Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Two Depressing Thoughts

Thought One.

The sad thing is that if we want human civilisation to survive for another few generations, we really should be working on resilience to climate change, reversing the decline of bee populations, tackling antibiotic resistance, and cleaning up all the nuclear mess we have so recklessly made. That means, amongst other things, a massive change to our food chain and agricultural practices, a change to how we do and fund research, and willingness to put curating the earth above neo-liberal models of growth. But instead, we have to deal with bonkers Brexiters who want to take us back to the 19th century and mad Mullahs who want to take us back to the 7th.

Thought Two.

You know what I’d like to see: I’d like to see a decent, moderate, centrist Tory (such creatures must exist, surely) come out and say, ‘Brexit was a serious mistake. More than that, it was a gross failure of leadership. If Britain has a future at all, it is a European future. I’m challenging Theresa May for the Tory leadership, and I’m willing to form a Grand Coalition with remainers of all parties to campaign for Britain remaining in the EU in a general election. Oh, and while I’m at it, we need a massive rethinking of how the UK works and what got us into this mess in the first place, starting with a Constitutional Convention with a view to establishing, inter alia, an English Parliament.’ But is is not going to happen.

Notes from the Field

My ‘undisclosed location’ is unmistakably middle eastern. As a student of Arabic, I spent a lot of my time during my late teens and early twenties in the middle east. They were formative days. After my stint in Iraq though, I decided that I’d had enough of hot, sandy, dysfunctional places, and except for a few days in Cairo when I first joined this organisation, I haven’t been back there since.

Today, I had to leave our secure compound and go into town for sundry logistical matters (changing money, buying new sandals, getting hold of a cheap mobile to replace my one that died etc). There I was confronted with the old familiar smell of the middle east: a thousand years of encrusted sweat, cats’ piss and kebab fat, mingled with the scents of cheap cigarettes, gaudy male perfumes, and two-stroke petrol fumes.

It’s a heady, exotic mix. It takes me back to long nights prowling the streets of Zamalek in search of a kushari stand that would not give me dysentery, and happy carefreee days near Midan Tahrir – yes, that Midan Tahrir, the one that in 2011 was momentarily world famous as the centre stage of nascent democracy, but which I remember for its faded old colonial cafes and the constant chorus of taxi horns.

I like it. It excites in me the memory of that young orientalist, who dreamed of Lawrence and Doughty. It reminds me of ‘going mufti’, wearing a fez and jelabiyya indoors without the slightest feeling of self-doubt. One did not worry about ‘cultural appropriation’ then, only about cutting the right sort of dash while boldly escorting my bride-to-be (although neither of us knew that then) around Coptic Cairo.

But one or two things have changed from the middle east as I remember it. For a start, the man in the dirty shirt who takes your order in the kebab shop now punches it into an app on his smartphone, which alerts the kitchen. Back in my day, they would totter off behind swing doors, sometimes not to reappear for hours

The Christian roots of Secular-Humanism

Back when I was in the process of becoming a Christian as an undergraduate, I had a number of doubts about how to square it with a basically secular-humanist ethical system which I considered to be largely derived from enlightenment principles. I thought there was something other-worldly, and to be honest something a bit self-indulgent and even uncivic, about christianity.

Later, as I studied more, I came to understand that secular-humanism is really a vestigial remnant of the much richer ideal of christian-humanism.

This christian-humanism, derived from the medieval fusion of classical and christian thought, is perhaps the greatest animating force of Western civilisation – the common thread of civilisational inheritance that holds the West together and apart from other cultures.

Sometimes I have wondered if it would be possible to have all the social and ethical principles of christian humanism without all the silly ‘magic sky fairy’ stuff. But I came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t.

Without the idea of incarnation and resurrection at their core, christian-humanism doesn’t make any sense. We are left only with a humanism that has no answer to the reality of evil and no hope. It’s only through the resources of a christian worldview that the evil we see in reality can be conquered through the resurrection, and through the knowledge it brings that the world, for all its faults, has been, is being, and will be redeemed. It’s only the resurrection that gives us any indication that ‘the arc of history bends towards justice’.

In the process of coming to this conclusion, I learnt that the ultimate ‘point’ of christianity isn’t to escape the world, but to transform the world for good – not about ‘going to heaven when we die’, but about bringing the ways of heaven’s healing and restoration to a hurting, aching world. That’s what God’s love is actually doing. Occasionally I see light. It shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

You might think all this is very odd.

Ephesians 2:8-9 (as applied in practice)

“For it is by creedal orthodoxy that you have been saved, through adherence to the formulations of fourth century councils – and this not from God, but from the political needs of the emperor Constantine – by esoteric study and mental feats of semantics and logic bending, so that everyone who is able to subscribe to those things can boast.”


In sympathy for Trump supporters

Twice I voted Obama

Like a poor-boy Democrat

Didn’t want Armageddon

Or any shit like that

And I’d still vote for Bernie

If he was in the race

But now I’m for Donald

And here I make my case


On September 11th

The whole world done changed

Now we got tribulations

And economic pains

We took out Osama

But fucked up in Iraq

I’m just glad that my brother

Didn’t come back in a sack


They closed down the factory

Where I worked for a while

But now I don’t worry

Face each day with a smile

Cos Fox News said Trump’s

Is gonna get re-elected

And that Mexican wall’s

Gonna soon be erected


Well I can’t afford health care

Hope I don’t take sick

But I’m sure it won’t matter

The world’s ending quick

And when rapture comes

In a golden Cadillac

I’ll be shoutin’ for ‘Murca!’

And I won’t look back

The Far-Right’s ‘Bait and Switch’

The rise of the ‘Radical Right’ is a fascinating phenomenon. Often, people like me have spent so much time being terrified, shocked and appalled by it, and not enough time trying to understand it. For the sake of research, I have spent much of this evening listening to speeches by Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders.

Approached in a detached and dispassionate way, they make for quite interesting listening. You have to filter out a lot of nonsense, of course, but underneath it all there’s a fairly consistent message, in the form of a classic ‘bait and switch’.

This clip is a typical sample. They start with real problems: a lack of jobs and opportunites, economic depression, pressure on wages and public services, fear of crime, the sense that political and economic elites have it all stitched up for their own benefit, while ordinary people get a raw deal. They talk about these issues with a frankness and bluntness, in a folksy downhome way, that the left just cannot emulate. They tap into very real and painful grievances.

That’s the bait. And they bait well. It’s great big shiny bait that looks attractive when you live precariously on a falling wage in a run down town, where the library and the swimming pool have closed, and where you cannot get a doctor’s appointment and the school is overcrowded and under staffed.

But then comes the switch: rather than blame the neo-liberal economic policies and chronic under investment in education, infrastructure and services which have caused this mess, they kick downwards and outwards: the blame the immigrants and foreigners. They try to turn this real grievance into an unrighteous anger, and anger than can only destroy, rather than channeling it into a call for solidarity and inclusive justice. They seek not to heal, but to harm back. Not to address underlying causes, but only to scapegoat.

This is of course the classic function of the far-right in an oligarchy – to distract the people’s anger away from the real economic causes of their distress and to turn it on others.

The soft-left liberals must bear some responsibility, however, for allowing this situation to develop. It is the wholehearted acceptance of Thatcherite Reaganomics by the West’s liberal elite that is, in fact, causing the hardship and the revolt of ordinary people. People will turn to virtually ANY anti-establishment force to show their anger. I hope that liberals everywhere will begin to realise quickly that their acceptance of the ever increasing growth of corporate power, and the ever-increasing gap between the richest and the poorest, is the real cause of the rise of Trump – and of Brexit sentiment.

But there’s hope in all of this. There is scope, now as never before in the last century, for a popular movement of the left that seeks to address the real economic causes: a new New Deal coalition. It just needs to be articulated in terms that people can understand. Not in Guardian reader terms, but in Sun reader terms. We take take that which is a harmful counterfeit (neo-fascism) and replace it with the real article (social democracy), and people will flock to it.



Machiavelli: Liberation Theologian

Machiavelli is not only a much-misunderstood political philosopher, but also a very practical, hard-headed theologian of freedom and justice. We must neither fall into the despair of thinking that God is unconcerned with great causes of justice and liberation, not sit back and just wait for God to act without us. We have to actively co-operate with God in the mission of bringing peace, freedom and justice to the world. Work and pray. Trust God, and keep your powder dry. Be wise as serpents, but harmless as doves.


On Cameron’s Resignation Honours



Corrupt oligarchies act in corrupt oligarchic ways, according to their corrupt oligarchic nature. Trying to change the ways of government, without changing the nature of it, is doomed to failure. This is not a personal misdeed by Cameron; he is simply working within the internal norms of a corrupt system. Almost any other prime minister in that system, accepting those norms, would do the same. This is why a change in personnel or parties will always disappoint. Nothing short of a fundamental constitutional regeneration of the state can change its nature. From that renewed nature, beneficial changes in policy and conduct will flow.

Three Mindsets

I have a ‘Benefit mindset’. This makes life a little bit more complicated, when most institutions have a ‘Fixed mindset’ and the market encourages a ‘Growth mindset’.


Scotland: A European Nation

Scottish statehood reached its apogee, and Scottish national identity formed, during the two centuries between the Battle of Bannockburn (1314) to the Battle of Flodden Field (1513). During this time, European Christendom formed a more or less cohesive civilisation, with a common language of learning (Latin), common institutions (the Church, with its papacy and its network of transnational monastic orders and universities), and a common overarching norms and values (both in the church and in the university-trained civil lawyers, who shared a common set of presumptions based on a fusion of Christian and Aristotelian teachings).

English statehood reached its apogee in Tudor times, most notably with Elizabeth I and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. English (as opposed to British) nationhood was formed in contrast to continental Europe, at a time when the cultural unity of Europe had already been shattered by the Reformation and the vernacular Bible.

A member of the late medieval elite who forged Scottish statehood would not have been out of place in a Flanders market, a Spanish monastery, or the law school in Bologna, but out of his depth in India or China. A member of the early modern elite who forged English ‘greatness’ would have been alien in continental Europe, with its cowled monks reduced to the role of oddities in gothic literature – he might as well be in India or China. To the English statebuilder, all the world was equally ‘foreign’, to the Scottish statebuilder, there was a bond of commonality uniting Europe and separating Europe from the world beyond it.