Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Holy disconnect, or is it?

The Vatican announced last week that, with the confirmation of his having performed a miracle, Pope John Paul II would be beatified on May 1 by his immediate successor Benedict XVI.  Many among the Catholic faithful will no doubt rejoice at this posthumous honor for a beloved long serving Pontiff.  John Paul II was a remarkable and charismatic figure.  Unlike Benedict, his rise to the Papacy was largely unexpected and his demeanor, in contrast with other Popes, unusual.  In part that reflected his activist past in Communist Poland, but also his personal history, which included athletic accomplishment and some acting. Then there was his relative youth. Karol Wojtyla, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years was only 58 (the second youngest) when he began his reign in 1979.  Making use of it all, John Paul became the undisputed religious super star of his time.

Beatification and the declaration of sainthood that can follow is an internal religious matter for the Catholic community.  Nonetheless, the Church commands — indeed demands for itself — attention and deference from all of us.  The Vatican is a State whose sovereign Popes see themselves world leaders.  So much of what the Church does, even with regard to its own ritual, has broader religious and even political implications.  It also invites scrutiny by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

At no time has that been truer than in the decades since California’s Father Donald Roemer pled guilty to sex abuse in 1981.  Revelations of abuse (a civil criminal act) and well-documented hierarchical cover-up across many national borders pervade most of John Paul’s 27-year reign.  As Laurie Goodstein reported in yesterday’s NY Times, a just revealed 1997 letter documents his envoy Archbishop Luciano Storero ordering Irish Church officials to stop reporting abuse allegations to civil authorities.  Doing so, the cleric claimed, ran contrary to cannon law.

So this seemingly rush to beatification by John Paul’s assumed handpicked successor has provoked wide attention.  It raises substantive questions, not the least whether there has been sufficient time and distance to assess his worthiness for the endpoint, sainthood, as the Church defines it.  That’s ultimately for Catholics to determine.  While neither cynical nor a conspiracy theorist, looking from the outside I can’t help but think about Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon.  It’s not a far-fetched déjà vu.  The pardon inoculated Nixon from prosecution and beatification might well serve to inoculate John Paul II from accusations of complicity in Roman Catholicism’s worst scandal in modern times (the subject of previous posts).  The beatified and most certainly saints don’t easily suffer the questions of mere mortals.

But beyond the analogy with Ford and Nixon, what really comes to mind is something closer to home in our own time.  Over the past several years millions of people have been badly hurt by the combined misconduct of both private and public institutions.  Whatever the specifics, all share one thing in common.  People at the bottom — the rank and file — take a big hit; those at the most senior management levels are given a pass and more.  Most corporate leaders keep their jobs and the relatively few who don’t fly away smiling, their parachutes heavily laden with gold.  Failed government leaders pass easily into that revolving door toward interest conflict and wealth.

Watching in disbelief, we wonder why those setting policy and giving the orders are not held accountable for what happens on their watch.  So observing the goings on in Rome, it’s fair to ask much the same question.  This is not to suggest that John Paul II was himself guilty of any crime, religious or secular, but whether he doesn’t bear responsibility for those under is absolute rule.  Again, maybe not our Church, but we are all asked to pay it special deference. That gives us more than enough right to comment.  Moreover, recognized as such or not, laws we share in common have been broken.  The Church, by everything it has said and done (including that recently revealed letter) seems to see itself above our common law —subject only to a higher power.  Perhaps, but in laying such a claim, it has diminished its moral authority, not to mention that of religion as a whole.

The Roman Church is losing many of its followers.  They have become disconnected from its ways and mores — actions do not necessarily match words and prayers.  Other religions are experiencing similar disenchantment and often for the same reason.  Facebook tracks the everyday activities of millions around the world, often down to absurd detail.  It would be revealing to see how many report church attendance — for sure a large number, but probably far fewer than is generally assumed.   But what is the real disconnect?  Turns out churches and religious leaders are in fact far too connected.  They behave like everyone else, bad practices and all.  And they expect us to revere and reward them.  No questions asked, no credible answers given.  That makes no sense.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

I got it wrong.

Those are words we don’t hear very often.  Well I got it very wrong in my most recent blog — not the arena part but the fireside.  Impressed by the staging, I saw Sarah Palin’s chat as moment to be taken seriously, suggesting that we should not underestimate her.  In fact, her chat bombed — big time.  Why that’s so, is worth considering.

Let’s start with the Nixon rule.  It’s not necessarily the crime but the cover-up that counts.  So, it isn’t the event, but how that event reported, not the play but the reviews.  Then there is context — a platform for compare and contrast.  President Obama gave what some are calling his greatest speech.  That may or may not be true (Philadelphia and Boston come to mind), but what I characterized perfect tone and the right message reflects the consensus review, which is what really matters.  On the other hand, the atmospherics that struck me so at Palin’s fireside, turned out to be irrelevant.  The combination of her defense (seen as personal peeve) and those two explosive words, blood libel, became the sole takeaway.  Interviewed on NPR, James Fallows (The Atlantic) compared it to Muskie’s New Hampshire tears, Dean’s Iowa Scream and George Romney’s claim of having been brainwashed.  How the press characterized these moments are said to have doomed three Presidential bids.  He may be right.  Again, I got this one wrong as, for that matter, did I the candidacy of Howard Dean.  I thought he would win the nomination and said so in my blogs. Thankfully I was right about Barack Obama.

The now pretty universal assessment of Palin’s fireside chat may be summed up this way.  Sarah Palin isn’t really a serious political leader; she simply plays one on Facebook.  In a lightening speed environment, and with no substantive evidence yet that her base is defecting, it may be premature to write her political obituary, but for the moment that’s where she seems to stand.  Palin has embraced the Internet as a way of controlling her message, speaking as it were over the heads of the press directly to the people.  It’s a strategy that seems to have backfired.

In admitting that I was wrong, let me give a nod to Kathryn Schulz’ wonderful 2010 book Being Wrong.  It’s one of best I’ve read in a long time and has heightened my awareness of how often we are wrong and perhaps more so how important it is to admit to it.  Wrongness is a powerful teacher, one that can help us on the way to getting it right.  In this case, I was wrong, and I’ll admit very happily so.  I’ll go back to dismissing Palin.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The fireside and the arena.

President Obama set the perfect tone and delivered the right message in that Tucson arena.  Sarah Palin, in attempting to upstage him by uploading her fireside chat hours earlier, stepped on her own message in using ill advised and inflammatory words.   The President’s speech is being compared and contrasted with Clinton’s Oklahoma and Bush’s 9/11.  Aside from all being delivered against a backdrop of national trauma, the degree of that trauma and the times were different.  In a sense, each speech should stand by itself.   That said, all were delivered in the respective President’s first term and each man more than rose to the occasion — both Clinton and Bush were subsequently reelected.

What struck me about the Palin chat had nothing to do with language or even her pushback against the press.  Truth is, the Fourth Estate is an easy target, an institution that has lost much of its standing with Americans across the political spectrum.  So, without discounting their objectivity, some of the assessments I’ve seen reflect a degree, albeit understandable, of defensiveness.  That, together with the outrage over the blood libel language may have obscured the fact that the Palin performance was a distinct break with what, for the most part, we’ve seen in the past.  In watching this carefully constructed presidential-like moment with its reverent reference to Reagan and visual tip-of-the-hat to FDR, it appears that Palin either has new handlers or that they have taken a new turn with her.  The mystery of why it took her days to respond is solved.  They wanted to take the time necessary to properly stage a response with the same kind of right tone sought by Obama.  And stage it they did.  Atmospherics have always played a significant role in our politics.  Seventy or so years later, we still call these fireside chats even though, when delivered by FDR over the radio, the cozy image was mostly one conjured up in the mind of the listener.  In those days listeners saw radio as much as they heard it.

In yesterday’s talk, the usual shrill Palin voice was taken down several octaves and the outfit appropriately sedate.  The flag was obviously enhanced with some shaping device and the fire just perfect, but in all fairness such staging is political commonplace.  The point is that the Palin we saw was not the screamer or the caught in the headlights deer, but someone intent on projecting something new — an insider not an outsider.  Was this the virtual announcement moment?  I don’t know, but it did strike me that those who’ve discounted Palin (I among them) should take a good look at his little talk.  It’s easy to label her an opportunistic entertainer, but if yesterday is any barometer that narrow assessment would be a serious mistake.

What struck me in watching Obama in Tucson was the intrinsic power of the Presidency.  Yes John Boehner is Speaker of the House and the Republicans won big in November, yes Sarah Palin tried to upstage him, but Presidents get the headlines, set the tone and, in challenging times particularly, define the conversation.  They have the last quoted word.  Just as Democrats should not underestimate the former Governor of Alaska, Republicans shouldn’t start thinking about restoring that radiant yellow rug in the Oval Office.  Again, both Clinton and Bush were reelected after their Tucson moments.  It is to the President that we look at times of perceived national crisis and, even if not generally in his corner, we tend to be both grateful and generous in our assessment.  I never liked or trusted George Bush (and with good reason), but his September 2001 speeches were admirable.  If Palin’s fireside might be seen as if nothing else than testing the waters of an altered image, Obama’s arena moment reminded us of what is within him and perhaps provided a hint what we can expect from him in the days ahead.  Again, my message here is that we shouldn’t underestimate Palin, but also that it’s hard to overestimate the power of office, most especially the presidency.

A final thought.  It’s of course a sign of our times that Palin came to us yesterday via Facebook and that her talk went viral via YouTube (from her standpoint, for the wrong reason).  It speaks to both the explosive power of these new twenty-first century media — Facebook 2004, YouTube 2005 — and to a modicum of control they provide to those delivering a message.  No reporters were standing in line shouting questions as Palin walked into her living room or onto a set.  To be sure, that meant forgoing views of her shaking hands with the crowd or embracing the bereaved in real time, but it also shielded her from an important kind of scrutiny.  Her voice is certainly new in that video, her look more mainstream certain, but we still don’t know how she can handle questions from Katie or, despite her projecting a little more scope and substance in prepared remarks these days, whether she remains substantively and intellectually stuck looking out her window at Russia.   Whether the ghost authors of her books and that speech are within her or hired hands for controlled moments remains to be tested.  For now, she seems determined to keep it virtual and safely among friends.  That won’t always be possible.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hey, not my fault.

True to our way, this week’s print, broadcast and digital media are consumed with a single story — the tragedy of Tucson.  Expect that to be the case for a few days longer and then for it to recede, dramatically so if some other big news crowds it out.  Yes, that’s our way.

The President will be on site tomorrow and, again as is our way, he’s being given all kinds of advice about tone and message.  Don’t make it political, don’t point any fingers, and don’t above all tell the nation what it needs to here.  A sincere I feel/share your/our pain will suffice.  Perhaps that’s the right message for what will be a memorial event, but as suggested in my most recent post, we need another Philadelphia speech, and need it soon.

It seems that Tucson (beyond giving the various media the kind of sensational story they love most) is tailor made for columnists and bloggers (myself included).  Some see this as a teaching moment, which it surely might be, but don’t hold your breath.  There is a lot of finger pointing (from people whose political views I largely share) and a lot of well-reasoned argument against extrapolating too much from this singular event (from those whose political views I largely don’t share).  What strikes me about them all is the bottom line consistency of message across the spectrum — horrendous, but not my fault.

Writers to the left of center generally point fingers at the fire in the theater rhetoric and worse of the right.  They rail against any suggestion that the left has played a role in our overheated atmosphere and most especially against the idea of equal excess, much less moral equivalency.  Their counterparts, often employing an assassination history lesson, essentially ask us to consider this a freestanding one off.  The work of a disturbed individual.  Some have documented how the left has also put violent metaphors forward.  Not our fault, any and all of us.

In watching this dancing around, the attributing and denying blame, I could not help but think of the Holocaust and specifically about the wide-spread assumption of guilt taken on by a generation of young Germans, many of whose parents were not even born at the end of World War II.  I also thought about my feeling of personal having wrong doing during the days of slavery, despite having been born only a month after my refugee parents landed in New York many years after.  Obviously, my German Jewish ancestors had no part in what led to the Civil War, a conflict that I nonetheless consider part of my own history.

Now what’s afoot in the land today is not on the same plane as these two historic events, especially not the Holocaust.  But taking blame, saying it’s my fault, is relevant.  What we’re missing today is that no one seems willing to express even the smallest amount of culpability.  What we hear instead are excuses and rationalizations and in some cases outraged self-righteousness.  None of us pulled the trigger in Tucson, and the many of us have never had the most elementary gun, much less a Glock, in our hands.  Nonetheless, whether by shouting in that theater or simply retreating from, for example, gun control — dare I say calling for replacing the Second Amendment — we surely are at fault.

Societies are not composed, as President Obama reminded us the day after November’s vote, of one view, but of a diversity of opinion and way of life.  As I suggested in that earlier post, the onlookers are as important as the doers.  One could not function without the other  — both for their own part are enablers.  Arthur Miller’s Linda Loman famously said, attention must be paid.  I would suggest, blame must be taken.  Tucson was our fault and is our shame.

I’m waiting for some leading liberal voice to take some responsibility and desperate for some major conservative figure to do the same.  I hope that wait won’t be, as Adlai Stevenson put it, until hell freezes over.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

27 there…20 here.

Any consmer of detective stories knows well that multiple blows, stabs or shots indicate a crime of rage and passion.  Twenty-seven bullets scream both.  And that’s exactly what befell Punjab Governor Salman Taseer at the hand of his 26-year-old bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Qadri.  Mr. Qadri, seen to have been acting in God’s name, is being hailed as a hero by many throughout Pakistan.  Mr. Taseer, as noted in a Times Op-ed by his Newsweek reporter son Shehrbano, believed in the secular vision of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, something that runs contrary to what’s become a prevailing view where religious extremists are gaining strength by they day.  Taseer was considered a moderate in immoderate times, a man obviously ignorant of that singular and only truth claimed by religious zealots.

That was how I began drafting this post a few days ago.  It’s a mark of the times that news closer to home has overtaken me and us, though in my view not totally unrelated news.

We don’t yet know for sure what drove Jared Lee Loughner to fire twenty (or so) bullets into Representative Gabrielle Giffords and thirteen other innocent people.  Early reports suggest a disturbed young man.  Perhaps so, but those multiple bullets, much like the ones coming from Mr. Qadri’s gun, express rage.  It’s a kind of nurtured social rage that has, like the spreading extremism in Pakistan and elsewhere, become pervasive across America.  As Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik put it, …the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.  And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital.  We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.  Sadly, Dupnik claims too much for his state — would that it were the sole mecca.

The shooting of Ms. Giffords and the others plays into a narrative that transcends her or any other Congressional district.  To be sure, Arizona with its now notorious immigration law is fertile ground for rhetoric taken to the next and fatal step.  But this is hardly the first time public figures or simply those doing what they thought right were victims of an assassin’s bullet.  We have the distinction of losing more heads of state and high profile candidates to the gun than most countries.   In light of that violence, what’s remarkable and truly unnerving is that protecting the Second Amendment is not merely the number one issue for many Americans but that the current Supreme Court has vastly broadened not constrained the right to bear arms.  Ironically, Representative Giffords has been one of its vocal supporters.  Forget the rightist slogans about people; guns do kill — Presidents, Judges, Obstetricians, Rock Stars and, yes, innocent 9 year olds.

As to people, let’s consider what I earlier called nurtured rage.  To be sure many of the killings we’ve seen were the work of unbalanced people whose own demons drove them more than any substantive ideology – Mark Chapman for example.  But even the clinically disturbed don’t live in a vacuum and the atmosphere of the United States in 2011 is heavy with hate and over-the-top rhetoric.  The Foxites and Talk Radio crowd are among the usual suspects, but so are politicians like Sarah Palin who put Democratic officeholders (including Giffords) in her graphic gun sights during the fall campaign.  Like the extreme zealot who killed Taseer and his religious cheer leaders who hailed it, they too claim to possess the truth, disdaining all who disagree.  To get their way, these political zealots will go to any length including fudging or fabricating the truth to work up the crowd — Obama’s healthcare equals death panels and is a job killer.  Call it free speech, but when does it become what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. suggested was falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic?  Any means, which seems to be guiding light of the day, just doesn’t pass the smell test.  We have gone too far or, perhaps more accurately, too far again.

It’s unlikely that the murder in Pakistan will have much impact on that country’s future direction, especially since a large percentage of the population thought it just.  No American, including those whose kindling contributed meaningfully to the fire, is justifying Arizona’s black day.  No hero’s receptions for Jared Lee Loughner can be expected here.  In the days to come, his mental condition (like that of the boys from Columbine) may dominate the headlines and offer cover for the fire shouters.  The act of a single demented individual will be broadcast throughout the land.  Many will find that a relief, not merely those who might be blamed for leveraging unrest for their own purposes, but average Americans, those onlookers who continue to occupy the sidelines in silence.  They hope all of this ugliness will just go away, so that we can get back to reality – the real world of Sarah in Alaska, Survivor and video games, the important things.

I for one hope that isn’t the case, but mine is a dream.  President Barack Obama, it’s time for another Philadelphia speech, urgent time.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Albany got it right.

I spent a few days in New York to help fete my sister who was born on New Year’s Day some years back.  No Lucie, I’m not telling the world how many.  Well, another year and another decade ahead for her and for us.   Are we in for a year of change or will it be one of transition as the pendulum prepares to swing yet again, this time from right to left?  Two years ago the Republican Party was being written off by the pundits; headed, they said, for perhaps decades in the wilderness.  In 2011, more Republicans will occupy seats in legislatures across the country than at any time since World War II.  They’ll have control of the House and a substantial majority of Governor’s mansions.  To borrow President Obama’s car-in-the-ditch metaphor, the question is, have we resumed our ride on the conservative road largely traveled since Reagan took the wheel, or was 2010 merely a reactive last, albeit impressive, gasp for an ideology that put us in that ditch?

Of course, in these times when attention spans are non-existent and mood swings abound no one really can do more than speculate about what’s coming.   Recent history seems to be on the side of Ronnie’s offspring, but it would be a mistake to think Franklin’s grandkids are out of the running.  One thing is sure; the mood when the clock turned past 12 on New Year’s Eve was sober, if not somber.  In New York it was more Albany than Times Square.

The understated inauguration of Andrew Cuomo on 1-1-11 only underscored that, call it new normal or not, we are in a really different place.  Jerry Brown’s January 3rd inaugural in California promises similar celebratory austerity.  These two guys have a lot in common.  They are surviving Democrats leading two large states; the first will be loosing seats in the wake of the census, the second not gaining any for the very first time.  They are both governors’ sons (Brown an ex-governor to boot) and consequently understand better than most what a rough ride lies ahead.  Doing without is likely to be their primary option for some time to come.  Cuomo, who watched his father’s historically expansive governance in Albany up close, knows the game will be very different during his turn at bat.  He has clearly gotten the message that those many Americans left behind have lost any patience for celebratory excess at a time when they are hurting so much.  Perhaps on some level most are still taking it, but all sure as hell are mad. 

Last fall’s campaign was, like most others, rhetoric rich and substance poor.  Governing, of course, demands much more than talk.  So as they start actually doing the people’s business, the newly elected are bound to find their first days, as Justice Kagan recently put it, like drinking from a fire hose.  When Obama rode into town on all those words of hope, he found not an open highway but a dazzling array of detours and roadblocks.  Perhaps we collectively dodged the depression bullet, but rather than Morning in America this year’s class of public officials will be facing the morning after.  Aspirin and Pepcid, not Prime Rib and Cream Pie, are likely to headline their daily menu.

On the final day of this dreadful past year, it was reported that some investors flourished while so many Americans struggled.  It was just another reminder (as if we needed one) of the ever-widening gap between the fulfilled dreams of a scant few and the dark reality of almost everyone else.  The new governor struck a somber tone in his inaugural, recognizing that New Yorkers have totally lost their trust in government.  The same could be said of citizens in any state across the country, and perhaps most poignantly relative to the national government.  Whether, that mistrust is totally justified, it may ultimately be the greatest obstacle facing office holders at all levels and regardless of party.  Truth is, the nation has largely lost trust in itself.  Yes, some revelers may have donned those funny hats, blown those paper horns and drunk themselves silly watching the ball drop on Friday night, but even they have no illusions about what lies ahead.  Albany had it right; the only question is whether those who sit in the seats of power and responsibility will have the courage and wisdom to make the equally right — truly equitable — choices and if we the people will have the will and patience to enable real solutions.  It seems we are left with no other choice.  Putting a spotlight on the new order, Andrew Cuomo proclaimed: When we actually do something and perform…help the people…make government function then we are going to have a big party and celebrate, and not before.  One can only hope that there will be something to celebrate for them and for us all in years ahead.  At this point, we’ll have to wait and see.