Going to church despite the priests


… The Arabian energy that had pushed them into Africa had died down at its source, and that power was like the light of a star that travels on after the star itself has become dead.

— V.S. Naipaul, A Bend In the River

Naipaul was referring to the rise and fall of empires, but his metaphor could also be about the Catholic Church and its waning influence on the many millions of Americans who were born Catholic but don’t go to church except to attend weddings, funerals or baptisms.

“Fallen-away” Catholics, they used to be called, as opposed to practicing Catholics. The former were out in full force at a funeral I attended, for a relative I hardly knew, in a Philly suburb that’s seen better days, at about the same time the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a 1,400-plus page grand jury report naming more than 300 priests accused of child sex abuse in this state.

It was a funeral mass, but it seemed more like a secular service. The altar looked like a stage kitchen. A few relatives and friends of the deceased went up to share anecdotes about him, or to read aloud from scripture. A woman sang tuneless hymns as the priest and altar boys rearranged the props for each new part of the mass.

Maybe there were many true believers at the funeral, but I doubt it, even though there was a big response when the priest invited practicing Catholics to receive Holy Communion, something you’re not supposed to do unless you’ve recently confessed your sins to a priest. That, at least, was the rule in the old days — no confession, no holy wafer.

My cousin’s wife and I looked at each other as the pews creaked and most of the congregants went to the altar. We were reasonably sure that few of them had been to confession, and that ever fewer believed that priests have the moral authority to tell them how to conduct their lives.

How could they? The entire Catholic hierarchy has been discredited in recent years by the testimony of all those Catholics who, in their youth, were victimized by predator priests. The “holy father” in Rome can’t bring himself to fire the bishops who moved the predators from one locale to another as their crimes were revealed. He can’t even admit that priestly celibacy is and always was a sham.

Most Catholics seem fairly quiet regarding the ongoing scandal. They grew up going to Catholic churches and schools. They still go to church for the rituals, despite their lack of respect for the priests who preside over the rituals. They go because the rituals help them maintain bonds with friends and relatives they wouldn’t otherwise see. That’s what communion is about.

But many churches have closed or are closing as out-of-court settlements for priestly assault bankrupt diocese after diocese. It’s not hard to imagine a time in which the 2,000-year-old star in Rome has been reduced to a cinder in the minds of American Catholics. The only question is how long its feeble light will linger.

Footnote: My friend Swamp Rabbit asked why I was dressed up on such a stinking hot day. And where did I get my so-called suit? Here and there, I told him. Mostly from the thrift store at Eighth and Wolf that closed last year. I used to go there every six months or so. “It was my favorite ritual,” I said, “but all things must pass.”

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Donald Trump as Johnny Friendly


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You can tell a lot about a president’s background just by his style of speech. Woodrow Wilson spoke like a cold-hearted preacher, FDR like an easy-going aristocrat, Harry Truman like a humble dry goods merchant, Ronald Reagan like a too-wholesome leading man in a B movie. And then there’s our current chief:

[Donald] Trump, in a series of angry tweets, denounced a New York Times story that his White House counsel, Don McGahn, has been cooperating extensively with the special counsel team investigating Russian election meddling and potential collusion with Trump’s Republican campaign.

“The failing @nytimes wrote a Fake piece today implying that because White House Councel Don McGahn was giving hours of testimony to the Special Councel, he must be a John Dean type ‘RAT,'” Trump wrote, misspelling the word “counsel,” as he often does. “But I allowed him and all others to testify – I didn’t have to. I have nothing to hide……”

Trump is the first U.S. president to speak and write like he’s a mob boss, or a corrupt labor union leader. He sounds like Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) in On the Waterfront, railing against Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) and anybody else who might rat him out.

At this point, potential “John Dean type” rats are everywhere. On Tuesday afternoon, in Virginia, Paul Manafort was nailed on eight of 18 felony charges. Minutes later, in New York, Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to five felony counts and implicated Trump while under oath. And now it’s been revealed that David Pecker, Trump’s secrets-keeper at National Enquirer, and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, were given immunity to testify in connection with the Cohen case.

Dirty rats. They’re all scurrying, As Johnny Friendly said, “Where you guys going? Wait a minute! I’ll remember this! I’ll remember every one of you!”

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New opiates for the masses needed


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Yesterday, I googled a piece of old news and ran it past my friend Swamp Rabbit. The gist of the article was that many Democrats and independents who voted for Obama in 2012 didn’t vote at all in 2016 and would have put Hillary Clinton over the top in key states if they had.

Prior to this we’d been jawing about religion, “the opium of the masses,” as Karl Marx called it in the 19th century, before organized religion ran out of gas and the ruling classes came up with other activities — sports fandom, celebrity worship, reality TV watching, Facebook, video games — to distract people from their unhappiness with the status quo.

“Am I leaving out any opiates of the masses?” I asked Swamp Rabbit.

“Opium itself,” he said. “Oxycontin and heroin and all them other drugs. And whiskey, my personal favorite.”

I reconsidered and told him it was unfair to blame Donald Trump’s election on drugs or any other single distraction, even reality TV, the medium he used to become a candidate. All the distractions are merely symptoms, not the cause, of the disease that ruined the body politic.

Swamp Rabbit groaned. “So what is it ruined the body politic, whatever that is?”

Loss of hope was the cause, I told him. The belief that we have government for the corporations, not for the people.

“The Trumpers voted against hope,” I said, climbing on my soapbox. “Against affordable health care and a living wage for the poor, against the idea that whites can co-exist with non-whites. They voted for isolationism and climate change denial, for a guy who routinely cheated contractors who did business with him, who made fun of the disabled and bragged about grabbing pussy.”

“That don’t make no sense,” Swamp Rabbit replied. “Nobody votes against hope. Them peeps voted for Trump because Hillary dissed them. Because they thought Trump would make America great again.”

I told him they voted for Trump out of spite, not hope. Because Trump was the perfect vehicle for expressing their frustration and fear of the future.

Democrats who didn’t vote were as despairing and spiteful as the Trump voters, I added. They convinced themselves that Clinton, because she wasn’t progressive enough, would be as bad for the country as Trump.

“And now we’re stuck with a malicious orange clown who’s trying hard to become a dictator,” I said. “How great is that?”

Swamp Rabbit chewed on that thought for a minute. “We ain’t got religion to fall back on,” he replied. “Even whiskey don’t help much. I guess we need a new drug.”

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Enough about Naipaul the man — read his books


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The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
— V.S. Naipaul, A Bend In the River (1979)

Pardon me for breathing! And make no mistake — the harsh declaration that begins what might be Naipaul’s best novel is as characteristic of Naipaul himself as it is of the novel’s protagonist, who breaks from his Indian family to make his way as a merchant in equatorial Africa. Naipaul, who died at 85 last weekend, broke from his family, poor Indians whose forebears had migrated to Trinidad, and went to Oxford to make his way as a writer, a goal he set long before he began to understand what he wanted to write about.

It’s ironic that such a notoriously cold, un-ideological man came to think of novel-writing as an almost mystical process that opens the door to higher truths:

I write the artificial, self-conscious beginnings of many books; until finally some true impulse — the one I have been working toward — possesses me, and I sail away on my year’s labor. And that is mysterious still — that out of artifice one should touch and stir up what is deepest in one’s soul, one’s heart, one’s memory.

The best novelists “stir up what is deepest” in themselves by challenging their own beliefs and assumptions while exploring those of the characters in the settings they create. “The world is what it is” sounds oppressively realistic, even cynical, but Naipaul was too honest and smart, and too much an artist, to fully embrace a glibly cynical worldview.

He re-examined his assumptions with each new book — there were about 30, fiction and nonfiction — often while painting vivid portraits of chaotic post-colonial societies, and of characters trying to cope with the aftermath of great change. He laughed at the colonizers and the colonized — at their illusions and ignorance — but he cried for them, too. He was a humanist, despite himself.

Naipaul could be very funny, especially in his early novels, but I might not have wanted to hang with him. According to various sources, he was misogynistic, cruel to some of his intimates, prone to making bigoted remarks about Islam and the entire continent of Africa. He affected a lord-of-the-manor British accent, presumably to signal his great distance from his humble beginnings.

At the same time, I’m bummed out by the obits in the media that enumerated his faults without adequately describing the profundity of his themes, the subtlety of his characterizations or the power of his bluntly eloquent prose. It’s amazing how few pundits have what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time.”

Naipaul thought of himself as an artist, not a personality, a point he stated clearly in his 2001 Nobel lecture:

…Everything of value about me is in my books. Whatever extra there is in me at any given moment isn’t fully formed. I am hardly aware of it; it awaits the next book. It will — with luck — come to me during the actual writing, and it will take me by surprise.

Too bad more people don’t read books. If they did, they’d have a lot less time for gossip.

Footnote: From the first chapter of my second favorite Naipaul novel, Guerrillas (1975):

An amber light fell on the brown vegetation of the hills. But in that vegetation, which to Jane when she had first arrived had only seemed part of the view, there was strangeness and danger: the wild disordered men, tramping along old paths, across gardens, between houses and through what remained of woodland, like aborigines recognizing only an ancestral landscape and insisting on some ancient right of way. Wild men in rags, with long, matted hair; wild men with unseeing red eyes. And bandits. Police cars patrolled these hillside suburbs. Sometimes at night and in the early morning there was the sound of gunfire. The newspapers, the radio, and the television spoke of guerrillas.

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Mama whale’s message to the media


From NPR:

After carrying her deceased baby for at least 17 days and 1,000 miles, an orca mother has shown signs of returning to normal.

She was seen Saturday with fellow members of her pod, chasing a school of salmon. She is no longer carrying her baby, and she looks healthy. “Her tour of grief is now over and her behavior is remarkably frisky,” according to a statement on the Center for Whale Research’s website…

Not a single orca born in the past three years has been known to survive, according to the Center for Whale Research. That’s why the fact that [the mother whale] recently gave birth was so exciting, if only for a brief moment. Her calf died just 30 minutes after it was first spotted by a whale watch operator on July 24.

I’m not very sentimental, but the whale story moved me. It spooked me. What if she was grieving not just for her baby, but for her entire species, and for all endangered species? What if her “tour of grief” was to remind humans that the huge amounts of toxins we generate are killing the oceans?

And don’t tell me it’s silly to attribute thoughts and feelings to non-human creatures. Whales feel deeply and are really smart. Humans, on the other hand, are too dumb or selfish to care that their behavior might be dooming not just whales but their own future generations.

Footnote: Something’s wrong, as Spirit noted almost a half-century ago: https://youtu.be/YsTK2LHZKPQ

Save the whales! Save the humans!

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At Musikfest, waiting for something to happen


The crowd, suddenly there where there was nothing before, is a mysterious and universal phenomenon. A few people may have been standing together – five, ten or twelve, not more; nothing has been announced, nothing is expected. Suddenly everywhere is black with people and more come streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction. Most of them do not know what has happened and, if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other people are… It seems as though the movement of some of them transmits itself to the others. But that is not all; they have a goal which is there before they can find words for it.

― Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

What’s cool about Canetti is that he could be describing a neo-Nazi rally, an inner-city riot, or a big carnival like Musikfest in Bethlehem, PA, where I worked all week.

For me, the event was an outdoor sales ordeal intensified by thunderstorms, daily temperatures in the 90s and a cacophony of power generators, crowd noise and cover bands cranking out the greatest hits of the 1970s. For the crowd, it was… I have no idea. Who knows about crowds?

The crowd was small and then it was huge. Madmen babbled at the sky. Tattooed lover boys stalked giggly girls. Old couples sipped lemonade to stave off heatstroke. Women pushed baby carriages, dawdling forward as the sun beat down on their unshaded, screaming infants. No one moved fast except for kids and the grossly obese pilots of those silent go-carts that zip by without warning.

At night the crowd swelled and the lines at the beer vendors’ tents and the porta-potties grew longer. Thousands of strangers ate greasy gyros and drank from glow-in-the-dark mugs. They squeezed past each other, stopped dead, looked like they were waiting for someone to tell them why they were there.

They was waiting for a signal, it seemed, something that would focus their enormous collective energy. I felt an inkling of that energy only once, on the first night, when hundreds of young dancers at Wireless Disco, seeking shelter from a sudden downpour, converged on a big white tent that collapsed under their weight.

But this was only one small segment of the crowd, which covered several square miles. The rainfall was too fierce to allow people to come “streaming from all sides as though streets had only one direction.”

Which was fine with me. I’d rather an ordeal than a catastrophe, so long as the ordeal results in a decent paycheck.

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From ostrich jacket to jailhouse jumpsuit


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This is what happens when you have all the money in the world but no heart or imagination:

Paul Manafort — President Trump’s former campaign chairman who’s currently on trial in Virginia on charges of money laundering, tax evasion and conspiracy — reportedly splurged $15,000 on an ostrich jacket. It’s an oddity even among jet-setters, stylists say.

The allegation took flight in federal court Tuesday, where prosecutors charged that Manafort’s luxuries and bank account benefited from his alleged financial fraud. Specifically, attorney Uzo Asonye accused the lobbyist of not paying taxes on money he earned while working in Ukraine for a political candidate, then using the dough on indulgences like a $2 million house, $21,000 watch and a custom, $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich.

He was a high priest of materialism who couldn’t stop buying suits and carpets and houses and weird vanity gifts for himself. A karaoke machine. You simply have to have one if you entertain.

He was a consultant to dictators, a guy who specialized in spreading misery around the world. Where do such people come from, and isn’t it telling that they flock without fail to degenerates like Donald Trump?

He spent much of the past few years on a buying spree, indulging himself while he could, as if he knew he’d eventually get nailed by the IRS or the Russian mafia.

“You can’t take it with you,” should be carved on his tombstone, if he has enough money left for a tombstone.

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