For me, one of the great wonders of the internet is the ability to access opinion and thought from thinkers and commentators from all parts of the world, and from every political and social stripe. I was online from about 1998, and after the initial flush and novelty of the having so much different delivered right to my computer screen my interest turned to the articles I could find.
I’ve always been very curious, even thoughtful. I like to know things. I enjoy the struggle to understand. I believe knowledge is a great thing, but must be held in place by perspective. I’ve never been afraid to seek out alternate opinions, and to see and seek to understand through their eyes. Not only was it fair, it was sensible. Balance is important if you’re seeking truth. Truth was important to me, and still is. Ideally what I sought was a variety of perspectives that I would wrestle, wrangle and reconcile into my own. I wanted to make up my own mind on things, but from a position of fair-minded knowledge.
Back in the day I would spend a lot of time navigating between sites and reading an enormous variety of material. I’m interested now, but back then I was voracious. Funnily enough, there’s still a substantial amount of evidence for that. I was in the habit of printing many of these articles or pieces. Sometimes it was because I found something so profoundly interesting that I wanted to keep it. Other times it would be because I was at work and had insufficient time to read there, so I would print out to read later.
Over the past few months I’ve been going through boxes and files kept in my filing cabinet trying to rid myself of excessive baggage. Among all that has been a big pile of old articles and commentary. I’ve been quietly going through the pieces, digitising what I wished to keep, and tossing those I deemed unworthy. This morning in bed I went through a new batch.
On this occasion there were a couple of pieces from First Things. First Things is a Catholic intellectual publication devoted to religious and social commentary and analysis. As an agnostic, it’s not really the sort of thing you would expect me to spend much time reading. I’m not just agnostic, I could be fairly described as anti-religious institutions (as opposed to anti-religion). The fact that I take the time to read such a publication is a testament to my catholic (no pun) interests and desire to be fair.
The two articles I read dated from 2002. The first one dealt directly with 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. Opposing writers opined on the merits and justification of the war – both from a Catholic perspective. The first, who spoke against it, made reference to Catholic doctrine and claimed the justification for war did not meet those principles. To go to war, to invade, required proof of just cause, which, he argued was not present in this case (as subsequent history has proved correct).
Perhaps the more controversial (though clearly sensible) point made is the reliance on so-called American exceptionalism to justify the decision to invade. This is still widespread notion today, and in fact may a factor in the rise of someone like Donald Trump wanting to make ‘America great again’. That’s the idea that if America does it then it must be right, as if exempt from the constraints that otherwise bind us. The point being made is that the American government and much of the media will support such a venture because it is in their interests to do so, as is the same in most places – but that does not make it right.
Opposing him was a writer who refuted the primary claim and barely addressed the second. It is a conservative piece by a conservative writer who justifies the war from a Catholic perspective (and I paraphrase) by claiming an obligation to preserve the peace by invading those who would endanger it.
That’s a position that seems paradoxical, but something I am quite happy to endorse when the right conditions are met. That was certainly not the case in the invasion of Afghanistan (and subsequently Iraq). Both regimes may well have been ugly and tyrannical, but there are probably other worthy justifications to do away with them. The 9/11 justification is not one of them, as neither country was directly involved in the 9/11 attack.
He also makes reference to the cold war and the end of communism* as if they are parallels. Here I have scribbled something in the margins as he makes the point that the danger was communism, not nuclear weapons, as so many seeking arms control contended. I think that has been proven false since.
The second article is a series of commentaries by the founder of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus. Neuhaus was a conservative and influential Catholic who at one time was an adviser to Dubya. Here he writes about Jews, about Islam, abuse in the Catholic church, anti-Semitism, and so on. There’s a tone throughout of absolute certainty, and the sort of arrogance that epitomises the Catholic church at its worst.
In terms of belief and perspective, Neuhaus and I are just about polar opposites. He was violently opposed to abortion and against homosexuality. He was rigidly Christian and orthodox. To his credit, when much younger, he stood up against the Vietnam war.
The one thing that incensed me in his piece was his defence and denial of widespread abuse and pedophilia within the Catholic church. This was in May 2002. By coincidence just last week I watched Spotlight, the movie about the exposure of systemic cover-ups of child sex abuse within the Boston diocese. It was shown to be incredibly widespread. Later, we know, it was revealed to be present in every state of the US, and in every Christian country of the world. It’s a stain upon the Catholic church that won’t wash off.
Here was Neuhaus writing 5 months after the first reports basically denying it and pointing to alternative reports claiming it to be only a small problem. It’s hard not to feel disgust at this. Of course, we now have the benefit of facts which weren’t available then. This, though, was an insider commenting on it. The abuse was one thing, but it was the systemic cover-up over many years that made it truly insidious. Neuhaus must have been aware of this.
This is one reason I’m anti-religious institutions. They can’t be trusted. They’re self-serving and hypocritical, and often corrupt. I know there are many decent people who work within the religious system, and the great majority of them with good intentions. That’s the individual though when it’s the system of religion that is bent. Even at its best, religion serves God, not man. It demands adherence to holy writ while disregarding human need and frailty.
Interesting to read these again, but done now, they go to the bin.
- I read an article last week by Francis Fukuyama about the impending doom in the US. Interesting, as Fukuyama very famously proclaimed the ‘end of history’ with the fall of Communism. I guess history has started up again.