Editor’s Note:

I have prayed and discerned about whether to post about this topic, and I had more or less decided that it would be against my better judgement. Even after Gareth Thomas submitted the piece below several days ago, I hesitated to publish it. “Don’t feed the trolls,” they say. But I think it’s important to show, if only once, the struggle we’re up against, and the depths of hatred and cruelty to which the enemies of Pope Francis (the enemies of the Catholic Church, really), are willing to go in order to destroy the pope and those who defend him. The sad thing is, behind each of these social media accounts is a real person, beloved by God but for whatever reason unable to show that love to others.

This year, the contributors to Where Peter Is, including myself, have received an unexpected amount of attention from these internet trolls. I suppose our work has struck a nerve — but admittedly I don’t think anyone is ever truly prepared to go, virtually overnight, from an unknown member of the public to the object of anger and contempt for dozens of complete strangers. I can understand passionately arguing about ideas or theology or doctrines, but this was about destroying me more than about what I stand for. Or, rather, to them I am not a person but the sum total of my beliefs and arguments, and I need to be destroyed.

Speaking for myself, it was especially difficult because this began to escalate during an extremely difficult time in my life: first my glaucoma diagnosis, followed by the unexpected sickness and death of my sister, and then — as if to rub salt in the wound — the loss of a child through miscarriage. It seemed that they could sense my vulnerability through cyberspace and used that time to begin attacking me personally and savagely. They attacked my faith, my family relationships, my motives, and my integrity. They attacked my physical appearance and openly speculated about my personal morality and sexuality. Some used language about and towards me that I would never dream of using — neither online nor in “real life.” And, I have to be honest, some of it succeeded in doing what it was intended to do: it hurt me. I just started blocking accounts that were cruel towards me or told lies about me, and I also blocked the accounts of those who “liked” such comments. I enjoy a good debate more than most, but that wasn’t worth the time and energy it consumed.

Anyway, Gareth, my Catholic brother — separated by an ocean and a generation — saw one of the more recent attacks on me, and recognized the perpetrator as one of his old anonymous troll buddies. That’s right: Gareth himself was once an anonymous traditionalist troll himself. But he changed, and was moved to write a piece in my defense.

I do know the real identity of “Bruvver Eccles,” but I won’t share it here. That’s not the point. I also thought about sharing screen shots of some of the attacks, but that wouldn’t serve any useful purpose. Besides, any good troll knows how to exploit negative attention and turn it against the person calling foul. Besides, this isn’t about me, but about the brokenness that reveals itself all over the internet in diabolical ways. Social media affects the real lives of real people, whether you’re the attacker or the one being attacked. 

The lesson to be learned is that evil exists and that some people are so caught up in it that they have come to embrace it thinking it’s good. They deceive themselves to the point where they think they are defending the faith through cruelty, malice, ridicule, and slander. “Eccles” is an older man, and he is coming to the end of his life. I’d ask that rather than engaging with him or attacking him, that you pray for him to rediscover the Christian faith and learn to love in the way our Lord asks of us.

I know that I have been less than perfect, especially on social media, but I hope that whenever I’ve hurt someone, I’ve apologized (if I still owe you one, let me know). I try to keep my arguments on the issues, events, and ideas that are relevant to the debate. And I also know that I have never lowered myself to the level of malice I have seen directed towards me and others. These are wounded, imperiled souls. Let’s pray that they, like Gareth, are prompted by the Holy Spirit to repent and change.

— Mike Lewis


As I returned home by train from walking the Camino de Santiago and contributing a five-article series to mark the Compostela Holy Year for the wide-range of writing on Where Peter Is, my attention was drawn to the crude ad hominem attack on the WPI founder Mike Lewis by a figure who goes by “Bruvver Eccles.” I penned a brief objection to it in a comment on his scurrilous blog. Perhaps there is nothing to be gained by responding to such febrile poison, anonymously penned and ejaculated into the traddy blogosphere. For it is designed only to cause grief, and a reply to it only serves the perpetrator’s insatiable desires by rewarding his appetite for a spasmodic emotional hit.

On the other hand, as I regrettably once had some association with the author, and since he is hubristically proclaiming 2021 to be the tenth anniversary of the bludgeoning mass of juvenile trivia he calls his “luvvly blog,” I think it a timely moment to turn the spotlight on “Bruvver Eccles” and to critically dissect his motivation, if only to save other people the pointless bother of trying to comprehend it. Yes, there is a danger in giving him and other anonymous irritants in the traddysphere the attention they crave, but I think there is a useful theme to explore here. Why do some ‘traditionalist’ Catholics hide behind anonymity in order to attack other Catholics? And what does their reluctance to name themselves tell us about the reliability of their witness within the community of the Church?

Some readers may already have spotted the passing reference in my subtitle to Joseph Campbell’s classic work on the archetype of the ‘trickster.’[1] The anti-authoritarian, anarchic role of the trickster fits the anonymous traddy blogger very well, but I want to make a distinction here between the innocence of the true fool and the chaos of the mere clown. Foolishness can often educate us, when it communicates real innocence, and there is plenty of biblical support for that idea; but the antics of the clown hold our attention for a different reason, because he seems spectacularly unaware of his own limitations. His pompousness always brings him down and yet his lack of self-awareness means that he can never learn or improve.

“Bruvver Eccles” is a self-elected moral judge who is seen by his little band of camp followers as a figurehead of traddy humour. He likes to describe his work as ‘satire’ but he is mistaken. Having the limited self-awareness of the clown, he lacks the critical judgment to know the difference between purposeful satire and anonymous, gratuitous smear. The best satirists are named writers of that literary genre and it is the reader’s knowledge of the satirist’s identity that gives meaning to his art. In contrast, the anonymous thrower of ad hominems, who heaps invective and bile on those who he considers beneath his contempt, exists in a moral vacuum. Hiding behind anonymity, “Eccles” is merely a primitive wordsmith who seems to think the term ‘satire’ can be used as a loose-fitting loincloth to cover the secret shame of his obsessional output. He spaffs out his insults, then sighs with obvious gratification as he imagines the discomfort felt by his victims.

He breathes in the craven plaudits of his regular troop of commenters: “Nice one, Eccles.” I suspect that none of this activity, by he or them, ever gets mentioned in Catholic confession; for it would either be regarded as too trivial or too serious to be worth mentioning. Besides, the same sins will be repurposed for tomorrow, so what would be the point?

Who are the victims? Often they are not the mighty who the author wants to bring low, in some sort of latter-day Catholic masque or carnival[2]; but the ordinary Catholics that “Bruvver Eccles” despises. The not-good-enough Catholics that this ‘super-Catholic’ and others of his ilk feel they have a mission to insult, from their anonymous hiding places of dubious authority. These anonymous attacks are invariably aimed at real people who live their Catholic faith in the real world, and are known by their real names. If this might seem cowardly, the furious authors of such adolescent traddy squibs have long provided an excuse for their anonymity which is worth quoting here in full. I will not call it a rationale, for that would undeservedly dignify their excuses, but at the time it was written, this excuse for anonymity was accorded the status of great wisdom among traddy bloggers. Unsurprisingly, the author is the shadowy “Mundabor,” a figure whose sneering contempt for every Catholic who is not Pope Pius X has long been admired as a model for online bad behaviour by the traddy blogging set, even when his obvious fascism was a little risqué, in the days before Trumpism and Brexit xenophobia liberated political extremism from its hidden places in the knowing innuendo of respectable middle class conservative mentality. In a kind of manifesto of anonymity, penned by “Mundabor” in 2010, to which he wrote these closing remarks:

“This is of course not meant to be a justification of my being strictly anonymous, for which there is no need. Rather a caveat to all those who still haven’t understood the potentially devastating influence of a sustained, prolonged Internet presence with their own names, particularly when the subject matter is not neutral (like photography, dogs, or gardening) but serious, highly emotional issues like politics and, most importantly, religion.”[3]

Both “Mundabor” and “Bruvver Eccles” were part of our group of traddy Catholics who forged our online reputations by running sockpuppets, battling with atheists and commenters of various religious affiliations on the Daily Telegraph blog hosted by Damian Thompson. We built our happy reputation manipulating an outrageous multitude of comedy sockpuppets in the below-the-line comments on the ‘Holy Smoke’ blog. These invented characters were sent into battle as mouth-pieces for a ‘traditional’ Catholic viewpoint. This might have appeared superfluous, since the blog author already expressed such a viewpoint in his own articles, but the point was more to enjoy the fray! We acted as a team in combat with all who did not hold traditional Catholic views.

So in those days, ‘traditional’ simply seemed to mean supporting anything said or done by Pope Benedict XVI, while conveniently forgetting the enthusiasm of a certain young Ratzinger for Vatican II. We applauded the introduction of the ‘Extraordinary Form’ into any parish that wanted to experiment with it; although some of us, as we privately admitted, had never experienced a Latin Mass!

In our sockpuppet world, this was soon reduced to the Orwellian simplicity of ‘Benedict XVI Good, Vatican II Bad’ but some trads began pushing an even harder message: there hadn’t really been a proper pope since Pope Saint Pius X; so maybe Pope Benedict XVI was really a liberal masquerading as a traddy. The back-stories of our little traddy tribe were instructive. Quite a few of us were converts or ‘lapsed-and-recommitted’ Catholics. The zeal of the converted was evident. People who – a year before – would not have been able to name a single pope before John XXIII were suddenly disagreeing over which long-dead pope was a better model for our faith than any recent one! I developed a liking for Pope Martin V but nobody wanted to talk about him as he had ended the Great Schism. Where was the fun in unity, for heaven’s sake?

When Damian Thompson finally felt he was losing control of his blog, he threw out all our sockpuppets and we decided to set up our own traditional Catholic blog! At first, the password was controlled by two of the more extreme voices, “Mundabor” and “The Great Stalin”; but a dispute soon arose about editorial control, and we managed to seize their password, which was “Salazar” (after the Portuguese dictator), so we changed it and locked the dictators out. One sockpuppet comrade didn’t join our new team: instead “Bruvver Eccles” went solo with with his own blog and extended by another decade the life of his favourite sockpuppet. Gradually the traditionalism was replaced by ever more worldly right-wing politics until Trumpism, Brexitry, rejection of Pope Francis, and anti-vaxxer conspiracy overwhelmed his original Catholic purpose. The only thing that did not change was the anonymity of the sockpuppet himself, which he guards obsessively, always fearing discovery of his real identity. His journey into schism was a classic example of what Pope Francis describes as the fate of the ‘isolated conscience’:

“The isolated conscience finds it hard to treat others with mercy because it rejects such mercy, at least in practice. The biblical example par excellence of the beleaguered self is the prophet Jonah. God sends Jonah to Nineveh to invite the people there to repent but Jonah is having none of it and flees to Tarshish. In reality what Jonah fears is God’s mercy for Nineveh, which doesn’t fit with his plans and mindset. For Jonah, God came once, handed down a law, and ‘I’ll take care of the rest,’ Jonah says to himself. In his mind he was saved and the Ninevites were not.”[4]

History never records the witterings of nameless ranters in the landscape, but if we are anything as Catholics, we are the community of those whom God calls by name.[5] As those who God has called by name, we also have a concern for those unfortunate, anonymous lost souls who exist on the margins of society. Should we pass by on the other side, or nervously hide behind our newspaper when a disturbed stranger enters our train carriage and begins to make a scene? No, we should at least cast a glance in their direction. When these anonymous traddy voices jump up and down, waving at us in their holy agonies, their arms festooned with rosaries and calling us ‘heretics’ for simply giving our Catholic allegiance to the Pope, their obvious derangement should concern us. We should not turn away, but at least spend a few minutes considering their plight.

Thus we mark the tenth anniversary of “Bruvver Eccles” and his unlovely blog. Like the rest of the anonymous traddy antiheroes, whatever their real names are, we hear your pain, but we can only offer a modest attempt to respond to your need for attention because it is difficult to comprehend what you actually want from us. WPI provides a constant output of solid, reasoned theology, but you only reply with ad hominem squibs and juvenile trivia, so you make it difficult to reach out to you with any real dialogue, even if our Christian love invites compassion for you. It is the age-old problem of the one who plays the classroom clown as a defence mechanism: by the time he finally realizes in dismay that his cynical jokes and clowning were always seen by his classmates as a sign of his inner sadness, he has alienated himself too much to seek their help and find a way to truly belong.

The figure of the Fool, whether in Shakespeare’s King Lear or Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, can teach us great lessons in compassion and what it means to be human, but the clown is only concerned with his own obsessions: his giddy struggles with gravity always land him flat on his face; and his monumental battle to manage the absurd desires of his own phallus are a constant embarrassment to us all. The clown’s output, when mistakenly labelled ‘satire’, is difficult to assimilate on a human level, at the best of times; but as “Bruvver Eccles” celebrates a full decade of digital onanism, bludgeoning his targets – year in, year out – with the same tired old jokes, it is surely time for his friends to suggest that he does something more useful with his Catholic life. If indeed the juvenile clowning of a man now old in his years has left him with any real friends.

Notes:
[1] Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Pantheon, 1949) explores the ‘trickster’ archetype in various cultural traditions. The trickster is a figure who stands apart from society and does not obey its norms or accept its social rules, becoming a mythical folk hero.

[2] The medieval Feast of Fools began at Vespers on the feast of the Holy Innocents, during the singing of the Magnificat, when ‘the mighty’ were literally ‘put down’ from their seats and the lowly ‘lifted up’ to take their place. This carnival tradition was largely suppressed by the Catholic Church in Europe in the 18th century when it began to get out of hand, but some might judge that putting on fool’s caps and hitting each other with a pig’s bladder on s stick would be a healthier way of conducting culture wars than we presently experience in the Church.

[3] Published by the anonymous blogger “Mundabor” on 26 October 2010.  You may note that his accolyte “Bruvver Eccles” added his ‘like’ to that blog page and when he began his own blog he made it strictly anonymous.  https://mundabor.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/ten-reasons-for-the-anonimity-of-catholic-bloggers/

[4] Pope Francis, Austen Ivereigh, Let Us Dream (Simon & Schuster, 2020.) The extended passage on “the isolated conscience” can be read in Part 2.

[5] “Now this is what the LORD says — the One who created you, Jacob, and the One who formed you, Israel— Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine.” (Isaiah, 43, 1.)


Image: Adobe Stock. By Cyrsiam.


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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

Anonymity and the Traddy Troll: The antihero with a thousand faces
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