The Seven Deadly Sins, Continued: Anger

Truth isn’t always stranger than fiction. Sometimes, the facts just run obscenely ahead of one’s darkest fantasies.

Consider the new administration’s recent nomination to deputy attorney general, the second-highest law enforcement post in the land. Obama’s choice is a lawyer from all the best schools, a prestigious Washington firm, and previously of the Clinton Justice Department. The catch? He has made a particular legal specialty – one wants to say a fetish – of defending pornographers, including at least one child pornographer.

Even the worst pessimists could not have made this nomination up. As anyone even half following the court cases of the past decade will know, there are few enough laws on the books any more to protect children from smut and sexual predators. And thanks to this nominee’s past work in cases that you can read about online elsewhere, there are now even fewer.

Nor was his work on behalf of the smut industry a one-time gig. If the questions are “how often” and “how much,” as the priests like to ask, then the answer can only be “plenty.” Former clients include Penthouse, Playboy, and the largest distributor of hardcore pornography videos. If there’s a pornographer anywhere who is not deserving of every First Amendment protection, we wouldn’t know it from this nominee’s record.

This is the legal mind that’s about to help oversee the most important department in the nation charged with enforcing the laws – including existing laws against obscenity, which are legion albeit under-enforced?

Little turmoil surfaced during his nomination hearing the other day. Its gentility was probably a far cry from those videos of “Little Girls Bottoms (Underside)” and “Little Blonds” that the nominee has elsewhere argued did not constitute obscenity. Nor was enough made of a memo by the nominee to Justice Blackmun some years back, explaining his desire to minimize “morality-based” legislation. Of course, the nominee has expended other efforts on the far side of left-wing cultural politics, too – including arguing that minors have a right to abortion without parental notification. You can read about those cases elsewhere too, if you still have the stomach for it.

None of it seemed to faze our senators much. It didn’t much matter to them what a man did for a living, as Don Vito Corleone says. Never mind the endorsements by the pornography industry – and never mind that eight-year-old on the library computer who now gets to sit right next to a man viewing child pornography on his own screen, thanks in part to the nominee’s success in arguing the unconstitutionality of internet filters.

So how does this recounting make you feel? If the answer is that you are angry about it, and I imagine many people will be, then welcome to the deadly sin of the month.

As a matter of doctrine, Anger isn’t as straightforward as it may seem. In the heyday of Kumbaya theology, i.e. a few decades ago, some progressive-minded theologians started arguing against tradition that any sort of Ira amounts to a sin. Thomas Aquinas, however, took a different view. He and most other subsequent theologians distinguished between “righteous” anger – say, at injustice and oppression – and non-righteous feelings of vengeance or wrath.

The absence of that righteous anger was conspicuous in Washington last week. Yes, some social conservatives raised hell about the Ogden nomination – or tried to. But they are out of sync with the mood of the capital and the nation itself. Misunderstanding Anger explains a great deal of what ails this society. We exhibit way too much of the wrong kind, and way too little of the right.

Talk radio hosts and television populists are angry. Bloggers are angry. Gay rights activists are angry. Atheists are really, really angry. And pro-abortion people, those grim would-be reapers of other people’s cradles, are perhaps the very angriest of all, of possible clinical interest some other time.

Yet where once were isolated boutique manifestations of Anger, today the country seems an endless strip mall of it. Our new president’s chief talent may be to exploit the worst kind of angry populism while appearing all the while to float above it. A financial crisis? Prosecute Wall Street! The Iraq War was controversial? String up the war criminals! As Peter Wood wrote in A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, this “new anger” is “all around us all the time, invisible to the eye though we breathe it in like air pollution.”

Of course, the Internet makes the dissemination of bile ever easier. But the electronic media fuel Anger in another way, too. The more we know, the more furious we get – because we modern men and women grasp how little we really know. We are angry, in the end, because the closer we get to acting like gods, the more obvious it is that we are not such beings. Google can’t save us from our mortality. We are all of us, always, just one chronic illness or one mortal misfortune away from eternity.

Meanwhile, bloated with the wrong kind of Anger, we stint on the kind that might actually do some good: “[E]verything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster,” as Auden observed in a poem on Peter Breughel’s “Fall of Icarus.” And so it was in Washington last week. Many people saw something incredible – an attorney cozy with the pornography industry about to become one of the top officials in charge of your children’s internet safety – and just moved on.

Maybe the law firms that defend pornographers will someday bestow pro bono work on some of the victims of the industry whose interests and profits they defend. Meanwhile, our new deputy attorney general will find a dwindling number of laws to enforce against such things. Or not.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Adam and Eve after the Pill, Revisited, with a Foreword by Cardinal George Pell.