In Brazil, a Spot of Cultural Push-Back

Posted: Jul 30, 2013 12:01 AM

While the race to the moral bottom gathers speeds in places like Anthony Weiner campaign headquarters, 3 million Brazilians gather at the beach to hear the new pope suggest an alternative path. Hmmm. Does Pope Francis know something New York's most revealing ex-congressman doesn't?

Besides how to behave himself on Facebook? That's one likely response. The matter, nevertheless, goes deeper. Before the world had social media, it hosted every species of behavior today; it just didn't have to live with the dark suspicion that some of the worst species were spreading. A "culture" -- the term understood as meaning the sea we live in and everything in it -- privileges or prohibits particular kinds of human activity. It indulges in broad, and often specific, definitions of good, bad and who-cares.

Anthony Weiner has been a beneficiary of the modern who-cares culture, setting his own standards, doing his own thing. He gets to do so -- as he still seems to think -- on account of the seeming indifference with which many formerly disallowed behaviors nowadays meet. Whatever you want to do is, a lot of the time, OK with a culture long on permissive shrugs, extremely short on shock.

This makes Brazilian reaction to the new pope so ... would "odd" be the word? Odd, because why would 3 million people show up on a Sunday to hear a 76-year-old man urge that they turn in a direction other than the one that leads to Weiner headquarters (even if the sermon didn't make the point that explicitly)? "I am asking you," said the pope, "to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes that you are incapable of responsibility."

This, from the head of the largest branch of an institution widely believed to be headed for the junkyard, 2,000 years after its founding; an institution plagued by shrinking numbers, vexed by scandals, pronounced marginal by the intelligentsia on account of its literally incredible ideas and backwards modes of thought. And 3 million turn out to hear such a man!

Now that -- as I say -- is odd. Unless the intelligentsia and, of course the media, who love to tout the intelligentsia's ideas, should be wrong in their premises as to what makes sense and what doesn't.

A "culture that sees everything as temporary" is, almost by definition, an Anthony Weiner kind of culture. Permanent standards of performance, linked to belief in a higher calling than just the temporary satisfaction of urges and needs, were the mark of cultures addressed by people who wouldn't have known what to make of Weiner. What kind of jerk would, let us say, behave in the manner of New York City's most notorious mayoral candidate? The kind, surely, true to his time and place, who recognizes no behavioral restraints or inhibitions (shivery old 19th-century things, inhibitions). Who recognizes "responsibilities" as things owed mainly to himself, in service to his own goals and ambitions.

Back to the pope and the beach and the 3 million listeners and to the censure leveled at the culture -- namely, that it believes and maintains and lives by the assertion that we're "incapable of responsibility." What do we want (the culture whispers confidingly) with norms and ideals -- stuff dreamed up by dead men, now imposed on live men, not to mention live women, mere instruments of control over others? As for "responsibilities," nobody in an Anthony Weiner world, sets store by dark, stale-smelling stuff that undercuts the potential for fun and a little personal creativity.

Weiner and Francis -- counter-symbols of an age in conflict with itself? I wouldn't necessarily say so. I'd say just this: Those frayed, ragged beliefs the first Latin American pope presents as the treasures of Christianity have -- obviously -- something like mass appeal. When you could be reading about Anthony Weiner, talking about Anthony Weiner, why should you show up at the beach on a Sunday for ... for church?! There's no logic in it, is there? By the standards of the Weiner Culture, not a shred.