Essays on power and change in Western democracies: Gen Z curing Baby Boomers’ addiction to ponderous rationality

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2020 at 9:56 am

AMERICA goes to the polls on 3 November. The popular vote (aggregate of all votes) is trumped by an Electoral College system. Small states are kept warm to the federation by being gifted proportionally more Electoral votes than larger counterparts. Enviably, independent states act as countries within a country. By contrast, post-war statism continues to choke political grassroots in the United Kingdom.

For Trump’s achievement (aside from not going to war, a feat in itself) is stoking engagement amongst young voters; and he’s achieved it at the scorched earth level of the disenfranchised American underclass, in addition to Baby Boomers’ standard allegiance. The latter having shaped US and British politics since the early 90s. The Tories did not Brexit because it is theirs or Labour’s passion. Remember Heath’s passion and Wilson’s ambivalence towards the European project. And it was as much a hot debate then.

Millennials and Gen Z will represent 40% of the US electorate this autumn. A shift happening everywhere in the West. Issue-based young voters’ influence is gradually eclipsing party-based Boomers’. Educated millennial women with degrees will have a view on one Boris Johnson. Some of the underlying positive US economic metrics will nudge US voters towards Trump. Even so he is still looking at losing by five points in the popular vote, and 70 votes in the Electoral. If Johnson arrests the UK economy by 2024, he will still have a difficult job engaging the emergent political class.

Below the surface younger voters have another layer of changing experience that leads them towards change. Their structure of rationality no longer takes its cue from an unquestioned authorised canon of scaffolded knowledge, one largely formed in the early 20th century. Boomers, known for their chopped logics, binary and reductionist views, and so-called ‘common sense pragmatism’, are faced with Gen Z’s preference for the individual’s lived experience as the arbiter of truth.

Which brand of Camelot will Americans choose?: John F Kennedy held an interesting place in the minds of Western Europeans. Symbolising Western democratic principles that had rescued Europe and set it on a path out of demagogic imperialism; offering a clean, white-goods model-society, a life-style. But the myth of American innocence finds its full stop in this coming election. A known known in Biden versus the colour and carnivalesque of Trump. Biden’s cool-charisma, a restoration of a US Camelot, a measure of the JFK myth making; versus a Trump presidency where there is a measure of real politik, the ‘eat what you kill’ Wild West that doesn’t lack its own integrity. Gore Vidal revises Kennedy: “I never believed in Jack’s charisma… one of our worst presidents…; but Jack had great charm. So [had] Obama. He’s better educated than Jack. And he’s been a working senator. Jack never went to the office – he wanted the presidency and his father bought it for him.” (Quote from Melvyn Bragg interview – Times Newspapers Ltd, May 2008).

As Trump’s carnival float leaves town what if we take a closer look at the sociological landscape beneath the hoopla. I argue we rarely shine a light into the dark corners of the shifting Western mind and socio-linguistic structures which give rise to voter intentions and consumer behaviour.

Christopher Hitchins said that the noise you keep hearing in the background is the ‘falling scenery of the British Empire’. This backdrop was held up by our addiction to the scaffolding of bold reason. The sort of reasoning where all logical statements ultimately interlock into a neat irrefutable phalanx. And we Boomers have spent our time trying to stick the scenery back rather than push it over. Thatcher gave it a meritocratic shove of course. Her not being ‘a suburban housewife of little import’ but a major actor on the stage.

To consider how the dominant prism of Western rationality is revolving let us turn to the ordinary younger man and woman at the bus stop as a way of seeing how new generations will think over time. Where the Boomers are a Gutenberg generation, educated with the ‘authorised canon’ of knowledge, Gen Z are bi-directional learners, educated by ‘chasing the deer through the woods’ of a socially mediated encounter with knowledge. Where I sweated Shakespeare and logarithms by rote new generations are ‘educationally present’ in a number of different universes of meaning at the same time, with the classroom being just one. Their minds juggling multiple space and time encounters. Where I walked continuously through left-to-right time-and-space younger generations skip endlessly around chopped reality.

Boomers’ privileging of scaffolded rationality as arbiter of ‘good knowledge and action’ now looks rather ponderous. Where my education implanted a rationality constructed floor by floor towards a completed curriculum, framed by the view that logic intersected with other logics, to form a coherent overarching whole; we now find such notions harder and harder to promote. The father of modernity Friedrich Hegel put forth that there is an upward and forward movement of progress based on a regular interchange of ideas (dialectics). Based on the assumption that there is something inherently rational in the effort to map the structure of the universe as a form of cartographical exploration, enabling a steady advance of human society. Diametrically opposed to such an imperialist rationality was Hegel’s arch-enemy Søren Kierkegaard. Hegel’s universality of reason is challenged by Kierkegaard’s view of good human action being born out of the absurdity of lived experience (dialogics), in all its particularity. One that is closer to younger generations’ privileging of the individual’s worldview. A worldview that is cosmologically more discrete than Boomers’ desire to construct a shared canon of experience.

So, imagine for a moment you are at the bus stop, listening in to contemporary language in all its individuality if not absurdness and consider this from both a Hegelian (dialectical) and Kierkegaardian (dialogical) perspective:

“I love you!” says the man.

“I love you too!” says his lady friend, both sheltering from the drizzle.

What makes their love-making more profound is the desperation in his voice. What he meant was: “I really do love you; don’t you believe me?” and what she meant was: “Don’t worry I know you do.”

What we like about the phrase ‘I love you’, is the level of risk in saying it out loud. Speaking out loud here is a leap in the dark; a form of irrationality based on its inherent absurdity (we never know what love is ourselves, let alone expect someone else to know, so here in this vignette it represents my attempt to pose ‘a moment’ of typical absurdity). It is different from ‘love ya’ pop lyrics which dissipate into the ether. Bus stop man and woman are genuine interlocutors who are present in the same moment and have raised the stakes of their existence by attempting to say something quite transformational. Søren Kierkegaard would regard them as ‘knights of action’ not as ‘knights of resignation’.

That is to say neither are living off the memory of past love but are in the act of creating it. Here Kierkegaard attacks Friedrich Hegel’s notion of knowledge as a universal experience. To live by shared understanding of the universe, even shared ethics, is a form of resignation from the potential creation of the new. In a dialectical society (shared canon of knowledge) we become selves based on what we know universally (knights of resignation) rather than ‘leap into the unknown’ (knights of action).

Kierkegaard borrows the epic imagery of Abraham lifting his knife to plunge into his son Isaac. Christopher Hitchens said if God asked him to do that to his children he would say to God: ‘F*** you!’ Hitchens was a romantic idealist whose affection for rationality and knowledge as the basis of the good life was unbounded. Kierkegaard’s understanding of action was rooted in the fact that knowledge is frail and rarely forms the basis of action. Even Hegel states: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.’ Meaning seasons of life are rarely understood until a pool of knowledge grows sufficient to explain in rational terms; and knowledge’s coherence is too late to be genuinely useful. As opposed to living sensually, and thus avoiding the ponderous notion of rationalising experience post hoc.

Rationality on one level then is the ‘knight of resignation’ and the potential enemy of action. As we are forced to wait for the critical mass of reason to gather a force of argument sufficient to garner societal approval. It lives on its past provenance that then awaits the appearance of further philosophical critique to form the basis of solid knowledge (arguments we recognise). Hitchens dismisses Abraham’s act as barbarism. But for Kierkegaard Abraham knew his action of lifting the knife would be followed by another ‘inspired action’, one that resolves the situation. Importantly, Abraham did not need Isaac for his own meaning and worth in the world. He was not resigned to give away his life in order to preserve his son. Shockingly unethical. And that is Kierkegaard’s point. Timely action requires independence of spirit. One free from argumentation, explanation and endless life-sucking analysis.

Nietzsche’s cynicism that ‘we do not love our children but love what they can do for us’ points to our struggle to exist without the props of other people. Kierkegaard invites the good life as one lived without fear of loss. For Kierkegaard Abraham lifting the knife precipitated an alternative pathway. But in the act of irrationality and absurdity the world was changed. Waiting for the owl of Minerva to gather knowledge from sufficient data would be too late for a world needing change now. Hence Kierkegaard took aim at Hegel for slowing the world down to a grim rational dialectical process of constipated slow change. One that Gen Z equally finds ponderous. The Hegelian self is a ‘knight of resignation’ waiting for information, rational arguments, known knowns to form, before s/he takes a step forward. And voila: the modern Western democratic world where injustice waits for the law to catch up with it.

This brings us to John Major. I am reliably informed he was more impressive in person than he was televisually. Gravitas travels through airwaves and either dissipates or concentrates. Bus stop man’s tremor was partly his cluelessness as to how his self travelled through the night-time drama. The action was a risk of unknown quantity. Because what they could not do was put their text of experience into a con-text. The passer-by on this occasion had more con-text and brings it to bear on their moment of consummation. Paul Ricœur infers that hearsay then becomes an even more potent form of learning than formal knowledge. As our hearsaying does not disrupt the event itself.

And therein lies the problem of modern progress. The more technologically urban creatures we evolve into the less potential for us to exchange agreed experience. We have tried to resolve this through modern knowledge. But this has only compounded the struggle of ‘meaning what we say’. The extent to which knowledge is a genuine reflection on experience is a growing question. Often modern knowledge is a treatise on largely one form of knowledge: the denotative. To denote is to label. This is the equivalent of a clay pigeon shoot. Up flies the clay of experience and we instinctively take aim, unloading both barrels.

Periodically we hit the clay of experience and congratulate each other on labelling successfully an agreed experience. Even if the clay was only grazed. It is still in our view ‘true knowledge’. We have all agreed that a chair is a chair. Putting aside semiotics and Plato for one moment. We apprehend a new experience and our first action is to share it and then label it, and then agree its value. This happens in such short order we ignore what has taken place. In seconds we have gone from an unknown to a known. But in truth, as Sartre would agree, we have gone from stumbling apprehension of the unknown, to it being a foregone conclusion called: modern knowledge.

What has taken place is profound if not momentous. As genuine power sits in the space between apprehension of ‘the new’ and how this datum is converted into what we innocently term modern knowledge. Who decides on this process? Which committee double checks for authenticity? In truth the accident of experience collides with the accident of social agreement on ‘what is knowledge’.

This brings us back to John Major, and TV. TV has shaped knowledge and the modern landscape quite like nothing else. The eye of the beholder was ripped from its ‘point of view’. It meant we no longer communally stood on the same spot to review a shared way of seeing. We all began to encounter the same image from a profoundly mobile perspective. Here our bus stop anxiety can be understood. Our two interlocutors look generationally from the same pool of perspective. But their different paths of formation are strikingly separate.

Enter the postmodern fraternity to cheer the last point. I am ushering them away for now. They have had a good go at arguing for complete fragmentation but our physiological selves offer boundaries which they struggle to dispute without excessive solipsism. Our consciousness still operates in tandem with our embodied selves, and these selves share a physical milieu, which is persistently static enough to say we inhabit the same wider landscape. Our movement within that landscape still retains a physical boundary for the potential of experience to be shared. There is enough in our milieu to make life interesting and varied. And there is an ethical reason for accepting our milieu as saturated with enough repeatable encounters for us to learn about them and re-apply them when we encounter a similar situation. I am therefore not arguing for post-structural (loss of real world beyond our senses) landscapes where all experience is divorced from other’s experiences (postmodern fragmentation).

If there was infinite variation then knowledge will fall away completely as we would be stumbling blind through endless new encounters. Hence art. We introduce art because it disrupts the hard patterns of urban modern life which has become overly repetitive. As John Self says in Martin Amis’s Money: “Taking a leak is boring, isn’t it, after the first few thousand times? Whew, isn’t that a drag?” In other words modern experience, under a rationally ordered urban existence, has become too repetitive. Not because of modern architecture alone, but minds bent towards an overly reasoned order of society. This overly familiar landscape diminishes our ability to locate ourselves. Recovery is always found through new contexts but also through exchange of experience. And art restores this foundational counterbalance to hyper-rationality.

And art has to be re-inserted between apprehension and knowledge. That space between encounter and its social agreement. This is the space good education operates. But do not suppose for one moment that this space is open. The space is crammed with media, of all kinds. For media means middle. We might say all major domains have their central operational HQ in the middle space. The lecturer at the front of the class is in the middle. The news anchor too. They portray knowledge as a known known. Our role again is to recognise there is an antibiotic treatment known as: connotation.

To connote is not to denote. It is to allude to the potential of experience. Hence power is operating most keenly in the ability to insert the possibility that there are infinite ways to interpret a new apprehension. Modern anxiety is rooted in the horror of the scale of life’s contingency. Kierkegaard would say anxiety is the awareness of our requirement to make choices. A clear indicator we are alive. To enable a community to see that all of history is open and available for redescription is a remarkable achievement. John Self, in his descent, adds: “Television is cretinizing me – I can feel it.”  Politics, in truth, is inserting the necessary doubt about the forms of knowledge that TV, education, party-politics, or other power bases say are not up for negotiation.

As when knowledge is boxed for consumption, through labelling, we recognise rationality has been at work. That rationality has a source and we can trace it back to either money or vested interest. Whether it is the authoring of an ancient text or yesterday’s tabloid, nothing at all comes without a political interest. This is decidedly uncomfortable, as something within us demands a pure experience, as we want to exclude any possibility that a rich encounter comes without prior manipulation. Nothing wrong with gasping at the waterfall and celebrating its wonder; but inviting a community to only stand in wonder, and imposing an interpretation is too near to an imperialist rationality.

So we shoot at the clay but often only clip the edge of experience. But if we take a community and shoot collectively we might hit more. Nothing gains the attention of central government than a collective community clay shoot. Post-war rules-based leadership tried to argue that communities needed their encounters with the world moderated through supra-national institutions. And this is partly true. Poor leadership says we will hold communities in infancy well into their adult lives. Listen carefully to narratives from popular media and marketing. A fundamental Adult to Child relationship. Someone recently stated a woman of 16 frequently has more capacity to assume responsibility than a man does in his 50s. Is this partly due to the male socialisation and institutionalisation? The willingness for male identity to be drawn from occupation not collaboration? Increasing capacity for relational fairness comes early in feminine socialisation. Vulnerability towards others invites others towards us. I encounter constantly the exhausted Alpha Male in touching distance with their vulnerability in their 50s. Only to let it slip away.

What is noticeable about Alpha in his ‘prime’ is that power is predicated upon conquest. Feminine socialisation may on occasions feel it needs to dominate to achieve similar heights, but I wonder what if we combine the two leading traits into a whole. Modern egalitarian societies have flattened usefully, but only on the surface. What Alphas should explore is their presence in the middle space without pointing at objects and naming them. To occupy the space between apprehension and knowledge long-term is to create meaningful spaces ready for communal interchange. This is very difficult when hyper-individualism remains so dominant.

The French Revolution of course attempted to deal with many of these concerns of ‘the middle space’; between religious hegemony (mythos) and nascent reason (logos). “Messianism, [is] the mania of incarnations so carefully inculcated by Christian education…” So says Michelet’s introduction to the fifth volume of his History of the Revolution, dated 1869. As Conor Cruise O’Brien points out he is referring not to Christ but to Robespierre and Napoleon III. Power rests heavily in the middle space and often with one or two individuals. Removing these individuals just leaves the space for others to occupy. Revolution is an attempt to adjust the middle spaces between hierarchies. The hierarchies do not go away but rather they reform, and can reform more oppressively as history tells us. But the principle is reforming of the middle space offers a wider encounter.

With Western economies struggling from limited social mobility the emphasis turns to education as the key mediator. Not for the access that merit alone attains but the potential of personal formation. The awareness of con-text for our bus sheltered couple is something of a destination. The angst of ‘love’ can be added to with inflections. If Tristram Shandy is right and ‘love is a situation’ then the word love connotes an infinite variation of meaning. If you do not immediately agree then what does ‘love’ denote? Point to the object that the sign signifies. Hence Shandy takes every deviation possible, with ‘love’ only ever as analogous to events.

At the bus stop we are now aware of the gap between the sensibility of love as a series of possibilities; all of which were momentarily boiled down to ‘I love you!’. If the passer-by was of the literal variety they might say: ‘ahh, how sweet’. Before wending their way into the night. If the passer-by notes the tone and texture of the ‘I love you’ they are likely to perceive the danger our male interlocutor was in. His love appealed, hoped, faded, fell; all between the utterance of the ‘I’ and enunciation of the ‘v’ in ‘love’. Power existed in the ability for Lover A to arrest themselves at the moment of vocalisation and reckon with Lover B’s potential disappointment for becoming the object of unequitable hope. No human can satisfy another’s hopefulness, nor should they.

Gen Z’s concern for the meaning of love and experience to be extricated from rationality and into the type of digression Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy allows is commendable. That is to return to more dialogical connoting of life as crucial to the joy of being, versus Boomers’ rationalising of encounter into a known known; as articulated in the dialectics of modern knowledge (to know categorically). Here then are the layers beneath the political allegiances on the surface.

Essays on power and change in Western democracies: Intersections of rhetoric shaping the civil landscape

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2020 at 2:55 pm

THE DREAM CITY megachurch Phoenix, Arizona, hosted Donald Trump last month. Supporters waited in 110-degrees for the Students for Trump event. Covid’s damage to the US economy is affecting Mr Trump’s re-election chances. 128,000 deaths are a tragedy. Politically it is clearing some of the path for rival Joe Biden. During his Arizona trip Mr Trump autographed a plaque at the 200th mile point of the US-Mexico border wall project. But there are changes he cannot effect. Universal health care moves forward gradually. Mr Biden will aid its journey if elected. He will also turn the country towards net-zero emissions and new foreign policy relations. But what of the deeper historic divisions? Last week the Governor of Mississippi signed into law the bringing down of the Confederate battle flag. It had flown from the Capitol building since 1894. It is the final state to unpick the emblem from its official symbols of office.

For the present America has returned to the level of rhetorical warfare worthy of Richard Nixon’s period in office (’69-’74). Only a few weeks into Mr Nixon’s presidency he ordered the air force to start bombing Communist supply lines in neutral Cambodia. But, the bombing was kept secret until the New York Times broke it as a front page story. Mr Nixon called in FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to install wiretaps on the phones of four journalists and thirteen administration officials. History records Mr Nixon prolonging the Vietnam War, pitching white against black with his “southern strategy”, and causing American citizenry to regard each other as enemies. All, one biographer argues, for his own political ends. He was the only President to resign in shame. The parallels with Mr Trump’s tenure have already been rehearsed.

On 27 April 1994 Reverend Billy Graham delivered the sermon at Mr Nixon’s funeral. It was a peroration that sanctified: “the world has lost a great citizen”. Mr Nixon’s record was momentarily reborn and deeper questions flattened. Importantly the presidency was resurrected through hi-spiritual rhetoric. Keeping faith with the office of president is a non-negotiable element of America’s wars of rhetoric. Mr Graham’s narrative was a rescue mission which worked for a congregation already sitting awkwardly knowing what they knew. Elsewhere, away from the grieving, Mr Graham further absolved human frailty by stating Mr Nixon’s ‘drugs and demons’ had ‘play over him’. It is easier to blame demons after death than face them during life. Whether the office of president was a demon that had play over Mr Graham and now other ‘white evangelicals’ is a rhetorical battle still in play at the White House.

For America democratic change is proving painfully slow. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s celebrated analysis of American democracy in the 1830s, he noted the curious paradox of America’s commitment to free speech being undone by an absence of independent minds. In 1963 writer James Baldwin argued this absence was rather: “White Americans… [who] are terrified of sensuality…,” adding: “It will be a great day for America… when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it.” For Mr Baldwin foam rubber stood for the ‘apprehension of life’ and the ‘historical role… Christianity’ had played in shaping the American consciousness. But more importantly its unconsciousness towards America’s unequal sociopolitical systems and structures. Kelly Brown Douglas writes: “…fundamental aspects of Christian theology have been used to legitimate white supremacist realities and have become a part of the collective theological consciousness.”

Great American Paradox: The extent to which critical writers like James Baldwin reflect aspects of the New Testament’s emphasis on power and change more acutely than institutional religion begs the question of the relationship between Christianity and the sociopolitical systems to which it has climbed into. James Baldwin wrote: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” The potential for a new American Identity may already be planted in its marginalised communities. To this possible end The Episcopal Church’s Virginia Theological Seminary ‘has set aside $1.7m for a reparations fund… Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey… $27m’ (Sojourners, July 2020).

America’s troubled soul is self-evident. Its social contract is being written long after its Constitution. With its truths drawn from an indeterminate mix of Enlightenment philosophy, Thomist natural theology and traditional Judeo-Christian revelation the Republic could still be lost. These contradictions are often revealed in the power politics of American Christianity. It still is a young country. Double Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell reveals what an old country England was even in the early 1500s: “You can write on England, but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells.” America’s Constitution not so much ‘shows through’ but overshadows.

Did a conflicted soul make it easier for George W Bush to be ‘transformed by 9/11 from a compassionate conservative into a neocon who started two of his country’s longest wars’? Or the anti-intellectualism of Mr Trump’s base joining with the White Christianity of middle-America? They have both turned Right for their ideology’s salvation. Either way it is a turn away from the complex nature of the relationship between faith and justice. Not helped by American Protestantism taking the form of a solus ipse spirit; to go with its Reformation sola fide and sola scriptura. A confidence in self actuality rather than a communal interpretation of ancient meaning. This individualist brio became an almost perfect partner to neoliberalism’s hyper-individualism. But the power of American Optimism struggles to come to terms with limitations.

The American writer Saul Bellow called death the black backing on the mirror. It enables us to see our lives and selves in reflection. And White Christian individualism has not evolved a theology of death that sits well with eternal optimism. James Baldwin opened profound theological questions in Sixties America. But mainstream Christian apologists such as Billy Graham would not engage in dialogue. Mr Baldwin was a symbol of a growing black consciousness. This contrasted strongly with Mr Graham’s evangelicalism, which was a symbol of a persistent spiritual innocence that is still pervasive today.

It is important to remember that Billy Graham-style evangelical rallies were vast. So much so when you got up out of your seat to respond to the nightly altar call, there was a very real danger that you would not find it again. And that is the challenge of American quantification. To reach a mass audience exaggeration is essential. For square-jawed evangelists to convince an aircraft-hangar-sized congregation with Sixties amplification ar-tic-u-la-tion of the gos-pel in hyperbolic form was needed. For the message to reach the back row it had to have been launched with such force those in the front rows were transfixed. Megaphones need monosyllabic language to travel through the air. Subtlety is stripped off and the remaining bones are chewed for nourishment. Mr Graham’s speechness invited no echo.

Homespun religion was a coherent personal theology that did not invite a discussion. It was a style of faith that releases the self into a private internal struggle. But private crises are rarely resolved through private reflection. Mr Baldwin’s critique of white culture with its plastic bread that tasted of nothing could be seen in white evangelicalism. White Christianity could see the murderous violence of segregation. But it relied on changing the human heart. Not addressing discrimination meant gagging the raging prophets from the Old Testament who burnt incandescently for justice above ‘harps and sweet music’. Where Martin Luther King Jr offered the prophetic, and generated collectivised power, Mr Graham offered a depoliticised Christianity.

The power of crowds should not be underestimated. Despite the hubbub oratory was personal. When the Sergeant Major bellows on parade, soldiers are convinced he or she is the ‘orrible piece of work needing extra drill. When troops overseas have been in male-only company and a comedian is sent to entertain invariably a small female dance troupe go along. Every man believes the impossibly unmale vision has eyes only for him. The impossibly certain pastor poses, pauses and pounces; and all believe it is to them this message is supernaturally directed. Today’s mass rally, political or religious, is held together by stagecraft and nervous expectancy.

This command-from-the-stage steers White Christianity to choose low powered targets. Conservative evangelicals sometimes gather against the arts, rather than for them. Often in protest against artful representations of Jesus. Their sensibilities are hurt. Accompanied by guitar choruses heavy with mawkish sentiment. Folk religion without any edge is prone to flat earth anything-goes-thinking.

Mr Graham I argue would privately agree with me. He cited the 20th century’s leading theological voices. Reformed protestant giants Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. They wrote a withering critique of a paganised Christianity that had become a God is Great reduction. From the story of the builder from Nazareth, White Christianity had created the Christ Idol. This figure loomed with threatening texts on the walls of Christian homes. But Mr Graham bowdlerised Barth’s critical message. Barth accused White Christianity of presenting God as a ‘simple, absolute being… a cosmic dictator’.

Instead Mr Graham postured and brought all to attention. The ancient text was a divine codex. And looking back it is possible he struggled to understand its core themes beyond headline messages. At times he held it in such a way that he feared its spontaneous combustion. Whatever I’ve got here is beyond my literal reading; I’m scared of its mysteries and you can feel my own fear. If I don’t tell you just how scared I am then we’re all in danger. His honesty was American. A lot of the genius of America is in its fronting up. George W Bush would say: ‘Iraq is a war of revenge’. No guile. Gothic bare boards of truth.

A Product Of Americana?: Chronicler of American provincial power Philip Roth wrote a response to President Richard Nixon’s politics by re-characterising “The president’s chief ally… [as] the Reverend Billy Cupcake—a stand-in for the granddaddy of the religious right” (Greenberg). A republic constantly in danger from its own energy is likely to produce figures whose popularity stems from their ability to flatten out the stark contradictions between modernity, America and Christianity.

In contrast Martin Luther King Jr read his ancient text and it was a reportage of present day Black American experience. The violence of crucifixion and exile in Egypt was another front-page story from within black communities. When George Orwell trundled out of Northern English coal mining communities, his Southern benefactors refused to believe Great Britons lived in abject squalor. They recoiled from its implications for their own lives and communities. Mr Graham’s rural theology was in no position to face the reality of African-American experience.

Ultimately Mr Graham’s Kingdom was a bit too much like Oz, far off and magical. And a misreading of New Testament theology. He found it hard to tell truth to charismatic ceasaresque power. He was resistant to Barth’s opus magnum. A radical new relational ecology far from the production economy at the heart of neoliberalism.

The backdrop of post-war America did not invite cool reflection. Images of ICBMs raining from open Kansas skies and America’s superpower status being erased steadily in the jungles of Vietnam kept folk flocking to apocalyptic preachers like Mr Graham. The Barth, Bultmann et al corpus argues what Mr Graham missed was the Christ Event’s metaphors. The apocalypse related to humanness in all its potential. New Testament theology was a restoration of the Human Epic. The Kingdom narrative was ‘life now’ as counter to the ennui and anomie of industrial living. Rather than ‘life future’ as captured by the American Dream and Western Civilisation casus foederis. That is not to say people could not find a version of Jesus through Mr Graham. But his conversion experience was devoid of Jesus the revolutionary, and Jesus the ‘essence of reality’. This figure physically and metaphorically attacked the temple complex’s alliance with Romanus Economicus. Instead newly minted evangelicals would not look at top shelf magazines again. But now they were in danger of not wanting to look if they were not careful. What the original Martin Luther might call a spiritual death by religious legalism. For both Calvin and Luther reckoned if the human spirit was not engaged then everything else was superficial nonsense.

Early on American Christianity broke off from a European magisterium and evolved into a culture that was stripped of cultural handrails. A pure liberal ‘eat what you kill’ existence. Mr Trump’s often poor Republican base is voting for tax breaks for the rich based on the remotest possibility they too might ‘make it’. Such ideological patriotism remains hidden in plain sight. It is partly fuelled by conservative Christianity’s tacit support for feudal capitalism.

Lazy preaching also fitted TV too well. America was a TV nation. Its role in shaping the national consciousness cannot be underestimated. Preachers could be dazzled by US presidents who knew the political value of a religious talisman. Mr Graham’s puritanism did not allow him to think ill of these men. They remained flawed but because they told him they meant good, and said it in homespun inflections, we should believe them. Such grand naivety set the tone for the hokey spirit. The Holy Spirit was found amongst the dust and devastation of crucifixion. A peculiarly sadistic end reserved for the detritus of the Roman World. It brooked no televisual quality as popular culture ruled the airwaves.

Preachers were spiritually formed in religious seminary climates almost unique to the US educational scene. Where private institutions proliferate. Unchecked lecturers could avoid giving off the dank odour of intellectualism. Intellectualising was a dark European modus that would lead to the sordid perversions of liberalism. Or worse, Communism. Newly fledged college minds tended to look at nuance as if it was sexually ambiguous. An androgyny that robbed economies of their animal spirits. Much of this is found in the Make America Great Again narrative. Mr Trump, like Bill Clinton, borrowed this phrase from Ronald Reagan. It has the megaphone quality that travels to the back of the arena.

Mr Trump said earlier this year during a live briefing session: “Why is it three or four times more so for the black community” to be impacted by Covid-19? Writer Kierra Jackson noted that social media reacted with: “The white man said it, but we have been screaming this for years,” with another adding, “Blackness is not a risk factor. Anti-blackness is the comorbidity.” Also a registered nurse Kierra Jackson cites US Surgeon General Dr Jerome Adams: ‘Minorities are not more predisposed to infection “biologically or genetically,” but rather they are “socially predisposed” to it’.

What the pandemic is doing is opening spaces to recognise how White Christianity has struggled to pull its theology back from Christian nationalism and importantly an unquestioned authoritarianism.  Martin Luther King Jr argued many remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” In an article by Sophie McBain the New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen talks of the pandemic as an ‘amplifier’ and that the lockdown plus protests ‘have provided a renewed sense of purpose and connection’. These are the sorts of debates that James Baldwin was surfacing back in 1963. Gessen describes this as a journey out of a tacit authoritarianism. Ultimately is the pandemic a key moment, the backing on the mirror? Of course White American Christianity is not ready to see itself. It is still too busy exporting its cultural artefacts. But this is the nature of authoritarian hegemonies. Hegemonic power is held in a constant transmission of its reasons for existence. Rome’s collapse was due to rampant inequalities as wealth was concentrated in the hands of a senatorial clique who refused to act.

Pathways to reform: Economic recovery will rest increasingly on new levels of mutuality and tolerance

In Uncategorized on June 23, 2020 at 2:31 pm

ON the morning of 26th July 1945 Britain woke up to the results of the General Election. The Daily Mail newspaper warned the Labour Party to ‘accept an adverse verdict like men and not like spoilt children’. As the day wore on it became clear the Conservative Party was in trouble. Duncan Sandys, Winston Churchill’s son-in-law, and wartime Minister of Works lost his seat in Parliament; so too Churchill’s son, Randolph, turfed out of his Preston constituency. By 7 p.m. Labour had gained 225 seats, up from 165 to 390. At No. 10, as Churchill packed his cigars away, apparently in ‘good grace’, underlying concerns rumbled: could the new Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, stand up to Stalin?

Leo McKinstry’s study of Churchill and Attlee’s wartime partnership reckons that it survived because it was “partly a reflection of Churchill’s greatness and partly of Attlee’s patience”. Churchill would be known to pontificate: “Well, gentlemen, I think we can all agree on this course,” with Attlee responding: “You know, prime minister, a monologue by you does not necessarily spell agreement.”

1st February 2016. The start of the American primary season. Donald Trump had as yet no support from major Republican backers. From nowhere Trump started to win: New Hampshire, then South Carolina. The endorsements grew. No-one was more terrified of these events than the Republican Party itself. The senior guard fired off warnings, only to end in damp squibs.

Any student of American politics knows that when the campaign trail commences political issues get thrown overboard. For America is the land of ‘reaching out’ for ‘consensus’. Its main chambers are curved with opposing parties effectively shoulder to shoulder. They face the Speaker, unlike the adversarial House of Commons where opponents are two sword lengths apart. Just enough thinking time before delivering a fatal blow. The discomfit we feel about British political life is the shift from statecraft to US-style cheer-leading. Dominic Cummings is in the mould of the professional campaign manager whose focus is ‘authoritarian alignment’. Here is the failure to gate-keep both US and UK political systems.

Rome’s ancient Forum complex: The model for every town centre in the UK. The institutions of state gather round an open space where they are intended to echo ‘the voice of the people’. Or as they used to say in Rome on a Friday night: “Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.” Meaning: ‘And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness!’ The elections of ’45 and ’16 reveal a ‘mass society’ struggling to voice its desire for a new social order.

Both 1945 and 2016 reveal the tendency for underlying human affections to remain hidden from view. No amount of punditry or prophecy can predict. But more critically little of the surface events of the election circus dent the institutional layers beneath. For western democratic institutions do ‘know’ in an almost biblical fashion ‘their people’; as they are in fact ‘the people’. Dedicated citizenry run the machinery of nation states but no journalist is going to write about the boiling intrigue within the finance function of St Godric’s Borough Council. Virtually all our media attention is directed towards agents who have little genuine power.  

Paradoxically the core of Western democracy is its ‘separation of power’: this is the style of architecture that bogs down political charisma in protracted committee room processes. As intended. This truism ties nations like Britain and the US into the same category. What separates us quite violently is the social landscape.

As a grandee of American literature and even greater political polemicist, plus darling of the liberal intellectuals, Gore Vidal, points out: ‘Empires absorb energy, they give out energy, but when they’re over they are like a cold dead mackerel at five in the morning’. Europe after WWII is by comparison to the US a collection of dead mackerels with nearly all its hopeful attention turned towards the supercharged American landscape for inspiration. With US soft power reaching far beyond the gunboats of the British Empire, it has proved more effective at drawing people groups towards change.

Currently what the Trump presidency is doing is offering a portent of America as a ‘dead fish society’. And what we Europeans are wondering is what state will its institutions be in after their world dominance reduces. As up for grabs is America’s core notion of freedom, one that was written into its founding documents. This is of little value if their institutions cease to function due to a hobbling of essential components: that of mutuality and moderation. For Western democracy is rooted in a level of civility and shared purpose that defies easy recognition.

After Attlee’s victory the new consensus is as striking now as then. Clapping for the NHS revealed the durable goodwill of the British people to suspend the Brexit divide and collectively support  what remains a British Project. That of the British socialist/capitalist hybrid of welfarism and market forces. To sustain this requires ongoing post-war mutuality of the voting public. On the day of Attlee’s victory a docker in the East End of London carried a placard with the words: “This is the hour of triumph for the common man”. Few at the time had read common woman’s true intent but the social shift was profound.

What remains unexplored is the new emerging mutuality post Recession 2020. Although we don’t know it publicly we are about to re-negotiate the social contract, whether we like it or not. What WWII illustrated was the preparedness to fight for our version of civilisation. It was not a foregone conclusion as no-one knew that an isolationist America would get involved in what was another European war. There is of course no special relationship between Britain and America. It is a ruse for public consumption. Roosevelt regarded the Europeans as leaving the ‘stench of Empire’ wherever they set foot. Plus he wanted in on Britain’s imperial markets. Which we effectively gifted away early on in WWII.

The rapid collapse of colonialism left a huge vacuum. The only possibility to fill this gaping hole was newly minted liberal democratic systems. The NHS being a shining and more obvious institutional symbol. What makes the NHS an almost sacred emblem, one that not even Atlee’s 1945-’51 new government could have foreseen, is how an aspiring working-class made its social-economic journey in willing lock-step with this particular bureaucratic institution.

Such mutuality is at the core of economic adjustment. Without the new middle-classes tied into national direction Western democratic principles become eroded. Why Westminster style adversarial politics can continue to square up to each other is because its institutional architecture offers a reflection of its wider core values. America is desperate for a new consensus but it is currently finding none. It is throwing its nascent civility out of the window leaving its notion of free speech tarnished. Britain is therefore in a remarkable head start as its ability to hold a civil national and international conversation is considerable.

Far from wishing to tear up its institutions ‘common woman’ wants to deepen her partnership. But this still means opening institutions up for new dialogue. With the coming pain new spaces will have to open between all institutional players. Where America is a country that has ‘written itself down on paper’ Britain can still write itself new versions of history. If Americans do not really know what ‘life, liberty and freedom’ mean because they cannot as yet hold a meaningful exchange due to their social landscape Britain can open up the public sphere with confidence. Vidal called the US a country that is obsessed with the ‘foetus and flag’. And one that has yet to let go of the ‘conquest model of leadership’. A deeply socially divided nation cannot yet find the forums to exercise its freedoms. The quality of debate has yet to match the quality of its constitutional vision. We can take great pride yet in our community’s ability to exchange deeply opposing worldviews without descending to screaming.

For it is one thing to have forbearance written down as a principle it is another to educate people to understand how to compromise on their individual desires. Britain’s future will be based upon the principle of a new generosity towards concession. That communities collectively agree what is important over and above what is desirable will be a shift as great as the post-war dividend of a welfare system. In ’45, despite 200+% debt to GDP ratio, new lock-step institutions staved off unrest.

This is about solidarity with future generations and interpreting well their investment in partnership with liberal democratic systems. For sure America is a land of great contradictions. There are few greater contradictions between the grand rhetoric of American aspirations and provincial life. Philip Roth’s The Human Stain reveals the difficulties of language and meaning in the pressure pots of small town America: “People are bored here, they are envious, their life is as it is and as it will be, and so, without seriously questioning the story, they repeat it…” Like small town provincial Britain what is said by the external ‘rooted cosmopolitan’ voices has to be re-voiced when it travels into communities. And vice versa.

And this is part of the pathway to reform. As the joke goes it doesn’t matter what American politicians say about Make America Great Again; as the American citizen imagines greatness to be a society of prosperity, democracy and security, along with good government. Currently that society is called: Denmark! If America wants to get to Denmark it is not going the right way about it. As America creaks from the power of the lobbyists buying off its politicians the question for Britain is how it establishes a fuller alignment of its bureaucracies to public purpose in the way the Danish have.

It’s difficult to see this transition in Britain without leadership that re-engages the provinces on their aspirations and invites regional leadership that voices these desires. This then is an extended and tolerant dialogue across the whole community at all levels. Grassroots mobilisation is closely linked to education. For education gives access to economy and economy gives a politically charged voice. The ability to translate a complex British landscape within local communities is a task for gifted facilitation. The ability to understand the balance between state, law and accountability is a crucial component for a recovering economy. Unless regional communities can argue their broad interests then full progress will inevitably be slowed.

Core institutions then are in a powerful interplay. That doesn’t mean an automatic devolution of power will equal vibrant and newly engaged communities. But it does mean exploring Weber’s relationship between traditional charismatic and rational authority. The spiritual energy from traditional communities has to interface with the institutional rationality of a functioning state. This is where we are back to fostering significant compromises between competing aspirations. Mixing the vibrancy of the pluralistic and cosmopolitan into the provincial and traditional requires patient debate about what we mean by social mobility. Nonetheless, this will be traumatic.

American despair currently is less about Trump but rather the inability from the 1950s onwards for successive US administrations to appease a newly socially mobilised populace. Its post-war society had heeded the call to get a college education, tempted by the promise of middle-class rewards. But the fruits of ‘hard work’ didn’t materialise in lock step. As social mobility crawls along in Britain, despite the efforts of the Blair government to expand education, the ‘hot debate’ that is brewing is about the relationship between expectation and government accommodation. This isn’t all bad news. But it will require mature public spaces. Facilitated by even more tolerant and patient forms of leaders who understand the under-currents of public opinion. They weren’t read well in ’45 and ’16 but presently they are shifting firmly towards a new social contract which could be as radical as we have ever seen.