Who Are the Bad Guys?

I noticed recently that I’ve not written any general theology stuff this year. We had one post in June, about Christian music, and that’s it for 2019 – the next most recent was back in December 2018, about Christianity in the university environment. I guess in many ways I’ve sort of organised a lot of my own thinking around the faith. I’m not working through things in the same way. And that’s fine – it’s great, even. But it does mean that we’re not getting as many random little interjections as usual. This week I want to get in something about those pesky Communists.

You might be familiar with the group of people who’ve swung hard into right-wing politics on the grounds that the left has become toxic or overly PC or overly whatever else. It’s a transition that’s been made by a large portion of the Youtube atheist crowd, as noted for instance in this very early Contrapoints video. It’s also the sort of thing that’s well-known enough that people can satirize it without any direct explanation and still expect an audience to understand. It’s a bit of a weird phenomenon, but it feels very twenty-first century: people over-reacting to feminism or something and swinging out to the far right in response. A key part of this response seems to be the very aggressive inattention paid to rising right-wing violence. We hear US Presidents saying that white nationalism isn’t a significant problem, despite the very clear trend of white nationalists carrying out mass shootings, often specifically targeted towards non-white communities: El Paso, Texas; the attempted mosque shooting in Norway; and, yes, the Christchurch shooting. It’s all seconded to whatever problem triggered the delicate conservative constitution – women with blue hair or bathrooms for trans people or something. Forget about the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history: the real problem is that the Greens said they wanted a cabinet with an even gender divide. Those fucking scumbags.

So we’ve got this core issue where people are trying to identify the bad guys, the Real Problem In Society, and it doesn’t always go well. For instance, in the 1932 German elections, people were given a choice between the Nazis and the Communists, and they overwhelmingly chose the Nazis, by a margin of six million votes. But it’s not only the Germans who had to choose between Communists and fascists. I recently picked up Absolute Monarchs, by John Julius Norwich. It’s a history of the popes, from start to – well, not end, but you know. It’s where I first encountered Popes Pius XI and XII, the two reigning during the Second World War. Both were faced with the same choice between Communism and fascism, and both chose to support the fascists.

And it’s not that it was necessarily an easy decision, in either case. Both popes continue to be controversial figures today, particularly because we can’t quite agree on the extent to which they were complicit in the crimes of fascist regimes. It was definitely a non-zero amount, but everybody’s still quibbling about the exact degree. For instance, Norwich notes that on the one hand Pius XI happily negotiated the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini in 1929. On the other hand, Norwich says, when Mussolini started harassing Catholic Action, Pius criticised him in Non Abbiamo Bisogno. I’m not totally convinced that it’s a balanced example there – the main thrust of Non Abbiamo is ‘How could you treat me like this after I’ve been so good to you?’ It’s less ‘fascism bad’ and more ‘we would very much like to continue our friendship with the fascists if they would only stop punching us please.’ Consider this line from the end of the encyclical: “How preferable to this obstinate clash of minds and of wills would be a peaceful and tranquil union of thoughts and sentiments! Such a union could not fail to translate itself into a fruitful co-operation of all for the true good and for the common good.” Even his supposed criticism of Mussolini involves some pretty full-throated support for an ongoing alliance with the fascist leader.

Pius XII, who succeeded Pius XI, was also a bit of a complicated duck – although, again, not without some very clear signs of shithead-itis. He was admittedly in a bit of a tougher situation, in that he took office in 1939. If he’d spoken out too vehemently against Nazism, it’s entirely possible that he could’ve been on the chopping block – although fuck, would it have killed him to go into exile like everybody else? Further, when the Nazis occupied Italy to try and fight off the Allies (Mussolini was bad at war), they rounded up 2,000 Jews and sent them off to the death camps, just while they were there. Pius XII said nothing about it, not at the time, and not in his thirteen years as pope after the conclusion of the war. So, you know.

Even with all of that, both popes had relatively reasonable reasons to hate communism. Pius XI was stationed in Poland in 1920. He saw the Russian invasion firsthand. Fair enough – that’s a good reason not to like communism. Norwich very generously says that Pius’s hatred for communism made him more tolerant of fascism than he otherwise might have been. I almost see the same basic process going on with atheist Youtube – their hatred for the worst excesses of feminism (or whatever) made them more tolerant of fascism and hard-right politics than they otherwise might have been. It sounds mean when I say it like that, but… isn’t it basically true? Whether wisely or unwisely, maturely or immaturely, both groups moved in a certain direction, prompted by a strong negative reaction to something else. That reaction also seems to have clouded their ability to analyse the shortcomings of their new friends, to recognise that they might have allied themselves with the wrong people. They were too captivated to be properly critical, whether because they have weirdly thin skin or because of the enormity of the event, or maybe something in between. I dunno. I see things that I can learn for myself in there. White nationalists are bad guys, but they shouldn’t ever be so bad that we become uncritical of our own friends and allies. That way lies only papists and Youtubers.

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