Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Does 2016 have anything left to throw at us?

It is too early to write the obituary for 2016, and with only a few weeks left to run it may still have surprises in store for the world. Right now, anything feels possible!

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. 

That's not say this is an unalloyed good, however.  What happened in Victorian Britain was very much the wealthy getting wealthier on the backs of the working poor. But many more of the previously impoverished joined the middle classes as they saw wages and job opportunities increase, and as education became more widespread so those with aspiration had a chance to climb the economic ladder. We see this in China and India today with a similar (possibly even more dramatic) explosion of the middle classes to that the West experienced in the previous two centuries.

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 . 

But there can be no doubt that society is unequal and unjust. This is not just to white, working class men, but to men of colour, women of almost all colours and classes, but especially working class and black, to people with disabilities, etc, etc. British and American society are broken, divided and increasingly acrimonious.

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

The Girl on the Train

Now, leaving aside that Emily Blunt's Rachel is not a girl, or that millions of books fans complain that the action has been moved from London to New York, this is a enjoyable B movie thriller. But it left me feeling uncomfortable.

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


So, a cult seventies science fiction fable about the perils of entrusting our entertainment to robots has been turned into a new cable TV series by the brother of Christopher ‘Inception’ Nolan and JJ ‘Lost’ Abrams.  Great Anglo-American cast (and a new Hemsworth brother to boot!), great production and directing credits, and a first episode that lived up to the promise of the hype.

Many are seeing Westworld as the next big thing after Game of Thrones, the HBO series that has outsold every other TV series and garnered a record-breaking number of awards. But thematically and tonally it is much closer to Battlestar Galactica, the equally lauded series of eleven years back. Both BSG and Westworld rests on the oldest science fiction staple of all – the creation of artificial life and our responsibility to our creations.
Brain Aldiss has argued that Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus’ was the first true science fiction novel, and I am loathe to disagree. Its central theme of the derogation of responsibility by the creator for his creature is often overlooked by filmmakers (Kenneth Brannagh’s version being a notable exception). Most just dwell on the monster being monstrous but in Shelley’s original he is intelligent, eloquent and tortured by the rejection he faced from Frankenstein and wider society. He became monstrous because he was treated as a monster.

This theme has been revisited so many times in science fiction, from the awful, killer robot stories of pulp fiction, to the more sophisticated treatment of Asimov’s Robot novels, through to Blade Runner, the Matrix films and BSG, and most recently the rather wonderful Channel 4 series ‘Humans’.

At its core, Westworld is about the creation of sentient beings for the sport of humans. These beings, known as ‘Hosts’ are androids with limited self-determination, their memories wiped at the end of each cycle, and each has a script to which they adhere, allowing them a limited repertoire of actions. In some this way mimics human existence, where our memories are selective, and that we all work within the limitations of ‘scripts’ determined by culture, upbringing and social expectation. It is also perhaps an echoing of Calvinist theology of predestination – free will is an illusion, we all ultimately serve God’s purposes.  

But the abuse meted out to the ‘Hosts’ in the name of entertaining the worst fantasies of humans (especially men) who see a Western setting as a great excuse to show off such ‘manly’ virtues such as murder and rape.  The invitation to come to Westworld touts the fact that actions there have no consequences. Except, obviously, they do, because the Hosts are developing glitches, memories of past roles and past abuses are beginning to surface, causing failures. In one case Abernathy, one such ‘glitching’ Host delivers a Shakespearian, almost Biblically prophetic rant as he confronts his maker (in the form of Anthony Hopkins’s Frost). Quoting Romeo and Juliet, he enigmatically tells his creator “these violent delights have violent ends”, before being switched off. These are the final words he gives his ‘daughter’, Delores, at the end of the first episode. It is a warning of what is to come.

The creation of artificial life and artificial intelligence is becoming close to 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.

The story of the birth, life and death of Jesus reminds us, as the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it that “Through Christ’s incarnation, all of humanity regains the dignity of bearing the image of God. Whoever from now on attacks the least of people attacks Christ, who took on human form and who in himself has restored the image of God for all who bear a human countenance.” In short, we have a moral duty to all our fellow humanity to see and treat them on an equal footing - even if we must forgo our comforts and luxuries bought at the expense of others.

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 ill-equipped. It has a resonance in social justice and bioethics. I look forward to seeing how it explores these themes in the coming weeks.


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