Subsidiary of thought against the cult of prestige
It takes little courage to criticize a group you aren’t a member of. An honorable man will instead, as Dante writes in the “Paradiso,” send his “roughest blows against the highest peaks” and correct his own people when they stray.
These words have languished on my computer for months. Driven by my antipathy for consensus and the onward march of our confused priorities, I now feel compelled to subject them to the discomfort of attention.
The principle of subsidiarity claims that every task should be performed on the lowest possible unit of society. More fundamentally, though, subsidiarity is a way of thinking that orients our focus to local concerns. It helps us better understand the needs of those around us and guards against the tendency to become disconnected from them.
In the few months that I’ve been a student here, I haven’t seen the university direct any of its intellectual powder toward the city from which we draw our name. Immigration, crime, food security, urban planning — all of these issues that concern the daily lives of every Texan and intersect with Catholic social thought have been neglected. Where are we on these issues? Tell the average local that you attend the University of Dallas and you can hear the result of this neglect: “Oh, you mean UTD?”
What has not been neglected, though, is the war in Ukraine, the purpose of NATO and the future coronation of Czar Vladimir Putin. UD does not have any ability to sway the outcome of these events, nor do we even have a comparative advantage in speaking about them, as we do, for example, with Italian politics.
The war in Ukraine, as with any conflict, is shrouded in the fog of war. In an era of such highly refined disinformation warfare — read: propaganda — it would be prudent for the independent thinker to reserve his judgment about such conflicts rather than engaging in the war fervor. Absent truth, fervor is all it is and all it can be. The fact that the 2003 invasion of Iraq didn’t teach us this lesson is disconcerting. Who, from that time, can hold his head higher today: the skeptic or the hawk?
On the other hand, the NATO-Russia proxy war in Ukraine does give us an opportunity to signal that we’re prepared to be on the right side of important regime issues in vogue and — to borrow a phrase — to build our reputation and recognition. I do wonder, though: who is the targeted audience of these efforts?
If we’re hoping to earn prestige in the eyes of the American cultural and political elite, this seems like a fool’s errand. The Church will never be able to endear herself to institutions that are hostile to her tradition — unless that tradition is sacrificed on the altar of prestige.
The pursuit of prestige is illusory and puts distance between us and our Lord. He asks us, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” A university that neglects its local community but pontificates on global issues would benefit from considering this question more deeply. The Church at large and UD in particular should be more vigilant against the temptation to rally around prestigious issues. These issues may enable us to feel relevant but also distract us from our neighbors.
One of my heroes is the late Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, whose political leadership led to the dismantling of the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia. In his essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” he describes the greengrocer who places Soviet propaganda on his windows in order to signal his deference to the regime.
One day, the greengrocer decides he’s had enough and takes down the communist signage. “He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game … His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”
In a corrupt and increasingly secular regime, prestige is available only to those who live within the lie. Does the narrative around the new Cold War reek of corruption or truth? We can avoid this question entirely if we devote ourselves to our city — not Kyiv, Moscow or Washington, but Dallas.