to follow: “Never before had a new government been formed for the sole and only purpose of protecting the God-given rights of the individual person.”

By invoking this logic to specifically attack FDR’s domestic agenda, Professor Manion helped tar and feather that agenda as not only un-American, but also anti-Catholic. The specter of socialism helped to underscore this, as the Church had already gone on record as condemning socialism as a God-less system of social organization. Manion gave cover to successive generations of Catholic academics and public intellectuals who would either challenge or creatively interpret Catholic social teaching on economics, throughout the remainder of the 20th century, and into the 21st.

After the wonky Clarence Manion in the 1930s and 1940s came the swash-buckling aristocrat William F. Buckley, Jr., who burst on the scene with his book God and Man at Yale, published in 1955. The magazine he went on to found, National Review, became required reading for educated Catholics of a conservative bent who sought to reconcile their upward mobility with the faith of their fathers.

Around the same time, Brent Bozel (Buckley’s brother-in-law and fellow Catholic) was busy ghost-writing The Conservative Mind (1960) for Arizona senator and soon-to-be presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. Following Clarence Manion’s lead, Mr. Bozel set out to show that Goldwater’s version of American Exceptionalism was perfectly aligned with Catholic teaching. Rank-and-file Catholics weren’t buying, however, as Goldwater was defeated handily in the presidential election of 1964.

Determined to maintain this awkward charade of compatibility between American individualism and basic Catholicism, the high-profile Buckley was quick to lampoon the latest Catholic commentary on social justice as soon as it appeared. Mater et Magistra was promulgated by John XXIII in 1961, on the anniversary of both Rerum Novarum and Quadragissimo Ano. Buckley’s withering response to this Pope’s effort was a dismissive “Mother yes, Teacher no.”

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When Ronald Reagan first ran for public office in the mid-1960s, after starting to build his political brand in the 1950s, he found a ready ally in laissez-faire Catholic like William F. Buckley, Jr. When the abortion issue went from backburner to front and center in 1973, it merely sealed the deal. Reagan winning the presidency in 1980 was a dream come true for a wide swatch of the now-mainstream Catholic demographic. Not only was the Gipper “solidly pro-life,” but his trickle-down theory of economic health was music to the ears of libertarian Catholics across the country.

In the years since then the conservative intelligentsia has continued to work hard to cement this special Republican bond with people in the pews. One-time liberal theologian Michael Novak (1933-2017) published his career-defining book, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, in 1982. It made him the darling of conservative Catholic entrepreneurs everywhere. Father Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009) joined the posse in 1990 as founder and editor of the erudite monthly First Things. This was (and still is) an ecumenical journal “whose purpose is to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society.”

While I support that high-minded agenda wholeheartedly, I believe First Things often undermines itself when it vouches for – either explicitly or implicitly – a built-in compatibility between free-wheeling capitalism and Christianity. And more specifically, with the nuts-and-bolts of modern-day Catholic social teaching on economics.

Exhibit “A” would be how the Novak/Neuhaus crowd tutored the Catholic faithful in what it saw as a proper understanding of Centessimus Annus (CA). This was the landmark encyclical promulgated by John Paul II in 1991, the anniversary of Mater et Magistra, Quadragissmio Anno, and Rerum Novarum. That’s right, JPII took this historic occasion to chime in on economic behavior and its impact on the social fabric, re-iterating for our time what his forgotten predecessors had clearly stated.

Neo-cons, however, took a novel approach to interpreting the Polish Pope who helped end the Cold War. They adopted CA as the long-awaited grand re-imagining of Catholic teaching on economics, claiming it offered an unequivocal defense of the free market. But this comprehensive, nuanced document did no such thing.

Instead of ignoring Catholic teaching on economic life as Clarence Manion did in 1939, or pejoratively dismissing it as William F. Buckley, Jr. did in 1961, what the current generation of conservative Catholic intellectuals seem to specialize in is a sort of sophisticated game of bait-and-switch.

Their modus operandi is to selectively crib statements from Centessimus Annus out of context, and present them to average lay men and women as whole cloth. They have succeeded in having this blatant mis-representation accepted as the definitive take-away, while somehow maintaining their sterling reputation for orthodoxy. If only everyday Catholics would bother to read the source material for themselves, they’d see through this ruse in a New York minute.

As dire as I think this situation has become, I do not ascribe nefarious motives to those conservative Catholics who have effectively rejected the Church’s social teaching on economics. Nor am I overly worked up about the way these folks profess to be “traditional” and “orthodox” in their beliefs, while displaying such a tin ear on this important topic. I see no point in going out of my way to condemn anyone for this sort of mistake. Better to try and offer fraternal correction.

THE TAKE-AWAY:
If only conservative Catholics could be weaned off their embrace of the American myth of rugged individualism and every man for himself and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, they might one day become more sympathetic to the idea of collective bargaining having a positive impact on the common good in a capitalist economic system.

Then they might also see that Catholics are not supposed to be libertarian in their outlook, no matter how successful they are.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

May 13, 2022

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Make It Work In The Real World

Making It Work in The Real World

March 1, 2022 | 1,455 words | Economics, Philosophy, Politics

The intellectual tradition to which I subscribe believes in an economics based on virtues such as justice and charity, instead of ‘laws’ like supply and demand.  The earliest guidelines for this preferred system can be found in the Acts of the Apostles, when the first band of followers were said to have shared all they had with one another, according to need.  This is what Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) identified back in the 13th century as “distributive justice.”

Though he did his best work before capitalism kicked in and really took off, Aquinas had his finger on the pulse from its very beginning.  He was around just as the fabric merchants of Florence were inventing double-entry bookkeeping, which as we know was the single most important development in facilitating the international trade of their goods.

Right from the start Tommy A. could see that economics – especially big-time economics – is a branch of ethics.  Because all human action that proceeds from intellect and will must fall within its province.  (As opposed to “unthinking” actions like combing one’s hair, or scratching one’s beard). Since economic actions can’t help but proceed from intellect and will, they will naturally be subject to the requirements of moral philosophy, aka morality.

When we hear that onerous word ‘morality’ we automatically think of private action, specifically of the sexual variety.  Thou shall not commit adultery, and all that.  But Aquinas understands economic behavior is simply morality as expressed in the public arena.  It’s how a community and an entire country lives out a life of virtue together.  Or not.

 

This points up a key difference between the grand theoretical economics of justice and charity, with what we have now.  Our current economic system (i.e., capitalism) does not address the issue of living an ethical and virtuous life, which it deems outside its purview.  It focuses instead on maximizing productivity.

Now, productivity is surely a good thing.  But it should not be pursued to the exclusion of justice, or while violating justice.  That’s how social inequities are created.  In this vein Aquinas identifies three (3) types of justice:  legal, commutative, and distributive.

 

Legal Justice

This is preeminent among the moral virtues, serving as an analogue to supernatural charity.  That is to say, just as charity orders all man’s private actions toward God, legal justice orders all man’s public actions to the common good.

The idea of a ‘common good’ is a recurring theme in the intellectual tradition to which I subscribe.  Contrary to popular belief, it does not automatically result when individuals single-mindedly pursue their own private ‘good’, as the principle of enlightened self-interest asserts.  

Any civilized society should have the common good as its pre-eminent goal.  This can only be achieved when all citizens – the high and mighty, and the meek and lowly – order their actions to the overall good of the entire community.  That includes the ‘good’ of people we vehemently disagree with, as well as those with whom we get along famously.

 

Commutative Justice

Commutative justice requires ‘equivalency’ in exchange transactions, since neither party in an exchange wishes to suffer a loss.  This implies it is usually possible to determine an objective ‘just price’ of an object with a reasonable degree of accuracy.  Here it may occur to you ‘just price’ is diametrically opposed to our current yardstick of ‘what the market will bear.’  Aquinas is aware of the many variables that can play a role in determining what the just price might be in a given situation: the qualities of the item itself, current supply, current demand, etc.  And he cautions against trying for a greater degree of precision in this area than may be possible.    

That said, there is an objective basis to all exchange transactions that must be obeyed for justice to be served.  A seller may not charge whatever he or she likes, just because the buyer agrees to it.  

Usury

Traditional prohibitions against usury are simply an application of the principle of equivalency.  But this also means that, in certain clearly defined circumstances, a lender may be entitled to a greater return than the amount lent.  If a lender suffers a clearly identifiable loss in making a loan, he may legitimately request a greater amount in return to cover the loss incurred.  But again, the exchange should be governed by objective circumstance, not by the highest rate of interest to which a lender can persuade the borrower to agree.

Distributive Justice

Commutative justice by itself does not take into consideration the various needs, merits, and circumstances of people involved in economic transactions.  But this seeming deficiency is addressed by distributive justice.

Distributive justice is the virtue that directs goods be distributed by those who exercise authority over those goods, employing a proportional equality.  Now there’s as sentence that could stand to be unpacked in much greater detail.  But it boils down to this: Goods ought to be distributed according to the needs, merits, and other circumstances of the people receiving those goods.

The action of distributive justice is more fundamental than that of commutative justice.  Commutative justice requires only mathematical equality.  It carries out the distribution pattern of goods already established.  If this pattern is unjust, commutative justice will simply perpetuate the injustice.

 

This short overview is meant as only the briefest introduction to what Thomas Aquinas has to say on the subject of economics and morality, which he sees as not just linked, but inexorably intertwined.  Such an introduction is necessary because, sadly, his ground-breaking early work in this area has been relegated to the dustbin of history.  Today’s cutting-edge economic theorists don’t give him a first thought, let alone a second one.  Which is our loss, since the fundamental things still apply, even if quite a bit of time has gone by.

There are, however, a handful of relatively obscure academics who recognize Aquinas’s insight when it comes to exchange transactions, and are busy riffing on his favorite themes.  But what good does that do members of the general public, caught up as we are in the daily grind?  

Who pays any attention to an off-the-beaten-path academic, except maybe a few other obscure academics?  Okay, maybe their students listen.  If only for a semester or two, until those students move on to other subjects.  As for breaking out and reaching a wider audience, the writing of these earnest scholars, though admirably detailed, is often a little dry, and difficult for the lay reader to decipher.  Not that the average lay reader is inclined to even try.

While everyone could benefit from familiarizing themselves with some of Aquinas’ thought, the real trick is not so much in getting us commoners to pay attention – it’s the movers and shakers we want tuned in.  For it is they who must turn this idle chatter about justice and charity into action, and make it work in the real world.

In recent decades there have been a few encouraging signs on the path to ‘economic justice.’  Such as the boutique concept known as the triple bottom line, with the three Ps of sustainability.  And the Business Roundtable redefining the purpose of a corporation away from Milton Freidman’s famous proclamation of ‘profitability alone,’ to a broader understanding of how a robust economy must do more than reward stockholders.  It must also strive to meet the intrinsic needs of employees, customers, and the community-at-large.  All these extenuating categories of individuals deserve to be factored into the successful-business equation.

Then there is the flamboyant CEO of asset manager Blackrock throwing his considerable weight around at high-profile international conferences, expounding on how investors and businesses should work alongside government.  According to this wacky crackpot, such counter-cultural cooperation could reduce the need for political leaders to engage in onerous deficit spending to remedy persistent social inequities.

 

 

But let’s face it, such do-gooder stuff remains an uphill battle.  Because humanity’s default inclination has always been toward greed, avarice, and sloth.  Alas, this is often true even among those fortunate few blessed with an extraordinary degree of ambition and drive.  As a general rule, we humans tend to be rather nonchalant, shall we say, in our consideration of anyone outside our immediate circle of acquaintances.  Contributing to the problem is the way the self-actualized among us have been given a green light to power their way to the top, in an enlightened self-interested sort of way.  

Some not-so-pleasant things about human nature have never changed, down through history.  Then again, with a little prodding in the right direction, sometimes some of them do.  This sort of incremental transformation is known in the trade as turning over a new leaf.  If Ebenezer Scrooge can do it, so can you.

 

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

March 1, 2022

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The Magic of Proximity

The Magic of Proximity

February 27, 2022 | 322 words | Philosophy, Economics, Politics, Personal History

Because each of us is blessed with the Imago Dei, we possess an inherent dignity that is worthy of respect.  This is true regardless of our level of formal education and resulting station in life.  It is true no matter how meager our material circumstances might be.  

The Protestant Ethic behind our current version of capitalism – that worldly success is the result of temperance and hard work, and therefore an indicator of eternal salvation – has something to recommend it.   But it can also blind us to the larger reality that success if often nothing more than the luck of the draw, the result of where and when one happens to be born.  A geographic anomaly, if you will.

In this same vein, the magic of moving pictures – conjured up and made part of our lives in just the last hundred years – has fixated us on the striking physical characteristics of the most handsome and beautiful members of the species.  These attention-getters have done nothing to earn their good looks, but are merely the beneficiaries of a fortunate combination of genes.

While thus bedazzled, we are prone to look past the inner beauty of those around us – be they men, women, or children.  That everyone possesses their own unique set of appealing characteristics is the Imago Dei at work.  We would all be happier if we spent less time ogling over the surface appeal of “stars,” and more time appreciating the qualities and gifts displayed by those in our immediate circle of acquaintance – family, co-workers, and friends.

Take the average, age-appropriate woman, for instance.  The sort of person one might consider as a potential romantic partner.  Someone who seems unremarkable at arm’s length becomes downright alluring when one gets a little closer.  Her eyes, her hair – my word, even her hands. The shadow of her smile. This is what might be called the magic of proximity. 

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

February 21, 2022

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Viability

Viability

January 22, 2022 | 705 words | Politics, Philosophy, Religion

With a new conservative majority resulting from three recent Trump appointees, the Supreme Court is said to be on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade later this spring or early this summer.  For pro-choice advocates such a reversal would represent a serious blow to a woman’s bodily autonomy.

Letting women make decisions for their own reproductive health and wellbeing is a powerful argument, one that surely resonates with every rugged individualist who is committed to our founding principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Everything makes sense, until one stops to consider what is meant by the term “reproductive health” in this context.  Terminating an unwanted pregnancy sounds very clinical, but such phrasing cleverly sidesteps a messy detail:  what’s being terminated is a human life.  The spoonful of sugar that helps this harsh medicine go down is the concept of ‘viability outside the womb’ we are hearing bandied about.

There is a lot of science being invoked to support this idea.  And far be it from me to doubt the experts.  But I can’t get past a simple question:  What is it that a pregnant woman carries in her womb, an eggplant?  I mean, either it’s a human being, or it’s not.  Debating viability outside the womb to determine the “humanness” of a human fetus strikes me as a rather disingenuous dodge.

 

The underlying problem that abortion seeks to address, but is anathema in this enlightened age, is our radical redefinition of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality.  In the intellectual tradition to which I subscribe, what is referred to as the marital act has two aspects: unitive and procreative.  It’s supposed to help bond two people together for the long haul, enriching both by sharing life’s joys and weathering life’s sorrows.  And it naturally results in the begetting of children.

Which is not to say every act of intercourse need result in pregnancy.  There are ways to regulate the female reproductive cycle without resorting to potentially harmful chemicals.  And requires the active cooperation of the male partner.  Though I will not attempt to get into that discussion here.

 I realize there can be such a thing as an unwanted pregnancy, and that there have always been abortions.  I am also not deaf or blind to the observation “if men could get pregnant, we would have had legal abortion a long time ago.”  

But maybe sexual intercourse should be elevated above its current status as a purely recreational activity, to be enjoyed upon demand by consenting adults (and now, adolescents) without regard for inconvenient complications.  Maybe this dumbing-down of sex to its purely elemental physical appeal is a little bit of a trap that’s been set for women, by agent provocateurs peddling sexual revolution and so-called women’s liberation.  With the average man being only too happy to go along for the ride.

Making decisions about reproductive health should probably start before one is pregnant, rather than after the fact.  Since getting pregnant is not an air-borne disease that befalls the innocent and unsuspecting.  It’s pretty much the natural result of having sexual intercourse, right?

As for tending to the plight of women who find themselves in a dire circumstance, I would have more sympathy for the stated mission of the Guttmacher Institute if it didn’t make so much money, and receive so much federal funding, for handing out morning after pills and performing elective abortions.  Reproductive health and wellbeing, indeed…

 

While I agree with those who view the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 as an act of unprecedented judicial overreach, I am also on record as saying reversing it now in one fell swoop is not a particularly good idea.  In this angry political climate where we are all ready to tar and feather any opponent, such a high-handed maneuver will result in nothing less than civil war.

It may deeply disturb my pro-life friends to hear me say this, but that popular pro-choice slogan makes a very good point:  If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.  Instead of attacking the tip of the iceberg, advocates for life should start addressing the root causes of this plaque.  Many of which can be located in our heralded Founding.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

January 22, 2022

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Mayor Pete and the Whole Ball of Wax

Mayor Pete and the Whole Ball of Wax

January 10, 2022 |  1,302 words |  Politics, Philosophy, Economics

The primary race for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election is old news by now, but I only just watched a documentary about the quixotic run made by the youngest member of the field, Mayor Pete.

Mr. Buttigieg is certainly an interesting character.  One of the first things that register about him are his relative youth and his sexual orientation.  (He is married to another man, and the couple is raising two adopted children together.)  He is very articulate and well-spoken, as are many other politicians.  That’s sort of a pre-requisite at this level, a recent bellicose occupant of the White House notwithstanding.

He strikes me as unusually composed for someone who has not run the gauntlet of high public office.  {Sorry, Pete, but holding down the mayor’s job in South Bend, Indiana for eight years [2012 – 2020] doesn’t qualify in this context.)  Could his unflappable nature be a kind of beginner’s luck?

What impresses me most is how introspective he seems to be.  Sure, he does a good job of marshalling his talking points and delivering a stump speech, as does any politician worth their salt.  Based on what we’ve seen so far, though, he is more than just a polished reader.  He comes across as someone who has actually thought about and shifted through all these policy issues in depth.  We could use a little more of that in our elected officials.  

One might even go so far as to say this young man is a benevolent philosopher king in the making.  Which is all we can hope for from anyone with the outsized ego it takes to run for President.  If Mr. Buttigieg manages to maintain a measure of humility as he continues his ascent, he might just do some good.

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About midway through Mayor Pete, there is a little vignette featuring a casual encounter on the campaign trail between Buttigieg and Joe Biden, off to the side at an outdoor event.  It occurred just as candidate Biden was regaining his sea legs in South Carolina, after a disappointing showing in Iowa and New Hampshire.  Mr. Biden appears positively effervescent in this clip.  Such a contrast with the tired old man we are now watching and listening to, only a short time into his term as President.  It makes me realize we need some fresh blood in our presidential politics.  Older hands should not be kicked to the curb.  Their experience and perspective should be tapped whenever possible.  But often, they no longer have the energy to drive the train.

 

Another take-away from this entertaining documentary is a reminder of just how bizarre the primary process is.  The endless town halls and meet-and-greets the candidates subject themselves to are exhausting.  Their non-stop pitching, and trying to appeal to every possible demographic, every segment of our diverse population, makes my head spin.  After a while it seems like pandering, even on the part of the most principled pol.

And witness how painstakingly “we the people” evaluate each candidate while making up our minds, as if picking out a new car.  We carefully parse each one’s tone of voice, demeanor, attire and body language.  Every conceivable detail is scrutinized, as we embark on the reoccurring search for the next political messiah who might fill in every valley, and make every mountain low.  How can a flawed human being live up to such expectations?

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Mr. Buttigieg is not the sort of candidate conservatives are ever likely to seriously consider though, due primarily to his professed homosexuality and support of LGBTQ+ issues.  They see these things as running counter to the complementary nature of creation – yin and yang, male and female.  Starting with anatomy and reproductive organs, and extending to things like temperament, modes of thought and all the rest.

But don’t we all have a combination of male and female traits in our characters and personalities?  And aren’t devoted same-sex couples capable of a comparable level of complementarity that similarly devoted heterosexual couples occasionally manage to achieve over the course of a lifetime?

Perhaps most important in this regard is how same-sex attraction itself has been with us throughout history.  It is not some new, unprecedented deviation from tradition.  And though it may be experiencing a surge in public acceptance these days, nervous conservatives need not worry it involves anything more than the same small percentage of the population that has always registered such an attraction.  So why do they find it so difficult to adopt a live-and-let-live attitude toward this minority?

 

Most everyone has a friend or family member who has found deep commitment and lasting love in a same-sex relationship.  Such a bond is what we humans long for.  That the majority population will typically find it in a heterosexual relationship should not prompt them to denigrate those who happen to find it with someone of their own gender.

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It is common knowledge conservatives don’t much care for the promotion of gay rights, or for any activism that falls under the broad heading of “identity politics.”  But where they tend to view such activity as an unjustified demand for special treatment, the minority population doing the agitating sees itself engaged in a primal struggle for respect and fair treatment.

 

We in the majority population – in this case the white, straight population – should accept there are legitimate aspects to the complaints of any oppressed minority.  And practically every minority is oppressed to one degree or another, almost by definition.  Not every grievance is a figment of their imagination, as those in the majority population with a conservative bent are inclined to believe.

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Some conservatives are a little too quick to cross swords on this subject, and become energized when doing battle with a perceived cultural enemy.  They genuinely feel they are defending truth with a capital “T” whenever they take a stand against homosexuality and denounce homosexuals.  A familiar tactic in their arsenal is to unequivocally state anyone who acts on a same-sex attraction is committing a sin.  

Such castigation is on display in Mayor Pete, when a man attending a random parking lot rally is shown shouting at Buttigieg through a bullhorn, saying over and over again “God loves you, but not your sin.”  

This speaking on God’s behalf is a tricky business, since determining who is and who is not a sinner is generally thought to be above the pay grade of mere mortals.  Denouncing others for their alleged moral transgressions is not only presumptuous, but it also too easily descends into disdain and sometimes even a degree of hate for the accused.  Which in turn violates justice by denying the basic dignity we are each endowed with at birth. 

For me it all boils down to this:  Our sexual preferences do not define us.  We should not be evaluated one way or the other – either praised or condemned – by whom we seek out to embrace at the dimming of the day.  Rather it is our commitment to an intimate partner, along with our daily interactions with friends and family and co-workers, that mark us as either a person of integrity, or someone who can’t be trusted.  We all must earn our bona fides in this world, regardless of our station in life or sexual orientation, and should be judged by the content of our character.

Following this logic, Pete Buttigieg’s professed homosexuality does not make him any more or less qualified to serve in public office.

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The Democrat’s ticket for 2024 is shaping up as Kamala Harris for President, and Pete Buttigieg for Vice-President.  And they just might win, if Republicans continue to focus on their knuckle-head platform of economic freedom at the expense of social solidarity.  As expressed by their stubborn free-market approach to governance.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr

January 10, 2022

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