Radicalism: something we can all fall into

Talking over drinks with a parishioner last week I was struck by something he said: “When people feel like they’re getting nothing, they end dialog.”  He was referring to developments in American political life.  My parishioner’s comment has been with me for the last week.  Rarely does a person get 100% of what he/she wants out of an encounter.  If that’s the goal, dialog – encountering other people – becomes useless and society fragments into isolated tribalism.  Put another way: My late great uncle -commenting on economic life- used to say, “being middle class means making choices.  For the poor there is only one choice, ‘no.’ For the rich there is only one choice, ‘yes.’  For the rest of us life is a mix of, ‘yes,’ and, ‘no.’ ”  Another colleague, a psychologist, frames the issue thus, “It’s true you won’t ever get 100% of what you’re hoping for, but can you content yourself with 50?”  Looking through eyes of faith, if the Crucifixion teaches us anything, it certainly teaches us that even God himself did not ignore the reality of sacrifice as part of the human experience.  If you’re going to be a human person you can’t have everything you want.  But boy do we try…

In political life we’ve seen this in the growing perception of “division” in our country; so-called Radical Republicans, or Left-wing Democrats.  Paralysis in Congress and accusations of Executive overreach.  Not content with anything less than 100% each group becomes insular, defensive, and too often offensive.  All suffer from the fight that ensues.

Reporters tell us that working class non-college-educated white people in the US are discontented, as are the urban poor.  What do they have in common?  Our culture has failed to make them feel secure, valued, respected.  Gone are the church observances, block parties, retirement plans, bowling leagues and other varied forms of societal embrace that convinced people, “You know I may only have 50% of what I dreamt, but that’s not so bad.”  Without that embrace radicalization occurs.

We’ve seen it in the UK.  Brexit was a mass movement of older English subjects who felt awash and isolated in a new world.  Globalizing elites had forgotten about them so they raised their voice by voting for a radical change of national policy.  Was it a good idea?  Who can say… but it was a radical shift generated by a lack of societal embrace.

In Turkey, the recent coup was no surprise.  There, the military has been enforcing Ataturk’s secular vision since he founded the Republic after WWI… but what caused the coup?  The perception that the government in Ankara is becoming more radically nationalistic/Islamist… and that in response to decades of faithful Muslilm’s feeling marginalized in their own Turkish culture.  Unable to get 50% of what they wanted, they elected a strongman, Erdogan, to take it for them… hence the coup.

Generationally we saw something of this radicalization when former Secretary of State Madeline Albright rebuked younger women democrats for not being more supportive of Secretary Clinton: “We can tell our story of how we climbed the ladder, and a lot of you younger women think it’s done. It’s not done,” Albright said of the broader fight for women’s equality. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”  Speaking as a millennial myself I know many of my age cohort who are baffled that established leaders in society (mostly older than us) are still focused on race and male/female issues.  It would never occur to those of us educated in the 80’s and 90’s to discriminate on the basis of either.  We generally see challenges as economic, and victories as -eventually- achievable… indeed inevitable… through civil/cultural means.  An older generation may see that as a rebuke of their hard-fought revolution; it’s not.  If anything we are the product of their success, but because millennials are not 100% like their parents, parental figures like Secretary Albright (for whom I have immense respect as a public servant, by the way) sometimes fall into radical positions like condemning their fellow party members to hell.

Finally, even in the Church, radicalization can be a reality. For us, it’s the move from a healthy appreciation for Tradition to Traditionalism … from open-minded to progressivist.  The fastest way to turn an average reasonable Catholic into a liberal Catholic or a conservative Catholic is to tell them they are absolutely forbidden from having any (even 50%) of what they might reasonably be interested in.

This issue flared up most recently in a suggestion by Cardinal Sarah (the Pope’s chief advisor on matters of liturgical worship) that we may have misinterpreted the desires of the Second Vatican Council in matters of worship.  His Eminence suggested that a thorough study of the Council’s actual words, as well as historical evidence leading up to and following it reveals that priests really should celebrate the second half of the mass facing, with the People, toward God.  Sarah’s conclusions don’t come in a vacuum: Pope Benedict XVI, and much of the scholarship carried out under St. John Paul II support his conclusions (See the linked article in First Things by Dr. Christopher Ruddy for an able exposition on this).  The reaction to his words has been swift and strong from many quarters.  Personally I echo the thoughts of my brother priest, Msgr. Charles Pope (see linked article), that revisiting Conciliar teaching has to happen at the pace set by local bishops and that all of us owe due respect to them.  That said, the reactions of all whether in this particular example or those above should strive just that, “reactions” and not reactionary.

“When people feel like they’re getting nothing, they end dialog.”  When people don’t think they can respond through reasoned dialog they often turn to unreasonable violence (metaphorical or actual)… and that’s something we’ve seen far too much of.  So I’m not praying for 100% ever again, Id’ be thrilled with 50.