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Go Home, Mr Novak, To See the Destruction

Neoconservative elder statesman Michael Novak has weighed in on Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium. In his opinion the letter is actually about Argentinean economics, not, God forbid, the global capitalist system:

In my visits to Argentina, I observed a far sharper divide between the upper middle class and the poor than any I had experienced in America. In Argentina I saw very few paths by which the poor could rise out of poverty. In the U.S., many of those who are now rich or middle class had come to America (or their parents had) dirt poor, many of us not speaking English, with minimal schooling, and with mainly menial skills. But before us lay many paths upward…

Virtually all my acquaint-tances while I was growing up had experienced early poverty. Our grandfathers were garment workers, steelworkers, store clerks, gardeners, handymen, blue-collar workers of all sorts, without social insurance, Medicaid, food stamps, housing allowances, or the like. But they labored and somehow were able to send their children to colleges and universities. Now their children are doctors, lawyers, professors, editors, and owners of small businesses all over the country.

First, of course, if the Pope had wanted to address a letter to Argentinean Catholics, he would have done so. The letter is addressed to the universal Church, and it is clear in that context that when Francis says that “the socio-economic system is unjust at its root” it is the global capitalist system that he has in mind, not the Argentinean one.

And of course Mr. Novak speaks of the upward path for poor immigrants in America, of grandfathers who were blue collar workers and steelworkers who, like my father and grandfather, poor northern Michigan farmers who moved to Flint to work in the auto factories,  rose through hard work to become prosperous. What he does not acknowledge is that the prosperity that they found was not some beneficent gift of Capital, but was wrested from the capitalists by organized labor, by men and women who suffered for justice, who sometimes gave their lives in the struggle.

He does not mention labor unions at all.

Nor does he mention that the world where poor unskilled workers could make a decent living wage, enough to send their children to college, is no more. That world has been destroyed, and a brave new one, of low wage, dispirited workers, strung out on painkillers, has replaced it.

Mr Novak is eighty years old now. He is a millionaire and for many years lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland, one of the richest cities in the US. He now resides in the affluent Catholic enclave of Ave Maria, Florida. I am sure the view is lovely from where he lives, and I am sure that in his old age he feels free to wax nostalgic about the way his Slovak immigrant family made good in the New World.

But maybe he should return for a visit to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, his home town.

Johnstown, in its prime, had 70,000 people and the steel mills ran 24 hours a day. They are mostly gone now, and the population has dwindled to around 20,000. I have not been there for three decades or so, but imagine it is like the steel towns I am familiar with, Youngstown and Steubenville and Cleveland. The grandsons of the steel mill workers of  Johnstown are no doubt flipping burgers or washing cars, if they are employed at all.

Worlds have been destroyed, lives have been wasted and ruined, hearts worn raw.

Go home, Mr. Novak, walk the streets of your town. Look into the eyes of the people you see.

Go home and see what this unjust system has wrought.

From Daniel Nichols’ blog, Caelum et Terra

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, January-February 2014.