Friday, 29 August 2014

Muslims are rapists

                                   Lazarus' favoured panel of sociological expertise

One of the great things about being conservative is that you're allowed to be stupid: indeed, it's positively a vocation. One resists grand narratives of decline and fall and the cheap theories of bearded Germans, and one sticks to more local verities. In particular, one assumes that evil and criminality are abiding features of the world, and primarily one doesn't worry too much about that except to arrest criminals when you find them and lock them up.

Of course, being a highly complicated and interesting chap myself, I don't mind slumming it with a little Hegel or even Marx now and then. But it's strictly a hobby, you understand. Mostly, I just want the criminal justice system to get on with protecting the virtuous and harmless against the vicious and harmful, and not worry too much about the grand sociology that underlies it all. (To put a Catholic spin on all that, we should be suspicious of theories that attempt to pin down the mystery of evil and explain it away as a factor of society or culture: evil is fundamentally a matter of intelligent agency and traditional Western law recognized that.)

So when one comes to the Rotherham rape gangs, I see it primarily as a police and criminal law issue. Bad men did bad things and got away with it for far too long: there seems little merit in worrying about deeper theoretical issues such as the putative link between patriarchy in Islam and child abuse. Most of the things that went wrong seem to be fairly straightforward failures in policing or control of children (particularly by the council operating in loco parentis) (all para references to the report here):

One parent, who agreed to her child being placed in a residential unit in order to protect her, wrote to children’s social care expressing her fears for her daughter’s safety. She described her despair that instead of being protected, her child was being exposed to even worse abuse than when she was at home:
“My child (age 13) may appear to be a mature child, yet some of her actions and the risks to which she constantly puts herself are those of a very immature and naïve person. She constantly stays out all night getting drunk, mixing with older mature adults, and refuses to be bound by any rules.” (5.11)

Or the case of criminal gangs being allowed to intimidate without police response:

Within just a few months, Child B and her family were living in fear of their lives. The windows in their house were put in. She and her family received threats that she would be forced into prostitution. (5.22)

most of the men in South Yorkshire who were involved in the sexual exploitation of young people for the purposes of prostitution were also believed to be involved in drug dealing. They might also be involved in rape, violence, gun crime, robbery and other serious criminal offences; (10.22 (a))

If one looks more widely than the Rotherham problem, we see here recurrent social issues: the difficulty in exercising adult control over teenage behaviour; the difficult of the police in exercising effective responses to criminal gangs.

It is clear that one area that police action failed miserably was in the control of taxi drivers:

One of the common threads running through child sexual exploitation across England has been the prominent role of taxi drivers in being directly linked to children who were abused. This was the case in Rotherham from a very early stage, when residential care home heads met in the nineties to share intelligence about taxis and other cars which picked up girls from outside their units. In the early 2000s some secondary school heads were reporting girls being picked up at lunchtime at the school gates and being taken away to provide oral sex to men in the lunch break. (8.16)

The paragraphs following this makes absolutely clear that, whether as a result of poor regulations or poor application of those regulations, taxi drivers became a key way in which girls were brought into abuse or kept in it. I've no doubt that most drivers are probably Pakistani (as has been widely claimed in the press): it's also completely clear that effective action in this area is not dependent on identifying ethnicity or religion.

Against the narrative of brutal Paki males abusing second class women, the report continually emphasises the unfinished business of the investigation of homosexual abuse:

Generally, there has been relatively low reporting of sexual exploitation of young males, with the exception of the police operation and a criminal conviction in 2007 of an offender who abused over 80 boys and young men. Over the years, this was identified at inter-agency meetings and in CSE plans as an issue that required attention in Rotherham. That continues to be the case today. (4.16)

Or the (continued) underassessment of abuse of Pakistani women:

The Deputy Children's Commissioner’s report reached a similar conclusion to the Muslim Women's Network research, stating 'one of these myths was that only white girls are victims of sexual exploitation by Asian or Muslim males, as if these men only abuse outside of their own community, driven by hatred and contempt for white females. This belief flies in the face of evidence that shows that those who violate children are most likely to target those who are closest to them and most easily accessible.' The Home Affairs Select Committee quoted witnesses saying that cases of Asian men grooming Asian girls did not come to light because victims 'are often alienated and ostracised by their own families and by the whole community, if they go public with allegations of abuse.' (11.16)

What to make of all this? First, that race isn't the most immediate issue here. (And, by covering up abuse of Muslim/Asian girls and boys rather than girls, the narrative of Muslim patriarchal violence against women is likely to be positively harmful.) Far more important are (eg) issues such as listening to women (and boys), following up evidence. These are pretty clear lessons that have come out again and again in the various permutations of the child abuse scandals that have come up over the years, and some are merely straightforward issues of traditional good police practice. Secondly, it's not surprising that child sexual abuse is so difficult to deal with. Here, you are dealing with rape (never easy to prosecute), child witnesses (again, not easy to deal with in adversarial criminal system), and often issues of mental health and drug use (leading to obvious difficulties in credibility). That's not a complete excuse for failure, but it is an explanation of how failure took this particular shape (and why it's likely to be resistant to solution).

The overwhelming impression in reading the report is less one of a cover up of Muslim/Asian complicity, and just of the sheer hell that awaits those who fall out of protective social structures: basically, you'll be written off as vermin by those of us who are all right, and left to the mercies of the more violent among your fellow Lumpenproletariat. If race is an issue at all, it's because it made some officials tread carefully (hardly surprising if regrettable) and because it just seems to be a fact that the vast majority of abusers in this particular episode were Muslims of Pakistani origin. I'm not sure why this matters so much. Criminality often has some sort of cultural dimension. (Why was America dominated by Italian gangsters such as the Mafia?) Doubtless, there's some interesting sociology to be done here. But in the meantime, such speculations seem entirely irrelevant to struggling with identifying and successfully prosecuting crime.

So I disagree profoundly with (eg) Melanie McDonagh:

But, as the report on abuse in Rotherham makes embarrassingly clear, the ethnic character of the predation was the reason why the initial police report was simply stuffed under the sofa (and in passing, this oversight shouldn’t be investigated by the same force that perpetrated it).

I've read the report a few times now and -allowing for having missed something in its 159 pages- I don't see anything of the sort made 'embarrassingly clear'. (If someone wants to point out the relevant paragraphs, I'd be grateful.) Certainly, the ethnic character of the predation was played down (and should it have been played up? difficult to get the balance right) but the real problems seem to be elsewhere. She goes on:

When the issue was abuse in the Catholic Church, the church underwent prolonged soul searching about the background of individuals accepted for the priesthood and about the requirement for priestly celibacy (though the issue was power, not celibacy). In England, the church commissioned the Nolan report on child protection, which was a model of its kind.

When it came to the abuse of minors by celebs like Jimmy Savile, we examined our collective conscience about the cult of celebrity and the immunity it seemed to convey to those in that bubble; we’re still agonising about it.

I'm not convinced by either of these. To take celebrity culture, how's that 'agonising' going? (Have the Kardashians disappeared? Have pop musicians disappeared into the anonymity of mediaeval craftsmen?) On the Catholic Church, the main advance has not been so much a conclusive analysis of the causes of the abuse (what would that look like? Instead you have the sort of 'combox punditry' convinced that it's all the fault of celibacy, analogous to that attributing all fault to macho Islam) so much as the systems needed to prevent it: the sort of dumb, conservative 'how to catch them and lock them up' sort of response I'd suggest.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Enoch was right and doing something about Islam

I'm surprised no one (or at least no one I've come across) has yet said it, but let me be the first: Enoch was right.

Having said it, let me add that I don't mean it: I actually think he was profoundly wrong. But it's probably worth saying it out loud, because large numbers of commentators are muttering things about Islam that are very hard to understand in any way other than words disguising the thought too terrible to utter explicitly: that Enoch Powell was right in warning about the dangers of immigration, particularly Muslim, and we must now do something to prevent the rivers of blood he predicted -if indeed there is still time. And now that line of argument has been brought into the air, let's dispose of it.

There's an argument to be had about immigration whether past or future. But let's put that aside. Even if you closed the gates tomorrow, there are going to be many people within this country of the Muslim religion (2.7 millions) most of whom will be British citizens born and raised here. (And if any one is wondering why I'm focusing exclusively on Islam just now -please don't be silly.)

Now, these are people with human and legal rights and, just more generally, a right to respect as persons. (This really ought to be bread and butter stuff for Catholics. Anyone else can just accept it as a statement of my starting point.) So there can be no question of 'sending them back where they came from' or making them disappear in some unexplained way, and that means there are going to be large numbers of Muslims in the UK for ever. So whatever doing something about Islam might mean, it can't mean getting rid of Muslims. (I think we ought to be profoundly shocked by the very idea, but there is wild talk out there.)

So presumably it means changing them in some way. Multi-culturalism is its loony sixties best was founded on the thought that, deep down, we all agree, and that having different religions is merely a matter of exchanging samosas for Scotch pies: cultures were all beautiful and all mutually fertilizing. Any 'odd' traditional practices like sexism would disappear under the benign influence of the Western sun, and we'd just be left with all the nice, entertaining colourful differences. As such, multic-culturalism was really a variety of the secularisation thesis: that modernity would lead inevitably to a reduction in religion. Either way, any unfortunate aspects of other cultures or religions would be smoothed away over the generations in the West.

Well, no. And because that doesn't seem to have happened naturally, we now need (so the story goes) to do something about it, by, for example, getting them to adopt wiser, British values. The problem with this is twofold. First, there is the question of practicality. If we have abandoned the secularization thesis that modernity will do its work without any help, there are very few plausible mechanisms for enforcing religious change. If we knew how to mould people religiously, believe me, the Vatican would be far more successful in retaining Catholic children in the Church. To take a specific example which I have spent a great deal of time blogging on, the attempt to clamp down on the influence of parents in the 'Trojan Horse' schools a) cannot have any relevance to current radicalized adults since the supposed Islamicization of the schools has only taken place in the last few years; and b) is just as likely in my view to promote further radicalization by alienating (conservative but peaceful) Muslims from the education system and the state. Secondly, there is the question of what values we mean them to adopt. Do they have to be sexually licentious for example? Must they drink? Are they allowed to accept traditional understandings of Islamic punishments, or do they have to adopt some sort of liberal Protestant figurative interpretations? (And if the later, by what mechanism do we get current Muslim authorities to teach these revisions?)

Again, much muttering and very few explicit statements in this area, but there does seem to be widespread view that Islam as an intellectual/cultural system is inevitably prone to producing offshoots such as ISIS: in Gove's words, we need to 'drain the swamp'. But people are not mud: what is a mechanical action in drainage, becomes that chimerical goal of a sure way to change people's minds: we cannot (should not) stop people from being Muslims and we cannot (should not) stop the values of that religion from challenging certain 'British' values. Moreover, we cannot control the shape of Islam: it has its own history, its own depths which go beyond the control of governments or schools.

But we must do something. Surely? Well, it's worth considering the possibility that we should do absolutely nothing or at least very little. Part of the problem here are emotional associations between different problems. There is undoubtedly a geo-political/foreign policy problem with ISIS. There is undoubtedly a moral problem with regard to the fates of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. There is undoubtedly a problem in Gaza and Israel. (And so on.) Some of these can be helped. Some possibly cannot. But I put those foreign aspects aside. There is no direct link between these and the 'problem' of Islam at home.

So what is the 'problem' of Islam at home? That a few hundred youths have gone off to fight? Not new and, whilst regrettable, of no real effect on the Middle East. (By all means use military force and the criminal law to punish the guilty and preserve the innocent -but here, either we are in the area of the marginal (how to treat a few criminals) or the area of foreign policy again.) That the fighters may come home as terrorists? A real issue, but one that can only be dealt with by police measures or personal engagement with the returners. (And even if, per impossibile, we could ensure that no British youths fought for ISIS, this wouldn't remove the threat of Middle Eastern terrorism hitting our shores.) I think these are genuine problems but are of the sort that can only be dealt with as part of an ongoing security awareness in a dangerous world: the main driver for a terrorist threat against the UK is the unstable state of the Middle East, and the solutions there are extremely unclear. There is a general historical lesson here that each generation needs to remember: most people don't think like you and some will try to kill you.

Back to 'draining the swamp'. Part of the inchoate, vague sense of 'something must be done' is that Islam represents a threat to 'British' values, not so much through violence, as through its very presence. I think the main response to this is agreement: of course it does. That's what democracy means. If large numbers of people think a current aspect of British life is wrong, it is, ceteris paribus, liable to be changed in a democracy. There is absolutely no guarantee that, in one hundred years, our country will be dominated by the same values it has now. If you think that, despite the comparative smallness of the Muslim vote and cultural weight, it might in future be able to exert more influence, then, unless you are willing to do something about Muslims, you are going to have to accept that possibility.

To dig down into the range of issues a little more here, if British values are just the preservation of a snap shot of British culture now, then they are clearly not going to be preserved: the snapshot will change. If it means preserving a subset of 'key' values, then much depends on what those key values are. Roughly, we might distinguish between the political liberal values (say, representative democracy, an independent judiciary and the rule of law, freedom of speech etc etc); and the ethical, substantive values of attitudes to sex, family, religion, art etc etc. I don't see any particular reason why the first class couldn't be preserved simply on the grounds of effectiveness: almost any society works better with such structures. But there is certainly no way that a society with a greater traditional Islamic influence upon it would have the same attitude to the ethical issues I've mentioned. And of course it's precisely those issues that many moderns are obsessed about: if you are a feminist, for example, the structure and ethos of the family is not so much just one more item up for negotiation over the years as the very heart of political life. And it's precisely these 'non-negotiable' issues that are most likely to be negotiated in a society with a lively Islamic contribution.

As a Catholic, I have no doubt that society would be better run with a Catholic view on those ethical, substantive issues. But equally, I accept that I can only do my best to persuade others and utilize my rights to preserve what I can of the best life within my own private sphere: I cannot (indeed have not been able to) stop others, unpersuaded of my views, making use of the political values to support their (wrong, I believe) view of the ethical values. Equally, in the future, there is nothing that I (or they) can do to guarantee that Muslims will not influence ethical values in ways that the currently victorious progressives will dislike. If they (and I) want to do anything about preserving what the correct ethical, substantive values are, then we need to fight the culture wars (or, more pacifically, defend our view of the correct nature of human flourishing and seek to persuade (not compel) others). The outcome of that dialogue is indeed not certain.

Back to Enoch. He was right, I suppose, to see a threat to British values from immigrant communities: to substantive ethical British values rather than political ones (to use that rough and ready distinction). Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is almost irrelevant: it is simply a fact that is not going to change. (I can't resist pointing out, however, that the major change in (destruction of) ethical British values from those (say) of the fifties to those of 2014 has been nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with Powell's cronies in the existing educational, political and artistic (native) elites.) I see every reason to be optimistic that the political values can survive over the future. Or, to be more precise, I see rather less threat from Islam in this direction than I do from progressives who wish to impose their views of human flourishing on everyone at the expense of freedoms of speech and family life.

To finish, let me put all this from a more positive direction. I think a Britain (or Scotland etc) with a politically active Islamic population challenging the ethics and aesthetics of our current society within the peaceful political values I've sketched above would be a better place than it is now or was with Enoch. Not only would Muslim youths find themselves with a better struggle in which to channel their young energy, but the critical edge provided by such a critique would mean that Britain might arrest some of the cultural decline that was presided over by a predominantly  white, male and aboriginal elite.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Politics isn't therapy

                                                         Do not be afreud!

I'm not sure if Gerry Hassan's piece on admitting and overcoming doubt is responsible for this (the rejection of Project Fear has been a noticeable trope of pro-Independence rhetoric for most of the campaign), but there have been a number of pieces recently which treat the highly political choice on 18 September as a therapeutic choice, where the aim is less a rational assessment of the Common Good, but rather an overcoming of the Scotch (or a more individual) Cringe.

A prime example of this is Val McDermid in the Guardian:

What I don’t respect are the “fearties” – the ones whose reason for voting no is that they’re afraid we’ll turn out to be incapable of managing our own country. I don’t want us to stay in the union because we’re scared of what the future holds if we strike out on our own.

Now, frankly, this is nonsense. The idea that we need to cleanse ourselves internally of unpleasant emotions is (admittedly a rather jejune version of) psychoanalysis: we are neurotic; by therapy, we cleanse our neuroses. We are cured. But appropriate fear can be a perfectly rational response to a danger: the virtue of courage, as Aristotle would put it, is the mean between cowardice and rashness -the feeling of the correct amount of fear at the correct objects of fear. If we are not to be 'feart' at the prospect of Independence, it is only because the objective dangers of such Independence are not appropriate objects of fear. If, to take the Domesday scenario, there was a realistic prospect of every large corporation making a dash for Berwick upon Tweed on 19 September, together with an abandonment of post NATO Scotland to some sort of alliance with, at best, Samoa, I'd be quite afraid -and rightly so. It is only because the future is unlikely to be quite so clear cutly awful, that Independence is a possibility. For those who, on the best assessment, think that Independence will wreak economic and social havoc, fear is the appropriate response. For those who do not, there will certainly (ought certainly) to be some fear, but such as will be met by the virtuous agent with courage. A certain amount of self assessment is required for virtue: am I more or less likely to feel fear than the practically wise person ought? But the point of such assessment is to have 'figured plain/As though upon a lighted screen': when one has purified oneself, one sees dangers correctly and fears them correctly. Therapy is to allow oneself to fear rationally, not not to fear at all.

Politics is, essentially, the projection of ethics beyond one's own life and those of one's immediate circle. The virtuous person can be trusted to have the correct affections to react properly to everyday circumstances, but in planning and assessing the life of the City, hard rational thought is required. Both campaigns rely on rhetoric: the manipulation of emotions to serve their campaign aims. To resist that requires rational reflection and character: to recognize the correct place of fear in the good life rather than the childish desire not be be shamed in front of one's peers. Moreover it requires the analysis of language. When McDermid talks of our being 'scared of what the future holds if we strike out on our own' (my emphasis) again I must ask: Which we? If she means me, I'd be terrified: any country which put me in charge would be a country I'd like to leave. If she means 'progressive Nationalists' then again, I see every reason for being terrified. I presume she means something like 'the sort of people who'll be thrown up in any realistic scenario in a medium sized country' -a much more plausible perspective. But even here, it would not be unreasonable to fear that there will be a process of formation of governing expertise which undoubtedly would be a transition cost of Independence.

I'd originally intended blogging today to a similar purpose on the political response to IS and Islam in general. Perhaps soon. But in short, politics is too important to trust your emotions. (And I say that holding in my mind the shock and outrage that I felt seeing, albeit only for a split second, the decapitated corpse of James Foley when I clicked on a twitter link. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.) The sifting of pride, fear, confidence etc etc are, roughly, a matter of therapy: that spiritual therapy which all of us who aspire to virtue should be undertaking every moment of our life (and where, let us remember, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love are a matter of being open to grace more than effort). Thereafter, think. Hard. And that applies whether it is  the Yes Campaign telling you not to fear, or the No Campaign telling you that no right thinking person could ever envisage splitting the Union.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Why is the right opposed to Scottish nationalism?

                                                   Il faut cultiver notre jardin

I've frequently described myself as a 'conservative' or 'social conservative' on this blog and elsewhere, but have never been quite happy with that description. Catholic social teaching with its support for trade unions and suspicion of the 'invisible hand' of the market certainly doesn't fit neatly into the modern Conservative party. Perhaps I should simply describe myself as a bigot and then settle down into worrying over whether I am a conservative or progressive bigot...

But there are certainly aspects of Catholic thought that can be seen as right wing or conservative, and very many Catholics round the world would describe themselves as right wing or conservative. So it is a natural matter of interest arising from this perspective that right wing/conservative opinion in the UK is heavily against Scottish Independence. With the exception of the good people at Wealthy Nation  and one or two other individuals (David Robertson the Free Church Pastor who has been a stalwart figure in the fight against secular nonsense here springs to mind) those who might, at least in general terms, be described as conservative figures are fairly unanimous in their condemnation of Independence. But why? It doesn't take much thought or historical knowledge to realize that nationalism (both Scottish and more generally) has been associated with the right wing in the past. So why has that link diminished today? (Roger Scruton, as ever a deeper thinker than most on this area, came out in support of Independence, despite worries about defence. See below.)

Part of the problem (perhaps the entire problem?) is the extremely baggy nature of the term 'right wing' or 'conservative'. From the perspective of the UK, here's my attempt to catalogue the various strands and their relationship to the Independence debate:

1) Hierarchical Right. This runs the gamut from the proponents of the loony fringes of Jacobitism to those with a respect for the established forms of public hierarchy (monarchy etc). Whilst there is no reason in principle why a hierarchialist shouldn't support Scottish Independence, to the extent that such principles are applied to existent UK realities rather than imagined possibilities, there will be a tendency to Unionism rather than Nationalism simply because that is the nature of the existent hierarchy. UNION WIN.

2) Imperialist Right. Those who are attached to 'punching above our weight' militarily, particularly abroad. In particular, if you take seriously the need to be able to sustain an independent military force rather than rely on NATO or the EU, then the break up of the UK would be a serious blow. Scruton argues that, 'In my opinion defence is the sole reason for thinking that the breakup of the union might be bad for both our countries' but then adds: 'The union would have to be replaced by a strong and committed alliance. But I think this would happen, just as the colonial administration of America transformed itself, in time, into the Western alliance, which brings the British and the Americans together and fighting side by side in every major crisis.' But again, given present realities, it is probably right that an independent Scotland would reduce the possibility to project military force abroad, as well as that more general sense of Power. UNION WIN.

3) Traditional Right. If you are simply the sort of conservative who wants not to change, then clearly Independence is a bad idea since it is a change. But quite apart from the principled difficulties here (isn't a decision not to act a sort of action?) in practice, traditionalism involves some sort of attempt to define a tradition and then turn the clock back to it. Some historians (Dan Snow and Tom Holland spring to mind) seem to be arguing against Independence simply on the ground that it would shred a three hundred year old entity, a perfectly comprehensible traditionalist viewpoint. However, an alternative viewpoint would be that the Union (either from its inception or from some point later on) has worked to destroy Scottish traditions of law, culture, etc. You pays your money and you takes your pick of the tradition to be conserved. DRAW.

4) Libertarian Right. If you just want to get government off your back, I can't see any reason why this is more difficult in a small country than in a big one. DRAW.

5) Business Right. If you think a state is simply a means to develop the economy, then any sort of disruption or national barrier is probably going to be a bad thing. UNION WIN.

6) Local and Particular Right. Now this is the really interesting one for me. As I've noted before, if you are one of those (eg) Chestertonians who believes in the value of the local and particular, in principle, you ought to be sympathetic to Independence. (Although admittedly perhaps only as a launching pad for Independence for Inverness.) INDEPENDENCE WIN.

Looking through the above, it probably indicates that the Turnip Taliban (ie 6) doesn't have much presence in the modern Conservative party let alone in Scotland as a whole. But beyond all the taxonomy above lies the practical thought: that, given the nature of modern 'Progressive Nationalism', no one with any claim to being a conservative or rightwinger is going to touch Independence with a bargepole: whatever the merits of an Independent Scotland in the abstract, delivering your country in 2014 over to a sack full of progressive ferrets like the National Collective is insanity. That's a pity, as yet again, it provides another practical block, not just on the consideration of Independence by conservatives, but consideration of the merits of a conservatism rooted in the local and particular, suspicious of the state, rooted in the family and the virtue of pietas towards the past. I don't think that would necessarily result in a vote for Independence, but it would result in it being given a more reflective hearing.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

On not understanding politics: Leo Strauss and Gerry Hassan

One of the great advantages of anonymous blogging is that there is little need to pretend to more knowledge than one has. A degree of anonymity reduces (even if it does not entirely abolish) the pride and defensiveness that leads us to claim understanding where we do not understand. 'Blogging' as an activity is essentially ephemeral and experimental: unlike teaching or 'proper' publishing, there is less need to pretend that the product is finalized.

So I'm quite happy to admit that I don't fully understand Leo Strauss. I've been dipping into him for a good few years now. At the beginning, familiar with Myles Burnyeat's hatchet job on him (the original is behind a paywall but the reaction is available here) and the orthodoxy in left wing circles that he was somehow the fons et origo of America's neo-cons -and perhaps more straightforwardly that (almost) no one in the UK reads him- I read him more in the way that I desperately tried to read everything that might be remotely relevant to my area of study. Then I read a bit more and a bit more, in the expectation that I would finally discover the sort of anti-Grail that would reveal him to be the monster or fool that he undoubtedly was.

Well, as I said, that was a few years ago now and I've kept dipping in and I'm still waiting to find that anti-Grail. I'm reasonably convinced now that it doesn't exist and, whatever his pupils may have done, Strauss himself is simply a writer who has much of interest to say about the relationship between politics and philosophy. What precisely he says here is less obvious-and that's what I'm happy to admit I'm not clear about. I think we have a wrestling which embodies (as much as it describes) the inability of philosophy to absorb politics, and the inability of politics to absorb philosophy: a revelation of a tension that has to be lived and engaged with rather than abolished.

All thinking about politics (perhaps all thinking) is in medias res: the conversation has started before you entered the room. If the question is: 'How should I live?' the only philosophically ultimate answer is the Socratic admission of ignorance (which is not, note, the same as abandoning an attempt to answer the question). On the other hand, politicians have to make decisions. Moreover, democratic politicians have to persuade; and just as the teacher cannot teach without putting on a good face and disguising the inner gibbering idiot, so the politician cannot stand on the podium admitting their fundamental incompetence to control the uncontrollable. Strauss (I take it) like Gillian Rose wants us to live with/between that tension. Zizek (and if I do not understand Strauss, I do not understand Zizek and then some) on the other hand wants to escape the tension by some dramatic, revolutionary Act.

Well, as I said, I'm happy to admit I'm less than certain about those readings of Strauss etc. But the two broad positions clearly do exist outside the academy: the pursuit of the revolutionary Act which does not so much reflect as create politics; the pursuit of an uncertain, fully ungraspable reality. And so to Gerry Hassan, Scotland's leading public intellectual etc, who, as so often, raises good questions and then, perhaps, drops them too quickly:

Any successful political strategy has at times to address its weaknesses, and attempt to understand and diminish them. It should get inside the head and heart of its opponent's arguments and understand their emotions, rationale and logic. What it shouldn't do is what a major part of our debate has done: demonise and stigmatise the other side, whether it be Yes thinking the existence of 'Project Fear' is enough to show that all right-minded people should be on their side, to Better Together's inability to understand the legitimacy and appeal of independence (hence bogey words like 'separatism' and 'narrow nationalism').
Imagine if the independence cause were to offer in these last few weeks a different kind of tone and content. Picture Nicola Sturgeon before 18 September having the courage and conviction to stand up and talk about her own doubts and risks on independence. Think of the effect of Sturgeon saying that at times she too has had doubts and has felt uncertain about the project and idea of independence. This would entail her saying that she has at times had anxieties about the risks inherent in independence.

He's clearly quite right to point out the unattractiveness of much of the Nationalist presentation: there's absolutely no point in pretending that Independence is risk free and that fear or the Scotch Cringe is the only reason to vote no. As a political strategy, the public enactment of doubt, humility etc is indeed likely to produce some positive results for the Yes campaign. (There is, of course, another story to be told of the Better Together strategy of suggesting the sheer unthinkability of Independence by sneer and effortless superiority.)

But this misses the point. (Or at least a point.) And this is something that we can find in Strauss. The politician is not a philosopher: to take a position in a political campaign requires a persona, a front. It may well be that a persona embodying more doubt would be more attractive politically, would be more successful. But in the referendum campaign, there can only be two sort of political answer: Yes or No. Doubt, insofar as it figures, is something to be overcome, and the only possible narrative one of how it was slain or faced up to:

If, as is likely the SNP do not change tone and adjust content, irrespective of a Yes/No vote, they are going to have to consider embracing such an agenda post-vote. Here then is a suggestion to the SNP and independence cause. Have courage and believe in your convictions. Embrace the ideas of doubt, uncertainty and talk about the risks. That's what strong, courageous leadership and vision involves. [Hassan here.]

But there is another aspect of politics -not the campaigning, but the thinking about political things (ta politika; res publica) which is not oriented to direct political action. There is political philosophy which is the soil from which the campaign should emerge and be challenged. Here, the 'emotions, doubts and fears' that Hassan seems to want to treat as a therapist become cognitive responses to truth and the absence of truth, to be treated by philosophy.

I've said it before, but Scotland is severely deficient in that philosophical thinking about public things that is not directly oriented towards a campaign. In part, that is diagnosed (by Strauss) as the modern intellectual desert that is reached when the ancient understanding of human nature and the pursuit of its flourishing is abandoned. But it is particularly bad -worse than it need be- in Scotland. Without the background of think tanks, proper journalism, public engagement by the universities and rather better public intellectuals, any political campaign is going to be impoverished: you can't just switch on the public mind every five years or so and then put it back into the box. It's not so much that one can't point to isolated figures or institutions, but they remain isolated: there is a lack of critical mass.

And a fortiori the Catholic Church in Scotland. As Tom Gallagher put it recently:

There is a surprising lack of interaction between people in different branches of Church life, from education to parts of the media and the different offices of the Church. This makes it easier for political forces with their own agendas to muscle in and even try to bend parts of Church life to an essentially secular will.

Although that is, in part, a matter of political campaigning, I think the core of the problem is rather that lack of constant philosophical/theological thinking from which alone effective campaigning can result. And so, for example, the Catholic opposition to same sex marriage emerges from nowhere and sounds shrill and arbitrary even to many Catholics, instead of being the natural, irresistible consequence of our understanding of human beings and their place in society.

I'm reading Weigel's biography of St John Paul II at the moment. Remember that, during the crisis (a far greater crisis than I hope I'll ever have to face) of Poland's occupation by the Nazis and then the Communists, much of his energy was devoted to building up Polish Catholicism's intellectual and cultural life, for example, through amateur theatre. Without that cultural soil, politics and even theology flies around uselessly like tumbleweed.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Can the West learn to love militarism again? (And should it?)

                                                  We all love a parade...?

Having recently done the Kindle equivalent of bingeing on boxed sets with the complete works of Chesterton, the one thing about them that unsettled me most was the fierceness of some of his writings around the First World War. Work after work denounced the Germans and urged a war to defend civilization against them. I'm not sure what I conclude from that. That contra the 'Oh What a Lovely War!' and Wilfred Owen syndrome, the struggle against the Kaiser's Germany was as much a fight for light as the Second? That there is a danger of the Chestertonian sliding into a sentimental love of fighting? Frankly, I'm still not sure...

It does, however, represent a problem that the modern West -and particularly Christianity- needs to face up to more squarely. Watching the First World War commemoration on Sunday in Edinburgh, I struggled between the pathos of the occasion and the irritation at a dead ritualism. Time after time, the commentators explained in hushed terms the meaning of constructing a drumhead (a heap of drums) and the importance of the military standards (and, most important, on the need to distinguish Ensigns from Standards...) It was the arcane ritual of an armed service clumsily imagined for a  modern TV audience: a construction needing the continual explanation of historical re-enactors. (When, for example, was the last period in which a heap of drums would be found conveniently in the front line of a British battalion on active service?) It jarred on me slightly, in part because I couldn't help wondering what would be the equivalent in an Independent 'progressive' Scotland: a parade of juggling drag queens on tricycles? It was well intentioned I'm sure, but it didn't emerge naturally from modern Scottish culture: it was clearly an artifice of heritage.

How a society strikes a balance between how to defend itself and how to pursue human flourishing is perhaps the central question of both Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics. In the former, the question is how to create a military caste whilst preventing them from running the country. In the latter, the question is how to create a process of formation for citizens that imitates the single minded effectiveness of Crete and Sparta without producing military thugs. The modern equivalent of this is perhaps how to finance and morally support an effective fighting force while civilian society continues to embrace a feminist, individualist suspicion of collectively planned and executed violence.

Christians are even in more of a bind. With a growing suspicion at the end of the twentieth century among theologians of both Christendom (the close linking of Christianity with society and the state) and the taking of life, the sort of ready acceptance of the military life found earlier in Western culture has become increasingly difficult.

Now, it is of course possible that all this simply represents progress: that an unwillingness to kill and be killed is the result of a growing moral sensitivity. That might be true whilst it is also true that it renders the West in fact incapable of sustained military action. (Unless you are a consequentialist, there is absolutely no guarantee that an improved morality will produce better -or even survivable- consequences.) It might also be true that there is an alternative model of military effectiveness which does not buy into the sort of Imperial Militarism that military parades in the UK generally try to represent. (I suspect this is what 'progressive' Nationalism would like a Scottish Defence Force to be. Whether such a thing could exist and whether it would ever be capable of projecting force against a long term enemy (say) in the Middle East strikes me as rather less clear.)

The remaining alternative is a return to the sort of acceptance and even celebration of the military that existed until comparatively recently in Western European (certainly British) life. Any child brought up on Walter Scott, for example, would have absolutely no sense of a clash between the military life and the life of a gentleman and Christian. Whilst that attitude certainly does still exist, particularly in families and schools which have a military tradition, it's certainly not one that is common in the media dominated by a 'progressive intelligentsia' let alone a Christianity which has gone a bit hippy over the years. As a result, you tend in Britain at least to get the distancing involved in Sunday's celebrations: the military life as heritage spectacle rather than as a celebration of a living necessity. (But looking at the Bastille Day picture above, I wonder if that is so true of the French?)

Anyway, has the West become militarily ineffectual in its culture? Is that a good thing? (It seems from current events especially in the Middle East that it may be a very painful thing.) And if it isn't, can it be remedied or are the habits which have undermined it too deeply embedded now to be extracted?

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Salmond/Darling debate: Nationalism and nuns with hairy legs

                                               Spot the (fifth) columnist...

So Darling won the TV debate. Or Salmond did. Or it was a draw.

I can't remember who said that in order to discover how awful the standards of journalism are, it was only necessary to study the reporting of a subject that you really understood well. It's an experiment I've applied several times over the years and it usually confirms the suspicion that much journalism is written out of the depths of extreme ignorance. It is of course not always true -and is less true of serious organs of haute vulgarisation such as The Economist. But the problem -and it is one that can afflict bloggers even more than print journalists- is that modernity abhors silence: there is little space for the claim, 'There is no news today' and even less for the admission, 'There is lots of news today but I have little idea what to make of it.'

Anyway, one notes with distress (usually English) commentators whom one generally respects regularly making fools of themselves with regard to the Scottish independence campaign. It's usually a matter of what one might term Sprachgefuhl: those nuances that give the game away about non-native fluency. So, for example, to see excited comments about Salmond being a nationalist demagogue who's getting his comeuppance just doesn't quite get it right for someone who's sat through two years of Scottish media coverage (or an even longer period of SNP government). It doesn't deal with the fact of his popularity among a wide range of people. It doesn't deal with his relative invisibility during the referendum campaign. It doesn't deal with the reputation for responsible government that won a landslide in the last Holyrood election. It doesn't even get his actual faults right: his nerdish attention to detail; his tendency to sneer. Whilst there are undoubtedly wannabe Chavezes and Perons in Nationalist ranks, it's difficult to imagine Salmond on the barricades and still more difficult to imagine him accompanied by Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney or Mike Russell.

But I come not to praise or bury Salmond, but simply to note the real problem here which is the lack of depth in Scottish political culture. A head to head leadership debate is a fine thing, but it is a paltry thing: after two years of fairly relentless media discussion, nothing can turn up in such a forum. (What really could have been said in the Tuesday debate which had not been said before? What does it show that either party's delivery of scripted lines was fluffed or not fluffed?) Unlike a party election, the character of either 'leader' is utterly irrelevant: at a general election, to a degree, we are voting for a personality and a character; at the referendum, we are voting for a future that will run beyond my lifetime and the lifetime of my children.

Scottish party politics is pretty much the same as Westminster party politics: people shout at each other; spads run around imitating Malcolm Tucker or Toby Ziegler; two parties glower at each other in PMQs/FMQs. Compared to Westminster, it probably suffers from a little lack of depth in ability (once you get past key figures, there probably isn't a crowd of geniuses waiting to take over in case of unfortunate accident). But the real problem is that the longer term reflection on politics, the discussion of ta politika which goes beyond the Punch and Judy and which bridges that space between the theoretical and the day to day is painfully inadequate. The lack runs from serious journalism to political think tanks. It is expressed in a provincial TV service and an overreliance on a small number of well known figures. Perhaps above all, it is a space that rarely presents a well thought through 'conservative' challenge to the well nigh universal 'progressive' worldview.

And all this matters because Scottish politics is not English politics. When sitting through much of the last general election media coverage, I found myself constantly editing out vast amounts as irrelevant: anything to do with the NHS; anything to do with education; anything to do with immigration; anything to do with the tussle between those two parties and our two parties. At times, it was analogous to trying to follow US politics via coverage from Westphalian local radio. Whether it's the result of devolution or more profound changes in post-modern politics, there is a gulf between politics in RUK and politics in Scotland. And watching a lot of commentary on the Salmond/Darling debate merely confirmed that view, either because the commentary lacked Sprachgefuhl, or because it loaded what was essentially a trivial occasion with apocalyptic import. It was hard not to come away from the debate -and still more the discussion thereafter- with the feeling that Scottish political life at its deeper level just can't go on as it is. Even assuming that the debate had Salmond trounced, its inadequacies reinforced a Nationalist analysis: that the existing political set up can't survive. (And that leaves, I suspect, the situation where most Scots see it now: a difficult decision between the hope of devo-max (an ideal which may be practically unachievable given the nature of the UK) or the reality of independence (which may be achievable but risky).)

How does this affect 18 September? First, that gap between Scottish politics and RUK politics won't go away whatever happens. Of course, if there's a yes vote, Scotland will go its own way. If there's a no vote, then either there's a serious attempt to reflect that difference (not just in devolved Parliamentary powers but in matters such as broadcasting) or the difference will remain a wound which will fester and erupt again. Secondly, whatever happens on 18 September, some of us -and particularly those of a generally conservative bent- had better start building the institutions and intellectual practices within Scotland that can fill the vacuum that is currently populated (to the extent that it is populated at all) almost entirely by Jetsonists.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Kenan Malik and the wisdom of mobs

                                              All a jolly good idea

I've had Kenan Malik's A Quest for a Moral Compass on my Kindle for a while now. My interest in it was provoked by Tom Holland's puff: ‘I can imagine it replacing Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy on many a bookshelf - certainly mine.’ Although I've a great respect for Tom Holland and am quite prepared to believe that a context might add nuance to this remark, as it stands, it's silly. It's a category error. Whatever else might be said about either book, Russell is writing a history of philosophy, not morality (or even moral philosophy). Russell was, again, whatever else might be said, a seminal figure in Anglo-American academic and popular philosophy. His book -clearly barking though it is in places- is a classic of popularization. You might replace Russell with Malik, but it would be in the same way you'd replace a book with a vase of flowers: you'd be replacing one thing with something else and something different. Anyway, it sits there on the Kindle more because I want (eventually) to find out whether it is as ludicrous as the advertising, rather than because I suspect I will find enlightenment in it. (I think I can reasonably claim to have read enough proper books in this area to suspect there'll be little to surprise me. But who knows?)

In the meantime, there's Malik's essay on 'The death of god and the fall of man' (here). This attracted my attention in part because it deals with two philosophers I have learned  much from (MacIntyre and Anscombe) and in part because of the 'odd' claim at the end:

Or, to put it another way, the moral incoherence of the modern world derives perhaps from the inability to think like the mob outside the Bastille.

Now, I think, that Malim regrets this. In essence, his essay appears to argue that the problem of modern morality is that it is trapped either at the pole of believing in an external standard of behaviour that is ineluctable (such as a biological determinism) or at the opposing pole of a radical subjectivity that is contentless and arbitrary:

the consequence of the coincidence of the Death of God and the Fall of Man is that the relationship between what Alasdair MacIntyre called ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ and ‘man-as-he-could-be’ has become obscured, indeed broken. The secular ‘Fall of Man’, the loss of faith in the human capacity to act rationally and morally, and to collectively transform their world, has narrowed the conception of what humans could be, confined our notion of what we are and eroded the link between the two.

And as the link between the two has eroded, so moral thinking has polarized between the belief that morality is nothing more than the immediate product of ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’; and the belief that ‘man-as-he-happens-to-be’ cannot of himself define ‘man-as-he-could-be’, but that this must be defined not by humans as we are but in some objective sense, either through God or through science. On the one hand the idea that morality can be nothing more than personal preference; on the other that for it to be anything more than personal preference, it has to be anchored by some external legislator or in some objective realm.

The solution to this?

The answers to moral questions are neither subjective nor objective but rather rooted in a rationality that emerges out of social need, a rationality that can only emerge through humanity’s collective judgement.

And the model for this collective judgment is the mob storming the Bastille: it is a group that emerges from concrete external circumstances, but is not paralysed by them:

The mob only formed because of wider aims, aims that were social and historical rather than individual and personal. It is, in Sartre’s words, a ‘fused group’, not a ‘seriality’. The mob storming the Bastille was, in other words, an expression of the transformed meaning of telos.

Now there's a lot in Malik's essay that I'm not going to tackle here. In particular, his understanding of MacIntyre as simply thinking of social embeddedness in terms of tradition rather than 'transformation' doesn't do justice to MacIntyre: indeed, MacIntyre's main task in After Virtue and his succeeding work is to recommend a transformation of society by an adoption of (roughly) communitarianism as a way of life and Thomism as a way of thought. But putting aside the question of the accuracy of his analysis of MacIntyre and Anscombe, what of his own solution?

One point to make quickly is that his understanding of Classical philosophy appears quite warped. For example:

Human life was framed by the gods and yet humans could not rely upon them. They had to depend upon their own wit and resources. It was human reason and human morality that imposed order upon an unpredictable world, and carved out dignity and honour within it.

Now, however adequate such a view is of Graeco-Roman popular culture, it is entirely inadequate as an account of Graeco-Roman philosophy, especially that of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. Their key idea was that of nature, in particular, human nature: there was an order in the world which human beings had to reflect much more than carve. But that reflection required thought and virtue. For Plato, a revolutionary mob would be not the paradigm of emancipatory action, but a predictable consequence of what happens when power is given to those who are unfitted for serious philosophical thought: they will end up following the whims of a tyrant (see eg Book 8 of the Republic). For the Greeks as much as us, the question of how to move from what we already are to what we could be is a hard one. But unlike Malik, the mainstream Graeco-Roman solution is that the answer is found by hard thinking, not mob action.

And to note that is to note that, once again, we are back with the need to discern what is true and what is good and what is beautiful. A mob doesn't think: at best, it is manipulated by one who does think (the demagogue). But other forms of collectivity do. A choir is immersed in a search for beauty which requires both virtue in the leadership (the choir director) and in the following (the chorus). A research group again requires thought and discussion in its search for the true. A charity likewise requires the exercise of practical wisdom and virtue in its pursuit of the good. Why are none of these better examples than the Bastille mob for Malik? Because they highlight what Malik is seeking to obscure: that collective transformative action can be good and bad. And it becomes good only when it undertakes, more or less explicitly, the sort of conscious rational reflection that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle undertook about human nature. It is not, pace Malik, 'the transformed meaning of telos' but simply the same old search for the same old telos.

The challenge for those such as Malik who want (in some way) to draw a line between modernity and the pre-modern moral world is to explain why the two worlds are so different. For such as me, they aren't -and his failure to explain why a mob should be taken as a paradigm of good collective action is evidence of that. There is a perennial philosophy or at least a perennial search for that philosophy. In essence (as I think Leo Strauss sees most clearly among modern political thinkers) the ancients said all that could be said: the world of the Stoics and Plato and Aristotle is our world. The only thing to be added to that (and this transforms not so much the questions or the search so much as the definiteness and practicality of the solutions) is the Christian revelation.

To return to Malik's claim:

Or, to put it another way, the moral incoherence of the modern world derives perhaps from the inability to think like the mob outside the Bastille.

Against that, weigh MacIntyre's:

We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St Benedict.

Both transformed society, but one did so with a conscious reflection on human flourishing and the other was a murderous rampage on a whim:

At 4pm, the Marquis de Launay surrendered and let the people enter the Bastille. The guards were violently killed and the Marquis de Launay was beheaded, with his head then put on a stake and carried all over the city as a sign of victory.
There weren't many prisoners in the Bastille at the time of the storming; only 7 people were freed.
That very night, 800 men began to destroy the Bastille.