Pushed up into the world

Pushed up into the world

Over the last few years I’ve been noticing a particular shift in my beliefs. I don’t know why, because it isn’t intentional and it feels in many ways out of my control. What seems right or decent today is something I’m not sure the me a decade or even five years ago would necessarily agree with. A decade ago I was more ‘principled’ I believed in rights or values that were universal. I believed society should be organised along those rights and values applying them without consideration to all people. Yet in many ways whilst this is admirable I’ve increasingly seen such things enacted or enforced by those in authority, in power to pressure smaller groups, increasingly individuals, to fall in line. These principles don’t have to be popular they just have to be ‘right’ to those with the ability to enact change.

Today I increasingly see the value in community, in immediacy and the particular. That is an intrinsic part of being British, in our politics we don’t have a constitution like the US, we have a tradition. It’s not always for the ‘best’ but love it or hate it this is who we are, and if we don’t like it we acknowledge that and change it but we cannot forget who we are. This is why the blind insistence on ‘British values’ by politicians in trying to combat extremism is so asinine. The very attempt is an exercise in denigrating who we are by conjuring up vague, ahistorical and generalised principles that we should fall in line with. What is being British? In reality it has a great more to do with Tolkein’s ‘Hobbits’ than Parliament’s ‘Values’. Who we are is a particular thing more rooted in our history, culture, habits and language than any abstraction. Abstraction is what we have been seeing increasingly in the tail end and conception of the 20th and 21st centuries which has gone hand in hand with a diminishment of individual liberty.

From my own perspective, this change is a shift of seeing the good in the world not as something pushed down on the world but instead as something pushed up into the world. It starts with the individual, family and what they produce is important. They produce beliefs, aesthetics, languages and homes. They might be good, they might be bad but an abstraction of the truth does not determine this. Truth isn’t abstract but grounded in the particular, there is a reason Christ was born to Mary, died on a Roman cross and rose again. These things are increasingly being treated by the world as incidental or even optional but they are not, they’re important. Truth is ultimately found in Christ, nothing else. It can’t be abstracted, it can’t be divorced from Christ and his particulars. We live in an age where we are taught that secularism is value neutral, this is a lie. Secularism is a relativising notion that supplants any truth for the authority of the state. A Monarch in that sense is more honest in their particularity of beliefs and convictions, just as you can be an honest opponent or supporter for your own differing reasons. The contemporary secular state by contrast claims it has no time for the particulars of right or wrong and instead seeks to universalise, to homogenise. In place of truth is pure commerce and the erosion of anything other than the facilitation of the state and its financing.

This particularism is the natural outworking of position that prioritises a love not just of home but the land itself. We should care about our environment because it’s not only our home but our sustainer. Environmental abuse is nearly always perpetrated by those who have no attachment to the land being abused. This is most applicable to the natural environment, but I believe increasingly it applies to our social and cultural environments. None of these are sustainable in our current circumstances. We are fortunate in that social and cultural environments are inevitable and should old ones be supplanted new ones will be founded. Yet this is to say nothing of the cost of loss passed on to a community in the event of such a thing.

As a result of this change I realise I don’t really believe in things like ‘human rights’ anymore and the statement ‘we hold these rights to be self-evident’ in the US constitution I think are based on a faulty premise. Yet as a Christian I know certain behaviour is warranted of me by God that might constitute something akin to human rights but that the language is not helpful. Economically I subscribe much more to something like Distributism these days. I feel like I have a greater respect for other cultures and languages and how we communicate the kingdom of god to various cultures becomes a much more important consideration. I’m interested in how that has been done historically in addition to being much more passionate about my own history, the good and the bad. People do matter, but the term people is too abstract. My neighbour matters.

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Word of the year ‘fake news’

Word of the year ‘fake news’

Post Truth has been announced as the word of the year by the team behind the Oxford English Dictionary. Discussion around it mainly pertains to the idea that sentiments and emotions rather than ‘truth’ are now dictating the outcome of our political endeavours. This is often in reference to Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the US and the role of Fake News, articles that are factually inaccurate in their entirety, being shared online to garner support for a particular cause.

I listened to recent discussion on the impact of Fake News pertaining to the US election on Facebook. In principle I can’t see why anyone would object to trying to screen out fiction from fact, but the assumption I never heard questioned was who defines what Fake News is? Isn’t the problem in the first place that people screen themselves against information supporting their own cause? You can’t address that unless you try and address people. It also affects both Republicans and Democrats, that’s the problem with the ‘Bubble’ Americans have been talking about since the election. If American elites are pushing companies like Facebook to get editorial are we going to be honest and admit that the company will likely, or is potentially already, experiencing an editorial bias? How Fake is too Fake? The totally untrue or do we also include half truths, rumours, speculation, whistleblowing and inconvenient truths? By which authority are such measured to be enforced? Does the Government determine fact from fiction? Or are we ok with private companies taking upon themselves to determine for us?

At University I was told that the Internet would enable us to ‘democratise’ our communications around the world. Instead of top down ‘mass media’ we’d instead get ‘micro media’ which at the time was assumed to be social media. Increasingly however these burgeoning social networks  are looking like the mass media of our parents age. The Lecturers and Journalists who espoused to us relativism, post-modernity and denied the existence of Truth have now rediscovered it when the vote went the wrong way. Truth is only relative and fleeting when it’s inconvenient it turns out.

In particular the fact that the rise of fake news, ‘alternative news’ and conspiracy theories speaks not to the wicked interventions of myth-spreaders from without, but to the corrosion of reason within, right here in the West. It speaks to the declining moral and cultural authority of our own political and media class. It is the Western world’s own abandonment of objectivity, and loss of legitimacy in the eyes of its populace, that has nurtured something of a free-for-all on the facts and news front.

Brendan O’Neil – Fake news and post-truth: the handmaidens of Western relativism

The worst bit about this is that it removes any possibility of the notion that people can come to any different conclusions other than that of the self-appointed opinion makers in our society. It is the attitude of a parent trying to socialise their child, and whereas it might be acceptable for a parent to act as such – it isn’t for a stranger to treat you and me as their child.

The attitude behind trying to close in on Fake News smells faintly of old Blasphemy laws. We’ve been told they’ve been dispensed with, that even God should not be above scrutiny and mockery because we living in a brave freethinking age. Yet what we’ve really done is exchange God for a set of ideas, a lifestyle, a person or particular balance of power. We still oppose their scrutiny and mockery because in reality these are our contemporary Golden Calves. The protections offered in our society before the current age; societies, guilds, organisations, churches and families have all been stripped away and we now all stand alone against the influences of not just the state but wealthy and powerful corporations intent on determining how we should live our lives and what we should think.

The biggest hypocrisy of the crusade against Fake News is that in reality it is only the ‘wrong’ kind of Fake News that the crusaders are against. Our government pays for fake news to be weaponised against groups it finds problematic or even moderate the stories it tells its own populace which begs the question, are we against all fake news or simply ‘bad’ fake news which doesn’t serve the agenda of the advantaged?

These circumstances are a direct result of the relativisation of truth causing the center of our societal narratives to collapse in on themselves. Instead of a public truth we increasingly have private truths to the extent that we are losing our idea of a common good. In its place we’re seeing a rise in authoritarian thinking as those in power try and course correct a society increasingly alienated from itself.

The Investigatory Powers Bill

The Investigatory Powers Bill

There was a recent article circulated that sums up a troubling development in the UK. The Investigatory Powers Bill was recently passed into law legalising government behaviour in the UK that enables the government total invasive access into the online lives of everyone within its borders.

The passing of this bill is troubling but what is worse is the level of general support in the population for such a thing. If someone asked to view your private online history, your emails and location at all times most would balk and refuse out of principle. Yet when this is written on a piece of paper by politicians this behaviour is now somehow deemed acceptable in the name of security. Every terrorist attack, or threat of terrorist attack has been used to sway public support for the erosion of digital liberty and anonymity.

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I wonder what the eventual destination of this trajectory is that we are on. Today there are few bodies or authorities that exist outside the state to protect the individual. Institutions that were hard fought for have been stripped back over time as the role of the state has grown largely unquestioned. Privacy isn’t a natural state and a relatively recent thing but so is the extent to which the state determines how one lives now. The image that increasingly comes to mind concerning the internet is that of the Panopticon. Foucault wrote on the subject…

Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so.

Foucault, Michel. “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism.” In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

In the Panopticon the idea that an individual might be being watched is enough to bring their behaviour under the desired influence of the captor. Likewise the very potential that you are being watched by the government will influence your behaviour towards the government increasing rates of self-censorship and being unwilling to step outside of mainstream opinion. This also means that when you are placed within the Panopticon you are less likely to verbalise opposition to such monitoring than had you not been monitored at all. Something that is generally known as ‘The Spiral of Silence’. This is why the power of anonymity on the internet was so important to those with minority views and beliefs. It gave them the means to speak in a fashion that wasn’t censored, not by themselves or anyone else. In some ways it’s the same reason I started to write here. I wanted to process and externalise my thoughts in a way I wouldn’t if I had to do such a thing in public. The steps of the UK government with the passing of this bill promise that this is all beginning to change.

As according to the law of nature each must be born free … many of our common people have fallen into servitude and diverse conditions which very much displease us; we, considering that our kingdom is called … the kingdom of the Franks [free men], and wishing that the fact should be truly accordant with the name … have ordered and order that … such servitudes be brought back to freedom …

Louis X of France

I do not think it a coincidence that as Britain moves away from being a society where people are sincere Christians that we increasingly live in an age in which others attempt to determine the thoughts and beliefs of others. If the popular consensus is that we are determined by our biology, that we are fleshy machines, it’s not a great step to believe that we might as well begin to determine one another. That might seem disingenuous to the sincere beliefs of determinists, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to make an argument on the basis of abstract rights. What good are principles where the mind itself is ultimately an accident of evolution? If we think we are machines we begin to treat each other like machines.

We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us

Father John Culkin

Why do the nations say,

   ‘Where is their God?’

Our God is in heaven;

   he does whatever pleases him.

But their idols are silver and gold,

   made by human hands.

They have mouths, but cannot speak,

   eyes, but cannot see.

They have ears, but cannot hear,

   noses, but cannot smell.

They have hands, but cannot feel,

   feet, but cannot walk,

   nor can they utter a sound with their throats.

Those who make them will be like them,

   and so will all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:2-8

All of this might seem hyperbolic or alarmist but I think there is a genuine reason to be unwelcoming of these changes in practice by the authorities. More so that there are grounds for a critical Christian position on these matters. The often quoted mantra is “you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide” but we know people are fallible and our salvation ultimately won’t come from any man-made institution, no matter the security we are promised. To give any institution so much power is to invite abuse. The pursuit of utopia consistently has lead to its very opposite.

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In an age where we are increasingly living digital lives I think there’s an argument from these recent changes to moderate our interactions with the online world. An element of sobriety and vigilance online is not only a spiritual good but a practical one too. If we believe in the liberty of individuals there are also avenues here to interact with others concerned with these issues too. Not because we wish to hide who we are, but because we believe people are more than numbers to be watched and moderated by the state. Is it too much to say such an invasion into the lives of individuals is a sin? I don’t think so, by doing this we are failing to love our neighbour.

On President Donald Trump

On President Donald Trump

I woke up on the morning of the 9th to find the WhatsApp group for my team at work exploding with news that Donald Trump looked like he was about to win the US election. The night before I had been talking it over with my wife, I knew he had a chance but I didn’t really believe it would happen. My wife however was more certain Trump was going to win. I was just glad I wasn’t in the US to make the choice. Yet as the day went on it only became more certain and the reaction from many of my peers at work was similar to that at the time of Brexit; despondency, shock, disbelief and disparaging comments. I made a point of staying away from social media, I’d learnt that from Brexit too.

The question asked repeatedly throughout the day was ‘how could anyone vote for Donald Trump?’ and I think this question itself simplifies the issue to a binary that I imagine for many Americans didn’t really exist. For many it wasn’t just a vote for Donald Trump but an expression of dissatisfaction with the state of government. Those who voted for Trump were more likely to feel disenfranchised by government, not feeling the effects of the ‘Hope’ that Obama originally campaigned on. In fact the biggest surprise was that consistently many places that originally voted for Obama had swung towards Trump. Its been said repeatedly that both parties gave the population the worst it had to offer in Trump and Clinton its just that the former was a chance to roll the dice and hope for something different from those who were dissatisfied.

The dissatisfied in question it seems came from large swathes of White America. Hilary notably failed to win over white women. White men are less of a surprise having increasingly been portrayed as emblematic of all thats wrong in the west. Despite the fact that White rural poor communities throughout America world are the only demographic group seeing a drop in life expectancy in recent years. With consideration to identity politics these efforts to demonise White men potentially backfired by pushing them, pressurising them, and others, into a voting bloc that just carried the election. Many quarters of the progressive establishment simply couldn’t believe that their ‘punching bag‘ of choice really had a say anymore and that the election was a done deal. The culture wars had been won by the progressives and the idea that the ‘White man’, let alone anyone else still wouldn’t vote for Clinton was something that wasn’t seen before and is being turned on with what seems equal parts rage, fear and disbelief.

The really disquieting thing, in an immediate sense, is the increased frequency  I’m seeing by those on the wrong side of the Brexit and Trump votes to argue against the democratic process. If such outcomes really are unacceptable to a nation then what validity is the democratic process if it only serves to support the conclusions we already came to? So many people are outraged by the idea of Elites dictating the direction of society. Yet cannot bring themselves to digest the results of votes that go against their own vision of society. Are these people really any different from the elites they bemoan? Is the only difference for these people their influence? Even now as I write this, in earshot I hear of people discussing the means and ways for Trump to be impeached or removed from office. How progressives should increasingly just start using propaganda to get people to fall-in. We’re outraged when the US did such things in places like Honduras but when we stand to gain its not a problem. People in the West are increasingly getting used to talking about democracy as if it was a bad idea.

Trump is an objectionable character and one that should be held accountable for his deeds. I still struggle to understand how so many Evangelical leaders threw in their support for him. If you are cynical, fine, be honest about it but the trumpeting of Trump as some Christian saviour is a cause for concern. The love felt for him in this area I fear is not reciprocated by the man himself.

In writing all this I’ve also been consciously aware of the role the internet has played in all this. The internet is increasingly becoming an echo chamber for our own opinions, social media in particular. The reason this was a surprise was because we share, like, retweet and ultimately regurgitate the content attractive to us. Its made me wonder personally, the value in writing online (the irony in writing this is not lost on me). The internet feels increasingly a vehicle of ideological segregation. Our world is getting smaller, partly because we are increasingly screening people out of daily life who aren’t like us. So when they do break into our world in a dramatic way, like in the US election the reaction is one of outrage, anger and disbelief.

The extent of this isolation, particularly by the progressives of the US to the actual populace is also something worth reflecting on. Nearly every talking head predicted a Clinton Presidency. This vote has exposed the divide between progressive institutions and the American population as a whole. Historically the more you spent on a campaign, the better your chances and Hilary outspent Trump considerably. Increasingly this isn’t the case anymore, Obama had great success online in his bid for presidency and so did Trump. The media that sways votes for these elections is increasingly in the air. In many ways the internet has contributed to a more bottom up style of campaigning that even the many endorsements of celebrities for Clinton could not budge.

To conclude, no one knows whether the Trump presidency was a vote for Trump or just a vote against Hilary. Time will tell. The whole thing is emblematic of the loss of moral authority by the powerful in American society in the eyes of the populace. I believe that division will only grow over time partly because neither Trump nor Hilary are equipped as individuals to address this divide. Many progressives marked the election as a step backwards for America but such thinking can only occur when you believe theres only one way forward. Trump I find is a disturbing character for a time equally deserving of that descriptor. I don’t know if a man I consider bad can bring about good but the next four years will be crucial for America and the world as we understand it.

As someone outside the US I feel like I can moderate my reaction to the election more so than someone who lives in the US. I know Americans both distraught and elated by the vote. Many in the UK, and I imagine the world, wanted a Clinton Presidency and truth be told I don’t know who I’d vote for given the choice. I am totally sympathetic to the large numbers of the population that stayed at home on the day of the election. I have no love for Clinton and think it mocks the idea of a democratic republic to elect a lifelong bureaucrat who was married to a prior President. I also think the idea of a Trump presidency is troubling for its own reasons. I appreciate the role America plays in the world but I also know I can’t do much about the election so regardless of outcome I can only control my reaction to it. This is a time that necessitates grace, understanding and humility on all involved.What does concern me is the growing notion that this whole election process has highlighted a fragmentary west that shows no sign of slowing its cultural break down. As a Christian it doesn’t matter who is President, Christ is my Lord and that doesn’t change. I do what he commands, not culture, nor a president on the other side of the world.

edit: I think this video, although expletive laden, is pretty on it.

Praying for disestablishment

Praying for disestablishment

I was in a Bible study recently and towards the end we began talking about David Cameron’s Easter message (I know its a bit late) and the insistence that we are still a Christian nation (If we are then shame on us for what passes for Christian these days). Yet I was surprised by the near universal sentiment in the group that it’d be better for the Church of England to ‘come out’ of its role as the established church of the nation. Most of the people there had been raised in the CoE yet felt clearly the country and the church are being pulled in opposite directions and the church being chained to the state clearly was not doing us any favours with the expectations of the unbelieving public and political class bearing down on it.

 

A fair criticism of the Church of England is how closely it mirrors the secular world around it, how our bishops so closely mirror our politicians talking so much but saying very little. Demographically both the Church and the political system have become increasingly devoid of the participation of those in lower and middle income brackets and the young. The Church keeps promising to exercise authority against those deserving of it but the outcome is always underwhelming. The Church of England is an institution, a bureaucracy and ‘there is no health in us’. Which is perhaps why the church needs to ‘come out’ and learn to find its own voice and walk unaided by the state.

I am confident it is only a matter of time until the public and the state make the decision for the church and it should be taken as a blessing from God rather than anything tragic. It will force us and all others of the magnitude of the task before us here in the UK, because things will not be going back to the way they were. I will be surprised if the established nature of the church outlasts the life of Queen Elizabeth by any real measure (and I will really lament if Charles gets a handle on what little is left) because she seems to be the last true Christian monarch. As an aside, I’m not even a Monarchist but I think she’s probably one of the most vocal and well positioned Christians left here and for that I respect and even like her.

If the Church is wise it will act proactively and use such a separation as a chance to proclaim the gospel, if we are brave enough we should proactively seek to end it on our terms rather than that of the state. To get ahead of the inevitable and step more fully into the idea of the global church that Anglicanism is already participative in and more fully reject those who seek to capitalise on the idea of Christianity as a means of obtaining cultural capital for their own ends.

I find myself praying for disestablishment and soon and I do not think I am alone in praying this. The Church of England has an opportunity to occupy the role of a witness to the Kingdom of God which is infinitely better than the myopic cultural and epistemological materialistic landscape we are inheriting. It would be a massive change that would fundamentally alter the Church of England at its core, but its a change I think could be ultimately cathartic and for the better.