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Dead funny?

New York columnist Matt Taibbi on why he wrote an infantile pisstake of a dying Pope.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Have you heard the one about the dead Pope, the cocky New York columnist, and the former President’s wife? It goes like this:

On 8 March, as Pope John Paul II lay dying in the Vatican, Matt Taibbi, a columnist for the freesheet alt-newspaper New York Press and currently Rolling Stone magazine’s Michael Jackson trial correspondent, penned a piece entitled ‘The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope’. It was emblazoned across the front page of the New York Press, tantalising readers with this strapline next to a picture of the Pontiff: ‘There’s Nothing Funny About This Man Dying… Or Is There?’

Taibbi thought there was: his piece was a list of 52 gruesome observations of the Pope’s final hours on this mortal coil. Such as: ‘51) After death, saggy, furry tits of dead Pope begin inexorable process of melting away into nothingness…. 47) Upon death, Pope’s face frozen in sickening smile, eyes wide open and teeth exposed, like a baboon…. 1) Throw a marble at the dead Pope’s head. Bonk!’ Taibbi didn’t so much dance on the Pope’s grave (even before he had been lowered into it) as throw a house party on it; he Riverdanced on the Pope’s grave. ‘I have a pretty unusual sense of humour’, he tells me. More of which in a minute.

The article was picked up by Matt Drudge, whose right-leaning website The Drudge Report is read religiously by American journalists and bloggers. And within an hour of Drudge denouncing the piece as an ‘outrage’, the great and the good of New York State had lined up to do likewise. Senator Chuck Schumer said the article was ‘the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in 30 years of public life’. Fellow Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (this is where the former President’s wife comes in) said it was ‘outrageously offensive to make light of the Pope’s physical suffering’ (1).

Jeff Koyen, editor of the New York Press, which is one of those countercultural papers popular in certain US cities, eventually resigned. The tabloid New York Daily News said the whole affair showed that the New York Press is ‘best used to line birdcages….’ (2).

Six weeks, numerous denunciations and one editor later, Taibbi is not in the least bit apologetic. Indeed, he tells me that one of his aims was to cause offence. Yet while I’m all in favour of defending the right to be offensive – especially today, when offending another’s feelings has come to be seen as the greatest offence of all and sufficient justification for shutting down debate – and while I have no truck with Hillary Clinton’s decree that certain things are unsayable because she finds them ‘outrageous’, I still have to ask: what was the point of Taibbi’s piece?

What was the point of describing the decay of the Pope’s body, of observations such as ‘Pope pisses himself just before the end; gets all over nurse’, ‘Pope’s ear falls off’, ‘After beating for the last time, Pope’s heart sits there like a piece of hamburger’? Or is that the point – there was no point? Was Taibbi being not so much funny ha ha (many lambasted his piece on the grounds that it simply wasn’t funny) or even funny peculiar, but more funny postmodern, offending for the sake of it, in order to stir up a media storm?

Taibbi insists there was a point; two, in fact. ‘I get really tired of these mawkish media orgies whenever some celebrated figure dies’, he says. ‘And I wanted to do the exact opposite of that. When someone dies we get continuous media coverage, where everyone is expected to talk about being horribly broken up. We went through it last year with Ronald Reagan; it was as if God himself had died. I knew the same thing was coming with the Pope, and I wanted to take a stand.’

He says there was a logic, too, to focusing on the Pope’s melting tits, last-minute pissing, and crumbling ears. ‘When these people die we treat them as if they are beyond human. We have this general instinct in America to be sycophantic and to suck up to celebrities, to treat them as if they are other-worldly. I wanted to strike home the idea that the Pope is a man who dies and rots like the rest of us.’

These ‘mawkish media orgies’ – the stifling emotional correctness that follows the deaths of celebrated figures, where we are expected to weep and wail publicly and to put aside any criticisms we may previously have had of said dead person – are not confined to ‘sycophantic’ America. From Princess Diana to the Queen Mum, Mother Teresa to Ronald Reagan, such outbursts of ersatz public grieving will be familiar to many in the Western world, and now follow the deaths not only of Popes, politicians and princesses but even C-list celebs (remember Jill Dando?). The response to the death of the Pope, not only in American media and political circles but in European ones too, and even further afield, suggests that this ‘mourning sickness’ has become internationalised.

In focusing on the Pope’s bodily functions and rotting carcass, Taibbi merely took such mawkish media coverage to its perversely logical conclusion. As the Pope was dying in March, finally meeting his maker on 2 April, the mainstream media treated us to running commentary on the minutiae of his declining health, emanating from within the Vatican itself and splashed across the front pages of the papers. After his tracheotomy we were told that he was ‘nibbling cookies’; a Vatican spokesman said the Pope had developed a high fever following a urinary tract infection; one Vatican press release said that kidney failure had kickstarted the ‘process of poisoning [his] other organs’ and that ‘his cardio-vascular system has worsened’ (3).

Is it really such a leap from this to Taibbi’s description of the Pope’s heart sitting there like a ‘piece of hamburger’ and ‘beetles eating dead Pope’s brains’? ‘Yeah, I did that consciously’, he says. ‘If they are going to give us a blow-by-blow account of what’s happening to the Pope’s ear lobe or whatever, then I’m going to say: “And later, his ear fell off.”’

Would Taibbi dish out the same (mis)treatment to other figures? What about the Dalai Lama? Think of the fun someone with an ‘unusual sense of humour’ could have if the Buddhist leader died: ‘Gets reincarnated as beetle; spends eternity in elephant dung.’ Taibbi says he wouldn’t do it. ‘The Dalai Lama isn’t a pain in my ass’, he says. ‘In America, Christians, and to a lesser extent Catholics, have huge political influence. That’s why I knock them.’ Yet you could argue that the Dalai Lama’s backward beliefs have a greater purchase in trendy, largely secular cities like New York, and among America’s cultural elite, than old-world Catholicism does. Hollywood stars who convert to Buddhism are generally indulged, while Mel Gibson was ridiculed by many for his overtly Catholic film, The Passion of the Christ. Could it be that in having a pop at the Pope, Taibbi picked an easy target whom most of us, if we’re honest, find faintly ridiculous? How rebellious was he really being?

His observations of today’s mawkishness are well-made. But in doing the ‘exact opposite’, did he take a stand against emotional correctness or merely make infantile gestures? Reading his article reminded me, bizarrely, of being at Catholic school 15 and 20 years ago, when friends and I would draw dicks on pictures of Christ in the Bible, or a speech bubble coming out of an apostle’s head with the words: ‘I AM GAY.’ We even decapitated a miniature statue of St Vincent de Paul, but later re-attached the head using blue tac. Infantile, right? Yet in the stifling climate of a Catholic institution, they were also small ways of rebelling, of sticking two fingers up at the nuns and priests who taught and tormented us. Taibbi did something similar with his pisstake of the Pope; but shouldn’t we expect more of a journalist than we would of a 12-year-old Catholic schoolboy?

Taibbi laughs. ‘Infantile? Absolutely! I wasn’t trying to be Oscar Wilde.’ Sticking with the Catholic theme, he tells me of one of his sources of inspiration. ‘Mike Judge tells a great story about where he got the idea for Beavis and Butthead. He attended a Catholic school, and was sitting in a pew with a bunch of students one day, when the priest held up a communion wafer and said, Take this and eat it. All the students burst out laughing, saying, Heh heh…he said “Eat it”. That’s kind of what I was doing with the Pope. Heh heh.’

Perhaps the mischievous Taibbi is playing the same game as the Pope-mourners, in also striking a moral pose next to the coffin of a dead guy in a dress. Where media commentators and politicians bowed the knee to the late John Paul, in a cynical bid to demonstrate that they’re good moral people not afraid to show emotion in public, Taibbi chucked stones (or a marble, to be more precise – bonk!) at the Pope’s rotting body, to show that he’s a rebel without a care who’s not afraid to mock the dead. Both sides, it seems, gathered around the carcass of an expired Pontiff to send a message largely about themselves.

One of the curious consequences of today’s emotionally correct atmosphere is the corresponding rise of a culture of offensiveness, a punkish, kneejerk reaction among what might be termed the Jackass generation against today’s emotional orthodoxy. Where world leaders say ‘The Pope was a good man’, they say ‘Dude, the Pope was an asshole.’ Yet this is a shallow rebellion; it takes the piss out of orthodoxies rather than challenging them. The inspiration of Beavis and Butthead seems to sum it up. Just as they sat around watching MTV, mocking the poncy rock acts, today some individuals watch Mourning TV (all channels) and feel able only to knock the weeping participants. Heh heh, indeed.

Matt Taibbi’s article, ‘The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope’, is available on the New York Press website. His book Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats is published by New Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).)

(1) Lowdown, by Lloyd Grove, New York Daily News, 4 March 2005

(2) Lowdown, by Lloyd Grove, New York Daily News, 4 March 2005

(3) Latest Bulletin: Pope’s Breathing Shallow, Catholic News, 1 April 2005

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Topics Politics

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