Bananaman goes to the United Nations

david-milliband-banana-415x275

Well, the news today has been led by Iran. At the Pittsburgh G20 summit, we’ve had Irish-American leader Fionnbarra “Barack” O’Bama, with Brown on one side of him and Sarko on the other, indulging in some serious sabre-rattling. Taken alongside Netanyahu’s apocalyptic tubthumping at the UN, it’s all horribly reminiscent of the runup to the Iraq war, and I’m just waiting for the sexed-up dossier proving that not only has Iran nukes, but it could launch them at Britain in 45 minutes. A few thoughts occur. One is to wonder if the Russians have ratted out the Iranians as a quid pro quo for not having a deployment of US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Another is to wonder how this is going down with those two well-known allies of democracy, the pro-Iranian government of Iraq and the pro-Iranian government of Afghanistan. Finally, it strikes me that this is probably not a good time for Ahmadinejad to start winding the Jews up with his hilarious stand-up routine on the Holocaust.

There are some pertinent thoughts on Iran from Commander Huber, but there’s something about the visuals of first the UN General Assembly and then the G20 that’s struck me. If you’ll allow me to digress for a moment, currently the Catholic Church is touring the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux around Britain. The holy remains were just in Liverpool, where 15,000 people turned out for the event. What struck me was the slightly disrespectful, almost sniggering tone on some of the BBC coverage. I should make it clear that praying over saints’ remains is not my thing, but there was an odd little disconnect between the Life of Brian treatment being given to the plebs in Liverpool, and the high diplomacy in the States.

Firstly, there was O’Bama’s failure to have sufficient face time with Gordon Brown at the UN. The British press pack went buck mad over this, which may have something to do with a herd mentality when it comes to Brown’s woes, but there’s also the aspect that Chris flagged up:

The papers report that Brown’s requests to meet Barack Obama one-to-one have been rebuffed. What they don’t answer is the question: what was the policy issue that Brown believed could be solved only by facetime, rather than by the sort of emails and phone calls that occur all the time between Downing Street and the White House?

They don’t answer this because there was no such issue.Brown wants a one-on-one with Obama not because it’s necessary for policy purposes, but because it’s a legitimation ritual. A meeting would send the signal: “I’m a global statesman, not a mere politician like Cameron or Osborne; I’m addressing big global issues.”

The same is, of course, true of the upcoming G20 summit. All the substantive business this does – insofar as there is any – can be, and has been, done behind the scenes. The facetime, and the photo opportunities, are ceremonies intended to elevate the individual politicians in their own, and voters’ minds…

Rituals such as G20 summits, and “bilaterials”, are part of the effort to win this allegiance, to shore up a mystique of high office.

Mystique is not wrong, but it’s not merely a question of Brown gaining prestige by his proximity to the Emperor. This is one of those areas where diplomatic ritual comes to resemble a ritual of another sort. Maybe you saw David Miliband pushing his way through the throng, so as to thrust his hand at a somewhat bemused O’Bama, who hesitantly took the proffered hand while seemingly being unsure of exactly who Millipede was. You know what it reminded me of? Supplicants in ancient Rome seeking to touch the hem of the Emperor’s toga.

Perhaps even miraculous cures will start being reported from those who have shaken the hand of the New Messiah. So, in place of Catholic superstition we have something rather reminiscent of Roman superstition. The folks involved in the latter, of course, all like to think of themselves as modern and progressive, but that don’t sound much like progress to me.

21 Comments

  1. ejh said,

    September 26, 2009 at 9:30 am

    It’s not really the same thing though, is it? In one instance it’s the idea that relics possess actual powers, whereas in the other it’s about recognising the power images. They’re connected, but they’re at opposite ends of the connection – the politician who wishes to be close to Obama clearly doesn’t believe that he or she accesses some physical property in so doing, but they are playing to the power of the image and the irrational beliefs that arise from that.

    In a way, it’s more like the cleric, personally enlightened, who knows very well that these are not the saint’s bones and would possess no power even if they were – but nevertheless displays them and goes along with the charade, because they can benefit from it or because they have no choice.

  2. Craig said,

    September 26, 2009 at 11:29 am

    “The folks involved in the latter, of course, all like to think of themselves as modern and progressive, but that don’t sound much like progress to me.”

    It is good that people are starting to realise this. Barack Obama does not have mystical properties, and he is not a Messiah who will lead the world out of its problems.

    “but they are playing to the power of the image and the irrational beliefs that arise from that.”

    But where exactly does Obama’s powerful image spring from? What has he done to deserve it? He was elected President, sure, but so was George W Bush, and most non-US politicians were falling over themselves not to praise the latter.

  3. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 26, 2009 at 11:47 am

    It’s quite reasonable to assume that these are the bones of the actual saint – we’re talking about a relatively modern saint, after all, and not the Holy Prepuce or nails from the True Cross. Whether they have mystical powers is another question entirely, and perhaps worth considering that people’s belief in them invests them with a power that they don’t physically possess.

    As for the New Messiah in Washington, clearly he is a man who has extraordinary political power, but he was not born on the planet Krypton. Strangely, he does gain in authority from people acting as if he was, and having acquired this messianic image – then yes, someone like Gordon wants to get some vicarious stardust by having the New Messiah slap him on the back. It’s rational and it’s irrational simultaneously.

    The Romans would have understood that. They were a surprisingly modern people as well as having some hair-raising superstitions.

    • Fellow Traveller said,

      September 26, 2009 at 6:01 pm

      Must be why they turned to Christianity with such vigour and prosecution.

      Funnily, the eagerness of the nobility to get front and centre with the Emperor reminded me of footage I saw on TV today of his Holiness greeting various dignitaries in the Czech Republic. They expressed a strong desire to tug the hem as well.

  4. ejh said,

    September 26, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    It’s quite reasonable to assume that these are the bones of the actual saint – we’re talking about a relatively modern saint, after all, and not the Holy Prepuce or nails from the True Cross.

    Oh for sure. I wasn’t talking about the present circus, I meant centuries ago when this sort of thing went on all the time. There must have plenty of clerics who knew this it was very likely a load of old cock, but they went along with it, for a variety of reasons, good and bad.

    (Do you know Erasmus’ line, by the way, to the effect that if the Bible was really the word of Almighty God, why did He write such dreadful Greek?)

  5. skidmarx said,

    September 26, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Is it quite reasonable to equate the touring of magic bones with the desire to get close to a real live powerful politician?

    And why did God change his mind after the OT and stop writing in Hebrew?

  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 26, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    I think He was starting to suffer from writer’s block. The latest work in the OT was the Book of Daniel and if memory serves, the Hebrew isn’t great and the Aramaic isn’t much better.

  7. decent interval said,

    September 26, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    The relics do not have any powers, the powers are deemed to reside in the saints whose relics they are. Same with icons. I think you will find the ignorant credulous people you are sneering at are aware of this, even if you aren’t.

  8. robert said,

    September 26, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    And meanwhile regardless of the properties of St Peter’s foreskin or what have you the knives are out and the tom toms are beating for a showdown with Dinner Jacket.

    I share Splinty’s fears – chances are that a deal was done with the Russians and in return for withdrawing from Poland Tsar Vladimir will sell out the Iranians. It’s too much of a coincidence the Polish so called missile shield being withdrawn, Netanyahu grandstanding at the UN and now the Saturday papers are full of allegations of another secret Iranian enrichment plant, which Western intelligence probably knew about long ago.

    Presumably Obama won’t be mad enough to invade or bomb Iran, so we’ll have a much tighter sanctions regime (provided China can be persuaded to go along with it – they might not want to be isolated if Russia throws in the towel) which will simply hurt ordinary Iranians and enable the millionaire mullahs to entrench their hold on power by claiming the nation is threatned by the outside world while making a fortune on the black market.

  9. ejh said,

    September 26, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    I was thinking about this while carrying wood (though not alas hewing it) this afternoon – who was it who amusingly referred to Peter Mandelson as a starfucker? I suppose there’s some element of similarity there, in the feeling that proximity to the powerful and successful is in itself something to get excited about, something from which we gain something, however intangible. The cult of celebrity, which (to make an unoriginal observation) is a quasi-religious activity if ever there was one, is surely built on similar psychological foundations to that which develops around icons and relics.

    The relics do not have any powers, the powers are deemed to reside in the saints whose relics they are. Same with icons. I think you will find the ignorant credulous people you are sneering at are aware of this, even if you aren’t.

    Ah yes, saints. So what would they be then? And what would be rational about deeming powers to reside in them?

  10. decent interval said,

    September 26, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    “Ah yes, saints. So what would they be then? And what would be rational about deeming powers to reside in them?”
    Well presumably there is a specific purpose in sneering at people who believe bones have magical powers, rather than sneering at religious belief in general. Or maybe not.

  11. ejh said,

    September 26, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    I think both are fun. However, I wonder if the opening post may provide any assistance on this score…

  12. robert said,

    September 26, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Chaucer was giving this kind of nonsense a good boot back in the fourteenth century hence his Pardoner. And he was a good Catholic.

    Protestants and Muslims would regard this kind of thing as idolatry. The Byzantine Empire had a serious of civil wars over whether Orthodox Christianity should accept icons. It caused them serious problems with mutinies in the Army and Emperors being assassinated.

  13. decent interval said,

    September 26, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    “I wonder if the opening post may provide any assistance on this score”
    You mean yours? It’s incoherent and incomprehensible, and based on the false premise that the relics are believed to have actual powers.

  14. ejh said,

    September 26, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    By “the opening post” I meant “the opening post”.

    Glad to be of service.

  15. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 26, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Yes, the Orthodox position on eikonodouleia is instructive here. That is, that the icon was a focus for prayer rather than something that had power in itself.

    The grandstanding on Iran was uncomfortably close to Colin Powell’s UN performance before the Iraq invasion. It turned out that almost everything Powell said was rubbish, but that came a bit late to stop hundreds of thousands of Iraqis being killed. Even if we’re talking a strengthened sanctions regime… as Robert says, that’s likely to hurt the Iranian masses while enriching corrupt mullahs. See also Serbia in the 1990s for a particularly boneheaded example of this kind of politic.

  16. ejh said,

    September 26, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Depends what you mean by “boneheaded” though. If the people who do it get what they want, is it all that boneheaded? They arguably did as far as Serbia was concerned.

    For what it’s worth, I very much doubt that the sophisticated understanding of a religious concept which a theologically educated individual may possess is, necessarily, shared by the laity as a whole. (I suppose I could always go to Lourdes and find out, as I don’t live very far away, but somehow I doubt this will ever happen.)

  17. splinteredsunrise said,

    September 26, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Well, we have the Clonard Novena, which is pure folk religion. A sophisticated Catholic from, say, the German rationalist school might look askance at it, but it’s hugely popular with the punters.

    As for Lourdes, I liked Joe Queenan’s description of it as Niagara Falls for Catholics.

  18. Garibaldy said,

    September 26, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    I’d love to go to Lourdes. Gotta be better than Knock.

  19. ejh said,

    September 27, 2009 at 7:36 am

    It’s also quite a common name for girls round my way. Better, I suppose, than Inmaculada.

  20. Phil said,

    September 27, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Or indeed Knock.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: