“So mayor Pete is a Red Diaper baby! This explains a lot … ”
So writes Charlie, a longtime reader of mine and of The American Spectator. Please note that Charlie didn’t call Pete a red, but a red-diaper baby. There’s a difference. And either way, it’s a point that isn’t irrelevant and should be dealt with and laid out carefully.
Charlie sent me that email back in October and urged me to write about the subject. Given Mayor Pete’s surge in the polls, and given my repeated run-ins with the said “red-diaper” background Charlie is referring to, I finally decided to put something together.
Joseph Buttigieg and Antonio Gramsci
As for that red-diaper background, Charlie is referring to the work of Pete Buttigieg’s father, Joseph Buttigieg, who was the world’s foremost expert (certainly the English-speaking world) on the famous Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Joseph, who died in January 2019, was no less than the founder of the International Gramsci Society, a fact hardly a secret and acknowledged warmly on the website of the International Gramsci Society. It’s so unmissable that the first thing that displays when you open the website is Joseph’s photo with a memorial tribute. In fact, as someone who regularly checks that website, I can tell you that Joseph’s photo has been the lead on the screen for a full year and counting. He was very important to them.
Before considering Pete’s possible place in some of that, a few words on Gramsci.
At the age of 35, in 1926, Antonio Gramsci was arrested in his native Italy by Mussolini and spent the last 11 years of his life in prison, where he would write, write, and write — compiling a master volume of 33 Prison Notebooks. Of these notebooks, compiled mainly between 1929 and 1935, two of them, Notebooks 16 and 26, deal explicitly with culture — that is, Gramsci’s Marxist thoughts applied to culture. Those two notebooks are titled, respectively, “Cultural Topics I” (completed in 1933–34) and “Cultural Topics II” (completed in 1935). Moreover, even as Notebooks 16 and 26 deal with “Cultural Topics” I and II, culture is a consistent theme throughout the Prison Notebooks.
Gramsci looked to culture, particularly through his theory of “cultural hegemony.” If the fundamental transformers of the radical Left truly wanted to win, then they needed to first seize the so-called “cultural means of production”; that is, culture-forming institutions such as the media and universities. Gramsci himself foresaw societal transformation coming about by what others have characterized as a Gramscian “long march through the institutions.” (There is debate over who first used the phrase, but most current sources credit West German Marxist writer and student activist of the 1960s named Rudi Dutschke.)
Not until leftists came to dominate these cultural institutions would they be able to convince enough people to support their Marxist revolution. “This part of [Gramsci’s] thesis was like manna from heaven for many left-wing Western intellectuals,” writes Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute. “Instead of joining a factory collective or making bombs in basements, a leftist professor could help free society from capitalist exploitation by penning essays in his office or teaching students.”
The heirs of Gramsci, like the ideological progeny of Marx and Lenin and the Frankfurt School, insisted on the need to question everything, including moral absolutes and the Judeo-Christian basis of Western civilization. There was no traditional institution off limits to the cultural Left. In fact, so “critical” was the cultural-Marxist left of anything and everything that it would brand itself as “critical theory.”
Critical theory has become common in academic English departments in particular. It was this tendency to criticize everything, to tear down everything, that has made this particular brand of Marxism so dangerous. Accordingly, Gregg calls Gramsci perhaps “the most dangerous socialist in history.”
Again, Gramsci’s massive paper trail, his primary body of work, was the Prison Notebooks. That brings us to Joseph Buttigieg, and even to Pete.
The definitive English translation of Gramsci’s work is Joseph Buttigieg’s translation of his vast Prison Notebooks (Quaderni del carcere), published by Columbia University Press. Joseph Buttigieg produced three thick volumes, each around 700 pages in length. In each of the volumes, Joseph begins with acknowledgments in his preface. And each time, he concludes by giving special thanks to his wife, Jennifer Anne Montgomery, and to his son Pete. Importantly, this seems a little more than the typical sentimental thanks a writer would give to a family member.
In the preface to Volume II, for instance, Joseph finishes, “The greatest debt of all I owe to J. Anne Montgomery and Peter Paul Buttigieg (who also helped with the compilation of the index of this volume) for the countless ways in which they have enabled me to realize this work.”
That seems no minor thing. Pete helped compile the index, which was no small feat. Again, this is a massive three-volume set published by Columbia University Press. Little Pete wasn’t scribbling this thing in crayon during breaks from the Lego table and “Thomas the Tank Engine” episodes. This was a substantial effort that would have involved Pete compiling the names of every leading light of Marxism, socialism, oftentimes atheism, and even anarchism, with names ranging from the obvious likes of Marx and Engels to Mikhail Bakunin and Benedetto Croce — with Marx literally having more citations than any other figure in the index.
Pete’s work here was clearly a help to his old man; his dad said there were “countless ways” that Pete “enabled” him “to realize this work.”
Joseph says the same in the final paragraph of the preface of Volume III of his edited collection of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. In fact, he strengthens his previous acknowledgment: “Above all, I owe an immense debt of gratitude to J. Anne Montgomery and Peter Paul Buttigieg, who have enabled every aspect of my work.”
Sure, our imagination could run wild here, and we could exaggerate Pete’s role to the point of error. After all, writers all the time thank their family with effusive statements like “I could not have done this without them.” Joseph’s acknowledgment should be seen at least in large part in that spirit. But it would also seem a mistake to understate it. I don’t think we can shrug it off as irrelevant.
Pete’s Way Home
So, what does Pete, in turn, write about his father?
As for Pete’s own written work, in 2019 he published his memoirs, titled Shortest Way Home. In that autobiography, he writes quite a bit about his father, who had emigrated to America from the Mediterranean island of Malta. His dad and mom arrived in South Bend, Indiana, in May 1980, their U-Haul pulling up to their new home on College Street, where Pete’s Marxist father had been hired by the English Department at Notre Dame. Yes, Notre Dame had hired a man that Pete himself refers to as a “nonreligious Mediterranean intellectual” and “a man of the left.”
It is hardly shocking that an English department would hire a Marxist. Again, it may surprise readers unfamiliar with the academic asylum to know that the most radical departments in universities are English departments, the modern homes and breeding grounds of the cult of “critical theory.” When you hear of a university celebrating, say, the birthday of Karl Marx, you can bet your wallet the guilty offenders are not in the poli-sci or history or economics departments but rather the English department.
It is shocking, however, that Notre Dame would hire a Marxist, given the Catholic Church’s longtime, strident rejection of communism dating back to at least 1846 (two years before the publication of the Communist Manifesto) with the publication of Qui Pluribus. The Church would alternately denounce communism as everything from a “satanic scourge” and “virulent infection” to a “pestilence” and “filthy medley of errors” orchestrated by “the sons of darkness.” In 1949, the Church issued a papal decree to excommunicate communists and even laity who supported Marxists or read their literature. Apparently, Notre Dame decided to take a different approach. No doubt, Notre Dame, notably under the often-perplexing leadership of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, who ran the university from 1952 to 1987, here decided to thumb its nose at a century and a half of Church teaching on the subject. Under Hesburgh, the university happily filled its halls with leftist professors. In fact, Pete in his memoirs notes that the Humanities faculty at Notre Dame while his dad was there was “overwhelmingly liberal,” even as “most students were conservative.” He recalls that his dad joined liberal faculty members’ “protests” of the Reagan administration, including speaking out “against the Reagan administration’s covert support for human rights abusers in Latin America during the popular president’s visit to campus.”
Still, one wonders if Notre Dame’s brass knew just how far to the left Joseph Buttigieg was at the time of his hiring in 1980.
Then again, Notre Dame would have known this unmistakably by the 2010s, many years after Joseph published his magnum opus on Antonio Gramsci. What did Notre Dame do then? Incredibly, it made Joseph Buttigieg, internationally recognized Gramscian Marxist, director of the prestigious Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program, with, as Pete notes in his memoirs, an office in the “resplendent Main Building, topped by the Golden Dome itself, where the president sits in an oak-paneled office suite.” This is the historic building on campus. Joseph Buttigieg, as director of the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program, got a prized office in a ground-floor corner with an outside window from which (says Pete) Knute Rockne himself once sold football tickets in the 1930s.
The Notre Dame president under whom that happened was Fr. John Ignatius Jenkins, who makes Fr. Hesburgh look like a fire-breathing right-winger.
For those familiar with the implosion of higher education, Christian and secular, Catholic and non-Catholic, and with the outright rejection of the Catholic mission and identity by so many Catholic colleges that long ago stopped being authentically Catholic, the elevation of an overt Marxist–atheist like Joseph Buttigieg to such a position seems rather scandalous. It’s even more troublesome in Notre Dame’s case because Notre Dame is not only the most famous Catholic college in America but, in Notre Dame’s defense, also remains a fairly authentic Catholic college, albeit shakily clinging to the Magisterium despite some rocky leadership. Many conservative and faithful Catholics like to dump on Notre Dame and criticize it for not being really Catholic, but that’s unfair. In truth, there are many solid Catholics there, including on faculty. It’s very mixed. But even then, to promote someone as radical as Pete’s dad to head the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program is really alarming.
Bear in mind that it was Fr. Jenkins who scandalized the Notre Dame faithful by awarding Barack Obama an honorary degree in 2009, in direct and flagrant violation of the Catholic Church’s explicit instruction that pro-choice politicians not be granted such awards. Jenkins regaled not only Obama but also Joseph Buttigieg: “Joe was a superb scholar, an inspirational teacher and a pioneering leader as the inaugural director of the fledgling Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program,” Jenkins said in January 2019.
That Jenkins statement came at the time of Joseph’s death and was thus expected to be kind. Still, the press release stood as a good example of Jenkins’ and the university’s ignoring if not sugarcoating Buttigieg’s real beliefs. Jenkins never once dared use the word “Marxist” or “communist.” The Notre Dame president benignly told his campus community that Buttigieg had been an editor and translator of “Gramsci, the Italian philosopher, writer, and politician.”
Heck, sounds like a cross between Dante and Aquinas — eh, Fr. Jenkins?
Jenkins rattled off Joseph Buttigieg’s many positions of prominence at Notre Dame: director of the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars program, director of the university’s Stamps Scholars Program, faculty member in the English department, fellow in the university’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies (odd placement for an English prof), and fellow in the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies.
Joseph Buttigieg was a veritable rock star at Notre Dame.
For the record, I know this is the world of academia we’re dealing with here. If yet another university wants to pad its universities with “critical theorists,” well, hey, that’s what they do. But the point here is that one should never expect such a far-left pedigree of a leading professor at America’s most famous Catholic university, and, more important to my focus in this article, Pete’s dad was on the extreme left.
Alas, Fr. Jenkins, of course, has another motive with such a statement. He’s speaking to university alumni and donors. In no way would he boldly ask well-off alumni to fork over dollars to support a program run by a Gramscian Marxist. They are to be coddled and even duped. At least the comrades at the website of the International Gramsci Society have the integrity to characterize Joseph accurately.
Faith and Education
Speaking of the Catholic faith, Pete touches on this as well in his memoirs.
In his teen years, says Pete, he actually learned the Catholic Church’s doctrine on matters like sexuality and abortion, both of which stand fully in contrast to Pete’s own views. He learned the Church’s teachings not at home but at St. Joseph High School in South Bend, where he was sent at the age of 14. That being the case, his radicalism on these issues today cannot be blamed on a failure in Catholic education. They surely must have come at least in part from home. His father earlier in life had been Catholic — a Jesuit — but left the faith. His mother was a Methodist who took a liking to the Episcopal Church, which is the direction where Pete eventually went.
Pete seemed to have never religiously identified with a particular church or denomination until he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, which led him to Anglicanism and the Episcopal faith when he returned to the United States. He married (another man) as an Episcopalian, one of the first faiths to sanction same-sex marriage. Pete has been a member of the Episcopal Church for at least the past decade.
Prior to Oxford, Pete’s father further influenced his leftism by encouraging his son as a freshman at Harvard to take a course with Sacvan Bercovitch, a left-wing literature professor. If the name “Sacvan” seems strange, so is its genesis: Bercovitch, notes Pete, was “a son of Canadian Jewish radicals [who] had named him after the anarchist martyrs Sacco Vanzetti” — two heroes to the communist Left. “Sac” for “Sacco” and “Van” for “Vanzetti.” Hence, “Sacvan.” (Can you imagine?) Pete quickly became Sacvan’s research assistant.
We can see his father’s hand through all of this. Pete was the sole radical son of Joseph.
Bernie Sanders: Young Pete’s Inspiration?
Beyond his memoirs, maybe the most telling item to yet emerge from young Pete’s past writings is a stunning essay he wrote in high school that won the teenager nothing less than the annual Profiles in Courage award bestowed by the JFK Library. Take a million guesses at who the young Pete nominated for his Profile in Courage? Incredibly, he actually profiled Bernie Sanders, and specifically pointing to Sanders’ socialism. It’s stunning to see. Look at what Pete wrote in that essay:
One outstanding and inspiring example of such integrity is the country’s only Independent Congressman, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.
Sanders’ courage is evident in the first word he uses to describe himself: “Socialist”. In a country where Communism is still the dirtiest of ideological dirty words, in a climate where even liberalism is considered radical, and Socialism is immediately and perhaps willfully confused with Communism, a politician dares to call himself a socialist? He does indeed. Here is someone who has “looked into his own soul” and expressed an ideology, the endorsement of which, in today’s political atmosphere, is analogous to a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Even though he has lived through a time in which an admitted socialist could not act in a film, let alone hold a Congressional seat, Sanders is not afraid to be candid about his political persuasion.
After numerous political defeats in his traditionally Republican state, Sanders won the office of mayor of Burlington by ten votes. A successful and popular mayor, he went on to win Vermont’s one Congressional seat in 1990. Since then, he has taken many courageous and politically risky stands on issues facing the nation. He has come under fire from various conservative religious groups because of his support for same-sex marriages. His stance on gun control led to NRA-organized media campaigns against him. Sanders has also shown creativity in organizing drug-shopping trips to Canada for senior citizens to call attention to inflated drug prices in the United States.
While impressive, Sanders’ candor does not itself represent political courage. The nation is teeming with outspoken radicals in one form or another. Most are sooner called crazy than courageous. It is the second half of Sanders’ political role that puts the first half into perspective: he is a powerful force for conciliation and bi-partisanship on Capitol Hill. In Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy wrote that “we should not be too hasty in condemning all compromise as bad morals. For politics and legislation are not matters for inflexible principles or unattainable ideals.” It may seem strange that someone so steadfast in his principles has a reputation as a peacemaker between divided forces in Washington, but this is what makes Sanders truly remarkable. He represents President Kennedy’s ideal of “compromises of issues, not of principles.”
That’s the thinking of an extremely unusual high schooler who obviously was raised with some really radical ideas.
This was the year 2000. Bear in mind that absolutely no one in America was even thinking about Bernie Sanders at this point, apparently with the exception of a young Pete (and no doubt his father). If you had surveyed 300 million Americans in the year 2000 and asked them to choose their person for a Profile in Courage, not a damned one would have named Bernie Sanders. No way. Not one. Except Pete Buttigieg. One wonders if the leftists at the JFK Library awarded Pete strictly on novelty alone. (For the record, John F. Kennedy would roll over in his grave to see that a Profile in Courage award was giving to a young man from St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend, son of a Notre Dame professor, praising a socialist. But then again, JFK long ago rolled over in his grave at the leftward lunge of his family.)
To think that a kid from South Bend would pick the obscure socialist “Independent” from Vermont is unusual. Young people today wouldn’t know this, but the notion that Bernie Sanders in 2000 could one day be a presidential candidate let alone leading the Democrat pack is utterly unthinkable.
That Pete would pick Bernie is just bizarre, and so richly ironic given that the two now top the Democratic field — and that Pete is being portrayed as the Democrats’ vaunted “moderate” alternative to Bernie in 2020.
There’s no question that this, too, shows the household influence of a Marxist father. But the most lasting impact surely came on the cultural front.
Remember that Joseph Buttigieg’s primary interest as a Marxist, like Antonio Gramsci’s, was cultural. And his son Pete is very much a cultural leftist, a cultural radical. If Mayor Pete is the “moderate” in the Democrat bunch, it would be (at best) on perhaps certain matters of national security, foreign policy, economics, government, but it’s most certainly not on cultural issues. He’s an extremist on abortion (see here and here, among others) and, obviously, on the full swath of so-called “LGBTQ” issues. He’s also a radical in his interpretation of Scripture and religion.
Joseph Buttigieg and Antonio Gramsci and the Gramsci Society applied Marxism first and foremost to culture rather than traditionally to class and economics. It would be no surprise at all if Pete, perhaps following his father, was more “moderate” on certain economic and government issues and yet was an extremist on cultural issues. That’s precisely where the Gramsci school has been.
And yet, having said that, this is not to say that Mayor Pete is today a Marxist or a Gramscian Marxist or a cultural Marxist at all. But it is to say that Mayor Pete surely would have been exposed to and influenced by those ideas through his father. Who wouldn’t?
Much of this reminds me of a young Barack Obama — likewise influenced by Marxists as a young man, from Frank Marshall Davis (an actual member of Communist Party USA) to his far-left mother — who would in his 40s run for the presidency as something fresh and new, not daring to mention those radical roots and how they might have helped shape him. And just like Obama, Pete will be protected from talking about those roots by a loving media, leaving conservatives alone to raise the matter and to be vilified for doing so. (Well, at least they can’t call us racists this time around — but I’m sure “homophobe” will do.)
Like so many people who grew up in Marxist households, Pete could easily today be a non-Marxist but still carry with him certain residual effects of a leftist upbringing. This is true of so many political figures. Look at the last two Democrat presidential nominees: Obama had the radical influences of Davis and his mother; Hillary Clinton was heavily influenced by a left-wing, social-justice youth pastor and also by the teachings of Saul Alinsky, which she studied.
People are products of their environments. That’s common sense. But it’s a common-sense reality that liberals will want to reject and scream about when it helps explain — or exposes — the extremism of people on their side. People like Mayor Pete.
Mayor Pete is a red-diaper baby. There have been thousands if not millions of them in America over the last hundred years. Books have been written about them or by them. I know a bunch of them personally: David Horowitz, my friend Mike Shotwell, the excellent historian of communism Ron Radosh, all of whom have written candidly and at length about their leftist upbringings. Sympathetic voices such as Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro have done books with titles like Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left, profiling dozens of red-diaper babies (Carl Bernstein is one of those profiled in their book), most of which ended up becoming non-Marxists. People ought to be capable of discussing these things rationally and without anger and overheated emotion, including where and how those upbringings influenced people’s later political–ideological views and where they did not.
And that’s where we stand right now with Mayor Pete. A fair question for someone to ask him would be where and how his father’s Gramscian Marxism influenced his political–ideological views and where it didn’t. My guess, however, is that those questions will not get asked of Mayor Pete by a sympathetic liberal media, just as they weren’t ever asked of Obama by a sympathetic liberal media. Instead, that media will lash out at those who dare to ask those questions.
No, this doesn’t mean that Pete is a commie, a closet member of Communist Party USA, or that he, say, served as a presidential elector to the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (as Bernie Sanders did). But it surely helps explain Pete’s obvious cultural radicalism, which no doubt was something he would have first observed under the red-diaper roof of his father.