Pride Before The Fall: What Woke Capitalism Tells Us About Power In Modern Society

Oreo Pride Month pronoun celebration cookies

A tale of two product launches, set against the most fawningly corporate Pride Month in American history

Imagine that you are Jerry Falwell, Jr. or some other notable socially conservative reactionary type, and you see the above image in which the makers of Oreo cookies announce that they are celebrating Pride Month by producing commemorative packs encouraging customers to “share [their] pronouns with pride”.

One can easily imagine Falwell, Jr. taking to his Twitter account in high dudgeon to complain about something (the ongoing erasure of the gender binary) so clearly against his own personal beliefs and conception of Christian morality being promoted on the packaging of a beloved, family-friendly American snack. Maybe this would be followed by an angry TV news appearance – or, in the good old days, a strongly-worded open letter, printed in the national press and addressed to the godless, degenerate executives at the National Biscuit Company.

There was undoubtedly a time when such a reaction from the likes of Falwell, Jr. – or more likely, going back several decades, his father – would have resulted in a swift and chastened response from those on the receiving end, followed by an immediate retraction and apology for whatever the offensive conduct may have been. Needless to say, that time has long since passed.

Now imagine that you are mediocre ex-football player, social justice icon par excellence and Nike endorser Colin Kaepernick, and one day you find out that the company which pays you millions of dollars to use your image is preparing to celebrate American Independence Day by launching a special edition sneaker featuring the historic “Betsy Ross” version of the American flag:

Nike Betsy Ross American Flag - Colin Kaepernick

Naturally, the multinational organization which has gone to such great pains to hug you close as a product endorser cannot simply be indulging in the innocent, age-old corporate American pastime of cashing in on patriotism, but rather must be somehow actively perpetrating racism and white supremacy.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Nike Inc. is yanking a U.S.A.-themed sneaker featuring an early American flag after former NFL star-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick told the company it shouldn’t sell a shoe with a symbol that he and others consider offensive, according to people familiar with the matter.

The sneaker giant created the Air Max 1 USA in celebration of the July Fourth holiday, and it was slated to go on sale this week. The heel of the shoe featured a U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle, a design created during the American Revolution and commonly referred to as the Betsy Ross flag.

After shipping the shoes to retailers, Nike asked for them to be returned without explaining why, the people said. The shoes aren’t available on Nike’s own apps and websites.

“Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag,” a Nike spokeswoman said.

After images of the shoe were posted online, Mr. Kaepernick, a Nike endorser, reached out to company officials saying that he and others felt the Betsy Ross flag is an offensive symbol because of its connection to an era of slavery, the people said. Some users on social media responded to posts about the shoe with similar concerns. Mr. Kaepernick declined to comment.

In this depressing contemporary case, Kaepernick barely had to raise an eyebrow before terrified executives at Nike were fawningly apologizing to him and scrapping the launch of their new shoe, presumably at some considerable cost to the company and ultimately its shareholders.

Think of all the various legitimate and often seemingly intractable problems facing the African American community – poverty and lack of capital, the percentage of unstable or single parent families, lagging educational attainment, male violence within the community and an often fractious relationship with local police forces which at times has led to the tragic and outrageous death of unarmed black civilians at the hands of police officers. These are complex and often interlinked issues, but rather than discussing them and continuing to push rational policy solutions to the fore, instead we must all now stop and waste our time discussing the mental and emotional trauma unleashed on poor old Colin Kaepernick when he beheld a new pair of shoes.

We are loftily told by the usual Twitter verified bluecheck suspects that this should not be reported as a case of fragility or “hating America”, but rather protesting a symbol which is apparently in the process of being appropriated by a number of fringe extremists who like to hearken back to the good old days when minorities knew their place:

Well, if we don’t want something to be appropriated by unpleasant extremists, what is the absolutely worst thing we could possibly do? I would venture that the worst thing we could do is cede the ground to them without a fight and run away screaming, being sure to destroy any products inspired by good-hearted pride and patriotism so that only the scrawled banners of the haters remain.

But clearly I am at odds with the woke commissars, who have instead decided that as soon as a venerated symbol is once used by extremists, it is then lost to the mainstream forever. This never ends well, as I can personally attest, having emigrated to the United States from England, where the English national flag (the Cross of St. George) is still so heavily associated with 1970s racists and football hooligans rather than mild-mannered patriots that even many prominent politicians struggle to relate to it without coming across as insincere, ironic or even derisive.

Now, none of this is to say that racism, sexism and homophobia have been banished from society, and that we do not need to take reasonable care about the symbols and language we use. Not by any means. But it is striking that the people who now complain loudest about word or symbolcrime, and who portray themselves as the most grievously pitiable victims, actually tend to operate in realms where they hold overwhelming cultural and organizational power.

There probably aren’t ten impoverished black teenagers in America today who would have objected to Nike’s new commemorative sneaker bearing the historic Betsy Ross version of the American Flag. But it sure did seem to trigger Colin Kaepernick, multimillionaire, doyen of woke elitists and star of slick television commercials (inexplicably produced given his fading sports career, but for the fact that he substituted football for the fallback option of peddling racial grievance). And so it’s gone, just like that – the sneaker design vanished down the memory hole and the finished products themselves yanked from store stockrooms, presumably to be incinerated in a bizarre holocaust to the god of intersectionality.

The same likely applies to being gay, or an ethnic minority. If your daily existence is lived in the rarefied world of academia or working with your mind in the creative and knowledge economies, your identity is likely not a handicap but a boost in modern day America and much of the West. While pockets of bigotry remain, together with increasingly isolated, unreformed older bosses, from an HR perspective you may well enjoy some kind of exalted position. Your minority status may be continually celebrated and affirmed at various corporate networking events and brown-bag lunches, while your HR department is likely in the process of rolling out inscrutable new guidelines, cloaked in rainbows and the language of inclusivity but designed to ensure that the workforce basically polices itself in order to identity any retrograde or “harmful” thinking – and then either silences it or purges it from the organization, for your supposed benefit.

How different the experience is likely to be if you are working on one of the lower rungs of the economy – in a wage paying service job, or in agriculture or manufacturing. Here, your ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality and other facets of identity are far less likely to be celebrated. In fact, there is likely more chance that your company will summarily fire you without any kind of due process because an over-entitled upper middle-class woke individual takes unnecessary offense at something that wasn’t even your fault.

Naturally, one of the most recent and compelling examples comes from the increasingly dystopian city of Portland, Oregon:

Last month Lillian Green, an “equity director” at the state Education Department, entered Back to Eden, a vegan bakery, a few minutes after closing time. She recorded videos accusing the bakery of refusing to serve her because she was black. Using the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack, Ms. Green—a doctoral student at Lewis and Clark College—took to Facebook to demand that Back to Eden fire the clerks.

The bakery obliged, issued a 3,400-word apology, and offered Ms. Green a job training the remaining employees in “racial inclusivity.” “In this situation it doesn’t really matter that the two staff members working are not themselves racist because the call they made to deny Lillian service caused her to feel like she had been discriminated against,” co-owner Joe Blomgren wrote in a now-deleted Facebook statement. “Sometimes impact outweighs intent and when that happens people do need to be held accountable.”

In this truly disturbing incident from last year we have a very highly credentialed, economically successful black woman successfully getting two young wage-earners fired because they had the temerity to refuse her service after she entered the store after closing hours. The loyal employees may have expected their boss to show them loyalty in return for their service, but instead they were thrown under the bus in ritual sacrifice to modern intersectional outrage culture, just as Nike’s new training shoes will doubtless be incinerated as a burned offering to the same unforgiving god.

We are constantly told by progressive activists, against all objective reality, that we live in an age of unprecedented oppression, with ancient and universal rights being swept away before our very eyes. Never mind the fact that President Obama took office still officially believing that gay marriage should not be permitted, and that America wasn’t “ready” for such a step. Never mind the fact that the word “transgender” barely even featured in the coverage of major newspapers as recently as a decade ago while now major corporations race to embrace every aspect of the new avant garde gender theory. Apparently we are to believe that the people who shout the loudest from the most prestigious platforms about intersectional identity politics are in fact the most downtrodden among us, while those who lose already-precarious jobs or find themselves cancelled and unpersoned for failing to keep up with the latest intersectional nomenclature somehow wield immense societal power.

This is ludicrous.

If you want to know what real privilege looks like in modern America, it is this: having the power to pick up the telephone, call Nike and get their executives to voluntarily recall and burn thousands of lucrative special edition commemorative sneakers because the historic American flag design offends your pathetic, overly coddled snowflake sensibilities.

Real privilege is being so enormously removed from the concerns of people who actually struggle – including ethnic minorities, gay, lesbian and transgender people who do not have the immense fortune of an elite college education and a lucrative career – that minor or even imagined verbal or visual slights become more important in our national discourse than the social and economic wellbeing of the least among us.

Be assured: we are not living in the age of Jerry Falwell, Jr. We are not even really living in the Age of Donald Trump, though he temporarily resides in the White House and sweats his insecurities on Twitter from the bathroom at 5AM. Neither do we still live in what may become known as the age of “tolerance” – those halcyon days when mere tolerance of other people and alternative lifestyles was considered enough to be able to live one’s life free from the woke inquisition.

No, today we live in the Age of Kaepernick; the Age of Pride, turbo-charged by performative woke capitalism and enforced by some of the thinnest-skinned, most cruelly vindictive people in our society, despite – or perhaps because of – their immense cultural and economic privilege.

And I increasingly fear that toxic pride of this inescapable, coercive type may presage some kind of fall, for all of us.

Budweiser asexual pride

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Christianity And Open Borders, Cont.

Mark Seitz

Here we go again

Rod Dreher has an angry, searching piece in response to the news that the Catholic Bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz, has apparently been joyfully intimidating American Customs & Border Protection Agency guards into allowing already-rejected or returned migrants from Central America back from Mexico into the United States, in open violation of the law.

Dreher:

I admire religious leaders who are willing to defy unjust laws. But I gotta ask:

Are borders unjust?

Are laws forbidding foreigners to come into the United States the same thing, morally, as laws forbidding black people to eat at the same lunch counters as whites?

It seems clear that Bishop Seitz is saying yes to both questions, and not just saying it, but putting it into action by helping migrants break the law. I find this appalling, to be frank, because borders are just. These migrants do not have a moral rightto cross over into the United States. That is not to say that they should not be allowed to cross, eventually; it is to say that they do not have a moral right to do so, as Bishop Seitz asserts, and that the higher good nullifies US law. I dispute that.

However, if you support what Bishop Seitz did, then explain why the laws establishing and defending borders are unjust. It is true that not all laws are morally just — but why is the law by which the people of the United States determine who can enter the country, and under what conditions, morally indefensible? Perhaps you agree that borders are just, but believe that in this particular crisis, they should be ignored for the greater good. Why? What is the limiting principle?

Of course, all of this is blithely cheered on by a mainstream and prestige media who are so deeply biased in favor of extremely permissive immigration reform (if not de facto or fully open borders) that they report only on the “heartwarming” story of the the Kindly Old Churchy Man helping the downtrodden without even thinking about the untold harm that such combined acts of performative altruism do to the cause for real immigration reform rooted in the real world and political reality. Often utterly unaware of their own bias, the media report only the feel-good story to bolster the Narrative without exposing their audience to the broader questions at stake.

(Though as an aside, it is amusing to note the brief period of flattery, praise and kudos that Bishop Seitz will receive for doing this deed, in many cases from people who will immediately pivot toward describing him as an authoritarian, antiquated, misogynistic white male when the immigration lawbreaking delirium fades and they remember the Church’s stance on abortion.)

At this point, I think it is worth repeating what I wrote in April last year:

This is manipulative schmaltz of the worst kind. All of it. Anybody can harvest quotes from the Bible to build a case that Christian compassion involves rolling over and doing whatever a particular activist wants at that moment in time. But what we lack in this argument (and we see this over and over again in Christian arguments for mass immigration or open borders) is any acknowledgement that the immediate benefit to one new incoming migrant is not the only important consideration at stake.

When Jesus performed miracles there was no tradeoff, with one individual newly afflicted by the disease which Jesus cured in another, or the alleviated suffering of one person displaced onto somebody else. Nobody died because Lazarus was raised from the dead. Those who were healed at Gennesaret by touching Jesus’ cloak were not offset by a similar number who were struck down in their place. Uncontrolled mass immigration does not work like this. While there is a clear personal benefit to each marginal unskilled migrant  (and we are talking economic migrants here, remember, not refugees) allowed into a developed country, there are offsetting costs to be considered, too.

Sometimes these costs are tangible and quantifiable, such as the additional burden on infrastructure, services and the welfare state. Other times these costs are uncertain and appear only in the form of risk (such as risk to public order or national security). But the net effect is that the “good” done by letting in unlimited numbers of unskilled migrants from poor countries is offset by a commensurate cost. And this cost is no less important or worthy of consideration just because it is diffused across society as a whole rather than concentrated on one individual.

More:

We know that these negative costs of open borders will be incurred, and that they will be borne by society at large. So why is it more Christ-like to prioritise one over the other? Welcoming the stranger is absolutely the right thing to do when there are no offsetting costs to that act of charity, but what if welcoming the stranger causes a completely innocent third party to suffer harm? What we see, though, is many Christians prioritising the needs of the former over the latter. And in a way this is understandable – the benefit to the migrant is obvious, easy to measure and enjoyable to bestow, while the cost to society is diffuse, sometimes intangible and only detectable on the macro level, not at the individual level. Choosing the tangible and immediate over the intangible and time-delayed is a natural human instinct, albeit a harmful one in this instance.

So perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is this: does Jesus want us to think purely from with hearts, or does He also want us to engage our brains?

Viewed this way, the emotionally incontinent “Jesus would let in all the migrants” line of argument is becoming increasingly tiresome and threadbare. Maybe He would, and maybe not – perhaps instead He would work miracles to improve the broken and dysfunctional countries which feed mass migration in the first place, rather than feeding an urban leftist’s fetish for infinite diversity. Presuming that Jesus would opt for the immediate solution, the easy answer, the quick fix, grant the superficial human desire rather than the deeper human need, is to fundamentally misunderstand how Jesus’ ministry unfolded. Claiming that Jesus would advocate open borders is to subscribe to an incredibly two-dimensional, aging hippie version of Jesus, one which reduces the Son of God to little more than a genial Santa Claus figure.

Dropping everything and working for the immediate benefit of the person in front of us is not necessarily in the interest of millions of other deserving people beyond our vision. Sadly, our loaves and fish do not miraculously multiply; ultimately, we can only improve the common good by teaching the five thousand how to bake and fish for themselves.

It is also very telling that the “Jesus would let them all come in” brigade only seem to want to apply His teachings so far as they can be twisted to support open borders. The activists who go to protests chanting “no human being is illegal”, the often-wealthy coastal leftists who support unconditional amnesty for all and the establishment mediawho make a point of proudly failing to distinguish between legal and immigration, very few of them would open their New York or San Francisco homes to those cities’ many homeless, share their shiny new Tesla car to help a poor family do the school run every day or hand over their iPhone X to whomever demanded it. Yes, some profess a willingness to pay a higher marginal tax rate themselves in order to fund more plentiful public services, but that is about as far as it goes – keeping the needy firmly at arm’s length. Otherwise, their “generosity” actually consists of nothing more than calling for the government to tear down borders and disregard immigration law, and loudly screaming that anyone who expresses doubt about this reckless course of action is a racist.

But the costs of unskilled immigration (for the kind of mass immigration entailed by open borders would inevitably be of the unskilled kind) tend not to impact the wealthy enclaves where the cognitive, financial and social elites live, falling instead on far less privileged groups and communities. Many of those calling for open borders or more immigration in the name of Jesus also conveniently stand to get cheaper maids, gardeners and cleaners as a result, or live in neighbourhoods where the principle consequence of immigration is a wonderful explosion of diversity in art, culture and food. They are not the ones who typically rely on increasingly stretched public services, compete for low wage jobs or live in areas of higher crime or social tension. Nestled within gated communities or exclusive neighbourhoods, many will be insulated from the kind of widespread social unrest which the implementation of open borders would quickly deliver.

These activists are, in effect, disguising their naked self interest as generosity, benefiting economically and making themselves feel good and progressive while pushing nearly all of the negative externalities of mass immigration onto others. Jesus, let us remember, said nothing about giving away one’s neighbour’s possessions – the whole point is supposed to be one of personal devotion and sacrifice. The Jesus 4 Open Borders crowd, on the other hand, seek largely to give away something which is not theirs, promising to bear a cost which in actual fact they have every intention of palming off onto people further down the social ladder. How very Christian.

While immigration activists love to tout the many economic benefits that immigration brings, and rightly so, they generally neglect to point out that there is often a (significant) time lag between the marginal new immigrant arriving and local housing and infrastructure expanding in proportion to service the increased population. In fact, unless deliberate steps are taken by local and national populations, that increase might never happen at all. Even in the best case where the marginal immigrant is a net fiscal contributor, this does not instantly make the freeway a fraction of an inch wider or add a few thousandths of a new bed to the local hospital. This necessary growth in service provision requires political direction and civic planning, and must often be commenced in advance, long before the tax revenue stream from the new immigrant comes online (thus requiring deficit spending in the interim).

Now imagine a situation where developed countries receive greatly inflated numbers of new immigrants who are not in a position to be immediate positive fiscal contributors due to language, cultural or educational barriers which may also hinder quick and easy assimilation into the host country’s culture. Not only do housing and infrastructure continue to lag behind demand, now social tensions are also likely to spike, leading to scenes which make recent anti-immigration protests look like a model of peaceful, reasoned civility. We may well be looking a riots. Martial law. Deepening social division, violence and even deaths.

This kind of environment is not one in which great prosperity is easily created. Unless open borders were implemented everywhere in a coordinated way there would likely be a brain drain of the most educated and productive native citizens (many of whom had likely cheered on open borders while possessing the ability to skip out of town the moment their Utopian fantasy turned into a nightmare) to other more sensible developed countries with functional immigration systems, leading to a self-perpetuating spiral of decline among those advanced Western countries (and it is always Western countries – activists are not demanding that Japan drop its exclusionary immigration practices) which decided to throw open their borders.

In short, one does not have to play the tape forward very far to realise that there are alarmingly few steps between implementing a policy decision which makes woke, “no human being is illegal”, Jesus 4 Open Borders activists feel warm and virtuous on the inside and a situation where everything that makes their country an attractive destination for mass immigration in the first place is utterly snuffed out. Open borders is the kind of rash, ill-considered “Jesus, take the wheel!” policy proposal which its most ardent advocates would never replicate in any other area of their lives.

But of course, none of this matters. Christian immigration activists can adopt the “good-hearted” open borders position at zero cost to themselves, knowing that fully open borders (and the chaos that would be unleashed) will never plausibly be implemented. Campaigning for open borders is an opportunity to appear compassionate without having to either dip one’s hand into one’s pocket or seriously risk the unravelling of one’s present, privileged existence. And rather than wrestling with the far more thorny questions of why so many countries remain so dysfunctional and deeply unattractive to their own citizens, and driving solutions to help those countries help themselves, many Christians can opt instead to abdicate the intellectual work and simply shroud themselves in moral outrage that evil Western governments don’t let anyone and everyone breeze into the country.

In the case of mass migration, Christian outrage would be far better directed at the fact that all too often, the West ignores or downplays pressing questions relating to the root cause and does little to help solve the drivers of continued poverty and instability in much of the world, often actively contributing to the problem rather than helping, be it though haphazard military interventions or discriminatory trade policies. This criticism would be absolutely justified, though the solutions are nowhere near as simple as clamouring for open borders.

It may not fit quite so neatly on a protest placard, but I am personally inclined to believe that the more Christian thing is to wrestle with these difficult questions and to make intelligent national and personal self-sacrifice in targeted areas to improve the lot of poor and unstable countries, while pressing for an immigration system which is fair and non-discriminatory to applicants and seeking to find the optimal “sweet spot” where the benefits and costs of immigration, however defined (and it should be an expansive measure) break even.

I’m no theologian, but something tells me that a well-considered policy which diligently aims to deal with the root drivers of mass migration is both superior and more authentically Christian than a rash, emotion-driven and deeply harmful policy whose primary benefit is to make overwhelmingly privileged, first world activists feel better about themselves.

Open Borders book

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Faith, Doubt and Brexit

Anti Brexit march

A warning about the disturbing fundamentalism of Continuity Remain and the anti-Brexit crusaders

In the course of arguing on Twitter this evening, I received back the following piece of friendly psychological analysis from a longtime follower and antagonist.

The text reads:

“You are almost always wrong, as if you’re from another planet. I’m starting to feel pity, not sure if for you or for the people who have to suffer the consequences of what you keep saying with grave conviction. Please take a step back and reflect.”

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Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the charge of being “almost always wrong”, nor even the insinuation that I hail from extraterrestrial origins. But the funny thing is that I am actually a rather introspective person, and do spend quite a lot of time stepping back and reflecting on my beliefs and political worldview – perhaps in fact never more so than now, when law school has limited my available time to write.

Also, having never attained any level of fame or recognition from my writing (save a solitary appearance on the BBC and the very occasional retweet from a famed Twitter bluecheck journalist) I have not been subject to the temptation to lapse into permanent “transmit mode”, that gnawing need to be seen by my legions of followers as an all-knowing sage, privy to Great Knowledge and the secret schemes of the political elite.

In fact, performing a word count search on my blog reveals that the word “introspection” appears over 30 times in more than 20 articles – usually in the context of me demanding that certain politicians, journalists or other actors engage in some introspection as to their recent behavior, and precisely because I hold myself to this standard of regular self-reflection and accountability.

So I do take it somewhat personally when it is suggested I “take a step back and reflect” on my position on Brexit, because that is something I frequently do anyway. Having begun my age of political awareness as a devout europhile and even ardent euro-federalist, I already know many of the arguments in favor of the EU and against Brexit inside-out, without needed to hear mangled recitations of them from the Continuity Remain lobby’s telegenic campaign mouthpieces. In some cases, I was spouting many of those same tedious lines about “friendship ‘n cooperation” while pro-EU “celebrities” like EU Supergirl and Femi Oluwole were probably still watching children’s television rather than the evening news.

Having been on a journey from ardent euro-federalist (I once proudly wore a polo-shirt emblazoned with the Euro logo, soon after the single currency’s launch) to reluctant supporter to resigned leaver to committed Brexiteer, I have naturally examined and re-examined my views and the evidence supporting them on repeated occasions. That’s what it is to change one’s mind. And when it comes to the question of Britain’s European Union membership, I would always sooner listen to someone who once held an opposing view only to change their minds – whichever side they ultimately end up on – because at least I then know I am dealing with someone who has likely evaluated conflicting evidence or willingly exposed themselves to alternate viewpoints. The result is almost always a more productive exchange of ideas, and the avoidance of those dreary social media debates where two ideologues simply sling dueling talking points at one another with no intention of engaging in real debate.

Thus I continually questioned my beliefs before I started taking a more outspoken role in the Leave movement. Was the EU really as harmful to our democracy and impervious to attempts at reform as I had come to believe? Were many of the benefits of EU membership really replicable through other means that did not involve supranational government? Was the EU actually the best we could hope to do in terms of looking at governance beyond the nation state at a time of globalization? Were there realistic prospects of spurring that broader international discussion through Brexit, or would it be an act of national self-mutilation that had no ripple effects beyond Britain? Would it be better to just bide our time sheltering inside the European Union while we waited for someone else to finally address the pressing issue of balancing global governance with national (and local) democracy? Does it look like anybody else is about to step up to the plate and begin that work? Is the EU actually going to step up, admit its past failings and respond in a humble new citizen-centered way?

I also inevitably thought about how history would judge the positions I took and the statements I made, particularly at a time when social media records every throwaway remark or careless retweet, creating a rich seam of information that can be used by the unscrupulous to destroy one’s reputation and career. If Brexit was likely to fail and its opponents succeed in portraying it as a doomed nationalist spasm fueled primarily by xenophobia, was it worth the risk of me sticking my head above the parapet and supporting it? With so many powerful people on the pro-EU side, Remainers never seriously had to worry about being viewed by the history books as a latter-day Nazi if Brexit succeeded despite their opposition – they had more than enough manpower in the political, commercial, academic and cultural arenas to effectively absolve themselves from any blame for standing in the way of Brexit if it did lead to good things. Not so Brexiteers – like the American revolutionaries who would have been hung for treason had they not prevailed, history’s judgment would likely be merciless to Leave advocates and voters if Brexit did not go well, even if the fault was that of saboteurs determined to ensure that it not succeed.

Even after winning the referendum in 2016, I questioned my choices. The very next day, as Brexiteers toasted victory, I travelled with my wife and friends to Greece on holiday. As we passed through the EU flag-starred lane at passport control, I again asked myself if my decision to support Brexit had been a mistake; whether the EU, imperfect as it is, was the best we could do; whether it were better to remain in a vast bloc and regulatory superpower that looked likely to centralize further and become more powerful, even if it meant the further atrophy of British democracy, in order to remain “in the club”.

And of course the dismal events of the past two years – as Article 50 was triggered prematurely and without a plan, negotiated ineptly by a government sorely lacking in expertise, held to account by a Parliament full of MPs who cared more about appearing superficially knowledgeable or striking partisan poses than actually understanding the important minutiae on which everything depends, watched over by a debased and infantilized national media which either failed to contain its bias or do its due diligence – only led to more such introspection. Was it all a terrible mistake? Was there never anything good to be won? Was it inevitable that things would end up this way, with our government, opposition and legislature beclowning themselves in front of the world on a daily basis?

Yet after all of my questioning, my answer remains the same – Britain was right to vote to leave the European Union. I was right to campaign for Britain to do so. Even now, we are right to pursue Brexit and to resist those who would like to simply maintain the status quo in our governance and relationship with the EU. The fundamentals have not changed – indeed, Continuity Remainers seeking to overturn the result have generally still not bothered to discern precisely what those fundamentals are, in order to better communicate with Leave voters.

I do, however, wonder whether my far more famous and eminent counterparts on the Remain side have ever once engaged in the kind of introspection and self-questioning as to their stance of opposing Brexit and uncritically embracing the EU that I perform on a routine basis regarding my opposition to the project. And I strongly suspect that many of them have not.

Do you think for a moment that James O’Brien, LBC’s anti-Brexit polemicist-in-chief, as ever once taken a break from his task of finding the most inarticulate, confused and angry Brexit supporters to “defeat” in argument on his show to question any of the fundamental issues about the EU and Brexit that I and other Brexiteers consider every day?

James Obrien Brexit LBC

Do you think that eminent celebrity academics like AC Grayling ever once take a break from rending their garments and peddling conspiracy theories on Twitter to consider whether they might themselves be trapped in a closed ideological echo chamber which prevents them from fulfilling the basic academic and scientific duty of exposing their dogmas and hypotheses to scrutiny and criticism from alternative perspectives?

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Do you think that grandees like Tony Blair and John Major ever really stop and reconsider the pivotal moments in their administrations, and ask themselves whether they might have ever misjudged the march toward greater EU integration without public consent? Or is it more likely that they are simply desperate to cement their legacies rather than concede potential error?

Tony Blair and John Major warn against Brexit

Do you think that progressive-left religious leaders like the vast majority of bishops of the Church of England – people who are supposed to unite the nation in faith but who have often chosen instead to use politics to divide us while idolizing a slick salesman’s vision of European unity – have ever prayerfully reflected on their behavior?

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Do you think that issue-illiterate, virtue-signaling woke celebrities like Gary Lineker and Eddie Izzard ever engaged in a serious evaluative process of understanding valid complaints about the EU and the driving forces behind Brexit, or is it more likely that their publicists simply spotted a good opportunity for them to effortlessly win acclaim from the chatterati?

Gary Lineker celebrity Remainer Brexit

Do you think that the self-regarding doyens of the prestige international media ever take a break from communing with Bono to learn the causes of populism in order to question whether their very actions might contribute to the problem, and whether their uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy of bodies like the European Union (and consequent feeble scrutiny of them) was harmful to the very democracy they claim to defend?

Fareed Zakaria Bono Populism Brexit

Do you think that the plum voices of the BBC ever take a break from smearing UKIP voters or flatly declaring without evidence that Tory MPs belong to the “far right” in order to question whether they are really promoting the cause of truth and serving the whole of society?

James Naughtie BBC bias journalism Brexit - ERG conservatives far right

Do you think that shamelessly biased Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow ever actually seriously considered whether he was wrong to negatively highlight and criticize the number of “white people” attending a pro-Brexit rally in Westminster?

Jon Snow Brexit Protest criticise white people journalism media bias

In all of the above cases, I believe that the answer is probably “no”. Convinced of their righteousness from the start, these individuals and many others switched into permanent transmit mode on 24 June 2016 (and in some cases long before), never once subjecting themselves to the discomfort and potential cognitive dissonance of questioning their own assumptions.

Maybe these people have actually forfeited the public trust and the right to their bully pulpits in the media.

Maybe when evaluating how Brexit is being attempted, resisted and portrayed in the media, we should ask ourselves who is actually engaging in an intellectual exercise of any kind, and who has simply lapsed into triumphantly bleating articles of faith, with little questioning of their own side. I would argue that many of the latter can be found in prominent positions on the Continuity Remain campaign, or at the apex of those organizations and industries which most strongly support it. And ironically, many of them can also be found publicly marveling at the inability of Brexiteers to reconsider their stance, question their dogmas and change their minds.

The truth is that Brexiteers have had nearly three years of unremitting exposure to the scorn, derision and hatred of many of the most respected and influential groups in our society – the politicians elected to our Parliament; the people who staff our civil service, lead our educational institutions, run our largest companies, lead our charities and edit our newspapers; the people who act in our favorite films and television shows, entertain us with their stand-up comedy or represent us at the pinnacle of professional sports, literature, music and the arts. Three years of this unremitting negativity and hostility from opposing forces in the most powerful reaches of the country; three years of embarrassing failure after failure by the people tasked with executing the decision we made at the ballot box on 23 June 2016, and still there is no overwhelming desire among Brexiteers nor the country as a whole to scrap Brexit and remain a member state of the European Union.

You could say that this is emotion over reason, that it is faith over fact, that it is a desperate act of confirmation bias by people who simply don’t want to admit to themselves that they were wrong. But every single one of these attack lines is also a piercing dagger which can just as easily be aimed right back at the heart of the Continuity Remainer “resistance” movement – people who despite being rebuffed at the referendum against all the odds and opinion polls have still not engaged in any kind of meaningful introspection at a group or individual level, and many of whom never once questioned their stance on Brexit, prior to nor after the referendum.

We are continually told that Remain voters and their movement’s heroes are more highly educated – even more moral – than those of us who had the nerve to imagine a future for British democracy outside the European Union. We are told that they are stringent disciples of reason while we are base creatures motivated by nativist superstition and easily led astray by nefarious outside influence. But it’s all a total sham. Theirs is a priesthood with no monopoly on fundamental truth, just a desperate faith in the European Union as the solution to problems which it has shown no capacity to meet.

There is indeed an emergent quasi-religious movement in Britain, one which holds its truths as unquestionable dogma, which views nonbelievers as automatically “lesser than” and which blindly fetishizes a flag as representation of all that is good and true in humanity. But the new faith militant in British politics is not the fractured and browbeaten Brexit movement. It is the Cult of Continuity Remain, and the banner under which it triumphantly marches bears the twelve yellow stars of the European Union.

 

EU flag body paint

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Don’t Expect The Independent Group To Rescue Britain’s Broken Politics

Antichrist - end of the world

Chuka Umunna? Former choirboy, but most definitely not the Messiah…

In my limited spare time since commencing law school, I have been attending a wonderful Bible study group for graduate students, organized by the university’s Catholic Student Center. Having plodded our way methodically through the New Testament, last week we reached the Book of Revelation and alighted on the topic of the Antichrist – antichrists being false prophets preaching a deceptive gospel, and also a specific figure cloaked in seeming holiness and authority, whose arrival would presage the second coming of Christ.

In other, totally unrelated news, British politics seems to have been roiled in my absence by the defection of eight Labour and three Conservative MPs from their respective parties to form a flashy new association called The Independent Group. In selecting a spokesperson for their group, the breakaway MPs nominated Chuka Umunna, the ex-Labour politician best known for describing himself as Britain’s Barack Obama. As we shall see, this was a revealing choice – elevating a man who models himself on the US president who promised hope and change, delivered the former in spades back in 2008 but so little of the latter by 2016 that the people elected Donald Trump as his successor.

The cast list of TIGgers (yes, they actually call themselves that) on the ex-Labour side is a veritable who’s who of frustrated New Labourite centrists whose slick career ambitions have been put into stasis since Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party and wholesale rejection of the Blairite/Brownite technocratic tendency (though some credit must be given to MPs such as Luciana Berger, who also had cause to flee the appalling, metastasizing antisemitism within Corbyn’s hard left faction). On the ex-Tory side, we have the likes of Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry, politicians whom one would never have guessed to be conservative in the first place but for the fact that they campaigned wearing a blue rosette during general election season.

The TIGgers had a number of justifications for their decision to leave their former parties (though notably, none had the courage to call a by-election and allow their constituents to positively affirm their presence in Parliament under a new party affiliation). Those coming from the Labour Party repeatedly stressed the antisemitism continually exhibited by those close to Jeremy Corbyn and tolerated by the Labour leadership, though their claims that it was the deciding factor fail the credibility test since antisemitism on the hard left and ultra-progressive wings of the Labour Party is hardly a new and surprising issue. More telling is ex-Labour Mike Gapes’ bitter complaint that “the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit” – the idea that the Labour Party might support a policy popular among the party’s traditional voter base being too much for him to comprehend. Meanwhile, ex-Tory MPs like Anna Soubry complained about prime minister Theresa May’s dogged approach to Brexit and what they called the party’s reliance on the Hard Brexit fundamentalist ERG group of MPs and a takeover of the party by “right-wing, hard line anti-EU” forces.

All of this was covered portentously and near-reverentially by a Westminster journalistic class who tend to jump at any opportunity to breathlessly report on personalities instead of policy (the details of Brexit still eluding many of them) and which is near-uniformly progressive in socio-economic ideology and stridently anti-Brexit in particular. Thus we were treated to gushing hot takes by the likes of ex-PM Tony Blair (“embrace the spirit of insurgency!“), a Guardian journalist overcome with admiration as these courageous rebels dined at Nando’s, The Scotsman (which swats away inconvenient observations such as the fact that “they have no vision, coherent policy platform or leader”) and readers of the hateful EU propaganda rag The New European, who are desperate for the TIGgers not to subject themselves to by-elections and the indignity of seeking democratic approval of their party betrayal.

Naturally, all of this praise has gone to the TIGgers’ heads, and what started as an act of pure political calculation has now become in their minds an almost heroic declaration of political independence and bold purpose. Hence self-aggrandizing pronouncements such as this:

Heidi Allen thinks that “the two big parties [are] demonstrating more and more every day that they are not up to the challenges facing our country”. This is the same Heidi Allen who campaigned under the Conservative Party banner without a whisper of complaint in 2015 and 2017, maneuvering hard to get that coveted initial constituency selection in the first place.

And here is The Independent Group’s London branch, acting as though it is an oasis of reason in a desert of conformist thinking:

You would think that a brand new political party – a group whose ranks are filled with MPs who had the supposed “courage” to quit their parties and risk the wrath of their constituents because of their overriding concern about the country’s direction – would be positively fizzing with alternative policy ideas and solutions to the national problems they quietly tracked for so long before making their big move. You would be wrong.

But that’s fine. Maybe TIG is understandably reticent to commit themselves by announcing headline policies at this early stage, while they are still trying to woo other potential defectors and grow in strength. We should, though, still be able to parse a sense of what this radical new party stands for by analyzing the famous speeches and policy initiatives of its star members, right? “Oh, Bob? He’s the one who wants to create a network of community colleges to retrain people whose old careers are under threat from globalization and automation.” “Rachel? Isn’t she the one who called for a national Apollo Program for education, criticizing Britain for shooting for the middle with education outcomes and exhorting us to catch up with world leaders like South Korea and Finland?” “Rupert has a great plan for constitutional reform to bring government closer to the people and make leaders more accountable”. “Ayesha actually had the courage to reject calls for her to post a public love-letter to the NHS on Valentine’s Day, saying that we need to stop deifying the healthcare service and look to other countries for examples of best practice”.

Again, tumbleweeds. The British political firmament as a whole is hardly blessed with a multitude of bold, original thinkers, and such figures certainly aren’t among the fabulous seven, the daring eleven or whatever number of forgettable non-entities currently comprise The Independent Group.

All of which is a great pity. As this blog has noted over and over and over and over and over and  over again, Britain has entered a period of political discontinuity – a time when the existing political settlement, with its narrow range of policy options, are no longer adequate to the challenges at hand. Such periods of discontinuity require politicians to think the previously unthinkable in terms of policy solutions, not to flee their former political parties in an outrage that people are actually starting to do so.

As described in the influential Stepping Stones report:

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

So what is The Independent Group’s grand unified theory for fixing Britain? Besides thwarting Brexit, they don’t have one. But they did roll out their very first policy initiative with tremendous fanfare:

Today we launched a petition calling for an end to the Government’s four-year freeze on working age benefits. Ending the freeze on working age benefits would lift 200,000 people – who are working, but struggling to make ends meet – out of poverty.

We believe that all policy should be evidence-based, especially when that policy affects some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

There’s no reason to persist with the final year of the freeze, especially when the past three years significantly exceeded the savings originally envisaged.

Is this the best that the courageous breakaway radical thinkers of British politics can do -a feel-good policy about relaxing benefit freezes? As part of a broader overhaul of welfare policy, this may indeed be a valid and “evidence-based” approach. But The Independent Group have not conducted any such broader review of the welfare system; they simply cherry-picked the low-hanging policy fruit designed to appeal to middle income swing voters, without any consideration of the knock-on effects on public finances, incentives to work or anything else. There’s certainly no bold leadership here, no telling difficult truths to the public about necessary trade-offs in public spending.

Indeed, The Independent Group will not be able to formulate meaningful policy on any number of issues, welfare included, being comprised of defector MPs from opposite parties with different views on the subject. If the party is to survive for any length of time, it would have to strike a balance between the ex-Labour and ex-Tory factions, and would likely produce policies almost identical to any government or opposition which sought to woo the same swing voters by meeting them where they are (rather than doing the much harder – but necessary – job of convincing them that they, too, need to update their thinking about what is both desirable and politically feasible).

Contra Heidi Allen’s complaint that the two main parties are “not up to the challenges facing our country”, The Independent Group exists precisely because the two main parties were captured by forces which seek to overturn the “old established politics” – Labour by the Corbynites with their faith in 1970s-style, red-blooded socialism and the Tories by the ultra free trade zealots of the ERG (though on non-Brexit matters, the Tory Party remains as uninspiringly centrist and authoritarian as it ever was – a fact which Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston should have valued, given the fact that they emblemize that sentiment within the party). The two big parties may not yet be responding to this period of discontinuity the right way, but both are shifting their thinking. It is The Independent Group who seek to stand athwart history, yelling “stop!”.

These are not People of Action, bristling at the stultifying ideological confines of their former parties. Rather, they are Captains of Inaction, career machine politicians who thrived on the Old Politics – that comforting bygone era when New Labour would be nanny statist and indulge centre-left interventionist tendencies as the Tories accused them of socialism on steroids, while the Tories would be ever so slightly less nanny statist and interventionist as Labour screamed that they were a libertarian Ayn Rand dystopian outfit made flesh.

However much they may strut and preen, the TIGger MPs are not frustrated free thinkers yearning to push the boundaries of the Overton Window in British politics or advocate for daring new solutions to the problems we face in the early 21st century – they are establishment refugees seeking a lifeboat to take them back to the New Labour, centrist consensus of the 1990s and 2000s. The root of their discontent is not the fact that British politics has become stale and conformist – their anger stems from the fact that the two main political parties have reacted to voter dissatisfaction by moving in direction which reduces their own personal influence (and/or hopes of future high office).

Pete North, welcoming what he sees as the death of centrism, puts it better than me:

Progressivism (whatever that actually means) has become a byword for sanitised cellophane wrapped politics which produces the androgynous clones like Chuka Umunna designed for maximum media inoffensiveness. Like Ken dolls one wonders if these people even possess genitalia. The political version of morning TV magazine show presenters. And as repellent as they are, these people don’t actually know anything.

This much has been made abundantly clear during the course of Brexit. They have no idea why we voted to leave, and no idea how we got where we are, or indeed how to get ourselves out of it. Instead of seeking to understand what is upon us, they have invested all of their energies into sweeping Brexit under the carpet with a view to going back to their consequence free normality where they soak up media attention but take on none of the responsibilities and obligations.

It is telling that the new Independent Group have elected to promote themselves on a handful of recycled populist slogans. They speak of a “different way of doing things” under the “ChangePolitics” hashtag, with all the self-awareness of a diarrhetic hippo. Chris Leslie in all seriousness went on BBC Question Time to tell us “The big political parties want to keep everything as it is” when this bunch are the very essence of the establishment – the rotting corpse of centrism.

Frustration with Britain’s dysfunctional politics is quite understandable, and the growing realization that something has broken beyond repair is encouraging to witness. But to see in the cast of The Independent Group anything resembling salvation from our problems is to put one’s faith in a false prophet.

The politicians who made headlines by flouncing out of their respective political parties aren’t preaching a bold new gospel which the country can get behind. They aren’t currently preaching a message of any kind at all, beyond a furious opposition to Brexit and the inchoate yearning for a return to the time when uttering bland platitudes about Tory heartlessness or Labour profligacy was all it took to sustain one’s political career. If anything, these are avowedly Old Testament politicians, furious with incomprehension that their message no longer resonates in New Testament Britain.

As a general rule of life, it it looks too good to be true, it probably is. The Independent Group doesn’t even manage to look good on cursory examination, but even if one finds oneself falling for their polished Twitter hashtags about changing politics, the point remains that given the rather pitiful raw material at their disposal, The Independent Group’s promise of political renewal is indeed too good to be true – no matter how strongly one wishes that Chuka Umunna and his unlikely gang were the real deal.

 

Antichrist

The Independent Group

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Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

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A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

John Betjeman statue

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