Dissenting Radical

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

Month: December, 2016

Musical Memories

My wife and I were reminiscing about music from way back, and spent a happily nostalgic evening listening to stuff we each used to listen to in our undergraduate days.

This led to a conversation about which 12 tracks would be most representative, memorable or iconic from that time in our lives. Here’s my (tentative) list, in no particular order:

1. Oasis: ‘Champagne Supernova’ – I was never really into Oasis, but it was such an icon of the era and it was played everywhere. This beats Wonderwall.
2. Pulp: ‘Disco 2000’ – 2000 was our year of graduation, and I seem to remember this as a sort of theme song of our year’s cohort. It was also played everywhere.
3. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: ‘Buy for me the rain’ – I first heard this at 2am, sitting in my car in the rain outside a kebab shop, with two good friends. It launched me into a deep exploration of all sorts of bluegrass, old timey, southern folk and country music, which eventually led to my road trip around the southern US and by decision some years later to try and learn the banjo (not a success).
4. R. L. Burnside: ‘Rollin’ Tumblin’ – I remember sitting in halls of residence, looking out over a rain-drenched Arthur’s Seat, sipping hazelnut flavoured coffee, getting hooked on the guttural sounds of deep down and dirty delta blues.
5. Alabama 3: ‘Ain’t Goin’ to Goa’ – It would be hard to isolate just one Alabama 3 track, and there are several other close candidates from their first album, including ‘Converted’ and ‘Peace in the Valley’, but Ain’t Goin’ to Goa’ was the first track I heard, and it’s the one that got me hooked on their unique brand of sweet pretty country acid house hardcore gospel techno music. Now I need it every hour.
6. Barenaked Ladies: ‘What a Good Boy’ – as an angsty 19 year old, this seemed like a really profound track at the time; it probably has not aged as well as some of the others on this list, and wasn’t perhaps as groundbreaking musically, but it still deserves honourable mention because of the amount of playtime it got on my old walkman.
7. Alanis Morissette: ‘Ironic’ – I don’t have much to say about this, except that I remember playing the whole Jagged Little Pill album on continuous loop for about a week during the first summer of uni, while doing the Fringe for the first time. I don’t know, looking back, whether they were actually happy days – I think, in some ways, they weren’t – but they were certainly formative days, mostly thanks to eye-opening conversations with my Italian flatmate.
8. Morcheeba: ‘Shoulder Holster’ – This pretty much always seemed to be playing in Elephants and Bagels, which was a favourite haunt of mine. I can almost taste the bacon, cream cheese and jalepeno, on toasted plain bagels, that I used to order.
9. Bjork: ‘Big Time Sensuality’ – I never really found Bjork easy to listen to, and I’m not even sure if I like her music, to be honest, but whenever I hear this track or others from the same album it reminds me of those years, so I guess that’s a reasonable basis for inclusion in this list.
10. R.E.M.: ‘I Believe – R.E.M. have some great tracks that have stood the test of time, but lyrically this song spoke to me at the time – it spoke to my questing uncertainty in matters of faith. The line ‘Be true to your calling, be sure that your calling’s true’ has stuck with me.
11. Rammstein: ‘Wollt ihr das Bett in Flammen sehen?’ – It was around this time that I was getting into gothic music. I could probably make a list of ten tracks in that genre alone, including Sisters of Mercy, The Mission, Joy Division, Inkubus Sukkubus etc, but this Rammstein track was a musical turning point for me, that opened up a whole fascinating subculture.
12. Vineyard Music: ‘Hungry’ – I sort of blame Nicky Gumble for this one, and for all that ‘Soul Survivor’ and ‘WOW Worship’ stuff I listened to as well.

Values and Principles III

I still regard the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as one of humanity’s great legal, ethical and political achievements. If you have not done so, I recommend that you sit down and read the text.

Seen as a declaratory and aspirational document, it sets out all the basic principles and values of a free, just and humane society. I regard it as a kind of meta-constitution, setting out the benchmark by which all other constitutions, laws, systems of government and policies should be judged.

In light of an apparent retreat from these principles in certain quarters (including in long established Western liberal-democracies that should know better) it is more relevant today than ever. Across the ‘Free World’, democracy is being eroded and corrupted. Hard won human rights are being cast aside.

The list is long and crushing:

Rapacious oligarchs are closing ranks in the face of the worst economic inequality since the Great Depression.

The values of civility are being undermined by a gutter press and polarised media.

Public duty and responsibility are disregarded by a venial political class who are still enriching themselves by selling off public assets to their friends.

Poverty stalks millions of families, even in wealthy countries.

The European Union, which for all its many faults has promoted peace, freedom and tranquility in Europe, is being torn apart by dark reactionary forces.

We are destroying the environment with fracking, carbon emissions and nuclear waste.

Russia is rattling sabres from the Baltic to the Black Sea – and let’s not even mention the horrors of Aleppo.

Saudi Arabia is waging a proxy war with arms we sell them in Yemen.

Many thousands of refugees are fleeing wars in the Middle East and the horn of Africa.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It barely scratches the surface of all that is so horribly wrong in the world. In general, the outlook look at the end of 2016 seems pretty bleak. Hope feels far.

Yet, somehow, we must believe in hope. Hope is a Christian virtue, which gives us the power to live in a world as it is while living for a world as it should be. It is also a civic virtue, without which whole societies can fall into the paralysing bewildered despair on which corruption and despotism feed. 

That’s the tension: How to be an ethical citizen who cares about the state of the world, without being crushed and depressed by the the burden of it?  How to live as a citizen in a democratic society, to ‘seek the good of the city’, without losing hope when it all looks so very bleak? 

The Christian narrative asserts that ‘a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’. Somehow, some day, that light is going to transform everything that it touches (and not in a merely spiritual way, or as a ‘pie in the sky when you die’ compensation, but in practical, tangible ways that actually bring human life closer to what it should be).

But the darkness feels so big, and the candle often seems to flicker so faintly. There is a challenge right there: not to be overcome by evil, but to carry on overcoming evil by good. 

I’m not interested in glib, dismissive answers. ‘God’s in control’ doesn’t really address the issue, it just blames God for whatever happens, as if torture and tyranny, poverty and war – the world as it is – were God’s final word, and as if there were nothing we could do about any of it. I’m convinced that God weeps for the state of the world and calls us to be agents of change within it. It wasn’t supposed to be broken like this.  One day, it won’t be broken anymore. We – as salt that preserves and savours, and as light that shines – have some vital and active part in the long, difficult process of redeeming and restoring the world.  

This requires the integration of, on the one hand, a distinctly Christian civic ethic that can reanimate the values of humane democratic politics and, on the other, a practical theology of hope that can motivate one through the waves of despair. We have to figure out how, in our capacity as citizens in a flawed and increasingly shaky democracy, to walk by faith in a possible and promised restoration, and not by the sight of the perils and ruins we see around us.

So I’m walking through the world today with a Bible in one hand and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the other, aware that these two are intrinsically and intimately linked, and trying to figure out, in practical terms, how to put them both into action together.

Values and Principles I

Advices and Queries, from the Quaker tradition, reminds us to ‘Remember your responsibilities as a citizen for the conduct of local, national, and international affairs. Do not shrink from the time and effort your involvement may demand.’ In the Unitarian tradition in which so much of my intellectual formation took place, we have a covenantal commitment to ‘The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.’

For me, democracy – rightly ordered, constitutional democracy – is not only a demonstrably useful tool for peaceful and inclusive decision making, but is also something that flows from certain core principles. These principles may be secularised and operationalised through documents such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but they are rooted in concepts such as ‘the inherent dignity and worth of each human being’ that are ultimately theological in nature. The distortion and corruption of democracy, and the retreat from human rights which we see around us today, is therefore a problem with theological implications that demands a response that can be articulated in theological terms.

I’m not a theologian, I’m a scholar of constitutions. But if I’ve had any new insight into my work this year, it is this: we have, as a field or discipline of study, paid too much attention to mechanisms, and not enough to values. Mechanisms matter, but Harrington and Madison were wrong to think that the common good could be achieved by constitutional artifice alone, without paying attention to the character and values of both leaders and citizens. Even the best constitutional machine operates on a ‘garbage in, garbage out’ basis – if the citizens are ignorant, apathic and passive, the leaders will be venal, corrupt and arrogant. We need good constitutions, but we also need good citizens and good leaders.

That means, I think, reconsecrating civic and public life, and trying to emphasize that citizenship and civic leadership are vocations with important ethical obligations attached to them. Civic life is no place for the Hobbesian ‘rational egoist’ or the ‘utility maximizer’ of economic theory. Rather, it cries out for people of virtue, people who can provide ethical leadership, people of self-sacrifice who have a strong ethos of public service and public duty. If we want democracy to flourish, we need a renewal of public spirit.


Values and Principles II

It is so much easier to ask folks to be true to values and principles, as recently proposed by a member of the Tory government, when you actually have some values and principles in the first place.

That requires identifying those values and principles, in a way that makes them distinct from just the policy preferences of incumbent governments. It means building a broad consensus around what those values and principles mean – what implications they have for the state and society – and enscribing these in a document with some sort of overarching authority. I hate to mention the ‘C-word’, as we refer to it in our house, but it’s very difficult to talk about the public articulation of ‘national values’ without thinking in terms of Constitution building. 

For example, if you want to say that ‘democracy’ is a British value, then what implications does that have for the House of Lords, First Past the Post, the Crown Prerogative, and that damned anti-democratic insistence on the sovereignty of Parliament? If you say you believe in ‘freedom’, what does that mean for attempts to repeal the Human Rights Act or impose the ‘snooper’s charter’? If you say you believe in tolerance, what does that mean for racist immigrant-blaming, or witch-hunts against those who oppose Brexit? If you want to assert some sort of generalised idea of decency, what does that have to say about prison conditions, homelessness, the way we treat the disabled, or the sale of weapons to middle eastern despots?

Last but not least, if you are to assert these things as ‘British’ values, you need to have an agreed – not imposed – concept of Britishness that can accommodate four distinct nations within it. So, yes, great idea, but if it is to be anything more than a silly gimmick or an exercise in organised hypocrisy, it is essentially a revolutionary proposal for genuinely constitutional democracy.