Tag Archives: Islam

A Letter to Donald

Dear Donald

This short letter is my attempt to try to come to try to answer the question who is the real Donald, why does he behave as he does and why are you such a threat to the continued existence of liberal democracy. It is my attempt to come to terms with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. If you met me you would notice a distinct difference in our manner. I am a man who  values modesty in conversation and behaviour. In short I am one of those Englishmen who overuses the world sorry, so I guess you can see why I find your behaviours so hard to understand. Not only that but I am also a liberal so we are so different in manner and our politics.

Although your personality is one steeped in anger, I think your anger comes from a fear of modernity. The world that you knew as a child, the America of the white heterosexual males is now being challenged, Now instead of the television presenter is less likely to be an Ed Sullivan, than a lesbian woman such as Ellen DeGeneres or a woman of colour such Oprah Winfrey. This is becoming an increasingly unfamiliar world to you in which you are not sure of your place in it. Formerly you would have been lauded for being a billionaire and having a much younger and beautiful wife, now many doubt the value of your achievements. This must be confusing to you, their must  be times when it seems that you are adrift in a hostile world. One reaction only is possible for you to this fearful world and that is anger, an anger which is so often caricatured by others as a snarl.

Unlike you I welcome the ‘differenceness’ of modernity, something I first encountered in a trip to Scandinavia in 1966. A difference demonstrated in the design of there housing and the beauty of their cities and towns, a beauty lacking in Britain. Other and later trips to Europe instilled in me an enthusiasm for the different. In 1970 I went to France where I had my first taste of French coffee, it was love at first taste. Until then coffee was instant coffee, either Nescafe or Maxwell House. A harsh tasting drink that you drank to keep you alert and buzzing. This French coffee tasted nice, it had flavour you enjoyed, coffee drinking now became an unalloyed pleasure. Getting to know other cultures and taking from them what I enjoyed has enriched my life.

New York as with London where I taught has become an increasingly cultural melting pot with an increasing diverse ethnic mix of peoples. While the integration of new ethnic groups could present problems of which as a teacher I was well aware. They also brought their cultures with them. Some saw these cultures as alien and a threat to the host society. Yet these cultures embodied a whole new range of cultural experiences that enriched the host culture. One such obvious enrichment was the West Indian carnival in Notting Hill. A diverse open society is a creative society and London at present is the leading cultural centre in Europe. The constant making and remaking of London culture that is the consequence of having to adapt and absorb new cultures is  a source of the creativity that makes London a leading culture centre. However with Brexit the open and welcoming culture of London will be lost as new ethnic groups and their cultures are increasingly excluded from Britain. What is likely to replace it is a cultural resistant to change and closed to new ideas?  In fact many of our new right politicians would welcome this, a London that increasingly resembled one of those dull provincial towns or cities that characterised Britain in the 1950s.

Although you regard Muslims as that most alien of the other, my experience of them is entirely different. I have encountered them as students and friends.   Coming into contact with them made me realise that there was another exciting culture and life to get to know. I have read the poetry of the Sufi master Rumi. No doubt you are familiar with the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but what you don’t know is that this greatest of Christian saints regarded Rumi as a spiritual master. This intermingling of European and Islamic culture has been of benefit to both societies throughout the millennia. The classics of Greek philosophy might have been lost if they had not been preserved in the translations of the Arab philosophers. Unlike you when coming into contact with a new culture, my reaction is not to reject it as something alien and foreign; instead I want to explore it, to learn from it. I have a friend who as you do rejects muslim culture as being alien and benighted, yet even he enjoys the poetry of Omar Khayyam.

What is frightening about your anger and that of your fellow believers of the right is that you have the power to turn back those aspects of modernity that you despise?  This is why you want to make abortion illegal. If women no longer have control of their bodies, they will be unable to live independent lives and will be forced back into the box of domesticity. Similarly there are the new Jim Crow laws of the South, which make it difficult for Americans of colour to vote.  These laws reduce the presence in the political arena of people of colour, a change which is ensuring that the white dominance of the South is continuing.  Another alien group is put back into its box, but this time it is the box is one of servitude. Although this turning back is but a temporary measure, history shows that regimes such as yours can successfully hold back the tide of history for many years.

What worries me is your destructive attitude towards those institutions that make civilised life possible. Liberals such as myself think that John Rawls political thinking provided the essential  template for making of a successful political system. He wanted to answer the question to which all liberals want a solution. How do you construct a political system that gives voice and sanction to people of different and often incompatible views in a manner which avoids the worst of the destructive and divisive effects of political conflict? Societies can be torn apart by warring factions as demonstrated so well in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There the two rival factions, the Capulets and the Montague’s constantly threaten the peace of Verona with their constant feuding.

To this problem John Rawls had an interesting answer. His answer was that the constitution makers should indulge in an act of collective forgetting. When devising a constitution they should strive to forget their own beliefs and prejudices and try to exclude them from there thinking. Then they should focus on the building of a belief and bias free constitution. The emphasis should be on functionality not belief. One such example is the American constitution of 1787. The political system they devised was not free from fault, but until recently it had functioned effectively by containing political conflict within a system that delivered effective governance. Now unfortunately the new right that is the Republican party has set out to destroy that system that worked so well for two hundred years. The behaviour that you displayed towards former President Obama is demonstrative of the destructive behaviours of the new right. One of the main voices accusing Obama of being ineligible for office was yours. This nasty ‘birther’ campaign was a child of your making and did nothing other than to bring discredit American politics.

There are two requirements for a good political system. The first is how the winners treat the losers. The winners must accept the reality of the rotation of power, that is that the losers might be the winners next time around. They must accept the threat of the loss of power with good grace. While it is legitimate for politicians to seek to retain power, it is not legitimate when they use means which can only be described as illegitimate. American political history of the recent past has been little more than the attempts by the Republicans to change the political system in such a way as to permanently exclude the Democrats from power. Using the conservative Supreme Court to open elections to undue influence by the rich and powerful business corporations is one. These so called ‘super PAC’s  (political action committees) are free to spend as much money as they want to influence an election. The same court has permitted the gerrymandering of the electoral process to exclude potential Democrat voters in the South. When the winner refuses to acknowledge the right to dissent and opposition, the tenor of politics changes it becomes more shrill and intolerant. Politics is conducted in the language of a Fox News presenter or the ‘shock jock’.

What has been lost from contemporary politics is the civility of manner? In the early twentieth century the members of the various political parties in Britain would be at each others throats in the Chamber, but they were able to distinguish politics from the person. These same men would then meet at various country houses for weekend parties at which there was no trace of animosity. This courtesy no longer exists in contemporary politics and you are the exemplar of the new rude and brutal politics. Without the practice of courtesy politics becomes degraded into being an unpleasant fight in a bear pit. When intolerance towards the other is the practice of each party democratic politics becomes impossible. The ‘give and take’ that made democratic politics possible in the past has ceased to exist. The obstructive behaviour of the Republicans toward President Obama which culminated in the threat to shut down government is an example of the new destructive politics. Similarly the behaviour of the Republicans toward former President Clinton demonstrates most effectively the breakdown of the American political system. Shutting down government for a month by refusing funding and impeaching the President over an affair with an intern was the nadir of American politics. All the worst practices of Republican politics have culminated in you. The destructiveness of your political reign is likely to exceed in destructiveness the damage inflicted on American society by the actions of Senator McCarthy. HIs witch hunts inflicted irreparable damage to the lives of individuals, you threaten to inflict irreparable damage to the fabric of American society.

What I believe disqualifies you from high office in a democratic society is your lack of civility. This is incivility derives in a part from your fear of and anger at modernity, as a relatively  inarticulate man it is second nature to express your anger in abusive language and in uncivil behaviour. It is not the belief in reasoned argument that is practice which enables democracy to thrive. All to often recorded parliamentary debates in England and those in the Senate or Congress fail to demonstrate reason. Civility was one of the factors that influenced the construction of the House of Commons after it was destroyed by German bombs. It was deliberately made too small to accommodate 600 MPs comfortably, it small size was intended to ensure that debates would tend to brevity because of the discomfort of being too long in the Commons. This with the regular emptying of the Chamber for numerous votes would be a tension releasing mechanism, so preventing that build up of tension that would lead to outbreaks of bad temper and behaviour, evidenced in other parliaments. Unfortunately British politics all too often copies the worst of American practice and incivility is now becoming the dominant mode of British politics. By civility I mean the civilised behaviour that makes debate and political dialogue possible, not the abuse and demeaning of one’s opponents which is now the common practice of British politics. When Theresa May came to the US it was not just to make a trade deal but to meet a like minded politician, a man who is the master of incivility. Why I want you to go is not just because you threaten the existence of liberal democracy in the US, but because you give encouragement to those many European politicians that also want an end to liberal democracy. Manners are said to make a man, manners are needed to make a President.

Religious mysticism and economics

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Javanese Mystical Beliefs The New York Times

All my adult life I have been trying to come to terms with what I learnt in my undergraduate philosophy classes. Coming from a relatively isolated rural Anglican background I had a belief in moral absolutes such as good and truth. Such terms where regularly used in conversation in my rural community, local villains were known as such and there was no ambiguity in our moral understandings. However at university I was introduced to a critical philosophy that undermined my belief in moral absolutes. One such example were the writings of Gilbert Ryle in which he dismissed the concept of a moral good. Good he explained was a term incapable of definition, as people would give differing explanations of what good meant, therefore could could be no more than an emotion. The same philosopher dismissed human consciousness as the ‘ghost in the machine’. He was sceptical of the notion of a special quality called consciousness existing apart from the biological mechanisms, which produced emotions and feelings. The idea of self was suspect, it did not fit with the understanding that biologists had of the human being. Consciousness and self were unscientific, their existence could not be proved, so it was illogical to believe in them. I guess I like many students felt the moral tectonic plates shift beneath my feet and realised the moral truths in which I believed had no firm foundation. Using the biblical analogy I was living in a house built on the shifting sands of contemporary morality.

However these relativist philosophers had not abandoned any notion of moral good. In practice they saw good as having some functional value, they behaved as would good men and women. They were fair in their treatment of us, turned up regularly to lectures etc. If they had behaved immorally the whole system would have collapsed. The first lesson I absorbed as that even if they did not see good and truth as moral absolutes, they saw them as having a practical utility.

I never really abandoned my Anglican beliefs, although I ceased to be a practising one. The 1960’s and 1970’s were an age of secularism and I used to enjoy discomforting my friends by telling them I was a Christian. Christians were for them a kind of pre-modern being, who were as distant from modern man, as were the Neanderthals from Homo Sapiens. Intelligent people for them could not believe in the myths and fairy stories of which organised religion was composed.

What I have sought since my university days is some intellectual underpinning or substance for my pre-modern beliefs in good and bad. I could not accept that there only purpose was that of enabling men to live together in an organised society. Interestingly I did learnt of one community in the Pacific, where stealing and dishonesty were valued. However this particular community, because of its dysfunctional nature was dying out.

Obviously I read widely, there is probably not a major philosopher of whom I do not have some knowledge, but it was not until I studied theology as a postgraduate that I began to make progress in finding solid ground on which to found my beliefs. The answer lies in the paradoxical nature of the unknown God, whose is both unknown and known. All theologians are to some degree negative theologians, they admit God is beyond human understanding, yet they claim some knowledge of this unknown God. Bertrand Russell scoffed at these theologians who believed in an unknown God as he pointed out that it was absurd to claim belief in a being that had no existence. However he misunderstood what theologians mean when they say they have no knowledge of God. God is unknown because he cannot be known through the usual methods of human understanding, as he exists beyond human existence. There can be no book of God as it is impossible to describe or explain what God is in language. There can be no science of religion, the science of observation or the laws of cause and effect have no relevance to the study of God. Yet this God can be known to the individual, but not through the usual means of human understanding.

Knowing God is a peculiarly individual experience, it is not as Kierkegaard states something that can be picked up from an afternoon’s study. There are no texts of instruction as such or a required reading list. Following Kierkegaard we cannot use direct language to speak of God, he cannot be described, but instead the language of God must be indirect language. The great religious teachers of the past are largely ignored but to learn the way to knowing truth or God it is to them that one must turn. It’s a knowledge quite unlike the knowledge of science or the humanities. Indirect learning or knowledge is the means of accessing these higher truth. The twentieth century philosopher Jasper explains that myth is one very successful way in which these truths can be accessed. Probably he’s thinking of Plato’s myth of the cave, in which he compares humanity to a group of men chained in a cave facing a wall behind which is a fire. Behind that wall are passed images which cast shadows of the cave wall and the chained men believe that those shadow images are reality. When one of the chained men escapes and goes into the sunlight and returns to tell the chained men what he has seen they refuse to believe him; they prefer the shadows or appearances with which they are familiar. What Plato is demonstrating is that the knowledge for understanding everyday existence is inadequate for the task of understanding what he and his Islamic successors (Sufis) would term the real. Plato has another a myth that explains the link between the real and the world of appearances in which we live. The creator God fashions the world and humanity out of clay and he uses as his model for creation the ‘real’. We are but copies of what the creator God could see, but which are concealed to us. Plato never believed the myths he created were ‘real’ but they was the only way he could explain, the complex nature of reality and existence. Jaspers put it more succinctly, there are some truths that can only be told through the use of myths.

Plato’s separation of the world into two spheres that of appearance and reality has remained influential. It is an understanding of existence that has been developed within the religious traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Rather than myth the Sufi sages use poetry, metaphor being a substitute for myth. One of my favourite phrases is taken from Rumi’s poem ‘The North Wind’

‘No matter how hard you stare into muddy water
you will not see the moon or sun’

It’s one of the best summaries of the Platonic need to search for truth beyond the world of ‘appearances’. However describing this world as one of ‘appearances’ does contradict our understanding of reality. Doctor Johnson gave the best retort, when he criticised Bishop Berkley’s theology, which saw the world as a product of God’s imagining. He said the pain he felt when stone he knocked his foot against was all too real, and was not a product of somebody’s imagining. All I can say is that Plato was trying to describe a level of reality that as it was not immediately visible and it could be distinguished from a reality that was all too apparent, which appears to us.

A person such as myself is described as a mystic, a term which I feel is derogatory as I believe my approach to knowing truth is quite rational. There is however a good reason for writing about my understanding of mysticism as a economist. Mysticism gives a very different understanding of the world to that of a practitioner of a science of the world of appearances. Economics judges the world in quantitive terms, using terms such as cost, loss and profit; it has no place for values. Therefore its practitioners are capable of making the most inhumane decisions, as they lack any sense of value. Milton Friedman could approve the torture and killing of trade unionists because their destruction paved the way to the free market. Ian Duncan Smith the minister for welfare can pursue a policy that through the removal of benefits impoverishes the poor and which even in extreme cases has led to suicide, as a means of incentivising people to return to work. To an economist misery and suffering are good if they produce the right result. Religious mystics could never accept such an inhumane belief system, they value the individual human too highly. Inflicting suffering is never an option for them, one hungry child is never the justification for this cruel method of incentivising work. Only an economist of the Neo-Liberal persuasion could be indifferent to human pain. Economics will constantly fail as it lacks a value system that would enable it to satisfy human wants. What economics so lack as a contemporary science is a knowledge of the old.

Notes
Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BCE) Classical Greek philosopher
Jelaluddin Rumi (30 September 1207 – 17 December 1273) Islamic jurist, theologian and mystic
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (5 May 1813 – 11 November 1855) was a Danish philosopher, theologian, poet, social critic and religious author
Milton Friedman (July 31, 1912 – November 16, 2006) American economist