Thursday, December 29, 2005

Are they old enough to vote?

I was listening to a radio interview the other day and the person being interviewed - an American - kept on saying things like “I have the right to do what I want to” and “No-one has the right to stop me.” At first I just let the words flow over me not really even noticing them but, then, I found the phrases more and more grating. They reminded me of the great number of times I’d heard those same sentiments being expressed by many other people, again Americans. By the end of the interview, I was under the distinct impression that the person interviewed was a teenager rebelling against their parents and was about to shout “Well, I don’wanna!” and go off to their room to sulk. They expressed the same feeling of being put upon by the whole world, just wanting to finally do what they wanted to and not understanding why they are not being allowed to. I wonder how they would have reacted if someone had actually said to them, “Actually, you do not have the right to do what you want to and other people do have the right to stop you, so grow up!” I fear for the furniture in the studio.

The thing that is much more troubling than the childish behaviour of one or more individuals is the reason why I had initially ignored the words. The problem is that this sentiment is not just common but is accepted by many people as their fundamental moral precept, a precept upon which they base their political views, views that play a real role in shaping some societies and states, such as the US. However, both as a political and a moral guide, the view is misleading. Though it sounds promising, it fails for the same reason as any view which tries to reduce the complexity of life to just one thing – life is just too complex for such simple, adolescent solutions.

Imagine that someone could save somebody else’s life without any effort whatsoever, yet did not do so? Would you think less of them because of this? I know I would and that’s because I think we all have a moral responsibility to each other. And becoming an adult requires that we accept our responsibilities. Of course, in real life we can not help everyone who needs assistance – we, for the most part, concentrate upon our family and friends. If we lived in a well ordered society we would be able to rest assured that society as a whole will look out for people and could be satisfied by just taking part in that society.

What if one doesn’t think that we have any moral responsibility for each other? What if one would be perfectly capable of eating a full dinner while watching another man starve? Well, first of all, to do so is to ignore the unrepayable debt one has to other human beings. Every one of us was born and grew up within a society that took some care of its members be it by providing hospitals or by keeping the streets relatively clean and safe to walk or by running an educational system or even by merely ensuring that the environment isn’t completely degraded by the decisions of a few. The myth of the self-made man is just that, a myth. And, having benefited in the past from the assistance provided by society, we are obliged to make the effort to assist in its running. Indeed, it will never be possible to stop benefiting from society’s assistance. Even on an uninhabited island our welfare will be dependent upon the UN’s efforts to stop global warming. Or, to put it another way, we humans are social beings and, as such, the ties that bind us to other people are key to our lives.

But what if a society decided to put the ultra individualist views into life? Soon after year zero in which it freed its members from all constraints, the survivors would be forced to reinvent many of the many structures that had previously existed. An armed force to protect them from threats external to that society – call it an army. An armed force to protect them from threats internal to that society – call it a police force. A set of rules to regulate the daily relations between them – call them the law. An insurance system to protect them and their descendants in case some ill befalls them – call it welfare.

Still, no society is likely to commit suicide by suddenly removing all of the structures that bind it together. Instead what is happening is that, as more and more people come to believe that they owe each other nothing, society slowly descends into the state of nature that Hobbes only imagined. But where a society built for the good of all comes apart it is not replaced by mere anarchy but petty fiefdoms run by robber barons – be they drug lords or media moguls. As such, those who would have the greatest freedom undermine the best means for achieving as much of it as it is possible.

So, should we just accept the many idiocies of modern society and be grateful our lives are not worse off. Of course not, recognising that we do not live in a perfect society we ought to try to make an effort to participate in it and to improve it as the course of our life allows us. Thus, we should “challenge authority” and “monitor the centres of power”. In particular we must be wary of corporate power which is “developing its own governing institutions”. This might mean “management of the common good in a manner that attempts to maximize the liberty of individuals and minimizes concentration of power or authority” but, in truth, the answer doesn’t have to be settled upon right now.

Politics, just like religion, is full of people who are convinced that they have a complete grasp of the Truth. Reality is much more complex. The one system that inherently recognises this fact is democracy. Within its pragmatist context it is possible for the various political views to be evaluated and tried out without the need to decide for once and for all. Democracy merely tries to find the right solution for today’s problems, whatever that solution is. Because of this, democracy is essential and ought to be protected above other considerations. Anything that undermines democracy – be it the lack of information flowing to citizens or the use of unfair voting systems or the lack of voter participation – undermines society’s ability to react flexibly to the challenges it meets.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

What if he was just a very naughty boy?

Among the presents I received this year were a couple of DVDs of Monty Python movies. One of them was Life of Brian so we watched it over at my in-laws’ house in the evening on Christmas day. It had been quite a few years since I’d seen it last so I had forgotten many of the scenes. Also, being older I was able to appreciate some of the things the Pythons did in that movie. For example, the way that the first scene (following the credits) starts with Jesus giving his sermon on the mound – focussed as it is upon doing good for one’s fellow human beings – and ends with a fist-fight among the people at the back who are frustrated at not being able to hear what Jesus is saying. I can well see why the movie was so controversial when it first came out. Having said that, I think the movie is actually quite clearly saying that Jesus was, in many ways, a great man. The problem would have been that, due to its implicit humanist view, it is saying that he was just a great man and not the Messiah. Any movie that dealt with Jesus without being fulsomely reverential would have been (indeed, would still be) highly controversial i.e. there would be plenty of extreme Christians willing to blow up a storm about it and plenty of good natured Christians willing to become quite irrational and confrontational without actually having seen the movie. Witness, for example, The Passion which again shows Jesus to be just a great man (and Peter Gabriel to be a great musician). My father-in-law at first found it difficult to know how to react to the Monty Python humour but soon warmed to it, even if he did have to just read the subtitles (how do you translate Incontinentia Buttocks?)

On Boxing Day we went to my wife’s grandparents’ house. Of course, the tyke was a hit, even if she did spend the first few hours there screaming her head off any time that her great-grandfather came into view. One of her great-grandmothers is an Episcopalian so the topic of religion naturally came to be discussed. Despite the good willed nature of the discussion, it was interesting to see how she clearly feels somewhat put upon in what is a very predominantly Catholic society. I know how she feels. In the end the overall, generally acceptable conclusion we reached was that was is important is to treat other people well. I didn’t ask the obvious question of where this leaves religion. I found it interesting however how the discussion showed once again that for most people, including many members of my (wife’s) family, religion is very precious when someone tries to take it away from them but inconsequential when one is willing to reach a compromise conclusion. I think the conclusion is very clear that it is important not to make theists feel threatened while at the same time showing them how much common ground there is between them and those who either believe in other gods or in no god at all. This is why the ecumenical movement that John Paul II was so fond of is both very important and, at the same time, very dangerous. Important for everyone and dangerous to the theists. Because of this, there is in the Catholic hierarchy a schizophrenic attitude to ecumenism – on the one hand very supportive of it while on the other wishing to sneak in the proviso that ecumenism must lead to the recognition of the (penultimate) authority of the Pope. So, as I said, I didn’t ask the obvious question – I can only hope that some of my relatives will one day ask it, themselves.

Friday, December 23, 2005

What's the reason for the season?

The United States is now in the thick of its annual tradition of hating non-Christians and anyone else who dares to wish anybody Season’s Greetings. Thankfully, on this side of the Pond we are only hearing the distant rumblings of all those Scrooges. The one good thing about it has been that it has made me about the what the actual reason for the season is. Of course, it has nothing to do with any baby Jesus, really. No more than it has to do with Santa Claus, Hanukkah candles, or any of the other things that some of us associate with this season. The thing is that the reason is the same whether you are Lutheran, Catholic, Atheist or Rastafarian. The thing is that the reason is actually what links us all together and not what divides us. So, before I sit down to Christmas dinner, I will kiss my mother, my wife, my daughter and the other members of my family and will celebrate the very same thing that all these people in the very many different places around the world will celebrate. Season’s Greetings, everyone – whatever you believe in.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Has the Grinch finally come up with a truly devious plan?

I have been reading some of the stuff coming out of the US in relation to the moral panic surrounding Christmas. I can not help but think that if Grinch had been clever he would have done exactly what some fundamentalist Christians are doing – insisting that the holiday period be made specifically Christian, with signs of pluralism to be wiped away. Of course, the call to put Jesus back in Christmas is ludicrous as the holiday had never had anything more than a forced relevance to Christ. Making the holiday an excuse for a divisive culture war, however, is just the strategy to spoil everyone’s fun. As a certain mean and hairy and smelly Grinch might say:

Hate, hate, hate. Hate, hate, hate. Double Hate. LOATHE ENTIRELY.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Waiting for the turn of the tide?

When I first met my wife, six years ago now, she was still very much a girl. She was at university, had always lived with her parents and has only a limited idea about life. She was also vibrant, cheerful and filled with curiosity about the world. In the time since then she has, of course, matured. She has become competent and confident in her job. At the same time, I take pleasure at watching how much patience and wisdom she shows in the way she treats out daughter – I can only hope that I am as good a father as she is a mother.

I think about this because I have come to the conclusion that humanity has crossed an important boundary in its history – much as my wife has (and as I am sure I have though it is not so obvious for me). Throughout human history the dangers that it faced were external – it had always been the darkness of the night outside the camp-light that hid the things that threatened us. However, we have conquered the night. Of course, we may still be killed by natural disasters but this is not the main threat that now faces us, this is not the threat against which we feel powerless. No – as Conrad showed so well – the danger lies now in our own heart of darkness.

While we had to fear what lay outside, religion helped us. It gave us succour and filled the cold and empty world with meaning, making it more human. It gave us the tenacity to fight on. What had been a boon once is now a threat, however. When the dangers we face are human we must learn to face them as they are. Fighting as we are against our-very-selves means that every victory is a defeat. Take the current conflict that the extremists are trying to drag the whole Western and Muslim worlds into. It ought to be plain by now that in this conflict even the victors, whoever they will be, will end up the worse off. With every one of its victories America is diminished.

We must now see that the human scale has become ultimate. Recourse to higher authority than that of the will and needs of our fellow human beings can only make compromise impossible – such compromise being the only way not to lose the struggles we now face. This means that, if we are to go on, humanity must put away the childish things and let go of religion.

What's a year?

I started writing this blog exactly one year ago. One year ago my daughter was just about two months old and spent most of her time staring at the ceiling. I still remember her eyes when I first saw her – expressionless and sucking the whole world into their dark orbs – a little alien that had landed among us and was gathering information about her new surroundings. Today she is running around, understands most of what we say to her and likes to run up and wrap her arms around my legs as I prepare dinner. Her favourite things in the world are books and her recent favourite activity is climbing up on things and standing on top of them so as to be taller - just today she was tickled pink to touch the ceiling when I let her stand on my shoulders.

At the same time I have grown more and more terrified of the world she will be growing up in. With the whole world stuck between two camps of religious fanatics things are rapidly going downhill as we focus upon inconsequentialities and fail to deal with the effects of our own greed and wilful ignorance. All this reminds me of a poem by Constantine Cavafy:

Engulfed by fear and suspicion,
mind agitated, eyes alarmed,
we try desperately to invent ways out,
plan how to avoid
the obvious danger that threatens us so terribly.
Yet we’re mistaken, that’s not the danger ahead:
the news was wrong
(or we didn’t hear it, or didn’t get it right).
Another disaster, one we never imagined,
suddenly, violently, descends upon us,
and finding us unprepared – there’s no time now –
sweeps us away.

I hope to teach my daughter many things. To show her how poetry can provide us with that place around which the whole world might be turning. To give her reasons and the strength to live well in this frightening world of ours. To make sure she knows that she has the right to try to become whatever she wants to be.

I’ve loved her since the moment I heard her first cry – a mass of endorphins washing over me as I listened in to her cry over the phone. However, I find that as she gets older and becomes a human being I no longer just love her: I am also coming to like her – a feeling that is somehow less raw and therefore more individual, more personal than the love I feel for her.

Monday, December 05, 2005

No mo?

More brilliance from my daughter. She’s fourteen months old and she has learned how to recognise shapes so as to match holes with blocks. Still has a problem turning the blocks the right way though she’s realised she can get a long way by just slowly turning them and jiggling until they fit. For a long time now she’s known a phrase “No mo” i.e. “No more” which she uses when something is missing, such as when you ask her where is her grandpa when he isn’t around. Just this morning she took her dummy, lifted up the padding on the high chair, slid the dummy under it and then pressed the padding down. With a scream of delight she said, “No mo!” Great, now we’ll know what’s going on when things start disappearing around the house. Finally, she’s taken to posing in front of the mirror, grabbing things like her mum’s necklaces and taking up all sorts of silly poses while grinning cheekily. I wasn’t sure if she was just coping someone or if she was looking at herself in the mirror. I had heard about an experiment where someone put paint on a chimpanzee’s face to see if it would recognise itself in the mirror so I went and got some jam and put a dab of that on my girl’s cheek but she didn’t react when she saw herself in the mirror. I don’t know why. I’ll have to try it again, maybe with a bright yellow piece of tissue or something.

Don Rice?

Imagine the scene, if you will. A couple of guys made a deal with a mafia boss and they’re a bit worried if he’s going to come through so they have been asking the Don’s wise guys if everything is O.K. One day his limo rolls up to their place, the Don steps out and walks on into their house, “I heyd yas bin trabbled. Yas bin sayn yas not so sure da Don’s gonna come throo fer ya? Wassamater? We’s frends ain’t we? And yas trust ya frends, don’t ya?” the Don says and gives the two guys the steely eye. What can they say? If they say they don’t trust the Don, they’re done for. If they don’t say anything they might as well forget about whatever the Don had promised them. Either way, they’re stuffed – should have never made a deal with the mafia, they think to themselves.

Now, I don’t know why but for some reason I thought of this scene when I read the following on BBC News:

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to go on the offensive over EU concerns that the US has operated secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe.

According to media reports in both the US and UK, Ms Rice will tell European allies to "back off" over the issue.

After all, we’re all friends, right?