Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins

In “The Soft Bigotry of Ben Carson” Mr. Blow says his  pedigree as a neurosurgeon adds gravitas to his nonsensical utterances and provides some cover for poisonously harmful, over-the-line invectives.  In “Jews as Far as Possible” Mr. Cohen says being part of Stefan Zweig’s “community of expulsion,” Jews cannot now turn their backs on the expelled.  Mr. Kristof, in “A Pope for All Species,” says Francis’ empathy lifts humans, animals and Christianity itself.  Ms. Collins considers “The Pope and Clark Gable” and says a  parochial school teacher once offered twisted insight into the actor’s success and afterlife. The Catholic Church has made progress since.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.”

At first, he stood by that outrageously prejudiced remark, but after coming under fire from not only Muslim groups but also many conservatives, he soon tried to walk it back, to cushion and to caveat it.

On Monday night, he posted a message on Facebook that included this line: “I could never support a candidate for President of the United States that was Muslim and had not renounced the central tenant of Islam: Sharia Law.”

Then on Tuesday, at a news conference, Carson said, “It has nothing to do with being a Muslim.” He continued: “That was the question that was specifically asked. If the question had been asked about a Christian and they said, ‘Would you support a Christian who supports establishing a theocracy?’ I would have said no.”

Only his original comment was unambiguous: It had everything to do with being a Muslim. And it was bigoted.

But this isn’t Carson’s first time at this rodeo. This has become his modus operandi.

Carson has a way of speaking in a flat, sing-song-y tone while flashing his toothy, 100-watt smile, that can be utterly disarming, if not completely charming.

His undeniable pedigree as an acclaimed pediatric neurosurgeon adds an air of gravitas to his nonsensical utterances and provides some cover for what can be poisonously harmful, over-the-line invectives.

Carson says in low register what others shout in anger, and he gets a bit of a pass because of the discordant message and method of delivery.

Just because a person is soft-spoken doesn’t mean that he is well-spoken.

Since Carson used his 2013 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast to criticize President Obama’s policies to his face, he has been lionized in conservative quarters.

It’s not that others have not criticized the president before or since, but it was the particularity of the racial imagery of Carson’s critique — one smart, accomplished black man undressing another in public — that gave it particular power. It insulated the attack from racial characterization. He said things from the lips of a black conservative that roiled the minds of white ones. And it represented a prominent breaking of ranks, a slicing off of black solidarity from not only Democratic loyalty but also from fidelity with this president.

Since then, Carson’s rhetoric has seemed to get only more reckless.

He has called Obama a psychopath and a liar. He has compared Obama’s supporters to Nazi sympathizers. He has said that Obamacare is the “worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” even worse than the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

He has asserted that being gay is “absolutely” a choice as evidenced by people who “go into prison straight — and when they come out, they’re gay.” He later apologized in a statement that read in part:

“I do not pretend to know how every individual came to their sexual orientation. I regret that my words to express that concept were hurtful and divisive. For that I apologize unreservedly to all that were offended.”

And even when his rhetoric isn’t reckless, it can be wrongheaded.

He has used the shallowness of race as a biological construct to disavow and diminish the depth of racism as a very real cultural construct.

And he makes the mistake many people do, of using his personal story of success as a societal prescription for all problems. I have always held that working hard and following the rules are their own reward, but I am not naïve enough to believe that personal behavior can completely countervail structural oppression.

Carson knows that his outrageous antics in his role as the anti-Obama are a most profitable enterprise. He mixes political critique with Christian theological messaging to rake in quite a bit of money on the lecture circuit.As Politico reported in July, Carson “brought in nearly $2 million delivering inspirational speeches to faith-based groups like Christian high schools and pregnancy centers in 2014,” with speaking fees ranging “from $12,320 to $48,500.”

This is a sad turn — spurred, I believe, by profit motive — for such a great legacy.

I, like many other African-Americans, had come to see Carson as a hero before his foray into politics because of the resonance of his personal story — a poor inner-city child being raised by a driven single mother who valued education and instilled in him a sense of character that would allow him to become a staggering success.

Carson was the embodiment of possibility. His 1990 book, “Gifted Hands,” was required reading for many young people.

But as a political figure, his stature is diminished as he reveals himself to be intolerant, bordering on soft bigotry, and also reckless and needlessly inflammatory. No one can discount what Carson accomplished professionally, but those accomplishments must now stand shoulder to shoulder with this new persona: whisper-soft purveyor of hyperbolic hucksterism.

Next up we have Mr. Cohen:

I should not be writing this column on Yom Kippur, in a break from shul, on an empty stomach, but there we are. Let’s put it down to another inflection in the many inflections of being Jew-ish.

Jews are a practical people. They deal with this world not the next. They are an argumentative people. They know that truth may be a matter of disputation, or may be arrived at only through disputation. They tend to accept that being Jewish, one may have to be Jew-ish at times, fall a little short, be a little approximate.

I have a column to write. Deadlines are unforgiving. Less forgiving than this Day of Atonement, whose significance was expressed in a phrase of Maimonides: “We have freed ourselves of our previous deeds, have cast them behind our backs, and removed them from us as far as possible.”

I love that “as far as possible.” Jews, as I said, are a practical people. Their interest is in the feasible not in magic wands.

This is a day of the inward gaze, of breaking from the world. It is a time for turning the mind and soul elsewhere, away from the ephemeral toward the eternal, away from multitasking toward mercy.

A column is very much of this world. Once published, it is debated in real time, commented on, bounced across social media, its clicks counted; and so publication, no longer a singular event, becomes a process that may be protracted and distracting. Life today is a battle against distraction. You start off intent on doing one thing and end up doing another. Or not doing anything at all.

It feels good, then, to set aside pretense of action for the fecund inaction of sitting still in synagogue, in my case the beautiful 175-year-old West London Synagogue, to listen to many things (including silence); and to reflect, arrested now and then by a phrase or just by the sunlight glinting through stained glass into a place of proportions that speak of harmony.

How inexhaustible are the words of the sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now when?”

A couple of millennia have not produced a better summation of realism allied to humanity allied to the urgency of the deed, nor a more powerful injunction against self-delusion, selfishness and procrastination.

I had arrived in London from the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of refugees who have fled the Syrian war are entering Europe every day on inflatable rafts. “Refugees Welcome,” said a banner at the entrance to the synagogue — scarcely the general view of Britain or its government. Jews, part of what Stefan Zweig called “the ever-recurring — since Egypt — community of expulsion,” cannot in good conscience turn their backs on the expelled.

In different renderings, throughout the day, a cornerstone of Jewish ethics was expressed: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Recall what it is to be driven out of your land with no land to go to.

At no time did I hear of the God of dangerous certainties endemic to every form of fundamentalism. I did not hear of a God of revealed truths used to stoke the fires of confrontation between peoples, nor of an unforgiving God invoked by believers to justify zealotry or beheadings or discrimination or exclusive claims to land. No, this was the God of “whoever saves one soul, it counts as if he saved the whole world.”

Jews came up with the idea of a faceless God with whom they had a covenant, and that covenant — binding over thousands of years of uprooted wandering — was in essence a covenant of ethics. For a long time it was a covenant of the powerless. It would be a terrible outcome if it proved irreconcilable with the exercise of power, now that the long-awaited return to Jerusalem has occurred, and a strong and vibrant modern Israel exists whose founding charter of 1948 says the state will be based on “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

Those prophets’ word was present in the synagogue. Zealotry is not the answer to zealotry. Being a practical people who have learned through the ultimate trial that without power survival itself is at risk cannot mean Jewish acquiescence to the injustice of dominion over another displaced people, the Palestinians. The teachings of the “community of expulsion” demand ever-renewed commitment to inclusion, even when it seems hopeless. Justice and peace are incompatible with the status quo in the Holy Land.

Perhaps such ideas are Jew-ish, the delusions of which “real Jews” in their absolutist certainties have rid themselves. But I will take the “as far as possible” of the Jewish philosopher over the all-or-nothing conviction of the Messianic Jewish settler.

And now here’s Mr. Kristof:

We all know that Pope Francis cares deeply for the marginalized, but did you realize that his compassion bridges the species barrier? Hesuggests that animals will go to heaven and that the Virgin Mary “grieves for the sufferings” even of mistreated livestock.

“Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place,” he has written.

I share his conviction that dogs go to heaven — indeed, heaven would be diminished if there were no dogs. And it’s exhilarating to see a spiritual leader whose empathy goes beyond the widow and orphan to, say, the parrot (Francis once blessed a parrot belonging to a former male stripper).

More on Francis’ empathy for animals in a moment. In a larger sense, it is this boundless compassion that has made him such a popular figure, even among non-Catholics.

Indeed, here’s the delicious irony: Pope Francis is revered even by many atheists.

The backdrop is that the Christian “brand” has suffered from culture wars, hypocritical televangelist blowhards and the sense that Christian leaders have spent more time condemning gays (whom Jesus never mentions) than helping the needy (Jesus’ passion). Some young people have gone so far as to avoid the label “Christian,” calling themselves followers of Jesus instead. It carries less baggage.

Yet I wonder if that taint isn’t beginning to fade. In the Protestant world, the baton has passed to evangelical leaders who are less interested in culture wars, and under Francis the same may increasingly be true of Roman Catholicism. In his remarks during his White House visit on Wednesday, Francis focused once again on climate change, the environment and immigrants.

Our public figures are often narcissists, utterly self-absorbed in their quest for power. And into this mix strides Pope Francis, drawn to the powerless, focused on issues like climate change and human trafficking, declaring, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined.”

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, the evangelical aid group, cites that passage and says Francis’ writing should be required reading across denominations.

“I have been deeply grieved by the damage done to the reputation of Christianity in recent years by Christians shaking their fists at the culture,” Stearns says. “Perhaps the shortest definition of God in Scripture is from 1 John 4:8, ‘God is love.’ Pope Francis is trying to show the world the simplicity of that revolutionary idea.”

Deborah Fikes, of the World Evangelical Alliance, puts it this way: “As a U.S. evangelical who has been so disappointed in how leaders from my own faith tradition have lost sight of what an authentic Christian witness really looks like, Pope Francis is nailing it, and this is resonating with Catholics and Protestants, including evangelicals.”

The excitement about Francis is about his tone as much as his substance, and he shares many of the conservative social values of his predecessors. To me, one of the most striking shifts that go beyond tone is one that has commanded almost no notice: his calls for animal rights.

“We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures,” he declared in his encyclical on the environment. “The Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism.”

There are many such passages, including a warning against unnecessary experiments on animals.

It would be a mistake to say, as one animal rights group did, that the pope’s message is “go vegan,” and it’s unclear what the practical implications are. Bruce Friedrich of Farm Sanctuary has called on the pope to match his words by making the Vatican cafeteria vegetarian — but I wouldn’t bet on that happening soon.

Still, Francis is relentlessly shining his spotlight on the voiceless, whether two-legged or four-legged, and that is new.

Pope Paul VI is said to have once comforted a boy by saying that he could see his dog again in heaven, but Pope Benedict XVI contradicted that.

Charles Camosy, a Catholic theologian at Fordham University who has written a book about the theology of animal protection, says that Francis’ carefully reviewed encyclical this year constitutes the first authoritative Catholic statements that animals enjoy eternal life. Camosy says this is a milestone, although he says he would have also welcomed Francis’ clarifying our moral obligations to, say, pigs versus mosquitoes.

The pope’s sweeping empathy will benefit the poor, the refugees and, perhaps gradually, animals we abuse in factory farms. But it does more; his humility and compassion also benefit the reputation of Christianity itself, by helping to recast it from pointing fingers to helping hands.

And last but not least here’s Ms. Collins:

Watching the nation come to a screeching halt over Pope Francis’ visit, I had a flashback to my childhood in Cincinnati. One day I saw a picture of then-Pope Pius XII on the front page of the evening paper and I was shocked — Shocked! I had no idea that anybody in Ohio outside my immediate neighborhood knew who he was.

In our Catholic school, the nuns stressed our isolation, and they kept prepping us to be ready to die for our faith at any moment. Like St. Ursula, who was on a pilgrimage with 11,000 virgins, all of whom instantly chose martyrdom rather than surrender their purity to infidel Huns. (At the time, I just knew virgins were women who hadn’t married, and I had a vision of throngs of young ladies being pursued by barbarians waving engagement rings.)

Or St. Tarcisius, a Roman boy who was carrying holy communion to imprisoned Christians. There are many versions of this story, but in the one my teachers told, the job was supposed to be performed in total silence. When his pagan playmates asked him to join their game, Tarcisius clasped his sacred package to his heart and shook his head. Then the pagan boys guessed what was up and beat him to death.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how Tarcisius might have gotten away unscathed. Maybe by pretending to have a sore throat? It seemed important to identify the best strategy, because some modern-day version of the Huns or pagan Romans could arrive at any minute.

Catholicism was, as I learned after the Pius XII incident, the largest faith in my city. Many of our teachers were probably only a generation away from being picked-on immigrants, and maybe they brought their sense of paranoia with them to the classrooms. That’s understandable, but being both the powerful majority and the persecuted minority is like having your cake and eating it, and then taking over the bakery and bolting the front door.

This brings us back to Pope Francis, a humble man who accepts that he’s very powerful. He may have a little car and a modest home, but when he looks out at the world, his gaze isn’t defensive. He wants Catholicism to thrive — on a planet without global warming. He knows there are places where Catholics are suffering terribly for their faith, but when he looks at an embattled flock, he also sees Muslim immigrants who need Christian countries to open their borders.

Almost everybody appreciates this is a terrific gift to the world. Many people were hoping for a second one: some change in the church’s dogma on sex. This seems highly unlikely. But if Francis can at least change the context, that would be terrific.

Catholic schools don’t focus on sex now the way they did when I was a student. But the current crop of bishops was probably educated in schools like mine, where the subject came up 24/7. When Clark Gable died, one of my teachers explained that since the actor had had several wives, God knew he was going to hell and had probably given him earthly success to make up for any good deeds he performed in this world.

This was not official Catholic doctrine. The reform-minded John XXIII was pope by then and he would have fainted if confronted by the Clark Gable theory. But it was an excellent example of how loopy things can get if a religion obsesses on consensual private behavior.

I remember one priest who told us that when Christ was dying on the cross, he sadly envisioned us Catholic girls sinning in the back seat of a car.

“Aren’t there any other sins?” I asked one day. I’d be sort of proud of having come up with the question if the follow-up hadn’t been such a failure. I couldn’t think of any other immediate possibilities. Nobody in my school even swore.

“Like …” I groped. “…Greed?” All I knew about greed was cartoons of Scrooge McDuck sitting on a pile of money.

There were obviously a lot of character failings we could have discussed. My friends and I were capable of floating for weeks without seriously directing attention at anything that didn’t involve ourselves. But as long as we kept away from boys’ wandering hands, we felt spiritually A-O.K.

This pope is highly unlikely to accept gay marriage, and he’ll never give abortion a pass. But in Washington he grouped abortion in a long catalog of wrongs that need to be righted: hungry children, bombing, “immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow,” old or sick people who are treated as a burden, terrorism, war, drug trafficking and environmental devastation.

It’s a long, long way from believing that God looked at Clark Gable’s soul and saw nothing but a guy who got divorced.

Advertisements

Tags:

2 Responses to “Blow, Cohen, Kristof and Collins”

  1. Seymour Glass II Says:

    Mr. Cohen may recall the recent Israeli plans to take in a million Lebanese refugees of the next Hezbollah – Israeli war. That seemed a bit much in only practical terms didn’t it? And let’s forget that there are terrorist in the world and that they could save their moral pluralism and existential nature not take the cowardly way out of war in Syria and migrate as it were to the US. Right next door. So let’s all remember how Arab Spring went. Even Jeff Goldberg of the the Atlantic has risen above the crowded tenement and stony streets of cobblers and called out the Saudis for execution to be followed by an after dinner treat of crucifixion. It must be delightful to pronounce oneself holier than thou each morning Cohen. Hypocrite.

    Mr. Cohen wants Jews to forget the tragedy of death by a totalitarian state so we may join hands with those same people who reveled in delight at the wars with Israel and the US over the correct depiction of God.

  2. Over Backwards Says:

    Isn’t Mr. Blow really asking why is Carson not considered a sham like Trump? And he answers his own unasked question reminding us he is a world renowned neurosurgeon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: