Thursday, September 24, 2015

What a Difference a Day Makes

Dorothy who? the pundits asked after Pope Francis included Dorothy Day in his most admired quartet of US citizens in his speech to Congress. (the others are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and Thomas Merton.)

Having just briefly mentioned Dorothy Day myself in the blog comments the other day, I was pleased, but not at all surprised, to learn that the radical Pope is also a huge fan of the radical social justice crusader.

 She started her professional life in the early 20th century as a novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, intellectual, anarchist, muckraking  journalist, and feminist. She underwent one abortion and also gave birth to an out-of-wedlock child whom she raised as a single mother among the destitute and anguished and sometimes dangerous in various makeshift "hospitality houses" in New York City after her conversion to Catholicism at the eve of the Great Depression. She combined a more than half-century career in direct social work and pacifism and labor organizing and communal farming with the founding of the Catholic Worker movement and running its newspaper. She was often out of favor with the Catholic Church hierarchy and the political establishment, particularly when she opposed the USA's entry into World War Two. She was arrested and jailed numerous times after such acts of civil disobedience as draft card burnings and blockades of Selective Service buildings during the Vietnam war.

The Catholic Worker, published to this very day, is still anti-war in the age of public acquiescence to perpetual war. It still sells for only one penny per copy plus postage, or 25 cents for a year's subscription.

A compilation of personal diaries spanning Dorothy Day's career during the Catholic Worker movement years was recently published, after having been kept under wraps, at her own request, for 25 years following her death in 1980. She was far from a perfect person, and was the first to admit that she often felt like a shrew and a slattern. She suffered from bouts of depression. She was totally human. She is still eminently "relatable".

To give you an idea of the woman, I've gathered together several particularly striking passages from her diary, the book version of which is called The Duty of Delight from a quote by the great British critic and humanist John Ruskin. Compare Dorothy Day's writings to those of MLK, Pope Francis, Gandhi and other great moral leaders of the modern world, and you will see a very common thread of humanity and empathy that transcends dogma and denomination. A fire and brimstone, holier-than-thou control freak she definitely was not.

Her off-the-cuff 1930s Great Depression jottings are particularly apt for our own times:
"As I came down the street afterward, (from visiting a friend in jail) a well dressed priest drove by in a big car. Then I passed another - also well dressed, comfortable.... Then still another out in front of most luxurious mansion, the parish house, playing with a dog on a leash. All of them well fed, well housed, comfortable, caring for the safe people like themselves. And where are the priests for the poor, the down and out, the sick in city hospitals, in jails. It is the little of God's children who do not get cared for. God help them and God help the priest who is caught in the bourgeois system and cannot get out."  
"In this groaning of spirit everything is irksome to me. The dirt, the garbage heaped in the gutters, the flies, the hopelessness of the human beings around me, all oppress me." 
"Toothaches, bruised faces even, received in street fighting, are ugly and grotesque. It is hard to heroically receive blows in the face from a policeman, for instance, and take it like a Christian, in the spirit of non-resistance. A spirit of hatred and a fierce desire for retaliation seems more manly, more human. Moral force being hard to see, is a thousand times harder than physical force. Strength of spirit is not so often felt to be apparent as strength of body. And we in our vanity wish this strength to be apparent. Human respect again. And yet moral force is always felt."
"I was thinking afterward how everyone dwells on our poverty. But we are not nearly poor enough. Read Steinbeck's article on squatters in California. It is not enough to present a picture of conditions. One must go there to share that poverty. Then others will help. Immediate works of mercy shows what can be done now, not waiting for the revolution or for the state. Strip oneself here first. We are going to the bean fields this summer."
"I sat up late reading a detective story. Rather depressed at first what with dirty dishes, children, Mrs. B (a complaining client) and general effusiveness.... The poor. To love to be with the poor is of course hard. There are not all poor among us, and only one poor family. Of course, dirt, inefficiency, dullness, lack of taste, beauty, culture - all these are a part of poverty. Are they poor because of this lack in them, or do these characteristics grow out of their poverty? Who can say? It will be hard to change them because we are poor now ourselves. Are we letting it get us? Are there those among us who are becoming dull, dirty, lethargic, listless, indolent, slothful?"
As Robert Ellsberg, the editor of her diaries, writes in the introduction,
Dorothy Day's life at the Catholic Worker was marked by a number of remarkable episodes, and she was a witness or participant in many of the most significant social movements of the 20th century. But by and large, her life was spent in very ordinary ways. Her sanctity -- if one wishes to call it that -- was expressed not just in heroic deeds but also in the mundane duties of everyday life. Her 'spirituality' was rooted in a constant effort to be more charitable toward those closest at hand.
A prisoner rights advocate and a staunch opponent of racism, Dorothy Day would have been right at home in today's social justice movements. She would also be against the man-made pollution causing climate change and the war on terror with its transformation of the world into a permanent battlefield. She would have been right up there with the only non-applause line in Pope Francis's speech to Congress:
Being at the service of dialogue and peace also means being truly determined to minimize and, in the long term, to end the many armed conflicts throughout our world. Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade.


annenigma said...

Thanks for this info on Dorothy Day. I hate to admit it, but I didn't know much about her, nor about Simone Weil who was mentioned recently. That's why I'm a regular reader of Sardonicky, Karen. You are contributing to greater understanding for a better world. Women do so much that never gets recognized, rewarded, or awarded. I'd give you a prize!

Speaking of prizes - for winning a Presidential election while being Black and giving good speeches about peace - the Nobel Committee should take back Obama's Nobel Peace Prize and give it to Pope Francis.

The real Obama is Warlord Obama. He has now outgunned George W Bush in the military department: $30 billion more in arms sales in only 5 years compared to 8 years under Bush, adjusted for inflation. Has deployed (far more) Special Ops Forces in 135 countries vs. 60 countries under Bush. Obama's illegal Drone Wars that violate nation's sovereignty are ongoing in at least 6 countries, if not far more secretly. Obama campaigned as if he was against nuclear weapons, but now wants to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades on a new generation of nuclear warheads. To think that both Carter and Obama are Peace Prize winning Presidents. Well, I do know that one of them is Christian and peace loving in action, not in 'just words' (I can't let that one go - like Gail Collins with Mitt Romney's dog on the roof.)

The only war I would support is a moral and spiritual one against War itself. Isn't that what helped get Obama elected? Since then he's deliberately misled Americans, convincing them that he actually ended the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than just transitioning them to high tech remote controlled warfare and expanding throughout the Middle East and north Africa. So now Americans aren't making the connection between our illegal wars, civilian suffering, and the refugees flooding Europe - not to mention terrorism.

Pope Francis can and must be the world leader in the effort to condemn war and end the arms race and war profiteering because no one else in the public spotlight is willing to even try, not even Saint Bernard. I'm sorry, but that's exactly why I'm unable to Feel the Bern.

Jay–Ottawa said...

There are over 200 Dorothy Day-inspired Catholic Worker Houses––of varying intensity–– in about 35 states of the US. Think of inner city soup kitchens and dormitories ("houses of hospitality") run by laypeople in residence who help the poor in the spirit of Dorothy Day. To a lesser extent, they run farms in the exurbs. Syracuse has had one of each since the late Sixties.

The cadre is formed mainly of people who embrace voluntary poverty. Crazy, eh? They regularly corner middle and upper class types from the suburbs to help out with food collection, then the cooking on site, maintenance, etc.; and they regularly agitate noisily before the local bishop's residence or city hall, because the cadre makes the political dimension an unavoidable part of their work.

Pope Francis probably became acquainted with Dorothy Day's work first hand through the CWH in Buenos Aires. Yes, these subversive little houses are established in about a dozen other countries around the world.

Day's co-founder, the French-born Peter Maurin, deserves a word. He was important in establishing the movement's philosophy and its newspaper. He was much older than Day and got sick in the middle Forties. As Karen wrote, Dorothy Day pretty much carried the movement on her back from then on. Dorothy Day was a writer in her own right––a journalist, in fact; but what I've always found appealing about Maurin are his "Easy Essays," pithy aphorisms on big topics––narrative poems too long for a bumper sticker, but some just right for a tweet.

"I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers."

"Democrats believe
in the right of the rich
to become richer
and of the poor
to try to become rich."

Nice little piece about Maurin the socialist radical in Wiki:

Pearl said...

Lest we forget, the issues the Pope is bringing forward and speaking strongly about to his credit, are also the ones that many progressive people, including Bernie Sanders have been speaking about for quite some time, to their credit.

Valerie said...

What a powerful essay, Karen. Thank you so much for bringing this inspiring woman to our attention. I, also, to my embarrassment, had never heard her name, although I am familiar with the Catholic Worker.

I think this Pope is more amazing by the day. As a practicing Christian - clearly of the progressive variety - I have been ashamed of my religious leaders who have been, on the whole, utterly timid in speaking out about social, political and economic injustice. I admire the courage of Pope Francis for bringing these issues into the public discourse as an issue of faith - leaving so called Christians (followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ) nowhere to hide. He is naming and shaming and I am loving it.

My neighbors, devout Irish Catholics, dismiss Francis as "too radical." It never ceases to amaze me how hypocritical people can be. When the Pope is conservative and has a hard heart for the disenfranchised, Catholics refer to the infallibility of the Pope and his decisions. But when the Pope speaks FOR the voiceless, he somehow shouldn't be listened to - let alone have his directives followed - so where is the infallibility of the Pope then?

People like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin SHOULD be lifted up as examples of true followers of Christ. All the principles that Pope Francis and Dorothy Day speak about are the ones taught by Jesus - not to be confused with Paul whose principles are so advocated by the Fundamentalist Christian movement. Tragically, they have been lost in the "respectability" of mainstream (and especially fundamentalist) Christianity which has been hijacked by the Conservative (Oligarchical) political movement.

More and more, my interest in faith has been focused on the concept of dualism. This is where Christians go to church, have a handful of "moral" rules they follow faithfully, and then go about their "real" lives, amassing wealth and material possessions and not caring at all for the consequences of their selfishness and self-centeredness. This kind of Christianity is clearly hypocritical and invites the contempt that non-believers heap on religion in general. I have always maintained, if Christians actually followed the teachings of Christ, outsiders would have no problem with their faith.

I am encouraged that someone like Bernie Sanders, after being marginalised most of his career for voting and speaking out on issues like universal health care and social and economic justice issues, is finally being given a forum. I read somewhere - perhaps on this blog - that the Occupy Movement has brought the issue of economic injustice into the public eye and that Bernie Sanders is running on many of the principles of the movement.

I am a registered Democrat and I will definitely vote for Sanders in the primary. However, I am totally disenchanted with the Democratic machine and have reservations about what Bernie would actually be able to accomplish once in office. I remember how the Democratic party, led by Ted Kennedy, turned on Jimmy Carter and was sometimes more of his political enemy than the Republicans. I will wait an see - but at this point - Bernie is speaking in the direction of my own beliefs, both as a Christian and as a thinking Progressive.

The popularity of Bernie Sanders - completely flying in the face of the mainstream corporate media and the Democratic Party - is a sign that there are Progressives who are still deeply concerned with the direction our country is moving. Whether Bernie is the answer, it is hard to say. But at least these issues are still being raised and are out in the public eye. I fear that without the Pope and Sanders, all these issues, so important to many of us, would be swept under the carpet along with the lack of acknowledgement of great people like Dorothy Day.

Meredith NYC said...

I hope the Pope's speeches have some effect at least, after what must be to most extreme minute by minute media coverage ever of any visit by any state or religious leader in all of human history. (his helicopter is touching down, his plane is on approach to JFK, it is landing, it has landed, the pilot is applying the breaks, it slows to a halt, as the door opens the pope appears, he descends the steps, his car is on the highway, his advance motercade enters central park....he enters c. park......

Karen..... very apt comment to last Krugman column, using the hard and soft mattress mataphor for the Gop.

Krugman manages to discuss corporate crooks—only after the latest outrages. Guess it was obligatory. He can only go so far b4 he starts to sound too liberal, so he holds back.

Krugman advocates... “judicious use of regulation where there is good reason to believe that businesses might act in destructive ways.”

Gee, thanks, Nobel Prize winner, spoken of by conservatives in the same breath as Pikitty, Warren, Sanders, Stiglitz, etc.
Judicious, only if there’s good reason. He’s trying to stay in the center of our bizarrely skewed spectrum.

But you said it Karen....’When government agencies are headed by industry insiders. even the regulations remaining on the books can become travesties. A white collar criminal defense attorney heads the SEC, Citigroup effectively runs Treasury, and a scientist with deep ties to Big Pharma has just been nominated to head the FDA.’

And I said

We have answer the question, why do corporations, also no angels in other advanced countries, still seem to accept more responsibility to society.
Govts negotiate prices with insurance and drug companies. Big businesses has union reps on their boards, and cooperate in worker protections, such as mandated paid family leave, sick leave, vacations. The public financing of elections takes the big profits out of donations to candidates. Do corporations abroad offshore jobs, and tax liabilities like US does?

How in the world do they make a profit, is what US business would say. A profit comparison would be interesting. Would any famous librul economist care to discuss it?

Karen Garcia said...

Thanks everyone. While I am not holding my breath in anticipation of the Pope's message affecting the tough-hided ruling class, I think that he greatly added to the growing public perception that lives could be made better if we would only learn how to engage in some basic solidarity with one another.