Tuesday, August 9 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, August 9 2011, 08:12
Many philosophers have argued that society is a structure for containing human desire, viciousness and aggression. Freud adds a novel twist. He argues that society doesn't hold the aggression in check. Rather it introjects it back into the individual. Destructive desires are internalised. Most of the time we 'put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other extraneous individuals.'
But it's a fragile setup. It holds for much of the time. But when upset, pent up aggression overspills, violence follows fast, and the structures of society that had seemed so strong dissolve like salt.
As my part of London effectively went into curfew last night, and we scanned blogs and exchanged texts to see how far the looting and arson had spread, the city felt like a case in point.
Saturday, July 23 2011
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, July 23 2011, 08:53
Don't ask, don't tell will go in the US military. Which prompted me to wonder how long it will take in that other institution that finds homosexuality so difficult to bear, the church.
Well, what made homosexuality so difficult in the military? Michel Foucault made an observation that is illuminating.
He argued that the problem of homosexuality is keenly felt in institutions that seek closely to manage the interpersonal relationships of the individuals within them. They do so for good reasons. In the military, camaraderie must be cultivated to such an extent that one person be prepared to die for another. Homosexual love leads to similarly intense relationships though ones that float free of military discipline. It's this outlaw status - being as powerful but outside of the condoned form for same-sex relationships - that has made the military so fearful, Foucault argued.
Obama's statement seems to support that analysis. It implies that homosexuality is no longer seen as such a threat to order and cohesion. It doesn't undermine camaraderie. Homosexuality has lost its erotic, anarchic mystique.
That is not yet the majority feeling in the church - at least amongst its leaders, for whom it is not military order that matters but social order, they feeling themselves to be the guardians-in-chief of social order. Homosexuality is still feared for what it would do, if unleashed, to the institutional forms of love that the church so keenly seeks to manage, namely the family.
Seeking to manage the family is not going to change. It reaches deeply into the Jewish roots of Christianity. Plus, religions that have grown enamoured with proximity to power know that their USP is providing a moral cement for the 'building blocks' of society.
But perhaps something else will shift: homosexuality will lose its erotic mystique here too. You can certainly see how conservative strategies attempt to preserve it. The artificial separation of orientation from practice, for example, works to ensure that this mysterious activity called 'practice' maintains an air of dangerousness, inscrutability, subversion.
Homosexuality is different. But it's not dangerous. What conservatives refuse to countenance is the possibility that gay people love each other in ways analogous to how straight folk do. When that's seen, don't ask, don't tell seems silly, not necessary.
Friday, July 22 2011
By Mark Vernon on Friday, July 22 2011, 08:11
There's so much to love about Lucian Freud, who has died. He painted, and painted realist portraits. His subject was so traditional: nudes, animals. He was a private man and didn't much speak to the press.
He was everything that conceptual art is not.
His friend, the critic William Feaver, was just on the radio describing his secret: Freud looked, took the time to know - and when an artist truly sees something amazing happens. 'The way he looked at things, bits of our bodies, the world around us, us, himself, completely unsentimentally, completely clear, searching: this is something that is majestic, masterly, wonderful - showing ourselves to ourselves.'
I suppose that conceptual art doesn't require you to look that much. Why would you, when you don't make your work, and are more interested in the next idea?
Freud's concentration was a penetrating attention. He could scrutinise what is, and it was a kind of love. He loved Sue Tilley's stretch marks, Feaver continued. He stood up for humanity in an age when people want to escape their ensouled flesh by perfecting their bodies. Fascinating that there's less to love then.
Wednesday, July 20 2011
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, July 20 2011, 07:23
Talking about Epicureanism at The Idler Academy last night, I was encouraged that people responded warily to Epicurus' attitude towards friendship. It is radically self-interested. Though he can celebrate friendship 'dancing around the world' announcing blessedness, and he wrote a moving letter to a friend on the day he died, his friendliness is as egoistic as his hedonism: value your friends only insofar as they can help you.
Is that really friendship, individuals worried? Isn't it rather using others for your own good? Well yes, I replied, but don't think that is so unusual.
Yesterday too, a report on 'nudge' and behavioural change was published. Nudge is radically Epicurean when it comes to using others. Are you obese? Ditch your fat friends and take up with thin ones: that's more effective than any diet. Do you smoke? Shun smokers - yes, particularly those in your family. Or more generally, do you want to enhance your wellbeing? Cross to the other side when approached by anyone who doesn't smile.
And in the process, the world fills up with self-interested, happiness maximisers who are as cruel and calculating as a News of the World journalist. 'Love' others and secure your own needs, it teaches - in the name of making the world a better place. It fails to add, and watch your supposed friends ditch you for not satisfying their own egoistic concerns.
Emerson, for one, had a much better plan. If you want to have a friend, he advised, be a friend.
Tuesday, July 19 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, July 19 2011, 09:24
On the day that is supposed symbolically to seal a seismic shift in the British media landscape, because the Murdochs are appearing in the Parliamentary stocks, the dialogue that Slavoj Žižek had with Julian Assange a couple of weeks back comes to mind.
Žižek was arguing that WikiLeaks, the media event of last year, was one that changed everything. He likened it to the man who knows his wife is having an affair but overlooks the infidelity until, one day, he is presented with photographs of her sexual acts. He can overlook it no more.
Similarly, WikiLeaks changes the rules because it supposedly explodes the way modern ideology functions. We know that terrible things are done in war, but when we see the war logs, it can no longer absorb the horrors. We know that diplomats pass all sorts of details about friends and enemies alike, but when we read what's sent, the reality of power is exposed.
So WikiLeaks is not like normal investigative journalism, Žižek continued: it has not, in fact, told us anything new, but it's told us what we know in a way that means we can't ignore it. Like the cuckold seeing the photos.
Assange, as you might expect, appeared to like this distinction, though to me, he came across rather as someone who believes everyone's dirty laundry must be hung out to dry apart from his own. The chair of the event, Amy Goodman, was hardly pressing on him.
That aside, I wondered whether Žižek is right. Six months on, has WikiLeaks noticeably changed anything? Mark Urban was on Newsnight last night challenging the military's contention that drone strikes in Afganhistan/Pakistan are killing any fewer innocents. Has the diplomatic service gone into meltdown because Manderins can't communicate freely anymore? Not so you'd notice.
I felt that Žižek was making the old communist mistake of underestimating liberal capitalism's ability to absorb its contradictions. Revolution does not necessarily come.
Similarly, today, will this be a moment that historians come to see as marking fundamental change? I doubt it.
(Image: World Economic Forum)
Thursday, July 14 2011
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, July 14 2011, 09:25
Jake and Dinos Chapman were in entertaining form this morning. Where Sarah Montague saw hell in their new installations, they saw happiness. Where she saw Nazis, they saw royalty. For models of children with genitals for facial features, they had... well, I'm not quite sure what, because at that point in the interview, their banter fell into the gnostic art-speak of contemporary conceptualism.
Job done, you might say. They'd wrong-footed Montague, who excused their game by chuckling at the tomfoolery. But it felt to me that there might be something more sinister at play.
Denis Donoghue put his finger on it in his Reith lectures of 1982. (It's an old game.) In the third, he began: 'We cultivate, these days, a merely spectacular relation to ideas and attitudes: we watch them as they pass, as in a Lord Mayor’s parade.'
It's an attitude of irony that treats everything with equal nonchalance. Hell is equivalent to happiness. A Nazis to a prince. Children with whatever. Ha, ha. 'So we hear words like beauty and truth as if they had inverted commas around them,' Donoghue continues.
So far, so jolly. But there's a twist because 'the play of mind doesn’t make available even the possibility of a shared understanding of the object: it’s an act of power, not of communication. All you can do with a play of mind is to watch its performance.'
That felt close to what the Chapmans were up to. By resisting every shared understanding of their objects, they embark on a performance of power with the parameters set by them to ensure that they can't fail to win. It's as if the tyrants aren't being depicted in the gallery. They're the ones exhibiting in the gallery.
Sunday, July 10 2011
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, July 10 2011, 08:34
1. The demise as ancient tragedy
The staff of the News of the World have left their jobs heroically - in the strict sense. Like Iphigenia, sacrificed by Agamemnon as a pawn in a bigger battle, they are themselves innocent, but have accepted their fate nobly. It is tragic: bad things happen to good people, but they win dignity by accepting their suffering.
Similarly, today's newspaper, the last, has the air of being beyond good and evil, in spite of the past malefactions that have led to its demise. To read it is to experience the catharsis of a god's-eye view of history. The mood is melancholic as for a moment, before outrage at phone hacking returns, good and evil are viewed alongside one another, without a rush to judgment.
2. The demise as archetypal shadow
The newspaper played judge to the world, in its exposés and scoops. But the judge is an archetypal role, to be respected. It demands a careful balance of justice alongside compassion. The exercise of this power must be seen to be executed with fairness and in a way that honours the higher good, the universal laws of natural justice.
This did not happen as the newspaper was consumed by its shadow, which is tyrannical and places itself above the law. It no longer serves justice but its own petty agendas. The values of harmony and the greater good are rubbished and thwarted. The shadow mocks the good judge in a parody of justice.
However, the shadow is itself subject to the archetype. It reigns for a period, but is itself being judged. Justice will in time find it wanting. And so, the newspaper was brought low.
3. The demise as offending the sacred
(Hat tip: Gordon Lynch.) The media plays an unexpected role in a secular age. It is a guardian of matters sacred. Hence, it commemorates soldiers killed in war; it rages at the foulest crimes against children; it cries for justice to the heavens when individuals are killed through terror.
But the media serves the sacred and, when it forgets that, will offend it too. As Gordon explains, the Sun offended the deaths of those killed at Hillsborough. The BBC offended charitable concern for the people of Gaza. The people then demand recompense to restore the sacred to its place in public life. Sacrilege demands atonement.
The recompense being demanded of the News of the World is so large because its offence against the sacred is so large. Restitution requires a cleansing for fear that 'the moral stain will creep.' Further sacrifices are inevitable in order to stem the pollution.
Thursday, July 7 2011
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, July 7 2011, 06:07
'The ethics are the big issue here, just as much as whether the law was broken', remarked Chris Bryant in the debate on the phone hacking scandal yesterday. Here, here - for it's to say that any polity with half an eye on the good life for its citizens can't be sustained by courts, investigations and enquiries alone. (In this case, the enforcers of the law appear caught up in the breach themselves.)
This is a 'complete moral failure', Bryant continued - though he might have said this is another moral failure, if you think of the banking scandal of 2008 and the politicians' own problems with expenses. Plus, there's presumably a reason the 'News of the Screws' sells so well. Who can say they've never enjoyed a titbit of celebrity gossip, with the emphasis on the tit?
There will be a temptation to make more law now, but apart from the risks of limiting a free press, it won't be worth its weight in vellum. I think we made a relevant point in our Citizen Ethics project at the Guardian 18 months ago. It is a sign of our times that whilst we love to have ethical discussions on piecemeal issues, like assisted dying or maternal surrogacy, there seems to be little moral desire to shape the big forces that determine so much of our way of life today - forces so richly embodied in parts of the media.
Thursday, June 2 2011
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, June 2 2011, 08:57
Economists and scientists are putting a monetary price on everything from the buzzing bee (£430m pa, along with other pollinators) to the green view from your bedroom window (apparently just £300 pa), in a National Ecosystem Assessment. Yikes.
Good on Tom Feilden for concluding his report by asking what the spiritual value of the view across Oxford's spires might be.
It's price of everything, value of nothing stuff. And worse. Because what you give a monetary value to, is what can be sold and exploited. You can see it now: green field developers having to pay a buzzing-bee-subsidy, and they'd pay it. The pricing doesn't save the bee. It destroys it.
Tuesday, May 24 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, May 24 2011, 08:26
An Adam Curtis series is always an event, if you're interested in whether intellectual content can make it on TV. Last night, the first part of his latest was broadcast, which came with the Baroque title of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.
It carried his trademark style, impressionistic and fragmented, and held together by an over-arching narrative that works like the interpretation of a dream. Only, I didn't find the interpretation that convincing. Too much conspiracy. Not enough linkage.
The basic thesis is that the rise of networked computers, coupled to Ayn Rand's individualistic philosophy, led to our world in which free markets dominate - politicians and bankers believing that the network can provide the stability previously strived for by governments. But the boom and bust cycles did not end, and when the busts came, the powerful few manipulated global networks to rescue themselves, and dump the cost on the desperate many.
It is a vaguely familiar story, though too simplistically told, meaning the film contained no insights I felt I could really trust. Plus, it's two human interest angles - Clinton's affair with Lewinsky, Branden's affair with Rand - felt like they were in to provide some spice, not to flesh out the thesis.
It did remind me of when I was writing about IT, pre-dotcom bust. The story of a 'new economy' did do the rounds, only it had more to do with the illusion that the economy had dematerialised. Limitless growth was entertained on the basis that the constraints of material resourcing had been left behind. Laughable now. But it's a different fantasy than placing your trust in networked stability.
Saturday, May 21 2011
By Mark Vernon on Saturday, May 21 2011, 07:40
Today's the day. Rapture - according to Harold Camping. Judgment day. It's a story that has gone around the world. But what I find fascinating is that it gets picked up at all. It's nonsense, right? So why bother? I think the logic of its appeal goes something like this.
In effect, today's the day we get to stare Rapture in the face, and we survive. Doomsday doesn't get us after all. It didn't come. Oh death, where is thy sting? Ha, ha!
It's not just that we get to chuckle at Camping's expense. He does, in fact, offer us a momentary taste of immortality. Today's not the day (unless you're one of the 150,000-odd globally for whom today is the day.) That's worth a celebration.
And there's a lovely twist to the story. Atheists in North Carolina are holding a two-day after-Rapture party. Honestly, today's nontheists have no idea how religious they are. Celebrate is precisely what you should do when you're saved.
So Camping is sort of right. Just as he predicted, there will be many today giving thanks for their salvation, if not the elect whom he foresaw. But then, even the Son of Man noted that only the Father knows.
(Image: Harold Camping)
Friday, May 20 2011
By Mark Vernon on Friday, May 20 2011, 18:28
In psychotherapy, there's the notion of the therapist as a blank slate, the recipient/catalyst of all manner of transference from the client. Of course, there is no such thing as a blank slate, and you want a real person sat before you too. But there's the intention not to intrude, and that matters. It makes for the work, which is as if the feelings of the past become present once more, only now to be sorted out.
It occurred to me that the queen acts something like this, not least on her trip to Ireland this week. It's been heralded as a tremendous success. In her understated way, she talks quietly of troubles, suffering, conflict. And that's been a trigger. Feelings of the past came to the fore, only now so as to bring reconciliation, ease, peace.
She is a bit of blank slate, or an emerald one this week. It's often said that her silence is her greatest asset. Our national therapist in chief?
Tuesday, May 17 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, May 17 2011, 09:33
... populariser of neuroscience on the radio telling me that - wow! - we have an unconscious, our lives are shaped by our environments, we can learn new things even when we're middle aged, relationships matter, emotions matter, the sky is blue, the grass is green, we breath air - no really, we do: I saw it in a brain scanner...
Sunday, May 8 2011
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, May 8 2011, 11:37
Andrew Sullivan objects to the moral dimension in my observation that there's a sacrificial logic behind the killing of bin Laden. He calls it 'repellent' - a strong word that made me think. Luckily for me, I've been with some American journalists these last few days and so could ask.
The Dish argues that bin Laden's killing was justified as an act of war. Well, I'd take issue with the war on terror notion. Pragmatically, it's unwise, as it inherently escalates the troubles - to borrow a euphemism from this side of the Atlantic. Philosophically, I don't think it stacks up as I can make no sense of the view that bin Laden's atrocities were acts of war, for all their monstrous scale. He was a terrorist.
That said, the killing could still be regarded as a just act - not in a criminal justice sense, but in a sacrificial sense. After all, blood sacrifice was a means of achieving justice in the religious setting, as with a death, the moral order is restored. That's Lacquer's point about the death penalty, and it still seems to me that bin Laden's killing has achieved precisely that: a sense of a moral order restored.
But it's really the word 'repellent' that bothered me. It carries emotional force, and at the wrong end of it, I felt it, though one of the journalists was able to help me out.
He'd be with Sullivan on the death penalty, namely against. But still, he told me that he involuntarily felt a sense of pride when Obama stood and, in a dignified manner, declared the job well done. There was something about the ethic of perseverance, as well as sense of justice, that he responded to.
He continued: this is an emotional response, deeply connected to knowing oneself as American. He drew a parallel with the emotional response Britons have to royalty: it looks nuts, if colourful, from a republican viewpoint. And yet, kings and crowns, bands and processions, are in the British DNA and so tells us something about who we are, because it's how we do things. Equivalents elsewhere might be the principle of laïcité in France. Hence banning the burka feels right to the majority there, aside from the moral debate.
So I think the Dish's objection is, fundamentally, a perspectival one. It exemplifies how people see the world in radically different ways because of who they are. That's not to say there's no moral debate to be had. Manifestly, there is. But it is to point to the parallel issue, of how, with such pluralism, we live together.
Thursday, May 5 2011
By Mark Vernon on Thursday, May 5 2011, 07:03
Being on a conference about science and Islam during the Arab spring, as I am right now, means one subject keeps returning: will democracies come?
The speakers are scientists, medics and historians of science from Egypt, Jordon, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, UAE. The mood is uncertain, though not without hope. The consensus seems to be that Tunisia will likely have a happy outcome. Libya is condemned to horror. Egypt hangs in the balance: the risks are the failure of civic society to deliver on the unleashed aspirations of 80 million people, and the Muslim Brotherhood gaining enough of a foothold to constrain a new democracy.
What's happening in Syria and Bahrain is frightening - spiraling violence, medics who treat wounded protesters arrested. Yemen is a different and alarming case again. Pakistan is being discussed too, for obvious reasons, and is perhaps the most disturbing disturbed country in the Middle East.
Hope seems to stand or fall on what you think freedom of speech, once secured, can deliver politically. Is it enough, unleashing an inherent inclination towards toleration, curiosity and goodwill, nurtured by the best instincts in Islam? Or does freedom of speech require the traditions of a mature civil society too, so that the different voices of a million individuals are orchestrated into a constructive and creative conversation?
Tuesday, May 3 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, May 3 2011, 07:16
The response of Obama, and much of America it seems, to the death of bin Laden sent me back to an essay by Thomas Lacquer on the persistence of the death penalty in the land of the free.
Lacquer finds it odd, as in so many respects the US is in line with post-enlightenment thinking, but not in this respect. So what does the death penalty do for the US, he asks, that makes it so necessary? He believes there is a 'primordial sacrificial logic' at play. The death penalty actually has little to do with punishment and criminal justice, in spite of appearances. Rather, it is 'a ritual reassertion of a communal moral order'.
There is something of that sacrificial feel around bin Laden's death. It is apparently reuniting political enemies. It has reasserted America's sense of mission. It makes Americans proud, relieved, festive. Again, this is not how a post-enlightenment thinker could view the terrorist's death. There was no process of justice, it appearing to be more like a summary execution.
Lacquer believes America's insistence on its right to kill is one point at which the separation of religious and secular powers collapses. Like a scapegoat, designated for 'absolute removal', the deaths of a select few assure the many that their sins do not, finally, remove America from divine favour. In a fascinating paragraph, he continues:
Human depravity, on this view, makes it necessary for civil government to assume the power of divine authority. Liberty, inalienable individual rights, procedural correctness and hopes for reformation or redemption have to be balanced against obligation, against the needs of a righteous community, and against the feeling that, social contract or no social contract, for civil government to be legitimate it has somehow to be congruent with God’s governance. In other words, a government here on earth can cast out and kill certain of its citizens under certain circumstances because God in heaven has ordained that this should be so. Capital punishment is the expression of both divine and communal outrage at those who have excluded themselves from full humanity through their acts.
Bin Laden was, obviously, not a citizen, but his absolute removal at the hands of special forces does feel like 'the expression of both divine and communal outrage at those who have excluded themselves from full humanity through their acts.' Bin Laden is finally consigned to the lowest circle of hell, and America can know, once more, that it is a city upon a hill.
(Image: Josh Pesavento - Times Square on the night Osama bin Laden killed)
Monday, May 2 2011
By Mark Vernon on Monday, May 2 2011, 13:54
If Friday was uplifting, yesterday and today have been a depressing return to human business as usual.
First, yesterday, the British government claims it is not trying to kill Gaddafi. It's about as believable as declaring the dossier was not sexed up. Gaddafi's got to go, else he'll turn Libya into terrorism central once the west loses interest. Though a consequence of that is the UN becomes a little less powerful again, as the coalition rides roughshod over its mandates.
Then, today, there's the killing of bin Laden as if that makes things better. Far from it. He's more powerful dead than alive. Martyrs are. Wouldn't it have been better leaving him hidden in his mansion, wasting his money paying off locals, as he presumably was? But blood must be avenged.
The world is a tragic place. Where's the progress? Rather, first love, then war.
Friday, April 29 2011
By Mark Vernon on Friday, April 29 2011, 17:12
How can one possibly understand the near ecstasy sparked by the royal wedding - the global fascination with the dress, the kiss, the love? Perhaps an archetypal reading can help. At any rate, it's an interesting way of reflecting about the collective surge of feeling because alongside suggesting what is going so right for the newly weds, it has ideas about what might also go so wrong.
My sense is that it is Catherine, not William, who is the catalyst for the extraordinary mood. He was born to it. Her story, though, has the magic, the surprise.
It is, at the simplest level, that of romantic love - the young and beautiful woman who meets, well, her beloved. So the archetypal themes that are fired so strongly by the event must be those of the Lover. But the Lover's story is special too. It is not the story of the regular girl who meets her guy, but has that fairy tale touch: her guy, it turns out, is a prince.
Hence, Cinderella is one myth to deploy. She scrubbed floors, which is to say earned her living, until the commoner was made royal. Further, Catherine also escapes the fear that dogged Cinders, of being a wallflower, of being unlovable. So Catherine shines because, her wedding says, this common fear is one she now need not fear.
That said, she will be compelled to attend constantly to her lovableness by a thousand cameras and commentators and, if wise, will encourage us to read her as more than just attractive, but as being lovely of nature too - something close to what the Bishop of London said in his sermon, in fact, about being a work of art for each other, thereby revealing their beauty as persons: love with a centre beyond themselves.
The ancient goddess of love perhaps reveals something of what we've witnessed too. Catherine is more Aphrodite than Eros, what with her intelligence and elegance. As the statue of Aphrodite above shows, this is a love that knows the playfulness of Pan, but knows too how to keep it tamed, and thereby discover and convey a deeper kind of love in life.
Her poise - her naturalness as Simon Schama noted - will be a great asset too, as people want intimacy from people who come across archetypally as the Lover, and that mustn't degenerate into doing anything and everything to appease such insatiable desires. For then, she could lose her identity and know herself only in her image, a fate that seems to have befallen William's mother, Diana. As the couple prayed: they must attend to what's most real.
Convincing? Or how else to understand what happened today, apart from dismissing it all as excess and madness - which is, anyway, only another dimension of love?
Tuesday, April 26 2011
By Mark Vernon on Tuesday, April 26 2011, 09:54
I didn't think of myself as much of a monarchist. But the number of disappointed republicans currently putting frustrated pen to paper, not least in the paper for whom I write, the Guardian, has made me think again. They're caught between the manifest popularity of the royal wedding and their plea that we should not be infantilized by the monarchy but grow up into citizens. But they don't get it.
You don't grow up by ditching your parents. That's what adolescents try to do, as they stamp their feet and storm up to their bedrooms. You grow up by seeing them as ordinary individuals like you, though still your parents. Similarly with monarchy. Walter Bagehot was precisely wrong: it's because the daylight shines on the magic that the childish magic dissolves and the mature mystery can live. It looks like this is precisely what William and Katherine will achieve. We're telling their story as one of ordinary individuals in love who will also, one day, be king and queen. And both dimensions seem, in them, to fit together very well.
The mystery of the monarchy is that it holds all sorts of things for us that other political systems struggle to do. A modern monarchy speaks of the pre-political values necessary for democracy, values like charity and trust, and which the modern royal dignifies in his or her day job. These can't be voted in, and they are not rational. Though as we see in the countries struggling to become democracies because they don't have these civic virtues, they are absolutely vital.
The crown holds and represents transcendental ideals for us too, like justice, which the law mostly fails to achieve, but still must strive to achieve. The word 'crown' is doing as much work as the words 'prosecution' and 'service' in the CPS. And there's the symbolism. The monarch, like a married couple, makes a commitment for life, and whilst things will go wrong, the intention is still good as to live we must make a commitment to the future, whatever it may hold.
A republican will say that a president can do this things, along with the pageantry that surrounds the dignity of their office. Or that a country should be founded on explicit values, like liberty, fraternity and equality. Clearly, some countries opt for such alternative institutions - though I remember being persuaded that a monarchy has the upper hand when, after 9/11, it became almost impossible to criticize Bush without being taken as criticizing America too, because the political leader and the head of state were embodied in the same person. Similarly, a list of values will run into trouble when they conflict - as liberty and equality clearly do. A symbolic figure seems better able to hold together inevitable contradictions because they're symbolic not explicit.
That the monarch is born, not chosen, is therefore also a good thing. In a democracy, where political power rightly rests with elected representatives and the electorate, hereditary ensures the head of state is above the political. Their power is soft, in all the good things they stand for.
Monday, April 25 2011
By Mark Vernon on Monday, April 25 2011, 07:14
Martin Amis hopes to convert his good friend Christopher Hitchens to agnosticism (hat tip: Jonathan Rowson). I remember Amis venturing the sensibility, and sensibleness, of not knowing in Hitchens' presence somewhere before. After all, as Hitchens himself has written, 'The measure of an education is that you acquire some idea of the extent of your ignorance.' It's the agnostic spirit that reaches back to Socrates, which I try to champion too.
Amis appeals to the 'indecipherable grandeur' of the cosmos that is, in a sense, a 'higher intelligence'. If substantial advances in cosmological understanding have shown one thing, it is that we don't actually understand the ways of the heavens well at all. And then, Amis continues, there's the material spirituality of the stardust that is our origin and the destiny of our return. Set against such blazing thoughts, an individual declaring themselves atheist seems 'lenten', Amis respectfully suggests.
For me it's as much, probably more, the immensity of our inner, rather than outer, space that makes agnosticism so appealing. We are the creature who can plunge into the depths of existence; life at its most real comes to us as a troubling, glorious excess. It's why we suffer and love. It's surely something of that energy that Hitchens so powerful channels too.
Hence, the elements in religion that Hitchens finds so objectionable, according to Amis - worship and obedience - actually make increasing sense to me. Of course, there's the risk and actuality of abuse, as with all things of value. But worship can also be a kind of honouring that which sustains us, stardust or spirit. And obedience, at best, has to do with taking what we are given and, discovering how it works, finding the freedom to make something of it.
Which is also why death matters so much in religion, the third element that Hitchens loathes. Truly, it's not death denying, but in facing death squarely - as the Good Friday liturgy enacts - is life affirming. For it's only when you afford death its place in life that the grip of fear might ease, and you can afford life its place in life too. As Rilke notes, when we see death we 'play our actual lives instead of the performance'.
'What is your substance, whereof are you made?', Shakespeare asks of the force that surges through us, surely with more vitality than the stardust - and hence surely, in its mystery, more worthy of honouring too.