The fatuous foolishness of the Manhattan Declaration

The fatuous foolishness of the Manhattan Declaration December 1, 2009

I had meant to conclude with a final post on this subject reserved simply for laughing at the Manhattan Declaration and the comical preening of its pompous prose.

It provides a hilarious, real-world example of the kind of wince-inducing misplaced self-importance and lack of perspective that I’ve always enjoyed when it’s performed by people like Ricky Gervais or Rowan Atkinson or Steve Coogan. The document begins with the authors comparing themselves to those who defended Christendom against the onslaught of “barbarian tribes.” Then they declare themselves the heirs of John Wesley and William Wilberforce and compare themselves to all those who suffered injustice during the long struggle for civil rights. And they’re still just warming up on their primary subject — their righteous courage and courageous righteousness. By the end of the document, they’re presenting themselves, without qualification or perspective, as a combination of Augustine, Aquinas and Martin Luther King Jr. and comparing their document to King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” — blissfully disregarding the ways in which a “Press Release from the National Press Club” isn’t quite the same thing.

This is your faith on smug. Any questions?
This is your faith on smug. Any questions?

Their own awesomeness is a topic the authors address with relentless relish. Everything else in the document is merely a foil for this central subject. The threat of The Gay is grave, ominous and potentially world-altering, they warn, repeatedly, before reassuring us that their heroic resolve and moral superiority will save the day. Even the passages in which they luxuriate in their own massive humility are saturated with this swaggering self-regard.

This all-consuming self-absorption coupled with an utter lack of self-awareness plays like something from a Christopher Guest movie. I’m only half-convinced at this point that Robert George is even a real person and not a Fred Willard improv run amok. The authors possess that same remarkable knack for straight-faced seriousness while making uproariously ridiculous assertions.

And at one level it’s impossible to view these pretentious peacocks, these Malvolios grimacing and strutting in their yellow stockings, without succumbing to the derisive laughter they deserve. Such self-inflation demands deflation. And anyway it can’t be helped. I mean, just listen to them:

We pledge to each other, and to our fellow believers, that no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.

The whole thing is like that — like a bad parody of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. Except of course that Henry was outnumbered. Here instead we have a group of powerful elites, men at the center of political, cultural, academic and ecclesiastical privilege bemoaning their oppression at the hands of the homosexuals and religious minorities they claim run the world. They are overlords posing as underdogs. (It’s hard out there for a pope.)

And while that’s ridiculous, it’s not really funny. The claim of oppression is laughably bogus, but the blood on their hands is all too real. A parody of the St. Crispin’s Day speech has comic potential, but a parody of the St. Crispin’s Day speech as delivered by the pilot of the Enola Gay is too bitterly callous even for my bleak taste in comedy.

So ultimately, even though we’re being treated to grand examples of the Blowhard Fool — a comic type that dates back before Plautus — this isn’t funny. And formally, structurally, we’re dealing with tragedy. There is no resolution, no reconciliation, no marriage. (Shakespearean shorthand: Tragedy means everyone dies; comedy means everyone gets married.) Indeed, the whole production here is an explicit rejection of the possibility of reconciliation and an adamant denial of marriage. So this isn’t comedy. We can’t help but laugh at these tragic clowns, but the laughter has a bitter aftertaste.

The important thing here, though, is to recognize why these buffoons have embraced this buffoonery. Their silliness is not a sideshow. The pompousness is the purpose. The fatuousness is the function. This is, as the kids on the Internets like to say, a feature, not a bug.

The anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-religious minority Manhattan Declaration is not primarily about opposing any of those things. That’s all just collateral damage. The primary purpose of the Manhattan Declaration, its raison d’etre, is to help the authors and signatories convince themselves that they’re better than everyone else. The ridiculous, overweening pride is what it’s for.

Chuck Colson, Robert George and Timothy George are blitzed out of their minds on the drug of smug. They’re hard-core umbrage junkies, snorting offendedness, mainlining grievance, freebasing uncut self-righteousness.

This is your brain on smug. Just say no.

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