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Faith(s) of our Fathers…So farewell, Madeleine Bunting June 21, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Sad news yesterday to read that Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting is leaving the paper for a new job. Not just any new job either, but the somewhat prestigious new job of Director of Demos, the leftish public policy think-tank.

I've followed her columns for some now and found her one of the most consistently entertaining columnists on the paper. The problem being that she's entertaining for many of the wrong reasons….

As she modestly notes in her final column, "As a columnist I have championed particular issues – and some, I'm glad to see, are now part of a new progressive consensus of both left and right, as David Cameron takes up a politics of wellbeing and quality of working life. Soon, I hope, he and Gordon Brown will even start to talk about the care ethic – the vital principle alongside the work ethic at the heart of any society" (here).

Her future ambitions are oddly not a million miles away from the purpose of this blog, as she says "I plan to devote more attention to in my new capacity: for example, the regeneration of an intellectual grounding for centre-left politics beyond the tired managerialism and bankrupted concept of choice". So good on her.

However, her big idea in the past couple of years has been that religion should be much more central to political and social life in Britain, that the values of religion should inform the 'national conversation'. But not just any religion, because she's not hugely exercised by the fuddy-duddy Church of England, or the dull as ditch water Roman Catholic church, nor indeed tedious Zoroastrianism, or tiresome Buddhism. For Bunting has discovered that, "For the first time in a generation, religion is part of the national conversation; people want to talk and read about it. This is in large part due to Islam, which is prompting in a western audience a combination of fear and bewildered fascination (how can women want to wear veils, and have arranged marriages; how can Muslims still believe in angels and a divinely inspired scripture?). But there is another, albeit less pronounced, driver to this debate, which is that the collapse of communism and decline of socialism has left a vacuum of purpose, value and meaning on both the left and the right".

Now, being a somewhat critical fan of Edward Said I'm fairly inured to the dangers of orientalism in both it's positive and negative formulations, but I'm not so certain about Bunting.

She writes that: "To be fair, if the secular left is to be coaxed into a more knowledgeable and intelligent conversation on religion, then those of faith have a comparably large mountain to climb. There are two non-negotiables for the faithful if they are to warrant attention. First, the secularism of political life in this country has sunk deep and precious roots for good reasons and that should not be reversed – no jockeying for institutional advantage, please. Second, no exclusive claims for any tradition. Instead, what's needed is an ever-ready openness to understand the metaphors of other faiths".

Unfortunately there is an inherent contradiction here. Firstly, because the secular should be enormously wary of allowing the confessional onto it's turf. Not for nothing have we seen a degree of confrontation between religion and state in both the US (between fundamentalist Christians seeking to have religious texts placed within state buildings) and in Europe (particularly in the dispute over the use of religious garb in state schools). Above and beyond the rights of those involved, and there is right on both sides, the division between church and state is fundamental to the nature and possibly the well-being of societal balance in both areas.

Secondly for Bunting to even couch the discourse as being framed within the 'metaphors of other faiths' is to entirely misunderstand the ground stands upon. For Islam, or Roman Catholicism or the Church of England, the elements that the religion is constructed from are not 'metaphors' but core beliefs. To my mind this approach is arguably more disrespectful than a pro-religious yet strongly pro-secular state viewpoint (similar to that which I hold) that at the very least understands and respects the sincerity with which beliefs are held without pretending that those beliefs are mere 'metaphors'.

And there's a ghost at the banquet. She entirely ignores the fact that religion has always been part of the national discourse in British politics on and off for decades. Indeed the Labour party itself was often considered to "owe more to Methodism than Marx". Blair has publicly noted his own fusion of Christian and socialist beliefs. The Conservative Party has had an uneasy relationship between mammon and God, occasionally pitching towards the more socially conservative. Indeed she's tilting towards the territory occupied by P. Hitchens and Melanie Phillips which sees the woes of contemporary society as being the result of the 'liberalism' of the 1960s. Indeed she actually namechecks that poor old decade in the article…

Yet the contradictions are not simply within her text, but also between this and other articles she has written. Back in April 2005 discussing pamphlets on morality and politics she noted: "The point is that morality and values are no soft option. You can't slap them on with some fine phrases in an effort to get the electorate to listen to you. Morality in a post-Christian and post-socialist age is a fiendishly difficult subject to talk about. The shared-purpose common values with which Alexander peppers his text are meaningless to most people.

Debates about the moral purpose of politics in this election are unlikely to offer Labour any lift. Rather, they expose the inevitable attrition rate of any government's moral credibility after two terms. The record can be described, at best, as patchy, while Blair's "right thing" was much worse, and has left a distinctly queasy feeling".

In the light of the 'fiendish difficulties' she notes above, it's hard to see how she proposes to synthesise radically different belief systems and then allow them some degree of influence within the public sphere. And she knows that, hence her point about 'fear and bewildered fascination' (Incidentally I think her point about a 'bewildered fascination' is over done. Western European societies are only four or five generations into universal suffrage, for most of us, conservative liberal or socialist, there is a fairly clear idea of what we want, and what we don't want). Yet, it's difficult to think of any other generation of self-styled 'progressives' not knowing exactly where they stood in relation to such issues, respectful of individuals and religions as they had a coherent body of thought to call upon as regards equality, fraternity and liberty within the public context.

Her parting shot is telling, "So to all those readers (and there are more than a few) who will be delighted to see the back of me and my habit of referencing the religious traditions that have inspired me, I say that your prejudice is rooted in a misreading of history and a western cultural hegemony that has formulated a self-serving fantasy of its own superiority. Our future as a species is too precarious to allow for such vanity. We need vastly more humility and more sustained curiosity about how previous ages and other cultures have understood the nature of the human person and our yearning for freedom".

While enjoying the somewhat eschatological gloom of the paragraph, I find it difficult to understand how a belief in a fair and appropriate distance between religion and state is the result of a misreading of history or a 'superior' western cultural hegamony. Or perhaps it is that having been brought up in a state where political/religious disputes have had a rather more pointed resonance in recent times than in (most of) the UK I'm a tad more wary and less willing to give the benefit of the doubt than Bunting to those organisations who have apparently better 'understood the nature of the human person and our yearning for freedom' than countless scores of individuals who have had to chip away at building a public space where all can speak freely from the American and French Revolutions onwards…

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1. smiffy - June 21, 2006

Ah, Madeleine.

Well, look; she’s not all bad. Anyway who can drive the increasingly shrill Norman Geras up the wall the way she does, can’t be all bad. Similarly, her defence of Islam (or Muslims) does seem to be motivated by noble intentions.

There are far too many people, on the left and the right, both secular and religious who have a kneejerk aversion to Islam. These are the kind of people who’ll pore over the Koran for the juicy bits (the really nuts stuff) and announce that “This is Islam. They’re all mad”. Such a reductionist reading misses the fundamental point about any religion – the religion is whatever those who subscribe to it believe in, not what those oppose it interpret it to be. I think it’s this kind of argument that Bunting has a reasonable distaste for.

Her problem, though, is that she’s doesn’t really seem to know what she thinks. Indeed, at times she doesn’t appear to know how to think either. She’s much too fond of talking about the ‘national conversation’ (although perhaps the international conversation is the more urgent one), without revealing what her contribution to such a conversation might be.

God love her (no pun intended) but she does seem genuinely unable to differentiate between respecting someone’s right to hold a belief, and respecting the belief itself, doesn’t she? Doesn’t she realise that if you believe something to be true you’re going to have to, at some stage, believe that someone else is wrong. And that’s allowed. In fact, if the other person is wrong, it’s probably worth pointing it out (even if it does turn the national conversation into a national argument).

More than that, I think the fundamental flaw in her argument (indeed, in her entire worldview) is the blindness to the fact that her prioritisation of consensus above all else, the belief that there’s ‘truth’ in every ‘religious metaphor’ (and you’re spot on in noting how patronising those such a phrase is to the genuinely religious), the need to ‘respect’ everyone (no matter how stupid they might be) is what inevitably leads to what she describes as ‘vacuum of purpose and meaning’.

If there’s validity in everyone’s point of view, then there’s validity in no one’s. What she’s proposing isn’t tolerance; it’s nihilism. And I’ll choose the Enlightenment (the real version, not the Bunting strawman version) over that any day.

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2. WorldbyStorm - June 21, 2006

I do respect her outreach programme (to coin a phrase) to Islam, and it’s never any harm to have public commentators pointing out that radical Islam is but a tiny component of the mix, but in some respects I feel her columns over the past year or so have been in some respects the longest job application letter on record…

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3. joemomma - June 21, 2006

Her future ambitions are oddly not a million miles away from the purpose of this blog, as she says “I plan to devote more attention to in my new capacity: for example, the regeneration of an intellectual grounding for centre-left politics beyond the tired managerialism and bankrupted concept of choice”

I expect this blog will be appointed to a senior position in a public policy think tank in due course.

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4. smiffy - June 21, 2006

There does appear to be a vacancy in the think tank market at the moment.

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5. (God moves in mysterious ways…) Welcome back Madeleine Bunting… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - October 20, 2006

[...] Demos, latterly and for a very short while the home of Madeleine Bunting of the Guardian (already discussed here) as Director has seen a parting of the ways as recorded here. [...]

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