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Posts from the ‘Prime Minister’ Category

16
Feb

A plague on both their houses? Carl Trueman’s polemic Republocrat

I think it’s fair to say that remaining neutral about anything Carl Trueman writes or says is impossible. And that’s no bad thing! He’s always provocative, stimulating and often (but not always!) right on the button. In his recent short book, Republocrat – Confessions of a Liberal Conservative, he brings a trenchant and powerfully argued British/European perspective to the American political scene. More pertinently, after 10 years in the States, he writes as a Reformed theologian and church historian about the relationship between Christianity and American politics (especially, though not exclusively, about the Christian Right).

Mercutio strikes again?

In his discussion of the Republican and Democrat Parties, he actually does find himself, Mercutio-like, calling for ‘a plague on both your houses’. And it is easy to see why, after being propelled through his breathless polemic. Some would conclude from this that the only remaining course of action is to buy into a simplistic rejection of all things political, with a postmodern, shrugging updating of the 60s mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out”.

But Trueman is far too robust for such a course. And his appeal is a crucial one. For one of his concerns is that politics has become far too simplistic and Manichaean (ie dualism where everything is a matter of ‘us’ (the goodies) vs ‘them’ (the baddies)) – and that the church has significantly contributed to the problem. He is clear – life is much too complex for that.

I would suggest that all Christians should vote, as part of their civic duty, but they should also feel pain when they mark the relevant box, knowing the trade-offs they are having to make as they do so, and how their action belies the complexity of reality. (p83)

Whose side is he on?

The scope of the book (despite the main text being only 100 pages) is vast. He manages to include a sympathetic potted history of Marxism, perceptive analyses of the prosperity gospel, US hot button issues like gay rights and abortion, Rupert Murdoch and the impact of automobiles on American culture – and that’s before we even consider his helpful, expert observations about history writing and objectivity. This is in part what makes his writing so enjoyable – he draws links that one never sees coming.

But this is primarily a book of political punditry. And so his politics matters and is explicit. He is what in Europe would be called left of centre (he openly confesses to be LibDem – though one wonders what difference the Coalition Government now would make to this) – which in the USA is regarded as practically communist. He is conservative theologically, and therefore conservative on some ethical issues – but definitely left on social issues like poverty. As the conservative Peter Lillback rightly notes in his foreword, this makes Carl more of the Old Left than new. This makes him an anomaly in his adopted country – he really doesn’t fit. He casts an outsider’s eye on contemporary US political realities; and so a real fear is that neither end of the political spectrum (Christian or otherwise) will listen to him – and therefore both will fail to heed what are some very important warnings.

So who’s side is he on? Well, he is someone who longs for truthfulness, integrity and genuine public service to mark public life (as illustrated by a powerful quotation from the amazing Vaclav Havel on the last page). And therefore all should take note.

The problems at both ends

Because he is no partisan, he is able to spot ironies and blind spots, and doesn’t pull punches in exposing them. Here is one fascinating example:

The most obvious is the way liberals and conservatives often flip-flop on whether big government is good or bad. It is a mantra of the Left that the federal government needs to take a larger role at home, where, apparently it can and should be trusted; but in foreign policy, the Left’s wisdom is that it can do almost nothing of any moral probity. On the Right, however, there is deep suspicion of the federal government in a domestic context; but invade somebody else’s country, and any criticism of the government is decried as unpatriotic and un-American. How can these things be? One plausible explanation is that the logic of Left and Right is shaped more by some form of story, which does not conform to the normal rules of logical analysis, but which nonetheless carries power for the true believer. (p89)

This comes in the context of a really helpful, though chilling, analysis of how narrative informs political discourse, rather than pesky things like facts and realities. It is interesting that only today, Nick Robinson’s BBC blog described the task of Cameron’s new Strategy guy at No10 as bringing much needed ‘narrative coherence’ to the Coalition after a choppy few months – though note how Ed Miliband’s Labour is equally attempting to dominate with their own ‘re-contaminate the Tory brand’ narrative.

Of course, politics, not to mention governing, is SO complex that communicating realities in a democracy is very hard. A story is much easier to tell – especially if it resonates with people who are hurting, struggling or confused. Stories rally troops, motivate action … ignore inconveniences. Ideal, then, if you want people to vote for you. Not so good if you value truth and integrity. And Trueman’s point is that Left and Right both play the same game (as Nick Robinson highlights).

It’s secularism – but not as we have it

One of the most helpful and powerful sections was Trueman’s identification of how secularism in the States has a religious face. I’m sure this is right – and it helps to understand that despite not really doing God in European politics, the US has much more in common culturally than it might care to admit.

Could it be that both Britain and America are both fairly secular, but that America expresses her secularity using religious idioms, while Britain expresses hers through the abandonment of such language? And could this create more problems for the American church than she typically likes to assume? (p23)

Somebody asked me recently whether Osteen and Hinn (2 key prosperity gospel preachers) were big in the UK. My answer was simple: no, not at all, nothing like they are in the USA. Why is that? came the follow-up to which I replied: They simply wouldn’t work in the UK, because the idiom is all wrong; the British do not respond to religious language the way many Americans do; thus, we have psychobabble self-help gurus, not prosperity preachers. Of course, both preach the same message: prosperity through realizing your own inner potential; but while the British equivalent is obviously secular, the American version has a veneer of orthodox religiosity. (p27)

This makes perfect sense to me – and simply alerts us to the insidiousness of the secular mindset.

It’s what we’ve got – but that doesn’t make it perfect

Another key theme to the book is the danger of (especially the Christian Right) buying into the idea that Capitalism is the most theologically appropriate system. I don’t know many, if any, in the UK who have bought into this line – but it is clearly a big deal in the USA. And while he is pretty sure that there is no real viable alternative in a globalised world (some will no doubt dispute that – I’m not really in a position to argue either way), his case for a more nuanced and discerning approach is undeniably strong. Capitalism simply does not lead inevitably to the characteristics commonly identified as Christian virtue. This is because it presents many underlying challenges to virtue – here is my potted summary of his list (in pp71-77):

  • Economic prosperity can never necessarily be identified with divine blessing.
  • Capitalism requires a lack of contentment and degree of disaffection with the world in order to make it work. It also breeds a form of idolatry: “ascribing of divine power to things that in themselves do not possess such power, and, we might add, that can be done to systems such as capitalism just as easily as possessions such as golf clubs” (p74). Personal selfishness and acquisitiveness actually then morphs into a social virtue because you are upholding society and the system through your wallet (or credit).
  • What we could call financial Pelagianism: “the problem is not simply the gospel of salvation by consumption that they preach; it is also the idea that I am in control of my own destiny, that I hold the answer to my problems, that this lies in the creaturely realm… It is a form of Pelagianism, built on the idea that I am my own god who can work the miracle of my own happiness by what I do with my cash” (p74)
  • The fixation on rights of all kinds that a consumer mentality breeds (and this can be found on both Left (eg abortion rights) and Right (eg gun owners’ rights)) – and this is something that we see manifesting in church as well as society.
  • The market inevitably determines values and virtues: “Where consumer is king, ultimately taste and profit margins will triumph” (p75)

In summary of this point, then, Trueman states:

Christians must realize that capitalism has brought great goods in its wake; but it is not an unmixed blessing, and some of the things about which Christians become most hot under the collar, from the reshaping of the family to the ease of access to abortion, are not unconnected to the system that they often admire with so little critical reflection. (p77)

Well said… It seems so obvious – but so rarely articulated – perhaps because we have too many vested interests…

American in focus, but British in relevance

I suspect many on this side of the Atlantic will assume this has little relevance. But I would argue that it is of profound relevance over here – it is a very helpful analysis of what is happening in postmodern political discourse. But there is also another reason: some in UK Christian circles are finding themselves drawn to a US Christian Right culture-war mentality (this was particularly noticeable in the lead up to the 2010 UK General Election).

And that is something that, quite frankly, I find very scary. If ever there was a thought-through, theologically aware, warning not to go down that road, this is it. I suspect few if any will find themselves agreeing with everything he says (for all kinds of reasons). But that is all the more reason that thoughtful Christians should read this book. As he says

we are called to be good citizens in this world, and in a democratic society, that involves having as many well-thought-out and informed opinions on the things that really matter as time allows. It is incumbent on us not to surround ourselves with things that confirm our prejudices but to seek to listen to a variety of view points. (p58)

21
Sep

Rawnsley’s End of the Party: New Labour under the spotlight

There has been an unseemly rush amongst our former political masters to get their memoirs onto the shelves. But having read Rawnsley’s first book on New Labour some years ago (Servants of the People), I was very keen to get my hands on his follow-up – which continues the story until a few months before their loss of power in 2010.

You may have noticed that I’m now reading Blair’s effort, for a small reading group I’m in to discuss in a month or two. So as not to get the two confused, I feel the need to write up Rawnsley quickly. 100 pages in to Blair’s journey, I can definitely say which one I prefer. Rawnsley’s prose style is readable, concise and even gripping. He’s talked to everyone – or rather everyone seems to have talked to him over the years. So he knows much of what has been said by whom to whom, and why. He’s had the inside story on all the Brown-Blair tensions, the relations with Bush’s White House as well as many others. [A new extended edition is apparently just coming out in paperback bringing the story up to date with the 2010 General Election.]

Above all, he is incredibly lucid, often about very complex things. For example, I felt I began to grasp for the first time what was actually going on to cause the Credit Crunch and how different people  responded. (As an endorsement of that, a good friend who is a banker read the relevant chapters, and was very impressed despite his scepticism at a political journalist being able to pull that off). So this is an excellent read and rich in political nous as well as information that at times verges on the gossipy. As a rank amateur, I would have thought that this was the ideal primer for any seeking to understand British politics of the last decade. So it is worth an extended post, not least because I’m in Albania for the next few days.

Character Insights

There are many things to pick out. But inevitably, here are a few. Here’s a moment worthy of satire, from early on in the Brown-Blair feud:

One negotiation [in 1994 around Granita] took place on the evening of John Smith’s funeral in the Edinburgh home of Nick Ryden, a friend of Blair since their schooldays at Fettes. When they turned up, Ryden could see how bad things were between them. ‘Don’t kill each other. You;’ve both got a lot to offer the country’ was his parting advice before he took himself off to the pub. Their arguing was interrupted at one point when Brown disappeared to use the lavatory. When time passed and he didn’t come back, Blair assumed that the other man had stormed off in one of his rages. Then he heard the phone ringing and a familiar Scottish voice growling into Ryden’s answering machine. Brown was calling on his mobile from the lavatory. The door handle had come off, imprisoning him in the loo. Blair picked up the phone: ‘Ill let you out Gordon, but only if you give me certain assurances about the leadership. (p59)

So much ink has been spilt about this relationship. And the grim news is that, according to Rawnsley (who canvassed politicians, party members, and even top civil servants), it was far worse than we ever knew. It’s extraordinary that Blair despite seeming to know what Brown would be like in power, out of guilt or whatever, he felt he couldn’t stop a coronation by insisting on an election for his successor. But those close knew exactly what was be coming.

This is a revealing paragraph about the side of Blair that has only become more noticeable in his post-Downing St years. He always had a concern to grasp the centre ground of politics, and this seems to revolve around his instinctive realisation that in order to gain power, Labour needed to understand middle class aspiration. For he certainly did – and both Blairs knew first hand what it was like to grow up with genuine money worries. It was no wonder that this affected him in later years.

As Prime Minister, he felt impecunious when in the company of the billionocracy. I once asked one of his intimates what lay at the root of the Blairs’ blind spot over money. ‘They spend too much time in the company of very rich people,’ she replied bluntly…

His sojourns with the rich and sometimes infamous did not make Blair happier. He would return from breaks in wealthy men’s villas to moan to his intimates about how it made him feel poor. Here he was, someone with all the responsibilities of leading a G8 nation, and yet he had little money compared with these billionaire businessmen and rock stars. The aides who were exposed to this whinging had a declining tolerance for it, not least because they, like most people, had to pay in full for their holidays. Braver members of his staff like Sally Morgan would respond to these outbursts of self-pity by reminding the Prime Minister that he was better off than most Britons and had gone into politics for public service, not to get rich enough to buy Caribbean hideaways, Tuscan villas and super-yachts. (p127)

As for his successor, life in Downing St under his regime became increasingly strained. The rumours of flying items of office furniture appear to be based on reality…

… Brown was so power-hugging. Geoff Hoon summarises it well: ‘one of the great ironies of Tony and Gordon is that both of them didn’t have any time for ministers. The difference is that Tony broadly let you get on with it. He wasn’t much interested unless something went wrong. In contrast, Gordon wants to interfere with everything. He’s temperamentally incapable of delegating responsibility. So he drives himself demented.’ (p523)

Genuine Successes

Rawnsley is far too careful a journalist to lambast and rant. And he is quite prepared to give credit where it’s due. To Brown, there is praise for some of the key decisions he took early on during the credit crunch (although there is resounding criticism for some of the things he did later on in the crisis). If that was GB’s high point, Northern Ireland seems to have been TB’s. There are a few interesting comments along the way, but I was very struck by this one: Read more »

1
Sep

Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 24 (September 2010)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

  • Check out what remains of Hobbiton in New Zealand (HT 22Words)
  • In case you missed it, one of the best newspaper photo captions of all time (click for full article in Metro):

1
Aug

Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 23 (August 2010)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

5
Jul

That peculiar spawn of postmodernism: The Conspiracy Theory

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.

A Catholic Cover-up at Rennes-le-Chateau

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.

Pierre Plantard (a self-confessed hoaxer)

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)

Cui bono?

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)

Gore Vidal

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)

Conspiracy Commonalities

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)

Read more »

1
Jul

Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 22 (July 2010)

Sacred Treasure

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

9
May

Lib/Con pact – combined threats or neutralised threats?


One of the neat, rehearsed lines Gordon Brown came out with at one of the leaders’ debates went something like this:

  • The Tories are a threat to our economy; the LibDems are a threat to our security.
  • The Tories will seriously damage our relationship with Europe; the LibDems will seriously damage our relationship with the United States.

It was total rhetorical exaggeration, of course. But the question now, I suppose, is if there is a Lib/Con pact, what will be the combined effect?

  • The Destruction option: TOTAL wipeout on our economy AND our security, offending EVERYONE from Brussels to Washington

OR

  • The Salvation option: Saved economy and security and UK remains friends with everyone forever

It would be lovely to have the latter – my deep suspicion is we could have the former.

In which case, the UK would probably just cease to exist…

8
May

The Frog: a suitable poem for a Hung Parliament

Having been up for much of Election night, i feel rather deflated at the outcome. My quote of the night came in the fairly early hours on the BBC from one of my favourite modern historians, Peter Hennessy (right)– his book The Prime Minister (the office and its holders since 1945) is a brilliant read. He called this the

Mick Jagger election: no satisfaction for anyone.

And in honour of that, I was musing on what to post. Then I remembered this an little rhyme, and feel that it does the job perfectly.

The Frog (by Anonymous)

What a wonderful bird the frog are
When he stand he sit almost;
When he hop he fly almost.

He ain’t got no sense hardly;
He ain’t got no tail hardly either.
When he sit, he sit on what he ain’t got almost.

4
May

The Mace: Losing it is NOT the end of the world!

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…

30
Apr

An election to lose?

It seems that the Governor of the Bank of England has sized up the situation and found everything wanting. Which leaves me wondering why anyone would want to win this election. The situation in the next few years is going to be grim. So whoever wins will have to make cuts so sweeping, and therefore unpopular, that they will end up being kept “out of power for a whole generation”.

John Naughton sums up the situation well with some scary stats.

Could this be why Labour strategists don’t seem to be so panic-stricken at languishing in 3rd place? They would then be able to dump Brown (whose fault everything would then obviously be) and could then look forward to a bright future having rebranded themselves as New New Labour.

On the other hand, if I were David Cameron, I’d be wondering whether or not the least bad option is to see a Lib-Lab pact forming the next government (while being able to claim the moral high ground of the Tories being the largest individual party) and then waiting for another General Election in a year or so (by which time things had become truly awful).

Unless of course the voting system is changed… In which case one would probably never again have a party with an overall majority.

I’m feeling rather doom-laden about it all as you can perhaps tell… And while last night’s debate was a bit (but only a bit) better than the previous ones, to my mind, I still think we have are all losers by having them, as I posted the other day.

23
Apr

Leaders’ Debate: Style and Substance – but is that really enough?

2 down, 1 to go. I can honestly say I don’t know who won last night’s UK Leaders’ debate. All 3 did ok, it seems to me. And as the pundits never tired of telling us, no one had a knock-out blow.

I’m just not sure of the point of a knock-out blow… nor whether or not I want to see one.

The spinners were out in force – hailing Gordon’s substance and decrying Nick and Dave’s style. Or vice-versa. Or mutatis mutandis. And of course, that’s what TV is all about. And we’re told that TV debates are here to stay. Ok – fine. But what scares me is that they have become the primary tool for attracting floating voters – as the LibDem surge has proven. That only came about because of the 1st debate.

You see, style and substance are in fact both TV concerns – unlike argument or policy detail. A TV debate can only really be about point-scoring and ya-boo politics. When the spinners said their man was the man of substance (in contrast to the superficial quality of style), what they were really saying was that their man came across as the man of substance. Which is neither here nor there, and which is in fact equally superficial. They were all playing that game, which is either only going to consolidate their supporters or convince the waverers by the most convincing impression.

None of it actually tells you anything about how they’d cope in a real crisis, whether or not they’d start flinging telephones at staff, or what their real, underlying agenda is (other than that they want power). And even when they did get onto policy, each had no more than a short paragraph to make their case, followed by little more than a ‘you’re wrong, I’m right’. Frankly, I cringed when each of them flung cheap gibes about the ‘other two’ – especially Brown’s ‘kids in the bath’ gag. It just depended up on who was ganging up on whom at the time. And as my mother always used to tell me: Two’s Company, Three’s A Crowd.

I’m not a luddite – I don’t reject change by default. I’m just feeling rather depressed about the impact of these debates.

Neil Postman was a bit of a prophet of doom when it came to TV – but he was right far more often than he was wrong. And here he is spot on:

Stated in its simplest form, it is that television provides a new (or, possibly, restores an old) definition of truth: the credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. ‘Credibility’ here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigours of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter.

If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude. I suspect, for example, that the dishonour that now shrouds Richard Nixon results not from the fact that he lied but that on television he looked like a liar. Which, if true, should bring no comfort to anyone, not even veteran Nixon-haters. For the alternative possibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying.

(Amusing Ourselves to Death, Methuen, 1987 reprint, p103)

18
Apr

The 1st Leaders’ Debate in seconds

very funny – and not 100% unfair

(HT PlayPolitical.com)

14
Apr

Thinking politics: some UK General Election suggestions

At last night’s ASLP prayer gathering, I did a little slot on the General Election. It seems to me that there are number of areas that should concern a responsible vote (by no means an exhaustive list and in no particular order):

  • Justice and fairness
  • Responsible borrowing and responsible prosperity
  • Punishment of evil and wrong-doing
  • Protecting the vulnerable
  • Combating hatred and extremism
  • Good stewardship of all God’s provisions
  • Trustworthiness and integrity of candidates

A verse that should certainly underpin Christian civic duty which should inform how we vote (even if the verse’s original readers never had the privilege), beautifully summing up what it means (in Peter’s words) to be servants of God:

1 Peter 2:17

Show proper respect to everyone:

  • LOVE the brotherhood of believers
  • FEAR God
  • HONOUR the king.

Various people have coming up with election guides and the like (one or two I’ve nicked from The Simple Pastor) – but for what it’s worth, here is a little summary to help guide how to follow these principles in your vote.

Why Vote?

Voter Resources

  • BBC has loads of great stuff
  • The Power of your Vote – work out how powerful your vote is in your constituency (based on marginality, size and boundary changes). A few friends have played around with this – it’s quite fun though actually I’m not 100% convinced. If you check out the power of those in the most marginal of seats (acc to the BBC site above), it comes up with some pretty odd answers. Still, it might help you if you want to vote tactically. Mine is worth only 0.092 compared to the no 1 slot held by Arfon at 1.308!!
  • Christians and Candidates 2010 – news of various hustings that churches and Christian groups are holding in the next few weeks. It also includes a brief summary of individual MPs’ voting records on a number of a red flag issues (though some will question why some issues and not others are included).
  • The Public Whip – if you want a more thorough listing of voting records and other parliamentary stats, this is a really useful site.
  • Vote for policies not for personalities – find out who you really should be voting for.

Comment

  • Soul Politics – some very sensible and insightful stuff here…
25
Feb

Vote! Making the Cross count

I was asked by some friends at CARE to plug this, and I was very happy to do so. A great way to combat to prevailing political apathy. It’s a great website – a really good starter pack – and of course the campaign name’s play on words is a nice one…

Here is the blurb they’ve sent about it:

Make The Cross Count 2010 features a range of resources that will help equip Christians to actively participate in the forthcoming General Election. The policy issues that will be covered in detail are the ones CARE has policy experience in, however we will have a My Manifesto section which will include policy suggestions from various church leaders, theologian and public intellectuals, written in non-technical language. Once the election campaigns get going in earnest, we will be updating the site with content just like a blog, with comment features and so on…

The site includes the following:

  • A hustings guide: This guide contains everything you need to know to organise a successful hustings in your local constituency.
  • My Manifesto Project: Christian leaders and thinkers explain what policy issues they would like to see in a party manifesto.
  • Faith and politics bible studies: An excellent resource for individuals or small groups
  • Policy papers: Researched and written by CARE’s public affairs team these provide an overview of key policy areas and help Christians think through the issues.

We are also on twitter: @careorguk

4
Apr

When a trillion really is worthless (or will be, sooner than you think)

1 trillion is a big number. And it’s making big news in G20 circles. Of course, we’re all very pleased and happy as it’s going to save the world, thanks to Messrs Brown and Obama. Hurrah for them. Trillions really are the new billions, it seems.

But spare a thought for ordinary Zimbabweans. Where a trillion really isn’t what it once was. Nor for that matter, is 100 trillion Zim dollars…

The exchange rate currently (but probably meaninglessly) stands at £1 = Z$55 million. So this not is in itself worth £1.8 million. But they’ve presumably printed them because they expect it to be enough to buy a loaf of bread next month.

Check out these ingenious adverts for The Zimbabwean newspaper (strapline: a voice for the voiceless) – they’re printed on actual Zim dollars – to show how worthless they have become. It’s cheaper to do that than buy printing paper. See other examples at their Flickr page. It is a courageous, but necessary stand – the injustices of the situation reinforced by the fact that Mugabe recently celebrated with another lavish birthday party.

6
Feb

Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 5 (Feb 2009)

Sacred Treasure

  • Fantastic archive of Don Carson mp3s going back years.
  • Because this is STILL rumbling on, especially now that Christians are going for a more in your face version, here, in case you missed it, a nice little piece from Theos on why the ATHEISM bendy bus adverts are quite a good thing! I have to say that I don’t find the tone of the Christian response very helpful or charitable and completely agree with Dave Keen here (HT to him for this nice development of the theme below)

 

Topical Treasure

Quirky Treasure

  • Check out Roger Ebert’s hilarious glossary of Movie Terms – full of insights about pervasive movie clichés.
  • DORD: a classic dictionary error – but then as Gove commented, why shouldn’t it mean ‘density’?!
  • Some fascinating church architecture with 20 Unusual Churches here and and 20 More Unusual churches here.
  • Measuring Worth – a cunning site for working out currency equivalents – especially interesting for checking out how much the £ over the last 800 years of British history is with in modern terms. (HT – Andrea Clarke at the British Library)
20
Jun

The politics of obesity? Hurd on Peel and Now

Have been reading Douglas Hurd’s weighty but impressive bio of Sir Robert Peel (UK Prime Minister for 6 months in 1834-1835 and then 1841-1846) – full of anecdotes and interest about a man who is much maligned but arguably the first modern Prime Minister in that he came to power as the result, not of the monarch’s whim, but the popular (albeit limited) vote.

Was struck by a number of things. In the years after the first great reforms of the House of Commons and talking about the state of UK politics in the year that Peel became Prime Minister for the second time, Hurd picks up the contrast with how things are today:

Perhaps we can take one last, almost nostalgic look back at the 1841 election. It is easy to stress the narrow electorate, the inconsistency of the argument, the noisy confusion of the hustings, and the strong grip which traditional influences still held on much of the reformed electorate. But these were genuine local contests which produced robust argument and definite results. Events showed that those elected were very conscious of the particular pledges which they had given. These men were elected as individuals to a Parliament composed of individuals. They carried a party badge, but thought of party discipline as secondary to local interests and their own views.

In the last century and a half, this local and individualized character of a Member of Parliament has been largely squeezed out of elections. Those of us who care to do so wearily elect a homogenised House of Commons, voting for candidates who are trained and equipped to say the same things wherever they stand, as if Cornwall was the same as Carlisle, Wigan identical to Witney. The individual canvass is now usually a token affair, designed to produce a photograph or a local story. The excitement of the hustings has gone/ The habit of holding village and ward meetings has in most places evaporated. Political colour has vanished from gardens and windows. We are now encouraged to vote inertly by post. These are the politics of obesity. We can sit at home without being required to visit a polling station, let alone trundle in a coach or on horseback across half a county to cast a public vote in front of a cheering or jeering crowd.

He has a point, although I’m relieved that we have moved on to secret ballots. But party machinery and the power of the whip, while necessary and unavoidable perhaps, have robbed politics of its interest and integrity (as well as obviously clipped the wings of the political mavericks and egomaniacs).

The thing that Peel is most attacked for (and was as a result often accused of being a rat in his lifetime) is that he CHANGED HIS MIND in public. 3 things in particular:

  • He changed from being an opposer of constitutional reform to being in favour of some reform (through his famous Tamworth Manifesto)
  • He changed from being a strict defender of Protestant political supremacy (while Chief Secretary in Ireland – to the extent that his nickname was ‘Orange Peel’) to advocating and helping to bring about Catholic emancipation (ie Catholics could be elected to Parliament)
  • He changed from being a protectionist to advocating total repeal of the Corn Laws (partly because of the tragedy of the Irish Potato Famine).

Well this reminded me of a brilliant cartoon I saw recently. It speaks for itself:

_________________________

Very helpful review of the book by Ferdinand Mount in the TLS.

27
Apr

Political successors follow up

This story will run and run and who knows how fair or not it is. But an interesting follow up to my post from 22nd April is John Naughton’s comments about an article in the Observer. This was the report from the Guardian:

Gordon Brown’s leadership was in turmoil last night after claims that Tony Blair does not believe he is capable of beating David Cameron and winning the next election.

The humiliating charge from Blair’s former fundraiser and confidant Lord Levy came as Labour MPs pleaded for Brown to stay away from the campaign trail in this week’s critical London mayoral elections for fear of wrecking Ken Livingstone’s chances. Levy’s intervention will confirm fears that Brown is becoming an electoral liability.

Even though Blair last night issued a statement categorically denying the claims and insisting he did believe Labour could win under his successor, there was consternation in Downing Street.

In his memoirs, serialised today in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, Levy writes that Blair ‘told me on a number of occasions he was convinced Gordon “could never beat Cameron”‘.