Thursday 31 December 2009

The paradoxes of Rational Dissent

I listened to a particularly good edition of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time on Radio 4 today. The subject was Mary Wollstonecraft and one of the contributors was Barbara Taylor, author of one of my favourite books of 19th century social history (see this post). Taylor and the other participants made much of Wollstonecraft's debt to the tradition of Rational Dissent, and the importance of her time living and working in Newington Green, then a hub of religious and political freethinking.

It's a milieu that continues to fascinate me on a number of levels. I suppose my interest in the period and its politics was first sparked by the writings of E.P.Thompson (see this post), but then in the 1980s I found myself working on a community project in Stoke Newington, and I spent many lunchtimes wandering around the area, trying to detect traces of its radical past among the Turkish cafes and Caribbean grocery shops.

My interest has been intensified by recent researches into my family history. One of my great grandfathers on my mother's side was named after a noted leader of Rational Dissent (I won't say which one, or it might compromise my already fragile anonymity) - by his Baptist shoemaker father, who lived for a while very close to the Dissenting Academy and chapel in Hackney (though I've yet to find any firm evidence of involvement in either radical religion or radical politics). On my father's side of the family, by contrast, I've discovered an ancestor who was a Scottish clergyman and minor poet who wrote verses warning against the evils of Jacobinism.

My university English studies were heavily constrained by the dual influences of Leavis and modernism, and carefully avoided any protracted engagement with Romanticism: we skipped straight from the Metaphysicals and early 18th century to the late Victorians. H, my partner, studied at a different university and under different critical influences, and was a persuasive partisan for the Romantics when I met her. I think she's converted me, though it's the political and social ferment of the period (especially the 1790s) that fire my imagination as much as its literature.

One of my Christmas presents this year was a new biography of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, an almost forgotten figure of Rational Dissent, but one who is at last being rediscovered. My other reading at the moment is around American revolutionary history (over the holiday I've been enjoying David McCullough's gripping biography of John Adams, and I've another volume about Jefferson lined up to follow it), a context where the influence of Rational Dissent - 'reasonable religion' - was of course profound.

But Rational Dissent arouses contradictory feelings in me. In political terms, it was obviously a 'good thing'. Without it, we probably wouldn't have had the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, and political reform (eventually) in Britain. But spiritually, it seems to represent a dead end. Unitarian services were noted for their high-mindedness, but they singularly failed to attract a following outside the educated and prosperous middle classes (which is one reason I remain sceptical about my impoverished shoemaking ancestor's involvement in the movement). The forms of Christianity that packed in the urban masses in Victorian England were Methodist revivalism on the one hand (another ancestor of mine worked for the Wesleyan East End Mission) and ritualistic Anglo-Catholicism on the other.

I've only ever been to one Unitarian service - a wedding. Lovely people - but I hated the service, with its utter lack of mystery and ritual, in which the participants seemed to make up the order of service as they went along. Unitarianism seems to make the common error of middle-class liberals in mistaking an emphasis on individualism and informality for real radicalism.

Inevitably, for many 18th and 19th century radicals, Unitarianism or Rational Dissent represented a halfway house on the road to scepticism and atheism. But would they have been such a powerful influence for progress without their belief in a Supreme Being guiding the world towards enlightenment?

Thursday 24 December 2009

Last posting day for Christmas

Time to sign off for a few days, with a couple of pictorial reminders of places we've visited during the year. First, Val d'Orcia in Tuscany, where we spent two weeks in the summer: this picture was taken from Pienza at Christmas time. And second, the west wing of the White House, which we saw during our trip to Washington in October, blanketed in snow last week. Happy holidays.

Brooks and Dionne on Niebuhr and Obama

Regular readers (and I know there are one or two of you) will be aware that, despite its generally (if sometimes uneasy) secularist outlook, a constant concern of this blog been the apparent disappearance from public view of thoughtful, engaged religious faith. I’ve often bemoaned the tide of militant anti-secularism that seems to have engulfed the religious establishment and tried to do my own humble bit to revive dialogue between faith and the secular. A related concern of mine has been the decline of the Christian Left, in the wake of renascent reaction on the one hand and the capitulation of religious radicals to the manichaeism of the pseudo-left on the other.

Just occasionally, though, I’ll come across signs that all is not lost. Here’s an excellent example: a discussion between the devout Catholic and political liberal E.J.Dionne, and Jewish conservative David Brooks – about the legacy and contemporary relevance of 20th century Protestant theologian and political activist Reinhold Niebuhr. The discussion was prompted in part by the election of Barack Obama, apparently an admirer of Niebuhr. It was recorded some months before Obama’s recent Nobel acceptance speech, in which a number of commentators noticed a distinctly Niebuhrian perspective on war, peace and America’s role in the world. Of additional interest to me was the fact that the recording took place in Georgetown, where we were staying just a couple of months ago: a happy memory in an otherwise difficult and traumatic year.

The conversation ranges over foreign policy, American exceptionalism, the nature of liberalism and conservatism, pluralism, and the role of religion in public life - but without any of the sloganeering and position-taking that characterises so much discussion of these issues. The tone is good-humoured and eminently civilised - to my surprise, I actually found myself warming more to the conservative Brooks than the liberal Dionne.

I have to confess to only a limited acquaintance with Niebuhr’s work – and then only indirectly, initially through his influence on the later Auden (one of the subjects of my long-forgotten PhD thesis), and more recently via the writings of Jean Bethke Elshtain, who has a brief walk-on part in this broadcast. However, since watching this debate, I’ve placed The Irony of American History in my Amazon basket – awaiting a time when when my bank balance is back in credit after the Christmas blow-out.

From what I understand of his theological and philosophical ideas, I'm not sure I'd be a full-throated Niebhurian - temperamentally, I'm probably more of a Thomist optimist than an Augustinian pessimist. But it sounds like his political perspective might have much to contribute to current debates: I like to think that if he were alive today, Niebuhr would be a paid-up Eustonite and member of the decent Left.

(The video sometimes takes a while to load. If you have trouble, you can also view it here).

Saturday 19 December 2009

Me, my son and Joe Lieberman

My sixteen year old son and I have been having daily disagreements about the progress of health care reform in the US. He takes his political views from the Young Turks and, if we lived in America, would probably be a paid-up member of Move My son thinks the White House isn’t doing enough to push through progressive change, while I still trust Obama’s political instints to get the best deal in difficult circumstances. Or to put it another way: he’s a young idealist, while I’ve become a stodgy middle-aged pragmatist.

One area where we can find common ground, though, is in our contempt for Joe Lieberman. Michael Tomasky is surely right that there’s something wrong with a political system where 60 votes – or three fifths of all senators - are regularly required to end the debate and move to a final vote. As Michael says:

Getting those 57th, 58th, 59th and 60th votes to end debate … Well, the situation gives those senators incredible bargaining power. They can basically dictate terms in exchange for their votes.

Which is exactly what the independent senator from Connecticut has been doing these past few weeks. That one senator could hold the future of health care for millions of Americans in his hands is surely a cause for concern, and it threatens to make a nonsense of the overwhelming democratic vote that swept Barack Obama to power last year.

But of course this is not just any senator - certainly not one who could be seen as heroically resisting change out of deeply-held political idealism. This is, after all, the turncoat who campaigned against his own party's candidate for president, endorsing not only a supposedly 'moderate' Republican but also his reactionary-populist running mate. Not only that: Lieberman has been described as an 'insurance puppet' because of the huge funding support he's received from the health insurance industry. And as I mentioned in this post, he also took generous campaign contributions from the right-wing Contra-supporting Cuban American National Foundation and its godfather Jorge Mas Canosa. Some liberal.

In short (and I apologise for the unseasonal sentiment), Lieberman sucks. Or to continue with the puppetry theme: maybe that should be socks:

An uneasy atheist at Christmas

This is a dangerous time of year for uneasy atheists and agnostics, especially those whose uneasy relationship is with the Christian tradition. And even more especially for those of us who, although no longer active believers, still experience that occasional, discomforting twitch upon the thread.

Dangerous because, speaking personally, it’s the time of year when faith seems most alluring, and unbelief least appealing. For the first two or three decades of my life, Christmas was the apex, the fulcrum of the year. Christmas Eve, in particular, always felt like the still and silent point of the year, when the world seemed hushed and the veil between the material and the spiritual was at its thinnest. I still feel (or yearn to feel) something of that quiet mystery, but lack the objective correlative of actual faith to make sense of it.

The late Alistair Cooke, when interviewing Philip Larkin, discovered that, convinced unbelievers though they were, both kept up the tradition of listening to the whole of Handel’s Messiah each Christmas. So do I. Not to mention Benjamin Britten’s starkly beautiful Ceremony of Carols, and a few other seasonal favourites with deeply personal associations. And at 3 o’clock on Christmas Eve afternoon, I annoy everyone by insisting on complete hush in the house while I tune into Radio 4, as the young chorister at Kings’ College launches haltingly into the first verse of ‘Once in Royals David’s City’: the unmistakable sign that another Christmas has begun.

Later in the afternoon, as it’s getting dark, we’ll pile into the car and make our way into town against the stream of returning last-minute shoppers, for the crib service at the main Anglican church – something we’ve done since the children were very small. Some years, it’s the only church service I’ll attend, and I know that’s true for most of the other families we see there every year. It’ll be our chance to renew acquaintance with some of the carols we grew up singing, and I’ll probably get a lump in my throat if they choose 'O Little Town of Bethlehem', my childhood favourite.

Is all of this just seasonal infantile nostalgia, or evidence of a genuine yearning for something more than the secular world-view that’s sufficient to keep me going, most days, for the rest of the year? And a propos of these posts, is this kind of attraction to the rituals of faith, however sporadic, itself the beginning of faith (if Karen Armstrong is right, and faith is more about performance than assent to propositions), or does it remain empty and unreal if, despite the aesthetic and emotional allure, the propositional content of faith still seems, literally, beyond belief?

Who knows?

At least atheists of the less-uneasy and more convinced kind can find meaning of an altogether different kind in Christmas, as in this touching song by Tim Minchin, which I came across thanks to Andrew:

But uneasy unbelievers like me still feel the annual pull of something more - the tug of transcendence - and are suckers for stuff like this:

Happy holidays.

Monday 14 December 2009

Where's the internet?

Another normlink: the always spot-on South Park imagines a world without the internet. I watched the clip with a shudder of recognition. We experienced a brief broadband outage of our own recently, and we were that family. Even worse: that panicked, powerless and ridiculous-looking dad in a dressing-gown - that was me.

Where is the Internet? - Click here for more amazing videos

Saturday 12 December 2009

Noams and Norms

Here's the ideal festive present for your pseudo-leftist friends: a Gnome Chomsky, or if you prefer, a Garden Noam. Other punning products on sale at the same site include meditating Garden 'OMs'.

Thanks to normblog for the link. Of course, what members of the decent left would really like to receive this holiday season is a Garden Norm...

Thursday 10 December 2009

Amanda Knox is almost certainly innocent

That's the view put forward by columnists in The Times and The Guardian this week. According to Alex Wade, writing in the former:
This is a young woman preparing to spend the next 26 years behind bars, whose case, had it been brought in Britain, would never have reached court. If by some cruel miracle a British judge had found himself presiding over 12 good men and true, whose task it was to determine whether Knox was innocent of Kercher’s murder, it is inconceivable that he would not have made strong, telling directions to acquit.
Then why was she convicted? Wade puts it down to sexism, plain and simple: 'In a trial where the evidence has struggled even to reach the realm of the circumstantial, Knox has been demonised for being a sexually active woman.' And he concludes: 'It is a tragedy that Italy — which [...] played a key role in the development of Western jurisprudence — should stand by as so chilling a blend of sexism and injustice wreaks havoc.'

On the other hand, for US crime writer Douglas Preston, writing today in The Guardian, this apparent miscarriage of justice is all about preserving the reputations of corrupt and self-serving prosecutors. Preston alleges that Amanda Knox's initial interrogation was a travesty, in which she was tricked (and possibly beaten) into signing a confession she hardly understood:
I have read those statements. They are written in perfect, idiomatic, bureacratic 'police jargon' Italian. It is difficult to imagine that a foreign student, who had been in Italy for just two months, would have understood what those statements said, let alone made them herself.
And he accuses Italian police of declaring the case closed, and treating Amanda Knox and her boyfriend Raffaele Solicito as convicted criminals, before they had even come to trial: 'With Knox and Sollecito locked up, the police threw all their resources into retroactively gathering the evidence to prove them guilty.' Then, despite the fact that defence lawyers painstakingly demolished every shred of evidence against them in court, and firmly believed they had won the day, the jury found the pair guilty. Why?
I posed this question to my most knowledgeable contact in Italy, a highly connected person who knows whereof he speaks. Here is his opinion: 'This verdict had nothing to do with the actual evidence. It's all about la faccia, face. They had to convict her. Now, with the conviction, everyone has saved face, the judiciary, the prosecutors and police have been vindicated. There will be an appeal and she will be acquitted, and that will be done to satisfy the Americans. Then everybody will be happy. Of course, Amanda and Raffaele will be in prison for another two years, but that's a small matter compared to the careers of so many important people.'
That's justice in Berlusconi's Italy.

[A trivial aside: I tried linking to Douglas Preston's article, which I read in the G2 section of today's print edition, but despite my best efforts I can't find it on the Grauniad website. It's not the first time this has happened: it may look pretty, but the paper's site must be one of the most frustrating to search, and there's often a strange disconnect between print and online editions. Inputting 'Amanda Knox' only brought up days-old articles, while typing 'Douglas Preston' threw up stories in which that particular Christian name had occurred in conjunction with the Lancashire town. On the other hand, when I searched The Times website, Wade's piece came up first time.]

No relief from belief

A propos of my discussion the other week of performative versus propositional views of faith: Troy Jollimore has written an excellent review of (and riposte to) Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Here he is summing up Armstrong's sleight-of-hand claim that religion isn't really about 'belief':

Pointing out that sacred texts are not meant to be read literally, then, is not enough. Armstrong’s more radical strategy is to de-emphasize the role of belief in religious life altogether: Practice, she writes, is more important than belief, and we misunderstand references to “belief” in the Bible, the Quran and elsewhere if we interpret them in accordance with our modern understanding of belief. (The correct sense, she writes, has more to do with “ ‘trust,’ ‘loyalty,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘commitment.’ ”) Critics who focus on the absurdity or implausibility of so many religious beliefs, then, or on the fact that religion encourages people to accept these beliefs uncritically and to hold them in the face of any countervailing evidence, are missing the point: It isn’t believing certain things but rather living a certain sort of life that makes a person religious.

Jollimore's response:

One might well worry, though, that it is not as easy as Armstrong assumes to separate belief from action or practice. Indeed all intentional voluntary action presupposes some set of beliefs. Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved more than “mere” belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient. What must be shown is that religion does not involve belief, and not merely that it involves other things in addition to belief. So long as religious worldviews differ in certain important ways from that held by the nonreligious, one can still complain that that worldview is poorly founded and, to a large degree, implausible.


If you want to read the whole review, which includes a nice distinction between apophaticism and subjectivism, you can find it here. Via Ophelia, Russell and Jerry, each of whom adds interesting comments of their own.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Leith links

As a person of Scottish descent, I managed to resist the siren call of
Homecoming Scotland for most of 2009 - and I still haven't visited the Aberdeenshire home of my distant ancestors. However, my day job has meant me spending time north of the border recently - in the fascinating borough of Leith (whatever you do, don't call it a suburb of Edinburgh), where multiple layers of history, culture and migration remain visible, and medieval lanes and Victorian municipal monuments jostle alongside renovated warehouses and spanking new housing developments.

Time, then, for a shout-out to a few of the town's excellent and incredibly civilised cafés, which have made my visits all the more pleasant. I was going to recommend La Cerise, an attractive patisserie and coffee shop right in the middle of Great Junction Street, but unfortunately they were flooded out last week and won't be open again until the New Year. Instead, you could try Café Truva, a cosy Turkish / Mediterranean cafe right on the shore, overlooking the old dockside. Even better, linger awhile at The Water of Leith on Coburg Street, where you'll be assured of great food, an art gallery, free wi-fi and a warm welcome.

I'm looking forward to my next visit.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Eh oh

This'll make a change from all the religion and politics...

Last week I heard Simon Mayo interviewing Andrew Davenport, the creative genius behind those contemporary classics of children's television Teletubbies and In The Night Garden, who has finally begun to emerge from behind his puppets and receive some of the recognition he deserves (it was the second BBC interview with him I’d heard in the past month).

Davenport’s creations hold a special place in the hearts of anyone who was a young child (or a parent of young children) in Britain in the Nineties or early Noughties. Our own children were born in the mid-Nineties, so for them (and us) Andrew will always be, first and foremost, the voice of Tiny from Tots TV. And the question I’d ask him if I was conducting the interview would be: how on earth did someone with such a deeply resonant voice achieve the high-pitched tones of that anarchic green-haired puppet?

Everyone now associates Davenport with Teletubbies, not surprisingly since it was the first of his creations for Ragdoll to gain international recognition. (On a serious note for a moment: John Bayley informs us that, once her dementia set in, Teletubbies was the only TV programme that gave Iris Murdoch any pleasure.) But Tiny and Tom, with their echoes of Laurel and Hardy and the Marx brothers (with the French-speaking Tilly their Margaret Dumont?), are surely one of the great comic partnerships. And for all the simple, wordless brilliance of Davenport's later productions, it's a shame he no longer has the scope to deploy the knockabout verbal wit he showed in the scripts for some of those earlier shows. If you don't believe me (and you've got a few minutes to spare) take a look at this clip, but make sure you watch it through to the end:

Our shelves also contain dusty, worn-out VHS tapes of some of Davenport’s other early programmes, such as Brum and Rosie and Jim. What's more, living as we did in the Midlands when our children were young, we made frequent trips to the Ragdoll shop (sadly, no longer there) in Stratford-on-Avon. Once, we even saw the actual Rosie and Jim barge tied up on the river outside the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Now here’s my bid for Pseuds' Corner. If Tots TV - full of eccentric wit, but retaining a conventional narrative structure and recognisable characters - was Andrew Davenport's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then maybe the more symbolic and mythopoeic Teletubbies is his Ulysses, and In the Night Garden, with its dreamy, half-conscious associative technique, his Finnegan's Wake. Or maybe Teletubbies is Davenport's Waste Land and In the Night Garden his Four Quartets?

I should stop now...

Thursday 3 December 2009

The blinkered vision of the 'post' left

A couple of interesting pieces about anti-imperialism and the myopia of the modern left:

First, Michael Tomasky on the 'fatuous gas' of Michael Moore's open letter to President Obama 'about America, Afghanistan and empire', in which the film-maker repeats the lazy trope about US involvement repeating mistakes made by Britain and Russia:

I really don't see what America's mission in Afghanistan has to do with what the British did or what the Soviets did. People love lazy historical parallels, and have a tendency to have over-learned the famous Santayana maxim and believe that invoking it makes them sound smart. But every historical situation is different. Why wouldn't someone with Moore's lefty politics be righteous in the conviction that we owe it to the Afghan people to try to help them establish a proper nation-state for the first time in their history?

And in response to this from Moore - 'Stop the insane idea that men with guns can reorganize a nation that doesn't even function as a nation and never, ever has' - Tomasky writes:

That sentence of Moore's [...] is pretty condescending, isn't it? It's never been a nation, isn't now, and (implied) never will be. Ain't our problem. Well, I think it is our problem. It's true that some places and peoples on this earth just get dealt a bad hand. Afghanistan, with no ports or water access and an impossible terrain, is one of those places. It's always going to be poor. But it can adopt the structures of a functioning society. Having invaded it, we ought to try to help it, not just throw up our hands and say forget about it.

Tomasky interprets Moore's position as symptomatic of the political tunnel vision of many on the modern left:

Anyway, this is the thing about the left, at least of Moore's generation. The anti-imperialist reflex -- the tendency and sometimes even eagerness to see America as an empire bent on imperial designs and dominance -- always trumps everything else.

Along similar lines, here's Joshua Leach writing about the work of postcolonial critic Ashis Nandy (via B&W):

Had William Hazlitt written his essay “On Persons with One Idea” today, he would surely have found room for the field of postcolonial studies. It is a field with only one idea: namely, that imperialism and racism are such dominant features of modern life, and had such a foundational role in the construction of our present society, that they inform every aspect of our ideas, culture, and history. Postcolonialism is, in theory, anti-hierarchical and anti-oppressive. But because it has only one idea, it can easily become oppressive in practice, and to quite a large extent.

I recommend reading the whole article: it carefully takes apart the hoary myth that liberal universalism is nothing more than a cover for western imperialism, and highlights the logical contradiction of criticising the evils of imperialism from a standpoint of cultural relativism, in the belief that 'egalitarian ideologies, the ideals of democracy and human rights [are] mere hierarchies and oppressions in disguise'. As Leach writes:

But how does one know that such hierarchies are reprehensible if equality is not a goal? If egalitarian ideologies, democracy, and self-government are not legitimate ideals, why should it be the case, as Nandy maintains, that imperialism is so wrong?

Like Tomasky, Leach points to the dangers of the single-minded focus on imperialism by the post-colonialist, post-modern left:

What is important to realize, however, is that imperialism is not the only evil in the world, even though it is a serious one. The failure to see this rather elementary fact characterizes a great deal of postcolonial scholarship. One must avoid imperialism, but one must not be so desperately fearful of intervening in other countries that one seals off the victims of cruelty within their respective nations and refuses to promise aid.

The danger of this position, of course, is that self-proclaimed progressives end up endorsing the most reactionary social movements in the name of anti-imperialism:

Nandy is tempted, thanks to the entire spirit of postcolonialism, to attribute all of the world’s evils to imperialism. And because of this, he ends up tacitly condoning all of the world’s injustices which predate imperialism, such as patriarchy, religious intolerance, and the violence of tradition. Given Nandy’s personal views in his public life, he would no doubt be shocked to be accused of defending such things. But he has in fact fallen victim to the postcolonial trap: he has focused so exclusively on one injustice—imperialism—that he has rendered himself inured to all the other injustices in the world which are also crying out for redress.