I don’t want to be alone, mourning the ones who came before

When this happened last Thanksgiving, I was at least able to put together some words into cyberspace the day before. I think some part of me knew that would not be possible this time.

It is never a happy occasion, in the narrow definition of that word, to lose a man as exemplary as my grandfather, but it cannot be a sad one, in the narrow definition of that word, either. For the last year and two months, he wanted nothing more than to be with his wife again, and now God, in his infinite mercy, has granted him his wish. Our heavy hearts and profuse tears did not mourn his death, as such, but our separation from him until we, too, are ready to take that final journey.

My grandfather was the kind of man one cannot help but being proud of having as a relative. He was a brilliant conversationalist and a better raconteur. Even after age and illness claimed most of his hearing – even after age and illness claimed his wife, for that matter – he knew how to make his presence felt in any room with a few well-chosen words, and like the very best authors he read he could hold that same room’s attention infinitely simply by spinning a yarn. He was a reader whom the word “voracious” does not begin to describe and an incredible intellectual who nonetheless despised intellectual snobbery. He never was able to study literature, the other great love of his life, but it would be safe to say that he was a better man of letters than many of those who have.

My grandfather was the kind of man that one cannot help but aspire to resemble. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have never met anyone else for whom moral inflexibility was a virtue. He was honest even when it hurt, just even when he ended up on the losing end, generous to family and friends and acquaintances even when he didn’t have much to give. Every situation he judged according to its own particulars. Every person he knew of he assigned a blank slate, and only their actions could persuade him to opine one way or the other, unless of course the person held office of some kind.

Image from the video for "Dance in the Graveyards," by Delta Rae.

My grandfather was the kind of man who, in a just world, would have lived the same life, for he found wealth in what he had. He taught me to want little and to give much, to value the people I know infinitely more than the objects I own, to always know my own mistakes, and to recognize bullshit when I see it.

Even before this, I thought of my grandfather whenever I told a story or a joke in class, trying – and probably failing – to replicate his easy narrative flair; whenever I read a book in Latin, a language he never got to know and a language I’m sure he would have loved, trying to imagine what he would think about the ablative of description; whenever I want to put myself first, or take the easy way out, knowing that in him I have a better example.

I can think of no higher praise I could ever receive in my life than when my older sister told me, at the end of yesterday’s funeral mass, “you know you’re your grandfather, right?”

The Lord, in the ineffable capacity of his fatherhood, does not discriminate among His children, but I am not nearly so perfect, and I cannot help but think that He has welcomed one of His better sons home.

We’re going kindergarten, vol. V

You know, I was hoping to write more stuff today about how Ted Cruz is an asshole – and I might, the day is yet young – but apparently I have to deal with another important topic that’s been popping up on and offline for the past few days. I cannot for the life of me understand why this is still a problem, especially among the friends and acquaintances I have who are politically attuned, but there you have it, crap springs eternal.

Namely, after all that has been said and done in the past two weeks, exactly where the hell do you people get off still saying “both sides do it” and acting like that is a remotely accurate picture of the situation?

I talked about this before, when the shutdown started, and maybe then it was remotely defensible, but after the many stories yours truly already highlighted, among which there is Marlin Stutzman’s great quote about how the GOP doesn’t know what it wants, except they’re “not going to be disrespected,” or stories like this one, which tells you that the shutdown was part of a planned strategy to defund the Affordable Care Act, or this one, in which a Republican splits hairs to dodge the question of what the real purpose was for the shutdown or this one, which explains how the House Republicans changed the rules of the House of Representatives to prevent a majority vote from reopening the government unless they got Eric Cantor’s approval, there is no possible conclusion to draw from that is that you are voluntarily full of crap, and what’s worse, you’re sticking your fingers in your ears, so it can’t even come out.

There’s a current running through American politics that treasures political independence, standing apart from the pack, and developing your own opinions rather than simply following a party platform. Fair enough; that’s not only admirable but the mark of an informed citizenry, which one could argue is necessary in a country set up like the United States.

However, when political independence ceases to be agnosticism and becomes instead a security blanket, what you end up with isn’t an informed citizen capable of judging political parties equally, but a citizen who reflexively judges political parties equally even when all information contradicts that stance. The only thing dumber than a baldly partisan hack is an reflexively nonpartisan hack, because at least one of them is honest about their bias, while the other is pretending to have none.*

The thing that especially annoys me is that I’m not hearing from these people any solutions or strategies as to how either President Obama or Congressional Democrats could have avoided this sequence of events, and I think I’m not hearing them because all of them sound ridiculous or unconstitutional if actually voiced. Apparently Dems should just have given up their main legislative accomplishment because the GOP was holding the government hostage, or the President and Senate should just have ignored the House of Representatives, or something something both sides do it.

Never mind that if Mitt Romney were President, the Senate was Republican, and the House was essentially being ruled-by-proxy by a faction of far-left Democrats undercutting Speaker Pelosi’s control over the chamber, I highly doubt anyone would hold the GOP equally culpable for the resulting mess. Lord knows no one with a byline would.

(Well, maybe Dan Froomkin.** His take is exactly right, but I think it doesn’t go far enough, because political reporters are drawn from the population of Americans as a whole, and what’s become clear in the last year or so is that “Americans as a whole” contains several boatloads of people who think that every event must be spun into an opportunity to declare how much smarter they are than partisan voters.)

But go figure – when the Dems took the House and Senate in 2006, they didn’t proceed to shut the government down over Medicare Part D, or shut Republicans out of committee meetings, or pass out checks from lobbyists on the floor of the House during contentious votes. They tried to govern, and what they got in return was the 2010 midterm election, which put us where we are now.***

All kidding and curmudgeonry aside, if you’re one of the “pox on both their houses” brigade, what would you have chosen as a better solution? Should the Dems just have not caved during the fiscal cliff crisis, or the first debt ceiling crisis, or every other time the GOP basically treated the nation’s economic health not as a goal but as a concession to the President? Should the Dems just have given up and allowed the Republicans to, once again, hold the nation’s full faith and credit hostage in exchange for delaying a planned, funded, legislated, upheld law for no reason other than Republicans don’t like it? There really aren’t that many solutions for the current crisis that both satisfy constitutional requirements and allow the ship of state to move along. So if you’re going to claim such sage wisdom as “both sides do it” in the face of extensive contradiction, then you’re going to have to actually put forward a workable solution that doesn’t somehow refute your view and doesn’t also assume some kind of magical can opener.****

Because in this case, when you say you blame both sides, all I’m hearing is that you can’t distinguish babies from bathwater.

* Yes, you do have a bias if you’re still shouting “both sides do it” this far into the shutdown. When you continue to reaffirm your more-independent-than-thou fred, even when the evidence overwhelmingly contradicts you, that isn’t cynicism, realism, or lack of bias. It’s just refusal to accept your view of the American political landscape is wrong.

I find this particularly pernicious because in other areas of life people are not nearly so forgiving of this faux-savviness. When people refuse to accept any evidence that contradicts their faith, the same friends and acquaintances call them “religious fundamentalists” and make fun of them. But, for some reason, it’s okay to do that when it comes to politics.

** Also Krugman, who is, as usual, shrill.

*** Which is why saying that both sides are to blame because politicians don’t care about average Americans may be, to redeem a phrase, technically true, but collectively nonsense. Why would they care when the response to an actual attempt at responsible government is loads of misinformation, astroturfed protests, and voter apathy?

If I were a swing-seat Democrat lucky enough to retain my seat after 2010 and saw this bullshit peddled, I’d resolve never to listen to my constituents again, because it clearly doesn’t matter how well I do my job – people will still blame me as much as the GOP if something goes wrong. If I were a swing-seat Republican, I’d still resolve never to listen to my constituents again, because it clearly doesn’t matter how many rules I break or how baldly I rig the game – people will still blame the Dems at least as much as they’ll blame me if something goes wrong.

**** I suspect that, deep down, the reason no one’s really put forth a solution is that everyone in the room knows exactly how this went down – and thanks to solid reporting from people like Robert Costa and the other stories I highlighted above (or their sources), we do – but the false equivalence tribe doesn’t want to admit it, because then their cherished, enshrined political savviness would evaporate and they’d look like – gasp – they favor one party, which is their greatest fear.

Young teacher, the subject of corporate fantasy

On this day that has been set aside to celebrate the immeasurable cruelty of a white man whose importance to history chiefly rests on his storied arrogance and ability to oppress the native populations of the lands he stumbled upon in the midst of a giant blunder, and whose name in a sane world would be hurled, forever after his death, as an insult at those who professed their superiority over others merely by some accident of birth, I am of course going to talk about education policy in the twenty-first century and why it is, to use the colloquial term, fucked.

Specifically, I want to highlight this piece, by Catherine Michna, which at once serves as an accurate-if-depressing look at the present state of American education and proof positive of why Slate‘s more-contrarian-than-thou-clickbait-buttressed-by-actual-journalism schtick can be so unbearably infuriating.

Michna has actual experience with TFA, which I don’t, and which renders her advice and her point all the more cogent. I’ve always felt that part of my problem as an opinionated tosser on educational policy is that I am by no means an expert on education – eighteen credits and two years of teaching are, unfortunately, no substitute for the passage of time and tide – and that I have not participated in many of these newfangled schemes to “fix” education. On some level, that makes my opinion somewhat irrelevant.

Consequently, I’m glad to see a TFA graduate writing on the subject, and Michna certainly pulls no punches.

The simple fact is that students who apply to TFA are not trained to be teachers. So by refusing to write TFA letters of recommendation, we’re merely telling our students that we can’t recommend them for a job they’re not qualified for. An increasing amount of research shows that TFA recruits perform at best no better, and often worse, than their trained and certified counterparts. What’s more, they tend to leave after just a few years in the classroom. Would a biology professor write a recommendation to medical school for an English major who’s never taken any core science courses? That would be strange. It would be even stranger if the professor knew the English major was just going into medicine for a few years, as a way to boost his resume, before ultimately going on to a career in public relations.

That paragraph touches on three aspects of what really should be the one main objection to TFA as a program, and repeated as loudly and as often as necessary for people, especially the know-it-all jackasses who seem to think they could do better than any teacher currently in a classroom: teaching is a career, not a diversion.

Rather than build a real corps of experienced, trained, certified, specialized teachers – which this country could badly use, because even the most enlightened American policymakers seem to have a bad case of rectal-cranial loopback when it comes to education – TFA markets itself as a kind of “grand tour” of the teaching profession, in which you get to train, serve in the classroom for a couple of years, and then go back to do whatever you intended to do with your life all along. This is problematic for a number of reasons.

I’ve been teaching for two years now, and even though this year is exponentially easier than the last two, I continue to find more things, not less, that require practical experience and advice from veteran teachers, both things that TFA prefers not to deal with in their effort to “fix” education in low-income communities. Since the standard TFA commitment lasts two years, many of these members are leaving education just when they’re beginning to come into their own as classroom educators. Worse, they leave behind empty spaces that have to be filled with new warm bodies, and where do you think a school is going to get a new teacher on short notice?*

The most accurate meme you'll ever see about teachers. (Credit: WeKnowMemes.)

Michna links programs like TFA to the emergence of the corporate “education reform” movement**, and brings up how charter schools and other quasi-privatized solutions are being used to break teachers’ unions and, essentially, corporatize public education:

This summer in Chicago, where the closing of neighborhood schools in low-income communities of color inspired massive resistance, the public school movement suspected that the shuttered schools would soon be replaced by charters. They were correct in their suspicions: As Ravitch noted on her blog last month, Chicago has “plans for 52 new privately-managed charters that will open over the next five years,” to be “staffed by TFA’s young recruits, with five weeks of training.” Former TFA member Jay Saper, who taught in Philadelphia, recently wrote a blog post that may be a preview of the Chicago TFA experience: “They use a fresh batch of inexperienced, well-intentioned 22-year-old bodies to enact their recipe: close schools, ignore parents, lay off teachers, get rid of counselors, shut down libraries, break the union, and then hold a bake sale for school supplies.”

That last quote, if it weren’t for the strange phenomenon by which, as the state of American public education slowly becomes more and more desperate, everyone and their mother becomes only more convinced that some union-busting, budget-cutting, privatizing magic bullet holds the key, would send chills down people’s spines. The current incarnation of the “reform” movement is a massive grift, perpetrated on the American people so that a few of our corporate overlords can line their pockets with even more cash.

You need more evidence? Here, have some. The only good thing about the growing dominance of the corporate education model is that they are becoming more brazen by the day.

As a final note:

TFA tried to get me into the program when I was in senior year of college, and I indicated my interest to them because, like apparently many other TFA recruits, I wasn’t sure what I would do after graduation. Even then I knew of TFA’s reputation as an arm of the corporate education industry, but I figured that as someone who was interested in making a career of education, it couldn’t hurt to get a running start.

During one of the first conversations about my possible recruitment, I mentioned offhand that I would be starting a graduate program in education that summer – though in policy rather than curriculum or classroom teaching. At the time the recruiter didn’t say anything, but when I started getting emails, every single one seemed to include some dismissive note about graduate education programs.

At the time I thought nothing on it, but the more I read about TFA, and about its main proponents, the more it occurs to me that that should’ve been indicative. No good teaching program should be predicated on the idea that its members are replaceable.

Then again, that seems to be what a sizable portion of the American public thinks about teachers in general, so can it be surprising at all?

* I prefer not to comment on the idea that a short time teaching can be used as a résumé booster, either because it should be ridiculous on its face considering the depth and difficulty of the profession, or because my entire discussion of the subject would consist of rapid-fire, carelessly-chosen, four-letter expletives.

** Again, perhaps I should avoid commenting on the exact way in which the words “corporate” and “education reform” go together like, shall we say, “Peregrinus” and “short posts.”

We’re going kindergarten, vol. IV

If, in these troubled times, there is still one infinitesimal comfort, one consistency, one spring eternal, upon which we may rely, it is that given half a chance, Republican legislators, especially of this most recent crop, will say something that goes beyond mere stupidity – which would arguably be almost excusable – and heads, speeding full tilt, breezing by hypocrisy, to reach a level of thought, a mental dimension, in which the speaker may be considered closer to such eldritch monstrosities as populate the stories of our dear H.P. Lovecraft than to the fellow members of their ostensible species.

Wednesday we had the honorable gentleman from Texas, Mr. Randy Neugebauer, quite properly scolding a park ranger for a shutdown he helped engineer:

“How do you look at them and … deny them access?” [he asked]

“It’s difficult,” the Ranger replied. “Well, it should be difficult,” scorned the congressman. “It is difficult,” the Ranger repeated. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“The Park Service should be ashamed of themselves,” said Neugebauer. “I’m not ashamed,” the Ranger retorted.

“You should be,” sneered Neugebauer.

It might be worth pointing out that Mr. Neugebauer was wearing a flag in his suitcoat pocket, which is again one of those things that in a sane country would get you roundly accused of “trying too hard.”

It might also be worth pointing out, in this context, that Mr. Neugebauer is also the guy who yelled “baby killer!” during a speech by Bart Stupak. You know, the one Stupak delivered after the Affordable Care Act was finally frickin’ passed, despite Stupak’s last-minute hissy fit nearly managing to stop progress on that bill.

Congressman Lee Terry, R-NE. (Credit: Politico.)

Thursday we have the honorable lady from North Carolina, Mrs. Renee Ellmers, defending her decision to continue taking her paycheck during the shutdown:

“I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line,” Ellmers told WTVD in Raleigh, N.C. “I understand that there may be some other members who are deferring their paychecks, and I think that’s admirable. I’m not in that position.”

Of course, now that this position has proven somewhat controversial, Mrs. Ellmers has reversed herself, while deflecting blame for her original statement onto her political opponents.

In a statement sent out by her office Friday, Ellmers blamed the shutdown on Democrats for refusing to negotiate over the Affordable Care Act.

“I have been fighting against this shutdown every day and will continue to work to ensure that President Obama and Senator Reid come to the negotiating table and work with us to provide a reasonable solution to this that ensures we act responsibly for all Americans,”

Ellmers said she’s confident the shutdown will end before November. But if it does not, she will decline her pay.

“I will stand with all federal workers and have my paycheck withheld,” she said.

Yesterday, Friday, it was the honorable gentleman from Nebraska, Mr. Lee Terry. Like Mrs. Ellmers, Mr. Terry will not be foregoing his pay and, also like Mrs. Ellmers, Mr. Terry seems to think that federal employees require no housing, education, or other basic needs of living:

Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., was blunt when asked if he would continue collecting his paychecks during the shutdown.

“Dang straight,” he said.

Terry suggested it’s an irrelevant question because the situation would be resolved before long.

What about the other members who were donating or forgoing their pay?

“Whatever gets them good press,” Terry said. “That’s all that it’s going to be. God bless them. But you know what? I’ve got a nice house and a kid in college, and I’ll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That’s just not going to fly.”

He acknowledged that many federal employees aren’t getting paid because of the shutdown.

“We’re fighting to get them back to work. That’s the real issue, is getting this thing done,” Terry said. “I’m working with leadership. I’m trying to figure out ways to get this done.”

And lastly, from Wednesday as well, we have the honorable gentleman from Indiana, Mr. Marlin Stutzman, who was gracious enough to give us the real rationale behind all of this political bullshit theater we’ve had to witness this week:

“We’re not going to be disrespected,” conservative Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., added. “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”

I admit that I, like Nebraska’s Senator Deb Fischer, consider the issue of Congressional pay to be mostly moral theatrics.* But the impressive part of these statements, at least to me, isn’t that they want to keep their pay, or be respected, or that they think it’s shameful to have a national park closed down when veterans are visiting.

What floors me is that they seem to have literally no idea either that there are other people in the world who have, I daresay, worse troubles than they do, or that they have anything to do with these events. They really believe that they are the only actual people in the universe.

I know by now some of you are already exhausted of hearing about this, and I promise you I don’t want to belabor these points any more than absolutely necessary. But if you are a member of the voting public, regardless of how you vote, this is why you matter.

I’m not saying, like some people seem to think I must because I do not simply dismiss Democrats and Republicans as equally culpable for this event, that politicians are amazing human beings or that they care deeply about the future of the American republic. But I am saying that the next time you hit the ballot box, you should be thinking long and hard about whether the person you choose to represent you is going to be willing to hold the government hostage in exchange for delaying a law that is long passed and approved and then have the bald audacity to complain about it.

* Not that I’d shed a tear if their pay were cut off, either through the legislation Tom Latham has apparently proposed (and which I am all but convinced will make a hasty exit stage fuck-off the moment the shutdown ends) or through a constitutional amendment. Please do not take me for some reflexive defender of the privileges of Congresspeople, beyond what is necessary to ensure a functioning legislature and government.† But I do think that it feeds into the idea that the two parties are equally culpable for the shutdown and that both sides are refusing to negotiate and that if they only just sat down they could work out a fair compromise.

† Right, how is that working out for us again?

We’re going kindergarten, vol. III

You know, after discussing the antics of various types of people in reaction to the government shutdown, I thought I might be done for a while and I’d have to find something else to post on this here blog.

Luckily for those of you who enjoy it when my blood pressure spikes, when you need to be annoyed into writing, BuzzFeed can usually deliver the goods.

Not that I honestly expected a substantive argument or anything approaching sensemaking from a place whose entire raison d’être, as a friend put it, is “to give a superficial treatment.” I suppose that’s okay when you’re talking GIFs of corgis or funny quotes from Duck Dynasty or aspects of growing up with Kazakh parents or whatever the next pile of Community articles are about, but not when you’re talking about politics, which are – and I realize this will blow some people’s minds – far more complex than a site driven almost entirely by pageclicks could hope to properly cover.*

I suspect, given his background in political journalism, that Andrew Kaczynski knows that, but he chose to ignore it in order to reframe a story about one party’s communications director going after the other’s candidate for lieutenant governor into an attack on religious people. When your subtitle is this:

Democratic official mocks E.W. Jackson for saying “divine intervention” is needed to bring compromise in Washington.

And your story is this:

“Good evening — I wanted to make sure you saw the latest E.W. Jackson comments from earlier today,” Bauman wrote. What followed was a blog item from the Times-Dispatch newspaper reporting that Jackson said “divine intervention” was needed to bring Democrats and Republicans together to reach an agreement to end the government shutdown.

Spiced up with this:

2011 poll conducted by Roanoke College found that 94% of Virginians say they believe in God, an 80% say they pray daily.

You might actually deserve the accusation of trying too hard. E.W. Jackson praying for “divine intervention” to solve the government shutdown is a problem, not because he’s a religious man, but because the reason the federal government shut down is, one more time, because his party lost a legislative battle, lost a judicial battle, lost an election, and still proceeded to demand that the President and the Democrats hand over the closest thing they’ve gotten to a signature accomplishment since 2006 in exchange for temporarily keeping the lights on in DC.**

E.W. Jackson. (Credit: Politico.)

And Jackson wants to talk about divine intervention solving the problem? You think God wants to take time out of His day, which is already filled with trying to guide 7 billion other people towards a better life in ways that the rest of us can dispense with, to tell Congress what to do?

Maybe He would, at that. But, if I may be allowed to paraphrase the old joke about the man drowning who waves off all earthly forms of rescue in hopes of being saved by God, I suspect the message to E.W. Jackson would go something like this:

“You want divine intervention? I sent you reconciliation, NFIB v. Sebelius, and the 2012 presidential election. What more do you want?”

* There are things BuzzFeed is good at doing. Making me laugh is one of them. Talking about anything that requires situational knowledge or narrative complexity is not.

** Going after political candidates on the basis of religious beliefs does sometimes worry me, because, obviously, I do identify as devout, and I would be rather annoyed to find out that this makes me unfit for office. Sadly, in the United States, while I don’t have that problem, plenty of atheists and agnostics and non-Christians do.

There is still a light that shines in me

Now that I’ve spent two posts telling you what annoys me about the shutdown, it occurs to me that I haven’t really talked about why it annoys me, or what my values might be.

Considering how much time I’ve spent ranting, if only to myself, about how much I dislike people who define themselves purely by what they oppose rather than what they support, that seems pretty hypocritical to me. So I wanted to take a moment and discuss the reasons why this has been such a time of heightened emotion for me.

To do that, I have to talk about being Catholic, being a left-winger, and being a left-wing Catholic.

The second comment I ever received on this blog argued that my combination of religious and political beliefs “defines a fascinating journey.” As flattered as I am by that description, the truth is that I’m still a pretty bad Catholic. My Mass attendance hasn’t been good since I was seven, I missed confession last year (after having received it the previous year, after having missed it for about fifteen years), and I cohabit and plan to marry a woman who some days isn’t sure she believes in God and other days might be flirting with deism. I’ve said several times I’m either the most atheistic Catholic or the most Catholic atheist a body could ever hope to meet on this God’s green Earth.

Plus, as some of my friends know, Catholicism only recently got back into the picture as far as my faith life was concerned. If I’m a bad Catholic now, I was an exponentially worse one when I was hired at my current job, and I’d spent years sort of flitting between agnosticism, atheism, deism or pantheism. That’s pretty par for the course in one’s formative years, obviously, and I was lucky to have that opportunity to examine my beliefs in detail and to be able to change them without too much judgment or opprobrium.

During those same years, however, my political beliefs really only solidified. I went from thinking I was a moderate Republican (when I was very young, circa 2003-06, when Linc Chafee was still a Senator) to a moderate Democrat (2006-2008) to a hardcore liberal (2008-2010) to, finally, some gray area between social democrat and socialist. I’ve been there for about three years now, and while I can’t say I won’t change my mind again in the future, this does seem to be a better fit for my views than anywhere else I’ve been along the continuum.

Part of that has been that while I identify as a left-winger, it’s more of a syndrome than a proper disease. I don’t have well-defined first principles beyond some vague ideas about how society should treat certain sectors of the population and I tend to approach a lot of political questions here in the US with some serious skepticism and more than a modicum of snark.*

Part of that has been that when I went back to Catholicism, I was sure it would conflict with my politics, and this worried me even though I knew that it would not become an issue at my work.** It didn’t help that for years I’d heard that those of us who didn’t particularly care for the Church’s homophobia*** or for the relentless emphasis on pro-life politics were “cafeteria Catholics,” willing to take the parts of the Church we liked but be lesser Catholics.

But then I had the good luck to visit with some amazing sisters, and they taught me, and the kids going on the retreat with me, the following:

Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching William Sadlier

That made me realize that there was, after all, a place for me in the Church. A small place, but a place where I might cultivate my faith. So, nine years after most people do it, I picked out a new name**** and got myself confirmed. I promised myself I would try to be a better Catholic, to do my Sacraments properly, to really, truly live my faith.

And I do. Just not the way most Catholics do.

His Holiness, Pope Francis, has been a huge boon, I think, to many Catholics of my stripe. I can’t speak as to the rest of us, but I certainly felt unwelcome on hallowed ground while John Paul II and Benedict XVI headed it. Now, under Francis, I feel as if I can finally hold my head up and say, proudly, that I am Catholic. Not a “cafeteria Catholic” or a “liberal Catholic” or twenty other adjectives – just Catholic.

In some sense, Francis said what I’ve been thinking for a while. If you’re pro-life, and against marriage equality, but you’re still in favor of the death penalty, you stand against workers’ rights***** and more open borders between nations, and – most of all – you stand against the poor and the vulnerable, the people on the edge of the night, the kind of people who are most hurt by this shutdown and by so many other circumstances of the past few years, then you’re no less a “cafeteria Catholic” than I am or have been. I’m just glad someone with a shiny beanie on finally said so.

Like I said, I’m still a pretty bad Catholic. I still don’t make Mass too often, I still don’t talk about the parts of Church politics that make me uncomfortable, and the ever-lovely Peregrina and I aren’t planning on breaking up anytime soon. (In fact, if what the Cardinal Secretary of State said about discussing clerical celibacy becomes fact, and allowance is made for our circumstance, she and I may be discussing my entrance into seminary.) But I am a Eucharistic minister, of some months’ vintage, and I perform Communion services with all the aplomb I can muster. I will receive Confession this year. I try to find opportunities to help those who need it, not just people I know directly but in my community-at-large, the way a small-c catholic faith ought to do. Most importantly of all, at least for my money, I teach.

(But see Retrospective Update below.)

When I first came to the School, I offhandedly asked one of our Jesuits whether I could get married at the school, if I so chose, since it contained a chapel. I meant it half in jest, but his response was that while the school did sometimes host weddings, for someone like me it would be best to get married in whatever my parish church was.

I replied that I considered the School as my parish.

That wasn’t half in jest, and it’s even truer now.

* For one – and I realize how ironic this is coming from a Catholic – claims of “moral authority” for the Constitution, the Founders, the Declaration of Independence, or a thousand other things really tend to fall flat with me. I don’t understand how anyone who’s read more than a few SCOTUS opinions and taken a couple lit classes at college can still consider these documents and people, at this point, little more than political Rorschach tests, but then, that’s why I’m not running the country.

** I wasn’t wrong. Even though there are times I’ve wanted to strangle people, I have to always remind myself that that’s the case outside of work, too.

*** This is a somewhat controversial term for some Catholics because, they argue, the Church has never had a problem with homosexuality as an orientation. I’d argue that perhaps the institutional Church isn’t quite homophobic now or, at least, Francis has taken a couple steps in that direction. But when you can define forbidding the marriage of two people because they happen to be of the same sex as “respecting human dignity,” many parts of me find that rather homophobic.

**** Picking out a new name isn’t a tradition in Hispanic countries, like my home colony, but I wanted to do it anyway. I chose Ignatius, because without the Society of Jesus, I would never have returned to the Church, but I also had in my mind Jeanne, for my left-handed sort-of-personal patron saint, toward whom I’ve always felt some weird kinship.

***** And by that I mean actual workers’ rights, not the right to be fired, the right to be starved by their employer, or any of the other sundry Gilded Age “rights” workers had then.

Retrospective Update:

In trying to convey the point that I can again be proud of being in my church, I was less apologetic than I should’ve been about my particular failings in my duty to that church.

I’m still very much a work-in-progress faithwise. I still want to go to Mass more, or at least Communion services. I want to read my Bible cover to cover for the first time in forever, even if I own the wrong version. And my grasp of theology, except for Catholic Social Teaching and the effects of the two Vatican Councils, is somewhat shaky.

If I’m going to be Catholic, I’m going to do it right. I just have a wider definition of what “doing it right” means.

We’re going kindergarten, vol. II

So. I have this friend.

My friend is furloughed since yesterday. She’s currently sitting at home, catching up on movies and cleaning her kitchen, collecting no pay. From what she’s told me, she can’t work, with or without pay. She won’t get retroactive pay when the shutdown is over, either, unless Congress agrees on that, and we’ve all seen what expecting Congress to agree on something gets you these days. She’s certainly not collecting overtime or time-and-a-half or getting any other special treatment.

If I asked you to guess what my friend does for a living, what would you guess? Crop inspector for USDA? Park ranger? NOAA scientist?

None of the above – she’s civilian support for the US military, and as it turns out, she’s in the half that doesn’t get to work. Again, not even without pay.

Meanwhile, there are people around her, as there are people around me, whose true colors have finally come out. Apparently, as long as my mail gets here and Social Security checks keep going out, I shouldn’t be bothered about programs that help people worse off than me shutting down, or about friends and acquaintances I have, and their friends and acquaintances, who work in positions that now, temporarily, don’t exist.

Those people can, in the words of an acquaintance, “cry [him] a fucking river.”

I’ve encountered such glittering innumeracy and such pseudocontrarian* a-pox-on-both-their-houses bullshit in the last day and a half that it finally overcame my usual cynicism when it comes to people’s knowledge of political realities and their ability to separate fact from story – wheat from the tares, as it were.**

Basically, I knew a lot of people who are otherwise intelligent and good are in this field idiots, but not the breadth and depth of that idiocy. In the last thirty-six hours I’ve plumbed farther into that than I probably ever should have cared to do. I’ve seen more metaphors about Congress as a whole being made up of kids and suggestions for “the first 535 layoffs” and stupid suggestions for how to reduce the size of the federal government than I have time or inclination to enumerate, especially as I live in fear of people finding out that I’m letting the cat out of the bag the moment I get home.

I’m not even including the Republican guy who called C-SPAN to proclaim that the Affordable Care Act, which was voted on more than once in Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court, was “snuck in.” Until I realized that I was smelling the remnants of smoke from the blackened chicken I’d made for dinner, I honestly thought it was the scent of neurons breathing their last and, mercifully, burning out.

If you do think that both parties, Democrats and Republicans, are equally to blame here, I can’t help you. My only encounters in this vein have made me certain that people who think this way aren’t looking at the facts objectively, but through more-independent-than-thou-colored glasses and with no awareness of the fact that such a view is actively encouraged by the GOP.***

This crowd usually describes the situation like this: “Congress is a bunch of spoiled kids.” I submit that, actually, Congress is made up of a bunch of spoiled kids whose parents have repeatedly refused to punish them no matter how many tantrums they’ve thrown or how often they’ve called their parents names, but in fact rewarded them, and a bunch of adults that are insufficiently empowered to deal with those spoiled kids – so, basically, teachers**** – who among themselves can’t decide how to work with the kids, and as a result, they haven’t been able to present a unified response.

Now the kids have decided that they’re tired of the adults in the room not letting them have everything they want, rather than ninety-five percent of it, and brought down the school on that basis. The teachers grow a spine and start actually pushing back on the kids’ terrible behavior, and the response from the people standing around and watching this all happen is, of all things, to say that the kids may be terrible, but the teachers suck for not somehow spontaneously developing the leverage to stop the kids from exhibiting the behavior in the first place.

. . . hold on a second. I feel like I’m on to something here.


* I’d call it legitimately contrarian, but I think treating “both sides do it” as the absolute narrative gives contrarianism a bad name. People who think this way aren’t arguing against a point for the hell of it. They’re ignoring reality because it makes them feel “cooler” to be on the outside of the party system.

** You might argue that this puts in doubt whether I’m really, philosophically, a cynic at all. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you if you did.

*** Oddly, if you make the case that the parties are basically acting in collusion here, I’m okay with that. No, I still don’t agree with you, but it’s closer to what I think the truth is than the “both parties are acting like spoilt children” meme.

**** Heeeeeeyooooooooooooooooo. I used to think that people should listen to teachers on politics, because our view of practical psychology is damn near unrivalled – we have to figure out how to get people to do things, or not do things, and make them think it was their idea all along. But after a day or two, it has become clear that even some people in this profession couldn’t tell their ass from a sinkhole with both hands and an illustrated dictionary.