One land, one law, one language

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It’s about culture, not race. Whenever there is a discussion about how different people from different backgrounds might be able to co-exist, and potential problems are pointed out – like the fact that ‘co-existence’ might not be the intention of some groups – then the word ‘racism’ gets thrown out.

Racism as an insult has functioned to shut down the debate about immigration that our society really needs to have had. It does that because of the dominance of political correctness in our political conversation. Unless we can signal our virtue by repeating the necessary platitudes then society simply shuns us. (I saw a story that ran before the Brexit vote, about a civil servant that had taken unpaid leave from her post in order to actively support the Leave campaign. It was clearly indicated to her that she had committed career suicide – I hope that the referendum result has changed things for her!)

This is why we need to be clear that the issue is not about race – that is, it is not about particular physical characteristics that a person may or may not have. No, it is about culture, that is, it is about the ways in which we order our common lives together.

Different cultures do things differently. Some cultures encourage free speech and individual creativity; other cultures emphasise the importance of community and shared endeavour. Some cultures prohibit the eating of pork; others delight in bacon butties; others enjoy deep-fried Mars bars (allegedly).

Where there is a healthy distance between cultures, their diversity can be celebrated. Tensions arise when different cultures are required to live in close proximity one with another. At that point, where the cultures clash in significant ways, there is a significant risk of conflict. Put in summary form, if you add cultural diversity to immediate proximity then the result will be conflict.

This is what we have seen in our nation in recent decades. Enoch Powell infamously warned of the ‘rivers of blood’ that would flow from uncontrolled immigration, and that is not a bad description of London after the terrorist outrages of 7/7.

Where I very much disagree with Powell’s analysis, however, is that some groups of immigrants have been able to assimilate into our country immensely successfully, whereas others – a minority – not only have failed in the past but show no indication of succeeding at any time in the future.

So, for example, the ‘Windrush’ immigrants that came in the 1950s came from a distinctly British culture – they were, in general, English-speaking, Protestant, cricket-loving, formed within a state that had adopted British common law. Yes, they faced immense racism on their arrival (to our shame) but in many ways these immigrants were ‘more British than the British’. In other words, once the distraction of racism had been removed, their culture could be seen as profoundly compatible with what already existed here, and the new things that they brought, like reggae, could easily be absorbed.

In contrast to this are cultures with values that are inimical to classical British values, which seem to have established semi-autonomous enclaves within our cities – with horrifying consequences as in Rotherham. Some cultures contain deeply engrained misogyny; worse, that misogyny is particularly focussed on white women who are seen as legitimate targets for abuse, as their behaviour (wearing normal Western clothes) shows that they are not respectable and honourable.

It is not possible to have these two cultures co-existing in one space. In the end, one will displace the other. I would argue that if there is to be any form of healthy assimilation and co-existence between people of different cultures then there has to be an acceptance of ‘one land, one law, one language’. In other words, that if people of a different culture are to live peaceably in the ‘one land’ then the primacy of the existing law has to be paramount ‘one law’ and in order to engage with the wider society there has to be an acceptance that there is only ‘one language’ that can be used in any public forum. To accept that a different language is legitimate is to embed divisions with pernicious consequences over time.

We need, as a single British society, to be very clear about what sort of culture we wish to see affirmed and maintained in this land. The existing culture has been under sustained assaults for many decades, and the Tony Blair-led surge in immigration that has so changed the texture of British life needs to be addressed from a position of strong confidence in classic British values.

What does that look like? I am very fond of the story about Sir Charles Napier, who in the mid-nineteenth Century was the Commander-in-Chief in India. There was an Indian custom called Suttee, which required a widow to be burned alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre. This had been banned several years before, and Napier was being petitioned by Hindu priests to allow a resumption of the practice. As recorded by his brother William, Napier said this: “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

This sort of robust and unapologetic assertion of British values is desperately needed in our present context. It is because we have seen such assertions as ‘in bad taste’ that we have ended up in the predicament that we are in. We need both the scope and the confidence to assert our own distinct English and British identities, in order to ensure that the dominant culture in this land is not eventually eclipsed by the present toxic and aggressive alternative.

I am also convinced that such a robust assertion of ‘Britishness’ would be welcomed by the overwhelming majority of immigrants, who quite often identify more strongly with Britain than many who have been born here. After all, they have chosen to come here as a deliberate act, rather than simply enjoying the good fortune of being born in the best place in the world. Those who hate Britain and all that it stands for are a distinct minority, but they are a minority which need to be engaged with and required to accept that we cannot have different cultures co-existing in the one space, for it can only lead to conflict. One land, one law, one language.

(A Jeremy Creake article for the Courier)

In Praise of English Phlegm

Whatever happened to ‘keep calm and carry on’? Since the result of the referendum was announced as a clear victory for Brexit it seems as if all around are losing their heads and blaming it on each other. Surely we can do better than this cacophonous disorder.

One of the most repugnant forms that this disorder has taken has been through the rise in what are now classed as ‘hate crimes’ – verbal and physical attacks upon those who are seen as different, whether a different class, a different race, a different level of ability; a different language, religion or nationality. Such crimes are symptoms of a serious breakdown in our national cohesion, a failure to remember who we are and what we stand for.

After all, we who live in England live in a land that has seen immigration happen for thousands of years, and each generation of immigrants has given something to English identity. Why is ‘French’ such a common name on Mersea Island? Because of the number of French people who were fleeing the Huguenot massacres in the sixteenth century and came here for safety. What is the most popular take away food in England? Tikka Masala – and thank God for Titash.

For sure, there are practical issues and problems around numbers, and on this topic the referendum gave a very clear steer to our political class about what direction they need to travel in. Yet to bring immigration under a greater measure of control, and to reduce the numbers from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, is not to give license to the most moronic and bigoted amongst us.

No, surely one of the points about Brexit, about wanting to assert our own identity once more, is that we want to assert the best of ourselves, all the things about which we cam most confidently feel proud. Amongst that is English phlegm.

To be phlegmatic is to be calm and dispassionate; it is to take anything that our leadership tells us with at least the proverbial pinch of salt; it is to be accepting of difference within large bounds of tolerance. That is the best of what it means to be English – that we share a common way of life within our shared land, that we give people the emotional room to be themselves, however eccentric or strange people might seem to be. Phlegm is not a cold indifference, it is a pragmatic way of life that has proven itself down the centuries. It is who we are when we are at our best.

Let us all resolve to work together, calmly, pragmatically, phlegmatically. There is no place for racist extremism here. It’s just not English.

[Courier editorial]

“There’s a sermon in that” – reflections from an independent island

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I have recently returned from a two week holiday in Cuba, a trip taken with three university friends. Some twenty years ago, soon after graduating, we were sat in the living room of the house that we shared in West London, and recognised that our carefree lives were unlikely to stay that way. We agreed that we would put a small amount of money each into a central pot – beginning with £10 a month – in order that, every ten years, we would have enough funds to take a holiday together, to renew our friendships and remember what life was like before career and family commitments took hold. Our first trip was to Mongolia in 2005; this time round it was the turn of Cuba to host our little “Self-Preservation Society” (and yes, it was after one of our regular viewings of The Italian Job that we came up with the idea).

Cuba is a fascinating country, incredibly warm and welcoming, a happy and musical people set in an incredibly green and lush environment. We started our trip in Havana, which is a remarkable city. The architecture was stunning, and it was clear that the city had been incredibly wealthy in the past. Yet it was equally clear that for most of the last fifty years that money had dwindled to effectively zero, and consequently these amazing buildings were often near-derelict. Thankfully, now that the Cuban economy is embracing tourism more thoroughly, there is a new flow of wealth which is allowing the state to slowly renew and repair the built environment in central Havana.
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I said to my friends “There’s a sermon in that” – and yes, the necessary teasing did follow. What I had in mind was simply that I saw a parallel between the architecture in Havana and the church. Like Havana, the church has been immensely ‘wealthy’ in the past, by which I don’t just mean money but also the general affirmation of the faith shared by the community. It was a wonderful building. Yet today it is a pale shadow of what it was – it has suffered from decades of neglect. Just like the buildings in Havana, there has been nothing spent on maintenance, and now there is a desperate need for new investment in order to repair all that has gone wrong. And what does the church need to spend money on, in order to restore the building to its former grandeur? I would say simply: teaching the faith.

Back to Cuba. One of my friends has a medical condition which means that he cannot walk very far, and so he has a collapsible bike that he uses to get around, and which he brought to Cuba. Unfortunately, the day before departure his bike acquired a nasty puncture, and our first morning in Havana was then taken up with trying to find someone who might be able to repair it. After a thorough discussion with our guide, we found a small workshop at the back of garage, who agreed to repair the tyre. My friend (who now lives in Germany) was astonished to watch the craftsmanship with which the mechanic took apart the tyre and manually re-threaded the wires in order to make it robust. My friend exclaimed, “I’m going to take this back to Germany and tell them that this is how you fix things!”
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Havana is famous for all the 1950s cars that are still driven there – a snapshot of how things were before the Revolution. What this little experience brought home to us was the way in which all those old cars were kept going by some incredibly creative and imaginative engineering. The Cubans are clearly capable of making the most of anything at hand. I should add, however, that this did not extend to emissions control – the air in Havana was incredibly polluted, and I developed a hacking cough that didn’t leave me until I was back on Mersea. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the cigars…

That Revolution has clearly defined modern Cuba. I had the sense sometimes that there was very little history for the Cuban people to celebrate. What seem quite small things, such as a particular battle in the Revolutionary War, were blown up into major museums, and the people who were involved in that Revolution – most especially Che Guevara – were raised up in quite hagiographic ways, with all their personal effects treasured like Medieval relics. Of course, the tensions with the United States have only recently begun to ease. It was clear that this conflict had gone a long way to form the Cuban character, and the state had consistently reinforced a message of Cuba being an independent communist island facing off against the behemoth of a radically capitalist United States.

One striking way in which this difference manifested itself, in Havana and more widely, was the almost complete absence of advertising. The only form of acceptable advertising seemed to be revolutionary slogans alongside an image of Fidel Castro. This one, for example, has the charming slogan ‘Socialism or Death!’
Socialism or Death
The state remains overwhelmingly present in Cuba, yet most of the population seemed very happy. In part that must be a result of the excellent health-care for which Cuba is rightly and justly famous. In part it must be a result of everyone having plenty to eat. In addition, all Cubans are educated through a national system and, charmingly, all schools have the same uniform, segregated three ways for the three levels of primary, secondary and tertiary. There were always smartly dressed children to be seen going to and fro.

I could see no trace of any racism whatsoever, and in particular, there seemed to be no sense of ‘shame’ according to different body shapes. I did wonder whether the absence of advertising, coupled with a more general equality, helped to make the Cubans so cheerful. I often saw people who might be regarded in our society as having less than ideal bodies who were clearly very much at home in them, with a strong sense of appropriate style and even ‘swagger’. This was wonderful, and I suspect not having to cope with a constant bombardment of airbrushed-perfect bodies had something to do with it.
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Their happiness might also have something to do with the music that was continually present. However small the restaurant it would not be long before along came a few men (with an occasional woman) with guitars and maracas and the familiar ‘Guantanamera’. For the most part we greatly enjoyed these. We had booked in to see the world famous ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ on our last night in Havana, but I have to say that we found them disappointing compared to others, especially a band that performed regularly in the bar just a little way down from our hotel, that had an amazing flautist. Yet – and perhaps this is simply the projection of a tourist – music seemed to be more deeply embedded into the rhythms of Cuban life than it does here in England. We brought several CDs back with us!

After two weeks we flew to Gatwick, having had long discussions with each other about what was going to happen with the Referendum (mine was the sole voice in favour of Brexit). We arrived back on the morning that the result was announced. I felt that whilst we as a country might have many things to learn from Cuba I was nevertheless very grateful to be back. I am as proud of this country as the Cubans are of theirs, and it felt magical to be returning from one independent island to another that had just determined to reclaim its own independence. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!” as Che used to say.
The Four Musketeers
Thanks to Ian for photos

Gove and Diplomacy

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I used to play a boardgame called Diplomacy on a regular basis. The art of the game was to be able to lead another player up the garden path in order to betray them at the most effective moment. The best players were able to convincingly persuade someone else to join them in their own endeavours before pulling the rug away from beneath their erstwhile ally.

Of course, when this is done, there is then an enemy for life.

When I first heard of Gove bailing out on Boris I immediately thought about the game. It seemed like a classic example of the genre. Yet the more that time passes, the more I think that Gove is simply an idealist who hasn’t realised the consequences of his actions – which is why his leadership bid is going to struggle so much. It seems plausible to me that Gove didn’t make his fateful decision until very late in the day – which, in Diplomacy, is the sign of a bad player. Worse, his actions have now cemented his reputation as a disloyal back-stabber. I suspect this is a long way from the truth, but as with Diplomacy, so much depends upon reputation.

I would agree that the next Prime Minister has to be someone who was committed to the Leave campaign, and I would far rather that it was Gove as he seems to have a principled position from which to move forward. Between the aim and the achievement lies a rather large gap for him. Ah well.

The political fallout from project fear

One of my earliest political memories is of the political “assassination” of Margaret Thatcher. Then, as now, the Conservative Party was convulsed with the question of membership of the European Union. A group of senior cabinet members that were committed to the European project conspired together to bring her down, in order to ensure that the UK joined up to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (the precursor to the Euro).

Many of us will remember the consequences of that decision when, under the illustrious leadership of John Major, the UK was forced to quit the ERM having failed to control sterling through the spectacularly incompetent manipulation of interest rates.

The Conservative Party has never properly recovered from that debâcle – yet I wonder if, paradoxically, this Referendum process may just achieve that outcome, and establish a new consensus within the party structured around a consistent and principled Euroscepticism.

David Cameron’s time as party leader, surely, is coming to an end. The Conservative Party itself is significantly more Eurosceptic than the parliamentary party, and much more Eurosceptic than the Cabinet. What will cause Cameron the most problems, however, is the way in which he has conducted himself during the Referendum campaign.

This has two parts: first, the way in which elements of the Remain campaign seem to have benefited from the use of excessive government funds, such as through the distribution of leaflets advocating a Remain vote that were circulated to every household in advance of the Referendum. This – whilst doubtless considered legal by the government advisers – clearly constitutes a tilting of the playing field, allowing the Remain campaign to benefit from hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of extra advertising outside of the limits that apply to each of the campaigns proper (I find it interesting that the Leave campaign is rising in the polls now that the spending limits for both sides are equivalent).

More crucial for the Prime Minister’s own political prospects, however, is the second part, that is, the way in which he has criticised and demeaned those who have been campaigning for Vote Leave – those, remember, who form a majority of his own party.

This does not just apply to his criticisms of Boris Johnson – clearly there has never been a healthy relationship between the two of them, and that is not normally an issue for any party, so long as the two individuals concerned can put aside those differences when they need to work together (think Blair/Brown). What is much worse is the way in which Cameron has sought to characterise the Vote Leave campaigners as in various ways immoral and irrational, and – as part of his campaigning – clearly identified himself with the left of the political spectrum in doing so (thus revealing, in my opinion, where his true metropolitan political sympathies lie).

Recently Cameron even claimed “Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption” – suggesting that to vote leave is to actively risk another war. This is risible, and will not be forgotten by the Conservative Party.

So what is likely to happen? Lots of noises are being made by the ‘usual suspects’ like Nadine Dorries, but they will not be the people that make the crucial decisions. Much, obviously, will depend on the specific nature of the Referendum result itself.

Should there be a very clear mandate to Remain – in other words, in excess of a 55%-45% split in Remain’s favour – then Cameron’s position will in fact be strengthened and he will be able to choose the time of his departure. On the other hand, if there is an equivalently clear vote to Leave then he will be obliged to resign within days. That much is, I believe, the commonly accepted political wisdom.

However, if the voting is more narrow than that – as presently seems likely – then things become more difficult. There are three scenarios I would like to consider.

The first is a narrow victory for the Leave campaign. I suspect that this will also eventually lead to a Cameron resignation but the process will be more fraught, as he will argue that he is best placed to lead the subsequent Brexit negotiations. Few believe that to be true, but things will be messy.

The second is a narrow victory for the Remain campaign. This, I believe, will simply lead to a re-run of the latter days of the Major administration. The majority of Conservative MPs are Eurosceptic and there will be immense bitterness at the way in which Cameron has behaved. The arguments about manipulation will not go away. Cameron may be able to hang on for some time, but he will be a mortally wounded figure.

The third is a slight tweak on the second: the UK as a whole votes to Remain, but England votes to Leave. This is an outcome I consider quite likely, and the consequences could be profound. The Scottish referendum raised all sorts of questions about the unity of our nation, and if England seeks to move in a different direction to the other home countries then it is not difficult to see the Eurosceptic cause gaining huge encouragement from such an outcome.

The question would then be how far the political right in this country was able to morph in such a way as to harness that latent English nationalist and Eurosceptical sentiment for electoral gain. I could conceive of a situation that saw a rapprochement between the main part of the Conservatives and UKIP leading to a re-alignment of the right – and I could see such a ‘new’ party being electorally immensely successful. It would certainly have my sympathies.

As always, we shall watch and await the outcome with great interest. We live in very interesting times.

Why I shall be praying for Vote Leave

I shall be praying for the EU Referendum vote to result in a clear decision to leave the European Union – and I’d like to use this article to spell out why.

My most fundamental political instincts are to support the local and particular, and to be sceptical of – and often hostile to – the myriad great schemes that fertile minds can dream up. In saying that, I am conscious of standing in a long line of English political thinking, from Edmund Burke through to Roger Scruton, by way of William Morris and JRR Tolkien.

Such thinkers have tended to stand over against the particular patterns of human life that have come to be associated with modern industrialism, and the best imagined example of that comes when Frodo returns to the Shire following the destruction of the Ring (not a scene that has ever been filmed). In Frodo’s absence, modern industrial practices have come to the Shire through the leadership of the former wizard Saruman, now known as Sharkey, and a bundle of new rules and regulations have been implemented, leading to the dreadful state of “no beer and very little food”.

This pattern of modern industrialism is both an economy and a philosophy. It looks upon human life and considers what might be extracted for economic profit. A good real-life example comes when we consider the impact of a multi-national conglomerate like Monsanto upon local farming practices. Where those local practices are ‘inefficient’ then Monsanto and their ilk will use their market power to drive the opposition out of business before exploiting the subsequent monopoly situation to raise great profits, rather as medieval landlords extracted all the profit from the labour of the serfs.

I see the EU as an embodiment of this mentality. It was formed (with CIA sponsorship) in the 1950s and has always been concerned to maximise the economic interests of member states. As part of that process, and especially since the completion of the single market legislation post-1992, Brussels has become a key headquarters for corporate lobbying. Companies like Monsanto set up dedicated groups to ensure that the single market is structured in such a way as to favour their economic interests. This is why, to bring things back to a smaller scale, we now use metric measures rather than imperial – it meant that manufacturers could enjoy the greater economies of scale that became possible with the larger market. Remember – efficiency is a god that must be worshipped!

More locally, here on Mersea we are very aware of the impact of the common fisheries policy on our local fishermen, and the way in which the various rules and regulations impact on fishing in such a way as to outlaw common sense and prevent this country from taking full control of its own territorial waters.

So my objection to the EU is less to any particular rule or regulation – although there is no shortage of options when considering those – than to the particular ideology and mind-set that the EU embodies. The EU is a creature of industrial capitalism – it cannot help but seek to grow ever larger and accumulate ever more power over its subjects. To those who believe that this will inevitably be benign, I simply point to the experience of Greece in the last few years, when the interests of the residents of what was once a sovereign democratic state were sacrificed in order to ensure that Teutonic bankers were able to maintain their financial balance sheets.

No, it seems to me that we need to take a courageous step towards reclaiming our independence and freedom. There are those who would advocate for the EU in economic terms, who come out with statistics saying that it would cost each household x thousand pounds if we left. Such critics seem to be soulless slaves to the machine, mindlessly pursuing its programming. It is a perfect example of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

For me, such speculation is baseless, as we are in a state of profound ignorance about what may or may not happen economically to this country in the event of a leave vote. We do not know for certain whether a ‘Norway’ option (which would also involve reviving trade with our historic commonwealth partners) would lead to more jobs here than remaining in the EU market. We do not know how EU partners would react to a Leave vote, or whether such a vote would trigger a wider realignment within the EU itself as other countries realised that it was possible to leave, and so forced through proper measures of democratisation.

What we do know for certain is the character of the EU as a bullying and imperialist force for financial capitalism. We know that it has systematically and progressively gathered more and more power for itself over the last several decades and that it has fully worked out plans for increasing that power in the future. For those who believe that this is a benign state of affairs there is no problem in allowing this process to continue. For those of us who have become increasingly alarmed by the anti-democratic and exploitative practices that have become the overwhelming hallmark of EU governance this Referendum seems to be the once-in-a-generation opportunity to stand against the principalities and powers and say ‘No’.

This may seem to be a wildly romantic gesture, with shades (referencing Tolkien again) of simply saying ‘You shall not pass!’ Yet it is not unrealistic. Whatever the outcome of the vote, almost nothing will change overnight (except, hopefully, the occupant of No 10 Downing Street). We will wake up the following morning and will consider the choice that we have made. This will still be England, and we will doubtless conduct our morning rituals of tea or coffee in the same way that we usually do. Yet I am confident that if we do vote to leave the EU that people will start to walk with a spring in their step as we start to make our independent way in the world once again. Sometimes, as Albert Camus wrote in The Rebel, true life has to begin with a ‘no’. Sometimes we simply have to do the right thing, no matter what the world might think of us. Sometimes we simply have to walk out of the door on an adventure, without knowing where the road will take us.

I pray that we can remember ourselves to ourselves, regain our courage and sense of joy and life and exploration, and vote Leave.

The government of our imagination (converting Richard Dawkins part 2)

Last time out I talked about poetry and the different ways in which language could be used. I want in this article to convey something about how language structures our existence. To do that, I need to talk about imagination and government.

Look around where you are right now – look up from the page in which you are reading these words and see all the different things there are that are close by. Is there anything that wasn’t first born in the imagination of some particular person? If you are in a room then that room was first designed by a human being; the paint on the walls and the features hanging there came from a person’s imagination; similarly, the furniture, the carpet, the cup of tea by your elbow – all these were first formed in someone’s imagination. If there are plants, it is highly unlikely that they are in a ‘natural’ state – no, these too have been formed by the human imagination. Possibly the best case for something around you that wasn’t first born in the imagination is if there is another human being nearby – but that’s worth a more thorough conversation at another time.

My point is simply that so much of the physical space that we inhabit is typically mediated by our imaginations – what we imagine is the parent of what has come to be. Our imaginations, therefore, are tremendously powerful and impactful upon our world. Which means that we need to play close attention to what we do with them.

Which brings me to the question of government. Is the government real? Most would say so. If someone didn’t believe that the government was real – as in, they truly were committed to that proposition – then they would cease to pay their taxes. There would then ensue certain consequences, up to and including the imprisonment of such a person. That wouldn’t necessarily convince that person themselves that the government existed, but it would persuade most onlookers to at least act as if the government were real.

Yet in what way can we call the government real? It is not a material ‘thing’. There is no object that we might touch and say ‘this is the government’, nor is there any person we might touch – not even our most gracious sovereign lady. We cannot walk up to 10 Downing Street and ask for the government, nor Whitehall – not even Town Hall in Colchester.

My point is simply that there are many things that we are normally quite happy to accept as real which do not qualify as material objects. In other words, there are realities in our lives that are not susceptible to scientific investigation, at least in the form that this has historically taken. We might suggest a spectrum of reality from things that are least involving of human beings – like the movements of planets – to those which are most involving – such as the operations of governments – and say that science is a more appropriate study of one end of that spectrum and less appropriate to the other. Adding, of course, that all parts of the spectrum are ‘real’.

The far end of the spectrum, the one that most involves human beings conducting human lives, is the realm which I am trying to point towards in this article. It is born in our imaginations and yet takes on a life of its own. There is no one person on whom our government depends. Should any person with a key role suddenly vanish out of existence, the government will carry on and simply replace that person with another who will take on the duties of the role. It is rather like an ant’s nest – if you remove any particular ant, the colony will carry on as if nothing has happened. If you stamp on the nest and then step back, the ants will simply reproduce the nest once more. The colony can be seen as having an existence separate from any of the constituent parts.

This doesn’t just apply to governments. It applies to all the various institutions and organisations that we human beings so like to form – churches, scientific bodies, golf clubs, theme parks, tribes, shopping centres – the whole glorious gamut of human endeavour. The Bible has a description for all of these things, calling them ‘principalities and powers’. The struggle with these things is the primary location for what Christians call ‘spiritual warfare’: in other words, the never ending attempt to become better people, more open to the will of God.

Now it might be argued, contrary to my ant colony example, that the government does not exist in any real sense. To use the language of my previous article, the materialist would argue that because there is no specific material correlate to the word ‘government’ then it has no ultimate reality. It is simply a construct of human thinking.

What provokes a wry smile in me when I ponder such an argument is simply that it is one that Richard Dawkins’ own work has done quite a lot to undermine. After all, it is Dawkins who coined the understanding of memes. Memes are mental constructs that exist independently of the human minds in which they operate. Dawkins argues that religions specifically are defective memes, viruses of the mind. There is a remarkable correspondence between what Dawkins has begun to describe as ‘memes’ and what the Christian tradition has considered to be the principalities and powers – they are both, using different languages, describing some of the fundamental building blocks of distinctively human life.

This, finally, is why religions pay very close attention to our use of language, and seek to regulate that language through things like prohibitions against blasphemy. When we speak differently we live differently. Words and names have immense power, for both good and ill – which is why Plato, the original fascist, sought to ban the poets. As language is born from our minds, so is the world in which we live structured by our imaginations. If we do not govern our imaginations well then we shall end up being governed in unimaginably bad ways.

Hillary Clinton – the face of the vampire squid

The Face of the Vampire Squid by Victoria Norton

These so-called progressives do like to tie themselves up in knots. Amidst all the brouhaha about Donald Trump’s successful campaign to be a Republican candidate it seems to be taken for granted that any right-thinking individual will cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton – on the assumption that she is indeed the Democratic Candidate.

Of course, there are some progressives with an admirable commitment to their principles – they’re the ones who keep shouting ‘Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!’ – and a handful of them may well hold fast and refuse to vote for Hillary. Most though, I expect, will hold their nose and vote Democratic simply because they believe that Trump is so awful. It is for those people that I am writing.

After all, Hillary Clinton must qualify as one of the most personally corrupt candidates ever to run for public office in the United States. There are many strands to that corruption, but the most unarguable relates to her use of a private email server on which to carry out government business. That business included email transactions classified as ‘Top Secret’. The primary purpose of Clinton’s deception seems to have been to ensure that her email correspondence could avoid becoming subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Working for the government is all well and good, but anything that might jeopardise her personal income stream has to be given a priority – sod the ethics.

The Clinton’s income stream has been well documented. Of most significance for my purposes here is the amount that Clinton receives from Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs is the single most influential financial institution in the world. It sits at the heart of the economic and political network that makes almost all of the important financial decisions in the Western world. It has been memorably described in these words by the Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibi: “The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” (the full article is well worth a read – it is available on line here).

Put simply, Goldman Sachs is the embodiment of contemporary western financial capitalism – in other words, everything that progressive thought is supposed to be against. Cheering for Iceland because they took on the banking system and won, resulting in huge gains for their population? That means you’re against Goldman Sachs. Opposing the new free trade deal between the EU and the US, because it will mean giving huge power to pharmaceutical interests and undermine the NHS? That means you’re opposed to Goldman Sachs. Believe that major industries need to do full Environmental Impact Assessments before changing their activities (like Bradwell)? That means you’re opposed to Goldman Sachs.

Goldman Sachs is the brain and the nervous system that supplies the governing class with their framework of values, and the public face of the government knows when to do its masters bidding. One of the most egregious examples of this came when Gordon Brown as the UK Chancellor decided to sell off 400 tonnes of our gold supply at an absurdly low cost, simply to ensure that Goldman Sachs and its friends did not lose out too much on a ‘short’ bet that had gone wrong. Brown sold the gold at a price of less than $300 an ounce – and gold is presently trading at well over $1200 an ounce – which means that Gordon Brown transferred funds from the British taxpayer to Goldman et al to the tune of some $11,574,268,776. Must be nice having friends in high places.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton, the face of the vampire squid. Hillary Clinton – indeed, both Clintons – are entirely part of the financial establishment. She is paid richly by the financial industry, and she earns that money by doing their bidding. In 2014 and the first three months of 2015 she earned eleven million dollars for ‘speaking’ at various functions. Goldman Sachs specifically pays Clinton more than $200,000 per hour for her ‘talks’.

Is it possible that this degree of connection between politicians and financial organisations is entirely benign and operating in the public interest? Possibly, but if you believe that I have a bridge that I would like to sell you. No, if you have any concern that our civilisation is on the wrong track, that it is too beholden to vested financial interests, that the environment is being strip-mined to generate short-term returns for shareholders, then the idea that voting for Hillary Clinton can advance that cause simply beggars belief. Voting for Hillary Clinton is a vote for maintaining the status quo, for keeping the world safe for rapacious capitalism.

hilary clinton

No, if the system is to be changed then a candidate needs to be elected who is not a creature of the financial system. Given the financial constraints that rest upon anyone who runs for the US Presidency, the only possible candidate is someone independently wealthy, and who can therefore criticise things like the TTIP with impunity. Someone, in short, who looks like Donald Trump.

How I would convert Richard Dawkins (part one)

It’s a bold claim to even suggest – that it would be possible to convert the most notorious atheist in the Western world. Yet I think that it would be possible, given enough time and good will. How would I do it?

To begin with, I would not engage directly with any of the arguments that Dawkins puts forward in his book ‘The God Delusion’. Instead, I would want to talk about the nature of language. After all, the arguments that are used by both sides of the debate, believer and atheist alike, are embedded in language. If we don’t have an awareness of what sort of thing language is – or, perhaps, of the many different things that language is – then we are likely to go astray.

Given the excellent nature of his writing, then, I would begin by discussing poetry with the good Professor. I would want to explore what makes for good poetry over against bad poetry. Why are some writers revered for their use of language, whilst others are reviled. What is it that gives certain words their power? Through the discussion of poetry what I would most want to achieve is a sense of how we can be creative with words, that words can be manipulated in certain ways in order to achieve certain effects.

Of course, the good Professor may not wish to accept my point here. I have had discussions with some atheists where it has become clear that they are ‘tone deaf’ when it comes to poetic language, and see it as an irrelevance to the question of atheism. At that point, if there is no meeting of minds then the discussion would be over. I’d have to accept failure in my attempt to change a mind.

However, if the point about poetry is accepted then we are away.

My next step would be to explore how we actually use language in every day life, drawing attention to the many different ways in which language does different things in different situations. Consider how the word ‘water’ is deployed in these different contexts: by someone responding to the question ‘what would you like to drink?’; by someone who has just been given a glass of water but who has been expecting a glass of champagne; by someone struggling through the desert for days and who has discovered an oasis.

In these situations we still have a fairly direct connection between ‘water’ and what is being discussed, there is simply a different emotional content being expressed in the use of the word.

Now consider the word ‘lovely’, and how that word might be used in different ways – to express both approval and disapproval, scorn or boredom.

Hopefully by this time the good Professor will be coming to see that language is a remarkably flexible instrument, and see that when we are considering questions of religious belief we need to pay attention to what is actually being done when certain language is being used.

Before talking directly about religious language, however, there is one last element of ground-clearing that would need to be done, and this is connected to the philosophy of science.

If a scientist spoke about ‘water’ it would be a reference to a substance with the chemical composition H2O – and, crucially, in our contemporary culture, this is privileged as the right way to understand the meaning of the word, with all the other ways of using the word (as discussed above) being considered as derivative.

In my discussion with the good Professor what I would most want him to understand is that this privileging of the scientific way of using a word has distinct and particular historical roots. It flows from a decision that what can be measured through instrumentation is more real than anything else, and possibly the only real thing that there is. Furthermore, this attitude is rooted in a philosophy known as materialism, and in the history of philosophy it has had a long struggle with an opposing philosophy known as idealism – the key feature of idealism being the assertion that reality is fundamentally mental and not material.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century heyday of scientific triumphalism, materialism seemed to be self-evidently true. Throughout the twentieth century, however, that confidence came to be understood as increasingly misplaced. The impact of quantum physics, which showed that the separation between the observer and the observed was not ultimately valid, was particularly dramatic. That shift in understandings, however, takes time to filter down from the scientific and academic realm into the area of popular conversations. These days, in philosophical circles, a simple embrace of materialism is regarded as a sign of ignorance – the sort of attitude that a first-year undergraduate might hold before beginning a proper study of the subject.

So to sum up part one, all of the discussions that I would have had so far with the good Professor – about poetry, about the use of language, about the philosophy of science – would have been with the intent to make him more aware of the presuppositions and assumptions that lie behind his other statements. My hope would be that, in becoming aware of those assumptions, he might start to recognise the intellectual integrity of alternative positions. He might not, of course – in which case I would have nothing futher to say – but in that case his arguments are not with religious believers but with the very many (frequently atheistic) philosophers of language and science who disagree with him, and I would happily leave the burden of persuasion to them!

One last point: by ‘Richard Dawkins’ I mean anyone who is aggressively committed to an atheist position, as set out in something like ‘The God Delusion’. My aim in these articles is simply to draw out significant tensions in their position, trusting that if this became clear that it would, at the least, lead to self-questioning and perhaps a less confident proclamation of atheism. The most that I might realistically hope for is an openness to further conversation. I rather doubt that any one person can ‘convert’ another – that is something that needs to be a work of the Holy Spirit if it is going to last and not simply be an exercise in power and manipulation.

No man is an island

In my last column I talked about the spirituality of anger, looking mainly at anger from the perspective of an individual. This week I want to talk about the more social elements.

One of the consequences that often follow from a mistaken suppression of personal anger is that the person concerned becomes depressed. Where anger is a normal and legitimate response to something that has gone wrong, where it is what I call ‘righteous anger’, and where that anger is suppressed for whatever reason then it is common for the person whose emotions are being suppressed to lapse into a depression.

It is rather like the way in which zoo animals can become depressed as a result of being taken out of their natural environment. A lion might be as fully fed as they could ever wish, yet if forced to live within a compound that is just a small fraction of the territory that they are adapted to in the wild then the lion simply will not flourish. A vital part of their instinctive nature has been walled off, and a listless anomie can settle upon them.

I believe that much human depression is analagous to this. Now let me quickly add that depression is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon – an overwhelming experience for those who suffer with it, and a controversial source of dispute for those who seek to understand it. I would hold open the possibility that there are non-social reasons for depression, that is, that there may be some cases or forms of depression that are correctly called an illness. I shall pursue the details of that discussion another time. All I need to rely upon for my purposes here is an acceptance that there are some forms of depression which come about as a result of particular events and circumstances in a person’s life.

My concern is – when this happens, how do we as a wider community react to that person’s suffering?

Do we seek to keep the sufferer silent? After all, there is a long and disturbing history of authorities seeking to silence those who are opposed to the status quo. What happens when the righteous anger of a protester is suppressed? Does the protester then become literally like the lion in a zoo, confined within concrete walls and denied access to our fully human society?

Do we mistakenly medicalise the situation? That would seem so much more humane a response than simply locking up someone that makes the establishment feel uncomfortable. Yet as the magnificent ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ dramatised, a neutralisation of dissent under the guise of medical therapy can be even crueller than the loss of liberty itself.

Or might we start to take the individual seriously, and seek to understand what is happening in their life and relationships? Might we in fact start to treat the individual, not as an isolated atom that can be best understood through isolating them from their fellows, but rather as an integral part of a much larger web of connections? This is the approach taken by, amongst others, family therapists who have long recognised that it is often impossible to heal one member of a family without also engaging with the other family members alongside them.

I would wish to broaden out that sensibility to consider the wider society. If a person has become depressed I would argue that there are often particular roots in political and economic factors. For example, if someone has lived and worked as a miner for twenty years, through to their mid-40s, and then as a result of political decision making that pattern of life is removed as a practical possibility for them, it is not surprising if depression follows. The right response to such a situation is not to punish the sufferer for their wrong views but rather to sympathise with their plight and begin to investigate ways of changing their situation – to give the legs of the lion more room to roam.

Where does such an analysis end? After all, the extent of social injustice stretches very far. For me, I am forced to draw upon the traditional Christian language of the Fall in order to make any headway at all. The doctrine of the Fall states that we are all born into a sinful world and we cannot help committing more sins as we live within it. In other words, there are no easy answers on which we can depend when faced with the messy reality of human psychological health. There is no neat solution that fixes all things and all people. Yet there remain two insights on which to cling.

The first is simply: we are in this together. When one of our number suffers, we all suffer. If we are to become a community of healthy individuals, we need to recognise and take seriously that healthy individuals are the fruit of a healthy community and a healthy community is one that sees each member as part of a greater whole. This is the genius that lies behind the foundation of the NHS, the insight that disease and other medical problems can fall upon any one of us at any time, and it makes for a saner society if we share the risk between us.

The second is that grace arrives in surprising ways. When all things seem to be against us, when all our choices range from really bad to even worse, that is often the time when we can be most surprised by God. The world is not fixed to run along a particular course, and sometimes our hopes can be vindicated after all rational thought has told us to give up.

Sometimes the suffering of a single person is enough to alert a healthy community that something much larger is going wrong. In just the same way that there is a ‘patient zero’ at the beginning of an epidemic, so too do individuals respond first to larger cultural changes. I believe that we cannot fully understand depression and related mental problems in isolation from the families and the communities within which the sufferers live and move and have their being. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.