Justice, Law and the consequences.

This post has been prompted partly by a discussion on Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed site about the legal and particularly the penal systems in the light of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology and life. It’s a Q&A session from a recent course on Bonhoeffer, which I wasn’t subscribed to, but I think it stands on it’s own as a discussion. The source lecture is probably available on a “pay what you can” basis, as are all the Homebrewed courses at present when released.

I add to that the news that Ben Roberts-Smith, an Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross (which, for those outside the Commonwealth, is the supreme award for bravery given rarely by the British monarch and virtually never awarded these days to anyone who survives their act of heroism) has been found by an Australian civil court to very probably have been guilty of a number of civilian deaths (which would rank as war crimes if proved in a criminal court), and watching pictures of the former presenter of ITV’s “This Morning” programme, Philip Schofield, talking about how the revelation of an affair with a younger male ITV employee which he had previously denied had ended his career. Schofield is right to say that there is almost certainly no way back for him after that; similarly I doubt there is any way back for Roberts-Smith. Millions of people had looked up to both those men (obviously for totally different reasons), and the venom people express towards their former heroes who are found to have feet of clay is well known.

I hasten to say that it is not a collossal surprise to me to find that the man who exhibited heroism in a war situation was also guilty of atrocities – we create elite soldiers as killing machines, and are happy as long as we are at war and “need” them, and scandalised when they turn out not to be able to turn those impulses off on command (notably when their services are no longer needed, though that is not the case with Roberts-Smith). Nor is it a surprise to find that an extremely capable and engaging TV host and theatre performer was guilty of sexual misconduct (in my eyes, possibly only misconduct because he was married) and covered it up – particularly as it was a same sex liaison with suspicions of abuse of a dominant position (if not actually grooming, given they met when the other employee was 15 and Schofield suggested work experience at ITV). Schofield denies that anything improper occurred until the man was 20, and I have no reason to disbelieve that, though many might – on the basis that if he lied about one thing, he “is a liar”. There is still a slur over homosexuality in the UK, particularly when someone has denied their leanings and is, like Schofield, married with adult daughters.

The Homebrewed discussion is very strong on the principle that people should not be judged purely for what they did on their worst day, and that “the crime” does not define the person – indeed, it may be a very small part of a complex character much of which may be on the whole good.That, I like a lot. And, of course, Christianity is a religion of forgiveness – including enemies.

I do however take issue with Tripp’s comment (which I think he borrowed from Dom Crossan) that the function of the law is not to deliver justice but to obstruct justice. I spent 30 years of my life as a practising lawyer, and can attest that the vast majority of my fellow lawyers saw themselves as trying to get the law to deliver something like justice. The thing is, it is eminently the case that the law is not, in and of itself, just. At best it is an attempt by human beings to create a system which is predictable and which delivers something approaching justice (and avoids people descending to violence or escalating it), but of course at worst it is a system which perpetuates the status quo. Indeed, the earliest instances of law I am aware of (in Babylon) involve the protection of property (without heed to whether that property was entirely ethically obtained, for instance through the exploitation of others) as well as the protection of life and the prevention of physical harm to others. And, of course, the need to pay taxes. I resonate far more with Derrida’s observation that justice is an “undeconstructible” principle, and that we are never going to achieve justice – the best we can do is work toward it.

I worry too about any decrying of law coming from Christian theologians. Jesus said that the Law (of Moses) would stand “until heaven and earth passed away”. OK, he also said “until all is accomplished”, which Christians have been taking as meaning you can throw away the Mosaic Law once Christ had been resurrected, but I don’t think he meant that – it is, after all, hardly the case that heaven and earth have passed away. It smacks of supersessionism, the idea that Christianity replaces Judaism which, with the Law as a whole, is now outmoded, superseded – if, indeed, it was ever valid (which some passages from Paul, notably much of his argument in Romans, might be taken to indicate). It is, frankly, inconceivable to me that the Almighty might lay down a code of conduct for his chosen people which is in its entirety capable of being superseded,  saving the fact that some of it is clearly context-dependent. Paul suggested it was designed to increase sin in Romans 2-3, and, indeed, both that it is impossible to keep the law (despite the fact that many Jews of my acquaintance are confident of being super-compliant with the law) and that without the law there would actually be no sin, which would scandalise every ethicist I know who is not a deontologist. Which, thinking about it, is all of them!

OK, I accept that there is a tendency in humans to see prohibitions and want to contravene them – without a “do not walk on the grass”, some people, at least, wouldn’t be tempted to walk on the grass. Psychoanalysts seem very keen on this mechanism. For me, it’s a childish or adolescent phase to do so, one in which all boundaries must be pushed, and adults commonly don’t do that. Maybe Paul was a proto-psychoanalyst? Personally, as no great friend of Paul, I suspect he was taking from a position of arrested development, whether or not he actually suffered from that personally.

What I think may well have been behind Dom’s and Tripp’s attitude is that the law in the US (and in most of the rest of the world) does not focus either on restorative justice or on distributive justice. I’ll come back to those.

We have, I think, to try to accept the principle that the law must be upheld in any reasonably functioning society¹. Anarchism is superficially attractive, but as far as I can see unworkable in any sizeable group, though I do sometimes ask myself when reading the synoptic gospels whether Jesus might have had an anarchist streak to him (although he may just have thought, with Jeremiah, that the law would in the future be written on people’s hearts and thus not need enforcement). Without law, the main foundation of civil society vanishes, though it may not quite be Hobbe’s vision of life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” In that context, I can criticise the systems we have in both the US and the UK not just for ignoring restoration and distribution but also for being sufficiently complicated that to a significant extent you “get the best law you can pay for” (he or she who has the best lawyers very often wins regardless of the merits of the case, and the best lawyers are often but not always the most expensive). Sadly, this is largely a function of the way the law develops. Legislators come up with a form of wording which is designed to prevent some behaviour. Judges look to apply that, and find that in the peculiar circumstances of the case in front of them, that produces an injustice, so they find an additional principle which exculpates the potential victim of the injustice. But that principle is applied in a later case and produces a different injustice, so the law gets complicated once more (it matters little whether it’s the judges who make the change or whether it’s later legislators trying to repair the system).²

The Homebrewed panel also discuss the fact that we do not work on the basis that punishment “pays ones debt to society”. Actually, once one has a criminal record, that removes the possibility of many occupations as well as making it extremely difficult to obtain employment in others – in the US, one is “a felon” for life. In the UK, one “has a record”, and while we have a thing called the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act which is supposed to wipe the slate clean after some years, it does not – particularly in respect of things like insurance and credit. And, of course, in the minds of the police, who will always focus more on the person “with a record” than on those who have no convictions. I’m sure it wasn’t designed that way, but the net effect is that someone with a criminal record may find themselves with no possibilities for earning money other than criminal ones, thus underlining the finality of judging on the basis of what people did on their worst day.³

There are, of course, several reasons for imposing punishment on those who break the law (or, indeed, act contrary to the mores of society). One is retribution, which often seems to be key to the responses of victims and, indeed, society more generally – personally I fail to understand huge antagonism to someone who has not injured me personally, but many seem to feel that. Unfortunately, revenge is a poisonous motivation for the one seeking it, and seems fairly rarely if at all to be really satisfying to the victim. Harbouring a desire for revenge has been likened to drinking poison and expecting the other person to suffer – it is certainly corrosive. Far better, if you can actually do it, is to follow the Christian principle of forgiving (and keeping forgiving, seventy times seven if necessary).

Another is deterrence. The idea is that if people think about what the consequences of their criminal action might be, they will not do it for fear of being found out and punished. It is this which lies behind a lot of the clamour for more severe prison sentences, I believe. Unfortunately a common factor of most of those facing criminal conviction is (in my fairly extensive experience) that they did not expect to get caught, or didn’t think about consequences at all (crimes of passion, for instance) so deterrence was totally ineffective. OK, I have also talked with a few career criminals for whom the possible punishment is a potential “cost of doing business”, and in those cases deterrence might actually work to an extent. I fancy that that lies behind the reluctance of many criminals in the UK to use guns – the sentence here is massively increased if guns are involved. (The career criminal is also likely to be so used to prison that it isn’t as distasteful or terrifying to them as it would be to most of us.)

Outright prevention is another. This one actually works sometimes – people who are imprisoned, for instance, are not committing crimes in normal society (though they may be doing just that in prison). There, I’m recalling a conversation with a couple of the detectives from our local police station some years ago. They had managed to get a conviction of an extremely prolific 17 year old burglar with a custodial sentence (the first time the magistrates had been persuaded to imprison him) the previous year, and the rate of burglaries in the area had dropped by 75%. Of course, that only worked until his release! It seems to me that this might be at the root of US “three strikes and you’re out” provisions, which have only the downsides that firstly life imprisonment for (say) a trivial theft just seems totally disproportionate and secondly that locking someone up actually costs a very large amount of money. It costs a fairly large amount even if (as in the States) you force prisoners to work for peanuts (the “prison-industrial complex”) which, to me, offends my instincts against slavery and also risks major undercutting of prices which can be achieved outside the system, having subsidised labour – and thus penalising workers outside the system. For what it’s worth, while the UK prison system hugely incentivises prisoners working, the system is generally at pains not to compete unfairly with the free market.

It is, I have to concede, potentially effective to have a death penalty in this regard – those who are dead are not going to reoffend. Quite apart from the fact that after you are dead, an appeal against conviction is rather pointless, and far too high a percentage of convictions are unsafe (some have estimated as many as 30% in the UK), this offends my ethics as a Christian and a member of the Anglican Church, which is the established church of the country (and so whose ethics ought to have some bearing on our laws). I am against killing people more or less regardless of the circumstances, and massively oppose my country doing it “on my behalf”. (Incidentally, if anyone wishes to bring up abortion here, please see these posts.) I do include wars – I’m not happy that my country keeps involving itself in them, or that armaments is a major export industry for us. There, however, I don’t expect “not in my name” to have any real traction.

I could probably get behind a penal system which concentrated on reforming and educating the prisoner. There are countries which try very hard to achieve this, and on the whole I believe their approach works, or at least works better for society than no attempt at all. Sadly, neither my country or the States seem to be among them (mine gives lip service to educating prisoners, but little more than that). There are people who do not benefit from this approach, of course, though I do wonder whether some form of intensive psychological intervention might catch some of those (and one always has to consider whether the cost of the exercise is warranted).

However, what I eventually come down to as a “fair” system is one which largely aims at restitution. Sometimes that is impossible (murder is the most obvious example, and also often someone who has caused harm does not have the resources to compensate fairly), but for a very wide range of offences and situations, it is entirely possible and has the huge “plus” of putting the victim back as nearly as possible in the position they would have been in had the crime not occurred. Even a genuine attempt to make some restitution, even if inadequate, seems to be very acceptable to many. Most of the systems of criminal law which aim at retribution, deterrence or prevention just ignore the victim. Civil law does, of course, attempt to compensate people for injury on the basis of restitution, though it is generally really bad at assessing fair compensation. In some places (the USA, with its Jury trials of civil matters, for instance) the figures awarded are ridiculously large; in others (and I have in mind looking at possible compensation in the Greek courts some years ago) the figures available are stupidly small. That said, civil law systems do something there which criminal law systems often do not. OK, yes, the UK has a system of “criminal injuries compensation”, which is not funded by offenders, but ostensibly aims at making some restitution. I found the awards made under that system laughably small, however.

Sometimes, of course, restitution is the wrong answer; I have in mind the originating crime of Valjean in “Les Miserables”, which is the theft of a loaf of bread by a man whose family is starving. In effect, he receives a life sentence – although released after 20 years, he’s still on parole for life. In conscience, I look at a situation where one person has ample bread and the person next to them is starving, and, using the principle of distributive justice, consider that the real wrongdoer here is the one who does not gladly give his loaf to the starving (within reason, of course) – and I have in mind the Abbé in Les Mis, and the effect of his generosity and mercy. Consider here also Jesus’ injunction to the rich young man. I’m minded also of the story of the granaries. I can’t see how any legal system with which I’m familiar would adopt distributive justice, however (except using the discretion of magistrates and judges to mitigate penalties); that has to be a function of the State more generally. And, to my mind, no state in which some of its citizens consistently go hungry or homeless† can call itself civilised, let alone a “Christian nation”.

To summarise, when a wrong is committed, our first avenue should be to put right, as nearly as possible, that wrong – i.e. restitution. By and large, we don’t do that.

Secondly, we should look to prevent it happening again. As I’ve outlined, locking the offender up is effective, but costly, and unless you’re prepared to see a significant proportion of your population in jail for life (which it sometimes seems to me is the case in the USA), that has a limited time of efficacy. Capital punishment is also effective, but morally dubious even if you ignore the number of wrongful convictions our systems seem to manage. Deterrence is ineffective in most cases. What would be beneficial is to use a combination of education and behavioural modification, coupled with putting ex-offenders into viable work on their release. But we also largely don’t do that.

What we do do is double down on punishment, i.e. retribution. And that, I’d argue, damages us more than it damages the offenders, even if we’re ethically comfortable with it – which I’m not.


¹ Yes, there are laws which I consider grossly unjust, and yes, I support breaking those laws as an act of civil disobedience (the recently introduced laws which prevent many forms of public protest in the UK are a prime example) – but I also think that when you do break those laws, you should not complain about being punished.
² It is worth noting that the same kind of principles operate in the expansion of Jewish law from 613 mitzvot in the Torah to something occupying many volumes.
³ It is illustrative of this mechanism that a man who as a youth, when very drunk, peed into a public fountain, acquired a conviction for “exposing himlf in a public place”, which is sufficient to put him on the sexual offences register and prevent him doing anything involving children for life.
† OK, with an exception for a very few who make an informed choice to be homeless, not those whose mental illnesses make the choice for them.


Swearing at Charlie

OK, the title should probably be “to” rather than “at” – but some of my online friends have been doing more “at” than “to”…

I’m feeling somewhat conflicted about the coronation (which was today as I started writing this – I’ve spent far too long tinkering with it). Significant numbers of friends have been posting things critical of the monarchy recently, either on the basis that it’s an opportune time to review whether we want a king (it isn’t – we should have done that, if we wanted to, before he was acclaimed by the PM, let alone actually crowned) or (and I suspect this of being the motive in most cases) they are republicans, and annoyed by the amount of attention the coronation is getting when matters which they consider more important are sidelined. One very measured but impassioned piece comes from my Australian friend John Squires. Some others are vicious, to be honest. I don’t tend to unfriend people who express views contrary to mine, even when they’re fairly abusive to my own position, but they have certainly suprpised me about a few people…

I have sympathy with the irritation many are feeling. In conscience, the amount of coverage the coronation has got in the media before and during the event has been too much. I look at monarchy as a system and consider the alternative of a republic, and a republic appears by far the more logical system. If the monarch still had much real power, I’d probably be advocating that that power were removed, if not going all the way and proposing a republic. It was also a very costly event, at a time when it seems government will not spend money on things like keeping people fed, healthy or educated. That said, it cost rather less than many movies do these days, and entertained at least as many people…

Also… some years ago I looked at the cost of the monarchy and the amount of publicity and tourism it gives Britain, comparing it with the cost to countries of various presidents. I actually concluded that there wasn’t a great deal to choose between our then Queen and the then President of France in terms of cost to the country (and I don’t see people from abroad queuing up to visit Paris in the hopes of seeing Macron or his family). I also consider who we might potentially vote into office as president, and shudder at the thought of President Johnson or (God forfend!) President Farage.

OK, that was the late Queen, and even her critics tended to acknowledge that she did a pretty good job of being a national figurehead. Charles is obviously a different person, and has had his share of really bad publicity (mostly associated with the late Princess Diana and much encouraged by Rupert Murdoch). I won’t rehash that controversy – it’s one of those issues which divided the country along a mostly non-political fracture line, but my own sympathies were largely with Charles. He won’t be the same as his mother, which some think is a very bad thing. However, some of his instincts I approve of thoroughly. For instance (and in some response to John’s piece) when acknowledging, in November, the change of head of state of Barbados to himself, he expressed an apology for the history of slavery in which Britain and previous monarchs were complicit, which his mother never felt able to do, which may augur well for the future. He is thoroughly in favour of the environment, conservation and the de-linking of the monarchy from the headship of the Church of England. OK, to an extent. The coronation ceremony thoroughly confirms that headship – but he involved leaders of several other major faith communities in the country, and has asked to be regarded as “defender of faiths” rather than “defender of the faith” (a title ironically given by the then pope to his ancestor Henry VIII shortly before Henry declared UDI from the Catholic Church and set up exactly that headship…) He supports the preservation of traditional crafts, children (particularly underprivileged ones through the Prince’s Trust) and several disadvantaged groups. He doesn’t like modern architecture (OK, I snuck that one in mischievously). He has a good sense of humour, and seems to be at least a bit impatient with ceremony.

I am not an uncritical admirer, though. He didn’t handle his marriage to Diana at all well, including not standing up to pressure from his family (and I have the late Queen Mother and his father directly in mind there) to marry someone “acceptable”, which actually left him with a fairly small pool of potential wives. He still has the ingrained legacy of generations of entitlement baked into his subconscious. He hasn’t divested himself of the vast majority of the vast wealth the family (and its head in particular) has accumulated. And I rather doubt he has the backbone to use his residual power to go against government if they propose something even more egregious than they have already (a power which exists, but which could probably only be used once before he was removed…) He has continued to speak out about the environment, which is something positive, but I’d like him to add refugees and government corruption – and maybe even the idiocy of Brexit.

I have considered at huge length the selection of someone to act as figurehead for the nation. Although hereditary monarchy seems rationally indefensible, there is actually something to be said for having someone brought up from birth to understand the way things are done, something which our recent crop of politicians have not been good at doing, to the extent that our unwritten constitution has been trampled on in several important ways. Having an unwritten constitution is also rationally indefensible, but has actually worked pretty well for quite some time, just as has the actual monarchy, though I’m coming to the conclusion that we’re going to have to have a written constitution, and it may be the time to rethink monarchy as well. However, as things stand,  Charles has had 70 years to get used to the idea of being our figurehead, and in his case, I think has taken the lessons thoroughly to heart. I’ll confess that despite the vast wealth (and the power that potentially confers), the fancy houses and vehicles and the “soft power” of both having the current PM come and talk with you weekly and of having every word you say listened to in a way which even prime ministers might envy, I would not have wanted to be him, save for a brief time in my teens (when he was “the most eligible bachelor in Europe”…). The perceived compulsion to marry someone suitable and to produce an heir (and yes, sorry Harry, a spare), the fact that every word or action will be scrutinised, the pressure of exactly that “this is how things are done” meant that he was born into a cage.

Granted, it was a gilded cage. Granted equally that he could have walked away from it, expressing an intention to abdicate as soon as his mother died (back when he married, marrying someone “unsuitable” might well have resulted in his removal from the line of succession – that is, of course, something which parliament can decide). His second son, after all, has done something of the sort. (In passing, I’m glad to see that his sons haven’t been subjected to quite the same degree of pressure to marry “properly”, at least it doesn’t seem so).

But, in Charles’ case, I think the weight of duty has been accepted. And the weight of his “possessions”. I have long remarked, having an acquaintance who lives in what could reasonably be called a “Stately Home”, that when a house (or land) gets to a certain size, it isn’t the individual/family who owns the land, it’s the land or house which owns the individual/family. Similarly I was struck by the late Queen, in a programme about the Royal Regalia, commenting when they brought out St. Edward’s Crown, that “they haven’t let me touch this since the coronation”. We’d think of that as “her possession”, but it appears it really wasn’t, at least in her eyes and those of people around her. I rather doubt that much of the wealth in money and possessions “feels like” it belongs to the monarch to them. Also, I think I detected considerable unease in both Charles and Camilla about the extent of pomp and ceremony. That, for me, it a good thing – I’d rather like to disqualify from positions of power and influence those who desperately want power and influence, and it seems to me that Charles would really rather prefer not to be in his position – which makes him better qualified for the position than any of our front ranking politicians in my eyes!

So, when it came to the point in the ceremony when the people generally were invited to swear allegiance to Charles, I joined in. To be fair, I could feel the pressure from my wife to do that, and from other family members present and past. All of my father, myself, my son, my wife and both her parents swore allegiance to Queen Elizabeth, which leaves basically my mother and daughter as outliers. All except myself did it because we were involved with the armed services. I had non-military, but public service reasons. Prior to this coronation, however, it wasn’t the norm for the people generally to be invited to do that – there had to be a special reason. I’m conflicted about that too. I’d have been prepared to fight for Elizabeth back when I swore to her, but I’m now pretty much a pacifist (having been immersed in the synoptic gospels for some years), and too old and unwell to be of any use fighting, so my support is pretty much limited to “yes, I’d probably vote against a republic”. But if what was on the table was a radically more egalitarian and caring society under the cover of a general constitutional settlement (which, as I mention above, I rather fancy we need) – well, then I’d have problems supporting the status quo.

But I don’t expect ever to be offered a transition to what has been described as “fully automated luxury comunism“. I hope at most that I might be offered some small steps in that direction, and, frankly, I approve of small steps. I’m nervous of complete revolutions; my historical knowledge tells me they never produce what was hoped for, and frequently cause untold suffering in the process. And, to my republican friends, I’ll say that I think there are a large number of those small steps which I’d take before contemplating getting rid of the monarchy.

Is it ridiculous to swear allegiance to him? Well, somewhat – he’s never going to be leading troops into battle (though earlier in his life he just might have). But my American friends swear allegiance to a flag, and it seems to me much less ridiculous swearing allegiance to a human being than to a piece of cloth.

Finally, a note to republican friends from former colonies. I think, were I Australian, or NZ, or Canadian, I’d probably come down on the republican side of the issue. Our monarchs turn up there once every few years for a day or two, and aren’t present in the way they are in the UK – or, at least, in England and Scotland. They don’t really contribute much in the way of tourism and international kudos for, say, the Australians. Even more so for those territories which were built on the back of slave labour, where the impetus to break with history must be that bit stronger.

Apocalyptic heroes and villains

I’ve written about four “apocalyptic” scenarios last year, in posts titled war, pestilence, famine and the end is nigh (which, in context, should probably have been titled “death”).We still have the war in Ukraine and, both here and in the US, political situations which could turn very unpleasant. And, of course, nothing much has been done about climate change, with indications of a tipping point of 1.5 degrees centigrade by the early 2030s. Covid, our pestilence, however, has largely vanished from the media. It’s still killing a fair number of people – on 20th March there were over 500 Covid-related deaths worldwide – but we aren’t terribly interested any more in what has gone from pandemic to endemic.

One thing I haven’t mentioned in connection with these is the phenomenon of a few people predicting the disasters, our modern day prophets, or that of our finding heroes. Ukraine doesn’t really have any prominent prophet associated with it (though various people did predict something of this kind), but does have President Zelensky as its hero, at least from where I sit (the hero of the situation from a Russian perspective may be Putin, and if it’s a Russian perspective there are probably other places which share the view; any “hero” is likely to be someone else’s villain). Among the various apocalypses I’n talking about, Zelensky is the one who best fits the image of a hero popularised by media, that of some courageous individual who fights against the odds. It remains to be seen whether he’s going to be the ever-victorious Hollywood hero or the tragic hero, who dies in the struggle…

Covid had a number of people who predicted a global pandemic, none widely hailed as prophets, some of whom were engaged by the UK government to write a plan to deal with such events (something close to my heart, as I was for some years involved in emergency planning locally). Sadly, our government of the time didn’t follow the plan they had (though Vietnam did follow it, and had a far lower death rate than we did). Global pandemics were also predicted by Bill Gates, whose foundation had put some money into combatting similar infections, but curiously rather than being hailed as a prophet, he has been condemned by much of the American right as, somehow, being responsible. The same impulse, it seems to me, may lie behind the popular blaming of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, set up to study and combat just this kind of virus, and from which much of the information which was used to create vaccines emanated. It’s very unlikely, though marginally possible, that a lab leak was responsible. If there’s an individual hero of Covid, it’s probably Jacinta Ardern in New Zealand, who took the kind of drastic action which our own government didn’t have the nerve to do, and similarly produced a much lower death toll. Curiously, however, for a prief period, Big Pharma was the hero of the day in producing vaccines. It may still be something of a hero with continuing vaccine programmes and various forms of treatment which have massively lessened the lethality of the virus.

Our erstwhile Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has attempted to present himself as the hero of both Covid and Brexit through claiming to have been responsible for a faster roll-out of vaccines than elsewhere and that this could not have been achieved without Brexit. The second is an outright lie – it was achieved while EU rules still applied. He did spend a very large amount of money persuading pharmaceutical companies to supply us rather than other countries – whether that qualifies him as a local hero I beg to question, though it certainly qualifies him as a villain from the point of view of those countries priced out of the vaccine market. Is he a hero as the man who “got Brexit done”? He’d like to claim that too. The snag is, not only does it appear to have no pluses and very many minuses, but it isn’t actually “done”. Parliament has just given the OK to an amendment of the Northern Ireland protocol, but the Democratic Unionist party has voted 100% against it and refused to re-enter power sharing in NI, we still haven’t instituted proper customs checks on goods coming into the country (which the EU managed from day 1) and the absence of various vegetables and fruits from our supermarket shelves rather gives the lie to any claim of success. But then, Brexit hasn’t really generated any heroes, just a sizeable crop of villains. Although, for some Conservatives, maybe those are actually heroes?

Onward to climate change, which has produced (at least here in the UK) two prophet-heroes in the shape of Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. Thunberg might yet just possibly manage to mobilise enough very embarrassed politicians to do something about the root problem of excess CO2 emissions and thus be a fully-fledged hero, but it’s looking unlikely that she will prove to have been successful. She has also been the victim of a large amount of rage from some conservatives, and may be a villain of the piece from their point of view – how DARE a youngster, and a girl at that, point out that we have been fouling our own nest for years? Clearly she is just a mouthpiece for forces which want to destroy free market capitalism as we know it, probably in favour of those nations which have not made a success of it… (the fact that they haven’t “made a success of it” due to massive exploitation by the “developed world” seems not to register).

It’s in the field of climate change where we see most prominently the belief in a “deus ex machina”, the supernatural force which will turn up and save the day at the last moment. The deus ex machina in that case is generally expected to be science, at least where I live (there may be places where divine intervention is the dominant hope, of course). I’m not a great fan of the deus ex machina.; For one thing, I don’t really believe in them. I don’t believe in a supernatural interventionist God, and I don’t see the moves in the scientific community which would be needed for them to come up with a wonderful solution. Science takes time, and we don’t have much of it at this point. In addition, to move to the kind of world which could reduce carbon emissions to manageable levels would probably mean the end of our current globalised, financialised, state-subsidised market economy. I don’t say “free market” because in most of the developed world, big business has captured government and turned it into a source of funding – consider, for instance, the various bank bail-outs which have happened since 2008, or the vast sums being poured into “green energy” by the USA at the moment to the consternation of green energy companies elsewhere, all alongside the fact that oil and gas production is still subsidised in many places. OK, going back to what I said earlier, the conservatives who see Thunberg as attacking capitalism are probably ultimately correct. And, as Mark Fisher (or possibly Jameson or Zizek) has said, it is easier to contemplate the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

So that’s probably what we’re going to see happen…


Emanationist echoes

In the second of two interviews with Richard Boothby about his new book “Embracing the Void” (ok, warning, this may not be available to non-Patreon supporters for a couple of months), Pete Rollins sniping at mystics was combatted somewhat by Richard, which I much appreciated. Richard stressed something which William James wrote of:- “This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states, we both become one with the Absolute, and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, we find the same recurring note.” (from this wider treatment).

Pete and Richard are both philosophers, so when faced with the contrast between unity and diversity, are, it seems to me,  naturally going to be looking for one to “win out” over the other. Pete is very keen on the concept of a fundamental, ontological lack, separation, fault or opposition within reality as a whole. Neither of them are likely, given that background, to arrive at the typical mystic’s response “So they don’t agree with each other? Fine, they’re two viewpoints… we can use both”. As I’m a mystic rather than a philosopher, I tend far more to that point of view than the wrestling with apparently incompatible concepts to try to find some synthesis which seems typical of philosophers, and I shudder at the suggestion that reality is at root “faulty”. If I’m able to assimilate Pete’s point of view at all, it’s via the observation that yes, I have two ways of looking at things which don’t agree with each other, so there’s a fundamental division there.

However, I was interested that in playing also with the two concepts of lack and excess, which are both features of Lacan’s work (which is foundational to what Richard is writing about), the two of them started sounding a little like emanationists (at a little after the 35 minute mark). There’s a long philosophical and mystical tradition of emanationism, which this article delves into somewhat. I’m most familiar with it from the point of view of the neoplatonist Plotinus, whose thinking was used considerably by western esotericists, and from that of the Kabbalah, which has a very elaborated emanationist substructure. At around 43 minutes, Richard talks about needing first to create a vacuum, which to me evokes the Jewish mystical concept of tzimtzum, which is, of course, the first and foundational requirement of emanationist cosmologies. (I personally question whether the creation of a void is a necessary prerequisite of creation, but that’s just me…)

It takes a while after that, but at around the 1h15 mark, Richard is talking of an excess which always exceeds the container – our signifier for something always falls short of the reality of the signified. That in turn strongly echoes the emanationist picture of a creation following tzimtzum where the abundance of divine energy, having created vessels to hold its energies, outstrips the ability of those vessels to hold it and results in a fundamentally broken creation. They don’t elaborate further, unfortunately. This made me recall something from Wake 2019, in a discussion between Pete, Todd McGowan and Jamieson Webster in which my recollection is that there was brief mention of the excess breaking the system (sadly, having gone back to the recording of that session, I can’t find the snippet in question – I do recall however, that I wanted to get some expansion of that but the session ended before I could do that!).

Now, I’m perfectly well aware that the neoplatonists and kabbalists are talking ontologically. OK, Pete talks about an ontolological divide in reality, but I generally discount his mentions of ontology because I don’t think any of us is equipped to talk in anything other than speculative terms about ontology (I’m somewhat Kantian, or perhaps Humian, in that). However, it does seem to me that this emanationist thinking might be applied to the products of language. The signifier always signifies either less or more than the signifier can support, and there’s always a lack or an excess in the meaning behind the signifier (and I wonder if “both” isn’t perhaps a more usual condition).

Whether or not there’s any merit in starting to develop these bare bones of an emanationist account into something more escapes me. The neoplatonist/kabbalist stream definitely does elaborate, and in the process uses nunerology and a startling number of additional concepts (kabbalah ends up with four realms each with ten centres of meaning, those being connected by 22 paths). It’s a system which fascinated me for some time in my teens and 20s, but which I abandoned as it didn’t seem to me to have adequate traction in the way things actually were – it was more a system of arrangement which was imposed over the phenomenological reality than one which illuminated aspects of that. But I could be wrong, and maybe there’s an emanationist development of pyrotheology, or even of Lacan?


My mum -v- mimesis

I’ve been noticing a strong element of mimesis in some circles recently. Rene Girard had some fairly sound ideas about mimetic desire, it seems to me, and indeed I was rather prone to it in my youth. My mother called it “keeping up with the Joneses”, and devoted a lot of rather stern words to trying to cure me of wanting things which other people seemed to like, which she regarded as a foolish thing to want. For her, we were the Joneses, and people could try to keep up with us if they wanted.

As far as I can see, this mimetic desire is a very widespread phenomenon. I don’t know if everyone without exception feels it (or at least felt it when younger, as it seems to me something which can be trained out of), but I can’t think of anyone I grew up with who didn’t display some element of this. However, I find people suggesting that we don’t have any desires of our own, it’s always “the desire of the other”, which we try to guess at – and my obvious response, which is “why not just ask them what they desire if you’re bothered about it?” meets the “ah, but they don’t know their desire either”.  Mum was very keen that I examine why I wanted anything, and rejecting the “because they/everyone wants that”. What reason was that to me? Why was I bothered? Didn’t I have my own reasons for wanting something?

On the whole, she was pretty successful, to the extent that I really don’t any more really understand the impulse to want something just because someone else wants it (or, even worse, because some amorphous “other” wanted it. This may well be the “big other” which Peter Rollins talks of frequently. Yes, I can occasionally dimly feel the impulse, but have been practising not answering its call for a long time now.

On the whole, she was pretty successful. That, of course, led in part to me wanting things which my parents wanted (as I think, with Douglas Hofstadter, that we internalise at least a semi-working model of those close to us, notably parents and spouses), which was far more acceptable, but I then pursued the same strategy – did I want these things just because mum wanted them? OK, I was also aided in those days by being a teenager, and often rejecting what my parents wanted. And that was ultimately also a bad reason for wanting something, though that realisation took me a bit longer.  I will say that as I matured, to a considerable extent I decided that what mum wanted was generally pretty good – not without examination, of course!

It was, of course, perfectly OK to want something mum wanted because to provide that would please mum (or in my more rebellious moments, because it would annoy her – not a good reason, but one which did operate sometimes). Once over my rebellions, I like people having what they want, recognising that that isn’t necessarily something I would want. I quite like being able to talk with people about what they like while understanding something of it (OK, that’s never worked to make me like watching most sports, or being interested in cars or the clock-speed of my friend’s computer or who Susie Jones from down the street has been seen with… It seems that however hard I try, these are just not topics which I have any desire to interest myself in). But I have problems when, for instance, Lacanians suggest that desire is always the desire of the other. Where, in that event, does any desire originate? Someone has to be the Joneses, surely? It can’t be a complete loop, unsupported by any first instance. Indeed, the creation of desire is a major feature of marketing (which I touch on in a post on “The Devil’s Evangelism”). Yes, the “other people desire this” is a big feature of marketing, but not by any means the only one.

Incidentally, this business of trying to work out what the desire of the other is and satisfy it seems to have been a major mechanism in my wife’s family, and one which she hasn’t completely recovered from. Her mother and grandmother, in particular, used to make up expectations about how she would act towards them without ever actually spelling it out, and she was left spending amazing amounts of time second-guessing what that action might be in any particular circumstance. Some of that rebounds on me to this day – I am absolutely not good at taking half-hints about what she would like. That may, of course, be because I don’t spend nearly enough time trying to work that out (I am, after all, a self-centered entity at root, just somewhat decently socialised – which is the nearest I get to “original sin”). It is, in my opinion, no way to live your life, even given that a more abundantly compassionate person than myself might at least toy with the idea that it is.

So, how do I see the desire of the other? It’s quite clearly a factor in our desiring, so there’s some wisdom in the Lacanian view – but it’s not a totalising answer. Things are more complex than that. Clearly (as per my post on the Devil’s Evangelism”), there are also in play things like the perversion of the basic needs found in the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid to want not just to provide for today, but for the entire future. If there’s a feature of modern consumer society which I find most pernicious, it’s this “more is better” attitude. Whatever happened to “sufficient unto the day”? (Which does not merely apply to evil, but also to good). Let’s face it, in the first world we already consume far more than we could ever need, and far more than is sustainable on a limited planet.

Enough, already…


Wanting a king…

A recent podcast from “The Bible for Normal People” (ep. 215) led me to contemplate what I see as the overarching message of the early history of the Jewish people, namely that they clamoured for a king, were repeatedly told kings were a bad idea, they got kings and – well – it was on the whole a bad idea.

The alternative was a society led by prophets, of course, and I have the deepest misgivings about prophets as leaders as well. Iran gives us a present-day example of a prophet-led nation, and megachurches perhaps give us smaller-scale examples. Although the scriptures paint us a fairly rosy picture (from the Israelite point of view, at least) of the prophetic period, I do notice that scripture is full of prophets who proved not to have the direct line to God which this arrangement would require in order not to be a form of kingship, just one with the force of a deity behind the glorious leader (Ezekiel 13 springs to mind). That said, there has been a strong tendency for kings to have divine authority attributed to them – the pharaohs of Egypt were god-kings, Alexander was hailed as divine in the East, as were Augustus and many of his successors in the West, and the tendency carried on up to Louis XIV’s pronouncement of the “divine right of kings”.

1 Samuel 8 is probably the definitive statement:-

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”

Now, I think it worth pointing out that this post is not a criticism of the kind of monarchy we have in the UK at the moment. I suspended writing this post when Queen Elizabeth died, and turned my attention to something more in keeping with how I felt about her. It would have applied more to Charles I, or, indeed, to any of our monarchs before him. They were in practice absolute monarchs in the mould of what the prophet was criticising (though the fact that Charles I lost his crown and his head as a result of going too far down the absolutist route indicates that even before our Civil War monarchy was more limited in practice than in theory), but ever since the Restoration in 1660, our monarchs have been subject to parliament. The Earl of Rochester wrote of Charles II “Here lies our mutton-eating king, whose word no man relies on, who never said a foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one”, and Charles replied “My sayings are my own, my actions are my ministers”. That was fairly true of Charles II, and has been increasingly true of all monarchs since then. Granted, James II had a go at returning to something more traditional, but was forced to flee the country and replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange in 1688, having lasted just over three years.

The issue is, however, that we seem to like kings, just as the Israelites did. I’m not talking for everyone here, but for substantial numbers in many countries. This has been brought home forcibly to me by the strong desire of US Republicans to see Trump re-elected, and in the UK by the clamour of rank and file Conservatives to see Johnson given another term as Prime Minister, only 7 weeks after he was forced out of the position amidst a host of instances of corruption, lying to Parliament and flagrantly breaking rules he had set during the Covid lockdown.

It isn’t just Republicans in the USA, either. Obama made massively more use of executive orders than had been the norm for previous presidents, and Trump followed him in that. Democrats were not worried about Obama’s use of them, but railed against Trump’s use; the reverse was the case under Trump. These circumvented (to an extent) the elaborate system of checks and balances set up by the founders, with two legislative chambers (with real power – the UK has two as well, but the House of Lords is hugely weakened) and an independent judiciary. Of course, the judiciary now seems to be not just politically appointed but also politically motivated, so not really independent. In the UK, laws have been passed reducing the ability of Parliament to review some governmental actions and to limit the power of the courts to challenge these. In addition, there is a bill going through Parliament at the moment massively reducing people’s freedom to protest. The Labour party, which one would have expected to be screaming at these, has not seriously opposed them, and its current leader has indicated that he actually supports the reduction of freedom to protest.

I tend rather to prefer the idea of the US system, which has checks and balances on legislative and executive power built in to it. The use of executive orders is clearly contrary to that spirit – but it seems to me a necessary development unless the Senate can be persuaded to give up the filibuster idea, which I find frankly ridiculous. Requiring a supermajority for the everyday business of government is a recipe for deadlock, and the deadlock needed breaking.

In the UK, it seems to me that Brexit has massively skewed the way our system worked. There was, to my mind, far too little in the way of checks and balances: the power of the upper house to block legislation was massively reduced in the early 20th century (which one finds it hard to criticise too much. given that the upper house in the UK was then hereditary and is now largely appointed and still partly hereditary, so lacking in democratic legitimacy), and the party system, which favours two parties in a “first past the post” voting system, makes it too easy for the leaders in a party to compel obedience from the rank and file members of parliament, and for their leader, once in government, to operate far too much like an absolute monarch. Johnson expelled most of those who were sceptical about Brexit; Starmer has expelled many who favoured a more socialist set of policies, and the recent reductions in parliamentary sessions (to a mere 20 weeks a year) and shift away from parliament having actual power to challenge government decisions has gone further in that direction. It is, to me, ironic that Tory governments from 2016 onwards have talked about Brexit “giving back control” to the people of the UK, whereas the effect of their recent policies has largely been to take control away from people more generally and vest it in the political elite – and ultimately a prime minister who functions very much like a monarch.

It looks to me as if we actually like the idea of a single individual with effectively all the power, as long as it’s an individual we approve of. Thinking back to 2019, part of the complaint Johnson had was that Parliament was “not fit for purpose”, as they couldn’t agree the terms of leaving the EU (something which, at the time, around 65% of them hadn’t wanted to happen in the first place – but they more or less universally accepted the fact that we were leaving, just wanting a closer relationship with the EU than the die-hard Brexiteers favoured); the 2019 election was overwhelmingly fought on the basis of replacing existing MPs with people who would commit to following Johnson’s lead without demur, which was replacing MPs who actually represented their constituents (for a change), who did not want a severing of economic ties with our biggest and closest trading partners. So far as I can trace, a serious majority of those who voted “Leave” in 2016 did not want us to leave the Customs Union and Single Market as well as the European Union proper, so those MPs were probably far more representative than those who followed Johnson. However, the cult of Johnson’s personality won out – coupled, of course, with the suggestion that anyone who did not want the most extreme Bexit possible was actually trying to stop Brexit altogether. Somehow those MPs who best represented their constituents were being painted as disloyal to them.

In the USA, it appears that personal loyalty to Trump may now be a necessary qualification for standing as a Republican (although the recent mid-terms may have reduced that tendency). This is totally out of line with the representative character of Member of Congress and Senators, which historically has been far more prominent than in the UK once the party system became entrenched here in the first half of the 20th century. Much as I sympathise with my Democrat friends who burn with irritation over the positions of Manchin and Sinema, that is entirely in keeping with the way politics has actually played out in the USA, with party politics being far less vital than it is in the UK, and the individual character of representatives being more important. Unfortunately, perhaps, the parties in the USA seem to be exerting greater control over most of their representatives, while the brief period (2016-19) when UK parliamentarians didn’t toe the party line nearly so much seems to have been an aberration, with party control in both Conservative and Labour parties having been firmed up massively (in the case of Labour, to exclude supporters of the previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as anyone proposing truly socialist policies).

This voting for the person rather than the party (or the set of policies proposed by the party) has been given a recent boost in my estimation by this podcast, which (to me depressingly) indicates that, at least in the States, people do not really know what the policies of the party they vote for are – and I’ve little reason to suspect that things are radically different in the UK. Unfortunately, this may lead to people wanting a “strong man” leader, as this poll indicated a few years ago. Granted, that’s quoted by Breitbart, so I regard it with suspicion, and this more recent poll indicates that a similar demographic would overwhelmingly support a socialist economy. The two are not as inconsistent as might appear – it is perfectly possible to have a strong man running a socialist economy, as many 20th century fascists would have supported both.

While I complain on a theoretical basis about this tendency, I must admit to feeling it to some extent myself. I would very much like to be able to leave all this business of government to a representative who would do, more or less, the things which need doing, and let them take the decisions, trusting in their knowledge, wisdom and hard work to know about the topics they are voting on and do the wise thing in the circumstances. That, after all, is what the theoretical elected representative in a representative democracy will do. I don’t really want to have to get to grips with all the minutiae behind every decision. I well remember my time on the District Council here, when every few days I would get through the mail another inch or so of paperwork which needed to be read in order to make a sensible contribution at the next council meetings. I was pretty good at reading the lot, aided by a very fast reading speed. Some of my fellow councillors weren’t quite as good! I quail at the thought of the amounts of background information which ought to be learned and remembered by those in parliament, which is probably several times the amount I had to cope with. OK, I’ll admit, I really don’t think most MPs are nearly as well informed as they ought to be. Neither, judging by some performances at Prime Minister’s questions, are government ministers, despite having political advisers and civil servants to absorb the information and digest it for them (something which is at least a little problematic, as anyone who has watched some episodes of “Yes Minister” will know only too well – that purported to be comedy, but was extremely close to truth).

So, you might ask, why did I spend 20+ years as a councillor? Largely because it seemed to me that those putting themselves up for election were neither well informed nor making wise decisions, so I had a responsibility to try to do that myself.

The idea that there could be one person I could rely on to make the right decisions is horribly attractive, though, particularly coupled with a disinclination to continue to do the necessary work. But I have virtually zero belief that anyone could do that consistently well, and in particular want to be able to express my pleasure or displeasure at the performance of my representative on a reasonably frequent basis. In addition, I really don’t want one person to be in that position for too long. I felt it in myself after three terms on the council – “power corrupts”, they say, and I felt that “entitled” sensation growing in me. Add to that feeling I had no restraint on what I did in the form of elections – well, I’m not sure I could have resisted that. As it happens, I eventually resigned from my council seat as I felt I could no longer do a proper job…

There is within that a more comfortable motive than laziness – it’s humility.  Admitting that there are others who can do the job better than you can and encouraging them to do it is, I think, a good thing. Perhaps I lacked humility when I first stood for election – I don’t know. However, I certainly managed it when I resigned my seat. There’s a negative side to that as well, of course – the forelock-pulling subservience to the entitled rich, which is conned by the idea that intelligence and ability inevitably produce wealth as well as by generations of indoctrination in a still class-ridden society. (Those in the USA may think they aren’t class-ridden, but they’d be wrong. They feel the “wealth denotes ability” mechanic even more than we do, and they still have their non-WASP underclass despite all efforts to reduce its bite).

Another thing making kings (and other autocratic rulers) attractive is hinted at above. A single individual can make decisions much more easily than can a group – indeed, as the US and UK situations mentioned above indicate, a group may be wholly unable to make a decision. Granted, in the case of Brexit, that was probably a good thing, and would that it had lasted! Yes, they can make wrong decisions quicker and more easily just as they can make right ones, but then, so can groups, or even entire democracies (I cite Brexit as an example again). Democracy costs in speed and efficiency. It also costs in money terms – paying for 600 individuals in the commons and 800 in the Lords costs around half a billion pounds a year according to the link.

Finally, I suppose, is the myth of the “strong man”. This is, as far as I can see, stronger in the US than it is in the UK, and stronger in both than it is in the north-western part of Europe – there are “strong men” in place in Hungary and Poland at the moment, and a “strong woman” in Italy, which I’d until recently have included in the “western” area. That’s closely linked with the phenomenon of feeling that leaders express us. It links closely with the loyalty and authority heads of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. OK, those are traditionally conservative values, and I’m not a conservative, except with a very small “c” in that I tend to the “if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it” school of thought and a preference for small tweaks to the system rather than wholesale “burn to the ground and start again”. I thus have relatively little time for that concept, and a huge scepticism that anyone other than myself can really represent me well.

That said, I’m not able any more to face the election process, nor the volume of work which would be involved in a representative position. I’m too old and sick. If I don’t want to do it myself, I’m stuck with someone else doing it – and I want to have a say in choosing who that is. Not a king. Not a strong man. Not Johnson, and definitely not (if I had the misfortune to be able to vote for him) Trump.

There is, in passing, a discussion of some early French theorists on monarchy in a recent episode of “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”. I note that I’ve outlined several reasons for a monarch that those theorists didn’t address. Nor did Thomas Hobbes. Let me know if you are aware of a theorist who supports monarchy on the kind of grounds I put forward!

Is mystical experience a perception of something real?

Andrew M. Davis has posted a link to an exchange between Rupert Sheldrake and Slavoj Zizek, in which Zizek raises a common objection to the reality of mystical experiences.

This is something I have agonised about at length. After all, when I had my first peak mystical experience, I was a scientific materialist, and my obvious question was to explore what, other than a glimpse into the underlying workings of the universe, which I didn’t think possible, might have prompted that experience. This was despite the fact that the experience itself was very real to me, more real, in fact, than anything else in my experience. I canvassed every potential cause which I or others could come up with. No, I hadn’t taken any mind-expanding substance, I wasn’t in a strong electromagentic field, I wasn’t hungry or sleep deprived, I wasn’t under any psychological stress. And after a visit to my GP, I was reassured that I didn’t have any of the brain abnormalities known to produce such experiences (such as temporal lobe epilepsy), nor any psychological conditions (such as schizophrenia) which apparently do likewise.

But this was not a type of experience which others around me could testify to. Indeed, it was some years before I met someone else who had had a similar experience. I’ve written elsewhere about my attempts to find both a language of expression to talk about it (which I found in the writings of mystics) and a way of repeating it (which I’ve never found a wholly reliable way of doing).

So, was this (as Zizek seems to say) something which was nothing but an anomalous brain state? In the case of Sheldrake, his was at least initially produced by a mind-expanding substance, so the challenge has more “bite” to it. But mine wasn’t.

I found significant assistance from considering my own eyesight. I’m short-sighted. I can’t see much detail in things more than a few feet from me, and the far distance is just a blur. I could go and get laser surgery, which providers assure me would let me see things I couldn’t otherwise see with clarity – that would be an external interference with my perceptual apparatus producing a change in my perception. As it happens, I haven’t done that, but I wear spectacles for any activities which need me to see clearly at any distance – and that is another, temporary, interference with my perceptual apparatus.

I’ve also noted that by applying slight pressure to the side of my eyeball, I can bring things into focus which would otherwise be unclear – clearly I’m slightly changing the focal length of my eyeball in the process.

The thing is, I don’t write off things I see this way or by wearing specs which I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see as being merely products of interference with my perception. I therefore ask myself why I should write off mystical experiences, however they are arrived at, as merely products of interference with people’s perceptions. I will rather hold to the idea that, for some reason unknown, I suddenly became able (on fairly rare occasions) to perceive something real, but which was normally beyond my perception.

Mostly, it’s more analagous to wearing specs or deforming the eyeball, but some traces of that perception have never gone away. I cannot see existence other than in that light, ever since that day in August 1967 – and that makes it, at least a little, analagous to the laser surgery.

Limited success…

In the face of astoundingly stupid moves by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, Labour have been showing a 33% lead over the Conservatives recently, which has led at least one commentator to produce a projection that would give the Conservatives only three seats (and the LibDems 7) in an otherwise massively Labour-dominated House of Commons. As this article in the Guardian shows, that is probably very different from what might actually happen. The article is right to point out that Scottish voting looks very different from that in England (and Wales); it does not, however, factor in the fact that in much of the southern half of England, the LibDems are better placed to benefit from a historically unpopular Conservative party.

Nonetheless, I am worried. I’m worried that Labour might do too well in the next election, and have that handsome overall majority they have been dreaming of since the halcyon days of Tony Blair.

Now, one of the first things a sensible Labour government should do is bring in proportional representation for Westminster elections. In conscience, very high on their priority list ought to be reversing Brexit (so far as it’s possible for them to do that). It is a no-brainer, in the face of economic decline (and potentially collapse) for us to remove trading barriers with our nearest and largest market. The recent Labour conference has finally voted in favour of PR, which is a good sign – but not in favour of rejoining Europe.

The trouble is, Labour is led by Keir Starmer. Now, I like Starmer (unlike many friends who label him as being a crypto-Conservative). I think he’s principled, a quality much lacking in recent UK politics, I think he’s intelligent, I think he’s a competent administrator, as you’d expect from a man who formerly ran the Department of Public Prosecutions and was knighted for his role there. I think he would make a pretty good prime minister, in the most general terms.

The trouble is, I think he’s too principled. I’ve shuddered as he’s stated in no uncertain terms both that he would not seek to rejoin Europe and that he would not institute PR, and while a less-principled individual might well follow the time-honoured political ploy of promising whatever they thought would get them elected and then doing something different, I rather suspect that Starmer wouldn’t do that.

Unless he was forced to, of course. There, the saving grace from my point of view for the next election is the unlikelihood of that absolute majority, and the need to obtain support from the SNP and possibly, I would hope, the Liberal Democrats. The SNP might well be bought by a promise of a new independence referendum, though I could hope that they would also stick to their party principles and demand PR as well. The LibDems, I think, would insist on PR, and I hope would not be bought off by the promise of a referendum, as was the case with the coalition government of 2010-15. (The only thing on which I would support a referendum is what kind of PR we should adopt – the chances of falling into the trap of people arguing about what kind and getting none are far too high).

But I remember the 1997 election which brought Tony Blair to power. It was on the back of a historically unpopular Conservative government, led by a less-charismatic replacement in John Major for the charismatic but incredibly divisive Margaret Thatcher (which may ring bells for our current situation of Truss replacing Johnson). I remember Liberal Democrats being swept away by the red tide leading to that (including myself at local council level) despite the fact that we were absolutely not complicit in the previous government, which (due to the coalition) I am not certain can still be unequivocally claimed by LibDems now. Anti-Tory turned into pro-Labour, irrespective of whether you’d been actively campaigning against the Tory government for years as (for instance) a Liberal Democrat. “We have to get the Tories out” became a vote for Labour, whether or not the best chance of “getting the Tories out” was a LibDem vote.

So, what might that mechanic produce? I could swallow a Labour absolute majority better than the alternative, that “getting the Tories out = vote Labour” actually worked to keep a lot of Tories in southern England IN. I don’t think a Labour government set against rejoining Europe and PR both would be a particularly good thing, but it would be streets better than any form of continuation of Tory rule.

Thus, I wish Starmer well, but in a limited way.

De mortuis

I’m used to finding that when I’m writing something, suddenly I’ll find one or two things online which are relevant to what I’m writing, and last week I was in the process of writing a meditation on the Hebrew Scriptures’ attitude to kings in relation to our wish for leaders when I heard that Queen Elizabeth had died.

Now, I hadn’t expected the effect this would have on me. My wife and myself have been rather expecting her to die soon – after all, she was 96. We’d also remarked that she was looking increasingly frail since the death of Prince Philip last year. I’m only a marginal supporter of monarchy as a system – I think it’s theoretically indefensible, whereas republics are theoretically a much better concept, but find that in practice, I am much happier with constitutional monarchs as exemplified by the UK and by several surviving European monarchs than I am with elected presidents, who in my eyes range from the inconsequential to the utterly awful. I also don’t much like public outpourings of grief. I have in mind that following the death of Princess Diana (of whom I was not a fan) and those after various celebrity figures over the years have died. I’m English enough not to like public displays of emotion.

But after a short period of shock (which I didn’t understand, considering it was an expected death), I found myself tearing up on several occasions. It felt much as it had when my mother and my mother-in-law had died – I felt this as a personal loss of a loved one. I hadn’t really thought I qualified as “loving” the Queen. So I’ve been searching for reasons why this might be the case.

Like most of the population, I’ve never known another monarch – Elizabeth was crowned a few months before I was born, after all. She has, therefore, been a fixture for my whole life, and the most celebrated of celebrities in this country. I’ve therefore seen and heard a lot of coverage of the various trials and tribulations she has been though, and listened to my fair share of Christmas messages from her (though I haven’t listened to those nearly as often as my wife and mother-in-law have – they would never miss those). I never met her myself (which I understand up to a third of the country can claim, at least having been within talking distance of her). I did once meet her late mother, who I didn’t much like instinctively – it seemed to me that although she was outwardly pleasant, her eyes did not smile and her manner seemed false. That was something which never seemed to be the case with Elizabeth. Everyone I know who had any contact with her (including my late father-in-law who was a naval surgeon-captain and was appointed one of many “QHP”s – queen’s honorary physician, so he did regular duties at Buckingham Palace when she always came to talk to him at the start of his shift) agreed that she seemed genuinely interested in them, was friendly and asked sensible questions about what they did. Those, incidentally, are things which most politicians I know fail dismally to achieve.

Sho occupied the position of constitutional monarch in what I regard as an exemplary fashion. She never made “political” statements, and that must have been agonisingly difficult as at the beginning of each session of parliament she delivered the “queen’s speech” setting out the government’s programme of action as “my government will” – and you just knew that a substantial amount of this she would disagree with. Not only did she not make political statements publically, she didn’t make them in any circumstances where they could get “leaked” to the press. She read and digested all the governmental paperwork put before her, and had until the last year a punishing calendar of public appearances, always seeming the same calm and concerned person she always did, no matter what was going on in her own life or in the press (which was not always very kind to her, and was savage to several of her family). Some of those were, at the government’s behest, with foreign leaders you just knew she would privately dislike thoroughly, some were on her own initiative in countries with which we had a chequered past (such as Ireland) where she went a significant way to mending relationships.

That doesn’t actually seem to me enough to warrant the depth of my feeling, though. Yes, the way she resembled my late mother and mother-in-law late in her life brought back to me feelings on losing those two strong maternal influences in my life, but even then? Yes, I am one of those who has in the past pledged loyalty to her (we do not have any equivalent in the UK to the US pledge of allegiance in schools, so most of us never do pledge to the monarch, but all of my late parents in law, father, wife and son have pledged loyalty to her as being in one or other of the armed services as well), but that is now a long time ago, and though I take oaths very seriously, they don’t have a major emotional charge.

I fancy that I also thought of her as representing Britain, and representing the best of Britain – and thus representing me. That is, of course, what a king, queen or other leader is supposed to be, the personal representation of their people. I have been acutely embarrassed to have as “leader of the country” Boris Johnson and now Liz Truss, for instance. The idea of “mother of us all” seems to me to ring true emotionally for Elizabeth.

There are circles online, however, where I find the reaction very different. Toby Buckle, in his Political Philosophy Podcast, which I generally have a lot of time for, suggests that the massive amount of media coverage and public grief is a celebration of monarchy as a thing, while acknowledging that she was personally a very impressive individual. He is a “soft republican”, in that he would prefer a republic but there are a lot of more important political objectives for him – but as I indicated above, I can easily sympathise with soft republicanism. But he sees the praise for her as being praise for monarchy, and therefore considers the fairly widespread criticisms of monarchy as being entirely justified in the circumstances.

I tend to hold to the principle of “de mortuis, nil nisi bonum” (of the dead say nothing but good), which not infrequently means saying little or nothing about someone who has died. I held to that principle when Margaret Thatcher died, for instance – I thoroughly disliked the woman, and even more hated the policies which she enacted and stood for. However, I recoiled when friends posted “ding dong, the witch is dead”. I could understand it, though. I was therefore shocked and, frankly, felt personally attacked when an online acquaintance used the same words of Queen Elizabeth. Others have posted picture of people making rude gestures in front of a mockup of her tombstone. There has also been something of a flood of examinations of the often appalling actions of the UK in colonialism and in particular in the treatment of native people, with, not infrequently, the suggestion that she was personally responsible for the continuation of those (and yes, many parts of the former empire did not achieve independence until her reign). But she had no real power to influence government policy in those areas (or, indeed, any other). Yes, due to our constitutional system, every act of parliament had to have her assent, but that is something which has not been withheld by any monarch since 1708, and it is inconceivable that a modern monarch would do that. After all, they hold the monarchy entirely due to the actions of parliament, and what parliament can give, parliament can take away – and assuredly would if a monarch interfered in this way.

A young friend commented that she did not have to accept her position, citing the case of Edward VIII who abdicated rather than renouncing the divorced Wallis Simpson in 1936. That is, of course, technically true – but Elizabeth had been brought up to feel an overpowering sense of duty to the role (which she obviously exemplified for over 70 years). It is telling, perhaps, that Edward is known to have apologised to his brother, Elizabeth’s father, who became George VI, but it is understood that when he said to Elizabeth that he had apologised to her father, she commented that he should also have apologised to her. I’m sure that she would have regarded abdication as betraying both her family and the nation. Both family and nation would probably have regarded it as the same. I don’t think she felt she had that choice.

It’s probably worth commenting, before going on, that those reactions I took offence at took place during the first couple of days after her death. A week later, I’ve become rather sick of incessant coverage of the progress of her body from Balmoral via Edinburgh to London, and the “lying in state”. There is a lot of other news available – we have a cost of living crisis, and none of the other daily events have stopped happening, but they are being pushed to one side. Government has basically stopped, as far as I can see. Now, this has started to irritate me, and I’m on balance a supporter of the monarchy and definitely an admirer of the late Queen – how much more is it going to irritate those who do not feel the emotional attachment I’ve mentioned above?

Now, I am definitely sensitive to the fact that Britain has had a very unpleasant history in some respects, which I mentioned part of above. Having at some point ruled and/or invaded all but a very few countries on the earth, that is inevitable. Indeed, the United Kingdom starts with a colonial appropriation of Wales, and continues with the same in Ireland. The monarchy equally has an unpleasant history – until the 17th century, when we had a revolution, executed Charles I and for a while were a republic, monarchs exercised tyrannical power. It wasn’t exactly dictatorial power since at least William I in 1066 – there was always a need to balance royal power with that of the aristocracy, and increasingly with that of lower ranks of society, but it was frequently arbitrary and savage (as witness Henry VII and Henry VIII systematically eliminating other families who might have a claim on the throne, Elizabeth I’s Star Chamber setting on one side any concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and using torture to extract confessions or the horrendous punishments dealt out through the years to those thought of as “traitors”). I could wish, on occasion, that we had an equivalent of Rammstein’s “Deutschland” (although I feel the video adds much to the sentiment expressed, it has powerful and disturbing imagery and I advise caution). How, they ask, can we at the same time hate what our country has been and nevertheless love it?

But did Elizabeth II, granted that she was symbolic, symbolise monarchy, or her ancestors’ actions, or the actions of governments through the ages? Not to me, at least. To me, she might have been symbolic of a progressive decolonisation, a humanising of the monarch and the monarchy, a willingness to accept past faults of colonisation and repression and a desire to move forward to something better (although again, those were actions primarily of her governments, even if she seems to have embraced all of them with pleasure). Mostly, though, she was symbolic of the nation as a whole, the people of the United Kingdom (and of the Commonwealth), and of all those qualities of duty, compassion, warmth and dedication which I admired in her.

Those, I mourn. While I have hopes for Charles III, who has had a very long apprenticeship, she is an impossible act to follow. We will not see her like again.


Leaving Paul profaned

I started writing some posts about Paul, sparked by an exchange at Wake, some while ago. These start with “Paul, the shit sandwich”. The three posts to date focus largely on a book “Profaning Paul”, by Cavan Colcannon. I ordered another book mentioned in the first post at the same time; Daniel Kirk’s “Jesus I have loved, but Paul?”, a title I’ve long liked. But I hadn’t read the book.

20/20 hindsight tells me I would have appreciated Kirk’s book far more if I’d read it first, but, of course, I was reading it in the light of Colcannon. Kirk’s book is some years old now, and, of course, couldn’t respond to Colcannon’s points – and Colcannon’s book is so much breaking new ground (for me, at least) that I don’t feel it entirely reasonable to criticise Kirk for not dealing with them much. But I don’t feel entirely reasonable on the subject of Paul!

I’ll start with saying that Kirk’s book is definitely worth reading. He’s a good, clear author. His main project is to argue that there’s more continuity between Jesus and Paul than is often thought – and yes, I’ve been guilty of suggesting in the past that Paul diverged too much from the message of Jesus to be worth attending to, summed up by “my Jesus trumps your Paul”. He does a pretty good job of tracing a continuity between much of Paul’s preaching and Jesus. But there is a snag there – Kirk was until 2015 a professor at an evangelical seminary, and for this book he reads Jesus’ words in the gospels through the lens of evangelical (and thus reformed) theology. And reformed theology rests massively on Paul. I might have hoped, given that Kirk also wrote “A Man Attested by God – The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels”  (an excellent book which I strongly recommend) that he would have made at least some mention of the fact that the Jesus (or Jesuses) of the Fourth Gospel and of Paul is significantly different from that “human Jesus”, and there might therefore be rather less contintuity between synoptic Jesus and Pauline Jesus, but he doesn’t. Indeed, in the last chapter he comments that it is all about Jesus – and that is, to my mind, the division between the Synoptics and Paul: in the Synoptics we are looking at the religion of Jesus as he talks of God and of the Kingdom, in Paul we are looking at a religion about Jesus. I wrote a post criticising this position some while ago – “Direction finding with Jesus”, in which I argue that Jesus points to God, while the religion about Jesus points to Jesus.

It is, therefore, not until the second half of the book that Kirk starts to engage with any of the problem areas which Colcannon is concerned about, and to a great extent he merely suggests that Paul was operating in a different milieu to that of Jesus, one in which Roman household and other codes were deeply established, and he could do no more than nudge people towards the great understanding in Galatians 3:28. Which is also Paul, and is so contrary to the issues raised by Colcannon, and which Colcannon and myself would have preferred Paul to stick with and preach, even if it offended the sensibilities and prejudices of Paul’s Romanised followers (most of whom were first Hellenised, given that Paul’s activity was chiefly in the Greek-speaking east of the Roman Empire). In conscience, I think it probable that Paul’s radical universalism as expressed in Galatians couldn’t have found footing in the communities he was preaching to, as it would have been “too far, too fast” – and Kirk rightly points out that even the Jesus of the synoptic gospels didn’t disregard gender boundaries to the extent which the Galatians passage might demand, and that Jesus needed to be schooled into a disregard of racial boundaries in, for instance, the story of the Syrophoenician woman.

So, do I excuse Paul for pandering to the prejudices of his audience? Should I level my criticism at a church which elevates his every word to holy writ, given that Paul himself maybe didn’t intend his words to be taken as anything more than sermons from a celebrity pastor (though we seem to have problems taking celebrity pastors’ words as holy writ as well)? He does at times give us some pretty strong clues as to his position – in 1 Cor. 9:19-23 he is forthright in saying that he adjusts his words to his audience, and in 1. Cor:7:25 he explicitly states that what he is saying is on his own behalf, not a “command of the Lord” (the link also indicates other passages where he said something similar).

But there’s the problem exactly. He doen’t give us the “this is just my opinion” health warning all that much, so by implication one might reasonably read him as claiming he was speaking on Jesus’ behalf (or God’s) any time he doesn’t. OK, there are also some passages in which he explicitly claims something to be The Lord’s command; one might prefer that he be read as if any time he didn’t say that, it was just his opinion, not to be taken as divine dictation. That, unfortunately, is not the case – so I think Colcannon’s wish to “profane Paul” (i.e. strip him of the assumption that what he said is a direct line to God’s wishes) is eminently reasonable.

However, Paul did also say some things which I would want to preserve, of which the passage from Galatians is one of the high points.

What of him constucting a religion about Jesus rather than preaching the religion of Jesus? Well, I haven’t done the background research to be able to state this with authority, but I found, approaching Paul as someone very sceptical about him generally, that I could find an understanding of him far better by considering him as a “Christ mystic”. I’m convinced Jesus was a “God-mystic”. There have been both in the history of Christian mysticism – Meister Eckhart was a God-mystic, Teresa de Avila a Christ-mystic, for instance. I am, for what it’s worth, a God-mystic myself, having had my most formative mystical experiences at a time when I wouldn’t have considered myself a Christian. The difference is, I think, that what the God-mystic considers an experience of God, the Christ-mystic considers an experience of Christ. Once I started to read Paul with that assumption, much of what he wrote came into an entirely new focus – in particular, when Paul wrote of being “in Christ”, I translate that to when Jesus talked of being “in the Kingdom”. “The body of Christ” is then at the least the whole of humanity (none of whom, we might recall, Jesus would allow to slip from his grasp, in the terminology of that other Christ-mystic in the New Testament, the author of the Fourth Gospel), and possibly the whole of sentient creation (which might be the whole of creation if one tends to panpsychism or panentheism).

But that is only “much of what he wrote”. I am very nervous about considering that any human can be inspired in every action they take or word they utter – after all, even Jesus might be thought to have been distinctly uninspired at the beginning of the story of the Syrophoenician woman.

After all, I had some personal experience of being regarded as authoritative back when I was at university, and was talking about religion and spirituality from the position of someone who had had peak mystical experiences and had developed an ability to connect with what I called an “edge” of that routinely. As such, I would look into that experience and make statements based on that, and a few people decided that I was a guru and they would hang on my every word. The trouble was, they hung on words which were not the product of direct mystical experience, but were, for instance, rational deductions made on the back of those, or even off-the cuff remarks which didn’t have any mystical origin at all. I was grossly uncomfortable with them doing this, because I was only too aware both that some of what I said did not have the self-authenticating weight of mystical experience behind it and that actually speaking about it with any degree of accuracy was massively difficult, perhaps impossible. I told them to go away and develop their own mystical practice. They were not happy – it was, it seemed, easier to find authority in me than to develop their own experience of God. I fancy Paul probably had the same problem, but took a different route from mine…