Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Monday, April 17, 2017
Wednesday, November 09, 2016
A year the started with the death of David Bowie, whose music and art had such a profound influence not just on Britain but the whole of the English speaking world, was bound to be a year of the unexpected. But apart from the amazing toll of celebrity deaths, the real shock to the establishment and the middle classes, has been the rise of working class anger at globalisation that has left them behind. From the election of Duterte in the Philippines to the Brexit vote in the UK and now the election of Donald Trump as US President. The sense that the political and economic system has left the ordinary working man and woman behind has boiled over into the election of populist, nativist leaders and the increase in political isolationism, anti-immigration and global trade deals.
Working people in Britain and America in particular are fed up with their jobs going overseas to developing countries that can make the same goods for a fraction of the price, and at the total erosion of the job market for semi and unskilled workers in the West, at least in manufacturing industries.
Sadly, we won't be getting those jobs and industries back from the developing world in any realistic scenario. Those countries are undergoing the rapid industrialisation and development that we enjoyed about 150-100 years ago with the first Industrial Revolution, and their governments and people will not be letting that process stop. China, India and much of Asia, Latin America and a small but increasing part of Africa are beginning to claw their way out of poverty.
But here in the old industrial heartlands, the grim truth is that the jobs that previously gave white, working class men a sense of economic and social worth and enfranchisement are gone for good. Men are also struggling in a post-feminist society which no longer sees the old masculine virtues of physical strength and stamina, hard work and machismo as of any value. Unless you want to take a 'feminine' job in retail and the service industries, for those without further education the options are limited.
That explains why Trump won so big amongst white, working class men in the US. 75% voted for him. His views on work, immigration, race and women resonated with those who no longer feel the US is their nation. It was the same sense of wanting their country back that led so many to vote to leave the EU in my country back in June. The world has left them behind, now they want the world to sit up and take notice and give them what they once had.
It has noticed! Whether the establishments have really got the message and will give anything back remains to be seen. Sadly the policies being spouted by the self-appointed 'champions' of the white working class male are unlikely to work. Furthermore, these champions, Trump and Farage for example, are often wealthy and middle class and come from the same privilege that they rail against .
It is my tired old mantra, but it is one I believe. No government, no political movement, no institution and no set of policies can ultimately solve this. We get the government we deserve, and if we get a divided, angry and fractious political discourse, it is because that is the nation that chose it. The US election was ugly because US society is divided and ugly - along racial, class and gender lines. The same is true here in Britain. We get the leaders and the policies we deserve, with the media and civil society fuel the division. These days we also have to contend with social media as their ever more flammable medium.
Wilberforce and the Victorian reformers who followed him did not just bring in social institutions to tackle the huge social ills caused by the Industrial Revolution. They did change political discourse and public policy, but they started with practical and moral change. Wilberforce saw the principles of care for animals, the teaching of biblical ethics and values and inner spiritual transformation from the gospel of Jesus Christ as central to his 'reformation of manners', He prioritised this as much, if not more than changes in legislation. Fry and others saw the need for alternatives to the strong drink (gin, mostly) that filled the slum drinking dens to which the poor retreated to escape the horrors of daily life. They brought in education for the poor, first with the Sunday school movement, but later with publicly funded schools. They created alternatives for street children, giving them education and institutional care. Their solutions were not always perfect by modern standards, but they did lay the foundations for the welfare state and created a civil society that saw social change to tackle social injustice as a fundamental responsibility
We need similar, bottom up changes in the US and UK today. It is not enough to change the laws without changing to social climate. We cannot change the social division in our communities without changing individual views and attitudes through education and community activism.
But ultimately, we can only change the social and political climate by changing the spiritual climate. The inner transformation of individuals who had met the living God in the person of Jesus, who had let him change their hearts and minds towards God and away from selfishness and ego is the transformation that started the great social changes in British and American society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Trump presidency and Brexit will not save our nations - they may at best do little to change the status quo apart from bringing some economic benefit in the long-term. At worst, they could divide, destroy and impoverish our nations yet further. We have a choice, do we moan and complain, or do we hold the new decision makers to account to make policies that benefit the poor? Do we moan about the decay of society or do we work from within to rebuild it, building bridges between sections of our communities alienated from one another? Do we despair of the moral state of our nation, standing in indignant judgement, or do we reach out with the hope of the good news of Jesus, and speak of and live out a better way than the world can offer?
2016 is not over yet - maybe, just maybe there are surprises left that may delight rather than appall and terrify? The choice is ours.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
Maybe it was that despite having three strong female leads, the film fails the Bechdel test - all the dialogue shared by the women ends up revolving around the male characters, even though they are very much in supporting roles.
It might also be that all the women are in some way dysfunctional because of motherhood and social expectations around having children.
It could be because of the many plot holes that stretch the willing suspension of disbelief to the limit. Maybe.
Actually, for me it was the first two points that really bugged me (I cope with plot holes in most films and TV series reasonably well - otherwise I would never be able to watch most dramas!). Spoilers ahead for those who have neither read nor seen the film!
Movies that are about women being badly treated by men should, in this day and age actually be addressing the causes of that abuse, not just accepting it as an inevitability and giving the women the let out of a bloody revenge at the end. In the film, the reason the women were reduced to mere appendages to the men was the issue that was not adequately explored. The book, apparently (I have not read it yet) addresses the fact that the women are trophy wives for successful men, despite having their own careers and skills and that their whole identity and purpose is tied up around their ability to produce offspring. However, early on in the film one of the main characters observes bitterly that the whole suburb where the action happen is 'one big baby farm'.
This is the issue that the films never quite gets to the heart of. How much our culture still only values women because of their ability to reproduce. Rachel's real pain because she not only cannot have children, but has been replaced by a new wife who has given her ex-husband the child he wanted, is compounded by the expectations of society around her. Megan's grief over a lost child and her husband's pressure to give him a family that can only remind her of her awful loss cause her increasingly dysfunctional behaviour. But why the culture around these women sees this as their only value and purpose is never challenged.
The Bible has several stories about women facing the pain of the childlessness, and the social disgrace that went with it - Sarah and Rachel in Genesis and Hannah in 1 Samuel are obvious examples. However, God eventually gives them all children, There are no stories about the women denied the chance to have children or who chose not to, so we have to address those issues from elsewhere in scripture.
So what of those who cannot have children. And why is it just the women denied children who suffer - what about their husbands? It seems to me that our culture, including our churches makes the ideal of marriage and parenthood, especially motherhood, a dangerous idol. It leaves those not able or not willing to have children on the edge, left out of social gatherings and conversations that revolve around parenting. For those of us who are parents, the struggles and challenges of parenting occupy our time and energy so much that we are often blind to those around us who are left out.
For women though, the sense that one is only validated by being a mother is a toxic pressure. There is already the ludicrous notion that a woman can only be validated by a romantic relationship with a man. Then, once that man is found and domesticated, the only role left is to become a mother.
The bible does place motherhood (and fatherhood) in a place of great esteem, but Paul points to a higher calling that may lead women and men to eschew such a role, and Jesus himself gave hope that those denied biological parenthood can become mothers (and fathers) to many by other means. Marriage and parenthood matter, but they are not all there is to our humanity and value, and the more we hold on to the truth that there is more to us than our reproductive roles, the saner (and happier) we will be!
Saturday, October 08, 2016
The creation of artificial life and artificial intelligence is becoming close to a technological reality, and it is stories like Westworld that remind us of the dangers of taking on the role of Creator when we lack the moral core to live up to that role.
However, in reality we do not need to create artificial beings to abuse.The abuse of those deemed lesser beings or sub-humans is a common symptom of decadent or primitive societies. Whether it is slavery and human trafficking, blood sports, proxy wars, racism and class or caste systems, we are prone to work out our worst human instincts through abuse of the ‘other’ who we can make subhuman to maintain our illusion of being good and moral.
CS Lewis in his seminal work The Abolition of Man pointed out that “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means... the power of some men to make other men what THEY please.” As we become more technologically advanced, this power to shape other parts of humanity to our will grows rather than lessens.
Westworld is about our moral responsibility to our fellow man, about the myth that our actions have no impact or consequence for us regardless of their consequences for others, and that playing God is presuming a role for humanity for which we are singularly not equipped. It has a resonance in social justice and bioethics. I look forward to seeing how it explores these themes in the coming weeks.
Friday, April 04, 2014
Monday, January 20, 2014
What I found here was the debut novel of Anne Leckie, Ancillary Justice which was getting a lot of buzz last autumn when it first came out. The story opens with its (probably female) protagonist, Breq, on a wintery and brutal world acting with impulsive kindness to a former officer that she had served with in the armed forces of the aggressively expansionist Radchaai empire. It soon becomes apparent that Breq has hair trigger killer instincts, some interesting enhancements, and a lot of anger. Thus far she is similar to the tough female killers that have populated science fiction novels from William Gibson to Iain M Banks for decades.
But Breq is rather unique - she is not what she once was. Literally. She was Justice of Toren, a massive troop carrying starship, most of whose soldiers were ancillaries, mind wiped prisoners of war, now slaved to the ship's Artificial Intelligence. As a result, Justice of Toren sees the world through multiple eyes in multiple locations, and can speak (and indeed, sing) with literally thousands of voices. Only all that is now left of her is one, lone ancillary, Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, out to avenge the death of all she once was and all she had once cared for. She is an AI in a human body trying fit into human society, with a quest for vengeance.
The multiple conversations and observations that her multiple self shared with her human officers and the citizens of a world recently 'annexed' by the Radchaai makes for fascinating reading, and when this is broken down in one particularly traumatic event about of a third of the way into the novel, we get a real sense of the loss, disorientation and fear that ensues for her/it.
All of this is interesting science fiction, set in a standard space operatic format and happily playing with all the usual tropes of the genre (vast empires, massive spaceships run by AIs, special weapons, exotic worlds, epic battles). But actually the novel is a lot more than this precis suggests. Exploring the nature of empire, imperial expansionism and the war crimes that are committed in the name of protecting that empire, it does what the best science fiction does and holds a mirror up to our own world. Lecke is American, but as a Brit I got at once the sense of an empire reaching the end of its expansion and the yearning for the glory days of old amongst the officer class (and their obsession with drinking tea!). One telling quote summarises the realisation that some of the Radchaai were coming to about the nature of their empire:
luxury always comes at someone else’s expense. One of the many advantages of civilization is that one doesn't generally have to see that, if one doesn't wish.Some amongst the Radchaai (a word that means 'civilised') are questioning the empire, and this hinges around two, appalling war crimes to which the Justice of Toren is both witness and contributor. The tension between the conservative and progressive streams amongst the Radchaai are at the centre of the story.
Another interesting quirk of the narrative, and one that most reviewers (especially male reviewers) hone in on first is the use of gender. Radchaai culture and language make no apparent distinction between genders, using a single pronoun for either sex and no apparent differences in dress or social roles between male and female. As a result, the non-human Breq struggles conceptually with languages and cultures that do make such distinctions. All characters are referred to in the feminine, except rarely where she must speak in other languages and to other cultures that do not make such distinctions, where we learn she regularly gets genders the wrong way round, causing much confusion and occasionally, offence! What this achieves is initially a sharp sense of confusion and dislocation in the reader, although by the end of the novel I had ceased to notice and was going with the flow. It does ask the reader where her/his presuppositions about how we assume behaviour and social role will fall along gender lines, and how culturally prescribed these presuppositions are.
All this is done in a narrative that avoids too many space opera cliches that pander to the inner thirteen year old male of so many of the genre's fans. There is little violence (and when it does happen it is mostly 'off screen' and all the more disturbing for it), no sex or sexual tension (although Breq's underlying lack of humanity means she misses the cues that may be there). Like Iain M Banks and Ken McLeod, Leckie is subverting the genre to look at political themes that this most politically conservative and masculine of all science fiction sub-genres generally eschews.
The book does end on an apparent anti-climax, but as it is the first book of a trilogy this is forgivable, leaving you at least wanting to know where it goes next. A strong start to a trilogy and an impressive debut novel. I look forward to the second volume out later this year.
Friday, September 02, 2011
this post originally appeared on the blog of the Christian Medical Fellowship at http://www.cmfblog.org.uk
Saturday, April 02, 2011
Tuesday, December 07, 2010
Well, fourteen inches of snow in our back garden by last Friday, three days snowed in and working from home, chaos on the road and trains. Welcome to the British winter! Again.
It is interesting how just a few inches of frozen rain reveal how vulnerable our society is – shops running out of perishable supplies, major transport infrastructure going wrong, leaving people trapped in trains and cars overnight. What would happen is something really serious happened, and all of it just fell apart?
It puts me a bit in mind of Jesus’ warning to the disciples not get anxious about future or current troubles – it’s the way it will be. Sounds a bit fatalistic, but actually, it is reminder that we so easily get distracted by the immediate perils that we miss the bigger picture. If Jesus really is retuning, then things will be kicking off out there in way we cannot mistake – but history is replete with natural and manmade disasters that must have seemed like the end of the world. The long, hard winters at the start of the twelfth century, followed in less than a generation by the Black Death must have felt pretty apocalyptic to the people of Northern Europe And you can point to countless other events of similar ilk. A reminder that our lives on this planet hang by a thread.
Which is why knowing that Jesus is coming back remains so important in Christian thinking – because we know our fragility and ephemerality, we also realise that we have no help or hope other than God, and if the whole world comes crashing down around our ears, God remains firm. There is always a hope, even in the midst of hopelessness.
One of the most striking novels and films of recent times is ‘The Road’ which takes us to a world where is has all collapsed – there is no future, no hope, only a lingering (or if fortunate, a swift and painless) death. But although God never appears, there is that spark of hope, of light, of humanity in the midst of this devastation that looks onwards to a future. It is a human instinct to believe and hope that there is a better world coming – I believe that it has been planted there by God, because it makes us willing to get up every day, persist through the hard things, toil in the face of adversity, believe in the face of doubt, hostility and even persecution.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Thursday, May 20, 2010
This little valley, glimpsed twice a day for barely a minute is, for me at least, a reminder of God's incredible creativity and artistry, and of his tangible presence in a Creation that holds together through his very Word.