Daily Archives: August 14, 2004

“Shtick”

It must be a tiring job, being Jimmy Breslin. Chasing priests accused of sexual abuse through the courts, harassing an insurance company to pay for a poor man’s grave, introducing his friend Eugene Kennedy to his friend Jacqueline Onassis: it’s all in a day’s work.

Not as tiring a job as being Michael Newman, a New York Times op-ed Kapo trying with all his might throw shade on the last of the old-fashioned “Voice of the People” columnists.

And that’s because, like Lina Lamont, Michael Newman “ain’t people.” He’s

“A shining star in the cinema firm-a-ment. Says so, right heah.”

A fortiori Newman is the NYT’s Designated Driver of Class Warfare — the Upper Middle keeping the Lower Orders in their place.

No wonder he’s upset with someone so antipathetic to such social ordering.

For the last few years, in the column he still writes for Newsday, that work has often consisted of exposing the ”pedophiles and pimps” of the Roman Catholic Church.

A job in which neither Newman, nor anyone else at the New York Times has ever shown so much as the slightest interest in doing, be the prelate in question Franny Spellman (the ruling libertine of New York in the 50’s, and the most fearsome figure of my childhood) or anyone else.

”I am trying to write and I get a phone call from a woman whose son was sexually abused and now, even with the passing years, cannot recover,” Breslin writes in ”The Church That Forgot Christ,” his ninth book of nonfiction (he has also written six novels). ”Or the mail in the office has a letter, a postcard about a rape. I am in the daily news business for so many years and I can handle all occurrences. Two mobsters shot in Brooklyn. I am out on the street. Breslin makes all editions.”

Pretty much all you need to know about this book — and Jimmy Breslin, too, but you probably already know about him — is in that paragraph. Its aims are modest yet honorable, and its empathy seems genuine. But in the end, the book comes back to its true subject, Jimmy Breslin.

The “but you probably already know about him,” meaning “but you know precisely what we want you to think about him.” And that is that Jimmy Breslin is merely a preening narcissist — unlike Nicholas Kristof one assumes.

His solution to the crisis facing Catholics in ”The Church That Forgot Christ,” then, makes perfect sense. He will start his own church and install himself as bishop. His friend Danny Collins will help out. His sermons will be about the need for better posture and low-income housing, and he will lecture the pope about his misguided views on abortion and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. ”While my ambition may be difficult to put into effect,” he writes, ”it throbs with noble energy.”

Once upon a time, Breslin might have ridiculed the author of that sentence.

And there’s no reason to ridicule it now, unless you write for the New York Times, whose fealty to the status quo is such that its given to ridicule anyone who would assume the moral responsibility that the system lacks — and act accordingly.

Of course, all columnists adopt personas, and all face the risk of being swallowed whole by their alter egos; Molly Ivins must rue the day she started writing in a Texas accent.

Are we to suppose that Mr. Newman believes George W. Bush will rue the day he started talking with a Texas accent? Somehow I doubt it.

But what is tolerable in a newspaper column quickly becomes tiresome at book length.

“Tiresome” only to the Kapos — whose loyalties are solely to their own class.

Here Breslin’s persona quivers with righteous anger, leavened only by a casual bigotry that is no less shocking for being directed at his own. The church’s scandal fits his prejudices perfectly. ”Because of their church,” he writes, ”the Irish think less and boast more than any race ever to hit the ground.” Because the Irish ”put all their talents into writing insurance policies and traffic tickets in New York,” according to him, ”they were left griping about all the Jews who were doctors and who took over the television and movie business.”

Commonplace observations have no “casual bigotry” about them. But then Newman is the sort to believ that no “casual bigotry” was involved in the Affirmative Action responsible for the carrers of Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and Clarence Thomas.

Breslin may not be subtle, but his writing remains vivid. (His 442-word obituary for his daughter, published in Newsday in June, is an understated masterpiece.)

This is Newman’s easy out. Praise him for writing about his dead daughter — that’ll show “fairness.” But it’s Newman who’s the “sob sister,” not Breslin.

His portraits of two priests — John Powis, the saintly former pastor of a poor Brooklyn parish, and William Murphy, the self-important bishop of Rockville Centre on Long Island — are well observed if pat. Often it seems as if there is no anecdote he will not retell, no name he will not drop, in the service of his mission. (Mario Cuomo has a cameo, as does Mother Teresa.)

There’s noting “pat” about exposing mendacity. Moreover, “self-importance” scarcely begins to describe the hubris of these men in frocks, as Terence Davies came to realize after spending all of his childhood and a good part of his adolescence begging their forgivess of the “sin” of loving other men — while they were guilty of the real crime of raping boys.

Maybe Breslin needs this shtick. And certainly hundreds of thousands of loyal readers look forward to it on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings. But it hardly qualifies as commentary.

Not to readers of the New York Times it doesn’t. They want to know what’s “in” and what’s “hot” — and morality just doesn’t make it for them.

As for REAL commentary, they’re obliged to turn to the inane class-hatred-obsessed blatherings of Our Miss Brooks, the snarky rants of the Unindicted Co-Conspirator , the dippy ditherings ofDora Bailey and on special occasions The Creature From the Blog Lagoon herself.

Of course there is good and evil in the church, and we would all be better off with more of the former and less of the latter.

Only in the New York Times does morality take on the aspect of a Julia Child recipe.

It is also beyond argument that the sexual abuse scandal has exposed the hypocrisy and immorality of the Catholic hierarchy.

Not just the hierarchy — the thuggish presumptuousness of organized religion itself.

The invention of a giant invisible bi-polar Daddy-in-the-sky to mete out punishment and reward is arrant nonsense.

“No other world, alas, this is the one to change.” Gore Vidal said somewhere. (Major Gay Jeopardy bonus points to the first FaBlog reader to find it. )

No one with even a passing familiarity with the church, and that includes a few Irish Catholics, needs Jimmy Breslin to make that case.

Actually they do. Now more than ever.