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A Note On First Things And Maureen Mullarkey

First Things editor R.R. Reno was wrong to publicly pillory Maureen Mullarkey.


First Things editor R.R. Reno is not a friend of mine, but I was still somewhat surprised to read this piece by him on why he was firing one of our Senior Contributors at The Federalist, artist and critic Maureen Mullarkey. Reno writes at length in a piece headlined “No More Tirades” on why he is getting rid of her blog, including this justification: “First Things stands for something. Many things, actually. One of them is a commitment to reality-based conservatism, both in matters of faith and of public life. I mention this, because I’ve decided to end our hosting of Maureen Mullarkey’s blog. Maureen has a sharp pen and pungent style. Her postings about Pope Francis indicate she’s very angry about this papacy, which she seems to view as (alternately) fascism and socialism disguised as Catholicism. This morning she put up a post that opens with the accusation that the Vatican is conspiring with the Obama administration to destroy the foundations of freedom and hobble the developed world. I’ve had my staff take it down.”

Here is the offending passage – like most things Mullarkey writes in criticism of Pope Francis, it has edge to it, as she can get quite hot about the subject:

“The road show is over. The spectacle flamed up and subsided, a Roman candle of demonic sanctimony. Think of it as pre-game warm-up for the main event: the global climate summit in Paris, November 30 to December 11. The Vatican is partnering with the Obama administration, at the U.N. and later in Paris, in magnifying state control over a free society and tightening the screws on the developed world. This, in the name of saving the planet from the production and growth of those very means by which the poor can raise themselves out of poverty.

“Our obligation to charity—caritas—is bound to the truth of things—in veritate. There is little truth in the aggressively promoted patchwork of contested science and hysteria that fuel apocalyptic prophecies. Yet the Vatican and Our Man in Havana militate against the imagined enemy of climate change while an actual, advancing one slaughters the faithful in its path.”

Oh my heavens, this is what it takes to get fired by First Things these days? Were I publishing this, I likely would have struck the word “demonic” and let the rest speak for itself without changes.

Reno’s decision here strikes me as very odd – not to let Mullarkey go, but the basis for his frustration is his own editorial decision. He had already made the decision to give Mullarkey the keys to publishing her pieces. Editors can’t give someone carte blanche to publish with no supervision and then be angry at the writer for the result. Editors edit. Writers write. If the editor decides not to do his job, the result is on him.

Reno can fire whoever he wants, whenever he wants, for any reason or no reason at all. As John Voight says in Heat, it’s a free country, brother. But to take to the pages of your website afterwards to excoriate the former writer is low behavior of the worst sort, particularly when their crime is essentially one of tone. Reno references her use of “terms… used by radio talk-show hosts to entertain the public with mock-battles against various Empires of Evil.” For many critics of Pope Francis’ approach to the climate debate, particularly how useful he has been to those who would destroy the developing world’s ability to achieve economic progress out of a sense of duty to the pieties of elites (at a time when actual Christians are being slaughtered, no less), these are not “mock-battles” for entertainment purposes. They are very real and very significant battles over matters of life and death.

But setting that aside: to fire someone and then take to your front page to piss all over them – attacking their work on their way out the door and personally impugning them for their perspective – is terrible behavior for someone managing an institution like First Things. As Michael Brendan Daugherty notes: “Hate Mullarkey all you want. But extracting the maximum amount of righteousness/applause for letting someone go is about as low as it gets.”

History is littered with examples of writers who behaved in much worse ways and received far less of a personal direct attack as they left the building. Jonah Goldberg only engaged with Ann Coulter after Coulter spent days publicly bitching about National Review – and even then, Jonah was pretty mild and respectful. Frank Foer didn’t do that to Spencer Ackerman, who actually threatened him with physical violence. It’s not the sort of thing responsible leaders do, because it sends a message to every future employee and employer.

For Reno to publicly pillory one of his writers because of an intellectual disagreement is bad form – and worse, to do so to a writer like Maureen Mullarkey is not the approach of a gentleman.

We will continue to publish her writings on art, literature, and faith at The Federalist.