Zealots to the Left of Me, Zealots to the Right of Me


A “self-perpetuating oligarchy” is an organization where the current leadership plays a strong role in picking its successors. Corporations are an example: the board of directors chooses a CEO, who periodically nominates new members to the board, which eventually chooses the next CEO.

But corporations are only weakly self-perpetuating, since boards usually don’t have a lot of loyalty to a particular style of management and CEOs usually don’t care all that much who takes over after they retire. Beside, CEOs can be fired. A much better example is the Catholic Church: popes appoint cardinals unilaterally, and the College of Cardinals elects a pope when the old one dies. What’s more, popes can’t be fired and they care a lot about appointing cardinals who are ideologically sympatico. Mark Kleiman, after reading about the Church’s recent humiliation of American nuns for being insufficiently anti-sex, comments:

As the characteristic risks of the democratic republic are corruption and demagogy, and the characteristic risks of hereditary rule are incompetent rulers and succession struggles, the characteristic risk of the self-perpetuating oligarchy is gerontocracy.

For most of the history of the Catholic Church, even the well-fed and well-cared-for tended to drop off by around age 70. So gerontocracy wasn’t a big threat. But modern nutrition, sanitation, and medicine have extended the life of the body by more years than they’ve extended the acuity of the mind. John Paul II put in a rule to get rid of aging Cardinals — mostly so he could complete the process of packing the College with members of his own faction — but didn’t apply the rule to himself, and continued to wear the Triple Tiara until he was long past it.

So — from a secularist perspective — here’s wishing a very long life to Pope Benedict XVI. I doubt that his commitment of the Church to the side of reaction and plutocracy around the world — continuing the work of John Paul II — is now reversible. So the faster the whole thing crashes and burns, the better.

It seems like every time I turn around I’m confronted by growing extremism. The Catholic Church is, increasingly, little more than an angry collection of reactionary old men who hate the modern world. The Republican Party is a refuge for bright-eyed true believers intent on tearing down the modern state. The state of Israel, unable to break the grip of its most expansionist zealots, is busily wreaking its own destruction and doing its best to drag us along with them. Large swaths of the Muslim world remain captured by the fever dreams of its most radical factions.

Unfortunately, none of this seems to be crashing and burning. Not yet, anyway. So when does the wave finally crest and start to break?

Or am I just imagining all this because I’m in a bit of a punk mood today?

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