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Yearly Archives: 2010
‘What is truth?’ asked Pilate, before sacrificing Him as a King, complete with crown of thorns, under the words ‘Jesus, King of the Jews’. Pilate questioned Truth, and without waiting for an answer positioned himself above it, the Roman governor with the temporal power to crucify an innocent man for the sake of a baying crowd of perjurers. Christ, crucified as King, because earthly power chose to believe in the absoluteness of only itself.
Something of a theological beginning, and for such anti-social manoeuvres I hereby apologise most wholeheartedly. Now, before I go on, I ought to say that I am absolutely not arguing that the Bible suggests one particular form of government or social ordering is any better than any other. I’m not saying it doesn’t, either; more that I’m nowhere near knowledgeable enough to pronounce one way or the other. Rather, I think that passage in the Bible speaks about power in a way that still resonates today, that in a society reconciled with relativisms the only response to the question ‘What is truth?’, will be one similar to Pilate’s; ‘whatever the powerful decide it to be.’
And now, to jump off at a tangent, the relevance of which will (I hope) become clear, I’ve been thinking more and more just recently about monarchy, and lefties, and whether the two can peacefully co-exist. And in truth, I’ve still not decided on an answer, primarily because I can’t quite decide on what might be understood by the term ‘leftie’, even if I have a small idea what I might mean when I say ‘monarchy’. I suppose the question then becomes, ‘is there any argument that can be made, from within the broad context of a leftist account of the social sphere, that might be comfortable with the idea of monarchy?’ And I think there is – which the following disjointed mumblings will hopefully begin to show.
The reason I ask the question at all is because Labour, now in the absurd position of having to ask itself what it means by terms such as ‘national identity’ and ‘Englishness’ (largely because it is widely perceived as being constitutionally opposed to both), is churning through the standard student-radicalisms which, nearly always, end in unthinking appeals for republicanism as if it is self-evidently a required tenet of any authentically left-wing thought. I’m not quite sure why left-wing thought ought to be any more fertile ground for republican sentiments than right-wing thought, and I suspect that the answer has more to do with our unique social history than anything else, but it nonetheless seems to be – and I don’t think it need be.
Having said that, the cause célèbre on all sides of the increasingly whiggish House seems to be constitutional vandalism for the sake of… well, constitutional vandalism. A crooked Commons increasingly urges ‘reform’ of a rather less crooked House of Lords, and an even less crooked Monarchy, for the sake of making the system less crooked. Thus will the ideologues strain at gnats whilst swallowing camels; and all in the name of making the gnats look more like camels.
Yet, there are a variety of reasons why this is problematic, and the most potent of them in modern society is to do with power, the possession of it and, much more importantly, the limitation of it. This is only one side of the argument that can be made, another being that old chestnut ‘virtue’ (and ‘truth’), and yet another being plurality as expressed through inter-linking hierarchies. And, though to some extent all inter-connect with one another, it is only the ‘power’ element that I will talk about here (I have written elsewhere how social liberalism has been embraced because it re-enforces the status-quo, founded upon a relativism that it is to the benefit of the already powerful).
And it is that ‘limitation of power’ bit that is increasingly important. On the most basic level, I think this is why working-class communities tend, generally speaking, to have great sympathy for the monarchy, and the Queen in particular. To many, the Queen is somehow above the Machiavellian machinations of the power-hungry political classes, representative of something greater than the crudeness of the Commons, a (sometimes failing) paragon of virtue that represents to the world all that we hope is best about ourselves. The Queen, unlike those who nominally serve her, is never deemed to be ‘in it for herself’, and her reign is characterised as dutiful more than megalomaniacal. Thus do her subjects line the avenues on the great occasions, wave their flags and sing their anthems, all to the vociferous irritation of the displaced Guardianistas, who rather conceitedly think that meritocratic society ought rightfully to be honouring them instead.
As such Labour, when it proposes republicanism as the antidote to institutional inequality is primarily giving voice to a largely middle-class chippiness, resentful of the fact that there could be an institutional and ideological barrier to its own (imagined) upward mobility. It doesn’t like the idea that, in a society largely tilted toward its own interests, there yet exists a level to which it cannot ultimately ascend. Bourgeois sensibilities bristle at the thought, and so under such comically misused terms as ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ they continue to vandalise those very structures that level the playing field and act as a constraint on the accumulation of power by an otherwise all-consuming oligarchy.
I think republican thinking is as much a sign of the gentrification of left-wing thought as anything else. Accordingly, the left that in the name of ‘freedom’ once rallied against the capitalist system, now seeks merely to lessen the effects of that system upon its victims, and construes ‘equality’ instead along lines that best reflect its own priorities and prejudices. The ordinary worker has been cast aside, bribed to keep his counsel, whilst the chippy bourgeoisie sharpen their knives in search of that much less insidious enemy to ‘equality’ (and indeed potential ally of the commoner), that being the monarch.
And that’s just the point. The monarch can legitimately be seen as the last line of defence against an all-out victory of the plutocracy, one of the few possessions of the people that the rich man cannot buy precisely because the position is forever beyond his private ownership (unless it is stolen in the interests of the oligarchical elite as in 1688 – from whence some would situate the now dying battle against capitalistic ideology). In that sense, the monarch is an embodiment of the commonality that the left should comfortably embrace – she both belongs exclusively to, and thereby attracts the loyalty of, her people. In a world in which the rich are the powerful and can possess all they desire, the position of monarch they do not and cannot: it would be a cowardly act of surrender to offer up to the plutocracy the very thing they cannot possess, for no other reason than we no longer see any need to uphold the existence of things they cannot possess.
Now of course, the new metropolitan left, the ‘liberal-left’ won’t see things in these terms, having become drunk on a doctrine that exists primarily to dismantle all opposition to their own advancement. But those at the bottom needn’t confuse friend with foe just because their uppity ‘comrades’ tell them to. The reality is that the common man does still need to react against unwarranted and unwarrantable power interests; but those interests do not reside in the position of the monarch. The tables that have been tilted have certainly not been tilted by the monarch, they have not been designed and constructed from within the debating chambers of Buckingham Palace. Rather they increasingly reside and emanate from within precisely that circle that shouts so vociferously for, amongst various other self-interested things, the disestablishment of monarchy. And it is the restraint of these that should concentrate the mind.
In that sense, the monarch can be viewed a genuine friend and ally, an albeit increasingly anachronistic stick in the mud that nonetheless cannot succumb to the will and whims of a rapacious petit-bourgeoisie. And a monarch who realises this central ethic of service, who knows his or her role in defending the people from those that would seek ultimate control, whose very power consists in the limitation of power – it is this vision of monarchy that lefties can surely share common ground with (on that score, the post-Hanoverian preference for dispensing monies on Maundy is a less authentic reflection of the call to service that was demonstrated in the pre-Hanoverian tradition of the washing of feet on Maundy).
In short it comes down to this; if left-wing thinking at its most basic level includes the defence of the vulnerable against the powerful, then the focus of ire certainly should not be the monarch, who at any rate could without much difficulty be understood as a defence against precisely this domination. Because in truth, it is not the Queen that dispossess and dispossessed, but her tribunes.
As such, it is a strange leftie that has given up the fight against capitalism but has taken up arms against the monarch; it seems to me that either their sense is deficient or else their sight. Whichever one it is, it certainly wouldn’t be wise to follow them; one might end up walking off a cliff.
I’m going to be away for the next week or so, part work experience and part holiday, and so I thought I’d have a think-aloud post before I go. It won’t be incredibly sophisticated, and will be full to the brim of deficiencies, so if you manage to bear with me then do please be a little charitable. It will also be intentionally mischievous in places – mostly in order to try and provoke some responses in order to help me think things through.
Anyway, on to the post, I’ve been thinking about hierarchies, and about equality, and whether the two are necessarily contradictory. Or, to put that in slightly different terms, must being equal mean being the same, such that a person committed to equality cannot also accept hierarchical structures? Or, put differently still, can a lefty accept an hierarchical society?
Now a very brief word must be written about what is meant by equality here – there is, roughly speaking, equality of outcome, and equality of opportunity (the favourite of contemporary political classes), and equality of ‘status’. It is primarily the latter that I am thinking of, clumsy word as it is, though most people today construct equality almost wholly around the first two, and so reject the latter simply by default. This is because hierarchies of status have historically been entwined with both equality of outcome and equality of opportunity – those at the top of the social hierarchies, conventional wisdom runs, automatically receive the best of outcomes and prospects.
Now, I tend to think that equality and social hierarchies are not at all opposed, that they are even natural bedfellows, and that the question of equality of outcome is misplaced and the question of equality of opportunity is misconceived. Why? Simply because the former understands equality solely through materialist eyes, the latter marries it to a very particular and usually middle-class account of social mobility, and both misdiagnose inequality as the result of social difference, rather than the consequence of social indifference.
Thus, if contemporary left-wing thought is guilty of anything in this regard, it is conflating equality with homogeneity, and thinking it can make everything equal by making everything the same. This whiffs a little of Jacobinism, and it is no accident that the contemporary left like nothing more than to crusade against history and tradition – even when that crusading does more harm to society than do the traditions that are the focus of such ire. Sometimes, of course, the activism is wholly justified, to correct a previous wrong. Sometimes it is political fetishism, crusading for the sake of something to crusade about.
But this tendency toward homogeneity is self-destructive, not to say a little hypocritical – it is no surprise that to flesh out their accounts of equality, they end up creating a standard that more often than not merely reaffirms their own presumptions and prejudices, thus indirectly lessening the value and worth of alternative accounts of the good. As such, for the contemporary left the banker has long been valued more than the baker, mostly because bankers make money whilst bakers only make bread – and they would have us believe that it is more dignified to have the money to buy the bread than it is to be able to make it in the first place. No shock, then, that the Oxbridge brigade at the top of the Labour Party have spent far more time fretting over how to get more women into Boardrooms and more children into Universities, than they have of how to enable more women to stay at home with their children if they wish to, or how to provide the career paths and entry points into the (whisper it) manual trades for their children.
There is a slow movement against this, under the guise of ‘pluralism’, and Rosemary Bechler has recently written an interesting piece on ‘making pluralism mainstream’. The piece, and her comments below it (now removed, for some reason), maintain that feminism had for too long merely replicated masculinity in its account of equality – that is, to be equal with men feminism had tried to be more like men, rather than insist upon the dignity and worth of being women. This means that, for Bechler, feminism must defend domesticity as a legitimate and empowering choice for women too. Which for many not sharing the middle-class view of what ‘achievement’ and ‘power’ must, without any possible deviation, look like, is also a statement of the obvious.
However, whilst important, that pluralistic impulse is not something contemporary liberalism will be naturally comfortable with, largely because it has already banished difference from its accounts of equality. This is not to say that everyone has become the same (though they increasingly have) – more that liberals have constructed their accounts of equality on the basis of sameness, as a natural consequence of the fact that they only ever understand the term through the lens of one isolated atom in natural competition with another. But ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ thus conceived will only ever concentrate power, not disperse it, because it is already premised upon freeing man from anything with power enough to bind him. Thus it is, as I have argued elsewhere, that contemporary liberalism is solely about power, and the best way for the already powerful to accumulate more of it.
As a side note, I suppose it is partly for this reason that I am sympathetic with the idea of monarchy; put simply, the King or Queen has historically provided that ceiling through which the rich and powerful, with one or two (long remembered) aberrations, simply cannot ascend. To be a subject is to be subservient, which of course offends the very soul of contemporary plutocratic societies, in the habit as they are of thinking that social position is equivalent only to wealth and power (unless the rich and the powerful steal the crown of course – see the ‘Glorious’ Revolution). In this sense, republicans speak piously of equality and empowerment whilst quietly desiring the demolition of precisely that institution that ultimately constrained and contained the accumulation, and the use, of power.
Yet there is also something theological on the issue of plurality and diversity more generally, and I am reminded of St. Thomas, and his words
For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever.
Of course, Aquinas being Aquinas, he does go into a little more depth than that, but the central insight is, I think, entirely sound. And it also one replicated by Chesterton, whose distributism was as much a reaction against monopolies, of all sorts, as it was a romantic vision of the hotch-potch ideal and a preference for a ‘balance of different things’ (St.Thomas More’s Utopia articulates something similar, if a little more rigid).
In seeking to articulate this vision of the differentiated society, one might also appeal to literature – with Tolkien, for example, equality came with difference, not in spite of it, and it was the diversity of the group considered as a whole, each according to his or her particular talents and the harmonious use of them, that conquered evil. Frodo was no less the hero for bending his knee before Aragorn; though in the end it was Aragorn that was indebted to Frodo. For some similar examples, see John Buchan’s Huntingtower, or more light-heartedly George MacDonald’s wonderful The Princess and the Goblin.
For that reason, I’m not sure that lefties can contest hierarchies simply for being hierarchies (I maintain that these are perfectly natural and indeed necessary in society); rather, it seems more likely that objections are centred around the manner in which those hierarchies are constructed, and also how the web of relationships therein are understood. The first objection is certainly a difficult one – inherited hierarchies of privilege, those bequeathed by the organic processes of history, fill lefties with (sometimes understandable) dread, as arbitrary and thus unjustified. Partly this might be put down to the general loss of notions of providence, but also to the very real danger that such hierarchies might well be self-perpetuating, even when they are manifestly unhealthy and/or unjust. Perhaps it was as a partial response to this that the contemporary left created an alternative hierarchy based on ‘meritocracy’ instead; but being solely a material project, this has succeeded only in undermining all those life paths that do not coalesce with the elite’s view of what ‘merit’ looks like – thus producing far more pernicious hierarchies, much more hostile to those at the bottom than they might otherwise have been. Or, as I have written before,
Since meritocracy has become the creed of our times, the system has invariably tilted toward those possessed of most ‘merit’ – according solely to the standards set by those who define the system. This entrenches privilege, because ‘merit’ largely becomes a reflection of the things valued by those already at the top, a self-affirming social ladder that merely endorses the priorities of the already empowered. These are the environmental factors Stuart White discusses in the blog post, but the pertinent point is not that meritocracy fails because of a pre-existing lack of ‘equality’, but because it also actively fuels further injustice: those at the top have sufficient power and privilege to tilt the system in their own favour, and hoard opportunities accordingly. The slow death of social mobility in this country is instructive here – meritocracy has become the new, and far more rigorous, nepotism.
And this is where that priest’s comment comes in – because a self-affirming social structure allows those at the top to write off those at the bottom, a kind of Nietzschean complex whereby those who lose have deserved to lose, and those who win have deserved to win.
Lastly, the issue of hierarchies constructed round ‘virtue’ has arisen – though, as Sunder Katwala asks, who decides on virtue? Especially, I would add, when contemporary society has pretty much rejected the possibility of objective accounts of the good in preference for subjective accounts of desire. We could say, to paraphrase Socrates, that it is to be constructed around the art of living well, but when people reject all art as inferior to an endless and narcissistic gaze in the mirror, then we hit a brick wall.
As for the objection based upon how relationships within hierarchies are understood, I find this much less convincing, for it rejects hierarchies on the basis of one’s own misconceived hierarchies, and not on account of what they are, which is largely natural, and spontaneously occurring, common acknowledgment of capacity and authority. For example, nobody could argue that the hardy Private is any less important for the winning of a war than the cunning General; but one wouldn’t on the basis of just that maintain that the Private must also be the General. Or to put it in religious terms, we all stand equal before God at the final judgement, Kings, Priests, Politicians and Judges – but this need not mean that the King must also be the Priest, and the Politician must also be the Judge.
What I am saying, I suppose, is that perhaps the left need not dismiss equality as incompatible with hierarchy; perhaps it just needs to deconstruct its own hierarchies and re-assess the value of those it has heretofore considered unequal. In so doing, it might once again value those which it has largely abandoned. And in so doing it would reclaim an organic and differentiated account of society, one that valued all the talents, and sought to develop them accordingly.
As of this September I shall be training to become an RE teacher at a Catholic school in Cumbria. This has lead, as one would expect, to a heightened interest in all things RE, but more particularly an interest in the way in which it is perceived more widely through contemporary society. I don’t mean so much its standing amongst those children who have to study it – I’m well aware that RE can be remarkably unpopular (it was for me!), especially to young adolescents feeling their logical certainties assaulted by the mysteries and paradoxes of faith. Rather, I’m more interested in how the subject is regarded within the education sector as a whole, and amongst our cultural and political elites in particular.
And the impression one comes across time after time, in document after document, proposal after proposal, research study after research study, is a fundamental lack of certainty about what Religious Education is actually for, and what it should look like.
At one end, of course, there are those who maintain all religious education should have no place in state schools, as if denying children such knowledge is somehow better for their education and development. At the other end, one still very occasionally comes across those who believe Religious Education should largely be a matter of catechetical instruction, as defined by the denomination or tradition in which that particular schools rests, with only the odd foray into contrasting religions and beliefs. And somewhere in between, though much closer to the former than the latter, there are those who maintain that RE is an important part of a decent education, but that it should be strictly confined to disinterested academic pursuit, the teaching of sociological features, historical fact and cultural quirk.
And it is this latter view that seems to have been raised into unthinking orthodoxy, certainly amongst those (usually academics and educational advisers) whose job it is to construct a consensus upon what role RE should play in the life of a school and how it should be taught within the curriculum (although it does remain non-statutory – which, theoretically at least, allows a certain flexibility).
Before he retired, the Bishop of Lancaster (now Bishop Emeritus) issued a report entitled Fit for Mission?, part of which concentrated specifically on schools. The document is bold and important, and was well received by many within the Church – which means, almost inevitably, that it was poorly received by many outwith the Church (more, the Bishop was pretty shoddily attacked at a parliamentary committee by a variety of mediocrities who appeared little more than thirsty for religious, or more particularly Catholic, blood – the video appears to be unavailable, but Douglas Carswell indirectly rebuked his colleagues by asking the Bishop if he thought he would have been treated with such hostility had he been a Muslim cleric – read a report here).
Anyway, one part of the document that struck me, particularly in light of recent events, was the passage,
‘Our Catholic schools and colleges must become powerhouses of evangelisation and catechesis. Again, I must stress that evangelisation is not proselytism, which is a coercive pressure to go against one’s conscientious beliefs. Evangelisation is an invitation to freely consider and experience the truth of the Catholic faith.
I am concerned that a failure to appreciate this clear distinction between proselytism and evangelisation has led some schools and colleges to be inhibited about proclaiming the full truth of the Catholic faith, due to the presence of non-Catholic pupils.’
Whilst the very first sentence of that passage will no doubt horrify some, nonetheless the Bishop is right to draw out the distinction between evangelisation and proselytism, one that must be upheld lest religious schools merely capitulate in the face of secularising forces that wish to erode the religious character of schools on the basis of an unthinking muddle of these two very different things. As such, there is a perfectly rational and robust defence to be made here – a Catholic school should be at liberty to be, well, Catholic, and if parents freely choose to send their children to a particular school because it is Catholic, or knowing that it is Catholic, then there is no reason for that school to cease to be Catholic, nor to cease inviting its students to share in that community of faith.
Perhaps this is partly the old English habit of striving to avoid giving offence when, in fact, no offence was ever likely to be taken. What seems to be the greater factor, however, is the apparent triumph amongst many of our educational elites of the view that only objective neutrality can guarantee profitable discourse and learning (which is nonsense) and that only secularism is both objective and neutral (which is nonsense). And so it is that ‘secularism’ has become the banner under which a motley collection of ‘anti-religionists’ increasingly march, the intellectual illusion through which religious education is constantly assaulted by precisely those relativisms and nihilisms that it should, more properly, seek to counter.
Accordingly, there was little surprise when news arose recently of an Ofsted report that claimed the teaching of Christianity in our schools is of a worryingly poor standard, and increasingly transgresses even the law of the land as to the minimum legal requirement demanded of all schools in the state sector (a report that, remarkably, never featured in the pages of the Guardian – proving the paper is less about delivering news and more about peddling ideological idiocies). Christianity, it is becoming clear, is not only regarded as just one eccentricity amongst others, but is even underplayed and under-taught in relation to various other religions. This is consistent with the prejudices of a wider cultural assault committed primarily by the liberal-left – an unflinching and destructive commitment to relativism more generally, and multi-culturalism more specifically.
Or, in the words of Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, ”What is happening in schools perhaps reflects what has happened in society generally regarding the importance and practice of Christianity… I think certainly in the last decade inspectors have wanted to see examples of multiculturalism, diversity and the promotion of community cohesion in RE, so that is what schools have shown them’
Which leaves us in a pickle, and gives prospective RE teachers something of a minefield to navigate. And it might not be as easy as just keeping in mind the essential difference between evangelisation and proselytism, and sticking rigorously to the former – because it seems that something much more fundamental is at stake; the right to evangelise at all, or at least to evangelise the Christian faith, be it a religious school or not.
I was reading this rather snazzy looking document entitled Labour’s Legacy over on the Conservative website. It concerns itself entirely with the state of the economy, and lists a few of the things Conservatives clearly feel are important enough for them to reiterate whenever the opportunity presents itself. Which is fair enough. After all, if the Tories are to push through their plans to pay down the deficit, possibly damaging their (somewhat limited) popularity in the process, then the best way of providing the necessary covering fire for doing so is by highlighting just how dire the finances allegedly are, and how irresponsible Labour were for having let things get so bad in the first place.
But the document is far more interesting for what it doesn’t say, than what it does.
When the Tories were flying high in the opinion polls, they had a popular and coherent narrative about a Broken Society. They hadn’t, at that particular time, settled on any kind of cure, but their diagnosis, however much some thought it unfair or inaccurate, nonetheless resonated with a large chunk of the electorate who waited eagerly to hear what solutions the Tories proposed. The recession changed all that, and blew the Tories away from their Broken Society narrative and into the realm of budgetary cuts and the (still raw) memories of the Thatcher years. The polls narrowed and the Tories lost the unlosable election – though the reason for that loss is something that will keep political obsessives debating for years to come. And now, as with this document, one barely hears the phrase at all. All political talk is about reducing the deficit, generating growth, paying off debt, and avoiding falling into the same trap again in the future.
Which is wholly understandable, but not wholly necessary. Put simply, the economic agenda needn’t be cut from the social vision that once distinguished the Tories from their political opponents, not least because it is patently obvious that the two things are very much two sides of the same coin. The broken ideology that has guided our approach to the markets is much the same as the broken ideology that has guided our approach to the state, and both of them are the broken ideologies that have guided our approach to society. Debt, state power, tax, the markets, growth – all of these things form a small part of that scattered jigsaw puzzle that the Tories were once bold enough to address.
So why the apparent abandonment of the project? Why limit the scope merely to our economic poverty, and not our increasing social poverty?
Well, I think it’s three things. Firstly, David Cameron is and always has been a committed social liberal, instinctively opposed to socially conservative policies (as his wobble on marriage tax support initially illustrated, and his eagerness to ditch it post-election merely confirmed). In fact, he openly derides social conservatism. This meant that his talk of the Broken Society always seemed to come with a caveat, a clarification, or an escape clause, and this cost him in the credibility stakes.
Secondly, the coalition has meant that the LibDems, who are essentially socially liberal but split between fiscal conservatives and fiscal lefties, have been able to neuter the social conservatism that underpinned much of the Broken Society narrative.
And thirdly, many Conservatives are modern day disciples of Thatcher, meaning they care much more about the fiscal wealth than they do about ‘social wealth’ – indeed, some even think that the former is the prime generator of the latter. Additionally, even when evidence is produced to underscore the economic benefits of promoting certain socially conservative policies, their commitment to an emaciated account of ‘freedom’ precludes them from supporting such moves. In short, they conflate their conservatism with libertarianism, and in doing find social liberals to be affable bedfellows.
Which means that the Conservatives run the very real risk of confining their vision to the economic and in so doing simply resurrecting all those caricatures that they have tried so hard to shed. Worse, there is every danger that such a narrow approach may well exacerbate that very social breakdown that they have previously claimed to be so pernicious, a consequence that remains the prime accusation levelled against Thatcher – if this happens, after such forthright talk of the Broken Society and, latterly, the Big Society, then the Conservatives will come, in a very short space of time, to be every bit as despised as Labour were towards the end of their own, in the end inglorious reign.
I remember a while back I attended a lecture by Terry Eagleton, a rather dull sermon on… well goodness knows, some pseudo-Marxist bluster no doubt. Even so, despite the overwhelming boredom that is my principal memory of the event, one thing Eagleton mentioned did in fact stick with me, and it was when he started talking about the morality of grammar, before bringing forth some examples of medieval dissertations, with one of them entitled something along the lines of ‘the morality of the semi-colon in [poem/thesis/argument]’.
Now of course, in itself this is wholly unremarkable – grammatology and sociolinguistics have long been the fetish of the loony-left, that bourgeois clique of daintily middle-class Marxists fighting culture wars from their dreamy humanities-habitats in universities up and down the land. Either way, the comment stuck with me, not because of any great insight it offered into the reality of things, nor because it whet my nostalgist appetites with its reference to medieval manuscripts, but simply because it offered an alternative perspective into something else that had increasingly come to my attention at that point in time.
For you see, there was a particular lefty lecturer at this university who, when sending e-mails, would never use any capital letters nor use any formal mode of address when writing. He would just launch into what he wanted to talk about, devoid of all but the most necessary grammatical restraints (usually the full-stop, which in a punctuation desert suddenly becomes really quite brutal), and leave it there, occasionally with an odd attempt to sign the message off in some sort of formal fashion. In so doing this lecturer was clearly trying to make some kind of passive-aggressive statement – or, if my presumption of extreme revolutionary fervour is unjustified, then he was certainly trying, by consciously contravening established norms, to make some kind of statement, whatever it might actually be.
I was thinking about that episode again today when I read this blog by Toque, which reproduces a response from Ed Balls to a question regarding the public funding of St George’s Day celebrations. The letter was courteous, and engaged with the topic thoughtfully, but it contained the following passage;
Thank you for your recent email asking for my views on St. Georges Day, and for your kind words of support. I apologise for the short delay in responding. You ask if I am in favour of state funding for an official St. Georges Day celebration and making St. Georges Day a public holiday in England.
I think it is right to recognise the importance of St. Georges Day, what it means to the history of England, and for the values that England represents [etc.]
Now it is of course entirely possible, and even probable, that the expensively educated Edward Michael Balls, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, simply does not know how to use an apostrophe. And it could be theoretically possible, although this might be pushing it a little far, that Ed Balls is wholly ignorant of the St. George story and therefore thinks that April 23rd is dedicated to a whole collection of people, all called St. George, though it is not their possession, thereby rendering the apostrophe redundant.
Either way, it seems unlikely that Ed Balls is being linguistically seditious, at least not in the same way that that university lecturer was trying to be. Even so, by omitting the apostrophe one subliminally denies the connection between that particular day and that particular saint, the singular St. George, patron saint of our nation and dragon-slayer extraordinaire. The association is sundered, rendered generic and meaningless, stripped of the history, tradition and legend that gives the dedication (and our adoption of St. George as patron saint) any meaning whatsoever.
And who can really deny that our sense of national identity suffers from precisely this sort of sterilisation of our historical and cultural consciousness, of our ‘island story’. In the inevitable vacuum we keep creating for ourselves, it is those who prefer to destroy than to build up that increasingly emerge triumphant; those who boldly denounce having any patron saint as simply pointless, an irrelevant anachronism, a silly tradition from our less civilised past that no longer merits inclusion in our enlightened present.
The tragedy is that, increasingly, they may well be right. If people hold on to customs and practices whilst simultaneously stripping away the very social, cultural, historical and, dare one say it, religious language (and grammar) within which they have meaning, then one is merely dressing up a mummy in modern clothes and make-up the better to pretend that it is still alive. As soon as someone points out that, all things considered, the mummy seems to be dead, then the illusion is finished – and so is the mummy.
Am I taking this grammatical slip too seriously? Undoubtedly I am. But I don’t apologise for it. Because it is a small sign of a greater cultural sterility that has stripped society of those foundational pillars that once fashioned some sort of shared identity. In essence, it is this – our society has lost a shared sense of sacramentality; with regards to national identity, this ranges from the gradual erosion of our Christian heritage, to the mock and derision of our public institutions, to the haughty disdain of our historical establishments, to the general distaste for the once honoured place of tradition and custom, to sheer indifference to all of the above. But without that shared sacramentality, that transcending cultural apparatus, society will fragment. Because if a society casts off all sacramentality, then nothing is sacred. And when nothing is sacred, everything can be destroyed.
Grammar is important. And April 23rd is St. George’s Day.
Sometimes one comes across an article so irredeemably pompous, so insufferably smug, so awkwardly faux-defiant that merely reading through to the end of the thing can be regarded an achievement worthy of official recognition.
Funnily enough, and quite by coincidence, I came across just such an article today. Needless to say it is in the Guardian, as these things usually are, and it warrants attention as a wonderful example of how someone with a pre-determined agenda can weave through a narrative of such startling contradiction that it makes one wonder if the modern world hasn’t found the wisdom of the fool all too much effort and chosen instead to simply elevate the foolish.
The article comes from Kanishk Tharoor, is entitled ‘Umbro’s stirring anthem for a multicultural England,’ and if one was to give a one line synopsis it would be simply this – all you patriotic people are basically racist, especially you poorer white ones, but getting non-white people to sing the national anthem is a triumph of multiculturalism.
I told you it was silly.
Anyway, to get to the meat of thing, Tharoor devotes his first two paragraphs to deriding the national anthem, having, as Guardianistas are wont to do, a haughty little potshot at the monarchy in the process. He follows this up by stating that, quite to his own surprise, he nonetheless found himself liking a rendition of the anthem he had seen in a recent advert by Umbro. Why the change of heart, I hear you cry? Well, basically this – it had half of its cast chosen from ‘non-white minority groups’.
Now before going any further, it’s probably worth reminding ourselves that when the modern liberati are challenged about the divisiveness of their doctrines, they usually turn the argument round on their opponents by charging them to be guilty of the very thing for which they, the liberati, are culpable. So for example, if one questions why Harriet Harman thinks it should be acceptable to rule out men for a job simply because they are men, then in reply one is labelled as a chauvinist who wants to discriminate against women simply because they are women.
Tharoor utilises precisely this tactic. After frankly admitting that his like of the commercial is based primarily on the colour of the skin of those who were in it, he then spends most of the rest of the article attacking traditional patriotic expression on the grounds of its unhealthy historical obsession with skin colour. Or to express that the other way round, the chap who spends nearly an entire article implying white patriotic Englishmen are essentially racist, decides he likes this particular rendition of the national anthem simply because there are lots of non-whites in it.
Of course, an article in the Guardian about the racist white English wouldn’t be complete without a deft working through of some sort of colonial narrative, and so it is that we read that ‘support for the England football team remains strikingly monochrome and prone to the uglier, irredentist passions of the land.’ And, as is orthodoxy amongst the left-liberal intelligentsia, it is the patriotic poor upon whom most aspersions are cast (they’re just not like us, you see). Accordingly, we are told that ‘Other trappings of Englishness like the cross of St George are increasingly seen as the preserve of the “white working class,” and, more worryingly, as the symbol of far-right groups like the EDL.’ One can almost sense the pride swelling in the breasts of the bien-pensants with this particular number, and its intricate weaving together, in one masterfully seamless sentence, the evils of racism and the realities of Englishness, the cross of St. George and the ‘white working-classes’.
Only, the very banality of that assertion contradicts what it seeks to suggest. For the truth is that Englishness and the cross of St. George are not at all ‘increasingly seen’ as essentially racist expressions of those ghastly poor white people, but have actually been sneered at for a generation and more precisely because they have been declared the vulgar habits of the great unwashed. The statement is trite, not prophetic – Tharoor is merely re-packaging as if it were a uniquely modern phenomenon that which has been attracting the acidic attention of the conceited liberal establishment for literally decades.
Of course, insisting that racist patriotism is a uniquely modern threat is a useful cover for blaming the victims of idiotic ‘progressive’ ideologies for the consequences of idiotic ‘progressive’ ideologies. As such, when Tharoor writes that ‘many non-white Britons living in England refuse to call themselves “English”, retaining instead the increasingly anachronistic term “British”, which to them seems like a cosier, all-encompassing refuge from the buffeting’, he is probably speaking a truth. Yet speaking a truth is not the same as being truthful, for if it were then Tharoor would acknowledge that it is precisely because people like him have been equating Englishness with evilness for so long that just about everyone, white or non-white, thinks twice before describing themselves as such. In the milieu, Britishness has arisen as a useful phrase to circumnavigate these dangerous ideological waters – offering this as evidence that Englishness is therefore increasingly equated with racism is a little like telling someone that it is much safer to travel by train than by air, and then offering their decision to travel by train as evidence that travelling by air is evidently more dangerous.
The merging of racism and trendy liberal ideology is of course wholly pernicious, but it is also very potent. It can silence a debate, and can be used to wave-through all sorts of idiotic ideas by numbing with fear those with the instinctive good-sense to oppose them. For example, we are told that ‘The Umbro ad is not trying to “play it safe” in its inclusion of so many black and Asian figures. Such quantity only buttresses the ad’s unwavering assertion of multicultural English – not British – identity.’
See the sleight of hand? Multiculturalism is linked with race, so that any opposition to the former must de facto spring from irrational distaste of a plurality of the latter. So if someone says ‘I don’t think much of that Pakistani cultural habit of arranged marriages and honour killings’, then they are racist. Or again, if someone says ‘I don’t really like the black ‘gangsta’ culture that has grown up in so many of our cityscapes’, then they are racist. With such inquisitionary tools at their disposal, so do the liberals enforce their infallible dogmas; shame and villification await those who challenge the creed of multiculturalism. A similar threat of calumny underpins the dominance of moral relativism, too; any that would be bold enough to challenge are immediately silenced with shrill cries of ‘bigot’.
In the end, Tharoor does little more than trot out standard metro-liberal swill. Whilst delusions of intellectual grandeur seem to infect many whose work appears in the CiF section of the Guardian, nonetheless what Tharoor offers is little more than a rather mundane and unoriginal application of ‘progressive’ prejudice to recent events.
What is more interesting, or perhaps concerning, is that the article demonstrates what is becoming a trend of lazy vilification of that group of people now labelled the ‘white working-class’ (increasingly a catch-all term for anything pathetic or distasteful). This is partly because, in the minds of the liberati, the ‘white working-class’ are detached from civilised society and are better understood as a distinct sub-group with special needs to be met, even though they are often contrary to what our liberal ancien régime deem best for society at large (especially on the issue of immigration). There is a danger in this, and recent Guardian comment pieces are increasingly illustrative of it; the angry creation of a societal scapegoat, by those whose bigotry disallows any possible deviation from their own particular brand of ‘enlightened’ thought.
Martin Kettle writes here about what seems all of a sudden to have become a pressing subject, that being the teaching of history in our schools. And he makes the important point that one might find it difficult to teach a common history within a land that is no longer monocultural. Or, in his own words,
Britain, though, has special difficulties of its own. Not only is there no overarching British narrative, as distinct from English, Scottish, Welsh and at least two sorts of Irish narratives. English culture, in particular, is still disabled by unresolved class differences as well. History from above? History from below? Or a synthesis? And which one?
Which is a central question, and one needing put to those charged with the task of writing any new syllabus with the intention of teaching of a ‘common history’ at its heart. Nonetheless, if the legacy of the liberal left, with its devotion to multiculturalism and cultural relativism, has been a fractured sense of common identity, then perhaps one small way of countering that fracture is to return to a history syllabus that encompasses everyone in the same tale, in the same ‘Island story’.
At the same time, we mustn’t become too simplistic. Truth is, we have never really ever been a monoculture – though we have certainly shared patriotic commonality. Trying to make everyone look and think the same is never the answer – trying to encompass everyone in loyalty for their homeland certainly is.* So when Kettle says ‘Without a common culture, a common history remains out of reach,’ he is going too far. And in so doing, he risks accepting that narrow cultural imperialism that says we must all think and look the same or else we must all be irreconcilably opposed.
It’s worth bringing in here Ana the Imp, commenting on the contemporary refraction of the (relatively recent) idea of the nation state into endless parochial identities, especially in relation to the EU project;
The nation-state, in its modern form, is a largely artificial creation; the child, not of nationalism, as is usually assumed, but of the Age of Enlightenment. The European Union might be said to be a reaction against this, a process by which the nation state will be rendered obsolete. But all the evidence suggests that there is no European identity as such. Rather what can be seen is the liberation of a patch-work of local identities, formerly sublimated within the nation state. What we can see, in other words, is Transylvanian, Basque, Breton, Flemish, Scottish and a host of other fragmentations; what we can see is a revival, it might be said, of the crazy patchwork of the Holy Roman Empire.
Which is true, and helps explain the flourishing of different nationalisms in our own lands at the moment – they are simply the next step down, so to speak, of the political construct known as United Kingdom, and the local identities that constitute it. Only, this has problems of its own. As I have tried explaining to certain Scottish nationalists over the years, Scottish independence is essentially the restatement on the local level of precisely that which it seeks ultimately to refute: ‘Scotland’ is every bit the arbitrary political and cultural construct as is ‘Britain’. It contains the same internal contradictions, and tries to unify internal social, cultural and historical identities through appeal to a transcending, though largely artificial, sense of monocultural unity. In this sense, the nationalists have let the genie out of the bottle, and their logic will consume them; those who deride unionism by appeals to nationalism will eventually succumb to the demands of regionalism. Or, in Ana’s words,
This process of division and subdivision is likely to continue, always looking inwards, towards ever more parochial loyalties. Consider the Scots… once the old ‘oppressive’ English state is factored out, once the sense of historical grievance is removed, what then? How will the Gaelic Highlands see the Saxon Lowlands? How will the east sit with the west? How will Glasgow sit with Edinburgh? I can’t answer these questions; I do not have sufficient prescience. All I can say is that more and more prince-bishops and margraves are likely to emerge in a modern form as we move wider still and wider.
As I have written before, as a northern, working-class Roman Catholic, I will construct my identities and my loyalties, my history and culture differently to a southern middle-class Protestant. The question is, need this mean we must therefore be disparate? I think not, and the idea that difference must be inimical to unity is fallacious – the wealth of local and regional identities add depth and breadth to the national; they are not irreconcilable with it.
Which leads, inevitably, back to the question of ‘what constitutes the national’, or at least, what is the transcendent that unifies? For which I offer no detailed answer here – though my chosen title of this piece is something of a clue. Further, if I tell you I have more sympathy for the monarchist and his realms than I do for the bureaucrat and his regions, then you might get some idea of my own thoughts on the matter.
*I instinctively think here of the brutally persecuted Catholics, living in the time of Bloody Bess, who nonetheless remained loyal to their Queen, and this through wider loyalty to their realm and the desire to not cede it to the French (through Queen Mary’s marriage to that tribe). Clearly, identity through such oppositional conflicts would be largely obsolete these days – at least on a ‘nationalistic’ axis.