Meritocracy is in the eye of the beholder.
A running theme in Jonah Goldberg’s fantastic new book, Suicide of the West, is the extent to which those who were bequeathed the blessings associated with classically liberal capitalist models of governance are cursed with crippling insecurity. Western economic and political advancement has followed a consistently upward trajectory, albeit in fits and starts. Yet, the chief beneficiaries of this unprecedented prosperity seem unaware of that fact. In boom or bust, the verdict of many in the prosperous West remains the same: the capitalist model is flawed and failing.
Capitalism’s detractors are as likely to denounce the exploitative nature of free markets during a downturn as they are to lament the displacement and disorientation that follows when the economy roars. The bottom line is static; only the emphasis changes. Though this tendency is a bipartisan one, capitalism’s skeptics are still more at home on the left. With the lingering effects of the Great Recession all but behind us, the liberal argument against capitalism’s excesses has shifted from mitigating the effects on low-skilled workers to warnings about the pernicious effects of prosperity.
Matthew Stewart’s expansive piece in The Atlantic this month is a valuable addition to the genre. In it, Stewart attacks the rise of a permanent aristocracy resulting from the plague of “income inequality,” but his argument is not a recitation of the Democratic Party’s 2012 election themes. It isn’t just the mythic “1 percent,” (or, in the author’s estimation, the “top 0.1 percent”) but the top 9.9 percent that has not only accrued unearned benefits from capitalist society but has fixed the system to ensure that those benefits are hereditary.
Stewart laments the rise of a new Gilded Age in America, which is anecdotally exemplified by his own comfort and prosperity—a spoil he appears to view as plunder stolen from the blue-collar service providers he regularly patronizes. You see, he is a member of a new aristocracy, which leverages its economic and social capital to wall itself off from the rest of the world and preserves its influence. He and those like him have “mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.” This corruption and Stewart’s insecurity is, he contends, a product of consumerism. “The traditional story of economic growth in America has been one of arriving, building, inviting friends, and building some more,” Stewart wrote. “The story we’re writing looks more like one of slamming doors shut behind us and slowly suffocating under a mass of commercial-grade kitchen appliances.”
Though he diverges from the kind of scientistic Marxism reanimated by Thomas Piketty, Stewart nevertheless appeals to some familiar Soviet-style dialectical materialism. “Inequality necessarily entrenches itself through other, nonfinancial, intrinsically invidious forms of wealth and power,” he wrote. “We use these other forms of capital to project our advantages into life itself.” In this way, Stewart can have it all. The privilege enjoyed by the aristocracy is a symptom of Western capitalism’s sickness, but so, too, are the advantages bestowed on the underprivileged. Affirmative action programs in schools, for example, function in part to “indulge rich people in the belief that their college is open to all on the basis of merit.”
It goes on like this for another 13,000 words and, thus, has the strategic advantage of being impervious to a comprehensive rebuttal outside of a book. Stewart does make some valuable observations about entrenched interests, noxious rent-seekers, and the perils of empowering the state to pick economic winners and losers. Where his argument runs aground is his claim that meritocracy in America is an illusion. Capitalism is, he says, a brutal zero-sum game in which true advancement is rendered unattainable by unseen forces is a foundational plank of the liberal American ethos. This is not new. Not new at all.
Much of Stewart’s thesis can be found in a 2004 report in The Economist, which alleges that the American upper-middle-class has created a set of “sticky” conditions that preserve their status and result in what Teddy Roosevelt warned could become an American version of a “hereditary aristocracy.” In 2013, the American economist Joseph Stiglitz warned that the American dream is dead, and the notion that the United States is a place of opportunity is a myth. “Since capitalism required losers, the myth of the melting pot was necessary to promote the belief in individual mobility through hard work and competition,” read a line from a 1973 edition of a National Council for the Social Studies-issued handbook for teachers. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which for some reason produces a curriculum for teachers, has long recommended that educators advise students poverty is a result of systemic factors and not individual choices. Even today, a cottage industry has arisen around the notion that Western largess is decadence, that meritocracy is a myth, and that arguments to the contrary are acts of subversion.
The belief that American meritocracy is a myth persists despite wildly dynamic conditions on the ground. As the Brookings Institution noted, 60 percent of employed black women in 1940 worked as household servants, compared with just 2.2 percent today. In between 1940 and 1970, “black men cut the income gap by about a third,” wrote Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in 1998. The black professional class, ranging from doctors to university lecturers, exploded in the latter half of the 20th Century, as did African-American home ownership and life expectancy rates. The African-American story is not unique. The average American income in 1990 was just $23,730 annually. Today, it’s $58,700—a figure that well outpaces inflation and that outstrips most of the developed world. The American middle-class is doing just fine, but that experience has not come at the expense of Americans at or near the poverty line. As the economic recovery began to take hold in 2014, poverty rates declined precipitously across the board, though that effect was more keenly felt by minority groups which recovered at faster rates than their white counterparts.
As National Review’s Max Bloom pointed out last year, 13 of the world’s top 25 universities and 21 of the world’s 50 largest universities are located in America. The United States attracts substantial foreign investment, inflating America’s much-misunderstood trade deficit. The influx of foreign immigrants and legal permanent residents streaming into America looking to take advantage of its meritocratic system rivals or exceeds immigration rates at the turn of the 20th Century. You could be forgiven for concluding that American meritocracy is self-evident to all who have not been informed of the general liberal consensus. Indeed, according to an October 2016 essay in The Atlantic by Victor Tan Chen, the United States so “fetishizes” meritocracy that it has become “exhausting” and ultimately “harmful” to its “egalitarian ideals.”
Stewart is not wrong that there has been a notable decline in economic mobility in this decade. That condition is attributable to many factors, ranging from the collapse of the mortgage market to the erosion of the nuclear family among lower-to middle-class Americans (a charge supported by none-too-conservative venues like the New York Times and the Brookings Institution). But Mr. Stewart will surely rejoice in the discovery that downward economic mobility is alive and well among the upper class. National Review’s Kevin Williamson observed in March of this year that the Forbes billionaires list includes remarkably few heirs to old money. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, inherited wealth accounts for about 15 percent of the assets of the wealthiest Americans,” he wrote. Moreover, that list is not static; it churns, and that churn is reflective of America’s economic dynamism. In 2017, for example, “hedge fund managers have been displaced over the last two years not only by technology billionaires but by a fish stick king, meat processor, vodka distiller, ice tea brewer and hair care products peddler.”
There is plenty to be said in favor of America’s efforts to achieve meritocracy, imperfect as those efforts may be. But so few seem to be touting them, preferring instead to peddle the idea that the ideal of success in America is a hollow simulacrum designed to fool its citizens into toiling toward no discernable end. Stewart’s piece is a fine addition to a saturated marketplace in which consumers are desperate to reward purveyors of bad news. Here’s to his success.
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Capitalism: Bad Again After All These Years
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And it long predates Trump.
The latest NATO summit got underway in Brussels this week, and President Trump brought all of his signature rhetorical subtlety to the Belgian capital. Off the bat at a meeting Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump accused Germany of being “captive” to Russia. The remark ruffled diplomatic feathers in the Western alliance and touched off a predictable freakout among reporters and pundits back home.
When Trump insults Merkel and Germany, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell tweeted, “Putin wins.” Mitchell’s horror was shared across the foreign-policy establishment. Many American liberals like to think of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel as a one-woman bulwark against populism and Putinism at a time when the putative leader of the free world—Trump—is an unabashed populist and, they suspect, a crypto-Putinist.
Reality is a lot messier.
Yes, Trump’s suggestion that Germany is “captive” to Russia was a bit much. But it is true that, among the top NATO powers, Berlin has often struck a wobbly pose in response to Russian aggression and other threats to the West. With few exceptions, the country’s leaders view Germany less as a member of the Western military alliance and more as a commercial and diplomatic intermediary between East and West. Germany’s drift toward Moscow—there is no other way to describe it—began long before Trump came on the scene.
Start with the Nord Stream II pipeline, which provided the immediate context for Trump’s barb. The project—a joint venture of Gazprom, the Vladimir Putin-linked energy giant, and several European firms—would allow Russia to deliver some 55 billion cubic meters of gas directly to Germany. Running on the Baltic seabed, Nord Stream II would bypass existing land routes, which is why it has nearly all of Central and Eastern Europe up in arms.
Nord Stream II would allow the Kremlin to expand its energy dominance and isolate the likes of Poland and Ukraine, which not only lose out on transit fees but also the strategic leverage they enjoy over Moscow—i.e., the fact that they can block the westward flow of Russian gas and therefore a significant share of Putin’s energy income. The Merkel government, which backs Nord Stream II vigorously, is deaf to the ominous historical echoes of Germany and Russia dividing the region among themselves.
The Trump administration, like its predecessor, is opposed. As Richard Grenell, the American envoy to Germany, told me recently, “The U.S. shares widespread European concerns about projects like Nord Stream II that would undermine Europe’s own energy diversification efforts.” Grenell also warned that firms working on “Russian energy export pipelines are operating in an area that carries sanctions risk.”
A senior Republican congressional staffer, who has repeatedly met with the Germans on these issues in recent months, was blunter still: “Nord Stream II is Germany making money by putting Europe under Russian energy hegemony. The Trump administration has been fighting tooth and nail to stop it. So have bipartisan coalitions in Congress. But the Germans say it’s in their national interest and won’t budge.”
Then there is Germany’s less-than-serious response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Encouraged by President Obama to take the lead in talks with Moscow, Berlin softened the Western line in word and deed. In 2015, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s most serious newspaper, called the German position on Russia’s encroachments a “pink line.” That was after an especially brutal Russian rocket assault against eastern Ukraine that left 30 civilians dead.
Germany’s response to the attack? It was serious, said then-Foreign Minister (now-President) Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but not one signaling a “quantitative change in the situation.” The previous year, as some 15,000 suspected Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine and another 40,000 amassed by the border, then-German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was quick to warn NATO that “the impression must not be given that we’re playing with military options even in theoretical terms.”
Time and again, Gabriel, Steinmeier, and other German leaders have denounced NATO exercises meant to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe as “saber rattling” and “war cries.” Their proposed alternative: dialogue and cooperation and, well, gas deals. Berlin also reportedly opposed plans to rotate NATO armored forces through Poland and the Baltic States, and German leaders weighed on the Obama administration not to arm Kiev (not that the 44th president needed much persuading to abandon embattled allies).
To be fair, all this reflects popular sentiment in Germany. Opinion polling consistently shows that the majority of Germans don’t view Russia as a military threat, don’t support economic sanctions against Moscow, and don’t want German troops defending Poland and the Balts if Putin attacked them.
The reasons for this German ambivalence are complex. Not all of it can be attributed to cowardice or greed for euros. But it would be nice if the American reporters and pundits who imagine that Merkel can do no wrong, while Trump can do no right, would brush up on history—which did not, in fact, begin in 2016.
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Trading sanity for energy.
Generally speaking, the Trump era has been defined by two contrasting phenomena: Republican disunity leading to occasional episodes of tactical incompetence, and Democratic discipline and reconstruction. When it comes to judicial appointments, however, the parties trade their roles. From non-governmental organizations, to media figures, to Congress and the White House, the right has been united, strategic, and remarkably effective at nominating and confirming originalist judges to federal court appointments. Democrats, meanwhile, have been tactically maladroit, schismatic, and irrational. Owing to their lack of foresight, Democrats are now stripped of the minority privileges that would allow them to effectively oppose Donald Trump’s overqualified nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. Thus, in their impotence, they are left with one option: radicalize their voters.
Since Kavanaugh’s nomination was announced, Democrats have preached a variety of implausible doomsday scenarios. The strategy, MoveOn.org’s Washington Director Ben Wikler told the Associated Press, was to terrify Democratic voters with three messages. “The essential message is Roe,” he said. “The secondary message for most folks is ACA and health care. . . . The third messaging plank is, ‘choose your own adventure.'” Democrats have already plowed through messages one and two with an abandon that suggests these cookie-cutter attacks on any and all conservative justices were not sticking to a nominee as conventional and well-liked as Kavanaugh. And so, by breaking the glass around message three, the Democratic Party has chosen to slither through the left’s most fetid fever swamps.
The latest line of attack goes something like this: Donald Trump selected Kavanaugh not because he served for over a decade on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, has a long record of conservative jurisprudence, and is well-liked and occasionally cited by the Supreme Court’s current justices, for whom many of his former clerks now work. No, he was picked because he is most likely to shield Donald Trump from the legal consequences that might arise from Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe.
The support for this bizarre claim is found in a 2009 article Kavanaugh wrote for the Minnesota Law Review in which he said that presidents should be protected from indictments while serving in office because “a president who is concerned about an ongoing criminal investigation is almost inevitably going to do a worse job as president.” He added that the prosecution of a president could undermine the separation of powers in the Constitution. And, after all, the nation’s founding charter already provides Congress with a remedy for “dastardly” presidential behavior in the form of impeachment. His article concluded with a recommendation that Congress, not the judiciary, take measures to ensure that a sitting president is properly protected from prosecution. These sentiments comport with a 1998 article Kavanaugh wrote for the Georgetown Law Review in which he said it is “debatable” as to whether a president can be indicted, and Congress should clarify that debate in law.
This perfectly reasonable opinion is not only consistent with what the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel under Bill Clinton concluded about a sitting president’s immunity, but it also captures Kavanaugh’s belief in the limits of judicial power. But perhaps because Democrats do not share Kavanaugh’s apprehension about executing political imperatives from the bench, they have decided that his Obama-era recommendation amounts to a desire to shield Donald Trump from the law.
“Why did the president stick with Kavanaugh?” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer asked. “Because he’s worried that Mr. Mueller will go to the court and ask that the president be subpoenaed.” Senator Ed Markey, too, said that it is “not a coincidence” that Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court given his views on a presidential indictment. Senator Cory Booker concurred. “That should raise enormous red flags,” he wrote. The Democratic Party’s newest star, self-described Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, claimed that Kavanaugh’s views on indictment represent “an automatic disqualification” for appointment to the high court.
The activist left’s media ecosystem has taken its cue. “Kavanaugh was the right pick if Trump’s top priority was protecting himself from criminal investigation,” wrote Vox.com’s Ezra Klein. “He can, and he will, shield Trump from grand jury subpoenas, civil suits, and any/all other investigations,” the University of New Hampshire Professor Seth Abramson declared. And so on.
These addlepated expressions of anxiety don’t dwell much on the scenarios that would lead to a clash between the president and the Supreme Court over Mueller’s work because those scenarios do not satisfy the left’s conspiracy theorists. There’s an outside chance that the Court could take up an appeal from Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort if he is convicted on charges of tax and bank fraud, among other offenses. The Court might have to weigh in on whether the president can decline a subpoena or a request for a deposition by the Mueller probe, but this is not untrodden ground. Some have even dredged up a theory promulgated by the likes of Roger Stone that the Supreme Court can be goaded into ordering the dissolution of the special counsel’s office.
In reality, Kavanaugh’s writings suggest that Democratic trepidation is entirely misplaced, not that any Democrats will be delighted by the good news. George Mason University law professor and Cato Institute scholar Ilya Somin noted that Kavanaugh seems pretty clearly to be saying that “the Constitution by itself doesn’t bar” investigations into the president. “He does not say it is unconstitutional for the president to either be charged with a crime while he’s still in office,” Somin added, “or to be investigated for a civil offense.” Of course, congressional Democrats know perfectly well that Kavanaugh’s argument is an argument about policy, not law. And the number of fair-minded observers calling Democrats out on their opportunism and hypocrisy is approaching critical mass.
And so, the Democrats’ latest choose-your-own-adventure is set to lead readers into another dead-end. But the fevered fantasies that compelled Democrats along on this wild speculation are the same ones that compelled the party to filibuster Neil Gorsuch, even though everyone knew it would result in the end of the judicial filibuster and the predicament in which Democrats now find themselves. The party is cultivating a fanatical base, but it is sacrificing sanity in the process. That’s a tradeoff Democrats will one day soon regret.
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But the freak-out continues.
As Noah has pointed out, the left has made a fetish of abortion, as though it were a positive good, like the polio vaccine, instead of something that should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
With the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, the left is now howling that his joining the Supreme Court would mean the end of Roe v. Wade and that “millions of women will die.”
This, of course, is nonsense. For one thing, while Kavanaugh is a practicing Roman Catholic, so is the man he would be replacing, Justice Kennedy. So are Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor. Justice Gorsuch was raised Catholic but now attends the Episcopal Church. Justices Ginsburg, Kagan, and Breyer are Jewish. So the religious balance on the court would be unchanged. Adding Kavanaugh and subtracting Kennedy is a wash.
So even if Kavanaugh were gung-ho on overturning Roe, he couldn’t do it without the help of at least four other justices, none of whom seem in any hurry to do so. As recently as 2016, the court struck down, 5-3, a Texas law whose effect would have been to close down many of the state’s abortion clinics.
What the court has been doing is nibbling away at Roe v. Wade, allowing increasing restrictions, but sustaining Roe. This is strikingly reminiscent of the history of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which established the doctrine of separate but equal when it came to segregated state institutions. Plessy was upheld over and over again for almost the next sixty years, but its scope was almost continuously narrowed. For instance, one Southern state had no law school for black students and paid for them to go out of state to attend law school. The Court ruled that that was not separate but equal and the state had to admit black students to its law school or establish a black law school.
Finally, in 1954, the Warren Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was inherently unequal and overturned Plessy. And Chief Justice Earl Warren, realizing the political uproar that would ensue, was very careful to make sure that the decision in Brown was 9-0. Chief Justice Roberts would undoubtedly be equally careful to have a large majority of the Court on board before overturning Roe v. Wade.
So, until there are, at the very least, seven justices on the Court willing to overturn it, nothing is going to happen to Roe; except, possibly, further nibbling. With two out of three Americans opposed to overturning Roe, that could well be years from now, if ever. Even then, the Court would have to wait until a suitable case came along. The Court accepts only about two percent of the cases appealed to it each year, and it would be very picky about accepting one that would undoubtedly cause a political firestorm.
So while the left is screaming that the sky is falling, the blue dome of heaven, at least as regards Roe v. Wade, remains firmly in place.
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The cult of personality corrupts.
Pro-Trump constituents in the press have a peculiar preoccupation with the president’s conservative critics. Specifically, they’re concerned with the amount of credit Donald Trump receives for his achievements, which presumes those achievements are self-evident. Objective accomplishments—for example, how the Republican Party under Donald Trump has methodically nominated and confirmed originalist judges to federal courts—demand no hectoring from the credit police. Principled conservatives are as happy to heap praise upon Trump for his stewardship of the courts as are #MAGA brigades. It’s only the president’s more dubious feats that raise the hackles of Trump’s enforcers, and for a good reason; they’re not accomplishments at all.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board exemplified the genre on Monday when its members took aim at the “pearl-clutchers among foreign-policy worthies” who, they alleged, stubbornly refuse to “admit” how Donald Trump’s hectoring of America’s allies has yielded tangible and positive results. The Journal uncorked its contempt for students of foreign affairs for failing to say that raising defense budgets among America’s European allies is a product of Trump’s antagonism. This elides the possibility that students of foreign affairs know that they are not. In fact, making this flimsy assertion requires a substantial commitment to forgetting facts that Republicans used to know almost intuitively. Among them that talk is cheap and nations are moved to action not by badgering presidents or institutional utopianism but hard-power realities. And today’s hard-power realities aren’t just unworthy of praise; they’re deeply disturbing.
The Journal editorial noted over half of NATO’s 29 members will soon meet the arbitrary threshold of spending the equivalent of 2 percent of national GDP on defense by 2024, “compared to four or five in a typical year before 2014.” It is, however, important to make note of precisely what nations met their commitments in 2014: the United States, Great Britain, and Greece. In other words, nations with significant deployments abroad or nations directly threatened by an aggressive neighbor. In 2015, that list expanded to include Estonia and Poland—two countries that were moved to action by the invasion and annexation of sovereign Ukrainian territory by neighboring Russia. This year, the list will grow still more to include Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania. Non-NATO allies like Sweden and neutral parties like Finland are similarly increasing their defense budgets in the second half of this decade. See the pattern forming yet?
It isn’t just the threats metastasizing in the region but politics in America that have compelled prudent Europeans to look to their own affairs. Two consecutive American presidential administrations have now made their preference for retrenchment clear. Barack Obama spent six of his eight years attempting to “pivot to Asia” and spent most of his tenure withdrawing American soldiers and the last armored divisions from European soil until—you guessed it—hard power realities forced him to abandon his vision.
Donald Trump has continued his predecessor’s habit of antagonizing American allies through costly and needless hostilities over trade relations, and he has been just as clear about his desire to see forward deployments scaled back. “NATO benefits Europe far more than it does the U.S.,” Trump wrote this week. It’s hard to think of a presidential pronouncement burdened with more historical and strategic ignorance. NATO and institutions like the International Monetary Fund are American constructions that enforce an American-led global order. These are long-lived institutions by historical standards, and they’ve managed to stave off great power conflict of the sort that typified the early 20th century.
The prospect of European rearmament serves American political sensibilities but not America’s strategic interests. Conflicts abroad have a gravitational pull on the world’s only superpower and allowing them to flourish inevitably sets the stage for American involvement. There is no coalition of European allies that can allow the U.S. to outsource its role as lone superpower. That was a lesson Barack Obama learned too late. Those who allow Donald Trump to harbor the delusion that American security is advanced by weakening its allies’ reliance on it as the guarantor of geopolitical stability are giving the president license to make Obama’s mistake.
American lawmakers from both parties have long sought to inculcate in their European counterparts a sense of ownership in their own security. If that sense of obligation has finally arrived, it is due to circumstances that no Republican with a healthy appreciation for America’s global mission could possibly welcome. Republicans used to know that hard power was the ultimate arbiter of geopolitical events and of nations. They used to know that talk—be it of the tough or amicable variety—was worth exactly what you paid for it. They used to know that barrier-free trade produced peace and that rewarding criminal despots for making illusory commitments was a reckless misuse of the presidency. Those are undying principles of statecraft that will survive Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s unfortunate that we cannot say the same of all principles.
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“To be sure” is one of the slipperiest expressions in the journalistic lexicon. There are legitimate uses for it, to be sure. But an unscrupulous reporter will drop a “to be sure” just before he launches a nasty, underhanded attack on his subject, all while giving the appearance that he (the reporter) is all too sensitive to nastiness—that he is not making the claim he is plainly making.
The Daily Beast’s legal-affairs columnist, Jay Michaelson, demonstrated this practice on Monday with his hit piece on Leonard Leo, the Federalist Society executive who has played an outsized role in shaping the judiciary under President Trump. About a third of the way into his profile, Michaelson offered this classic “to be sure”: “To be sure, none of this is to repeat the odious claims of anti-Catholicism of papist conspiracies and dual loyalty.”
Yet the article was nothing more than a collection of claims of “papist conspiracies and dual loyalty” designed to create the impression that Leo seeks to impose his sinister Romish superstitions on the rest of the nation via the courts. The only thing missing was one of those 19th-century newspaper cartoons that depicted a grotesque papal octopus, its slithering legs marked “ignorance,” “corruption,” “infallibility,” and so forth. In fact, Michaelson at one point evoked the octopus image with a reference to “Leo’s octopus of organizations and influence” (my emphasis).
Mostly Michaelson, who doubles as a Buddhist rabbi of some sort, revealed his acute ignorance of the Catholic faith.
In attempting to cast his subject as a dangerous fanatic, for example, Michaelson noted that “Leo is a member of the secretive, extremely conservative Knights of Malta, a Catholic order founded in the 12th century that functions as a quasi-independent sovereign nation with its own diplomatic corps (separate from the Vatican), United Nations status, and a tremendous amount of money and land.”
Actually, there’s nothing secretive about the Sovereign Order of Malta. It came together amid the First Crusade in the 11th century—not the 12th, as Michaelson claimed—to defend Christians and provide medical help to people of all faiths in the Holy Land. Today, the order operates much like any other nongovernmental organization—think of the Red Cross or Oxfam—with more than 100,000 staff and volunteers delivering health care and disaster relief worldwide. It also enjoys diplomatic relations with 106 countries, owing not to any nefarious reason but to the fact that it won sovereign recognition in the centuries after its founding.
Is the Order of Malta “extremely conservative?” Not really. It is a lay religious order as well as a sovereign state. Therefore, its leaders owe religious obedience to the pope. Some of the order’s chivalric and aristocratic elements have also persisted through the ages, but the “knights” don’t go around the world assassinating the Church’s enemies or anything of the kind. They are mostly older gentlemen who take their Catholic faith and the Christian commitment to the works of mercy seriously. Ooh, creepy!
The article also took a potshot at Opus Dei, which it described as an “extreme, ultraorthodox Catholic sect,” whose members mainly engage in “self-flaggelation [sic] and other body-mortification practices.” Outside the fervid imagination of Michaelson and novelist Dan Brown, Opus Dei is an officially recognized personal prelature of the Catholic Church that promotes holiness among the faithful by encouraging practices of intense daily piety and charity. The Church under John Paul II canonized Opus Dei’s founder as a saint. Today, Opus enjoys warm relations with Pope Francis, who appointed one of its members, former Fox News correspondent Greg Burke, as director of the Holy See Press Office. So why did Michaelson take a gratuitous swipe at Opus Dei? Because the husband of one of Leo’s onetime associates may or may not have been a member.
Then there was the quotation from Tom Carter, an embittered former colleague of Leo’s, who apparently served as the story’s sole source. “Leonard’s faith is paramount to him,” Carter told Michaelson. “When he traveled, staff members had to find him a church near where he was staying so he could say Mass every day” (my emphasis). But as anyone minimally familiar with the faith knows, lay Catholics like Leo don’t, and can’t, say the Mass. That privilege is reserved for ordained members, i.e., bishops and priests. The factual lapse—neither Michaelson nor his editors at the Daily Beast caught the error or clarified the quotation—lays bare the religious illiteracy that pervades liberal media today.
Catholics have grown especially accustomed to such media ignorance and hostility. Carter’s observation about Leo—that he attends daily Mass—wasn’t meant as a compliment. Rather, it was supposed to raise suspicion about the worldview of the man who helps the administration pick judicial nominees. But can anyone imagine the Beast ever giving voice to similar sentiments regarding, say, a faithful Muslim? He prays five times a day. Allah is at the center of his life. Yikes!
None of this is to suggest that Michaelson is a partisan hack and an anti-Catholic bigot. To be sure.