Monday, January 14, 2013

Sticks and Drones, and Company Men: The Selective Outrage of the Liberal Caste

I am from a large Irish Catholic family in New York City.  When I was in high school, at an academically-rigorous Jesuit institution, now best known as the namesake of the world’s most persistent television personality,1 my older brother became a priest.  He was ordained in Rome, and most of the family went over for the event.  While I was there my brother took me to the office of the Superior General of the Jesuit order (the “Society of Jesus”).  My brother was a student of history, and wanted me to see the desk, with the huge map of the world on the wall behind, and the modest cot off to the side, from which the Black Pope had dispatched his cadre, also known as “God’s Marines” and “The Company,” and even “the Special Forces of the Catholic Church,”2 to manipulate the fates of nations and empires for more than 400 years on behalf of the Papacy.  The analogy is irresistible: If the Vatican is the White House of the Catholic Church, the Jesuit Superior General’s office is the CIA headquarters.3

Of course, besides being the vanguard of the Counter-Reformation and Inquisition – the repressive apparatus of the Church, if you will (Torture and rendition, anyone?) – the Jebbies (as they are familiarly known) also became the Church’s ideological vanguard, manipulating the fates of empires by overseeing the education of elites. "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man" is the famous aphorism traditionally attributed to the Jesuits – as my father, also an alumnus of Regis High School, reminded me constantly.

The Jesuits made sure that the children of the elite were given a good, classical education, and were inculcated with loyalty to the Catholic Church – which usually also meant an affinity for the most reactionary politics of the day.  Of course, since a thorough education often ends up clashing with reactionary politics, some of the students, and even the teachers in this enterprise, ended up lapsing to the left. (Hello, Fidel!)  By the late twentieth-century, matching the anti-colonialist, antiwar, and pro-civil-rights ethos of the age, “some” had become “many,” and a critical mass of the smart students, along with the good men who were Jesuit teachers, who saw the world through lenses of intellectual as well as moral honesty and consistency, had turned much of the Jesuit enterprise, and many of its institutions, in a progressive direction.  Hello, Berrigan brothers!

Which brings us to the almost-present.  Although it was largely buried by the election hoopla, you may remember that back in November there was a minor flap about Ann Coulter speaking at Fordham University — another well-known Jesuit institution, and my undergraduate alma mater.  The Fordham College Republicans invited Ann Coulter to speak at a non-public event on campus.  This prompted Fr. Joseph McShane, S.J., Fordham’s president and a fellow alumnus of my high school (It’s a cozy club.), to issue a scathing statement, denouncing (correctly, I think) Coulter’s “rhetoric” as “hateful and needlessly provocative ….aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.”  He reminded everyone that “as members of a Jesuit institution, we are called upon to deal with one another with civility and compassion,” and that he personally “hold[s] out great contempt for anyone who would intentionally inflict pain on another human being because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed.” 

Fr. McShane did not try to stop Coulter from speaking.  Contrary to Bill O’Reilly’s mendacious claim that he “banned” her from campus, McShane specifically stated: “the University will not block the College Republicans from hosting their speaker of choice on campus”; he averred that “preventing Ms. Coulter from speaking would counter one wrong with another. The old saw goes that the answer to bad speech is more speech. This is especially true at a university.”  He was speaking as the leader of a Jesuit institution, in the name of its purported humanist values, and – appropriately, I think – he kept his discourse on the level of politico-ethical suasion, avoiding the tactic of administrative control. 

Amazingly, the College Republicans themselves “determined that some of [Coulter’s] comments do not represent the ideals of the College Republicans and are inconsistent with both our organization’s mission and the University’s,” and rescinded her invitation. They claim to have “made this choice freely before Father McShane’s email was sent out and we became aware of his feelings,” and that McShane “would have learned that the event was being cancelled” if he had “simply reached out to us before releasing his statement.”  After looking more closely at her record, in response not to McShane but to the general “size and severity of opposition to this event,” they had discovered that Coulter was incompatible with the “voice of the sensible, compassionate, and conservative political movement that we strive to be.”

Taking everyone at his and her word here (And why should we not?) – Joe McShane that he is speaking for humanist, Jesuit values and not trying to undermine the “the canons of academic freedom,” and the College Republicans that they had not been intimidated by their President but persuaded by their community – we seem to have a fine example of persuasion and civility working in favor of a relatively progressive outcome in a way that avoids dangerous precedents. Although I have a hard time taking her seriously – with many others, I see her as the Andrew Dice Clay of American political theater – I am certainly repelled by Ann Coulter, and I understand that her clownish discourse is given purchase by American media, and needs to be countered.  Still, I would have cringed had the Fordham College Republicans submitted to Fr. McShane’s condescending tone (“To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans, however, would be a tremendous understatement”), or, worse, been forced to cave by administrative authority (succumbing to community pressure, while not always a good thing, is something else). 

Similarly, as long as he does not try to use his administrative power to prevent students from hearing views he does not like, Fr. McShane has every right, without being charged with a crime against free speech, to make strong statements denouncing certain speakers, on the grounds of his perceived duty to speak up for the values of the institution – as, I must admit, would the President of any university, even one standing for more conservative values. 

In this case, then, Fr. McShane seems to have made an exemplary “progressive” intervention.  The liberal commentariat certainly thinks so, and I agree.  (See, for example, Joan Walsh’s cogent synopsis of the scuffle, with the full text of McShane’s and the College Republicans’ statements, here.)   He took a ton of shit for this from the Foxosphere and the considerable contingent of conservative Fordham alumni (especially, it seems, on LinkedIn), as he undoubtedly foresaw he would   So, hooray for Joe McShane and Fordham for courageously reconfirming the best of the progressive and humanist Jesuit tradition!  Right?


Yeah, there’s a catch.  There’s always a catch.

Which brings us, at once, a little further into the past and back to the present.  For, about five months before the Coulter contretemps, in May of 2012, there was another controversial invitation at Fordham.  This one came from Fr. McShane to John O. Brennan, another Fordham alumnus, inviting him, on behalf of the University and its Jesuit values, to be the University’s commencement speaker, and to receive an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters. 

Brennan, of course, is President Obama’s highly-trusted national security and counterterrorism advisor, the co-architect and co-executor, with Obama, of the expanded, worldwide drone assassination policy – so trusted that The New York Times has described him as “a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the 'just war' theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict.”4  

The “priest” reference is not a throwaway. This Times article is an extraordinary portrait of Obama and Brennan’s intimate pas de deux in executing deadly drone and rendition policies, and it’s a relationship that appears to many as saturated with theological significance.  Obama, we are told, is “A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas,” who “believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions.” With Brennan’s “blessing,” of course: “Guided by Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama …signs off on every [drone] strike.”

Of course, with the hectic pace of operations and all, any Obama-Brennan disputationes must be rather brief, since Obama “approves lethal action without hand-wringing.”  Obama, you see, is “a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric. [i.e., was lying]  Instead, he was already putting his lawyerly mind to carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit.”  I’m sure Thomas, Augie, and Jesuit-educated John have been a great help with all this.

In fact, everyone seems reassured by Brennan’s priestly aura. State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh effuses: “If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude….It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

Jeez, who wouldn’t want to give this guy an award?!

I'm glad Harold is comfortable with a priest leading a war. Because that's always worked out so well. And here I thought that, in the democratic republic the US is supposed to be, decisions regarding wars and bombing other countries were a matter for more than one or two men of whose "moral rectitude" Harold is certain. Because of the precedent Obama and Brennan have set, such decisions are going to continue to be made by one or two persons in a room as they see fit – persons of whose moral rectitude Harold, and the rest of us, know nothing. These two men, that is, have taken a definitive, and probably irreversible, step in transforming the American President into an Emperor.  But, of course, as long as he has a priest by his side, that'll be OK.

Yes, Obama, and his pastoral advisor Brennan “should take moral responsibility for such actions.“ And should be held responsible – by somebody, somewhere, sometime.
But not this time, and not by the Jesuits in the Bronx. The way it’s working is that Obama gets his priestly blessing from Brennan, who gets his in turn from McShane and the Jesuit institution that formed Brennan himself and that draws on the deep history of the order’s Jesuit-value-laden imbrication in world affairs.  A perfect chain – or should I say, circle? – of moral and religious sanction.

In all this, Fr. McShane cannot deny that he is giving his and his institution’s moral and religious sanction to John Brennan’s signature enterprises (those would be the drone assassination of anyone, including American citizens, anywhere, rendition for torture, etc.).  One cannot get on one’s high moralizing horse against students, “as members of a Jesuit institution,” who invite for a private talk someone whose rhetoric is “hateful and needlessly provocative” and can be thought to “inflict pain on another human being,” and then turn around and give official, public, institutional honor to one whose murderous and needlessly provocative actions, on a global scale, are inflicting pain on thousands of human beings, and then try to deny that one has sanctioned and implicated one’s self and one’s institution in those actions.  Nor can one dismiss those who might question one’s own priestly and presidential judgment and maturity for doing so.

Of course, there were objections to the decision to honor Brennan, though the incident was drowned out by the well-covered brouhaha about Kathleen Sebelius at Georgetown, part of a well-organized right-wing Catholic campaign, involving the Archbishop of Washington and The Cardinal Newman Society, against having allegedly heretical and morally objectionable speakers at Catholic institutions.  Because that campaign is well-financed and right-wing, it gets a lot of media attention.  The objections to Brennan at Fordham were not as visible, however, coming as they did from safe-to-ignore voices on the left, who object to other kinds of contradictions between the alleged values of Catholic institutions and those to whom they confer honors and awards. 

In the forefront of the protest were Fordham students, who circulated two petitions objecting to the choice of Brennan,5 on the grounds that he “has defended the use of torture by the United States, as well as the U.S. secret prison system throughout the world”; that he “has also openly endorsed the United States’ rendition policies, which effectively circumvent due process and habeas corpus and outsource America’s torture regime”; and that he “was complicit in the unlawful and immoral launching of the Iraq War.”  They quite rightly point out that, in giving this honor to Brennan, “Fordham University is implicitly endorsing the ‘War on Terror,’ the use of rendition, the CIA’s heinous drone campaign, and the subversion of the rule of law in America, including the assassination of its own citizens,” as well as U.S. drone strikes that “in Pakistan alone have killed as many as 775 civilians, including 168 children, since 2004.” 

Not as bad as Ann Coulter’s needlessly provocative rhetoric, I know, but each of the student signators (and others, like myself, who joined them) wanted it “to be known that John Brennan does not represent the Jesuit values that I have developed as a student at Fordham University.”

One of these petitions cites a letter sent to the editor of the Fordham student newspaper by Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst and also a Fordham alumnus6 (It’s getting a little creepy, isn’t it?), who now works with an ecumenical church group in D.C.  I had actually become aware of this controversy when I read another version of McGovern’s protest,7 which I emailed to a group of former high school and college alumni.  In that article, McGovern drew on what he suggests is the “prophetic” Jesuit voice of Daniel Berrigan:

Daniel Berrigan wrote of “the fall of a great enterprise” — the Jesuit university. He recorded his “hunch” that the university would end up “among those structures whose moral decline and political servitude signalize a larger falling away of the culture itself.” 

Berrigan lamented “highly placed” churchmen and their approval of war, “uttered … with sublime confidence, from on high, from highly placed friendships, and White House connections.”

“Thus compromised,” warned Berrigan, “the Christian tradition of nonviolence, as well as the secular boast of disinterested pursuit of truth — these are reduced to bombast, hauled out for formal occasions, believed by no one, practiced by no one.”

Hard to be more on point. McGovern also pointed out how the Catholic ecclesiastical leadership, always all publicly atwitter about the fates of blastulae, embryos, and fetuses, carefully “abjures any attempt to offer moral guidance on issues like war, preferring to defer — as the Fordham Jesuits do — to a good Jesuit-trained Catholic like Brennan to make decisions on such issues.”

I circulated that article, without comment.  I thought that some of the circle of Fordham alumni might be interested in what seemed to me an earnest appeal from another Fordham alumnus – and a veteran of the national security apparatus, at that – based on a sincere and generally positive appreciation of the Jesuit tradition.

(Indeed, perhaps overly positive. There is, after all, that other, longer, Jesuit tradition -- as the backbone of the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and reactionary politics in general -- that was perhaps too-felicitously obscured by the “Jesuit university” of the late-twentieth century that many of us came to know.  Maybe McGovern, Berrigan, and we should be unsurprised to see this “enterprise” falling back to what we might call the “courtier” Jesuit tradition of insinuating into, while advancing the interests of, imperial power.)

At any rate, I was surprised when one of my correspondents replied that he had forwarded MGovern’s article to Fr. McShane, and had received a reply, which, in its entirety, was this:

I'm a very bad person.

McGovern is a retired CIA operative who is still drawing his CIA pension.

Now I do not want to make too much of Fr. McShane’s remarks in this casual email.  I would not even cite them, except that they were forwarded not only to me, but to over twenty other people, and, coming from McShane’s public email, they are, as one of those correspondents, a lawyer, pointed out, “subject to discovery by total strangers.”  I’m sure the accomplished Jesuit theologian does not think that reminding us McGovern is a (presumably pensioned) CIA retiree (a fact mentioned at least twice in McGovern’s article) is some kind of brilliant riposte.  I’m sure he would not, for example, dismiss the arguments of a Vietnam veteran who opposes the Iraq war and continues to go to the VA hospital.  Nor do I think Fr. McShane actually believes that the point of McGovern’s article is to paint him as “a bad person.”  Surely, too, he understands that this article is not about him, except insofar as he is the leader of an institution purporting to represent certain values, who has decided to give an entirely discretionary honor to a man who is deeply responsible for (and deceptive about) policies that many Americans (and very probably most people in the world) consider murderous, criminal, dangerous to us all, and probably irreversibly destructive of our fundamental rights and protections. 

But if I don’t want to make too much of it, neither can I ignore it entirely. McShane’s may be just a silly response, in a context where he did not have to make a thorough, reasoned argument.  But as a shields-down, relaxed response, I think it’s fair to say that it reveals the impulse to casually dismiss these arguments. Underlying it is a blithe assumption (including assuming that his interlocutor will agree) that one doesn’t have seriously to engage with voices like these – that is, voices from somewhere out there on the left, who have no power.  An assumption he would be loath to make so casually, I’ll bet, in response to voices from the Cardinal Newman Society, or the Archbishop of Washington, or the White House.

In the way he ignores Ray McGovern, Fr. McShane, I fear, confirms exactly what McGovern said in his article: “Perhaps their thought process was simply this: Brennan is a Fordham alumnus; he works in the White House; isn’t that enough?”

At any rate, Fr. McShane, unlike the College Republicans, did not rescind the honor to Brennan in the face of the opposition (the “size and severity” of which I don’t know).  Nor should he have, if support for Brennan is the ground on which he takes his principled stand. The College Republicans, after carefully considering the severity and intellectual and moral quality of the opposition, understood that Ann Coulter’s rhetoric was in contradiction with the “sensible, compassionate” conservatism they stood for, and “inconsistent with both our organization’s mission and the University’s.” On the other hand, it seems that McShane, after considering – you decide how seriously you think he “considered” – the size, severity, and intellectual and moral quality of the opposition to John Brennan’s actions, concluded that they were ones that he, the university, and Jesuit tradition should stand behind and honor.  So be it.  Again, you decide what principles and values you think might account for the clear difference between the high moral dudgeon against students and Ann Coulter on the one hand, and the – would “fawning” be too unkind? – moral deference to a powerful Fordham alumnus and the White House on the other.  But, really, neither the College Republicans, nor any of the students involved in protesting the Brennan honor, nor anybody else, ever, deserves to hear another moralizing discourse of disappointment about their judgment and maturity from Fr. McShane.

The historical Jesuit enterprise of political pedagogy is not to train court clowns of loud and obvious intellectual superficiality like Coulter, but chamberlains like Brennan who can, whispering in the sovereign’s ear, parse the theories of Christian philosophers in ways that are both intellectually complex and appropriately soothing to the exigencies of the empire.  This is a pleasant distinction, which allows one to obfuscate uncomfortable similarities and responsibilities within the intricate wiles of the mind known as "Jesuitical."  However objectionable her upfront reactionary discourse is, to my knowledge Ann Coulter hasn’t killed anyone; John Brennan has – including hundreds of children, and lied about it.  Ann Coulter supports John Brennan in that, and so does Joe McShane.  The truth that this Jesuit university president might like least to face is that, on this ethically and historically important issue (those killings and all that go with them), Ann Coulter and he – and, now, thanks to him, Fordham and its Jesuit values – are on the same side, are intellectually and morally indistinguishable.  They both support their comrade Brennan’s (and his master Obama’s) work in killing for the empire.

All of the above, as you may have guessed (and feared), is but a preface, or, better, a parable.  The story of Coulter and Brennan and Fordham and the Jesuits and Fr. Joe McShane is a little version, in a small corner of our polity, of what has happened to “liberal” discourse and ethics in our nation as a whole. Substitute MSNBC for Fordham (that is an insult to Fordham, I know) and Lawrence O’Donnell for Joe McShane, and you get the picture.  This has become the dominant strategy of liberal commentators: pick easy, loud, rhetorically crude reactionary targets to demonize, while embracing the pernicious, but smooth and rhetorically sophisticated liberal imperialists whose work the commentators, and the reactionaries they disdain, support.

That is why, in the present present, Brennan will receive the much more important and non-honorific prize of being appointed as head of the CIA, without the opposition the very same appointment evoked a mere five years ago.8  The political and media establishments, liberal and conservative, have come that much further in their ability to casually dismiss voices from anywhere out there on the left, from those who have no power.  That is also why nobody in the world, anywhere, deserves to hear another moralizing discourse of disappointment or approval regarding democracy and rights from any American politician – liberal or conservative.

The rich, conflicted history of the Jesuit order, and that of American republic, have arrived at the same denouement:  Flying Killer Robots.

And when it comes to these issues, whether they like it or not, both the Jesuit theologian and the liberal commentator really should acknowledge the discourse they are in, and who in it has the last word:

Links and Notes

2“Black Pope” is a commonly-used term that the Jesuits don’t like, but “God’s Marines” and “The Company” are nicknames they embrace, “these being references to founder Ignatius of Loyola’s military background and the members’ willingness to accept orders anywhere in the world and live in extreme conditions.” and
See also "Jesuits are called 'God's Marines' for a reason. They are the Special Forces of the Catholic Church."
Philip Agee’s 1975 book, Inside the Company: CIA Diary, revealed “the Company” to be the inside nickname of the Agency.  The preface of the book also laid out how his journey through Catholic education both led him to work for the CIA and gave him the social conscience that made him break with the agency.

3I was a little too young at the time to absorb the lesson in history. The high point of my visit was when the Superior General pulled out the personnel file of the principal of my high school and asked me if I wanted to read it. I was not too young to realize that that was, as we say, a rhetorical question.

5 “John Brennan's Selection as Fordham's 167th Commencement Speaker: Stand Against This Outrage,” the more militant petition. 

“Fordham University Students: We ask that Fordham University choose an alternative commencement speaker,” the more “moderate” petition, which nonetheless specifically called on the University to choose someone else.  

6[December 3, 2022] In reviewing this article, I have found that the Fordham student newspaper, The Ram, has changed its website, and I can no longer find that letter. 

8Glenn Greenwald, “John Brennan's extremism and dishonesty rewarded with CIA Director nomination,”


  1. See the page on McGovern's website regardng the Fordham incident:

  2. Regarding Ray McGovern "drawing his CIA pension": In fact, he almost lost it for his dissident activities. From the bio on his website:
    "As an act of conscience, on March 2, 2006 Ray returned the Intelligence Commendation Medallion given him at retirement for “especially meritorious service,” explaining, “I do not want to be associated, however remotely, with an agency engaged in torture.” He returned it to Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R, Michigan), then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman.

    "Hoekstra then added to the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY’07 (HR5020) a provision that could have enabled the government to strip intelligence veterans of their government pensions. HR5020 passed the full House, but Congress opted instead for a continuing resolution. Thus, Ray was spared from having to go back to driving part-time for Red Top Cab."

  3. You're welcome. Hope you enjoy some of my other posts, too.

  4. Thanks, JD. The tension between training young people in what I consider positive intellectual and ethical values, and maintaiin influence with the rulers has, indeed, always been a part of the Jesuit tradition. I hope I invoked it fruitfully and fairly. Thanks, too, for reminding me of Hopkins, whom I had not thought of in qute a while.

  5. Well, thank you, and congratulations on your and your student's (and please pass that on to him/her) work in speaking up and organiziog about this. I'm sorry I didn't become aware of it earliler. Your remarks about Jesuit ideals and corporate cultue are, unfortunately, too true. You want to hope it's not "every time," but in the present stuation, it's hard not to be cynical, even in the contemporary sense. Anyway, somebody has to speak up.

  6. Terrific article! Thank you for writing it.


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