Tuesday 25 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

On the Nativity of Christ (William Dunbar)

RORATE coeli desuper!
  Hevins, distil your balmy schouris!
For now is risen the bricht day-ster,
  Fro the rose Mary, flour of flouris:
  The cleir Sone, quhom no cloud devouris,        
Surmounting Phebus in the Est,
  Is cumin of his hevinly touris:
    Et nobis Puer natus est.

Archangellis, angellis, and dompnationis,
  Tronis, potestatis, and marteiris seir,  
And all ye hevinly operationis,
  Ster, planeit, firmament, and spheir,
  Fire, erd, air, and water cleir,
To Him gife loving, most and lest,
  That come in to so meik maneir;  
    Et nobis Puer natus est.

Synnaris be glad, and penance do,
  And thank your Maker hairtfully;
For he that ye micht nocht come to
  To you is cumin full humbly  
  Your soulis with his blood to buy
And loose you of the fiendis arrest—
  And only of his own mercy;
    Pro nobis Puer natus est.

All clergy do to him inclyne,  
  And bow unto that bairn benyng,
And do your observance divyne
  To him that is of kingis King:
  Encense his altar, read and sing
In holy kirk, with mind degest,  
  Him honouring attour all thing
    Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Celestial foulis in the air,
  Sing with your nottis upon hicht,
In firthis and in forrestis fair  
  Be myrthful now at all your mycht;
  For passit is your dully nicht,
Aurora has the cloudis perst,
  The Sone is risen with glaidsum licht,
    Et nobis Puer natus est.  

Now spring up flouris fra the rute,
  Revert you upward naturaly,
In honour of the blissit frute
  That raiss up fro the rose Mary;
  Lay out your levis lustily,  
Fro deid take life now at the lest
  In wirschip of that Prince worthy
    Qui nobis Puer natus est.

Sing, hevin imperial, most of hicht!
  Regions of air mak armony!  
All fish in flud and fowl of flicht
  Be mirthful and mak melody!
  All Gloria in excelsis cry!
Heaven, erd, se, man, bird, and best,—
  He that is crownit abone the sky  
    Pro nobis Puer natus est!

Wednesday 19 December 2012

The children's gaze and the liturgy

'Tis the season of Nativity plays. Well, if you're lucky. When my children were at non-Catholic primary schools, it was usually something along the line of, 'My Camel's got the Hump' or 'The Naughty Sheep': a play which gestured at Christmas themes without ever quite getting there.

Anyway, one of the pleasures of being a parent or even an indulgent uncle or friend is that you get to see the world through a child's eyes. Christmas is chock full of such moments: adults smiling benignly at children transfixed at meeting Santa or consumed by playing with a favoured toy. Admittedly these moments are often rapidly replaced by child screaming with fright at Santa or throwing the toy at sister, but still, it lasted for a moment, and for that moment, the world is seen afresh.

Quite a lot of children's Masses seem to aspire to be like that. Some of the churches we have frequented over the years have held a special children's Mass on a regular basis (and of course such Masses are an unavoidable part of life in a Catholic school). One aspect of these I was never quite sure about was the 'sermon slot' which often consisted of the priest chatting with the children. Quite apart from the liturgical propriety of this, I was always distinctly uneasy with the sense that this was really a performance put on for the benefit of the adults: instead of the priest really evangelizing the children, he was instead evangelizing the parents through the children. I'm not overly enamoured with Kant, but I was distinctly uneasy with the idea of treating children as means rather than ends...

But whatever the rights and wrongs of getting adults to see through a child's eyes in the liturgy on an occasional basis, it can't be right to do so on a permanent basis. Feminist theory over the years has made a great deal of the male gaze: roughly, the idea that much art in the western canon has been made to be seen by men (and thus either alienating or masculinizing the female spectator). Much modern liturgy seems to have been made for the child's gaze, in which adults are encouraged to see the world through a child's eyes.

Now I'm not sure of the exact reasons for this. Partly it may be due to the sociological fact that many parents seem happier letting their children indulge in religion than indulging in it themselves. (Christianity, like Santa, is 'nice for the kids'.)  Partly it may be due to an echo of Matthew 18:3:

Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted , and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Who knows? But just as forcing women to see uncritically through men's eyes is a bad idea, it is a bad idea to infantalize adults by forcing them to adopt the child's gaze. If anything, we should be introducing children to the adult gaze: how to see the world from a fully mature point of view. It also produces the crassness of imperfect imitation: instead of getting what a child would really see, you get an aging hippy's version of what a child might be thought to see, an imitation about as convincing as RADA educated 1930s' actors imitation of cockney:

Monday 17 December 2012

The Killing III -the end

So goodbye Sarah Lund! Can't imagine how running off to Rekjavik is likely to work as a long term strategy for evading Danish justice (perhaps you could try the Ecuadorian embassy as they seem to have experience in dealing with Scandanavian extradition claims?) but still...

As I blogged on Borgen, Danish marriage seems a decidedly unstable affair. As far as the Killing III was concerned, it's hard to think of a single enduring marriage of any of the characters. Moreover, the constant dealing with grumpy ex spouses, jealous current partners and disgruntled children seems to get in the way of everything else. (Can't help thinking that Lund would have solved the crimes much more quickly if she hadn't been so distracted trying to deal with her estranged son, who spent much of the series acting like a complete plonker with his pregnant girlfriend.)

Although the son does seem about to do the 'right thing' (no, not marriage! just not dumping her and running off to sulk) with his girlfriend at the end, the general narrative about relationships is that they don't work. If you're watching these programmes as a young adult, you're being introduced to the expectation that the really hard work of any relationship is working out how to deal with the children and partners from the last relationship in the brief time you have together before rushing off with yet another partner.

If philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor are right, narratives form a central element in human flourishing. Human beings need challenges, and the key to interesting narratives is showing what those challenges are and how to deal with them. Judging by Scandanavian TV, the current narratives are creating an expectation of successive relationship failure and showing the interest of a life to lie in how we deal with picking up the pieces of that failure whilst juggling a career. This is opposed to more traditional narratives which focus on the everyday failures within a marriage, and take the interest of a life to lie in dealing with those failures whilst retaining the marriage.

I've noticed, talking to my children, that romantic break ups are really the key interest of much of their contemporaries' lives: the challenge seems to lie not so much in continuing a relationship but in screwing them up in interesting ways and enjoying the bittersweetness of romantic failure.

So is that the future or even the present reality? Rather than pouring one's energies into building a marriage (what I seem to remember Anthony Burgess describing as a 'little civilization') and thus a stable platform for work and contemplation, we are encouraged to create and enjoy failure...

Saturday 15 December 2012

Feliĉan Zamenhofan Tagon!

What??? (or, for older English readers, Hwæt!!!)

Today is Zamenhof Day when Esperantists round the world celebrate the birthday of the inventor of the artificial language Esperanto, Ludwig Zamenhof.

I can't really claim to be an Esperantist: it was something I was interested in as a teenager and can still just about make my way through a book or website in the language. (I thought briefly about trying to blog today in Esperanto but realized it was beyond me now.) It still strikes me as something of a lost opportunity (both for the world and me): it really is quite a remarkable invention with a simplicity in its design that is rather beautiful. Putting aside any fantasies about worldwide cosmopolitan conspiracies, the existence of an auxiliary language as a  means of communication that allows ordinary people to contact each other directly would be a good thing. A fascinating book, La danghera lingvo, (The Dangerous Language) describes, among other things, how Soviet Russia, having originally encouraged Soviet Esperantists to get pen-pals in capitalist countries as a way of distributing propaganda about the revolution, had to stop the correspondence when it became obvious that the Soviet workers were instead being given a direct insight into the rather better living conditions that existed under capitalism.

Anyway, did you know Vatican Radio broadcasts in Esperanto? (Three times a week according to their website.) Or that there is a International Catholic Esperanto Union? Or that there is a book called: Esperanto - The New Latin for the Church and for Ecumenism ? (English version here.) I can almost immediately hear the more suspicious among orthodox Catholics sharpening their knives at this point, and I suspect that there is indeed more than a whiff of the 1960s about some of this. On the other hand, there is also more than a whiff of self improvement and international solidarity about it too, and that's something that, despite its Communist perversions, has its good points.

Anyway, if you're really worried about international Zionist-Socialist-New-World-Order conspiracies to introduce a Newspeak, you could always try the older artificial language Volapük instead. It was invented by a Catholic priest after all...

The 'Our Father' in Esperanto:

Patro nia, kiu estas en la ĉielo,
sanktigata estu Via nomo.
Venu Via regno.
Fariĝu Via volo,
kiel en la ĉielo, tiel ankaŭ sur la tero.
Nian panon ĉiutagan donu al ni hodiaŭ.
Kaj pardonu al ni niajn ŝuldojn,
kiel ankaŭ ni pardonas al niaj ŝuldantoj.
Kaj ne konduku nin en tenton,
sed liberigu nin de la malbono.


Wednesday 12 December 2012

Brendan O'Neill on same sex 'marriage'

                                                        Wot he said....

Brendan O'Neill (H/T Gregg Beaman) gets it right again about same sex 'marriage':

It seems clear that the radical civil rights imagery cynically wheeled out by gay marriage advocates disguises that this is in truth a highly elitist, debate-allergic campaign. That is because, fundamentally, gay marriage speaks to, not any public thirst for the overhaul of marriage, but rather the narrow needs of some of the most elitist strata in our society. The benefit of the gay marriage issue for our rulers and betters is twofold. First, it allows them to pose as enlightened and cosmopolitan, as bravely willing to to enact ‘civilising measures’, in contrast with the bigots who make up the more traditional, religious or lumpen sections of society. As one observer said yesterday, gay marriage has become a ‘red line’ in politics, determining one’s goodness or badness. Supporting gay marriage has become a key cultural signifier, primarily of moral rectitude, among everyone from politicians to the media classes to bankers: that is, members of an elite who have increasingly few opportunities for moral posturing in these relativistic times. And second, and crucially, gay marriage satisfies the instinct of the authorities to meddle in marital and family life; it throws open to state intervention previously no-go zones, including the very meaning of our most intimate relationships.

(Full article here.)

I'd only add, in the Scottish situation, that it allows a contrast to be drawn between bad old 'blood and soil' nationalism and shiny new 'Jetsonist' (ie modernizing! but I'm going to keep hammering on about 'Jetsonism' until it gets into the dictionary) nationalism, as well as, more specifically, between a nasty old Scotland dominated by gloomy Calvinists and tawse wielding nuns, and a nice new Scotland that abandoned religion in favour of long secular lie ins on Sunday and the gym. (The timing of the proposal here -as so often- was also influenced by a desire not to be seen to be behind England in introducing progressive policies.)

Monday 10 December 2012

Does SSM affect natural marriage?

The ever wonderful blogger Peter Ould has conducted some statistical analysis on declining marriage rates in Spain, based on figures originally published in Affinity bulletin. The original Affinity article states:

What is most striking about the above figures is that in the UK, where all marriages were
heterosexual, the number of marriages remained steady between 2006 and 2010, in contrast to
those in Spain, where, following the redefinition of marriage, the number of mixed-sex marriages fell by 48,039 (23%).

Some may argue that the number of marriages in Spain has declined for reasons not connected with same-sex marriage. Given that marriage was redefined in the middle of 2005, and that the number of marriages increased in each year prior to 2005, and has declined in each year since, this would be so remarkable a coincidence that any argument based on it would carry no credibility.

The Spanish marriage statistics are directly relevant in the current debate in Britain in connection 
with redefining marriage. The British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has consistently supported the redefinition of marriage, has given as his reasons "the importance of commitment" 
and the contribution the redefinition of marriage would make to the "strengthening of society."
The Spanish figures demonstrate that far from "strengthening society," the redefinition of marriage 
would be a social disaster. How exactly, it might reasonably be asked, would a loss of more than 
250,000 marriages demonstrate "the importance of commitment" or contribute to "the 
strengthening of society?"

So, what can we say from this. We are pretty certain that there are two different patterns in other-sex marriages registered in Spain pre and post the introduction of same-sex marriage. Those patterns are directly linked to the introduction of same-sex marriage and are not part of a general trend in the time period we have data for.

Whatever you finally make of the statistics, this is precisely the sort of evidence that SSM campaigners need to engage with. The handwaving response that 'if you don't want SSM, then just don't have one yourself' doesn't begin to grapple with the damage that the radical change from an institution based on the social interest in successful childrearing to an institution based on -well, what?- may produce.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Gerry Hassan, Alasdair MacIntyre and the future of Scottish politics

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the main Scottish public intellectual of them all...?

I confess to being a bit fascinated by Gerry Hassan. For non-Scottish readers, he's a sort of omnipresent talking head here whose shtick is going on about the need for a more intelligent engagement between progressive politics and nationalism. Or, in his own words:

Hailed by the Sunday Herald as ‘Scotland’s main public intellectual’ Gerry has written and edited a dozen books in the last decade on Scotland and the wider world: from the setting up of the Parliament, to its record, policy, in depth studies of the Labour Party and SNP, and looking at how we imagine the future. Gerry’s activities include facilitating events, discussions and conversations which bring people together in Scotland and across the world.

So why my fascination? Well, partly, it's because I think he does make the right noises: independence or no, Scottish politics has got to develop some more depth. That's partly about the SNP and the Labour Party no longer regarding each other as akin to something you've inadvertently brought into your house on your shoe, but it's also partly about widening and deepening the issues in the political debate away from short term party political tactics. (I don't agree with Lalland Peat Worrier's (surely mischievous) suggestion that the Unionist parties in Scotland are deliberately being rubbish as part of a strategy to undermine Scottish Independence, but it's certainly true that one of the strongest arguments against independence to me at least is the thought that a newly independent Scotland would have only one properly functioning political party, the SNP. It's ironic that the political competence of the SNP contrasted with the other Scottish parties becomes an argument against independence, but nonetheless, 'tis so.)


The deepest public political debate in Scotland seems usually to consist of two or more people arguing about how we can become more progressive than before. Even the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson tends to say stuff like:

I have said Conservatives never get enough credit for how progressive they can be and how anti-establishment in terms of picking candidates they can be (Guardian).

Amongst some good sense in a recent article, Gerry Hassan comes out with the following:

The myths of modern Scotland, what we could essentially call our foundation stories, are the democratic intellect, egalitarian impulse and popular sovereignty. As I argue in the introduction to the newly published book, ‘The Seven Wonders of Scotland’, an account of seven imagined futures of Scotland, we do not often act on these.

It is as simple and fundamental as this. Let us decide if the above myths are what we want to be defined by, and if they are then genuinely act upon them in a way we do not at the moment, in education, social justice and democracy. And we should then live by them as a set of ethics for a modern, progressive, democratic Scotland. A place that realises that its past, present and future are all interwoven and interconnected. That knows that the first step in creating a different future is imagining it. That’s what being a culture of self-determination entails.

Why should Scottish politics be founded on myths? (It's one thing to talk about the importance of narratives, quite another to think that those narrations are located in the neatness of myths, particularly when these myths are little more than slogans.) Who is going to decide on those myths? By what structure of power? (Should we have a sort of constitutional conference where our national myths are decided by the majority?) What about dissenting narratives? (My myth of a modern Scotland is that everything's gone wrong since the introduction on nominalism in the late mediaeval period, and that we all need to get back to Aquinas and spiritual disciplines such as wearing hair shirts. Am I going to be allowed that narrative?)

So my problem with Hassan is that he promises so much and delivers so little: his nostrums of progressive politics  ('learn how to use humour, play and irreverence, and encourage spaces and resources which sit outside the system' (here)) are really part of the same old, same old: an Enlightenment dream of a transparent rationality coming up with simple, explicit principles which can be imposed on the structures of civil society and the family by (party) politics.

Contrast this with someone who (in terms of eminence at least) might be thought to have rather more claim to be Scotland's leading public intellectual: Alasdair MacIntyre. In a recent lecture, (video here; review here (for non-Catholics, if you want the essence of his analysis, try starting about 23 minutes in)) he reflects on how American Catholics should react in a political landscape dominated by a 'vulgarized liberalism' and a 'vulgarized conservatism'. (Scots might suggest the introduction of even a vulgarized conservatism into public life here would be an advance.) His answer, in principle, is that we should focus on the deeper resources of metaphysics, poetry and narrative and not get entirely swept up into a debate structured by those twin vulgarizations. But behind it all, there are two principles. First, there is MacIntyre's strong sense (argued consistently from After Virtue) that thinking takes place within a tradition, and that there are competing traditions in the modern world. Second, there is, within the Catholic tradition, an emphasis on 'the mystery of things' and a consequent need to trouble and be troubled by those who are 'too much in love with their own beliefs'. 

Not only are these two elements of conflict between traditions and the inability of discourse ever quite to capture the ultimate nature of the world downplayed by Hassan, but he also ignores specifics which follow from this. In particular, there is the central importance of the family as a space where narratives are formed and children are inducted into that form of life that is Catholicism (or any other well formed tradition). Moreover, the absence of specific practices from Hassan's analysis (and contrast for how long at the beginning of the video MacIntyre spends talking about prayer and scripture) indicates just how far his own analysis falls into the same trap 'of talking a language of abstracts' rather than trying 'to link up individual stories and collective stories'. For a Catholic (and analogous things could be said about other religions and even the deeper sort of atheist), politics -the life of the city- emerges from and is secondary to specific practices such as prayer, and specific narratives such as scripture. But 'progressive politics', at least in Hassan's version, is absolutely blind to such specificities, preferring to focus on the sort of slogans and power structures that are visible to the secularized, party political mind.