Pope Francis in the Vatican and Justin Webb in The Times have decried blanket hatred, the Pope towards Israel, the hack towards the US.
Without in any way wishing to imply parity between the two gentlemen, I can’t help noticing superficial parallels in their lines of thought, and also some fundamental divergences.
The Pope says “To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism… the state of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.”
No decent person would take issue with the second part of the statement, but some might disagree with the first. It’s possible, they’d say, to dislike Israel without being anti-Semitic.
It is indeed possible. However, purely empirical observation suggests that those who are most vociferous in their disapproval of Israel also happen to be at least latently anti-Semitic.
It doesn’t have to be that way, but it just is. In a way this is understandable.
After the Holocaust, hating Jews betokens such putrid nastiness that all but outright fanatics refrain from public manifestations of anti-Semitism. Yet camouflaging them as, say, anti-Zionism begins to flirt with social acceptability, though care must be taken not to sound too virulent.
One can get away with saying “I detest the theocratic aspects of Israeli statehood” without sounding as anti-Semitic as one really is. However, saying “I could kill every Zionist with my own hands” just may put one beyond the pale, as it were.
His Holiness, to his credit, left room for disapproval of some aspects of Israeli politics without being anti-Semitic. However, and again the Pope mentioned this, disagreeing with political measures without which Israel would be obliterated is crossing the line.
To his even greater credit, he made an honest attempt to build bridges and not to rely on time to heal all wounds. Some wounds require immediate medical help, and His Holiness has tried to provide it.
He is used to expressing himself in clipped, evangelical messages, communicating the truth but not necessarily trying to explain it, leaving exegesis to assorted commentators.
For hacks like Justine Webb that’s not good enough. He has to look for deep psychological explanations to utterances that by themselves manifestly lack depth.
This starts with the title of his article: Those Who Hate the US Actually Hate Themselves. The statement struck me as not just controversial but daft. Nonetheless I read on to get to the kernel of the argument.
This is the gist of it: we all have an American inside us, trying to get out. Hence whenever we find anything wrong with the US it’s the American part of ourselves that we actually abhor.
This took me out of my depth, for I invariably look askance, or more typically out of the window, at statements of such psychological profundity.
I found myself lost even farther at sea when Mr Webb explained that politics lies underneath it all, with “the right distrusting [America’s] happy-go-lucky approach to society building, the left hating the way that society operates.”
This was a loose paraphrase of a loose statement by the French pseudo-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who also said that “Anti-Americanism comes from the fascist tendency in French thought.”
Displaying enviable erudition, Mr Webb counters that not all anti-Americanism is political. This deplorable tendency actually predates America as a political entity. “Throughout the 18th century serious people had been sent to America and reported back that the place was a dump.”
Here lies the difference between my two protagonists.
The Pope felt duty-bound to comment on a real, soul-destroying problem of long standing and wide, almost universal reach.
The hack concocted a problem where no problem really exists. Of course some people hate America, and of course left-wing fanatics hate her for being the epitome of capitalism, while right-wing fanatics hate her for insufficient racial and ethnic purity.
But, while there can be no legitimate reason for hating Jews or indeed the Jewish state, there may exist perfectly valid reasons for disliking America – or, to be more precise, Americanism.
Ignoring this possibility, Mr Webb chose as his hypothetical targets primitive ignoramuses who come up with spurious justifications for their anti-Americanism.
One wonders how he’d respond to serious criticism voiced by his intellectual equal or, God forbid, superior.
For example, a thinking Christian may point out the US is the first purely secular, in effect atheist, state in history. He may further state, quoting from Thomas Jefferson and other Founders, that the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees not so much freedom of religion as freedom from religion.
A political philosopher may expand on that theme by showing that the American Revolution was inspired by exactly the same ideas as the French one – and at a deeper level even the Russian one.
The US was – and remains – an Enlightenment construct, the first such state. America adumbrated our materialist, anomic, culturally and spiritually subversive modernity and remains its flag-bearer.
She is the living embodiment of the revolt against the religion, culture and civilisation of Christendom – this for all the fulsome protestations of piety one hears everywhere in America and even reads on her banknotes.
I’m not coming down on either side of the argument (I do in my books, which, in the spirit of self-serving American capitalism, I commend to your attention). It’s possible that serious counterarguments could be voiced by serious commentators, of whom Mr Webb clearly isn’t one.
His article is basically drivel, while the Pope’s statement, ostensibly made on a kindred theme, has much value. Far be it from me to suggest that it’s Christianity that lends verisimilitude to moral and intellectual attitudes.