Tuesday, May 04, 2004

What Lurks

You occasionally read that the problems of the Catholic Church would be solved if priests could marry, but the underlying pathology is political rather than sexual. From a doctrinal point of view, Catholicism is no crazier than any other religion; but its secretive and authoritarian organization guarantees mischief. That child abuse by priests is what people have decided to get upset now is probably more a function of America’s well-known hysteria about sex than an inevitable consequence of celibacy. Thus, granted the obvious willingness of church authorities to condone and conceal clerical criminality, one can bet that the financial improprieties of the church are at least as widespread as the groping of choirboys. Journalists just aren’t interested enough to battle the political power of the Church to expose unmarketable scandals, at least so long as it pays better to celebrate or at least sentimentalize the decrepit system of superstition.

I draw a partial parallel between the church case and the recent revelation that the United States has been mistreating prisoners in Iraq. Like the Catholic Church, the current regime operates in the deepest secrecy under what it claims to be divine sanction. War can be counted upon to produce horrors under any circumstances, but a war conducted in the dark by people thinking they are doing God’s work will be worse than necessary. Any regime that controls the news as stringently as Bush’s people have effectively guarantees torture and murder will occur because such activity are, as it were, the default behavior of 19-year old farm kids and professional mercenaries. Leaders have an obligation to act in order to prevent what is perfectly predictable under the circumstances. Of course it doesn’t help when a government’s rhetoric endlessly dehumanizes its enemies, suggests that ordinary rules of conduct do not apply to our Chosen nation, and glorifies brutality as “realism.” The priory may be an ideal sanctuary for a pederast, but at least the Church doesn’t actually promote child abuse as a postive virtue.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Tsk, Tsk

Economists smile when people try to understand public finances in terms of the family budget. Running up a huge debt may be inadvisable for a government, but a government cannot go bankrupt so long as the printing presses are working. But the distinction between the public and the private is more widely recognized in matters of money than in matters of policy, even though trying to understand politics in terms of private morality is no less fatuous. Nothing so defines the smallness of the small timers, the commonness of the common man, than thinking of great affairs as the soapbox opera of everyday life writ big. Petit bourgeois moralizing makes bad politics.

An application. In many parts of the United States, the use of lottery money to support public education is defended on the grounds that it only taxes those weak and stupid enough to play. Considered from a policy point of view, however, lotteries are simply regressive taxes that shift the burden of paying for necessary services on the shoulders of those least able to bear it while siphoning off a good cut for the operators of the games, the tax farmers of the new improved ancien regime. One blames a problem on the individual moral failings of the victims and then exacts a public punishment that enriches a small minority. Promoting gambling among the poor is especially cruel because it is precisely the drastic and growing difference between poverty and wealth in this country makes the appeal of long odds and huge payoffs irresistible. As it becomes more and more difficult to live a self-respecting and decent life by hard work and playing by the rules, it actually gets more rational to take wild chances. Besides, it is worth something to be able to identify with the lucky winners even though the chances of actually becoming one are essentially zero.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

The Other Primrose Path

One can be corrupted to virtue as well as to vice. An example: the minority of political commentators who oppose the Conservative take over of the United States are often far more scrupulous about the truth than either their ideological opponents or the mainstream press. Joe Conason, Gene Lyons, Eric Alterman, Joshua Micah Marshall, and Paul Krugman check facts, worry about being fair to individuals, and admit error. There is no such thing and probably could not be such a thing as a right-wing Bob Somersby. It does not necessarily follow, however, that these individuals are intrinsically more honorable or honest than other writers. Even a born fabulist would find it hard to resist the siren call of integrity in a rhetorical situation where the reduction of discourse to a passionless recital of facts is such an effective tack against one’s enemies.

There’s a converse to this thought: those dedicated to craft are well advised to join the Republican Party. William Safire would only be wasting his very real literary and polemical gifts by going straight; and a similar point could be made, albeit with decreased force, about the merely talented Andy Sullivan or the merely glib Mickey Kaus