Friday, March 30, 2007

The Fool Killer, or, Darwin's Revenge

It “looked like Nut City. … It was the kind of crowd that would have made the Fool Killer lower his club and shake his head and walk away, frustrated by the magnitude of the opportunity.”

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

“Refusal to face the Verities, though not without immediate satisfactions, carries penalties. There’s a Fool Killer, personifying the ancient principle; whom the gods would destroy, in this world; and he has a list; and that’s a good way to put yourself on it. Then, the question’s just one of time, of how soon he’ll get around to you.”

James Gould Cozzens, By Love Posessed

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Mitchell here.

How many times has it happened to you? You’re cruising around on the Internet, minding your own business, clicking on a few links here and there, when wham! You’re hit with it right between the eyes, no way to avoid it, and before you’re quite aware of what’s happened you’ve been sucked into its vortex, with no way of escape, succumbing to its temptations and its subtle whispers, powerless to prevent it, lured into the proximate cause of sin.

I’m talking, of course, about . . . the blogosphere. The troubling thing is I’m specifically talking about the Catholic blogosphere.

At the beginning of Lent there was an article at The New Liturgical Movement (one of the best Catholic blogs out there, by the way; their level of discourse in the combox is particularly of high quality) entitled “Should Catholics Blog?” that I’d meant to comment on at the time. Obviously I disagree with the conclusion of the author of the article that NLM links to, but I think he raises some points that can’t be ignored. The threats to Catholic bloggers and commenters, according to R.J. Stove, are as follows:

  • Addiction, with all its dangers;
  • Pseudonymity, with all its dangers;
  • Encouraging smart-aleck soundbites rather than hard, detailed, historically scrupulous reasoning;
  • Related to (iii), a general degrading of language, and of the writer’s role as language’s custodian (not to say as breadwinner);
  • De facto anticlericalism.

I’m not going to deal with Stove’s article per se, except as a reference point for the discussion that follows. Because it seems undeniable that these five points (or corruptions, as Stove calls them) have imbedded themselves deeply in all parts of the blogosphere (particularly points three and four), including Catholic ones.

There are many good Catholic blogs out there. Stella Borealis is one, or else I wouldn’t be writing here. My cohorts at this site all manage top-quality blogs. And the ones we link to at Our Word are, by and large, of high quality. So this isn’t meant to sound like a rant from some prim scold. Lord knows, we have as much of an edge here as anyone. No, it’s more musings born of fatigue, of the weariness that results from frustration, from being boxed in on all sides. And there seems an unfairness about it somehow, that a few are ruining it for the many. It’s no secret that the blogosphere has been getting rougher and rougher, more uncivil, cruder, less restrained. And once something like this starts it’s hard to rein it in. Nastiness begets nastiness, and then where are you?

It’s getting to where you just don’t know where to turn anymore. Your senses are assaulted, your intellect violated; and, like the Fool Killer, you’re overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. Everywhere you look the bickering is going on, about the liturgy, about the Pope, about politics, about the war. Especially about the war.

Anyone who cruises through the blogosphere is confronted with the diverging viewpoints on the war. Some say it’s clearly an unjust war, while others believe it is a war necessary to preserve the United States. All well and good. Disagreement is nothing new, and it’s often quite productive. There’s nothing worse than a leader surrounded by yes-men (or –women), as we know (and quite possibly are witnessing in Washington right now).

What disturbs me particularly is not the disagreement about the war – after all, if something’s not set in stone I’m often willing to believe there might be two sides to the story, two ways of interpreting it. We used to call this an “Honest Difference of Opinion,” and one of these days you’re going to have to look that term up in Wikipedia, because it doesn’t seem to happen very much anymore today. Is it possible to have an honest difference of opinion on this kind of issue, even if it turns out that one party is truly, if sincerely, mistaken?

The debate about the war is particularly nasty because it cuts to the bone. Whatever your opinion of the war is, those who disagree with it are prepared to charge you not only with being wrong, but in many cases with possessing a completely incorrect understanding of Catholic thinking, being an intellectual dullard, having your priorities confused, or even being a traitor. Your soul, it goes without saying, is in mortal peril.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus says in the current issue of First Things that “Such rhetoric is employed by those who accuse opponents of the war of being unpatriotic and, much more commonly and stridently, or so it seems to me, by those who declare U.S. policy to be unjust, wrongheaded, or even criminal.” Because of his stand on the war (he’s a supporter), he is, of course, discredited in anything he says about it by those who disagree with him.

As I’ve made clear in the past, I have my own opinions about the war, and my “personal convictions”, as Dr. Lyman Hall says in 1776, are “personal.” But Fr. Neuhaus says those who oppose the war appear to be the more strident in their arguments, and it seems that way to me as well. People, especially those who oppose the war, seem totally unwilling to acknowledge that there just might be validity lurking somewhere in the depths of their adversary’s position. To them it is inconceivable that there could possibly be any interpretation of Church teaching other than the one they happen to be propounding. Now, perhaps Church teaching on this point is definitive, perhaps it isn’t. To me it doesn’t seem to be quite as clear cut as, say, the Resurrection. But these people just refuse to believe it’s a possibility. And they’ll tell you that in the frankest terms possible.

You know what? If these people were truly interested in laying out their opposition to the war with the hope of converting the hearts and minds of others (which, if they’re truly acting out of Christian principle, should be at least one of their goals), they’d be well-advised to do it in such a way as to avoid accusing those with whom they disagree of being puppets of the Republican Party, Americans first and Catholics second, or (my favorite of all) simply idiots. That kind of confrontational rhetoric doesn’t usually cut it with most people. (Unless, of course, you’re more interested in listening to the sound of your own voice than you are making a convincing argument. And heaven forbid that I should make any suggestion like that!)

Now, that’s not to say that these rhetorical judgments aren’t accurate at least some, if not most, of the time. But do we really get anywhere by casting them around? Likewise for those who accuse the anti-war faction of anti-Americanism, of wanting to see the country punished. Doubtless there are many, if not most, who feel to one extent or another that the country does deserve everything it gets, but it’s an indelicate situation at best.

What is missing from both sides is this willingness to engage in constructive conversation. I’ve often said that spirited political discussion should be like flirting, with all the joys, mysteries, tension and frustration that accompany it. Foremost, it should be fun. But I see precious little fun out there, not when so much of it seems to be concentrated on inflicting pain and scorn on someone else.

What is most interesting about this phenomenon is the breathtaking arrogance on display, the absolute certainty of right and wrong that so often accompanies these expressions, often with little if any regard for civility. It goes far beyond the normal desire to assert a total understanding of the truth, to an area which requires that the opponent be held up to maximum scorn, personal attack, and embarrassment (if possible).

Take, for example, the recent blow-up surrounding Sean Hannity. Hannity’s in hot water with a lot of conservatives over his intemperate comments to a priest a couple of weeks ago. Not only intemperate, but factually ignorant. Not only factually ignorant, but designed to ignite, inflame, provoke. In other words, his usual shtick. Now, you’re not going to see any love letters to Sean Hannity from me. He may have his fans out there, but I’m not one of them. Nonetheless, it was amusing to see the vitriol that was being expended against him in the blogosphere. From a purely emotional standpoint, a lot of it was extremely satisfying. But like many of the best things in life – fame, food, sex – it also left one with that empty feeling afterwards.

One of Hannity’s gravest offenses, according to the blog comboxes, was his lack of respect toward his priest-adversary. Go to the videotape – the accusations are pretty tough to deny. And, of course, you don’t look to these televised shout-fests expecting to see much respect passed between the debated parties. But, when you look at the blogs, more likely than not, you’ll come across a piece about Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, the über-liberal of the American Catholic Church, and likely as not you’re going to read comments about Mahony that are probably harsher than those Hannity used. They even use the “H-Word": Heretic. Again, this isn’t an opinion that I’d particularly disagree with – personally, I think Cardinal Mahony’s actions are often, how should we put it, suspect? But you can’t help noticing the irony in it all, because many of these commentators share the same conservative outlook as those who rip Hannity for doing the same thing – dissing a priest.

This isn’t meant to single out the Hannity story – it’s only one example of thousands out there that make up the modern blogosphere. You’d think the Catholic blogs would be less susceptible to this kind of behavior, but you’d be wrong. Not that there’s more of it than anywhere else; perhaps it’s just more scandalous. Whether talking about the liturgy, theology, what have you. Sometimes the priests get on line and they fight back. The whole thing makes for a faintly distasteful sensation, as if you’re looking for someone to try and remain above it all.

There are blogs out there that we don’t link to anymore, because of the lack of civility in posts and comboxes. (There’s even been the odd bit of profanity, which it seems to me is not a good thing for a religious blog.) There are blogs we’d like to link to, ones we agree with on a broad range of philosophical or political issues, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it, because they’re just too much.

It’s all too much, really. It’s so easy, it’s almost laughable. You could start a drinking game just based on the first few words in the combox, especially the ubiquitous “Um…” (a word banned from this site, by the way). Nine, or perhaps nine and a half, times out of ten, “Um” serves as a preface to some kind of snarky correction.

Now although we’ve spent most of this particular piece talking about Catholic blogs, I’m not by any means limiting the discussion to that. Look at the last week or so in the political blogosphere, and you’ll see some pretty nasty stuff about Tony Snow’s cancer, for example (at Wonkette, among others). We’ve spent the last month or so highlighting other examples of incivility, and those have only been the ones that captured our fancy. (See these Our Word posts, for example.) Invariably, when you start talking about things like this, someone’s going to come along and defend the right to say whatever’s on your mind – they’ll talk about concepts such as free speech, and they’re eventually going to work their way to how those who speak their mind (like Rosie O’Donnell, for example, or Ann Coulter) are demonstrating “courage.”

These people think that courage has everything to do with standing up and saying whatever you want, doing whatever you feel like doing, as long as it’s controversial and guaranteed to create a stir.

That’s not what courage is at all. Any fool can stand up and shoot his mouth off. It doesn’t take anything more taxing than the ability to speak, or use your fingers on a keyboard. Maybe a little technical know-how to set up a blog, but they’ve made that pretty much dummy-proof as well.

Courage doesn’t mean fearless. It means being able to overcome your fear, to go ahead with a principled course of action regardless of the consequences. A lot of true heroes, people who truly fit the profile of courage, admit to great fear. The difference is that their fear didn’t stop them from doing what they knew had to be done.

In that context, there’s nothing particularly courageous about getting on a blog and telling people what you really think about life, and about them. There’s nothing particularly courageous about getting on a TV panel and shouting at the top of your lungs, laying out the one and only version of the truth. There’s nothing particularly courageous about demonizing those who disagree with you, about cutting them to the quick with your catty comments, about preaching to the choir instead of trying to explain your viewpoint.

No, to be courageous is to put your opinions up for open debate, to open them to the possibility of civil disagreement, perhaps even correction. In some circumstances you may have to wait, even until after your death, to see them validated. It's about taking a chance with your opinions, rather than simply trying to steamroller people with them. That's real courage. That other stuff? It seems to me more like a waste of time and energy.

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Relievedebtor at Architecture and Morality recently posed the question, “Is Our Lack of Manners a Return to Primitivism?” While some forms of etiquette (such as the curtsy) tend to give to the ruling classes a tacit authority for ruling, “Postmodernism has taught us to distrust authority, and consequently, it seems we distrust the rituals, however minor they may appear, that are complicit in such trust.”

Perhaps this is what it’s all about – distrust. We don’t trust the government anymore, which is probably a good thing. We don’t trust actors or athletes or other celebrities, which is definitely a good thing. Trust in church leaders has been damaged, in some cases and with some people beyond repair, which is sad more than anything else. But what is most damaging out of all of this is the lack of trust we have in our fellow man.

It’s one thing to be wary and prudent. However, to engage in dialogue (like so many other things) requires an element of trust. It’s like working a trapeze act. If you’re not sure your partner’s going to be where he’s supposed to be when you’ve finished that third somersault, you’re going to be hesitant, lacking confidence about the whole thing. Without that confidence in the merits of dialogue, is it so surprising that it so often resorts to defensive posturing and grand pronouncements?

Relievedebtor concludes, “To disregard manners is to disregard authority. To disregard authority is to lose self-governance. To lose self-governance is to begin the path to primitivism.”

The fear is that this is where we’ve arrived. We seem to be regressing into some kind of post-apocalyptic culture, a permanent Mad Max syndrome that has replaced manners with noise, thought with emotion, restraint with orgiastic expression, and respect with scorn. We’re producing an entire generation of intellectual knuckle-draggers, totally incapable of understanding concepts such as “good intentions,” utterly unwilling to engage in civil discussion on any kind of scale. If Darwin is in a place where he can appreciate it, he must be enjoying the irony of this de-evolution back to a primitive social state. Next thing you know, we’ll be replacing our keyboards with soup bones and clubbing it out in the public square. And we’ll be hard-pressed to call it “progress.”

Cross-Posted to Our Word and Welcome to It

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