Monday, September 24, 2018

Recent Discussion of Brett Kavanaugh's Jesuit Prep-School "Man for Others" Training: Ambiguity of Jesuit "Band of Brothers" Ethos

I'm also the product of an all-male Catholic prep school. Our Jesuit mantra—"Men for Others," the same one Kavanaugh learned—instilled an ethic of service, a spirituality of discernment, and a faith-based commitment to justice. But the values taught also existed within another context rarely acknowledged but ever present: a culture of entitlement where young men born into privilege walked with the jaunty confidence of those who knew instinctively that society was organized to defer to them. Even if we couldn't explain the sociology of power, or spell out the specifics of why, for example, the criminal justice system and the prospects of professional opportunities would be far kinder to us than the black kids at a public school only miles but a world away, the order of things remained unquestioned. "That's all right, that's okay, you will work for us someday!" The shameful chant, spit like an epithet from my fellow classmates in the bleachers one fall afternoon after our football team suffered a bruising defeat from a predominantly black city high school, still echoes in my head decades later. I didn't join in the appalling taunt, but I couldn’t completely separate myself from the institution and culture that generated those words. Ugliness was sometimes also rained down on visiting-team cheerleaders, body-shaming chants meant to demean and humiliate—all displays of male power. ... 
[T]he Catholic prep-school culture that Kavanaugh frequently speaks about publicly as formative to his sense of identity and commitment to service is also shaped by a toxic masculinity and sense of entitlement similar to what I saw at my high school.

In January 2015, in a posting here entitled "Pope Francis, Women, and the Band of Brothers: The Ambiguity of the Jesuit Heritage That's Being Ignored by Commentators on Francis as Reformer," I wrote that people stressing Pope Francis' Jesuit heritage as a key to his promise as a reformist pope were not engaging the ambiguity of that Jesuit heritage. Then I reported:

2003: Steve and I are attending the high-school graduation of the son of a cousin of mine at a Jesuit high school in Texas. Throughout the graduation ceremony, the refrain on which the school officials constantly bear down, like the drill bit of the dentist as she grinds away one's tooth decay: We're a band of brothers. Brothers! brothers! brothers! These young men who stand before you today constitute a holy comradeship, brothers bound in a sacred bond by the values instilled in them through an Ignatian education. 
The gist of the band-brothers-bond blather was this: these young men have been shaped by their Jesuit education in a deliberate way to be a cohesive unit, men who will fight on each other's behalf, who will die for each other. All of this might have been romantically charming, too, this magical-mystical rendering of what Jesuit education means, if one had been able to overlook the reality of the lives these young men were graduating from high school to begin, after they had attended college. 
They were, the vast majority of them, heading forth from the halls of their Jesuit academy to become business tycoons, high-powered lawyers, doctors, people who are now keeping the machinery of American capitalism in its highest echelons very well-greased. All of this was the raison d'être of their Jesuit education — the access to knowledge as power and learning as entrée — and anyone attending this graduation surely knew this, and that the magical-mystical talk about bands of brothers was sheer balderdash when viewed against the reality of the lives for which this Jesuit high school had prepared these young men. A romantic religious gloss for something that, at its foundations, was considerably less than gospel . . . . 
For all those reasons and more, the band of brothers refrain at this Jesuit high school graduation grated horribly on my ears then, as it still does any time I hear it again (it's echoing strongly through my land right now with the wild success of "American Sniper," for instance). The phrase "band of brothers" has a quite specific military provenance in the Crispin's day speech in Henry V. That provenance was mediated to me decisively as a child (and reinforced and given resonance) by the old Confederate battle song "The Bonnie Blue Flag," which we were taught to sing in school (of course taught in our schools in south Arkansas): 
We are a band of brothers and native to the soil,
Fighting for the property we gained by honest toil;
And when our rights were threatened, the cry rose near and far,
Hurrah! for the bonnie blue flag that bears a single star.
Hurrah, hurrah, for Southern rights hurrah,
Hurrah for the bonnie blue flag that bears a single star!  
We hurrahed till the cows came home, singing that song in our grade-school classrooms. So that I didn't turn a hair when Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks took the "band of brothers" slogan as the thematic focus of their 2001 television miniseries about World War II, echoing, as they did so, Stephen Ambrose's 1992 book about the war with the same title. 
The phrase "band of brothers" is, to my ears, quintessentially militaristic, and when I heard the officials of the Jesuit high school my cousin's son attended harp on it over and over again in his 2003 graduation — a mere two years after the HBO miniseries aired — how could I possibly not hear it as some kind of military slogan? Education in the Jesuit mold as military formation . . . .  
But, as I say above, it's not exactly the miltary thing I want to get at here: it's the male-bonded thing, the brothers thing: that strong strain of militarism that is, as far as I'm concerned, part and parcel of the tone-deafness of many Jesuits steeped in their miltaristic tradition to women and women's concerns. Here's where, it seems to me, the many commentators who want us to think that Francis's papacy portends real reform of the Catholic church because he's a Jesuit just aren't grappling honestly with the strong, dangerous ambiguity of the Jesuit heritage. 
Francis's tone-deafness to women's concerns is not an aberration of his Jesuit heritage: it's part and parcel of that heritage. Francis is tone-deaf to the concerns of women because he's a Jesuit steeped in Jesuit tradition. The Jesuit heritage on which he's said to be drawing for his reformist vision of the church has, built right into its very heart, a magical-mystical notion of what being a Jesuit (being church, being a follower of Jesus) is all about, and that notion excludes women. 
Who are not and cannot be part of a band of brothers . . . .

The graphic is a painting of the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, in armor, by an unidentified French artist of the 16th century, which is available for online sharing at Wikimedia Commons

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