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The First Thanksgiving

November 28, 2019 (989 words)

My friends the social conservatives usually have their heart in the right place, but their automatic adoption of the economic and political worldview promoted by their distant cousins, the fiscal conservatives, is wrong-headed.

It’s a classic case of strange bedfellows, and pointing this out can make for some awkward dinner-table conversation.

Note, too, how fiscal conservatives cleverly wrap their blatantly self-centered, me-first approach to life in a mantle of morality and high-mindedness, borrowed from people they view as little more than backwoods relations, the social conservatives.

This weird philosophical mash-up was on display in a recent little cable news presentation I happened to catch on TV the other day about The First Thanksgiving.

We were told in a voice-over, while the camera focused on a grainy old lithograph of settlers in funny hats, how the original Puritans came to this country in order to live out their religious convictions. Showing gratitude to their creator for all they had been given was very important to them. They were escaping religious persecution, where showing such gratitude was frowned upon. That’s why the concept of “religious freedom” was so important then, and remains so today.

getting things exactly backwards…

Next, an earnest talking head explained the Puritans were looking for a new world order, where they did not have to answer to a King as their sovereign. Unlike the Old World, where “our rights came from government,” and could be taken away at the whim of an unelected ruler, here in this new world “our rights come from God,” and cannot be taken away.

Then we were shown a dated clip of the Gipper himself, Ronald Reagan, who intoned with his trademark knowing grin something to the effect that “we are indeed one nation under God, and I believe God wants us to be free.”

I couldn’t bring myself to watch the end of this program because, well, it’s hard to sit through so much awkward historical usurpation. Given the cable channel involved, it was obvious where all this somber invocation was headed.

One expects the well-off to traffic in such morally-based justification of their aversion to oversight. As the fabled British wit G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) put it:

The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly, the rich have always objected to being governed at all.

The question is, why have so many well-intentioned people of more modest means accepted this ersatz, fiscal conservative version of recent history, and why have they adopted the same militantly adversarial posture toward government?

the incessant, decades-long drumbeat…

There are many reasons, of course, but among them must be counted the rise of talk radio and cable news outlets, and the incessant, decades-long conservative drumbeat of “you should keep your money,” and “you know what to do with your money better than the government does.”

These same outlets are fond of reporting on inefficiency and waste in governmental attempts at social policy. They often have a point, as bureaucrats are no more immune to sloth and avarice than the rest of us. But is it fair to judge an institution – any institution – strictly by its failures, without considering its accomplishments?

Stoking an adversarial mindset among the general populace may represent a celebration of the American spirit, but it runs counter to a Catholic understanding of public life, where government and business were intended to work cooperatively to promote the common good.

The ranting and raving is above all else an effective diversionary tactic. It seems not a day goes by without some major piece of corporate malfeasance hitting the news, on either the national or international front. The bad actors are punished with heavy fines or other sanctions, which end up amounting to a slap on the wrist, and chalked up as “the cost of doing business,” so immensely profitably are these conglomerates.

The agencies tasked with maintaining public order and a level playing field – to say nothing of trying to protect the interests of the unsuspecting – strain to keep up with the creativity and sophistication deployed by the perpetrators.

the big, nasty stuff we don’t focus on…

But I suppose all the really big, nasty stuff takes place over the head of rank-and-file social conservatives. Sinking one’s teeth into a generic discussion of regulatory restraint that “hurts economic growth” is easier to digest.

So these well-intentioned souls side with fiscal conservatives who speak on behalf of our corporate behemoths, and shun the rag-tag “socialists” who highlight glaring holes in the trickle-down model.

My (unsolicited) advice to social conservatives is two-fold. Realize that fiscal conservatives are not doing you any favors. And don’t let a label get in the way of properly evaluating a policy.

Bernie Sanders may choose to call himself a “democratic socialist,” but that doesn’t make his economic proposals any less Catholic in nature, for that’s exactly what they are. This seemingly counter-intuitive observation prompts the following random thoughts.

Random Thought #1:
Any good idea is essentially Catholic (universal) in its understanding of the world. And every thinker who comes up with a good idea is a Catholic at heart, even if he or she is not yet prepared to assume the mantle.

Random Thought #2:
Faced with the brunt of exploitation certain capitalists have historically inflicted on their hapless employees, those employees see no recourse but to describe themselves as a “socialist,” which is really only short for “I’m an anti-capitalist, at least the way it’s been played on me.”

Random Thought #3:
The Rockefeller interests may no longer be hiring independent contractors dressed as federal agents to shot and kill striking mine workers, as they did in Colorado in 1914. But are things really any less dire for today’s workers, who are told by fiscal conservatives how they enjoy the “freedom” to “negotiate an appropriate wage with the employer of your choice.”

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
November 28, 2019

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