Ma Teresa's joined the mob
Unhappy with her full-time job.
--Primitive Radio Gods
Two weeks ago, this column examined the mass hysteria surrounding the death of Princess Diana. I suggested that her death was no more relevant or tragic than anyone else's. The response to that column was like nothing I had ever experienced before in my 10 years as a journalist.
In that time, like any journalist who does his job, I've upset a lot of people. I've had people argue with my reporting. I've had people strongly disagree with the opinions I've expressed in columns.
That wasn't what happened this time. I got more than 100 phone calls and dozens of e-mails. They're still coming in. But this time, there was no rational disagreement. Callers didn't find fault with my argument and want to point out that I was mistaken.
They just wanted to scream at me or call me names. Rather than explain why they didn't like what I'd written, they preferred to tell me that I was an asshole, a prick, jerk, pig, and to suggest that I had improper relations with my mother.
Not one of them was able to tell me why he was so enraged by my comments about a person he'd never met.
It wasn't just me the callers picked on, either. One guy whose letter in support of my column was published in New Times contacted me to let me know that someone had gotten his phone number and called him up to bitch him out.
The whole thing was like a chapter of George Orwell's 1984. It reminded me of the daily "Two-Minute Hate" sessions described in the book, in which the citizens were forced to scream abuse at a TV screen showing the face of the enemy leader. They were given no reason for hating him other than that he was "the enemy."
None of the people who responded angrily to my column seemed to have any capacity for analysis. None seemed able to consider what was making him angry, let alone consider what I had actually written.
A couple of people who wrote to me asked, sarcastically, "Who are you going to pick on next--Mother Teresa?".
Well, actually . . .
The mindless mourning for Diana has the same source as the adulation that Mother Teresa received during her life, and that has now risen to the level of worship following her death. It's a perfect example of collective self-delusion, of our need to believe in saints no matter what the evidence we have would suggest.
Mother Teresa was a monster, as close to pure evil as any media figure could be. She was a heartless, self-serving thief, a friend of the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, and a friend of Charles Keating.
She had no compassion for the poor. She said that tending the poor was God's work, and so we should do it, but if we cared for them, then we were "just social workers." She denied the people in her care medication for their pain, saying that God wanted them to suffer and their pain would bring them closer to Him.
She said that people with AIDS deserved it as punishment for sexual misbehavior. (To this elderly virgin, sexual misbehavior meant any sex that wasn't within marriage and wasn't aimed at producing a child.)
She said she would have supported the Spanish Inquisition. When Keating was on trial, she wrote to Judge Lance Ito and pleaded on Keating's behalf. She didn't mention in her letter that Keating had given her more than $1 million of the money he had stolen. Deputy district attorney Paul Turley wrote to her and told her that the money wasn't Keating's, and asked her to return it. She never responded.
The list could go on. But I don't want to waste space by documenting more of her crimes. The information is available to anyone interested enough to go and look it up. There's Christopher Hitchens' excellent book, The Missionary Position, and the documentary film Hell's Angel. There are Web sites dedicated to exposing her.
On one level, Mother Teresa was honest. In her public statements, she never pretended to be anything other than a monomaniacal, right-wing zealot. The myth of her saintliness wasn't started by her.
It was started in 1969 by a documentary film called Something Beautiful for God. The film was the work of Malcolm Muggeridge, the late English writer and God-botherer. He went to Calcutta to make a movie eulogizing his guru. He wanted to film some scenes in Mother Teresa's home for the dying, which was so dimly lighted that the camera operator, Ken Macmillan, didn't think it would be possible. But Macmillan decided to try it with some new film from Kodak that he'd never used before.
The film came out very clearly. Muggeridge immediately declared this was divine light. "I am personally persuaded that Ken recorded the first authentic photographic miracle," he said.
This was news to Macmillan, whose response had been, "Three cheers for Kodak!" Next thing he knew, he was being called up by the press to ask him about the miracle.
Ever since then, Mother Teresa has been revered as a living saint. Very little room for criticism--or even discussion of her---has been allowed. Like Princess Diana, Mother Teresa is one of those entities whose behavior is not up for scrutiny or question. Start to say anything against her, and people immediately become furious. Ask them why they're angry, and they become even angrier.
Why do we insist on elevating ambitious, greedy, publicity-hungry individuals to superhero status?
It happens in the world of politics as much as it does in religion or show business. In the early 1960s, JFK was the pinup boy of progress. He was regarded as the young, hip embodiment of liberalism, even though he approved the Bay of Pigs invasion and was strongly in favor of the war in Vietnam.
A more recent, and still current, manifestation of our society's mythmaking arose during Bill Clinton's first election campaign. Duplicitous scumbag though he has shown himself to be, Clinton at least ran an honest campaign. He never pretended to be anything other than what he is: a far-right, business-oriented conservative. But those who vote for Democrats would not stop believing him a liberal. It brings to mind the movie Monty Python's Life of Brian, in which the hero does everything he can to convince the masses that he isn't the Messiah. But, no matter what he says, they interpret it to mean that he is the Messiah.
It was the same with Clinton. There was really nothing he could do to keep from being elected. His behavior showed that he was a redneck clown, his words showed that he was a redneck clown, and still nobody would believe that he was. As long as he paid the usual lip service to health-care reform, nobody was troubled that his policies didn't vary widely from those of Reagan and Bush.
And, for quite some time, you couldn't criticize Clinton in liberal circles. No matter how much evidence you presented to the contrary, you'd just be told that he was a liberal, goddamn it. They wanted him to be a liberal, and so he was.
Here in Arizona, this kind of childish, egocentric delusion takes on a darker hue than elsewhere. No sooner was Fife Symington out of office and Jane Hull given the job than the mythmaking began. Things would be all right now, we were told. The Arizona Republic described Hull as a "tough and gracious lady."
Based on what? Not on anything she's said or done. She hasn't pretended to be different from Symington. She's paid tribute to him and said that she wants to continue his policies. Gracious? She's on record as having suggested that we could save money on prisons by turning off swamp coolers and letting inmates die. Jane Hull is no lady.
We know that Joe Arpaio is an idiot as well as a human-rights violator on a par with Third World dictators. We know he's a liar. We know that his policies don't work. He has never been able to refute any of the allegations made against him--he just denies everything and goes back to talking about how great he is.
And people believe him. He has 85 percent popularity. People look at this fat, balding, stupid, pathetic little man, and in their minds, they substitute Wyatt Earp in his place.
We can't blame the icons. The blame must rest with those who make them icons, those who create these fictitious perfect people to worship.
When we live in the state of crisis that we do now, as the collective psyche fragments into smaller and more fragile pieces, there's a tendency toward mob behavior, a tendency to look for heroes to come along and make everything all right. There are historical precedents aplenty--it happened in Germany in the 1930s.
And it's happening now. And for as long as we replace reasoned discourse with blind hatred for anyone who rains on our imaginary parade, we reap the harvest of our weakness and cowardice.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.