Dissenting Radical

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

Month: July, 2018

Winning the hard-won fight

I’m not the sort of chap who goes to marches and demos. I see all these pictures from the anti-Trump demonstrations, and the anti-Brexit demonstrations, and the anti-this and the anti-that and the ‘Stop Thatcher’, and it all just turns me off. It’s good to be against these things. They are wicked and harmful, and one should oppose them.

But it all puts us on the back foot. The agenda has been set since the late 1970s by the right – first the neoliberal right and now by the neofascist right (I use the term with caution, but without exaggeration).

We (by which I mean all who believe in world where liberal-democratic freedom is preserved within an economy based on social-democratic justice) have to get out of the habit of opposing, and into the habit of proposing.

We have to do the hard work of building a better future, because the future we otherwise face is pretty grim, and no inflatable balloon is going to fix it. We must be prepared to do the hard intellectual work of understanding problems and developing better alternatives; the hard moral work of calling people to a higher standard of justice, ethics and integrity – and holding ourselves to those standard; the hard organisational work of building movements and coalitions; the hard communicative work of reaching out to people and making those alternatives attractive.

None of that is achieved by a nice day out feeling good about ourselves in the sunshine with an ‘Trump is a fanny’ banner. Those who do that are on the side of the good, and I don’t want to criticise them.

I do, however, want to challenge their methods. When I was at BRNC Dartmouth, I was introduced to the ‘Principles of War’ – a set of guiding principles to be applied to military campaigning, distilled from history. Those principles are equally applicable to any other form of human struggle, from the sporting to the political, where one side must defeat the other to avoid being defeated.

Let no one be under any illusions. We are necessarily engaged in a great struggle for human freedom, justice and dignity – a struggle which echoes that of the 1930s, and which will require a resolute and coordinated effort if we are to avoid catastrophe. I would ask those celebrating their pyrrhic victory over Trump what they have actually achieved – or hope to achieve – in terms of changing policy and winning hearts and minds. How do they look to the people who voted for Trump, or to the people in the UK who want a Trump of their own? I’d ask them to consider whether, in practice, their efforts are the most effective way to help the cause.

I fear that what we are seeing in these marches and demonstrations is the political equivalent to an Arab army: ill-disciplined, badly led, poorly trained, with a dysfunctional or non-existent logistics tail, and riddled with internal tribal factions which prevent it from operating as a coherent whole. They are shooting their guns in the air, making a lot of noise, and having a very fun time of it, while waiting to be annihilated by a better organised and more disciplined adversary.

Democracy is in peril. The achievements of the 20th century are about to be undone, because the lessons of the 20th century are being forgotten. It’s time to stop merely opposing and start building; start preparing to take and hold ground.

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Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope in years to come?

Imagine being a Roman pagan in the fourth century AD. The tide of time is against you. The old gods you cling to are shorn of credibility and public honour. The rites seem obscure and arcane, and the old priests who can still practice them are corrupt and dithering. Your temples falling into ruins. Your philosophy and culture are neglected.

To me, that’s sometimes what it feels like being a Christian in 21st century Western Europe. I wonder whether some day soon, people will wander around St Paul’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey as we might climb over the ruins of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. Perhaps, for most people, that what these building already are: anachronistic monuments, relics of a former age, reminders of a civilisation that has passed away and of a system of belief that just cannot be believed in any more.

How long can we cling on, as a misunderstood minority whose beliefs seem incredible and whose lay of life seems absurd? Is it really true? Is the Holy Spirit going to turn all this around? Or might we just as well pray to Jupiter and Minerva?

Maybe we really are ‘living in the last days’ – not in a crazy dispensationalist ‘rapture-ready’ sense, but simply in the sense that Christianity is fading out into nothingness, drifting away, and leaving behind just amoral rational egoism, consumerism, and soulless techno-capitalism. That is, if we are not all swept under the merciless hooves of radical Islam first.

That would be a terrible loss for humanity. But sometimes I fear it is almost an inevitable one. And at a time when 81% of White evangelicals in the US voted for Trump – a man whose policy involves ripping children out of the arms of their poor frightened mothers and putting them in cages – one wonders whether saving Christianity is worth the effort. Perhaps Christianity has become so morally lost itself that it deserves to die.

I don’t know how to respond to this. It seems to me that the crisis we are facing is not merely a constitutional crisis, an economic crisis, or a political crisis, but a civilisational and moral crisis – a crisis which ultimately stems from the mass abandonment of the theological roots which held Western civilisation together. Perhaps, without the True Vine, everything withers.

Perhaps I should be doing more to tend that vine. I don’t know. It all seems so terribly bleak.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon us

Thoughts on the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The Spanish-American war of 1898 is perhaps one of the world’s forgotten wars, but it is well worth studying. It took place at an interesting time in the development of military technology, when the rapid firing rifle was beginning to show its destructive power, previewing the conditions of slaughter and stalemate that marked the First World War.

From a PSYOPs/Media Ops perspective it is fascinating, too. It was provoked by means of what is now known to have been a ‘false-flag’ operation, when the explosion on the USS Maine was blamed on the Spanish. Because of developing media technologies, it was the first war to be shown to the public at home through cinema newsreels, and – in an age of mass communications, mass literacy and mass democracy, it was perhaps the first true ‘media war’ (at least from the American side).

More importantly, the ‘War of 1898’ was strategically important for twentieth century history. It was the war which launched the US as an imperial power – giving it dominion over Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines, and opening up the Pacific as well as the Caribbean to US influence.

The loss of those colonies finally ended the Spanish Empire, causing a political shockwave in Spain which, amongst other things, lead to the modern Catalan national movement, the collapse of Spain’s fragile democracy (established under the Constitution of 1874 but never properly consolidated), and a period of political instability which ended in the Civil War and Franco.

One could even argue that the Spanish-American war was responsible for bringing the US into the Second World War (because its presence in the Pacific brought it into tension with Japan) and for keeping Spain out of the Second World War (because it was a defeated, demoralised power, which could only look inwards and backwards).

All of this is to say that by the end of today, I’m supposed to provide an analysis of proposed reforms to the Constitution of the Philippines – a country about which I know nothing, other than the old saying that it spent ‘400 years in a monastery’ (under Spanish rule) and ’50 years in a brothel’ (under American rule).

Some points about the BBC

1. No doubt mid-level staff do take issues of ‘fairness and balance’ seriously, but the question of what is considered ‘fairness’ and ‘balance’ depends very much on your perspective, and what you regard as legitimate vs illegitimate criticism. I suspect that there is quite a lot of implicit, unacknowledged group-think in that regard – not least in terms of who is recruited, and the processes of internal socialisation into the institutional culture. Even when it has tried to be impartial between the main UK-wide political parties, it has always seen its role as defending and promoting a ‘British national interest’ which necessarily means drawing a line between what is, and what is not, in that interest – and that means making political decisions. Look at how it fawns and grovels on royal occasions.

2. There is a reputable study of BBC bias on the Scottish independence referendum – showing how timing, framing and other techniques were used to portray independence in a bad light, without being so obvious as to entirely exclude pro-independence voices. For me, this forever and totally destroyed the BBC’s reputation for integrity and impartiality.

3. This is an institution where the directors are appointed by the government (Secretary of State for Culture last time I checked), overseen by a parliament committee in which the government have a majority, which is ultimately dependent on the government for funding (renewal of license fee), and which is structured on the basis of a Royal Charter which the government can change at will – what about that institutional set up makes one for a moment suspect that such an institution could be capable of being ‘fair and balanced’ even if it wanted to be? It has always been a semi-official organ of the British government, and has always been subject to subtle and non-so-subtle political influence.

4. There is a lot of overlap, at the top levels, between the BBC’s news and current affairs staff and the political elite – mostly Tories these days, but also Blairite Labour in the 1990s, following the political patronage of the day. The ‘revolving door’ between party politics and the BBC is very much open. Like when a certain senior former politician whose name I will not mention was put in charge, and he refused to give up his Conservative party membership.

5. This doesn’t detract from its excellent comedy, light entertainment, cultural and educational output – although one could argue that even much of that promotes a certain view of the world which is Anglo-centric and deferential.

6. For-profit, corporately owned media would probably worse. I’m not one of those ‘abolish the BBC’ types. But changes to its governance structures, to fix points 3 and 4, and perhaps to shift the institutional culture to fix point 1, would be very helpful.