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Richard Ben Cramer died this week, author of the magisterial What It Takes, about the 1988 US Presidential campaign. It’s a must-read book for anyone fascinated by American politics: over a thousand small-print pages about the Primaries and then the Presidential campaign itself.

what-it-takes-book

I devoured it about three years ago, and even at a great pace it took me nearly a month of reading into the early hours of each morning.

It’s not really about an ephemeral moment in US politics; it’s about character – what makes people tick, what forces influence them, what strange combination of personality, circumstance, chance, choice and fate conspires to guide some people through to the very end. It’s really six heavyweight political biographies woven together into an epic drama. If you have enjoyed even a single episode of The West Wing, you will love this.

Joe Klein pays tribute to Cramer and to his masterpiece:

Beautifully written, precisely observed–and with a larger point that beggared the cheap cynicism that had become, and remains, the default position for so many political journalists. Cramer actually dared to appreciate the incredible intelligence, hard work, courage and, yes, character that went into running for President. At a time when most of his colleagues were calling the Democratic candidates for president “the seven dwarfs,” he found a blissfully compelling Irish champion in Joe Biden and reported the anguish of the impassive midwesterner, Dick Gephardt, as the Congressman and his wife struggled with their son’s cancer.

But it was on the Republican side that Cramer found his two classic heroes–George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. Both of them combat-scarred veterans of World War II, both dedicated to service, both easy to weep, both open to making political judgments that might harm their careers. Cramer’s account of Dole’s remarkable recovery from a grievous wound and the post-traumatic stress that accompanied it was the heart of the book. (I’ll never forget one precious detail: As he struggled to rebuild muscle strength, Dole listened to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” over and over again.)

Cramer defiantly became friendly with his subjects, especially Biden, Bush and Dole. That may have been a bridge too far for those of who of us don’t dive in, as Richard did, and then leave the political scene. It’s hard to criticize politicians who are also friends (as Daniel Patrick Moynihan became for me). But Cramer’s appreciation of these politicians’ skill and humanity became an example I tried to follow in subsequent campaigns, a crucial antidote to the wall-to-wall ugly that corrodes the political process. (Thus, in 2012, it was  important for me to write about the incredible strength of Rick Santorum’s family, even if I disagreed with him on almost everything.)

Cramer’s clear-eyed fairness is a quality badly needed now. A new generation of journalists, without the time or budgets to get to know the people who would lead us–and a new generation of politicians, burned by the gotcha TV reporting  and tweeting of the moment (and over-protected by their handlers)–have taken the juice and joy, and a larger accuracy, out of political journalism. There are exceptions. But if you don’t know Mitt Romney, and all he’s willing to say in public is pablum and baloney, it is extremely easy to assume the worst. The hardest story for any young political journalist to write is a positive one about a politician.

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wedding rings

Here is the gay marriage question no-one seems to be asking: If it’s all the same, then what’s the difference? With so much talk about equality, love, commitment and stability, is there simply no difference between gay marriage and marriage between a man and a woman? Is there absolutely nothing distinctive about marriage as it has traditionally been understood?

The answer is obvious but too easily forgotten: A life-long commitment between a man and a woman is a relationship involving sexual difference, involving male-female complementarity. For this reason, it allows children to be conceived and born within the life-long union of their own natural parents, and it is a form of commitment and family life that allows children to grow up with their own natural parents over a lifetime. This simply isn’t possible for a same-sex couple.

This doesn’t mean that a man and a woman are obliged to have children, or that they are always capable of having children. It’s simply a recognition that one distinctive aspect of this kind of male-female relationship is that, in ordinary circumstances, it can involve conceiving and bringing up their own children. (It’s not uncommon to talk about the ‘distinctive characteristics’ of something, even if there are exceptions. For example, it’s a distinctive characteristic of human beings that we use language; and the fact that some human beings cannot talk or choose not to talk does not undermine this).

This is not a religious argument (appealing to the Bible, the Anglican marriage service, or the Pope); it’s not a historical or sociological argument (highlighting national traditions or cultural norms); it’s not even a moral argument (although it does have moral implications). Nor is it a crude ‘biologist’ argument, reducing people to their genitalia and their reproductive capacities, because sexuality involves the whole person and not just procreation.

It is actually a humanist argument, appealing to an irrefutable truth about human nature that any rational person can acknowledge: that children can only be conceived by a man and a woman, and that marriage between their own parents is a form of family life that will allow children to grow up within the life-long embrace of their natural mother and father.

We have a word for this kind of life-long and public commitment between a man and a woman: it’s called marriage. It doesn’t exclude the fact that there are many other kinds of relationships, some of them involving love, stability and life-long commitments; nor does it rule out other forms of family life that come about for all sorts of different reasons. We have an assortment of words to help us understand some of the distinctions (‘marriage’ being one of them), and we need these words for the sake of clarity and honesty about some of the differences there are between different kinds of relationships.

This is why it’s misleading and even deceptive to claim that allowing gay marriage would make no difference to traditional marriage and to all those men and women who are already married. It’s often asked, rhetorically: What harm would it do? What difference would it make? Is it not just about allowing more people to share in the benefits of marriage? Is it not just about adding something rather than taking something away? Are we not simply increasing rights and widening the franchise?

This is simply untrue. If marriage is redefined to include gay marriage, it means that the core understanding of marriage will no longer include that aspect of sexual difference and complementarity, and that aspect of creating a family where one’s own children may be conceived and raised (even if this doesn’t happen for every couple). The definition of marriage will be narrowed (or perhaps we should say widened) to a relationship of love, friendship and mutual support. This is not just an addition or a minor change; it is a radical undoing of marriage as it is commonly understood. It makes it impossible for a man and woman to have their marriage recognised as a union that involves sexual-difference, because they are being told – in the new definition – that their sexual difference has nothing to do with the nature of their marriage. A right has been taken away and not just added.

There is a strange and perhaps unintended effect of the proposed legislation. It will not actually allow gay people to marry (where marriage keeps its traditional meaning); it will change marriage into a form of civil partnership. It will mean that marriage as it has traditionally been understood will cease to exist; and for a man and a woman wanting to commit themselves to each other in a life-long partnership, their only option will be a form of commitment that replicates the present civil partnership commitments for gay couples.

The fact is, of course, that many men and women will continue to marry, and the majority of them will conceive and raise their own children. Marriage as it has traditionally been understood will seem to go on, but we won’t have a specific word or public institution for it any more; and the irony is that if we are not allowed to use the word ‘marriage’ we will have to invent one which describes exactly what the word marriage used to describe.

But this is not just about words and definitions. Our whole society, not just ‘the state’, has until now recognised that marriage (as a life-long commitment between a man and woman) has been a relationship that deserves special recognition and special privileges. This is not because it is the only kind of life-long or loving relationship (it’s obvious that there are many others); nor is it because society scorns these other relationships (it’s got nothing to do with homophobia or gay rights); it is simply because – to state the obvious once again – marriage between a man and a woman, unlike a same-sex relationship, allows children to grow up with their own natural parents.

This non-religious and non-moral humanistic fact does lead to a moral question: Is it good and desirable, all things being equal, for parents to conceive and bring up their own natural children, and for children to be brought up within the loving union of their own natural mother and father? Most people would say yes. This isn’t to discriminate against other forms of relationship and other forms of parenting and family life, it is simply to acknowledge the unique meaning of marriage between a man and a woman, and to recognise that this distinctive relationship brings particular benefits to individuals and to society. That’s why we have a special word for this relationship, ‘marriage’; and that’s why this relationship is ‘institutionalised’ and given a special place in our society.

To deny the distinctive nature of marriage between a man and a woman, and to promote gay marriage, is actually to deny the commonly held assumption that (all things being equal) it is good for children to be brought up by their own natural mother and father. This might seem like a big leap of logic, but it’s true: To define marriage only in terms of love, commitment, stability, etc – to make gay marriage ‘equal’ – means that there will no longer be any social or legal recognition of the particular family unit where children are conceived and raised by their own natural mother and father in a public and life-long commitment. At present, we recognise different kinds of family life, and we preserve a special place in our society for the kind of family where parents can try to raise their own natural children in the context of a life-long and public commitment, and where children can grow up with their own natural parents in this same context. If gay marriage legislation is passed, it will no longer be possible to promote the idea that marriage between a man and a woman has a distinctive meaning and a particular benefit for children and for society.

Let me try to summarise all this. The distinctiveness of marriage between a man and a woman is not something that depends on religion or tradition or morality: it is a fact of human nature and of the nature of society, that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) involves sexual difference and complementarity, and that this kind of relationship (unlike a same-sex relationship) is a union in which parents can conceive and raise their own natural children – even though there may be particular reasons why a particular couple are unable to do this.

But the argument against gay marriage is a moral one, because it involves what is understood to be good for children, for family life and for society. This is not because of any prejudice against gay people; it is because society recognises the particular benefits that come when children can be brought up by their own mother and father in a loving and life-long relationship, in a commitment that has been made to each other and before others. This isn’t always possible; but when it is possible, it’s a good thing – to be loved by your own natural mother and father, and to be supported by their own continuing love for each other; to love your own children, and to know the continuing love of the person with whom you conceived these children. Very few people would deny that these are good things, for individuals and for society, even if they are sometimes difficult to achieve. That’s why we should acknowledge the particular relationship that can allow and nurture them. That’s why we should keep marriage as it is.

[Last edited - in response to feedback - on 19 Dec 2012]

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With the Leveson Report just out, and the Year of Faith ongoing, I went back to the document Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications from the Second Vatican Council, promulgated on 4 December 1963.

Double Octuple Newspaper Press  by Sue Clarke

It has to be said that this is not the most celebrated of the documents from Vatican II. Many commentators think that it was not creative enough, not sensitive to the moment, not aware of the need for the Church to open out to the world. But it’s interesting to read – fifty years later – the two main paragraphs that concern what we would now call ‘media ethics’ (see paragraphs 5 and 12 copied below).

The primary concern is to protect the freedom of the press, and to highlight the importance of a free media for the common good. I don’t know the background to the document well, but one of the defining features of the political landscape will have been the Cold War, and the multiple threats to freedom that were emerging in Eastern Bloc countries. The main worry for the Council fathers was not press intrusion but state intrusion. So they assert the ‘right to information’.

Nevertheless, this right is not absolute. It requires truth, justice, charity; respect for the laws of morality and the rights and dignity of individuals; and the manner of communication should be ‘proper and decent’. Public authority should protect this freedom of information, but it is also obliged ‘to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media’. The language is almost archaic; the meaning is clear.

So you can’t move from Inter Mirifica to a concrete conclusion about which recommendations in the Leveson report to implement, but there are some helpful principles here which seem as relevant as they were fifty years ago.

Here are the relevant paragraphs:

5. It is, however, especially necessary that all parties concerned should adopt for themselves a proper moral outlook on the use of these media, especially with respect to certain questions that have been vigorously aired in our day.

The first question has to do with “information,” as it is called, or the search for and reporting of the news. Now clearly this has become most useful and very often necessary for the progress of contemporary society and for achieving closer links among men. The prompt publication of affairs and events provides every individual with a fuller, continuing acquaintance with them, and thus all can contribute more effectively to the common good and more readily promote and advance the welfare of the entire civil society. Therefore, in society men have a right to information, in accord with the circumstances in each case, about matters concerning individuals or the community. The proper exercise of this right demands, however, that the news itself that is communicated should always be true and complete, within the bounds of justice and charity. In addition, the manner in which the news is communicated should be proper and decent. This means that in both the search for news and in reporting it, there must be full respect for the laws of morality and for the legitimate rights and dignity of the individual. For not all knowledge is helpful, but “it is charity that edifies.”

12. The public authority, in these matters, is bound by special responsibilities in view of the common good, to which these media are ordered. The same authority has, in virtue of its office, the duty of protecting and safeguarding true and just freedom of information, a freedom that is totally necessary for the welfare of contemporary society, especially when it is a question of freedom of the press. It ought also to encourage spiritual values, culture and the fine arts and guarantee the rights of those who wish to use the media. Moreover, public authority has the duty of helping those projects which, though they are certainly most beneficial for young people, cannot otherwise be undertaken.

Lastly, the same public authority, which legitimately concerns itself with the health of the citizenry, is obliged, through the promulgation and careful enforcement of laws, to exercise a fitting and careful watch lest grave damage befall public morals and the welfare of society through the base use of these media. Such vigilance in no wise restricts the freedom of individuals or groups, especially where there is a lack of adequate precaution on the part of those who are professionally engaged in using these media.

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Since the 40 Days for Life vigil during Lent, I have been thinking not so much about the morality of abortion, but more about its effects on individual women and men, and on society as a whole. I read for the second time the seminal book by Theresa Burke, Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion – I’ll try to post about this later, together with something about Rachel’s Vineyard.

But the book that really hit me was a collection of personal experiences from Australia collected together by Melinda Tankard Reist, called Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion.

In some ways it is a much harder read than Forbidden Grief, because there is not the faith perspective, so many of the women find no resolution or reconciliation, just an outpouring of grief with nowhere to go. Even this heartbreaking acknowledgement of what they have truly been experiencing, however, seems a gain, compared to suffering in silence or having their grief denied.

Reist put an advert in various Australian magazines and newspapers asking for women who would share their experiences of the effects an abortion had had on their lives.

Two hundred and fifty responded, and many said that for the first time in their lives just seeing the heading of the advertisement (‘Abortion Grief’) had itself given them permission to open up, perhaps for the first time, what they had been going through. Eighteen stories then found their way into the book, to represent the breadth and depth of the responses, with many more quoted in Reist’s Introduction.

Reist’s Introduction sets out some of the convictions she had as a pro-life feminist before she started – convictions that were reinforced as the project came to fruition.

The women who tell their stories here have all suffered abortion-related grief: a depth of grief they were not prepared for and which many still carry.

But they go unheard. Emotional trauma after an abortion is treated with disdain; dismissed by abortion’s advocates as an invention…

Conventional wisdom has it that abortion is mostly trouble-free. Because of this, those who are troubled are made – indeed, often forced to be – invisible.

The grief of the women documented in this book is real. But their stories, and the stories of women like them, have been disqualified – even by those who say we must listen to women’s voices and credit women’s experiences.

Attitudes towards women overwhelmed by grief following abortion demonstrate a cruel indifference to women’s pain. Their suffering is considered a figment of their imagination; their guilt and remorse a byproduct of social/religious conditioning. In short, they are an embarrassment.

There is another constraint on their expression of grief. The politics surrounding abortion has drowned out the voices of women harmed by it. Women whose lives are shattered by the abortion experience… are cast aside as over-sensitive, psychologically unstable, big teams of socially constructed guilt. Their experience is trivialised.

A woman’s abortion pain is discounted and minimised due to the prevailing view that a termination is really no big deal, ‘just a currette’, an easy fix. Abortion is promoted by many who dominate the discourse on the subject as a procedure without repercussions. Because of this, attempts to discuss women’s abortion suffering have been constrained.

Suffering post-aborted women feel a resentment towards a society which ignores or neglects their suffering. They are not allowed to acknowledge or mourn their loss openly. The disdain for women suffering after-abortion trauma sends the message: you’re only upset because you’ve chosen to get upset…

This sort of response to women’s abortion-related suffering makes them feel they’re being melodramatic, over-sensitive, attention-seeking. But many women are suffering emotionally from a procedure which was portrayed as emotionally benign. They are filled with feelings of self-loss, daily haunted by their abortion experience…

Their arms feel empty, they don’t like looking at babies, they often cry. They ask: What would my baby have looked like? Was it a boy or a girl? Would-have-been birthdays are quietly marked year after year.

As Margaret Nicol points out in her important work on maternal grief, it is a myth that a mother only bonds with her child after birth. A woman never forgets the pregnancy and the baby that might have been. When the baby is lost and there are no memories of visible reminders of the baby, ‘The feeling of emptiness and nothingness becomes pervasive and it is this an easy and anxious avoid that makes women wonder if they’re going crazy.’

I’m sorry the book is not more widely available in this country. There are a just three copies here on Amazon UK from other sellers as I write.

But hang on: I just found these excerpts from the book here – well worth looking at:

Excerpt 1: “This Wasn’t Really Counseling At All”


Excerpt 2: Disclosure and Coercion


Excerpt 3: “They Didn’t Prepare Me for the Horror”


Excerpt 4: “A Conspiracy of Silence”

I don’t know much about Reist. You can see her website here.

And just in case you see this and don’t see a follow up post about Rachel’s Vineyard, you can see their website here, which offers support to women and men who have suffered an abortion. The Good Counsel Network help-page is here (they are based in London). And the ARCH website is here (Abortion Recovery Care and Helpline) – I don’t know much about them, but I saw a leaflet for their services recently.

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So this is the week in which Barack Obama came out in favour of ‘gay marriage’, the Queen remained silent (in her address to parliament), David Cameron seemed a little less sure about where this is going politically (despite the renewed commitments of equalities minister Lynne Featherstone), and Mitt Romney reaffirmed his conviction that marriage is between a man and a woman.

In an editorial this morning the Times said this is ‘a cornerstone issue of civil rights’. You can see how this ‘framing’ of the question closes down any serious debate; it turns it into a battle between the good people who are for civil rights and the bad people who are against them; it completely avoids the much more serious and consequential issue of whether this proposed legislation in favour of same-sex ‘marriage’ will actually change the nature of marriage and the family or not, and what the effects of this change will be for individuals and for society. The Times doesn’t acknowledge that you are not just giving an apparent right to gay people, you are also redefining – for every person and for the whole of society – the nature of marriage and the family as it has been almost universally understood.

There is still time to respond to the Government’s consultation – see the link here. And to sign the Coalition for Marriage petition here.

There is no space for lengthy replies on the consultation website – they limit the word count quite strictly. It’s good in some ways, because it means you have to clarify your thoughts and cut out the flannel.

Here is the reply I wrote for the consultation, and sent to my MP:

I am against this proposal for five reasons.

First, it radically transforms the meaning of marriage for all couples (not just same-sex couples) and turns it into simply a committed relationship between any two consenting adults.

Second, it makes different forms of family life equivalent, and disregards the evidence that it is in the best interests of children to be brought up by their own natural/biological parents. Marriage between a man and a woman is the only relationship that allows children to be conceived by their own natural/biological parents and raised in that lifelong family unit, which is why it is given a special status. This is not a prejudice but a natural reality.

Third, this proposal will increase prejudice and intolerance against those who believe and teach that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

Fourth, it drives a wedge between civil and religious views of marriage, which can only harm society. At present there is a single understanding of marriage, shared by both religious and non-religious people, but celebrated in different contexts (civil or religious).

Fifth, this proposal has been ‘forced’ onto the political agenda; it was not in any party manifestos; it is not a pressing political issue for most people; and 70% of people support the traditional understanding of marriage (according to a recent poll).

[This is slightly over the consultation word count, so I had to cut a couple of phrases - I can't remember which!]

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Are you, at least in relation to most of the human population, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)? Then it’s likely that culturally and politically you are a left-leaning liberal whose highest values are autonomy, self-realisation, social justice and fairness. And you are probably suspicious when people appeal to religion, human nature or the well-being of any non-inclusive group to justify their values and political agenda.

David Goodhart reviews The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity’s sake I am sticking to his original five.)

Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.

As Haidt puts it: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.” This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?

Haidt and his colleagues have not just plucked these moral senses from the air. He explains the evolutionary roots of the different senses from a close reading of the literature but has also then tested them in internet surveys and face to face interviews in many different places around the world.

Morality “binds and blinds,” which is why it has made it possible for human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations beyond the glue of kinship. Haidt’s central metaphor is that we are 90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee—we are driven by the “selfish gene” but, under special circumstances, we also have the ability to become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives.

One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now “he couldn’t be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they’re coming from.” This will be music to Haidt’s ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.

The American culture wars began earlier, back in the 1960s, with young liberals angry at the suffering in Vietnam and the injustice still experienced by African-Americans. But when some of them adopted a style that was anti-American, anti-authority and anti-puritanical, conservatives saw their most sacred values desecrated and they counter-attacked.

Some conflicts are unavoidable and Haidt is not suggesting that liberals should stop being liberal—rather, that they will be more successful if instead of telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong, they seek to shift them in a liberal direction by accommodating, as far as possible, their anxieties.

I’m not sure about this. It suggests that those on the right – politically and culturally – have a bigger, better, clearer and richer view of the complexity of human life and motivation, and that those with a liberal mentality focus on too narrow a range of social values. But if a more naturally conservative thinker fails, say, to be troubled by income disparity or the possession of first-strike nuclear weapons, doesn’t this reveal a moral blind-spot or a failure to recognise certain fundamental social values? Or at least, wouldn’t someone on the left think that?

It also suggests that those on the left are less likely to be religious – and we disproved this in a recent post.

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Whenever there is a media debate about morality, social values, the culture wars, etc, it’s often assumed that the religious voice is a so-called ‘conservative’ one. But the recent Faithful Citizens report from the think-tank Demos presents evidence that people who belong to religious groups are instead more likely to take a left-of-centre position on a range of political issues. There are implications for Cameron’s Big Society too, as people of faith are more likely to volunteer and be politically engaged.

This is from the Demos website:

Religiosity has always been closely associated with conservatism: the Church of England is sometimes described as ‘the Conservative party at prayer’. In the United States, the Republican party and the religious right have become increasingly interdependent, but a similar trend has not occurred on this side of the Atlantic. This report, based on original analysis of the Citizenship Survey and the European Values Survey, investigates the different relationship between religion and politics in the UK and Europe.

The report presents two key findings. First, religious people are more active citizens – they volunteer more, donate more to charity and are more likely to campaign on political issues. Second, and more counter-intuitively, religious people are more likely to be politically progressive. They put a greater value on equality than the non-religious, are more likely to be welcoming of immigrants as neighbours and when asked are more likely to put themselves on the left of the political spectrum.

Based on this, Faithful Citizens recommends that progressive politicians should work with faith groups on issues which they are particularly engaged, including immigration, women’s rights, international development, the environment and youth work. Faith group members, the report argues, will be key to any future, election-winning, progressive coalition.

Jamie Doward writes:

The report found that 55% of people with faith placed themselves on the left of politics, compared with 40% who placed themselves on the right. The report also suggests that people with faith are more likely to value equality over freedom than their non-religious counterparts. It discloses that 41% of people with religious views prioritise equality over freedom, compared with 36% of those without faith.

The report, based on an analysis of the European Values Study, also finds evidence that people who belong to a religious organisation are more likely to say they are very interested in politics, to have signed a petition and to have participated in a demonstration.

The psychologist Oliver James got the debate going by suggesting that religious people are less likely to be left-wing than others, but this doesn’t seem to follow.

The writer and philosopher Alain de Botton – whose latest book, Religion for Atheists, examines the consolations of faith for those who do not believe – argues that the internal dynamics of religions often confer progressive views on their followers, who find themselves at odds with today’s free-market society.

“The progressive side of religion springs from their frequent reminders to live for others and to concentrate more on the wellbeing of the group than on the happiness of the individual,” de Botton said. “In this sense, religions run counter to the implicit philosophy of modern consumer capitalism.”

I haven’t read the de Botton book. He seems to be saying, putting it more simply, that religious people are on the whole less selfish than non-religious people, and that less selfish people are more likely to be progressive/left-leaning/anti-capitalist. Do you agree?  I’m sure there are one or two non-religious people, and one or two conservative/right-leaning/pro-capitalist people, who would like to take issue with these assumptions.

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With London Fashion Week in all the papers last week, it reminded me of these photos I took a few weeks ago in Oxford Street. I passed a shop called Forever 21, and saw these two sleeveless T-shirts, with religious themes blazoned across them, but without any explanation.

What’s going on here? Is it just kitsch – like the pink glitter statues of the Sacred Heart in Paperchase? Is it some kind of irony? Is it a political statement – the meaning of which is lost on me? Is it a non-ironic outreach to Christian believers, recognising that there is a vast and largely untapped market here (probably not)? Is it a Banksy-style stunt by a radical Christian group that snuck past the CCTV and re-dressed the manequins before anyone could notice (apart from me)? Does it mean anything that the cross in the second picture is upside down?

Do comment below, especially if you know something I don’t know about this peculiar campaign. – or if you have one of the T-shirts yourself.

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Do you cry in public? Do you cry in front of The X Factor or Downton Abbey when the emotion gets just a bit too overwhelming?

Remember that Hilary Clinton’s fight-back in the 2008 Primaries came, not when she started fighting, but when she started crying about how difficult things were in a downtown diner. And three of the Republican candidates choked up in front of millions of viewers at a recent debate in Iowa:

Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former pizza executive Herman Cain both choked up and fought back tears. Santorum got misty-eyed when he talked about the struggles facing his young daughter Isabella, who was born with the genetic disorder Trisomy 18, which results in main-organ malfunctions. Cain, on the other hand, choked up about being diagnosed with cancer. Forum moderator Frank Luntz said: “I feel like Dr. Phil.”

William Leith explains how the return of public emotion is a return to the social norm, and the stiff upper lip is just a recent blip.

Interestingly, we haven’t always felt the need to stay in control. The   academic historian Thomas Dixon, who has studied the history of crying,   tells me that the 18th and 19th centuries were very “tear-soaked” – crying   in public, particularly at the theatre, and particularly in the cheap seats,   was no big deal. Emoting was linked to popular culture – and also to   religion. There used to be lots of weeping when people found God, and when   they repented their sins. Then came the era of the “stiff upper lip”, an age   of stoicism engendered by Empire, the Victorian public schools, and muscular Christianity.

The fashion for keeping your emotions bottled up lasted about 100 years.   “Since the Seventies,” says Dixon, “we’ve been returning to something like   normality.” In other words, normality is about losing control.

I asked Adam Curtis why television is so busy creating these tear-jerking   moments. There are various reasons, he said. One is that we are hungry for   authenticity; in a highly mechanised world, in which we are often confronted   with things that are fake, or are copies of other things, we seek the   genuine. And the emotion that causes you to cry seems to come from far   inside yourself. When you cry, it feels very personal. It feels as if the   person crying is the real you.

“In this age,” Curtis says, “individual feeling is the most important thing   for us. What we neglect to think is that these feelings are part of a wider   social system. Your feelings are as much from outside you as inside you.” In   other words, if a skilled television producer knows how to short-circuit our   brains, if he can locate the neural back alley that leads directly to our   amygdala, he can make us lose control for a moment. Is that right? “The   great myth of our time is that what we feel comes totally from within us,”   Curtis says. “It’s shaped by outside forces.”

So what were these outside forces? In the second half of the last century, we   were stepping out of the shadow of totalitarianism, and wanted to celebrate   the self. At the cutting edge, there were talk-ins and hug-ins and love-ins.   After this, the culture at large began to celebrate open displays of   emotion. Footballers hugged and kissed each other when they scored. The   air-punch began its journey towards universal acceptability.

One by one, the old citadels of restraint toppled and fell. We began to see   cricketers hugging each other, politicians punching the air when they won,   and crying on television when they were skewered by a personal question.   Gazza cried. Maradona cried. Margaret Thatcher cried. The Australian prime   minister Bob Hawke cried. Peter Mandelson cried. Bill Clinton raised a   finger to the corner of his eye, several times. Diana cried. Diana died.   Blair, making the announcement outside the church in Sedgefield, seemed to   be holding back tears. There was a catch in his voice. Anything less would   have seemed inappropriate.

Then came the public outpouring. More recently, millions of Apple fans mourned   the passing of Steve Jobs with similarly religious fervour. Candle-lit   vigils were held outside Apple stores; wreaths and half-eaten apples were   placed, and iPhones laid on the ground like virtual eternal flames.

Displaying our emotions, just like hiding them, seems to be contagious. Right   now, we’re all going through a weepy phase. And who knows — in another few   decades’ time, we might be back to the stiff upper lip.

Fashions move fast these days. One question remains. Is it healthier to hide   our emotions, or to display them? Decades of research have come down on the   side of display. But the tide may be turning. A survey conducted on   Americans about the trauma of 9/11 has tentatively suggested that keeping   your feelings bottled up might not be so bad. At least, those participants   who chose not to discuss their feelings right after the attacks   seemed to fare better, mentally and physically, over the next two years,   than those who had responded openly about how 9/11 had affected them. The jury is out.

At seminary it was suggested that there was a place for ‘appropriate self-disclosure’ in your ministry as a priest. I have found that phrase very helpful over the years. As priests and public figures, our personalities and feelings are not meant to be completely hidden; but nor are they meant to get in the way of our ministry, or in the way of others meeting Christ. The word ‘appropriate’ is so important. We are human – but part of being human is knowing what to share with others and when to do that.

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I admit it: I’m a West Wing junkie. I made the mistake, when I was staying with some friends one holiday, of watching the first two episodes of Season Two, the two-parter when the President has just… Oh dear, I’m about to reveal some plot; and if there is just the slightest chance that you haven’t seen the cliffhanger at the end of Season One, then I’d better leave you to that moment of TV heaven without spoiling it.

I know, some of the haircuts from the first few years are already dating, and we have had plenty of great TV since then. But it’s still, to my mind, one of the most dazzling and thought-provoking shows of all time. My heart still hasn’t healed from trauma of discovering that they were not carrying on into Season Eight.

So it was a relief to get my hands on Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, which covers the Primaries leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, and the election itself. They take you inside the conference rooms, the conversations, and even inside the heads of the leading protagonists, claiming to base every quotation and italicised inner thought on the testimony of those who were there and those who experienced it.

How did Obama come from nowhere? How did McCain win the Republican nomination with no money and little heavyweight Republican support? How did someone with Edwards’ manifest failings stay in the race for so long? How did Palin really get picked as McCain’s Vice-Presidential candidate? How could someone as experienced as Clinton allow her campaign to fall into such dysfunction? How, in the end, did he win?

It’s all here. And it’s exhilarating. If there is any hint of West Wing addiction in your bloodstream, this will keep the craving at bay for a few glorious hours. Then, all over again, you’ll start missing Josh, CJ, Toby, Donna, Sam, and all the crew, and having to remind yourself that they aren’t, really, your personal friends…

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Look through any current affairs section in your local bookshop and you’ll find a pile of books that should really be classified under ‘future affairs’, dabbling in the science/art of futurology, and claiming to predict what the world will be like in ten, twenty or a hundred years’ time.

George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years is one such book that I’ve just finished reading. I don’t know anything about him, or STRATFOR, the ‘preeminent private intelligence and forecasting firm’ that he founded. But it’s a provocative read, partly because so many of his predictions go against the prevailing wisdom you find in the media. This is because, he claims, the underlying issues are always geopolitical, which ends up meaning geographic and demographic; and there is a sort of destiny to the way nations will relate that arises from their geographical strengths and vulnerabilities, and from their demographic profiles.

China, for example, is not going to be a major player in the twenty-first century, despite the present economic boom there. That’s because most of the country is inaccessible to the outside world; only the Eastern seaboard cities will be able to flourish – and they won’t want to be shackled by the centre forever; and the one child policy has created an aging population that won’t have enough younger people to sustain it.

The United States, instead, which everyone thinks is in decline, is actually only at the beginning of its world dominance – according to Friedman. That’s because, to vastly oversimplify,  it’s the one country that can continue to dominate (economically and militarily) both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. And dominating the world’s oceans matters more than any other single political or technological asset.

The US-Jihadist ‘war’ is just a small distraction that won’t figure very heavily in the history books; there will be a new cold with Russia, as it reasserts its Eurasian dominance; and the real geopolitical conflict towards the end of the century will be between the States and a resurgent Mexico.

And while everyone else is worrying about the population explosion of the coming decades, Friendman believes that the most significant geopolitical fact of the next hundred years will be a global population implosion, together with the resulting scramble to attract the ever-decreasing numbers of available migrant workers, and the development of new technologies to cope with the declining availability of labour.

You can buy the book and disagree with him to your heart’s content! But it’s interesting to note, in the news just over the last few days, reports of a possible economic bust in China, and of a reverse trend in Mexican immigration into the United States, as people move back home to benefit from the vibrant Mexican economy…

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Charles Moore writes about the purpose of think-tanks. This is the passage that really struck me:

Very few people are any good at policies. There are people who are good at ideas, and there are people who are good at administration, but you need to translate the ideas into forms that can be implemented.

This is certainly my experience. It’s easy to sit round a table at a meeting, swapping great new ideas about how things should be, but it’s much harder to work out how those ideas can make a real impact on the practical planning that needs to be done. Or the admin crowds out the possibility of new ideas emerging, and as a new project starts, or a new year approaches, we simply copy and paste the various templates we have on file from our previous work because ‘everything seemed to go OK last time…’

I coulnd't find a picture of a think-tank, so here are some classic Manhattan rooftop water tanks instead

Here is the main passage about think-tanks:

Do think-tanks make any difference to anything? I ask because I stepped down this week after six years as chairman of the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange. In a moving ceremony in the garden of Nick Clegg’s old school (Westminster), David Cameron marked the handing over of the reins from myself to the brilliant and witty Daniel Finkelstein of the Times. He spoke about the importance of the battle of ideas.

He is right. Many of the nicest English people deplore ideology in politics, but the problem is that, if nice people have no ideology, others do not follow their example. Nasty ideology has the field to itself. This is very marked in the sphere of Islamism, in which Policy Exchange does excellent work. One reason that extremists can, almost literally, get away with murder, is that moderates do not have the facts and the contacts with officialdom to counter.

Another value of think-tanks is that very few people are any good at policies. There are people who are good at ideas, and there are people who are good at administration, but you need to translate the ideas into forms that can be implemented. For instance, you encourage the idea of ‘free schools’, but, in order for them not to have perverse effects, you need to give them an incentive to include pupils from poor or bad backgrounds in their number. In this spirit, Policy Exchange invented the ‘pupil premium’.

The knack is to be practical while at the same time being faithful to the original idea. Only think-tanks seem to manage this. They are tiny, but they matter. The few, not the many!

I think I’ll start a think-tank. Great idea! But then I think of the administrative energy required to get one going, and my mind drifts off to another earth-shattering idea…

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The perfect size for a community (whether a village, a religious congregation, or a military unit) is… 150. How do we know?

An Amish school

Primates live in groups, which allows them to solve problems together and reduce the risks of being caught by predators. You stick together; you stand united against a common enemy. But all the time an implicit calculation is being made to work out whether the benefits of cooperation outweigh the costs.

Robin Dunbar explains:

The psychological demands of living in large groups mean that, in primates, species-typical group size correlates rather closely with the species’ brain size. On the primate model, our oversized brain would predict a group size of around 150, the number now known as Dunbar’s Number. We find it in the typical community size of hunter-gatherer societies, in the average village size in county after county in the Domesday book, as well as in 18th-century England; it is the average parish size among the Hutterites and the Amish (fundamentalist Christians who live a communal life in the Dakotas and Pennsylvania, respectively). It is also the average personal network size – the number of people with whom you have a personalised relationship, one that is reciprocal (I’d be willing to help you out, and I know that you’d help me) as well as having a history (we both know how we came to know each other).

The Hutterites illustrate rather clearly just what’s involved. They deliberately split their communities once they exceed 150 individuals because, they maintain, you cannot run a community of more than 150 people by peer pressure alone: instead, you need a police force.

The same thinking also applies to business, management, and the military:

We see the same principle at work in the management philosophy of the Gore-Tex company, known for its breathable, waterproof fabrics. Instead of expanding factory size as its business grew, the late “Bill” Gore kept this factory size to 150 and simply built a new, completely self-contained factory next door. The result is a work community where everyone knows everyone else, and there is no need for formal line-management systems or name badges; everyone is committed to each other and to the communal vision. Has this been the secret to its unusual success as a business?

Perhaps the best example, however, remains the military. All modern armies have a similar organisational structure, mostly developed over the last 300 years by trial and error on the battlefield. The core to this is the company – typically around 120-180 in size – almost exactly Dunbar’s Number. As anyone who has been in the army will tell you, company is family, far more so than battalion or regiment.

Although wild claims have been made about the number of friends people have on Facebook, the vast majority of us have only 120-130. Yes, you can have 500 or 1,000 friends if you want to sign people up, but this seems to have more to do with competition than with real friendship.

It makes you think about the communities you are involved in.

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James Delingpole started blogging about two years ago. He has come to the conclusion that it is:

far more addictive, expensive, energy-sapping and injurious to health than crack cocaine.

Part of the problem is that his Telegraph blog has been enormously successful:

I’m not boasting. It really is popular. Obviously I don’t always get the 1.5 million hits I had when the Climategate story broke. But in an average week the number of hits I get is roughly twice the circulation of The Spectator, and in a good one bigger than those of the Guardian and the Independent put together.

And the reason for this is that… I have a talent for blogging. Admittedly I’m no use for gossip or inside-track Westminster analysis. What I can do though, better than most, is that mix of concentrated rage, flippant wit, irreverence, bile and snarkiness which many blog readers seem to think defines the art.

Again, I say this not at all in order to boast. Discovering in middle age that you have a rare gift for deriding idiocies on the internet is like suddenly finding you’re the world’s most accurate lichen-spotter or first-rate squirrel-juggler or that you can identify aircraft just by looking at the contrails. It’s not something that makes you go, ‘Thanks, God!’

Some may think this ungrateful of me. After all, thanks to my blog, I’m at least ten times more famous than I used to be — with readers all over the world who think I’m just great. But what most people don’t understand (only bloggers do, in fact) is the terrible emotional, physical and financial price you pay for this privilege.

In Delingpole’s eyes, the success and the likelihood of burnout seem to be inseparable, because of the compulsive nature of the effective blogger.

There are only so many really first-class bloggers out there and unless they’re being paid to do it as a full-time job (which only a handful are) then they’re almost bound, as I just have, to retire hurt.

When I looked back at the last 18 months and wondered why I’d got so ill, the answer became pretty self-evident: it’s because every spare scrap of time that had hitherto gone on stuff like pottering in the garden, having the odd game of tennis, taking the kids to school, listening to music, reading, walking and relaxing, had been almost entirely swallowed up by blogging.

And I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy doing it: that’s the problem — it’s an addiction. As a blogger you can’t read a news story without wanting to comment on it. You’re constantly trawling your other favourite blogs to see whose story is worth following up. And when you’re not doing that, you’re busy catching up with the hundreds of comments below your latest post, trying not to be cut up by the hateful ones, while trying to respond encouragingly to the sympathetic ones. I love it. I love my readers (the nice ones anyway). But for the moment I love slightly more the idea of not driving myself to an early grave.

I don’t think I’m at the burnout stage yet.

You can see Delingpole’s website here, and his old Telegraph posts here.

There is a quick online test you can take to see how addicted to blogging you are – try it here. It only takes 30 seconds. The last question, for any blogger, is very funny indeed. I came out at an unimpressive 64%.

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Why should we keep the Sabbath? I know, because it’s there in the Bible; and it’s not just a throwaway line, it’s one of the Ten Commandments. But what is the reason given there for keeping the Sabbath?

It hadn’t struck me until morning meditation in the chapel yesterday that the two accounts of the giving of the Decalogue in the Old Testament offer two quite different explanations of why we should keep the Sabbath.

First, in the book of Exodus (Ch. 20), it’s about God and creation:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. [But why?] For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Then, in the book of Deuteronomy (Ch. 5), it’s about the Jewish people and their liberation from slavery in Egypt:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. [But why?] Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

So there are two different but complimentary meanings presented here. First, the day of rest tells us something about the nature of God himself. He is not just the creator, busying himself with his activity on behalf of the world – represented by the Six Days of Creation. He is not just defined in terms of his relationship with creation in general, or with us human beings in particular. He is also a God of rest, who exists in himself, and – as it were –  for himself. His being, his self-sufficiency, comes ‘before’ his activity; and in the creation story his being, his resting, is the climax and fulfilment of that activity – although in God himself ‘being’ and ‘activity’ are all one, because there is a fundamental simplicity at the heart of everything that God is and does.

So the Sabbath, the day of rest, builds into the very rhythm of our week, and so into the structure of our very existence, a proper understanding of God. It shows us that his nature, and our ultimate destiny as sharing in that nature, is something completely beyond time, beyond temporal activity, beyond all the striving that we associate with a purposeful life.

But second, the day of rest, as presented in Deuteronomy, tells us something about our own nature as human beings – in so far as the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt points to a more universal truth about the human condition. In this context, the Sabbath is a reminder that whatever freedom we have now is actually a gift – whether this freedom is social, political, moral, spiritual, religious, etc. We are free because God’s goodness, his mighty hand and outstretched arm, have given us this freedom – by creating us in the first place, and then by stepping into history to renew it. And it is our duty not just to remember this with thanksgiving, but also to use that freedom for good, and in a way that ultimately leads us back to the God who called us into freedom into the first place.

So the Sabbath ‘forces’ us to remember that we don’t belong to ourselves or completely determine the meaning of our own lives. Our life is given. Our freedom, to the extent that we can discover and live it, is given. That weekly moment of rest and letting go is in one sense a restriction, because we can’t do everything we would like to do; but in another sense it is the very foundation of all our activity and striving, because it helps us remember that this freedom is not something we can create for ourselves. There are many ways of making the Sabbath holy, but the primary meaning of the Sabbath lies in ‘consecrating’ the whole day, in setting it apart from the rest of the week.

Of course there are many other meanings to the Sabbath, many other ways in which it must be kept holy; and for Christians it is given a radical new meaning in the light of the Resurrection. These thoughts arise just from reflecting on the explanations given in the Decalogue. The Sabbath is about God and about us as human beings. It’s both a theology and an anthropology. We lay hold of all this simply by the discipline of letting go – as far as possible – of work and shopping for one day a week…

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I had the pleasure of meeting Vincent Aubin last week, a French philosopher who works in Paris and Marseilles. He writes a WordPress blog called L’esprit de l’escalier: philosophie, politique, religion – an infinitely more cultured and reflective version of Bridges and Tangents! If you have a little French, do take a look.

By way of a taster, this is the introduction to his latest post, about the nature of totalitarianism:

Décrire le totalitarisme comme une religion séculière est une idée qui doit sa fortune, en France du moins, à Raymond Aron. Il était frappé, comme quelques autres esprits clairvoyants, par le fait que le long déclin de la religion en Occident, à partir du XVIIIe siècle, n’amenait pas tant la disparition du sacré que son déplacement et, bien souvent, moins l’avènement de la raison que celui de nouvelles mythologies.

L’idée de « religion séculière » est à première vue très séduisante. Si elle est une forme de « religion séculière », on comprend que l’idéologie totalitaire se présente comme une « voie de salut » dans l’immanence – de la race ou de la société sans classe ; qu’elle soit polarisée par la lutte entre « le bien » et « le mal » ; qu’elle adopte si volontiers le style messianique ou apocalyptique ; qu’elle mette en place des liturgies glorifiant « le peuple » ou « la race », qu’elle instaure le « culte » du chef, etc.

You can keep reading here.

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This story, from Andrew McLaughlin, illustrates both the political power of the internet to discomfort governments, and the enduring power of governments to shut down the internet when it suits them.

As recently as a week ago, Egypt‘s internet was extraordinary in the Arab world for its freedom. For more than a decade, the regime has adhered to a hands-off policy, leaving unblocked everything from rumours about President Hosni Mubarak’s health to videos of police beatings. Unlike most of its regional neighbours and other authoritarian regimes, Egypt’s government never built or required sophisticated technical infrastructures of censorship. (Of course, the country has hardly been a paradise of free expression: the state security forces have vigorously suppressed dissent through surveillance, arbitrary detentions and relentless intimidation of writers and editors.)

Partly as a result of its liberal policies, Egypt became a hub for internet and mobile network investment, home to a thriving and competitive communications sector that pioneered free dial-up services, achieved impressive rates of access and use, and offered speedy wireless and broadband networks at relatively low prices. Indeed, Egypt is today one of the major crossing points for the underwater fibre-optic cables that interconnect the regions of the globe.

But last Thursday, the Mubarak regime shattered a decade’s worth of accomplishment by issuing the order to shut down the mobile networks and internet links. Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt’s reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime’s brutal and hamfisted response to last week’s emergence of citizen protests.

The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country’s academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions –one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak’s family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.

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After spending the whole of yesterday at Westminster, seeing the Popemobile drive past the excited crowds, and later on managing to see him emerge from Westminster Abbey, it’s hard not to blog about the Papal Visit.

The speeches of the last two days have been really powerful. (You can read them all here.) All the headlines have been about how the Pope has been attacking the ‘aggressive secularism’ that is sweeping through Britain. But this misses the main point, which is how Pope Benedict’s first thought has been to praise British history and British values. It’s not flattery; it’s genuine, heartfelt appreciation – for the values and the people who (amongst many other great achievements) created modern democracy, ended the slave trade, and fought valiantly against the Nazis. Britain has emerged as:

a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law.

Then come the questions: How are you going to hold onto these values? What has been their foundation in the past? What will serve to secure and sustain these noble values for the future? How will you do this without some sense of an objective moral order, a transcendent meaning, a loving creator, and an ultimate purpose? The hard questions that he does ask, the challenges to ‘aggressive secularism’, only arise because he actually cares for this British culture and worries that it is in danger of undoing itself.

Here are some of my favourite passages from today. The first, about sanctity and the search for happiness, from his address to children this morning at the ‘Big Assembly':

I hope that among those of you listening to me today there are some of the future saints of the twenty-first century. What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.

Perhaps some of you have never thought about this before. Perhaps some of you think being a saint is not for you. Let me explain what I mean. When we are young, we can usually think of people that we look up to, people we admire, people we want to be like. It could be someone we meet in our daily lives that we hold in great esteem. Or it could be someone famous. We live in a celebrity culture, and young people are often encouraged to model themselves on figures from the world of sport or entertainment. My question for you is this: what are the qualities you see in others that you would most like to have yourselves? What kind of person would you really like to be?

When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others. Having money makes it possible to be generous and to do good in the world, but on its own, it is not enough to make us happy. Being highly skilled in some activity or profession is good, but it will not satisfy us unless we aim for something greater still. It might make us famous, but it will not make us happy. Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts.

Not only does God love us with a depth and an intensity that we can scarcely begin to comprehend, but he invites us to respond to that love. You all know what it is like when you meet someone interesting and attractive, and you want to be that person’s friend. You always hope they will find you interesting and attractive, and want to be your friend. God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change. As you come to know him better, you find you want to reflect something of his infinite goodness in your own life. You are attracted to the practice of virtue. You begin to see greed and selfishness and all the other sins for what they really are, destructive and dangerous tendencies that cause deep suffering and do great damage, and you want to avoid falling into that trap yourselves. You begin to feel compassion for people in difficulties and you are eager to do something to help them. You want to come to the aid of the poor and the hungry, you want to comfort the sorrowful, you want to be kind and generous. And once these things begin to matter to you, you are well on the way to becoming saints.

The second passages are from his speech at Westminster Hall:

Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe.

As I speak to you in this historic setting, I think of the countless men and women down the centuries who have played their part in the momentous events that have taken place within these walls and have shaped the lives of many generations of Britons, and others besides. In particular, I recall the figure of Saint Thomas More, the great English scholar and statesman, who is admired by believers and non-believers alike for the integrity with which he followed his conscience, even at the cost of displeasing the sovereign whose “good servant” he was, because he chose to serve God first. The dilemma which faced More in those difficult times, the perennial question of the relationship between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God, allows me the opportunity to reflect with you briefly on the proper place of religious belief within the political process.

This country’s Parliamentary tradition owes much to the national instinct for moderation, to the desire to achieve a genuine balance between the legitimate claims of government and the rights of those subject to it. While decisive steps have been taken at several points in your history to place limits on the exercise of power, the nation’s political institutions have been able to evolve with a remarkable degree of stability. In the process, Britain has emerged as a pluralist democracy which places great value on freedom of speech, freedom of political affiliation and respect for the rule of law, with a strong sense of the individual’s rights and duties, and of the equality of all citizens before the law. While couched in different language, Catholic social teaching has much in common with this approach, in its overriding concern to safeguard the unique dignity of every human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and in its emphasis on the duty of civil authority to foster the common good.

And yet the fundamental questions at stake in Thomas More’s trial continue to present themselves in ever-changing terms as new social conditions emerge. Each generation, as it seeks to advance the common good, must ask anew: what are the requirements that governments may reasonably impose upon citizens, and how far do they extend? By appeal to what authority can moral dilemmas be resolved? These questions take us directly to the ethical foundations of civil discourse. If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world. Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore. A positive illustration of this is found in one of the British Parliament’s particularly notable achievements – the abolition of the slave trade. The campaign that led to this landmark legislation was built upon firm ethical principles, rooted in the natural law, and it has made a contribution to civilization of which this nation may be justly proud.

The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles. This “corrective” role of religion vis-à-vis reason is not always welcomed, though, partly because distorted forms of religion, such as sectarianism and fundamentalism, can be seen to create serious social problems themselves. And in their turn, these distortions of religion arise when insufficient attention is given to the purifying and structuring role of reason within religion. It is a two-way process. Without the corrective supplied by religion, though, reason too can fall prey to distortions, as when it is manipulated by ideology, or applied in a partial way that fails to take full account of the dignity of the human person. Such misuse of reason, after all, was what gave rise to the slave trade in the first place and to many other social evils, not least the totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century. This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilization.

Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation. In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalization of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere. There are those who argue that the public celebration of festivals such as Christmas should be discouraged, in the questionable belief that it might somehow offend those of other religions or none. And there are those who argue – paradoxically with the intention of eliminating discrimination – that Christians in public roles should be required at times to act against their conscience. These are worrying signs of a failure to appreciate not only the rights of believers to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, but also the legitimate role of religion in the public square. I would invite all of you, therefore, within your respective spheres of influence, to seek ways of promoting and encouraging dialogue between faith and reason at every level of national life.

And finally, for a bit of fun, for those of you have made it to the bottom of the post, here is me inspecting the Popemobile for CNN.

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I’ve finally been to see the Magnificent Maps exhibition at the British Library. (Note: British Library not British Museum). It runs until 19th September, so there are still a few days for you to catch it. And it’s free.

They are absolutely beautiful objects, beautiful works of art in themselves. What came across to me very strongly was a philosophical idea that I pondered a lot when I was writing my Aquinas and Sartre book: As human beings, we don’t just see the world, we see our own seeing, and then we are able to look back at the world and compare this new mental/physical representation with what stands before us.

This feedback process doesn’t just affect the representation itself (which is obvious), it also affects the way we see this ‘objective’ reality we are facing. There is no such thing, in other words, as a neutral vision of what the world is like. It is always affected by our thoughts, our preconceptions, our culture – and in this case by our maps. It doesn’t mean there is no such thing as truth or objectivity. It means that we will only ever reach that truth through the medium of our own understanding and language.

Every map in this exhibition was created for a purpose – that’s what comes across so clearly. It shows your power (the boundaries of your land are clearly marked), your patriotism (other countries are seen in relation to your own), your military intention (you want to see what the hedges and ditches really look like, so you will recognise them on the battlefield), your faith (Jerusalem is placed at the very centre of the world in many of the medieval maps).

I took particular personal delight in examining a map of Rome by Leonardo Bufalini, a woodcut from 1551. It’s the first large-scale map of the city to have been been created since 200AD. Peering around the bottom half of the map, almost mid-way between the Vatican and Circus Maximus, just above the ‘VIA IVLIA’, I found the plan of a building marked ‘S. TOMAS’, which is the seminary where I trained to be a priest from 1992-97 – the Venerable English College. Fantastic to think that all those centuries ago this particular building, one of thousands in Rome, was caught in the gaze of Bufalini, and sits there now in the British Library. But this was just a few years before it became a seminary for English priests.

Here are some thoughts by Rachel Campbell Johnston about the exhibition:

The art of map-making is an ancient one. It’s hardly surprising: over the centuries, as cartographers crept their slow way across the surface of the planet, the pictures that they created helped people to fit the myriad scattered fragments of a sprawling geographical puzzle into place. But, as the face of the world has grown ever more familiar, have we come to think of the map merely as a literal translation? Accurate, objective and useful it may be but where, many may wonder as they anticipate the British Library’s latest exhibition, is the creative flare that can turn a dry topographical record into a fertile territory for imaginative exploration?

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art is a show to overturn such expectations. It leads the visitor — a bit like some erstwhile explorer — on a creative adventure around the back of that flat piece of paper we think of as the world. Drawing on the finest collection of maps on this planet — the British Library has more than four million to choose from, the vast majority of which are only very rarely, if ever, put on public display — the exhibition sets out to make clear that these pictures are about far more than mere physical description. They are a series of subjective images, each shaped by the beliefs and desires, the ambitions and prejudices, the passions and anxieties of its period.

The spectator looks at the world from myriad perspectives. “Which is more important — the Last Judgment or the correct placement of Birmingham?” asks the curator Peter Barber who, even in the 30 years that he has worked at the library, has probably managed to examine barely a third of its collection. What tells you more about a country: a picture of a dog-headed cannibal or a description of its coastline? The visitor is invited to wander through a world before it was charted, into lands where the unknown is as vivid as the observable fact. [...]

Their artistry serves a purpose. Far from objective, scientifically created records, these images have an imaginative agenda. Together they tell a story of power, plunder and possession. They are made to keep watch over spreading dominions, to assert forceful ownership or project a sense of civic pride. Maps — from the medieval visions of a king as a godlike power to the blatant posters of the Bolsheviks — serve as propaganda. The more ornate, the more striking, the more pleasing they look, the more persuasive and easily swallowed their message becomes.

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But, following on from yesterday’s pro-media post, Peggy Noonan warns David Cameron not to follow the sound-bite politics of the States:

America is not Britain and Britain is not America, but the culture of our politics – the polls, the imagery, the fixation on sound bites, the nonsense, the essential shallowness of presentation and of thinking, the inability of political figures to think long term – has grown similar. To your detriment, by the way.

Shall I tell you what Americans think? We think you used to have fusty, occasionally dishevelled, pipe-smoking, brandy-taking, hopelessly avuncular figures as your leaders: no one cared what they looked like, though they were interesting to listen to, or at least to watch moving through murky waters – like Harold Macmillan. Mrs Thatcher, too, was this sort, though never dishevelled. Now you have leaders who are young, sleek, slick, who believe always and almost only in what used to be called public relations and is now called the brand. I name no names. And, actually, I don’t mean to be harsh.

Here is the punchline:

You can today go to any office of any great leader in America and Britain – business leader, church leader, political leader – and you will find the great topic of conversation, the great focus of attention, the object of daily obsession, is not the mission (making money, spreading faith, leading an anxious citizenry in the right direction) but how the mission is playing in the media. It’s all they talk about. This is very sad.

Peggy Noonan is a columnist for the ‘Wall Street Journal’ and was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.

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On 18 April 2005 the then Cardinal Ratzinger preached to the cardinals who were assembled in Rome to elect the new Pope. He provoked a huge amount of discussion by saying that Western culture is creating ‘a dictatorship of relativism’.

Here is the homily in full; and here is the relevant paragraph:

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

I was involved this week in a programme by Edward Stourton about the significance of this provocative term, and the place of religion more generally in contemporary culture and politics. The Analysis programme was broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday evening; you can listen to it hear on BBC iPlayer.

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The first grown-up book I ever read as a teenager (you can’t say ‘adult book’ anymore) was All the President’s Men. Since then, like many Brits, I’ve had a fascination with American politics, and an obsession with The West Wing. I spent most of January ploughing through Richard Ben Cramer’s gigantic What it Takes, an enthralling look at the personalities and politics of the 1988 presidential campaign (and of the primaries that preceded it).

It’s good to look at things in reverse, and to see how a US journalist sees British politics, and especially how our election campaign strikes the eyes of someone from across the Atlantic. You can read Jacob Weisberg’s take on the three main candidates here, but these are his more general comments on our strangely muted electoral process:

Since arriving in London last week for a hack’s holiday, I have been asked several times: do Americans care about the British election? The truthful answer is that no, we don’t, mainly because we haven’t developed a relationship with any of the candidates. Unlike during the Blair-Clinton years, there is no fraternal bond between New Labour and the Democrats. Unlike during the Blair-Bush years, there’s no prayerful union between PM and president.

What’s more, it’s difficult to argue that America should care who wins. To one who lived here in the late Thatcher era, the range of policies proposed by the three parties is surprisingly narrow. What differences exist have few implications for the United States. It might give pause in Washington that Nick Clegg failed in the debates to respond to Gordon Brown’s charge of anti-Americanism, but no one has yet registered a meaningful threat to the special relationship.

Nonetheless, the British election compels American attention, for two reasons. The first is simply as sport. However small the stakes for us, this has turned into a fine drama, with an uncertain outcome on 6 May and the uncharted possibility of a hung parliament thereafter. The second is what we have to learn from the way elections are still conducted here. Our American campaigns have gone decadent, becoming spectacles of horrifying length and expense, characterised by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals and a running media freakshow.

Yours feel, by contrast, pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

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I live on the site of St Thomas More’s home in Chelsea. It was here that Holbein drew the sketches for the celebrated More family portrait. The sketches survive; but Holbein’s finished image, sadly, is lost. It was not a canvas or board, but a huge linen wall-hanging, about nine feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the 1590s Rowland Lockey made various copies of this image, with sometimes major adjustments in the composition. The best of these ‘reinterpretations’, from 1593, now hangs at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire.

Margaret, Thomas’s favourite daughter, sits at the front of this group, holding a book in her lap, with her fingers pointing very precisely to some specific lines. There have been two puzzles. Were these lines present and given such prominence in Holbein’s original (if so, presumably on More’s instructions)? And what would their significance be?

John Guy, in his book A Daughter’s Love that I referred to a few posts ago, thinks he has the answer:

What Margaret holds up to view is no less than Seneca’s classic defence of the ‘middle way’ or unambitious life, the passage in which he counterpoints the security of a lack of ambition with the dangers of a public career.

His message is about the relationship of human beings and fate. No one can predict what will happen to those who enter the counsels of princes. Fate is an irrevocable series of causes and effects with which not even the gods can interfere. Rather than urge an honest man to take the plunge, Seneca points out to him the perils of high office and the inevitability of fate.

Using Plato’s metaphor in The Republic of the ship of state, he says if he were left to his own devices, he would trim his sails to the light westerly winds: ‘May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; may life bear me on safely, running in middle course.’

Most compellingly, Seneca cites the example of Icarus who, attempting to escape from prison with his father, Daedalus, flew too close to the sun so that the wax melted on his wings and he fell into the sea, where he drowned. And it is to the very line in which Seneca describes how Icarus ‘madly sought the stars’ that Margaret points with her finger. [175]

I’m not discouraging people from going into politics – far from it! But it is fascinating to discover the coded warnings given by someone as astute and involved as More to those who seek high office.

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Beneath the election froth, there is a genuine debate going on within British politics about the role of government, and particularly about the distinction between the state and civil society.

It’s not just David Cameron’s pitch for a ‘Big Society’. It connects with recent discussions about faith schools, adoption agencies, universities, the right of government to impose a particular form of sex education, and much more.

Is the government responsible, top-down, for every form of social provision? Is the relationship between government and the institutions of civil society one of ‘contracting out’ services that it cannot itself provide? Or are these civil institutions constitutive parts of society with their own particular motivations, purposes and values?

This is what the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales wrote in their recent document Choosing the Common Good:

Have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with? Politics are important but there are always limits to what any government can achieve. No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need. The growth of regulations, targets and league tables, which are tools designed to make public services accountable, are no substitute for actions done as a free gift because the needs of a neighbour have to be met.

Acts of willing generosity to help others are not taken because the rules and regulations say so, or because money can be made out of them. Both regulation by law and market forces have a role in modern society. But what has been increasingly overlooked is this third form of motivation, the offer of time, energy and possessions out of the spirit of good citizenship and genuine neighbourliness. If we are to have a society worth living in, this third form of motivation is crucial. Local institutions expressing good citizenship and neighbourliness, which are not beholden to the government, form a vital part of civil society. Without solidarity and the friendships that express it, many of those living alone – now Britain’s most common form of household – become still more lonely and isolated.

Many factors lie behind the decline in this spirit of solidarity of one with another, without which society starts to break down and life becomes intolerable. An excessive emphasis on each person simply pursuing their own interests is no doubt one such factor. This flows from a limited understanding of ourselves as human beings. Far from being self-contained individuals, we are, in truth, always mutually dependent. We are made for one another. This is verified by the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction we experience when we act in generosity and solidarity with those in need. We are not isolated individuals who happen to live side by side, but people really dependent on one another, whose fulfilment lies in the quality of our relationships. [p.7]

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I mentioned a few weeks ago that a series of talks about ‘the Fundamentals of Faith’ was coming up. These have now happened, and thanks to the technology team at the Diocese of Westminster you can watch or read them all online. The main link is here.

Just to remind you of the topics: There are talks on Authority and Conscience; Prayer; the Bible; Finding True Happiness; God, Creation and Ecology; and Catholic Social Teaching.

The link to my own talk about ‘Happiness and the moral life’ is below. [That's Fr Dominic Robinson at the beginning; I start the talk at 2:40].

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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I’m a great fan of the novelist Robert Harris. I got hooked when I read the first three pages of Archangel, and then devoured Fatherland and Pompeii. I’ve only just got round to reading his magnificent Imperium. It’s the story of Marcus Cicero, set in the last years of the Roman Republic, told by his secretary Tiro. And – for the most part – it is true.

Cicero by tonynetone.

Even though I lived in the city for five years, when I was training for the priesthood, I can honestly say that this is the first time ancient Rome has ever come alive for me. Cicero leaps out of the page – a brilliant, ambitious lawyer, full of insecurities and foibles, who longs to climb to the top of Roman politics. There are sublime moments when he comes to the defence of the weaker man against some monstrous injustice. And there are other times when it is clear he will sell almost his soul in order to gain his heart’s desire.

Ancient Rome (Detail) by Alun Salt.

The political campaigns feel as contemporary as the debates in an episode of The West Wing. And all the while – this is a thriller, remember – you are desperate to know what happens next. I had coffee with a friend just after I had finished the book, and he started to tell me what happens in Part II (in the recently published Lustrum), casually recounting a bit of supposedly well-known history. I cut him off quickly, grateful for my ignorance, in case he spoiled the pleasure of reading the next installment.

It’s about power, as it’s title proclaims. And how political power – even with all the idealism and public-spiritedness – will always be inseparable from ambition, money, friendship, vanity, jealousy, favours given, favours expected. This is not cynical – just realistic. The question is how to make this messy and ambiguous reality work – as far as possible – for the common good, and not against it; how to make it serve the cause of justice even as it serves the inevitable ambitions of those involved. There are so many contemporary parallels.

It’s also about writing and making speeches and the agony of facing a deadline with a blank sheet of paper before you. Here is one lovely quotation to end with:

No-one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often – usually an hour or two after midnight – there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, just as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory. [Arrow Books, 2007, p. 132]

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