|"We're boring. You're fired."|
First Things, which calls itself "America's most influential journal of religion and public life" just fired its premier blogger.
The proximate cause was Maureen Mullarkey's most recent piece, which was highly critical of the Pope and the "roadshow" of quasi-fascistic adulation of him. The post lasted a few hours on the First Things website before being replaced by a note from Editor R. R. Reno entitled "No More Tirades" in which Reno trashed his longtime writer in (in my opinion) a dishonest and malicious way. Her post was then published by OnePeterFive, which has quickly become one of the most interesting and important Catholic sites on the web. (Full disclosure: a short post of mine was published by OnePeterFive a few months ago, and I was one of the more grumpy participants on the "No More Tirades" comment thread--at last check, 90% of the comments/votes were supportive of Ms. Mullarkey.)
I want to talk about Mullarkey and her post, but first let me say a bit about First Things, R. R. Reno and the recent goings on.
I was once a subscriber to the magazine and have occasionally still checked the website. Over the years they have published a wide variety of authors and articles, many of which stand out in my mind quite positively. It's not officially (or even unofficially) a Catholic journal, but the chief editors have all been Catholics (it was founded by a priest). And it is generally thought of as having a conservative or neo-conservative slant.
But it has had it's share of controversy. A few years ago, its Editor in Chief, Damon Linker "came out" as a sort of anti-conservative mole, who while editing the magazine was at the same time cashing advance checks for a book length expose of First Things and religious neo-conservatives in general. More recently, Joseph Bottum, the magazine's most well-known conservative Catholic writer (and a former Editor in Chief) wrote a 20,000 word (or something) essay for Commonweal giving a probably heterodox (for a Catholic) opinion on gay marriage. I say, "probably" because throughout the piece he meandered back and forth on the matter in the style of a tweedy Hamlet, and I've never yet met someone who made it all the way to the end of his essay to find out where he actually ended up (though the title does help).
At its best, First Things hosted some of the most useful and serious writing on religion out there. At its worst it was boring and pretentious to the point of being creepy.
Now it has become irrelevant.
R. R. Reno allowed Mullarkey to put up posts on her own without vetting. But Mullarkey's negative views on the Pope and the current state of the Catholic Church had been well-known for some time. Reno publicly took her to task on January 9 (ironically, one day after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and while Paris was still in lockdown), but continued to host her material. It's fair to say her last ill-fated piece, while strong, was an extension of her other writings. So why did Reno trash her?
Let me back up a step, why anyway would Reno be against publishing or hosting the occasional negative piece on the Pope? First Things puts forward diverse religious viewpoints and is explicitly not merely a pro-Catholic organ. So why does he care?
I suspect a few of his donors do care. And we know that it's supported by them. First Things is not exactly a checkout counter money maker.
Reno's hit job on his own writer begins with the now predictable back-handed compliment, "Maureen has a sharp pen and pungent style." Shortly after, he disingenuously writes, "I do not ascribe to the view that Catholics should not criticize the papacy."
We should first note that for an editor, Reno has a peculiarly imperfect grasp of the English language, beginning with his misuse of the word "ascribe". A friendly observer also pointed out his somewhat limited vocabulary, using one particular word in virtually every public utterance. Here's Reno's book cover blurb for another one of his writers:
George Weigel's range and intelligence is wonderful, full of urgency, romance, and wickedly pungent wit. Read and enjoy.And here's another cover blurb:
Rich, accessible, immediate, pungent, challenging, and often wise, these theological reflections by Telford Work help us understand our Christian vocations in our world of doubt...And about another famous figure:
He likes to make pungent, often hyperbolic statements about economic and other matters, but by my reading the consistent source of his rhetoric is biblical, not ideological.That quote was referring to the Pope, by the way.
Everything is pungent. It's almost like compensatory wish-fulfillment for editing First Things.
But then the real trashing begins:
Maureen’s commentary on (Pope) Francis goes well beyond measured criticism. She consistently treats him as an ideological propagandist, accusing him of reducing the faith to secular political categories. This is her way of reducing him to the political terms she favors. And those terms are the ones used by radio talk-show hosts to entertain the public with mock-battles against various Empires of Evil. I don't want First Things to play that game.And we should of course add a tweedy "Hrumph!"
But anyone familiar with Mullarkey's resume should find the implicit insult laughable. She started out (and for the most part, still is) an artist and art critic. And much of her writing, when not done for art journals, was for liberal publications such as The Nation and Commonweal. Now she's being equated with Rush Limbaugh.
Did I mention that her most well-known paintings have been Edward Hopperish portrayals of drag queens?
But to address the substantive criticism, the charitable and reasonable assumption is that Ms. Mullarkey, as a Catholic, honestly believes the Pope has demeaned and weakened the Church's mission by politicizing it, and as a journalist, that this is something worth writing about. While perhaps still a minority view, it's not exactly a new or unique one. But Reno wants his readers to believe that her argument stems from the fact that she favors reducing everything to politics. This is of course almost a complete inversion of the truth, and Reno must know it. He ends his dishonest and sanctimonious piece by pleading:
But in all this we need to have the moral and spiritual generosity to enter into our adversaries’ ways of thinking, if but for a moment. We’re in this American project together. We need to accompany each other, even as we contest for the future.Which of course doesn't apply to his own author of over two-hundred pieces for First Things. For Maureen Mullarkey (according to Reno), we won't attempt to "enter into" her "ways of thinking", we'll simply equate her ways of thinking to those of Howard Stern and fire her.
It's ironic that after going from a mainly liberal milieux to part-time slumming in a neo-conservative one, Mullarkey was shut down for being too "radio-talk show" conservative. Interestingly, when the Pope "Malted" Cardinal Burke, Commonweal published a sincere piece on the constructive importance of his right to speak.
Maybe First Things should take some lessons on tolerance and diversity from Commonweal.
On to Mullarkey's piece itself, "Notes on a Roadshow." It's unique and brilliant. Yes, as a known anti-Francis partisan I basically "agree" with it. But that's not the point. It's original and insightful, whether you agree with it or not. Her comparison--illustrated by the appropriate photographs--of Italian Fascist rallies with camera pointing FrancisPriest gatherings--is acute and funny. And her counterpoint treatment of ISIS savage hordes sweeping across the desert crucifying Christians with the Western narcissistic selfie-culture--now iconically represented by priests taking selfies while celebrating Mass with Pope Francis (!)--makes one angry, then makes one cry. As an editor of any publication, I would pay for that.
I think she came out the winner. OnePeterFive is now running her (I assume we will see more) and The Remnant--the premier Traditional Catholic publication--has just invited her in, in the quickest Michael Matt hiring decision ever.
Not bad for an illustrator of gay pride parades.
The Times They Are A Becoming-More-Interesting.
Eat your heart out, R. R. Reno, you tweedy, lying bore.