Breaking Bad

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.

15 thoughts on “Breaking Bad

  1. I think you nailed it, John. I was so glad to see your reference to W.B. Yeats poem, “The Second Coming.” So much in that poem depicts the rise of the anarchy of soul, mind and body which is leading the body politic into thinking that wealth is the measure of all things in a world in which “nobody loses anything of value.” (Wm. Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech, 1950) Carmen


  2. Thanks John. This “banal and brutal class” only know their own narrow concepts and have no idea of the total reality of life that is open to discovery and possibility. Discovery is fun and magical. This oligarchy class you write about seems to have no fun. I would add another virtue and that is curiosity. One needs curiosity to generate new ideas. A democracy needs enough people to be curious, to want to learn and be informed in order to work. A democracy cannot flourish unless there are all points of view expressed and heard, not just one point of view.


  3. John… i recently received a forwarded message from my father in law regarding theft… it is eerily pertinent to your text… unfortunately it is in French… but i could translate it if you would like:


    Dans la vie il existe deux types de voleur :
    1- *Le voleur ordinaire*: c’est lui qui vous vole votre argent, votre porte-feuille, votre montre, votre téléphone etc etc. 😭
    2- *Le voleur politique* : C’est celui qui vous vole votre avenir, vos rêves, votre savoir, votre salaire, votre education, votre santé, votre force, vous vole votre sourire etc etc.😭

    La grande différence entre ces deux type de voleurs est que *le voleur ordinaire vous choisit* pour vous voler votre bien,😭 *tandis que le voleur politique c’est vous qui le choisissez pour qu’il vous vole.*

    Et l’autre grande différence qui n’est pas la moindre, c’est que le voleur ordinaire est traqué par la police, tandis que le voleur politique est le plus souvent protégé par un convoi de police.

    A méditer avant de choisir votre voleur…


    1. Monika — thanks so much for your comment — which I will summarize here in English for others: there’s a great difference between the ordinary thief who steals something from you (and chooses you as his victim and is arrested by the police) and the political thief who steals your future (but whom you choose/elect and who is protected by the police. So one must think in advance before choosing one’s type of thief. Again thanks to your and your father in law.


  4. John

    I’ve never pictured myself as a Jeremiah, and I don’t think I’m
    a moaner or complainer but I am beginning to sound like that other
    older generation …

    The golden rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules.

    A smaller example of what I take as your reference…
    I use the exercise site at Xavier Univ and while we do our thing on the
    various machines, we are faced with a wall of tv sets whose purpose
    (I think) is to entertain us because we are incapable…don’t go there.

    Formerly, these monitors displayed morning news shows or vintage tv programs
    from which those doing their exercise could choose

    In the past year, however, the diet has changed. Now there is only one “program”
    available to the exercising men and women… it is a facsimile of MTV. And the “music”
    is a constant repetition of values and attitudes which, at best, are just the world
    in which we live. The video is a steady diet of images which (in my humble and
    unasked for opinion) degrades women. The women who work at the desk don’t like
    what they are confronted with every day…but they can do nothing to change what
    is in front of them…

    When I voiced my displeasure to the Catholic adult woman who is in charge of the
    facility, she said…well the programming is free to the university…paid for by a
    sponsor! Et voila!

    And so the beat goes on…



  5. Rather than curse the darkness of the sinful activities of individual people (real or imagined) or groups of people (identified or abstractions: “the new oligarchy”), I suggest we will accomplish more when we light a candle by commending the work of people, whatever their socio-economic status, employ their talent and skill to serve the common good.
    I saw a woman (Linda) bring her friends together to serve a meal for a grieving community member. I heard a man (Fr. Boyle) speak at the Notre Dame Commencement Ceremony who, with the help of friends and donors from various socio-economic situations, serves ex-convicts regain opportunities to contribute to family and community. I learned of a business man who recently agreed to sponsor a golf tournament (to which others will contribute) that will support scholarships for some of our local children to attend Catholic schools.
    Even if historians, sociologists, and psychologists more clearly identify this dark sociological construct: oligarchy, how far will this move us toward conquering original sin? Will this help us succeed where Jesus didn’t? Maybe we should love the rich man and the poor man and pray that all of us move away from our pride, envy, anger, and greed, sloth, lust, and gluttony.


    1. John, I’ve always loved and at times followed the sage advice which I trace back to a group called “the Christophers” if I remember correctly — light candle rather than curse the darkness. And of course your important reminder about loving our enemies. Still I not surprisingly disagree — while doing what you suggest, we do (to repeat what I said in my blog) have a very strong obligation to identify and oppose evil — perhaps especially in public life which so affects especially the poor and marginalized and all of us (which I am next going to write about). still, thanks for your important reminders. And see the recent posting by my good Australian mentor Ian Weeks who, in contrast to you, criticizes me for not being strong enough in my condemnation.


  6. Dear John,
    Thank you for this blog. It is clear and argued with good sense. The reference to the local Catholic boy is particularly good.
    I am concerned, however, by the mildness of tone. Several days ago I wrote a Post in Facebook when the Trump team left Paris without signing the agreements about Climate Change which the other 6 major players plan to sign. Trump’s refusal to say whether he will sign that agreement puts all of us at risk. Not just citizens of the richest country on earth.
     Preceding this announcement was the flaunted deal with the major purveyor of terrorism in the world – that the USA would sell $180 Billion dollars worth of arms to the Saudi government. Anyone reading factual writing about the present state of armament sales knows that the USA is responsible for over 80% of these sales.
    These two aspects of policy of the present government of the USA males it clear that the USA is ruled by a rogue government and that, as a consequence, the USA must be seen as the major rogue state in the world.
    It is outrageous that the USA describes North Korea as a rogue state when that country has taken no action against any other country, has fired a handful of missiles, and exploded no nuclear bombs at any time. North Korea is not a major source of pollution in the world, let alone in its region.
    Of course I agree with the charges you bring in your blog. I agree that these charges cause good people in the USA to be disturbed. But why is your disturbance only local when the real crimes are against us all? Not many Americans will be killed by the weapons sold to the Saudis (though 9/11 might qualify that assertion) but a great many Yemeni’s will be killed by those weapons.
    If Trump refuses to sign the Paris agreement the deployment of the weapons the USA sells will be little more than a mosquito bite when compared with what is already happening to the world.
    In love and friendship I have to say that your blog shocked me. It is much, much too kind and gentle, and it is much too much a merely local complaint when it is the world that is at risk.

    Ian G. Weeks


    1. Ian, thanks so much for your reply. You’re right, of course, and send an important reminder to we “Americans” (US citizens) about the realities and justified fears in the rest of the world. and now we know that Trump has done what you feared, further threatening the entire world with the future you describe. My defense of my writing is simply that I was not trying to say everything, and was particularly writing to my fellow citizens about the naming the poison spreading among us. And the small silver lining I find in current news is the extent of the outrage (both rhetorical and in terms of serious organizing) here to Trump’s withdrawal from Paris, and more generally about his recent foray into the rest of the world — which has been widely seen as both a serious rejection of our real friends and a disastrous embrace of real evil (especially in Saudi Arabia, but also in Israel — two of the really dangerous rogue states and human rights abusers).


    2. For other readers — Ian Weeks is my dissertation mentor, now back home in Australia and professor of philosophy and religion at Deakin University (Geelong, Australia, just south of Melbourne) and philosopher in residence at the University of Melbourne.


  7. John,
    I’m sorry this comment is a little tardy.

    I think your analysis is open to a prejudicial criticism of the wealthy.
    Two thoughts, one from Exodus, one from Dostoevsky:

    “…you shall not favor a poor man in his lawsuit…” Exodus 23:

    Dostoevsky makes it clear in The Brother’s Karamazov that the poor can be most proud. I think it was the fellow Dmitri abused and then sought reconciliation with who manifested this hubris. (can’t pinpoint this anecdote now)

    I’ve listened often enough to O’Reilly’s “Talking Points”, which I’ve found to be quite insightful. The fact that he is up for criminal indictment is sad and scandalous. (But then again King David was an adulterer and a murderer, Dorothy Day had an abortion.)

    What’s important is to ask what particular groups, the wealthy and not so wealthy, are advocating. Are their programs such as to be humanizing or dehumanizing?

    Remember, for much of the world “America” (i.e., U.S) is one big oligarchy.



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