Cartoons and the clash of civilizations

Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s “class of civilizations” hypothesis — a provocative preview of a twenty-first century in which religiously shaped cultural conflicts define the fault-lines of world politics — created a considerable intellectual stir when it was first published in 1993. It also caused an allergic reaction in the Vatican that persisted for over a decade, which always seemed to me puzzling.

Perhaps some churchmen, reading about the controversy over the book rather than reading the book itself, imagined that Huntington was prescribing a clash of civilizations; in fact, the mild-mannered professor was simply describing what seemed to him the most dynamic forces shaping world affairs today. Another curiosity of the reaction inside the Vatican was that Huntington’s was the first analysis in decades in which a world-class scholar took religious conviction seriously as a factor in global politics — which, one might have thought, would have commended it to the Holy See’s diplomats. But there is religious conviction and there is religious conviction: and doubtless Huntington’s detailed description of Islam’s “bloody borders” raised eyebrows in a Vatican already concerned about the pressures being put on Christian communities by radical Islamists along a fault line of conflict running from the west coast of Africa through Sudan and Pakistan and on to East Timor.

Given that background, a single adverb stands out dramatically in Pope Benedict XVI’s January 9 address to the diplomats accredited to the Holy See. In the course of discussing the relationship of truth to politics, Benedict referred to “today’s global context, in which attention has rightly been drawn to the danger of a clash of civilizations.” Rightly been drawn. Not “incorrectly…” Or “mischievously…” Rightly.

This realistic appraisal of the contemporary world scene came not a month too soon. As I write in the second week of February, the publication of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in a hitherto obscure Danish newspaper has ignited a “planetary intifada” (as French commentator Bernard-Henri Levy put it, with only slight exaggeration). Encouraged by Islamist clerics and political scoundrels like Syria’s Bashar Assad and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, protesters have burned embassies and consulates, aroused mass demonstrations that have led to casualties and fatalities, intimidated European governments – and murdered Fr. Andrea Santoro, whose teenage assailant shouted “God is great” while shooting the Italian priest in the back as he prayed before the altar of his small church in Turkey.

I have no brief for the cartoons, any more than I had a brief for the far more vulgar “Piss Christ.” And yes, there was something ironic about passionate defenses of “free speech” in countries like France, where a parliamentarian was recently sentenced to a heavy fine because he had publicly proposed that “heterosexuality is morally superior to homosexuality.” But arguments about the legal boundaries that should or should not be erected against “art” that religious believers find offensive, or arguments about the nature of Europe’s soul-withering de-Christianization and its relationship to the rise of radical Islam within Europe, can be engaged at another time. At this particular moment, a few basic markers must be laid down.

The West cannot acquiesce supinely to the demand of radical Islamists that their standards of the appropriate are to be imposed in the West – or else. Nor can the West acquiesce to the Islamists’ defense of violence, assault, and murder in the name of “rage.” Nor can the West accept the radicals’ suggestion that entire nations are to be held responsible for the arguably boorish behavior of some of their citizens, which would imply a level of governmental control of cultural life that is incompatible with a free society.

State-controlled media throughout the Islamic world regularly print and broadcast unspeakably vicious anti-Christian and anti-Semitic images. Will the Muslim leaders who have rightly condemned violence as a response to cartoons — King Abdullah of Jordan and Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani of Iraq, to name two — take the next step and call for a reform of the ways in which the media in Islamic countries depict Christians and Jews? That would be one positive development to come out of this otherwise dismal affair, which has ominously broadened Islam’s “bloody borders.”

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash