Bobo has read a book. Bobo has read a BIG book, what he calls “nearly 800 pages of dense, jargon-filled prose.” Bobo is proud. In “The Secular Society” he says a few years ago, Charles Taylor wrote a masterpiece on the West’s move from a theistic world to one in which faith is a choice. It’s worth revisiting. By all means, revisit the book. But read it yourself, instead of having Bobo try to interpret it for you. Mr. Nocera just adores him some oil companies. And he really, really dislikes Louisiana lawyers. In “Justice, Louisiana Style” he tells us that BP tried to do right by the victims of the oil spill. Then the lawyers pounced. Poor, poor, poor put-upon BP… Mr. Cohen, in “Dreaming of Mandela,” says we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. Mr. Bruni, in “Sex and the Sorriest Pols,” says what Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are seeking isn’t redemption, and their quests have much different degrees of audacity. Here’s Bobo:
I might as well tell you upfront that this column is a book report. Since 2007, when it was published, academics have been raving to me about Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.” Courses, conferences and symposia have been organized around it, but it is almost invisible outside the academic world because the text is nearly 800 pages of dense, jargon-filled prose.
As someone who tries to report on the world of ideas, I’m going to try to summarize Taylor’s description of what it feels like to live in an age like ours, without, I hope, totally butchering it.
Taylor’s investigation begins with this question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?
This story is usually told as a subtraction story. Science came into the picture, exposed the world for the way it really is and people started shedding the illusions of faith. Religious spirit gave way to scientific fact.
Taylor rejects this story. He sees secularization as, by and large, a mottled accomplishment, for both science and faith.
Advances in human understanding — not only in science but also in art, literature, manners, philosophy and, yes, theology and religious practice — give us a richer understanding of our natures. Shakespeare helped us see character in more intricate ways. An improvement in mores means we take less pleasure from bear-baiting, hanging and other forms of public cruelty. We have a greater understanding of how nature works.
These achievements did make it possible to construct a purely humanistic account of the meaningful life. It became possible for people to conceive of meaningful lives in God-free ways — as painters in the service of art, as scientists in the service of knowledge.
But, Taylor continues, these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and nonbeliever. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength.
People are called to greater activism, to engage in more reform. Religious faith or nonfaith becomes more a matter of personal choice as part of a quest for personal development.
This shift in consciousness leads to some serious downsides. When faith is a matter of personal choice, even believers experience much more doubt. As James K.A. Smith of Comment Magazine, who was generous enough to share his superb manuscript of a book on Taylor, put it, “We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”
Individuals don’t live embedded in tight social orders; they live in buffered worlds of private choices. Common action, Taylor writes, gives way to mutual display. Many people suffer from a malaise. They remember that many people used to feel connected to an enchanted, transcendent order, but they feel trapped in a flat landscape, with diminished dignity: Is this all there is?
But these downsides are more than made up for by the upsides. Taylor can be extremely critical of our society, but he is grateful and upbeat. We are not moving to a spiritually dead wasteland as, say, the fundamentalists imagine. Most people, he observes, are incapable of being indifferent to the transcendent realm. “The yearning for eternity is not the trivial and childish thing it is painted as,” Taylor writes.
People are now able to pursue fullness in an amazing diversity of different ways. But Taylor observes a general pattern. They tend not to want to live in a world closed off from the transcendent, reliant exclusively on the material world. We are not, Taylor suggests, sliding toward pure materialism.
We are, instead, moving toward what he calls a galloping spiritual pluralism. People in search of fullness are able to harvest the intellectual, cultural and spiritual gains of the past 500 years. Poetry and music can alert people to the realms beyond the ordinary.
Orthodox believers now live with a different tension: how to combine the masterpieces of humanism with the central mysteries of their own faiths. This pluralism can produce fragmentations and shallow options, and Taylor can eviscerate them, but, over all, this secular age beats the conformity and stultification of the age of fundamentalism, and it allows for magnificent spiritual achievement.
I’m vastly oversimplifying a rich, complex book, but what I most appreciate is his vision of a “secular” future that is both open and also contains at least pockets of spiritual rigor, and that is propelled by religious motivation, a strong and enduring piece of our nature.
So I guess that Bobo thinks that “pockets of spiritual rigor, propelled by religious motivation” are just peachy keen and fine and dandy if they’re in this country, but a VERY bad thing when they’re in, oh, the Middle East… (See his column on 7/5/13, “Defending the Coup.”) Now here’s Mr. Nocera:
You can actually pinpoint the moment when the oil company BP began to get hosed in Louisiana: March 2012.
By then, BP had paid out around $6.3 billion to some 220,000 people and businesses in the Gulf Coast region for damages suffered as a result of the 2010 oil spill. The money was distributed by Kenneth Feinberg, who had parceled out the 9/11 fund, and subsequently managed other victim compensation schemes.
In return for the payouts, however, Feinberg had insisted that the victims sign documents agreeing not to sue BP — a main goal for the company, which was hoping to avoid the kind of drawn-out litigation that went on after the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill. He had also insisted that the claims be for real, documented harm. Believe it or not, Feinberg spent more time turning down bogus claims than he did approving payments to victims.
It almost goes without saying that the Louisiana plaintiffs’ bar found such a scheme offensive. No litigation, after all, meant no lawyers’ fees. Plus, the idea that you could have this giant company, so ripe for the plucking … and then not pluck?
So a group of lawyers — known as the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee — persuaded their clients to skip the Feinberg process and sue BP. And in March 2012, BP settled with those lawyers. As a condition for settling, the plaintiffs’ lawyers insisted that Feinberg be replaced by Patrick Juneau, a good-ol’-boy plaintiffs’ lawyer himself. BP also agreed to expand the potential universe of claimants, knowing full well that this would likely mean that people whose economic losses had no connection to the spill would receive “compensation.” It estimated that the settlement would cost it an additional $7.8 billion.
On Monday, however, before a federal appeals court in New Orleans, BP finally said “enough.” Over the ensuing months, the company had come to realize that Juneau’s interpretation of such concepts as “revenue” and “earnings” was, er, unique. So unique, in fact, that businesses that not only weren’t affected by the BP disaster but hadn’t even suffered losses were getting millions of dollars. Some had seen increased profits during the oil spill — and still got money. Lawyers started trolling for new clients, trumpeting the fact that claims didn’t have to have any connection to the disaster. Suddenly, BP was facing the prospect of paying tens of billions of additional dollars to people who had no justifiable claim on the money.
When BP, which is based in London, complained to Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing all of the BP litigation in New Orleans, it got nowhere. Do I need to mention that Barbier is himself a former Louisiana plaintiffs’ lawyer? In fact, he was once the president of Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association. How cozy is that?
I realize that many people don’t much care that a multinational corporation responsible for a huge oil spill is being fleeced in Louisiana. But they should, for two reasons. First, although BP’s negligence was unquestionably a significant reason for the spill, its response has been the opposite of the unfeeling corporation. It waived the $75 million liability cap that federal law allows. It has spent, so far, $14 billion cleaning up the Gulf and another $11 billion settling claims of various sorts. It has taken its medicine willingly. Yet its efforts to do right by the Gulf region have only emboldened those who view it as a cash machine.
The next time a big company has an industrial accident, its board of directors is likely to question whether it really makes sense to “do the right thing” the way BP has tried to. Any board comparing BP’s response to the gulf oil spill with Exxon-Mobil’s response to the Exxon-Valdez spill is going to come to the obvious conclusion: Exxon-Mobil’s litigation-to-the-death strategy — which ultimately cost it $4 billion rather than the potential $40 billion liability BP is now facing — was the right one. Is that really what we want as a country?
There is one other point. I’ve written a number of columns about the importance of rule of law, especially in Russia, where it is so lacking, and where that lack is so detrimental to the Russian economy. A real rule of law gives businesses the confidence they need to make investments. If gives both parties faith that disputes will be settled fairly. It creates certainty.
We like to talk in the United States about our belief in the rule of law, but the truth is that what is going in Louisiana today is not all that different than when a corrupt Russian official creates a fake tax liability to line his pockets at the expense of some hapless company operating in Russia. “This is Louisiana, after all,” a local plaintiffs’ lawyer told Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently. “A big foreign company with deep pockets, and you’re surprised there’s a feeding frenzy? Come on, man.”
Vladimir Putin couldn’t have put it better himself.
Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
The South African living for my family was easy. The staff changed the nappies. The houseboys brought the braziers to the right glow for the braai. Two gardeners were employed, one for the roses and one for the rest. When dinner ended the bell was rung, either by hand or by pressure of the foot on a buzzer beneath the carpet. A black servant would appear dressed in a white outfit.
My grandfather, Laurie Adler, and his friends donned their whites for Sunday lunch, preceded by a cocktail of “gin and two” (one third gin, one third Cinzano Bianco, one third Cinzano Rosso and “and full to the brim with ice”), before ambling off to play bowls.
At picnics on Table Mountain, a beret on his head, socks pulled up almost to his knee, Laurie would plunge a knife into the pale green watermelons, making a series of incisions before, with a flourish, allowing the succulent fruit to fall open in oozing red bloom. We feasted and left a trail of eggshells and bitten-out watermelon rind.
And on Robben Island, without watch or clock, Mandela maps time on the wall of his cell.
A particularity of the apartheid system was that blacks were kept at a distance except in the most intimate of settings, the home. They cooked and cleared away; they washed and darned and dusted; and they coddled white children. After the Shabbat meal on Friday night guests might leave some small token of appreciation on the kitchen counter (“Shame, I don’t have much change”) or slip a few rand into a calloused black hand.
Elsewhere lay the Africa of the Africans — the natives as they were often called — the distant townships of dust and dirt where water was drawn from a communal spigot, and homes consisted of a single room, and clothes were patched together from scraps of passed-down fabric, and the alleys were full of the stale stench of urine. I could smell the hardship in the sweat of the houseboys and see it in the yellowish tint of their eyes.
And on Robben Island, Mandela records on a South African Tourism desk calendar the humiliations inflicted by white prison warders.
A relative told me his first political memory from the early 1950s was of a great tide of black walkers streaming from Alexandra township — “like the Jews leaving Egypt,” he said, but of course no liberation awaited. The blacks were protesting against a one-penny hike in bus fares. Moenie worry nie, Laurie always insisted — don’t worry. He had been born in South Africa in 1899, my grandmother Flossie in 1900. They should know.
South Africa was as good a place as any for a Jew to live in the 20th century. A friend of the family let slip a sentiment widely felt but seldom articulated: “Thank God for the blacks. If not for them it would be us.” Jews on the whole kept their heads down; better just to keep stumm. Flossie voted for Helen Suzman’s anti-apartheid Progressive Party and then prayed the National Party remained in power. She was not alone in such genteel hypocrisy.
And on Robben Island, Mandela cultivates not hatred — that would be too easy for the whites — but the power of patience and perseverance.
The blacks were a form of protection. If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks you do not have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches of the Europe they had fled, the knowledge of the 69 blacks cut down at Sharpeville in 1960 was discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. Most, with conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans), looked away.
Why think of a black man in a cell for his just beliefs when you could gaze at the canopy of purple-blue jacaranda blossom over the avenues of Johannesburg? Everything seemed untroubled, unless you caught a glimpse of ragged black men being herded into police vans. Then a cousin might say, “I suppose they don’t have their passes. Enjoy the swimming pools, next year they will be red with blood.”
And on Robben Island, Mandela learns that not even a life sentence can condemn a man to abandon the mastery of his soul.
I have been dreaming of Mandela. An old idea: He who touches one human being touches all humanity. I have been murmuring his name: He broke the cycle of conflict by placing the future above the past, humanity above vengeance.
He reminded us of what is most precious in Jewish ethics: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man — or, as the Mosaic book says many times, you are to treat the stranger well for “you were a stranger in a strange land.” Repair the world. Be a light unto nations.
The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. But, as I learned young in South Africa, the human spirit can avert even inevitable catastrophe.
When Mandela made his first visit to the UN after his release his motorcade went down East 86th Street. The usually blasé New Yorkers lined the street 3 or 4 deep to cheer him. I was there cheering too. Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
Virginia is for lovers. New York is for penitents.
There are two in the headlines, Anthony and now Eliot. “Here We Ho Again!” trumpeted The New York Post. If this doesn’t save the tabloids, nothing will.
But before we go too far in lumping the men together or draw too many conclusions about priapism and punishment, let’s get our bearings.
Eliot Spitzer doesn’t have a quarter of the gall that Anthony Weiner does. He doesn’t have an eighth of it. Out of office for more than five years, he isn’t asking for a restoration of his prior glory. He isn’t even asking for a particularly sexy job. Comptroller of New York City? Most voters don’t know what that is or even if it’s spelled correctly. It doesn’t come with a mansion. It’s not a ticket to parades. It’s drudgery and decimal points. Audit till you drop.
Weiner, meantime, hadn’t been gone from Congress for even two years when he announced his candidacy for mayor of the city, a job exponentially more influential than the one that he’d never done especially well in the first place. He’s angling for a gigantic promotion. In the narrative he’s constructed, his mortification has made him a new man, so we’re supposed to give him an extra measure of our trust and hand him the reins of the most important and most complicated city in the country. I know we like our mayors brash, but we needn’t accept delusional in the bargain.
In one recent poll he emerged as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and that, coupled with Mark Sanford’s return to Congress from South Carolina, has prompted much commentary about the possibility that voters today are willing to look beyond sexual indiscretions.
But voters have long done so. A sex scandal didn’t topple Barney Frank back in the 1980s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s or David Vitter, the senator from Louisiana, who had his own prostitute problems in 2007. And Sanford, a Republican in a vividly red state, had a significant built-in advantage over his Democratic opponent. He benefited less from forgiveness than from partisanship.
As for Weiner, he has nonpareil name recognition in an overcrowded field of unconvincing rivals and in an era when the line between famous and infamous is blurrier than ever. All that he may be in the process of proving is that celebrity, not virtue, is its own reward.
It’s being said that he and Spitzer are seeking “redemption.” For the purposes of this duo and this election, let’s be careful with that noun. While Spitzer is indeed considering an assignment inferior to his last office, his years in political exile weren’t dedicated to the “public service” whose clarion call he says he cannot resist. They were warm baths in his own voice: a show on CNN, followed by one on Current TV. Those gigs are over; he’s adrift. What he’s seeking is relevance.
Ditto for Weiner, who also didn’t use his timeout in any way that showed a greater devotion to the public good than to his own. He sought to convert his political connections into quick profits. He plotted his audaciously hasty return. And here he is in his colorful, look-at-me trousers, with his colorful, look-at-me debate antics, weathering the jokes, enduring us naysayers. Better to be ridiculed than to be ignored.
Already there’s chatter about whose infidelities are more forgivable: Spitzer’s, which were arguably a crime, or Weiner’s, which were creepier? This misses a crucial point. Both men fell as spectacularly as they did not because they got caught with their pants down but because none of their colleagues liked them much even with their pants up.
They didn’t have Clinton’s reservoirs of charm or good will to tap. Spitzer, though an effective attorney general, was shaping up to be a self-righteous, self-defeating disaster of a governor, and Weiner was a sound bite and makeup kit in search of the nearest camera. Few people had a huge stake or interest in propping up either of them, in doing damage control.
That’s the part of their pasts — their particular brands of abrasiveness, the peculiar contours of their egos — more relevant to the present than their libidos. That’s what we should focus on, especially when it comes to Weiner. Spitzer’s at least overqualified for the post he wants, and his wanting it amounts to an appropriate pantomime of humility.
Weiner can’t manage that much. At a high school in Queens recently, he spoke of how setbacks make the man: polio for F.D.R., imprisonment for Mandela. “Would they have been so great had they not had those obstacles?” he asked.
It’s hard to shake the surreal sense that he was putting himself in that company. Sexting, apartheid: just different speed bumps on the road to power.