Saturday, May 05, 2007

Love in a Time of Cruelty

“You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good.”
- 2 Timothy 3:1-3 (New Living Translation)

I read last night that Don Imus is filing a hundred and twenty million dollar lawsuit against CBS, his former employer. According to his attorney a clause in the contract he signed with CBS gave him full contractual permission to say many of the outrageous things he’s said over the years.

Legal experts seem to think he has a pretty fair chance of winning at least the forty million dollars in contracted salary in some sort of a settlement with CBS.

I guess that enjoying the pain and distress of others pays, and it pays handsomely. CBS knew this, as did MSNBC when they brought Don Imus on board. ABC was aware of this twisted business adage when they hired Rosie O’Donnell. Everyone involved, from the on screen purveyors to the honchos in the boardrooms, were part of a marriage of convenience. The net result was that the airwaves have been crackling with cruelty and the profits have been skyrocketing.

I’d like to think that the recent sackings will end the mayhem, but I’m not that na├»ve. You see, Rosie and Imus were but two in a fraternity/sorority of malice for money. Someone else will replace them. There will be one for the right wing and another for the left to ensure balance. However it plays out, one thing is certain - an updated iteration will follow as surely as the hurricane’s winds only changes direction once the eye passes.

It’s not like this is all new to us. These recent episodes are just links in a long chain of smut storms that have plagued us for as long as I can remember. There were the Dixiecrats in the late forties, followed by the Klu Klux Klan in the fifties. In the sixties it was the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, followed by Stokely Carmichael in the seventies. In the eighties, Democrats expressed their contempt for Ronald Reagan; in the nineties, Republicans, the Moral Majority, journalists, and right wingers savaged Bill Clinton. The page turned again at the dawning of the new millennium with Democrats, environmentalists, feminists, leftists, and journalists vilifying George Bush.

Each episode comes under the rubric of free speech. “It’s the price we must pay for the right to free speech,” we’re told. And who am I to argue, especially when it pays so well. Cruelty wins elections. Cruelty has the magical power to turn ledgers from red to black. Cruelty gets its practitioners noticed. Sometimes it even makes them famous.

To make matters worse, things are heating up rather than cooling down. People seem to hate more than they used to. Perhaps it’s an illusion, brought on by the mechanisms of free expression we’ve invented. Perhaps we’ve invented new and wondrous ways to express the venoms that infect us. Nowadays we’re wired like never before and we’re letting people know what we think.

What is it about this cruelty that makes it so successful? I don’t know. About as close as I can come is that Harvey Cox’s observation of media preachers like Jimmy Swaggart is eerily accurate. It describes our current climate all too well. The names and philosophies of the players change, but the hate emanating from the root is all too familiar:

“I think that Wright is correct that Swaggart was in touch with something fearsome but real in all of us. But Swaggart was also an unprincipled megalomaniac, a cruel and mean-tempered man whose rambling sermons attacked “faggots” and Catholics and the leadership of his own denomination with equal ferocity. I do not believe, however, that in saying no to Swaggart’s version of Pentecostal Christianity, as many Pentecostals do, one can deny the spiritual forces he was able to conjure. Denying them does not make them go away. Nor does exploiting them for sordid purposes mean that they cannot also inspire generosity and compassion. I think that Swaggart is a warning signal to the tired mainline churches, pointing to genuine spiritual energies most of them have forgotten. But to Pentecostals he is also a warning signal, a reminder that the fire from heaven can burn and destroy as well as purify and inspire.”

There’s a real temptation here. We can tune in. We can also enter the fray and pile on along with Imus, Rosie, Swaggart, and others like them. It’s fun; it’s entertaining. But I think it’s a temptation we must resist. We need to tune in to Someone else. Living by the precepts of I Corinthians 13 may not increase our earthly wealth, but it certainly will enrich us in ways we can only imagine now. It will also shift the poles of power in our lives from negative to positive. In the light of recent events, that would be a welcome change indeed!