Sunday, 25 September 2011

Theology and noise


Andrew Marr was talking to Ed Milliband at the Labour Party Conference this morning, pressing him - not too hard one should say - on various matters including the key idea of growth, on Europe, on the new Labour proposals on capping student fees, on the riots, on past Labour failures, on the threat of strikes, on the relationship with the unions and on Ed himself.

There is something deeply irritating about hearing politicians talk (and indeed about the interviewers asking the questions). I think it comes down to this. The time spent on the interview is divided between firm answers and noise, the noise taking up the great majority of the time available.

The noise is about posture, attitude, psychological location, and an essentially theological framework people sometimes call core values. In so far as it is about the first three it is the same whichever politician of whichever party is being addressed. Welcome exceptions used to be the mavericks on either side, such as Norman Tebbitt and Dennis Skinner. The theology was quite different but the noise level was much reduced. Kenneth Clarke can still do a fair imitation of low-noise-level debate but it doesn't often help him.

Noise involves the repetition of great unquestioned generalities. It's like music-as-wallpaper. It is the vital decor that defines the room you currently live in. Growth is the current Labour wallpaper, firmness the current Tory one. No room is complete without its own wallpaper.

The language around the wallpaper (I think of the atmosphere of the room, the air freshener, the ambient flowers, what used to be the smoke in those old smoke-filled rooms, or the word-clouds generated by computers) is there to establish a normality composed of value words. A little while ago the word radical fulfilled this purpose. If it was radical it was good. That is what the word meant. Today it tends to be proper or right, which is an indication of political shift.

Radical suggested something revolutionary and dynamic, whether the proposal in question was so or not. It conferred a blessing. Change was good.

The move to proper and right, and let us add sensible - all words used with some frequency in Ed Milliband's replies - suggests a need for stability and steadfastness to something unchanging.


Where does the theology come in? I have been thinking about theology for some time now. In theology there is a discussion of values within a given framework, where good and evil are firmly established. God on the one hand, the devil on the other; the ranks of archangels, angels and the armies of the good and innocent on the one hand, versus the ranks of demons, sub-demons and unwitting indifferent accomplices on the other. I suspect this has always been the case in human affairs.

So, for example, it is not just certain ayatollahs who regard the USA as the Great Satan, with the side dish of Israel (and 'the Jewish lobby') as a lesser Satan or perhaps even the Supreme Satan, but a lot of people elsewhere, including in this country. The language would not be quite the same (one must allow for different congregations) but the relative theological positions are pretty well identical. One had only to listen to Any Questions the other day or the reporting of the UN debate to see that was the case. The battles here are not between people as they are but between Miltonic powers.

The positions in theology are always fixed though the occupants of the various roles vary. In the theology of British politics it is grasping capitalists who occupy the Satanic position for Labour, and a less well defined set of unwashed, violent Jacobins (or so I guess) for the Tories. These are the rarely referred to political demons. The bankers are the best current candidates for the grasping capitalist Great Satan position (welcome bankers, as if you didn't deserve it!) and the rioters and potentially violent and coercive strikers stand in for the unwashed, violent Jacobins. The God of traditional Labour is Justice: the God of traditional Conservatism is Stability.

The words proper, right, and sensible refer to old Conservative values. It is where the Labour party is. That is the air of the room, and the wallpaper of growth sits perfectly comfortably in it.

What irritates people about public political debate is the same old stuffy air and the constant attention to the wallpaper. The air is dense and the wallpaper a pattern of tired clichés. Ed handled himself pretty well in those terms. He has no choice. He lives in that room with the rest of the country and would be helpless out of it. He still irritated the hell out of me, if only because I like to see words do some genuine work.

Two addenda.

The first is that real politics - the politics of thought and action where words mean specific things - takes place in parliamentary committees. The committees are not charades. They are a darn sight better than Judge Judy, if a bit less folksy or short. Prime Minister's Question Time is X-Factor entertainment. X-Factor is, of course, hugely popular with a far bigger audience than BBC Parliament could ever muster, and cannot be discounted. Politics can't be confined to committee rooms, and there must be circuses, especially when bread is short.

The second is the real possibility of cracks appearing in the fabric of the political room: a wall being smashed in by a tsunami, the roof being blown off by a great wind, or the entire house shattered by a terrorist explosive device. These are the images of terror that usually keep the room in order. You don't want a tsunami, do you? You don't want to be blown up by suicide bombers?

But the cracks may be fault of the building itself, not a freak of nature. The cracks are part of the noise. The theology is firm but the angels are under review.

Here's a game. The angelic orders are:
1. Seraphim
2. Cherubim
3. Thrones

4. Dominions
5. Virtues
6. Powers

7. Principalities
8. Archangels
9. Angels
10. The Innoccent
And here is a list of demons according to Johan Weyer, with some helpful descriptions.
Beelzebub – Supreme Chief
Satan – Prince of darkness
Eurynomous – Prince of Death
Moloch – Prince of the land of tears
Pluto – Prince of fire
Baal – Commander
Lucifer – Dispenser of justice
Asmodeus – Prince of Gambling
Baalberith – Minister of pacts and treaties
Proserpine – Prince of demonic spirits
Astaroth – Prince and Treasurer of Hell
Nergal – Chief of secret police
Chamos, Melchom, Behmoth, Dagon, Adramalek & the generally guilty

We should try filling both lists up with whoever or whatever we consider to be appropriate.


Gwil W said...

Crap will always rise to the top. Political conferences should be held at more suitable venues.

Gwil W said...

The Westminster sewage farm perhaps.