Christmas Fear

So. Finally. Brexit is done, the haggling over a few fish being the final hurdle. For some, a new era of opportunity beckons with a fat, joyous finger, to others the bony digits of the grim reapers of want and economic decline crook uninvitingly. Win, lose or draw, the UK is now committed. With a hand that could have gone either way, it took a poker player to go all in. We all live in hope, tempered with anxiety that the negotiators ‘knew when to hold’em’ and didn’t fold too soon. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

In 1949, near the start of the Cold War, E. B. White published in The New Yorker about how tough it was to celebrate during a perilous season. It can be difficult, he wrote, to “hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it.” As we come to the end of 2020, it seems equally daunting to find comfort during these extraordinary times. When the future appears precarious, how are we supposed to view the holidays through a lens of hopeful optimism? White articulated the the naked fear of his readers, so recently battered by war and perhaps facing the implacable Russian bear in a new, colder conflict with different rules, reminiscent of the economic conflicts yet to come for the UK in the midst of a pandemic as yet still raging.

Lockdown has turned our collective attention on the struggles and concerns of our friends, family, and neighbours. Yet, as White so keenly observed, it is in the essential simplicity of small seasonal kindnesses and altruism that, even in the bleakest hours, the spirit of the holidays can often be perceived, recognised and rejoiced over. Jonathan Sacks, in his book “Morality” invites us first to examine the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ as a paradigm for just, morally righteous societies – the well-being of the other taking preference over our own small ambitions. Sacks was one of the intellectual giants of our time, a modern Maimonides, who had a striking, almost preternatural gift of being able to clothe incredibly difficult ideas into simple, straightforward language. He taught that the ‘I’ has a responsibility to the ‘we’. The postmoderns assert the preeminence of ‘rights’ over ‘responsibilities’ – a worldview that is fatally and irremediably flawed. There is a story about two pre-Christian rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, often considered by Jewish tradition to be archetypical opposites: Hillel was the tolerant and liberal “loose constructionist” of the Law, Shammai the exacting and inflexible “strict constructionist”. In one story about them, a gentile comes to both and asks, with the obvious intention of provoking them, to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Shammai is indeed provoked and gives the man an angry whack with a measuring rod. Hillel replies, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

We are all, I suppose, tempted to return to previous Christmases – the Ghost of Christmas Past being jolly, red-faced with good cheer a little blurred and rosily tinted by the vagaries of imperfect memory. As will this Christmas be many years in the future. The things that will be remembered will not be the sweat and wrestle that was Brexit, or even a virus, but the kindness of strangers and the warm companionship of loved ones, family and friends.

Merry Christmas.

Claw the Walls

….with boughs of holly and what not. Under the inspired leadership of His Righteousness A B deP Johnson, aka Herod, every postcode in the UK has been graded, as we all know into four tears, or is it tiers. Mary and Joseph would not even have been allowed out of Nazareth to pay their taxes, but that’s another story. Looking at these and having a number of friends in London, choking under the octopoid embrace of Tier Four, I thought a bit of clarity might be in order. Those of you who’ve already packed the SUV and disappeared off to the little place in the Cotswolds need read no further. So, for the rest of us, here they all are in all their muddled glory.

For those in Tier 4, the highest and most restrictive category, the following rules – or perhaps guidelines – should be adhered to, otherwise it’s a spell in the Scrubs and no remission for good conduct.

  • Pubs, bars and restaurants will only be able to serve takeaway. ‘So, that’s six pints of bitter and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, then. Don’t forget to socially distance, and mind how you go.”
  • Hotels must close their doors. In this weather, they’d be mad to keep them open, wouldn’t they. I suppose this includes stable doors as well.
  • Indoor gyms and leisure centres must close. So, no loafing about on the sofa. Climb the eighteen floors to your apartment carrying 20kg of shopping. Who needs the gym, anyway? Running for the bus is an outdoor gym, so that doesn’t count.
  • Personal care services and non-essential retail must close. Does this mean the girlfriend has to do her own nails and I have to train up Svetlana the au pair as a masseuse?
  • People living in Tier 4 cannot bubble with other households over Christmas. So, no hot tubs with that woman from Number Seven, then.
  • Residents should stay at home as much as possible. Having not had her nails done, she can claw the wallpaper at will and me driving thirty or forty kilometres to make sure my eyes work properly won’t stand up in Court. Oh, yes, you know who you are.
  • Residents should not enter or leave Tier 4 areas unless for essential reasons. Hooray! We get out of going to mad Uncle Charlie’s for cocoa and sausage rolls on Christmas Eve. We can stay at home with a case of Chianti and mince pies instead.
  • Residents from Tier 4 areas should not stay overnight in other areas. Except of course if you miss the last bus from Horsham and have to spend the night in the bus shelter. Alternatively get yourself lifted and spend it in a nice warm cell.
  • They cannot go abroad apart from “limited exceptions” such as work. I have a job interview as a trainee croupier in Monaco. I suppose I can still go, then?
  • People should work from home if they can. Work? It’s Christmas. The only work I’m going to do is opening bottles and belching. I can quite easily manage that from home.
  • Communal worship may continue as long as people stay six feet apart, wear a mask when singing and not steal the Communion wine. Body searches of both genders may be carried out at the discretion of the priest. 
  • Weddings and civil partnerships can only take place in exceptional circumstances, with a limit of six attendees. I suppose a prospective father-in-law with a shotgun might be considered exceptional. But I’m thinking of ways to get out of it.

The Butterfly

Papillon butterfly

People like order. They like predictability. A decade – turbulent, often violent – is drawing to a close, as long as we start the new one with a one not a zero. The meaninglessness of numbers notwithstanding, all of us would like to start afresh. 2020 could easily be written off as a year to forget – rather than remember that single iconic Titanic night. People expect something new, something different, optimistically using the numbers as milestones of hope for a better future. When 2000 rolled around, everybody was in a flap because it was widely believed that all the computers in the world would just sit down, fold their arms and refuse to play ball. It didn’t happen.

Events taken in isolation are deceptive. Almost exactly ten years ago, a Tunisian street trader, humiliated and belittled by sclerotic officialdom, set light to himself which became a perfect metaphor for what followed. A deep, resonant chord rang out across the Arab world as it burst into flames. Millions had suffered from bureaucracies so labyrinthine that to get anything done required the patience of Job and the determination of Philippides. People camped out in Tahrir Square – I was there – they knew that their governments were mendacious and corrupt and they’d had enough. In Libya the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi still reigned, apparently impregnably, where protests against his regime were met with brutal and savage reprisals. It took the intervention of Western governments to bring him to his knees and topple not only his statues but his reputation. Syria followed suit, plunging the country into never – ending civil war, where the only beneficiaries have been the arms manufacturers and war is still waged by proxy in the entire region. Nature abhors a vacuum and ISIS, filled with zeal, certainty and hubris, swept across northern Iraq and Syria with their own toxic brand of redemption. It took years and countless billions of dollars to dislodge them.

The outcome for the rest of us has been to experience first a trickle, then a steady stream and latterly a flood of the displaced from the Middle East and North Africa trying to find a place of safety and a new life. It is sheer sophistry that these people are fleeing religious persecution as some have suggested, although a small minority may well be. Most are economic migrants and Germany, perhaps smelling cheap labour, accepted a million of them in a single year. Some, burning both their paperwork and fingerprints, made it further, the Shangri-Las of Britain and Sweden, most generous with their payments, were the goals. People smuggling was more lucrative than heroin distribution and just as cold-hearted. France had thousands encircling cities like Paris and towns like Calais, where Dover’s white cliffs were tantalisingly close. Still they poured in,  from the east using Turkey as a staging post to hop to Greece, where camps in Lesvos are to this day filled to bursting and have become squalid refuges, little better than the hellholes the migrants left behind; similarly Lampedusa in Italy for the North Africans. Liberals welcomed the newcomers, the hard-liners did not, realising that a significant number of these people brought nothing with them, no notion of integration, instead an implacable, blinkered weapon of a religion historically committed to domination. Massacres in London, Paris, Manchester and elsewhere left no room for doubt as to their motivations.

Fault lines began to propagate across Europe. Hardline nations like Hungary, under the iron fist of Viktor Orbán, just pulled up the drawbridges, sullenly refusing entry and walking over any flabby EU entreaties to join a quota system; nobody wanted to stay in Bulgaria because it was too poor so the exodus inexorably funnelled north and west.

And the Brits watched. In 2016, the famous ‘red bus’ referendum narrowly won and they were introduced to  a new reality. Brexit. Was it fuelled at least in part by the refugee crisis? Almost certainly. But, as we draw a line underneath EU membership in a few days’ time, some are asking ‘has it been worth it?.

Berlin and Paris are driving hard bargains – I wonder – did the Brits expect it was going to be easy? If they did and all posturing now aside, they have been as the saying goes, ‘led down the garden path’. Some are calling Brexit the biggest act of self-harm for a generation, others are looking forward with Churchillian optimism to breathing the fresh, unfettered air of the opportunities that new and sunny uplands will surely present.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the US chose a rather unlikely candidate for 45th president and gave the world a new Aunt Sally to hurl brickbats at. And yet, he resisted immigration, built half a wall and restored his embassy to Jerusalem. We shall see if the new incumbent does any better as a new year, a new decade begins in the shadow of a pandemic the like of which has not been seen for a century and has shone a searchlight on the fragility of governments and in some cases their monolithic incompetence.

The poor street trader was the butterfly alighting on the flower. Was it, perhaps, this one tiny straw that cracked the earth wide open and resulted in a tsunami of epic proportions? Poor man, he could never have envisaged the consequences of his one simple act of defiance.

Silent Lambs

Over thirty years ago, a decree was pronounced. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to execute author Salman Rushdie over the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’, along with anyone else involved with the novel. A bounty – at least four million dollars – still hangs over the head of the author. The title refers to a legend of the prophet Mohammed when a few verses were supposedly spoken by him as part of the Qu’ran and then withdrawn on the grounds that Satan sent them to deceive Mohammad into thinking that they came from God. This apparently sends a certain kind of Muslim into an incandescent, homicidal rage.

Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have been murdered for publishing quite a jolly turbaned image of the same man, but, see above. The French judiciary are today calling for very long prison terms for those involved that they have actually caught. It would be just perfect here to reproduce one of the images, but…

If the only people who have permission to complain about being silenced are the ones who are literally silenced, then by definition we will never hear about it except in the context of the collateral damage that has been caused. So, apart from death, what’s the next best thing that the deranged and hate-filled can do? Making unpopular comments on social media if you happen to be something of a celebrity – like Jo Rowling, for example – usually incites a firestorm of outrage of one kind or another. Some are so vicious, death threats, rape threats, the outraged think it’s perfectly OK to say they’re going to rape your wife, kill your family, kidnap your children, blow up your car or any number of fanciful and empty notions a warped mind can devise. Fortunately, most of it is froth and bubble, but faced with such things, it’s is entirely possible for people who try to silence those with whom they disagree are going to meet with at least some small measure of success. They might even be successful at partially silencing them – after all, if one is told online that ‘we know where you live’, Mafia-style, this at least gives pause for thought. Output might be reduced, they might become circumspect, nervous even, looking around and imagining danger at every turn, their voice effectively garrotted. Their language might become more temperate thus robbing it of its muscle. This, however is only one side of the coin. The flip side is when a paradigm shift in cultural expression goes mainstream, black becomes white, if you’ll pardon the pun. I sometimes think about this in the context of the BLM movement, taking the knee and so on, since it illustrates very well what happens if the boot is on the other foot. How dare these racist, misogynistic, homo or transphobic sheep, the silent lambs, not acquiesce to our woke demands? We, an unelected majority, hold the moral high ground, we are the champions of the new orthodoxy, and to those who dare whisper disagreement, even mild disquiet, we say we hate them, we will trample them, humiliate them at every turn, jeer at them on social media…So, the haters have won whichever way the coin falls even if they aren’t able to shut their enemies up entirely. Free speech? Not in this incarnation, I fear. She quietly left for the high pasture a while ago.

Eton Mess

I have a number of friends who went to Eton and surprising as it may appear to some, they are perfectly normal individuals.  In case of offence, do accept my apologies.

Quintin Hogg, subsequently Lord Hailsham once asked his father where he was to be sent to school. His father replied “You are going to the best school in the world.” Hogg went to Eton as a King’s Scholar and in 1925 won the highly competitive Newcastle Scholarship, an honour shared, coincidentally, by William Waldegrave, Eton’s current Provost and later Henry Dimbleby, David D’s son. Eton, having educated nineteen previous British Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson being the 20th, is full of surprises.

Why then should a humble Rugby Foundationer scholar such as myself be at all interested by events in Berkshire? After all, we only produced Neville Chamberlain. Because there’s a bit of disquiet down there. An English teacher of nine years’ standing, apparently popular and well-liked by the boys, produced a video and uploaded it on to his personal YouTube page, a preliminary to using it in a division – that’s a class for the rest of us – called “Perspectives” which is concerned with learning to think critically. I’ve seen it and as a piece of lesson planning it’s really quite good.  Before some fascist takes it down it can be seen here.  It has been called outrageous , misogynistic, patriarchal, un-woke and every other Grauniad-rich insult under the heavens. The views, or better, assertions it discusses have been pilloried for puerility,  bad science, reactionary and outdated opinions, et cetera. Which, of course, is perfectly fine in the interests of free speech and I think worth a few moments of your time to have a look.

When the contents first came to light someone on the staff – a woman, it’s thought – complained. The author was hauled up in front of the Archbeak, known as ‘Trendy Hendy’ to explain himself. His video was not shown to the boys or held on the College intranet and the head asked him repeatedly to take it down from his personal YouTube channel.

The gentleman declined to comply. 

In consequence, he was threatened with having broken the law and the subsequent involvement of lawyers, which probably spooked him. It certainly would have made me feel a bit insecure. The final outcome was that he was dismissed, sacked, effectively making his wife and five children homeless. It’s quite a toxic little brew. The story broke in the Telegraph and as usual, the Times dragged its heels and only jumped in the ring after quite a few days. Comment has been, let’s say, robust and as a polarising argument, the kerfuffle has created a lot of sound and fury; one OE at least has threatened to cut the College out of his will. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition, which is rather how I imagine his hearing will go next week.

In case you’ve forgotten, Galileo was hauled up in front of a battalion of learned theologians to explain his preposterous claim that the earth rotated around the sun while Catholic orthodoxy had proclaimed for centuries the ideas advanced by Aristotle and Ptolemy to be immutable and anything else was heresy. Galileo was forced to grovel, on penalty of his own loss of liberty. This is in a sense Galileo in reverse. While Galileo was supported by science – a hell-brew of modern ideas worthy only of the fires of Gehenna, according to the Inquisition, this teacher has suggested a return to more traditional views –  the naturally patriarchal order of things – and has used history and biology to justify the position taken by his video. Perhaps he was playing Devil’s advocate – we will never know. The upshot so far is that there will be some kind of gathering shortly to review his case. The Head has rather boxed himself into a corner. He can’t reinstate him because that would make him look not magnanimous but weak and furthermore, the whole thing drives a coach and horses through the reputation of the College. The involvement of lawyers has escalated the matter disproportionately, something which the Head may have good cause to regret, since it showed a rather spectacular lack of judgment on his part. Amidst all the howling and gibbering including calls for the Head’s resignation from OEs, the press and people like me, the ones who have lost out are the very people for whom the video was prepared and who will not, at least in class, have an opportunity to debate an important issue. As Orwell pointed out ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

What do I think? OK, I think that fourth wave feminism has pushed an already fragile boat out much too far. Intersectionality is a labyrinth I can’t begin to understand. Sex and gender have become so blurred that most people have trouble deciding what they actually understand by some of the more extreme points of view. Me? I think girls are different to boys. So fire me. I dare you.

Love in the Time of COVID

Once again, much of the world is closed in, nailed down. Let’s not call it ‘lockdown’ since it reminds me of supermax prisons where those incarcerated are often locked down in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, fleetingly turned loose in high-walled yards to glimpse the sun or feel rain on their faces. Undoubtedly, this puts into perspective our own far more lenient freedoms of movement. Our activities have been curtailed, for sure, no shops are open, museums, cinemas, even casinos are shuttered. It’s important to realise, however, despite economic difficulty, emotional privation, despite the deep wells of loneliness that sometimes surround the old, the recalcitrant, those shut in by circumstance or choice, we have been here before. And, despite death visiting those we have known, it’s been a lot worse.

Lasting from February 1918 to April 1920, the so-called Spanish flu – a viral infection not so dissimilar from the one we face today – infected 500 million people, about a third of the world’s population at the time – in four successive waves. The death toll is typically estimated to have been somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded human history, only rivalled by the intermittent outbreaks of various strains of bubonic plague – the cause of the Black Death which swept through Asia, Europe and Africa. In the 14th century, it wiped out similar numbers to the flu pandemic five hundred years later.

Doctor's mask worn during the plague outbreaks.

John Donne’s ‘Devotions’ was written in 1623 during a bubonic plague outbreak. It’s barely conceivable to us but in the absence of streptomycin one-third of London’s residents would die, and in November Donne himself, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, fell ill. His journal, written during the confinement necessitated by his sickness captures the melancholy mood of that time, not so different from what we experience in 2020, very nearly four hundred years later.  We all know the famous line “think not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee’.  We’re forced to confront our own mortality when people we know, just… die. Others find themselves gasping for breath, lying in a hospital bed, intubated and helpless. Still others can’t understand what all the fuss is about; they feel a bit unwell, soldier on and get better fast.

Either way, perhaps the tolling bell is not so much a doorbell or introit ushering us into a deep, unknown fate, but, just as the village bell tolled at the end of the day to signify work was done and the comforts of home beckoned; when we hear that bell, perhaps it may serve as an awakening to something new, a metaphor for a new way of living, a waiting room for a paradigm shift in human consciousness. 

My friends in America are celebrating Thanksgiving, a time to look back at the blessings of the past and to turn with hope to the future. It will not be as bleak or stressful as we imagine.

The anchoress Julian of Norwich’s boundless optimism reaches out to us over the centuries despite the fact that during her lifetime, the city suffered the devastating effects of the Black Death of 1348–50. She is as relevant today as when she first wrote the following:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be exceeding well.”

In conclusion, this from Mary Chapin Carpenter, to help us all to take courage, seize the days and know that at the final reckoning, all will be well. Let grateful days be endless.

Dark Spectre

I used to love Scotland. The bearish, raffish devil-may-care attitude of its people; who love life more than most and hitherto have enjoyed liberty to pursue all that it has to offer with enthusiasm and vigour. But, perhaps not for much longer. It’s never a good idea to latch on to one particular political bell-wether and assume it has universal application but something rather sinister caught my eye today, a controversial Bill making its way through the Scottish Parliament.

By way of preamble, a quote from the historian Orlando Figes, in his 2007 book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia from a woman who lived through it:

“We were brought up to keep our mouths shut. ‘You’ll get into trouble for your tongue’ — that’s what people said to us children all the time. We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbours, and especially of the police … Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear.”

Decades from now, will a Scotsman offer a similar testimony to historians documenting our era? The question is by no means absurd, not in light of the Hate Crimes and Public Order Bill brought forth by the ruling Scottish National Party. In testimony before a parliamentary committee this week, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said that he believes the reach of the proposed law should cover words spoken in the privacy of people’s homes.

Did you just read that correctly? Yes, you did.

If this were to become law, parents would learn to fear their children, classroom trained in the rigid catechism of “social justice” orthodoxies. And not only reading the Bible to one’s children, but simply owning one could land a Scotsman in the dock on charges of “possessing inflammatory materials”. J.K. Rowling could in principle stand to be imprisoned simply for having stood up for biological women in the face of transgender militants — and her left-wing political convictions would not spare her. By any measure, this is utterly terrifying. Children could be taught to ‘grass’ on their parents – it happened in China and given the right political climate, could flourish in some Western countries also. Authoritarianism is a condition in which political life is controlled by a single leader or party, but people are more or less free otherwise. Totalitarianism is authoritarianism writ large, in which all of life is considered to be political. North Korea springs to mind. The authoritarian only wants your political obedience — but the totalitarian wants your soul.

Significantly – and this applies almost universally, we have witnessed the rise of ideological left-wing hegemony within academic institutions where many of its most vociferous proponents work. This is the engine driving the change, opening the windows of opportunity to the totalitarians. The inevitable outcome is no-platforming, the stifling of free speech and smothering of free thought by a punitive and as yet, totally illegal regime of censorship. Thought police, in other words.

I very much hope that Scotland’s legislators will recognise that this is a very slippery slope, towards a dark spectre from whose clutches there will be no easy escape.

Leadership

George Bernard Shaw wrote in “Man and Superman”: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I think I must have been unreasonable according to this definition since before I learned to walk. Progress made – hard to quantify. Grim stubbornness, perhaps – a persistent unwillingness to swim with the tide. It’s less exhausting to just go with the flow, but, perhaps, ultimately far less satisfying. Perhaps Donald Trump, the huckster, the salesman, intoxicated with his own hyperbole, oblivious to the slithering Machiavellian politics of Washington, might yet pull another improbable rabbit out of the hat in a few days’ time. He seems unaware that there’s a tide at all to swim against. The alternative is a man whose political instincts were fine-tuned as vice-president, white-haired and advanced in years but who some believe can offer a rosier future for the American people. Which is, if you will, the subtext here.

Those of you who have either stumbled across this or taken the trouble to look it up – thank you – will be aware that I think that a rabbi hits the Old Testament out of the park, in contrast with a priest who sometimes couldn’t find the Book of Haggai if his life depended on it. Rabbis are like football teams – they have legions of devoted followers who hang on their every pronouncement as if personally imparted by a Delphic oracle. Fortunately, I’m too old and grumpy to follow the caprices of such ovine behaviour but I have to admit to a certain Gentile admiration for Jonathan Sacks, whose words of wisdom arrive on my virtual doormat reassuringly frequently. Most of the rest belongs therefore to him, apart from a few irresistible tweaks and redactions of my own.

Leaders lead. That does not mean to say that they do not follow. But what they follow and how they choose to follow is different from what most people follow. They don’t conform just for the sake of conforming. They don’t do what others do merely because others are doing it. They follow an inner voice, a call. They have a vision, not of what is, but of what might be. They think outside the box. They march to a different tune.

As do I, incidentally. The French Foreign Legion always brings up the rear on Juillet Quatorze because their march, the long, swinging gait, is out of step with the rest of the army.


Never was this more dramatically signalled than in the first words of God to Abraham, the words that set Jewish history in motion: “Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)” 

Why? Because people conform. They adopt the standards and absorb the culture of the time and place in which they live – “your land.” At a deeper level, they are influenced by friends and neighbours – “your birthplace.” More deeply still they are shaped by their parents, and the family in which they grew up – “your father’s house.” 

I want you, says God to Abraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new: something that will not worship power and the symbols of power – for that is what idols really were and in fact still are. I want you, said God, to “teach your children and your household afterward to follow the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18:19). 

Leadership leaves a legacy. It leaves a mark on the world, an example set, a trail for others to follow. And the guidelines are remarkably simple, chief of which is obedience.

To be a Jew is to be willing to challenge the prevailing consensus when, as so often happens, nations slip into worshipping the old gods. They did so in Europe throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That was the age of nationalism: the pursuit of power in the name of the nation-state that led to two world wars and tens of millions of deaths, or communism which raped the land and its people of all initiative to succeed in the name of a great, inconceivable levelling. It is the age we are living in now as North Korea acquires and Iran pursues nuclear weapons so that they can impose their ambitions by force. It is what is happening today throughout much of the Middle East and Africa as nations descend into violence and into what Hobbes called “the war of every man against every man.”1 

We make a mistake when we think of idols in terms of their physical appearance – statues, figurines, icons. In that sense they belong to the ancient times most of us have long outgrown. The way to think of idols is in terms of what they represent. They symbolise power. That is what Ra was for the Egyptians, Baal for the Canaanites, Chemosh for the Moabites, Zeus for the Greeks, and what missiles and bombs are for terrorists and rogue states today. 

Power allows us to rule over others without their consent. As the Greek historian Thucydides put it: “The strong do what they wish and the weak suffer what they must.”2 Judaism is a sustained critique of power and is the prima facie example of speaking truth to it. Perhaps this is one reason why in the litany of antisemitic tropes, the Jews are hated so much. It is about how a nation can be formed on the basis of shared commitment and collective responsibility, taking literally the injunction to be ‘ a light to the nations’. It is about how to construct a society that honours the human being as the image and likeness of God. It is about a vision, never fully realised but never abandoned, of a world based on justice and compassion, in which “They will neither harm nor destroy on all My holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”
(Isaiah 11:9). 

Abraham is without doubt one of the most influential people in the Judaic tradition. Today he is claimed as the spiritual ancestor of 2.3 billion Christians, 1.8 billion Muslims and 14 million Jews, more than half the people alive today. Yet he ruled no empire, commanded no great army, performed no miracles and proclaimed no prophecy. He is the supreme example in all of history of influence without power. 

Why? Because he was prepared to be different. As the Sages say, he was called ha-ivri, “the Hebrew,” because “all the world was on one side (be-ever echad) and he was on the other”.3 Every leader knows that they plough a lonely, sometimes dispiriting furrow. Yet they continue to do what they have to do because they know that the majority is not always right and conventional wisdom is not always wise. Dead fish go with the flow. Live fish swim against the current. So it is with conscience and courage. So it is with the children of Abraham. They are prepared to challenge the idols of the age. 

After the Holocaust, some social scientists were haunted by the question of why so many people were prepared, whether by active participation or silent consent, to go along with a regime that was committing one of the great crimes against humanity. One key experiment was conducted by Solomon Asch. He assembled a group of people, asking them to perform a series of simple cognitive tasks. They were shown two cards, one with a line on it, the other with three lines of different lengths, and asked which was the same size as the line on the first. Unbeknown to one participant, all the others had been briefed by Asch to give the correct answer for the first few cards, and then to answer incorrectly for most of the rest. On a significant number of occasions the experimental subject gave an answer he could see was wrong, because everyone else had done so. Such is the power of the pressure to conform: it can lead us to say what we know to be untrue. 

More frightening still was the Stanford experiment carried out in the early 1970s by Philip Zimbardo. The participants were randomly assigned roles as guards or prisoners in a mock prison. Within days the students cast as guards were behaving abusively, some of them subjecting the “prisoners” to psychological torture. The students cast as prisoners put up with this passively, even siding with the guards against those who resisted. The experiment was called off after six days, by which time even Zimbardo had found himself drawn into the artificial reality he had created. The pressure to conform to assigned roles is strong enough to lead people into doing what they know is not just untrue but actually wrong. 

That is why Abraham, at the start of his mission, was told to leave “his land, his birthplace and his father’s house,” to free himself from the pressure to conform. Leaders must be prepared not to follow the consensus. One of the great writers on leadership, Warren Bennis, writes: “By the time we reach puberty, the world has shaped us to a greater extent than we realise. Our family, friends, and society in general have told us – by word and example – how to be. But people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be.”4 

One reason why Jews have become, out of all proportion to their numbers, leaders in almost every sphere of human endeavour, is precisely this willingness to be different. Throughout the centuries, they have been the most striking example of a group that refused to give way to the dominant culture or convert to the dominant faith.

 It has been said that if you have one Jew, you have an opinion. If two, you have an argument. If three, a synagogue.

One other finding of Solomon Asch is worth noting. He noted that when just one other person was willing to support the individual who could see that the others were giving the wrong answer, it gave him the strength to stand up against the consensus. That is why, however small their numbers, Jews created communities. It is hard to lead alone, far less hard to lead in the company of others even if you are a minority. Judaism is the counter-voice in the conversation of humankind. Jews do not follow the majority merely because it is the majority. In age after age, century after century, they were prepared to joyfully embrace what the poet Robert Frost immortalised: 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the differenc
e.’

It is what makes a nation of leaders.

How we need such leadership. America will decide in a few days what kind of leader it wants, notwithstanding the shortcomings of both candidates. The trajectory of world events is, to some extent, in their hands as the voting slip is dropped into the ballot box.

1 Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991), part 1, ch. 13. 

2 Thucydides, 5.89.
3 Genesis 42:8 

4 Walter Bennis, On Becoming a Leader (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 49.

Dropped Caps

I haven’t written for quite some time since everybody has said everything there is to say about a disease that’s going around, the spectacular incompetence of predictive algorithms and the End of Civilisation As We Know It. Oh yes and designers are making outrageously expensive masks, I gather. Twelve hundred big ones – pack of 2 – seems a bit steep. The most costly appears to weigh in at one point five million, if you don’t mind a faceful of diamonds and gold thread. H’m.

Gucci and Eilish

The far right and the left are on a collision course and Black lives matter just as much as white or brown ones, so that’s no excuse for wanton and seemingly random destruction. I have never known in my lifetime the degree of polarisation which we seem to running headlong towards, mostly with our fingers in our ears. Mosley meets Marx. Neither are palatable alternatives, each having their own self-righteous stench.

I’m also thinking of taking a holiday from Social Media. If you are, perhaps wondering about the  abundance of capitalisation, part of the reason is because in the dank cesspool that is Twitter, the Leader of the Free World seems unable to tweet anything meaningful without using them, seemingly at random, making me incandescent with rage. One of the more entertaining stories concerning DT was that he took a little jolly around the block near the hospital, thus necessitating five of his staff to have to go into a 14 day quarantine. Duct tape don’t fix stupid but at least it muffles the sound. Somebody rather unkindly wrote that the presidential pose looks like a centaur with its back legs missing and a mask rather spoils the effect.

Which brings me to Facebook. A friend posted the other day a series of blank pictures with a caption which read something to the effect of ‘places visited in 2020’. To my eternal shame, I actually ‘liked’ it, blitheringly inane that I seem to have become and if this is the depths that I am prepared to sink for a minuscule dopamine hit, time might be to take a break. Furthermore, Facebook sends me a list of people that I might know since they are friends of friends, which is  teeth-grindingly irritating since I don’t know most of them and seeing some of the profile pictures probably wouldn’t want to. Finally – I know that Mark Zuckerberg has to make an honest shilling but the degree and accelerating absurdity of the advertising tonnage is becoming wearisome.

So, enough. Here’s a picture of a place I visited quite a lot this year. I went to a rather posh school with slightly ridiculous, arcane words for things.This is the ‘topos’, Greek for ‘place’. It has, incidentally, been flushed.

Things Fall Apart

Kenosha, Wisconsin. After the riots

In a pre-COVID world, all anyone seemed to be able to talk about was climate change. Our fault, perhaps, or the Earth’s response to changing ecosystems as has happened so very often in the past. It sparked outpourings on the streets, young activists in rarefied meetings in influential places, all that. We’ve heard and seen it before. But – this is a symptom, not a cause, just as street riots and car burnings are. We are living through a period of cultural climate change, no less significant than the seismic upheavals of the past but fuelled by far more influential forces, social media, the Internet, the connectivity of things.

And our cultural currency has been devalued. We have outsourced commercial morality to the markets on the one hand, and the state on the other. The markets have brought wealth to many, and the state has done much to contain the worst excesses of inequality, but neither is capable of bearing the moral weight of showing us how to live in peace and harmony with one another. If this sounds pessimistic, it’s supposed to. A decline in religious belief, together with consequent change in behavioural norms and lack of conviction, the meteoric rise of virtually compulsory agnosticism derived from a uniquely individually flavoured laissez-faire has caused us to lose moral compass. There is no longer a comforting North star to show us the way home, to provide a great, secure guiding light to aim for.

Such upheavals have had a profound impact on society and the way in which we interact with each other. Traditional values have sprung multiple leaks and for many no longer hold water, yet recent political swings show that modern ideals of tolerance have left many feeling rudderless and adrift. In some parts of the world, the strong men ride rough-shod, ineffectually ruling by fiat and fear to try to stop a leaky ship from foundering. In fact, we see things falling apart in unexpected ways – toxic public discourse makes true societal progress almost unattainable, a more divisive society is fuelled by identity politics and extremism, and the rise of a victimhood mentality calls for ‘safe spaces’ but stifles the very means of securing them, namely rational debate. The influence of social media seems all-pervasive and the breakdown of the quaintly old-fashioned extended family is only one result of the loss of social capital. Many fear what the future may hold since social capital is not inexhaustible and demand has exceeded supply for decades, polarising to knifepoint in the last few years.

Migrants – economic and others – give their life savings to unscrupulous men for a place in a fragile dinghy to bring them to the Shangri-La which they believe the UK to be. Some want to turn them away, some welcome them with open arms despite the fact that they may cost the State vast sums for a generation. People hope and assume that they will integrate and contribute. The statistics say no – many have disappeared into ghettoes where their own kind dwell and often fight tooth and nail to stay there; a bubble of alien culture in a green and pleasant land.

Images of rioting in American cities apparently initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement and fuelled by police shootings or riot police is the tip of a very large, very dirty iceberg. It’s dirty because BLM is led by avowed Marxists whose assertion is that just because their poisonous creed didn’t work last time, it will this time around. Anarchic and nihilistic, they know how to tear down but have no idea how to build, to give hope rather than fuel rage, to offer security rather than annihilation. The blue line, society’s bulwark, is spread more and more thinly with less and less public support.

A classic example of polarisation extremes is the whole gender issue. Boys, girls, something in between – the number of categories seems to increase exponentially and I for one have long since stopped trying to keep up with the anger, indeed fury of those who assert their underrepresentation with thuggish aggression. Unpopular as it is, dragging the trans debate out of the cloud cuckoo land which it inhabits so robustly is fertile ground for woke leftists and others of dubious moral persuasion, clogging up social media with vitriol and invective. As the LGB Alliance and others are now trying to highlight, there exists not just old-fashioned gender stereotypes but something deeply anti-gay about present trans claims, as if the non-hetero community has embarked on its own self -destructive pogrom. For example, why should a slightly effeminate boy be thought to be a girl trapped in a boy’s body? Or a boyish girl be “diagnosed” as trans? At least four-fifths of children diagnosed as having “gender dysphoria” will grow up and out of their current bewilderment and the gay and lesbian community are looking nervously over their shoulders at an ever-darkening horizon.

Despite all this, in the face of revolt the trans activists keep digging in. And the absurdities mount. The Lib Dem leadership candidate Layla Moran recently tried to get around the impasse by claiming that she sees someone’s true gender “in their soul”. Yet most people – albeit privately – recognise that to be anti-scientific nonsense. When science leaves the room and closes the door, fantasy and wild imagining flies blithely in through the window.

Returning to BLM, after the shootings in Wisconsin and elsewhere, with billions of dollars worth of damage and tragic loss of life, I sometimes wonder whether everybody is institutionally racist to a greater or lesser extent. Birds of a feather huddle together in socioeconomic ghettoes and warm, familiar cultural clothing, whether this means ‘ladies who lunch’ on Russian Hill or Somali refugees eight to a room in Parisian suburbs. It takes a brave soul to leave the comfort of the familiar, stepping out boldly into an unknown twilight where the cultural forest is dark and tree roots all too frequently cause trips and stumbles. Holding strong opinions and an AR15, together with some kind of testosterone-fuelled desire for violent confrontation creates a perfect storm for societal disintegration.

Empires stronger and more cohesive than our democracy have caved in and fallen under the weight of their own decadence where rights trump responsibility and the stable keel of morality has been eaten away by internecine violence, inability to see that others have a point and wilful blindness to a bleak and uncertain future. We might not have long left before the whole teetering house of cards collapses under us.

Chinua Achebe was right. When cultures clash, things fall apart.