Last night I made the mistake of watching CNN [‘s coverage of the Al Smith Dinner]. If you’re familiar with the denotation of long and short forms of mass readings, you know what I did there, and you probably agree that Cardinal Dolan was present to attend to the damned temporalities. That’s as good a reason as any to steer clear of the priesthood (and probably not just the Catholic one, either). Parish priests and bishops in flyover country have to put up with the same general kind of bullshit for purposes of milking their provincial elites, but at much lower production values. The priest who discreetly sees prostitutes or even carries on a low-key affair with a married parishioner may be able to do so without causing scandal. When some bullshit charity dinner is on the agenda, there will be scandal if Father always takes ill for the evening in late October. As a cleric, one is forced to humor these stuffy twits because the diocese needs their money and no one has come up with a more dignified way to extract it from their cold, clammy, dying hands.
As a general matter, the wealthy do not acquit themselves well at their charity dinners. True charity does not consist of donning fine clothes and publicly feasting with one’s fellow wealthy under the auspices of a mutual congratulation society. As a matter of Christian charity specifically, this sort of ostentatious conduct is especially suspect. This is not how Jesus commanded his followers to serve the poor. Yes, there are worldly, pragmatic reasons why this currying of favor with the self-dealing wealthy is necessary, if off-putting, but it is unjustifiable using the Gospels and frankly profane. This is probably why it is fashionable in the Catholic Church to refer to what the rest of us might call “finances” or “money” as “temporalities.” The idea seems to be that a priest ought to be self-aware when he’s debasing himself with worldly profanities rather than things of spirit and service, so that he might have some restraint and decorum in so doing and help direct his flock away from the filthiest parts of the pit. As Donald Trump might have said had he lived in Georgian times, it’s about not plunging too deep into that nasty slut hole.
Giggity. No, unfortunately, not giggity in this case. The Al Smith Dinner last night was one of the crudest things I’ve ever witnessed in Society, and I knew Mike Merksy. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that two notorious social climbers, both widely reviled for their new money crassness and both running for the presidency, would behave rudely at a charity dinner three weeks before election day. A number of states have already started early voting at polling places or mailed out absentee ballots; my California ballot has already arrived in Oregon, where I stay but do not live, and I have already decided not to vote for either of these shitheads, as have a possibly critical mass of Utards, by CNN’s reckoning. It’s crunch time, and the two Very Serious leading contenders from the Very Serious Parties who have forfeited my vote dozens of times over are getting antsy to win this thing already. Being eminent crassnesses, they exploited a Catholic charity dinner, one in which they were seated, respectively, at the Cardinal’s right and left hands, as an opportunity to get in some eleventh-hour campaign smears. Of course it was ugly. Ugly does as ugly is, and ugly is what both of these leading candidates have shown themselves to be time and time again. Yes, they cheapened and coarsened a church event in a way that shocked many high-minded participants and observers. Really, though, the joke’s on us if we expected dignity, good humor, high principle, or graciousness from them.
Yes, they actually went there, and now we’re shocked, shocked. We might as well be shocked to see Rob Ford stumble into a TTC station, pull a flask out of his coat pocket, and trail off to sleep in a decreasingly articulate screed about the Jamaicans. Clinton and Trump have spent a full year in rough-and-tumble campaign mode, and last night they didn’t entirely step out of character for a scheduled religiously mediated truce in the UFC bullshit. It’s reminiscent of the Twilight Zone episode about the family who came down to New Orleans to watch their patriarch die at the stroke of midnight on Ash Wednesday and became marginally less hideous versions of the masks they were too greedy to doff by the witching hour. #BostonStrong. Last night’s dinnertime disgrace may have just been method acting gone awry. Remember, these are not subtle actors.
Hillary Clinton behaved much more graciously than I expected. At the same time, it was disgraceful to watch two candidates for high office joke about one candidate’s commission of serious, deliberate felonies in a previous high office and her impunity for these felonies. This was different from John McCain and Barack Obama roasting each other about policy differences. They were joking about systemic lawlessness and corruption verging on the collapse of the rule of law. Parties to such crookedness and their political adversaries should not joke about it in public. This is not too much gravitas to demand of our leaders. Gerald Ford reportedly told some golfing buddies that he knew he’d be going to hell for pardoning Richard Nixon. That story (which Internet-Sensei does not summarily confirm or deny) at least features some maturity, responsibility, and accountability. True or apocryphal, that’s leadership. Rich people getting their jollies by watching one candidate for president roast another one for habitual impeachable felonies in her capacity as Secretary of State is not. What’s next? Russell Williams and Stephanie Lazarus roasting each other with sick burns about bite marks as art and Victoria’s Secret as mufti?
Still, Clinton had a certain graciousness about her, for the most part, that was encouraging because her standard behavior on the campaign trail has been so execrable. As they say on the internet, it’s TFW u expected Aileen Wuornos and got Lady Thatcher instead. Her behavior was surprisingly appropriate for the admittedly disgraceful circumstances of this Society charity (sic) dinner (not sic), and anything appropriate from her or her surrogates is refreshing.
Her crudest comments were directed at Rudy Giuliani, who may have been the least sympathetic person she could have attacked in that room, including Henry Kissinger. Let that sink in for a moment. Clinton’s premise was that Hizzoner was implicitly dishonorable: “The Honorable Mike Bloomberg, the Honorable Chuck Schumer, the Honorable David Dinkins–and Rudy Giuliani.” CNN panned to Giuliani after this comment. He looked like he was just about to have an unsuccessful bowel movement and a successful hemorrhoid. Sure, she hit below the belt with that joke, but Hizzoner was an unbelievably self-serious, humorless, miserable bastard about it, and his own conduct as a mayor and ex-mayor of New York City has been quite low and vicious, so as nasty or deplorable as m’lady’s attack may have been, she was still afflicting the uncomfortable-looking comfortable.
Seriously, it was cherishably rare and beautiful in a sick and grotesque way to watch that miserable bastard look like he was struggling to pass three days’ worth of shit just because an erstwhile colleague had said something rude about him at a charity dinner. When something that awesomely offensive is done to someone so richly deserving of public offense, process orientation is the last thing on my mind.
Donald Trump took his Clintonian roasting with surprising graciousness, too, but his own roasting of Clinton was gratuitous not only towards her, but towards their Catholic hosts. He got booed for, among other things, crudely deadpanning that Clinton “hates Catholics.” There he fucking was, a cradle Presbyterian cardinal’s guest trying to stir up sectarian tensions at an ecumenical dinner hosted for the purpose of putting aside sectarian and political differences for the night and doing a measure of good for vulnerable children. And no, he did not have any higher, more principled purpose in stirring this pot. Trump doesn’t give a shit about Catholics. He doesn’t give a shit about Presbyterians, either, who are nominally his own people. He doesn’t credibly care about the welfare of the unborn, although he eagerly panders to their self-appointed defenders whenever he sees a vote or two at stake. His reaction to being invited to this Catholic charity dinner by a cardinal sincerely (if a bit haplessly and ostentatiously) trying to do good works and build ecumenical goodwill was to drop trou and beshit the floor for his own advantage in an upcoming election and post-election career as a B-List right-wing commentator. (“If you have a Bible with you, open it to the Second Book of Huckabeeans….”)
That comment was just shitty. It was morally parasitic: in a stable society with functioning institutions and sober countervailing leadership, this sort of rhetoric is debasing and toxic but probably not deadly; in an unstable society with failing institutions, it leads towards a Rwandan night of the machetes. Cardinal Dolan was a hell of a good sport to put up with that shithead so graciously even after he tried to set his assembled congregation against another Protestant guest using the crudest, most inflammatory sectarian language imaginable. We’re very lucky as a country that his hosts immediately rebuked him for waving the bloody shirt in that venue. There are other societies where leaders use language no coarser than Trump’s to provoke ethnic cleansing or civil war. We should count our blessings that we instead got to watch a visiting oaf scandalize a ballroom full of posh stuffies after being introduced by an MC who had to push a walkie-talkie button on his neck every time he spoke.
We’re living in an episode of South Park.