Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Social contracts, social myopia, and "I'm doing this".

Watching events unfold locally, nationally and globally provokes deep reflection, does it not? "Whatever can we do?", is the question that springs most readily to my mind and to my prayers. John Wimber said he knew only three prayers, as follows:
"Oh, Lord!"
"Oh Lord, help!"

Now seems to be the time to engage them.

For a short while recently I paddled in the shallows of social media after a long break — went back onto Facebook, which in my case turned out once more to be Can't-Face-Book. As I sifted through the political opinions of my friends and of the masses, the information about social and ecological change and development in my country and worldwide, my heart broke again and again. I left, again. Sometimes leaving is my only way to survive. It's not intended as turning my back; leaving is my only way of staying, if you see what I mean. Much more of the ecological and political news washing in great waves over the flimsy walls of my defences, and I'd have been making plans to leave altogether. I don't know about you, but I find the idea of global water shortages,  global food shortages, escalating war, drought and flood and fire, lawlessness and poverty, terrifying.

Since retreating again from social media, I've been mulling over what I've read and heard and seen, and out of the primal soup boiling in my soul, three things have risen to the surface.

Whatever you vote, whatever you believe, you are involved in social contracts. This is true even if you decide to live in isolation in a croft in the Scottish highlands, grow all your own food and medicine, make your own clothes and equipment and die a solitary death, letting the ravens pick your corpse clean at the end. If you do that, your contract with the rest of the human race can be summarised as, "I will not help you. I will withhold my love and tenderness from you. I do not want you. I will fold my arms and let you die, because I do not care about you. Signed, Me."

I'm assuming, though, that your life is more inextricably mixed up with your fellow citizens — that you buy fuel for a car or house, food to eat, clothing (or the makings thereof) to wear, domestic equipment; and that you have your trash collected, expect to receive medical help if you are ill, drive on metalled roads, and have a fire service and schools and police in your neighbourhood. That sort of thing. You are part of it.

As you'll know, in the UK we had an almost 50/50 vote about belonging to the European Union. In the campaign for that referendum, those advocating that we leave (including our now Prime Minister) told some outrageously flagrant lies, which for some inexplicable reason people seem to have believed. The vote just crossed the line to commit us all to leaving. Since then, what I have heard from those in favour of leaving has mainly been along the lines of "Get over yourself; your side lost," as if this were a game of football on a Saturday morning. There's been much arguing and struggling, but it seems that going we are.

Puzzled, I've asked here and there why people wanted to leave the European Union. What possible advantage could there be? Those who wanted to leave seemed able to summarise their position in fairly simple terms, along the lines of "We're sick of those bureaucrats in Brussels telling us what to do."

I feel this is ill-considered. What were we thinking? Did we imagine the British Isles to be able to maintain the standard of living to which we have become accustomed, in self-sufficiency? Growing all our own food, doing all our own manufacturing, sourcing all our own raw materials and labour? Of course we will have to enter trade agreements with other countries, and naturally this will involve a degree of abiding by their regulations and cultural habits as well as our own. So, much the same as trading with Europe but without the pre-agreements that make life easier — and, of course, relinquishing the opportunity for our way of seeing things to influence our neighbours. Evidently we don't care about the possibility of making a difference, of making a positive contribution.

What are the irksome restrictions we wanted to avoid? Maddening Health and Safety regulations, perhaps? Or food standards? So we would be free to keep our animals in concentration camps and feed them detritus if we want to? Is that admirable? And if you take away Health and Safety regulations, that is usually with a view to enjoying less actual health and actual safety, not more. I was once pastor of a church where the builder working on the high back wall disregarded all sensible safety cautions, fell off his cherry-picker scaffold and died, leaving his widow to take care of their children on her own. I, personally, want less of that kind of thing, not more. Just like I want less human trafficking and child labour, and fewer sweatshops. And to enforce that in the teeth of Mammon, we'll need regulations, right?

Mulling over all this, watching and listening, brought a certain degree of frustration about social myopia. This impairment is by no means restricted to the right or the left wing in politics. You can observe it all over the place.

For instance, some years ago when Natalie Bennett led the UK Green Party, she was asked what the future of the monarchy would be, the Green Party having a strong leftist tendency in its politics. She answered that the Queen could probably be found a council house to live in. 

Now look, this is the Green Party. Right there, smack dab in the middle of Central London, the Queen has an enormous organic garden. If you go through society with your political machete, mowing down the aristocrats like the French Revolution and making everyone live on £700 a month in a council house, who will build and maintain the organic gardens at the heart of the city? Where will you get the visionary initiatives like the Duke of Cornwall (Prince Charles) has spearheaded? Who will inspire worldwide undertakings like the Jubilee Forest? Not only that, but think of all the artisans — the carriage makers and stone masons and whip makers, the people who make bespoke shoes and chandeliers, the milliners and jewellers . . . Doesn't it matter if we lose them all? Do we really want Walmart to reign supreme? We'll still have a monarchy of sorts, just what sits on the throne will be the vulgar and commonplace and cheap. Is that really what the Green Party wants? Have they thought this through? Every artisan I know relies on other people's private wealth to make a living.

But the social myopia also afflicts the right. In the UK, operating in some incomprehensible dark night of the imagination, we just voted in Boris Johnson and tossed aside Jeremy Corbyn. Among the victorious right-wing voters were many, many Christians. I have failed to understand this entirely. If you look at what Jeremy Corbyn actually says and actually does and the manifesto actually put together on his watch, you get an almost perfect match for the New Testament. You get a look at consistency, integrity, compassion and tireless work for peace and the common good. If you then look into Boris Johnson's life, you get flamboyance, incompetence, the Bullingdon Club and its attitudes, and a steady stream of very serious lies. 

In the first week after their re-election, our increasingly right-wing government cut the benefits of six hundred and fifty thousand disabled people. On their watch mortality is rising and health care is increasingly struggling. People — even in work — are descending into poverty and relying more and more on food banks. Economic inequality is steeply rising.

Now here's the thing I don't understand. Take a chapel, any chapel, could even be my own. Imagine it to have members who voted for this right-wing government driving people into poverty and dependency on food banks, and voted for Brexit with all the turmoil and further economic difficulty it will bring in its wake. Then perhaps the chapel gets a few slipped tiles, a hole in the roof, water ingress, urgent building works needed. What will the members do? Pass round the hat, put on a fundraiser, ask for money. So the people who voted for standing on our own feet, opted for isolation and self-sufficiency, chose separation and independence and the withdrawal of support from the poorest and most vulnerable, want help from other people to finance their chapel when the roof leaks. And they aren't even joking. If that isn't social myopia, I don't know what is. Where do they think the money's coming from if the chapel members have been both driven into poverty themselves and are having to help out their even worse off neighbours?

As I was turning these things over in my mind, the news broke about Harry and Meghan wanting to opt out of their place and obligations in the Royal Family, and live a private and independent life. Who can blame them? 

I asked my husband what he thought he'd want to say to them if he were a member of the Royal Family, and he (God bless him, what a sweetie) said that if he were Prince Charles he'd want to say to them, "Go, with my blessing; but the door is always open for you to come back." It would be a better world if my husband was running it, but unfortunately he won't be any time soon because the party he voted for was defeated by, among others, his fellow-Christians.

Not such a kindly soul myself, if I were in the Royal Family I'd want to say something quite different to Harry and Meghan, because I think theirs is a bad case of what I think of as "I'm doing this." 

They say they want to be independent — earn their own money, support themselves. But what doesn't seem to be in their mind is that — especially hot on the heels of the damaging revelations about Prince Andrew and his friends — theirs could be the falling pebble that starts the avalanche that ends the monarchy, as, in a country where inequality rises under the heartless regime we just voted in, people become more and more envious and disenchanted. The question they seem not to be asking is, "What about the others?"

What about their grandmother in her 90s? What about Prince Charles in his 70s? What about all the work for diplomacy and culture and ecology? If the whole lot comes tumbling down, who will take responsibility for that? Not Harry and Meghan, I imagine.

"I'm doing this" is an approach to life that was ever with us but especially afflicts our age. "It's my ball and I'm going home" is another way of putting it — along with the old Yorkshire saying, "What's yours is mine and what's mine's my own".

As is so often the case, Buddhism has something to teach the church in our current set of circumstances. Buddhism teaches that all people are selfish, but there are stupid selfish people and wise selfish people. 

The stupid selfish people just grab what they can get, look to their own advantage, separate themselves and build walls around their wealth — failing to realise that we all depend on each other, that we are part of the whole, that what we do to our neighbour and our world we ultimately do to ourselves. They sign their own death warrant. They saw off the branch they're sitting on. "I'm all right, Jack — blow you," they say; but what goes around comes around.

The wise selfish people take care of everyone. They nurture community and strengthen the weak. They protect the vulnerable. They see to it that everyone can flourish. They have the humility to recognise they are part of an eco-system and they give their very best effort to looking after the Earth, our only home.

So in my prayers for the country where I live, in 2020, as I plead, "Oh, Lord . . . help . . . " and, "Oh Lord, help . . . ", what I'm longing for and looking for above all else is a steady flame of responsibility; the recognition that all things are connected, that we belong to one another, and that what I do to you I will eventually discover I have done to myself.


greta said...

thank you for such sensible and thoughtful words. you are right - it is tempting to simply opt out from the fray (and there is plenty of fray to opt out of!) but when we do that, we miss the whole point of life, which is to love and connect and nurture. at my advanced age of 71, i am realising that, while i am no longer on the front lines so to speak, i still have plenty to offer in terms of loving connection with family, friends and the folks who check my groceries at walmart. a kind word, a hug, wisdom and strength are all there to be shared. after watching last night's presidential debate, we are less than three weeks away from our unenviable iowa caucus. it will be a great temptation to simply stay home that night, especially if there is a blizzard howling outside and temperatures below zero (that's fahrenheit zero!) but duty calls and, if we care, we must participate. i've been reading a book about your queen elizabeth, a symbol of duty and service if there ever was one. not a perfect person but a terrific model for pulling up your socks and doing what needs to be done. so, courage everyone. take heart, be brave, stay connected.

Pen Wilcock said...

I have never before come across the term "caucus" — had to look it up! Now I've been reading about your Iowa caucus — February 3rd, it said. And yes, I so agree with you — showing up and being part of our community is part of what discipleship is.

Julie B. said...

I always say about six or seven hearty yeses (yesses?) to Greta's comments. Such love and common sense. She is more diligent than I -- I have been to our local caucuses and won't go again. Even the polite conflict there is more than I want to be a part of. Ever since our last presidential election, I have stopped watching the news because it's very agitating to me. I must have hope, and I feel it drain quickly when I look at the world situations. I'm not sure who said it (Mother Teresa?), but as God helps me, I want to light up my little dark corner. I don't even do a very good job at that sometimes. But if I concentrate on my dark corner and not the dark world, I can keep my eyes on what I should. Love to you and all your dear readers, Ember. xoxox

Jenna said...

I guess I'm trying to reconcile in my head this post's derision of leaving Belgium, while simultaneously upholding the customs and traditions of the Royal Family. My personal op is that the whole monarchy thing is irksome, at best. I get the British pride and all that, but one family taking center stage in the nation with all that pomp and tradition and circumstance seems to run absolutely contrary to the egalitarian goals of the EU. But that's just me. Why does leaving mean all organic gardens will be scrapped?? I might have understood more but "Boris lies" doesn't really elucidate all that much. I find that same dynamic among my liberal friends here. Name-calling and chastisement seems to be preferable to any facts and consideration. I can't tell you the number of times I've offered the olive branch of simple dialogue with the proviso to "agree to disagree"--only to have been slapped in the face with it. How does that help things?

Pen Wilcock said...

Julie B — this is the Anchorite way: to anchor the Light to the spot of Earth where you are called to be. Like a lighting rod. And the effect of lightning is, of course, highly focused and extremely powerful.

Jenna —
1) "this post's derision of leaving Belgium"
What you are reading is not derision but something near despair. All our UK legislature since the 1970s is European. Our membership of the European community acts as a human rights and ecological standards safeguard against the self-serving greed of our present leadership. Those of us who live in the south-east of England are intimately connected with France, many of us work there, some live there. Our passports are all European. To talk about this in terms of derision at leaving Belgium fails to grasp the situation. Many of our best construction workers are Polish. Many of our health care professionals are Italian, Greek, Dutch. Many British nationals are married to European nationals, and their children may currently have the nationality of one parent but not necessarily of both. Many of our university lecturers are European — Scotland had just lost 2,500 university lecturers because of this. The impact of this separation strikes at the root of our lives and infrastructure — our legislature, our social policies, our workforce, our domestic and family life, our social care and medical provision — it's massive. "This post's derision of leaving Belgium". Please, please think before you speak.
2) "while simultaneously upholding the customs and tradition of the Royal Family".
Where did you get that from? What I've written about is social myopia, using the example of the Green Party's willingness to casually dismiss and dispense with one of their greatest and most powerful allies. I did not say all organic gardens would be scrapped. Why are you suggesting I did?
3)"My personal op is that the whole monarchy thing is irksome, at best".
Then your personal opinion would benefit from more substantial information. Just to take the example of the Prince of Wales — he patiently and tirelessly works for the ecological health of the Earth, worldwide; he works to keep in place our traditional skills in craft, art, building, architecture; he is a tremendous advocate for organic farming, and has put his role as Duke of Cornwall to good effect modelling possibilities; the Princes Trust has helped countless young people into occupational training and work . . . I could go on and on, but "irksome at best"? What?
4) "I might have understood more, but Boris lies" doesn't really elucidate all that much." If you would like to understand more, in detail, about each tiny phrase of my post, you will find abundant opportunities to inform yourself. Castigating me for not including every detail of every aspect of examples to which I have referred is a technique I recognise but it does not impress me. Try a Google search on "Boris Johnson + lies" one day when you have ample time on your hands, if the subject interests you. "Name-calling and chastisement" is not an accurate assessment of what I am doing. It is both discourteous and unfair.
Regarding your experience of offering the olive branch of simple dialogue I cannot comment, but if your remarks here are one example of the simple dialogue, I wonder if perhaps those with whom you tried to converse felt they had encountered an approach weighted more toward opinion than information.

Buzzfloyd said...

I do think Harry and Meghan's choice is understandable. She has been horribly hounded by the right wing press and become really miserable, and is trying to cope in isolation from her own culture and family under immense pressure - he must be seeing parallels with the press treatment that resulted in his mother's death when he was a very small boy. If we, as a society, have done precious little since 1998 to mitigate the power of the press, there's no reason for them to expect that to change now. They've tried bearing up and keeping a stiff upper lip, but I think it's one thing to say "Can't be bothered, I'd prefer to do something different", and quite another to say, "This risks destroying my family, and I need to protect them." Generally speaking, I'm very opposed to the modern culture of choosing personal preference over social obligation, but I think this is a protective choice and a reasonable one.

As for the rest, I think you're absolutely right. I don't think Brexit necessarily had to be a total disaster if we'd had a competent government who had used the last two years to prepare and pass the necessary infrastructure and trade legislation, but the government we've had has done literally nothing beyond fighting over the terms of Brexit itself. They've just told people to prepare for shortages, while setting up companies that profit from economic uncertainty and store wealth in offshore accounts.

Jenna, Boris's lies are a matter of extensive public record. Here's an article from The Independent (a moderate, centrist newspaper of good reputation) on a few of his most famous lies.
And the 'flamboyance, incompetence, [and] the Bullingdon Club' bit that Mum referenced is much more than a list of insults. Boris has been known for years for his flamboyant manner, his consistent choices to say extremely offensive things as a way of distracting from political issues (he calls this a 'dead cat strategy'); he has been sacked from a number of roles and been called unfit for the office of PM by a former boss; he was recently involved in a scandal where his lying and bungling of a Foreign Office affair has left a British mother (Nazanin Zighari-Ratcliffe) stranded and imprisoned in Iran; he was part of the notorious Bullingdon Club (think frat club for immensely wealthy young men, whose rites of passage included activities such as setting fire to high value paper money in front of disabled people, trashing restaurants, drunkenness, sex parties etc) and has retained ties to former club members. There are just so many scandals that I barely know where to start. Arrest for suspected domestic assault? Sex scandals? Staying away on holiday during a time of national crisis? Being recorded arranging to beat up a journalist on behalf of a friend? Ties to neo-Nazis? Describing money spent on investigating a huge child abuse scandal as being "spaffed up against the wall"?

It's not a simple case of taking sides and name-calling the opposition.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Buzz:

"Generally speaking, I'm very opposed to the modern culture of choosing personal preference over social obligation, but I think this is a protective choice and a reasonable one."

I find that very helpful. Tony quoted to me the other night, when we were talking this over, Prince Harry saying a few years ago to journalists, "You killed my mother, you're not going to kill me." He (Tony) said that this has in some quarters been represented as resulting from Meghan's influence, but that actually the signs were there from long ago of Harry's deep aversion to media hounding, such that he would be even more likely than she would, to take firm action if things got too much.

I don't personally think they should necessarily stick it out and stay; just what I said, really — that if I were a member of the royal family, then before they left I'd want to make clear to them that later this could prove to be the turning point where the whole thing began to crumble. Which I think is what we're seeing.

I feel personally convinced that the monarchy is rolling up; over. We are watching it coming to an end. I feel sad about that, both from nostalgia for the way things used to be in my younger years, and also because I think the Queen and Prince Charles contribute a phenomenal amount of good to our culture (both in Britain and overseas); but I also accept that everything has its season. It's like watching an old oak dying. Sad but inevitable. Time brings all things to an end.

Anonymous said...

So well put, Pen. I can share the piece? Mairin.

Jenna said...

1. You attacked my character even though I issued no attack on yours. My opinion is just my opinion; it doesn't constitute an attack or impune you in any way. It's called a sharing of ideas; have you heard of it?
2. I live in a constitutional republic. I'm allowed over here to think the monarchy to be freakish in 2020, grossly feudal, and in direct contraindication to Brussels' goals. And Prince Charles' glowing resume (that leaves out a few dark spots, no?) doesn't change that.
3. I still don't get why your organic garden is under threat from Brexit, but you spent 500 words saying "If you don't know, I'm damn well not going to tell you." Got it.

Thanks, Pen. You have proved my point: Even those who sing Kumbayah only really want dialogue with those who agree with them. By the by, I won't be back. Had you wanted to assail my personality, I would have offered you my email address.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hi Mairin — yes, certainly.

Hi Jenna — I'll just leave your comment here . . .

Pen Wilcock said...

Greta — thank you for your lovely message — as you suggested it might be better I not publish it, I haven't — but I so appreciate your kindness. x