I’m so often critical of the BBC that it’s only fair to offer praise when it’s due. So now a Golden Gong has to be awarded to the File on Four programme (presumably available on BBC Sounds) which spent tonight’s show devoted to the subject of crony capitalism in the government’s method of dishing out contracts in what is often still described as the NHS (that is an NHS which people imagine is still a wholly, publicly owned national service). The name Hancock inevitably cropped up many times, along with Cummings.
The interesting justification for ignoring normal procurement guidelines (and rules) is that faced with a pandemic, crisis measures, i.e. shortcuts, were perfectly permissible. Unfortunately for that argument, much of the programme looked at circumstances in 2018. It’s worth a listen. One would hope that tonight’s expose might lead the news bulletins, but the trouble with File on Four is that its more in depth analysis (by BBC standards) doesn’t get much airtime outside of its own box. Scandals are so frequent under this government it takes a lot for one to make the news and all the while the crony capitalists know how easy it is to get away with their Tory donations and denials. These scandals deserve more attention, but so long as the mainstream media can occasionally salivate over a hypocritical snog (so to speak) they will claim to be holding the government to account. Now we’re going to be led to believe that Hancock’s replacement, Sajid Javid is a ‘clean pair of hands’ and all will be well. I suspect the privatisation of the NHS will now get a shot in the arm. Or a booster jab maybe.
On my first ‘big’ trip since March 2020, to London. Pleasantly decongested in the main, even the National Gallery seemed to be only 30% of its usual crowded self. The absence of tourists didn’t seem to make any difference to the galleries in Cork Street however—they’re always empty. On a secondhand bookshop visit I came away with Challenging Richard Dawkins: Why Richard Dawkins is Wrong About God (2007) by Kathleen Jones, who at the time of publication was Emeritus Professor of Social Policy in the University of York, an Hon. Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a former member of the Church of England’s General Synod. She died in 2010. The book is a stirring attempt to put down the infamous atheist, and although the interminable debate about God these days probably bores many to tears I still, as a humanist consider it a valuable way to examine the human condition.
Jones’ background in psychology comes in handy when it comes to seeking to explain how her religion came into being, especially in the contextualisation of New Testament writings. She seeks to enter the minds of the key players. It turns out they were just ordinary folk like you and me, with aspirations, fears and dilemmas. It’s so long ago that I read Dawkins’ God Delusion that I can’t remember what he had to say about the authors of the Synoptic Gospels. In this respect Jones presents a very humanist perspective of Christianity.
One of the problems I had when reading Dawkins’ book was his focus on religion rather than God per se. In religion we can find many devils of course, and Dawkins ridiculed a great many of them. Some religions have produced degrees of absurdity and cruelty one wonders at the sanity of their followers. Religionists will often point to these failings as if humans were solely to blame for them. But on the other hand they pat themselves on the back for their moral systems and good deeds and it turns out that these qualities are divinely inspired. It takes a God, in other words to help you become altruistic. This necessarily leads to a problem, which could be called the Satish Kumar Problem. Kumar, of Resurgence magazine wrote that the word God, in all its manifestations, was merely another word for the ineffable, that which cannot be described. How one could build anything upon what cannot be described is surely a question for the birds. There is no way of knowing where to start.
But in this debate you have to start somewhere, and commenting on a question that has been pored over ad infinitum Jones takes the ‘Big Bang Needed God’ view. This is a major advance on the ‘stone age’ ruminations of Genesis, as it means that science can be wedded to a belief in God, since scientific enquiry simply examines what God has given us. Of course, if science penetrates the cosmos beyond the Big Bang, and finds a physical explanation, God merely has to retreat to an earlier stage—the infinite regression which begs the question who created God? Such questions are skated over here. Jones asks ‘Why does the universe exist?’ as if it ought to be answered in the same way as ‘How does the universe exist?’ Science largely deals with the second question, and so in the religionist’s mind it is ultimately inadequate to the task of explanation. Which is oxymoronically where the ineffable steps in.
It is Jones herself who compares the books of the Pentateuch to the Stone Age, the first five books of the Bible she infers are the earliest searches for meaning and order of primitive people, and so are the product of their age, and modern folk are permitted to move on, e.g. it’s now OK not to believe that the universe is just 5,000 years old (although many Americans detest the thought, as Jones makes clear). But what of more recent propositions in the Bible, those that are at the heart of Christian thinking? A virgin birth for example, or miracles. Jones obfuscates, as Christians tend to do, when one is asked ’are we meant to take this literally? As so often we will discover that such matters are poetic expressions, allegories, metaphors, ‘parables’ even, myths and illustrative examples. Rarely do we hear how God’s own son, or his servants so routinely broke God’s laws of physics. Having said which I am reminded of Padre Pio, an Italian monk of the 20th Century who showed stigmata and became a considerable attraction (and source of income for his monastery). His case was examined in detail (Padre Pio: Miracles and Politics in a Secular Age, Sergio Luzzatto, 2007). It seems these ‘stigmata’ were helped along considerably with a secretive supply of chemicals from the local chemist. Padre Pio’s image can be found in many Catholic churches. He’s now a saint. I get the impression that Kathleen Jones finds the RC wing a little too naïve, and that may explain in her mind why Dawkins spends much time dwelling on the iniquities of the Catholic version. It could be that modern Anglicans find Catholics a wee bit dirigiste in their thinking. The Bishop of Durham, Richard Jenkins’ questioning the veracity of the Virgin Birth well and truly exposed the rift. My good colleague Gordon Prentice MPs’ question to the Church Commissioners, “Is it any longer necessary for a Church of England minister to believe in God?’ points to the post-modernist demise of the God of the Bible.
Perhaps I’ve wittered on a bit too long about this stuff. But as I said, the National Gallery was only 30% full and the Medieval galleries were sparsely attended. There wasn’t even a crowd of people gazing at Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist cartoon. One could examine it close up. It’s divine.
+BBC Radio 4’s ‘Profiles’ programme is a short (20 minute) look at somebody who is in the news, and yesterday it was the turn of Naftali Bennett, the new prime minister of Israel. It generally gave one the impression that Bennett is the product of a decent education, a proud military record, an entrepreneur (a self-made multi millionaire no less) and a patriot. There was a brief mention of his racism (reference a comment he made about Arabs still in the trees when Jews were building Israel) and his colonial ambitions (further Jewish settlements and annexation of Palestinian land) but those points were generally subsumed in a narrative of his being an unlikely successor to Netanyahu, given that Bennett’s party only won seven seats in the Knesset last time round. The upshot was that due to the complex nature of the new government coalition, Bennett’s extreme politics will have to be put on hold for a while. Phew! What irked me about this ‘profile’ was its presentation of this man as somehow normal, perhaps somebody like our own prime minister who occasionally (in Johnson’s case) lets slip his Islmaphobia in a jokey sort of way but whose government by its actions demonstrates a willingness to tolerate racist policies (a ‘hostile environment’). This ‘Profile’ could have given us a quite different picture of Israel’s new PM which would have been truthful but—tut-tut—utterly devastating. I doubt that would have been allowed. Just as the latest (post ceasefire) bombings of Gaza merited little attention. The filtering and exorcism of the Palestinian tragedy continues at Broadcasting House.
+This is too big a coincidence to ignore. Yesterday evening I went for a short walk around the town and noticed that somebody had been plastering the place with leaflets proclaiming the Good News—or the Bad News—I’m not sure which, although if you are one of the Chosen come Rapture it’s bound to be at least a bit of Good News (depending maybe on whether your nearest and dearest are sinners or not). Having just considered the strange case of Naftali Bennett, whose reign given half the chance could fulfil the Biblical prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and hence the End of Times, I can only surmise the worst. As the leaflet says ‘this [the End of Times] is too big to ignore.’ The trouble is, when something is too big to ignore, most people in their powerlessness will do precisely that, as we have generally seen with climate change. Anyway, you have been warned. Prepare yourself and be sure to be fully vaccinated.
+The news that former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow has joined the Labour Party perhaps should come as no surprise. He was after all the Parliamentary Labour Party’s choice to become Speaker. Now, in the not too distant future could we see John Bercow, Leader of the Labour Party? I jest of course, but since Starmer’s time appears to be coming to an end, we could perhaps do with somebody who has some fire in his or her belly, rather than some blankly staring, cliché riddled platitude peddling middle of the road cipher. I suspect Bercow has other ambitions. He probably just wants to find a quicker route into the Lords.
+I joined a Zoom meeting yesterday which was part of the York Festival of Ideas. Tackling the vexed question of what is the future of liberalism, Timothy Garton-Ash was the main speaker. It was hard not to be impressed by his love affair with this thing called ‘liberalism’ but it made me question whether there was ever a golden age or perhaps a triumph of liberalism and if so when was it? Small ‘l’ liberals are in a bind now that we have seen the rise of a new populism, and autocracies around the globe. But ever since the Enlightenment (wonderful word that, concealing so many ills) civilisation has been one long march of war, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, inequality, etc., etc., etc. There have of course been redeeming features, and no doubt the concept of democracy is amongst the greatest, but that too is and always was warped by so many deficiencies one doesn’t know where to begin. Perhaps ‘liberalism’ will always be in the future.
When Alistair Darling was Secretary of State for Something or Other (transport or trade I can’t remember which) he came to an Environmental Audit select committee inquiry roundabout 2006 to answer questions about climate change and energy use. I suggested to him that the government ought to be looking at the use of dirigibles as an alternative form of air travel. He looked at me as if I was bonkers and replied that the government had no such plans. I suspect the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937 and the dramatic photographs of the event discouraged further airship development. Passengers sitting under a huge balloon of highly flammable hydrogen gas might be forgiven for being a bit nervous, after all. The Hindenburg was carrying 97 passengers and crew, and 62 survived. But contrast that with the Paris Concorde crash of 2000, in which all 109 on board died. Which was the safer?
Now a UK company called Hybrid Air Vehicles is launching a passenger-carrying dirigible called the Airlander, which will be kept aloft using helium. Since its propellers are powered by electricity and the aircraft doesn't need a runway it has obvious advantages. This is I suspect one of those ‘if only’ stories. If only as much dosh had been poured into airship development as had been spent on Concorde, air travel might now be far less carbon intensive, and there of course wouldn’t be a massive airport expansion taking place. But speed is of the essence, so there’s now talk of a new privately developed supersonic jet. Got to keep the top 1% flying!
I’m sure one idea that would reduce the carbon footprint of dirigibles would be to make their skins out of some solar power material. Not much use for night flying though (before I get that Darling look of incredulity again).
‘All politics is local’ said Tip O’Neill, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives, and so it would seem if yesterday’s by-election victory in a former Tory stronghold seat by the Liberal Democrats is anything to go by. They overturned a 16,000 majority and replaced it with an 8,000 majority of their own, and from what I’ve heard some of this can be credited to their local campaign against the HS2 railway ploughing its way through the constituency. But nationally, the LibDems support HS2. Locals maybe thought ‘what the hell?’ if voting for the two-faced LibDems was the only way of registering their discontent. This does raise some issues. Firstly, should politicians not be covered by the Trades Descriptions Act? Openly misleading electors surely should be an offence? We know all parties stretch the truth, but the LibDems are world champions of deception (at least until Boris Johnson came along). At one end of a town you might be told they’re against a bypass, at the other end of the town they could be for it, all depending on who is to be worst/best affected by it.
Secondly, if indeed ‘all politics is local’ doesn’t that let national politicians off the hook? If for example you can put a wedge between a local consequence of climate change and government inaction on climate change, or between poorer local council services and government cuts to council funding, you can obfuscate responsibility and scapegoat others. But all politics do filter down to the local level, and to a large degree this harks back to the theme of ‘exceptionalism’ (see blog 11th June) where our focus is on our own circumstances, rather than anyone else's, e.g. in the global south (who can take care of themselves maybe with a few crumbs off our table). And why should I care if people in Northern Ireland can’t eat the Great British Sausage (a more trite, current example of the consequences of British Brexit exceptionalism)?
In riposte, so to speak to Tip O’Neill’s assertion that all politics is local the green movement asserted we must think globally and act locally, to appreciate the global problems and act within our own sphere to solve them. The weakness of this idea is well illustrated by the developed world’s response to the pandemic, which is to say vaccinate our own people first and if there’s a surplus of jabs, only then let the rest have them (keeping an eye on the sell by date of course). I think Margaret Thatcher was well attuned to the depressing reality of the local-global, exceptionalist dialectic when she professed that there was no such thing as society. The LibDems’ two-facedness is just one cheap example of that.
Here’s a little warning for my American readers, put out by Associated Press today:
PHOENIX (AP) — Doctors who work in Arizona and Nevada burn centers are warning of injuries from contact with super-heated roadways and other surfaces as the first extreme heat wave of the year extends across the U.S. West. A high pressure system is expected to push temperatures above 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius) this week in Las Vegas and Phoenix. Health officials advised people to be mindful of hot asphalt, sidewalks and even desert sand.
What advice can be added to this warning? Clearly, do not step out of your SUV onto heated tarmac! It might melt your shoes! And by the way, have you invested in heat resistant tyres and is your air con up to speed with the latest temperatures? The bigger your car, the bigger air con you’ll need especially when you nip down to the drive-thru McDonalds for your Big Mac with extra fries. Thinking about these details is important! Your mental health (heard of that?) depends on acclimatising (forgive the pun) to a changing world, but with your faith in the Republican Party there’s little more you need to do, because there is the alternative view that the heat wave you’re experiencing has nothing to do with you and is just a Commie plot (But how did it get here? Why haven’t we shot it down with missiles?).
+The governing principle now adopted in Israel seems to be ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ and I wonder for how long such a cynical foundation will sustain the new government. Not long I suspect. For one thing, the vote of confidence delivered by the Knesset for the new government, with 60 for and 59 against leaves the door open for just one or two defections over the coming months to split the governing ranks, and there will certainly be growing discordant strains as natural opponents in the coalition seek to convince their own constituencies of the value of the compromises they’ve made, and to avoid the charge of being traitors to their own cause. Having said which there is cause for celebration (temporarily at least) at the fall of Netanyahu, whose legacy so far has been to solidify Israel as a legally constituted apartheid state. I’m sure this charge will be rebutted by those who point to the unprecedented arrival of Arab Israelis into government ranks. Quite how they and their communities are now treated will be an acid test of that argument, and of course many Arabs live in a world of Israeli colonial oppression. This is bound to lead to heightened tensions in the Palestinian camp. In the meantime the man who lost a vote of confidence by just one vote will be Trump-eting that his opponents ‘stole the vote’ and will be working overtime to regain his crown as ‘King Bibi.’ Out of the pan, into the fire.
+It didn’t occur to me at the time of the Johnson’s wedding that it had to be done before the G7 meeting, so that Carrie could stand tall with the First Ladies, and the Johnson’s new sprog could be paraded around like a little cuddly pooch for admiring glances. This is a bad thing. The idea of a Boris Junior, so early on getting a taste of fulfilled attention seeking is deeply worrying. A sense of entitlement is all the chubby little lad needs. Is that the subliminal message of this year's G7 summit?
I’ve been reading an excellent book, which I highly recommend called Pyschological Roots Of The Climate Crisis: neoliberal exceptionalism and the culture of uncare by Sally Weintrobe, a psychoanalyst. It explains the concept of ‘Exceptionalism:’
“An exception is a ‘refusnik’ who clings to these core false beliefs:
· I am entitled to see myself as ideal
· I am entitled to have whatever I want
· I am entitled to use omnipotent (magical) thinking to rid myself of any moral unease about holding these beliefs”
Exceptions are encouraged by neoliberal economics to take what they want, because as the perfume advert says, ‘I am worth it.’ But as Weintrobe says, there’s a bit of exceptionalism in all of us, and we do ourselves no favours denying it. Not everything is someone else’s fault. This goes to the heart of the climate debate about responsibility. We can rightly blame the oil companies for trying to stop the climate science leaking out and subsequently trying to obfuscate it. But there is the argument too that if we didn’t have fossil fuelled cars there wouldn’t be such a demand for their products. I know at this point someone is bound to say that electric cars were developed in the early 20th century but were suppressed by the oil companies, which probably rings true. But it’s not just cars. It’s a great deal of what we consume. So we all have a responsibility, and the only question is who can leverage that shared responsibility to maximum beneficial effect? Some people, e.g. politicians do have more responsibility, but since they are more likely to feel entitled in the ‘exceptional’ sense, they are prone to weakness when it comes to taking practical measures, i.e. actually doing anything which could threaten their position.
It helps if you feel you are omnipotent, like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, or even Texas Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert who in a House natural resources committee hearing asked an official of the Forest Service “We know there’s been significant solar flare activity, and so . . Is there anything the National Forest Service can do to change the course of the moon’s orbit, or the Earth’s orbit around the sun?” (Guardian 11th June 2021) Gohmert clearly has a grip on reality, perhaps taking a leaf out of that dolt’s book who suggested injecting bleach to prevent Covid. This may be an extreme example, but it does illustrate the sense of omnipotence some of our species possess, whilst trying to deflect the consequences of their exceptionalism. More seriously, there are those who think techno-fix geoengineering on a global scale will solve the climate crisis. Rather than having to do anything themselves.
What do you remember of the outcomes of the G7 (or was it G8) meeting of 2007? Or the G7 meeting of 2019? Or the outcomes of any of these hyped-up talking shops? The only one I have any lasting memory of was the G8 meeting of 2005, and that was because Tony Blair used it to promote action on climate change. Since then carbon dioxide emissions have rocketed. The meetings of 2007 and 2019 cannot be remembered for the prescience of our world leaders. By the point of the former meeting the financial crash was beginning to unfold and the latter had nothing to say about pandemics. It has now emerged that the UK government at least had carried out many exercises to tackle a Coronavirus pandemic, but none of those seem to have penetrated Johnson’s thinking. The only thing anybody will remember of the 2019 talkfest will be the photo of Trump surrounded by a group of unhappy looking PMs and Presidents, with Merkel apparently giving him a ticking off. Even then, I’ve probably got the year wrong. At least when Trump was around it wasn’t just a mutual admiration society.
But I am too cynical by half. Biden and Johnson are going to sign a ‘new’ Atlantic Charter, echoing that signed by Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941. Yes, Biden would like to be compared to Roosevelt, and we know who Johnson thinks he is. There’ll be nothing in this so-called charter which wasn’t already being done, it will not rise above a simple restatement of positions on security, etc., etc. and of course fighting the common anti-democratic enemy (a bit rich on Johnson’s part). I guess some people will argue that there is a value to be extracted from these symbolic gestures, but whatever that is it won’t make an iota of difference to the woman on the Clapham omnibus (unless she’s a political correspondent).