Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Thoughts on the Zeitgeist, and Linkage

First of all, Anonymous Goose would be a great name for a band. This is related to nothing except that it's always a good time to propose band names, a lá Dave Barry.


As a teenager, I lived in East Westwood, in Cincinnati. We lived for for a few years on Baltimore Ave., between the Montana exit and McHenry Ave., near the Fay Apartments project. The white people in the neighborhood were generally older folk who'd lived there for 50, 60 years, and there were diminishingly few of them, mostly on the side streets with back yards that fell precipitously down ravines. Cincinnati is a city of Appalachian hills.

And then there was us, crazy religious whiteys in a community house. I walked places and distances, in safety, that I would not let my own children go. Is that prejudice or prudence? I don't know. None of the people I knew from that time, black or white, still live over there. The house on Baltimore was demolished years ago for being unsalable. No one in higher places, black, white, whoever, cared much about that neighborhood.

Then we lived on McHenry, again religious whiteys, again in safety. Again, side streets of hill and ravine. I drove a monstrous blue van, in which I should have been pulled over numerous times and wasn't, but then, most people in the neighborhood drove piece-of-shit cars. I used to take friends, black and white, places because I was the one who could drive and had access to a vehicle large enough to transport groups. I drove fearlessly and with impunity in situations which I would be, again, hesitant to send my own children into. Prejudice? Or prudence? I have no doubt that both the color of my skin and a general "girl next door" quality gave me a social immunity that other people did not enjoy. I also have no doubt that the same qualities, combined with a religious element, gained me a reputation as an oblivious sucker, easily prevailed upon to help people out. Useful White Friend.

It was not until I was a sophomore in college that my dad bought a house in Westwood proper, not the toniest address in Cincinnati, but not necessarily a place that people got out of if they could. 

Everyone has their own stories, and mine are out of the norm in many ways (as I discovered when I confessed that I'd never had a #metoo moment), but the only time I've ever heard an explicitly racist remark was not from anyone in my declassĂ© religious bubble in Cincinnati, but from a senior member of my comfortable, upper-middle-class family in the Deep South. 

I do not make any generalizations about the experiences of my friends, relations, fellow Cincinnatians, or members of entire ethnic groups. I can only speak of my own experience.


None of us can avoid centering ourselves in a public conversation, but nonetheless it’s a little bemusing to watch white Catholics, in the name of anti-racism, presenting a project as an attempt to “welcome other voices to the table.” The lack of self-awareness of the paternalism – or, shall we say, maternalism, since most saying things like that are female – is startling.

It’s rather like those times – many – when Catholics pray words like, “May we reach out to the poor” – a “prayer” which expresses quite clearly our sense of the “poor” as Other and not included in the “we.” Not really the Body of Christ.

In some ways that reflects our natural tendency to be self-referential and tribal, but the point of this post is to point out a few ways in which the embodied structures of Catholicism reinforce these tendencies, as well as racial division, especially in the United States. 

I think it’s important to understand, first – and this is something I’ll come back to in the second blog post – that the American Catholic experience on race is unique, and that’s because the United States is unique. Yes, there are other multi-cultural societies, but none quite as multi-cultural as we are here, along with our unique – especially in the 18th century – approach to religion and civic life.

Moreover, do know that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the American Catholic hierarchy’s actions – and inaction –  on racial issues were judged mostly negatively by others around the world, particularly Rome. In other words, most American bishops and religious order leadership during this period reinforced, rather than resisted racism. And that was noted.

This is startling to some because of a particular narrative, quite prevalent in the American Church since the 1980’s. It’s a triumphalist, self-satisfied narrative, the outgrowth of apologetics enthusiasm,  that has glossed over institutional sins  and presented a story of American Catholicism in which the main point about race has been something like: “Well, Catholicism didn’t split during the Civil War like the Protestants. And, er, Pierre Toussaint, Katharine Drexel and Augustine Tolton, you know. And that one cool Black parish in my city.”

As I said, I’ll dig into that a bit more later. But for now, let me suggest a few points to consider that might help understand American Catholicism and race and perhaps help expand the conversation beyond Maternalistic White Saviorhood.

The casual reader of American Catholic history might well have come to believe that all was mostly well in the history of Black Catholics in the United States. For the narrative that many are familiar with is one that places institutional Catholicism in favorable contrast to mainline Protestantism, with the latter’s role in upholding discriminatory civic policies and traditions. Somehow, in our mind, the work of St. Katharine Drexel and the Josephites and the image of Catholic religious marching in Selma tilts the balance in our favor against segregated and separated Protestant bodies.

Historical reality is, of course, much more complicated. We can celebrate the existence of all-Black religious orders of sisters, but why did they have to exist? Because white religious orders wouldn’t accept Black women as members and white religious orders didn’t want to serve Black populations. We can celebrate, for example, predominantly Black parishes and schools in New Orleans, but why did they come to exist?  Because the institutional Church acceded to Jim Crow laws, both in letter and spirit.

In short: when we look at the history of the Catholic Church and African-Americans in the United States, there is no room for institutional or majoritarian self-congratulation. It’s a history marked by fearful submission to civic, cultural and social prejudice, which teaches us, among other things, that there is nothing new under the sun.

And, like all history, it’s quite interesting, and for those with the time and motivation, provides endless fascinating rabbit trails. 
Brandon is being level-headed, as usual.

People tear down public monuments for the same reasons they build them, and while moral principle sometimes makes a showing somewhere, it is never the heart of the act. People build or tear down public monuments

(1) because doing so curries favor with those who are seen as powerful; or
(2) in order to express, in visible form, authority, superiority, or dominance over prior generations or a current population.

That's it. We don't randomly go about monument-building or monument-breaking; we have a point, and the point is never a purely moral one but is instead primarily a point about who controls destiny. 

Protests are not magic; they do not accomplish anything except as part of the proposal of a practical plan for solving what is being protested. This is why most effective protests are protests for or against very specific laws or policies; it just goes with the nature of such a protest that everybody knows what could be done to solve the problem being protested, and the protest raises the incentive for actually using that solution. But it's clear, if you look around, that there is no general association of the protests with specific solutions. And protests not generally associated with specific solutions don't get much done in the long run, because they aren't in fact incentivizing anything but looking like you are responding to the problem -- which is a dangerous thing to incentivize in politics.

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