Damno ergo sum

Descartes

While we’re waiting for the Euro-election results – and scuttlebutt is looking extraordinarily bad for the DUP – I’d like to ponder on something that Green MEP Caroline Lucas was saying on Newsnight the other night. This was apropos of Rankin’ Dave Cameron’s plan to take Tory MEPs out of the European Peoples Party and form a new Strasbourg bloc of rightwing Eurosceptic parties, mostly of the Eastern European persuasion. This is something that Ian Traynor has been banging on about in the Grauniad for weeks, largely recycling talking points from New Labour and the Party of European Socialists. To be scrupulously fair to Cameron, he isn’t proposing an alliance with the real rightwing exotica in the European Parliament, such as the League of Polish Families, the Greater Romania Party or Alessandra Mussolini’s Azione Sociale. It’s just that, by the hysterical tenor of Traynor’s articles, you’d assume he was.

Now, I like Caroline Lucas a lot more than I like Ian Traynor, and I wish she was one of my MEPs rather than the shower we have over here, but she was talking very much along the same lines. What was interesting to me was her line of argument against Cameron’s proposed partners. Given Václav Klaus’ eccentric views on climate change, it’s unsurprising that the Czech Civic Democrats are ideologically treif for a Green. The thing that startled me a little was Caroline lighting into the Polish Law and Justice Party, the vehicle of the Kaczyński brothers, which has a stringent moral conservatism as a key part of its platform. “Some of these people,” thundered Caroline, “actually believe that homosexuality is a sin!”

If I was being unkind, I might linger a little on the fact that Caroline is running for parliament in the gay ghetto of Brighton. I don’t in fact think she’s being opportunistic, I just think she’s being slightly disingenuous. She can’t really be surprised that rightwing Polish Catholics aren’t as gay-friendly as leftwing British Greens, nor do I think she seriously is. What she was saying was that these people’s opinions were so outrageously beyond the pale that no decent person should consider even forming a tactical alliance with them.

There is possibly an aspect here of being a little inured to this kind of thing – he who listens to phone-ins on Radio Ulster will be exposed to a very different spectrum of views than she who listens to phone-ins on Five Live. After all, we get to hear the weird and wonderful thoughts of Iris Robinson and Sammy Wilson on a regular basis – lots of us even vote for them. On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to what Madam Miaow was saying on the dog ‘n’ bone this morning, that it’s when we lose the capacity to be shocked that we should be worried. Mind you, it’s something that has struck me for some considerable period of time, that a lot of well-meaning people, when faced with outright reaction, simply go haywire. It’s where you find this assumption that views falling outwith modern metropolitan cultural mores are not opinions you can disagree with, but psychopathologies to be anathematised. Britain isn’t quite as advanced as Canada, where those holding unfashionable opinions can be hauled in front of human rights tribunals and told to stop expressing those opinions in public, but it’s getting there.

So anyway, in my whimsical fashion, I was watching this segment on Newsnight and started thinking that this was the sort of thing that would be tailor-made for those jokey pieces they sometimes like to do in Philosophy Now, wondering what great thinkers of the past would make of contemporary problems. Actually, you could have a Newsnight Review-style round table, perhaps featuring Nietzsche, Locke, Descartes and the late Saint Augustine.

Nietzsche would, I think, have found the whole argument rather funny. He understood as well as anyone that religion is an integral system, and once you start removing planks then the whole edifice is under threat. You will notice, for instance, that Reform Judaism tends to suffer quite a high attrition rate, while the Haredi sects experience it hardly at all; in irreligious Britain, the Catholics and Pentecostalists are thriving, while the dear old C of E is virtually dying on its arse. That’s because there’s an incredibly strong imperative in religion to hold onto traditional values. The systematic aspect of this is quite important. For example, the Catholic stance on homosexuality is not some arbitrary and irrational piece of prejudice – if anything, it’s too rational, as Catholic teaching on sexual morality, deriving from an Aristotelian concept of natural law, is a one-size-fits-all doctrine that simply doesn’t make room for the gays. That’s why Pope Benny might, if you ask him the right question, talk about a compassionate approach to all of God’s creatures, but he’s not going to rewrite the rule book in accordance with the demands of OutRage! and Channel 4 News.

Nietzsche grasped this brilliantly, as an essential part of his “Death of God” thesis. His view was that, once you killed off the basis of religion, then you also destroyed the basis of traditional morality, and therefore the Umwertung aller Werte – the revaluation of all values – came into play as, if you had the courage of your convictions, you had to consciously rewrite values from the bottom up. He had particular fun attacking the freethinkers who, having disposed of Christian belief, wanted to hang onto those bits of Christian morality they found congenial, while ditching the bits they didn’t like. Even if you don’t like to use the word “sin”, you certainly believe in right and wrong. But without a firm ethical basis, the danger is that your morality is simply based on what is popular at any particular point in time.

So let us now turn to Augustine. His political theology is of interest in terms of the debate around separating church and state, especially regarding the distinction he drew between sin and crime, and why it wasn’t the business of the state to outlaw sin. In Augustine’s view, the state could legislate to prevent citizens from harming each other, but it couldn’t legislate to make citizens virtuous – that was the job of religion. The distinction is important when we come to the question of tolerance. You see, if one approves of something, or is indifferent to it, then tolerance doesn’t come into the equation. I don’t “tolerate” homosexuality because I don’t have a moral problem with it. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to believe that homosexual acts should be legal, and that gays shouldn’t be persecuted by the state, while simultaneously holding that homosexuality is sinful. I would suggest that this is in fact the majority viewpoint in the north of Ireland. You may similarly get people to agree that abortion should be legalised here as a social necessity, but it would be a much tougher ask to get people to stop disapproving of abortion – even the Alliance for Choice fight shy of that one.

While we’re on the subject of toleration, let’s turn to Locke, who still informs a lot of left-liberal thinking on cultural matters. I remind you that Locke’s call for religious toleration was restricted to the Non-Conformist sects; he explicitly opposed toleration for the Catholic Church, on the grounds that Catholicism was, well, intolerant. If you hear in this an echo of Geert Wilders and his call to protect Dutch tolerance by not tolerating brown people with funny religions, you aren’t far wrong. And you may also detect an affinity with the Decent Left. It has to be understood here, in the context of British constitutional history, that for over 300 years, from Henry VIII until about the 1850s, the central issue in English politics was the Catholic problem. I suggest that the Muslim problem currently exercising the intelligentsia is basically the Catholic problem by other means.

Finally, let’s have a brief pitstop with Descartes. Old René, following on from the Galileo affair, was insistent on the need to start from first principles and, if first principles are in conflict with standing public opinion, then so much the worse for standing public opinion. This works quite well for science, but, notwithstanding the pretensions of scientific socialism, I’ve never really believed that you can have a Cartesian approach to politics.

I believe this because of the difficulty in establishing unarguable first principles in politics. What you usually end up with is conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. Or one thinks of Francis Wheen’s Mumbo-Jumbo, where rationalism is identified with propositions Francis agrees with (though how his strident scientism is compatible with Private Eye‘s stance on MMR is still a mystery), while propositions he disagrees with are dismissed as mumbo-jumbo. Or one can get into the far left where the various shibbolethim of the various groups – “consistent democracy” for the AWL, “centrism” for Workers Power, “popular frontism” for the Weekly Worker, and whatever you’re having yourself – are elevated into first principles that can form a golden key to explaining the world and pointing a uniquely correct way forward.

My point here is that politics is, above all else, a dialogue. One may have one’s ethical or moral or ideological compass, although much of the political class appears to have none except the gaining and holding of office. But it’s vital to hang onto the necessity of dialogue. We don’t gain much from stating a tangled bunch of preconceptions as first principles and then acting as if those who hold dissenting positions are somehow mad or bad.

Yet, for all that, Caroline Lucas has some basic principles. So too have the mad Polish Catholics, although they aren’t the same ones. If Lord Snooty has any, I’ve yet to notice.

And that’s quite a ramble from where we started. Now, I think it’s time for a nice cup of tea, a chocolate gravy ring and some Battlestar Galactica.

11 Comments

  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 6, 2009 at 11:27 pm

    There’s a lot in what you say. And yet, I can’t help but feel that metrosexual Cameron is being more than a mite disingenuous in linking up with fiercely, let’s be honest, homophobic, central and Eastern European parties such as the PiS. The PiS is entirely entitled to hold an opinion on such matters, as is Cameron, but for him to propose that somehow the EU is a matter of *greater* concern strikes me as his affording it an importance he doesn’t really believe it has. Not least since I note that he and the Conservatives as regards Lisbon were more than happy to shelter behind the Irish vote (and revote) and the Czech one likewise ie asking others to do the heavy lifting on the matter which he wasn’t willing/or able to do…

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 7, 2009 at 12:00 am

    Cameron’s difficulties in this respect go back to his original leadership campaign, when Liam Fox did better than expected on the first ballot. Fox had promised to pull out of the EPP, so Cameron had to match him. Trouble with that is, that means either becoming non-inscrits or dealing with some fairly rum people…

  3. mystified said,

    June 7, 2009 at 12:38 am

    Very interesting post, but what the hell is a “chocolate gravy ring”?

  4. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 7, 2009 at 10:11 am

    Yeah, I guess he hadn’t quite learned the game at that point. Still, why he doesn’t continue to emulate his role model Blair a bit more closely and throw such things aside when inconvenient speaks of the continuing force of the EU on the Tory imagination. Why they care so much is beyond me. They could simply ignore the EU and its doings particularly in the parliament… who’d notice?

  5. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 7, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    The gravy ring is a delicacy known in other countries, I believe, by the name of “doughnut”.

  6. Fellow Traveller said,

    June 7, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I can’t quite believe my eyes at seeing you employ Friedrich Nietzsche of all people as a defender of the people’s right to Catholicism and of their right to hate, despise and disparage homosexuals on religious grounds, out of conviction, out of conscience, out of fine principle. Let the man speak for himself:

    “Is there any further need to be surprised if all parties…instinctively have the big moral words in their mouths – that morality continues to exist virtually because the party man of every sort has need of it every moment? – ‘This is our conviction: we confess it before all the world, we live and die for it – respect everything that has convictions!’ – I have heard this kind of thing even from the lips of anti-Semites. On the contrary, gentlemen! An anti-Semite is certainly not made more decent by the fact that he lies on principle…”

    The Anti-Christ Section 55

    “‘Truth’ as every prophet, every sectarian, every latitudinarian, every Socialist, every Churchman understands the word, is conclusive proof that not so much as a start has been made on that disciplining of the intellect and self-overcoming necessary for the discovery of any truth, even the smallest.”

    The Anti-Christ Section 53

    “A further step in the psychology of conviction, of ‘belief’. I suggested long ago that convictions might be more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. This time I should like to pose the decisive question: is there any difference whatever between a lie and a conviction? – All the world believes there is, but what does all the world not believe!”

    The Anti-Christ Section 55

    “One should not let oneself be misled: great intellects are sceptics…The vigour of a mind, its freedom through strength and superior strength, is proved by scepticism. Men of conviction simply do not come into consideration where the fundamentals of value and disvalue are concerned. Convictions are prisons…Conversely: the need for belief, for some unconditional Yes and No, Carlylism [after Thomas Carlyle] if I may be excused the expression, is a requirement of weakness. The man of faith, the ‘believer’ of every sort is necessarily a dependent man – such as cannot out of himself posit ends at all. The believer does not belong to himself, he can be only a means, he has to be used, he needs someone who will use him….Conviction is the backbone of the man of conviction. Not to see many things, not to be impartial in anything, to be party through and through, to view all values from a strict and necessary perspective – this alone is the condition under which such a man exists at all. But he is thereby the antithesis, the antagonist of the truthful man – of truth….The believer is not free to have a conscience at all over the question ‘true’ and ‘false’: to be honest on this point would mean his immediate destruction.”

    The Anti-Christ Section 54

    “No one is free to become Christian or not to do so: one is not ‘converted’ to Christianity – one must be sufficiently sick for it….”

    The Anti-Christ Section 51


    “With that I have done and pronounce my judgement. I condemn Christianity, I bring against the Christian Church the most terrible charge any prosecutor has ever uttered. To me it is the extremest thinkable form of corruption, it has had the will to the ultimate corruption conceivably possible. The Christian Church has left nothing untouched by its depravity, it has made of every value a disvalue, of every truth a lie, of every kind of integrity a vileness of soul…Wherever there are walls I shall inscribe this eternal accusation against Christianity upon them – I can write letters which make even the blind see – I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty – I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.”

    The Anti-Christ Section 62

    By the end of this piece, you sound like the revivified corpse of C.S. Lewis.

  7. Wanderlust said,

    June 7, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    A fair enough point if what you mean is that we become pre-occupied with our own concerns and those of our peers…..but to take it much further as you seem to do, can get worrying. Yes we can accept that not everyone sits comfortably with something while still allowing it. The problem is a kind of moral relativism, I don’t mind this, but I understand he/she does not. It’s when those differences turn into campaigning points and laws. One of the parties Cameron would be connected to, would be Jobbik a right wing hungarian outfit who have held marches ‘against gyspy crime’ who have an associated uniformed ‘guarda’ and who also mobilise against the gay parade each year. These people are neo-fascist. At what point do we say, OK we have different views based on different experiences, but here I am drawing the line and saying …this should not be allowed.

    It seems you take these things a little too lightly.

  8. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 7, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Certainly there’s the issue as to what the RCC itself views homosexuality as. Talk to Mary McAleese, now President of Ireland who has a pretty good track record on such matters and you’ll have a response that seems a world away from ‘sin’ and such like despite her being a strong public Catholic.

    Somewhat less cheeringly the RCC itself argues that “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder”. Which is a distinction I guess the PiS, and Radio Marya aren’t really going to make, but would seem to indicate that some of their comments go way beyond church teachings (which I don’t obviously support) on the matter.

    That’s a fair point about it, although I’m not sure ‘not allowed’ is the issue – it’s hard to impose/implement a regimen that will deal with that from this geographical remove, but more does Cameron feel comfortable in the company of homophobes and anti-semites and those who make a fetish of nazi-like paraphernalia. That’s a question I hope will be asked more and more.

  9. Martin Wisse said,

    June 9, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Yeah, well, it’s all opinions which you can reasonably disagree with until the first gay nightclub is nailbombed again.

    Finding homosexuality immoral _should_ be beyond the pale.

  10. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 9, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Isn’t there a distinction, though, between committing or inciting a hate crime, and simply having an ugly opinion? Maybe it’s because I live somewhere where lots of people have ugly opinions, but my experience is that it’s very hard to browbeat people into being progressive. Much as one might like to sometimes.

  11. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 9, 2009 at 11:13 pm

    Very true, but, if the PiS go beyond the teachings of Catholicism, which they clearly do (albeit they jump back rhetorically) then it seems to me to be something more than an opinion *based* on Catholicism. Moreover it also depends on the capacity of a formation to impose its will. The PiS, for example, haven’t been shy about attempting to implement laws on their particular obsessions… and that filters down to informal and often random actions by those who *think* they’re acting according to the precepts of those *above* them.


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