Better and Better

The Fall of Kabul. August 15th 2021

Around a century ago a Frenchman named Emile Coué coined a phrase. “Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better”. Its optimistic autosuggestion has become a bellwether associated with evolutionary psychology. In particular, the Harvard professor Steven Pinker seems to have developed, against all odds, a rosy picture of the future, a worldview of a glass half full rather than one in which mankind is hurtling to hell in a handbasket. Below is a piece that he wrote in 2007, in which I have altered some wording in order to offer a little dialectical thinking – my thanks to him.

In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, “the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonised.”

We don’t bait bears any more, fight bare-knuckle or arrange for dogs to fight to the death, but the principle of cruelty or violence for entertainment is still a smoking residue from a not-so-distant past. For example, MMA fighting is brutal, savage and seen by some as the ultimate test of manhood.

As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism as was routinely practised long ago would be unthinkable today in most of the world. The most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species seems to be the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labour-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanours, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur.

And yet, Taliban 2.0 – the softer, cuddlier face of Wahhabism – has promised that not only will amputations and executions begin again, but they will no longer be public events, which no doubt comes as a great relief to the recipients of Islamic justice. The rebooted Taliban is no different from the old, they still hide behind superstition, fear of eternal punishment and a cavalier disrespect for human life or alternative points of view. Furthermore, they expect massive aid from abroad to rebuild a devastated economy and a banking system on the verge of total collapse.

Five months of sickening horror. The Somme. July-November 1916

Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the twentieth century, find over-optimism incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward although of course with many zigzags and bumps in the road.. 

Anyone who doubts this by pointing to residues of force in America, the Middle East (capital punishment in Texas, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, sex slavery in immigrant groups, and so on) misses two key points. One is that statistically, the prevalence of these practices is almost certainly a tiny fraction of what it was in centuries past. The other is that these practices are, to varying degrees, hidden, illegal, condemned, or at the very least (as in the case of capital punishment) intensely controversial. In the past, they were no big deal. Even the mass murders of the twentieth century in Europe, China, and the Soviet Union probably killed a smaller proportion of the population than a typical hunter-gatherer feud or biblical conquest. (I am not sure this is an accurate observation) The world’s population has mushroomed, wars and killings can no longer hide under a radar of ignorance; they are scrutinised and documented, so we are more aware of violence, even when it may be statistically less extensive.

What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question—”Why is there war?” instead of “Why is there peace?” There have been some suggestions, all unproven and, perhaps, unprovable. Perhaps the gradual perfecting of a democratic Leviathan is the moderator and guardian. Thomas Hobbes wrote “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.”

Democracy to a large extent has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us. Perhaps it’s because for many people, life has become longer and less awful, less brutish, when pain, tragedy, and early death are expected features of one’s own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. Technologies have evolved that enhance networks of reciprocity and trade, which make other people more valuable alive than dead. The more one knows and thinks, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over those of other sentient beings. Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable—the feeling that “there but for fortune go I.”

Pinker’s fourteen year old optimism may be misplaced – indeed this article suggests that it may be but at its heart lies the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, in that it is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate on smaller and smaller scales, and if we can identify those forces, we can corral them and perhaps contain and neutralise them.

The Taliban haven’t heard of Dr Pinker. They haven’t read him because most of them can’t read. They are therefore driven to supremacy by one force alone, violence. Violence is at the heart of Islam, however as much as Western snowflakes would wish to sugarcoat it or deny it altogether. We see it in their recent actions – specifically the hunting down of female judges in Afghanistan. These women are in hiding, moving nomadically from one address to another and, if caught, will suffer humiliation and probably death. It is a perfect example of the worth of evolutionary psychology since we see in real time the behaviour of the primitive, the neo-Neanderthal. We as Homo Sapiens survived, the Neanderthals did not, thus it is worth speculating that perhaps they were exterminated not by our intellectual superiority necessarily but by their own violent tendencies. If this is so, then the Taliban are on a path to their own self-destruction. For the sake of the educated women, may it come soon.

Twenty Years

Twenty years today. Then the world shifted a little bit on its axis as Satan bared his teeth. So much has been written, so many lives lost. Do I have anything to add? Probably not.

Birthed in Saudi, fuelled by a Wahhabist philosophy so extreme that its precepts seemed unimaginable in any civilised society, OBL became the embodiment of evil, protected and sheltered in northwestern Pakistan and the Afghan caves. The conflation between the events of 9/11 and the rise and ultimate triumph of the Taliban is unavoidable.

On that day, the sky was a pellucid, piercing blue.

Afghanistan. Obdurate, fanatical, unconquerable. The British tried. Three times. Victoria wanted an outpost of Empire similar to India. Had she got her way, modern Afghanistan might have become as prosperous as her neighbour to the South. The Russians came, rotting hulks of their abandoned machines of war still litter the countryside. Then, the Americans and their allies. All gone, leaving behind war booty that the Taliban will use to impose the iron boot of Shari’a on the people it now governs. The sense of futilty and loss is palpable as is the waste of between two and three trillion dollars.

Terror is afraid of the sunlight. It grows and festers underground in the dark places of the mind where people fear to venture. What next? Who knows. But, there will be more.

I visited the memorial in New York some time ago – a cavernous exposed space, a well surrounded by cold black basalt engraved with names. I ran my fingers along the letters. Was this person a janitor or a corner office executive? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter; one life costs the same as another to those left behind.

I watched Sara Colangelo’s 2020 film “Worth” the other night in which a Jewish lawyer battles with cynicism, bureaucracy and politics in order to find a just financial settlement for the relatives of those lost in the four disasters which together comprised 9/11. It was painful, agonisingly so. No money ultimately can compensate.

To those who had almost three thousand of their loved ones taken from them twenty years ago today; may all of their memories be a blessing.

Faster, Higher, Stronger.

1924 Olympic Games, Paris

Five hundred years before Christ, the cities of Greece faced the greatest crisis in their history. The invasion force led by Xerxes the Persian was stupefyingly vast; indeed Europe would witness nothing numerically to rival it until D-Day. The best chance of holding them off was to occupy the narrow pass of Thermopylae, where the terrain would neutralise the sheer weight of Persian numbers.

Strangely, most Greeks, now that push had indeed come to shove, put off marching north to Thermopylae. Only a few thousand troops from the Peloponnese ended up making the journey. The Spartans, the most formidable warriors in Greece, sent only three hundred and comprised the legendary last stand against the Persian hordes.  Accordingly, when deserters were brought to Xerxes, he demanded to know why so few Greeks had turned up to fight. The answer left him bewildered. The Greeks, it turned out, were at Olympia, “celebrating athletic and equestrian competitions.” Not even a Persian invasion could stop the Olympic Games.

Nor today has COVID stopped them. The show must go on, global pandemic or not. The Games opened in a country that has a large elderly population, very low vaccination rates, and galloping infection in Tokyo itself. It is being  presented by the International Olympic Committee as a soaring triumph of the human spirit despite resentment bordering on fury from the local population. “Tokyo 2020 will give humanity faith in the future.”intoned Thomas Bach, the President of the IOC, rather hollowly, one feels. We might bear in mind that the Games will net $3 billion of TV revenue. The definitive monument to amateur excellence has long since mutated into a golden calf of capitalism and slogans about the triumph of the human spirit cannot disguise what really lies behind the IOC’s insistence that the Games go ahead. The Japanese Government, backed into a corner by the finest international contract lawyers that money can buy, has found it impossible to break free. The low-key opening ceremony played to a huge auditorium of empty seats.

Herodotus, in his account of the aftermath of Thermopylae, portrayed Xerxes and his advisers marvelling at the revelation that athletes in the Olympic games competed only for wreaths made of olive leaves. “What sort of men are we fighting against,” one Persian aristocrat is reported to have exclaimed, “that they contend with one another, not for coin, but for the honour of being the best?”

Just as gold medal winners today can look forward to lucrative sponsorship deals, so victors in the ancient Olympics were treated royally. In Athens, they were given free meals for life, the best seats in the theatre, plus large amounts of cash. In Sparta, they were granted the greatest reward that any citizen could hope for: the chance to die in battle in the place of honour, next to the king.

At Thermopylae, three hundred had fallen in battle alongside their king, thus Herodotus endowed the Spartan war dead with an authentically Olympic glow of heroism. Neither he nor anyone else ever blamed the Greeks for their failure to send all their reserves to Thermopylae since the Games were not simply sporting events. They were a holy festival in honour of the gods. It would have been unthinkable to abandon them. Terrible though the forces at the back of the Great King were, they were not so terrible as the wrath of Zeus.

The fame and adulation won in this year’s Olympics seems insipid by comparison. Isolated from the miseries of the world, athletes cannot hope to embody, as the victors at Olympia did, the luminance of success and despair of failure that, in the opinion of the Greeks, constituted the highest qualities of human existence. The age of heroes, they believed, had ended amid the carnage of the Trojan War, and would never return; and yet, at Olympia, it was possible for men still to be heroes. What we mean by the word is a pallid shadow of what it meant to the Greeks. Heroes stood as close to the divine as it was possible for mortals to stand; their feats were gargantuan, prodigious and terrible. A famous wrestler, it was said, consumed a daily ration of twenty pounds of meat, twenty pounds of bread, and two gallons of wine. A boxer dealt with retirement by hurling himself into a fire. 

Anguished and COVID-wracked though the world may be, we should perhaps count our blessings. We do not face plagues or wars on the scale of those that provided a near – constant backdrop to the ancient Olympics. The Games were not a distraction for the Greeks, still less a vehicle for making money, but were a mirror held up to everything that embodies the best of the human spirit. As we, spectators in the virtual world of the 21st century, contemplate another round of ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ we can’t help but feel that a little of the ancient spirit has been lost. In modern times, few have embodied the ancient Olympian spirit as Eric Liddell did in the 1924 Games. Legends such as Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and others whose medal haul was at the edge of belief in one sense cannot compare with the determined, single-minded Scotsman. He refused to break Sabbath to run in the heats for the 100m or the relay events, instead won bronze in the 200m and the 400m gold, events both held on a weekday. Brushing aside media accolades, he returned to China, following in the footsteps of his missionary parents, dying in a Japanese internment camp in 1945. I can’t help but feel that the Spartan Olympians would have understood.

Drop the Anvil

This, I suppose, is by way of memoir and is what one might describe as ‘thought-bundling’. Vacations are often times when the emotional machinery receives a kind of involuntary recalibration and there’s a small but significant shift in perspective. Often, ancient thoughts resurface. They are then opened up and re-examined for authenticity. Later, they are tidily re-packaged then returned to our personal repository of information, the phenotype of personality.

We are unique. Every one of us. Which means that everyone’s life experience is a zig-zag, up hills and freewheeling down them. Sharp corners, spills and tumbles; some can be deeply threatening, others nothing more than a few pebbles under the bicycle wheels. Some can cause lasting damage, most can be dealt with by honest, unafraid self-examination and a little bit of courage.

We live together in groups, loose affiliations that may be blood-related or, more usually, casual associations – the shifting allegiances of colleagues, neighbours or acquaintances. In each case, we find ourselves applying different rules about how to best manage them and stay upright on the emotional bicycle. Such interactions, over time, may coalesce into patterns of behaviour that, like cart-tracks in a field, deepen over time. Sometimes, the cumulative weight, like an anvil carried in our arms, becomes just too heavy.

Sometimes, we need to learn how to drop the anvil.

Like overburdened travellers in a not-so-very well-equipped airport, we lug different kinds of emotional baggage around with us. Probably the most inconvenient is guilt. We feel guilty for a variety of reasons from a chance remark to not going often enough to Mass. Perhaps our guilt stems from a former relationship, handled awkwardly, finally falling into the ditch, perhaps through our own fault, perhaps not. Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter since the eventual emotional invoice is much the same. Or, because we cheated on a partner in the past, we find ourselves carrying unresolved guilt into a new relationship. Perhaps we feel guilty for arguing with a family member before their passing, and now we have to face complex issues about confrontation. Laying the axe to the root of the tree is often the best way to deal with this by asking ‘why’ and, more importantly, being satisfied by the answer. Going to Mass more often may not resolve the problem; instead we ask ourselves why we don’t go and find satisfaction in what we tell ourselves. So, the action itself may be less important than the outcome. We shouldn’t judge ourselves by the action itself; instead focusing on self-forgiveness and trying to learn from the omission, the mistake or whatever. Sometimes, others are involved and it might be necessary to reach out with an apology but only if the apology is going to benefit those we have wronged and not a throwaway, disposable remark that simply makes us feel better because we’ve ticked the box.

Regret is the nagging monkey on the shoulder. We regret making a remark that should better have been left unsaid. But words, like the genie, cannot be recalled and, paraphrasing the ‘Rubaiyat’, the moving finger, once writ , moves on and neither piety nor wit can lure it back to cancel half a line, nor an ocean of tears wash out a word. Regret is like living in the past, that foreign country, about which we can do nothing. The die it is cast and it is only skill that makes something of the worst of throws. The game is the present and looking back prevents successful looking forward, like trying to drive with our eyes firmly fixed on the rear view mirror.

Fear is a natural and reasonable response to danger, whether emotional or physical. The ice climber fears to look down since he imagines himself about to fall. Getting rid of fears often means facing them which may take considerable courage. We comfort ourselves that we are the genetic best that we can be – after all, we survived when so many did not thus courage is woven into our DNA and sometimes all we have to do is shut our eyes and reach out for it.

Similarly, as Stanford neuroscientist Philippe Goldin told “Lifehacker”: “Exposure is, hands down, the most successful way to deal with phobias, anxieties and everyday fears of any sort”. We are, let’s say, are afraid of the ocean. We can either practise avoidance or we gather all our courage and step in, a little at a time. Yes, there will be tears, floods of them. But, if we dare to surround ourselves with a support system to walk beside us, we learn, oh so slowly, to confront our fears and watch them disappear like an ephemeral puff of smoke from a car exhaust.

Sometimes, we hate ourselves, the finger-wagging waspish maiden aunt, never satisfied, whispering into out ear. Poor dress sense, too fat, too old, too stupid, too….whatever. Drop the anvil. It profits us nothing to self-flagellate, all that happens is we bruise easily. Thoughts and emotions are as weightless as a neutrino and pass through us harmlessly unless we ourselves throw up the earthworks, like an obsessive marmoset.

As I have gotten older, my worldview has changed. I no longer obsess about image, what people think about how I look or behave, nor do I attempt to figure out why they are thinking it. As the old protest song goes – “die gedanken sind frei”. Seas are calmer these days and it becomes easier to set course.

Pitchfork of Words

I’m finding something increasingly troubling. Being a frequent commentator on online forums, if I disagree, civility and respect for someone else’s opinion trumps any feelings that I have about the view expressed. My sense of self-worth is untarnished by disagreement. In recent times and in one particular publication, I am no longer to be trusted. At the behest of the AI which monitors online commentary, some of my remarks, however well-intended, have been rejected and at first I found myself, inexplicably, taking this seriously and being ‘offended’ that some faceless bot had had the temerity to deny me my right to speak. It is more than sad that such guardrails have to be put in place to protect those who have a voice, slim and timid, perhaps, but with no way of amplifying it. In hindsight, irksome as it is, I’m glad that these structures are in place. Some social media platforms, with gunslinging abandon, let people say what they damn well please and to hell with any fallout. I’m coming to the conclusion that the whole notion of a ‘safe space’ needs to be re-examined since these places are not psychologically safe at all. Were somebody to address me in the street in language that is entirely acceptable online, I’d call the police.

The flipside is, of course that if you tweeted something racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever after a drunken night out with your mates years ago, somebody might just find out when you apply for a new job and sink your application without trace. 

Sometimes, people write things online that are toxic, malevolent and downright evil, almost like a last despairing cry from the Inferno. J K Rowling has discovered this and it has been very costly for her, even though her view is shared by an overwhelming percentage of the population. Why do they do it? They do it because they can. They seem either unable or unwilling to grasp the idea that the recipient of their venom might feel threatened at worst and at the very least, upset that they’ve been the recipient of such burningly acidic commentary. If somebody threatens to kill you, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at some stage they might actually attempt to do so. Such people are both pitiable and impoverished. Underlying the bubbling cesspit of rage in which they have simply become lost is something more – something almost bloodless and grasping. There’s a hunger to take but never to give back or pay it forward; there’s monolithic and seemingly interminable ingratitude. They float in a bubble of inflated entitlement, existing in an environment fuelled by economy of truth – it’s all relative, after all. Pronouncements are often bizarrely couched in the language of self-care; “I have a right to say what I want” is either said or implied. Sometimes there’s an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not. Some use language that is totally lacking in emotional intelligence with an astonishing level of self-absorption. Many harbour unrealistic expectations of puritanical groupthink from others and this, together with an over-inflated sense of either ability or talent comes both an inability and extreme unwillingness to apologise without justification. Passion and virtue-signalling can be so well performed in a public space yet is almost totally absent in the intimacy of face-to-face friendship. In this context I’m again reminded of Jo Rowling and the whole debate about ‘transwomen are women’ and how those who have expressed a different view are crucified by an avalanche of invective.

There are far too many social-media-savvy folk who almost choke on their own sanctimony. They lack real compassion; they  speak fluidly about kindness but are unable to actually show any. I think such people have begun to lose their sense of self. Their behaviour and outward appearance sometimes mimics the particular worldview that has temporarily captured their attention and it changes over time, often with startling rapidity. A rapper, footballer or other influencer writes a sentence on Twitter and tens of thousands chirp in unison, until the next one comes along. It is as if the soul has splintered into several separate component parts and a schizophrenic is now firmly in charge, flitting like a butterfly from one persona to another. The person has become a people, inside. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship and its expectations of loyalty and support, no longer matter. People who are monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy and throw their friends under the bus in order to ‘belong’.

People ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books They seem unable to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate,’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.’ It’s just lazy.

People who do not recognise that what they call a sophisticated take is really a simplistic mixture of abstraction and herd orthodoxy, dressed in the Emperor’s new clothes.

People wield words like ‘violence’ and ‘weaponise’ like tarnished pitchforks. The more extreme the wording, the more luscious the dopamine hit. Such people have no compassion for anybody who might be genuinely curious or confused. Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Endlessly.

And so, we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the ‘wrong’ opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.

Son et Lumière

The other day, I made the mistake of ordering something from the UK. In pre-Brexit days, I used to send them a chatty little note explaining what I’d like to be done with my parcel, usually in English and Bulgarian, just in case the delivery driver was a semiliterate post adolescent who had passed his driving test just last week and is a recent city incomer from a village in the mountains. This time I received a terse note in Bulgarian from the local Customs, saying that my packet was with them and if I gave them a customs declaration number, available on request from the local customs office after a five-hour wait in several queues and being dealt with by unsmiling postmenopausals, they’d release my parcel for delivery to me. The form was in pdf format. Speaking of semiliterates, I couldn’t read it, nor could I copy it into Google Translate. Fortunately, I had a friend who translated the form for me, especially the bit about sending the stuff back. It wasn’t the fault of the retailer, obviously, but I felt I had to find someone to blame, apart from myself, obviously, and the cancellation of my purchase did give me a frisson of schadenfreude. ‘It’s all your fault that we’ve left the EU and to hammer home the fact, the two pairs of chinos I ordered are winging their way back to your warehouse in Cheltenham.’ So there!  No doubt those who have been dealing with this kind of thing since January are sniggering into their beer, but, sadly, I had not. In these new, ‘woke’ days, admitting to being a Remainer is about as popular as admitting you have herpes.

There’s a marvellous scheme called the ‘Best for Britain’ initiative which was set up in 2017 to celebrate being British in the midst of what they perceived as a concerted act of wilful self-harm. It seems, however that it has run a bit short of euros since their latest fundraising initiative was probably thought up in a pub car park after a few too many glasses of warm English ale. It’s a celebration – if that’s the right word – perhaps ‘nakba’ might be more appropriate – of the anniversary of the day we as a nation decided that we’d be better off without straight bananas, the Erasmus project and no border in the Irish Sea. In short, we set about the Great Divorce, with apologies to William Blake who wrote about the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This wonderfully bone-headed initiative is going to bother the already unhappy citizenry of Brussels and will occur on June 23, the fifth anniversary of the Leave vote. It rains a lot there so that’s obviously why they’re miserable. For a ‘donation’ you can have your name projected on to a spectacularly ugly building in Brussels just at a time when the pubs are emptying since you can’t buy booze in Belgium after 10pm because of Covid restrictions. The social media fallout will be immense. The stunt is being promoted along with a dazzling artist’s impression of what the light show may look like. Beneath it, however, is a note of caution from the organisers, saying: “The real projection is subject to weather, visibility and compliance with Covid-19 regulations.” That’s nice. Being looked after like that. Protected from both rainfall and disease. Better late than never.

The group said the anniversary of the Brexit vote was not “a moment we remember fondly”. Like boarding the train to Auschwitz.

“But this year, we’re marking the occasion by turning it into a message of hope,” it continued. A bit late. Pandora’s box has long since been opened, and the bats have flown away, chum. Perhaps “Ode to Joy” as a soundtrack endlessly repeated for the entire hour the show is scheduled to go on for. Rub salt in the wound, why don’t you.

“We are going to project the names of those citizens who voted to stay, or who regretted voting leave, or anyone else who wants to sign our message, on to buildings at the heart of Europe.” You rather wonder how many A. Hitlers have paid up. Now that would be a laugh.

Organisers optimistically predict there will be “thousands” of names and messages from supporters beamed “as close to the symbolic heart of Europe as possible”. See above. The train now standing at Platform Three will be to all stations to Dachau.

Remainers wishing to mark the occasion are not required to make a donation to Best for Britain, but its website adds: “ Campaign activity and stunts like this cost money, and we try to spend our money on direct campaigning.” It does indeed. In this case a spectacular waste of it. Were I living in Brussels and some clown beamed searchlights on to my building in the middle of the movie, I’d be less than complimentary to the organisers and those fatheaded enough to pay money to disrupt my viewing pleasure. When I found out that it was the Brits, I’d….Yes, I would. Really. Remember Waterloo. Or, er, not.

Chill Winds

Here’s an interesting fact. When 5,625 Americans were asked by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) whether they agreed with the QAnon allegation that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the US are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation,” 15 per cent said ‘yes’. In a world where any belief system has its own version of the truth, people cease to believe in something; instead they believe in anything, sometimes the more fanciful the better. It’s open season for conspiracy theories. 

Religion is a pastime for the old, the mentally feeble, the credulous and the unbalanced. It’s absurd, of course to actually confess that we subscribe to the miraculous, the ridiculousness of a resurrection, the overarching benevolence of a Deity when, as everyone knows – logical fallacy alert – enlightenment can solve all of our problems. If we assert that we do, no longer are we respectfully tolerated but aggressively pilloried – it’s but a step to re-education programs to teach us all the error of our ways.

Lazar Crestin ‘Rabbi Reading’.

There is a creeping, insidious progressive view that a sense of identity and loyalty to place and tribe has little importance in the modern world. It’s strange that it has taken us thousands of years to come to this realisation. People do not belong to affiliations of resonance any longer, or, as C S Lewis put it ‘people like us’, they attach themselves to a prevailing wind which blows where it wills and where we fly our intellectual kites in the hope that they will stay aloft. We are discouraged from questioning male and female roles, since, of course, gender is a construct and the strange idea that men and women are in some way unique and particular in terms of response and motivation is as old-fashioned as snuff. Cambridge University withdrew the offer of a Fellowship to Jordan Peterson because he dared to say what most of us actually thought. There are many who quite rightly fear falling foul of a cultish, bullying drive for diversity and ‘training’ has become a ubiquitous element in workplaces where we seem to need rather more than politeness and good manners when dealing with workmates, students and those with whom we come into contact. We are advised that everyone is in need of a personal pronoun and Heaven help us if we get it wrong.  In the public domain, we are no longer allowed to comment freely, lest we offend, never more so than in online newspapers where commentary, word order and language is scrutinised presumably by a soulless AI bot that decides whether anything we say might be perceived as offensive. We cannot even raise an eyebrow, this is a ‘microaggression’, apparently. If we do, someone, somewhere is going to drop a word in the right ‘woke’ ear and we may be hauled before a kangaroo court of right thinkers to explain ourselves. I suppose it’s a small comfort to learn that based on a survey of more than 11,000 British individuals, 72 per cent of us have no idea what is meant by a ‘microaggression’. This does not alter the fact that transgressions are both becoming more frequent and subject to harsher and harsher reprisals.

And yet, there is one belief that inexplicably gets a free pass – the belief that Palestine exists and one day will be a welcome addition to the UN. If ever we wanted a glance at a menagerie of conspiracy theories, we need look no further than the Arab-Israeli conflict, where to admit to being a Zionist is tantamount to confessing to being a Nazi. First strike – thousands of rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel – mercifully, 90% were stopped by Iron Dome and a goodly percentage fell inside Gaza itself. Israel again was forced to ‘mow the lawn’, attacking tunnels, launch sites and places where Hamas leaders gathered to cripple their ability to do further damage – with some success – the willingness of the Gazan leadership to use human shields and thus propagate the notion of victimhood is a well-worn path which as a piece of propaganda garners considerable public support principally from those who choose to accept the basic principles of the argument without doing much fact-checking to check its veracity. Hamas – implausibly – claimed victory and the world then went on an antisemitic rampage, violence flared in cities everywhere as people took to the streets to accuse the Israelis of war crimes. The avalanche and sheer disproportionality of protest is a clear demonstration of the logical fallacy that if enough people believe it it must be true. There is more than a little moral bankruptcy here in terms of the equivocation, Janus-like,  between the two diametrically opposed positions. Yes, it’s still between radical Islam and the Jews. Perhaps someone ought to point out that the likelihood of the Farthest Mosque being Al-Aqsa is remote; it was far more likely to have been situated somewhere in modern Saudi Arabia.

In the UK, the police were called to protect a head teacher, Mike Roper, after he said that the Palestinian flag was perceived by some as “a call to arms”. Students were wearing Palestinian-themed lanyards at school and his remarks were made in a school assembly. This resulted in protests at the school gates against Roper’s “racism” and “blatant Islamophobia”. Were this not so tragic, it would be laughable since Roper hadn’t criticised the Palestinians’ flag or their cause. He merely observed that some people viewed that flag and cause as a message of support for antisemitism and a call to arms against Jews, which he said it was never intended to be. He apologised. I would not have done. It is open to conjecture as to what might have happened if a student had turned up to school wearing a Magen David, or worse, a kippah.

We are facing an attack on truth and reason the like of which has not been seen for decades. The universities, the media and political classes have formed a watertight echo chamber of ‘progressive’ thinking and they will brook no dissent – truth being the first casualty. Countering false narratives, damping down the fires of incitement and chill winds of fear and consequent punishment is a responsibility not just for governments and leaders. It is the job of us all.

Getting it Right

I was in church today. Quite a frequent occurrence, despite the fact that I sometimes feel like the Oldest Member of the golf club – apologies to P G Wodehouse. Also, I’m the only white face and almost old enough to be grandfather to most. Nearly everybody else is black or at least brown with parentages from the UK, Cameroon, Nigeria, Pakistan and other places which, being elderly, I forget.  Also, they’re all medical students – I think – in various stages of training which I find oddly comforting in that should I suffer a sudden attack of angina there is help – albeit inexperienced – on hand. They are a kindly crew and let me play guitar with the worship team. 

Today’s presentation was basically about faith and works. For those unfamiliar with the idea, the basic premise is that it’s not enough to be a kind of armchair believer who loves an argument over the authorship of Deuteronomy, additionally one has to be prepared to actually do stuff as well. Loving one’s neighbour isn’t confined to a vague warm fuzzy feeling and a comforting pat on the shoulder but more to do with getting one’s hands dirty and occasionally opening one’s wallet. I was once told that sometimes people are so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly use; how often can we be misled by the beatific smile and the shining, if slightly glazed eyes. The idea that hopeful pleadings directed heavenward, with a tick list of requests, ensures that one’s passport is stamped at the Pearly Gates is, unfortunately not true. Rather, doing something constructive like weeding the garden for the bedridden old lady next door or helping someone with a pharmacy bill – that’s getting it right. It’s a bit more difficult to swallow since it requires effort – the kind of muscular faith in action that gets stuff done.

This being so, I was reminded of a post from some years ago and worth a repost today.

“Beneath blue skies in Switzerland, in the cheerful bustling town of Basel, there once lived a great theologian. Each week he taught a seminar at the university, chewing his pipe happily, while students crowded the floor, pressed hard against those ancient walls, laughing at his jokes and responding to his questions with nervous sincerity. He spent his evenings drinking wine and going to concerts and entertaining visitors from faraway places who asked him questions shyly in halting German. On weekends, he tossed bread to the ducks at the river or rode horses or went to see the animals at the zoo. On Sunday mornings he went to the prison and preached in the dimly lit whitewashed chapel; he spoke like a young man (though he was old, with a heart full of old men’s stories) and after the service he exchanged cigars and jokes with the inmates, assuring them that God was, after all, a very jolly God. People used to say that in order to hear the famous Dr Barth preach, they had to commit a crime.

But more than anything, the theologian loved returning each day to his study and to sit writing at his desk, a dark little question-mark hunched in his rumpled suit amidst curling pipe smoke and walls of books that peered down at his labours with all the curious attentiveness of indulgent friends or obstinate relatives. In this manner, day in day out, he filled reams of paper in his meticulous, cramped inky hand. Volume upon volume tumbled brick-like from his pen, solemn great tomes as big and hard and sturdy as workmen’s boots.

And so, while he sat writing and smoking, the fame of those books spread far and wide. Throughout Europe and in remote exotic places, people mentioned his books at dinner parties, taught them in seminaries, wrote books and then entire libraries about them. The Holy Father sought an audience with him. Martin Luther King asked him questions and leaned close to listen. The Japanese formed a school around his name. The Catholics held a council and invited him. The Americans splashed his frowning face across the cover of Time magazine. His birthdays were greeted with a clamour of praise and jubilation, while printing presses in many languages ground out books and journals and essays to honour or refute him. His followers proclaimed his heavy tomes to be the dawning of a new era, while some antagonists and former students devoted every waking hour to trying to prove him wrong on even a single point. Entire scholarly careers were thus busily occupied in this fashion.

The theologian was bemused by these attentions, but he enjoyed them in his own self-deprecating way. And though he travelled and shook hands and talked solemnly and accepted honorary degrees, always he returned before long to that stark little desk with its pipe and pen and tantalisingly clean sheets of paper—empty slates shimmering with promise, like that formless materia prima in the beginning beneath those vast and brooding wings.

Then one December night, while the snow slept on the ground and all the city’s children lay dreaming of Christmas, the theologian died.

Quite suddenly he awoke and found himself standing at the gates of heaven. An angel took him by the elbow and led him in, explaining in hushed tones that everyone was waiting. Inside the gate, the city was bustling with sound and colour, like Basel’s Market Square in the summertime. The theologian looked around. He tried to take it all in. Then somewhere in the crowd a voice shouted his name, and there followed a tumultuous cheer. Women and men pressed in close, clasping his hands and shoulders and pounding his back warmly. Children laughed, women waved and strong men clapped. Angels blushed and fluttered their wings in the sunlight.

The theologian felt quite overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the vigorous handshakes, the beaming faces. He tried to smile and nod politely, as he had always done when receiving a foreign dignitary or an honorary doctorate. He was relieved when again the angel took him by the elbow and steered him through the crowd, out to a side-street off the busy square.

They walked on a little way, and the theologian, still trying to regain his composure, confessed that he hadn’t expected quite so warm a reception. The angel seemed surprised, and assured him that indeed everyone in the city knew his name. They had all been expecting him.

“For are you not Karl Barth?” the angel declaimed with a theatrical flourish. “Of course we have heard of the great Karl Barth!” The theologian nodded modestly, and the angel continued: “Aren’t you the one who visited the prisoners on Sunday mornings? Didn’t you eat and drink with them? Didn’t you tell them jokes to make their hearts glad? Didn’t you put fat cigars in their mouths, and strike a match for them? Didn’t you go to see them when even their own families had forgotten them? Why my dear fellow, there is not a person in this city who doesn’t know your name!”

The theologian had stopped in the street. He looked at the angel. “The prison? Well yes, I suppose… But I thought perhaps… my theology. My books…”

“Ah!” the smiling angel said, and touched his arm reassuringly. “There’s no need to worry about all that! That’s all forgiven now.”

“F—forgiven?”

“But of course! All those books are forgiven—every last word of it!” The angel took his hand. “No need to dwell on all that now—everything is forgiven here. Come now, there are still so many people waiting to meet you. And the prisoners you visited—they live down there by the river, in the best part of town—they’ve prepared a feast to welcome you. Come, come along now…”

And so, hand in hand beneath a summer sky, the angel and the theologian made their way together down the city street and all the people clapped their hands.”

Ars longa

Ars longa, vita brevis is a Latin translation of an aphorism originating from Greek, being the first two lines of the Aphorismi by the Greek physician and king of Kos, Hippocrates. Art is ‘long’ is a curious phrase and I’m not entirely sure what it means. Perhaps it just means ‘long-lasting’ in which case, David Hockney’s work on a iPad rather disabuses me of the idea. It came to my attention since I’ve been wondering about buying an original piece. I’ve been asking myself why I want one. Is it because I actually like the work; the artist has expended blood and tears over the minutest brushstrokes in a deep, emotional display of their talent, or is it because I want to own something unique? If the latter, it’s nothing more than Solomonic vanity and I need to dismiss the idea immediately. 

People go to galleries for a number of different reasons, one of the less direct reasons might be, I suppose, to capture something of the glamour or suffering of a particular period, the history, the ju-ju, the numinous je-ne-sais-quoi hidden inside a masterwork that cracks open the mind of the artist. ‘What kind of person did this?’ we ask ourselves. I sometimes wonder why not having a famous signature makes an equally talented piece of brushwork so much less valuable than one with? Perhaps it’s just the vanity of the rich flaunting their wealth that inflates the original ‘collectable’ one and infuriates everybody else. Also, provenance is such a fragile hand to play. When the Salvator Mundi was believed to be an autograph work by Leonardo da Vinci, it was allegedly worth $450 million. If, as has been reported, Leonardo contributed only a few brushstrokes to a painting by a workshop assistant, is the picture worth much more than the panel on which it was painted? There is obviously an intangible magic to the presence of the artist in any piece of work. You can touch a painted or carved surface which they themselves toiled over. There’s a disembodied, ethereal feeling of connection to the artist which even a perfect replica cannot imbue, other than by deception or mental sleight of hand. The interesting aspect is the value of work purportedly by legendary artists which has limited aesthetic appeal. Salvator Mundi is an absolutely wretched piece of work, yet its rather contentious association with da Vinci resulted in a ridiculous bidding war between obscenely rich individuals vying to own a piece of ‘magic’, something touched by the master to show off at dinner parties or to be locked away in a sanitised dungeon where the depredations of climate can’t destroy it further. The fact that it’s a ghastly basket case of a painting, over-restored and of questionable provenance, is irrelevant, as long as a connection to da Vinci can be reasonably established. I’ve seen sketches by da Vinci in France and Florence, and there’s a flowing alchemy, a genius hand rippling over spinal goosebumps, clearly visible in the media. One can barely conceive that the same hands presided over this over-restored gargoyle of a painting. The Christ-figure looks lecherous, cross-eyed and effeminate and only the ringlets look to be delicate enough to have been the work of the master. Ironically, it’s owned by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a Muslim.

One thing that great art cannot reproduce is its newness. We shall never see it in its initial and original glory as the master first produced it. Imagination does have limits – I recall seeing Botticelli’s ‘Venus’ in the Uffizi just after its restoration and wondered where this absolute perfection might originally have been hung by the Medici family.

Which brings me back to my own prospective and rather more modest purchase since I have a clear idea of where it is to be hung. The artist is very much alive, I am happy to say.

Back to the Future

This Friday, Pesach, or Passover begins. Jews all over the world celebrate the Exodus with eight days (seven in Israel) of holiday.

This from a simplified version…

As told in the Bible, after many decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, during which time the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, G‑d saw the people’s distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed G‑d’s command. G‑d then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.

At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), G‑d visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. While doing so, G‑d spared the children of Israel, “passing over” their homes, recognisable from the blood of a slain lamb smeared on the lintels – hence the name of the holiday. Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as G‑d’s chosen people.

Pesach is deeply symbolic. Eating unleavened bread (matzah) commemorates the speed at which they left, bitter herbs a memorial to their slavery, four cups of wine in celebration. In ancient times the Passover observance included the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, which was roasted and eaten at the Seder or feast on the first night of the holiday. This was the case until the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. Within the ceremony is the question put by the youngest child in the family. “Why is this night not like all other nights?” It is suggested that the question refocuses attention on what happened to obey a command that successive generations of Jews teach their children about the miraculous deliverance and that the story can thus never be forgotten.

The symbolism to the Christian community is obvious – Christ as Messiah is the paschal lamb who took upon himself the sin of the world. There is much to be said about this but again, every year at Easter, there is a looking back, a revisiting of history, a reminder, a memorial to an unvarnished past in the context of the present.

Much is made about things like revisionist history these days, where the past in terms, for example, of slavery or the treatment of women is reinterpreted in a modern, “woke” context; it is as if we want to shoehorn the present into a past which no longer fits with a rather distasteful triumphalism. How very foolish of us.

A metaphor follows us here. The last 120 or so years have been meteoric in terms of increase of knowledge; the electron – the powerhouse of the world  – having been discovered in 1897. Today, we know so much more about the building blocks and interactions of our Universe called the Standard Model. It’s all here from my science blog; I know at least one person who’ll want to look. This was IT – all nicely packaged, done and dusted. Except for gravity, of course, the thorn in the flesh. The last 124 years have been a breath in our history as a species yet with what hubris we look into the far past and celebrate as yet theoretical discoveries of the future. We send probes to the far reaches of our tiny solar system and use massively expensive colliders to take us further and further towards what Einstein called ‘the secrets of the Old One’. In so doing, we discover, like the layers of an onion, there may be more to come.

The particle physics community trembled with excitement. There might be something new on the horizon – the Beauty Particle, or quark, and, presumably, its antiparticle, optimistically named the Truth Particle, not seen since the creation of the Universe.

And yet, there is so much more that we do not know than what we do. Answers? There are none, except to look back at the past and marvel that we have come this far and accept with humility that greater visions may await us. Indeed, back to the future.