In my teens, I was an obsessive reader of Bill James’ Basebal Abstract. Anyone who’s familiar with the book will know that James doesn’t content himself with number-crunching — although he does more of it than any six accountants I know. No, for James, fanboy that he is, no detail relating to the National Pasttime is beneath dissection — not changes in the uniforms, not trends in nicknaming, not even the looks of the players. In the 1985 edition, he goes out of his way to name the ugliest player from every decade since, if memory serves, the 1880s.
For ugliest player of the 1960s, James nominates Don Mossi, who, I believe, pitched for various teams in the National League. Possibly because Mossi, unlike some pics for previous decades, was alive at the time of the book’s publication, James excuses himself this small cruelty by explaining, “Don’s so ugly that the rule of two negroes applies.”
According to James, the rule of two negroes — presumably coined when the word “negro” was still considered polite — forbade any sportscaster from noting a physical resemblance between two African-American ballplayers. It’s easy to understand the reasoning — no network wanted to promote the idea that “they all look alike.” But that was only clause one of the rule. Clause two obliges the sportswriter to remark on such a resemblane when failing to do so might make him seem inattentive, or just plain blind. Don Mossi’s ugliness was like that — so remarkable that ignoring it would mean abandoning his journalistic duty.
In other words, be sensitive and circumspect until your circumspection and sensitivity make you look like a bloody fool.
I found myself reflecting on it yesterday as I read through some of the comments to my blog post, “To Fr. Corapi: Bupkes; To John Corapi: Concern and Sympathy.” Some readers believed that I was wrong for noting that Corapi’s voiced-over farewell to the priesthood was fraught with “too many discordant notes, too many mixed messages,” and might signal a tenuous grasp of reality. Even if the evidence suggested these facts to me, I should be silent, in the name of Christian charity.
That’s when it hit me: charitable silence ends where the rule of two negroes begins. Putting a good gloss on questionable behavior is fine — until the behavior becomes so odd that explaining it away becomes an act of willful ignorance, or worse, enabling.
In his most recent broadcast, Corapi reaches that point — in fact, executes a graceful grand jeté over it. Where? How? Very well, then — by the numbers:
1. He imputes only the worst motives to the investigating authorities: “There are certain persons in authority in the Church that want me gone”: “the most likely outcome is that they leave me suspended indefinitely and just let me fade away.”
2. He presents his dilemma in melodramatic terms: “I have only one of only two viable choices: 1. I can quietly lie down and die, or, 2. I can go on in ways that I am able to go on.”
Does the role of two negroes apply? Me, I feel like I’m watching Tracy Morgan with a bad hangover.
If anything, the explanation I provided — emotional distress compounded, perhaps, by a misuse of psychiatric medication — offers Corapi an out. A less generous observer might interpret the thing as a calculated hustle: Corapi wants people to listen to his radio program, and to buy his autobiography. To do that, he first must sell them a narrative of victims and villains. It’s not enough to make people side with him; they’ve got to side against someone else.
I don’t rule any of that out. There’s nothing incompatible about genuine instability and an effective hustle. John Holmes’ agent once said, “The best hustlers hustle themselves first.” He meant that conviction adds force to a sales pitch, especially when the product might have some difficulty selling itself. If you want people to believe your story of institutional malice leading to a kind of judicial murder, you’d better lead the way. If you’re suffering from a sincerely felt — if outsized — sense of persecution, well, thank goodness for small favors.
Although I spoke of Corapi’s “treating the faithful like easy marks,” his decision to st up shop on his own is not what bothers me. As long as he abides by the rules Deacon Greg reports, then fine — caveat emptor, de gustibus non disputantum est, and all that other Latin good stuff. What I object to most strenuously is the drama — Corapi’s own lobbing of unprovable accusations. Not only does that create division, it makes him no better, in the end, than the persons and bodies he accuses of railroading him.
I realize that a pundit who is himself in imperfect step with the Magisterium had beter justify himself PDQ when he condemns divisive behavior. I suppose the difference between my approach and Corapi’s is tonal: I try not to rail or vilify, I certainly don’t claim to speak with any particular authority. (If anyone called me a shepherd, I’d laugh and tell a filthy joke about a Greek and a Welshman.) Corapi, it seems, feels irresistibly drawn to do all these things.
But if I have to emphasize one aspect of Corapi’s message over the other — that is, the distress or the hustle — I’ll take the distress. It calls for a sympathetic response, like prayer, not a hostile one. Even if it doesn’t succeed in bringing people together, it at least ought to; the potential is there.
You could say I’m invoking the rule of two negroes. They look so much alike I’ve got to say something about them. But, in the interest of charity, I’ll say much more about the one on the right.