Monday, November 26, 2012

Intelligence Squared - the debate

Last Sunday night I sat down and watched the Intelligence Squared debate from London.  To be frank, the topic did not inspire much in the way of confidence for a solid historical debate.  I was not greatly disappointed.

I mentioned in the previous post that the two apologists, Professor Ron Rychlak and William Doino would be up against two seasoned and professional masters of debate in the public forum, Lord Norwich and Geoffrey Robinson.  Norwich and Robinson provided great entertainment but not all that much history.  Rychlak and Doino provided a lot of historical data but not much by way of context.

How did the debate pan out?

John Julius Norwich opened with a general overview that relied too greatly on some poor history – forcefully rebutted by Doino – and which detracted from what I think his thesis was, namely that despite numerous opportunities that presented themselves, Pius XII did not speak out at all.  His comments on the Christmas 1942 address demonstrated a very poor grasp of the situation Pius found himself in and showed that Norwich had not done sufficient reading of the available material.  The strongest point I think Norwich made was related to the Holocaust in Hungary, but even here he showed a lack of historical context.  Citing nuncio Angelo Rotta’s comments to the Hungarian government “not to continue its war against the Jews beyond the limits prescribed by the laws of nature and God’s commandments” without the necessary and relevant context makes for poor argument.  Viscount Norwich should know better.

Historically, Norwich made a weak show that would prove relatively easy to demolish.

William Doino began speaking at the twelfth minute.  I found it irritating that he spent quite a bit of time correcting Norwich and allowed himself to delve in tangential issues such as the story of Roi Ottley, an Afro-American journalist who had an audience with Pius XII in 1944.

From here Doino reverted to his customary style which is to bury your opponent in facts.  And there was no shortage.  However, as has been my criticism of Doino for some time, he is able to produce facts by the cart load but does not place them into context.  Facts without context are dangerous to the point of being misleading.  The questions raised by Norwich were not addressed except in saying that Pius did speak out and had done for many years.  The grey zones of nuance and varying historical circumstance did not get much of a mention here.

One would expect a magisterial performance from a silk such as Geoffrey Robinson, and I was not disappointed.  As speakers went Robinson was the superior orator on the night, but his history was weak and polemical.

Opening with the stirring statement that he was about the “dissecting the soul of a man who could not bring himself to speak out publically against the Holocaust” Robinson then cited Elie Wiesel: “Take sides, neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victims.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.  And this is a truth that applies to the silence of Pope Pius XII in face of the most heinous crime against humanity ever committed even when it was taking place under his very windows.”   There was little variation from then on.  How Robinson could jump from his perception that Pius did not speak to papal silence being the “license to the Catholic SS to kill…” rather escaped me.  There was eloquence, there was masterful rhetoric and there was entertainment, but there was little history.  I got the distinct feeling that Robinson was there to enjoy himself at the expense of his opponents. Robinson’s final argument that Germany needed papal neutrality and silence in order to preserve hope in German victory was astounding for its brazen audacity.  “Mr Pacelli, the bad Samaritan” ended the Queen’s Counsel’s time at the podium.

I was ready to hear Professor Rychlak.

If Robinson was the most entertaining speaker, Rychlak was certainly the best historian of the evening, and I believe, the most convincing of the speakers for the motion.  He kept his presentation simple, spoke calmly and did not rise to take the bait proffered by Norwich and Robinson.  However, I found Rychlak’s arguments to be unsatisfying because they were highly selective and avoided the thornier problems surrounding events such as the 1943 Rome Juednaktion, the post-war statements of Angelo Roncalli and Giovanni Battista Montini and the German plans to kidnap the pope.

At the end of the presentations the vote taken at the beginning of the night was announced.  146 had voted in favour of the motion, that Pius XII had been silent, 41 against the motion, and 171 undecided.

Questions followed.  Most of these were populist questions that could have led the speakers to delve deeper into the issues, or at least allude that there were depths that could not be plumbed in the context of the debate.  It was disappointing that this was not done.  I will leave it to the reader to make up their own minds about Question Time.

During the questions I thought that Norwich and Robinson were enjoying themselves particularly at Doino’s expense.  They made outrageous statements and Doino “bit” responding far too seriously and with no intimation that he was over-reacting.  Norwich’s dismissal of American phobias about communism was one example.  I must admit I did laugh a little at it – it was so silly.  And Robinson kept the joke alive with ongoing digs at Doino.

Once again, it was Rychlak who responded best I believe.  He is clearly quite at home with debates and can carry himself with the thrust and parry that goes on.  “How do we assess Pius XII?  He did the best he could.  Did he do too little?  He didn’t stop the Holocaust; he tried, he wanted to  … he wanted to end the war.”  These are fair statements.  They need further expansion, but they are a start.

The final vote of the night was interesting:  227 voted in favour of the motion that the pope did too little, and 103 against the motion.  It marked a shift in thinking of a large number of people.

Did the evening change anything?  I suspect not.







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