Poetics, politics and polemics

I wonder what epithet will be applied to this year? 2011: The Summer of Lies? With public interest in phone-hacking having reached saturation point, the spotlight has turned back onto Johann Hari, who, it can reasonably be inferred, is about to be stripped of his 2008 Orwell Prize for Journalism.

In order to pre-empt and diffuse the inevitable renewal of interest in this story, David Allen Green reminded everyone that Johann Hari is reported as being in a fragile mental state and reminded Hari’s employers at the Independent that they had a duty of care towards him, as well as suggesting that a renewed feeding frenzy and Schadenfreude would not be the most compassionate response. Indeed Guy Walters, Damian Thompson,and David Allen Green (in a later post), all assert that questions need to be asked of the editors of the Independent.

I would agree. It seems to me that all newspaper editors need to be reminded of their duties of responsibility to both their readership and their young journalists. Factual inaccuracies should not be allowed to be passed off as truth.

As I said a few days previously, I was incensed by the lack of judgement on behalf of the New Statesman in relation to Laurie Penny’s article. What Laurie had done was to base her entire article around two lies, entirely unnecessarily. The points she wished to make could have been equally well articulated without needing to resort to untruths. These untruths were nothing more than assumptions or suppositions, ones that needed further explanation and examination and should not have been allowed to be printed unchallenged as truth.

This is important, not because of the issue that was under discussion, but because people still tend to believe and trust in the kind of journalism and opinion pieces of reputable and quality publications. Critique and criticism is vital but it must be based on truth, otherwise any debate and discussion will be meaningless, and any change or reforms brought about by such debate will be misconceived and ineffectual.

I confess to having experienced a touch of Schadenfreude having watched what happened to Johann Hari, because his writing indirectly contributed to a great deal of the abuse and haranguing I received on-line for my defence of Catholicism. In the run up to the Papal visit of last September, acres of column inches were devoted to attacking the Pope, the Vatican, the Holy See and Catholicism in general, not only for the child-abuse scandal, but also in relation to Catholic doctrine regarding sexual ethics. Ill-informed anti-catholic propaganda was being peddled across the media and the internet, anti-catholicism was seen as an acceptable prejudice and catholics everywhere were being pounced upon if they dared to speak up in support of their faith and their pontiff. There was concern that this prejudice had the capacity to turn violent.

I experienced this on-line, to some extent I still do. In the run up to the Papal visit, I commented that David Cameron seemed very enthusiastic to welcome the Pope and capture and explore the Catholic teaching on social justice, he was keen to draw parallels between his big society and Catholic social teaching. By pointing this out and generally defending the Pope’s visit, it was claimed that I was manic and on the edge of a mental breakdown.

In the midst of all this Johann Hari published an article chock full of inaccuracies in which he stated Catholics who supported the papal visit were “cheering a man who facilitated the rape of your children” and that to to support him was to endorse “his crimes and cruelties”. It was nothing other than libelous offensive rhetoric based upon his own irrational prejudices. Hari smeared and slandered the Pope offering absolutely no evidence for his assertions, other than alluding to a canon law document that he clearly did not understand, nor was going to take the trouble to interpret (several canon law specialists could have explained and contextualised it to him) and some cases of child abuse in the US, which had absolutely no links to the Pope whatsoever, but were great for upping the emotional ante and outrage. Thomas Bridge competently fisks the article here.

This article was syndicated everywhere, even the Daily Mail published it, and it was responsible for a surge of criticism. Catholics everywhere were dismayed by Hari’s distortions, his hysteria and his patronising language. Hari’s implications were clear. Catholics were obviously very stupid if kindly and generally benign individuals who didn’t understand their own religion. Hari would condescendingly deign to explain to them what the Gospels really meant, what Jesus would really think and he would have absolutely no problem with them being Catholics, so long as they didn’t agree with a large portion of their Church’s teaching and they attempted to get their leader arrested on his say-so. “Catholics, I implore you” he bleated. If Catholics didn’t agree with him, they were either ignorant, bigots or defenders of child abuse, probably a mixture of all three, but to be despised at any rate.

I had this article sent to me countless times. “Look Caroline, look, see what your pope has done, Johann Hari says it here and he’s always so right about everything. It’s the Independent, they are never biased, why are you so blind, why can’t you look and see”…Bleurgh. It did nothing for the morning sickness. Someone went so far as to say “you would stand by, watch a priest rape your daughter and do absolutely nothing about it. In fact you’d probably encourage it and then blame or disbelieve your daughter”. Somewhat unsurprisingly I snapped.

Since then I’ve never been particularly disposed to our Mr Hari. His polemics were too emotive and too sanctimonious by half and I could never be sure exactly how trustworthy they were, given his propensity to twist the facts. If anyone tried to engage with him, to point out the factual errors and ask him to consider alternative points of view then he simply blocked them. He wrote an article in a similar vein about Muslims, about how Muslim women needed to be shown what their faith really meant, how they needed to have it properly explained to them.

He seemed to suffer from a condition coined by the Curt Jester – homophobia-phobia. An irrational fear or aversion to homophobia, a contagion which seems to be spreading across the press. He wrote another article, beautifully disseminated by Quiet Riot Girl here, about homophobic bullying. Anyone who had any opposition to the notion of gay marriage or of two homosexual people buying into heterosexual norms of marriage and family and objecting to same-sex couples’ use of surrogacy had the blood of dead schoolchildren on their hands. Again, I was sent this article countless times, in some sort of effort to make me change my evil and abhorrent views. (Just to point out, I am categorically NOT homophobic, I have no fear, aversion or hatred of people with same-sex attraction; I defend the Catholic position and the vast majority of my time I have much better things to think about than the sexual peccadilloes, whatever they might be, of other people.).

I wrote about Hari’s ill-conceived campaign to attempt to persuade people to give up a benefit which they are yet to be granted, which grated for several reasons. The response was to cry “Homophobe!”, something of a non-sequitur and a link to said article on homophobic bullying together with a threat to run and snitch to Hari about my “twisted lifestyle”.

My beef with Johann Hari was how he twisted the truth to suit his own ends. Hari is a great writer. His rhetoric has a hypnotic and compelling quality. I can see how easy it is to be drawn into his narrative, but what is infuriating is that The Independent allowed him a platform from which to speak unchecked. The very fact that they were willing to publish him, cemented his reputation amongst his equally young, ideological and gullible readership, who understandably thought that his work had been edited and fact-checked. The Independent with their high standards of journalism wouldn’t publish falsehoods would they? Lately Hari seemed to be on a collision course, almost everything he wrote was critiqued somewhere, he would write lengthy polemics and have an opinion on almost anything, with very little factual grasp of the subject matter in hand, as Tim Worstall demonstrated when he laid into him for his misunderstanding of economics.

Any criticism of Hari was put down to either homophobia, jealousy of his status or age or simply due to opposing ideology, he was the great St Hari, the great campaigner, his views were sacrosanct. I think people were simply over-awed by both his Cambridge degree, his undoubted passion, however misguided, and his complex prose – full of obscure words and neologisms. Ironically I rather enjoyed his interviews, it seemed to me that this was the most honest aspect of his work, the notion of plagiarism did not occur. For those of us who do occasionally get our work published elsewhere, Hari’s actions are galling. I meticulously check everything before submitting work that is going to be published either on another website, or in print. I had nightmares about receiving a lawsuit from George Weigel prior to my piece in the Catholic Herald on John Paul 2 at Easter, given that I had relied on his biography for historical background.

As for Hari’s alleged sock-puppetry on Wikipedia, that is serious matter, as it could, if left unchecked or unedited have ruined lives and reputations. Johann is obviously extremely fragile and pathologically unable to handle any sort of criticism at all. He seems to have become dependent upon his reputation, to crave the glory, the pundits, the accolades and the fame. Who can blame him? It must be heady stuff and it seems that without it, his life is empty, devoid of meaning. There is an irony in the winner of the Orwell Prize covertly operating his own Ministry of Truth.

I said on Jack of Kent’s blog that Hari is a modern day tragic hero, a Henchard or Lear of our time. The Greek word hamartia or tragic flaw is especially apt given that it can encapsulate accident or mistake, as well as error or wrongdoing. I hope that like a tragic hero he can find his redemption and we our catharsis.

I think Johann Hari still has a career, he certainly has the makings of a novelist or even a poet about him. Sir Philip Sidney held that poetry should be mimetic, that it should imitate

” it is a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth–to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture–with this end, to teach and delight…the poets only ever deliver a golden”.

Hari was certainly an artist or word-smith and in the words of Wilde. “No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did he would cease to be an artist.”

I think similar could be levelled at Laurie Penny, who is of an ilk to Hari and for whom concern has been expressed, her highly controversial writing often results with her at the receiving end of personal attack, although she has not been particularly circumspect on her attacks on other people; recent examples include praising Amy Winehouse for spitting at Pippa Middleton and calling Damian Thompson a pathetic excuse for humanity.

Both Hari and Laurie must be seen more as artists than journalists, it can be the only explanation as to why they are allowed so much poetic licence and not pulled up on their loose and sloppy reporting of facts. They want to spin a narrative, create a golden, a talking picture, one that corresponds with their own world view.

Like Philip Sidney, the young courtier to Queen Elizabeth, both have “great expectations” placed upon them, due to their age and stratospheric rise. Like Sidney, Hari must be thinking:

For since mad March great promise made of me,
If now the May of my years much decline,
What can be hoped my harvest time will be?”
Like Sidney’s Astrophil, Johann Hari has written himself into a corner. If Laurie Penny wishes to avoid a similar fate and extend her influence beyond her coterie, she needs to accept like Sidney, her “young mind marred” and appreciate, unlike Hari, that words may be “right, healthful caustics“.

16 thoughts on “Poetics, politics and polemics

  1. What a wonderfully composed article. Puts my writing to shame (wow). Nodded all the way through, excellent analysis of the issues catholics faced last year and still do as a result of so much malicious writing regards the Pope’s visit and more. Glad you mentioned Penny’s article too.

  2. I was skimming through agreeing with you. Laurie Penny drives me crazy and I seem to have the opposite feelings towards Johann in that whilst I often agree with what he says I rarely like the way he says it.

    But. I grew up catholic, I lost my faith and eventually went to the trouble of having myself removed from the baptismal register. I did not want to be counted in the 1 billion strong catholic church. It has nothing to do with the child abuse, though I do think that having an army of celibates is likely to lead to undesirable consequences. Fundamentally the church is not in favour of these actions and so gross mismanagement is not the same as

    I may be splitting hairs but I am anti-catholicism. I think that is perfectly reasonable and valid. I am not anti-catholic as I know and love a great many catholics. But I do dislike the church, its views, its dogma and many of its actions. I don’t think I should consider that an inappropriate view nor a prejudiced one. I’m an atheist, I wouldn’t try to convert someone to atheism but if the topic came up I would suggest that liberal catholics convert to another christian faith.

    You can state that he was being patronizing but there are many catholics who share his views. that are “Catholics… (but don’t)… agree with a large portion of their Church’s teaching” The women who were “campaigning” for women priests (my mother in law amongst them) would have to count amongst them.

    Perhaps he can’t convince people to change their views. But given that my own views are hugely divergent from those of the faith I grew up in, and given that the Catholic church is not a democracy I would have left even if I hadn’t lost my faith and would encourage others to.

  3. @hesychast a nice and well thought out comment. I believe for you to have your name removed from the baptismal register, you have genuine displeasure with some of the precepts of Catholicism (“But I do dislike the church, its views, its dogma and many of its actions” including the all male priesthood you identified).

    But in case you don’t mind, can you share some of these with me, so that I can understand how you arrived at your opinion. I hope it can be a nice and civil debate because I love engaging in exchange of ideas. As you have made up your mind this is not an attempt to change it. You have perfectly done what you consider to be right, proceeding from you free will and I am obliged to respect that. If you don’t fill like it, I respect that.

  4. There are quite a few but I could start with a short story. A friend of my grandmother’s was in an abusive relationship. After years of physical abuse she divorced her husband. Having done so she wrote to the Vatican to ask for dispensation to be allowed to take holy communion despite having committed the sin of divorcing a man who was beating her.

    This request was denied.

    Few things have made me more angry than when I heard this.

  5. None of the things I have a problem with need be part of Catholic faith. The faith allows that understanding of God’s will is human and fallible and changes can be made.

    As such my troubles are actually at their heart governmental. There are plural values within the church but not at the top. The top jobs and so ethical decisions are wrapped up by a specific group. Holding the reigns of power they also make all of the promotion decisions.

    The plural values of those lower down the ranks are therefore never represented or considered higher up. I don’t understand why people are campaigning for change from within when they have zero chance of being heard.

    I could tell another story. One of my dad’s cousins fell pregnant out of wedlock. She was shunned by that part of the family. Fortunately my grandparents are more open minded and to a degree became the defacto grandparents of that child. There is nothing that says that a Catholic parent should shun a child who had children out of wedlock. But it does provide the environment in which that out come is far more likely.

  6. Loved every word. So true. I don’t want to turn into a Hari-hating lynch mob member, but I can’t stand the way he makes every attack so personal. Take the pope- it’s not the fact that a few members of the church made errors in the past, its the pope HIMSELF who is to blame. I can’t pretend I’m not a little happy that Karma is finally catching up with our favourite athiest.

  7. Spot on. I’ve always found Hari’s work deeply frustrating. He does write well, and there’s real passion in his polemic, but I’ve long been driven up the wall by his blend of truth and fiction. I think you’re right to single him out for his opposition to the Papal visit last year. He wasn’t alone, of course, but somehow his claims seemed more credible than those of others.

    That he is, it seems, disintegrating at the moment is very sad, and I hope he gets better. I really suspect that poking him with sticks won’t help the situation, but God willing he’ll come through this and mend his ways, at least in part.

  8. I feel like I am a lone voice here. I am desperately worried about Hari and I really think a lot of people are getting this way out of perspective.

    I am not, of course, in any way disputing the issues at hand. But these are matters of professional ethics, not life and death.

    When are people going to grow up and rein in their rage and righteousness? There is a a life at stake — and it is one that needs help.

  9. @hesychast
    The question of divorce is usually a very difficult one because of the reality of extreme difficulties that marriages usually face. I do not know the details of the case you describe, so I would not directly comment about it but I can only comment on what the church teaches. I can see you have, to an extent, tried to preempt my answer when you wrote “The faith allows that understanding of God’s will is human and fallible and changes can be made”; but i would address that point as well.
    There are two things that are crucial here. One is the nature of Marriage and the second is where does the church derive it’s teaching and as a consequence it’s authority.

    Addressing the second point first (as it is crucial to its action), the Catholic church says it derives all that it teaches directly from what Jesus Christ taught while he was on earth and from the Apostles who were commissioned by Jesus Christ himself, to preserve, protect and pass on all he has taught through the help of the Holy Spirit. Church believes that through Jesus Christ (Who they claim is God himself) we get a fuller, comprehensive and best understanding of God (and surely you would agree that the church is entitled to believe so) which those living during time of the old testament didn’t fully have and depended on the prophets and as a result the laws to try work out what God wanted.
    All that, is purely theological but flowing from that comes all that I would address.
    The church understands a marriage to be a sacred union and covenant between a man, woman and God. Now she understands once a covenant is contracted with God, it is irrevocable and cannot be dissolved by any human agent. This understanding of a covenant is universally shared by all Christian denomination and major Religions and over time from Genesis to Revelation. Paul the apostle even compares this covenant with that between Christ and the Church (and that is definitive and binding in the church).

    Funny enough, Jesus Christ was directly asked the question of Divorce and his response was unequivocal and even shocked his disciples like many people in today world. He said that a marriage is indissoluble by any man, no if’s no but and there are witnesses to this (Matthew, Mark and Luke).

    Now the church understands some of the practical realities of marriage and acknowledges that there are some grave situation where separation of spouses, even permanent is inevitable either by an ordinary or by the individuals own authority (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P45.HTM). They referred to as innocent victims of divorce and can in fact receive holy communion in full unity with the church as long as they don’t remarry.
    Once the divorced spouse, remarries he/she is excluded from receiving the Eucharist. This is because the Original marriage is never broken and no one has the power to break it (unless in the case of death) but out of necessity the spouses have had to leave apart.
    The church does not consider the people involved in a divorce as evil but the divorce itself and therefore cannot endorse grant or allow it.
    This is not an invention of people in the church, it flows from the direct teaching of Christ and further explained by the Apostle (especially St Paul).
    Permit me to quote the present Pope on this issue when he was head of the CDF.

    “I would underscore that what is at stake in respect to the teaching of the indissolubility of marriage is nothing less than the Church’s fidelity to the radicalism of the Gospel. “The severity does not derive from a purely disciplinary law or from a type of legalism. It is rather a judgment pronounced by Jesus Himself (Mk 10:6ff). Understood in this way, this severe norm is a prophetic witness to the irreversible fidelity of love that binds Christ to His Church. It shows also that the spouses’ love is incorporated into the very love of Christ (Eph. 5:23-32).”[6]
    In short, because marriage is an irrevocable covenant established by God, it is not a mere personal and private act. Marriage consent pertains to the common good and directly effects the Church. Subsequently, a mere personal and private act cannot substitute for a judgement of marriage nullity. In determining such a grave matter, only the Church herself, acting in the name of Christ, has competence to pass judgement.”

    He clearly acknowledges it is radical but not in our place to alter it. To round up on this, the question that would be asked is ‘Why did Jesus Teach so’. Well that has to be another topic for another day.

    1. Thanks, that is a well thought out reply. However I would not question that there is an internal logic behind these decisions. In part it is that internal logic which means that I could not be a part of the church.

      It remains true that my own values are offended when a woman is in part rejected by the church that should be embracing her in a difficult part of her life. Which is what happened. Other christian faiths do not share this view and so if I were not an atheist I would feel compelled to change faith to another which better reflects my values.

      If other sections of the christian faith have found a way to allow for divorce then there must be some theological ruling which deals with it. The decision over what books to include in the initial cannon for me underlines the basic issue that whatever we decide upon is essentially a reflection of human bias.

      If I did still believe the only way that I could reconcile these issues would be to retreat to the most basic fundamental principles. Ignoring any specific ruling made centuries ago. If I started from a basic moral ethics based on Jesus’ teachings as Kant attempted I would then attempt to apply that to a modern context. Under those tests I would consider that interpretation of divorce to be damaging and unnecessarily cruel as I would for many other decisions including most notably contraception.

      If I didn’t do this I would struggle to overcome the issue that I am trying to work from a many millennia old set of ideas which, interpreted, translated, edited by men in a very different time. If I believed in and were searching for fundamental truths I would be suspicious of any specific ancient ruling be it on when I can eat what food or who I can love.

      Fundamentally however it is very difficult for us to have this conversation when I don’t believe any of it to be true anyway. I think you must understand that, the most respectful way I can put it is that, for an atheist theological discussions are very strange things. And this probably isn’t the most appropriate forum to be having the conversation anyway.

      I bumped into the blog through twitter and hadn’t realised it was a Catholic blog till well into the piece. which I enjoyed by the way. I would rather hear calm and reasoned debate from someone I disagree with than rants about who is lying to me from people I agree with.

      1. @hesychast
        You make a very nice point and I agree with you. Any discussion that is theological in nature cannot not exclude the fundamental question of Faith and in turn grace and reason. It is this question that makes it difficult for us to proceed henceforth from first principle on divergence on certain moral issues and its plurality, which could in a way be extended to; “is marriage even necessary or important?”.
        But any way, it was nice chatting with you and just like your self “I would rather hear calm and reasoned debate from someone I disagree with than rants about who is lying to me from people I agree with”
        Have a great day.

  10. I do feel a little sympathy for Hari, but far less for Penny. I think Hari has, and rightly so, been suffering from huge bouts of regret. But Laurie Penny continues on a daily basis to write lies and insults, often which she then later deletes (blaming her passion on twitter). This has happened several times now, showing her true immaturity and spite for people she dislikes.
    But then she’s not a journalist, just an activist, able to write for a magazine because people (like me) want to read her bizzare articles and calls for revolution; Hari however maybe more of a journalist than he is getting credit for as what he is done maybe more common that first thought. That being said, there is no excuse for it at all. I have attempted to show before how Penny is just so plain wrong (http://opentothefuture.com/how-politics-can-be-right-and-wrong/), but reading from the comments on all her articles I still can’t see her getting a little more sensible.

  11. @hesychast
    It is true that the church governing structure is hierarchical (which is compound word in Greek meaning ruled by priest). Now i have explained before, that what the church teaches is set by Christ and handed down by the apostles so even if in the future we have a Liberal or conservative mined Pope, the teaching will still be unchanged. How the church is governed is separate from what it teaches. That was how the apostles governed the early church and if there was any doctrinal dispute they appealed to the Apostles for clarification and that my friend led to some of the letters (inspired by the Holy Spirit) we have in the new testament. That was how the church was governed then and the Catholic church believes If it does not deviate from the Traditions handed down by the apostles, it can never err in understanding God’s will.

    On the 2nd issue, i believe it is wrong, unchristian and Uncatholic for parents to abandon any of their children even if they fall pregnant out of wedlock and have an obligation to care for the daughter and child. I will tell you alternative story. There is an actress from Nigeria that is huge in this part of the world. Her name is Geneieve Nnaji, she might not be popular in UK but might be well known in some part of the US and mega in the continent of africa.

    She has appeared on Oprah Winfrey Show http://gidinoize.wordpress.com/2009/10/03/genevieve-nnaji-on-the-oprah-winfrey-show/ ,

    CNN Connect http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_zOOPNgA_A&
    feature=related

    and Appeared in Maria Claire Magazine alongside Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Aniston, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in an article about who is the most beautiful woman in your world, in which she came fourth.

    I know these are unnecessary but want to tell you how huge she is. Another deviation,we both come from the same town (infact) and was 2 years my sisters junior in secondary school and was well known becos she was very pretty (my claim to fame).

    Well at the age of 17 she got pregnant while still in secondary school but was strongly supported by her parents. They refused to abort the baby because of their Conscience as they were Catholics (read in this link http://www.allconnect.me/read.php?id=208) but the parents took care of her and the child. My sister informed me that she was eventually withdrawn from the school (Methodist girls high school) and sent to another private school to continue her education by her parents. And with their support she was able to continue her eduction and even graduated from one of the top universities in Nigeria and today she is more popular than the wife of the President and just 32 years. Read more about her

    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2105039/bio

    http://news2.onlinenigeria.com/headlines/93873-genevieve-nnaji%3A-i-didn%E2%80%99t-know-i-was-pregnant-for-seven-months.html

    Now is a case of catholic parent supporting their child who became pregnant outside wedlock

  12. I am not a fan of Hari. However, there are some inaccuracies in your defence of the current Pope. I realise that he may have never molested children per se, but he was an influential figure in keeping victims silent. I am sure you can find a defence to twist to your logic and belief system, but to say that he had nothing to do with it is, in my opinion, incorrect.

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