The sacred and the profane

“History is written by the winners” is a trite adage which was probably first circulated by some losers. Ever since, it has been used to cast a shadow of doubt over every account of struggles between human beings of which history purports to tell us.

Searching through our past is a sacred pursuit. It is the pursuit of truth and, regardless of whether or not the goal is attained, if ever the pursuer veers from that course, seeking to serve ulterior motives, the sacred is profaned.

There is, sadly, a surfeit of this kind of profanity for us to contend with in our time. Pseudo historians and journalists – on the pretext that their work is the first draft of history – constantly try to pass off as a true account of the past, narratives which are nothing more than the whitewashing of the victors and the blacklisting of the vanquished.

In the ebb and flow of that cold conflict which we call the culture wars – particularly in the theatre of war where religion and secularism are the protagonists – the secularists seem currently to be the in the ascendant. Their ascendancy is partly the fruit of their committing this very kind of sacrilege – the representation, or misrepresentation, of facts in a wilfully selective way, serving an ulterior purpose.

Christian belief and the Catholic Church in particular are being vilified with every opportunity which presents itself to blacken the name of those who adhere to them. The shelves of our bookstores, the pages – hard or soft – of our news media, our broadcast services, all carry ample evidence of this. The callous indifference of the liberal West to the violent persecution of Christians and the burning of their churches in many parts of the world is just another dimension of their hidden – or not so hidden – agenda.

The consequences of this hostility are felt by ordinary Christians on our streets, in their workplaces and on college campuses every day. How about this, from David Quinn, director of Ireland’s Iona Institute, a secular Ireland’s bête noir in that country?

“It’s getting nastier out there. In the last couple of weeks, I have had a Sinn Fein supporter say on Twitter that I will be paying for my ‘crimes’, and sooner than expected. The University Observer at UCD tried to have me barred from taking part in a debate there and a guy from the paper accosted me afterwards. There was the protest against me the other night in Enniscorthy by People before Profit members. ” (Facebook post)

Even Dublin City Council, in its recent three-week-long Festival of History did not escape the reach of the secular culture warriors. A great deal of its programme was good, some of it very good, but a little too many of its presentations were no more than an opportunity for the ground troops of progressivism to gloat on their victories at the expense of the vanquished.

Black legends passing themselves off as the history of Christianity are nothing new. Each era seems to seek to generate its own to contribute to this destructive campaign. Here and now history is being used to pass judgement on and blacken the reputation of a generation of Irish people and of the Catholic Church, past and present. At the Festival Professor Frank McDonagh, in answer to a question related to his colloquy on his new book on Nazi Germany, wisely reminded us, History is an investigation of the past, not a judgement on it. Too many writers about the past undertake their work as counsels for the prosecution or the defence. They should be neither.

The destructive campaign against religion and religious institutions is being pursued ostensibly by some under the cover if investigating sad injustices perpetrated in the past by individuals and some institutions. In the way this is being done they are only piling injustice upon injustice.

This doubling of injustice is being perpetrated firstly by presenting fractions of truth as the whole truth; secondly by judging the deficiencies of another time in dealing with social problems by the mores, standards and circumstances of our own time; and thirdly – in the case of some at least – by weaponising the victims of past injustices in pursuit of the ulterior goal of destroying a targeted institution and its adherents.

Caelainn Hogan is a journalist who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Guardian, among others, chronicling for the whole world the injustices she claims the entire Irish State and the entire Catholic Church has inflicted on the people of this island. She has now written her first book, entitled Republic of Shame: Stories from Ireland’s institutions for ‘Fallen Women’. She contributed to the last weekend of this festival in an event where she was ‘in conversation with Tuam survivors.’ This was billed in the published programme as follows:

Until recently, the Catholic Church, in concert with the Irish state, operated a network of institutions for the concealment, punishment and exploitation of ‘fallen women’. In the Magdalene laundries, girls and women were incarcerated and condemned to servitude. And in the mother—and—baby homes, women who had become pregnant out of wedlock were hidden from view, and in most cases their babies were adopted — sometimes illegally. Mortality rates in these institutions were high, and the discovery of a mass infant grave at the mother—and—baby home in Tuam made news all over the world. The Irish state has commissioned investigations, but for countless people, a search for answers continues.

That may be good sensational journalism – if you like that sort of thing. But it has nothing to do with history. It was sad to see this rubbing shoulders with the contributions of people like Tom Holland and Margaret Macmillan and Jung Chang – all of whose presentations were filled with the nuance which the complexity of the past demands.

There is no doubt but that we need to hear the sad accounts of people who have suffered injustice. We need to hear it because we need to help heal the wounds inflicted on them. We need to hear it because we all need to reform what needs reform in ourselves and in our institutions. But when our response to this moves us to general judgements on whole populations and everyone serving in institutions, this does not serve any concept of truthfulness, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, which honest historical narrative seeks.

To identify the faltering but earnest efforts of the entire Irish state to serve its people in those decades with the tragic mistakes made in some of those efforts, is to portray it as a monster. To identify the Catholic Church in a similar manner is equally gross. This is the institution which for millennia has nurtured our civilization from the rough justice of pagan times, through era after era when new forms of barbarism threatened to swamp it.

In our own time the Catholic Church is the only global institution standing firm against the new barbarism which manifests itself in the daily slaughter of thousands of unborn children.

The writing of tendentious historical narratives seems to be just one more weapon in an arsenal assembled for the destruction of all semblances of Christian values in our civilization.

History gives us many examples of justice warriors who have felt it necessary to destroy their flawed but workable institutions to establish what they saw as justice. Most of them, in doing so, have left trails of pain and suffering in their wakes, until Christian inspired restorations brought the world back to some semblance of justice, even if only of the faltering kind which our race is capable of achieving.

Constantine reformed a Roman regime which brutally tried but failed to destroy the Christian religion; throughout the Middle Ages the Catholic Church resisted repeated incursions of barbaric forces, eventually converting them and with them laying the foundations for what we today call Western Civilization; honest historian now recognise that even the much maligned Inquisition was in fact and effort to ameliorate the kind of summary treatment of dissent which had been standard practice prior to that; nearer our own time came the French Revolution, whose reign of terror held sway until eventually a fragile Christian order brought the Enlightenment back to its sense of humanity; the sad history of the twentieth century’s blood-soaked efforts to supplant Christianity bled itself right into our own time

The Catholic Church has battled on through all these storms and for anyone who wants to question its perennial commitment to justice and truth and the ultimate welfare of mankind, let them start by taking up that seminal document, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is by this compendium of all the teaching of its Founder, as found in the scriptures, its traditions and its explicit pronouncements down through the 2000 years of its history, that it should be judged. The faltering efforts of its adherents can of course often be found wanting, sometimes gravely wanting – and indeed be occasion for scandal. They should not however, be a pretext for condemning that which the Catholic Church works constantly for, and which it insistently asks and encourages us to aspire to and strive for.

Global warming or global amnesia – which is the bigger threat?

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The catastrophe of our time which conventional wisdom identifies readily – even ad nauseam – is the calamity we are promised if we do not deal effectively with the causes and consequences of global climate change.  But there is an even greater catastrophe unfolding in our midst. It is nothing less than the wholesale destruction of the fabric of our civilization and it is far more threatening to the welfare of humanity than the natural changes to our climate.

Two reasons should assure us that global warming is not going to wipe out the human race. For one, that elusive force of nature, ‘political will’, seems now to be in harness to lead the charge against this threat. Secondly, human ingenuity, scientific and technological resourcefulness are all on our side to ensure that we will probably cope reasonably well with the effects of this unruly phenomenon.

Much more destructive of our fragile civilization than the climate-change denial everyone is getting so worked up about is the consignment of our wealth of human memory and tradition to the scrap-heap of history.

Surely one of the greatest malaises of our time is our failure to value our past? That failure is primarily the result of our self-inflicted ignorance. Everywhere around us we see public policy undermining that vital umbilical cord which links – or should link – successive generations of mankind down through the ages. The end result is a denial  which amounts to blindness – creating an empty black hole where there should be a vast reservoir of truth and wisdom. The consequences of such a radical denial cannot but be catastrophic.

It is not that we are unhappy to indulge our nostalgic sentiments with pastiche historical concoctions like Downton Abbey, or  the bizarre mindless faux historical narratives of Dan Brown. All this, some of it little more than vain fantasizing, without the foundation of truthful scholarship, without the training of young minds in the skills involved in the pursuit of historical truth, will at best  be nothing more than a superficial gloss. At worst it will be up there with the Wagnerian fantasies of Adolf Hitler, foundation stones for new tyrannies.

As veteran film-maker Ken Loach said recently, when asked about the popularity of British drama, such as Downton Abbey: “This rosy vision of the past…says, ‘Don’t bother your heads with what’s going on now, just wallow in fake nostalgia.’ It’s bad history, bad drama. It puts your brain to sleep.

“It’s the opposite of what a good broadcaster should do, which is stimulate and invigorate. You might as well take a Mogadon as watch it.”

What history must do – and include in that concept everything we know about archaeology and the study of historical literature and art – is unite us with the generations of men and women who have preceded us, not for a moment denying that among them we find the good, the bad and the ugly. The loss of intimacy with the minds of the past which is evident in the minds of the present must remind us of one thing. It must recall for us the hordes of barbarians who descended on the civilizations of the past – the Vandals, the Goths and the Huns on the Roman world, the Viking hordes invading the Celtic world, and in our own time, the Islamic jihadists and their destruction of the remnants of the ancient civilizations of the Middle East.

Just recently in Britain a campaign has had to be launched to prevent the removal of archaeology from the senior school curriculum. The subject is now joining art history and classical civilization in the school bin. Sir Tony Robinson, presenter of the serious television history programme, Time Team, is dismayed at the trend. “It feels like the Visigoths at the gates of Rome,” Sir Tony told the Guardian. “All these incredibly valuable and important subjects are being cast into the fire.”

At the heart of all this is a denial of the value of our knowledge of the past and of the traditions of of our ancestors. Denial of tradition is a denial of our humanity and it is at the heart of modern individualism, that ideology which is even more inimical to our common good than Communism was.

All this, in part at least, is a consequence of the neglect of history and its systematic removal from school curricula.

Dorothy Day, reflecting in the mid twentieth century on the loss of the sense of the past and the sense of their origins among young Americans, wrote, “Tradition! We scarcely know the word any more. We are afraid to be either proud of our ancestors or ashamed of them. We scorn nobility in name and in fact. We cling to a bourgeois mediocrity which would make it appear we are all Americans, made in the image and likeness of George Washington.” She regrets the loss of the sense of origin of the Irish, the Italian, the Lithuanian who have forgotten their birthplaces and “no longer listen to their mothers when they say, ‘when I was a little girl in Russia, or Hungary, or Sicily.’ They leave their faith and their folk songs and costumes and handcrafts, and try to be something which they call ‘an American’”.

G. K. Chesterton read the issue politically, interpreting the denigration of tradition as something alien in a true democratic heart. “Tradition is democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving the vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. Tradition is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are walking about.”

The enemies of tradition have probably always existed.  Their interventions in history have, for the most part, been violent ones. But it was not until the Enlightenment that they really took on an ideological character. In the culture war which their emergence sparked, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine were the leading protagonists. Yuval Levin in his masterful book, The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Left and Right, shows how the issue of tradition, its value and relevance, became the hinge on which the future character of our society and our world was going to turn – and is still turning.

Paine was a man who clearly believed, as he wrote in Common Sense, one of the seminal texts inspiring the American Revolution, that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

For Burke such an idea was a dangerous anathema, because it ignored all the essential realities of our human nature. For him history was a process of clarification through experience, and political change is among its constant features. But if ignorance of history and tradition prevail in a society then such change is at a terrible risk of being chaotic and human suffering will be the consequence.

Yuval Levin sums up: “Paine seeks to understand man apart from his social setting, while Burke thinks man is incomprehensible apart from the circumstances into which he is born—circumstances largely the making of prior generations.”

“Burke expressly denies that we can look out for the needs of the future even as we reject the lessons and achievements of the past. Access to those lessons and achievements is one of the most crucial needs of the future, as he sees it, so the present-centered vision of the revolutionaries must involve betraying the future as much as the past: ‘People will not look forward to posterity, who never  look backward to their ancestors’”

“If ‘the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken and no one generation could link with the other,’ Burke worries, then ‘men would become little better than the flies of a summer.’”

For Burke our links to our ancestors – through our knowledge of their history and the traditions which have come down to us from them – are “capital” to which the present and the future are entitled, the accumulated knowledge and practice of our forefathers. The radicals, Burke argues, seek “to deprive men of the benefit of the collected wisdom of mankind, and to make them blind disciples of their own particular presumption.” He therefore sees himself, Levin explains, as a defender of the present, not the past, and sees the revolutionaries as a threat to present happiness as well as to future order.

The radicals of the Eighteenth century, like Paine, wanted to start the world anew. The gender-bending radicals of our day, driven by the ideology of radical individualism are going even further. They, ignoring the wealth of human experience evident in the history of mankind, want to take our very nature and fashion it in the image of their own strange fantasies.

We might borrow a thought from Burke’s contemporary and fellow alumnus of Trinity College Dublin, Oliver Goldsmith, reading the concepts of history and tradition into his word, “pride”.

“Princes and Lords may flourish, or may fade:

A breath can make them, as a breath has made;

but a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,

When once destroyed can never be supplied.”

We live dangerously when we live without the benefit of the wisdom of our forebears, despite all their flaws and failures.

Spurious Apologies and False Guilt

Last week’s issue of the Times Literary Supplement notes the comments of British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott on how Alex Haley’s book Roots was such a curative agent in helping African Americans cope with the lingering trauma of slavery. Mr. Prescott was speaking to The Guardian newspaper and the TLS goes on to quote the paper telling us that members of the evangelical Christian group Lifeline have been touring the globe in chains, wearing T-shirts with the logo “So sorry”. Lifeline members have “apologized to the vice-president of the Gambia and to a descendant of Kunta Kinte, the slave made famous in the Alex Haley epic Roots” (Guardian, March 24). 

The TLS finds it all a bit dodgy and not really serving anybody’s interests that a book like Haley’s should be used as a basis for anything. “Haley’s non-fiction saga, at the end of which the author travels to the Gambian village of Juffure to be reunited in spirit with Kunta Kinte, has long since been exposed as fraudulent. In 1978, Haley paid $650,000 in damages to Harold Courlander, having admitted that large passages of Roots were copied from his book, The African. Allegations that the genealogy linking him to Kunta Kinte was false were never rebutted by Haley, who died in 1992, nor were suggestions that the African griot who outlined the family tree had been coached.”“The case for a retrospective ‘apology’ for an abhorrent trade that ended 200 years ago is not bolstered by being backed up by a dodgy book,” the TLS commentator concludes. 

 Indeed. What we need is good history and with the honesty which good history will reveal in all of us there will be no need for these spurious apologies. However, there is a bigger problem here than a dodgy book. We regret the sins of our fathers but we are not responsible for them. We should learn from them – as we have – but to apologise for them is meaningless. This year in Ireland we commemorate an event in 1607 known as the Flight of the Earls, when some of my ancestors, having been defeated in the war they launched against the English to try to preserve their Gaelic culture, fled to the continent to avoid their final humiliation. We are not looking for any apologies – I hope. It is sufficient that the truth be recalled.

Today’s New York Times carries a feature on what it calls “the climate divide” in which it observes that there is a growing consensus that the first world owes the third world a climate debt. Of course it does. But it owes it on the basis of our common humanity. To seek to generate this sense of indebtedness on the basis of a guilt which all do not accept in the first place is to undermine the truth which should be the basis for the powerful actions we need to take.

These two examples of guilt-inducement – one using a dodgy book, the other using a shaky scientific theory on the causes of global warming – will do nothing to restore the balance which humanity needs. Spurious apologies and false guilt will only blunt true consicence and dull the motives for right action.