Revolutionary Times?

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The wins for The Donald and the Bern in NH seems to have confirmed sections of the media in its view that something is happening in our politics, and over my side of the Pond I have seen parallels drawn with Jeremy Corbyn, Syriza and the Front Nationale – it is, it is being said, the anti-Establishment candidates who are attracting the young and the discontented. In the UK we have a system of what are called by elections, so, when a member of parliament dies or resigns between general elections, there is an election in that seat; usually the ‘insurgent’ or ‘protest’ vote does well, sometimes even wins, but, at the next general election the seat reverts to the old loyalty. People, it seems, are willing to pile in with a protest vote – ‘kick the rascals out’ – when there is nothing much at risk, but when there is, they revert to safety first; after all, someone needs to run the economy.

Quite what happens when it seems that the ‘safety first’ parties cannot run the economy is an interesting question which we, most of us, hope does not have to asked soon, though the odds on that are shortening. It is for that reason that the pundits are predicting, at least some of them, that it will be Hillary versus Marco Rubio; but I wonder if that is just the comfort zone for the MSM? From this side, it seems amazing that the Hillary and her emails thing is still grinding on – it kind of reinforces the view that normal rules don’t apply to her, and that the most powerful machine in American politics is going to grind out a victory. The problem with that may be that while we know Hillary wants to be POTUS so bad it hurts, and she longs to be the first woman to hold that office, no one seems ot have any idea what else she wants to do with it. It may be that she will be like Gordon Brown, the man who succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister here. He wanted to be PM, he knew it was his destiny – but when he got it it turned out he had no idea what to do with it – and in a way the 2008 Crash gave his time in office a purpose it would otherwise have lacked. Had he never achieved his ambition, everyone would have said he was the ‘best PM we never had’ – his tragedy was he got what he wanted; the same may be true of Hillary. I have to say, as a woman, I wish she and some of the older women who support her, would stop sounding as though it were some kind of betrayal of womankind not to support her; it isn’t like Bill’s record in that department is a good one.

Your politics, naturally, attracts attention here, which ours does not with you, but here there is an interesting situation developing. Alone in Europe, David Cameron became a Conservative leader to actually increase his vote at a general election – and he did it firmly from the centre ground. He now finds himself in a position where he has had to deliver on his promise to hold a referendum on the European Union and to renegotiate on Britain’s terms of membership. No one really believes he has got real changes, but the betting is that he will win the referendum on a ‘stay in’ platform, and then reshape his Cabinet before retiring in a couple of years time.  The media here are generally disparaging. He’s not very exciting, he seems to lack fire, and he’s so Establishment it is not true. His success belies their narrative of us living in ‘revolutionary times. The Left here are furious with him, but they have shifted Labour so far to the Left that it is hard to see how they can win the next election, whenever it comes.

The people are happy to be revolutionary when there is nothing much at stake – at least here, but less so when there is. I have no idea how that would play out in your case were it to be the case – but it could be interesting to speculate.

Playing the political game

George-Washington

Part of the problem with politics, highlighted in Neo’s posts this week, is that frankly most decent people don’t want to touch it, and those that do tend to be tarred by the pitch they have touched. It takes a very strong character to resist the temptation, a thick skin to bear the slings and arrows, and the patience of a saint to deal with your fellow politicians. Such men, and women, come along infrequently. To my mind George Washington, despite sniping from various historians, fits the bill to a tremendous degree. He could quite easily have become king, or at least president for life, instead he retired to Mt Vernon. He was the American Cincinnatus. In their positions, most men would have held on to absolute power; they did not. The American Constitution, knowing that it is too much to hope for another Washington, wisely imposes term limits on the President; it is more than time to do the same for the Senate. Two terms are more than enough to do any good a Senator is going to do. Congressmen might also benefit from the same system, as would Governors. The fact is that power does, as Lord Acton wrote, tend to corrupt.

By that, Acton was not just meaning what we tend to mean – graft, peculation and monetary misdeeds, he was also referring to the subtle corruption of the character. Surround a man, or woman, with people whose self-interest lies in telling them what they want to hear, and they will soon lose their natural judgment. Politicians are even worse than the rest of us for thinking they are right, so tell them that and their big heads get even more swollen. Now there is the fame thing. Harry S Truman could walk down the street in DC and most people wouldn’t even have recognised him, he and Mrs T could dine at a restaurant without being bothered by the media. That all changed with TV and JFK, and now POTUS is a ‘celeb’. This is not good for the ego or the character.

Then there is the art of winning elections. There is no reason elections have to cost so much, and in the UK we have a limit of £18,000 (about $26,000) per MP per campaign. The main parties can spend whatever they can raise, and it would be better for them, and for the trees, if they were similarly limited. We all know most of it is ‘spin’, which is weasel-speak for telling lies. It encourages politicians to treat the process like a game, the objective of which is to get elected – at literally any cost. We fall for this time and again, but like a drunk the morning after, wake with a hangover proclaiming ‘never again’ – until the next time.

It’s easy to romanticise the past. Politics was in one sense cleaner when it was an affair of landed gentlemen arguing over power – men too wealthy to be ‘bought’. Democratic politics has always tended to be ‘down and dirty’. Neo was right earlier in the week when he reminded us of the importance of character. Viewed from my side of the Atlantic, Hillary looks to me like a bridesmaid determined to be the bride – no idea what she’s do if she was, but thinks it’s her turn now; you can see why, it would make all that putting up with the public humiliation from Bill sort of worth it. Bernie Sanders is a familiar type to us in the UK – an impractical socialist who wins easy support from the young by promising free stuff and who will get nowhere. As for ‘The Donald”, straight out of ‘Citizen Kane’, but souped up for the modern era. He’s a Republican? Really? Last time I looked (which was admittedly a few years back) he was still a Democrat. Rubio’s a good-looking boy put up to stop Cruz, because Cruz is dangerous – he seems to believe what he says, and we can’t be having that!

Not long now till Super Tuesday and these things get sorted – but I can’t be the only one to think that America ought to be able to find better than this?

Lacking conviction?

code pink on Iran

Neo and I have sometimes quoted Yeats’ lines from The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
This is because they seem as relevant to our times as they did to the 1930s. T.S. Eliot expressed it less pithily but with more exposition in his Idea of a Christian Society which was written around the time of the Munich Crisis of 1938. He, like many, was shaken by what had happened, and penitent and critical. But as he explained:

It was not…a criticism of the government, but a doubt of the validity of a civilization. We could not match conviction with conviction, we had no ideas with which we could either meet or oppose the ideas opposed to us. Was our society, which had always been so assured of its superiority and rectitude, so confident of its unexamined premises, assembled round anything more permanent than a congeries of banks, insurance companies and industries, and had it any beliefs more essential than a belief in compound interest and the maintenance of dividends?

Those words are I think even more relevant now than they were then. Back in the 1930s our civilization retained many of its Christian characteristics, and its morality and standards were those of our Judeo-Christian heritage – we did, in short, as we found in 1940, have some ideas to pitch against those of the Nazis, as we would, for the long Cold War, against the Communists. But what have we now?

I’m struck and penitential about the way in which so many feminists are quiet about what has happened in Cologne and elsewhere – it is clear that for them fear of being called ‘racist’ outweighs the principles they claim to stand for. Their ideas are not held with as much conviction as those of ISIS sympathisers. But they are hardly alone. Our governments do, indeed, seem to care only for banks and profit and not for anything higher. It leaves us, literally, vulnerable against those who hate our civilization and all it stands, or stood for. The reason I singled out feminists a moment ago was that they at least know, passionately I thought, what they stand for, but it is easy to be passionate when faced with an ‘enemy’ which isn’t really that. Western men can be misogynistic, but that fades when compared to the attitude of many Muslims – but best not cross them because unlike Western men, they will turn round and harm you. Is it cowardice? Or is it just that they are not that passionate?

It sometimes seems as though the effort of staying alert for so long against the enemy of Communism has sapped us of our energy. Was it too much for too long? No doubt it would be nice if the world was a better place where we did not face real enemies, but those liberal pieties are not true, they are a delusion. Perhaps Eliot was right, and we do not have values which will stand when the wind blows? But so it seemed in the 30s – and when the moment came, so too did the man – Churchill. We shall have to hope there’s one in the wings.

Lost causes

 

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It’s probably just the Romantic in me, but I’m a sucker for lost causes – I guess it’s the historical equivalent of wanting to look after lost puppies or stray cats, and I’m invoking my female privilege as an excuse for being a soppy thing here. We celebrate the victors, but what about the Romantic losers?

Over at my place today, I wrote about my favourite lost cause, Charles I, the only king of England to be executed in public, but I can get equally emotional about Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and Tsar Nicholas II and his family. As Shakespeare recognised in his great Richard II there is something about the fate of fallen royalty which stirs the emotions. That rise and fall on the wheel of fortune was a commonplace of medieval writing, and remains one to which novelists are attracted. I have always found the fallen Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More easier to sympathise with than when they were in the height of their pomp. Poor, supposedly mad Henry VI, is another who stirs my sympathy – and perhaps retreating into madness was actually a sane way of reacting to the horrors of the Wars of the Roses?

On this side of the Atlantic, I have a soft spot for the Loyalists in the American Revolution, whose loyalty was (as it has been so often) ill-requited by the English Crown, and the Confederate cause could hardly not have something romantic about its doomed course (yes, I know, politically incorrect, but if I can’t be that here, there’s no hope).

For this to work for me, there needs to be some high cause, perhaps one that seems doomed, but which demands a commitment and a sacrifice beyond the norm. It’s one of the things which makes Aragorn immediately attractive in Lord of the Rings. We first meet him as ‘Strider’ the ‘Ranger’, the ragged descendant of a race of noble kings long in exile. For anyone of my temperament, that’s the trigger for sympathy – the first time I read the book at the age of 10 I was away. Someone, when he becomes the King, he loses something for me – so I can switch my sympathy to Frodo, who seems to me in many ways the real loser in the trilogy. Yes, his cause wins, but it is Samwise and his family who will inherit all that might have been Frodo’s. It was one of my frustrations with the films, good though they were in many ways, they did not bring out the way the book does the self-sacrificing nature of Frodo’s actions.

Victory, they say, has many fathers, defeat is an orphan. Not while I am around. One of the things which makes The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance such a powerful film for me, and never ceases to have me in tears by the end, is that it is John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, to whom Hallie is initially attracted, as he is to her, although he cannot find the way to say so. She begins to fall for Jimmy Stewart’s character, Ransom Stottard, whom she will marry, and it would have been easy enough for Tom to have let the villain of the piece, Liberty Vallance (Lee Marvin at his best) kill his rival, but instead, Tom does it and lets Ransom take the credit – which gives him the girl, his first steps on the road to success which will lead to the Senate and an ambassadorship. But at the end, Ransom and Hallie come back to town for Tom’s funeral: he may, in the eyes of the world, have been a forgotten man, but those for whom he had sacrificed his own future, came to celebrate his past. Gets me every time.

 

Land of Lost Content?

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As some of you know, I am fond of poetry. The older I get, the more I think it almost the only thing outside of my Bible that’s worth reading. Yesterday, whiling away time I should have been doing something else with, I told Neo that I was overcome with a sort of melancholy – we have a word for that sort of feeling in Welsh, we call it ‘hiraeth’, and there’s a good article here about it and the context in which we Welsh feel it. I was brought up in the English-speaking part of Wales by a German father, so my Welshness is one of geography and feeling rather than one of language. Those great, grey, wild skies, framing the mountains stirs something in my blood, some deep ancestral memory on my mother’s side, all the more poignant and powerful because I never knew her. That speaks to something the English poet, A.E. Houseman wrote in what is perhaps his most famous poem, A Shropshire Lad where he writes with melancholic longing:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

That captures it well. It has in it something of our primal deprivation of Eden, that sense we have of exile, mourning and weeping in a valley of tears which is not our real home – we have a feeling of dis-ease, of unease, of not belonging, of being out of place.

Much of our lives are spent in unconscious combat with that feeling, and sometimes, when we are not looking, it can break through our defences, and manifests itself in nostalgia for our childhood, or if that won’t give it to us, a lost golden age when things were better than they are now. For poets like Houseman or RS Thomas, these feelings were turned by the imagination into poetry which catches in distilled form a feeling which we find hard to describe, because there are moments when words will not convey what we have in our hearts. How can we speak of exile from Eden except with a catch in our throat?

One of my favourite poets, RS Thomas, a Welsh Anglican clergyman, wrote of this in his poetry, not least of the difficulty of the living in the present in Wales – and here’s a taste of his poetry – where he finishes by writing of ‘sick’ people’ worrying at the ‘carcase of an old song’. There’s a warning there of the sterile nature of too much nostalgia – we can inhabit a vanishing past, but it cannot nurture or feed us. We can only, as Thomas said, turn aside from these things and find life where it is truly to be found, which is where redemption is to be found – as in one man, Adam, all men fell, so in one man, Christ, will all rise again. Here’s a taste of that to finish with from Thomas:

 

 

Born free?

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We all make sense of this world as we can according to what is given to us to do that with. One of the pieces of foolishness which twentieth century politicians and thinkers adopted was the notion that man was a wholly rational animal, and that if one could only ‘explain’ everything, then we would all see things the same, and we could move to some sort of one world government. To those who are children of the idea of Rousseau, who believed that ‘man was born free and is everywhere in chains’, politics was the art of removing those chains and freeing him up to realise his full potential. This ignored the idea of original sin. Marx and Engels, disciples of Rousseau, assumed that whatever was bad in our species was the result of the distortions of bad rule, and that if that went, all would be well. The twentieth century provided a scathing commentary on this academic idea. In the name of ‘the people’ more people have been killed than ever in human history. Vanguardists, freed up from the moral restraints of Christianity, have felt able and willing to destroy millions, all in the cause of creating a utopia; those utopias have been places that men and women have fled from whenever they could do so.

The obvious conclusions continue to evade so many of our rulers because to come to them would require some big changes of assumptions on their part. Take the hot issue of gun control. To liberals it is logical that if you remove them, no one will shoot anyone. To conservatives it is logical that what will actually happen is that criminals will continue to be able to acquire guns and will feel free to use them because they will not risk being shot at by armed citizens. It is people who kill people, if they don’t use guns, they will use knives, and if you can remove all the knives, they will use their hands – perhaps move to the Sharia principle and chop off hands next?

Christianity has worked so long in our civilization because it speaks to a truth we wish to avoid admitting, that, left to ourselves, we too often choose the bad over the good, or, that in identifying what we think may be good for us, we tend to ride rough-shod over others, which creates situations out of which conflict arises. If being here is all our lives are about, then it makes sense that we should band with others to seize as much of the things which make life comfortable as we can for ourselves, and the devil can take the hindermost.

What Christianity does is to explain that this is the result of the Fall, that however we explain it, our true natures have been warped by sin so we tend to the bad even when we will the good; only through receiving Christ can we escape this endless cycle of sin. If there is another way, it would be good to know what it might be. Our history suggests that Christianity has a civilizing effect on us, so, as it recedes from the public sphere, it ought to worry us. Rousseau was an optimist – man may be born free, but he is quite capable of slapping all sorts of chains on himself. Liberalism offers no solution, conservatism thinks there isn’t one, Christianity says otherwise to both.

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