Thursday, 29 May 2008

Serious threats

The new magazine Standpoint, published by the Social Affairs Unit, sounds like an excellent initiative: potentially a right-of-centre New Statesman, perhaps. Certainly it has managed to attract a lot of advance publicity, mainly for an article by Michael Nazir-Ali, the bishop lefties love to hate (especially 'cos he's Asian). Nazir-Ali blames the loss of public Christianity since the 1960s for the demise of western civilisation, an argument straight out of Mary Whitehouse or the later Malcolm Muggeridge, though spun as yet another rant about Islam. Actually, he deals with Islam in a few sentences and even has positive things to say about Sharia law, which ought to be a warning for complacent secularists (who have sometimes seen him as some sort of ally) as to where he's really coming from. Governments, he thinks, "will have to be increasingly open to religious concerns and to make room for religious conscience, as far as it is possible to do so." He doesn't explain why.

All mildly deluded stuff, which reaches a strange climax with his last sentence. The bishop writes that we need the Christian faith "to guide us to where we are going, and to bring us back when we wander too far from the path of national destiny." National destiny? Nurse!

Equally demented, and perhaps more dangerous, is the essay by Michael Burleigh entitled "How to Defeat the Global Jihadists". Burleigh is the author of one of the best books ever written in English on the Third Reich, but he seems to have lost all sense of perspective when facing the utterly different and much smaller "threat" posed by the small bunch of loons who seek to wage global Jihad.

Burleigh's main aim is to contrast the seriousness with which terrorism is treated in the US with the wishy-washy multiculturalist surrender found in Europe (especially in Britain). Thus he was impressed recently to discover the "intellectual seriousness, and the global scope of their concerns" of the Pentagon officials he spoke with. He recalls a Senate hearing in April about the likely effects of a nuclear attack on Washington DC - the sort envisaged in that ridiculous film The Sum of All Fears, presumably.

The chairman, Senator Joe Lieberman, said, "The scenarios we discuss today are very hard for us to contemplate, and so emotionally traumatic and unsettling that it is tempting to push them aside." What was Lieberman talking about? A 10-kiloton bomb left in a truck by the White House would kill about 100,000 people and erase a two-mile radius of mainly federal buildings downtown. Most casualties would be burn victims, the majority of them African-Americans who work for the federal government. About 95 per cent of them would die an agonising death, because current capacity to treat such cases is limited to about 1,500. Since the winds blow west to east, the ensuing radioactive plume would drift towards the poor black neighbourhoods of the capital’s South East where there is only one hospital. Lieberman concluded, “Now is the time to have this difficult convers­ation, to ask the tough questions, and then to get answers as best we can.”

Burleigh adds: "One wonders what preparations for such a nightmare scenario are being made here in Britain. Are our parliamentarians asking these questions and enabling us to have this conversation?"

Should they be? Rather than speculating about the likely impact of a major city being nuked by terrorists, would the senators not have spent their time better considering the chances of such a thing happening at all? Since all the available evidence suggests that it would be almost impossible for Al Qaeda to get hold of a nuclear weapon, and absolutely impossible for them to transport it to the United States, the Senate might as well hold hearings into the effects of the White House being blasted by Martians.

A far more rational analysis I came across recently was written by John Mueller, an American academic whose most notable work in 2006's Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them. In a new essay, entitled Terrorphobia, he confronts the central paradox: most people are well aware that the chances of them being personally killed by terrorists are vanishingly small, yet they continue to believe the myth of an overarching terrorist "threat" and punish politicians who downplay it. He thinks that the War on Terror has become "a popularly supported governmental perpetual-motion machine", akin to the earlier structural paranoia about "reds under the bed" or the endless and unwinnable "war on drugs".

Key to this dynamic is that the public apparently continues to remain unimpressed by several inconvenient facts. One such fact is that there have been no al-Qaeda attacks whatsoever in the United States since 2001. A second is that no true al-Qaeda cell (or scarcely anybody who might even be deemed to have a “connection” to the diabolical group) has been unearthed in this country. A third is that the homegrown “plotters” who have been apprehended, while perhaps potentially somewhat dangerous at least in a few cases, have mostly been either flaky or almost absurdly incompetent.

In Britain, of course, there has been one major attack. But otherwise Mueller's analysis holds true. While terror suspects continue to be arrested and put on trial, they are not agents of a large international network but are almost entirely self-sustained. Which makes them, perhaps, more difficult to keep track of than a traditional, organised terrorist movement would be. But equally it proves them to be amateurish and relatively unthreatening. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was a widespread assumption that this was merely the opening salvo in a sustained terrorist campaign that would wreak increasing havoc. In fact, it was the most they could do, and it's unlikely that they could do such a thing again.

The British official response to the perceived terrorist threat is just as exaggerated as the American, but in a different way. Here, Burleigh has some good points to make about what he calls the government's "alternation of appeasement with knee-jerk ­authoritarianism."

In dealing with the Muslim Council of Britain, the British Government unwittingly accepted as “commun­ity” interlocutors men who, in line with salafi-jihadi propaganda, blamed Islamist terrorism primarily on British foreign policy, while failing to condemn unequivocally suicide bombing outside the UK. Virtually nothing is being done to stem the flow of Wahabist money (and the attendant intolerant ideology) not only into mosques but university “Islamic studies” programmes, whose ideologically-slanted nature has been exposed in a report published last month by the Centre for Social Cohesion.

I agree. It is the precise combination of appeasement and repression that has caused the problem. The government has been far too keen to dispense with age-old civil liberties, which has led to a siege mentality among many young Muslims. Yet it has combined this with cack-handed attempts at reaching out to "the Muslim community" by giving free reign, and access to power, to the likes of the MCB: not terrorists, but political Islamists and cultural separatists. Put the two together and you have the conditions most likely to produce the thing that the government presumably wants to avoid: more radicalisation, less social cohesion, more "terrorist" plots.

Where Burleigh gets it wrong is in thinking that this disastrous policy results from the government being half-hearted about the terrorist threat. On the contrary, it is a result of their absurd over-estimation of this threat, and their desperate scratching around for some means of countering it. Oddly, Michael Nazir-Ali makes a similar mistake when he fears that "Radical Islamism" will flourish in the vacuum created by the collapse in Christian observance. Binge-drinking, trash television and porn might, but that is another matter.


valdemar said...

Good points again, H. I thought Burleigh's article was loopy. In fact, if anything could turn a bunch of daft lads into a proper jihadi network, it's good ol' stupid repression. I seem to recall (I'm certainly no expert, but I lived through the 60s and 70s) that before Unionists cracked down on the Civil Rights movement the IRA consisted of roughly three blokes and a dog. Well, perhaps a bit more than that, but you get the idea.

As for Nazir Ali, well, he's a bishop. He would think society needs religion. The simple fact is that once the British realised that shunning church doesn't actually hurt your career or your social standing they stopped going in droves, because only a few people like that sort of thing. Freedom of choice can have unfortunate consequences for moribund institutions that rely a little too much on deference.

WeepingCross said...

Yes, I often find myself agreeing almost completely with His Grace of Rochester, only to be flummoxed by his habit of throwing in something apparently loopy right at the end. What on earth does 'national destiny' mean - does Britain (if this is the 'nation' in question, rather than England, or perhaps Wessex depending how events pan out) have a specific task set out for it by God from which other 'nations' destinies differ? Perhaps the Bp could tell us. Other than that, I found his argument basically sound: that the principles secular Britons claim to value aren't simply generated out of nowhere, as though liberalism could be maintained by force of will, or just magically grew up as a result of ordinary human interaction. Valdemar, you're absolutely right in your characterisation of religious decline. But the removal of punitive consequences against individuals for not observing communal religious norms is not the same as the gradual emergence of negative social consequences from not doing so; that's rather more difficult to measure.

The Heresiarch said...

By "the gradual emergence of negative social consequences" I presume Fr WC is referring to the widespread immorality, collapse of respect, and all the rest of the moral chaos that is usually laid at the door of the decline of religious observance. But take a trip back to the 18th century, or even large parts of the 19th, and there's plenty of crime, prostitution, binge-drinking and so on going on, co-existing with near universal acceptance of the doctrines of the church. The only real atheists were sober and humanistic intellectuals like Hume.

Accept that the increasing lawlessness and profligacy of modern Britain has accompanied the decline of religion, to what extent can it be said that one causes the other. Probably religious observance was only one factor, and a relatively minor one; rather than evidence of belief, it was more an expression of social conformity that existed for a whole other series of reasons: the post-war austerity, national service, tight levels of organisation in workplaces, social deference, etc. There are reasons these things have disappeared that have little or nothing to do with religion, still less "faith".

WeepingCross said...

Oh, I accept all those ambiguities; as far as I know we have no real way of working out whether the 18th century (or any other) was objectively more or less 'lawless' than the early 21st, let alone discovering what caused any change there may have been in that situation, if change there has been. But remember where I come from in more detail: it isn't merely a matter of the nominal acceptance of Christian doctrines, as the disgustingly Erastian Georgian Church of England was a profoundly decadent and largely humanistic organisation to which the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass meant less than nothing. The Anglican Church has changed a bit since then, not even considering the society around it. All in all, I tend to be rather cautious about expressing the 'collapse of western civilisation' theory; I know where I think it's going, but I don't expect to have any empirical evidence for a couple of hundred years yet.

WeepingCross said...

I could have put it more neatly (if equally inaccurately) by saying that the only real atheist was Hume, but the only real Christians were Wesley and Dr Johnson!

The Heresiarch said...

Wesley and Johnson: fanatics both (especially Dr Johnson). I accept your doubts as to what "lawlessness" means or how it can be measured; by one obvious yardstick, the circumscription of everyday life by rules and legal prohibitions, society has never been more law-abiding. And that's not necessarily a good thing.

But here's the difficulty with your position - or perhaps more so Nazir-Ali's. If it isn't formal religious observance that enables civilisation to subsist, but rather "real religion", a eucharistic consciousness or whatever, then when was that time? The most obvious reason for the decline in church-going, after all, is that once going to church was what respectable people simply did on a Sunday (it still is in much of the US). If Christianity "built" civilisation, it wasn't people going to church that did the trick, but rather a long process of historical development, building up of legal institutions, etc, that happened in a Christain context but which long ago cut itself off from its theological moorings.

"I know where I think it's going". Care to share?

valdemar said...

For what it's worth, I hope it (our culture) is going to the stars via the moon and planets. Better than sitting around playing with toys, which is the essence of consumerism when you strip away all the BS.
Also for the record, I would like to be a cyborg with a built-in laser cannon, heat vision, super-strength and so on.
Any evil corporations that read this blog - and I bet they all do - please get in touch if you need volunteers for Project Prometheus, or whatever you call it.

The Heresiarch said...

Now there's a thought. And of course you're right, we will all be cyborgs, and probably genetically modified as well. Though I suspect that chemical behaviour modification will come first.

WeepingCross said...

Yes, I introduced the line about the shortcomings of the 18th-century CofE to make exactly that point, that you can't draw any clear line between the religious structure of a society and its moral state. The deeper point is different: how do you begin to construct any kind of discourse about ethics in a polity which, as you say, as loosed itself from the theological moorings which encouraged the development of the values it thinks it holds dear? The Bp's point would surely be that Christianity provided the impetus for developing the liberal virtues and the legal structures that seek to embody them, precisely because of the gap between its aspirations and its reality. I don't think the case is proven, but I suspect it is correct, because I can see no means of justifying humanist liberalism on its own grounds: there is no self-sufficient way of defining what The Good is. I tried for years to do exactly that and found nothing. To do so seems to me to be, dare I say so, an irrational act of blind faith!

WeepingCross said...

And hang on, you were the one who said British society was 'increasingly lawless'!

valdemar said...

Is society increasingly lawless? How could we measure this? Some statistics (wish I could remember where I read them) suggest that there was more crime in the early Thirties than today.
Perhaps demographics has something to say about our mindset? If we have an ageing population, do we have an inherently more conservative one, prone to see society as in decline simply because it's changing in many alarming ways?
Also, we have smaller families and more childless people (like myself). Does this make the relatively small percentage of kids around seem more menacing because fewer of us have experience of groups of youngsters in non-worrying situations?

I often hear that without religious faith a society can have no common moral values. Yet religious values are communicated in the same way as all others i.e. by very fallible and often cynical human beings declaring 'this is right, that is wrong'. Sometimes they wave a holy book, sometimes they try to get elected.
Today politicians and celebrities try to persuade or bully us to do what is 'right'. In Chaucer's day it was the priesthood. Reading Chaucer suggests that people in his day were as sceptical about their moralisers as we are about ours.
It's too easy to convince ourselves that people 'back then' were somehow more secure in their values.
I wonder if Bishop Nazir Ali reads Chaucer? Or ponders the apparent lack of conventional Christian thought in Shakespeare? Or wonders why Dickens, in his Life of Our Lord, states (in a book written for children, admittedly) that Jesus was a very good man whose father was Joseph?
It would be interesting to know how much the bishop actually knows about his adopted country.

WeepingCross said...

It would be completely silly to say that a society could have no common morality without religion. The question is rather what things it would value, and how justified logically it would be in doing so. And yes, we're all inclined to tell fairy stories about the past, I think. It would have been so refreshing had the Bp got to the bit in his article where he says (from memory), 'In some ways I am poorly qualified to talk about this matter', and then gone on 'So I won't', but presumably that wouldn't have been worth publishing although blank space is often far more valuable than what does get published. A friend of mine editing the house journal of a well-respected organisation once got so fed up with the uncommunicativeness of the powers-that-be that she ended up printing blank pages with a small picture of a penguin at the bottom and leaving it at that.

WeepingCross said...

To be more serious, I don't really imagine that people in the past believed the same thing, all the time, with equal fervour, even when they were supposed to or said they did, or were always good at living those values out, and so on. The question is where does value come from, what generates it. The closest I get from atheists are statements like Polly Toynbee (a heroine of this site's contributors, I know) saying that 'you only have to watch children in the playground to know they have an inbuilt sense of fairness' (well, we must defer to her week as a school dinnerlady which seems to be her most extensive experience of what children are like); Prof Dawkins rooting his values in his own 'sense of wonder', which is subjectivist mysticism; and Dr Greer on the wireless last night proclaiming 'People do good because it's good'. I remember the last lady a few years ago simply refusing to believe that youths on sink estates were stoning fire engines when they turned up to answer fake alarm calls. Who thought unbelievers could't be sentimental?

The Heresiarch said...

Polly Toynbee "a heroine of this site's contributors". Are you trying to wind me up, Father?

You seem to be peddling the relativistic Blair line, that "faith" gives us our values, and that "the great faiths" share more or less the same values. Whereas humanism has trouble grounding those values, therefore it's not as good as faith.

Valdemar has it about right, I think: "religious values are communicated in the same way as all others"; or to be more exact, they are the same sort of values, communicated in a subtly different way. Without religion, there's a problem in grounding morality in something that is, or seems to be, absolute, and it's the old problem that Hume identified as trying to derive an "ought" from an "is".

Religion short-circuits this problem by saying "these values come from God", or "these values are written in the Bible/ Koran/ Sikh scripture" and leaves it at that. Humanism can't point to a text that is normative in some way, and that does create a philosophical problem. But it's only a philosophical problem, not a real problem; in principle, most of the values that emerge from humanism are the same as the values that the "great faiths" share. And it seems to me that the values which humanists dispute with Christians are often the same values which are subtly or strikingly different between the various religions. I think I'm right in saying that Islam doesn't have much problem with embryo experimentation, for example. Judaism certainly doesn't, ask Robert Winston.

It's in principle possible to find scientific reasons for prevailing moral views, and such attempts have been made. Game theory, for example, or the selective advantage of reciprocal altruism. Vampire bats sharing blood, for example. Discovering a scientific explanation for a moral attitude doesn't make it "right", of course. But that's only a problem if you're worrying about philosophical proof. Otherwise, you just get on with life.

WeepingCross said...

You wouldn't expect me to peddle any sort of relativism, would you? Though a mild wind-up might not be as far out of character.

My problem with the Blair project is precisely that I see the Christian account of value as at its heart wildly divergent from any other moral system: that reality works by sacrificial love because it is sustained by a god who loves it sacrificially. Of course that makes no sense without the events which justify thinking that belief might be true: it would be profound 'mauvais foix' to promulgate such a ludicrous account of things just because you thought it might be socially useful.

But as for 'just getting on with life', doesn't that rather undermine the rationale of this excellent blog? And I think 'how do I know what is good and why should I do it?' are pretty important questions. Because without absolutes we can only answer 'because I tell you, and I'll hit you if you don't'. Enter New Labour!