Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Pierre Manent Mercredi (7): reconciling human experience with religion

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)

Those works which successfully combine a faithfulness to human experience with a religious perspective are rare. Or, to be exact, in my opinion. there is only one work, only one text in which the two perspectives are strangely, paradoxically reconciled. Unsurprisingly it's the Bible, especially the Old Testament in which you get, at the same time, directly and immediately, human experience in its ignorance of God, and yet also, mysteriously, a presence of God which does not suppress or cover up the authenticity of that experience. The text of the Psalms especially is shocking because, in a chaotic and popular language, it maintains a balance that only the greatest spiritual masters of religion can maintain so perfectly: it is a text where human beings at the same time complain, scream, protest, want to kill their enemies, are afraid of death, are sick, and yet, also, mysteriously, there is an experience of of something which is radically different from any human experience but which does not prevent this human experience from being lived and described in all its truth, in all its nudity.


My commentary:

Manent emphasises here a characteristic position: a refusal of an easy reconciliation between different perspectives. (He talks elsewhere of living within a tension between religious, political and philosophical perspectives.) There is an echo here of twentieth century theological debates on natura pura: roughly, whether there is a sharp division between a (philosophical) perspective on nature uninformed by revelation and a theological perspective informed by revelation. (My sympathies are with the defenders of a concept of natura pura for what it's worth.)

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

On the Nativity of Christ (William Dunbar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Manent Mercredi (6): Leo Strauss and the freedom to believe

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)
[Leo] Strauss shows that at any rate some people can free themselves entirely from social pressure in order to conduct themselves freely, by being capable at the same time of understanding their own interests and the prejudices of society, and yet also conveying to the careful reader of the text their real meaning which is a long way from the prejudices of that society. In that sense, Strauss is indeed a great liberator.
Strauss thus helped me to...reconsider european history. The theories of secularisation appeared to me more and more like sociological fairy tales based...on the premise that there were ages of faith when people were necessarily religious...Theories of secularisation subject the human spirit to necessity -and it's also by necessity that the human spirit frees itself from the necessity of religion. Let me put this as simply as possible: if there were many atheists in the ages of faith, and if there remain some believers in the age of secularisation, then we need to reconsider all our theological and political history.
My commentary:
Put roughly, Strauss argues that philosophers concealed their atheistic tendencies in societies dominated by religion by writing texts which could, on the surface, be read in accordance with orthodox religion, but to careful readers would reveal their intended, esoteric meaning.
Manent uses this claim to emphasise the real possibility of free thought in societies such as ours where there is overwhelming social pressure to conform to an orthodoxy of secularity. The human spirit remains free to find and articulate philosophical and religious truth whatever social pressures are put on it. Instead of a view of history driven by sociological necessity and divided neatly into periods of faith and periods of secularisation, we should instead look for a far more complicated spiritual history where the freedom of spiritual search is concealed but nonetheless exists.
Two common themes, I think, from Manent here. First, the importance of human free agency (particularly in politics) in deciding how we live, as opposed to postulating deterministic sociological laws. Secondly, the dismissal of seeing our age as specially modern, rather than being simply subject to the same perennial human questions (here, of religious belief).

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

More on Amoris Laetitia: the real world meaning of pastoral discernment

It's sometimes worth pausing to focus on a particular real life event, trivial in itself, but revelatory of a wider issue.

I argued in my last post that the consequence of Amoris Laetitia would be a weakening in the Church's teaching that marriage is indissoluble. Here's an immediate example of the harm being done. The Scottish Review (which frankly has little interest in the Catholic Church normally and no evidence of any special theological expertise) has as a Thought for the Day the following paragraph which it excerpted from The Tablet:

The acting head teacher of a Catholic school in Gosport, Hampshire, has been told he is disqualified from applying for the full headship  post simply by virtue of the 'irregular' status of his marriage. Because he is divorced and remarried he cannot be 'a practising Catholic'. Yet nobody reading the text of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on family life issued earlier this year, could honestly imagine that this is the sort of thing he had in mind. Except to condemn it.

(The Scottish Review 'Thought' can be found (at least when this blogpost was written) in the right sidebar of this page here. The original Tablet editorial (the key bit is outwith the paywall) is here.)

The article on the local newspaper's website (here) says nothing about the background to the divorce and remarriage except that this is what he has done and, as a result, the Catholic archdiocese has applied normal Church policy:

A spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese has said that the decision is national policy within the Catholic church.He said to be appointed a permanent headteacher, an applicant must be able to sign the memorandum of understanding in which they would state that they are a practising Catholic of good standing.

Now, neither The Tablet, nor The News nor The Scottish Review has applied anything like a process of careful pastoral discernment to this case. Instead, the reasoning is simply, 'This man is divorced and remarried. The Church ought to accept this. Because Pope Francis.' Or as The News quotes a parent: ‘The school takes children from all faiths and they need to get into the 21st century.’

I've read Amoris Laetitia, and I honestly don't think that Pope Francis, whatever else he may have in mind, thinks that simply knowing that someone is divorced and remarried is enough to make them 'a practising Catholic of good standing'. But there it is. That's how the message about a careful process of pastoral accompaniment is heard in the modern West.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The permanence of marriage: a sheep replies

                                                             A pastural response...

Unlike a great many other Catholic bloggers, I don't really have a problem with Austen Ivereigh. It's difficult being a public Catholic, and, on the whole, I find myself agreeing with him far more than I disagree. That said, Ivereigh's article in Crux I thought was pretty dreadful.

The one message I’ve had from other bishops and cardinals I have spoken to this year in preparation for a new book is that what AL calls for can only be grasped by a pastor.
Only one who understands the complexities of the workings of sin and grace in a person’s life grasps the paradox: that to insist on the universal, equal application of the law in all circumstances is to contradict God’s supreme law of mercy, which puts the individual before - not above, but before - the law.

One of the things that is pretty evident among those who have their worries about Amoris Laetitia is that many of us are parents. Anyone who is a father or mother of teenagers and young adults (or is peering into the  gloom of that approaching age) will be fully aware of current sexual and social mores: it would an understatement to say that they are not conducive to human flourishing. The Catholic Church is the one institution that has retained the utterly clear (and traditional) message on sex: there are only two choices -sex within a lifelong marriage or abstinence. Now most of the defenders of a loosening of pastoral acceptance of second 'marriages' do not explicitly claim that they want to overthrow traditional teaching as I've just stated it. But frankly, in my judgment, as a parent, a teacher, and just someone who engages with a lot of popular culture, that's what this sounds like. It's sending an incredibly misleading message that the Church now believes what everyone else believes: that marriage is really, to adapt Johnny Rotten's words, two minutes of squelching. (Perhaps accompanied with some pious wishes which we all know won't be fulfilled.) That's not, apparently, a pastoral response. But sheep have their expertise as well, particularly where it comes to pastoral efficacy. As Aristotle puts it (Politics III 11):

Moreover, there are some arts whose products are not judged of solely, or best, by the artists themselves, namely those arts whose products are recognized even by those who do not possess the art; for example, the knowledge of the house is not limited to the builder only; the user, or, in other words, the master, of the house will be even a better judge than the builder, just as the pilot will judge better of a rudder than the carpenter, and the guest will judge better of a feast than the cook.

Moving back to Ivereigh:

It says: Let’s hear this particular couple’s history and see where sin has created blockages and wounds, and where God’s grace is needed.
And in some, rare cases it might lead, yes, to being admitted to Communion where the lack of subjective culpability is beyond doubt, where, for example, an annulment is impossible, where the marriage is irrecoverable, where there are children by a new union, where a conversion has taken place in a person that creates a new state, and where the notion of ‘adultery’ simply fails to capture a reality.
One bishop in South America whom I recently interviewed, when I asked about Chapter Eight of Amoris in an interview, kindly but firmly cut me short. “I can’t talk about that,” he said. “Every case is different.”

Two gripes here. First, I'm sure there's a rigorous pastoral process that could be imagined -but how often will it actually turn out that way? (Declining numbers of clergy; bolshier laity with a strong sense of their own worth. How often, for example, does the process of the RCIA (which sounds awfully rigorous and pastoral) turn out that way?) Secondly, the weakening of the Church's discipline is public. The (imagined) rigour of the process is private: the world will only see the abolition of an important symbolic line.

So, too, will the lay elite intellectuals and journalists who continue to scream that the entire edifice of Catholic teaching on indissolubility will unravel as a result, and construct elaborate arguments that AL cannot possibly say what it says.
It is not easy for young converts fleeing the Anglican doctrinal muddle in search of rock-like objectivity, and who saw the synod through that prism.

I'm not constructing an elaborate argument here. I'm simply noting that almost no one thinks of marriage as a lifelong, exclusive commitment for the purpose of procreation anymore, and that the secret pastoral process which seems to be envisaged by AL will only worsen that situation. As a not so young convert (and who are these 'young' converts of whom he speaks? Young Father Hunwicke?) from Anglicanism, it wasn't just the doctrinal muddle I fled but the pastoral muddle, where every (divorced/gay/louche) Rector made stuff up on the spot under the guise of pastoral expertise. Sound familiar?

Here's one thing I do agree with Ivereigh on. Some of the attacks on the Holy Father I've seen online are terribly wrong. He is owed respect and -moreover- he is right in much of what he says and effective in how he says it. Equally, however, when leading Churchmen and philosophers question the wisdom of some interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, even if that questioning is uncomfortable and unwelcome for those impatient to get with the programme, that is not dissent but reasonable debate. And if you want a 'messy Church', debate is what you're going to get. Just let's make sure we do it without slagging off other Catholics, even if they are 'four mostly retired cardinals'.

[My overall view of Amoris Laetitia remains roughly as here.]

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Manent Mercredi #5: contra René Girard

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)

If I might put it this way, Girard brings with him the apocalypse of social science, 'apocalypse' meaning, as you know, 'revelation'.

I'm not going to lay out, this isn't the place, the thought of Girard, but just some of his principles in order to explain my attitude to him. For Girard, human civilisation rests on the mechanism of the scapegoat: human beings, naturally prone to violence, to random violence, become reconciled by putting to death the scapegoat...Such is the violent origin, the violent root of every human civilisation, according to Girard.

Now, Christianity puts an end to this violent ritual of civilisation. for, according to Girard, it reveals the secret of the human world, the secret of human civilisation, the secret which all civilisations and religions before Christianity have failed to recognise: the victim is innocent....

I have always found this doctrine powerful, impressive, and at the same time, it has always seemed to me untenable and even dangerous. For naturally, one of its consequences, or one of the presuppositions of this doctrine, is that the human order has no substance or legitimacy of its own; in any case, the political order loses any substance and legitimacy because, if the basis of the truth of civilisation, of human society, is random violence and we are all the same, then there is no reason to distinguish between political societies, between political regimes, to recognise that any particular regime is nevertheless better than another, or that some cause is more just, even if only a little more just than another cause...

You are therefore led, in a situation where you make an equivalence between the enemy and us, to give preference to the enemy. It is this which I describe as the perverse tendency of a certain sort of Christianity with respect to politics. It transforms in an overly quick and unwise way the Christian claim that we are in a sense all sinners into a political claim destructive of any political morality: ultimately, between human causes, there is no difference in justice or in honour.



Manent's dislike of Girard lies in the way that Girard depoliticises politics. Rather than the difficult but important art of politics in exploring how to govern as well as possible in difficult and confusing circumstances, Girard substitutes a religious desire to cure politics.

As well as displaying Manent's usual suspicion of the drive to replace the political attitude by morality or spirituality, this also hints at the important role played in political thinking by respecting the existence of genuine and unresolvable tensions. There are better and worse uses of violence and better and worse objects of hostility: to wish these away is indulge in fantasy rather than to accept a lived tension between the demands of Christian revelation and human political reason, between politics and religion.

See also From “René Girard’s Lesson of Shadows” by Pierre Manent here.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham

And my favourite Advent hymn (from Lincoln Cathedral choir):

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Manent Mercredi (4): Europeans are lost

This interview of Pierre Manent, former director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, was conducted by the newspaper Il Foglio in the wake of the ISIS murder of Fr. Jacques Hamel. (English version from First Things.)

The French are exhausted, but they are first of all perplexed, lost. Things were not supposed to happen this way. … We had supposedly entered into the final stage of democracy where human rights would reign, ever more rights ever more rigorously observed. We had left behind the age of nations as well as that of religions, and we would henceforth be free individuals moving frictionless over the surface of the planet. … And now we see that religious affiliations and other collective attachments not only survive but return with a particular intensity. Everyone can see and feel this, but how can it be expressed when the only authorized language is that of individual rights? We have become supremely incapable of seeing what is right before our eyes. Meanwhile the ruling class, which is not a political but an ideological class, one that commands not what must be done but what must be said, goes on indefinitely about “values,” the “values of the republic,” the “values of democracy,” the “values of Europe.” This class has been largely discredited in the eyes of citizens, but it occupies all the positions of institutional responsibility, especially in the media, and nowhere does one find groups or individuals who give the impression of understanding what is happening or of being able to stand up to it. We have no more confidence in those who lead us than in ourselves. It is neither an excuse nor a consolation to say it, but the faults of the French are those of Europeans in general.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Manent Mercredi (3): oppositional thinking

From Le Regard Politique, my translation. (The English version of the work is Seeing Things Politically.)

Fundamentally, what annoys me in the work of some  contemporaries that I have touched on, such as Louis Dumont, but even in such as a writer like Heidegger, is that their thought is dominated by a polarising and in the end polemical approach. A sort of battle of the giants is revealed to us between the new and the old, but the new and the old are each still thought of in terms of the other: the modern is defined by being the negation of the ancient, which is itself defined by being the anticipated negation, so to speak, of the modern.


The evolution [of my thought] of which I am speaking consisted in freeing myself as much as possible from the polemical posture which is shared by the two great parties of the Modern and the anti-modern. And which is even, in the final analysis, shared by those who look for impartiality in a 'neutral' polarity, 'without conqueror or conquered', between 'holism' and 'individualism', whose attempts I've followed with sympathy: they may modify the tone, but not the basis of the debate for it is still a principle of opposition, a polarity of contraries, which organises their thought. Opposition and hostility are not only some of the most powerful forces in human life; they often penetrate the most intimate depths of thought. It seems to me that, in the more recent period of my work, by reducing, if I can put it like this, the element of hostility which was included in my thought, I have arrived at an expanded understanding of the questions which have occupied me from the beginning.



It's easy to apply this to the current public world. The tone of mutual hostility which exists between (say) pro and anti-Trump partisans is clear. But Manent I take it is going beyond this. (The following should be read more as speculation rather than an interpretation of Manent.) An analysis, say, such as feminism which rests essentially on an opposition between male and female interests, and between the patriarchal past and the progressive future, covers up real life complexities and other possible political approaches and resolutions.  And the solution here is less about opposing feminism (because that simply reproduces the oppositional thought) but disregarding it entirely. Ideological thinking such as feminism traps even its opponents into being opponents.

In politics, Manent's main focus, I think leads to an obvious way forward. One constantly wrestles to free oneself from the black and white thinking associated with identification with or opposition to a particular ideology, and instead tries to reduce (note the hint that full success is impossible) the influence such ideological approaches have on you in favour of a prudential attention to reality and human nature.

[The focus on feminism isn't something I found in Manent. But it occurred to me while writing this that opposition to binary, oppositional thinking is something that feminism regularly pays at least lip service to. The irony of this of course is that it's hard to think of many other ideologies which currently produce so much oppositional thought and action both within its own ranks and as a reaction.]

Daniel J. Mahoney's essay on Manent is interesting:

This focus on practical philosophy—on deliberation and action—has become increasingly central to Manent’s work. He rejects a social science rooted in the fact-value distinction as estranged from the deliberations and choices that confront acting man. Contemporary discourses about “values” are remarkably vacuous, he maintains, since they ignore the structure of human action and render human choice arbitrary or groundless—in Max Weber’s famous formulation, men choose their gods, who may turn out to be demons. Behind soft democratic relativism, with its endless evocation of arbitrary “values,” lies an inexpiable “war of the gods,” a neo-Nietzschean metaphysic that destroys the moral integrity of liberal democracy. Manent’s thought points in a more truthful and salutary direction.


Sunday, 13 November 2016

Respecting opponents requires moral self-discipline

                                          Perhaps not the best way of regulating disputes...

An article in the New York Times typified a lot of 'progressive' reaction to Trump's election. A Muslim student discovers her roommate -whom she seems to have got along with rather well before- voted Trump and therefore packs up and leaves:

We fought; I packed. This was Tuesday evening, so I headed to my friend’s dorm, where a small group of us, mainly black women, tried to find solace in one another as the country slowly fell to red. I tried and failed to speak, to write. I ignored my roommate’s lengthy texts.
Did she really expect me to respect her choice when her choice undermined my presence in this country, in this university, in my very own dorm room? Did she really expect me to shake her hand for supporting a candidate who would love to bar my relatives from this country, who has considered making people of my faith register in a specific database and carry special ID, Holocaust-style?
What the article seems to miss (amongst many other things) is just how difficult it is for people to get along in a civilised manner: it requires virtue and often considerable will power. Certainly, part of this is putting up with other people's irritating personal habits: untidiness, singing off tune, slurping. But even more difficult is putting up with other people's views on important ethical matters. I am surrounded by people who often claim to see nothing wrong in killing unborn children, speak dismissively of God, and are positively foul about the Catholic Church. If I allowed my emotions free rein, I would be running around screaming at them. That I don't is a mix of different reasons. Sometimes it's because, short of ending up starving on the street, I have to get along with them. Sometimes it's because I have special duties to them as, for example, relatives. Sometimes, it's because, despite their views, I can see that they have a basic decency. And so on.
I'm not sure how much of this is due to social media, but this sort of recognition of the need for self control to establish civic peace and cordiality seems increasingly to be lost. Given the diversity of today's nation states, we all need to inculcate in ourselves and our children a much sterner self-discipline about knee jerk, emotional reactions. Getting on with other people involves compromise, self-restraint and courage. (I don't dismiss the student's fear of how she will be treated as a Muslim. But taking out that fear on a well-inclined, friendly roommate seems to me viciously self-indulgent.)
Self-restraint, civility, simple politeness. Not particularly fashionable virtues in a society where letting it all hang out and stuff anybody else has been the norm of behaviour from the sixties. And, yes, I am only too well aware of the difficulty in reconciling these norms with Donald Trump's behaviour. Doesn't make them any less necessary.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Manent Mercredi (2): Trump and Brexit

Pierre Manent on Brexit:

Once the result was known, very violent attacks have been launched on both sides of the English Channel against the voters of Brexit… This is the highest comedy, the comedy of repetition. We have known for about ten or fifteen years that the European peoples are perplexed, dissatisfied, very concerned. They have largely lost confidence in the governing class and in the so-called elites. This is reflected by the protest votes, either in referendums as in 2005 in the Netherlands and in France, or just recently in the United Kingdom, or in the usual elections, by the important gains of so called populists. And each time, it is the same comedy: the members of the Council of European family look incredulous as if the Arc de Triomphe and Buckingham Palace had exchanged their seats. They briefly fall silent, choked on a genuine indignation. Then they dump on the voters by all available channels the great waters of their contempt: According to them, the vote was decided by an unworthy plebs, lazy and ignorant, xenophobic and regressive. They rediscover the long discredited argument in favour of restricted suffrage. In short, the European Union should have introduced us to the ultimate stage of democracy, and it has instead  reconstituted a self-aware oligarchy, assured of their right, and quite content to impose their views on the recalcitrant majority.

Interviewer: How to explain that, according to you, our leaders no longer feel obliged to convince their fellow citizens?

Until a fairly recent date, the social divisions of our country were covered up and overcome by participation in the nation as a political community. This is no longer the case today. The right and left have renounced the role that had been theirs since these families of thought began to exist. The right has abandoned the 'people as nation', and stopped seeking justice and unity by a unifying reference to the nation: farewell to gaullism. The left has abandoned the working class, and stopped seeking justice and unity by a unifying reference to the people who are "exploited": farewell to socialism. Right and Left  no longer give themselves the task of representing the French in their concrete reality, to govern them in the best way possible, but instead aim to lead them toward a new society, a new world in which they would disappear as French to resurface, better and wiser, as Europeans.

...The more "European construction" progressed, the more the springs of democratic political life were distorted. That life is based on a moral exchange between people and rulers: the people puts its trust in rulers, who justify this confidence by governing in a fair, prudent and honourable manner. When the reference to Europe intervenes between the governed and rulers, the representative mandate gives way to an ideological mandate. The political class is no more accountable to the people of the electors, but to the idea and the "criteria" of Europe. Since nobody can define positively what is "Europe", it will instead be defined negatively: to build Europe, it is undo, and first delegitimize the nations. This is the politics of ideology, i.e. policy of the impossible, since the nations of which one wants to ruin the legitimacy remain the only really alive and strong constituents of European life. Political legitimacy and political reality are moving away from one another. The political class is more and more ideological.

(Interview from Le Figaro 1 August 2016. Non paywall version here. My translation (or, more exactly, tidied up machine translation for speed.) )


Thinking about the success of Trump today, I wonder how much is a result of progressive politics being based on this imposition of a goal to make voters better. If you go on telling people that they are xenophobes, patriarchal and just generally not good enough as they are, how long before they begin to get irritated? One of Manent's constant themes is the depolitisation of politics. Instead of appealing to voters with existing concrete lives and interests, liberal elites aim to impose moral ideals which existing voters invariably are failing to live up to. (And which, absent any substantive content to 'progressive', tend to be defined negatively by destroying the already existent.)

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Scottish government goes soft on religious worship?

                                      S6 finding a secular alternative to religious worship...

The never ending guerilla campaign of the various septs of Clan Atheist to undermine religious schooling in Scotland continues.

The latest surge focuses on allowing 16-18 year olds to opt out of acts of worship off their own bat:

A consultation is to be held on whether older pupils should be allowed to opt themselves out of religious observance in schools, the BBC has learned.
All young people in Scotland need parental permission to withdraw from religious activities like assemblies.

The Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS) was seeking a judicial review of that policy for older pupils.
The Scottish government is now to consider revising guidance to head teachers.

Religious observance must take place in Scottish schools at least six times a year.
In England and Wales, sixth form pupils - normally aged between 16 and 18 - have the right to make their own decision about opting out.

[From BBC website here]

I confess that up till now, I'd rather naively assumed that the thrust of this campaign was directed at non-denominational schools rather religious ones (ie in Scotland, essentially Catholic). Although I'd lean towards keeping matters as they are even in non-denominational schools, my enthusiasm is tempered in this case by a realisation that, generally, this probably means subjecting youths to the inanities of modern Jesus-lite Presbyterianism. (But, broadly, better that than nothing. A previous post on a related issue probably gives a good sense of my views. My previous suggestion that such non-denominational waffle should be replaced by cultural sessions of metrical psalms and readings from the Authorised Version of the Bible doesn't seem to have many takers either. Shame.)

However, judging from the BBC Sunday Politics Scotland (here: after 1.01) this is also or even primarily directed at Catholic schools. Specific mention is made in the programme of the incident in Motherwell where fifty pupils didn't bother to turn up to an annual Patron's Day Mass (earlier report here) and were punished accordingly. Allowing pupils to opt out of Catholic worship in a Catholic school undermines that school's ability to provide a Catholic ethos. Whilst you're free to regard us Catholics as a bunch of iron age goatherd worshipping paddies or whatever, if you're going to allow us Catholic schools, then you have to allow us the right to run those schools as Catholic schools. And here, unlike the more difficult to resolve issues on, say, the teaching of a Catholic sexual morality at odds with the common-or-garden secular version, this is simply the basic, minimum standard of a Catholic ethos: worshipping God.

Anthony Esolen makes the point about the Mass's centrality to Catholic understandings of social order in his book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, referring in particular to the teaching in Leo XIII's Mirae caritatis:

This Sacrament, whether as the theme of devout meditation, or as the object of public adoration, or best of all as a food to be received in the utmost purity of conscience, is to be regarded as the centre towards which the spiritual life of a Christian in all its ambit gravitates; for all other forms of devotion, whatsoever they may be, lead up to it, and in it find their point of rest. In this mystery more than in any other that gracious invitation and still more gracious promise of Christ is realised and finds its daily fulfilment: "Come to me all ye that labour and are heavily burdened, and I will refresh you" (St. Matt. xi., 28).
15. In a word this Sacrament is, as it were, the very soul of the Church; and to it the grace of the priesthood is ordered and directed in all its fulness and in each of its successive grades. From the same source the Church draws and has all her strength, all her glory, her every supernatural endowment and adornment, every good thing that is here; wherefore she makes it the chiefest of all her cares to prepare the hearts of the faithful for an intimate union with Christ through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, and to draw them thereto. And to this end she strives to promote the veneration of the august mystery by surrounding it with holy ceremonies.
Undoubtedly, the atheists will regard this as so much nonsense. Unfortunately, it is our nonsense, and if we are to be allowed to run schools to promote a Catholic ethos, the Mass should be at the heart of those schools. If pupils can't accept that, they should leave the school. (And the choice of leaving or staying at a school is one for parents, not children.)
But of course, the real question, to which these are but preliminary skirmishes, is whether we are to be left to run schools...

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

New series: Manent Mercredi

As part of my services to alliteration, I'm going (until I get bored anyway) to institute Pierre Manent Wednesdays in which I'll excerpt and perhaps comment on some of his writings. He strikes me as one of those Catholic thinkers who should be better known in Scotland and the rest of the UK. (Admittedly a long list...)

The 'Contemporary Thinkers' website gives a good overview of his work here.

I don't claim to have any particular expertise in Manent's thought: indeed, one of my reasons for doing this is to force me to engage more seriously with his work myself. If I had to give a rough idea of why I think this might be worth doing, I'd suggest:

1) He appears to be utterly orthodox in his Catholic belief and practice and yet sensitive to the way that religion, politics and philosophy are not always easy bedfellows.

2) He is realistic about the difficulties globalisation brings to Europe without fantasising about the possibility of undoing existing conditions.

3) Whilst sympathetic to 'identitaire' concerns about preserving French culture, he has a deep appreciation of American political thought.

Anyway, let's kick off with an extract from an autobiographical collection of interviews Le Regard Politique. (There is an English translation Seeing Things Politically but I'll be using my own (imperfect) translations from the French.)

On the distinction between compassion and charity:

It is true that democratic feeling, compassion for your fellow man, often produces the same actions as charity. The perspective, however, is radically different. Fellow feeling is a subtle development of self love. Because I see him as my fellow man, I identify myself with my fellow man who is suffering and therefore I want to rid him of his suffering as I would want to be freed from mine. At the same time, of course, compassion supposes that I do not suffer myself. My moral imagination needs, so to speak leisure, needs to have some room so that it can pay attention to the suffering of others. If I am suffering myself, at least with a certain intensity, this ability is taken away from me. And as Rousseau, to whom we owe the most rigorous analyses of humanitarian compassion, emphasises, even the most sincere compassion carries with it, along with the identification with the other suffering person, the satisfaction and pleasure of not suffering oneself.

Charity is completely different. In the strict or fullest sense of the term, it's a disposition, a virtue that human beings cannot acquire or produce by their own efforts. Technically, if I might venture to put it like this, charity is God's own love, the love with which God loves human beings and, in the first place, the love with which God loves himself in the trinitarian exchange. Therefore, in the true sense of the term, a charitable person is someone who shares, by the grace of God, in the love of God. That's a theological definition so we can put it aside for now. But even if we regard this disposition from a simply human point of view, we can see that charity involves aspects that distance it from democratic compassion. Charity, in effect, ignores the return to oneself which belongs to the life of fellow feeling, because charity doesn't involve an identification with the other suffering person, or a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure in not suffering oneself.


[The charitable person] doesn't love him [ie his fellow man] because he is his fellow, he doesn't love him because he is this particular person, he loves him because he is the image of God.



Putting aside any deeper analysis here, the identification of the element of self love and pleasure in one's own state in compassion strikes me as insightful into much of what passes for altruism in modernity. Virtue signalling is a clear instance of this. Moreover, much of the progressive commentary on the refugee crisis assumes an incredibly patronising stance: much of it is shot through with a sense of our home as a secular heaven to which we delight in inviting those we choose. Manent's contrast of compassion with the rather more objective and detached charity does hint at the appalling sentimentality that dominates many discussions of beneficence.

Monday, 31 October 2016


This time of year, as well as bringing herds of small children demanding sweets, also tends to bring out Christian ruminations on the advisbility of celebrating ghouls and the occult.

Whilst there's clearly some issue involved in being over fascinated with supernatural evil, I've always rather enjoyed the celebrations, particularly when our children were younger. I was rather relieved to discover this enjoyment was shared with Russell Kirk:

As a teller and writer of ghostly tales, I celebrate Halloween with enthusiasm. Every October 31, as many as 400 trick-or-treaters have found their way to our tall Italianate house in a decayed village in Michigan these past two decades, and we have both tricked and treated them, to their dreadful joy.  Such amiable festivities are vanishing altogether nowadays from American cities, supplanted by annual holocausts.

 [From 'Halloween's horrors' here]

In essence, I don't see in principle anything more wrong in dressing up as devils for Halloween than in dressing up as devils for the medieval mystery plays. I suspect there's a deep truth buried here should the effort be made fully to dig it out: how a genuinely and deeply Christian culture can afford to be playful and imaginative in its treatment of evil, without losing sight of its essential wrongness. Instead of modern horror where there is too often a simple revelling in the brutal or sordid, the secular but truly Christian world can allow itself a moment (and even the risk) of getting lost in evil, secure in the knowledge that evil is ultimately defeated by good, just as Halloween is followed by All Saints' Day. The Church may not always have known what to make of the details of folk Catholic Halloween, but the basic pattern was there: Christ and his saints rescue us from the chaos of night, even if that chaos has to be imaginatively lived out before the rescue can be fully appreciated.

We've lost the ease with which peasant Catholicism handled an enchanted world, and instead are forced to stammer our way through it as if speakers of a foreign tongue, nervous of making a mistake. The actual practice of societies more comfortable with their Catholicism than ours can be instructive.

I hope you enjoy what's left of Halloween. And remember that tomorrow, the Feast of All Saints, is a holy day of obligation and you go to mass.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Gilead and Marilynne Robinson

I'm a bit of a sucker for that sort of high end American intellectual life (think Frasier without the jokes) where everyone appears terribly mature and balanced and to have been brought up surrounded by old oak and nourished on good bourbon.

I'm currently about half way through Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's much praised novel about this wise old small town pastor reminiscing about his life. Everyone seems to like it, I like it, and I haven't finished it (so there is always the possibility of an alien abduction enlivening things a bit later on) but...

Robinson has been much praised for restoring a vision of how religion can survive (indeed, should survive) in modernity. I think it's probably fair to describe that vision as one of providing a space for critical reflection on the everyday. (The narration in Gilead is retrospective, changing nothing in the life, but adding depth and complexity as the everyday is reflected on and retold.) From reading Robinson's interviews and critical reviews of her work, that impression seems not far from her intention:

Psalm 122 is, you could say, the theme song of this vision, and it is a vision that prompts Robinson to a ferocious critique of the abstractions of ideology - including "austerity" as an imperative to save the world for capitalism. She offers a striking diagnosis of the corrupting effect of rationalism: rationalism as she defines it is the attempt to get the world to fit the theory; and because the world is never going to fit the theory, the end-product of rationalist strategies is always panic.
"Rationalism is the omnium-gatherum of resentment and foreboding", whereas reasonableness is interested in "things as they come". The economic crisis is, in this sense, the nemesis of one kind of rationalism, oblivious of the actual complexity of people's motivation.
Where do we find the reasonable rather than the rationalistic? Above all, in the various ways in which we are educated in "imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly"; in a broadly conceived, long-term commitment to building this kind of loving understanding - in fact, in what has often been called a "liberal education". [Rowan Williams here.]

Robinson: I do. That’s what I do. But it rationalizes my lecturing, too. But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.
You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

[Robinson in conversation with President Obama here]

Quite apart from my 'Frasier' fetish, I find this all very attractive on one level: reasonable people, thinking the best of each other, and trying to find and promote the good in small communities. Unfortunately, it just strikes me as profoundly unCatholic and only superficially human.

My reaction to this is perhaps not being helped by my currently reading Russell Kirk's Ancestral Shadows. Whilst sharing an affection for small town American life with Robinson, Kirk's vision is rather more likely to end up with an axe wielding revenant than with mature contentment. (And you could add Flannery O'Connor to that as well. Or Walker Percy's physically satisfied moderns who decide to chew their own limbs off rather than suffer the boredom of their secularised lives.) I suppose, unsurprisingly, that Robinson's vision of serious reasonableness is very hard to reconcile with the medieval and Catholic universe of demons and gnashing of teeth. Indeed, it is a reminder of just how much Robinson's Calvinism is essentially an anti-Catholicism, a reasonableness defined as being an escape from medieval superstition and hysteria.

Robinson's Calvinism covers up much of what it is to be human. Although I despise most of what has happened to popular culture since the 1950s, the search for ecstasy through sex n drugs n rock and roll is utterly human and a shadowy tribute to the human desire for a supernatural end. Gilead has little place for the burning ecstasy of the saints or of Jimi Hendrix.

It also has little place for the demonic or the ancestral shadow of original sin. Most serious Catholics I know tend to be very clear about their own unworthiness. They are usually very conscious about their need for the mercy of grace and how little they deserve it. Oddly, in view of Calvinism's debt to Augustine, there is much more of a sense in Catholicism of the essential imperfection of the Earthly City and our final home being with God, rather than with a good bourbon in front of PBS, natural goods though these undoubtedly are.

Perhaps the Robinsonian vision is the correct one. Perhaps we are all reasonable people, striving with good hearts towards a progressive future. I'm afraid I tend to see as well as goodness, the irruption of the lust for domination into all of human life, the dumb certainty that this small creature has it right, and that if only everyone else were as reasonable, everything would be fine. (And with a little, forceful encouragement, it will be.) At the centre of Robinson's Calvinism is the sermon and the self-reflective community:

What do you personally get out of going to church?
I have gone to the same church for more than 20 years. It is my village, so to speak. I see children come into the world and elders pass out of it, and I see lives unfold around me. That is a little part of it. Then I have occasion, rare in the world, to hear a good and learned man say something he takes to be true, to a congregation listening in good faith for whatever truth he has to offer. Finally, I think differently, otherwise, in that place than I do anywhere else. It is as if I can put the world and myself aside for an hour and hear and think more purely. [Here]

These are not bad things. But a Catholic goes to Church essentially to have something burst into a community from outside it  through the Mass. Hopkins' lines

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

whilst certainly celebrating the immanence of the divine also acknowledges its transcendence, its imposing externality (the martial echoes of 'charged'/'foil'; the violence of 'crushed' (emphasised by enjambment)/ 'rod'), its essential surprisingness.

Although much has been made of the way in which Robinson's vision of the importance of religion offers a contrast to secularising narratives, I'm not so sure. Everyone loves her. She wins prizes and Presidents woo her. The idea of religion as adding depth and shade to an already existing (secular) design is one we all already love. And a world tweaked thus would be less overtly hostile to some forms of religion. (We would all be in Church to hear a good and learned man say something.) But we would be deaf to grandeur and squalor, deaf to the way that religion roars of something else terrible.

Could Robinson's Congregationalism produce this?

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Imposing progressive narratives on art


                                 'To a lesbian with a hammer, everything looks like a male'

Without attempting for the moment to go into all the complexities involved, art might be argued to provide a space in which a disinterested contemplation replaces the busy drive for usefulness that tends to fill our lives. Whatever idiocies can exist in modern art, it sometimes still remains a space in which we can pause, withdraw from everyday life and seek the dearest freshness deep down things.

This thought has cropped up a number of times in recent days. I have great sympathy when Sir James MacMillan talks of 'snapping' at Pat Kane's cultural smugness:

‘The last time I saw him was at a post-devolution party at the National Museum of Scotland; the kind of lavish event where the Scottish liberal elites gather to exult in one of their regular self-congratulatory orgies of entitlement and privilege. He looked at me, with tears in his eyes and said falteringly “Look at all this James; we are now the new modern Scottish establishment.” Something snapped in me that night, and I’ve never been the same since…’ (From here.)

Something similar is clearly fuelling the rapper Loki in his latest work (avoid if you're sensitive about swearing):

And finally, when The Quietus dismisses The Smiths for their whiteness, I can't help admire the blindness that allows such a dismissal of the truth behind their laments for a vision of lower middle class life in the north of England which might (if taken seriously) lead to a greater understanding of Brexit and UKIP:

...right from the outset, Morrissey and The Smiths represented a fatally reactionary moment in British pop culture - a severing of punk and post-punk's honourable links with black musics. They were here to reject colour in every respect, be it the gaudy, neon-lit backdrop of Top Of The Pops against which Morrissey wanly cavorted, or the colourisation of indie afforded by its embrace of dance music and reggae. Their wistful cover artwork, harking back to popular icons of the 50s and early 60s, were redolent of a time when black people had a near-zero cultural imprint on the British consciousness, unless you counted the hugely, inexplicably popular The Black And White Minstrel Show. This was explicit, as well as implicit. Morrissey spoke of a conspiracy to promote black music in the British charts, while opining that reggae was "vile".

Now the cases are different, and I have no desire to fall into the same trap as I am accusing progressives of by oversimplifying. But all do seem to be cases where the disruptive possibilities of art as truth telling are being undermined, and where a great part of the problem is the imposition of a monological progressive narrative on raw art.

So when I see an article in the LA Review of Books on queerness in childhood literature, and an article on the Netflix series Stranger Things which complains about its emphasis on the pursuit of prettiness by the lead girl character, I recognize a similar pattern of failing to allow the openness of art by the imposition of a progressive narrative. To begin with Stranger Things, for those who haven't seen it, it is an evocation of 1980s childhood buddy movies with a thriller/horror dimension: think Gremlins crossed with the X Files. Unfortunately, it commits the cardinal progressive sin of allowing a (rather androgynous) central girl character to 'pretty herself up':

Eleven touches her new blonde wig in front of a mirror in Mike’s house. “You look pretty,” Mike tells her. “Pretty?” she asks, not sure whether to believe him. It’s a word she’ll repeat a few times throughout the series — gazing at her reflection, seeing the way Mike looks at her. While she struggles to comprehend other words the boys introduce, “pretty” is one that Eleven understands immediately and intimately. She was robbed of an entire childhood, but having been denied prettiness seems to be one of her short life’s greatest sadnesses. (Article here.)

Turning to the article on queerness and children's literature and referring to the book, The Secret Language:

What I see in The Secret Language is a gesture toward relationships between young friends that can’t be easily categorized and that hint toward queerness. In some cases, the hint seems barely hidden at all.

Now, undoubtedly the writers of both articles views themselves as bringing out the silenced voices of LGBTQIA+ sensibilities from out of the background of smothering and dominant 'straight' narrative. Fair enough in principle. But we have now moved into a world where the dominant critical voice is a progressive one which turns the openness of writerly texts into the simplicity of readerly ones. By doing so, it obscures both the details of the texts and the complexities of the world they reproduce. For example, Eleven's character in Stranger Things does not remain frozen in the pursuit of prettiness: it is merely one element in a series of incidents most of which do not fit easily into a narrative of 'girl glams up and gets boy'. Even the 'prettying up' functions more as a practice of drag: the clumsiness of the wig and the shabbiness of the dress draw attention to its artificiality:

I'm not as great a fan of Stranger Things as many seem to be. (It strikes me as being in the grand tradition of X Files in suggesting a more coherent truth to be revealed which, after 5,000,001 episodes, will turn out to be rather more about stringing the viewers along than realizing a formed artistic vision.) But it is clearly more open a text than the quoted article suggests. The relationships between boys and girls are complex, and, in particular, involve some sorts of experimentation and faltering. Even if Eleven were destined to turn into a Diesel Dyke, ze is highly likely to face the pressures of  appealing to men and exploring 'pretty': to erase that exploration is to fail to justice to the series and to reality.

Likewise, the article on queerness in children's literature suppresses the complexity of all childhoods in favour of highlighting a very closed narrative about lesbians in the making. Same sex friendships, finding the other sex 'icky', and a sense of the mysterious possibilities of adult erotic pleasure are something we all go through, straight or gay. By imposing only one possible narrative on a writerly text, we lose the possibility of confronting an artistic space in which we can put aside our certainties and lust for control, and instead contemplate and allow ourselves to be re-made by the art rather than re-making it.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Culture in Scotland: the problem of substance rather than simply institutions

Nicola Sturgeon tames Scotland by Gerard Burns 

There has been a flurry of 'conservative' (I'm never quite sure how to describe this/my approach, but 'conservative' will do as a placeholder) comment on the stifling cultural and political hegemony of modern Scotland. Kenneth Roy's piece in the Scottish Review will do as an example:

This is the nature of the malaise: it seems that everyone has too much to lose by challenging an increasingly monolithic political establishment, particularly when the most influential voices in the arts and media have allowed themselves to become cheerleaders for that establishment. Is this really how a healthy democracy should function? Journalism works best when it is scrutinising and challenging the established order, not meekly acquiescing; the same is surely true of fiction, poetry and the performing arts. But in Scotland the normal rules of engagement have been turned on their head: if we know what is good for us, we sing from the same patriotic song-sheet, picking up our allotted crumb from the breadboard of Creative Scotland, hoping for a good review from Alan Taylor, hearing no evil, seeing no evil, until the last dissenter has been strangled with the last rolled-up copy of the Sunday Herald.

I've got considerable sympathy for this view, but more (and in more detail) needs to be said. First, one of the problems of devolution, let alone the push for more powers and ultimately independence, is that more powers now exist to exercise hegemony than did (say) fifty years ago. In my adult life, I have never noticed a particularly varied political or cultural debate in Scotland.  Anyone who encountered the Labour hegemony that existed until recently would not immediately have thought that they had encountered a Golden Age of intellectual curiosity. But it's undoubtedly true that 'blob' thinking now has more levers to operate in Scotland. So the first observation is that hegemony has always existed in modern Scotland but it now has more power to do damage.

Secondly, it is hardly the fault of the SNP that every other party in Scotland has decided to become incompetent. Although this is (perhaps) slightly overstating the case, the collapse of Scottish Conservatism, UK Liberalism and the Scottish (and perhaps UK?) Labour Party is not the fault of the SNP although they have clearly benefited from it. It is possible that Scottish Conservatism is staging a revival. Personally, I doubt this, but in any case there seems little likelihood in the near future of its being able to mount the sort of serious opposition to the SNP that Labour once was capable of. The resulting hegemony is undoubtedly regrettable, but the fault (and solution) is more to do with the other parties than the SNP.

Thirdly, and remaining with 'conservatism' for a while, at the moment, most criticism of the existing hegemony is on the grounds of a) competence and b) Unionism. That's fine and necessary, but as a long term strategy, it's limited. Issues of competence are difficult to assess in real time and unless Unionism becomes more than a simple economic case ('independence is going to cost you') it's probably going to become increasingly ineffective as people get used to the message as a background noise and certainly is going to lack impact on the wider cultural field.

And it's this wider cultural field that I want to focus on. Modern Scottish Nationalism has, in a remarkably short period of time, managed to convince large numbers of people, perhaps even a majority, that Scotland is progressive. The details of what this means are essentially fuzzy, but as a civil religion it certainly contains a familiar kit of benedictions and comminations. Blessed are the multicultural. Cursed are the homophobic. Blessed are those exploring their own sexuality. Cursed are those who believe in tradition. Etc. Etc. When coupled with a general tendency in the West for cultural elites to be overwhelmingly progressive (the Heterodox Academy is a good source on this), the pre-existing tendency to blob thinking in Scotland, as well as the identification of Scottish Nationalism with the project of becoming (even) more progressive than England, we have a recipe for the sort of stifling cultural control that Roy identifies.

Certainly, I would like to see a more effective political opposition to the SNP, not because I am particularly hostile to the SNP, but because it is unhealthy for any party to feel it is invulnerable. [Let me note here that there is a key issue that rarely seems to be raised: the SNP used to be regarded by most Nationalists I know as a temporary coalition which would dissolve upon independence. The need now to exist as a (devolved) government before independence has put this coalition identity in the background while the sort of effective discipline and clear policies required for electable government are practised. The resulting dilemmas for supporters of independence who are opposed to SNP progressivism have been insufficiently explored.] But until one or more of the other parties manages to pull itself into shape and become presentable as a potential opposition, that's not going to happen. And it's foolish to blame the SNP for that. Part of the solution has to be the creation of a vision of Scotland that is substantially different from the progressive vision of the SNP. (And it's worth noting here that the much of the most effective criticism at the moment seems to be coming from those who think that the SNP is insufficiently progressive.) And more needs to be said here than simply a endorsement of the Union: what sort of society would be better, aside from the question of whether or not that society is better realized within or outwith the UK?

Back to Roy's essay. Imagine a situation ten years in the future when (say) complete independence is off the agenda. The SNP will still be campaigning for a different, more progressive Scotland to differentiate itself from the UK culturally. Other than on economic reforms, the Conservative Party will be as progressive in all essentials as the SNP, and the Corbynite Left and the Greens will be urging even more progressivism. What reason is there to think that cultural life in Scotland will not still be as stiflingly progressive as it is now?

In sum, cultural and political hegemony is a problem in modern Scotland, but breaking the SNP's monopoly of political power is only one (and I think a minor) aspect of that problem. I see no sign that, even without an assured political control over cultural institutions, the dominance of a a certain progressive viewpoint will be abandoned. As I have said many times before, the question of Independence is secondary to the question of what sort of society we should live in, and the sort of progressivism that the SNP promotes is dominant in Scotland far beyond that party.

Three final, concrete illustrations. The current stooshie over the Named Person scheme is certainly the fault of the SNP. But it is also the fault of a cultural and political climate that makes it very difficult to articulate the sort of truth about the central place of the biological family that the Supreme Court judges quoted from international law (section 72):

The Preamble to the UNCRC states:

“the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and wellbeing of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.”
Many articles in the UNCRC acknowledge that it is the right and responsibility of parents to bring up their children. Thus article 3(2) requires States Parties, in their actions to protect a child’s wellbeing, to take into account the rights and duties of his or her parents or other individuals legally responsible for him or her; article 5 requires States Parties to respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, other family or community members or others legally responsible for the child to provide appropriate direction and guidance to the child in the exercise of his or her rights under the Convention; article 14(2) makes similar provision in relation to the child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; article 27(2) emphasises that the parents have the primary responsibility to secure, within their abilities and financial capabilities, the conditions of living necessary for the child’s development; article 18(1) provides that:

     “States Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both     parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. Parents or, as the case may  be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern.” (Emphasis supplied)

(When the judgment came out, I remember some Twitter comment describing that commonsense attitude as 'medieval'...)

Unless that sort of 'conservative' viewpoint has access to cultural institutions such as Roy refers to, in sufficient numbers and with sufficient internal variety to give it intellectual heft (another problem just now),  whether inside or outside the UK we are sunk.

Secondly, Roy allows himself a sideswipe at Neal Ascherson. In particular, he mentions Andrew O'Hagan's difficulties with Nationalists after criticizing him. I assume in particular he is thinking of the LRB review by O'Hagan of Ascherson's Stone Voices. (Here.) Now you can think what you like of Ascherson and indeed of Stone Voices. (For what it's worth, I think neither beyond criticism, but am profoundly grateful to Ascherson for over the years of his Observer columns showing something to a younger me of what intellectual life might be like, and to Stone Voices for a stimulating piece of psychogeography, particularly when read (as I did) in Kilmartin Glen.) Of course, Ascherson should be argued with. But note from what perspective O'Hagan does so:

There is, as Nairn puts it, a ‘tantalising sense of redemption which always informs nostalgia’, but the Scottish people cannot afford to get stuck there any longer, and Scotland must go on now to establish its role in bringing about a new United Kingdom within a new Europe. In the manner of Stephen Dedalus, we might do better to see Scotland’s conscience as ‘uncreated’; for while we must admit that Ascherson’s stones are interesting, they are not as interesting as people. Nationalism in Scotland is a place where good men and women busy themselves shaking the dead hand of the past, but the naming of a tradition is not the same as the forging of a nation, and modern Scotland, now more than ever, needs a new way of thinking, a new kind of relation to the old, a way to live, a way to make itself better than the badness that’s been and the badness to come. The question of what the past amounted to can lie about the grass.
So Ascherson, the paradigm of a progressive intellectual, complete with endorsements from Hobsbawm and an Eton education, is criticized by being insufficiently progressive, too interested in the past, too conservative. The usual Scottish substantive hegemonic game: you are wrong because I am more progressive than you. Am I really, as a social conservative, supposed to celebrate this iteration of the progressive mindset as an unproblematic example of well placed criticism suppressed by evil Nats? (Just imagine reading the above O'Hagan paragraph to Roger Scruton. With whom do you think his sympathies might lie?)

Thirdly and finally, Roy raises the question of the enforced reading of Scottish texts in Scottish schools. Quite why this should be objectionable is beyond me. (If it were a matter of only reading Scottish texts, that would be different.) From those of my children who had to study English at Higher, I can recall only two Scottish texts: Jekyll and Hyde and Robin Jenkins' The Cone Gatherers. Neither strike me as unreasonable (whatever else I'd like to say about the thinness of the Higher curriculum). Stevenson's text surely earns its place as a world classic. Jenkins', whilst not my favourite of his works (Fergus Lamont, if you want to know), is a Christian parable about suffering and innocence. Again, why should a conservative object a) to some awareness of one's local culture and b) in particular, these books?

Overall, I think the problem lies more in the absence of lively conservative cultural institutions within Scotland capable of articulating and even disagreeing on what is wrong with progressivism. (Alistair Darling makes the point in his introduction to Tom Gallagher's Scotland Now about the absence of " 'think tank' capacity", a lack particularly evident in the reasoned expression of conservative views beyond Unionism.) Too much rests on the sort of campaigning talk along the lines of  'my friend's enemy is my enemy'. The mere fact that a given commentator opposes the SNP  is not enough to endorse their views uncritically; the mere fact that a given view is held by supporters of the SNP is not enough to dismiss them.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Walter Scott on mature love

                                                    Charlotte Scott (in 1810; died 1826)

I'm almost at the end of my reading through Walter Scott's Collected Works and am now into his 'Poems'. (So 93% through the Collected Works per my Kindle.)

Frankly, I'm unable to judge the poetic merits of the following: too fresh and it hit an emotional chord. ('August' is certainly coming metaphorically for me (and of course literally as well).) Anyway, hadn't seen it before and it's a feature of long enduring marriages that's too little celebrated:

Oh, say not, my love, with that mortified air,
That your spring-time of pleasure is flown,
Nor bid me to maids that are younger repair,
For those raptures that still are thine own.

Though April his temples may wreathe with the vine,
Its tendrils in infancy curl'd,
'Tis the ardor of August matures us the wine,
Whose life-blood enlivens the world.

Though thy form, that was fashioned as light as a fay's,
Has assumed a proportion more round,
And thy glance, that was bright as a falcon's at gaze,
Looks soberly now on the ground,--

Enough, after absence to meet me again,
Thy steps still with ecstasy move;
Enough, that those dear sober glances retain
For me the kind language of love.

Had I seen this poem at the time, it would have served as an excellent response to this typically grubby little Daily Mail piece which stuck in my mind at the time as displaying in its faux sympathetic prurience much of what is wrong with modern understandings of sex and explains why fewer of us seem to reach the sublimity of Scott's attitude. There is in any case a special place in Hell for (mostly) men who dump their wives in favour of younger versions. (Rather too common judging from my circle of acquaintance.)

If there's a general moral to be drawn from all this, it's perhaps that the ability of men and women to construct long term marriages is based on a complex web of attitudes and practices that our modern culture is doing its best to undermine. Instead of sex education, small children should be forced to rote learn the above so that, when August and the need for such an attitude arises, the words are already there.

[As I'm lazy, I googled the poem and cut and pasted it from the website here. It's a nice tribute to Scott and a good site for poetry in general.]