Courage and Competence in the UK Coronavirus Response: A Counterfactual

It’s fair to say that the driving motivator of the UK government’s response to the coronavirus has been fear. Fear of widespread cases and fatalities and fear of an overwhelmed health service. Fear, by and large, leads to, and is undergirded by, concerns with safety.

And there was much to fear when the virus appeared on the scene in early 2020. The virus was a kind of unknown; we did not know how it would operate. Indeed, it seemed to affect different populations, and different parts of a given population, differently. Fear seemed a natural response to the unknown. It seemed right to prioritise safety above all else. So, here in the UK, we went into a series of national lockdowns—two, in fact, as well as other measures that came pretty close to the life-altering existence that lockdowns represent.

Courage

But what if the government had appealed to alternative motivators for tackling this pandemic? Specifically, what if it had appealed to the courage of its citizenry?

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Christian Life is Lived Between Christ the King Sunday and Advent

James KA Smith’s address to Christians in Parliament from 2018 is a must listen for the week between Christ the King Sunday (a relative newcomer to the Liturgical Calendar) and Advent. Check it out below:

Two New ResPublica Seminars on Post-Liberalism

With a Summer and Autumn of cultural upheaval in the Anglosphere (as a result of Covid, fiery protests of various sorts, Brexit debates and, now, an ongoing US election that will perpetuate the liberal order, whether economically with Trump or socially and economically with Biden), there’s certainly appetite for considering fresh ideas that might take us forward with the crucial task of re-constructing community and society.

It’s just as well, then, that the UK think-tank ResPublica have recently produced two instructive seminars on post-liberalism, that political philosophy which, in broad terms, advocates moving to the left on the economy, to the right on culture and identity and to the local and particular in governance. Identifying the overarching assumption of liberalism as unmitigated autonomy—the human person unmoored form ties to person or place—post-liberals seek to offer a positive vision that prioritises relationships, community and belonging in our cultural, economic and social life.

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How Have Commentators’ Understood Jesus’s Command to “Render to Caesar What is Caesar’s and to God What is God’s”?

This Sunday’s lectionary features the tribute passage, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels and ends with Jesus’s famous words “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”. I wrote a piece a few years back for Currents in Biblical Research which summarised the four main ways that contemporary commentators have read this saying. You can read the article for free, here.

Image: Jacek Malczewski, The Tribute Money (part of triptych) 1908, (Wikiart)

My Politics Needs Christianity

The British public has perhaps been never more politically engaged, and yet never more politically disillusioned.

As the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement for 2018 and 2019 show, opinions of the governing systems are are their lowest point in 15 years, even as the appetite for political change and engagement has grown.

On the one hand, the number of elections post-2014, including of the most significance of these, the Referendum on EU Membership, has generated an unprecedented level of active political activism among the British population. The Hansard Society refers to the increase in electoral events as an “‘electric shock therapy’ for political engagement”.

On the other hand, there is a general weariness and dissatisfaction just now with political parties and candidates. In particular, there’s a suspicion that the options on offer appear to propagate the interests of the financial and cultural establishment. In the US, this is largely made up of different types of big business, as American academic and commentator Bret Weinstein explains. Disillusioned with the candidates on the ticket, various individuals have formed the Unity 2020 campaign, a movement for a third party candidate, and alternative form of politics. Closer to home, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has sought to transcend the traditional divides between capital and labour, nation and world and even private and public sector (see their New Declaration from 2018, one of the more powerful pieces of political writing in recent years).

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Will Marxism Re-unite Classical Liberals and Conservatives?

What is the relationship between classical liberalism, conservativism and Marxism? I’ve been pondering this question today having read a recent Quillette article by Jewish political philosopher Yoram Hazony (“The Challenge of Marxism”) and in making my way through Roger Scruton’s book, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition.

Hazony’s piece offers a description of Neo-marxism, its power and pitfalls and its take-over of institutions in the English-speaking world. He is careful to note that he is not using the term Marxist as an ad hominem smear, but instead to describe a genuine attempt to rewrite the history and re-shape the culture of the West. The fatal flaws of Marxism he describes include:

  • the simplistic assumption “that wherever one discovers a relationship between a more powerful group and a weaker one, that relation will be one of oppressor and oppressed”. This ignores the real state of affairs in which mixed relationships more often are the norm with powerful and weaker groups mutually benefiting one another in civil life. It is possible for the more powerful interest groups to seek to “balance the benefits and the burdens of the existing order so as to avoid actual oppression”.
  • the assumption “that every society is so exploitative that it must be heading toward the overthrow of the dominant class or group”. But if Hazony is right, and weaker groups favour the general preservation of the current order (surely with some reform), then there would be a preference not for the overthrow of current institutions but for an order that seeks to address the challenges of inevitable inequalities, with the help of custom and all with a view to improving, rather than tearing up, the social fabric.
  • the lack of consideration given to what the revolting class would construct once the revolution has been completed. Hazony goes on to suggest that the overthrow of an oppressive class by the revolters can, and indeed will, breed more oppression (assuming that Marx was right about relationships of power being the norm for human existence).

To his credit, Hazony also notes aspects missing in Enlightenment liberalism that Marxism helpfully fills in: it’s awareness of class and the formation of cohesive groups within society (which liberalism ignores because of its obsessive focus on the individual) and its aliveness to abuses of power in liberal Western societies (which liberals erroneously tend to think exist only in totalitarian societies “over there”).

However, on the question of the relationship between the three political philosophies, the article contains two points that stand out for me:

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Friends’ Obsession with Negative Freedom and Porn

Perhaps against my better judgment, I’ve been making my way through the 90s-early 2000s cult show, Friends.

Like any TV programme or film that is over a couple years old (and sometimes even younger—see the 2019 Aladdin film!), Friends has been coming in for cancellation over its outdated views on sexuality, gender and body image. Much of the critique seems fair, though I would much prefer discussion of the issues rather than introducing either a blanket ban or some other kind of warning.

Yet from briefly scouring the internet, what very few seem to have been talking about are the copious references to pornography in the show. As a very rough guesstimate, I’d wager that every other episode contains some mention of porn (it usually takes the form of one or more the guys referencing that they have viewed porn). The references to porn are always positive and the consumption of pornographic content is accepted without the blink of an eye. I’d venture that Friends essentially normalised pornography for a generation of men and women growing up at this time.

Raising this issue might seem prudish to readers, but the effects of the scourge of pornography—what is essentially an endemic war on all of our minds, and particularly the minds of the young —are now clear for all to see. A recent British Board of Film Classification survey of 16-17 olds reported that almost half of young people of these ages had recently viewed pornographic content (almost certainly a conservative estimate). Violent pornographic content has probably never been more easy to access or produced in such a high volume, resulting in the normalisation of violent sexual acts and rape among young people.

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Why Conservatives Need to Be Constructionists

One of the important lessons of 2020 is that it is relatively easy to dismantle and deconstruct history, culture and institutions. Conversely, it is far more difficult to build-bridges, construct things and move forward with solutions. We desperately need the latter kind of person in Western society.

Now, we need such people across the political and cultural spectrum, of course. But we particularly need them among small c-conservatives, which is, broadly speaking, how I would describe myself.

As recent articles by Mary Harrington and Niall Gooch have shown, those on the right have, in recent years, become sucked into the culture wars of the day, often mirroring and mimicking the style and tone of cultural warriors on the left. While there are some notable exceptions, conservative public intellectuals of the last decade or so have been more characterised by their polemical prowess than their philosophical powers, as Ben Sixsmith has recently highlighted. In the wake of the death of Sir Roger Scruton (who, it must be said, wielded the pen of the pugilist and philosopher in equal measure), the question of who will take up the mantle of conservative philosophy, casting a vision of the good and beautiful for society at large, remains largely unanswered. Where are the constructionists?

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Has the Conservative Party Forgotten about Equality of Opportunity?

While I welcome the Education Minister’s U-turn on A level results, it’s fair to say that this debacle has shown up vast incompetencies at the heart of government.

I was initially sympathetic to the government’s plight. It’s banal to say it, but the best approach would have been to actually sit final year students down to take exams (with some measures of leniency in place), as has been done at universities across the country. But without that as an option, what do you do? The government was left in a bit of a bind. If you don’t hold exams, then using mock exams/predicted grades on their own can be seen as unjust on previous cohorts or currents ones (it’s not standardised and you get teachers who grade cautiously etc). Equally, you can’t just cancel exams. So what do you do?

I’m not entirely sure, but you definitely don’t oversee the production of an algorithm that actively works against students’ efforts, and particularly against those already facing massive obstacles to attaining a university place. Teacher predictions weren’t the only factor in the algorithm and in many cases weren’t even the starting point. As Timandra Harkness has pointed out, underlying Ofqual’s standardising algorithm was a whole set of troubling assumptions, including the presupposition that “you are homogenous with your older schoolmates” or that “the future will look like the past and the present, in significant ways”.

It’s simply foolish to have not seen this coming and to have not stopped it, or at least warned students of the problems. In fact, the government probably shouldn’t even have involved itself in the process at all.

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