Plumb Lines

January 29, 2010

Doug Kmiec and the Catholic Left

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:28 am

I’m grateful for the comments by Matt Milliner and  Commonweal editor Matt Boudway on my previous post on pro-life socialists. The first point I’d like to address is Matt B.’s claim that I am wrong to call Doug Kmiec an abortion apologist. Matt seems to think that I am simply reiterating Ross Douthat’s argument that Kmiec shilled for Obama. I’m actually going much further. The sad truth is that Kmiec’s support for Obama has led him to compromise the most fundamental pro-life principles. Take the following passage from Kmiec’s book Can a Catholic Support Him? in which Kmiec defends Obama’s vote against the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act:

So what does the ‘Born Alive’ Act do? Largely, it redefines what it means to be ‘born alive.’ From the time of ancient common law, ‘born alive’ has meant live birth at or near the end of a full term pregnancy with a reasonable prospect of survival. If a woman sadly miscarries earlier and expels a nonviable, but temporarily alive, unborn child with a transient heartbeat, there isn’t a county recorder in the country who would record a live birth. The miscarriage is sad enough; we don’t worsen it with the grief of death before life has meaningfully taken hold. But that’s what the ‘Born Alive’ Act does. For the most part, it redefines live birth to include nonviable unborns who lack any meaningful chance of survival. (pg. 65)

For Kmiec, a child with a “transient heartbeat” that lacks a “meaningful” chance of survival cannot even be said to have been born: the mother unceremoniously “expels” it from her womb. What does it mean to say that life has not “meaningfully taken hold,” and who is Kmiec to say when it has? Kmiec’s words reject the  truth that the pro-life movement has asserted for decades, namely, that every life has equal dignity regardless of duration or condition of disability.

Given the evidence I cite above, it’s hard for me to see why any magazine that claims to be pro-life would tolerate an association with Kmiec. If it’s all the same, I’d rather not debate the reprehensible views of our man in Malta. His twisted, misty logic has made him very hard to take seriously, and the most charitable response may be to dismiss him entirely.

Going back to Matt B.’s comment, I’d like to endorse his smart critique of single-issue voting and comments on pro-life liberalism. The liberal defense of life has an estimable legacy beautifully represented by the career of the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus.  However far right he moved, he always viewed life issues through the eyes of a liberal. Matt and I would probably agree that liberal arguments for compassion, inclusion, and justice will remain powerful weapons for the pro-life cause.

What is more controversial, and what I still believe, is that  leftist arguments against the industrial exploitation of embryos will  become increasingly important (and necessary) in the fight for life. Whatever that means long-term, I tend to agree with Matt Milliner’s comment that such arguments will, for the time being, find more of a home in conservative circles than they will in liberal ones.

-Matthew Schmitz


January 28, 2010

Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, Fecondite

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:18 am

Via Schaengold, I thought these photos of pro-life French socialists were great:

Another one of their signs said, “Le capitalisme c’est la mort. La revolucion c’est la vie.” Stiff stuff, but it’s telling that these people look so exotic to American eyes.

The reason, I think, is that today America has no socially conservative left worthy of the name. Take magazines like Commonweal or Sojourners. They have many good people working for them, of course, but most of their prominent representatives–people like Jim Wallis and Doug Kmiec–are various kinds of abortion apologists. Instead of calling for revolution and opposing capitalistic abortion practices, they spend most of their time justifying the pro-big business, anti-life Democratic Party.

A few blue dogs are better: people like Bart Stupak but not, alas, my own senator, Ben Nelson. Maybe the closest to the ideal of these French marchers is Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, a Republican and leading pro-lifer whose leftist views on economic and fiscal issues prompted Tom Delay to strip him of his committee chair.

Leftist rhetoric is likely to become more important to the pro-life movement as things like fetal farming and the industrial use of embryos become more prevalent. One possibility I can see would be the Front Porch Republic spawning a new kind of Pro-life left, one that takes the Christian socialist critique of a William Morris or John Ruskin and weds it to today’s concerns about bailouts, abortion and motorcycle repair. Procreons sans entraves!

-Matthew Schmitz

January 27, 2010

Eberstadt and the Sexual Revolution

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:21 am

In her typically illuminating First Things article on the decline of mainline Protestantism, Mary Eberstadt made one point that I thought needed a little prodding. Eberstadt blames the Anglican Church’s retreat on traditional sexual ethics to a misguided compassion: “Exactly as had happened with divorce, the Anglican okaying of contraception  was born largely of compassion for human frailty…”

Though Eberstadt does not say as much, this formulation seems to lay the blame for the change squarely at the feet of liberals, who, as David Schaengold once noted, are perhaps most distinguished by their rhetorical emphasis on compassion.  (Conservatives, meanwhile, are distinguished by a rhetoric of toughness.) But is compassionate goo-gooing really the main cause of the transformation in sexual morals?

Eberstadt’s own article suggests that compassion wasn’t the only emotion behind the change. Seeming stalwarts like Billy Graham okayed the pill to counter the “terrifying and tragic” problem of overpopulation. Indeed, many people were simply motivated by fear of overpopulation, poverty, and the menace of “less desirable” races out-reproducing whites. What was more significant, ultimately, than the emotions behind the decision was a typically modern faith in technical control, here applied to the body through the mechanism of the pill. The impulse to tame and battle nature turned inward as man aspired to regulate his own (or, in the case of contraception, her own) bodily functions.

It might make more sense to describe the reaction to the pill as progressive rather than liberal, since it combined dissatisfaction about present conditions with a faith in technical control and “solutions” to social “problems.” The fact that this reaction was shared by very nearly everyone indicates to what an extent the “progressive” reaction was, simply, the modern one. A belief in technical control, not a tendency to compassion, is Eberstadt’s real culprit.

-Matthew Schmitz

January 24, 2010

Not that I’m defending Friedman

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 10:29 pm

Poulos writes:

“Who more than the tea partiers favors small businesses? The idea that the tea partiers long only to ’stop things’ is so juvenile and crude that it hardly merits comment. But Friedman uses that idea to contrast a vision of real productive growth driven by individuals taking charge of their own destinies, which — last time I checked — is precisely the positive agenda that all tea partiers, regardless of sect or faction, tend to promote. Only a pundit like Friedman, however, could blind himself to this actuality, intent as he is on realizing in American practice what his beloved Chinese government has made possible only in theory: the marriage of ancient Egyptian despotism with the modern dynamism of Hong Kong. Only the government, you see, has the extraordinary, unilateral power necessary to breed and launch a million innovators!”

Isn’t there some worry that Friedman might be right? That we’ve reached precisely that stage of history where innovation requires despotism? Hence all the articles about the future of Authoritarian Capitalism. In which case despotism would still be despotism and liberty still liberty, but Friedman, while wrong to prefer despotism, would be right in a technical way. And of course the friends of liberty would in that case face a much more diabolical foe than the Mustache of Understanding.


The folly of Friedmanesque thinking is in its privileging of economics over politics. It cannot conceive of liberty politically, as an end. It can only contemplate liberty economically, as a means.

This folly hardly seems unique to Friedman. Isn’t it shared by most thinkers about what we now call politics? Is this the same as the Front-Porch critique of the GWB “go shopping” moment or the persistent reference to American citizens as “consumers”?

David Schaengold

January 21, 2010

Dogs That Ride Trains

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 10:51 am

The story begins:

On a winter evening, Romanova was returning with her beloved Staffordshire terrier from a visit to a designer who specialises in kitting out canine Muscovites in the latest fashions. The terrier was sporting a new green camouflage jacket as he walked with his owner through the crowded Mendeleyevskaya metro station. There they encountered Malchik, a black stray who had made the station his home, guarding it against drunks and other dogs. Malchik barked at the pair, defending his territory. But instead of walking away, Romanova reached into her pink rucksack, pulled out a kitchen knife and, in front of rush-hour commuters, stabbed Malchik to death.

The station’s commuters pooled money to erect a statue of Malchik. This being Russia, his death reflects a history of  political upheaval:

“This began in the late 1980s during perestroika,” he says. “When more food appeared, people began to live better and feed strays.” The dogs started by riding on overground trams and buses, where supervisors were becoming increasingly thin on the ground.

The rest is here.

-Matthew Schmitz

January 18, 2010

From Disco to Gym

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 5:00 am

In Vanity Fair’s story about disco culture, Nona Hendryx (of “Lady Marmalade” fame) talks about what came after the closing of Studio 54:

Where did the dancers go? They went to the gym. It became the new club. That’s where people started meeting people, started hanging out. They were trying to make themselves look healthier and better, they were playing music, they had dance classes.

If gyms are the discotheques of our day, ours is a pretty joyless, self-absorbed, and salty-sweet smelling day. On the other hand, one need only mention drugs and AIDs to be reminded of the downside of the discos. But gyms? Can’t you do better, America?

-Matthew Schmitz

January 15, 2010

Eric Rohmer 1920-2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Matthew Schmitz @ 4:32 pm

In this space I will be gathering reactions to the death of Eric Rohmer, the great Catholic filmmaker of the French New Wave. I will continue to update with relevant pieces as they come out, so feel free to recommend any I’ve missed.

A.O. Scott is Wrong about Rohmer (Jonathan Rosenbaum)
Body and Soul (Slate)
Calmly Dissecting Desire (New York Times)
The Cineastes’ Favorite Conservative (National Review)
Director Who Put Dialogue First (Financial Times)
Emphatically Cinematic Films (Moving Image Source)
Eric Rohmer and the Events of 1968 (World Socialist)
He Turned His Back on Hitchcock (Salon)
Intrinsically French Films (Expatica)
Leading Fimmaker of the French New Wave (New York Times)
A Meticulous Planner (Washington Post)
Moralist at the Heart of French Cinema (National)
My Favorite Director (Slate)
My Nights with Eric (New York Times)
Philosopher, Rhetorician, Ally of the Young (Guardian)
Rohmer Has a Twitter Meme (L Magazine)
Rohmer’s World (New Yorker)
Le Roman de Rohmer (Liberation)
Tales Well Told (L Magazine)
Talking at the Movies (Matinee Idle)

An even more extensive roundup here.

Also, a 1977 interview here, a collection of Rohmer’s essays from Cahiers du Cinema here, and film clips here. If you prefer pictures to words, start with this slideshow.

-Matthew Schmitz

January 13, 2010

Quote of the Day

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 3:58 pm

There is no riddle of existence that cannot be resolved, or robbed of its sting, in a David Brooks column. We are lucid now, and efficient; we are the quickest studies who ever lived. We throw no shadows. We know how things really work. We have the definite measure of everything. (Happiness, for example, is defined for us by social science; is an objective of public policy). Even as we cozily admit our fallibility, we exempt nothing from our brilliance. We dispel inwardness with our analysis of it. Hurriedly and without any suspicion that precious things are being driven away, we march smartly through all the pains and all the perplexities, and we call this dream of transparency, this aspiration to control, this denial of finitude, reason.

Leon Wieseltier

January 12, 2010

The Airport Kiss

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matthew Schmitz @ 11:14 am

I narrowly missed being one of the unlucky travelers delayed by the security breach at Newark’s Terminal C last week. (If you were one of them, you may want to stop reading.) I don’t envy the stranded travelers, but the “airport kiss,” with all its attendant delays and incalculable public expense,  may be the single most beautiful event of the year. Rutgers graduate student Haisong Jiang, 28,  made his (still anonymous) lover our modern Helen: the face that grounded a thousand planes.

The Times’ City Room blog compared the two lovers to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. The comparison that springs to my mind is Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift in Terminal Station. In that film, two lovers are forced to say goodbye in Rome’s Stazioni Termini. The station itself is the main character, its Fascist-designed spaces alternately confining their love or exposing it to the elements. The film’s director, Vittoria di Sica, interrupts the love story by showing people from all levels of Italian society–peasants, tourists, paparazzi, the president. The station becomes the Italian state, a state that makes no room for the two lovers.

So what does the airport kiss tell us about our state? I’m not quite sure. While I think Jiang should be punished harshly, there is a real value to his careless caresses. They puncture a climate of paranoia and remind us that despite the graphic shock of body scans, not all public displays are permitted.  I don’t like our security bureaucracy. It strikes me as nasty but necessary.  Which may be why I’m  encouraged to know that it is  as vulnerable to love’s folly as it is to calculated malice.

-Matthew Schmitz

January 11, 2010

I wish I’d written him a letter before he died

Filed under: Uncategorized — David Schaengold @ 5:07 pm

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