Posts Tagged ‘ #ranthill ’

#ranthill: gone but not forgotten

i’m aware that

this story has already been reported in several places, but i feel like i should swell those ranks – partly because there might be some readers who missed it, and partly in order to record it in the RQT annuls so i never forget that it happened.

several of you will have noticed that on Friday an Olympiad started, and, as is traditional, the ceremonial opening of the games was instantiated in an opening ceremony. that ceremony was orchestrated by film director Danny Boyle (Sunshine, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later) and took the form of a retelling of modern British history themed around the poem ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ by William Blake.

i, along with what seems to me from the response i’ve seen like the majority of people, very much enjoyed both Boyle’s take on Blake and history and the spectacle by which it was communicated. it was no surprise, however, given his well publicised decision to make the NHS central to his (nuanced, and, in places, dark) celebration of modern Britain, that the right-wing press would be displeased by the ceremony – the exact nature of the displeasure expressed in The Daily Mail, however, exceeded my expectations.

while predictably anti-NHS rhetoric set the context for a piece written for the Mail Online by regular contributor Rick Dewsbury, that proved merely the oversized side-salad to a dish of cold, seasoned racism. it’s not at all out of character for the Mail to crowbar in a few comments about ‘fawning’ race-equality the ‘creeping’ multi-cultural agenda and/or ‘worrying’ immigration, or even to use a ‘bait-and-switch’ approach, but this, well this was something else.

the relevant section of the article read:

And how long did this shameful propaganda last for? A whole 15 minutes at the top of proceedings before viewers dozed off to the procession of banana republics and far-flung destinations nobody has ever heard of or even cares for.

That such a politically divisive subject was included at all is utterly shocking. Not least because it glossed over the cracks in a system that is creaking at its seams – crying out for urgent reform …

The NHS segment came after a mildly moving rendition of Jerusalem (though this will move any patriot) and a play depicting the industrial revolution tearing up Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ …

But it was the absurdly unrealistic scene – and indeed one that would spring from the kind of nonsensical targets and equality quotas we see in the NHS – showing a mixed-race middle-class family in a detached new-build suburban home, which was most symptomatic of the politically correct agenda in modern Britain.

This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white middle-aged mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set-up.

Almost, if not every, shot in the next sequence included an ethnic minority performer. The BBC presenter Hazel Irvine gushed about the importance of grime music (a form of awful electronic music popular among black youths) to east London.

This multicultural equality agenda was so staged it was painful to watch.”

i’m not going to deign this incongruent, ill-founded and hateful muck with analysis or further comment, but i hope the fact that such a sentiment was ever published on the site of a major newspaper is as shocking to you as it is to me.

like several others who read this article on Saturday morning, i was initially stunned, then, having thought about it for a few minutes, lodged a complaint on the PPC website. then, after having made the complaint, i went back to the site to find that the article had been redacted (without acknowledgement). and the most hateful paragraph now read:

This was supposed to be a representation of modern life in England but such set-ups are simply not the ‘norm’ in any part of the country. So why was it portrayed like this and given such prominence? If it was intended to be something that we can celebrate, that two people with different colour skin and different cultural heritages can live harmoniously together, then it deserves praise. But what will be disturbing to many people is top-down political manipulation – whether consciously or unthinkingly – at a major sporting event.

who knows whether Dewsbury was made to write this u-turn himself, but it’s interesting to know that someone in authority decided that what was originally there was too much, even for the Mail.

… then … shortly after the redaction was made, the post was pulled altogether and has not resurfaced since.

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#ranthill: gay marriage

there is (probably too) much i could say about the arguments currently being peddled by the conservative lobby of the CofE, but this cartoon speaks to many of them quite nicely:

#ranthill: i cudda been somebody

biblical studies (nb. not Bible Studies), the discipline in which i partly and somewhat discomfortably located myself over the course of my PhD (examining the potential for reading Leviticus in the light of contemporary ecological ethics), appears to be experiencing an interesting moment.

despite the fact that my work has left me stranded on its shores, as someone primarily trained in theology and interested in ethics and hermeneutics, who was then somehow convinced to spend four years studying Leviticus, i consider myself a relative outsider to the discipline – a location that i have found both helpful and disconcerting.

i have felt this otherness most keenly at the (traditional) conferences that i have summonsed the courage to attend, and the nub of the issue seems to be that i find myself perilously astride a gulf within the discipline that has long since opened up, but seems currently to be rapidly and tempestuously expanding.

before continuing, i should first of all do something by way of defining ‘the discipline’.

Biblical Studies obviously takes in scholarship on both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (as well as a few other sources). while, due to the subject of my thesis, i have interacted mainly with the former, i also have plenty of friends situated in the latter, and my work was in the context of a wider project largely populated by NT peeps.

despite the fact that the HB and NT communities are actually rather different, the issues that lie at the heart of this post (and my experiences more generally) are, i feel, sufficiently common to speak to the broader context.

what is more, i can speak only to the British scene (or, at most, the general scene interpreted in a British context), having only secondhand knowledge of how things work in other places.

with these caveats in place, please allow me to attempt a description of the divide which i perceive, and uncomfortably straddle.

on the one hand is the old guard, headed up by the ‘gatekeepers’ (believe it or not, a genuinely self-appointed term). the cohort to which this nomenclature applies is, unsurprisingly,  not a diverse one. we are talking about often bearded, always white, overwhelmingly middle-class, mostly middle-aged, men. definitely men.

this school has tended to rally round the banner of traditional Historical Criticism, often, although not entirely, interpreted through and within the tradition of classic Protestant, Spinozian rationalism.

many in this camp hold a confessional faith position in tandem with their scholarly enterprise and are often accused by their detractors of masking their inherent ideologies (booooo) behind the vocabulary of critical rationalism and empiricism.

on the other side, there is another (often, but by no means exclusively, younger) element who tend to hold Historical Criticism in less (or at least less all-encompassing) esteem, and utilise a whole raft of other, contemporary critical tools: Rhetorical/Ideological Criticism, Postcolonial Criticism, Literary Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Queer Criticism, and so on.

many of those in this camp do not hold a confessional faith position, and are suspicious of those that do (primarily, it seems to me, because of the historical and continuing ascendancy of those in the former group).

given that the issue of faith position is not a big deal to me (i almost always hang out with the most heathen of non-believers, given the choice), the second group is the one with which i would most readily align myself. however, the faith issue seems to be a much bigger deal for many of them than it is for me.

as a Christian – and worse, a Christian with a theological background – i regularly find myself lumped together with the old-schoolers in the minds of those that i would consider my more natural peers. what i find more frustrating/disturbing than this, however, is some of the argumentation i hear from the anti-establishment camp.

the crux seems to be the thorny issue of ideology.

the new breed is most keenly opposed to the idea of hidden ideology operating under the guise of historical objectivity. i couldn’t agree more. however, many seem to be coming from the perspective that ‘ideology’ is a dirty word per se and that claims to objectivity are falsified by confessional ideologies in particular.

some even seem to want to preserve the notion of pure, rational objectivity – a location they argue is attainable as long as ‘faith’ isn’t present to corrupt.

with this, i cannot abide.

in classical Marxist terms, i understand everything as a manifestation of some ideology or other. i interpret ideology as being, in itself, a value-neutral (sic) term, and, following Gramsci, hold that what we must most urgently guard against is not ideology, but hegemony.

i see no position whatsoever as able to claim objectivity or neutrality, and what is more, am troubled that those making the counter-claims seem unaware of just how ideological the notion of objectivity is in and of itself. furthermore, i genuinely cannot think of another academic discipline in which such an argument could today occur. well, perhaps Classics.

i mentioned at the outset that the discipline seems to be at an interesting moment – an observation which i base largely on the fallout from the international Society for Biblical Literature conference which happened in London in July, and the British New Testament Conference which took place last week in Nottingham.

(i should say that while i was at iSBL, i was not at BNTC and am merely going on the various reports i have read & heard).

for reasons of (relative) brevity i’ll not go into all the details, but both these conferences ended up playing host to several academic spats which i feel are indicative of various and growing tensions within the field – emanating from pressures both without and within.

such tensions were expressed when NT Wright – an upstanding bastion of historical objectivity – launched his new translation of the New Testament (the Wright NT) at iSBL, and when Saul Olyan, Mark Smith, Bob Becking, Nathan MacDonald and Philip Davies locked horns (at times somewhat unpleasantly) over the legitimacy of the term Monotheism in an Ancient Israelite context (but really the role of religion and its categories in HB studies).

one particularly instructive example, however, has emerged c/o BNTS president Prof. Larry W. Hurtado, one of Biblical Studies’ self-defined ‘gatekeepers’. in a post-BNTC blog entry, entitled The Tools of The Trade, Prof. Hurtado points worriedly to reports that he’s heard from colleagues about their recent experiences examining PhDs.

apparently, it seems students are being examined for PhDs in NT studies who do not have a profound grasp of NT Greek, or French, or German, or who do not know how to properly use the apparatus of the Nestle-Aland text to spot variants.

Prof. Hurtado offers the rather incendiary explanation that these lapses are no doubt due to funding pressures, and are essentially demonstrative of the capitulation of the discipline in the face of academic politics.

of course, while the argument that these examples might indicate something problematic within the discipline is valid, what is crucial to note is the way that Prof. Hurtado assumes and insists that such skills are always essential, regardless of the content of the project concerned, and that any and all scholars would certainly agree.

the implicit message seems to represent an attempt to clip the wings of those who are expanding the discipline in various new directions. it would be very interesting to know exactly what the approaches of the theses concerned were, but it seems fair to assume that those who wrote them were not attempting traditional, straight-up historical critical work.

this issue pertains to me too, given that while i can work with both Hebrew and Greek texts (with a lexicon and some time), i would almost certainly have failed ‘The Hurtado Test’ if handed something to translate on the spot in my viva. likewise, i cannot read German particularly well.

the point here is that my thesis did not really require these skills given that i was explicitly writing from a particular location, and using a particular set of hermeneutical apparatus – the work of Brecht and Gadamer was as important to my thesis as was that of Koehler, Baumgartner and Stamm.

what Prof. Hurtado does in his post is affirm the essential tools of Historical Criticism as the essential tools of New Testament studies all told. “it’s all very well to do all this postcolonial, queer or eco-critical bullshit if you want”, he seems to be saying, “but you need to earn your stripes as an historical critic (like me) first.” (a point he has made explicit in a recent rejoinder here).

there are all sorts of questions to be put to this position, and many of them were articulated brilliantly by the online agent provocateur and anonymous, satirical queer critic/blogger ‘BW16’ – here, herehere and here.

The Post-Dr and i have enjoyed reading BW16’s blog, and regardless of who (s)he is, as far as i’m concerned they are an excellent thing for biblical studies.

if nothing else, i love reading scholars like Ben Witherington III (aka BW3, a particular target of BW16’s impish provocations) attempting (in exchanges in the comments section of their blogs) to ‘explain’, apparently without any awareness of irony, why BW16’s own approach of “Objective Queer Anal-ysis” is not truly objective.

in case you were wondering about his stance on this issue, BW3 endorsed and reprinted Hurtado’s assertions in a post on his blog entitiled “The Pretenders and the Contenders“. well, i cudda been a contender. (aside: i had not been a reader of BW3’s blog before BW16 directed me there, but i was immediately amused by the way the banner image seems to suggest that Starbucks belongs among ‘All Things Biblical and Christian’).

in one sense, of course, these arguments about legitimacy are nothing new, and continue to make their perpetrators sound like ageing monarchs, lashing out as a response to an (unacknowledged) awareness that their power-base has been irreparably eroded.

on the other hand, however, they are deeply troubling and the rhetoric seems to be escalating.

currently, the reality appears to be that unless you are made in the image of the gods, you will not be considered ‘legitimate’ and will not move up within the discipline (or at least you will get only as far as they allow).

the gatekeepers, it seems, are afraid of all kinds of things – variant approaches, new critical tools, use of the media, women – but then i guess we should really be grateful to and for them, after all: wide is the gate and broad the way(s) that lead(s) to destruction, but strait (straight) is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and few find that.

still, what do i know, i’m a bum.

ranthill: defining the political

so, riots.

and looting and burning. but, as every media outlet seems to be (either explicitly or implicitly) asking, are these events (in the red corner) POLITICAL, or are they simply (in the blue corner) CRIMINALITY?

aside from all the other crucial issues raised by the riots, the nature of this juxtaposition is well worthy of some reflection. it roughly maps, of course, onto the divide between left and right wing political philosophies and their distinct conceptions of the nature of history.

[before moving on, let’s pause for a small recap – so we’re all on the same page]

in line with the classic Liberal tradition, those on the right tend to emphasise the role of the individual and see history as largely directed by the exercise of reason or the will, and therefore tend to emphasise the importance of moral responsibility and social roles.

in line with the Radical tradition, those on the left tend to emphasise the role of the masses and understand history as a force directed by the movement of the people, and, as such, tend to emphasise the role of social conditions.

in terms of goals, the left tends towards the idea that equality equates to stability and flourishing, whereas the right tends to see these as best served by hierarchy and the rule of law. the left strives for equality of access (to social ‘goods’); the right, for equality of opportunity (to move up).

these descriptions are, of course, merely sketches of stereotypes, but they roughly define the boundaries of the philosophies that are in play.

and so we have seen in the responses to the riots in London, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Nottingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Salford, Leeds and Bristol (i hope i haven’t left anyone out). those on the right have consistently downplayed the role of politics and sought to characterise the riots as a collection of illegal acts committed by individuals who will be brought to justice, oh yes. Theresa May, and her constant recourse to the language of ‘sheer criminality’ (a phrase she must have used ten times in two minutes on The Today Programme yesterday), is a good example.

the left-leaners, on the other hand, have generally wanted to emphasise the social conditions and context from which the riots have erupted, and Darcus Howe’s revealing contribution to the BBC News channel yesterday, or their interview of Ken Livingstone on Monday would serve as a perfect examples here.

it’s also not hard to see that, aside from the philosophy that undergirds their politics, those currently in office have a vested interest in downplaying political causes, whereas those in opposition have the opposite investment. given that a centre-right coalition holds the reins and a centre-left party stands in opposition, this dynamic is currently set at ‘maximum skew’.

the question, however, of the role of politics per se, is more complex than this. it seems fairly clear that the motivations of the majority of rioters are not explicitly political – these are not ‘protests gone violent’ – but does that mean that they are utterly apolitical phenomena in the way Boris Johnson or Michael Gove would have us believe?

in one sense, if you stop to think about it, how can they be? politics is not just about voting, the party system and banner-waving, it’s about everything that affects and impacts society. in one sense, everything is political, or should i say nothing is apolitical. however, speaking in more specific terms, any mass movement of people, any expression of dissatisfaction, any insurrection, any wanton group lawlessness of this sort must have a political aspect.

what seems to have gone ignored in much of the right-wing rhetoric is the fact that riots are an established phenomenon. Boris Johnson spoke yesterday as if what has happened in London over the last few nights was utterly unprecedented. yes, the role of social networking adds a small novel element, but a riot is a riot.

the reality is that these are marginalised people who languish under the effects of massive inequality – of both access and opportunity – and who have seen the escalation of violent crime, the spread of deprivation and the removal of social resources within their communities, and as a result the widespread asphyxiation of cohesion, pride and hope.

when young people who’ve grown up with these kind of realities sense an opportunity to vent their anger, their fear, their hopelessness, they do not write to their local MP on thick, recycled paper. they do not organise a march and paint brightly coloured banners. these people smash, and grab, and burn. they do everything they can to show their contempt for the world in which they live and at the same time reveal (somewhat pathetically) their desire for/faith in material goods as harbingers of ‘the good life’.

such events are called riots – they’re not new, that’s why we have a word for them. yes, they are made up of a mass of criminal acts, but does that make them meaningless?

remember St Paul’s, Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side, Salford and Chapeltown in 1980, ’81, ’85, ’87, ’90? remember Los Angeles in 1992? do we think of these as meaningless, apolitical, criminal events, or as eruptions of socio-political discontent from members of disadvantaged, marginalised and otherwise dying communities?

for the last few nights, (mainly) young people have smashed, looted and burned their own neighbourhoods and those nearby, and what is more (and perhaps most disturbing to middle-class onlookers) they’ve expressed pleasure in doing so. “you can’t control us” a boy cheerily shouted towards a BBC camera in Croydon on Monday night – i wonder if he really believed that himself, and if so, if he’s ever felt that way before. i also wonder how long the feeling lasted.

we might not want to condone the acts of violence, theft and arson that comprise these disturbances, but we dismiss them as meaningless at our peril. the riots might not be explicitly political in the way a protest march is, but they are a manifestation of a political reality which, if we are to deal with the root and not only the thorn, demands a political as well as judicial response.

#faithseeking: lent & the job centre

so we’re into the third week of Lent and it’s high time i got round to sharing some thoughts that have shaped my seasonal reflections thus far.

Lent is the time of year that Christians use to prepare themselves for Easter, the most important festival of the Christian calendar. it lasts for forty days, and traditionally people choose to abstain from various things for that period.

you’d be amazed how many Christians there are for whom the above sentences are about the extent to which their understanding of Lent stretches. i’ve spent the last eighteen Wednesday evenings tutoring an evening class largely comprised of people training to be priests and readers in the Church of England. chatting with several of them last night, it was apparent that few of them had ever really reflected on the purpose of Lent beyond a general understanding of it as a period of preparation and prohibition.

on the one hand, this understanding is both orthodox and meaningful in its own right. Lent, like Advent, is a time of fasting and reflection that preceeds a time of feasting and celebration. but what to reflect on during Lent? Easter? well, that’s what Easter is for. on Good Friday we reflect on Christ’s execution, on Easter Saturday his descent into hades and on Easter Sunday his resurrection to new life. given that these facets of Easter each have a day set aside for their contemplation and that they also play quite an important part in Christian worship the whole year round (at least Christ’s death and resurrection do), then it seems somewhat strange for the whole of Lent to require focus on them as well.

given that Advent prepares Christians to celebrate the hope, love and radical potential that collide at Christmas, by reflecting on judgement – a probing juxtaposition – it seems like there should be more to Lent than just a warm up period in which you think about Easter and don’t yet eat chocolate eggs. and i think there is.

the forty day duration of Lent is derived from the period that, according to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus spent in the wilderness thinking and praying before beginning his work of teaching and healing. during this time, Jesus is visited and tested. while Matthew and Luke refer to this ‘tester’ as “the devil” (Mark, widely accepted as the earliest of the three accounts) calls him Satan.
 
Mark’s nomenclature is more helpful (and probably more accurate) given that it attests to the fact that the origin of the being that Christian tradition calls ‘The Devil’, lies in ‘the satan’ – a traditional character in Hebrew mythology who, rather than a wicked fallen angel, is a member of the heavenly court (one of the ‘sons of God’) and fulfils the function of an accuser (i.e. the person that presents the charges in a court). the satan is someone who tests a person, who strips away their facade and exposes them for what they truly are.

in the prologue to the Book of Job, the satan petitions YHWH to test Job’s apparently extensive faith, and in so doing lays the narrative foundations for Job’s critique of the Wisdom tradition. in Zechariah 3 – a text that clearly inspires Matthew’s temptation account – we find the satan standing at the right hand of the angel of YHWH as an accuser of Joshua (NB. in Hebrew and Greek Joshua and Jesus are the same name). the influence of this text on Matthew probably also explains the shift from the satan in Mark to the devil in Matthew, given that in the Greek version of Zechariah (which Matthew seems to have used) the original Hebrew ha šātān is rendered by the Greek diabolos.

so, if the tempter of Jesus in the wilderness is a derivation of the traditional, legal figure of the satan, what does that suggest? well, to me it implies that interpretations of the temptation (and possibly wider accounts of the life & ministry of Christ) that emphasise his purity and sinlessness are perhaps slightly missing the point. if the satan is not a malign being, tempting Jesus into sin and corruption, but a morally neutral ‘tester’, whose purpose is to probe and challenge Jesus and discern his true colours, then that seems to put a rather different spin on the encounter from the usual interpretation.

if the emphasis is not on Jesus’ purity, then what is the purpose of the story? well, perhaps, i’d like to suggest, it is more about the nature of his vocation. for me, the temptation stories represent an attempt by the early communities to grasp (in the light of his death) the meaning of the distinctiveness of Jesus’ ministry and the origins of his focus. rather than a garden of illicit delights, i interpret the psycho-social space of the wilderness, under the narrative direction of the satan, as a kind of primitive job centre (plus).

in all three Synoptic accounts, the temptation is directly preceded by the baptism of Jesus by John, and thus by the declaration from heaven that: “This is my well loved son with whom I am pleased”. Jesus was by no means the first person to perceive a messianic calling within the Hebrew tradition. great community leaders like Moses, Joshua and Samuel, great prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel and great kings like David and Solomon all stand in some way as messianic figures, as sons of God. what is more, the several reflections on the coming messiah throughout the Hebrew Bible present him in various ways: a king, a warrior, a seer, a priest. as such, there were many ways that Jesus might choose to express his calling, many patterns he could have followed.

what i think the satan offers Jesus are three ways in which he might not only begin his ministry, but also shape its objectives and outcomes. as the gospel stories of the feeding of the crowds show, a person who can provide for the needs of the people will gain a huge following. and yet, when the satan suggests that Jesus satisfy his own hungers first by turning stones to bread, more is implied than just a ministry of provision. as Christ seems to understand, not only do people need more than bread to survive, but also truly great community organisers must also be self-sacrificial servants of the people, and not the sort to put their own interests ahead of those of the many.

when the satan suggests that Jesus throw himself from the temple tower and have angels catch him, he seems to be invoking the image of a radical overthrowing of the religious order. those convicted of blasphemy during this period were taken to the top of the temple and thrown from there over the walls of the city.

to throw himself and be saved, would be, in a single act, to dismantle the religious structures of Israel and undermine the temple. despite his healings, during his ministry Jesus makes several withering references to those who desire to witness spectacular signs – least of all his famous comment to Thomas after the resurrection: “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” even if he could have done it, performing such a public stunt and thus announcing himself as a messiah would surely have brought a rather different context and tone to Jesus’ ministry than the one he decides to plump for.

in Psalm 2 (“whoo hooo, when I feel heavy metal”) – a passage that clearly provides the pattern for the gospel writers’ image of the heavenly voice blessing Jesus at his baptism – it is the messianic king, newly installed on the holy hill of Zion, who is told “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession”, but also warned “Now therefore, O Kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way”.

in the third of his ‘tests’, it seems the satan is offering the exact same deal to Jesus. become a great king, and you get to possess the whole earth. as a member of the heavenly court (and perhaps, as in Job, some sort of overseer of the earth) the satan seems to have the authority to grant great power, but he also demands allegiance. the seemingly obvious interpretation here fits with the notion of the satan as a diabolic being, seeking to tempt Jesus into idolatry and corrupt him with power. however, i think we miss something if we pass over the extent to which Jesus’ rejection of the satan’s offer is a rejection of centralised wealth and power per se, not just that gained from idolatrous worship.

Jesus seems to emerge from his wilderness based psychological experiment/careers interview with a clear sense of what it might mean for him to be a son of God. his ministry will prove to be inspired most, not by the tradition of the wealthy, divine king, the powerful magician, or the revolutionary warrior, but by the vision laid out by Isaiah of the Suffering Servant – one who sets aside all that they have, gives themselves up, and through radical, selfless suffering demonstrates the limits of power, inspires hope and enables a new kind of future.

therefore, leavings my reflections on Easter until Eastertide, i’m using these forty days of discipline and self-denial to focus on the notion of vocation. that means not only trying to discern my own skills, aptitudes and abilities, plotting a path that is meaningful, and reflecting on what examples i definitely don’t want to follow as well as those that i do, but also, more fundamentally, the nature of purpose in general – not just my own, but that of the whole of reality.

#ranthill: our duty and our joy

today, Jeremy Cunt the Hulture Secretary will reveal the latest scheme designed to ‘establish’ a hulture of philanthropy (and justify tax breaks for the rich).

amongst all the rhetoric of introducing an ‘American style’ system of ‘conspicuous giving’ that is floating around, it seems to have escaped many people’s attention that, like almost every aspect of American hulture, their system is an instantiation of a British notion from a bygone era.

“let money fructify in the pockets of the people” is one of the most famous catchphrases (say what you see) of one of Britain’s most famous politicians, and is indicative of the economics of laissez faire that dominated the Victorian period.

this is almost exactly the rhetoric that lies behind today’s initiative. however, you probably won’t hear Gladstone quoted (after all, this is the announcement of a new, dynamic policy) – but you probably will hear commentators invoking ‘trickle-down’ imagery, which is equally old.

the image conjured is something like a pyramid of champagne glasses at an expensive wedding. the wine is poured in at the top (the rich) and once (and only once) it has filled the glasses there, it ‘trickles down’ and fills the glasses on the next level. and so on.

of course, one aspect of reality not encompassed by this cheerful imagery is the fact that the rich have very large champagne glasses which take a long time to fill. imagine a pyramid in which the more elevated the glass within the structure, the larger it is in comparison to those beneath it – of course it’s a difficult thing to picture, given that, in reality, such a structure would be woefully unstable and likely to collapse at any minute (hmmmmmmm …)

this, therefore, was the big issue (pun intended) with Gladstone’s idea – deep pockets take a long time to fill and come into ‘fruit’, and in the meantime the people at the bottom starve.

it was in response to the economic failures of nineteenth century toryism and the shocking evils of early twentieth century warfare, that the British welfare system and the NHS were established. the logic of these institutions was totally different. government was elected to serve the interests of the people, as defined through engagement with the political process. government was entrusted, through taxation, with the money to invest in welfare and the provision of that which benefitted the common good.

taxation expresses a duty on behalf of all to each. it also binds each working person into the political system – each having a palpable interest in how and where their tax is spent. as our American friends know best, there is rightly a working relationship between taxation and representation.

what is more, tax is taken ‘off the top’ at the source. it does not ‘fructify’ (i.e. sit in off-shore accounts earning interest) in anyone’s pockets before it enters the mechanisms of redistribution. those in need do not have to wait for the rich to get as rich as they feel they need to be before they can get some help to pay their rent. the dignity of those at the bottom is not dependant on the charitable whims of those at the top.

this is precisely why people saw ‘tax and spend’ welfarism as the only appropriate response to both the legacies of Victorian poverty and the horrors of the two world wars. furthermore, during the latter, british people had discovered that working together – rationing goods, helping neighbours, each ‘doing their duty’ – actually made for a better quality of life, even in extreme conditions.

the world wars constituted a profound challenge to the idea that human beings are innately good. and thus the Victorian idea that, having been given the chance to make as much money as possible, wealthy people would naturally want to give some away to those in need, lost much of its purchase. people vividly perceived that humans can be good if determined and directed, but in the same way they can also be terrible.

don’t get me wrong, the British culture of philanthropism did many great things. many public libraries, schools, hospitals, parks and so forth were built by successful entrepreneurs for the benefit of their localities (although it was never quite as it is in America today, where every bench and tree bears a benefactor’s plaque). the problem was, that few people wanted to do the less glamourous work of helping the poorest survive day-to-day.

it was not the grand largesse of Victorian philanthropy, but largely the dutiful and sacrificial service of Victorian Christians that propped up the system where it was weakest – movements like The Salvation Army and the YMCA mopped up the rotten ‘fruits’ of Gladstone’s labour. and, while it is true to say that such movements were to some extent the product of charity, the fact is that the kind of charity they exercised was not primarily the trickle-down kind of the rattling coin jar, but rather the self-sacrifical ideology of Christian love.

taxation is not a perfect system of wealth redistribution, and it is certainly at the mercy of political corruption, but, personally, i’d rather live with a common purse hostage to the potential for democratically elected and accountable corruption, than allow the richest corporations even larger tax breaks and place that money in the hands of those who, by will and law, must serve only the financial interests of themselves and their investors.

no-one particularly enjoys looking at their already meagre pay-slip and seeing how much money they have ‘lost’ to tax, but in reality we should celebrate the system and see it as ‘our duty and our joy’ to contribute to the common good. we all want good public transport, quality public health care, good schools, competent public emergency services, decent levels of public sanitation and so on (all the things the Victorians mostly lacked), so we should be happy to pay for them, together.

what we should also want, however, having done our duty and made our contributions, is to passionately ensure that government is held accountable for the proper use of our money. that means voting, yes, but also writing to your MP to express your wishes, joining unions and pressure groups which lobby government, and, where necessary, taking to the streets to express dissatisfaction. each of these avenues for influencing political process to some extent or another relies on the economic mandate that comes from taxation.

if you hate paying tax, and are persuaded by the rhetoric being spouted by Cunt and others, then I would ask you to do this: take a detailed look at American society and politics. America has more billionaires then any other country on the planet, one of the largest accountancy sectors (frantically working to help people avoid tax) and some of the hugest tax breaks for the rich and powerful:

Do they experience less political corruption? Does the average American have more political influence, more say in what goes on on Capital Hill? Do they have better public transport? A better school system? A better justice system? Do they have less unemployment? Is their’s a more stable economy? Do they have less poverty?
and frankly, if you think they do, then why not move there? and please take the current government with you. as for me, i believe in taxes – yeah, now who’s with me?

… hhello?

#ranthill: expectations – stuff: lower; people: higher

i have some thoughts to share friends.

you see, i think we have got to the point where we have got two types of expectations seriously out of kilter. i was on a train last week from Exeter to Bristol and in my carriage were newly installed TV screens attached to the back of every chair (yes, except the rearmost ones, ah…..).

a message on the screen read something to the tune of “You are now journeying in the first train carriage in the world to be fitted with the latest in pay-per-view entertainment technology – press here for more details.”

looking at the screens sent me into a fleet of reminiscences: i remember when i had a black and white TV that you had to tune to the correct frequency with a dial. in fact, i still remember the frequencies: BBC 1 was C51 (714MHz), BBC2 was C44(658MHz), ITV was C41 (643MHz) and Channel 4 was C47(682MHz).

then there was my grandparents’ TV, which was colour, freaking massive (front to back) and had a panel of buttons for controlling the channels, conveniently situated on the sitting room wall – slightly further away from the sofa and armchairs than the actual set itself. my grandad often confused it with the thermostat and used to explode into fits of rage as Emmerdale Farm refused to yield to This Is Your Life, and instead the room just got hotter and hotter.

moreover, there was how crap the reception generally was, especially if there was any ‘weather’ around (and what a stupid phrase that is incidentally), which, in Cornwall, there always was. i remember being satisfied if i could consistently see the ball, whilst watching football (Division 1, live, on a Saturday afternoon, on BBC1). then there was the fact that after a while the picture on colour sets would intermittently turn all yellow or red (sorry magenta) and would require a firm bash on the top to correct this. the gap between the required bashes would then shorten, until you’d give up and then eventually forget that the other two primary colours ever existed.

all of these were perfectly normal parts of the TV watching experiences of my childhood and adolescence – and i’m really not even THAT old, nor  did i grow up THAT poor. we had mid-level electronic equipment and thoroughly mid-level expectations regarding its performance. unless The Godfather II was showing, there wasn’t really any notion that you would be able to sit down and watch TV all evening, without moving – and given how unlikely that scenario was and the unmitigated crap that was mostly on, you basically wouldn’t have ever wanted to do so anyway.

so, there i was, sat on a train with a thin, crystal-clear touch-screen LCD TV staring back at me from the rear of the seat in front, loaded with hours of premium TV programmes available for everyone in the carriage to watch for a fairly modest fee, and i couldn’t help thinking how far things had come in the few, yes few, years since i was 9 and TV was hard work.

then, the screen of a guy sitting opposite me flickered and stopped working for about 30 secs before starting back up where it had left off. the guy, who must have been in his 50s, turned to the woman who was with him and said simply “pile of crap”.

how short our memories and how high our expectations have become.

i was on a flight from London to New Jersey last year when, shortly after we’d boarded and taken our seats, an announcement came over the address system explaining that ‘they’ were very sorry, but there was an error with some of the plane’s equipment and therefore … none of the in-flight movies would be available to view during this flight. the various TV shows, music albums and games would be accessible, but the movie database, not.

given the tone of the announcement and the fact that the words ‘error’ and ‘plane’ had been connected by the words ‘with the’, i couldn’t believe not only the extent of the groan that went up from those around me, but the near riotous reactions of some of my section’s more expressive (i’m going to say American) passengers.

i still think of flying as something of a terrifying, inexplicable miracle. yes, it’s an expensive way to travel, but it gets you to the other side of the sodding world and it kills the planet a bit in so doing – two good reasons for a high price tag as far as i’m concerned. on that occasion, as long as i arrived in New York on the day i was supposed to and in one basic piece, i was going to be happy. to be fair, i probably wouldn’t have enjoyed my flight if Continental had provided a hot tub each and plenty of heroin, but while my expectations were perhaps a little low, i couldn’t help feeling those of the over-animated people sitting around me were just a tad inflated.

what if we compare the apparently high expectations we have learned to have for things (especially technology) and services, with the pretty low expectations we seem to have of people – not celebrities, you understand, just people.

i have several friends who seem to think it’s probably their fault when prospective partners cheat on them or generally treat them with contempt, and it seems, when probed, that at least part of that response is to do with feeling stupid for thinking that the person concerned might have been civil and considerate and honest.

i love to hate that infuriating programme on TV with the page-three girl, fat magician and other one, who go round ripping people off, ruining their day/holiday and making them cry, for fun and in order to teach us all that if we get conned or plain mugged, it’s at least partly our own stupid fault.

no. it’s not. at least not to any extent that’s worth seriously considering. yes, in practical terms it’s good to know what to look out for and to be aware of some simple measures to take to decrease the chances of your being caught up in something like that, but if you are, then the part of the blame that’s worth thinking and talking about lies wholly on the selfish bastarding thieves who did it. it’s basically the same argument as the one that says women who wear short skirts should really have expected to have been groped, or worse.

people can and should be good. we are capable of truly amazing things. no matter how bad things may seem, history strongly and repeatedly suggests that the momentum created by people acting together for good is an almost unstoppable and all-conquering force. the reason it doesn’t happen that often is probably something to do with how lazy we all are about learning the lessons of history and not listening to people who want to swap their promise of good news highlighted against a background of general despair, for our money, and how intent we all seem to be on expecting very little more than the worse of each other.

regardless of what the advertising industry constantly tells us, we really aren’t entitled to all that much when it comes to luxuries, goods and services. it’s no-one’s moral duty to make sure my journey or stay or day is completely perfect. the world is not a terrible place filled with bad people because my steak is a little over-cooked, or there was a long queue, or you’re somehow not going to get everything you’d expected.

however, it IS our moral duty to regard each other ethically and justly. we don’t do it, because if we did Capitalism wouldn’t work – and that’s what gives all us rich people with blogs all the good stuff we like – but we should. it IS proper for us to have concern for each other, to try not to hurt each other, to be compassionate and also to expect that of others in return.

so, my proposal is this: why don’t we all try to lower our expectations and deflate our sense of entitlement when it comes to stuff, and do the opposite with regard to people. instead of throwing our energies into letters to First Capital Connect about that overcrowded train, or Costa about that tepid flat white, let’s remind the people around us and in the media spotlight that we expect more from them in terms of the effort they put into being a good human being, and also that we would like them to do the same for us.

this way, maybe we can all help each other to be better people, and while some flights will still happen without the soothing ability to watch Knight and Day, Final Destination or United 93, and some of the near-miraculous TVs on trains might sometimes malfunction, we might actually regain a little of our dignity, humanity and hope.