Saturday, 7 May 2016

Blue thoughts after the Holyrood election...

                                                               Laozi heads West...

There is really no pleasing some people (ie me). I know (big C) Conservatives are jumping up and down at boosting their numbers of MSPs in the Scottish parliament, but I'm afraid it hasn't managed to pierce my Eeyore-ish take on Scottish politics. Here's why.

1) I have absolutely no idea why Unionists are proclaiming the death of the SNP and the death of a second Indy referendum. The SNP plus the Greens form a majority in the new parliament and both are pro-independence and 'progressive'. Indeed, the Greens are so progressive that it seems an inadequate term for them. The SNP vote didn't drop. There is still a pro-independence majority in Holyrood. The SNP is liable to find itself propelled in even more progressive directions. None of this sounds obviously good to me.

2) The Conservatives increased their seats markedly and Labour fell. But the Conservatives won pretty much on the sole issue of the Union. Ruth Davidson is a self declared progressive and ran a campaign that was noticeably light on policy (other than being pro-Union). Labour seems at least to be considering a drift to the Corbynista Left in Scotland as a solution to its ills. (Won't work, but that's for another day.) Scottish politics, by dint of the Conservatives' tactics, is now frozen in a binary opposition: pro and anti independence.

3) Nobody in Scotland seems to be talking in terms of that area of Blue Labour/Red Tory/(Purple Nats?) which seems the natural (small c) social conservative heartland. Indeed, Scottish political punditry seems to have been reduced to a permanent shifting of sauce bottles around the dining table in order to map out precisely how the Boche ('whoever we're agin') can be outwitted in the next campaign rather than reflection on how to put the permanent things of life on a better footing. (I except from this certain public intellectuals on the Left who do discuss such matters but are obviously bawheids.)

Political life in Scotland is becoming paralysed by the Independence question and frankly the Conservative 'success' is part of that paralysis. Unless some Scottish conservative commentators start putting the exciting but pointless exchange of insults aside and start thinking about convincing future generations of the merit of genuinely conservative principles (start here), then it won't matter very much whether we're governed badly from Westminster or badly from Holyrood.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk died on this day in 1994.

Wikipedia does a reasonable job of getting the basics right:

Russell Amos Kirk (October 19, 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan – April 29, 1994 in Mecosta, Michigan) was an American political theorist, moralist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the amorphous post-World War II conservative movement. It traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving special importance to the ideas of Edmund Burke. Kirk was also considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism.

Reactions to Kirk seem to fall between idolatry from young men in five piece tweed suits and carrying what the suspicious might take to be a sword cane to having absolutely no idea who he is. (The latter I suspect is much the most common in Scotland.) So why do I think that it's worth taking him seriously everywhere but especially in Scotland? Here are some suggestions:

1. Suspicion of change.  The Scottish political scene is entirely dominated by self-styled 'progressives' including the Conservatives. (The Independent describing the Tory paper on tax reform:  "the word “progressive” features (a nod to mainstream political discourse in Scotland".) Whatever reality lies behind the narrative, the only game in town is one which talks of bright, shiny futures. The biggest lack in Scottish political discourse is anyone who is even talking along the following lines:

[T]he conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise. [Here.]

2. An emphasis on imagination and 'seeing as' rather than party political success. If all of Scotland is now progressive, we are also all now gripped in a political culture where all that matters is effectiveness. The stream (trickle?) of voters away from Labour to the Conservatives is purely about the most effective opposition party to the SNP. Such calculations are of course inevitable.But unless there are the beginnings of a richer political culture with a greater variety of views and a willingness first to explore the nature of homo politicus before entering into the Machiavellian cut and thrust of day to day politics, Scottish public life will wither.

“Imagination rules the world,” Russell Kirk used to say. He meant that imagination is a force that molds the clay of our sentiments and understanding. It is not chiefly through calculations, formulas, and syllogisms, but by means of images, myths, and stories that we comprehend our relation to God, to nature, to others, and to the self. That is why William Wordsworth referred to the imagination as “The mightiest lever known to the moral world.” And that is why Dr. Johnson, in an earthier definition, quipped that imagination is “The thing which prevents [a man] from being as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as in the arms of a duchess.” [Here.]

3. Kirk loved Scotland (and Scott) and his sensibilities are in many ways much closer to Scottish culture than a Conservatism dominated by the London establishment. (At the very least, it is a relief to read a small town republican conservative rather than a scion of the Bullingdon Club.)

4. An emphasis on the transcendent. Although Kirk expresses this differently over the years, a sense of an order, rhythm or simple presence that stands outside the everyday world is a constant, expressing itself variously in his conversion to Catholicism in 1964, his writingof gothic ghost stories, and his Burkean sense of an organic unity of a tradition. This stands, I think, in contrast to both the mechanical Christianity of much of the modern Right in America and to the cynical pragmatism of much of the Right in Britain.

5. Finally, he is (as much as he presents) a 'patchwork' (to borrow Davila's phrase)  or (to borrow mine) a landscape of the mind. His affinities to post-modernism have been noted in that he created less a body of doctrine to be followed but a landscape to be inhabited. Moreover, it is a landscape that is in many ways highly individualistic: the landscape we inhabit in modernity is no longer a village that we can simply be born into, but one that has to be crafted by each of us as a bohemian:

I did not love cold harmony and perfect regu­larity of organization; what I sought was vari­ety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful. I despised sophisters and calculators; I was groping for faith, honor, and prescriptive loyalties. I would have given any number of neo-classical pediments for one poor battered gargoyle. [Here.]

Monday, 25 April 2016

Islam and apostasy a (sort of) reply

Before reading this, I alert you to a number of disclaimers which I offer  to try to prevent any discussion sliding off into the pointless. You should probably read them beforehand, but, human nature being what it is, I don't want to drive away more readers through tedium than I have to. You'll find them at the bottom of the page.*

One of the most consistently interesting online presences Da Masked Avenger has recently blogged on the subject of Islam and apostasy (here). I hope that it's fair to summarise his intent as follows:

a) His primary intent is provide a purely rational reassurance to Muslims who, on the basis of revelation, accept the teaching on the killing of apostates from Islam, but find themselves undermined in their confidence in that teaching by the perception that it is against reason. By providing an examination of western (liberal) philosophical reasons in favour of such a teaching, he hopes to encourage Muslims to hold fast to the truth of revelation.

b) A secondary intent (or at least an interest that outsiders may find in the blogpost) is in the defence of the rationality of killing apostates. At the very least, such outsiders (eg non-Muslim western liberals) need to take account of the existence of many arguments historically in favour of such a position within western thought.

Before going any further, I think it's important to be explicit that Da Masked Avenger is very clearly NOT calling for any actions within the UK that would put such a view into effect. He is simply saying that, within an ideal Islamic state, that would be the legislative position. (That's important: he's not advocating terrorism but a different vision of society. This is a crucial difference.) At the moment, that's a difference that has a very practical implication: whatever your views on that 'ideal' society, Da Masked Avenger is not a terrorist but a political thinker. Think about throwing him into the chokey and you'll find Rousseau, Locke etc already waiting there.

Let me deal with a) first. One of the main themes of the following discussion will be realism. Pierre Manent makes the following point about modern western elite discourse about Islam:

Those who decide what we have the right to say and do do not engage Islam as a social reality. It is not considered in itself. Instead, “Islam” becomes a test of our post-political resolve. It must be accepted without either reservation or question in order to verify that Europe is indeed empty of any national or religious substance that might get in the way of human universality. The refusal to treat Islam as a social or, more generally, a human reality therefore has nothing to do with Islam but instead with Europe’s self-image.


One of the things I find most irritating about a lot of non-Muslim commentary on Islam is the tendency to talk about the 'real' Islam or 'true' Islam or what Islam 'needs'. It comes from both the nut-job right and the nut-job left (which latter, frankly, takes in most of the political establishment these days). Anyone who knows anything about Islam knows that, deep within the authoritative sources and interpretations, there are a number of hard sayings, for example, in the area of Hudud punishments. There is no point in pretending these don't exist and, more generally, there's absolutely no point that Islam is simply the same at heart as those nice Green voting hippies at the local Unitarian church. Equally, there's no point in pretending that Islam is simply identifiable as the crassest, most violent forms of such as ISIS. Anyone who is situated within any sort of tradition (and that's all of us) needs to recognise that it is part of the human condition to find oneself inheriting and indeed in some sense holding positions that are very difficult to endorse. Catholics who simply ignore what leading Catholics have said and done over the years (eg Aquinas on heresy), are fanatasists, as are secularists who deny the evils of the French and Russian Revolutions. (Or western Europeans who deny that we inherit the riches of the Atlantic slave trade.) How we deal with that tension between what we can see clearly as moral and what we find ourselves inheriting is not an easy thing to resolve, and perhaps the only certainty here is that 'To immanentize the eschaton' (ie to try to achieve a perfect (in Berlin's term) 'Final Solution' here) is the most dangerous solution of all.

How we (and that includes 'we Muslims') live with these tensions is really a matter of detailed and concrete practice. Da Masked Avenger is engaging in that and not all Muslims will agree with his take on it and some will. I'm not sure that non-Muslims have much to add here: at the very least, any suggestions ought to be contributed in a spirit of humility and an awareness of how crass outside interventions however well meant can be. (Any Catholic who has been lectured on what Catholicism is really about by an outsider (or even some ill informed insider) should be particularly sympathetic to the dangers here.) I suppose all I would say on a) is that the disciplinary element of western liberal thought is only one side of the western philosophical tradition here and perhaps not the most difficult for Islam to engage with. The other liberationist strand has tried to find a place for freedom of exploration as a key social value. (So roughly, if you're going to offer up Rousseau as a defence of killing apostates, you also need to grapple with (say) Mill on why people should be free to conduct their experiments in living. And why (to the extent that these things ever end) the debate has ended up rather closer to Mill than to Rousseau.)

I now turn to b). Even though Da Masked Avenger's main interest is a), I hope he'll forgive me if I take b) as my main interest! Moreover, to the extent that I've already suggested an alternative 'liberationist' viewpoint, I don't intend to go any further in arguing why (even (especially?) in an ideal state) killing apostates is wrong. My main reason for not pursuing the substantive argument any further is that I am keenly aware of how unresolvable it is on the intellectual level.. He and I are both committed to the existence of revelation, but we disagree on the source and content of that revelation. Even the purely philosophical argument is not as straightforward as nut-job liberalism pretends it is. (And you can wonder why this is the case and perhaps in passing think about what MacIntyre says about the incommensurability of traditions and the lack of a coherent western intellectual tradition in modernity.)

Instead, I want to talk about what the difficulty in dealing with the argument shows politically. I take it to be a Straussian conclusion that there is a gulf between (political) philosophy and politics, and that what is impossible/difficult to settle philosophically can be dealt with politically in other ways. And there we are back to Manent: realistically, we have in (and let's just focus on the UK as any political solution has to be resolved within the concrete traditions of a nation as Manent is arguing) our nation citizens (ie us) who don't accept...

And of course, that is the first point. Whenever 'British values;' are paraded as a list, it becomes unconvincing. That 'Muslims don't accept...' followed by a list is generally unconvincing in two ways: first, because there is a variety of Muslim detailed positions amongst Muslims which are difficult to catch in opinion surveys; and secondly, because very many non-Muslims don't accept them either. Generally, I find myself agreeing with Professor Robert George that Catholics should view Muslims as natural allies: I have far more in common with people who worship God, who have a sense of divine law; who value chastity and restraint etc etc. I'm certainly not going to line up with those who find it totally unBritish that they don't want to get p***ed on a beach in Benidorm.

But, as a second point, whatever I think of Islam (and it's in no one's interests to pretend that Catholicism and Islam are a totally neat fit) the realism at the centre of politics requires that I acknowledge that Muslims in the UK are a reality. Many have been here for several generations; they are not going away; and they are not going to change Islam simply because late modernity has come up with a parcel of extraordinarily strange beliefs that it believes are somehow clearly rational and beyond dispute. The main political question is, first, can we find a way of getting along that doesn't destroy civic peace? And, secondly, ideally, can we find a way (ways) of getting on that involves a genuine contribution to each other's flourishing in a wider sense?

There are no guarantees here. Because politics isn't precisely rational, there is no guarantee of results. Fifty years ago, no one would have suggested that the most pressing social problem is admitting transsexuals to public loos. Fifty years ago, no one would have predicted the rise of ISIS. (And (as an aside) note Manent's lament over the abandonment of a trust in providence here:  Simultaneously—and perhaps this is not a coincidence—we have lost faith in Providence, in the benevolence and protection of the Most High; or, if these expressions appear too obsolete, we have lost faith in the primacy of the Good. Unlike the Americans, we no longer call on divine protection over our nations, even if we still pray for ourselves and for those close to us. How long has it been since the bishops of France prayed for France, except perhaps very rarely and timidly?)

But there are reasons for hope. The bare minimum of civic peace strikes me as perfectly achievable. That only 4% of British Muslims have any sympathy for ('told the researchers that they had sympathy for people who take part in suicide bombing to fight injustice') political violence  strikes me as something near miraculous. (I bet in my undergraduate days I could have picked up far greater support for political violence than that among my 'progressive' pals.) Where the real difficulty lies is in a genuine mutual engagement which enriches everyone. And here I think there's probably as much danger in the progressive liberal side as there is in any Muslim suspicion of free speech. Liberals don't regard their own views as in any way non-rational and rooted in a particular set of historical and social circumstances. (That they often pay lip service to such relativistic ideas makes it more difficult for them to acknowledge the ways in which in reality they act as if they deny such foundations.) Debates are pre-censored: if you hold anything like traditional Muslim beliefs, you can't even discuss them. (Politics is secular, so the key issue of revelation is ruled out. Sexual identity is fluid, so anything based on sexual essentialism and complementarity is immediately homophobic and patriarchal.) Engagement has to be one way according to progressivism: they have to learn from us.

Engagement isn't just a matter of formal 'academic' debates. It's how in those thousands of everyday interactions we get along. As I said, there's no guarantee of how this will all turn out. But I'd hope that if we can remember that we are all human beings created by God, that Islam has been one of the great world cultures and isn't reducible to the actions of a few butchers, that an overly utopian view of what can be achieved by politics is inevitably destructive, that (traditional) virtues of restraint and politeness in engagement are essential etc etc it may not be too bad and may even be rather good.

Let me end with two quotes. The first from Pierre Manent summing up that realistic hope that is the centre of his approach:

We must recover a view of the European experience that allows us to see Islam as an objective reality, instead of making it the reflection of our self-­misunderstanding. We need not claim to determine the truth of Islam. Like Christianity, it too has its uncertainties and its possibilities. Europeans, and especially the French, must come to terms with Islam and try, with its help, to bring about its entry into European life in a way that takes account of European realities and possibilities, not into the dream world of hundreds of millions of individuals united by the promise of ever-greater human rights.

[Manent: here]

Secondly, an extract from an article by Greg Daly on the Trappist martyrs of Tibhirine, an account that I think makes concrete some of the ways in which (as Manent says) 'a nation of the Christian mark is the only form that can bring us all together' while, by dint of the circumstances and their results, underlines some of the extreme possibilities and dangers that are also involved:

The new prior had long had a deep fondness for Algeria’s Muslims, and had admired their simple devoutness since his time in the armed forces. During the war, a Muslim named Mohammed, a father of 10 children, had saved his life during an ambush. The future Fr Christian said he would pray for Mohammed, who replied, “I know that you will pray for me. But look, Christians don’t know how to pray!” Mohammed was found murdered the next morning, leading the young Frenchman later to reflect: “In the blood of this friend, I knew that my calling to follow Christ meant to live, sooner or later, in the country where it was given to me the greatest gift of love.” Algeria’s simple ordinary Muslims, he felt, were typically far more prayerful and devout than France’s Christians, and so he sought to ensure his Christianity was open and welcoming, recognising Muslims as children of God and hearing “the notes that are in harmony”.


1) I don't think apostates should be killed. As it happens, I don't think anyone, even the worst criminal, should suffer the death penalty, a view I take to be most consonant with Catholic principles although I accept there is a legitimate debate about this. (But please spare me the 'Oh you're just dreaming of your own sharia but with an Inquisition'.)

2) I think the ideal world would be one in which everyone were a Catholic. That's because Catholicism possesses the fulness of truth. But a) that implies other views can possess quite a lot of truth and b) if you look at how awful Catholic societies have been in the past, even at their best, there is still a constant reminder of the City of Man as a 'vale of tears'. Our natural end is rarely achievable and never completely satisfying. Our supernatural end is.

3) I'll make references to Leo Strauss and (the slightly Straussian) Pierre Manent. I'm not at all confident that I have quite got either writer right (although I'm also probably bloody minded enough to argue that I have). As my main aim here is not exegesis, feel free to regard such references as relating to L-Strauss and L-Manent (ie the feverish and fictional creations of Lazarus which have only limited contact with their real world equivalents). What I take to be most important about Straussian perspective here is the way that philosophy has difficulty entering the political sphere: coherent philosophical positions do not sit well in the shifting world of doxa and the demos.