Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Feeling Superior

My father used to rail against the New York Times. He would be astonished that I now read it daily on-line, not because he was conservative and the Times is liberal but because I am so handy with a computer. Dad bought four computers in his last 15 years and never got past turning them on—until a consultant showed him how to follow the markets with an iMac. Then that’s all he did: no e-mail, no on-line shopping. You wanted Dad’s attention, you called him on the phone.

Dad was a rock-ribbed “Rockefeller Republican,” a Yalie who astonished us all by voting against a Yalie during his last Presidential election in 2004, pulling the lever for John Kerry. My father died in September 2008, torn between McCain the war hero and Obama, whom Dad found appealing. I would like to remain as open-minded as my father was into deep old age.

I think Dad would like David Brooks. The Times editorial page these days features a surprisingly wide spectrum of opinion, from the lapsed and angry Maureen Dowd to the staunchly pro-life Ross Douthat. Brooks is somewhere in the middle, leaning toward Douthat but perhaps not willing to admit it fully. I don’t know if Brooks has a formal religious affiliation, but he strikes me as a lot like what I was just four years ago: an Episcopalian tipping toward Rome. He shares a good old Protestant name with one of the saints of the American Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks. I use the term saint loosely here.

I have been thinking about Brooks’s latest op-ed piece, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” for 24 hours now. It begins with a great lead and then goes places, although I don’t think it goes far enough. Talking of the Penn State sex abuse scandal, Brooks leads with, “First came the atrocity, then came the vanity.” It’s interesting that Brooks skips the middle step, the willful blindness and silence of head coach Joe Paterno and the Penn State administrators to whom he reported. Brooks goes straight from the miscreant, Jerry Sandusky, who attacked boys, to us and our moral outrage over the silence of Paterno and company. Our outrage, Brooks notes, “is based on the assumption that if [we] had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, [we] would have behaved better. [We] would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

“Unfortunately,” Brooks adds, “none of us can safely make that assumption.” He then lists a few famous instances from recent history in which the witnesses to atrocity remained mum, including the “mostly apocryphal” Kitty Genovese case from the 1960s and the Rwandan genocide. Then he trots out some psychological findings about “motivated blindness,” how we don’t look at the things that make us uncomfortable. “People are really good at self-deception,” he writes.

But the self-deception goes deeper, as Brooks writes near the end, where the piece really gets interesting, fleshing out the theme of its title, “Let’s All Feel Superior.”

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again. 

I recognize Brooks’s compulsion to political correctness, not naming any of the “these systems [emphasizing] our sinfulness,” although of course the system that springs most readily to mind is the Catholic Church, which its detractors often say is “all about sin and guilt.” Of course, those detractors believe in their own “inner wonderfulness,” a wonderful phrase! At least since I’m OK, You’re OK became a best-seller 42 years ago, we have had our own goodness and therefore sinlessness drummed into us. We no longer live in a world that obsesses over sin, a world openly plagued by guilt, like that described in the novels of Sigrid Undset. And having declared our freedom from original sin, many born Catholics no longer have the Catholic Church to bail them out.

Instead, we (all) anesthetize ourselves with alcohol, drugs, liberal sex, and entertainment, including major college football in hi-def, and then we take the “moral high ground” when we read of sexual abuse cases like those that have plagued Penn State and the Catholic Church.

At the end of his piece, Brooks returns to “our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive.” But he has left on the table a deeper issue. The Penn State scandal and the scandal in the Catholic Church are both horrifying and comforting. We are horrified that someone would treat children as Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky did, or as Fr. John Geoghan did in the Archdiocese of Boston. But we are comforted knowing that we would never do the same.

Aren’t we wonderful?

(Note: My old friend at “Why I Am Catholic,” Frank Weathers, picked up on the Brooks piece as well. Check out his postings at Patheos.)

1 comment:

  1. It reminds me of what Dr. Hahn says about the Israelites who worshiped the Golden Calf: "It's easy for us Catholics to look at what they did and criticize. But put yourself in their shoes - chances are, you would have done the same thing".

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