When in Rome: Don't Snap, Don't Push

I have just returned from Rome, where I was able to attend events associated with the Consistory of the College of Cardinals. The new grandmaster of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, Archbishop O’Brien, received the ring and red biretta that mark his new status as a cardinal, as did Archbishop Dolan of New York and about twenty other prelates from around the world. I had a great time with a group from St. Louis, and I will only make two remarks.

First, I have come to believe that there is a new threat to any decorum in public ceremony, one that most of us harbor in our own pockets. That is, of course, the cellular phone with its easy-to-use camera. Cameras were always bad for public ceremonies, since they take the members of the audience or congregation or crowd out of the role of participant and put them in the role of private creator of images. But only a few people toted big cameras and the obvious disruption caused by their flash bulbs enforced some restraint. The cellphone allows almost everyone to retreat into his own viewfinder. And the cameras are no longer held at eye level, so that there is some chance of seeing over the heads of the snapshot monger. Instead, they are head high above the head, so that the view of those in the back is blocked by a sea of little screens showing tiny bits of what they obscure. Since people are willing to hold even iPads over their heads, there is not much chance for the back rows to glimpse anything, especially since people lost in the robotic viewfinder don’t even notice that fellow human beings are inconvenienced when they climb atop chairs.

If I had my way, I would ban all amateur photography at public events. Leave the image-capture to the pros, people, and actually pay attention to the event you have crossed the seas to take part in. I don’t think that policy is likely to be instituted widely in many places, but as I wait I will share a second dream. Another thing that reduces the participant to the role of spectator is amplification. It is indeed necessary at times, but too often it is needed only to overcome the buzz it itself creates. (It is always a crutch that poorly trained speakers rely on.) The effect of amplification is to take away from the people one of their most important roles: maintaining silence. The ambient buzz and the artificially loud voices make it seem not just possible, but appropriate to rustle and chat to one’s heart’s content. These are two technologies that are used mostly because they exist, not because they have made anyone’s experience richer.

Second, while I nurture all the appropriate shame for the crimes and failings of Anglo-Saxon culture from Wounded Knee to Colonel Sanders, I rejoice in a quality that our culture still nurtures better than most others. It seems to be losing it hold even among English-speakers, but we still are better at it than most of the world. Our great contribution to world culture: Queuing Up. For the most part, we are good at standing in line. We do not do it sullenly and under duress, like the Russians; we do it in a spirit of fairness and camaraderie. Most of the people of Europe, to judge from the pilgrims in Rome, were never introduced to the idea that jumping the queue is one of the most despicable acts a person can commit. The rich, the poor, the well-dressed, the sloppy, the lay, the religious—all Europeans believe that sharp elbows and unceasing efforts to contort rat-like into any space in front of someone who has been waiting longer are fair weapons in the war of all against all to get a better seat.

To my brethren on the continent, I offer this plea. Reject American culture, if you like. Burn the McDonalds, the KFC, the Gaps, even the Starbucks. Listen to your own music instead of the Delta Blues as imported through Liverpool. Stop watching our stupider movies and festooning their creators with medals. Push it all away. But learn this from us: the path to true happiness is a well-respected line with no pushing and no cutting.

I have few photos of my trip, but here is one. (It was taken during a designated photo op and I had waited in line for it.) I was evidently amusing Cardinal Dolan:


North American College, February 18, 2012