Saturday, March 31, 2007

Shopping Trolleys!

I have a deep seated belief, based on a marginal reading of the first book of Dante's Divine Comedy, that there is a whole circle of Hell devoted especially to those who leave supermarket shopping trolleys to clog up parking spaces, walkways and roadways at supermarkets.

I have, on more than occasion seen people push a trolley they have just unloaded in to an empty parking bay, rather than walk an extra thirty yards to put it in to a shopping trolley bay for collection.

This annoys me for two reasons. The first is that it is innately annoying when tying to walk or drive or park to find a shopping trolley left where it is destined to cause maximum inconvenience.

The second, more significant reason is the attitude that it exposes. "I cannot be bothered to do something as taxing as walk thirty yards and put away a trolley. Someone else will deal with it, so why worry. It's not my problem. I pay good money to shop here, so I expect to have my mess cleared up for me."

This attitude has at its heart a childishness that is shared bt that a lot of adults in modern Britain - a generation of infant-adults. Someone is always going to do it for them, they have no responsibility to other people. Mummy will take care of it (she probably always did, and never got them to to do anything for themselves as children). Never mind that they are the first to complain when another infant-adult inconveniences them through such selfishness!

It drives me mad when I hear someone say "someone should do something about it". My answer is to say "why don't you?". And there are always the excuses about time, or "I don't know how", or, most commonly "it's not my responsibility. The government should do this, it's what we pay our taxes for".

Now, I can see a hypocrisy in myself as I type this - one my wife would keenly point out! I do leave messes around our house, assuming that it will get dealt with later (usually by my wife). I am not perfect, and this is one area where I need to grow up - it's a trait that a lot of men share. But I cannot leave litter on the street or a shopping trolley not in its bay. And I cannot assume that the government will do something about war, famine, poverty or any other ill, unless I and others badger them to do something, and are prepared to get up and do something about it ourselves.

Shopping trolley crimes are in themselves petty and trivial, but this abdication of responsibility is a sign of a moral weakness and spiritual malaise that angers me deeply, but which is so prevalent in British culture today. And thus it is worthy of damnation in all of us who abdicate our responsibility for the weak, poor and marginalised. Sins of omission are sometimes even worse than those of commission.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


So, we are now past the various celebrations of the 200 years since the abolition of the slave trade, and what a jolly time we have had! Everyone slagging everyone else off for not celebrating the right things (it wasn't the end of slavery, don't y' know?), or not celebrating the right people (it wasn't all Wilberforce, don't y' know?).

The thing is, I sympathise with the guy who got up in Westminster Abbey yesterday to berate everyone present. I don't totally agree with him, but I do sympathise - after all, didn't the Church of England, the Monarchy the British Government and indeed most of British industry benefit from the slave trade and ongoing slavery for more than thirty years after the abolition of the transatlantic trade? Not much repentance for that in the service, as far as I could see. And didn't these profiteers on the back human misery all get compensation for the loss of their slaves (the slaves, of course, got nothing)?

The history of how this and other Western nations treated the people of Africa so appallingly lives with us to this day. Where is the greatest poverty and social deprivation to be found in the UK and the USA? - largely among the descendants of salves. Which groups are still excluded, treated as less than human and subject regular individual and institutional abuse? - yeah, you got it again. And yes, where is the slave industry still flourishing? - well actually not just in Africa this time - how about Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc, etc. It's spreading! But where is poverty getting worse? - umm, there you are again, Africa. And who is still getting rich off the poverty of Africans and slaves? - ah yes, that'd be us again.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la mem cholse.

So maybe I did not totally agree with the protester yesterday - but he had a point. Poverty and slavery and racism and injustice are still with us - Wilberforce did not abolish them. He may have won one small battle two centuries back, but the war is far from over. No wonder so many of those of African descent feel uncomfortable and alienated from the celebrations this year. Maybe we need to ask the question that Wilberforce and the abolitionists asked - are we happy to grow in wealth and power at the expense of others living in poverty and misery? And if not, what are we going to do to change that?

If the controversy over these celebrations should teach us anything, it is that we cannot afford to stop asking these two questions of ourselves - and seeing them spur us into action.

(Am I getting a bit pious here? Quick! - get me back to baby pooh!)

Monday, March 05, 2007

We Didn't Start the Fire.....

One of Billy Joel's better songs, but a sentiment I cannot wholly agree with! Over the last year or so there has been a distinct fire raging at the heart of British cultural life - a fire that at times seems all consuming, and at others barely relevant or noticeable. It is a fire that our cousins across The Pond have called the "Culture Wars", but here have manifested in a different form. However, they all seem to come from the same starting point - the clash between a secular modernity that feels it should have long ago won the argument about the validity of all forms of religious expression in the public (and increasingly the private) sphere, against religious convictions of various kinds that not only do not agree that the argument is over, but question the validity of the argument in the first place.

This has lead to a war of words in the public square between the hostile atheistic fundamentalism of Dawkins and Hitchens, up against the various forms of religion, fundamentalist, literalist, traditional and liberal. Increasingly hostile and being fought out in spheres of equal opportunities, and human rights legislation, this conflict at times sheds more heat than light.

At the heart of it seems to be a fundamental mismatch of world views. Not only are they incompatible with one another, they actually do not intersect most of the time.

Rationalistic atheism and secularism assume that all truth is capable of reductionist analysis. Religious world views tend to believe that truth is apprehended experientially, whether through scripture, ritual or mystical experience. The one assumes that anything that cannot be measured and observed is not true, or cannot be subjected to enough scrutiny to verify its truth one way or the other. The other assumes that experiential truth leads one to a greater understanding of oneself, one's place in the Universe and how one should live.

Evangelical Christianity has accommodated the modernist, rationalist mindset the most, and has framed the Christian faith in terms of analogical and propositional truths and doctrines, and so most often clashes with secularism. Catholic and pentecostal Christianity are less in love with modernity, and feel less need to engage with these debates except where they force a clash of values in the public sphere.

Which is where the other difference arises - secularism holds that faith, if it must exist, has to be kept to the private sphere, and not affect any other part of life. Meanwhile faith has always seen itself involved with all of life. Secularism is largely confined to a Cartesian dualism, faith (possibly apart from Evangelicalism in its most academic forms) is concerned with the whole of life as lived in embodied, phenomenolgical experience. Needless to say that the latter is older, more widely practised human thought pattern.

Sadly, I fear the likes of Dawkins, who are nice, middle class white European male children of the Enlightenment have little real engagement with the rest of the human race, and thus no real understanding of religion, or indeed post-modernity which is largely suspicious of the overarching truth claims of any religion - including scientific atheism.

But it is the ferocity of these clashes that bemuses me. The fear, on both sides, that the other is a real danger to the future of the human race. I find this sad - I have many good friends who hold themselves as committed atheists and agnostics (the latter in the sense of subjecting all truth claims, including those of scientific atheism to serious and sceptical scrutiny). I respect their positions, and they respect mine.

Dawkins (or Hitchens) I fear is a man who I might like in person and find I could talk to about most subjects, but once we come on to religion, his bigotry and fanatical hatred of all things religious would make any attempt at dialogue pointless.

There is no point in trying to debate with the wild eyed, fanatical convert who is convinced his truth is the only one. Faith, in the very real sense, is about a journey of discovery - doctrine may not be irrelevant, but is only a starting point - if one cannot learn, and have one's beliefs subject to regular scrutiny, then what you have is not faith, but a blind clinging to certainty out of a fear that one might be wrong. Dawkins is, I fear, as much guilty of that kind of red-eyed fanaticism as any religious fundamentalist that he rails against. Less nice, middle class people than he who hold similar views could use them to some very unpleasant ends, and indeed the likes of Enver Hoxha and Joseph Dzhugashvili have shown us that this is not a false fear.