Saturday, January 28, 2006

Man or Beast?

Ever since seeing Peter Jackson’s movie King Kong, I have been reflecting on the ways some human beings seem to be turning into beasts. For those who have seen King Kong (and I highly recommend it), think of the director depicted in the movie. Here was a man who, when faced with scenes of exquisite beauty, was numb to the beauty and wonder all around him since all he could think of was capturing scenes on film for his own utilitarian ends. In not being able to feel any sense of wonder, the movie director had actually turned into a savage, a beast, like the natives on the island. But then, on the other hand, contrast that with Kong - an actual beast - who becomes humanized through the sense of wonder that Ann awakens in him. One of the most moving scenes is where Kong watches the sunset, awakened to sensations that many human beings have become inured to. In a very real sense, Kong was more human than many of people. It brings to mind George MacDonald’s tale The Princess and Curdie, where everyone is depicted as being on a journey of either ceasing to be, or gradually become, a beast.

The sense of wonder is a more important aspect of our humanity than many may at first realize. I would want to suggest that just as the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, so the beginning of the fear of God is a sense of wonder. The Lord has saturated our world with emblems of His majesty, to orient us towards that sense of wonder that leads to a fear of Him. The sense of wonder that we feel in the presence of anything truly awe-inspiring, orients the cadences of our minds towards our Creator, even without our realizing it. This is why parents can cultivate the fear of God in their children by putting before the children art, music, literature that is awe-inspiring and wonder-filled. By cultivating a sense of reverence, awe and wonder towards the things a child can see and hear, the child can learn to reverence God whom they cannot see and hear.

One of the main factors in removing this sense of wonder has been the growth of technology over the past hundred years. Throughout the ages, writers and thinkers have unsuccessfully tried to remove the fear of God – ‘religious superstition’ as they called it - from the mind of the common man. In the end, their agenda was achieved not because the common man was persuaded to give up the fear of God, but because the mind is unable to feel fear of anything – except perhaps electrical failure - when it is submerged us in a sea of tantalizing triviality and terminal trendiness. And this is exactly what inventions such as the telegraph, radio, television and internet and computer games have gradually achieved. These inventions, which had so much potential for good, have largely been used to flood the masses with the waters of endless irrelevancies. The chief casualty in this process has been that the sense of wonder that is vital in distinguishing man from the beasts.

It is revealing that the term ‘wonder’ has been largely reduced to an approximation for curiosity, while it’s adjective ‘wonderful’ has been reduced to meaning simply ‘great.’ But if we want to get back to the original meaning of these terms, we need to observe little children. All children are born with this sense of wonder embedded in them. You just have to look into a baby’s eyes to see that sense of wonder. As the baby grows older, that sense of wonder is transferred to every object in his or her environment. But this ‘wonder’ is not mere curiosity; everything the baby sees, and especially everything it manages to get its hands on, is wonderful in the sense of being filled with wonder. Things that we would normally think of as being mundane, whether it be wooden spoons to saucepan lids, a baby will find simply magical.

But just as the sense of wonder transforms the mundane into something magical, conversely, without it, even the magical becomes mundane. And that is exactly what happens when the child’s original sense of wonder is stamped out rather than nurtured. Just as the sense of wonder is nurtured by saturating the mind in anything that is truly noble, beautiful and awe-inspiring (beginning with Nursery rhymes and ending with Oratorios), so it is stamped out by letting our children feed the infinite appetite for distractions bequeathed to us by our technological devices. It is stamped out by letting our children go to schools where they learn to despise what is noble and good. It is stamped out by letting television cultivate an enjoyment for what is trivial and irrelevant. Children grow up to be like beasts that are inured to being deeply moved by anything wholly other.

This threat to our humanity has come largely unchallenged because it has arisen from the last place we would expect. In Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, people were controlled by those who could inflict pain; who would have guessed that in our culture people would be controlled by those who inflict pleasure. Yet that is exactly what has happened, as people have been lulled into passivity by the endless potential for amusement. Our entertainment technologies work like a drug on the mind, convincing us that everything is benign, subverting our ability to love, enjoy and appreciate what is truly good and removing that sense of wonder that distinguishes man from monkey and distinguishes women from wildebeest.

It is only the Bible that can show us how to be truly human. The sense of wonder, or any aspect of our humanity, is not itself sufficient and can be turned into an idol when allowed to become autonomous and loosed from a genuinely Biblical anthropology. This is actually what happened when the romantic movement reacted to the dehumanising influences of the Enlightenment. The innately human sense of wonder, like all the factors which distinguish mankind from the beasts, can only be understood aright against the backdrop of the doctrine of the image of God.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

EU Waste Management: A Waste of Time

Christopher Booker had an interesting article in the Sunday Telegraph on how the European Union is destroying Britain's ability to effectively manage our waste. He pointed out
Since we handed over to Brussels the right to dictate waste management policy, the Commission has decided to phase out disposal by landfill (largely inspired by countries such as Holland and Denmark that have no space for it), and to go instead for incineration and recycling (hence the piles of incomprehensible bumf many of us recently received from our local councils about new recycling rules - with no mention of the EU).

All of this may sound like exactly the kind of enlightened "green" policy favoured by David Cameron's exciting new "Not-the-Conservative Party", until one looks at its practical implications.

According to a report last week by the Institute of Civil Engineers, the capital investment in new infrastructure needed to implement this recycling strategy will amount to £10 billion, or £400 for every household in Britain.

Peter Jones, a clued-up director of Biffa, Britain's largest waste company (and exactly the sort of adviser that Mr Cameron ought to be hiring on environmental matters, rather than John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith), further warned that the annual cost of running the 300 "waste parks" needed to implement the EU's recycling policy could be as much as £8 billion a year, a tenth of the cost of the National Health Service.

The trouble is that it will not be economical to do this until the cost of landfilling rubbish, thanks to the steady £3 a year rise in the EU-inspired landfill tax, has risen to around £60 a tonne, which will not be for another four or five years. As our landfill tips disappear (they are currently closing at two or three a month), we shall be faced with a colossal waste crisis.

We shall no longer have any way to dispose of our rubbish because that £10 billion-worth of infrastructure and the 40,000 staff to run it will not be in place.

We have had a tiny foretaste of this chaos in the "fridge mountain", and with further Brussels waste laws on the way, matters threaten to become far worse.

We are already being threatened with massive fines by Mr Barroso's Commission for our inability to implement the unworkable "WEEE directive", which orders manufacturers to take back for recycling every single item of electrical and electronic equipment, from televisions and computers to pocket torches.

Such are the results of handing over ever more of the running of our country to a mysterious, unaccountable system which reduces our politicians to impotence, and which most commentators are far too grand to understand.

Click HERE for Booker's full article.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More Ranting Reflections on Politics of Power

It has not been merely recently that the arm of government has stretched to encompass all aspects of society. Back when the American government was formed, the founding fathers were acutely aware of the potential for governments to stretch beyond their jurisdiction. That is why they designed the constitution in such a way as to strictly limit the power of federal government. Though English common law affirmed a network of inherited freedoms that provided an unwritten bracket on parliamentary powers, the founding father of America wanted a more explicit and unbendable safeguard of their freedoms. Hence, the American constitution.

The primary freedoms the constitution sought to preserve was the independence of the various American colonies or states. The federal government was not to subvert the responsibility of the respective states. Since the war against Britain was fought in order to preserve the self-government of the colonies, the last thing the colonies wished to do was to give away their hard-earned freedoms to a federal body. Hence, the title of the nation is not ‘America’ but ‘the United States of America.’ John Madison explained that federal activity would be confined almost exclusively to foreign affairs, while the actual governing of the country would be the province of the individual states.

Even so, many of the states were worried that the proposed American union would become an engine to override the autonomy of the state. That is why some of the states, while agreeing to accept the constitution, retained the right to secede from the Union if it ever began infringing upon their right to self-government. Thomas Jefferson said that a state could remain part of the Union and still nullify unconstitutional federal laws. Jefferson argued that it would be preferable for states to break away from the union rather than continue as part of something that might threaten their self-government. “[We should be] determined…to sever ourselves from the union we so much value rather than give up the rights of self-government…in which alone we see liberty, safety and happiness.” Even early American advocates of strong central government, like Alexander Hamilton, were clear that “the State governments will, in all possible contingencies, afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.”

The tenth amendment of the constitution was written in order to make it completely impossible for the federal government to make laws infringing on the self-government of the states. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, it is illegal for the federal government to exercise power in a state unless the constitution specifically gives the federal government that power. This was the reason why, in 1817, President Madison vetoed a bill authorizing federal expenditures to pay for roads and canals. In explanation, Madison said that although he personally thought it was a good idea to use federal money to finance these projects, the constitution had not actually given the federal government this authority. One can only wonder what Madison would have thought if he saw the situation today, where probably ninety-nine percent of the federal laws assume authority over areas not delegated to federal government by the constitution. Madison feared that if the federal government overstepped its constitutional jurisdiction, then

Congress…may appoint teachers in every state, country, and parish, and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision for the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, everything, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress.

Welcome to the America of today!

The man who authored the first draft of the constitution said, “The constitution is not an instrument for government to restrain the people but an instrument for the people to restrain the government, lest it come to dominate our lives and our interests and everything in our lives and our interests.” What would these men have thought if they could have foreseen the way lawmakers would so completely twist the constitution out of shape so as to become the justification for strong centralized control. Just consider how many desires are now being converted into rights in the name of the U.S. constitution. It is the constitution, we were told by a U.S. Court of Appeals, that prohibits states from allowing parents to interfere with what the government teaches their children about sex. It is because of the constitution that federal courts claimed the right to strike down Californian legislation that would have prevented the state giving away free services to illegal immigrants. The supreme court also decided that it was unconstitutional for states to prohibit partial birth abortion (apparently women have the constitutional right to have a partial birth abortion if they want to, but I’ve never found anything about that in the constitution). It is because of the constitution, we are told, that school teachers are prohibited from telling their students about the intelligent design theory in science class yet can teach them how to be a homosexual. It is now routine for the federal judiciary to strike down state legislation in the name of the U.S. constitution. Perhaps the most bizarre case was when the Clinton Justice Department filed a brief with a federal appeals court, citing the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared all Americans to be entitled to the equal protection of the laws, as an argument for giving special treatment to members of certain protected groups.

Arthur Sinclair was an early American who did glimpse where things might lead. Sinclair fought in the American war of independence and was one of the early American presidents under the articles of confederation. Sinclair eventually rejected his American citizenship because he believed that the U.S. constitution, with its emphasis on rights, would be the undoing of the great experiment in liberty. “I foresee the day,” he said, “when rights will subsume responsibilities, where the poor and the despised will become wage slaves of the elite and the mercantilism that we have fought against, and the tyranny that we have stood against, will be swallowed by the average American citizen and they will call that freedom.”

Sinclair’s fears have, of course, been realized to the letter. Freedom no longer means responsible self-government, but the right – even the constitutional right - to do whatever I want to do. Freedom also means that the federal government can do whatever it wants to do, as it rides roughshod over the constitution and the statutory sovereignty of each state. This is not true freedom or responsibility, but bondage.

As central governments – not just the USA government, but all Western governments - continued to assume more and more responsibility over individuals and over previously autonomous units of state and local government, people gradually stopped perceiving themselves in relation to their communities. Instead, people perceived themselves in relation to the nation state to which they belonged. According to George Grant, it has only been recently that patriotism was in reference to a political unit. Patriotism and nationality used to be conceived in relation to communities and cultures rather than geo-political institutions. This meant that people didn’t think of themselves as being British but as being Kentish or Londoners or from the North country, etc. To be sure, a person would also see themselves as belonging to larger groupings, like Christendom, and these larger groupings would depend on common faith and shared culture, not institutional boundaries. Political boundaries tended to proceed out of these deeper connections that were interpersonal rather than organisational.

In the 19th century, all this began to change. It is revealing that in 1908, the New English Dictionary stated that the old meaning of nationality envisioned little more than an ethnic unit, whereas now, they write, nationality refers to a political unity. This new way of looking at things is known as the philosophy of nationalism. Understanding the philosophy of nationalism is crucial to understanding why people think of government in the way they do today. It has only been since the growth of nationalism that phrases such as state, policy, federal government, or even nation, have come into common usage. In his book Nations and Nationalism, E. J. Hobsbawm defines nationalism as the philosophy that says the nation is the same as the government of that nation and that it is not possible to understand the nation or its culture apart from its organizational apparatus.

Nationalism has become so ingrained in our thinking that we find it hard to conceive that prior to the 19th century, there was no such thing as Spain, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, and many other nations that we take for granted. Spain, for example, used to be fourteen separate kingdoms. Prior to the American, so called ‘civil war’, the states in the American south thought of themselves as being a collection of independent states that took part in the federal nation only by voluntary consent. The countries of Europe, as well as the modern American ‘Union’, have all been modern constructs of the nationalist philosophy. Before the innovation of nationalism, these unions didn’t exist except in the minds of a few politicians.

The effect of these developments has meant that people now tend to derive their corporate identity from politics and state power rather than voluntary ethnic and interpersonal relations. Thus, local communities become eroded on every level, even on the level of the family, as the nation state becomes the new reference point. The nation state is, in fact, becoming the reference point for everything, as seen in the fact that every discussion, whether it is family values or abortion or trade or health care or economics, usually becomes transformed into a political discussion. The giant leviathan of Statecraft is slowly but effectively subsuming all things within its tentacles.

We have seen that the American founding fathers were not unaware of this potential. Speaking of the federal judiciary, Thomas Jefferson once said, “[It is] working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall be usurped from the states, and the government of all be consolidated into one.” This process was perhaps completed when the supreme court ruled that it is unconstitutional for states to outlaw partial birth abortion.

It was because they were aware of this potential for politics to become all-consuming, that the founding fathers of America sought to keep politics on the periphery of public life. How different this is from the contemporary notion of the good citizen as one who stays informed on all the political issues and takes an active interest. George Grant tells us that the American founding fathers expected ordinary citizens to pretty much forget about politics except during election time. As Patrick Henry put it, “Liberty necessitates the diminutization of political ambition and concern. Liberty necessitates concentration on other matters than mere civil government.”
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Politics of Power: Robin's Ranting Reflections

In Massachusetts, during the mid 90’s, a three-year-old girl was playing in a sand box with a three-year-old boy at the Charles River Park playground. In the course of their games, I’m afraid to report, these children actually started fighting with one another. Finally, the inevitable happened: these three year-olds started to spit at one another.
There was apparently only one thing for the parents to do: take the matter to court. Thus it was that in February, 1996, Judge Charles Spurlock of the Suffolk Superior Court in Boston, issued Antonina Pevnev, the mother of the three-year-old girl, a restraining order against the three-year-old son of Margaret Inge. Thanks to this restraining order, peace was once again preserved at the Charles River Park playground.

Perhaps next time Esther is having trouble putting Timothy to bed or getting Matthew to finish up his dinner, we’ll let the government sort the problem out for us. Thankfully, it hasn’t come to that yet, and it is still unusual for government to be called upon to sort out the minutiae of toddler problems. Yet still, the sandbox incident should give us pause for reflection. It illustrates the ever increasing tendency for people to view government as occupying an arena that was once the domain of individual responsibility. It was the responsibility of the parents, not the government, to sort out the problem in the sandbox.

This event serves to illustrate the way centralized power is progressively swallowing up local responsibility, how government is gradually taking away our freedom and ability to be responsible for ourselves.

Of course, there are some areas where government does have legitimate responsibility over us. We read in Romans 13:4 that God has established government to execute wrath on those who practice evil. Civil rulers do have responsibility - albeit a limited one – towards the citizens they rule over. Yet by its very nature, government cannot be responsible for every aspect of our lives. There are many areas where people must learn to behave responsibly without laws forcing them to do so.

Once I complained to my neighbour at how loud his music was. “Oh Robin,” he said, “you’re perfectly welcome to get the counsel out here and I’m sure they’ll be satisfied that the sound is well within the legal limit.” This man, like many people in Britain and America today, simply do not know how to behave responsibly apart from the law. What is being lost is the middle ground between government control and social chaos, where public virtue and responsibility keep things in balance. As this middle area becomes eroded, as people cease having a concept of individual responsibility and public virtue, a great vacuum is created which excessive law and excessive licentiousness then compete to occupy. So you get what seems to be a paradox: a society where there is more and more control at the same time as being more and more freedoms. Our government gives people the freedom to register as a different sex but not the freedom to sell bendy cucumbers in the supermarket.

John Fletcher Moulton pointed out that the greatness of a nation can be seen to the extent that there is “obedience to the unenforceable…the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and…the way they behave in response to that trust.” It is this “obedience to the unenforceable” that is being slowly lost in the Western nations of today. Many citizens do not even have a concept of responsibility outside the law. This was confirmed in a conversation I had with Victoria Gillick about some of the pregnancy counselling she does. Often Victoria will talk to women who are considering getting an abortion, and she will ask, “If abortion was illegal, would you still consider having one (i.e., secret back-street abortion)?” The answer she always gets is no, because unconsciously the girls assume that if something is legal it must be okay and if it is illegal it must not be okay.

As individualism and ethical subjectivism continue to plunder any sense of responsibility to the unenforceable, we should expect to see government compensating for the result by making more and more laws to cover an increasing range of scenarios. What happens then is that people begin to see government rather than local responsibility as the engine to bring cohesion and order to society. So if there is a problem, it’s the government’s job to fix it. That is why not long ago there was a debate in parliament on whether the government should take measures to prevent obesity in children. There is legislation from Europe to limit the amount of noise in the workplace – something that could affect the dynamics permitted in concert symphonies. In 2004, the EU passed legislation preventing people from working at too high of altitudes. The legislation was protested by professional mountain rescue teams in Scotland who were worried about the effect it might have in their rescue work. The law, which was designed for the protection of people working on high building sites, requires signs to be posted telling people they are up very high. The Tory, Jonathan Evans, said: "If this legislation is implemented as it currently stands then activity centres will be legally compelled to post signs to tell people they are up high. This is madness - most people know that when they climb a mountain they will be up high."

It is not just the European Union that is seeking to micromanage our lives. As early as the 16th century, the 2nd Earl of Pinbrook said “Parliament can do anything but make a man a woman and make a woman a man.” He didn’t live long enough to see the ‘Gender Recognition Act’, which declares that if a woman acts like a man for the two years, she can have her birth certificate amended to say that she was born as a man (and visa versa).

Of course, we could go on and on. When faced with such inane legislation, what people often don’t realize is that it is irrelevant whether we happen to agree or disagree with the ends such laws are trying to achieve. In some cases they are good ends (who would dispute the need for children not to become obese?). The important point, rather, is that all such legislation is outside the sphere of government’s responsibility. These laws spring forth from an administrative view of government, where government is seen as a giant engine to administer social good over the citizenry. This is over and against the older view which saw the purpose of government as being purely negative – to avert anything threatening the lives, property or safety of its people. Speaking of this shift, John Laughland writes about

"a managerial or administrative system of rule, in which the government sees itself as issuing commands to society in pursuit of a certain goal, rather than a primarily law-based regime in which the government’s principal goal is to maintain an ongoing legal order (the rule of law) by adapting it to the changing contingencies of time and place." (The Tainted Source)

A prime example of a ruler with a managerial agenda was Clinton. Clinton was a social engineer who wanted to use his position to impose an egalitarian agenda onto the American people. Woods writes how under the Clinton administration,

…in 1995, the Pentagon let it be known that “special permission will be required for the promotion of all white men without disabilities.” The Food and Drug Administration’s “Equal Employment Opportunity Handbook” advised that such clerical and secretarial requirements as “knowledge of rules of grammar” and “ability to spell accurately” should be de-emphasized when seeking to fill such jobs, since those requirements may make it more difficult to attract “underrepresented groups or individuals with disabilities.”

Most absurdly, perhaps, was the case of the U.S. Forest Service: Criticized for not having hired enough female firefighters, the Forest Service posted a job announcement that proclaimed, “Only unqualified applicants may apply.” A later announcement read, “Only applicants who do not meet [job requirement] standards will be considered.” We now know that as a result of this bizarre policy, critical friefighting positions were left vacant for lack of unqualified applicants.”

Everyone laughs at incidents like the above, yet the basic administrative view of government has become so ingrained in people that it is hardly questioned anymore. Everyone now assumes that politicians should be chosen on the extent to which they can ‘deliver the goods.’ Policies such as Clinton’s are usually criticized because of the agenda he was trying to pursue, or the means by which he tried to bring about that agenda. But in fact, we should be questioning whether it is the government’s responsibility to be pursuing a social agenda at all.
If government really has responsibility to be an administrative engine of good over all aspects of our lives, then the government must have responsibility over all aspects of our lives. From this it follows that responsibility must be taken away from the family and the individual and handed over to centralized bodies. This is exactly what many people are now saying. Some educational ‘experts’ have objected to home-school on the grounds that the practice invests parents with a power that properly belongs to the state, namely the power to influence how their children grow up to think. A typical strategy is to point to cases where the parental role has been abused, and then to argue that the law should limit parental responsibility. Of course, wherever there is responsibility there is also the possibility of abuse, and this is hardly solved by removing responsibility from smaller units and investing it to a centralized unit. Yet this is exactly what is being urged. Just as people are campaigning against the autonomy of the family, so they are also campaigning against the autonomy of the nation state on the same principle. By taking away the autonomy of individual nations, leaders hope to remove the potential for conflict. This was the principle on which Former German President of the European Parliament, Klaus Hansch, argued that “Never again must a state be so sovereign that it can decide between weal and woe, between war and peace."
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