“Politics,” as my old professor used to remind us political science majors frequently, “is the art of compromise.” Perhaps the reason for the ugly stalemate in Washington that has the entire world economic community on edge is that many of the new crop of Capitol Hill inmates are not politicians, but ideologues. Guided by the absolutism of unelected, self-appointed gurus such as Grover Norquist or Rupert Murdoch, the Tea Party and their lackeys are not putting principle ahead of policy. They are sacrificing effective government on the altar of dogma. And dogma in this case that is unsound and unreasonable.
From a European perspective, where economists and ordinary citizens are equally bewildered by the posturing in Washington, taxation is rightly seen as the normal way in which government raises the revenue needed for providing the care and security of the citizens who have elected men and women of experience and insight to do just that. When a government is appointed or seized by special interests, whether giant corporations, the military, or single-party despots, the welfare of the people, especially the poor, powerless, and vulnerable, is easily subordinated to the advantage of those in power.
Progressive taxation was devised over centuries of effort to render the necessity as fair-handed as possible, so that the poor and the middle class are not burdened more severely than the rich, well-born, and able. In the bad moments, there was Robin Hood — at least in theory. (Have you ever wondered why the legend of Robin Hood has been perennially popular?) In the truly awful moments there were tax revolts that in the Middle Ages usually ended in massacres. The revolts and their inevitable suppression arose from the increased extortion of ever-decreasing resources from the middle classes and peasantry to finance incessant and expensive wars, such as the bloody Hundred Years War that brought France and England to the edge of bankruptcy in the 14th century.
Should anyone need a more recent example, one need only ask how trillion-dollar wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not have led to the current melt-down? And has anyone asked lately where all the money went?
For all that, taxes remain necessary and when administered rightly, equitable. When required, increase in taxation should be borne equitably as well. And there lies the rub.
Absolutism in politics is as dangerous as it is anywhere else — religion, art, or science. Or for that matter, education and family life as well. The path may seem clean and smooth, but in fact it’s a slippery slope that leads to perdition — the Spanish Inquisition, Auschwitz, blood purges, “Soviet biology,” Joe McCarthy, Timothy McVeigh, and now, Anders Behring Breivik. Time to reset….
When does big get too big? When your antlers grew so huge that you can’t get through the trees or hold your head up and you go extinct like the great Irish elk. Or when a political entity becomes so spread out that it becomes ungovernable, such as the Greek, Roman, and British Empires (among others: don’t forget Napoleon and Hitler). Or when a company grows so voracious and unwieldy that it breaks up or implodes, witness the old Bell system, Enron, General Motors, and AIG, for instance.
Most of the world’s giant corporations today are banks and oil companies. But Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp is not exactly small potatoes. Next only to the Walt Disney Corporation, it is the largest media organization on the planet. It is also a public corporation, but managed to escape the kind of shareholder scrutiny that might have prevented the recent meltdown.
Rupert Murdoch, the media baron of all media barons, claimed before the British Parliament that the scandal-ridden News of the World, the most successful English-language newspaper in the world, represented only 1% of his imperial holdings. But it takes only a single straw to break a bactrian back, so the saying goes.
Size does matter, even in the computer age. Small, as E. F. Schumacher famously said, is beautiful. The opposite may also be true, as we watch the reach of the ambitious and powerful exceed their grasp. It doesn’t take much for big — really, really big — to become morally, spiritually, and even legally ugly. Google and Walmart, please take note!
On Wednesday, July 13, the Irish government finally released the “Cloyne Report” from the commission investigating claims of child sexual abuse and the subsequent cover-up in one of Ireland’s largest dioceses. The former Archbishop of Cloyne, John McGee (a career Vatican bureaucrat and former personal secretary to Popes Paul VI, John Paul I, and John Paul II,) was eventually forced to resign his see in March 2010, after two years of voluble resistance. The 400-page report details what many of the faithful in the Cork diocese already knew — that McGee and others in the diocesan curia had persistently and willfully failed to implement child protection policies mandated by the Vatican while protecting priests accused of molesting children. Worse, this was done with the apparent connivance of the Vatican itself, which in a statement of bewildering double-think claimed that the stringent guidelines issued by the Irish church and followed carefully in many dioceses were merely “a study guide.” On top of it all, it is clear that McGee lied to state authorities when he claimed that the diocese had reported all cases of sex abuse as required by law and the Church’s own mandates.
The fallout from the revelations has been dire. McGee himself is in hiding and his vicar general, Msgr. Denis O’Callaghan, now in retirement, has expressed remorse for his gross mishandling of the situation. There have been calls in the Irish parliament for the expulsion of the papal nuncio, whose contributions during the crisis have been negligible if not actually obfuscating, and it is likely that the proposed papal visit to Ireland next year will be canceled. In a further move against clerical abuse of privilege, legislation is pending that will make it a crime for priests to withhold any information about sex abuse, even if revealed in confession. This is a Rubicon almost unthinkable in a Catholic country, much less a civilized one in which at the very least professional confidentiality is more than a label. The proposal is, on the other hand, eloquent testimony to the depth of the loss of faith in the institutional church on this island if not to the success of elementary catechesis.
Ireland will remain a Catholic nation insofar as the vast majority of its citizens will still indicate on official forms that they are members of the Roman Catholic Church. People will still go to church. Thousands of pilgrims will flock to Croagh Patrick on Reek Sunday in July, thousands more to St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island during the year, and of course the shrine at Knock will remain popular among native Irish and tourists. But like France, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba, Ireland will very likely remain Catholic with a difference for a long time to come.