Force-multipliers and inconsistency

August 7th, 2019
by Chris

The anniversary yesterday of the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima makes it very pertinent to think of our attitude to nuclear weapons. They are one of the three categories of weapon classified these days as “weapons of mass destruction”, the others being chemical and biological weapons. Hiroshima was the first use of nuclear weapons as a WMD, but is not the first use of WMDs – chemical weapons were used for the first time in a widespread attack by the Germans in World War I, but had already a long history; biological weapons have a possibly even longer history, the first major use in warfare being by the British in the French and Indian war shortly before the Declaration of Independence.

These days, it seems that all WMDs are regarded as particularly scary; chemical and biological weapons are prohibited under international humanitarian law, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the bugbears of foreign policy for the US and Europe, at the very least – the mere fact that North Korea and Iran may have, or develop, nuclear capability is enough to put them on a list of “most evil”. The second Iraq war was famously justified by the false claim that Iraq was developing WMDs.

Why is this demonisation of WMDs so acute? I could comment that the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II and the US bombing of South East Asia during the Vietnam war did significantly more damage than did Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, one nuclear weapon could unleash a lot of fallout (as well as the blast damage) and affect people into the future (as Hiroshima did and as Cernobyl, a nuclear accident, also did), but the really scary prospect during the cold war was not single nuclear devices, it was the mutually assured destruction policies of the Great Powers, which would have seen thousands follow even one.

I could also note that the German use of chlorine at Ypres was actually not all that effective (and neither was the earlier French deployment of tear gases which probably led to that use), and that by and large, biological warfare has only been drastically effective against native populations who lacked immunity. Despite the prominent motif of such weapons in film and television, there are significant difficulties in delivery of chemical and biological agents in such a way as to be effective (chemical largely because area effects are difficult to achieve, biological because any agent sufficiently communicable to have a drastic effect tends to pose nearly as much threat to those using it as to the enemy).

I fancy that the ultimate reason these are so alarming is that they represent a massive force multiplier. Hiroshima was levelled by one bomb, whereas Dresden and Leipzig (for instance) took hundreds of bombers in a very concentrated attack; similarly it is conceivable that a biological attack could be mounted by one individual (being patient zero in the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa, for instance). We seem to take the view that, in the case of nations, we should prevent them having these massive force multipliers.

I note, however, that at an individual rather than a national level, guns represent a very major force multiplier, particularly automatic weapons. One person with an automatic weapon can kill tens of people in a very short time, and do it from a distance (and it is well known that it is far easier to bring oneself to kill from a distance than face to face). In addition, it is extremely easy to use a gun; even children can do so with minimal tuition (though much more tuition is advisable to use it well and safely). Those considerations in fact historically led to a ban on the use of crossbows (which were considered the WMD of their day). The longbow and short bow both needed considerable training for the user to be deadly, whereas the “point and shoot” nature of the crossbow, together with its substantial penetrating power, which was greater by far than short bows, made it usable by barely trained people.

Why, I ask myself, is the US so adamant about stopping the spread of force-multipliers among nations, while shrugging it’s shoulders about the spread of force-multipliers among its citizens? It seems to me that much the same principles are at work; massive force multiplication, killing at a distance and even including the fact that WMDs can ultimately be unleashed by untrained people (namely politicians), just like guns. The principle difference, it seems to me, is that the US could probably do something about internal gun control, whereas it has relatively little control over nuclear proliferation (if it had, none of China, Israel, India or Pakistan would have had nuclear capacity).

OK, I know the parallel isn’t perfect. For one thing, mutually assured destruction has apparently worked, at least so far (even in the case of India and Pakistan, who have actually been at war since they both acquired nuclear weapons). The counterpart with guns, the “Mexican standoff” rarely appears to work – particularly the argument that the answer to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. Good men with guns kill quite a lot of people, as the list of shootings by police officers seems to show.

There is also no argument that nations should be able to use WMDs for their own amusement, though, liberal snowflake that I am, I don’t particularly endorse playing with lethal weapons as a sport. If you must, take up archery, for goodness sake! I also note that we are keen not to allow nations which haven’t already got nuclear weapons to develop nuclear power, which I consider a far more laudable enterprise than shooting for sport. Yes, I grant you, if you have nuclear power it’s a lot easier to develop nuclear weapons, but it is (particularly in the light of climate change) a reasonably beneficial use in and of itself.

I do hope that, at some point, America will end its love affair with guns, or, at the very least, go back to being content with things with a lower force multiplication effect – bolt action rifles, revolvers and double barrelled shotguns, for instance. I grant you, those can be extremely lethal in the wrong hands (which includes anyone who is not well trained and who keeps up the training, and anyone who does not practice rigorous gun safety), but they don’t kill so many people so quickly. Equally, I hope the world will end its love affair with WMDs and consign the use of nuclear power to power, not destruction.

Unfortunately, in the second case, we currently seem to be moving in the wrong direction. I fear the US is moving in the wrong direction in the first case as well…

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Taxation is a gift to those being taxed…

July 21st, 2019
by Chris

A recent Evonomics article makes clear that income inequality is bad for society generally, which is borne out by studies indicating that health outcomes are worse even for the rich in countries with greater wealth inequality.

There are also studies indicating that being rich makes you less altruistic and more self-centered.

Jesus, of course, told the rich young man that he should sell all he had and give the money to the poor: Mark 10 has the story.

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is[a] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

So, my libertarian friend, you tell me that for the state to tax you is theft? I suggest that it is doing you a favour – it will bring you at least slightly closer to heaven, according to Jesus (and I have no doubt that, like the rich young man, you wouldn’t feel able to do this for yourself), it will make you a nicer person and improve your health.

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Improvising on a theme of atemporality

July 13th, 2019
by Chris

Tom Oord has put up a blog post “Providence as improv, jazz or family” which I really like from a theological standpoint. I’m pretty sold on the “Uncontrolling Love” concept which he introduces in the book of the same name and explores further in “God Can’t”, his recent, less heavy expansion of his ideas. I’ve written extensively about Tom’s ideas previously, including being part of a book group which he ran with Tripp Fuller (my first such post is here). One of the extremely attractive features of Tom’s thinking is that it would seem to solve the problem of evil (God can’t be all of omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent, given the amount of actual evil in the world).

My only concern is this – I’m a mystic, and take my basis from mystical experience (if I didn’t, I’d be in the agnostic or atheist camp), and one of the prevalent characteristics of the mystical experience is a feeling (and it comes with the subjective force of being absolutely true) that there is an atemporal aspect to this experience of God. You see it described as “timeless moment” or “eternal now” for instance.

While I can just about consider that this part of the mystical experience might be mistaken, despite the hugely self-verifying nature of it (I’m there entertaining it as an intellectual exercise, but have no belief that it’s actually the case) I’d far prefer to have a solution in which God was at least in some respect atemporal – and I say “in some respect” with the thought that we might be talking of a transcendent aspect to go with the immanent, time-involved aspect.

Happily, I utterly reject the theological stance that God has to be “simple” – I tend more to the view that God is the most complex entity in existence – so a combination of time-dependence and atemporality isn’t ruled out on the basis of any philosophical theology for me. I will grant that another of the overwhelming insights of the mystical experience is that God is one – the Jewish Shema ( Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad ; hear, O Israel, the Lord, the Lord is one).

That does tend towards the “simple” pole; obviously immanence and transcendence are completely different things, as are atemporality and temporality. I hold to immanence and transcendence (as a panentheist rather than a pantheist – a pantheist would probably deny the transcendent dimension), though, so I already have a kind of dichotomy there, and it definitely seems to me that temporality goes with immanence, and atemporality perhaps goes similarly with transcendence. We could, perhaps, just be considering two dimensions of the One God there?

I’m not sure how that would cash out in terms of Tom’s Uncontrolling Love concept, though. Tom holds to a concept of “original kenosis”, which preserves divine power while conceiving of it as being withdrawn from acting in the world, in order to allow for free will; I hold to a concept of “original incarnation”, in which divine power is not poured out of the universe in order to leave room for us, but poured into the universe in order to create us (and thus transferred irrevocably to us – and the rest of the universe). Atemporality of any kind would seem to guarantee that God would know the whole of time, including future time (and the mystical experience, so far as it goes, would tend to support that view).

The trouble then is that everything which happens would have had to have been foreknown by God at the point of the original kenosis or original incarnation, and that lands the blame for everything squarely on God again, despite both Tom and myself considering that God is necessarily post-creation unable to act in the world in any unilateral way (and certainly not as the miracle-working breaker of natural laws which conventional Judaism and Christianity have tended to see).

I need to find some way of squaring the mystical revelation of atemporality with an inability to see the future (perhaps because the future does not yet exist to be seen), and at the point of writing, I don’t have that. But it seems to me that there has to be some way of doing it…

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Big Government, Welfare States and freedom

July 9th, 2019
by Chris

An “Evonomics” article asks if Big Government actually reduces personal freedom, as is often argued by conservatives – and comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t, and not only doesn’t do that, but doesn’t reduce freedom for ordinary individuals (though it clearly does for the 1%), doesn’t undermine ther family or societal organisations, doesn’t reduce people’s willingness to have children, doesn’t reduce people’s willingness to work, and generally has no discernible effect on any of these things valued by conservatives.

It will come as absolutely no surprise to any regular reader of this blog that I find all these conclusions pretty obvious. From my point of view, my freedom is actually massively enhanced if someone else is doing a large number of things I don’t want to be bothered doing myself. I don’t, for instance, want to go back to the mediaeval manorial system in which the peasants (and I’d probably be a peasant in that system, which had no middle class to speak of) had to do some regular work for the lord of the manor maintaining the roads and bridges on the manor. A road or bridge which I had a hand in mending would probably not be one you wanted to drive on – road mending is not among my areas of competence (and the shared drive to my house bears witness not only to the fact that none of the five housholds which use it have any particular skill in road repair but also that getting as few as five people to agree to do the job is significantly difficult).

There are parts of Central America where government basically funds no roads at all, and motorists are used to people along the roadside asking them for money to mend potholes – and the roads are utterly appalling. Possibly, by reports I hear, even worse than our driveway…

Of course, those who cavil at paying taxes to support initiatives which benefit the community as a whole probably share my view that a lot of these things are not ones which the actual individuals using them can usefully work at providing. They don’t, after all, do all those things themselves – they pay other people to do it for them. Those with a really high income also pay people to engage and pay the people who actually do the work, and to make many of the decisions about what is actually done – an acquaintance of mine, for instance, employs a butler, a chef and an estate manager (no, I don’t usually move in those kinds of circles – we just happened to be involved with the same charity a few years ago).

Roads are, perhaps, an extreme case; not even my most conservative, libertarian friends seem to think that road building and maintenance should not be performed communally (although some of them think they should be contracted out to the lowest bidder like much of local government’s responsibilities have been forced to, an arrangement which seems to involve all the costs of democratic control and in addition all those of the requirement to make a profit, without any improvement in actual performance – actually, with a sneaking reduction in that, no doubt from “cost savings”). Consider, however, my acquaintance who employs a chef – and how many of us are too tired after work to cook properly, and use a labour-saving device ( a microwave) to heat up a meal cooked for us by professionals using all the advantages of the mass production system (OK, and with all its drawbacks, too), or send for a take-out. We are, in principle, employing chefs ourselves…

Are we really “free” if all the money we can earn (and the earning of which makes us too tired to cook, so all our productive time as well) goes on the necessities of life, with precious little left over? OK, a lucky few of us actually enjoy our jobs, and would do them even if we were paid nothing for them, (which is the position I now find myself in), but for most, what occupies almost all our usable time is something which we suffer having to do in order to live (and, for younger generations than mine, service the considerable debts accrued in trying to get enough education to land a job in the first place). In very many cases, the jobs have no capacity to be satisfying in any event – statistics indicate that a surprising number of us consider some or all of what we do at work to be pointless, i.e. that we have “bullshit jobs”.

Freedom, it seems to me, rests in being able to do what you actually want to do, rather than what you must, or what you’re not really very good at and which could be done far better and quicker by someone who is actually skilled at doing it (or, of course, increasingly by a labour-saving device – which may very soon even involve driving ones-self around from place to place…). Most of us, however, don’t individually have the money to pay people to do all these things for us.

However, as a society, we do have the money to pay for a lot of things to be done communally. Roads, yes, but also rail, bus and possibly also freight transport (and some local councils have managed to provide free bus transport for residents in the past); in my country, obviously medicine (the National Health Service) which, despite the fact that it is permanently short of money and staff, is something which the vast majority of Britons would prefer not to be taken away. Education was for a while mainly a state responsibility here – I am of a generation which expected to be educated (if capable enough) to first degree level at state expense, and I deeply regret the fact that governments from the 80s onwards have removed this form of communal investment in our country’s future.

It doesn’t escape me that Libertarians and Existentialists are likely to accuse me of not stepping up to the responsibility of making choices, and decry the idea that anyone else should make those choices for me. Sartre had the concept of “bad faith” for those who accept the decisions of others, particularly if those are internalised. Does not putting the responsibility for some of these decisions onto the community (which may be the State) represent this kind of “bad faith”? More seriously, does it not actually restrict my ability to choose, as the Libertarian would claim?

The Libertarian does have a point, though a rather weak one. Were I shuffling off that responsibility to a king or feudal lord, I might well agree. But I live in a representative democracy, where I have the ability to vote for someone to make those decisions for me. Indeed, for many years, I not only voted but stood as a candidate and got elected (at a local level), being willing to make such decisions on behalf of those I represented. Now, some 40 years after I first took up elected office, I don’t want to continue making those decisions. I’m tired, for one thing, and also now have an anxiety disorder, which means that I really want to keep decision making down to those things I really consider important. Sartre did suggest that anxiety was the inevitable result of having the widest possible freedom to choose, and my response to any allegation of bad faith would be to ask why he considers we are obliged to self-harm when it is unnecessary.

As I’ve indicated above, though, you don’t have to have an anxiety disorder to want to have someone else make decisions which you don’t want to bother making yourself. None of the rich people I know make all those decisions themselves, after all…

Another aspect of shifting some functions onto the community rather than the individual is the issue of fear. For this, let me use an example in which my own country, the UK, contrasts hugely with the USA. That is healthcare. I am fortunate enough to live in a country with broadly socialised healthcare in the form of the NHS (and I might add, the NHS is supported by a massive majority of the population). The USA doesn’t really have socialised healthcare, and every week I read of someone whose financial security has been devastated by a sudden, unexpected healthcare bill. The late Rachel Held Evans’ family were hit not only by her untimely death, but also with a stratospheric hospital bill; Mike McHargue, of the Liturgists podcast, had his own heart scare recently, and his family finances were also demolished. In both cases, an internet-based campaign quickly raised the money to fix these problems – but they were massively well-known and well-loved public figures, and the less well-known go bankrupt on an appalling scale. The popular TV series “Breaking Bad” was based on a similar situation, in which the main character turned to making crystal meth in order to meet medical expenses…

In the UK, none of us need fear that kind of disaster – and it can strike almost anyone. Even some in the States who thought of themselves as well-insured have found that deductibles and quibbling insurance companies have wiped them out.

Another Evonomics article notes “the possibility that the welfare state is an efficiency-enhancing institution that helps maintain popular support for relatively free markets by ensuring they more or less benefit everyone.” I’d actually suggest that the welfare state enhances efficiency by reducing the level of fear (as with the NHS), by freeing up mental capacity to make decisions which people are actually good at making, because they are interested in them, and by, to some extent, forcing businesses to negotiate wages on a slightly more level playing field. The fear issue comes in again there – if the alternative to taking a bullshit job at minimum wage is to starve and/or to be put on the street, while an employer has a ready supply of other terrified people to take the bullshit job, there isn’t anything remotely like a free market.

As might be apparent from my last paragraph, I am not against free markets as such. I don’t like command economies as a general rule, as they tend to be inefficient, though I note that anywhere where a monopoly or cartel exists and the market is dominated by very large companies, there might as well be a command economy – many large companies have budgets larger than (for instance) the near-command economy of Cuba and put more money into preserving their monopoly or cartel status, or their handouts from governments, than they do to improving their efficiency. The NHS is to some extent a command economy in respect of healthcare in the UK, but healthcare costs are massively lower in the UK than the US without a corresponding reduction in quality of care (indeed, by many standards the NHS provides better healthcare than does the USA). Granted, there is also private medicine in the UK, but it doesn’t compete in many fields – it is superior (if you can afford it) for regular medical checkups and for elective procedures, but not, in general, for much of the rest of medicine.

I think the balance in the UK has tipped too far away from the Welfare State, and that should be redressed. In the States – well, I look at some of the statements of Democratic contenders for president, and wonder whether we may see a shift towards a social-democratic mixed economy there. I hope so, for the sake of – well – about 99% of Americans.

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Omnipotence, superheroes and Stormzy

July 2nd, 2019
by Chris

Stephen Morris writes, in a message on the “Exploring the Universal Christ” facebook group “I see now why so many American evangelicals almost exclusively worship a God of immense might and power, a God who resembles Zeus, hurling lightning bolts and dispensing judgment against infidels. A God who is always in control of everything and everybody. We become like the God we worship, so an omnipotent Being is the very thing our egos aspire to be like. We want to be omnipotent, we want to be judge, jury and executioner, we want to be in control of everything and everybody.”

Indeed, perhaps this also explains the popularity of superhero narratives (which aren’t restricted to the products of Marvel and D.C. Comics – almost any action movie you watch involves a hero who is superhuman in at least a modest sense). I’ve written about “God as superhero” before – the linked post lost me a few acquaintances (which facebook calls “friends”) because – well – anything you call “God” has to be “more than” everything, doesn’t it? Anselm’s “ontological argument” rests entirely on that premise, after all.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Amusingly, this phrase is commonly attributed to another superhero, Spiderman (in the comic and film, it was actually said to Spiderman rather than by him), though its first recorded use seems to be in a document of the French Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety in 1793. I think this has to be a truism, though if so, it is a little surprising that there isn’t a much earlier use quoted. There is a lot of play with this concept in recent superhero literature and films.

If that be the case, with all-powerfulness comes all-responsibility. Perhaps our egos do aspire to be omnipotent, as Stephen writes, but they rarely aspire to be responsible for everything. If God is omnipotent, we are logically incapable of doing anything by ourselves, and need saving – and that is both where the other potential ego-identification in superhero movies comes from and the basis for the common Christian thinking (emanating, I think, from the Reformed and particularly the Calvinist stream of thought) that we are entirely worthless and only God can save us. Or, of course, your superhero of choice. We are maybe slightly better represented by Fay Wray than by Christopher Reeve, and we need saving (rather than to save) more often than Stephen’s American evangelical would like – at least, any time he or she was not in church. In church, humanity is entirely powerless and helpless.

This seems to me to lie behind Stormzy’s song “Blinded by your Grace”, which he performed recently at Glastonbury to rapturous applause. It’s a decent song, and perhaps goes some way to filling the void of Christian rap (“Christian music” has colonised folk music fairly extensively, some pop music and a bit of rock; I await the dawn of “Christian techno” and “Christian Death Metal” with a feeling of dread…). The same tendency similarly lies behind what I’ve heard referred to as the “prayers of abject self-abasement” in the Anglican communion service, which my vicar tends to prune down to one from the more normal three (two before, one after communion) – as he says, once is really enough…

The trouble here is that the line of Christian reasoning apparent in Luther and Calvin (and, of course, in most of Evangelicalism) is hopelessly schizoid. On the one hand, God has to be omnipotent (and omniscient, and omnipresent, and omni-everything else) – because, as I’ve heard from many conservative Christians, “otherwise He isn’t worthy of worship”, and as such only God can save us; we do need another hero.

But on the other hand, in this conception, God is not omniresponsible. It’s we mortals who are responsible for all the bad in the world (original sin), and we are incapable of doing anything good in and of ourselves, but somehow capable of (and doing) all the bad things. “Total Depravity” in the Calvinist schema.

I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t work. If God has all the power, God also has all the responsibility. We (and by that I mean the Reformed tradition in Christianity together with much of the rest of Western expressions of the faith) seem to want to combine divine power not with divine responsibility but with divine irresponsibility – and my mind turns to Hancock again. The corollary is that we want to combine human powerlessness with human total responsibility.

It’s just black and white, all or nothing thinking – and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that there’s always a middle (which, in this thinking, is an excluded middle) – and that not infrequently, the middle is the only area which describes reality, as both extreme poles are just fictions. I think the God of the omnis is just such a fiction, just as I think the totally depraved human being is a fiction. Yes, this means that I don’t believe that God is omnipotent (or, indeed, omniscient), and it also means that I consider that we do have some power to do good or evil. This makes me, I suppose at least somewhat Pelagian (and so heretical), and also closer to Judaism (which recognises both a yetzer-ha-tov and a yetzer-ha-ra, capacities for or inclinations toward both good and evil).

My conservative friend would no doubt repeat their comment – “so how is God worthy of worship, if he isn’t omni-anything?” (actually, I think God is omnipresent, but that’s the only “omni” I accept). One answer is to point out that our “object of ultimate concern”, as Paul Tillich described God, doesn’t remotely have to be all of everything – a very large amount of something laudable (such as love, or compassion) will do quite nicely. I might also be tempted to comment that there is no way I could love the Calvinists’ God-concept, and that I wouldn’t feel that worthy of worship – because I don’t respect tyrrany or irresponsibility, and power without acceptance of responsibility is both of those. This God-concept is a monster – I could fear it, and that’s about that.

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Psychoanalysis – towards a century of relationship?

June 23rd, 2019
by Chris

For the last four weeks, I have been in a reading group run by Barry Taylor (an old friend of Peter Rollins, regular at the Wake festival, and about whose Wake talk this year I weaved a meditation recently). We’ve been reading and trying to get our heads round Jamieson Webster’s book on psychoanalysis“Conversion Disorder” (she also gave a talk and participated in a forum discussion at Wake this year), and I’d hoped to generate some posts out of that process.

However, having done the reading and spent four hours (one per week) talking about it, I have very few clear insights. I haven’t done much reading in psychoanalysis previously (it’s one of the few psychological disciplines I’ve not experienced) and Jamieson weaves her narrative together with readings of Benjamin, Foucault and Agamben (all writers in the general field of postmodern philosophy) as well as the notoriously difficult Jacques Lacan.

Barry has also linked recently to a series of documentaries by Adam Curtis (a BBC series shown in 2002) called “The Century of the Self”. This was, for me, easy watching in one sense (it is admirably well constructed and clear), but difficult in other senses – for one, it’s nearly four hours of watching, for another it paints a very depressing picture of how psychoanalytic techniques have been used in propaganda, marketing and public relations to manipulate the public. Its conclusion is that, in the name of individualism, we are all being selectively marketed to (big business is not concerned what our views really are as long as they involve buying stuff we don’t really need as a result of marketing exciting desires or pretending that what they produce somehow expresses desires we already have), and while politics has become a far more individualistic affair (we are persuaded that politicians are only there to satisfy our selfish desires), at root, those desires are being formed by the marketers and public relations executives.

In other words, (and this is a brief version of the end point of the documentary series) we have been induced to think of ourselves as markedly free, while being subtly controlled.

I have written previously about free market capitalism (as “the System of Satan”) and about marketing (as “the Devil’s Evangelism”), and commented on an article which seeks to establish neoliberalism as a religion (“A Satanic Theology”), so regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I found Curtis’ documentary both disturbing (in the extent to which it portrays this tinkering with our heads as pervasive) and as confirming what I already thought.

I am probably something of a nightmare from the point of view of the marketers and PR people. I instinctively consider that the more something is marketed to me, the more I am paying for that marketing and the less for the actual quality of the goods involved. I hate buying anything which is “throw away” or which embodies “planned obsolescence” or which is “in fashion”. Preferably, anything I buy which is not a consumable should be something which can be mended. And, if anyone invites me to participate in a marketing questionnaire or focus group, I let them know that I would be delighted to assist them at the very modest rate of £3 per minute (minimum one hour). Strangely, marketers seem not to want to engage my help… their loss!

This is also a feature of a significant amount of Peter Rollins’ work – consumer items are the things which can fill the lack which Peter thinks is ubiquitous in humanity (and that includes consumer systems – self-help seminars, some aspects of religion and some psychological therapies being among them). I am not so sure that such a lack is so fundamental to humanity – let’s face it, if it were, it would not be necessary for advertisers to spend so much time and effort trying to persuade us that we lack the very product they are attempting to sell us. Oh, OK, I do lack most of the things they are trying to sell me, but it isn’t a lack I have any wish to fill, and it certainly doesn’t correspond to any deep-seated inadequacy I have. I have plenty of deep seated inadequacies, but (as I’m in the happy position of having the bottom three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy fulfilled, at least for the time being, and don’t generally feel much lack of the fourth) those aren’t things which the expenditure of money can be expected to correct. A Twelve Step programme is much more likely to do that – and that is free in money terms, though it does require time and energy.

Jamieson Webster is emphatically not the kind of psychoananalyst who is the focus of Curtis’ documentary, the kind who sells themselves to commerce in order to help commerce to get us to buy. She is trying to do something which will, perhaps, improve the lives of clients. It is not abundantly clear from reading the book how, exactly, that is supposed to happen – that may just be a part of the psychoanalytic literature which is not explicitly quoted by her, but she does seem very tentative in suggesting that there actually is a clear objective – and that offends my own analytic tendencies. I like my tasks to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time limited, and psychoanalysis seems to tick none of those boxes.

What she does do is voyage through a set of specific cases, those of the classic Psychoanalysts such as Freud and some of her own, picking up motifs which she then plays with, in conversation with philosophers and, of course, Freud and Lacan. The overwhelming impression I got was how different various cases were, how they had completely varying associations – and in that respect, when she fixed on some wordplay in Freud which was considered significant, she touched a nerve with myself. I do a lot of wordplay myself, and form associations based on that rather than on any real-world connection between the things signified by those words. I see a firing squad portrayed on the TV, for instance, and think “ri-fol, ri-fol, fother diddle di-fol” (nonsense words appearing in various English folk songs, and having nothing to do with the rifle or musket – to which I then add “and Oman”).

There seems a part of my mind which works in that way, and I was delighted to find that a part of Freud’s worked similarly (though his was bilingual in English and German; mine tends to French and Italian as pun-partners for my English). In the same way, particular incidents have huge significance in a particular analysand’s mind (for instance, suffering serious burns), whereas the associations of fire for another might be entirely different. I smell bad drains and immediately think of Venice in August, for instance, an association which would mean nothing to someone who hadn’t actually been there (and loved the experience, despite the pervasive smell of drains).

It seems that she is seeing a very particularly individual constellation of associations in analysands, which are not nearly so “analysable” as I might have thought before reading the book – and yet, rather than trying to fit everything into a single template (and make people conform to normality, whatever that is – the marketers can probably tell us), this is dealt with in a relationship. Admittedly, the psychoanalytic relationship is a very odd one, in which there is very little to and fro – the analyst, ideally, contributes nothing. However, the fact of that relationship (one which is inevitably ultimately limited in time, even if that timing cannot be predicted) is the absolute key to psychoanalysis.

There, I see a glimmer of hope for the possibility of a next century, not of self, but of relationship. Maslow, who created the hierarchy of needs, is mentioned in Curtis’ film – he puts “self actualisation” at the top of the pyramid, as befits a member of the psychoanalytic establishment which gave us modern marketing. Even then, however, the theory of the pyramid is that you can’t attend adequately to one of the higher levels if the lower levels are not adequately provided for, and two levels down is “love and belonging”. There is a lesson there – we are never going to be able to achieve the self-actualisation we may desire in the absence of love, and that implies relationship. The atomic individualism of the “Century of the Self” is doomed to failure. “No man is an island”, as John Locke put it.

And, of course, from a Christian point of view, love should possibly be at the top of the pyramid as well as in the middle. One’s highest self-actualisation is in loving others.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. ” (I Cor. 14:4-7)

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D-day – a cynical view

June 13th, 2019
by Chris

A friend, commenting on the D day anniversary, wrote “As we remember D-Day, let us not forget that World War 2 was the product of nation-first, white supremacy, uncritical populist, and racist ideologies and that the war was one through global cooperation, the globalism that has keep the peace for over 70 years, our Alliances with Europe (NATO), the Marshall Plan of recovery after the war, helping our enemies recover (Germany and Japan), and the belief that America’s leadership is moral, involves sacrifices on our part, and a willingness to support other nations.”

I really like the sentiment, and completely endorse the observation about Hitler’s Germany. I am, indeed, seriously worried that similar forces seem to be at work in the Europe of today, as witness (among many others) the success of Marine LePen’s National Rally party (formerly the National Front) in France and the election of significant numbers of Alternative für Deutschland MEPs (AfD is essentially a neo-Nazi party) in recent European elections, and the complexion of Victor Orban’s Hungary. Also, of course, our newly formed Brexit party, which won an alarming number of seats. Athough it claims to be a single issue party (at least, so far), all the same tendencies seem to be operative in very many of its supporters, and its forebear, UKIP, is now clearly a party of the far right.

However, my sceptical and cycnial side forbids me from regarding the US intervention in World War II as pure gift, and expressing the degree of gratitude which many Americans seem to think is appropriate. In point of fact, the US managed to keep out of the war until in December 1941 Pearl Harbour left it with no real alternative (though there had been an effective war at sea going on with Germany in the Atlantic for some months prior to that – again, prompted by the Germans sinking American ships). By that time, the UK and its then empire and dominions (such as Canada and Australia) had been at war since 1st September 1939, and the USA had been selling weapons to us (and also to Russia and China) throughout, offering credit terms when we basically ran out of money. We finally managed to pay off that debt in the 1980s. The USA managed to keep out of WWI even longer…

This article gives a view of the US involvement in both world wars which rather differs from the “America saves the day!” message which Americans often wish to claim as truth. Extracting figures from this source seems to indicate that pre-WWI, the US had around 18.9% of world GDP while the UK (including British India but excluding other colonies and dominions) had 19.7% (of which the UK proper was around 9%). By 1950 (India having become independent, in part due to the effective bankruptcy of the UK, in part because promises had been made in order to avoid India siding with the Japanese in WWII), the US had 27.3% and the UK had 6.5%.

It seems rather evident that, at least in terms of GDP, the two world wars seriously damaged the UK economy (leaving the country massively in debt to the US into the bargain) but seriously advantaged the US economy.

As the article points out in relation to WWI, “The trouble was that by 1916, the U.S. commitment to Britain and France had grown—to borrow a phrase from the future—too big to fail.” The same might well be said of World War II (and, indeed, there is an argument that both World Wars were fundamentally one conflict, divided by 20 years of truce – certainly, it is very arguable that the draconian terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which were imposed on Germany made something like the rise of Hitler and his foreign policy inevitable).

The cynic in me says that America looked at the European situation together with the fairly dominant trading position of the British Empire and the rapid rise of industry and technology in Germany, realised that its most valuable markets were in Europe, so it needed to avoid the rise of a Germany which would dominate that market, but that by delaying it could bleed dry it’s main worldwide competitor, Britain, and still see Germany defeated – and so acted entirely in the best interests of the US (some evidence indicates that US interests were also supplying Germany…). Seen as an effective trade war against Britain, this was a master-stroke – and wildly successful. My view is strengthened by the US sabotage of Britain and France over Suez in 1956, which inclined Britain to ask how good an ally the US actually was…

Much the same consideration on the part of the British government also punctures the British myth that we entered into the war in 1939 out of the goodness of our hearts and a desire to curb tyrrany. Neville Chamberlain has said of the annexation of Czechoslovakia that it was a ‘quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing’, and in conscience, Poland was in much the same position. However, with Poland, the writing was on the wall, and it was clear that Hitler was going to go on expanding in Europe until stopped. Britain did have significant trade with Western Europe, but was divided from Europe by the English Channel, had the bulk of its foreign trade with the world outside Europe and could conceivably have sat there and left Europe to its own devices. A substantial proportion of the population would have been entirely happy with that. In Britain’s case, however, the danger was not only of losing Western Europe as a market, but also of Germany breaking out of being a merely European power and challenging Britain’s world trade…

Where nation states are involved, I tend not to believe legends that their actions are altruistic – there are almost always clear advantages for their own narrow interests which are quite sufficient to explain their actions.

Thinking even further about D-day, hindsight tells me that, in all probability, it was not necessary in order to defeat Hitler. He was already losing the war badly due to the Eastern Front, and in particular the disaster of Stalingrad. The Italian front should have been enough… the Allies (by this time including the USA) could have afforded to wait it out.

There, too, the actual reason was probably not the reason which was presented. In that case, the danger was the potential rolling of Russian forces all the way to the North Sea, taking all of Germany, Austria and possibly even the Low Countries, France and Scandinavia into the Russian sphere of influence. D-day was a proxy action, in effect, against Russia, the first battle of the Cold War. I may not go quite so far as this article, but it is clear that by mid-1944, the end was in sight – but without the landings in France, it would have probably produced a largely Soviet Europe, thus demolishing the market for both the USA and Britain. The Western powers’ effort stopped at the dividing line between East and West Germany which obtained until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany – but it seems that Churchill, at least, was willing to go further than that. Clearly, for him, the defeat of Hitler was by no means the whole story.

Do I thus undermine the immense sacrifices made by US, British and Canadian troops (in particular) on D-day? Not at all. They were emphatically in the best interests of our respective countries at the time. But we should maybe restrain ourselves from expecting unqualified gratitude from those who were liberated from German rule as a result…

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Variations on a theme of Barry Taylor

June 1st, 2019
by Chris

Day three of the Wake festival in April saw a talk by Barry Taylor called “Everything I learned about the Bible I learned from prostitutes”. With that as a title (possibly the ultimate clickbait…) this was an unmissable occasion.

What follows is in part a brief account of what Barry talked about, in part some excursions which occurred to me during the talk, and, at the end, an extended meditation which the talk prompted me to think about after it ended.

It was somewhat autobiographical, in that one of the instances Barry used was a brush with the “Children of God” (whose successors are called “The Family International”) and their much-publicised technique of sending out wives to attract new members via sex (their founder stated that God was love and love was sex); these were called “hookers”. Barry was at the time touring the USA with AC/DC; his bio also includes partaking in a religious revival in Russia, doing music for porn movies and teaching at a fairly conservative Christian seminary, leading to the suggestion in the programme that “Barry could well be the most interesting man in the world”.

Being asked, mid coitus, to pause to pray is something which he found surprising. I think, in that, he is probably typical… but clearly possessed of a sangfroid greater than anything I could muster in that he apparently followed through – and was then introduced to her husband in the morning, a second moment of amazement.

Barry also used two other examples of “prostitutes”; Annabella in “Tis pity she’s a whore”, a 1633 play by John Ford (the title of which is also a track on Bowie’s “Blackstar” LP, which was the way Barry was led to the play), who is persuaded into a relationship with her brother and then stabbed by him when she marries another in order to justify her pregnancy. The play closes with the cardinal (who has confiscated the property of most of the dramatis personae on the basis that they are guilty of something) saying “who could not say, ‘Tis pity she’s a whore?”. The second is the woman who washes Jesus’ feet at a meal in a Pharisee’s house in all four gospels (though other details differ), one of the few incidents from the synoptics which also appears in the Fourth Gospel.

Barry quoted several notable theologians on prostitution, including Aquinas, who said that they were like a cesspool in a palace – it may be distasteful, but take it away, and the whole palace will stink, and Chesterton, who said that everyone who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.

In all three stories, the excluded, disavowed individual is calling into question the whole ethos on which society is based. In the Biblical story, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about indebtedness, and asks who is more grateful, he who has been forgiven little or he who has been forgiven much? But then, I noted, though it wasn’t the direction the talk went in, Jesus was regularly companionable with those who society considered beyond the pale (and, in the Jewish conception of the time, frequently ritually unclean and capable of contaminating those around them). Tax collectors (read “Quislings”) and sinners. Members of the Jews’ greatest enemies, the Phoenicians, Samaritans and Romans. Children (who were non-persons until they were 14). And, of course, women, even those with a continuous discharge (a major contamination in Jewish eyes – Lev. 15:19-33). Lepers. The dead… He must have been seen by Pharisees in particular as quite shockingly transgressive.

One lesson I personally learn from Jesus’ inclusivity is to judge a society by how they treat the least privileged among them, and I think of the list in Matthew 25; the hungry and thirsty, the stranger (foreigner/immigrant), those without adequate clothing, the sick and the imprisoned. And, I suppose, the prostitutes… On that basis, my own society stands condemned, having moved away from all those principles since Margaret Thatcher was elected. My friends in the States may, I suspect, have similar feelings, substituting Reagan for Thatcher…

Barry also drew out a theme of being converted by the intrusion of the excluded – the Pharisee, for instance, was forced to concede that he who was forgiven most was the most grateful, and that was also a deconversion, from the perspective which was previously taken; all conversion, he said, involves deconversion from something which precedes it and promises deconversion later from what is converted to. Sometimes, however, a label prevents conversion… such as “whore”.

…………………………………………………………………………

After the talk ended, I went on musing. I don’t have much experience of prostitutes, I thought – but then I paused. Prostitution is often called “the oldest profession”, and my former profession, Law, is sometimes called the second oldest. I did think, when going into Law, that it was a respectable occupation with a reasonable social status – and so, at the time, it was, at least in England. Some years later a friend in the States sent me a copy of the “1000 best lawyer jokes”, including “What’s the difference between a dead lawyer on the freeway and a dead cat on the freeway? The cat has skid marks in front of it” – but by that time I was already beginning to appreciate that, in the States at least, lawyers are one of the most hated and despised professions (possibly only eclipsed by politicians in the States, but I was also a local politician…).

There is, perhaps, a closer correspondence than just the “despised profession” or the antiquity of the occupation. Prostitutes sell the use of their bodies, while Lawyers sell the use of their minds. OK, there are a very few lawyers who go to work for, for instance, the Council for Civil Liberties or various Law Centres around the country who are more donating than they are selling, but in general terms, lawyers are mercenaries, “guns for hire” if those guns spout words rather than bullets. Another lawyer joke runs “Someone came to see me and asked ‘What is the truth of this situation?’, so first I negotiated a fee, then I asked him what he wanted the truth of it to be”. To a great extent, in law, the truth is what a lawyer can persuade a judge (and/or jury) to believe it to be, and one result is that we tend to get the best justice we can afford (tempered to some extent by the many lawyers who take on “pro bono” cases or work for a fee unconnected with whether they win or lose).

I’ll grant that the “mind for hire” allegation could be levelled at a wide range of other professions involving words, including to my deep regret some scientists who are lured into fields like climate-change denialism or the long hard fight (happily now lost) against the link between smoking and cancer. Don’t get me started on politicians, who seem increasingly to have lost touch with anything remotely resembling truth.

I have to say that the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known do not actually tailor what “truth” they argue for entirely to the wishes of the client; for a start, in the UK, professional ethics demand that they do not argue a position they know to be false, though that can lead to some very careful avoidance of clients admitting guilt directly to their lawyers; nonetheless, there are in most court proceedings two sides, each with lawyers arguing opposing positions – and only one of those (as a maximum) can be right.

I did my share of advocacy in court. Contra the impression given by courtroom dramas like “Perry Mason”, results are rarely obtained by breaking down witnesses under questioning so that they admit they were lying or, even better, admit guilt, they are more often obtained by finding an interpretation of the evidence actually given which founds innocence or guilt, depending on whether defending or prosecuting. Defending is easier in criminal cases, as you don’t need to demonstrate that your interpretation is the most likely one, just that it’s sufficiently plausible to put doubt in people’s minds as to another interpretation.

I did much more work drafting and amending contracts. There, part of the secret is to pull back from what you know the text is supposed to convey, and ask yourself what other meaning it could possibly have, if argued over in the future by a pair of clever lawyers. You then adjust the wording so as to exclude, so far as possible, any such misinterpretation – admittedly, sometimes in competition with a lawyer acting for the other side who actually wants that interpretation to be open. You also need to envisage situations in which the wording might not give a clear answer, or any answer, and so far as possible plug those gaps. The exercise does produce an ability to see second, third and fourth meanings in sets of words, which gets ingrained after many years doing it.

That, of course, is something which I now bring to interpreting scripture, having retired from doing anything connected with the law, at least so far as I can manage. I can see secondary readings of passages which people may miss, and perspectives which others may not think of (for example, my dumfounding of a small group by suggesting looking at the parable of the prodigal son from the perspective of the fatted calf… I’d already heard all the conventional perspectives being canvassed that week). Yes, some of those may be regarded as less likely interpretations for the writer to have intended, but as long as the words actually used open up the possibility, who are we to say that they weren’t intended to mean more than one thing, or even that what we now percieve as less likely wasn’t, from the author’s point of view, exactly what was the intention?

We don’t, of course, have the authors of scripture available to interrogate as to whether they also meant c,d, and e as well as a, or whether they actually only meant d… and even if we did, a modern interpreter could well say “ah, but that must have been at least in your subconscious, otherwise why would you pick those words…”. Indeed, that’s been done to me in the past, by an English Literature student interpreting some poetry I wrote – I denied having intended some of the meanings she extracted from it, and she made that argument, plus the rather more postmodern argument that the meaning of everything is created by the reader as much as by the writer, and the “death of the author” school of thought elevates that to a guiding principle. Those are the words, now shut up and let us interpret them – which is, I note with some amusement, the main moral of the Jewish story of the Oven of Akhnai, relating exactly to the interpretation of scripture. For my more conservative readers, you might like to note that the story takes a very high view of scripture – the Torah – as, in effect, divine dictation, but still supports variant interpretations.

I’m now in the happy position of being free to do this job of supplying reinterpretations and variant readings both in my writing and when editing others without any financial motive – or, indeed, for the most part any other compelling pressure. I don’t need to earn extra money any more; I’m largely retired, and have enough provision in retirement to be able to say “no” to almost any offer made to me. I am, however, perhaps more sensitive than most to the fact that I have let money dictate what I did with my mind in the past (that was, in essence, the nature of the job of a lawyer) – and that makes it impossible for me to be condemnatory towards those who let money dictate what they do with their bodies (i.e. prostitutes).

So I go to the inevitable question which I think we should all ask ourselves – what is our price? How much would it take to persuade us to do something which we think is reprehensible (such as myself defending criminals and assisting them to avoid conviction and punishment)? Maybe we wouldn’t do it for £100, but what about £100,000 or £100,000,000? Or maybe in non-money terms – what would we be prepared to do to save our child’s life, for instance?

That is something which I may need to come back to in another post. In the meanting, though, we might note that Barry presented a text – verbally, of course, and I found unexplored avenues in it and built off it in a major way, which rather illustrates my point about the value of thinking of variant interpretations.

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Euro election result – what on earth does it mean?

May 27th, 2019
by Chris

It would be tempting to interpret last night’s results in the European Election as a massive victory for “Leave”, on the basis that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party looks set to end up with around 30% of the total votes (it’s higher than that at the moment, but Scotland and Northern Ireland will drag the figure down a bit) and is already emphatically the largest party sending representatives to Europe from the UK. Certainly, that’s what Farage and some hard-line Tory leave MPs such as Mark Francois are saying.

They are wrong. If you tot up all of the Brexit party’s votes and those of the remnants of UKIP (which is fundamentally where the Brexit party’s votes came from), they only manage around 35%. Thus, ardent Remain supporters are suggesting that the vote, over all, is a victory for Remain… after all, as they point out, Brexit and UKIP stood on a platform of “no deal” on access to the European market, and have signally failed to get an overall majority. There’s some naive truth there – given that, assuming we leave, all the MEPs we have just been electing are going to be out of a job at the most by 31st October (and possibly earlier, if a “let’s leave now and stuff deals” attitude prevailed), there was no reason for someone who actually wants a no deal Brexit to vote anything other than Brexit/UKIP. Logic would say that everyone who didn’t vote Brexit/UKIP does not want a no deal Brexit.

Logic is wrong, and so are those who consider this a 65/35 vote against a no deal Brexit. Logic is wrong primarily because people don’t vote entirely rationally. Had they done so, there would have been no Change UK votes cast anywhere (as they had no serious chance of electing a member), in most of England there would have either been no Green vote or no Liberal Democrat vote (as everyone thoroughly opposing Brexit would have voted tactically for whichever of those had the best chance of success in the area, just as I did – I was entirely ready to vote for whichever Remain party was strongest – and just as did Alastair Campbell, formerly Tony Blair’s press secretary, and he’s died in the wool Labour); in Scotland and Wales there would have been little reason to vote for anyone other than the nationalist parties. Granted, in Scotland, that seems to have been nearly the case!

Would there, however, have also been a complete absence of Conservative and Labour votes? Well, perhaps yes, had it been a straight “in or out” decision and arrived at completely rationally. After all, the only reason you would vote for an MEP of a non-clear-remain party is if you expect Brexit not to happen and that MEP to have a function, surely? However, it wasn’t a straight “in or out” vote. There’s also the possibility which has been being kicked around parliament for the last three years of a negotiated closer relationship with the EU while still leaving. Can we therefore assume that all the Labour and Conservative voters this time want a negotiated exit? (If we could, the balance would be 65/35 in favour of leaving, though not if it was no deal).

The trouble is, I don’t think we can assume that either. I’ve heard stories of long term Labour voters weeping as they cast a tactical vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I can easily believe that many felt unable to do that – but similarly, I know Conservative voters who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for anything else. There may well be a significant number of Remain voters who still voted for those parties. But there may also be a significant number of “let’s leave with no deal” voters there, who similarly couldn’t bring themselves to vote outside lifelong party allegiances.

So it isn’t that simple. My own very strong preference would be to develop a “third way”, perhaps a Norway-style relationship, which could be implemented by Europe easily, would be very acceptable to them, would safeguard what’s left of our trade with Europe, and would remove the awful spectre of a hard border in Ireland, and then have another referendum with three options, no deal, Norway or remain. We would probably need to have a single transferrable vote system and eliminate the lowest of the three, reallocating those votes to their second preferences. Granted, that has it’s dangers for a Remainer like me – what if “Remain” was the lowest option? However, it would allow me to cast my second preference for Norway over no deal… and that would be preferable to the disaster which no deal would present.

I have no doubt that some Brexiteers will decry this as being antidemocratic – “the people have spoken and their will should be put into effect”. This is, of course, total bull. Having a public vote on something cannot be called “antidemocratic” in any way, shape or form, particularly when it does not ask the same question as was previously asked or when much more information is available, both of which are, of course, the case. Besides which, the people spoke in 1975 on Europe, I voted to be in Europe than, so what of the antidemocratic nature of having another vote in 2016?

One might as well say “the people have spoken and their will should be observed, so we should never have another General Election to the Westminster parliament”. After all, parliaments in the past have lasted around an average of 3-4 years, so we are arguably due a new vote anyhow!

There is a worrying factor, which Farage is now trying to capitalise on, and some Tory MPs are seeming to heed. That is that Brexit topped the poll in every region except London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and if you break down the figures by local council areas, Brexit were top of the poll almost everywhere in England and Wales (see the map in the BBC’s coverage).

The fear in the Conservatives (who didn’t top the poll anywhere) is that these results might be repeated in a General Election if Brexit doesn’t happen, or even that things might get even worse for them, and General Elections are on a “first past the post” basis, so had this election been on that basis, Brexit would have had every seat except for London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That fear affects Labour as well, though not to anything like the same extent. Some Labour MPs really fear for their seats – after all, much of the North, the Midlands and South Wales should be red on that map.

They shouldn’t be as worried as they seem to be; after all, this was effectively a single-issue election. An election to Westminster would not be single-issue. One might normally expect the gains of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to disappear, leaving them both around the 7% mark again, and for Brexit to do only about as well as UKIP did last time (and they didn’t take any Westminster seats). However, I don’t think that would happen. Brexit would have to put forward a policy platform in order to do that – would it be as right-wing as the UKIP platform? Nobody knows. Far right, however, is not very popular in the UK.

I would expect some of the defections from the Conservatives to stay where they were, however – they are seen as being the masterminds of the chaos in parliament over the last three years, and would be punished. Labour might do slightly better, but they are seen as not forming a sensible opposition to the Conservatives, and would be punished as well. There’s also the factor that once one has voted other than one’s traditional party, it’s easier to do that again. And there is a significant swell of both absolutely ardent Leave and Remain voters who would still vote single issue (probably, if Brexit had not happened, more on the Leave than on the Remain side). What would that mean in terms of a General Election? I have no idea.

But I do know that the surest way of avoiding a parliament dominated by the Brexit party at the next election, on around 33% of the votes cast, would be to institute proportional representation of some kind, or (and it isn’t strictly proportional representation but come up with somewhat similar results) Single Transferrable Vote. I would favour STV, because almost all the other PR or PR-like systems magnify the power of political parties. The trouble is, I can’t see much chance of getting the current parliament to vote for that, even though it would tend to preserve the positions of the vast majority of Conservative and Labour MPs (and that’s easily more than three quarters of them), and it’s been LibDem policy for years…

But then, you may say, you would prefer that, because had these elections been by STV, the probability is that very few second preferences would have gone to Brexit, but many would have gone to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, and I was a member of the Liberal Democrats, and a councillor for them, for many years. Actually, though, I rather lost confidence in the LibDems when they permitted the coalition government to follow neoliberal policies and exacerbate the trend towards an uncaring, non-compassionate society started under Thatcher, and I have been having my politics moulded more and more by the Synoptic Gospels, which push me increasingly towards the kind of politics espoused by Jeremy Corbyn. I might well vote Labour in the future – and actually did vote Labour in local elections last time (in a straight fight with Conservative, to be fair). I increasingly think that, in order to follow Jesus, one must be a socialist.

Indeed, if Labour now follow the views of the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Foreign Secretary (John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry) and come down firmly on the side of a new referendum, campaigning to remain, I may find myself supporting Labour without wincing too much, given my lifelong LibDem support. The trouble with Corbyn, in my eyes, is not that he’s “far left” as the Conservatives and most of the media (even including the Guardian) try to paint him (he would have fitted into, say, a Harold Wilson government without seeming particularly extreme), it’s that he hasn’t come down in favour of Remain. I suspect that he harbours thoughts that, in a fairly definitely neoliberal Europe, his ability to implement thoroughly socialist policies would be very limited – but against that, I would comment that outside Europe, it seems unlikely he would be commanding a strong enough economy to afford socialism.

Where does this leave us? Not, I think, including Farage and his mates in a negotiating team with the EU, as they are pushing for. There is, I think, an increased danger now of the Conservatives electing a new, hard Brexit leader to be PM, and that could far too easily lead to us crashing out with no deal on 31st October, with a PM happy to let that happen and a continuing voting deadlock in parliament. I think the chances of that have gone up significantly.

The thing is, a hard Brexit PM would find it utterly impossible to make a deal with any of the other parties, even more so than Mrs. May did. Even, I fancy, the DUP, which has been propping up the Conservatives so far in this government. I don’t see how, say, Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab could actually last more than a few weeks… unless, that is, the massive Con/Lab majority in the house are too scared for their seats and insufficiently prepared to put the interests of the country ahead of their personal position to rock the boat.

Unfortunately, nothing I have seen so far in this parliament indicates to me that the bulk of Conservative and Labour MPs are prepared to grow spines.

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A cold apocalyptic light

May 11th, 2019
by Chris

I spent most of last week at Peter Rollins’ “Wake” festival in Belfast. I can strongly recommend this yearly gathering of around 80 people interested in radical theology (and associated fields) to anyone who has a liking for thinking outside the theological box.

This year, the two main international speakers were Todd McGowan (a theorist working on generally left-leaning and postmodern topics, notably influenced by Jacques Lacan, and author of “Enjoying What You Don’t Have” and “Capitalism and Desire”) and Jamieson Webster (a practising psychoanalyist and author of “Conversion Disorder”, largely Freudian but also influenced by Lacan). The evening of day 1 saw a fascinating three way conversation between the two of them and Pete, largely focusing on the motif of conversion.

Todd, it turned out, has a pessimistic anthropology. He considers that we are not born free, but everywhere in chains as Rousseau famously remarked, but are born in chains and might aspire to become free, for some value of “free”, a conversion of some description, though preferably not one which exchanged one certainty for another. There was general agreement between the three of them that mankind suffers from a fundamental lack, as one might expect of three Lacanians.

We have, it seems in Lacanian terms, a disrupted set of drives, and Jamieson quoted Freud’s “Civilisation and it’s Discontents” to the effect that “something unhinges us and disrupts our libidinal system”; put in the terms of a motif of creation, we might see this as an outpouring of God into creation, but Todd insists that “something went wrong”. Between Pete and Todd, indeed, we had what was looking like the start of an emanationist creation story very much along the lines of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah or some strands of Gnosticism, in which the immensity of God is poured out into vessels which are incapable of containing the fullness of the Divine emanation. In Gnosticism, one of the first of these is the Demiurge, who thinks himself God as a result of this surplus of being (or power) and goes on to deceive us into neglecting the God-behind-God.

There seems to be a possibility that Meister Eckhart at the very least had elements of this thinking when he wrote “before creatures were, God was not God albeit he was Godhead which he gets not from the soul” (from Tractate XIX) and “When I go back into the ground, into the depths, into the wellspring of the Godhead, no-one will ask me whence I cam or whither I went. No-one missed me: God passes away” (from Sermon LVI). Indeed, Eckhart also wrote “The authorities teach that next to the first emanation, which is the Son coming out of the Father, the angels are most like God. And it may well be true, for the soul at its highest is formed like God, but an angel gives a closer idea of Him. That is all an angel is: an idea of God. For this reason the angel was sent to the soul, so that the soul might be re-formed by it, to be the divine idea by which it was first conceived. Knowledge comes through likeness. And so because the soul may know everything, it is never at rest until it comes to the original idea, in which all things are one. And there it comes to rest in God. “, so was definitely thinking in emanationist terms.

This is obviously fruitful ground for the mystics among us!

The overall impression I got between the three of them, though, was that we are congenitally in severe need of conversion, of a far-reaching overhaul of all of our psychology. That, I suppose, would agree well with the standard evangelical original sin -> fallen state -> need for salvation/metanoia paradigm (and I keep getting the feeling that some bits of Pete’s former protestant evangelicalism have not so much gone away as transformed into a slightly different form, a conversion which perhaps skates too close to exchanging certainties for my liking). Todd went on to reference as evidence of this collective lack of rationality the fact that we seem unable to form a sufficient consensus to act (to a large enough extent and soon enough) on climate change.

Now, I don’t know whether Todd used the words “end of the world” – my notes don’t include that, but my memory says that by the end of the discussion it had been used.

Even if we do absolutely nothing to combat climate change, of course, it will not be “the end of the world”; the planet will continue more or less unscathed. Even though we have already started a mass-extinction event, with the loss of countless species, it will also not mean the end of the natural world. What it will produce is widespread famine, the loss of huge areas of low-lying land (on which a substantial portion of the human population currently live) and mass migrations. Indeed, I’ve seen suggestions that the Syrian crisis, with its attendant refugees, can be blamed ultimately on drought and thus on climate change; so can a substantial proportion of the African refugees who regularly try to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Canada and Russia will gain quite a bit of cultivable land from the permafrost, but most of the rest of us will lose agricultural production.

The result will assuredly be a huge reduction in the human population attended by the wiping out of a lot of national borders, and in all probability the end of our current economic systems. “The end of civilisation” is a distinct possibility – but not the end of the world, except as we know it, and probably not even the extinction of humanity in its entirety. Probably not even reduction to as low a number as the 144,000 some of my more extreme Reformed friends talk of…

Having said all that, the thought crossed my mind that against the background of the impression that humanity was a possibly irremediable species, perhaps I should not be so concerned. Perhaps we deserve to die off… and given what we now know about evolution, species will evolve to fill the gaps left by the mass extinction, as they have many times previously.

The further thought crossed my mind as a follow up to that that we tend to think in an extremely anthropomorphic way. Thinking that the world comes to an end because our species is in some peril reflects this. Our religions tend to suggest that the whole thing was created so that we could exist and thrive.

But what if God created the world in order to form a habitat for, say, cockroaches? There are many more cockroaches on the planet than humans – indeed, studies have indicated that there may be a greater weight of cockroaches than humans, which at several thousand cockroaches per human is a sobering thought. They have most certainly been fruitful and multiplied. Cockroaches are also exceptionally durable – there is little or no doubt that they will survive any climate-change extinction; they are better fitted to a multitude of environments than is humanity.

Perhaps they (or some other insects) are actually the pinnacle of creation, and humanity is somewhere between a cosmic mistake (which is in line with what the panel were saying) and a means to an end to create a beneficial environment for the cockroaches?

Then again, perhaps it’s all designed to support viruses…

It would seem that those of us who take a similarly jaundiced view of anthropology (for instance, proponents of original sin) should perhaps pause for thought before welcoming the End Times…

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