Your Correspondent, One of those people who aren’t trying to find anything but that Kingdom in the Sky
Phil Klay’s Redeployment was recommended to me by my aunt, who told me that after hearing him talk about war, she was struck by how similar he was to me. I will take that as an immense and somewhat inappropriate compliment, because Klay is a veteran and a tremendous writer. But I take from my aunt’s reflection that there is something of a resonance between my Christian pacifism, which never imagines that war is unnecessary and Klay’s refusal to allow his collection of portraits to collapse into a moralistic tome that declares simplistically that war-is-bad-ok.
My favourite story is called “Prayer in the Furnace”, charting the difficulties of a chaplain in Iraq. Caught between confessions that allude to war crimes and a hierarchy intent on denying any such possibility, he finds himself preaching one Sunday – after receiving advice from his mentor, a Jesuit priest – this glorious homily:
“Who here thinks.” I asked the small group of Marines who’d gathered for Sunday mass, “that when you get back to the States no civilians will be able to understand what you’ve gone through?”
A few hands went up.
“I had a parishioner whose six-month-old son developed a brain tumor. He watched his child go through intense suffering, chemotherapy, and finally a brutal, ungraceful death. Who would rather go through that than be in Ramadi?”
I could see confusion on the faces of the Marines in the audience. That was good. I didn’t intend this to be a normal homily.
“I spoke to an Iraqi man the other day,” I said. ”A civilian, who lives out there in that city I’ve heard Marines say should be razed. Should be burned, with everyone in it perishing in the flames.”
I had their attention.
“This Iraqi man’s little daughter had been injured. A cooking accident. Hot oil spilled off the stove, all over the girl. And what did this man do? He ran, with her in his arms, to find help. And he found a Marine squad. At first, they thought he was carrying a bomb. He faced down the rifles aimed at his head, and he gave his desperately injured daughter, this tiny, tiny girl, to a very surprised, very burly corporal. And that corporal
brought him to Charlie Medical, where the doctors saved his daughter’s life.
“That’s where I met this Iraqi man. This man of Ramadi. This father. I spoke to him there, and I asked him if he felt grateful to the Americans for what we’d done. Do you know what he told me?”
I held the question in the air for a moment.
“‘No.’ That’s what he said. ‘No.’ He had come to the Americans because they had the best doctors, the only safe doctors, not because he liked us. He’d already lost a son, he told me, to the violence that came after the invasion. He blamed us for that. He blames us for the fact that he can’t walk down the street without fear of being killed for no reason. He blames us for his relatives in Baghdad who were tortured to death. And he particularly blames us for the time he was watching TV with his wife and a group of Americans kicked down his door, dragged his wife out by the hair, beat him in his own living room. They stuck rifles in his face. They kicked him in the side. They screamed at him in a language he did not understand. And they beat him when he could not answer their questions. Now, here’s the question I have for you, Marines: Who would trade their seven-month deployment to Ramadi for that man’s life, living here?”
No one raised a hand. Some Marines looked uncomfortable. Some looked angry. Some looked furious.
“Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if this man supported the insurgency. The translator said the man was a bad guy. An ‘ali baba.’ But clearly, this man has suffered. And if this man, this father, does support the insurgency, it’s because he thinks his suffering justifies making you suffer. If his story about his beating is true, it means the Marines who beat him think their suffering justifies making him suffer. But as Paul reminds us, ‘There is none righteous, no, not one.’ All of us suffer. We can either feel isolated, and alone, and lash out at others, or we can realize we’re part of a community. A church. That father in my parish felt as if no one could understand him and it wasn’t worth the effort to make them try. Maybe you don’t think it’s worth trying to understand the suffering of that Iraqi father. But being Christian means we can never look at another human being and say, ‘He is not my brother.’
“I don’t know if any of you know Wilfred Owen. He was a soldier who died in the First World War, a war that killed soldiers by the hundreds of thousands. Owen was a strange sort. A poet. A warrior. A homosexual. And as tough a man as any Marine
I’ve ever met. In World War One, Owen was gassed. He was blown in the air by a mortar and lived. He spent days in one position, under fire, next to the scattered remains of a fellow officer. He received the Military Cross for killing enemy soldiers with a captured enemy machine gun and rallying his company after the death of his commander. And this is what he wrote about training soldiers for the trenches. These are, by the
way, new soldiers. They hadn’t seen combat yet. Not like he had.
“Owen writes: ‘For 14 hours yesterday I was at work teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”‘
I looked up from my sermon and looked hard at the audience, which was looking hard back at me.
“We are part of a long tradition of suffering. We can let it isolate us if we want, but we must realize that isolation is a lie. Consider Owen. Consider that Iraqi father and that American father. Consider their children. Do not suffer alone. Offer suffering up to God, respect your fellow man, and perhaps the sheer awfulness of this place will become a little more tolerable.”
I felt flushed, triumphant, but my sermon hadn’t gone over well. A number of Marines didn’t come up for Communion. Afterward, as I was gathering the leftover Eucharist, my RP turned to me and said, “Whoa, Chaps. That got a bit real.”
Your Correspondent, His hands aren’t sweaty, he was just holding a fish
Inspired by my Japanese apostle, John Mark Mullan, back in the mid-2000s my friends and I started an annual tradition called the Best Ofs. It is not unique but it is special. We reflect on the year through the music we have discovered and we make selections, mix-tapes, and in one very fine contribution, an entire movie. The CD was still dominant when we began and it sets the terms of the project still, a lovely evolving testimony to the fact that we are no longer young. So the rules are as follows:
- The mix must be less than 80 minutes.
- It must be more than a minute.
- Artists can repeat.
- Songs can be from any era, but just new to you in the last year.
- Any and all genres are welcome.
- Crazy ass remixes/mash-ups of familiar songs from long ago count as new
- You can submit detailed supplementary content or just raw audio or anything in between.
- You can post us all CDs, make a Spotify playlist, or distribute the files on A4 pages hidden around a local forest – whatever way you think gets the best balance between ease for you (the compiler) and ease for us (the listener). But we have a special dropbox if you want to keep things simple.
- Anyone invited can feel free to invite others, because the Best of Project is a great way for friends to meet friends’ friends.
When I Think Back On 2015
So when I reflect on the last year I mostly think about books and the battles I wage with them. I have become ever more short-sighted, balding, grey-haired and troubled as I wrestle with my thesis and moving on from the purgatorial grey of Aberdeen. My writing becomes ever more obtuse. My conversation ever more arcane. I was never with it, and they may well have changed what it was, but right now I am definitively square. Marge Simpson is my spirit animal. Hence:
I do not have the skill or courage to write a retrospective of my year that is true or insightful. I do have the songs that resonated with me, which reveal that more than any year in my life thus far, I have been consumed with thoughts about God and life and how thoughts about God are not the same as faith and thoughts about life is not the same as living. The songs are sad or angry and only in one example deliriously triumphant. And that example is a theme tune to a TV show, so that says a lot about the state of my soul, right?
Still, I like to think in my thought and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do, that I am not a morose person. I aspire to be guileless like Marge and so even if life in the TheoLab is very much square, I’m happy there, even if I still look into cameras as if they are about to ask me a question I don’t understand:
Squaresville Sounds Pretty Cool
So these are the songs that made it into my best of. In the version I will upload to the project, it comes in at 77 minutes and 44 seconds. So listening to it takes a commute to work and back again, probably.
This is the album cover, which is an image from the artist Ryoji Ikeda:
Here’s a YouTube playlist:
Here’s the tracklisting:
- The Decemberists – A Beginning Song:
For various reasons, as the end of 2015 collapses on us, I have a growing suspicion while sitting in the Concrete Bunker that 2016 is going to be a decisive year for our little family. So the song that closes the Decemberists album opens mine, because in 2016, whether we like it or not, the next chapter begins.
- Dawes – All Your Favorite Bands:
Wife-unit’s advice for making mix-tapes is complex and nuanced, but I boiled it down to: “Start strong, but follow it up with the home-run.” This is my single favourite song of the year. Its gentle guitar riff runs through my head constantly and the spirit of friendship and hope that it extols is both deeply resonant and comforting to me.
- Courtney Barnett – Pedestrian at Best:
The jury was out for a long time on this Antipodean sensation. Wife-unit instantly warmed to the 1990s production style, and it definitely tickled my nostalgia for an adolescence full of wordy female songstresses. But in the end, the most raucous track on the album lingered in my memory.
- Kendrick Lamar – i:
I did not wait with bated breath for the Kendrick Lamar album but when it arrived, it was overwhelming. Often it is hard to listen to because there is so much for black Americans to be furious about. Lamar, especially here, is a compelling voice in the midst of that injustice. This song is so damn good.
- Blackalicious – I Like The Way You Talk:
I did wait with bated breath for the Blackalicious album. I waited ten freaking years for it. And when it arrived I was positively underwhelmed. I just built it up too much, I suppose. It’s an odd album because when I play it all at once it is almost anonymous and frequently annoying. But taken on their own the songs are great. Maybe I’ll revise my opinion as the months go by. That’s often the case with me; I am so naturally unmusical that the best stuff often takes a long time to settle in my ears.
- Sleater Kinney – Price Tag:
There’s a famous Portlandia sketch where Carrie and Fred inadvertently open a sweatshop in their basement. This could be a soundtrack for that. But it is one of the most rocking of the album’s tracks (they almost all rock) and I love it because studying wealth and capitalism for the last few years, I am convinced that it is impossible to shop ethically. Best to scream about that than just lie down and accept it, right?
- Oh Pep! – Tea, Milk & Honey:
Like other people in the group, I go to NPR Tiny Desk Concert to find new music regularly and that is where I found these great Australian chaps. This is such a lovely love song. The voices are unostentiously soaring and the person speaking to us through the lyrics has such humble adoration for their partner. “She sings like a church with a choir in it.”
- Craig Finn – Sarah, Calling From a Hotel:
Craig Finn is my favourite song writer. Now that The Hold Steady are on indefinite hiatus, I am consoled that he seems dedicated to his solo career (although I’d swap it all for a novel from him!). No one tells a story like him and this song demonstrates that. This song is terrifying. “Oh God, I’ve gotta go.”
- Sufjan Stevens – John My Beloved:
The last two Sufjan albums were not beloved, but they get more playtime from me with every passing year. I was expecting that whatever would happen with Sufjan’s new album, I would have to take a lot of time to get used to it. I was wrong. We all were wrong. Carrie and Lowell is a stone cold masterpiece and I could have just listed all the songs and then drawn this mix to an end. Instead I basically chose the two I chose at random.
- The Gregory Brothers – Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Theme Tune:
Certain things run constantly through my mind. Passages from Isaiah. Old Wesleyan hymns. Thomas Hardy poetry. My brain rarely rests, unless I sleep, in which case, it is busy making crap up but thankfully I rarely remember dreams. Now, new this year, the “Unbreakable! She alive damnit!” of this theme tune intrudes on my consciousness a dozen times a day. Making coffee in the morning. In the middle of a sensitive, pastoral conversation at work. Wrestling invading ninjas. At the most inopportune times this song breaks in with its exultant surprise and I submit to it. So now you’ll have to as well.
- Kendrick Lamar – King Kunta:
The week after the Charleston murders, I was in America with my bumchum Taido. We were in Princeton at a fancy conference that drew hundreds of top scholars and students from around America and around the world. In the evenings, we’d go hang out with our friends Matt and Evie and that was a hands-down highlight of the year. Matt drove us around Trenton, the underworld that makes Princeton possible. He invited us to a prayer walk being held in remembrance of the victims of the attack, starting at the local AME church and winding its way through Princeton until it stopped with prayer and song and speech in the square in the centre of the town. We told the organisers of the conference and suggested they call off their evening schedule. “Think of how awesome it would be for these Christians if hundreds of their brethren from around the world joined with them, pausing their business to do the more important work of prayer?” They didn’t agree. A famous and much revered bishop was due to speak and they were not about to sideline him. “Besides,” we were told, “we shouldn’t miss his speech because it is so funny; it’s basically stand-up!” We skipped the ecclesial comedy (which was most certainly tragedy) and went to pray in the town. Who am I to have an opinion on the cultures I do not inhabit but it seems to me that America’s racism is more deeply embedded than the toolkit of the white Ivy League elites can ever hope to reach. Lamar was again an educator for me. Cutting the legs off the slave is not a thing of the past.
- Josh Ritter – Getting Ready To Get Down:
Ritter is one of those people who I am meant to like. So many of my friends love him but I could never get into him, even though Ian Tracy had a brilliant track from him on one of his Best Ofs years and years ago. But his rockabilly Gospel record was great fun and how could I turn down a song about how, very often, studying the Scriptures distances us from the faithful and that spoke of “Just another damn of the damns not given”?
- Torres – Sprinter:
I read Torres’ music described as arena rock for abandoned arenas and I think that is wonderfully descriptive. The songs are smart and long-arched and loud. This song, like so many in this collection, is haunted by the attraction of Jesus and the impossibility of the church. It is autobiographical, I suspect. It is definitely true.
- Will Butler – Son Of God:
If pressed to explain how much I loved Sufjan’s Carrie & Lowell, I’d say it is my favourite album since Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. The Arcade Fire are among my very favourites and so the first solo album by Will Butler was bound to get a lot of my attention. This song is again about Jesus and ethics. Squaresville central.
- Vandaveer – However Many Takes It Takes:
After that big fancy conference, Taido and I spent a weekend in New York, wearing holes in our shoes as we sprinted around the place. The first night there, after a heavenly dinner on a park bench in Union Square, we went to the Bowery Ballroom to see a band for whom Vadaveer supported. Vandaveer were better and this – yet another Squaresville tune about searching for salvation but not finding it – is my favourite of their songs.
- Sufjan Stevens – Drawn to the Blood:
One of the (many) reasons Christianity is so deeply bloodless in the West is that it is presented as a solution to a problem. Lonely? Find community at church! Guilt-ridden? Find serenity in the liturgy! Nihilistic? Find meaning in the Gospel! These are half-truths and full lies. When the God of Elijah is your lover, life does not suddenly have meaning. Guilt does not suddenly lessen its grip. Loneliness does not magically stop stalking. The lyrics of this song fall away half way through but the story it tells swells on. Sufjan is putting aural shape around the stumbling that faith in the West in this age consists of.
- Alessia Cara – Here:
An introvert’s anthem.
- John Moreland – Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars:
I discovered this guy in early November and I basically haven’t stopped listening to his album since then. This is basically a thesis-statement-song for Squaresville: “Life will make you homesick for a home you’ve never had.”
- Jason Isbell – 24 Frames:
I suspect Isbell was the most commonly occurring artist in the whole batch of last year’s Best Ofs and his new album is likely to also feature heavily in various playlists. “You thought God was an architect; now you know he’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow”? Squaresville: Yet another song about being unable to reconcile the deep mysteries of life’s hardness with the ever-present promises of God.
- Glen Hansard – Winning Streak:
I remember a friend telling me a story about how, as a young musician, he encountered Glen Hansard and the Oscar-winner (who was then not yet a famous Oscar-winner) was a right dick to him. I probably mis-remembered it, knowing me. But the point is that for years I resisted liking Hansard’s music because he had been mean to my friend. In retrospect, that was both petty and self-defeating because Hansard is consistently astonishing. The latest album is his best yet, richly influenced from all over the place and resounding with a realistic hope that at times appears hymnal. This benediction, this good word of a song, is a fitting way to start landing the best-of.
- Glen Hansard – Grace Beneath the Pines:
And this quiet song of resilience is the perfect way to draw the year to a close. Jason Isbell is a man of deep faith, as are many of the songwriters who feature on my list. But the most uplifting songs come from this Dubliner, who lives a few miles from my family home and from what I can gather, has no religion to speak of. However, to whatever extent the word spirituality means anything, Hansard’s songs are immersed in it.
If you want to download the album, this link should work.
Your Correspondent, He could go on talking, or he could stop
It has always been a sign of his trustworthiness, to me, that Adam Curtis tends to begin his documentaries by saying, “This is the story of…”
The great danger of the documentary is that as children we are taught that there are movies – which are about dinosaurs, transforming robots, noble historical figures and BDSM loving billionaires – and there are documentaries which are “true”. As adults we rarely think about this distinction and how unclear it might be in reality. Curtis forces us to confront it.
In his most recent documentary, released on the BBC iPlayer at the end of January, Curtis tells the story of Afghanistan. The film is 136 minutes long, and largely consists of long sections of untouched “rushes” – the raw material of the news. These stretches of footage, without explanation or elaboration, are the heart of the documentary. The narrative that is wrapped around them, which tells how a meeting between Roosevelt and the Saudi King nearly a century ago set in motion a series of actions, reactions, counteractions and distractions that results in contemporary Afghanistan.
In short, this is the narrative. America needed oil. Saudi Arabia had it. They struck a deal. America got oil. Saudi Arabia got money, arms and an agreement that the West would leave their religious culture alone. The King used this money to grow unimaginably wealthy and to modernize his nation. The religious conservatives didn’t like this so he posed the Communists as a threat that Islam had to defeat. In effect, he exported Saudi Arabian Islam to the rest of the Arab world, and in so doing secured the Saudi throne.
But once released, that set of ideas we call Wahhabism refused to behave like a docile belief system. It gained traction among people long exhausted by Western Imperialism. One of the places it took a footing was Afghanistan, which was a subject of Allied nation-building as part of an effort to keep out the Soviet threat. When the Soviets invaded, the Allies, especially America, took to arming the Islamic militants who had been discipled by expat Saudi teachers to fight the Russian tanks.
Two great men of history make a deal on a boat to buy and sell oil and 30 years later in the middle of Asia, a grand battle of ideologies is unleashed.
We know how the story goes from there. There is a digression about how the oil crisis created the global financial hegemony that today ravages Ireland and Greece, Cyprus and Portugal. But the main story is the story of the Afghans. The great mujahideen, armed and trained by America, who received such praise at the end of Rambo III turned into the Taliban. Saddam invaded Kuwait. Bush invaded Iraq. The Saudis realised that their arms were not enough to keep them safe. Osama realised that his enemy was not just moderate Islam but the far country of America. Planes crashed into buildings. Blair and Bush II invaded Afghanistan. Then Iraq. Then tortured people, bombed villages, raped, pillaged and tore to pieces the very narrative they had been telling their people about war against terror and a battle against an axis of evil and the inevitable march of democracy and technology and liberation.
If you are still reading, then you should go watch this film.
But if you are just scanning now to see if I have any jokes about Zooey Deschanel in here, let me tell you why you, also, should go watch this film. It’s the rushes. The long tracts of unedited, untampered, untouched footage that Curtis pastes together. In one shocking scene we see an assassination attempt on the Afghan president that sees bystanders killed. In the West, we didn’t hear about this. The footage is live and clear and direct – the kind of thing that news networks drool over. We have the world at our fingertips, but only the parts of the world that the people who pay the cameramen choose to show you.
In another distressing scene, we have a long camera gaze at a small girl. She is missing her right hand. Her right eye also. She wears a dress. She is still in the hospital. Her arms and head are bandaged. There are casts on her shins. She is sitting in a chair, her father kneeling beside her. His eyes are wide with desperation. Her eyes are slow, from shock or drugs or weariness. The cameraman talks to the father. He tries to give her a red flower. He wants to see this child healed and made whole. She will not be.
The next scene is an Allied soldier, hunkered in a trench. A wild bird comes and rests on his hand. The bird lets him stroke her. Then the bird flies away, only to land on his helmet. Terence Malick couldn’t make the point better. The real world goes on, even as the lords of war unfurl their armaments.
Soon after, British soldiers are seen on a cliff above Helmand, partying by firelight to honour Elizabeth Windsor’s birthday. A soldier explains to camera how important it is that they mark this festive occasion, especially when they are so far from home. When asked why they chose such a visible point above the city, with fire, he laughs and admits he has no idea. The soldiers aren’t the problem. They are clueless.
The scene that lingers with me is not one of the many shockingly violent pieces of footage. Instead it is an Afghan man, sitting cross-legged and docile as an American soldier, wearing his uniform engineered at unimaginable cost, swabs the inside of his mouth to collect DNA. The Afghan man is 20 years older than the solider, who is little more than a boy. Democracy and technology and liberation do not look like this. The Allies see everyone as an enemy, and so they make everyone into an enemy.
If you cannot understand the attraction of ISIS, you haven’t been paying attention.
Your Correspondent, Living in a glasshouse
Greg Grandin, who wrote Fordlandia, a book I devoured earlier in the summer, published a book this year called The Empire of Necessity. It is one of those marvelous books that comes along every now and again that deals with disparate threads of argument in parallel but refuses to compress it all into a neat cross-stitchable message at the end.
It is a book about slave-trading. Specifically, the shipment of slaves. Specifically, the shipment of slaves around the age of Revolutions at the turn of the 19th Century. Specifically one particular slave ship (The Tryal) that revolted.
That’s a lot of threads, all handled impeccably.
But it is also a book about Herman Melville and seal-hunting and the writing of a less renowned Melville novel called Benito Cereno, which re-told the story soon afterwards.
These divergent trajectories are held together and Grandin ranges between these points effortlessly. It is a stunning achievement really. The description of the shift in Presbyterian preaching in New England in the late 1700s towards moral confidence (in term spurred on by Unitarianism) at the beginning comes around at the end to help understand how the economics of slavery operated. The description of the geography of seal hunting grounds resonates as the overland passage of slaves from Argentina to Chile, through the Andes is unpacked.
The captain of the ship that stumbled over the Tryal was initially unaware of the slave revolt. The story how that came to be is utterly central to the entire book so I will leave it untouched. Suffice to say, Amasa Delano didn’t have the happiest life in all of Christendom. When he returned to America after years at sea, the entire society had begun its shift into modern capitalism:
Debt had taken a more central role in the growing nation’s economy, and Delano was trapped in its grip, dragged through court and, it seems, thrown into debtors’ prison.
The Englightenment hopes of the democratic revolutions in France and America are still taught in Irish primary schools as a humane achievement. In many ways they are. But Grandin’s book is breathtaking in how it reveals the ways in which the possibility of democracy rested on the economic boost of slavery and how the political rhetoric of Republics was revealed as deficient (if not a sham) by the utter refusal to grant full humanity to slaves. Liberty was secured by slaves. Melville pinned this hypocrisy down in an epigraph he used for one of his books:
Seeking to conquer a larger liberty, man but extends the empire of necessity.
We need more of books like this – by which I mean not just sumptuously creative history but books about this darkness at the heart of our present self-understanding. The West is built on slavery. The quays of Dublin were built with interest paid on loans by Liverpool slave-ship owners. The research and design that makes the Intel factory in Leixlip so astounding is conducted in Arizona and California, on land that was robbed from civilizations that were destroyed. There is no Eden for us, only Fall.
Until we tell that story right, we can’t get to grips with capitalism or globalisation or Christian mission. We can’t understand where we are if we never knew where we came from.
Your Correspondent, Got accepted to college after he sent a refusal letter to them without ever applying
Who knows what the original title of “Deux jours, une nuit” means, but this morning I watched Two Days and One Night and it was the best possible use of a Thursday before lunchtime that I can think of.
It tells the story of Sandra, who is recovering from depression, and one Friday evening gets a phone call from her friend at work explaining she is about to be laid off. The boss put a proposition to the staff. They can either get their annual bonuses, or Sandra can stay. All but two of the sixteen factory floor workers vote to lay Sandra off and to get their €1000.
What follows is very simple. After her friend Juliette convinces the boss to run a secret ballot after the weekend, the film consists of the Dardenne brothers’ camera following Sandra – played with astounding brilliance by Marion Cotillard – as she wrestles with herself to go and plead with her colleagues to vote for her and against their bonus.
There wasn’t a moment where I felt bored and at the end of it I realised it was as compelling and clear a picture of the plight of the worker as I can remember seeing in my time. The film isn’t an uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit. It isn’t a sentimental escape from the material problems that vex our cities. It is a profoundly humanistic depiction of the forces that pull and stretch and toss the people who are just wrestling to put food on the dinner table and get their kids through school.
Our jokes about first world problems are certainly hackneyed, but they might be callous too.
There is a scene where Sandra goes to see her colleague Hichim. The electricity is gone in the apartment building. She walks the stairs, flight after flight, the picture of exhausted dejection, climbing to reach a peak where she does not know if she will be welcome, in the dark now and facing future darkness. It is a simple 30 seconds of camera-work, but it is a better description of the economic world most people in the EU live in than anything I’ve ever encountered from a politician. She climbs because if she doesn’t climb, she’ll lose her house; but even climbing, she might still lose her house. She climbs to secure the basic dignity of having a job and a role and a thing to do, but to do it, she must humiliate herself by throwing herself on the mercy of people as taxed and strained as she is.
Here are three very brief thoughts by which I hope to convince you to go watch this before it leaves the cinema or to load it up on Netflix or whatever it is that people who don’t use torrents use.
1) The boss is always above the fray. Literally, in the final scene, his pristine and spacious office is on the first floor. He never gets dirtied by the fight that is the lives of these workers.
2) The workers are distant from the place they work. Sandra has to take a bus all over the city. Her husband drives her up hills and out into the countryside, she visits suburbs and flats in slums. The task of making money to get by dislocates the workers from their physical environment.
3) The world that the worker is forced to live in is agonistic. It is a battle. Many of the colleagues phrase the ballot in terms of “losing their bonus”. They have been convinced this world is one of scarcity and therefore it becomes one of desperate scarcity. Worker tears away at worker, the son lashes out at the father, the world is so shaped by capitalism and globalisation that we sacrifice our colleagues for a little more comfort.
If I say that Two Days One Night is a 90 minute illustration of Marx’s theory of alienation you might yawn and decide that sounds too lofty, or too earnest, or too damn boring to squander an evening on. It is not. Sandra, in her depression, laments that she does not even exist. Marx told us that the alienated worker:
only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.
Capitalism dehumanises us. This film is a portrait of that process that manages to be fully and totally human. It is splendid.
Your Correspondent, At the end Sandra reminded him of a bird singing
Doug Gay is a Scottish theologian who has written a book entitled “Honey From the Lion“. It intends to offer a theological defence of nationalism, with a specific application to Scottish nationalism. It manages to do this without becoming a “God thinks you should vote yes” diatribe, so that is pretty impressive right from the beginning.
So the argument that Gay makes is firstly, that there is a kind of nationalism that isn’t bad. He goes further than this and thinks that nationalism can take a shape that can be good, even good enough that Christians can embrace it. His unpacking of the ideas that trade around the concept of nationalism in the early chapters is really very good. He points out that in a world of nation states, nationalism is pretty much inevitable. Quoting Jonathan Hearn he suggests: “Liberal democracies do not so much transcend nationalism as domesticate it.”
This is something I have noted since moving to the UK. The ubiquity of the Union flag on packaging, the “Great British” trope present in the titles of products of popular culture, and the always present symbols of military power are notable when you first arrive in Scotland. Is this the liberal nation state domesticating the “lion” of nationalism, extracting honey that is sweet for society? Or is there a connection between the common and aggressive racist and xenophobic graffiti I see on the streets of Aberdeen and the voluminous reminders of Imperial Britain in all aspects of our shared life?
In other words, I am not so sure that nationalism can be domesticated. But Gay makes a really excellent case by marking out the ways in which nationalism is out of bounds theologically. Our nationalism cannot be imperialist or essentialist or absolutist but instead our task would be:
To renounce imperialism is to renounce domination and to practise recognition of the other.
To renounce essentialism is to renounce a biological nationalism based on the ius santuinis or law of the blood in favour of a habitat-based nationalism, based solely on the ius solis, on the law of territory.
To renounce absolutism is, in the language of the Barmen Declaration, to place the state under God, asserting God’s sovereignty over the state and the state’s accountability to God.
– Doug Gay, Honey From The Lion, 81.
Having staked out the argument that nationalism can be a good, Gay moves on to consider the idea of a Christian society. Throughout the book he is in dialogue with some serious theological voices; Milbank, O’Donovan, Hauerwas, Bretherton, and Cavanaugh, amongst others. I presume he hasn’t dealt with my Facebook posts on the topic because he sent the proofs off to the publisher before I came out in favour of the Yes vote and swung the entire referendum. The leading idea that allows us to consider society Christian-ly is Augustine’s concept of society sharing objects of love; “The better the objects of this agreement, the better the people; and the worse the objects, the worse the people.” Christian theological thinking on society demands a rejection of the flat space imagined by militant secularists and instead conceives of society as a complex space where the state and the market and the arts and the religions and all the other human collusions that make up our shared life clash against each other and cling to each other and compromise with each other.
In the book’s second half, Gay gives us a history of the Scottish devolution movement and a really good, practical chapter on the good, the bad and the middling that can be said to have come from the Edinburgh parliament since it was inaugurated in 2000. The book closes by suggesting certain ways in which the independent state of Scotland could go if the vote on September 18th is “Yes”.
Having not been completely convinced that Christians can dabble in nationalism, I am convinced that we cannot simply dismiss it. Gay demonstrates, for example, how Scottish nationalism in the 20th Century has been internationalist in nature. That those two things sit side by side is not inherently contradictory. Similarly, as a Christian socialist, Gay compellingly shows how socialism can accommodate nationalism – think only of how effective nationalism was for colonies in the overthrowing of the British empire.
He does completely convince me, a second time, that I should vote Yes in the referendum. This paragraph, quoting Charles Warren, is especially convincing to me:
Half of the entire country is held by just 608 owners and a mere 18 owners hold ten per cent of Scotland. Of Scotland’s private land, 30 per cent is held by 103 owners, each with 9,000 hectares [22,250 acres] or more, and 50 per cent by 343 owners. A minuscule 0.025 per cent of the population owns 67 per cent of the privately owned rural land. Thirty owners have more than 25,000 hectares [61,750 acres] each.
– Doug Gay, Honey From The Lion, 121.
Paragraphs like this should be on the tip of every tongue in Scotland. Of course, land reform doesn’t live or die based on the answer to the September 18th vote, but an independent Scotland is in a vastly stronger position to undue centuries of hoarding of the basic asset that a nation has – its space.
In the final chapter Gay turns to the possibility of a Scottish constitution and his discussion of the establishment of the Church of Scotland and the persistence of the Windsor monarchy in an independent Alba are far less convincing than his argument for a Yes vote. The trouble with both is revealed in his anecdote that at the ceremony where Elizabeth Windsor was made Queen of England and Scotland, the Archbishop of Canterbury refused communion to the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. What kind of Union is this that people want to protect? What kind of Christian nation is the UK? It seems to me that the ambivalence about both establishment and monarchy is a failure to follow through with the style of the earlier chapters. He makes such a good go of launching so complex an argument as a defence of nationalism that his himming-and-hawing here about the peculiarities of the Church of Scotland’s role in Scottish law seems to lack clarity. The hedging on monarchy is even worse.
But I am a staunch Republican, and maybe I am just sore that he didn’t join my team at the end?
There is one more question raised by the end of the book that I need to unfurl on my unfortunate readers. Gay proposes the use of common good” as the rubric under which Scotland ought to shape its new independence. But the failing here is the poverty that I always encounter with this language. What is the common good that holds Scotland together? There is no such thing. The conceptual deployment of Augustine’s common objects of love is one thing. The practical application of Catholic Social Teaching’s common good is another. What’s the common good in intractable conflicts – for example between profitability and sustainability? The common good is obviously sustainability, but the common choice will be for profitability. Or what’s the common good is in incommensurable moral conflicts – for example on the question of legalised abortion? Competing goods do not necessarily overlap. How does common good help as a political idea if it doesn’t lead to meaningful compromise?
The best reason for voting yes is that the new Scotland won’t have nuclear power or nuclear powered submarines or nuclear bombs. The second best reason for voting yes is that the new Scotland won’t invade Afghanistan or Iraq or Sierra Leone or the Falkland Islands. The reasons that Gay cites are excellent reasons as well. And the argument he makes that carefully extracting a narrowly-defined nationalism from the jaws of the lion can lead to sweet honey is a good one. The book is a rare example of theology being applied to contemporary issues in non-simplistic ways. It is practical theology at its best. That doesn’t mean all the arguments are equally convincing and it isn’t without its flaws, but it is genuinely worth tracking down.
The best reason for voting no is that you will really miss Liz Windsor’s face on some of the money used in Scotland or because an actress from Game of Thrones recommended it on Twitter. Small nation states are well placed to thrive in the years ahead and Scotland is a distinctive culture with its own language and history. It is more open and more socialist than the UK. It has arguably the most impressive educational traditions in the world. Its citizenry will be better off (not necessarily richer, as Gay points out with wonderful Christian clarity) making decisions about what happens in their territory without the opinions of people from Swansea, Sion Mills or Stockport weighing just as heavily as the folk who live in Stirling.
We can advocate this position and still be skeptical of nationalism. After all, Samson, who took the honey from the lion, ended his life in an act of suicide terrorism that killed thousands of people. He killed them because they were the enemies of his people, even though in so doing he directly repudiated the Torah that constituted his people. Nationalism can be rejected, while the nation state of Scotland can be welcomed.
Practical theology like the kind found in this book should be welcomed too.
Your Correspondent, A little boy told him “The English are best at everything”
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.
On top of being an Aberdeen graduate, Adam Roberts is one of the most consistently entertaining and thought provoking novelists around. If you only dare to dip your toe into the nerdorama that is sci-fi once (or speculative fiction as some like to call it), New Model Army would be an excellent place to start. It will get you thinking about networked technology, war, and most importantly, the early modern philosophy of Rabelais and the nation state.
In Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer, Roberts tells three interlinked stories. There is a prison story, a murder mystery and a classic locked-room mystery. They all arc together. The stories are bloody and fascinating.
Here, explaining two of the characters, aristocratic heirs to great power, the narrator muses on what a dream is (Page 119):
As far as dreams were concerned – well dreams are generated by the random processes of neural oscillation during the brain’s rest phases. What dreams do is cycle and recycle images and feelings, rationalisations and fears. There’s nothing special about that. It’s not the dreams that matter (chaff, mental turbulence, the rotating metal bars moving endlessly through the transparent tub of metaphorical slushy). It is what the problem-solving circuits in the mind make of the dreams. Dreams iterate and test mental schemas, discarding the maladaptive to return the adaptive to the slush to be reworked. Dreams are emotional preparations for solving problems – that is why we have evolved them, because problem-solving abilities are highly adaptive and thus strongly evolutionarily selected. Dreams intoxicate the individual out of reliance on common sense and preconception, and tempt her into the orbit of private logic. Dreams have utility.
And then elsewhere there is a conversation about how people once upon a time (remember that the novel is set in the future) people “worshipped economics” (Page 62):
“… Because they believed that economics preserved the special place for humankind at the universe’s heart. We used to think the Earth was the centre of the cosmos, and that meant we were special, until science told us we’re marginal creatures. Then we thought the sun was centre, until science told us not even that was true. We used to think God made us in His image, and that meant we were special, until science told us we just evolved that way because it suited a landscape of trees and savannas. That’s what science does: it says, look again and you’ll see you’re not special. But economics? Economics is also a science. And what does it say? Ask my fathers, and they’d tell you. It says: there is energy, and there are raw materials, and that’s the cosmos. But without us the energy is random and the raw material is inert. It’s only labour that makes the cosmos alive. It’s only us that makes economics happen at all. And that makes us special.
Your Correspondent, Always in favour of the conceptual disorientation of the familiar
As I had always known
he would come, unannounced,
remarkable merely for the absence
of clamour. So truth must appear
to the thinker; so, at a stage
of the experiment, the answer
must quietly emerge. I looked
at him, not with the eye
only, but with the whole
of my being, overflowing with
him as a chalice would
with the sea. Yet was he
no more there than before,
his area occupied
by the unhaloed presences.
You could put your hand
in him without consciousness
of his wounds. The gamblers
at the foot of the unnoticed
cross went on with
their dicing; yet the invisible
garment for which they played
was no longer at stake, but worn
by him in this risen existence.
Your Correspondent, Go deimhin, tá sé éirithe!