Changing the game

For those of us who find it impossible to cast a vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on November 8, this poem by Artur Miedzyrzecki, written during Poland’s Solidarity revolution, has a certain resonance:

What does the political scientist know?
The political scientist knows the latest trends
The current states of affairs
The history of doctrines

What does the political scientist not know?
The political scientist doesn’t know about desperation
He doesn’t know the game that consists
In renouncing the game

It doesn’t occur to him
That no one knows when
Irrevocable changes may appear
Like an ice-flow’s sudden cracks

And that our natural resources
Include knowledge of the venerated laws
The capacity to wonder
And a sense of humor

“The game that consists of renouncing the game” doesn’t mean refusing to vote for president this year. I intend to write in a candidate I judge fit for the office, which is not a description I can apply in good conscience to Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump. But however one resolves the presidential dilemma this year, perhaps serious Catholics can agree on two other matters, thinking about our civic responsibilities over the short-term and the long haul.

Mrs. Clinton’s unintentionally self-revelatory crack about the “deplorables” – into which category she would likely drop every Catholic committed to religious freedom in full, marriage rightly understood, color-blind equality before the law, and the right-to-life in all life’s stages and conditions – suggests that smart voting down-the-ballot is absolutely crucial this year. If the Scourge of the Deplorables is elected, it will be essential, over the next four years, to maintain the tension between an aggressive Clinton administration and the national legislature. If Mr. Trump takes office on January 20, 2017, it will be just as urgent to have a Congress as committed as possible to life, religious freedom, constitutional government, and colorblind equality as a counterbalance to who-knows-what will be coming out of the White House.

So the short-term task seems clear: Do everything possible to elect a pro-life, pro-religious-freedom-in-full Congress, then work overtime to holds its members to those commitments between now and January 20, 2021.

As for the long haul, orientation is crucial and a proper orientation begins with a frank acknowledgment that American political culture is sick. I don’t believe the illness is terminal, nor do I believe that four years of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump in the White House will necessarily finish off the Republic; if that’s true, then we’re in such bad shape that we’re already finished. But the sickness in our political culture is serious and it reflects the pathogens that have been at work for some time in the general culture.

What are they?

  • A raw individualism that conceives “freedom” as radical personal autonomy because it thinks of the human person as a twitching bundle of desires, the satisfaction of which is the full meaning of “human rights” and the primary task of government.
  • A lack of commitment to the common good, which shows up in everything from bad driving habits to declining volunteerism to tax cheating to declaring a pox on politics and sitting out elections.
  • The vulgarization of popular culture and entertainment, which has so deeply wounded our politics that they’ve become another form of reality-TV, producing a spectacle that should shame us into a collective examination of our consciences as consumers.
  • The confusion of “success” with sheer wealth by individuals, businesses, and corporate boards, which empties economic life of its vocational nobility and inculcates a counter-ethic of beggar-thy-neighbor competition that’s a grave danger to markets and a threat to the capacity of free enterprise to help people lift themselves from poverty.
  • A grotesque misunderstanding of “tolerance” and “fairness,” rooted in an even more comprehensive delusion about what makes for human happiness, which isn’t “I did it my way.”

The list could be extended ad nauseam, but perhaps the basic structure of our situation is in sharper focus. We must rebuild American political culture so that, at its presidential apex, it is far less likely to produce such a mortifying choice as the one created by this election cycle. That requires the rebuilding of our public moral culture. And that is a task for several generations, which must begin now, at the retail level.

COMING UP: Golden memories of a golden anniversary

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After Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium was torn down in the old hometown in 2002, I began describing the vast empty space left behind as “the abomination of desolation.” Things are a bit more sightly now: two apartment complexes and a new Y have been built on the site. In my mind’s eye, though, what I see on East 33rd Street is the old brick horseshoe where I learned baseball from my grandfather Weigel in the late 1950s – and where, a half-century ago, I had a foretaste of the joy of the Kingdom.

There were no air-conditioned skyboxes in those days; there weren’t even seats, but rather wooden benches. So fans (who were not yet a “fan base”) bought a newspaper on the way in as anti-splinter protection, the working class folks sitting on a News-Post and the white collar types on an Evening Sun. Concessions were primitive in the extreme: rubbery Esskay hotdogs; salty, stale popcorn; Nation Boh for those who had achieved their majority and watery Cokes for us small fry. Then as now, Baltimore felt like Calcutta-on-the-Patapsco for months on end. So on hot, humid summer evenings you didn’t come to Memorial Stadium to be seen, or to close a deal, or to consult your broker or your therapist on a cell phone: you came for baseball, period.

The agent of my initiation into the pastime’s mysteries, Frank Moore Weigel, I had christened “Dada” in my infancy: a prerogative inherent in being the Stammhalter, the elder son of his eldest son. Through Dada and those Oriole teams, my brother and I learned that people who say nothing happens at a ballgame don’t know what they’re looking at. Gus Triandos being about all the Birds had in those days by way of a power-hitter, we learned to savor strong pitching (taught by crafty old Harry “The Cat” Brecheen) and we reveled in brilliant defense. For if the Orioles of my youth struggled to score runs, they could do magic with the leather, the chief wizard being a baby-faced third baseman from Little Rock, Arkansas, named Brooks Robinson.

My baseball fever began to rise in 1957, when I was six and the O’s managed to play .500 ball over the course of the then-154 game season. They reverted to their sub-.500 norm in the next couple of years. But in 1960 the Orioles challenged the lordly (and loathed) Yankees for the American League gonfalon before fading to a second-place finish after a disastrous September series in the Bronx that taught me the truth of Ecclesiastes 8.11: “the heart of the sons of men is fully set to do evil.” With my adolescence sneaking around the corner, the Birds made another serious run in 1964, as manager Hank Bauer (whose face was aptly described as resembling a clenched fist) graced the cover of Time and Brooks Robinson was named A.L. most valuable player.

In the winter of 1965-66, the final piece of the championship puzzle fell into place when the O’s acquired Frank Robinson (discarded by the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager as an “old thirty”) in exchange for Miltiades Pappastediodis, whom you will likely remember as “Milt Pappas.” Robinson proceeded to win the Triple Crown in 1966, and to this day I have never seen a ballplayer who could bend a game to his will like Frank Robby. He, Brooks Robby, and the rest of the O’s waltzed through the American League, then flew to Los Angeles as underdogs to the mighty Dodgers in the World Series. But they beat Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax out on the left coast (with, perhaps, some assistance from the saliva of Mr. Moe Drabowsky in Game One). And on return to Baltimore, the Birds won Game Three of the Series with Dada and my brother John in attendance.

I was there with Dada for the fourth game, on October 9, 1966, sitting twenty rows or so behind first base. As Paul Blair caught Lou Johnson’s fly ball to complete Dave McNally’s 1-0 shutout and the Orioles’ four-game sweep, Memorial Stadium erupted, hoary south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line racial codes were abandoned as blacks and whites hugged and hollered, and I experienced a moment of unalloyed joy – a prolepsis of the Kingdom, if I may say.

Fifty years later, the glow remains.