I have stood at the very spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were shot by Gavrilo Princip 100 years ago. And the impossible “What If” question occurred to me even then. So when I noticed that eminent historian Ned Lebow had published an examination of the issue, I leapt at it. The assassination was such a fluke, so preventable, so absurd that the yearning for a different outcome of that moment is great. As he says at the start (having summarised some of the counterfactual options),
None of these what-ifs strains our understanding of the world because most royal processions do not stray from their intended routes, and most security details would have rushed the archduke and his wife to safety at the first signs of violence. In this instance, the so-called factual, not the counterfactual, is what strikes us as unrealistic and incredible. (p16) Read more
This is a great year for conspiracists – from the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy to the constant dribble (and occasional torrent) of government surveillance revelations. It’s all happening. So i’ve been trying to get my head around the whole Kennedy thing. A few years back, I read the seminal bio by Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life, which is the best place to start (beautifully written, brilliant insights). But have just finished Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days which is a week by week account of those final months of his life and presidency. Tragedy is a word much diluted by overuse and misuse – Read more
Well, to all my American friends and family, Happy 4th July. I wish you a great day of celebration and fun. That is always a little strange coming from a Brit. After all, you did rebel against us. But I think we’ve kinda gotten over it now (as you might put it). But it’s well-meant. America is a country I’ve grown to love (or at least certainly the bits I’ve visited). And as Bono has said more than once (perhaps explaining why he’s never forsaken his Irish roots despite his love for the US): Ireland’s a great country, but America is a great idea. And that’s what the 4th is all about at its best. A great idea. 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 have just finished Kofi Annan’s fascinating memoir Interventions. Annan is clearly a man of great stature and influence, who strained every sinew to bring about peace and dialogue during his 10 years as UN Secretary-General but tragically often failed. For all kinds of reasons. But as one might expect (and indeed hope), he has great wisdom to share, even if he cannot claim a string of personal triumphs.
I guess this book will initially appeal only to politics junkies and West Wing devotees (which is probably why I read it). But I suspect many others may well enjoy it despite that – it’s pacey, readable and insightful. And actually, surprisingly relevant to all kinds of other walks of life.
A politics professor and former Democrat party campaign consultant (from McGovern through to Gore), Samuel Popkin has sought to expose the arcane and often dark arts of US presidential campaigning in The Candidate. The results are fascinating. Here are just a few windows into this bizarre parallel world. Read more
The presenting issue behind the article was the hysteria whipped up against Obama’s healthcare proposals in the US – something which those of us with ‘socialised’, crypto-communist medicine in the UK find hard to understand. I do realise that many on the US right are no fools, that the British NHS is far from perfect, and that there may well be many good grounds for the position(s) they took. But that’s not my point here. My main concern is how politics (left and right) throughout the West now (has to) operates. This was the object of Jill Lepore’s New Yorker investigation a couple of weeks ago, The Lie Factory. Read more
One of power’s cruel ironies is that after craving it for years, its attainment brings a deeply bitter (if addictive) taste. At the heart of the problem is that deep sense of isolation that comes of sitting at the top of the tree. No one can truly understand what it feels like… apart from one’s predecessors. This is the subject of a gripping new take on the US Presidency, Gibbs and Duffy’s The Presidents Club (surely there needs to be an apostrophe in there somewhere!?). There is an irritating proliferation of books about all 44 White House inhabitants, but this is a genuinely interesting addition. Read more
Just read a spine-chiller in the latest New Yorker about PACs, SuperPACs and the growth industry that is behind political attack ads. Jane Mayer’s Attack Dog – The creator of the Willie Horton ad is going all out for Mitt Romney is depressing stuff. For the uninitiated, and unless you follow US politics closely, there’s no reason at all why you should be initiated, PACs are Political Action Committees. Read more
It just so happened that on the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, we had come to the second instalment off our romp through Revelation. And it fell to me both to do an overview of all 7 letters to the 7 churches and at the same time do some justice (impossible) to what happened on that terrible autumn day. Read more
It is a truism to say that the media is influential in politics. But there is no doubting that its power to mesmerize and acclimatize contributed to Obama’s election. Having focused yesterday on the way in which Obama both innately and deliberately sought to build bridges across community divides and with historical landmarks (as described in David Remnick’s remarkable book The Bridge), I want to pick up on how he was able to surf the media’s wave all the way into Pennsylvania Avenue. Read more
If there is a point to Barack Obama becoming US President – and let’s face it, how can we ever reduce anyone’s life to having ‘a point’ – it is not his politics but his race. Race is what made his election seem so unthinkable, and yet, conversely, once he was the Democrat candidate, such a difficult opponent to beat in the 2008 election. And it is what will give him his enduring legacy (politics and 2nd term aside). Read more
I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.
I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.
A very provocative question!
Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:
… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)
One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.
Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)
I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:
The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)
It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.
The problem with Islamic Secularism
The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.
A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:
Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)
Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!
And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.
The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)
Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:
The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.
[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:
Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)
This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.
If you had to sum up postmodernism in one word, I think a strong (but by no means only) contender would be the word SUSPICION. Suspicion of power, suspicion of motives, suspicion of truth claims – in short, suspicion of absolutely everything and everyone. And of course what is one insidious but pervasive manifestation of suspicion? The Conspiracy Theory.
The twentieth century seems to have bred such theorists – they’re everywhere. And they have their audience over a barrel – if you question or disagree with them, you’re just a patsy, gullible putty in the oppressors’ hands. Then if you present a substantial case against them, well, you can hear the lines already:
- ‘aah, but there’s no smoke without fire…’ (that cowardly retort of the gossip);
- ‘hey, I’m just asking questions’ (when of course, they’re doing no such thing);
- ‘but what about Watergate?’ Well yes, that was a conspiracy, and yes, politicians are often corrupt. But think about it. Watergate was such a grubby and unambitious conspiracy (i.e. covering up the business of eavesdropping on political opponents) compared to the more extreme theories people tenaciously hold to.
And they are often extreme and extraordinarily ambitious. If true, many of these would need not just scores but hundreds and even thousands of accomplices (unwitting or otherwise) – who ALL keep quiet (by force or voluntarily). Just glancing down the list of conspiracies tackled by the journalist David Aaronovitch in his recent book, Voodoo Histories, makes clear how ambitious some of these are:
- Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world (now clearly proven to be a fraud – and yet scarily, still touted in Islamist circles as a justification of their opposition to Israel’s existence)
- Stalin’s purge of Trotskyites incl Pyatakov in 1937
- President Roosevelt knew (and even wanted) Pearl Harbor – even people like Gore Vidal subscribe to this view
- Senator McCarthy’s suspicions of communists in government
- The ‘mysterious?’ deaths of popular ‘deities’: JFK, RFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana
- Doubting whether or not the moon landings ever took place
- The ‘mysterious?’ death of Hilda Murrell & nuclear conspiracies in the 1980s (a conspiracy championed by the otherwise redoubtable Tam Dalyell MP)
- Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s thesis about the descendents of Jesus in Holy Blood and Holy Grail, as picked up by Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code
- Erich Von Daniken’s theories and books Chariots of the Gods? Was God an Astronaut?
- 9/11 & 7/7 conspiracies – from the “let it happen on purpose” (LIHOP) types to the “made-it-happen-on-purpose” (MIHOP) types.
- David Kelly’s suicide after his Commons Select committee testimony about Iraqi weapons evidence
- The ‘birthers’ who doubted Obama’s birth certificate & rumours of the Clinton “body count”.
It’s an extraordinary, comprehensive list – and these are just some of the most prominent ones (go online and you’ll find a conspiracy theory to suit every conceivable taste and obsession). This book is a fascinating but chilling read. Some theories are very popular – and even regarded as de rigeur if you don’t want to look a fool (e.g. JFK was shot by two shooters at least. Wasn’t he?).
Aaronovitch is clearly a sceptic. But his research methods and approach seem impeccable, logical and at times exhaustive. He presents a convincing case at many points. He produces clear evidence to prove their idiocy, even if it has appeared long after their fashions has waned. There is so much common sense here – that it is a book worth lending to any with conspiracist inclinations.
Bizarrely enough, one of his most compelling chapters (I’d not anticipated this at all as I’d not even noticed its inclusion when I picked the book up), was his merciless dismantling of the ludicrous theories behind Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Many Christian apologists have done a great job at approaching the evidence from an ancient historical perspective. What was so compelling here was his observations of the evolution of this particular narrative: a nineteenth century catholic parish priest who mysteriously becomes rich. So of course, that clearly means that was paid off by Rome to keep schtum about what he’d uncovered – i.e. the genealogical line of Jesus & Mary Magdalene. Well Aaronovitch shows that this whole business bears many of the hallmarks of other conspiracy theories.
What is not often appreciated (I certainly hadn’t realised this) is that practically ALL the main perpetrators in France of the Merovingian mythology have since admitted that the whole thing is a hoax. Here’s a flavour of Aaronovitch’s style (himself from a Jewish Marxist background with certainly no axe to grind in favour of Christianity):
The playful Henry Lincoln [one of the co-authors of Holy Blood & Holy Grail] has also been fond of using the partiality and contradictory nature of New Testament interpretations to sanction his own liberties. Is it more likely, he asks, that a man should have been born of a virgin, been able to walk on water and rise from the dead than that he should have been born as other men are born, married, and raise a family? It’s a good line, but the trouble is that while the Gospels do create some evidence for a man called Jesus who led a religious movement in the early years of the Roman empire, there is no evidence whatsoever from any source at all for that man being married or having children. None. (pp199-200)
This is how he sums up the chapter – the main protagonist, Pierre Plantard, being the centre of the story’s attention as the one claimed to be a descendent of Jesus Christ himself.
It was all a hoax, every bit of it. It began with a story, which then developed into a massive fantasy, support for which was manufactured by forging documents. Many of these were lists of names copied from other genealogists and registers, and then tinkered with; others were invented travelogues. The motives of the participants are varied. De Cherisey was interested in surrealism and in the 1960s was involved in an organisation called the Workshop for Potential Literature (Oulipo), in which the members played around with puzzles, ciphers and codes. Plantard, as we have seen, had been trying most of his life to give himself some significance through shadowy or secret organisations, joining the many people through the centuries who have been attracted to the idea of membership of a clandestine society with elite, and sometimes occult, powers to organise the world. Finally, there were those motivated simply by money. (p204)
There are some great lines. In a previous section, referring to Princess Diana’s death in a Parisian tunnel, he refers to the theories put by some ex-MI5 agents, and draws in a magnificent line from Umberto Eco’s breathtaking Foucault’s Pendulum.
Studying the competing claims of various secret sources, one can see that to believe one is to disbelieve the others. Whether the authors who used these sources were complicit in what must, at the very least have been a series of hoaxes is impossible to say. But if one were to ask the old conspiracist question Cui bono? (Who benefits?), the answer seems obvious. I say ‘seems’ because in this world every debunkable theory could in fact be disinformation put out by the Establishment/security services to throw investigators and the public off the scent. Such a hypothesis was put forward by former MI5 officer Annie Machon on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy in 2005. It was the very stupidity of some of the theories surrounding Diana’s death, she told her interviewers, that first convinced her that the accident was in fact murder. She had been alerted to the conspiracy by the classic MI6 disinformation technique of suggesting conspiracies. Or, as Umberto Eco put it, “The Rosicrucians were everywhere, aided by the fact that they didn’t exist.” (p150)
Or take this, about the death in the 1980s (subsequently proven to be the result of a break-in gone horribly wrong) of Hilda Murrill a known anti-nuclear activist. This was taken up as a cause by the famous Labour Old Etonian MP, Tam Dalyell.
While the notion of members of the British security services going around bumping off little old ladies in English market towns (more or less the exact opposite of their official role) may have amazed most MPs, it simply angered Mr Dalyell. (p175)
And I like this idea of an ‘equal-opportunity conspiracist‘, in his analysis of Gore Vidal’s various political theories!
Vidal, like Philip J Berg, was an equal-opportunity conspiracist, and was comfortable whether accusing FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, of complex and dastardly secret acts for various nefarious purposes – usually as pretexts for war or domestic crackdowns. (p303)
So what do these theories have in common? Well, in drawing various threads together, 4 features particularly struck me (from the perspective of a Christian worldview)
- This is so encouraging – the Africa Bible Commentary – now in Kiswahili
- Antony Billington gives another helpful list of 6 of the best: this time on handling different biblical genres.
- Neil Robbie has a nice venn diagram to illustrate what makes up good preaching (based on a seminar by Rico Tice)
- Marcus Honeysett on handling criticism in ministry
- For those who liked the sorts of thing Maggi Dawn’s book offers (reviewed last week), Artway is a wonderful site (in Dutch & English). It offers meditations on different artworks, and you can sign up to get them regularly emailed. (HT Paul Windsor).
- Wow – radical. Why not actually buy a newspaper to get your news…?
- Scary graphic stats for musicians trying to make their way in the world: what it takes to earn the minimum wage
- Another scary graphic illustrating how US laws are made (just like sausages) HT Graphic Sociology
- Some interesting pie charts illustrating the similarities between Coalition & Shadow Cabinets.
- Incredible: live map of where every London underground train is. A techie’s or a terrorist’s dream?
- I like this (HT: 22 words):
- Wiltshire vicar revives law to call villagers to archery practice…!
- Very awkward: what happens when you forget to wear a belt to work
- A classic from one of my favourite blogs, Futility Closet: great errata from the New York Times.
- I’m with stupid…
- I think these Fedex ads are great:
Michael Dobbs‘ account of the Cuban Missile Crisis (he’s not to be confused with the British Michael Dobbs of Francis Urquhart/House of Cards fame) must surely qualify as a definitive account, at least for this generation. Despite the gallons of ink spilled over those fateful 13 days, this recent book (out in 2008) has much to offer and revise. In fact, it makes recent history a thrilling read, despite the pervasive detail, evident research and deep complexity of the events.
Kennedy & Khrushchev on the same side…
Dobbs had unprecedented access to archives and key participants from both the US and Russia – and has even managed to investigate some of the sites and accounts from the Cuban perspective. As a result, he’s been able to ‘triangulate’ every detail, synchronising accounts from each of the perspectives of Moscow, Havana and Washington. He offers a day by day account of the days leading up to what became known as Black Saturday (Saturday 27th October 1962), and then an hour by hour account of the day itself. One of the book’s big themes is the fragility of the peace, even after the two leaders had themselves become determined to find a peaceful solution.
The question the world confronted during what came to be known as the Cuban missile crisis was who controlled history: the men in suits, the men with beards, the men in uniform, or nobody at all? In this drama, Kennedy ended up on the same side as his ideological nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev. Neither man wanted war. They both felt an obligation to future generations to rein in the dark, destructive demons they themselves had helped to unleash. (p340)
This point was poignantly reinforced by Jackie K’s personal letter to the Soviet leader after JFK’s assassination:
From today’s perspective, the key moment of the missile crisis is not the largely mythical “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation of October 24. It turns out that the two great adversaries – Kennedy and Khrushchev – were both looking for a way out. They each had the power to blow up the world, but they were both horrified by the thought of nuclear Armageddon. They were rational, intelligent, decent men separated by an ocean of misunderstanding, fear, and ideological suspicion. Despite everything that divided them, they had a sneaking sympathy for each other, an idea expressed most poignantly by Jackie Kennedy in a private, handwritten letter she sent to Khrushchev following her husband’s assassination:
You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the need for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. (p350)
The confusion, and at moments raw panic, of those closest to these events (and who thus understood the potential outcomes), is palpable. Many genuinely feared they were on the brink of the end of civilisation. Nuclear war seemed inevitable. Reading this book makes it clear how close it came – through no fault of the main protagonists.
- There was the desperate situation of those on Russia’s B-59 sub, which was incommunicado within the US exclusion zone;
- there was the U-2 spy plane that had lost its bearings at 70,000 ft and unwittingly flown into USSR airspace above Siberia on Black Saturday (soon after another U-2 had been shot down on a recce over Cuba). This was not long after the capture of Gary Powers, after all.
- Or take this situation for one of the US pilots searching for the missing U-2 (and which had been armed with nuclear warheads after the US Strategic Air Command had been put on DEFCON 2):
One of the interceptor pilots was Lieutenant Leon Schmutz, a twenty-six-year-old recently out of flight school. As he climbed into the skies above the Bering Strait to search for the missing U-2, he wondered what he would do if he ran into the Soviet MiGs. His only means of defense was a nuclear warhead capable of destroying everything within a half-mile radius of the explosion. To use such a weapon was virtually unthinkable, particular over American territory. The detonation of even a small warhead could result in all-out nuclear war. But to fail to respond to an attack by a Soviet fighter went against a pilot’s basic survival instincts. (p264)
Eavesdropping on history
What makes this book such a brilliant read is being able to eavesdrop on the 3 groups of protagonists at each and every key moment. We can now know almost exactly what they were thinking (even when their adversaries didn’t – a kind of historical dramatic irony, I suppose). Kennedy had started taping meetings in the Oval office and Cabinet Room (a fact which of course would be Nixon’s undoing). Then there are the reams of documents now released, as well as personal accounts and interviews from those with long memories.
Consequently, various myths get debunked (such as the ‘eyeball to eyeball’ moment alluded to above when Russian ships near the exclusion zone (as depicted in the film Thirteen Days) – the timings don’t quite fit; or the claim that it was Bobby’s idea alone to ignore Khrushchev’s second message on the Saturday). All the individuals appear more human, not less, once the fog of hagiography has been dispersed. But actually, as so often, they all seem more heroic as a result, not less.
Much modern historical writing these days focuses on the little people against the backdrop of big events and big men – the sociological school, if you like. I find that frustrating at one level, especially if it is to the exclusion or detriment of the big picture. However, history is not just about big names. It is about everyone. And this crisis in particular twisted and turned on the actions of the hidden and largely anonymous. Which is why it is so important to hear from some of them, even if their names mean little to the vast majority. Dobbs does this brilliantly. He weaves into the bigger narrative, of Oval Office & Kremlin second-guessing, various quotes (sometimes perhaps too briefly) from some of these:
- The Russian submariner writing to his wife – describing in graphic detail the appalling conditions on board (often in noxious diesel fumed air at over 110°F).
- Captain Maltsby’s personal account of his fateful, and potentially cataclysmic, overfly of Siberia in his U2 plane
- 2 Cuban exiles on a CIA mission to sabotage a Cuban mine, who got stranded when their exfiltration boat never returned, and then suffered 13 years in a Cuban prison
This is a brilliant book – gripping history writing at its best. Dobbs draws few lessons explicitly, though notes how George W. Bush’s rhetoric pre-Iraq War 2 drew (erroneously and illegitimately in his view) on Kennedy’s stance during October 1962. However, there’s little need to be too explicit – the book makes its point simply be recounting in some detail what happened hour-by-hour. As such, it is a salutary reminder of how close we came to destruction – and a warning of how even closer we may still be, now that nuclear proliferation has led to such power lying in the hands of less than cool heads…
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…