Monday, 14 April 2014

On culture wars



There have been a number of excellent articles recently in the general area of culture wars. To attempt a rough and ready taxonomy, there have been some about whether we should be fighting about culture at all (Bottum vs Forster here), how we should fight those wars (eg Shaw here) and whether we should we talking about wars at all (eg Mudblood Catholic here).

I find this area interesting because it's probably the essential reason for the existence of this blog. When I wrote my first post almost two and a half years ago, I really wanted to start a culture war in Scotland. By that I don't mean that I wanted to stir up public discussion of controversial issues around Catholicism -that was happening anyway- but I wanted to try to help develop a (particularly, but not exclusively) Catholic sense of group cultural identity (us) in response to the increasingly oppressive attacks from secularists and life style progressives. It's rather like The Seven Samurai: if you're going to be attacked by an organized band of robbers, you too need to organize an armed resistance.

I still basically hold to this view. Catholicism in particular -but one might say that whole, conservative, natural law understanding of human flourishing- is under conscious attack. For example, the issue of same sex 'marriage' whilst presented as a simple tweak to existing legislation, in fact embodies a completely different understanding of marriage, the household, child raising, the relationship between the sexes, the relationship between the state and nature, the relationship between private and public etc etc. The French in organizations such as La Manif Pour Tous have gone furthest in recognizing the principles behind the change and in organizing formal political resistance to it which is continuing after the introduction of that change.

So here's my take on why the metaphor of a culture war is a necessary one, while acknowledging it is also one that has its limits:

1) Should we be fighting about culture? Straightforward answer to this is yes. It does of course rather depend on whether you define culture narrowly (eg: the Great Tradition of Great Books  written by Great White Dead Men) or more broadly (eg):

For Geertz, culture is “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” 


There may be disagreement about how important any particular narrow form of culture is. There can be no doubt that 'our knowledge about and attitudes toward life' are of fundamental importance. Catholicism isn't just about believing in Jesus: it is about the process of transformation (sanctification) that leads us to our natural and supernatural ends. Culture matters.

2) How should we fight? There are a lot of things going on in Shaw's postings, but one fundamental conclusion is:

My point in these posts is that conservatives have made a terrible strategic blunder in seeking to limit the attacks on themselves by liberals by accepting the basic liberal picture, and then trying to ameliorate the problems liberalism causes by special pleading. This was never going to work; in the medium and long term it never has worked. It is high time conservatives freed themselves from this strategy and tried something which addresses the arguments at the basis of the liberal project, which are often terribly weak.

Now at the theological level, progressivisms are all inadequate because they have an inadequate understanding of human beings and their beatitudo (flourishing). They reject revelation as a source of knowledge and they reject the Beatific Vision as the supernatural end of human existence. In short, you're not going to get it right in this area unless you accept the divine teaching authority of the Catholic Church. It is important that the Church (and individual Catholics) never forget this and don't stop (from false ecumenism or whatever) proclaiming the truth that, in this sense, there is no salvation extra ecclesiam.

BUT: It is one thing to note that without this full picture, any case will be imperfect, and quite another thing to reject putting any other case. The metaphor of 'war' suggests tactics as well as strategy, makeshift, messy combat as well as the grand vision of the end pursued. Alliances -both in real and the culture wars- can be forged between Catholics and people who don't quite agree, whether these be with Protestants, Muslims or even those liberals who realize there is something inconsistent in proclaiming free speech and yet attacking anyone who exercises it.

In short, the metaphor of war is useful here because it reminds us that, in the political field, struggles are not waged solely at the level of theology and philosophy, but in far messier, opportunistic ways.

3) Should we fight? Gabriel Blanchard's post probably struck home the hardest:

I refuse to fight in the culture war because I refuse war. Christ Jesus Himself did not come as a conquering king, but as one who suffered for His people. Those whom Christ loves, I love, and that which Christ does, I do, with whatever errors and delays. That does not eliminate violence from the world; but our Lord's own response to violence was to receive it willingly in His Person, and return nothing, nothing, except love, flowing generously out of His veins. His is the only side I want to take, and He came exclusively out of a deep and tender love for the damned. How then am I to refuse love to anyone?

This hits home on two levels. First, it reminds us that there is something wrong in a Christian rejoicing in a war. Secondly, humanity is getting forgotten in the heat. Whatever side you are on in this war, there really ought to be something sickening in the damage that's being done to people's lives. As Blanchard puts it (speaking as a gay man):

We of all people ought to know better than to try to get someone fired, or celebrate it when they are, on the grounds that their moral stands don't line up with ours.

I don't criticize or blame him for his refusal to get involved in the conflict: pacifism can be a needful witness to the ultimate truth of peace. But pacifism cannot (in Catholic teaching) be the final story: in principle, there is a need to fight even if, on occasions and for individuals, that need is put aside. What is needed here is a sense of chivalry: a recognition that those whom we fight are also made in God's image. To come at this from a different way, in more 'liberal' language, a genuine and bitter disagreement ought to take some account of those spheres which have been carved out of the public, agonistic space: those areas of private life where we can retire from the fray; those areas of professional work where our views are irrelevant so long as we can do our job well.

In short, the metaphor of war remains useful here, both because it reminds us of the regrettable nature of the struggle, but also because of the existence of jus in bello, the waging of war justly or with chivalry.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Gerry Hassan, revolutionary justice and The Nightmare.


                                                           19 September....

Gerry Hassan (aka Scotland's Leading Public Intellectual) has been writing again about the future of an independent Scotland and its Constitution. Instead of a Constitution written by 'Civic Scotland'

that amorphous part of polite respectable society, first identified hanging around middle class, well-heeled parts of Edinburgh and Glasgow in the early 1980s, at least in the eyes of government

he urges a Constitution written by the 'third Scotland':

Why don’t we take the aspirations and myths of popular sovereignty and Constitutional Conventions, and fill them with the energies of the DIY cultures and ethos of the self-organising ‘third Scotland’ and the new generation of activists, campaigners and do-ers who are emerging? Such a shift would be a watershed moment in the democratising of modern Scotland, and a signal that we have learnt from our own past and myths about how to do things in a very different, bolder and more open way.

I read a lot of Nietzsche as a teenager and a lot of Foucault since then. And as a result, when my nice Catholic mask slips and the nasty, more cynical Adam appears, I have a tendency to ask of any political position: Who has the power and how is it being used?

Scotland on Sunday (p5) reported yesterday that

The SNP is also looking for members of the public to participate through social media in the creation of a written constitution for an independent Scotland.

I sometimes wonder when anyone writes stuff like this, whether they have ever participated in social media or the sort of 'DIY culture and ethos' that is being recommended. Current viewers of Inspector de Luca will have encountered the drawbacks of the analogous 'revolutionary justice', frequently urged on the honest (if slightly libidinous) Inspector: whether from Mussolini or anti-Fascist partisans, revolutionary justice outside the norms of law and professional police expertise and duty tends to execute the wrong person. Law Courts and Parliaments have evolved as an attempt to mediate between competing demands of expressing popular wills and yet abiding by the demands of truth and justice and wisdom. Do they work well? Not always, and there is a constant need for wary improvement. But the alternative of throwing away evolved institutions is a laisser aller where power is simply transferred to a new set of manipulators: the bold demagogue rather than the mild bureaucrat.

Assuming Scotland does become independent, we will be living in a Scotland that will not be radically different from the one we live in now. At best, it will probably evolve into a modestly prosperous, typical middle sized European democracy. At worst, it will probably evolve into a modestly  penurious, typical middle sized European democracy. I have some sympathy with Hassan's jeremiads against 

...the undynamic nature of large sections of what is called ‘civic Scotland’ and the legacy of elite power and patronage.

But the reality is that it's not going to disappear on 19 September 2014 if there's a 'Yes' vote. Existing clashes of interest will remain. International pressures will remain. Ignorance about the actual effects of social and economic policies will remain. The law will be run by existing lawyers; the NHS by existing doctors and administrators; the schools by existing teachers and their unions. That and the implementation of piecemeal social engineering is the best case scenario. The worst case would be if, exploiting a tide of popular dissatisfaction and creative politics, power passes to the 'new generation of activists, campaigners and do-ers' who will attempt (and fail) to make up for ignorance and inexperience by the 'energies of the DIY cultures'.


Monday, 31 March 2014

An Independent Scotland day 1: loony feminism, woodwork and Scandinavia



If Scots wake up on 19 September with a 'yes' vote for independence, one of the things Catholics (and social conservatives in general) had better hit the ground running on is the Constitution:

Central to this will be a written constitution setting out and protecting the rights of the people of Scotland.[p351 of Scotland's Future. Lalland Peat Worrier's blogpost on the Constitution is here which sets out some of the relevant background.]

The Constitution will be drafted by some sort of constitutional convention which will have some sort of input from everyone. And there, of course, is the rub. This sort of thing is a recipe for the best organized and the least conflicted to triumph. And I don't think it unreasonable to remark that, in the present climate in Scotland, that doesn't sound much like any sort of conservative force, let alone the Catholic Church.

What precisely will be in the Constitution will therefore be up for grabs and there is no particular reason to assume, at the moment, that what will result will be a barebones, 'just make sure the basics of justice work' sort of model. Organizations such as Engender are already working to influence that future with (eg) their report on Gender Equality and Scotland's Constitutional Futures (PDF) released this month. It contains gems such as:


However, it is difficult to see how any approach short of gender mainstreaming
with a strong intersectional focus will adequately address these issues, which
require a sea change in public attitudes. There is a need for a holistic action plan
incorporating awareness-raising and public engagement, education, training of
early years professionals, public sector and healthcare workers, guidelines for
employers, and innovative incentives to encourage good practice in targeted
enclaves of the private sector.


One of the popular progressive prisms through which Scotland's post independence future is seen at the moment is Scandiphilia: dump England and become a modern, Scandinavian society.

Another snippet from Engender:


Unexamined social attitudes and assumptions underpin the modern face of
gender inequality. Gender roles and relations are not the natural order, but social
constructs that have evolved over time to deny women rights, citizenship and
power. However, gender inequality is so ingrained in the cultural psyche and social
institutions in the UK that it is rendered invisible.

Now this is the slight excuse for the photo of the Danish, Catholic journalist, Iben Thranholm above. (Viewers of EWTN may have come across her on those seasons of Catholic Lives where she conduct interviews in Scandinavia.) I can only think of two Scandinavian Catholics, and Iben is much more photogenic than St Magnus. (Oh, OK, there's Sigrid Undset as well.)


                                   St Magnus: not as attractive as Iben Thranholm

As I've suggested before, the Scottish chattering classes -overwhelmingly 'progressive' and secularist- don't really want to be disturbed by unpleasant thoughts about people disagreeing with them. All this means that, in the event of a vote for independence, socially conservative Scots had better have a vision and the organization in place (and please don't pretend that's going to be the Scottish Conservatives) to influence the future and respond to the loonier elements that are going to be coming out of the woodwork. And the first and perhaps least easily mended test of that is likely to be the writing of a new Constitution.


[Iben Thranholm's own conversion story can be found in an MP3 of her interview with Marcus Grodi here.]