Rex Murphy is among the people most influential in shaping the way I think. Not what I think, mind you, but how I translate my feelings to thoughts, and my thoughts to spoken arguments. I can remember watching his segments as a child, this owlish rhetorical warrior who somehow seemed old and wise even while still clinging to middle age. You could call his segments rants, and many did, but he examined every issue from multiple sides, gave credit where it was due, and generally displayed an uncommon ability to put himself in the shoes of those he was assailing. He was rarely distracted by overly specific side-points and got directly to the heart of the issue at hand. It made him a strong rhetorician in a country that has produced very few.
Cut to today, which sees the National Post hosting his increasingly Don Cherry-like ramblings. It's not that Murphy has become old or "irrelevant" or any other knee-jerk adjective like that. He has simply become worse than he was before. At this point, it's undeniable: Canada's greatest coot has become one of its very worst.
For instance, Murphy's recent piece on leakers like Edward Snowden took the view that they are a collection of traitors and cowards -- and that's fine. However, the Murphy of old would have backed this assertion with argument. He would have burrowed down to the issues that separate good whistleblowing from bad and at least tried to explain why his targets deserved the latter classification. Instead, he wrote an overlong, free verse bomb-track, a list of ad hominem attacks without content or justification.
This is now Murphy's bread and butter. It's doubly frustrating because it means he has become what his critics have incorrectly accused him of being all along: a shallow, reactionary demagogue. The Snowden article bothered me, as had several before it, but it was not until his most recent editorial in the Post that I truly understood how far he has fallen. It went beyond presenting an ill-formed argument and veered into a hateful form of willful blindness which would have set the Murphy of old on a righteous, right-thinking warpath.
In this article, Rex Murphy is upset with atheists. I am an atheist, but I'm also very open to hearing criticisms of the sometimes sickening levels of self-pity in which this group can indulge. Rather than point to such faults, he displays them himself, repeating the common, spineless complaint that prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins are just too darned mean. He characterizes the writer of a frankly dry philosophical treatise like The God Delusion as the Don Rickles of religious conversation. It's idiotic, but hardly new. Along with a deliberately obtuse confusion of atheism with nihilism, the article begins as just another disappointing rehash studding the decline of a formerly great thinker.
And then, we arrive at his reason for writing: atheists are calling for the military to provide chaplains who can deal with their issues without needing to reference a God in which they do not believe. Now, there's an easy joke to be made here, and Murphy is not above making it. "Atheist chaplains?" he scoffs. "I mean, right?" I stared at this article for some time, re-read it more than once. Surely, I thought, he could not be so utterly foolish. Surely, a man who has spent much of his career commenting thoughtfully on the plight of our troops could not debase himself so shamefully over this petty religious point?
But no. He can, and has.
Let's be clear. Rex Murphy is arguing that if you are a soldier who does not believe in God that you do not deserve access to a counselor as you risk your life to preserve his liberty. You simply ought not to need a sympathetic ear or calming word from someone trained in providing them as you lay wounded or dying -- and if you do, well, isn't that just proof that your atheism wasn't as strong as you'd claimed? In our most harrowed moments, we all need someone who knows what to say -- and rejecting belief in God doesn't change that. To Murphy though, if you were really an atheist you would stride confidently into that good night, still scoffing at the weakness of the Christians and Buddhists who reach for a hand to hold as they shiver their last under the beating Middle Eastern sun.
In his own words, proudly pull-quoted for emphasis: "Why should those who don't believe at all clamour for the same structures, assists and services of those who in fact do believe?" Read that again. Rex Murphy has devolved so far as to ask why an atheist should be subject to the psychological pressures of military service, the traumatic stresses of combat, or the grief of losing a friend. His thinking is so paper-thin that he truly believes these are religious issues, rather than human ones. He seems to almost take pleasure in the idea that the most vulnerable moments of brave atheist members of our Canadian Forces might play out like a believer's small-minded thought experiment. A fitting punishment, in Murphy's eyes, for being convinced by the arguments of BBC personalities whose highfalutin accents he finds annoying.
This is one of the more repulsive articles I've ever read in a professional publication, and it is beneath the dignity of someone like Rex Murphy. It's one thing to resist this push for non-religious chaplains, to say that secular soldiers should have to get by with the help of counseling that stems from beliefs which they do not hold. I think that's unfair and unjust, but it at least would not so callously disregard the basic humanity of many thousands of men and women in uniform. It would not use an article by Christopher Hitchens as evidence that atheists are less deserving of regard from the government that sends them into mortal danger. It would not literally ask why an atheist might want comfort while enduring the pressures and the horrors of war.
Now, I don't think Rex Murphy is actually the bloated, hateful bile-sack this article implies him to be. Rather, I think he is a lazy columnist, one who increasingly makes stupid points without thought or consideration. He's opted to spout easy nonsense, rather than stop to ponder the implications of his own nationally syndicated words. Where once there was depth, now there is demagoguery. Where once there were thoughtful attempts to get at the truth for its own sake, now there are easy, loosely related lines strung together into articles with no discernible overall point. This decline is not dignified.
It's time for Rex to get out of the game. His heart clearly isn't in it anymore, and it's becoming ever more difficult to remember a time when it was.