Last summer, I was informed that my contract to teach English Literature at Franciscan University would not be renewed. This was not the decision of my department head, and had no connection at all with the popularity of my classes, nor with my student evaluations, which were consistently high.
In my eleven years of teaching, I had developed many enduring friendships with my students, mentoring them during and after their time at the college. In spite of the low pay, with no hope of health insurance or a raise, my work was important to me because I knew I was handing on something intrinsically valuable, something not to be measured in wealth. And I knew it was being received, kept alive, carried on by the young people I taught. This gift was the freedom to engage as living, thinking humans, with one another and with the whole of the tradition, present and past. We call it the “liberal arts tradition” because education liberates. It frees us to weigh, critically, any information we encounter. It gives us tools of logic but also an expanse of empathy, a breadth of awareness, and access to an ongoing tradition that enables us to make sound judgments.
The decision to let me go was made by no one who had ever been in my classes, or even contacted me to ask me what I thought about certain issues. A shadowy band of professors and possibly administrators had stalked my Facebook page for several years, even infiltrating private groups with heavy security measures. The “evidence” that they presented to the academic dean was, by any scholarly standards, laughable. I was not told the names of my accusers; to this day I do not know who they were, though I have a few hunches.
I didn’t spread the word about my unemployment. I feared our already difficult financial situation was about to get worse, thanks to a bunch of pro-life Catholics, but if I started talking about it I knew I would lose my cool, and possibly say things I would regret.
As it turned out, however, I had to start talking about it, because a second group of shadowy figures compiled a similar collection of “evidence” against me in a hysterical word-salad of an article in the far-right Catholic tabloid LifeSite News. Why, they demanded, was this terrible person still employed at the fabulously Catholic Franciscan University? Well, the dean hastened to assure them that I was not. So much for keeping a low profile.
Of course, “fired by right wing college” and “attacked in LifeSite News” are actually pretty great items for a writer’s CV, but it was still a stressful day, especially when I started getting conspiracy-theory messages about who was out to get me, and why. My financial worries went away thanks to my work with the non-profit organization Revolution of Tenderness, where I am regularly reminded of what I love about our Catholic cultural heritage, and that the ones who are trying to turn it into a toxic dump are far from normative.
What is surprising is that suddenly people who are supposed to be professional and sane are taking the marginal oddballs seriously.
Consider the persecution that Fr. James Martin has undergone, simply for arguing – rightly – that we have done a bad job at ministering to our LGBTQ+ neighbors. Gay rights activists will point out that Fr. Martin doesn’t go far enough – but, from the perspective of groups like Church Militant and Tradition, Family, Property (a literal cult, which upheld apartheid in South Africa), not far enough is still too far. Fr. Martin was disinvited from speaking at a prestigious seminary after Church Militant, LifeSite News, and “Fr. Z” went after him in a toxic social media hate campaign. These are not centrist Catholic publications, or persons who speak from the heart of the tradition; these are fringe personalities, not representative of Catholic theology or the Gospel of Christ.
This is taking place outside Catholic circles, as well. Far-right groups began the rumor that the teen gun control activists rallying after surviving a tragic shooting were in fact paid “crisis actors.” This idea should have been obviously false and malicious to any coolly reasoning person – and yet people on my own Facebook page were arguing that we need to look at “both sides of the picture.”
That’s reminiscent, to me, of people saying we need to look at “both sides of the picture” when considering the valid scientific theory of evolution vs. the fantastical religious myth of creationism. Or of, say, freaking out because a novel that is considered canonical for the modern literary tradition is being taught in English classes in a university. Or Pizzagate.
One can believe in elves because it’s beautiful to do so; believing in nihilistic conspiracies is not beautiful, however. It looks like a symptom of what Dante termed “the loss of the good of the intellect” (yes, he was describing the mental state of the folks in hell).
But that’s where we’re heading, in America. To a place where “the middle ground” is no longer the mean between two extremes, but rather a locus of confusion, in which any noise deserves to be heard, and such a thing as a rigorous intellectual tradition counts for nothing.
And in this space – as in Inferno – it’s the noisiest ones, the bullies, who call the shots.
image credit: https://pixabay.com/en/drunk-beer-boy-roudy-fight-bully-29783/