Yes, the headline above is somewhat playful, but after the ruckus created last week by Matt Taibbi's juvenile list of 52 reasons why the Pope's death will be funny, some common sense is in order. It's my suspicion that Taibbi, searching for a quick and easy column that would annoy the greatest number of people, and probably not wanting to miss a re-run of Seinfeld, dashed off his spectacular exercise in bad taste in less than a half hour, congratulated himself for being a clever dude and went on with his business-whatever that is.
I don't happen to agree with much of the Pope's public agenda-the willful cover-up of pedophile priests in the U.S. and objection to the invasion of Iraq come to mind-but if a writer's going to attack a universally beloved figure the satire ought to be at least up to the standards of Christopher Hitchens. Eagerly anticipating the death of a celebrated figure is simply bad business: One can hope, for example, that Teddy Kennedy retires from the Senate so his influence on impressionable Democrats will be diminished, but only the most demented (Mary Jo Kopechne's relatives and friends get a pass on this question) among us are rooting for his imminent demise.
And even those souls, you'd hope, would come up with a better "reason" to think such an event would be "funny," such as Taibbi's "Beetles eating Pope's dead brains."
As I wrote last week, criticizing his psycho denunciation of Kurt Andersen, world-weary Matt appears headed for a long stay at the funny farm, and his latest effort would seem to nail that coffin shut, so to speak. So that much is clear: Click on Taibbi as a hysteric looking for cheap giggles and don't bother reading him again, wherever his prose turns up.
(I wonder if Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, who's seen fit to print and presumably compensate Taibbi in the past, is reconsidering their rich professional relationship. Of course, you could also say that about New York Press editor Jeff Koyen, but since apparently thousands of Catholics [and even agnostics] are eagerly calling for his disembowelment, preferably at a busy location like Times Square, I'll skip that one.)
There wasn't a lot of honor won by anyone in this mini-controversy last week. In my eyes, after Taibbi, the biggest loser was the Daily News' "upscale" gossip columnist Lloyd Grove, who goosed the Pope story for a sanctimonious high last Friday. Grove, inexplicably a favorite of the excellent blogger Mickey Kaus, who mewls that the former Washington Post shill be installed as a tattler for the moribund Los Angeles Times, started his high-horse routine on a most inauspicious note. He wrote, with startling originality, "The weekly New York Press-a handout that is best used to line birdcages-has finally found a way to attract attention."
Grove found the article "shockingly offensive," which is fair enough, but chose not to let his readers know that he's been lampooned in New York Press on previous occasions, making the paper's list of "Most Loathsome New Yorkers" in 2004. That alone puts Grove on the level with Taibbi, and then he ups the ante by soliciting reactions from local politicians, as if anyone in public life would dare say a negative word about the Pope.
Chuck Schumer wins top prize for most self-serving, and completely unbelievable, quote: "This is the most disgusting thing I've seen in 30 years of public life." More disgusting, Chuck, than a kook trying to assassinate President Reagan in 1981? More spine-chilling than Democrats, such as billionaire George Soros, comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler? Mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, who clearly doesn't have a grasp on the words "freedom of expression," suggested that New Yorkers commit a crime and "exercise their right to take as many of these rags as they can find and put them in the trash."
I think New Yorkers ought to put the desperate-for-publicity Weiner's political career in the trash, just as the Daily News' editor of the month might cite Grove for a blatant conflict of interest.
It's also not surprising, once Matt Drudge highlighted Taibbi's cover story on his website, that hundreds of outraged citizens-most of whom are from out of state and know nothing about the paper-wrote letters to the editor to condemn the silly article. A handful were well reasoned, but the majority expressed opinions that I doubt the Pope, who, if apprised of Taibbi's narcissistic scribbling, would endorse, choosing instead to forgive the struggling journalist.
"This is the closest thing to a hate crime I've seen," mused one emailer. "I've been in NYC most of my adult life and can truly say that I am ashamed to be part of the city today." Harsh, and incredibly pathetic. If a newspaper article can really make a resident "ashamed" to be a New Yorker, just imagine the Hall of Shame stampede every time Paul Krugman, Katha Pollitt or Michiku Kakutani is published. Another enlightened Christian wrote: "Clearly [Taibbi] and your publication are less intelligent than the lump of fecal matter I just dropped in the men's room toilet." And, "It breaks my heart that [New York Press] would [print] something that was so mean spirited. I thought only conservatives were allowed to be mean spirited."
However, another reader got into the spirit, sending in "The 22 Funniest Things About Matt Taibbi Licking a Shotgun!" Normally, I'd find such a letter beyond the pale, but considering Taibbi's first volley, these entries weren't bad: "The Yoko Ono vigil in his honor," "The Michael Moore 'documentary' about his life" and "The local underage boys can play outside again."
Meanwhile, the New York Times thought Sen. Robert Byrd's comments about his Republican colleagues last week in reference to the debate over the filibuster rule were so insignificant that the paper ran just a short Associated Press dispatch.
Byrd, the former Klansman who's morphed into a liberal icon, said, "We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men. But witness how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law to cruel and unjust ends." Times reporters had more important stories to cover that day, such as David Sanger's scintillating story about President Bush hosting the Boston Red Sox at the White House. Sanger: "On Wednesday, [Bush] seemed to speak from the heart. 'No one really expected the answer to the Curse of the Bambino would come from a group of players that call themselves idiots,' he said. 'Except maybe from idiots who don't understand baseball.'"
Brendan Nyhan, a committed Democrat who's fallen under the spell of fellow blogger Josh Marshall in the ultimately futile War to Save Social Security As We Know It, nevertheless wrote on March 3 what the Times couldn't bear to. Excoriating Byrd, Nyhan said, "We need to get Robert Byrd out of the Senate. Comparing the 'nuclear option' to Hitler's takeover of the German government is only the latest of many, many stupid and offensive things he's said over the years. And yes, he carries a copy of the Constitution around, knows lots of parliamentary procedure, and quotes Cicero. I don't care. Get him out of there."
Republicans beware: The disappearance of both Byrd and Taibbi (and I'll throw in the Washington Post's anti-Bush poodle Dana Milbank just for the heck of it) would be a positive step for the Democratic Party.