So that was 2013

A year of consequences. The main event, obviously, was this, which overshadowed a lot of other things.

Some highlights:
– having a lead role in a play put on by the Mersea Island Players, what a lovely bunch of people;
– my best Greenbelt ever;
– spending lots of time with good friends, doing great things, having time to breathe spiritually;
– various long term work issues being resolved, and we’re looking good for some outreach next year;
– coming to some conclusions about writing and the church – see especially this one and this one. I hope to gather some of these threads together in 2014.

Not sure it counts as a ‘highlight’, but making the decision in November to homeschool my two eldest, that felt like a tremendous liberation, a stepping out in faith which I trust that God will prosper, for however long it lasts. I’m very excited by this.

Rather strangely, on a purely personal and selfish level, I would say that this has been a very good year, certainly in comparison to last. My creativity has begun to return, and my energy and joie de vivre also. I am really hoping that I will return to being a ‘fully functioning Sam’ some time in the next several months. I have a lot to look forward to in 2014.

I think my principal conclusion is this: it is not possible for bitterness and happiness to coexist in the same heart. One will devour the other. I choose to strengthen the happiness.

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

Honi soit qui mal y pense

The story goes that in the 14th Century, the King of England, Edward III was at court and dancing with his first cousin, Joan of Kent. Her garter slipped down to her ankle and there was sniggering amongst the courtiers at her embarrassment. The King then placed the garter around his own leg saying ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ – shame be to him who thinks evil of it. In other words, show some humanity and respect, when you laugh in this context you are simply displaying a lack of nobility. Edward III then founded the Order of the Garter in 1348 in order to uphold this ideal of chivalry.

How far we have come from then: a society where human nature was clearly just the same as ours, but where the institutions and leaders of society sought to uphold a more honourable way of life. I have been reflecting on this in the light of the revelations about phone hacking carried out by the News of the World. The revelations first surfaced with regard to celebrities like Sienna Miller. This did not cause great controversy – there was no great outcry at the plight of a ‘celebrity’ – one might say that we enjoyed seeing their garters fall to the floor. Yet the lack of courtesy and kindness revealed there is also the reason why we had journalists contacting Gordon Brown to ask for his reaction to his son’s cystic fibrosis before the doctors had even confirmed that diagnosis to the parents.

Put simply the last few decades of our national life have seen a steady erosion of all the values and virtues that we had previously held up for emulation. When someone tries to stand up for those values – as with a recently notorious potential mother-in-law – they are exposed to vicious ridicule and derided as an archaic prig. Quite obviously those standards were not always maintained in practice but there is all the difference in the world between striving for greatness, recognising the difficulty of making steady progress, and giving up the attempt out of despair or moral laziness. Virtue is its own reward and there is nobility in the attempt, even if it fails.

We have exchanged that culture for one of prurience. Prurience is the delight in seeing somebody’s garter fall to the floor, enjoying the humiliation and embarrassment that follows. Prurience is what leads the tabloids to build people up and then tear them down; to turn a natural and desirable display of human ability and talent into a celebrity freak show.

I wonder when these changes really began to take hold in our national life. Any complex phenomenon like this clearly has many causes but, for want of a better symbol, I think of the Profumo scandal in 1963. Here there were at least some significant national interests at stake and yet we can see the prurient interests of the press emerging in all their smutty boorishness. The deference and respect for a social order – which is all that might protect those whose garters drop – is exploded by a ‘Well he would, wouldn’t he?’

Criminal behaviour has to be investigated, and that is the fig leaf behind which the press has perpetrated their recent moral barbarities, but the fuel keeping things going has been our own interest in scandal and gossip, our own inability to accept the exercise of authority by anyone who isn’t a moral paragon and saint. As our society used to be a Christian one there was a general and tacit acceptance that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. Whilst this did not excuse immoral behaviour it did at least minimise the sense of scandal when something untoward happened, and it gave a realistic edge to the desire to do better. What we have nowadays is a far more idealistic delusion that we are in a position to cast the first stones at the latest celebrities and politicians to find themselves in the stocks of public disgrace.

If we really believe that what the News of the World did – and indeed, what the rest of the journalistic profession has been up to – is seriously morally wrong then we need to examine ourselves rather than simply enjoy the novelty of seeing journalists get a rare come-uppance. We live in the society that we choose for ourselves and it is possible to choose a different way of life. It is possible to choose a society that shuns gossip and scapegoating, to not engage in a conversation geared around ‘did you hear about…?’ and ‘isn’t it shocking…?’ To not purchase the newspapers that profit from human misery, to turn off the television shows that glamourise immorality. To not laugh when someone’s garter drops to the floor but instead to set our hearts on things above.

(Originally written July 2011, but only posted on a now-moribund blog)

Bertrand Russell’s Decalogue

I quite like these…

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

(From here, via Facebook. Relevant to Andrew Brown’s latest too.)

Ruled by bullies and barbarians

Christmas is approaching. We remember the story of a pregnant woman travelling far from home being turned away from shelter. We give thanks for the miracle of the safe arrival of the Christ-child, and all the wonderful things that have followed from that.

I can’t help but ponder the differences between that story and the one that has recently come to public attention involving Alessandra Pacchieri. Ms Pacchieri was also a pregnant woman travelling far from home – in her case, she came from her home in Italy to Stansted Airport, to attend a training course. She was heavily pregnant, and through an unfortunate sequence of events, fell foul of the local constabulary and social services. Because she had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and was not maintaining her medication, she was ‘sectioned’ – meaning that she was detained in a psychiatric hospital. Her baby girl was removed by caesarean section and, after the first few days, she was forbidden to continue breast-feeding and the child was placed in foster-care. Some fifteen months on, her child is now being put up for adoption, and Ms Pacchieri is pursuing her case through the courts – quite simply, she seeks for her child to be returned to her. In this she is being supported by a number of people and institutions who share my horror at what Essex Social Services have done.

Now I am quite certain that a rational case can be developed to demonstrate that the actions of our Social Services were in line with the proper procedures and guidance that they have to follow. At each point someone with proper authority gave their advice or consent for the next step to be taken. It may be the case that there are details of this case that have not been made public, and that would shed a very different light upon what seems to be a frightening injustice. Yet, I also can’t help but believe that such information would itself have to be pretty staggering to do justice to what has happened. To enforce a caesarean section upon a woman without consent, and then to deny further contact between mother and child, and then to put the child up for adoption against the wishes of the wider family – clearly, this mother must be seen by our social services as one of the most evil mothers ever to walk the earth. For what else might justify their actions? If Ms Pacchieri is simply an averagely competent mother, the welfare of her daughter is greatly advanced by being kept with her mother. This basic truism is even enshrined in European Law, which in this case at least manages to coincide with common sense.

I shall be following the details of this case with great interest, and I pray for an outcome which minimises the trauma for the families involved. What I would like to tease out here, however, is the way in which Ms Pacchieri became subject to the choices of bureaucrats. Wittgenstein once remarked to a friend (who went on to become an eminent psychiatrist) that nothing would frighten him more than being misdiagnosed as mentally ill. Surely it is a fate similar to that of Ms Pacchieri that concerned him. After all, once the diagnosis had been made – once the system had taken control of her life – once ‘the Matrix has her’ – all of Ms Pacchieri’s rights were taken away. She was no longer a person, she was simply a unit, moved around and manipulated, operated on and directed by bureaucratic imperatives. Can there be a more fundamental breach of human rights than this?

We have inherited, in our justice system, a good number of checks and balances; things like trial by jury, habeas corpus, rights to do with free speech and free assembly and so on. These have evolved because of a recognition that the centralisation of power will inevitably lead to abuse. It is through a dispersal of power and, especially, an insistence upon bounds to the arbitrary exercise of power, that have enabled this country to enjoy a wealth of freedom through recent centuries. What the Pacchieri case says to me is that this historic settlement has been abandoned.

What, after all, did it mean to be diagnosed as ‘schizophrenic’ – which is the diagnosis given about Ms Pacchieri to justify her incarceration. There is no recognised aetiology for schizophrenia; the word is simply an umbrella term used to gather together a bundle of disparate symptoms – and those symptoms themselves essentially boil down to ‘behaviour which makes the wider society uncomfortable’. (For a thorough debunking of ‘schizophrenia’ as a concept – in other words, for the definitive argument as to why the word has no inherent meaning whatsoever – I would heartily recommend Mary Boyle’s ‘Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion’.)

What has happened is that a small group of people, following recognised ‘good practice’ and deploying all the powers available to the state – including those given to the recently developed ‘Courts of Protection’ (oh Kafka, if only you had lived to see this) – decided that Ms Pacchieri didn’t conform to their desired patterns of behaviour. As a consequence Ms Pacchieri has had her life turn into a real-life version of Rosemary’s Baby. She has been deprived of all agency and dignity and still the bureaucrats want to rend mother and child apart.

I feel ashamed to belong to a society that can allow such a thing to happen. We are ruled by barbarians and bullies. Two thousand years ago, a vulnerable young woman found shelter amongst the animals. Grace allowed amazing things to happen in consequence – in a place apart from polite society, apart from the realms of social acceptability. That is where God is – at the margins, with those who are broken, with the mad and maladjusted, the sinners and fools, those whom the system breaks and crucifies. Ms Pacchieri stands amongst them, and I pray that this Christmas time she might gain some small measure of comfort and support from knowing that.