Lent but not borrowed…

March 26th, 2020
by Chris

It’s Lent, and (for the fourth time) I’m currently following Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course. The term was coined by the philosopher and theologian Merold Westphal, who proposed giving up God for Lent, rather than giving up something mundane.

I strongly recommend this. There’s a cost, but it’s fairly modest, and you get a lot of material – and a lot to think about. I support Pete on Patreon, so I get most of his output without paying anything more. I’ve always posted something in response to the AfL content, which changes year to year, so it’s worth going through again just for that, but there’s also a facebook group and the reactions there bring in new takes on it every year. This year I’ve not posted anything here yet – the world has gone slightly crazy, and other things (including another online course and a glut of editing work) have intervened to leave me little time for contemplative writing, but I’m now effectively locked in at home for the next twelve weeks and have at least partly adjusted to that, so…

For those who aren’t familiar with it, week one of AfL is an introduction, week two comprises standard atheistic critiques, week three considers the mystics, week four is the materialists, week five is “death of God” theology, week six covers some inventive theologies since that and week seven deals with Pete’s “Pyrotheology”. We’re in week five at the moment. Let’s backtrack a little, though.

My overall reaction to week two is always pretty much that of Archbishop Rowan Williams who, when asked how he got on with the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins when they were both faculty at the same Oxford college, said he had no problem. “What about his strident atheism?” was asked, and Williams responded “It’s not a problem – the God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either”. This year, that came back to me hugely in week four, which started with Ludwig Feuerbach and went on to cover Marx, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman, Freud and Nietzsche. Pete has helpfully recorded a talk on Feuerbach, Marx and Hegel which is publically available, which means I can actually link to something he’s said on the subject.

Now, as I’ve written about before, I was an evangelical atheist by the time I was 9, and I’d probably have carried on being a scientific rationalist materialist and not concerning myself with God or religion at all had I not had an overwhelming mystical experience out of the blue when I was 14. It was a very good experience, sufficiently so that I both wanted to talk about it with others, so I needed a language of expression for it – scientific rationalism really doesn’t express mystical experience well! – and wanted to experience it again, so I was looking for practices, substances or concepts which would produce more of the same. In the search for this, I explored every avenue available to me over the next ten years or so, through my last few years at school and my time at university (studying theoretical Physics, at least as far as the university and my BSc were concerned), eventually arriving at practices which I concluded at least tended to improve the chances of me having peak mystical experiences (nothing I know of guarantees them) and which, by the time I was at university, gave me a low level mystical sensibility which was available merely by pausing for a moment and turning my mind in “the right direction”. OK, it was a bit like riding a bicycle – you learn how by doing it, and explaining how you do it is near impossible.

The trouble with Feuerbach, from my point of view, is that he starts by excluding (these days, a common term is “bracketing out”) mystical experience from his critique. Now, I accept his observation that the vast majority of religionists are not mystics (or, at least, in his day were not mystics, as some interesting recent studies have shown that nearly half the population in some Western countries say that they have had at least some kind of experience which could be labelled “mystical). Certainly, back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there were relatively few people I talked with (and I talked with people obsessively about the subject) who were clearly mystics themselves. Feuerbach was writing a century earlier, and if the trend I see between the 70’s and today is projected back, there were probably very few mystics around.

The thing is, in my studying of various religious and religion-adjacent traditions, I had come to the conclusion which I first saw expressed in F.C. Happold’s book “Mysticism: A study and anthology”, that at the heart of any religion was at least one mystic, often more. Eastern religions, it seems to me, have always been more accepting of their mystics than the Christian West, and it was very attractive to me to “go eastern” like Alan Watts (whose work I encountered while at university). I ended up with a mainly Christian concept-set and praxis for complicated reasons which I’ll maybe write about separately, but have frequently been frustrated by Christianity, once to the extent of writing “the whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the writings of mystics”, which was a drastic overstatement, but which I think has a strong kernel of truth in it.

In other words, I don’t think you get a religion unless you have a mystic or two in there, and in the case of Christianity, I identify Jesus, the writer of the Fourth Gospel and Paul as being foundational mystics (as Jesus wrote nothing himself, it is thinly possible that some of the other gospel writers were mystics but that Jesus wasn’t, but as I find massive mystical sensibility in both the gospels of Matthew and of Thomas, I tend to think that Jesus himself was the foundational mystic, and to me, his career makes perfect sense as that of someone strongly affected by mystical sensibility).

When Feuerbach brackets out mystics, therefore, I see him as bracketing out what is really the whole point of the religion. That struck me very forcibly this year, and I came close to stopping bothering with AfL for the remaining weeks. However, I persevered, and observed through Marx, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman and Freud, at least, that what they were talking about was the way the followers of Christianity were acting as a result of their tradition’s developed ideas in economics, social organisation and psychology. Nietzsche I leave out – his wild vision might just possibly have something of the mystic about it.

It also struck me that they were taking a view rather similar to that of B.F. Skinner, who thought of psychology purely in terms of the actions it results in. This is regarded these days in virtually the entire psychological establishment as an excessively reductionist view. Yes, organised religion does produce results such as those criticised by Marx, Hill, Goldman and Freud, but in each of their cases, I could criticise them on the basis that, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and also on the basis that they neglect the fact that even if you remove all of the interpretational and philosophical superstructure of religion, you are still going to have people having mystical experiences, which are experiences of God. There is an experiential reality there which they are completely missing.

Week six has so far covered Bonhoefer’s “religionless Christianity”, Tillich’s idea of absolutes and Altizer’s “Death of God” concept. All of those are, to a great extent, philosophers (philosophical theologians) trying to modify the philosophical content of Christianity in the light of the failure of traditional ideas of God; Tillich does in his work express an appreciation of mysticism, but in essence he is using terms in philosophical theology to attempt to arrive at something rigorous. I can’t claim to have completely got my head round Altizer’s work yet, and I’ve been living with it since, in my late teens, the then vicar of Selby Abbey caused a major stir by preaching an Easter sermon based on Altizer; I had several conversations with him following that. The other two, however, seem to me to be trying to do something with philosophy which philosophy is not equipped to do, to produce something coherent out of mystical experience.

One of the major features of a large amount of mystical writing is the “coincidenta oppositorum”, the coincidence of opposites. The mystics’ experience of God is best conveyed poetically, I think (and poetry does not lend itself to philosophical analysis any more than it does to scientific rationalist analysis, which may be the same thing) but a frequent feature is the statement of two totally opposing things which are true simultaneously, an example being the common feature of mystical experience that the sense of self is at the same time expanded to fill the universe and contacted to nothingness, something I have felt many times. There are other totally contradictory statements which can be made similarly… Logic does not know what to do with that coincidence; in logic, and so in both science and philosophy, a proposition and its negation (or two mutually exclusive ideas) cannot both be true. But to the mystic, occasionally they just are.

[I may be assisted in the coincidence of mutually exclusive ideas by having been a Physicist – a basic requirement of undergraduate Physics is to accept wave-particle duality, for instance.]

We will, at the end of the course, arrive at Pete’s Hegel-inspired idea of there being a fundamental opposition, which he also describes as a deadlock, in the structure of reality. Now, I have some difficulty with overriding statements about the underlying nature of reality; if I’ve understood anything of Kant (which, I admit, is a dubious proposition), I’ve taken on board the concept that we really cannot say anything conclusive about ontology. Personally, I incine towards the idea that there are a number of competing ontologies and one may be useful in one circumstance whereas another is more useful in a second, but that maybe, just maybe, someone will eventually come up with an ontology which encompasses both and resolves the apparent conflict. But that is really just a pious hope; maybe Pete is right, and reality really is divided against itself. I keep following him in the hope that I may sometime actually be able to borrow his concept for myself; at the moment his thought and mine coincides sometimes but disagrees on other occasions.

There is certainly a very ample amount of absurdity evident in the world at the moment!

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How are you doing with the pandemic, Chris?

March 22nd, 2020
by Chris

That’s been a fairly common question from friends either on facebook or “in real life” recently. So, yes, I am in the group which the government has “strongly recommended” after this coming weekend to self-isolate completely for at least 12 weeks (I strongly suspect that it’ll be a lot longer). Although I’m a few years light of 70, they recommend the same regime to anyone who customarily gets a free ‘flu vaccination, and I qualify for a free ‘flu jab on four grounds. The really significant ones are that I have COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and three blocked coronary arteries, currently managed with medication. And, despite it being idiocy of the first water, I still smoke.

Yes, getting something like COVID 19 would be a very serious prospect for me. For the last few years, getting a bad cold or the common ‘flu has been a serious prospect for me, as either of those has tended to turn into pneumonia, and I’ve as standard been prescribed steroids and antibiotics, the latter as a preventative to avoid bacterial pneumonia developing – and probably as a result I’ve not had pneumonia for the last three years. This virus, though, produces viral pneumonia, and that might be treatable with steroids, but it isn’t preventable with antibiotics.

Some friends have wondered why I’ve not completely self-isolated before now, as at Sunday 22nd March. This is not entirely due to my substantial lack of fear of death, which is in part informed by mystical experience and in part by the observation that I’ve had a pretty decent life and am now notionally retired – an “old age pensioner” and thus not as productive or “useful” as I might once have been. Also, in part, because I really ought to have been dead in 2006 (I certainly intended to be), and as a friend has said, since then I’ve been “playing with house money”.

No, in substantial part it stems from the observation that if I had the virus now, the local NHS is not overloaded (there are very few identified cases, though this could be partly down to lack of testing), and I could expect to get really good treatment; if I get it later, the likelihood is that the system will be overloaded, and in conscience, were I triaging cases, I would select a 40 or 50 year old before me without hesitation. I’ve no particular wish to get the thing, so I’ve already been being extremely careful, and (aside from generally leading a pretty isolated life at the best of times) have cancelled all of my meetings and social events, but if I have to get it, this would probably be a better time than later this year… indeed, looking at the curve in Italy compared with that here, a better time than in around two weeks. Having said that, I am not confident that the evidence shows that the virus reliably produces immunity to reinfection, and the evidence does show that it has mutated at least once, so immunity to one strain is not necessarily immunity to another.Thus getting it now isn’t necessarily a guarantee of not getting it later.

And, in conscience, I expect this virus to go from pandemic to endemic, i.e. something which, like the common cold, just moves around the population and can be caught by anyone, any time, so I expect that sometime I’ll catch it, unless I isolate forever. This article proposes an interesting “hammer and dance” strategy, but at the moment, it appears the government is falling short of implementing it as forcibly as the model demands. That, in essence, is why I expect it to become endemic.

Sometime, therefore, I expect to catch the virus. I’d just prefer that to be when the hospitals aren’t overloaded.

So, to date, I’ve been doing shopping pretty much as normal. Actually, rather more frequently than normal, because the panic buying has made it that bit more difficult to find the things I need to keep us stocked at normal levels. It’s probably been pretty safe, as there are very few identified cases in my area, despite being 14 miles from where a couple of the earliest cases in the country were identified (with the same caveat as to testing as earlier). I’m going to stop doing that as of now (luchtime on Sunday 22nd) and isolate more fully, and the likelihood is that as and when there get to be substantial numbers of cases locally, I’ll be avoiding all human contact – oh, apart from my wife (well, probably apart from her…) – and encouraging her not to go out as well. She is not in any of the high risk groups, but is disabled on physical and mental health grounds and as a result I’ve been doing almost all the shopping and other errands for some years; she could probably manage to shop for a while, with considerable additional strain on her, and much increased risk of her becoming really ill in non-coronavirus ways, but once the risk of her getting infected goes up, I’ll almost certainly ask her for that to stop too. By that time, she’ll probably heave a sigh of relief!

And we are fairly well provisioned. We’re almost always fairly well provisioned, to be honest, bar milk, bread and fresh produce which we get every couple of days; there hasn’t been any need to go and try to get multiple months’ provisions, so I haven’t been contributing significantly to the empty supermarket shelves, though I have had moments of guilt at taking the one item I needed (the last or nearly the last remaining on the shelf) knowing that the local food bank needs that kind of produce and that I could at a pinch do without…

We also have offers of going out and shopping for us, though we took up on that yesterday and found that a number of items just weren’t available, including (unfortunately) milk, which we get through a lot of. I’ve managed to repair that this morning, though it took a trip to two shops. Tesco had a queue to get in – they were restricting numbers in the store as well as items you could buy, and it was a little bizarre queuing for 15 minutes to buy two bottles of milk.

I’m not remotely afraid of not having things to do, either. Frankly, I have too much to do, even pruned of meetings and trips to the shops. My editing work is piled up, and I have a couple of practical projects which have been getting nowhere for rather a long time and which could use some attention. In addition, I’m currently involved in a couple of online courses, have another book which needs me to make a start on writing, and the forced inaction elsewhere has spurred a lot of people into a frenzy of productive activity on the web which I frankly can’t keep up with.

However, I am not feeling at my best psychologically (and neither is my wife). I seem to be permanently anxious, and anticipate that the bits of my brain which I have no conscious access to are scared stiff of the virus, and of dying as a result (I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder anyhow). Consciously, I’m also aware of feeling trapped and powerless, and neither of those are feelings I find it easy to deal with. Rationally, that’s rather silly, given that I don’t leave the house very much anyhow (two or three meetings, a church service and maybe three or four trips to the shops in a week is about the limit of my “getting out”, and the shopping trips involve virtually no social interaction). It isn’t very much at all to lose – but, it appears, psychologically the gap between “very little” and “nothing at all” is bigger than that between “very little” and “loads”.

And I suspect that that inaccessible area of my brain is also doing catastrophic thinking; I know I’m prone to that anyhow (chronic depression), but have in general successfully banished such thinking from my consciousness. Have I just suppressed it, for it to raise it’s ugly head more forcibly later? I don’t know. I do know, however, how to monitor my mood, and how to ask for help.

And I know how to contemplate and meditate, and I’ll be doing a lot of that in the weeks to come.

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Give me liberty or give me death?

March 20th, 2020
by Chris

I recently read an article in one of the US papers about how Coronavirus was going to be a test of socialised medicine. I don’t link to it, because it’s really incredibly parochial, taking the view that non-socialised medicine is the norm – which, of course, it isn’t in all Western economies other than the States. OK, it may serve as a stress-test of various models of socialised medicine, of which there are many, but it’s more likely, among those, to serve as a stress-test of government funding for socialised medicine.

The virus will, however, serve as a stress-test of economies, as this article talks of, and of governmental systems, which it doesn’t.

It is interesting to note that Boris Johnson’s recent emergency legislation gives him the power to run a command economy and an authoritarian state, and there’s every indication that that is what we’re headed for, as the “free market” proves totally incapable of responding adequately to the shock. Other European governments have taken similar powers, and several have used powers well in excess of what Johnson is currently talking of – but reading the legislation tells us that he’s probably going to use them, and probably use them soon.

It’s notable that the Chinese, after a really bad start due to their refusal to admit a problem even to themselves, have utilised their own slightly disguised command economy and extremely authoritarian state in a very successful (so far) limitation of damage – after an initial exponential phase, no new internally generated cases in 24 hours is a remarkable achievement. Other excellent responses have included Singapore (authoritarian government and social cohesion) Hong Kong (authoritarian government and social cohesion) and South Korea (national mobilisation and social cohesion). In contrast, thoroughly capitalist and democratic Northern Italy has crumbled. France and Spain are not looking particularly good. The UK is slightly behind France and Spain, who are themselves behind Italy, so it remains to be seen how we manage to perform; the worst is definitely yet to come.

It remains to be seen how the US actually reacts – it looks as if this is varying massively from state to state, so the probability is that the result will be very patchy. However, I cringe at the thought of Trump in charge of a government with truly authoritarian powers and exercising them freely…

Interestingly, the markets, bless them, seem to think that the Chinese approach is a good one – after a disastrous period for a few months, the Chinese stock market now seems to be doing exceptionally well. OK, they also still seem to prefer Trump’s America to Johnson’s UK, looking at the state of the pound at present; they also prefer the greater use of authoritarian powers in continental Europe to Johnson’s UK. One might almost think that the “free market” was telling us that the less freedom there was around, the better.

Certainly, the greater the use of authoritarian power, it seems, the lower the death toll from COVID 19. Perhaps the markets have spoken, and it isn’t a case of “give me liberty or give me death”, it’s a case of “give me liberty and death will follow”…

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In the country of the blind

March 10th, 2020
by Chris

The old adage goes “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. However, in the short story “Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells, the people determine that the one-eyed man is disabled by his ability to see, and propose to put out his eye.

I am feeling a little like the one-eyed man – truth be told, I’ve been feeling that way since 2016, when the Brexit referendum result became apparent, and this was hugely redoubled last year when the country gave Boris Johnson’s Tories an 80 seat majority in parliament, largely on the basis of a set of perhaps 50 seats in which the best interests of the voters were obviously served by a government as left-wing as people could bring themselves to vote for, seats which had been neglected and ravaged by the austerity policies practiced by 10 years of Tory governments past. I’ve consistently been pointing out that Brexit is an appallingly bad idea, and that voting for the Tories is like turkeys voting for Christmas – and, by and large, only those who, like me, are identifiably part of the “liberal elite” have agreed with me. (I’ve a degree, a postgraduate qualification and worked most of my adult life in a profession, so I obviously qualify there…)

I’ve seen this put down to “false consciousness” by Elaine Glaser. I have a lot of sympathy with her position (the article substantially predates the referendum, but is probably significantly informed by the 2010 general election result). Alternatively, there’s a discussion of acting against one’s best interests (for which there’s a technical term “akrasia” in psychology) here.

The thing is, over the last three years plus, I’ve discussed Brexit with a lot of people, in person and online. Many of those did actually vote for Brexit, and I’ve observed before that almost none of the reasons they gave for voting that way were justifiable, an argument I made many, many times. Since the result came through, it’s been much the same, but now with a more or less universal “suck it up, we won!” edge, and that has been getting more prominent as we get closer to the actual cliff-edge of having no trade deals at the end of this year, as opposed to people trying to argue that the obvious damage being done to our trade, our industry and employment in the country is somehow “worth it”.

I could draw parallels with the US situation, in which Trump supporters seem to be doing much the same thing; from an outside perspective, virtually nothing he has done seems to be in the best interests of the USA, far less the majority of his voting basis, but the constant refrain is still one of electoral triumphalism.

“We won, get over it”.

I really have to draw the conclusion that what is most important to both groups, Brexit and Trump supporters, is that they won, and they won over all the reasonable arguments put forward by “liberal elites”. The important thing has been sticking it to the liberals (“libtards” for Trump supporters, “remoaners” for Remain voters) quite irrespective of any damage done to them. One caller to James O’Brien’s LBC show last year said “I know he’s lying, but I love it, because it upsets people like you”… There’s one difference from the “Country of the Blind” story – they seem not to want to put out our eyes out of concern for us, but because they’re fed up of people being reasonable, particularly if they seem to be right a lot of the time. “We’ve had enough of experts”, said Michael Gove, encapsulating this position.

OK, there is also a strong undercurrent of generalised hatred for anything labelled “European”, which Boris is pandering to by taking us out of any organisation with the name “European” on it – even if that is going to cost us ten times as much, in the case of Air Safety, or if we actually proposed it in the first place and mostly wrote the rules, in the case of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are, apparently “winning” if we remove ourselves from anything which, although it benefits us, has the taint of being “European”. To me, this seems rather like walking away from a football game mid match – the other players will have a slightly less good game, but we’ll have no game at all. But “that’ll show ’em”… “Winning” is apparently worth any sacrifice, including the integrity of the country (see my “one party state” post).

The appeal, clearly, is to emotion, not rationality, and rationality only gets in the way. Some Brexiteers, indeed, have called me a traitor for wanting to rejoin the EU, though my massively primary motive is to benefit my own country by cooperating rather than competing. I’ve noticed some of my fellow Remainers (now “Rejoiners”) falling into the trap of “us -v- them” and calling Brexiteers “Gammons”, and generally disparaging their intellect, which is only playing their game. But then, playing “our” game of reasonable argument is equally pointless from their point of view, because reasonable argument isn’t the game they’re playing.

What we can do, however, is refuse to play their game. No name-calling, no “us -v- them” mentality, no disparagement, merely calm reason. Yes, it will probably continue to be infuriating. But all the indications are that they aren’t in a majority any more, and eventually we can hope that the undecideds will be listening to reason, not emotion. All we need to do is, in a calm and rational way, put together a centre-to-left alliance which will defeat Boris’ Tories at the first opportunity – and hope that that is earlier rather than later…

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Pinning God down

February 28th, 2020
by Chris

Looking at Merold Westphal’s writing on “Atheism for Lent” in his book “Suspicion and Faith” for Pete Rollins 2020 Atheism for Lent, I start by being put off by Westphal talking of Freud, Niezsche and Marx as the great modern theologians of original sin; original sin is not a term which I’m fond of, particularly given that it’s very Augustinian, and Augustine seems to have been the originator of the Church’s preoccupation with sex, which these days seems to be just about all the Church really IS concerned with (given that “pro-life”, i.e. anti-abortion, is really anti-sex in its deepest motivation). I don’t myself like to talk of the yetzer ha ra (evil inclination) without also talking of the yetzer ha tov (inclination toward good), thinking that the Jewish theologians did a much better job of interpreting their own scriptures, and that Christians should have left well alone – at least on that point. I do have an idea of something “original”, but it’s original self-consciousness (and so self-centeredness).

The trouble is, just when I’d decided not to like his writing, Westphal then suggests that those three are useful as critics of Christianity, and with that I thoroughly agree. If “the unexamined life is not worth living”, then probably the unexamined faith is not worth having – or, considering that the NT usage is of a verb form, not worth faithing. I’m still comfortable when he points out that all three cast doubt on the utility of substance-dualism, and suggest that religion can be a very material, fleshly thing. What else, indeed, can it be, when metaphysics is relegated by Kant to the sphere of unfounded conjecture (as I interpret him as saying, but then, I don’t claim to understand Kant).

Then, however, Westphal is straight back into “all our righteous deeds are but as dirty rags” and “the heart is deceitful in all things, and desperately corrupt”, and quoting Karl Barth stating that it was not the world which crucified Jesus, but the church. Forgive me, but it was not the church. It wasn’t even the Jewish Temple hierarchy, which I imagine Barth considered to be place-holders for the church. It was the Romans, and they were most definitely the worldly power, and, if we believe Matthew, it was also the mob – empire and hoi polloi conjoined, which is pretty definitely the world. I will grant that in those days the concept of separating church and state was well over a millennium away, and would have meant almost nothing to any faction in the first century, and that one of the issues the Romans obviously had with Jesus was total incomprehension of “my kingdom is not of this world”. Where else could it be? They had the same issue with later followers of Jesus proclaiming “Jesus is Lord”, because, by implication, that meant that Caesar was not Lord. In that day and age, heresy was also treason – and continued to be through the history of the Empire and then of Christendom until at least the Reformation. Let’s be honest, it continues to this day – Catholics have only fairly recently started becoming more accepted because of their allegiance to the Pope, Jews are still attacked for the deeds of the Israeli Government and suspected of split loyalties, and Muslims have to carry the burden of a few of their more extreme adherents – in a way in which, I note, Christians don’t have to carry the burden of some of theirs (for example, the Lords Resistance Army).

Later, however, it becomes clear that Barth was laying the blame at the feet of the church at least in part to avoid it being cast on the Romans or the Jews (because we are not Romans or Jews), so we could accept the blame. In conscience, I think we can do that without this somewhat ahistorical exercise – Christians think of themselves as “grafted on” to the stem of Judaism, so we cannot take the benefit without the burden there, and most Western Christians are the children of Empire, whether it be the English-speaking British and then American empires or the competing ones of the Spanish, Portuguese, French or Dutch. Even the Belgians had their stab at empire in the Congo, and the Italians in Eritrea; the Scandinavians need to look a little further back to Vasa and Vikings… though perhaps the Swiss are exempt.

Westphal, however, then turns in a direction more congenial to me, in using Barth’s criticism of Christianity as transactional, using the example of Salieri from the play and film “Amadeus”; it is all about what God can do for us, apparently. One might more profitably think in terms of “ask not what your God can do for you, but what you can do for your God”. Jesus, after all, said “take up your cross and follow me”; we are not looking there at a transaction, but an exhortation, and one which leads to a death similar to that of Jesus (something which was familiar to several generations of early Christians, but entirely foreign to most today). Paul wrote “I have been crucified with Christ” – he hadn’t, in the strict sense, but in extra-scriptural writing, it seems he eventually achieved that. I think it right that, as Lent points us inevitably to the cross, so we should orient ourselves that way in advance.

One further thought came to me in contemplating this passage in a somewhat cruciform frame of mind, and that was that the stress on challenging our notions of God is very appropriate. I’m a mystic; I rest what faith I can manage (what faithing I can achieve) on a number of powerful mystical experiences, and we’ll come to that a couple of weeks hence. Pete rightly identifies the mystics as criticising any too-definite statement about God, and I have to agree that that is a characteristic of mystics reporting their experience; the words we have, the concepts we have, are inadequate to convey the fullness of that experience of God. The generality is to affirm something about God but immediately to negate it, the cataphatic way (way of denial), and the image which comes to me is that every time we make a definite statement about God, we are trying to pin God down to some specific definition (I wrote a whole post about this, the title of which “The heresy of all doctrines” prompted someone to ask if I’d encountered Pete Rollins work, as it was reminiscent of some of this titles – I hadn’t, but here I am embarking on a fourth dose of Atheism for Lent).

Pinning God down could be a description of the crucifixion…

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What can Rejoiners do now?

February 16th, 2020
by Chris

The UK is now over a fortnight into not being a member of the EU, something which has not yet really impacted most of us all that much, despite a raft of insolvencies and factory closures already. We are, until 31st December, still in the “transition period” during which all the previous trade and regulatory provisions still apply, the only actual difference being that we don’t have any say in what EU laws, rules and regulations are. Those setbacks to the economy (including Axminster Carpets and Norton Motorcycles) are just the tip of the iceberg, as one commentator ably indicates in this video.

To be honest, I cried when we left on the 31st of January, and kept bursting into tears again on a regular basis after that for several days when I saw some British people crowing about our leaving, with a stack of xenophobic comments, but equally saw many Europeans, including prominent politicians, regretting our departure and holding out a hand of friendship for the future. One thing which does warm my heart is to find that the UK now has the largest and strongest pro-Europe movement in Europe, and there are around half a dozen vociferous grass roots groups starting to construct a campaign to re-enter the EU, a couple of which I’ve joined – because I am absolutely sure that if the country is to have any decent future, it is going to be within Europe, not as a cantankerous island adjacent to Europe which doesn’t really want to join anything.

American friends have asked me why I am still banging on about Brexit, considering that it’s a “done deal”; the Tory majority of 80 makes it impossible for anything I (or any mass movement) does for the next 5 years, bar a revolution, to have any effect on government policy, and suggest that the country will no doubt survive the exercise (in which I notice Paul Krugman agrees – he thinks it’s a huge mistake and will make us poorer, but that we’ll survive). I actually regard it as a true existential threat – because it is very unlikely we will come out of it as “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

Firstly, and particularly considering Sinn Fein’s new status as the largest party in Ireland (and recalling that Sinn Fein are the political wing of the IRA), I think there’s no doubt that we’ll soon be seeing a referendum in Northern Ireland on Irish unity, and the fact that quite a lot of Unionists really want to stay in the EU and that they’ve now experienced sharing power with the Republicans means that they’re prepared to vote in ways which were never in contemplation previously; a majority of NI MPs are now from parties supporting reunification. If opinion stays in favour of reunification for a significant period, the Good Friday agreement commits us to allowing NI to join with Eire in an united Ireland – and that’s the end of the UK, which then becomes merely “Great Britain”.

At the same time, there now appears to be a solid majority in Scotland for independence, and there seems to me no possibility that there won’t be another independence referendum, and that that will elect for an independent Scotland which will want to rejoin the EU. Granted, Johnson has said that he will not permit such a referendum, but the SNP are quite capable of calling one anyway, and trying to hold on to an independence-minded Scotland by force seems to me a losing strategy. That will remove the “Great” from Britain, which will at that point be merely England and Wales… which one might possibly still style “Great Britain”, I suppose – but then, two of the three elements of the Union Flag will have gone, and all that will be left is the red-on-white cross of St. George, Wales never having managed to insert green field or red dragon into the national flag.

Krugman may be correct, but I think underestimates the depths of misery into which a hard Brexit would plunge the country, with the collapse of all manufacturing which relies on “just in time” supply chains and guaranteed food shortages (the supermarkets similarly rely on “just in time”, and Kent will turn into a lorry park – just two minutes of delay at Dover produced a 17 mile tailback of vehicles recently, and the delays are likely to be far longer than that, and continue more or less as long as we have no “minimum friction” trade deal). What we risk, at that point, is the one way of displacing the government which I left open, namely a revolution. And I really don’t want a revolution. Granted, I felt a surge of passion when a fellow Rejoiner posted a version of “Do you hear the people sing” (“singing a song of angry men…”) from “Les Miserables” this week, but I couldn’t help remembering that that song is followed not long after by “Empty chairs and empty tables”. Revolutions are chancy things, often fail, and the common thread is that people on both sides die.

However, any campaign to rejoin probably can’t make any serious headway until 2021, when we’ve seen what kind of Brexit we are actually going to have to endure. Boris Johnson’s speech on the morning after the disastrous election in December made me think that there was at least a possibility that this would not be a “hard Brexit”, though every indication in his revised withdrawal agreement indicated that that was his goal; he talked of bringing the divided country together, and the one way that might be achieved is to soften Brexit to the point at which we pro-Europeans can say “Oh, OK, it isn’t a total catastrophe, we can live with this for a while”.

Against that possibility, all his talk since then has been blustering about how Europe is being unfair in their negotiating stance (which is not the case – the withdrawal agreement talks about a “level playing field” as well as free trade, and the EU is merely sticking to what was already agreed there) and promoting the idea that a hard Brexit is, indeed, a possibility, indeed a likelihood unless the EU relax their stance. That is supremely unlikely, as what Boris basically says he wants is all the advantages of EU membership without having to stick to EU regulations ensuring the quality and safety of goods (without which customs checks at the very least will be needed), without any free movement of people and without contributing to the cost of anything. Not only is that asking for a massively unfair advantage, it is something the EU cannot offer, as it would destroy the very principle of the single market. Oh, and at the moment, he’s trying to blame the EU for being unreasonable…

However, this could just be negotiating posturing, and I really hope that it is. Boris is not a stupid man (he is lazy and disorganised, and likes to make things up as he goes along and pull a rabbit out of a hat at the eleventh hour, but he isn’t stupid). If his government does continue after a hard Brexit for its full expected life of five years (and that’s no guarantee, given that he proposes to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act), we will have had four years of misery, during which any attempt to try to soften the blow by deficit spending will have petered out, faced with steadily declining tax receipts and an international community which will be reluctant to lend money. Against that background, he would stand approximately zero chance of another term, and the Conservative Party might be wiped out for a generation, no matter who was in charge of the Labour Party. It wouldn’t just be those votes in former Labour strongholds he admitted were “borrowed”, a wide swathe of continuencies in the South as well, and probably most of the rest of London would vote “ABC” (anything but Conservative).

Although I think the scenario painted in Prospect magazine this week is probably correct (particularly following the cabinet reshuffle in which most of the ministers appear to be sock puppets), I could envisage a possibility in which he turns round and agrees a regulatory alignment, zero tariff deal at the last possible minute (which the EU has always indicated they are willing to accept), and a substantial majority of the country heaves a huge sigh of relief and even regards him as a kind of saviour – and then, another election within about a year of that gives him another five year term. Even more so if, in the lead-up to that, he loudly sacks Dominic Cummings, who as his advisor has probably become the most hated figure in UK politics. Cummings could well be being set up as a scapegoat, and the manoeuvre might actually work…

Could he do that with his 80 majority? There are, after all, only around 20 members of the extreme Brexiteer ERG. Maybe not without some preparatory work – and that’s where I think the direction of the Rejoiners is perhaps being wasted (and yes, I think that continuing pointing out the failures of government policy is still an important thing, but possibly not the most important). That’s a big enough majority for the cracks to be showing within the Conservative Party, and we could all do our bit by barraging our Conservative MPs with pleas to avoid a hard Brexit. Politicians tend to notice those constituents who should the loudest and oftenest (I know, I used to be a politician at a local level!) Maybe, indeed, we could hope to arrive at the position (a historical difficulty for all prime ministers with a large majority, particularly Conservative ones) where infighting in his own party ends up removing him (and with him the threat of “hard Brexit”)? The weak point, if we are to do this, is the minds of Conservative MPs. Relatively small numbers of constituents in every Conservative held area could monopolise MP’s post bags and surgery time…

Let’s face it, however much they initially stood because they wanted to get something done, MPs are vulnerable to the lure of wanting to stay in office as long as possible. We can spend the next few months trying to persuade them that a hard Brexit would completely demolish their chances of doing that… and in the process help to create a Conservative Party which is divided against itself. We could hope for a massive back bench revolt which forces a soft Brexit; we could hope for a replacement of Boris and all his minions and a return of the Tories to a less hardline extreme right stance.

Yes, I grant that this is all based on hope, and there’s precious little evidence at the moment that that hope might be justified. The thing is, there’s a groundswell of people aching to do something, and railing against government actions and working within existing political parties to ensure a pro-Europe pro-PR stance pro-broad centre-left front (all are needed) is not going to use up all that energy. Here’s something which people can be doing (and no, I don’t think creating yet another political party is useful – viewing the debacle of Change UK, it would merely split the pro-EU vote even further).

And, let’s face it, even if it doesn’t work, it’ll make Conservative MPs uncomfortable!

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Some arguments of Brexiteers

February 9th, 2020
by Chris

Someone with the facebook handle “Howlin Wolfe Tone” came up with the following, which I thought worth repeating (and recording):-

There was a post from a troll making ten arguments. I have given these arguments and their refutations.

‘1. Ditching EU tariffs means tariffs are dropped on all goods, we can import cheaper eg food and clothes from outside the EU. The EU is a protectionist trading bloc which imposes over 13000 tariffs on imports.’.

1 The EU tariffs average at 2.8% which is about par with the rest of the world, so it is no more protectionist than any other region. Food tariffs are quite high, but, then again they amount to roughly the same degree of support given to farms in other regions. Food security is vitally important, which is why most regions and countries choose to support domestic supply either by tariffs, or subsidy.

Claiming that trading under WTO rules is specious, since the UK as a member of the EU also traded widely under these rules.

‘2. We can stop paying £11 billion (net) to the EU – at worst this offsets any economic downturn. At best it’s £11 billion more we can invest in Britain.’

2 The mean, five year average net contribution 2014-2018 (incl.) was £7.8bn.

Source: ONS:

https://www.ons.gov.uk/…/theukcontributiontothee…/2017-10-31

The most conservative value for a downturn is 5%. Since the GDP of UK is £2.86tn, of which 5% is £143bn, so, no, it would replace only 5.5% of a downturn. Furthermore, given the misuse by successive Conservative governments of QE that led to an unprecedented capital flight from the UK, and for which UK tax payers footed the bill, it seems more likely that the same would happen to any saving from leaving the UK.

‘3. Withdrawn from CAP , apart from the fact the EU misallocates (sic) resources – eg 40% of the EU budget goes to agriculture which only accounts for 1% of GDP across the EU – we would see a double benefit as we stop paying into it and it will reduce food prices (CAP keeps food prices artificially high).’

3 ‘Not paying into it . . .’ This suggests that the CAP incurs additional costs, which it does not; it is part of the £7.8bn. The proportion of the EU budget stated is roughly correct:

https://ec.europa.eu/…/common-agricultural-po…/cap-glance_en

It is also true that it contributes very little to the EU GDP, but food security is a strategic tool and is vitally important, not just as a bulwark against fluctuations in food commodity prices, but also as a bulwark against others that might want to pressure us by restriction of access to food.

About 25% of the CAP budget is not concerned with food subsidies, but with rural development, protection of the environment and issues surrounding enhanced climate change.

Without the CAP, or similar subsidies food would either be much more expensive, or our rural environment would decline. Most other countries support their farmers to roughly the same degree.

It is a bitter pill to swallow, but, on balance it is better to have it than not. Rural income is around 60% that of urban income, so without any subsidy, there would be a flight to cities and unemployment that is already high (don’t believe the government figures; if it really was that low there would be huge upward pressure on wages that has not happened in a decade, or, for that matter, the past two decades.) Subsidies, according to the Thatcher handbag model of economy states that they are dead money, but they are not. While it is true that they are around half as effective contributors to GDP as that generated by labour and production, and that labour and production has to be in the great majority, it is not dead money. On a tax basis of 25%, those subsidies are made back by the time they have passes through seven exchanges.

Without the CAP, or similar subsidy, there will be a death of the British countryside:

https://www.nfuonline.com/assets/61142

‘4. Skills based immigration – we can let in people that we need/want.’

4 Superficially, there is nothing wrong with that, except that studies too numerous to mention suggest that general immigration is good for both countries of origin and destination. Here is just one example:

https://www.economist.com/…/how-to-convince-sceptics-of-the…

‘5. Autonomy to make new trade deals -Striking free trade deals directly with third countries – such as the US and Asian economies – would boost GDP and net productivity due to a more global market and reduced trade barriers.’

5 The UK already had trade deals as part of the EU. They take a very long time to negotiate and, with many of of the other players, the UK has a very weak hand. It had a very strong hand in both the Council and Commission and, although to a lesser extent, the Parliament.

See the above for evidence that this is specious.

‘8. An end to the asset striping of Great Britain Plc, and the movement of Britains manufacturing to the EU, using our money to subsidise it. DHL IT Services moves to Prague with and EU grant, Cadbury to Poland with an EU grant, Ford Transit to Turkey with an EU grant, JLR to Slovakia, Gillette to Eastern Europe, Texas Instruments to Germany, Metal Box to Poland etc etc etc.’

8 This is equivocation and lying by omission:

Cadbury was bought by Kraft, which is American. Kraft shafted Cadbury. The EU had nothing to do with it.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/…/cadbury-closes-british-factory-to…

Jaguar Land Rover built a new factory in Slovakia. No it was not with an EU grant. And Tata is Indian so what’s that got to do with it?

https://www.theguardian.com/…/jaguar-land-rover-factory-slo…

There was no EU funding, but there was a grant by the Slovakian government. This document is a summary of why the EU found the grant did not break EU rules on state aid. Basically, it was a new factory, it was never going to be built in the UK, no jobs left the UK as a result.

http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-6023_en.htm

Peugeot moved production to Slovakia, but again without an EU grant. There was an investigation as to whether Slovakia improperly gave EU money to Peugeot, but nothing seems to have come of it.

http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/…/subsidise-peugeot-jobs-ax…

Ford Transit moved to Turkey 2013 with an EU a loan (not a grant) for Ford’s Turkish plant (which was already building most of the Transits), and, after that their Southampton plant closed. The EU had already loaned money to Ford UK but that doesn’t appear to have saved it.

http://www.dailyecho.co.uk/…/10026411.Focus_on_Ford__The__…/

If you really want to know about asset stripping, look at the British record that started with John Slater, Peter Walker (later government minister) and Goldsmith. Then look at the statements coming from the US on a possible trade deal with the UK.

‘9. The EU has inadvertently encouraged regional separatist movements to develop in a number of member states, in the mistaken belief that these regions can become ‘independent’ members of the EU ‘with a seat at the top table’. Current examples are Scotland, Catalonia and Corsica. You could argue that the EU secretly welcomes this fragmentation of the nation state so that it can concentrate even more power in Brussels. It certainly prefers to talk about ‘a Europe of the regions’, rather than ‘a Europe of nation states’.’

9 There is no evidence for this that I can find, except that knowledge, interest and support of the EU has increases markedly in the 27, post Brexit.

’10. the EU is a political project that is fundamentally anti democratic – Jean Monnet EU founding father – ‘Europe’s nations should be guided towards the super-state without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation’

Jean-Claude Juncker ‘There can be no democratic choice against the European Treaties’

I for one don’t like being part of a socio-economic experiment aiming to create a federal Europe, controlled by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats.’

10 The EU Parliament is directly elected that, together with the Council decides of which proposed legislation by the Commission becomes EU law. The Council is comprised of the directly elected executives of the member states. The Council also determines the composition of the Commission; one for each member state, delegated to serve the interests of each member state. It is roughly analogous to heads of civil service heads in the UK.

It could easily be argued that Winston Churchill was the father of the EU, but that aside . . .

This, so-called quote by Monnet has no real evidential basis. It is referred to quite a lot, and the only real ‘truth’ in it comes from its circuitous, self-referential repetition. There are also quite a few refutations of it.

The Juncker quote is largely out of context. Largely it means that one can’t agree to the rules and then decide, unilaterally to change them.

His final link is this. (actual UK contributions).

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Brexit, Festinger and the revolt against domination

February 1st, 2020
by Chris

This post has been hanging around for a while, as my access to the blog collapsed (due to a glitch in one of the WordPress add-ons, now fixed by disabling it…)

There is a very funny video by Jonathan Pie (well, he’s always very funny) with which I feel I need to take exception. His basic stance is that you don’t persuade anyone by calling them stupid – and I agree, it isn’t the best persuasive technique.

However, Brexiteers have, in effect, been conned. Those who voted Conservative in the most recent election have been conned. Lest you think “oh well, no-one believes electoral hype these days anyhow”, I have heard variations on the following from several people – “You can’t trust anything any of the politicians say these days, but I voted for Boris because he just seems trustworthy to me”. As the link shows, Boris and his cohorts were massively the least trustworthy of any of the leaders or parties. Those saying or thinking this are believing a group of people who, as represented by Michael Gove, say “the people have had enough of experts”.

How on earth do you manage to convince people that they have made the wrong decision when they have ignored all the actual evidence, discount anything which “the other side” says (including experts) and, against all reason, believe that someone who basically lies 88% of the time is the most trustworthy person to lead the country, without at least implicitly calling them stupid?

My really strong temptation is to respond to Jonathan Pie that I’m being charitable in thinking of Brexiteers as stupid, because if they aren’t stupid, they’re either (1) deliberately trying to damage the country (I know a couple of people who voted Leave specifically because, as one of them put it “I want to see the world burn” – my first draft of this option said “maliciously”, but actually, she thinks the only way to get a better world is to demolish what we’ve got now, which may be misguided but isn’t actually malicious) or (2) self-centeredly seeking power, prestige or money from it. The politicians who espouse Brexit are pretty obviously in the last category – they’re getting power and prestige, and a lot of them are probably expecting to make money as well. The big businessmen who are backing them are definitely going for the money.

But that leaves a lot of people, the vast majority of Brexiteers, who are not only not going to benefit this way, they’re going to be damaged by it. Those who voted Tory at the last election also have a history of the last two Conservative governments to look at, which made the majority of us poorer and more desperate, particularly the sick and the poor (I note that the promises of an end to austerity have just been u-turned on by the Chancellor). Why are the turkeys voting for Christmas?

I think the answer might be found partially in Festinger’s famous book “When Prophecy Fails”. This catalogues the behaviour of an apocalyptic group when the apocalypse they predicted fails to arrive. Far from resulting in the dissolution of the group, Festinger found that they doubled down on their beliefs (slightly modified) and, as the link states, Festinger identified a set of criteria:-

  • A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he or she behaves.
  • The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.
  • The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
  • Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
  • The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.

If all of those are present, the tendency is for the belief not only to persist, but to intensify.

In the case of Brexit, I might suggest that all the evidence already shows that Brexit will damage the country, but it seems that this has failed to persuade ardent Brexiteers that it is a false belief, rather thay have intensified their support for it. If this mechanism is at work, we can expect people to double down on the belief that Brexit is a good thing more rather than less when it proves to be even more disastrous than it has already.

There is more, however. In a recent episode of the Political Philosophy podcast, Toby Buckle discussed the ideas of domination and humiliation in politics. His thesis was, briefly, that the main thing which people desired was to be free from domination (and the resulting humiliation), building on a previous episode on Machiavelli. Remember my friend who said “I want to see the world burn”? The sentiment is, I think, that we are powerless against political forces and that our votes are irrelevant. This is something I have a lot of sympathy for; I have never voted for a candidate for the UK parliament who has won, and it is only in the most recent European election, when my area actually did elect a couple of Liberal Democrat MEPs, when my vote might have been seen as “winning” in a national level vote, though my area also elected three Brexit Party MEPs… not that that now matters much, as all of them are now unemployed.

My “world burn” friend was delighted when her vote was on the winning side; for a moment, she (and other Brexit-voting people) had WON! In her case, and, I think, for many others, it was an “in your face” revolt against the status quo. I think there are a lot of people in the country for whom things have got so bad, irrespective of who they voted for, that any change was seen as a good thing – it couldn’t get any worse, could it? (Personally I think yes, it can get a lot worse, but that hasn’t actually happened yet…) Suddenly, their vote had counted – and they were impatient to see it carried all the way into reality…

That, of course, also explains the lack of enthusiasm for a “people’s vote” – Leave voters have quite reasonably expected since shortly after the referendum that if it were re-run, the result would be “Remain” – and that would negate their “win”. Current polls seem to bear that out, though the option is now closed to us, as we have officially left (though for most purposes nothing will really change until the beginning of 2021 except, I expect, a continuing closure of businesses and an increasing set of job losses).

So, my Brexit-voting friends, you have now “won” beyond any possibility of us former Remainers reversing that decision. Yes, I will now be campaigning to rejoin, but that is not going to be something which can be achieved overnight (as, up to last night, a reversal of the Article 50 notice could have been). It is, for instance, totally unachievable until we have another general election and no longer have a thumping Conservative majority. Is that “win” enough for you? Apparently, for some 87% of Express readers who want to see it made illegal to fly the European flag, no, it isn’t. They want to fine or imprison me for the flag which now flies from the front of my house as well.

However, as the poll I linked earlier also shows, 86% of us want British and EU companies to be able to trade freely with each other, and that would require a “Norway” type deal (which argues that the Express readers are well under 14% of us). I was saying immediately after the referendum result that I’d reluctantly settle for that, even though I’m a completely committed pro-European, including supporting Schengen, the Euro (with some reservations in that case) and a closer political union, all of which put me towards the extreme end of the pro-European spectrum.

My question is, now you’ve actually won, would you settle for that as well? If you would, please let your local Tory MP know that, as a Brexit and Tory voter, you want free trade with no tariffs or regulatory barriers to trade – and that your future support is dependent on him or her voting for just that. And that that is one thing which might, just might, start to implement Boris’ post-election talk of “bringing the country together”.

My fear, though, is that the Boris government will head inexorably toward the hardest possible Brexit at the end of the year. For a start, if we are to believe his “no extension” talk, he has given himself an impossible task of negotiating a proper trade deal (which tend to take 5-10 years to negotiate), and the ERG proponents of “no deal” are still strong and without many pro-European Tories to balance them. And that isn’t the “we’ve struck a blow against domination” territory, it’s “when prophecy fails” territory. We could so easily slide into a government (and a significant slice of the electorate) in a delusional state similar to that explored by Festinger.

The only thing which might be negotiable within that period and not be a complete disaster for us is, indeed, something like the “Norway” option. I think it would need far less negotiation than a detailed trade deal – and that would probably appeal to Boris, as from schooldays onward, he’s been called lazy.

And yes, I can already hear the cries of “but that’s Brexit in name only”. Yes it is, but it’s still Brexit, it’s still a “win” for Brexiteers, and one in the eye for all us know-alls who said Brexit would be a catastrophe – because it’s possibly the only Brexit which wouldn’t be that bad (although we’ve already lost a significant amount of industry and FIRE sector organisations, and I doubt they’ll come back quickly). Rest assured, we’ll still think it’s a catastrophe, because what we wanted is a closer union with Europe, and we’ll have no part in that any more. Not for quite a few years, at any rate.


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Was Jesus an undocumented migrant?

December 30th, 2019
by Chris

I’ve seen a lot of posts recently about the Holy Family being undocumented migrants, this stemming from the “flight into Egypt” narrative in Matt. 2:13-23. Equally, it seems to be a common conservative reaction to that (I’ve seen it at least three times) to focus on the relocation of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, recounted in Luke 2:1-5, which it is said was mandated by Emperor Augustus for the purposes of registration for taxation.

Now, I’m very attracted to the idea of Jesus and his parents being refugees; this plays straight into the narrative running through Judaism up to that point that you should care for strangers and foreigners in your midst. The thing is, as at 6 BCE (which is commonly accepted these days as the likely actual birth year of Jesus), Egypt was a Roman province – but so was Judaea, albeit with slightly different statuses, Egypt being a straightforward province while Judaea was technically a client Kingdom ruled by Herod the Great. Transit between Roman provinces seems to have been more or less unrestricted, relying on this paper. (It seems to me well-researched and adequately scholarly, and is worth a read in general, though it is long).

There’s evidence in there (e.g. p.88) that Rome did occasionally issue decrees ordering citizens to return home (in that case due to the nearness of Gallic armies to Cremona and Placentia having led to a mass movement towards Rome), and specifically that immigrants to the city of Rome could occasionally be ordered to leave (P.72, relating to Samnites and Paelignians, notably both at the time client states rather than provinces) but the author arrives at the conclusion that views of Roman policy towards migration as being a privilege of the selected few must be abandoned. Other than in situations where colonies or provinces were concerned about depletion of manpower, there seems to be no evidence that relocation was restricted in any way – and that includes relocation from outside the Empire to within it (as witness, inter alia, the comments on P.84 about the ease of migration within the empire evidenced by foreign family names appearing in inscriptions and the discussion on P.88 of the Balbus case – where the point made is that in the case of certain nationalities there was in the treaty with them a restriction on becoming citizens, so there must be no restriction on that based on “nationality” as a general rule).

It seems, indeed, that in respect of the movement of individuals into and through the Roman Empire, the default was that it was permitted, the principle being that anything which was not specifically prohibited was allowed. It was also very common indeed. This seems especially true of those who were not of the upper classes, who typically seem to have been below the notice of Roman Law except when migration created labour shortages. There is no evidence that there was any such law in respect of Judaea, and so I regretfully conclude that no, the Holy Family were not undocumented migrants in the sense we now understand it, i.e. as not being legally permitted to travel to Egypt or to stay there.

They probably were undocumented, as although Roman citizens were required to register in the communities they were settled in, this did not apply to non-citizens, but that would not have been any kind of bar to free movement. What did affect non-citizens (and that would include the vast majority of inhabitants of the Empire) in Roman provinces was the 15-yearly census, which (contra Luke) was intended to establish the number of men available for military service. There was such a census under Quirinus, but it was in 6 CE, when Jesus would have been about 12, when Rome instituted direct rule over Judaea some years after Herod’s death, and no Roman census ever required people to return to their place of birth – nor did the census include client kingdoms, which were not directly taxed, which was the status of Judaea under Herod the Great. The result was widespread unrest at the prospect of direct taxation for the first time and the administrative intrusion into peoples’ lives, which was one of the multiple factors which ended up precipitating the Jewish revolt of 66-73 CE.

It is notable that following the next (and final) Jewish revolt in 135, Jews were specifically prohibited from entering Jerusalem except on the day of Tisha B’Av; this is, as far as I can tell, the only recorded instance of a legal requirement on Jewish movement or residence outside the city of Rome. Yes, I suppose there could have been an edict similar to that relating to Cremona and Placentia, but there is no evidence of one, and it would have been unprecedented in 6 BCE in affecting two parts of a client kingdom, rather than Roman provinces.

So, with much less reluctance, I conclude that Luke’s story about the census was weaving some real historical information about Quirinus’ census into earlier history (it was something between 6 and 12 years too late) and arriving at a relocation from Nazareth to Bethlehem which really didn’t need to have happened, assuming that it actually did. My strong suspicion is that Luke felt that he had to locate the birthplace of the Galilean Jesus in Bethlehem (Judaea) in order to fit what was understood as messianic prophecy. The strong probability is, in fact, that Jesus was actually born in the Galilee, probably in Nazareth.

Having established that the conservatives are relying on a non-historical event, does that mean that what Luke was trying to convey is untrue? Not at all: his object was to establish that Jesus was the hoped-for messiah, and that might well have been a truth independent of the fact that a birth in Bethlehem was predicted.

Similarly, Matthew was clearly drawing a parallel with Moses in the flight into Egypt. Most historians think this story didn’t happen; certainly there is no evidence that Herod ever ordered the wholesale slaughter of children born in a certain period, and this is something Josephus, at least, would surely have mentioned. Again, however, historical accuracy is not what was being aimed for; drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses is theologically very fruitful territory.

And, in conscience, although Jesus was not historically an “illegal immigrant” and probably never visited Egypt, if we do not today see Christ in the illegal immigrant (and in the starving, the thirsty, the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned), we cannot see Christ anywhere. He is there in the child in a cage in ther USA, he is there in the child washed up on a Greek beach, he is there in the camps in Turkey and Jordan and near Calais.

And we are not bringing him any gifts…

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Towards a one-party state?

December 17th, 2019
by Chris

A clip of Nigel Farage claiming that his Brexit Party had been successful, in that we now had a substantial Conservative majority and would definitely leave the EU, got me thinking. He, of course, did not put forward candidates in Conservative held seats, which indicated to me that he expected to attract voters who otherwise would not vote Conservative in Labour or Liberal Democrat held seats.

So I spent some time going through the results for the whole country, and assuming (as Farage seemed to do) that all the votes cast for the Brexit party would otherwise have gone to Labour.

There were 19 of these. Had Brexit not stood at all, the Conservatives would have had 346 seats, not 365 – and, recalling that 326 is a majority, Farage’s efforts clearly did not give Boris Johnson his win.

Another thought was that, given that Wales elected 14 Conservative MPs in total and Scotland elected 6, Johnson would still have had 345 seats, a reasonably comfortable majority, just from English seats (Northern Ireland has completely different parties, so doesn’t elect Conservatives anyhow, though the Democratic Unionist Party, which has 8 MPs, can be regarded as Conservative for most purposes – the Conservative Party used to be the Conservative and Unionist Party, after all). Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were therefore irrelevant to the result. The term “unequally yoked” springs to mind. If someone were to claim that this made them effectively colonies with no real say in UK politics, I would have difficulty disagreeing…

It also follows that the election was not, in fact, all about Brexit. If it had been, one would have expected that Farage’s claim would have been correct. However, this got me thinking more about something which I was very enthusiastic about early in the election campaign, before Labour and the LibDems both ruled out an electoral pact to defeat Johnson and a “bad” Brexit.

Had Labour and the LibDems agreed not to stand against each other in seats in which one of them had come first or second in the last election, 45 seats would have not been Conservative now. 31 of them would have been Labour, the other 14 LibDem. (Not all of those were seats taken from one of those parties by the Conservatives this time – some previously safe Labour seats now have an absolute Tory majority). Incidentally, this was the case in all 19 seats in which the Brexit party’s votes alone conceivably produced a Conservative victory – even with the Brexit party standing and taking votes from Labour, they would still have not gone Conservative against such an electoral pact. That would have given the Conservatives 320 seats, not an overall majority (again), but sufficient to control parliament to at least some extent with the aid of the DUP. In another 9 seats, adding the Greens to that electoral pact would have done the job, giving the Conservatives 311, at which point even the DUP votes might not have been enough (and certainly wouldn’t have been enough to ensure a hard Brexit).

A further 12 seats would not have been Conservative if both factors, no Brexit party AND a broad anti-Brexit pact had been in play, and another 6 if the SNP and Plaid Cymru had joined in. That last, however, is probably beyond anything achievable in the future – apart from the absence of the Brexit party, which, let’s face it, has been a single issue organisation and, as we are virtually assured that Brexit will now happen, won’t have that vote-getting power in the future.

Let’s add another consideration. If we envisage a future in which Scotland becomes independent (which I think is inevitable, except, perhaps, under the softest possible Brexit, which Johnson is currently making it vanishingly unlikely he will achieve by proposing a ban on any extension of the final date beyond December 2020) and Northern Ireland slides into union with the Irish Republic instead of with the UK (which seems similarly likely in the long term, though it may be accompanied by a renewal of armed struggle in that case), we will be left with a House of Commons with only 587 members. (It is not likely that Wales will gain a majority in favour of independence any time soon). 359 of those are Conservative at the moment, which would be a majority not of 80 but of 131. Reversing the Labour and LibDem losses this time would hardly put a dent in that. Nor, at that stage, would the grand alliance of the centre and left which I propose change the result – there would still be a majority of around 40.

Granted, if Blair’s 1997 result were repeated, removing Scotland from the equation, Labour would still have had a working majority, but the arithmetic is clear; without Scotland, it will be far more difficult for anything other than a Conservative government to be elected. In fact, only Attlee in 1945 and Blair in 1997 and 2001 could have formed Labour governments without Scotland… This, I think, shows that there is not only a pressing need at the next election, whenever that is, for exactly the kind of electoral pact I propose, but it should also be one which vows to bring in some form of proportional representation.

Of course, the above depends to some extent on being able to convert LibDem votes to Labour and vice versa (likewise to a smaller extent Green). I think this would be a lot easier task if we could all point out that, as there would be proportional representation every time thereafter, this grand electoral alliance would probably only have to occur for one election (I am reasonably confident that the SNP and Plaid Cymru would be onside).

The alternative, it seems to me, is that we are headed inexorably towards an effectively one-party state with all other parties in permanent opposition and largely irrelevant to politics. Given that the current membership of the Conservative Party is around 160,000, and they would get to decide who were MPs, who was Prime Minister, and what were the country’s policies, I think this is a somewhat terrifying prospect.

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