I laughed this morning when I read that the White House has condemned the burning of a Koran by Pastor Terry Jones in Florida as 'un-American'. 'Un-American', or 'un-British' for that matter, is one of those egocentric measurements which smack more of myopia than insight, unless one is being purely ironic. Don't get me wrong, I love America. It is one of the few questions on which I and my wife differ greatly! But 'un American'? Perhaps in this case it was justified; since there are few causes on the American right which can disassociate themselves from the cause of the flag, those that are unacceptable must be disassociated by some higher power. Still, I don't see why 'American' be the fifth transcendental property of being after one, true, good and beautiful.
This is only one of a number of recent cases which have brought me back to the theme I began to address a week or so ago concerning Georges Bernanos and the Spanish Civil War. Indeed, cases are not lacking. Confusing a callous act of murder with a blow for freedom, a dissident Irish Republican group last weekend killed a twenty-five year old police constable in Omagh in Northern Ireland by putting a bomb in his car. The actions of the Koran-burning pastor of old Floridy were ideal fuel for trouble causers in Kandahar where more than half a dozen UN staff met their deaths, two by beheading. As the cameras rolled, we watched the head of the Russian delegation in the city crawling out of a ditch after having saved himself from being beaten to death by reciting verses from the Koran to his attackers. I call that presence of mind.
All of these incidents underline Bernanos's prescience concerning how humanity too often divides along party lines, sometimes with devastating results. His critique of the Spanish nationalists who undertook a political cleansing of the island of Majorca was itself seen as a great betrayal; if Bernanos was not one of us, he must be one of them. Ironically, such a polarisation was one of his prime concerns at the beginning of his pamphlet Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune. To lampoon this polarisation he quotes from one of Alphonse Daudet's Tartarin stories 'Rice and Prunes'. Therein, the unhappy guests at an Alpine hotel divide into those who are constipated and those who have the runs. Ater a few days of unease, however, they finally find the remedy: those with the runs eat rice and those who are constipated eat prunes, with all the desired results.
One can well imagine that in the wings some rice or prune merchant suggests to these unhappy people a mystique appropriate to their intenstinal conditions Bernanos concludes
... like un-British or un-American, I suppose.
Those who believe in dogma assume everyone else does too. Ideas are always implicit in any course of actions; ideas have consequences, as Richard Weaver told us. But the surer key to action is to ask cui bono? or to what end? Indeed, could it not be the case that the more dogma is associated with this kind of threshing of mankind into acceptable and unacceptable categories, the more one can suspect that something other than openly professed dogma is driving the action forward?
By posing such a question about warring factions, Bernanos does not want us to be cynical about humanity; merely that we be attentive to how humans produce myths to disguise their violence towards others. It is easy to see myth-making in our enemies. It is very difficult to see it in ourselves.
In the case of the Spanish Civil War, there is arguably a level of complexity that Bernanos does not sufficiently acknowledge, and which concerns how myths are sometimes hijacked from a just context and made to serve injustice. Last week at a conference I quizzed a specialist on French communism about whether the French Communist Party of the late 1930s, which was so eloquent in denouncing el terror blanco was equally eloquent in denouncing el terror rojo. The simple answer is that it was not! And so, we have the ridiculous spectacle of French communists, supposedly good materialists, wringing their hands over the niceties of abstract communist theory while their Spanish brothers quietly (or not so quietly) murder thousands more clergy and religious than died during the Terror of the French Revolution. My point? That the defence of humanity or liberty by the Republicans - and which could probably with justice be invoked in the case of Majorca - sufficed, and still suffices for many, to draw a mythic veil over the awful crimes committed against the Spanish Church. Myth, therefore, is not always fiction. Sometimes it is fact-ion. It is always faction.
I don't know how the White House would have responded to such actions, other than to label them un-Spanish perhaps. Bernanos's rage in Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune is largely directed against his coreligionists because, let it be noted, political cleansing through a process of summary execution is not Catholic!
But it is also directed against the threshing out of men into the camps of the damned and the saved, an action which belongs to God alone. We who cling to dogma as our compass would do well to make sure we do not use it as our gun.
The population of Majorca has always been noted for its absolute indifference to politics. In the days of the Carlistes and the Cristinos, George Sand tells us how they welcomed with equal unconcern the refugees of either side. According to the head of the Phalange, you could not have found a hundred Communists in the whole island. 'There was killing in Spain,' you say. 'A hundred and thirty-five political assassinations between March and July 1936.' But in Majorca there were no crimes to avenge, so it could only have been a preventative action, the systematic extermination of suspects. The majority of legal sentences - I shall refer later to the executions without trial, of which there were many more - were merely for desafeccion al movimento salvador: Disloyalty to the movement for national safety, expressed in words or gestures alone.
Georges Bernanos, Les Grands Cimetières sous la lune