Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Final thoughts on the Referendum

                          Jactae sunt aleae (couldn't find a decent singular picture!)

This will be my final post before the Referendum. Ironically, I suppose, I'll probably be out of the country delivering one of my progeny to an educational institution outwith the best wee nation in the world. But the postal vote is in and, for me at least, the die is cast...

I resolved at the very beginning of this journey (and non Scots would do well to remember that we've been at this discussion for almost three years now) that I wouldn't take a public stance on the vote. Looking back, in some ways, I regret this as a slightly cowardly fence sitting. But it reflected both my own undecidedness and my desire to try and represent a Catholic community which disagreed on the issue. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that initial decision, it has had the advantage of forcing me to try to objective rather than partisan. A recurrent theme of this blog has been the place in political thinking of objectivity, of trying to discern (in Straussian terms) the natural right that underlies the eddies of everyday politics. That this is a solidity we never quite reach does not remove its importance as something for which we should strive.

Some last thoughts then.

First, although there has been an upsurge of interest in politics, I'm less optimistic than many commentators about the long term effects of this. There is undoubtedly an ache in many people for a public, political space which feels more like their own, rather than the playpit of a strange, alien political class. I suspect that this ache for a world of public meaningfulness is doomed to continue whatever the result of the referendum. It is an ache that cannot be filled by the modern nation state, but only by culture and, more specifically, a culture which acknowledges transcendent values. If Independence (or devo-maxish) were to solve or ameliorate this condition, it would only be indirectly by way of a revival of Scottish artistic and intellectual culture.

Secondly, there ought to be a grimness about politics in Scotland to match the grimness of some people's lives here. Go to parts of our big cities (or the run down small towns and villages) and get angry. We are, as we are constantly told, a wealthy nation. But there are many in that nation whose lives are blighted by poverty. There's not always a straightforward solution to that. But it should be a running sore, a constant screaming in our national conscience.

Thirdly, decent, thoughtful people have disagreed in this referendum. I think it's impossible for feelings not to run high and, frankly, for people not to slag each other off in a political struggle. But we need in the privacy of our own rooms to remember that the issues and the balancing between competing values is not a straightforward, algorithmic task. Both sides, whatever the result, need to put aside their disappointment and glee in the task of working together for the common good. Am I the only one to have thought, whatever I think precisely of them, that a Scottish political life in which people such as Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown, Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy engaged on a daily basis (rather than just popping up like Drake at a time of national emergency) would be a better one?

Finally, let me quote John Haldane in his article on the Referendum for First Things:

Scottish Catholics are insufficiently aware of these threats and whatever the outcome of the referendum, they will need to defend themselves against specious arguments and to rebuild an intellectual culture that might appeal to those for whom the world of ideas is currently associated exclusively with secular humanism. The question of Scotland’s independence is an important one, and if achieved the world will be watching to see how an ancient European nation transforms itself into the newest European state. If there is to be a new age of Scottish Enlightenment it must include respect for religion and given past and recent history, and the substantiality of Catholic faith and practice, the principal test of that will be respect for Catholicism.

Whatever the result of the referendum, Scottish Catholics (and. more generally, those who value the solidity of the traditional over the vapours of Jetsonist progressivism) will need to develop both a public presence and intellectual depth that they have not yet managed to do. That is, as Haldane points out, a matter of how others respect this aspect of Scottish life, but more importantly, how we ourselves articulate and fight for our understanding of the world.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Emotions and politics: full of yourself and empty of self

                                  I thought rather more fun than a headless chicken...

Of public matters, the two things that are probably most on my mind at the moment (judging from my recent blogging anyway) are Islam and the Referendum. In both cases, emotions run high and commentary thick and fast. In both cases, one is frequently struck by the omniscience of those proffering a judgment: interior design one day; Scottish independence the next; how to sort out the Middle East in a couple of days thereafter. What next? Cold fusion?

This blog certainly doesn't escape such a temptation to proclaim expertise it lacks. But in  my better moments, I try to confine myself to areas where I might claim some limited expertise, or to subjects where, willy nilly, 'everyman' has got to have some response. An example of the latter is, for example, the Independence referendum where, despite a lack of the full range of expertise required, I am going to have to make a decision on how to vote. (And where, as a result, my deliberative thrashings might have some wider (helpful) echo.)

But behind all this is a general difference of approaching the world. A Catholic, and anyone who inhabits a rich traditional culture, lives in a space that is much wider than the individual. Even in areas where I can claim an expertise, that expertise is dwarfed by what is still out there: the characteristic attitude of an individual here is to wait and listen and be patient (ie to 'suffer' the external reality to fill you up). On the other hand, the 'moderns' have a self which is full and spills over into the world: the characteristic attitude is one of a world which waits to be filled with the organizing endeavour of human beings (and indeed, most often, by me and my emotions).

Now, certainly, much more detail and complexity behind that very binary opposition. But that contrast does serve to illuminate a lot of what does go wrong in public discussion. Taking those two areas I mentioned, for example, the reality is that no one knows precisely the effects of Independence: we may, with care (con muchas pinzas) try to pick out the salient points, or, to alter the metaphor, like an archaeologist, brush off the surrounding earth to reveal the object, but that attempt, by the 18 September is going to remain incomplete. To some extent, we await God's final verdict (or, the Tao's, if you prefer). In the case of Islam, to take a very specific case, we shouldn't be surprised that Muslims struggle to express how they reconcile Islamic teaching with modern challenges: that sense of the current incompleteness and inadequacy of the individual in the face of a reality much greater than him is an essential feature of most complex traditional cultures.

For the moderns, on the other hand, the only thing that matters is internal coherence and force: so long as you've worked out how you feel, the main task is to get that feeling out into the public (and, if you're a bit Nietzschean as well) to get others agreeing with your thumping, emotion laden, view of the matter.

Certainly, it's difficult to imagine day to day politics without something of the tone of the Serengeti: big beasts roaming around, roaring at everything that's made of meat (ie voters). But even if that is unavoidable to some extent (and probably it's not to anywhere near the extent that it's currently practised), when we go home to close the door, we need to admit in the privacy of our own rooms if nowhere else, that we are waiting for reality rather than that reality is waiting for us.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Zizek and Rotherham

I try to avoid talking about Zizek, in part because I have an insufficient grasp of him and his influences such as Lacan to do him justice, but mostly because I can't work out how to get the correct diacritics onto his name. But needs must...

Zizek recently wrote an article for the Guardian on Rotherham in which (roughly) he took the opposite view to mine and argued that we needed to ask difficult questions about patriarchal attitudes to women in Islam rather than (my favoured position) just doing the police and legal work properly in dealing with crime and not worrying too much about the big sociological issues behind the abuse.

The problem according to Zizek:

The crucial feature in all these cases is that the violent act is not a spontaneous outburst of brutal energy that breaks the chains of civilised customs, but something learned, externally imposed, ritualised, part of collective symbolic substance of a community.

To put it simply, this sort of abuse goes to the heart of a culture rather than being an aberration. The solution?

So how are we to deal with all this in our societies? In the debate about Leitkultur (the dominant culture) from a decade ago, conservatives insisted that every state was based on a predominant cultural space, which the members of other cultures who live in the same space should respect. Instead of bemoaning the emergence of a new European racism heralded by such statements, we should turn a critical eye upon ourselves, asking to what extent our own abstract multiculturalism has contributed to this sad state of affairs. If all sides do not share or respect the same civility, then multiculturalism turns into a form of legally regulated mutual ignorance or hatred.


This is why a crucial task of those fighting for emancipation today is to move beyond mere respect for others towards a positive emancipatory Leitkultur that alone can sustain an authentic coexistence and immixing of different cultures.

Again, to put it simply, we need to work towards vision of fully emancipated culture within which we can all live. This will, inevitably, involve criticism and correction of unemancipated cultures such as Islam.

Now, I know that many readers have read some of my previous posts on Islam and written me off as an apologist for the religion. And to the extent that I think Islam and Muslims within the UK are being unjustifiably criticized in the media, I suppose I am an apologist. But perhaps my 'apologiae' will become clearer if we take up what Zizek says about Catholicism:

The same perverted social-ritual logic is at work in the cases of paedophilia that continuously shatter the Catholic church: when church representatives insist that these cases, deplorable as they are, are the church’s internal problem, and display great reluctance to collaborate with police in their investigation, they are, in a way, right – the paedophilia of Catholic priests is not something that concerns merely the people who happened to choose the profession of a priest; it is a phenomenon that concerns the Catholic church as such, that is inscribed into its very functioning as a socio-symbolic institution. It does not concern the “private” unconscious of individuals, but the “unconscious” of the institution itself: it is not something that happens because the institution has to accommodate itself to the pathological realities of libidinal life in order to survive, but something that the institution itself needs in order to reproduce itself.

In other words, it is not simply that, for conformist reasons, the church tries to hush up embarrassing paedophilic scandals. In defending itself, the church defends its innermost obscene secret. What this means is that identifying oneself with this secret is a key constituent of the very identity of a Christian priest: if a priest seriously (not just rhetorically) denounces these scandals, he thereby excludes himself from the ecclesiastic community, he is no longer “one of us”.

And we should approach the Rotherham events in exactly the same way...

In other words, just as Catholicism is essentially abusive, so are Pakistani Muslims.

Now I guess at this point, there might be two different reactions.. First, some Catholics may tend to regard Zizek on Catholicism as nonsense, but think he's right about Islam. Or, secondly, secularists and (some) non-Catholic theists will think he's right about both. Well, for me, neither.

When Zizek talks of paedophilia as being a phenomenon 'that is inscribed into its very functioning as a socio-symbolic institution' I struggle to make sense of this. I suspect a) that it is in fact a nonsensical claim (what is the 'unconscious' of an institution?); or at least b) it is a claim that requires long and critical debate before it could be thought plausible let alone true. (Come back and ask me in thirty years when we've all got the requisite work done on Lacan, Hegel and Aquinas.) But very many people are willing to countenance similarly dogmatic claims about Islam after thirty seconds thought: we know that Islam is a violent, patriarchal religion. (I'm afraid that I don't really know what a patriarchal religion is, let alone whether Islam is one of them.)

I conclude from all this what I've been regularly arguing in the past. At best, the sort of theological and sociological arguments about what Islam is or isn't, will take an awfully long time to complete (and frankly, I don't think they are the sort of arguments that ever can be completed: to borrow Bryce Gallie's term, the concepts involved are 'essentially contested'). In short, they are not the sort of arguments that can feed directly into political or legal action. In the meantime, there are all sorts of short term, immediate responses that will help: listen to victims; do evidence gathering properly; don't get complacent about your failings. At worst, the sort of knee jerk reactions to Islam and Muslims in the UK that are being seen at the moment will lead to 'a  positive universal project' that will sweep up everyone in its Black Maria of progress who doesn't buy into every jot and tittle of modish secularism.