Dead Men Left

Saturday, September 30, 2006

The horror, the horror

Don't say I didn't warn you. The awesome prospect of John Reid actually becoming Prime Minister remains distant - though not quite distant enough, but the major effect of his likely candidature will be to pull Brown and thus the whole contest even further to the Right. That, it strikes me, is one reason amongst many why the Left - inside or outside of Labour - needs to back John McDonnell's campaign. British politics is debased enough without a thuggish neoconservative[*] in Communist drag marching us smartly towards a police state. I don't agree with McDonnell's perspective - I think the Labour Party as a vehicle for progressive change is all but dead - but it would be criminally foolish not to support him as best as possible.

Reid's current prospects of victory are, of course, not great. The electoral college system the Labour Party now has ensures that each MP's vote is weighted nearly a thousand times more heavily than each ordinary members' - to say nothing of the trade unionists' votes. And with Reid, I'm told, unable at present to get close to enough signatures to even stand, we might gain some idea of his present popularity amongst MPs. That's a significant hurdle.

What bothers me is that the media will do a Cameron for him: take the outsider, and plug him so heavily that he acquires an unstoppable momentum amongst ordinary members, often isolated from political structures and generally completely passive, who vote for him by the bucketload. We had a taster over the summer, with the absurd spectacle of John Reid defending the Britsh Way of Life from the awesome dangers of shampoo and Lucozade being talked to the heavens by the press - aided and abetted, of course, by Reid himself, who is both obsessive and canny in such matters. (Incidentally, such is Reid's eye for a media prize, and evident lack of scruple, that it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the disruption of the Home Secretary's meet-the-natives speech by a bona fide loud-mouth fundamentalist nutter was not simply a result of typically incompetent police "intelligence". George hints as much here.) It's certainly a risk, and one of the few means to break up such a media push would be a concerted, grass-roots campaign amongst Labour Party members and union affiliates over the key issues the Labour Party has always claimed to stand for - not (at best) warmed-over communitarian shite. Brown can't deliver that, but perhaps McDonnell and the Left can.

[*] Not a curse-word; I can't think what else Reid's politics can be best summed up as. I suspect he'll harp on the theme of "security" actually being about helping the weakest some more, and perhaps adopt "social entreprenurship" as a theme over coming weeks.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


From now until I leave office I will dedicate myself, with the same commitment I have given to Northern Ireland, to advancing peace between Israel and Palestine. I may not succeed. But I will try because peace in the Middle East is a defeat for terrorism.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Popery II

Bang on cue (and neatly proving my earlier point), via Islamophobia Watch, we find the secular cavalry, in the person of Sean Matgamna, rallying to the Gates of Vienna:

The difference between modern Islam and modern Christianity is that Christianity, more under the pressure of the modern world for longer, is more schizoid, paying nonsensical, oxymoronic, lip service to both faith and reason. The Catholic Church is what it always was. The difference between that church now and in its quite recent past is not that it has, at root, changed, but that it is weaker.

Absent a few rhetorical flourishes, this is in its essentials identical to the claims Benedict XVI made in his speech: "lip service" the Pope may be paying, but at least the Catholic Church recognises reason - unlike the irrational hordes on our borders. Both claim Islam is uniquely irrational. But both the AWL's guru and the Holy Father have an astonishing lack of awareness if they think the history of rationalism can be written without reference to Islamic scholars. Matgamna continues:

The right to secular free speech, and the right to write and publish freely (under the laws against incitement to violence, and the laws of libel) is taken for granted in the western bourgeois countries. It is written into the constitution of the USA. It had to be won in centuries of struggle.... Today, militant, and even, comparatively speaking, some varieties of 'moderate' Islam, oppose all of that.... Now, we have reached the stage where the revelation, which should surprise nobody, that the Catholic Pope doesn't like Muhammad, or Islam, that he thinks his own religion better, the true religion, and says so, more or less, unleashes organised, obstreperous outrage across large parts of the globe! He is forced to deny that he said what he said, and what he clearly intended to say!

"... I repeat: if political Islam can do that to the Bishop of Rome, what can it not do to secularists, male and female sexual rebels, infidels, apostates from Islam, and socialists in the countries where it is dominant, and in the communities in Western Europe where it is immensely powerful? What does it do? Everywhere it is repressive, often murderously.

A truly unholy alliance.


Funny thing with this Pope business: those usually keenest to prove their secular credentials by poring over the alleged utterances of Muslim clerics for the slightest whiff of Indecency and Badness, irrespective of context and the inadequacies of translation, suddenly become keen to defend that notorious secularist, His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, and desperate to exonerate the Holy Father: his remarks were out of context, they were only illustrative, it's an obscure theological point anyway.

Madeleine Bunting is spot on here:

Some say this was a case of naivety, of a scholarly theologian stumbling into the glare of a global media storm, blinking with surprise at the outrage he had inadvertently triggered. The learned man's thoughtful reasoning, say some, has been misconstrued and distorted by troublemakers, and the context ignored.

But such explanations are unconvincing. This is a man who has been at the heart of one of the world's multinational institutions for a very long time. He has been privy to how pontifical messages get distorted and magnified by a global media. Shy he may be, but no one has ever before accused this pope of being a remote theologian sitting in an ivory tower. On the contrary, he is a determined, shrewd operator whose track record indicates a man who is not remotely afraid of controversy. He has long been famous for his bruising, ruthless condemnation of those he disagrees with.

And, if you do get round to reading the Vatican's translation of the Pope's remarks, it is clear that the musings of an ill-remembered Byzantine emperor were chosen precisely because they fitted Papa Rat's argument so well:

[Regensburg University] was also very proud of its two theological faculties... That even in the face of... radical skepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: This, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by professor Theodore Khoury (Muenster) of part of the dialogue carried on -- perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara -- by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.

It was probably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than the responses of the learned Persian. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Koran, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship of the "three Laws": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran...

In the seventh conversation ("diálesis" -- controversy) edited by professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that sura 2:256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion." It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under [threat]. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Koran, concerning holy war.

Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels," he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

The debate is established as concerning the necessary harmony of reason and faith; into which, after the vaguest of nods towards more liberal - indeed, mainstream - interpretations of Islam, the Pope immediately throws in a quotation describing Islam as "evil and inhuman" from an long-dead emperor perhaps best known for his battles against the Muslims. It's hardly a Jesuitical argument - subtle, it ain't.

But the key points are in later paragraphs:

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: Not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practice idolatry...

So: Islam is not bound by any rationality, claims the Pope; whereas, in the arguments following, the Pope attempts to establish - on the basis of the dual meaning of the Greek word, "logos", "word" and "reason" - that Christianity is inherently tied to reason, and a Greek view of reason at that: "In the beginning was the logos", as John's Gospel has it. Arguments attempting to deny the unity of word and reason, therefore, aim to break this divine link:

In all honesty, one must observe that in the late Middle Ages we find trends in theology which would sunder this synthesis between the Greek spirit and the Christian spirit. In contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which ultimately led to the claim that we can only know God's "voluntas ordinata." Beyond this is the realm of God's freedom, in virtue of which he could have done the opposite of everything he has actually done.

This gives rise to positions which clearly approach those of Ibn Hazn and might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.

As opposed to this, the faith of the Church has always insisted that between God and us, between his eternal Creator Spirit and our created reason there exists a real analogy, in which unlikeness remains infinitely greater than likeness, yet not to the point of abolishing analogy and its language... [emphasis added]

Let's be clear about this: the Pope begins his argument by citing an obscure Byzantine Emperor, given to warring with Muslims, on the "evil" of Islam; he then claims that Islam is not bound to rationality; he then further claims, arguing against other Christian theologians, that Christianity is tied to a specifically Greek rationality.

He is, in other words, repeating the crudest Orientalist stereotypes about the irrational, sensuous East, and deliberately counterposing it to the rational (and therefore more god-like) West. One of his concluding paragraphs is absolutely clear on this:

The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the program with which a theology grounded in biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.

It is, in other words, necessary for "the West" to defend its rationalist heritage through "biblical faith". This is the argument alleged secular liberals use when lining up with Bible-bashing US Presidents; it is the logic of the Clash of Civilisations with a Catholic twist. Is it any wonder it has caused such alarm?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

"Crude populism" at the Sharpener, on Livingstone and Chavez.