I basically agree with Ross Douthat that one problem with American life, especially American political life, is that in this country, we don’t know how to handle tragedy. We like our narratives simple and clear. Writes Ross:

But the idea that many debacles flow from choices made by decent, well-intentioned human beings is more difficult for us to wrap our minds around. This is apparent in our politics, where we’re swift to impute the worst of motives to anyone slightly to our left or right. It’s apparent in our popular culture, thick with white hats and black hats, superheroes and supervillains.

This resonates with me, and as longtime readers know, I get the hives over hotheads who insist that their opponents are not decent enough people who happen to be wrong, but Evil Cretins Who Must Be Destroyed. This ideology, which is by no means limited to political discussion, is the bane of creativity, to say nothing of a healthy sense of humility that would shape a prudent character. But I must say that Dan Larison, though somewhat intemperate in his language here, makes an important counterpoint: that we might be more open to a tragic sense if those who were guilty of great crimes, or at least enormously consequential errors, were made to suffer for what they’ve done. It doesn’t often happen, though.
For example, I’m an admirer of Pope Benedict, who looks to be entering rough waters as the child sex abuse scandal turns out not to have been only an American problem, but a European one. As someone who was once deeply involved in that foul beast of a story, I’ve tried to use the emotional distance brought by time and my departure from the Catholic Church to take a more nuanced view of what brought these crimes about. I don’t actually believe that bishops intended for children to be molested. I really don’t. But all their good intentions counted for nothing; children — hundreds, perhaps thousands of them — were turned into the sexual playthings of corrupt clerics, and those in authority, who had the power and the duty to stop them, mostly did nothing. You can say all you want to about how the bishops were hornswoggled by the psychiatric profession, which gave them bad advice, and you can use that to point to the genuine tragedy of these bishops putting more trust in shrinks than in their own moral tradition and common sense. And you would have a point. Plus, it is the very definition of tragedy to cause the Church’s reputation be eviscerated by a cover up undertaken to protect the reputation of the Church.

But who can muster the wherewithal to think of the church sex abuse scandal in its tragic dimensions when few if any of the high-ranking clergy — bishops and archbishops, I mean — under whose watch this evil flourished in clerical ranks have been made to take responsibility for it in any real way? Mind you, I really do think there truly is a tragic element in this story, but to grapple with it absent meaningful accountability on the part of the malefactors is to feel as if one is expected to extend cheap grace. Whether it’s church leaders, government officials, financial bigs or other leaders whose bad decisions have led to calamities in recent years, it’s hard to appreciate the tragic nature of their errors when, as Larison writes, “Nemesis is ever elusive.” Is it really a proper tragedy when the tragic figures live (more or less) happily ever after?
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