A lack of leadership?

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In his book, Great Contemporaries, Churchill wrote that the nineteenth century political world was full of big figures at a time when the problems were small; the contrast was designed to be drawn with the time he was writing – the 1930s, when, as he saw it, the opposite was true. One of his favourite comments was that men ‘fell below the level of events’ – it was a damning phrase, and one which comes much to mind at the moment. In the eyes of posterity, Churchill came to epitomise the maxim ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. It is easy to forget the situation he occupied by the late 1930s. In his seventh decade and out of office since 1929, Churchill was a pariah in his own party, and an object of deep distrust to the Left, who saw him as a potential British Mussolini. It was said that his judgment was bad, his impulsiveness dangerous, and that he was, in the words of one commentator ‘a busted flush’.

His analysis of Hitler was not underpinned by any real critique of Nazism, which he failed to understand; what he did see was that Hitler was another Napoleon type, and needed to be stopped. The wiser figures, like Chamberlain, much respected for their sound judgment and lack of impulsiveness, thought this unlikely. It was, of course, and it wasn’t the first time Churchill had used highly-coloured language; his version of Gandhi is unrecognisable to posterity. One can say that sky is falling in so often than no one believes you; but in 1938/39 Churchill happened to be right. What all the wiseacres thought was wrong; what the impulsive man with the dubious career behind him said was right. It took nothing less than the crisis of 1939 to bring Churchill back to office, and the sky falling in in 1940 to propel him to the premiership. One can see why most politicians pursued a more ‘nuanced’ line; but then by the late 1930s Churchill had nothing to lose – he could afford to go for broke.

But there was something else at work too – a knowledge of history. Churchill was a self-taught man, and he read much history. He read it with, to use a modern terms, a particular narrative. His history was Whig history. He was, himself, an Anglo-American, and he saw the story of the ‘English-Speaking Peoples’ as one of broadening freedom; he passionately believed in freedom. One reason he could say what he said in 1940 was he believed it. More sophisticated historians in 1940 might have taken another view about the chances of victory, but Churchill did that thing historians tell their students not to do, he adjusted the facts to fit his theory. That theory was that history was moving in the direction of freedom, therefore Hitler was bound to lose.

This was, to be sure, an odd theory in the face of the facts of the time. The democratic tide seemed to be ebbing: France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and the Scandinavia nations were, to be sure, democracies, but east of the Rhine and south of the Kiel Canal, there were precious few such; the extinction of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 meant the loss of the sole democratic nation east of the Elbe. Nazi German and Soviet Russia were the antithesis of democracy, and even in the USA there were those calling for a more ‘efficient’ way of Government.

Churchill stuck to his vision and prevailed. He knew nothing about focus groups, and only poll he cared about was on election day; and he had a hinterland. We can’t expect a Churchill every time we have a crisis, but I am not sure that focus groups and ‘nuance’ are appealing to leaders. We get, perhaps, what we deserve.

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Freedom of speech

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The UK has no constitution and therefore no constitutional right to freedom of speech. Indeed our laws categorise certain types of comments as hate-speech which makes them illegal. Increasingly, it seems, interest groups see such laws as a way of making their opponents be quiet. As with all laws, there is room for interpretation; but as with all law, getting that interpretation is an expensive process. It can be expensive in more than one way. The cost of defending oneself can be prohibitive not only in cash terms. Depending upon one’s profession, it might be that any publicity might make one’s employers uneasy, not least since they might be the next target, and no one wants to put themselves, or their employer, into such a position. And so it is that even where a view does not contravene the law, the consequences of expressing it can be such as to deter people. Sometimes people ask why some of us blog pseudonymously; I would refer such enquirers to the foregoing.

Those of us who work in institutions where the prevailing mindset is secular and liberal know that, for all the vaunted freedom liberalism supposedly offers, the views most tolerated are secular and liberal; there is an unconscious bias against views which offend that consensus. It is, for example, very easy to read an orthodox Catholic view of homosexuality as ‘hate speech’; the very word ‘sin’ burns the devil, and he screams – and loudly; and institutions will now listen. Those who run them may well be inclined to see the use of the word ‘sin’ as a bad thing; surely one is being ‘nasty’? To explain ‘natural law’ and original sin to those who have no conception of them is all too easily construed as making an ingenious, if unconvincing, case for ‘hate speech’.

So what is one to do? Blog under a pseudonym? Yes, by all means, but they can yield to the determined inquirer. Keep silent? It is a temptation. Not one to which one can yield. But it is the pass to which some are now reduced.

America has a constitution and has, still, freedom of speech. That, I think, will protect you from the worst effects of the situation here, but on your campuses and in your media, the same biases are at work. It is not, I suspect, a mark of approbation in American academia or the media to be labelled a ‘conservative’, and to be a religious one is probably worse. But then Our Lord always said it would be so, and we should not, as I have perhaps been too quick to do here, conflate being Christian with being conservative. And yet, that said, I do not think that those Christians who undertake to explain why Christianity should and can condone and approve of homosexual acts, face the problems that those who make the orthodox case do. The world approves of what conforms to its way. If we want its approval, then that is what we should do. if we want God’s, then we know what we should do.

 

How do we react to barbarity?

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An eye for an eye soon makes the whole world blind, it is said. The immediate reaction to the murder of James Foley, its manner as well as its filming, is one of revulsion. That is, of course, what the perpetrators want. Some of them may really think that it will deter America from further airstrikes – I guess if you are stupid enough to believe your own rhetoric about the decadent West, then you  might be that stupid too – but for the most part it is meant to shock. It is the oldest trick in the book – strike terror into the heart of your enemy. The question for us is how we respond?

Those of us who are Christians should respond with a prayer for Mr Foley and his family. We should also not hesitate to point out that here is an issue where relativism falls away. There are no arguments which could make that murder anything less than an act of barbarism. What, then separates us from the barbarians? They would see that difference as weakness. We could obliterate them with a well-aimed missile – it would ‘take out’ a lot of innocent people, but it would solve the problem; but at the cost of our exchanging places with them. We do not do that. We do not because our values are build on a Christian foundation which values all human life as made in the image of God. In this world, being unable to reach Christ’s sublime injunctions to love those who hate us and to turn the other cheek, we have recourse to violence; but we are not free to use it without restriction. The idea of the Just War, mocked by some, is in fact a civilising idea. It does not allow the savagery we have seen from ISIL. It does not permit us to insult, humiliate and degrade prisoners, and it hold us to account, through the law of the State, if we do. It is why even those of us who have no time for them, cavilled at Guantanamo. It is these things which make us superior to those we fight. We fight to uphold the values our Faith stands for. We acknowledge an abrogation from the ‘turn the other cheek’ in this fallen world because we know our enemies would smite not only that, but our heads off our shoulders. Good though it would be to think moral suasion would work, experience tells us it does not.

So are we hamstrung in fighting these savages? Yes we are, we cannot use savagery back. We fight not for revenge of to inflict terror, we fight to protect a set of values which makes this world a better pace than it would be under ISIL. Let those who believe all values are relative ask whether that applies to ISIL, and then why that is. All values are not equal to those of us who believe in Christian civilisation. The values upon which we have build are ones which we do not always live up to, but ones to which we always aspire. That makes the difference. As the young say – go figure.

Intervention and public opinion

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The besetting sin of contemporary politics in the Western world is us – the public. Everyone knows how unreliable it is, and how generally uninformed it is, and yet politicians live in fear of it. After all, it is what elects them; except it isn’t. In the USA it is the electoral college which elects the President – the Founding Fathers were Constitutionalists, not democrats. In the UK there is a ‘first past the post’ system which means that an MP can be elected with a minority of the vote – as long as his rivals split the majority between them. But for purposes of opinion polls, it is the ‘sample’ which counts, even though we call know that much depends on the question. That is why it is a bad guide to policy – especially foreign policy.

Polls seem to suggest that a majority of the British public support air strikes in Iraq, which is good for those of us who think this should happen; but it is no basis on which to decide policy. We have an executive and legislatures which do that, and our representatives and leaders need to give a lead – it is, after all, one of the things they are paid to do. No one suggests they should ignore public opinion – although, as Blair did over Iraq in 2003, they can do so when they want. The great irony of Blair’s career is that he has been excoriated for the one thing he believed in; he was an accomplished spinner of words, as is Mr Obama, but on intervention, Blair was a true believer. I give the man credit for that, and those who now criticise him little; at the time many of them either supported him or were quiet. But he forgot, or never knew, what LBJ discovered the hard way – when the TV viewers see body bags and something of the harsh reality of war, they tend to go off intervention. The like the idea – they are not so keen on the practice.

Our leaders persist in thinking that what is happening in Iraq is not about religion. That is a category error. So used are they to downplaying it and being PC with Islam that they cannot bring themselves to take ISIS at its own word – it says it is Jihad, and it acts like it is Jihad – so it is Jihad.  Mr Cameron can call it ‘terrorism’ all he likes, but Blair and Bush were wrong in 2003 when they did so, and now there is even less excuse.

We need to find a language in which this can be discussed which doesn’t alarm our best hope in that region – Shia Muslims. The Shia have much, perhaps most, to fear from ISIS. It might be that ISIS creates the coalition needed against it. Odder things have happened, after all. It is hard to think that Churchill would have supported Stalin – or vice-versa – in any circumstances other than those of June 1941. Organizations like ISIS have a habit, as Hitler showed, of creating the coalitions which will destroy them.

For now, and for a brief time, we have a breathing space. But our public opinion needs to be educated for what is coming. This is not 2003 again. And if it is about oil, too, then just what is wrong with that – what on earth do people think our economies run on? There is, make no mistake, an existential threat here to our way of life. We can try to extinguish it now, at some cost, or we can do so later, at greater cost. The option of standing by now will ensure that the cost with ratchet.

Speaking and acting

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All occupations have their hazards. For a politician it has always been a tendency to think that once one has made a speech or written an article, one has actually done something more than enunciate; between the speaking and the acting there can be a chasm. In times like these, we can all go into the dark together.

In today’s Telegraph in the UK, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, comes out fighting. He correctly identifies that we are involved, in the case of ISIS, with a struggle that will last at least a generation that

if we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain. We already know that it has the murderous intent

As its adherents are already planning a rally in London at the end of this month, his comments are timely. some 28,000 items have, he tells us, been taken down from the internet; one hopes that this rally will also fall victim to increased vigilance. Military action will, he says, be needed to deal with the threat in situ. All of this is admirable; but where is the action?

This is the question asked by the Anglican Bishop of Leeds, Nick Baines in a piece in the Guardian, where he excoriates the Government for its policy – or rather lack thereof. One cannot, after all, characterise the mixture of timidity, confusion and hesitation which has marked the actions, as opposed to the rhetoric, of the British Government, as a ‘policy’. Neville Chamberlain had a policy towards Hitler. It may have turned out to be the wrong one, but he had one. It is unclear that Mr Cameron – or President Obama, have one. Noting that the Christians in Mosul are not the only victims of Islamist extremism – the Christians of Nigeria and Pakistan are also suffering, Bishop Baines asks:

“Does your government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?” He condemns the failure to offer sanctuary to Iraqi Christians driven from their homes: “The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK government.”

The answer would appear to be not; writing and speaking may enunciate the broad vision, and, if we are to believe Mr Cameron’s piece, he has that; but as Churchill would have put it, we need ‘action this day’. Of that there is woefully little.

It is not easy to act. There is the danger that if we do, by arming the Kurds, then ISIS and al-Qaida will act together; but there is the danger that if we do not, then ISIS will win any way. The Turks are not keen on arming the Kurdish pashmerga, and regard them as terrorists; they do not want an independent Kurdistan any more than Iraq does. But do the Turks want ISIS on their borders? The Erdogan Government’s stance on ISIS is ambiguous, and there are some who think that Erdogan himself sympathises with some of its aims. Iraq itself is a mess, and even if the new Government there can cohere and get the Sunnis onside, it may be too late. We are very used to taking the sensitivities of the Iraqis and Turks into account; we may need to become more sensitive to our own needs.

Beyond all of this is the question of the, to put it mildly, equivocal nature of the attitudes of the Saudis and Qataris. It seems clear enough that some of the funding behind ISIS came from those countries; but our Governments can say nothing of that, because they need their help.

A new paradigm is needed. The Syrians and the Russians are both, from our point of view, outside the pale. Few, outside his own circles, would defend what Assad has done to his own people, but his forces are among the few in the region which can fight ISIS. More might be said for Putin than the Western media allows. Our other demon in the region is Iran. It takes, it must be said, a certain negative genius to construct a situation in which Syria, Russia and Iran, the three Powers who might be able to do something, are also our antagonists. If Cameron and Obama really see this as a generation-long struggle, they are going to need to rethink some of their assumptions.

America and Britain, even assuming the latter will act, cannot deal with this alone. Our publics are war – and politician – weary. There is no point rehearsing old political battles. For my own part I opposed intervention in 2003 for the same reason I support it now – because I foresaw dire consequences in both cases.

And, to end on another note – we should not suppose that all of Islam is the enemy. There are many Muslims – many in Iran and Iraq, who are very scared of ISIS. If there is to be a coalition of the willing this time, we shall find fewer willing, so we must cast our net broader.

Along the Western Front – an enclave

 

 

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First, my thanks to Servus Fidelis for setting up a forum for public discussion. We are not linking this to Twitter or Facebook, and I would ask others to respect that decision. I have no doubt it was that which caused problems at Jessica’s – which is, of course, still open to private subscribers.

Blogs take on a character of their own, I have discovered, but I hope we can capture here something of the spirit which inspired Jess. It is easy (which is why it is done so often) to mock the emphasis she places on ‘God is love’; but we should resist. That is snare of the devil. We do not have to agree to love each other; indeed, where is the virtue in that, for do not the pagans do likewise? One of the strengths of Jessica’s blog has always been that is exemplifies true Christian love. Everything, save for blasphemy and bad language was permitted because otherwise, what is ‘free speech’? As one who has recently been reminded of the desire of others to shut up opinions with which they do not agree, I am confirmed in the belief that down that road lies only what satan wants. The attempt to enforce belief at sword’s point was a second original sin. It brought into the Church the time-servers with flexible consciences who cared little for Truth and much for position and gain. Now we approach a time when, once more, Christians find themselves unpopular save for use as target practice, we might expect the time-servers to go. If they do, it will be but slowly, because many of them occupy pleasant positions which they have no desire to vacate; they had rather sell the truth for a mess of pottage. But, angry as that makes us, we must be careful – for wrath is the Lord’s, and we ought to remember we are fallen, saved, sinners, and via anger, however righteous, the devil comes into our hearts.

That does not mean we can, or should, look on with equanimity as the forces of evil advance, or that we should not try to resist them, but it does mean that we should beware becoming like them in order to defeat them. If we become less like Christ, then our enemies have won, even as we, in our fantasies, rejoice as they are put to the sword and we raise the flag of Jesus; they have dragged us down to their level. If we cannot find in the commands, teachings, and actions of Jesus our models, then that is our fault, not His. We have not tried hard enough.

We have gathered here, at the opening of this place, a goodly crowd of pilgrims, many from Jessica’s place – so let us be faithful to it and live here in its spirit. Remember always what the Blessed John Henry Newman wrote:

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes, as necessary in my place as an Archangel in his—if, indeed, I fail, He can raise another, as He could make the stones children of Abraham. Yet I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

And so we begin.