Sunday, 20 December 2009

Three religions Meme

John at The Pageless Book inadvertently exposed my ignorance of many things bloggish by tagging me in this Meme. Having taken advice, I hope I'm observing the conventions correctly. Thank you John for this addition to my education, as the internet comes to rival the radio as my principal source of ideas and interesting people.

So I'm asked to cite 3 religions which are not my own that I find interesting.
1: Judaism
My interest here is spurred by what little I know of the Rabinic tradition. It contains so much wisdom, humour and, in a religion whose practices can be so exacting, a rebellious streak when it comes to questions of doctrine, to the extent that some of these sages are not sure if they even believe in God, and thoughts about any after life are as vague as human ignorance would suggest is quite right and proper.
As if to prove that we humans so often fail to capitalise on our gifts, it is unfortunate then that the Jewish State and many of its people seem able to forget this wise and humane tradition, and their own history, when confronted with the aspirations of others.

2: Islam
I know little of Islam in detail, except that it is as broad a "church" as Christianity, is prone to the same sectarian strife, and shares much in common with the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Those who speak for mainstream Islam, as in this "Prayer For The Day" from Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, are speaking a language with which all people of good will can identify. We do well not to judge any religion by its extremists. As in my third choice below, we should not confuse another's craving for martyrdom with our own need for a scapegoat.

3: Fundamentalism
In his response, John cites Atheism as one of his 3 belief systems, which makes me feel justified in choosing fundamentalism in all its forms as one of my 3.

My interest in fundamentalism is centred around my fear of it, and my fear of it is centred around the dangerous consequences produced by the two groups of people it brings together- those who promulgate fundamentalism, and its adherents. The promulgaters, whether they consciously seek it or not, have power over the adherents, because the adherents are simply responding to our universal human need for some kind of certainty, something we can know beyond any doubt to be true; something to impose order on apparent chaos. The greater our need for this certainty, the more vulnerable we will be to someone else's grand solution, and the more potential power that person will have over us. If that solution happens to lend righteousness to our particular prejudices, so much the better. Who better to endorse our vengeful spite than God?

Atheistic fundamentalism is as absurd as its theistic version, but it is at least spared the worst aspects of this monolithic "divinely inspired" vengeance against #"them".

In parading these hobbyhorses, I tag and warmly recommend:
Annie at Daily Ruminations
Carl McColman at The Website Of Unknowing
And Cat and Peter at Quaker Pagan Reflections.
"God bless us every one".

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The limits of consensus

Recently, I've been preoccupied with the notion of discussion as a means of learning something, or as a means of achieving some consensus on questions of social policy based on mutually desired objectives rather than ideological divisions, or the dubious pleasures of self vindication at someone else's expense. This means that not only must I refrain from casting the first stone, but I must not retalliate in kind if someone else starts throwing rocks (see my last post for the kind of approach I would try to adopt). Not retalliating is really hard for me, but it's the only way to stop a conversation degenerating into that good old polarised point scoring, which becomes an end in itself, while issues like care and concern for our fellow citizens can easily get lost in the noise of battle.

To anyone living in the real world, experiencing rising impatience with my wishful thinking, I would say that I know very well that the conditions for such constructive dialogue are quite rare, but aspiring to them is the only way out of the ideological arm wrestling which is no solution to human problems. The reality of such aspiration can be sensed in the tentative steps towards peace in Northern Ireland, where the people have finally grown sick of violence and gangsterism in the guise of principle, where two mutually exclusive ends were used to justify indiscriminate carnage as the means of their achievement.

If dialogue means that both sides are fully prepared to modify their positions in the face of reason, there are many people with whom such a discussion will be impossible. And I would contend that there are belief systems with which such a dialogue cannot be undertaken.

As an illustration of both these points, I would direct you to this articcle, an exerpt from a book by Frank Schaeffer. Clearly there is no dialogue to be had with this kind of steadfast believer. It would undermine the very certainty which is the basis for their belief. A frail human need for certainty which we all crave and, once found, I can imagine how hard it would be to relinquish, facing the terrible possibility that these very beliefs might turn out to be "the house built upon sand".

Now for the difficult part. Most of us raised on democratic ideas would say that we all have a right to believe what we want. There are exceptions though, and I think that the same "most of us" would say that belief systems which actively promote the hatred and physical harm of others are not acceptable.
Schaeffer describes a novel in which we can read a fictional account of the believer, raptured into glory, able to look down upon God's vengeance on "The left behind". The relish here is palpable, and is clearly a major factor in driving him away from this kind of "end times" Christian Fundamentalism.There is nothing like legitimising our most destructive urges to give a belief system broad appeal. The dismembering of Christians by lions, the public burning of heretics, public executions and mob lynchings, have all been the focus of gleeful public spectacle. These people are "other", just as those "left behind" will be "other". The deliciousness of legitimised hate.

This is something which makes me least inclined to believe in an interventionist God. Once God can intervene, it can be on behalf of you or me. Such a God can make choices. Confusingly, this might lead to you or I being convinced that we were members of "the chosen people", but two different chosen peoples, as in the case of extreme Zionists and Islamists.

In setting out his ideas of some of the features of "The Authoritarian Mind", Mike Labossiere describes how authoritarian leaders and their adherents justify their particular set of absolutes as good. Those they oppose are therefore evil, and anything done to eradicate that is acceptable.

To my mind, it is the use of the Divine in support of this kind of inhumanity which is the true blasphemy, manifest evil; what Paul describes as "The devil appearing as an angel of light".

So how should we respond? As with retalliating to stone throwing, how do we resist evil without resorting to it?
It was at this point when I read this post on Daily Ruminations.
"If we let the Spirit move as it should and not try to stifle it, if we let it rain
down on us freely, taking what nourishes and leave the rest"
On reading this, I had the sense that I was trying to solve an essentially spiritual problem in my head. The complexities of how to confront evil constructively are too much for this brain, beyond knowing that I must not stand mute in the face of evil. At some point a stand has to be taken and a line drawn. But openness to the essence of good is my best hope. If "love one another" is our first commandment, then hatred can have no place. We are only human, and I think we can be angry with those who hate in the name of God, but only angry with those who are still as worthy of love as we are. We can hate the actions of those who abuse their humanity, But not our fellow humans, which is where the evil begins, of which we're all capable given particular circumstances and temptations. In the face of intractable complexity, the source of good is where I look for guidance in how to deal with the evil in myself and others.

Consensus yes, but not at any price.

Friday, 13 November 2009

But what do we agree on?

Yesterday, Ann at Mystery Of Iniquity, who introduced me to the confusing abundance of Word World Blogos, posted a snippet from this piece of heartfelt polemic from The Daily Cos. Apart from heartfelt polemic being in itself bracing, it started me thinking about two issues, writ large within the United States, but with a message for all of us (I live in the UK). These are things which I and thousands of better informed bloggers have touched on before, but these things keep coming up, and cannot conveniently be consigned to the completed tasks tray or the trash.

If our elected representatives are beholden to special interest groups, then democracy ceases to exist. If you require large sums of money to get elected, and accept more money to vote according to the interests of your paymasters, we are simply using the word "democracy" because it sounds nicer than "plutocracy". For someone who would label themselves Democrat to behave in this way would seem to qualify for a lifetime hypocrisy award. And one of the things that most angers Hunter is that these people seem completely oblivious to their indefensible position.

In a BBC radio series on White Collar Crime, a British member of parliament, Jonathan Aitken, was interviewed about his state of mind while he was commiting the fraud of which he was subsequently convicted. He said that he came to believe that he could "walk on water", that his actions were somehow above normal standards of judgment.

So, do we agree that our elected representatives behave in this way and, if so, do we think they should? If not, what should be done about it?

This same Daily Cos piece inevitably got me thinking about the on-going and unseemly wrangle about US health care reform. To this end, it would seem to me that no proposal whichfails to directly address a means of preventing millions of one's fellow citizens from being mmore at risk of illness or death by virtue of their income, should be worthy of any consideration at all. All this prevarication and ideological posturing exposes the American nation to disrepute, and dishonours the fine traditions of those who established it. After World War II, Europe was enormously helped by the generosity and enlightened self-interest of The Marshall Plan, aiming to avoid a recurrence of a nation sliding into fascism fueled by economic collapse as Germany had done. Something of that spirit is alive in the G20's reaction to the current recession. Can't the American government and people exercise similar humanity and common sense within their own borders? Do we think the costs of health care are too high? Are we content that people who cannot possibly afford those costs will die? If not, what is to be done about it?

another thing I heard yesterday was that the Greenland ice cap is melting twice as fast as previously thought. Forgetting for now why this is so, should we just accept that it is irreversible, or do we owe it to our children or grand children to at least try and do something about it? Whatever the causes of climate change may be, hurling vast amounts of polutants into the atmosphere is not going to help, and poluting our atmosphere has to be a bad idea in principal. Surely, even a Creationist would agree that the closer we can get this planet to God's original design, the better for mankind. there is no "Thou shalt belch millions of tons of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into my atmosphere" commandment of which I'm aware. So, if we have choices, perhaps we should exercise them. Already their are technology consultants beginning to persuade the major energy companies that there is money to be made from renewables. Why spend billions of dollars drilling holes, poluting the oceans and atmosphere, and killing wild life, when there might be renewable =inexhaustible alternatives with less environmental clean up to do, and a much better public relations profile at the end of it? I'm guessing that if the fossil fuel industries had put the money into developing alternatives which they've spent on trying to discredit them, we might already be further along the road to a cleaner and more pleasant planet.

And lastly, to return to a current obsession of mine, is it really beyond our wit to stop producing stuff which nobody needs, paid for by unsustainable plastic debt, when we could be generating jobs, yes even (shock horror) labour intensive jobs, which actually do something useful?

If we really think that the extra car or TV is really more important than someone else's clean water supply, we shouldn't be surprised when they come to get us. Is our economy run on false assumptions? If so, what's to be done about it? An achievable future depends on what we can agree on. Sustained and polarised disagreement can achieve nothing but enmity and a sense of self-righteousness.

And, as a postscript, a quote from Sungold because, in the context of what I'm saying, it makes me feel better.
“I still don’t know what will come next, but this I do know. Freedom is better than oppression. Loving is better than refusing to risk one’s heart. Commitments to principles and people trump opportunism any day. And if we don’t embrace change and vulnerability, we might as well give ourselves up for dead. We might just as well erect our own personal Walls.”

Thursday, 12 November 2009


For those who have seen the TV series, this should probably be filed under the "Grumpy Old Man" category, but that's too bad.

Manufacturers' obsession with branding, while not as serious as world poverty or health care provided according to income, does point to something rotten in the state of capitalism as we currently have it. It is the triumph of form over content.

This struck me not ten minutes ago when I had a glass of some very pleasant drinking yogurt. While drinking it, I remembered that it is called "Yop", and wondered from the fevered brain of which over-paid branding consultant these three letters had come. This can be excused on the basis of how much cocain is integral to your life, but that he/she managed to convince others that I would be drawn to Yop by virtue of its name, fills me with foreboding for the sanity of our society. In fact, this stuff was on special offer, and I thought I'd try it in spite of its name. Now I'm sure that the relevant marketing department would tell me that all kinds of surveys, consumer panels and focus groups assure them that their particular "demographic" is as irresistibly drawn to this name as is an ant to honey, or a rat to a drainpipe. However much I may suspect that they regard their consumers with the same lofty contempt they would extend to ants or rats, I cannot (or will not) believe it..

Once upon a time, here in the UK, we had a State run UK wide railway service, formerly called "British Railways", and then rebranded to "British Rail". I don't know why, but fair enough, the name still sounds like the commodity being sold - rail transport. Then Margaret Thatcher decided to make some ideologically correct money for the government by selling it off to the private sector. In principal, there is a case for doing that, although none of the world's best rail networks - Switzerland, France, Japan - could survive without substantial State subsidy. However, what Mrs T did was to chop it up into bits. The maintainance of the track was entrusted to a single entity, while the running of trains was split up into regional companies in this extremely small country. In my opinion, this was madness (end of digression).

The point is that one of my local train companies is now called "National Express", which is OK. I'm very grateful to the world of takeover bids for this because, before National Express took it over, I would get on a train, to hear a slightly depressed male voice with an "inclusive" sounding London accent making the automated announcement "Good morning ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for travelling with...One". Yes, there was a pause before "One". What could this mean I thought. Was this a posh way, totally at variance with the accent of saying "thank you for travelling with me"? But no. a bunch of executives somewhere had allowed themselves to be convinced that "One" was a really great name for a train company.

Two more brief examples. Until recently, the parent company of my Internet Service Provider was "THUS PLC". I suppose this was intended to conjure up the notion of something of great power being brought forth, like the Ten Commandments. It's the same kind of grandiose nonsense which Monty Python had in mind in their wonderful sketch about "TREADMILL; THE MIGHTY LAGA".

Our national post office used to be known as "The Post Office" or "GPO" (general post office. It ran the telephone system as well as the mail, administering vehicle road tax ETC. When this too was all split up, for which there is definitely a case, the mail service eventually became "Royal Mail", which it is today. Unfortunately, a few years ago, postal executives were seized with an attack of branding madness, and out of nowhere came the name "CONSIGNIA". The process cost several million pounds, and was greeted with nation wide derisive laughter, which prompted the expenditure of several more million on a rather shamefaced return to "Royal Mail".

I think the lifestyle associations of products have gained way too much influence in the minds of manufacturers, when the quality of the product should be what sells it. When you add to that the somewhat dubious individuals who seem to have worked this trick for their own profit, I think we should simply get back to making things that people like because they're good. Layers of flummery do create jobs it's true, but non-productive jobs which only add to the price of the goods we buy.

Branding is a hugely expensive process, which has led to YOP, ONE, THUS PLC, and CONSIGNIA, among many others I'm sure. I rest my case.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Knowing what's good for us and other people.

Most of us crave security in our lives. If only we could be certain where the boundaries might be - good and bad, right and wrong. I suspect this is the chief attraction towards religious, moral, or ideological fundamentalism.

What of those who disseminate such views?
We all have opinions about how others should behave, ranging from their minor personal foibles which may charm or annoy us to the way in which people choose to live their lives, which we may admire or abhor. If other people's conduct is illegal we can invoke the law. But supposing people just don't do what we say quite enough. Supposing we would really like the world to be better ordered, and, particularly, better ordered in a way which suits our particular ideas. then, if we don't have enough authority of our own, we need to look for some higher solution. In the realm of religion for example, wouldn't it be good if God agreed with us; now there's an ally worth having. If we can find an appropriate biblical text, we can magically convert our petty prejudices into the word and will of God. "You can argue with me, but arguing with God might be dangerous". Eternal torment anyone? Such, I would contend, are the typical mouthpieces of fundamentalism; people who rather enjoy being on the same side as angels who happen to believe what they believe. There may not even be a specific belief agenda; all performers love their adoring fans so, even if, as an atheist, you don't think God can be on your side, there's enormous mileage, equivalent to any sense of righteousness, in feeling that you're not deluded as others are deluded. So a guru of atheism need never be short of equally devoted disciples.

Recently, I was talking about This fine analysis by Eric Reitan of the heavy weight bout between Hitchens & Wilson. In support of my contension that religious fundamentalism can offer divine support for its proponents' prejudices, eric Reitan refers to Pastor
"Wilson who, prior to these debates, was probably best known for his controversial co-authorship of Southern Slavery: As It Was
, which the Southern Poverty Law Center described as a “repulsive apologia for slavery.” Apparently, Wilson’s opposition to homosexuality is so strident that he is prepared to rehabilitate the Bible’s endorsement of slavery just so he can preserve its condemnation of homosexuality."

Fortunately for any of us who fear some kind of so-called Islamic or so-called Christian tyranical theocracy, the tide may be turning.

Just today, in connection with homosexuality, I read Anthony Williams' account of his decision to confront his sexuality as a young gospel performer and preacher, and his church's reaction to it. I'm much less a Christian theologically than he is, but his sense of the private relationship with the divine, and his conviction that "God's love is bigger than his judgment", marks a welcome respite from the hectoring style of prescriptive religion. I know how dangerous an internal conscience driven spiritual life seems to many who look for a testing and difficult regime to help them overcome their sense of sin, but far more potentially dangerous to me are the motivations of god's self-appointed spokespeople here on Earth.

And, saving the best for last, Professor Harvey Cox's article from the Boston Globe offers both hope and rationality, typified by this quote:
"Fundamentalism is defined by its one-way-only exclusivism. But today spiritually inclined people view the once-high walls between religious traditions as porous. They borrow freely. Synagogues and churches incorporate Asian meditation practices into their services. Instead of a single churchly allegiance, people now assemble “repertories” of elements from a number of sources. They may attend Mass, take a yoga class, and keep a Buddhist devotional book on their bedside table. Clerics often denounce this as “cafeteria style” religion, but the current of religious history is flowing against them. Father Thomas Merton, the leading Catholic contemplative writer of the 20th century, died while staying at a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok. Martin Luther King attributed his commitment to non-violence to Gandhi, who in turn said he learned it from Jesus and Tolstoy. The Dalai Lama has written a reverent biography of Jesus. For none of
these profoundly religious men did the appreciation of other faiths weaken their anchoring in their own. In fact each said that it enhanced it."
He points out that such developments can lead to fads and incoherence, but religion must always be the search for truth which will always be unknowable in any entire sense.

A shrinking world is increasingly in need of consensus. It will not find it in the polarised diatribes of the bone-headedly convinced. Such are the posturings of coaches before football games, and of generals addressing their troops before going into battle. Victory leads to oppression and resentment among the defeated. I would suggest that we need a more harmonious solution if it is to be more permanent, a solution which no kind of fundamentalism can provide, because it alienates and rejects all those who don't adhere to it.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Tribalism, nationalism and peaceful co-existence

I'm not an anthropologist, but it's easy to see what tribalism had going for it. The evolution of unique customs and a way of life gives the members of a tribe the sensation of being special and, given the competitive nature of humanity, this will probably come to translate as a sense of superiority to one's neighbours. This too can be useful, since it gives you an excuse to invade them with impunity and take their stuff.

In these terms, nationalism seems to me to work best the more homogeneous in some clearly identifiable way is the group comprising a nation. If it starts to lose a common religion, ethnicity, culture, values, or whatever is the cement that confers a sense of nationhood, a nation may be in trouble.

Something which may be said in favour of empires is that they can maintain peace and prosperity in tribally disparate areas. An overall structure, civil service, law inforcement, transport ETC, imposed from the centre and ultimately administered by those other than native inhabitants with their own particular allegiances, can create some semblance of national unity. The imperial master can also be the focus for everyone's resentment, creating a common focus, so that the imperialists can replace the neighbouring tribe as the most immediate "them" as opposed to "us". When the empire is defeated or dismantled, it may turn out that your country is just a bunch of lines that someone else drew on a map. At that point, unless you have a charismatic ring master like Martial Tito cracking the whip, all hell may break loose as old tribal/ethnic enmities reassert themselves.

The more successful nation states managed to throw off their internal tribal divisions. Maybe that's why they so recklessly ignored them as a fragmenting force when withdrawing from their former dominions. But even for the more succesful nations, I fear that nationalism, like tribalism, may have passed its sell by date. Within our national frontiers and internationally, I think the major threat is not cultural, but economic. If we value our cultures, we must address the economic failings built into our current system, to avoid catastrophe in the medium to long term.

Internally, those of us who live in more affluent countries live in economies which can only sustain growth by bombarding all our citizens with consumerist goals they cannot possibly attain without running up unsustainable debt. In this way, the internal consensus which makes nations governable is under growing threat. Externally, those denied this consumer paradise, and facing much more basic food and water shortages at home, will be trying to get in. If we don't let them, we should not be surprised by a rising tide of resentment, remembering that hungry people will stop at nothing to feed themselves and their families. Do we want to live in affluent fortresses?

Perhaps simplistically, it seems to me that we have to divert our technological expertise from making consumer goods which nobody really needs into making more of this world habitable and productive for it people. This is not an ideological agenda. Apart from any ethical or moral imperatives which we may embrace as part of our personal belifs, there are imperatives of enlightened self-interest which, if we ignore them, may see any quality of life we have destroyed by the besieging hordes of the dispossessed.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Collision in particle and opinion

I'm not sure where this is going, but yesterday, I read some arresting thoughts about two kinds of collision; one relating to particle physics, and the other to colliding opinions in the realm of metaphysics.

This rather surprising theory proposes that Super Colliders might be rendered inoperable by some force of retrospective self-preservation within the universe, because a devastatingly harmful particle might be created in one of them.

Importantly, the two physicists who have spawned this theory also propose a test for the point beyond which sheer "luck" becomes statistically something else in the context of one of these particle colliders.

I also read This article, In which Eric Reitan analyses "Collision", a documentary describing the verbal joustings of Hitchens V Wilson ("New Atheist" V "Conservative Evangelical").

I think Reitan's piece is required reading for anyone, like me, who is terminally pissed off by the aridity of polarised discussion. I must read some more of his stuff.

Debating to win is a skill and good mental discipline, and belongs in debating societies, where you may be called upon to defend some preposterous notion, and you do your best to drum up such arguments as you can, hoping your opponent will make a mistake. It can be good fun. I remember a debate from school days:
"This house would rather be a contented pig than a discontented philosopher".But a lot of people are going to run their lives on the basis of their religious convictions, so this latter "collision" should be beyond gamesmanship. Whereas the two physicists are proposing a testable theory in their area of collision, I accept Reitan's analysis that Hitchens and Wilson are not. Firstly, the existence or non-existence of God cannot be proved in the same way that Boyle's Law can be proved, and secondly, I agree with Reitan that the atheist and the evangelical are preaching to their own constituency. they are colliding but colluding. As long as their particular faithful get the approved message from their particular champion, they can shake hands and walk away afterwards like a couple of boxers, but with their prejudices intact.

Scientists at their best advance human knowledge by proposing testable hypothesese. Metaphysicists who defend an already established position, rather than exploring their assumptions or conceding the necessary weaknesses in unprovable positions, are merely massaging the prejudices of their own converts, and massaging their own egos in the process.

Debating to win can be addictive; debating to learn may be less vain glorious for the participants, but might have some merit beyond sound and fury.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The thirst for legitimacy

I know I haven't written the two posts I said I would, but I still might do it, and surprise you.

Meanwhile the present bee in my present bonnet is very unsurprising, and certainly nothing new. What always astonishes me about our human thirst for legitimacy is how easily we deceive ourselves that what we want is somehow justified by science, God ETC.

I was listening to a BBC program in a series on "Scotland's Black History", in which the notion of eugenics that we might call Scientific Racism was used in support of the legitimacy of the imperial adventures undertaken by various countries in the 19th century. Such ideas postulate that there is some kind of hierarchy of races, and divine sanction is often cited as well. Such a theory renders oppression not just excusable, but a sacred duty for the oppressor - the infamous "white man's burden". It has of course subsequently been used as a pretext for liquidating millions of people in Europe and Africa.

As another example of this, somewhat less destructive, at least overtly, God, or a particular interpretation of God, is wheeled out in order to punnish those whom believers consider to be sinful, while making the believers feel suitably virtuous. If this position is challenged, we definitely have a feeling that the righteous are extremely upset by the possibility of being cheated of the vengeance due to them for foregoing all that pleasure.
Thanks to Annie via Twitter for This article, in which something of the sort seems to be going on.

Now I'm asking myself if I can possibly be that easily self-deceived? Does the possibility of self-deception never occur to those who can make bigotry or zealotry work for them in their lives? Doesn't it strike themhow convenient these beliefs happen to be for their purposes? Has anyone ever proposed a racial hierarchy in which the proposer languished firmly at the bottom? The vast majority of the proponents of damnation seem to believe themselves to be saved from it. How convenient. If I am basing my life and its values on such handy and helpful constructs, made to fit the desired outcome, please somebody tell me.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Reason not to be cheerful

We all have different ways of coping with life, and we naturally choose those which fit our temperament. I like to take the hopeful view most of the time. Not because I know the best will always happen, but because it suits me better to act as if it will, while knowing it may not.

However, brain chemistry being what it is, there are days when I wake up feeling slightly less optimistic. On days like those, I should sensor my reading a little. I should not, for example read This article

or This article.

Now I know about politics being the art of the possible, and that we're all supposed to be pragmatic realists, but there are limits.

If Senator Franken's amendment is about to be dumped or diluted, are we really saying that a corporation's profit trumps someone's human rights? If we are saying this, how are we justifying it?

In terms of health care policy, are we really saying that it is in any sense OK to countenance the avoidable death of fellow human beings in the midst of conspicuous affluence? How are we justifying this?

To me, this is simply to defend the indefensible.

As for how to proceed with necessary reform, my belief in "gradualism" as the right approach was brought up short the other day when listening to a BBC program on "Scotland's Black History#". A black abolitionist spoke in Glasgow in support of the campaign to abolish slavery in the United States. The motion was that slavery should be abolished "as soon as possible", and the guest speaker announced his opposition to the motion to the consternation of the meeting. He explained that sin could not be walked away from by degrees. If it were sin, it should be renounced completely and at once. I am not myself a Christian, but his position makes a lot of sense to me. And for many of the protagonists in the current debates, his words should surely speak loudly, since they profess themselves to be Christians.

Cam we imagine Christ entering the Temple and, confronted by the money changers,saying, "Now listen guys, I know there are cost issues here for you, but I wonder if we can't sit down and discuss the medium to long term possibility of your vacating these precincts"?

I think not. Any society worth its salt has to have some clear sticking points.

Finally, I would ask the question can political systems which have allowed the power of money in a few hands to over-ride the common humanity of the electorate, any longer call themselves democracies? This is plutocracy isn't it, rendered respectable by elections giving the people choices between 2 versions of the same thing.

If someone needs access to vast amounts of money to get elected to high public office, there's the end of democracy right there.

I have cheered up since I had these thoughts, but the questions remain.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Opinions as identity, and learning

I have always enjoyed expressing myself, via words or music. The advent of the Internet into my life has proved very liberating, in affording me the opportunity to do both very cheaply. Of course I don't take sufficient advantage of the Internet, either as a resource or as a channel for expression. The sporadic nature of this blog attests to the latter.

I have been on some stimulating email fora (sorry, did some school Latin and have to show off), but blogging is quite new for me, and has accompanied a lot of changes in my life. Those changes, and reading blogs are making me increasingly interested in learning rather than indulging in language as a self advertisement.

As in daily life, you get more out of people by being concilliatory, and I find myself increasingly drawn to a less flamboyant, or at least less confrontational, mode, in an attempt to find out what others are saying, or mean by what they say, rather than the trench warfare which characterises polarised exchanges, which often don't merit being described as discussion.

Things I have to watch out for to keep a constructive focus.

Understanding the difference between testing/exploring someone else's views in order to better understand them, and trying to win the argument. There's more to belearned from the former, and arguing, even as in debating, can be more fraught with danger than I used to think.

By way of explanation, I need to digress, but it's my blog so I'll digress if I want to.
My recent experience of debating online had been via the mailing list of my former school, a boarding school for blind kids which combined selective entry by competitive examination with a non-fee paying environment, since our fees were paid by our local education authorities. I joined this list a very long time after I left that school, during which time I had deliberately avoided all things to do with blindness and related issues. But, in the nature of such things, even after a long gap, I found, and perhaps wanted to find, that the former students' mail list retained something of the ethos of the place as I remembered it. Although, as boys between 11 and 18, we had our share of physical competition and fights, in this blind and partially sighted environment, it's not perhaps surprising that vigorous debate was very much part of the fabric of everyday life, and I dropped back into that very easily.

Then I encountered blogs, and my natural impulse was to assume that Worcester rules would apply, and everyone would understand that, since I'm crap at chess, debating could fill much the same role, even if discussing matters of genuine importance.

So we all make assumptions about what the rules of engagement are. The chemistry of inter-personal dynamics is, to me at least, very mysterious, in that tension communicates itself to us, and suddenly a discussion can begin to feel like our value has become embodied in our views, and we are defending ourselves, rather than simply stating our opinion about something. So, to be clear, the whole focus of a discussion can change, not just for one party to it, but for both, and to both parties' surprise.

This is of course a particular danger for people who care about what the other thinks, and people who have thought their insecurities safely concealed. So this has left me temporarily somewhat tentative about the rules of engagement for online debate, and I'm concentrating on asking questions related to learning and understanding. Being right and winning are, after all, much less important, or should be.

As a final thought, I would add that, in our dialogue, we need to find a way to convince each other of the difference between "this is what I think", and "I know I am right".

This isn't the post i intended to write, but it's the precursor to the next two which, hopefully, will be what I intended to write.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Making the first move - forgiveness

Ever since yesterday evening, when I played James Taylor's "Belfast to Boston" on my weekly radio show, this recurrent preoccupation of mine has resurfaced. Conscious of the fact that I have nothing new to say, I feel compelled to say something.

James Taylor's song was written before the efforts of UK politicians, the good offices of the Irish government, and particularly the tireless efforts of US Senator Mitchell, with the backing of President Clinton, produced the current level of peace in the north of Ireland (Ulster), and brought an end to the daily horror of "the troubles".The song is a very direct, and therefore quite courageous, message to Taylor's Irish-American countrymen to stop funding this terrorist campaign through organisations such as Noraid. Terrorism doesn't work because it doesn't give people the kind of present in which they can make rational decisions about their future. It is negative and disruptive, practised by people whose chief concern is some kind of self-fulfillment.

This is all well known. Those whom the terrorist claims to represent are urged to lay aside their sense of grievance and go forward through reconciliation and forgiveness. Because there were terrorists on both sides in Northern Ireland, the aftermath of the troubles has been easier to manage. The difficulty comes when one side of a conflict is enjoined to embrace non-violence, while the other side basks in self-righteousness.

This is why Senator Mitchell has a much tougher assignment in the case of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Both sides have shown contempt for the life of civilians, and a version of God is alleged to agree with both of them. Because of their vastly greater might, the Israelis have managed to kill and starve much more effectively, while citing the efforts of their poorer neighbour by way of justification. One is defending its security, while the other is a terrorist. Why? Because Mr Balfour drew a line on a map?Isn't the God of the Jewish people, and therefore its state, a merciful God? Is it not for the mighty to exercise mercy? Besides which, repressed peoples can never be permanently and reliably disabled by repression, and military solutions to political problems never work. By deliberately smashing the Palestinian economy, and reducing the inhabitants of the West Bank to 15 litres of water per day (the U N minimum for "emergency" water supply), do successive Israeli governments really believe that this is somehow going to magically disable every Palestinian with rage in his heart, so that the Israeli citizen can sleep peacefully, as promised by God? With its own particular history, the Jewish nation surely cannot believe that the aspirations of others for some kind of homeland can be persecuted into extinction.

Northern Ireland shows us that some kind of reasonable life expectations are the basis for any kind of rational debate. No-one should be expected to debate the fine distinctions between legitimate national security and terrorism while they're hungry, thirsty, unemployed, and in fear of reprisal missile attacks. I certainly can't imagine myself being very motivated under those conditions.

The fact that all the affluent nations stand by and allow this to continue is completely indefensible. If financial clout ultimately has more value to us than the mercy, magnanimity and forgiveness advocated by the scriptures of all the major world religions, then we shouldn't be surprised if the triumph of power over compassion has consequences for us rather closer to home than TV images from east of the Mediterranean.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Isms and ists

As human beings, we are attracted to isms. I think there are strong anthropological motivations going on here. In fact, the evolutionary routes of such behaviour may be the same as the rational case which might be made for isms in general. I'm not, of course, talking here about the virtues of any particular ism, any particular bundle of views, which may be sufficiently structured to qualify as an ideology or system of thought. I'm talking about what draws us to want to be part of something bigger than we are.

If we come across a body of thought which vaguely represents our position, we get that coming home feeling. If it's a position that others may attack, we are going to draw comfort from the safety of being among the like minded, and from feeling less vulnerable to being picked off as some crazy loaner. We will have our sacred texts and the thoughts of the wise originators of our chosen ism to which we can refer to bolster our opinions, and add weight to them by quoting those whose scholarship we admire; scholarship which might impress the opposition.

But here's the danger zone in my opinion. Because the ism can easily take on an institutionalised life of its own, and render us less critical of what it says than we might otherwise be. Our luminaries can easily take on almost sacred status, and we may almost imperceptibly start feeling nervous about entertaining thought which doesn't toe the party line. We would somehow be acting disloyally, betraying "the cause". How nuch accommodation are we making to this tendency in us? Are we allowing our instinctive, if rationally defensible, need for solidarity to undermine our capacity for independent thought?

I'm aware that being an anti-ismist is itself an ism in the making. I'm simply suggesting that if we choose to define ourselves as any kind of ist, we might do well to think how far that ism reflects our true views, and how far we any longer permit ourselves to have such views without reference to higher authority.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Politically correct purposes

For newcomers to Tangentville, what follows is the output of someone who reads less than most denizens of the blogosphere. It's just mulled over thoughts written down.

On the subject of political correctness, its excesses have been lampooned at length by others - others better at lampooning. What struck me just now is a question about what political correctness is for? Do we need it and why?

I assume it had its genesis in a well intentioned wish to help increasingly heterogeneous societies peaceably come to terms with their heterogeneity, in a social context in which commonly accepted codes of "good manners", or "common courtesy" seem to be less generally accepted (discuss).

This impulse was enthusiastically embraced by thosee who think we can't get by without a manual, hopefully and profitably written by them. The implication is that us poor regular folks don't understand the huge anthropological complexities which experts can plumb, allowing them freely to consort with aliens from alien cultures. And that's not so bad: It's just the good old self-help industry we know and love.

What struck me as more worrying was a change of emphasis. The focus seems to have movved towards self-advertising virtue. "Look at me, I use all the right language, therefore I am a mature integrated person".

If we are genuinely concerned about the comfort of others in social situations, as represented in posters or on the screen ETC, what should we do? For what it's worth, my experience of meeting all kinds of people over many years is, if you want to know, for instance, how you should refer to them, you - surprise surprise - ASK THEM, and then they tell you, and then that's what you call them. Is that difficult?

We have laws designed to protect the vulnerable against physical and/or verbal abuse, negative discrimination and hatred. Maybe we need better laws, or maybe a better sense of humanity and community would help us to better inforce those we have.

The fact is that human decency will not be encouraged by means of someone else's lexicon. Political correctness is often a self-agrandising triumph of style over content. If we are serious about treating one another like human beings, we need to look beyond someone else's linguistic prescriptions; labels are not enough.

Politicians talk a lot about "The contest for hearts and minds". Any contest is within our own heart and our own mind. Are we truly interested in demonstrating the respect for others which we expect to be shown to us, or are we using the words of the Political Correctness word factory as a means of convincing ourselves that we're the people we would like to be?

It is how we really feel and how we act which will make a difference.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

"Reg's Good Stuff"

Tomorrow, Wednesday 17 June, I'm getting back to Internet broadcasting again, just for non-profit fun, with the encouragement of my good friends at:
The show is dedicated to music in general, plus anything else I think is "good stuff". It airs for 2 hours at:
5 PM here in the UK
Noon US Eastern time
11 AM US Central Time and
9 AM US Pacific time.

You can email me at:
Follow me on Twitter:
Or talk to me on Skype during the show via Skype name regsgoodstuff, or call in from the States on:
(217) 806 4321.
My music library is diverse, but not particularly good at mainstream instant requests. So, if you ask me to play something, it might be next week before you hear it, but I'll do my best.

I'm happy to talk live on air about anything, but I do screen people off air of course, and my decision about who gets on is both arbitrary and final.

I look forward to your company if you can make it tomorrow or on future Wednesdays.

Feedback welcome.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

LDRs suck

This is one of those personal outbursts which I may later regret having posted, but I'm in the grip of it right now.

If you Google "LDR" or "long distance relationship", you will come up with mountains of closely reasoned and perceptive stuff about the dangers and difficulties encountered by those who embark on a love-based relationship at long distance.

Does this stuff actually help? Maybe it helps some people, but, if it goes wrong, however much right on self-awareness psycho-babble you may ingest, it just fucking hurts, and that's all there is to be said about it from my point of view.

If you have an Achiles Heel in your temperament, an LDR will find it out, with none of the magic of physical closeness to cement the bonds between you.

We can't help with whom we fall in love of course, but you may just have rather more fun sticking your fingers into a light socket if you find your potential soul mate in someone you can't actually hold or experience physically.

I will feel better soon, but that's currently howit is.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The function of live music

A few years ago, BBC Radio's "Reith Lectures" were given by the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

He has devoted his life to music; both as an end in itself, and as a means of bringing people together who might otherwise be separated by ethnic and/or political conflict.

Predictably then, his position is that the "Muzak" impulse in our culture has devalued it to something which simply comes out of a hole in the wall, saving us from the terrifying prospect of silence. The word "Muzak" of course derives from the Muzak corporation, one of the first organisations to promote the use of pre-recorded background music, now so endemic in our public spaces.

In general, the more of anything we have, the less we appreciate it. When I was in school, an elderly music master could talk to me of a time when most people did not have a phonograph. The first time he heard the symphonies of Beethoven was by playing them himself from versions scored for the piano. So, when he went to his first orchestral concert, it was a very big deal. We might take a reductive position and say that everything is relative, the world is as it is, and everyone will have their own ideas about what has changed for the better or for the worse. But hang on just a moment before we allow ourselves to be swept away in the self-satisfaction of our consumate realism.

Appreciation is a basic human need. Most people don't get it, certainly not enough of it, whether they're looking after their family, collecting our garbage, or, as I witnessed recently, singing their heart out (not referring to me, I was in the audience).

I'm a performing musician, so I have to declare an interest. In my experience, because of Muzak culture, shortening attention span bequeathed to the world by bombardment with rapidly moving images, or just lack of common courtesy, the only way you can get people to shut up in the presence of live music is to get them to buy tickets and sit down in rows in a hall. From the point of view of the performer on stage in a pub or club, it often seems that the function of the music is to make, or enable, the crowd to shout louder., to enhance their feeling that they're having a great time. Now these good people have probably paid to get in, and the club is not a monastery with a vow of silence, and they're not in the presence of some musician who thinks he's the voice of God or something, warranting total attention. But, biased or not, I do think things have got a bit out of wack here. These people may have paid, but they don't own me. I can't quite resign myself to the fact that my music is merely a commodity. My emotional investment in it may matter to nobody else, but it matters to me. Sure, I have the choice not to work in this field, and play exclusively for myself at home. But the fantasy of sharing it with someone who actually gets it dies very hard, and I think audiences often miss a lot by letting music just wash over them as part of a general social experience, (see my previous post).

I think Barenboim was right to the extent that we probably gain more by appreciating other people's efforts than we lose by proving that we can tell a joke audibly over the band. People do respond to appreciation, and I think all of us, whatever we do, deserve it.

Monday, 1 June 2009

May 31 at the Jazz Cafe London

No ethical floundering today.
Last night my son and I saw/heard two exponents of singing and playing solo piano in their related, but different styles - Charlie Wood and Jon Cleary.

I would have wanted to see Jon Cleary whoever was opening for him, but Charlie Wood was a definite bonus. I know only one of his albums - "South bound", and it features him mainly on organ with a band. The striking thing about this album for me when I first heard it was the way in which he combines a completely credible and authentic urban jazz/blues style with quite cerebral lyrics - E.G. when did you last hear a song of this type allude to "A play by Sophocles"? A song which starts, very much true to it roots, with the lines:
There have been good times,
There have been bad times;
But mostly they've been in between.

Really good voice; good pitch, faultless musical articulation, very important with his highly ornamented singing style. He started and finished with songs not by him - Paul Simon and Professor Longhair respectively. The Simon song was a completely Charlie Wood take on "american Tune", a very apt opener for an American in a foreign land.
His own songs were delivered with great finesse. The only problem for the chattering classes who attend such gigs is that you actually have to listen to what the guy's saying. I mean really! Paying all that money and having to listen as well? Ridiculous!

That prompts a whole other tangent on our relationship with live music; but not right now.

The Professor Longhair song with which Charlie Wood finished was the classic Tipotena. Interestingly, Jon Cleary was to play that later in his set, and it summed up these two performers completely.

Cleary was definitely the main event from the crowd's point of view, and I thoroughly understand why. He's more stylistically definable, classic Neworleans plus funk. He's a better piano player than Charlie Wood, and a better entertainer, in that he's more direct, more in your face boogie, with a good slightly edgy voice, in contrast to Wood's polished urbane smoothness.

Cleary got the crowd rocking, and he deserved to.

I am somewhat envious of this man, in that he has played a lot in Bonnie Raitt's touring band, a gig which I would cheerfully do for nothing.

But, seriously, with Jon Cleary's rapturous reception ringing in my ears, I couldn't help feeling a little sorry that Charlie Wood just didn't have what it took to knock this Jazz Cafe crowd out, although I personally think he's more subtle and interesting. But then if the ancient Roman populous had a choice between a display of votive dancing, and Christians being thrown to ravening lions, there's not too much argument about which would draw the larger audience.

Friday, 29 May 2009

What it is or isn't to call yourself a Christian

For me, the basis of religious truth is individual, so what we call the conscience has to be the arbitor for all of us of what we feel to be true. We might start from any spiritual experiences we have had, refined by our life experience, plus however much attention we may choose to pay to what others show us, either by word or by example.

When we have formulated some kind of position for ourselves, we may or may not choose to give it a label, based on whether it approximates to any pre-existing body of religious belief.

And this is where the generalisations end because, when it comes to me, the labelling problem is further complicated by all those who have gone before me, and chosen to call themselves, for example, Christians.

By instinct, as I said, the conscience feels paramount to me, but there is something of the pedant in me which says that, if you're going to apply a label to your beliefs, then it has to have clear meaning or it's pointless. While it is instinct which draws me to the Quakers because of their openness, their approach to the individual nature of the "light" (spirituality) in everyone, and their "love in action", the pedant in me won't let me get away with calling myself a Christian, just because it would be so simple if I did.

To give Christianity any meaning as a label, I think there are some core things you have to believe. Maybe you can get away without some of the theological "must haves" of the major christian churches - Trinity, Atonement, or even Resurrection, taking them as metaphors. Many would have already disqualified me if I don't find those things to "feel true" to me. But, surely the key thing to Christianity has to be Christ himself. He has to be part of it, and he has to be an expression of God in human form. And that's the final sticking point for me.

As I said at the outset, it starts from any spiritual experiences we may have had. Many experience Christ in various ways, often as a real presence, maybe only once, but enough to convince them that he is their saviour and redeemer.
The spiritual experiences I have so far had are much more general; a sense of God, not as a person, but as an infinite, unconditionally loving entity. A vast sense of peace and that, ultimately, everything will be worked out for the best.
A monumental piece of wishful thinking? Possibly; but we have to go on what we feel to be true, and this isn't something of which I managed to convince myself, it's something that came to me and has stayed with me ever since.

So, if Christ is revealed to me, there will be no argument from me, just as I don't argue with Christians who have had such experiences, which are equally as valid as my own. But there has to be some clarity about this labelling business, if only in deference to all the men and women who have gone to their deaths professing Christ as the true lord ETC. To call myself a Christian in such company would be a massive insult to their memory in my opinion.

Let me know what you think.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Discovering and stating the obvious.

I've been preoccupied of late with the uselessness and negative results of polarised discussions.

This morning, I heard a radio feature here in the UK dealing with the US "Human Terrane" program in Iraq and Afghanistan. This recruits social scientists, anthropologists particularly, to advise the military in how best to deal with a civil population with very different cultural perspectives from the coalition forces.

This has generated a good deal of heat, not least within the academic community.

One very simple fact emerged for me. This program is attacked and defended equally genuinely.

I happen to think that it's impossible for governments to exclude their self-interest from any enterprise. If they have the power to impose their will, or seek to impose it, this conduct will be labelled "imperialist", probably with some justification.

Whether we agree with this or not, it does us no good to ignore the fact that many people involved in this are doing so because they "Want to make a bad situation better".

Unless we're prepared to take on a whole range of motivations when embarking on a discussion of issues like foreign involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan, we will be seeking only to advance a narrow prejudiced view of how the world turns.

If people wish to indulge in this as a passtime, either to sharpen up their debating skills, or to get some personal psycho-therapy, then that's fine, as long as they don't think they're going to contribute anything to their own or anyone else's understanding.

I won't be responding to comments until Tuesday week, since I'm going to be away enjoying myself, but please comment if you feel the need, and I'll respond later.


Sunday, 12 April 2009

The End of Barbarism

I think this article at Progression of Faith is at least one good answer to how Christianity can once again address society in a thoughtful and meaningful way and simultaneously divest itself of the one thing in Christian theology that does not resonate with reasoned and intelligent folk everywhere. If it is true at all, isn't it best to re-work the Gospel toward a higher vision for society, beginning with the doctrine of "atonement," and prevent religion from bringing society down to its lowest common denominator: violence? What do you think?

Welcome new contributor

The author of at least 3 interesting blogs, including the one which got my interest in spirituality seriously rekindled:
is now a contributor to this blog.
I don't suppose for a moment she'll have much time to contribute, but since she was gracious enough to make me a contributor on MOI, the least I could do was reciprocate.



Opinion, Belief, and Truth

In this article, Roger Scruton investigates "irony and forgiveness" in the context of how the West can confront the terrorist mind set, be it Islamist fundamentalist or otherwise.

I'll almost certainly be coming back to this article in the future, because it was positive, while provoking me to question some of my assumptions, which is why I bother to read this kind of stuff at all.

In the tangential spirit of this blog however, it also provoked in me a few other thoughts. For example, how do we view our own opinions and those of others?

Scruton imbues irony with the attribute of allowing us to perceive ourselves as "other", so that the possessor of that sense can appreciate how he/she appears to others, rather than simply viewing others from his/her own viewpoint.

We all notice very easily that other people's opinions are a result as much of their experience as their accumulated knowledge.

In theory, we know that this must also be true for us, but somehow, we, or certainly I, may find it difficult to view our own opinions as equally subjective when it comes to discussion with others.

I have tended to regard my opinions as central to who I am, when really they are just a projection of the temporary me - how I an today. These are the external trappings of me, as much as are the coping strategies I have adopted in the past to cope with adverse circumstances.

I think Scruton's perception of irony is valuable, in that it shows me that I need to become more detached from these external trappings - opinions which should be ephemeral in the face of new knowledge and experience, or coping strategies which may have passed beyond use if those adverse circumstances change.

Subjective as these things are, we cannot be sure that what we believe is true, we should not need it to be true for questionable emotional reasons, and the need to establish truth, righteousness ETC, can only militate against ire-free discussion, and a constructive exchange of information and varied life experience.


Wednesday, 4 March 2009

"Economic growth": Is it me?

I was just listening to a radio program here in the UK "The moral maze", in which the relationship between national wealth and equality or inequality was discussed.

Naturally, in the course of this, the issue of economic growth as the engine of wealth, and its sustainability, came up.

So far so good. My problem is that people use this term "economic growth" with no apparent reference to what is being produced. It's just "more", never "more what?"

Our current pattern of growth in the affluent industrial societies seems to me to be built on filling demand for something useful, or at least desirable, bringing out ever better versions of it, persuading people they'd be so much happier if they had more than one, and then expanding the pool of potential consumers by lending money to those who wouldn't normally be able to afford this object (good) or service.

For some years now, I've been bleating about how we should surely be able to put all this productive capacity to better and more humane use by manufacturing and growing stuff the rest of the under-provided under-fed world could use, rather than just a small and favoured portion of it, while still providing employment in the industrialised countries.

This could be roundly dismissed as idealistic hogwash in the face of an economic model that did at least work, and was based on tried and tested financial principles.

But, in the light of the catastrohic failure of this much-vaunted financial regime, if my hogwash doesn't work, there seems little doubt in my mind that traditional free market capitalism has also failed. The idea that exponential growth could somehow magically continue to expand was built on an ever growing mountain of debt, and money that didn't really exist. We've even largely given up making things here in the UK, in favour of providing all kinds of mysterious financial services that generate money, apparently out of thin air.
Forgive my limited understanding of all this, but the point is that, if the idealists have a problem, maybe the self-proclaimed realists do as well.

So does this provide us with a rare opportunity to take stock? Should we not be thinking about, not just how to produce more, but thinking about what we actually produce, and what use it actually is beyond just making stuff for the sake of creating a job for someone, profit for a corporation, and using up resources to end up in a land fill somewhere?

Is it really beyond the wit of humanity to restructure our manufacturing base to more useful and humane ends? What if the days of growth for growth's sake are numbered. Addressing the whole world instead of part of it may not make so much money for any of us. Maybe we'll all have to reappraise our attachment to affluence. But perhaps it would at least provide sustainable employment to some purpose, and people of good conscience might feel more connected to creation, and less alienated by vast accretions of pointless stuff.


Saturday, 21 February 2009

Love and the Divine (2)

I was talking about a sense of "unconditional love" yesterday. In thinking about how I or others might experience this, I must confront the nature of the religious experience, and other similar experience in my life.

I have always set great store by the rational as the only chance we have of any quantifiable assessment of anything. Accordingly, like my father, I have been attracted to belief systems like Spiritualism, precisely because they offered something observable, where others simply offered theoretical constructs which, if you had no "Road To Damascus" episode of your own by way of coroboration, would either ring true or not.
Until the recent resurgence of my own interest in this area, I had put my general God experiences on the back burner, and I would talk of having no religious faith, while rather envying the certainties of those who do, not because they were necessarily true, but because of how good it must feel to be certain about something.
However, thinking about it, it's clear that I do have some certainties of my own, although they are a very long way from the user's manual which some brandish in the face of those who don't share their certainties. My point being?
My point being that these "certainties" of mine are not coming to me via my old friend rationality; they are coming to me via the mysterious input of spirit/emotion, depending on your viewpoint. I now have to face the fact that I am probably more certain of these convictions than I am of my rational conclusions and opinions. These latter are, and I think should be, fairly plastic, depending as they do on my own ability to substantiate them. To me, an opinion is only as good as my ability to justify it. In the rational realm, if I don't know why I believe something to be true, then there's nothing to discuss. So, personally, my opinions are, or should be, subject to change based on the daily accretion of experience and information.
But that Divine stuff is a whole other thing. I know it's true for me simply because it is, I feel it to be so. Many have gone to their death for the sake of a conviction which they could never prove by logical argument. So I have to face the fact that my faith, vague generalised thing that it is, is a new kind of certainty for me. In fact, it's the only kind of certainty for me because the rational world is subject to continuous revision. Tomorrow, some physicist might prove that everything we have believed about mass and energy is plain wrong, or at best a massive over-simplification. But that would do nothing to change my recollection of the real presence of limitless love which hit me in the chest while walking in the Malvern Hills, or during a school church service.

Coming back, eventually, to unconditional love, I find myself viewing it differently when thinking about it via what passes for my rationality, as opposed to feeling it.

In rational mode, unconditional love may make me start worrying about my unworthiness of it; or I might start thinking of the dangers of people believing they are loved as of right, making any conduct acceptable.
But unconditional love as I experience it is a thing of pure joy, which comes with no such worries attached. It simply exists, both as the Divine, and as an echo of that divinity for those of us who are lucky enough to find flashes of it in our lives through our human interactions, both as giver and receiver.

If that's a dichotomy, I just have to live with it, because the world is a place in which, improbable as it sounds, love exists, I am loved, and I am capable of expressing love, however imperfectly. On the occasions when I can do that, I feel most in tune with those numinous episodes; most aware that, whatever the ultimate truth is, it couldn't be better. In the face of that, the rational will simply have to learn to sit at the back and keep quiet occasionally.


Friday, 20 February 2009

Love and the Divine

When we compare just about any of our experiences with someone else's, we are confronted by similarity and difference. So what do we feel about the Divine in our lives? Does it have any meaning for you at all? If so, is it personal, or just some kind of spiritual force? If it's personal, does it have a sense of gender as in God or Goddess? And a final question: to what do you attribute any answers you might have to the previous questions - a particular religious experience, a general conviction that this is simply how it is, or just your faith in what you have been taught by people you trust, which seems to have worked out in your life?

My personal view and some explanation of it goes like this.
The only religious experiences I have had are vague in character, but no less convincing for that. I have been given glimpses of something much too vast in scope for me to think of it as a person. However, the whole emanation of it is devastatingly unconditional love, and that's it. No exhortations as to what I should believe or what I should be; just the real presence of unconditional love at the heart of everything, including me. Vague, as I said, because that's where it stops.

It seems to me that our experience of the Divine, if we have one, is tailored to our idividual needs or temperament. Tailored by us or by the divine as an external entity?

Some people view this as a monumental exercise in wishful thinking. We need a deity for various reasons, so we individually create one (him/her/it). Put rather more charitably, the divine is a projection of something within us - at best, our highest aspirations; at worst an inner voice that gives us sanction from on high to indulge our particular psychosis.

I feel a lot more to say coming on: Does the Deity have agency in the universe, or does free will preclude it, and/or is the deity we believe in only allowed to do good things?

If you sense my confusion, you're dead right. But, in back of all this, I know my confusion's OK because of the in some ways huge, but in some ways extremely unspecific, thing I do believe. This may be a mini series, or may be addressed via comments.



Sunday, 8 February 2009

Perspective, prejudice, and constructive conversation

Pop Matters recently ran a review of a documentary called "The American Ruling Class".
This started me thinking about where we get such perceptions from, and how best to learn from our differences, rather than being divided by them.

Within a society, whether we choose to use the word "class" or not, we will have perceptions of others based on their power and status compared to our own. Such judgments inevitably colour our relationships, at least in their initial stages, particularly if we're unaware of assumptions we're making, based on upbringing, peer pressure ETC.
I would suggest that the same process goes on between one society and another. This leads us to have attitudes towards, for instance, "The French", "The British", or "The Americans". Many stereotypes contain a useful grain of truth of course, and we can't help generalising based on what is, for most of us, extremely limited experience. But if we rate being constructive more highly than mud slinging, however enjoyable mud slinging certainly can be, there are a few things that occur to me.

On what are we basing these nationalist attitudes?
A lifetime of dedicated research, or the general feeling that:
"I sense you don't like me, so fuck you!"?
A government may have done something of which we profoundly disapprove:
E.G Invading Suez like the British did, invading Panama like the americans did, or invading Czecho-slovakia like the russians did - all highly dubious undertakings in my opinion. Or maybe we just don't like the food.

An individual act, or attribute, real or imaginary, is no basis for a serious "attitude" to another nation. The Germans are not Word War II: They are a bunch of people with more in common with everyone else than not, just trying to get by.

We are usually brought up to take pride in our country of origin. If we're going to be able to talk sensibly to people from other countries, then both sides of the conversation need to understand that national pride is at stake, and might run a deal deeper for some than others. What is the nature of our patriotism? Affection, defensiveness, a sense of superiority? Certainly, in every country I've visited there are things to be admired, but nowhere have I found a monopoly on righteousness, including, of course, my own country of origin. I think we need to be extremely careful in getting our sense of self-worth mixed up with our national pride. If we do that, anyone who chooses, however ill-foundedly, to find fault with our country, is finding fault with us personally, which probably was not their intention.

Something that appeals to me as an idea is to try to understand how it might feel to be a citizen of somewhere else, as a way of enhancing the discourse, rather than getting it bogged down at the first hurdle.
For example, as a Brit, I live on a very small island which once had a disproportionate amount of military and economic power, and has now lost most of it. When talking to a US citizen, I'm talking to someone who lives in a vast continental land mass, which has long embodied the highest political ideals to which humanity can aspire, has often failed by virtue of its sheer human frailty, and now faces the eclipse of its own power, so long unquestioned and unquestionable, by other nations.

Now subjectivist cann legitimately claim that it's hard enough to know how we feel ourselves, without getting into how it feels to be someone else.
However, national boundaries are becoming less and less significant in terms of our ability to communicate with one another. Such boundaries are and always were purely accidents of history and war, and have been maintained for economic and military reasons by governments whom it suits to convince their populations that the nation state is some kind of mystical entity.

I'm preaching against nationalism only insofar as I believe it increasingly does more harm than good, militates against equity in the world, and divides us as individuals. We as individuals are far more important than the nations from which we spring.


Sunday, 1 February 2009

Intro and welcome

Welcome to Tangentville. This is my space for floating my ideas in hope of constructive feedback.

The tangential nature of this blog is something of a double meaning, since I have something of a grass hopper brain, and I'm totally blind, so the universe in which I live is inevitably a fairly tactile place.

Feel free to join in, and take advantage of the unique opportunity with which the Net provides us for expanding our horizons.

I look forward to hearing from you.


After Davos: Consumerism and affluence

In the light of the prognostications of the great and the good in Davos, I wonder if this is just a holding operation, or can we really expect governments, with their horizons ever circumscribed by the date of the next election, to contemplate change?

My feeling that change, and radical change, is necessary, is based on an analysis which is no doubt extremely suspect, based as it is on following international news, and only one year of college economics a very long time ago.

As a general comment on the nature of Tangentville, I should say here that I put my thoughts out there largely to expose them to scrutiny by those with other ideas, and particularly those better informed than I. Please never confuse the way in which I express my opinions in an attempt to be clear, with any pretensions to their authority.

Since the mysterious convergence of circumstances which produced the Industrial Revolution here in the UK around the middle of the 1700s, the means by which international trade is financed have become ever more complex over time. Not even nations with a vast land mass, natural resources, and/or population, such as the USA, Canada, Russia, China or Australia, can be entirely self-sufficient. There will always be something they need to import, and this will have to be paid for. At the same time, the whole thing is predicated on growth, which means producing more than your home market can consume. Thus, you have to create export markets for your manufactured goods or raw materials.

As one nation after another has hit the trail to industrialisation, we have all hitched our wagons to growth as the most obvious source of motive power. Naturally, we have concentrated our output on those who can afford to pay for it. Once the basics have been purchased, you need to start persuading people they need things they didn't know they needed. Ploys such as planned obsolescence and fashion can also be employed to create space for the ever growing expansion of manufactured output.

Even if the target market is drawn from the relatively affluent of the world, there will surely come a time when the third TV required to keep the TV industry going cannot be afforded. That's OK; you don't need to have money, because some kind institution will lend it to you at a rate of interest determined by the market, skewed by intereventions from industry or government.
The system, if so it may be described, would continue to work as long as the amount of stuff people needed was limitless, and the amount of money available to finance consumer debt was equally limitless.

Naturally, neither of these propositions can be true.
The fact that we have all continued to act as if they were true strikes me as extraordinary. Could we all have been guilty of such a monumental feat of wishful thinking? I suspect that those with much better financial brains than mine knew very well that those wagons would hit the buffers eventually. I think they just hoped their terminal bonus would be in the bank before that happened.

So now what? Are we simply hoping for a new and better conjurer to come along and find new ways of helping the affluent to acquire ever more stuff? I think not. My feeling is that this particular party is almost over, and I've heard that said by financial experts who are certainly not hysterical apocalyptics. In its final throws, the whole edifice has been sustained on money which either does not exist, or does not belong to the people spending it.

As I already suggested, industrialisation made globalisation inevitable. Producers of goods and services, raw materials, and consumers are all totally inter-dependent. China and India, the new power houses of this century, could not exist without the markets of the old industrialised world to sell to, and we need them as markets for our technology and expertise. In that sense, any ideas of retrenchment and protectionism are doomed to failure, because they would simply prompt retaliation, and everyone would lose in the end.

So far, globalisation has meant selective selling to those with money or access to it in the illusory form of credit.

Fondly idealistic or not, moving the economic base of the world to include people who really need things seems to me to be the only truly global way forward. Rather than sustaining the unsustainable, we need a way of diverting the world's massive productive power into doing something useful, so that more people can get a decent crack of the whip. This means reallocating resources, which inevitably means less superfluity for those of us who have grown accustomed to it. That's the reason for my pessimism about politicians' preparedness to grasp this particular nettle. Their problem is that I think this is the only real nettle worth grasping when it comes to providing the whole world rather than a portion of it with some kind of future, which allows access to health and opportunity for its citizens, and allows people of good conscience to sleep at night.