Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey kicked off her Blond Ambition tour recently with a scintillating little scandal. Paris Hilton may have a diamond the size of the Ritz, but if Kerry’s Hubby, Sean, has his way, he’ll be buying his Material Girl the State House, golden dome and all, for a cool thirteen million! Now, that’s love, people. Problem is, on the road to more riches, Mr. Healey may have abused the state's corporate welfare system. Not only that, but, with the aid of Mentor Mittney, a tax office report critical of, among others, Mr. Healey’s multibillion dollar Affiliated Managers Group Inc.’s over-exuberant applications for tax credits may have been squelched. When news of the watered-down report broke, Mrs. Healey reacted like a practiced politician: defensive, she denied and prevaricated. Some are saying it’s all over for Healey, just as it’s beginning, but as with Governor Romney, personal ambition will trump any sense of shame in the end.

It is—and isn’t—about the money. The million dollar tax credits, which, according to Inspector General Gregory Sullivan, were handed out to companies “as favors” amount to a corporate pittance, a sort of nicety, the equivalent of an annual fruit basket sent to friends of Mitt & Co., courtesy the taxpayer. But when you consider the intended use of the tax credit, namely to encourage development of blighted neighborhoods, the pettiness and greed the wealthy among us are capable of begins to seem boundless. A Representative from Healey’s AMG insists, of course, that their tax credit was awarded in “full compliance of the law,” but as Henry Ward Beecher once preached: “all ambitions are lawful except those that climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind.” Loopholes can’t justify such abuses. Legal or not, the assumptions undergirding this application of the law are obscene.

Meanwhile, Mittney’s taking a little time off his national tour to reform the way we pay for healthcare in Massachusetts, itself an enormously ambitious project. There’s no question something needs to be done to ensure that quality healthcare is available at reasonable rates to rich and poor alike. But Romney’s assumptions about those he says abuse the current system rankle. In his opinion, “about 200,000 of the state's roughly 500,000 uninsured make enough money to afford private insurance,” and are thus apparently, at least potentially, bilking the State. But what does the governor really know about scraping by on minimum wage? Even twice the minimum is not a living wage in Boston, a city where, as John McDonough of Health Care for All has observed, “you've got families… paying over their income for rent." And that’s the problem with this administration. Mittney and his Material Girl either never knew or have forgotten what it’s like to be barely making ends meet. But in their shameless, desperate pursuit of personal glory they would both do well to recall some words of wisdom on the subject: “ambition,” Oscar Wilde once wrote, “is the last refuge of failure.”

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Not even midway through W’s second term and already I’ve got hypocrisy fatigue. I had to roll my eyes when Bush’s lackeys were caught red-handed last week coaching soldiers for another of the Pretender-in-Cheat’s propaganda pieces pushing his $200 billion war in Iraq. The soldiers were instructed to fawn over the would-be Emperor, while their superiors, just off-stage, were ordered to thump ‘em if they didn’t stroke him with enough ardor. Remember the unholy stink the administration raised over the soldier who questioned Donald Rumsfeld about the shortage of body armor? How it turned out he’d been coached by a journalist? Well, touché.

So the press made a big to-do about Bush’s phony conference call last week. But come on: is there anyone who doesn’t know that all of Bush’s public appearances are staged, except maybe Mr. Bush himself, who sometimes reminds me of a complacent version of Jim Carrey’s clueless Truman Burbank? The rest of us are merely extras in “The W Show.” To express shock at the phoniness of it all seems just a tad disingenuous at this point. In fact, it borders on doublethink. The vain hope of those who point to proof of hypocrisy in these faith-based times, when proof is a mere annoyance to be brushed away by some invisible hand, is that sensible people will start scratching their heads and replace the megachurch mantra “WWJD” with the more fitting “WTF?”

Bush’s hypocrisy when it comes to Harriet Miers, his latest Supreme Court nominee (and maybe not his last—Justice Stevens is pushing ninety) has been well-publicized, too. While a nominee, the topic of newly appointed Chief Justice John Roberts’ faith was off-limits, according to Republicans. When, during confirmation hearings, Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat, asked Roberts how his Roman Catholic faith might affect his court rulings, he was upbraided by Republican John Cornyn, who reminded him, “we have no religious tests for public office in this country.” It seems Ms. Miers is the exception to Article VI, Clause 3 of the US Constitution. To hear Bush tell it, Miers’ religion is about her only qualification. But the post she’s up for is not High Priestess of the Cult of Reverend Dobson, it’s Justice of the Supreme Court of the U.S. of A. I mean, WTF?

Rest assured, there’s more hypocrisy on the way. When Democrats bring up Miers’ religion in what’s sure to be a spectacle of brazen stupidity to rival the Clarence Thomas confirmation, they’ll be accused by Republicans of both politicizing deeply held religious beliefs and violating article VI, clause 3. Shame on them! The danger of this kind of theater is that sooner or later not only the stale lines of the administration but their critics’ chorus of outrage and indignation ring utterly false. That the antics of Bush’s brat pack brings some satisfaction to its critics is understandable, but until they pursue the truth as doggedly as they do their opponent, all we’ve got is “WTF?”

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I recently did the unthinkable: broke down and got a cell phone. I didn’t really want to, but in our modern mobile world, cell phones have become a necessary evil. I found a no-frills phone and a simple pay-as-you-go plan that fit my pocketbook. The one thing I failed to consider was that a phone is no longer simply a phone—it’s an accessory every bit as vital to your identity as that Sox cap on your head, the Starbucks mug in your fist, or the chihuahua on your arm.

What clued me into this fact was the cache of preloaded ring tones. What came standard? A hip-hop sample called "krunktone". I could not imagine replacing the old “give me a ring” with “give me a krunk,” whatever that is, so I set about searching my phone for a "ring-a-ding-ding" or even "ring-a-ling,” to no avail. Instead I found other ring tones with names like "creepy," "evilpizz," "galloping metal," "low rider," and (of course) "more krunkness." Nothing even remotely resembling a "ring" as we once knew it. I tried to picture myself at a restaurant with a friend, and "low rider" sounds from my pants pocket. Or being on the T and answering to "evilpizz." Or teaching a class and hearing the sounds of "galloping metal" coming from my backpack. It’s just not me, I’m afraid. The search for a ring tone continued.

I soon discovered a treasure trove of ring tones online, at a minimum of two bucks a pop. I was amazed at the inventory of noises: bicycle bells, church bells, car horns, police sirens. Bleating, belching, mewling, howling. Everything from Brahms’ “Trio, opus 40” to Britney’s "Oops, I did it again!" But nothing that was not a statement, serious or satirical, about who you are or would like to be perceived to be. I contemplated Beethoven’s Polonaise in C but when I had downloaded it and my phone rang it was like someone screaming “snob!” from my pants pocket. It seemed to say: I think I'm too good for "Krunktone," too righteous for "low rider,” too sophisticated for "evilpizz." But that’s not it at all. I don’t even know who or what “krunk” is. It’s like those people who get a Chinese character tattooed on their arms, thinking it means “power” when actually it could say “muttonhead” for all they know.

It’s more work than I wanted to put into a device I could do without were it not for the irritating exigencies of modern life, that’s for sure. But I couldn't possibly go on with "Krunktone" as my theme song. When finally I stumbled on a phone-like sound among the menagerie, I realized that even a simple ring is a statement of a sort. There was no avoiding it. It’s nostalgia, sure, but at least I can still tell my friends to “give me a ring.”

Sunday, October 02, 2005

If you’ve ever been to Rome, and visited the Vatican, you can’t have missed Saint Peter’s Basilica. The first thing you’ll notice, and arguably the most impressive thing about it, is its sheer size. No one I’ve ever spoken to who’s been there has described it as cozy or welcoming. It’s not that sort of place. It’s designed to dwarf the visitor, presumably to humble the worshiper. There’s no escaping that it’s a testament to power. If you’re looking for some of that much-touted mercy Christ went on about, you might want to look elsewhere.

That’s the paradox of religion in modern times, though, isn’t it? The notion that mercy should play a central role (much less THE central role) in religious or civic life is a fairly new one. Judaism, out of which Christianity emerged, was not a universal religion, but a tribal—and necessarily a martial—one. It still is. Most religions, particularly monotheistic ones, maintain this us-against-them mentality. My God is bigger than your God. That kind of thing. Early Christianity’s innovation, which Peter resisted and Paul pushed for, was, in fact, its universalizing message. The word “catholic” (with a little c) actually means “universal”. Without Saint Paul, and his insistence on expanding the scope of the early church, allowing gentiles to join, there would be no Saint Peter’s.

Paul was also what some might call misogynistic, and modern people can certainly read something like homophobia in some of his epistles. But then Paul was struggling to found an institution, and institutions cannot survive without hierarchies and rules, without a power structure. That’s another paradox of Christianity: Christ was certainly not its founder.

Now we find the Church in the midst of another in a long line of infamous purges. No one does inquisitions better, that’s for sure. Even Boston’s Archbishop O’Malley, when he arrived in his lowly cassock, showed the ruthlessness of a medieval monk, and shrewdly shifting attention away from the misdeeds of the Church, entered the political fray over gay marriage. Rather than make the institutional hierarchy more accountable for its crimes, and aiming for more transparency in the leadership of the Church and all along the chain of command, the Church under Pope Benedict XVI has chosen to answer the victimization of one group with the victimization of another.

Why does this matter to non-Catholics? First of all, because churches have increasing power and influence in politics today. Second, because any institution with the scope and resources of the Church, particularly in the social realm, that advocates scapegoating and argues for essentially second-class status for any class of citizens, is a danger to an open society. The Catholic Church is not simply a private club, and this is not merely about restricting its membership. This is about right versus wrong, about power versus mercy. The Church has once again forgotten its basic truth: that, in fact, mercy IS power. That’s the very catholic message of an increasingly un-catholic Catholic Church.