Doodling in the Dust

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LDS Media Library. “Woman Caught in Adultery”

It’s been quite a few days since the Westminster Bridge attack.  First reactions are always frenzied and overblown, as everyone, involved or not, casts around, seeking someone or something to blame. Just like almost everyone else, I saw the images – a dead man in the street – and jumped to the conclusion that this was the work of a crazed terrorist, fuelled by his twisted interpretation of Islamic propaganda and fully prepared to shed blood in the symbolic precincts of democratic liberty. But the speed with which I rushed to this judgement I found worrisome; how slickly I was prepared to join up the dots and fill in the blanks despite the fact that hard evidence was thin on the ground at the time. I was enraged by the Mayor of London’s glib, throwaway remark that big cities must come to expect this sort of thing, as if an act of terror, wanton and deliberate, was no more important than a shower of rain. Now,  as the dust settles, a different and possibly more accurate perspective emerges as today, injured survivors joined the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a memorial service in the Abbey. The service took place just meters away from the bridge where Khalid Masood mowed down pedestrians in his car before stabbing a police officer outside the Parliament building. I found the proximity comforting. When evil shakes his gory locks, the Church – not the mosque – finds ways of bringing healing and a sense of perspective. British Muslims were quick to politically distance themselves. They wrote:  ‘An attack on our democracy, the police, people on our streets, is an attack on our nation, on all of us. We condemn this act, an attack not just on the capital but on the values that people across Britain hold dear. We pay tribute to the bravery and prompt reaction of police officers and the emergency services, whose work keeps us safe.” Soundly patriotic but by no means enough. A pre-existent narrative which someone of any faith could have delivered can never excuse the fact that the perpetrator, just like so many before him, used his faith as a weapon of mass destruction. Moderate Muslims’ efforts would be better expended owning the connection between their faith and a suicide cult and denouncing radicalism in all its forms rather than attempting to tell people how much like the rest of us they really are.

Rowan Williams who was then Archbishop of Wales was a few yards from the World Trade Centre when the first plane hit. He afterwards wrote a little book ‘Writing in the Dust’, a meditation on 9/11 and its aftermath. The book does not offer solutions but asks questions about how we should respond to terrorist attacks, and how we should learn to conduct ourselves in the climate of fear and aggression that such attacks can create. He asked ‘can anger be put to good and proper use?’ ‘What constitutes a “just war”?’ ‘What do the terrorist’s actions say about globalized cultures and economies?’ If there is a worthwhile program of Christian political action in a post-9/11 world, he wisely does not suggest one. However, he does suggest, gently and repeatedly, that “trauma can offer a breathing space.” He used the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ reaction to the woman caught in adultery to encourage a pause before response. Surrounded by incipient violence and anger, instead of responding immediately to the accusation and the threat of summary and immediate vengeance, Jesus “bent down and started to write – perhaps doodle – on the ground with his finger.” Instead of  an instant reaction to the infamous advice about throwing stones, “again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.”

It is not a bad example to follow. When the atmosphere is thick with aggression and violence, we stop, pause, and wait. We drop the stone and try to write something new.

April, Come She Will.

March came and then she went, in a kaleidoscope of bright flowers and dark silence from me since unusually I have relatively little to say or write about. So, here we are, April come she will. It’s been a month of reflection, extended spells of a hand cupping a chin, Rodin’s thoughtless thinker. In defence of this unusually poetic beginning, I am not altogether oblivious  to changing weather patterns, but being incapable of basic floral recognition I’m nothing more than a colour-blind sojourner through the botanical seasons – something of a metaphor for the whole of last month. My idea of a garden is a neat, rectangular lawn, requiring the mower’s blades to remain at a civilised 5cm all season. Instead, I live here. It’s chaotic, wild, hard to manage and really quite beautiful.

Which brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. The month hasn’t been entirely wasted, my online course is well underway but Harvard has been deceptive. To borrow a skiing metaphor, from the top of the hill, the ski trail looks easy. Until you launch yourself down the mountain and  realise with a frisson of alarm that it’s going to be a rather bumpy ride and a good deal more challenging than it looked. So it was that I have been mired in a welter of Jewish historical thought and being a slave to Graeco-Roman thinking, it sometimes feels as if I am trying to communicate with a dolphin – we are both intelligent but inhabit different worlds.

By way of light relief, I’ve been reading about communities, how they function, what kind of people join them and so on.  Not historical communities such as the Benedictines or the Amish, but modern variants. Many years ago, I was, as always, a flying buttress on the outside of a community – more than one, in fact. One in particular around which I nervously prowled fell apart in a messy, blood-spattered divorce, sexual misconduct and authoritarianism being major contributors to its demise. I counted myself fortunate to have walked away without serious psychological harm – some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Ever since that time, I’ve often peeped through the windows of such places – asking why, apart from injunctions in the fourth chapter of Acts, do people feel the call or perhaps need, to huddle together, share everything they own and live lives of psychological exposure and wild unpredictable chaos. Those drawn to a lifestyle like this often speak of the pain of transparency and it has always seemed to me to be masochistic to expose one’s deepest thoughts and feelings to people who almost without exception are not to be trusted. Because, people are like that. A group of community elders were polled some years ago about the kind of people that they were drawn to and what qualities they valued. They listed forgiving, loving, honest, responsible and obedient – all characteristics of a communal lifestyle. They were looking for the malleable and teachable. Last on their list were those who were independent, intellectual, ambitious, polite, and logical, characteristics of an individualistic, rational way of life. Not unsurprisingly, I fall solidly into the unpopular camp so it is rather unlikely that I’ll be asked to become a member of a shared fellowship any day soon.

April, come she will.

Weeping for Tammuz

I went to Church on Sunday, an event rare enough to record here, since it does take some effort, where I was reminded that it’s going to be Lent again soon. I’ve seen people making statements on their Facebook pages that they’re going to do (or not do) this or that ‘for Lent’. The Christian church has developed a whole theology of abstinence and reflection around Lent in the same way as Muslims have around Ramadan, which practice – although not precedent –  is absent in the Gospels. Perhaps that’s unfair. Being personally off the scale in respect of observance for its own sake, I have no quarrel with those who find Lent both purgative and refreshing; a necessary introit to Easter.

I’m often amused to read how pre-Christian festivals were systematically incorporated into annual celebrations – thanks again, Constantine, but Lent is even older than most of the others, it seems. Coming from the Anglo-Saxon Lencten, meaning “spring,” the origins of Lent can be traced back to ancient Babylonian mystery religions. The forty days’ abstinence of Lent was directly borrowed from the Babylonian cult of ‘weeping for Tammuz’ and among pagans, this idea seems to have been an indispensable preliminary to the great annual festival in commemoration of his death and resurrection and whose Feast was usually celebrated in June (also called the “month of Tammuz”). Before giving up personal sins and vices during Lent, the pagans held a wild, “anything goes” celebration to make sure that they got their fair share of debauchery – now celebrated as Mardi Gras. The prophet Ezekiel would have looked down his nose at all that, I am certain.

Mardi Gras, New Orleans

Lent was held forty days before the feast, “celebrated by alternate weeping and rejoicing.” This is why Lent means “spring”; it took place from spring to early summer.

The Roman church replaced Passover with Easter, moving the Feast of Tammuz to early spring, “Christianizing” it and Lent moved with it.

OK, then. Rather a far cry from the way in which the churches keep the season today. Starting with Ash Wednesday it carries on until Good Friday – ‘good’ in the sense of ‘holy’. I’ve always thought that it should be called ‘karfreitag’ or ‘sorrowful Friday’ then ‘Good’ – or Glorious – Sunday.

screen-shotAsh Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing ashes made from palm branches blessed on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, and placing them on the heads of participants in the form of a cross to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”. OK, then. My Catholic friends and I amicably disagree, so I’ll keep my idolatry fighting boots in the closet. I shan’t be excessively penitential this year, in common with other years, the prospect of self-flagellation and the cilice not being altogether tempting; I went to an English private school, for Heaven’s sake. I know a man who gave up whisky for Lent, replacing it with cognac. Now, that’s sacrifice.


screen-shotYes. I have to add this. The whole series is online and seeing the oh-so-familiar ‘yes’ TV symbol caused a wee frisson, I have to say. I can’t quite understand why this little series has gone so aggressively viral, but, indeed it has. For me, the cinematography was a lot like going home – Jerusalem stone, people hurriedly heading indoors, the images at the back of Mahane Yehuda were piercingly familiar – I half expected myself to leap in and out of shot along with the haredim who held their expensive hats on so firmly against the wind down the alleyways of Mea She’arim.

If you want to learn how Orthodox Jews think, this fly-on-the-wall series is no bad place to start. A man’s most prized possession is his hat, it would seem. Legions of dowdily dressed wives, Boudiccas in woollen caps, keep their menfolk and their children in line. No wonder some of the men have a hunted expression and the women a steely glint in their eyes.

The Christians are peculiar, for one important reason. Like Huckleberry Finn’s maiden aunt, they ‘grumble over the victuals’ before the fodder on offer is presented. Whenever a Jew has a mouthful before him, he gives thanks, whether it be a glass of water or a bowl of cholent (Jewish stew). Seems a better bet to me – at least you know what exactly you are giving thanks for. If it looks like a cremated ferret, you might want to pass.

The haredim are so very ‘other’. They have a mindset uniquely insular, yet the way families interact is so very comforting in its familiarity. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a few moments.

Donald’s Lightbulb

Do I look like Dirty Harry? Whaddya think?

I don’t know Donald Trump but I’m convinced that I don’t like him, an opinion, mindless as it is, which is shared with a large number of others who also don’t know him. He’s a businessman, a deal-maker, bombastic and arrogant with a public persona which lacks warmth. So, there. Suck it up. Take it or leave it.
I think his executive order barring travel from certain Muslim countries was rash and mean-spirited, at the cost of maximum social abrasion. It is probably giving the Trump administration too much credit to think they planned it that way. And yet I cannot get behind all the hyperbolic comparisons in the form of highly charged and mostly baseless emotive protests against him simply because they are far too numerous and completely disproportionate, the voice of a baying mob. I can’t line up with the idea that he’s a uniquely bad president, possibly the worst ever; that he’s ‘abnormal’ – someone we must never ‘normalise’. Why not? Because there simply isn’t enough hard information and, incidentally, where did we develop the skill or earn the right to suggest such things? I can’t do that for two reasons, first, because decisions made in the past have been as morally reprehensible as those being made today and there was nothing approaching the backlash we’ve seen in recent days. Secondly, the simple reason that treating Trump as abnormal implicitly normalises that which preceded him. It whitewashes history. It forgives, or at least dilutes, the crimes and misdemeanours of his predecessors.
The executive order which caused all the fuss is morally unacceptable since it is tantamount to collective punishment. It is also strategically dubious since many terrorists are home-grown or came from countries other than the seven on which the ban is levied. Finally, its implementation was clumsy and caused quite unnecessary distress and uncertainty, so it was, overall, a bad call. Trump gained power in part by trading on fear of immigrants; many of whom have, of course, hugely benefited the societies where they have made their homes. Of course, this is only true for those who have elected to adopt the cultural norms of their host nation and contribute enthusiastically to them. Those who huddle in Shari’a-led ghettoes will never benefit from all that is on offer and will spend a miserable existence seething and fulminating on the back burner of society.
But, what has gone before? There’s a strong argument to suggest that the war in Syria descended into barbarity in part because President Obama encouraged the rebels, and the Sunni majority population of Syria who supported them, promising them arms and protection, and then abandoned them. When that didn’t work, Obama went on to release billions of dollars in funds to the Iranian regime, whose forces and Shia militia in Syria have done much, if not most, of the killing there these past six years. The new funds helped the Iranians fuel the effort to ethnically cleanse Sunnis from Syria, leading many to seek sanctuary in Europe and beyond. While millions of people in America, Britain and elsewhere have protested Trump’s refugee policies in just one week, they had little to say about Obama’s foreign policies over the last eight years. He deported more immigrants than any other President in history, but he was a nice guy, thus can be forgiven. He stopped Iraqi immigration for six months in 2011 to ‘re-evaluate the vetting process’. Wait a moment – we’ve heard that somewhere before, surely. One and a half million people have signed a protest demanding that Trump’s State visit to the UK should be cancelled. The matter is to be debated in Parliament on 20th February, coincident with a planned mass protest initiated by the fatuous Left, who imagine that the thousands of man-hours spent in mobilisation will make an iota of difference. Where were the protests (apart from outbreaks of migrant violence) as thousands died trying to reach Greece or Italy – partly as the consequence of a war in Libya, in which the Obama administration, along with Britain and France, played a decisive role?  Or, when during Obama’s final week in office, many Cubans with legal visas were reportedly detained at U.S. airports, and then sent back. And why weren’t there huge rallies demanding to allow in the Yazidis, fleeing danger, death and slavery and with nowhere to go?  In 2014, just 250 Yazidi protesters massed outside No 10 handing in a letter calling upon David Cameron to end the ISIS massacre, but where was the moral outrage then? For many activists, ‘wokeness’ – being conscious of societal norms and injustices – is merely a social-sorting mechanism. Wokeness isn’t about injustice, as such. It is about caring about the “right people”  in a way that emphasises our moral superiority over others and cements our place in the sociopolitical hierarchy of our choice. All the little snowflakes outside Berkeley – are you paying attention yet? Just being able to spell the word ‘fascist’ on your placard doesn’t give you the right to use it indiscriminately. There are endless examples. Angry placard-wavers whose agenda is narrow and unilateral don’t deserve to be identified with great causes.  Until they can speak out against the sixteen nations where the presentation of an Israeli passport bans entry, or they identify radical Islam as a real threat to world peace and take to the streets to condemn it, their interests would be better served by staying at home.

Orchestrated Rage

screen-shotPersonally, I find the tribalism associated with mass protest narcissistic,  nauseating, ineffectual and frequently calamitously ill-informed. The Women’s March on Washington, a celebrity-endorsed event planned for the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, was, it seems, backed by a who’s-who of far-left organizations, including scores of groups financed by billionaire George Soros. Watching a few of the events around the world, they all seemed to be following a well-schooled narrative, shaped by the Left who implant the delusion that Trump is going to invade their uteruses and redefine how they choose to use them. Realistically, the organisers whose agenda is by no means loving, peaceful or inclusive, rode the wave of disappointment that their girl didn’t win and they don’t approve of the replacement because he uses immoderate and often combative language.

It’s been instructive to watch how a simple narrative has been systematically hijacked so that almost everyone can latch on to one or other of many and varied grievances, both fictional and factual. Linda Sarsour helped organize the Women’s March on Washington. She is a Muslim civil rights activist who opposes Zionism and has connections to family members who are supposedly imprisoned in Israel. The poster girl for the enlightened Muslim left is an influential endorser of the BDS movement hence a perfect rock-thrower at the phenomenon that is the new occupant of the Oval Office.

In deeming Donald Trump to be unfit to hold public office, in distorting what he says and does and then turning him into a monster on the basis of those distortions, his opponents are setting themselves against the very democratic system they supposedly wish to defend and are themselves unleashing the hatred and violence they affect to despise. What is more worrying is the sense of entitlement they feel.

The reason for such disproportionate, indeed almost pathological behaviour is obvious. Left-wing “progressives” regard themselves as the elect who alone are qualified to wield power. This breathtaking, almost Promethean hubris has arisen because, schooled in 70s social science and political rhetoric, university teachers in the West have taught their children well and they obediently trot out the Marxist platitudes of their mentors, often with woeful ignorance of the relationship between cause and effect. They alone know how society must be refashioned to bring about the transformation of human nature and the utopia of universal equality. The fact that they have now lost power is not just a setback. It simply cannot be allowed to happen.

I watched a hilarious video of an Australian presenter as he interviewed protesters in London as they milled about, waving placards with mostly meaningless slogans on them. Most were unable to sensibly defend why they were there and what exactly they were protesting about. If the presenter pressed them to explain themselves, most could not, managing only a few parroted slogans about misogyny and abortion rights. If he probed more deeply they shuffled off, declining to engage him further. Unpicking some of the organising principles and closing my ears to the primal screams, I sensed little more than a gigantic wave of carefully orchestrated rage but with its fair share of internal strife since the knock-on effect was to divide by grievance groups. Who should speak first, and who needs to be quiet? White women need to sit down and shut up. Muslims, especially if they wear a hijab, can speak. Black lesbian women should have priority. They get a voice. Privileged people (i.e., everyone who isn’t me) don’t, thus I have no right to open my mouth.

There has to be a more civilised way to express an opinion than Madonna’s colourful profanities in her role as spokesperson for the masses. She’s worth millions, and this apparently gives her something to say that’s worth hearing. Nothing said about the millions of women who slid into poverty over the last eight years, instead, we got this: “I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House … But I know that this won’t change anything.” Metaphor or not, collecting approbation from the hip millenials has done her ratings no harm.

The 45th POTUS isn’t the most cultured ballerina onstage. Yes, he has a lot to learn about politics and, more importantly, diplomacy. It may turn out that Trump is not fit for office since it remains to be seen whether he’ll listen to good advice. In the meantime people in funny hats should just sit down for a while. If you’re offended, get over yourselves.

A Clearing in the Silence

Eversley, Hampshire, UK

I have left teaching, I think. Or, perhaps, like a fickle lover, she has left me and we have, for the most part, gone our separate ways. Pedagogy has a lot in common with theatre in its grandeur and savagery – somebody once must have attempted a correlation between teachers and members of amateur dramatic societies – I suspect the correlation is significant. I count myself fortunate, some of my classes are etched almost permanently on my memory, those who allowed me the latitude to be myself. When a teacher gets up in front of a class, he is at once onstage, a Macbeth or a Chaplin.  He is both instructor and entertainer, ignobly so since such a life is spent imitating heroes instead of listening to the heart. Sometimes, however, in the words of the old Quaker phrase, we might do well to ask ourselves “before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”I take this to mean: “Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” For it is this that is communicated most effectively in all the unspoken interactions with student groups, whose job it is to seek out cant and hypocrisy wherever they may find it, jeering with the crass voice of the young.  And, of course, these random conversations do not only happen between students and teachers. The class may be immeasurably larger and the stakes higher than success or failure in an exam room but the 45th president of the USA might be well advised to self-examine from time to time, since his own future path is likely to be one deeply unfamiliar to him.

In retirement, as in taking an oath of office, it is not a bad thing to reappraise and actually pay attention to the small voices of the heart in light of changing circumstance, when the past indeed transforms into a foreign country. The exercise might be compared to how we perceive art; Jeanette Winterson, the novelist, had this to say: “Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language.”

Like art, or a presidency, being retired is alien. It may be compared to riding a metro system whose directions are in an unfamiliar script, like Russian or Thai. Information about the route is indeed available, but not to me. Its grammar and syntax lack certainty and the familiar comfort of precision and its demands may be less capricious but no less urgent. One may choose to walk unwillingly along the paths it prescribes, along roads well-travelled but unfamiliar, or, sometimes, to sit and wait in the clearing in the silence, listening to the birdsong of the heart.