The Music of The Spheres and The Terminally Tone-Deaf


I was watching a film called Chartres Cathedral and the Geometry of the Sacred the other day. For some reason, the Gothic gargoyles put me in mind of the Republican presidential primaries and their rather odd assortment of candidates.  And not because of any facial resemblance.  No, gargoyles take their name from their function: they’re rain spouts, and water gurgles through them.  Nevertheless, the medieval Catholic imagination could harmonize even the sound of gargoyles with the all-encompassing Music of the Spheres, the cosmic harmony of telos of which the great cathedrals are a visual representation.  But I doubt even a master musician could make harmony of the discordant nonsense the Republican gargoyles are spouting.Take Mitt Romney, to begin with. His campaign is a long series of rhetorical blunders held together by a mountain of cash. From the $10,000 bet, to the $374,000 “not much,” to talking about how many Cadillacs his wife drives and how many NASCAR team owners he knows, he just seems clueless. Romney has a talent for distancing himself from his audience, and never so much as when he is trying to get close to them.  It is not merely that he condescends, but does so without knowing it.

It is not too surprising that the mastermind of Bain Capital is more comfortable with the CEOs than with the line workers, but one can never quite overcome the feeling that to Mitt, you are just a number on a ledger, and one that is played off against another number in another ledger, one written in Chinese. It is not a warm feeling.

That brings us to the “Catholic” candidates, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.  The former is a pompous gasbag, despised by none so much as those who had to work with him when he was Speaker of the House. All his numerous allies from those days are conspicuous by their absence, and mutterings have been heard. From his new-found Catholic faith—and I really do welcome him into the fold—he has learned forgiveness, and he has graciously consented to forgive himself for his serial adulteries and heartless divorces. He may have forgotten the penance part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but I suspect the voters will impose their own penance, something more than three Hail Mary’s and an Our Father.

But it is not his adulterous past that will keep him down—we have learned to live with the peccadilloes of politicians—but his tone-deaf present. What he says is always so peculiarly out of tune, so that even when you want to agree with him, he makes it difficult to do so. For example, it is true, of course, that children should take responsibility for their desks and classrooms. This, along with a regimen of household chores, initiates one into the world of mutual responsibilities on which we all depend. But it has nothing to do with race, or class, or wealth. Rich children need it as much as poor ones, and white as well as black. The purpose is to prepare children to be adults, since childhood is the best time to learn this. But Gingrich in his tuneless-ness turns the best harmonies into absolute cacophonies.

That brings us to Santorum. Surely here is an acceptable candidate and a real Catholic, and one with the courage to stand up for basic issues, not merely abortion but even contraception. Indeed, one can say that he has been even more courageous than the bishops on this issue. In fact, I can’t recall the last time I heard a bishop or priest preach about chemical contraception. The issue hasn’t come up in public until the insurance flap, and the bishops are hoping the laity will follow them on something they haven’t mentioned for 40 years.

But Santorum has followed them, and done so faithfully in both his personal and political life.  Indeed, Santorum’s stand has already forced Romney into one of his patented same-day flip-flops, opposing the Blount amendment in the morning and supporting it in the afternoon.  Santorum’s courage and his determination are beyond question. So can he be the founder of a new polity, one that Catholics can and should get behind? Alas, no. Courage he has; sense, not so much. Again, the problem is one of tone, or rather tone-deafness. In his mouth, the best of music is sung off-key.

Take the education flap for example. Here is an issue that deserves some serious re-thinking, something more than the bland platitudes the President has offered. But in Santorum’s response, he came off as a shrill partisan who was, if anything, even more platitudinous.

First, he was wrong on the facts. Obama didn’t call for everybody to get a college degree, but for everyone to get advanced education, including community colleges and trade schools. As such, his position is identical to Santorum’s. But unfortunately, the sneering response of “What a snob!” aside from being inexplicable in itself, made Santorum look petty and partisan, or even a proponent of ignorance.

As such, he not only passed up a moment to have a serious discussion, but he might have made the discussion toxic. For indeed, Americans are seriously over-schooled and horribly under-educated. We live in a milieu of expensive ignorance, where universal education means that no one actually gets an education. We have truly achieved a state where no child is left behind by the simple expedient of assuring that no child will advance.

Our society is in need of serious de-schooling. Had Santorum reacted differently, he might actually have said something that resonated with the public, a public that already knows, in its heart of hearts, that something is wrong with our education system. As it is, he chose to preach to the choir, but drove the congregation out of the Church, and it will be difficult to bring up the subject again without being accused of being another Santorum. But parents know that throwing together a bunch of kids who don’t want to be in school with a bunch who really want to be there isn’t good for either side. They know that some among the young need to get out earlier and pursue a trade or a career. Rather than stand in their way, we should find ways to help them, ways that are, I suspect, much less expensive than paying for the education we don’t actually give them.

Now, when we see a common theme we may presume a common cause, and this tuneless-ness is too common to be coincidental. We could, I suppose, attribute the whole thing to ignorance and even incompetence. Perhaps the gargoyles are products of our educational system.  And after all, no one studies rhetoric any more, the art of persuasion, the art of making difficult ideas intelligible. If our statesmen are unintelligible, are mere politicians, we should not be surprised. But that problem has been with us a long time now. At this moment, something different is happening.

Some rhetorical skills are called for in handling the contraceptive debate, one that even the “pro-life” movement has more or less avoided for 40 years. Santorum took up the challenge, but handled it badly. I greatly suspect that the Obama administration contraceptive coverage mandate was a deliberate provocation to keep the issue alive. They reckoned that they would only offend the people who wouldn’t vote for them anyway, while being able to spin a narrative that the Republicans were “anti-women.” They figured they couldn’t lose, and Rush Limbaugh has dutifully obliged them by keeping it in the headlines another four days with his vulgar comments.

So why can’t the Republican candidates sing a conservative tune? Why are they all so off-key when they try? Because they are all raging liberals! Not, to be sure, on the so-called “social issues.” Here they are indeed “conservative,” either nominally, as in the case of Romney, or sincerely, as in the case of Santorum, or “who knows?” in the case of Gingrich. But in everything else, they are true liberals, especially in the case of the most radical social and economic liberalism. They are the servants of those engines of liberalism that rule the country and control the public tastes and discourse.  They cannot harmonize their economic liberalism with their social conservatism, and this is the source of the dis-chord.

Liberalism makes certain demands on the soul, and the primary one is that, for economic and social purposes, you must deny the soul. To be sure, you are permitted a “spiritual life,” so long as it doesn’t get in the way of “real” life. And of course there are “values,” and especially “family values.” But “values” are no longer something objectively connected to the nature of being, but merely another subjective preference, another commodity. For example, “family values” must not be allowed to extend to the economic realm in the form of the “just wage,” the economic foundation of family values. If you can afford a family, you can have one, but in no way can you assert that the whole purpose of an economy is to support and strengthen the family. Hence, children are just another consumer choice, to be played off against a summer vacation or a big-screen TV.

This makes the conservatives sound insincere or even hypocritical. Their economic discourse comes off as a defense of corporations, monopolies, outsourcing, finance capitalism, low wages, union-busting, and opposition to public funding of just about anything; there are no shared economic resources, no sense of mutual obligations, only isolated individuals competing for their own private gain at the expense of everybody else. Even on the abortion issue, human life is defended not on the grounds of its sacred and social character, but as yet another Lockean “right” belonging to isolated individuals. But the problem with Lockean rights is that there is no natural ordering. The political process alone is capable of ordering “rights,” and hence the question of whether the “right to life” is superior to a “right to privacy” or “autonomy” or the “right to control one’s own body” can only be resolved in the legislature, and not on the basis of natural law, or even common sense.

Although children are a practical necessity for the success of the family and the economy—China and Japan are discovering the disastrous effects of a “one-child” policy—they are a hindrance to the competitive individual. But while the conservatives are willing to defend the family in certain legal areas, they deny its essential place in the economic realm. Within the confines of liberalism, the family has no natural claims that must respected. But the problem of the family is an economic problem. The social, political, and economic orders are not neatly severable, but are part and parcel of each other. Hence, the “conservatives” cannot speak to families in the situation in which they actually find themselves; they speak fine words in the social realm, but advocate that which destroys families in the economic realm.

Now, I can hear some readers at this point shouting, “What about Ron Paul?” The problem with Ron Paul, from the standpoint of the Republicans, is that he is the most self-consistent liberal in the race, that is, a Libertarian. If you are going to be a liberal, only Ron Paul makes sense. But the party cannot permit a self-consistent liberal, because he would reveal too much about liberalism. Should the party run on a pure and undivided liberal platform, it cannot win. So, just as the Democrats cannot run on pure statism, the Republicans cannot run on pure liberalism. Both sides must obscure their own positions and pretend to be what they are not. Paul tells the truth about his own positions, and while the truth may set you free, it will not get you elected. That is why the party will not permit him on the podium, or if they must, will place him at an inconvenient hour.

A true conservatism can accommodate the family and the market, the Church and the State, and put them all in proper order. Just as the Gothic Cathedral could put the saint and the gargoyle in their proper places, and create a great harmony from discordant elements, the Church’s social doctrine can put all the elements of our fractured lives in their proper places. The modern world cannot do this. It demands that we divide everything, and put each thing in a separate compartment: family life is here, economic life is there; political life must be divorced from economic life; the spiritual life must be just a set of private preferences, with no public and social meaning.

An objection would arise at this point that a true conservatism cannot win a national election. This is certainly true, if you are talking about the next election, or even the one after that.  This is a problem intrinsic to democracy itself: it cannot play the long game. Everything is directed to the next contest. But the pseudo-conservatism we see in the Republican primaries is unlikely to win this election, either. If society is to be really reformed, then the public must be truly informed, and not merely educated.  This is a process that takes time. It is not merely a political task, but an evangelical one as well. We must turn off our iPods and listen for something greater. The determination to win must be predicated on the courage to lose; the task is not just for the next election, but for the next generation. We may have four more years of Obama.  God willing, in forty more years we’ll have a symphony.

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