Keep Pope Alive

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Late last week I was in Santa Maria, California, covering the Michael Jackson trial for a magazine, when I got an email from Press editor Jeff Koyen:

The shit has hit the fan. Going on NY1 tonight to respond to Congressman Weiner's press release, wherein he urges people to throw our paper out.



My first thought was-Why? I'd been on the road, hadn't had a chance to look at the new issue online, so I could only imagine. But clearly it must have been something terrible, if a goddamn congressman was making noise about it in public.

I called Jeff. We exchanged pleasantries. He had just come back from the NY1 interview. I asked him about his pet fish, his vacation plans. It was about four minutes into the phone call before I realized the fuss was over my column, the one about the pope, which I had written in the waning hours of a Vicodin haze the previous Saturday morning.

"You're kidding," I said, laughing.

"No, I'm definitely not kidding," he said. He wasn't laughing. "It was linked on Matt Drudge this morning-something about it being an outrage. Chuck Schumer said something about how it was the most appalling thing he'd seen in 30 years."

"That's hilarious!" I said, still not getting it.

"Yeah, well," Jeff said. "Congressman Weiner has issued a press release calling for New Yorkers to throw our paper in the trash."

"Outstanding," I said. "That's illegal, isn't it?"

It was about two full days before I realized that no one back in the Press offices was laughing. I didn't take it seriously at first, because the scale of the whole thing seemed so completely unbelievable. For an off-the-cuff burlesque of Truly Tasteless Jokes, designed mainly to give readers a light break between what had lately been a long run of fulminating political essays in my column space, the paper found itself denounced by Hillary Clinton, Mike Bloomberg, Abe Foxman and pilloried on talk radio stations all across the country. Then, thanks to Matt Drudge, the Press was made into an exploding blog villain across cyberspace practically overnight.

Friends and acquaintances in the south and in the west and everyplace else called to tell me that the Press, and I myself, were being skewered at that very moment In Their Neighborhood. In Dallas someone apparently called for me to be burned at the stake, while in an unfortunate development some hot-blooded Baltimore radio show alerted my already-estranged Irish Catholic relatives to my misdeeds.

The hate mail was a flood by Friday. A polite schoolteacher in Ottawa gently implored me to shoot myself. Another writer, who left his note unsigned, wrote simply: "Burn In Hell You Fucking Dog." The typical Christian response usually involved some combination of the phrases 1) "I believe in the first Amendment as much as the next guy, but..." and 2) "You will pay in the next world" and 3) "For all that, the Pope forgives you." The order of the punishment and the forgiveness varied, but they were usually both in there, side by mutually reinforcing side.

Meanwhile, back in New York, the Press website was so overloaded with traffic that it was effectively shut down for almost a week. The paper's offices were flooded with media interview requests and advertiser complaints, and there was turmoil and indecision within the office ranks, ultimately leading-as Press readers have probably heard already-to the resignation of my good friend Jeff Koyen, the editor-in-chief.

Much of the mail I received seethingly anticipated that either I or the editors of the Press would turn around this week and try to cast ourselves as free speech martyrs, once we were a) fired or b) boycotted or c) both. I'm going to have to disappoint here. Nothing so noble as a real freedom-of-speech conflict actually took place in this case. The only accurate metaphor to describe what happened to the paper last week was stepping in shit. The shit was there, and we stepped in it of our own volition. It was a joint effort, between us and the shit.

Look, we're all educated people. Even Anthony Weiner has a B.A. from SUNY-Plattsburgh. And as educated people we all realize that the "The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope" had almost nothing to do with the pope or Catholics whatsoever, and certainly wasn't hate speech.

If there was hate in the piece, it was not for the pope. It was for the agonizing marathon of mechanized media grief and adulation we so inevitably go through after the passing of each and every hallowed leader or celebrity. It was for the transparently fake unity of Democratic and Republican senators alike holding hands, hanging their heads, and-live on Fox and MSNBC-shedding a tear as good soldiers fold the flag at the passing of the great man, Ronald Reagan.

It's not only funerals, but memorial services and various other pagan rituals; we are all supposed to weep on the anniversary of 9/11, and defer publicly to soldiers, and cheer for whichever bland milquetoast cine-blob wins Best Picture.

But some of us don't want to cheer for the little girl who gets pulled out of the well, or get misty-eyed before the leader's casket. In fact, some of us get physically ill, and angry, during each and every one of these orgies of rote media emotion.

"The 52 Funniest Things About the Death of the Pope" was way over the top, but it was commensurate-to the 197 consecutive fucking hours of Pope funeral coverage on cable we all know is coming very soon, with every politician on earth with a nose for Catholic votes lining up for a chance to blow into his hanky at the podium. We saw a preview of that last week; doubtless the Bloomberg, Clinton, Schumer and Weiner press releases at the pope's actual death will be of about the same length, and sent with the same alacrity to the same newspapers, as the ones released at his joke-death last week.

This, incidentally, is what the alternative media is supposed to be for. While all across the major media landscape every public figure-every politician and every NBA star and every superficially grief-stricken plastic anchorman-will be "deeply saddened" and hanging his head during the obligatory moment of silence, there has to be someplace where the individual psychopath-loser, i.e. me, can say "I don't care." And not necessarily because it's right or wrong to think that way, but because a mandatory opinion held by everybody is no opinion at all. If we can't joke about the pope, then the pope, quite frankly, is not very serious.

One more thing about what happened with us last week. In situations like this, when someone says or does something that outrages not just the left or the right but everyone, we have this habit of jumping on the offender with both feet and demanding an apology. Whether it's Ward Churchill with his "little Eichmanns," or that kid at UMass who called Pat Tillman a "pendejo," or Trent Lott, or Shaq squinting and talking about Yao in gibberish Chinese, we pile on until the guy squeaks. Apparently we respect a person more if he wilts under pressure and changes his opinions for the sake of convenience.

It was crazy that that mechanism came into play here, and it would be even crazier for us to actually apologize. This was an extremely silly, trivial, stupid joke. If senators have time for this, they must not be busy enough.

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