Archive for March, 2010

Apocalypse Now!

March 18, 2010



March 18, 2010

One of my fears when starting this blog was that it would become a clearing house for links to other stuff. Thus I generally resist posts which are simply hat tips to other blogs. However, as the author of Ecclesiastes so very nearly put it, there is a time for linking and a time for not linking. Michael Iafarate, one of the most consistently interesting bloggers on Catholicism and radical politics, has a very good post on his understanding of Catholic anarchism.

Thoughts on ‘Choosing the Common Good’

March 15, 2010

The next sentence to this one says something about as commonplace in the religious blogosphere as admissions of mass murder, or admiration for Richard Dawkins, or similar. I am a revolutionary socialist. By which I do not mean that I am particularly keen on the idea of violent insurrection, but rather that I think that the bringing about of a society in which human beings flourish would require nothing short of a fundamental transformation of the existing social order, and in particular of the ways we own, produce and distribute things. I believe this for boringly old-fashioned reasons. I think that human beings are social animals, each of our flourishings is tied up with the flourishing of all — our ability to live the good life, the life of virtue, is affected radically by the social circumstances in which we find ourselves. I think, furthermore, that capitalist societies, which by their very nature school people in the vices of competitiveness, acquisitiveness and instrumentalism towards their fellow human beings, are intrinsically inimical to the living of the good life. This view, which I would call virtue anti-capitalism, is hardly original to me. It is clearly present in McCabe, MacIntyre and Eagleton. There are hints of it in the early Marx. And it has a good claim to be the modern manifestation of an ethico-political tradition going back, via Thomas, to Aristotle..

I record all of this in order to set in context an expression of puzzlement about a claim I have heard more than once about the English and Welsh Bishops’ recently published document, Choosing the Common Good; namely, that it is a tacit expression of support for political conservatism, in general, and for the British Conservative Party, in particular. The document is very much focused on the need for a society which disposes people towards virtue. And it is true that conservatives recognise this need. Does it follow that the bishops are advocating conservatism? Only if conservatism is the only politics which doesn’t rule out talk of virtue as illicit. And, as my previous paragraph indicates, it is not..

There is a common politial position which rules out the grounding of politics in any robust conception of the good. It is not, however, socialism but liberalism. I suspect that the reason many people see in ‘Choosing the Common Good an unambiguous shift to the Right is that left-wing politics is increasingly elided in peoples’ minds with liberalism. There is growing evidence of the blossoming of a US-style culture wars in the UK, where the most important political divide is seen as being between the forces of stability, tradition and substantive morality, on the one hand, and the forces of change, experimentation and ethical laid-backness on the other. Now there is much that is right about liberalism, with its respect for the integrity of the individual and its tendency not to be frightened of the future, just as there is much that is right about conservatism, with its understanding of the importance of tradition and history. It is a mistake, though, to suppose that the Right has a monopoly on these latter qualities Sed contra: it is we who are the true traditionalists (Trotsky). Now, I am not claiming that the Bishops are positively suggesting that the baptised spend their Saturday mornings selling Socialist Worker. But I am claiming that it is perfectly possible for those of us on the Left to applaud at a fundamental level the Bishops’ vision of a politics of virtue. That is worth noting, amidst all the inept reporting from the secular press.

That reporting has paid a lot of attention to the document’s position on marriage. It has been claimed that the bishops are voicing support for David Cameron’s curious plan to bribe people to get/ stay married through the tax system. Here is the section on marriage in full:

The future of society passes by way of the family. Families,
for better or worse, are the first school of life and love, where
the capacity to relate to others, to develop moral character,
is founded. The tragic personal, social and economic costs of
increased family breakdown are unmistakable.
Whilst we recognise and applaud the many parents who
despite family breakdown provide a loving and stable home
for their children, we have also as a society to accept that the
promotion and encouragement of family stability must be a
high priority if this trend, so damaging to the common good,
is to be reversed. Families require financial as well as relational
stability, access to affordable housing, and fair conditions of
employment that respect family responsibilities. Families
have a right to a life of their own, and governments do well
when they interfere as little as possible while supporting
parents in the exercise of their responsibilities. But at the
heart of necessary policy initiatives to support the stability
of couple relationships, it is essential to support marriage.
Marriage brings considerable and measurable benefits
to individuals, children, family life and society. It deserves
protection. A strong future for marriage is both achievable
and desirable. A more realistic view of married life should be
encouraged and couples should be prepared with the skills
to maintain and develop their commitment. There should be
more resources for relationship support. Society has a vested
interest in supporting marriage as the surest basis for family
life. Politicians of all parties should recognise and support
marriage as a key building-block of a stable society.

Good luck to anyone who finds ‘Vote Tory’ hidden in there. I don’t.

Grace and the lynch mob

March 8, 2010

This weekend has seen the British tabloid press at its most unpleasant. As the story leaked out that one of the killers of toddler James Bulger had been recalled to prison, rumours began to leak out as to why.The killer, now a grown man, was a ten year-old boy when he committed the crime. For several days the front-pages of the Sun and the Mirror demanded ‘justice’, sailed perilously close to the wind in terms of contempt laws by speculating about the killer’s new identity and reason for recall, cynically orchestrated responses from the Bulger family*, and compelled politicians to make statements. At one stage Alan Johnston offered the opinion that the public has a ‘right to know’ why the killer was recalled – one cannot help but wonder which understanding of rights could be underwriting this position. Myself, I am quite clear that I have no such right. Anyway, this is all by way of introduction for non-UK readers or those who have been mercifully isolated from exposure to the red-tops. On the issues around the Bulger, I commend this wonderfully restrained comment piece.

Two thoughts occurred to me. First of all, my mind was drawn to Dorothy Sayers’ commentary on Dante’s Inferno. Writing about canto 18, in which Dante describes the punishment of the flatterers (who are steeped in filth), she says:

These too, exploit others by playing upon their desires and fears, their especial weapon is that abuse and corruption of language which destroys communication between mind and mind. Here they are plunged in the slop and filth which they excreted upon the world. Dante did not live to see the full development of political propoganda, commercial advertisement, and sensational journalism, but he has prepared a place for them.

Key here is the distortion of language. Human beings are linguistic animals. Our use of language is fundamental to our capcity to form communities – something the Catholic Dante sees as essential to the human good. The distortion and twisting of language, the use of it to provoke emotions rather than to communicate rationally, is absolutely destructive of real community. In place of this community – the kind of community based on discussion, interaction and mutual respect – we have the manipulated lynch mob. It should be obvious how much of a failure of human flourishing this represents. It should, furthermore, be obvious that this is exactly the game the British tabloid press play day after day. They are an evil, and no Christian – no decent human being, for that matter – should have anything to do with them.

As well as this, I got wondering about how it is that the lynch mob mentality gets hold. I think it probably issues from a desire to feel that one is not all that bad. I can’t be terrible because there are these dreadful people – the criminals (‘beasts’, ‘monsters’) who are in a different league to me. In other words, it is a classic act of scapegoating. The benefit for those participating is that they get to feel good about themselves, and to overlook their own faults. Now, if this is what is going on – and I suspect it is – then there is a very clear Christian response. On the one hand, as Paul puts it in one of the single most mis-used passages in scripture, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory’. None of us are perfect. This doesn’t, of course, mean that no person or action is better or worse than any other person or action; murder is worse than making an unkind comment, and Mother Theresa was almost certainly a better person when she died than Hitler was when he did. No, the point is rather more subtle – any strategy, such as scapegoating, which we use to tell ourselves that we are alright really will fail, although not before causing a lot of unnecessary suffering. It will fail because we are not alright. We are in need of being made perfect, of being reconciled with each other and with God. The good news, however, as Paul goes on to say is that those who have fallen short of God’s glory ‘are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’. Out of sheer love God offers us forgiveness. If we really took that message on board, how would it affect that way we see ourselves and others, and the way we respond to cases like the one of James Bulger’s killer?

*The extent of the genuine care for the bereaved relatives on the part of the Sun should be assessed in the light of the following evidence. Earlier today, on the Sun’s website, a picture of James Bulger was immediately above a link through to a quasi-pornographic story about the sex lives of celebrities, illustrated with a picture of two naked women.