Forgetting Tank Man

The year of the liberation of millions in Europe, 1989, was also the year millions were freshly enslaved in China. Tiananmen Square in Peking saw protests mirroring those which were opening up half a world away, but in China they were crushed, cruelly. The echo of the shots is still heard today.

Yesterday Bing’s search engine ‘lost ‘ Tank Man, the iconic image. The reason for that happening we can guess at an they will not easily admit it. It affects us today. Tank Man is an enduring symbol of something about China of which we need to keep reminding ourselves.

Thousands were slaughtered in the city. China began like Europe that year, reaching to breathe free, but as Europe stumbled into the light, China fell into deeper darkness. To some that tells that the Chinese people are radically different, unsuited to freedom. Those with a better appreciation of Chinese culture recognise the stereotype but know it to be untrue.

The end was cruel, but the events which led there disprove a common idea about Chinese people: they are not automata; they can yearn to breathe free like any others. In 1989, Chinese men stood in the street demanding freedom exactly as others did in Central Europe. Tanks rolled in to crush them, and that tells you about their government, but to learn something of the people, watch the man who stood in front of them, with some faith that the men inside were men like himself, with a heart for freedom that could overcome the orders of a tyrant. Would that they had resisted as he did, as the soldiers in Eastern Europe resisted the same demands.

There is no doubt that China is a world apart, with an ancient culture that need not look to the West for lessons. Men are men though, and when Hobbes observed the motivations and actions of men in creating society and a common-wealth, he could write with equal justice of the Chinese as of the Britons.

So then we come to the disappearance of Tank Man. It is an image which is a threat to the Chinese Communist Party: it shows that bowed submission is not inevitable, that a Chinese man can stand up against authority. As such it is suppressed in Mainland China. In a democratic country, images however harmful to the standing of the government are freely circulated, and so accepted it this that it seems ridiculous that I even have to write that down.

It is a most pointed reminder because it happened in 1989, and in that same year communist parties collapsed across Eastern Europe, and in Algeria and Mongolia, the latter on China’s very borders. The Chinese Communist Party may no longer be communist, but it is a fascist tyranny feeling its fragility. There may be genuine belief that China cannot survive without the firm hand keeping it from the murderous turmoil which has regularly engulfed the Middle Kingdom in all past ages. It must be suppressed.

Bing called the disappearance a human error. I doubt that. It would take deliberate programming to exclude that term from a search engine algorithm. Neither though do I think that it was a conscious decision by the company. Any large technology company has a wide range of employees of all backgrounds, and it is no stretch to imagine that among them could be one or more who is an agent, paid or voluntary, of the Peking government, and who would inveigle himself into a position where he could control content. There is precedent for it: ‘social justice warriors’ working in publishing or in Internet companies ensure they are in a position to control output.

The challenge for the West is that this interference crosses borders: the Bing obliteration of Tank Man was effected not in a dictatorship but in America. That power invading our countries is a threat we have not faced in peacetime before.

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Fall of the House of Cromwell

In the year 1658, September the 3rd, the Protector died at Whitehall; having ever since his last establishment been perplexed with fear of being killed by some desperate attempt of the royalists.

Being importuned in his sickness by his privy-council to name his successor, he named his son Richard; who, encouraged thereunto, not by his own ambition, but by Fleetwood, Desborough, Thurlow, and other of his council, was content to take it upon him; and presently, addresses were made to him from the armies in England, Scotland and Ireland. His first business was the chargeable and splendid funeral of his father.

Thus was Richard Cromwell seated on the imperial throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland, successor to his father; lifted up to it by the officers of the army then in town, and congratulated by all the parts of the army throughout the three nations; scarce any garrison omitting their particular flattering addresses to him.

B. Seeing the army approved of him, how came he so soon cast off?

A. The army was inconstant; he himself irresolute, and without any military glory. And though the two principal officers had a near relation to him; yet neither of them, but Lambert, was the great favourite of the army; and by courting Fleetwood to take upon him the Protectorship, and by tampering with the soldiers, he had gotten again to be a colonel. He and the rest of the officers had a council at Wallingford House, where Fleetwood dwelt, for the dispossessing of Richard; though they had not yet considered how the nations should he governed afterwards. For from the beginning of the rebellion, the method of ambition was constantly this, first to destroy, and then to consider what they should set up.

B. Could not the Protector, who kept his court at Whitehall, discover what the business of the officers was at Wallingford House, so near him?

A. Yes, he was by divers of his friends informed of it; and counselled by some of them, who would have done it, to kill the chief of them. But he had not courage enough to give them such a commission. He took, therefore, the counsel of some milder persons, which was to call a parliament. Whereupon writs were presently sent to those, that were in the last Parliament, of the other House, and other writs to the sheriffs for the election of knights and burgesses, to assemble on the 27th of January following. Elections were made according to the ancient manner, and a House of Commons now of the right English temper, and about four hundred in number, including twenty for Scotland and as many for Ireland. Being met, they take themselves, without the Protector and other House, to be a Parliament, and to have the supreme power of the three nations.

…..

the government, which by the disagreement of the Protector and army was already loose, to fall in pieces. For the officers from Wallingford House, with soldiers enough, came over to Whitehall, and brought with them a commission ready drawn, giving power to Desborough to dissolve the Parliament, for the Protector to sign; which also, his heart and his party failing him, he signed. The Parliament nevertheless continued sitting; but at the end of the week the House adjourned till the Monday after, being April the 25th. At their coming on Monday morning, they found the door of the House shut up, and the passages to it filled with soldiers, who plainly told them they must sit no longer.

Richard’s authority and business in town being thus at an end, he retired into the country; where within a few days, upon promise of the payment of his debts, which his father’s funeral had made great, he signed a resignation of his Protectorship.

(from Behemoth)

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The Wrong Side of History

The idea of inevitable progress is worse than folly: it is a positive impediment to thought, leading to decrepitude.

Finding patterns in things, Isaiah Berlin observed, is a human trait (“To understand is to perceive patterns”) but he know it was all fantasy, like seeing the shapes of animals in the clouds. History, viewed from a distance shows few examples of constant motion in any direction: short of the social changes brought about by the discovery of metal and new materials, the invention of wheels and writing, it is hard to place any ‘inevitable’ thread in the human story, but for one, which Thomas Hobbes observed:

it is evident that dominion, government, and laws, are far more ancient than history or any other writing.

Things may change in any society in a way we perceive, from tyranny to freedom, from oligarchy to democracy, but all these concepts have come and flourished and decayed and fallen many times in recorded history. There is no inevitability. Berlin again said:

Historians of ideas, however scrupulous and minute they may feel it necessary to be, cannot avoid perceiving their material in terms of some kind of pattern.

There is no pattern though, and there is no set idea of progress, whatever the Whig historians thought or Marx wrote. As to inevitability, consider the Augustine Age of the Roman Empire; universal peace, prosperity, law and cultural continuum – and compare it with the situation in Europe just 500 years later. Europe did not match the achievements of Rome until the Renaissance, if then. The Renaissance was not to last either: it posited a stable relationship of crown, mitre and scholarship, but it just took a monk nailing his theses to a church door showing the falsehoods on which that culture was built, and it came crashing down.

If you who believe that the process of modernity is proof of rightness, consider these:

In 1642 the Civil War began in England. It is seen today as a modernising struggle for democracy, but it was the opposite. Parliament was old, mediaeval and progress in that age, demonstrably, was to enlightened despotism as demonstrated by Europe’s most advanced monarch: Louis XIII of France. King Charles gathered young and energetic advisers, while those who opposed him were the older generation. John Pym was 58 in 1642 (four years older than Thomas Hobbes); John Hampden and Cromwell spritely at 47 and 43 respectively. The coming men would dispense with the mediaeval hang-over that was parliament. The Civil War was reactionary, a rebellion launched by the passing generation quickly before it was too late, before the young pups could take over. Democracy was against the tide of history.

In 1688, James II & VII tried again. He had lived in exile in France, seeing the spectacular achievements of his cousin, Louis XIV, who excelled his father (and bankrupted his nation, but that was unseen). The old ways got in the way and had to go; the reformation was a past enthusiasm to be replaced by the modern counter-reformation. King James removed the old guard from their positions and appointing new, younger men steeped in the ideas of the Sun King. Parliament was dismissed and royal authority over state and church established. It was the way all the world was going. Democracy was reactionary and old-fashioned; it survived only by a rebellion of the old guard.

The Whig Interpretation of History which followed the Glorious Revolution tried to recast the reactionary rebellions by imagining a general progression towards freedom and democracy. It served well: it gave a rousing national story to encourage us to ever-greater achievements and it ensured that future developments in Britain and its Empire followed that idea, but it was based on wishfulness, not fact.

In the 1850s, slavery in the southern states of America was perfected as a system, as the local establishment thought, such that the Manifest Destiny of these states was to expand over a ‘Golden Circle’ embracing Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Led by the Democratic Party, the bold new vision declared that “We will expand, as our growth and civilization shall demand – over Mexico – over the isles of the sea – over the far-off Southern tropics – until we shall establish a great Confederation of Republics – the greatest, freest and most useful the world has ever seen.” To bring it to reality, private armies invaded Mexico and conquered Nicaragua (until an attempt to conquer the rest of Central America caused a reverse). In Congress, a proposal was debated to establish slavery as the law in any new territory acquired by the United States to the south, in anticipation of this expansion. It was the future. Only the Civil War and the merciful abolition of slavery ended this vision of progress.

In 1912 the first of the International Conferences of Eugenics met. This was a vigorous scientific discipline, promising an improvement of all mankind. Chairs in Eugenics were founded at universities, the imagined benefits became a staple of futurist literature, because this was the certain future. Those who opposed eugenics were ignorant, superstitious reactionaries, so the world was assured by its ‘enlightened’ minds. The opening of the Nazi death camps wiped this grotesque future from our future.

In the 1930s, democracy and ideas of individuality seemed to be winding to their end. Socialism was the future, the nations were assured, and the only struggle was between factions of socialism: Communism or Fascism. Pliant journalists shown the new Soviet Union came back to say “I have been over into the future, and it works.”, even as Ukrainian peasants starved in their millions. Anyone opposing socialism was behind the times, ignorant of modern thinking, harking back to an anarchic system incompatible with modern life. A modern, mechanised age required a modern, ordered, mechanised system of rule, of life and of death. Both fascism and communism promised order and effective action. We saw how that went.

In each case, the widespread acceptance of inevitability sapped resistance. It narrowed the scope of the imagination. Those who opposed socialist takeovers, as Franco did, just imposed their own versions; because that was modern.

Belief in today’s enthusiasm as a universal, timeless ideal drives out constructive thought. From this will come only stagnation and collapse.

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A melancholy centenary for Wales

A hundred years ago, the Church was plundered of its wealth and sent out to die. The Church in Wales has had a quiet celebration of a hundred years, but it should be mourning its despoliation. A limb was torn from the Church of England and stripped of its assets by Parliament, by Lloyd George, a non-conformist.

The celebrations were booked for June; all cancelled because of the lockdown. Perhaps it is as well to spend the time looking at what actually happened.

The Act disestablishing and disendowing the Church in Wales was passed in 1914 against a great deal of resistance: the Lords refused approval and this was the only time the Parliament Act was ever invoked to override the Lords until 1949. The great F E Smith spoke against the Bill in the Commons with such vehemence that he was mercifully satirised for his claim that it was:

 “a bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe”

It was not about establishing a specific Welsh voice of the church: it was to strip the Anglican church of its privileges and assets in Wales and to let it die.

The Church of England was not wholly innocent: the valleys had been thoroughly evangelised in the past hundred years while the established church had its back turned, by Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians and such enthusiastic, evangelical minsters such that the Church of England was a minority body, yet one which was still collecting tithes from farmers who did not worship with it, still running the schools and allegedly reacting to challenges by shutting non-conformists even from burying their dead in village graveyards. The distancing of the church form the people was made worse by the appointment of bishops of a ‘high-church’ persuasion when all around were more earthy evangelicals.

It took two years to pass the Welsh Church Act 1914, then it was suspended at the outbreak of war, and revived in 1920. It struck the Welsh dioceses, handing much of their property to the local councils and to the University of Wales. (Maybe the Church in Wales was meant to fade away but it has outlasted the University of Wales, which was dissolved in scandal a few years ago.) The Act is bland and bureaucratic in its wording, but effective. Smith and later Lord Robert Cecil examined the philosophy behind dis-endowment and found it wanting, but there was no stopping David Lloyd George; there never was.

As of 1920, in Wales, the bishops were no long bishops, ecclesiastical law and no longer law nor its courts courts, and the property of the church, beyond the churches themselves and vicarages and recent donations handed to Commissioners for disposal.

The distinction between what is England what is Wales is not a sharp line but a cultural slurring in the hills. There are parishes which spread across the line clerks drew on the map, and these were given a choice, to continue in the Church of England or leap into the newly stripped Church in Wales – all but one opted for the former, which is why the Cross of St George flies over the tower of St Andrew’s in Presteign, Radnorshire.

Looking at a hundred years, we see the Church in Wales shrinking (even before the churches were barred by the lockdown) so as barely to function in places. However its place is not filled now with the old enthusiasm of the Methodists and Baptists: they have shrunk away even faster. It is a curse of the Anglican churches that they cannot rise suddenly with effusions of the Spirit and preach sermons of fire to draw the people in as surely Christian churches should, but consequently they do not dry up as a puddle in the dawn the way less rooted churches do.

Today the Church of England has a radical power, to make and unmake any Act of Parliament affecting it, by a Measure of Synod passing three Houses of Synod and two of Parliament. If the Church in Wales looks at it decline, maybe the centenary should have been a time not to celebrate separation but to look for reunion.

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To the Extinction of their Democraty

Once the spell is broken, it cannot be woven again, and democracy relies on keeping a nation spellbound, just as autocracy does. (The rival systems enumerated by Hobbes differ from each other very little in this respect.) Democracy has been the most stable system as it absorbs shocks, but is breaking down and even in America there are whispers. The ‘Death of Democracy’ is a threat exaggerated by commentators by it is a moment’s work, and might be as much a part of the life of the system as its birth.

Mexico is a classroom for students of politics as its history has sampled every political system one might imagine. It has been relatively stable since about 1920; nothing like the cowboy-film version of old Mexico. It still teaches us. In 2006 a year of chaos followed the Presidential election. The losing candidate refused to accept his position, his supporters ran with that. They had reason to believe the election was stolen because in their own narrow bubbles all opinion was one way. Those protesting in the capital could not grasp that Calderón had enough support to have won, because in the capital he did not; outside their bubble he did. This shook the understanding on which democracy must stand, namely that each side accepts when it loses. Mexico is hardly a good example of a perfect, mature democracy because while it has been democratic for a hundred years, it was for most of that time a “guided democracy” in order to ensure stability.

In the United States it is meant to be different. Democracy has been unchallenged, even in the Civil War, for over two hundred years, and in fact to some extent since the first settlers on the eastern seaboard established colonies. There is belief in democracy; if there were not, the roots would dry up and the soil blow away. Where however a population draws itself in, each into his or her narrow bubble of shared norms, it is no different from the protestors in Mexico unable to comprehend that there are any who disagree, and therefore convinced that the election has been stolen.

There is a great deal more to be written on the destruction of political understanding. The danger is in the destruction of political acceptance.

No American President since the 1993s has had his legitimacy unchallenged, and this in a settled, accepted system: Clinton and his impeachment; Bush and the hanging chads; Obama and the “birther” theory; Trump with everything the other party could throw at him, including an attempt to subvert the Electoral College to keep him out; now Joe Biden’s elevation to office is being met in revenge with more law suits. Rumours of an attempt to subvert the College again appear to be smears, but we will see.

It is America though, and that counts for more than all the political shenanigans. Elections have been bought and sold many times in America, so I read, but the essential mindset in the common man, whatever party they support, if any, is that democracy unsullied is the American way, and that attempts to subvert it are despicable. That is mythology because the system has always been corruptible and corrupted, but America has always lived on self-myth, since the foundation of the republic. It is a necessity and the strength that will keep it going.

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