Dissenting Radical

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

Month: November, 2015

Where the flying fishes play

It’s strange how some parts of the world (some places, some cultures, some landscapes and cityscapes, some cuisines, some histories) fascinate us, and excite our romanticism and wanderlust, while others leave us a bit cold.

For as long as I can remember I’ve had a certain liking – an aesthetic attraction, a sense of longing and perhaps even of belonging – for Central and Eastern Europe (in that long band that stretches, through Poland and the Danube basin, from the Baltic to the Black Sea) and for the Eastern Mediterranean (the arc that bends from Athens to Alexandria). These are the places which Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘From the Woods to the Water’ and William Dalrymple’s ‘From the Holy Mountain’ had put into words for me. These are the places that, when I had opportunities in my youth for solo travel, I chose to explore.

The Far East and South East Asia, on the other hand, have never really grasped my imagination. That said, I am sort of looking forward to my forthcoming trip to Burma / Myanmar. ‘Sun comes up like thunder’ and all that.


The keyboard is mighter than the unicycle

I’ve just finished the manuscript for my third book. There’s some way to go – it still needs copy editing and proof-reading, but all of that will not happen until after the New Year. So for now I don’t have a book to write.

Having always had a PhD thesis or a book project hanging over me since 2007, I’m not used to this sense of freedom. During the working week, of course, I’m glad not to have it hanging over me. By the time I get home from the office, my brain is usually pouring out of my ears with mental exhaustion anyway, and sometimes forcing myself to sit down and write in the evenings has been a real trial of will.

But the weekends are different. Spending a weekend not writing is not that unusual, of course. There have been many weekends over the last eight years when writing has had to take a back seat – because of family obligations or for health reasons, or even occasionally because I have forced myself to take a break. But a book or a PhD thesis is always there. Even when you are not writing, you feel that you should be. You carry it.

So spending a day not writing and not having it gnaw away in the back of my mind – not even feeling guilty about it – is a new and unfamiliar experience. It’s not just that I have more time, but that I suddenly have all this free brain-space.

I could go out if I wanted to, into the real world outside, where there are other people, not just dots of light on the screen. I could sit in a cafe with friends (except that I don’t have many friends within a 500km radius). I could play to banjo, learn to unicycle, or take up painting. I could catch up on all that boring household admin and finance stuff I have not looked at for weeks.In other words, I could do all the things that people who don’t write books do.

My non-writing weekend started well enough on Saturday: creative and unhurried morning sex, a good brunch, a long shower, a gentle walk to the bookshop (where I managed to buy some books that have nothing to do with my work or writing), dinner out at a Persian restuarant, and then coming home to watch comedy while digesting like a stuffed python. That’s a good, non-authorial Saturday.

But then it all went wrong. This morning, I woke up and drafted out an outline for another book, looking at the history of modern constitutionalism through a selection of iconic constitutional texts. I did not mean to. It just sort of happened. I probably need help.

I don’t intend to actually write this book. Not yet anyway. I just noted it down in my swelling folder of ‘potential future book outlines’. After a PhD thesis, three books, several academic journal articles, and lots of newspaper pieces, all on the subject of a constitution for Scotland, I need a proper break before starting another academic or constitutionally-themed book.

But I don’t think I will stop writing for long. Writing has become so central and habitual in my life. It’s what I do. Instead, since a change is supposed to be as good as a rest, I think it might be fun to try writing about a different subject and in a different genre. Fiction, maybe?

November is National Novel Writing Month, and the idea of intensive creative writing has often appealed to me. But I know that I am no novelist. I can rarely manage to read a novel, let alone write one. I certainly don’t think I could handle a novel in a month. Too big. Too rambling and open-ended. I’d get lost.

A collection of related short stories, however, is a different proposition. Short stories are manageable like the chapters and sections of a non-fiction book. I like the idea of a collection of short stories, with recurring characters and settings, but with self-contained plots. A collection of twelve short stories in a year – one a month – might be possible.

Of course, I’d still write about what I care about and what I know about, so no doubt constitutional themes and ideas would creep in to the narrative somewhere. And I’m very interested in the freedom that fiction offers to play with constitutional ‘what ifs’ that cannot be explored in more conventional forms of scholarly, polemic or journalistic writing. So I envision, perhaps, a collection of semi-utopian or alternative history stories, in which aspects of a differently constituted society might be imagined. I would also be keen to experiment with gothic writing, erotica, and the ‘woods and werewolves, swords and sorcery’ type of low fantasy.

So my next work will include sexy vampires and buxom lusty barmaids in a well-constituted little Überwald with universal citizens’ income. That sort of thing.

A quick quality test for advice about Daesh

Source: A quick quality test for advice about Daesh

Do institutions matter?

Q. What I find remarkable about these sometimes substantive constitutional and operational differences in democratic systems is that the outcome is nevertheless very often the same. E.g., the British system is quite different from the Dutch, but the policies pursued are identical in the ideological sense.


A. I think ‘identical’ is an overstatement. Having lived in the Netherlands for two years now, I’ve noticed lots of policy differences – some things are better in the Netherlands than in Scotland, some worse. Some of the policy differences are slight – a different set of priorities or way of handling things, some actually quite noticeable, reflecting a basic difference of approach. They are all, of course, within the broad spectrum of a capitalist society, but there is a difference. I’m not sure how much of this difference is due to institutions, but it must surely account for some of it.

If we were to imagine for a moment that NL was governed by British institutions, there would be one party majority governments, and the VVD (right-liberals / secular conservatives) would do as they wish. As it is, they have to compromise on all sorts of specific policy matters with PvdA (social democrats) in government, and with a bunch of small ‘friendly opposition’ parties in the Senate.

Likewise, if we were to imagine that the UK were governed by Dutch institutions, then Scotland would have the autonomy of Aruba, and the Wesminster government would be a coalition probably of the Tories and Labour. Even if there’s not much ideological or policy difference between Tories and Labour, there is some (perhaps a non-trivial amount), and that arrangement must shape policy decisions, sometimes in marginal ways and sometimes more fundamentally.

Institutions also change the way policy is developed, how it is introduced and applied. In the UK, the PM wakes up one morning, listens to his special advisor, and says, ‘right, we are doing this!’ – and it is done (badly and hurriedly, with little debate or consultation), and those who don’t agree are left to shout or grumble ineffectively. Then the next day the PM gets a different feeling in his waters, and all of a sudden we are rushing off to the next ill-considered policy initiative. The converation, such as it is, always happens after the decision. In NL, that couldn’t happen, because the decision would require the approval of many participants before being taken – so the conversation always preceeds the decision, decision-making is slower, but generally more people are on-board with the decision when taken, and radical swings in direction are ironed out in the process.

Of course, institutions only translate values, ideas and interests into policy. So while the shape of those institutions will help to influence which values, ideas and interests are heard and which are ignored, the values, ideas and interests themselves are largely (although not entirely) independent of instittuions.

It is in this sphere of values, ideas and interests, I think, that the similarities exist. Because neo-liberalism has for 30 years or so (1979-2008)  been such a hegemonic ideology, its influence is felt in both countries in similar (but not identical) ways.

Also, leaders in both those countries are subject to similar interests that pull and shape them. One of these is the EU, and I do think part of the problem is the centralsiation of power at EU level squeezes out space for diverse policy experimentation, even if there was a desire for it.

Note to Self

Sometimes I need a reminder that amidst all this madness and darkness and the general fucked-up-ness of the situation in the world at the moment, there are little patches where the Spirit shines through.

The world is grotesquely unjust, unfree, unpeaceful, ungracious – but at the same time I have to remember that everything has been redeemed, is being redeemed, and will be redeemed. The darkness is so pitifully real that it breaks my heart, and so relentlessly vast and deep that it drives me crazy with despair, but a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

The only thing that can give sense to hope – the only thing that makes hope possible, in a world that seems so hopeless much of the time – is the idea that ultimately good wins. All redeemed, all resurrected, all restored. Every tear wiped away. There’s no more sea. That sort of idea.

I don’t know how real this is, but it only makes sense to me to try to live as if it were real. So I cling, desperately and foolishly, to the illogical idea that this present epoch of death (whether in the towns of Syria, the beaches of Greece, the streets of Paris, the refugee camps of Turkey, the cold borders of Serbia, the sweatships of Bangladesh, the labour camps of China, and brothels of Mumbai) must somehow inevitably yield to resurrection.

It is only by clinging to this idea – by focusing on the the Light and not the darkness – that my fear can be channeled into some rough approximation of faith, my anger channeled into love, and my despair into hope.

But the question of what to do remains. Even if the temporary psychological paralysis can be overcome in this way, what, practically, should I do? I don’t think I need to change career. I’m sure that constitution-building is a worthwhile occupation. It helps, if only very indirectly, to give people the ability to defend human rights and promote the common good. And if that-which-we-call ‘God’ called me into constitution-building so clearly, I’m sure any call away from it would be equally clear.

But it’s not enough to try to be light in the day job. I feel that I need to do more. Even if the world is being redeemed and restored, it doesn’t happen by magic. There’s no effective incarnation except us, human beings, working to put it right. So maybe I should be doing something quite radically more. No doubt all will become clear in due course, in one of those rare but terrifying ‘slap around the back of the head by the holy spirit’ moments. But I feel that I can no longer just sit on my backside posting pictures on Facebook. I need to do something.

Some Principles to Live By in a Complex World

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in cooperation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, therefore,

The General Assembly,

Proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11
1.Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
2.No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13
1.Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.
2.Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14
1.Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
2.This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15
1.Everyone has the right to a nationality.
2.No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16
1.Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
2.Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
3.The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17
1.Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
2.No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20
1.Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
2.No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21
1.Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
2.Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country.
3.The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23
1.Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
2.Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
3.Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
4.Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25
1.Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
2.Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26
1.Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
2.Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
3.Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27
1.Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
2.Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29
1.Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
2.In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
3.These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

Fundamental Questions

What should be the ultimate ends and purposes of our foreign policy? On what values should those ends and purposes be based? What principles and ethical standards should guide our conduct in pursuit of those ends and purposes?

Unless we can at least begin to answer these questions in a coherent way, it seems to me that we are not in a position to decide on the use of military force: we would be stabbing in the dark without any clear sense of what we are trying to achieve, why we are trying to achieve it, and whether doing so is worthwhile.

A deeper understanding of fundamental values is also necessary in order to determine what our domestic response to terrorist attacks should be. Before we can decide what to do, we must first think about who we want to be:

How deep is our commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law? Are these just words we use to cover baser motives, or do we really mean to live by them?

Do we want a pluralistic, tolerant, open society, or are we content to live in monochrome uniformity? 

Do we have any concern for economic fairness, social justice and compassion, and if so does that extend to Syrian refugees as well as to European workers?

Unless we can define and understand what our values are, we could very easily destroy them through the very means that we think to employ to defend them.

An alternative universe

Imagine if the Crusaders had won.

The area that is now Syria, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon etc would be a Catholic-majority (but mostly non-practicing), French-speaking country, where people enjoy a European standard of living. They’d have a Mediterranean lifestyle. They would drink red wine, read Rousseau and Voltaire, go to concerts and to football matches, and have a robust (if somewhat corrupt, Southern European-style) democracy.

Oh, and (in this alternative universe, where the state of Israel would not exist), Yiddish would be a major European language, Klezmer would be as mainstream as rap, and although there would be no kebab shops, you’d at least be able to take-away kreplach-on-stick 24hrs a day.

Then a militant zionist terrorist would blow themselves up in Paris, and a bunch of knuckle dragging morons would start blaming all the jews and preparing for pogroms. And Francois Abramovich who runs the local kreplach shop in the 10th arrondisement, obeys the law, pays his taxes, is nice to his neighbours, gives money to charity, and plays in his local petanque team, would be spat at in the face, and worry about his safety, and be called upon to denounce things that are nothing to do with him.

2000 Public Sector Jobs to be Lost in Scotland

Civil Servant: ‘I’m afraid we are going to have to cut staff, Minister’.

Minister: ‘Well, that never looks good, but needs must. We have to finance those inheritance tax cuts for millionaires and our lovely new nuclear missiles somehow.’

Civil Servant: ‘Indeed so, Minister.’

Minister: ‘How many job losses are we talking about, anyway?’

Civil Servant: ‘About 2,000, Minister.’

Minister: ‘Where? Not in a Tory seat, I hope?’

Civil Servant: ‘It is in Cumbernauld, Minster.’

Minister: ‘Cumberbund?! Damn silly name for a town if ever I heard one.’

Civil Servant: ‘I assure you that by Scottish standards, the name barely reaches the lower rungs of silliness.’

Minister: ‘Scotand, eh? SNP territory, I suppose.’

Civil Servant: ‘Yes, Minister.’

Minister: ‘Good. Well. Serves them right. Bunch of loony traitors with nothing better to do than go around demanding indepenentce this and secession that. A good dose of DWP will sort them out.’

Civil Servant: ‘There is just one small problem, Minister.’

Minister, ‘Oh yes, and what is that?’

Civil Servant: ‘The SNP are doing remarkably well in the polls, Minister, and every time we antagonise people, their poll ratings increase.’

Minister: ‘Don’t worry about that. We’ve rigged the Scotland Bill so that Scotland will go bankrupt, and the SNP will get the blame.’

Civil Servant: ‘Do you think that is wise, Minister? After all, you can fool people once, but not necessarily twice. What if it backfires?.’

Minister: ‘Tanks? Worked in 1919.’

Civil Servant: ‘Tell me, Minister, have you ever actually been to Scotland.’

Minister: ‘No.’

Civil Servant: ‘Well, I should keep it that way if I were you. If those bloody jocks get their hands on you, you’ll end up as filling for one of their loathesome meat pies.’

Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet

It’s a good thing, of course, that Justin Trudeau, the new Liberal PM of Canada, has appointed a cabinet that represents the political elite of different genders, regions, colours and religions.

It’s a good piece of symbolism: the United Colours of Canada. All in it together. Snap! There’s a minister who probably looks a bit like you, or at least like someone you know.

It’s a good move politically, too. Who in their right mind would ever oppose it? It’s a good way to gain some additional political goodwill after the election. It only begs the question of why no-one else thought of it first.

And it sends a positive message. If you are rich, well-connected, well-educated, willing to be a professional politician, and slick with the media, then you too can be a member of the cabinet – regardless of the colour of your skin, the configuration of your genitalia, your sexual orientation, the language you speak, or which part of the country you come from. As far as it goes, that’s a good thing.

But it does not go very far. Such diversity from within the political and economic elite is a very easy form of ‘progressivism’. It doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t upset any real interest. It doesn’t include the poor. It doesn’t do anything, in itself, to change the lives of the millions of women who were not appointed to the cabinet, and who are never likely to be appointed because they are not politicians.

On the other hand, if he were to make good his promises stimulus infrastructure spending, or to raise taxes on the rich to pay for a cut for those in the middle and bottom, that would actually have a beneficial effect on the lives of many women – but that will be a harder thing to achieve, because it will mean opposing rich, powerful interests.

We will have to see how he gets on with that. He looks to me like a bit of a Tony Blair. But I’m not a Canadian, so I’m watching him as an interested outsider. We’ll see.