Friday, 26 September 2014

Aftermaths: the Referendum and others

Hhm. Haven't blogged since before the Referendum which, in the postmodern world, no doubt counts as an eternity...

Although, as I've made pretty clear up till now, I haven't been existentially committed to either side of the debate, and despite the fact that I took to bed at a reasonable hour on Thursday night, confident that the polls would probably be right (it's elementary really: they were the best empirical evidence one could have, so much better than dried seaweed or the state of one's gut) the reality of a No vote on waking did rather flatten me. I'm still not quite sure why. Undoubtedly the part of me that sympathized with the Independence case made its disappointment felt, just as the part that sympathized with the Unionist case would have been cutting up rough in the event of a Yes vote. It's not been helped by various pro-Yes friends and family looking like the sky has fallen in since then, or by some post referendum sillinesses from both sides online (although when did anything, ever, online help anything? I exaggerate of course). And then the house is noticeably quieter now child 2 is sent into the world of Higher Education. (Not as a punishment, I hasten to add...)

Reading George Weigel's Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II has provided an odd critical space to reflect on all that. Being soaked in St John Paul for a while has forced me to think more carefully about Vatican II (because it so clearly was the prism through which he viewed so much of the Church's role in the modern world rather than an odd hiccough which is better ignored) but also, more pertinently, on culture and nationalism.

It's difficult to read Weigel's work and not pick up the importance that St John Paul placed on culture as a vehicle of sanctification and digging deep into the roots of one's national culture as a part of that process. Of course, that doesn't immediately translate into a 'Vote Yes', but it ought to translate into a better understanding of some of the processes that led to an SNP government being returned with a massive majority, a 45% vote for Independence which would have looked utterly unachievable not so long ago, as well as a critique of that 'progressive' Nationalism which rejects the transcendent (again, another characteristic theme of St John Paul). Too much Catholic commentary -from both sides- has stopped at the level of everyday political badinage: Salmond molests wildstock; Darling is one of the undead.

A number of people have expressed suspicion of the 'reconciliation' agenda. I've got some sympathies with that suspicion. Despite some bullying (I think on both sides although the tone and manner of each side's methods differed somewhat) for a campaign of such importance, it has been surprisingly decent in many ways. (Nobody is dead: that's quite an achievement after the history of the twentieth century.) To talk about the need for reconciliation might be appropriate in South Africa or Rwanda: it's probably not in Scotland. Moreover, it suggests (and I think this is the real worry for some) that the issues of Nationalism and even Independence should go away. It was a good clean fight. Yes lost. Now let's all get on and put all that behind us.

Although, personally, I confess to a certain wistful sympathy for such a view, it's not going to happen. Unless the SNP dissolves electorally (and there seems no chance of that happening in a Scotland where the alternatives are the lack lustre Scottish Labour and Conservatives of today), Nationalism and Independence of some form isn't going away. What we need -as we need throughout Western democracies- is a way of living creatively with the resulting antipathies and tensions. (Dialogue isn't the right paradigm: it leaves out the bodily realities of loathing and anger that have to be dealt with; it leaves out the silences and withdrawals that are part of the techniques of cooperation rather than dialogue.) Part of that is stripping out the idea that politics is about self-expression. Too much of democracy is personalized. Slagging off Salmond or Darling as some wildebeest of hell allows the critic to rejoice in the fierceness of his own emotions whilst goring yet another person pumped up with emotion. It's difficult to see anything here Christian humility or discernment of the will of God: much more about the rutting habits of alpha males.

I don't know if Western democracy can survive. It certainly won't if we think solely in terms of individuals filled with the riot of their own subjectivity and trying to impose this on the public space. Perhaps the key is to appreciate the search for meaning in the polis as part of the search for God, and to accept that this search, mysteriously, is irreducibly personal whilst mediated through public spaces. We have to live with conflict and disagreement -whether between Unionist and Nationalist, Christian and Muslim, Theist and Atheist. That's something that I think comes over very strongly in St John Paul's thought and work -and it's not a bad lesson to be reflecting on just now.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Final thoughts on the Referendum

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

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

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

Some last thoughts then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 September 2014

Emotions and politics: full of yourself and empty of self

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 September 2014

Zizek and Rotherham

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

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

The problem according to Zizek:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 September 2014

Vatican II was groovy and Islam, Judaism and Christianity are cool.

                            Your blogger has been drinking too much chamomile tea

One of the most interesting aspects of blogging is the way the personal and the public interact. An aspect of this is the way events in one's personal life interact with leading news stories to prompt a blogpost.

Publicly? Well, wars and the rumours of wars -but also (and it feels extremely intense here) the impending Referendum. So lots of prompts towards thinking about the military, violence, particularity and national identities. And personally, in terms of reading at least, an odd and serendipitous mixture of Weigel's biography of St John Paul II, Maritain's The Peasant of the Garonne (slightly icky review by Michael Novak here but which does give a flavour of some of the complexities of the book) and a raft of stuff by Pierre Manent. So my thoughts, gentle reader, turn to Vatican II and modernity...

If you're an orthodox Catholic (ie one of those strange beasts who actually believes that the Church has a divinely given teaching authority which you'd better listen to) you can find yourself in that odd situation of starting to make excuses for an Ecumenical Council of the Church. Because so much rubbish entered Catholicism after Vatican II, and because so many Catholics you agree with locate the seed of those troubles in the Council, you can find yourself very easily on the defensive: explaining that this or that document isn't that bad, or that it is perfectly easy to interpret it as not changing this or that traditional teaching (provided you read the original Latin rather than the translation, or by a charitable interpretation of this parenthetical phrase...). To put this another way, it becomes easier to read the identity between the tradition of the Church and Vatican II always from left to right: it becomes second nature to try to explain away Vatican II as simply restating tradition. Nothing to see here. Move on.

The problem -particularly in revisiting St John Paul II- is you have this saint walking around and clearly under the impression that something big and wonderful had happened: not that anything had essentially changed, but that the identity had to be read from right to left: Vatican II interprets the tradition and illuminates it in perhaps unforeseen ways.

Of course, the identity is more dynamic than reading just one way or t'other: the idea of a hermeneutic of continuity brings out this mutual illumination. But unless there are some moments where Vatican II is genuinely helpful in illuminating previously hidden or obscure aspects of the Church, I can't help thinking that we are doing less than justice to the Council.

So what aspects might they be? Here are two suggestions:

1) Fraternity between Jews, Muslims and Christians (in Nostra Aetate). It is hard to read this document as forbidding anything other than fraternal respect from Christians towards these other religions. Whatever the essence of previous tradition, this truth can hardly be said to be always uppermost in the lives of earlier Catholics. It is extremely helpful (to put it at the mildest) to remember that, surrounded by heightened emotions at genuine atrocities in the Middle East, hatred of Judaism and Jews, or of Islam and Muslims, just isn't an option. (Of course, that leaves open an awful lot of detail, but it's surely helpful that this truth be taught with the full authority of an Ecumenical Council. At the least, it should steady some nerves.)

2) Religious freedom. (Primarily in Dignitatis humanae.) One thing that comes over particularly strongly in St John Paul II's writings is his emphasis on political and spiritual freedom, reflecting the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae. (This is of course one of the key areas in which those who worry about/reject Vatican II identify a difference from previous authoritative teachings.) For simple folk like myself, seeing one of the supreme sources of authority in the Church teaching this is enough. Whether or not I can articulate how this teaching is in accordance with previous teachings (Thomas Pink's attempt is widely considered as one of the most successful), or whether I simply have to say with St Robert Bellarmine  'rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false', as Le Paysan de l'Ecosse, I can be sure that I am right to acknowledge the importance of the free pursuit of our common spiritual end, that liberty that is the essence of the 'flight of the alone to the alone'. And thus, when I see the imposition of secularizing authority opposed to both this supernatural end and the teachings of natural law, I know where I should stand.

We are living in bloody. dangerous times. (Our forefathers lived in worse, but they were stronger.) In the end, the only weapons that will work will be truth, goodness and beauty -and a trust in Christ and the Church. That may not save us from suffering and death, but a martyrdom for the Prince of Peace is not the worst fate that may befall us:

Sancte Michael Archangele,
defende nos in proelio;
contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium.
Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur:
tuque, Princeps militiae Caelestis,
satanam aliosque spiritus malignos,
qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo,
divina virtute in infernum detrude.

[Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host -
by the Divine Power of God -
cast into hell, satan and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.