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I am from a large Irish Catholic family in New York City. When I was in high school, at an
academically-rigorous Jesuit institution, now best known as the namesake of the world's most persistent television
personality, 1 my older brother became a priest. He was ordained in Rome, and most of the
family went over for the event. While I
was there my brother took me to the office of the Superior General of the Jesuit
order (the "Society of Jesus"). My
brother was a student of history, and wanted me to see the desk, with the huge
map of the world on the wall behind, and the modest cot off to the side, from
which the Black Pope had dispatched his cadre, also known as
"God's Marines" and "The Company ," and even " the Special Forces of the Catholic Church ,"2 to
manipulate the fates of nations and empires for more than 400 years on behalf
of the Papacy. The analogy is
irresistible: If the Vatican is the White House of the Catholic Church, the
Jesuit Superior General's office is the CIA headquarters.3
Of course, besides being the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation and
Inquisition -- the repressive apparatus of the Church, if you will (Torture and
rendition, anyone?) -- the Jebbies (as they are familiarly known) also became
the Church's ideological vanguard, manipulating the fates of empires by
overseeing the education of elites. "Give me the child for seven years,
and I will give you the man" is the famous aphorism traditionally
attributed to the Jesuits -- as my father, also an alumnus of Regis High School,
reminded me constantly.
The Jesuits made sure that the children of the elite were given a good,
classical education, and were inculcated with loyalty to the Catholic Church --
which usually also meant an affinity for the most reactionary politics of the
day. Of course, since a thorough
education often ends up clashing with reactionary politics, some of the
students, and even the teachers in this enterprise, ended up lapsing to the
left. (Hello, Fidel!) By the late
twentieth-century, matching the anti-colonialist, antiwar, and pro-civil-rights
ethos of the age, "some" had become "many," and a critical mass of the smart
students, along with the good men who were Jesuit teachers, who saw the world
through lenses of intellectual as well as moral honesty and consistency, had
turned much of the Jesuit enterprise, and many of its institutions, in a
progressive direction. Hello, Berrigan
Which brings us to the almost-present.
Although it was largely buried by the election hoopla, you may remember
that back in November there was a minor flap about Ann Coulter speaking at
Fordham University -- another well-known Jesuit institution, and my
undergraduate alma mater. The Fordham
College Republicans invited Ann Coulter to speak at a non-public event on
campus. This prompted Fr. Joseph
McShane, S.J., Fordham's president and a fellow alumnus of my high school (It's
a cozy club.), to issue a scathing statement, denouncing (correctly, I think)
Coulter's "rhetoric" as "hateful and needlessly provocative ".aimed squarely at
the darker side of our nature." He
reminded everyone that "as members of a Jesuit institution, we are called upon
to deal with one another with civility and compassion," and that he personally
"hold[s] out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on
another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or
Fr. McShane did not
stop Coulter from speaking. Contrary to
Bill O'Reilly's mendacious claim that he "banned" her from campus, McShane
specifically stated: "the University will not block the College Republicans
from hosting their speaker of choice on campus"; he averred that "preventing
Ms. Coulter from speaking would counter one wrong with another. The old saw
goes that the answer to bad speech is more speech. This is especially true at a
university." He was speaking as the
leader of a Jesuit institution, in the name of its purported humanist values,
and -- appropriately, I think -- he kept his discourse on the level of
politico-ethical suasion, avoiding the tactic of administrative control.
Amazingly, the College Republicans themselves "determined that some of
[Coulter's] comments do not represent the ideals of the College Republicans and
are inconsistent with both our organization's mission and the University's,"
and rescinded her invitation. They claim to have "made this choice freely
before Father McShane's email was sent out and we became aware of his
feelings," and that McShane "would have learned that the event was being
cancelled" if he had "simply reached out to us before releasing his statement."
After looking more closely at her record,
in response not to McShane but to the general "size and severity of opposition
to this event," they had discovered that Coulter was incompatible with the
"voice of the sensible, compassionate, and conservative political movement that
we strive to be."
Taking everyone at his and her word here (And why should we not?) -- Joe
McShane that he is speaking for humanist, Jesuit values and not trying to
undermine the "the canons of academic freedom," and the College Republicans
that they had not been intimidated by their President but persuaded by their
community -- we seem to have a fine example of persuasion and civility working
in favor of a relatively progressive outcome in a way that avoids dangerous
precedents. Although I have a hard time
taking her seriously -- with many others, I see her as the Andrew Dice Clay of American
political theater -- I am certainly repelled by Ann Coulter, and I understand
that her clownish discourse is given purchase by American media, and needs to
be countered. Still, I would have
cringed had the Fordham College Republicans submitted to Fr. McShane's
condescending tone ("To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and
maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous
understatement"), or, worse, been forced to cave by administrative authority (succumbing
to community pressure, while not always a good thing, is something else).
Similarly, as long as he does not try to use his administrative power to
prevent students from hearing views he does not like, Fr. McShane has every
right, without being charged with a crime against free speech, to make strong
statements denouncing certain speakers, on the grounds of his perceived duty to
speak up for the values of the institution -- as, I must admit, would the
President of any university, even one standing for more conservative values.
In this case, then, Fr. McShane seems to have made an exemplary "progressive"
intervention. The liberal commentariat
certainly thinks so, and I agree. (See,
for example, Joan Walsh's cogent synopsis of the scuffle, with the full text of
McShane's and the College Republicans' statements, here
.) He took a ton of sh*t for this from the Foxosphere
and the considerable contingent of conservative Fordham alumni (especially, it
seems, on LinkedIn), as he undoubtedly foresaw he would So,
hooray for Joe McShane and Fordham for courageously reconfirming the best of
the progressive and humanist Jesuit tradition!
Yeah, there's a catch. There's
always a catch.
Which brings us, at once, a little further into the past and back to the
present. For, about five months before
the Coulter contretemps, in May of 2012, there was another controversial
invitation at Fordham. This one came
from Fr. McShane to John O. Brennan, another Fordham alumnus, inviting him, on
behalf of the University and its Jesuit values, to be the University's
commencement speaker, and to receive an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters.
Brennan, of course, is President Obama's highly-trusted national
security and counterterrorism advisor, the co-architect and co-executor, with
Obama, of the expanded, worldwide drone assassination policy -- so trusted that The
New York Times
has described him as "a priest whose blessing has become
indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president's attempt to apply the "just
war" theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict."4
The "priest" reference is not a throwaway. This Times article is an extraordinary
portrait of Obama and Brennan's intimate pas
in executing deadly drone and rendition policies, and it's a
relationship that appears to many as saturated with theological
Obama, we are told, is "A student of writings on war by Augustine and
Thomas Aquinas," who "believes that he should take moral responsibility for
such actions." With Brennan's "blessing," of course: "Guided by Mr. Brennan,
Mr. Obama "signs off on every [drone] strike."
Of course, with the hectic pace of operations and all, any Obama-Brennan
must be rather brief,
since Obama "approves lethal action without hand-wringing." Obama, you see, is "a realist who, unlike some
of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric" [i.e., was lying
]. Instead, he was already putting his lawyerly
mind to carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit
." I'm sure Thomas, Augie, and Jesuit-educated John
have been a great help with all this.
In fact, everyone seems reassured by Brennan's priestly aura. State
Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh effuses: "If John Brennan is the last guy
in the room with the president, I'm comfortable, because Brennan is a person of
genuine moral rectitude".It's as though you had a priest with extremely strong
moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war."
, who wouldn't
want to give this guy an award?!
I'm glad Harold is comfortable with a priest
leading a war. Because that's always worked out so well. And here I thought
that, in the democratic republic the US is supposed to be, decisions regarding
wars and bombing other countries were a matter for more than one or two men of
whose "moral rectitude" Harold is certain. Because of the precedent
Obama and Brennan have set, such decisions are going to continue to be made by
one or two persons in a room as they
-- persons of whose moral rectitude Harold, and the rest of
us, know nothing. These two men, that is, have taken a definitive, and probably irreversible,
step in transforming the American President into an Emperor. But, of
course, as long as he has a priest by his side, that'll be OK.
Yes, Obama, and his pastoral advisor Brennan "should take moral
responsibility for such actions." And should be held
responsible -- by somebody, somewhere, sometime.
But not this time, and not by the Jesuits in the Bronx. The way it's
working is that Obama gets his priestly blessing from Brennan, who gets his in
turn from McShane and the Jesuit institution that formed Brennan himself and
that draws on the deep history of the order's Jesuit-value-laden imbrication in
world affairs. A perfect chain -- or
should I say, circle? -- of moral and religious sanction.
In all this, Fr. McShane cannot deny that he is giving his and his institution's
moral and religious sanction to John Brennan's signature enterprises (those
would be the drone assassination of anyone, including American citizens,
anywhere, rendition for torture, etc.).
One cannot get on one's high moralizing horse against students, "as
members of a Jesuit institution," who invite for a private talk someone whose rhetoric
is "hateful and needlessly
provocative" and can be thought to "inflict pain on another human being," and
then turn around and give official, public, institutional honor to one whose murderous
and needlessly provocative actions
on a global scale, are inflicting pain on thousands of human beings, and then
try to deny that one has sanctioned and implicated one's self and one's
institution in those actions. Nor can
one dismiss those who might question one's own priestly and presidential
judgment and maturity for doing so.
Of course, there were objections to the decision to honor Brennan,
though the incident was drowned out by the well-covered brouhaha about Kathleen
Sebelius at Georgetown, part of a well-organized right-wing Catholic campaign
involving the Archbishop of Washington and The Cardinal Newman Society, against
having allegedly heretical and morally objectionable speakers at Catholic
institutions. Because that campaign is
well-financed and right-wing, it gets a lot of media attention. The objections to Brennan at Fordham were not
as visible, however, coming as they did from safe-to-ignore voices on the left,
who object to other kinds of contradictions between the alleged values of
Catholic institutions and those to whom they confer honors and awards.
In the forefront of the protest were Fordham students, who
circulated two petitions objecting to the choice of Brennan,5 on the grounds that he
"has defended the use of torture by the United States, as well as the U.S. secret
prison system throughout the world"; that he "has also openly endorsed the
United States' rendition policies, which effectively circumvent due process and
habeas corpus and outsource America's torture regime"; and that he "was
complicit in the unlawful and immoral launching of the Iraq War." They quite rightly point out that, in giving
this honor to Brennan, "Fordham University is implicitly endorsing the "War on
Terror,' the use of rendition, the CIA's heinous drone campaign, and the
subversion of the rule of law in America, including the assassination of its
own citizens," as well as U.S. drone strikes that "in Pakistan alone have
killed as many as 775 civilians, including 168 children, since 2004."
Not as bad as Ann Coulter's needlessly provocative rhetoric, I know, but
each of the student signators (and others, like myself, who joined them) wanted
it "to be known that John Brennan does not represent the Jesuit values that I
have developed as a student at Fordham University."
One of these petitions cites a letter
sent to the
editor of the Fordham student newspaper by Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst
and also a Fordham alumnus6
(It's getting a little creepy, isn't it?),
who now works with an ecumenical church group in D.C. I had actually become aware of this
controversy when I read another verison
of McGovern's protest,7
which I emailed to a group of former high school and college alumni. In that article, McGovern drew on what he
suggests is the "prophetic" Jesuit voice of Daniel Berrigan:
Daniel Berrigan wrote of "the fall of a
great enterprise" -- the Jesuit university. He recorded his "hunch" that the
university would end up "among those structures whose moral decline and
political servitude signalize a larger falling away of the culture itself."
Berrigan lamented "highly placed" churchmen
and their approval of war, "uttered " with sublime confidence, from on high,
from highly placed friendships, and White House connections."
"Thus compromised," warned Berrigan, "the Christian
tradition of nonviolence, as well as the secular boast of disinterested pursuit
of truth -- these are reduced to bombast, hauled out for formal occasions,
believed by no one, practiced by no one."
Hard to be more on point McGovern also pointed out how the Catholic ecclesiastical
leadership, always all publicly atwitter about the fates of blastulae, embryos,
and fetuses, carefully "abjures any attempt to offer moral guidance on issues
like war, preferring to defer -- as the Fordham Jesuits do -- to a good
Jesuit-trained Catholic like Brennan to make decisions on such issues."
I circulated that article, without comment. I thought that some of
the circle of Fordham alumni might be interested in what seemed to me an
earnest appeal from another Fordham alumnus -- and a veteran of the national
security apparatus, at that -- based on a sincere and generally positive
appreciation of the Jesuit tradition.
overly positive. There is, after all, that other, longer, Jesuit tradition --
as the backbone of the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and reactionary
politics in general -- that was perhaps too-felicitously obscured by the
"Jesuit university" of the late-twentieth century that many of us came to
know. Maybe McGovern, Berrigan, and we should be unsurprised to see this
"enterprise" falling back to what we might call the "courtier" Jesuit
tradition of insinuating into, while advancing the interests of, imperial
At any rate, I was surprised when one of my correspondents replied that he had forwarded MGovern's article to Fr. McShane, and had received a reply, which, in its entirety, was this:
McGovern is a retired CIA operative who is still drawing his CIA pension.
Now I do not want to make too much of Fr. McShane's remarks in this casual email. I would not even cite them, except that they were forwarded not only to me, but to over twenty other people, and, coming from McShane's public email, they are, as one of those correspondents, a lawyer, pointed out, "subject to discovery by total strangers." I'm sure the accomplished Jesuit theologian does not think that reminding us McGovern is a (presumably pensioned) CIA retiree (a fact mentioned at least twice in McGovern's article) is some kind of brilliant riposte. I'm sure he would not, for example, dismiss the arguments of a Vietnam veteran who opposes the Iraq war and continues to go to the VA hospital. Nor do I think Fr. McShane actually believes that the point of McGovern's article is to paint him as "a bad person." Surely, too, he understands that this article is not about him, except insofar as he is the leader of an institution purporting to represent certain values, who has decided to give an entirely discretionary honor to a man who is deeply responsible for (and deceptive about) policies that many Americans (and very probably most people in the world) consider murderous, criminal, dangerous to us all, and probably irreversibly destructive of our fundamental rights and protections.
But if I don't want to make too much of it, neither can I ignore it entirely. McShane's may be just a silly response, in a context where he did not have to make a thorough, reasoned argument. But as a shields-down, relaxed response, I think it's fair to say that it reveals the impulse to casually dismiss these arguments. Underlying it is a blithe assumption (including assuming that his interlocutor will agree) that one doesn't have seriously to engage with voices like these -- that is, voices from somewhere out there on the left, who have no power. An assumption he would be loath to make so casually, I'll bet, in response to voices from the Cardinal Newman Society, or the Archbishop of Washington, or the White House.
In the way he
ignores Ray McGovern, Fr. McShane, I fear, confirms exactly what McGovern said
in his article: "Perhaps their thought process was simply this: Brennan is a
Fordham alumnus; he works in the White House; isn't that enough?"
At any rate, Fr. McShane, unlike the College Republicans, did not
rescind the honor to Brennan in the face of the opposition (the "size and
severity" of which I don't know). Nor
should he have, if support for Brennan is the ground on which he takes his
principled stand. The College Republicans, after carefully considering the
severity and intellectual and moral quality of the opposition, understood that
Ann Coulter's rhetoric was in contradiction with the "sensible, compassionate"
conservatism they stood for, and "inconsistent with both our organization's
mission and the University's." On the other hand, it seems that McShane, after considering
-- you decide how seriously you think he "considered" -- the size, severity, and
intellectual and moral quality of the opposition to John Brennan's actions,
concluded that they were ones that he, the university, and Jesuit tradition should
stand behind and honor. So be it. Again, you decide what principles and values you
think might account for the clear difference between the high moral dudgeon against
students and Ann Coulter on the one hand, and the -- would "fawning" be too
unkind? -- moral deference to a powerful Fordham alumnus and the White House on
the other. But, really, neither the
College Republicans, nor any of the students involved in protesting the Brennan
honor, nor anybody else, ever, deserves to hear another moralizing discourse of
disappointment about their judgment and maturity from Fr. McShane.
The historical Jesuit enterprise of political pedagogy is not to train court
clowns of loud and obvious intellectual superficiality like Coulter, but chamberlains
like Brennan who can, whispering in the sovereign's ear, parse the theories of
Christian philosophers in ways that are both intellectually complex and
appropriately soothing to the exigencies of the empire. This is a pleasant distinction, which allows
one to obfuscate uncomfortable similarities and responsibilities within the
intricate wiles of the mind known as "Jesuitical." However objectionable her upfront reactionary
discourse is, to my knowledge Ann Coulter hasn't killed anyone; John Brennan
has -- including hundreds of children, and lied about it. Ann Coulter supports John Brennan in that,
and so does Joe McShane. The truth that
this Jesuit university president might like least to face is that, on this ethically
and historically important issue (those killings and all that go with them),
Ann Coulter and he -- and, now, thanks to him, Fordham and its Jesuit values --
are on the same side
intellectually and morally indistinguishable.
They both support their comrade Brennan's (and his master Obama's) work
in killing for the empire.
All of the above, as you may have guessed (and feared), is but a
preface, or, better, a parable. The
story of Coulter and Brennan and Fordham and the Jesuits and Fr. Joe McShane is
a little version, in a small corner of our polity, of what has happened to
"liberal" discourse and ethics in our nation as a whole. Substitute MSNBC for
Fordham (that is an insult to Fordham, I know) and Lawrence O'Donnell for Joe
McShane, and you get the picture. This
has become the dominant strategy of liberal commentators: pick easy, loud
rhetorically crude reactionary targets to demonize, while embracing the pernicious,
but smooth and rhetorically sophisticated liberal imperialists whose work the
commentators, and the reactionaries they disdain, support.
That is why, in the present present, Brennan will receive the much more
important and non-honorific prize of being appointed as head of the CIA,
without the opposition the
very same appointment evoked a mere five years ago
The political and media establishments,
liberal and conservative, have come that much further in their ability to
casually dismiss voices from anywhere out there on the left, from those who
have no power. That is also why nobody
in the world, anywhere, deserves to hear another moralizing discourse of
disappointment or approval regarding democracy and rights from any American
politician -- liberal or conservative.
The rich, conflicted history of the Jesuit order, and that of American
republic, have arrived at the same denouement:
Flying Killer Robots.
And when it comes to these issues, whether they like it or not, both the
Jesuit theologian and the liberal commentator really should acknowledge the
discourse they are in, and who in it has the last word:
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"Black Pope" is a commonly-used term that the Jesuits don't like, but
"God's Marines" and "The Company" are nicknames they embrace, "these being
references to founder Ignatius of Loyola's military background and the members'
willingness to accept orders anywhere in the world and live in extreme
Philip Agee's 1975 book, Inside
the Company: CIA Diary,
revealed "the Company" to be the inside nickname of
the Agency. The preface of the book also
laid out how his journey through Catholic education both led him to work for
the CIA and gave him the social conscience that made him break with the agency.
I was a little too young at the time to absorb the lesson in history.
The high point of my visit was when the Superior General pulled out the
personnel file of the principal of my high school and asked me if I wanted to
read it. I was not too young to realize that that was, as we say, a rhetorical
5 "John Brennan's Selection as Fordham's 167th Commencement Speaker:
Stand Against This Outrage," the more militant petition.
"Fordham University Students: We ask that Fordham University choose an
alternative commencement speaker," the more "moderate" petition, which
nonetheless specifically called on the University to choose someone else.