Papal bull

It may be a slow news week, but I have been finding it hard to understand the sheer volume of media coverage of the Pope\’s visit. I appreciate that he is the leader of one of most important world religions, but can that really be worth so much newsprint in our – allegedly – secular society?

This afternoon, I had an epiphany. This isn\’t really about the Pope. Like African conflicts during the cold war, this is a proxy battle in our very own \’culture wars\’. On the one side are the evangelical rationalists, Dawkins et al, to whom the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church represent something atavistic and unsavoury, slouching into the 21st Century dragging medieval convictions (and the taint of negligence in relation to child abuse) behind them.

On the other side, are conservative pundits and newspapers, seizing on the Pope\’s denunciation of secularism to amplify their fears of Christmas being replaced by \’winterval\’ in town halls up and down the land, of celebrities taking the place of deities, of moral relativism rampant, and of cross-wearing banned by petty bureaucrats.

As in the USA, the tone adopted by the culture warriors is shrill, and neither side is really interested in the other\’s views as anything other than a target for denunciation and derision. This is a dialogue of the deaf.

Larks\’ Tongues

BBC2\’s Rome was back on the television last night, revelling with gory glee in the plottings and the stabbing. The orgies, the feasts of larks\’ tongues and the pearls dissolved in vinegar are just around the corner.

This is history in hindsight: we see the seeds of the Roman Empire\’s collapse being sown in the retreat from the austere and stoic values of the Republic. We can thank historians like Suetonius for this lurid and prurient tale of geopolitical decline following close on the heels of moral decadence. It has proved a compelling narrative for future generations too, from Shakespeare to Gibbon.

Is it a narrative for today? While problems press on us from all sides – environmental collapse, intractable wars, political and social alienation – many of us have never had it so good. We live lives of comfort and plenty, lives that are enriched by foreign travel, new foods, new media.

Is this dissonance a new normality or is our persistent celebration of consumption a sign of our decadence? Are we eating larks\’ tongues? Two things I noticed recently:

The ipod is a totemic piece of technology for our time, offering unparalleled ease of use coupled with elegance of design. I recently picked up a flyer, asking \’Is your ipod still sitting in its box?\’, and offering to fill ipods with music for their owners, to give training sessions, to personalise ipod mixes to make their owners look sophisticated.

At the Young Vic Theatre, performances of \’Vernon God Little\’, a satirical tale of the white working class in the southern USA can be preceded by a special menu in the venue\’s restaurant, where middle-class theatre-goers can eat ironic (but locally sourced and organic) variants on southern white trash food.

I\’m not trying to criticise these quirks of our culture (on the contrary, I can vouch for the Vernon God Little burger as juicy and well-cooked), but I sometimes wonder how our lives would look to a visitor from another planet, or even to a future historian sniffing out the decadent portents of decline.

Any more larks\’ tongues out there?