On O’Connor’s Politics and a “Compassionate Liberalism”

As one does on a Saturday afternoon, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed. In between tweets about the misdeeds and particular awfulness of the Trump White House and the goings-on across many different professional sports leagues, I came across this tweet by the author (and famed Twitter user) Joyce Carol Oates:

cover-500My reaction to Oates’ tweets has in the past either been positive or indifference and, generally, her political tweets have been things that I’ve found myself in agreement with. This tweet, which featured a re-tweeting of something delightfully snarky that Flannery said about academics, was one that did not sit well with me. It’s not that surprising that Oates would hold an absolutist or negative view of Catholicism but to cast O’Connor as an “ultra-conservative” reflects a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of both O’Connor and Catholicism. While O’Connor’s religious belief made her “conservative” in the sense that it sought to preserve a tradition or connect to a past order (as William Clancy describes in a 1960 issue of Commonweal describing the liberal Catholic point of view, “In the first place, every Catholic—and this includes every “liberal” Catholic—is in a certain sense a conservative. And this is true by definition. It would be monstrous to maintain otherwise. The Catholic accepts a Revelation that was once and for all delivered to the apostles; it is part of his patrimony to conserve this Revelation and to pass it on”) to describe her as an “ultra-conservative” is to take things a step too far. While no one would confuse O’Connor with a strict liberal or progressive, to cast her as a strict conservative misunderstands her and what she espoused.

Talking about who Flannery would or would not have voted for or supported seems like a pretty wasteful use of one’s time. Would she have sneered as some elements of the left and liberalism in the present? Absolutely. But she would sneer at just about everything in the modern world because that was her position, a healthy skepticism with many things about the modern world in which she lived. One shouldn’t overlook that, along with all the fools that think they’ve overcome the need for religion through science and modernity, O’Connor also portrayed the foolishness of those who turned to a performative and overly simplistic religious belief for a sense of superiority. There was certainly a great deal of O’Connor’s writing that criticized and “sneered” at those who claimed to be truly religious but were merely using those things for their own purposes, the kinds of people with which we are inundated and make up much of the right of the present political spectrum.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized it reflected the issues I do have with some elements of liberalism as it is understood in America at present. While, to be certain, much of what I think is in line with modern liberalism in America– a robust welfare state, a free-but-justly-regulated market economy, subscribing to the notion that the government is something that can help achieve the common good and benefit the population, etc. etc.– what Oates hints at, particularly as it relates to organized religion, gives me pause. Those who share this point of view seem to inhabit the Kierkegaardian notion, in my rough understanding of his philosophy, of the ethical stage. In particular, that the laws and the system are the end unto themselves and that order and morality is all that matters.

My view of liberalism, or at least as it is presently constructed in the United States, is that it is the tool, the best one in my estimation, for doing the most good for the most people efficiently. It is not perfect, sometimes it will take smaller steps than one might like, but on the whole it does this job. The emphasis on the individual that is present is something that I find in line with my existentialist sensibilities and is part of what I find unpalatable about more Marxist/leftist/socialist lines of thinking, philosophies and beliefs that do not allow (in my opinion at least) as much freedom and importance for the individual but rather speak in terms of large groups and movements that undervalue or underestimate the individual’s importance.

But liberalism and the structures of governance that come along with it are instruments, they are not the end unto themselves. Kierkegaard makes the point, as he discusses the stages in which one must pass, that the ethical is not overlooked or forgotten once one moves into the third and final stage, the religious. Rather the ethical is subsumed into it, continuing to exist but its existence is predicated by the acknowledgment and acceptance of that larger figure that is (take your pick) God/the divine/the absolute. For the kind of liberalism that comes out through that tweet by Oates, there is not that acknowledgment of that thing which goes beyond, which provides the more lasting and eternal reason for the existence of the ethics or morality that the laws and government reflects.

To be clear, I don’t think that more leftist (and, again, feel free to pick the specific term you want to use to signify what I’m talking about here) lines of thought get away from this. Those almost have too much of an absolute or, put another way, that ethical component is tossed aside rather than being incorporated in. While the most orthodox and strict of liberals today are only stuck in that ethical stage and don’t suppose a “religious” stage, the leftist standpoint would suppose that the ethical is the religious. Also, as I said above, I find my conception of the individual and the emphasis I place on it by virtue of my existential sensibilities does not mesh well with the ways in which much of this leftist thought reduces the individual to being strictly a piece within these larger and strictly economic groups. But just because I have these major issues with the left does not mean that  I find all manifestations of liberalism palatable and the kind that comes to mind from Oates’ tweet and the attitude towards the religious it espouses is one I have issues with as well.

It should be noted that I am aware that I am talking about things in a very oversimplified way and talking about very big ideas in a very broad and sweeping way, whether it be the philosophy of Kierkegaard or these political systems and movements. I also know that, in terms of the politics, I’m generalizing a bit and there is certainly nuance to be found within all these different schools of thought. But while I am talking in these broad, perhaps reductive, terms I do think this point is one worth making.

I find myself thinking about Matthew Sitman’s recent essay in Dissent on our current need for a vocal and present Christian Left. In that essay, he writes:

This basic moral posture means viewing people in terms other than efficiency and utility. It demands humility in the face of social problems: refusing to pathologize the poor; understanding how circumstances or bad luck press upon us; and grasping that we are fallible and flawed beings, not utility-maximizing agents. No human being should be a mere abstraction, a person whose life and livelihood is made expendable by the supposed demands of creative destruction. It also means seeing through the illusions of those who believe the present order of things, the “winners” and “losers” of the status quo, have truly earned all that they have. It becomes a plea to de-link our politics and economics from notions of deserving and undeserving, from the self-serving justifications of meritocracy. We have to strip away the illusion that things are the way they are simply because of differences in virtue.

“The starkest divides that we face are over these matters,” Sitman follows “[a]nd when it comes to such fundamental convictions—on what serving the dignity of the human person means, on what our neighbors deserve—religious people, social democrats, the populist left, and compassionate liberals can find agreement,” and on this he is assuredly true. What must be at the heart of one’s liberalism in this time is a compassion, a care about one’s fellow-man and the world around them that goes beyond mere utility and efficiency. While I don’t think that compassion has to come about from religious belief (or, more specifically, a believed in an organized religion), I do believe it requires an acknowledgment of something larger that goes beyond a mere technical preference or a grounding in something akin to Kierkegaard’s ethical stage. What Oates’ tweet misunderstands about religious belief (in this case, the Catholicism of Flannery O’Connor) is that it is not just a conservative source but also the driving force for a “compassionate liberalism” that is so important, both in this time and throughout recent American history.

Daredevil (or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Comic Book Adaptations Again)

tumblr_nmq5g2N4xJ1t7b5qro1_500 About a year or so ago, I thought I was finished with super heroes, comic books, and comic book movies. I was feeling fatigued, their omnipresence and the notion that the only source of new entertainment we potentially had would come in the form of adaptations of comic books and super hero-centric narratives. Avengers: Age of Ulton came out and while it was enjoyable, it wasn’t a revelation in the same way that the first Avengers film was. I feel like my reaction to Ant-Man was much the same– “Yes, this was entertaining and fun and well made, but did we really need it?” Captain America: Civil War fell into the Age of Ulton trap (in that I enjoyed it and thought it was well done, but it didn’t feel like something transcendent) while the utter and abject catastrophe that was Fantastic Four and the moderate disaster that was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice left me feeling pretty removed and worn out from the whole comic book/super hero experience.

A funny thing happened, however, on my way from leaving behind the super hero universe (especially those properties associated with Marvel, the comic book company with which I had been brought up and followed since childhood). In the words of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III (a film I’d, all things being equal, like to forget), “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” And that pull back in came in the form not of a feature film, but rather in the form of a Netflix original series adaptation of one of Marvel’s more interesting characters– Daredevil.

Marvel’s move to television (I say television in the broadest sense, as obviously Netflix is not exactly what we think of when we think of broadcast television) began with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter on ABC, expanding on the popular Avengers universe from the films. Despite the sometimes good things I’d heard about these shows, I hadn’t felt compelled to watch. However, in 2015 they went in a slightly different direction with the release of the first season of Daredevil on Netflix, uploaded all at once in the House of CardsOrange is the New Black mode. I started watching shortly after it was uploaded, though I got distracted by other things, but returned to it recently with the release of the second season earlier in 2016. Coupled with the first season of Jessica Jones from 2015, Marvel had made a real strong foray into the realm of serialized television entertainment and Daredevil was leading the charge.

I won’t get too much into recapping the Daredevil narrative (if you want to know more about the character, I would direct you here) but the very, very abbreviated of this story is that Hell’s Kitchen resident Matthew Murdock (portrayed in this series by Charlie Cox) is blinded after being hit with radioactive waste but, in turn, is given super powers and abilities that make up for that lack of sight (and then some) and as an adult chooses to use his abilities to fight against crime and injustice. Season 1 provides us with that origin along with Matthew’s first forays into vigilante crime fighting and his first battle with Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin (played here by Vincent D’Onofrio) as he also struggles to deal with his “normal” life and friends such as Foggy Nelson and Karen Page. Season 2 expands upon the universe that has been created, introducing characters from the comic book run of the character such as Frank Castle (or the Punisher), Elektra, and the enemy known as The Hand, as well as setting up for the incorporation of characters like Jessica Jones (who already has one season of her own Netflix series that I’ve been meaning to watch), Luke Cage (the feature character of another very well-received Netflix series), and Iron Fist (that resulted in a Netflix series that was met with, shall we say, some negative criticism) in The Defenders.

These two seasons of Daredevil have been standout to me, making me interested both in superhero media as well as going back to reading comics (with a special shoutout to Marvel Unlimited and Comic Book Herald for helping out with this process). What makes the Marvel shows on Netflix, and Daredevil in particular, stand out is how realistic they are. OK, maybe realistic isn’t the best term since anything with people possessing superhuman abilities will not be entirely realistic, but it’s certainly more grounded in the real world. Matthew Murdock is not a kind of demigod or superhuman but rather someone who is gifted, both with human and what we might understand as superhuman gifts, but one who is incredibly human and must deal with all that reality presents and challenges him with. It is this quality I like so much about the character of Daredevil, particularly how he’s portrayed in this adaptation, as he’s something like a private investigator almost in the Sam Spade-Philip Marlowe model. He’s one who is acting alone but is not fighting against the good. From this quality to the cinematography and the general aesthetics, there is definitely a noir-ish feel to the show. It is a show that’s of the streets and it feels like that, rather than something that feels like it’s happening in an overly polished and scrubbed up version of reality.

But beyond just being a well made and unique approach to the filmed superhero adaptation, I found myself particularly interested in and engaged by Daredevil the character. The picture I’ve included with this post will perhaps tip you all off as to why. The character of Matthew Murdock, throughout the majority of his comic book existence and in a much more pronounced way in the more modern iterations of his character, is a Catholic and that informs him and who he is. Now I’m not interested in getting to a discussion of how Catholic Matthew is or whether he’s a good Catholic or what have you. That can be debated to no end and, in many ways, doesn’t matter. The fact of the matter is that Matthew approaches the world, and thus his work as Daredevil as well, through the eyes and perspective of a Catholic and thus it makes it a show (and Matthew as a character) one that is in some way engaging or reflecting certain Catholic ideas. For quite obvious reasons, this is something that makes the show and the character most interesting to me.

I also think it reflects what makes this series good, by which I mean that there is a thematic substance that exists. It’s doing something more than just adapting for the sake of adapting (and to make boat loads of money I would imagine) and it’s engaging with ideas that go beyond the superhero and Marvel universe for the sake of continuing a franchise. In other words, even if one doesn’t have much familiarity with the character of Daredevil or the super hero/comic book world, they can still get a lot out of this. This is what these Marvel products, and all super hero-centric products in general, should be doing, striving for a… not broader audience necessarily but for making things that are interesting beyond merely being adaptations of familiar characters. Shows like Daredevil show how good a comic book adaptation can be and other directors and show runners would do well to follow the model it has created.

Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering

Though it came and went from theaters without much (relative) critical fanfare and impressive box-office numbers, the film I was 4459most excited about from late 2016 into 2017 was Martin Scorsese’s Silence, an adaptation of the Japanese author Shusaku Endo’s novel of the same name. Any Scorsese project is going to grab my attention, but Silence was one in which I was particularly interested as it was a long-gestating passion project for the famed American director. In the run-up to the film’s release, I came across a book by the painter Makoto Fujimura entitled Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of SufferingI’d heard about Fujimura from a couple different people, both that he wrote this book and he was holding a discussion with Martin Scorsese to discuss the film (you can find a video of that discussion here).

Silence and Beauty is an interesting work to try to talk about because it does not fit neatly into one specific category or genre (making my trying to appraise it a very difficult task, but I digress). It is not solely about Endo’s novel nor Scorsese’s adaptation of the film yet it is constantly returning to that primary text. It is not a work of literary criticism in the traditional sense, yet it reveals and helps one to better understand the novel. It is not a memoir, but Fujimura draws very much from his own life and experience. It is about Endo’s novel but it is also about art, both Fujimura’s own art as well as Japanese art in general. It provides an interesting window into much of the history of Japan yet the history does not dominate and it is not interesting solely as an account of a country’s history. It is all of those things and yet not solely that, it is certainly a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The book was described in this way by its publisher:

Endo’s Silence took internationally renowned visual artist Makoto Fujimura on a pilgrimage of grappling with the nature of art, the significance of pain and his own cultural heritage. His artistic faith journey overlaps with Endo’s as he uncovers deep layers of meaning in Japanese history and literature, expressed in art both past and present. He finds connections to how faith is lived in contemporary contexts of trauma and glimpses of how the gospel is conveyed in Christ-hidden cultures. In this world of pain and suffering, God often seems silent. Fujimura’s reflections show that light is yet present in darkness, and that silence speaks with hidden beauty and truth.

I think the word “reflection” is particularly apropos in this instance and does a good job of explaining what exactly this book is. Fujimura uses Endo’s Silence as a beginning point, reflecting on what was said and depicted in the novel and then using it to explore aspects of his life, his art, his faith, and Japanese art, culture, and history. It is not really a thesis-driven work, one trying to make a specific point or argument about the text upon which Fujimura focuses, but rather it uses the text as a window into these different arenas. It displays how one can meditate upon a great work of art (in whatever medium) and use it as a means to consider the most important questions and concerns one can have.

The sections of the book that were particularly interesting to me were the sections that focused on Japanese history and culture. Part of it was because I just did not know all that much about the history of Japan.  What Fujimura provides here is a window into what constitutes Japanese culture and why it is that way, particularly as it relates to the themes and topics that emerge from Endo’s novel. The idea of the insider culture versus the outsider, the fumi-e and the specifics surrounding that, Fujimura illuminates those ideas and topics so that a novice such as myself can better understand their importance and relevance to Endo’s novel. However, the history does not overwhelm the reader as Fujimura is sure to focus on the things that are relevant for the “narrative” he is trying to tell in this book. It certainly made certain aspects of Silence much more clear or meaningful to me as a reader while also giving me a better sense of a culture I knew next-to-nothing about and that now I wish to understand even better.

But what I responded to the most in Fujimura’s book was the way in which he engaged religion and religious belief. Fujimura depicts the mind of the believer and provides a window into it as a way of considering one’s thinking. One sentence really stuck with me and stuck me (though that is not to say that there weren’t many more throughout the book that did, but this one was far and away my favorite): “Doubt is not the opposite of faith but only an honest admission of our true condition, wrestling against the fallen world in which God seems to be silent.” It is this idea that Fujimura returns to throughout his book and what he puts forth as perhaps the most central component to understanding Silence. Though the narrative of Silence takes place in what seems like (and in many ways is) a whole other world, Fujimura brings out this point that is still relevant to the world we live in, one that sees doubt and questioning as a rejection of faith and belief and that values certainty to the point of rigid and unchanging ideology. This is where Silence and Beauty becomes more than merely a reflection upon Endo’s novel. Fujimura engages with questions about what does it mean to be a believer, a Christian, and how does this manifest itself in one’s life. What Fujimura does is to bring to the light the deep and rich faith that is hidden in Silence. It is not faith as we might initially conceive of it or that we understand most easily and directly, but it is something that is strong and lasting and powerful. I certainly know that Fujimura’s conception of faith and the way he describes it is very much in line with what I believe and how I see myself, and thus it was something that greatly resonated with me.

Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering is a fascinating book. It provides helpful context as well as illuminative readings of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence (as well as Martin Scorsese’s recent film adaptation). Fujimura also addresses art, faith, and Japan in a way that goes beyond a mere discussion of Endo’s work. As an accomplished artist, a Christian, and one of Japanese descent, he is perhaps uniquely qualified to discuss and examine these topics and he does so effectively and thoughtfully. Silence and Beauty provides a focused reflection upon a novel and film adaptation that is still relevant in our world today, and that we all would benefit from considering the lessons of that novel and reflecting on its meaning in our own lives. It is definitely something I would recommend, not just to those who have read Silence or seen Scorsese’s film adaptation (though it certainly helps) but to anyone who is interested in thinking about the larger and important questions as well as man and his place in the cosmos and relative to the divine.