I was going to title this essay “The O’Reilly Factor” after I’d learned that recently fired Fox TV celebrity Bill O’Reilly had graduated from my all boys Catholic high school and has of late been a featured speaker at the school’s “career night.” But I decided that would be unfair since I’d never seen his show and actually know little about the guy, even though I have a distinct image of him from TV and print news reports. So I shifted my title to another TV show I’ve never seen, but whose content seems to describe the kind of corruption I want to write about — the poisoning of public life by a particular class of wealthy and powerful people who, while they have long been breaking bad , again constitute a very dangerous oligarchy.
Yet I have still struggled with this writing because I am making an accusation of evil. God alone is final judge, and I don’t judge the soul of any person in this class. Yet we are all obligated to judge the evil values and attitudes, actions and behavior of individuals and social classes, whether rich or poor. And we must try to get it right. So I invite my reader to respond below if s/he thinks I have not gotten it right.
My broad and widely shared concern is to understand “what’s happening” in our country, especially in this writing to understand what’s “breaking bad.” Of course, many factors contribute to our present. Most fundamental is the immense force of modern and now post-modern developments. While they have brought much good, they have nonetheless swept away many of the boundaries and signposts which once guided us. Thus it is too often the case, in the words of Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” that:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, /Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
One result of such falling apart and innocence drowned is the growing visibility of a banal but brutal class, a “rough beast” that must be challenged and, if possible, changed. It is a recurrence among us of the kind of tyranny that’s risen again and again throughout history, now given great power by celebrity and wealth. It is a corruption, indeed a cancer in the body politic, a destroyer of the body of trust upon which our society is built.
Yet I am not using “class” the way Marx did. Or, perhaps better, the class I’m speaking about is only one element in our capitalist system, one particularly arrogant and brutal element. Said differently, this is not just about the potentially corrupting power of wealth in our ruling capitalist class, even though criticism of that class must continue.
Nor am I hear referring to the “filthy rich” featured so prominently in our media, most of whom have been diminished to triviality by wealth and celebrity. They may be hangers-on, but they are not leaders of the class I’m talking about: a class of new robber barons, an oligarchy typified by but certainly not limited to public figures like Trump and O’Reilly (at least as I imagine him to be).
Let me put this another way. We are comfortable talking about corrupt oligarchies in Russia or China, in the Muslim world or in Latin America. But we don’t talk openly about such folks among us. Yet such a perverse and very dangerous oligarchic class (a subset of our capitalist rulers) has come again to the fore in our country – slouching through our many Bethlehems.
If this is true, then the important question becomes how we understand this class and its works so that we might try to change or defeat it – even if there seems little short-term hope of doing so. We need help for such understanding: from historians and sociologists as well as from political and psychological analysts. I urge my reader to reply below with suggested readings from such folks.
Personally, I understand this perverse oligarchy by drawing on moral and religious traditions about sin and vice. For I suspect that each of us knows from personal experience how the “deadly sins” of pride, envy, anger, and greed as well as sloth, lust, and gluttony affect us. These are habits which hold our spirits with vice-like tenacity. We also know that vice must be countered and eventually transformed by virtue or moral strength. In classical thinking we need the “cardinal virtues” or fundamental strengths of prudence, justice, courage, and moderation for struggle against vice. Christian belief urges that we further open our minds and hearts to the grace given strengths of faith, hope, and charity.
Yet if we all can know vice in our own experience, we also probably know how seductive success and prestige and even a modicum of discretionary wealth can be, how they blind us to our vices even while deepening their grip on our spirits. My hypothesis is that the oligarchy or class I’m describing is comprised of folks whose tendencies to pride and greed, lust and anger (tendencies, again, which we all share) have been deepened by great success and wealth and celebrity, and too little checked by prudence and moderation, or transformed by faith and charity. Said differently, their vices are forms of moral addiction compounded by wealth and celebrity – something that happens to many of us but seems especially evident in the class I’m writing about.
My most particular concern is with folks like O’Reilly (again, as I imagine him) because of the great benefit they received from good Catholic schooling – something O’Reilly regularly praises at my alma mater’s career nights. Such schooling (from the intellectual and moral disciplines of primary and high schools through career skills developed in Catholic universities) has enabled many Catholics to “make it” in our country. And many, including some very wealthy folks, have made significant contributions to our common good through their success in business and the professions and politics.
Yet others have allowed their talents to break bad as part of the rapacious oligarchy I’m targeting – wherein greed reigns, success and celebrity are worshiped, and a pervasive sexism abuses women and disdains the values of family life.
Worse still, this oligarchy regularly orchestrates the kind of political/ideological cheerleading which I identify with folks like O’Reilly. And the drumbeat of that propaganda has seduced too many religious leaders and misled too many good, hardworking and typically religious folks.
As a result, the corrupting influence of this class has not only (as in Trump’s recent budget proposals) hurt the weak, imprisoned the poor, militarized minds and destroyed social securities, but threatens the basic shared faith and trust which is so fundamental our society.
I will soon try to write in greater detail about that “body of faith” and its strengths and weaknesses. For now I again invite response below to description of a class that is “breaking bad” for our country and the world.