A Work in Progress' Remembers

Book cover
Dreadful Conversionsby By John C. CortFordham Univ. Press. 352p $29.95

What makes a life story worth retelling beyond the sympathetic confines of family and friends? Is it who we are, who we know, what we stand for or where we have been? Or perhaps all of the above? John Cort’s recently published memoir encompasses all of the above, but he chooses to organize his life story around two dreadful conversions, first to Catholicism and then, many years later, to socialism. A good part of his book is devoted to proving that these two isms are not incompatible. Indeed he demonstrates that a belief in socialism can and even should grow organically from a commitment to Christianity.

Cort’s life has been identified with several of the great social movements of the 20th centuryabove all, the labor and civil rights movements. His journey has also taken him onto the terrain of the Peace Corps, the war on poverty, the Model Cities program and the Boston busing crisis of the 1970’s. Some of the causes he has espoused are very much out of favor with those who run the government and the media (and much else) in the United States today. But Cort is not inclined to trim his sails to accommodate the prevailing winds. On the contrary, drawing on the Catholic tradition, he reminds his readers that superfluous wealth belongs to the poor. This is not a question of charity, he writes; it is a question of justice.

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How did someone who was educated at Taft and Harvard come to hold such beliefs? It becomes evident from his memoir that Cort has been a work in progress for a very long time. He grew up in middle-class comfort in the town of Woodmere, on Long Island. The Cort family attended the Episcopal church, and at age 10 John was sent to New York City to attend the Choir School of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This was followed by a full scholarship to Taft, a prep school for rich boys, where, in spite of his enthusiastic participation in sports and every conceivable extracurricular activity, his love of classical music made him appear strange. Already he was on his way to becoming a rebel, but at this point his idea of rebellion was choosing Harvard over Yale, where most of Taft’s high achievers matriculated.

All my friends and family were Protestants, Jews, and atheists, Cort recalls. But at Harvard his search for meaning and his quest for something more satisfying than cafeteria Episcopalianism led him to embrace the Catholic Church. Then an encounter with the legendary Dorothy Day led him to the Catholic Worker movement and a life of voluntary poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Looking back on the rich tapestry of his experience, Cort believes that Day inspired, motivated, and changed my life more than any other human being, simply by the force of her response to Christ’s appeal for the works of justice and mercy.

She also helped lead him to the labor movement, where in 1937 he became a founding member of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. Cort describes ACTU as an organization that was going to take on the capitalists, the Marxists, and the racketeers and make the world safe for Catholic social theory, all at once and immediately. If this was its mission, one must judge it at least a partial failure, except in its confrontation with the Marxists. After World War II, ACTU played an important role in the expulsion of Communist-led unions from the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In the long view of history (or, at least, of labor historians), ACTU has received little credit for this achievement. Instead it has often been vilified as part of the C.I.O.’s right wing. Even the Rev. Charles Owen Rice, the Pittsburgh-based priest who was one of Cort’s staunchest allies in that struggle, has repented of what he calls all that negative crap, and has lamented the fact that too many thieves and charlatans replaced the Commies.

But Cort remains unrepentant. Indeed, a good part of Dreadful Conversions is devoted to defending the role of ACTU in the C.I.O. and to answering the often harsh criticisms of labor historians. To this labor historian his effort seems one-dimensional and too often stuck in the rhetoric and reflexive assumptions of the cold war. For a more balanced critique of the Commies and their role in the labor movement, readers might turn to Robert Zieger’s The CIO, 1935-1955, although it is important to acknowledge that in the final analysis Zieger and Cort are allies, not adversaries, on this question.

Cort worked for ACTU for five years and served as a business agent for the Newspaper Guild in Boston for another 12. But his career in the labor movementindeed, his lifewas nearly terminated by recurring battles with tuberculosis. Beginning in the fall of 1938, he recalls, I spent about five and a half of the next twelve years on my back.... I tried five times to make it back to normal life without success. He couldn’t have won this fight without the assistance of fellow ACTU member Helen Haye, who in the midst of all this became Helen Haye Cort. She helped rescue her husband from the grip of TB; she stood beside him in his campaigns for justice; she bore 10 children in the process. Little wonder that in his estimation she ranks right up there with Dorothy Day.

In 1973 Cort underwent the second of his dreadful conversions, to socialism. He devotes a chapter to this conversion and tries therein to convert the reader to his own common-sense and Christian view of the socialist faith. But his definition of socialism appears to be so elastic that anyone who makes a rhetorical commitment to full employment and a social safety net would qualify as a (witting or unwitting) convert.

Once again, it is not so much Cort’s argument that is compelling; it is his values and his willingness to act on them for a lifetime. Even in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he has refused to despair. Believing that the Bush administration is seeking to impose a Pax Americana of military might and economic domination, he argues that there will likely be no peace, no security, no freedom from the fear of terrorism until we have spent a significant amount of our superfluous resources...to bring justice to all...at home and around the world.

What makes a life story worth retelling? Surely there can be no formulaic answer to this question. Ultimately the answer must lie in the eye of the beholder. In the eye of this beholder, Cort’s life story and the values that have sustained him are more important now than ever. I hope that Dreadful Conversions finds the wide readership it deserves.

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