A practical #philosophy – Andrew Klavan

Karl Schinkel, A medieval town by water, 1830, Neue Pinakothek, Munich

I only very rarely lift whole articles, really only when it’s something that expresses a profound and important concept, in a way that demands the argument be cited in full, as opposed to breaking off choice fragments. 

This is one such piece, on the whole issue of Western civilization, and the perceived threats to it, along with its complex and undeniable intertwining with religious – specifically Christian – belief.

This stuff isn’t boring, and it will never be irrelevant. The author is the immensely gifted and bullshit-free Andrew Klavan, whose own personal story (1, 2, 3) is  fascinating. My apologies to him (and the excellent City Journal) for this blatant theft:

The West is falling. Quietly, politically, without a violent upheaval, the Islamists are taking control of France. A dissolute literature professor named François retires to a monastery near Poitiers, the place where Charles Martel stopped the last advance of Islam in 732. A man at once mesmerized and dejected by the sensual pleasures of cultural decadence, François is seeking to reconnect with the Christian religion that formed the great French culture of the past.

But faith in that religion will not come to him. “I no longer knew the meaning of my presence in this place,” he says of the monastery. “For a moment, it would appear to me, weakly, then just as soon it would disappear.” He leaves the monastery, ready to convert to Islam and submit to the new order.

“I’d be given another chance; and it would be the chance at a second life, with very little connection to the old one,” he says. “I would have nothing to mourn.”

This sequence from Michel Houellebecq’s controversial 2015 novel Submission is a near-perfect fictional representation of a phenomenon I’ve noticed in many intellectuals since the latest rise of radical Islam. These thinkers see the great days of the West ending, while a violent, intolerant form of Islam infests its ruins. They believe that Europe has lost the will to live and that the loss is linked to a loss of faith in Christianity. But while they yearn to see the West revived—and while they may even support Christianity as a social good or a metaphorical vehicle for truth—they cannot themselves believe.

By chance, Houellebecq’s novel was published on the very day of the Islamist massacre of workers at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as this essay is being published shortly after the slaughter of peaceful Muslims by a white supremacist in New Zealand. But such upsurges of hateful violence should not be allowed to silence the underlying debate among people of goodwill.

Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians, a 2008 book by Italian philosopher and politician Marcello Pera, is the clearest example of the phenomenon I’m describing. Written in response to 9/11, it depicts a Europe paralyzed by self-hating lassitude, willing to pay homage to any culture but its own. “The West today is undergoing a profound moral and spiritual crisis, due to a loss of faith in its own worth, exacerbated by the apostasy of Christianity now rife within Western culture,” Pera writes. He makes clear that by Christianity, he means the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, and he goes on to say, “Without faith in the equality, dignity, liberty, and responsibility of all men—that is to say, without a religion of man as the son and image of God—liberalism cannot defend the fundamental and universal rights of human beings or hope that human beings can coexist in a liberal society. Basic human rights must be seen as a gift of God . . . and hence pre-political and non-negotiable.”

This sounds like the cri de coeur of a passionate believer, the sort of thing we used to hear from Europhile Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote the essay’s introduction. But not so. The book’s title gives the game away. Pera could have called it Why We Should Be Christians. But he is an atheist. He accepts Immanuel Kant’s famous argument that God is necessary to the existence of morality. But from this, he reasons not that we must have faith but that “we must live . . . as if God existed.”

Urgently needed as Christianity may be, he cannot believe.

In 2017’s The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray finds the death spiral of Islamist aggression and Western self-hatred still more advanced. Witness, just for one example, the “grooming” gangs of men of Pakistani, Iranian, Turkish, and other Muslim-immigrant backgrounds, which abused thousands of local girls in Rotherham and elsewhere while authorities turned a blind eye, for fear of being called racist. Like Pera, Murray understands that the loss of Christian faith is a powerful contributor to “the problem in Europe of an existential tiredness and a feeling that perhaps for Europe the story has run out and a new story must be allowed to begin.”

“Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through,” Murray writes. “After all, though people may try, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be able to invent an entirely new set of beliefs.” But Murray, too, is a nonbeliever, as he told me explicitly during a conversation on my podcast. Again, he knows that faith is needed, but he cannot believe.

Psychologist Jordan Peterson has become a popular sensation by riding the horns of this dilemma. His videos, speeches, and best-selling self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos all argue for imbuing life with the meaning and morality that Kant maintained must be logically attached to the existence of God. But when it comes to declaring his actual beliefs, he is evasive. “I act as if God exists,” he says in one video, echoing Pera. “Now you can decide for yourself whether that means that I believe in Him.”

If I must decide for myself, I think that Peterson is a Jungian. Beneath his abstruse verbiage, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung essentially reimagined spirituality as an emanation of the deepest truths of human experience. “We cannot tell,” he wrote, “whether God and the unconscious are two different entities.” In practice, this means that the Jungian god is ultimately a metaphor, a means of externalizing our collective unconscious and its “archetype of wholeness.” No amount of evasive verbalization can disguise the weakness of a metaphorical god. He is the signifier of human meaning as opposed to a living objective Presence who is the source of that meaning.

So even while attempting to address the Western crisis of will brought on by our loss of faith, Peterson, too, I suspect, cannot truly believe.

What stands between these minds and faith? Peterson, for one, rebels against the question “Do you believe in God?” because, he says, “It’s an attempt to box me in. . . . The question is asked so that I can be firmly placed on one side of a binary argument.”

But this strikes me as unsound. All statements of belief box a thinker in. If the world is round, it cannot also be flat. And if there is objective morality and meaning in that world, it must have an ultimate objective source. To live “as if there were a God” is essentially to insist on the conclusions of a syllogism the premises of which you reject. Pera and Peterson notwithstanding, this makes no sense, and arguments that make no sense eventually collapse.

Murray’s objection to faith, however, is more coherent. He believes that science and historical criticism have done “most likely irreversible damage . . . to the literal-truth claims of religion.” If he is right, it makes no difference whether faith is required; faith is impossible. You can’t ask a society to pretend to believe in what isn’t so.

But is Murray right? Have science and criticism truly undermined Christianity? Or is it simply that disbelief has become the intellectual’s default conviction? It seems highly possible that faith is being thwarted by a powerful social narrative that insists that Christianity can’t thrive in the modern world as we know it.

This narrative—let’s call it the Enlightenment Narrative—has been with us now for centuries. It goes something like this: the fall of Rome in the fifth century plunged the West from Classical civilization into cultural darkness. For the next 1,000 years, the Church encouraged superstition, stifled intellectual freedom, and repressed scientific inquiry. With the Renaissance of Classical learning, reason was set free, science was discovered, and faith was left behind as we marched into a world of wonders.

The Enlightenment Narrative had its beginnings as a sort of humanist propaganda campaign. Terms like Dark Ages and Middle Ages were created at the dawn of the Renaissance (a loaded term in itself). They were meant to solidify the new generation’s self-congratulatory idea that they had relit the fire of knowledge after a dark “middle” period.

The campaign worked. The Enlightenment Narrative has dominated the Western mind. It is the context in which Don Quixote went mad trying to imitate old chivalric values out of keeping with the new reality. It is why Shakespeare imagined a Hamlet stranded without certainty in the sudden absence of clear moral truth. It is why Hegel declared that “trust in the eternal laws . . . has vanished” and Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead.” And while many mighty minds—such as Coleridge, Dostoyevsky, C. S. Lewis, and Pope Benedict XVI—have protested that no, even in the enlightened world, God still lives, the prevailing sense among thinking elites was expressed by Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”: the Sea of Faith, once at full tide, is inexorably receding with a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.”

The latest proclaimers of this narrative reject even the melancholy. Their vision stands in direct opposition to the morbid predictions of observers like Houellebecq, Pera, and Murray. For them, the West and the world are doing great—better than ever—and the death of Christianity is a big part of the reason.

Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now makes this case with gusto. These are the best of times, he says. We live, quite suddenly, in a world of “newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.” Reason and science—which “led most of the Enlightenment thinkers to repudiate a belief in an anthropomorphic God who took an interest in human affairs”—are not the cause of our dissolution but the founders of our feast.

Indeed, Pinker believes that reports of the death of Western civilization are greatly exaggerated. He dismisses such pessimism as a fashionable intellectual pose fueled by negative biases in human cognition. “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” he argues, and that progress is likely to continue as long as we live out the Enlightenment Narrative and leave religion behind.

Pinker’s optimism is appealing but not entirely convincing. I have questions about his assessment of the present. Is increasingly atheistic Europe—especially Scandinavia—really the “gold standard” of happiness, peace, and human rights, as he maintains? Or is it, rather, a moribund client culture, wholly dependent on the military might, scientific inventiveness, and financial strength of the far more religious United States? Without the Bible-thumping U.S., wouldn’t enlightened Europe quickly find itself overrun, at least geopolitically, by Russian or Chinese authoritarians? The way pessimists like Murray see it, it is being overrun right now in a more literal sense, by a slow-motion Islamist invasion, which could end with our enlightened optimists silenced mid-hurrah.

As for the future: all throughout the triumphant strains of Enlightenment Now, I kept thinking of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Recessional,” written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. At that moment in 1897, England specifically, and Europe in general, were, like the West today, celebrating cultural and scientific achievements unmatched in the history of humankind. And yet Kipling, no devout believer himself, marked the occasion by warning his countrymen against atheistic pride, praying:

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Lest we forget that not all intellectual misgivings are as baseless as Pinker says, just 17 years after the poem was penned, Europe was engulfed in the three-decade cataclysm of world war that brought its cultural dominance to an end—war brought on by the anti-Christian philosophy of Nazism and followed by an era of unimaginable mass murders in the name of the atheistic philosophy of Communism.

Pinker comes across as liberal in the best sense of the word. But there are hints in his philosophy that Pera is correct and that human rights need something more than Pinker’s hyper-rationalism to sustain them. Enlightenment Now’s materialistic defense of democracy is weak. Overall and over time, freedom can make us happy and rich, it’s true. But what if, for a while, it doesn’t? What if it needs to be defended through war or economic collapse? Once the sacred status of liberty is lost, will mothers send their sons to die for a generally upward trend on a statistical graph?

Then there’s Pinker’s frequent praise for “moral realist” philosopher Peter Singer, whose utilitarian defense of infanticidal euthanasia is both poorly reasoned and morally barbaric. The ugly truth is that we can live quite happily in a world of scientific miracles even as we transform ourselves into moral monsters.

But for a glimpse of how the Enlightenment Narrative’s embrace of pure reason can undermine the very foundations of the Western civilization that created it, you have to turn to Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari’s bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Though full of quirky insights and fascinating information, it is a textbook example of how materialistic logic can lead to philosophical pathology.

Harari’s central contention is that the “ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.” He goes on to say that “fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively,” by creating what he calls an “inter-subjective reality,” or “inter-subjective order existing in the shared imagination of . . . millions of people” and thus allowing them to work together in ways other animals can’t. “Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades,” he writes. “They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous.”

Among the fictions that create these intersubjective phenomena are religion, nationhood, money, law, and human rights. “None of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

Here is an area where I can speak with some expertise. I am a lifelong maker of fiction, and I am here to tell you that this is not what fiction is; this is not how fiction works. Good fiction does not create phenomena; it describes them. Like all art, fiction is a language for communicating a type of reality that can’t be communicated in any other way: the interplay of human consciousness with itself and the world. That experience can be delusional, as when we hear voices, mistake infatuation for love, or convince ourselves that slavery is moral. But the very fact that it can be delusional points to the fact that it can be healthy and accurate as well. When it is healthy, the “common imagination of human beings” can be regarded as an organ of perception, like the eye. Fiction merely describes the world of morality and meaning that that organ perceives.

Because Harari does not believe that this world of moral meaning exists, he thinks that it is created by the fiction, rather than the other way around. For example, he refers to women as sapiens “possessing wombs” and declares that only “the myths of her society assign her unique feminine roles,” such as raising children. No one who has ever met a woman outside the planet Vulcan can imagine this to be the actual case. Harari himself speaks quite tenderly of the maternal feelings of sheep. What myths have the rams been telling the ewes? Different male and female roles are a human universal because womanhood is a complete inner reality. Myths describe it truly or falsely; they don’t make it what it is.

Harari can imagine the “complex emotional worlds” of cows. He believes that the existence of these worlds creates an obligation in us to treat cows more kindly than we currently do. Fair enough. But why, then, can he not deduce the reality of human rights, natural law, economic value, and femininity from the far more complex inner experience of humans? “Human rights are a fictional story just like God and heaven,” he told an interviewer. “They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights.”

This language may not necessarily be malign. It may not suggest that Harari has no visceral respect for human rights. But it does not inspire confidence in his ultimate commitment to those rights, either. It is not exactly “Give me liberty or give me death!” In fact, Harari has argued that increasing information may require increasing centralization of power, the old progressive canard that the world has become too complex for individual freedom and must now be run by experts. This sort of thing makes one suspicious that Harari and other reason-worshiping thinkers are living justifications for Marcello Pera’s fears that freedom cannot defend itself without specifically Judeo-Christian faith.

It is the Enlightenment Narrative that creates this worship of reason, not reason itself. In fact, most of the scientific arguments against the existence of God are circular and self-proving. They pit advanced scientific thinkers against simple, literalist religious believers. They dismiss error and mischief committed in the name of science—the Holocaust, atom bombs, climate change—but amberize error and mischief committed in the name of faith—“the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, the European wars of religion,” as Pinker has it.

By assuming that the spiritual realm is a fantasy, they irrationally dismiss our experience of it. Our brains perceive the smell of coffee, yet no one argues that coffee isn’t real. But when the same brain perceives the immaterial—morality, the self, or God—it is presumed to be spinning fantasies. Coming from those who worship reason, this is lousy reasoning.

The point of this essay is not to argue the truth of Christianity. I argue only this: the modern intellectual’s difficulty in believing is largely an effect created by the overwhelming dominance of the Enlightenment Narrative, and that narrative is simplistic and incomplete.

Did we, for example, escape Christianity into science? From Roger Bacon to Galileo to Newton, the men who sparked the scientific revolution were all believing Christians. Doesn’t this make it seem plausible that—despite the church’s occasional interference—modern science was actually an outgrowth of Christian thought?

And is science still moving away from that Christian outlook, or has its trajectory begun to change? It may have once seemed reasonable to assume that the clockwork world uncovered by Isaac Newton would inexorably lead us to atheism, but those clockwork certainties have themselves dissolved as science advanced. Quantum physics has raised mind-boggling questions about the role of consciousness in the creation of reality. And the virtual impossibility of an accidental universe precisely fine-tuned to the maintenance of life has scientists scrambling for “reasonable” explanations.

Like Pinker, some try to explain these mysteries away. For example, they’ve concocted a wholly unprovable theory that we are in a multiverse. There are infinite universes, they say, and this one just happens to be the one that acts as if it were spoken into being by a gigantic invisible Jew! Others bruit about the idea that we live in a computer simulation—a tacit admission of faith, though it may be faith in a god who looks like the nerd you beat up in high school.

In any case, scientists used to accuse religious people of inventing a “God of the Gaps”—that is, using religion to explain away what science had not yet uncovered. But multiverses and simulations seem very much like a Science of the Gaps, jerry-rigged nothings designed to circumvent the simplest explanation for the reality we know.

Pinker credits Kant with naming the Enlightenment Age, but ironically, it is Kant who provided a plausible foundation for the faith that he believed was the only guarantor of morality. His Critique of Pure Reason proposed an update of Plato’s form theory, suggesting that the phenomenal world we see and understand is but the emanation of a noumenal world of things-as-they-are, an immaterial plane we cannot fully know.

In this scenario, we can think of all material being as a sort of language that imperfectly expresses an idea. Every aspect of language is physical: the brain sparks, the tongue speaks, the air is stirred, the ear hears. But the idea expressed by that language has no physical existence whatsoever. It simply is. And whether the idea is “two plus two equal four” or “I love you” or “slavery is wrong,” it is true or false, regardless of whether we perceive the truth or falsehood of it.

…the man himself

This, as I see it, is the very essence of Christianity. It is the religion of the Word. For Christians, the model, of course, is Jesus, the perfect Word that is the thing itself. But each of us is made in that image, continually expressing in flesh some aspect of the maker’s mind. This is why Jesus speaks in parables—not just to communicate their meaning but also to assert the validity of their mechanism. In the act of understanding a parable, we are forced to acknowledge that physical interactions—the welcoming home of a prodigal son, say—speak to us about immaterial things like love and forgiveness.

To acknowledge that our lives are parables for spiritual truths may entail a belief in the extraordinary, but it is how we all live, whether we confess that belief or not. We all know that the words “two plus two” express the human version of a truth both immaterial and universal. We likewise know that we are not just flesh-bags of chemicals but that our bodies imperfectly express the idea of ourselves. We know that whether we strangle a child or give a beggar bread, we take physical actions that convey moral meaning. We know that this morality does not change when we don’t perceive it. In ancient civilizations, where everyone, including slaves, considered slavery moral, it was immoral still. They simply hadn’t discovered that truth yet, just as they hadn’t figured out how to make an automobile, though all the materials and principles were there.

We live in this world of morality and meaning—right up until the moment it causes us pain or guilt or shame or gets in the way of our ambitions or happiness. Then, suddenly, we look at the only logical source of the meaning we perceive and say, “I do not know Him.”

Understood in this way, there is no barrier of ignorance between Christian faith and science. Rather, the faith that made the West can still defend it from the dual threat of regressive religion and barbaric scientism. In fact, it may be the only thing that can.

West whose ethicists coolly contemplate infantile euthanasia, whose nations roll back their magnificent jurisprudence to make room for the atrocity of sharia, whose historians argue themselves out of the objective reality of human rights because they have lost faith in the numinous basis of those rights—such a West may not be heading for disaster as much as it is living in the midst of one, a comfortable and prosperous disaster to which our default atheism makes us blind, a dystopia in which we are increasingly happy and increasingly savage at the same time.

It need not be so. Outside the Enlightenment Narrative, there is absolutely no reason to abandon the faith that created our civilization. The flowering of the Western mind took place under the Christian sun. The light that led us here can lead us on.



So it’s their fault…

One of the very best things that I’ve read recently is by Michael Mukasey, who was a distinguished Attorney General under George W Bush, still in active legal practice and still offering all sorts of cogent opinions.

The piece in question is in the Wall Street Journal. Given that in the face of tough competition, most people would concede that the defining event of the 21st century so far was 9/11, it’s always worth asking how we got there.

So, if you trace it backwards:

9/11 – Osama Bin Laden – Saudi extension of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as Sayyid Qutb’s brother became a tutor to OBL after fleeing Egypt – Sayyid Qutb (executed by Nasser in 1966) ran the Muslim Brotherhood  – Qutb had returned to Egypt after jacking in a travelling fellowship in the US awarded as he was a civil servant – in the US Qutb arrived at Colorado State College of Education in Greeley in 1948, and lasted 6 months.

Got that?

And what did Qutb say about the US?

…contempt curdled into revulsion when Qutb dropped in on a church dance that followed a service—a shocking juxtaposition in itself: “The dance hall convulsed to the tunes on the gramophone and was full of bounding feet and seductive legs. . . . Arms circled waists, lips met lips, chests met chests, and the atmosphere was full of passion.”

The song that was playing: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” For Qutb, it epitomized the West’s moral degradation. He condemned the “animal-like mixing of the sexes,” concluded that Americans were “numb to faith in art, faith in religion, and faith in spiritual values altogether,” and determined that Islam would have to be perpetually at war with such a society.

None of this is controversial – Qutb was indeed the founder of radical Islamic terrorism as we know it.

Happy Christmas when it comes!

“Brava, la Fallaci. Brava.”

…she even made selfies look cool…

Eight years ago, in one of the earliest pieces in this blog, I wrote what was effectively a fan’s homage to one of the great women of our time, writer and journalist, Oriana Fallaci. I think it still reads well. Fallaci was something of a prophetess, of an uncompromising and ballsy kind, who could write and argue with great vigour and effect. She was a populist in the tackling of difficult (and dangerous) issues, such as Islamic terrorism. Here is Christopher Hitchens’ profile of her, in some ways a kindred spirit.

She died of cancer in 2006, happily dismissive to the end, of some early social justice warriors who were trying to get her prosecuted.

The people who use the word ‘populist’ in a contemptuous way now, would likely hold Fallaci in contempt too. I doubt though, that they would express it to her face.

All this is a preamble to an excellent piece by the Fallaci of our time (sort of), the tireless Douglas Murray, in the enduringly excellent magazine for the brainiacs of Western Civilization, Standpoint. Feel free to read my blog post too, but here, describing one of her most famous encounters, is Murray:

In the early 1970s she had conducted an interview with the Shah of Iran, in which he discussed the visions he believed he had received. The resulting piece was so damaging that when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power he granted Fallaci the only interview that any Western journalist would ever get with him. They met in Qom in 1979, where the Ayatollah discovered that just because Fallaci disliked your enemies it did not follow that she would like you. When the Ayatollah claimed that the Iranian revolution which he was heading was animated by love she replied, “Love or fascism, Imam? It seems like fanaticism to me, the most dangerous kind: the fascist kind.”

The full version of the Khomeini interview remains one of the greatest pieces of reportage of the 20th century. Not just for the scoop, or the intricately revealing lead-up to the encounter, but for what Fallaci did during it. Forced into a chador in order to enter the Ayatollah’s presence, she ended up in a row about why women should be forced to wear such a garment, and became so enraged that she stood up and ripped off “this stupid medieval rag”, letting it fall to the floor “in an obscene black puddle”. At which “like the shadow of a cat . . . he rose so quickly, so suddenly, that for a moment I thought I had just been struck with a gust of wind. Then with a jump that was still very feline, he stepped over the chador and he disappeared.”

It should be noted though, that the newly labelled fascist fanatic Khomeini later reappeared and finished the interview.

She certainly had something.

We have to talk about nationalists, AKA Bigger Than Brexit

On Tibidabo, gazing down on the chaos..

As someone with an intimate knowledge of secessionist lunatics and the trouble they cause – with complete indifference to its effects and an utter disregard of those who might demur from their obsessive worldview – I have watched the Catalonia situation with a mix of deja vu and disgust.

In retrospect, lancing the SNP boil by giving them their referendum might have been David Cameron’s signature achievement. Scotland, despite the SNP hype, is not ruefully regretting the majority rejection of the SNP raison d’etre.

And also, as someone with a pretty good knowledge of Spain, including Catalonia, over many years, I can observe that Puigdemont’s mob, in common with the SNP, don’t really have anything tangible in the way of active grievances. Their gripes are historical, though in Spain I would concede, some of the bad stuff still lies within living memory. Not so Scotland, I would suggest.

Other things they have in common are a failure of serious planning – currency, defence, capital flight, all that stuff – and the thinnest of veneers when it comes to respecting democracy. It was almost inevitable that the floppy haired egomaniac Puigdemont would turn out to be an unelected demagogue, in that no Catalan actually voted for him to become president. That would be too risky. Here’s Wikipedia:

On 10 January 2016, he was invested as the 130th President of the Generalitat of Catalonia by the Parliament of Catalonia. This followed an agreement carried out the day before between Together for Yes and the CUP, in which it was announced that he would replace Artur Mas as president of the Generalitat in exchange for a guarantee of parliamentary stability for his Government

Nice deal guys

However, enjoyable sneering aside (the SNP similarities keep coming), there is a very serious aspect to all this, or aspects. Spain’s tumultuous history comes to the fore, from the epic of Covadonga in 722, through the Reconquista of 1492 to the civil war of the 1930’s. For the last 5 years and more there have been clear signs that Catalonian separatism was encouraging an Islamist enclave to form, in part as a further divide with the rest of Spain. The recent horrific terrorist attacks, conveniently airbrushed now, combined with any casual observation in Barcelona and environs, will tell you that it has changed immensely. This is in part hardcore Salafist Islam, a problem for everyone, including the vain and solipsistic Puigdemont.

By contrast, the beleaguered Mariano Rajoy has shown a decisiveness and maturity so far, that it provides a little ray of hope.

The best summary of all this right now, with hard hitting criticism of all parties,  is  from Iain Martin, a man who knows a mad secessionist when he sees one, over at Reaction (which is worth its tiny subscription fee). I feel compelled to quote it at length:

One of the more obscure aspects of the latest, tragic events in Catalonia is the way in which the constitutional emergency has brought together under one banner some unlikely allies in Britain. Not only are the separatists in Barcelona being cheered on by activists from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland nationalist parties, as should be expected.

They all support the potential break up of Spain for the obvious reason that separatists love separatism, and, because they want to break up countries on principle, they enjoy the spectacle of it happening elsewhere, probably because they expect the impulse to spread beyond the borders of Spain.

But alongside the SNP et al, the Catalans also have the support of the Faragists, that collection of tin-pot populists clustered around the former leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage. In that faction, judging by their comments today, the delight at the declaration by the Catalan parliament of independence from Spain is rooted instead in the potential for the Catalan business to damage the European Union, which they despise and want to fall apart. In this way the Catalans are cast as the latest exponents of the Trumpian impulse – breaking norms, smashing up the system, as though it is all a great laugh, Carry on Up the Sagrada Familia.

According to the twisted populist reading, the EU is trampling on the will of the Catalan people. That is nonsense. It is not clear there is anything like a majority for a split from Spain. Unlike the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016, held legally in a nation state, the recent Catalan referendum was illegal, and the EU’s refusal to recognise the unilateral split is perfectly fair and sensible. National governments elsewhere across Europe are taking the same position, not because the EU told them to, but for the perfectly understandable reason that it is rooted in truth and respect for law. In the fantasy ultra-Brexiteer version of diplomacy, this is supposed to be cast aside, sanctioning the end of Spain when there is simply no majority for it.

There has always been a brainless, reckless strand at the Faragist end of the Brexit side of the argument, which operates on the assumption that anything bad for the EU, or Europe more broadly, is good fun and good for Brexit, as though this is a zero sum game and as though we are not all living in the same continent, in the shared space that is Europe. The temptation to mix the two up – Europe and the EU – must always be resisted. Europe is an old civilisation and an enduring concept. The EU is a relatively new political experiment.

In that context, what is happening in Spain is not a cause for celebration. It is a European catastrophe. After a difficult 20th century – and a return to democracy in the mid-1970s following the death of Franco in 1975 – Spain has re-emerged as a confident country with distinct economic strengths (in finance in particular) and restored pride. Catalonia is a disproportionately productive part of that success story. With only 16% of Spain’s population it nonetheless generates 20% of Spanish GDP and a quarter of national exports. It is, for now, a magnet for foreign inward investment.

Catalonia is, or was, doing well, and Spain is, or was, recovering strongly – with growth running just above 3%. The considerable difficulties that Spain encountered stemmed from joining the euro. They are being overcome after a robust programme of reforms.

Now, this weekend, the unity and economic health of that major European democracy is in peril. Direct rule will be imposed. Civil unrest seems certain and violence highly likely. In simple human terms, once the celebrations in Barcelona are matched by counter-demonstrations, a lot of people are at risk of being hurt.

There is another important and overlooked reason for non-Spaniards to fear the break up of Spain. It is on the European front-line against the Islamist war on Western civilisation. Islamic State talks of retaking the Iberian peninsula, and it was from radicalised communities in the Pyrenees that the cells emerged to perpetrate recent attacks. Spain falling apart in the face of such violence would signal to the enemies of European civilisation that great countries are disintegrating and the West is weakening.

Some things, you see, are bigger than Brexit. All Europeans – in or out of the EU – should be extremely concerned by the crisis in Catalonia and should hope for some statesmanship and compromise.

It is indeed a catastrophe, and no-one knows how it will end.

Barracking Barack

All good things must come to an end, and so must Obama’s reign.  James Delingpole was bang on the money when he wrote years ago “Welcome to Obamaland: I Have Seen Your Future and It Doesn’t Work“. He was reflecting on our 10 years of the Blair Terror, when it all starts out so well, but real life intrudes. Painfully.

Well,  The Knife has a low opinion of King Barack as a substantial politician. Significant, yes; consequential, yes; stylish, yes; authoritative in speech, mostly yes. But as an intrinsically honest leader, healer, prudent steward of the economy and most powerful man in the world when it comes to foreign policy. Er…no. In fact, not even close.

Of course, there are plenty of disaffected middle class professionals safe in our own quiet corners of the globe who can pontificate in this way. Let us try a different perspective. Here’s Iranian exile, controversial, multilingual and well-connected Amir Taheri, writing in Arab News:

…there is no escaping the fact that President Barack Obama has been an exceptionally divisive figure. Failing to find formulae for working with a hostile Congress he has tried to circumvent the legislature whenever possible, adding fuel to the fire of division. He leaves behind a deeply divided government.

By turning his power base into a coalition of racial, ethnic and religious minorities, Obama has pushed the majority toward radical messages they had shunned for generations. He leaves behind a divided society. Today, even the two main parties, Democrat and Republican, are split with surprising reversals of alliances within each. He leaves behind a divided establishment.

With his tergiversations and intellectual laziness, Obama has also divided the NATO alliance, opening new spaces for opportunist powers of various sizes to embark on ill-conceived adventures. 

He has a point.

What’s all the fuss about?

Kissinger, Westphalia, and ISIS

You don’t have to like the enduringly controversial Henry Kissinger to realise that he’s usually worth listening to. He is, unlike many politicians (as opposed to the best international diplomats), a real student of history. He was in the news when I was a child (Vietnam), he’s still in the news today at 92.

One of his regular lessons relates to the Thirty Years War. This was, to put it mildly, a complicated conflict, with a confusing mix of religious and political allegiances. ‘Trust nobody’ might be one message from it. When a Catholic cardinal (Richelieu) is in hock with the north European protestant supremacists, you know it’s going to be a can of worms.  It all eventually ended, nearly, with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which involved in varying degrees France, Sweden, the numerous chunks of Germany which existed before Bismarck, Spain, the Low Countries, Denmark, England, Bohemia, lots of smaller players and of course the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire. Complicated indeed.

The key thing was pleasing everyone a bit, and everyone having to compromise a bit, whilst noting that in terms of influence, size, location and population, Germany was the key player (but in its component parts). It pretty much has been since then too.

Kissinger states that this tricky compromise is the model of future diplomacy and international relations, if you carefully study it and extrapolate accordingly. Here is a quote from the Wall Street Journal review of the great man’s last book, World Order:

For Mr. Kissinger, Westphalia is not simply one system among many but the most morally, intellectually and even aesthetically pleasing of all such systems. The story begins with France’s Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), who articulated a doctrine that “the state was an abstract and permanent entity existing in its own right,” holding interests peculiar to itself—raison d’état. When the religious wars of the mid-17th century exhausted all parties, the diplomats who gathered in the northwest German province of Westphalia in the mid-1640s agreed that they would not seek to impose their own religious principles upon one another. States would no longer interfere with the domestic order of other states. “The Westphalian concept took multiplicity as its starting point,” Mr. Kissinger writes, and thus incorporated “multiple societies” into “a common search for order.”

Here he is in an interview last year, musing on how the Westphalian system might fit with our ‘problem’ in the Middle East:

“Is it possible to create the equivalent of such a system [in the Middle East]?” asks Kissinger. “That is the challenge for the United States, and for others — we alone can’t do it. The world without a balance of power is an arbitrary world. The nature of the balance of power will change, but the principle that you cannot have one region or one country dominate the whole world will re-emerge — or should re-emerge.”

That balance, rather than world domination, seems to be the key thing. Each player depends to a degree on the other. How complicated it is in reality is shown by trying to analyse today’s news from Turkey, nobody seems sure of what their downing of a taunting Russian jet actually signifies, yet everyone seems sure it is significant.

However, if we go back to the 17th century, and seek advice from one of the beneficiaries of the Peace of Westphalia, a man charged with maintaining that elusive balance, Frederick William, the splendidly titled Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia, here is what he recommends regarding ISIS, in his Political Testament:

“..when war arises between two others, attempt to resolve the conflict through your interposition, but always position yourself well, so that you have force behind you”

and if that’s not working

“One thing is sure. If you stand still and think that the fire is still far from your borders, then your lands will become the stage upon which the tragedy is performed”

It’s already happening. Time to act.


Henry: not just a guru of diplomacy



Three Scots tell the tale

Everyone is rightly going on about Andrew Neil’s glorious trash talk takedown of the ISIS nerds, and here it is as a handy reference:

My only criticism is that he didn’t namecheck Alkan, who is buried in the Cimitiere Montmartre, along with Berlioz, who did get a mention. Neil is a classic example of the gifted Scottish man of the world, a beneficiary of a superb Scottish education (now on its knees).

On the same show there’s the highly intelligent, less formally educated, (and occasional idiot), George Galloway, Dundee’s finest, with a magnificent answer on shooting the bad guys, as well as various other pieces of smart thinking:


Good on you George, whose Middle East knowledge and sympathies are well known. He’s often right, despite the anti-Israel whining. See this brilliant prophetic comment.

Then, inevitably, there is Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond, who has been parked by Sturgeon, bafflingly, as the Nats’ foreign affairs spokesman. Eck now lives primarily in his own world of pompous declamatory self serving tripe, whether it’s his lousy economic predictions (see the mighty Chokkablog), or in this case, a completely out-of-step reliance on the embarrassingly discredited UN. It’s entirely in keeping with his ludicrous attempts to patronise combat veteran Johnny Mercer, on Channel 4 recently.

Eck is not just misjudging the mood of the UK, as usual, he’s carrying on with his entertaining mission to estrange himself from his own party. Eck’s closest pal in politics is going to end up as comedic convicted perjurer Tommy Sheridan. For both of them the mythical Indyref 2 is becoming the only way to grab the limelight, something even the SNP are dodging now, apart from the dwindling band of ’45 zoomers.

Galloway and Neil are great adverts for the ongoing independent spirit and intellectual bite of the Scottish Enlightenment. In fact, Neil looks more and more as if he could have stepped out of a Tobias Smollett novel, a writer who in some ways he resembles. These men are the best of Scotland, in their different ways. The ISIS crisis has perhaps given an unexpected boost to the process of putting Salmond into his cul-de-sac of history.

The deathly dull Daesh

In keeping with my previous thoughts that the foot soldiers of ISIS are inept teenage misogynists, here is a real Middle East expert, Justin Marozzi, on the inadequacies of what he correctly calls Daesh (they don’t like the name):

…there is an important point to be made about the caliphate, a word we keep hearing from the homoerotic death cult of Daesh (known by the BBC as Islamic State, see below). The Abbasid caliphate, the Islamic empire at its most resplendent, was cosmopolitan, tolerant, progressive, intellectually inquisitive, dynamic and prosperous. Wine-drinking and naughty poetry were hugely popular. The dreary puritanism of these latest jihadists is way off the mark. One of the most depressing things about Daesh, apart from the beheadings (which pale into insignificance when you recall the 90,000 heads Tamerlane lopped off in Baghdad in 1401), is that they are complete bores.

They ARE a bit camp, when you think about it
They ARE a bit camp, when you think about it

ISIS morons empower women…

real feminists
real feminists

…well, in reality they kidnap them, rape them and sell them, as the first order effect, but the secondary consequence is more unwelcome to these jihadi misogynists, whose behaviour is uncannily mirrored by Boko Haram in Africa.

Take, for example, the now famous peshmerga female soldiers. This is no token gesture. They have their own battalion, their own officer ranks, and they can really fight. They have a wonderful degree of contempt for ISIS, To quote the splendid Colonel Nahida Ahmad Rashid:

‘I find them indescribably disgusting. How would you feel if it was women living near you who were being married off by force by ISIS? How would you feel? They are doing the most disgusting things I have ever seen in my life.’…

‘I have told all my frontline soldiers to keep one bullet in their pocket in case they are captured. I never want any of them to be captured by ISIS.’

They’re not a last minute reaction to being under the threat of ISIS slaughter, the Kurds have been giving women equal status as fighters for years. To add to their value, although the claim is disputed, there seems to be something in the story that if you’re a jihadi killed by a woman, don’t expect the legendary (and in itself, more than a bit strange) reward of 72 virgins, or as the Al-Arabiya network called it, their “virgin-fuelled utopian rest”.

So good for the Kurds. The Iraqi Kurd who sells me kebabs had his peshmerga brother killed a month ago, fighting ISIS. The ramifications of this brutal pseudo-caliphate reach our streets quickly, one way or another.


Then along comes this remarkable old lady, who confronts a couple of the thugs in the street in Syria,  in this now famous video. She doesn’t let them off the hook, and they have no answer to her. Brilliant:



Lastly there are the journalists. The Sunday Times’ superb Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) completely understands the mentality of ISIS, and indeed the rest of the Middle East, and her Twitter feed is quite brilliant, attracting the enmity of what she refers to as ‘ISIS fanboys’. The Kurdish journalist Shler Bapiri (@shlerbapiri) is another tireless advocate for the truth against Islamic female genital mutilation, and the fight to the death with ISIS. These fearless women – who are not remote from danger themselves – are very much in the noble tradition of people like the superb Veena Malik and the legendary Oriana Fallaci, both previously featured in this blog. Here is Veena eloquently putting the boot into an absurd imam on Pakistani TV:


Her confident outspokenness has just earned her a 26 year jail sentence in Pakistan. Luckily she lives in Dubai. The late Oriana Fallaci was the Italian powerhouse who famously gave the Ayatollah Khomeini a lesson in practical feminism. As it turns out, she was something of a prophet herself, and her best-selling post 9/11 polemic The Rage and the Pride remains a much needed counterblast to the situation we find ourselves in today.

When the British idea of feminism seems often to revolve around a privileged pink bus idiot like Harriet Harman wearing an inane sweat shop produced T shirt in parliament, you can only stand in awe of these women who are out there, in the real world, dealing with unimaginable problems that men don’t have to suffer. As the reliably funny and controversial Gavin McInnes writes, Harman’s kind of feminism is basically  “women doing what they’re told”.

...really, I don't know what to say about this image
…really, I don’t know what to say about this image


France, know thyself


To paraphrase PG Wodehouse, it’s never difficult to distinguish between a Frenchman with a grievance, and a ray of sunshine. Admirable though the protest for freedom of expression is in France, following recent events, there is a tinge of hypocrisy in all this, both in recent times and historically.

We need not worry too much on behalf of the unappealing Front National, that Charlie Hebdo campaigned to have them banned in 1996, but the fact is, they did. Voltaire might have baulked at that one. Similarly, there is no reason other than prissy lefty sensibilities to have failed to invite the current (and widely supported) Front National from the big rally for unity. It just makes it about 75% unity. Even at a time of great seriousness, calling for greatness of spirit, these morons get all huffy and party political. None of this is to support the Front National, who are a legal organisation, just to note the inherent divisiveness, precisely the wrong message.

Not particularly my business , I suppose, much as I like France.

However, let us go back, not that long ago, to examine the living history of this bastion of free expression and tolerance. Look at this picture:

The monks being thrown out of La Grande Chartreuse in 1903, by the government
The monks being thrown out of La Grande Chartreuse in 1903, by the government

Nothing wrong with separating Church and state – in fact the two are usually inimically opposed on numerous issues – as the French law of 1905 put on the statute books, but in fact it went a lot further than that. The monks only returned in 1940, to their rightful home. The Jesuits were also kicked out of any teaching role, and in shades of Henry VIII, had much of their property ‘confiscated’ by the state. Whatever your view of allegedly subversive Jesuits – a very intelligent and formidable group  – the blameless Carthusians were outrageously treated.

Bizarrely, these church groups had committed no crimes, this was just state approved anticlericalism, a recurring feature of French history, most famously the era of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ in 1789. Only as far back as 1871, the short lived Communard revolt was busy executing Jesuits for being Jesuits. These were clergy, we’re not talking homecoming jihadis here.

A number of writers**  have in the past few days***  attempted the delicate task of unpicking support for the principles of freedom of expression from uncritical support for the French state, and for the genuinely offensive – to everybody, the Muslims got off lightly – and even worse, genuinely unfunny Charlie Hebdo.  Stephen Glover did a good job:

Whether in the case of Islam or Christianity — and the magazine sometimes also extends its animus towards the Jewish faith — the purpose is to shock and dishearten those of religious persuasion. There is no pity or respect or kindness. Charlie Hebdo hates all religion, and mocks all its adherents. I can only imagine how ordinary Muslims feel when they see everything that they hold most sacred being held up for ridicule. As someone who calls himself a Christian, I can sense some of the pain and outrage that Christians much more devout and holy than me must experience when they see or read about these appalling images, which are intended to cause pain.

Here, of course, we come to a parting of the ways. Christians and, I believe, most Muslims, recognise that as we live in a free society we are required to put up with even the most hurtful insults to our faith. The Kouachi brothers (who committed the Paris murders) and their deluded supporters think otherwise, and many innocent people, including the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, have paid a terrible price. It’s obviously insane and immoral to kill someone because one is offended by an image and I abhor what happened in Paris in the name of Islam. But it’s not insane or immoral to be offended by an image whose purpose is to vilify our beliefs and make us unhappy. It’s simply natural and human…

….The militantly atheistical Charlie Hebdo cannot grasp this simple truth. Convinced that all religion is a form of deviance, it lacks the imagination or human sympathy to understand the value of the sacred for religious people, of whom there are thousands of millions on this earth. Far from being sophisticated or enlightened, in some respects the magazine resembles a narrow and monomaniacal sect that actually works against the precepts of freedom. Ironically, in this it is more similar to its blinkered Islamist opponents than it could ever dream — though, of course, without the violence.

As the Pope said, in a remark better understood abroad than in the UK (and not speaking ex cathedra): ‘If you insult my mother you can expect a punch.’

But France specifically, and its ‘tradition’ of being obnoxious to sacred values is in a mess on this stuff. It always has been. I am indebted to the great (and very witty) @BruvverEccles, for highlighting GK Chesterton’s musings from The Ball and the Cross, in one of his more pointed blog posts:

“Yes, France!” said Turnbull, and all the rhetorical part of him came to the top, his face growing as red as his hair. “France, that has always been in rebellion for liberty and reason. France, that has always assailed superstition with the club of Rabelais or the rapier of Voltaire. France, at whose first council table sits the sublime figure of Julian the Apostate. France, where a man said only the other day those splendid unanswerable words”—with a superb gesture—”‘we have extinguished in heaven those lights that men shall never light again.'”
“No,” said MacIan, in a voice that shook with a controlled passion. “But France, which was taught by St. Bernard and led to war by Joan of Arc. France that made the crusades. France that saved the Church and scattered the heresies by the mouths of Bossuet and Massillon. France, which shows today the conquering march of Catholicism, as brain after brain surrenders to it, Brunetière, Coppée, Hauptmann, Barrès, Bourget, Lemaître.”
“France!” asserted Turnbull with a sort of rollicking self-exaggeration, very unusual with him, “France, which is one torrent of splendid scepticism from Abelard to Anatole France.”
“France,” said MacIan, “which is one cataract of clear faith from St. Louis to Our Lady of Lourdes.”

...but I was only praying
…but I was only praying

** This, from Rex Murphy, is a brilliant polemic:

Let’s put it plainly: The solidarity would have been a lot more impressive, more persuasive, some time before this week’s mass butchery….All of which makes this hashtag war, all the We are Charlie Hebdo manifestations, so very, very hollow. If we will not speak for free speech when it is shut down by special interests, protestors of the politically correct, on campuses and in newspapers, we manifest that we are not serious about free speech. There is no “we” after the killings. There are very few worthy of that claim … and, alas, under the shout of allahu akbar, 12 of them are now quite dead.

*** and Christopher Booker, who actually does know his satire