‘Pope Benedict is an enemy of the state’

Saturday’s demo against the pope confirmed that he has been transformed into an Emmanuel Goldstein figure for so-called humanists to hate.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Article by Brendan O’Neill. Photos by Nathalie Rothschild.

There was a delicious irony at the heart of the anti-pope demo in central London on Saturday: the protesters had clearly got so carried away with smugly expressing their intellectual superiority over the faithful hordes – ‘RELIGION IS STUPID’, said one particularly popular placard – that they forgot to proofread their own intellectual outpourings.

The spelling was atrocious. ‘Abstinance [sic] makes the church grow fondlers’, said one huge banner, held aloft by gays dressed as cardinals. ‘Science flies you to the moon – relgion [sic] flies you into buildings’, said another. A lone woman elicited cheers for waving a homemade placard that said ‘Fuck off back to the Spanish Inquisition in the fourteenth century’. Now, the f-word I don’t mind – but a Spanish Inquisition in the fourteenth century? If you’re going to bandy around the word ‘STUPID’ , then at least read a history book or two first, or get one of those bright kids from Are You Smarter Than A 10-Year-Old? to spellcheck your propaganda.

But we shouldn’t let the actual illiteracy of the demo blind us to the real problem with it: its moral illiteracy. Shrill, decadent, profoundly illiberal in sentiment, this protest confirmed what the pope has become for at-sea secularists: an Emmanuel Goldstein figure, who allows them to get their moralistic rocks off.

Protesters dressed as nuns

The phrase ‘motley crew’ could have been invented for this gathering of Protest the Pope activists. There was a generous smattering of ageing lesbian and gay activists, getting one last wear out of their radical-queer bishop and nuns outfits from the 1970s. There were refugees from the rump of the old left, mostly from the Extreme Social Inadequacy Tendency. And then there were the professional secularists and humanists, who took to the stage one by one to try to out-adjective each other in their expressions of fear and/or loathing for the pope.

What brought these disparate groups together was a fairly obvious need for something – anything – to get hot under the collar about. Now that homosexual lifestyles are publicly prized, the old queer rights lobby doesn’t have much to get angry about; so thank God for the pope’s visit, which allowed it to resurrect – for one night only! – its unique brand of political bitchiness. ‘The devil DOES wear Prada’, said one gay group’s placard, referring to Benedict’s red, possibly Prada shoes (and the fact that he’s the devil). The poor old left, in terminal decline for the past 20 years, leapt upon the pope’s visit to talk about global institutional corruption plus brainwashing and stuff. And for the New Atheist crowd, the arrival of Benedict – a man who actually believes in God! – is cast-iron confirmation that irrational religious belief is spreading like hellfire.

This was less a coherent protest against a real problem, and more a madcap attempt to transform the pontiff into a political pin cushion, into which every group desperately seeking a sliver of purpose could then stick their particular pin. So some were protesting against paedophilia, others against AIDS; some were concerned about Holocaust denial, others about homophobia, and others still about the undermining of human rights. And apparently the pope, taking over from money, is the root of all of these problems and of evil in general, being a wicked, Prada-wearing, Bush-meeting devil and all. Some even waved placards saying ‘STOP STONING’ and ‘Religion flies planes into buildings’, which, correct me if I’m wrong, are problems that are associated with the Islamic faith rather than the Catholic one. But who cares. Got a grievance? Pin it on the pope.

Dreaming of an inquisition

The whole thing had a whiff of voodoo about it, as the protesters sought to make the pontiff into a doll they could beat up. The sense of desperately needing something to get into a flap about was brilliantly summed up by a placard that simply said: ‘GENERAL DISAPPROVAL.’ This wasn’t radicalism as we have known it; it was a feeling in search of an outlet, a collection of lost causes looking for one more day in the political sun. A columnist for the New Statesman provided an unwitting insight into the feeling of unformed liberal fury that has opportunistically attached itself to the pope, when she argued: ‘It is hard to pinpoint exactly what offends most about Ratzinger’s visit. Is it his attempts to rehabilitate child rape within the church [eh?] or his intolerant stance on safe sex and abortion…? It is all of these things, and none.’ Whatever it is, this is ‘legitimate liberal indignation’, she confidently claimed. It’s indignation about something or other – does it matter what?

Yet just because this campaign springs from neediness rather than political clarity, that doesn’t make it endearing or entertaining. On the contrary, there is a sharp authoritarian edge. Things turned ugly outside Downing Street when Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society branded the pope an ‘enemy of the state’, giving rise to the cacophonous chant: ‘GO HOME POPE, GO HOME POPE.’ It was like a scene from 1984. I have been on many a radical demo that has challenged the branding of some group or individual as ‘enemies of the state’; but this is the first radical demo I’ve been on where the protesters themselves demanded the silencing and even expulsion from Britain of someone they decreed to be an ‘enemy of the state’. Even one-time ‘enemies of the state’ – the so-called queers and the old left – were using that criminalising phrase, that piece of political demonology, to chastise the pope. It was the world turned utterly upside down. Being ‘an enemy of the state’, an ‘enemy of women, an enemy of gay people’, there is nothing for the pope to do but ‘go away and leave us alone’, said Sanderson.

It was extraordinary stuff. Consider what is being said: that because the pope’s views run counter to the British state’s views, he has to leave the country. Because he does not support gay rights or women’s equality, he must go home. Partly this is a creepy echo of the old prejudice about Catholics not being sufficiently loyal to the state – but more fundamentally, it speaks to a serious warping of the liberal humanist outlook. If you had to distil the profound, historic tradition of liberal humanism into one principle, it would surely be that no one should be persecuted for having views that are the opposite of the state’s or of mainstream political thought. Yet here was a gathering of so-called humanists clamouring for the expulsion of the pope on the basis that he does not accept ‘British values’, as the QC Geoffrey Robertson described them on Saturday.

The pope as a Nazi

One author says the problem with Benedict is that he is ‘spitting in the wind’; he’s standing in the way of a ‘tremendous tsunami of modern tolerance [surging] forward to swamp the rotten structures of family, patriarchy, superstition and sexual prudery’. But doesn’t being Enlightened mean defending people’s right to ‘spit in the wind’? Isn’t tolerance about accepting people’s freedom of conscience to reject mainstream ideologies? These ‘humanists’ have clearly forgotten their John Stuart Mill, who argued against forbidding so-called ‘bad men’ to propagate ‘opinions which we regard as false and pernicious’, even if we believe that those opinions will ‘pervert society’. Saturday’s demo exposed as utterly false the anti-pope lobby’s claim that its only objection to Benedict’s presence in Britain is that it has been organised as a state visit, and an expensive one to boot. No, they don’t want him here, not because of how much he costs, but because of what he believes. And that is genuinely shocking.

Beneath the radical garb, what the liberal fury over Benedict’s visit really represented was a demand that every individual – even the goddamn pope of Rome – should genuflect before the altar of ‘British values’ – that is, the state’s values, the liberal elite’s values – or else face the consequences. Demonisation, perhaps, or expulsion; certainly removal from polite society. No dissent from their creed can be tolerated. I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll have to say it again in the future: I don’t agree with anything that the pope says. But I come from the kind of humanist tradition where, even when that is the case, you will still defend to the death his right to say it.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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