The bomb?

Finally got round to watching Oppenheimer with Nel, Eleanor and Christian last week. I was impressed with it, not so much for the exposure of Oppenheimer’s sex life, which I hadn’t known about and was frankly wholly uninterested in, but for a really good rendition of the horror of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings without actually using significant shock material, and its effect on Oppenheimer, and also the exposure of the machinations which led to Openheimer’s security clearance being revoked and his career blighted.

This was material close to my heart. As a physics undergraduate in the 70’s, one of the physics professors at the time and my college tutor had both worked on the Manhattan project and both had major guilt complexes about their involvement. I’d become aware of the threat of nuclear war at the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when I was 8, and have lived with that threat ever since, though it became somewhat less all-encompassing when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. At 16, I painted a picture of an industrial wasteland with a mushroom cloud in the background, titled “The sinks of iniquity, the haunts of the ungodly”, in which the explosion was the beautiful thing, and the rest of the scene ugly. I was reminded of that when Nel commented that the explosion was, in an awful way, beautiful. It was an awful beauty, epitomising the word “awful”. An entirely fitting reference for the texts Oppenheimer quotes from the Bhagavad Gita “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” and “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one” in my opinion, though I gather an Indian official has decided that the use of these quotations (attributed to Krishna) is an insult to Hindus, notably to non-violent Hindus.

I don’t remotely think that Oppenheimer meant any insult – more a strong admiration for this major work of literature. He clearly admired Indian civilisation enough to learn Sanskrit, after all. Perhaps the Indian official was aping the attitudes of some Muslims who regard the Koran as something divine, and take any apparent disrespect of it as a cause for violence, not something I’ve tended to associate with Hinduism. But then, there are those within Christianity who adhere to “the Bible is the word of God” school of thought (ignoring the text in John 1 which clearly states that Christ is the logos, the word of God) and would clearly like to feel able to take the same view – and, in the past, some have. That is by-the-by for my purposes – the Gita, and Hindu theology, clearly identifies Krishna as being not only the source of good but also the source of destruction. Of course, the Koran also has passages identifying Allah as the source of destruction (for instance 47:10) and the Bible contains Isaiah 45:7.

Unjust prosecutions are also something I have strong feelings about, having struggled against a few of them, once with some success (although whether you can repair that kind of damage is a moot point).

1962 to 1989 were not just fear-engendering in the same way as most of my friends and family, either. Firstly, I had a keen appreciation of the effects of nuclear explosions from my time studying physics, but also during the latter half of that period, as someone involved in local politics with a science degree, I was enlisted as a volunteer Civil Defence Scientific Advisor, which meant regular training in predicting fallout in various blast scenarios and the assurance that in the event of a nuclear alert, I’d be summoned to go with others to an underground facility in order to do that in earnest. I’ll note that I wouldn’t have been allowed to take my family with me, which meant that I’d have had an agonising decision if that ever came to pass – and I’m not sure I’d have abandoned them. It did not, of course, happen, and the government of the day abandoned the Civil Defence volunteer system in the early 90s, with it vanishing completely by 1993 – although local councils were still theoretically obliged to have plans and infrastructure in place against the event.

In conscience, I’m not sure the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union ended my nervousness about possible nuclear threats. There are still huge nuclear stockpiles in the hands of Russia, the USA and China, and quite a few countries (including my own) have some nuclear capability. It isn’t certain that all of the former Soviet republics have eliminated stockpiles of nuclear weapons which were on their soil, and Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea (at the least) have nuclear weapons. The fact that India and Pakistan both have this capability and have actually been at war with each other in the meantime is deeply worrying, though it seems unlikely that either of them (or, indeed, North Korea or Israel) would detonate something which would have much of an effect here. The situation is different with Russia, which is currently at war with an European country in the form of Ukraine, and which has threatened several others which are actually members of NATO – in effect, we do have a Russia -v- the West war ongoing at the moment. This is a serious source of concern, given that both Russia and the USA have doctrines regarding use of nukes which are not foolproof.

Indeed, the Ukraine war is more of a concern in terms of threat to my country than is the Israeli assault on Gaza. That does not seem to have the capability of spreading to here – the Ukraine conflict does. I don’t think I’m exhibiting any racism by being more concerned about Ukraine (and about the fact that our media seems to be forgetting about Ukraine) as has been suggested by some acquaintances. I feel the same horror (and helplessness) when I learn of civilian deaths in either location, admittedly far more of those recently in Gaza, and I bitterly resent the fact that my government continues (as at the point of writing) to provide weapons to Israel to continue the one-sided slaughter of Palestinians. I do not want to be complicit in that genocide, and my government makes me. The thing is, the Gaza conflict is not going to spread to here. Ukraine could do…

Do I wish that Oppenheimer and his team had not developed the bomb? Nor really. The science was already there, and someone would have done it, if not then, then in the intervening years. Do I think that Truman should not have dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? That’s difficult for me. My own country’s bomber command under Harris (who was the pawn of Churchill in that) caused as much and more devastation in Dresden, Leipzig and Hamburg using conventional weapons in an attempt to break the will of the population, not attacking purely military targets. Hiroshima seems to me at least marginally justified when weighed against the probable loss of life in an invasion of Japan, despite also being a broadly civilian target. Nagasaki? Well, it seems that might have been more to prove to the Russians that it could be done again than out of any need to convince Japan – Truman did not wait long enough between the two to know if resistance had been crushed. Killing perhaps another 70,000 civilians in order to make that point? Well, that starts sounding like Israel’s attitude to Palestinians.

 

A different end of history?

I’ve just come across the political philosopher John Grey. Here’s a conversation he had with Aaron Bastani. It makes for depressing listening to me, as I think he’s right on a lot of his points (and not as far off the mark as I’d wish for on others).

Of course, the title (“Everything you know about the future is wrong”) is sensationalist and outstrips the ambit of the actual conversation. However, some extremely good points fall out of it. First is the complete negation of Francis Fukayama’s thesis of “The End of History”. I think Fukayama himself has been moving away from the idea that we have arrived (or very nearly arrived) at an inevitable historical conclusion in which Western style liberal democracy had, in effect, won history – we were, per Fukayama, at a situation in which it was inevitable that the whole world would adopt the ideas of liberal democracy, but Grey is adamant that in actuality we passed the point of maximum liberal democracy just after the Soviet Union collapsed. when it did seem that some kind of Western democratic system was inevitable. In fact he points out not only that populist movements have taken root in the USA (and to an extent in Britain) but also that much of Europe is showing signs of a resurgence of far-right nationalist populism.

I could also point out the more or less universal failure of the West’s fatuous “nation building” programme – Grey is absolutely right that a significant proportion of people (and I think a majority in most countries in the world) don’t really want democracy. A reasonably benevolent dictatorship seems much more to their taste – and possibly even a not-very-benevolent dictatorship as long as, to use the terminology of pre-war Germany, “the trains run on time”.

OK, he does point to that as a reason why we might actually celebrate the fact that Brexit has happened and we are not inevitably wedded to Europe, and to my eyes that is a huge overstatement. Yes, there are resurgent nationalist-populist movements all over Europe, and he points to Germany and France as examples (as I write, indeed, Holland has elected a far-right party as its largest). In fact, there are no European countries I know which are free of such impulses. But nowhere is there a working majority (at least as yet) and if there were, I fancy that its worst excesses would probably be tempered by EU membership (and, as Grey remarks, membership of the Euro, which it would be extremely difficult to disentangle a country from).

He points out, rightly, I think, that membership of the EU precludes a socialist government – it’s a fundamentally liberal-democratic, economically neoliberal organisation. However, I think he underplays the fact that this is largely irrelevant for the UK – as long as our economy is tied in to global markets and in particular as long as we have a national debt, I don’t think very much socialism is possible for us (and I don’t see Starmer trying it). What I’d have liked to see him discuss (and maybe he does this elsewhere) is the fact that neoliberal economics, which was part of Fukayama’s end of history, is doomed, and we (and the rest of the world) is going to have to institute some other way of doing things. The climate crisis is one factor which is going to make the dependence on growth of neoliberal economics impossible, but at the moment I rather fancy that the advances in AI are going to render most people’s jobs redundant first, at which point we have a massive demand hole. Clearly people with no income can’t afford to keep on buying consumer goods, and I can’t see our billionaire classes willingly spreading out their mountains of cash in order to keep the machinery of capitalism going for at least a while. This guy touches on the problem, but mostly sees pluses in AI.

It seems ironic that the way we are likely to stop being a society revolving round ever-increasing consuming and producing is to make production costs of many things (particularly entertainment and intellectual property) trivially small, while removing the actual markets for these things…

What’s in a word?

I was reading about the thinking of a pastor regarding pronouns and God. They try to make a habit of using “she” and “her” of God, and I can’t remotely criticise that from a theological point of view, though I’m an old guy who has spent over 50 years in environments where God was most definitely “he” and “him”, and the use of female designators jars a bit with me – it shifts my attention to gender, where in all probability the aspect of that-which-is-God has nothing to do with gender. And I thought “I could probably cause a stir in those circles by using “it””. After all, “it” is the way we, in English, denote something which does not have a sex, or is neutral as regards sex and gender. Let’s face it, I’d be in even more trouble there if I started talking about sexual organs in respect of God, though I assume Jesus had a penis and testes, and trinitarian thinking in Christianity, plus the traditional interpretation of the introduction to the Fourth Gospel, both identify Jesus as God – in some way, at least. (The “word” in the title might refer to a pronoun – but see below).

The thing is, if I want to think of God in terms of a person (and again, that is definitely trinitarian thinking, though in that paradigm there may be three persons), I need to think about gender. And at least some of the time I do want to think of God in those terms. Clayton and Knapp, in “The Predicament of Belief” do suggest that we should relate to God as a person, or at least as person-like, and I think that has to be right – huge numbers of mystics have written or spoken of God in that kind of language, and that cannot be ignored (my own testimony would be that I sometimes experience God in that kind of way). More mystics, I think, than those who have written or spoken of God as being some kind of impersonal force or principle (which I can also attest to, and which is common among Eastern traditions).

Clearly, I approach the question of what-it-is-that-is God as a scientist, not as a philosophical theologian. So much talk about God says, in effect, “start with your doctrine of God” or “define God”, and I think that is exactly the wrong way to approach the issue. There is a phenomenon. It, or something very like it, is attested by very many people. Those among them who seem to me to be trying the hardest to describe what this phenomenon is, starting from the phenomenon rather than some tiny aspect of what someone has previously written about God, are the mystics. This is company I’m very comfortable with, having had mystical experience thrust upon me in my teens and having spent a lot of time in my teens and 20’s trying to develop a way of entering the mystical space reasonably reliably (I never did hit on a guaranteed way of doing that, merely various factors which tended to make it more likely).

As my second paragraph rather indicates, I never did arrive at a definition on which I felt I could build any dogmatic theology. It’s not just the “personal/impersonal” dichotomy there, there’s also the transcendent/immanent dichotomy. I note that in finding dichotomies in my attempts to describe that-which-is-God I do not indicate that I subscribe to Peter Rollins concept of an ontological split or opposition at the heart of existence – I think that is going too far on the basis of the available evidence, given that our thinking seems to me to throw up dichotomies wherever I look; I think that human cognition creates dichotomies, and whether or not there actually is a dichotomy there has to be uncertain. Indeed, where Pete sees oppositions, I am more inclined to see fuzziness. Philosophy, it seems to me, tends to a misplaced confidence in its ability to be precise.

In the case of theology, perhaps because it ultimately (in my opinion) has to draw on mystical experience, and one of the features of mystical experience is just that “coincidenta oppositorum” (coincidence of opposites) which I’ve outlined some of above, an even greater problem is that it tries to over-specify. Perhaps at the root of that is taking similes from the mystics (God is like a father, for instance) and making them into specifications (God is our father), which clearly meets with problems when we also encounter scripture which says God is (or at least is like) our mother.

But let’s also look in more detail at the introduction to the Fourth Gospel for a moment. The NIV version says:- In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Let’s think about that a bit. What do we actually mean by “Word” (which is capitalised in this version of the text)? Well, we certainly don’t mean just a collection of letters which, taken together, signify some thing (or action, or…). I was alerted to the fact that there may be more to this wording than meets the eye when, some years ago, I bought myself a Bible de Jérusalem in order not to be constantly translating from English when discussing Christianity online with some French people, and found to my surprise that the translation in French of the original Greek word, logos, was “verbe”. I would instinctively have rendered “word” as “mot”, but “verbe” carries a strong significance of being an action. As it happens, I would have been less surprised if I’d bought a different French translation, as all the others I know of use the term “parole” instead (which carries an equally strong significance of being something spoken), but I’d still have felt the pull of the English word “word”, which has no particular connotation either of action or of being spoken. (As an aside, it’s a thing, which makes me think of my comments above – it isn’t a person…)

That made me look at what this greek word “logos” actually meant to the Greeks using it in the past. What I found was that it meant in classical Greek something like “rationally understandable principle”, which makes a lot of sense when inserted into John 1:1-5 in the place of “word”. But then I happened on an account of what Philo of Alexandria wrote about “logos” in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, which blew my mind.

Philo was a hugely prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian from Alexandria in the early years of the first century. He was very active at and before the time of Jesus’ ministry, and for a few years after that, and was a sufficiently respected individual to be selected to head a delegation of Alexandrian Jews to the Emperor Caligula in around 38 CE, but has been largely sidelined in Jewish intellectual circles since then, possibly because he wrote in Greek, which was already under pressure in Judaism as not being the authentic language and also perhaps because his writings have been so attractive to Christians; he was quoted widely by several of the early Church Fathers including Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

As you can see from the linked article, Philo had twelve meanings for the term “logos”. Among them are:-
The utterance of God (“parole” as a French translation?);
First-born son of God (well, that could explain a lot about the Christology of the Fourth Gospel!);
Immanent reason (that seems fairly close to the classical meaning of “logos”);
Mediator of the physical universe (very definitely a fount of Christology) and intermediary between the divine and man;
The Angel of the Lord (which seems to be close to the idea of Jesus which is evidenced in the synoptic gospels);
Manna and wisdom (I’ll come back to this);
God him, her or it’s self (on which one builds trinity).

There is a huge amount of reasoning and exegesis behind Philo’s set of meanings, but the element I’d like to focus on at the moment is that he effectively equates uses of wisdom (“sophia” in Greek) in the Hebrew Scriptures with “logos”, which is primarily, prior to the New Testament, a Greek philosophical term and not one from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures from which Greek speakers generally drew their scriptural references). In passing, in the Hebrew Scriptures, wisdom is “chokmah”, word is “davar” or “memra” – and in Hebrew too “davar” and “memra” like “parole” carry a suggestion of being spoken; davar/memra and chokmah are generally regarded as very distinct – except by Philo and those following him. Much of the meaning Philo advances is in fact attributions for wisdom drawn from Proverbs – the most obvious example, to my eyes, is Prov. 8:22-36. However, there’s also Psalm 33, which has a different term for word in the Hebrew (bid-bar, “by the word”), which is translated “logos” in the Septuagint, so Philo had some significant clues in the pre-existing text.

Picking up on my earlier comment, that theology tends to over-specify, Philo’s set of meanings might well be thought of as an example of that (and one which ends up carried over into the huge set of titles of Jesus!). Starting at the end, God=manna=wisdom=his own angel=mediator=reason=his own son=utterance. It is, frankly, enough to make one throw up one’s hands in confusion – they can’t, surely, all be simultaneously correct? However, I do see one possibility, and that’s again picking up from earlier, the fact that I see things as fuzzy, as incompletely defined, and not infrequently as being best described as a coincidence of opposites. If things are indeed fuzzy, there may still be some aspect of all of this terminology which does apply, or something which it is pointing at which is not directly communicable, at least at the moment.

So God may be father-like and mother-like without us positing hermaphroditism (or gender fluidity, these days).

I’ve still no idea what pronoun to use, though…

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.