Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
“Pope Benedict XVI’s short papacy has marked a significant departure from the previous pope’s stance on interreligious dialogue. John Paul II made some dramatic gestures to rally world religious leaders, the most famous being a gathering in Assisi of every world faith, even African animists, to pray for world peace. He felt keenly the terrible history of Catholic-Jewish relations, and having fought with the Polish resistance to save Jews in the second world war, John Paul II made unprecedented efforts to begin to heal centuries of hostility and indifference on the part of the Catholic church to Europe’s Jews. John Paul II also addressed himself to the ancient enmity between Muslims and Catholics; he apologised for the Crusades and was the first Pope to visit a mosque during a visit to Syria in 2001.
“In contrast, Pope Benedict has managed to antagonise two major world faiths within a few months. The current anger of Muslims is comparable to the anger and disappointment felt by Jews after his visit to Auschwitz in May. He gave a long address at the site of the former concentration camp and failed to mention anti-semitism, and offered no apology – whether on behalf of his own country, Germany, or on behalf of the Catholic Church…
The Catholic church has to make a dramatic break with its triumphalist, bigoted past if it is to contribute in any constructive way to chart this new course. John Paul II made some dramatic steps in this direction; but the fear now is that Pope Benedict XVI has no intention of following suit, and that he has another direction altogether in mind.” (Guardian [A]).
The Guardian fails to ask, just what is Catholicism supposed to be there for? Under Pope John 23rd, Catholicism denied its own past with the Second Vatican Council of 1963. At the time, it would have seemed that Keynesianism was there to stay and that there was no choice except to adjust to it.
Within a few years, the whole social order was in chaos, and Catholicism was seen as standing for nothing very much. Liberation Theology tried to follow through the earlier logic and team up with left-wing politics. Had the left won out in the 1970s—which would have happened had most of the left seen Incomes Policy and Workers Control as opportunities rather than threats—then Liberation-Theology Catholicism might have taken over. It didn’t happen, and Paul 6th hung on to what existed without a clear idea what to do next. After the brief interlude of the uncertain John Paul 1st, a new populist and anti-Communist direction was found under John Paul 2nd. This would have fitted well if the USA had succeeded in making a SubAmericanised world after the Soviet collapse. If the former Soviet Empire had got richer and healthier, rather than poorer, sicker and full of vicious criminals. The USA bungled that opportunity, and then compounded it by a senseless war on Iraq. Destroyed one of the last hold-outs of the secular Arab Nationalism that could potentially have been partners with Europe in a common global culture.
The USA did not want partners, it wanted subordinates. The USA had a false idea of the post-war success in Western Europe and Japan. Prosperity and stability helped keep parliamentary democracy alive in countries which had had vigorous parliamentary systems before 1914. Democracy dropped into a chaotic society creates more chaos, as Iraq has shown.
“Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, looked at the essential cleavage in the world as being between religion and unbelief. Devout Christians, Muslims and Buddhists had more in common with each other than with atheists. John Paul sought dialogue with leaders of other faiths, visited mosques and apologised for the Crusades. Benedict does not agree. He thinks that, within societies, believers and unbelievers exist in symbiosis. Secular westerners, he implies, have a lot in common with their religious fellows. The Pope refers to the mutual incomprehension between western cattolici (or believers) and laici (or secularists) as a schism – a schism “whose gravity we are only now grasping”. It seems to be Benedict’s top priority to heal it. If rationalism is at the root of Christianity, hyper-rationalism (secularism) is a problem specific to Christianity. It may even be a form of Christianity – one that over-emphasises what we render unto Caesar and under-emphasises what we render unto God.” (Financial Times, [B]).
In a developing war of civilisations, it is wise to stick with your own. Try to bridge the gap, and both sides will hate you.
Mediaeval Europe was ignorant. A faint glow of Greek learning lingered in the Byzantine Empire, but nothing new happened there. The Byzantines had Greek works that Western Europe had lost, but did not share them until the city itself fell. Meantime Islam was vigorously blending the Greek heritage with ideas from China and India, adding new ideas of its own devising.
The pope’s position on Islam is a rational rebranding of his organisation in a changing world. It is not historically true. He quoted and effectively endorsed a Byzantine emperor’s statement set down between 1394 and 1402. A position of clear ideological hostility and one that does not regard the war between religions as a mistake:
“The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: ‘There is no compulsion in religion’. According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war…
‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached’. The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.”
Neither the Byzantine Empire nor the later Christian kingdoms under Papal guidance had any inhibitions about ‘spreading the faith through violence’. Constantine and his successors used violence and persecution to Christianise the Empire, and then did much worse in sectarian strife over minor theological differences. Very few Muslims have ever killed other Muslims over differences within the faith: that had been mostly a Christian offence.
As for creativity, Islam by the late 14th century had lost its creative edge. It had been battered by the Crusaders and by the Mongols and earlier genius was by then extinct. Muslims in Spain and Morocco might have given their civilisation an immense boost by discovering America, but they didn’t. Still, they had developed algebra and algorithms, and also the idea of the pointed arch, which was the main technological basis for Europe’s innovative system of Gothic architecture. They had transmitted to Europe the key ideas of gunpowder, printing and the magnetic compass, three ideas that Francis Bacon in the time of Elizabeth the 1st identified as key advances over the ancient world. All three had a Chinese origin, but the Muslim world took them over, along with paper and maybe windmills. They also turned an interesting Hindu counting system into Arabic Numerals, soon transmitted to Europe and replacing the clumsy system of Roman Numerals.
I doubt that Byzantium in its final days had any high regard for such things. And nor, it seems, does the present pope.
“The people of Bangkok largely seem to have welcomed the night’s developments. Some are even going onto the streets to bring presents to the soldiers and take their photographs… Many people in rural Thailand are also likely to be frustrated by the turn of events. Mr Thaksin is popular among poorer farming communities, for initiatives such as a low-cost health scheme and rural loans.” (BBC Online [C])
“Thailand was scheduled to hold new general elections in November, which political analysts widely predicted Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party would win with an outright majority. However, deep-seated opposition to Thaksin resuming political leadership signalled that the new polls would not have broken the political deadlock. For better or for worse, a military intervention has.” (Asia Times Online [D]).
As Ken Livingstone put it, ‘if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it’. What’s just happened in Thailand follows a very typical pattern in states influenced by the USA. They are encouraged to have multi-party democracy, despite a solid record of societies split asunder by such systems. But if an elected government dares take action in favour of the poor rather than the relatively privileged, something bad happens to them.
The new government may also be making peace with its Islamic minority, which would be positive. But the US seems very happy for democracy to be suspended for a year or more, in the hope that the next government knows just to look after the rich and US interests.
Meantime Iraq is too chaotic even for a coup. The rival elements of society, kept in balance by Saddam and the Baath, are unable to stabilise. Minorities are suffering, including a Christian community that has been there since the time of Jesus, but will probably be gone in another generation. Much like the Christians of Anatolia, there since the time of Paul of Tarsus, evicted after being ‘helped’ by European Christians.
[There were several more rounds of crisis. As of April 2015, the military are once again ruling.]
The USA is a two-fisted bully with one fist stuck in the Iraqi tar-baby. North Korea would have been next on the list, if Rumsfeld’s imperialism-lite had actually worked. Now Koreans are taking the opportunity to secure a nuclear bomb while the USA is badly placed to do anything about it. They are also developing missiles that could reach the USA, perhaps reasoning that the ability to hit Japan may not always be a reliable guarantee against US aggression.
Meanwhile Japan has mysteriously recovered from the mysterious stagnation it suffered when the Cold War ended and Japan was seriously considered as the USA’s next rival. The new Prime Minister seems confident enough to re-assert Japanese values, suggesting that these values never went away and were just kept out of sight for as long as Japan needed US protection.
“Shinzo Abe is planning a revolution in Japan which will see the return of a full-strength imperial army for the first time since the Second World War.
“After securing the Liberal Democratic Party’s presidency last week, he is now certain to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister, and he clearly has an eye on re-examining the post-war era… He spoke of revising the United States-imposed Constitution, which forbids Japan from having a full-fledged military, passing legislation to allow Japanese troops to be deployed overseas and making it possible for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defence with the US.
“He also wants to revise the other legal document of the post-war American occupation, the Fundamental Law of Education, and emphasise moral values, patriotism and tradition in schools.
“‘By entrusting our national security to another country and putting a priority on economic development, we were indeed able to make great material gains,’ Abe wrote of the post-war era in his campaign book, Toward A Beautiful Country. ‘But what we lost spiritually – that was also great.’…
“Abe’s greatest influence is from his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a wartime cabinet member imprisoned as a Class A war crimes suspect but never tried, who became prime minister in 1957. Recently, Abe has avoided commenting on Japan’s wartime past.” [J]
Guns don’t kill people: US citizens kill people. No other society has such a seething mass of angry people, rendered indignant at being average US citizens in a culture that almost worships its rich and famous.
Life-rage is equivalent to road-rage, which can’t be helped by those repeated advertising images of cars driving on roads miraculously free of other drivers. It is not an original US invention, of course. It taps into something that was already there, the baboonish side of human nature. But the culture is not designed by baboons, it is designed and propagated by people who ought to know better.
The specifics of the latest school shootings are still emerging, any may not matter that much. The fellow who killed the Amish schoolgirls was apparently seething over the death of a prematurely-born daughter. A tragedy anywhere, but in the US it can be seen as a sign that God hates you, so why not hit back at something valuable to God?
The Amish are one of the few US communities to have a fairly normal community life. Elsewhere, religion has become pathological, a source of violence and greed rather than social mechanisms to prevent such things. By suggesting that God will give easy material rewards to good people, they leave most people badly equipped to cope with life’s setbacks.
“From the moment he arrived on the scene, it was well known to people in the press and politics that Foley was gay, part of a gay network that honeycombs the Republican party. As the Republicans demonised gays for partisan advantage, the party became the largest walk-in closet in Washington. After the scandal broke, one gay Republican described Foley to me as incredibly indiscreet. Almost everyone on Capitol Hill knew that Foley spent an inordinate amount of time hanging out with pages.” (The cover-up that kills, Guardian. [R1])
“The age of consent where I write is 16. Would it be ok with you then if your 50+ neighbour or workplace colleague was in active sexual pursuit of your 16 year old daughter?” [R2]
“Dennis Hasert [sic] knew about the e-mails for MONTHS! and did nothing. So does HE condone pedophilia? [sic] Who else in congress knew and condoned Foley’s actions? Our children are not safe anywhere.”. ([R3]. Dennis Hastert has been Speaker of the United States House of Representatives since 1999.)
From the 1960s, the left took the odium of changing the culture in line with what they thought was moral. The New Right rose to power by persuading voters that they stood for traditional values, the 1950s world where women stayed at home and husbands returning from work would great them with some cheery remark like ‘Honey, I’m Home’. The New Right were bullshitting, of course. They called themselves ‘conservative’, but if they are conservatives then I’m an astronaut. What they’ve done is accelerate the breakdown in the old order, while undermining efforts to create some new sort of morality. And there have always been a lot of falsehoods at the core of their identity.
Selam was a three-year-old ape-infant, an Australopithecus afarensis who lived more than 100,000 years before the famous ‘Lucy’. The name given to her by modern humans (but mostly ignored in the Western press) is the Ethiopian-Semitic version of Salaam, peace. It was given by Zeresenay Alemseged, the Ethiopian discoverer. [L1]
Had Selam lived, she would have had an extended childhood compared to other apes. “The Dikika girl had an estimated brain size of 330 cubic centimetres when she died, which is not very different from that of a similarly aged chimpanzee. However, when compared to the adult afarensis values, it forms 63 – 88% of the adult brain size.
“This is lower than that of an adult chimp, where by the age of three, over 90% of the brain is formed. This relatively slow brain growth in the Dikika girl appears to be slightly closer to that of humans.
“Slow, gradual development in an extended childhood is regarded as a very human trait – probably to enable our higher functions to develop.” [L2].
Apes became human thanks to natural selection, but natural selection of a gentle sort, not the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ of fervid Victorian imaginations. Mammals and birds are the most complex individual organisms on the planet, and they have independently evolved a high degree of parental care. Among mammals, the degree of care in also much greater for clever complex animals than simple stupid creatures. The rat really is a product of ‘nature red in tooth and claw’, a major winner in the hotly contested arena of rat-and-mouse lives where the mammals probably began. Apes faced much less intense selection, as large tree-dwellers with a distinctive life-style. But just one ape took this to extremes, and remained marginal for several million years, perhaps surviving more by luck than ‘evolutionary fitness’. Selam’s relatives, our own probable ancestors, would have been counted as an ‘endangered species’ by modern standards. We find only a scattering of fossils, because there were probably only ever a few hundred thousand of them alive at any one time. In a quiet backwater of life, ape-people had the chance to avoid short-termism and gradually become something radically new.
[R2] – reader comment on [R2].