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.

South Toward Home

61Gg+--6UeL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_At the end of September in 2015, I drove up from Tallahassee to Savannah, Georgia for a weekend. While part of that trip was to visit with a friend who was going to be there at the same time as me, another motivating factor was to make the trip to Flannery O’Connor’s home in Millidgeville, Georgia, a couple of hours away from Savannah. I’d made trips to the homes and relevant locations of other writers I loved (particularly Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway) but I still hadn’t been to the famed Andalusia farm of O’Connor even though I now lived in the (relatively) same part of the country for quite a few years. Since I didn’t know when I would be getting that close to Millidgeville again, I decided I should make a special effort and finally  make the pilgrimage to the town so closely associated with Flannery.

The truth of the matter was that I had not really appreciated the degree to which I was interested in Southern writers. There were those I knew I had a great love for, like the aforementioned O’Connor and her Southern Catholic compatriot Walker Percy, but Andre Dubus and Eudora Welty and, of course Faulkner (though I still stand firmly on the side of Hemingway in the mythological bout between William and Ernest, I certainly appreciate Faulkner’s powers as a writer). But while I read Southern writers and I was aware of the idea of the Southern writer as seen in courses taught on that very topic, I’d never considered myself as someone who was particularly engaged with Southern writers in a meaningful way.

Just before I was going to leave on this trip to Savannah and Millidgeville to go into The South (in all that those capital letters imply), I came across Margaret Eby’s book South Towards Home. I can’t remember where exactly I came across the book, what publication had offered up a favorable review that made it very enticing, but it was on my radar and when it happened to show up at our local Barnes & Noble I was sure to pick up a copy and I made my way through it with the alacrity that is indicative of a well-written and engaging work.

Eby, a journalist and critic who has written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Salon, Slate, and is currently the features and essays editor for HelloGiggles, “a positive online community for women […] covering the latest in culture, female empowerment, style, relationships, friendship, careers, and issues that matter most to young women’s lives,” writes a travelogue of a journey throughout the south to see the landmarks and places closely related to that region’s most prolific writers that in some way illuminates what it is about the South that makes its writers so remarkable and their writing so distinctly and wonderfully southern. What Eby does in this book, and what makes it both so enjoyable and worth reading for the novice as well as the expert, is to seamlessly blend thoughtful travel writing and historical background with a sharp focus and critical eye that speaks to a knowledge and understanding of the source material crafted by these writers. This is a book that both speaks to those who know very little-to-nothing about these writers as well as those who are a bit more familiar with those upon whom she focuses.

I felt this to be particularly true as I represent both sides of that equation. I did not know much of anything about Eudora Welty and Richard Wright beyond the few things I’d read by them, and I was woefully in the dark regarding Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, and even John Kennedy Toole (who so caught the attention of one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy), thus the chapters focusing on them were welcome introductions that encouraged me to either read more by these authors or to read something by one of them for the very first time. But I felt like, as she talked about Welty’s garden or the hot dog vendors of New Orleans that feature so prominently to Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, I was being better prepared to tackle and understand their work, reflecting Eby’s insight into what is most essential and factors most greatly into our understanding of these writers and their writing.

Those chapters on the authors about which I knew a good bit more– William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and of course Flannery– were just as interesting as well. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on O’Connor, her home in Millidgeville, and the famous peacocks that she brought onto the grounds. But within that, there were many biographical bits of information or observations about O’Connor and her work that I had never encountered before and that made me realize certain things about O’Connor that I had not realized before that moment. Though it is perhaps something that cannot be translated to any kind of quantifiable form, it is this quality that displays that this is a book that is not just restating things or that Eby is writing a book for the novice. This is a book that can hold the interest of someone who has (or likes to think they have) a grasp on these things.

I sometimes feel as though we (those of us in the realm of literary criticism) often shy away from the biographical so much and so greatly that we never take the time to familiarize ourselves with those things to the degree that we should. While I’m not saying that all critical endeavors need to be the byproduct of biography and constantly refer back to the author’s life, there should be more encouragement and space allowed to fully acquaint ourselves with the histories of these authors we work on, something that came to mind as I read South Towards Home, which provides this blend of critical reading of the primary texts with the biographical and historical foundation that helps us as readers to better understand and comprehend what we’re reading.