-to have been away. Good Lord, I take my finger off the pulse of the nation for a relative second and Rick Santorum moves from Republican outlier to front-runner. Mia copa, folks.
If anyone saw this coming two months ago, congratulations: you have just won an all-expense paid trip with me to Vegas, where I will bet however you tell me on whatever you tell me to. We’ll split the take 90-10, your way, and I’ll still retire happy once we get back.
How the hell to explain this? The work of two great minds offers clues.
First, there’s Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who kicked the economics profession in the scrotum with the Black Swan. Keep in mind, I’m referring the book on risk and unpredictability, not the film about ballet derangement with a straight man’s fantasy of a lesbian affair subplot. We are, after all, talking about Santorum here.
Taleb is a genius when it comes to explaining how low-probability high-impact events (Black Swans) can rock the world. I think his insights apply here. Politics is a chaotic system. It’s hard to predict anything specific at all. Find me one person who, just 10 years ago, put money on the idea that we would see a Catholic with three wives battling a Mormon with one to get a black man out of the White House; good luck on your search. Santorum’s rise may well be the modern mother of all political Black Swans.
The other great thinker we should consider is Hunter S. Thomson, who, in the ‘60s, summed up American, and perhaps all, cultural upheavals, in one profound sentence:
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
Thus, Rick and his legions. These are weird times, and an army of animated Normal Rockwell portraits, ready to raze Sodom and Gomorrah to the name of St. Ronald the Gipper, is an appropriately weird symptom of them.
While it is hard to explain the former Pennsylvania Senator’s rise in particular, it’s possible that we could have read the Tea Party leaves to see some general tendencies. After all, we did see the conservatives turn to every other non-Romney in the race, one after another, in a desperate attempt to find someone acceptable to them. Further, we know that there are two (and that may be the limit) coherent strains of thought on the far right: get the gays out of the country and the IRS out business. And, I almost forgot, no blacks at 1600 Penn. Unless they’re rich.
Okay, all that’s a given. But again, why Santorum?
I get the feeling Republicans are tuning to Santorum because they believe he means what he says. When he talks about family, he leaves Gingrich nowhere to stand (which is ironic considering that Gingrich, with his three families, actually knows more about the subject). When he stresses his conservatism, he clobbers both Gingrich and Romney, each of whom changes positions more often than most people change socks.
There may be precedent for this. There are those who argue that, after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, a good chunk of his supporters actually moved over to George Wallace, a segregationist with whom Kennedy had only one thing in common: people believed that he meant what he said. The positions of the candidates were less important that their sincerity.
It’s as if the American electorate occasionally becomes the Peanut’s Linus van Pelt on Halloween, convinced that the Great Pumpkin will rise and bestow gifts upon the little children who have the most sincere pumpkin patch.
This makes as much sense as anything.
That said, being more principled and consistent than Gingrich or Romney is not a tough lift. And, even as Santorum’s apparent convictions win him Republican delegates, they cause his party serious problems.
Frank Zappa once said that jazz wasn’t dead, it just smelled funny. The same can be said of the culture wars, but the odor is far less pleasant, and a lot more American are sick of the stink than Santorum and crew realize.
Sexual moral crusading was pretty effective during the Reagan Presidency. Heck, it allowed many notable ideologues to condemn millions to death worldwide by preventing an effective response to the AIDS crisis (at the time, it mostly affected their enemies: homosexuals and minorities. The tune changed when middle-class straight whites began to die.)
But the power of sex scares declined from the end of Reagan’s presidency until it reached a spectacular low point in September of 2011, when Jerry Farwell blamed the 9/11 attacks on American homosexuals.
Now, there may have been one thorazine -deprived individual out there who saw a Hindenburg- sized Harvey Milk (piloted by Will & Grace) crash into the World Trade Center, but most everyone reacted to Farwell’s comments by telling him to shut up and stick to the TeleTubbies.
Not that the religious right didn’t see an opportunity in the wake of the attacks. After all, they had just been delivered the ultimate new fear-mongering tool: every single Muslim on the planet. The PR possibilities were endless: Bin laden hiding in your closet is a lot scarier than Ellen DeGeneres coming out of hers.
This worked like a charm for years.
However, Bin Laden is dead now. Iraq is in rubble. Afghanistan has been blown back into the Stone Age (which is where it was to begin with. That’s why everyone who invades they place finds is so hard to declare victory and get the hell out of Dodge.) More than a trillion dollars has been flushed into the sewer. Lots of Americans, and incidentally, darker-complexioned foreign people, have been killed.
The American enthusiasm for war, when times are flush and there’s no draft, may be limitless. But its attention span is not, particularly when things get tight at home. The Middle East is yesterday’s news. Yes, the drumbeat for attacking Iran goes on, but it is muted by a murmur of anxiety over housing, jobs and gas prices.
Time for the religious right to go back to the old standbys of chastity belts and gay-bashing. So into the fray the send their new champion, Rick, astride his gelding warhorse Celibacy, to rally the faithful.
But he and his pals have a problem. It seem that, over the last 10 years or so, a lot of hetero Americans have encountered, tolerated, knowingly worked with, and even befriended gay Americans. They’ve even gone so far as to honor those who died fighting the above-mentioned heathen-commie-fascist-Islamo-terrorist-evildoer guys.
What now can the legions of the uptight do to get revenge for how few dates they got in high school> If only, oh if, only there were a venerable institution, clothed in majesty, moral authority and political muscle, that could join them in their cause.
Enter the American Catholic Bishops.
The welcome party must have been great: “Sorry about those centuries of anti-Papal name-calling and religious marginalizing, guys. Just business,” say the Bible thumpers. “Shut up and pass the ammo,” respond the bishops.
The American bishops are not the reason I became ambivalent about the Church; but they sure keep me and a lot of other former (and soon to be former) Catholics that way.
There are two major traditions within Catholicism. One leads to the Mother Theresas and Archbishop Romeros of the world. The other leads to expedience and its sibling, injustice.
The Catholic Church has, for decades, been socially conservative and economically liberal. If you don’t believe the latter, just consider that Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment, praised the American Bishops for the former while also calling them a bunch of socialists.
But emphasis matters. And by holding to a completely skewed set of priorities, the bishops have blown a chance for renewed moral and political relevance into orbit and beyond.
They could have looked have looked at those Americans demanding economic justice and said “You know, this kind of remind us of that whole ‘feed the poor ,heal the sick and clothe the naked’ deal. There was an important guy who told us to do that, right?”
They could have looked at the beatings, jailing and other persecution those same people face and said “That same important guy told ‘whatever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.’ We might not want to ignore the least of brothers here.”
They could have done the right thing and heeded the call for economic justice. And they might have seen an influx on new Catholics as a result, which would have been great at a time when Masses aren’t exactly standing room only.
Instead, they chose to pander to those Catholics on the right who still make sizable donations. They picked a fundraiser over a recruitment drive. Put in terms any MBA can parrot, they are looking for profit at the expense of growth.
The Bishops have chosen to say that birth control and tolerance of homosexuality are the greatest threats to the Church. They got it wrong. The Bishops themselves are now the greatest threat to the Church, just as the religious right is the greatest threat to the Republican Party.
Our current mess is characterized by the debt left over from a useless foreign war that accomplished nothing and an ongoing economic crisis no one believes we can solve. Real leadership, secular and religious, would entail rising to the occasion by showing that, as conservative hero Ronald Reagan once said, “There are simple answers, there just aren’t easy ones.”
The easy answer to our problems is to ignore them. Just throw in the towel on anything that requires work or sacrifice and instead do the one thing that creates change without effort: legislating persecution.
But the simple and hard answer to our problems is to face them by fighting for all Americans.
Who will do that? Times are unpredictable. It might seem weird to hold out hope, but hey, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Let’s profess our hope.