Saturday, December 27, 2003

Much More Idiocy

Jonah Goldberg with the easiest prediction for 2004.

"More dumb things will be said by more educated people about the trial of Saddam Hussein than all dumb things about all other major subjects combined. "

Our New Religion II

Occasional posts on the parallels between our secular liberal pieties and the doctrines of Christianity and Judaism.

Over the holiday I had time to read Lord Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" - the book of the TV series which was all the rage in the early 70s. I doubt if the BBC would now commission a series under that name which is wholly focused upon Western Europe. A good read, though any catalogue of culture over three millennia will inevitable miss out personal favourites - where Hildegarde of Bingen and her glorious erotic imagery ? Where Perotin ?

His chapters 'The Smile Of Reason' and 'The Worship Of Nature' examine rationalists like Voltaire and the decline in religious faith among the eighteenth-century intellectual elite. It is of course exactly at this time that Rousseau's ideas became influential.

"Rousseau first argued that civilization had corrupted human beings in his essay, Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences in 1750. This corruption was largely a moral corruption - everything that civilized people have regarded as 'progress' - urbanization, technology, science, and so on, has resulted in the moral degradation of humanity. For Rousseau, the natural moral state of human beings is to be compassionate; civilization has made us cruel, selfish, and bloodthirsty".

Here we can see again fallen man, who has eaten of the tree of knowledge and lost his primeval, compassionate Eden.

Not everyone was so keen on the noble savage myth. Clark quotes a letter from de
Sade to Rousseau (I paraphrase) "Nature averse to crime ? On the contrary, she yearns for it and lusts for it". And Voltaire famously wrote to him "Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours."

But Rousseau is the spiritual begetter of our new enviro-religion. He also had a pernicious influence on education which is alive and well today, thanks to his novel Emile. "Both European and American educational ideas were greatly influenced by this work; the American public school system, established in the first part of the nineteenth century, drew heavily from Rousseau's educational ideas." As Melanie Phillips has pointed out, the great educator had five bastard children, all of whom he put in an orphanage as soon as they were weaned. But hey, whoever said that the personal was political ?

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Merry Victorian Christmas To All ....

Another glass of gluhwein to take away the vision of all the children's presents yet to be wrapped. And to try and lessen the bile-count induced by Madeleine Bunting's idiotic Guardian piece. Not worthy of a full fisk, but her take on the Victorians deserves a shoeing.

"The blame lies first of all with the Victorians. They pretty much invented Christmas - trees, Santa Claus, puddings, turkeys, decorations, cards, presents, family togetherness - ingeniously turning what had become a sober religious feast into a great festival requiring months of preparation. If women were to be kept at home, they had to have something to do."

It's true that many of the accoutrements of the modern Christmas have Victorian origins - indeed Christmas cards only became common in the 20th century. But families gathering to eat well (or as well as they could) together, such presents for the children as could be afforded - the heart of the secular Christmas - has been with us for much longer. "It was Christmas Eve, with its loads of holly and mistletoe ..." wrote Hardy in Tess of the D'Urvbervilles. His short story 'The Grave By The Hand-Post' is about a son returning to see his father for Christmas. And hasn't Ms Bunting read 'A Christmas Carol' ?

"But the crucial point about the Victorian Christmas, which always gets overlooked, is that it was only the middle classes who had one ..."- see above. There's a good reason why it always gets overlooked - because it isn't true.

"The Victorian rebranding was a response to industrialisation: the family was no longer the wealth-producing unit; people were swapping work at home for factories and offices; and urbanisation was disrupting the old domestic structures. Social relations needed strengthening, so the home was relaunched with rituals such as regular family meals and the Sunday lunch. Home was idealised as a sanctuary from competitive market capitalism - a place where vulnerability, innocence, and sentiment could be safely expressed. At the same time, childhood was idealised as a life-stage free of responsibility, a time of imagination, magic and enchantment. All of this came neatly together in the rituals the Victorians developed for Christmas. "

Ah yes. Victorian culture as 'rebranding', as some small group of people kicking ideas around, followed by the Victorian equivalents of posters, advertisements, handouts in schools and doctors surgeries, interviews on the Today programme. Such a metaphor betrays a complete lack of understanding, of empathy, with Victorian culture. Or she could just be pig-ignorant.

The home was 'relaunched', was it, with regular family meals ? Just where the hell do you imagine families ate in Georgian times - McDonalds ?

And the last liberal myth, continually regurgitated in true bulimic style, that "childhood was idealised as a life-stage free of responsibility, a time of imagination, magic and enchantment". I'm sorry, your forebears must have lived in a parallel universe to mine. Is this the Victorian age of the Little Match Girl ? Of Tom and Mr Grimes ? Of Shaftesbury and Barnardo ? Of a hundred weepy parlour ballads about orphans, disasters and death ? Of "Father's a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead" ?

But there's one thing we have in common with the Victorians. Our old people are still dying of cold.

Happy Christmas. And check out those old people over the road.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David,) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Comradely Solidarity

Fascinating stuff in Weekly Worker on the proposed 2004 European Social Forum. It appears the comrades of the UK Left would have trouble arranging a drinks party in a Majestic warehouse.

"During the lunch break, comrades from the autonomist tradition (the tradition formerly known as 'anarchist' - LT) unilaterally decided to turn all 200 chairs to face the middle - apparently in order to “facilitate consensus decision-making”, and because it is “anti-hierarchical”. That might well be true for meetings where participants have some common ground. In our case, it helped to turn an already tense situation into a snake pit. Emotions ran high, with people generally communicating by shouting and jumping to the front to snatch the mike from the chair."

There are problems with money, timetabling and the structure of the proposed Forum.

"Not a few left on Sunday afternoon still unsure if the ESF in Britain will actually become a reality. Besides the absence of hard cash there is certainly not enough trust between the different groups and viewpoints to ensure smooth and effective planning. And a deadline of March 1, by which we have to find a “substantial amount of money”, is looming large.

It all started so well ... "

Democracy was an issue. "Speaker after speaker expressed the desire for our ESF in Britain to be more democratic ..." The trouble is, how does a left-wing faction implement democracy ? Whose democracy ? If enough people join, you may find they democratically disagree with you. At which point you expel their leaders or leave yourself and found another splinter group. If everyone who voted in the last General Election joined the SWP tomorrow, and the SWP was democratic (which of these two is the most unlikely ?) the leadership might find they were being outvoted by 10 million people who wanted a conservative SWP, 12 million who wanted a Labour SWP and 7 million who preferred a Lib-Dem flavour. Which is why the SWP (which controls among other things the Stop The War Campaign) isn't democratic. They would like your money and support - but you don't really want that 'bourgeois' democracy, do you ?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Open Targets

The Archbishop of Canterbury might be better employed worrying about the physical security of his flock this Christmas than in assuaging what he perceives to be Muslim sensitivities. Church attacks are a favoured tactic of Islamic militants in the Philippines, Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent. The authorities seem convinced that some form of outrage is planned for the UK, churches offer the softest targets – and what could be more richly symbolic than a Christmas Eve bomb at, say, Canterbury or St. Paul’s ? The very diversity of the congregations at London churches means that any form of profiling would be pointless, and the entire congregation would have to be searched on entrance to provide meaningful security.

I attend Easter Mass each year at a Catholic church (in a part of London with a large ethnic minority population, gangs of whose young people stalk the High Street each Sunday. The ethnic minority in question being Korean, the gangs are usually playing guitars, singing hymns, and inviting passers-by to find Jesus at a local church. But I digress.) The congregation is incredibly mixed – English, Irish, Polish, Filipino, Chinese, Indian, Italian, African, Brazilian (yet the Mass unites every race in a shared culture. What was that about ‘Westerners’, Archbishop ?). No way could door security play ‘spot the terrorist’.

I’m not saying it’s likely, let alone a certainty. But it’s easy to do and has, from an Al-Quaeda perspective, great symbolic value. I hope the leaders of all Churches, and our security forces, haven’t overlooked this possibility.

He's At It Again

Rasputin warns of the inevitable alienation of Muslims by David Blunkett's racist, Islamophobic strategy of arresting Muslims in reponse to a campaign of terrorism explicitly carried out in the name of Allah.

“If we want to persuade moderate Muslims to sign up to toleration and pluralism of the right kind, anything that gives the impression that we are targeting Muslims is problematic. We have a lot of ground to make up.”

Of course, the Archbishop is quite right. Only about 6% of the population of Britain are Muslim. Most, including the Archbishop, are nominal Christians. It therefore follows that the majority of arrests made under anti-terrorist legislation should be Christian, and that the resources of MI5 and Special Branch should be mainly targeted on extremist religious groupings such as the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Quakers. Anything else would be 'profiling' of the most racist and bigoted kind.

Acording to the Sunday Times, Williams also believes that "westerners find it difficult to grasp that for a Muslim, being religious is not something that is done in addition to everything else: “It just is the fabric. For the Muslim everything is seen through that lens.” "

You know, Archbishop, once upon a time, even some Christians were like that - their religion was the core of their being. Obviously you were never one of those, though. And British Muslims are "Westerners" - or is that a code word ? I wonder what it could mean ?

But it looks as if religious faith, like culture, is becoming another one of those things which is OK for 'them' to have, but not for 'us'. Minette Marrin makes this point in the Sunday Times. She also quotes Mathew Arnold's 'Dover Beach', and I can't resist it either. Poets are prophets.

"The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world. "

UPDATE 27/12/2003 - The Magna Mater Melanie also gives Rasputin a good telling-off.