Wishful Feeling: Christianity and Emancipation

Many Christians maintain that their religion “set them free”, or liberated them. Whatever do they mean? I received a Catholic “education” and my descriptives would be far and away from glowing terms employed by the born again. In theory and practice that religion’s representatives meant to stupify the mind.

In keeping with Catholic tradition, separation by gender was implemented as far as was legally acceptable. Girls were expected and then praised to high Heaven for their deference and natural grace. (Tomboyishness – as in: personality – was actively persecuted.) As a reward, they were alloted extra “play time” and allowed to leave for home earlier. Boys were damned with the assumed tautology that we were too “boisterous” (yes, the staff were really that dense), and instructed that sports and a little mathematics were to be the extent of our purview.

John Erskine told students they had a moral, and attainable, obligation to be intelligent. Nothing so affirming here. We were informed regularly which of us was useless, which of us stupid and irreparably so, who was smart – not in the Erskine sense, but that pointed, accusatory way, as in, “oh, Mr Clark, I had no idea you were an expert in ark construction”. We soon learned that harsh words (usually with reference to Hell) and consequences were reserved for any who questioned The Doctrine.

On one occasion, I was told by a bucktoothed shag-weasel named Mrs Smith – her poor, browbeaten and well-meaning husband worked for the same institution – that no one in our class would amount to anything much: no successful businessperson or university scholar would escape the ragged crowd. We were working class and had to accept our lot. This sort of thing will, even at a young age, trigger an overwhelming sense of dejection. Children, we somehow forget, or pretend to not know, have a remarkable capacity for foreboding. It complemented what we were taught as a matter of course; we recited weekly:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And o
rdered their estate

This among a tsunami of verses in All Things Bright and Beautiful, an awful hymn that still retains the ability to sneak attack my consciousness. England has a long history of Christian moralists, working in service to power, excusing hideous societal failings by claiming that eternal bliss awaited their victims in death. That hypocrite Wilberforce arrogantly claimed to be doing God’s work, all the while stamping on the worker and hacking away at the Liberty Tree. Besides chattel slavery*, every terrible excess of the British capitalist class was justified: workhouses, the banning of workplace organisation, and government massacres, including Peterloo. Because, oddly, class distinctions were Heavenly ordained, and by extension contained, even if the racial weren’t.

While he went on to preach about the perfectibility of the British State, with its damnable constitution — has anyone seen it? — and its heroic resistance to reform, starved bodies were being discovered in the Home Counties, half-digested daffodils in their stomachs. Hazlitt, perceptive and brilliant, put it tersely, “[he, Wilberforce,] who preaches vital Christianity to untutored savages, and tolerates its worst abuses in civilised states.”

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William Cobbett satirised this type of Christian. The type who thinks suffering a holy virtue, and considers envy the very worst a pauper can experience.

Come, little children list to me
Whilst I describe your duty
And kindly lead your eyes to see
Of lowliness the beauty

‘Tis true your busy backs are bare
Your lips too dry for spittle
Your eyes as dead as whitings are
Your bellies growl for Vict’al

But, dearest children, oh! Believe
Believe not treach’rous senses!
‘Tis they your infant hearts deceive
And lead into offences

When frost assails your joints by day
And lice by night torment you
‘Tis to remind you oft to pray
And of your sins repent ye

Let dungeons, gags and hangman’s noose
Make you content and humble
Your Heavenly crown you’ll surely lose
Of here on earth you grumble.

Liberation Theology

But, as I’ve alluded to, this isn’t Christianity in toto, and I mustn’t allow the personal make me think so. Cobbett himself was a dedicated believer (he could never reconcile that his hero Thomas Paine was a deist), and despised those clergy that he felt were twisting the Good Word. And hasn’t it been the case that, just as there have been men citing the Old Testament when committing their terrible deeds, they have had their opposite, quoting from the Gospels? There are Bible verses that glory in the freeing of slaves, and there are those that revel in the taking of them – and indeed both sides of the 18th and 19th century debates on the question of owning of Africans made good use of them. There are other verses that teach followers to resist change and new ideas, and others still that seem to instruct believers that they should defiantly question, and if found lacking, overthrow the status quo.

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Does this mean that there’s enough in the Judeo-Christian canon to make any condensing of it arbitrary? While the US-backed juntas of Central and South America paraded Family, Order and the Cross, independent priests and nuns were forming the vanguard of liberation theology. This movement which, until School of the Americas trained thugs put bullets into its leading figures, led with Jesus and made common cause with the socialists. The lies about unending joy following death were put to the wayside. They demanded salvation, in the form of land reform, democracy, adequate healthcare, and the pursuit of happiness, in the material here and now.

But the poor person does not existing as an inescapable fact of destiny. His or her existence is not politically neutral, and it is not ethically innocent. The poor are a by-product of the system in which we live and for which we are responsible. They are marginalized by our social and cultural world. They are the oppressed, exploited proletariat, robbed of the fruit of their labor and despoiled of their humanity. Hence the poverty of the poor is not a call to generous relief action, but a demand that we go and build a different social order.

So said Gustavo Gutierrez.

Well meaning as they no doubt were, there was – and will always be – a trap door awaiting all those wishing to employ Christianity for progressive means. It’s got a vindictive and selfish god, scriptural defenses of murder and plunder, it’s got heroes like Lot, and a historical connection to Rome that opens up an entirely new (and terrifying) avenue of dismay. It, in other words, it has baggage.

Cut out the bullshit and get right to the liberation. Real emancipation requires a radical change in the material realm, and to Hell with the spiritual (whatever that is anyway). If something requires an illusion – or is it delusion? – to sustain itself, surely there’s something amiss, the impartial must admit. Can’t people take the socialist pill without the sweet – and deadly – sugar coating of Christianity?

Reason, Slave

The great Richard Carlile, jailed for six years for fighting for an English free press, made the mistake of thinking that all that was required to revolutionise the masses was the propagation of radical literature. Once people read that there was an alternative to superstition and submission, then surely they would reach for the last priest’s entrails and strangle the world’s last king with them. The reasons why this wasn’t so are numerous, although principally it’s thus, people aren’t rational. To expect Man to be led by Reason alone, as he did, is like expecting a flower to be sustained entirely by starlight. It can’t, and we can’t – or at least, we had better not: John Stuart Mill was brought up to experience the world solely in terms of the rationalist utilitarian calculus, and by the age of twenty he found life weary and stale and was ready to die. His relief came chiefly from the poetry of the Romantics.

(And it was to the poetry of William Blake that Clement Attlee’s reforming Labour government turned to in 1951. Even this had its Biblical allusions:

I will not cease from mental strife,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.)

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That’s not to say that Christianity must therefore be the vessel containing the germ of change. Only that appeals to reason alone will not suffice. Marx himself recognised this when, just before he wrote his famous line about the “opium of the people” (one of the best known quotes on the internet and one of the least understood), he described religion as, “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. This leaves non-religious narratives at a disadvantage, because they haven’t the same recognition – in part because religious regimes have actively cracked down on them – and neither can they promise so much.

A Political Alternative

Yet attempts at an unifying, non-religious and emotive narrative have been made. These efforts (mostly communes), it could be said, have seen success by satisfying itches in those zones of the cortex usually reserved for the religious. Sin becomes alienation and oppression, the saviour figure of Moses, Jesus or Muhammad is replaced by the Collective or class, the moment of salvation and/or rebirth is The Revolution. Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, suggests that were his lead character – a devout and pious man of the cloth – to answer “do you believe in God?” with the negative, he would be a fervent socialist. He sees the overlap as significant, drawing particular attention to utopianism.

In the same way, if he had decided that God and immortality did not exist, he would at once have become an atheist and a socialist. For socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism to-day, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth.

But we have to be careful here. Socialist and Christian groups share similarities exactly because they are groups, and all groups have their common objectives, vices and taboos. And it’s no surprise that a dedicated God botherer might make a committed politico – indeed, American politics is awash with those who manage to make an identity of both. More importantly, the socialist project is no illusion. It promises, rather than “spiritual improvement”, implementable solutions rooted in the world we can fairly assume exists. And in its quasi- forms it’s given us such boons as the welfare state, nationalised heathcare, subsidised arts, industries held in common, and trade unions.

What a socialist future can’t guarantee is vicarious redemption, or, for that matter, quick fixes. It won’t free you from the troublesome tendrils of reality. It’s unlikely to answer all of your prayers (yet what does?), and it certainly won’t grant you a personal Jesus.

What it may do is erode the binds of economic exploitation, eliminating what Oscar Wilde called the sordid nessessity of living for others. Allowing individuals to fully realise their innate talents, and the dreams that the pressures of work and capital, at present, suppress. It won’t be perfect, but it promises people a new, higher and more meaningful form of consolation: self-expression. (And if you insist on having concepts like “soul”, you might dedicate your freshly unmanacled mind and body to discovering or defining it. Perhaps without resorting to folk stories and clergymen.)

However, whatever the future brings – socialism or no – it’s unlikely to be “heaven on earth”. For this reason and others, Christianity will endure as source of false hope and sham freedom. Irrevocable as it and all religion may be though, can we at least begin to make them a little less necessary?

 

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*Slavery existed in the colonies, and continued under a different name following “Wilberforce’s” abolition.

Same for sex. On women agitating for the abolition of slavery, “[F]or ladies to meet, to publish, to go from house to house stirring up petitions – these appear to me proceedings unsuited to the female character as delineated in Scripture“.

 

Paddy

The Vice That Affects All: David Olusoga, the BBC and Black History

As is characteristic of BBC documentaries, viewers spent most of Black and British scrutinizing the details of presenter’s face, while the advertised subject took a back seat. Don’t take this the wrong way, David Olusoga’s face is lovely, but black history is too interesting and, as the audience was repeatedly reminded, important to be mere scenery. And so I persevered through longing shots that must’ve appeared in the editor’s notes as “David walks by some books”, “David stares out a window #54”, “David gazes at parchment”. (Note to BBC: we rather see the bloody parchment. 80 years on and you seem to have forgotten the point of television.)

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Olusoga

And there were rewards for hanging on. I hadn’t known, for example, about: the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Royal Navy’s celebrated anti-slavery force; how an African girl was taken by a captain of that fleet and went on to become a ward of Queen Victoria’s; how Liverpool’s success as a city depended, in large part, the commodification of men by other men; and just how much support our “neutralist” government lended the Confederate states during the American Civil War. But these were fleeting glimmers in a drab deluge of pop morals and plaque-unveiling.

None of these nuggets could be shared, for a start, without Olusoga prefixing or suffixing them, in a way reminiscent of Paul Theroux’s travel writing, “you really ought to have known this already”. Well, we’re here now aren’t we – eager to learn? Or at least I was.

 

The Moral Quagmire 

In episode three, Liverpudlian dock hands which had worked on Confederate ships were sneered at for their pro-South, objectively proslavery activity. Self-aware viewers who spend their days in a bank, or doing the admin for a multi-national corporation may have grimaced a little. But there is a case to be made, and Olusoga went some way to making it. Other work or, should it come to it, starvation are always available to the ethically-minded employee. Options, wage slaves should never forget, you wouldn’t have chattled.

Next, we were taken to rural Lancaster where those dark mills have been exorcised. Olusoga spoke of how he had been taught about the poor working conditions mill workers endured (that doesn’t really cut it – as they suffered through twelve hour shifts, many nine year olds lost lose life and limb to spinning mules and looms), but never had he nor his classmates, been told how the cotton ended up in their hands. It, the lifeblood of the Industrial Revolution, was grown on the forced labour camps – that’s plantations in our sanitized speech – of the American South. We’re right to condemn the “life” inflicted upon those millions stolen from Africa, but were Northern mill workers really culpable?

Well, yes, went the implication.

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(He didn’t explore it in great detail, but there was a movement among British workers to refuse employment involving the Southern blood cotton. Karl Marx helped organise these strikes, and provided morale to those left beleaguered by their courageous moral stand.)

The conclusion brought yet another plaque, this time planted in Brixton to memorialise a massacre of civilians perpetrated by Redcoats (in Jamaica). A succession of talking heads then reminded us again of Olusoga’s brief: black history is British history – and also, ordinary Britons bear responsibility, in part at least, for its darkest episodes.

Would it be too complicated to have mentioned that slavery still persists? That there are more slaves today than there were then? And that, should you reach into your pocket and take out an iPhone, chances are you are contributing to its terrible protraction? (Other corporations involved are Samsung, Sony, and Volkswagen.)

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Don’t these millions matter? Or are they an uncomfortable thought best brushed over? Perhaps because it might implicate those boring types who seek esteem for the sufferings of their father, and the sins of your’s.

Paddy

 

Why Trump is so Dangerous

20% of Trump supporters think freeing the slaves was a historical misstep.

A third think gays and lesbians should be banned from the country.

75% agree with the total Muslim ban. And goodness knows how many smile at the thought of concrete mass casting a shadow across the southern states.

This while the white working class – the demographic seemingly most taken with the resurgence of right-wing populism – are given hints to how they too will be shafted by a Republican victory. Trump wants to scrap the federal minimum wage, reduce corporation tax to zilch and expand mass surveillance – curtailing financial security and individual liberty.

So, let’s re-cap: the poor, the gays, the blacks, women, the entire population south of Texas (and a good number within), anyone who cares about civil rights, respecters of the Constitution, the Muslims – the largest religious group in the world – which have nothing to gain from President Trump.

What’s with the support then?

Trump uses language which is simplistic, catchy and without nuance. He makes – just like a good fascist leader might – the complicated easy to grasp. Existential problems become a matter of just “fixing ’em”. Trump isn’t the first leader to exploit this human weakness, plenty of democratically elected politicians rely on the amygdala, rather than the higher cortex to do voter’s thinking for them. His style just makes it more obvious. (Remember when he praised the “poorly educated”?)

Or, perhaps, even with all those flaws, a large number of people just want to give fascism another go…

Vox.com

 

For fuck’s sake.

 

For more See: Public Policy Polling study

 

Paddy

The Case for Restraints

Let’s have a quick look at the biggest problems currently facing the West: collapse of the social contract, an unacceptable rate of violent crime, strife between ethnic and religious groups, shocking levels of debt (both personal and state-level). Both the Left and Right would have difficulty denying the destructive nature of these developments, hallmarks of the early 21st century. However, when pontificating about these issues, the chosen thinkers from each tribe choose to ignore the (glaringly obvious) root cause: every single one of these calamities result from poor judgement of the general public. In doing so, they ignore a clear-minded and objectively water-tight solution.

The Great Recession is a perfect example. My economically-minded friends tell me most people are simply incapable of understanding the basics of their field. Is it really surprising then, when people are given autonomy over monetary matters the results are disastrous? Today we find Mr and Mistress Doles’ up and down the country, abandoning work, their children and all self-decency to pursue things they can’t afford (my thanks to IDS for providing a plethora of case examples which back this up, as well as many laughs). Is it any surprise we fell face-first in 2008 when such large levels of these incompetents have ready access to the financial world? Our forebears pursuing the Enlightenment agenda did us a disservice when they unceremoniously rejected the only-known prevention of the above: slavery.

Incessant bouts of boom and bust were unknown to the ancient Egyptians. The reign of the Aztec emperors did not beckon in the pay-day loans industry. These societies, totalitarian in nature, simply did not suffer these social ills.

This may be a shocking proposition for all of those which have received a liberal education (well, perhaps not shocking). But surely it’s our duty, in times of crisis, to consider what has worked in the past and apply it to the present? After-all, has the pursuit of liberty, fraternity and equality really so fruitful? Just what effect the pursuit of these values would lead to should have been apparent from the beginning, as Robespierre’s victims were piling up.

Reagan Foundation's insight into freedom and bad stuff happening
Reagan Foundation’s insight into freedom and bad stuff happening: we are steam-rolling toward disaster: 11

If all of this is reading like some terrible far-right manifesto – Hobbes on steroids – contemporary leftists may want consider how a re-introduction of slavery is, quite possibly, the radical economic shift they’ve been seeking. The alternative to neo-liberalism that was elusive for so long. A Marxist’s greatest bugbear is how the proletariat is being coerced into renting their labour in the most undignified ways imaginable. What better way of eliminating rent than full ownership?

The victims of chattel slavery frequently possessed higher living standards than the beleaguered lot slogging it out in the mills and factories in the industrial world. This is for one very simple reason. A manager has a stake in his owned workers – if they fall ill or into machinery they lose a very valuable possession. A rented worker is an expendable commodity by definition.

If you own something you treat it better than if you were to rent it. Take two brand new cars, give one to a rental agency and gift one to a friend. Inspect these cars in a years time and you’ll find that the former will be tired-looking with chipped paint and suspicious smells wafting from the boot; the latter will be as good as new. Undergraduates and others with free time are welcome to test this hypothesis.

Those still not convinced of my scrupulous non-partisanship ought to look at some of the heroes of the Right: Rand, Hayek, Smith. All of these writers promoted individual liberty regardless of its cost on society. This is far from what we should be striving for. The likes of Burke and Disraeli (and a few unmentionables) fully understood that a healthy society requires structure. Chains happen to be the best way of maintaining it.

The passage of time is often viewed as the great filterer of ideas. As the decades pass by, the propositions of man are scrutinised, and only the “good” ones persevere. Demonstrating their usefulness and value, they receive the acceptance of incoming generations. Bad ideas on the other hand, struggle to remain relevant, eventually slipping away into obscurity and the texts of unsympathetic history professors. This popular conception of “memetic” cultural evolution is rather misleading. As any clear-minded individual can see: today’s prevailing ideas aren’t always the best ones we can muster.

 Paddy