Who’s rearing your children? Do you know where they are? Are they worshipping Satan while playing Dungeons and Dragons? Are they learning magick on World of Warcraft? Is that them in the other room playing a game … of MONOPOLY where they are socialised into disregarding the fundamental cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching – the universal destination of material goods – and instead learn to love the twisted and perverted pursuit of profit without any regard for other humans or the created environment?
THE WORLD IS FULL OF FEARFUL THINGS OF WHICH YOU SHOULD BE AFRAID!
Or at least that is what this article by Breda O’Brien, a woman with a lovely voice, has had published in the Irish Times this morning. The Irish Times is the newspaper of record in Ireland, not some kind of clickbait, publish-anything sort of internet endeavour. And yet here we are, gathered as a nation sitting over our Aldi-brand cornflakes of a Saturday morning, enduring sentences like this:
If you want to experience blistering hatred, try posting content on Tumblr as a white, male, straight, middle-class Christian.
As a white, male, straight, middle-class Christian, I can honestly say that in any given week I am the recipient of far more aggression on the streets of Aberdeen while driving my little Yaris than I have received in my entire life on the internet, which began in 1994.
I have dabbled in this “Tumblr” over which O’Brien wishes to start a moral panic. It is true that there is a vast amount of smut available on there. I’m not just talking about porn where people dress up as polar bears and pretend to be, I don’t know, politicians, or whatever. People on Tumblr seem to spend way too much time on animated gifs of Dr. Who and reposting trite lists that basically find innumerable ways to enumerate the importance of self-esteem and other vague ideas.
For O’Brien, the “biggest worry is not that young people are more narcissistic, but that social media functions as a giant mechanism for conformity.” Yet for me, Tumblr has been a place where I found a surprisingly vibrant little culture of very thoughtful Christians sharing a rich variety of interesting things. Like out in the bricks-and-mortar world, there is conformity and strange cul-de-sacs of culture and there is also diversity and disagreement and complicated overlaps.
O’Brien writes of the alleged liberal consensus on Tumblr:
“If you spend enough time on Tumblr or other such sites, you may begin to believe that this is only way to think, unless you have very strong, real-world social networks to act as a corrective.”
There is so much wrong with this sentence taken on its own. When you factor in that O’Brien is writing as some sort of Christian ethicist (!), it is catastrophic thinking. To begin with, the corrective to thinking there is only one way to think is… to think. Strong real-world social networks are wonderful, but they are barely even necessary for the low bar of ethical empathy that O’Brien is calling for. The internet is the real world for one. It doesn’t reside in clouds, but in actual hard-drives sitting in actual servers in actual buildings. The task of delineating what a social network is has been made more complex since the world-wide web, but Christian ethicists are meant to have some what of a head-start on that conversation since their entire activity takes place within and is directed towards the social network called church.
But let me not wander off on some Hauerwasian adventure. Instead, let me keep talking about a trivial social media network operated by the Yahoo corporation, which is listed on the NASDAQ and is in the business of returning profit to shareholders, not advocating for some kind of cultural revolution. If there is money in maintaining a platform that exchanges Anchorman memes, Tumblr will keep doing it. If it suddenly became lucrative to exchange Patristic poetry, then Tumblr would start doing that.
O’Brien argues that “These young people have been socialised to believe there are some opinions that are so shocking they should not be heard at all.” Are we still talking about Tumblr, where pro-ana sites are commonplace, porn is traded freely and I presume racist bile is spouted without censure? Does this pass for informed Christian comment? Why am I not a columnist for the Irish Times? I’ll tell people how brilliant things can be found on Tumblr, which is surely a better theological beginning than strange warnings about being “cool with the internet raising your kids.”
Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos reminds you how dangerous it is to leave your child unattended with Monopoly, lest they become a real life profit-seeking landlord in adulthood.
While Breda might be slow to admit it, the old-skool print and telly media do a hell of a lot of damage to the socialisation of our young ‘uns. If we aren’t careful, our kids might end up being so astute with photoshop and so deft at media studies that they produce something like an entire gossip page dedicated to superheroes.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows hasn’t been updated in six months, which deserves a word all of its own because it is a haven of humanist beauty.
Breda is a member of the Iona Institute think-tank, which among its many theological mis-steps places a huge weight on natural law thinking. The only fittingness that a good Barthian like myself is willing to get behind is the fittingness of things fitting into other things. Thankfully, there’s a tumblr for that.
There is a social network that has caused serious disruption to the Irish economy that probably has never been criticized in the pages of the Irish Times. Amazon. And there is a very amusing Tumblr that collects the worst Amazon reviews together for your delighted perusal.
Flannery O’Connor has a Tumblr. Can someone please tell the Catholic think-tank!
Francis Spufford has a Tumblr. Can someone please tell the Catholic apologists?! And also, tell Francis, who is a white, straight, male, middle-class Christian. He might not know that he is hated.
Finally, I have some “friends” that I made on Twitter. I have never met these people but I think of them as friends because when I read their Tumblrs I had that realisation that the “secret thread” that runs through my interests and loves and fascinations runs through theirs as well. This is what a social network does best. It crosses divides and connects people who otherwise would never meet. Breda and I are part of the only generation in all of history who will have had the experience of both living with and living without the internet. The future generations will be socialised the same way that previous generations were. By living in society. The idea that we face some horrendous threat of a “liberal agenda” or a “PC brigade” or whatever other bankrupt and tired trope of conservatism you prefer because now we have http:// is beyond the pale of what is reasonable.
Naming Animals, Irregular Theology, Bogwitch, and Invisible Foreigner are among the people I look forward to having coffee and beer with in the future, who I initially encountered on the internet. They are part of what it means for me to be socialised. Not one of them conforms to the pattern of this world, but are being transformed by the renewing of their minds. If only to account for the brothers and sisters in the mix, O’Brien and similar Christian cultural critics should be much more careful.
What tumblrs would you send Breda to, if we wanted to help her revise her opinion?
Your Correspondent, Found a social media page that has that full C.S. Lewis quote.
A former Archbishop of Canterbury has demonstrated how preposterous the application of “conservative” and “liberal” labels is to Christianity by coming out in favour of the Assisted Suicide Bill proposed in the London parliament by Lord Falconer. What is notable about his position, aside from the fact that he published it in The Daily Mail (!) is that it makes only passing reference to God. A friendly reminder from an etymological bore might have helped. Theology means God-talk. Christians come to their conclusions theologically. I will leave the reader to conclude what should be made of this article.
Yet even if you do not share my strange obsession with a 1st Century wandering Jewish teacher, you surely will notice that Carey’s entire article is argued from the spectator’s perspective. “Anyone who has had to watch a loved one…”, “I visited her regularly in hospital. I saw the ravages of the illness on her body…”, “When I visited her again, I must have looked very miserable…”, “Even the most devout believers will find their faith tested by the sight of a dying person in torment…”. It does not auger well for the justice of this law that already the actual vulnerable, suffering person is objectified in our very important and oh-so-considered gaze.
What we are to make of the claim that in standing up for the sanctity of life “the Church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain — the very opposite of the Christian message” is surely that the particular Christian message now advocated for by this “conservative” former bishop is not one that leads to martyrdom. For Carey, martyrdom is incoherent. For Carey, in other words, Christianity is now an embarrassment.
He even utters these words:
The Church must start to face up to the reality of the world as it is.
The reality of the world as it is that the Church has to start facing up to is the reality of a world where God became man, was nailed to a tree and forced to asphyxiate under his own body weight in the glare of a middle eastern midday sun while the soldiers of empire stood guard. The Christian message is not heedless of the reality of anguish and pain in this world. It declares that God is not heedless of it either.
Whatever about the “shameful blot on our country’s great reputation for caring for others” that Carey alludes to, the combination of drastically reduced medical funding, overworked medical workers, and exhausted administrative systems means that the sheer economic rationale of assisted suicide will prevail. Judging from Carey’s authorial perspective in the article, the decisions will be made in the vast majority of cases informed by the onlookers. Who wants to be a burden? Nobody. Assisted suicide makes sense.
That people think they can live in this world without burdening the other human beings they share space with is the clearest sign of all that we live in a post-Christian age. Forget Katy Perry kissing girls and liking it. The culture warriors were raging and all along their compadré was waiting to betray them.
I wonder what Carey means when he says: “There must, of course, be safeguards against abuse of the so-called right to die. It would be outrageous if it were extended beyond the terminally ill.” If as he has granted, the right to die is a human right, on what grounds do we exclude people from carefully constructed legal processes? Forget my over-intellectual fears about how medical doctors serve today as secular priesthood and have authority vested in them that means that laws like this are bound to be corrupted. You just need to know a trace of 20th Century philosophy to realise that we are creatures born towards death. Heidegger will haunt Carey until his dying day. Life itself is a terminal disease. The reality of the world as it is is that only the Church dares to disagree.
It leaves the soul heavy to go to war with such arguments. I am bone tired of Christians saying things in public that they wouldn’t have the courage to say in my local church. Whether that is Carey and his pro-suicide position or whatever bigot who has said preposterous things about Muslims in a Belfast megachurch, it just gets tiring.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland sent out a letter when the Stormont parliament debated (the certain to fail) gay civil partnership bill. They did not send out a similar letter when in September 2008 the Irish government guaranteed not just the liabilities of privately owned banks but the bondholders as well. We rail against gay rights while we ignore economic injustice on a gross scale. Even without the blatherings of Carey, there is a reason why the wider world doesn’t respect us.
A brilliant core of people within the Church of England this week successfully extricated the church from its investment in Wonga, completing a process that began with the founding of rival companies – credit unions in effect – that will, over time, drive payday lenders out of business. But this huge ethical success will get no coverage compared to the ramblings of an unelected old man who has in the past defended Pinochet and the arms trade.
We just don’t know what we’re about. We confuse being in the room with powerful men as having power. We confuse having power with being powerful. Politicians exert power by getting elected. Christians exert power by getting humbled. This distinction is lost on us. So we campaign about the things that scare the powerful men in our midst and we ignore the business our Master has set for us: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
I’d like a break from churches led by people who are more at home in London debating chambers than council estate food-banks. I’d like some downtime so we can consider how it is we react to these changed days. We can’t hold back assisted suicide, especially with articles like Carey’s being published. We can care for our dying though. We can love our sick and we can include our disabled and we can have patience with our own frailty, confident that running the race that the Lord has set us will mean hardship. We can’t (shouldn’t?!) hold back gay marriage but we can practice fidelity in our own relationships, hospitality to everyone who comes through our door and simple things like accountability over what we look at on our computers. We can’t stop abortion, but we can adopt and foster and spend our money on the care of people who are pregnant and aren’t entirely sure that they want to be.
We can be the church. We don’t have to be the world.
The Lord has given us a job to do, and it’s not to make sure history comes out right.
It might leave the soul heavy to read these caffeinated thoughts of a distressed disciple. So let me close with three pieces of art that touch on Carey’s theme. The first is the best song I have heard this year, by Jason Isbell, called “Elephant”. No one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.
The second is a poem by G.M. Hopkins, a man who knew pain and anguish. “Spring And Fall : To A Young Child” has been set to music by Natalie Merchant and it captures the inner dynamic that drives us to try to legislate death away. The little girl is grieved by the passing of Autumn, but it is for herself that she mourns.
Finally, Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, read by Dylan himself. When I was first becoming a Christian, I was also first reading Thomas’ poetry. “A Refusal to Mourn” closed with lines that I took up as a slogan for myself. “After the first death, there is no other.” Whatever Dylan meant by them, they mean for me that I will die just once, at the time appointed by the Lord and even then, it will be well with my soul. Here I have presented the much more directly relevant “Do not go gentle into that good night”.
Your Correspondent, Hasn’t he learned anything from that guy who gives sermons at church… Captain what’s-his-name?
To answer the title of this post: It’s possibly because I just don’t understand him.
This Oliver O’Donovan chap is one of the most influential voices in theological ethics in the last generation. I am reading through his major works during the mornings of this month and I think I see why he is so spectacularly influential. His robust sense of objective truth gives a firm platform from which to build a theological ethics and he fearlessly wades into contentious territories. So he gives us a foundation from which to begin and then he starts the ball rolling by talking about transsexualism or liberal pluralism or what have you. He is also a very capable exegete. He handles the New Testament very well.
So far so surprising: esteemed Professor demonstrated to be quite good at thing about which he professes.
But there is a fundamental disconnect between me as reader and O’Donovan as writer. Hauerwas quipped about O’Donovan’s seminal Resurrection and Moral Order that there was too much order and not enough resurrection and that begins to get at my difficulty. The apocalyptic, disruptive, in-breakingness of Christianity doesn’t seem to indent the beautiful schemes of O’Donovan’s theorising.
That leads me to another concern I have which is sin. The vast spiderweb of unreality that pervades even our thought processes doesn’t seem to be properly accounted for in O’Donovan’s work.
The sheer completeness of it leaves me very suspicious. This pursuit of an understanding of the totality of things (O’Donovan, it should be noted, never thinks we can get a total understanding) is one of the reasons people find his work so provocative. I am left unsettled. A theology that doesn’t anticipate surds, irrational leftovers that cannot be accounted for within the terms of the system is potentially a theology that replaces the complexity of reality with an elegant deception.
So one of the topics O’Donovan returns to constantly is whether or not we can think in terms of generic classifications. Are the classifications by which we think about the world (“male and female”, “alive, dead, never alive”, “mammal, lizard, marsupial”, and so on) mere concepts that we find useful or can we strongly say they describe reality as it is? He thinks the moral order of the universe can be apprehended by us in a fairly straightforward manner. This “generic ordering” we discern is objectively true. In Resurrection and Moral Order he argues that those who disagree with that and think our subjective concepts are much slippier cannot sustain their argument:
One does not observe a regularity between two occurrences without observing the relation between them, which is to say, their generic ordering. The empiricist dilemma, then, either proves more than it pretends to, or less. It either proves that no generic order, not even regularity, is really ‘observed’, but is all a construct of the mind; or else it proves merely that our conceptual knowledge of kinds is a provisional construct of the mind based on our actual discernment of kinds in the regularities of events, which is true, but not was intended.
- Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 80-81.
I can understand why readers get excited by this kind of confidence. He has defended a traditional understanding of the nature of things which both supports orthodox theological convictions and conservative political and social positions. But I am not sure he has defended it as well as it appears. After all, the thoughtful “empiricist” does not want to deny any generic order. The person who says “gender is a social construct” also believes that “social construct” is a social construct. Hence there is some generic order that they are drawing upon. It’s just their grasp of it might not be the end of the story. In the same way, “fox” might not always be studied as mammal, but fox will always be studied against the creatures that live in the sea or fly in the air. Generalisations can be made.
It is just those generalisations are flexible.
In other words, the “too less” that O’Donovan thinks empiricists can prove is actually the “just enough” that they intend to prove. The “empiricist” doesn’t try to say no order exists. They simply say that the orders exist as concepts that have an imperfect correspondence to reality. Or in language that casts light on the over-confidence of O’Donovan, our conceptual knowledge of kinds is provisional, needing correction, based on our incomplete discernment of reality.
This can be demonstrated I think. Let us continue with thoughts about parenthood (this is an example O’Donovan uses directly before the quotation selected). In an age of adoption and IVF, gay couples raising kids and families falling apart in divorce, we get easily confused about what parenthood might mean. Invariably the conversation elides into gender and the moral order argument thinks it can make great progress here because it is evident to us that gender falls down into male and female.
But what of the Bugis people of Indonesia? Jenell Williams Paris has written wonderfully about how their combination of Islam and tribal beliefs has resulted in society being structured around five genders. There are men and there are women, but there are also calalai, calabai and bissu. The gender constructs that prevail in our society can be related to the gender constructs that prevail among the Bugis. We’d expect that since we all share the same reality. But their fivefold gender arrangement is very different to ours. The calalai are masculine women and the calabai are feminine men. The bissu are transgender shamans. But notice that we are describing them in our terms because we can’t escape engaging with reality in terms of the subjective provisional constructs that make up our conceptual knowledge of the world.
O’Donovan’s assertion of order too easily slips away from what alternating voices actually advocate for. It is not simply the case that we do not have to reference some timeless moral order to make ethical accounts balance. It is that we cannot reference any timeless moral order. We may speak of some fundamental ground of being, some ontological foundation, some bedrock of reality upon which our conceptions of life rest but none of us can reach down past our toes to touch and investigate and describe that reality without using our conceptions.
So we need to expect that our theological systems, even at their most elaborate, will still have gaps that we can’t fill. We need to expect that our grasp of reality in a fallen world will be warped by sin. We need to expect that without the unaccountable revelation of God which is beyond our finest reckoning our theology is mere philosophising, a game we play to distract us from how lost we are.
Your Correspondent, Just once he’d like someone to call him ‘Sir’ without adding ‘You’re making a scene.’
One of things people commonly aren’t aware of is how the New Testament continues to tell a story even after the Gospels end. Just as the story doesn’t begin at Christmas, but has the longest prequel ever in the history of Israel, the story doesn’t end with Ascension. Through the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul and the writings of Peter and the dense apocalyptic visions from John and everything else in between, the New Testament is constantly referencing itself and its world. Technically I think it is called intra-textuality, but who cares. Peter fights with Paul and Paul talks about it to the Galatians. This doesn’t look like a set of texts amended together by a conspiring cabal of later editors and more like the mess created as a dynamic movement gets off the ground.
One of the major events that serves as a back-drop to the New Testament is a famine that afflicts Jerusalem. It is referenced all over the place and modern critics make a great deal of it. I’ll write in the future about that. But right now, I want to look at what the discussion of the famine reveals about what Christianity is. In Paul’s second letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth, he asks the churches to make a collection to alleviate the suffering in Judea.
It is a fascinating example of a very tricky thing. Paul is asking for money. Not for himself, but for others, and that still is a difficult thing to do. He asks by first reminding his friends in Corinth that their friends in Macedonia have already answered the call. Their “overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” He is eager to point out that this is not some strong arm religious Mafioso shake-down. “I am not commanding you.” Instead, he sees the need of others as an opportunity for the Corinthian Christians to test how clearly they understand what they are proclaiming. After all, they claim to know the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” This is a stunning move when we think about what the Christian attitude to wealth ought to be. The wealth that might be found in the communities of those who follow Jesus is a gift from God, not the result of hard toil from job-creators, innovators, disruptors and those most blessed of God’s creatures, entrepreneurs.
“We all know Jesus was some kind of Divine Commie,” you say. Big deal. Well I think it might be. Because what Paul is doing here is construing God as the source of all wealth. In the context of the day, he is being presented as a supreme Patron. But what that means is that to those who receive his blessing (everyone), there is no distinction that bears commenting on. The Macedonians in-land, to the north, and the Corinthians in their bustling city and the Hebrews in Jerusalem – these diverse and differentiated cultures and places are all amassed under Paul’s “we”. He does not ask his readers to imagine a starving Jewish toddler. The only reference to Jerusalem’s need at all is an oblique reference in verse 13.
This is the difference between charity and mission. The goal isn’t directed towards simply alleviating some crisis need. There is no reference to suffering, instead there is focus on God’s generosity. The intention isn’t to mark out one group “the rich” who can help another “the poor”. Paul isn’t appealing on the basis that “we the benevolent Gentiles can help those deserving Jews”. Everyone is included in the “we” and there is no one who has been cast as “them”. Desert does not apply, only need. There is no reference to what they can get from the equation. There is no promise of reward. There is no argument based on some utopian politics. There is just God. He is just. He is the patron above all patrons. We are all his clients, so to speak, enriched by him. It is fitting to be like him – overflowing in joy, rich in generosity, regardless of extreme poverty.
“At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality.” The walls that divide the Jew from the Gentile have been torn down. The walls that divide the rich from the poor have been torn down. The walls that divide Us from Them have been torn down. The tearing down is as a result of Jesus’ coming down, from wealth to poverty, from security to danger, from heaven to hell. Christianity is an insane proposition. It dares to say not only that these miraculous and unbelievable things have happened in space and time, but that incarnation and crucifixion and resurrection and ascension define what it means to live in the humdrum and mundane of everyday life. It assumes to tell you fanciful tales about God become man and assumes that with that in mind you can go to war on all the assumptions that have violently constructed the social world we share.
Mission is better than charity. Its goal is reality- as Paul puts it, equality. Equality not simply based on legal rights, or biology, or ontology (although all those things might be involved), but equality based on our shared and magnificent dependence on God.
Your Correspondent, Dinosaurs died from over-taxation
I got my parents fancy tablets over the last year, but I handed them over with trepidation. After all, my parents may be young at heart, but they are certainly old enough to be considered in the risk category for sending “FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: This doG is so cute FW:F” emails three times a day. As it turns out, my parents use their tablets to read novels or look at maps of the night sky and I am spared having the quiet guilty feeling that follows creating an email filter to mute the people whose DNA built you from scratch.
Which made it all the weirder that D.L. Mayfield implicated me in some lame-ass blogging round-robin where writers talk about their (ugh!) writing process. I must conclude with her that I would hate it if it wasn’t so darn interesting. Plus, being compared to Joel Osteen and N.T. Wright is a compliment a sane person could not ignore.
Before I begin, it probably doesn’t need stating but for completeness’ sake, let me state it anyhow: I am not a writer. Sadly, this increasingly describes my method:
1. What are you working on?
I am always working on an academic project. I am a PhD student in Theological Ethics, so that dominates my writing, and my reading, and it schedules when I eat, how much I sleep, which World Cup games I get to watch, and pretty much everything else in my life.
This week I am writing a short presentation on a part of a book written by the Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan. There is a sort of intense summer-school in Cambridge at the end of the week that I am presenting it at, in the company of Ollie himself. My sense is that whatever about my presentation, Prof. O’Donovan wouldn’t like me to call him Ollie.
That lovely, small, tidy and compact writing task, is a welcome respite because this spring was dominated by me having to construct a fairly comprehensive “uncontentious” history of the Irish economy since 1922. This turned out to be a small book-length project that lays out a chronology of the different eras of economic policy that have prevailed in my homeland, along with a more in-depth engagement with four critical industrial sectors and a brief contextual discussion of how social spheres relate to the economy.
If this sounds boring to you, it is because it is boring. But it is an essential preliminary ground-clearing for my larger project. What I think I have demonstrated is that Irish economic policy is embedded in culture, which is another way of saying we choose to build the world we find ourselves in. I also argue that Irish economic policy is shaped by political decisions. Those political decisions are often not made in Ireland, which is another way of saying we live in a globalized world. Simple.
But the straightforward answer to the question is that I am working on a PhD thesis that will seek to present a theology of wealth. If Jesus wasn’t messing when he said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich people to get to heaven, then you and I are screwed. I hope to re-read the parables of Jesus through the eyes of earlier Christians, who lived and worked and traded and sold and prayed and worshipped in an age before capitalism. My suspicion is that we can only re-connect with what Jesus says about material abundance if we get our heads out of the assumptions of capitalism. Our wealth is perverse. Mammon literally bends our ability to see reality clearly.
The PhD thesis is not an end in itself. I am training to be a Presbyterian minister and my goal in all this research is that I would be able to go back to the pulpits of Dublin and help me and my friends make sense of their anxieties and have joy in the real treasure of the Gospel. So always in the back of my mind I am sketching out two popular books about the topic, one for Christians who don’t have the time or energy to read something loaded with 83 pages of endnotes and another, briefer work for people who don’t even agree with me that a Jewish carpenter is the saviour of the world.
2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?
I am a pretty successful student for someone who has never specialised in anything. I have a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Sociology and a degree in Catholic Theology and now I find myself in a very Protestant university department studying Theological Ethics, a sub-section of theology that I couldn’t properly define for you if you demanded a justification for my existence right now.
My comparative advantage within my genre (we call it a “field” in the academy, dontchyaknow!) is that I might be able to draw on all that superfluous fiction reading and watching of movies and playing of computer games to talk slightly more clearly when in the company of the mythical “Average Joe”.
I could talk more about the strangeness of my various motivators within the academic sphere, but that would definitely be “inside baseball” talk and far outside my remit in terms of talking about writing. Suffice to say, whatever about my writing, my thinking consists of a loud shouting match between all these dead intellectual friends of mine, who quite often directly conflict with each other.
3. Why do you write what you do?
I write what I do because I am a religious nutjob. More precisely, I have a vocation to be a preacher. I did not volunteer for this job and I can think of many other jobs I would be more comfortable in. I don’t just mean defensive lynchpin in the Manchester City midfield either. I could be a lawyer and I think I’d be very good at it. I think teaching primary school might be the sweet-spot for me. But those rational and practical concerns have melted away because I have been gripped by the realisation that there is a God and he is astonishingly compelling and I want to introduce people to his upside-down wisdom. I encountered his grace and that is why I write what I do. I study theology because I hope to spend the rest of my life sitting with people studying the Scriptures and experimenting with how to put it all into practice. And I write because I find that the theology I get to study is almost as beautiful as the God it’s all about.
Theology literally means talk about God. I write because I love to talk with people about God.
4. How does your writing process work?
I am literally paid to read books and eventually write something. I have an office, which I share with two other trainee theologians. We usually work Monday to Friday, 9-5, with three breaks through the day for lunch or coffee. One Friday every month we doss off work early and go to the pub and another Friday everyone else in the department is invited to our office to drink whiskey, but for the most part we work like it is a job in a normal office and we egg each other on gently to be productive.
Productive means that I try to read 100 pages a day and write 1000 words. If that sounds simple, you haven’t read much from the last generation of British theologians (if any of them are reading this, of course I don’t mean you!). I do actually sometimes fall asleep at my desk. I rarely get to consider a day productive based on these metrics. If anyone in the office achieves any of these standards, they get the right to a purple Snack bar, which is a delicious piece of chocolate-covered cardboard that I inexplicably love and my colleagues have grown to rely on as rewards. You can only get them in Ireland, and when friends visit they refresh our stocks. We have a fridge crammed with them.
When enough reading and note-taking is done, I go into a batch-writing mode for days on end and the words flow quickly and editing takes place in dialogue with Wife-unit and then later, critically, my supervisor. Hemingway talked about writing as sitting at the typewriter and bleeding. When I graduate to writing fiction, or if I ever dare to try to write for non-academic publication, then that may be true for me. But as it is, my life is so ordered around investigating the narrow little part of reality that is my PhD project that when deadlines approach, I’ve been quietly cogitating on the topic for a very long time. This is one of the reasons I am so rarely here on this blog anymore. Before I was a PhD student I blogged very regularly but now I tend to either blog upon request, when someone asks me to write about something or when I have hit a wall in a day’s productivity.
I realise this isn’t making me look very good. My blog writing process consists of unjamming intellectual constipation and my academic writing process consists of accumulating enough fragments of insight to trick people into thinking I’ve made an argument. But I refer you back to my Calvin and Hobbes cartoon up above. And if that doesn’t work, I’ve got this fancy powerpoint presentation to show you…
I am now meant to tag some other people into this Ponzi scheme of navel-gazing. The first person I pick on will have to be Patrick Mitchel, who is my friend, and a theologian who teaches at the Irish Bible Institute. He has been on sabbatical for a semester this year, so I’d love to hear what is up with him.
My other victim is Alison Chino, who is my Arkansan friend in Aberdeen. She is married to my officemate and she probably keeps the most impressive blog of anyone I know. She is a travel-writer, who shares her kitchen genius and aspects of her life, in between persuasively encouraging me to get over my antipathy to this grey city by writing about the beautiful walks she discovers.
Now I will stop writing, and go watch Belgium play USA, while thinking about how to tell D.L. that she spelled my name wrong…
Your Correspondent, Starts as close to the end as possible
While I am more than suspicious of #hashtagactivism, seeing it in the large part as the end product of the conversion of politics into identity-expression, my ethical vision of the world in which I live has been aided immensely by subscribing to the EverydaySexism twitter account. Over the last few years my morning feed of jokes, mathematical discussion of soccer tactics, and links to theological articles has been interrupted by accounts of women as they describe in short, terse sentences the daily slog that it can be to simply live with an XY chromosome.
A few months ago the curator of the project, Laura Bates, published a book and I finally got around to reading it a few weeks ago. I found it very hard going. The content in the opening chapters was so distressing that it was relegated from the bedside table. The opening chapters, about the tipping point where women were unable to take harassment anymore, the difficulties that women face in electoral politics and especially the chapter on how pre-pubescent girls are afflicted by the ramifications of patriarchy left me unable to sleep easy.
Which is as it should be.
I joked with Wife-Unit about how I wanted to put the book in the freezer, like Joey did on that one episode of Friends. Of course, Joey is a walking personification of everyday sexism and the book that he was so affected by was Little Women.
It’s funny when men are moved by stories with female protagonists!
Having finished it and reflected upon it, I conclude that the book, for me, was strangely invigorating. I am a preacher and I use my opportunities in the pulpit to unashamedly address a number of issues: the spiritual danger of wealth, the literary merit of Kurt Vonnegut, and the fact that the New Testament and early church history are ignored quite blatantly when it comes to the role of women in many congregations. I have decided to become an even more annoying preacher as a result of this book. I am going to bang that drum until people get up and leave, or get out of the way and let women use the gifts that the Holy Spirit has decided in her ineffable wisdom to bestow on them.
That isn’t to say that the book is without fault. Bates is a superb community organiser and her ethical voice is clear. But there are gaps all over the argumentation and places where her points actually fold-over themselves and cut against sections that are directly prior. The discussion about abortion is ideologically committed to one position, which neither does justice to the feminist spectrum around the issue, nor to the severity of the ethical problem the issue poses. The writing is unpolished in places.
But having said all that, I’d love if the previous paragraph was read in subscript. After all, if I went looking for a book on feminist theory, I wouldn’t have found a book that distressed me in such a healthy way. And if Bates nuanced her arguments and amassed her sources with academic rigour, she simply wouldn’t have 152,000 people following the project. Furthermore, she explicitly states that her methodology and her use of data, while sincere, is not intended to be exhaustive. As such, many of the complaints that I would levy against the book are out of bounds. It is superb at what it is meant to do.
I am unlikely to ever have even 152 people follow a project I curate. But my obscure academic interest was piqued throughout the work. I am sure that dozens of PhD students will, in the future, find inspiration (constructively or not) from this bestselling work. When I read this passage, I was struck by how Bates is describing how our societies are in some senses, vice-forming. Our shared life encourages the worst in us, instead of our best:
These inherently potent messages about gender-biased power and control surely help to shape the way our children see the world around them. We understand how it works: the everyday becomes the accepted norm, accommodated in the way we live; by making this allowance we reinforce the idea of acceptability and compound the sense of entitlement; that assumed prerogative is then exercised to an ever-increasing degree; and naturally we then find ourselves with even more of an everyday problem… To tackle street harassment, we have to break through the pernicious cycle. We have to abandon the mistaken idea that street harassment is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, or a compliment taken the wrong way.
- Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 169.
Without getting bogged down in philosophy, this passage made me think of the work of the philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. For MacIntyre, contemporary liberal society is unable to deal seriously with shared ideas of the human good. Everyone is left to judge for themselves. I am sure that the philosophy of a Marxist Catholic, heavily engaged with Thomas Aquinas would meet much objection in the wider feminist community but surely to some extent what Bates is calling for looks like feminism as a counter-movement within broader society, a community in which certain deep human virtues are cultivated. MacIntyre says:
The best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.
If #hashtagactivism is ever to amount to more than the exhibitionism of the right-on political pronouncements, it must cultivate forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved.
And of course, we cannot consider feminism without considering the role of capitalism. Actually, scratch that. I am sure you can consider feminism without considering capitalism. But it will be desperately thin and won’t account for reality. While Bates doesn’t launch any kind of systematic attack on the relationships implicit between the commodification of the feminine and the commodification of, well, everything else, she does have good leading words to start the conversation:
… the most flagrant example of this came in June 2012, when two editions of Now magazine hit newsstands at the same time. One was a regular issue, featuring a front-page image of model Abbey Clancy beside the melodramatic headline ‘Oh no! scary Skinnies’ and a caption that warned: ‘Girls starving to be like her’. Inside, an article claimed that Clancy had become so dangerously thin she was a role model for damaging pro-anorexia websites. The second issue, which appeared directly alongside it on the shelf at my local newsagent, was the Now Celebrity Diet Special. This too featured Clancy on the front cover, but beside the headline: ‘Bikini body secrets… The stars’ diet and fitness tricks REVEALED’. Yes. In the same week they claimed that emulating her look could make young women dangerously ill and used the promise of helping reader look like her to sell copies.
- Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism, 201.
The internal contradictions of capitalism laid bare as clearly as anything you’ll find in Marx. But the point here isn’t that it is important to be vigilant against the creeping corrosion of Mammon, or even that you should immediately send bundles of money to whatever young theologian you might know of who is studying that topic. The point is that this media massaging of lies is intended to generate profit for the men who own shares in the companies that advertise in these magazines and the companies that publish these magazines and the companies that distribute these magazines and the companies that stock and sell these magazines. Human immiseration for the sake of profit didn’t go away when we stopped sending children down mines. We send them to newsagents instead. Just as much profit gets made and now you don’t even have to spend money on feed for the canaries.
The final chapter is entitled “People Standing Up”. It is a fitting humanist response to the penultimate chapter which details how around the world and in your housing development, office building and church, women are under threat. Sexism is “an eminently solvable problem”. It involves nothing so dramatic or revolutionary as refusing to support those cultures that treat women as less than men. For Bates it will be achieved by objecting at work when maternity leave is conceived as a problem, among friends when gender essentialism is used to explain away injustice “because that’s just what men are like”, or on the street when we refuse to pretend to not notice when women are verbally harassed.
I am not as optimistic as Bates. Theologically, I suspect patriarchy is a symptom of a bigger problem that won’t fully go away until Kingdom come. That is no invitation to resignation however. In the here and now, we are compelled to struggle ceaselessly to make the world we live in more like the world we are called to live in. Christians should follow this movement. Christian preachers should read this book. Every woman I have talked to about this book has told me heartbreaking stories of everyday harassment.
It should end.
Your Correspondent, Subscribes to the idea that men are from Earth and women are from Earth.
Moving to Aberdeen has involved many new challenges. As you can imagine, the sun rarely shines here. But the citizens have decided to build everything out of the same monotonous grey granite, which serves as camouflage against the grey clouds and leaves the average pedestrian disorientated, occasionally momentarily frightened that they are floating in air, in purgatory.
Navigating church communities in Aberdeen is also difficult. The church here is riven by divides. I don’t need to rehearse them here – if you care to know there are plenty of websites by people better placed to explain what has happened here. But one of the things that weighs heavy on me and my wife, ever since we became Christians, is the scandal of Christian disunity. And in the midst of serious disunity here, we have been warmly welcomed in different ways by all the “sides” in the disputes.
That is one of the saddest things about the scandal of disunity – taken on their own every side can embody the hospitality and grace of the Gospel. (I am not just talking about Aberdeen here of course, but around the world!) I was trained by priests in a Pontifical Seminary and I will be forever grateful for the education and care I received there, but I was not able to share Communion with them. Here in Aberdeen I am most likely to be found in the living rooms of Pentecostal Christians, even though the fact that I cannot speak in tongues leaves me as a slightly second class Christian. Liberal Protestantism has only ever been warmly welcoming to me and liberal Christians seem to welcome my teaching with an unusual enthusiasm, even though they are appalled at my views on abortion and sexual ethics. As an evangelical Christian, I eat lunch with my Orthodox colleague and study under my supervisor who is a member of an Episcopalian church and talk about what authentic faith looks like with my Catholic sister. But try to get us all together to worship the God we all proclaim and hell will break loose.
I use those words carefully.
Yesterday I was reading a classic old book and I was struck by a chapter on the shape of the strange communities created by the first Christians. The ekklesia would have made a sort of sense from the outside. If we were pagan Greeks looking in on the churches that met in the houses of wealthier Christians in Corinth or Ephesus, we would have seen a resemblance to the large households that were the fabric of Roman society. But as Wayne A. Meeks puts it, we would be confused by “the sense of unity among Christians in the whole city, the region or province, and even beyond.” The Christian gatherings would also look like the voluntary associations that had become common across the Empire. But instead of sharing an interest in a particular profession, these Christians professed a particular God. Of course, if we looked in from the courtyard at the entire proceedings, they would remind us of a synagogue, but women would be playing a much more prominent role. Perhaps if we were cultured pagans we might think that these gatherings were a strange form of philosophical school, gathered around the traditions of Jesus. But if the gatherings were about expounding the teachings of this great sage, why did they replicate – not just in every major city, but repeatedly and in the little towns and ports and everywhere the followers could travel?
Meeks argues that the first Christian gatherings were utterly distinctive, which doesn’t mean they were absolutely unique. There were parallels between what went on in worship with the rest of the society. Of course there were. Christianity was a missionary endeavour. It welcomed culture.
This is helpful for me because the emphases that a sociologist today would find in Pentecostal fellowships or Presbyterian congregations or Catholic parishes would have secular echoes. Hence, the presence of the much derided “prosperity preaching” common in some parts of Pentecostalism is a strong indicator of social mobility in an area. Similarly, where Presbyterianism takes root, literacy will follow and where Catholicism grows strong, you will soon find a preponderance of social justice initiatives. There is no need for a reductionist conclusion: that somehow God has fractured the church into many splinters to meet all these different needs. Instead, we can simply find one piece of solid ground by suggesting that churches, embedded in their contexts, will express distinction in relation to what surrounds them.
It doesn’t solve the problem of church-disunity, but at least we can say that church-difference is to be expected.
But Meeks goes on to talk about the way in which these early Christian communities established boundaries. Looking just at the evidence we can find about these communities from Paul’s letters, Meeks highlights the sense of belonging evident in these groups. They are “called”, they are “elect”, they are “known” by God and they are God’s “saints” and “holy ones”. They are “brothers and sisters” who have actually been “adopted” by God. This new status is a new identity, tantamount to a new life and the Pauline letters talk extensively about this transformation of self-description through reference to the liturgical acts of baptism and eucharist, and through descriptions such as being “one body”, having “put on Christ” and even in places, how this new identity destroys the boundaries that mark out life out in the city, eliminating race and class and even gender. All who are “new humans” leads to “all are one”.
The internet atheist sees in this the marks of a “cult”. But modern sociologists would talk about the “resocialization of conversion” and the “creation of fictive kinship”. Regardless, while the early ekklesia were coherent from the outside, by comparison to established social institutions, from the inside there is a clearly revolutionary understanding of what it means to be a human being unfurled and developed. Against the divisions of the world, the church of Jesus is unified.
Perhaps I am viewing the issue too resolutely through my evangelical lenses, but the divisions that beset the church today are expressed in terms of dogma. Crudely: The liberal church divides from the evangelical church over the doctrine of how doctrine evolves within Christian communities. The evangelical church divides from the Catholic church over the doctrine of how we become members of Christian communities. The Catholic church divides from the Orthodox church based on who gets to decide what passes for Christian communities.
In reality, church division is a complex mess of sin. One can trace a path from imprecise doctrine preached lazily and expressed poorly in our worship and when that stretches out over a generation or fifteen you arrive at Martin Luther writing out his Theses. But the historical reality is that the European Reformation didn’t have to happen. Compromise could have been reached and wasn’t and still hasn’t.
Doctrine matters. Dear Reader, you might not have noticed, but I’m one of those born-againers. I love me some doctrinal dispute. But doctrine isn’t the only boundary that the church maintains against the world. And the whole point of erecting those boundaries in the first place was that the church of God was not like the cities of the world – divided and torn apart. Now we maintain our dogmatic boundaries and therefore destroy the critical doctrine of unity.
I sped-read the chapter Meeks wrote on “The Formation of the Ekklésia” yesterday because I wanted to watch Germany play the USA. But I re-read it carefully this morning because I realised that there is something here that we need to wrestle with. The boundary language of Paul’s letters absolutely involves doctrinal warnings. We are to beware of false teachers, for example. But Justin Welby and Francis I are not false teachers. Perhaps we can grant that where the boundary language of Paul’s letters isn’t expressly doctrinal, it can be translated out to be doctrinal. But that translation, by the nature of being translation, will be inherently plural. In different places, in different cultures, in different eras, that translation will look different.
The church in Scotland is in a dreadful state. The church around the world is in a dreadful state, torn apart by old schism and by new. Today we talk about it as if unity will be achieved only when we can find an agreement in ideas. The ideas matter. Of course I say that – I am an evangelical theologian! But the schisms don’t happen purely over ideas. The story of every major church split can be told as the story of very mundane human disagreement, mired in ego and resentment, arrogance and double-dealing, buried motives and missed opportunities. By thinking about specific instances of church disunity in other terms alongside doctrine we won’t somehow heal the rifts, but there might be enough space for the Holy Spirit to bring us together. That that is our only hope is yet one more thing that every “side” can agree on.
What would happen if the “liberal” wing of the Church of Scotland considered its alignment not just with destructive ideas of autonomy but with a set of middle-class privileges and assumptions that shape views of mission? What would happen if the “conservative” wing of the Church of Scotland considered how appeal to “tradition” can be disguised violence (protest against which was one of the reasons the Church of Scotland started in the first place!) and how knowing the dance-steps to “being Biblical” can often lead us to bypass the Scriptural witness? What would happen if members of these competing congregations showed welcome to each other as warm as they offer to an outsider like me?
Probably nothing. It’s probably not worth the effort. It’s the other side’s responsibility anyhow. Let’s finish organising the summer fête or start up another Alpha course…
Your Correspondent, Plans to strike out Jesus in the World Series
Wife-unit and I were talking about the strangeness of Denmark electing far-right politicians in the recent European elections. As you know, back when Europe first invented fascism, it was Denmark who was the hero of the continent. They responded to German invasion with the rarest of things: the implementation of Just War Theory. Since they had no chance of victory, they had no right to go to war and instead sought to preserve as much of their politics as possible. Then they piled success on top of success by using their relative liberty to evacuate practically every Jew in the country before the round-ups began. 7,000 Jews were ferried across the Oresund to Sweden and the Danish government under occupation continued to demonstrate the temerity of virtuous courage by insisting through the war that the Jews that had been deported (less than 100) should be returned safely to Danish territories, since after all, they were Danes.
So Danes kept their heads when all about were losing theirs, but now they decide to follow this silly fad that sees UKIP getting undue alarm in Britain and the Golden Dawn get not nearly enough alarm in Greece. The Danes have elected a bunch of racists to represent them in Europe.
Why is this?
The answer that I can give to that question takes only one honest form: I have no idea. I have spent less than a hundred hours in Denmark in my life and the last time I was there in April they charged me 23 Krone for a bottle of water, so we’re not on good terms.
But I do think that you could draw the dots between France and Belgium, Holland and the UK, Greece and Italy and all the other countries that returned fascist or pseudo-fascist candidates to Brussels. The first conclusion has to be that European citizens are deeply unimpressed with the mainline narrative at work behind the European Union. The EU was composed, in its origins, with an in-built scepticism about popular democracy. In the aftermath of World War II, some kind of bureaucratic prophylactic seemed to be needed, keeping the dangerous potencies of the masses from spilling out over European cities again. The European Union is functioning as it is designed to function and the election of Nigel Farange and his ilk is in some senses a protest against this vague sense that European deliberations don’t serve the man in the street.
In that, if only in that, the man in the street is right.
What is it that these European deliberations serve? When we start to answer that question we see just how tragic the failure of the European project is. When a leader of the Danish People’s Party was interviewed after winning the election he said the victory was “a clear indication that the Danes want the EU back on track” and that their job now was to “try to steer back EU to what it is all about, to find a solution to trade, environment and energy challenges we have across borders.”
A solution for trade and the challenges of the environment and energy. We do not need to be especially insightful to understand what is being said here. The solution for trade is freedom for people with capital to do what they like in pursuit of more money. And the modern pseudo-fascists express their profound paranoia through the suspicion that “climate change” is a conspiracy. The challenge of the environment is to stop a cabal of influential scientists from ruining the world with their erroneous conviction that Carbon Dioxide is damaging the eco-system. The challenge of energy is the connected effort to secure carbon fuels and to obscure things like wind power; the opposition to which is inexplicably growing even in Ireland.
So in other words, the common man on the street has seen that he is not the focus of the deliberations among European Union officials and he has turned for help to people whose vision for the European Union is the creation of an ever more savage capitalism. They will gladly throw some immigrants in a holding cell if that wins the support of the vaguely troubled electorate but that is theatre that distracts us from the real work of getting Russian gas flowing freely and making sure tax harmonization emphasises the freedom of rich people to harmonize their tax payments in the Caymans.
So this then, is how I see it. In the European countries where free market capitalism is not producing the optimal yield, the European policy is to implement austerity: lower costs, aggravate unemployment and make things more fertile for investors. In the countries in Europe where free market capitalism is producing a good yield, the European policy is to implement immigration, because rising costs are buffeted by lower cost labour, sustaining fertile circumstances for investors. So in Greece people vote for Golden Dawn because they are deeply angry at how their society has been torn to pieces by punishment measures inflicted by smug Finns and self-satisfied Germans. And in Denmark people vote for DPP because they are deeply upset by the fact that they can’t find work that pays as well as their parents used to get paid but darker skinned people who pray a lot seem to have two jobs.
The DPP and the Golden Dawn are the response to the same thing: a form of untrammelled and unconstrained capitalism that expresses itself very differently from one place to the other.
There is more to this theory, which I recognise sprawls so vast that it begins to look like the delusions of a religious maniac or worse, a Marxist. But that is what you would expect when Europe can only be explained (and critiqued) from a position that either says there is no God but God or that says that we have nothing to lose but our chains.
Your Correspondent, Preaches that both are true
In a digression in Fordlandia, Greg Grandin tells the story of the Brasilian inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont. He developing a plane around the same time as the Wright Brothers but didn’t get the credit for it. The disappointment of his life was not that Wilbur and Orville got the plaudits but “that he lived long enough to see the machine he helped develop be used as an instrument of death.” After World War I broke out he commented “I use a knife to slice gruyere, but it can also be used to stab someone. I was a fool to be thinking only of the cheese.”
Grandin reports that Santos-Dumont held himself “personally responsible for every fatality” from the sky. A friend confided that he came to see himself as “more infamous than the devil.” As Britain began to use air forces to terrorize Arab populations in its colonies, Santos-Dumont slowly suffered a decline into madness. Grandin reports that “death seemed to pursue him”. His nephew Jorge, alarmed by his mental and emotional state and his rapidly reducing weight, convinced him to come home to Brasil. He arrived a hero.
A dozen of Brazil’s leading politicians, intellectuals and engineers boarded the Santos-Dumont, a bi-motored seaplane, to meet the steamship that carried the flyer and his nephew as it entered Rio’s harbour. But celebration turned to tragedy when one of the plane’s motors exploded, plunging its passengers and crew members to their deaths and Santos-Dumont deeper into depression. When the ship landed at the quay, the aviator was “greeted with profound silence by the multitude.”
The story ends even more tragically. After Bolivia and Paraguay went to war with aerial bombing, leading to the deaths of a hundred thousand people, the Brasilian federal government bombed Santos-Dumont’s beloved home city of Sao Paulo. The inventor committed suicide soon after, in 1932, leaving only a note that read “What have I done?”
Technological optimism rarely survives without destroying the people and the cultures that embrace it.
Your Correspondent, He’s going to change the way we think about getting hit in the face by a pie
One of the least innovative things about our collective arousal at the world-transforming achieved by job-creators, tech-innovators and industry-disruptors is how old-fashioned it is. Today we sigh with an almost sexual longing when the titans of industry offer pronouncements on the nature of reality. Steve Jobs’ product announcements are probably taught in homiletic classes around the world. Bill Gates is such a sage that he is single-handedly trying to change how America does school. Zuckerberg sustains a massive lobbying organisation, while quietly competing with Bill and Melinda for the title of Philanthropist World Champion. Let us not forget Larry Page who wants to create space where law doesn’t have influence so that he can accelerate innovation.
But in the 1920s Henry Ford was as bold and cocky in his optimism that his philosophy would slowly, gradually, little by little bring about a utopian society. The cutting edge masters of the technological age mimic the social hubris of that famous old anti-Semite. They all share in common the delusion that their overstuffed wallets indicate some ontological wisdom. They win at making money and if only we let them decide our community tactics, then we’d all win at politics together. For Ford, success was bound up with hygiene and vegetarianism. We can speculate that Page and Zuckerberg are more likely to advocate innovation and low-carbs but the fact remains that a strange feature of mature capitalism is the elevation of the titan of industry to the role of high-priest of anything that takes their fancy.
This has been hammered home to me over the last few nights as I finished reading Greg Grandin’s excellent and very readable account of Ford’s massive Amazonian civilization project, Fordlândia. In 1928 Ford established a subsidiary in Brasil that took control of 10,000 km2 of the Amazon. Ford was convinced that the Dutch and British governments were going to create a rubber monopoly and so he sought to rejuvenate the rubber industry of South America to assure his Michigan factories a ready supply of tyres. The project was effectively nationalised at the onset of World War II, after spending tens of millions of dollars, building two towns and failing to ever generate anything close to profit. The settlements are now abandoned, in the large part the land has been retrieved by the forest and what is still navigable is dedicated to ad-hoc cattle rearing and industrial soy production.
The lesson of the failed Fordlândia project was not, Grandin concludes, a misplaced idealism about the power of the human will to subdue nature in the form of the Amazonian basin. Of course, there was a glorious, tragic under-estimation of just what it would mean to “civilize” the largest forest on earth. The story that Grandin recounts about the “bonfire of the caterpillars” especially captured this for me:
The company mobilized Belterra’s whole population to respond to outbreaks. During on early caterpillar assault on a block of the first trees to be planted on the estate, “every available person, men and women, was lined up to do an effective handpicking.” In five hours, they collected an estimated 250,000 caterpillars, filling fifty one-gallon containers. When no more caterpillars could be found, they emptied the containers into a pile, threw gasoline on it, and torched the pyre.
It was ultimately all in vain because the caterpillars and tree fungus, the lace bugs and red spiders won in the end. But for Grandin, reading the failure of Fordlândia as a real life Heart of Darkness parable is to mis-read it. The misplaced faith behind the project was
the faith that a drive toward greater efficiency could be controlled and managed in such a way as to bring balance to the world… The arrogance, though, is not that Henry Ford thought he could tame the Amazon but that he believed that the forces of capitalism, once released, could still be contained.
The two Ford settlements, Fordlândia and Belterra, were fed by the two largest local (a very relative term considering the distances and density of forest and torrent of river water at play here) cities of Santarem and Manaus. Grandin’s reading closes with a lament for what unleashed, savage capitalism has done to Manaus. Long after Ford and his fellows fled, the military regime of 1960s Brasil declared Manaus a free-trade zone. Grandin explains:
the military government provided subsidies and reduced export taxes to stimulate industry, turning the city into one of the world’s first brand-name assembly zones similar to the Mexican maquilas that were then beginning to press against the the southern border of the United States. Today, Manaus’ industrial parks are home to about a hundred corporate plants, including Honda, Yamaha, Sony, Nokia, Philips, Kodak, Samsung and Sanyo. In 1999, Harley Davidson opened is first off-shore factory in the city. Gillette has its largest South American facility there. When a consumer in Latin America purchases a DVD player, cell phone, TV, bicycle, or motorcycle, there is a good chance it was assembled in the middle of the world’s largest tropical forest.
If that sounds positive to you, you need to check yourself because the propaganda of a previous age still finds a fertile home in your soul. That reality demands Grandin’s next paragraph:
The city bursts out of the Amazon like a perverse Oz, steadily eating away the surrounding emerald foliage. Like many other Third World cities, Manaus is plagued by rising poverty and crime, child prostitution, gridlocked traffic, pollution, and poor health care. There is no sewage plant in the city, and its waste flows untreated into the Rio Negro.
Ford was the innovator-extrordinaire of a century ago. He set in motion a machine he was convinced could bring peace to the world by fostering mutuality and trust between communities, counties and countries. He also set in motion a machine of production that tore apart the world he most valued and so in his closing years he became increasingly paranoid and depressive. The Amazon project stopped being about rubber and started being about a failed attempt to halt the very processes of control he could no longer control. Those processes – assembly lines, replaceable parts and replaceable staffs, routined and specified supply systems and a preoccupation with “innovation” – are all clearly on display in the Sony factories and Nokia warehouses. There is one thing that is decisively no longer at play. Ford believed capitalism demanded high pay. Workers can only become consumers when they have money left over at the end of the month and a reasonable hope that next month will bring more money. The workers in the Amazon don’t have such certainties and can’t even hope for them.
It turns out that markets operate at scale too. As long as the elite at the top is numerically large enough, consumer goods will find a market, regardless of the real inequality on the city streets. Ford wouldn’t need to pay those men such high wages if he lived in a society so systemically unequal that the rich could always spend, safe in the knowledge that they would always be rich.
Now if all this seems strangely familiar to you, it is because Italy will play England on Saturday night in the new 44,000 seat stadium in Manaus. You have heard news reports about the expensive measures both teams are going through to prepare themselves for competing in humidity that makes competition a difficult idea. There is no football team playing at a level that requires a 44,000 seat stadium in Manaus. It will be used four times during the upcoming World Cup and then it will fall into ruin, like countless stadia in Greece after the 2000 Olympics or wherever a Winter Olympics has been held. The stadium cost $270 million. The Brasilian government as a whole is spending $11 billion on hosting the 63 games of the World Cup. FIFA will make a little bit from the whole endeavour but one can’t help but side with the growing number of Brasilian protesters.
And yet. I will watch every game that timezones, deadlines and relationships will permit me to watch. I will hope Messi stops dry heaving long enough to cement his place in history as the greatest footballer ever. I will hope America somehow brave it through to the second round. I will hope that Belgium win the whole thing. And I will try not to think about connecting the dots between ideologies of capitalist utopia, cheap consumer goods, cheaper wages in places I never have to visit and the certain knowledge that every tyranny is happy to roll out bread and circuses to support the system.
Your Correspondent, He gotta work till he sweats poison