23 September 2015

Vonnegut's Rule Predicts the Political Furor Over the Pope

The rarely seen dual pope
Vonnegut once quipped, "Thanks to TV and for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative." You might consider this Vonnegut's rule.

Of course it is true that a century ago, in the days before TV, politics in this country was rich and varied. We actually had anarchists and communists, progressives and conservatives, royalists (yes - still) and robber barons, people whose politics centered around issues like abolishing religion and marriage or people whose politics was defined strictly by staying out of all foreign entanglements, from Cuba and the Philippines' movements' to gain independence from Spain to World War I and of course peace mongers who saw the League of Nations as prelude to one world government that would end war (Einstein was in this last group). Politics was fascinating and more varied than it is today.

TV today has to be quick, though. They don't have time for that much variety and confusion. They have commercials to get to. Any political stance that takes more than 2 minutes to fully explain won't be heard. This isn't just true of casual commentators on TV talk shows. Even candidates running for office have to stop talking after 90 seconds by most debate rules. Concision compels conformity to pre-existing conditions.

Now, the Pope is here and liberals are upset that conservatives are upset about his positions on climate change and income inequality. Popes - who predate Charlemagne, Machiavelli, Cromwell, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and even Ronald Reagan - are now required to neatly fit into a pre-made mold of conservative or liberal that hasn't even remained static since the 1980s. And of course people tend to forget that this pope is free to take chances. Pope Benedict is still alive. For the first time in 600 years, there is a back up pope. If you have no quarterback on the bench, you play him carefully. If, on the other hand, you do have a backup quarterback, you can run plays that include comments about atheists making it to heaven, the acceptance of gays, criticism of capitalism, and riding around in a toy-sized Fiat rather than an imposing SUV or pope-mobile.

Of course it is absurd to think that the pope would fit so neatly into boxes designed for maximum reaction and minimal thought. You don't ask the world's last remaining absolute monarch what party he belongs to. And even if he did belong to a party, it certainly wouldn't be the party of a foreign country. His position on contraceptives and abortion, and women's role in the church aligns him squarely - perhaps even to the right of - most of this country's conservatives. And his position on poverty and income and wealth inequality aligns him neatly - perhaps even to the left of - most of this country's liberals. It's not just his fashion choices and hats that make him hard to neatly categorize.

And in this sense, the pope is probably like more of this country's population than the parties would care to acknowledge: a character whose sensibilities defy easy categorization. But we don't have time for nuance or elaboration before the commercial break. Besides, nothing is more exhausting than actually having to consider someone as unique. So, the pope, like everyone else, is required to abide by Vonnegut's rule. He's either with us or with them. Even with that distinctive hat, he can't be allowed to stand outside of our clearly demarcated lines.

No comments: