The Gospel According to Saint Theresa

I’ve always tended to reject the ‘ all religion is evil and stupid’ arguments emanating from hyper-rationalists of the left and right, not because I’m particularly religious myself, but because religion can perform many different social roles and functions.  It can, for instance,  be a force for reaction, tyranny and exploitation,  but it can also inspire men and women to fight against oppression.  If religion can reinforce hierarchies of wealth and power, most religions also contain arguments for equality and social justice.

Southern slaveowners once argued that the Bible justified slavery, while opponents of slavery argued that the Bible contained the opposite message.   Religion has been used to justify the most extreme forms of violence, from the massacres carried out by crusaders in Jerusalem, to the crimes of Islamic State and Boko Haram or racist Buddhist monks calling for the extermination of Rohingya. Yet all religions contain traditions and texts that have been used to justify war and which also affirm peace and mercy.

At the most basic level, religion provides millions of people with a sense of meaning and consolation for the material conditions they may be forced to endure, and for the tragedy, suffering and inevitable loss that are intrinsic to the human predicament.  Marx recognized these complexities when he famously observed that ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’ – an observation that too often has been quoted only in relation to the last sentence.

In recent years religion has come to play a very different which I have very little sympathy for.  In 2013 Nigel Farage declared that ‘ We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we’re open to different cultures but we have to defend our values.’

Such statements might seem a little outlandish coming from a teenage Nazi sympathiser who went onto become a bigot, a liar and a wealthy former stockbroker who only goes to church four or five times a year.  Farage’s ‘faith’ has nothing to do with Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Ghost and everything to do with the construction of a national ‘identity’ that is supposedly being corroded and endangered by ‘multiculturalism’, immigration – and Islam.

The Boozy Bigot isn’t the only one to evoke our ‘Judaeo-Christian heritage’ in this context.  Conservative to far-right politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have doing this for a number of years now.   David Cameron made various high-profile references to Britain’s Christian identity during his catastrophic time in office.  In 2015 he delivered a buttock-clenchingly embarrassing ‘Christmas message’ in which he oozed PR-driven pious drivel about how we must ‘celebrate the birth of God’s only son, Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace’,  and reminded the nation that ‘ As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope.

This ‘message’ was embarrassing, not only because of the patent insincerity and self-importance of the messenger himself, but also because the two governments that Cameron presided over did nothing – absolutely nothing –  to uphold any of the values that he associated with the ‘ Prince of Peace.’

The same can be said of the woman who has taken his place, who regaled the nation with an ‘Easter message’ yesterday whose brazen indifference to reality is something that we more commonly associate with Donald Trump. Staring into the autocue with a lifeless stare that was easily outshone by her silver necklace,  May told us of her ‘sense’ that the country was ‘coming together’ after the Brexit debate.

Her listless demeanor suggested she could already hear the mocking laughter croaking from millions of throats, but still she went on, robotically reciting clichés about our ‘proud history and bright future’ and the ‘opportunities’ awaiting us outside the EU.   And then, because it was Easter, and a time for reflection, she reflected on our shared ‘values’ and neatly morphed them into an Anne of Green Gables vision of the simple, goodhearted girl she must once have been before she grew up to become the UK’s answer to Cruella de Vil:

‘ This Easter I think of those values that we share – values that I learnt in my own childhood, growing up in a vicarage. Values of compassion, community, citizenship. The sense of obligation we have to one another.  These are values we all hold in common, and values that are visibly lived out everyday by Christians, as well as by people of other faiths or none.’

It’s worth pausing here to remember that the woman who said this presides – as her equally Christian successor did – over a government that forces sick and dying people to work; that is driving the NHS to the wall so that it can sell if off; that has cut funding to social care and the mentally-ill; that drives doctors to suicide and forces nurses into debt; that has driven more than a million people to rely on foodbanks; that makes poor and disabled people pay for having a spare room in their house; that sells truckloads of weapons to any scumbag dictator that needs them.

Yet she still has the incredible gall to speak of ‘those who go out of their way to visit the sick or bereaved, providing comfort and guidance to many in our country at some of the most difficult moments in their lives.’

At least Thatcher, when she spoke about religion, observed that the good Samaritan had to be rich in order to be charitable.  That observation is pretty crass in its own way – and it also ignored the widow who gives her last penny – but at least it had a certain ideological continuity.

In May’s case, the values that she invokes are so glaringly at odds with what her government is actually doing that one can’t help but wonder what part of her Christian education taught the vicarage girl that Jesus would be ok with deporting a nearly-blind migrant on hunger strike, blocking child refugees from entering the country, selling cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, or using EU nationals as hostages.

As for ‘our obligations to one another’ – May’s transition from Remain politician to celebrating our ‘opportunities’ outside the European Union suggests that she has no obligations to anything except her own career.  Her government is choking the life out of the society that she praises, and transforming the UK into something as callous, mean-spirited and cruel as the Tory Party itself.

If May actually believes what she says, then she is a deluded fool.   If she doesn’t believe it, then she is a fraud and a hypocrite – on a Biblical scale.   But the crux of her ‘Easter message’ is the invocation of Christianity as a marker of cultural and national identity that is somehow under threat, and a country where pious Christians are forced to say ‘Cadbury’s’ instead of ‘Easter’ and whisper a faith that dare not speak its name.

May, like Cameron and Farage before her, is worried about this, and tells us, as they did, that ‘ we should be confident about the role that Christianity has to play in the lives of people in our country.  And we should treasure the strong tradition that we have in this country of religious tolerance and freedom of speech.  We must continue to ensure that people feel able to speak about their faith, and that absolutely includes their faith in Christ.’

To which one can only say, fine, let Christians be Christian, even though they already are.   But when politicians like May talk about their ‘faith in Christ’ it can’t help but have the distinctly hollow ring, not of a churchbell tolling on a village green that is forever England, but of whitened sepulchres blowing down a barren windswept street named Tory Propaganda Road.

 

 

Bombs and Chocolate

For liberals who saw last week’s missile strikes in Syria as a belated but welcome act of humanitarianism, Donald Trump was always going to be an awkward president to share the moral high ground with.   One minute he might be talking about beautiful babies and the children of God, but then he gives interviews with a Fox News ‘journalist’ named Maria Bartiromo, which contains sequences like this:

BARTIROMO:   You redirected navy ships to go toward the Korean Peninsula. What we are doing right now in terms of North Korea?

TRUMP:  You never know, do you? You never know. I don’t want to talk about it.  We are sending an armada, very powerful.  We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you. And we have the best military people on Earth.  And I will say this.  He [Kim Jong Un] is doing the wrong thing.  He is doing the wrong thing.

BARTIROMO:  Do you…

TRUMP:  He’s making a big mistake.

BARTIROMO:  — do you think he’s mentally fit?

An interesting question, particularly when directed at Trump, who remains enigmatic and replies:

I don’t know.  I don’t know.  I don’t know him.  But he’s doing the wrong thing

This doesn’t actually answer the question of ‘what we are doing right now’ in North Korea, but the bragging about the power of American weapons and the barely-concealed threat in these observations ought to be as alarming as North Korea’s equally deranged and reckless nuclear diplomacy.   Things do not get any better when Trump and his interviewer turn their attention to  the bombing of Syria that thrilled so many liberal hearts:

BARTIROMO:  When you were with the president of China, you’re launching these military strikes.

TRUMP:  Yes.

BARTIROMO:  Was that planned? How did that come about that it’s happening right then, because right there, you’re saying a reminder, here’s who the superpower in the world is, right?

This is the kind of question that gives journalists a bad name.  In Bartiromo’s world,  it’s perfectly normal and acceptable for a US president to order military strikes over dinner in order to remind a foreign head of state ‘who the superpower in the world is’.  And Trump is as excited as she is:

TRUMP:  You have no idea how many people want to hear the answer to this.  I have had — I have watched speculation for three days now on what that was like (INAUDIBLE).

BARTIROMO:  When did you tell him?

TRUMP:  But I’ll tell you (INAUDIBLE)…

BARTIROMO:  Before dessert or what?

Another crucial question, which gets the following astonishing answer:

TRUMP:  But I will tell you, only because you’ve treated me so good for so long, I have to (INAUDIBLE) right?  I was sitting at the table.  We had finished dinner.  We’re now having dessert.  And we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen and President Xi was enjoying it.  And I was given the message from the generals that the ships are locked and loaded, what do you do?  And we made a determination to do it, so the missiles were on the way.  And I said, Mr. President, let me explain something to you.  This was during dessert. We’ve just fired 59 missiles, all of which hit, by the way, unbelievable, from, you know, hundreds of miles away, all of which hit, amazing.

So it turns out that the man who expressed the will of the ‘international community’; who finally stood up to evil after all these years of Obamesque caution and vacillation; who bombed Syria because he couldn’t stand the sight of dead babies, is also a man who boasts of firing missiles while eating ‘the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen.’   And when he does so, he does it with the approval of a ‘journalist’ who can only shake her head in admiration and say:

Unmanned?  Brilliant.

That ‘brilliant’ is a darkly hilarious counterpoint to Trump’s troglodyte braggadocio. Bartiromo is clearly still stuck in the low-tech world  where US pilots strapped themselves to missiles and waved stetson hats, which is sooo last century.    Trump, on the other hand, knows that things have moved on.  William Tecumseh Sherman did not love war, even though he waged it harshly.  George Patton thought war was hell but loved it anyway.  Trump just loves it, almost as much as he loves chocolate cake:

TRUMP:  It’s so incredible.  It’s brilliant.  It’s genius.  Our technology, our equipment, is better than anybody by a factor of five.  I mean look, we have, in terms of technology, nobody can even come close to competing.  So what happens is I said we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading to Iraq and I wanted you to know this. And he was eating his cake. And he was silent.

Even the unctuous Bartiromo has noticed that these weapons were not fired at Iraq, and feels the need to point this out to the president:

BARTIROMO:  (INAUDIBLE) to Syria?

TRUMP:  Yes. Heading toward Syria. In other words, we’ve just launched 59 missiles heading toward Syria.  And I want you to know that, because I didn’t want him to go home.  We were almost finished.  It was a full day in Palm Beach.  We’re almost finished and I —what does he do, finish his dessert and go home and then they say, you know, the guy you just had dinner with just attacked a country?

Let no one say that Trump doesn’t understand strategy or diplomacy.  Just because he won’t shake Angela Merkel’s hand doesn’t mean he is going to eat dessert with the Chinese premier and not tell him that he’s, like, attacked a country.

Several possibilities come to mind while considering these astounding words.  Clearly Trump is a moral imbecile, who is too stupid to consider that juxtaposing making war and eating chocolate cake and dessert might be considered inappropriate, and perhaps just a little flippant, shallow and lacking in presidential gravitas.  It’s also possible that war actually is a trivial activity for Trump, of no more importance and significance than eating chocolate cake, in which case he is probably a deranged psychopath who ought to struggle even to get a firearms license – let alone run the world’s only superpower.

But whatever the glaring defects in Trump’s monstrous personality, his psychopathic behaviour is also a systemic consequence of American militarism.   It’s the same unlimited global military power that enabled Ronald Reagan to order the bombing of Tripoli on no evidence.  It’s why Bill Clinton could fire missiles at a Sudan medical facility while he was being investigated for having weird sex with an intern, and why George Bush could invade Iraq on the basis of lies and fabrications.  It’s why Hilary Clinton could giggle ‘ we came, we saw, he died’ following the extrajudicial execution of Gaddafi.  And it’s also why the former community leader Barack Obama could sign off on a weekly kill list during his ‘Terror Tuesday’ meetings.

They did this because they could.  Because America has a unique ‘right’ and the ability to fire missiles and bombs at any country or target anywhere in the world for whatever reason.  Trump – despite his previous aversion to gratuitous military adventures during his campaign – has now taken up this role with a dangerous gusto and a total lack of understanding of the world he is operating in or the potential consequences of his actions.

Domestic political considerations partly explain this volte face, but Trump’s childlike enthusiasm for all things military also exhibits alarming signs of megalomania that are more commonly associated with Kim Jong Un, with their references to ‘my military’ and ‘my generals’, and his glassy-eyed worship of America’s powers of destruction.

Following last week’s MOAB bomb strike on Afghanistan, Trump was quick to suggest that he was responsible for it, bragging ‘Everybody knows exactly what happened. What I do is I authorize my military.  We have the greatest military in the world and they’ve done a job as usual. So we have given them total authorization.’

Trump’s choice of wording hinted that he had given the order to drop the largest non-nuclear bomb in history, even though one of ‘his’ generals has since said that the decision was taken without consultation with the White House.   Either way, the satisfaction that Trump has taken from it is not an encouraging sign, for those who would rather not see this crazed clown stagger into World War III with Boris Johnson’s head sticking out of his pocket like a pet gonk.

Because it is impossible to believe that the US would drop a 21,000-bomb simply to eliminate some 30-odd Islamic State terrorists.  To do such a thing would be such an incredibly disproportionate concentration of resources that one could only conclude that Trump and ‘his’ generals have lost the plot.

It is far more likely that the MOAB is a message aimed at America’s other ‘adversaries’, including North Korea and Iran.   That is the only thing about the use of this horrendous weapon that makes any sense, insofar as there is anything sensible about Donald Trump, and this possibility really ought to give some pause to those who believe that a man who conflates bombing with eating chocolate cake is the great moral hope of a new international order.

 

Trump Goes Robocop

There’s a certain kind of liberal/left commentator that – to paraphrase Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now –  just loves the sight of missiles in the morning.  For some they smell like humanitarianism.  For others they smell like meaningful action.  Or ‘doing something’.  Mostly they have the allure of American power – an aroma that is just irresistible for a certain kind of establishment pundit.

For these commentators American power is always power used for righteous ends.  In a world of cruelty and violence, of civil wars and state collapse and fragmentation, where ‘rogue states’ defy the will of the ‘international community’ and dictators slaughter ‘their own people’ with impunity, these pundits cry out for the world’s only military superpower to use its high-tech weaponry in the interests of universal justice and bring chaos and  disorder with the kind of order only Robocop can deliver.

Trapped like flies in aspic in careers that revolve around restaurants, cafes and tv studios in the capital cities of a declining Western world that seems increasingly unable to assert its will over anything at all, their consciences cry out against the spectacle of murder – some murders anyway – being transmitted daily on television and social media platforms.  They demand action.    And action can only mean one thing – that America blasts the forces of evil in the name of goodness and justice.

No amount of disasters can ever diminish this yearning.  When countries that were supposed to be saved by US power fall to pieces, these outcomes are either ignored, or else they intensify the intensify the hope that the next intervention will be the one the others should have been.

Without that belief in the essential goodness in American military power, it’s impossible to understand the incredible speed with which a man who less than a week ago was regarded as an ongoing calamity and a disgrace to the presidency by many of these same pundits,  has now become a figure worthy of respect and admiration, simply because he ordered 59 tomahawk missiles to be fired at a Syrian military airfield.

Overnight Trump’s defects were swept aside by the swooshing of missiles from aircraft carriers, and his orange hair acquired something like a halo from the bright blaze of burning rocket fuel as he sat having dinner at Mar-a-lago with Melania and the Chinese president.  As a result of the bombings ‘Donald Trump became president of the United States’, according to Fareed Zakaria, while MSNBC’s Brian Williams insulted Leonard Cohen by quoting from a satirical song and gushing that he was ‘guided by the beauty of our weapons’.

He wasn’t the only one.   Over here Labour MPs – including many of those who had abstained from last year’s vote calling for an international investigation into alleged Saudi Arabian war crimes in Yemen – praised Trump and criticized Corbyn for condemning the strikes in Syria.    And Tim Farron also praised the strikes, saying that they were a ‘proportional’ response to attacks on civilians  with ‘weapons that have been outlawed by the international community for their horrific and indiscriminate consequences.’

These weapons were also outlawed when Iraq used mustard gas and sarin against Iranian soldiers and civilians, with the complicity of the same country which is now enforcing the will of the ‘international community’ – without the authorisation of the international community.  And as was only to be expected, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland applauded the fact that ‘sometimes the right thing can be done by the wrong person.

Freedland, as always, has his reservations about the US wars that he invariably supports. He tells us that he doesn’t ‘trust’ Trump, just as he ‘didn’t trust’ Bush and Cheney.  God knows what Freedland would be like if an American war was waged by a president he did trust.   On this occasion however, he can only wonder ‘if the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles that rained down on the Shayrat base in the early hours of Friday morning were a one-off or the start of something more.’

What would that ‘something more’ consist of?   All-out bombing of Syria?  Ground troops?   War with Russia and Iran?  Freedland doesn’t say.   He’s just happy that someone is doing something, even though he does acknowledge that there is a legal question. Trump acted alone; he did not have UN authorisation or even try to get it. Which means he might have been breaking international law in order to enforce international law. ‘

Some of these commentators, like Freedland, have noted the speed of Trump’s transformation, from non-interventionist president to righteous American bomber, and have attributed it to a kind of better-late-than-never humanitarianism.  The New York Times described Trump’s U-turn as ‘an emotional act by a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his.’

The idea that a man who refuses even to allow Syrian refugees into the US is so moved by the sight of ‘beautiful babies’ killed by chemical weapons is a pleasant fairy tale to tell to three-year-olds, but it is not the most convincing explanation for Trump’s Damascene conversion to military action.   The bombings might be the work of ‘Mad Dog’ Mathis, or Trump’s plummeting domestic ratings, or the impending investigation into Russian interference with the election campaign.

Fortune magazine noted that the Syria attacks ‘lit up’ the Dow Jones stock for ‘defense’ companies, particularly Raytheon, which makes Tomahawk missiles.  It’s probably only a coincidence that Trump owns shares in Raytheon, and would therefore have profited financially as well as politically from the strikes he ordered, but it’s nevertheless one worth noting.

Whatever his motivations,Trump has now discovered – like many American presidents before him – that bombing will always work in your favour no matter who you are or what the consequences may be.  That does not bode well, because the consequences of what Trump has done are potentially very serious indeed: war with Syria, and also with Iran and Russia – or whoever else crosses Trump’s red lines.

All this is ok, according to Fareed Zakaria, because ‘President Trump recognized that the president of the United States does have to act to enforce international norms.   For the first time really as president, he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world.’

This ‘role’ essentially consists of a carte blanche for the US to project military power anywhere in the world.  Such wars invariable evoke universal principles, international laws and ‘red lines’, but in practice they are almost always used selectively, against specific states considered to be enemies of the US or obstacles to American/ Western geopolitical objectives.  

The response to Trump’s bombings makes it clear that too many influential people across the political spectrum have no problem with that whatsoever,  and their rapturous applause makes it likely that we will see a lot more missiles fired in the future by the one state that – regardless of the quality of its president – always has the right to fire them wherever it wants to.

 

The House that Brexit Built

With less than a week since HM Government presented the EU with the letter, the lineaments of the new British future are already beginning to emerge out of the fog of incompetence, lies and fading promises, and it isn’t a pretty sight.   Before Article 50 had been triggered, Michael Gove was looking forward to ending the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive,  so that British pharmaceutical companies could sell drugs without clinically testing them.

Even British pharmaceutical companies don’t want this, because if they didn’t meet international standards they wouldn’t be able to sell drugs on the international market. But like his fellow-Brexiters, Gove hates ‘EU red tape’ too much to pay attention to such minutiae.  Gove also wants to get rid of the European Commission’s Habitats Directive, which obliges builders to find alternative green spaces to offset the environmental impact of building within five kilometres of listed green areas.

The need to protect the countryside and the environment ought to be as obvious as the need to test drugs thoroughly before marketing them, but for Gove such regulations are just more red tape that ‘holds back’ business.

Since Gove made these observations the British economy has been sliding ever closer towards gotterdammerung as the government’s shallow and barely-thought through promises unravel, the pound gets weaker,  the price of food goes up, and real incomes decline.   In these circumstances Theresa May has been out frantically touting for business in the Gulf.  Pausing to criticize the fact that the word ‘Easter’ doesn’t appear in a National Trust advert, even though it does, she was unable to condemn or even mention the fact that Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen ever closer towards famine and societal collapse, even though it is.

On one level such silence is a continuation of the old UK complicity with the Gulf autocracies, in which oil, weapons deals and real estate speculation always trump any other considerations.  Nevertheless it’s difficult not to detect a new whiff of sweaty desperation behind May’s world tour.  She knows – even though she will never admit it – that ‘Global Britain’ is a very weak brand that needs any investors it can possibly find, and she clearly doesn’t care where such investment comes from.

The Gulf States know this too.  That’s why they reportedly have ‘signature ready’ free trade agreements already prepared for the moment the UK leaves the EU, and don’t anyone even think that May’s government will allow reservations about human rights, democracy or gender equality to get in the way of signing them.

If anyone was in any doubt about this, consider Liam Fox’s trip to the Philippines to meet Rodrigo Duterte.  Even in the freakish rogue’s gallery of 21st century ‘populism’, the president of the Philippines is a stand-out monster.  This is a man who has ordered his police to murder thousands of real and suspected drug addicts and drug dealers, and has boasted about throwing people out of helicopters himself.   Yet Fox has no problem having his picture taken with the smirking gangster,  and babbling about the UK’s desire to intensify a ‘ well-established and strong relationship built on a foundation of shared values and shared interests’ with the Philippines.

Fox is not the kind of politician to allow a few thousand extrajudicial executions get in the way of a good deal, and we can expect more of this in the future, a lot more.  In effect, the UK has given up its membership of a community of liberal states – the EU – with which the UK does share some values such as democratic government, a commitment to human rights and the rule of law, to cultivate relationships with politicians who have the same values as Al Pacino’s Scarface, and Arab rulers who are as democratically accountable as the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.

Of course there are contradictions and glaring failures in the practical application of the EU’s values, but at least they exist as an aspiration and a standard that member states are expected to live up to, which is more than you can say about Rodrigo Duterte.

The current direction of UK foreign policy makes it clear that we no longer aspire to have any such values either.  Fox told a Manila newspaper that we are becoming ‘a stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking nation’, but very little in that statement is true, and most of it is a grotesque misrepresentation of what is actually happening.

We are in fact becoming the opposite of all those things: poorer, weaker, more vulnerable, more deregulated, and more divided.  As for ‘fairer’ – this was a week in which thousands of families are set to become even poorer as a result of George Osborne’s ‘three child’ benefit reforms and Theresa May described cutting bereavement benefits as ‘fairness to the taxpayer.’

We are ‘outward-looking’ only in the sense that we are now prepared to do business with any autocrat and sleazeball gangster who wants to do business with us.

None of this should be at all surprising.  Brexit was always going to be like this, but knowing that doesn’t make it any better, and for the time being at least, there is very little that anyone seems able to do to stop it.