Uninvited guest, but I entertained it – as briefly as I could

The Irish Times arrived uninvited on my doorstep this morning. This paper presents itself to Ireland as the country’s paper of record – a meaningless designation in this age of information overload, even when a fair attempt is being made to match up to the description. Which is not the case with The Irish Times.

I hope that the paper’s circulation woes are not so dire that its desperate promotion team is going to inflict it presence on me again in the near future. Trying to be fair and open-minded, I read it from cover to cover. That simply confirmed my standing judgement that this is an organ dedicated, not to truth, not to balanced opinions, but to the slow erosion of the Christian ethos which was once a dominant feature of Irish culture.

The was hardly a page which did not carry something which served this purpose. Certainly the was no contribution touching on any aspect of what remains of Ireland’s residual Christian belief and practice which did not either subtly or not so subtly seek to damage it. Even the reasoned appeal of Catholic leaders to permit practising faithful to have access to the channels of grace was challenged.

All right. The periodic test for infection in this organ has been completed again. Result? Positive. It is as toxic as ever.

Desperate but dangerous posturing?

Keith Olbermann: “Terrorist Trump” And His Enablers And Supporters Must Be “Removed From Our Society”

If this frightening rant is not the voice of totalitarian fascism what is? It is a hatred generator which goes far beyond anything I have heard President Trump accused of.

“Trump can be, and must be, expunged. The hate he has triggered, Pandora’s boxes he has opened, they will not be so easily destroyed.

“So, let us brace ourselves. The task is two-fold: the terrorist Trump must be defeated, must be destroyed, must be devoured at the ballot box, and then he, and his enablers, and his supporters, and his collaborators, and the Mike Lees and the William Barrs, and Sean Hannitys, and the Mike Pences, and the Rudy Gullianis and the Kyle Rittenhouses and the Amy Coney Barretts must be prosecuted and convicted and removed from our society while we try to rebuild it and to rebuild the world Trump has destroyed by turning it over to a virus.

“Remember it, even as we dream for a return to reality and safety and the country for which our forefathers died, that the fight is not just to win the election, but to win it by enough to chase — at least for a moment — Trump and the maggots off the stage and then try to clean up what they left”

Pity the poor American electorate. What choice have they when one of the alternatives is this poisonous bile?

But is Olbermann‘s dangerous rant just a desperate attempt to stave off the scenario which Robert Hutchinson gives us here?

Something worth looking at

Martin Ivan’s online introduction to last week’s Times Literary Supplement:

OCTOBER 2, 2020

In this issue

This week my two sons go back to college and an uncertain future. As the first Ivens “in a thousand generations to be able to get to university” (copyright N. Kinnock) I remember my parents’ pride and curiosity when I left home with a full maintenance grant and an open scholarship burning in my pocket. That my father, a polymathic poet, had been forced to leave a fine school at fourteen to support his family made the experience more poignant.

Autres temps. My children have already lost almost two academic terms to Covid. They pay a small fortune in tuition fees and accommodation costs for Zoom learning. The eldest, a student at Manchester University, keenly follows events at neighbouring Manchester Metropolitan University where 1,700 students have been told to self-isolate for fourteen days, even if they have no symptoms.

In our lead feature Joe Moran laments the limitations of a digital education. Good may come from evil – “the sacred form of the hour-long, real-time lecture probably needed shaking up”, he writes – but for poor scholars without access to a computer or a quiet space it is a hard life. In any case, “students may be surgically attached to their phones, but that does not mean they should live whole lives online”. In order to flourish students need “time and space to develop their gifts”, through “organic and serendipitous encounters.”

The value of that university experience derives from reason, debate and tolerance. In his review of Cynical Theories by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Simon Jenkins fears that American habits of intolerance have crossed the Atlantic: “Today more than 50 per cent of British universities have been forced formally ‘to restrict speech, especially certain views of religion and trans identity’”. Even engineering must be “reconceptualised” to make it “sensitive to difference, power and privilege”. He observes, “I am not sure I would want to cross a woke bridge”. At a deeper level Jenkins believes that the politics of group identity “privileges some groups to the neglect of others, such as the poor, the alienated, the disempowered”.

Tolerance is a two-way street. Stephanie Burt celebrates the Transgender Tipping Point reached in America by 2014: “More people, some of them famous, came out as trans, which led to more social acceptance, which led to more people coming out”. She looks to “a future in which gender roles and identities are something you get to try on, or try out”. The TLS is a broad church.

Martin Ivens

Media Meltdown?

Given our strange and uncertain current political and cultural landscape, it is probably

Given our strange and uncertain current political and cultural landscape, it is probably inevitable, but it is still a strange inversion. News itself continues to make news and be the news. And it’s not good news.

Whatever about the rest of the world it is true that in the anglophone world too much of mainstream media is in the doghouse. That is the only term you can use to describe where a sizeable number of formerly proud institutions with an important part to play in our democracies now find themselves.

The anti-social mobs on social media are certainly part of this story. But they are not the only problem, taking at will whatever scalps they see crossing their woke horizons. Real mobs are now on the march. Not content with the news organizations they have already intimidated and infiltrated they are now opening new fronts. Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists have this weekend disrupted the production and distribution of several national newspapers in Britain, after blocking access to three printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch. Printing presses across England and Scotland were successfully targeted. Eighty people were arrested. On Thursday, more than 300 people were arrested during protests in central London.

XR has accused the newspapers and their owners of “failure to report on the climate and ecological emergency” and “polluting national debate” on dozens of social issues. Ten more days of action are planned to put pressure on the government “to do more to act on climate change”. The irony of all this is that they already have much of the media on their side.

But, we might say, mobs will be mobs. Let us just grin and bear it until the storm passes – as these storms invariably do. The more worrying phenomenon now is that the news organizations themselves are being unduly influenced by the new pseudo-morality which is driving all this. Powerful cliques within some major news outlets, in thrall to the same mobs, are stabbing with their steely knives any of their own who seem to stray from the paths set for them by the pre-determined historical forces which, as good neo-Marxists, they see carrying them relentlessly to our future.

In Britain earlier this year Alastair Stewart, the urbane anchor of one of the main evening news programmes, rolled off the block on the pretext of an ambiguous remark on Twitter, duly deemed to be racist. Several months later his wounds are again the subject of examination in a full-page profile in a weekend broadsheet.

In the US we are having instances almost on a weekly basis. James Bennet, editorial page editor at The New York Times fell on his sword in June for allowing the publication of an unacceptable opinion. Then, not long after, Bari Weiss, an acolyte of Bennet’s, also an editor and writer for the paper’s opinion section, resigned, citing what she said was unchecked bullying from colleagues. In an open letter to the paper she depicted the news organization as a place where the free exchange of ideas was no longer welcome. The Wall Street Journal was also in the news-about-the-news because of rumblings from the shop floor complaining about what was  essentially the paper’s disregard for the principles of the “new morality.” The NYT reported on a letter from a group of Journal staff calling for “more muscular reporting about race and social inequities,” as well as scepticism toward business and government leaders.

In another context one would not fault a group of staff expressing opinions and even disapproval of aspects of the standards of a news organisation. That is a right. This all becomes a worry when it is put in the context of the current readiness of the new moralists to suspend the freedom of those who do not just differ from them but who are deemed in any way not to be singing from the approved hymn-sheet of the New Church of Critical Theory.

What happened to Alastair Stewart?

In January he was obliged to admit to “errors of judgment” in the wake of a Twitter exchange with a black man in which he quoted a Shakespeare passage including the phrase “angry ape”. Reaction of colleagues across the industry who defended him was not enough to save his career with the broadcaster. “I would never use the word ‘racist’ and his name in the same sentence,” said Ranvir Singh, political editor of ITV’s Good Morning Britain. ITV news anchor Julie Etchingham added: “Al is a trusted friend and guide to many of us.” Despite that and much more ITN cut ties with Stewart, 68, claiming he had breached editorial guidelines by quoting the line from Measure to Measure. Why? Because if they did not, the mob would be after them and after the mob sounding the hue and cry the big corporations, now also in the grip of the ‘new morality’ would be pulling their already fragile advertising revenue.

Stewart has been quiet over the months since that traumatic event. Last week he was in a calm reflective mood about it all when he spoke to the Daily Telegraph in a long interview. He talked, not about himself, but about the state of media today.

In 1976, prior to his first job with ITV, he spoke to Frank Copplestone, then managing director. Copplestone asked: ‘So you’re broad left?’ “I said, ‘Yes’. And he said: ‘Right, if we give you a job, all of that stays at the door. You come in here and you leave all of it behind you’. It was almost a throwaway line and was the most profound and influential observation in my entire professional life. I’ve clung to it, not only because it’s right but it helps.” 

But he sees how social media has now distorted the whole picture. Partly to blame is a belief “that you can say what you want online. Broadcasters think they can be someone else online, that they can be chameleon-like but they can’t.” He remembers the late ITV News At Ten host and former editor of The Economist, Alastair Burnet: “He always used to say: ‘Never ever forget, it’s the news that’s the star. It’s not you – you’re just lucky enough to impart it’.”

Then there is the salutary little horror story of Andrew Sullivan’s recent run-in with the New York Times. They decided to run a profile of him – again because he was news-about-the news. The hook was that he was forced to leave New York magazine last month because, according to the NYT, he had not publicly recanted editing an issue of the New Republic published… in 1994. The issue was a symposium on The Bell Curve, a book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein that explored the connection between IQ, class, social mobility and race.

“My crime”, he explained in a Spectator article last week, “was to arrange a symposium around an extract, with 13 often stinging critiques published alongside it. The fact that I had not recanted that decision did not, mind you, prevent Time, the Atlantic, Newsweek, the NYT, and New York magazine from publishing me in the following years. But suddenly, a decision I made a quarter of a century ago required my being cancelled. The NYT reporter generously gave me a chance to apologise and recant, and when I replied that I thought the role of genetics in intelligence among different human populations was still an open question, he had his headline: ‘I won’t stop reading Andrew Sullivan, but I can’t defend him.’

“In other words, the media reporter in America’s paper of record said he could not defend a writer because I refused to say something I don’t believe. He said this while arguing that I was ‘one of the most influential journalists of the last three decades’. To be fair to him, he would have had no future at the NYT if he had not called me an indefensible racist. His silence on that would have been as unacceptable to his woke bosses as my refusal to recant. But this is where we now are. A reporter is in fear of being cancelled if he doesn’t cancel someone else. This is America returning to its roots. As in Salem.”

These instances of wokeness as it continues to poison our public life – politics and media – are but the tip of an iceberg. We are in big trouble. One hopes that the “Second Law” – no, not that of thermodynamics – often quoted by James Ehrendorf, a character in The Singapore Grip, J.G. Farrell’s novel about the last days of that British outpost as the Japanese descended on it in 1941, doesn’t spell out the future for our public square. It runs: “In human affairs, things tend inevitably to go wrong. Things are slightly worse at any given moment than at any preceding moment.”

, but it is still a strange inversion. News itself continues to make news and be the news. And it’s not good news.

Whatever about the rest of the world it is true that in the anglophone world too much of mainstream media is in the doghouse. That is the only term you can use to describe where a sizeable number of formerly proud institutions with an important part to play in our democracies now find themselves.

The anti-social mobs on social media are certainly part of this story. But they are not the only problem, taking at will whatever scalps they see crossing their woke horizons. Real mobs are now on the march. Not content with the news organizations they have already intimidated and infiltrated they are now opening new fronts. Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists have this weekend disrupted the production and distribution of several national newspapers in Britain, after blocking access to three printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch. Printing presses across England and Scotland were successfully targeted. Eighty people were arrested. On Thursday, more than 300 people were arrested during protests in central London.

XR has accused the newspapers and their owners of “failure to report on the climate and ecological emergency” and “polluting national debate” on dozens of social issues. Ten more days of action are planned to put pressure on the government “to do more to act on climate change”. The irony of all this is that they already have much of the media on their side.

But, we might say, mobs will be mobs. Let us just grin and bear it until the storm passes – as these storms invariably do. The more worrying phenomenon now is that the news organizations themselves are being unduly influenced by the new pseudo-morality which is driving all this. Powerful cliques within some major news outlets, in thrall to the same mobs, are stabbing with their steely knives any of their own who seem to stray from the paths set for them by the pre-determined historical forces which, as good neo-Marxists, they see carrying them relentlessly to our future.

In Britain earlier this year Alastair Stewart, the urbane anchor of one of the main evening news programmes, rolled off the block on the pretext of an ambiguous remark on Twitter, duly deemed to be racist. Several months later his wounds are again the subject of examination in a full-page profile in a weekend broadsheet.

In the US we are having instances almost on a weekly basis. James Bennet, editorial page editor at The New York Times fell on his sword in June for allowing the publication of an unacceptable opinion. Then, not long after, Bari Weiss, an acolyte of Bennet’s, also an editor and writer for the paper’s opinion section, resigned, citing what she said was unchecked bullying from colleagues. In an open letter to the paper she depicted the news organization as a place where the free exchange of ideas was no longer welcome. The Wall Street Journal was also in the news-about-the-news because of rumblings from the shop floor complaining about what was  essentially the paper’s disregard for the principles pf the “new morality.” The NYT reported on a letter from a group of Journal staff calling for “more muscular reporting about race and social inequities,” as well as skepticism toward business and government leaders.

In another context one would not fault a group of staff expressing opinions and even disapproval of aspects of the standards of a news organisation. That is a right. This all becomes a worry when it is put in the context of the current readiness of the new moralists to suspend the freedom of those who do not just differ from them but who are deemed in any way not to be singing from the approved hymn-sheet of the New Church of Critical Theory.

What happened to Alastair Stewart?

In January he was obliged to admit to “errors of judgment” in the wake of a Twitter exchange with a black man in which he quoted a Shakespeare passage including the phrase “angry ape”. Reaction of colleagues across the industry who defended him was not enough to save his career with the broadcaster. “I would never use the word ‘racist’ and his name in the same sentence,” said Ranvir Singh, political editor of ITV’s Good Morning Britain. ITV news anchor Julie Etchingham added: “Al is a trusted friend and guide to many of us.” Despite that an much more ITN cut ties with Stewart, 68, claiming he had breached editorial guidelines by quoting the line from Measure to Measure. Why? Because if they did not the mob would be after them and after the mob sounding the hue and cry the big corporations, now also in the grip of the ‘new morality’ would be pulling their already fragile advertising revenue.

Stewart has been quiet over the months since that traumatic event. Last week he was in a clam reflective mood about it all when he spoke to the Daily Telegraph in a long interview. He talked, not about himself, but about the state of media today.

In 1976, prior to his first job with ITV, he spoke to Frank Copplestone, then managing director. Copplestone asked: ‘So you’re broad left?’ “I said, ‘Yes’. And he said: ‘Right, if we give you a job, all of that stays at the door. You come in here and you leave all of it behind you’. It was almost a throwaway line and was the most profound and influential observation in my entire professional life. I’ve clung to it, not only because it’s right but it helps.” 

But he sees how social media has now distorted the whole picture. Partly to blame is a belief “that you can say what you want online. Broadcasters think they can be someone else online, that they can be chameleon-like but they can’t.” He remembers the late ITV News At Ten host and former editor of The Economist, Alastair Burnet: “He always used to say: ‘Never ever forget, it’s the news that’s the star. It’s not you – you’re just lucky enough to impart it’.”

Then there is the salutory little horror story of Andrew Sullivan’s recent run-in with the New York Times. They decided to run a profile of him – again because he was news-about-the news. The hook was that he was forced to leave New York magazine last month because, according to the NYT, he had not publicly recanted editing an issue of the New Republic published… in 1994. The issue was a symposium on The Bell Curve, a book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein that explored the connection between IQ, class, social mobility and race.

“My crime”, he explained in a Spectator article last week, “was to arrange a symposium around an extract, with 13 often stinging critiques published alongside it. The fact I had not recanted that decision did not, mind you, prevent Time, the Atlantic, Newsweek, the NYT, and New York magazine from publishing me in the following years. But suddenly, a decision I made a quarter of a century ago required my being cancelled. The NYT reporter generously gave me a chance to apologise and recant, and when I replied that I thought the role of genetics in intelligence among different human populations was still an open question, he had his headline: ‘I won’t stop reading Andrew Sullivan, but I can’t defend him.’

“In other words, the media reporter in America’s paper of record said he could not defend a writer because I refused to say something I don’t believe. He said this while arguing that I was ‘one of the most influential journalists of the last three decades’. To be fair to him, he would have had no future at the NYT if he had not called me an indefensible racist. His silence on that would have been as unacceptable to his woke bosses as my refusal to recant. But this is where we now are. A reporter is in fear of being cancelled if he doesn’t cancel someone else. This is America returning to its roots. As in Salem.”

These instances of wokeness as it continues to poison our public life – politics and media – are but the tip of an iceberg. We are in big trouble. One hopes that the “Second Law” – no, not that of thermodynamics – often quoted by James Ehrendorf, a character in The Singapore Grip, J.G. Farrell’s novel about the last days of that British outpost as the Japanese descended on it in 1941, doesn’t spell out the future for our public square. It runs: “In human affairs, things tend inevitably to go wrong. Things are slightly worse at any given moment than at any preceding moment.”

Tale of an Old Rabbit

This will be a long read – but well worth a visit after nearly 23 years. It is Tom Junod’s account in Esquire of his meetings with Fred Rogers – famed as ‘Mister Rogers’ of The Neighbourhood. This recently became the subject of the film, A Beautiful Day In the Neighbourhood.

it’s not a bad post to put beside my previous one, Twilight of the gods? Now also posted on MercatorNet as Can societies abandon religion and continue to prosper?

Junod begins his story like this.

Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how. He prayed for Old Rabbit’s safe return, and when, hours later, his mother and father came home with the filthy, precious strip of rabbity roadkill, he learned not only that prayers are sometimes answered but also the kind of severe effort they entail, the kind of endless frantic summoning. And so when he threw Old Rabbit out the car window the next time, it was gone for good.

Read on here.

Twilight of the gods?

The interplay of trauma, existential insecurity, and general woe, and the story of mankind’s belief in another life, in God or in gods, seems to persist throughout the ages. We have the Great Flood accounts in both Gilgamesh and in The Bible – given in one as a story of man’s correction by his gods, in the other as an account of the One True God’s solution to man’s waywardness. Then later on in the sacred Judaea-Christian texts, we have the account of the lessons learned by the Israelites about their God’s providence for them through the agency of plagues as they battle with a Pharaoh who has enslaved them. Later their woes in the desert continue to play a part in bringing them back to their supernatural senses as they stray and stray again from their divinely ordered path.

But alongside this persistent narrative we have the seemingly parallel story of mankind’s efforts to deny any agency to a Creator in our lives and a consequent story of punishment for our hubristic follies – from Babel to the Marxist-Leninist utopias of our own time. Are we in the entrance hall of another of these today? An article in the current edition of Foreign Affairs seems to suggest we might be.

Back in 2004 a book appeared, Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan. They noted the argument of nineteenth-century social thinkers – from Karl Marx to Max Weber to Émile Durkheim – that the progress of modernity entailed the decline of religion.

Modernization, the authors of Sacred and Secular argued, has involved the rise of rational-bureaucratic states and the gradual displacement of ecclesiastical authority with that of professional and technocratic elites. But they detected, in those early years of this century, a slow-down in this projection. The Tower of Babel projected by Marx had collapsed; that of Weber and Durkheim looked more doubtful in the face of what seemed to be a resurgence of religiosity and a reversal of what had looked like a global trend toward secularization.

This observation was based on what they described as extensive worldwide survey data. To explain what they thought was happening, Norris and Inglehart advanced an “existential security” thesis: the experience of people living in weak and vulnerable societies heightens the importance of religious values, whereas the experience of people in rich and secure societies lessens it. But, supporting their thesis, they found that in most developed countries church attendance and the authority of religious figures had continued to decline, despite what looked like an overall resurgence of religion worldwide.

But now, in 2020, Inglehart is revisiting and updating the data and finds that growing numbers of people no longer find religion a necessary source of support and meaning in their lives. Even the United States—long cited as proof that an economically advanced society can be strongly religious—seems to have joined other wealthy countries in moving away from religion. 

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he sees several forces driving this apparent trend, but the most powerful one is the waning hold of a set of beliefs closely linked to the imperative of maintaining high birth-rates. Modern societies have become less religious in part because they no longer need to uphold the kinds of gender and sexual norms that the major world religions have instilled for centuries.

Some religious conservatives, he says, warn that the retreat from faith will lead to a collapse of social cohesion and public morality. He disputes this, saying that the evidence doesn’t support the claim. 

As unexpected as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than more religious ones. Needless to say, religion itself doesn’t encourage corruption and crime. This phenomenon reflects the fact that as societies develop, survival becomes more secure: starvation, once pervasive, becomes uncommon; life expectancy increases; murder and other forms of violence diminish. And as this level of security rises, people tend to become less religious.

But surely the polarisation and fracturing of modern societies, increase in suicide rates, family  dysfunction and break-up, all place a big question mark over these assumptions? Rigorous and reasonably effective law-enforcement – brutal or not, depending on your point of view, – huge prison populations, may cover-up a multitude of sins.

Is the argument being advanced by Inglehart not flawed by its failure to take cognisance of one crucial element in the architecture of the reality that is the faith of a people – or peoples – in God? The modernist mind-set proposes a blanket denial of the validity of what theology proposes to us for consideration as truth. In doing so it fails to make any allowance for the very real forces which have driven the history of religion from time immemorial. Consequently, end-of-religion predictions are at best questionable, at worst, hopelessly flawed. One might have thought that the abysmal fate of Marxism in its raw communist form would have raised more questions in more minds than it has. Equally the slow pace of the unfolding of the Weber and Durkheim theses hardly inspires confidence – not to mention the doubts we should be having about the chaotic and pitiable pickle in which the neo-Marxist new morality of political correctness has landed us

It may be true that, as Inglehart says, for most people, religious faith is more emotional than cognitive. It may also be true that for most of human history, sheer survival was uncertain and that religion provided assurance that the world was in the hands of an infallible higher power (or powers) who promised that, if one followed the rules, things would ultimately work out for the best. In a world where people often lived near starvation, religion helped them cope with severe uncertainty and stress. He says that as economic and technological development took place, people became increasingly able to escape starvation, cope with disease, and suppress violence. Does this, however, mean that their faith in a higher power was necessarily illusory. When a child no longer needs the support and protection of a parent that does not cancel out the relationship and bond which nature has given them.

If the overall thesis is that the only factors governing the future of mankind are those recognised by the materialist modern mind, then it is a very limited one. Uniting good political science and sociology with the entire corpus of theology and Christian doctrine as it has developed down through two millennia will give us a much more useful reading of what the future might look like than will a Babelesque go-it-alone mind-set. The corpus of the Judean-Christian Scriptures – with their prophesies, parables and accounts of historical events –  still gives us essential resources for interpreting and coping with the events – and follies – of our times.

There can be no doubt but that, as Inglehart says, a quantifiable shift has occurred. Data collected in the World Values Survey over the years offer a glimpse of a deep transformation. The survey uses a ten-point scale based on each country’s acceptance of what might be called the core values of the secularist worldview, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. The numbers presented by this survey they say, while offering a simplified picture of a complex reality, still convey the scale of the recent acceleration of secularization.

But we should surely remind ourselves that the folly of mankind down the ages has come in many shapes and sizes. Not everyone sees divorce, abortion, and the varieties of abuse of sexuality – and the gender-bending which has come in its wake – as marks of progress for mankind. To those who accept the truth of what Revelation and Christian theology tell us about our nature, our society and our destiny, the lazy acceptance of all these things as normal surely needs to be questioned, regardless how many people we count climbing the Tower of Babel.

Inglehart concludes with this observation.

As societies develop from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, growing existential security tends to reduce the importance of religion in people’s lives, and people become less obedient to traditional religious leaders and institutions. That trend seems likely to continue, but the future is always uncertain. Pandemics such as the COVID-19 one reduce people’s sense of existential security. If the pandemic lasts for many years or leads to a new Great Depression, the cultural changes of recent decades might begin to reverse.

On balance, he thinks that shift remains unlikely, “because it would run counter to the powerful, long-term, technology-driven trend of growing prosperity and increased life expectancy that is helping push people away from religion. If that trend continues, the influence that traditional religious authorities wield over public morality will keep shrinking as a culture of growing tolerance becomes ever stronger.”

But the ultimate fallacy which this blinkered vision seems to lead to is that religion is held together among believers by a human agency wielding authority “over public morality”. Any overview of the history of the most durable religion on earth – the Judaea-Christian religion – will show that its persistence in the face of repeated onslaughts of fire, dungeon and sword, points to a much deeper and ultimately more powerful agency – the mystery of a belief in a man who said he was the Son of God, born of the Virgin, who suffered death by crucifixion and rose again, all to save us.

The limited vision of religion which seems to predict, once more, its slow demise, fails to acknowledge the power of a much longer-term factor in the equation – those mysterious forces in which mankind believes and for which theology gives us names and some understanding: divine mercy, divine grace and divine providence. Only if we take account of all this will serious sociology and political science offer us a reasonable basis for working out where we are going and how we might best set a path to the pursuit of true happiness for future generations.

Fiction that takes us a step beyond

There is a genre of fiction with which not everyone may feel comfortable. It either suggests a holier-than-thou sanctimoniousness or worse, a touch of the sect about it. But there is no getting away from it. It exists – and it has to exist. It is the “Catholic novel”.

This not just a genre in which Catholicism is the subject chosen by the authors. It is literature in which the authors, for good or for ill, cannot escape from the Catholic faith – or the culture of that faith and the condition of that culture in the time and place in which they may live. The authors may be practicing Catholics, doubt-filled Catholics, or lapsed Catholics.

What we see in this genre of fiction is a trace in the soul of the author. It is a trace which has enables a writer to tell something of the story of their faith, their vision of what it is to be human – and to be divine. Joyce did this – rebelling against much, but not all, of it; Waugh did it – exuberantly; Greene did it with some kind of a twist all his own. Some did it with a grim preoccupation with our sinfulness, others did it rejoicing more in our redemption.

The English novel in the nineteenth century had a good deal of it, much of it from people who were denominational Protestants rather than Catholics but in whom enough of the old faith still lived to give them a Christian vision of the human condition.  We will find it in Dickens, in the Brontes and in the earlier George Eliot. But by the time of Hardy, James, Conrad and Woolf, we enter into the age of denial – and a denial which is deep in the heart, not just in the head – as it was in Joyce. I don’t think Joyce really believed his disbelief. He had too much affection for the good people whom he loved and who believed. In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries this is really only be found in Catholic writers.

Ann Patchett is a 21st century novelist who is a Catholic and who really understands how, in her fiction, her Catholic mind and heart are important to her vision of our world and its meaning. That surely is what makes her writing so authentic. She says that she is writing for herself. In an interview she has said that she wondered if people are buying her novels and “using them as building material or putting additions on their house with them or something.” 

“But I know”, she says, “there’s some way in which I don’t make that fundamental connection between what I do in the privacy of my home when I’m sitting in my study working and what somebody else is doing in the privacy of their home years later when they’re sitting in their study reading. I don’t write for an audience.” She writes from within and she expects her readers to recreate within themselves what her writing means to them.

Another interpretation of that position – and one that is founded on the christian experience – is that fiction at this level is nothing more or less than prayer, a conversation with not just the creator of what we are reading, but with the Creator of all things. That is the essence of the Catholic novel, and an essence of which not the slightest trace will be found in the writing of someone whose vision has been obscured or obliterated by the scales of materialism which cloud their eyes. Surely this is what makes so much late 20th century and contemporary fiction so empty and unrewarding for the the human spirit.

What we are looking at in this genre of fiction is not some kind of sanctimonious posturing for a niche market. No doubt that market exists and there are writers who set out to supply it. But when we receive a gift of the genuine product from a writer like Patchett we are in fact receiving a kind of grace, an insight which they give us of a wider world, a world beyond both us and them. The capability of what they give us may be positive and pleasing or it may be negative, showing us something regrettable but none the less real and therefore worth receiving. Catholic literary fiction has about it something of the character of sacred prophesy.

Patchett has said, “Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.”

To do that I think you really need to know something about the human soul and its destiny. Patchett was once asked why Catholics who both adore and sometimes struggle with their faith play such a major role in her stories? “Because I am one, both adoring and struggling. I went to Catholic schools for 12 years, and it’s just so much a part of the fabric of my life that I would have a hard time picking it out of things. It’s not that I’m trying to put it into my writing. It’s that I would have a hard time getting it out.”

Speaking of the emphasis Catholic morality places on virtue, she explained the influence of her upbringing and education in a recent interview with the London Evening Standard:

“The nuns raised us to believe that poverty was the most noble calling, the very best thing you could be if you were spiritually evolved,” she says. “So I’m horrified by what I have, and as much as I give away and try to do the right thing, I know I don’t try hard enough.” In her most recent book, this virtue is a major theme. “I was coming at it from those two polarities: the worship of wealth and the worship of poverty.”

In The Dutch House Patchett tells a story, and if she allows me the license she gives her readers, I read it as a funny but also a sad, poignant story. It is not so only because of the real, funny and flawed people who populate it, but because of what it tells about the neglect of many virtues in popular Catholic culture today. At the centre of the novel is the eponymous Dutch House and the influence it seems to have on all the characters whose lives it touches. What does it represent? It represents both wealth and beauty and the corrupting power of both. But at the same time the story reveals how good people can free themselves from this influence and let it become something benign and enriching.

It is a story of a girl and a boy growing into adulthood over about four decades. It is the story of their relationship with their parents, a step-parent and step-sisters, the boy’s wife and the children of that family, along with serveral other major and minor characters who play key roles in their story. The non-linear narrative takes us backwards and forwards through the decades with the girl and the boy, Maeve – five or six years older – and Daniel, one or other, never off the pages from beginning to end. None of the central characters is shown to be flawless. Some we experience as irritatingly so, others tragically so. Big mistakes are made by some which end up punishing others and for which the subjects themselves are punished. But there are no villains, they are all simply fallible human beings like ourselves and those we see around us every day. They are also people who, with varying degrees of depth, live with a consciousness that there is a truth beyond this world and that moral values are real – even iif they do not always live by them. Their faith, for the most part Catholic, is a real element in their lives. That a novel set in this context, in our secular age, has resonated so powerfully with readers around the world is remarkable.

But perhaps that very resonance owes something to the way in which this novel also says something to us about the wider picture it gives us of the state of Catholic culture in this age – with not a little suggestion that it is slowly evaporating before the onslaught of the now dominant materialistic and individualistic ethos. These human being could exist anywhere but in this story they exist in mid-twentieth century America. The children’s parents are Irish American Catholics. The children grow up as Catholics, conscientiously go to Mass every Sunday – although as their family begins to unravel the older and more conscientious sibling eventually is unable to persuade Daniel to get out of bed to do so. Then there is divorce, there is co-habitation, contraception – all still with a recognition of the moral waywardness of those things. But as time passes the moral sense weakens and these things become easier to live with. The ease with which the moral environment slowly dissolves is an accurate reflection of the way we have seen it all happen over those decades up to the present age. As we know, we now live in a time when for the children and the grandchildren of the characters in this story, the characteristic response to the question of what religious culture they adhere to is simply “none”.

As I said, I am reading Ann Patchett with the presumed license she gives her readers to to see in her writing a meaning which we cannot presume is her own. But as well as telling the story of the Dutch House and all the characters whose lives it touches, she is also inevitably portraying a culture as it has evolved, for better or worse, over the times she has chosen in which to set this story. For me that broader cultural story is a sad one, devoid of the humour and goodness evident in the lives of the characters she has so engagingly created for us. But that sadness is not something she is responsible for. That is something for which we ourselves have to take responsibility, and, if we take a commitment to our Catholic faith at all seriously, think about the challenge with which it presents us.

A rudderless ship on a treacherous sea

One of the many, many revealing things which historian Tom Holland brings to our attention in his important book, Dominion, (reviewed by James Bradshaw in last December’s issue of Position Papers) is the distinction between the secular and the religious which Christianity brought to our Civilization.

Properly understood, this distinction is embodied in Christ’s own words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God, the things that are God’s.” Philosophically the great elaboration of this teaching is rendered to us by St. Augustine in his City of God, where the journey of humankind in this world is described in terms of our harmonious – or otherwise – engagement with the affairs of the planet in the Earthly City and the life of the spirit in the Heavenly City.

What this distinction does not mean, of course, is that these two realms do not mix and merge with each other. They do, but ultimately do so in the consciences of each one of us, either well or badly – a good conscience requires that our actions in one realm are at peace with our actions, beliefs and understanding in the other. If not, our lives will be on a short road to the horror of rank hypocrisy.

All of which brought me back to reflect on a book written about two years ago by Isabel Hardman, now assistant editor of The Spectator. Why We Get the Wrong Politicians is a worrying book. It places before us a picture which tells us that all is not well in the affairs and workings of the Earthly City. She wrote this book in the context of British political life but our own everyday observation makes it clear, however, that the malaise in that system is one which is mirrored in many if not most western democracies. Nor is it just the rise of what we rather lazily call “populism” which is at the heart of our current winter of discontent. That is just a symptom of the deeper problem infecting our political souls.

Hardman’s book is the fruit of more than two years research carried out largely in the heart of the mother of parliaments. Essentially, the concerns she raises about modern political life stem from the breakdown of that vital connection between the governed and the governing. This crucial element in the structure of a functioning political system has been damaged to the degree that it no longer seems fit for purpose. The challenge which Hardman lays before us now is that of finding a solution to this rift.

It is a good book, descriptive and anecdotal rather than severely analytical. Despite its provocative title, it is a very balanced and honest examination of the workings of British parliamentary democracy, a kind of limited version of de Tocqueville’s 19th century masterpiece, Democracy in America.

On the one hand the elected governors have to be wise enough and willing enough to address both the deficiencies in the system and the personal inertia which for decades – if not for the best part of a century – has prevented them from doing so to date. On the other hand, the governed have also to be wiser and more willing to appreciate the very nature and limitations of the system they expect to serve their common good. As a consequence they must demand integrity and better leadership from their politicians. .

Among the things she highlights as blighting the judgment of all those who are seeking – or who should be seeking – the common good in the earthly city is the debilitating phenomenon which we now call the “bubble” effect.

The Westminster Bubble, she tells us, was first identified in the late 1990s. It was a description of the tight community of politicians, researchers, think tanks and journalists around Parliament. “It has gained increasingly negative connotations as an insular community in which insignificant things seem enormous and the things that matter to everyone else are ignored. Bubble members are out of touch with the rest of the world, and their lack of understanding of the people they purport to represent leads them to make serious mistakes on a regular basis.”

It is this which is at the root of the distrust which so many now harbour about the assemblies of their representatives in many jurisdictions, including Ireland. Hardman observes that MPs are the least trusted professional group, surveys tell us – below estate agents, bankers and journalists – with just 21 per cent of Britons saying they’d trust an MP to tell the truth.

A YouGov poll Hardman commissioned for her book asked those who wouldn’t even consider standing for Parliament what put them off. Forty-one per cent of them said, ‘I don’t like politicians and the way politics works’, and 16 per cent said, ‘none of the main political parties reflects my views’.

This is serious and is, to an extent, a form of disenfranchisement. If 16 per cent is bad, think of the 30 plus percent of the Irish who now consider themselves disenfranchised. Over 90 per cent of Irish legislators passed an extremely liberal abortion law (they deny that it is extreme, of course) with the effect that the 33 percent who clearly opposed abortion in a referendum in 2018 now consider that they have no effective representation in parliament.

In the Irish context two major factors have produced this chronic dysfunction in that country’s political life.

The first is the fatal three-way nexus which characterises politics there. The system is essentially one where a group of, at best, marginally trusted parliamentarians, locked into a rigid party system, represents the people. In her book Hardman does a great job of describing how the “necessary evil” – de Tocqueville’s term – of the party system militates against genuine choice in the British system. It is even more limiting in Ireland.

That group is assisted in the work of government by a cadre of elite public servants – particularly in departments with a brief for social policy – seriously infected with the left-leaning ideology dominating the Irish universities in which they were educated. This elite has been perpetuating itself in that ideological image for decades. Both these elements in turn are manipulated by a media establishment of the same essential colour. This part of the machine cheerleads when things are going according to its ideological principles. When they veer off course, pressure is applied to bring them back by seeking to mould public opinion to the desired shape. This is done partly by the cultivation of a range of pressure groups driven by the self-same secular liberal principles.

The second factor behind this effective disenfranchisement is effectively the child of the first – the collapse of trust in anything said by any of the people in power within this nexus. Surveys of this trust factor don’t exist in Ireland – suggesting perhaps the extent of control which the protagonists in this story have over the narrative about themselves.

Almost twenty years ago the late David Foster Wallace summed up what he saw as a major factor behind the killing of political interest among the young in America. Guess what? It was distrust. Things have moved on inexorably since then but there is little doubt but that what America is now experiencing politically is the direct descendant of what Wallace drew attention to.

Wallace was commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the late Senator John McCain in the primaries for the US election of 2000. At that time McCain, rightly or wrongly, was the face of honesty in US politics. As such he seemed to electrify youth with a promise of integrity. Eventually his campaign was snuffed out by his party’s power-brokers, but before that happened Wallace explained McCain’s appeal in terms of his express commitment to telling the truth. McCain often finished his rallies with this refrain:

“I’m going to tell you something. I may have said some things here today that maybe you don’t agree with, and I might have said some things you hopefully do agree with. But I will always. Tell you. The truth.” (sic)

Wallace did not think it was that simple. “But you have to wonder,” he wrote. “Why do these crowds from Detroit to Charleston cheer so wildly at a simple promise not to lie? Well, it’s obvious why. When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy. McCain’s résumé and candour, in other words, promise not empathy with voters’ pain but relief from it. Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to. It’s ultimately just about that complicated: it hurts. We learn this at like age four —- it’s grownups’ first explanation to us of why it’s bad to lie ‘How would you like it if. . . ?’”.

“Render to Caesar…” The truth, a foundational truth of our Christian civilization, is that without each of us rendering to God that which God asks us to render – honouring truth, serving justice and loving each other as children of a Father who is God himself – rendering to Caesar will be a meaningless sham. A world without God, as Nietzsche tragically foretold, will be a world of misery and barbarism. A political life in which political activists work as if God did not exist will be grim indeed. For as long as the earthly city lasts it needs to be inhabited by souls whose consciences tell them the difference between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice – and ultimately between good and evil. The secular world, devoid of the perceptions which the City of God brings to it, is like a rudderless ship on a treacherous sea.

This article incorporates material from earlier Garvan Hill posts and in this form has now been published in the print and online August/September edition of Dublin based magazine, Position Papers.

The heroic legacy of John Hume

Posted on MercatorNet this morning:

A mural created in Derry to honour John Hume along with fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa

It was a cold, cold night in the city of Derry on February 9, 1969. The world’s media had descended on the province of Ulster. There were no barricades, bombs or bullets yet, but after months of street protests, police harassment and auxiliary police brutality against civil rights demonstrators, Northern Ireland had something of the whiff of a powder-keg about it. Earlier that week, prime minister Terrence O’Neill had dissolved the Stormont parliament and declared a general election.

Everyone knew that this election had the promise of being the beginning of the end of an ancien regime but no one would have guessed that the end was going to take so long — or to be so pain-soaked and murderous. The election itself solved nothing but it did mark one truly significant event in the history of Ireland — the entry of John Hume into the political life of his country. From the moment on that cold Saturday night in the old City Hotel, under the shadow of the Guild Hall clock tower, when Hume decided he was going to contest the parliamentary seat for the city, he never left the political limelight. He was to remain center-stage throughout the long and bitter slow-burn civil war which Ulster was to experience for the next 30 years. 

It was a war, euphemistically called “The Troubles”, which for those 30 years was to unsettle the peace of those green and pleasant lands which make up that historic archipelago to the north west of Europe. When peace eventually came, Hume was among its architects — probably its chief architect — and for his heroism and his constancy in forging that peace, he was deservedly awarded a Nobel Prize. On that wintry night in 1969, peace and justice in his land was already his goal.

I sat with him in the bar of the hotel that evening as the local civil rights activists of the city congregated there to discuss and take the measure among themselves as to what should be done in the light of the political development which had just occurred. The sitting member of parliament for the constituency was the veteran Nationalist Party leader, Eddie McAteer. Nationalist ideology had not become irrelevant in Ireland but the issue of the Unionist government’s denial of basic civil rights to a large minority of people — distrusted because they were Catholics — was now the political problem to be resolved.

Read the full post here.

John Hume, the man who asked for mirac

Today, on MercatorNet, I write about an Irish hero, John Hume, beginning with my account of a personal encounter back in 1969.

It was a cold, cold night in the city of Derry on February 9, 1969. The world’s media had descended on the province of Ulster. There were no barricades, bombs or bullets yet, but after months of street protests, police harassment and auxiliary police brutality against civil rights demonstrators, Northern Ireland had something of the whiff of a powder-keg about it. Earlier that week, prime minister Terrence O’Neill had dissolved the Stormont parliament and declared a general election.

Everyone knew that this election had the promise of being the beginning of the end of an ancien regime but no one would have guessed that the end was going to take so long — or to be so pain-soaked and murderous. The election itself solved nothing but it did mark one truly significant event in the history of Ireland — the entry of John Hume into the political life of his country. From the moment on that cold Saturday night in the old City Hotel, under the shadow of the Guild Hall clock tower, when Hume decided he was going to contest the parliamentary seat for the city, he never left the political limelight. He was to remain center-stage throughout the long and bitter slow-burn civil war which Ulster was to experience for the next 30 years. 

It was a war, euphemistically called “The Troubles”, which for those 30 years was to unsettle the peace of those green and pleasant lands which make up that historic archipelago to the north west of Europe. When peace eventually came, Hume was among its architects — probably its chief architect — and for his heroism and his constancy in forging that peace, he was deservedly awarded a Nobel Prize. On that wintry night in 1969, peace and justice in his land was already his goal.

I sat with him in the bar of the hotel that evening as the local civil rights activists of the city congregated there to discuss and take the measure among themselves as to what should be done in the light of the political development which had just occurred. The sitting member of parliament for the constituency was the veteran Nationalist Party leader, Eddie McAteer. Nationalist ideology had not become irrelevant in Ireland but the issue of the Unionist government’s denial of basic civil rights to a large minority of people — distrusted because they were Catholics — was now the political problem to be resolved.

John Hume, whom I was interviewing for my paper, talked with me late into that night and was clearly anguishing over whether or not he should run for the seat. For him, however, it was not a question of whether he might win or lose — he was certain to win the seat if he ran. It was a question of loyalty to McAteer, a man who was a friend and who had faithfully served the people of Derry, for a quarter of a century. But it was also clear to Hume that the old politics of the province had to change and the historic preoccupations of the Nationalist Party were no longer fit for purpose. In the end he saw that he had no choice. He decided to contest the seat. On Monday, 10 February, he launched his campaign.

Read my full post here.