CapitalOkay, so I haven’t read Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I am a busy man, and first editions are expensive. Don’t think that I am a dumb, know-nothing blogger, though. I’ve read a lot of people talking about it and I think I am qualified to offer my opinion.

It seems true that modern financial trends are leading us towards an evermore stratified society. The rich, dining of the fruits of inherited wealth, are liable to become a spoiled and debauched ruling class. My agreement with Piketty, however, ends there. I find it hard to believe that we are going to become a monarchical society, and even if we did I think it is speculative at best to claim that it would take the form that Piketty suggests.

I will grant that scientific progress appears to be slowing but it seems implausible that we will experience the kind of technological regression that is proposed in Capital…. Feudalism? Give me a break. Its diagnosis of the moral standards of the new aristocrats also seems hyperbolic – designed to appeal, perhaps, to left wing prejudices. Even acknowledging the scandals that dogged the careers of Silvio Berlusconi or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I do not think that rape and murder will become so normalised. The depiction of Prince George as a scheming, murderous tyrant seems frankly offensive.

Piketty’s tome is a disappointment, then. On the other hand, I look forward to seeing HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s analysis of wealth inequality in modern times. I do like thoughtful television.

WelbyIt is painfully obvious that David Cameron’s flaunting of his Christian credentials is intended to appeal to religious voters who might have been alienated by the establishment of gay marriage. It might also be to appeal to churches as a source of private charity to plug the holes left by the state, so I will give the man credit for some nuance of his propaganda, but propaganda it most definitely is.

The question remains: is England a Christian country? It seems hard to claim that a nation in which aborted fetuses join the “clinical waste” that is burned to heat hospitals has much to do with the Bible but, then, were Englishmen acting on Christian values when they burned each other during the Reformation? The question, perhaps, is not whether nation is faithful to the values of a religion but how much it is reliant on it as a source of inspiration.

In the case of England and Christianity, the answer has been “to a considerable extent”. We celebrate Christmas, yes, and people like weddings in churches, but there is more to it than the obvious accessories. Our language and literature are drenched in its concepts, from Beowulf onwards. Our laws, since the Code of Alfred, have been informed by its teachings. Even modern social trends have been influenced by the faith. Otto Von Bismarck called his social reforms “practical Christianity”, and it was non-conformist Protestants who laid foundations of British welfarism. The British Humanist Association might point out that most of us have other faiths or, indeed, none but a problem that humanists have is grasping that there are things that transcend our modern lives. Nations and cultures are more than the collective beliefs and habits of citizens at any given time.

Yet, in time, as people hand their own beliefs on to their children, who reshape them for themselves and continue the process, a culture can change. England has a Christian past but dim prospects for a Christian future. Belief has declined. Rival faiths are growing. The Church of England makes other shadows of former selves appear substantial. Even if contemporary political and social trends, meanwhile, have religious roots they are taking secular forms. Like or loathe consumer culture and the permissive society but in their idealisation of subjective reasoning and individual fulfillment they are leading us along an areligious path.

People who maintain that England is a Christian nation seem to have little idea of the ground that they have lost. Theirs is not a struggle of defence so much as reclamation. Edward Feser made an amusing comparison between contemporary Christians and the hero of Rocky III – “undisciplined, unserious, inattentive to the true nature of the challenge…and unprepared to deal with it”. If Christians want to maintain their status they have to assert the cultural and intellectual value of their faith against an age that treats it with condescension if not contempt. Otherwise it will be an object of nostalgia, bound for the retirement home of ideas and institutions.

 

RagefaceScott Alexander writes on the intellectual equivalent of trying to pick on the shortest kid in the playground…

What annoys me about the people who harp on moon-hoaxing and homeopathy – without any interest in the rest of medicine or space history – is that it seems like an attempt to Other irrationality.

(yes, I did just use “other” as a verb. Maybe I’ve been hanging around Continental types too much lately.)

It’s saying “Look, over here! It’s irrational people, believing things that we can instantly dismiss as dumb. Things we feel no temptation, not one bit, to believe. It must be that they are defective and we are rational.”

This reminded me of Michael Oakeshott’s assessment of Thomas Hobbes…

[B]rilliance in controversy is a corrupting accomplishment…Like many controversialists, he hated error more than he loved truth, and came to depend overmuch on the stimulus of opposition.

Our relationship with error is love-hate. We disdain mistruths, and dislike misdeeds, but there is an extent to which they are rewarding. We would not read half the columnists we do if this were not the case. To criticise, of course, is entertaining. Comedians joke about things that annoy them, not about things they admire, for it is easier to be amusing in a state of disgust than of enthusiasm. It is also attractive as a means of affirmation. We enjoy flaunting our superiority, for the sake of our egos or the benefit of onlookers.

To defend something as true or virtuous is more difficult. Theories are destroyed with greater ease than they are constructed – and in an age in which the truth is seen as being the preserve of the natural sciences this is especially true of ethical and cultural ideas. Moreover, enthusiasm can be humiliating in that it exposes more of oneself than disdain. Thus, I think that modern Westerners often define themselves far less by their beliefs than the beliefs of their opponents. Liberals and leftists might not have a good idea of how progress will appear but, by God, they are not like readers of the Daily Mail. Conservatives might have little idea of what to conserve but, by God, they are not like readers of the Guardian.

There is always a need for opposition. Grave harm is done by people with sincere and passionate beliefs. To resist, however, has defensive implications. There must be something of value that is under threat. Until one has something to value one has little idea of what to resist. Without it one’s pleasures are as idle as those of wannabe Carl Sagans ragging on creationists.

ConfederadosLearning about the American Civil War, it seems amazing that the nation could be as united as it is. If Southerners had wanted to secede before it had begun you would think that a long and bloody conflict would have made them more rather than less resentful, and I am sure there are Yankees who asked themselves why had they wanted to have rebs as their compatriots in the first place. Well, somehow a lot of people transcended their grievances. Not everyone, though. Some took up their sewing kits and formed the Ku Klux Klan. Others packed their bags.

Many Southerners decided not to be a part of the new America. Some were dispersed throughout Mexico, but up to ten thousand went further, accepting an invitation from Emperor Dom Pedro II of Brazil. The “Confederados” often returned, either displeased with their treatment further south than Alabama or pining for their homeland, but many stayed. Though cultural relics in the United States, they were symbolic of progress in Brazil…

The most important contributions the Americans made to Brazil were in agriculture (the steel plows they brought were superior to what most Brazilian farmers were using at the time), education (they founded schools based on a spirit of free inquiry), and religion (they were the first indigenous Protestant community). So it was that in the 1870s and 1880s republicans who wanted to abolish the Brazilian monarchy, end slavery, and separate church from state took up the cause of the Confederados, promoting them not as refugees from a conservative, slave-owning society but as representatives of advanced, liberal, democratic America.

The Confederados formed a strange little community, in which their traditional Southern attachments were blended with the culture of Brazil.

Passing by the graves of the [Confederado chapel], Nancy Padovesc makes a sweeping motion with her arm and says, “São todos teimosos” (they were all stubborn).

The [chapel], shaded by palm and ficus trees, sits in the middle of rolling fields of sugar cane. [It] is a simple red-brick building. Its spare interior—white walls, wooden pews—has just two adornments, a cross and a large portrait of Robert E. Lee. Religious services are held at the quarterly picnics; according to the Associação bylaws, services must be in one of the faiths of the original settlers—Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist. In front of the church a white stone obelisk rises from a granite base that bears the Confederate battle flag and the names of ninety-six families—names like Bookwalter and Carr, Dumas and Kennedy, Trigg and Yancey—that made the long journey.

One can only imagine what General Lee would have thought of being paid tribute to, in Brazilian, by people with names like De Muzio.

Such hybrid cultures are, of course, becoming common in a globalising world. These Confederates were ahead of their time. There can be sadness in dislocation, and danger in adjacency, but it is fascinating how traditions have been strewn across the globe: cropping up in the oddest of places. Are there Basque separatists in Britain? Irish Republicans in Iceland? Cornish nationalists in Spain?

I have been watching Ken Burns’ fine documentary series on the American Civil War. At present I would like to focus on something that might seem trivial: the faces of the gentlemen involved. Both the Unionist and Confederate leaders had, in my opinion, most distinguished features. Take Abraham Lincoln. Here is not a man that observers would think handsome, perhaps, but in his stiff jaw and steady gaze is character. This is the face of a man haunted by a thousand solemnities and occupied with deep reflection.

Lincoln

Robert E. Lee had the face of a sober man as well. Here, his mind seems to be elsewhere as the photo is taken.Robert E LeeThe question that occurred to me is how politicians evolved from this to this.

ChristieAs can be appreciated in this montage of American presidents throughout the ages, a goofball tendency became ubiquitous. Statesmen feel a strange compulsion to display their teeth to the world, as if to prove the scrupulousness of their dental hygiene.

presidentsI am not suggesting that appearance need be a reflection of character – and, indeed, I doubt the significance of the character of the figurehead of the state. Yet I find it interesting that the grim demeanour of the politicians of old has been replaced by all this mateyness. In an age of public relations I suppose these men are desperate to appear “relatable” to voters. Me, if I am biased at all it is towards the solemn. Politics is not a cheerful business but a frightening and bleak affair concerned with the lives and deaths of millions. A good man inside the Oval Office would be wracked with stress and sorrow of dreadful proportions.

Limp BizkitIt is strange to look back now, in 2018, to a time before nu-metal. The seeds of the genre had been planted before, of course, in KoЯn’s Life is Peachy and Limp Bizkit’s Three Dollar Bill, Y’all, but it truly flourished once the former’s Follow the Leader hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1998. Its unique amalgamation of heavy metal stylings with grunge riffs and hip hop beats became the soundtrack of a new generation of young, disaffected and energetic listeners who moshed their way into the public consciousness in a haze of cargo pants and hoodies.

It was a cultural revolution. Now, of course, one takes for granted collaborations between stars of rock and rap, but when Ice Cube was dropping rhymes with KoЯn’s Jonathan Davis, and Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre were appearing with Limp Bizkit, it was groundbreaking. The snobs might scoff but it was nu-metal that helped white America to love urban music. Without Fred Durst, could we have ever had Eminem? It is a sobering thought.

The lyrics of the genre were confrontational: expressing rage towards parents, women, peers, politicians, women, religion, women, teachers, women, women and women. Some may write this off as empty whining from overgrown adolescents in jean shorts but a more nuanced understanding reveals it to have been an assertion of existential pessimism that maintains that in an age of secular consumerism there is no point in transcending the habits of one’s youth.

Seen in this light, sentiments such as those of Limp Bizkit’s Break Stuff posed a radical challenge to both the social and philosophical values of the time. The optimism of the decade was giving way to the fears and frustrations of the noughties, and nu-metal acts were sounding the alarm. Now, as Prime Minister Cameron and President Clinton meet to discuss to crisis talks with the Chinese president, one can only wish that more had heeded their concerns that everything was fucked up and everybody sucked. I for one will take my baseball cap off to them.

MurderThe UN has issued a report on the 437,000 murders carried out around the world in 2013. It is daunting to see how many lives are snatched away on some areas of the globe. In Honduras, for example, more than one in 300 men between the ages of 30 and 44 were killed. Men, indeed, were far likelier to be slain than women, though this had a lot to do with banditry and gangsterism and was not always the case in nations that are safe from them.

One’s chances of being killed in Britain are far less significant than in South America. About one in 100,000 Britons are murdered (though, of course, it would be higher without our first world standards of medical treatment).

Thoughts of being killed probably take up more space in our brains than the risk suggests that it should. I suspect this is at least in part due to our judging the threat not merely by the likelihood of meeting killers but the ease with which it seems that one could kill. I remember standing in a tube station, near the yellow lines than run along the edge of the platform. It occurred to me that if a madman happened to be near, it would be a cinch to dart forward and shove me onto the tracks. Such thoughts are no more regular than thoughts of D.H. Lawrence and Ultimate Frisbee but the point is that our fears are not dependent on the statistical likelihood of events so much as the ease with which they can be imagined. We tend not discuss them in such terms, of course, but perhaps we don’t want to give people ideas.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 164 other followers