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Gaffes and guff

The death of Jerry Falwell, and the Pope’s recent visit to Brazil, suggest some thoughts about “gaffes.”

One of the events that defined Falwell in the mainstream mind was his notorious attack on a purple handbag-carrying cartoon character as a homosexual. A problem with the story is that it never happened. That doesn’t seem to bother anybody. Why should it?

Benedict is a more prominent man with far more of substance to say, so he is found to commit even more gaffes than Falwell did. Some of them end in bloodshed. In an academic lecture he quotes an unfavorable comment by a Byzantine emperor about Mohammed. No one pays much attention until the BBC splashes the comment, translated into the major Islamic languages, throughout the world and gets people killed. In Brazil, he says that before Columbus the Indians implicitly wanted Christ. (For the actual quote, and a link to the whole speech, go here.) That’s like Human Rights Watch saying all peoples want human rights, but it’s presented as approval of everything the Spanish did and becomes a gaffe that members of his own church publicly disown.

A gaffe is in the eye of the beholder, so it seems obvious that whatever the media wants to make a gaffe is a gaffe. The concept is not applied in a completely goal-oriented way, since there are occasional left-liberal gaffes (Howard Dean’s famous scream comes to mind), but if they don’t like what you say a lot of things you say will turn out to be gaffes, and Falwell’s Teletubbies show that if they can’t find one that’s good enough they’ll make one up.

Notwithstanding claims of diversity and (inconsistent) claims of professionalism,”the media” as such does has a collective point of view. Otherwise there could be no such thing as “news,” since news as an institution requires common understandings as to what events and people matter, which way they point, and whether they are good or bad. Those understandings mostly express the point of view of those who think “news” is important, and so think the world should rationally be ordered in accordance with comprehensive information gathered in a professional and cosmopolitan way. In other words, the point of view of prestige journalists, which lesser journalists imitate when they touch on prestige topics, is at bottom the point of view of transnational bureaucrats and allied interests. The function of “gaffes” is to make it very difficult to say things at odds with those interests. Enoch Powell quoted Virgil in a speech on immigration, and the image of blood in the Tiber turned into a gaffe that supposedly made it impossible for decades thereafter to discuss limitations on immigration. Similarly, the function of turning Falwell’s and the Pope’s statements, real or invented, into gaffes is to make it impossible to discuss religious truth claims or any basis for moral order other than technocratic hedonism.

The conclusion: those who said “preach the word in season and out of season” and “all men will hate you because of me” knew something. If you’ve got something to say it’s better to be clear than politic, so people will eventually figure out what your point is. We need more bulls in more china shops.

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