Moving to Canada has afforded me a convenient, but slight, distance from the septic squalor of US political commentary. I trace the headlines with my eyes, but little more than that.
I mention this to reenter the fray, and address a recent post at the Candid World Report, by Stephen J. Herreid, entitled “How to Fend Off Freeloaders: What Keeps Left and Right so Far Apart?” The post claims to be about the perils of political partisanship, but what it really amounts to is a personal attack of Artur Rosman, from Cosmos the in Lost.
Herreid calls Rosman a freeloader in two senses: (1) for being a poor and unemployed stay at home dad, who writes to generate extra income and (2) an “ideological freedloader,” which amounts to something like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is summed up as follows:
When we focus our energies exclusively in the abstract realm, on ideological battle-lines, we can be blinded to real, bad characters among us. These infiltrators are found wherever we make the futile all-or-nothing effort to address every social ill with one, consistent ideology, and choose to reject only those who fall outside its pale. By proving that they theoretically belong within certain ideological barriers, anyone can become a tribal freeloader, who contributes nothing to his comrades and lives on the dole of his fellow tribesmen’s collective sense of loyalty.
His accusation is built upon feeling duped upon reading Rosman’s post, “The Church Needs to Replace the Family.” Herreid claims:
[Rosman’s] thesis sounded attractive to me at first. Perhaps, I thought, Rosman is pointing to the Tocquevillian “voluntary associations” that prevent the consolidation of power to the state. If I really wanted to assume the best of the author, I could have kept on thinking that way, finished the article, and gone about my business, happy to have discovered another member of my partisan conservative tribe.
But I try not to assume the best of people.
Herreid brushes off the idea that his ad hominem approach is problematic by running through a sophomoric rendition of Aristotle that ultimately accuses Rosman of operating in bad faith in advance.
From that point on Herreid launches an outrightly personal attack that include mentioning Rosman’s appeals for money in his online writing because, well, we all write for money to some degree, but mainly citing Rosman’s candid and humble openness about his financial hardship and Herreid even brings up Rosman’s wife and children. His basic summary is that Rosman’s article, blog, and general worldview is motivated by nothing more than total self interest. In Herreid’s own words: “Rosman’s concern for the poor is little more than a concern for himself.”
Of course, in the process, he says nothing about the content of Rosman’s post. Instead, Herreid goes on an even stranger tear through Rosman’s other articles, making the case that Rosman is an enemy of the Right and the Left. In other words, Herreid sees Rosman as someone who is unworthy of any political side or affiliation, a miserable and dangerous loner. A welfare-reliant freeloader who has seduced and tricked everyone who supports him in the same way Herreid was almost duped, before he was saved by his Aristotelian misanthropic reading skills.
This unprovoked, and nasty post makes more sense when one considers another one by Herreid at Aleteia, titled “Poor Catholic ‘Trash’.” The post is an endorsement of, and reflection on, Mark Steyn’s National Review Online post, “The Post-Work Economy,” where Steyn uses Herreid’s hometown of St. Johnsbury, VT as a descriptive case that supports his thesis that we are moving into a post-work economy where everyone lives, like Rosman, off the dole.
When describing his community, Herreid, a self-employed recent college graduate of Magdalene College, is quick to recall that the “tenants of this government-subsidized section of housing are second- and third-generation dependents who’ve never had a full-time job in their life.” He goes on to assert, based upon these recollections of home: “Make no mistake: the welfare agenda is not a tool for Catholic Social Justice. In its very philosophical underpinnings, the welfare state is an anti-Christian institution.”
What is odd about this is that how much affection Herreid has for the nation-state, the USA. In his bio for the John Jay Institute he describes his ambition as follows: “to seek, find and imitate holy manliness in the characters of those who first made this country what it was meant to be in the eyes of God.” He pretty much wants to become holy through the imitation, not of the Saints or Church Fathers, but of the Founding Fathers (many of whom were deists and some who, like Thomas Payne, could be best described as socialist libertarians).
Even more revealing is Herreid’s undying affection for the work of John Zmirak. In this review at Catholic Vote he describes one of Zmirak’s books as possessing “a rapid-fire logic that is irresistible” and assures us that “its emotional appeal will draw you in like a torrent.” Clearly, this is not a person who does nuance. He is hot or cold. He showers piss or praise.
Rosman needs no defence from me. His intellectual gifts, from his academic credentials to erudition, speak for themselves. However, it was not Rosman’s mind, arguments, sources, or dry and salty wit that provoked Herreid. It was his material poverty. It was the fact that Rosman is one of thousands of Ph.D.s in the humanities who presently cannot find work. It was because Rosman receives help, as I have, in the form of welfare, and cares for his children while his wife works. Rosman’s poverty is his sin.
I suppose Rosman should shut up about it and stop sharing his gifts online until he has joined the middle class?
This hostility is sadly unsurprising. I am familiar with it. It is a particular brand of US political conservatism that is brewed by the most niche of Catholic ghettos, educated at Magdalen, Ave Maria, my alma mater, and a few others. It is not the only voice in those places and spaces, and surely there are exceptions and deviations from the norm, but, by and large, Herreid is a perfect and predictable example of the sort of ideological specimen that this tiny, terrified world produces.
These are not ideologues of conviction, they are ideologues of convenience. If their enemy seems to say something against Africa, they become Black Nationalists. If they can make a case for their enemy neglecting his wife, they become Judith Butler. When they read books, they read them with red and gold pens, as we have seen in the total rejection of Rosman and the absolute adoration of Zmirak. They are able to maintain that things that are unclear are razor sharp prescriptions, with stark soteriological consequences, and that the things that are repeatedly clear are, in fact, quite muddy and hard to follow. These are the sorts of witless and humourless types who are not prudes, only selectively so. If things cannot be distilled into Right or Left, they will call foul or conspiracy. Their speech and activism has a word bank.
Most shameful of all, many of these people—and I should know because I almost became one myself—are not one percenters. They are usually not rich. Many of them hate the poor because they have never reflected on their own hatred and would never admit to it. They will hide behind statistics and charitable works of whoever they can find, including their own.
Make no mistake: Conservatives come in as many stripes and colours as the so-called liberals, and indeed most conservatives are a special case of anti-Rawlsian liberalism, so it is not true that all conservatives hate the poor.
But these ones do. The very terms ‘social justice’ make them uncomfortable. The only hate they will openly profess is for anything that resembles their ideological mirror-image: a progressive, a liberal, a Democrat.
That this sort of person has decided to publicly try and shame Artur Rosman speaks in Rosman’s favour. His public writing is a gift to my life and his friendship is loyal and true. Herreid is actually mostly right about Rosman, albeit unwittingly so. Rosman knows how to survive, he has seen hardships most of us cannot imagine. He has lived in a refugee camp and the squalor of Detroit housing projects. Yet, this “freeloader” has also cultivated one of the finest and most poetic Catholic imaginations we have today, not to mention serious graduate training—and it is a scandal that a Catholic academic institution has not scooped him up yet, if only for a temporary appointment.
That a recent college graduate like Herreid would judge Rosman’s character in this way, dragging in his personal life, his spouse and children, is not only a disgrace and a sign of an incredible, juvenile hubris; it is a model of the disgust for the poor that has poisoned the minds of so many who live in the right-wing Catholic ghetto. In the end, Herreid gets it right: Rosman is not a friend of the Right or the Left, neither side should trust him. Rosman is the enemy of Herreid, not because of his politics, but because Rosman is an intellectual (in the best sense of the term) and Herreid and his ilk are not.
The real victim here is Herreid, a young man with a good folk singer-songwriter style, reminiscent of Cat Stevens, an artist clinging to a dark but familiar world where there are only friends and enemies and nothing in between, where the great destiny of mankind is the Pax Americana that never was.
It is my view that the downright perversity of the Right (and the Left) is less a matter of ideology or bad intentions and more a matter of a willful and even spectacular stupidity, incestuous and inbred, that becomes its own common sense, hosts its own news channels and headline aggregators and insulates the mind until decades go by, and even a lifetime, and no one seems to notice that nothing has changed at all and everyone is cranky and certain that things have never been this bad.
This cycle is deadly for many things, but it is pickling the soul and blinding the hearts of too many real people to the sufferings and plight of others. No, the poor are not a dreamy lovable caricature; nor is Rosman. But when we see the face of the poor, we encounter the face of Christ. The theological reality of this truth will not be shaken or moved by a nation or a kingdom or an empire—and certainly not by a paranoid and self-enclosed sect of 21st century American Catholicism.
UPDATE: Artur Rosman responds with charity and insight in a post of his own, “Blessed Are the Freeloaders: On the Face of the Poor.”
UPDATE: Herreid responds to my article and doubles down on his own (and also ignore Rosman’s response). A reply of my own is forthcoming.