Monday 26 May 2014

UKIP, the SNP and the Alien Lizard Test

As I write on Monday am, UKIP has pretty much swept the board in England and Wales and looks as though it will get an MEP in Scotland. [Update: and has in fact now done so.]

Although I can't pretend UKIP is precisely my cup of tea, I am quite enjoying this. Particularly in Scotland, we've been subjected to pages and pages of the local Spartists saying how we Scots (unlike the beastly English) are progressive and just generally lovely, and we need to demonstrate our Progressive DNA by keeping UKIP out. For example, we had Stewart McDonald from the SNP:

The fight for that final seat is a straight up fight between the SNP and UKIP. The choice is a party that believes in making Europe work for Scotland and whose candidates have all signed up to support LGBT equality in Europe; or a party that wants to isolate us from the big challenges and big decisions taking place on our doorstep, and would happily consign the advances we’ve made in equality to history.

Or from Dan Vevers at National Collective (Motto: 'Striving for Independence through Interpretive Dance').

But that’s not Britain, is it? Certainly not the Britain we see today. This is the Britain that tells immigrants to ‘Go Home’. This is the Britain where a Prime Minister while still in office called for ‘British jobs for British workers’. This is the Britain where Scottish Labour MPs talk of family members becoming ‘foreigners’ in the event of Scottish independence. This is the Britain where the political party on the ascendancy are the xenophobic, homophobic UKIP, whose campaign poster for the upcoming European elections can basically be summed up with the line: ‘Dey turk ur jobs!’ 

Much of the SNP's traction in Scotland, and indeed the more general movement for Scottish Independence, has been as a result of that general disenchantment with current politics seen throughout Europe. Compared to the generally Oxbridge and public school educated UK politicians, the SNP leadership look and sound surprising like ordinary people. (And have also developed a reputation for solid, if unexciting, public administration.) The SNP won a massive victory in the last Scottish Parliament elections because, looking round at the other parties in the UK and Scotland, they looked normal.

                                           Human food can be tricky...

I hence propose my Alien Lizard theory of current politics. The reaction against ruling elites in much of Europe is a response to their looking like David Icke's Alien Lizard rulers, flown in to keep down the ordinary people under control. UKIP is a reaction to that and, to some extent, so is Scottish Nationalism. (The big difference between the two -as I keep having to remind my English friends- being simply that the SNP has proved itself competent in power and UKIP looks like a collection of extras from The Sweeney.)

But if Independence is going to be an attractive option in September, the Yes Campaign had better watch out for its own Alien Lizard tendencies.

                                         Early signs of Alien Lizard syndrome?

 The buzz amongst Progressives at the moment is making sure that they're not excluded from the negotiation process by people who  might know what they're talking about. The strategy seems to be emerging where, backed up by the concilium plebis (ie the Citizen's Assembly), a set of bloggers, journalist and community activists will stride the Nation as latter day Gracchi. This all sounds very exciting but, to grumpy old social conservatives like me, it fails the Alien Lizard Test. Most of the people involved look and sound like student politicians or policy wonks. I'm not at all sure I'd trust my children's pet rodents with them.

                                        The National Council for Scotland

Thursday 22 May 2014

Dumpy and unappealing: The Tara Erraught Case

There is, of course, only one Inspector Morse plot. Morse goes to concert and sees female singer. Enchanted by her, he starts behaving like a stage door Johnny. Unfortunately, he discovers she's murdered her gardener/lover and he has to put her in the chokey. Fade out on Morse listening to said Diva on record whilst looking wistful and wondering où sont les neiges d'antan.

One of the things about live theatre and particularly opera is that it is very easy to get enchanted by a physical presence of an actor. Unlike cinema or TV -where, although one can be obsessed with a Star, far more is due to the simple arrangement of flesh, perhaps as a result of the close up- on stage, how the actor moves and speaks is often far more striking. In opera, the case is even more complicated: one is primarily struck by a voice and the voice can lead you to see the physical presence as attractive or, perhaps more exactly, the attractiveness in that presence.

As I've said before, the correct male gaze at women is one that finds that enfleshed individuality attractive. Falling in love is being enchanted by a person. That includes the flesh, but it's not reducible to the flesh. A lot is sometimes made of how men are supposedly obsessed by female appearance whilst women (fortunately for us) are less fussy. Whatever truth there is in that, most men who haven't been corrupted by pornography to see women as just lumps of moving (or even static) meat still end up falling in love with people. To put it bluntly, idiots aside, even men, provided a woman is in the normal range of appearance, end up being entranced by more than just meat.

And so on to the case of Tara Erraught. I suppose it does have to be admitted that performers need to develop a thick skin: critics in general are not noted for their sensitivity or people skills. And whatever might be said about the specifics of any review, it's not unreasonable for a critic, in principle, to comment on the stage presence and physicality of an opera performer.

There are a number of different layers here. First, Tara Erraught is really rather straightforwardly attractive even in photos.

If we've reached the stage that our understanding of female attractiveness rules her out simply on the grounds she can't fit into a size 0 and isn't 6 foot + tall, so much the worse for us. Secondly, everyone seems to admit that she's a brilliant singer and actor. Even Rupert Christiansen (who seems to be at the centre of this storm) acknowledges this.

There is no doubt of the talent of this young Irish mezzo, based in Germany, who sings with vibrant assurance and proves herself a spirited comedian. But she is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William. Is Jones simply trying to make the best of her intractable physique or is he trying to say something about the social-sexual dynamic?

So, at the next level, is it simply that this role isn't right (physically) for her? This appears to be Christiansen's considered opinion in his defence of the original review:

So let me make myself clear: she is a very pretty girl with a delightful smile and an endearing stage presence. I would love to hear her sing Rossini’s Cenerentola or Rosina. But she cannot visually embody any conventional idea of Octavian, and I feel the production has wilfully, perhaps ironically, cast her against type. 

There is perhaps a rather better point here. Any actor will bring her personality (including her physique) to a role. The sort of 'taller more strapping' Octavian that Christiansen seems to prefer would provide a different interpretation of an adolescent male in love than someone of a different shape and personality. Christiansen, whilst acknowledging that a different interpretation may be intended here, doesn't really follow this through. (What does the different interpretation say 'about the social-sexual dynamic'?) At a superficial level, it seems implausible that Erraught couldn't play travesti roles with charm judging from the photo above.

High art is perhaps essentially Incarnational. By showing how the divine meets and illuminates the human individual, we forget that we are meat and become persons. (And take that vision outside the theatre into the world of everyday romantic encounters.) When a 'dumpy of stature' woman sings like an angel, we ought to forget the meat and see a Diva. Perhaps this is all (as I heard Kiri Te Kanawa suggest on the Today programme this morning) about a failure of the costume department to provide suitable dress. Perhaps it is about a (successful/unsuccessful) directorial vision that sees Octavian as a schoolboy uncomfortable in his own body. But let it not be about reducing singers (and humans in general) to the superficially attractive rather than vehicles of the transcendent.

Back to looking wistful and wondering où sont les neiges d'antan.

Monday 19 May 2014

Surrogate parenthood and denigrating women's physicality

One of the usual comebacks to homophobic bigots like myself is, 'What would you say if your child were gay?' To be honest, I'm not quite sure. Certainly not, 'Never darken my doorstep again and I'll see you in hell.' But neither would I expect I'd find it easy. I suppose a lot would depend. I could probably cope with an Allan Bloom but would weep into my pillow at a Conchita Wurst. Who knows? There are all sorts of things I might find difficult about my children. (How would I cope with an axe murderer? A loan shark? A stripper?) We'd probably muddle along in that slightly scratchy way that loving families do.

But I'd undoubtedly regret it. Focusing on men (usual caveat: there are other genders and other bloggers and this one is a man who is going to explore the male view), one of the great benefits of being a married man is you get to see the world through a woman's eyes. This is particularly the case in pregnancy, childbirth and raising children. It is an intensely physical experience. As a man, you see someone whose body you love change physically. Emotions change. They vomit. Difficulties in walking through the pain of stretching ligaments. And then of course the labour. Mrs L was quite lucky. But that 'luck' included long labours, poking around by sometimes unsympathetic medical staff, the usual pain.

(As I'm always conscious at this point that young women may be reading this who haven't had children and are thinking, 'Cripes, I'm not going through that!' I would just add that Mrs L -who has quite enough  achievements outside the home to be justly proud of- still thinks of her giving birth (yes, chiefly the products, of course, but also the whole physical experience) as the thing she's most proud of.)

I could go on. We haven't had the anguish of losing a child. Child 1 didn't really sleep well for the first four years of its life. (Neither did we.) Breastfeeding was successfully accomplished but not always easy. (Mrs L's comments on the physical pain of some moments of that are probably unprintable.) And so on.

As a man, you're a bystander for a lot of that: one whose heart is tugged, but still a bystander. It is a simple fact that women, physically, are far more involved in the creation of children than men. My primary feeling about all that is simple gratitude that I was a part of an entirely alien experience. I came out of it with a strong sense of why men wanted to worship pregnant women. (Heck, I wanted to worship pregnant women.) The emergence of a new life from the womb is the conjuring trick, the everyday experience of the irruption of the transcendent into the mundane. Women do that, not men. Men have much to offer the world, but not that. There, we should simply show respect and fall silent.

I don't know if men hate women (per (eg) Germaine Greer) or fear them (per Camille Paglia). But I do think there is a strong sense of the strangeness of female corporeality which can easily shade into either of those emotions. The ideal of a marriage is one where men grew to live comfortably with women's bodies, particularly in those 'peak' experiences such as childbirth. I'm not here going to speculate about precisely what relationship the gay male homosexual has to women's physicality simply by dint of being gay. But an accidental effect of that is lack of familiarity: unless you accompany a woman you care about physically through those experiences, you remain shut into a male world where, at least, the temptation is to underrate female physicality and perhaps even to denigrate it.

I'm not sure whether the debate about same sex 'marriage' has moved into a new phase, or whether I have simply been sensitized to an existing aspect by, in particular, the work of French organizations such as La Manif Pour Tous to extend the critique of SSM to its underlying theoretical roots in ' la théorie du genre'. But certainly I have noticed a move not simply to argue for an alteration of the nature of marriage to allow same sex relationships to be covered, but also attempts to normalize the idea of (and let's keep our focus on the male aspect for now) gay males having children through surrogates. (A recent case of this is documented in Caroline Farrow's blog. Incidentally, the two week goading on Twitter she mentions (of which I saw only bits) contained a lot of the usual online reaction to women who step out of line: slag off their bodies and appearance -ie attack their corporeality.) There's a lot else that could be said here. But this complete denial of women's physical role in producing the next generation, reducing them to a sort of biological where, albeit with a regrettable nine month delay, you can order babies at the click of a mouse, is exactly the sort of thing that second wave feminists noticed in men's attitudes to women's bodies: at the very least, women are being written out of childbirth simply to gratify male desires.

Friday 16 May 2014

Scotland for marriage: action on sex education guidance

I received this email as a supporter of Scotland for Marriage:


Protections under attack – contact Alex Salmond today

Dear marriage supporter,

As you may be aware, the Scottish Government recently sought views on draft guidance on how sex education should be taught in schools, triggered by the recent introduction of same-sex marriage legislation.

Despite the Government having promised to protect the rights of conscience of traditional marriage supporters, the alleged safeguards in the draft guidance fell a long way short of giving adequate reassurance – but they were at least something.

Now it has emerged that even these modest protections have come under attack from several Scottish Health Boards and the Scottish Human Rights Commission, who have written to the Government saying the guidance should be watered down even further. It’s an outrage that public bodies are using their influence to seek to deny parents and teachers their right to freedom of conscience.

The draft guidance states:

“In issuing this guidance it is the Scottish Government’s expectation that if a teacher, child or young person is asked to do something against his or her conscience, he or she should be able to raise this with the school or local authority. The Scottish Government would expect alternative arrangements to be made where possible.”

This is far from a robust opt-out, but it’s still too much for some.

Both the NHS Highland/Highland Council and the NHS Dumfries & Galloway/Dumfries & Galloway Council submissions are critical of an “opt-out” for teachers commenting that: “There would…be a range of difficulties in specific parts of Scotland where the majority of teachers in a given school may have homophobic views” – a shocking slur on Scotland’s teachers. NHS Lothian were also very critical of an “opt-out” for teachers – in effect implying that the right of conscience should be eroded even further.

In complete contrast, recent guidance issued by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the Westminster Government’s Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act makes it explicitly clear that: “No school, or individual teacher, is under a duty to support, promote or endorse marriage of same sex couples” and makes many other very positive statements about the rights of parents and teachers (the Coalition for Marriage has helpfully highlighted these statements in the document).

Based on the responses to the draft guidance, the Scottish Government is expected to re-draft the guidance. Pleasecontact First Minister Alex Salmond( today, urging him to honour the commitments he gave to uphold the freedom of conscience for people who believe in traditional marriage, and to resist pressure to further dilute the draft guidance.

If you are a parent with children in school, please say so.
Say that you should have the right to withdraw your child(ren) from lessons that are incompatible with your beliefs about marriage.
Say that it is not the role of health boards or the Scottish Human Rights Commission to undermine your parental authority.
Ask for an assurance from the First Minister that your views will be respected and that the ultimate right to have your children excused from sex education will be retained.

If you are a teacher:
Say that employment equality and human rights laws uphold freedom of belief in the workplace.
Say that you should not be forced to act against your conscience in the area of marriage.
Say that the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman has been recognised as a belief worthy of respect in a democratic society.

Contact Alex Salmond today


Thank you once again for your support,

The Scotland for Marriage team

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Stephen Sutton: dying in public

                                                        Stephen Sutton

First, and most important: my condolences to Stephen's family. May he rest in peace.

One thing that Stanley Hauerwas has been banging on about for ages is that we need to learn to die properly as an example to others. As he puts in an interview:

Death scares us. We don’t want to be around it. But one of the gifts we give to one another is to be present to one another as we die. Learning to die is like everything else: it’s learning. You need to see people do it.

There was a whole tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying. I think that we have to recover something like that. As I was saying, you have to be taught how to die. And somehow it got lost. I don’t know why. It’s always been at the heart of Christianity that we are taught to die in a way that we can be happily remembered. It’s a lovely thing to be happily remembered. I hope I’m going to die in a way that my friends can happily remember me.

Dying well doesn't have to be as public as Stephen's death. But in a society where death is invisible, where we try to erase it from our consciousness, his dramatically public dying reminds us that it is possible to die with courage and grace and even humour.

Hauerwas again:

When I lecture to lay audiences, I ask them how they want to die. For people in our society the response is fairly consistent: they want to die quickly, painlessly, in their sleep, and without being a burden. They want to die painlessly, in their sleep, and quickly because when they die they don’t want to have to know they’re dying. So now they ask physicians to keep them alive to the point that when they die they don’t have to know they’re dying – and then they blame physicians for keeping them alive to no point.


I think so-called medical ethics has put far too much emphasis upon the physician and not the patient. I think patients need to be trained to know what to ask for. And just like we need to learn how to die, we need to learn how to be sick. Currently people, I think, ask far too much out of physicians.

When we die, we narrate a story of death and life to those who watch us: how we die expresses values. As a result, our death is not just a matter for us: it part of our living and living on with other people, and the effects we produce are part of whether or not we have lived virtuously.

Stephen Sutton died well. That is a remarkable achievement for such a young man. I hope that, when I die, I may do it as well as he did. There is clearly a message here for the current debate on assisted suicide. However, I'll leave that for another time to avoid turning Stephen's death into a political stratagem.

Monday 12 May 2014

Tina Beattie, abortion and incrementalism

Professor Beattie got taken to task a little last week on her attitude to abortion as result of a blog on The Tablet site:

Few issues are as resistant to informed and reasoned debate as abortion, and any attempt to open up such a debate risks being hijacked by bitter polemicists on both sides. Yet wherever one stands on the legality and morality of abortion these are vital ethical issues. When there is such clear contradiction and denial as there is with regard to the uses and abuses of drugs like potassium chloride, it is in the public interest that such debate should be had, and that voices of reason should seek to be heard over the din of angry rhetoric. The question that will not go away is why the British public would be outraged at the use of a drug for the purposes of capital punishment, when one of our most prestigious medical organisations recommends its use for the purposes of killing a potentially viable baby.

[Mark Lambert provides a full commentary from an orthodox Catholic point of view here.]

I don't want to attack Professor Beattie here. I do think she systematically underrates the importance of Magisterial authority in the Church and, due to her perceived status as a Catholic authority, seriously misleads people on Catholic teaching. But I can think of far less engaging Catholic male theologians who don't get the same flak and, as I've said before, there is a genuine issue here about how the freedom required by academic thought remains consistent with the need for Magisterial authority.

So, putting aside her status as a Catholic thinker -and thus putting aside her use of revelation in the teaching of the Church- what do her views on abortion using natural reason without revelation show? (I was also prompted here by Caroline Farrow's post advocating the revisiting of abortion time limits as a goal for the pro-life movement with which I largely agree.)

First, I don't think -pace some commentators- that her views on abortion are either hypocritical or inconsistent. She clearly believes that personhood is the result of a 'gradual process' rather than an all or nothing event. As such, late abortions are worse than early abortions -and it is with respect to late abortions (in the blog, over 21 weeks and six days) that she is commenting.

Secondly, the precise question regarding the drug is one that is stimulating rather than conclusive: it is the sort of observation that might make someone sit up with a start and rethink their position, rather than conclusively demonstrate its wrongness. (For example, a pro-abortionist might simply acknowledge that you are using drugs to kill biologically similar things -hence the same drugs- but that one (execution) is a person and one isn't (the 'foetus').)  That's not to dismiss her point: important changes of moral position can be caused by such shocks to one's perspective. But it's certainly not a conclusive argument, indeed, it's not much of an argument at all. (But nor is it supposed to be.)

Beattie's position -that the wrongness of abortion is not absolute and that the moral value of the 'foetus' is something that develops over the period of pregnancy- is one that is held by other non-Catholic thinkers. Rosalind Hursthouse, for example, argues a similar position from the point of view of virtue ethics:

To say that the cutting-off of a human life is always a matter of some seriousness, at any stage, is not to deny the relevance of gradual foetal development. Notwithstanding the well-known point that clear  boundary lines cannot be drawn, our emotions and attitudes regarding the foetus do change as it develops, and again when it is born, and indeed further as the baby grows.

Now to note that such a position is held by thinkers who do not rely on the teaching authority of the Church is not to claim that a) their arguments even from the point of view of natural reason are correct; still less b) that the Church's view of the absolute wrongness of abortion from conception is irrational. On a), there is clearly more to say: for example, neither Hursthouse nor Beattie take much notice of the existence of a recognizable biological human individual from conception. It is entirely possible, even putting aside revelation, that their arguments could be shown to be inadequate. On b), once the authoritative declaration of the Church on the wrongness of abortion is accepted, its rationality can be defended with just as much plausibility: it can be seen to be rational, even if its initial acceptance is on faith.

So none of this should be taken as an attack on the Catholic teaching on abortion:

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

But it does suggest that, in the foreseeable future, the absolute wrongness of all abortions may not be apparent to those operating only on natural reason unaided by revelation, even if they can see its wrongness in the case of later abortions. As I have argued before, my own understanding is that incrementalism is in principle a licit approach to legislation. If that is correct, a practical consideration is that, if Catholics in the UK are going to affect abortion legislation, they will need to ensure the co-operation of those who are not guided by revealed teaching, but solely by natural reason (perhaps, in the case of Protestants, reinforced by the imperfect guidance of scripture). As the examples of Beattie and Hurtshouse suggest, to refuse to accept a (say) a reduction in the time limits of abortion as an immediate aim, may thus be to abandon any foreseeable prospect of Catholic efforts contributing to a reduction of abortions in the UK.

The absolute wrongness of abortion is a matter of natural law. But there is absolutely no guarantee that the fullness of that natural law prohibition is accessible by natural reason alone, unaided by the revelation that is present in Magisterial teaching. Indeed, both Beattie and Hursthouse's arguments suggest that it is not so accessible, or, at the least, not easily so accessible.

Friday 9 May 2014

The Scottish Secular Society and Independence

The Better Together campaign is doubtless trembling at the announcement that both members of the Scottish Secular Society have agreed to support Independence.

One of the signs of a cult is agreement on issues where normal human beings disagree. The fixed smiles and the glassy stare of the cultist are signs that normal thought processes have been abandoned in favour of adherence to a programme. If members of a Church or a university or a chess club start agreeing on everything, you know you have a problem.

As I've said before, Catholics in Scotland are split over Independence. Catholic social teaching  sets the principles, but leaves the detailed working out of those principles to the practical wisdom (prudentia) of the individual. I know convinced Nationalists and convinced Unionists in my own parish. Not even my own family can agree on the referendum. And that isn't really surprising considering the complexity of the issues involved and the unpredictability of the future being predicted...

But Secularists just know.

Rather, it is a choice between two types of state: a choice between a state that serves the common good and one that protects the vested interests of a privileged few, between irreformable oligarchy and a new constitutional democracy, between nuclear-armed military imperialism and peaceful European co-operation, between passive dependency and the invigorating responsibilities of self-government. In short, it is a choice between fear and hope.

I suspect that this decision tells us almost nothing about the Yes campaign. It will undoubtedly reinforce the view of some Christians that an independent Scotland will be an atheist state. More realistically, it does reinforce my own worries that the 'progressivists' of Scotland have captured the Nationalist project. If I were the Yes Campaign, I would treat the accession of the Scottish SS with as much enthusiasm as I would support from a chapter of  'Neo-Nazi Kitten Killers for Satan'.

But it does confirm that the Scottish Secular Society is a tiny cult of same thinkers who, despite their constant claims, really do represent a very narrow range of people with a very narrow range of ideas.

Monday 5 May 2014

Zurbaran and death: art and order

Luminous order
I was slightly irritated on Friday by the LRB review of the Zurbaran exhibition in Brussels.

Creative artists, whose calling is to negate nothing by making something, can prove strangely drawn to inexistence – their own, if not the world’s in general...

A couple of versions of the lamb by Josefa de Obidos, strongly marked by Zurbarán’s influence, have the lamb in a similar pose on a slab that bears the tag: ‘occisus ab origine mundi’. [Killed from the beginning of the world.] It’s hard not to conclude that for de Obidos as for Zurbarán, dead is best, and, as the motto suggests, that things went bad from the get-go. 

For me, Zurbaran is one of those painters who precisely gets right the intensity of life and meaning, and describing this as a hankering for death -except insofar as it is an acknowledgment that this intensity points to a supernatural end rather than simply a natural one- gets him just completely wrong. But in getting him wrong, it reminded me of why the visual arts are essential to understanding the world, including the world of morality and politics.

For us -and 'us' here means those conservatives who believe in a perennial philosophy (as Webster's puts it) which is 'the philosophical tradition of the world's great thinkers from Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas to their modern successors dealing with problems of ultimate reality', there is a fundamental order to the world. Precisely how that order is conceptualized will differ according as you are a Thomist, a Platonist, a Confucian, a Stoic etc etc. But all these schools will share a sense that the human task is to discern and imitate that order. 

Discernment of order is under the aspects of truth, goodness and beauty, and, of these, it is perhaps beauty which is, in the modern world, most neglected. Art, when done properly, makes manifest that order: the rationality of the world becomes visible (or audible) rather than merely understood or desired.

Zurbaran's manifesting of order can be seen both in the form of the individual objects and in the relationship between them: to see his paintings aright is to be sent back into the world to discern a rational order which is not yet perfectly there: an order that exists in potentia, but not in actu. Moreover, that order, the astringency the review talks of, is also an order in our psychology: to see the world aright, we too have to be cleansed.

Art is central to politics because it teaches us to see properly. When presented with 'the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate', the traditionalist (or perhaps more exactly the Daily Mail) simply sees the correct order of things and the progressive simply sees a wrong to be righted. We see -well what do we see? We see through a glass darkly, and to see clearly requires a katharsis of self as well as intensity of focus. Wrestling with art is wrestling with that order which is obscured: it is learning to discern. In Zurbaran, not only does his chiaroscuro serve to illuminate the luminous form against a dark background (the still life above) but it serves to obscure the form (below): a reminder that, on earth, order exists only as a dimly glimpsed future promise and never as a fully achieved reality.

                                                       Through a glass darkly.