Regular readers will have noticed that this blog hasn’t covered the Decent Left much of late. Truth be told, apart from the new book by coincidence theorist David Aaronovitch, and Nick Cohen’s increasingly desperate attempts to commit suicide by cop at the Observer, there isn’t all that much to report. The end of the Bush-Cheney administration took the wind out of their sails, and they’ve never really recovered. I hear that Alan (Not The Minister) Johnson is planning a big new reinvention in September – or at least another one of his thousands of online vanity projects – but even NTM will be hard pushed to inject some life into it.
No, I expect it will be more of the same old crap. Norman Geras boring on about universal values, how the values that he, Norm, stands for are truly universal, and how (insert fancy footwork here) these universal values are consistent with special pleading for Israel. David “Mr” T running more exposés about Gilad Atzmon, in between lunches at Nando’s. Marko D Ripper holding forth on how the Serbs are trying to sap and impurify all of his precious bodily fluids. HP’s resident guest lunatic Morality Blog popping up in the comments boxes to dishonestly accuse people of being dishonest. This will all be bound together by a portentous manifesto that will sink without trace after two weeks of frantic puffery.
The trouble is, I get bored easily, and while one can always get some enjoyment from shooting fish in a barrel, you don’t want to always be shooting the same fish in the same barrel. A bit of variation is nice. So, while I may come back to the Decents if they say or do anything interesting, in the meantime let’s keep with a theme from recent weeks and pop over to the “National Secular Society”, a body that is to secularism what Mel Gibson is to Catholicism. The NSS’s weekly upload of articles normally has something to pique the interest. And indeed, Titus Oates decides to eschew Papist plots this week in favour of bashing the Presbyterians. But more of that later.
I was first struck by this article on the withering away of Judaism in the United States. The article hails the growing number of “secular Jews”, by which it apparently means atheists with Jewish surnames. Actually, the spin is that increasing numbers of US “Jews” are choosing to identify themselves by ethnicity rather than religion. Well, it depends what you mean by Jews, I suppose. Orthodox congregations aren’t doing too badly, and of course haredi communities are growing rapidly. There is, on the other hand, a noticeable decrease in religious observance, and increase in marrying out, amongst those liberal Jews who weren’t very observant in the first place.
I saw this and wondered how it fit in with the article run by the NSS the other week on the court ruling in the JFS admissions case, attacking the idea that the organised Jewish community (in this instance, the United Synagogue with which the JFS is affiliated) could decide who was Jewish for the purposes of admission to Jewish schools. The two don’t mesh together very well – and the JFS article was deeply confused – but the “secular Jews” line is probably a safe one to take, lest the NSS annoy their mates at Harry’s Place. The Saucers, particularly the Jewish ones, are very big on Jewishness as a racial category but don’t particularly like Judaism.
Just so the Catholics don’t escape for a week, there’s also a piece on how the Sarkozy administration in France is destroying the constitutional separation of church and state. This seems rather unlikely, given Sarko’s frequent appeals to laïcité whenever he wants to bash the Muslims. And indeed, all this amounts to is foreign minister Bernard Kouchner creating a panel of religious experts to provide guidance to French diplomats in being culturally sensitive in whatever countries they’re stationed in. This doesn’t seem problematic to me, unless you belong to the missionary school that says that cultural sensitivity is an expression of weakness, and western diplomats’ role is to elevate the natives to our level of civilisation.
But now to the main event, and NSS head honcho Titus Oates bursts into prose to lambast Gordon Brown. The occasion for this is an interview Brown gave to Premier Christian Radio. Now, Brown doesn’t talk very much about his Presbyterian background, but when he agreed to go on Premier it was only to be expected that he would be asked about this background, and about his thoughts on issues of Christian concern. Which is what he spoke on, although in rather general terms:
In Britain we are not a secular state as France is, or some other countries. It’s true that the role of official institutions changes from time to time, but I would submit that the values that all of us think important – if you held a survey around the country of what people thought was important, what it is they really believed in, these would come back to Judeo-Christian values, and the values that underpin all the faiths that diverse groups in our society feel part of.
It’s not really exceptional, if you’re talking about the values of the culture and where they come from. If we say that the cultural values of Spain or Poland are informed by Catholicism, or that Moroccan or Iranian culture is shaped by the Islamic tradition, that’s no more than a statement of fact. Indeed, as Friedrich Nietzsche liked to point out, the morality of secular humanists is basically New Testament Christian morality minus its theological underpinnings. For some reason, secular humanists get very irate when you say this.
I think it’s impossible because when we talk about faith, we are talking about what people believe in, we are talking about the values that underpin what they do, we are talking about the convictions that they have about how you can make for a better society. So I don’t accept this idea of privatisation – I think what people want to do is to make their views current. There is a moral sense that people have, perhaps 50 years ago the rules were more detailed and intrusive, perhaps now what we’re talking about is boundaries, beyond which people should not go. And I think that’s where it’s important that we have the views of all religions and all faiths, and it’s important particularly that we’re clear about what kind of society we want to be. So I think the idea that you can say: ‘What I do in my own life is privatised and I’m not going to try to suggest that these are values that can bind your society together’, would be wrong.
Again, this is not outrageous, unless you believe that political leaders have no place talking about values – and again, I hold that you have to be a pretty extreme utilitarian to believe that values and morality shouldn’t have any place in political discourse. What Brown says is more or less in tune with the mainstream of British liberal Protestant thought. It isn’t consonant with the common British view that morality should be totally privatised, but that isn’t something that many politicians could state openly.
Anyway, Titus waxes wroth here, taking as a jumping-off point some remarks Brown makes about diversity, cohesion and integrating immigrant populations:
What are we to make of this in relation to Mr Brown’s claims that this is a “Christian country” run on “Judaeo-Christian principles”? What must the Muslims think of that? The Government seems to be plying the “Muslim community” (i.e. the “faith leaders”) with bribes on the one hand and then telling them their religion is secondary to Christianity on the other.
Leaving aside the faux concern for Muslim sensitivities, which is belied by the “appeasement of Islam” stuff Titus puts out on a regular basis, the trouble is that I don’t think Brown said what Titus said he said. Did Brown say that Britain was a Christian country run on Christian principles? No, he did not. He talked in a somewhat woolly way about the Christian derivation of British values. But to Titus, that’s as near as damn it Brown advocating a theocratic government.
Not for the first time, the NSS’s output reminds me a little of the Workers Revolutionary Party of blessed memory. Gerry Healy would always take one of two tacks: either the revolution was around the corner, or the fascist coup was around the corner. Titus has a rather similar shtick, based on alternating triumphalism about the decline of religion (which often includes suggesting that lots of people who identify as religious are lying, and should really be counted as atheists) with his “OMG! The theocrats are taking over! If we don’t watch out, Britain will be just like Iran!”
Gerry understood very well that this sort of thing helped to galvanise the troops. But it can be a bit enervating, and it leads me to think that maybe Titus would do well to cut down on the caffeine.