Words which Joseph Conrad once wrote about his motives as a writer might well be taken as a manifesto by any serious and responsible journalist – or we might wish that they would.
“Art itself”, he wrote in the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, “may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect”. He accepted that his task should be this: “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see!” Success for him would be that “you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – all you demand; and perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask”.
More than a hundred years later we still look for these high standards from writers, journalists included. Do we reach them? This was what Pope Francis was looking for when in his recent book, Let Us Dream, he spoke about the role journalists have played in helping us to cope with the woes inflicted upon us by the latest visitation to our world of the horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Journalists have had a key role in helping us to make sense of what was happening, to balance and assess different accounts and opinions. The best reporters took us to the margins, showed us what was happening there, and made us care. This is journalism at its most noble, helping us to conquer our existential myopia, and opening up spaces for discussion and debate.
But a role is one thing and the execution of a role another. The evidence to be found in the agencies whose chosen and vocational job it is to bring to us our “deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm – and that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask” show that all too often, they fail us, succumbing to what the Pope calls their pathologies.
But the media also have their pathologies: disinformation, defamation, and a fascination with scandal. Some media are caught up in the post-truth culture, where facts matter much less than impact, seizing narratives as a way to wield power. The most corrupt media are those that pander to their readers and viewers, twisting the facts to suit their prejudices and fears.
He writes that the media in this way cease to mediate and become intermediaries – presumably meaning that some in the media have ceased to try to stand apart and have just become the mouthpieces of vested interests or loudspeakers for whatever bubble to which they happen to subscribe, obscuring our view of reality. For him, categorically, reporting that rearranges the facts to support ideology for financial gain is a corruption of journalism that frays our social fabric.
But it is encouraging in some way to realise that the public is not fooled all of the time and that in the detritus of bad journalism which surrounds us there may lurk the seeds of redemption. While it has been said, with some accuracy, that no one ever lost money underestimating public taste, bad products do eventually self-destruct.
A Reuters Digital News Report published last year gave us the results of a survey of 2,000 people in the Republic of Ireland. It found that 48 per cent agreed they could trust most news most of the time, the same percentage as in 2019. That’s not a high level of trust. It is just about a pass mark in most people’s books. But elsewhere, it got worse. In the UK findings showed trust levels in the news there to have fallen from 40 per cent to 28 per cent. In the US, trust levels dropped three points to 29 per cent. In the UK trust levels have plunged most among news users who lean to the political left, while in the US, it is right-leaning people who are much more likely to mistrust the news. This Reuters Report showed that the international average was 38 per cent, down four percentage points since 2019.
The question is how low can you go before you implode? We can only hope that sooner rather than later someone will shout “stop!’ and that glimpses of the truth are not going to cease to be part of the human experience.
For the life of me I can’t see why people are so angry with Sally Rooney. She may have refused to let an Israeli firm publish her work. But that’s not an insult to the Israeli people.
Quite the contrary. It’s great news for the Israeli people. Because now they won’t have to read her books.
Far from an affront, we should view what she’s done as a noble act of self-sacrifice. The Israeli people have quite enough to worry about as it is, without having to endure these insufferable, humourless, dreary, sullen, adolescent, jumped-up bonkbusters. So it’s thoughtful of Ms Rooney to spare an embattled nation from additional misery. She may not approve of the Israeli government, but for the benefit of ordinary Israelis she is willing to forgo a no doubt considerable sum in royalties. The decision does her great credit, and all supporters of Israel, and indeed lovers of literature, should applaud this principled stance.
I only wonder whether she can be persuaded to extend her boycott to British publishers. After all, she must have an opinion on the British Empire, or Oliver Cromwell, or at the very least Brexit. If not, we could easily send her a helpful summary of this country’s most grievous historic excesses, in the hope that she will take a principled stance against us. Perhaps a member of National Trust staff could be enlisted to help.
Ms Rooney is evidently a very tolerant and forgiving person, but with a little effort, I see no reason why we shouldn’t convince her to stop her books being published here, too.
A crew of pirates are driven by a storm, they know not whither; at length a boy discovers land from the top–mast; they go on shore to rob and plunder; they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for the king; they set up a rotten plank or a stone for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more by force for a sample, return home, and get their pardon. Here commences a new dominion, acquired with a title by divine right. Ships are sent . . . the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free licence given to all acts of inhumanity and lust; the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition is a modern colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people.
That represented the not so benign view held by Jonathan Swift, the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, of the fairly brutal way in which mankind spread its wings across the globe. We now call it conquest and colonisation.
Perhaps it was not all quite as barefaced or stark as that but there is no doubt but that the experience of colonisation could be a pretty brutal one. Its legacy is undoubtedly full of the worst excesses our race has on its very blotted record – colonial or otherwise.
But are we really making too much of it? Or rather, are we mistaking the wood for the trees and in our pursuit of villains are we missing the real evil in our midst? In our excessive preoccupation with this dimension of mankind’s fulfilment of the mandate to multiply and cultivate the earth – whether we identify as post-colonial victims or guilt-ridden colonists – are we failing to deal with the real evils at the root of the miseries we engender?
The great text which for generations now has been seen as the final word on colonisation is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But even here we should perhaps ask ourselves if we have not read it superficially, proceeding to indite colonisation when in fact we should be inditing something much deeper and closer to home – something in our own hearts. Is the great darkness lurking therein the real source of the evils we load on the scapegoat we call colonisation.
“The horror, the horror,” the words which Colonel Kurtz muttered as he died in physical and moral anguish was a kind of act of contrition. But it was personal, not a confession made on behalf of the King of the Belgians. Raging about, and resenting, what we call colonisation may be no more than an excuse for not doing what we should be doing about our personal surrender to our own evil impulses. It is these which collectively turn the colonialism which we rage against, into something evil.
Few subjects in history evoke stronger opinions than the making of empire. Indeed, some historians of empire still feel obliged to proclaim their moral revulsion against it, in case writing about empire might be thought to endorse it. This, and other conceits he writes about reveal, he says, something interesting: that for all the ink spilt on their deeds and misdeeds, empires remain rather mysterious, realms of myth and misconception.
This, he continues, is partly the result of thinking in monoliths. ‘Empire’ is a grand word. But behind its facade (in every place and time) stood a mass of individuals, a network of lobbies, a mountain of hopes: for careers, fortunes, religious salvation or just physical safety. Empires were not made by faceless committees making grand calculations, nor by the ‘irresistible’ pressures of economics or ideology. They had to be made by men (and women) whose actions were shaped by motives and morals no less confused and demanding than those that govern us now. This was certainly true of the British overseas empire. Far from being the mere handiwork of kings and conquistadors, it was largely a private-enterprise empire: the creation of merchants, investors, migrants and missionaries, among many others.
The reality is that colonialism and empire-growth do not, like other political phenomena with the suffix ‘ism’ attached which we might rage against, derive from an ideology. Such are Communism, Marxism, fascism, republicanism and nationalism. This particular force of nature has existed ever since the day – or night – on which Adam and Eve were sent packing from their garden. It is a force which has accompanied their descendants ever since, as they made their way across the face of this planet. They had to wander and their wandering was colonisation. But the evil deeds which accompanied that wandering were not in the wandering. They were in the minds and hearts of the wanderers, – manifested in greed, envy, avarice, cruelty and more, generated by the loss they suffered through their own foolish surrender to their passions.
Had they and their descendants traversed the world, mingling with each other as they increased and multiplied, in a spirit moved by virtue – justice, charity, generosity – rather than by vice, then this mingling which we now call colonisation would have been a very benign thing. It sometimes was. It more often, much more often, was not.
Darwin notes that the underlying assumption, on which almost all else hangs, is that empires are abnormal, a monstrous intrusion in a usually empire-free world. No error could be more basic. Empire — as the assertion of mastery (by influence or rule) by one ethnic group, or its rulers, over a number of others — has been the political rule of the road over much of the world and over most of world history: the default mode of state organization. He suggests that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over. He also notes that historians of pre—modern or non-European empires – suggesting that post-colonial trauma and anti-colonial rage are Western phenomena – show few qualms in conceding that, whatever their shortfall in political freedom, they were often culturally creative and materially beneficial. One of the more subtle explorations of the colonial experience which the art of cinema has offered us in recent years was Terence Malick’s treatment of the Pocahontas story in The New World.
This blind-spot, Darwin also thinks, can lead to a history in stereotypes; to a cut-and-dried narrative in which the interests of rulers and ruled are posed as stark opposites, without the ambiguity and uncertainty which deﬁne most human behaviour. It denies to the actors whose thoughts and deeds we trace more than the barest autonomy, since they are trapped in a thought-world that determines their motives and rules their behaviour. It treats the subjects of empire as passive victims of fate, without freedom of action or the cultural space in which to preserve or enhance their own rituals, belief-systems or customary practices.
We return to Joseph Conrad, by way of Abdulrazak Gurnah who has just won the Nobel Prize for literature, and whose novel Paradise has been read as a re-mapping of Conrad’s 19th century journey to the “heart of darkness”. Paradise is a tale narrated by 12-year-old boy, Yusuf, who lovingly describes gardens and assorted notions of paradise and their corruption as he is pawned between masters and travels to different parts of the interior from the coast. Yusuf concludes that the brutality of German occupiers of that time in East Africa was preferable to the ruthless exploitation by the Arabs. Differences count.
The depth and the extent of the miseries we perpetrate on each other originate in the hearts and minds of the human agents who make history. They only exist in the systems we devise only in so far as they are brought into them by us. The lesson we fail to learn when we blame systems for our misdeeds is that we must change before our systems can change.
Today we are dealing with a new wave of mass movement of people on the planet, people fighting for survival with the only option at their disposal – migration. This is a new colonisation. In the nineteenth century Darwin gives figures for the mass movements of that era – again of people fighting for their lives.
The first great outflow from Europe to underpopulated parts of the planet was after 1815 at the end of more than twenty years of world war. In 1832, for the first time,Darwin recounts, the number who left in one year exceeded 100,000. In the 1840s and 1850s the terrible calamity of famine in Ireland drove up the figure to astonishing heights: 1.7 million people left between 1841 and I850; a further 1.6 million between 1853 and 1860; and just under 2 million between1861 and 1870. In each of the years 1853 and 1854, more than 1per cent of the population departed. In the 1850s and 1860s, migrants from Ireland were still the largest body of leavers: after 1870, the English took over. The total fell back a little in the late 1870s, but from 1880 until the end of the century, it usually exceeded 200,000 a year and never fell below 140,000. Then in a huge burst up to 1914, more than 3 million people left the British Isles, just under 400,000 in I913 alone.
The moral and ethical response every single human being had to make then and has to make today, if involved in any way in this phenomenon, is what will make it good or bad. This is what should enrage us – or sustain our hope in humanity. Stopping people fleeing from a burning building is not an option. Human ingenuity, political skills and decision-making – again with moral implications – were not fit for purpose to save the lives of all those Irish who died in the Great Famine. That same moral failure caused millions more to have to take flight to save their lives. That was one side of the ethical coin. The other side was the question of the response of the immigrants who landed on foreign shores to the indigenous peoples they found there.
Indulging in rage against a facile “ism” solves nothing for humanity. Unless we return again to a vision of ourselves which places responsibility for our actions firmly on our own shoulders, to forming consciences adequate for the task of living with each other as we should, we will continue to inflict misery wherever we go to solve our problems and on whomsoever comes to us looking for help.
We may never reach the Utopian standard of just governance so bitingly satirised by Swift in the passage of Gulliver’s Travels which follows that with which we began. But a community populated by persons who try to be personally true to the moral principles of the Christian faith, will find themselves in a world less in need of such biting satire.
But this description, I confess, does by no means affect the British nation, who may be an example to the whole world for their wisdom, care, and justice in planting colonies; their liberal endowments for the advancement of religion and learning; their choice of devout and able pastors to propagate Christianity; their caution in stocking their provinces with people of sober lives and conversations from this the mother kingdom; their strict regard to the distribution of justice, in supplying the civil administration through all their colonies with officers of the greatest abilities, utter strangers to corruption; and, to crown all, by sending the most vigilant and virtuous governors, who have no other views than the happiness of the people over whom they preside, and the honour of the king their master.
A strange and sometimes terrible thing seems to happen to ideologues when they cease to be outsiders and become insiders. This seems particularly so when they are political animals. History is full of examples of this uncanny metamorphoses. Seemingly idealistic freedom movements slouching to their goal, when once they reach it, turn into either apathetic onlookers of the very evils they formerly raged against – or worse, they become replicas of the very monsters they formerly fought tooth and nail.
Modern republicanism probably begins with the French Revolution. The American Republic is of a gentler lineage, bred out of a pragmatic response to a frustrating contre temps with a myopic British parliament and a somewhat disturbed king. The French version was similar in some ways but was fatally laced with an ideological potion which for a time led it down the path of wanton savagery, rescued only to become another kind of tyranny under the aegis of the practical genius who was Napoleon Bonaparte. But while it pursued its Rousseaunian ideological course, and gained power, it truly became a monster. It was the first of a long line of idealist ideologies to do so in modern times. The latest example of this degeneration is now again exercising its mad and lethal power on a people to whom it would have initially presented itself as saviour – the People’s Republic of China.
Among the more apathetic exemplars of this withering of idealism might be found the Republic of Ireland.
In the late 18th century the Irish patriot, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was in France seeking to enlist the forces of the French Revolution to help liberate Ireland from the laws imposed on it by the British Crown. Unlike Edmund Burke, Tone saw no hope of reforming the system which had imposed murderous penal laws on catholics and manipulated an exclusively protestant land-owning class in Ireland as its willing tool in keeping the status quo.
It is hard to read accounts today of what the people of XInjiang province or of Hong Kong are experiencing and not hear echoes from the suffering of the Irish of the 18th Century. These were set upon and oppressed by the victors of England’s own ‘Glorious Revolution’ of the late 17th century, another movement claiming freedom as it goal but then morphing into a woeful tyranny.
Wolfe Tone, the acknowledged father of Irish republicanism, succeeded in getting French help. His and their efforts were, however, a miserable failure. He was captured, convicted of high treason and condemned to death by hanging. He asked to be shot as a soldier and when this was refused, died by his own hand. Nevertheless, he lived on as a potent symbol of republicanism for 150 years and has served as such for the eventual republic which Ireland became.
The late Seamus Deane, poet and literary critic, in an essay on Wolfe Tone (now published in Small World – Ireland 1798-2018), examines the motivation which drove this Irish hero in the direction which he took. At the heart of Tone’s political experience was his acute analysis of the condition of Ireland and the Irish – a condition he defined as one of slavery. Deane universalises this and says that all republican theory is permeated by this “whole concept of dependence and slavery… To be dependent on the wish, caprice, or undelegated authority of someone else is to lack autonomy and to be a slave. It is corrupt and corrupting, especially when sustained by violence and an endless bombardment of propaganda and threat.” This, he says, was Ireland’s condition. Such, history shows, is the ground in which so many ideologies bent on achieving freedom for peoples are nurtured. What, however, can explain the subsequent degeneration of so many of them to a condition where they now tolerate and cooperate with perpetrators of the very oppression they fought against so heroically? Or worse, how can so many of them perpetrate on their own people the injustices they once raged against?
Mao Zedong was a hero for his people – and for a time in the West, to young idealists, seemed also to be a hero. But he then turned into – and turned his Republic into – a cauldron of death. Xi Jinping can only be described as a worthy successor. What is happening in Xinjiangprovince, documented now in increasing detail, can only be described as slavery.
Ruth Ingham, in a recent post, quoted Geoffrey Cain, author of The Perfect PoliceState, who earlier this month gave evidence at the second series of hearings of the Uyghur Tribunal in London. He detailed how China’s access to an arsenal of intrusive novel technologies has enabled the state to monitor the minutiae of everyday life of each one of its citizens. These means are nothing more or less than the modern equivalent of the cadre of informers Lord Castlereagh used to dismantle Tone’s insurgency in 18th century Ireland. With these weapons the CCP, in its war on its insurgents, are spying on 15 million or so potential “terrorists” and “extremists” among the Turkic peoples of its North Western Frontier. Cain explained how these people are spied on “from the moment they leave their house, whether from the back or the front door, whom they meet, whom they might text or call on the way, what they might download on their phone and who might have sent.” All is monitored. And that is just the spying operation. The ‘re-education” atrocities come afterwards.Wolf Tone’s Ireland took 150 years to complete its journey to full republican status. Today he must be turning in his grave. The Irish Republic not only turns a blind eye to the atrocities in China, it actually cozies up to its leaders. It builds Confucian institutes on its university campuses which serve as apologists for the very evils Tone railed against when he died an ignominious death in a Dublin prison.
Alexander Dukalskis and David Farrell, political scientists in University College Dublin, in an Irish Times piece have put in focus the threats to academic freedom in Irish universities posed by China. Charles Moore, in the Spectator and in the Daily Telegraph, has been highlighting what he sees as the sad and dangerous manipulation of Cambridge University by the same kind of fellow travelling.
Dukalskis and Farrell tell us that “In February 2021, this paper reported that the head of Huawei Ireland wrote privately to Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, regarding an academic article by our colleague Dr Richard Maher about the Chinese telecoms giant. The letter said that academic freedom was a “two-way street” and requested the Minister’s “full support in mitigating the damage that has been done”. He secured a meeting with the secretary general of the department to discuss the matter. When the School of Politics and International Relations privately signalled its concern to the university leadership, the university president described our concerns as an overreaction.”
They then recount how in July 2021, the Irish Times reported on a story that involves the Irish Institute for Chinese Studies (IICS), a spin-off of University College’s Confucius Institute, which is teaching a class in Chinese politics for UCD students. The School of Politics objected because Confucius institutes are Chinese state-affiliated entities. The IICS and the UCD Confucius Institute were established at the same time, have the same director, the same email address, the same phone number, the same building, overlapping senior staff, and share the same mission to promote Chinese studies.
They anticipate complaints about their complaints – that it is a storm in a teacup.
“But, you might be asking yourself, what is the fuss? The problem is that the ruling party of China is a profoundly illiberal entity when it comes to the education sector. This has always been the case to varying degrees, but under current leader Xi Jinping the party has turbo-charged its control over intellectual inquiry. As part of its ‘comprehensive reassertion of control’, in the words of expert Carl Minzner of Fordham University, the party-state has focused on the social sciences to strengthen political training for faculty and standardise reading materials. Student informants and placing CCTV in classrooms to monitor teaching have increased. ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ research institutes have proliferated. Students have been arrested on campus for activism. Scholars such as Ilham Tohti remain jailed for criticising party policies.
“Nor is this just a higher education trend. For example, this summer the Chinese ministry of education announced that Xi Jinping Thought will be introduced into the national curriculum. Yes, this is the same ministry that Ireland’s own Department of Education agreed in 2019 was a suitable partner to influence Ireland’s own Chinese language curriculum.” To top it all off, they remind us, the 2020 Hong Kong ‘national security law’ effectively criminalises dissent globally, including on campus.
Part of the answer as to why and how this sad process of aversion and reversion seems to keep occurring is probably contained in another essay by Seamus Deane in Small World. In this essay, ‘Imperialism and Nationalism’, dating from 1995, he examines the complicated relationship between these two primeval phenomena, he finds nationalism’s opposition to imperialism, in some perspectives, nothing more than a continuation of imperialism by other means. Perhaps the analysis can offer an explanation of the strange outcome of so many victories of the oppressed over their oppressors.
Of nationalism, Deane writes,“It secedes from imperialism in its earlier form in order to rejoin it more enthusiastically in its later form. In effect, most critiques of nationalism claim that, as an ideology, it merely reproduces the very discourses by which it had been subjected. It asserts its presence and identity through precisely those categories that had denied them — through race, essence, destiny, language, history — merely adapting these categories to its own purposes. It also accepts the requirements of ‘civilization’ – modernization, development, and class and gender divisions, which are integral to the system from which it ostensibly seeks to liberate itself. In brief, in the name of emancipation for itself, it joins with the global system of late capitalism and the multinational companies, becoming economically subservient while endlessly asserting cultural independence.”
The end result, he suggests, leaves us with this: “An intellectual proletariat, with bourgeois pretensions, that claims it has achieved national consciousness is substituted for a non-intellectual sub-proletariat that once was the national consciousness. In such a situation, many forms of reaction are justified on the grounds that they are ‘national’. External domination has been introjected to the point that a nation, so construed, may be said to have learned nothing from oppression but oppression itself.”
That the Republic of Ireland, tracing its inspiration back to the man who suffered and died to liberate a people from the most abject oppression is cooperating with this Marxist regime should dismay Irish people. It does not. That this Republic, and certain of its established state-funded institutions are now hand in glove with one of the planet’s great oppressors should be seen as a gross contradiction of everything in the inspiration which was of its essence. It is not. Sad metamorphosis indeed.
Then, of course, there is the elephant in the room of the Irish nation and its relationship with oppression – as an oppressor.
Just as it was two thousand years ago, the promise in what follows is still a very ‘hard saying’. It is not clear from the account of its original utterance how many walked away, unable to take it on board. Today, among those who have actually heard it, the numbers are, well, considerably greater. And yet, as the author of the book from which the passage comes intimates, the loss incurred in that retreat from reality is enormous.
The gravest danger for the human person and for civilisation is to lose touch with reality. The twentieth century saw what happens when pure fantasy replaces the realism of the good: two world wars, totalitarianism, political breakdown, social chaos, moral disintegration, exploitation of the helpless, disregard for human life at its beginning and its end. In sum it was the century of mass genocide, physical and spiritual, the beginning of civilization’s descent into suicide. Reality is lost sight of when we lose touch with God because God is man’s foundational and ultimate reality. The twentieth century lost sight of God.
The Eucharist and the sacraments put us in touch again with him who touches us through them, re-forming our minds and hearts, bringing them back to reality. Given this, the Church is no optional extra for the pious and reverent, not a footnote to social history, some inconsequential aside non-essential to the text. Rather it can be said that without the Church and sacraments, primarily the Eucharist, the world would cease to exist. For they embody the mercy of God which alone sustains the creation in Christ ‘through whom and for whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together.
You might like to attend the zoom launch of Our School is Catholic – So What on Thursday night at 8 pm This book promises to be an important contribution to the debates of the value of Catholic education. It is written in an Irish context but its relevance and value extends beyond the shores of that island nation. It deals with the curriculum framework for Primary Schools, new directions in education for relationships and sexuality, the examination system and its side effects, and much more. It is available now from www.sowhat.ie for purchase.
You can also register on the website for in-depth Book club discussions on the book during October – December.
About four years ago, a then twenty-six year old Irish writer – now world famous, if reviews of your books in The New York Times and a host of other national and international media is enough to give you that reputation – made this remark in an interview: “So yeah, I don’t know. I like Christianity. I’m a fan of Jesus and his whole philosophy, but not the social teaching aspects of it, of course.” She has said more on the topic since, most of it in the same nonchalant vein, betraying the inherent but increasingly shallow links Irish people of her generation have with the Faith of their Fathers. It also betrays an abysmal ignorance of the essence of what that religion and its practice really are.
Who this young writer is, or why she is famous, is irrelevant in the context of what follows. She is one of several million, indeed hundreds of millions, who have lost the plot of what it is to be Catholic and Christian. Modernity is a mixed blessing – which is a way of saying that it is a blessing and a curse. It’s malefaction is its destruction of the human race’s grasp of the essence of the real world, and our place in it, by its corruption of the religious sense.
The only way back from this confused state which has suffocated the faith of so many and particularly that of the generations since the 1960s, is an effective articulation of the truth about the catholic church, what it is in its essence, and what its mission is. Only then will intelligent young people be able to break away from the prejudices about Christ’s church with which everything from shallow practice down to heinous scandals has left them. Only then will a young person who can now talk about “the crushing power of the catholic church” – another young Irish writer – come out and separate the wheat from the weeds, defend and protect the institution founded by Christ for the salvation of mankind.
We cannot talk of this being a crisis. Crises are relatively short-lived. Just as epidemics become endemic, crises can turn into something more permanent that we have to live with, cope with and build our defences against. The phenomenon which produced the response we began with is older than the ’60s. In a book published one hundred years ago, Romano Guardini wrote of the sad consequences of the failures in understanding we are looking at here. Their origins do not lie in the early twentieth century, nor even in the liberalism of the nineteenth century. They go back to early modernity and the emergence of a new consciousness of individuality. The failure to balance this consciousness with social and communal consciousness created a rift which we can follow as it developed down through the centuries to our own time.
He wrote of this in terms of the tension which he saw then, and we see now, between the church and the individual. He connected this with a broader tension between the community and the individual which also had its manifestation in relations between the church and the individual, thereby imperilling our understanding of the very essence of the church.
In the Middle Ages the objective reality of the church, like that of society in general, was directly experienced. The individual had been integrated into the social organism in which he or she freely developed a distinctive personality. At the Renaissance individuals attained a critical self-consciousness and asserted their own independence at the expense of the objective community. By doing so, however, they gradually lost sight of their profound dependence upon the entire social organism.
Consequently, he argued, the modern person’s consciousness of his or her own personality, no longer closely bound up with the conscious life of the community, overshot a critical mark and detached itself from its living social context. In terms of their relationship with the church, individuals began to think of the church, with its claim to authority, as a power hostile to themselves. At the time in which Guardini was writing this, James Joyce was the literary world figure deeply affected by the malaise he was describing.
The mission Guardini envisaged for the Christian then was to foment an understanding of the true relationship between the church and the individual. It must still be so, one hundred years later. It will always be so.
To achieve this, he maintained, our conceptions of society and individual personality must once more be adequate. To get there to any degree, self-consciousness and the sense of life within community must again be brought into harmony, and in terms of religious faith the inherent interdependence of the church and the individual must again be accepted as a self-evident truth.
For him, modern man needed to see how the church and the individual personality are mutually bound together, “how they live, the one by the other.” It was in this context and in this mutual relationship that we could only properly explain the justification of ecclesiastical authority. This could only be done if people freed themselves from “the partial philosophies of the age, such as individualism, state socialism, or communism.” In our age there is no shortage of partial philosophies competing to warp our understanding of reality. He put it this way:
Once more we must be wholeheartedly Catholic. Our thought and feeling must be determined by the essential nature of the Catholic position, must proceed from that direct insight into the center of reality which is the privilege of the genuine Catholic.
We agonise today, we talk and write about the atomistic disintegration of our society, and the sad consequences of family break-up, loneliness and worse which it brings in its wake. One hundred years ago he talked and wrote about the individual personality “starving in frigid isolation” if it is cut off from the living community. Being cut off from the church was even worse. The richness of the life which union with the church gives to the individual is the only true fulfilment of life, a “precondition of their most individual and personal life”. The church must necessarily be intolerable to those who fail to see this in her, to those who view her only as a power which confronts them and which, far from having any share in their most intimate, vital purpose, actually threatens or represses it. This, sadly, is the view of many today, who have not heard or understood that she is something infinitely different from that.
A person’s living will cannot accept a church so conceived… But the individual whose eyes have been opened to the meaning of the church experiences a great and liberating joy, for such individuals see that it is the living presupposition of their personal existence, the essential path to their perfection. They are aware of profound solidarity between their personal being and the church, how the one lives by the other, and how the life of the one is the strength of the other.
He concluded optimistically that the possibility of loving and living in the church in this way is not something remote: we can love the church by virtue of a supreme grace which may be ours today, and it is the grace which we need most. But for Christians to help make this happen in our time, what he wrote back in 1922 applies even more to 2022. It must be taken into account that men and women of the present generation cannot love the church merely because they were born of Catholic parents.
With equal force he warned that it would be folly to think that the love we are looking for could be produced by the intoxication of oratory and mass meetings. Neither would vague sentiments give us that love. He said that the young generation of his time was too honest for that. Honesty may well be a virtue more found in the young than in those of a certain age, something as true today as it was a hundred years ago.
To neutralise the atomistic process in which we still seem locked, Guardini wrote: One thing only can avail: a clear insight into the nature and significance of the church. We must realize that, as Christians, our personality is achieved in proportion as we are more closely incorporated into the church and as the church lives in us. When we address her, we say with deep understanding not “thou” but “I”.
If I have really grasped these truths, I shall no longer regard the church as a spiritual police force, but blood of my own blood, the life of whose abundance I live. I shall see it as the all-embracing kingdom of my God, and his kingdom in my soul as its living counterpart. Then will the church be my mother and my queen, the bride of Christ. Then can I love her! And only then can I find peace! We shall not be at peace with the church till we have reached the point at which we can…love it. Not till then…”
We might wonder sometimes if that most woke of the woke, Hollywood, knows what it is doing. Could it really have backed a film which is an allegory for the mayhem and destruction which the intolerant enemies of human discourse have unleashed on our civilization? This is probably a pointless question, because in Tinseltown, the love of money trumps everything.
In March 2017, Paramount hired John Krasinski to rewrite the script and direct A Quiet Place, his first directorial venture for a major studio. A Quiet Place and its sequel are two parts of a science-fiction horror franchise – A Quiet Place III, to be directed by Jeff Nichols, will be with us in 2023. But this is a horror tale with a difference. Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it tells us much more about ourselves and our condition than we might like to admit. A Quiet Place can be read as a tale about something very unpleasant, a tale about very disturbing aliens which are currently are invading our world.
When we read, or saw the film version, of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 it probably worried us to some extent. But did we ever think we would be facing its like this side of the Iron Curtain, then still a painful reality? If not, we should have. In today’s LondonDaily Telegraph (September 13) we read this headline: “Now woke activists are burning books – and it’s become a frightening gamble to write one”.
A Quiet Place is a truly frightening film about silence, not about the golden gift we know and which we associate with peace and serenity, but about the repressive and maddening silence forced on those who speak their mind, by those who hate them, because they say things that are found disagreeable by some. Threatened with violent extinction, they are forced to live in a condition of terrified silence.
This is a simple science-fiction story of a family trying to survive in a world which has been invaded by monsters which destroy any human being whom they hear. Hearing them speak, or make any noise, they are targeted and killed. As Nikki Baughan, described in her Sight and Sound review of A Quiet Place, the cinematic success of Krasinski’s film lies in its operating at a deep emotional level…This apocalyptic tale is told entirely through the prism of a single family, one struggling to cope not only with actual monsters, but also with insidious personal demons of grief, blame and guilt. “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” insists the father to his son, echoing the stock reassurances of parents everywhere. “Yes there is!” comes the terrified youngster’s incredulous, entirely accurate response.
Allegories are stories which include a representation or the expression of truth using symbolic, fictional characters. They tell a story which looks like one thing on the surface but also ask us – if we are able to see – to look at something which is much more than a story lying under that surface. They invite us to interpret the story and find in it truth about ourselves and our condition.
As the renowned Irish literary critic, the late Denis Donoghue wrote in The Practice of Reading, interpretation begins when someone decides to pay attention to a text. When a text – in this case a film – seems to be saying something it invites us to look under the surface. Interpretation begins when we have acknowledged that invitation and set about fulfilling it. We are, as it were, enriching our experience of that work. Donoghue explains the process:
“We try to understand the text as if its character were hidden and must be brought to light. We move along the interpretive process when we try to make our preliminary understanding of the text explicit to ourselves, thereby turning the occasion into an experience. If we offer to make the experience—or something like it—available to other readers, we have in mind to put the text into the public domain.”
He adds that “It is fairly generally accepted that the interpreter of a text can’t appeal for authority to the author’s intention—at least beyond a certain point—not only because we rarely know what that intention was but also because the author may not have realized his intention in the text; the text may in the event have exceeded the intention or diverged from it.”
We bring each text – which is a gift to us from its creator – into our own world and bring our own world to it. Our relationship with it is now part of its meaning and we offer our interpretation of it to others, in the hope that it may help them connect with the deeper meaning that we have found in it, rightly or wrongly. That dialogue is part of the joy of artistic experience, our relationship with works of art.
This, of course, is the joy which the monsters in A Quiet Place want to extinguish, representing all those in our culture who want to silence those with whom they disagree. The grotesque murderous creations which populate this allegory, provided by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic company, are not just some silly inventions designed to make you jump out of your seat. They do that, but they are much more. They are representations of something truly alien and destructive in our midst..
Will they succeed in extinguishing all dialogue, free expression and dissent? We await the third part of A Quiet Place and hope that the allegory will continue its narrative arc and show a path to victory over all those who would condemn mankind to silence and fear of speaking about what we think, see and feel. The first part of Krasinski’s film ends on a note which Baughan interprets as “a realisation that survival may not, in fact, come from avoiding the assault, but in finding the courage to rail loudly against it.” The sad evidence in our daily news is that this courage is in short supply in our creative community today.
“The parents weren’t just upset about all the screen time their kids were logging. They were upset about what they saw on those screens. For the first time, millions of moms and dads could watch, in real time, their children’s teachers teaching.”
That’s just one more aftershock from the great pandemic of the twenty-twenties.
We have all become aware of the workplace upheaval in which the world’s biggest corporations and the state bureaucracies of the planet – not to mention the real estate industry – are all grappling with the existential phenomenon of working-from-home. Pre-pandemic social communication had already made something of sea-change in our lives but the infliction of lockdown, while not perhaps being the mother of Zoom and its fellow inventions, was certainly the booster rocket which sent them into orbit, giving us meetings at our finger-tips and a new meaning to dropping in on family, friends and neighbours for a chat.
The architecture of the entire teaching-learning edifice which our world has known for the duration of what we call modern times now looks like it is in the process of a radical redevelopment, if not a wholesale demolition and rebuild. Not least among its structural features facing radical change is that which has taken care of which is perhaps its most lovable and most precious responsibility, elementary education.
Post-pandemic, millions of new families are moving to undertake the elementary education of their own children.
And why not? Are we so blind that we cannot see the logic, the justice and the beautiful privilege that the best educated generation in human history have the ability, and should have the right, to educate their own children. “Education bureaucrats, leave those kids alone!”
Barri Weiss’ Common Sense on the Substack platform spells out some of the details of this apparent landslide freedom movement in a guest post from another Weiss, Suzy by name, (sister, cousin?). In an age when the family has been put in greater danger than it has been in over one hundred years this is really good news. Not since the Marxist revolutions of the early part of the last century tried to obliterate the family, has it been so threatened. This movement is a real sign of hope. And this is not just for children but for the whole of western society. This is a revolutionary counter-revolution, a whiff of grapeshot moment of the kind in which Napoleon tore into the murderous zealots who had taken control of the French Revolution.
Throughout the western world – and increasingly encroaching on the societies and cultures of the rest of the planet – progressive elites with their bizarre readings of human nature, and what they think they can do with it, have penetrated education systems like a dry-rot penetrating the fabric of a building. That ordinary families with common sense and their feet on the real ground might take over the education of their children in their formative years is an anathema to these elites. The progressivists, academia and the teacher unions which they dominate, will resist but they must not be let undermine this most natural of movements.
These are some of the insights into this revolution which Suzy Weiss gives us in her post. The entire post is here.
In March 2020, as the coronavirus engulfed America, Kristen Wrobel got the news: “We heard on Friday that there would be no school for two weeks. Which just turned into no school.”
That was the last time her children — one in third grade, one in first — were in a classroom.
In the beginning, they did the remote-school thing. Wrobel, a 42-year-old stay-at-home mom with a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, called it a “nightmare.” The Zoom sessions, the Italian lessons on Duolingo, the stuff she had to print out, the isolation, the tears, the nagging, the shuttling the kids between her house, near Burlington, Vermont, and their dad’s, a half-hour away.
“Everyone was freaking out all the time,” she said.
By May, at the risk of violating state truancy laws, Wrobel had stopped fighting and let her kids log on (or not) whenever they felt like it. It was, she said, “the darkest hour before dawn.”
That September, she started homeschooling. She didn’t like all the restrictions her kids’ private school had implemented: Students seated six feet apart. Masked. In wedding tents. Outside.
She figured she’d send her kids back to the school in 2021, after everything had gone back to normal.
That was then. Now? “There’d have to be a revolution in schooling.”
She’s hardly alone. Wrobel is one of hundreds of thousands of moms and dads across the nation who have decided to become the principals of their very own, very small elementary schools.
The number of kids going to school at home nationwide has doubled over the past two years. In 2019, there were about 2.5 million students learning at home. Today there are nearly 5 million. That means more than 11 percent of American households are educating their children outside of traditional schools.
In Wrobel’s state of Vermont, homeschool applications are up 75 percent. And that’s in the northeast, where regulations are strictest. The phenomenon is exploding across the country. In North Carolina, the site for registering homeschools crashed last summer. In California, applications for homeschooling tripled from 2020 to 2021. In Alaska, more than a quarter of students in the state are now homeschooled.
In Texas and Florida, parents are not required to notify the state, so it’s hard to know exactly how many kids are learning at home. But just one South Florida school, Jupiter Farms Elementary, saw 10 percent of its student population withdraw for this school year. Almost all of them are being taught at home.
The American Schoolhouse was in serious disrepair before 2020 — about that no one would disagree. But the events of last year tore the whole thing down to the studs. First, the pandemic. Then, the lockdowns. Then the summer of unrest: George Floyd, the protests, the riots, the mea culpas. Many local school boards seemed more concerned about teaching critical race theory and renaming schools than reopening them. Parents didn’t know what to do — what was safe, what was right, whom to trust. It was like being inside a tornado.
These were changes that rocked every American family. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the homeschooling trend cuts across geographic, political, and racial lines: Black, Latino and Asian families are even likelier than white ones to educate their children at home.
All of this is undermining the old, Democratic-educational complex — the powerful teacher unions and the office-holders beholden to those unions — that has long maintained an iron-clad grip on tens of thousands of schools and the fate of tens of millions of American students. And it is forcing a long overdue reimagining of the way we educate children: the subjects they study, the values instilled in them, and the economy for which they are being prepared.
Maria Magallanes homeschools Zola West, 7, a child who lives next door, at the Magallanes home in Alexandria, Virginia, in April 2020.(Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
For decades now voices have been crying in the wilderness about the corruption of academia and lower reaches of the teaching profession. Instead of getting better they just got worse and worse, crazier and crazier – and utterly arrogant.
Consider what Peter Boghossian had to bring himself to say in this post, also courtesy of Bari Weiss: “…brick by brick, the university has made… intellectual exploration impossible. It has transformed a bastion of free inquiry into a Social Justice factory whose only inputs were race, gender, and victimhood and whose only outputs were grievance and division.”
Shortly after Boghossian ‘came out’ and took on the ideologues ” swastikas in the bathroom with my name under them began appearing in two bathrooms near the philosophy department. They also occasionally showed up on my office door, in one instance accompanied by bags of feces. Our university remained silent. When it acted, it was against me, not the perpetrators.”
There is no doubt, the Red Guards are back and they are not just in the United States. This kind of experience, in one form or another is replicating itself all over the academic world, formerly the free world.
In recent times it was depressingly hard to see from where the light at the end of the tunnel would come that would effectively bring about the change that is needed to bring an end to this cultural crisis. What our society and our civilisation is facing is truly worrying. Perhaps this is what is needed: a new generation, educated in common sense and with a grip on what true human values really are.
It is probably not the most original plot-line you have ever encountered in science-fiction – our heroes in their orbiting spacecraft fly off out of gravity’s pull and face death hurtling into the universe. Space Oddity was always going to be a hard act to follow. But taken in juxtaposition with the reflections of Romano Guardini in The Faith and Modern Man – written back in 1944 – it is intriguing as a metaphor for the human condition and the choices which our kind confront as we hurtle through the years of our existence in – or around – this planet.
For All Mankind is a space opera currently streaming on Apple TV+. It is good in parts – if you can bear with its embedded nod to wokeness and have a sufficiently tuned detector to deal with the moral ambiguity which wokeness now almost invariably carries with it as baggage. But deep down this is a work about the human sacrifices we make to fulfil our ambitions, and the answers it gives only take us so far. God does not get much of a nod – he’s not in the woke canon.
The episode which resonated in the context of what Guardini has to say about the destiny of mankind tells the story of two astronauts, on a rescue mission to a space station on the moon. They sustain damage to their craft and suddenly find themselves slipping out of orbit. They are in big trouble because they don’t have enough fuel to propel themselves out of danger. Compounding their trouble, they have also lost contact with mission control. Facing them is certain death. They then discuss whether to face death by starvation as they hurtle into outer space, or hasten their deaths by jettisoning themselves from their craft.
With just a sliver of hope they make a last desperate call for help. Against all the odds they make contact and help comes under the guiding hand of mission control in Houston. That sliver of hope grows exponentially. Enough not said here to avoid a spoiler, I hope.
Try to read the story as a parable – and there is no suggestion that this is the intention of the show’s creators; this is a very personal interpretation prompted by a serendipitous encounter with Romano Guardini’s more transcendental reflections on mankind’s nature and needs.
Our heroes are not unlike the members of the human race with which Guardini preoccupies himself in The Faith and Modern Man. Like our two astronauts, he sees us as creatures making our way through a beautiful but dangerous universe. For reasons beyond our control, “stuff happens” to us and we have to respond to it, or be helped to respond to it, in one way or another. In any one situation there may appear to be no ‘win-win’ options open to us, but there may be ‘lose-win’ options as against only ‘lose-lose’ options.
If we read the human condition with a truly Christian vision of life it is all ‘win-win’. The condition of the Christian in the world is that of a ‘hundredfold’ in this life and eternal happiness in eternity. The ‘lose-win’ scenario is also one of hope. It is that of the person who does not know the truth of existence but who by the grace of God and the help of some human agency eventually sees the meaning of life and departs this world in the full knowledge and acceptance of the creator’s will. The ‘lose-lose’ scenario is the tragic one, brought about by the wilful rejection of the truth of that purpose for which we have our being, and the subsequent drifting into outer darkness which that rejection inevitably entails.
Guardini puts the Christian in the world in the context of all mankind. Christian men and women are situated in life exactly as are all other human beings. Their bodies are made up of natural elements and are subject to natural laws. They live in the community of family and nation. They participate in the events of history, and share in the economic, scientific and artistic life of their days. Their dreams, thoughts, ethical motives, standards of right living, hopes of fulfilment, are like those of everybody else.
But then he makes a vital distinction. In their consciousness they have thoughts of another kind too — they know and believe in a God who created all things and guides people by his providential wisdom. They also know of redemption and of a new, radically different life which springs from it, which begins here on earth and finds its fulfilment in eternity.
These thoughts in their totality do not derive from human knowledge and experience, he explains. The Christian knows that the truth that underlies this consciousness, the kind of mind it speaks of, the way of life to which it calls for, is anchored on one reality, one definite person. This is Jesus Christ who claims to be the living revelation of the hidden God, the redeemer of the lost, the bringer of new life. A Christian is one who takes him at his word and accepts all the terms and conditions of the rescue proposed to him by Christ when, in one way or another, he cries out for help when he finds himself, as it were, lost in space.
Guardini put the story of the Christian’s life in this way.
The Christian believer of whom we are speaking has, in some way, come upon Jesus Christ, either by steeping himself or herself in the sources which relate his history, or by having learned from others of his person and doctrine. They are convinced that Jesus Christ alone brings truth and salvation, that he alone sheds light upon the riddle of existence, that by his spirit alone can moral problems be solved, that he alone affords a final refuge to the human heart. The lives of such men and women consist of a whole in which two worlds intermingle — the natural life with its realities, and everything which Christ makes known of truth and wisdom, and the strength which he imparts. This unity let us call simply the Faith.
Like our astronauts, the Christian in this world is very vulnerable. Faith for the Christian is life itself, Guardini explains, and since it is life in the fullest sense, it must undergo repeated crises, crises which concern not merely a single part of a person’s life, but their whole nature – their mind and all their potentialities.
The crisis faced by our astronauts was the result of a mechanical failure. But its consequences made them face not just the prospect of their imminent death but the choice of how they should die. Had they taken the quick sharp shock option and not held on to the sliver of hope they had, they would have short-circuited the providence of mission control and the agents sent to save them.
In the matter of crises of faith Guardini writes of the role of the church in the life of the struggling Christian. This is the church whose nature and characteristics he elaborates on in another work, The Lord, written in 1937. The church is, he says, the fullness of grace functioning in history. Mystery of that union into which God, through Christ, draws all creation. Family of the children of God assembled about Christ, the firstborn. Beginning of the new holy people. Foundation of the Holy City once to be revealed. And simultaneous with all her graces are her dangers: danger of dominating, danger of “the law.” When we speak of the church, we cannot ignore the fact of Christ’s rejection, which never should have been.
This church, he tells us, asks people in crisis – moral or otherwise – not to set aside their faith, even for the time being. This is based on the conviction that faith proceeds primarily not from human beings, but from God, whose power helps them to see as far into the question as is necessary and still to remain closely bound to God. He identifies two sides of the relation of a person’s heart to God. On the one side is longing for God, longing for his sacred truth. But on the other side is aversion, distrust, irritation, revolt. It is this twofold aspect which makes religious doubt dangerous. The moving force in the doubt is hostility toward God.
Therefore, in any struggle with doubt, one must resort to prayer. The most effective kind of prayer is that in which we place ourselves, in our hearts, before God, relinquishing all resistance, letting go of all secret irritation, opening ourselves to the truth, to God’s holy mystery, saying over and over again, “I desire truth, I am ready to receive it, even this truth which causes me such concern, if it be the truth. Give me light to know it, and to see how it bears on me.”
This prayer is the equivalent of the astronaut’s call for help, in hope against hope. The simplicity of that call – or prayer – completely belies its power to overcome the most devastating forces facing mankind, in or outside this world, natural or preternatural. It has the power to make all the difference between life and death, between light and outer darkness.