Sunday, 2 December 2012

In spiked, November 2, 2012

A Band Aid for the failure of politics
It is a reflection of the decline of reasoned debate and the rise of celebrity that society pays attention to popstar politics.

Friday, 19 October 2012

From The Catholic Herald, October 19, 2012

The great states that faded from the map of Europe
By Patrick West

Review of 'Vanished Kingdoms', by Norman Davies, Allen Lane (£30)

Tales of the decline and fall of empires have always fascinated writers and readers, whether it be of the Romans, Byzantines or Ottomans, the ancién regimes of France and Russia sleepwalking towards catastrophe, or the squalid last days of the Third Reich. We all remember the “downfall” of Nazi Germany, as the film by that name attests. But as Norman Davies relates in this collection of essays, there are many other states that have faded from history, disappearing not only from the maps of Europe but from the pages of its history books. For these, posterity has not so much been unkind as amnesiac.

There is nothing inevitable about the course of history, the author reminds us. Countries are born and die, just like people, and none are immune to the capricious hand of fate. There were empires that once looked too grandiose, too imprinted on the world’s consciousness, ever to expire. Those of us who grew up during the Cold War regarded the Soviet Union as an monolith seemingly outside time itself. Then, in 1991, it practically abolished itself overnight. The Byzantine and Ottoman empires had been sick for much longer periods, but few really contemplated that their maladies would be terminal. They seemed too much part of the mental furniture.

Conversely, others that had looked doomed managed to escape extinction. Sweden in the 18th century and Spain in the 19th were both frail and degenerate states, vulnerable to conquest by a foreign aggressor. Yet neither had one. The union of Poland and Lithuania, for centuries one of the largest and most powerful polities in Europe, famously did have its predators, to the degree that Poland was wiped off the map in 1795. Yet Prussia, one of Poland’s executioners, had owed its survival to a stroke of good fortune. In January 1762, as the Russians laid siege to Berlin, with Frederick II on the point of suicide after having lost half his troops, Empress Catherine the Great suddenly died. She was succeeded by her nephew, Peter III, a Prussophile who called off the offensive and offered an honourable peace. Without Prussia, there might not have been a united German, and, later, no European Union.

Like Prussia, Aragon and Savoy played a role in uniting the countries that are today part of the natural order of things: Spain and Italy. Like Prussia, Aragon and Savoy were subsumed by the nation states they had helped to create. Others proved to be ephemeral: the old British Alt Clud, the Kingdom of the Rock; Etruria, a Napoleonic puppet state established in Tuscany; the multitude of states that went by the name of Burgundy; and Carpatho-Ukraine, independent for one day in 1939. 

This often rich and fascinating work will certainly appeal to readers who, such as myself, wiled away childhood Saturday afternoons leafing through The Times Illustrated History of the World, intrigued by the way the European landscape looked so exotic and, well, Byzantine. Likewise, Vanished Kingdoms is a compendium that invokes images of heroic battles, dynastic squabbles, the shifting of allegiances and tales of the valiant and the vanquished. “All the best-known polities in history have passed through ... infancy, and many have lived to a grand old age,” writes Davies. “Those which failed have perished without making their mark. In the chronicles of bodies, as in the human condition in general, this has been the way of the world since time immemorial.” There is a pervasive mystical and mythical element, reminiscent of The Old Testament or J R R Tolkien’s epic The Silmarillion, of man’s struggle with destiny and the sometimes cruel hand of providence. 

Yet, like The Silmarillion, it is too long, and has pedantic passages mired in dynastic inventories. Of the Visigothic Kingdom of Tolosa, the author explains: “They were to be ruled for the rest of the century by five kings: Theodoric I, Thorismund, Theodoric II, Euric and Alaric II. Theodoric I and Alaric II would both be killed in battle. Thorismund and Theodoric II were both murdered. Euric, the younger brother of both Thorismund and of the second Theodoric, brought the kingdom to the peak of its wealth and power.” This is interesting if you’re really into Visigoths, but many of us are not. 

Neither will the general reader be much concerned as to how other authors and websites have got the history of Burgundy wrong, which Davies addresses for several pages. Yet the next chapter, on Aragon, opens: “Perpignan is the chef-lieu of France’s most southerly department, the Pyrénées-Orientales.” France’s most southernly department is actually Corse-du-Sud. One can only assume that the editors and proofreaders were afraid to interfere with the Professor’s copy, which is a shame, as some pruning and cleaning would have made this an excellent read.

There are further problems. Some of the “vanished kingdoms” in Vanished Kingdoms don’t warrant the appellation. Galacia was never truly an independent state and neither was Ruthenia. Montenegro is hardly past recall, and has been a sovereign state since 2006. The last two chapters, on Éire and the USSR, are particularly unnecessary. The former has not vanished and the latter, not “half-forgotten” by any description, still exists in spirit under Putin’s Russian imperium, which still considers Georgia and Ukraine within its sphere of influence. 

Perhaps this is the fault of the publishers, eager to put a spurious common theme to an otherwise interesting collection of historical essays. Still, the chapter on Ireland resembles more a newspaper feature, speculating about the collapse of the United Kingdom, in which, in the spirit of documentaries about asteroids collisions or earthquakes, Davies says that it is not a matter of if the union falls, but “only the ‘how’ and the ‘when’”. This is diverting conjecture, but it is not history. Indeed, watching events in the EU – surely a candidate for a future vanished kingdom – I don’t think it’s even true.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

in Culture Wars, October 17, 2012

‘It was either us or them’

Review of 'Unpatriotic History of The Second World War, by James Heartfield' (Zero Books, 2012)

in The Catholic Herald, October 12, 2012

The British public is eager to be offended.
By Patrick West

There is something about "Muslim anger" that many in the West find difficult to comprehend. How can representations of Mohammed in a YouTube video, a film that barely anyone saw, or cartoons in French or Danish publications, which hardly anyone read, generate such a violent reaction? As Kenan Malik, author of From Fatwa to Jihad, wrote after the events: "The extraordinary violence unleashed across the Muslim world by Innocence of Muslims, an obscure US-made video, has left many bewildered and perplexed."

This perplexity, however, is often combined with a feeling of superiority. The ostensibly touchy and childish behaviour of some Muslims is depicted in contrast to our open, secular society, which is sufficiently mature to deal with offensive images and films. Many Christians, for instance, objected to
The Life of Brian, but the Monty Python team didn't go into hiding for two decades as a consequence. But such smugness is unwarranted, as we in the West have our own form of secular blasphemy. It¹s called "being offensive".

Last year two Christians in Brighton were arrested for displaying a giant banner of a 10-week-old aborted child outside an abortion clinic. After receiving complaints from the public, police asked the protesters to take down the "offensive" banner. They refused and late last month the pair were put on trial but cleared on the grounds of "lack of evidence".

You may disagree with the pair¹s actions. Such photographs could upset children or women about to undergo an abortion. On the other hand, graphic images on cigarette packets aren't very nice either. But society isn't in denial about smoking. The issue here is that (as I saw on the local news) one police officer had reportedly informed the couple: "I find these images offensive." It's not the job of the police to have opinions, of course, but it's not surprising that even they have become sensitive souls these days.

Consider the furore concerning the chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who allegedly called a police officer a "----ing pleb" after refusing to dismount his bicycle at the gates to Downing Street. The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation responded that there was an "inbuilt dislike of the police service in general", while the Surrey Police Federation called
Mitchell "a bully". Some suggested that the police are trying to play the victim card in the wake of the Hillsborough report. And I imagine that policemen have been called worse names than "pleb".

Being "offensive" is increasingly a wider police matter. Earlier this year a Welsh student was imprisoned for two months for sending offensive messages on Twitter to a seriously ill footballer, while another "troll" was arrested in a dawn raid for typing nasty things about the diver Tom Daley. Twitter can certainly bring out the worst in people, leading them to hurl disgusting abuse from the safety of their keyboards, but it's concurrently an avenue to censor people who are "offensive". Last year a group of writers launched a campaign against "misogynistic trolling" on the internet, including everything from "threats of rape" to comments that are "strongly and
personally antagonistic towards feminism"  thereby conflating threats of violence with expressing a political opinion: two very different things.

The comedian Frankie Boyle landed himself in trouble last month for making jokes about the Paralympics on Twitter, provoking a Mencap spokesman to say it would be disappointing if Channel 4's coverage of the Paralympics was
"undermined by providing a comedian who has repeatedly caused profound offence to disabled people opportunities to do so again". A statement from the station replied: "Frankie Boyle was tweeting from his personal account and not on behalf of Channel 4. He is not under contract and there are no
shows planned with him."

Frankie Boyle isn't Alan Titchmarsh or Pam Ayres. You don't expect sweetness and light from him. Being offensive is what Frankie Boyle does. Still, members of the public are eager to be offended, because being offended permits one to be a victim, as victimhood bequeaths righteousness. The
emotive, subjective argument that used to be confined to traumatised guests on the Kilroy show years ago  "How would you like it if happened to you!?" has become the unspoken mantra for a society in which personal feeling counts for expertise.

Twitter is a perfect avenue for the lonely and unhappy to give meaning to their lives. It gives the powerless the illusion of power. This is what causes people to get "outraged" about silly articles in the Daily Mail they haven't read, Page 3 girls in a newspaper they never buy or pictures of topless royalty they haven't seen.

Recently Gerry Adams described as "deeply hurtful" allegations that he sanctioned the 1973 Old Bailey bombing, which I imagine is an invitation to "feel his pain". Back then in the 1970s football fans were caged behind perimeter fences to stop them misbehaving. Now they are micromanaged, facing arrest for swearing or "indecent chanting". Such is the insidious nature of our "You can't say that" culture.

It is often remarked that profanities and jokes are signifiers of society's taboos. You aren't going to cause a stir in polite society today if you take the Lord's name in vain, but you will if you use a coarse description of female genitalia. You will certainly get into trouble if you make the kind of jokes Bernard Manning did 40 years ago non-ironically. Andrew Mitchell's sin was not in using the F-word, but the P-word - pleb - as class snobbery is taboo but the usage of vulgar Anglo-Saxon isn't.

In our current climate of censoriousness and fear of causing offence, I bet The Satanic Versus wouldn't get published if it were written today - not for being blasphemous, but for "hurting people's feelings". This is to say, all societies have taboos and associated transgressions. Anyone who thinks a
nominally liberal and secular society is consequently free of intolerance must be joking. 

Patrick West is a columnist for

Thursday, 20 September 2012

in spiked, September 17, 2012

Latest Archers scandal: death of the author
The Archers poll was shocking not because it concerned abortion but because it asked listeners about narrative.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

in spiked, September 7, 2012

Delusions of a
desert-island castaway

Desert Island Discs is the perfect opportunity for posturing, preening and pretending to have read Proust.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

in spiked, August 6, 2012

shock-and-awe riffs

Even cranked up to 11, Deep Purple aren’t a patch on Beethoven. But their music can be equally stirring.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

in spiked, July 23, 2012

Are Roswell believers
really that barmy?

It’s easy to mock the geeks who think aliens crash-landed in New Mexico, but their paranoia is part of a big trend today.

Friday, 6 July 2012

in The Catholic Herald, July 6, 2012

Give me Opus Dei and Richard Dawkins any day, by Patrick West

The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, Faith, by Philip Clayton and Steven Knapp, OUP, £16.99

One characteristic shared by fundamentalist believers and hardened atheists is a predilection for literal-mindedness. The former assert the literal truth of revealed holy texts, which the latter dismiss as stuff and nonsense easily refuted by science and philology. On the other hand, tacit ambiguity has been a constant among mainstream Christian believers, many of whom have tended not to regard the Bible as a historical text, but a holy book rich in metaphors, symbols and parables. Quarrels as to the exact nature of transubstantiation or the reality of miracles are testament to Christianity's long relationship with doubt.

This is particularly true among more liberal and progressive elements within the Christian fraternity. And herein lies the problem. Once a believer accepts the dubious historicity of and contradictory elements within the gospels, and attempts to square the New Testament with science, his faith invariably becomes emptied of theology. All that will remain in its place is the system of ethics upon which it is built. This is why you usually hear calls for "social justice" from progressive, borderline agnostic Christians - because they no longer believe so much in divine justice (think Richard Holloway, for example)

The authors here could be described as progressives, but they are adamant that Christianity should not be stripped of its spirituality. Indeed, in an otherwise polite tract they are derisive of liberal post-Christians, who "critical of inherited doctrines, cheerfully jettisoning convictions that once defined the core commitments of Christianity... subject their own proposals to rather less critical attention... Whatever is deemed worthy of preserving - an experience of 'new being', a commitment to environmental stewardship, or resistance to racial, sexual, or economic oppression - is often put forward with the same unwavering passion of religious conviction with which the traditional beliefs themselves were once advanced". 

The authors fully acknowledge the scientific and historic challenges to Christianity. The New Testament is an unreliable guide to faith, they write. The gospels, for instance, differ as to who was at Jesus's execution, what was said by Jesus and those around him and what happened afterwards. Evil will always be with us. God cannot stop bad things happening because that would break the laws of nature; if He violated natural law once he would be compelled forever to do so again. 

There are also contemporary, social challenges. They speak of the dilemma of pluralism "and the consequent difficult of asserting with any confidence that specifically Christian claims are actually true,". Being a Christian is often merely the result of being raised as one. They confess, almost ruefully, that their own theology has a "christological tinge", and if The Predicament of Belief wasn't mired with verbs in the conditional and subjunctive moods, one could conclude that the authors were certified cultural relativists.

Yet, they maintain, these obstacles need not lead us to refute the claims of Christianity. They "find the either/or challenge - the demand either to accept the biblical narratives at face value or to abandon distinctively Christian claims altogether - unhelpful". Their alternative would not demystify Christianity, and would acknowledge the "axiological and theoretical power" of religious accounts. Thus they call for "Christian minimalism": a pared-down belief system that asks us to adhere to fewer of the Church's claims, and of those that remain, with less certainty.

A cynic might call this watered-down Christianity. Invoking the "anthropic principle", the argument made by some scientists that the Universe is "fine-tuned" for life, they extrapolate that there must be an "intelligent designer", or what they call a "not-less-than-personal" cause to everything - something like a mind, which has intentions and desires, and seeks our well-being. What exactly this is, we will never know: "God is involved in every instance of human action and experience in ways that infinitely exceed our comprehension". But this doesn't really matter, because humans have the capacity to willingly suspend disbelief, to play make-believe. Of supernatural rituals they affirm: "one striking characteristic of adept practitioners is their ability to enter into such moments with great regularity and frequency, all the while preserving a tacit awareness that the claims in question may well not be literally true". Jesus of Nazareth retains "a uniquely authoritative role ... in determing the relation of that divine reality to human beings"; in other words, He matters because other people think so. And in any case, we need to believe in God: "the contemplation of our finite selves, in isolation from any broader communal or spiritual context, quickly becomes a source of nausea or claustrophobia, leading to despair or madness". This is a model example of confusing is with ought. 

The Predicament of Belief is written in a measured and courteous tone, and its exhortation to embrace truths contingently is superficially quite reasonable. Yet it seems simultaneously cynical and feeble. It asks that we believe in something because it's better than believing in nothing, that Christianity is probably true, and even if it's not, let's pretend it is anyway because it makes us happy. This is expedient Christianity. 

While too much conviction can be a dangerous thing, I actually prefer the certitudes of evangelical Protestants or Opus Dei, and judging by the former's ascendency in South America in the latter's packed seminaries in the United States, so do millions of others. Likewise, give me the clinical rationalism of Richard Dawkins any day. They adhere to beliefs because they think them to be true, not because they want them to be true.

Friday, 22 June 2012

in spiked, June 22, 2012

I know a song that will get on your nerves...
They get inside your head and refuse to leave. It’s time to recognise the irritating, human genius of advert jingles

Friday, 15 June 2012

in spiked June 14, 2012

Ray Bradbury: prophet of nostalgia
Where most sci-fi writers create an alternative present or imaginary future, the great Bradbury longed for a future that would recapture the past.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

from The Catholic Herald, January 20, 2012

God, the brain and the myth of 'rude atheism'

'War of the Worldviews', by Deepak Chopra & Leonard Mlodinow

In the 21st century’s “war” between religion and the New Atheists, both sides often like to protest that they are the underdog. The former point to aggressive secularism in the workplace and public sphere, while the latter lament the persistence of Christian Creationism, especially in the United States, and the appeal of violent Islamism. In a society that places a premium on victimhood this is not surprising, but is it true? And as they say, can the two sides ever be reconciled?
This series of dialogues between Deepak Chopra, “a world-renowned authority in the field of mind-body medicine”, and the theoretical physicist Professor Leonard Mlodinow, mercifully avoids repeating the cliche that “science explains the how and religion explains the why”. Instead, it is a measured exchange that seeks to address pithily all the big questions: how did the universe begin? Why is there something rather than nothing? Can there be a mind without a brain? And is God an illusion?
The authors’ central point of contention is the mind-body division, and if there really is one. This, it transpires, is the key to determining the meaning (or lack of it) of existence. If there is no “mind”, only brain activity, there is no soul, and therefore no God (as we know Him). Mlodinow, a materialist, doesn’t believe that there is a “ghost in the machine”, elaborating that neuroscientific experiments demonstrate that thoughts, feelings and sensations in subjects’ minds can all be traced to specific areas and activities in the brain. “Every day more evidence emerges to support the idea that mental experiences like beauty, love, hope, and pain are produced by the physical brain,” he writes.
This is most commonly seen in people who suffer damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, with a consequent loss of empathy and reduced revulsion to hurting others. Strokes also can alter personalities. Last November it was reported that after suffering a stroke while playing rugby, a 19-year-old man from South Wales recovered to find he had become gay. Other stroke victims have woken up with hitherto unknown artistic skills or speaking in a foreign accent, which adds weight to the argument that who you are is what you are made of: literally.
Mlodinow’s counterpart remains unconvinced, regarding the mind and brain as working in symbiosis. “Human consciousness created science, which ironically is now moving to exclude consciousness, its very creator!” he says. And he is even less keen on atheists than he is on scientists. “We live in a time of rude atheism,” writes Chopra, repeating a now familiar cry, that at the mere mention of God, your average atheist will become enraged, start shouting and throw furniture around the room. If you read the journalism of the late Christopher Hitchens or listen to Richard Dawkins on the radio, you could be forgiven for thinking this. But most atheists are not so intolerant (and thus not so vocal), and Dawkins the author of science books is far more measured than Dawkins the crabby media personality.
Dawkins has argued that the straw man of the “militant atheist” is the creation of those who believe it taboo to have their belief system questioned. And some people do not like having their feelings hurt. Rather than seeking to refute the argument that those who experience visions or mystical experiences may be suffering from brain lesions or epilepsy, Chopra decries such judgments as “foolish” and “insulting”. This is not a rational retort, but it is befitting of our culture in which being “offensive” has become a secular sin (witness the disproportionate opprobrium recently heaped upon footballers who’ve said stupid things), and being a “victim” bequeaths one secular sainthood. Chopra may bemoan the hegemony of science (“Now we are paying the price... Homo sapiens is in danger of extinction”), but Mlodinow replies similarly by complaining about how many Americans don’t believe in evolution, and that America would never elect an atheist president. “Science is not the lord of modern life Deepak imagines, but its under-appreciated servant”.
In an age of being inoffensive, Chopra’s perspective is appropriately “spiritual” and “non-dogmatic”. His response to dealing with life’s big questions is therapeutic: “I believe every home should have a nook devoted to divinity – a shrine or roses, or an altar of scented lavender. A shard of crystal would do, or a small bronze Buddha placed where the sun can warm it.” Ultimately, in a logical dead end, he announces: “Belief becomes knowledge that can be trusted.”
Urging us to be “open-minded”, not “empty-minded”, Mlodinow is more circumspect, asking what, if there is a designer, explains wisdom teeth and the appendix. There needn’t be Intelligent Design either, he says: beauty can emerge from randomness, in the form of rainbows and snowflakes. “Whereas Deepak and I both would like to see a better world, one in which people have transcended their worst impulses, as a scientist I cannot let the way I want the world to be drive my apprehension of the way the world is,” he writes.
This strikes me as a more honest appraisal of your average atheist, who is sceptical rather than cynical, a slightly gloomy borderline agnostic, and more likely to be a secularist than a dogmatist.
Despite the inconclusive nature of War of The Worldviews, the sober dialogue is refreshing, and far removed from the shrill certitudes held and insults often exchanged on this matter.

Patrick West is a music columnist for