This weekend, America's journalistic establishment is engaging in an absurd display of cliche in its reporting on the death of Pope John Paul II. Pages and pages are written about the Pope's death, when all there really is to say is this: The Pope was getting more sick and miserable for a really long time, and then, as usually happens in such cases, he died. The Pope is now dead, and so the Roman Catholic Church will have to find a new leader. Won't that be interesting to watch?
Beyond this information almost everything else that we're finding in reporting on the Pope's death is crass, meaningless filler designed to do nothing so much as increase the hopes of advertisers that someone will pay attention to the commercials that they insert in journalistic venues. Inevitably, having to produce this kind of journalistic filler produces absurd results. This weekend, I'm travelling through Syracuse, New York, and the local paper, the Syracuse Post-Standard, provides a perfect example.
The Saturday Post-Standard's top headline reads: "Pope's Words: Don't Weep". The headline from Sunday's Post-Standard reads "World Weeps".
So what are we supposed to learn from this kind of coverage? The only conclusion I can come to from these headlines is that, all around the world, people don't really care what the Pope tells them to do. The Pope's supposed dying words may be "Don't weep for me," but according to the Syracuse Post-Standard, the world has responded by saying "Screw you, Pope! We'll bloody well weep if we want to, so will you please stop ordering us around? You're not the boss of me!"
To be honest, I know that this defiant attitude is not what the Syracuse Post-Standard meant to depict, even though it is what their headlines imply. What the Syracuse Post-Standard meant to report is that the entire world is wracked with grieving over the death of the Pope, with everyone weeping in sorrow.
Of course, it's a load of bullshit.
I'm in the Syracuse airport waiting for a flight to Chicago as I write this, and I don't see anyone weeping. Sitting across from me is a middle-aged woman reading Patricia Cornwell's novel "Body of Evidence". Next to him, a guy is putting some chapstick on his lips. A couple seats down from me, a balding man dressed entirely in tones of beige is reading through a spreadsheet full of numbers for his business. At the Sbarro across the walkway, people are eating and making pizza. In a sports bar, guys are getting drunk watching a little league baseball game on a television set. The kids playing baseball seem to be having a pretty good time. Lots of people are talking on cell phones. Some kids are rolling around on the floor. One woman with hard-rimmed glasses is reading the Daily News, which also has a front page story about the Pope's death, but she doesn't seem particularly upset by what she's reading.
In short, all around me are people not weeping. Heck, there are even a couple of babies here at Gate 21, but they're good babies with clean diapers and full tummies. Even they are not weeping about anything, much less weeping about the Pope's death.
In the couple of days leading up to the Pope's death, and all day today, I've travelled around quite a bit and seen a lot of people. Not one of them was weeping. I don't get the impression that many people in other places around the world are really weeping a lot for the Pope either. I'm fairly sure that no one in Saudi Arabia, for example, has been weeping because of the Pope's death.
Is a world full of weeping being cleverly hidden from me? I don't think so. I don't think that the general indifference to the death of the Pope has been hidden from the editors of the Syracuse Post-Standard, either. A more accurate headline for today's newspaper would have been "Pope Dies: World Says, "Hm." - or maybe Pope Dies: No One Much Seems to Care.
Oh sure, there have been some people weeping about the Pope's death, but those people are almost all very devout Catholics. Even most Catholics aren't weeping in reaction to hearing that the Pope has died. They may be having some moments of reflection every now and then, but I haven't observed anything stronger than that.
In short, the stories of mass, worldwide reactions to the death of Pope John Paul II are a complete fabrication. The question in my mind is this: Why are news organizations so intent on making up a story about massive, religiously-inspired despair?
This fabrication is repeated all across America, in local newspapers and television news reports. The local news operations are reporting their own little versions of the national non-story: Cleveland Mourns Pope - Houston Grieves - Chicago Weeps for Holy Father - Pope Dies, Seattle Falls to Pieces...
It's not just news operations that are perpetuating these reports of mass mourning. Government officials at the local, state, and national level are falling all over each other in a rush to make sweeping declarations about how ALL of their constituents are devastated at the death of the Pope. President George W. Bush, for example, got on the radio and said of Pope John Paul II: "He is an inspiration to us all."
Well, frankly, the Pope is most certainly not an inspiration to us all. Pope John Paul II was an inspiration to some American Catholics, and a source of irritation and anger to other American Catholics. Some conservative Protestants recognized the Pope as a source of inspiration, but most did not. Certainly, almost none of the substantial minority of non-Christian Americans would ever claim that the Pope was a source of inspiration in their lives. The truth is that most Americans knew who the Pope was, but just weren't inspired in any meaningful way by that knowledge. I think it's safe to say that more Americans are inspired by Brad Pitt than were ever inspired by the Pope.
Let me be clear: I am not happy that the Pope has died. I don't like death. I don't like it when it happens to anybody. But, the plain fact is that immense numbers of people die every day. I hate it that everyone, including myself, has to die some day, but I cannot let my emotions get swept away at every death, or I'd go crazy. So, I don't generally weep for someone's death unless I know them and they matter to me. I didn't know the Pope, and he didn't matter to me, so I'm not weeping for his death, and I don't think I should feel bad about that. As far as I can see, a huge majority of Americans take the same view of the Pope's death as I do. They're allowing their lives to go one without much pause, in spite of the fact that a famous and powerful man is now dead.
The only explanation that I can come up with for the outrageously inflated claims of Americans' interest in the life and death of Pope John Paul II is that, in the mainstream media and in American government, religion enjoys a special exemption from truthful reporting. In the mainstream news media and in government communications to the public, the role of religion in the lives of the majority of American is consistently described in ways that are not at all realistic.
The plain fact is that most Americans don't go to church and don't pray very often, if at all. The strong majority of Americans go through their everyday lives without any reference to religion at all. When cornered and asked by pollsters whether they believe in God, or whether they are religious, most Americans will say "yes", but that's about as far as their faith goes. Religion in America is mostly a lot of talk.
Of course, there is a powerful minority of fanatically religious Americans. These Americans are so zealous in their religious belief that they insist upon pushing religious worship into a prominent place in American public life, asking for special attention and deference that is out of proportion with the real enthusiasm of the American people in general. Recently, these religious enthusiasts have been fighting a special Crusade to formally enshrine their religious zealotry into American law, transforming our democracy into a theocratic regime.
The intensity of the American zealous minority has fooled and intimidated news organizations into providing disproportionate coverage to their attitudes and agenda. Politicians recognize the fervor of the minority of intensely religious Americans, and pander to it in their speeches and in their policies. As for the rest of us, well, most of us are also tricked into accepting the illusion of universal religious enthusiasm in America. Most of us just don't bother to question the presumption that America is the land of the Bible.
The majority of Americans who are not Christian zealots would be much better served if the special attention given to the devout minority was reduced to less inflated levels. Instead of the fantasy of One Nation Under God, we could return to the more democratic ideal of E Pluribus Unum - out of many peoples, one nation.
There should always be a place for deeply religious Christians in America, of course. No one ought to tell devoted Christians to be quiet. However, in the name of a more balanced society, I wish that the loudly religious segment of Americans would stop monopolizing the center stage of American culture, demanding that the spotlight of attention always remain on its activities and interests.
To the Christian power elites of America, I say this: If you want to weep for the Pope, go ahead. Just please don't expect me to pretend that I'm weeping along with you.