Friday, July 6, 2012

My Old Selves

Twice today I was brought up against myself as I was years ago. It was like looking at an old picture from my college years and asking, “Was I really so skinny?”

I used to be a liberal, and I used to consider myself spiritual. Which is to say that I believed government had an obligation to provide just about everything for everyone of us, and I held with many “spiritually minded” people that Christianity has no more claim on man’s attention than any other religion.

Before, during, and after becoming Catholic four years ago, those views have changed. But it didn’t make my encounters with my old selves any less irksome.

I smiled when I opened the on-line edition of the New York Times this morning and recognized the name of an op-ed columnist, William E. Forbath, professor of law and history at the University of Texas. That could only be “Willy” Forbath, I thought, a year behind me at school but always an intellectual leader and all-around good-guy. I checked some on-line video and concluded that, without mistake, it was the same mild-mannered fellow, with diffident gestures masking a serene self-confidence.

That smile of recognition was my last. From the first sentence, Forbath posits the issues that enlightened government “self-evidently” must take up: “work and opportunity, poverty and dependency, material security and insecurity.” It turns out, according to his reading of history and law, that laissez-faire government is a “constitutional infirmity.” The Supreme Court’s recent decision on Obamacare may seem liberal-friendly, but “it also gave a boost to conservatives to revive the old laissez-faire Constitution in the polity and courts: new doctrine and dicums for their attack on the welfare and regulatory state.”

Forbath argues for a “distributive tradition” in the evolution of American law, one that step by step has set aside the Constitution in favor of progressive “reforms.” Underlying his logic is the “self-evident” truth that government must provide for us, all of us, equally, and very possibly without limiting the types of goods and services provided.

But what really got my goat was this: “The opinions [of the Supreme Court] are laced with shout-outs to the Tea Party and the right wing, affirming their crackpot originalism.” In Forbath’s view, the ranks of crackpotism are filled not only with members of the Tea Party and the right wing but also certain members of the Supreme Court who believe that their job is to interpret and uphold the original intent of the Framers, not to create or repeal laws themselves.

At noontime, I got a call from a fellow I knew in certain spiritual circles some years back, whom I will call Stan. He was in town, Stan told me, in fact just up the street, and he wanted to give me a hug. How could I resist? 

Stan was as dismissive of Christians as Willy was of conservatives. With self-satisfied certainty, he informed me that “within a few years of Christ’s death,” His followers had split up into “a hundred cults.” This proved something, which I’ve forgotten. He had this on good authority from a professor at a leading college. I didn’t ask him if he was a devoted reader of Elaine Pagels, but I thought I knew the answer. He was just the guy to prefer a “gnostic” Christianity to the real thing.

Stan and I discussed his new book about his interpretation of a certain well-worn spiritual symbol. Then, after lunch, he explained a couple of his recent money-raising schemes. Pyramid is a word he pointedly did not use when referring to these schemes, but he didn’t have to. The latest involves the hot new on-line scam of penny auctions. My spiritual friend has come round to thinking that, what with the economy in its current state, “multi-level marketing” and penny auctions are the way to go.

These unexpected encounters, one on-line, the other in-person, showed me the dismissive person I once was. I was that liberal, spiritual guy who loved swatting away conservative Christians with the back of my hand.

Maybe I’m being dismissive now, just using the opposite hand. If so, apologies all around. I do know that, where Willy Forbath is concerned, I’m picking a fight I cannot win. He always was smarter and more articulate than me, and he knows some law stuff. If he ever reads this post (highly unlikely), I’m in for it.


  1. Web, I'm troubled by this post for several reasons. You and I attended PEA with Willy and we all learned to debate our differences without demonizing the opposition. Your characterization of liberals as people who believe that "government had an obligation to provide just about everything for everyone of us" is dismissive and insulting.

    I'm also troubled by your enthusiasm for "laissez faire" economics on both moral and religious grounds. Moral, in that it runs counter to Jesus' teaching (Mathew 25:31-46)and religious in the sense of Church doctrine for over a century (for example:

    You have mischaracterized Willy's objections wingnut Republicans as dismissive of conservatives in general, and failed to note that recent SCOTUS decisions attempt to roll back the Commerce Clause to pre-Teddy Roosevelt America. Your world as described in this post accepts Dredd Scott and Plessy vs. Ferguson but rejects everything that sound Republicans such as Teddy Roosevelt and Ike supported - such as the dignity of labor and the need to restrict backroom capitalism ("trusts" in Teddy's words).

    I urge you to take another look at this post in the light of a new day and ask yourself if this is how you wish to manifest your faith.

    As to the jerks who taunt people of faith: they aren't worth your time or tears.

  2. Thanks, Chris. I always liked Willy, and I hope my affection for him shines through in the post, despite my disagreements with him. (A smarter-than-me good guy with serene self-confidence, right?) I think that my characterization of his positions is drawn faithfully from what Willy himself wrote and implied in his piece. As for "laissez faire," the Catholic Church teaches the principle of subsidiarity, which means that issues should always be handled at the most local level possible. There's a lot of laissez-faire in that. Dredd Scott and SCOTUS? You got me there, Chris. I was only trying to reply honestly from personal experience to two encounters yesterday, not to engage in lengthy debate about legal history, where I am clearly out of my depth. BTW, I have heard through a mutual friend that Willy has read my post (!!), and so far he hasn't sent any bombs my way. I imagine we would still meet as friends.

  3. Of course you would, and so would we.


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