November 15, 2013

#Facepalm Friday: New York’s Upside-down Ethics

When asked, “What is America?” I am often tempted to cheekily reply; “It is the ability to outright steal another culture’s work and claim it as your own.” If pressed for a serious answer, I would of course summarize the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution and encourage my interrogator to read the Federalist Papers. That said, the case of the hamburger as an American entree is bizarre. It is named after a city in Germany. The Hamburg steak, being grilled, ground beef, was only placed between two slices of bread when it was introduced in Connecticut. What makes the hamburger, as opposed to the Hamburg steak, distinctly American is that it is mobile. We could only march to the Pacific because we could carry our food with us. McDonald’s has, in our day, carried the hamburger back across the globe. The Big Mac Index, intended as a means to compare currency value, also establishes the hamburger as cultural currency. An account of American culture, in the last one hundred years, is not complete without acknowledging the role of the hamburger or its (pardon this joke) primary evangelist: McDonalds.

This past week, The Tribune Herald, a small-time satirical news source, capitalized on this staple of American culture by claiming: “New York to effectively ban McDonald’s.” The rationale was simple enough. “McDonald’s is just as dangerous if not worse for your health than many illegal drugs, officials are moving to place many of the items on the fast food restaurant’s menu on the prohibited substances list.” While being a play on New York City’s ban of large sodas, the story also strikes a deeper cord. What would we make of the gateway to America banning a restaurant that is distinctly American?

But the primary reason the Tribune story stuck a cord with me was because I, at first, thought it was true. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted dozens of ridiculous ordinances during his time as mayor. Everything from a smoking ban to ordering police to intervene when they see a person riding a bike with their feet off the pedals. The full list of Bloomberg’s backwards rules, and an account of a fateful day in which they were all broken, was written with characteristic panache by the late Christopher Hitchens. He concludes his essay, I Fought the Law, thus:

This current Niagara of pettiness and random victimization may well be Bloomberg’s attempt at a wannabe reputation as heroic crime-fighter and disciplinarian. Who knows what goes on in the tiny, constipated chambers of his mind? All we know for certain is that one of the world’s most broad-minded and open cities is now in the hands of a picknose control freak.

Upon reading Hitchens’s account, and breathing a sigh of relief that the McDonald’s ban was fictitious, I was reminded of Bloomberg’s other legacy: the river of blood that has flowed from New York’s abortion mills with his cheering approval. Upon the appointment of Justice Roberts, Bloomberg praised his assent to the Court purely because of his support for Roe vs. Wade. During his time as mayor, New York City saw 40% of its pregnancies ending in abortion while the state of New York’s abortion rate was double the national average. This all serves as background to New York’s mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s statement that he will open more abortion mills and close “sham” pregnancy centers.

What sort of a morality informs the banning of feeding pigeons or smoking a cigar, yet allows (and encourages) the destruction of human life? It can only be a morality which sees problems without knowing why they’re problems. Which is to say, it is a morality which has not denied the indisputable dirt of the human condition, but has no idea what a clean man would look like, should the dirt ever be removed. Chesterton noticed this same moral disorder in his own day, and begins his essay, On the Negative Spirit, with a clear definition of it.

But let us never forget that this visionary religion is, in one sense, necessarily more wholesome than our modern and reasonable morality. It is more wholesome for this reason, that it can contemplate the idea of success or triumph in the hopeless flight towards the ethical ideal, in what Stevenson called, with his usual felicity, “the lost fight of virtue.” A modern morality, on the other hand, can only point with absolute conviction to the horrors that follow breaches of law; its only certainty is certainty of ill. It can only point to imperfection. It has no perfection to point to.

The ethics of New York City, if I may be allowed a generalization, are an ethics which can only point to an obese person and say, “There is a problem.” It is an ethics which can only look at a pregnant women and say, “That seems inconvenient.” This ethics sees the problems everywhere, and thinks that they may be eliminated if only we try just a little bit harder. It is an ethics which is always one more rule, one more law, one more restriction away from utopia. It is an ethics which mediates on the wrong thing. The advice of Arthur Mendelson from the film Patch Adams is here relevant. “You’re focusing on the problem. If you focus on the problem, you can’t see the solution. Never focus on the problem!” What then should we focus on? Chesterton has an answer:

But the monk meditating upon Christ…has in his mind an image of perfect health, a thing of clear colours and clean air. He may contemplate this ideal wholeness and happiness fare more than he ought; he may contemplate it to the neglect or exclusion of essential things; he may contemplate it until he has become a dreamer or a driveller; but still it is wholeness and happiness that he is contemplating.

Corinth had Saint Paul to evangelize its population. Saint Peter claimed Rome for Christ by hanging upside down from a cross. It has always been through holy men and women that Christ has shattered the confusion of mistaken morality and brought peace to a trouble population. New York needs such a saint today. How fortunate then, that with his tenure on the national stage closing down, a man is returning to New York as its episkopos. By the grace of God New York City may stop killing itself and its children. The city of New York needs the grace of meditating on the Body of Christ, at once suffering and glorious. Perhaps that grace will come through the holy work of Timothy Cardinal Dolan.

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