Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Most Evil Woman Who Ever Lived

As the Catholic Church canonizes Agnes Bojaxhlu, I find myself encountering a peculiar thing from the more radically left-fringe of my internet awareness.

Article after internet article, attacking the woman most of us knew as Mother Teresa.  If those articles are to be believed, she was a monster, a glazed-eye fanatic who abused the oppressed and cozied up to dictators for her own psychotic self-aggrandizement.  That way of understanding her life was first and most aggressively pitched by the late and much lamented atheist provocateur Christopher Hitchens, who at least had the advantage of wit, a mastery of the language, and his own peculiar dissolute charm.

The latest wave of condemnation has none of his talent.

She is, by the standards of her accusers, a psychopath.  The most evil woman who ever lived.

The charges against her seem to fall into several different categories.

First, that she was anti-abortion and believed that divorce was problematic.  She also opposed contraception.  I personally don't share what was likely her perspective on some of these issues.  Why?

Because I'm not Catholic.  I mean, she was Catholic, after all.  Right?  And she's being made a saint in the Catholic church, right?  That a Catholic saint would hold orthodox Catholic positions seems rather a silly thing to get one's knickers in a twist about.  What matters to me...what matters to anyone grounded in what a person actually believes and how their belief impacts what they do.

That gets us to attack point number two.  She believed that there was an inherent nobility in poverty, and that enduring suffering has redemptive power.  This is also a Catholic position, pretty radically so.  It's also a pretty basically Christian position, one that I share.  She insisted on telling the poor that they were worthy, that their suffering wasn't in vain, and that they had value as human beings no matter what their condition.

Why is this wrong?  Well, because it must be wrong.  Spun the way her prosecutors are spinning it, her care for the poor was abuse because it celebrated suffering and did not challenge systemic injustice.  Saying that the endurance of suffering is noble becomes the foundation of the charge that she was a sadist.

Again, this seems absurd.  Faced with someone dying in squalor, you can either affirm their life or not.  You can frame their suffering as meaningless, as something inflicted on them by a power beyond their control.  "Your life up until this point, all the hurts and losses?  A waste of time.  Being poor sucks. Oh, you're dying?  Pity.  Hope oblivion works for you."

That's not to say I have a problem with being aware of systemic injustice, or of calling attention to it.

But more often than not in this #hashtag #activism era, focusing monomanaically on macro issues becomes a great way to do nothing.  Faced with a starving man, writing a tumblr post about food injustice and global imbalances of privilege and residual impacts of colonialism may not be wrong, but it is a hell of a lot less relevant to that actual human being than putting food in his belly.  Faced with an abandoned soul, you don't offer up a tweet about social isolation.  You take time for them and show them compassion.

It's the secular leftist equivalent of offering thoughts and prayers instead of real material care to another human being.  

Third, that in her actions she was an abuser of the poor.  Her clinics and hospices and orphanages did not meet acceptable levels of hospital hygiene, and often did not provide care that meets medical best practices.   Needles were boiled and reused rather than discarded.  Nuns who had not received nursing degrees tended to their charges.

So in the heart of desperate poverty, Western medical standards were not being met, and Mother Teresa is to blame for criminal malpractice.  

Again, this is more than slightly insane, unmoored from the reality of life in the global South.  In places of abject poverty, where resources are scarce, you have to make do.   If you're running a clinic in the South Sudan, it's not going to look like a clinic in a tony suburb of London.  Expecting it to do so and condemning it when it does not is fundamentally irrational.

Fourth, that she went to desperately poor countries that were run by the corrupt and by dictators, and she did not condemn those predators and dictators.  That, in fact, she may have been kind to them and said positive things as she and her order worked to build clinics and hospitals in places like Haiti.

From within the protective clamshell of laptop aggrievement, attacking her for this makes sense.  But if what matters to you is the alleviation of immediate human suffering, then maintaining a stance of absolute ideological purity doesn't get people fed and healed.  The starving and the sick and the orphan may not have the energy for revolution right now.

But still.  Do your justice work.  Fine.  Go team.  You work for that, while she makes sure the poor don't starve waiting for utopia to materialize.

What strikes me in this collection of absurdities, as it struck me when I read Hitchens' infinitely better written but equally preposterous character assassination pieces years ago, is how deeply the need to attack Mother Teresa rests in the mortal desire to avoid cognitive dissonance.

If faith is axiomatically monstrous, and you're just sick to [flipping] death of this [maternal copulation] nun being thrown back at you as evidence of the goodness of faith, then she must be destroyed.  Datapoints must be selected and assembled into a counterargument, one that allows one's understanding of existence to be unsullied by complexity.

And that's a problem.  It creates binary thinking, the dark and bitter absolutism that sours all of human life. 

Because reality is complex.  People who disagree with me on some pretty fundamental things also are capable of remarkable goodness.  I am not an atheist, but accept that atheists show compassion and grace.  I am not a Muslim, but can embrace the truth that Muslims feed the poor and welcome the stranger.  I can see the good in the stranger, and even in those who consider themselves my enemy.

Binary thinking does not permit that.

Mother Teresa was not perfect.  She felt that more than anyone, felt the dark nights of her soul, felt her own inadequacy, felt the emptiness of her own ego in the face of God's calling.

But that is how saints feel.  It is how they are.