Labour MP Keith Vaz has expressed his support for the reintroduction of UK blasphemy laws – provided they “apply equally to everybody.”
His comments were reportedly made at an event organised by the Muslim Council of Britain to explore responses to terrorism and extremism, held in London on 12 November. During discussions on how to respond to ‘slurs’ and “grossly irresponsible” coverage of Muslim issues in the media, attendees called for Britain’s Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to use its powers to pursue complaints of discrimination against groups of people, such as those of Muslim faith, even if no individual is specified in an offending article.
Miqdaad Versi, Assistant Secretary General of the MCB, said “Muslim communities need to be able to respond to accusations [against] Muslims, or against the Prophet, in a more effective way.”
He added: “Whether there should be legislation is something that really is a more complicated question.”
But in response to discussion on new blasphemy legislation, Vaz, who is the chairman of the influential Home Affairs Select Committee, told Al Arabiya that under certain conditions he would have “no problem” with the reintroduction of blasphemy laws in the UK.
“Religions are very special to people. And therefore I have no objection to [a blasphemy law] … but it must apply equally to everybody,” the longstanding Labour MP added.
Free speech, it seems, is not so “very special”.
Credit where’s credit is due: I am not exactly a member of the Jerry Brown fan club, but the California Governor’s decision to sign his state’s cautiously drafted assisted suicide law (perhaps too cautiously: to take one example, those with Locked-In Syndrome might still be left trapped in their hell) deserves some praise, not just for his signature, but also the reasons he gave for it.
Gov. Jerry Brown of California gave a deeply personal explanation on Monday for his decision to sign legislation allowing terminally ill patients to obtain a lethal dose of painkillers from a doctor to hasten their death. When the law goes into effect next year, California will become the fifth state, after Oregon, Washington, Montana and Vermont, to enact and retain aid in dying or physician-assisted suicide laws. Many other states are considering similar laws; they ought to follow the example of these pioneers.
The California law has robust protections to protect patients from recklessly taking their own lives. Two different doctors must certify that the patient has six months or less to live before prescribing the drugs, patients must be able to swallow the medication themselves, and they must be of sound mind and not under coercion from their families. Hospitals and doctors can decline to participate.
Governor Brown, a Democrat, said that he had carefully read the opposition materials presented by a number of doctors, religious leaders and champions of disability rights and had considered religious arguments that shortening one’s life is sinful. He also consulted with a Catholic bishop, two of his own doctors, and former classmates and friends, who took a variety of positions.
In the end, he reflected on what he would want in the face of his own death. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain,” he wrote. “I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
Well done, Governor Brown. That said, it remains troubling to read that, even after the vote in the California legislature, Brown thought it worth considering ‘religious arguments that shortening one’s life is sinful’. Much as I might disagree with them, there are good practical arguments to be made against assisted suicide, but why, beyond a certain point in the democratic process in a nation with a constitution providing for the separation of church and state, religious arguments should be given special consideration escapes me.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how ‘religious liberty’ is under attack in the US, but that’s a stance that can easily turn into an insistence on religious privilege, an altogether less praiseworthy objective. Under the circumstances, the determination of various churchmen to ensure that all Californians should be forced to submit to the prescriptions of a faith that they might not share was more than a touch ironic.
And for all the other arguments that those churchmen make, that infamous slippery slope and so on, in the end their objections are religious, based, at their core, on the argument that the rights of their God trump those of the profoundly sick, an argument made none the more palatable by attempts to elevate ‘suffering’ into some sort of sacrament.
I posted a bit about this phenomenon the other day, but clear signs of a morbid cult of suffering can be found in an article in America magazine by Jessica Keating, the program director of the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame. It was written in response to the assisted suicide of Brittany Maynard in Oregon earlier this year.
For those who cannot see beyond the material horizon of death, suffering that does not appear to have proximate material benefit is emptied of the possibility of meaning.
Indeed, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are as much about unseemliness and fear of suffering as they are about death.
With the advance of utilitarian idealism and medical technology, it seems that nothing but a peaceful death will be acceptable, wherein peace is reduced to the absence of pain, emotional and physical suffering or the loss of cognitive and physical abilities.
To describe the wish for a peaceful death as ‘utilitarian idealism’ is telling. Fundamentalism is what it is.
There is another narrative that is routinely neglected or, worse, rejected out of hand, a narrative grounded in the logic of the Cross. This is a narrative in which suffering unto death can be penetrated and transfigured by the mystery of love—particularly in cases like Ms. Maynard’s, when one is surrounded by loving family and friends. This transfiguration occurs in hidden intimacies. Choosing to die early forecloses such possibilities. Had she not taken her own life with the assistance of a physician, she, like many who suffer terminal illness, almost assuredly would have been stripped bare of her abilities, perhaps even her mind. Indeed, there was nothing material for her to gain in suffering, only loss. Almost assuredly there would have been no inspiring recovery story to tell at the end. Rather, Ms. Maynard might have become unproductive, unattractive, uncomfortable. She would just have been. But she would have been present in a web of relationships. Even had she fallen unconscious, she likely would have been read to, washed, dressed and kissed. She would have been gently caressed, held and wept over. She would simply have been loved to the end.
That was a destiny that was hers to choose or to reject. ‘The logic of the Cross’, backed by coercion, would have denied her that freedom, that autonomy, that dignity, that relief.
As I said, ‘religious privilege’.
Over on his blog, Sam Harris interviews Mark Riebling, the author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler. The historical ground covered is interesting—how could it not be?—but these passages, in particular, caught my attention:
Conservative, even authoritarian, religious structures can prove extremely helpful against revolutionaries who want to impose a far more radical, utopian political religion. If Sunni Islam had a hierarchy, we would see many of its leaders resist ISIS more effectively. By comparison, you are seeing the Shia capable of counteraction, not just because they are anti-Sunni, but because they have a clerical hierarchy.
The Sunni conservatives will at some point have to either fight the revolutionaries or obey them. It was similar in Cambodia under Pol Pot—finally the old-line communists in that part of the world couldn’t take it anymore. Likewise, who is now sending troops to prop up an authoritarian Assad to stop ISIS?
The former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Which should remind us that in the former Soviet Union, glasnost and perestroika did not come from “the Russian people.” They began within the most elite ranks of the Party—the KGB. I think the pope’s secret war against Hitler should be grouped with this family of phenomena—authoritarian resistance to totalitarianism.
And this (my emphasis added):
For half a century, the Marxist myth of the New Man was fairly successful in supplanting the old stories—but the magic’s gone out of that, too. So you have, unless you are mindful, a banalization of human experience. This banality is going to tempt some people to join ISIS for excitement, for re-enchantment, for remythification.
If you join ISIS, you have a story! Your life is numinous—it’s as if you’re living in the Iliad instead of, say, just playing soccer in the dust in a Bauhaus housing project in Basra. Or you’re channeling the Teutonic Knights while you’re horsewhipping Jews in 1930s Nuremburg—I think the personal hunger is the same.
As C.G. Jung said, you can chase out the devil, but he shows up somewhere else. Which is one reason why, when Jung was an agent for US intelligence in 1944, he urged propping up political Catholicism—in fact, through the Christian-socialist parties that came to dominate Cold War Europe, whose exiled leaders Pius sheltered in the Vatican. Jung was an atheist, but he preferred Christian socialism to the atheist communism he saw coming. He predicted that the freethinking atheist would fare better under the frowning brow of the Christian myth than under the trampling boot of the communist one.
Jung was a nut, but he had moments of clarity.
This intriguing piece by Claudio Ivan Remeseira is a (very) long read, but (very) well worth it. It underlines yet again how much Pope Francis remains shaped by the intellectual and religious traditions of his homeland. That might be disappointing for anyone who wants to slot him into the neat categories of the American political debate (Francis is neither liberal nor conservative) and it will disappoint anyone who might have hoped that a pope might be a little less, well, parochial, but there we are.
During the first decades of the 20th century, after the so-called Modernist crisis and the battles against secularism and its offspring — unfettered capitalism on the socio-economic side, liberal democracy and communism on the political one — , the Papacy devised a strategy to regain center stage in world affairs. In Argentina, this political-religious creed took the form of what Italian historian Loris Zanatta called “the myth of the Catholic nation”.
…In this theology, the People are defined in a narrow sense as the poor and the dispossessed. Yet in contrast with the Marxist analysis of economic inequities deployed by Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, Leonardo Boff and other stalwarts of Liberation Theology, the Argentine theologians emphasized the study of national history. Their interpretation of Argentina’s past, however, was also polemical. It was a rebuttal of the mainstream storyline that celebrated Argentina’s progress as a triumph of the Liberal elite that had ruled the country from the second half of the 19th century to the rise of populism in the 20th century. Starting in the 1920s, anti-liberal intellectuals who called themselves Revisionists turned that narrative on its head. Their hero was the bête noir of Liberal historians, Juan Manuel de Rosas, a governor of Buenos Aires who exerted his power over the whole country from 1829 to 1852, when he was deposed by a former loyalist.
As a young priest close to the Iron Guard, a right-wing Peronist group, Bergoglio absorbed those ideas, which have stuck with him to this day. According to fellow Jesuit theologian Juan Carlos Scannone, Bergoglio’s “four principles” of good governance (Time is greater than space; Unity prevails over conflict; Realities are more important than ideas; The whole is greater than the part), were extrapolated by him from a letter Rosas wrote in 1835 to Facundo Quiroga, another powerful Argentine caudillo, explaining why he opposed the drafting of a national Constitution. Those principles are constantly invoked by Francis and constitute the mainstay of the fourth chapter (“The Social Dimension of Evangelization”) of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
In 1960 and 70s Argentina, the Rosas-Perón parallels were a truism of political debate — a popular leader who fought for the country’s wellbeing against all-powerful foreign interests and their treacherous local representatives. For Revisionists, the antithesis People vs. Anti-people is indeed the driving force of national history. The Anti-people encompasses all historical and present-day forces that thwart the People’s way to its Liberation: the political and corporate establishment, the anti-Peronist middle class, and an old enemy of Catholicism: the culture of the Enlightenment, the uprooted intellectualism of those who worship abstractions such as Liberty and Democracy and are always looking abroad for inspiration instead of embracing the originality of their own national experience.
The theologians of the People added to the mix a few more elements of the zeitgeist — anti-Imperialism, anti-colonialism, dependency theory and its center-periphery dualism — and wrapped it all up in the revolutionary language of the era. But their most lasting contribution was the justification of popular faith, another of Francis’ recurrent themes.
And (my emphasis added):
For all the efforts made after Vatican II to find an accommodation with contemporary world, there is something at the core of this world that rejects those efforts, a radical incompatibility. In the last analysis, the issue continues to be secularization. The challenge for the Catholic Church is how to accommodate to today’s world without being assimilated into its secular values.
Francis’ mindset straddles this divide. One Anti-Modern trait of his thinking is his mistrust of Liberalism. Despite his constant appeals to political tolerance, Francis’ political thought is rooted in a pre-modern, organicist view of the community as foundation of social and political life. Liberal democracy and the modern doctrine of human rights are the antithesis of that view. In Evangelii gaudium, the word “people” appears 164 times; the word “democracy”, not once.
Another trait is his hostility toward capitalism. Far for being inspired in any left-wing or Marxist philosophy, Francis’ anti-capitalism comes down from the European right-wing writers of the early 20th century, who in turn found their source of inspiration in the Middle Ages. At the final stage of the Cold War, John Paul II made a timid move towards accepting the market as an autonomous social force. In the age of the anti-globalization movement, Francis would have none of it. His critique of capitalism seems to go even further than the objections traditionally made by Catholic Social Teaching since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. It is when indicting the world’s economic woes that Francis strikes his most prophetic tone (which, by the way, is another characteristic of Argentinian theology). The encyclical Laudato si, his great jeremiad against the evils of capitalism, has established Francis as one of the world’s foremost critics of Neoliberalism….
Seen from this perspective, the fact that capitalism has done so much for so many counts for very little with a pope who continually–and with somewhat unbecoming ostentation–humblebrags that he is a pope for the poor, heading a church for the poor. And that church needs the poor to remain poor if they are to continue to be its foot-soldiers in the long war against modernity.
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in politics
HAVANA — Pope Francis plans to meet with Cuba’s president and its priests, its young and its sick, its churchgoers and its seminarians as he travels around the island starting Saturday. But not with its dissidents.
The absence on Francis’ agenda of any meeting with the political opposition has sparked bitter critiques from dissidents who say they feel let down by an institution they believe should help push for greater freedom in Cuba. Papal observers say it’s likely Francis will speak strongly to Cubans about the need for greater freedom in their country and may speak to President Raul Castro in private about the same topic. But in shying from meetings with dissidents, the pope is hewing largely to the Cuban Catholic Church’s strategy of advocating for change within bounds laid out by the communist state rather than pushing the system to change as John Paul II did in Eastern Europe. There is no one Cuban officials consider more out of bounds than the country’s dissidents, whom they call mercenaries paid by the U.S. government and Cuban-American interest groups in Miami.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said this week that Francis had not accepted any invitations to meet with dissidents, and well-known opposition members told The Associated Press they have received no invitation to see him. Popes rarely meet with political opposition figures during their foreign trips and neither St. John Paul II nor Pope Benedict XVI met with dissidents during their respective 1998 and 2012 visits to Cuba, prompting similar criticism.
Deservedly so (although it should be remembered that John Paul II hardly behaved like a pillar of the establishment during his visits to communist Poland).
As for Benedict’s visit to Cuba, it’s worth taking another look at a piece in Foreign Affairs by Victor Gaetan that I linked to back in January.
Here’s an extract:
[Havana’s Cardinal Ortega] was never popular with regime opponents because of his determination to avoid confrontation. While Benedict was in Cuba, Ortega refused to arrange a meeting between the Pope and opposition leaders. Instead, devout Catholic opposition leaders such as Oswaldo Paya found Cuban security surrounding his house to prevent him from attending Benedict’s public Mass. Five months later, Paya was killed in a car accident suspected of being engineered by state agents.
No investigation has ever been completed. Although Ortega presided over Paya’s funeral, his family says the cardinal did nothing to protect or promote the democracy movement Paya fostered….
But Ortega likely isn’t losing sleep about this criticism. He has a different vision of Cuba’s future: A few days after Francis was elected, the Havana Archdiocese published a document containing 23 proposals produced by a group, Laboratorio Casa Cuba, comprised of “professors and researchers of diverse ideologies (Catholics, critical Marxists, republican–socialists, and anarchists).” It’s a Christian social–democratic program, with an anti-American cherry on top.
Pope Francis has a special responsibility when it comes to Cuba. By doing his bit to help engineer the restoration of diplomatic relations (and more) between the US and Cuba, he gave the dictatorship in Havana no small boost. If he were to meet some dissidents, it might go some way to dispelling unkind suggestions that Francis is inclined to look too kindly on the authoritarianism of the left. For good or ill, this pope has shown himself capable of delivering surprises. He should spring one on the Castro brothers by meeting some of the brave men and women who dare stand up against them.
While there is something more than a little unattractive about the relish with which the jailing of Kim Davis, the errant county clerk (a Democrat, as it happens) unwilling to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, has been celebrated by some, she has both abused her position and provided a useful reminder of the fact that many of those now calling for ‘religious freedom’ (a good thing) really want religious privilege (not so much). So far as Ms. Davis is concerned God’s law (as she understands it) not only trumps the law of the land, but is something that she is prepared to impose on others. But Thomas More is, mercifully, long dead. That sort of thinking is more commonly associated these days with the realm of Shariah than the West.
And those in the US pushing for an expansive definition of what they call religious freedom should pay more attention to stories that illustrate the direction in which things are going, stories like this:
CNN: A Muslim flight attendant says she was suspended by ExpressJet for refusing to serve alcohol in accordance with her Islamic faith. In a bid to get her job back, Charee Stanley filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Tuesday for the revocation of a reasonable religious accommodation.
She wants to do her job without serving alcohol in accordance with her Islamic faith — just as she was doing before her suspension, her lawyer said.
“What this case comes down to is no one should have to choose between their career and religion and it’s incumbent upon employers to provide a safe environment where employees can feel they can practice their religion freely,” said Lena Masri, an attorney with Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Stanley, 40, started working for ExpressJet nearly three years ago. About two years ago she converted to Islam. This year she learned her faith prohibits her from not only consuming alcohol but serving it, too, Masri said.
“Noone should have to choose between their career and religion?”
Masri and Davis are pointing the way to a sectarian, Balkanized America, a path that will not end well.
Davis should resign. And so should Stanley.
In the course of commenting over on the Corner to a list of the ‘ten best revolutionaries’ (yes, the list was as dumb as you can expect), I included an extract from Paul Berman’s excellent Slate response to The Motorcycle Diaries, a hagiographic Che movie made about ten years ago.
Some of Berman’s piece was an attempt to insert a little accuracy into the historical record, but this too caught my eye:
[T]he entire movie, in its concept and tone, exudes a Christological cult of martyrdom, a cult of adoration for the spiritually superior person who is veering toward death—precisely the kind of adoration that Latin America’s Catholic Church promoted for several centuries, with miserable consequences. The rebellion against reactionary Catholicism in this movie is itself an expression of reactionary Catholicism. The traditional churches of Latin America are full of statues of gruesome bleeding saints. And the masochistic allure of those statues is precisely what you see in the movie’s many depictions of young Che coughing out his lungs from asthma and testing himself by swimming in cold water—all of which is rendered beautiful and alluring by a sensual backdrop of grays and browns and greens, and the lovely gaunt cheeks of one actor after another, and the violent Andean landscapes.
The cult of suffering—the idea that suffering is itself somehow ennobling—has long been a feature of some of the more morbid outgrowths of Christian tradition, and it can easily be detected in some of the opposition to assisted suicide.
In the course of an article for the Boston Pilot,a nun, Sister Constance Veit, wrote:
Compassion, or “suffering with” another, manifests what is best in us as members of the human family. As Little Sisters of the Poor we often witness the extraordinary things that happen at the bedside of our dying residents — striking acts of faith, graces of personal conversion and family reconciliation and exceptional gestures of empathy on the part of our staff members.
This past winter we were hit with a particularly tough strain of the flu. Several residents succumbed to the illness, including a woman who had been caught in the downward spiral of Alzheimer’s disease for over 15 years. In his funeral homily the priest, a family friend, suggested that as Alzheimer’s progressively robbed her of all that she had enjoyed in life, he had been tempted to wonder, “Why is she still here?”
The priest had a ready response to his own question, though: despite her silence and complete dependence this woman remained among us for so long to bring out the best in her caregivers, to teach us how to love. Father’s answer echoed an insight that St. John Paul II had shared 30 years ago in his apostolic letter on human suffering:
“We could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s ‘I’ on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions.”
What a mystery — these suffering souls whose mission it is to call the rest of us to a more noble existence, a more loving and generous gift of self! The graces bestowed on those who care for the ill and dying parallel those received by the sick who recognize God as the Master of Life and entrust themselves to him. One of the reasons why assisted suicide is so tragic is that it would deprive the sick and those who accompany them of these important graces.
That last paragraph is, I have to say, disgusting. Sister Veit’s argument that those wrestling with the later stages of a cruel disease are on a “mission” on behalf of the rest of us, a mission that they had never asked to be on, is an expression of fanaticism, terrifying in its absence of empathy for her fellow man.
We are often to told that assisted suicide could represent a slippery slope to moral catastrophe. To read Veit’s words—and to understand what, in practice, they really mean— is to realize that we are already there.
Niloy Chakrabarti was only the latest atheist blogger to be hacked to death in the country this year.
That refers to the murder of Chakrabarti, slaughtered by a group of attackers in his appartment earlier this month.
A long piece in today’s Guardian explains what’s been going on.
Here’s an extract:
[Avijit] Roy, who held dual US and Bangladeshi nationality, was the most prominent atheist writer to be attacked in Bangladesh, but he was not the first – or the last. On 30 March, a month after Roy’s murder, another blogger, Washiqur Rahman Babu, was set upon by a group of masked assailants. On 12 May, Ananta Bijoy Das, who wrote for Mukto-Mona on rationalism and science, was attacked in his hometown of Sylhet. On 7 August, men with machetes broke into the Dhaka home of Niloy Chakrabarti, a blogger who used the pen name Niloy Neel. All three men died.
The four murders in 2015 were brutal and happened in quick succession, prompting police action. Three people have been arrested – including a British citizen, Touhidur Rahman – over the deaths of Avijit Roy and Ananta Bijoy Das.
A British citizen: I’ll just interrupt to note that fact.
But the violence goes back further. It began on 15 January 2013, when atheist blogger and political activist Asif Mohiuddin was on his way to work and was attacked from behind by a group of men with machetes. “I [thought] I would die,” he tells me over Skype from his new home in Germany. “But somehow I survived.” He spent weeks in intensive care, and still finds it difficult to move his neck. “I think I will carry this problem all my life.”
A month later, another blogger critical of Islamic fundamentalism, Ahmed Rajib Haider, was attacked in the same way outside his house in Dhaka. He did not survive. In August 2014, someone broke into the Dhaka home of TV personality Nurul Islam Faruqi, who had criticised fundamentalist groups on air, and slit his throat. A humanist academic, Professor Shafiul Islam, who had pushed for a ban on full-face veils for students, was murdered near Rajshahi University in west Bangladesh in November.
These brutal crimes have gone unpunished; arrests have not led to prosecutions. The government appears unwilling, or unable, to stand with atheists. Instead, in an attempt to appease Islamists, it has ramped up its own actions against “blasphemous” bloggers….
Read the whole thing.
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in politics
Will Pope Francis use the privileged platform—an address to Congress—that he has been given (why?) by Speaker Boehner next month to say something about immigration?
Many advocates for revamping immigration laws have tried to coax Congress into action over the years, but a particularly powerful one will be arriving next month: Pope Francis. Lawmakers and immigration activists expect the pontiff’s message will resonate beyond Capitol Hill and inspire members of Congress and their constituents. The pope’s U.S. schedule includes an address to Congress on Sept. 24 and a meeting two days later with immigrants and Hispanic families at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall.
“He’s been clear on our failure to respond appropriately to immigrants and refugees,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., told CQ. “I don’t think anyone will have any doubt on where the church stands on immigration after the pope visits the United States.”
…The Holy Father would enter the United States by crossing the Mexican border if he had the time, according to Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, the head of a papal advisory group of cardinals, during remarks in March before a Georgetown University audience.
McGovern, one of 169 Catholics in Congress, noted many Catholics might not be familiar with the church’s catechism that “more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood, which he cannot find in his country of origin.” He said he hopes the pope’s words will affect his colleagues who are opposed to a comprehensive immigration overhaul and encourage them to reflect on their actions.
“It may move some, it may not move others,” McGovern told CQ. “But I hope it makes those who have been obstructionist feel uncomfortable.”
Quite why they should feel “uncomfortable” escapes me. The duty of these elected officials is to their constituents and to the best interests of their country. I doubt if those will be the grounds of any appeal that Francis may choose to make.
We’ll have to wait and see what he comes up with, of course, but, judging by Francis’s track record, most notoriously a homily he gave on the Italian island of Lampedusa not long after becoming Pope, he will indeed have quite a bit to say on the topic, little of it sensible.
As I’ve noted before, the Pope’s words on that occasion were analyzed by “Theodore Dalrymple” (Anthony Daniels) for Law and Liberty in a powerfully-argued piece that will, I suspect, turn out to have little in common with the hagiographic mush that is likely to characterize most mainstream media coverage of the upcoming papal visit. It is, therefore, well worth re-reading now, not least as some sort of inoculation.
Here’s an extract:
In his homily, the Pope decried what he called ‘the globalization of indifference’ to the suffering of which the tragedy of the drowned [migrants] was a manifestation and a consequence. Our culture of comfort, he said, has made us indifferent to the sufferings of others; we have forgotten how to cry on their behalf. He made reference to the play of Lope de Vega in which a tyrant is killed by the inhabitants of a town called Fuente Ovejuna, no one owning up to the killing and everyone saying that it was Fuente Ovejuna that killed him. The West, said the Pope, was like Fuente Ovejuna, for when asked who was to blame for the deaths of these migrants, it answered, ‘Everyone and no one!’ He continued, ‘Today also this question emerges: who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters? No one! We each reply: it was not I, I wasn’t here, it was someone else.’
The Pope also called for ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity that open the way to tragedies such as these to come out of hiding.’ With all due respect, I think this is very loose thinking indeed of a kind that the last Pope would not have permitted himself. The analogy between the two situations, the murder of the tyrant in Fuente Ovejuna and the death by drowning of thousands of migrants, is weak to the point of non-existence. After all, someone in Fuente Ovejuna did kill the tyrant; no one in the west drowned the migrants. Is the Pope then saying that Europe’s refusal to allow in all who want to come is the moral equivalent of actually wielding the knife?
By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic vices of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of generous sentiment without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy…..
And Dalrymple did not overlook the Pope’s descent into the intellectual squalor of conspiracism, territory, I would add, that Francis has since chosen to revisit on other occasions:
The Pope’s use of a term such as ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity’ was strong on connotation but weak on denotation, itself a sign of intellectual evasion. Who, exactly, were ‘those’ people? Wall Street hedge fund managers, the International Monetary Fund, opponents of free trade, African dictators? Was he saying that the whole world economic system was to blame for the migration across the Mediterranean, that the existence of borders was illegitimate, that Denmark (for example) was rich because Swaziland was poor, that if only Losotho were brought up to the level of Liechtenstein (or, of course, if Liechtenstein were brought down to the level of Lesotho) no one would drown in the Mediterranean? There was something for everyone’s conspiracy theory in his words…
Well, no good demagogue is ever more than a sentence of two away from a conspiracy theory.
The Economist is a magazine (or ‘newspaper’ as it likes to style itself) that has badly lost its way, abandoning the quirky classical liberalism of a three or four decades ago for a bien pensant Davos liberalism that is as condescending as it is misguided.
On occasion though, hints of the old Economist can emerge, as a recent piece in support of doctor-assisted suicide demonstrates.
Here’s an extract:
The idea fills its critics with dismay. For some, the argument is moral and absolute. Deliberately ending a human life is wrong, because life is sacred and the endurance of suffering confers its own dignity. For others, the legalisation of doctor-assisted dying is the first step on a slippery slope where the vulnerable are threatened and where premature death becomes a cheap alternative to palliative care.
It is worth interrupting to add that the argument of a slippery slope will have little resonance with someone, suffering say from locked-in syndrome, who may well believe that he has already slid down the slope and into the ditch to which the likes of Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley (a prominent opponent of Massachusetts’ sadly unsuccessful 2012 right-to-die initiative) would so prayerfully consign him.
Back to The Economist:
These views are deeply held and deserve to be taken seriously. But liberty and autonomy are sources of human dignity, too. Both add to the value of a life. In a secular society, it is odd to buttress the sanctity of life in the abstract by subjecting a lot of particular lives to unbearable pain, misery and suffering. And evidence from places that have allowed assisted dying suggests that there is no slippery slope towards widespread euthanasia. In fact, the evidence leads to the conclusion that most of the schemes for assisted dying should be bolder.
The popular desire for assisted dying is beyond question. The Economist asked Ipsos MORI to survey people in 15 countries on whether doctors should be allowed to help patients to die, and if so, how and when. Russia and Poland are against, but we find strong support across America and western Europe for allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with terminal diseases. In 11 out of the 15 countries we surveyed, most people favoured extending doctor-assisted dying to patients who are in great physical suffering but not close to death.
No wonder that, just as adultery existed in Spain before 1978, so too many doctors help their patients die even if the law bans them from doing so. Usually this is by withdrawing treatment or administering pain-relief in lethal doses. Often doctors act after talking to patients and their relatives. Occasionally, when doctors overstep the mark, they are investigated, though rarely charged. Some people welcome this fudge because it establishes limits to doctor-assisted dying without the need to articulate the difficult moral choices this involves.
But this approach is unethical and unworkable. It is unethical because an explicit choice that should lie with the patient is wholly in the hands of a doctor. It is hypocritical because society is pretending to shun doctor-assisted dying while tacitly condoning it without safeguards. What may turn out to be more important, this system is also becoming impractical. Most deaths now take place in hospital, under teams of doctors who are working with closer legal and professional oversight. Death by nods and winks is no good.
Better is to face the arguments. One fear is that assisted dying will be foisted on vulnerable patients, bullied by rogue doctors, grasping relatives, miserly insurers or a cash-strapped state. Experience in Oregon, which has had a law since 1997, suggests otherwise. Those who choose assisted suicide are in fact well-educated, insured and receiving palliative care. They are motivated by pain, as well as the desire to preserve their own dignity, autonomy and pleasure in life.
Another fear is that assisted dying will downgrade care. But Belgium and Holland have some of the best palliative care in Europe. Surveys show that doctors are as trusted in countries with assisted dying as they are in those without. And there are scant signs of a slippery slope. In Oregon only 1,327 people have received lethal medicine—and just two-thirds of those have used it to take their lives. Assisted dying now accounts for about 3% of deaths in the Netherlands—a large number—but this is less a rush to assisted dying than the coming to light of an unspoken tradition in which doctors quietly brought their patients’ lives to an end.
How, then, should assisted dying work? For many the model is Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act. It allows (but does not oblige) doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to patients with less than six months to live who ask for them, if a second doctor agrees. There is a cooling-off period of 15 days.
We would go further. Oregon insists that the lethal dose is self-administered, to avoid voluntary euthanasia. To the patient the moral distinction between taking a pill and asking for an injection is slight. But the practical consequence of this stricture is to prevent those who are incapacitated from being granted help to die. Not surprisingly, some of the fiercest campaigners for doctor-assisted dying suffer from ailments such as motor neurone disease, which causes progressive paralysis. They want to know that when they are incapacitated, they will be granted help to die, if that is their wish. Allowing doctors to administer the drugs would ensure this.
Oregon’s law covers only conditions that are terminal. Again, that is too rigid. The criterion for assisting dying should be a patient’s assessment of his suffering, not the nature of his illness. Some activists for the rights of the disabled regard the idea that death could be better than a chronic condition as tantamount to declaring disabled people to be of lesser worth. We regard it as an expression of their autonomy. So do many disabled people. Stephen Hawking has described keeping someone alive against his wishes as the “ultimate indignity”.
Indeed it is.
But it is an indignity that men like Sean O’Malley, prelates who have been so busy of late proclaiming the primacy of ‘religious liberty’, are prepared to insist on. Liberty, it seems, is not for all.