Iconoclash and Racist Cartoons

iconoclash Is the iconoclast responsible for the reactions to their defiant acts? On this, as with so many contemporary issues, those who act with the greatest certainty are all too often the furthest from moral innocence.

Once again, the French press has used freedom of speech as their excuse for publishing racist cartoons. While it is true that freedom of speech allows people to promulgate bigotry, it is not the case (as sometimes seems to be presumed) that this freedom acts as an indemnity against responsibility. Nor is it true, as was claimed in the case of the reprinting of the Danish cartoons in France, that redistributing hateful material is somehow ‘defending’ freedom of speech. That particular freedom is not threatened in any way by people voicing their disgust. I’m particularly disappointed with French anti-racism group Licra who defend the magazine on the ground that the “crime of blasphemy” does not exist in France – a flippant remark that seems to suppose that images that defame Muslims are somehow excluded from consideration as racism, despite the UN’s stance on such matters.

The French government, expecting reprisals, closed a number of their embassies for fear of retaliation from those claiming to defend Islam. Attacks such as these, which certainly do occur, are themselves a great insult to the teachings of the prophet Mohammad, who expressly forbade harming innocents. Those sham Muslims who would dishonour their tradition are not far removed from the members of the French press who dishonour the tradition of free speech by using it as a cloak for their racism. The editor-in-chief of the magazine in question told the BBC: “These publications will not cost lives. Who killed people? We are not killing people, I’m sorry. We are not the violent ones. We are just journalists.” His attitude is like the Zookeeper who, fired from his job, leaves the animals unfed and then releases them from their cages before handing in his keys, claiming “I did not kill anyone.” Responsibility is not a matter of pointing to the last link in a causal chain: those who knowingly act in a manner that will incite violence are not indemnified from the consequences.

This entire incident is an example of what Bruno Latour terms iconoclash – the uncertainty of what transpires when images are destroyed or subverted, coupled with repudiation of the representation involved. Latour persuasively argues that it is no longer possible to understand iconoclasm as clear cut since the meaning of each act of destruction struggles with irresolvable ambiguities. The French magazines believe their ‘attack’ on the image of Mohammad is justified by free speech – how this act is viewed by others (not necessarily Muslim others) is far from likely to endorse their moral certainty in this regard. Latour also offers insightful commentary on the narrow manner in which iconoclash manifests. Artists, believing themselves iconoclasts, defame or insult the Catholic Pope or other religious figures, but will not (Latour confirms this through his own discussions with the artists) defame other cherished icons such as Martin Luther King or Salman Rushdie. Indeed, the only icons they will ‘smash’ are those they themselves do not respect – bringing into question just what the nature of these alleged acts of iconoclasm might be. Latour identifies many forms of iconoclash, and attempts to rescue one kind from among all the others, although this is a point I shall have to pursue at another time.

From the perspective of freedom of speech, a great irony of the French cartoons is that throughout history no religion has been a greater defender of freedom of speech than Islam. Such a freedom was originally claimed not only in both Athens and Rome, but also in the early Muslim world: freedom of speech was declared by both the caliph Umar in the Rashidun period (7th century), and again in the later Abbasid Caliphate period. In Christian-dominated Europe, this right was far slower to emerge. Fast forward to contemporary France, and the situation in respect of free speech is anything but clean cut: consider the recent furore over the topless photos of a future British queen, or the fact that anyone denying that the Turkish Army committed genocide against the Armenians in the twentieth century faces a find of 45,000 euros and a year in jail. As Seyed Ibrahim commented in this regard: “Ultimate and unconditional freedom of speech does not exist in any country in the world.”

Today, in this as in so many matters concerning contemporary Islam, we are still experiencing the consequences of a failure to respect the people of the Middle East during and after the two World Wars. The overthrowing of the Ottoman empire created power vacuums that were almost inevitably filled by dictatorships – often propped up by Western powers keener to secure oil exports than to secure the freedoms of the local populace. If the French iconoclasts really care about freedom of speech – and freedom in general – they should act to support the new Islamic cultures finding their feet after the Arab spring. But apparently they do not care – they are, it seems, merely another pocket of spoiled racists whose iconoclash should expect the condemnation it receives. In the words of White House spokesperson Jay Carney: “We don’t question the right of something like this to be published, we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it.”

The Empty Cries of Rebellion

Rebel Without a Cause Everyone sees something that must be fought, but thus far our rebellion has been scarcely more than a shouting match. Can we find something worth fighting for, or just convenient bad guys to blame for all our mutual problems?

Although I am a lover of those who tilt at windmills, I find it tragic that today's Don Quixotes seem to be driven by a blinkered rage, rather than a noble-yet-hopeless quest. Everyone rails against something, few offer something to strive towards. This ailment was diagnosed by Hannah Arendt half a century ago, yet still we go around in circles, shaking our fists at some scapegoat so abstract that opposing it carries no significant risk of effecting any useful change.

A catalogue of demons reveals the futility of our presumed goals. The crusade against religion has become so laughably self-referential it's a wonder anyone can take it seriously. The political Right's demand to reduce the funding supplied to government and protect freedom becomes farcical when compared against the many costs of war. The political Left's campaign against racism and sexism has gradually become the locus of a more rigorous bigotry than their opponents ever managed. The risk of holding Equality and Diversity as dual ideals is that they are in conflict with one another – absolute equality flattens the particularity inherent in diversity, making everyone equally no-one.

The windmill-tilters par excellence however are the undead remnants of Marx's dream, the enemies of Capitalism. The insoluble problem they face is the uncertainty of what they oppose. Is it private ownership? Ask the rebels to give up their homes and computers, and watch the indignation. Is it money? Our medium of exchange is unlikely to be our central problem. Is it the corporate rape of the natural world? Socialist government have not show a superior record on this account. Is it the sheer unfairness of the staggering caste system wealth has imputed? This was precisely Marx's cause in the first place! So many problems, so few solutions. Capitalism is easier to hate than it is to define.

Look not to the political activists to solve our problems, since once on the battlefield one can only fight or lay down arms. Sun Tzu wisely saw war as something that should be considered solely when all other options had failed – political partisans today start with war because they equate diplomacy with compromise, and their enemy is so loathsome that equivocation is blasphemy. Shame on us all for this empty warrior rhetoric. The enemy – if we must speak in such bellicose terms – is human nature itself, in all its variegated beauty. The outcome of this battle is favourable to no-one.

Both Left and Right go awry by trying to elevate the local to the universal – a feat of weight-lifting that will break our back before it can ever achieve peace. The Right has it correct that our local communities are a just centre of concern, but they have it disastrously wrong in their failure to separate these from national law or global empire. The Left has it correct that equality and diversity are noble ideals, but fail whenever these beliefs obliterate concern for individuals or local communities, and betray themselves utterly when supporting empire as a propagator of liberty.

And the anti-Capitalists, those beautiful fools who know not what they fight for? Ah, we may yet find the windmill for you to tilt at, but what will you do if it involves connecting locally instead of shaking a fist at conceptual foes who are conveniently intangible? The luxury of an intellectualised rebellion is that you don't need to leave your armchair. Real and lasting change may be a great deal more inconvenient.

The Impotence of Partisans

Partisans – whether political, religious or nonreligious – are committed to their views. As such, they cannot contribute to democratic dialogue except by clarifying their ideological stance for the benefit of active citizens. Genuine democracy thus only belongs to those whose minds are open to influence by dialogue. Sadly, most such people are turned off politics by the furious rants of our ever-more diverse zealots. Partisanry is thus not only impotent, it risks paralysing democracy as a whole into impotence.

Partisans are mere signposts for the extreme positions available. This is a useful function, since they collectively represent the views on offer. However, this becomes largely irrelevant once the sole choices on offer are extremes. It is the task of those pursuing ideals of freedom not simply to adopt any one apparently correct viewpoint (since this removes a person from productive debate) but rather to find the truth between all the different partisans’ dogma and rhetoric. Only when all the stories have been truly understood can we plausibly claim to know which directions could lead to better lives for everyone.


Unmarried Supposing the only people who are married are those men and women that made a public commitment to one another, what can we say about those unhusbands and unwives who do not or cannot ratify their love institutionally?

Say what you will about conservatives, on the issue of marriage they have remained remarkably consistent. Those that have a strong view on the subject would like men and women to get married before having children (or even before having sex), and they would like only men and women to get married. The liberal overreaction to this position is that such people must overtly or covertly be homophobes. It’s essentially impossible for committed liberals to understand why anyone would want to preserve the essential nature of a traditional institution that dates back millennia for the sake of the institution itself.

The fact of the matter is, the vast majority of liberally minded people don't care one jot about marriage – the only reason it has come to matter is because commitment to the liberal ideal of equality engenders outrage when anything is approached from a perspective of asymmetry. Thus despite being fairly cool on, or even openly opposed to, the institution of marriage, a great many liberals suddenly care deeply about gay marriage, because they believe everyone has a right to enter into an archaic legal and religious arrangement, even though they themselves don’t actually believe in it.

Marriage has been steadily losing popularity for some time now. A great many of my friends are in long term, committed relationships; few are married. Having children makes no difference in this respect; they continue with the now-ridiculous relationship roles of ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ even though they have obviously made a long-term commitment to one another. They are, to my mind, already married in the practical sense. They have just refused to ratify it publically because, to their mind, they see no reason to elevate an entirely personal matter to the level of the community. I call friends in such situations ‘unhusband and unwife’.

Unmarriage demonstrates the hilarious nonsense in the contemporary liberal approach to marriage: as far as it applies to themselves, it is antiquated and of no importance. But tell any liberally minded person that there’s some minority who isn't allowed to do it and suddenly it’s an outrageous affront to human dignity. There’s something approaching hypocrisy in this attitude. Of course, the conservative attitude to marriage isn't a great deal more coherent, but at least in such cases there is a genuine concern about marriage as an institution. It’s something their political opponents cannot seem to fathom.

This talk of ‘institutions’ may make some liberally-minded people scoff – equality, autonomy and freedom are more important than mere traditions, it may be tempting to claim. But pause to reflect where the conception of Human Rights as freedom – upon which these values rest – has its origin. It is a product of the Enlightenment, built on the philosophy of Kant and others. (Indeed, Human Rights as freedom is something specifically developed by Kant). Freedom is also an institution, and even if this were denied, Human Rights can only be understood as institutional, as with all law.

Just as marriage is an institution, so to some extent is unmarriage, and just as there are many different kinds of marriage, there are diverse forms of unmarriage. Only one form, however, consists of a loving, committed, adult couple that are not permitted by law to be married. This situation is changing in parts of the world, but legal reform is slowed by the inevitable resistance that will always occur when traditions are revised. To enact lasting institutional change requires forging new visions of ideals. Sadly for gay marriage, it seems no-one can be bothered to do the work.

One of the most shocking aspects of this issue for me personally is the staggering arrogance of the liberal community in their steadfast refusal to understand the moral perspective of their opponents. Since the consequence of conservatives caring about the institution of marriage is a staunch reluctance to allow gay marriage (which does, after all, alter the specifics of a truly ancient tradition), liberals go straight to bitching about how Christians are homophobes. Never mind that many Christians support gay marriage, nor that the reasons many opponents of gay marriage have for their resistance are more concerned about concepts of family than sexuality, per se. Since ideals of liberal equality are denied to gay people it must be homophobia. It is the classic formula of the political knee-jerk reaction: my values are violated, your values don't count.

What is it that we call those situations where one group of people make outrageously prejudicial assumptions about some ethnic group and then despise everyone under that identity? It's on the tip of my tongue... Ah yes, I remember – racism and bigotry. Far too many liberals feel it’s okay to be a bigot about all Christians because some Christians are indeed bigots. This is no different than (say) believing all black people are lazy because there are some lazy black people. It’s as if there are good and bad kinds of racism, and the bad kind is whichever set of beliefs you yourself do not hold.

But I can't let the conservatives entirely off the hook here, since they too have their fair share of nonsense in respect of marriage and unmarriage. It makes no sense, for instance, to claim that marriage is inappropriate for gay people because of the lascivious, wanton behaviour of the gay community at large – does anyone seriously believe the heterosexual community scores any better on this front? If you investigate the incidences of casual sex in the world, you will find that the vast majority occurs between partners of different sexes – hardly surprising since heterosexuals outnumber homosexuals by perhaps as much as fifty to one.

Given that there are gay people in unmarriage – in loving, stable, long-term relationships – wouldn't it be better for the institute of marriage if we all said: ‘we want to help you publically ratify your relationship in the spirit of what marriage has come to mean: a celebration of love’? What good does it do the institution of marriage if we force people who wish to be married to remain in a state of unmarriage?

Unlike many conservatives, I support gay marriage, because unlike most liberals I support the institution of marriage. When two adults are willing, in the face of the infinite mystery and uncertainty of existence, to make a commitment to one another founded upon their mutual love, we should support them and help them celebrate it publically. It should not matter what flesh those two souls inhabit if their love is genuine. It is a bigger injustice to force such lovers to remain unwillingly in unmarriage than to allow them to marry, whatever their respective genders.

As I suggested before in Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage, liberal voices have failed to decisively win the argument in favour of gay marriage precisely because they have not made the story about the deep love that exists between committed (gay) partners. Instead, they try to make it about equality, because that’s their sacred value, and that way the argument seems pre-empted: no further discussion required. Real democracy, however, requires discussion. Those who claim to value freedom must be willing to grant that freedom to those who disagree with them.

Politics vs Ethics

ethical When did it happen that politics drove a spear into the side of ethics, slaying any concern for the good in favour of a monomaniacal campaign against what is obviously evil – namely, beliefs different from our own?

We live in a time when concern for politics has all but obliterated concern for ethics. It is not, however, that there is no role for moral thinking – on the contrary, a large part of the political battlefield is focussed on morality. Rather, ethics has become a gigantic stick with which people beat those who believe differently from themselves, while apparently prescribing absolutely nothing in respect of the individuals themselves. The positive aspect of ethics – the search for ‘the good life’ has – been replaced by myriad crusades against evil, and the surest judgement people make is that it is certainly others, and not themselves, who represent the evil worth fighting against.

There is, and must be, a connection between ethics and politics. Our moral judgement guides our political support, or at least it could and should. Yet the twentieth century – and even more the twenty first – has seen ethics eclipsed by politics. Political thinking often draws terribly straight lines: this activity (say, nuclear power) is clearly wrong, this activity (say, renewable energy) is clearly right, therefore anyone supporting the former must be a tool of some lobby group and can be ignored. As if this basic situation wasn’t problematic enough, the media is always circling like vultures, looking for the next outbreak of outrage so it can feast on the corpse of some political victim in the never ending quest for sensation and spectacle.

The entrenchment of political camps is the biggest barrier to political progress, and it will take some improvement in ethics to overcome it. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the United States, a nation whose actions have severe consequences for the entire world but whose electorate are embattled against one another. As a young liberal living on the other side of the Atlantic, I could never understand why so many poor rural people would vote for Republicans who seem to do nothing to help them. This was a perspective born of ignorance. I’ve now had many opportunities to speak to Republican supporters in the US, and I can finally see the many other sides of this coin. For instance: why should poor rural people vote for Democrats who will take more money in taxes in order to fund largely ineffective programmes that support underprivileged people living solely in cities?

We live with an atrophied sense of moral perspective – and this is true whichever political camp we choose to examine. Scarcely a day passes when we don’t express our horror at something reported on the news, but how many of us can say that we daily do something positive for our neighbours or our communities? No, we aren’t interested in making life better, alas, not like we were interested in finding the people who are clearly evil and mounting some attempt to destroy them. The only kind of good life that is pursued is the imagined promised land that will purportedly come to be when all the evil people have been blocked, stopped and eliminated. People erroneously assign this impulse to religion; it belongs to humanity.

Perhaps worst of all is our unshakeable belief that we can see these situations better than others. Intellectuals who move confidently in one domain of knowledge gain confidence to pronounce their judgement against those whom they can clearly see are inferior, both mentally and morally – even without ever taking the time to watch, talk or listen to that which they condemn. They do not need to, after all, since they can clearly see the truth, and whatever is not true must be evil. For all the retrospective scorn that is poured upon the impiety of various Christian churches throughout history, the contemporary impulse to wage cultural war because ‘we’ clearly have it right is just as morally repugnant as what has gone before – even if the consequences of opposition have thankfully become far less serious.

Morality begins with care for those around us, but as politics has enslaved ethics our sense of compassion has become corrupted by an imaginative projection of the world in which our own ideals are the only things that can be trusted. Clearly, everyone would be better off if they adopted and supported ‘our’ ideals, hence ‘your’ way of life must be inferior because it does not measure up to ‘my’ standards. This ‘us and them’ attitude is not the problem, though - ‘they’ actually are very different from ‘you’, and this needs to be recognised and accepted. But the nature of this difference is not that ‘you’ are good and ‘they’ are evil – it is that ‘you’ pronounce them ‘evil’ because you think yourself ‘good’. Yet if ‘you’ truly are good, you must prove it by something other than taking offense at alternative ideals.

For all that political conservatives are condemned for their hostility to difference, political liberals have exactly the same failing – it is only the standard of sameness that changes between these camps. Whether condemning homosexuality or condemning homophobia, the important thing is condemnation. The other side doesn’t need to be reasoned with, engaged in its own terms, because the other side is wrong: ‘they’ cannot be convinced because ‘they’ already do not see wisdom and perfection of our own ideals and thus must be inferior. This is politics-as-usual, but it’s a far cry from ethics as the search for the good life. If liberals really wanted to help the gay community, they could start by engaging conservatives from within their view of the world – but this would be hard. It is much easier, and indeed much more viscerally entertaining on the news, to oppose bigotry by becoming a bigot.

If we truly and genuinely wanted to make the world a better place, we would begin in our own neighbourhoods by being better people to one another. But we prefer pointing fingers and decrying the horrible situation in other countries – it’s more entertaining, and requires far less of us.

I watch the people walk down the street and grumble as they pass some broken bottle or piece of litter left by someone else. They do not pick it up, and so more people come and have the same negative experience, perhaps clucking their tongues about the youth of the day or the decline of values. If asked, they will say that the person who dropped it should have disposed of it properly. Maybe so, but they didn’t. And now you have the choice to do the same, but you don’t because ‘it’s not your responsibility’. Anyone could pick that litter up with an investment of less time than it takes to sit through a commercial break on television, thus making everyone’s day a little better. But no-one does.

No-one wants to be good, they just want to feel good by being opposed to evil – and everyone is evil who disagrees with you. Thus politics murders ethics, and our response is to tune into the news every day to ensure that the bad people are still out there so that we can feel better about ourselves for knowing that we did not do such terrible things. There are many good people in the world – flawed, no doubt, as we all are – but they remain invisible because we no longer care about the good, we only care about fighting evil. The simplest things – a smile, a helping hand, a friendly hello – can make a difference in a way that politics never can. Until we rediscover an ethics of the good, we are condemned to the politics of evil.

Financial Games: The Ethics of Money

money and justice scales What possible moral justification could there be for billion dollar bailouts to failing financial institutions? Answering this question means charting the ethical dimensions of money, and this requires some consideration of the extent that this strange abstract representation of wealth has become central to politics.

Much of the usual furore over money goes to how much any individual entity can have, which entities are allowed to have it, and how much will be taken away from them under what circumstances. “They have too much money”, is a complaint oft heard from those who have very little of it. However, the current consensus on money is that wealth should be unlimited – indeed, against this the only ideal seriously offered is to abolish money (despite its obvious convenience for mediating otherwise complicated exchanges of goods and services). Money can be owned by individuals or groups of humans, and each is taxed by the government of their host nations according to schemes that vary somewhat around the world. Taxation, rather than limitation, is the universally implemented response to the accumulation of wealth – to the extent that any attempt to apply solid limits would be interpreted as a particularly draconian tax.

Money, therefore, flows between organisations and individuals, and out into governments (the only organisations permitted not only to tax, but to enforce taxation as mandatory). Small amounts cycle between individuals and the organisations that both employ and supply the necessities and luxuries of life. Large amounts are exchanged between organisations – indeed, the extremes of wealth are only to be found in proximity to the giant corporations – both the organisations and the individuals involved with them deal in scales of finance that are all but unimaginable to the person contriving to make ends meet from day to day. It is the very nature of the numeric value representation that money depends upon that it takes large quantities of money to generate further large quantities.

There is a sense in which there are actually two kinds of money in the world: the day-to-day money we are all familiar with that might be called cash for convenience, and the large sums of money required to create or control organisations capable of generating more money, which is called capital. The same abstraction is at the root of both, but the scales involved change the meaning of that money, much as a bacterial colony and a human are incomparable entities even though they are both at root collections of biologically similar cells. The vast majority of people deal only with cash, and never have any significant quantity of capital – although those who become cash-rich can afford to buy shares in organisations and thus tap into the profits of capital. A small minority of people deal only with capital, and thus never have to think about issues in terms of cash. The struggle of a typical family to feed, clothe and shelter themselves is an alien world to anyone whose feet are firmly planted in the world of capital.

Ethics is concerned with the clash of ideals, and the conflicting moral concepts in the context of money are equality and freedom. On the one hand, the fiscal conservative ethic demands the freedom to make and own as much as is humanly possible. Against this, the egalitarian liberal ethic demands a standard of equality in respect of wealth, a position that suffers from an ill-defined concept of fairness. It is not that no viable definition of what is fair can be derived, but rather that there are so many possible approaches and it is not clear how we can adjudicate such a cacophony of ideals. In respect to these two ideals, it should not be thought that the cash class all ascribe to the ideal of equality since a great many prefer the ideal of freedom, not least because it better defends against unfair taxation: this is the sometimes unnoticed reason so many in the cash-class vote Republican in the United States.

Despite it being primarily a concern for advocates of the equality ideal, the sense that the distribution of wealth is inequitable is widespread, although the intensity of outrage is extremely variable. However, there is no consensus about what should be done about this situation, and even if there were it would be difficult to drive political processes that aimed to affect the rich supply of money that flows from corporations to both governments (as tax) and politicians (as campaign contributions). Raising corporation taxes in any given nation means little when there are so many alternative bases of operations the organisation might relocate to, and no politician is keen to back plans to stab their biggest contributors with a tax knife.

Marx felt intensely the injustice of wealth inequality, and believed (it seems incorrectly) that a strong identification with the ideals of fairness among the poorest workers would drive a revolution leading inevitably to a future fair world. This was misguided. The anger of the poor in the face of the rich certainly drove violent uprisings in many nations, but it led only to a consolidation of capital by the state that allowed for particularly vicious totalitarian regimes. The consequence of spreading all money out equally across the world would be to create very rich citizens of poor nations and very poor citizens of rich nations; it’s not at all clear this leads to a better world. While other ideals of fairness may prove viable in respect of money, the Marxist ideal is largely judged to have failed.

The political philosopher John Rawls had an alternative ideal for equality of money, whereby individual nations would exchange sums of money between their citizens in schemes resembling national taxation, but with all funds exchanged solely between private citizens. In response to this proposal, Robert Nozick developed philosophical arguments that demonstrated the implausibility of maintaining this kind of wealth exchange. Using an example involving the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, Nozick argued that if we start from a fair distribution of wealth, someone like Chamberlain that many people are willing to pay to watch will immediately acquire large sums of money. To say that this new situation is unjust is problematic: people freely paid money to Chamberlain, are they not allowed to decide how their money is spent? Nozick argues that patterned distributions of wealth are problematic since “liberty upsets patterns” and similarly patterns destroy liberty. The argument between these two philosophers serves to illustrate my key point that the ethics of money concerns a clash between the ideals of equality (Rawls) and the ideals of freedom (Nozick).

Accepting Nozick’s arguments and rejecting Rawls’, we are faced with an inevitable variation in the wealth of individuals, but this does not mean that there are not alternative approaches to the equality problem that might be applied. The extent of the gulf between the world of capital and the world of cash happens because the capital class make money from their holdings and investments while the cash class must labour to earn cash. One long-term solution to this inequity could be having labour earn not only cash but also shares in equity. If the worker employed by a corporation automatically earns (small) shares in the capital its employer embodies, the disparity between the cash and capital classes can be gradually eroded over generations, although admittedly there is still some element of lottery since companies do fail and disappear, in which case everybody with shares loses out whether they are investors or employees.

Under a system such as this, investors must accept a dilution of their returns – proponents of financial freedom will likely object. But the potential narrowing of the wealth disparity could be highly appealing to proponents of financial equality, and might be worth fighting for. The real benefit of this system, however, is that it gives workers influence over the management of the company that employs them, thus disrupting the feudal pattern that modern capitalism still embodies (the randomly noble-born having been replaced with the randomly wealthy-born at the top of the pile). Although the workers might collectively own only a few percent of the company stock, it could be a decisive margin in boardroom voting, and at the very least puts the voice of the employed into a process where it is usually excluded. Expanding this scheme to its logical limits, this would also mean that banks might function like building societies or other mutual financial organisations – the money people have saved in a bank would entitle them to a share of that bank, and a voice in its activities.

The bastion of the capital class, investment companies, would largely escape this kind of process – but there is at least one situation in which the ideal of equality might infiltrate these capital funds: the bailout. When governments step in to rescue ailing financial institutions, it should not be on empty rhetorical grounds such as the company being “too big to fail” but as a purchase of equity. A billion dollar bailout should purchase billion dollar equity, and if the company is not willing to grant this stake it should be allowed to die. As economist Alan Greenspan has charged: “If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big.”

We live at a time when moral outrage towards the capital class is greater than ever. This is not simply envious anger at the rich, since for the most part the superstars of movies, music and sports are not the target of this ire. It is bankers and investment executives who earn vast sums of money even when their companies fail who are the subject of this contemporary righteous rage. The ideals of freedom cannot adequately defend against the ideals of equality in such cases, and indeed may even by aligned in some cases. It is thus more important than ever before that citizens hold their representatives accountable for decisions made in respect of the capital class. This is not easy – especially when all political parties necessarily pander to the ultra-rich. But the state is the only weapon the cash class have against the capital class, and popular opinion can lead political change when it is sufficiently strong. ‘No taxation without representation’, the saying goes. Perhaps we should now add ‘No bailout without equity’ to the chants of the discontented.

For Michael Mouse, who suggested this topic three years ago.

Impure: Sex, Drugs and Gay Marriage

Gay Marriage Has the time come for more nuance within the gay identity? As successful as the campaign for gay rights has been, the resistance to accepting gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere represents a political hurdle that requires more than simply assuming there is no viable counter argument. There is a crucial debate about the relationship between homosexuality and the moral ideal of purity that activists refuse to have, and in so doing they cede influence to their opponents.

The great success stories of twentieth century identity politics were the claiming of the word ‘black’ by race campaigners in the United States, and the retooling of the words ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ to their contemporary meanings. In both cases, taking control of the language used to define social categories served broader social goals. By challenging the insipid term ‘coloured’ with a word that came with both negative connotations and an aura of power the black community successfully elevated both their status and their community esteem, a move capped off by claiming a racial insult as a cultural possession. Similarly, taking the pejorative ‘queer’ and co-opting it did wonders for the gay community, as did taking a positive term that originally meant ‘merry and bright’ and using it as the foundation of a sexual identity.

Having gained an incredible amount of ground in a comparatively short space of time, the gay community has since strayed into adopting every stray dog gender or sexual identity under their flag. This is very much in the spirit of the original Feminist movement, which sought to raise all minorities to equality (rather than pursuing explicit feminine power). Yet in so doing, something has been obscured in the composition of the gay community that could be vitally important in winning the political struggle for recognising gay marriage as not only meaningful but as a legitimate right. The case for this has not been robustly made, and tends instead to be dogmatically asserted – much as vocal opponents to gay marriage tend to flatly assume their case. The issue is not those whose minds will never be changed, but those in the middle ground who without persuasion by proponents of gay marriage will naturally fail to recognise the case for it's acceptance.

Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations theory identifies five dimensions of Western morality. Two – care and fairness – are shared by both liberals and conservatives. Three – loyalty, respect and purity – are highly valued by conservatives but generally unimportant to liberals as a group. While conservatives tend to value fairness lowest of all, liberals tend to put purity at the bottom of the list of values. It is this moral ideal – purity – that blocks acceptance of gay marriage more than anything else. There are historical religious factors that influence the view of homosexuality as impure, but they are less important to the contemporary political scene that might be thought. The Bible's case against homosexuality is not as strong as is sometimes believed, as I discussed in the context of Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage. A far bigger problem is the general licentiousness of a great many homosexuals and the perception that all gay people view this lifestyle as defensible and desirable.

Of course, a great many straight people are equally involved in sexual debauchery or some kind – whether as part of a community, or simply as an adulterous individual. Disastrously, by defending sexual freedoms so broadly the gay community has accidentally labelled itself in the eyes of many moderate conservatives as necessarily impure, despite there being many more heterosexuals engaged in purportedly impure sexual acts. Yet the popular perception remains that when a straight sex-fiend is busted, they show remorse because (it is assumed) deep down they know what they were doing was wrong. Conversely, the Gay activist party line (in common with liberal sexual politics in general) has tended to deny any possible wrong-doing in the context of consensual sex acts. As defensible as this stance may be, it reinforces the erroneous perception of gay life as fundamentally impure in the eyes of conservatives.

Part of the problem may relate to the era the gay rights movement began: during the 60’s and 70’s, sexual liberation was a liberal touchstone, and it seemed that everyone outside of the conservative world was embracing ‘free love’. The consequences of this rash abandon were to become apparent in the 80’s with the AIDS epidemic that struck both gay and straight people alike, including many with few or even only one sexual partner. To suggest in any way this was divine vengeance is grotesque, but as a symptom of the cost of abandoning the ideals of purity it served to widen the liberal-conservative divide even further. The conservative ideal of sexual purity that was transgressed by the free love movement was rooted in the idea that sex was pure only when too people were in love (and perhaps relatedly, only if it had children as it’s intent). However, since even a barren couple was allowed that their love-making was pure as long as it was sanctified by marriage, it is clear that the non-procreative element of gay sex is not a de facto barrier to gay marriage being accepted as a sacrament provided the sex acts in question are accepted. (I shall assume for now that this is the lesser problem).

There is, therefore, a real possibility to advance the debate on gay marriage among Christian moderates (whose support is all that is needed to swing any legislature in the United States) if it can be demonstrated that loving, one-on-one couples exist in the gay community - which they do, and in good numbers. But these committed individuals are all to easily dismissed under claims made about the gay community as a whole, even though their demand for access to marriage (both legally and sacramentally) is a far easier sell to moderate conservatives than the gay community’s broader sexual politics as a whole.

Imagine how different the situation would be if instead of one  identity, homosexuals were to present themselves under two political identities according to differing attitudes towards the moral ideal of purity. On the one hand, we have the conventional alternative gender and sexuality crowd whose position necessarily lies outside of the purity ideal. They can maintain their defence of the stance that all consensual sex acts are permissible and ally with other liberal groups whose barrier to acceptance is also purity related – including (say) BDSM, the polyamory community and marijuana smokers. Let's call this group Alt for now, although in practice any such community would of course develop it’s own name.

Against the Alts, those homosexuals in loving, committed relationships could style themselves Pure (say), and stress that their lifestyle upholds the ideal of marriage as a sacrament between two souls. (The use of the term ‘soul’ need not imply any specific religious context, but is helpfully open to that possibility). Freed of the associations with open sexuality that would connect them with Alts, the case for accepting gay marriage immediately becomes stronger – to the extent that simply presenting the existence of a community of same-sex partners whose relationships uphold the broader notion of purity might in itself help sway the conservative middle ground. Pures need not oppose Alts – they can be in full support of sexual freedom without wanting it for themselves, a situation mirrored in the straight community. The point is, it’s not their approach to love and sex: they uphold something like a moral ideal of gay purity.

Under this kind of arrangement, the Alts gain political capital from the wider umbrella of alternative lifestyles able to support them (the additional support of the potheads alone radically increases their putative influence), while the case for accepting gay marriage as a sacrament is significantly strengthened such that the political battleground becomes tipped significantly in favour of acceptance. Combining all the political minorities whose struggle is resisted by those who uphold purity ideals means unifying gay sex and drugs into one camp – but my impression is that this isn’t a great leap. Conversely, demonstrating the existence of a moral ideal of purity compatible with homosexuality could be the single most significant step forwards towards global acceptance of gay marriage. This suggestion certainly doesn’t propose to dismantle the gay identity – it simply acknowledges it’s limitations, and brings hidden strengths out of the shadows into the open.

The issue of purity is a difficult matter for liberals of any ilk to accept since for many of this persuasion it is merely an anachronistic hangover from a primitive religious code. But this kind of dismissive attitude towards political opponents helps no-one, and actively hinders equality of access to marriage, both legally and sacramentally. If – as is the case – there are many gay people in relationships that are radically closer to the purity ideal than is normally assumed, it is absolutely vital that a greater awareness of these couples can be attained. Perhaps the kind of identity shuffle I am suggesting is fundamentally untenable, but even if this is so, the basic tenet of this programme is worth recognising: being gay doesn't mean being impure. The conservative ideal of purity can be reconciled with the facts of homosexual life – although admittedly with considerable disputation– and making this argument can only help bring the gay marriage embargo closer to its end.

Twilight Saga and Gay Marriage

twilightsaga What does the Twilight saga have to do with gay marriage? Surprisingly, the popular young adult vampire romances can be a stepping point towards understanding why the question of marriage between homosexual lovers is so contentious in the United States.

Stephenie Meyer’s quartet of vampire romances has enjoyed unprecedented commercial success, having racked up some 100 million sales worldwide. The novels have an accessible intensity, but are not particularly well written; Stephen King has remarked that Meyer “can't write worth a darn. She's not very good.” However, he also recognised the appeal of the books, stating “it's very clear that she's writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books.” There is something to King’s remarks in this respect, but the issue goes much deeper than his analysis suggests.

Meyer belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS for short), more commonly known as the Mormons, and acknowledges that her faith has influenced her work. Although she claims she has not consciously promoted the virtues of sexual abstinence, it is hard not to find this theme developed in the narrative, and many critics have commented on this element in both the books and the films adapted from them. The theme of abstinence helps enormously with their appeal – it means they have the potential to reach an incredibly wide audience since abstinence is a selling point for many of the world’s 2 billion Christians, who make up about a third of the population of the planet. Of course, the books are enjoyed by non-Christians as well, but there can be little doubt that they would not have sold 100 million copies without accessing this vast market.

More than this, however, the LDS has a highly mythic attitude towards marriage, one that many other Christian denominations share in broads strokes, but which is it quite explicitly developed among the Mormon community: the idea that marriage is eternal. When a man and a woman marry among the Church of the Latter Day Saints, they are not just marrying for life, but for all time, for they believe that the two souls joined in marriage will be together not just in this world, but in a world to come. Of course, many Christians believe something similar, but the theme is most explicit among the followers of Joseph Smith. 

The theme of the joining of souls is far older and far more widely accepted than just Christianity, however. Plato, in The Symposium, has the comic playwright Aristophanes tell a mythic tale of the origins of sexuality, in which humans were once very different creatures who were cut in half by Zeus. These original humans were of three kinds: hermaphrodites, who were split into men and women, and two kinds of double-gendered beings, who were split into two men, or two women. Love, in this myth, is thus each soul’s attempt to find the other half of its original whole. Although clearly drawing on the patterns of Greek myth, Aristophanes’ tale appears to have been entirely Plato’s invention.

If Plato was happy to accept the union of homosexual souls, why are certain Christian sects frequently resistant to homosexuality? After all, Plato’s work had a huge influence upon Christian theology and metaphysics (whether or not one considers Plato an influence on the Gospel of St. John, Plato's philosophy certainly influenced how this document was later interpreted).

The quick and easy answer is Leviticus, the book which records the social codes of the Israelites from roughly 2,500 years ago, which clearly takes a dim view of homosexual acts between men. But this answer only goes so far, since Leviticus also takes a dim view of men who see women menstruating, the wearing of garments made of more than one kind of fibre, and tattoos (to name just a few things). Not to mention it quite clearly endorses the ownership of slaves, something almost no-one advocates today, no matter how old school their religious beliefs. Furthermore, it is quite clear that Jesus considered the only important part of Leviticus to be 19:18 which advocates “loving they neighbour as thyself”, and indeed stops an adulterous woman from being stoned to death in John 8, despite this being the prescribed penalty in Leviticus.

The vague gesturing at Leviticus is shorthand for a very different kind of argument: we’ve always done it this way. Since marriage has traditionally been between a man and woman, and perhaps just as crucially, since marriage has traditionally been about bearing children as much as (or, in many eras, more than) love, there is a sense that allowing ‘marriage’ to mean the loving union of two men or two women must be some kind of error. In a religious tradition such as the Bahá'í Faith that accepts progressive revelation, this kind of adjustment would be comparatively easy. But in a tradition that believes revelation happened only in a particular stretch of time, this kind of change is challenging.

This is the situation facing the LDS, since it believes that God’s law doesn’t change, although mankind can certainly get it wrong and need correcting. Within this theological framework, it’s very difficult to make peace with gay marriage, as nothing in the existing canon of scripture speaks in favour the idea that God intended gay marriage after which humanity simply misunderstood the divine will. As a result, gay marriage becomes a metaphysical threat to the mythic conception that two married souls will remain together in eternity: to someone invested in this story, marriage just means a man and woman joining their souls together forever, and any other reading of the term ‘marriage’ can feel either threatening, disturbing, or at least, misguided.

This is a key part of the story behind the political action the LDS took in California to try and overturn gay marriage by supporting Proposition 8. This decision brought a lot of criticism and prejudice against Mormons (the blind eye the LDS has tended to turn towards polygamy among some of its members in Utah did not help in this regard). Some have even touted a rather strange idea that Church and State prohibited them from politically campaigning. This, however, is nonsense: nothing in the First Amendment prohibits being motivated towards political action by religious beliefs, and if it did the notion of freedom that is integral to the identity of the United States as a nation would be irreparably damaged. 

In respect of Proposition 8, the responsibility for its passing cannot be wholly levelled at its supporters, but also at the failure of opponents. One advertisement intended to rally voters against the amendment featured a pair of lesbians being harassed by teenage Mormon boys (the kind who, according to LDS practice, are encouraged to conduct door-to-door outreach). The thrust of this entire campaign was misguided: supporters of the gay community did not need persuading to vote against Proposition 8, but moderate Christians were open to be influenced. Making out that religious folk are the enemy was not an effective way to curry their favour.

Imagine the difference if the same funds had been used, not to make an ad painting the LDS as the enemy, but showing two lesbians on their wedding day, clearly in love, and overlaid with the famous words from 1 Corinthians 13: 4-7, so frequently used at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”

The Twilight saga is at its heart a love story in the tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, about two souls who find each other, remain abstemious until marriage, and then stay together for all eternity. They are, as it happens, a man and a woman. (Well, a vampire and a woman). If conservative and moderate Christians in the United States and elsewhere are to be won over to the idea of gay marriage, it requires new stories of the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. Those stories are there to be told. But instead of telling them, too many advocates for the gay community insist on making the followers of traditional religion the enemy, thus making their situation worse rather than better.

Slavery ended in the United States because too many Christians could no longer reconcile the practice with their belief in the essential dignity of all people. Slavery ended, despite the fact that Leviticus endorsed it. It didn’t matter. Because deep down, Christians – even many conservative Christians – have a sense of right and wrong that is rooted in their theology, and that theology is always subject to change as new aspects of the love that is, for them, the essence of God is revealed. If the goal is acceptance of gay marriage, demonizing religion is counter productive. The secret of overcoming homophobia in the United States doesn’t lie in ‘defeating’ Christianity, but in demonstrating the love between a man and a man, and a woman and a woman. And in this regard, the true story hasn’t even begun to be told.


Let That Be Your Last Battlefield Most of us live in a culture where we treat racism with extreme negativity, and being called a bigot is an insult most would prefer to avoid. Yet incredibly one form of racism is so widely practised that a great many people do not even consider it a form of bigotry, viewing it rather as an entirely rational and reasonable stance. I refer to a form of ethnic discrimination I shall term creedism.

By creedism I naturally refer to prejudice against specific creeds, which is to say, belief systems (religious or otherwise). Some will dispute the premise that creedism is a form of racism, but the United Nations has no qualms on this issue: it makes no distinction between ethnic discrimination and racial discrimination, and since ethnic groups can be founded on any common cultural apparatus (including language, religion, common ancestry, common territory and so forth) this means that, to the UN at least, creedism is a form of racism.

An initial objection likely to be raised is that if (say) Islamic terrorists want to kill me, I have a right to discriminate against them. But who is it that you will discriminate against? If unknown people want to kill you, you have a right to attempt to defend yourself, and if known people try to kill you, you have a right to prosecute them. But either way, terrorists are still to be afforded the same rights as anyone else; they are subject to punishment for breaking laws, not for who they are. Furthermore, it is the vast minority of Muslims who are terrorists. It is pure creedism to extend a hatred for Islamic terrorists to the ethnic group they happen to belong to, i.e. Muslims, just as it is creedism for Islamic terrorists to hate all Westerners because of the atrocities that some have enacted against them.

We encounter creedism most commonly in two forms, one of which is vehemently criticised by liberal critics, the other is tacitly endorsed by some of the same individuals. The first form is the creedism the closed-minded follower of religion expresses towards people of other beliefs, something most commonly associated with the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Although there are of course some subjective elements involved in the interpretation of religions, all three of these faiths are fundamentally opposed to creedism. In the case of Judaism, love they neighbour as thyself appears in Leviticus, long before Jesus elevated this idea to the status of “eleventh commandment” for Christians, and Islam is the religion which all but invented freedom of religion. Nonetheless, bigoted views are still expressed by certain vocal followers of these religions, and people justly criticise these views.

Precisely because the religious form is so widely and openly criticised, I believe the non-religious form can be more subtly pernicious. Prejudice against Christians, Muslims, or indeed followers of all religions, is held by a great many liberal intellectuals to be rationally validated; this is a gross case of creedism that deserves to be exposed to greater scrutiny. There is a tremendous variety of individual beliefs within any religious tradition; treating followers of any given path as all expressing the same negative traits is closely analogous to the thought process behind conventional racism. (Buddhism, oddly, is often excluded from this kind of attack, usually on account of a claim that it is a philosophy not a religion – an assertion that would render most professors of comparative religion dumbfounded!)

This kind of anti-religious creedism is sometimes disguised by making the target religion, rather than people of religious faith, who can then be portrayed as helpless victims of their religion. But a religion is nothing more than the beliefs and practices of the people belonging to a particular set of ethnic groups. Abstracting this into a concept, “religion”, that one then opposes is just as much a form of racism as it was when 17th century intellectuals (such as Hobbes) abstracted non-European cultures under such notions as “savage” and “uncivilised”. These terms would ultimately power imperialistic invasions under the guise of “civilising missions”. Attempts to “emancipate” children from their family's traditions might risk repeating the same grotesque error.

Some modern Humanists seem to be largely unaware of the terrible tensions involved in being caught between a commitment to Human Rights on the one hand and a crusade against religion on the other. Certain Humanist organisations say they are working for an open and inclusive society upholding freedom of belief and speech, but  simultaneously fight for an end to a perceived “privileged position” for religion in law and education. Shouldn't the rational pursuit of this first objective entail the expansion of the protections offered to religious ethnic groups to similar non-religious groups, rather than the attempt to remove these protections? To do otherwise is to attack our notions of Human Rights, not to defend them.

The irony here is that Humanists could earn these protections instantly if they were willing to acknowledge Humanism as a religion but this idea is apparently unbearable to those who have chosen to treat religion as a synonym for superstition. It is preferable, it seems, to fight the existing laws than to benefit from them at the expense of one's pride. One cannot willingly concede to be protected under the umbrella of a term that one deploys as a pejorative; to propose otherwise is to unleash serious cognitive dissonance, and thus anger. It is anger and its congealed form, hatred, in its social role of establishing outgroups to oppose, which drives racism of all kinds, including both kinds of creedism discussed here religious and anti-religious.

Creedism is a widespread and highly destructive form of racism that advances in part because its practitioners frequently do not see their attitude as racist. That some of the people liberal creedists oppose are even more blatantly creedist than they themselves only serves to obfuscate the reality of the situation; it is as if a black racial supremacist justified their bigotry by pointing at a white racial supremacist for contrast, claiming I'm nothing like that!”. That there can be two sides to a racist coin doesn't make that coin legal tender for anyone committed to what is enshrined in our Human Rights agreements. Those rights include freedom of belief, without which the very concept of liberty is undermined. The sooner we all accept this, the closer we will be to curtailing the harmful influence of racism in all its forms.

The Activist's Argument (Everything is Political)

Fox in the Dustbin We quite frequently hear the argument that everything is political. Director Mike Leigh summed up this viewpoint neatly when he stated: “You can't not be political. It's like asking if I consider myself a human being.” I call this claim the Activist's Argument, because it is so often advanced to encourage people to be politically active. But in this role, it seems counter-productive – for if everything is political, why take political action? I argue here that the Activist Argument confuses political topics with politics and political action, and is fundamentally mistaken.

The idea that everything is political stems from the assumption that no matter what we do – or, for that matter, do not do – we make a political statement, and thus take political action of some kind. One aspect of this claim is certainly correct: anything at all can be a political topic, that is, a subject for political discussion. But qualifying as a topic for politics under this rubric, which is thoroughly all-inclusive and thus excludes nothing, cannot usefully lead to the conclusion that 'everything is political', for this would reduce the word 'political' to an empty tautology.

It's easy to show where this argument unravels. By the claim that everything is political, if I rummage around in the dustbins in my street I am taking a political action i.e. searching the trash is political. But foxes in my neighbourhood search through the rubbish for food quite often – so are foxes political? No-one advances this claim, but it follows logically from the Activist's Argument. We can therefore see, as Mike Leigh intimates in the quote above, that there is another tacit assumption in the argument, and that in full the Activist's Argument would have to be everything a human does is political.

But this surely gets us no further: what can a comatose woman in a persistent vegetative state, a man in the advanced stages of dementia or a sixth-month old foetus do that can plausibly be considered political? All of these we might reasonably consider human, but nothing they do is likely to qualify as political. Any one of these could be a political topic – in terms of living wills, euthanasia and abortion, all are certainly political topics. But anything at all can be a political topic – even flagrantly absurd things, like a Flat Earth or a circular triangle. If we conflate political topics and politics we shall be in a very confused space.

Hannah Arendt wrote that “politics is based on the fact of human plurality,” and saw politics as something that occurred in the public space between people living together. Politics in her eyes afforded, by its very nature, the possibility of action – and action, which includes speech, was to Arendt the incredible power of politics. The meaning of politics, she asserted, was freedom, and observed that (as a result of various distorting influences) it was hard to be sure in the modern world that politics had any meaning left at all. She noted with some despair that “the meaninglessness in which politics finds itself is evident from the fact that all individual political questions now end in an impasse.”

Speaking of the Greek polis as a political realm, she wrote that in this unique (albeit flawed) first attempt at politics as freedom:

...one gained the ability to truly see topics from various sides – that is, politically – with the result that people understood how to assume the many possible perspectives provided by the real world, from which one and the same topic can be regarded and in which each topic, despite its oneness, appears in a great diversity of views.

Seen in this way, the fact that anything could be a political topic no longer seems enough to render everything as political. Rather, only when the capacity to see those topics from a diversity of perspectives has been engaged can we reasonably consider politics to be competently in play. It is not enough for you to think or act in private for you to be considered political, you must share your views (or support other people's) in the public spaces, as it is only within these which politics as such can take place.

As for political action, Arendt held the mere possibility of action (that is, collective action) as something quite miraculous:

If, then, we expect miracles as a consequence of the impasse in which our world finds itself, such an expectation in no way banishes us from the political realm in its original sense. If the meaning of politics is freedom, that means that in this realm – and in no other – we do indeed have the right to expect miracles. Not because we superstitiously believe in miracles, but because human beings, whether or not they know it, as long as they can act, are capable of achieving, and constantly do achieve, the improbable and unpredictable.

What the activist hoping to spur people into politics might consider offering is not the empty circularity that “everything is political”, but rather the hopeful proposal that “everything political is achievable if we can agree to act together”. Let this be the new Activist's Argument. I for one hope for the miracle that I might actually hear this idea seriously advanced, rather than facing endless squabbles in the conspicuous absence of the open-minded discussion in public spaces that should be absolutely necessary for any political topic to meaningfully qualify as politics.

For Sheila.