Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Breaking my silence?

‘It's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.' – Alice in Wonderland

I’ve always felt an affinity with French-Moroccan author Marcel Benabou, who wrote a book-length treatise on why he hadn’t written more books: Pourquoi je n'ai √©crit aucun de mes livres. In the same spirit, this is a blog post about why I haven’t written any blog posts recently – well, nowhere near as many as I used to write (only 20 posts in the past three years, whereas in 2009 alone I wrote more than 200).

My principal excuse for inactivity is that this is primarily a political blog – and my political beliefs are currently in a state of extreme flux. So what’s new, you may ask? Hasn’t this blog charted repeatedly (and probably tediously) my movement from youthful Tribunite Labour left-wingery, through Gramscian Marxism, to critical support for New Labour? Didn’t I once claim, in my normblog profile no less, that I started this blog ‘to help me work out what I think’? And wasn’t it precisely the experience of writing this blog that helped me to clarify the anti-totalitarian liberal-social-democratic politics that has characterised my thinking for most of the blog’s life?

Yes, but this feels different. The change in my political outlook feels more seismic this time. I’m reluctant to articulate the change too precisely, for fear that the sands may have shifted again in a few months, and I’ll have to recant any positions I espouse here. So how to characterise the change? Maybe it’s enough to say that these days I find myself reading Standpoint and The Spectator more frequently, and with more pleasure, than The New Statesman; that I tend to haunt websites such as Front Porch Republic and Ethika Politika; that having hero-worshipped Thomas Paine for years I’m much more sympathetic to his nemesis Edmund Burke; and that I now find Chestertonian distributism more attractive than any form of socialism. 

That last item is a partial clue as to why my views have changed. My re-engagement with Catholicism in the past year or two has certainly made me more 'conservative' on some social issues, and while my re-awakened faith has helped to keep my passion for social justice alive, it has also made me more open to different ways of imagining and achieving it. But it’s not just about religion. Another way of describing the change in my politics is to say that my growing disillusionment with certain aspects of contemporary leftism – whether it be kneejerk anti-westernism in foreign affairs or ‘big state’ paternalism at home – has led over time to a questioning of the foundations of progressivism per se.

To put it another way, and please forgive this brief philosophical excursion by someone who’s by no means an expert in these matters: it’s partly about questioning the adequacy of the Enlightenment tradition. Like many others who have featured in my blogroll sidebar over the years, I began blogging partly out of a sense of alarm at the rising tide of irrationalism and moral relativism in contemporary political discourse, particularly on the Left – manifested in contorted attempts to ‘understand’ terrorism, a refusal to condemn misogyny and racism if espoused by non-westerners, and the abandonment of a sense of universal human rights. In this context, post-Rushdie, post-9/11 and post-Danish cartoons, it seemed important to rush to the barricades (or at least, the blogs) to defend the gains of the Enlightenment. Indeed, it became something of a badge of honour when, in a burst of tortuous illogicality, Madeleine Bunting (‘Our Maddy of the Sorrows’, to quote the late great Norm), one of the torchbearers for the anti-rationalists, condemned writers of our stripe as ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’.

But what if an appeal to Enlightenment principles is not enough to roll back the tide of postmodern relativism? And going further: what if the Enlightenment, rather than being the solution, was itself the genesis of the problem? On the first point: it could be argued that the Enlightenment, for all that it began as a critique of religious thinking, actually depended on unspoken but deeply shared religious foundations. For example, its defence of reason, liberty and progress was founded on certain assumptions – that history has a purpose, that every human life is of value – that are inexplicable outside a Judaeo-Christian worldview. It could also be argued that, as those shared religious assumptions have weakened in the last two centuries, so the Enlightenment principles that were (implicitly if not explicitly) founded on them have also been shaken. In a post-religious world, and in the postmodern marketplace of ideas, the principles of the Enlightenment appear no more and no less ‘universal’ than any others. Bunting is not alone in her critique: plenty of more serious postmodern thinkers have argued (spuriously, of course) that Enlightenment ideas are 'merely' a reflection of the interests of a particular group of privileged, white and probably imperialist men belonging to a particular (and particularly oppressive) society and culture.

Which bring us on to the second point: that the Enlightenment may actually share some of the blame for this descent into the slough of moral relativism. How so? Well, once again, I’m not a philosopher, but I was struck by this paragraph in Rodney Howsare’s brief introduction to the ideas of the modern Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar:

For Kant, and the moderns in general, the notion that the unifying center of a thing really does appear in the individual thing was denied. When I see this particular tree, therefore, all I see is the appearance of this particular tree. If any generalisations are to be made about it, they will have to come from the side of the subject. This means that the classical transcendental properties of Being—unity, truth, goodness, and beauty—must no longer be conceived as properties of Being, but as characteristics attributed to Being from the side of universal subjectivity. All postmodernity has to do to achieve nihilism, it would seem, is to deny any universal subjectivity. Postmodernism is not so much an alternative to modernism as its reductio.

We’ve strayed somewhat from our discussion of the direction of contemporary politics. But what I take Howsare to be arguing is that it was the Enlightenment’s denial of transcendence and objectivity that paved the way for the postmodernist critique that eventually sank its claims to universality: in other words, Enlightenment thinkers sowed the seeds of their own destruction. This makes it increasingly difficult to ground a critique of the creeping relativism and irrationalism of much contemporary political thinking in a call for a return to Enlightenment principles. What is needed instead, perhaps, is a deeper kind of return: to a way of thinking grounded in a sense of the sacred and of an objective moral order. (I can imagine the objections already being tapped out on the keyboards of my more secular-minded readers...)

These are the kinds of issues I find myself wrestling with these days, as I struggle to find new foundations for my political thinking, and an alternative to the Enlightenment rationalism that has been the source of my politics for so long. I’m going to make a determined effort to use this blog, once again, as a vehicle for working out what I think. You may notice some changes – in the kinds of themes and issues I discuss, the sources I turn to, and the links that appear in my sidebar. If you were a fan of the ‘old’ Martin In The Margins, you may not find the new incarnation quite to your taste, in which case you should feel free to move on and I shan't be offended. But I rather hope you’ll stick around and share the next stage of the journey.


Friday, 2 January 2015

Islamists and Stalinists: brothers under the skin?

It’s tempting to regard the atrocities committed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as uniquely barbarous. I can't help thinking of the scores of young Yazidi women, torn from their families, raped, and forced to marry IS fighters, with no prospect of an end to their ordeal, and of the despair that they and their loved ones must experience. Surely this transcends anything perpetrated in the recent history of warfare? But then, over Christmas, reading Joachim Fest’s account of growing up in an anti-Nazi family in Germany during the Second World War, I came across this:

In those days almost every story ended with acts of violence of some kind. As the Red Army approached, my sisters had left their grammar school in the Neumark, east of Berlin, and returned to Berlin; they now learned that their classmates – all aged between twelve and fifteen – had been raped, transported and disappeared into the expanses of Russia. 

There are many similar accounts of atrocities by the ‘liberating’ Red Army in Anne Applebaum’s devastating book Iron Curtain. Perhaps we make too much of the peculiarly religious character of Islamic State’s reign of terror. The quotation from Fest, with its uncanny foreshadowing of recent events in the Middle East, is a reminder that religious and secular totalitarianisms have more in common than we sometimes think.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Nine reasons to like Michael Gove

So farewell then, Michael Gove, reshuffled from the Department of Education to become government Chief Whip. I hope The Spectator’s James Forsyth is wrong in arguing that ‘the move is a big blow to the education reform agenda’, and that his colleague Isabel Hardman is more accurate when she writes:
Left-wing teachers who opposed Gove’s reforming agenda might be celebrating, but it is absurd to suggest that his move to chief whip – itself a big job – is a ‘scalp’ for the unions. Gove’s reforms have already been enacted. He has got everything done that he wanted. He has succeeded, and can move on.
I make no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of Michael Gove. I get irritated at the avalanche of abuse directed at him, and at what Frank Furedi correctly identifies as ‘Govephobia’, the way that expressing hatred of Gove ‘works as a kind of password that grants one entry into the inner circle of polite society’, a ritualised way of ‘establishing one’s moral distance from the modern personification of evil’. As anyone who works in the sector will be aware, this is particularly true of educators, at whatever level:
It’s as if Govephobia now provides many teachers and educators with a kind of corporate identity. The very mention of Gove’s name in a meeting is guaranteed to raise a collective smirk and the knowing shaking of heads. Saying something awful about Gove provides a person with the shining moral status that comes with being on ‘the right side’. Not only do you have permission to despise Gove – you are expected to express your emotions publicly whenever you can.
Of course, implacable hostility towards individuals who symbolise everything you dislike in the opposing party is not unusual in the tribal world of British politics, and it helps to have a single syllable surname that fits easily on a placard and can be spat out with appropriate venom on demos. (Mind you, the Left’s dislike of Tories like Gove is as nothing compared to the hatred they reserve for one of their own who is perceived to have betrayed the true gospel: think of the malice with which they utter that other single-syllable name – ‘Blair’.) 

But it’s when people who should know better join in with the ritual Gove abuse that I get particularly annoyed. I’m talking about those who, like me, are passionate about education and about extending educational opportunity, but for some reason see Michael Gove, who is equally passionate about these things, as an enemy rather than a kindred spirit. I’m not talking here about legitimate criticisms of Gove’s policies, some of which I share, but about sweeping dismissals of his entire reform agenda and often willful and ignorant misunderstandings of his intentions. In this category I would place those who seem to think Gove’s aim is to shore up educational privilege and deny access to learning to the poorest in society – when the opposite is actually true. It’s as if some people, blinded and deafened by a tribal dislike of everything Tory, are unable to see what’s in front of their eyes or to hear what the man is actually saying.

So, rather than getting into further endless and mostly pointless arguments on Facebook and Twitter, I thought I’d share with you nine reasons why I like Michael Gove:

(1) 
He has unashamedly continued the reform agenda set in motion by Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis. Now, when New Labour were in power, I was often critical of aspects of their educational policy. I thought the emphasis on choice was a chimera when what most parents, including me, really wanted was the guarantee of a good, local school. However, I’ve changed my mind and have come to believe, with Michael Gove, that real reform was not going to occur – standards and aspirations for all children were not going to be substantially raised – while local authorities maintained their monopolistic stranglehold on state education, and that freeing schools from LEA control – whether by converting them to academies, or founding new ‘free’ schools – was perhaps the best way forward.

(2) 
More generally, Michael Gove is an admirer of Tony Blair, and has said that he regards Blair’s memoir A Journey as a kind of manual for government. I know this won’t endear him to those on the Left who still regard Blair as a traitor to the good old cause (rather than the most popular Labour prime minister ever, the man who introduced the minimum wage, devolution, increased education and health spending exponentially, brought peace to Northern Ireland, freed Sierra Leone and Kosovo, etc…..), but still…

(3) 
Gove is a passionate opponent of the knowledge-lite leveling-down low-aspiration culture that has gripped the education sector for the past quarter of a century, and that has become entrenched in the teacher training colleges, teaching unions and the Department of Education. Instead, he believes in raising educational standards for all children, not just the privileged, and in extending educational opportunities, as a means of improving social mobility and overcoming inequality.

(4) 
Unlike some of the philistines and utilitarians who have filled the post of Education Secretary, Gove actually believes in the value of education for its own sake. Remember his brave defence of teaching ‘French lesbian poetry’ in response to the Gradgrindian businessman who scoffed at the uselessness of the humanities? He reads books too – proper books – including the kind of books people on the Left like to read: for example, he’s been known to quote from Jonathan Rose's The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes and Raphael Samuel’s The Lost World of British Communism (see the video at the end of this post). 

(5)
As the above shows, this is a man who understands the Left. I think I read that he supported Labour as an undergraduate. Indeed, some would argue that, in other times, he would have been a natural Labour politician.

(6) 
Moving away from education, Michael Gove has written, in Celsius 7/7, one of the best books you’ll come across on terrorism, the Middle East, and the West’s response. He’s also on the Council of the Henry Jackson Society, and anti-totalitarian leftists and liberals should find in him a natural and sympathetic ally. That’s why some of us think he would make an excellent foreign secretary.

(7) 
He’s genuinely funny. I know some like to mock his pratfalls, his odd facial expressions and, most recently, his love of rap, but they miss the point: he’s sending himself up. This is a politician who most definitely can laugh at himself. The first time I saw him face-to-face was in a hotel corridor, engaged in a balloon fight with one of his young children. Which brings me on to:

(8)
He’s a nice guy. OK, not a reason to like his politics, but I thought I’d include it anyway. The above mentioned encounter took place when we found ourselves two doors along from the Gove family in a Portuguese hotel a few years ago. He wasn’t so well known then, and I hadn’t really been following his career until that point, so I didn't pluck up the courage to speak to him. But I had the opportunity to observe him over a number of days, at the next table in the restaurant, reading by the pool (we were reading the same Lisbon-based thriller,) and he came across as an affable and likeable family man.

(9) 
And following on from the above – he’s also a Lusophile. As he once said, a love of Portugal is the only thing he has in common with George Galloway. Me too.

A number of Gove's qualities are on display in this very civilised discussion with David Aaronovitch, who makes an ideal interlocutor. Pity the same can't be said for the people asking questions at the end, who respond to Gove's thoughtful attempts to reach out to his left-leaning education sector audience with crass political pointscoring. I've no doubt in my mind who has the better arguments.



Monday, 6 January 2014

Christian anti-Zionism: an update


You wait ages for a clear example of growing Christian hostility to Israel to come along - as evidence of a new anti-Zionism in the churches - and then two arrive together. In my two-part post before Christmas, I used an article in the Catholic weekly, The Tablet, itself inspired by Oxfam’s current campaign focused on Gaza, as the starting-point for my analysis of the reasons behind the increase in anti-Israel sentiment among Christians. But barely a week had passed before news emerged about an even more egregious instance of partisan ecclesiastical posturing on the Middle East: Bethlehem Unwrapped, a Christmas ‘festival’ at St James’ church in Piccadilly, which had as its centrepiece what purported to be a lifesize replica of the ‘separation wall’ surrounding the ancient city.



I don’t propose to offer my own critique of this controversial campaign here, except to say that it seems to me to be guilty of precisely the same sins of which I accused Elena Curti’s Tablet article, the Oxfam Gaza campaign, and (some time ago) the ‘If Greenbelt was Gaza’ event. That’s to say, the festival at St James’ manifests the same obsessive focus on the supposed sins of the Jewish state to the exclusion of all other contemporary issues; its treatment of the issue is appallingly one-sided, dishonest and misleading; and it completely obscures, and indeed shows no interest in the voices and perspectives of Israelis, and in particular of the Jewish victims of Palestinian terrorism.

There’s no need for me to say any more, since others have already responded with far greater eloquence than I’m capable of. Douglas Murray bemoans the ‘absolute moral squalor’ represented by the installation at St James’, reminding us that the church has form on this issue, having previously hosted an event where participants sang ‘versions of carols which decry the Jewish state’. (‘Once in royal David’s city / Stood a big apartheid wall’ ran one particularly execrable parody.) Murray condemns the obvious one-sidedness of the current campaign, in which ‘the visitor is invited to believe that all the problems of Bethlehem’s Christians today stem from Israel’s security fence’, while no reference is made to the fact that ‘Christians are being gradually cleansed from their historic homeland by Muslim Palestinians,’ or to the wave of persecution of Christians in every other country in the region except Israel.

Barry Shaw takes up the theme of the problems faced by the Arab Christians of Bethlehem, since control of the city was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, ranging from death threats to actual physical violence from Muslim extremists. Barry comments:
How sad it is that this church, the British Methodist Church, and many other Christian leaders are blindsided in their pursuit of a perceived Jewish enemy that they fail to come to the rescue, or campaign for, their co-religionists, persecuted by those who they actively and expensively support. 
Melanie Phillips has written an open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, wondering how he can reconcile the message of love in his Christmas Day sermon ‘with the fact that one of your churches, St James’s Piccadilly, chose Christmas to turn itself into a church of hate?’ Listing the lies about the security ‘wall’ embodied in the church’s campaign, Philips describes the ‘stunt’ at St James’ as part of a ‘wider anti-Israel bigotry in your church, going far beyond this particular campaign.

One of the most powerful responses to the wall has been from Kay Wilson, the victim of a horrific Palestinian terror attack two years ago that left her friend Kristine Luken dead. She has written a letter to the organisers of the campaign, in which she describes the fake wall as ‘hopefully just a result of your own ignorance and generalisations concerning the complex situation here in the Middle East.’ Wilson adds:
Nevertheless, like all walls, it serves as a facade and a barrier. If your wall was scrutinised, one would see that underneath the whitewashed surface that concerns itself with Israeli policies, there are blocks of anti-Semitism.
Denis MacEoin has also written to the ministers of St James’ church, and his letter is notable for its generosity of spirit and for going out of its way to understand the motivation behind the campaign - but it’s no less scathing for that. Having acknowledged the positive work that St James has done in the past, Denis goes on to excoriate the church for having constructed ‘a mendacious wall on its premises in order to make an ignominious political point, something I would not have believed your church capable of. It is mendacious because it pretends the entire separation is a wall, when the wall covers about 1%. It is mendacious because it does not mention the 30 or so security walls and fences that have been built by other countries, many much longer than Israel’s.’

Denis continues:
It is mendacious because it carries no message to explain why it is there, when it is explicitly there to deter violent attacks from the West Bank into Israel. It is mendacious because it carries no statement alerting onlookers to the fact that the barrier has already saved thousands of lives. Or does saving lives really not matter to Christians? Or are Jewish lives not as important as the lives of suicide bombers and other terrorists? If you seek fairness ­and I suspect you do in a muddled way ­why did you not contact the Israeli embassy, who could have loaned you something apposite: a bus, on board which passengers died when a suicide bomber detonated himself?
Finally, Alan Johnson of BICOM took part in a debate at the climax of the Bethlehem Unwrapped festival last Saturday (transcript not yet available, as far as I know), and also debated Rev Lucy Winkett, rector of St James on BBC Radio 4's Sunday programme - the segment starts about 37 minutes into the programme.

An update on the update (8th January): You can read an abbreviated version of Alan Johnson's powerful contribution to the end-of-festival debate here.