Not long ago I attended a dinner hosted by a Catholic laymen’s organization in the social hall of a church on Colorado’s Front Range. The meal was followed by after-dinner speeches and concluding remarks by an official representing the organization. “We are caring Catholics of Colorado” were almost the first words out of her mouth. I missed the rest of what she said after that, because I went to the bar for another drink and was away from the table a long time. I would bet my tickets on Queen Mary 2 next fall that this woman had no idea that her unhappy choice of words represents the modern ideological liberalism that is the sworn enemy of the Catholic Church in Colorado, and everywhere.
The carelessness with which this word caring is strewn about these days is an unmistakable sign that, in the contemporary world, there is precious little of the real thing but plenty of the ideological sort. The sorry adjective has achieved sacred status and passed beyond the reach of satire and even of irony, like the nouns diversity and tolerance. Unfortunately, our middle classes have a tin ear when it comes to language, which is why this poor Catholic lady was capable of uttering that awful sentence. One might protest that the awful sentence was only that, an awful sentence, at best a lapse in rhetorical taste. Unfortunately, there is a great deal more to it than that. Her simple statement, whatever exactly it meant or was supposed to mean, has, at a deeper level, profound political and spiritual implications for society and religion alike.
In a book published a quarter-century ago, Kenneth Minogue argued that ideological terms like compassion and tolerance point to the substitution of ethics for morality: the postmodern code that demands no sacrifice, or even much in the way of effort, on the part of the ethical individual. The exchange matters, for reasons both moral and practical. The ethic of “compassion,” or “caring,” urged by ideologues in regard to endless evocations of suffering—remote or near, human or otherwise—provokes a vaguely pleasurable guilt in their fellow ideologues. In more or less normal people, it often elicits a callous and cynical response that all too easily becomes reflexive and eventually stifles the admirable impulse to charitable thoughts and sacrificial actions.
Possibly this response to the daily catalogue of suffering, misery, and need to which all of us in the developed world are subjected represents nothing more than the individual reaction of a crabbed, uncharitable soul (my own). Intuition tells me otherwise. Nonetheless, there must be many such souls in the world, each one of them in need of encouragement in spiritual progress, not further inducement to a deeper cynicism and a more profound ungenerosity of spirit. And here the ideological-commercial media, which presume to represent the world to us every morning and evening, are of no help at all. Just the opposite, in fact.
From the local up through the state and national levels, the news media, print and electronic, are dominated by ideological liberals with an insatiable but unhealthy appetite for what Minogue, in an earlier book, called “suffering situations.” To pick on Colorado again: The Denver television stations rarely, if ever, broadcast news items reporting on what the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, county commissions, and city councils have been up to that day. (It’s usually plenty.) Valid news stories are not, of course, restricted to political events. Nevertheless, in order to qualify as news, a story ought to convey the fact or impression of some unique happening in the world, something of genuine significance that points beyond itself. But the Denver stations (again, by way of example) are not interested in news that really is news. Their trade is in so-called human-interest stories passed off as news: humdrum reports on events of a fundamental, eternal, and generally sordid nature, designed to provoke empathetic responses on the part of the “caring” communities they profess to “serve.” Yellow journalism, of course, is as old as the trade itself. (Perhaps it is even the original journalism.) It might be defended simply as a form of entertainment, if the “entertainment” at issue were not actually a species of pornography: fatal car and plane wrecks, child abductions, spousal murders, bank robberies, school shootings, and so on. For discriminating viewers, such “news” reports convey only stupid, irritating, and meaningless incidents lacking completely in significance, the equivalent of Twitter. Here is no news, but rather a distraction from the news. Yet it is not exactly yellow journalism, either. The old yellow journalism was an honest bid for a prurient, voyeuristic response to the misfortunes that befall other human beings with whom the consumer has no personal connection. The new yellow journalism of the ideological age, by comparison, seeks to titillate with the underlying purpose of persuading its wide, and widely diverse, audience that it is really one family in its tragedies and in its travails, likewise of one mind and one feeling in its response to these things. It works, then, to promote the ideological solidarity that universal caring represents. (This is the attitude summed up by the contemporary cliché “It takes a village,” or the saying, also popular in educational circles, “They are all ‘our’ children.”)
At the higher levels of the print media, where the “news”—the better part of it, anyhow—really is news, the mode of presentation is essentially the same, only more sophisticated, suave, and almost infinitely more cosmopolitan. The New York Times, famous for its exhaustive coverage of famines, floods, native war, revolution, and genocide in remote places as well as its distressed attention to urban ghettos and the remaining vestiges of the sharecropping system at home, is perhaps the ultimate example of a caring newspaper. It is true that the facts conveyed in such articles are frequently of the sort that every informed person ought to have, and yet the reader cannot avoid the suspicion that his compassion is being subtly solicited, his capacity for caring evoked, in the interest of some broader agenda.
I have been speaking here of the news media, but only insofar as they represent a part of the wider national conversation, from political speeches in Washington to cocktail-party chatter in Beverly Hills.
Consumers resistant to the ideological virus are correspondingly susceptible to a defensive reaction to the news that is apt to be angry, cynical, and contemptuously dismissive. Who cares what happens to a kid dumb enough to follow a total stranger for an ice-cream cone? . . . They need to take the 20 mph signs down from in front of the elementary schools and let all the stupid ones get killed off. . . . If you enter this country illegally, who cares that you get fired from your job and thrown in prison for carrying a stolen Social Security card? Your wife can make all the money she needs to support your miserable mocosos selling herself on the street in Juárez. . . . Cripples unable to climb three steps without a wheelchair ramp should stay at home in front of the TV. . . . Those people stampeded to death in that nightclub fire were just a bunch of hippie rock fans anyway. . . . In this age of compassion, when even heartless Catholics who deny a woman’s right to an abortion and a homosexual’s to marriage regard “caring” as a moral imperative, such responses to suffering situations are essentially sane and self-preserving ones. The Haitians are hopeless—what’s the use? Let them pray to their voodoo gods to rebuild their godforsaken country for them. . . . Another explosion in the Green Zone? The car bomb is another word for the Iraqi ballot.
Deliberate callousness is a natural, if unpleasant, human response to the dishonest moral solicitation that “caring” represents. “Caring” cheapens a genuine human compassion within society in the interest of creating an ideological sodality comprising citizens, legalistically conceived, who do not understand what a society really is. Human care is not a smug, self-conscious commitment to a generalized benevolence diffused through some vague humanitarian concept like equality, democracy, or diversity. A true society is a society made of related communities, each bound within itself and linked to those above, below, and around it through ties of loyalty, affection, and responsibility. These ties are personal and therefore wholly natural, and they become more attenuated in direct proportion to the distance to which they are stretched. Real care is the sentiment of obligated attachment that is at once created by, and responsive to, these ties, and it is strong insofar as those ties themselves are strong. Ideological society is a contradiction in terms because ideology aims at the abolition of societies, and in fact of the possibility of society itself. Should it ever succeed in accomplishing its goal, the result would be the destruction of anyone’s ability to care for anything beyond himself, and with it every other pure and noble human feeling that life in society engenders and nurtures.
The practical danger is that “caring” may discredit, and finally replace, the entirely real but old-fashioned idea of charity. The modern welfare state’s vast Departments and Ministries of Caring emphasize and exemplify the danger. Nowadays, “caring” satisfies, in a wholly dishonest way, the conscientious human need to acknowledge responsibility for the well-being of others, while bureaucracy assumes the material burden that responsibility entails. The fact that the cost is borne by the taxpayers encourages mere “caring” to answer to that need, in the belief that cheap sentiment plus providential government accomplish all that is necessary by way of fulfilling the charitable injunction. Indeed, it is entirely reasonable for a citizen to ask himself why, as a taxpayer, he has not already fulfilled his responsibility to the poor, and why the poor continue to require anything from him. In my parish, a second collection is taken up each month on behalf of the local poor. Although my wife and I contribute to this collection, I have often wondered how it is that a family in Laramie cannot make ends meet simply by registering with the state and federal welfare agencies and collecting what by law is due it every month—how, in fact, “the poor” can exist at all, except in a relative sense, in this great social democracy of ours. Apparently they do, which suggests that “caring” has yet to succeed in its ambition to make Christ a liar by confounding His statement that “the poor always ye have with you.”