I wanted to write about the papal visit to Mexico a couple of weeks ago. But I couldn’t. Truth be told, I was suffering from a bit of pope fatigue.
But now that he’s gone back to the Vatican, I can listen to my favorite classic rock station uninterrupted by papal proclamations. The ubiquitous, Chinese-made, pope-themed T-shirts are already wearing out in this unseasonably warm February in Chihuahua and will soon be consigned to rags for polishing furniture.
El Papa looked disturbingly healthy, which means there’s undoubtedly a return visit in the works. In the meantime, I intend to enjoy my reprieve from my kids’ questions, such as, “Does the pope fart?” And, “Why does he wear a dress?”
I’m not generally a fan of popes or imams or evangelical preachers or New Age spiritualists or anyone else who claims special knowledge that the rest of us aren’t privy to and cannot hope to understand without special help. Not that all of these people are necessarily frauds or charlatans – though many surely are – it’s just that no matter how hard I try I just can’t bring myself to buy what they’re selling.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been desperately in want of security, love, or comfort, or perhaps I’m overly infatuated with the sciences. I couldn’t say that if I were unlucky enough through the happenstance of birth to be hopelessly poor in a violent society I wouldn’t be prone to the seductions of the supernatural, or that had I been raised in a piously religious family I wouldn’t perhaps cling to its vacuous certainties.
Even when dry-heaving from air sickness before jumping out of perfectly good airplanes as a U.S. Army soldier, I never prayed to a higher power. (As an Army buck private I distinctly remember my bemusement at seeing an ashen-faced, square-jawed Marine captain crossing himself before we abandoned gravity on our required night jump from a C-130 over the pine forests of Georgia.)
It could be I’m just wired differently. And of course it could be something else I’m entirely unaware of.
When Pope Francis visited Mexico his prescient counsel left a wake of hope and general agreement behind it. But the wake of that papal ship on white-capped sea of brusque intolerance, greed and tribalism hasn’t lasted long.
It’s not that I’m a pessimist, but rather just a student of history, and as Hegel said (always one to state the obvious), we learn from history that we do not learn from history.
Francis’ humanist message of tolerance and love, his deep suspicion of greed and consumerism, his advocacy for the protection of the environment, his fomenting of the idea that all of our species should be entitled to at least minimally dignified existences, came across well. Heads nodded in agreement.
And it sounded all-too familiar. Pope John Paul II said many of the same things on his Mexican papal visit in 1979 (followed by four more trips to Mexico in subsequent decades). But nothing much came of John Paul’s visits, and nothing will come of Francis’.
Political corruption will continue (the irony of a church railing against corruption when in the not-too-distant past religious patronage and the open selling of church favors was not considered in the least bit corrupt). Wealth will continue to concentrate, as Oxfam and Thomas Piketty have consistently predicted, in both the U.S. and Mexico.
And poor Mexicans will be treated as second-class citizens within their own country, and as sub-humans within the United States, consigned to live in a dystopia where property rights rank decidedly higher than the rights of humans.
But something important has changed. John Paul II was revered by conservative American politicians. Only leftist radicals and Sinead O’Conner would dare speak ill of him. But the American political landscape is very different now – it is more principled (in a bad way) and less pragmatic.
At the very height of irony, it is now the secular humanists on the Left who find themselves praising the moral landscape envisioned by Francis, while GOP politicians either hold him in open contempt, or avoid talking about him. (As to the latter, that can only last until the general election gets under way, which I await with breath baited by a communion wafer.)
Like the American body politic, the Catholic Church has changed as well. Indeed, it has undergone an uncodified reformation under the leadership of Pope Francis. And this reformation is deliciously radical for one reason in particular: it exemplifies traditional Christian values. Not the “I’m right and you’re wrong because my dogma says so,” values, but rather the values of love thy neighbor as thyself, turn the other cheek, eschew greed, and protect the Earth.
Precisely the values that the American Religious Right hate. Their values are drawn from the Bronze Age Pentateuch: hate thy neighbor, give no thought for tomorrow, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, get as much as you can while you can, god gave us the Earth to exploit as we wish, and slavery is not such a bad thing – indeed, the trafficking of humans is just good business.
The pope’s “new” Christian values have a particular secular humanist flavor to them. Which is undoubtedly the reason the American Right has turned against Pope Francis with such spittle-flecked vitriol.
On that last sunny Wednesday in Ciudad Juárez, the pope visited a prison and told the inmates to “work so that this society which uses people and discards them will not go on claiming victims.” He then celebrated mass at a dusty fairgrounds overlooking the Rio Bravo, praying for the migrant dead.
(Since 1994, over 7,000 desiccated human remains have been found in the Arizona desert, but who’s really counting?)
Later, he obliquely criticized Donald Trump, saying, “a person who only thinks about building walls . . . and not building bridges, is not a Christian.” In an in-flight press conference back to the (ironically walled) Vatican, he came dangerously close to condoning artificial birth control in light of the spread of the Zika virus.
(Octogenarian virgin Catholic theologians and apologists have been walking back the pope’s comments ever since – parsing, qualifying and befriending the necessary casuistry to say that the pope didn’t say what he said.)
Donald Trump, of course, did the gentlemanly thing, and threatened a lawsuit. He also said, “I don’t think [Pope Francis] understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico.”
It is almost universally agreed that Trump is a horse’s ass of such epic proportions (even among his supporters) that it would be hard to exaggerate his carnival-barking ugliness. But he isn’t dumb.
He must know, assuming he has policy advisers who can read, that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. (legal or otherwise) are a benefit to the U.S. economy, as even some conservative groups have reluctantly admitted, and that the U.S. is experiencing a net loss of illegal immigrants.
Moreover, even a cursory look at FBI crime data reveals that illegal immigrants are more law abiding than average U.S. citizens, and not, as it were, drug dealers, rapists and thieves. But empirically verifiable data isn’t very sexy. As sociologist Barry Glassner pointed out in his seminal work The Culture of Fear, the lifeblood of American politics and public media is fear.
Frightening people to the very edge of panic is the sin qua non for Republican politics. And the more clear and present the danger, the better: raping Mexicans, dodgy Syrian refugees (watch out for those elderly women with grandchildren – they’re in cahoots with ISIS), and communism 2.0 (i.e. Bernie Sanders), to name but a few scary memes. It doesn’t really matter what you’re afraid of, just choose your favorite flavor – blacks, Mexicans, drugs, atheists, books, ad nauseam.
But if this were not enough, we now have the Zika virus. Maine’s pride and joy – Republican Gov. Paul LePage – recently waxed hysterical that immigrants and asylum seekers were bringing with them deadly diseases incubated by the “ziki fly.” Never mind that no such thing exists. Or that the Zika virus is a mild mosquito borne illness only (potentially) dangerous to the fetuses of pregnant women – It’s fucking scary.
So expect a new conspiracy theory in the very near future that the Mexican government plans to infect Gringolandia with Zika (or “ziki” if you prefer – it doesn’t much matter) so that all new Gabacho babies will be born with microcephaly. In a generation, all Americans will have heads the size of Florida oranges, and it will be easy to take back the land stolen in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
But I digress. The point I’m trying to make, perhaps too circuitously for my politically conservative readers, friends and colleagues, is this: consider that your fair weather intellectual leaders on the Right have turned toward cannibalizing their traditionally greatest cultural ally – the leader of the Catholic Church and the representative of Christ on our little blue planet. Particularly on the issue of immigration.
But curiously, the current pope hasn’t said anything different regarding immigration than Pope John Paul II, or even Pope Pius XII, for that matter.
We might forgive Maine’s Forrest Gump-of-a-governor LePage for his idiocy. (After all, his surname sounds suspiciously French, which can only mean he’s a Frenchurian socialist candidate implanted specifically to discredit the Republican Party to ensure the election of a Sanders clone in Maine’s 2018 gubernatorial race.)
But then there’s Trump, who is hardly alone in his revulsion of the pope’s preachings on economic equality, climate change, or immigration. Rush Limbaugh expressed his dismay that the pope was not actively campaigning for Bernie Sanders. Jeb! Bush actually defended (!) Donald Trump, saying that it was not appropriate for the pope to question Trump’s Christian faith.
Ben Carson, in a brief instance of consciousness, said “enforcing our immigration laws is not in contradiction of love and kindness.” (Strange, coming from a man who has proposed drone strikes at the border, the desert itself apparently not efficient enough in dealing death to children.)
Jeb! (I’m not sure if he’s legally changed his name to include an exclamation point) of course has wisely dropped out of the race, testament to the fact that money really can’t buy you love, while Carson stubbornly refuses to throw in the towel, despite polling numbers lower than his pulse rate (but book sales remain brisk).
Republicans, of course, have never liked this pope. In 2015, during the pope’s U.S. visit, Chris Christie said, “I just think the pope is wrong.” He went on to pontificate (what a glorious verb) that the pope was only infallible on religious matters and not political ones, as if one could possibly separate the two, especially in America.
It has now become a point of pride among GOP politicians to openly disagree with the pontiff. Notably, Rick Santorum, a hyper-devout Catholic to the point of psychosis, echoed Christie’s sentiments, apparently inoculated against the (more dangerous than Zika) virus of philosophical consistency.
Rick Perry, despite his new black-framed eyeglasses, and his criticisms of the pope’s radical social views, could never quite recover from his statement that Jesus’ native language was English, or viral photos of his supporters carrying signs reading “Home Scholer’s [sic] for Perry.”
So here I am, and here you are, living inside a calliope of the absurd. Mexicans and Americans are more alike than either would like to believe. The fact is, we love our children and hope for better lives for them. We go to work every day with hope for the realization of the distant light of peace, and comfort, and stability.
We suffer from asinine laws passed by the self-studied idiots we elect. We too easily discard reason for passion, and live internal fantasy lives where quiet desperation is unknown.
Some might be confused by this essay. Do I think that the pope is saying some sensible, moral, and ethical things? You bet. Do I believe in the teaching of the Catholic Church? Not so much. Do I think the current gaggle of GOP candidates has any solutions for the observable and endemic decline of America? Absolutely not.
The truth is we are at war. Both Mexico and the United States. With ourselves. All civilizations and all countries experience their Belle Époque, their apogee of success, some more modestly than others. The decade following WWII found America at the very height of its power, economic prosperity, geopolitical influence, and limitless hope in the perfection of an enlightened civilization.
The Sumerians, the Greeks, the Romans, and countless others have fallen from their own weight so slowly as to be imperceptible by a single generation. The Greeks thought themselves to be exceptional, as did the Romans, as do Americans now.
America’s empire in turn is being slowly diluted and retracted. Rome distracted its citizenry with gladiators. We’re distracted by the modern day equivalent – pudgy men in suits battling and insulting each other with word salads of nonsense, where sloganeering, ridiculous platitudes and religious adherence to failed ideologies have replaced sensible public policy ideas, where pandering to morons and hillbillies is quite possibly the only way to get elected.
It is entirely likely that our next president will be elected by World Wrestling Federation fans. Donald Trump’s ridiculous comb-over is just a business mogul’s mullet.
Mexico’s fate, because it has chosen (perhaps unwillingly) to be a satellite of its powerful northern neighbor, may be written as well. If there was ever a time for Mexico to decouple itself from America, to write its own policies and forge its own independent future, it is now.
There is no shortage of models to emulate (many northern European countries seem to have pretty much nailed the whole “good governance” thing). But I am not hopeful.
Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua, a specialist in law and public policy and a regular contributor to Mexico News Daily. Some of his other nonacademic work can be viewed at glenolives.com.