Passing Bull 25 – Extremism in America


The Americans are currently wrestling with two very rubbery words, extremism and terrorism. Each apparently is a word that means what you want it to mean, and nothing else.

For reasons I can understand, some people are tired of hearing Muslems dismiss violent Moslems as extremists. How far off centre do you have to go before you qualify as an extremist? And what happens to you if you qualify?

For reasons I can also understand, people are tired of hearing Muslems say that the extremists are bad, but… Then follows some excusing or softening factor. The extremists are bad, but they have in part become bad because other people were bad to them – or us.

The American Republicans are now going through the same process with one of their number. Donald Trump might fairly be described as an extremist, not to mention the best friend that IS has ever had.  Other Republicans say that, yes, Trump is an extremist, but – a lot of people have been driven to extremes by the weakness of President Obama. It is not pretty to watch.

What is even less pretty is the confusion over terrorism. Mass shootings occur on an almost daily basis in the U S. More than 80 people are shot and killed every day there.  The nation is used to it, even though people still claim to be shocked when each fresh incident arises. The FBI waited for some time before declaring the most recent mass shooting in California was an act of terrorism.

What distinguishes this mass shooting from the others that happen so regularly? These mass killers had some kind of religious training and motivation, and they had been ‘radicalised’, which apparently puts them beyond extremists.

To qualify as a terrorist, you need to be putting people in fear by killing people or by threatening to kill them, but for some ultimate political or religious end. While the presence of politics or religion might indicate that the source of the evil may be more widespread, it is hard to see any basis for moral discrimination between the perpetrators of the various kinds of mass shooting and killing.

It is impossible to see any such discrimination in the US. There people are constitutionally encouraged to bear arms, and that is interpreted to mean that they can buy and have and be able to use any kind of firearm they want to have. People are solemnly told, and by the highest judges in the land, that this is a constitutional right of US citizens.  Why do they have this right?  It is given to them so that they can protect themselves from tyranny.

It is hard to recall a more noxious form of bullshit. What people are being told is that they should be able to remain armed in case they think that the government is becoming oppressive. In that case, they can use their guns to change the government. One of the difficulties is that no one will ever be able to judge when that right may arise. Because when he does claim to exercise the right, not just to bear arms but to use them, the person using the gun will be, by definition, a terrorist – they will be killing or threatening to kill for a political purpose.

Terrorists either win or lose. If they win, they get into power.  If they lose, they get killed.  Nelson Mandela was in the first category; John Wilkes Booth, the second.  In truth, the best example of someone exercising the right to bear arms to remove a tyrant was the man called John Wilkes Booth. He assassinated Abraham Lincoln. He did so expressly on the basis that Lincoln was a terrorist.  Booth is the quintessential American terrorist or extremist.

Now, there are arguments about this – that prevail by a majority of one in the Supreme Court.  A right to bear arms does not entail a right to use them.  This kind of silliness is not what the authors of this clause had in mind in England in 1689 – where the use of handguns in London had long been illegal – but a sensible historical meaning does suit the Court.  And Americans have been let down by their legislators as well as their judges.  Most of them want to stop this killing, but they are too scared to do so.  That is not terrorism, or extremism.  That is just cowardice.  They are victims of people using fear to achieve political ends.  So are all Americans.

So, become a U S citizen, and you too can be a terrorist.  The whole bloody joint is crawling with extremists and terrorists.

Poet of the month: Robert Burns

I have always wondered what the fuss was about Burns. That wonderment has not ceased on my reading of his treatment of the downstairs staff. But here is a poem for the Sisters. I can guarantee that the next one will not be so well received.

How cruel are the parents

How cruel are the Parents

Who riches only prize,

And to the wealthy booby

Poor Woman sacrifice:

Meanwhile the hapless Daughter

Has the choice of strife;

To shun a tyrant Father’s hate

Become a wretched Wife.

The ravening hawk pursuing,

The trembling day thus flies,

To shun the impending ruin

While her pinion tries

Till of escape despairing

No shelter or retreat

She trusts the ruthless Falconer

And drops beneath his feet.

Passing bull 11 Franco was not a fascist

Political labels are generally used to brand people or ideas rather than to excuse them, but people who have firm views about politics or religion tend to cling to them.  People who have firm views about both are very prone to label-abuse – and they also have a curious penchant for denialism.

Phillip Adams interviewed Gerard Henderson – an occasion of mutual discomfort.  Henderson said that Franco was not a fascist. The military leader of a totalitarian state who got Mussolini and Hitler to help him bomb Guernica – just for practice – was not a fascist?  Just what more do you need to be a fascist?  (Franco and the church said that Guernica had been burnt down by the reds.)  But what does it matter what label you apply to this religious fanatic who was a cruel and murderous little shit, a part of the refuse of mankind?

I have written something on this that might bear on this discussion (in the final volume of a history of the west).  It reflects on the tendency of churches to line up with the army and the money.

Francisco Franco (1892 – 1975)

The Spanish Inquisition with its informers and bonfires of the auto da fe prefigured the totalitarian states of Stalin and Hitler to a degree that is frightening.  The conduct of the Church was no better under Generalissimo Franco.  The dedication to repression and oppression was indeed religious.  A major step on the road to the most frightful civil war came when Cardinal Pedro Segura, the primate of Spain, issued a pastoral denouncing the intention of the republic to establish freedom of worship and to separate church and state.  Both Hitler and Mussolini, who each had a Concordat with the Vatican, intervened in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the fascists.

Francisco Franco was born in a family with long links to the Spanish Navy.  He went into the army because the navy was in decline.  He fought in the Spanish protectorate of Morocco and then served in the Spanish Foreign Legion.  He developed the kind of perverted ideology then prevalent that held that the problems of the world were caused by Jews, atheists, Freemasons, and Leftists, not necessarily in that order, but certainly in a conspiracy.

The monarchy fell in 1931.  It was then the church against the barbarians and the republicans were lumped with the communists.  In 1936, Franco and others in the army sought to overthrow the elected government of the Popular Front.  This led to the Spanish Civil War, and to foreign fascist intervention.

Franco ruled as a dictator – Il Caudillo – for nearly forty years.  His weapons of repression included the death penalty, concentration camps, forced labour, and heavy censorship.  He got back into favour with the U S during the Cold War when they had a common enemy in Communism.  In the 1950’s, a cabinet of Opus Dei technocrats convinced him to move toward a market economy.  After his death, Spain moved toward democracy.  A Pact of Forgetting was introduced to encourage reconciliation.  Socialists and Conservatives now clash over how to deal with that bleak past

If we go back to Il Caudillo in power, on 19 May 1939 there was a grand victory parade along the Castellana, renamed the Avenida del Generalissimo.  The Caudillo would not be coming to town on a donkey to receive his Hosannas.  Antony Beevor says:

A huge construction of wood and cardboard had been erected to form a triumphal arch on which the word ‘Victory’ was displayed.  On each side the name ‘FRANCO’ was repeated three times, and linked with the heraldic arms of the Catholic monarchs.

Franco took the salute at this march past from a large tribune.  He wore the uniform of captain-general, but the dark blue collar of a Falangist [fascist] shirt could be seen underneath and on his head the red beret of the Carlists [royalists].  Below him in front of the stand his personal bodyguard of Moroccan cavalry was drawn up.

More than 120,000 soldiers, including Germans and Portuguese, took part.

The next day cardinal Goma, primate of Spain, gave Franco the wooden cross to kiss at the door of the church of Santa Barbara, where the Caudillo entered under a canopy, as the kings of Spain used to do.  In the middle of a solemn ceremony, imbued with heavy medieval imagery, Franco laid his victorious sword in front of the miraculous Christ of Lepanto, brought especially from Barcelona for the occasion.

This may remind you a little of the coronation of Napoleon at Rheims, but at least Napoleon had the decency to crown himself.  Two days after Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave an address on the subject of ‘the leader’ (the Fuhrer, Duce, or Caudillo) that the Nazis cut off.  Bonhoeffer said that a leader who allowed himself to be idolized was a misleader and that ‘leaders who set themselves up as gods mock God.’  It is hard to imagine a better case of a leader mocking God than that pompous little Spanish soldier called Franco.  Beevor goes on:

All the trappings and incantations represented the sentiments and self-image of the crusading conqueror.  In his struggle to defeat the Marxist hydra, Franco had been fighting against the past as well as the present: against the nineteenth century poisoned by liberalism; against the eighteenth century which had produced the Enlightenment and Freemasonry; and against the defeats of the seventeenth century.  Only in an earlier period could the Caudillo find the roots of a great and united Spain, the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella.

If Franco had gone back even further to when the Moors ruled Spain, he may or may not have found a similar attitude of rejecting the present that we see so often now in Islam.

Did the Generalissimo show Christian charity to the vanquished?

The Caudillo used to read through the sentences of death when taking his coffee after a meal, often in the presence of his personal priest, Jose Maria Bulart.  He would write an ‘E’ against those he decided should be executed, and a ‘C’ when commuting the sentence.  For those he considered needed to be made a conspicuous example, he wrote ‘garrote y prensa’ (garrotting and press coverage).  After coffee, his aide would send off the sentences to be passed to the military governor of each region of each province, who would communicate them by telegram to the head of the prison.  The sentences would then be read out in the central gallery of the prison.  Some officials enjoyed reading out the first name, such as Jose or Juan, to strike fear into all those who bore it, before adding the family name.  In the woman’s prison of Amorebieta one of the nuns who acted as warders would perform this duty.

That there are still churches standing in Spain might promote faith in miracles in this European nation that styles itself as civilized.  When it comes to mass killers like Himmler and Franco, can we that are left discern any moral difference in their evil or is it just a matter of arithmetic?  Did Eichmann ever do anything as obscene or as offensive to God as settling his death list for the next day while taking coffee with his personal priest?

The English historian Maitland said that when England turned its face against the inquisitorial process, it escaped the ‘everlasting bonfire.’  When you read about Franco, you might think that Maitland was right, although it may well be that the liberation of England from allegiance or subjection or vassalage of any kind to a foreign power was just as important in allowing it to escape the totalitarian cataclysms that engulfed those nations in Europe that had not been liberated.

Maitland compared the accusatory, contradictory and public process of a trial at common law to the secret inquisitorial process in Europe where torture was used.  He said:

Our new procedure seems to hesitate for a while at the meeting of two roads.  A small external impulse might have sent it down that too easy path which the church chose and which led to the everlasting bonfire.

The footnote refers to a book written by an English jurist before the Spanish Inquisition.  In De Laudibus, Sir John Fortescue condemned the use of torture in Europe (France).  The part quoted by Maitland is ‘Semita ipsa est ad Gehannam.’  ‘This is the very path to perdition.’  Gehanna is a valley outside Jerusalem that was said to be cursed.  It is frequently rendered as hell, or unquenchable fire (Mark 9:43) or, here, the ‘eternal bonfire.’  Fortescue commented on the wrack that ‘the execution of the sentence of the law is a task fit only for little villains to perform, picked out from amongst the refuse of mankind…’  There again we have a useful description of the little Spanish Generalissimo.

There must be people in Spain feeling betrayed by the church.  It is not just that the clergy so often seem to line up with those who want to hold on to power – it is that so many find it hard to suppress a sneer at that part of the sermon that says that the meek shall inherit the earth.  The sense of betrayal is even greater there because of the identity of the betrayed.  It is as if a common affinity of the clergy and politicians for ritual, ceremony, costume, hierarchy and incantation, together with a dread of change and a reverence for a largely imagined past and wholly imagined heroes leads some people to share a common affinity with repression and oppression in government that is loosely associated with the term ‘the Right.’  Certainly, you do not often see the clergy lining up to support the opposite team – ‘the Left.’

This is, to put it softly, very frustrating to those who admire the example of the young holy man who came to bury the Establishment and not to praise it, and who rode into town on a donkey for that purpose, and who then took to the money people with a lash, and in so doing signed his own death warrant.  There truly was leader whom we have mocked.  Can we get comfort from the words of Yeats?

The darkness drops again, but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Il Caudillo was not as evil as the Fuhrer, or as downright ridiculous as Il Duce, but he was far worse than a serial pest.  He and his fascist fellow travellers held Spain back.  It and Greece were at risk, to put it at its lowest, of becoming backwaters on the edge of if not outside Europe because of their political immaturity.  The sad or violent history of Spain for most of the twentieth century is at least one indication of why it is one of those states at what is called the periphery that is in trouble keeping up with the north of Europe.