Two news stories illustrate how relationships can change over time as the parties finally recognize each other or themselves evolve to the point when what was once a natural compatibility becomes no longer sustainable. The Islamic intellectual Tariq Ramadan, for example, has been fired from his jobs in Rotterdam and at the Erasmus University in Holland because of his role in Iranian state propaganda. The Middle East Forum says “while the U.S. authorities now seem inclined to allow him on our shores, and Britain appears untroubled by his presence – although the UK bars his associate al-Qaradawi – the Dutch have taken action to curb Ramadan’s ambitions.”
In an official statement, Erasmus University stated:
The Municipality of Rotterdam and the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) have decided to terminate the appointment of Dr. Tariq Ramadan… The reason for this is his involvement in the Iranian television channel PressTV, which is considered to be irreconcilable with his positions in Rotterdam… Press TV is a channel financed by the Iranian government. The excessive force used by this government in June against demonstrators, many of whom were students, prompted a number of journalists to cut their ties with the channel. However, Tariq Ramadan chose not to do so, and has since justified his decision in a statement…[T]here is no longer the essential public support for the contribution to the city and the university and…the credibility of Dr. Ramadan’s continued work for the city and the university has suffered lasting damage.
How did this happen? Wasn’t Ramadan an academic star? What changed was Ramadan’s relative position within the political value system of Dutch society. Ramadan, whatever his popularity as an anti-American icon might be, had offended against the Iranian demonstrators. And just as stone blunts scissors, paper covers stone: so Ramadan was out. By some alchemy of court politics, a prince had fallen from esteem in the realm. Jeff Israely at Time Magazine describes a similar, but more gradual change in the Vatican’s relationship with Ted Kennedy.
At the beginning of his career, Ted Kennedy had a special relationship with Archdiocese of Boston. The Kennedys were the face of ‘Catholic America’. But by the end Pope Benedict was agonizing over whether it was even licit to offer the Senator from Massachusetts Holy Communion without risking blasphemy.
“If he had influence in the past it was only with the Archdiocese of Boston and that eventually disappeared too.” Some say the final sunset on the Kennedy name within Catholic halls of power was the Vatican’s decision in 2007 to overturn the annulment of the first marriage of former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, the eldest son of Robert Kennedy. The successful appeal by Joe Kennedy’s ex-wife Sheila Rauch, an Episcopalian, was another blow for the Kennedy image in Catholic circles.
During Benedict’s 2008 trip to the U.S., there was some heated debate (with conflicting photographs and eyewitness accounts) about whether or not Kennedy took Holy Communion at the papal mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington, with conservatives insisting that the Pope says the rite should be denied to pro-choice politicians. With this in mind, Church observers are keen to see if Boston’s Archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley will preside over Kennedy’s funeral.
The times had changed. In the early 1960s it was possible to ask whether Catholics could be Presidents in America and there was some basis of alignment between the Vatican and the Kennedys. But by the 21st century, this was old hat. A politician’s stand on abortion had become the Vatican’s primary political concern. And the Irish weren’t what they used to be in Catholic circles either. The demographic center of Roman Catholicism in America had begun to shift towards the Latin Americans. Gradually but inexorably, , the Kennedy-Vatican relationship had diverged.
In what may mark the final flicker of Kennedy influence in American Catholicism, reports circulated last spring that Obama was considering JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, as the possible next U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. That was not to be. Indeed in the wake of Uncle Ted’s death came word Thursday that Obama’s final choice had arrived in Rome to take up the diplomatic post at the Holy See. His name is Miguel Diaz, a little-known Cuban-born professor of theology firmly on the record as pro-life.
But the changes still came as a surprise because myths have a way of slightly outliving their expiration date. Even the canny Barack Obama could be fooled into choosing yesterday’s man simply because the reality had not yet caught up with the name. The US changed its policy towards Tariq Ramadan at the very moment when those who knew Ramadan best decided he was uncool and were distancing themselves from him. In the same way, Caroline Kennedy was put forward as Ambassador to the Vatican just when the idea became an anachronism. Choosing has-beens is an occupational hazard of liberal politics; because despite its constant efforts to keep “with it” there always going to be risk of casting behind the times in a system that thrives on celebrity politics. Ramadan and Kennedy may have been stars once; but that was then and this is now.
The abuses of the star-system have become exacerbated by the return of Celebrity Politics. Claudia Rosett described how the Age of Obama has become once again the Age of Great Men; an age good good for diplomats who’ve always wanted One Number to call in a crisis and journalists who prefer one story to cover in each country. Instead of a confusing world of many small people telling complex stories, the Age of Obama offers up again the comfortingly simple stage where everyone wears a signature costume and every utterance can be scripted. It’s a place of comforting narratives with good guys in snazzy suits and bad guys wearing cheap cologne and clutching worn Bibles. You almost know who’s going to win. It’s a great worldsince everything can once again be boiled down into a news magazine you can read at the dentist’s office. Rosett writes eloquently about the attractions of celebrity politics.
There is a strange, alternate universe overtaking the international stage, in which the competition is less about decency, morality or democratic values than about intrigue, thrills, trappings and ultimately the ability to hold the attention of a crowd. And yes, it’s possible that for the novelty of the season, al-Qaddafi at the U.N. General Assembly next month will trump them all. The debate continues over where exactly he will stay, and whether he will bring such affectations as his Bedouin tent–an item which for gossip value promises to briefly outrank even Hollywood’s Jolie-Pitt saga. True to celebrity form, modern despots have their cliques. Between the road shows and house calls in which they now deal as erstwhile equals with envoys of the world’s democracies, modern thugs enjoy advertising their sit-downs with each other….
These are celebrities who answer to no law and no electorates. They are increasingly in the business of eroding rules of conduct that are vital to any civilized world order. They are riding much too high these days, and while it may be human nature to watch them with interest, it would be folly to forget for even a moment that all that glitter, wealth and showmanship–from Bedouin tent to designer shoes to creamy stationery–comes from the barrel of a gun.
Perhaps nothing captures the Obama administration’s atmospherics so perfectly as their vacation at Martha’s Vineyard. The Telegraph writes: “as President Obama flies his family back home to Washington, they will rapidly be followed by an armada of private jets from the tiny local airport. After next weekend’s Labour Day holiday, the exodus of billionaire businessmen, media tycoons and Hollywood stars who summer on the island will be complete. From Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce to Valerie Jarrett and the Clintons, they’ll all be gone. In a matter of days, the island’s population withers from 100,000 to just 15,000.” Camelot is back with an all-new cast and it’s a safe bet that that its promoters feel that theater sales have been slumping recently because the public has been waiting for a re-run all these years. Stun them with the costumes; knock ’em dead with the glitz. Happy Days are Here Again. No one seems worried that everything appears slightly out of date. And if the opening day box office take is a little small, no matter: a faster change of props will set the audiences hearts a-flutter; though maybe not. As Tariq Ramadan and Ted Kennedy’s change in fortunes reminds us, in the Court of Kings everyone is always just a little past his prime.