Tuesday, August 02, 2005

God and Man at the New York Times

From the archives: May 31, 2004

So I pour a cup of coffee, put aside the front page and the Week in Review sections of the Sunday New York Times and turn to the Book Review. I'm confronted by a cover review (it goes on for five long paragraphs on the cover before being continued over to p. 11). I don't remember ever seeing such a thing before. The editors must have considered the book under review to be a matter of the highest import, and so the review of or sermon upon it is: no less than the Gospels as interpreted in the vivid style of Father Andrew Sullivan, the de-frocked priest.
"The Saint and the Satirist; A Monk Brought God's Love to Tony Hendra." This Hendra chap was the worst sort of reprobate imaginable. He was into "serial sex and drugs and rock and irony," sort of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Lite. But what we learn in reading Hendra's Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul is that "these ideas of sin..are not really sin." Wait a minute, irony is sin? Perhaps it became sinful on 9/11/01; remember how the conventional wisdom instantly became that after such horrors, irony would forever be in poor taste?
"These ideas of sin that we have are not really sin," Sullivan writes. "Or rather: they are the symptoms of sin, not its essence. And its essence is our withdrawal---our willful withdrawal---from God's love." (italics added)
So that's why the world is in such an infernal mess! Reading this on the cover of the Book Review, a publication of the supposedly secular (or at least ecumenical) New York Times, was stunning, sort of like being bonked forcefully over the head by a bishop's crozier, and just two sips into your morning coffee at that.
Does this triumphalist Catholic screed---"oh ye sinners, come home to Jesus before it is too late!"--appearing on the cover of the Times Book Review mark one of those "watershed" events in the cultural history of this nation?
Yet more from the inimitable Friedman in this morning's paper. You remember the Golden Arches Doctrine of Conflict Resolution, and, of course, the Wal-Mart Corollary (wait, that was mine, wasn't it? I think I'll e-mail it to Tom, it's his, gratis, and the column will write itself.) Anyway, this morning he announces, "I have a 'Tilt Theory of History.'" Why the distancing quotation marks, Tom? Surely irony isn't intended? No, the quotation marks indicate only that the Theory hasn't been fully fleshed out as yet. The book will follow eventually; in the meantime, just off the top of Tom's head, it serves to make a point. The Tilt Theory "states" that countries don't change by sudden transformations. Instead, they undergo a process of gradual internal transformation, possibily lasting a generation (a quibble: why a generation? Why not five generations, or even ten? Oh never mind). The point is that the Wolfowitz timetable for Iraqi democratization may have been, as we see from the vantage point of hindsight, badly off. Revised timetable? We can "tilt in a better direction, so over a generation Iraqis can transform and liberate themselves, if they want." Brace up, Americans; imperialism is no game for the faint of heart! Tom Friedman is in this for the long haul.
Did we all read Friedman's "Dancing Alone" column of Thur., May 13, in which he admitted that on some stuff concerning the invasion of Iraq, "I'll admit it, I'm a little slow," to which one disgusted letter-writer replied, "Tens of thousands of us were away ahead of you all the way, Mr. Friedman." What was spared scrutiny in the letters published was the manner of the confession. Where had Tom gone wrong? "My mistake was thinking that the Bush team," like Friedman himself, believed that it must rise above politics and do the right thing in Iraq "because surely this was the most important thing for the president and the country. But I was wrong." Further, "Because I tried to think about something as deadly serious as Iraq..in a non-partisan fashion...I assumed the Bush officials were doing the same. I was wrong."
See, because Tom is a thoroughly decent guy, a gentleman, above politics, he assumed that Bush, Rummy, Karl Rove, et al. were equally high-minded and could be counted on to do the right thing, always. But he was wrong. Still, how can you fault a guy for simply thinking well of people?
Wait, the Irate Codger isn't quite finished. "When I hear the word 'culture,''' Hermann Goering famously said, "I reach for my gun." I confess to feeling the same vicious urge often when I spot the by-line of Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. Last Saturday I had only to glimpse the title of the column, "Sticking Up For Rumsfeld," and my right hand was twitching to unholster my Luger--if only I'd had one. I should be more patient with Nick, I know. In many ways he's the anti-Friedman of the opinion page. Tom doesn't give a fig for the great unwashed. Nick lives among them, sharing their hardships, shouting their plight to an indifferent world. Tom lives the life befitting a gentleman journalist fortunate enough to possess the world's most generous expense account. Nick is likely to be found kneeling at the ancestral wok of his in-laws (his wife is Chinese) partaking of a humble meal no different from that of a billion other rural Chinese. Tom is a shit---he really is--and Nick is transparently decent. Albeit at times a little over the top in the Christian charity department. Remember his determination in Thailand to save two pubescent sex slaves from Bankok whorehouses, and hang the expence? I think in the end, he'd fairly rescued one while the other slipped back into her former life. As Katha Pollitt said, this did seem a little weird, considering the prostitute population of Bankok. I thought so to. It reminded me of William Gladstone, when prime minister, trolling among the harlots of Haymarket at night, cajoling a few into returning with him to his house for a good cup of hot soup from the missus, a sermon, and some elevating tracts. And, as Katha noted, Nick got four columns out of his noble rescue missions.
What gets me about Nick, however, are his scolding sermons to out-of-it liberals. In late April we were urged (column title) to "Hug an Evangelical." Let's do try to get over those easy liberal stereotypes--Tom DeLay and Jerry Fallwell are representative of evangelicals. Not so. Why,.did you know that there are plenty of evangelicals who aren't even fundamentalists? Well, no, I guess I didn't. On the other hand, did you know that while only 23% of Americans profess to "believe in" biological evolution, eighty per cent believe in the existence of angels? What the hell am I supposed to do with that? We must all endeavor to respect such convictions because they're the majority. So try to be more circumspect, less arrogant. What would a spirit of amity and concord require of us? Suggest that only the First Five Commandments be posted in American classrooms on a trial basis, to see if teen pregnancy rates and violent crime go down?
Stop talking down to people through your noses. Using fancy words. When Howard Dean observed that there'd been a contratemps over his rednecks with Reb flag decals remark, Nick wrote, "I very seriously doubt that anyone who uses the word 'contratemps' can ever be elected president of the United States." Then he advised Dean that he'd better learn to be "comfortable" talking about his "faith," advice Dean disastrously followed in confessing that he prayed every day and that his "favorite" book of the Old Testament was Revelation (which, as Mark Twain observed, was far the nuttiest thing in Scripture).
Nick then got on the environmentalists' case over snowmobiles in Yellowstone. Loosen up, he advised them: the new snowmobiles with four-cycle engines are ninety per cent less polluting than the old two-cycle engines, rapidly being phased out, and noise levels? The new ones purr like kittens. He ended with an account of how he recently took his two sons out on a nature trip on snowmobiles at Yellowstone, and how inspiring it all was for the three of them. Tender moment. Who would begrudge a father introducing his boys to the magic of the wild? Then I read an NRDC warning about these new snowmobiles: the "90 % reduction" figure comes from the Snowmobiles Manufacturing Association of America and is absolute bullshit; as for the noise levels, they're down, but not by much. Anyway, couldn't Nick and his boys walk?
But this last, rescuing Donald Rumsfeld from the liberal lynch mob, is the most Quixotic--to be kind--yet. "Frankly," Kristof writes, "I'm astonished to be speaking up for Mr. Rumsfeld." Well, I'm not astonished. It's entirely consistent. I can imagine Kristof agonizing over it: "Will no other liberal do the decent thing and cry for justice for Rumsfeld as Christ did for mercy even for the least among us?" No, none would. As so often in the past, it was up to Kristof to take the stand righteousness required. "Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before," etc. Noble Nick. I say put a bullet through his brain and be done with it.