Monday, January 28, 2008

Paulie on Protestants and politics

I'm grateful to Paulie for providing something unusual for the blogosphere - an intelligent post about religion and politics that actually makes you think. His argument, if I've understood him correctly, is that Protestantism is more illiberal - in practice if not in theory - than Catholicism and that this has fed into politics and finds its secular shadow in the tension between 'liberals' and 'democrats' :

"And there is a direct correlation here, I would argue, with the political tensions between liberals and democrats. Where the liberals demand constitutional defences for the rights of individuals and smaller prerogative powers for elected representatives, the consequences will always be the same. More lasting privilege. Poorer quality-standards of public policy. Less tolerance. Think of longer prison sentences, more executions, less redistributive taxes and a high burden of proof required to justify taxation, more vetoes, social censoriousness, more entrenched hereditary property rights and tougher immigration policies."
Paulie finds in scripturalism the foreshadow of a strident and unyielding libertarianism that insists on the demolition of hierarchy but can only result in a more entrenched and inflexible one taking its place, that insists on the expansion of 'rights' that can only be won at the expense of liberty as it is actually enjoyed in a representative democracy.

His argument seems quite Burkean to me - although probably unlike most who identify with the broad church of the centre left, this is not meant as an automatic condemnation. There's much to agree with in what Paulie's written here, although probably more to disagree with. In order to explain why, I think it's necessary to divide the questions he raises into two sections: 1) religion and the institutional form and ideology it adopts and 2) whether and to what extent this influences politics.

With regards to the first point, is Paulie right to argue that there is something fundamentally more intolerant about scriptural Protestantism than Catholicism? I'd agree up to a point and for the following reason. One of the defining features of 'protestant fundamentalism' is its anti-clericism and one of the downsides of this 'priesthood of all believers' from a liberal point of view is, as TC Smout pointed out, now everyone was expected to be a religious virtuoso, which is to say everyone was to be held to the same exacting demands that hitherto had, in theory anyway, only applied to the clerisy. More egalitarian without a doubt - and more illiberal. Religious history does, I think, teach us that there is often a tension between the two and on this Paulie and I agree. Although it's a strong field in which to compete, whether Catholicism in its long history of oppression ever produced anything quite as 'totalitarian' in character as Calvin's Geneva, is, I think, questionable.

However, while I find Paulie's argument contains a kernel of truth, I found myself disagreeing with much of it, and doing so for explicitly anti-religious reasons. To explain why, it might be appropriate to take him from his own starting point:

"There is no doubt that – from the point of view of the individual - ecumenism is very unattractive. If you believe in something, how can you justify the negation of that belief into a massive fudge of consensus? It's like the worst aspects of multiculturalism, moral relativism, and straightforward lazy thinking all rolled into one.

Yet, from the point of view of society as a whole, ecumenism is a valuable tool. It is a concept that would have passed the kind of moral tests that Machiavelli set for practitioners of statecraft. It creates the kind of space that the more responsible clerics can use to ensure that society isn't in a permanent state of civil war. This is useful when the likes of Wallace Thompson can go on the radio in a nominally catholic state and believe (as he evidently did) that it is perfectly reasonable to call the Pope 'The Antichrist' (Catholics being his disciples).

The wider population, the ones who are less interested in such theological conundrums, and more concerned with being able to get on with their lives without a fear of being burned for heresy, deserve some kind of cushion in such circumstances, and if ecumenism is it, then so be it."

I'd argue that from the point of view of society as a whole, ecumenism was and is virtually irrelevant and that it's role in the slow decay of Christian intolerance more or less non-existent. It's from this the basic ahistorical nature of Paulie's argument becomes evident. Is it really the case, for example, that Catholicism is the carrier of a more 'fuzzy' and therefore more liberal religious ideology? After all, the example of 'fuzziness' he uses comes from the Church of Ireland, which is a part of the Anglican communion. While it's true - as far as the outsider can tell, anyway - that Anglicans don't seem to believe anything in particular, I'd argue this is both fairly recent phenomenon and that such congenial liberal doubts are not entertained, for example, by the present head of the larger Catholic communion.

Paulie imputes too much to the internal characteristic of religious institutions and not enough to their historical development within wider society. I don't think the fact that the Catholic church doesn't burn heretics anymore has much to do with any theological doubts or flexibility - it's simply a function of the fact that they've been over the centuries been deprived of the power to do so. The same can be said of the Protestant church too. They no longer hang atheists in my country but this has to do with the fact that the Church of Scotland lost political control over the country, not because its members are any less convinced of the existence of God than they used to be.

It's only as an adjustment to this reality that the churches have, on the whole, become more agreeably 'fuzzy'. It partly survival and the need to preserve what little political power they have left has made it an on-going necessity. And it's partly their loss of power that allows the kind of research, which all thinking people in the church subsequently have no choice but to accept.

Furthermore, I'd argue that competition between religions - rather than any slow internal growth in tolerance - had more to do with the development of liberal societies. There was certainly a lot of bloodshed on the way but this is the point: to put it crudely, this had made for these countries the question as to whether religion should be separated from the state more urgent than ones that were more religiously homogeneous. I don't think, for example, that it's a co-incidence that a country like the Netherlands that has had such a long history of religious heterogeneity should be today so many people's first choice as an example of a liberal polity.
"Think of the difference between most EU states and the US. Then think about the trajectory upon which we are headed."
I know what he's getting at but I fear he's taking the short view. EU states: like Spain - or the Republic of Ireland? These are tolerant liberal states to the proportion that the catholic church's power has been broken. Prior to that, not much in the way of tolerance influenced by hierarchy, adherence to ritual and 'fuzzy' theology going on in either countries, I'm afraid.

But if he's wrong about the past, is the future he presents more plausible - one where these goddam libertarians will be the death of us?
"Where evangelicals prefer the unmediated message, there is an individualism that is implicit in many strands of liberalism – an individualism that will not accept any version of aristocratic governance – even it's most benign version – representative democracy."
And because they don't, they are corrosive to real liberty, is what he argues. I'm not happy about the characterisation of representative democracy as 'aristocratic governance' - not least because the problem he identifies is with those who only seem to pay lip-service to the need of government of any kind. I'd agree this is both a problem and that there is indeed something rather puritan about these liberals but I'm not happy either about the way he connects this to religious history. One could argue he's rather too soft on the older branch of Christianity because he is, by his own admission, an 'a catholic agnostic'. On the other hand, maybe I'm only taking issue with this because I'm an agnostic of the post-Reformation brand.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Educational annoyances #435

Listen fatso, as part of the government's latest Eat-Your-Greens initiative, Mr Balls wants you to stop going to the chippie and make a salad instead, ok? Alright, it's too late for you but your children?
"Compulsory cooking lessons for teenagers at schools in England are on the menu today as the government seeks to counter childhood obesity."
But history will continue to be voluntary, I'd imagine? Don't get me wrong - I'm not one of those people who thinks a subject is important in direct proportion to its practical irrelevance. But as with everything this government does in education, things are never to be taught as ends in themselves. Kids aren't to be furnished with knowledge and skills, which they can then go and do whatever the hell they want with. Like make a big fuck-off chocolate cake, for example. Oh no, they've to be taught cookery so they'll eat what's good for them.
"Balls wants members of the public to suggest healthy, easy to prepare dishes that teenagers will want to eat."
Mr Balls, like so many people presently fucking about with the education system, is clearly one of these people who have had teenagers described to him: you can get healthy meals that are easy to prepare and you can get easy to prepare meals that teenagers will eat - but I think finding a dish that combines all three of these requirements might prove to be rather more difficult than Mr Balls seems to think, as I'm sure anyone who has teenage children will testify.

Anyway, I'm beginning to wonder if this whole 'school-choice' thing might not be a bad idea. We could have a choice between schools - and institutions that have dropped even the pretence of being schools and have been rebranded as 'socialisation centres' instead. Then we could see who wins. I reckon most people would opt for the former, having the understanding that these tend to teach stuff that later on turns out to be transferable. Like reading, for example:
"[Ed Balls] told the Daily Mirror: "Teaching kids to cook healthy meals is an important way schools can help produce healthy adults. My mum was passionate about all this and bought me my first Delia Smith book.""
I'll leave it there with Mr Balls kinda making my point for me.

Luvvie annoyances

Apparently the average actor under the age of 40 has diction so poor, theatre audiences can't hear them:
"The director Sir Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and headed the National Theatre, told The Times that "most actors under the age of 40 are struggling to be heard". He was backed by the actor Edward Fox who ridiculed younger actors for mumbling their lines in the pursuit of realism."
And ridicule is surely the only appropriate response? Because if they followed 'realism' to its logical conclusion, they'd stop pretending to be other people for a living, surely?

Via: Norm

Bad-tempered teacher's rant #147

Here's a blood-pressure-raising article I read too goddam early this morning from Comment is Pants:
"One favourite dinner-table anecdote over the Christmas holidays was the story of an ongoing battle I've been having with a Year 9 girl. Not content with telling an inspector to "fuck off", this student came back the next week with more of the same for me, before walking out of my lesson 25 minutes early. Clearly even this wasn't enough, as she came back in to give me some more words of wisdom after the break.

"What do you do?" friends ask. Well, in the moment I laugh inside at the sheer dedication, remind the student their behaviour is inappropriate, try and calm them down and then follow up with sanctions. And no matter how distressing it may or may not be for me, I try and remember the causes of this type of behaviour. Often rooted in the home, this kind of behaviour really shows a child in pain; uneasy in the world and insecure in themselves. I wouldn't be 14 again for a million pounds."

Other than the fact that Ms Donachy can't find anything better to do over the Christmas holidays than talk shop, I've got two problems with this sort of social-workery flannel about root-causes:

1) Sometimes it is indeed the case that children misbehave because of dreadful home circumstances. On the other hand, sometimes teenagers' misbehaviour has sweet FA to do with their home background; they do it because they can, they do it because that is what teenagers do. It's part of growing up, not a goddam medical condition. I tell you what they need - they need someone to hold the fucking line, not have excuses made for them. In most cases, they want someone to hold the line and if Ms Donachy has never noticed this, one wonders how extensive her experience of 'challenging' teenagers actually is.

2) Even if it is their home background, knowing why a pupil is misbehaving doesn't necessarily serve as a guide as to how the matter should be dealt with. But if pupils are to get the education they deserve, dealt with it must be.

Anyway, if we're all just creatures of our social conditions, surely institutions and individuals that continually make excuses for bad behaviour should be considered as a significant variable here?

Whatever the 'cause', I'm just not prepared to accept that being told to 'fuck off' is part of my shift. Goddamit all, never mind restoring the authority of the teacher - mere equality would suit me. They tell me to fuck off - I should be able to say, "No, you fuck off". But if I do this, I'm the one who gets into trouble. Unprofessional, certainly - so if I can't swear at them, I'll be damned if I'm going to let them swear at me.
"As far as I understand it, exclusion is not the answer. All young people are challenging in one way or another, and all deserve the very best we can give them, even if they do come back after break to tell us to fuck ourselves."
I tell you this: there's a sort of masochism rooted in self-loathing you get with some Guardian-reading teacher-types that makes them think there's something virtuous about putting up with this sort of shit. I can identify it - but I certainly don't understand it. As far as I understand it - and I think this view has been informed with as least as much evidence drawn from personal experience as Ms Donachy's - exclusion often is the answer.

Ms Donachy, if you disrespect yourself to this degree, what's to stop them doing the same? By your own admission, nothing. And because of this, you've ended up deluding yourself into thinking you're doing them a favour by letting them walk all over you. Not only this, but you're making a virtue out of it. This makes you part of the problem rather than the solution.

Another thing: One of my pet-hates is when you tell some wannabe social worker management type person a tale of behaviour that is slightly above criminal but some way below what is acceptable, they respond by saying that the pupil in question "can't help it" because they "don't know how to behave". Here's an idea: why don't we tell them how to behave? Then they'll know, won't they?

Via: Laban Tall

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Class war against public schools

Monbiot regrets it isn't happening:
"If only the government would justify the paranoia of the ruling classes. They believe, as they have always believed, that they are under unprecedented attack. All last week the rightwing papers rustled with the lamentations of the privileged, wailing about a new class war. If only."
The problem with this, surely, is that a 'class war' against public schools would leave the Green movement in Britain slightly bereft of leadership, would it not?

Republicans and revisionism

Life was simpler when I were a lad - choices were always between two things: Gibson or Fender; Clapton or Hendrix; wine or beer; Wrangler or Levi; Labour or Conservative. Then there was economics, dividing between monetarists or Keynesians; the former was Bad, the latter Good - this conclusion drawn from the fact that Thatcher and Reagan were associated with monetarism, rather than from any proper understanding of economics on my part.

Then things got a bit more complicated - or, to be more accurate, I merely came to realise that they were more complicated. It's the primary elections in America that's been reminding me of this, specifically an article by Paul Krugman, which I found via Illiberal Conspiracy.

Paul Krugman, unhappy that Obama had praised Ronald Reagan, wrote that:

"Historical narratives matter. That’s why conservatives are still writing books denouncing F.D.R. and the New Deal; they understand that the way Americans perceive bygone eras, even eras from the seemingly distant past, affects politics today."
He then goes on to point out that successive Republican administrations have been characterised by economic slowdown and not dynamic growth, as Obama seemed to suggest. The thing is, I'm not sure the record actually fits the leftwing narrative either. The Reaganites adopted monetarism, one suspects, merely as an excuse to kick fuck out of the unions and give tax cuts to their friends because in other respects, the Republican fiscal record is distinctly unmonetarist.

Some Republicans used to (maybe they still do - I wouldn't know) advocate a balanced-budget amendment. This always struck me as an odd thing to do because not only is it a stupid idea, such an amendment would have radically circumscribed the activities of successive Republican administrations, who - as the graph below shows - have had a tendency to spend money like drunken sailors with credit cards. The only years showing a budget surplus were four when Clinton was in power.

Source: US Census Bureau

The thing is, arguably deficit-spending like this in an economic slowdown is a rather Keynesian thing to do. Tax-cuts for the rich certainly aren't but other aspects have been. You could complain that Reagan's deficits resulted from a colossal increase in defence spending - but then again, you could argue that it was rearmament in the run-up to WWII, rather than public works, that rescued the US economy from depression and cemented FDR's reputation.

It isn't only this. Despite the rhetoric, and attempts to make AFDC more difficult to claim, the welfare bill grew under Reagan, whereas it was Clinton, with his promise to 'end welfare as we know it', who shifted the responsibility for distributing welfare back to the states, thereby dismantling a major plank of the New Deal.

Bush seems to have followed a similar pattern to Reagan, only more so. The growth in the deficit shown above is, according to the Economist, the "fastest fiscal deterioration in US economic history". Again, as with Reagan, this was the result of a combination of tax-cuts combined with a lack of restraint in spending - not just in defence, as one might assume, but also in things like health expenditure(pdf) and, to a lesser extent, in education(pdf).

Some would take issue with the automatic identification of Keynes with the left anyway but I'm not sure these fiscal habits that Republicans seem to have is what Krugman meant when he said that, "This is...a time when progressives ought to be driving home the idea that the right’s ideas don’t work, and never have."

The criticisms of Obama are fair enough but off-target at the same time. It isn't only the right that produces revisionist histories and one of the reasons they 'take' is because people will often associate Presidents with the mood of the country during the time they were in office, regardless of how they actually performed or whether their actions had any impact on people's economic well-being. Reagan is often credited with making America 'feel good about itself again'. Difficult to understand, perhaps - especially if you're the sort of person who thinks America really has no business feeling good about itself - but this is clearly what Obama is trying to tap into. I don't think he's interested in Reagan's actual record. Come to think of it, I can't say I've been aware of much evidence that would suggest he's interested in anything in particular - except becoming President.

To get there, the plan seems to be to play mood music and emote - so no change there. Perhaps also by identifying with Reagan he's signalling an acceptance of the neoliberal consensus - so no change there either. The no-change candidate wants to get elected by promising 'change' he couldn't deliver even if he were to win office, not least because Presidents - even when their parties have a majority in Congress - don't 'run the economy', or 'create jobs'. You'd think 'progressives', especially when they're economists, would be aware of this. Maybe it's a triumph of hope over experience that allows them to wish otherwise, that allows them to believe their guy, or gal, will 'make a difference'. Or longing for a simpler age that was divided into goodies and baddies? Whatever it is, to believe that whoever is President makes a huge impact on the economic history of the United States requires an approach to the subject that might best be described as, well, revisionist. No change there either, then.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Education: two posts

In the middle of trying to write something moderately intelligent about the primary elections in the US.

Meanwhile, here's two posts about education that are refreshing:

Chris Dillow argues that it isn't the job of teachers to be policemen. It would be excellent if this idea caught on - along with ones like it isn't our job to be social workers, dietitians, or teachers of non-subjects like 'citizenship' or, even more absurdly, 'happiness', either.

And from Tim Worstall, unusually, something about education I think most teachers would agree with: we knew the 'academic' component of our post-grads in education was a waste of time, taught as we were by a bunch of people who could hack it neither as teachers nor academics, peddling out-dated theories that I would decline to describe as 'liberal'*. We all knew the only thing worthwhile in the whole damn year was the actual teaching practice. Now there's some research that backs this up, apparently. Praise be.

*Hippy bullshit, more like.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Democracy and association

I've formed a habit of insisting on a narrow definition of democracy, particularly in relation to liberty - arguing that democracy concerns itself with how a government is legitimized, whereas liberty has to do with its scope.

But I've been thinking lately that this may be pretty pointless. Historically people have always associated democracy with other things that don't necessarily have anything to do with it, whether positive or negative, and I've been wondering if this isn't unavoidable, whether to insist otherwise is unrealistically purist of me. Moreover, it would seem to be salient to the question of whether and how democracy develops in any given country for reasons I'll try to articulate.

This was prompted by this article about the development of "illiberal capitalism" in Russia and China. It argues that Russians, for example, seem to largely put up with Putin's authoritarianism because in the Yeltsin years democratization was associated with economic collapse and internal chaos. Dave Osler has a good post about the 'elephant trap' this situation poses for the left but I've been thinking about a more general point: at uni while reading the sort of political scientists that like to make broad sweeping generalisations about the conditions under which democratic institutions 'take', I don't recall what people associate with democracy being mentioned much. (It would normally take a historian to mention Weimar.) Yet it would seem to have been highly relevant historically.

Given the scale of industrial death, it might be controversial to suggest that the events of the 20th century gave the development of democracy a benign association for people in Europe but if I could make a broad generalisation of my own, I'd say that roughly the rise of fascism in the interwar period was associated with protectionism and the Great Depression, whereas the later development of democracy was associated with the long postwar boom. I don't think anyone would doubt, for example, that those in Eastern Europe seeking to be free from Soviet domination associated democracy not only with liberty but with prosperity. Russians did too - hence the disappointment of the Yeltsin years. This example was not, of course, lost on the Communist Party in China who rejected political liberalisation but embraced economic reform. That this has seen to have been more successful and therefore a worrying counter-example to challenge liberal democracy forms part of the argument in the FT piece linked above.

Moreover, people can make positive associations with democracy, although not in ways we might expect. While we would assume sharia law is obviously incompatible with democracy, a significant proportion of Pakistanis (pdf) do not.

I'm not sure what the point of all this is - I just wanted to record the feeling of pessimism this has left me with. This is not some relativistic argument that democracy is unsuitable for certain countries. For one thing, those who are fond of making this sort of argument usually ignore the way in which even the most brutal dictatorships feel the need to manufacture consent in elections that are either uncompetitive, as in the case of Ba'athist Iraq; characterised by corruption, intimidation and violence, as in Zimbabwe; or are not electing the people who actually run the country, as in Iran. But it is to suggest that since what people associate with democracy has in the past been something that has retarded its development, there's no reason to assume that this won't be the case in the future. China and Russia are obviously a concern here but the other example I had in mind was Iraq. I'd reject any notion of inevitability but there's a risk that democracy in Iraq and in the wider region will come to be associated, perhaps for decades, with chaos and instability, a failure to provide basic order.

Harvesting organs and presumed consent

Like Jamie K I find it difficult to form a rational argument against the idea that people should have to actively opt-out of donating their organs but after reading this post from Justin Keating I feel the need to try and find a form of words for something I'm instinctively opposed to.

Maybe it's partly for the rather irrational reason why I've adopted a number of other positions in the past; you find the attitude and arguments made by those for the issue so deeply unpleasant that you feel the opposing case must have some merits. I certainly had this feeling after reading Justin's post.

For example, I really don't think the caricature that anyone opposing this idea is an anti-state rightwing libertarian anti-abortionist should be taken very seriously:

"'It strikes at our relationship with the state,' they say. Well get this: You can't have a relationship with the state when you're dead. You can't assert ownership over your own corpse. Why? Because. You. Are. Dead. What other freedoms would you like to exercise after you've shuffled off?"

It is customary to respect the wishes of people even after they've died with regards, for example, as to how the funeral should be arranged, whether the body should be cremated or buried and so on. I'd immediately accept that not donating your organs has obvious implications that funeral arrangements don't but the point about respecting the wishes of the deceased and their families still links the two. In relation to this there's something quite disturbing about Justin's arguments here. It's not the insistence that this is irrational that is the problem; it is this idea that we can be otherwise, that the feeling of desecration can be entirely dispensed with. For this is a human universal - not, as he ludicrously suggests, something 'weird' that is peculiar to this country, generated by sentimental movies.

And you don't have to be a crazed gun-toting rightwing libertarian to feel queasy about the idea of the state 'presuming consent' and the extension of its power that this implies. It is a notion that has sinister historical precedents and I don't think Justin has considered the implications of what he is accepting here. For if the wishes of the deceased and their families are to be of no account why should the state have to show it requires the organs for the reason of saving lives? Why can't they do whatever they want with our bodies for whatever reason? Because there is, for him, no utilitarian scale to balance because the corpse is useless and any feeling about what happens to it pure sentimentality.

Any student of social history that has looked at the budgets of working-class families in the 19th century will have been struck by the relatively high proportion of their incomes customarily set aside for funeral payments. Given the strictures of the average household income in these days, this felt need for decorum after death was certainly irrational. Irrational but all too human - and the failure to even try and understand this is at the core of the problem with Justin's argument. Because while it is ostensibly concerned with liberty and welfare, it is nevertheless utterly lacking in humanity.

Update:See also Norm and Chris Dillow, not in the same vein but on the same subject.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Boy glues himself to bed to avoid school

After the Crimbo break, I can only sympathise but this is surely an irrational means for a rational end? Couldn't he just feign illness like everyone else?

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Happy New Year

To one and all. Read this with interest because I'm in the process of giving up the fags. The failure rate is pretty high so I won't claim not having a smoke for two days means I've conquered the habit - but, as those who know me will confirm, this is unprecedented behaviour. I'm not going for the Nicotine Replacement Therapy because I've always known that the nicotine hit wasn't the only reason I smoked. I liked the point in the article linked above about people's increasing reluctance to acknowledge any benefits of smoking. It reminded me of former colleague who used to go on about smoking being a 'totally negative habit'. Yet for me the fact that it pissed him off was an unquestionably positive side to smoking. In general saying, 'fuck you' has always been an important aspect of smoking's attraction for me but I guess there are plenty of other ways of doing this.

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