Tech Companies, Part II

The Working Catholic: Media/Tech Companies, Part II
by Bill Droel

The Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 is among the most significant chapters in U.S. labor relations history. Homestead, Pennsylvania is just south of Pittsburgh, on the west bank of the Monongahela River. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) owned the prosperous steel mill there. Some of its workers were highly skilled and belonged to a craft union, Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Carnegie was determined to break this union. He cut wages. Knowing there would be trouble, he enlisted the Pinkerton Detective Agency to assist him. At that time Pinkerton employed more agents than the U.S. Army had soldiers. The 1892 event resembled a naval siege; the union was eventually broken.
Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker (8/27/18), reminds us that several months before the Homestead Strike Carnegie wrote a pamphlet about disposing of one’s fortune. Titled The Gospel of Wealth (www.carnegie.org), it argues against a big inheritance for one’s children. It also argues against handing out money to the poor. Instead, Carnegie said the wealthy have an obligation to endow institutions that benefit the public—universities, libraries, cultural centers and more.
The juxtaposition of Carnegie’s pamphlet and his management of Homestead Steel “made explicit” to critics “the inconsistency of Carnegie’s position,” Kolbert writes. “How could a person ruthlessly exploit his employees and, at the same time, claim to be a benefactor of the toiling masses?” Why, for example, didn’t Carnegie endow a pension fund for his employees?

Carnegie was not alone. When it comes to charity, most companies and foundations in our country are guided by the so-called Protestant business ethic. Deserving individuals or the public at large are assisted by targeted programs or enrichment venues. However, the programs never challenge the system and the benefactors never question “too deeply how it is they came to do so well,” Kolbert concludes.
The attitude of 19th and 20th century industrial titans parallels that of our 21st century tech titans and their admirers. The big tech players today—the founders, the original investors and the elite engineers—are technology determinists. As Evgeny Morozov puts it in To Save Everything Click Here (Perseus Books, 2013), each and every application of technology is “inherently good in itself, regardless of its social or political consequences.” In fact, if someone happens to notice a social problem, then its solution is more technology. Homelessness, to give an extreme example, is tolerable with an app that makes streets feel like home. Or as a Google executive said: If you want to solve economic problems, create more entrepreneurs.
Central to the philosophy of the tech leaders is their belief that they are doing something for the greater good, both in their business ventures and in their philanthropic enterprises. Some of them are sincere. Their frame of reference all the way from high school to their current position never included concepts like structural evil or the priority of labor or even an obligation to the common good (which is not the same as calculation of a common denominator).
When it comes to their big charity ventures, explains Anand Giridharadas in Winners Take All (Alfred Knopf, 2018), the high-tech players plus their financial and political admirers assume a noble posture. They cannot imagine that their good intentions might actually be making things worse. There is no need to consider any systematic change, they presume. Inequality cannot be causing more suffering because doesn’t the economy allow for universal opportunity?
The big stage for tech philanthropy is the conference circuit. Events are held on Cape Cod, in Silicon Valley, in Colorado, often in Manhattan, maybe in Switzerland or France. Headliners often include Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton and movie starlets. They are joined by guests who have a startup project in Los Angeles or Africa. These events are low on content, high on puff, says Giridharadas. Key phrases heard at the conference include incredible, amazing, awe-inspiring, empowering and the like.

The leaders of big tech companies want to do good, they say. But they never challenge power arrangements in our society. All of this, I suppose, is too much of a moral burden to place on someone who simply hails an Uber ride or gets a referral from Task Rabbit or orders a keurig through Amazon. But today’s tech industry is far from morally neutral. It warrants moral consideration. To be continued…

Droel edits a printed newsletter about faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).

Our Statue

The Working Catholic: Lady Liberty
by Bill Droel

The primary symbol of our country is our flag, the “stars and stripes.” Closely connected to our flag is the song Star-Spangled Banner, based on an 1814 poem by Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key (1779-1843). It is customary to stand and doff one’s cap when our anthem is performed at the beginning of every sporting event. There is, by the way, no obligatory rubric about other songs at the ballpark. America the Beautiful, a 1910 tune by Katherine Bates and Samuel Ward, is not our national anthem, though some fans seem to think it is. Nor is there any compulsory ritual around the seventh inning song about Katie Casey, produced in 1908 by Jack Norwoth and Albert Von Tilzer. Likewise, fans can do and think what they like when the public address system blares out the 1978 song by Victor Willis and Jacques Morali, YMCA… So too in Boston with the 1969 song by Neil Diamond, Sweet Caroline.

Our country’s second most important symbol is the Statue of Liberty. Whereas the U.S. flag is revered mostly by U.S. residents and those of us serving or working overseas, the “Statue of Liberty is the world’s most universally recognized symbol,” writes Steve Fraser in Class Matters (Yale University Press, 2018). What does it symbolize? “Above all, Lady Liberty is thought of as the patron saint of hard-pressed immigrants.” Our statue in the Upper New York Bay stands for “an uplifting promissory note.”
The statue has a conflicted history and was not always associated with immigrants, Fraser recounts, as does Tyler Anbinder in his massive City of Dreams (Houghton, Mifflin, 2016).
It was 1865 when Edouard Rene de Laboulaye (1811-1883) first proposed a gift from his fellow French citizens to the citizens of the U.S. in recognition of our country’s extension of liberty to former slaves. His project went slowly. Frederic Bartholdi (1834-1904), a sculptor, joined the effort. The original completion date having past, the goal then became delivery to the U.S. for the 100th anniversary of our independence. As the days went by, the theme for the proposed statue came to include a beacon of liberty to those still under regressive or colonial governments. The motivation of the French committee, writes Fraser, was “to inspire and memorialize their dedication to a stable, middle-class society.” It was not so much to have “a monument to the nation that had pioneered in inventing [liberty],” to the U.S. The premise was that both France and the U.S. “cherished learning, enterprise, peaceable commerce and republican liberties.”
No matter the theme, the project remained in low gear. Finally in 1880 the French committee delivered the statue in crates to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The statue’s eventual location in New York Harbor was assumed, but because the French committee was broke the U.S. was responsible for building a pedestal. Four government entities said no to an allocation for the project. Likewise, several wealthy people here declined to donate.
A stateside committee held a fundraiser; an auction of original paintings and literary pieces. It was a bust; only $1,500 was raised. One item in the November 1883 auction was well received: The New Colossus, a poem by Emma Lazarus (1849-1887).
It looked like the statue might forever be warehoused in crates. But in March 1885 Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), a Hungarian immigrant, ridiculed the wealthy in his newspaper and called upon working families to send along their nickels. The common people responded; the pedestal was built; a dedication was held in October 1886. Of note: No mention of Lazarus, of her poem or of immigration was made at that ceremony. Thus for many years the statue was a symbol mostly for French-U.S. friendship and vaguely for liberty as an exportable ideal.
The common people enter the story once again. In 1903 friends of Lazarus had the 14-line The New Colossus inscribed on a bronze plaque and with permission installed it inside the statue, on the second-floor landing. The theme of welcome to immigrants, especially the thousands who arrive in this harbor, was making a slow comeback. In 1945 the poem was moved to the main entrance of Lady Liberty. It was then, Fraser writes, that “the Statue of Liberty became the symbol we have assumed it always was.” The statue, the famous poem, Liberty Island and nearby Ellis Island are now basically one, and together are firmly associated with our country’s grand experiment in pluralism, with the compassion of our citizens and with the gratitude nearly all of us feel for the opportunities that this great country gave our ancestors.

New York City is inexhaustible. But all visitors and residents need to find the Liberty Island/Ellis Island ferry in Battery Park at the bottom of Manhattan. Here’s one way to reflect on what your tour means: Look to the bow and see our country’s story of “huddled masses” and then look to the stern and see the great skyscrapers of finance. Fraser’s book can add to that reflection because he examines the tension between bow and stern, the give-and-take of our American Dream. The subtitle of Anbinder’s book is The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York. It too examines the reality of give-and-take.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629) a free newsletter about faith and work.

Working Catholic: Technology & Loneliness

There is a serious downside to use of computers and mobile devices, according to recent medical and social science reports. Several essays and books likewise point to the danger. Nonetheless concerned parents or stressed-out workers still reach superficial or incorrect conclusions about the internet and tech devices. For example, some well-meaning people say internet problems are due strictly to content. Don’t view porn and other trash, they continue, and you will be OK.
To better understand the influence of technology, learn something about the founders of some important companies—their philosophy, the culture of their businesses and more.
It feels odd to distinguish between the old internet and the new internet. The old internet was a tool for the military and for research facilities. As it grew, the internet had a populist aura. The feeling was that the internet is a friendly companion, a community, an extended family of pioneers. That language is still around but it does not apply to the new internet. By about 1995 the internet had become fully commercial. Yes, the content of the internet ranges over every taste, perspective and interest. But it is largely controlled by a small number of companies. The big players in today’s internet business oppose ideas of democracy and communal decentralization, writes Jonathan Taplin in Move Fast and Break Things (Little Brown, 2017). “The dominant philosophy of Silicon Valley [is] based far more heavily on radical libertarian ideology.”
Modernity (which dates from 1500, let’s say) remarkably elevates the dignity of each individual. This is a singular achievement. No longer can someone’s career or lifestyle be determined by the caste of one’s parents. No longer can someone be denied opportunity because of one’s ethnic group or gender. Of course, modernity does not always deliver on its promise. But compared to pre-1500 days, modern individuals enjoy immense freedom.
Libertarians take the otherwise good notion of a liberated individual to its extreme. They believe that, writes Taplin, attaining one’s individual happiness is the only moral purpose of life. That doesn’t mean that a libertarian walks down the block and knocks over older people in the way. A libertarian might sponsor a youth outing or visit the elderly. Simply that the criteria for any behavior is its potential to reward the individual actor—be it financially, psychologically or even spiritually, when defined in an individualistic way.
The big players of the new internet are moral arbiters each onto him alone (and it is a white male culture). They oppose any universal governance of the internet. They succeed—by their definition of success—because they are free to break the bonds, to go beyond, to be above, to push anything aside in the name of liberty. Taplin says their credo is: “Who will stop me.” The men who created the new internet “believed that they had both the brilliance and the moral fortitude to operate outside the normal strictures of law and taxes” and other restraints. They “truly believe that technology can deliver happiness” by its very nature. Thus critical to the success of the big tech companies “is the ability to maintain the illusion that they are working for the greater good even while pursuing policies that serve only their own needs.” Some tech giants give away money and sponsor anti-poverty programs. It is possible that in doing so some of the tech giants are totally sincere. In fact, for some the illusion is their reality.
We take the internet for granted; likewise cyberspace, the dish and cable box, mobile devices, apps and programs of all kinds. This technology is our default position. We don’t concern ourselves with the philosophy of the internet’s big owners. We assume the best whenever our mobile device helps us hail a ride or when our computer allows us to post a blog. We take it as obviously correct when Mark Zuckerberg says, “To improve the lives of millions of people [connect them] to the internet.” We hardly consider the downside of Zuckerberg and others promoting a world of isolated individuals who fend for themselves with a lifeline called the internet. We are content enough with the assumption that the way to better health care is through more and faster connections to web-doctors, cyber-insurance plans and computer-linked pharmacies with a drive-up window staffed by a robot. Better education? On-line courses. Better work experience? Robot colleagues. Better sports fandom? Watch the game on one’s own device…at the stadium, no less.
Is tech really an improvement? Or at a minimum a neutral force? A subsequent column will consider tech presumptions in light of Catholic philosophy.

Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter on faith and work.

Farm Workers

The Working Catholic: Forgotten Organizer
by Bill Droel

Most grammar school and high school students encounter Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) in one or another textbook. He is heralded as a pioneer in organizing agricultural workers and as a champion of Mexican-Americans. So in September 1965 who were those farm workers who went on strike and whose action launched a boycott that brought Chavez to national attention? The workers were Filipino.
Today’s students and others probably assume that farm worker unions hardly existed until Chavez and others created the National Farm Workers Association in September 1962, writes David Bacon in Dollars & Sense (June/18). Not true. Larry Itliong (1913-1977), a Filipino-American, walked his first picket line in 1930, and even he did not invent farm worker organizing. The United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers, affiliated with the CIO, was long active in the State of Washington, Alaska and California. Itliong was involved with UCAPAW and in the late 1940s he led strikes among asparagus pickers, Bacon details. In 1959 an Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee was formed in the merged AFL-CIO. In the summer of 1965 Itliong led a successful AWOC strike in the Coachella Valley.
On September 8, 1965 Itliong gathered hundreds of workers into Filipino Community Hall in Delano, California for a vote to strike the area’s grape growers. It was a bold move and Itliong realized he needed help. As is common with ethnic groups, Filipino-Americans and Mexican-Americans did not easily mingle in the community. Plus the two ethnic groups competed for jobs. Yet Itliong approached Chavez to join in the strike. Until then, Chavez was spending his time building the base and lobbying; he had yet to launch any job action; only 200 workers were paying dues to his NFWA. But Chavez realized his opportunity and within two weeks joined forces with the Filipino-Americans. Thus began the now famous Delano Grape Strike and National Boycott. Four flags were prominent in the first demonstration: the U.S. flag of course plus the flag of the Philippines, of Mexico and the flag/banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In time the group’s named was changed to United Farm Workers Organizing Committee and then to United Farm Workers Union (www.ufw.org). Itliong served as an assistant to the new union, including as director of national boycotts.

The efficacy of organizing requires some oiled hinges. For example, on one side there is hyperbole and some boastfulness. On the other there is thoughtful compromise. On one side the organizer agitates hesitant people. On the other side the organizer affirms people, even as they belatedly take small steps. One side of the door the organizer fosters fierce loyalty within the group, enough to withstand external criticism. On the other side of this parochial bonding the organizer must create openness to wider society, a commitment to inclusiveness and dispel tribalism.
On one side the organizer must project confident charismatic qualities to attract busy and creative leaders. On the other side the organizer must nurture collective leadership, dampening personality factions. For Chavez, “loyalty to Chavez” often superseded the development of leaders and the external mission of the organization, as Mirian Pawel details in her sympathetic biography The Crusades of Cesar Chavez (Bloomsbury, 2014). His style was too often arbitrary. In fact, over time Chavez imported the cult-like techniques of Synanon into the UFW. Like all of us, Itliong had faults. But he spoke against Chavez’ authoritarianism. The problem, Chavez replied to Itliong, is that “you won’t obey my orders.” Thus in October 1971, Itliong resigned from UFW.

Organizing farm workers is still difficult. It is probably more difficult than in the mid-1960s. A new strategy, called worker centers, shows promise. These are not unions and cannot directly have labor contracts. This restriction is advantageous in some situations, though worker centers have shortcomings.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (www.ciw-online) is the best-known worker center. One-by-one CIW cajoles a major food outlet to join its Fair Food Program. The outlet agrees to purchase only from Fair Food certified vegetable growers. Those growers, in turn, have agreed to pay a couple pennies more to farm workers for each bushel of, let’s say, picked tomatoes. Burger King, Taco Bell and more are participating. The CIW cajoling, you already suspect, includes national boycotts, demonstrations and more.
There are also unions of farm workers. Farm Labor Organizing Committee (www.floc.com), based in Toledo, Ohio and affiliated with AFL-CIO, has a respectable history. Along the turf where Itliong once tread, is recently formed Familias Unidas por la Justicia (www.familiasunidasjusticia.org), an independent union. It recently brokered a positive relationship between berry pickers and Sakuma Farms. First though Familias Unidas had to wage a national boycott of Driscoll Berries and Haagen-Dazs ice cream—both of whom purchase from Sakuma Farms.
Our National Park Service has a Cesar Chavez Monument in Keene, California. Johnny Itliong, Larry’s son, and others want the Park Service to expand with perhaps a site in Delano, California and to honor Itliong, Filipino-American farm workers and all those who act for agricultural justice.

Droel’s booklet, What Is Social Justice, can be obtained from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

The Working Catholic: Theology of Work
by Bill Droel

It was in post-World War II Poland that a positive turn occurred in the theology of work.
For centuries Catholicism, with some important exceptions, gave pride of place to worldly abandonment, including a degree of disdain for normal work. In the prevailing Catholic understanding a saint-worthy spirituality meant intense contemplation which required a retreat from ordinary workaday obligations. This attitude was derived in part from Hellenistic and Gnostic influences. It was also partially a byproduct of too close an association between the church’s princes and royalty.

Poland was in ruins following World War II—industries destroyed, cities demolished. During six years of war, over six million people died. Poland, with a long history of aristocracy, was now receptive to a Marxist ideology of work. In this context Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981) wrote a remarkable retreat manual, Duch Pracy Ludzkiej (The Spirit of People’s Work). This relatively unknown book was translated into English in 1960 and published in Dublin, simply titled Work. In 1995 a New Hampshire publisher released it as All You Who Labor and also as Working Your Way into Heaven. This year it appears again in the United States by way of EWTN Publishing in Alabama, titled Sanctify Your Daily Life.
In recent months several U.S. Catholic bishops have launched a program or campaign to revitalize the church in their area. These efforts focus on under-utilized buildings, a relative shortage of clergy, low participation of young adults in liturgy and insufficient funds to maintain important ministries, especially Catholic grammar schools. Wyszynski approaches the revitalization project differently. Instead of starting with the church’s own internal difficulties, he mulls over rebuilding society by way of a Christian vision of work. (As an aside: The U.S. publishers of Wyszynski’s book reflect our country’s individualistic self-help culture with titles and subtitles like Your Way and Your Life. The book’s original thrust is more about improving society or perhaps the synergy between social renewal and virtuous Christians.)
To develop his theme Wyszynski must first heave aside a common but mistaken reading of Genesis that says work is a punishment for original sin. “Even before the fall,” he writes, “people had to work, for they had to dress paradise. Work is therefore the duty of people from the first day of life. It is not the result of original sin; it is not a punishment for disobedience.”
Work is participation in God’s ongoing creation. God’s command in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it,” is a call to mobilization, Wyszynski writes. “When God announced the summons He saw the earth as it would become through work. God saw [all of us] who would go through the world in submissive service to Him, adding ever more perfection wrought by His power in work, to what God had made.”
And then Wyszynski gives brilliant insight into a new theology of work. The perfection of things through work perfects the person doing the work, he details. Embedded in the very process of work itself is a prior plan. Workers can find a set of virtues in the work process, varying with the type of work. Thus good work requires that we follow and respect work’s own strict and binding rules. It takes the practice of various virtues to “bring our will into conformity with the laws and techniques of work,” Wyszynski concludes. All work has an interior spiritual aspect.
Wyszynski’s book includes meditations on several work virtues. Work well-done perfects society and each worker. Good intentions or exquisite management theories do not somehow spiritualize shoddy work, much less excuse exploitation.
In summary: Work serves as a mirror to our true self and to the real character of society. “Without external work, we could not know ourselves fully,” says Wyszynski. In our work “we discover the good and evil in ourselves” and in itself work is a spirituality.

U.S. Catholicism has challenges. Absent a thorough theology of work that relates to real jobs, to actual family life and to neighborhood sidewalks, however, there will be insufficient attraction between Catholicism and young adults. Repositioning parishes and adopting better pastoral language is not enough. But, a spirituality of work that is accompanied by methods for social improvement has a chance of displacing our culture’s vacuous sloganeering, its impersonal work environments and its mistreatment of so-called economic losers. Is anyone thinking about a U.S. Catholic theology for work? Does anyone have a pastoral program for young workers?

Droel is the editor of Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Work (National Center for the Laity, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5). It continues this consideration of Poland’s contribution to work theology.

Economic Class, Part IV

The Working Catholic
by William Droel

Go to the barbershop and get a hold of The Atlantic (June/18). Its cover features a baby in a Yale University outfit. Matthew Stewart contributes a 14-page article that gives fresh perspective to our economic scene. In recent years the class divide has been termed the 99% and the 1%. Years ago it was called bourgeois and proletariat. I’ve also heard it called the upper crust and the working stiffs, or the big shots and the rest of us.
The really rich (You-Can’t Touch-This) are the top, top 1/10%. Amazingly, there are only 160,000 households in this category. They currently hold 22% of U.S. wealth—about the same percentage as they held in the 1930s. Stewart’s story is about the next 9.9%. In dollars, it takes $1.2million net worth to enter the 9.9%. To get midway into that group takes $2.4million and its top echelon has $10million in wealth. If you have over $10million sitting around, you are entering the top, top group.
It is tempting to call this 9.9% group the nouveau riche. Stewart explains, however, that those in the 9.9% do not suddenly come into money. Yet, they are a new aristocracy because they inherit important advantages. Specifically, Stewart with fascinating details says those in the 9.9% inherit a model of stable family life and also inherit enough of what it takes (money, connections and more) to obtain a degree.
Stewart, a Princeton-educated philosopher, goes beyond a straight economic analysis to unpack a difficult dynamic. There is a “difference between a social critique and a personal insult,” he writes. But all of us are prone to reject that difference. We do not possess enough objectivity to leave personalities out of it. And even if we grasp the difference, we feign powerlessness over the social reality. Those in the 9.9% justifiably believe they have done something proper by using the institution of marriage. They see their college degree as evidence of intelligence, persistent study, an encouraging family and more. In other words, the 9.9% (like all of us) make the implicit presumption that blameless (moreover virtuous) actions must add up to a good society. It is hard for all of us to grasp that seemingly innocuous behavior can scatter obstacles around society, causing inequality to harden, mobility to stall and democracy to languish.
This point is all the more difficult to make without getting trapped into identity politics, righteousness, resentful feelings, victim posturing or sloganeering. The trap is disguised within many uttered or unexpressed phrases like, “It is my hard-earned money.” “It is your lazy lifestyle.” “The best people get into the best college.” “Don’t act on your privilege.”

Catholicism has a corresponding concept that recognizes that systems can be unjust, even if individuals are well-meaning and blameless on one level. Catholicism says, for example, that poverty is a social sin or a structural evil. This obviously does not mean that being poor is sinful. Nor does it mean that being rich is sinful. (Catholicism by the way has never had the prosperity gospel notion that being rich is a sign of virtue.) Structural sin means that the original aspirations of an institution or a system have greatly departed from God’s plan. A sinful or unjust institution or system makes it harder for people to be holy—poor people and rich people. By contrast, a healthy institution makes it easier for people to be whole and holy.
Catholicism has no better luck at explaining the “difference between a social critique and a personal insult.” A Catholic homilist, for example, almost never mentions racism or sexism. It would be counterproductive because the congregation immediately goes into default position. Catholicism, which is eager to increase participation in the sacrament of reconciliation, has no ritual for dealing with exclusionary school systems, with an unfair wage structure or with closed housing patterns. Who would confess what to whom? And how do any of us make amends?

It is easy to moralize. It is hard to devise realistic change. Start though with Stewart’s Atlantic article. If a 14-page article is too long for one haircut, ask your barber to loan you the magazine for a couple days.

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work; INITIATIVES, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629.

Friendship

The Working Catholic: Public Friendship
by Bill Droel

Let’s say there is a society in which everyone honors contracts—formal ones and implied promises. Managers and their employees abide by their collective bargaining agreement. Car dealers transparently present their vehicles; customers pay their loans. Real estate agents advertise “open housing” and then do not discriminate. Tax returns contain accurate figures. Civil courts are the rarity. Yet, says Pope Pius XI (1857-1939), such a utopia may disguise alienation. All the rules can be followed, but that society can lack friendship or alternately what Catholic social thought calls public charity, neighborly love or solidarity. “Justice alone,” Pius XI writes, “cannot bring about a union of hearts and minds.”

The collapse of great societies is about the decay of relationships, writes Robert Hall in This Land of Strangers (Greenleaf Books, 2012). All of our major issues, he details, are really about weak relationships—homelessness, struggling families, addiction treatment, misuse of the internet and even economic downturns. Even our daily commerce suffers under a paucity of open relationships.
The big concept in business today is “marketing the brand.” A company may have several flavors or models or instruments or services. According to the brand theory, customers, employees and stockholders will stay connected to a successfully marketed brand, no matter the specific product or service. Yet, what is actually happening? There is high employee turnover and “an ocean of employee distrust” in many sectors, Hall writes. Managers too distrust the corporate executives while those executives lose touch with the original aspirations of the company. Stockholders are fixated on quarterly returns, not on a company’s future. Customers are loyal until a competitor runs a commercial that promises the next flavor, model, service or instrument. And all the while Wells Fargo spends lots of money on their “Rebuilding Your Trust” campaign.
Society goes along treating “relationships as if they were optional,” Hall continues, even though plenty of research documents the benefits of relationships. Those with many friends and colleagues are “prospering emotionally, socially, academically and economically.” Those who have few friends and colleagues are also those who lack confidence and resiliency, who fall behind in school, and whose finances are sliding backward. What holds for individuals and families also holds for companies and non-profits. Those with only tentative ties to a small number of stakeholders have or soon will have a grim financial picture.

Has alienation run its course? Will relationships be a priority in the days ahead? According to Hall, “the small group is the unit for transformation.” Neighbors or like-minded people unite around a local concern. They get to trust one another and, over time, expand their social capital to include other concerns and other small groups. Lots of encouraging energy comes about as people connect with other members of society in new and exciting ways.
There’s the Me Too movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. There’s fresh energy in the movement for responsible gun ownership. Fresh relationships are building around local electoral campaigns. The durability and effectiveness of these movements and of other civic endeavors, however, depends on what is occurs between people, one-to-another. Does it begin and end on the internet or is there genuine face-to-face exchange? Hash tag groups and flash mob events do not in themselves contribute to a relational society. In fact if cyber-connections are overdone, there is risk of greater isolation.

Strong cultural forces make genuine relationships seem superfluous. Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) calls those forces liquid modernity. It favors episodic and temporary attachment and fluid identity. The culture suggests that strong attachments are potential hindrances. The fickleness goes further. Views of reason and good sense change with conditions, Bauman writes. There is little assurance that what an individual holds to be true at sunset will be what that individual prefers tomorrow. Modern culture puts too much emphasis on the individual, who is quickly overwhelmed with choices in the “realm of self-fulfillment and calculation of risks,” Bauman continues. In a liquid culture, strangers and weak ties are the substitutes for “the feared fluidity of the world.”

Movements, churches, unions, civic entities and more continue to use too many shortcuts. They resort to the strategy of “better presence on the web” and spend far too much time and energy on impersonal marketing, on the color of the brochures, the advisability of TV or radio promotions and the like. They attempt to catch people on the fly–people who might attend a grand opening or a rally, people who are fond of clicking like or don’t friend.
Effective solidarity or neighborliness requires the opposite. Public friendship is grounded in virtues, beginning with amicability. It treasures finesse, attention, subtlety, forbearance and perseverance. A person’s practice of civic friendship proceeds with calculated vulnerability in a humble and sincere manner. Public virtues are nourished in small groups, but not those given to mixing-up, shifting, exiting and entering, randomly meeting, starting late, jumping around, endlessly in crisis over collective identity and disbanding over and over.
Please send along your experience with small groups to the address below. Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is distributed by National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5)

Cause of Cancer

The Working Catholic: Cancer
by Bill Droel

When the diagnosis is cancer, our singular focus is properly on treatment—surgery, radiation, chemo, immunotherapy, blocking therapy and more. The bulk of cancer research is directed toward improving these treatments and finding others. Prior to a cancer diagnosis most people do not often think about cancer and we rarely think about the cause of cancer.

Dr. Samuel Epstein died here in Chicago in March at age 91. He was long affiliated with the School of Public Health at University of Illinois. His controversial 1978 book, The Politics of Cancer, was prophetic. “Most cancer is environmental in origin and is therefore preventable,” he wrote back in those days. However, we as a society have made political tradeoffs that tolerate cancer-causing agents in our air, soil, food and beverages. We as a society make these trades for the sake of industrial jobs, less expensive groceries, faster travel, cheaper energy and more.
“Cancer has distinct, identifiable causes,” Epstein wrote. It is not just one more disease associated with aging. Cancer is the only major disease on the increase, he continued. Yet, when attention is brought to cancer, we seem to accept its inevitability. Epstein furnishes two common sentences: “Everything causes cancer, so why bother?” and “You’ve got to go somehow, so it might just as well be cancer.”

Decisions about cancer tradeoffs are made by way of our country’s default moral system. It can be called utilitarian calculus or cost-benefit analysis. It claims that by adding and subtracting projected benefits and suspected harm we are able to determine “the greatest good for the maximum number of people.” This system has several faults, of course. Decisions about industrial pollution, product safety, acceptable soil contamination, modes of transportation and the like are made in Congress, in government agencies, in city halls, in corporate board rooms and in research labs. Yes, science labs make political trades. “Many so-called scientific decisions are in fact economic considerations,” as Epstein wrote.
Various interests lobby and/or fund these remote decision-making entities. The lobbyists expect that their particular interest will be favored. The cancer decisions are not voted upon. Even if they were, the losers (those who are not within “the maximum number”) have to—more or less—accept what others say is “acceptable risk of cancer.”
We as a modern society use the utilitarian method because we no longer believe in objective truth. Reality is mostly my opinion and my feelings plus my loyalty to my crowd, my identity group. This is why it is frustratingly useless to bring facts to bear on a topic. We are all caught in a swirl of what White House advisor Kellyanne Conway tells us are alternative facts.

Without some objective morality, our best attack against cancer is the environmental movement. Every part of acting green directly or eventually levels a punch at cancer.
Start in the kitchen and the alley. Don’t believe the detractors of recycling. It is energy efficient and the recycled items get to the proper fabricators, as Brian Clark Howard details in Chicago Tribune (4/23/18). In Chicago’s alleys the garbage cans are either blue or black. (This is Chicago’s second attempt at a recycling program.) The rules for what goes in which colored-can are a little confusing—at least to your columnist. But, as with all moral behavior, don’t be paralyzed by scrupulosity. Sorting does not have to be perfect in order to make our world green, Howard explains.
Of course, individual action is not sufficient. Only political power can change the big decisions that give cancer permission to invade. But again, the counter-attack can start in small groups. It can be a discussion group, provided its participants move into action—sooner rather than later. The group can popularize some language about the topic. For example, we all have to speak plainly about the cancer lobby. The phrase sounds startling at first because no one goes on a talk show and says, “I’m in favor of cancer.” Yet many powerful entities (tobacco companies, for example) blithely offer excuses for cancerous agents.
A subsequent column will furnish examples of small groups agitating for a green society. Send along your own examples to the address below.

Droel is an editor for National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629). NCL distributes Pope Francis’ green encyclical, Care for Our Common Home ($8.50).

Political Calling

The Working Catholic: Vocation of Politics
by Bill Droel

Can electoral politics be a vocation; a person’s response to God’s call? By one opinion, the answer is decidedly no. Political office, this opinion points out, is a place for illicit sex, ostentation, financial corruption, self-serving ideology and general boorishness. As for those politicians who invoke God’s name, their policy positions hypocritically oppose God’s revealed positions: care for the poor, proper labor relations, compassion for widows and orphans, respect for each life and more.

Days after a recent primary election in Illinois, Lumen Christi Institute (www.lumenchristi.org) hosted a forum in Chicago’s Loop on “The Dignity of Politics.” In its promotional material Lumen Christi, a Catholic group, said that “politics is held in low repute today” and that political activity breeds contempt for the law and public policy.
James Stoner of Louisiana State University, at Lumen Christi’s invitation, shared his own list of negatives with the forum’s participants. Among his obvious examples: the corruption of some office holders deters citizens from electoral politics, including from voting; plus the prevalence of rigid ideology within the major political parties discourages those who might consider political involvement as a vehicle for change.
The Lumen Christi forum—like the daily activity of governance—was conducted in secular language. Perhaps a subsequent forum could ask a panel of elected officials to share how their Catholicism informs their daily work; how within their given environments they incrementally advance justice and peace; how and where they find support when they feel their profession is drifting from the common good.
A panel of Illinois officials at the forum tried to balance Stoner’s negative list. Mary Jane Theis, an Illinois Supreme Court Justice, reminded the participants that politics is a limited activity. While governance must be conducted honorably, its normal business is not a take-no-prisoners moral crusade. Justice is always approximate. The improvements of today must be improved upon tomorrow.
Dan Cronin, a county board chairperson, agreed. Constructive political service doesn’t have the time for moral grandstanding, he said. “Compromise is the way to accomplish good things; it is a virtue.” A conscientious official, said Cronin, must go to work each day with the humble attitude that yesterday was “not quite good enough.” For example, he said, politicians must do more tomorrow to alleviate today’s poverty in Illinois.
Larry Sufferdin, a county board member and a panelist at the Lumen Christi event, spoke of the positives. The corrupt officials dominate the news, but overall “the integrity of politics is good today,” he said.

Some Christian denominations stress people’s sinfulness. Christian sectarians go even further and judge an entire culture to be evil. Withdraw from the world, they preach. Catholicism, by contrast, is world-affirming and therefore accents the goodness of people and their institutions. Catholicism acknowledges that people are flawed by sin and that their institutions can drift away from original aspirations and from the plan of God. But normally the Catholic strategy—grounded in the dogma of Incarnation–is to start with positives and then coax people and institutions toward improvement.
If our world resembles the plan of God, it is because Christians and others respond to the call that is issued to each of us. Politicians need places and occasions in which to reflect on their vocation. Politicians need the solidarity of colleagues—from whatever political party, whatever religious background, or whatever humanistic impulse.
Politicians and other workers who want to live their calling might here-and-there find weekend worship to be a useful resource. They might get some spiritual cues from official Church sources. Unfortunately, the credibility of Catholic bishops and their staff is at low tide these days. More likely, modern workers would find critique and support in independent lay-centered groups, including Lumen Christi. Best yet are those support groups that politicians and other workers form among themselves. For example, a small support group of lawyers that meets regularly or a business executives group that discusses mutual concerns and perhaps adopts a project for the common good.
Most of the time, most workers and most parents and most students go about their daily routine individually without the benefit of a support group. In the modern age, everyone it seems is a solo-practitioner. A true vocation, however, has two parts: A person’s unique gifts plus the objective needs of a community. Without the challenges and support that come from one’s circle of friends and colleagues, a full vocation is unlikely.

Droel edits a free newsletter on faith and work for National Center for Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629)

Right to Work

The Working Catholic: Right to Work
by Bill Droel

The pastoral teaching of Catholic bishops in our country has “consistently supported the right of workers to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining,” wrote Anthony Picarello Jr. to the Supreme Court this past January. Picarello is the bishops’ general counsel in Washington, D.C.
Bishop John Carroll (1735-1815) became the first U.S. Catholic bishop in 1789, following a stateside election. (That is another story.) From that day until now, no U.S. bishop has ever compromised our Catholic doctrine by supporting a so-called right to work measure—neither for public sector nor private sector workers. Quite the opposite to expressing support, explains Picarello, bishops have “been very inimical to right to work laws.”

Why does Catholic doctrine support the right of workers to organize and specifically why does it oppose right to work measures? Those measures, Picarello continues, represent a “general concept of freedom that [is] too absolute and extreme.”
Put it this way: A Catholic cannot be a libertarian. Freedom is precious. In Catholicism freedom means freedom to exchange views with others, freedom to associate with others, freedom to worship with others without coercion, freedom to participate in electoral campaigns, freedom to engage with lobby organizations, freedom to join block clubs, hobby clubs, community organizations, professional associations and, to our topic, labor unions. In libertarian terms—an awful philosophy that is infecting our beautiful society—freedom means freedom from; it means doing one’s thing, freedom from an encumbered lifestyle, freedom from obligations in order to be left alone, freedom from social responsibility except as an individual option but not letting society hinder one’s acquisition or accumulation of money or pleasure. The libertarian picture results in ragged individuals on one end and big companies and/or big government on the other end. The Catholic picture has a multiplicity of people’s groups in between those extremes.
An open shop at a union company or right to work measures undermine solidarity, threaten social cohesion and ultimately and surely are unhealthy— physically and spiritually—for the person. (Doctrine does not change merely because many U.S. Catholics, including those who identify as libertarians, do not always adhere to one or another matter of Catholic doctrine.)

The Catholic doctrine on labor relations, derived from our dogma of the Trinity and from Scripture’s revelation about God’s plan for work, has 12 or 20 corollaries, but here are its main points:
1.) Workers decide for or against a union with no paternal or maternal interference from managers. Workers likewise can later decertify a union that displeases them. No specific company is obliged under Catholicism to have a union nor does our doctrine endorse or oppose any particular fit between a particular company and a particular union. The workers decide.
2.) People flourish best–again physically and spiritually—in a vibrant civil society, not under oppressive government (totalitarianism) and not in atomistic arrangements (libertarianism). A vibrant civil society must have some labor unions with honest collective bargaining.

Picarello referenced three Chicagoans in his written testimony to the Supreme Court: Cardinal Blasé Cupich, our current archbishop, Bishop Bernard Sheil (1888-1969), a former auxiliary, and Msgr. George Higgins (1916-2002), a long-serving advisor to Church officials and union leaders. This column gives Higgins the last word, by way of a quotation from Msgr. John A. Ryan (1869-1945) of St. Paul. Higgins thought this early 1930s quote well summarized the matter.
“Effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of laborer’s rights and the improvement of [their] condition. No amount of employer benevolence, no diffusion of a sympathetic attitude on the part of the public, no piece of beneficial legislation, can adequately supply for the lack of organization among workers themselves.”

Droel’s publications on labor doctrine include Catholic Administrators and Labor Unions plus Pope John Paul II’s Gospel of Work, available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $8.50 prepaid for both).