Gotham Diary:
Fifth-Tier Grifters
August 2018 (V)

28 and 30 August

Tuesday 28th

This Web log is becoming difficult to maintain. It is hard to think, much less to write, with all the background noise of crumbling. And is this noise a sound effect, an illusion projected by our growing confusion? Or is the world really falling apart?

Somehow, I manage. But I’m having an unusually hard time today, trying to assess the damage done, or at least intended, by Archbishop Viganò’s demand that Pope Francis resign. Such a demand has not, I think, been made since the Middle Ages, when complaints were made by armed forces, not open letters. It is the archbishop’s position that the pope protected the recently defrocked cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, and, behind McCarrick, a network of homosexual clergymen in the United States. The letter (which I haven’t read) doesn’t connect this network with the rash of pedophile abuses that have once again surged to the fore in the news cycle, thanks to a grand jury report in Pennsylvania. That’s an important point, one that I daresay many will miss. I have no doubt the archbishop hopes they will. In the prevailing confusion, many may take the archbishop to be accusing the pope of protecting pedophiles.

In parallel to the secular civil-rights struggle that has been irritating the American body politic since the Sixties, a fight for the spirit of American Catholicism has been raging for just as long. The contenders in both conflicts have had much the same objectives: conservatives who defend the status quo on one side, campaigners for the social justice of ending all kinds of outsider status on the other. Notwithstanding all the political rhetoric, this is nothing less than a battle for the nature of God. Is God righteous, or is he merciful? Does he love his creation, or does it disgust him? Did he endow man with a brain so that man can think for himself, or is the whole purpose of intelligence to praise what God has done? Doctrinally, the conservatives are on firmer ground; it is difficult, I think, to find support for inclusive social justice in the writings of Scripture, which bristle with anathemas. The question is whether the old doctrines still have much support.

The Church purports to be unchanging, but of course it cannot be in a world that changes constantly. Catholic authorities have developed a knack not so much for adapting to new circumstances as for retouching aspects of the past to make them look more like the present. This requires a good deal of cleverness, but in the end it is the sheer limits of common memory that do the work. Nobody today can remember a religious climate in which people could be condemned to death for their views on the Trinity. When confronted with such horrors, contemporary believers blame the long-dead authorities, not the Church itself.

Enlightened opinion from 1750 on regarded the Church as moribund, unlikely to survive the century. And, in a way, enlightened opinion was right. The Church did not disappear in the Age of Revolutions, but it underwent a metamorphosis — or rather, the opposite of a metamorphosis, for the outward Church appeared unchanged. The abstract doctrines that had dominated scholastic debate even after the onset of the Renaissance were shelved; the Church now stood ready to protect traditional ways of life, which of course presupposed membership in the Church, but also placed a new emphasis on the conformity of lay behavior to age-old norms. This has degenerated into a defense of “family life” against claims of sexual autonomy. The real issue is the superiority of celibate males.

Over the centuries, the purely practical reasons for taking a vow of celibacy have dwindled, at least in the West. It is hard not to sound cynical about this, when all I mean to do is sound humane. Why should a healthy heterosexual man renounce sexual pleasure and intimate companionship? I am not talking about monks here, retiring into bastions of piety. I’m talking about secular priests, living among and ministering to the laity. In any case, vocations have fallen, and American diocese are staffing parishes with priests from poorer countries. One must wonder where this trend will end.

For a time, it now appears, an increasingly significant practical reason for joining the priesthood was its accommodation of homosexual life. It is important here to distinguish pedophilia from any variety of adult sexuality: pedophilia is an erotic perversion that finds pleasure in commanding the powerless. To Archbishop Viganò, I suppose, the differences between pedophilia and homosexuality, considered as perversions, are not very interesting. As I say, it is hard to doubt that the timing of his letter is opportunistic. But the recruitment of gay men to the priesthood, on a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” basis, was an early response to the drop in the number of seminarians. Unlike the Protestant denominations, whose ministers are free to marry, the Church has never been able to afford a rigorously inquisitive approach to its priests’ private lives. Archbishop Viganò and other conservative leaders want to change that. They want it so badly that they are prepared to force the resignation of a pope who seems to have grown up not very uncomfortable, given the press of other, more spiritual concerns, with the tacit tolerance of sexual deviance.

What kind of God, indeed.


Thursday 30th

A few minutes ago, I finished reading Ian Parker’s piece about Glenn Greenwald in The New Yorker. It filled me with a sensation that I can only call “the narcissism of small differences,” but that’s not right, because it not a feeling of antagonism toward Greenwald, whom I have always vaguely regarded, from the distance of someone who avoids all forms of media strife, as a troublemaker. It was, rather, an inquisition into why I, surprised to find that I share Greenwald’s conviction that American institutions were in very bad shape long before Donald Trump came along, and also, but not with the same intensity, his belief that anti-Trump “resistance” is little more than a campaign to restore the status quo ante (the only explanation of the resistors’ embrace of the FBI and the CIA), why I don’t share his outrage.

Aside from differences in temperament — I am not a debater, which according to Parker Greenwald very much is; and I find that hostility is always an expense that exceeds its value — I conclude what damps the sparks that might ignite an angry outburst is my pessimism about the prospects of a democracy in a population that is too addicted to excitement to pay attention to what is actually happening. More and more, I regard Trump as a sort of Biblical plague, unloosed by a Jehovah indignant at his chosen people’s violation of the covenant.

This covenant incorporates what have come to be called The Federalist Papers, a series of epistolary essays designed to explain to the literate voters of the United States, from every angle, the nature of the constitutional democracy that the Federalists proposed — and the harm caused by human weakness that it was designed to mitigate. James Madison and his colleagues would have been horrified by the pride with which later generations would praise the Constitution as “a machine that would go of itself.” The Constitution was no machine, but only a guide, and a guide only as valuable as the quality of attention paid to it.

I often blame television for the low standard of public life, but I have come to see that doing so is no different from blaming the current president for long-standing evils. Television is simply the latest in the series of intellectually undemanding solutions that Americans have preferred ever since the Revolution, when impatience with the British government’s hostility to the colonies’ westward expansion fueled popular support for an élitist undertaking. The Founders’ tragedy is that Americans overall were always unworthy of their noble experiment. Once the Founders’ aura wore off — long before two of them, Jefferson and Adams, both contrived to die on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of independence — Americans rolled up their sleeves and greedily exploited the cornucopia of resources that was theirs for the taking. Andrew Carnegie would write a tract called “The Gospel of Wealth,” but he might better have said “of Taking.” Taking was justified by the takers’ knack for making something out of their loot, whether it be railroads, washing machines, or profits to be invested in new kinds of production, but during the 1970s an even better solution was hit upon (heavy irony intended) when the money men figured out how to put wealth to use in the production of more wealth. This, I predict, will be the last apple on the tree, after which we shall all be expelled from the dream of Easy Living that Americans have always hoped for, after which it will be necessary to think much more seriously about work.

Which is not to say that we’ll have to work harder. We’ll just have to pay more attention to what we’re working on — to what we’re doing. We’ll have a lot less time for idle watching.

I agree with Glenn Greenwald that, since the Second World War, the United States has inflicted more harm and death on the world than any other outside force. It is difficult to read the history of recent times without reaching this conclusion. (My phrasing is designed to except domestically-induced famines, in China and elsewhere.) What gives this awfulness its peculiarly American flavor is the fact that most Americans are genuinely unaware of the nation’s record abroad. For too many Americans, the kinds of “abroad” that are not represented at Disney World simply don’t exist.

Some Americans are very attentive — they’re paid to be. Recent books such as We the Corporations and Tailspin illustrate the cleverness with which lawyers and politicians hired by organized money have misled and bamboozled Americans who can’t be bothered to tune into anything but scandal and catastrophe. Paying attention does not usually involve the thrilling detective work of a Sherlock Holmes. It is often quite boring, and it requires a long memory. Engineers — notorious for dullness — pay scrupulous attention to the facts of the physical world. That’s simplicity itself, compared to the complicated sympathies that the citizen of a democracy composed of diverse human beings must exercise.

The pity of it is that Americans have so enthusiastically and even successfully pursued every other kind of virtue.

Bon week-end à tous!