Pope Francis: a pontiff putting post-Gutenberg media slugabeds to shame

- caricature of a pompous, power-mad cleric, the kind Pope Francis is doing his best to eliminate -- by the supremely anti-clerical Martin Disteli (1802-1844)

Caricature of a pompous, power-mad cleric, the kind Pope Francis is doing his best to eliminate — by the supremely anti-clerical Martin Disteli (1802-1844)

The astonishing Argentinian Pope Francis, who is 78 and breathing with only one lung, does not expect to live long – hence is racing to do all he can, as fast as possible, to rid the Vatican of bureaucratic arteriosclerosis, closed minds, meaningless pomp and display, factionalism and infighting.

All this we have learnt from the outstanding profile that emerges from assessments of three new biographies by Eamon Duffy, writing in The New York Review of Books.

We tend to think of the young as the most obvious campaigners for radical change; as its natural leaders. But if you stop to think about it, old radicals are far more impressive. They have a lifetime’s experience of discouragement of challengers of the status quo — often, by the extremely nasty and powerful. They have heard all the very best reasons for leaving things as they are — ad nauseam.

For those of us frustrated by the pace of media’s post-Gutenberg revolution, the Duffy essay – certainly no hagiography, with its extended passages about the pontiff’s flaws and failures – was a bracing and encouraging read. Not least, about life’s capacity to surprise us. Think of the size of the institution the Vatican manages. In 2011, the Catholic Church had 1.2 billion members, tended to by 413,418 priests. Think of its age. It is two thousand years old. Age and size are typically justifications for intertia – or no change at all.

Extracts from ‘Who Is the Pope?’ The New York Review of Books, 19 February 2015 (with highlights for unrepentant skimmers):

…[A]bove all, Francis is the first pope to embrace wholeheartedly the Second Vatican Council’s aspiration for a church in which authority is shared among the whole episcopate, rather than monolithically focused in the papacy. At the end of the council in 1965, Pope Paul VI had established a permanent Synod of Bishops as a forum for continued collaboration between pope and bishops. Many saw the synod as the major expression of “collegiality” that would devolve much of the decision-making of the Roman Curia to the bishops in synod and through them to the local churches.

Such hopes proved illusory: the Roman authorities saw to it that the synod remained a powerless talking shop with no independence or initiating power. Bergoglio shared the general episcopal dissatisfaction with this situation, and as pope, in one of the most striking passages of Evangelii Gaudium, he has called for “a conversion of the papacy” on such matters. John Paul II, he reminded his readers, had invited suggestions for a renewal of the papal office to make it more visibly an office of service, but “we have made little progress in this regard.” The papacy and the central structures of the Church must heed the call to “pastoral conversion,” because “excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” In particular, Francis insisted, there had been a failure to realize a truly collegial spirit within the church, and episcopal conferences needed to be given “genuine doctrinal authority.”

He has proved as good as his word. Opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014 that, among much else, dealt with the fraught issues of sexuality, contraception, divorce, and remarriage, Francis encouraged the bishops to express their views frankly. No one should be silent or conceal his true opinions, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” To do so would be a failure in “synodality, because it is necessary to say all that, in the Lord, one feels the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation.” These were not empty platitudes: under John Paul II and Benedict XVI open questioning of official positions was routinely branded as “dissent,” and bishops who deviated even mildly from the official line were subject to reprimand or removal. For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.

… On the one hand there was the temptation to “hostile inflexibility,” of “wanting to close oneself,…not allowing oneself to be surprised by God, by the God of surprises,” clinging to “the certitude of what we know.” This was the special temptation of the zealous, and the so-called “traditionalists.” On the other hand he warned against “a destructive tendency to do-goodism” (buonismo in Italian) that “in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This, [he said], was the special temptation of the “do-gooders,” and of the so-called “progressives and liberals.” …

Though always meticulously respectful of his immediate predecessors, the differences between Francis and them are wide, deep, and, as his handling of the synod makes clear, momentous for the church. His distrust of religious leaders who “play Tarzan,” secure in their own certitudes, does not sit well with admirers of John Paul II or his style of leadership. Though he has commended the “prudence” of Benedict XVI’s rehabilitation of the old Latin liturgy, he is suspicious of the reactionary ideological freight that the Latin liturgy often carries with it, and he despises ceremonial pomp.

… he has abolished honorific titles and dress for the younger clergy working in the Curia, since for him priesthood is essentially about service to the poor and vulnerable, rather than a symbolic status or the exercise of sacramental power.

Perhaps most momentously, Francis has pointed the church away from culture wars with secular society that were such a feature of Benedict’s papacy, toward a less confrontational approach to the social circumstances in which the faithful have to live, and a more fruitful reengagement with the church’s mission to the poor and underprivileged, in whom he sees both the natural and the most receptive hearers of the Gospel. Where Benedict was inclined to blame the increasing marginalization of Christianity in Western society on a collective apostasy rooted in the shallow materialism of secular modern society, Francis is inclined to attribute the corresponding decline in Latin America to the church’s own shortcomings:

Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs…perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions; perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.

… Francis himself is unlikely to have a long pontificate: he is an old man, with only one functioning lung. Both in Rome and in the dioceses of the world he has been quietly putting in place men who share his vision. But the announcement in January 2015 of his second consistory for the creation of new cardinals was anything but quiet, because the pope’s startling list of the twenty cardinals-designate, fifteen of them under eighty and therefore eligible to vote in the next papal conclave, represented a positive fanfare for Francis’s alternative vision of the Catholic Church.

What John A. A. Logan, master of the literary thriller noir, adds to startling revelations about the gender dance by Alison Wolf, ace public policy scholar

Shoes have illuminating walk-on parts in both The XX Factor and Agency Woman - photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Shoes have illuminating walk-on parts in both The XX Factor and Agency Woman
– photographs: postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

It is to a new novel that we at post-Gutenberg find ourselves turning to answer the question of whether the human race can continue by sexual reproduction – now that men and women have begun to live and work in ways growing ever less distinguishable.

In The XX Factor: How Seventy Million Working Women Created a New Society, published last year, Alison Wolf tells us that among the trend-setting elite of educated, high income-earning couples in the West, and for both men and women …

The new graduate norm is a full-time job, whether you are single or part of a couple. With no old-style wife to come home to.

Men in this social tier, she says, ‘put in more unpaid household work … the more educated the women.’ Will the shrinking gender gap, we wondered – scrolling through XX with musings about domestic goddesses still trailing from our last post – mean that mutual erotic interest will continue to decline, in these partnerships? A February article in The New York Times by Lori Gottlieb, a writer and couples therapist, quoted — to stunning effect — researchers reporting their discovery that, as one put it, ‘The less gender differentiation, the less sexual desire.’ Gottlieb herself was blunter: ‘In other words, in an attempt to be gender-neutral, we may have become gender-neutered.’

XX, in its details, contains equally startling revelations. It is so unlike the usual book by a scholar of Wolf’s standing – she is the Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, in addition to other directorships and lofty responsibilities — that to try to cherry-pick its discoveries and stimulating ideas, to recommend it to other readers, is to feel crushed, too soon, by the weight of a whole cherry orchard.

Overall, XX offers not the faintest glimmer of hope for anyone hoping to walk back the gender revolution in futuristic households. It shows brainy young women drawn from all over the East to the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh with exactly the same aim as their counterparts at Oxford – to climb to the highest attainable rungs on career ladders closed, in the recent past, to women. Female hunger for education is so extreme that …

Almost 60 per cent of medical students in the UK are now female; in US medical schools, women have made up just under half of entering students for the last ten years. And in the developed world it is now the norm for law faculties to have a majority of female students.

And the result? XX’s findings are arrestingly filtered through the review in last month’s New York Review of Books by Marcia Angell – a 74 year-old doctor and Harvard professor whose other formidable accomplishments include serving as the first woman editor of the American medical bible, The New England Journal of Medicine. The most striking passage of her assessment said, in part:

Upper-middle-class couples also give up home-cooked meals and spotless households, as documented by Wolf. Very little time is now spent on cleaning and other household drudgery (which still tends to be done mainly by wives), and even less on cooking. […] In the 1970s, there were ads for Wisk detergent that featured women who felt mortified because their husband had “ring around the collar.” Nowadays almost no one would be mortified, and certainly not the wife. In a New York Times article titled “The Case for Filth,” Stephen Marche concludes, “A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.” Despite the hyperbole, there is something to this view. Since housework takes time these couples just don’t have, I think lowering neatness standards is sensible, …

Women pay a price, where housecleaning standards remain high and exacting. ‘Italian inequality,’ Wolf says, ‘exists almost entirely because of the amount of time Italian women spend on unpaid work. More specifically, they spend world-record amounts of time cleaning the house.’ All across the developed world, at all levels of society, ‘there was a fall in the time women spent on unpaid household work.’

In one of many engaging glimpses she offers into her own life, she admits that on weeknights, she is liable to be found picking up ready-made dinners for her family from a railway station branch of the catering arm of Marks & Spencer in London – ‘a regular in their long lines of suited commuters, male and female, calculating time to checkout against time to the next train.’ With more than two dozen pages of tables and charts in her statistical appendix, and the confidence of a scholar long recognised for her rigour, she is free to have fun – as in disagreeing, tongue in cheek, with a high-ranking female American lawyer about the undesirability of ‘some of the nation’s most … powerful women’ being ‘stranded in cab lines and late for meetings,’ as they teeter in shoes with dizzyingly high heels. With an amused shrug, she classes these women with historical subjects of ‘swagger portraits,’ such as ‘wealthy seventeenth-century burghers of Holland’s golden years [who] wore Calvinist black and showed off their wealth with the size and fine quality of their lace ruffs and shirt cuffs’.

reds dOWNWe have those shoes to thank for the mental leap to Agency Woman, John A. A. Logan’s latest thriller noir — on which we had started a few weeks ago, and set aside for want of the right sort of reading time — to consider far more important parallels between XX and what this irresistible story has to say about the sexual revolution. In one of its early pages, the woolgathering of a character sitting on a bench in a train station in the Scottish Highlands is invaded by vivid sensations of being a knight on horseback when his eye is caught by a mesmerising woman shod in red high heels.

The owner of those heels turns out to be a powerful, high-ranking, female spy – seemingly a ‘better man’ in every respect than the book’s chief male character who, in this scene, is a dissolute, aimless, and troubled wanderer. Other readers surely asked themselves, as we did: will this woman, Lucy, plausibly become this man’s, or any man’s, heart’s desire – or be restricted to acting out the role of a sexual fascinator and dominatrix? For much of the book, it seems as if that could indeed be her fate, at her creator’s hands, judged by fragments like these:

I wish there was more gentleness in her, more kindness. She seems so intent on meeting life head on, smashing into it like a hammerhead shark rupturing its way through the water.

… and …

It’s the information, going into her … She believes it now. She’s processing it. Female computer with blood on her hands.

But, no … John Logan is not remotely a simple-minded thriller-writer – say, Dan Brown, whose female heroine in The Da Vinci Code has all the complexity of a soap dish. For reasons impossible to explain without trampling all over this surreal, often very funny story’s masterly unfolding, we realised, at the end of Agency Woman, that men John’s age – fortysomethings – take for granted, as Alison Wolf says in The XX Factor, that ‘Highly educated women are far more likely to have developing careers, jobs they find fulfilling, jobs that are part of their core identity.’

He writes like a choreographer effortlessly adding new steps to the dance of the sexes, in a novel that has echoes of both John Buchan’s grand, whimsical yarn, The Thirty-Nine Steps – because of chase scenes in rural Scotland, and a spirit of high adventure – and of a 1978 film about America’s Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter, because of excruciating, long-drawn-out ordeals of suffering and endurance inflicted on a reluctant conscript.

The message from Agency Woman about how instinctively astute men are coping with female incursions into traditionally male territory is neither new nor different from the critical prescription for any life: try never to lose your sense of humour. There is a splendid illustration of the right way forward in one encounter between the sexes in this book:

‘It must have been a glacier,’ is all I can think to say. We’ve passed the row of white houses and we’re back at the top of the hill now, just above where the bus dropped us off. We’re looking out over the sea and the sea is obviously sitting in some great depression, long and deep and scooped out from the land. I know nothing about geology or the history of the formation of the earth, but only two thoughts had entered my head when I looked down at the sea and the steep hillside that rose from the edges of the channelled water. First thought: huge dinosaur footprint, the footprint of some giant dinosaur with long, long bunny feet. Second thought: glacier. So I kept the dinosaur bunny feet private and expressed my certainty that this channel had been cut into earth by a mass of ice. A glacier. I know that she has her strong social side. I know that glaciers are socially acceptable, because current scientific theory approves of them, and they are taught in schools. I want her approval so I say, ‘It must have been a glacier.’ In my heart though, I hope it was a dinosaur bunny that did it, running after some dinosaur girl-bunny through this treeless zone. ‘I don’t think this warm weather is very usual up here,’ she replies. ‘The view too, I think this much sunshine is a real rarity up here.’

… No, not for a moment are we supposing that Agency Woman settles the question about reproduction with which this post began, proving Lori Gottlieb wrong – only, that it is strongly suggestive of how Alison Wolf’s research findings are playing out in some actual lives, and in the male psyche, in particular.

Or, as the rascally John Updike – an unreconstructed male supremacist, if ever there was one — put it in one of his last novels, Toward the End of Time: ‘We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis.’ Only a first-rate novelist can show what he means — now.

reds BRIGHT

Zounds! At last print, led by The New York Review of Books, picks up the real surveillance story: the NSA and GCHQ spooks are followers, not leaders

24/7 surveillance: eyes, cameras, mirrors … cameras in and behind mirrors? - postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

24/7 surveillance: eyes, cameras, mirrors, clear and fuzzy views … cameras in and behind mirrors?
– postgutenberg[at]gmail.com

Not for ages has there been a pudding quite as over-egged as the one presented as the news story of 2013 – the Orwellian mass surveillance exposé which, as it unravels, shows the UK and US governments hardly initiating nonstop monitoring but, rather, striving to keep up with companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google in gathering intimate information about us and watching what we do.

Why are you learning about this on a blog, not on the front page of any well-known newspaper? Because any dissenting voices in the new ‘participatory media’ – the blogosphere, online-only journals, social networking sites and other evolving sources of facts – are still drowned out by the megaphones of the brand names at the top of the old media pyramid, names we were brought up to revere. Until those amplifiers are shared through a formal restructuring of media ownership and operation – which could be a long wait — correcting misguided and misleading information will tend to be maddeningly slow, no matter how big the story.

Two of the finest of the old guard, The Guardian and The New York Times, have yet to give any sign of noticing the shifting narrative about surveillance. This is unsurprising. They love the attention they have won from pinning Big-Brother-run-amok behaviour exclusively on the UK and US governments, and the hailstorms of congratulations from commenters and colleagues in other parts of the media that they unwittingly led astray. Both newspapers chose – apparently without much critical thinking – to gratify Edward Snowden’s wish to be fêted as a hero for torrential leaking of extremely sensitive information related to national security. 

The clearest de-bunking of the myth constructed from the Snowden leaks has come from The New York Review of Books – it so happens, after someone at post-Gutenberg wrote late last November to two editors on that publication, the editor-in-chief, Robert Silvers, and the one in charge of covering technology. The email was not about mass surveillance. But it did include a link to this blog when our home page displayed more than one post deconstructing the souped-up hullabaloo with our usual careful citations, and pointing to corporate technology giants as the round-the-clock watchers we should really be worrying about – even if the NSA appears to have outdone them in spying techniques (see yesterday’s ‘N.S.A. Devises Radio Pathway Into Computers’ in the NY Times).

In the week in which we communicated with that rightly esteemed publication, the NYRB’s contribution to the discussion was ‘The NSA’s Threat to Global Free Speech,’  to be followed shortly by ‘The Snowden Leaks and the Public,’ and ‘The NSA on Trial’. In fact, searching on ‘NSA and NYRB’ brings up a first page of Google links to articles in that publication last year all singing the same tune as The Guardian and The New York Times.

Then came an abrupt switch in direction. … Was it a mere coincidence that last week, about six weeks after the NYRB received a web address for post-Gutenberg — and roughly as long as it takes a publication as methodical as that Review to put together a report — its site featured a piece titled, ‘How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined’, beginning,

The recent revelations regarding the NSA’s collection of the personal information and the digital activities of millions of people across the world have attracted immense attention and public concern. But there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all.

Compare that with part of our own offering on the subject, in the week we wrote to the NYRB,  titled, ‘In the shift “from God to Google” do we want our spooks stuck in the age of typewriters …?’:

The Guardian – railing ad nauseam about spooks — is oddly tongue-tied about corporate surveillance. The explanation for this is surely the potential embarrassment of having to admit the true extent of the newspaper’s own monitoring of its readers’ behaviour.

[…]

Onora O’Neill, a down-to-earth philosopher — specialising in justice, public trust and accountability – who is also a member of the House of Lords (Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve) commendably unaffiliated to any political party, is one of the few sounding this particular alarm. ‘Insofar as [government spies at the NSA and GCHQ] collect content, I might be … worried,’ she said recently, ‘but by the same token I would worry equally about Facebook, who collect content, and in particular a lot of personal content.’

The NYRB added, in the same report on data mining:

[W]e may be more concerned with government surveillance than with marketers or data brokers collecting personal information, but this ignores the fact that the government regularly purchases data from these companies. ChoicePoint, now owned by Elsevier, was an enormous data aggregator that combined personal data extracted from public and private databases, including Social Security numbers, credit reports, and criminal records. It maintained 17 billion records on businesses and individuals, which it sold to approximately 100,000 clients, including thirty-five government agencies and seven thousand federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

Again, compare that with a point made here earlier. Last September, this blog warned that the blinkers needed to come off too many commentators on the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ – to let them appreciate that we should be protesting not just about spooks but anyone amassing personal data about us. In an entry about reader-commenters on newspaper sites correcting the unbalanced coverage of mass surveillance, we said:

Stores of information, once they are gathered, can acquire new owners. 

By the end of 2013, when the Guardian and New York Times were running editorials campaigning for the virtual canonisation of Snowden, the Guardian’s commendably independent-minded sister publication, The Observer, was changing tack in the same direction as the NYRB. The standfirst for an editorial there read: ‘Digital behemoths have perfected surveillance as a business model.’

Did the ‘digital behemoths’ scream in protest about that attack on nonstop surveillance as their ‘business model’? On 30 December, The Guardian, perhaps in sympathy with their plea – and conceivably worried about losing its own right to spy on readers, justified as market research — actually ran a blog post by an American academic, titled ‘The primary NSA issue isn’t privacy, it’s authority’:

[O]nce we say some amount of data is too much to have, then we will end up debating the line around too much knowledge and that is a line I never want to see drawn. If we start to say that bad things can happen merely if knowledge exists, then too soon we fall into the trap of controlling the extent of knowledge – who may know what and how much they may know and thus who may say what to whom.

Imagine how the spooks at the NSA and GCHQ must have smiled about reading that.

N.B.: As we post, The Guardian site has a lamentation by Senator John McCain about ‘overreach’ by the NSA. In a menu of other offerings in the right-hand column on the same page, there is this bit of clickbait: ‘US will not enter bilateral no-spy agreement with Germany … Despite assurance from Barack Obama, United States has not ruled out bugging political leaders’ calls, claims German paper.’

We somehow doubt that much of what the NSA or GCHQ do will change, after a crowd-calming interlude of more or less cosmetic modifications of their practices. Spies can no more stop spying with every available advance on James Bond’s arsenal of gadgetry than journalists can stop wheedling secrets out of sources with charm, or casinos discourage impulsive and compulsive gambling, or prostitutes start dressing like nuns …