TAG | totalitarianism
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.
In the Daily Telegraph, Tim Stanley writes:
A chance click on a blog by Alejandro Bermúdez, head of the Catholic News Agency, leant me a fascinating insight into [the Pope’s] intellectual character. During his first homily, Pope Francis quoted the 19th century French convert Léon Bloy. And it’s a striking quote:
“When one does not confess Jesus Christ, I am reminded of the expression of Léon Bloy: ‘He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.’ When one does not confess Jesus Christ, one confesses the worldliness of the devil.”
Oh my! To anyone who doubts Pope Francis’ orthodoxy, there it is in black and white. God is a reality and to reject him is to embrace the only real alternative – the devil. Note that it’s “the devil” with a small “d”, because he’s much smaller than God and cannot possibly win the Final Battle between the two. Satan is a pipsqueak and a born loser, and you’d have to be pretty dumb to pick him for an ally.
Bloy was a radical Catholic. He was obsessed with capturing and embodying the essence of Christian doctrine, to the degree that it made him the sworn enemy of compromise. Born in 1846, he was raised in Paris in the French republican tradition – rationalist, secularist. In his twenties he underwent a dramatic conversion to Catholicism that left him craving constant encounter with the divine. Like anyone who thinks they have discovered The Truth, he was impatient with the fake consensus that others tried to force him to live by. Christ on the Cross was the only fact worth knowing, martyrdom was the only death worth experiencing. Bloy embraced poverty and gained the nickname “the ungrateful beggar” for his habit of refusing to get a job, begging for money, and then using the fresh ink he acquired to attack the lifestyles of the rich who kept him. We might today call him a hippie bum, but no bum ever wrote with this kind of passion:
“Every man who begets a free act projects his personality into the infinite. If he gives a poor man a penny grudgingly, that penny pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe. If he begets an impure act, he perhaps darkens thousands of hearts whom he does not know, who are mysteriously linked to him, and who need this man to be pure as a traveler dying of thirst needs the Gospel’s draught of water. A charitable act, an impulse of real pity sings for him the divine praises, from the time of Adam to the end of the ages; it cures the sick, consoles those in despair, calms storms, ransoms prisoners, converts the infidel and protects mankind.”
Purity not just in deed but in purpose. Bloy wanted us to live heroically as living saints; always giving, never taking – motivated in everything by pure love. A barrier to love was wealth (if you have it and you love others, why wouldn’t you give it away?), so Bloy hated the wealthy….
Ah yes, always the hate. It’s curious how often advocates of “pure love” of this type seem to have so much room for hate.
To be sure, it’s important to note (as Stanley does) that this was just one citation by Francis, and it’s even more important to admit that I’d never heard of Bloy until yesterday. That said, even very cursory research throws up some fairly disturbing information about him. Long-distance medical diagnosis is always a dangerous temptation, and it rarely yields much more than a glorified guess. Nevertheless, on this occasion I shall give in to it: It certainly looks as if Bloy had some sort of breakdown, and, sadly, the personality that emerged from this “dramatic conversion” (if you prefer that gentler term) was both unpleasant and more than a little sinister.
Stanley attempts to draw a distinction between Bloy’s rhetoric and the language of Marxism by focusing on the fact that Marxism is a materialist creed. Superficially, perhaps, but Marxism is better seen as a manifestation of the old millennialist tradition of which Bloy-style Catholic radicalism is yet another expression. To read Bloy’s turn-of-the century ravings is to glimpse a shadow of the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution and the “Democratic Kampuchea” to come.
To get a very quick flavor of Bloy, read the rest of Stanley’s fascinating article and then go over to the French wikiquote. See Bloy sounding off against Protestantism, democracy and modernity, (vaccination was “un ordure”, apparently, a favorite word of this somewhat excrementally-obsessed writer, and cars and trains were not much better). Check out the repeated demonization of the rich and the bourgeois as “pigs”, dehumanization of a sort that was the prelude to so much twentieth century massacre.
Bloy’s morbid and violent prose appears to be the product of a genuinely totalitarian spirit (”Je suis pour l’intolérance parfaite”), and of a mind that recognized only one truth. God, so to speak, help anyone who disagreed.
For Francis to quote this man was, well, interesting…
During the course of his visit to Britain next year, the Pope will be addressing the country’s parliamentarians from the spot, reports the Daily Telegraph, where Sir Thomas More was sentenced to death in 1535.
The choice of venue is, I reckon, largely a coincidence (Westminster Hall is the usual venue for addresses of this nature – it’s where Reagan spoke, for example), but it does give me an excuse to post about Thomas More, a brilliant, fascinating individual who ought also to be seen as terrible warning of the danger that one man’s spiritual (or wider philosophical) certainty can pose to others when harnessed to the power of the state. Unfortunately, that’s not how he is seen. The old boy gets a pretty good press these days. Maybe that’s because he was canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1935. Maybe.
I suspect that the real key to More’s shiny modern reputation is to be found in Hollywood’s hagiographic A Man For All Seasons, a highly watchable, deeply annoying film. As a mild corrective to Paul Schofield’s fine portrait of doomed nobility, it is perhaps useful to recall that, as Lord Chancellor (England’s top lawyer), More showed himself to be a savage ideological enforcer, quite pleased, for example, to support the burning alive (“the short fyre…[prior to] ye fyre eurlasting”, as he so charmingly put it) of heretics.
Was More sincere in his beliefs? Sure, but then again so was Felix Dzerzhinsky.
Having said that, it’s important not to fall into the the current all-too-common mistake of judging historical figures solely by the standards of our own time. More’s attitudes were hardly uncommon in his era. But having conceded that point, it’s also worth remembering that the fate that ultimately befell him was not so unusual either. He defied the king. He lost. If More was no Dzerzhinsky (although there is this), then Henry VIII was no Stalin…
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Das, was der Mensch von dem Tier voraushat, der veilleicht wunderbarste Beweis für die Überlegenheit des Menschen ist, dass er begriffen hat, dass es eine Schöpferkraft geben muss. (”An advantage humans enjoy over animals, and what may be the best proof of their superiority, is that they have grasped there must be the power of a creator.”) — Tischgespräche, Feb. 1942.
Hitler and Stalin both had excellent religious educations. (Stalin was a seminarian: the frequent occurrence of expressions like “Bog velyel” — “God willing” — in his speeches was the cause of much secret amusement.) Their people remained largely religious: the Germans noted how captured Russian POWs invariably had religious medallions and such secreted under their uniforms. (This is in Nikolai Tolstoy’s book.)
So — it looks as though religious education produced terrorist dictators, and religious populaces are rather easily subdued by those dictators. Doesn’t it? And why was not the most emphatically Christian nation in Europe — Franco’s Spain — emphatically on the Allies’ side in WW2? Etc., etc.
And there either are gods, or there aren’t. If there aren’t, what is your point?
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[end of quote from Bradlaugh]