Mr. Cohen is off today. Bobo has decided to wax philosophical. In “When the Good Do Bad” he gurgles that no fundamentally good. The perennial shock at tragedies like the Afghan massacre shows our confusion about human nature. Bullshit, Bobo. I doubt you’d be all hand-wringing and gurgling about how good people sometimes do bad things if an Afghan had slaughtered 16 Americans. You’d call him an em-effing terrorist and howl for his blood. Asshole. Mr. Nocera, in “The Mets Switch Teams,” says Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, the beleaguered owners of the New York Mets, acted rationally by reaching a settlement with the trustee managing the Madoff bankruptcy. Mr. Bruni, in “Many Kinds of Catholic,” points out that neither Rick Santorum nor the Vatican speaks for most American Catholics. No crap, really? Here’s Bobo:
It’s always interesting to read the quotations of people who knew a mass murderer before he killed. They usually express complete bafflement that a person who seemed so kind and normal could do something so horrific.
Friends of Robert Bales, who is accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians, have expressed similar thoughts. Friends and teachers describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he — in the vague metaphor of common usage — apparently “snapped.” As one childhood friend told The Times: “That’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”
Any of us would be shocked if someone we knew and admired killed children. But these days it’s especially hard to think through these situations because of the worldview that prevails in our culture.
According to this view, most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.
This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves. But when somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.
But of course it happens all the time. That’s because even people who contain reservoirs of compassion and neighborliness also possess a latent potential to commit murder.
David Buss of the University of Texas asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies. He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out.
One woman invited an abusive ex-boyfriend to dinner with thoughts of stabbing him in the chest. A young man in a fit of road rage pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk and would have pummeled his opponent if he hadn’t run away. Another young man planned the progression of his murder — crushing a former friend’s fingers, puncturing his lungs, then killing him.
These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.
People who murder often live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraint. People who commit massacres, for example, often live with what the researchers call “forward panic.” After having endured a long period of fear, they find their enemies in a moment of vulnerability. Their fear turns to rage, and, as Steven Pinker writes in “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” they “explode in a savage frenzy.”
Serial killers are often charming, but have a high opinion of themselves that is not shared by the wider world. They are often extremely conscious of class and status and they develop venomous feelings toward people who do not pay them sufficient respect.
In centuries past most people would have been less shocked by the homicidal eruptions of formerly good men. That’s because people in those centuries grew up with a worldview that put sinfulness at the center of the human personality.
John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.
This worldview held that people are a problem to themselves. The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside. The worst thing you can do is, in a fit of pride, to imagine your insecurity comes from outside and to try to resolve it yourself. If you try to “fix” the other people who you think are responsible for your inner turmoil, you’ll end up trying to kill them, or maybe whole races of them.
This earlier worldview was both darker and brighter than the one prevailing today. It held, as C. S. Lewis put it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism.
According to this older worldview, Robert Bales, like all of us, is a mixture of virtue and depravity. His job is to struggle daily to strengthen the good and resist the evil, policing small transgressions to prevent larger ones. If he didn’t do that, and if he was swept up in a whirlwind, then even a formerly good man is capable of monstrous acts that shock the soul and sear the brain.
Eat a pile of salted rat shit, Bobo. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
Fifteen months ago, Irving Picard, the trustee managing the Madoff bankruptcy, and Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, reached an astonishing settlement with the widow of one of Bernard Madoff’s wealthiest investors.
Barbara Picower’s late husband, Jeffry, had been a Madoff investor since the late 1970s. During that time, he had pulled out a staggering $7.2 billion in profits, far more than any other investor in the Madoff Ponzi scheme.
Under New York law, a bankruptcy trustee trying to reclaim money from the “net winners” in a Ponzi scheme — that is, investors who took out more in profits than they put in — can “claw back” only the last six years’ worth of profits. In Picower’s case, that amounted to $2.4 billion. The law also says, however, that if the investor was either in on the scheme, or was “willfully blind” to it, he is liable for every penny he ever took out, no matter how far back. Although Barbara Picower insisted that her husband had been unaware of Madoff’s crimes, she nonetheless decided to give back everything; she was starting a foundation, she told people, and she didn’t want it tainted by Madoff. (It certainly helped that Picower’s other investments had been so profitable that she could afford to give back $7.2 billion.)
Today, that money sits, frozen, in the bank. Although it represents the lion’s share of the $9 billion Picard has recovered so far, he has been unable to distribute it to the Madoff “net losers,” many of whom are elderly and broke and desperately need it.
The reason is that a lawyer named Helen Davis Chaitman, who says she represents some 800 Madoff victims, has sued to void the settlement, claiming it would prevent her clients from bringing their own lawsuits against Picower. (Chaitman did not respond to an e-mail or a phone call for this column; she and I have spoken in the past, however.) In truth, her suit is ludicrous, and has no chance of succeeding. Her motive, so far as I can tell, is anger. A Madoff victim herself, she has become so consumed with rage at the trustee’s hardball tactics against the net winners that she sues Picard pretty much at the drop of a hat. But that rage is harming some of the very people she claims to represent.
Up until Monday, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, the beleaguered owners of the New York Mets, were every bit as angry at Picard as Helen Chaitman. They were furious when the trustee went public with his accusation that they had been willfully blind to the Ponzi scheme. They were livid that Picard was demanding $1 billion. They were convinced the trustee was filing inflammatory legal briefs, intended to make them look bad in the media. They even joined Chaitman in suing Picard over the question of whether he had the right to claw back profits from the net winners, even though that is standard operating procedure in a Ponzi scheme bankruptcy.
And then, just as they were about to bring their war to court, the two sides settled. It is easy to understand why. Jed Rakoff, the federal judge who was presiding over the case, has been openly skeptical of the trustee’s claim that Katz and Wilpon had been willfully blind. As for the Mets’ owners, the prospect of daily headlines airing their financial problems and their ties to Madoff is exactly what they don’t need as they desperately try to find minority investors to shore up their debt-ridden team.
So, in effect, Katz and Wilpon switched sides. They agreed to settle the suit for $162 million. At first glance, it is a very good deal for the Mets’ owners. But look again: it still adds up to six years’ worth of Madoff profits — exactly what the trustee has been demanding of all the other Madoff net winners. Katz and Wilpon also agreed to end their role in the litigation over whether Picard can claw back from the net winners. (That litigation is doomed anyway.) In other words, instead of letting their anger carry the day, the owners of the Mets did what they had to do, which included, essentially, agreeing with the trustee’s legal view of the Madoff bankruptcy. Unlike Chaitman’s lawsuit over the Picower settlement, they acted rationally.
Here’s one final, complicated wrinkle. Under the terms of the settlement, Katz and Wilpon won’t have to pay the $162 million for three years, giving them time to shore up the Mets’ finances. Indeed, because many of the Katz and Wilpon accounts were also net losers — and the trustee has agreed to accept those claims as legitimate — they might actually wind up paying much less than that out of pocket, depending on how much the trustee can raise in those three years from other sources. If they do have to pay, they have personally guaranteed $29 million.
Thus, the two men who fought so hard to prevent Irving Picard from collecting from the net winners are now in the position of rooting for him to do so. They might start by having a little talk with their former ally, Helen Chaitman.
I’m still waiting for the day when someone, ANYONE, goes after Goldman Sachs the way they went after Madoff. I’m not holding my breath, however… Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
If Catholicism is measured by obeisance to the pope, his cardinals and the letter of Vatican law, then Rick Santorum is the best Catholic to ever get this far in presidential politics.
He doesn’t just oppose abortion as a private matter of personal conscience. He has made that position a defining crusade.
He hasn’t just been fruitful and multiplied. He has promulgated the church’s formal prohibition against artificial birth control, yanking this issue, too, into the public square.
On homosexuality, premarital sex, pornography and more, he doesn’t just take his cues from church dictums. He trumpets that alignment as a testament to the steadfastness of his devotion, the integrity of his faith.
And for this he has been rewarded with a truly noteworthy level of Catholic support.
Noteworthy because it’s so underwhelming.
Exit polling suggests that he lost the Catholic vote to Mitt Romney, a Mormon, by 7 percentage points in Michigan and by 13 in Ohio. These weren’t isolated cases. In primary after primary, more Catholics have gravitated to Romney than to Santorum (or, for that matter, to Newt Gingrich, a Catholic-come-lately who collaborated with his third wife to make a worshipful documentary about Pope John Paul II).
This is a hurdle that Santorum must overcome to win the primary in Illinois, whose population is about 30 percent Catholic. And it’s yet more proof of most American Catholics’ estrangement from an out-of-touch, self-consumed church hierarchy and its musty orthodoxies.
For months now the adjective Catholic has been affixed to the country’s strange contraception debate, which began when many Catholic leaders took offense at a federal mandate that Catholic institutions provide insurance coverage for artificial birth control.
But most American Catholics don’t share their appointed leaders’ qualms with the pill, condoms and such. These leaders have found traction largely among people — Catholic and otherwise — concerned about government overreach. And the whole discussion has opened the door to plaints about morality from evangelicals, who warm to Santorum more than Catholics do.
American Catholics have been merrily ignoring the church’s official position on contraception for many years, often with the blessing of lower-level clerics. When my mother dutifully mentioned her I.U.D. during confession back in the 1970s, the parish priest told her that she really needn’t apologize or bring it up again. Which was a good thing, since she had no intention of doing away with it. Four kids were joy and aggravation enough.
Despite church condemnation of abortion and same-sex marriage, American Catholics’ views on both don’t diverge that much from those of Americans in general. These Catholics look to the church not for exacting rules, but for a locus for their spirituality, with rituals and an iconography that feel familiar and thus comfortable. In matters religious, as in “The Wizard of Oz,” there’s no place like home, and Catholicism is as much ethnicity as dogma: something in the blood, and something in the bones.
The Catholic hierarchy, meanwhile, keeps giving American Catholics fresh reasons for rebellion. As The Times’s Laurie Goodstein reported last week, lawyers for the church in Missouri have begun a campaign of intimidation against a support group for victims of sexually abusive priests: they’re trying to compel the group to release decades of internal documents.
This may be cunning legal strategy, but it’s lousy public relations and worse pastoral care. Which isn’t any surprise.
I’ve been monitoring and occasionally writing about the church’s child sex-abuse crisis since 1992, and most of church leaders’ apologies and instances of constructive outreach have come about reluctantly, belatedly or with a palpable sense from many bishops and cardinals that they were the aggrieved, victimized ones.
As they complained about excessive media attention, they frequently lost sight of its heinous root: a great many priests molested a great many children, who were especially vulnerable to them — and especially damaged by them — because they called themselves men of God. And for a great many years, church leaders actively concealed these crimes, which continued.
For the church ever to grouse that critics make too much of this, let alone to retaliate against victims and accusers, is galling. But it helps explain the breach between the hierarchy — invested in its own survival, resistant to serious discussions about the celibate culture’s role in child sexual abuse — and everyday Catholics. They’re left to wonder where they fit into their church and how it fits into the modern world.
They don’t really constitute a voting bloc, because their political allegiances reflect income and education as much as creed. That’s a big part of their resistance to Santorum.
But it’s also true that his particular Catholicism isn’t theirs. It’s the hierarchy’s. And his poor performance among Catholics should cause cardinals, bishops and the candidate himself to rethink the way they approach their religion.
Never happen. John XXIII has been relegated to the scrap heap of history, more’s the pity.