This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 20 2011
It is now over ten years since I tried to convert the editor of the Catholic Herald to Buddhism.
I have never been a great fan of the London Daily Telegraph but I want to recommend one of their columnists to Lakbima News readers. Cristina Odone currently blogs at the right-wing Telegraph. She gets reactions: “You are a horrible, vile, vindictive little woman who really shouldn’t be writing in any national newspaper.”
Previously she was deputy editor of the left-wing New Statesman and a regular columnist for the liberal-left Observer. She was editor of the Catholic Herald from 1991-1995. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank (founded by Margaret Thatcher and her batty guru Sir Keith Joseph). Ms Odone is American. She is a Catholic, although she is married to a divorced man. Generally speaking , her Catholicism is a pick-and-mix kind of faith but she seems to be strongly against abortion and euthanasia and strongly for faith-based education, creationism.
Andrew Brown wrote about her time at the Catholic Herald: “Few can be the amusing writers who have not been approached by a whirlwind of flirtatious energy and propositioned to write something for absurdly small sums of money. Most have accepted, sometimes with noisy results.”
She recently sprang again into my consciousness for her comments on a peripheral matter relating to the Murdoch investigation. A news item about Louise Mensch MP caused Ms Odone to exclaim that although she had lived in England for thirty years and was married to an Englishman, “every now and then something crops up which makes me feel as alien as if I were on Mars”. According to Ms Odone, this was because of the reaction when Mensch told an interviewer she was anxious to look good for her husband Peter Mensch, the American rock band manager (Jimmy Page, Metallica and Red Hot Chilli Peppers).
What was worrying about Mensch was not that she wanted to please her husband (she also sort of confessed to having a face-lift before being given the chance to grill the Murdochs in parliament) but that she was behaving like an air-head, posh-totty variety. Some found her impressive at the Murdoch hearings but others were amused by her saying she had to leave early to pick up her children. Guardian women’s editor Jane Martinson :“The question is, what on earth was Louise Mensch up to yesterday? Was she striking a blow for women in Westminster, putting the issue of childcare centre stage? Or was this, as Martinson suggests, “the worst kind of display parenting”?
Odone’s unfavourable view of the English compared with Johnny Foreigner would probably be bolstered by that. The English just don’t like children as much as those warm-hearted Italians.
Odone is apt to make these sweeping generalisations. I noticed her having a swipe at the English about their attitudes to animals back in 2001.
“It is the usual hyperbole the British go in for when they talk of four-legged, fanged or furred beings. Ever since it became primarily an industrialised, rather than agricultural, country, Britain has lost all perspective on animals.”
I wrote to her about that article. Here is an edited version.
“The main thrust of your argument can be summarised as follows: ‘There is a hierarchy of beings. Man stands at the top. God made all creatures, but only man in his image. Man ranks above other animals because he has a soul. This entitles man to exploit animals for his own ends. Animals are an economic investment. They can be allowed to suffer if that suffering leads to the cure of ‘even one child’. It is sentimental anthropomorphism to take any other view. To recognise the sentience of animals or to argue that they have rights as a result of their sentience belittles human dignity and ‘defiles the memory of human suffering.’
There is a thin line between espousing a hierarchy of species and seeing hierarchies within species. It’s OK to eat a pig (unless you are a Jew or a Muslim) but not to eat a guinea pig (unless you are a Peruvian) or a dog (unless you are a Korean). Some people think it is OK to abuse ‘inferior’ races or people with disabilities. It has been argued that some other humans lack rationality or a soul and therefore can be exploited with impunity. The United States was founded on genocide and developed by treating human beings as property. It did not matter what cruelties were inflicted on Native Americans or African slaves and their descendants because the advantages to be gained from their exploitation prevented consideration of their sentience or their rights. Women’s alleged lower ranking in the divine order was an argument for withholding the vote. There is a hierarchy of nations. The USA stands at the top. This entitles its President and his cronies from the energy industries to pollute the planet – it would be sentimental to put the future of the human race before their investment.
It is easy to scoff at anthropomorphism. I have often done so myself. It is clearly ridiculous to think of real animals being cuddly and benevolent. Each of our cats (thrust upon us not bought) has a clearly distinguishable character, usually appealing, but respect for the rights of pigmy shrews or birds is lacking. It is ridiculous to think of Mr and Mrs Pigmy Shrew building a little home for their young ones, paying a mortgage, worrying about their education, hoping they will find suitable spouses. Ridiculous, but it might have a point if induces empathy.
Does a lack of reason or speech or a soul justify inflicting pain? Voltaire was no sentimentalist but he was outraged at the animal experimenters of his day. ‘There are barbarians who seize the dog, who so greatly surpasses man in fidelity and friendship, and nail him down to a table and dissect him alive, to show you the mesaraic veins! You discover in him all the same organs of feeling as in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel’?’ Jeremy Bentham wrote ‘The question is not can they reason? Nor can they talk? But Can they suffer?’ He denounced man’s dominion over animals as ‘tyranny’ rather than ‘legitimate government’.
In the Thomist universe charity does not extend to animals because, according to Aquinas, irrational creatures are not competent to possess good, this being proper to rational creatures; we have no fellow feeling with them, and charity is based on the fellowship of everlasting happiness, to which the irrational creature cannot attain.
Can the idea that man was created in the divine image in order to have dominion over other species survive the findings of Darwin? Surely, the idea of evolution is pretty widely accepted – even by Christians apart from a few fundamentalists? The publication of the human genetic code showed that humans carry little more genetic information than mice, and barely twice as much as tiny fruit flies or a simple worm. Hundreds of genes have been smuggled into human chromosomes by bacteria. The dog is 85% identical to a human in terms of genetic sequence and many of the 380 inherited diseases in dogs are very similar to human diseases. We are animals too. I do not find this thought depressing. There is a spiritual dimension to awareness that we are all part of what E. O. Wilson called ‘the delicate web of reciprocity’.”
Life is tough for Odone: “For most of us ‘squeezed’ middle-class parents, our little treasure’s education will set us back £30,000 a year (the average boarding school bill). For many of us this means not only giving up on luxuries such as exotic holidays and theatre outings, but also remortgaging our home, going begging to the in-laws, and moonlighting and other small humiliations.” Sad, no? In recent writings, she has been attacking the Lib Dems for favouring euthanasia and abortion, attacking Irish comedian Sean Hughes for condemning child abuse by Catholic priests, and Richard Dawkins for being an atheist. “Catholic schoolchildren used to pray for the conversion of England; nowadays, I’d settle for the conversion of Richard Dawkins”. Odone has seemed quite happy to disobey her church’s teaching on contraception. A more serious Catholic, Caroline Fallows, wrote: “As a high profile and influential Catholic, Cristina Odone risks reinforcing existing error as well as leading people into sin. Sometimes I wish we could have more authentic female catholic voices in the media and not just the privileged catholic aristocracy”
In a debate with Odone, Dawkins asked: “So why stick with it? Why call yourself a Catholic when you don’t do what Catholics are supposed to?”
Go read. Have a laugh.
I did not convert Odone to Buddhism but she did send me a postcard from the New statesman saying she would try to be more compassionate. Ten years on, the promise is unfulfilled.