Friday, 27 January 2017

How to oppose populism (even if you're not all that political)

Wherever we live in the western world, we need, sadly, to deal with populism as a political and cultural fact of life.

Populism comes in different forms in different countries.  You can find populism on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.  Right-wing politicians such as Donald J. Trump, Binyamin Netanyahu, Nigel Farage, and Pauline Hanson can all be called populists.  As well, some left-wing politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn, Lee Rhiannon, or Bernie Sanders have populist tendencies.  If you happen to live in Northern Ireland, the province's two main opposing political parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, are both parties with an essentially populist appeal.

Populism bases itself essentially on the search for social and political scapegoats.  Populism seeks to tell the public that, whatever problems exist in the community, the nation, and the world, they're essentially someone else's fault. Someone else can be blamed.   And, what's more, the someone else is someone who is radically different from you:  someone of a different skin colour, someone of a different religious faith, someone of a different language background, ... some bastard who didn't goof off in school as much as you did

As we all are aware, populism has become very influential in recent years.  And, for those of us who want a decent public life in any western (or western-style) nation, populism is the foe we need to confront and defeat.

However, the struggle against populism cannot be a fight that's reserved for those of us who are particularly interested in politics.  If that's the case, the populists have won.  The only way we can successfully resist populism is to ensure that it's not only the political junkies who are doing the resisting.

Here is a somewhat long-ish list of practical suggestions (twelve, to be exact) for opposing populism, even for those who aren't terribly interested in politics.  Find a few of these you can do now.  Don't feel guilty about the others.  (But you may want to pick up on some of the others later, so it may be an idea to bookmark this article on your computer.)

1.  Read

The first suggestion is pretty simple:  read.  Read a lot.  Read different sorts of things.  Read fiction.  Read non-fiction.  Read a daily newspaper, particularly if it's a good one (i.e., one that isn't owned by the Murdoch family).  Better yet, read a number of different papers, if you have the time. 
  • Read non-fiction.  Read fiction. 
  • Read the classics.  Read popular stuff. 
  • Read for work.  Read for pleasure.
Just read!  The fact that Donald Trump says he "never reads" is a good indication of the positive impact that reading has on a person's character.

There are two particular types of fiction that I believe are particularly good for us all to be reading at the present time: nineteenth-century British novels and murder mysteries.  Here's why.

In nineteenth-century British novels, the courtesy and the respect that are almost universally shown by all to all are a useful antidote to the lack of respect and the lack of courtesy that is a mark of our public and private life in the era of populism, in era in which basic human decency is mocked and derided as "political correctness". 

Today, a man who openly mocks a disabled person and who boasts about grabbing women by their private parts can be nevertheless elected to high office.  In the world of the nineteen-century novel, however, everyone is addressed with respect.  Even a misanthrope such as Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge, a hypocrite such as Trollope's Obadiah Slope, or an absolute bounder such as Austen's George Wickham is still spoken to (and about) with courtesy, respect, and decency.  The behaviours now derided as "political correctness" were once the behaviours that showed one was a "lady" or a "gentleman".  Read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest.

And, in the world of the murder mystery, there is great reverence paid to that neglected commodity:  truth.  While a wise Jewish bloke of 2,000 years ago (1) spoke of the truth which liberates (and my undergraduate college - as a result of his words - has the Latin motto Veritas liberabit: "The truth liberates."), many of our populist movers and shakers treat truth as an "optional extra".  We are said to live now in a "post-truth" world in which "alternate facts" abound.  A banal "truthiness" is offered as a substitute for the full and complete truth. 

However, in the world of the murder mystery, there is no such thing as a "post-truth" world.  There are no "alternate facts".  There is no "truthiness" to function as an anaemic substitute for truth.  Truth is precious.   Truth is liberating.  Truth is transformative.  Truth is majestic. 

As well, murder mysteries teach us the important lesson that finding the truth often is hard work.  Sometimes innocence looks like guilt, and guilt looks like innocence.  Sometimes good looks like evil, and evil looks like good.  Holmes, or Poirot, or Miss Marple, or Father Brown, or Rabbi Small, or Phryne Fisher, or any other classic sleuth needs to actively engage what Poirot called "the little grey cells" to discover the liberating, majestic truth.  And using the "little grey cells" is bloody hard work.  And populist politicians hate it when we use our "little grey cells", because it means they'll soon be out of a job.

Read.  We need to create more Fitzwilliam Darcys and Bob Cratchits in a Donald Trump world, and more Jane Marples and Phryne Fishers in a Pauline Hanson world.  Reading helps you do that.

2.   Save

Save some cash, if you can.  Even for those of us without a great deal of disposable income, most of us can find some cash to save.  This accomplishes a few things.
  • Deciding what little economies we can make so as to save a bit gives us practice in using our "little grey cells", so we're less susceptible to populist appeals.
  • Realising that we're well off enough to save some money - even a little bit - combats the "Poor Me!" mentality that fosters the growth of populism. 
  • Having money in the bank - even a little bit - makes a person sceptical toward populism.  Instead, we start looking for ways to Trump-proof, Hanson-proof, and Brexit-proof the modest savings we have.

3.  Donate

Donate some money to a worthy cause, even if it's a small amount.  Do it regularly.  (Just as most of us can find some cash to save, so also most of us can find some cash to donate.)  Find a cause you like and an organisation you trust, whether its focus is local, or global, or a bit of both.  In addition to assisting those who are less well-off than ourselves, donating helps combat the "Poor Me!" attitude in which populism takes root and grows.

4.  Volunteer

Don't just donate your money.  Donate your time.  Volunteer.  Get involved in spending time doing something that helps others.  Whatever you're good at, there's some way to put that skill to use to help someone else.  In addition to helping the people involved, you're also helping yourself to get rid of the "Poor Me!" attitude in which populism grows. 

5.  Join

Join something.  It can be a service club such as Rotary, CWA, or Lions.  It can be a choir, a sporting team, or whatever.  (I'll say more about religious congregations in a later section.)  People who are members of community organisations have a positive impact on their communities.  They make a difference. 

Members of community organisations also tend not to fall for the sense of powerlessness and the "Poor Me!" mentality that encourages the growth of populist politics, on either the right or the left.  Populists want you - and other members of the public - to feel isolated from others.  That's where their power comes from.  Join something.

6.  Mind your manners

Courtesy, respect, and basic human decency cost nothing ... nada ... nix ... zero .... zilch .... zippedy-doo-dah ... and sweet Fanny Adams.  I hope I didn't mince my words here.  It doesn't cost you a thing to be polite and respectful to other people. 

In particular, it doesn't cost you a thing to be polite and respectful to those who are the vulnerable ones in our society:   the poor, the elderly, the disabled, children, women, members of minority groups (whether racial, religious, or cultural), those who are ill in any way.  Trump showed just how pitiful a specimen of humanity he was at the moment when he chose to make fun of a disabled person.

As Aretha Franklin said:  R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

And, if you're a parent, or a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle, or a teacher, please teach the children for whom you are responsible a similar level of R-E-S-P-E-C-T (particularly respect for the vulnerable).

7.  Develop a taste for classical music

I really believe that a love for classical music ennobles the human spirit.  I really believe that spending time with the music of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, etc. helps most of us to bring out what Abe Lincoln once called (in another context) "the better angels of our nature".

Think about it.  Could you imagine Trump or Hanson choosing to enjoy Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, Bach's Christ lag in Todesbanden, Faure's Requiem, or Purcell's Bell Anthem?  I couldn't. 

8.  Develop a sense of humour

A sense of humour is crucial here.  The only way we can survive with our mental health intact in a world increasingly dominated by the Donald Trumps and the Pauline Hansons is to laugh our little butts off.

Importantly, political humour is only funny when you "punch upwards".  Political humour is never funny when you "punch downwards".  Laugh at the powerful; never laugh at the vulnerable.

9.  Re-connect with your faith tradition

Now, people who know me know I'm a clergy type.  I'm about to talk religion here (as well as in point 10 following this one).  If you can't cope with people talking religion, meet me at point 11 down the page a bit.

Now, I think one of the best ways to resist the Trumps and Hansons of this world is with positive, constructive faith communities.  (Most of the support base for these politicians is among people who have minimal practicing contact with religious faith of any sort.) 

I know these populist characters are trying to network with various ultra-conservative religious weirdos, but the majority of faith communities around the place (of whatever faith you care to name) are not dominated by ultra-conservative religious weirdos.  It may be time to re-connect with the faith of your upbringing, whatever that faith may be.

Find a good local congregation of your faith, one that respects a reasonably wide diversity of beliefs, practices, and lifestyles.  Look around.  You can probably find one in your area.  

If your experience with your faith community in the past (or even in the present) was/is negative, don't be discouraged.  See if you can find a better and more inclusive expression of your faith located in your area.  You probably can.

A good faith community (whether it's called a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a temple, or whatever) could be a great source of support and meaning in confronting the madness of these days.  If you're not part of one, try to re-connect with one.

10.  Learn about someone else's faith tradition

But it's not only a matter of learning about your own faith tradition.  Learn a bit about a faith tradition other than your own.  And, when you do, try to learn from people within that faith, rather than people outside the faith who may have negative attitudes about the faith.  (This idea isn't original to me.  This comes from a brilliant Swedish theology professor and bishop named Krister Stendahl.)

Let me also suggest that, when you do this, that you start by trying to get to know a faith tradition that many of the people around you have a lot of prejudices against.   For many of us, this means that you may start by getting to know the faith of your neighbours who happen to be Jewish, or Muslim, or Mormon, or Catholic.  (Seriously, this would be a brilliant place to start.  And I say this as a person who happens not to be a member of any of these four faith groupings.)  Learn what the faith means to real people in real life.

11.  Make Friends

OK, now, I've stopped talking religion.  Those of you who are a bit religiophobic can come out now.

Another suggestion here is to make friends, particularly to make friends with people who are different from you in significant ways.  Take the initiative to make friends with the sort of person whom you were taught to distrust, to fear, and to hate.  And that's whether you were taught this distrust, hate, and fear by the loudmouth at the pub, by the shock jock on the radio, or at your granny's knee, or possibly even from the pulpit.  And if you are being taught from the pulpit now to hate anyone:  ... change churches ... now(Sorry, I'm talking religion again.) 

By making friends who are racially, religiously, or culturally different from you, you are challenging the whole foundation of populism.  Populism tells us that it's safer to stick with those who are culturally similar to ourselves.  By experiencing the fact that people who are culturally different from us "don't bite" (2), we undermine everything that the professional bigots and the populists stand for.  And that's a good thing.

12.  Get Out More

Populists don't get out a lot.  That's part of what makes a populist a populist.  They stay at home and watch TV.  If they have a job, they go to work.  They go shopping.  They have a quick beer or three at the pub on their way home from work, and then they go home to the tube.

Get out more.
  • If you like sports, go to a live match occasionally rather than just watching it on the tube.
  • If you like music, go to an occasional live concert.
  • See a movie at the cinema occasionally instead of waiting until it's on TV.
Do things that get you out into the wider general public.  Trust me, they won't bite.

I live in a smaller city (Hobart, Tasmania), where we have a wide range of public festivals.  The ones I like to get to every year are the Taste of Tasmania, the Festa Italia, and the Festival of Voices.  There are many others as well.  In a bigger city, wherever you are, there are even more festivals.  These are opportunities to be part of the broad general public enjoying the public event in the public space, and enjoying the reality of the wide variety of people in your area. 

The monk Thomas Merton (here I go, talking religion again)
one day had to leave his monastery to see a dentist.  It was his first time out of the monastery since he became a monk.  As he walked through the city streets, he saw the people passing by, of a variety of races and nationalities (or as much of a variety as you could find in Louisville, Kentucky), and he was almost ecstatic.  He felt a profound connection with the people around him and a profound gratitude for each of them, in their diversity.  He prayed, "God I thank you that I am like other people."

It's this profound gratitude for the whole human race in its all its diversity that will ultimately defeat the populists.

As I said earlier, you don't have to be terribly political to fight Trump, Hanson, and similar populists.  Just be a decent human being.


(1)  Jesus of Nazareth, if you hadn't guessed.

(2)  The importance of learning that people who are culturally different "don't bite" was a comment made in an address by the singer Brian Ritchie at a citizenship ceremony, I attended in Glenorchy, Tasmania, yesterday, 26th January 2017.  Both members of the majority culture in a country and members of minority cultures in the same country need to learn that the others are not a threat and "don't bite".  This can best be achieved through personal friendships.

Monday, 23 January 2017

"Call the Midwife" (season 5): a television review (SPOILER ALERTS)

Now that the fifth season of Call the Midwife will soon be shown on free-to-air television in Australia (ABC-TV, Saturday evenings), here are some reflections based on when I viewed this series on DVD early last year.  (I'm not sure why DVD versions of some overseas television series are sold by retailers here in Australia as early as a year before they're seen on free-to-air TV, but I'm glad they are.)

This season confronts a range of significant social issues with the same honesty and commitment as earlier seasons.  As this series is set in the early 1960s, such medical-related issues of the day as the relationship of thalidomide use and birth defects are strongly in evidence, as is a story line on the growing concern over the health impact of smoking.  (SPOILER ALERT:  And, yes, the doctor finally gave up the smokes.)

The developing same-gender relationship of two of the nurses is blossoming, and is treated by the two nurses involved with the sense of it being something clandestine as would have been expected in the 1960s.

Trixie is dealing with her alcoholism by (SPOILER ALERT) trading one addiction for another and becoming a 1960s precursor to a 1980s "gym junkie".  (I always found the "Trixie-is-an-alcoholic" storyline a bit unconvincing.  Yes, she enjoyed a drink or three.  But her drinking only became a problem during the time when her engagement went down the tubes in the previous season.  Cut the lady some slack.  If anything, I've always thought her constant smoking was a greater potential problem for Trixie.)

As with other series of CTM, there is a wedding and a funeral providing the emotional "heart" of the series.  (I won't provide spoilers as to whose wedding or whose funeral they are.)

As a clergy-type myself, I'm personally impressed by the way the vicar and the community of nuns are portrayed.

Jack Ashton's Tom Hereward is rapidly becoming one of my favourite TV clerics.  He's without caricature, whether the caricature is that of:
  • the impossible perfection of Mark Williams's Father Brown or the late William Christopher's Father Mulcahy,
  • the overwhelming self-confidence of Dawn French's Geraldine Grainger, or
  • the "Moe, Larry, and Curly"-ness of the inhabitants of the Craggy Island Parochial House.
Tom Hereward is utterly decent, utterly flawed, and always utterly human. 

But the real heroes of Call the Midwife (in each season and in each episode) are the members of the small community of Anglican nuns who make up the Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus.  (And, yes, there really was a St. Raymond Nonnatus.) 

Trained nurse-midwives as well as nuns, they work in the most trying conditions.  They have a great local knowledge and a deep understanding of human nature.  In contrast to our culture's stereotype of people of faith (and particularly those whose "day job" relates to their faith), they show a great acceptance of human weakness and human foibles.  They are always there for the families they serve, the young nurse-midwives they support, and for each other.

As a positive (yet rarely "preachy") portrayal of people of faith, Call the Midwife is always a pleasure.

While it's always easy for any popular series to "jump the shark" into the realms of predictability and self-parody, this season of Call the Midwife is easily as excellent as its predecessors.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Sex and ethics for the culturally progressive

The other day, I read an article in a newspaper which, in the contexts of reports of Donald Trump's peccadilloes, seemed to make the claim that those of us who were politically and culturally progressive needed (to be consistent) to have no ethical standards at all in the area of human sexuality.   The article implied we need to leave ethical judgement in the area of sex in the hands of cultural conservatives while those of us who take a wider, and more accepting, perspective on life need to treat the whole area of sex as an ethics-free zone.



A load of old cobblers.

Absolute horsehockey.

I speak from the perspective of a person who (while being a married, straight, middle-aged, male, clergy type) nevertheless holds to progressive views in the area of human sexuality. 
  • I respect LGBT people and their relationships.
  • I respect the relationships of unmarried, cohabiting couples.
  • I respect single parents.
  • I respect divorced individuals.
  • I respect the many people I know who, while unmarried and unpartnered, could not be called celibate.

Nevertheless, I believe that there are some strong statements that can be made universally about ethics in the context of human sexuality.
  • I believe that sexual violence is always ethically wrong.
  • I believe that non-consensual sex is always ethically wrong.
  • I believe that is it always ethically wrong for adults to prey sexually upon minors.  I believe it is particularly wrong when the adult has a duty of care for the minor.  (This is why I have called for a voluntary moratorium on churches in Australia making public comments on sex until all faith communities around the world have got their act together on issues of child sexual abuse.)
  • I believe that it is always ethically wrong for humans to sexually abuse animals.
  • I believe it is always ethically wrong when a person (of either gender or any sexuality) in a long-term relationship (married or otherwise) has a series of meaningless sexual flings outside their relationship.
  • I believe it is always ethically wrong when the rich and powerful seek to sexually exploit others.
Ultimately, sex is too important an area of life to relegate ethical reflection upon it to the more narrow cultural conservatives.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Book review: "Defenders of the Unborn"

Book Review:    Daniel K. Williams, Defenders of the Unborn: the Pro-Life movement before Roe vs. Wade, Oxford University Press, 2016.

This is a significant recent book.  Williams, a member of the history department at the University of West Georgia, has written a history of the debate in the twentieth century (particularly in the United States) over issues related to abortion.  He has written this history from the perspective of movements opposing abortion, a viewpoint with which he openly sympathises.

He details a number of significant shifts in the public debate over abortion in recent decades:

1.  The rationale for providing wider access to abortion has shifted from a population-control issue (with overtones of eugenics and - at times - racism) to an issue of women's rights.

2.  The general political milieu of the discussion had changed in recent decades.  Whereas the question of abortion has now become a litmus-test of where a person is on a left-right political spectrum, there was once a time (in many of our lifetimes) when it was relatively easy in the US to find liberal Democrats who opposed abortion and conservative Republicans who were pro-choice (with similar situations applying among politicians elsewhere in the world).

3.  The arguments used by opponents of abortion were once grounded in the progressive conviction that a compassionate society had the obligation to provide good, caring public services to all its citizens, ... including the poor, ... including single mothers, ... and including the children of poor, single mothers.

4.  The arguments used by opponents of abortion (particularly those who were Catholics) were once framed in terms of what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago called "a consistent ethic of life", in which opposition to capital punishment and opposition to the arms race existed as part of a "seamless garment" with opposition to abortion.

With the embrace of the anti-abortion movement by conservative-evangelical Protestants (who, for the most part, were also allied with the extreme right wing in secular politics) in the early 1980s, this situation changed rapidly.
  • With the leadership of anti-abortion political movements passing from Catholics to evangelicals, the emphasis of anti-abortion rhetoric changed from a generally humanitarian emphasis of compassion toward the unborn to an aggressive stance of hostility  toward those who participated in abortions. (1)
  • As well, with evangelicals replacing Catholics in the leadership of these movements, more holistic, humanitarian, and pastoral viewpoints were replaced by the ideologies of the hard right.
  • An individual's position on abortion became a "litmus test" of one's general political ideology.  Individuals who were generally left-of-centre (but who opposed abortion in the majority of cases), were generally marginalised politically, as  were also individuals who were generally right-of-centre (but who held to a pro-choice position).
The tone of Williams's description of this process seems to be one of profound regret.  He appears deeply saddened by the fact that opposition to abortion is now seen as a merely right-wing political stance.

In describing these processes, Williams is scrupulously fair to all parties concerned.  In his narrative and his language, he regards all who have been involved in these debates, including those with whom he disagrees, as ethically serious individuals who acted with good will, and who deserve to be regarded with respect.

A mark of this respect is in his use of language.  He describes each movement and viewpoint, as each evolved over the decades, with the language chosen by the various movements to describe themselves at the relevant time.  He doesn't impose today's terminology on people living in the 1960s.  Neither does he impose the language of his preferred viewpoint upon people who conscientiously take a different approach.

This book is a useful resource for all who are interested in the interaction of questions of politics, religion, gender, sexuality, and bioethics.  Whatever your own viewpoint on questions relating to abortion, you should find this an enlightening work.  In my own case, when I finished reading this book, I had more questions on this issue than I had when I began, which is always a good sign.


(1)  And, in my personal experience, speaking as someone who isn't RC myself but who has had a long ecumenical involvement with Catholics, the motivation of most Catholics I know (even relatively conservative ones) in opposing abortion is based on compassion for the unborn.  Only among the most conservative of the conservatives can the hostile aggression of some evangelical opponents of abortion be found. 

As well, in my observation, a strong opposition to abortion is found not only among conservative RCs, but among reasonably liberal Catholics; among the sort of Catholics who are enthusiastic for ecumenism, who would encourage the divorced and remarried to receive communion, who would encourage a zero-tolerance approach by the Church to clerical paedophilia, and who would actively welcome married or female priests.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Book review: "Our Principle of Sex Equality"

Book Review:   Julia Pitman, 'Our Principle of Sex Equality': the ordination of women in the Congregational Church in Australia, 1927-1977, Australian Scholarly Press, 2016.

Julia Pitman has recently published an excellent study of the ordination of women in the Congregational Church in Australia during the fifty years between the ordination of the first female Congregationalist minister in Australia in 1927 (Winifred Kiek in Adelaide) to the union of the majority of the Congregational Church with the Methodists and most Presbyterians in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia.  (This book is based on her Ph.D. dissertation from the University of Adelaide.)

This is a significant study for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it details the process of the church receiving the ministry of ordained women in the context of a church in which the ordination of women was not a controversial issue.  In many denominations, the question of ordaining women was the occasion of a major (and long-running) denominational fight, frequently resulting in an institutionally-divided church.  This was not the case within Australian Congregationalism (nor within any other mainstream Congregationalist group overseas).

Secondly, the author does not limit her attention to the actual process by which the female candidates were ordained, but spends a significant amount of time describing the actual ministries in which these women were engaged.

Thirdly, given that Congregationalism in Australia was a small denomination, the author was able to take an Australia-wide view in her study, rather than confine her focus to a single state or region.

Fourthly, given Dr. Pitman's theological expertise and depth of ecumenical involvement, she was able to present the theological dimensions to the relevant issues, rather than merely treating the question of women's ordination as an issue of social progress.

This is a well-written book, which I'd strongly recommend to anyone interested in:
  • the role of women in faith communities, particularly within the Christian churches,
  • Australian church history,
  • the history of Congregationalism.