Provocations

Friends: I want to thank you all who contributed to The Catholic Thing during this fundraising period. We’re in the right ballpark now, though it would make things even a bit easier for us if any of you who have not contributed would do so in these weeks before the end of the year. I promised that we’d end this drive today, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. And that’s it; I’m done; no more pestering from me. All of us at TCT will  pray to Mary, Our Lord, and all the saints that each of you and your families will have a Blessed Advent season. – Robert Royal

Your President (I’m Canadian, I get to say “your”) has a Twitter account that sometimes comes to my attention. And this, although I try to ignore all the world’s tweeted expostulations. But they make news, sometimes; in Mr. Trump’s case, as a matter of course. And as I have confessed before, I’m still reading news.

I understand why he does it. Which is to say, I understand that Mr. Trump wouldn’t be president today if he had not availed himself of every opportunity to end-run the media gatekeepers. Contrary to the received view, I think he is very good at it; often brilliant. I’m not commenting yet on the morality of the operation, only on its efficacy. He knows how to “troll,” and to the audience of his supporters, trolls deliciously.

He has a vulgar but adept satirical sense, and can expose the hypocrisy of his opponents in ways that will “make their heads explode.” And since many of his enemies also happen to be mine, I have often giggled – in a mean-spirited, “gotcha” kind of way.

Now Twitter is part of the “social media,” all of which encourage a certain spontaneity, which need not necessarily engage with wisdom, even in its simplest prudential forms. Put a foot wrong and you might long for the old days of the minders. Some editor should have stopped you from saying, so exactly, what you thought.

“That was not the real me,” people say in apologies. Ha, for we all know, it WAS the real you – “in tweeto veritas,” or whatever. But those most luxuriant in their own skins (Mr. Trump comes to mind, again) do not waste time on retractions. Having shot and missed, they only resolve to shoot and hit next time.

Provoking the enemy is part of tactics in the art of war. The enemy will shoot and miss you, if he’s mad enough. Disturb his judgment so that he makes just those characteristic mistakes you are eager to exploit.

Mr. Trump’s enemies usually play into his hands, and hardly ever learn from the experience. One feels sorry for them, sometimes.

Let us take a step up, to the higher forms of provocation. I am thinking of Mr. Trump’s early Christmas message, where against the glitziest possible background Christmas tree he mentioned, “Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

(I noticed the tree was surmounted by a star, and the star four-pointed to make a subtle Cross. Take that, heathens!)

This, to many, would be a provocation. The twittering response confirms that it was so. Mr. Trump knew perfectly well that he was departing from the anodyne. I, for my part, was cheering. I bet some of my readers were delighted, too; though some Christian Trump-haters all the more provoked by his “co-optation.”

What is to be done? Nothing.

“Free speech,” sometimes honored in this realm, must stand or fall with leave for provocation. Even presidents may display their views; at the solemn risk of being not re-elected. Meanwhile, their critics may be equally robust.

The Sermon on the Mount by Károly Ferenczy, 1896 [National Gallery, Budapest]

We are told free speech doesn’t extend to gratuitously yelling “Fire!” in a cinema, or uttering plausible physical threats. But in a self-described “free society” it is assumed that, short of such acts of criminal mischief, those who disagree must cope. Extreme sensibilities will have to be abraded.

I have been coping myself, for as long as I can remember. It comes with the territory Christians have occupied these two thousand years; and those with any sort of opinions, since time out of mind. One learns to ignore the goad, or deflect it. Why let another decide whether I should forfeit my good humor? Better to reply with something droll.

Alas, this doesn’t work as it used to. Rather than matching wits, or just laughing, one’s opponent may burst into hysteria. (Never be droll with a feminist, I advise.)

“Never complain, never explain,” is the counsel of the seasoned professionals. But this hardly works anymore, either. Your opponents then mount smear upon smear. As Mr. Trump learned – partly, I suspect, from the experience of Mr. Bush Junior – the refusal to “dignify that with an answer” requires a milieu from which gentlemen haven’t been extracted.

In our rat-pack world of social media, suavity is impossible, let alone gentlemanly behavior. Alas, Mr. Trump understands this. Our Lord was accused of consorting with sinners, but He did not “accompany” them into sin. Will the returning Christ have a Twitter account? I seriously doubt this.

Nor do I think He would be carrying a gun, though I would not make this ground for banning firearms. He never proposed to disarm soldiers. He accepted the claim of Rome to be Rome. He gave no political advice at all, even on marginal rates of taxation.

On the other hand, He said things most provoking. Even the Beatitudes were an (obviously intended) surprise for the comfortable. Each was the reverse of long-received opinion. At no point in the Gospels do we find Our Lord “going along to get along” with the gatekeepers of those days.

A rule to prohibit provocation would, as a consequence probably quite intended, prohibit Christianity in every day and age. It would also prohibit the telling of truth, with or without religious connotations. It would finally achieve a deathly silence; for anything said is potentially controversial. There is no statement so soft that someone could not take offense at it, if only for being too soft.

Therefore let us affirm some things, starting plainly with our Faith in Christ. Let us follow this up with every Christian teaching, as those ancestors did who converted the heathen.

We know at least the Devil will be offended, though he may be clever enough to conceal it and work with the persisting vanities of those who now believe.

That, however, is another issue; I try to work on one at a time.

David Warren

David Warren

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.

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