13 Thoughts on Apple for 2015

Much like the mechanical watches with which its newest product will compete, Apple is an organization in perpetual motion.  The Apple Watch launches in April 2015 as the company’s first foray into the wearables market.  The just-announced new MacBook, with a retina display and only two ports, joins it as a spring release.  An enterprise iPad Pro is expected to debut in the fall, and a rebranded Beats music streaming service and updated Apple TV are also forecasted to drop this year.  And let’s not even get into the Apple Car that’s purportedly in the works.

Here are thirteen thoughts, broken into four broad topics, about Apple’s product pipeline after its “Spring Forward” event last Monday.

Wearables
1) The Apple Watch is already a success.
2) The Apple Watch Edition may have a minor Glasshole problem.
3) New Beats headphones will be important, and Jony Ive shouldn’t design them.

Devices
4) The Macbook is stunningly gorgeous and two years ahead of schedule.
5) Boost Mac sales by emphasizing Continuity with mobile platforms.
6) The entire iPad line should be consolidated and renamed.
7) What’s the future of the iPod?
8) HomeKit is the next big frontier, and Apple TV is the conduit.

Speculation and Hypotheticals
9) An Apple-Nintendo partnership won’t happen, but they would be a natural fit.
10) Could iTunes or Apple TV become a carte blanche media streaming service?
11) Tesla would be a synergistic feverdream, but CarPlay makes more sense.

The Big Picture
12) Diversity beyond the iPhone is critical.
13) Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs.

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Wearables

1) The Apple Watch is already a success.

Full stop.  Without sales data, professional reviews, or market feedback, the Apple Watch is already a success.

Its criticisms are real and important to take into consideration: a slightly bulky frame, comparatively poor battery life, and high starting price relative to other Apple devices.  But these criticisms don’t matter in the context of this product launch.

The goal of the first generation Apple Watch is innovation informed by heritage.  Whereas other smartwatches are focused on technology, the Apple Watch is as much about fashion as it is computing – perhaps even more so.  It’s an exercise in expanding the concept of what should be expected from a digital watch.

This essay by Ben Clymer is my favorite evaluation of what Apple got right and wrong with the Watch.  It is remarkably balanced in its evaluation, and Clymer pinpoints why the Watch is so important:

Apple products have a way of making someone not want to live without them, and while I wasn’t able to fully immerse myself in the OS yesterday, what I saw was impressive. So while certainly not direct competition for haute horology watchmaking right now, the Apple Watch is absolutely competition for the real estate of the wrist, and years down the road, it could spell trouble for traditional watches even at a high level.

The Apple Watch is about setting the stage.  It’s about building that connection with customers and improving upon the current offerings in the smartwatch and entry-level luxury watch market.  “The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything – digital or analog – in the watch space at $350,” Clymer says.  He’s right, thanks to the relationship between form and function that Apple’s competitors have yet to attain.

Analysts are predicting that Apple will sell 12-15 million units in 2015 and nab half of the smartwatch market share.  That might be a high forecast, but Apple’s profits from the device, especially the Edition, should be significant even if fewer than 10 million units are sold.  And it will sell.  Customers will look past things like battery life because of the novelty factor.  Come for the hype, stay for the quality of apps and services that the platform affords – a far more robust infrastructure than any other smartwatch company by far.

The Watch will be a flop only if Apple fails to convince customers outside of Apple aficionados and the smartwatch market that the Watch is a valuable device by its next iteration.   This first generation Watch, flaws and all, just needs to generate enough electricity to get that conversation off the ground.  And by that metric, it’s already succeeded.

2) The Apple Watch Edition may have a minor Glasshole problem.

“Glasshole Syndrome” might be defined as when a product’s design language becomes synonymous with people who want a visible token of their superiority.  “Glasshole,” of course, refers to the early adopters of Google Glass, which became infamous for its stealth video recording capabilities, $1000+ price point, and embarrassing design.

The Apple Watch will not suffer criticisms for privacy invasion or poor design.  It is a beautiful machine whose utility and app ecosystem makes it a more worthwhile product right out of the gate.  But the Watch Edition, which starts at $10,000 and reaches $17,000 in its most expensive iteration, is ripe to become an iconic emblem of conspicuous consumption.  I fear this may unfairly tarnish the rest of the Apple Watch line.

In September 2014, John Gruber wrote about the Watch Edition’s price and its likely reception among the tech community:

Apple Watch is not a product from a tech company, and it will not be understood, at all, by the tech world. Apple creates and uses technology in incredible ways. The Apple Watch may prove to be the most technologically advanced product they’ve ever built. But again: Apple is not a tech company, and Apple Watch is not a tech product.

When the prices of the steel and (especially) gold Apple Watches are announced, I expect the tech press to have the biggest collective shit-fit in the history of Apple-versus-the-standard-tech-industry shit-fits. The utilitarian mindset that asks “Why would anyone waste money on a gold watch?” isn’t going to be able to come to grips with what Apple is doing here. They’re going to say that Jony Ive and Tim Cook have lost their minds. They’re going to wear out their keyboards typing “This never would have happened if Steve Jobs were alive.” They’re going to predict utter and humiliating failure. In short, they’re going to mistake Apple for Vertu.

Utter and humiliating failure are simply not in the cards.  Sales of the Watch Edition are going to match maximum production capacity.  The profit margin on each device is likely astronomical, and Apple is going to make a significant profit while establishing itself as a serious player in the luxury fashion market.

The Watch Edition will sell.  The question is: who will buy one?

prording to Ben Clymer, no one should buy one.  Clymer argues that for $10,000, the Watch Edition is simply a poor choice given the field of alternative options:

In addition to perceived value, mechanical watches are also priced by human value: how much of the work is done by hand (in many cases using 200-year-old methods). For example, a watchmaker named Philippe Dufour makes just 12 watches per year, alone in his one-room atelier in the mountains of Switzerland. A simple, time-only piece can cost $100,000. Whether the case is gold or platinum, the price of a Philippe Dufour watch remains (roughly) static — you are not paying for materials, you are paying for Mr. Dufour’s time and touch. The Apple Watch has minimal human value, and that is the biggest difference between it and its mechanical counterparts.

From $10,000 to $20,000, you are into the realm of watchmaking where everything you see is original and interesting — or at least should be. Consider fully ceramic chronographs,stunning hand-wound dress watches, or modern legends all fall within this range — all featuring truly in-house movements with a moderate amount of hand-finishing to internal components. These watches will be assembled by hand, completely in Switzerland and offer the incredibly low tolerances and extreme quality for which this industry is known.

Leave aside the (very good) utilitarian question of how someone could ever justify spending $10,000 for a watch when there are people dying of hunger around the world.  Assuming you have $10K to blow on a timepiece, why would you ever choose the Apple Watch Edition?  You’re not purchasing a stunningly unique style that will last your entire lifetime.  You’re not funding a the exquisite craftsmanship of a master engineer to produce a mechanical wonder.  You’re buying a product with the exact same functionality and design as its $349 sibling.

And that’s the point.  The people who buy the Watch Edition are buying it because it’s $10,000 worth of gold.  They want their wealth to be evident.   It’s tough for a non-watch expert to identify a Rolex from afar, let alone guess its exact cost.  The Apple Watch is designed to be iconic, and the Watch Edition’s price is its crown achievement.  You buy the Watch Edition so everyone knows that you spent exactly $10,000 on a watch.

Tim Lee believes that Apple is following Tesla’s lead in this regard.  He argues the Watch Edition’s high price is a means of generating a halo product for the smartwatch market, making it an enviable good:

It’s hard to remember today, but a decade ago electric cars didn’t have a great reputation. Carmakers had experimented with a few electric vehicles, but these had not been a commercial success… Tesla’s solution to this problem was to focus on the very high end of the market. The first Tesla car, the Roadster, cost $109,000.

This strategy of defying stereotypes about electric cars helped Tesla become one of the most prestigious brands in the auto industry. And as it has moved downmarket (the company introduced a $57,400 Model S in 2012 and is working on a vehicle that will cost $30,000), it has been buoyed by the luxury reputation the Roadster helped to establish.

Apple faces a similar challenge with its Watch. Smartwatches have a reputation as impractical devices for nerds. Apple’s strategy is to defy this stereotype by creating luxury smartwatches that (Apple hopes) people will pay $10,000 for.

I actually fear that the opposite of this scenario will emerge.  Instead of boosting the reputation of smartwatches, it’s easy to imagine how the clientele of the Apple Watch Edition might come to be the entire line’s defining characteristic: a product for rich Silicon Valley bros who want to flaunt their wealth in the easiest way possible.  As Racked and The Verge noted, “it was Apple fanboys who lined up to view the watch at Colette (a recent fashion show), not the fashion cognoscenti.”  That is a deathly blow for a device with aspirations of the highest fashion circles.

The Edition is, by definition, for the 1%, but it matters which people in the 1% it attracts.  It would be a shame to see this “halo” infect the rest of the Apple Watch line and make it an object of derision.  Though its capabilities are still comparatively limited, I trust Apple more than any other technology company to fully leverage the Watch’s potential as a useful, integral part of our daily lives.  Apple has largely sidestepped criticisms of conspicuous consumption by selling products at higher prices whose design and utility largely, if not wholly, justify the extra cost.  Owning an iPad or an iPhone 6 is a status symbol of relative material comfort, but that ownership extends beyond demonstration of financial wealth because of the function afforded by the device.  The burgeoning app store and the truly beautiful design of the Watch and Watch Sport suggest a promising value proposition in the same vein.   The same cannot be said of the Watch Edition, and it’s queasily easy to see it as a sort of Google Glass in vogue.

I hope I’m wrong about the arguments listed above.  In a certain sense, I’m glad Apple is going so aggressively after a slice of the luxury timepiece market, because it can put the profits earned from the Watch Edition to use in service of other world-changing technology.  And, realistically, the Watch Sport is going to be the most popular model that Apple sells; it will earn the lion’s share of market attention, making it unlikely the Edition’s aura will extend beyond the diamond wrists of the elite.

I just hope the Edition price point, and its clientele, don’t come to define the full product line and overshadow the legitimately groundbreaking work that was accomplished in creating this device.

3) New Beats headphones will be important, and Jony Ive shouldn’t design them.

If you haven’t already done so, go read the New Yorker’s profile of Jony Ive.  It’s an incredible, exhaustive look at the man behind Apple’s iconic products and the work his team does to make them a reality.

The emphasis here is on “exhaustive” in more ways than one.  From the opening paragraphs, it’s clear that Jony Ive is dead tired.  He owned the entire Apple Watch product build and he’s also responsible for design across the iPhone, iPad, and iOS.  That is a massive amount of oversight and work.

Jony Ive is synonymous with Apple.  If he retires in the near future, there might be even greater panic and uncertainty surrounding the company than in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death.

It’s a little surprising, then, that Apple hasn’t elected to give other members of his design team more high-profile platforms to discuss their work and create their own personal mythologies.  Deference to Ive is obviously warranted and justified, especially since he has given no indication of retiring anytime soon, but contingency plans are wise.

I’d like to see a couple of key figures from Ive’s team take charge of the Beats hardware division and update the product line in accord with Apple’s design philosophy.  In that New Yorker profile, Tim Cook makes it clear that Beats are currently an outlier amongst Apple’s computers and phones:

Would Jony have designed some of the products?” he said. “Obviously, you can look at them and say no… I want Beats to be true to who they are. I don’t want to wave the wand over them in a day and say, ‘You are now Apple.’ Down the road, we’ll see what happens.

Modifying a well-established brand is risky, and given Beats’ 60+% share of the premium headphone market, immediate changes run the potential of alienating Beats customers.  Much of Beats’ market penetration has been thanks to overwhelming advertising and genius marketing deals with famous athletes and stars.  Apple’s cash hoard guarantees Beats will never lose the ability to make those cultural cache deals, suggesting future changes to the product line could be conducted with minimum risk.

Why not let some of Ive’s team members take the lead on rethinking what Beats can be?  Perhaps retain current model stalwarts like Beats Studio and PowerBeats, but completely redesign Beats Pro and Mixr in accord with Apple’s design philosophy.  Introduce a new line that doesn’t fall victim to the classic Beats criticisms of ear-bloodying bass and muddy, subpar audio quality.  On the hardware development side, hire engineers from companies like Sennheiser and Audeze.  Oppo just introduced a $400 pair of planar magnetic headphones; Apple could easily introduce this kind of highest-end quality to the Beats line, and its marketing leverage (prime placement in Apple stores!) is a guarantee of huge volume and high margins.

Apple reportedly purchased Beats primarily for the streaming infrastructure and contracts of its music service.  If Apple is serious about expanding into wearables, it should look to leverage Beats hardware as another fashion item with untapped market potential.

Devices

4) The new Macbook is stunningly gorgeous and two years ahead of schedule.

Forget the Apple Watch pricing.  The most incredible parts of the March 9 keynote were ResearchKit and the new Macbook, and the latter is breathtakingly beautiful.  I thought the Dell XPS 13 gave Apple a run for its money a couple of months ago, but Apple once again blew its PC competitors out of the water with this new machine.

In terms of style, that is.  Functionality- and price-wise, the Macbook is a solid entry into the laptop market, but it’s not transcendent.  Though the retina display and weigh of the machine are attractive, the $1300 base price and the single port (!) mean that it’s primarily a device for early adopters at this point instead of the broad laptop market.

Which is as it should be.  The original Macbook Air was similarly criticized for shearing off too much too soon, but it looks prophetic in hindsight, having eliminated the CD drive before most other PCs made the leap.  The same is true for this Macbook.  With cloud storage becoming the go-to means of sharing files and Wifi available in more places than ever, Apple is ahead of the game once again.  Cutting out those extraneous ports is going to look like a smart move two years from now.  (Though an additional USB 3.0 port might be welcome.)

I can’t wait for the second-gen Macbook to lower the price on this first model.  In the meantime, I’d love to see some limited-edition color variations to the three currently offered – anodized white, rose gold, sandstone, or evening sky blue, perhaps?

5) Boost Mac sales by emphasizing Continuity with mobile platforms.

Apple sold 160 million iPhones and around 55 million iPads in Q4 2014.  In contrast, its Mac division generated around 20 million unit sales.

In 2014, Apple introduced Continuity for Mac, which allows users to swipe and send documents and files from an iPhone or iPad to a Mac in real time.  Similar capabilities also exist for Windows computers, but Apple has the benefit of a unified software ecosystem to make these transfers completely hassle-free.

Microsoft’s unpopular Windows 8 and forthcoming launch of Windows 10 gives Apple an enormous window to converting former Microsoft customers into new users.  The close integration of iOS with OS X is no doubt going to be a lynchpin of that pitch.

6) Consolidate and rename the entire iPad line.

Apple’s current iPad offerings include five different base models, each with multiple colors, storage options, connection capabilities, and price points.  At a glance, it’s difficult to tell how exactly they differ from each other, or whether they’re actually different at all.

The rumored 12.9” iPad Pro offers Apple the opportunity to slim down their iPad line and refresh the distinctions between each device.  If the Pro is launched alongside the 2015 refreshes for the line, it would be great to see a new nomenclature adopted for each category.

7) What’s the future of the iPod?

Apple’s iPod revenues have plummeted due to the popularity of the iPhone and iPad.  The company expected this self-cannibalization and appears inclined to let the iPod slowly fade away.

That’s probably the wisest course of action since it doesn’t make sense to invest in a product line that has seen its profits fall off a cliff in the last five years.  But the iPod does still have a dedicated customer base that could be well served with some incremental updates, especially since its current iPod offerings are overdue for a refresh.

Among the potential iPod revamps the company could pursue:

  • A bigger iPod Touch that aligns with the iPhone 6’s internal specs and size.
  • An iPod Pro with significant storage (possibly a hard drive?), sold at a premium to customers with enormous music collections. Essentially a replacement for the workhorse iPod Classic which was retired a while back.
  • A revamped iPod Nano that emphasizes fitness and exercise capabilities. The Apple Watch will likely fulfill this niche in a future iteration, but the Nano could be a lower-cost option that essentially replaces the iPod Shuffle as the entry Apple device.  (Either way, the Nano desperately needs to be redesigned; it’s easily the most visually unappealing product in Apple’s repertoire, an ugly mash of metal, glass, and an inferior iOS clone that looks like it’s from 2008.)

8) HomeKit is the next big frontier, and Apple TV is the conduit.

Smart household devices will become ubiquitous in the next few years – connected refrigerators, lighting systems, garage doors, etc.  Current iterations of those products usually include device-specific standalone apps for remote user access and control.

Standalone apps will increasingly become unviable as the volume of connected household items increases, and Apple’s HomeKit is positioned to become the conduit for collecting device controls.  It’s easy to imagine a scenario where an Apple HomeKit app aggregates each smarthome input and allows the user to manipulate each device from a central dashboard.

One sticking point is ensuring all devices are regulated by the same network to ensure they’re all properly synced for local and remote control via Apple devices.   Christopher Breen notes the importance of having a dedicated, centralized network for this purpose:

Wouldn’t it be better if each home had a small, power-efficient, always-on, platform-agnostic, Wi-Fi-enabled computer that could talk to your devices both remotely and over a local network?

If you haven’t yet glanced over at your Apple TV, now’s the time.

Apple TV is rumored to be receiving a substantial update later this year, which may include a hardware redesign and new content such as HBO’s streaming service.  The product has only received incremental updates since its launch eight years ago and has been largely eclipsed by Chromecast, Roku, and other streaming devices.

An Apple TV relaunch featuring full HomeKit integration would easily make Apple’s TV offering the most logical option on the market.   Robust streaming options plus full iTunes integration are an attractive proposition for Apple’s 100 million+ iTunes users, and having a centralized home base for device control and additional security only sweetens the deal.

Speculation and Hypotheticals

9) An Apple-Nintendo partnership won’t happen, but they would be a natural fit.

If Apple really wanted to own the living room beyond a relaunched Apple TV + HomeKit, it might also consider trying to acquire Nintendo.  This theory has been floated before and a deal is not going to happen, even though Apple easily has the cash to cover Nintendo’s $18 billion market cap and a purchase premium.

But what a win it would be for both parties!  Apple acquires Nintendo’s treasure trove of licensed characters and games.  On the mobile front, it essentially starts printing money by offering Nintendo classics on the App Store and perhaps reinventing the iPod as a game console a la the 3DS.  On the console front, it could offer a more powerful Apple TV Pro that competes with Sony and Microsoft as a complete living room entertainment hub.

Nintendo wins by earning a fat return for its investors and by attaining greater creative freedom than it has now.  Though its first-party games are constantly lauded for their quality, Nintendo has fallen victim to a conservative and confusing development cycle, where sequels and character appropriation replace new franchises and experiences.  The shortfall of cash generated by App Store sales and the reduced hardware development costs associated with an Apple purchase would ensure Nintendo has the financial footing to redouble its efforts to make world-class games.

10) Could iTunes or Apple TV become a carte blanche media streaming service?

Apple will reportedly price the revamped Beats streaming service at $7.99 per month and apparently has the enthusiastic support of major music labels.  The service is said to be outside the purview of iTunes, which will continue to sell music on a track-by-track basis.

Given Apple’s massive customer base and the fact that it succeeded in getting music executives on board with this price point, is it possible Apple might try to introduce the first cross-media streaming service under the iTunes brand?  Would you pay $40 a month for unlimited music streaming, unlimited television streaming, two free movie rentals of your choice, and a limited library of free eBooks?  I would in a heartbeat.

Apple has long talked about rethinking how television works as part of an Apple TV upgrade, and this would certainly qualify, especially if this “base” subscription package could also include additional bundles like HBO streaming or extra movie rentals for an additional fee.  Being able to consolidate media subscription services into one payment (combining Netflix, Oyster, Spotify, and HBO, for example) would be worth it for the convenience alone.

Again, this is not on the horizon, but it would be an absolute coup for Apple if it comes to pass.

11) Tesla would be a synergistic feverdream, but CarPlay makes more sense.

If Apple gets into the automobile manufacturing game, as recent rumors have suggested, all the more power to them.  It would be thrilling to see how Apple’s designers and engineers could rethink how we travel and engage with our vehicles.

Tesla has been cited as a potential acquisition for a couple of years now as part of that entry into the car market.  Of late, that talk has been supplanted by suggestions that the two companies are competitors, poaching each other’s employees with fat bonuses.

It’s tempting to envision a scenario where the two companies come together: Elon Musk on Apple’s board, an iPad replacing Tesla’s center console, Jony Ive designing the Model 3, Apple leveraging Tesla’s battery production process for its other devices.  But all signs point to Tesla’s continued independence.  Apple probably won’t acquire Tesla given this status quo.

That’s fine.  In the short to medium term, Apple’s CarPlay dashboard technology is a more promising avenue for immediate profits and widespread adoption.  If Apple acquired Tesla in the next year or two it would almost certainly not license CarPlay to other car manufacturers.  That would be forsaking a gold mine, given the 16.5 million cars sold in fiscal year 2014.

Apple is smart to seed CarPlay now.  If Tesla continues to expand in market share, Apple will no doubt have the cash to purchase it in the future.  And if Tesla stumbles along the way, Apple can swoop in and acquire it at a discount.

The Big Picture

12) All of this is to say that diversity beyond the iPhone is critical.

Apple’s sales figures suggest it will live and die by the iPhone.  The enormous success of the iPhone 6 has guaranteed the company stability for the next few quarters, and the likely improvements to the iPhone 6S (Force Touch, better battery, etc.) suggest the iPhone line will be a rock-solid profit generator at least through 2016.

That said, the pressure to continually produce an expectations-exceeding iPhone is immense.  I don’t doubt Apple’s ability in the slightest to amaze customers with whatever it introduces in the iPhone 7.  But if even one new iPhone model is a flop, Apple would lose a significant revenue source that would probably wreak havoc with its stock price.  (Not that stock fluctuations should matter too much, since it has hundreds of billions of dollars in cash on hand.)

2015 will be remembered as the year when Apple consolidated its mobile phone dominance with the iPhone 6 and also took the first steps to significantly expand beyond the iPhone.  It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if the Apple Watch is only the tip of the iceberg for new products released under Tim Cook’s leadership.

13) Tim Cook is a better CEO than Steve Jobs.

This is an admittedly tough claim to defend; Steve Jobs’ legacy speaks for itself.  But Tim Cook has already presided over some of the most important moments in Apple history, including its most profitable quarter ever and the launch of an entirely new product category.  And he has done so with poise, remarkable foresight, and efficiency.

Profiles of Jobs all lead to the same conclusion: he was a genius, a leader with unparalleled foresight, and, quite often, a horrible person to work for and with.  Cook retains Jobs’ passion without the tempermentality.  He is an exceptionally hard worker with one of the best leadership teams in the industry.  He is a man who deserves respect.

The good news is that Cook’s tenure has not shown any signs of heightened internal discord leading to a stagnant product pipeline.  On the contrary; if anything, there has never been a more exciting time to wonder what Apple has in store as its purview expands to home automation, automobiles, fashion, and untold product areas.

More than hardware and software development, however, has been the moral facet of Cook’s guidance.  Environmental responsibility has been a hallmark of his tenure; “If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock,” he famously told a group of shareholders last year.  Product (RED) offerings have continued uninterrupted.  And, most significantly, Cook has emphasized the importance of overseeing an ethical supply chain through the publication of Apple’s progress report earlier this year.

At best, Apple is an amoral amalgamation of inputs and outputs.  It creates exceptional products while undoubtedly engaging in questionable business practices that affect workers and the environment, primarily in developing countries.  Cook will probably not change this by mandating, for example, that all Apple suppliers offer their employees a living wage.  But he seems more cognizant than both Jobs and most other tech CEOs of Apple’s ability to shape just labor policies and supply chains.  That his tenure has already seen pledges for improvement in these areas suggests he is serious about Apple’s commitment to ethical production and product creation.

I’d love to see Apple make a push at developing markets with a low-cost iPhone, essentially selling it at cost to seed those customer bases for future iDevices.  Much of Apple’s revenue comes from selling expensive products to comparatively wealthy clientele, with the Apple Watch Edition representing the peak of Apple’s pursuit of the luxury market.  It would be good for Tim Cook’s Apple to counterbalance this trend by advocating for productivity and growth in markets that can’t afford a $700 unlocked phone.

Apple’s market share and singular vision suggests it can have the most substantial impact for the good in most of the areas it chooses to enter.  Let’s hope this will be put to good use going forward.  The future certainly looks bright.

 

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Failed Connection: On Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor”

On September 9th of last year, Arcade Fire released an unusual music video to accompany the launch of the first single from their fourth album, Reflektor.  The plot of the video is not terribly noteworthy or unconventional – it features a young Haitian woman dancing in various locales, culminating with a wild street party in the dead of night.  Unique to the clip, however, is that the viewer is able to alter the images onscreen using a synced-up smartphone.  Waving the phone left to right, for example, might create a haze effect onscreen that mirrors the viewer’s gesture.  The viewer’s mobile device, in effect, becomes the eponymous “reflektor” that alters how they see the music video.

It’s an amusing piece of audiovisual wizardry that also comes across as a gimmick.  None of the effects amount to anything more than you would find in an equalizer.  But there is one slightly jarring moment at the end of the video that gives the viewer pause.  At this point, the computer screen approximates a cracked mirror through which the young woman is visible.  Suddenly, the woman disappears and the viewer’s face is imposed on the glass shards, thanks to the activation of the viewer’s webcam.  And lo and behold, the woman appears on the viewer’s phone or tablet, having made the virtual jump from big screen to small.

It’s a strange feeling to suddenly encounter your own face in those glass shards and even stranger to essentially hold the woman, previously an abstracted “other,” in the palm of your hand.  That feeling is what Arcade Fire wanted to elicit with this project – a prompted pulse to reconsider how the devices you use define your relationships with others, as well as your conception of yourself. 

This deep-seated introspection is at the core of what Arcade Fire tries to convey on Reflektor.  The album is framed as a mediating mechanism to break through the digital stupor that comes from prolonged electronic communication.  Reflektor has appeared on a host of 2013’s “Best Albums” lists, in large part because of its engagement with this theme.  Countless reviews of the album have praised its insightful look into how people communicate via technology and its illuminating commentary on avoiding the dangers of cold, abstracted interaction. 

I disagree with these positive reviews.  Arcade Fire has produced an album that has a host of catchy moments and individual triumphs but sags under the weight of lazily mashed-together lyrics and themes.  Why does this matter?  Reflektor underscores and calcifies a number of tendencies that Arcade Fire has been cultivating since their first album.  As the biggest independent band in the world and a shorthand for independent pop music as a whole, it bears discussing how and why they’ve gotten to this point and the ways their musical inclinations begin to falter on Reflektor.

Arcade Fire’s first three albums were solid affairs that, in retrospect, generated critical acclaim perhaps incommensurate with the quality of the final products.  Funeral is a simple but compelling reflection on death whose sound, unique in 2003, has not proved timeless.  Neon Bible is an overbearing critique of religion that features a mixed bag of beautiful and middling songs.  The Suburbs, in my opinion their best album, is a fully-realized look at suburban life that’s overly long but contains some of their most compelling work.  It is not a world-beating record and does not deserve the scores of accolades it earned in 2011, including the Grammy for Album of the Year, but it accomplishes its aims with consistency and nuance. 

In all three previous albums, lead singer Win Butler was able to milk the dichotomy of “us vs. them” to moderate, occasionally even great, success.  Funeral saw “us kids” confronting adult hypocrisy, Neon Bible featured outsider critiques of poisonous adherence to religious monocultures, and The Suburbs was a twenty-first century meditation on alienation (“us kids vs. society,” if you will).  Reflektor tries for a new variation on the same theme, but there’s no strong central narrative arc, no convincing foil, to hold any attempted contrasts together. 

The result is a weak appropriation of the “us vs. them” idea that’s far less incisive than anything Arcade Fire has produced in the past.  We’re treated to tepid, straw-man attacks on the “other” in songs like the mundane and cringe-worthy “Normal People,” which strips away the characterizations and differences (age, religion, social orientation) that make “us vs. them” a potentially fruitful concept.  Instead, we’re left with the most basic, torpid contrasts that lead to pointless musings on whether a “normal person” is “cool enough” or “cruel enough.”  “Normal people” is a loaded term that begs to be either avoided entirely or commented upon intelligently, and Butler provides no nuanced evaluation or lyrical meat for listeners to chew.  He’s content to employ it without qualification and we’re not better off for it.

This is a recurring problem throughout Reflektor.  On Arcade Fire’s previous albums, one of Butler’s strengths was his ability to link together impressionistic imagery and pointed motifs or themes around an overarching concept.  The summation of these motifs usually created depth and multiple angles from which the songs could be approached and appreciated.  In The Suburbs, for example, we see recurring automobile references that suggest an ability to navigate the suburban wasteland but never to escape it. 

While Butler is quite good at crafting imagery that gives his albums thematic consistency, his actual lyrical prowess (his ability to write sharp, insightful lines) has been inconsistent.  For every concise, intriguing idea or theme (see “My Body is a Cage” or “Half-Light II”), there is a lyric that is either repetitively simplistic, fails to evoke meaning, or comes across as heavy-handed and overly preachy (“Rebellion” or “Intervention”).  But for the most part, in the past, the tightness of each album’s thematic core has balanced the lack of specificity and categorical quality in his lyrics. 

This isn’t the case for Reflektor.  Butler says that the album was inspired by the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, the film Black Orpheus, Søren Kierkegaard’s essay “The Present Age,” and his and wife Régine Chassagne’s time in Haiti.  Unfortunately, these themes never quite mesh into a convincing narrative as in The Suburbs.  We’re left with scattershot reflections on death OR isolation OR the link between the two in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.  This lack of cohesion isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw, but it’s more glaring and grating because Arcade Fire have already made albums that explored these themes.  We really don’t need another analysis of how “we’re so connected, but are we even friends?”  It’s a question they addressed at length in The Suburbs, and by now it’s a stale prompt that any Facebook user already asked in the preceding five years. 

The thematic looseness of the album makes the lyrical insufficiencies more noticeable than those of any previous Arcade Fire record.  And they are problematic indeed – this is far and away Butler’s weakest set of lyrics.  Repetition is the order of the day; “You Already Know” features the title phrase repeated 16 times throughout the song, and other tracks suffer the same lyrical stagnancy that precludes the presence of meaningful color, plot, and poetry on the album.  Tired love tropes that add little to the Orpheus / Eurydice myth are employed over and over again.  Here’s a sample lyric from “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)”:

You came home from school

And knew you had to run

Please stop running now

Just let me be the one

Goodness gracious.  Other lines in the album, probably meant to be amusing or pseudo-profound (or both), fall equally flat.  “Oh man / Do you like Rock and Roll music? / ‘Cause I don’t know if I do,” Butler sings on “Normal Person.”  (IRONY!)  “What if the camera / really do / steal your soul?” he breathes on “Flashbulb Eyes.”  (INTRIGUE!)  These lines, and others throughout the album, do not convey the sense of sly amusement Butler was probably aiming for.  They sound ridiculous.

Again, it’s a shame that so much of Reflektor is comprised of this dreck.  The motifs that Butler employs throughout the album are actually well thought-out and complement each other nicely.  Much has been said about how Reflektor is thematically similar to U2’s Achtung Baby, which is loosely centered on the idea of losing oneself in a hazy electro-Joycean Nighttown.  Arcade Fire drills even deeper with this idea, conceiving this journey as one that explores the dividing lines between authenticity and life, illusion and afterlife.  References to and dichotomies involving mirrors, prisms, cameras/lenses, (super)symmetry, and invisible dividing lines provide a promising vehicle for realizing these contrasts.  But the total lack of connective tissue between these ideas and consistently meaningful lyrics to convey them means the concepts are never fully developed.  Instead, we’re left with musings about “reflektors” and “resurrectors” that provide few memorable moments of cohesion or insight.

Also problematic is the near-total disconnect between the style of music and the album’s themes.  The Suburbs is a well-crafted album because its musical and lyrical content align almost perfectly; Arcade Fire’s tendency to create simple, lush, hook-laden songs provided a lockstep complement to their commentary on the circuitous helicon of suburban life.  The music reflected the album’s themes of being trapped and going “around and around and around and around” while simultaneously serving as the primary vehicle for escaping that rut.  There’s a reason why “Sprawl II” sounds as glorious as it does when the album is coming to a close. 

Reflektor posits an attitude of looseness and partying inspired by the Haitian street festivals that Butler and Chassagne participated in while visiting Haiti.  The interplay between this kind of partying and the album’s focus on death isn’t unusual, as many cultures mark funerals or mourning periods with celebrations.  But the record’s other emphasis on alienation is a strange bedfellow for music ostensibly made to have a good time.  There is evident jubilation on “Afterlife” and “Here Comes the Night Time,” but it’s a moody jubilation tinged with the fear of isolation.  Many of Arcade Fire’s earlier albums featured juxtapositions of uplifting anthems and soaring chords with gloomy, introspective (some might say self-indulgent) tracks that drove the thematic basis for their albums.  But here, Reflektor’s similarly introspective bent is severely at odds with the near-uninterrupted stream of upbeat rhythms and melodies that the band deploys.  In particular, Butler’s singing frequently comes across as almost too faint to embody the energy and excitement these songs would seem to demand. 

Talking Heads have been a constant comparison for Arcade Fire’s target of loose, slick dance-pop-rock with Reflektor.  I guess this makes sense to the extent that they’re white people making supposedly rhythmic-centric music, but I don’t think this appraisal is particularly apt, at least when the supposed connections are analyzed in greater detail.  Most critics have drawn analogies to Talking Heads’ incorporation of African beats and employment of Brian Eno as producer for Remain in Light, in that Arcade Fire added some Haitian flourishes and consulted James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem for Reflektor.  But save for “Here Comes the Night Time,” only a couple of the tracks on Reflektor have any appreciable world music influence, and only a handful deliver on the supposed dance promise that the record has made.  “Joan of Arc,” “Normal People,” and “You Already Know” are all straightforward rock pieces.  “We Exist,” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” only have slight dance or rhythmic influences, including hooky bass grooves and some funky drum loops.  Over half of the album has no appreciable world or dance influence at all.

More importantly, I’d argue that the musical concepts that underpin Remain in Light are almost totally absent from Reflektor, which reduces the number of meaningful comparisons in virtuosity or even basic intent that can be made between the two records.  Here’s David Byrne discussing the methodology behind the “modular music” of Remain in Light:

While the groove usually remained constant, different combinations of instruments would be switched on and off simultaneously at different given times.  One group of instruments that produced a certain texture and groove might eventually be nominated as a “verse” section, and another group – often larger-sounding – would be nominated as the “chorus.”  Often in these songs there was no real key change.  The bass line tended to remain constant, but one could still imply key modulations, illusory chord changes, which were very useful for building excitement while maintaining the trance-like feel of constant root notes.

This kind of recording process simply doesn’t seem to be present in Reflektor, save for a couple of instances on tracks like “Porno.”  There is a greater emphasis on bass grooves and more complex rhythm work than in Arcade Fire’s three previous albums, but it’s not a wholesale change or reordering of what they did in the past.  So I don’t really understand criticisms like this from Steven Hyden: “Instead of the orchestral sweep of the first three records, Arcade Fire has rebooted as a rhythm-oriented outfit. This requires an entirely new skill set that this band simply does not have.”  I don’t have a background in musical arrangement, but to my ears, this isn’t even an issue that crops up on Reflektor.  Arcade Fire isn’t doing anything structurally different this time around.  They’re tweaking the emphasis on a few songs – often with mixed success.

How much you get out of the individual songs and general musicianship on Reflektor will vary depending on your musical background and preferences.  I don’t know enough about technical music criticism to say whether each song is performed poorly or not, and I find it foolish to engage in criticism of timbre and texture.  (I don’t particularly like the guitar tone on “Joan of Arc” but many reviewers find this to be one of the album’s stronger tracks.)  That said, there are a few general trends on Reflektor worth identifying.

“We Exist,” “Normal Person,” “You Already Know,” “Joan of Arc,” “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice),” and “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)” can essentially be reduced to individual hooks – the slick “Billie Jean”-esque rhythm on “We Exist,” the chorus on “Joan of Arc,” the roiling bass on “It’s Never Over.”  The Orpheus-Eurydice pair, in particular, are unnecessarily long.  These songs provide immediate gratification and little else. 

“Afterlife” and “Porno” are similar to the aforementioned hook-defined songs but feature additional depth or characteristics worthy of further consideration.  In “Afterlife,” Chassagne’s vocals shine, and the driving drums and the irregular synth pulses add a Haitian rhythm that gives the song a unique sound on the record.  Butler’s lyrics are also probably at their most affecting as he sings about what happens “after all the breath and the dirt and the fires are burnt… after the hangers-on are done hanging on to the dead lights / of the afterglow.”   “Porno” actually lacks a hook like the other songs mentioned earlier, but it combines the wonky synth of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” with a chorus melody that echoes Kanye West’s “Runaways.”  It’s a deeply repetitive track and most closely hits at the Talking Heads comparison, but it’s also saddled with embarrassingly sterile lyrics. 

The title track is a seven-minute muted disco banger that develops nicely into an extended groove at the end.  But it’s mixed very quietly and Butler’s faint vocals sap the song of energy at the beginning.

“Here Comes the Night Time II” and “Supersymmetry” are short, lush, beautiful pieces that fit well as the opener and closer to the second disc but are let down by the one-trick ponies saddled in between.

“We Exist” is straight dub with horns.  I found it to be one of the more successful tracks on the album because it’s short (the only track under three minutes) and doesn’t even attempt for profundity, as most of the other songs on this album do.  The ridiculous camera lyrics don’t matter much because the overdubbed, washed-out bass and congas are blowing up your headphones or stereo.  One can imagine a scenario where Arcade Fire trimmed most of the cuts on this album to fit this kind of self-contained, self-justifying format: sub-3:00 songs that provide a fun hook and don’t shoot for philosophical depth (and miss). 

The best track on the album, in my opinion, is “Here Comes the Night Time,” which is also one of the best songs Arcade Fire has recorded.  It’s a mess in the best possible way- a frenzied, pulsing mariachi opening eventually transitions into a simple bass-loop-driven slow-burner.  Twinkling pianos and synths along with Butler’s lyrics about nightfall paint a refreshingly vivid picture of dancing on a warm summer evening.  As opposed to the majority of tracks on Reflektor, “Here Comes the Night Time” also employs form changes and instrumental variation throughout.  This was the most compelling recording on Reflektor by a significant margin, though the lyrics veer into preachy clichés as the album comes to a close.

If you’re a fan of Arcade Fire songs like “Month of May” and “Wake Up,” you’ll probably enjoy this album as most of the songs feature similar rock riffs and heavy punchiness.  If you prefer airier, melodious tracks like “Keep the Car Running” or “Une Annee Sans Lumiere,” the music on Reflektor is more of a mixed bag and might get old quickly. 

In the end, though, the quality of the music doesn’t make up for the album’s lyrical insufficiencies, especially given Arcade Fire’s penchant for thematic depth.  Reflektor simply doesn’t have the cohesiveness to convey anything more than semi-interlocked ruminations on technological interaction.  More damning is the band’s reticence to move beyond criticism of ideologies and trends.  Through all four of their records, Arcade Fire has taken an almost clinical approach to their subject matter, trying to tease out revelations under a probing artistic microscope.  Increasingly this lends their work a sort of coldness and abstraction that I’ve found to be off-putting.  Reflektor is no different, with an excessive number of tracks lamenting the difficulty in making connections between people.  Creating a prescriptive analysis of such problems only goes so far in prompting the listener to forge an emotional link with the music itself. 

Perhaps that’s the core problem with Arcade Fire in the wake of their fourth album.  They focus so much on the difficulty of making connections across oceans of artifice and differences (age, religion, geography, occupation) that, eventually, it becomes tough to connect with the band about anything outside their criticisms.  What do Arcade Fire stand for?  Fans of the band will no doubt point to the deep connection between Chassagne and Butler, the band’s hymns to youthful vigor, and their powerful and energetic live shows- all things that emphasize just how amazing connection can be.  But the bulk of their discography, especially when examined after the release of Reflektor, subordinates this emphasis on connection to the damned difficulty of actually making it happen.  (Literally damned – in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Orpheus retrieves Eurydice from hell but loses her forever before she exits the underworld.)  It’s not exactly galling or infuriating that Reflektor maintains an upbeat attitude while pounding the same drum, but the tune has become stale.  And relationships defined by their shared mistrust and disaffectation lack the substance for extended longevity and passion.  One has to wonder if this will be a problem the band will face with casual fans going forward. 

One qualification: many music commentators have bitterly criticized Arcade Fire over the tangential controversies that arose during the marketing and touring of Reflektor, including the album’s excessive and annoying advertising and the “pretentious” dress code request the band put out for show attendance.  The supposed narrative here is that Arcade Fire is becoming overly haughty and selling out, reinforcing a holier-than-thou attitude that speaks to the lack of connection I described in the previous paragraph.  I don’t agree with these criticisms.  The ads were kind of annoying and the dress code request is a little quirky, but neither decision can meaningfully contribute to an indictment of the band’s authenticity.  I also disagree with any arguments that the band is willingly false and smarmy for propagating material about exclusion and loneliness while achieving superstar status and playing to millions of people.  The marketing and performance of the album do not mandate that the band’s outlook must change, nor do they render the themes of the album hypocritical and false.  I find the album’s lyrical insufficiencies to be a far more valid target of criticism than side issues related to its dissemination.

I appreciate many of Arcade Fire’s songs and some of their work on Reflektor will no doubt become hallmarks of their music.  At the same time, I hope the band shifts gears for their next album and tackles subject matter that expands beyond criticism of alienation and ostracism.  Reflektor suggested a tentative move away that wasn’t enough, and the thematic messiness made these concepts more central than they probably should have been.  They have the talent and skill to make a transcendent pop record rather than a mere description of what’s wrong with the status quo. 

In other words, let’s hope that our next encounter with Arcade Fire sees them focusing on who that mysterious dancing Haitian girl from the “Reflektor” video is and why she matters, rather than the fact that she jumps from screen to screen.  

The U.S. Catholic Bishops: Right on Immigration, Wrong on Immigration Reform

This piece was previously posted at Millennial Journal

The Bishops Take a Stand

Left-leaning Catholics are used to being disappointed: disappointed by the Republican Party, for its apparent indifference to the economic travails of the working class; disappointed by the Democratic Party, for its slow but steady drift away from a big tent approach and toward the same with-us-or-against-us culture war mentality on divisive social issues that has overtaken the GOP; disappointed by conservatives within the Church, who insist that Catholics are morally obligated to vote against pro-choice politicians, but that one’s views on war and peace, gun control, poverty reduction, or the death penalty are merely matters of “prudential judgment;” disappointed by the media, which have tended to portray developments within the Church, justly or unjustly, in a generally negative light (at least until the election of Francis); and disappointed by the Catholics who in turn portray the media as persecuting the Church and who equate sophisticated anti-Catholicism in America with the mass murder of Christians in the developing world.

In recent years, these Catholics have also at times been disappointed by the Bishops, who so often demonstrate their political tone-deafness and frustrating knack for contributing to at least some of the trends driving intolerance of the Church in modern society. While those most sympathetic to the Bishops’ political positions and rhetorical strategies are certainly correct in claiming that they often do talk about other things that the mainstream media simply fail to notice, they tend to overlook the fact that there really are dramatic disparities in the amount and nature of attention the Bishops pay to different issues. Sure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has spoken out against the GOP majority’s sustained push in the House of Representatives to cut funding for nutritional assistance programs, but have they sponsored a “Fortnight for Food Stamps” to rally Catholics against the Republicans’ attacks on the social safety net?

Given the expectation among liberal Catholics that reading a front-page story about the Bishops’ latest comments on matters of public policy will quite possibly result in vigorous facepalming, it ought to be especially satisfying to see the USCCB not only siding largely with President Obama and the Democrats on the issue of immigration reform, but backing the cause with nearly as much energy as it spent fighting the administration over the Affordable Care Act. Although the issue is in danger of slipping off the political radar entirely as Washington is consumed by another series of fiscal skirmishes and the current government shutdown, it seems that their commitment to making sure it doesn’t disappear is genuine and strong.

It really ought to be satisfying, but alas, it isn’t. As happy as I am to see the Bishops endorsing a legislative initiative of the Democratic Party with the full force of the episcopal bully pulpit and finally drawing public attention to the fact that the social vision of the Church does not map perfectly onto the platform of either major party, I’m afraid I have to point out that I think the Bishops have gotten this one wrong, too.

Mind you, this is not to say that they should be backing the majority Republican view. To the extent that the dominant conservative position on immigration is founded upon principled objections to the sort of proposals that have been embraced by most congressional Democrats and many congressional Republicans (and not on raw xenophobia), it is largely misguided as well. Ever longer and taller border fences are probably not the best use of public resources.

It is also not to suggest that their hearts are in the wrong place. I am well aware of the irony involved in appropriating the argument that Catholics can differ over matters of “prudential judgment” but not over “fundamental moral precepts” when I just alluded in my opening paragraph to the way in which that argument has been used as a cudgel by those with a minimalist understanding of what it means to be pro-life. That said, I really do think the Bishops are right about the principles that ought to inform the immigration debate, if not about the policy. In fact, I think they’re more right about those principles than most of the politicians involved in the ongoing national conversation, including many Democrats.

In an editorial published in USA Today several months back, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and current President of the USCCB, opened by saying that

[i]mmigration reform is an issue close to Catholic hearts. America has wonderfully welcomed generations of immigrant families, and our parishes, schools and charitable ministries have long helped successfully integrate immigrants into American life.

This column kicked off a summer of advocacy by the Bishops, which included preaching about immigration at Sunday Masses and lobbying Catholic legislators to support reform. The New York Times at the end of August quoted Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the USCCB, as saying that “[w]e want to try to pull out all the stops… They have to hear the message that we want this done…”

On June 27th, the United States Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (BSEOIMA) of 2013, the so-called “Gang of Eight” bill authored by Senators Bennet, Durbin, Flake, Graham, McCain, Menendez, Rubio, and Schumer. Not only does the bill deviate from the Washington norm of naming legislation with clever backronyms – they couldn’t have thought of something pithier than “BSEOIMA”? – it also fails to comport with the norms of justice and fairness that the Bishops have declared must be made manifest in any overhaul of the immigration system.

As I see it, the BSEOIMA should be opposed (by everyone, but especially by the Bishops) for three primary reasons:

  1. The bill moves U.S. immigration law away from a system that values and prioritizes family unity and toward one that evaluates potential entrants on the basis of their economic utility;
  2. The bill expands so-called “guestworker programs” that offer immigrants little recourse in the event of mistreatment or exploitation by their employers;
  3. The bill threatens to exacerbate deeply entrenched economic problems that affect the well-being of large segments of the American population, without taking any measures whatsoever to counteract these trends.

Competing Visions of the Purpose of Immigration

Currently, U.S. immigration law allows U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents to sponsor certain categories of relatives in their own bids to legally enter the country. Although permanent residents are only permitted to sponsor their spouse or child, citizens may also sponsor their parents or siblings. The Gang of Eight bill would put an end to sponsorship of siblings.

It gets worse, though. Since there are quotas on the number of visas that can be issued for each category of family member in a given year, as well as restrictions on the percentage of these visas that can go to potential entrants from given parts of the globe, there are long waiting lines to be approved for legal entry – lines that can last for decades. The Gang of Eight bill does not simply bar the brothers and sisters of American citizens or permanent residents from petitioning for citizenship in the future, it actively culls those who are currently standing in line. Relatives who have been waiting for years to join their loved ones in America will now be denied the opportunity to do so.

And for what purpose? There might understandably be a need to tighten up the law if citizens and green-card holders were allowed to sponsor third cousins twice-removed, and there is little doubt that the difficulty of detecting fraudulent petitions would increase if such distant relatives were permitted to petition for entry. But we’re talking about brothers and sisters!

It turns out that the purpose of this provision has nothing to do with preventing fraud. Rather, it is motivated by the belief that decisions about which immigrants to welcome into the country should be based on judgments about their expected economic value. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Gang of Eight, has declared that

[g]reen cards should be reserved for the nuclear family. Green cards are economic engines for the country. This is not a family court we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing about [sic] an economic need.

This vision of the ultimate purpose of immigration is directly at odds with that of the Church, as articulated by Dolan in the editorial quoted earlier:

[F]amily unity, based on the union of a husband and a wife and their children, must be a cornerstone of immigration reform, because strong families are the foundation of the robust communities that integrate immigrants into American life.

One can try to interpret the allusion to the “union of a husband and wife” in a number of different ways. It could be a reference to the issue of same-sex marriage, which has since been divorced from the immigration debate by the Supreme Court’s June ruling invalidating Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). It could even be an endorsement of Lindsey Graham’s position that only the “nuclear family” should qualify for preferential treatment under immigration law.

Yet it is undeniable that these are in fact two radically divergent understandings of what immigration is for. According to the utilitarian perspective that sees green cards as “economic engines,” immigration is only a means to an end. The immigrant is granted the privilege of entering our country on the grounds that he is likely to be more productive than others who are similarly situated. According to the Church though, immigration is a natural right. As the Catechism puts it,

[t]he more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

In Graham’s opinion, the purpose of immigration law is to restrict the entry of those who will not increase America’s GDP; in the Church’s view, legal restrictions on immigration are at best a necessary evil, a kind of administrative inevitability that should interfere as little as possible with the right of foreigners to seek “the means of livelihood which they cannot find in their country of origin.” Of course, “various juridical conditions” like visas, background checks, and the like will always be necessary to keep track of newcomers and to ensure that they are not engaging in criminal activity or otherwise threatening the well-being of others. Restrictions on the entry of individuals with communicable diseases might also be an example of sensible regulation in this area.

Now, it is certainly true that even “prosperous nations” are limited in the number of immigrants that they can reasonably be expected to welcome, especially if the immigrants that they receive end up requiring public assistance or the help of the social safety net. Difficult choices about whom to turn away are unavoidable, and it is entirely appropriate to consider skills and employability when making the tough calls. This doesn’t change the fact that family unity ought to be the priority. It should not be considered a luxury or treated as a subordinate concern. If we faced a situation in which we were up against the absolute limit of how many immigrants we could let in to the U.S., then it might be justifiable to cancel sibling sponsorship so as to maintain sponsorship for parents and children. We are clearly up against no such constraint.

The page on the USCCB website devoted to comprehensive immigration reform says that “[c]hanges to family-based immigration should be made to increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times.” Nowhere does it specify that only “nuclear families” count as families. Although the theology of the Church certainly privileges marriage as a unique kind of relationship, it would be disingenuous to claim that the Bishops do not have other relations in mind when they speak of “family unity.”

During the healthcare debate of 2009 and 2010, a small bloc of pro-life Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) signaled that they would not vote for the final legislation unless stronger protections were included to ensure that federal funds would not be used to pay for elective abortions. President Obama was ultimately able to secure their votes by signing an executive order reaffirming the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortion, but the USCCB was not satisfied. It continued to oppose a piece of legislation that advanced an objective which the Bishops themselves had deemed to be of vital importance – access to healthcare for the poor and uninsured – on account of a hypothetical harm.

If the Bishops were willing to fight legislation containing provisions that could possibly have resulted in outcomes that the Catholic Church would find unacceptable, then surely they must be willing to resist a bill that will in fact lead to the continuation of inhumane policies. Yet anyone who considers it a close call need not base his opposition on this one provision about sibling migration. Even more insidious than the changes to the rules governing family sponsorship are the portions that relate to so-called “guestworker programs.”

The Exploitation of Guestworkers

There are currently two major types of visas granted by the United States: immigrant visas (“green cards”), which are given to “permanent residents” who are seeking to eventually become naturalized citizens, and non-immigrant visas, which include those issued to tourists and others who will only be in the country for a limited period of time.

This latter category also includes the H1-B, H2-A, and H2-B visas, which are issued to skilled professionals (those with a bachelor’s degree or higher), non-skilled agricultural workers, and non-skilled workers in other sectors, respectively. The Gang of Eight bill would not only increase the annual cap on the H1-B visas by over 100,000 per year, but it would create new guestworker programs.

One of these, the “W visa,” would issue up to 200,000 permits to those seeking work in construction, retail, and other sectors. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank that describes itself as “pro-immigrant” but in favor of “low immigration” and that describes its mission as creating an America “that admits fewer immigrants but affords a warmer welcome for those who are admitted,” the Gang of Eight bill “would increase annual temporary worker admissions by more than 600,000 each year over the current level.”

Why is this a bad thing? Doesn’t this dovetail with the Catechism’s call for governments to facilitate the migration of those seeking to work hard to improve their lot? Not necessarily. Recipients of H1 or H2 visas are granted a residency status that is contingent on their continued employment by the particular firm that sponsors them. This means that they have to leave the U.S. almost immediately in the event that they are let go by that firm. It’s easy to see how this puts guestworkers in a precarious situation. If they do anything to rock the boat, they can be dismissed and sent back to their home country.

Mary Bauer, the former Director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, testified to Congress back in 2008 that H2-A and H2-B visa holders are routinely cheated out of wages and sometimes made to endure abusive work conditions. She argued that “[g]uestworkers… live in a system akin to indentured servitude” and provided numerous examples of troubling and exploitative practices, including workers who are paid less than half the minimum wage but who “because of their vulnerability… are unlikely to complain about these violations;” some whose employers “refuse to provide [them] access to their own identity documents, such as passports and Social Security cards” in order to “guarantee that [they] remain in their employ;” and others who suffer serious injuries but are “discouraged” from filing for workers’ compensation lest they invite investigation of their employer’s problematic business practices. Bauer urged Congress at the time to do away with these programs, or at least reform them so as to stop these abuses. Yet Congress is not currently discussing whether to continue them, but how much to expand them.

There are many reasons why adding 600,000 temporary workers to the American labor force every year might not be ideal. The possible exploitation of a not insignificant share of those workers is one important reason. Another is the deleterious impact of drastically expanding the labor force during the worst period of mass unemployment since the Great Depression.

Of Salaries and “Super-Immigrants”

While we should generally be skeptical of complaints that a certain view is not being given a fair hearing in the political arena because it has been sidelined by the “elite consensus,” it is true that there is wide-ranging agreement along the whole spectrum from left to right that increasing the level of skilled immigration would be good for America. Highly intelligent and capable immigrants are, according to the conventional wisdom, likely to develop products or ideas that will lead to more employment and a better standard of living for domestic workers.

Even immigration reform critics like Daily Beast writer David Frum and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat are generally supportive of increasing the number of high-skilled visas, and the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives at one point signaled an openness to working on legislation in this area. Stony Brook economics professor Noah Smith once wondered on his blog what constituency could possibly be against such a win-win policy, writing that “for the life of me, I can’t figure out who is against high-skilled immigration.” Various others in the blogosphere have portrayed the importation of more “super-immigrants” as a free lunch for the American economy.

The problem is that talk of super-immigrants elides an important point, which is that the overwhelming majority of “skilled” immigrants, while no doubt intelligent and productive individuals, are not multifaceted geniuses and do not hold two doctorates or dozens of patents. Very few of them are Randian übermenschen who will start the next Virgin Galactic or Tesla Motors. What exactly would be the impact on the economy of bringing more of them into the United States?

The technology industry, for its part, has insisted that there are not enough American scientists and engineers to fill the positions that need to be filled. The shortfall is allegedly so severe that it can only be adequately dealt with by opening our borders to more foreign workers. Silicon Valley moguls like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg have argued that firms like his increasingly have to look abroad to find the talent they need to remain competitive.

But if there really were a shortage of high-skilled workers, then the principles of supply and demand would suggest that wages would be increasing rapidly in the fields hit hardest by that shortage. Yet this is not what has been happening. According to a report from Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn and B. Lindsay Lowell of the Economic Policy Institute, wages in the information technology (IT) sector and for college graduates with majors in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields “have remained flat, with real [inflation-adjusted] wages hovering around their late 1990s levels…” Their conclusion is that

[t]he IT industry was able to attract increasing numbers of domestic graduates during periods of rising wages and employment, leading to a peak in wages and numbers of computer science graduates in the early 2000s. Since that time, the IT industry appears to be functioning with two distinct market patterns: a domestic supply (of workers and students) that responds to wage signals (and other aspects of working conditions such as future career prospects), and a guestworker supply that appears to be abundantly available even in times of relatively weak demand and even when wages decline or are stagnant… immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guestworkers appear to provide firms with access to labor that will be in plentiful supply at wages that are too low to induce a significantly increased supply from the domestic workforce.

The Center for Immigration Studies notes that this bifurcation of the labor market in certain sectors could help explain why firms that employ IT or STEM workers are so insistent that they face a shortage of talent:

Employers become accustomed to paying low wages and structure their businesses accordingly. Raising wages seems out of the question; they even [convince] themselves that wages actually don’t matter when recruiting.

Or as the economist Paul Krugman put it in a post on his blog “The Conscience of a Liberal” in late 2012,

[w]henever you see some business person quoted complaining about how he or she can’t find workers with the necessary skills, ask what wage they’re offering. Almost always, it turns out that what said business person really wants is highly (and expensively) educated workers at a manual-labor wage. No wonder they come up short.

While it may be true that there are no good arguments against increasing the number of visas for people who will revolutionize whole industries and create thousands of jobs, there is a simple argument against dramatically increasing visas for skilled workers in general: it will lead to downward pressure on wages in sectors of the economy that have seen flat or declining wages for a decade or more, without doing anything to apply countervailing pressures that might return us to a world in which incomes consistently rise over time.

If it’s true that talk of a shortage of STEM workers (or high-skilled workers more generally) is largely a myth, then there must be a veritable glut of low-skilled workers. After all, unemployment statistics have consistently shown that those in blue-collar occupations were, on average, hit harder than their white-collar counterparts by the recession and its aftermath. Yet wealthy donors to both the Republican and Democratic Parties have lobbied hard for an expansion of low-skilled visas as well, including the H2-A’s discussed above. The super-immigrant argument clearly does not apply in this case. Arguing for an increase in family-based visas that would have as an incidental side effect an increase in the population of low-skilled workers is one thing. Pushing for an increase in the number of work visas allocated to this category is much harder to justify.

What a Better Reform Might Look Like

What would immigration reform look like if we wanted to do it right? And why is the legislation discussed here sufficiently at odds with Christian notions of the common good that the Bishops should actually come out against it? It may seem that the arguments I’ve presented lead to contradictory conclusions. I began by maintaining that U.S. immigration law should be primarily family-based and that provisions regarding sponsorship of relatives should be much less restrictive. Yet I’ve also warned about the dangers of permitting unchecked immigration at a time of mass unemployment. How can we reconcile these apparently conflicting principles?

This is in some sense a false dilemma. We should not have to choose between welcoming foreigners seeking a better life in America and guaranteeing the welfare of native-born citizens. When we say that all men are created equal, we don’t mean that all American men are created equal and that everyone else is somehow secondary. Nationalistic and patriotic sentiments are ultimately no justification for offering preferential treatment to some individuals merely because they happened to grow up on a certain side of the ocean.

While I’m sympathetic to the impulse to encourage shoppers to “buy American” or to promote policies that will “insource” American jobs that have been shipped overseas, it may actually be the case that it would be best for the American economy in the long run if certain industries moved to other countries and new industries were allowed to rise up and take their place. “Our” gain does not have to come at the price of “their” loss. This need not be a zero-sum game.

At its root, the immigration debate is not, as reactionary xenophobes would have you think, about protecting the American homeland from the threat of the other. It’s about protecting the rights and dignity of all people who want to work hard and provide for their families. To that end, we should be pursuing policies that generate both a growing economic pie and that ensure that the poor and middle class are able to share in the fruits of that growth. We should be taking advantage of the fact that the federal government can borrow at historically low interest rates by putting construction workers back on the job repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We should be offering aid to struggling states and local governments to rehire police and firefighters and teachers who were laid off during the depth of the recession. Anxiety about foreign competition for American jobs would diminish dramatically if the economy were booming and anyone who wanted employment could find it.

A sensible, humane immigration policy would involve relatively open borders and would deter illegal entry, not with drones and barbed wire, but by expanding the use of systems like eVerify, which checks a person’s eligibility to work in the U.S. against government databases and which makes it harder for employers to hire undocumented migrants. To combat exploitative work arrangements, we should replace employer-based visas with permanent residency for all new entrants, not just those fortunate enough to have an employer willing and able to sponsor them – a policy that has been endorsed by professional organizations like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. This would empower workers by increasing their willingness to challenge their bosses when they act in ways that violate labor laws or nondiscrimination statutes.

As I made clear earlier, we should make family-based immigration as easy as possible and should see to it that immigrants are not separated from their loved ones whenever it is in our power to prevent that from happening. Moreover, we need to recognize that access to certain basic necessities like food or healthcare should not be dependent on legal status or lack thereof. The Gang of Eight bill contains provisions that would make those currently in the country illegally ineligible for most public assistance programs even as it supposedly puts them on a “path to citizenship.” This is an unduly punitive stance that does not advance legitimate governmental interests.

In response to the inevitable criticism that I’ve fallen into the same trap the Bishops fell into during the healthcare debate by making the perfect the enemy of the good, I’ll simply point out that the Gang of Eight bill is not merely less than ideal. I do not suggest that the Bishops ought to oppose the bill because it does not solve every problem out there. They ought to oppose the bill because it creates new problems that have no hope of being solved by any Congress we are likely to have in the near future.

This is not to suggest that it does not contain anything good at all. On the contrary, the provisions that establish the so-called path to citizenship, a process for legalizing the existing population of unauthorized immigrants, are among its most laudable features and should be eagerly welcomed (if anything, the path should be made even simpler). For many people who aim to live and work in the United States, there is currently no way for them to enter the country legally even if they wanted to. That ought to change.

Consider what the USSCB argues on its website ought to be the core elements of any attempt at comprehensive reform: an “earned legalization program;” regulations that ensure “workplace protections, living wage levels, safeguards against the displacement of U.S. workers, and family unity;” changes that “increase the number of family visas available and reduce family reunification waiting times;” and enforcement measures that are “targeted, proportional, and humane.” In my view, it’s hard to argue that the Bishops had anything like the Gang of Eight bill in mind when they wrote that list.

Some commentators have pronounced immigration reform dead for the foreseeable future, but it is possible that we may be on the cusp of a renewed push to have the House of Representatives render its judgment on the Gang of Eight bill. While I clearly would like to see this particular incarnation of reform taken off the table, it may end up being defeated for the wrong reasons, including the fact that it doesn’t “build a big enough fence.” I find it frustrating and unfortunate that I have to rain on a rare parade of bipartisanship and argue that we shouldn’t deal with an issue that Congress has actually summoned the political will to address, but I believe that the Gang of Eight bill would ultimately do more harm than good, at least without a concurrent commitment to counteract its negative effects.

The Bishops often style themselves the defenders of unpopular and countercultural truths. Indeed, one can hardly accuse them of choosing their battles out of a concern for their approval ratings. Liberal Catholics should welcome their eagerness to encourage the leaders of both parties to finally tackle the serious problems that plague our immigration system. At the same time, they should hope and pray that this is not the issue where the Bishops decide to stop being countercultural.

The Moderation Conversation: Matt and Chris Talk Francis and Scalfari

We hereby debut a new RM feature: “The Moderation Conversation,” in which Matt and Chris sit down in real life to discuss ideas that haven’t yet congealed into 2000-word essays. The following is a lightly edited transcript of a post-Chipotle chat from this past Saturday evening that dealt with Pope Francis and his recent interview with the editor of the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

The Interview in La Repubblica

Chris: So Matt, we’ve talked about Pope Francis a lot at Reasonably Moderate so far, and…. there’s more to talk about.

Matt: We actually contemplated closing down Reasonably Moderate and starting up a Francis-only blog.

C: [Laughs] Yeah.

M: But I think we decided the better route to take would be to just have an extended conversation about Francis and some of the interviews he’s given recently and then post a transcript on the blog.

C: So, the most recent major interview that Francis gave was to Eugenio Scalfari of La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper. Scalfari is an atheist who had written to Pope Francis, who had a written a column in the same newspaper to Pope Francis, and –

M: And Francis responded by writing him a – no, Francis responded by calling him!

C: Calling him, yeah.

M: There was a lot of talk a couple weeks ago about the really lengthy and groundbreaking interview that Francis gave to a Jesuit publication that was published in the United States in America magazine. But in some ways, when I saw this interview – I found this one to be more striking in a lot of respects. I don’t know about you.

C: Why do you say that?

M: Well, there were a lot of people arguing after reading the America interview that not very much of what the Pope was saying was actually that groundbreaking, that his words were being taking out of context and there was nothing, nothing really new there from the standpoint of Catholic doctrine. Maybe the framing was different, but there was nothing that he was really… changing.

C: Mmmmmm.

M: Whereas in this interview, obviously he’s not coming out and formally changing any positions of the Church, but it seems as if the way that he states things and the way that he phrases things is somewhat more revolutionary. And I guess we can get into what some of those specifics are, but maybe it would be best to start off talking about the issues relating to the reliability of this text itself.

C: That’s a great topic to start on. So this is somewhat unique in that it’s not a recorded transcript of the interview. It’s … what did you call it?

M: It’s a reconstruction.

C: A reconstruction of it.

M: Eugenio Scalfari put this together based on his notes of the conversation, but it’s written as if it’s a transcript. He puts things in quotes, but I don’t believe this was based on an actual recording, so there are questions about its reliability.

C: It’s a very loose piece. It’s very warm and conversational in tone. The writing itself [has a] kind of strange formatting. Odd paragraph breaks, very disjointed sentences and quotes. Gives it a really informal feel, which is kind of nice. But the interesting thing is that it’s posted on the Vatican website under official interviews of Francis.

M: Yeah, I think that was mentioned by Father Zuhlsdorf, who has this… rather traditionalist blog.

C: Father Z.

M: He’s been trying to reassure more conservative-minded Catholics who are a bit nervous about the direction that Francis seems to be taking things that, you know, the Pope’s words are being taken out of context, that he’s being mistranslated, etc. And so, getting back to the issue of the reliability of this text, there are sort of two levels on which this interview has been critiqued.

There are some who say that the entire thing is unreliable because Scalfari has misquoted the Pope. There was this controversy specifically surrounding the passage where he talks about the Pope’s description of the night that he was elected and how he recounts going to a small room in the Vatican where he contemplated whether or not he should accept the papacy. I think Cardinal Dolan and some others have said that that episode never happened. He accepted right away and there was no small room that he went to. The Vatican has obviously approved this interview. They posted it on their website, so it can’t be that unreliable, but there are some questions there about how loose Scalfari is with the facts.

But there are others like Zuhlsdorf who just critique the fact that we’re reading an English translation of Scalfari’s original Italian piece, and some of the things have been mistranslated or they haven’t done justice to the original Italian.

C: I know you had said, not specifically related to the translation, but on Father Z.’s blog there were some questions and some rather snide comments about some parts of this interview. Such as the opening line, which is: “Pope Francis told me, ‘the most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old.’”

M: Yeah, and I think there was a commenter on Father Z.’s blog who reacted to Father Z. trying to reassure people that the issues were just related to translation, and they said that, well, it must be the case that in Italian, “youth unemployment” is fairly close to “the scourge of abortion.” A way of expressing their frustration with what they see perhaps as Francis’ misplaced priorities.

I think you called my attention to a comment on the Father Z. blog that worried that Francis is taking us on a “meth trip back to Vatican II.”

C: [Laughter] Yeah, a Catholic meth trip back to the –

M: Second Vatican Council.

C: Yup. [Laughs]

 

Spaces and Processes

C: I mean, I find it interesting, you know we talked about – you talked about – the reliability of the text. I find it interesting how it’s structured, that it begins with this quote about how youth unemployment is the most serious issue facing the world today, and then it jumps into a piece of the exchange between the Pope and Scalfari. And then it kind of diverges to the narrative of when Scalfari enters and meets the Pope. It’s very strange.

M: It starts in media res.

C: In media res. Oh, baby…

But it seems to be giving pretty prime position to youth unemployment, which is a strange place to start in all this.

M: I mean, we’re reading this from the perspective of the United States, where unemployment is a problem and it’s a serious problem – I don’t think it’s taken seriously enough – but in Italy it’s just catastrophic right now. I think there are some statistics that have shown that youth unemployment is hovering around 50%, which is just worse than a depression.

C: Mhm.

M: So I can understand why Francis might be calling attention to that as one of the most immediate problems facing Italian society, and global society more generally. But specifically he’s seeing things from an Italian perspective.

C: He asks, “Can you live crushed under the weight of the present?” That calls back to his previous interview in America in which – we talked about this a little bit on the blog – the idea of spaces and processes. Spaces being the current areas, addressing current concerns, trying to establish solutions to immediate problems, vs. processes, which is more, enacting historical structures to create lasting change. It sounds like he’s drawing our attention to a very pressing issue, really emphasizing how we’re potentially mortgaging the future of a lot of people.

M: Are you saying that’s different from the way that he framed things in the America interview?

C: No, I think it’s just an example of one way in which this can be fit into that interview.

M: Okay. See, the way that I interpreted the “spaces and processes” line was that – I think we’d have to go back to the other interview to see how exactly he phrased it –

but he talked about how we shouldn’t be trying to occupy spaces, we should be trying to initiate processes. And I saw that as a critique of what he’s also called careerism in the Church or an excessive focus on one’s status at the expense of thinking about the good that you can do in the world.

C: I’d interpreted the line as “spaces” being something that you address as an immediate concern, but not something that creates lasting effects.

M: Okay.

C: But yeah. That was… was quite a way to start off.

M: This thing is just laden with great quotes. We know that Francis obviously has a

way with words, but I think maybe Scalfari has embellished some of this as well. It’s just really interesting to read.

C: What’s your favorite quote?

M: My favorite quote from this one?

C: From this, yeah.

M: Well, I don’t know. I’m partial to the dialogue between Francis and Scalfari about “what is being?”

C: Ah, okay.

M: When I first read the interview, I tweeted that these Francis interviews are getting increasingly zen.

C: [Laughs]

M: I think this is interesting because Francis asks Scalfari what he believes in. I think Scalfari was talking about how he was led away from the Church when he read Descartes earlier in his life. And Francis asks him what he believes in. And he says, you know, I don’t want to know about what you think about the common good or society, I want to know about what you think about the universe, and the meaning of the universe, and where we come from and where we’re going. And Scalfari talks about how, “I believe in Being, and Being is a fabric of energy, and man has a resonance within himself, a vocation of chaos,” and all this abstract-minded –

C: A vocation of chaos. Oh, man.

M: And then the Pope says, well – okay, you’ve told me enough. I don’t really want to hear about your whole philosophy.

C: [Laughs]

M: I just found that to be an amusing exchange. But I do think it’s interesting how much emphasis Francis puts on trying to find common ground between their philosophies. Between their ways of thinking.

C: Mhm. That seems like a pretty resonant theme throughout the interview. He says at one point that, you know, it’s important to listen to each other, to start that conversation between believers and nonbelievers. And he really, especially in the beginning, he emphasizes how critical that is to modern belief and to engaging people outside of the Church. He’s spoken about this in other interviews, and at World Youth Day especially.

M: I think some of the Father Zuhlsdorf crowd was a little worried about the part where he talked about how everyone has his own individual conception of the good.

C: Ohhhh, man. Yeah.

M: I’m also skeptical that that was exactly the way that Francis framed things, because it is sort of at odds with the Catholic notion that there is objective morality and that we can discover objective morality.

C: He seems to think that – here too he says that clericalism is something that is to be avoided, which implies that there is something outside of the hierarchical understanding.

M: Yeah, and he talks about how he wants to move the Church away from a top-down vision to a more horizontal model.

C: A horizontal vision.

M: But no, I did like that line where he says that, when I meet a clericalist I become anti-clerical. I can sympathize with that attitude, because I sometimes feel like I have a very strong tendency to play Devil’s Advocate. And when I meet somebody who holds to a view very strongly, I just instinctively want to disagree with them and want them to appreciate that there is something to the other side of the argument.

C: Mhm. Mhm.

 

Is Francis a Liberal?

M: So that leads me to another point, which is that Michael Peppard, a theologian at Fordham, wrote this article in the Washington Post on the On Faith blog about asking the question “is Pope Francis a liberal?” I think there had been a piece in Slate earlier saying that Pope Francis is a flaming liberal, and some people took offense at that characterization.

C: [Laughs]

M: Peppard’s point is that Francis is not a liberal in the sense that he doesn’t subscribe to all the policy positions of what in the West we think of as liberalism, but he has a liberal temperament, a liberal outlook, in that he’s very open-minded about dialoguing with people that he disagrees with and entertaining ideas that may seem at odds with those of the Church. But he has faith that he can negotiate those in a productive way.

C: We’ve seen that recently too. I think today he had met with a group of Jewish leaders and had prayed, “may anti-Semitism be extinguished in the heart of man,” or something like that. He’s also – earlier this week it was revealed that he had written to a gay rights group in Italy, a Catholic gay rights group, and they were very thrilled by him. He didn’t, obviously, promise any changes in doctrine or anything like that, but it was a gesture that has not been done before and it was quite surprising that he was consciously making that effort to reach out.

M: Yeah. And there’s this passage in the interview where he talks about how he had a teacher who was a communist.

C: I was just going to bring that up!

M: He talked about how he was very good friends with this person and that though he didn’t agree with communism, he didn’t accept communism and he thought it was too materialistic, he appreciated learning about it from somebody who was open and honest. It does show a genuine willingness to engage with the ideas of people that he disagrees with.

C: I was curious when he talked about communism, he said that his professor’s materialism had no hold over him. But he says that, “I realized a few things: an aspect of the social which I then found in the social doctrine of the Church.” Which kind of surprised me a little bit. I mean, you could definitely understand how that aspect, that communal aspect is present in the Church – especially the Church he describes: of the poor; not vertical, horizontal – but at the same time it seems like a somewhat strange contrast.

M: Well I think there’s a quote from Benedict where he says that the political philosophy that has most effectively embodied Christian principles is what in Europe is called “Christian Democracy.” You know, a sort of social conservatism married to economic liberalism. Which is a perspective that maybe in the United States doesn’t seem to make sense to a lot of people who are used to the standard conservative-liberal divide. You find it a little bit in politicians like Bob Casey or Bart Stupak, the pro-life Democrats.

But I can understand why that makes sense to him that there is this similarity between communism and Catholicism. Both are skeptical of radical individualism or putting too much stock in autonomy. Both of them want to emphasize the interconnections among people and the fact that we don’t exist as individuals, we exist within in a network of social relations.

C: So, kind of along those lines, Scalfari questioned him about liberation theology. And I wish there was a little bit more discussion about this in the interview.

Francis acknowledges it, and he says that “many of those who practiced liberation theology were believers with a high concept of humanity.” And then the conversation shifts, and it sounds like based on what you were just talking about and based on what Francis has said before that he would be more open to greater integration of liberation theology principles.

M: I’m not an expert on liberation theology. I know the Church has been skeptical of it in the past and I think Benedict was no fan of it. But I don’t have a good sense of how radical a departure from existing doctrine it would be to either affirm liberation theology or rehabilitate its proponents.

I did want to go back to something you said earlier. You talked about Francis’ relationship with the Jewish community.

C: Mhm.

M: This isn’t really talked about much in this interview. The only real mention that’s made of interfaith relations or where ecumenism is hinted at is the part where he says that “I don’t believe in a Catholic God. There is one God.”

C: Oh! Yeah.

M: You and I were talking the other day about this video that we stumbled upon that was put together by some very traditionalist Catholics who charge that Francis is an antipope [illegitimate pope] because of his close relationships with Jewish leaders and his willingness to attend Jewish worship ceremonies and pray in synagogues. So it does seem like interfaith relations are going to be a prominent theme of his papacy going forward.

C: Yeah. I wonder to what extent he’ll begin to meet with Muslim leaders, and to have that conversation about Islam.

 

Of Mystics and Minorities

C: The one part that I wanted to get your opinion on, because I found it to be one of the more questionable pieces of the interview –

M: Questionable in terms of reliability?

C: It seems like Francis’ words belie an inherent contradiction. So he says that mysticism is a critical part of the Church. He says that “a religion without mystics is a philosophy,” which is kind of an ambiguous statement as is. He says later that he loves mystics, but then argues: “The mystic manages to strip himself of action, of facts, objectives, and even the pastoral mission, and rises until he reaches communion with the Beatitudes.”

So the piece of that which seems questionable and somewhat controversial is, how can a mystic who doesn’t take action – which Francis seemed to very much support earlier in this interview and in other interviews – if a mystic doesn’t engage with people and have those conversations with other groups, to what extent can he/she be that critical a part of the Church?

M: Well, doesn’t he also say that he himself is not a mystic?

C: He does, he does. But it seems like even if he is not a mystic, he’s emphasizing mystical experience.

M: Maybe he’s just acknowledging that there are different types of people that are needed within the Church and that everyone has his own role to play in the Church’s mission. I mean, he also talks about this point that I think is very interesting where he says that the Jesuit order is the “leavening of Catholicism.” We hear a lot about how Catholics should try be a leavening in the larger culture, but so far it’s been rare to hear popes talk about a leavening within Catholicism. The emphasis is usually on the Church being united, and talk of different types of outlooks is downplayed.

Generally the hierarchy tries to emphasize the fact that there are no divisions within the Church, or at least that there shouldn’t be divisions within the Church. Commonweal had an editorial recently in which they considered America magazine’s argument that you shouldn’t think of disagreements within the church as liberal vs. conservative, or indeed that we shouldn’t think of there being substantive disagreement within the Church at all. So I think it’s interesting that Francis would say that the Jesuits are a leavening within the Church.

I also wanted to talk a little bit about the fact that Scalfari points out that Christians and Catholics are a minority in the world, and Francis replies that being a minority can be a strength. I talk a little bit about this rational choice model of religion in one of my earlier posts on the blog, and I think that analysis is very insightful when you think about it through that lens: that if the church didn’t face competition from other religions and other ideologies, then it would have no need to work on refining its message or the way in which its message is presented. And so I agree with Francis that being a minority or at least having to deal with contending ideologies can be a beneficial thing in the long run.

C: I did like how Francis discusses politics and the role of Catholics in politics.

M: Oh, right.

C: He says, “I believe that Catholics involved in politics carry the values of their religion within them, but have the mature awareness and expertise to implement them.” It seems like a lot of the debate, especially in the United States, about what constitutes a Catholic politician… I’m struck by the phrase “mature awareness.” It seems like in some cases that there may be uncritical applications of what are generally said to be Catholic values without sufficient regard for the context in which they’re being espoused.

M: Mhm. I think even more generally, when we look at the Republicans who were very vocal about the need to stand firm against Obamacare even if it resulted in shutting down the government, we see there are some people who think any compromise with your opponents is necessarily a violation of your principles.

That doesn’t have to be the case. One can recognize that not everyone is going to agree with his perspective, that there are limits to how effectively he’ll be able to translate his principles into actual policies.

C: I think that’s what he’s talking about when he says “mature awareness.” It suggests the ability to negotiate without holding absolute principles and trying to have them taken up regardless of the actual situation.

 

The Parable of the Potted Plant

M: Do you think that maybe connects with some of the other points he’s made about controversial social issues? That the Church’s position has to be understood in a context, that it can’t be just a limited set of propositions?

C: Sure. I think that definitely makes sense. It needs to be applied to specific scenarios. Again, going back to the whole “spaces vs. processes” concept, taking into account the given status quo in a specific situation, trying to enact the best process that will effectively solve that issue. You know, help the Church become a kind of vine that can wrap itself around an issue.

M: I’m not sure I got that. The Church is the vine and we are the branches?

C: It’s… like a potted plant that’s going to fall over. You put a stick in the pot and you tether the plant to the stick and the stick helps the plant grow straight.

M: Alright!

C: The Church is the stick in that analogy.

M: I like that analogy. It sounds like a parable – the Church is like a stick.

C: That’s what we do here. Dispense invaluable parables.

M: Do you remember when we were taking bets on who might be elected pope?

C: So disappointed that the 666-to-one odds on Richard Dawkins didn’t work out. I didn’t actually put any money on that.

M: We would have lost money had we done that.

When we were taking bets, you had brought to my attention this guy named… the Italian cardinal… Ravasi?

C: Yeah, Gianfranco Ravasi. The “Cardinal of Culture.”

M: John Allen of National Catholic Reporter has called him “the most interesting man in the Church.” He had an article about him recently where he said that he was debating an atheist somewhere, and thought it was very intriguing that the atheist quoted Jesus and the Bible a lot and Ravasi quoted McLuhan and Plato and a variety of other non-Christian thinkers.

But in any case, he had this quip that Jesus was the original tweeter and that a lot of his most memorable aphorisms, like “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” are in fact less that 140 characters. And that one of the reasons people are responding so well to Francis is that his style of preaching is very similar to Jesus’, in that he comes up with very memorable quotes, very memorable phrases, and he tells a lot of parables, stories that either force you to draw your own conclusions or in which the lesson might not be immediately clear but becomes clear as you think about it.

C: Yeah, that’s very true. I didn’t realize that there was a debate between Ravasi and an atheist. I’m sure that had been going on before Francis was elected, but it’s nice to know that this is something that’s going on throughout the Church. Hopefully what Francis did with Scalfari here is going to be a model going forward. You’re going to have this increased dialogue. And it’s nice that the interview ends on the note that they’ll get back together soon and they’ll discuss the role of women in the Church.

M: Yeah, I was just going to say that.

C: It’s ongoing.

M: And Scalfari concludes by saying: “This is Pope Francis. If the Church becomes like him and becomes what he wants it to be, it will be an epochal change.” So he’s clearly inspiring respect from a lot of quarters and from people who might otherwise be opposed to the Church or hostile to it.

 

RM is Badly in Need of Readers

M: I guess maybe we can just conclude on this thought: John Allen had a piece about Pope Francis’ “older son problem.” Do you want to describe this?

C: Sure, yeah. In the prodigal son parable, the father throws the returning son a lavish party, slaughters the fattened [calf], etc., gives him a lot of attention, and the older son feels neglected by the father’s showering of attention and love on the younger son. And John Allen wonders whether the older son, in this case the more conservative Catholics who have supported the pope in the past, who have really given their lives to help enact changes in Church doctrine, you know, proselytize –

M: Or, rather, not “changes,” but helping to uphold doctrine.

C: Oh, excuse me, uphold Church doctrine.

M: And to engage in advocacy on social issues like abortion.

C: Whether these conservative Catholics will feel disenfranchised by the Pope, whether they’ll take offense.

M: He’s clearly slaughtered the fattened calf for the prodigal Catholics many times over with his comments about gays and other groups.

C: Yeah. Well, do you think that’s a legitimate issue? Do you think a lot of Catholics do feel alienated by stuff like this?

M: I mean, we do certainly see this discontent from people like the readership of Father Z.’s blog, and I do think Allen has a point. He writes about how Pope Francis has criticized the careerism in the Church. You know, the Roman Curia is the “leprosy of the papacy.” Certainly there is corruption at the higher levels and reforms that have to be undertaken, but there are also a lot of very dedicated individuals who are with the hierarchy, and maybe they’ll feel slighted by Francis’ comments. I don’t think his rhetoric has been inflammatory by any means, but I do think that he needs to make clear that he’s not making blanket statements about everybody in the Church.

C: Well, it sounds like he’ll be giving a host of interviews going forward. This is not the end, which is always great to hear. So we’ll see if he does take that kind of a detour.

M: He’s also cold-calling people.

C: Do you think we can get him to cold-call us?

M: Uh, we could try. I think we’re… that would certainly do wonders for our readership.

C: [Laughs]

M: How would you get him to cold call us? What would we say in our letter?

C: Um…

M: “We have this blog and we’d like you to read it.”

C: Well, no, I think we’d frame it from the perspective that we appreciate what he’s doing. I don’t know if this applies to both of us, but I really admire his attempt to engage with other groups, other faith traditions in this type of dialogue. That seems like far and away the most effective way going forward to actually… get people to understand what Catholicism is about rather than outright rejecting it based on preconceived notions.

M: He definitely has our vote.

C: He does have our vote.

M: We’ll work for his next campaign.

C: [Laughs]

M: So we actually met [former Daily Beast blogger] Andrew Sullivan about a week before Pope Benedict resigned, and we asked him for his thoughts on the man. And I won’t repeat them because they involve expletives.

C: Well, he really disliked Benedict especially for his lack of… I know Benedict is said to have done a lot to try to curb the child abuse scandal, but Sullivan heavily criticizes Benedict and a lot of the other cardinals and the Curia for failing to do enough to really hold people who engaged in that type of behavior responsible.

M: He also had this really tendentious argument about how Benedict was a closeted gay man.

C: Ah, yes. The red shoes. The red shoes. He loves Francis, though.

M: Yeah.

C: Thinks he’s revolutionary and extraordinary.

M: And he’s on the record as being straight. There’s that story about how he went to a wedding when he was in the process of deciding whether to become a priest, and he met this girl and was very captivated by her. He describes how he couldn’t focus on his prayers for a week afterwards because he couldn’t stop thinking about her.

C: I hadn’t heard that. Really?

M: Yeah. And considered… I guess he wasn’t a priest already, but considered not going into the priesthood because of it.

C: Wow, that’s fascinating.

M: Unless he was making up the story to keep people like Sullivan from questioning his sexuality.

C: [Laughs]

M: Well, I guess we’ll have to leave it at that, until the next time one of these interviews comes out. And it seems like they’re becoming more frequent.

C: Alright.

M: Alright. We’ll… we’ll cut it off there.