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, and 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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Jacobean court farce

The reign of King James I began to fall apart into farce in 1612. The King was no fool, or if he was, he was as the cliché has it “the wisest fool in Christendom”, and in character he was uncertain, fearful and indecisive, which led to his relying on other who were unworthy of trust. Until 1612, he had at his right hand Robert Cecil, who had served Good Queen Bess as had his father and who guided the new, inexperienced king. In 1612, Cecil died and the King was adrift, and the kingdom with him.

King James was a good king to the extent he could be given his limitations. He had ruled in Scotland, and had been impatient to rule his inheritance in England too, making plans based on expectation not experience, and the change from the unruly, poverty-stricken court in Edinburgh to the surface splendours he found in England left him unsure of how to react.

The King also had a nervous complaint which led him to fidget constantly and left him unable to concentrate his mind on the task at hand whenever another presented itself, and make the King unable to govern himself let alone a kingdom. Part of this was his unfortunate fondness for handsome young men, many of whom were promoted in court despite no merits beyond their comeliness, and a court full of handsome young men and many rather personable young ladies was a source of constant intrigue.

Had this dysfunctional royal court been merely a private parlour, one might pass over in distaste it like a tabloid sensation, but these plotting courtiers were governors too, in the absence of control by the King. It led to the collapse of the King’s authority, and worse later.

They competed for favour and gathered positions and titles from an impressionable king who saw these favours as costing him nothing. Two such young men were Robert Carr and Thomas Overbury, who came to London together and wormed their way into the court, Overton by his intelligence and Carr by his face; Oveton gained a knighthood, and Carr was made Earl of Somerset. This is a poor substitute for the competition of merit which the kingdom needed, but it is not unknown to this day.

These games become dangerous. Those competing for favours formed factions of convenience, and whispered accusations circulated, in a dangerous atmosphere where treason was the fear in the wind, as well it might be after Guy Fawkes and after the By and Main plots, and was a fatal accusation, but even an accusation of discourtesy would be fatal to a career.

History books tell better how the breach between friends came, when Carr openly took up with Frances Howard and arranged the annulment of her marriage so he might have her. Overbury’s poem The Wife was a deadly insult to Frances, now Countess of Somerset. She pulled an old and cruel trick: she spread a tale that Overbury had been disrespectful to the Queen. He fell from favour at once and and the next year, though further intrigue he was in the Tower accused of treason, where Carr and Frances arranged for him to be poisoned. Their faction were all implicated.

It starts with personal disagreements, and political rivalry which has personal motives, rarely the good of the nation, fought by personal intrigue, with never a thought to the public responsibilities of office – and when power is purely without responsibility it is precious indeed and to be defended at all costs. Courtiers fought like rats in a sack, and their political heirs still do today. If they stay in the sack it might not bother the wider world until we realise whose taxes are still paying them.

No servant is greater than his master, and it is a weak master who allows them to think they are. That was King James’s failing, and that of several other political leaders down the ages.

The scandal that culminated in the death of innocent Overbury was just one of the many intrigues that scared the Jacobean court, and lost the king the love of the nation. It all continued under his son, King Charles I, which led to the discontent, rebellion and Civil War.

I wish that we had learnt to rise above this sort of thing, but apparently not.

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Art in the word

The most beautiful script in the world is Arabic, without any doubt. It is a piece of art, and has been woven into works of great beauty for a thousand years and more. Personally I cannot make head nor tail of it, though goodness I have tried. I can at least appreciate the effect as art.

One might consider a script in pure historical terms, in this case a right-to-left Semitic script of the same root as Hebrew, or even derived from it, the forms of which are mirrored in shadow in the lines and names of the Arabic letters, but that is missing the essence on the page. Those swoops and loops (which frankly I have never been able to tell apart) can be a canvas on which a skilled calligrapher may play. Our own script, the Latin alphabet, is as regular as the Roman conception, letter by letter separate, written on the line, lines kept apart – all these things we take for granted. Greek and Hebrew keep regular too. The Arabic calligraphers though make the letters loop around each other, stack, merge, overlap, play together, weave in and out – how they can still be read I do not know, but it is beyond my cultural norms.

I must pause before an objection arrives and say that there is art also in traditional Chinese characters (if not in the modern, simplified forms) and it is used to some effect, but even these are not a patch on what has been done in Arabic.

There is beautiful calligraphy in our own script, and it likewise lifts the soul and imprints the personal into what might otherwise tend to dull regularity. It is never though used as part of artworks; we treat the two as wholly different domains. Where Arabic is different is a necessity forced upon that culture.

The cultural substrate of the Arab world in lapped in Islam (which itself in its local form is shaped by Arabian culture) and the precepts of the religion take strictly what is to us the Second Commandment, not to make any representation of a thing in heaven or on Earth. For us that is a command not to make anything that would be the subject of worship, and my Puritan instincts give me a distinct revulsion at icons and Romanist religious art which tend towards idolatry, but secular representative art is not forbidden (and reached its greatest flourishing in Protestant Europe). In the Muslim world the command has been taken as an absolute bar on representative art. That strict injunction cannot stop art from being made because the making of art is fundamental to humanity – instead it has cause a flowering of decorate art, and in this the swirling script of Arabia is a form.

This art is commonly connected with Islam and the most prominent examples are of Koranic verses and themes, but there are also Christian and even secular calligraphers, as beauty is universal. The combination indeed between the craft of the text and the beauty of a Christian message makes it a very appropriate medium within the culture. The words are the starting point and the pallet; the work of the calligrapher is to draw the viewer in, and there is a mystery in there, in all those interlaced swirls there is meaning even if not immediately apparent, and that in itself draws you in. That is a universal thing.

Another constraint is the limitation of the material – it is not random patterns but known words and phrases. This defies the idea we have that art should challenge the expectations of the view, but if it is a set text, it cannot. That said, the choice of text may challenge the expectations. In a tangle of curves your expectation (if you can read it) your expectation is drawn into it in delighted anticipation – all great art should create a dynamic relationship like this between the piece and the viewer.

Another idea we have is that art does not have a purpose but is art for its own sake: that idea is behind the decline of modern art into ugliness. Art must always have a purpose, though that purpose may be no more than to charm the eye.

These taken together are a lesson – a constraint can become a birth of new art that may exceed that which was forbidden.

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