Monday, April 26, 2010

He's not like me.

There is little doubt that among those tea party activists are individuals
who simply hate Barack Obama — for some blatant racial hatred.  But to focus on race is to totally miss
the point.  What we should consider
are the telling findings of the recent CBS-NY Times
.  In sum, the “teas” skew
white, male, older, and (surprisingly) well off.  The real, and profound, message of their gathering is not so
much opposition to any specific program but in reflecting a much larger unease about
having a leader who is “not like me”. 
That transcends race.  As
Arizona’s draconian response to immigration suggests, it is more a fundamental
fear that “others” are taking over “our” land.  And fear is the operative word.  Of course, such fears and reactions are not necessarily new.  We have seen them play out throughout our
history with every wave of immigration and every advance in government or
business of individuals from the heretofore powerless.  The difference is that, while earlier
fears of takeover were more imagined than real, demographics alone suggest the
long hegemony of people perceived of as “just like me” — as defined by our idealized American  myth — actually is coming to an end.

There is of course an irony in all of this.  In one way or another the vast majority of Americans have
been or still are “not like me”.  That
African Americans, Hispanics, Jews and Muslims to name a few fall into this
category is obvious.  But so do
women who, even at this late date, are still clawing their way into leadership
roles in a “man’s world”.  John F.
Kennedy engendered the same kind of hate as does Obama, in his case an Irish
Roman Catholic with the temerity to assume the ultimate and WASP
entitled office.  When embarking on that
fateful trip to Dallas, hate was in the air.  This is not to suggest in any way that our current President
is destined to meet a similar end, but the ingredients are present, and that
alone is more than disconcerting.

What it does suggest is that fear, especially fear of losing one’s
assumed way of life or the “proper” order of things is dangerous because what
it can produce is so unpredictable. 
It was the fear of losing the slave-based life that drove secession and
ultimately a civil war that cost twice as many American lives than did World
War II.  So we should be taking the
tea party seriously not for what it is, but for what deep-seated angst it
represents.  History suggests that
fear-based movements can’t last, that reality has a way of calming people down
or gaining acceptance (however grudgingly), but a lot of damage can be done in
the interim.  The current
environment is particularly explosive because the very theme that brought Obama
to office — change — is emblematically threatening.

Change that’s what we want, until of course we realize that means
CHANGE.  Polls have told us for
years that Americans hate Congress, but when it comes down to it they are
loathe to throw out their own incumbent Congressperson.  Great, we’ve elected a president who
doesn’t fit the longstanding pattern, who doesn’t look like us (or at least the
us I’m talking about).  Progress,
wow.  But did you realize our
president is not like me.  That’s a
problem if you’re “white, male, older, and relatively well off”, the very
people who have become our problem. 
This is 2010 and not 1992 — it’s so much more than the economy stupid.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It's our business too.

While still the most unfinished business, much ink has been spilled
over the past twenty-five years trying to make sense of the Roman Church’s
horrendous predator priest scandal. 
The Pope certainly is having what Queen Elizabeth famously described as
an annus horribilis.  Beyond a lot of first rate
investigative reporting — that gossip of
the moment
— we have seen moving and poignant columns by lay Catholic
columnists, a combination of both rage and deep sadness.  Maureen
has taken the Church to task in a recent series of powerful pieces, as
she has often over the years.  Her
colleague Ross Douthat, suggesting that Benedict in fact may be the better pope
tries to put some perspective on his verses predecessor John Paul’s response
(or lack of it).  It’s impossible
to improve on what they have written, much less have their special in family authority in doing so.

It is shocking that this story has gone on for such a long time — a
quarter of a century is an eternity in our fast paced short news cycle
era.  Reading current news from
Germany, including the thousands of calls coming in daily to its recently
established abuse hotline, gives one a definite sense of déjà vu.  Much talk, shamefully modest progress.  One has to think that another
generation of unsuspecting youngsters are in present and clear danger from
still unexposed or still free floating serial predators.  Interestingly, it is a problem not
decades old but with deep roots as documented
in some detail by a relentless priest, Rev. Thomas Doyle, whose career has paid
the usual whistle blower price. 

All this trouble is generally attributed to Church hierarchy and a
bunch of bad apples rather than to the majority of individual priests and
parishioners whom the writer (and Catholic) Anna Quindlan characterized in a
recent interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm as “good people doing good things”.   That is undoubtedly the case, but
in our politically correct effort of avoiding making this an anti-Catholic
thing, we shouldn’t simply give them a pass.  Pope Benedict attributes his membership in the Hitler Youth to
a situation beyond his control as a subject of the Nazi regime.  I have no reason don’t doubt him.  But I also know well that Hitler
survived in part because of citizen acquiescence, excused often as “only
following orders” or “we didn’t know”.  The Roman Church is an authoritarian institution led by an infallible monarch.  The Pope and his surrogates down the
line rule in the “name of God” and with that claimed credential take on special
authority.  So it would seem the
faithful have chosen to avert their eyes and carry on business as usual.  They see themselves as good people
doing good things and justify their silence by not wanting anything to get in
the way of that.  A billion people
verses a top-heavy handful of leaders. 
You be the judge.

Of course large numbers of Catholics have protested with their
feet.  According to Pew’s 2008
Religious Landscape Survey
one third of those who were born Catholic in
the United States have left the church. 
On April 25, 2005, the day Benedict XVI was elected — the abuse scandal
already in its twentieth year — the New
York Times
ran a front-page story entitled Europeans Fast Falling Away From Church.  As Elaine Sciolino reported then,
“Among Catholics, only 10 percent in the Netherlands, 12 percent in France, 15
percent in Germany and Austria, 18 percent in Spain and 25 percent in Italy
attend Mass weekly.”  That’s right,
in Benedict’s homeland, now the focus of attention, 85% of Catholics rarely, if
ever, set foot in their churches and even in Italy where he blesses throngs
gathered in St. Peter’s Square 75% of local Catholics are Sunday no-shows.  So, if you want to understand the
larger story of why the Roman Church hierarchy has been going ballistic about
renewed bad press coverage, I’d suggest you might want to look beyond the
scandal of predatory priests to those statistics.  The
Church is under siege in the developed world.  Were it not for the large influx of Hispanic immigrants, it
would actually be showing a loss of market share (for the first time) in the
already shrinking American religious landscape. 

One could legitimately say that as non-Catholics we have no business
treading in these waters, much less judging the Church or its leaders.  Perhaps that’s so, but let’s remember
abusing priests have broken our civil law, committing what our larger society views
the most heinous of crimes.  The
Church hierarchy, in taking the law into its own hands might well be accused of
vigilantism, something we generally deplore, and which again is illegal.  Their cover-up certainly constitutes
obstruction of justice, a serious violation of civil code, especially in
criminal cases.  But in the end the
real damage — the one about which we probably should care most — is to our
general faith in institutions. 
Here all people and groups, religious or not, are affected.

Societies are dependent on their institutions — their organized we.  Institutions facilitate functioning effectively and
furthering our collective agendas.  
When we lose our trust in institutions both they, and logically we, are
imperiled.  It is now well known
and often repeated that we Americans hold our principal governmental institutions
in low esteem and by larger margins each year.  Think Tea Party. 
What may be less so is that, according to the 2008 General
Social Survey
, high confidence in organized religion has fallen to a paltry
20% — only marginally better than our discredited banks.  That is an important number to the obviously
worried Vatican, but is no less so to any of us.  To say that the Pope's annus
is wholly to blame for undermining our institutions would be
ridiculous; to say what’s been going these past decades plays no role would be
naïve.  And it’s not merely what
the Church has or has not done, it is also the misguided respectful silence of
many of its own and of the larger religious community, which, aside from woeful head-shaking, has remained mostly silent and continues to be.  None of our business you might say.  Wrong!