Wednesday, April 28, 2010

getting all riled up

if this guy's a philosopher, I'm a dung-beetle

Just been revisiting the risible John Gray via this Pharyngula piece, and the links connected with it, that's to say, a review by Gray of a book by A C Grayling [which turns out not to be a book review but an attempt to belittle everything Grayling stands for, without of course being particularly specific about the variety of Grayling's views on a variety of subjects], together with Grayling's brief and, I think, devastating response, which then links to an earlier critique of Gray which, at moments reads uncannily like my own critique [since lost with the loss of my laptop, damn it]. This also led me to Ophelia Benson, and her followers. A delightful discovery, and her blog is now on my roll.

What to say about Gray? Grayling has already said it - as have I, I now recall, but Grayling is more succinct. One of the main points he makes is that he's a meliorist and not a 'perfectibilist' [Grayling that is]. He also points out [and this I think is key], that he has made this point before, but Gray keeps on with the same error [remind you of any creationist writers?], and the same old anti-progress rhetoric, in spite of the masses of evidence around him. This was a point I hammered ad nauseum in my own piece, focusing on the social treatment of black people, women and homosexuals 150 years ago and today, in the west. As Grayling puts it, if you don't call it progress, what do you call it, regress? And if you're not a meliorist, if you don't want to improve things, to be a faster runner [for an athlete], to be more tolerant and accepting [for a mother], to be more cognisant of your subject [for a scientist], to leave the world a better place [for a politician, and everyone else], then why go on? Gray seems to have real trouble with this, imagining that we're living in a world of false myths by wanting to better ourselves and our world. Can he really believe this? What alternative does he have to offer?

Gray tries to mock Grayling's prolific output, his interest in such a variety of subjects and issues. Gray's own work is contemptuously abstract and lacking in detail. It's not just lacking in specific human interests, it's also lacking in analysis. It's essentially rhetoric rather than philosophy. One of the many points in which Grayling's critique uncannily reflects my own is in Gray's use of the term 'religion', generally as a term of abuse. We have terms such as 'secular religion' and 'scientific religion' and 'humanist religion' dotted throughout his work, like so many sneers in lieu of argument. It rather reminds me of adolescents sneering at the adults. Then, after all this, Gray attempts, albeit half-heartedly, to defend religion, in such vague, non-committal terms as to be meaningless.

In short, Gray has so little positive to say that he seems condemned to a repetition of adolescent sneers and lugubrious prognostications. However, I have to thank Straw Dogs for helping me to focus more clearly on what is to be valued in human life, and human striving. On that basis, I recommend the writings of A C Grayling, Simon Blackburn and other Gray critics, meliorists all, unreservedly.

Monday, April 26, 2010

a controversial historical matter

a monument to the Armenian genocide in Bikfaya, Lebanon

Canto: You've been talking about how human society rights itself, or fights its way back to health, by facing its invaders, its peculiarities, and defeating them, or assimilating them in a more benign form maybe...
Jacinta: Like with endosymbiosis...
Canto: Yet often there's a struggle to face the past, and a wholesale denialism, as with holocaust denialism, but that's just a loopy fringe thing. In other cases the denialism is more 'mainstream' if you like, as with Japan and its 'war heroes', and Turkey and the Armenian genocide. What do you think of this last example - there was an article in this weekend's Australian about it.
Jacinta: I tried to emphasize last time that though it's 'natural' that we move towards health after troubled times, that shouldn't diminish our respect our respect for those who put themselves about, and even sacrifice their lives, for the sake of a healthier, fairer, more balanced system. Also, people disagree, often violently, over what such a system should be like. Some people feel it should be based on suppression of the 'wrong attitudes', and some of those people really believe, in the case of the Armenian genocide - well, first of all they reject the term 'genocide' as a gross exaggeration, or even a complete lie - that it's an anti-Turkish conspiracy.
Canto: Designed to destabilize Turkey - there we are with health and balance again.
Jacinta: The second secretary to the Turkish embassy in Canberra described the claims as  'a systematic  campaign of defamation carried out by Armenian lobby groups living in various countries all over the world. Any recognition or any resolution accusing the Turkish nation of a crime that it has not committed is unacceptable. The allegations are totally groundless and baseless.' A pretty unequivocal response. However, Australian politicians Maxine McKew and Joe Hockey have both made speeches acknowledging the Armenian genocide. McKew is the member for Bennelong, which has a large Armenian population...
Canto: Ah yes, those Armenian lobby groups...
Jacinta: And Hockey has an Armenian grandfather. So we have contradictory claims, and what do we do? We look at the evidence.
Canto: Only twenty countries have so far recognized the Armenian genocide [among them Britain, France and  Switzerland], but Australia isn't one of them. I would imagine that for many nations, recognition would depend on issues of diplomacy and trade rather than truth or falsity.
Jacinta: The Wikipedia article on the subject, while anonymous as usual...
Canto: Obviously written by an Armenian lobbyist..
Jacinta: It seems to be well-documented and footnoted, with photos of the forced marches, of the bones of massacred Armenians, and descriptions from observers at the time, such as ambassador Henry Morgenthau, of the US, who reported that what was happening to the Armenians was public knowledge, freely admitted by many Turks. The famous historian Arnold Toynbee published a book about the treatment of the Armenians under the Ottoman Empire in 1916, including much eyewitness testimony. It seems to have held up well, in spite of claims at the time that it was just anti-Turkish wartime propaganda. In short, while the extent of the extermination will always be arguable [Wiki puts the numbers at one to one and half million], the claim that it didn't happen at all seems absurd. The treatment of Armenians by the Turks became increasingly Draconian towards the end of the nineteenth century, leading to the Hamidian massacres [under Sultan Hamid II] in 1895-6, and various other pogroms and massacres up to the 'official' genocide of 1915-22.
Canto: So there appears to be plentiful evidence. And this diplomat's comments suggest that there's still quite a bit of anti-Armenian bigotry in that part of the world. Does he claim that there was no killing at all, or is he quibbling about the term 'genocide'?
Jacinta: Yes, it isn't clear, but there appears to be a wealth of info about it online. Just reading some of the comments on different articles, though, tells me how emotive and polarizing the subject is.
Canto: Well, I've found this well-written, and thoroughly footnoted, piece which discusses the event or events as a 'disputed genocide'. It ends on a reasoned note, I think, with these remarks:
Some Turkish and Armenian historians have suggested recently that it is time to "step back from the was-it-genocide-or-not dialogue of the deaf, which only leads to mutual recrimination" and instead concentrate on empirically grounded historical research that seeks a common pool of firm knowledge.[56] Time will tell whether it will be possible to rescue history from nationalists who have plundered history to serve their own political ends.
Jacinta: Sounds sensible. So we, who are new to the subject, must reserve our judgment, not having fully analysed the evidence. Clearly the Armenians became a target because of their siding with Russia during the Great War...
Canto: Not surprising, then, that Russia is one of the countries that has officially recognized the genocide.
Jacinta: But whether there was an intention to exterminate the Armenians in Turkey, that's the big genocide question. Not that this matters much to the victims.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

what makes us stronger

Canto: So I hear you've been waxing philosophical, Jacinta.
Jacinta: Insofar as I'm able, mate. I've been thinking about the course of history, and how it relates to immune systems and recovery from disease and so forth.
Canto: Sounds like a bit of a vague connection. Fill me in.
Jacinta: Well this morning, while reading the intro to a book on the 'underground railroad' in the slave days before the US civil war, I came upon this sentence:
Instances of interracial cooperation and collaboration represented a countervailing force to the institution of slavery and eventually helped bring about the destruction of the peculiar institution.
Now the odd term 'peculiar institution' made me think of a foreign body, in immunological terms, which causes a lot of activity within a cell or tissue, a marshalling of forces to fight the invader, or the 'peculiarity', in order to re-establish that optimal equilibrium state we describe as 'health'.
Canto: 'Our peculiar institution' was how the south euphemised slavery in the early days - that's to say, something specific to, or peculiar to, us. Using the 's' word was deemed improper, of course.
Jacinta: I was thinking that health is historically what we've been out to achieve, and that, ultimately, those movements, forces, institutions that are not conducive to health are always vanquished, ultimately, though the struggle is hard, and virtually ongoing. Our immune system is never perfect, and there are always dormant forces that could trigger new, threatening outbreaks. They say that history is generally written by the victors, and while that's obviously true, it suggests distortions about our view of the past that I'm not so sure exist, or are much exaggerated. I mean some victories were necessary, and maybe inevitable, though that seems to diminish the sacrifices and the efforts of those who fought for that victory. Nazism could never have won, ultimately, it was too destructive of the body politic, and the same might be said for the peculiar institution - it could never have been allowed to continue, indefinitely. The disappearances of the so-called dirty war in Agrentina had to be addressed for the sake of health. South African apartheid could never ultimately survive, and it had to be redressed. Do you see what I'm getting at?
Canto: Yes I do, and I think you're gesturing towards something in evolution - the organism seeks to reproduce itself, to continue its line, and it has to shake off invaders, foreign bodies, peculiarities [all of which are intent on their own survival], thereby becoming stronger, more 'sophisticated', more complex - the more invaders it has to fight off, the more complex and sophisticated it necessarily becomes.
Jacinta: And recognizing the importance of history, of memory - though that can be distorting, designed as it is partly to comfort, history's the thing - is a vital component of that armory which helps us to survive, and to meet new challenges. It teaches us not only a heap of life lessons for negotiating the future, but also what to value, the resources and characteristics that have made it though the fire.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

justice [delayed]

bye bye bignose

Jacinta: So Canto, what has been catching your attention of late.
Canto: Well, amid all the noise about tubby little Carl Williams, I've just heard that justice has been meted out to the old Argentinian dictator, Reynoldo Bignone, 82, the last of the dictators in the so-called 'dirty war' period between 1976 and 1983. He was sentenced to twenty-five years jail - in a real jail, a federal prison - and six other officials of the period were also given jail time.
Jacinta: A former head of state, a dictator no less, jailed! Sounds v promising, amnesty-wise. Tell us more about this Bignone fellow.
Canto: He became dictator in 1982, after the previous dictator, Galtieri, was forced to resign following the Falklands debacle, but he wasn't jailed for anything he did as dictator. After a career in the military, he became involved in running the notorious detention centres inside the Campo de Mayo, Argentina's largest military training base, after the coup deposing Isabel Peron. This is usually designated as the starting point of the dirty war, but in fact left-wing and right-wing militias had been operating in Argentina since the early seventies, as things spiralled out of control under Peron.
Jacinta: Yes it's fascinating how the times can make or break people like that. Were he born and raised in Australia, someone like Bignone might have quietly made a fine career for himself, ending up as a 'typical' retired general with conservative political sympathies.
Canto: I don't know about such speculations. I do know that during the dirty war period, or the dictatorships of Videla, Viola, Galtieri and Bignone, between 9,000 and 30,000 people were 'disappeared', not to mention the abduction and kidnapping of children. Videla or one of his henchmen cynically described this as the 'National Reorganisation Process', and it was part of a larger right-wing process involving the governments of Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia, known as 'Operation Condor', with the US providing plenty of support before and after the Carter Administration.
Jacinta: Okay, enough with the conspiracy theories, let's get back to Bignose.
Canto: This is cold hard fact mate, read all about it, and it's Bignone, though he did have a big nose. But let's move forward to the guy's prosecution. In 2005, the  Argentinian Supreme Court repealed the notorious amnesty laws instituted nearly twenty years before under then President Raul Alfonsin. Before those laws came into play, Videla and a number of the other military leaders were tried and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. But then another Prez, Carlos Menem, started issuing pardons in the late eighties.
Jacinta: So it's been an in and out sort of thing with the amnesties and the imprisonments.
Canto: Yeah, and there's been a lot of anger about the soft treatment of these guys, with cushy house arrests and the like. But after the election of the relatively unknown Nestor Kirchner in 2003 things changed pretty quickly. Kirchner injected a healthy dose of integrity into the Argentine government, increasing accountability and transparency, standing down powerful military figures, and making changes to the Supreme Court, pressuring some justices to resign and facilitating the impeachment of others. He didn't stand for re-election in 2007, though, and now his wife is Prez.
Jacinta: Seems to be the sort of thing that happens in Argentina.
Canto: Yep, the memory of Evita still lingers. Anyway, it has taken a while, but Videla was stripped of his Presidential pardon in 2007, and in 2008 he was sentenced to life, I think, in a military prison. And now it's Bignone's turn. Down with amnesties! Down with immunities! Justice for the oppressed!
Jacinta: Great, you've set the world to rights once again, time for bed.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

more on Catholic statehood and immunity

Canto: John Allen, a Catholic journalist and author of a bio of the current pope, has written an article, reprinted in the Weekend Australian, in Herr Ratzinger's defence. He makes two main points - legal eagles have no real basis on which to arrest the pope, and second, the pope shouldn't be targeted anyway because 'no senior figure in the Catholic Church has done more to combat priestly sex abuse.'  
Jacinta: Allen describes all this, rather condescendingly, in terms of two 'misunderstandings', one of international law, the other of the pope's record. On the first point, he says that the pope isn't the head of state of the Vatican,  a 43 hectare estate in Rome, but of the Holy See, a non-physical location which is the seat of the 'central government' of the Catholic Church.
Canto: Which seems a mere technical matter - he still has sovereign status, and that is the point. That he is in fact the sovereign head of a non-physical state only makes his position all the more absurd and anomolous.
Jacinta: Or maybe it is physical - maybe he's the sovereign of all the - quite considerable - territory owned by the Catholic Church worldwide.
Canto: No, they couldn't claim that. Those lands are still under the jurisdiction of the states in which they're situated. Or at least nowadays they are - in the earlier halcyon days of the RCC, they may well have claimed that church land was different, inviolate.
Jacinta: Sanctuary! Yes, I remember it from all the old movies. It's interesting that Allen writes of the 'central government' of the Church. Think government, think political entity. Think responsible political entity. On the one hand, when it wants to absolve itself from responsibility, the Catholic hierarchy describes the Church as a devolved organisation, administered at the local level, but when it wants sovereignty it describes itself as a government.
Canto: Well said, Jacinta, and Allen writes this in defence of sovereignty:
Sovereignty is designed to protect the papacy from undue influence by any one nation, allowing the Pope and his diplomatic corps to act as a neutral force of conscience on the global stage. 
This is unconvincing, to say the least. Sovereignty is designed, first and foremost, to raise the status of the pope, and the Catholic Church in general. Sovereignty is not required to protect the pope's 'neutrality' - many organisations operate effectively under the banner of neutrality - the International Red Cross, Medecins sans Frontieres, as well as more clearly driven conscience organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International - without requiring sovereignty.
Jacinta: And what is the Pope doing with a diplomatic corps? Does Amnesty International have a diplomatic corps? Clearly the Vatican has political pretensions, and these pretensions need to be quashed. The best way to do that would be to strip it of statehood. Allen describes the 'legal independence' of the Vatican as allowing the Pope and his envoys to be 'the most important moral critics of the 2003 invasion of Iraq'. I'd like to know how Allen measures 'importance', but that aside, such criticisms don't require 'legal independence'. I'm sure the Quakers were just as morally outraged by that invasion, and just as vocal, but they don't have the resources of the RCC. Legal independence shouldn't enter into it.
Canto: Hey, wasn't it Catholic fantasies about its legal independence that got them into this mess in the first place? They're the last organisation that should be claiming legal independence - they can't be trusted with it.
Jacinta: And I'm bemused by Allen's claim that the RCC acts as a neutral voice of conscience. Can a conscience be neutral? The Catholic Church, to be fair, campaigns on a number of issues, such as the alleviation of poverty and the prevention of war, which are unobjectionable, to me at least, but it also lobbies on a number of issues from an ultra-conservative position - on abortion, on homosexuality [and just about everything related to sex], on stem cell research and so forth. A neutral voice of conscience? I hardly think so.
Canto: Now let's move on, more briefly, to the second point - the 'misunderstanding' about the pope's attitude towards sexual abuse. Allen praises the pope's role in this, presumably referring to the fact that, in 2001, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he was given responsibility, by the then pope, for investigating cases of priestly child abuse. In other words, the role given to him made it imperative that he do more about it than any other Catholic.
Jacinta: Yes, so even if it's true that he's done more than any other Catholic, that's because it was his position to do so, and it still isn't saying much. After all, nobody would have had anything like the power to bring about change that Ratzinger had after 2001, and on that basis, and considering how changed the public attitude was by that time, his record doesn't seem so impressive. He seems to have held the conservative line largely, downplaying the number of priests involved, extending the statute of limitations to a mere ten years [for internal investigations - thus maintaining the usual lag in basic humanity between Catholic 'law' and the only law that should really matter, the secular law], and sending out a letter to all bishops emphasizing the penalties for breaching the confidentiality of matters under [internal] investigation. Let's maintain the secrecy, gentlemen, our Church depends upon it.
Jacinta: Yes, there was no great change of direction under Ratzinger in those years, and now he's under legitimate scrutiny for not doing enough when matters were brought to his, or his office's, attention. At least John Allen is honest enough in his article to admit that some issues need to be investigated further.
Canto: Yes, and by anyone but the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. No more Catholic immunity, no more Catholic secrecy, no more Canon law!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Canto and Jacinta ponder Simon Schama's take on religion in the USA

Canto: In The Future of America: A history, Simon Schama, a self-confessed secular humanist and an Ashkenazi Jew, who has spent a large part of his life in the USA, offers some speculation on why the yanks are, by and large, so religious, and on the costs and benefits of such religiosity.
Jacinta: Yes, Schama's book, published on the eve of the election that swept Barak Obama to the presidency, and full of a sense of the momentousness of that possibility, commandingly sweeps through American history to examine past views of the nation's future, a retrospective intended to inform us of the issues at stake for the likes of Obama. For example, by fleshing out for us the figure of Montgomery Meigs, architect, organiser supreme, and energetic and principled quartermaster-general for the Union during the civil war, he examines the arguments between North and South, such as centralist federalism versus states rights, and, of course, half-hidden in the depths of southern resentment, the slavery issue. He also, albeit more briefly, looks at imperialist versus anti-imperialist visions at the beginning of the twentieth century, through the clash between Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain on the US treatment of the Phillipines.
Canto: Yes, and he skilfully explores other clashes and splits in the American psyche through dominant if little-known [at least to me] protagonists in, for example, the issue of proper treatment of the indigenous population, most notably the Cherokee, and in 'right' relations with Mexico, going back to the battle over Texas. All of this makes for a lively, dynamic work by a writer who cares most of all for the two things I most care about, language and human character.
Jacinta: And narrative, don't forget narrative.
Canto: Well, narrative, that goes without saying I hope, it combines those interests in the most dynamic form. But I want to focus on the role he finds for religion in the shaping of America's past and future. The African-American community of course has utilized the dignified fervency and the rhetorical tricks of the preacher from the earliest slave days through the civil rights movement to the present day. Right from the ante-bellum years the black church was a force in the land, a force almost unknown to the city-bound whites. Schama quotes at length from the writings of the indefatigable Jarena Lee, one of the country's first female black preachers, who so conspicuously contributed to the energetic spirit of black southern baptism at its outset. Schama thus builds a case, not through direct argument, but through the eloquence of historical personages and writings, that without the moralizing and communitarian force of black Christianity and churchdom, the path from slavery through civil rights to the advent of Obama could not have been carved out.
Jacinta: So much for our hopes for an atheist prez - but there was Jefferson, there was Washington, maybe Lincoln...
Canto: As we know, Jefferson was no atheist, but he was accused of being one, and John Adams was happy to smear him as one during the presidential campaign of 1800, producing flyers like 'God, or Jefferson and no God!'...
Jacinta: Today of course, you'll be unlikely to see anything like that. Nobody would believe a godless individual would run for president.
Canto: Oh ye of little faith. The times are a-changing.
Jacinta: So the absolutist fervour of Christianity lent its force to the abolitionist movement. But the US bible belt more or less corresponds to the ante-bellum slave-owning region. How do you explain that?
Canto: It can only be explained, really, by steeping yourself in American history and feeling how it expresses itself in a diverse religiosity. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a revival in the early twentieth century largely due to the hugely popular novel The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon Jr, a baptist minister.
Jacinta: From which came the D W Griffiths movie The Birth of a Nation.
Canto: Right. The story involved a Presbyterian preacher who whipped up Klan support to protect Christian white civilisation from black savagery. America's white supremacist movement and its black freedom movement were both driven by a protestant fervour unknown in Europe since the Thirty Years War.
Jacinta: But they had no Catholics to fight against, only differently striped protestants.
Canto: Differently forged protestants. The only thing they had in common was a sense of being disenfranchised and beleaguered. Schama finds that the history of the emancipation movement is thoroughly inspired by preachers. Nat Turner, leader of a ferocious slave rebellion in 1831, was known as 'the Prophet'. He dreamed of the great struggle to come between Christ and Anti-Christ, and was intensely pious. Denmark Vesey, a less successful rebel leader in 1822, was a founder of the African Episcopal Methodist Church. David Walker, black author of the 1829 revolutionary tract 'One Universal Cry', charged America with the heinous crime of being godless and unchristian. Others include Beriah Green, Charles Grandison Finney, John Rankin, Theodore Weld, James Dickey, William Lloyd Garrison and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, all of them righteous preachers against the sin of slavery, just as Martin Luther King, Jeremiah Wright and Raphael Warnock, in more recent times up to the present, have religiously railed against racism.
Jacinta: So are we meant to admire the power of American evangelism? Is the god question ever really addressed?
Canto: No, not really, and Schama is perhaps a little defensive about it all, but he's simply pointing out that you can't avoid the religious cast of American striving and struggle, and that to ignore it would be intellectually dishonest. We cringe at the God Bless America stuff, and wouldn't accept it from our politicians, But Americans are different, though of course also diverse - with plenty of them quite militantly against the 'under God' message.
Jacinta: I was reading those passages from the journal of Jarena Lee, and it seemed so ringingly clear to me that her god, her Jesus, these characters were personifications of what Freud called the superego, and what others have called conscience, or the moral principle that resides in us all, though it's a slightly different moral principle in each of us, like fingerprints or our DNA signature - recognisably human but also recognisably unique. If only we could get people to realize this, to proudly own their consciences and moral ruminations instead of attributing them to some fantasised external voice, to whom they choose to be grovelling but proud servants...
Canto: Is it choice, though? Lee's description of moral voices and dreams from her god are in fact the products of social pressure, she has surely cast her moral understandings in a way that will be acceptable but also impressive to her peers, all of whom appear to take heavenly messages as a given, and wouldn't accept any merely Socratically analysed moral conceptualisation as having anywhere near the same value. And so you have a snowball effect, in which everyone's moral understanding comes directly and personally as a message from their god [who of course is the same god for all of them].But to return to Schama's treatment - he seems to want not only to justify but to vindicate American religiosity, and in doing so, becomes almost incoherent.
Jacinta: I suspect American religiosity is itself incoherent, but large. And its largeness is like a whale, you can't help but deal with it respectfully. You even feel awed by it, against your better judgment.
Canto: Well let's not get carried away. Schama is first and foremost keen to point out that 'America's institutions are designed to protect citizens from religious coercion rather than enable it'. He's referring in particular to the first amendment of the US constitution which begins: 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free expression thereof' [these two clauses are known as the establishment clause and the free exercise clause]. This is all fine in terms of keeping the state separate from religion, but the free exercise clause leaves things wide open for every dog and her cult.
Jacinta: And what if free expression involves coercion - which it so often does where religion is concerned?
Canto: Schama writes of the 'donnish bafflement' of secular Europe when confronted with this religiosity, which I think goes a bit far, especially when you consider the robust secularism of this country, Australia, which is hardly donnish, and then he tries to suggest that there's a double standard operating when these 'dons' consider Islamic ayatollahs as 'misunderstood traditionalists'. Somehow, I don't think Pat Condell would agree...
Jacinta: Yes, I don't think he gets that right at all, all of us are appalled at religious states and want to keep religious organisations or denominations as far from political power as possible.
Canto: Here are his concluding remarks about the subject anyway, and I might ask you to make some final comments about them yourself Jacinta:
It's elsewhere in the world that dogma chokes on pluralism - the co-existence of conflicting versions of the best way to redemption - and uses state power to wipe it out. In the United States the Founding Fathers believed instead that religious truth would best be served by keeping the state out of the business of its propagation; that the power of religious engagement would not just survive freedom of conscience, but be its noblest consequence. It was a daring bet: that faith and freedom were mutually nourishing. But it paid off and it has made America uniquely qualified to fight the only battle that matters, not General Boykin's quixotic re-enactment of the true god against the false idol, but the war of toleration against conformity; the war of a faith that commands obedience against a faith that promises liberty. That, actually, turns out to be the big American story.

Jacinta: I certainly agree that those two opening clauses of the first amendment are admirable and positive, though the phrase 'one nation under God' in the pledge of allegiance tends to dilute the much-vaunted pluralism more than a bit.
Canto: The 'under God' bit was added only in 1954. What were they thinking?
Jacinta: Still when Schama claims that due to state non-interference, the dogma is, in some sense, broken up by pluralism, he fails to recognize that a pluralism of dogmas or faiths may not add up to much. It's of course true that a single dogma with state political power, as in Iran, or in the non-religious USSR, or when the RCC ran roughshod over most of Europe, is generally horrific, while a plurality of relatively powerless dogmas is merely irritating...
Canto: More than irritating... or, rather, 'merely irritating' from a whole-of-state perspective, but sometimes devastating for individuals trapped in or victimised by those dogmas.
Jacinta: Quite right Canto, but where everyone seems caught up in some dogma or other, best to have a faith that promotes freedom. In any case, Schama only partly acknowledges that the American constitution was a post-Enlightenment document, heavily influenced by the citizen's rights euphoria that had begun to grip Europe, and from which established churches throughout the west have never really recovered. In defending American religiosity from his European and secularized colleagues, he points to Europe's bloody religious past, which doesn't go very far in explaining America's belligerent if not quite so bloody religious present.
Canto: Perhaps we're too impatient. Perhaps in fifty or a hundred years time, America will be seen to be travelling a clear path towards secularization of the population, regardless of the state.
Jacinta: I won't make predictions about that, but it's interesting that, without going into the philosophical implications of belief and non-belief, Schama suggests that the real issue is why Europeans have stopped believing, not why so many Americans continue to believe. In this he agrees with Lois Lee, founder-director of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network, who believes research into the minority [but growing] phenomenon of atheism is essential and overdue.
Since the eighteenth century, most western countries have dealt pretty well with the issue - still ongoing, as attempts to disestablish the Anglican church in Britain indicate - of separating church and state, and keeping the major religions and denominations muzzled politically. But I don't think the state's institutions have had much effect on the nature or intensity of religious belief, unless you consider liberal education a state institution.  Maybe the real issue isn't so much why people are or are not religious, but what the costs and benefits are for religious belief in a rapidly evolving society. Evolution again. That's for the future though, which is perhaps why such questions don't seem to concern Schama, who's a historian after all.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

the vatican's protection racket

Colm O'Gorman, passionate campaigner

Colm O'Gorman's book Beyond Belief is an autobiographical account of the impact, upon himself and his family, of serious sexual abuse at the hands of a paedophile priest, Sean Fortune [who insisted on being addressed as Father Fortune right up to the eve of his suicide]. More than that, though, it's a well-documented account of the appalling, and in some sense harrowing failure of the Catholic hierarchy, in Fortune's diocese and throughout Ireland, to deal with sexual abusers within the priesthood, and its consequent betrayal of children and young people. It also clearly implicates the Vatican in this gross betrayal. Further investigations in other countries have revealed that the betrayals, the cover-ups, the protection rather than the outing of paedophile priests, are to be found in just about every Catholic diocese on the globe. Barely any digging required. It's true of course, that the abuse of children was widespread in many institutions up to a few decades ago, whether those institutions were religious or not, but no institution has been more concerned to protect its own reputation, often at the expense of children, than the Catholic Church, especially at the very top.

This stuff's very much in the media currently, with every armchair pundit having a spray. O'Gorman, as a victim, is very much at the coal-face. For him the key issue is that the power of the Church in Ireland, its unquestioned and unquestionable authority until recently, made it enormously difficult for a powerless adolescent boy to make sense of being abused and raped by an apparently respected member of that mighty institutiion. The church needs to be brought firmly and permanently within the confines of the law.

So it's as much about the abuse of power as the abuse of children, and the problem of course isn't confined to Ireland. The Catholic Church, receding in power and influence in Europe, Australia and especially the USA, where it's unlikely to recover from recent scandals, is still a disturbing authority in Latin America and many African nations. There's surely little doubt that it entrenches its position in those regions through its secretive and high-handed methods. Investigations in Brazil by a team including O'Gorman and reporter Sarah Macdonald found the same old pattern, and it was clear they'd only scraped the surface.

The Vatican itself has made a rod for its back by responding in a belated, half-hearted and blame-shifting way. Here's O'Gorman's response to a Papal letter dealing with the Irish reports into Church abuse cases:

The letter is clearly an effort to restore the credibility of a church rocked by the publication of three state investigations into clerical crimes and church cover ups in Ireland. The Pope has seen all three of these reports.
And yet, disgracefully, he used his letter and this issue to attack one of his favourite targets, secularization. We are asked to believe that the secularization of Irish society led to abuse and cover up. In fact, it is the secularization of society that finally led to the exposure of the crimes of the church. The most horrific abuse was perpetrated, not in a secularised Ireland, but at a time when Irish society was dominated, socially and politically, by the Catholic Church. That the Pope appears to have wilfully ignored this established fact is a blatant and disgraceful deceit. 

Such outraged and pained remarks would once have been dismissed as impertinent by an institution in the ruthless ascendant, but now they're given more credence than anything the former arbiters of Truth can come out with. And few are in doubt that O'Gorman has skewered the Vatican in its dishonesty, arrogance and callousness by pointing out, inter alia, the lack of attention, in the lengthy papal letter, to the sufferers of the abuse, the children and young people under Catholic care.

The self-serving nature of the Catholic hierarchy's response, not only to paedophile priests, but to criticisms of its management of children's homes, and its protection of Catholic war criminals from the second world war to Rwanda and beyond, has done incalculable damage to its brand. The Norman Jewieson film The Statement [2003], based on the book by Brian Moore, presents an ugly but convincing portrayal of the Church's machinations where war criminals are concerned, and its possible complicity in the Rwandan genocide is explored here and on many other websites. Again and again it comes to the same problem - protecting the rights of the clergy, and the laity, above the rights of others, and behaving as if it is above the law. Clearly they won't be getting away with it so easily in the west from now on, but they'll continue to try it on, methinks, in more complaisant states.

Beyond Belief is also a vital record of a personal journey. O'Gorman was abused for some two years by a relentlessly dominating priest, under the noses of his own family. Because of the enormous respect in which the Irish Catholic church was still held in the eighties, the fourteen-year-old couldn't bring himself to divulge what was happening, and took on the guilt for it himself [encouraged by the priest]. This captures a common pattern, but is no less harrowing for that. The effect of this abuse was devastating. O'Gorman left home and became a wanderer in the streets of Dublin, taking some years to find his way back to himself, to release the sense of guilt and corruption from his mind and body. Fortunately, thanks to the support of family and friends, and thanks to his own resilience, he was able to recover, and to become a force for reparation and recovery in others, founding the organisation One in Four [a reference to the proportion of the abused according to one study], to provide psychological and legal assistance to victims, first in London and later in Ireland. He has since become one of the most prominent spokesmen in Ireland for accountability and reform of the Catholic Church and for seeking real justice for its victims. It seems from some lines towards the end of his book that O'Gorman remains a Catholic - always surprising to me as I recall Chekhov's lines - and this makes his challenge to the Vatican all the more difficult to dismiss as 'anti-Catholic skullduggery'.

Reading this book has been rather felicitous for me, timing-wise, with further revelations from Germany coming hard on the heels of those from Ireland and the US, and with the Vatican trying to bluster its way out and getting into more hot water by claiming its mostly down to an anti-Catholicism on a level with anti-Semitism. It's good to see the Vatican lawyers, spin-doctors and supporters are coming out of their shell a bit, breaking their long silence. Now we can see and hear them for what they really are.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Christian claptrap

hilarious sad

It’s Good Friday, the day some people commemorate the execution of a character who they say was the son of a deity – in fact of the only deity who ever existed, in spite of the claimed existence, by members of other cults, of hundreds, if not thousands of other deities. It’s well-known, if not to all the believers of this cult, certainly to the cult’s top brass, that this son of their deity didn’t really die on this day. There is no evidence of any kind providing the date of Jesus’s death by crucifixion – in fact there is no evidence that he was executed at all, and no substantive evidence that he ever lived.

Of course, that is the way of cults. It’s necessary to have faith, not to be fashed by the evidence issue. And on the basis of their fervent faith, Christian leaders of various stripes feel it incumbent upon themselves to lecture us all at this time of the year, on various moral issues, which, due to some apparent mystical link with Jesus, their supernatural cult leader [and deity], they just know about.

Take George Pell, the Australian Catholic, who lectures us on the benefits his particular sect has brought us. His lecture is a disgrace and an insult to the intelligence. I could take apart every single line of it, but that would be tedious. Suffice to pick out the occasional howler. Take this piece of complacent nonsense:

Australians believe everyone is entitled to a fair go because of the Christian teaching that every person, unlike animals, is made in God's image.

Quite apart from the dubious linkage between the ‘fair go’ cliché and Christian belief in our god-like status, this claim, so deliberately made, that people, that’s to say Homo sapiens, are not animals, is a categorical rejection of the whole of biological science. The arrogance of such a claim can only be tolerable to an intelligent member of our species by the recognition that the man who uttered it is an imbecile.

Some of this year’s Easter homilies have stumblingly mentioned the atheist threat, an indication of how rattled they are. And always they go on about how angry atheists are. How fervent, how strident, how evangelical and so forth. Having attended a few atheist and skeptic meet-ups lately, I’m bound to say this is untrue. What I take from these meet-ups is a lot of wit, humour, playfulness, a fair pinch of scorn, and some quite stimulating speculative conversation. Why would atheists be angry about the fact that, in Britain, for example, the number of people professing Christian faith has dropped from 66% to 50% in the last two decades, while the number claiming to be atheist or agnostic has risen to 37%? The trend may not be as fast in Australia, but it’s definitely headed in the same way. Atheists have plenty to smile about.

It’s probably true though, to say that many nonbelievers have sensed that the tide has turned, and they’re happy to jump into the water where they would have been reluctant before. A boxer is never more aggressive than when he has the scent of victory in his nostrils. Writers like P Z Myers, of Pharyngula, no longer feel the need to pull any punches, to the delight of their swelling readership. Christian apologists, whose arguments have been so comprehensively refuted so often, have few options left, and are desperately resorting to insults, and the worst insult they can think of is that nonbelievers are behaving like evangelical Christians.

There are many reasons why Christianity is in recession in the west, but one of them is clearly the abuse of power by religious authorities, most noticeably the Catholic Church.

In the past decade or so, the massive power of the Catholic Church has crumbled under the weight of evidence relating to its profoundly inappropriate handling of serious child abuse by a number of its priests. Every time a diocese has been scrutinised, the same pattern of secrecy, of self-interest, of failure to act, and of consequent intolerable suffering, has been revealed, going back for as many decades as one would wish to, or be able to, investigate. Things are changing, but of course it’s too little, too late, and the most reluctant to accept culpability has been the Vatican itself. Now, moves are afoot to ensure the Pope’s immunity as head of perhaps the world’s most preposterous state [there’s some stiff competition], which is surely as close to an admission of guilt as we’re likely to get from the Vatican. This papal move should be fought on two fronts, neither of which is likely to succeed, at least in the short term. The Vatican should be de-listed as a sovereign state, and immunity for all heads of state should be prohibited. Of course, the consequences of such changes could hardly be underestimated. If the first occurred, it would devastate the Catholic Church, and if the second occurred, the former Bush administration, and its allies, could be prosecuted for the deaths of tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iraqi people.

We may say blithely that this will never happen, but many extraordinary things have happened in recent decades. The question we should ask is, should it happen? Should the Vatican be stripped of its statehood? Should any head of state be immune from prosecution? If we answer yes, with justifications, to each of those questions, then we should work towards achieving those worthy aims.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

on books, subjectivity and the world

I haven’t been reviewing books much lately, so now I’ll get back into it. First, an insightful little book with a misleadingly whimsical title, How to talk about books you haven’t read, by Pierre Bayard. It points out that many of us, if not all of us, talk ‘expertly’ about books we haven’t read, or have read but forgotten, or that we’re really not sure if we’ve read or not. This is particularly true of books that have become key cultural works, such as certain plays of Shakespeare [read but forgotten, in the main, at least in detail], Moby Dick [half-read], The Odyssey [unread], Ulysses [read, but I wouldn’t want to be tested on it] and so forth.

With a fine sense of irony and a sympathetic sense of the enormity of the task before anyone wishing to form an overview of western, or world, literature, Bayard picks out examples from the work of, inter alia, Robert Musil, Umberto Eco, Paul Valery, Graham Greene, Pierre Siniac, Honore de Balzac and Oscar Wilde, not so much to illustrate particular points, but to enter into speculation about the whole field of reading and non-reading. For reading a book is somewhat similar to witnessing an accident – no two accounts are the same, and the differences are often so great as to make you wonder if your co-witness hasn’t replaced the ‘real accident’ with an elaborate fantasy. And Bayard has an almost ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude towards these divergences. His attitude is, don’t be hesitant in imposing yourself, even on texts you haven’t read, or are barely familiar with. In a world compiled of texts, the key is to be able to negotiate your way through them in an expert fashion. And via these labyrinthine intertextual travels, to make your way out to the top of the heap, looking down, master of all you survey.

Not that Bayard takes this all too seriously. The book has an appealing lightness of touch, and is full of recognisable moments for those who choose to engage in the cultural campaign of reading, for self-improvement or for kudos – if there’s a difference. For example, after commenting on Montaigne’s notes about writers, which Montaigne himself stumbles upon, having forgotten both the notes and the writers, he makes this obvious but nonetheless telling point:

What we preserve of the books we read – whether we take notes or not, and even if we sincerely believe we remember them faithfully – is in truth no more than a few fragments afloat, like so many islands, on an ocean of oblivion.

 This observation occurs quite early in the book, and Bayard, arguably in post-modernist fashion, tries to make the case that we should turn our failings into advantages. It’s a variation on the death of the author and the birth of the reader [or non-reader], though less strident and virulent than the usual variations.  Or maybe just more beguiling.

In fact, though I enjoyed the book well enough, my own memory has reduced it to the fragments above-mentioned, though I read it only months ago. So, to refresh myself, I reread the epilogue, a matter of a few pages, and found myself, less beguiled by the mildness of style, disagreeing quite strongly in places. Let me put some pressure on a few quotes from this epilogue.

Encouraged from our school years onwards to think of books as untouchable objects, we feel guilty at the very thought of subjecting them to transformation.

I’m sympathetic to this, for I’ve always disliked the idea of books as sacred objects, and of writers, especially Great Writers, as sacrosanct. I recall some thirty years ago approvingly quoting something from Sartre, to the effect of ‘don’t expect me to handle your fine authors with kid gloves’, and I fondly remember shocking an older head, at about the same period, with some scathing and probably unfair comments on D H Lawrence. But the point is that I still worry over the fairness or unfairness of my comments. Don’t be worshipful or subservient, sure, but don’t be unfair either. You have to be true to texts, or they become meaningless. Transformation has its limits.

It is necessary to lift these taboos to begin to truly listen to the infinitely mobile object that is a literary text.

Here we have ye old post-modernist agenda of the world as a ‘sum of subjectivities’, raised as a value. The text is infinitely mobile, we each read it differently, we may as well be reading different things, so that as a referent, a ding an sich, it more or less evaporates, and what we must ‘truly listen to’ is this sum total. Hence it isn’t necessary to read the text, we can just add our [creatively] subjective interpretation to the sum of ideas about it, responses to it, discourses on it. Note also the word taboo here. Remember the taboo is against not treating the text as a text, fashioned by a particular person at a particular time. But if you don’t treat it that way, what is it? An infinitely mobile object, a blur, out of which you can fashion any shape you fancy. Is this really about taboos, or is it about something else?

The text’s mobility is enhanced whenever it participates in a conversation or a written exchange, where it is animated by the subjectivity of each reader and his dialogues with others, and to genuinely listen to it implies developing a particular sensitivity to all the possibilities that the book takes on in such circumstances.

This sounds so delightfully enriching and inclusive that it seems mean-spirited to object, but I’m just not sure that dissolving the text in a soup [however tasty] of possibilities, or subjectivities [however animated] equates to ‘genuinely listening to it’. By all means we should be alive to the personalized nature of engagement with a text, but the text isn’t the world, the text is the text. And Bayard really does seem to be confusing the two. It seems to me that he really wants us to be particularly sensitive to the world [of all possible subjectivities], to genuinely listen to it. So what then is the use of the text? A jumping-off point, the merest touchstone? Would a gesture, a facial expression, or an infinitely suggestible blankness, do just as well? To put it another, more tin-tacks way, is the text enhanced by the richness and diversity of the conversations around it, or is it that our conversations are enhanced by the richness of our texts? I’d put my money on the latter.

The encounter with unread books will be more enriching – and sharable with others – if the person undergoing it draws inspiration from deep within himself.

Again here, we’re beguiled by such affirmative terms as ‘enriching’ and ‘inspiration’. We’re almost enticed into disregarding the hole in the middle of this doughnut-shaped claim. What Bayard is saying, simply, is that your encounter with an unread book will have to rely on you for its richness, since nothing much will come from the other side of the equation/encounter, namely the unread book. He’s advising us to be more interesting [about the books we haven’t read, or anything else], for then we’ll assuredly be more interesting, to ourselves, in an encounter more or less entirely with ourselves. Others will no doubt be inspired, too, on hearing of this encounter.

To become a creator yourself: this is the project to which we have been brought by the observations drawn from our series of examples, and it is a project accessible only to those whose inner evolution has freed them from guilt completely.
These people know that talking about books you haven’t read is an authentically creative activity, as worthy – even if it takes place more discreetly – as those that are more socially acknowledged.

We don’t have to be taught or encouraged to be creative. Creativity is child’s play – watch any child. I have a seven-year-old friend who, at ages three and four, created wonderful, rambling narratives at the slightest suggestion. We passed by a house in the country, and she told us that she used to live there, years ago, with her boyfriend Michael who had a big blue car and they drove together all around the island and had picnics and visited their friends and it was great fun. On another occasion, when I was carrying her on a path by the seashore, she told me that she’d once been shipwrecked on these rocks, and she had to swim out and save her Nan who’d been carried away by the waves, and it was stormy and there were sharks in the water, and she wasn’t a very good swimmer, but she got her Nan to safety but then a shark bit her leg but it didn’t hurt very much but she had to go to hospital…

These delicious tales were of course free from guilt, and suggested to me that story-telling comes earlier in our development than truth-telling, and is probably more vital to us. We don’t learn to free ourselves from guilt, we learn to feel guilty – it comes as one of the responsibilities of socialization. Vital though story-telling is, truth-telling, the ability and the need to separate fact from fiction, and the sense of guilt related to telling porkies, are also pretty important qualities to develop. Obviously, a witness to a murder shouldn’t be encouraged to cover the bare bones of what she has witnessed with the rich draperies of subjective, guiltless inspiration. In the case of fictional texts, we naturally allow people more room for such inspiration. There’s less at stake, viz-a-vis story-telling and truth-telling.

Still, we do get annoyed, surely with some justification, when we hear a writer or a text traduced by someone we strongly suspect hasn’t read much more than a page or two of author or work. One of Bayard’s ‘examples’ intended to inspire us is Paul Valery, whose work was hitherto unfamiliar to me apart from a few memorable lines. Bayard describes three pieces of writing by Valery – ‘appreciations’  of three other writers; Marcel Proust, Anatole France and the philosopher Henri Bergson. We are primed, before being invited to reflect on Valery’s reflections, with the knowledge that Valery reads very little, as a general rule. Insofar as he has read his three subjects, he has probably only done so in order to ‘glean their worth’ [whether in terms of the fashion of the time, or for all time, is hard to say]. Nonetheless, according to Bayard, he still has valuable things to say, positively or negatively, about each writer.

Bayard calls this a ‘poetics of distance’, and, really, we only object to such poetics if the writer being treated is misrepresented, according to our lights. We want confirmation of our views, but we also want a deepening of our insight. That’s to say, we want ‘right judgment’ but also rich speculation and analysis. We want ‘truths’, but not necessarily about the writer, her work and her time; above all, they should be about something that relates to us, something we can benefit from, a take-home message from another instance of the conversation of humanity. And of course, in poo-pooing slavish devotion, or adherence, to texts, Bayard does make an important point about self-development and self-respect. There is an important sense in which we should read, or simply acknowledge, texts as a contribution to our story, our enrichment and growth. As such, we shouldn’t allow them to overwhelm us. Our main project is ourselves, and our struggle to keep afloat in the swamp of influences, and to move forward, or at least to be able to convince ourselves that we’re moving, in a forward direction.

To talk about books we haven’t read always will entail elements of guilt. It’s not so much that we should remain guilt-free when we engage in such talk, rather we should acknowledge what our talk is really about, whether it’s about thoughts that have emerged from our understanding of the writer’s standing, or thoughts about the subject of the text, or some celebrated incident within it. If someone who really has read the text contradicts you about it, then you can bow to their superior knowledge, or explain that, really, that isn’t what you want to talk about, you’re more interested in what you thought the text was about. Or whatever. The key is to know what you’re talking about, and what you want to talk about, to explore. To know yourself, to know what you’re doing with yourself.