Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A return to lexicography

I notice Messrs Jekyll and Hyde have painstakingly added a few more entries to their Dictionary.

A modern lexicographer: James Murray in Oxford

Plus ca change or Apres moi...

En attendant Napoleon:

Never mind the revolution, foreign autocrats, with their nice grasp on permanence, know whom they really need to speak to!

One Whitehall official suggested [Prince] Andrew's continued role reflected the British government's need for his influence in autocratic countries where leaders are not satisfied with contact with a changing roster of ministers.

"He is particularly valuable in some parts of the world where continuity is valued over continually changing personnel."

Monday, 30 January 2012

Byron Dorgan

“And as banks get bigger, of course, we also have another doctrine. The doctrine in banking at the Federal Reserve Board is called, “too big to fail.” Remember that term, “too big to fail.” It means at a certain level, banks get too big to fail. They cannot be allowed to fail because the consequence on the economy is catastrophic and therefore these banks are too big to fail. Virtually every single merger you read about in the newspapers these days means we simply have more banks that are too big to fail. That is no-fault capitalism; too big to fail. Does anybody care about that? Does the Fed? Apparently not."

See also:


Distracted chief executive
The non-executive chairman of RBS has 'declined' a £1.4 million share bonus which, apparently, he was not going to qualify for anyway. The chief executive has been awarded a £1 million bonus, which was necessary to retain and incentivise him, but has decided to decline it because it would have been a distraction to him in his continuing work at the bank. The bank's shares, 80 per cent of which are owned by the state following its rescue from collapse, have halved in value over the past twelve months. The chief executive, it is reported, could still receive other share awards bringing his total remuneration package this year to about £8 million. He is probably too busy to have noticed that. His 'basic' salary is £1.2 million per year.

This may be thought a foolishly facetious observation, but my point is that senior people's pay may be set by a market (though it is clear that it is not currently an efficient market), but any market is always a cultural, and sometimes a quite deliberate, construct. The market within which senior executives operate is now quite separate from that within which more lowly people find themselves, but not only are the two part of the same functioning body, the former, at least as it applies to banks, is now completely underwritten by public support and guarantee. Such a state of affairs cannot flourish.

See also:


Before the gilded icon

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sauve qui peut - or captains and bankers first

Bail out: the global economy sinks

And, changing the headline to something altogether more sombre, 'The protection of the law' perhaps:


There is much convolution before one gets to this rather wipe-out possibility:

Before we proceed we would like to also point out one very curious Catch 22, in that if indeed Greece succeeds with its own exchange offer with the world not imploding, the natural next step would be for the other PIIGS to proceed with just such an exercise in order to cut their own debt load by up to 70%. Because while Greece may have the advantage, the question now become who will be second. Paradoxically, the more success this global strategy has, the deeper it sows the seeds of Europe's destruction, as more and more bondholders will actively shy away from all weak bonds first in the PIIGS, then in Europe, then in the world. Until at the end, there is no end-market demand, and the only buyer remains the central bank.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The New Socialist

Perhaps we should start reading The Daily Telegraph more - and more.

An afflictive phenomenon

It was in this year also that the Hogarth Club was started - 'that afflictive phenomenon' as Carlyle called it: 'a club not small enough to be friendly and not large enough to be important, a room to which nobody sends things and Friday night meetings to which nobody cares to go. Funerals are performed in the shop below through which one passes.

Edward Lear: Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet 1812-1888 by Angus Davidson, 1938

Sunday, 22 January 2012

We can be heroes, just for...

I am indebted to the blog Viable Opposition for these quotations from the recently released US Federal Open Market Committee's (FOMC) minutes from their meeting on 31 January 2006 shortly before things went a little wrong in the US and world economy. The blog post itself has much more substantial comment on which to reflect.

"MR. POOLE: ... Mr. Chairman, many around the table have commented about their experience serving here. I will, of course, echo those. I would like to put a little different angle on it. Of the people who have had a major impact in my life, you are certainly one. I mark on the fingers of one hand the people who have had extraordinary influence on me. You have influenced me mostly in my professional life but also in many aspects of leadership that go beyond economics and policy in a narrower sense. So I thank you for that. I am also looking forward to continuing to learn from you. I understand that you have some books, at least in your head. And given my interest in making sure we have clear communication, I have a suggestion for a title for your first book. And it is in line with some books by your predecessors. So I suggest “The Joy of Central Banking.” [Laughter] And I suggest that your second book be “More Joy of Central Banking.” [Laughter]

"CHAIRMAN GREENSPAN. How to Be a Joyous Central Banker, Even Though We Don’t Have Hearts.” [Laughter] Can we end the speculation on the title? [Laughter] Thanks very much, Bill. President Stern."

"VICE CHAIRMAN GEITHNER. Mr. Chairman, in the interest of crispness, I’ve removed a substantial tribute from my remarks. [Laughter]

"CHAIRMAN GREENSPAN. I am most appreciative. [Laughter]

"VICE CHAIRMAN GEITHNER. I’d like the record to show that I think you’re pretty terrific, too. [Laughter] And thinking in terms of probabilities, I think the risk that we decide in the future that you’re even better than we think is higher than the alternative. [Laughter]"

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Consider the hedgehog

In my childhood hedgehogs were a common sight, including, distressingly, squashed dead on the roads. Yet live ones were common too. Now I very seldom see one, dead or alive.

That seems unsurprising when I read that their numbers in the Uk are thought to have declined from 30 million in the 1950s to 1.5 million in 1995 and that there has been a further decline of 25 per cent in the last decade. So the number is likely to be just 1 million or less now, about 3 per cent of what I used to see as a child.

It seems that roadkill could not be responsibe for such a decline and conservationists blame loss of rural habitat in hedgerows and grassland, and intensive agriculture including the use of pesticides. We often forget that pesticides were used scarcely at all, by today's standards, in the 1950s. One did not see then the routine wide-boom sprayer and the tell-tale tramlines in arable fields. (Nor were gardeners troubled by slugs, a change which I think fits somewhere into the overarching development of land use and management since then.) Badger depradation is also thought to be partly responsible for the hedgehog's decline, and, in urban areas, more chemical and 'hard' gardening.


The disappearing hedgehog is not the only aspect of wildlife depletion that is part of the comon experience of ordinary people in their sixties or so. Were are the teaming rockpools of our childhood seaside holidays? The hedgehog, the piddock and the shore crab have, less spectacularly, less wantonly, gone the way of the bison and the passenger pigeon.

American bison
One cannot believe that the cause is anything else than the effluents of our modern chemical lifestyle, which the populations of Asia are about to emulate.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Kill or cure

"American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials. ..."

Is there a similar panel for foreigners?

The recently late Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan and son

The as yet 'wonderful' Rick Santorum

China now and now

The new democracy - or new barons?

New boss?

Wikipedia and some other much used websites (including the 'the Cheezburger websites, which attract 16.5 million visitors a month to look at funny cat videos and photos') threatened to 'go dark' on Wednesday in protest at the proposed US SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), although I believe President Obama has effectively scuppered it by saying he will not give such an act his assent.

Regardless of thoughts of the merits or demerits of online piracy or of Wikipedia, I wonder what will be the public and politic reaction if protests such as this are in future extensively mobilised. They could have considerable impact, but what will the mass of the people think as they vainly click on the unavailable sites in their daily routines? Will it be much the same as the commuters turning up for non-existent trains for work after the unions have called strikes? Perhaps the lack of Wikipedia will most affect government officials as they strive to write their private and public briefing papers. Will frustrated governments condemn this new 'unaccountable' power and pass legislation requiring ballots of users, advance notification and all the other panoply of restrictions that organised labour, or, as some would see it, their undemocratically elected leaders, have been subjected to, at least in this country?

Whose social responsibility?

Implementing the Act

Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2010-11

Key areas
• replaces police authorities with directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners, with the aim of improving police accountability
• amends and supplements the Licensing Act 2003 with the intention of ‘rebalancing’ it in favour of local authorities, the police and local communities
• sets out a new framework for regulating protests around Parliament Square. Relevant sections of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 would be repealed and the police would be given new powers to prevent encampments and the use of amplified noise equipment
• enables the Home Secretary to temporarily ban drugs for up to a year, and removes the statutory requirement for the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to include members with experience in specified activities
• introduces a new requirement for private prosecutors to obtain the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions prior to the issue of an arrest warrant for ‘universal jurisdiction’ offences such as war crimes or torture. The Government's aim in introducing this change is to prevent the courts being used for political purposes.
Royal assent 15 September 2011

Friday, 13 January 2012

A Fistful of Dollars

‘Despite the fact that they lay down explicit limitations on capital movements, the Bretton Woods agreements delineated an international monetary system that, in practice, made these movements indispensable. At this point we can see how the Bretton Woods agreements opened the way to the post-war ‘dollar gap’ and to the subsequent international ‘dollar glut’ the consequences of which we are still paying for.’

Amato and Fantacci: The End of Finance

Blurred picture

In-store "virtual mirrors" are turning shopping into a social network, he added, where customers can drag clothing items on to their reflected virtual image, post this to Facebook or other networking sites, and get instant feedback from friends.

Technology is also being developed into the tracking of mobile phone users in shopping centres, as well as enabling viewers to buy items through digital TV and interact with adverts.

But ... the growth of online will not see the end of bricks-and-mortar shops. "It's just going to become more blurred. The two will fuse together."

... More 'click and collect', more buying under one roof with people shopping for non-food and food at the same time. It will be the specialists that will suffer.

... supermarkets of the future will also be influenced by so-called "amateur economics" and a backlash against "the big, impersonal, alien shopping experience".

I expect you knew all that.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The value of oil

It is often claimed that physical control of oil supplies lies behind geo-political moves by western nations, especially the United States, but there is an argument that the interest in oil is subservient to the interest in controlling the international monetary system and that the OPEC oil-price shock of the 1970s was actually engineered by western interests to that purpose.

"...Such is not the case in the United States, whose number one export product is the dollar itself. This unique arrangement is largely due to the dollar’s World Reserve currency role, which is underpinned by its petrodollar role. Every nation needs to get dollars to purchase oil, some more than others. This means their trade targets are countries that utilize the dollar, with the U.S. consumer as the main target for export products of the nation seeking to build dollar reserves."

We may be seeing the beginning of the end of that form of economic dominance through the unexpected but fatal consequence of the spiralling growth of unregulated financial trading as a cancer within our western material prosperity.

See http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=114x14286

This line or argument possibly places in a new light the United States' reluctance to move away from oil energy dependence in response to concerns about global warming.

There is a further irony in that what made such a ploy necessary, according to this line of reasoning, was the cost of the Vietnam War (just as the cost of consequent US military ventures may be accelerating their economic decline), and so the west's engineering or accelerating the collapse of the Soviet empire is overshadowed by the potential collapse of the west as a final consequence of its armed struggle against communism.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

It's all about central banks?



Cometh the hour; cometh the Thatcher?

There is an interesting account, with a historical perspective, of the current impasse of Western capitalism and it's loss of democratic consent in the Financial Times by John Plender.

He concludes with the thought that the way forward could be indicated by the work of the late Mancur Olson, who argued that national decline was brought about by effective political dominance by social/economic interest groups, acting alone or in combination, which serves to undermine the broader efficiency of the economy and society. In Olson's time the dominant interest groups were seen to be trades unions and corporate cartels, but in our time they have been replaced by financial elites and allied professional groups (in accountancy, law etc.) which have escaped accountability and achieved an extractive hold upon national and international wealth and resouces.

The full article is available here and well worth reading.

Monday, 9 January 2012


Something has to be done about Comments. Simply not allowing them, following my own practice here (although I don't delude myself that anyone would, even if allowed), is not the answer. The Guardian appears to follow a fairly pragmatic practice in whether or not it allows comments, to avoid the actionable or tedious, but an interesting article, such as this on reason and faith, will still rack up hundreds of comments. Entering there is like starting to wander across Morecambe Bay sands at low tide.

The only answer is for us all to be intellectually and culturally ranked. Perhaps Moody's, Standard and Poor's and the other ratings agencies - they must be looking for a new line of business the way things have been going - could do the job (or is it something for Experian?). Then we could sort all the comments by ranking them through a handy drop-down list by intellect or culture, just as we can do it on internet commerce sites by price or most popular or whatever.

A job well done

The misty crystal glitter

The dam site before construction

Now the world holds seven wonders
That the travellers always tell
Some gardens and some towers,
I guess you know them well
But now the greatest wonder
Is in Uncle Sam's fair land
It's the big Columbia River
And the big Grand Coulee Dam

She heads up the Canadian Rockies
Where the rippling waters glide
Comes a-roaring down the canyon
For to meet that salty tide
Of the big Pacific Ocean
Where the sun sinks in the west
In the big Grand Coulee country
In the land I love the best

In the misty crystal glitter
Of the wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters
And met a watery grave
Why, she tore their boats to splinters
But she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam
Would cross that wild and wasted stream

During construction

Now Uncle Sam took up the challenge
In the year of thirty three
For the farmer and the factory
And all of you and me
He said, "Roll along Columbia,
You can roll down to the sea
But river, while you're rambling
You can do some work for me."

A year's worth of logs from one camp heads down river in 1906

In the misty crystal glitter
Of the wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters
And met a watery grave
Why, she tore their boats to splinters
But she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam
Would cross that wild and wasted stream

Now from Washington and Oregon
You can hear the factories hum
Making chrome and making manganese
And white aluminum
Now the roar of the Flying Fortress
For to fight for Uncle Sam
On the howling King Columbia
By the big Grand Coulee Dam

In the misty crystal glitter
Of the wild and windward spray
Men have fought the pounding waters
And met a watery grave
Why, she tore their boats to splinters
But she gave men dreams to dream
Of the day the Coulee Dam
Would cross that wild and wasted stream

Now the world holds seven wonders
That the travellers always tell
Some gardens and some towers,
Why, I guess you know them well
But now the greatest wonder
Is in Uncle Sam's fair land
It's the big Columbia River
And the big Grand Coulee Dam.

Woodie Guthrie 1941

The dam now

"Replication and accommodation drove Western Hemisphere expansion and settlement. Individuals who came to new land brought ideas about how to use it based on the place or places they left behind. They aimed to establish New England, New France, New Spain, or New Amsterdam. They wanted a fresh start but, plagued by the twin diseases of culture shock and homesickness, also worked to recreate familiar surroundings. None of the participants lost their desire to replicate what was familiar to them. Those in the West have always wanted to make it as much like the East as possible, while at the same time keeping it vigorous and untainted. The result is a West that is both a continuation and a place unique. Look at the people who came, the ideas they carried with them, and the changes the new environment and association with different peoples forced them to make, and you can understand American history."

Grand Coulee: harnessing a dream, by Paul C. Pitzer, Pullman, Wash.: Washington State University Press, 1994.

See http://content.lib.washington.edu/grandcouleeweb/book-excerpt.html

Friday, 6 January 2012

The categorical truth

In celebration of Professor Stephen Hawkin's seventieth birthday, The BBC has organised a programme in which a wide range of 'ordinary' people put their questions to him. One example given in this morning's announcement of the programme asked what happened before the big bang.

Stephen Hawkin's reply was to the effect that nothing happened, or rather that the question was a category error. Using an analogy to explain (surely a technique close to a category error itself), he said it was like asking what was south of the South Pole.

I don't think it will entirely satisfy (though perhaps there was more in the full answer) most 'ordinary' people - or at least will not prevent the question recurring. Were we to stand at the South Pole we would have a sense of something further 'south', although strictly speaking we had reached the ultimate. Yet above our heads, still in the direction we falsely though understandably label 'south', we perceive, not more land, but other matter in sky and space beyond. I think Profesor Hawkin's questioner was probably asking the nature of that otherness 'before' 'time'. I suppose the answer is that we cannot know, or perhaps, signalled by the increasing need to put 'ordinary' words here into inverted commas, we can know only in abstruse mathematical notation. 'Ordinary' people may find a requirement to accept that time has a beginning as problematic as the requirement to accept that space has no end, and wonder whether any image they can summon up of the boundary of time would be less fanciful than the image of the finite universe as a saucer balanced on the back of an elephant.


In the film Padre Padrone, based on an autobiographical book by Gavino Ledda, who participates in the film, Gavino's father, as he removes his young son from primary school to tend the family flock alone on the mountainside, observes to the young school-mistress, "It is not education that is compulsory, it is poverty."

To modern English eyes it is shocking to realise some way through the film, when the father has to accept a reduced price for the produce from his newly acquired olive grove (which is intended to be the family's passport to a new and much yearned for prosperity, because of new European Community regulations, how recent is the film. A few years later the prized olive trees are killed by a late frost and "this little brain", on which the peasant father proudly relies, leads him to sell almost all the family land and aim at that elusive prosperity and security by investing the money in the bank at ten per cent interest, whilst sending out his children as day-labourers.

The book was completed in 1974 and the film made in 1977, but the near inescapable poverty of rural Sardinian society and the attendant brutality and bestiality seem a world away from our lives. Yet the 'compulsory' primary education was in fact introduced in 1859, and had, it would appear from the film, at least brought about a general and basic level of literacy, and an awareness of a world beyond local horizons, if not a generosity of spirit. Perhaps, as Italian banks and governments now collapse and the international financial technocrats take over, thirty years and more of international tourism have changed the picture.

It is military call-up, and some of those whom he meets there, another manifestation of the grinding administration of the state, rather than any globalising prosperity, that eventually enables Gavino to break free. For those of us so distant from the kind of rural society which the film depicts, and out of which one would indeed be grateful to be 'lifted', it is almost impossible to judge whether the almost complete depression of spirit shown is a universal feature of such a life - although still lingering narrowness and resentments in relatively affluent rural societies might persuade one that it is.

Thursday, 5 January 2012


Staying at Combe Florey, Jack and I went one afternoon for a walk and Jack, wanting a stick, rather stupidly chose a light cane. This he broke, and on our return went shame-facedly to Evelyn to apologise. Evelyn was really upset and angry - he loved this small, rather dashing cane - and Jack felt an ass. When we got home he wrote to Evelyn asking him to send it to Briggs to be mended but Evelyn replied 'Tonkin has been spliced locally', and Jack forgot the incident.

Some weeks later I said to him, not thinking much about it:

'Annie has a letter from Evelyn in which he said: "The Donaldsons came to stay. He broke my cane.".'

'Oh no,' Jack cried. 'How beastly of him.'

Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of a Country Neighbour, Frances Donaldson (1967)

Their first halting-place was Yenidje, and Lear, armed as usual with letters of introduction, was staying with the postmaster. As they were drinking coffee in the evening an incident occurred which, though unfortunate in itself, provided an example of Oriental good manners which filled him with delight. In his awkward, shortsighted way (in a room where there was neither table nor chair) he stepped heavily on his host's handsome pipe-bowl. He apologised profusely through his interpreter, to which the postmaster, bowing as he sat cross-legged on the floor, replied: 'The breaking such a pipe-bowl would indeed, under ordinary circumstances, be disagreeable; but in a friend every action has its charms....'

Edward Lear: Landscape Painter and Nonsense Poet 1812-1888, Angus Davidson (1938)

Both Waugh and Lear travelled, sometimes alone (though I think Lear was the more intrepid) in remote parts of Europe and adjoining continents. Both were men for whom humour (of utterly different kinds) was essential in their relationship to the world.

This is the bicentenary of Edward Lear's birth - see A Blog of Bosh

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Unicredit - and others

Shares in Unicredit - the largest Italian bank by assets - were suspended forty-five minutes after trading began at 8am this morning, during which time they fell by ten per cent.The trigger was the news this morning that Unicredit's emergency €7.5bn cash call was going to be priced at an even deeper discount than feared. The bank, which needs the funds (second only in quantity to those required by Santander) to shore up its capital reserves, is selling shares at a 43% discount to their market value, which had already fallen by fifty per cent over the past year.

Yet, least we should be feeling too comfortable here in the UK, look at this table courtesy of Morgan Stanley:

It seems we'd all be doing quite well by international comparisons if it weren't for the green column, courtesy of our much vaunted and nation-saving financial sector. For fuller and more balanced commentary refer to the article in Business Insider.

And consider also:

Bank share prices show a clear pattern of two waves of ‘collapse’ among large retail, or retail/investment, banks.

The 1st wave saw falls of 90% plus in the shares of banks such as Citigroup, Lloyd’s and RBS. No significant recovery in their share prices has taken place since – which is why they may, in terms of share prices, be characterised as ‘collapsed’ banks.

A number of other large banks – of which Barclays, Bank of America and Société Générale may be taken as examples – initially suffered very severe share price falls during the international financial crisis but then saw a significant recovery. Their share prices are, however, now again falling towards the level of the 1st group of banks. It, of course, remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, but a current tendency of a 2nd wave of banks being drawn into crises which essentially destroys share prices is clear.

Democracy in action

Mitt Romney has won the Iowa Republican caucus ahead of Rick Santorum by the narrowest of margins - eight votes.

Romney polled 30,015 votes. Total votes cast were 122,255. The total population of the State of Iowa was estimated by the US Census Bureau in July 2011 as 3,062,309. If one asumes that roughly half the population is entitled to vote in the presidential election, approximately 2 per cent of the electorate have just given their backing to Mitt Romney.

Republicans, we are told, seem set to save Obama's bacon by choosing from a pool of candidates that neither they in general, nor the country as a whole finds very attractive. Yet much may change in the outside world between now and the election.

A shiny, capacious new identity card?

World enough

And you should if you please refuse
Till the Conversion of the Jews

To early Christians belief was not of overwhelming importance, if one is to judge by the incidence of forced and mass conversions and conversion by conquest. Perhaps that was the cynicism of the powerful; perhaps a reflection of the hard realities of temporal allegiance; perhaps an acceptance that the rites of conversion established a reality of themselves.

To most modern Christians belief is essential to conversion, but for some denominations conversion takes place through selection by god, and is therefore irresistable.

My impression is, that in the modern polemic against religion, it is belief that is excoriated; faith escapes with its skin intact. By faith here I mean, not the sense of the corpus of belief, as in the Christian, Jewish or Muslim faith, but the word used in the sense of a personal experience. In religious discussion the it is, unhelpfully, often used simply to mean a religious belief, but there is a real distinction between belief and faith. Faith has necessarily elements of trust and adherence; there is something more reciprocal about it than with belief, which is rather more a subscription to an externality. Perhaps that is why belief draws the polemical atheist's fire, intent as he often strangely is on establishing the non-existence of any god. Notions of keeping faith, of good and bad faith, have a currency in modern non-religious thought with which it may be more enlightening to tangle.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Mower against Gardens

Luxurious man, to bring his vice in use,
Did after him the world seduce,
And from the fields the flowers and plants allure,
Where nature was most plain and pure.
He first enclosed within the gardens square
A dead and standing pool of air,
And a more luscious earth for them did knead,
Which stupified them while it fed.
The pink grew then as double as his mind;
The nutriment did change the kind.
With strange perfumes he did the roses taint,
And flowers themselves were taught to paint.
The tulip, white, did for complexion seek,
And learned to interline its cheek:
Its onion root they then so high did hold,
That one was for a meadow sold.
Another world was searched, through oceans new,
To find the Marvel of Peru.
And yet these rarities might be allowed
To man, that sovereign thing and proud,
Had he not dealt between the bark and tree,
Forbidden mixtures there to see.
No plant now knew the stock from which it came;
He grafts upon the wild the tame:
That th’ uncertain and adulterate fruit
Might put the palate in dispute.
His green seraglio has its eunuchs too,
Lest any tyrant him outdo.
And in the cherry he does nature vex,
To procreate without a sex.
’Tis all enforced, the fountain and the grot,
While the sweet fields do lie forgot:
Where willing nature does to all dispense
A wild and fragrant innocence:
And fauns and fairies do the meadows till,
More by their presence than their skill.
Their statues, polished by some ancient hand,
May to adorn the gardens stand:
But howsoe’er the figures do excel,
The gods themselves with us do dwell.

Andrew Marvell
Latin Secretary for the Council of State of the Protectorate
Member of Parliament for Kingston upon Hull

See also Cannons: a tale of wealth, property, art and patronage

Monday, 2 January 2012


A new year, if not a new age, dawns.

In modern polemical debate, 'belief' is spoken of as referring almost exclusively to religion. Those arguing that the persistence of real or token religious observance in present-day western society is illogical and pernicious can refer to 'believers' confident, in a mirror image of the use of 'infidels' by some modern Muslims, that their readers will be thinking of a duality between Christians, mostly, and atheists.

It is almost as though a deity were the only significant object of belief, and if religious observance were to disappear, as many hope for and consider inevitable, so too would the phenomenon of belief, as a perversion of knowledge and experience uniquely, and deplorably, manifested in religion. Yet belief, like love, fear, hope, hate, trust, delight, is just one in the range of modes of human experience, although those are intellectual abstractions of states that seldom, if ever, exist in individual isolation. We all believe in many things, from the mundane to the profound, and religious belief occurs in many forms, colours and admixtures.

It will probably be objected that this is defensive sophistry: there remains a hard distinction between those who do and those who do not believe in a god. Yet what that constitutes, what, exactly, a god is understood to be, has varied greatly through history and societies. Even now it is a question of legal debate as to what can claim the state's indulgence as a 'religion'. Current argument tends to focus on the idea of god as a 'supreme being', a term not wholly unambiguous but certainly inconsistent with many past and present forms of religious belief. The concept of course was the distinctive development of Judaism that has been passed on to Christianity (sometimes a little insecurely) and Islam, and it is both something of a religious peculiarity and a notion sympathetic in overall form to modern scientific understanding of the world. As such, it is perhaps seen as distastefully competitive.

The strangely active atheistic argument in our society directs little of its fire against the non-Judaic religions: Hinduism, despite the violence sometimes conducted in its name, appears to get off relatively lightly, and Buddhism, as the 'religion without a god' gains a little of the dispensation allowed to an emasculated appreciation of the B Minor Mass or the Sistine Chapel ceiling, although its priest-ridden structure and deference to a supreme earthly authority makes it vulnerable to disapproval.

Religion is chiefly scorned for its irrationality, but the charge sheet seems to be headed with utilitarian objections. One wonders what the modern disputants would think of the gentlemen in Addison and Steele's coffee house, with their over-riding concern that religion should be free of 'unseasonable passions' and that gentlemen (and ladies - though it would be impolite to doubt their destination or manner of arrival) should 'go to heaven with a very good mien' - or of Edward Gibbon's lament at the destruction of civilisation wrought by 'barbarism and religion'.