I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).
This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more
It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more
I’ve got a problem. But it’s not the sort of problem that you’re going to have much sympathy for. In fact, it’s not the sort of problem that you’re allowed to have much sympathy for. Because my problem is that i’m far too privileged – for my own good or for anyone else’s good. Which is why, in this day and age, anything I say or claim will be subject to greater suspicion than what practically anyone else on the planet will say or claim. If you don’t believe me, check this succinct quote out from Gene Veith: Read more
Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more
In a crisis, I find that Steve Turner can usually be relied upon to come up with something useful or constructive. And in this week full of talk of the spectres of hung parliaments and tactical voting, this poem seemed just the ticket. Hope it helps if you’re stuck…
Left right Left right
Left right Left right
I was getting worried
Couldn’t sleep at night
‘Cos I didn’t quite know
If I was left or right
So feel my leanings
Test my views
Check my reactions
to the Ten o’Clock News
Should I buy the Mirror
Or should I buy the Sun
The Times Literary
Or the Guardian
Will I be a fascist
If I use the police
Or will I be a commie
If I march for peace?
Who is it I follow
If I’m down on pron
Begin a Foetus Lib
For the not yet born?
So feel my leanings
Test my views
Check my reactions
to the Ten o’Clock News
Am I middle class
Or am I alright
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
Send me all the questions
Mail me all the forms
Fix me up a blood test
Tell me all the rules
I’ve got to know now
Put my mind at rest
Am I of the right
Or am I communist?
Please make me something
I’ve been nothing too long
I need to find out
If I’m left or wrong.
Watch my language
Hear my views
Check my reactions
To the Six o’Clock News
Am I working class
And am I alright
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
Get me tested
Am I left or right?
The mace (left) is the symbol of the Sovereign’s power – and in Parliament, it represents her delegated authority. When the Commons is in session, it sits on the table just in front of the Government and Opposition despatch boxes. Without its presence, parliamentary activity is invalid and even illegal. For any Government in this country will always only be (while the monarchy remains) His or Her Majesty’s Government.
But these are of course just constitutional niceties. As everyone knows, power (real and moral) lies in the hands of elected representatives. The presence of the mace could therefore symbolise the power delegated by voters in a way, which means that the government of the day has a mandate legislate and govern. And I do actually believe that politicians can make a difference for good or ill, and that they are not universally on the make or entirely self-serving (despite what has happened in the last, so-called ‘Rotten Parliament‘).
Yet we mustn’t be naïve or unrealistic. Who knows exactly what the situation will be come Friday. Hung Parliament most likely – though there are still so many undecideds in the marginals that there could possibly be a slim Tory majority. Who knows? Whatever happens, the situation will be different from how it has been for the last 5 years.
But it has been depressing to see how vitriolic and vindictive many have been, whether about a Tory return to power or about the record of Labour’s last 13 years… and I’m actually talking about Christians here (in their tweets, blogs and conversations). I certainly have my views on that, and they are reasonably strong. But I just wonder what the sense of desperation by some on all sides says about us.
It reminded me of some of the things Tim Keller wrote in his superb Counterfeit Gods about the idolatry of political power – and it is worth quoting at length (bearing in mind that he is obviously talking about the US situation).
One of the signs that an object is functioning as an idol is that fear becomes one of the chief characteristics of life. When we center our lives on the idol, we become dependent on it. If our counterfeit god is threatened in any way, our response is complete panic. We do not say, “What a shame, how difficult,” but rather “This is the end! There’s no hope!”
This may be a reason why so many people now respond to U.S. political trends in such an extreme way. When either party wins an election, a certain percentage of the losing side talks openly about leaving the country. They become agitated and fearful for the future. They have put the kind of hope in their political leaders and policies that once was reserved for God and the work of the gospel. When their political leaders are out of power they experience a death. They believe that if their policies and people are not in power, everything will fall apart. They refuse to admin how much agreement they actually have with the other party, and instead focus on the points of disagreement. The points of contention overshadow everything else, and a poisonous environment is created.
Another sign of idolatry in our politics is that opponents are not considered to be simply mistaken, but to be evil. After the last presidential election [i.e. 2008 election which Obama won], my eighty-four-year-old mother observed, “It used to be that whoever was elected as your president, even if he wasn’t the one you voted for, he was still your president. That doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.” After each election, there is now a significant number of people who see the incoming president lacking moral legitimacy. The increasing political polarization and bitterness we see in U.S. politics today is a sign that we have made political activism into a form of religion. How does idolatry produce fear and demonization?
Dutch-Canadian philosopher Al Wolters taught that in the biblical view of things, the main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identify something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizaes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of soemthing that cannot be the ultimate good. Wolters writes:
The great danger is to single out some aspect or phenomenon of God’s good creation and identify it, rather than the alien intrusion of sin, as the villain in the drama of human life… This “something” has been variously identified as … the body and its passions (Plato and much of Greek philosophy), culture in distinction from nature (Rousseau and Romanticism), institutional authority, especially in the state and the family (much of depth psychology), technology and management techniques (Heidegger and Ellul)… The Bible is unique in its uncompromising rejection of all attempts … to identify part of creation as either the villain or the savior.
This accounts for the constant political cycles of overblown hopes and disillusionment, for the increasingly poisonous political discourse, and for the disproportionate fear and despair when one’s political party loses power. But why do we deify and demonize political causes and ideas? Reinhold Niebuhr answered that, in political idolatry, we make a god out of having power.
(Counterfeit Gods, pp98-101)
Now I’m by no means qualified to assess whether or not the philosophical precis given in the quotation from Wolters are valid – but the key point surely still stands up. And we would all do well to remember this on Friday morning…
When the Mayor of London starts writing about aliens, as Boris Johnson did in yesterday’s Telegraph, you know that something rather extraordinary has happened. (Incidentally, politics aside, Boris’ column is a wonderful guilty pleasure!) But it seems that he and I were provoked to scribble having both seen the biggest grossing movie of the aeon this weekend (what enlightened company Q seems to keep).
Now this is by no means going to be a thorough-going analysis. Loads of people have been doing that. Even the Vatican has weighed in. Here are just a few bullet-pointed thoughts that occurred to me. BUT BEWARE – one or two PLOT-SPOILERS AHEAD!
- The Beauties of the Beast: There is no doubting the film is a beast – its creation demanded the sort of megalomania only normally associated with Field-Marshals. But since the greatest efforts were applied to Avatar’s visual conception and execution, it is no surpirse that the greatest impression is effected by its look. And wow! It has to be one of the most staggeringly beautiful cinematic experiences ever created. Pandora, the world inhabited by the Na’vi, is a sight for sore eyes, an Edenic paradise. I still find my mind’s eye frequently drifting back to the fluorescent wonders of its nighttime forests (and to a lesser extent to the floating mountains which, being a bit picky, I found less convincing). No wonder people find the drab beiges and greys of the real world less beguiling. Though I’m not sure I could ever come to love the appearance of the Na’vi – or is that me simply expressing grotesque alienist prejudices?
- Full Fantasy Immersion: neither is there doubting the immersive effect of the action (we saw it in 3D, but i grew less aware of that as the movie progressed). It is bombastic, overwhelming and emotive: in other words everything you pay for in an escapist blockbuster. The whole point is to escape – in this case light-years away – so no wonder people have struggled to come back to earth. But it explains why I thoroughly enjoyed it – as did my 11-year old son Joshua.
But all of this also explains my tolerance at the time with the film’s:
- ultra-shallow characterisation – each is a mere cipher:
- crippled ex-marine gets legs (!) so goes native on ethically dubious undercover mission (Sully);
- military commander sees no shades of grey (Col Quaritch);
- determined female scientist (Augustine) battles those male bastions of military might and of corporate greed (personified by Selfridge (no doubt a descendant of the department store family)), to protect the precious objects of her study (Sigourney in Gorillas in the Mist, anyone);
- feisty female helicopter pilot suddenly disobeys orders and nobly sacrifices self for new cause (Chacone) etc etc),
- derivative plot
- ham-fisted moralising.
In fact, it’s rather ironic, is it not, how often 3D films have such 1D characters and plot. I can’t help but feel a degree of frustration that the decade+ amount of work invested in the incredible visuals and technology wasn’t ALSO applied to the traditional virtues of story, dialogue and character. Technology can never dispense with them. Cinema is merely a newly mediated advance on the Homeric bard telling stories of ancient heroes and wars. Which brings me to the next point
- Ancient Derivations: It’s always intrigued me how often science fiction reaches back to ancient history for templates – the Star Wars saga has always had resonances for classicists who studied the volatile power transfer from the senate of the Roman Republic to the imperial throne of the Augustan ‘Golden’ Age. And Avatar does something similar, despite the façade of extreme technological advance. It is that old archetype of more technologically advanced and aggressive power seeks to overcome the weaker but infinitely more noble savage society. The things said by the corporation miners about the Na’vi echo what has been said by imperialists down the ages – for instance, the Romans said some pretty rum things about the ancient Britons’ habits and fashion sense and about the virtues of the civilisation they were bringing (aka imposing). And then when it was our turn in the empire queue, the British had some pretty excruciating things to say about Africans and Asians. Etc etc. Now – to be clear, the virtues of the greatest science fiction is that it helps us to see present fact more clearly. But there are ways of doing this well, and not so well…
- Clod-Hopping Morality: but the biggest waves made by Avatar are surely political and religious. You have to be deliberately trying to ignore the point to miss them. Resonances with the invasion of Iraq are blatant (hey, look! – they invade to get hold of a precious raw material, and the offensive is even called ‘shock and awe’!!). And in the movie humans with their raw materialism (both philosophical and economic) and destructive, forest-raping and life-crushing technology (boys with their toys) are BAD (got that?); Na’vi with their Gaia-goddess tree-hugging spirituality (it’s raw pantheism and animism, in case you’re interested) and peace-loving (huh? sorry that should be peace-defending) bows & arrows are GOOD (got that too?). In fact, knowing that a war was coming (I’d checked it out to see whether this 12A film would be OK for an 11 year old boy – apart from a few scary monsters near the start, it basically is), I guessed almost immediately after meeting all the different protagonists, that the uber-baddy (Quaritch) would never be protected by his awesome techie toys but would end up at the uncomfortable end of a spear. Ha! That’ll learn him! That’s what comes of those who meddle with forces they could never understand!
Now, I don’t mind if movies have worldviews and messages that differ from mine. That’s expected and sometimes, even the point – and part of the function of good and great art is to help me experience someone else’s shoes for a time, to be immersed in another’s world. That’s why, for example, I love Homer (the poet not the Simpson – tho I enjoy him too) – I’m fascinated by the polytheism of ancient Greece not threatened by it. It’s why I love historical novels, why I’m enthralled by the Turkey of Orhan Pamuk’s books, the Baltimore of The Wire and the philosophical intelligence of Andrew Niccol’s science fiction films. Of course, it is brilliant if a Christian worldview can be convincingly and honestly articulated artistically (all too rare, sadly). But that’s not why I’m passionate about the arts.
So for all my enjoyment of Avatar — and yes, I would like to see it again (in 3D, preferably at an Imax!) because seeing it is its greatest asset — Avatar doesn’t really succeed. It is an incredibly sophisticated sledgehammer to crack the ecological nut (which is, of course, not to say that we shouldn’t find ways to get the human race to be good stewards of the planet). And sadly it will have absurd cultural effects (no doubt, just as Boris Johnson predicted), not least because we’re apparently in store for 2 sequels (I can’t wait!).
And after all… you know what happened when Pandora’s box got opened…
There’s been a lot of talk about this. Far too much, I’d say. So it is no longer really news at all – but guess what everybody: David Cameron and London’s new mayor Boris Johnson went to a private school (HT to Cranmer for the awesome pic of City Hall below). In fact, they went to ETON. And then, they both went to Oxford University. Which means that they are both by definition, de facto, de iure, de novo (and presumably also de niro and de rigueur) TOFFS. And never trust a toff. With anything. Ever.
A Toff’s Perspective
Now for the sake of transparency, I feel the need to be quite open (in fact, in the present climate, one might even say that ‘admit’ is the only appropriate term here) about this. I don’t normally indulge in getting all autobiographical on this blog (well, not that much) but it can’t be denied: I went to a posh prep school, I went to Eton, and I went to Oxford as an undergraduate; what’s more (thus nailing coffins finally and fully) I actually went to a vicar factory in Cambridge. How about that? Toff, toff, toff!
Now to give myself my due, I like to think that since then, I have followed anything but the standard career path for toffs. I know that a few years back it was fairly much standard operating procedure for a large proportion of OE’s to get ordained in the Church of England (once known, but hardly any longer, as the Tory party at prayer); but it is certainly not the case anymore. I went to an OE year-reunion the other day (with some degree of fear and trepidation, I should add), and I’m pretty sure that I was the only vicar present. But still, I got ordained and spent a number of very happy years in a church in Sheffield (see various posts); then a few years teaching in a Ugandan-founded theological college in Kampala, in Uganda, and now for the last few years at All Souls. I suppose the latter is a bit posh because it does mean we get to live in Marylebone – but the All Souls congregation is more a reflection of the crazy diversity of the whole of London than of its Marylebone location.
So – what’s the point of saying all this? Well because I simply want to ask, “what’s the point of saying all this?” Is it really relevant where someone went to school? Wasn’t it ironic that during Tony Blair’s first term as Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrats were led by Paddy Ashdown and the Tories by William Hague – meaning that the only party led by a state school product was the Conservatives (and Hague took over from fellow-comprehensive product, John Major). I would suggest that what is going on is another, even subtler form of Bulverism (see post on 13th April). Surely what matters far more in a leader is their character, integrity, creativity, intelligence and inter-personal skills. Whether Boris or Cameron have these is simply another question.
Some may say that there is still the old-school-tie at work in appointments etc – and this is no doubt true. But isn’t life always like this – everyone tends to trust those they’ve known for a long time (loyalty, track records etc) – isn’t that how Teams Blair and Brown have worked for the last decade? Please note – I’m not condoning an oppressive jobs-for-the-boys culture – but it seems that a private education is a red rag to certain bulls.
An Historical Perspective
But i think there are some points to make which might give it some perspective. Having done quite a bit of teaching in recent years about how western thinking has shifted over the last 1000 years, it has struck me that one of the key factors has been the fact that different ‘classes’ or ‘society groupings’ have all had their go at power. Gross over-simplifications these, but hopefully you’ll get the idea:
- PRE-MODERN – MONARCHY & ARISTOCRACY: From before the Middle Ages, it was very much the Monarch at the head of the feudal pyramid. This got challenged at various points – eg Magna Carta – where a number of barons felt the need to curtail the king’s power. But this was hardly the outbreak of democracy that it is sometimes presented as. Sure it was sowing some seeds – but the bottom line across Europe was the the king and aristocracy (ie the landowners) held all the political cards.
- EARLY MODERN – THE MIDDLE CLASSES: the old order (ancien régime) crumbled for a myriad of reasons – the growth in trade and thus wealth, the dissemination of learning beyond the monastery walls (through printing etc), the growth in nationalism and anti-clericalism etc etc. Far too complex to outline here – but the European middle classes had arrived. The culmination after years of Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment was of course Revolution – in America and France. And the middle classes wanted their own bite of the cherry. For despite the idealism of these revolutions, and perhaps partly in response to the extremes of violence, they never succeeded in spreading the ideals of liberty beyond the bourgeoisie. Hence the force of Marx & Engels…
- LATE MODERN – THE WORKERS: the French Revolution wasn’t the only revolution to leave many victims sprawled in its wake. The Industrial Revolution made the middle classes richer – but the working classes far worse off. The horrors were touched on by the likes of Dickens and later Karl Marx. Why should the workers do all this for no gain? Why indeed. What was clearly needed was to take 1789 further – and of course that is precisely what Lenin/Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot all did. Let the people govern the people.
Well, now everyone has actually had a go. And everyone has messed up BIG TIME at some point. No wonder postmodernists have despaired of political change altogether. It is no accident that some of the key French postmodernist thinkers started out (more or less) as Marxists but soon abandoned the faith (eg Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard). Who can be trusted with power? Every group is bound to oppress another at some point (aristos oppressing the workers, middle class executing the aristos and exploiting the workers; workers oppressing the aristos and bourgeois etc etc). No wonder some have opted out altogether today. Why get involved?
Now, I’m not advocating that. But surely on the basis of this contemporary logic, one could actually reject anyone because of their background (be it, posh, middle class or street)? Which is of course pointless and even ridiculous.
A Christian Perspective
But what of a Christian perspective on all this? A few random thoughts.
- Any sense of superiority over others is completely out of order for the Christian. The Cross forces us to face God on a level playing field. So racism and classism is not on. To be sure, there are definitely REAL class and race concerns in the British church, as there are in British society at large. We should never be naive or complacent about this. And we should do all we can to root them out – corporately and individually. We should never allow our heritage or pedigree to be a source of superior pride – after all, that’s precisely what the apostle Paul rejected in Philippians 3 (and his pedigree had the added bonus of having profound theological significance).
- But we must also beware its opposite: what you might call inverted classism or inverted snobbery – and I fear that this is what is going on today. Which is why the renowned Selena, Countess of Huntingdon would say after her conversion through the 18th Century preacher George Whitefield, that she was “saved by the letter ‘M'” – because 1 Corinthians 1:26, where Paul says Brothers, hink of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. In other words, Paul doesn’t say ‘not ANY’ but ‘not MANY’
- On a wider note, therefore, none of us is a slave of our past – whatever it might contain (albeit, addictions, criminal records, mistakes, education, opportunities, privilege). Isn’t that one of the great wonders of the gospel? There is always hope for change. What’s more, whatever one’s political hue, how can anyone be held responsible for decisions taken by their parents?
- As Jesus said, From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. (Luke 12:48). I suppose you could say that this was the origin of noblesse oblige!?! But I am not suggesting that to have a private education necessarily makes one more or less privileged spiritually – in some ways it can innoculate poeple against thinking they will ever need the gospel. But still, whatever we are given, we are all responsible to God to use it for his glory – education or not.
Finally, it is sadly necessary to add that how one educates one’s own children can become a divisive issue in churches – with the result that cliques can grow up around those who educate their children privately, through state schools or through home schooling. It may start with simple pragmatics and logistics (eg differences in half term or holiday dates) – but we should work to overcome these divisions.
So there – end of spleen vent. I should end by saying that – No – they don’t still wear top hats at Eton – though the school uniform is, bizarrely enough, the result of the school still being in morning for a dead monarch, several centuries on.
There was news this week that cigarette packets (from October 2008) will have to carry shocking pictures on top of their current glaring warnings to alert people to smoking’s risks. Apparently Canada and Brazil have already started doing this (and in Canada, 15% people have been deterred from a cigarette by these sort of images). Some of the UK ones really are very gruesome indeed – and these are not the worst:
This is the short sharp shock philosophy of public health – but still, we know that the hardiest of smokers will get inured to them quickly enough. Of course these images will invite criticism and satire. Rather like the last time the UK warnings were ratcheted up in 2003, when these spoof warnings on cigarette packets were produced (right).
But I suspect that all this reflects what you might call a cultural amnesia about the future (if i can put it like that). Many of us live in denial about the consequences of our actions, and do what we can to avoid thinking about inevitabilities and causes/effects (eg the prevalence of anti-aging potions & lotions). Now i speak as someone who has enjoyed the odd drag every now and then and so know it from first hand experience. We choose to ignore future realities for the sake of immediate gratification – the credit card culture, of buy now, pay later.
So my hunch is that anything which shakes us out of our willful ignorance or culpable amnesia is no bad thing. It’s just that i can’t help seeing the principle applied elsewhere. Of course, this will draw accusations of busybodiness, nanny state, noseyness etc And it is certainly profoundly politically incorrect to mention such things. But how about the areas no politician would DARE speak of and yet have just as significant and devastating an effect on society as smoking (since one of the reasons, surely, for the smoking ban having been so politically expedient is the fact that lung cancer and related diseases cost the NHS millions).
What about the extra-marital affairs that lead to separations and divorce? Can you imagine a photograph of miserable children and spouse being displayed on the mirror in the hotel room every time it is reserved for the proverbial naughty weekend? Politicians are having to face up to the fact that family breakdown simply IS a key ingredient in the lethal social cocktails that lead to youth gang culture. And then take the profound impact on the economy (if you have to bring that up), not to mention the housing crisis in southern England (in large part caused by the need to house broken families etc). Now of course, marriages break up for a host of reasons, and I’m certainly not wanting to get on my high horse about it. I simply wish people considered the cruel consequences of their instant gratifications a little bit more.
Or take malicious gossip (of course, this is hardly the realm of legislation but think of its devastating effects). Careers are ruined, families wrecked, communities riven. If people had some inkling of what would happen if such and such was said, don’t you think they’d think again? So how about the mandated appearance of holographic images of those being gossiped about?
Or take this devastating account that i read in the paper this week, written by a father and husband who beat up his wife one fateful evening and found his whole life implode. “I have wrecked my marriage, lost a woman I once loved, lost my children, and lost my standing in the community”. If only he’d had a little messenger on his shoulder whispering what would result from his actions. He doesn’t defend what he did, nor can he – he merely rues the day, and to reading his article, my heart goes out to him.
But then of course isn’t that precisely one of the things that the Bible does so effectively? For biblical ethics is supremely an issue of seeking to live in the best way, because the alternatives have such terrible consequences. The Bible assumes that the universe is wired up in such a way as to mean that all actions always have consequences – which is surely our experience of reality. For there really is no such thing as a moral vacuum, whether it be on the macro, social or individual levels.
It’s not every day that multinational corporations really do go the second mile in showing genuine concern for their customers’ psychological welfare. I have always assumed (call me a cynic) that there is some hidden agenda or ugly commercial motive behind any public action. But British Airways appear to have bucked the trend. They genuinely endeavour to take great care over what movies get shown in-flight, and, what’s more, over editing what they do show.
A BA spokesman confirmed that changes had been made to Casino Royale. “All films are screened… we want to ensure they contain no material that might upset our customers.“
Marvelous – all well and good. And i must say that, great fan though I am of Casino Royale Read more