Community returning

I was wrong:  I thought we had lost society for the long term, but it is roaring back quietly.

I relaxed in the lockdown evenings – no more organising for meetings not happening, no rushing home for a scratch meal before leaping out for some function or other, trying to work out where it was while driving there; no more weekends spent on the motorway finding a hall somewhere in Lancashire, or was it Yorkshire this time? (Do I have to turn round?)

Calls stopped coming. I wasn’t having to organise people or think of things to do. I did not have to yawn through others’ meetings and surreptitiously use the meeting to write another chapter or an algorithm. I could relax, and discover that there are evenings, and a home.

In villages and little towns and suburbs, churches, clubs and societies create a web of Big Society. Some go out to film clubs or collectors’ clubs, or  evening classes, or exercise classes, or amateur dramatics, or ladies’ book clubs, or just social meets round a bar.  (There are more village pocket orchestras than you would ever imagine; and writers’ clubs are everywhere: I might even go to one one day and see what they do.)

Then all this was gone; banned by government fiat in fear of the Chinese plague. The thread was broken. All over the land, people were realising they do not have to live by a timetable and an untended bowel in the best evenings of the week, when a sofa calls. How then could the clubs come back?

Yet they are coming back. The church halls of the land are full again. Organisers are clearly built of sterner stuff, and for all the welcome leisure we had, there is a yearning for society.

If I were tempted to think those coming back to the village halls are just those who no longer commuter and need to get out from their home-office, it is not: there cannot be too many home-bound workers left though, going by how the trains are packed again as once they were. In spite of the call of the sofa, the clubs are still coming back. Normality, our weird, Middle-Class, respectable rural / suburban normality is returning in spite of it all.

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An interview with Greta

Meeting Greta Thunberg in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow was a fascinating experience. We discussed the project over meatballs and I was impressed by her single-minded approach – she would not be deviated by a millimetre.

Her English, by the way, is pretty good for a foreigner. A learned professor I read observed that Swedish and English are barely different from each other after a few sound changes (I don’t know if he had made a lifelong study of Germanic linguistics, or he had just been watching dodgy films.) The scheme she laid out though could be followed by both of us.

It all seemed too complicated to my unfamiliar eyes, but the way Greta laid it all out made it look achievable for the first time. All the pieces I would be tempted to gloss over, she grasped the significance of each one and ensured the pieces joined in exact alignment. ‘Every dowel to its hole’ as they say in Swedish apparently (which is enough to get you cancelled on the whackiest of  campuses, or the Guardian).

The complex became drawn together into a logical whole, a thing almost of beauty. She spoke the minimum to get it all together and would not be distracted even for a moment. I could not ask about her family, art, food, music, her school friends – we were here for a reason, as she made very clear, and she would not speak of anything else until she was done.

(I asked later as diplomatically as I could why she was not yet back in school. She has a withering scowl. Little girls can be like that.)

By the time she had finished I was all admiration. She might not know much about science or geography, but I sincerely admire her, because that was the neatest flat-pack chest of drawers I have ever seen built. No wonder they want he at the conference, with all those ‘Ingolf’ chairs they will need built.

Books

No, XR, I don’t believe you

They have a right to peaceful protest, and I have a right to mock them relentlessly, and point out the rank dishonesty.

It must be a fun week out for the protestors, like Glasto in the West End. Soon the holiday will end and school-teachers and students must return, but for now it is the Extinction Rebellion free festival.

That’s not a Lambeg drum I have heard banging all day: too tuneless. Whoever have been bashing it must be having a great time: he hasn’t been able to dress in a funny costume and bang a big drum in the street since his primary school days. How could he resist? They built a giant table in the middle of the busiest junction in London! Who hasn’t dreamed of that?

Be honest, lads and lasses, it’s not to do with the environment is it? It never was. It is just having a fun time and doing all those forbidden things before someone forces you to be responsible. Beware though: it can get very dark, as I observed once before:

The sun is out, and that’s not all that’s out, is it miss?  I’ll bet you’ve been wanting to do that in public for years, cheeky girl, and it brought the cameras to you, which is what it was all about.

All around the noise and the flags (all the same – so conformist of you). You have cameras coming to look at what little Jack did at playtime, just like the old, innocent days.  There has been a helicopter overhead all day, spewing carbon dioxide just for you. Doesn’t it make you feel important? Rather that than realise how ordinary you are, as we all are, and drip back into  mediocre anonymity. That’s next week.

We all laughed when we found out that your founder drives a car that spews diesel smoke, just as we chuckled at the academics forming your intellectual respectability when they spluttered and showed themselves dimmer than the remedial class they somehow escaped.

(Do you not have bins?  Dropping your rubbish all over the place like animals! Pick it up, please – some of us care for the environment, you know.)

The term begins soon, and back to class you must go, to do no good maybe but to slot you back into the order of life.

For now though, in the sunshine the festival can go on.

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Books

Resisting neo-feudalism

Convulsion in the normality of society is a continuous process and only future generations will know whether the changes of today will be revolutionary or are just another bump on the road.

I am not convinced that the West is being taken over irrevocably by a new techno-elite, although I would accept that it may look like it. The next decades may be characterised by this dominance of the unwanted elite. There is a fascinating book out by Joel Kotkin which suggests that the West is becoming a neo-feudal society controlled as in the Middle Ages by an elite which defends its exclusive hold on power.

It does look as if the convulsions of the power structures in Western society are moving in the way Kotkin describes as tending to a new, neo-feudal settlement. It has been observed by reviewers darkly that while the grand lords in the Middle Ages accepted that society required the acceptance of mutual obligations between themselves and the peasantry, the modern technocrats do not accept the burden of obligations: they have no need to, as long as power is secured.

All this is too dark a picture though, too close to conspiracy narratives, and while that is not what the author alleges nor intends, it should ring warning bells, as should the generalisation inherent in describing a  social trend in general terms.

Nevertheless, we are living through changes. Technology forces a social change, and those who know how to use the levers of power that appear will look to secure their own power. That is not modern; the seizing of personal power starts with Adam and Eve disobeying and opening their eyes, and runs in a consistent thread throughout humanity.

Some commentaries will look at formal systems of government, some at the power structures operating beneath and in spite of the formal ones, but most of everyday life operates outside government, at least in a free country.

A free country increasingly means ‘an English-speaking country’: that Anglosphere freedom has allowed enterprise to thrive and find new forms from which the whole world has benefited. At the same time, free enterprise without restraint from jealous government has allowed power to accumulate in those enterprises. The power of businesses which are not responsible to the electorate has been the subject of much anguish amongst commentators, but the darker warnings strike a false note.

If you want to see the new technology used for real political oppression, look at China. The government controls technology and enforces dependency upon it amongst the urban population (the only ones who matter), and if no one can receive or make a payment without going through a single, government-controlled payment system, then dissent means starvation. Combined with universal surveillance, it is a tyrant’s perfect system. This works not only within the Middle Kingdom but amongst students and workers abroad, dependent on the same payment and social media systems.

Compared with this, fears about the power of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are petty.

Even so, corporate monopoly power is important and is a threat in the West. Books are not banned, but with just a few providers they can be delisted, and they are, for openly political reasons. Speech online is censored at the instance of activists intimidating platform providers and infiltrating their staff: all this has been too often discussed to need repetition.

This would not be an issue without technology-dependence: twenty years ago, few would bat an eyelid at someone being banned from an on-line forum, because they were the preserve of a few geeks . Really they should be still – the online world is not the real world.  It only gets serious when the online world is needed to access the real world, and those access points are limited.

A neo-feudal society would require permanent, exclusive control of  power and information. Activists do seek that, in the social, commercial and political realms, but unless they can achieve a monopoly, such a system cannot endure. The Roman Church was brought low by the printing press.

Many foreign nations may be damned in this respect: they do not have the millennium-old innate understanding of individual freedom that the English-speaking peoples do and if their language is spoken only in one country then technology and publication in that language can be controlled by one government and social structure. The Chinese are compelled to follow resources in Chinese, which are controlled. The same could be done for small national languages. Technology is written in English and translated into foreign tongues, which produces a choke-point.

English though is spoken throughout the world, in cultures which take government to be an add-on necessity, not a centre for direction. If one government clamps down, the words can be spoke in another country, the book published and read abroad, the opinion expressed; the monopoly-breaking enterprise can be launched elsewhere. When American politics was censored by Mr Zuckerberg and Mr Dorsey, new channels appeared. There is a free-market. It is not even hard to break in: Mark Zuckerberg began his world-dominating resource in a college room. If the near-monopoly providers try to regulate how we behave or speak, and what books we buy, they will not remain near-monopolies: the force of the market must liberalise them in the end.

Therefore there is good reason to think that although the new feudalism is a real trend, pushed fervently by some, they cannot prevail for long.

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Books

Maddening the priests

How most vicars stay sane I do not know. There is a special blessing in the knowledge of the love of God: without it, Bedlam is close at the heels.

To reach out to touch the divine, the awe must overwhelm the mind, and it is easy to be misled down other paths.

A minister of the established Church has a position without easy parallel. He is a public official with all eyes upon him because he is expected to display a special insight into the mind of God, but with a doctrine reminding him that he has none.  He knows he is inadequate to the task. To be an elder of the church is to accept impossible responsibilities in which you are seen as what you can never be. The process of striving to achieve spiritual  improvement may destroy it.

Understanding anything of the vastness of God, and the divine is impossible to approach. Martin Luther when first ordained as a monk-priest shook uncontrollably when he first performed the mass, because he had been told that he was physically creating the body of Christ, which is to say he was quite literally making God. No man can do this.

Most vicars, level-headed and understanding as they are, know their own inadequacy at impossible task, and they fail only when they forget that they are mortal. Whatever vision Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel were shown on Sinai, we are told that none, not even Moses, can see The Lord and live. We though have Jesus, which is why any attempt by a minister of the church to understand his called must be by learning at the feet of Jesus, and being content there.

A temptation may creep upon one to believe that there is a special insight given to vicars, that any inspiration in the mind, notwithstanding that it is not scriptural, must be from the throne of the Most High. This is particularly evident in those vicars who take up political causes and a will not be swayed form them, as all who disagree must surely be evil.

Vicars should keep busy at their actual calling: we know who makes work for idle hands.

For as in the middest of the sea, though a man perceive no sound of that part of the water next him; yet he is well assured, that part contributes as much, to the Roaring of the Sea, as any other part, of the same quantity: so also, thought wee perceive no great unquietnesse, in one, or two men; yet we may be well assured, that their singular Passions, are parts of the Seditious roaring of a troubled Nation. And if there were nothing else that bewrayed their madnesse; yet that very arrogating such inspiration to themselves, is argument enough. If some man in Bedlam should entertaine you with sober discourse; and you desire in taking leave, to know what he were, that you might another time requite his civility; and he should tell you, he were God the Father; I think you need expect no extravagant action for argument of his Madnesse.

This opinion of Inspiration, called commonly, Private Spirit, begins very often, from some lucky finding of an Errour generally held by others; and not knowing, or not remembring, by what conduct of reason, they came to so singular a truth, (as they think it, though it be many times an untruth they light on,) they presently admire themselves; as being in the speciall grace of God Almighty, who hath revealed the same to them supernaturally, by his Spirit.

Thus we have vicars who preach sermons devoid of spiritual content but fiercely passionate on climate change, those who condemn racism, which could be done with a simple word, and consider they work done, with not a word from the charge given to them in the Great Commission.

It is displacement activity, just like the Pharisees of old following invented rituals and painting tombs rather than following justice and mercy.

It s hard to condemn such behaviour knowing we are all flawed. Modern life is too complicated to take it all in. The Christian faith is actually very simple so some ministers may be looking for something to fill in, to bulk it up, but that would be mixing the iron with clay.

In a more dangerous trend, a minister may turn away from the actual requirements of his calling, knowing it to be too hard and the awe too frightening, replacing the living faith with a dead, secular  doctrine drawn from his own Private Spirit, which is a form of madness. It is unsurprising then to see a minister sew his own lips together, which must be a sign of deepest madness in itself, not in the cause of the faith but in a purely secular idea of environmental eschatology.

If the secular cause has gained such traction as to displace actual Christianity, it is a heathen religion, an idol, to be condemned and cast out.

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Books