Oh, Virtue

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 20.12.38
The 6th US President

Haven’t written much about The Donald, or, indeed HRC. Because everyone else has. The mounting horror of on the one hand a narcissistic demagogue with the foreign policy acumen of a nine year old and on the other a career politician with several missteps too many is too, too awful to contemplate and educated jaws have been dropping worldwide.

Religion still collects votes and Times columnist Tim Montgomerie wrote an interesting little piece after he visited a South Carolina evangelical church where he shared post-service fried chicken (very good, it seemed) with Trump supporters who seemed surprisingly willing to overlook their candidate’s rather vague credentials in the piety department.

Apparently, it was Mr. Trump’s “strongman” vibe that they liked; the authoritarian, the decision-maker; the man willing, if perhaps not able, to show a bit of leadership when it came to all the goddam migrants, Muslims and Johnny Foreigners generally. At some length and with a surprisingly deep knowledge of the region, these articulate and informed South Carolinian Christians discussed how their fellow-believers were being wiped out across the Middle East and how, at home in America, secular judges were taking away religious liberties and “legislating from the bench.” The D was and is to them the man for the hour; they seemed to completely overlook the fact that his entire campaign strategy is about the glorification of the Trump brand – it’s almost as if he’s arrived there by accident. He appeals to a regressive, blue-collar patriarchal subgroup in which white men prosper because racial and ethnic minorities, to say nothing of women, are undervalued. “We don’t need an angel to defend Christianity,” someone remarked. “We need our own Putin.” No, you don’t. Really, you don’t. And, here’s why. Authoritarian winds are whistling through all and every ideological canyon and wherever they blow, a grim, grey spectre of Fascism treads not far behind. At the other end of the scale, political correctness, where truth is the new hate speech and tyranny has a happy face, is slowly and inexorably rotting your political culture, factionalism is everywhere and there’s quite simply a deficit of virtue in the campaigning, sloganeering and flag-waving.  Where are the virtuous ones? John Quincy Adams stands out as a model for twenty-first-century American politicians because he aimed not to please, but to do the right thing, irrespective of the cost. In James Traub’s masterful biography, John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit (Basic Books), our attention is grabbed very quickly: “[Adams] did not aim to please, and he largely succeeded.” Why? Because “…he lived according to principles he considered self-evident. Others of his contemporaries did so as well, of course; what set Adams apart was that his principles were so inviolable that he eagerly sacrificed his self-interest to them. As president he accomplished very little of his ambitious agenda in part because he refused to do anything to reward his friends or punish his enemies. Such inflexibility is a dubious virtue for a politician.” Adams, buttressed by strong Puritan parenting, spoke plainly. He believed that there were moral truths built into the world and into us all; that we can know those truths by the exercise of our reason; that knowing those truths, we are made aware of our obligations; and that, with this knowledge, we find the measure of how we should behave. Such freedom of speech is for us in our day more than intolerable but how much freer we might become if our modern day political aspirants dared to embrace a little old-fashioned virtue.

Finding Kairos

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 19.54.02The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the first refers to chronological or sequential time, as in the passage of hours and minutes, the pedestrian clack of the high heels on the sidewalk, the second is a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens. The ‘opportune moment”, the ‘seize the day’ event, is kairotic. The ancient Indians had the same divided notions of time and like the Greeks, they mistrusted wily old Saturn, or Chronos. The Sanskrit equivalent of chronos is kala, from which the goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil forces, takes her name. It is, I suppose, somewhat unfortunate that our beautiful and entirely innocent Lhasa Apso puppy is called Kali – but for quite a different reason – it also means “the dark or blue-black one”, and the image of her dancing on Shiva’s corpse after battle is not a bedtime story we read to her. The Sanskrit word for qualitative time is ritu. Like kairos, it has a spiritual sense to it, time that is lifted out of the trudging ordinariness of life. It also connotes the ‘right’ time, and is still used in Hinduism to refer to the correct, most auspicious moment for various ceremonies and rituals. In Christian theology, kairos is referred to extensively. It has a sense of ‘ripeness’- the exquisite pleasure of a perfectly ripe fig is spoiled if it is picked an instant too early, or too late. This from Ecclesiastes: “To every thing there is a season, and a kairos to every purpose under heaven: A kairos to be born, a kairos to die; a kairos to plant …” and so on. In the Septuagint, every use of the word ‘time’ in the above passage is rendered as kairos.

Capturing an example isn’t easy, because we’re pretty much enslaved to chronological thinking. The moment I first stood in front of the Kotel, my palms flat against its ancient stones was a kairos moment, a window beyond the ticking of the clock, a breath, a whisper of eternity as it brushed past my ear. When we speak of ‘time standing still’, we may be in the midst of a kairos moment. We often will ourselves out of such times, however, because there is a persistent Western trend towards standardisation. Every Starbucks is the same, whether in Cancun or Kuwait. Each Marriott hotel room is decorated in the same, comfortingly predictable fashion and the experience is as identical as different locations can envision. Chain restaurants have extended their reach, every Squid Ink Risotto served is as predictably like another as one tick of a clock is to the next. Travel companies now (oxymoronically) provide package tours for the independent, grassroots traveller who can now enjoy being inspired and awed at precisely-timed intervals. Pop music has been manufactured formulaically for decades, and there is an avalanche of clones that pours out like spaghetti from a pasta maker every time a new book becomes a bestseller. You could fill a library with artless and mostly inferior copies of James Bonds and The Da Vinci Code.

All of this, of course, is designed to make sure nothing too strange or disappointing ever happens to us. The only way to keep safe from disappointment is to avoid any risk of surprise altogether. However in all this milky homogenisation can we hope to encounter kairos?

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 21.55.21A couple of days ago, I found myself handing over ten euros and sitting in a starkly beautiful Protestant temple with its bare stone and high ceiling, to listen to  a clarinettist, accompanied by a guy with a guitar, neither of whom I’d ever heard of. After five slightly mutinous minutes waiting for the start, the first notes broke the silence and a swelling of anticipation rose in me. The realisation dawned that this was going be something special. I stopped noticing the passage of time. I forgot the annoyance I had felt because I’d just been parked in the place while other people went off to do something else. I forgot that I was tired, and the hundred other things I’d been worrying about. It was a kairos moment – a brief window into another, sunnier, altogether different world where hope sprang almost eternally and people worked hard, helped each other and the days smiled on them. The website offered a Jungian explanation – songs of exile and loss for the nomads, the vagabonds, the refugees. Here’s a link. Small wonder I found resonance.

Finding kairos can be risky, not least because we always risk disappointment. It’s why travel is always hopeful, and, once in a blue, blue moon, a small moment becomes ripe, full, and perfect.

Perfect. We are told, in general, not to expect perfection. If someone promises it they’re either delusional or they’re selling something. We conflate idealism with naïveté and pessimism with ‘being realistic’. But to deny the possibility of the existence of perfection is to deny the evidence which can peep out and surprise us. For a moment, a kairos perfection overshadowed the pounding clunk of the ticking chronos and I can still hear the Yiddish melodies of the clarinet, soaring and wild.

 

 

All-Beclouding….

The Scots and the Irish have seen a speck of light at the end of a long tunnel, but, this isn’t what I want to say. Yet.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 15.28.38

Being retired has its downside, despite living in Paradise. It is often all too easy to find oneself a little bit off balance, the mind engaging in a variety of absurdities, there being little to challenge it. This can escalate into unhelpful thoughts and even actions, the consequent ripples sending those close to us scurrying for safe haven.

Curiously, I came across this. It’s a repost from a blog I visit from time to time. The speaker is Charles H Spurgeon – few readers, if any indeed read this – who have any knowledge of Church history, will need to be introduced to him. He wrote:

Knowing by most painful experience what deep depression of spirit means, being visited with it at seasons by no means few or far between, I thought it might be consolatory to some of my brethren if I gave my thoughts on it…

Most of us are in some way or other unsound physically… As to mental maladies, is any man altogether sane? Are we not all a little off balance? These infirmities may be no detriment to a man’s special usefulness. They may even have been imposed upon him by divine wisdom as necessary qualification for his peculiar course of serviceWhere in body and mind there are predisposing causes to lowness of spirit, it is no marvel if in dark moments the heart succumbs to them.”

He goes on to describe himself as “feeling like empty earthen pitchers which a child might break.”

In his ‘Lectures to My Students’ he wrote:

Causeless depression cannot be reasoned with, nor can David’s harp charm it away by sweet discourses. One would as well fight with the mist as with this shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness.”

So. What. One of the strange precepts against which I have battled all my life is the idea that going it alone, toughing it out, the lone sailor drifting into a sunset is infinitely preferable than being together, a ship sailed alone is a somehow more noble enterprise  than one where help is needed to get her to face into the wind and, indeed, if such help is not sought, she may founder.

I think, indeed I know, that this attitude is both muddled, prideful and wrong. I have discovered something in recent times about forgiveness, both its depth and the awesomely simple idea that, as I forgive, forgiveness is released to me.

“and forgive us our trespasses (going places where we should not), (just) as we forgive those who trespass against us.” ‘Our’. Not ‘my’. Oh.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 15.26.09
The power of metaphor

This is written on the day in which Britain’s European destiny was changed for ever. She has voted, narrowly, to ‘go it alone’, a decision that she may regret. Millions, if not billions of words have been written and it’s pointless to add more charcoal to an already overheated fire. The Leave/Remain debate, the demise of David Cameron and the victory, as some have put it, of the ‘sans culottes’, is yesterday’s news, a knee jerk, emotional response to their EU prison door being opened just wide enough for them to make a run for it, stage-managed by the know-it-alls, autocrats and plutocrats, with little UKIPs pattering along in their shadow, like delighted terriers chasing a bone.

Harold Wilson once remarked “a week is a long time in politics”. The fallout from the last twenty-four hours may last for a generation.

Thanks to Charles Milner for the photograph, plus caption.

Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 15.07.19
View from Cap Blanc-Nez,  France

…on the morning after the referendum- you can just make out the white cliffs of Brexit “Great” Britain. Ah…

 

 

One Hundred Years of….Shoe-Throwing

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 20.40.10
Resurgence

In a few days, hopefully, I’m going to get to see the new ‘Independence Day’ movie, a 20-year rework of the original. The trailer promises a good deal, the new assailants are just like the old ones but more numerous, their ships and armaments huger, they are better prepared and infinitely more dangerous this time around.

I rather wondered whether there was a metaphor there somewhere…

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 20.31.44In late May, the Arab press published a number of articles marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which still looks as if somebody just took a pencil and a map and drew some pretty arbitrary lines on it, segmenting the Ottoman Empire into several territories, thus shaping the map of the Middle East as we know it.  A relatively uncomplicated scenario, a bit like uploading a virus into an enemy spaceship. On its centenary, people have been revisiting the agreement and its outcomes. Some writers have focused on the agreement’s adversarial effects, warning that the US and Russia are currently formulating a new, improved Sykes-Picot, perhaps on the back of the rampant anarchy in Syria, which can surely no longer continue to function as a sovereign state for much longer. Perhaps the outcome might be a lot less draconian, subdividing the region’s states into even smaller entities on a sectarian and/or ethnic basis. This will have the effect of further weakening the Arab world and subordinate it to their control, a rather cynical ploy whose deliberateness would somehow have to be concealed. The notion of Obama’s and Putin’s successors, fighting over who gets the pencil, is probably too awful to contemplate.  Strangely, articles were published accusing the Arab regimes of co-operating with this plan, consciously or not, while others accused Israel of being up to its neck in the intrigue. On the other hand, if the warmongers are determined enough, a conflict of Biblical proportions could erupt with comparatively little warning, and, as in every other war in history, it will have come about through decades of stupidity, intransigence and wilful blindness to the truth that stares us in the face.

Conversely, other writers have claimed that the disintegration of the Arab world along ethnic and sectarian lines stems not from external plots but from the division and hatred that currently prevail among the Arabs, mostly but not exclusively along Sunni-Shia lines. It. has to be noted, however, that such divisions often stem from one side’s disparagement of the other in light of their Islamic observance, such as Hamas and the PA.

Yet another approach was taken by Lebanese journalist Khairallah Khairallah. He wrote that the Sykes-Picot agreement was actually a “gift from heaven,” but the Arabs failed to take advantage of it. Instead of using it to develop states that benefit their people, they used it as an excuse to oppress them and to justify all their failures. This won’t have gone down very well in diwaniyas up and down the Gulf.

Whichever is even a fragment of the truth, unfolding events will surely reveal. However, I am still looking forward to the film in which the good guys (those without tentacles and exoskeletons) win.

 

No Honourable Draw

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 11.42.35A long time ago, I once met Henry Cooper, shaking his great meat-cleaver of a hand. He was larger than I expected, amiable, with a warm, friendly smile. Lighter by over twenty pounds, he was the man whose famous left hook left a young Cassius Clay sprawled on the canvas in 1963 and whose Achilles heel of a cut eye robbed him of the fight in the next round. Many have suggested that Clay had been illegally revived in his corner with the use of smelling salts and had he not been, the outcome might well have been different.

After a legendary career and having finally lost his battle with Parkinson’s Disease, the Louisville Lip is finally being laid to rest in his home town. Much is being made of the greatness of Ali – the world’s first high profile sportsman who converted to Islam and a lavish, multi-faith memorial is planned for a man whose hands were so fast that he could punish slower opponents at will and almost without effort, as Ernie Terrell and Larry Holmes both found out to their cost.

In sixty one fights, Ali won 56 times, 61% by knockout. He never drew a fight.

It seemed that Ali was a man who believed all roads led to God, often spending time at his father’s old church even after his conversion to Islam, albeit the black supremacist version peddled by the likes of Elijah Muhammad.  Perhaps this is the kind of Islam that Bill Clinton may remark upon on Friday at the memorial service, inclusive, almost tolerant, the kind that the West can do business with. It seems unlikely that the radicals would agree but nobody had ever publicly called him out as an apostate.
Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 12.08.50People are uncomfortable with extremes – they feel secure under an umbrella of near-predictable mediocrity which is why I think that when all the blood is mopped off the floor, Britain will still prefer to huddle under the Orwellian shadow of Brussels, irksomely chafing as it is.
It’s been interesting to follow the uppercuts and left hooks in Westminster as the Conservative party enthusiastically cannibalises itself and the extremes of opinion are hung out to dry like so much dirty laundry. UKIP thinks that if the Brits leave they’ll be subjected to hordes of sexual predators roaming the streets in search of inappropriately clad women. The economists are talking about retail collapse and David Cameron is focusing on what he thinks it will cost the average family if the Brexiteers win. Meanwhile, the political fortunes of the likes of Gove and Johnson hang in the balance. Both are gamblers, it would appear, and like the last hand in the poker game, have gone ‘all-in’. If they fail, they can be assured of enjoying a very long exile in the political wilderness. I don’t often agree with Jeremy Corbyn’s political strategy, but he seems to be watching the bloodletting from the sidelines and his non-involvement might be quite a savvy move.

This particular bout cannot end in an honourable draw.

Galley Slaves

I like to keep busy. It makes the day go faster.
I like to keep busy. It makes the day go faster.

Whatever one thinks of Iran’s draconian interpretation of Shari’a, hangings, stonings and what not, they’d have to go some way to beat the activities of the SAVAK, which was the secret police, domestic security and intelligence service established by the old Shah with the help of the CIA. Their brutality was legendary. The Savaki Meat Hook was a little trick once used in Evin Prison in Tehran, or so I was once advised by an ex-member of the Special Forces. It was an ingenious way to persuade people to talk. The torture involved stretching the victim’s arms straight behind his back, knotted at the wrists, then using a hook and pulley to pull them vertically upwards by a meat hook attached to the knot until the recipient was virtually standing on tiptoe in, let’s say, some considerable discomfort. Needless to say, tongues loosened very, very fast.

Why am I discussing torture?

I am in the process of marking external exam scripts. It’s a pastime for masochists, and melancholic ones at that. Think Eeyore on speed. I’d always felt I was a bit like a galley slave, but on previous voyages the whips were infrequently used and most of the time, one felt oneself to be a reasonably valued member of the ship’s crew.

This has changed in recent times. Tolerances have been ratcheted tighter and tighter, until one is standing on one’s intellectual tip toes with very little room to move, at the whim of a Chief who guides us all in the paths of numerical righteousness and who might or might not have been having a great day when he put the test material together. Additionally, the taskmasters punish infraction with metaphorical whip-cracking with a good deal more frequency than formerly, only slightly ameliorated by the frisson of schadenfreude when one catches one of the nobs at the top making a wee blunder themselves. As surely they must.

The Czechs have a delightful word: litost. “Litost is a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery,” writes Milan Kundera in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Each time the ‘out of tolerance’ tab explodes on to the screen like a land mine, I understand what it means. Every year, I remind myself that the arms and shoulders don’t bend with as much suppleness as formerly and I’m a mug to sign up.

Next year, maybe, I’ll make a dash for the lifeboats….

 

News Myths

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 16.25.45In 2002, Michael Crichton (late author of ‘The Andromeda Strain’, Jurassic Park, etc) wrote an essay entitled “Why Speculate?”. Here’s an excerpt:

“Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I call it by this name because I once discussed it with physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.

Briefly, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics – he won the Nobel in 1969. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Papers are full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Israel than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 16.07.43

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of ‘falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus’, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.

But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t, except with a mindset that is mostly quaint fiction. The only possible explanation for our behaviour is amnesia.”

It’s ironic that in his later years Murray Gell-Mann turned his formidable intellect to how knowledge and understanding can be reliably extracted from the welter of “information” that can now be transmitted and stored as a result of the digital revolution. Perhaps  Crichton overstated the case when he said, in effect, that it’s a waste of time to read the newspaper.

Screen Shot 2016-05-21 at 16.12.58

An Egyptian aeroplane apparently performs aerial acrobatics, drops thousands of feet then twirls balletically before falling into the sea. These appear to be salient facts. The media embellishes, speculates and in certain cases, the extent of the speculation is so widespread that it wriggles into our consciousness as hard fact. Was it a simple electrical fault, setting the avionics on fire? Or, did a terrorist baggage handler in either Charles de Gaulle, Eritrea or Tunisia, destinations visited by the plane in the last twenty-four hours, insert some explosive device inside the aircraft? The fact that a simple accident rather than a sexy story about international terrorism or the Great Islamic Threat is sufficient for us to tend to want to believe it and myth merges seamlessly into received factual wisdom. About the only thing that receives accurate reportage are the sports scores. C. S. Lewis was fond of critiquing biographical interpretations of his own literature, remarking that when he reads biographical interpretations of his own works they are invariably wrong, therefore, he is disinclined to accept biographical interpretations of other authors’ works.  Whenever an article is posted about some scientific discovery, readers who know something about the science are the first to understand how the reporters were getting it wrong. And, they get it wrong because they made it up.

Is there a way to get around this, or, is it to some extent inevitable?  Should we trust certain publications or certain journalists more than others?  If bias is unavoidable, should we just take in media with whose bias we agree?  Or should we counter our biases with media biased in the other direction?

We speculate because we love storytelling. The truth is a casualty of good copy.