Welcome to the Tuesday, a weekly newsletter about radicals and reactionaries — and that’s just the language stuff. The Tuesday is available only to NRPlus members: If you would like to join our little club — and I hope you will — you can sign up here. I am, as always, grateful for the support of our readers and subscribers.
With Rushdie, against the Fanatics
Not long after I moved to New York City in 2008, I went to an event at the New York Public Library, a debate between Bernard-Henri Levi and Slavoj Žižek, the subject of which was “Violence and the Left in Dark Times.” As if to personify the dangers to intellectual life presented by the intersection of political radicalism and violence, seated together were Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had only recently relocated to the United States from the Netherlands, and the novelist Salman Rushdie, who had been living under a death sentence handed down in 1989 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran in response to his novel The Satanic Verses. I thought to myself: “That’s where the bomb will go off.”
There was no bomb. Not then. Not yet.
Hirsi Ali these days is a U.S. citizen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, the wife of British historian Niall Ferguson, and the mother of charming children. Salman Rushdie, for his part, is in a hospital recovering from knife wounds — stabbed in the liver, likely to lose an eye, arm nerves severed, on a ventilator, for a time unable to speak — inflicted by a California-born Tehran-terror fanboy. If it seems that Hirsi Ali has been luckier, don’t envy her: One of the events precipitating her move to the United States was her being forced to vacate a secret secured house in the Netherlands after neighbors complained that her presence put them at serious risk. She remains on a standing al-Qaeda hit list.
Rushdie is the best-known practitioner of an incredibly vital and unruly stream of English-language literature with roots in India, one that includes the famous Indian writers you probably know but also many treasures who are less known in the United States, such as the late Khushwant Singh (read his Delhi: A Novel) and Raj Kamal Jha, with whom I had the pleasure of working at the Indian Express many years ago. It was while working in Delhi that I got my first hint of the danger in writing: I inadvisedly used the word terrorist in a headline, and was informed, patiently, that we could call them militants or ultras or things of that sort, but that they objected to being called terrorists, and, if they were called that, they were liable to murder one of our workers. “But isn’t that . . . terrorism?” I asked, stupidly. “Yes,” came the answer, “but you don’t drive a truck.” Around the same time, some of my colleagues and I discovered the body of a young man who had been hanged outside a slum near where I lived for getting involved with a girl of a different religion.
When I was growing up, those of us who thought of ourselves as intellectually sophisticated (often there was no evidence for this) took it as given that religion itself was the problem, that religion inspired fanaticism, and that the only kind of humane religion was the sort practiced by people who don’t really believe in it very much — in which case, why not go all the way to a comfortable agnosticism if not all the way to a more militant atheism? We were, of course, wrong about that, as we were about so much. Salman Rushdie was brutally stabbed over a perceived slight to the Prophet Mohammed taken up as convenient political cause by an Iranian fanatic who died not long after handing down the fatwa against the novelist, attacked by a man who had not been born at the time of the original controversy. About the same time, an FBI office in Cincinnati was attacked by a Navy veteran enraged by a perceived slight to Donald Trump, who is being investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act and other possible crimes.
There is a nexus between a certain kind of intellectually unmoored Christianity and Trump idolatry, but the FBI attack, like the fatwa on Rushdie, was essentially political rather than religious. But that distinction is not entirely airtight: Religions end up having political aspects: At various times, both Islam and Catholicism have been pronounced incompatible with liberal democracy on the grounds that they are political programs as much as they are religions. (Nobody much thinks that about Catholicism anymore, except for a few dotty Catholics.) Political movements take on cultic characters, both those organized around particular personalities (Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Juan Perón, Gamal Abdel Nasser, etc.) and those that are not exclusively personal, such as Marxism or environmentalism. (See “Tales from the Carbon Cult,” National Review, December 2, 2021.) Religious and political fanaticism, religion-analogues such as animal rights, diet and fitness fads, even non-political conspiracy literature (Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?) all work in the same way in that they offer insider positioning to outsiders (the secret knowledge makes one an initiate) and confer status through membership in a votive community. There is a reason there is so much crossover in conspiracy lunacy: Lyndon LaRouche, for a generation the most notable conspiracy nut in American political life, also cared deeply about the tuning of musical instruments: If you are not familiar with the “conspiracy” regarding A-440Hz tuning, you can go a long way down that rabbit hole and not hit bottom. Look at the political nuts or religious fanatics in your life and see how many of them are heavy into genealogy, another expression of our endless search for personal meaning.
Against fanaticism, we have — what? Literature and music, love, friendship, humor, and, with the help of skilled doctors and our prayers, the continuing work of Salman Rushdie and other geniuses of his kind, who help to steer us away from the brutal and toward the humane, away from the ridiculous toward the reasonable.
As the coal miners’ song asked: Which side are you on?
And If Rushdie Is Too Heavy for You . . .
May I recommend Kenneth Branagh’s latest film, Belfast, which is beautiful and sweet, and which looks at fanaticism from the point of view of a child. It is also interesting in that in the American tradition, our immigrants’ stories usually start upon arrival, whereas Belfast tells the story of the events on the earlier side of the life-bisecting event of immigration. It is, as some of the critics have noted, a little mawkish in parts, but I don’t think the film really suffers much from that.
It also was fun to see the great Belfast-born actor Ciarán Hinds playing an Irishman for a change rather than Julius Caesar or Aberforth Dumbledore or Roy Bland or Mance Rayder. I detest the whole “You can’t play a deaf French homosexual unless you are a deaf French homosexual” idiocy, but there is a kind of rightness in a homecoming.
Words about Words
Right-wing Catholic militancy is an interesting subject. I don’t often give my former colleagues over at That August Journalistic Institution editorial advice, but they should try to find someone who is not functionally illiterate to write about the subject.
(Jay Nordlinger has been working to resurrect the meaning of the word colleague, which means someone who works in the same field though not necessarily at the same institution; under the Nordlingerian influence, Jonah Goldberg has taken to pointing out that we are former co-workers but remain colleagues. I think of the ladies and gentlemen of That August Journalistic Institution as being in many cases former colleagues in both senses of the word, so many of them unhappily having given up journalism for whatever low thing it is they’re doing now.)
Daniel Panneton’s essay on dank rosary-bead memes is slight and silly; it has been widely mocked and deserves to be. The errors begin with the headline (for which Panneton presumably bears no blame), which claims, referencing rosary beads: “Now ‘radical-traditional’ Catholics are bringing a sacrament of their own to the movement.” Rosary beads, of course, are not a sacrament – they are a counting device. An editor with even a passing familiarity with Catholic thinking would know that there are seven sacraments – baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, reconciliation, anointing the sick, holy orders, and marriage – none of which is an object. This isn’t a case of specialized jargon and common usage being at odds: Merriam-Webster defines sacrament as “a Christian rite (such as baptism or the Eucharist) that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality,” meaning ceremonies rather than objects.
The illiteracy continues into the text itself: “Their social-media pages are saturated with images of rosaries draped over firearms, warriors in prayer, Deus Vult (“God wills it”) crusader memes, and exhortations for men to rise up and become Church Militants.”
Rosary itself is a vague word — properly, it refers to the compound prayer rather than to the counting device, which is superfluous to praying the Rosary if your memory is sufficient. That being the case, I’d normally write “rosary beads,” but maybe uppercase Rosary for the prayer and lowercase rosary for the device is useful. I’ll give that some thought. But in no case does “become Church Militants” make any sense. “Church Militant” is one of those formulations like “attorney general,” in which the adjective is placed archaically behind the noun, hence “attorneys general” rather than “attorney generals.” Militant is an adjective describing Church, and hence not something an individual can become. I suppose an individual can become a church — there is precedent! — but that is not what the author is trying to say in his fumbling way. There is such a thing as a man who is a militant, but that is not what the Militant in Church Militant means.
As George Orwell noted, confused writing goes with confused thinking. Panneton writes a good deal of empty prose, such describing an organization “that actively campaigns against LGBTQ acceptance in the Church.” Actively is a hollow intensifier — is there a way to non-actively campaign against LGBTQ acceptance? Even Mohandas K. Gandhi rejected the term “passive resistance.”
(About LGBTQ: As an irritated gay man recently observed, everything to the right of the G is straight people seeking attention. But why not go the whole hog with LGBTQQIAAP2S+?)
An ongoing irritation: “Many prominent American Catholic bishops advocate for gun control.” No, they advocate gun control. Beyond the usage, there is the religious issue: Bishops — even prominent ones! — enjoy no special grace to speak to such issues, and generally lack expertise in them. The views of prominent bishops are of no more standing on the gun-control debate than are the views of prominent cooking-show hosts.
A little more vocabulary: “In the 1930s and ’40s, the ultramontane Catholic student publication Jeunesse Étudiante Catholique regularly used the concept to rally the faithful.” Ultramontane is another one of those words you have to be careful with: It does not mean right-wing or conservative, though it often overlaps with right-wingery and conservatism. Ultramontane means pope-centered, an attitude toward church affairs characterized by extraordinary deference to the pope and his prerogatives. (Ultramontanism was born in France, from which point of view the Vatican is “beyond the mountains,” hence ultramontane.) Conservative Catholics got pretty ultramontane back in the days of Pope John Paul II, but are a good deal less so — and that is healthy! — in the time of Pope Francis, who is seen as a right-winger at home but is regarded as a Marxist whack-a-doodle by conservative American Catholics. (My own view is that Pope Francis is neither especially left-wing nor especially right-wing, but a little bit intellectually lazy and politically naïve. Asked about the pope’s apparent anti-capitalism, one of his principal advisers — a man who admires and likes and maybe even loves him — said: “Oh, he doesn’t really know anything about that.” (I am paraphrasing.) “He probably has never read a serious economics book in his life, and he isn’t interested in listening to anything anybody has to say about those issues.” A more charitable way of putting that would be that he is a pastor rather than an ideologue.) The journal referenced was part of the wider Catholic Action universe, which went through ultramontane periods and periods during which it was at odds with the papacy and the hierarchy, as many rightist Catholics are today.
And more: “Militia culture, a fetishism of Western civilization, and masculinist anxieties have become mainstays of the far right in the U.S. — and rad-trad Catholics have now taken up residence in this company.” Panneton misses a chance here, choosing the sexualized fetishism rather than the more traditionally Christian idolatry. (Fetishization probably would be more correct than fetishism.) I am not convinced that a preference for one’s own civilization constitutes a fetish in the formal or informal sense of that word — perhaps Panneton is one of those sophomores scandalized by the notion that “one’s own civilization” is a meaningful phrase in a multicultural world — but one might make a persuasive case (as many have in the past) that idolatry is at the heart of fascism, a fact that presents some sticky issues for right-wing Catholic nationalists and conservative Christians of all sorts. It seemed so to T. S. Eliot back in the 1930s.
And yet more: “Many radical-traditional Catholic men maintain the hard-line position that other forms of Christianity are heretical, and hold that Catholics alone adhere to the one true Church.” The name for the school of thought that the Catholic Church is the one true church and that Protestantism is heretical is . . . Catholicism. Or, as the current doctors of the church put it in our gentler times, Catholic teaching holds that many of the fundamental doctrines of Protestantism are heretical, “sola scriptura” prominent among them. That is the meaning behind such euphemisms as “real but imperfect communion.”
If Panneton’s argument is to be that “radical” and “right-wing” Catholicism is simply a Catholicism that takes Catholic teaching seriously, then he is doing the radicals’ work for them.
That August Journalistic Institution does have at least one religiously literate critic who writes an informed way about these issues, a fellow by the name of David French — or Dave Ultramontane, as seen from the Vatican.
And Furthermore . . .
One More Thing, Actually
Count me among those who can’t work up a head of steam to get scandalized about the use of gun imagery or military imagery in literature about “spiritual warfare” or intellectual or moral warfare, which is hardly without precedent, from the Bible to modern American social theorists.
“Six Weeks of Hell,” reads the New York Times headline, but the body copy is slightly different: “It was the beginning of six weeks of ‘hell,’ said Vasiliy, 37, who like most people interviewed for this article declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals.”
First: Let us praise the New York Times for its excellent coverage of the Ukraine war. The Times is basically worthless on national politics, gun issues, and religion, but it remains indispensable for the wider world of news outside of the hot-button issues. The relative quality of the Times’ political coverage and its general-news coverage is, obviously, much more an indictment of its management than of its reporters — the paper obviously has the juice to get the job done, and its incompetent political coverage is a matter of choice.
Second: About capitalizing hell or Hell. National Review generally lowercases it, but, if I were copy dictator, I’d say uppercase: Hell either is a real place, as many Christians believe, or it is a specific imaginary place — in either case, it should be regarded as a proper noun rather than a formerly proper noun that has lost its flavor, like aspirin or zipper. (Levis, Xerox, and, in Texas, Coke have had to fight off attempts at what one critic calls genericide, stripping a copyrighted name of its unique status.) We should capitalize Hell for the same reason we capitalize Valhalla, Hades, Gehenna, Xanadu, El Dorado, etc.
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In Other News . . .
In the category of self-recommending: Free Speech: From Socrates to Social Media, by Jason Mchangama.
Today is the Feast of St. Roch, who is not, I am sad to say, the patron saint of rock. He is the patron saint of dogs, which I’d have guessed was St. Bernard. St. Roch was a wealthy nobleman who gave away his fortune and spent his life caring for the poor. After ministering to those suffering from plague, he contracted plague himself, and went into a forest to die alone. He was befriended by a dog, who saved his life. Dogs are like that.
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