Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in politics
“We need a counter-narrative.” How often have we heard that since 7/7? We need to tell a better story to those young British Muslims for whom bombs and beheadings hold a greater allure than anything we have to offer. Someone’s seducing them away with a narrative of lies, so we must seduce them back again with a narrative of truth.
There’s a problem with narratives. Most that spring to mind are fictional. And while we like to think it’s stories as subtle as Ulysses or humane as Middlemarch that drive civilisation along, in fact what quickens the popular imagination are simpler tales of goodies and baddies, in which the baddies are always someone else. Artless fairy stories enchant us in our first years and retain their hold on us until our last.
The Government’s proposed hymn to British values is equally naiive. Man wakes up, kisses wife (but not in a homophobic sort of way), reads chapter of Magna Carta aloud to family, goes bareheaded to work, eats humanely killed pork sandwich, practises sundry acts of tolerance, returns home to gin and tonic, prays unfanatically to secular god, and goes to sleep thinking of the Royal Family. Indubitably, there are worse ways of getting through the tedium of existence, but as a narrative this one’s unlikely to prevail against millenarian fantasy and a plentiful supply of virgins. In a battle of facile narratives, the one with more action wins.
But why must it be a choice, anyway, between blowing people up on buses and a docile embrace of British values to which very few Britons of any faith or temper subscribe? Extreme views can kill, but disagreement is the breath of life. Non-conformity has always been one of the great British virtues, and that includes non-conformity to things British. The terrorist isn’t a problem because he doesn’t conform; he’s a problem because he does. It’s what he conforms to that makes him dangerous…..
The writer Mehdi Hasan similarly sprays guilt around and, for good measure, suffering as well. If we think 7/7 was a terrible time for the victims, he wants us to remember who else got it in the neck. When the bombers were identified as British men with names like his, “a knot tightened at the pit of my stomach”, he wrote in The Guardian. “We’re screwed,” he told a Muslim friend. Beware the grammar of narrative. Self-concern appears to come too quickly here, trumping the horror of the moment. You’re screwed, Mr Hasan? There are dozens dead and hundreds injured and bereaved, and you’re screwed?
Read the whole thing.
Even by the standards of this pontiff, Pope Francis’s speech yesterday in Bolivia to a crowd that included the country’s president wearing a jacket emblazoned with the face of a mass-murderer (Che Guevara, in case you needed to ask: we can at least be sure that Speaker Boehner won’t do that when he introduces Francis to a joint session of Congress), was a doozy.
The Guardian exults (of course it does), quoting this amongst other delights:
“The new colonialism takes on different faces. At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”
Not for the first time with Pope Francis, we see traces of conspiracism (a demagogic standard, I’m afraid to say) in his use of the phrase ‘anonymous influence’ and the suggestion of dark works by ‘corporations’ and ‘loan agencies’. The distaste for ‘free trade’, complete with scare quotes of course, harks back to the Peronist preference for economic autarchy that marked the Argentina of his youth. And so does another extract from the same speech in which the Pope seems to call what he refers to as a “truly communitarian” economy, often a buzz word for those, such as Perón, who claimed or claim to be looking for a ‘third way’ between communism and capitalism, a third way that, in Argentina’s case, ultimately led to disaster.
Turn now to a 2013 blog post from Jacob Lederman reacting to posters that appeared across Buenos Aires after Francis’s election, posters that read, “Francisco I, Argentino y Peronista”:
The fall of the first peronist government is said to have been precipitated by Peron’s break with the church but in fact I have always thought that the two shared many common attributes: top down structures, a measure of paternalism which can be discursively rendered a form of communitarianism, and a strong inclination toward the mystical. Look at the speech, and we see that Francis has no time for what he refers to as “the bondage of individualism”.
And he seems unimpressed by the remarkable (and, of course, incomplete) achievements of the free market (however approximate, however imperfect) in not only coping with a vastly expanded global population (ahem) but in pulling so many out of poverty across the world. All that appears to count for little with a figure who, economically and politically speaking, appears to view much of the modern world through the lens of the exhausted ideologies of the mid-20th Century.
Let us say NO to an economy of exclusion and inequality, where money rules, rather than service. That economy kills. That economy excludes. That economy destroys Mother Earth.
To him this is the system (“a subtle dictatorship”, apparently, a description which left me wondering how he would describe Cuba) that has “irresponsibly” (an interesting word to use, in this context: some sort of central planning, I suppose, is to decide what is or is not “responsible”) accelerated “the pace of production, while using industrial and agricultural methods which damage Mother Earth in the name of “productivity”….
The Green Revolution was bad?
This Pope’s vision is dark, with more than a touch of the millenialist about it, complete, even, with reference to Old Nick.
Behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.
Quite where this “unfettered pursuit of money rules” escapes me, but then straw men are a Pope Francis staple. After reading the Pope’s speech, I returned to Joel Kotkin’s thought-provoking Daily Beast article on the eco-encyclical.
Here’s an extract:
What we seem to have forgotten is the historic ability of our species—and particularly the urbanized portion of it—to adjust to change, and overcome obstacles while improving life for the residents. After all, the earliest cities of Mesopotamia and Egypt arose, in part, from a change in climate that turned marshes into solid land, which could then be used for intensive, irrigated agriculture. Similarly, pollution and haze that covered most cities in the high income world—St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Dusseldorf, Osaka, Los Angeles—only a few decades ago has greatly improved, mostly through the introduction of new technology and, to some extent, deindustrialization. In recent decades, many waterways, dumping grounds for manufacturers since the onset of the industrial revolution and once considered hopelessly polluted, have come back to life. This notion that people can indeed address the most serious environmental issues is critical. We should not take, as Francis does, every claim of the climate lobby, or follow their prescriptions without considerations of impacts on people or alternative ways to address these issues….
Ultimately the green platform seeks not to increase living standards as we currently understand them (particularly in high income countries) but to purposely lower them. This can be seen in the calls for “de-development,” a phrase employed by President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren for all “overdeveloped” advanced countries, in part to discourage developing countries from following a similar path. This way of thinking is more mainstream among European activists who seek to promote what is called “de-growth,” which seeks to limit fossil fuels, suburban development, and replace the current capitalist system with a highly regulated economy that would make up for less wealth through redistribution.
We know how that ends.
Links (I still cannot link directly)
With Francis’s pontifical blessing , the greens have now found a spiritual hook that goes beyond the familiar bastions of the academy, bureaucracy, and the media and reaches right into the homes and hearts of more than a billion practicing Catholics. No potential coalition of interests threatened by a seeming tsunami of regulation—from suburban homeowners and energy firms to Main Street businesses—can hope to easily resist this alliance of the unlikely.
That may (yet) overstate the impact that the Pope, raging against the Devil one day, against air conditioning the next, may actually have, but it is a reminder of just how foolish it was of Speaker Boehner to invite Francis to speak to a joint session of Congress. It’s true that the encyclical had yet to appear when the invitation went out, but the fact that Francis is a profoundly political pope was no secret, and nor was the nature of his essentially Peronist politics.
But back to Kotkin:
There are of course historical parallels to this kind of game-changing alliance. In the late Roman Empire and then throughout the first Middle Ages, church ideology melded with aristocratic and kingly power to assure the rise of a feudal system. Issuing indulgences for the well-heeled, the Church fought against the culture of hedonism and unrestrained individualism that Francis has so roundly denounced. The Church also concerned itself with the poor, but seemed not willing to challenge the very economic and social order that often served to keep them that way.
Historically Medievalism represented a “steady state” approach to human development, seeking stability over change. Coming after the achievements of the classical age—with its magnificent engineering feats as well as an often cruel, highly competitive culture—the Middle Ages ushered in centuries of slow growth, with cities in decline and poverty universal for all but a few.
There’s something else though. The medieval church’s preference for ‘stability’ may or may not have been influenced by its perception that this was somehow better for the poor than any alternative (I doubt it), but it did have quite a bit to do with its realization that innovation and affluence represented a dangerous threat to its position in the intellectual, political and social order.
That, I suspect, is something that bothers Francis, who is no free spirit.
Kotkin’s article contains so much that it seems invidious just to post a few extracts (read the whole thing, really), but here goes:
What makes the Pope’s position so important—after all, the world is rejecting his views on such things as gay marriage and abortion—is how it jibes with the world view of some of the secular world’s best-funded, influential, and powerful forces. In contrast to both Socialist and capitalist thought, both the Pope and the greens are suspicious about economic growth itself, and seem to regard material progress as aggression against the health of the planet….
… Given their lack of faith in markets or people, the green movement has become ever less adept at adjusting to the demographic, economic, and technological changes that have occurred since the ’70s. Huge increases in agricultural productivity and the recent explosion in fossil fuel energy resources have been largely ignored or downplayed; the writ remains that humanity has entered an irreversible “era of ecological scarcity” that requires strong steps to promote “sustainability.”
…Ultimately the green platform seeks not to increase living standards as we currently understand them (particularly in high income countries) but to purposely lower them. This can be seen in the calls for “de-development,” a phrase employed by President Obama’s science advisor John Holdren for all “overdeveloped” advanced countries, in part to discourage developing countries from following a similar path.
So Prince Charles, another individual whose, so to speak, business flourishes best in ‘steady state’ societies, turns out, Kotkin explains, to be something of a fan of the slums of Bombay, which apparently offer more “durable ways of living” for the developing world than those available in the suburbanized west, a comment steeped in the revolting blend of ignorance, condescension and smugness all too typical of the heir to the British throne. May the Queen live to be 120!
Kotkin does, however, note the encouraging (and entertaining) prospect that the ideas of the self-proclaimed ‘Pope of the poor’ will be rejected by, well, the poor:
Trying to sell anti-growth green ideology may prove a tougher in the developing world. Not surprising then that, no matter what the rhetoric that is adopted by the climate conference to be held in Paris this month, critical figures like India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not restrict building new coal plants—the country has tripled coal imports three fold since 2008. In the sweltering cities of the subcontinent, moves to ban air conditioning are simply not good politics. And Chinese President Xi Jinping, the leader of the world’s largest carbon emitter and user of coal, clearly has no real intention of reversing rapid development, based in large part fossil fuels, till 2030, when reasonably priced alternatives may well be generally available.
And then there’s this:
Architect Austin Williams suggests that sustainability, the new prayer word of spiritual greenism, “is an insidiously dangerous concept, masquerading as progress.” It poses an agenda that restricts industry, housing and incomes in a manner that severely undermines social aspiration. Indeed, Williams argues, greens and their allies—now including the world’s most important church—have created “a poverty of ambition.” Williams suggests the common green view is that humanity is “destructive and in need of reduction” rather than “a source of innovation, creativity, imagination and socialization.”
That is a profoundly anti-humane and, yes, dispiriting view. That Pope Francis has chosen to come so close to it says a great deal, little of it good.
Full Kotkin piece here (For some mysterious reason, I still cannot link): http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/07/05/green-pope-goes-medieval-on-planet.html
Here’s an extract:
[W]hat will be the end result of our wicked urge to own things? Mayhem, of course. All the pollution produced in the making of our things will increase “the threat of extreme weather events,” [Pope Francis] says, echoing in green-friendly language the Old Testament God’s promise of floods as punishment for mankind’s sinful antics. We should also gird ourselves for the “catastrophic consequences of social unrest,” since “our obsession with a consumerist lifestyle, above all when few people are capable of maintaining it, can only lead to violence and mutual destruction.”
…The Vatican is now a fully-fledged green institution. Which isn’t surprising. The demonisation of human hubris and promotion of eco-meekness that is at the heart of the green ideology chimes perfectly with the asceticism of Catholicism.
The similarities between the pieties of environmentalism and the diktats of Catholicism are striking. Environmentalism rehabilitates in secular drag the stinging rebukes of humanity once delivered by pointy-hatted men of God.
Christianity’s end-of-worldism is getting a new airing in the apocalypse obsession of greens, who warn of an eco-unfriendly End of Days. Its promise of Godly judgement for our wicked ways has been replaced by greens’ promise that we’ll one day be judged for our planetary destructiveness. A leading British green has fantasised about “international criminal tribunals” for climate-change deniers, who will be “partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths.”
The Word of God has become the authority of The Science (greens always say “The” before “Science,” to signal its definitiveness.) “Science has spoken,” said Ban Ki-Moon last year, in a speech on why we should all obsess over climate change, just as Catholics insist the “Lord has spoken” so STFU. Greens breathe life back into Catholic guilt, too, urging us to feel bad about everything from flying abroad to eating strawberries out of season. Carbon-calculating, where people measure their every single production of carbon, is like Catholic guilt on steroids.
Of course, you can offset your carbon by planting a tree or something—what Catholics call penance. In the past, rich believers paid priests loads of money for an Indulgence, which absolved them of their non-mortal sins—today the eco-concerned wealthy spend their cash on offsetting their carbon farts, the modern equivalent of an Indulgence.
This is why Francis is so drawn to environmentalism: he sees it as a more acceptable, 21st-century way of pushing the guilt and meekness and anti-Promethean outlook that the Vatican has long been hawking.
O’Neill is right, and that’s every reason to be worried. Apocalyptic fantasy, the pursuit of ascetism and “anti-Prometheanism” (From Eve’s “sin” to the persecution of Galileo to Frankenstein to today’s GMO scares) have sold well for thousands of years. There’s no reason to think that they will not continue to do so.
Pope Francis’s document is poorly argued, destructive in intent and adrift from commonsense; it will doubtless be adopted with enthusiam.
From First Things, an interesting take on the pope’s eco-encyclical by R.R. Reno.
Here’s an extract: “Everything is connected” is [the Pope’s] mantra in Laudato Si. True to this principle, Francis links his suspicion of science with suspicions about other dimensions of the modern world. Progress has often been characterized as ever-greater prosperity. But economic globalization, a signature feature of the late modern world, and precondition for today’s rapid growth in China and elsewhere, is excoriated again and again. Francis never tires of denouncing “finance,” by which he seems to mean modern banking in all its forms. And of course we’re destroying mother earth. “The post-industrial period may well be remembered as the most irresponsible in history.”
Another feature of modernity and its faith in progress has been a political commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. To be modern is to believe that, for all our flaws, Western societies are more democratic, more egalitarian, and more inclusive than any in history. This is not the Pope’s view. The West is rapacious. He quotes one source approvingly: “Twenty per cent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive.”
In effect, the present world system created by European and North American modernity—the world made possible by Newton, Locke, Rousseau, Ricardo, Kant, Pasteur, Einstein, Keynes, and countless other architects of modern science, economics, and political culture—is an abomination. Francis never quite says that. But this strong judgment is implied in his many fierce denunciations of the current global order. It destroys the environment, oppresses the multitudes, and makes us blind to the beauty of creation.
Indeed. And it’s worth noting that these are not the first “fierce denunciations” (I’ll stick with that relatively gentle phrase) that we have seen from a pope with something of a weakness for a demagogic, occasionally even paranoid style that would have played well in the Peronist Argentina of his youth, a time when he clearly learnt much and understood little.
But back to First Things:
Today’s progressives are often critical of the West, and in that sense critical of “progress.” Europeans can be hysterical about genetically modified food. They have renounced nuclear energy, the only feasible large-scale alternative to a hydrocarbon-based energy system. Democracy was the signal political aspiration of modernity, but the EU is a post-national political project, a technocratic, post-democratic project. Here in the United States, many are now educated to believe that the history of the West is one long story of oppression and injustice. Optimism has waned, which means that the pope’s pessimism may be received warmly.
Perhaps, therefore, the most accurate thing to say is that Francis offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world. He seems to propose to link the Catholic Church with a pessimistic post-humanist Western sentiment rather than the older, confident humanism.
There may be a strange genius in this. For more than two hundred years Catholicism has resisted a self-sufficient humanism confident in the triumph of reason and science. Now there are powerful forces in the West that regard the modern project of the West as a failure, and the worst-case accounts of global warming encourage us to draw this conclusion. Thus the encyclical’s apparent focus, which is quickly superseded by a wholesale critique of every aspect of the current global system. Francis encourages the humiliation of modernity and the West, seeing in its failure the seeds of repentance and return to God.
Count me a skeptic. I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. If global warming poses a dire threat to humanity—and it may—we will need all the moral strength, scientific integrity, economic vitality, and political legitimacy that Western modernity can muster. The same goes for the pressing problems of poverty and development. Instead of the voice of denunciation, we need the Church’s counsel and guidance. We all need to repent. But when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.
Obviously, I’m not with Reno on the need for the guidance of the Roman Catholic Church (readers may disagree!), but his broader point is subtle and very well made. The fact is that Francis is a pope who is profoundly at odds with not just (what we understand as) the West, but with the best of the West.
And, I would add, this encyclical is far from being the only evidence of that.
The presence of British Prime Minister David Cameron, no friend of free speech, at the march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings was, in the scheme of things, a comparatively minor moment of hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, it’s always helpful to have reminders of where his government really stands.
Writing in The Independent, Francis Wheen:
Three years ago today, Saudi Arabian police arrested Raif Badawi for the crime of running a website “that propagates liberal thought”. His blog had put the case for secularism in observations such as this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”
As if to prove his point, a Sharia court hauled Badawi back into the fearful circle, sentencing him to 600 lashes and seven years in jail for “going beyond the realm of obedience”. Last year, deciding that he had been let off too lightly, a judge upped the punishment to 1,000 lashes and 10 years’ imprisonment plus a fine of one million riyal (about £170,000).
What does our government think of this?
Asked about the flogging and jailing of Badawi, the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay said in the Lords last week: “We maintain our view that freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression are core rights that lead to long-term stability and good governance.”
But? Yes, of course there was a but, and one to take the breath away: “My Lords, I think we have to recognise that the actions of the Saudi government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”
Do they? Last Friday I asked the Foreign Office how the minister could be so sure. No answer has yet been forthcoming. Perhaps the “vast majority” of Saudis are indeed fanatical sadists who rejoice to see liberal bloggers whipped. Or, then again, perhaps they aren’t. No one knows: this is an absolute monarchy, not a marginal in the West Midlands being polled by Lord Ashcroft.
If I had to guess, the grotesque treatment of Badawi probably worries few in Saudi Arabia, but why Anelay had to say what she did, well…
There’s been some smart commentary in The Spectator from Damian Thompson, a former editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald, on Laudato si the Pope’s eco-encyclical, due to be released tomorrow, but already extensively leaked. It’s (obviously) fair to wait to see what the final document actually says before making too detailed a critique, but the Vatican’s complaint that the leak was a “heinous act” would suggest that what has been leaked is not too far off the mark, and so some discussion seems more than reasonable.
Thompson’s comments are even-handed and I’d recommend reading them in full.
He also cites an article by Bjorn Lomborg in USA Today.
Here’s an extract:
A cruel truth is that almost every significant challenge on Earth hits the poor more than the wealthy: hunger, a lack of clean drinking water, malaria, indoor air pollution. The question then is how we make the most difference for the most vulnerable. A reasonable starting point is to listen to the world’s citizens. A United Nations survey of 7.5 million people found that many other issues are deemed more urgent. The top priorities were education, health, jobs, corruption and nutrition. Of 16 problems, the climate was rated the lowest priority.
One reason may be that today’s climate policies themselves have a cost, which predominantly hits the poor. Cuts in electricity consumption require price hikes that hurt the worst-off and elderly. Relying on expensive green energy sources like wind and solar power makes electricity pricier and less available for those who desperately need it. The biggest problem with today’s climate change policies is that they will cost a fortune for very little good. The toughest global warming policy today is the European Union’s commitment to cutting 20% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. This will cost $235 billion. And cut temperatures at the end of the century by a measly 0.1ºF.
If Pope Francis is, like he likes to claim, interested in truly helping the world’s poorest Lomborg suggests that he look elsewhere, to improved access to contraception, say, and lowering restrictions on trade. Well, we already know what Francis thinks about the former (Fair enough, but that does not remove the topic as a legitimate area of focus when assessing his contribution to the debate) and, as for the latter, well, let’s just say Francis, sticking to his Peronist roots, is no fan of the mechanisms that have improved the lives of so many in the past few decades.
Lomborg is too diplomatic to say so, but the new encyclical creates the impression that – yet again – a Pope is genuflecting before the United Nations. Every recent pontiff has developed this bad habit. Their intentions are honourable, but I can’t help wondering whether the long Catholic-UN romance owes something to a natural fit between the corrupt Roman Curia and its sleazy counterparts in the UN.
In this document, however, Francis goes further than his predecessors: he endorses the UN’s diagnosis of and solutions to the complex problem of climate change. That’s his prerogative, but don’t let anyone tell you that he’s speaking ex cathedra. Jeb Bush, a Catholic, has every right to say – as he did this week – that, with all due respect, he doesn’t take his economic policies from the Supreme Pontiff.
Laudato si isn’t just about the environment: it’s a political statement by the Pope. He knows very well that climate change has been dragged into the Left vs Right culture wars, not only in the secular arena but also in the Catholic Church.
Indeed he does, and he’s making very clear where he stands.
Meanwhile, remind me again why Speaker Boehner has invited Pope Francis to address Congress.
Note: I still cannot link to URLs so:
In eliminating ancient architecture, ISIS is also destroying the architecture of minds. Until there is nothing between you and your judging, revengeful God. Not a single joyous distraction – of art or music or history or dance – to fill your heart. The work of 2,000 years gone in minutes. Nothing left but blood and sand.
The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.