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A Shared Quest for All or a Single Imposed ‘Patrimony’?

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Journalist and author Brian Patrick Eha published an essay in the Summer 2022 issue of The Hedgehog Review that takes up the question of what he called “patrimony” and its role in society.1 He noted that the term in his essay’s title was “a gendered word, I know sexist, some would say.” 2 That observation neatly captures the tone and tenor of his piece, in which he contended that the United States is no longer acculturating its population to any shared vision or heritage. He argued that while he can trace his own family back many generations, he speaks now as an individual,

… with a marginalized identity … living on the margins of his identity, squatting in the ghostly shell of something once distinct—someone who says home and hears no sounding echo, only silence and the rush of his own blood. In my father’s house, are many rooms, but all are empty.

More, he suggested that the American ideal of, “one nation under God and enshrined in the Pledge of Allegiance has been supplanted in American life by an ideal of boundless multiplicity.” He asked, “[W]hat does it mean to be accepting of difference—much less to celebrate it—when all is difference?”4

This argument ultimately led him to adopt two positions in his commentary. First, he said that his own life was empty until he moved to the New York neighborhood of Hamilton Heights, whose identity helped to anchor and lend him a still partial and evolving conception of his place in the nation and world. He noted, however, that the community is now rapidly changing. Secondly, and related, Eha employed Pope Francis’s 2020 Social Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, to justify his contention that identities are markedly, although not entirely, place centered. He also suggested that the current political polarization in this nation is the product of aesthetic differences in our country’s population. Here is Eha’s argument:  

To emigrate [within or beyond a nation’s borders, presumably] is necessarily to be separated from one’s native patrimony though without automatically adopting that of the land one settles in. Something is sundered in the crossing. Whose job is it to fill the gap, and with what? Present debates over national identity, American culture, immigration policy, and school curricula involve competing ideas of our shared patrimony, the disagreement extending even to how much it’s truly shared. Different styles of life, mutually incompatible, are downstream of different legacies. The cultural divide across which states red and blue disdainfully square off is largely one of aesthetics. Aesthetics disguised as politics.5

Thereafter, he contended on this basis that,

Identities strongly held, militate against any union with their opposites; rejection of the other becomes the norm. It may be rootlessness such as mine, a form of nonattachment, inoculates against absolute closure. It also risks the void. … [And] now the question was not which patrimony would take precedence, but whose.6

I want to explore Eha’s argument, beginning with his contention concerning the in-principle incommensurability of aesthetic views, and then turn to his reading and use of Pope Francis’s encyclical. I also want to underscore a central concern that his argument does not reach, but of which Francis was keenly aware, that contextualizes the Pontiff’s thinking and results in a strikingly different vision of social possibility than Eha offered.

The Oxford English Dictionary has defined aesthetics as:
Of persons, animals: Having or showing an appreciation of the beautiful or pleasing; tasteful, of refined taste. Of things: In accordance with the principles of good taste (or what is conventionally regarded as such).7

More generally, many scholars have defined the term as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature,” which seems to be the sense in which Eha employed the word as he contended that there is no common way-of-life claim for Americans today. Instead, there are only warring visions, one of which, ultimately, must prevail.8

Eha rooted his assertion regarding aesthetics, in part, in Pope Francis’s encyclical and quoted the following observation from that essay approvingly, suggesting that it demonstrated that a broadly shared identity is necessary to evaluate other ways of knowing thoughtfully: “I can welcome others who are different, and value the unique contribution they have to make, only if I am firmly rooted in my own people and culture.”9 For Eha, it followed that since he believes the United States now offers only rootlessness and anomie, the local perspective should prevail in one’s understanding of one’s place in the world.

Notably, however, the sentence Eha quoted does not capture the subtlety of what Pope Frances contended. In the paragraph that immediately preceded that assertion, the Pontiff had reflected:

We need to have a global outlook to save ourselves from petty provincialism. When our house stops being a home and starts to become an enclosure, a cell, then the global comes to our rescue, like a ‘final cause’ that draws us towards our fulfilment. At the same time, though, the local has to be eagerly embraced, for it possesses something that the global does not: it is capable of being a leaven, of bringing enrichment, of sparking mechanisms of subsidiarity. Universal fraternity and social friendship are thus two inseparable and equally vital poles in every society. To separate them would be to disfigure each and to create a dangerous polarization.10

So, the issue from the Pope’s perspective is not simply that the local view should be adopted or, more broadly, that there is ultimately an unavoidable disjuncture between a global view and a localized one, but instead that individuals must live and learn to abide in the constantly evolving dynamic interplay between the two. Moreover, the Pope went further to explain that localism alone can and often does yield an important and dangerous myopia:

There is a ‘local’ narcissism unrelated to a healthy love of one’s own people and culture. It is born of a certain insecurity and fear of the other that leads to rejection and the desire to erect walls for self-defence. … A healthy culture on the other hand, is open and welcoming by its very nature; indeed, ‘a culture without universal values is not truly a culture.’11

This orientation implies a desire—a demand, really—that Francis treats throughout the Encyclical, especially via an extended analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan, that all individuals be accorded dignity simply because they are human and that,

To see things in this way brings the joyful realization that no one people, culture or individual can achieve everything on its own: to attain fulfilment in life we need others. An awareness of our own limitations and incompleteness, far from being a threat, becomes the key to envisaging and pursuing a common project. For ‘man is a limited being who is himself limitless.’12

This Papal argument lends a very different cast to how reconciliations between competing social aesthetic claims are to be addressed. And, indeed, Francis goes on to contend they must be considered via deliberative dialogue and not by one side or the other imposing its perspective. After warning that much that passes for conversation today “is often manipulated by powerful special interests that seek to tilt public opinion unfairly in their favour,” Francis suggested,

Authentic social dialogue involves the ability to respect the other’s point of view and to admit that it may include legitimate convictions and concerns. Based on their identity and experience, others have a contribution to make, and it is desirable that they should articulate their positions for the sake of a more fruitful public debate. When individuals or groups are consistent in their thinking, defend their values and convictions, and develop their arguments, this surely benefits society.13

It seems to me that one may draw three conclusions from Eha’s piece and these brief excerpts from a very nuanced Papal document. First, it is not clear as a conceptual proposition, as Eha assumes, that American society cannot be plural in its race, ethnicity, religious composition, national origins and much else besides, and nonetheless constitute one nation. The U.S. can be that united country via its citizenry’s dedication to shared ideals of human and civil rights and commitment to freedom and democratic processes and possibility. As many have remarked previously, the United States has never been unitary in terms of its racial, ethnic or religious composition, and it is deeply misleading, inaccurate and divisive to insist otherwise. The country has instead always been an idea rather than the representation or province of a single group.

The corollary of this argument is that our citizenry, or a substantial share of it, need not be frightened by diversity—factually, our population is and always has been so comprised—or demand that only one aesthetics prevail for all for once and always, which appears to be the cast of Eha’s contention. Our nation’s culture is not a zero-sum game to be “won” by one or another group who then imposes its values on all others. Nonetheless, at our present dangerous pass we have a minority of our citizenry so fearful of social change and difference that it is prepared to follow political leaders willing to deprive a majority of citizens of civil and human rights to see its views and norms prevail. Far from representing a positive step to ensure the equipoise of those it affects, in Eha’s terms, this turn constitutes an attack on freedom itself. That is, one set of social interests and segment of the populace is daily demonstrating its willingness to impose its views via force of law or political power, while depriving many other American citizens of their rights in that process. That is autocracy, not freedom, and hardly constitutes the shared social vision for which Eha so evidently thirsts.

Second, it is not clear that we cannot and should not continue in principle what is, in fact, a 230-plus year dialogue as a people, pondering what the nation is and may become. Eha and too many others today appear instead to imagine that we must have final resolution on the welter of subjects he presents, including immigration, culture and school curricula, and that different views concerning these matters cannot, and must not, co-exist or, indeed, shift over time. But while the presumably evolving majority view should rule in a democracy, one must hope, as Pope Francis argued, that its judgments will be measured, prudential and changeable and the fruit of dialogue, and not of fear or ignorance, or be imposed by fiat. In no event is it appropriate for a minority of Americans, fueled by a mixture of real, contrived and imagined grievances, to seek to use political institutions to impose their will on the majority and to suspend or erode the civil and human rights and dignity of that broader population in so doing. Such is hardly worthy of a free people and will result only in freedom’s loss for all.  

Finally, whatever mixture of the global and the local a majority of Americans may adopt as a perspective at any given historical moment, that amalgam must be underpinned by a shared vigorous commitment to respect the dignity, rights and freedom of all residents and citizens, as Pope Francis insisted. We cannot have a nation in which one group (now a minority) vies to impose its patrimonial understanding on all others based on self-righteous indignation, racism or any other form of social hierarchy animus or claim.

Sadly, we are in just such a struggle today and not all the players in this contest are willing to respect their foes, let alone engage in an open and deliberative dialogue with them, as the Pope has counseled. We appear instead to be in that space of which the Pontiff warned in which some elect to disdain others based on narcissism, fear and insecurities. As the Pope cautioned, that geography is more than perilous, it is dangerous. And so it is that the central open and deeply concerning question confronting the United States today is whether a social minority will be able to tyrannize the nation ruinously in the name of its aesthetic understanding or whether, instead, the country’s citizens can engage in a continuing peaceful political dialogue concerning what it shall become while dignifying and ensuring the rights of all.

Notes

1 Eha, Brian Patrick. “On Patrimony.” The Hedgehog Review, 24(2), Summer 2022, pp. 90-99 at p.90.

2 Eha, “Patrimony,” p. 90.

3 Eha, “Patrimony,” p. 94.

4 Eha, “Patrimony,” p. 95.

5 Eha, “Patrimony,” p.93.

6 Eha, “Patrimony,” p. 98.

7 Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, “Aesthetic,” https://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/harris/Rom_Travel/Handouts/aesthetic.pdf, Accessed July 21, 2022. 

8 Riedel, Tom. Review of Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 4 volumes, Ed. Michael Kelly. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998 in Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America. 18(2): 48, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/adx.18.2.27949030, Accessed July 21, 2022.  

9 Eha,“Patrimony,” p.94. See also Francis, “Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti of the Holy Father Francis on Fraternity and Social Friendship,” Rome: The Holy See, October 3, 2020, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html, Para.: 143. Accessed July 20, 2022. 

10 Francis, “Fratelli Tutti,” Para. 142.

11 Francis, “Fratelli Tutti,” Para. 146.

12 Francis, “Fratelli Tutti,” Para. 150.

13 Francis, “Fratelli Tutti,” Para. 201 and Para. 203. 

Publication Date

July 25, 2022

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