Archive for September, 2018

Vacation Note:
Autumn Break
Fall 2018

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

It hardly needs saying that, although I’m going to take a break from posting here, I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to concentrate on the second round of the writing project, which is already proving to be much more difficult than the first. “That’s as it should be” sounds glib; “That’s how it had to be” is more like it. The first round produced a very readable piece of journalism, not without interest but no more demanding or memorable than a magazine article read to pass the time. You can imagine that it took awhile for this realization to stop stinging. As a memoir, it was somewhat uncertain, and I eventually learned from it that I did not want to write a memoir. And then what happened got in the way of explaining why I think the things I do.

But here’s something that happened. I don’t remember why I remembered it out of the blue the other day, but it has kept me laughing ever since.

I was somewhere between ten and twelve, I think. My friend Joey’s piano teacher had an annual recital for her pupils at a place in the City. This turned out to be what we now call Weill Recital Hall. Joey played his piece, and then we fooled around. We ran up and down the corridors, and when we got tired of that we started opening doors. There was nothing interesting behind any of these doors until we got to the last one. When we opened it, a blast of sound such as we had never heard in our lives, coming from somewhere far away down in a hole, threatened both to knock us flat where we stood and to suck us into the abyss. Of course we figured out that this was Carnegie Hall, in the middle of a concert, with a packed audience, and that we shouldn’t be there, but our bodies were so shocked by the sensation that we couldn’t move. We just stood there, transfixed, momentarily unworried about getting in trouble. If you’ve ever had a seat in the upper balconies of Carnegie Hall, you won’t have any trouble imagining our sudden vertigo. But the sound was just as disconcerting. We had opened the door on the climax of some grandiose romantic symphony, and although it was unbelievably loud, it was totally clear and not at all deafening. The audience, perfectly still and silent, may have thought it celestial, but when I remember it I think of opening the lid on Dante’s Inferno. After all, we had transgressed, and would go on transgressing until we closed that door!

The second time I saw Carnegie Hall, I was just a few years older, but already the most callow of adolescents. This time, I was a member of the audience myself, and I was sitting not in the balconies but in the front row of a center box. I can’t recall for certain — this is why I’m no good at memoir — but I expect I was too busy imagining myself as a royal personage to be reminded of my first encounter.

I’m not setting a date for return. Thanks for reading!

Gotham Diary:
Cool Jerks
September 2018 (III)

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

18 and 19 September

Tuesday 18th

Thanks to the republication of Iris Origo’s brief war diaries, I felt compelled to read up, for the first time, on Benito Mussolini, the Fascist forerunner and later junior partner of Adolf Hitler. Mussolini’s dark star has dimmed in recent times, largely, I think, because the Holocaust, the details of which were unknown to all but a few until after the end of the Second World War, is now the first and often the only horror that people associate with Hitler’s régime. Mussolini’s contribution to the Holocaust was half-hearted at most.

Deciding to begin conventionally, with a biography, I chose Jasper Ridley’s, because I’ve read his biography of Elizabeth I twice. Mussolini is a brisk double portrait, Ripley’s thesis being that, for several decades, Mussolini managed to ride two horses at the same time. We are familiar with what he looked like atop one of these horses: the bombastic thug. Since Ridley claims that, as an orator, Mussolini was unusually concise, I expect that the impression of bombasm owes to his ranting in Italian. But we still know him primarily from newsreels and other publicity sources. Atop the other horse, dressed in a morning suit, he was a charming man of the world, by all accounts, albeit one who showed his claws. The biggest surprise — because I’ve never heard this before — is that Mussolini was fluent in German and French, and fully apprised of political events around the world. His former compadre from early socialist days, Angelica Balabanoff, claimed that he lacked courage — not physical courage, but the moral strength to resist the desires of his supporters. Ridley puts it more nicely: Mussolini knew that his people would obey his orders without hesitation — so long as those orders were the ones that his people wanted to hear. He understood that he could never restrain them from beating people up and burning buildings down.

(I’m quite often reminded, reading about Ripley’s Mussolini, of Massimo Ghini’s performance as the Fascist Pooh-Bah of Florence, Leopardi, in Philip Haas’s Up at the Villa — suave but deadly.)

Mussolini was a man of the people, but he was not a peasant. His father was a blacksmith, and an ardent socialist. His mother was a schoolteacher. He may be said to have risen in the world by the most classical of means: as a rhetor, a public speaker. Unlike the Greeks and the Romans, Mussolini could take advantage of a still fairly recent invention, the mass-produced newspaper. But the arc of his transition from socialism to fascism reveals that he was richly endowed with another modern gift: he was an entertainer. What distinguishes the entertainer from others is not the ability to attract attention but the knack for holding onto it. Entertainers are extraordinarily alert to audience feedback, and capable of adjusting their performances minutely. Mussolini carried it one step further. He dumped an audience that he felt was waning, and took up with one that was growing.

Without belaboring the point, Ridley does observe that Italy came out of World War I almost as embittered as Germany. Its only gains from the Peace of Versailles were territories that Austria had been willing to concede if Italy, its sometime ally, would simply stay out of the war. Italy’s designs on Istria, the Dalmatian coast, and the Dodacanese Islands (to name a few) ran squarely counter to the principle of self-determination that so naively governed the Allies’ deliberations. Britain’s secret offer of Jubaland (today’s Kenya), dangled as an inducement for Italy to enter the war on the Allied side, came to nothing.

Worse, returning veterans were mocked by Socialists for having stupidly participated in a pointless war. Socialists ideologically denounced war as a bourgeois gambit, and soldiers were its dupes. Mussolini, a veteran himself, discovered that soldiers preferred to be treated as heroes, whether or not their sacrifices had achieved anything. From this kernel grew an organization that always had the tacit support of the Italian armed and police forces. It was also an anti-democratic one. The Fascist rank and file would much rather act than vote. They reveled in a political climate that glorified the homeland and in a régime that devoted considerable resources to matching the achievements — primarily in technology and sport — of its hitherto more advanced neighbors. Their achievements, however, were largely confined to more brutish demonstrations of male superiority.

Hailing these demonstrations of Italian vigor and virtue, Mussolini ever more stridently denounced the rot of the Western democracies — and the Western democracies merely frowned in response. What they would have done in other circumstances can only be imagined, but in the particular circumstances of the Twenties and Thirties, Western minds were overwhelmed by a dread of Bolshevism. It is hard for us to appreciate this dread now, partly because we conflate Bolshevism with Communism (a mistake that Bolshevists encouraged), partly because the dread was infused with Victorian nightmares rooted in Gothic novels, and partly because the imagined horrors of Bolshevism have been replaced by the actual horrors of the Holocaust. Suffice it to say that Bolshevism was regarded as an unspeakable evil, in comparison with which Mussolini’s Blackshirts were guilty of nothing worse than aggravated roughhousing. At every turn in Mussolini’s career, he was deemed to be not only preferable to but a bulwark against Bolshevists.

As Mussolini moves into the Thirties, the dictator, whose patterns were already established, recedes slightly in the growing chaos of international disaster, and an unexpected narrative thread gathers strength. From the first burgeonings of Mussolini’s political career, Ridley keeps us informed of the opinions of British observers. This might strike some readers as provincial, as if the author were boosting the importance of his own country’s dealings with Mussolini. But to me, the fractured response of Westminster’s shifting personalities to Italy’s activities in Ethiopia and Spain, and then to Mussolini’s somewhat dodgy interactions with Hitler, show as no other study that I’m familiar with the extent to which the minds of the pre-eminent Western democracy simply fell apart in the run-up to 1939. As the Soviet Union developed the conventional features of a modern nation, industrially at least, and as Italy and Germany did the same, sophisticated Britons began to suspect that they were out of their depth when judging such unforeseen novelties. Many of them had strongly believed that their parliamentary democracy would never flourish in “less advanced” polities, but the calamities of the Thirties proved that they had been only half right. They had had no idea of the malignancy of the tyrannies into which misbegotten parliamentary democracy would mutate.

And I suddenly see (although Ridley has not yet made this point) that Churchill’s great strength in all this mess was not so much his bulldog determination to fight on as his ability to know his own mind. He did not flounder. He admired Mussolini for many years, but when he came to share Angelica Balabanoff’s doubts about Mussolini’s courage, he did not fall back in disillusioned bewilderment. He did what he always did: he changed his mind.

But perhaps I anticipate incorrectly. There will be more to read when I’m done with Ridley’s Mussolini. But Ridley has completely refreshed a sad history by inviting us to ask some new questions. What happens when a powerful culture loses its analytical grip? And what happens when political leaders are in fact professional entertainers?


Wednesday 19th

In recent commentaries, Michelle Goldberg and Jia Tolentino have taken the #MeToo issue around a corner where there happens to be a strong ray of sunlight. What bothers them about the (mostly male) offenders is not what they did but that they don’t seem to understand that they did it to another human being. Both have been provoked by the creeping rehabilitation of such figures as Louis CK, John Hockenberry, and Jian Ghomeshi, all of whom appear to argue that they’ve suffered enough already. They’ve suffered! What about their victims? It seems that these gentlemen don’t have anything to say about their victims, except to mumble, “I’m sorry — can I go now?”

I think Ian Buruma has said it for them. I haven’t read his Slate interview with Isaac Chotiner, but Tolentino quotes a bit of it.

Buruma claimed to support the #MeToo movement as a “necessary corrective.” When Chotiner reminded him that Ghomeshi has been accused of numerous acts of sexual assault, “including punching women in the head,” he responded, “The exact nature of his behavior—how much consent was involved—I have no idea, nor is that really my concern.” What Buruma wanted to explore, he said, was the experience of “being at the top of the world, doing more or less what you like, being a jerk in many ways, and then finding your life ruined and being a public villain and pilloried.”

The phrase “finding your life ruined” is remarkably telling.

No, “being a jerk in many ways” is remarkably telling. I’m pretty sure that most men would agree that each of the members of the #MeToo rogues gallery behaved like a jerk. They might differ as to how much worse than being a jerk each individual might be — but all were jerks. Al Franken’s offense was nothing worse than being a wacky jerk, I daresay most men smiled when they saw the image of him mugging with his hands over the sleeping woman’s breasts — no touching! Now, the opposite of being a jerk is being cool, and cool means never getting caught. The safest and smartest way to avoid getting caught is not to act like a jerk (or worse). But let it not be imagined that the cool guys who will probably never face a #MeToo challenge regard women any differently from the jerks. All it comes down to is this: the difference between a cool guy and a jerk is that the jerk’s timing is off. (It is never the right time to hit anyone, not even when asked.)

I think that women who are waiting for men, especially men in middle age, to awaken to the damage that being a jerk might do to a woman are wasting their time. For bad or worse, older men grew up in a vanished world, and the only thing to do is to wait for them to die off. Sorry! The thing to do is everything possible to make sure that they’re not replaced, that boys and young men growing up understanding that women are not toys. For that’s the problem: it’s not that men don’t empathize with women, or understand the pain caused by their unwanted maneuvers, &c &c, but that they believe that women exist for their pleasure — otherwise, why don’t they please go away? Not all men, but enough. This is why women wear burqas: in some cultures, men grow up believing that a man who does not take advantage of an “immodest” woman is not a man at all. To resist a sexual impulse is not to have it in the first place: the urge establishes its bona fides by overpowering the susceptible victim, who is, of course, a real man.

The respect for women that shielded them from the kind of harassment and abuse that seem so common now may have been very effective, but it wasn’t something that we want to revive, if only because it wasn’t genuine respect at all. It was rooted in the belief that women were special, not human in the way that men were human. Consigned to their special, arguably “superior” sphere, women were surrounded by thickets of restrictions and prohibitions that prevented their leading full lives, especially if they were not drawn to the career of marriage and motherhood. The destruction of those barriers is one of the big stories of the Twentieth Century. But the effective if old-fashioned respect that was destroyed along with them has not been replaced.

There will always be a handful of truly dangerous sexual predators, but I think that most of the inappropriateness (and worse) that has been called out in the #MeToo revival tent is rooted in foolishness and showing off, not pathology. Young men with pocket money and free time naturally challenge each other to pursue dubious achievements, but these need not include treating women as playthings. How to instill an effective if not heartfelt respect for all women in adolescent minds is a practical problem that women and men are going to have to hammer out. Meanwhile, I hope that Michelle Goldberg and Jia Tolentino will stop waiting for a new respect to emerge from spontaneously enlightened men.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fountain of Wisdom
September 2018 (II)

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

11 and 13 September

Tuesday 11

Well, this Tuesday, the weather in New York is on the dismal side, humid, cloud-covered and glum. Nothing like what it was seventeen years ago.

(When was the last time the anniversary fell on the weekday?)


The more obtrusive anniversary is that of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Ten years ago this month, its fall precipitated a financial calamity that was forestalled by quick thinking and bold responses, but at a terrible cost. This cost wasn’t so much the amount of money that it took to restore confidence to the short-term credit market — without which such terrible-to-imagine outcomes as empty supermarket shelves might have ensued — as it was the way in which payment of the price was allocated. “Austerity” was the word heard in Europe, but the people at fault for the disasters were not the ones forced to tighten their belts. Here in the United States, the word was “bail-out.” The intrusion of this maritime term was probably bound to cause confusion. At the time, as I recall, one spoke more often of “pumping money into the system.” And the banks did repay, at least technically, all or most of the money that was pumped into them. But the pressure-drop that both caused and was intensified by Lehman’s implosion affected much more than the banking sector. Nobody rescued the victims of collateral damage; at times, it seemed that only the banks were going to recover. So the public and its journalists settled on an image suggesting that the beneficiaries of official largesse weren’t as deserving as the innocent bystanders who were allowed to go under. From the Tea Party to Trump, the results were pretty much what could be expected of bravura, emergency-room politics.

We’re celebrating the anniversary with almost daily predictions that there is going to be another really big crash sometime soon.

In case you’re bored by money, there’s William T Vollmann’s Carbon Ideologies, which critic Nathaniel Rich has called a “suicide note.” It’s not exactly cheering to consider that worldwide economic failure may be the only thing to prevent Vollmann’s scenario.


Just what prompted me to order a copy of Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), I can’t say for certain. It must have been a review of Amis’s latest collection of critical essays, which apparently has a lot to say about luminous literary figures who happen to be male, and almost nothing about those who don’t. Is it condescension that I find so annoying, or indifference? Year by year, I’m more exasperated by the palpable extent to which many if not most men believe that, when it comes to important things, Women Don’t Count.

But what does this mean? And who am I to suggest not only that Women Count, but that I Know What They Count For, especially if what this statement really means is that I (claim to) Understand Women. I can’t run fast enough away from that implication.

The Rachel Papers is proving quite helpful in sorting this out. It’s the account of a very bright but very callow young man’s pursuit of a nice girl who, while pretty enough, lacks the vulgar attractions that adolescents fetichise. She is also not the brilliant, inaccessible creature that he takes her to be (just as he doesn’t recognize her as the hostess of the party where they meet). She does, however, have a boyfriend, and her detachment from him becomes the hero’s project. I suppose that it’s because he likes her that he dumps her at the end.

One of the troubles with being over-articulate, with having a vocabulary more refined than your emotions, is that every turn in the conversation, every switch of of posture, opens up an estate of verbal avenues with a myriad side-turnings and cul-de-sacs — and there are no signposts but your own sincerity and good taste, and I’ve never had much of either. All I know is that I can go down any one of them and be welcomed as a returning lord. (158)

Remember, before you dismiss Charles Highway (our hero) as hopelessly loathsome, that he is saying this on the verge of his twentieth birthday. Every bright young man (many bright young women, too, although they’re actively discouraged) has a vocabulary more refined than his emotions.

The observation is suffused with ignorance. The young man gets lost, but it doesn’t matter — why not? Because he lives in a world where men do not have to pay attention to anything but personal performance. Charles is obsessed with his; if you take out all the passages that relate either to the foreshadowing of decay that makes adolescence so fearful (the smells, the spots; the dirt, suddenly so noticeable, in all the body’s crannies; the endless grooming), the strategies and mechanics of lovemaking (Charles is keeping a dossier entitled Conquests and Techniques: A Synthesis), the self-appraisal in mirrors, and the stage-managing of future encounters (“Enter without glasses on : put them on a) if don over 50, b) if don wearing glasses”), precious little of The Rachel Papers remains. The appearance of others is not altogether insignificant: aside from the few sharp men from whom pointers might be taken, humanity is grist for the cynic’s mill. But Charles is adamantly uninterested in anyone else’s inner life — perhaps because he’d give anything to escape his own.

Accordingly, the attention that he pays to desirable women is reminiscent of Cole Porter’s very funny but sadly overlooked song, “The Physician.” Random verse:

He murmured “molto bella”
When I sat on his patella,
But he never said he loved me

(And if he had, he’d have been lying.) There are breasts, and the “elusive shadows” lurking above the hems of short skirts; there is hair and skin and overall emotional climate. But the whole woman is more elusive than the shadows. Think, for contrast, of Jane Austen’s extraordinary range of leading men. The two military officers among them bear understandable similarities, but the others have nothing in common by way of personality; her heroines are rather more homogeneous. Austen, whom Amis somewhat grudgingly sort of respects, doesn’t understand this; he has said that her novels are all the same. But how can this be, when the men in them are all so different? The differences, moreover, are registered entirely in carriage and speech. Austen is famous for never having imagined a scene in which men interact without women, but there was no need for her to worry about the secret life of men. She had only to watch them carefully, as thoughtfully as appraisingly. She describes their appearances rather blandly, wisely letting her readers fill in the details, but the whole men appear with absolute distinctiveness. (It is impossible to settle on just how well Mr Knightley and Mr Darcy would get along.)

It’s not enough to charge Charles Highway with the self-important egotism of young men; that would miss his panic, a no less manly characteristic that can be revealed only in novels.


Thursday 13th

As I hope I suggested earlier this week, I do not propose myself as a champion of women. The only thing that women have ever asked from me is recipes.

A corollary of the notion that Women Don’t Count is that What Counts for Women Doesn’t Count. This is really just another way of defining “important things,” such as politics and leadership and business growth and military strategy, as particularly in need of masculine attention. And yet every campaign or operation begins with the establishment of a housekeeping unit — a quartermaster, an HR chief — to enable smooth running. Housekeeping chores are assigned on a spectrum of drudgery, so that the top guy never lifts a finger, while buck privates peel the potatoes. There is nothing sentimental about these units, and there is no intention of producing something like a home. Although absolutely necessary, housekeeping is not “important.”

One begins to suggest that masculine culture regards “necessary” and “important” as antonyms. Necessity pre-empts a lot of opportunities for making decisions; and decisions, as Hannah Arendt proposes in The Human Condition, are the summit of human action. Necessity is drudgery — work for slaves.

But there are problems with decisions in the larger culture. The larger culture is risk-averse. Mistakes that lead to broken bodies are not readily forgiven. Nor is the larger culture willing to endow anyone with the power to make sweeping changes. It is more difficult than ever to be a man. It would be nice to think that this difficulty might finally distract men from their fear of being mistaken for women — the panic that I mentioned the other day.


Women often write about trying to decide whether or not to have children. Quite often, they speak of “having a baby,” which confuses the spectacular achievement of producing and nourishing a living infant with the long-term commitment to caring for children who are rarely adorable. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if they asked themselves whether they were willing to make a home — by which I do not mean some comfy little nest with all the modcons, and television sets in every room. (I wonder if what I do mean is a home altogether without television sets.) Nor do I mean a domestic order that requires anybody’s full-time attention. The domestic order that I have in mind is oriented less towards service and more toward cooperation. Do something about the problem of unpaid housework: pay children handsomely to keep themselves clean and their quarters ship-shape. Maybe with money, maybe with something else. Dr Johnson claimed that no boy ever learned Latin without having it flogged into him, which unfortunately became a good reason for giving up Latin. (It was one of Mark Zuckerberg’s favorite subjects, though, and he wasn’t flogged.) Now that punishment has come to be widely regarded as an inhumane and unacceptable inducement to good behavior, the demands that parents make on children have dwindled to a handful of minimal daily requirements, largely centered on “doing well in school.” Whatever that means, it doesn’t involve being part of a family, or contributing to the health of a home.

A home is a place where people know each other well, and want to know each other better. A home that children can’t wait to escape is broken, whether or not the parents remain together. (Indeed, I can think of a couple of happy marriages that were so fulfilling to the spouses that there was nothing for their children to do except endure childhood. Roz Chast illustrates one in her memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?) At the same time, a home without children can still be a home.

Children, as we know, take care of themselves somehow or other. They deal with necessity as best they can. For good parents, providing children with the necessities is only the first step. Every other step requires the thoughtful attentiveness to people as they are that we call wisdom.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Where the Action Is
September 2018 (I)

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

4 and 7 September

Tuesday 4

In his new memoir, Every Day Is Extra, John Kerry apparently regrets not having been more aggressive about refuting the “Swift Boat” attacks that were made during his presidential campaign in 2004. I never paid much attention to them; they were obviously beneath notice. But then I wasn’t the candidate. Maybe, when you’re running for office, you have to deal with every clump of mud that’s thrown at you.

Pope Francis is not running for anything, so John Kerry’s advice does not apply. But his determination to ignore the reactionaries who are now his open opponents in the Church is certainly the most exciting thing going. Will he be able to pull it off? If his silence succeeds, it may transform journalism and create a new model of institutional authority. I will try to explain that transformation is a later entry. Right now, I want to take stock of the present moment.

With respect to Archbishop Viganò and his American collaborators, Francis has urged journalists to do their thing, and investigate the contentions, which are two in number. First, there is the nature of sanctions, if any, allegedly imposed on former Cardinal McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI, and allegedly lifted by his successor. The twaddle about homosexual networks within the American clergy will to some extent be clarified by this investigation, insofar as any connection can be demonstrated between such conspiracies (if they exist) and the cancer of pedophilia that has undermined the health of the American Church.

The other matter is Kim Davis. Who said what to whom about her brief interview with the Pope on his Washington visit in 2015? Good luck with that one. The Times suggests that the Pope has muzzled those in the Vatican who could shed some light on the subject. I disagree. I think that the Pope is trying to keep the issue’s Rashomon potential to a minimum. Kim Davis was the most ephemeral sort of celebrity, and the only word for any Vatican attempt to assess her true value would necessarily be “slapstick.” It could not have been otherwise.

It becomes more clear every day that those calling for Francis’s resignation are reactionaries, and not conservatives, for the simple reason that they want to undo a revolution that has already taken place. It is also clear that Francis hopes to temporize for as long as possible, making pleasant but rather insubstantial gestures of reconciliation to those who have fallen away from Christ’s Body on Earth because of sexual and marital complications. Significant numbers of  Catholics in Western countries have rejected, in their own lives, the validity of the Augustinian settlement, which allowed sex — yay! — but only in the marriages of men and women. These largely quiet revolutionaries do not believe that all other expressions of sexuality are depraved. They also disagree that women are inherently inferior to men. (It goes without saying that this revolution, as well as the inevitable counter-revolution, is hardly confined to Catholics!)

At the moment, we are watching what I hope are last-ditch efforts, by men and women who either don’t want to lose unearned privileges or don’t want to assume personal responsibility for familiar arrangements, to thwart this revolution. The Pope is doing his part, to thwart the thwarting, by saying nothing. Augustine’s teaching has informed Church dogma for a very long time, and there is no conceivable Rose Roseannadanna to sigh, “Well, never mind.” Nor has the revolution touched recently-converted non-Western congregations, many and possibly most of whom are engaged in open and unseemly competition with unreformed Muslims for adherents. Rome won’t be rebuilt in a day. As I see it, the Pope’s job, any pope’s job, is to play for time.

Being the Pope, Francis cannot say different things to different people. He can, and ought to, punish subordinates who press for premature resolution. I hope that he will gain the institutional strength — he doesn’t have it now — to deter the complicity of American prelates with their Evangelical pals in the pursuit of a reactionary social agenda. But to the faithful at large he must remain genial and non-committal. He can only pray to be followed on St Peter’s throne by a like-minded man.  Some day, that throne may be occupied by a like-minded woman, but not anytime soon. For the time being, what the sexual revolution needs most is the peace and quiet of deep shade. What the Church needs most is for Francis to go on smiling, and with a closed mouth.


Friday 7th

To continue with the thread that I left dangling on Tuesday: the Pope’s decision to give Archbishop Viganò’s malicious and opportunistic allegations the Silent Treatment, so far as the press is concerned, may prove beneficial in two ways. First, the press will have to clarify those allegations itself as it investigates the story pursuant to the Pope’s invitation, and the exercise may sharpen its scruples about succumbing to the excitement of a saucy news story and giving gravitas to an irrelevant bombshell. Second, that invitation may reweave the ancient relationship between authority and secrecy.

Taking up the second possibility first, it has become fairly clear during Francis’s incumbency that, while he is no fan of murky, same-old same-old ways of doing things, he is not a puritan reformer, zealously committed to bringing the Church’s irregularities to light, whatever they may. He wants to do the best possible job going forward, but he understands that the Church’s age alone contributes to the proliferation of shady corners and dodgy deals, many of them innocent even if inadvisable. There is little reason to believe that the Vatican mind, which has been reproducing itself from generation to generation for well over a thousand years, has taken note of the fact that the Church’s territorial assets have shrunk quite drastically in relatively recent times. While every secretary and bureaucrat in the Holy City is surely aware that Bologna is now part of the Republic of Italy, and no longer the Holy See’s auxiliary capital in the north, it is probable that not every longstanding habit of thought has been edited in accordance.

Rather than mount a crusade against the procedural irregularities that have threatened to hurl the Vatican into the abysses of insolvency and moral corruption, counting on the good guys in the Church to wipe out the bad guys and risking cosmetic changes that leave the bad guys sitting pretty, Francis seems to be challenging disinterested journalists to do the job for him. The two scandals that I mention come together in the person of George Cardinal Pell, the Australian prelate whom Francis asked to help organize the Church’s finances but who was soon embroiled in pedophile scandals back home.

Pell’s Wikipedia page states that Francis “allowed” Pell to return to Australia to defend himself, but I should say rather that the Pope declined to protect him. The modern function of the press with respect to criminal matters is to force prosecutors to consider bringing charges in pursuit of a definitive judgment; it is a function of the modern world that prosecutors don’t work for the Church. If Francis’s treatment of the Pell case becomes truly exemplary, then the last sinews of the doctrine of “benefit of clergy” will have been severely abraded, and the Church might finally abandon its medieval claim to the right to discipline its members in purely secular matters — such as sexual abuse. That will be a far more effective method of cleaning out the stables than promising to reveal all of the Vatican’s secrets in an orgy of transparency. All Francis has to do is stand out of the way, and he seems to be pretty good at that, even if it hasn’t won him many admirers. He prefers to exert his authority where it is needed, as for example in condemning capital punishment tout court.


We can only hope that the Pope’s conduct so far has induced a round of soul-searching among journalists who succumbed to the thrill of reporting Archbishop Viganò’s bold claims without registering that they had been timed with the Pope’s journey of reconciliation of Ireland in mind, and thereby encouraged the public to confuse two utterly unrelated issues. The Archbishop obviously intended to create a connection between the “homosexual network” of American priests (the actual subject of his outburst) with clerical pederasty without making it explicitly himself. He could rely on the “coincidence” of the Pope’s Irish pilgrimage — and the avidity of journalists for stories of outrage and catastrophe.

A Times story over the weekend, written by Laurie Goodstein and Jason Horowitz, asserted in different parts of their report that, as of July, former Cardinal McCarrick “is appealing” the judgment that demoted him to mere archbishop status, and yet that “in June” (the previous month), Pope Francis effectively defrocked him (“decreed that the cardinal could no longer work or minister as a priest in public”). In another story, McCarrick was reported to have “accepted” the latter judgment. What, then, is the status of his appeal? This is nitpicking, of course, but making sense of the Vatican requires an advanced degree in nitpicking.


About the anonymous Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s Times, which I found its presence in the paper deeply demoralizing, I will only say that I agree with Masha Gessen — expecially that the piece wasn’t really newsworthy. I mention only because by the end of the day, I’d had a brainwave.

The news, apparently — it’s in Bob Woodward’s book, too, which is why the Times ought to have let Dwight Garner’s review, in the day’s Arts Section, make the point — is that the President’s assistants are manipulating his agenda by nipping documents from his Oval Office desk before he can sign them and make them official. (Even Gessen admits that this may be good for the nation in the short run.) I expect that the President will go through the motions of indignation. But I don’t think he really cares. He regards working at his desk as one of the most boring parts of his job as the star of the reality show that he has hijacked a near-majority of American brains into letting him produce at no personal cost. He prefers running things from his bedroom, where he watches TV news, writes his Tweets, provides remote, phoned-in interviews, and talks to his cronies, men who wouldn’t be caught dead in the West Wing — not, at least, tasked with any responsibilities. His bedroom is where the action is. He has no reason to doubt that, soon enough, this outrageous story will die down, like all the others, to make room for new episodes.

I also agree, this time with Mark Leibovich, that the Donald ran for president because the NFL owners wouldn’t let him into their club. (Maybe for the good reason that he can’t really afford it.)

Bon week-end à tous!