Jack Downey is John Henry Newman Professor in Roman Catholic Studies, and associate professor of religion and classics, at the University of Rochester. He is the author of The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, 1910–1985 (2015). He is currently working on two long-term research projects: a study of self-immolation protest, and a history of Catholicism in Alaska.
"We are in an imagination battle.…Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else’s imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free."
— adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy 
In The Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin dramatizes the story of eight “New Left” activists charged with federal counts of conspiracy to incite a riot, in the wake of protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In some ways, this is vintage Sorkin: The protagonists are charming, quick-witted, and flawed yet earnest. They are mostly white, mostly (in this case exclusively) male, and staunch believers in the soaring power of the grand gesture. They use staple Sorkin-dialect words like “ensorcell.” Their self-righteousness occasionally erupts into flames of hubris and uncontrolled rage, which in turn beget sober bouts of conscientious self-reflection. Their antagonists are caricatured inversions: The federal government is depicted as vindictive, the Chicago police thuggish, and the presiding judge both incompetent and sadistic. But ultimately, the film is a hymn to the force of speaking truth to power, bolstered by the resilience of democratic institutions.
Published under the patronage of his namesake, Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, names a critical problem: “Nowadays, what do certain words like democracy, freedom, justice or unity really mean? They have been bent and shaped to serve as tools for domination, as meaningless tags that can be used to justify any action” (no. 14). We are at the spear-tip of a post-World War declension narrative, in which the promise of liberal globalism has been corrupted by “globalized indifference” and protectionist isolationism (no. 30). And yet, like Trial of the Chicago 7, Fratelli Tutti suffers from a tonal asymmetry with the pervasive sense of apocalyptic accelerationism in contemporary life, even as it attempts to speak to our historical moment.
Fratelli Tutti suffers from a tonal asymmetry with the pervasive sense of apocalyptic accelerationism in contemporary life, even as it attempts to speak to our historical moment.
As a rhetorical device, Fratelli Tutti’s ark of history makes good tactical sense: a romanticized recent-past era of global progress towards a utopian horizon, tragically corrupted by the awakening of dormant vices, which have failed to extinguish the smoldering embers of a hopeful future. That’s the story of Christianity. That’s resurrection. That’s the paradigmatic lost-then-found spiritual itineraries of Paul, Augustine, and Dorothy Day. But it also demands a radical suspension of disbelief, and leads Francis to make puzzling statements like, “I sometimes wonder why… it took so long for the Church unequivocally to condemn slavery and various forms of violence” (no. 86). Francis’ receding world of liberté, égalité, fraternité is, in many ways, a romantic figment that will be unrecognizable to many readers. Conversely, the sense of novelty with which he treats our sociopolitical collapse depends on nostalgia for an imaginary era of collective optimism, in which the flourishing of the some didn’t depend on the exploitation of the many, and in which necropolitics didn’t construct “forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead” .
If Fratelli Tutti dreams of a “global community of fraternity based on the practice of social friendship on the part of people and nations,” its nightmare is reactionary populism, which Francis argues is fundamentally a manifestation of concupiscence—“the human inclination to be concerned only with myself, my group, my own petty interests” (nos. 154, 166). Since Augustine of Hippo’s “anti-Pelagian” writings, Christian theology has used the term to connote an existentially disordered emotional state—human finitude manifesting as rapacious desire . But if concupiscence is rooted in a misapprehension of reality that elicits unvirtuous behavior, the populist imagination is a reality-distortion field that engenders violence: Refugees are imagined as terrorists, peaceful protestors as violent, black and brown bodies as monstrous . Although Fratelli Tutti points to the malicious potential of faulty perception, it lacks serious engagement with the powerful sense of victimization and aggrievement that drive populist bigotry, and allow it to be rationalized as self-defense rather than social sin.
But if concupiscence is rooted in a misapprehension of reality that elicits unvirtuous behavior, the populist imagination is a reality-distortion field that engenders violence.
Rebecca Solnit has written extensively about the toxic effects of fatalism and despair, which corrode that sense of hope that she sees as prerequisite for generative movement building: “Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.…To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present uninhabitable” . However, in its enthusiasm for pivoting towards hope, Fratelli Tutti somewhat obscures the tectonic magnitude of the problem, and thereby undermines its own stated objective as a call to collective conversion (no. 54ff.). In his work, George Yancy invites his white readers to “tarry” with the awareness of their internalized racism, not as an end in itself or as some kind of performative penitence, but as an essential precondition sustained self-transformation . Without compunction, there is no conversion, and no real promise of reconciliation.
The Trial of the Chicago 7’s release coincides with another cinematic Sorkin event—a theatrical reenactment of a classic West Wing episode, performed on stage by an ensemble composed almost exclusively of original cast members, aged approximately two decades. It is an unapologetic exercise in nostalgia, both for the show itself and for an era in which the public viewership could plausibly imagine their federal government, albeit in all its finitude, being shepherded by ideals, intellect, dignity, compassion, and a sense of duty to the greater good. In both productions, Sorkin, like Francis, evinces a resilient optimism about the redemptive potential of institutions that seems wildly incongruent with the frenzied mania that has characterized public discourse in 2020. And this is, perhaps, by design—a steady hand in the storm. As a genre, encyclicals exist in tension between reading the “signs of the times” and speaking to eternity. But in a year that has been characterized by the global intensification of precarity, dispossession, and death, Fratelli Tutti arrives during a wintry season, when hope is in chrysalis, we endure—even as we expedite—the end of the world as we know it.
- adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017), 18.
- Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics, trans. Steven Corcoran (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 92.
- Augustine of Hippo, Answer to the Pelagians, translated by Roland J. Teske, S.J. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1990).
- Judith Butler, The Force of Non-Violence (New York: Verso, 2020), 2–3.
- Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 3.
- George Yancy, Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012), 174.