The great manipulator strikes again

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In spite of all the blustering tweets, conservatives in America – and indeed across the world – probably feel that President Trump hasn’t actually done anything to harm us yet. The tone of his regime is bit of a problem but our culture is probably robust enough to recover its decorum. The rawer end of mainstream media, Hollywood and elements operating in social media bear far more responsibility for the coarsening our our discourse that the Donald has.

The rhetoric of his foreign policy is hopefully very different from the actual policy being pursued. As rhetoric, it is pretty unerving. For the people across the world who took the risk of pinning their flags to his mast, he has not – as yet – done anything to really make them regret doing that. He kept the Clinton dynasty out of the White House and for that alone they are still happy to live with a bit of risk.

Fraser Nelson in today’s Daily Telegraph puts the whole Trump project in a sensible context. As he sees it, Trump just wants to keep people talking about the things which he feels they need to talk about. The most recent twitter outrage is one perpetrated to get Europe thinking about an immigration problem which no one – with the exception of Douglas Murray – seems to accept for what it really is – an invasion.

Fraser’s assessment should allay the worries which some might have – for another few months at least. He also estimates that the Trump risk may be something that all of us will have to live with for another seven years. Fasten your seat belts. He writes, in his concluding remarks:

A few weeks ago, I met an American fund manager who calculated that his father – who quarried sand in Long Island – would be paid 45 per cent less today if he was still working. This, he said, was why Trump won: because globalisation, immigration and automation are conspiring against the ordinary American and no one else (other than the vanquished Bernie Sanders) seemed to care. The aim of the Trump project, from the get-go, was to convey this anger, a sense that they understood the desperation (a word that those around Trump often use) of the American working class.

Team Trump’s other working assumption is that partisanship now governs American politics. That the Reagan era was the last one with politicians who fought in wars together, and were bound together by a shared experience. Today, it’s tribal – and the winner is the one that best enthuses their core supporters. Much is made of Trump’s low national approval ratings but among Republicans they’re pretty high: 81 per cent, at the last count. So it’s probable that he’ll be a two-term president.

It’s very rare for any American president, no matter how unpopular, to lose a bid for reelection in a growing economy – and even now, there are no signs that the Democrats will find a decent candidate to pit against Trump. He might tire of the job, fake an illness or implode for some other unthinkable reason. But we might well have to live with The Donald for another seven years. The trick will be to take him seriously, but not literally – and as far as is decently possible, ignore those tweets.

Stranger Things – an even more daring interpretation

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This is a far more daring – and much more interesting interpretation of the Netflix series which is shaking up the world than I offered a few days ago. If the range and depths of possible interpretations is a sign of a masterpiece then perhaps we do have one on our hands.

It comes from Donna Provencher,  a writer, actor, director, toddler wrangler, caffeine enthusiast, and recent Catholic revert originally hailing from the Washington, D.C. area.

In the week in which someone in this world has paid $450 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi this interpretation seems to make even more sense. Great Art continues to be wonderful and mysterious – still challenging our vain pretences that we know everything.

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“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of the bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him . . . to the idea that . . . limitless terrors [have] a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” –G. K. Chesterton.

It’s no surprise to anyone that I love Stranger Things. Like, a lot. Probably too much.

I initially resisted the phenomenon, believing the show to be more sci-fi (which is not my jam) than horror (which is). But I eventually let myself be talked into sitting on my then-boyfriend’s couch in northern New York and binge-watching Season 1 in one fell swoop over the course of several days. And I was hooked.

I was also a “happily” lapsed Catholic at the time, a self-proclaimed agnostic and secular hedonist, so I was simultaneously in love with the show and repulsed by my own love for it, for reasons I could not articulate. With each subsequent episode, I felt more and more afflicted by uncomfortable truths – truths I pretended to have forgotten, but had forgotten I remembered. All my life I have been haunted by God, as Dostoevsky and Dorothy Day before me have said – and the summer of 2016 was no different.

Spoiler alert: I started talking about coming back to the Church about three months after the show premiered on Netflix and finally came back in September 2017.

“In reading Chesterton,” C.S. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy, “as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

I wasn’t careful enough in my viewing habits. Stranger Things was God playing fast and dirty with my soul – a private gamble that, although I lost, I still took home the winnings.

THE THEOLOGY OF STRANGER THINGS

Eleven, the waffle-loving heroine of Stranger Things who has so captured our cultural consciousness, is the most conspicuous Christ figure in modern art since Aslan first breathed on Narnia. The similarities are unmistakable: Everything from Eleven’s mysterious origin story to the nickname, “El” (“God” in Hebrew), that the boys affectionately bestow on her, to the ultimate sacrifice she makes for Will’s friends while battling the Demogorgon in the Season 1 finale, to her long-awaited resurrection in Season 2, looks suspiciously Christlike upon examination. She even bears a stigmata of sorts in the form of a tattooed “011” on her wrist – a visible manifestation of the suffering she has endured.

Despite the debt of ‘80s childhood nostalgia Stranger Things owes to E.T. and the Stephen King oeuvre, writes Thomas P. Harmon in “The Strangeness of Stranger Things,” Eleven is no impish, whimsical Spielberg alien: she is a child abuse victim.

She is tortured, exploited, cast out, rejected by society, betrayed by her own friends, descends into hell (the ultimate Upside Down) to free the souls entrapped there, sacrifices herself for the good of humanity, and rises again. O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Cor. 15:55)

“Eleven would get it. She always did,” says Mike in Season 2. “Sometimes I feel like I still see her. Like she’s still around, but she never is.”

And yet she is: Lo, I am with you always: even to the end of the world. (Matthew 28:20)

It is equally hard to miss the Marian imagery surrounding Joyce Byers, flawed though she may be. One can easily imagine the Blessed Mother pleading with her own Son on Calvary – much like Joyce Byers as Chief Hopper performs CPR compressions on Will – “I love you so much, please, please come back to me,” and the fleeting frames of Joyce cradling Will after his “resurrection” resemble nothing so much as a Pieta for the 21st century. That scene in particular – as well as the moment in Season 1 where she holds and comforts Eleven, who has never known a mother, after a particularly brutal experiment trying to contact the Upside Down – give us a show a little too Catholic for comfort: a show about a Mother’s love that conquers even death.

Donna writes for the San Antonio Express-News and is a former columnist for the Watertown Daily Times in northern New York. Her work can also be found on Scary Mommy, XOJane, and the Stop Abuse Campaign. She invites us to check out the inside of her brain over at www.donnasguidetothegalaxy.com.

“Write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”

Read her full post on Stranger Things here.

 

 

Curiouser and curiouser – “Stranger Things” and the Culture Wars

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(Spoiler alert if you have not seen the series yet)

Past ages, and the institutional powers of other ages – spiritual and temporal – were much less tolerant of free interpretations of influential texts in our culture. Our freedoms now are more respected.

However, as one cultural critic (Michel de Certeau) has observed,

“Today, it is the socio-political mechanisms of the schools, the press or television that isolate the text controlled by the teacher or the producer from its readers. But behind the theatrical décor of this new orthodoxy is hidden (as in earlier ages) the silent, transgressive, ironic or poetic activity of readers (or television viewers) who maintain their reserve in private and without the knowledge of the masters.”

It is with this freedom, and in this spirit, that I have watched and been enthralled by Matt and Ross Duffer‘s runaway Netflix success, Stranger Things.

What we read, hear and see in the artefacts of our civilization depends not only on the genius of the creators of those artefacts. It is also often determined by our own experiences and by the power, character and developed state of our own creative imaginations.

What Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm or Lord of the Rings says to us is not only what their authors’ intended to say but it may also be elaborated and enriched for us by what our own thoughts, sensibilities and experience of life bring to the creative table.

Stranger Things is, I think, one of those artefacts which is giving us much more to think about than we realise. Before you shout out in outrage, be assured that I am not – yet – bracketing this contribution to popular culture among the great artefacts of our civilization. It has its flaws but it also has its great moments.

After the first series of Stranger Things was streamed on Netflix last year, the Duffer brothers, its creators, had a conversation with Dawn Bonker, a senior writer on the website of their alma mater, Chapman University.

It’s about much more, they say, than the story of a small town turned on a tilt when a young boy named Will disappears, a strange little girl (Millie Bobby Brown) arrives and a paranormal mystery unfolds. Tantalisingly, and disappointingly, Bonker does not explore what that “much more” might be – with the exception of an observation by Ross that the story is about friendship.

As the plot unfolds the boys teach the little girl, called “Eleven” – because all they know about her is that she has 11 branded on her wrist – how to be a friend, how to trust people, and that “friends never tell each other lies”. The truly sinister and deeper layer of meaning of the story centres on the origin and treatment of this little girl and her mother. Their persecutors are the genetic and mind-bending scientists at work in the government laboratory on the edge of the town. “Eleven” has been raised in this laboratory, manipulated and physically abused. The boys she stumbles across when she escapes from her murdering manipulators help her on the road back to normal humanity.

Ross: There’s something so innocent and sweet about how central friendship is to them. When you really boil it down, that’s what really matters. It’s those very simple life lessons – being a good friend can go a long way.

Matt: On television there’s been this huge avalanche of shows with antiheroes. A lot of our characters are goodhearted people. And they have a lot of compassion.

Bonker asks, was that your universal truth, or a theme you were trying to convey?

Ross: I hope so.… Even when there’s darkness, people leave the show feeling a bit of hope there.… It’s about these friends that are there for each other no matter what, that there’s this mom (Winona Ryder) that’s there for her son no matter what. And to us there’s something both universal, and hopeful, about that.… That’s where we wanted to go.

Yes, but I think they go much farther than that. The darkness he talks about is really dark. Indeed it is as dark as the hell of Paradise Lost or the land of Mordor. This is the “upside-down world” of the plot, intimately and terrifyingly known to “Eleven” and into which characters stray and in which some lose their lives, others lose their minds and which throughout the series encroaches on the real world. Its hidden forces are seeking to infiltrate and possess our world for their own grotesque and malign purposes.

On the surface these are natural forces manipulated by humans. Netflix, not quite accurately in its promotional material, speaks of supernatural powers. But in fact what we are shown is the work of vile  power-hungry people and their mal-functioning experiments. The preternatural evil may emanate from the Father of Evil but if it does it does so like most of the evil in the world – through the medium of mankind.

Back in the 1950s we had the Red Scare. This in its turn spawned the monster of McCarthyism. We look back on that now and see it all as so much paranoia. But as the old joke goes, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get me. McCarthyism revolted us and was essentially an instrument as capable of perpetrating injustice as what it railed against. More effective antidotes of the age were the fables and fictions which countered the threat – ranging from those of Orwell, Huxley and others, to the productions of Hollywood’s own fable-factory – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), described as one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. The original version (there have been several remakes) captures better than any other film the fears of that era.

So, if the Duffer Brothers are warning us about a threat to our civilization wrapped up in a piece of ‘eighties nostalgia with echoes of E.T. and The Goonies, what might it be? I can’t say what it is for them, but I know what it is for me.

There are two strands of evil at work in the US Department of Energy’s Hawkins National Laboratory. In what way they are connected or were originally connected is not clear. I does not matter. One has resulted, through the manipulation of mothers and their children, in the development of human beings with super powers which the super State clearly intends to use for its own ends. The other has resulted in the creation of a super virus which controls carnivorous dog-like monsters and which can also take possession of humans. The scientists in HNL have lost control of the virus and now it is threatening to overrun the planet, leaving us with an “upside-down world” as terrifying as anything Cormac McCarthy laid out before us in The Road.

The dystopia of Stranger Things may be read as a metaphor for many things: a world wrecked by man-made climate change; a world destroyed by the genetic manipulation of our food supply; a world mirroring that in which the laboratories of Planned Parenthood trades the body parts of human babies it aborts “for the good of humanity”. Take your pick.  It may also be a warning that the nonsense of gender ideology and the attempted manipulation of our biological selves is destroying the very essence of our humanity. This indeed is, for me, the most compelling interpretation and seems to be underlined by the fight-back of two of the characters who are among HNL’s victims – Eleven and her sister – as well as the mother who fights for the body and soul of Will who has been possessed by the virus to end all viruses.

It seems to be further supported by the juxtaposition of the murdering evil men and women of HNL with the semi-innocent adults and the wholly innocent dungeons-and-dragons besotted twelve-year-old kids of a sleepy Midwest town.

For anyone with the slightest trace of paranoia about malign cultural forces running amok in our society, this speaks volumes. Is there a day, certainly not a week, which goes by without some new grim warning about what our gender-bending ideologists are asking the scientific and medical community to do for them. Take just one example from a recent Daily Telegraph headline, “Sex change regret: Gender reversal surgery is on the rise, so why aren’t we talking about it?”

The accompanying article spelled out a disturbing scenario and related allegations of cover-up and manipulation surrounding it. Echoes from Stranger Things were loud and clear.

In it we are told that around five years ago, Professor Miroslav Djordjevic, the world-leading genital reconstructive surgeon, received a visit at his Belgrade clinic: a transgender person who had undergone surgery at different clinic to remove male genitalia – and since changed their mind.

That was the first time Prof Djordjevic had ever been contacted to perform a so-called gender reassignment “reversal” surgery. Over the next six months, another six people also approached him, similarly wanting to reverse their procedures. They came from countries all over the western world, united by an acute sense of regret.

But these stories are taboo, they are not being heard. Over a week ago, it was alleged that Bath Spa University turned down an application for research on gender reassignment reversal because it was a subject deemed “potentially politically incorrect”. James Caspian, a psychotherapist who specialises in working with transgender people, suggested the research after a conversation with Prof Djordjevic in 2014 at a London restaurant where the Serbian told him about the number of reversals he was seeing, and the lack of academic rigour on the subject.

Djordjevic’s real nightmare is this: while the World Professional Association for Transgender Health guidelines currently state that nobody under the age of 18 should undergo this surgery, he fears this age limit could soon be reduced to include minors.

Were that to happen, he says, he would refuse to abide by the rules. “I’m afraid what will happen five to 10 years later with this person,” he says. “It is more than about surgery; it’s an issue of human rights. I could not accept them as a patient because I’d be afraid what would happen to their brain and mind.”

Add to that, the story, also in the Telegraph (November 13), that the Church of England has issued advice for teachers in church schools, fully supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which said that primary school-age boys and girls should be allowed to dress up in whatever they choose, regardless of their gender, including a “tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the fireman’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak”.

Rev Nigel Genders, The Archbishop’s Chief Education Officer, speaking about advice says: “Our guidance is practical. It says that children should be able to explore their identities as they grow up.

“For smaller children this may involve getting the dressing box out. For older pupils it might mean having informed conversations to grow in knowledge and respect for each other.”

I haven’t seen anything yet about a third series of Stranger Things coming down the tracks. The Duffer Brothers ended series two… Well, I better not say anything. But there seemed to be a nod to something ominous, suggesting that the “upside-down world” hadn’t gone away.

Indeed it hasn’t – and from news like that above it seems that the Archbishop of Canterbury might even be leading us there.

The practice of (biased) journalism

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The Radio Times, the BBC’s mass circulation listings magazine, promotes a programme on the issue of abortion this week with the following introductory paragraph.

There are few topics as delicate or contentious today as abortion. From Donald Trump’s global gag rule, which sparked international outrage earlier this year, to Ireland’s forthcoming referendum on whether to repeal its abortion ban in 2018, it is one of the most polarising issues of our time

The word “delicate” is ok. I think we can all accept the objectivity of “contentious” as well. But when we move to Trump’s “global gag rule” we begin to feel a little unsure of our ground. No one likes being gagged and people who gag others are generally objectionable. Then there is “international outrage”. Was there no support for his policy move? The final blow to our confidence in the BBC’s honesty, fairness and integrity comes with the Irish reference.

The Irish are not going to the polls next year to repeal or not repeal an “abortion ban.” They will be deciding whether or not to continue to vindicate and defend the right to life of the unborn, whether or not to remove from their constitution the article which says:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

Am I playing wth words? No, I am trying to do what the BBC is failing to do – use words as objectively as I can, stating the facts without the colour of my opinions attached. My effort at trying to describe what the BBC programme is hoping to do would go something like this.

There are few topics as delicate or contentious today as abortion. From Donald Trump’s policies on Planned Parnthood funding, which sparked international outrage among pro-choice supporters earlier this year, to Ireland’s forthcoming referendum on whether to repeal its law on the right to life of the unborn  in 2018, it is one of the most polarising issues of our time.

No matter what your personal opinion on the issue might be I would hope that you would be reasonably comfortable reading that ‘intro’ to the subject. You might still detect something of my personal opinions there but I would also hope that you would detect something of my respect for your right to an opposing opinion. The Radio Times simply  clobbers me over the head with its strident language. Sad.

On reading that opening paragraph in the magazine who could have any expectation that what this programme will present will be anything other than another apology for abortion on demand?

And sadly this is just one small example of the rampant abandonment by so many journalists of any effort to present facts dispassionately when they at the same time proclaim a commitment to that very ideal. The consequence of all this is that they not only destroy our confidence and trust in a great public institution but they undermine the strength and value of their own opinions. If we cannot trust them to give us the facts honestly then we cannot place much value on the opinions which they are calling on those “facts” to support.

 

Things might be better than we think they are

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The culture war is getting more intense not less so. Both sides are indulging in an orgy of recrimination, each telling the other what a mess they have made of our world. And yet, in many respects, as Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister of the day, reminded the British people back in 1957, “most of our people have never had it so good”. Mind you, while some chuckled at that, others were outraged.

In our time President Trump is expanding the culture wars, pouring more fuel on the fire every day. It’s like a boxing match without a referee as he lands punch after punch on the institutions that he views as liberal, elitist or both. It is so relentless that we are left wondering will it ever stop and whether he is doing it out of conviction or just to keep himself amused and keep his base alive.

In The Hill, Jonathan Easley observes that “With his agenda stalled in Congress and his poll numbers sagging, Trump has kept his base engaged and the left inflamed by escalating feuds with key figures in sports, entertainment, tech and media, effectively dragging politics into every corner of public life.

Easterly says “Trump’s aim is straightforward: To convince voters that there is a privileged class that scoffs at their patriotism and cares more about political correctness and diversity than ordinary Americans, their traditions and their economic plight.”

But is all this about the real world? Is there not something suspiciously unreal about everyone getting worked up about footballers gesturing on a pitch. Why are we paying such attention to entertainers using their narcissistic photo opportunities to spout their ad hominem invective at us. Not to mention the new phenomenom of celebrity colonialism.

On one level, Victor Davis Hanson, writing in the National Review, sees all this as a recycling of the crisis of the 60s and 70s which broke out across the globe in 1968. In that iconic year, the United States seemed to be falling apart, he says.

“The Vietnam War, a bitter and close presidential election, antiwar protests, racial riots, political assassinations, terrorism and a recession looming on the horizon left the country divided between a loud radical minority and a silent conservative majority.”

The concerns of that time seem a good deal more real than much of what is preoccupying most of these celebrities we have to listen to now.

“The United States avoided a civil war. But America suffered a collective psychological depression, civil unrest, defeat in Vietnam and assorted disasters for the next decade — until the election of a once-polarizing Ronald Reagan ushered in five consecutive presidential terms of relative bipartisan calm and prosperity from 1981 to 2001.”

In Europe the students set out to upset every apple cart in sight and already in China the mayhem of the Cultural Revolution had been set in motion by Mao in 1966 and continued for ten brutal years up to his death.

So is it a case of what goes around comes around? In America, after the stability of those conservative and semi-conservative years came the Presidency of Barack Obama, the would-be apostle of peace and unity who split America in two. The East and West coasts were at daggers drawn with Middle America by the end of his two terms. All this was documented by Michael Kirk (without and “e”) in his superb two part PBS documentary, The Divided States of America.

Britain had a relatively peaceful 1968. The London Times did not have much time for students who thought they were more important than they were. It ran an editorial under a heading reminding us that “A student is a student is a student.” But it is not a little ironic that her troubled exit from Europe is to a large extent being made more troublesome by the generation of Marxist revolutionary street-rioters of ’68. They eventually calmed down and then proceeded to nurture and indoctrinate those running the European bureaucracy today.

But Hanson fears that in America this time the divide is far deeper, both ideologically and geographically. It is also more 50/50, with the two liberal coasts pitted against red-state America in between. The same percentages seem to be prevailing in Europe. In Britain the more radical pro-Europe young are at loggerheads with their elders, so much so that with Brexit negotiations staggering along some feel the whole process might be reversed. If that happened who knows what the unintended consequences might be?

As Hanson sees it in America, politics – or rather, a progressive hatred of the provocative Donald Trump – permeates almost every nook and cranny of popular culture.

“The new allegiance of the media, late-night television, stand-up comedy, Hollywood, professional sports and universities is committed to liberal sermonizing. Politically correct obscenity and vulgarity among celebrities and entertainers is a substitute for talent, even as Hollywood is wracked by sexual harassment scandals and other perversities.

“The smears ‘racist,’ ‘fascist,’ ‘white privilege’ and ‘Nazi’ — like ‘commie’ of the 1950s — are so overused as to become meaningless. There is now less free speech on campus than during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s”

Yet for all the social instability and media hysteria, life in the United States quietly seems to be getting better. The same is true in most parts of Europe.

The fact is that across the West – and in the East as well – economies are growing. The lessons of the last recession may or may not have been learned. There is no doubt but that a good deal of the public distaste for the warring political class stems from a public memory of how they fell asleep and allowed it to happen.

Hanson wonders if “the instability is less a symptom that America is falling apart and more a sign that the loud conventional wisdom of the past — about the benefits of a globalized economy, the insignificance of national borders and the importance of identity politics — is drawing to a close, along with the careers of those who profited from it?”

As we watch the spectacle of identity politics unfold and the political elites consume their energies on their palpable hatred of one another – while the media cheers on one side at the expense of the other – we wonder whether the real world is just getting on with the job of living while they squabble like adolescents suffering from arrested development.

Take no part in the words of darkness, but instead expose them…

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For the past half-century, the received wisdom among our cultural elites has been that the West is fundamentally bigoted and illegitimate and must be transformed. Melanie Phillips is at it again, taking on these elites and exposing their shallow folly. This woman is indefatigable.

In a superb article in the Jerusalem Post she tells the world that it is eating itself up with contradictions. It does so every time it rubbishes faith and religion because it is cutting the ground from underneath its own feet. By doing so it is putting reason in the same skip.

Among unbelievers, she writes, it is an article of faith that reason, science and modernity are in one box and religion, superstition and obscurantism in another.

Ah yes; the rational, factual, grounded secular world. The one that is currently disinviting speakers and violently attacking universities on the grounds of upholding freedom and equality. The one that is spewing unhinged lies and paranoid distortions at Israel and the Jewish people. The one that appears to be spinning off its axis into utter madness.

Phillips reminds us that this week the Jewish cycle of readings from the five books of Moses begins again in their synagogues. Christians can get into the same boat and identify with everything she reflects on at this turn of the Jewish liturgical year. Christians will begin their cycle with the beginning of Advent in a little more than a month’s time.

The secular world, she reflects, looks on with indifference, bemusement or contempt. The reason for this is something the secular world cannot bring itself to grasp.

The same secular world consigns Christians, the younger brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to the same quaint – but not harmless – category of deluded human beings.

Because the peoples adhering to these traditions are determined to abide by their faith – and in the case of Christians are determined to evangelize, to spread their faith – they are not just harmless delusionals. They are an obstacle to real human progress and must be at least marginalized – if not destroyed.

But the tragic irony of this situation is that the “rationalists” mocking the faithful are leading western civilization on a path of self-destruction.  “For”, as Phillips points out, “in setting out to destroy the biblical basis of western civilization, the secular world is in the process of destroying reason itself.”

Phillips’ reading of how this self-destructive process has been operating is this:

For the past half-century, the received wisdom among our cultural elites has been that the West is fundamentally bigoted and illegitimate and must be transformed. Accordingly, biblical codes embodying objective truth and goodness have been replaced by ideologies such as moral and cultural relativism, materialism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, utilitarianism, feminism, multiculturalism, universalism and environmentalism.

Indeed what she says echoes words of warning of Pope John Paul II at the end of the last century:

(With) the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world — Marxism being the foremost of these — there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics.

This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”. (Veritatis Splendor,101)

These movements are all utopian, Phillips asserts. Each in its own way wants to create a new kind of human being and a perfect world. The greens believe they will save the planet. The multiculturalists believe they will excise bigotry from the human heart. The universalists believe they will create the brotherhood of man.

The problem with all these ideologies, she says, is that they are anti-reason.

She is right. The fatal flaw of all these ideologies is that they aim at a utopian perfection and reject the evidence which our reason patently places before our eyes: our fallen nature is of itself incapable of the perfection they dream about. For both the Jew and the Christian that of course is not to say that perfection cannot be attained. “Be you perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” For both these faiths God is real, He is perfect and has promised us redemption.

Phillips traces the hostility of these ideologies to their inherent irrationality:

Moral relativists attack the Mosaic code. Environmentalists attack the (misunderstood) assertion in Genesis that mankind has dominion over the Earth. Materialists attack the belief that there can be anything beyond the universe at all. And so on.

It is no coincidence that these ideologies are both anti-reason and anti-Jew, for Judaism and reason are not in separate boxes at all. The one in fact created the other.

She deconstructs the popular misconception that science and faith are in these “separate boxes”. For the development of science, she argues, monotheism was essential. As the Oxford mathematics professor, John Lennox, puts it: “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly.”

Science grew from the idea that the universe is rational; and that belief was given to us by Genesis, which set out the revolutionary proposition that the universe had a rational creator. Without such a purposeful intelligence behind it, the universe could not have been rational; there would have been no place for reason in the world, because there would have been no truths or natural laws for reason to uncover.

She then catalogues the great scientists and philosophers, right up to our own time, for whom the idea of science without God was nonsense. They were Jews and Christians.

As we know, not all of them grasped all the implications of the truth which they stumbled on. Many indeed misinterpreted it. But they had one essential clear; God existed and was the author of the universe. Francis Bacon said God had provided us with two books – the book of nature and the Bible – and that to be properly educated one must study both.

Isaac Newton, Descartes, Kepler and Galileo – who said “the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics,” are all on her list.

As CS Lewis wrote: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”

But for her the significant point is that it was not religion in general but the Bible in particular that gave rise to science. She tells us how the Hungarian Benedictine priest Stanley Jaki has shown that in seven great cultures – the Chinese, Hindu, Mayan, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Arabic – the development of science was truncated. All made discoveries that carried human understanding forward, yet none was able to keep its scientific discoveries going.

Jaki attributes this to two critical features that these cultures had in common: a belief in pantheism and in the cyclical concept of time. Science could proceed only on the basis that the universe is rational and coherent and thus nature behaves in accordance with unchanging laws. It was therefore impossible under pantheism, which ascribed natural events to the whims and caprices of the spirit world.

The other vital factor in the creation of science and modernity was the Bible’s linear concept of time. This means that history is progressive; every event is significant; experience is built upon. Progress was thus made possible by learning more about the laws of the universe and how it works.

Given all this, it comes therefore as no surprise to her that the Jewish people find themselves in the very eye of the civilizational storm. The same can be said for the Christians. For her this new hatred is deeper than the perennial scourge of anti-Semitism, something for which confused Christians in their falleness bear a terrible responsibility over many centuries. This new scourge is, she says, all part of the unfolding story of the modern world turning savagely against the very creed on which it itself is based.

I dare to suggest that in her own way she is admonishing us to beware of the darkness of which that great Jewish Christian, St. Paul, warned the people of Ephesus and Thessalonica, surrounded as they were by the secular pagan culture of his time:

“Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of the light (for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful words of darkness, but instead expose them… Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:8-11, 15-16; cf. 1 Th 5:4-8).

Thank you, Melanie Phillips, for your wisdom and your courage in swimming against this relentless current which threatens to sweep us away in its madness.

Reluctance to go to bed is making us fat, ill and miserable

Matthew Walker wants us all to take sleep more seriously.   “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says. “And yet no one is doing anything about it. When have you ever seen an NHS poster urging sleep? When did a doctor prescribe not sleeping pills, but sleep itself? Sleep loss costs the UK economy more than £30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2% of GDP. I could double the NHS budget if only they would institute policies to mandate or powerfully encourage sleep.”

Walker, a Liverpool-born sleep scientist, is now the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

As the line between work and leisure grows ever more blurred, we are worrying more about our sleep. Indeed, it is Walker’s conviction, as recounted to Rachel Cooke in The Observer newspaper, that we are in the midst of a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic”, the consequences of which are far graver than any of us could imagine.

Walker has spent the last four-and-a-half years writing Why We Sleep, a complex but urgent book that examines the effects of this epidemic close up, the idea being that once people know of the powerful links between sleep loss and, among other things, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, obesity and anxiety, they will try harder to get the recommended eight hours a night.

Why, exactly, are we so sleep-deprived?

In 1942, less than 8% of the British population was trying to survive on six hours or less of sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two people is. “First, we electrified the night,” Walker says. “Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All of these are the enemies of sleep.”

Walker believes, too, that in the developed world sleep is associated with weakness, even shame. “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting.

In case you’re wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero.

Does he take his own advice when it comes to sleep? “Yes. I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence. Once you know that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, your natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70%, how could you not?”

And if he is struck by the curse of insomnia? He turns on a light and reads for a while.

More than 20 large-scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear finding: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night. A lack of sleep also appears to hijack the body’s effective control of blood sugar, the cells of the sleep-deprived appearing, in experiments, to become less responsive to insulin, thus causing a prediabetic state of hyperglycaemia. When your sleep becomes short, moreover, you are susceptible to weight gain. Among the reasons for this are the fact that inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin, and increases levels of the hunger-signalling hormone, ghrelin. “I’m not going to say that the obesity crisis is caused by the sleep-loss epidemic alone,” says Walker. “It’s not. But processed food and sedentary lifestyles do not adequately explain its rise. Something is missing. It’s now clear that sleep is that third ingredient.”

Sleep has a powerful effect on the immune system, which is why, when we have flu, our first instinct is to go to bed: our body is trying to sleep itself well. Reduce sleep even for a single night, and your resilience is drastically reduced. As Walker has already said, studies show that short sleep can affect our cancer-fighting immune cells. And getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will also significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.  (In his book, Walker notes “unscientifically” that he has always found it curious that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were vocal about how little sleep they needed, both went on to develop the disease.)

And then there is sleep’s effect on mental health. When your mother told you that everything would look better in the morning, she was wise. Walker’s book includes a long section on dreams (which, says Walker, contrary to Dr Freud, cannot be analysed). He suggests that dreaming is a soothing balm. Deep sleep – the part when we begin to dream – is a therapeutic state during which we cast off the emotional charge of our experiences, making them easier to bear. Sleep, or a lack of it, also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived.

How is it possible to tell if a person is sleep-deprived? Walker thinks we should trust our instincts. Those who would sleep on if their alarm clock was turned off are simply not getting enough. Ditto those who need caffeine in the afternoon to stay awake. “I see it all the time,” he says. “I get on a flight at 10am when people should be at peak alert, and I look around, and half of the plane has immediately fallen asleep.”

So what can the individual do? First, they should avoid pulling “all-nighters”, at their desks or on the dancefloor. Second, they should start thinking about sleep as a kind of work, like going to the gym. “People use alarms to wake up,” Walker says. “So why don’t we have a bedtime alarm to tell us we’ve got half an hour, that we should start cycling down?” We should start thinking of midnight more in terms of its original meaning: as the middle of the night. Sleeping pills, by the way, are to be avoided. Among other things, they can have a deleterious effect on memory.

Here Walker talks with academics at Berkeley about sleep and the brain.

A longer version of this article by Rachel Cooke first appeared in The Observer

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2017. This is a shorter version of a report in the THE WEEK, 4 October 2017

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker is published by Allen Lane at £20.

Something “abhorrent to any civilised society”

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Pawns in a pro-choice game

The chilling implications of the underlying philosophy of those advocating the repeal of Ireland’s constitutional protection of the right to life of all human beings were laid bare last week in the Irish parliament. Currently a committee of elected members is hearing evidence from those proposing and those opposing repeal.

Professor William Binchy, an expert in constitutional law, challenged both those advocating repeal and the legitimacy of international pressure being put on Ireland to make this change.  Clearly the implications for civilization of an argument which gives one human being the right to choose to end the life of another innocent and defenceless human being brings us back to not just the dark ages but to one of barbarism  where right and wrong are no longer rooted in reason but on the whims of individuals.

Human rights, Binchy explained to the members of the Committee – some of whom seem incapable of comprehending the truth of what he was saying – are based on the inherent and equal worth of every human being. “Human beings have human rights, not because they are given by legislators or courts, but by reason of their humanity.” Commenting on what advocates for change are saying, he claimed that, if accepted, they would make it lawful to take the life of a child on request, with no restriction as to reasons, and also where the child has a significant foetal anomaly. “If human rights are to have any meaning, one human being should not be entitled to choose to end the life of another, innocent and defenceless, human being. The idea that our law should authorise the taking of a child’s life with ‘no restriction as to reasons’ is, frankly, abhorrent to any civilised society.”

A big effort has been made by the campaigners for abortion in Ireland to put focus on the cases of rape and on cases where children in the womb are diagnosed with disability. They say that a law which does not allow abortion in such cases is “inhuman”. Binchy addressed this, saying that “terminating the life of a disabled child because of the child’s disability is not consistent with respect for the child’s equal right to life.” Our society, he went on, has been founded on the value that no one has the right to choose to hurt, let alone kill, another innocent human being . Professor Binchy explained that on the basis of the supremacy of choice, the philosophy behind “right to choose” with “no restriction as to reasons” – these are the terms of the law being proposed to Irish legislators – implies the right to take the life of another human being.

On the campaign tactic of the Irish abortion lobby to enlist the support of UN agencies and monitoring committees – which are peopled with die-hard “right to choose” advocates,-  he stated categorically that the international human rights treaties which Ireland has ratified do not provide for a right to abortion. If they were in conflict with the Irish Constitution they would not have been ratified by Ireland. Any comment from the monitoring committees of the international treaties does not change the meaning of the treaties. Their members, Professor Binchy maintained, are earnest supporters of the “right to choose” philosophy and Ireland has no obligation to change its Constitution to get it in line with their views.

He was also highly critical of the submission of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission on the issue. He himself was a member of this Commission in the past. He said that if the proposals were implemented, they would involve abortion with little or no restrictions in practice, i.e. a regime of abortion on demand. “Throughout its Policy Document, the Commission never addresses the entitlement of children before birth to be protected from having their lives ended. It offers no reasons why such a profound discrimination against them should be proposed. Alarmingly, it presents no objections from a human rights perspective to late term abortions.”

 

In Ireland, David and Goliath meet again

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The forces of so-called progress, namely “progressiveism”, and the forces of reason are mustering on the Island of Ireland. The war has not yet been formally declared. It will be when the Irish Government finally sets a date for a referendum on its Constitution, now due to take place in May or June next year.

Ireland’s progressivists are an embarrassed lot – feeling out of step with their compatriots in the United States, the Island of Britain and the continent of Europe. Among this enlightened elite, poor backward Ireland is still living in the dark ages, continuing “against the tide of History” to regard the child in its mother’s womb as a human being. The international media is keeping up the pressure – hoping that they will see Ireland go from the back of the class right up to the front again, as it did 3 years earlier when it became the first country in the world to legalise gay marriage by a popular vote.

It is all shaping up to be the greatest and most unequal contest since David faced Goliath. On one side you have the international forces of the United Nations, assorted NGOs led by a shadowy manipulator masquerading as a philanthropist, George Sorros,  by that betrayed organisation, Amnesty International, whose Irish branch is now totally dedicated to the cause of abortion – and about ninety percent of the national media. On the other side you have a very committed but numerically limited and terribly underfunded platoon of pro-life action groups defending the unborn.

Pope Francis is expected to visit Ireland in August next year. The clever progressives in the Irish Government have been very careful to ensure that he was not going to get a platform to speak his mind on the issue in any way that would have a serious impact on the result. For that reason the referendum will take place in the first half of 2018. They have no such reservations about letting the un-elected United Nations quangos have their say on the matter.

But the pro-life workers know the story of David and Goliath. They also know that in their sling they have a small still voice more powerful than anything this Goliath can throw at them and the unborn. They have the truth, the truth about our nature and about our humanity. They feel that if they can tell the story of life then the deception of abortion will be exposed – along with the untruth that choice and freedom are synonymous. All this, they hope, will be seen by the people of Ireland to be the lie that it is.

“Only the freedom which submits to the Truth leads the human person to his true good. The good of the person is to be in the Truth and to do the Truth”.

The denial of the truth inherent in the pro-choice ideology, a denial made in the face of human nature and science, enslaves its adherents – even as they demand their false autonomy.

That quote above is from Saint John Paul’s Veritatis Splendor.  It speaks not just to the Christian but to all mankind.

He also spells out, in the same magna carta on behalf of Truth, the reasons for the cul-de-sac into which progressivism has led us, and it’s dire consequences.

“This essential bond between Truth, the Good and Freedom has been largely lost sight of by present-day culture… Pilate’s question: “What is truth” reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who often no longer knows who he is, whence he comes and where he is going. Hence we not infrequently witness the fearful plunging of the human person into situations of gradual self- destruction. According to some, it appears that one no longer need acknowledge the enduring absoluteness of any moral value. All around us we encounter contempt for human life after conception and before birth; the ongoing violation of basic rights of the person; the unjust destruction of goods minimally necessary for a human life. Indeed, something more serious has happened: man is no longer convinced that only in the truth can he find salvation. The saving power of the truth is contested, and freedom alone, uprooted from any objectivity, is left to decide by itself what is good and what is evil.”

So let the battle be engaged. Nine months – the likely span of time between now and this crucial moment of truth for the Irish people, and indeed the watching world, is a symbolic duration. The great art historian, Kenneth Clark, from the precipice of Skellig Michael off the coast of Kerry, long before Star Wars arrived there, once spoke of Western civilization hanging by its fingernails from those rocks. Perhaps history will repeat itself.

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Sleepwalking over a precipice?

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Dreaming dreams is one thing. Living in them is another. Visions of our future do not have a great history. A much better pathway to the future is along the trajectory on which our history has already put us. The Irishman’s advice to the straying traveler who is looking for directions, “If  I was you Sir, I wouldn’t start from here at all,” is about as practical as most visionary Geo-political pursuits are. Martin Luther King had a dream. It was a noble vision, and while it brought African Americans some way along the freedom road, it has left in its wake more disappointment than achievement. The quality of life he dreamed of for his people is still just that, a dream.

The European Union is built on a dream. It is a dream which was also generated by an admirable ideal – peace among men and an end to war. But with each decade that passes, as the project stumbles from crisis to crisis, the warning signs are more and more evident that the visionary foundations of its structure are illusory and woefully inadequate for the gigantic and cumbersome edifice it dreams of becoming.

The cultural differences between the peoples of Britain and continental Europe are at the heart of Brexit. Rooted as they are in “the Anglo-Saxon way” and pragmatic as they have always been, the British majority have called time on the European dream. They are pursuing their democraticly and constitutionally exercised decision with characteristic doggedness – despite the scorn of their neighbours across the Irish Sea and the English Channel.

And yet, in spite the sinister rumblings of regional nationalism in Spain, the signals of discontent coming from Poland and Hungary, the sizable minorities in France, Netherlands and Austria, all unhappy with a perceived overreach by the patronizing bureaucracy of this visionary Union, its leadership persists in proclaiming its ideology of the Communion of all Europe’s people. Just now it is Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, and Emmanuel Marcon, France’s new President, are the latest victims of European myopia.

Back in 2013 it was José Manuel Barroso, then the President of the Commission, when he gave a speech calling for a “new narrative” for Europe. But it wasn’t really a new narrative, it was really a call for the great and the good of the Union to step up to the plate and proclaim the ideal again for the generation of the new millennium. He just wanted to use the old wineskin of the Union into which he would put some newly fermented wine. We have been warned about what that can lead to.

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José Manuel Barroso
Anne Applebaum, in a survey of a recent batch of books on the predicament of Europe in the New York Review of Books, recalls this speech.

Barroso, she writes—like many, many others—saw which way the wind was blowing even then. Europe’s leaders seemed technocratic and remote—and they knew it. Europe’s political institutions were unpopular. The euro crisis had left numerous people angry and resentful. Worse, younger Europeans seemed not to get the point of the union at all. Barroso made a proposal:

I think we need, in the beginning of the XXI century, namely for the new generation that is not so much identified with this narrative of Europe, to continue to tell the story of Europe. Like a book: it cannot only stay in the first pages, even if the first pages were extremely beautiful. We have to continue our narrative, continue to write the book of the present and of the future. This is why we need a new narrative for Europe.

Barosso’s initiative recruited artists, writers, and scientists from across the continent who signed a declaration: “In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed.” A book was published, The Mind and Body of Europe: A New Narrative. Debates and dialogues were held throughout the continent and the objective was to create a strong sense of European federal identity.

But this is precisely how dreamers – we call them idealists when we think we like them – work and get political life wrong. Real practical politics grows out of real life, not out of dreamed up grandiose schemes.

Applebaum writes that while it’s easy for Anglo-Saxons to laugh, many modern European states were created by precisely this kind of top-down campaign—”think of the unification of Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century, or the resurrection of Poland after World War I.”

They were, and they were not. In all those cases there was a bottom up force at work as well as a top down design. This has never really been true for Europe. Even the United States of America, which might be the closest model on which the European Union could base itself, would be a very false template to use. The United States was forged out of living political realities – an over-reaching and uncomprehending imperial authority – and a subsequent immigrant colonisation with which the new Republic had great trouble controlling. It was unable to hold itself together without creating rivers of blood among the indigenous people and the sacrifice of 750,000 lives in a civil war which is still reverberating under the surface.

And as Barosso found out, dreamt-up intellectual projects without roots in the native soil did not work for his “new narrative”. While Barroso’s project had some of the elements, Applebaum observes, of a popular national movement: intellectual and artistic support, a consistent idea, an inspiring concept, it was not popular and it died the death of most dreams.

In her reading of the books she reviews Applebaum detects no more agreement between them than was evident among the great and good that Barosso vainly tried to enlist to the cause of Europe.

With a little glimmer of the light which Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, aka, Joseph Ratzinger, shed on this subject she notes that the problem isn’t one of national differences. The issues that separate the authors she reviews “are temperamental, ideological, and even, one might say, eschatological.” And there’s the rub. The heart has gone out of Europe. The only coherent identity which Europe ever had as an entity has been abandoned.

In Values in a Time of Upheaval: Meeting the Challenges of the Future, Ratzinger noted how

At the beginning of the 1960s it was still possible for Arnold Toynbee to express his optimism about the victory of European culture. He wrote that of the twenty-eight cultures that had been identified (around the planet), eighteen were already dead; and of the ten that still existed, nine had already visibly collapsed, so that only one—ours, the European—remained. Who would dare to say that today? And what is “our” culture, which allegedly still remains? Is the civilization of technology and commerce that has spread victoriously throughout the world our “European culture”?

Now, he says, in the very hour of its most extreme “success”, Europe seems to have become empty from within. Its life seems threatened by a crisis of circulation, and it almost seems to need a transfusion of blood—but that would destroy its own identity. In keeping with this dying of the elemental forces that expressed the soul, the reduced number of births makes one suspect that Europe is also dying out in ethnic terms.

Even in the 1960s Toynbee conceded that the “Western world” was in a crisis. He identified roots of that crisis in the falling away from religion to embrace a cult of technology, of the nation, and of militarism. Ultimately, Ratzinger reminds us, Toynbee identified the crisis as secularism. “But if we can name the cause of the crisis, we can also indicate the path to healing: the religious element must be reintroduced. Toynbee holds that this element includes the religious patrimony of all cultures, but especially what remains of Western Christianity.”

Ratzinger talks of the collapse of Communism and implies that this brought with it a kind of false dawn of a new age. For him the real catastrophe that the Communist regimes left behind was not economic, it was the devastation of souls, the destruction of moral consciousness. He holds that the fundamental contemporary problem for Europe and for the world is the almost total silence about the moral and religious problems that were the real heart of the Communist aberration.

Christian ideals are real ideals, not dreams. They are the very stuff of life and death, of human conception, birth, living with our feet on the ground but with our heads, through the medium of body and soul, in Heaven. This was part of the original inspiration of the practical political men who set the European Union on its path. This has been wilfully abandoned.

As Ratzinger puts it: The initial enthusiasm for a return to the great constant elements of the Christian heritage soon evaporated, and European unification proceeded almost exclusively from the economic perspective. Scant attention was paid to the question of the intellectual foundations of such a community.

Applebaum concludes her assessment of our prospects recalling an observation by a
European diplomat of her acquaintance who likes to compare Europe and the US to the Western and Eastern halves of the old Roman Empire. The West imploded, with drama, violence and crazy Caesars; the Byzantine East lingered on, bureaucratic, stodgy, and predictable, for many centuries. It’s not exactly an optimistic precedent for Europeans, but it’s a comforting one.

It might be comforting until we remember the ultimate fate of that stodgy old empire. It was overrun by Islam. The book which Applebaum does not include in her review is Douglas Murray’s best-selling The Strange Death of Europe, published in May. She might have done and had she it might have shattered any comfort her diplomat friend was seeking to convey to us.

Our European masters may not be just dreaming. They may be sleepwalking and leading us over a precipice.