The choice is ours

chaos

“The whole world is in a terrible state o’ chassis”, Captain Boyle, famously proclaimed in Irish dramatist Sean O’Casey’s masterpiece, Juno and the Paycock.

Indeed it is, and we suppose it always will be. The evidence is compelling. It’s a long, long story and it’s not really a terribly productive pursuit to go on analysing the ‘whys’ and the ‘wherefores’ of it all. But what is incumbent on us is to constantly and creatively respond to and deal as best we can with each new symptom of chaos, generally in the form of some crisis, as it arrives on our doorstep – whether personal, local or global. Generally there are plenty to choose from.

Just now we have the Brexit fallout and its related knock-on implications for the future of the troubled states of the European Union. Across the Atlantic there are the multiple storms associated with a very unusual new US administration, and further to our east we have an enigmatic Russian regime which might or might not be playing high stakes cat and mouse games with its nervous neighbours. ‘Plenty of potential for chassis there – accepting Captain Boyle’s Malapropism – to be going on with.

I often wondered what St. Josemaría  Escrivá meant when he wrote “A secret. – An open secret: these world crises are crises of saints”. It’s an intriguing and even strange phrase. But it is only strange if we limit our understanding of what saints are to those popular images we have of them – halos, pious postures and sometimes living hermetic reclusive lives separated from the affairs of the world. These were the saints a good number of us grew up with, and who indeed may have played an important role n helping generations of Christians to model their lives according to the teaching of Christ.

But these saints do not really get to the heart of St. Josemaría’s challenging phrase, which seems to suggest that being a saint offers some hope of a resolution of the world’s problems. Is that credible? Daringly, maybe outrageously for some, he maintains that it is.

The origins of his thinking about this, and its place in his teaching about what being a saint in the middle of the world is all about, is elaborated by the editor of the critical-historical edition of the book in which he first put this statement down on paper, The Way.*

What the phrase essentially underlines is the central idea of Escrivá, that Earth is really only properly understood in the context of Heaven and that if the problems of the earth are to be solved at all they can only be truly solved on that horizon where heaven and earth meet in the hearts of women and men, in the reality of holiness, that is, sanctity, the stuff of saints.

This phrase, and the chapter of the book from which it comes, is an example of his insistence on the correspondence to grace — holiness — of those who have become aware of God’s calling. That calling was a universal one, not one for the special few – the saints of popular piety. It was a call for all women and men because it was, it is, the express will of God that all be saved. The doctrine on holiness, the editor of the edition points out, is not an idea outside time, but is an idea realised in time, and more specifically, it determines the solution to the “world crises”.

This idea permeated all of St. Josemaría’s teaching and preaching. On another occasion, stating it in very practical terms, he reminded people, putting before them a very simple ideal:

“If every country had a group of holy fathers of families, holy doctors, holy architects, holy workers, all the world’s problems would be solved.”’

Nor did he see it as a big numbers game. The same point in The Way is completed with this rider:

God wants a handful of men, “of his own” in each human activity. – And then…pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.

In 1937, when he was in hiding during the Spanish Civil War, he explained his vision in more detail in a homily:

“A pinch of salt is enough to season a meal for many. To impart new savour to the world, relatively few people will be necessary. But these few, by obeying God’s Will, have to truly be salt that cures and seasons. […] If we carry out our apostolate, then the face of the world will change, and the disorder and wretchedness we see in the world will be replaced with Christian peace and happiness. Then peace will spread throughout the world.”

He always rejected any conception of Christian life as something ‘private’ which absents itself from the “world crises” —- a mistaken sense of ‘interior life’ — and puts, instead, the ‘interior life’ in strict and close connection with ‘human activity’, with the problems of human society.

In this, as in all things, Escrivá’s vision was always united to the popes of his time. He was moved by the vision of Pope Pius XI who used the expression “Pax Christi in regno Christi” which to a great extent summarised his pontificate’s programme laid out in his first encyclical (1922). There Pius recalled that his predecessor, Pius X, in taking as his motto ‘To restore all things in Christ’ was inspired from on High to lay the foundations of that ‘work of peace’ which became the programme and principal task of Benedict XV. These two programmes of Our Predecessors We desire to unite in one — the re-establishment of the Kingdom of Christ by peace in Christ – ‘the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ . With might and main We shall ever strive to bring about this peace, putting Our trust in God, who when He called Us to the Chair of Peter, promised that the divine assistance would never fail Us.” (Urbi arcano 22)

The teaching of Pius XI gave a great impetus in those years to Catholics to take seriously their responsibilities in the public square. Nevertheless, the understanding of the role of lay people in the life of the Church and in society still remained limited and the universal vision of St. Josemaría was not widely appreciated.

As the editor this edition states in his note, St Josemaría goes to the root of the problem, beyond social and political factors and every form of Catholic organisation. He sees peace as the result of men and women of God – saints – present in all human activity: the peace of Christ springing from within human activity.

His theology of peace, so to speak, has to be seen in close connection with a ‘locutio divina’ more than five years earlier, and which remained engraved in his soul for ever. It took place on 7 August 1931. In his personal notes from that time St Josemaría left an account of this intervention of God in his life, written and dated that very day.

Referring to the celebration of Mass that day, he wrote:

The moment of the Consecration arrived; as I raised the Sacred Host, without losing proper recollection, without being distracted — I had just mentally made my offering to the most merciful Love — some words of Scripture came to my mind, with extraordinary force and clarity: et si exultatus fuero a terra, omnia traham ad meipsum’ (And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself: John 12:32). And I understood that it would be the men and women of God who would raise the Cross, with the teachings of Christ, above the summit of all human activity. And I saw Our Lord triumphant, drawing all things to Himself.”

In a recent column by Erasmus in the Economist, reflecting on the origins of the European Union in the aftermath of the horrors of two wars, the Catholic inspiration which was central to that movement in the persons of Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gaspari and Konrad Adenauer is noted. These men, some of whom are now being thought of as candidates for canonisation, were types of the saints Escrivá saw as proper to the modern world, responders to its crises in a thoroughly modern way but moved to do so from the deepest resources of lives sustained by grace and sanctity.

The Erasmus column looks at the resurgence of Catholicism in France but sees it as a much weaker player now in the politics of that nation. Nevertheless, its influence is there and perhaps it will only be when, or if, the fullness of Christian virtue begins to flower in the lives of people that the many crises of that nation will be responded to effectively and fruitfully.

Romano Guardini has called for a purer reading of Christ’s role in the world and an end to the reductive reading of him as the greatest and wisest man who ever lived. Again, it is a reading which calls on his followers to be saints, people who as such must read the world and their place in it in a truly radical way, not just followers of another great leader.

Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of a Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him. Jesus actually is the Rescue-pilot who puts us back on the right course.”

This is a hard saying for the world to accept. It offends our vain-glorious sense of self-sufficiency. But there it is, until it does, these world crises will go on and on in their chaotic way. Some will leave us muddled, like poor Captain Boyle. Others, tragically will once again plunge us into the abyss of human degradation. The choice is ours.

In our struggles with the world’s and our own crises, we may be, as T.S. Eliot said, “only undefeated because we have gone on trying”. But that is not a little. That, in fact, in the eyes of our Creator, is certain victory.

  • The Way (Critical-Historical Edition), P. Rodriguez, Scepter.

Who’s haunted by Virginia Woolf

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On one level Virginia Woolf’s first novel is essentially a poignant story of love and loss. On another it is an exploration of the working of human consciousness across a range of characters thrown together over a period of several months. The smaller group voyages across the Atlantic and takes up residence in a villa in a Latin-American town at the mouth of an unspecified great river in an unnamed county. They then form a larger group when they meet up with a randomly assembled coterie of British ex-patriates and holiday-makers in the town’s hotel.

Among these people are two couples who fall in love and others who search unsuccessfully for what they think – but are not quite sure – is love. Woolf’s journeys into the minds of her characters is rich in its observation of thoughts, half-thoughts and human emotions.

But there is a third level, the level which is the creation of the reader much more than it is the work of the author. Some books are like that. They are not just contained within the hard or soft covers of their binding. They are more than fiction. They are created in part by the reader – and sometimes long after they are written, completed for each new reader by the document of the life of the author which they constitute. So it is with The Voyage Out.

The emotion evoked by Virginia Woolf in the heartbreak denouement of The Voyage Out is powerful. But for a reader of the book reflecting on its biographical elements the impact is more powerful still. When we read, aware that the explorations of human consciousness within it is in large measure the consciousness of the tragically flawed author herself, then the pain of loss goes deeper still.

Reading texts, and reading into texts, are of course contentious issues. But we are what we are, the world is what it is and there is no escape from history, personal and otherwise. Professor Denis Donoghue, in his discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in The American Classics, remarks how his reading of the novel does not articulate a common sense of the book. Talk of sin, repentance, and confession is alien to the ‘spirit of the age’. I gather, on informal evidence, that most readers of the book take the book as a parable of civil disobedience and revere Hester for exemplifying it and for triumphing over a community they regard as undemocratic, ‘un-American’. He rejects such interpretations as reductionist and meretricious.

But reading The Voyage Out and responding to it in the way suggested is not interpreting it in a way which has no bearing on the meaning Woolf ascribed to it. It is simply bringing to it a consciousness of a reality which does have a bearing on the novel, namely the life and death of the author herself and in so doing experiencing a sense of tragedy which goes beyond the author’s intention.

The story told by Woolf is the story of young people falling in love and the story of abandonment of faith in God. Escaping a consciousness of the autobiographical and the biographical elements in a novel like this is well-nigh impossible. This is not a description of everything that Bloomsbury represented but it is a description of many things which contributed to what the Bloomsbury group became for the Moderns. It is not a story of decadence. But it is a story in which one sees the elements in a culture which were to lead to the destruction of the framework of faith in God which held a Judaeo-Christian civilization in place for thousands of years.

The loss of faith is as much a mystery as the gaining of faith. Rachel Vinrace, the central character in The Voyage Out has something of Virginia Woolf in her. A conversation takes place about one third of the way through the novel. Each of the characters is introducing themselves to the others when at one point in the process one of them says,

“That’s all very interesting… But of course we’ve left out the only questions that matter. For instance, are we Christians?”

“I am not,” “I am not,” both young men replied.

“I am,” Rachel stated.

“You believe in a personal God?” Hirst demanded, turning around and fixing here with his eyeglasses.

“I believe-I believe,” Rachel stammered, “I believe there are things we don’t know about, and the world might change in a minute and anything appear.”

At this Helen laughed outright. “Nonsense,” she said. “You’re not a Christian. You’ve never thought what you are.”

Towards the end of the novel Rachel agrees. She does so under the pressure of a religious experience with which she cannot cope – a mixture of bad preaching and what she sees as sanctimonious posturing by those around her. She has continued to attend church but on this occasion and in a fit of frustration born out of that failure she rebels against it all and is vehemently no longer a Christian or a believer.

Was this Woolf’s own passage to atheism? It may be significant that the Helen of the story is taken by many to be partly based on Woolf’s own sister, Vanessa. Was this conversation some version of an actual one between the sisters? Whatever the answer to that might be we cannot read this sad story of loss without bemoaning the destruction wrought by bad religion.

Romano Guardini writes:

As soon as a religious consciousness that preaches ‘pure doctrine’ comes into being, and with it an authority ready to spring to its defence, the danger of orthodoxy becomes acute. For what is orthodoxy but that attitude which considers obedience to the Law already salvation, and which would preserve the purity of the Law at all costs— even at the price of violence to the conscience?

The moment rules of salvation, cult and communal pattern are fixed, one is tempted to believe that their strict observance is already holiness in the sight of God. The moment there is a hierarchy of offices, and powers, of tradition and law, there is also the danger of confusing authority and obedience with the kingdom of God.

The moment human norms are applied to holiness, inflexible barriers drawn between right and wrong, the danger of laying hand on divine freedom, of entangling in rules and regulations that which falls from God’s grace alone becomes considerable.

No matter how noble a thought may be, once it enters the human heart it stimulates contradiction, untruth and evil. The same fate awaits that which comes from God.

Order in faith and prayer, in office and discipline, tradition and practice is of genuine value; but it opens up negative possibilities. Wherever a decisive either-or is demanded in the realm of sacred truth; where the objective forms of cult, order and authority are all that count, there you may be sure, is also danger of “the Pharisee” and his “Law.” Danger of accepting outer values for intrinsic; danger of contradicting attitude and word; danger of judging God’s freedom by legal standards— in short, danger of all the sins of which Christ accuses the Pharisees.

The religious possibilities left to Virginia Woolf’s generation by the degeneration of Protestantism to the pathetic offerings it made to Christian believers by the end of the nineteenth century makes us very loath to judge the anger and the frustration depicted as the experience of poor Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out. This is the haunting tragedy which stalks the pages of this novel, as much or more than the sad fate of the fictional story’s protagonists.

From dysphoria to dysfunction?

gender-wars

Pia de Solenni is an American moral theologian. Last night she talked in Dublin to a group of people who came to hear her views on issues related to gender and the deconstruction of millennia of understanding about human nature and the sexes which is now in progress.

While the question was asked, and answered, about where all this has come from – with Descartes being something of a villain of the piece – and the question of where it was all going being at least tentatively answered – down the tubes being one scary option, the real quandary was something we had to go home and think about: what can be done to save the day?

My notes from her talk were not very comprehensive and  I would not dare to try to recapitulate all that she said. However, in 2013, the National Catholic Register published an article which she wrote. In it some of the key influences and observations which underpinned last night’s talk are contained in it. They offer some clues as to how we might escape from this quandary.

It was entitled ‘Theology of Women in the Church’ Only Beginning to Be Revealed. It harked back to some words of Pope Francis on this now famous exchanges with journalists on this flight back from World Youth Day in the summer of that year, when he simply observed that  ‘we don’t have a deep theology of women in the Church.’ Her article continues :

His comments were a timely preface for the 25th anniversary of John Paul II’s apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity and Vocation of Women), marked by this year’s Solemnity of the Assumption.

When I was doing graduate theology work in Rome, the document had been out for many years. John Paul II had continued to teach on the topic and had articulated the need for a “new feminism.”

However, as one of my friends observed, the common translation of this “new feminism” was a type of elitist feminism. It was applicable to women who were well educated, had successful careers and were married with children and household help.

While I was on my way to being well educated, I certainly didn’t have the rest of the ensemble. I was studying with priests and seminarians, mostly. I had no desire to join their ranks, despite our common discipline. At the same time, my friend was educated and married with small children. But working outside of the home would have placed too great a burden on her family. We also knew there were plenty of other women who didn’t fit the mold. I was convinced that the new feminism had to include all of the various states in the lives of women, not just educated, affluent wives and mothers.

This became the impetus for my doctoral work, in which I surveyed various feminist and gender theories to explore why the questions of feminine identity and vocation remained. I then used the thought of Thomas Aquinas, a saint and a brilliant doctor of the Church (sometimes inaccurately identified as a misogynist), to develop a feminism of complementarity or an integral feminism, one that sees the sexual differences as constructive. I wanted a feminism that considered a woman in her entirety, not just in terms of what she did or didn’t do: a new feminism.

As I progressed in my research, I realized just how visionary Pope John Paul II had been. He wasn’t offering a Catholic version of a fascist salute to motherhood. He was taking the concept of motherhood in a wholly different direction. After all, by the time he was writing, the developed world knew that women could match, and even surpass, men in most things. Instead of answering a question that had long sought an answer by defining women in terms of what men do, he focused on who a woman is, a much more elusive topic.

Still, my first reading of Mulieris didn’t satisfy me. I thought it was fine, but not meaty enough. It took a while before I saw that it was both subtle and groundbreaking, particularly in light of his other work. Six years after this apostolic letter, he wrote another, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone). For such a controversial topic, it was certainly a short document, just a few pages. He summarized Church teaching and almost abruptly concluded, “I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

From this point on, John Paul II stopped talking about women’s ordination. He focused on Mary, the woman, whom, in Mulieris, he had set up as a paradigm for all humanity, including himself and every other priest, by virtue of her response to God’s call.

The shift to Mary emphasizes the change in emphasis from doing to being. We actually know very little about what Mary did. But we know who she is: the Mother of God. Her ability to become a mother fundamentally enabled her to be open to God in a relationship that only a woman could have. Her response, uniquely feminine, paradoxically, became the model for all humanity.

Toward the end of John Paul’s life, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a letter to the bishops, The Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World, which emphasized that women “have a role in every aspect of society.”

If we follow the example of Mary, that means working from within, wherever we happen to be, whether as chancellor of a major archdiocese, a mother home with small children, in business, politics or countless other places. It means recognizing that women bring something to the table by virtue of who they are rather than simply by what they do.

If Mary’s role as homemaker had been so vital, Jesus would have left the preparation of the Passover meal to her and not to the apostles. (I’m willing to bet she would’ve put on a better spread.) She was defined by who she was, by her relationship with Jesus, not by what she did. Similarly, we know that the apostles weren’t the smartest or the holiest bunch of men. But Jesus didn’t pick them for their accomplishments.

Twenty-five years after Mulieris Dignitatem, women have more positions in Church offices, and certainly women could have more leadership, but the vocation of women can’t be limited to a clericalist framework. Women, like men, exist in every sector of society, and both have critical contributions to make, regardless of what they do, because being a woman or a man should constructively influence the outcome. Within the Church, women need to be able to have a unique voice, not one that mimics that of men.

Pope Francis’ comments indicate that this work has only just begun.

Much, much more will be required to get us to the point where we understand both women and men for who they are.

On the more explicit gender confusion issue which she spoke about last night this article which she posted on Crux last year covers many of the points she made to us. Again, they give us something to chew on and think through about what might be the best way to rescue ourselves from the quagmire into which we find ourselves sinking fast.

Throughout history, women have been denigrated and oppressed by men. While I don’t always agree with some feminist activists, I certainly acknowledge that I would not have had the opportunities that I have without feminist efforts to right so many wrongs.

Despite these advances, today’s “trans movement” (particularly the transwoman sector) inadvertently takes us back to a time when women were valued based on their appearance, and whether they fit someone else’s preconceived notion of femininity. In essence, all it takes to be a woman today are [fake] breasts and good hair.

As a culture, we are telling women that the feelings and sentiments of a particular group of men – in this case, men who regard themselves as women – matter more than they do. That’s patriarchy by definition, even if women happen to agree to it.

Yes, some individuals suffer from gender dysphoria, but I am very hesitant to say that their struggle gives them the right to identify with the sex of their choice. As a woman, I cannot concede that being female simply means that one wears makeup, sexy lingerie, and a hair-do.

In fact, I was raised in a post-feminist environment where my femininity was not measured by my bra size and whether I could arouse a man. Rather, my female identity was confirmed by science, which demonstrates that every cell of my being is female no matter how I look or what I do.

My being a woman literally has to do with my being, not my doing. Hence, I can live out my life without fitting some ideal of a woman, whether it’s Mad Men’s or anybody else’s.

Let’s be clear here: No one cares about a woman using the men’s restroom. The Target debate has focused on men using women’s restrooms, because most people understand that women and girls are physically vulnerable in a way that men are not.

Whether we’re talking about Target, or states that have passed legislation along the same lines, the practical result now is that any man, whether he’s identifying as a woman or looking for his next victim, may use the women’s restroom because he feels like it.

So much for women’s rights.

Nevertheless, the bathroom discussion is couched in the language of civil rights and discrimination. Talk about a culture-war trap. In fact, on Monday the Justice Department filed a civil-rights suit against the state of North Carolina because it refuses to rescind a bill that requires individuals to use the bathroom correlating with their biological sex.

Some forms of patriarchy include attempts to protect women from other males, but that’s really more of an excuse to protect women for a particular man or group of men. Worse types of patriarchy utterly disregard the dignity and significance of a woman.

Rather than a civil rights issue, I would argue that the bathroom wars indicate that we’re entering an entirely new phase of patriarchy which declares victory every time it destroys a safe space for women, including bathrooms, fitting rooms, locker rooms, and so on.

This new patriarchy scored a breakthrough when Bruce Jenner, in his April 2015 interview with Diane Sawyer, casually commented that he looked forward to becoming a woman so that he could paint his nails and drink wine with his girlfriends. Jenner equated being a woman with the most trivial accidentals, while mainstream media outlets, including awards from Glamour and ESPN, celebrated his courage.

Never mind that he couldn’t even stand for his Vanity Fair debut, lest we see that his male anatomy remained.

Another defeat for women came after Jenner’s transition to a new identity as Caitlyn, when he (perhaps channeling his inner Dionne Warwick) famously stated that the hardest part about being a woman was deciding what to wear each day. Patriarchy triumphed again.

Time after time, the new patriarchy reinforces that being a woman is simply about the externals, what you look like. Cue Hugh Hefner.

Again, some individuals suffer greatly from gender dysphoria, and they should be treated with respect and dignity. But their struggles cannot justify yet another era in which women are reduced to nothing more than body parts and their ability to satisfy a man, even if it’s one and the same person.

Pia de Solenni is a moral theologian and cultural analyst. She serves as the Associate Dean of the Augustine Institute – Orange County, California.

Brexit being played to the gallery?

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Boris Johnson – politicians behaving badly?

As we tune in to the Brexit show, somehow, it is hard not to feel that there could be a little more maturity in evidence than at times there seems to be. At one level it is excellent and indeed very dignified – as we saw in Prime Minister May’s address to the British Parliament. It was again in evidence this morning in her address to the global audience at Davos.

But when it comes to the soundbites reaching  us through the media’s reported comments from politicians across the continent of Europe – not to mention the media’s own comments – the dreaded infection of populism now seems to be at pandemic level.

Immaturity begets immaturity, it seems. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the response of that rather funny man, Boris Johnson, to some of the reactions to Mrs. May’s House of Commons address. But Boris is not now addressing the Oxford Union. He is the successor of Lord Palmerston and should be playing that part rather than playing to the gallery.

Brexit is very serious business – for both Britain and Europe. The people of the United Kingdom, admittedly by a not very large majority, have indicated their will. Even though across the territories of that kingdom there are clear differences of opinion on the matter, the fact is that by the terms of the venerable and ancient constitution which political life is organised there, the decision to leave the EU is democratically valid.

This is where the immaturity and lack of respect of their European partners – as matters still stand – shows itself. For all parties what maturity and mutual respect would seem to demand would be an acceptance of the will of a people and then an agreement to get down to work to rearrange matters on questions of trade, movement of people, and anything else that is amiss in the apple cart after this “upset”. Apple carts do get upset from time to time.

But, in the popular press at any rate, that is not what we are getting. European press and some European politicians seem to be mainly preoccupied with saving their faces. To do that they seem to need to tell their public audience that Britons cannot be allowed to seem to do well as a result of their decision. On that cue Boris Johnson jumps up from his seat to talk about the silliness of thinking that Britons should be given “punishment beatings” for upsetting the apple cart.

The reality is that the European Union is not the be-all and the end-all of Western civilization. It is a political solution to real problems which Europe has had since the nation states of the continent evolved and which in the 20th century were partly – but only partly – responsible for two disastrous wars. There are many features of this political experiment which have brought their own problems and there have been turnings in its evolution in which many observers detect the seeds of self-destruction – or at least serious deficiencies.

British influence over the years of UK membership tried to correct what was perceived as faulty. It failed to do so and the end result is Brexit. There was in essence a clash of civilizations, or at least a clash of cultures. The basis of this clash might be seen in the observation of Tolstoy about 150 years ago.

Writing in War and Peace of one of the German generals in the Russian army, he summarized what he saw as the national characteristics of some Europeans:

Pfuel was one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion- science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people… The German’s self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth- science- which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.

The European Union is not founded on absolute truth. Its constitution did not come from Mount Sinai.The tone of European reactions to Brexit seems to suggest that they believe it did. Until they adopt a little more of the characteristic pragmatism of the British they will continue to make the British nervous. They will also continue to look silly in their approach to sorting out the real difficulties that the British decision has created. Sorting out difficulties is what politics is all about. Get on with it people, and stop this silly posturing.

 

Real news and fake scandal

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A great deal of fuss – shock-horror fuss – is being made of the revelation this morning that the combined wealth of the eight richest people in the world is as much as the assets of the poorest 3.6 billion people in the world. This is according to the charity Oxfam.

What does this mean in real terms ? Probably relatively little of moral consequence. In moral terms what really matters is what way any or all of those eight are living their lives, what they do with their wealth – good, bad or indifferent. When someone gives us that information we will then be able to point or wag our fingers at these plutocrats – if that is want we feel obliged to do.

Who owns what is of relative importance. Surely what is of moral or even serious economic significance is what use we make of what we own. We have, hopefully, got over the silly worry of who buys into what industry and whether ownership of British-based car manufacturing is in the hands of Indians, Germans or Chinese.

It has proved far more beneficial to workers in Britain that the industry in which they work is run and managed efficiently and that they have good jobs as a result. With globalization there is obviously a certain loss of local political control and a certain taint of colonization. But by and large the benefits which have accrued to ordinary people through global competition far outweigh the disadvantages.

The reality is that the number of people living on less than $1.25 per day has decreased dramatically in the past three decades, from half the citizens in the developing world in 1981 to 21 percent in 2010, despite a 59 percent increase in the developing world’s population.

This does not deny the fact, as a recent World Bank analysis has pointed out, that extreme poverty is still the lot of 1.2 billion people on the planet. Despite all the progress made, Sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for more than one-third of the world’s extreme poor. But beware of false or pseudo scandal. A silly response to this real scandal would be to point the finger at these eight billionaires or trillionaires.

Equally silly would be the response which patronizingly wags the finger at the populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and tell them that they can solve their poverty by having fewer children. We have yet to see the consequences which that kind of a solution to poverty is going to have in China. The signs are not good.

Five years ago Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital, took the world by storm. But really it was a storm in a teacup. It is not much talked about now. It was in fact little more that a reworking of Karl Marx, the original disaster-economist, who can probably blamed for bringing more misery to the world than anyone in history – even Genghis Kahn.

After the initial ‘excitement’, criticism of the book began to bite and it was suspected that Piketty’s policy recommendations were more ideologically than economically driven and could do more harm than good. Mr Piketty’s focus on soaking the rich smacks of socialist ideology, not scholarship. That may explain why “Capital” is a bestseller. But it is a poor blueprint for action. That was a verdict in The Economist.

Hopefully the shock and awe of the current ‘scandal’ of the super-rich will not give his theory a new lease of life.

“An assault on journalism, democracy, and basic human rationality”

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Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who helped give us the full picture – well, a fuller picture anyway – on Edward Snowden (firstly on American PBS’ FRONTLINE and then on the documentary, Citizen Four, now issues these somewhat somber warnings about the machinations of the CIA and its manipulation of the US media.

The serious dangers posed by a Trump presidency are numerous and manifest. There is a wide array of legitimate and effective tactics for combating those threats: from bipartisan congressional coalitions and constitutional legal challenges to citizen uprisings and sustained and aggressive civil disobedience. All of those strategies have periodically proven themselves effective in times of political crisis or authoritarian overreach.

But cheering for the CIA and its shadowy allies to unilaterally subvert the U.S. election and impose its own policy dictates on the elected president is both warped and self-destructive. Empowering the very entities that have produced the most shameful atrocities and systemic deceit over the last six decades is desperation of the worst kind. Demanding that evidence-free, anonymous assertions be instantly venerated as Truth — despite emanating from the very precincts designed to propagandize and lie — is an assault on journalism, democracy, and basic human rationality. And casually branding domestic adversaries who refuse to go along as traitors and disloyal foreign operatives is morally bankrupt and certain to backfire on those doing it.

Beyond all that, there is no bigger favor that Trump opponents can do for him than attacking him with such lowly, shabby, obvious shams, recruiting large media outlets to lead the way. When it comes time to expose actual Trump corruption and criminality, who is going to believe the people and institutions who have demonstrated they are willing to endorse any assertions no matter how factually baseless, who deploy any journalistic tactic no matter how unreliable and removed from basic means of ensuring accuracy?

Read the full article here.

Groupthink in a nutshell

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Peter Thiel, in his interview with Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, seems to put the group-think bubble in a nutshell – if that’s not mixing my metaphors too much.

Thiel became the pariah of Silicon Valley – and further afield – when he opted for Donald Trump in the US election. Dowd conducted a long interview with him and in it sets the apparent craziness of American politics over the past year in a context which makes it all seem quite sensible, even if full of risk. That is perhaps the best context for a healthy politics in any country.

He recalls that he went through a lot of “meta” debates about Mr. Trump in Silicon Valley. “One of my good friends said, ‘Peter, do you realize how crazy this is, how everybody thinks this is crazy?’ I was like: ‘Well, why am I wrong? What’s substantively wrong with this?’ And it all got referred back to ‘Everybody thinks Trump’s really crazy.’ So it’s like there’s a shortcut, which is: ‘I don’t need to explain it. It’s good enough that everybody thinks something. If everybody thinks this is crazy, I don’t even have to explain to you why it’s crazy. You should just change your mind.’”

Thiel is undoubtedly one of those influencers in the culture which, If they didn’t exist, we would have had to invent them. But thank heavens he does exist – because no one on the planet could ever have invented this one.

The frightening thing about conventional wisdom is how stupid it can be. Thiel is one of those who defy conventional wisdom and who is a force which will hopefully expose the fallacies of the illiberal-left dictatorship of our time and bring the sheep who have been duped by it back to some semblance of rational humanity.

The first crack in the whole illiberal-left monolith has already appeared in the very environment from which Thiel himself comes. He thinks the bigger tech companies all want to get a little bit off the ledge that they had gotten on, he said when asked how he had managed to get so many of them to turn up to a meeting with the President-elect in Trump Tower.

“Normally, if you’re a C.E.O. of a big company, you tend to be somewhat apolitical or politically pretty bland. But this year, it was this competition for who could be more anti-Trump. ‘If Trump wins, I will eat my sock.’ ‘I will eat my shoe.’ ‘I will eat my shoe, and then I will walk barefoot to Mexico to emigrate and leave the country.’

“Somehow, I think Silicon Valley got even more spun up than Manhattan. There were hedge fund people I spoke to about a week after the election. They hadn’t supported Trump. But all of a sudden, they sort of changed their minds. The stock market went up, and they were like, ‘Yes, actually, I don’t understand why I was against him all year long.’”

We might wonder when the Hillary fan club of  ‘famous actors’ from Hollywood might take the same message on board. Despite the satirical drubbing they got in the Save The Day parodies, they will probably remain as vain and opinionated as their trivial pursuits and the toxic star-system condition them to be. The only cure for that condition might be a dent in their box-office receipts. That might bring them to their senses.

Read Dowd’s full interview here.

Food for thought – about millennials

This has been around for a few months but it is well worth checking out in case you have not seen it. It is a calm but very astute summing up on the time bomb which the world may be sitting on.

There is no question but that the generation we call ‘millennials’ has within its ranks some very creative minds with strong characters to go with them. But the overall assessment of this generation is for many a cause for concern.

Our only complaint about this particular assessment might be that, in true millennial spirit, the blame is not laid at their door – but at the door of their parents.

Matchless Shakespeare

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A long essay in the current issue of National Affairs is devoted to a truth which is known in every corner of the world. But it is also a truth which we need, lest we forget, to keep being reminded of. It is the truth of the extraordinary wisdom and beauty of the inheritance of William Shakespeare.

The focus of the essay is the place of Shakespeare in the cultural life of America, where even in this age he continues to be the most performed playwright in the United States. We talk about film franchises and marvel at the success of Bond and Bourne and others. No franchise matches the volume of Shakespeare’s on celluloid.

But his dominance on the American continent an the film world has really nothing to do with America. His dominance comes from within the universal relevance of his work, it’s wisdom, it’s humanity an it’s beauty. His appeal, the author, Algis Valiunas, points out, has a global extension, and it has long been so.

Sublimity has ever called to sublimity. The great modern nations boast great writers who depict and define the national life and character: Victor Hugo for the French, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for the Germans, Leo Tolstoy the Russians, Herman Melville and Mark Twain the Americans, and Shakespeare the English. Of course their greatness is hardly confined to their parochial impact: They are masters for all time and every place. And even among these titans an order of rank is observed, as a true aristocracy requires, and it is Shakespeare who ranks supreme


With the exception of Tolstoy, who ripped into Shakespeare with unhinged vehemence as a windbag and nihilist moral trifler, all these masters recognized Shakespeare’s superiority. Hugo composed a 400-page eulogy to Shakespeare as the proto-Romantic, which is to say a worthy precursor to the arch-Romantic Hugo himself. Shakespeare’s work, he pronounced, is “absolute, sovereign, imperious, eminently solitary, unneighborly, sublime in radiance, absurd in reflection, and must remain without a copy.” Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, besotted with the idea of a life in the theater, would talk about Shakespeare for days, and, in the role of Hamlet with a fly-by-night dramatic troupe, he believed the elder Hamlet’s ghost to be his own father back from the dead. Goethe told his chronicler of after-dinner conversation, Johann Peter Eckermann, that if he had been born an Englishman the incomparable majesty of Shakespeare looming over his every youthful thought would have left him unable to write a word. And whenever some know-nothing cast aspersions on Shakespeare’s characters, Goethe let him have it with both barrels: “But I cry: Nature! Nature! Nothing is so like Nature as Shakespeare’s figures.”

The full text of this very interesting essay is here.

A tale of David and Goliath?

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It is not just Apple which is testing the loyalty and commitment of the Irish to the European project. Ireland is now, along with Apple, challenging the European Union’s demand that this Corporation pay a double-digit billion tax bill to Ireland. Strange as it may seem – although it is not at all strange – Ireland sees much more value in the employment Apple and multiple other giant investors bring to its economy than it does in a once-off windfall. Add to that the dilemma which Brexit has confronted Ireland with and the unthinkable is beginning to become more and more thinkable. Where ultimately does Ireland’s interest as a thriving economy and as an independent nation lie – inside or outside of the European Union?

Yesterday, in the Dublin paper, the Sunday Business Post (see here), an Irish diplomat and former Irish ambassador to Canada, Mr. Ray Basset, wrote of his worries about the path of least resistance which the Irish administration seems to be taking on the question of the terms of Britain’s exit from the Union.

Irish economist and journalist, David McWilliams, comments at length on the implications of what Basset is saying, implying as he does that the Irish government has decided that there is no special relationship with Britain, and that our attitude to Britain and Brexit will be subservient to the EU’s attitude.

“The idea that there is no special relationship”, McWilliams says, “is not only patently false (I’m writing this from Belfast, for God’s sake!), such a cavalier attitude to our nearest neighbour is extremely dangerous economically, verging on the financially treacherous.”

“Insane” is his description of the view that Ireland’s position with respect to Brexit is in any way similar to that of France or Germany or, worse still, to the likes of Hungary. Why? There are multiple reasons: “There are 500,000 Irish citizens living in England. We have a land border with Britain and a bilateral international treaty, the Good Friday Agreement, with London.

“We are umbilically attached to Britain in our two most labour-intensive industries, agriculture and tourism, where the British are by far our biggest clients. One-third of our imports come from Britain. The Dublin/London air corridor is the busiest route in Europe and one of the busiest in the world. In fact, the Irish airline Ryanair is the biggest airline in Britain, carrying far more British people every year than British Airways.”

McWilliams’ very perceptive comment lays out some of the details of the folly he perceives in what appears to be the Irish States’ status quo on negotiations. For him it is tantamount to a  government acting against the interest of its own economy. Apart altogether from the social and economic rupture between Ireland and Britain which the hard line which European negotiators are currently taking on Brexit would cause, there is the risk of a potential trade war with Britain where Ireland can only be damaged immeasurably.

McWilliam’s analysis and fears make a great deal of sense – up to the point where he goes on to protest that he is not himself a eurosceptic – or anything like it. Admittedly he is worried about Europe’s federalist agenda and its implications. Michel Barnier, the EU’s negotiator on Brexit, is a committed federalist.

“Under his federalist vision, the Irish consulate in Spain would be scrapped – so that if an Irish lad got a battering from the Guardia Civil, for example, there would be no Irish consulate to listen to his case and help him out. He also advocated in this report to close down all (Irish and other) consulates in non-EU countries and replace these with one EU consulate.”

McWilliam’s argument, however, is that we should stay in the EU, but draw the line at the present EU. “We shouldn’t embrace any further integrationist stuff nor sign up to any further federalist projects. This means doing precisely the opposite of the Brits. Rather than following the British out of the EU, we should vow never to leave it. The EU can’t kick us out. There is no mechanism. We should simply opt out of Mr Barnier’s plans. This means we have full access to the EU, but we don’t need nor want to go any further – not because of some cultural aversion, but because it’s not in our interest.”

But surely there is a great weakness in that argument, a weakness which the history of Ireland’s relationship with the Union screams out to us. There is no stopping the European juggernaut. When Britain tried to modify it, to bring it to a more common sense position and one which would show more respect for the sovereignty of the nations which make it up, it was in effect sent packing.

Consider the  negotiations of David Cameron when he tried to head off Brexit. Like a famous predecessor he proclaimed that he had plucked a flower from a bed of nettles – but what he got turned into the nightmare which destroyed his political career.

Ireland’s history of two referendums on European treaties where it said “no” to the path Europe was taking speaks for itself. It was soft-soaped, sent back to think again and came up with the “yes” which the juggernaut needed to go forward.

There are many who think that the juggernaut has already gone down the path of self-destruction. It may be so – and this may be the only way that a little country like Ireland will be able to find it own way and exercise the self-determination it needs to make its way in the wider world – which is where its future must surely lie.

Which is what Nigel Farage is essentially saying here.