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

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.
Cuba 049
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!”
Ingenious Engineers
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.
Cuba 015
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

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.

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.

Teflon Trump: a portent to many

trump baby

Why is Donald Trump so popular? Last night he won the Florida primary for the Republican Party. The spin-meisters in the global media conglomerates – who are terrified of Trump for many reasons, including the fact that he is much better at their jobs than they are – have been pumping up John Kasich’s win in Ohio as some sort of sign that Trump’s momentum is slowing down. As if.

Trump’s margin of victory in the March 15th round of elections was significantly higher than his margin of victory on so-called ‘Super Tuesday’ – his share of the overall Republican vote has risen from 34.6% to 40.3%, and this at a time when the deep pockets of the Republican establishment have been raided in order to fund ‘attack ads’ against him, especially in Florida.

So how does the Donald manage to shrug off all these attacks? How did Teflon Trump manage to become so non-stick to all the fully justified criticisms of his policies and personality?

Put simply, all the criticisms are perceived as coming from the governing establishment – other politicians, the mainstream media, government and academia. The disconnect between the governing establishment and those over whom they rule has been getting wider for decades. The governing establishment has accepted many standards of behaviour that are used to identify a person as either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of that group. Foremost amongst these is political correctness.

Trump, it must be admitted, is not politically correct.

More than this, Trump has explicitly identified himself with those who are outside the establishment. His use of aggressive and inflammatory language is quite clearly ‘not the done thing’ within the governing class. It is, however, how a very large number of people speak in their normal interactions.

These are the people that are voting for Trump. They vote for him because they identify with him. They see him as ‘one of us’. This is immensely potent politically.

When the governing establishment attacks Trump, Trump’s support tends to rise. This is simply because his base of support sees those attacks as being, not simply against Trump as a person, but against Trump as representative of a class. For the first time in several generations, the Trump supporters have someone who can not only represent them on a wider national stage, but someone who can represent them and win in struggles against the governing establishment. This is why they are so fired up.

It would be a mistake to portray this in racial terms. The governing establishment likes to portray Trump supporters as angry white men, rednecks with no education and less breeding. That is simply a portrait of their own shadows – the dark heart of white identity, from which the enlightened ones have been raised, never to go back.

Trump is not a racist, and he is in fact doing well with the Hispanic vote in particular. In the Nevada primary, for example, he gained 44% of the (Republican) Hispanic vote. What is often missed beneath the bold rhetoric that Trump is known for is a hard-headed and pragmatic insistence that the job of the United States president is to protect the interests of United States citizens – and nobody else. The fact that this is the most important part of the job description seems to have been lost by most commentators, and the extreme reaction to Trump’s policy simply shows how warped the mentality of the governing establishment has become. Trump wins votes among Hispanics in particular because they are fully aware of what a lawless society looks like – Mexico. They are fully aware that if they wish to make a better life for themselves – that is, if they wish to pursue the American Dream – it needs to be done lawfully, in the context of and with the support of a robust legal and police system.

This is why Trump is popular. It is also what drives the vitriolic and personalised denunciations of Trump himself. Trump is the living embodiment of all that the governing establishment disdains. What has followed is a perfect example of a religious witch-hunt. The high priests are reacting against the heretic discovered in their midst and are whipping themselves up into a righteous fury, a fury that is likely to have a very particular outcome.

Trump is not Hitler. He is neither racist nor a warmonger, he has a long history of working with unions and opposing corporate subsidies. He is, put simply, a very ‘centrist’ candidate for the US presidency. Yet ‘Hitler’ is the word of choice for all those who oppose him. This is dangerous, for to call a person Hitler – that is, to call them by this name with all seriousness – is to render that person beyond a particular community, and once this has been accepted, then that person is no longer entitled to the protections of that community.

It’s a common question – if you could have stopped Hitler before his rise to power, would you have done so? The media narrative around Trump is channelling a huge amount of psychic pressure towards an assassination attempt. If Trump is assassinated then we really are going to move closer to a second American Civil War.

If Trump lives, and if he is allowed to gain the Republican nomination (not guaranteed, there might still be room for a back-stage stitch-up) I predict that Trump will win in November. Hillary Clinton, his likely opponent, is utterly corrupt – a stooge of Goldman Sachs, implicated in several different ethical and financial scandals, and open to a savage critique on her record in office as Secretary of State, during which time the United States’ foreign policy has been a disaster without precedent in modern times. More than that, no person more embodies the face of the governing establishment than the radical feminist who owes her career to the success of her husband.

No. Trump will win, and will win in a landslide. After that, politics will become interesting again.

UPDATE: just came across this cartoon, which says it all:

trump establishment

Inside the mind of an Islamist


How does an Islamist think? Most especially, what is it that drives young British men to leave their homes and families behind and to trek off to Syria to join up with the crazies in ISIS? Or to stay in this country and perpetrate barbarities like the 7/7 attacks or the savage slaughter of Corporal Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich? To begin answering that question, I very much recommend reading ‘The Islamist’ by Ed Husain.

Husain grew up in Tower Hamlets, a child of devout and traditional Muslim parents. When he was a teenager he fell under the influence of more radical teachings associated with the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. As he grew older, his radicalism developed and he became a key recruiter for a group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which is an Islamist group dedicated to the establishment of a Caliphate, in which Muslims might be enabled to live fully Islamic lives. If you think that sounds exactly like ISIS you would not be wrong – it’s just that HT is a competing ideology, and rather like with Protestant ideologies in Christianity, the smallest differences make for the bitterest rivalries. ISIS recently executed an HT preacher in their territory.

Husain’s work for HT eventually led to a personal crisis, when a close ally in HT made a violent attack upon a fellow student at Newham college, where Husain had become a student. This led to a process of self-questioning and further intellectual exploration of Islam. Husain learned to speak Arabic properly and spent time in Syria and Saudi Arabia, teaching English as a foreign language and working for the British Council. Over the course of several years Husain was gradually able to shed his Islamist beliefs and return to the form of Islam into which he was raised, one which is centred on a peaceable life and spiritual growth.

Husain’s story is a fascinating one, and one which had particular resonance for me as I spent several years working in Tower Hamlets before coming to Mersea, and so I was familiar with the various locations that he described, and the general culture. I was also reasonably familiar with the divisions in Islam that are the background to Husain’s writings. What Husain provides, and it is invaluable, is an extremely resonant portrayal of how those differences work out in practice. For example, Husain describes visiting Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Many traditional believers who visit that most sacred site do so with a desire to express personal devotion to their prophet. This, however, is complete anathema to the Saudi authorities, who follow a particular brand of Islam called Wahhabism. This brand is very much like the Puritans in our own history – and they violently disapprove of any expression of Islamic devotion that might be taken to imply ‘worship’ of Muhammed.

Husain writes, “While trying to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet, I realized that there was precious little left of his heritage in Saudi Arabia. In Mecca, all historical remnants of the Prophet’s life were destroyed with dynamite for fear of polytheism and in accordance with the Wahhabi mantra of ‘worshipping one God’. To visit the Prophet’s house in Mecca, or to view with awe the houses of his close companions, was now considered shirk or polytheism.”

One of Husain’s strongest emphases is that the Wahhabi form of Islam – which is that which dominates the Saudi nation – is a radical break with more traditional, and more peaceable forms. It is worth remembering that 19 of the 20 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals. Imagine that our own Oliver Cromwell had won the English Civil War, and that we had then had two hundred years of Puritan government. Imagine further that we had then discovered an immense natural resource under our land, which generated a wealth beyond imagining, said wealth then being used to export Cromwell’s brand of Puritanism – a brand of Christianity that banned the celebration of Christmas – to other nations around the world. Imagine further that this brand of Puritanism taught that Islam was heretical folly doomed to destruction, and that a clear sign of this imminent destruction was the way in which Islamic nations were slowly being converted to Puritan Christianity – and were paying for the privilege no less!

This is how Britain is seen – a moribund nation with no moral strength, which has been captured by the worship of Mammon and is therefore ripe for being converted. I cannot understand how our government can persist in financially and militarily supporting the Saudi regime. It is as if our government sold arms to Russia during the Cold War – these are people who are utterly committed to the overthrow of our pattern of life! Husain is very clear that this desire is in no way hidden in Saudi Arabia: “What I was taught in clandestinely Islamist mosques and cell meetings in Britain was being taught openly at universities in Saudi Arabia. Islamist extremism was nowhere near subsiding.”

After reading Husain’s book, I am left with a few answers and many more questions. I am reassured that there is a form of Islam which is compatible with British life, with which it is possible to have a mutually beneficial dialogue – a form of Islam which is associated with Sufi teaching. My concerns, however, are now even more sharply focussed. How does that traditional form of Islam relate to the more dominant form (historically and today) which has conquered vast territories, conducted indiscrimate slaughter, and now explicitly wishes to destroy Western civilisation? How does it link to the severely pathological cultural norms that have been imported into this country and which drive barbarities like the systematic child abuse taking place in Rotherham and Oxford and elsewhere?

I am persuaded that there are forms of Islam – possibly dominant forms – that are simply incompatible with being British. Unless we take active steps to engage with those forms – to resist them and overcome them – then our way of life will cease. Husain relates an extremely interesting story about the prophet Mohammed. He has been asked to pray for the area of Najd, which is the territory now occupied by Saudi Arabia. Twice he refuses to pray for that area, and in response to a third request he simply says “The horn of evil will appear from Najd”. In that, at least, he was correct.

Lessons from Cologne cathedral

Did you hear about the young German louts who got in to the sacred shrine in Mecca in Saudi Arabia and went around pulling off the face veils of Muslim women there? No? Me neither. I did, however, hear about what happened at Cologne cathedral, where large groups of immigrants went round systematically groping and assaulting young German women, in at least two cases going so far as raping them. Why is it that we do not hear about the first, but our front pages are full of the second? For the simple reason that we have lost all confidence in the values of our own society. Consequently, those values will in turn be lost.

Consider this thought experiment. There are four tribes leaving close to each other. These four tribes are peaceable, and they trade various products easily. All is well. Now imagine that one of the tribes changes in such a way that they become warlike; they are no longer interested in trade with the neighbouring tribes, instead they simply decide to take up arms and go in to take what it is that they want. The other three tribes face a dilemma. If they do not resist in a warlike fashion, then their tribes will die and be assimilated. If they do resist in a warlike fashion, however, then their culture will be changed, from a culture of peace to a culture of war. As a result of the one tribe changing, all the other tribes will change, and the ‘culture of war’ has become universal. The culture that chose to become warlike has succeeded in changing the other cultures – even if they do not win militarily.

This is now happening in Western Europe. Muslim countries which are much more restrictive in their attitudes about sexuality and the role of women in society are now succeeding in imposing their own cultural values upon the West. Consider the advice that the Mayor of Cologne has given to the young women there – that they are to ‘stick together in groups, don’t get split up, even if you’re in a party mood’ and so on. Soon, no doubt, well meaning political leaders will start arguing that young women need to dress modestly if they are to go outside, then soon after that they will start saying that ‘it is only prudent’ that young women don’t go out without a trusted male relative to look after them. At that point we will have succeeded in importing muslim cultural standards wholesale into our society. Do we really want this to happen? And if we don’t, how will we make sure that it doesn’t happen?

Do you remember the ‘Arab Spring’? There was such a sense of optimism that various regimes in the Middle East would throw out their dictators and a wonderful rainbow unicorn fairy land would emerge. There was one incident in Tahrir square, however, which was deeply disturbing, and was clearly a harbinger of what was to come. The CBS reporter Lara Logan was caught up in a mass sexual assault by dozens of young men. She was rescued by the security services and flown back to the United States where she spent four days in hospital being treated for her injuries. This form of assault has a particular name in Egypt – it is called taharrush gamea. Young men seek the cover of a large crowd, and then pick on the vulnerable with impunity. The German police have now admitted that this is what happened in Cologne.

According to Gibbon, the Western Roman Empire did not fall because it was beaten militarily by the barbarians, but rather because it had first succumbed to a spiritual and moral defeat. That is, those who exercised power on behalf of the Empire no longer believed in a higher purpose to what they were doing. I believe that we are in a similar position – our spiritual roots have been discarded and we have lost ourselves in a search for material gratification, we have ‘sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage’. Yet I do not believe that the culture and civilisation of Europe is doomed to the same fate as the Western Roman Empire. If we are to avoid such a fate, however, we need to remember and renew our own spirituality, and refresh the well-springs of our own culture.

The reason that we do not hear about young German louts acting offensively in Mecca is because entry to the sacred sites there is restricted to those who are Muslim. The Saudi authorities take their religious obligations seriously, and this is both a source of strength and a symptom of strength. By way of contrast, we have turned our great cathedrals into tourist venues, picturesque museums which show how our ancestors lived. The vibrant vitality of our historic culture has now been absorbed into mindless consumerism, the confessional becoming the selfie.

We are facing a challenge to the very foundations of our civilisation. If we are truly to continue on an enlightened and Enlightened path then we need to start taking steps to ensure that those values that we are most committed to are transmitted forward. This is not a matter simply of words, although words are essential, but also of action. We need to embody our highest values and not simply pay lip service to them. Unless we become a virtuous people once again then our values will pass into history and forgetfulness.

A start to this process would be to reclaim control of our own borders, so that we can make sure that we can decide for ourselves whether we wish to endure the delights of taharrush gamea in England. Just one more reason for voting to leave the EU when the time comes.

Protecting the alien and choosing life

refugeeWhat shall we do about all the refugees? I want to make three points about the present situation, to provide some background context for how a Christian might understand what is happening.

Firstly, there is some clear biblical guidance to draw upon, which is unanimous in saying that we are to be generous and merciful to those who are without a permanent home. In Scripture the refugees are often called the ‘alien’ – in other words, those who are unknown and unfamiliar in a particular context – and so we get texts like these: “You are not to wrong or oppress an alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22.21); “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27.19); and “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23.22). Scripture is insistent that the alien is to be treated with justice, that the alien is not to be abused or exploited, but rather to be fed and clothed and treated with compassion. This, then, must guide our immediate response.

So far, so good. What is not so often referenced when discussing the present plight of refugees is all the other law written out in Scripture, which offers something of a balance for that emphasis upon compassion. For alongside the insistence on compassion comes an even stronger insistence upon the necessity not to worship foreign gods, and for those who are alien to come under the same law as the native. So we have texts like this, from Numbers chapter 15: “The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.” This law for the natives is founded in the ten commandments which begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” This stark insistence comes with a promise – from Deuteronomy chapter 30, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.” So the second point that I want to make is that, in Biblical terms, compassion for the refugee is set directly alongside the requirement for the refugees to come under the same spiritual and legal framework as the native.

We need to hold both these things in mind today, and not just with respect to the present surge of refugees fleeing from the Middle East. We need to be very clear about what our own values are. Without that, we cannot ensure that anyone who comes to this country as an alien is treated with compassion and justice but also required to accept those values. Some might find this uncomfortable. Isn’t this a form of imperialism? Who are we to say that our values are better than somebody else’s? I find that when I mention such things in polite society it isn’t received very well. I become marked out as some sort of right-wing proto-fascist. After all, who are we to boast of our society, of our values, of our God? For that is what commitment to one set of values over against another – one God over against another – that is what it means: it is to say, we believe that this is better than that.

Well – who are we not to? Is every culture in the world to be accorded dignity and respect except for our own? I believe it is healthy and good to feel proud of our own values. Moreover I believe that it is impossible to be humanly committed to a particular way of life without it, and that it is a form of self-hatred to try to avoid all forms of national pride and celebration. To see those things in other cultures is wonderful – why can we not enjoy the same sense of wonder and celebration at all that makes our own culture distinctive? To do so, however, would mean recognising and honouring the place of our spiritual and religious beliefs within our national life, and the particular debility which we endure is that our dominant narratives are entirely secular, with no place for such things. Our tragedy is that we have blinded ourselves in the belief that it will enable us to see things more clearly.

Which brings me to my third and concluding point. We cannot avoid sharing in the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East. We are by no means the principal source of the difficulties there – my view is that each country is largely responsible for its own destiny, and the fact that the Middle East is such a blighted region culturally and economically is best explained by reference to indigenous factors, not the impact of outside agents. Yet we have intervened militarily and culturally, and we have done so on the basis of our own blindness. The critique given of Western society by groups like ISIS are not entirely without merit, however barbarous their methods. Until we learn to engage seriously with the underlying theological analysis that they draw upon, and recognise that such analysis is shared very widely throughout the world, we will not be able to begin making amends for what we have done wrong, and enabling a greater peace in the Middle East.

Human beings live within worlds of story and meaning, in the same way that fish swim within water. It is the medium within which we live and move and have our being. When those aspects of our lives are deliberately scorned and belittled, in the name of another story and another God – secular technocratic science in our society – then it is as if we have started to pour toxic waste into our own water supply. We cease to function properly, and we move blindly from one mess to another, each one worse than the last. If we are to navigate through these crises effectively, we need to draw once more from the deep wisdom of our own spiritual tradition. “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Is it worth arguing with Dawkins?

witt vienna

What makes for a useful argument? There are several things that need to be in place before a discussion can be mutually fruitful, rather than such discussion descending, as politicians’ arguments so often do, into a simple exchange of soundbites and slogans. The classical form for understanding a particular subject divides the material into three categories – grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar is where to begin, the ground stuff: the basic vocabulary, that which is needed in order simply to know what you are talking about. This is the stuff that needs to be learnt by heart before being able to progress any further, so it includes things like the alphabet, number sequence, basic dates of history and so on. Without this foundation it is literally impossible to progress any further in an understanding of the subject area.

After grammar comes logic. This is where the basic raw material has been learned, and now it is possible to apply reason to that raw material. This is where the rules of interpretation are established and put to use, where words can be formed into proper sentences, where numbers can be put through equations, where a story can be told around a particular historical sequence of events and so on.

Rhetoric comes last. Rhetoric is where things can become creative, for this is where those who have mastered the grammar and logic of a subject are able to begin building new arguments and ideas; that is, this is where it is possible to develop new rules for the logic. This is where creative and interesting work can be done – and sometimes this creative and interesting work is so profound that it completely recasts the grammar and logic of the subject in question.

The great problem with arguments about theology and philosophy of religion in our society is that those who make the most noise are people who think that they are operating at the level of rhetoric when in fact they have not yet even engaged with the basic grammar. Richard Dawkins, for example, hasn’t even achieved the level of being wrong. He is like a baby first learning to speak words, whereby it is mostly gibberish that comes out, and when there is a coherent word you cannot be certain that it matches up with a coherent thought.

Theology and the philosophy of religion have been studied by the finest minds in human history for three thousand years and more. There is a rich and fertile intellectual field that interacts with every other intellectual field, most especially the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language – it is not possible to have a rigorous understanding of physics without an equally robust understanding of metaphysics for example (as Aristotle knew). In order to make a coherent contribution to understanding in this area it really does make a difference if you have become acquainted with the way the topics have been debated through history, not least because by doing so you discover many of the most common mistakes that have been made in the past, and you are therefore set free to not repeat them.

This intellectual history has many twists and turns, new pathways and dead ends. One particular dead-end is associated with the rise of twentieth-century atheism. The roots of that form of atheism are clear. It flows from arguments put forward by David Hume in the eighteenth century, moves through the development of analytic philosophy with people like Bertrand Russell, took a canonical form as ‘logical positivism’ with the publication of AJ Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ in 1936, and was taken as received opinion in undergraduate circles in the 1960s. The arguments that Dawkins and his ilk like to make are cut directly from the arguments made by people like Russell and Ayer nearly eighty years ago. He isn’t saying anything new. Of course, the tradition doesn’t stand still, and what was intellectually fashionable in the 1960s had begun to be dismantled by the 1990′s and is now regarded as rather quaint. Ayer himself has disowned the book that was so influential, stating that it was full of mistakes that he spent the next fifty years trying to correct.

So when someone who has been formed in an intellectual tradition like philosophy engages in debate with works like those by Dawkins, Hithens and their brethren, it can be immensely frustrating. There is no basic agreement on the terms of the argument, no consensus as to the grammar and logic, let alone the rhetoric. Dawkins himself is very clear about his distaste for theology as he consigns it all to an intellectual scrapheap (using what is basically a ‘logical positivism’ type of argument to do so). At that point, what can the educated person do? She can simply say ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ and leave it at that.

Unless…. unless she sees that there is a genuinely enquiring mind behind the arguments and disputes. Where there is a good will and an open mind then it is possible for a shared understanding to be formed. Please note that this shared understanding does not at all mean that the beginning student using Dawkins’ arguments will end up being converted to Christianity. Not at all. It is perfectly possible to understand the tradition completely, to know the grammar, be an expert in the logic, and to be creative rhetorically within the mainstream Western philosophical tradition, and still be a completely convinced atheist. It’s just that such an atheist would not be intellectually lazy, parroting opinions at fifth or sixth hand, and most of all, such an atheist would have a proper understanding of what it was that he was rejecting. That is what is most missing from Dawkins.

My philosophical hero, Wittgenstein, was a part of the intellectual movement that I summarised above – he was Russell’s favourite pupil – yet, even though his own faith was murky at best, he had a very clear understanding of the nature of religious belief and the way in which the philosophical tradition both could and could not interact with it. When he was invited to address the Vienna Circle of philosophers (those whose work Ayer went on to summarise) he realised that they hadn’t grasped some of the basic grammar of what he was trying to do. He therefore turned his chair around and began to recite poetry, in an attempt to shock them into opening their minds. He didn’t succeed. As he later wrote, “What makes a subject difficult to understand — if it is significant, important — is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not difficulty of the intellect but of the will.” That’s the problem that I see with people like Dawkins – they simply don’t want to understand.

Do you have faith in your pills?

bad_pharmaIn recent years many of the insititutional pillars of society have fallen into disrespect. Politicians, obviously, but also journalism, the priesthood, the police, many others. Groups that were trusted who have now fallen from grace. Are doctors going to be next?

This is a question raised by Ben Goldacre in his extremely stimulating book ‘Bad Pharma’, which I read on holiday. Goldacre is a qualified medical doctor and psychiatrist, and presently a lecturer at Oxford. In his book, published in 2012, Goldacre sets out to show, in his words, that “Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects.”

Goldacre supports these contentions throughout his book building up a detailed critique of the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which it systematically distorts the medical process at every stage. The motivations for the pharmaceutical industry to do this are quite straightforward, given that it is a multi-billion pound industry and a successful new drug can mean the difference between a company flourishing and failing. However, in pursuit of that economic end, Goldacre documents the ways in which the industry undermines the scientific process in order to make more profit. The material that Goldacre presents is utterly shocking, and if I had any residual faith in the science lying behind much modern medical and psychiatric treatment, it has certainly vanished now.

Goldacre describes one example from when he was working in General Practice, which relates to the drug Reboxetine (Edronax), which is used as an anti-depressant. He had a patient who was not improving on other drugs, and was considering using Reboxetine to see if it had a beneficial effect. He looked at the available literature which seemed positive, and agreed with his patient that it was worth trying, and duly wrote out a prescription. However, shortly after this, a review of all the research on Reboxetine was published, which for the first time included data from medical trials that had not been published (one of the main ways in which the pharmaceutical industry manipulates things is by only publishing information about trials that show their drug in a favourable light, whilst suppressing information that is critical). Goldacre writes, “I did everything a doctor is supposed to do. I read all the papers, I critically appraised them, I understood them, I discussed them with the patient and we made a decision together, based on the evidence. In the published data, reboxetine was a safe and effective drug. In reality, it was no better than a sugar pill and, worse, it does more harm than good. As a doctor, I did something that, on the balance of all the evidence, harmed my patient, simply because unflattering data was left unpublished.”

The problems that Goldacre are describing are recognised as serious problems by some influential voices. The British Medical Journal, for example, recently published an editorial written by Goldacre entitled “How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it” so there are some grounds for hope. However, very little of substance is changing, and the pharmaceutical industry continues to operate with a great deal of freedom in how it manipulates the scientific process.

What really needs to happen is that the light of public attention needs to shine on this area in a sustained and intensive way. We need to become as worked up about what is happening in pharmaceuticals as we are about all the other scandals of our time. All institutions run the risk of becoming cocooned in their own ways of thinking and patterns of life, and sometimes it takes an outsider to come along and say ‘this is simply not right’. MPs doubtless thought that claiming expenses for the draining of their moats was simply how things were done; journalists doubtless cynically accepted that phone-tapping was the way in which the truth was discovered; church hierarchies were doubtless concerned that priests accused of child abuse had to be given a chance for redemption. In the same way I believe, following Goldacre, that the medical profession needs to be told that the present practice of relying on the pharmaceutical industry as the principal guide for the benefits or otherwise that come from any particular medicine is not acceptable.

I suspect that this will be a very difficult process because there is something different about the medical profession at the moment that doesn’t apply to the other examples. In our current society, as I have said many times, “science” operates in the role that theology used to, in that it is the overarching and dominant form of knowledge, which incorporates all others. Those who are learned in this form of knowledge are the priests of our contemporary age and, in particular, those who provide forms of healing on the basis of that form of knowledge function in the modern world in a very similar fashion to ancient shamans. Sometimes the healing can be entirely ritualistic, as is most apparent when considering the difference in effectiveness between anti-depressants and placebos (sugar pills) – both have the same healing effect, which rather suggests that such healing as takes place is a product of the ritual visit to the tribal medicine man. In other words, what we are dealing with here is not a simple, practical, technical problem that can be solved by the application of sufficient determination and good will. No, here we are seeking to topple the gods of our society, and Goldacre is a blasphemer and heretic.

There are, obviously, many ways in which the pharmaceutical industry has helped the common good, and Goldacre gives credit where it is due. However, it is equally clear that the present system is broken. I would thoroughly recommend Goldacre’s book to anyone who is interested in this subject. I shall be following the ongoing conversations with great interest.