Saturday 28 May 2011

Something for the weekend

Some gentle jazz to wake up to (very slowly), on this overcast Bank Holiday Saturday. A beautiful version of Caetano Veloso's 'Dom de iludir', by Stefano Bollani (piano), Jesper Bodilsen (double bass) and Morten Lund (drums).


Friday 27 May 2011

Taliban tactics in Tower Hamlets

I’m not sure why I’ve been so affected by the story of Gary Smith, the east London RE teacher who was assaulted by four Islamic extremists because they disapproved of him teaching religion to Muslim girls. Perhaps it was the sheer ferocity of the attack, in which a Stanley knife, an iron rod and a block of cement were used, and which left Smith with a fractured skull and a permanently scarred face.

Maybe I was taken aback by the unexceptional nature of what this ordinary schoolteacher did to arouse such naked violence. It’s not entirely clear precisely what Azad Hussain, Akmol Hussein, Simon Alam and Sheikh Rashid found objectionable about Smith’s teaching: whether it was the fact that he presumed to talk about Islam when he’s not himself a Muslim, or that he was teaching religion in an open-minded way rather than in the form of indoctrination (one of the accused railed against him for ‘putting thoughts in people’s minds’), or simply that he was exposing young women to the same kind of curriculum that’s available to young men. Whichever it was, none of these things is unusual in the British education system, and Gary Smith was only doing what thousands of teachers up and down the country do every day.

Maybe it’s that sense of familiarity, the feeling that Gary Smith was viciously assaulted for doing the kind of things that I’ve done myself – that sickening sense that it could have been me – that’s got to me. After all, I used to work in the East End - not in schools, but in colleges and community education projects, with young men and women from a diversity of religious and ethnic backgrounds. Back then (in the ‘80s), it never occurred to me to censor what I taught for ‘religious’ reasons, or out of fear of some kind of jihadist blowback.

I felt another kind of familiarity, too, as I read the shocking reports of the attack on Gary Smith. The thugs who were convicted of the assault came from places - Shadwell, Mile End, Wapping, Whitechapel - that have a deep resonance for me. These were the places where my Georgian and Victorian ancestors lived, where they were born, baptised, married, and worked – as shoemakers, carpenters, labourers, clerks. Indeed, one of my great great grandfathers had a boot and shoe shop in Burdett Road, Mile End, where the attack took place. Many of my forebears were members of a religious minority, too – they were Baptists and Methodists, drawn to these London suburbs because they were tolerant of Dissenters – but I can’t imagine them beating up those who disagreed with their particular versions of Christianity.

Then again, perhaps this event stood out because of its striking similarity with another story that I read this week - about the murder by the Taliban of an Afghan headmaster, simply because he had the effrontery to teach girls in his school. The two accounts had much in common: there was the same warped sense of religious self-righteousness, the same absolute denial of equal rights to women and girls, the same murderous violence in the name of religion.  Suddenly those Daily Mail scare stories about the ‘London Taliban’ didn’t seem so off the wall.

Finally, I suppose I was left perplexed about what would – and should – be the response of liberals to this kind of incident. I imagine if there’d been an attack of similar ferocity by four EDL or BNP thugs, against a local imam or mosque instructor, say, then we would have seen (quite rightly) liberals and anti-racists mobilising and marching through the area in solidarity. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I don’t think we’ve seen anything of the kind in support of Gary Smith. Where is the outcry from the teaching unions against this assault on one of their number, simply for doing his job? Has anyone planned a march through Tower Hamlets in support of freedom of expression or the educational rights of young women?

Perhaps I’m expecting too much, and maybe I’m getting overly emotional about a rare and isolated incident. But then I read that, in the same part of east London, religiously-inspired anti-gay posters and threats against homosexuals are on the rise, as are the pressures on young women to ‘cover up’, and advertising hoardings have been routinely vandalised. I don’t live in the area, and I can no longer claim to know it well, and for all I know most teachers, gays, and women in Tower Hamlets still feel safe to go about their normal business, express their sexuality, and wear what they want, without fear of what happened to Gary Smith.

But if not, then it’s something the left ought to take seriously. It’s a good thing that liberals and anti-fascists line up with ordinary Muslims to protest against the intolerance of the EDL. But we shouldn’t forget that one of the reasons the EDL is able to gain traction is because of what people perceive, maybe unfairly, as the silence and habit of looking-the-other-way from the liberal establishment in the face of militant Islam. Let’s not forget that those who tried to silence Gary Smith, and those who threaten others because of their ideas, their gender or their sexuality, are fascists too - clerical fascists - and anti-fascists should as vehement and determined in condemning and campaigning against them as we are in opposing the EDL and the BNP.


This article is of related interest, though I don't agree with the author that it's all the fault of Labour, or that it's a symptom of the decline of Christianity.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Something for the weekend

What else, on this day of days?


Mind you, the problem with these fundamentalists is not that they know the Bible too well - it's that they don't know it well enough. Haven't they read Matthew 24.36? 'But of that day and hour no one knoweth, not the angels of heaven, but the Father alone.' (Douay-Rheims translation)

Thursday 19 May 2011

Closed conference

If you’d been in the San Francisco Bay Area last month, you might have been tempted to drop in on this event:

Or maybe not. A closer look at the conference programme would have given you pause. The event seems to have drawn its inspiration from a Huffington Post article by one M. J. Rosenberg, which ‘summed-up possibly for the first time and in clear fashion the primary motivations behind the increasing intensity of the Islamophobes’ campaign’. The programme note goes on:

Rosenberg's analysis makes a connection between domestic Islamophobia production and dissemination in the US and foreign policy objectives related to the Muslim world, which centers on fomenting hate and bigotry at home so as to create the needed condition for continued support of militarism and endless war abroad.

The organisers then make the following claim:

At present the airwaves, news, TV shows and centers of culture production are filled with Islamophobic content thus making racism directed at Muslims and Islam a fully sanctioned discourses [sic] affecting American Muslims as well as shaping foreign policy discourses.
In response to these developments, ‘the conference will seek to document the ideological, institutional and financial interests entangled in the production and dissemination of Islamophobic contents in the US and in Europe and exploring the primary desired outcomes, in the short and long terms.’

In other words, if it was an open-minded, diverse, academic exploration of the causes of anti-Muslim prejudice you were looking for – then think again. The organisers of this event had clearly made up their minds in advance, and their programme reads like a political manifesto rather than an academic prospectus. You can just tell there wouldn’t have been much point attending if, for example, you thought it was something of an overstatement to claim that the airwaves are 'filled with Islamophobic content' or if, whatever your opinion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you believed they were motivated by something other than hatred of Muslims. Or if you suspected that the very notion of ‘Islamophobia’ might have been dreamed up (‘produced’, to use the conference’s preferred jargon), or at the very least exploited, by fundamentalists seeking to constrain criticism of their beliefs.

Then again, your interest in attending this event might have been somewhat undermined by reading that ‘the conference will bring together researchers, academics, community advocates and representatives of the Organization of Islamic Conference’. Even if you knew nothing about the latter group, a quick Google search would have thrown up some rather worrying information: such as that its political headquarters is in Tehran, that a virulently antisemitic speech at one of its conferences received a standing ovation, and that this was the outfit that tried to persuade the UN to introduce a ‘defamation of religion’ law that would have effectively outlawed criticism of Islam. You might begin to wonder what a responsible academic institution, let alone one one with a 'liberal' reputation, was doing collaborating with an organisation of this nature.

And finally, you might question why a ‘Centre for Race and Gender’ was devoting its resources to an 'Islamophobia project' in the first place. Surely a more urgent priority would be to analyse the racism (antisemitism, repression of ethnic and religious minorities) and sexism (honour killings, forced marriage,  absence of civil rights for women) perpetrated in the name of Islam - which are arguably both more widespread and more deadly than the prejudices of supposed 'Islamophobes'?

All in all, this absurd conference is a striking illustration of a number of things that are wrong with the postmodern academic 'left'.  Firstly, there’s the ingrained habit of responding to any new development that doesn't fit its existing narrative - in this case, the growth of radical Islam - by looking studiously in the opposite direction. Secondly, and related to this, is the tendency to trace the blame for any problem in the world to the sins of the West, and the United States in particular: so it's our racism that's the cause of all these wars, not their terrorism. And thirdly, there's the temptation to see any anti-western movement - in this case the blatantly patriarchal, anti-free-speech OIC - as objectively progressive - as, in postmodern feminist Judith Butler's notorious phrase about Hamas and Hezbollah, 'part of the global left'.

Alan Johnson analysed this pseudo-leftist cast of mind earlier this week, in a post over at the World Affairs site:
After 1989, and especially after 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the old idea that Stalinism (its crimes notwithstanding) was objectively progressive against the West, morphed into the idea that all opposition to 'US imperialism' or 'Empire' was a 'resistance' or 'multitude' that must be (its crimes notwithstanding) supported, or at least not opposed energetically.
This pro-tyrant left thinks it holds the key to the entire world in the palm of its hand. If America is opposed to a tyrant, then—there is some dubious logic here, but this really is the crucial move—the tyrant must be opposing America. And—this is the last stretch, stay with me—therefore the tyrant is an 'anti-imperialist' and, objectively, 'progressive.'
The programme for the 'Islamophobia Production' conference' ends with this promise: 'The papers presented at the conference will be published in UC Berkeley’s Islamophobia Studies Journal inaugural edition Fall, 2011'. I can hardly wait. That a respectable university even publishes something called 'Islamophobia Studies' (do you think they have a parallel 'Islamist Studies' journal?) is yet anther symptom of the sorry decadence of the academic 'post-left'.

(H/T Martin Kramer via Facebook)

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Programmed to pray?

Spot the non-sequiturs in this story from last Thursday's Times (behind paywall):

Human beings are predisposed to believe in God and the afterlife, according to a study by academics at the University of Oxford.
The findings of a three-year, £1.9 million research project suggest that there is an inbuilt bias in the mind towards seeing the world in religious or spiritual terms. This means that public life will always have a strong religious dimension, and that religion will always have an impact on public life, the project leaders say.
 “It means you cannot separate religion and public life,” said Roger Trigg, a philosophy professor and co-director of the project. Professor Trigg, from the Ian Ramsey Centre in the Theology Faculty at Oxford, said: “The mind is open to supernatural agency. There are lots of explanations. It is certainly linked to basic cognitive architecture, in other words, the way we think.”

So, it appears researchers have discovered that humans have an innate predisposition towards religious belief. I’m not qualified to assess the validity of this finding. But I’m curious as to how this leads automatically to the conclusion that ‘religion will always have an impact on public life’. How on earth did 'public life' sneak in there?

The term is, of course, taken straight from the current highly-charged debates about the place of religion in society, and this is very much a political rather than a scientific claim. One of the tropes of anti-secularist discourse has been that secularists and atheists are actively seeking to exclude religion from ‘public life’, or from something called ‘the public square’. It’s become one of those truisms for which little evidence is ever produced. As Helena Kennedy said last week about the Coalition’s constant claim that the Labour government left the economy in a terrible mess, if you repeat something often enough, people will eventually come to believe it (even in the absence of evidence and argument), and it will become part of 'common sense'. In the religion and secularism debate, we're used to a variety of weary familiar tropes of this kind: so, the ‘new’ atheism is always ‘militant’, secularism essentially ‘aggressive’, and liberalism is just as ‘fundamentalist’ as some forms of religion.

Returning to the Oxford research: As Deborah Cameron said in a recent radio debate with Simon Baron-Cohen, about supposedly ‘inbuilt’ gender differences, it’s not that the findings of neuroscience are necessarily ‘wrong’, it’s rather that neuroscientists claim too much for them. They over-ambitiously seek to draw a straight line from some aspect of our biological make-up to attitudes and activities that are deeply embedded in human culture, society and history. Listening to researchers of this ilk (and despite its  theological patina, this research on religion is clearly making claims of a neuroscientific nature), you get the impression that thousands of years of history, social organisation and cultural development, not to mention philosophical reflection, count for nothing, and that our behaviour is directly determined by our genes or our brain cells, as if we lived in a laboratory rather than in complex, multi-layered human societies.

Professor Trigg almost concedes this:

He said that it was too simplistic to talk in terms of being “hard-wired” or “programmed” to believe in God, however. Environmental factors also applied, and humans were not naturally monotheistic. The supernatural instinct could manifest in polytheism or other belief systems as well. 

Well, it's a relief to learn that we're not all programmed to be Christians or Muslims. However, an implied admission of the project's hubris comes later:
The research has raised philosophical questions, such as why it is that if God does exist, he makes it so difficult for humans to believe in him or her. “It is not obvious,” Professor Trigg said. “Others might say it would be an encroachment on human freedom if we were too forced to believe in God.”
It’s not clear how an academic research project, even one lasting three years and costing nearly two million pounds, ever thought it was going to solve philosophical and theological problems that have mystified humankind for millenia.

As I say, I don't feel qualified (not being a neuroscientist) to evaluate the findings of these studies, but even a humble scholar of the humanities and social sciences like me can see that there might be a problem with aspects of their methodology. For example:

One study by Emily Reed Burdett and Dr Barrett at Oxford suggested that children below the age of five found it easier to believe in some superhuman properties than to understand similar human limitations. Children were asked whether their mother would know the contents of a box into which she could not see. Those aged three believed that their mother and God would always know the contents, but by the age of four many started to understand that their mothers were not all-seeing and all-knowing while continuing to believe in an all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agent such as God.

As every sociologist, or psychologist with an ounce of sociocultural awareness, will tell you, there's simply no way of identifying some 'instinctive' understanding of the world that precedes involvement in a social world of shared ideas and values. Even 'children under five' - especially those with the ability to understand and answer a researcher's questions - have acquired language, which comes imprinted with a mass of cultural assumptions.

This study begs as many questions as it answers. Where, we might ask, did these children derive their concept of 'God' as an 'all-seeing, all-knowing supernatural agent'? Are we supposed to believe that's 'inbuilt' too? 

One of the researchers involved in this particular study continued:

This project does not set out to prove God or gods exist. Just because we find it easier to think in a particular way does not mean that it is true in fact. If we look at why religious beliefs and practices persist in societies across the world, we conclude that individuals bound by religious ties might be more likely to co-operate as societies. Interestingly, we found that religion is less likely to thrive in populations living in cities in developed nations where there is already a strong social support network.

Or, one might add, where religious ideas have been challenged by science or bycompeting philosophies. Again, this supposed finding ignores cultural and social differences between societies and historical periods, in its overweening attempt to identify ahistorical, decontextualised commonalities, and thus to prove the universality - and universal usefulness - of religion.

None of which is to deny the legitimate role of faith in public life. But when religion is forced to fall back on arguments about the social value of faith, rather than attempting to prove its truthfulness, and when theology turns to neuroscience to support its claims, it's a sign of weakness rather than strength, and of desperation rather than confidence.

Saturday 14 May 2011

The week in links

Here’s a few things you might have missed.

Just when you thought the Iranian regime couldn't get any more bizarre and irrational, there’s a report that, in the ongoing power struggle in the theo-fascist state, some of Ahmadinejad's cronies might be charged with sorcery. More seriously, Michael Weiss reports on the death of a prominent Iranian dissident, driven to suicide after years of harassment by the regime. Meanwhile, there are disturbing new revelations about the government’s abuse of its political prisoners, including the systematic use of sexual violence. All of which must worry the friends of al Jazeera journalist Dorothy Parvez, deported by the Syrian regime into the hands of its friends in Tehran, and who hasn’t been heard from since.

Talking of Syria and Iran: there's a great interview here with Michael J. Totten about his new book on Lebanon, The Road to Fatima Gate. Asked when he thinks things will start to improve in the region, Totten is blunt: only when there's a change of regime in Damascus and Tehran.

On the topic of terrorism, Hitch is rightly scornful of Noam Chomsky’s predictable response to the death of bin Laden, while Claire Berlinski posts a reminder of the atrocities 'committed or inspired by' the al Qaeda leader, lest we're tempted to get too sentimental about his despatch.

As for fellow-travellers with terror, CagePrisoners demonstrate yet again why Gita Sahgal was right to protest at Amnesty's relationship with the organisation, as it publishes a grotesque response to the operation in Abbotabad. And over at the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin lifts the lid on Moazzam Begg and his dubious crew.

Another great column from Hitch (long may he flourish): reviewing Rosa  Luxemburg's letters, and musing on how different history might have been, had her vision of socialism won out against the Leninist version. And on the subject of insurrectionary leftists, Julie Burchill is in blistering form, attacking the 'Toytown Trots' who think smashing shop windows is a revolutionary act, as well as the use of similar bullying tactics against Ahava for selling Israeli goods, so that ' we have now seen the first forced closure of a Jewish shop for QUITE A LONG TIME - give yourself a pat on the back for carrying on Hitler's work so well, gang!'

Finally, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? David Allen Green shines a light on the secretive internal operations of that apparent champion of openness, Wikileaks. Which gives me an excuse to post this video, just found via the Henry Jackson Society, in which Douglas Murray, founder of the excellent Centre for Social Cohesion and now associate director of the even more admirable HJS, takes down Julian Assange. It should be watched by all who are still tempted to think of Wikileaks as some kind of pure and untainted crusader for civil liberties:

Politics on TV: US vs UK

Speaking of the Wedding

A couple of days before the big event, my son and I happened to be in central London, and we made a special detour to Trafalgar Square, to take a peek at the temporary studio set up by the American cable channel MSNBC for their breakfast show ‘Morning Joe’, which was being broadcast from London all week. The photos I took on my iPhone (below) are rather disappointing, but if you squint you can just see the backs of Joe Scarborough’s and Mika Brzezinski's heads, and Willy Geist interviewing someone down in the square:

The actual programmes from London, which we watched in video extracts online, were less than riveting and Joe and Mika’s guests a cut below the quality usually found on their show when it's broadcast from New York or Washington. One exception was the superb Katty Kay of BBC America, who did her best to inject some realism about contemporary Britain into the discussion.

If this all sounds like the height of fandom, then you should understand that, when we visit America, we tend to leave the TV in our hotel room permanently tuned to MSNBC, and we usually wake up to ‘Morning Joe’. This was a love affair, or addiction, sealed during the 2008 presidential election. Watching the show, and others, on our recent visit to Miami, has prompted some reflections on what I would argue is the superiority of political coverage on US television, when compared to what’s served up to us in the UK.

That’s a counter-intuitive reflection of course, and it goes against everything Brits are supposed to 'know' about US television: that it’s ‘dumbed down’, superficial, dominated by airhead presenters and shockjocks. But allow me to make my case.

‘Morning Joe’ may not the best political show on US TV, and there’s a lot about it that can irritate: Joe’s egotism, Mika’s banalities, the preference for centrist commentators who don’t depart from the mainstream. But for visiting British political nerds like us, to have a whole three-hour daily breakfast show entirely devoted to politics is sheer luxury. One time on our recent visit, Carl Bernstein dropped by the studio and joined in an impromptu discussion with former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and Governor Ed Rendell on the roots of the current gridlock in Congress. The talk ranged back and forth from Watergate to Supreme Court confirmations in the '80s, dipping occasionally into the further recesses of US history, with a diversion to debate the relative merits of Jefferson and Adams - and all in a format that was relaxed, unstuffy and popular. And how can you not like a programme that plays Springsteen and the Clash over its Starbucks-sponsored credits?

And that’s just one show on one channel. Tune into MSNBC on any weekday evening, and it's wall-to-wall politics, from the likes of Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, and more recently Cenk Uygur, from my son’s favourite progressive channel, The Young Turks. And I haven't even mentioned the weekly institution that is 'Meet The Press'. Liberal bias? Of course, but if that’s your view, you can always switch over to Fox, where you’ll get uninterrupted commentary from a conservative perspective.

I find this honest partisanship healthier and more dynamic than the spurious ‘balance’ of most British political coverage. For example, on another day during our recent visit, we saw Uygur devote a whole show to arguing that the Republican Party was in the pocket of Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce, while Schultz spent a passionate half-hour standing up for union rights, in the light of recent events in Wisconsin. If they were in Britain, they would have been cut off after five minutes, while an arbitrating presenter sought to bring in a ‘balancing’ view.

Of course, America is a big country, which may account for there being just so much more – and more diverse - political coverage on TV. But I’d maintain that the quality is better too: there’s just no equivalent in Britain to those MSNBC shows where a presenter or politician or activist is allowed to develop an argument, or a debate allowed to go on for more than five minutes at a time.

And I like the refreshing absence in the US, for the most part, of the Paxman approach to political interviews, which assumes that elected representatives are all lying bastards and appears to be aimed at catching out the interviewee. Which is not to say that US interviewers give their guests an easy ride, but they usually assume that you’re likely to get more out of a politician if you actually give them space to talk (or, to look at it another way, allow them enough rope with which to hang themselves). I also like the way US political programmes take written commentary seriously, regularly inviting on historians and biographers, and giving space to discussion of the day’s newspaper op-eds. ‘Morning Joe’ does this every day, comparing so-and-so’s latest column in the Wall Street Journal with what someone else has said in Time magazine. What do we get? A couple of minutes of headlines on the 'Today' programme, and a ten-minute review of the Sundays by viewer-friendly 'celebrities' once a week on 'Marr', supposedly our flagship political programme ('Meet The Press' it is not). Which is not to say that US television coverage is without its faults: it can be terribly parochial, focused on what's going on in Washington, but not overly concerned with the rest of the world, except as it impacts on America (there's been some excellent analysis on MSNBC of the current state of affairs in Pakistan, for example, following that other recent big event).

So what accounts for these differences, apart from the relative sizes of our two countries? Well, as a European social democrat, it goes against the grain to say this, but it may have something to do with the commercial ownership of US television stations. That famous BBC balance derives from the corporation being taxpayer-funded, and having to show that you're giving equal (which often means anodyne) space to each side. Whereas the owners of NBC, Fox, CBS and the rest know there’s a range of liberal, conservative and centrist constituencies out there they can appeal to.

But I think the most important reason – and it balances out what I said in my last post about the value of monarchical symbolism – has a lot to do with the United States being a republic. Perhaps I’m a little bit naïve and starry eyed here, but I get the feeling that in America politics is just taken a whole lot more seriously. When you have government of the people by the people, politics becomes the people's business, it's what we do among ourselves, not something that is done to us (though I admit the current anti-Washington mood stirred up by the Tea Party rather undermines this theory). A lot of what's wrong with political coverage and media debate in Britain - the Paxman sneer, the 'Have I Got New For You' cynicism, the sheer paucity of serious political programming - can be traced back to weaknesses in our political culture: to a pervasive sense that 'that lot' are out to screw us over, that at the end of the day politics is not really 'our' business. All of which, I would argue, is part of the long, weary hangover from monarchy and empire, and the consequence of never having had a proper democratic revolution.

I’ll end with a clip from that 'Morning Joe' discussion I mentioned earlier.  In some ways it's untypical – no black or female guests, unusually. And I admit it's no high-powered academic seminar - but that's part of my point. This is a popular breakfast show, for goodness' sake. When was the last time you heard this kind of serious, informed but relaxed political debate on British television, let alone on something like 'BBC Breakfast'? It gets going a couple of minutes in:

Wednesday 11 May 2011

In my end is my beginning: reflections on royalty

I’ve been thinking about the institution of monarchy quite a lot recently. And not just because of a certain event, though I’ll come back to that. It’s more that I’ve been reading John Guy’s gripping biography of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a rare example of popular history being thoroughly grounded in original academic research.

What, you might ask, am I - a lifelong republican, whose historical reading normally focuses on the 18th century age of Enlightenment and revolution – doing with a book about a 16th century monarch and representative of the reactionary Stuart clan, who claimed to rule by ‘divine right’? Well, I've begun to stray a little from my usual historical territory recently, trying to make up some of the gaps in my knowledge. I should also confess to a longstanding, if rather guilty, romantic fascination with the Stuarts, rooted in my research into my family’s history (which I can discuss openly here, now that I’ve abandoned my semi-anonymity). My father's Aberdeenshire ancestors were Jacobites who (so family tradition has it) had a hand in the ’45, and indeed my 4 x great grandfather, who was responsible for relocating the family from Scotland to London, was christened Charles Edward Stuart Robb in honour of the Bonnie Prince. But I admit that my fascination with Mary is also a symptom of my ongoing love-hate relationship with Catholicism. I’ve been reading Eamon Duffy’s revisionist accounts of the Reformation period recently, and have become fascinated by the heroism, as well as the poetry, of the recusants.

Guy’s biography prompted a good deal of reflection on political and religious matters, and upset some of my easy assumptions about the period. Mary emerges more positively than in some other accounts, and comes across as an intelligent, dedicated ruler who made some poor choices under insupportable circumstances, but certainly wasn’t guilty of most of what her detractors claimed. The whole story has the feeling of a tragedy whose ending was determined from the outset: incidentally, I’d forgotten that ‘In my end is my beginning’, which Eliot used in ‘East Coker’, was Mary’s motto.

Mary’s story certainly illuminates the close link between the institution of monarchy and a certain kind of religious worldview. When Mary was under attack from her political enemies, she fell back on the defence that she was an ‘anointed queen’, first of France, then of Scotland. But this idea only ‘works’ within a sacramental Christian framework. After the Reformation split with Catholicism, and even more since the slowly-won separation of church and state in Britain, it became increasingly difficult to justify the ‘sacredness’ of the monarchy. Part of Mary's tragedy was to become queen of Scotland just as this process was getting going. A belief in royalty as symbolic of ‘continuity’ or ‘tradition’ isn’t quite the same thing: it prompts the questions, continuity with what exactly, and which tradition are we talking about? (Part of me feels sympathetic to Chesterton's defence of tradition as a 'democracy of the dead', while the other half believes with Jefferson that 'the earth belongs to the living generation' and the past cannot hold the present hostage.) The institution was so much easier to defend when you believed your ruler was put in place by an act of God. But does this mean, conversely, that a sacramental Christian worldview leads logically to a preference for monarchy, or at least quasi-monarchical political structures, over democracy? (Catholic readers, please feel free to comment.)

In other ways, reading about Mary made me re-assess my inherited Whig view of history, according to which the Protestant Reformation was a necessary step in the inevitable progress towards liberty, democracy, and equality – including gender equality. But it was Mary, the unelected Catholic monarch, who was schooled in literature and philosophy in line with the latest Italian Renaissance thinking about women’s education, and who provided an example of strong female leadership. This was in the teeth of ferocious opposition from architects of the Protestant Reformation such as William Cecil and John Knox, the latter notorious for his ‘monstrous regiment’, and both entertaining deeply misogynist notions about women rulers. There was a grimly masculinist strain in Calvinism, which characterised Catholicism as feminine and therefore wily and untrustworthy, and included a Manichean sexual revulsion which associated Catholic ritual with pagan perversity (echoes of all of this can still be heard in the sermons of Rev Paisley, and it’s not a million miles from the rantings of the Islamists).

Then again, it was the Catholic Mary who instituted a kind of religious tolerance in Scotland, at the same time as Knox and his cohorts were beating up Mass-goers and trying to prevent Catholic services being held, even in Mary’s private quarters, while further south Mary’s bête noire, Cecil, oversaw the Elizabethan persecution of recusants. Her religious policy may have been forced on Mary by circumstances, but she seems to have believed in it, and certainly provided a better model than her English Catholic namesake, Mary Tudor.

My growing sympathy for Mary Stuart certainly made me review my deeply-held opposition to the whole idea of monarchy – all of this as the royal wedding was approaching. Having read Guy’s book, I began to see the value of the monarch as a transcendent national symbol. Did that symbol really have to be elected to be recognised as valid? Is the reverence that Americans accord the institution of the presidency really all that different from monarchical symbolism? After all, despite the key difference that the US president is elected, it seems to operate in very similar ways: as a West Wing fan I'm always stirred by those moments when the whole room rises to its feet to welcome the commander-in-chief, or when a Republican swallows their political misgivings and declares 'I serve at the pleasure of the president of the United States'.

On the other hand, is it possible to have a monarchy that is purely symbolic, without all the trappings of hierarchy and hangers on that seem to follow in its train, at least in Britain? I enjoyed watching the wedding, and wished the couple well. I suppose my feelings were much like those of other spectators, whether royalist or republican: the music was splendid, the ceremonial beautifully done, the Bishop of London’s sermon surprisingly spirited and refreshingly free from the usual Anglican waffle, Pippa was stunning, the Middletons carried it off well, and it seems that they (like Diana) will provide some much-needed refreshment to the Windsor gene pool (not least, if one may say so, in the looks department).

But then, shortly afterwards, someone told me that William’s aristocratic mates refer to Kate and Pippa as 'the Wisteria sisters’, because they’re such good social climbers – geddit? (Laugh? I nearly swallowed my silver spoon, dear boy.) And all my feelings of annoyance, resentment and frustration at the whole clapped-out system came rushing back.  If it were possible to have a reduced, bicycling royal family that symbolised the nation, without all the attendant deference, knowing your place, and being judged by your birth and not your abilities or accomplishments, then I might almost be persuaded out of my republicanism.

Almost, but not quite. Because, of course, as we Jacobites know, these Germanic interlopers aren’t quite the real deal. Which is a good excuse for posting this version of 'Come ye o'er frae France' by the French Celtic ensemble Boann, fronted by the splendid Celine Archambeau. There's something oddly winning about hearing broad Scots rendered in a French accent:

My online life

The observant among you will have noticed a change in the appearance of this blog. I don’t just mean the new template, the latest bid in my continuing effort to find a Blogger design that doesn’t offend the senses. Some regular readers have urged me to transfer to the better-looking Wordpress: but (i) I already have four Wordpress blogs (two of them pseudonymous, but we’ll come back to that) and finding yet another email address would be tedious, (ii) Wordpress doesn’t let you embed videos, and (iii) I worry that archiving all my old Blogger posts risks losing them, or at least making them less visible.

No, the more significant change I’m referring to is the appearance of my full name at the top of the page. After four years of sheltering behind the relative anonymity of my first name, I’ve decided it’s time to come out from the shadows (the margins?) and own up to my true identity. Why, you may ask? The answer has a lot to do with the changing nature of my online life, which may also explain why I haven’t posted very much here recently.

It’s almost a year since I discovered Twitter, in the aftermath of the general election. With journalists live-blogging the results and then the minute-by-minute progress of the coalition talks, and with activists weighing in with comments, I could finally see a point to micro-blogging. And as my Twittering increased, so my blogging rate tended to decrease. Twitter offered a ready-made audience, far larger than the readership of my blog, plus the opportunity to react immediately to current events, and to get a more or less instant reaction from others. I retained my anonymity, or rather my pseudonymity, on Twitter, as (like others) I saw the site primarily as a feed for my blog and a way of expanding the readership for my more considered (if less frequent) reflections on important issues.

But that was before I joined Facebook. As with Twitter, it look me a while before I saw the point, and I'd dismissed Mr Zuckerberg’s social network as a useful medium for my teenage offspring to chat with their friends, but of no obvious relevance to those of us past the first flush of youth. And as initially with Twitter, to begin with I couldn’t find anyone I knew who was using it. Then my brother converted me. He’s a freelance artist and explained how he uses Facebook pro-actively to create a network of possible clients, publishers, reviewers, etc. Basically, you don’t wait for people you already know to ‘friend’ you: you get out there and boldly send requests to people you would like to converse with. So I jumped in, and soon began to build a network composed of a diverse combination of ‘real’ friends, colleagues, relatives and fellow bloggers, as well as writers and commentators whom I admired.

Soon, I found myself involved in the same kind of debates about politics, religion, books and so on that I’d been having on Twitter. Only now, I was talking to a more clearly defined and visible group of mostly like-minded people (with the odd sprinkling of contrarians: but you can always 'de-friend' them if they get too annoying), and crucially I had more space to ruminate than on Twitter, particularly in the follow-up comments. And I could post and comment on links to news stories, articles, videos, etc. (Actually, the 'new' Twitter has now made it easier to do that.) The inevitable happened: as my Facebook presence increased, so my Twittering decreased, and at times my blogging fizzled out altogether. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, and it's so much easier and quicker to share a link or a thought on your Facebook 'wall' than to go to the trouble of constructing a blog post around it. And the reaction can be almost immediate, which is both gratifying and a stimulant to further posting. It's quite something to put up a link, or a brief opinion, and within minutes receive comments from (say) a cousin in Essex, a colleague in Scotland, a fellow blogger in America and a Facebook friend-of-a-friend in Australia. Not to mention the odd sprinkling of well-known journalists and politicians.

One of the interesting things about joining Facebook, and to some extent Twitter, during this period has been to watch the way their usage has been changing, and how people use these social networks for different purposes. My sense is that, even in the few months I've been on Facebook, there has been an exponential growth in its use, particularly by members of commentariat. Increasingly, many journalists and campaigners see it as the place to launch debates, and as a crucial shop window or point of access for their work. 

Which brings me back to the question of anonymity, or pseudonymity. As soon as I joined Facebook, I knew it would have to be in my own name. Facebook prompts you to lists your schools, workplaces, opinions and interests - and to link to your other websites. At first, I was tempted to omit all mention of 'Martin In The Margins' - but eventually I caved in. After all, some of my Facebook friends already knew me via this blog, and it seemed daft not to extent this dubious privilege to everyone. What's more, one of my (admittedly immodest) designs in joining Facebook was to advertise my blog more widely. Didn't I want my new 'friends' to know this blog was written by me? 

There's a more serious point here, too, one that I've often discussed with bloggers of similar political opinions, who (like me) adopted a pseudonym partly because they feared that declaring those opinions openly would have a negative impact in the milieu where they worked. To put it bluntly, it's not easy to be an anti-totalitarian liberal-interventionist, who entertains favourable views of the US and Israel, in an academy still largely in thrall to anti-imperialism, anti-westernism and post-modern relativism. But I've come to the conclusion (more through weariness than bravery) that the times demand that those of us who feel strongly about such things should put our heads above the parapet rather more, and be more confident about sometimes winning the argument and turning the tide of opinion.

So, the final link in the process of reconciling my online identities has been to insert my full name above. And to add links to the other sites I maintain under my real name (I keep a family history blog and a work-related blog for posts about my research and teaching). Of course, I still have the two pseudonymous blogs that I mentioned earlier. One is a place where I post more personal thoughts about my continuing spiritual and philosophical journey, and the other is a local blog that I wouldn't want the neighbours to know about, for various reasons. I suppose I ought to offer some sort of prize to the first person to identify them, and link them back to me.

One more thing. On Facebook, some time ago, someone posted a link to an article - which I foolishly forgot to bookmark - to the effect that blogging was now dead, and that among the younger generation at least, it's been more or less edged out by micro-blogging and social networking. So is the drift in my own online practice symptomatic of a wider trend? Has the moment of the blog passed? Discuss.

Actually, I don't think so, and I think my own dire record of posting in recent months has been down to more personal reasons: general busyness, and stuff going on elsewhere in my life. There's one more thing. I notice that one of my newer Facebook friends, a fellow-Eustonite, describes her political opinions as 'under review'. I sympathise. I've been going through a phase recently when not only my political views, but some of my most deeply-held philosophical assumptions, have been shifting back and forth. In such circumstances, I find articulating a clear and forceful opinion in writing - even of the modest length of a blog post - onerous. 

I hoping I'm coming out of that uncertain phase a bit now. There's certainly a whole lot of stuff I'm keen to post about, so perhaps the inner fire's returning. Watch this space.

Monday 2 May 2011

President Obama on Death of Osama bin Laden

'We were [...] united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice. [...] And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror:  Justice has been done.'