The Perp(Reprinted from the issue of February 23, 2006)
Just as a Danish cartoon had become an international incident, the farce of Dick Cheney, vice president and alleged perpetrator, turned into a solemn episode. The apparently slight wounds suffered by his 78-year-old lawyer friend Harry Whittington suddenly appeared more serious when they resulted in a minor heart attack.
A seemingly small incident, not without its comical angles, became the latest media uproar. It wasnt clear what, if anything, Cheney was guilty of are hunting accidents now impeachable offenses? but at this point he and the Bush administration have become so disliked and distrusted that even their innocent mishaps are subject to wild overreaction.
To hear some journalists, you would gather that the White House had been trying to cover up a particularly ghastly crime during the few hours between the shooting and its curious disclosure via a local Texas newspaper. The incident provoked Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, usually a level-headed commentator, to a hysterical recitation of the administrations atrocities, among them setting up gulags abroad.
Tempers were running high on both sides. Rush Limbaugh roared back by reminding his audience of Chappaquiddick, contrasting Cheneys solicitude for the wounded Harry Whittington with Ted Kennedys callous abandonment of Mary Jo Kopechne.
Im all for historical perspective, but by now the Chappaquiddick parallels are getting a little dog-eared, and it may be time to move on.
Meanwhile, the incident set off the Winter Olympics of late-night comedy, as the wags of the witching hour attempted to rise to the occasion with what they immediately recognized as the most promising mother-lode of merriment since the heyday of Monica Lewinsky. The laughter abated somewhat when Whittingtons heart attack was announced, whereupon moral indignation displaced humor.
Couldnt Cheney, Dowd asked, at least make some public gesture of contrition and humility?
This was turning into one of those incomprehensible brawling debates where knives, bricks, foodstuffs, and dishware are flying through the air and even the two sides cant agree on just what theyre fighting about. You can pretty well forget about making sense of it all, but David Ignatius of The Washington Post gave it a try, finding the arrogance of power in the Bush White House. Cheney had acted as if he were above the law in his delay in reporting the shooting accident, just as he and Bush have misused privileged intelligence information ... well, the logic eluded me somewhat.
Not that Ignatius didnt have some good points. When charged with breaking the law with warrantless wiretaps and the like, Bush and Cheney, he complained, assert the commander in chiefs power under Article II of the Constitution, which, according to them, trumps everything, including acts of Congress.
Ignatius is so right. But he forgets one thing. Bush and Cheney are just playing a Republican riff on the theme liberal Democrats have been singing for decades: the Living Document. Two can play this game, and the Republicans can find their own penumbras and emanations when they want to.
Not so long ago, liberals were celebrating those great presidents who took a creative or expansive view of executive power. It wasnt until Richard Nixon that the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., one of the great troubadours of the famous victories of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, began to have qualms about the imperial presidency.
Well, you never know where historical perspective will strike next, I always say. I am no great fan of George W. Bush either, but liberals can thank themselves for him.
There is an even greater irony here: The men Bush has selected for the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, seem likely to join Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in rejecting the whole idea of the Living Document.
The evidence isnt in yet, but they may wind up ruling against such usurpations of power as Bush has been perpetrating.
In the end, then, liberals may find themselves grateful for all those reactionary Catholics on the Court. Like nuclear weapons, the Living Document can be dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands!
Blasphemy and Law
A rash of anti-Christian humor, as well as more serious projects like the novel (and forthcoming film) The Da Vinci Code, has prompted Neely Tucker of The Washington Post to write a short piece on the history of American blasphemy. In 17th-century Maryland, for example, a blasphemer could be sentenced to having his tongue nailed to a tree.
There is no record that this penalty was ever inflicted, but its startling to be reminded that laws against blasphemy meaning insults to Christianity remained on the books until fairly recently even in America.
Today European culture is quite tolerant of anti-Christian blasphemy, but is getting nervous about anti-Muslim blasphemy. It has long since adopted anomalous taboos against a new kind of blasphemy, Holocaust denial. This makes it odd for Europeans, in the current cartoon war, to insist that freedom of speech is non-negotiable. They have already proved themselves ready to negotiate it, as David Irving, in his jail cell in Austria, can attest.
Whos to Blame for the Church?
In a sense, the recent attacks on Christ, serious or flippant, strike me as long overdue. They have been implicit in all the hypocritical attacks on organized religion and the institutional Church which purport to distinguish between the simple message of Jesus and its alleged corruption in later creeds, rituals, theologies, and moralities.
If you create a sentimental pseudo-Jesus, in harmony with modern fashion, you can make the Church your scapegoat for all the things you dont like about the real Jesus.
For example, we are told that the Church was anti-Semitic from the first Apostles (who were Jews themselves) to the Second Vatican Council, which finally repudiated the anti-Semitism that had led to the Holocaust. If we suppose this ugly charge is true, it seems that Jesus created a religion of love that almost immediately became a matrix of hate, and then remained so for two millennia. Whose fault was that? Jesus bears no responsibility for the nature of the Church?
Again, even many professed Christians deny that the words This is my body were meant literally. The Catholic Church still affirms that they were, and both Johns Gospel (chapter 6) and St. Paul indicate the same. Is this another corruption of the simple message?
Same-sex marriage, Andrew Sullivan now tells us, is in accordance with the Simple Message, whereas discrimination against homosexuals is contrary to it. Jesus, you see, stood for inclusion, and the Pope still doesnt get it.
This way of exculpating Jesus is pretty unconvincing. If we dont like the Church, why not put the blame where it obviously belongs?
In politics, especially during wartime, people habitually say things that would be recognized, in any other setting, as insane SOBRANS. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.
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the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
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