Archive for November, 2016

On the other side of the “end times”…

November 30th, 2016

Richard Beck has a great series of blog posts on preterism (the belief that the apocalyptic statements of Jesus refer to the events of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and, to a great extent, Palestinian Judaism with it – the second had to wait for the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 to be fully the case, but if you take the “end times” as being 70-137, that would be full preterism). Here’s the first, and the most recent is here.

After a lot of thinking, I’ve arrived at a full preterist understanding of the gospels myself, in that I do not think any “end times” described there have yet to come. This means that while I tend to read Jesus mostly as Marcus Borg’s “spirit man” (a mystic, in other words), I also read him as an apocalyptic prophet, prophesying the appalling actions of the Romans in 65-70 and 135-137. And I read him as a social and religious reformer (albeit not proposing reform imposed from the outside, but resulting from a metanoia, repentance, a turning to God and away from the courses of action being taken in those days).

However, just because I think we are nearly 2000 years after the “end times” of the gospels doesn’t mean that some of my more conservative fellow Christians are completely incorrect, and that we are not, perhaps, looking at a new “end times” – certainly, all of the factors mentioned by George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article are cause for concern.

But, of course, this merely means that when Richard stresses that the Kingdom of God is already here, among us, that is still the case. There is hope – but there may also need to repent of a lot of things which we are currently doing.

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Presidents, kings, revolutions and anarchy.

November 23rd, 2016

I’ve been thinking about this concept: “There is also a metaphor that A Country Is a Person and a metonymy of the President Standing For the Country” since the election of Donald Trump. The quotation is taken from an article by George Lakoff, where he seeks to understand the psychology behind the victory. And I’ve been congratulating my own country on having a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic – had we had a republic, looking at the rise of UKIP in the 2015 elections and the Brexit referendum result, we could by now be rejoicing in being represented by President Farage. Nigel Farage is absolutely not qualified to represent me or the majority of my friends; he displays boorishness and bigotry, appeals to racism and thinly disguises his massive condescension behind a facade of “laddishness” (and “laddishness”, to me, is tantamount to grown up football hooligananism…) Had we elected him as President of Great Britain, I would expect us as a nation to be a laughing stock in governments around the world, and me personally to have to explain to every one of my non-UK friends why they really should not think less of me because my fellow countrymen elected a complete a***hole to represent them (and, unfortunately, me). Heck, I have enough difficulty having to explain Brexit (“so, Chris, you live in a country largely populated by morons?…”).

So I have collossal sympathy for the vast bulk of my American friends who did not vote for Trump and find him about as repugnant as I do. America has a tendency to do things larger, louder and with less finesse, and Trump is rather like a larger, louder, even more boorish Farage, as far as I can see. However, I also have a touch of feeling that he may be seen to represent me too – due to the conception of the USA as the forefront of Western Democracy and the often used term “leader of the free world”, if not to the fact that he’s an English speaker from the largest first-language English speaking country in the world (if you take into account second language or look at English being an official language of the country, the largest is actually India, where English shares the “official” status with Hindi), or the fact that the USA was originally a British creation. Granted, it went its own way earlier than any of the other colonies by quite some margin, but it’s still to an extent “our responsibility”, even if we haven’t had much ability to influence it for over 250 years.

Incidentally, don’t get me wrong here – if Trump does half what he said he’d do (and judging by the makeup of his “transition team”, there’s a serious danger he will) he’ll be an economic disaster, will set back the fight against climate change possibly irretrievably and will facilitate or encourage persecution of women and minorities. These are all very bad things – and that’s without commenting that someone who appears extremely thin-skinned and likes showing off his power is shortly to be Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen. This is not just an American problem – climate change affects all of us, US military interventions affect all of us, and the US economy is inextricably linked with many others (notably the UK economy). If he goes in the directions I fear, everyone will suffer; it’s not just a matter of perceptions, or even primarily that. But what I want to concentrate on here is the theory and practice of heads of state.

Monarchies are a terrible idea from the point of view of theoretical politics, but in practice the constitutional variety (which we’ve had longer than anyone else, at a minimum since the Restoration of 1660 – and for any reader who wants to date it to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, I regard that as merely confirming the Restoration settlement against an attempt to reverse it) seem to work pretty well. In these, the monarch has practically no actual power, but is a symbol (or as Lakoff puts it, metonymy) of the nation. The major plus point there is that people ascending to the throne have been brought up knowing that that will be their “job” in the future, and for the most part have it dinned into them from birth that they are going to be a symbol, and must therefore behave in an appropriate manner. This is, if necessary, reinforced by the consciousness that we’ve had a revolution twice to remove a monarch who was overstepping their constitutional position, and could do so again.

It does amuse me that much the same reasoning is used by Edmund Burke in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (here discussed by PEL – the second part is here) to justify inherited wealth and the power of the then nobility. Burke is well known as an arch conservative, which is also amusing considering my status as (in general) an arrant Liberal. I actually wouldn’t extend this argument to nobles as a class; there is a major difference between performance of a symbolic function (the monarchy) for which training is very valuable and managing the wealth of the country, for which training might be valuable, but which aristocratic systems seldom if ever provide well in practice.

Burke, however, did support the American revolution, despite his general principles. He did so on the basis that the rule of George III was tyrannical – and, in fact, he was wrong. George may have wanted to be a tyrant, but lived at least 100 years too late for that to be practical in England; the actions which the proto-Americans complained of were centrally those of his government, of the parliament of the day – which, of course, was not representative of the people of the American colonies, who elected no MPs and were ruled by appointed governors.

Against that background, I find a lot of irony in the fact that many US citizens now appear to be suffering from Canada-envy. Let’s face it, Canada is the bit of the mainland American colonies which didn’t join in the Revolution, which stayed loyal to King George – or rather (as he was a symbol, a metonymy) to the United Kingdom which he represented. Yes, my American friends – you could all be Canadian now – if you hadn’t had a revolution. (I need to admit here that the history of Canada would no doubt have been very different in that case, and the nature of the society might not have been quite so admirable as many Americans now find it…)

So, was there a tyrrany, albeit of an elected parliament which nonetheless did not represent the American colonists rather thanĀ  of the monarch? The answer probably has to be yes – in default of any participation in government, tyrrany is really the only applicable word. Burke’s criticism of the British position was very much on the basis of “no taxation without representation”. There is another irony here; even with all the measures which the colonists complained of, the actual burden which the UK parliament was attempting to impose was negligible compared with the burden of maintaining the apparatus of the modern United States. As tyrranies go, it wasn’t very tyrranical.

Of course, the really important part was “no taxation”; had there not been an attempt to tax (which was largely due to the UK government having recently incurred a lot of expense in removing the ever-present threat of French Canada from the American scene), I doubt that “no representation” would have found much traction. I tend to find that people aren’t all that interested in the political process as long as government isn’t doing things they object to too much – I know that would hold for me. In my case, though, I’m happy to accept a significant level of tax; in the States the aversion to any form of taxation seems to be alive and well. So does the idea that people are not really represented by their government, despite the electoral process which now exists (and I have sympathy there – my vote rarely counts, partly because I persistently vote for third party candidates). Both antipathy to taxation and frustration with lack of political power are suggested as contributing to Trump’s success, with the further irony that in the case of the Revolution, taxes were almost entirely in the interests of defence, which is not an area where Trump supporters would be likely to reduce expenditure…

There were, however, some other more obvious causes than the mere lack of a vote for the colonists to want to be free of the UK parliament. One such was the trade monopoly in tea which they attempted to give to the East India Company (the protest was not about taxes on tea, it was about the fact that government appointed merchants were given a monopoly on reduced tax tea so that the Company could undercut the price of smuggled Dutch tea, thus annoying the smugglers). This was symptomatic of a basic British doctrine that the colonies were there to provide raw materials and both manufacture and the carriage of goods should be a monopoly of “home grown” industry and companies. I note that crony capitalism is another irritation which commentators think explains the popularity of Trump, and definitely in part explained that of Sanders.

Then again, there was the declaration by the government that the interior should be an Indian reservation (Indians had been very instrumental in defeating the French) – this went against the desire of the colonists to expand to the West, and also played into fears that Indians might be regarded as citizens. Perhaps Mexicans are the current equivalent? Then again, some commentators see Somerset’s case of 1772 as exciting fears (which were entirely justified, but not until 1833) that slavery would be abolished in the British Empire; much of the economy of the more southerly colonies rested at the time on slave labour. Indeed, during the Revolutionary war, the British did encourage slave revolts. Again, I could see some resonances in current events of a white fear of being put in a minority and losing their privileged status.

So, is Trump’s election a kind of revolution, analagous to either the American or the French revolution, or even the Glorious Revolution (which I linked to earlier)? It might at first sight look more like the Glorious Revolution, in that power is going to be handed over without significant strife. However, going back to my first point, Trump is now representing America, and what he represents is against many elements of the established order – crony capitalism (especially the banks), globalism, social care, tolerance of minorities and multiculturalism having all been his targets – as well as what he supremely represents, which is the complete absence of any form of politeness (a more general and less loaded term than political correctness) or restraint. Certainly some voices from the left, such as Slavoj Zizek, have supported Trump very much on the basis that the established order needs to be pulled down and Trump is the best agent to achieve this.

Indeed he may be, but I have in mind also watching a BBC programme on Maximilien Robespierre, in which Zizek supported the need for the terror unleashed under Robespierre, and which to my mind made Burke a visionary in his “Reflections”, which Burke wrote before the terror. Robespierre and his fellows were, of course, elected at least somewhat democratically, and once in power steadily moved towards a regime which I would not wish on anyone, happily fairly short-lived.

Now, Trump is not Robespierre (who was sometimes referred to as “the sea-green incorruptible”). He is clearly not an idealogue, which Robespierre definitely was – one of my greatest criticisms of Robespierre is that he elevated theory over everything, and most definitely thought that the ends justified the means, however draconian the means were (though I have an uncomfortable memory of Trump endorsing torture…). However, a lot of those now being appointed to advise him are ideologues, and they are moving into positions of power in a government massively more equipped to maintain a security state. His taking of power ought to look like the Glorious Revolution, in which there was almost no violence (though there were some rebellions in later years – we were more content with Dutch than with German monarchs, besides which the Jacobite claimants had far more charisma), but I wonder if it actually will be.

What Zizek and others on the left see Trump as representing is an anarchic agent of change, one who will produce (at least for a time) anarchy on the way to a better and brighter future. With Burke, I do not like anarchy, I do not like terror; I favour gradual change rather than revolutionary change; I want to have a clear picture of the objective and a believable path from where we are to it, rather than an unpredictable upheaval. But (and this may be a factor in the overwhelming Evangelical support for Trump) I am not sure that the way of Jesus is gradualism rather than revolution. It seems to me that Jesus hoped for and expected a major upheaval, though I’m dubious that he wanted to bring that about, rather expecting that God or historical momentum would do this; Marxists commonly expect historical momentum to do this, while the Evangelicals no doubt expect God to bring it about.

But do they wait for God to do this, or do they aim at anarchy through their own devices, giving God a helping hand along the way? Certainly one commentator thinks that they are espousing a “means justifies the end” strategy in supporting Trump. Personally, I suspect that shooting yourself in the foot in order to give an opportunity for miraculous healing is foolish, but…

 

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Nevertheless, God…

November 8th, 2016

Some while ago I wrote a post with the provocative title “God – WTF?”. Having reread it, my thinking has not changed all that much. However, another slight spin on the topic came to mind earlier this week, when I was engaged in my other part time occupation of research assistant in a chemical process lab.

We were looking at a process which we had gleaned from a scientific paper, and (inter alia) speculating about how this particular reaction actually worked. If we can work out how it functions, we have a hope, at least, of making it work better – and the commonly used process for this chemical is only about 27% efficient; we want something as close to 100% as we can get.

Now, you can’t see a reaction happening, as such. Sure, you can detect that the stuff in the flask has changed colour, or become more or less viscous, or has started (or stopped) giving off bubbles. You can (as we did) take samples out at regular intervals and look at them with various instruments (in our case, chiefly a UV-Visible spectrum spectrometer, though we have also resorted to high pressure laser chromatography and, by sending samples away, mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). These techniques let us at least guess at what the actual chemicals present in the reaction at that point are (the pinpoint identifications common in forensics based TV programmes are rather beyond what can actually be achieved in many labs, and rely on someone having identified a chemical previously so you have a characteristic trace for it).

None of this, however, is actually seeing the reaction, particularly as current theory holds that temporary intermediate chemicals are formed and quickly reformed in the type of reaction we are looking at, and will not be seen if you take out a sample and look at it at leisure – it will by then have reacted on or gone back to it’s original constituents. We are inferring what is actually happening from what we see, which is definitely second-order (and, of course, as with the equipment I have listed we are not looking directly at a chemical, we are looking at a trace on a screen produced by some physical process plus a set of fairly complex electronics, usually dissolved in something which itself affects the result).

One of the things we have decided during the last week is that the intermediate chemical in this process is not what the original scientific paper said it was. We have a number of possibilities, but it is pretty definitely not what the original authors (who were writing quite a while ago and probably didn’t have instant UV-Vis and HPLC results available to them) said it was.

This all reminded me of the position I was talking of in that post. I’m a mystic – I have experienced (and hope to experience again) something which I find past mystics have labelled “God”. I do not know (at least not with confidence, given a rather sceptical and enquiring nature) what that something is. It may be something which could reasonably be talked of as a person; certainly most theology in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots talks of God that way. It may be something more akin to a process – as John Caputo puts it “what is going on in the name of God”. It may be an emergent property, possibly an emergent property of mind, as I’ve speculated previously. It might even be just a meme (and even Richard Dawkins would agree that it is at least one meme…).

What I see from atheists, however, appears to me to be along the lines of “well, it isn’t A, and it isn’t B, and it isn’t C, so it doesn’t exist”. This, to me, is like saying that if in the experiment I mention we have ruled out the possibility of the reaction involving compound A, compound B or coumpound C, then the reaction isn’t happening. I can see it happening in the reaction vessel, even if I don’t know exactly how it is happening. Likewise, I can experience God (to a greater or lesser degree) without needing to know what it is that I am experiencing with any clarity – and, for me, that is a difficult thing to write, because I want to know with clarity how everything works!

It isn’t just atheists who are culpable here. A facebook friend involved in a webinar recently talked of people in his past (at a seminary) who held that if you had the wrong “doctrine of God”, you were damned. That, to my mind, is saying that the compound absolutely has to be compound A, whatever anyone else says – and, in a sense, that if it isn’t, for you, most likely to be compound A then, again, the reaction won’t happen.

Galileo is reputed to have said, in response to Church statements that the earth could not move (in order to orbit the sun) “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves). God exists (or insists) and does what God does irrespective of your doctrine of God and irrespective of those who say that if we don’t understand it, it can’t happen.

For some value of “exists”…

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Antipolitics, Brexit and Trump

November 7th, 2016

David Brooks writes of “antipolitics” in relation to the current possibility of Donald Trump getting elected. I think he is absolutely on the nail with this analysis. (I’m writing this the day before the election – if it doesn’t get posted until the result is known, it doesn’t really matter).

I have behind me a substantial amount of time in politics; I joined the then Liberal Party in my teens, and from my early 20s to my 50s was involved in trying to get Liberal and then Liberal Democrat candidates elected to local and national levels. In the process, I managed to clock up over 20 years as a local councillor, so I know from the inside that politics has to involve compromise. In fact, my first elected position was on a council which was, apart from myself, split 50/50 between Labour and Conservative councillors (Labour had one more councillor, as there were 12 in total). I found that I was thrust into the position of intermediary between the two sides, assisted considerably by the facts that on any issue where voting split along strict party lines, at the worst I could, by voting with the Conservatives, force the use of a mayoral casting vote (which was seen as politically negative) or at the best, by voting with Labour where the mayor was conservative (or, for a short while, myself) ensure that a resolution passed, and that the Liberal Democrats were seen as “the centre party”, probably in those days rightly. I hasten to say that I didn’t use that position of unreasonable power, given that I was a minority party councillor, very much, though it did mean that both sides were keen to talk to me!

It wasn’t usually the case that voting split that way, though; many issues were not really party political footballs, and in those debates and votes I felt the system was at its best; we had a set of disparate views, expressed them and argued them, sometimes even winning over one or two of our fellows, and then voted. We had differing points of view, but accepted that and were, on the whole, content that the majority carried the day. Most of the time, however, we were able to adjust what we resolved so as to produce a large majority in favour of anything we resolved, and not uncommonly unanimity, just by taking into account the positions of those who initially dissented.

One of the many reasons I had joined this “centre party” was precisely because I did not like the adversarial nature of the two party system. I had seen policies repeatedly decried by the party in opposition and then, a few years later, adopted by that party to a considerable extent when they came into power. Alternatively, many things which were done by one government would be undone by the next, irrespective of whether there was some merit in the measure, even if it could have benefited by a little tweaking. It was very nice to be instrumental in stopping this happening so much, albeit at a very local level, for a number of years. (OK, I admit that I was not successful in getting the council not to declare itself a nuclear-free zone, which I regarded as an exercise in futility as the council had absolutely no power to do anything about it, and which would merely make the council look stupid. There were a few other such anomalies, but nothing which actually mattered very much.)

Another was that I had decided even in my teens that there were usually not just two sides to any issue. There was almost always at least a third, and often a fourth, fifth or many more ways to look at questions, and forcing everything into a black and white, either/or decision was not going to give decision making the subtlety it really needed. I set out to try to provide additional options wherever possible, as well as trying to force compromise.

It is therefore hugely saddening to see the United States divided into two almost exactly equal camps for whom the other can do no right (whatever the faults of their own side), with elected respresentatives vowing to stop the process of decision making happening altogether – unless, of course, they can get their own way entirely. The UK has managed to get itself into the same position over Brexit. We are in general a little more polite than the general level of political debate in the States, I think, but both Brexiters and Remainers are very adamant in their views, and at the moment the Brexiters are crowing over their very marginal victory and telling those of us who voted “Remain” to shut up and help them leave the EU – no matter what the consequences might be. A very sustantial number of them sound to me a lot like some Trump followers (or, earlier in the US process, some Bernie followers) in that they have little or no idea what the end result may be, but they are so dissatisfied with the current situation that anything is worthwhile to end it. One friend, prior to our Brexit vote, expressed this very well (and she was the only person I heard express what I considered an entirely valid reason, others wanting things which were either contradictory or just downright unachievable); she said “I’m voting Brexit because I want to see the world burn”.

This is entirely rational, if you want to see chaos. I can even sympathise – we are, it seems, stuck with a succession of neoliberal governments (Blair and those allied with him being just as neoliberal as was Thatcher), the gap between rich and poor is increasing, the poor and disadvantaged in our society are becoming poorer and more disadvantaged and neither of the main parties has looked as if it might do anything about that (Labour under Corbyn just might do that, however…). Equally, our membership of the EU makes it more difficult to avoid such neoliberal policies, as witness the treatment of Greece by the EU and the banks. So do trade deals like TTIP, however – and we would probably end up entering deals like that if negotiating without the EU even easier than when in it.

However, I’ve never supported the idea that if you tear down what is existing, even if it is really bad, you are guaranteed of something better. By all means take it to pieces as, when and if you have a clear, workable objective and a reasonable plan for achieving it – a SMART task (specific, measurable, assignable – i.e. who will do what, realistic and time limited). The problem with both Trump followers and Brexiteers is that they have none of these. OK, certain members of each group may think they have them, but on examination those will prove incompatible with the objectives of other members of the group, and frankly I could drive a coach and horses through the gaps in any formulation of such objectives I’ve heard from any Brexiteer or Trump supporter.

I also completely reject the kind of “antipolitics” which seems to be at the root of both movements, or at least a sizeable proportion of each. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, I didn’t like the governments of the day and I didn’t like the local government actions of the day, and it was suggested to me by someone older and wiser than me that if that was the case, and I had no candidate I could bring myself to vote for, I should stand myself. I had to create a local branch of the party of my choice from scratch in order to do that – but that is what I did. Those who hate the way politics is going now have exactly the same outlet for their frustrations – work for a third or fourth party candidate you can believe in, or if there isn’t one, stand yourself.

Don’t try to wreck the democracy we have in the vain hope that something better will come about. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government – apart from all the others that have been tried…

 

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