The Missionary Position, by Christopher Hitchens

The Missionary Position

First off, The Missionary Position is a very thin book. It’s like a fairly long magazine article, easily readable in one day.

Even with that, there’s a certain amount of repetition, and if anything it feels like there’s less meat than one might expect even in something of this length.

It’s an “attack” piece in a sense, but I didn’t find it as vicious, angry and hyperbolic as some readers might. I actually thought the tone was calm and reasoned, and the criticisms measured and argued for rather than spewed as a rant.

I think it’ll seem offensive and inappropriate if you come to it with the presumption that criticizing a person is inherently disrespectful (especially if not mitigated with lots of qualifications and balancing praise), or that specifically people associated with religion (at least the reader’s religion) are not to be subject to criticism, or even more specifically that Mother Teresa herself is above criticism, but otherwise I just don’t see it as crossing any kind of line. It doesn’t come close to a true “hatchet job.”

It’s also interesting that Hitchens points out more than once that the primary fault for the overrating of Mother Teresa lies with the adulatory press and public, that indeed she’s been quite straightforward about some of the things he criticizes, but people choose to ignore that because they prefer the inaccurate image of her they have in their minds. (He’s being just a little disingenuous here in praising her for her frankness in not lying about herself and her aims, since at other times he indicates he sees her as being pretty savvy and self-aware about manipulating people and their perceptions of her and her work. But his point is a valid one, that sometimes people see what they want to see.)

What are some of the specific criticisms Hitchens raises?

1. Mother Teresa’s primary focus was proselytizing for her fundamentalist or right wing brand of Catholicism. The feel-good charitable works that everyone associates her with were a lower priority, or a means to the end of that proselytizing. She used the “bully pulpit” of her celebrityhood far more to advocate for her religious beliefs concerning abortion and birth control and such, than to advocate for the poor.

2. Mother Teresa raised enormous amounts of money, that surely almost all donors believed was going toward her charitable work. In fact, much of it accumulated into bigger and bigger piles or was used for other purposes (i.e., furthering her religious agenda), while comparatively little ever got spent on helping the poor (insofar as it can be traced at all, since the accounting of all this was never transparent).

3. The clinics and such opened and operated by Mother Teresa’s organization provided sometimes shockingly poor care. Standards of care and hygiene and such were way, way below the standards people would reasonably expect from any governmental or private entity that had anything remotely close to the funds available that her organization did. In part this was intentional, in keeping with certain extremist religious and ascetic principles Mother Teresa espoused concerning how it is ennobling for the poor to suffer. Thus, brutally austere conditions and no pain killers for them. The purpose of care for the dying was not to provide conventional hospice-style alleviation of suffering, but to ensure that the dying process was a dignified one, in the narrowly Catholic sense she believed in, which sometimes included things like surreptitiously baptizing people who were in no physical or mental shape to meaningfully consent to a symbolic change of religion like that.

4. Mother Teresa herself hypocritically received the best high tech medical care.

5. Insofar as Mother Teresa did act beneficially toward the poor or advocated on their behalf, it was in a patronizing, charity-based way, rather than an empowering, respectful-toward-equals, justice-based way.

6. Mother Teresa accepted money from evil governments and individuals, and in exchange provided photo ops and other forms of favorable publicity. When she was given stolen money (whether “stolen” just in the politically charged sense that dictators’ riches in general have been stolen from the people, or in the straightforward, legal sense of, say, a con man businessman convicted of deceiving people and bilking them of their life savings), she did not return it to its rightful owners. To the contrary, in one case she argued for judicial leniency for one of her big donors who had turned out to be an out-and-out crook.

7. Mother Teresa ran her organization in an autocratic “cult of personality” manner. Everything was controlled top-down to ensure it reflected her personal philosophy and idiosyncrasies, regardless of the opinions and values of those who worked for her, the poor upon whose behalf they supposedly worked, or anyone else.

I would say for the most part the things Hitchens singles out are indeed problematic, and that he makes a good case for his points.

Now some of this people might shrug off and say, “Yeah, that’s bad if you’re a liberal or you’re anti-religion or whatever. But I agree with her and her religious positions, so this stuff doesn’t bother me.” But it would still be important for people to know these things about her. If they understand she was a religious fanatic/extremist who provided subpar to horrific medical care relative to conventional standards, and they choose to support her anyway out of “faith” or whatever motive, then fine, but a huge number of people have only a casual knowledge of her and take it for granted she was an exemplary “good,” compassionate, saintly person trying to alleviate the suffering of the poor, and that’s simply untrue. So it’s not that people have to agree with me (and I take it Hitchens) that on balance she wasn’t a very good person at all and probably did more harm than good in her life, but if they’re going to believe otherwise, at least let it be an informed opinion.

Playing devil’s advocate, about the best I can come up with that someone might say is that there is an independent value in a society—and in the world—in some individuals being held up as role models and as morally special and praiseworthy, so that people have something to aspire to, some reason to think it’s possible to be such a person and to do a lot of good in the world. Even if it turns out someone raised to that status really isn’t deserving of it, you should “hold your fire” rather than attack a beloved icon, since if you succeed in tearing the person down in people’s minds, it’ll only demoralize them and make them more cynical about their potential and the potential of humanity.

That is, maybe the Mother Teresa of reality doesn’t match her uncontroversial do-gooder, sacrifice for the poor, public image all that well, but if people’s thinking of her that way has inspired some of them to live a morally better life, act more altruistically toward others, volunteer at a clinic providing health care to the poor, etc., than why try to convince them now that their inspiration was fraudulent in some sense?

I don’t think that holds much water, but I can imagine people being uncomfortable with criticism of “saintly” public figures on grounds like that. I prefer truth myself, but I understand why some might feel otherwise.

Obviously a common knock on the book will be that it’s one-sided, that it tells only about things the author believes reflect poorly on Mother Teresa, and on the press and public gullibility about her.

On the one hand, you can criticize him if those negative points themselves are unfair or inaccurate. As I’ve said, I mostly don’t see him as vulnerable here. But I don’t know that for sure.

That is, consider a case where he cites a couple of people with significant knowledge of the workings of Mother Teresa’s organization who quit in disgust as curable conditions went untreated in her clinics and people suffered unnecessary and avoidable pain due to the peculiar methods enforced for religious reasons. Let’s say hypothetically there are a hundred people at least as well-positioned to have an informed opinion about these matters, and ninety-eight disagree with these two and have nothing but praise for Mother Teresa and the way the clinics were run, and for that matter maybe even can provide some evidence that the other two have an ax to grind and have shown a tendency in the past to be less than truthful in situations like this. If Hitchens picked out the two and ignored the others because he’s engaged in dishonest polemics, then he’s to be condemned for it. And there’s no way just reading this book to know if he did or didn’t do things like that.

I tend to think he’s not guilty of anything dishonest like that, based on what I know of him and his work (some of which I agree with and some—more lately—of which I do not), and what else I’ve read of Mother Teresa, but a critical thinker should always be aware of such potential.

But on the other hand, even if we stipulate that all of his anti-Mother Teresa points are accurate, fair, and relevant, one could still fault a book like this as one-sided for not also talking about her good points. That is, even if she’s guilty of A, B, and C, why doesn’t he give proportionate time and attention to the truly praiseworthy things about her like D, E, and F?

I think what’s relevant here is the context. Because you can make a case that not every individual work needs to be ideally objective in some self-contained way, but that a work can also be a constructive addition if it moves the whole collection of such available works closer to the objective ideal.

That is, if all that exists about X are a hundred books, TV commentators, preachers, etc. hammering home all the good points about X and ignoring the bad, and another person comes along and does the same, then that kind of “piling on” just makes a bad situation worse. Whereas a work of the identical quality that lists and argues for various bad points about X and doesn’t address the good points is likely to be a much more valuable contribution to the conversation.

In and of themselves, they’re equally limited, flawed, biased works. But in a context where one side is already more than adequately represented, the addition that focuses on points on the other side may not be problematic at all.

So if all books on Mother Teresa somehow vanished from the Earth, would I say this book would be sufficient to give a person an accurate picture of her and her life’s work? Certainly not. And not just because it’s so lacking in quantity, but precisely because of its one-sided nature. But since we don’t live in that hypothetical world, I don’t consider it one-sided in a bad sense.

I was never a big Mother Teresa fan even before reading this book, so I never had to deal with, or try to resist, disillusionment. So maybe I’d feel different if Hitchens was going after a hero of mine. But I mostly like the book, relative to its limitations as quite thin and superficial. I like it more as a well-reasoned, introductory, opening argument, than as a complete case.

I did want to mention one other thing in connection with this book that came to mind, which kind of relates to what I wrote about some people finding it inherently distasteful to smash beloved icons.

I remember I saw an interview with Hitchens shortly after this book came out. I’m roughly paraphrasing from memory here, but the interviewer asked him if this wasn’t the ultimate skeptical or cynical book, like “If you’re going to knock Mother Teresa, then what that tells me is you’d knock anybody.” You know, she’s one of those rare people who represent the best that humanity has to offer, and it takes a certain kind of negative, bitter person to make it their job to point out that even the best ain’t so hot, that once you dig a little you find out that they’re rotten too. You have to have an awfully pessimistic view of humanity to have such a low opinion of the best of us.

Hitchens’s response was that his book was absolutely not a product of any kind of thoroughgoing cynicism about humanity like that. Mainly because he rejected the premise that Mother Teresa somehow represents the best of humanity. He stated that there were countless people all over the world leading hugely more exemplary lives than hers, almost all anonymously.

I really agree with that. I don’t know where I’d rank her compared to other public figures. Maybe somewhere around the middle. But they tend to be a sorry lot in general. The life decisions you have to make to be rich or famous or powerful or any of that tend to be far more correlated with evil than good. So I think the average person plucked at random from the human population is probably a better human being than the average person with a name we’d recognize from the news or history, just by the nature of things.

So I think there are plenty of famous folks more worthy of adulation than her, but more than that I agree with Hitchens that there are an especially large number of people toiling in obscurity who on balance add far more positive energy to the world than Mother Teresa did. Just through their teaching, their child care, their advocacy for social justice, their peaceful and respectful manner toward others, their healing, or whatever it might be, they manifest compassion, humility, respect for others, rationality, honesty, and all the virtues I hold dear way, way more than did Mother Teresa.

Like Hitchens in that interview, I’m not anti-human. I just think Mother Teresa is wildly overrated.

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