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Something of an institution on the Manchester theatre scene

2017 May 24
by Paul Vallely

Suppose a nation were a person, and was subject to psychiatric analysis. Suppose a memory took flesh and appeared in conversation with us. Suppose, on a blind date, a couple were each accompanied by their alter ego, shouting advice and shrieking when it was not taken.

JB Shorts is now something of an institution on the Manchester theatre scene. Twice a year it presents six new 15-minute plays, each written by a different playwright whose day job is working in television. What the format offers is a chance for writers normally preoccupied with Emmerdale, Holby City, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Casualty to exercise a different set of creative muscles. They leave behind the naturalism of TV soap for a world of more imaginative dimensions.

The nation which is a person is the United States. In the playlet by father-and-daughter duo James and Aileen Quinn, America in the Trump era finally collapses psychologically. In Living the Dream Adam Jowett plays Uncle Sam with persuasive rhetorical verve while Sandra Cole is nicely sardonic as the black nurse charged with his care.

The memory incarnated onstage is presented to a man who is about to go on Desert Island Discs to promote his celebrated new book, which turns out to be a dredging of his soul over the suicide of his child. In Pretty Pimpin’ James Quinn, co-author of the first play, gives an assured and touching performance as the father, with Victoria Scowcroft (Coronation Street, Emmerdale etc) as his agent.

The blind date in Inside Voices is a clever piece of drama, albeit somewhat under-rehearsed, in which every character – boy, girl and waitress – is played by two actors. Writer Nick Ahad offers unexpected laughs and some perceptive insights.

This mini festival offers the chance for some fine performances. On a par with Adam Jowett and Sandra Cole is Amy Drake who is frenetically funny in Ian Kerhsaw’s Keep Breathing as the garrulous fitness instructor whose life is quietly falling apart beneath her non-stop patter.

And, the night I attended, there was a very funny performance from James Quinn, standing in for an ill colleague, in the concluding piece by Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley, Pot Plant, in which the home of an elderly couple is busted by the Greater Manchester Drugs Squad when it turns out they have been not just growing marijuana to ease his Parkinson’s and her arthritis, but also supplying the drug to half the elderly population of the city to counter a variety of aged ailments. A hoot.

JB Shorts goes from strength to strength.

 

from The Independent

photo:  James Quinn in Pretty Pimpin’

photo by Sean Mason

The political interview – point-scoring or a pursuit of the truth?

2017 May 19
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by Paul Vallely

A headline from the Sun was read out on the BBC last week. CRASH, it said, over a report that Jeremy Corbyn’s car had run over the foot of a BBC cameraman. BANG depicted Corbyn-supporter Len McCluskey, falling down stairs. And WALLIES was its verdict on what it called Labour’s “manifesto launch shambles”. The Labour MP Barry Gardiner, interviewed on the Today programme immediately afterwards, complained that the BBC should exercise better judgement and not read out headlines which trivialise the election.

The BBC has a statutory duty to be impartial especially during election campaigns. There is more to impartiality than balancing air time. Yet when the vast majority of the press is pro-Tory a public broadcaster needs to exercise some sense of proportion. But Mr Gardiner’s complaint went further; he accused his interviewer, Nick Robinson, of wanting not only to ask the questions but also answer them. The MP insisted on shifting the ground from Jeremy Corbyn’s track record as a rebel MP onto “the really important stuff” about the need for conflict prevention, resolution and diplomacy.

Mr Gardiner studied moral philosophy at St Andrews, Cambridge and Harvard, under John Rawls. His training is evident in his approach to the media. As well as questioning Nick Robinson’s interview technique, he recently upbraided Sky’s political editor, Adam Boulton, for failing to hold his previous interviewee properly to account. And on Newsnight he took Emily Maitlis to task for rigidly adhering to an interview formula about “the size of the state” designed to trick him into saying something he did not want to say.

The philosophical underpinning of the public interview normally goes unquestioned. Too many journalists today begin by silently asking of the politician before, to quote Jeremy Paxman, “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Many see the political interview as a battle they must win. One radio journalist recently informed the public that Jeremy Corbyn was “probably against the military intervention in Sierra Leone too”. Probably! Point-scoring has become more important than truth telling it seems.

Many interviewers now place themselves centre-stage. Like members of a sixth-form debating society, they seem more interested in winning the argument than illuminating the subject and leaving it to the listener to decide. They should be asking: “What does the audience want to learn from this interview?” Instead their starting point is: “How can I trip this politician up?”

Another BBC journalist, Evan Davies, has put his finger on the impasse at which journalists and politicians have arrived: “I think the worst of you. You play it as defensively as you can. Your strategy of being defensive is justified by me being aggressive… We’re now locked into the low road. Your strategy justifies mine. My strategy justifies yours.”

There are BBC guidelines on how to conduct an interview. They include “be sceptical not cynical” and “avoid grandstanding or showing-off.” As the election heats up it might be a good idea for journalists to go back and read them. By the way, the man who drove the car over the foot of the BBC cameraman was not Mr Corbyn but a police officer from the diplomatic protection unit.

Why I voted Labour yesterday but may not next month

2017 May 5
by Paul Vallely

I have never been a member of a political party. As a working journalist it never felt appropriate. Having said that, I was always fairly clear how I was going to vote. Until this general election.

My faith has been a key factor here. Over the years I have developed an increased sense of the importance of entrepreneurship in the creation of wealth – and the creation of jobs. But the economic self-interest which underlies that has always seemed to me to be a human characteristic which does not need encouragement. By contrast, the need for social justice and the fair treatment of all, requires institutions to counter our intuitive selfishness.

So I lean towards a kind of Christian socialism, though one which does not stifle economic creativity. Catholic Social Teaching offers useful tools to achieve this: on the foundation of human dignity it erects the twin pillars of solidarity and subsidiarity to support the overarching pediment of the common good.

But let’s not get too theoretical, for voting is also tribal. Whenever I enter a polling booth I feel the shade of my grandfather at my shoulder. He was a steelworker who pioneered the trade unions’ penny-a-week health insurance scheme which was the forerunner of the NHS.

I’m not sure however what Grandad would have made of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps, like me, he would have had reservations about his coherence and competence as a potential prime minister. The Labour leader is possessed of an attractive personal integrity but as a lifelong rebel he has about him the ethos of student politics rather than grown-up realpolitik.

Before I voted yesterday for the new Mayor of Greater Manchester I tussled with whether a vote for Labour’s Andy Burnham would be a vicarious endorsement of Mr Corbyn.

Mr Burnham has lacked consistency, both in his campaign for the Labour leadership and in his subsequent vacillations in attitude to Mr Corbyn. However his fight for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough football disaster showed he has the ability to learn from his mistakes.

But in the end I decided local issues were paramount. Under the devolution known as Devo-Manc provision for the NHS and social services are being integrated under local government care for the first time in the UK. A health economist who worked for Mr Burnham when he was health minister tells me his record shows he is as well-equipped as anyone to undertake this innovative integration. So I cast my vote for Mr Burnham, risking that it might be misinterpreted as a vote for Mr Corbyn.

But I am not so sure that I will be able to do the same thing at the general election. Labour’s response to the Prime Minister’s seeming determination to pursue a hard Brexit is too ambivalent. The Liberal Democrats are the only party committed to pressing for a second poll to enable the British people to pass judgement on the quality of the deal which Mrs May eventually negotiates. I have to admit that this time I am considering upsetting the ghost of my grandfather.

from the Church Times

Easter on Iona – tradition or innovation?

2017 April 27
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by Paul Vallely

John Bell of the Iona Community always prided himself on talking of God “in the language of the living room”. The great hymn-writer and preacher was not on Iona in person this Easter but the influence of the notion of telling the old story in new language is deeply-rooted on an island which as long ago as the 6th century was a centre of innovation.

Not that it is restricted to the Iona Community. We arrived on the remote Hebridean island for Holy Week late on Wednesday and awoke on Maundy Thursday to a penetrating Thought for the Day from Lucy Winkett, a cleric blessed with the gift of fresh eyes. More than that she has the application to use them to think through the Gospel in language which connects with non-Christians in our secularised society.

The phrase “on the night before he died, Jesus…” trips easily from Christian tongues as a short preamble to the Eucharist. But think, Lucy Winkett suggested: all of us must live through a night before we die. For those of us who are aware of the imminence of death it will be a time of acutely heightened experience. It will crystalize in our consciousness a realisation of what is most important in our life.

What Jesus chose to do the night before he died was to spend time with his friends. There was food and wine and music and heady discussion. Then as Jesus realised he could not sufficiently communicate his final message through words, he turned to action, washing feet and breaking bread. We have turned it into theology, but Jesus was instituting symbols of shocking potency.

On Good Friday morning residents with the Iona Community presented Stations of the Cross which began in Martyrs’ Bay and progressed through the ruins of the 13th century nunnery, via the parish church, up the hill to the rebuilt Abbey. But throughout that journey the people at its centre were individuals who lived lives as complex and messy as our own today.

Particularly vibrant was a dramatic monologue from Barabbas, unreformed, unrepentant and unapologetic, contemptuously misunderstanding what Christ had done for him and for many. Then came a piece of vivid reportage

from the centurion at the Crucifixion who was imagined to be the same Roman officer whose servant Jesus had healed two years before. These were not sideline cyphers in a traditional morality play. They were flesh-and-blood individuals with venalities and vulnerabilities we all can share.

At the Easter Day liturgy the presiding minister, Rosie Magee, continued this powerful demotic. Her invitation to the altar table was conversational but charged with a contemporary poetry. So too was her build-up to the words with which Jesus instituted our Eucharist. She was open, inclusive and utterly comprehensible to anyone who might have arrived a tourist and been drawn into something deeper.

Holy Week on Iona was an admonition against theological jargon. We in the Church all too often speak only to ourselves, it gently chided. There are other ways, Iona reminded us. The challenge is to take them out to the wider world.

* * *

An attentive reader contacted me after my description last week of the island of Iona as a place of innovation rather than tradition. Wasn’t the great inheritance of Celtic Christianity fundamental to what makes Iona special to people of faith today?

There is a paradox about Iona. Sitting out there at the extremity of the British Isles, it’s a place that people today visit to seek spiritual peace and quiet. But what first made it special was its position in the sixth century as an engine of sacred innovation.

It was Iona’s early monks who came up with the idea of marking a grave with a stone bearing a cross. Then the development of the cross reached new levels of creativity with the massive 4m tall high crosses which spread from Iona to the rest of Britain with their elaborate double-sided carvings of great Bible scenes and elaborate patterns symbolising eternity. Even now we do not fully understand the significance of the placement of the crosses in a liturgical landscape in which the sun falls on them differently as the hours and the seasons progress.

In the scriptorium, which made Iona’s library one of the powerhouses of Dark Age learning, new dyes and inks were discovered to produce the magnificent version of the gospel known as the Book of Kells. (Kells was only the place to which it was taken for protection from the Vikings.) The Abbey’s museum also contains pieces of the first glass ever made in Scotland. One of the windowpanes are so old that Columba’s 7th century biographer Adomnán may once have peered through it.

Other people’s innovations become our traditions, I thought, as we picked out an unfamiliar path from the Abbey to the hermit’s cell on the west of the island. It was more than a decade since I had been on an Iona community pilgrimage and the route had been changed to avoid erosion to the island peak. As we set off there was a path of sorts. Such, I pondered, is what tradition is; a path worn by others, which we follow.

But paths can lead you into bogs. On my return home last week I went to a lecture about Eusebius’s odd rewriting of the gospel story. This was not an error, as many have assumed, but a deliberate attempt to make Christ more attractive to elite educated 4th century Romans according to the lecturer, Dr James Corke-Webster. He was dismissive of earlier academics who assumed that the writers of antiquity were somehow not quite as bright as we are.

One of Melvyn Bragg’s guests on In Our Time programme, about the 13th-century English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon, made a similar point, saying: the past is not just a trajectory to the present. The death of a friend this week reminded me that every generation is equidistant from eternity. That’s what the communion of saints is about. It is how those who have died are still with us. And yet they sometimes teach us that, on occasions, we have to find new ways of getting to the old destinations.

 

these two pieces appeared in The Church Times

In defence of George Osborne – with one major caveat

2017 March 25
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by Paul Vallely

I can’t say that I share in the high-octane political indignation at the former Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, being appointed editor of the Evening Standard in London. Today he is due to meet his constituents in Cheshire to explain how he intends to represent them while editing a newspaper based 200 miles away.

Some of them may also raise his new job as a consultant to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, for which he is trousering a cool £650,000 a year for just four days work per month. Critics add up the money he will earn from all this. But clearly it is not about money for Mr Osborne, who has a sizeable shareholding in his family wallpaper empire.

Consider the objections. Career politicians complain that an MP should only have one job – representing his constituents. There’s a respectable argument for this. But there is a clear counterargument that outside interests give politicians a better understanding of the world in which the rest of us live. Leftists protest at the idea of a newspaper being controlled by a Conservative politician. Newspaper editors clearly resent the idea of a parliamentary interloper into their cosy closed shop.

Mr Osborne’s Tatton constituents seem divided on their MP’s extra new job. But few seriously think the issue is one of time. Mr Osborne was seen as a good active constituency MP even while he was Chancellor. There’s no reason to suppose editing a newspaper will take up more time than running the country. Not all editors are manic control freaks rewriting every headline. Mr Osborne will undoubtedly be of a more strategic breed.

And why should it be any more objectionable for a newspaper to be controlled by a Tory politician than by a Tory proprietor who subscribes to a right-wing ideological worldview, and appoints editors in his own likeness. Indeed Mr Osborne’s political track record could make it easier for the public to evaluate the politics of his Standard than it is to assess the covert agenda of a proprietor. Objections to the biased nature of Britain’s national press must go far deeper than this.

In any case Mr Osborne’s politics are undoubtedly more centrist than most of the populist Tory press – which is why the Standard’s Russian owner Evgeny Lebedev has proclaimed that his new editor “will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour party”. Certainly the Evening Standard, under him, can be expected to offer a more informed critique of the Brexit negotiating position adopted by Theresa May’s government over the next two years.

There is only one area where a real conflict of interest should cause anxiety. It is hard to see how the Standard’s business pages can with integrity cover the wide range of financial institutions in which BlackRock has interests. A politician can be a newspaper editor. There are plenty of precedents for that. But a newspaper editor cannot be an adviser to an asset manager. Mr Osborne should resign from BlackRock. But his Evening Standard should enhance British democracy rather than detract from it.

 

from the Church Times

 

 

Donald Trump’s lies are not random and impulsive. They have a pattern and a purpose.

2017 February 24
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by Paul Vallely

“Look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” Donald Trump proclaimed before an adoring rally this week. Trouble was that nothing much happened in Sweden the night before, certainly not the terrorist incident the President seemed to be hinting at. The responses were dismissive. Twitter was filled with suggestions about disasters involving Ikea’s self-assembly furniture. The former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt asked of Mr Trump: “what has be been smoking?”

It turned out that Mr Trump had been watching the right-wing channel Fox News a few days earlier and seen an interview with an anti-immigration campaigner who claimed that refugees were causing a crime-wave in Sweden but that it was being covered up by Swedish police. There was zero evidence for this. But it fitted with Mr Trumps narrative of “the very, very dishonest press [that] doesn’t even want to report” on terrorist attacks.

This is but one example of the dangerous blurring of fact and fiction characteristic of the new US President who has told demonstrable whoppers on everything from the size of the crowds at his inauguration to the current US murder rate which he says is the highest it’s been in 47 years” when FBI statistics show it is almost at its lowest point. There are so many Trump untruths that one White House correspondent is keeping a running list. There were 80 after just 4 weeks in office, but that was before the Swedish fantasy. He has even claimed the sun was shining at a time when it was raining.

Some of this is merely silly, a reflection of Mr Trump’s thin-skinned vanity which is unable to brook contradiction. Often leaves his listeners dumbfounded by the ridiculousness of his brazen lies. But there is a shameless quality to them which is unnerving. When one reporter pointed out the factual inaccuracy of one claim the President replied: “Well, I don’t know. I was given that information… I’ve seen that information around.”

It was with a similar shifty side-step that Donald Trump first catapulted himself into politics repeating the claims of far-right conspiracy theorists that Barack Obama was ineligible to be US president because was not born in America. Confronted with evidence to the contrary Mr Trump persisted, just adding the preamble: “A lot of people say that…” Belief replaces fact. His press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that when he said of his boss: “he believes what he believes.” This is the politics of panto in which “Oh no it’s isn’t” is deemed a sufficient refutation.

Yet this is serious. The Trump lies are not random. They have a pattern. His fabrications fit his various narratives: he is right and the press are wrong; facts are fake news whereas his assertions are unquestionable; America is rotten, because of blacks, Mexicans, immigrants and liberals and the press is lying to cover it up. To justify his self-image as the national saviour Donald Trump needs to depict a country which is in need of saving. His lies are attempts to shape a new reality. The new US president is not stupid. He is sinister.

 from The Church Times

 

Salieri, Iago, Eichmann, Donald Trump – Hannah Arendt and the voice of self-scrutiny

2017 February 7
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by Paul Vallely

The name Amadeus means “he who loves God”. But in Peter Shaffer’s play of that name it speaks more of “he who is loved by God”. The subject of the play, nominally, is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart though the real protagonist is his contemporary Antonio Salieri. In Shaffer’s imagination, the older journeyman composer is so consumed with jealously at the talent God has prodigally bestowed upon the younger man that he sets out to destroy him.

In the current National Theatre production Salieri is played by Lucian Msamati who last year became the first black actor ever to play Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The two portraits offer a study in contrasting malevolences. In both a fake bonhomie covers a steady duplicity. But Salieri has a vulnerable charm where Iago is driven only by a bitter nihilism. Yet what both share is a frightening self-knowledge which is unable to save them from their corrosive obsession.

Perhaps all great characters in drama, good or evil, share one characteristic. It is the ability to dialogue between their better and worse natures and do it in public before us.

Radio 4’s In Our Time this week was on the Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt – whose book The Origins of Totalitarianism is enjoying a surge in sales with the advent of Donald Trump. Arendt is best known for her phrase “the banality of evil” which was succinctly explained by one of the programme’s academics by contrasting Shakespeare’s Richard III with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat at whose trial Arendt coined her famous expression.

Shakespeare’s Richard III may have been the embodiment of pure evil but he has a gleeful awareness of his own subtle, false, and treacherous nature – a consciousness which only deepens the terrifying quality of a character who can descant on his own deformity. Eichmann, by contrast, is a representative of the “non-thinking self” – a man who lacked the capability to have a real conversation with himself about his conduct.

Eichmann was a man with an inability to think deeply, said Robert Eaglestone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway. He spoke in clichés, couldn’t follow a train of thought, lacked a sense of history, and couldn’t understand other people’s point of view. He was, in the fullest sense of the term, thoughtless. This was the sense in which he was banal. There was – for all the terrible scale of his crime – no satanic greatness about him. Rather he embodied evil as a privation, an absence of goodness.

Perhaps that is also the difference between evil in fiction and fact. It’s hard to imagined there is much in the way of inner dialogue in the mind of someone like President Trump. He seems so unaware of the boundary between truth and falsehood that when a court declared his travel ban unconstitutional he brazenly described the man who made the ruling as a “so-called judge”. There is more than a scruple of self-doubt lacking in Mr Trump. The voice of self-scrutiny seems absent too.

 

from The Church Times

How to handle Donald Trump: complicity, compromise and conviction

2017 January 31
by Paul Vallely

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an unfinished hero, according to Dr Vicki Barnett of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many factions in the Church – from liberals to evangelicals and even to Trump-supporting conservatives – like to lay claim to the Lutheran theologian. They find in his stance against the Third Reich an endorsement of whatever issue they feel they need to take a stand upon. But theirs is “the Bonhoeffer of the T-shirt”. For the martyr has something more complex to teach us.

We should be cautious about analogy, Dr Barnett warned when quizzed about the parallels between the rise of Hitler and the growth of populist nationalism today. Others were less reluctant. The academic introducing her at the 2017 Bogdanow Lectures in Holocaust Studies this week acidly noted the irony of Donald Trump choosing Holocaust Memorial Day to announce his ban on Muslim refugees entering America to flee from war. It had echoes of the European Jews rejected by the US in 1939 and sent back to deaths in German concentration camps.

Certainly it was hard not to bring to mind the blistering pace of Mr Trump’s first week as Dr Barnett recalled that, when Hitler became German Chancellor, it took him just six weeks to transform democracy into dictatorship. Watching current events coalesce, she said, has “given me a greater understanding of the dynamics of all this”.  Even as she spoke President Trump was sacking the serving Attorney General, Sally Yates, for declaring his travel ban unconstitutional.

Bonhoeffer was a man on a moral and political journey. He gave the Nazi salute when he deemed it politic. He declined to give Church burial to a relative branded Jewish by Nazi race laws. He was initially more concerned to resist the nazification of the German church than in taking a public stance against the wider persecution of the Jews. But he did work worked privately to rescue individuals. Later he became active in the German Resistance. Eventually he was executed for plotting to kill Hitler.

A similar interplay of complicity, compromise and conviction is at work today. The British prime minister opted for the former in her dealings with the new US president. It brought initial success on her visit to the US but crumbled when she was tardy in her repudiation of Mr Trump’s approach to Muslim refugees – and she showed poor judgment with her premature offer of a state visit for Mr Trump, an accolade never accorded to Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton and for which George Bush and Barak Obama had to wait more than two years. Compromise is the realpolitik for which Mrs May must now strive.

Conviction, meanwhile, is in great evidence in anti-Trump streets protests here and across the world, much of which, the prime minister may tartly note, is at no personal cost to the protestors. Yet Mrs May must find a way to accommodate that without giving insult to a US president with a notoriously thin skin and a propensity for retaliation.

Perhaps she should read a little Bonhoeffer.

 from The Church Times

President Trump’s angry God

2017 January 24
by Paul Vallely

Critiques of President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech tended to focus on how divisive and angry it was. What few noticed was the extent to which it was infused with religious language.

Most incoming presidents invite a couple of religious leaders to participate in the ceremony. Mr Trump had six – a Roman Catholic, a Jew and four evangelical Protestants. Having made speeches on the campaign trail which largely avoided references to the Bible or to God, or were clearly uncomfortable on that turf, he now made explicit reference to Psalm 133. “The Bible tells us how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity,” he said, though he primarily addressed those who had voted for him rather than the entire nation.

The speech was shot through with other biblical allusions. Americans lives must “shine” before others. They were told “open your hearts’, although to patriotism rather than to Jesus. America was a great nation, echoing Psalm 33. All America’s children were “infused with the breath of life by the same almighty creator”.

Not all this resonated as intended. When he said “whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots” the bleeding conjured something sinister rather than inclusive.

Before the ceremony Mr Trump went to church, as presidents traditionally do on Inauguration Day tradition. There the First Baptist preacher he chose, Robert Jeffress – a man with a history of incendiary remarks about Muslims, Mormons, Catholics and gays – compared Mr Trump to the Old Testament figure of Nehemiah who helped rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its walls after the people of Judah had been exiled from the land of Israel. “You see, God is not against building walls,” he concluded, dubbing Nehemiah’s biblical detractors as “the mainstream media of their day”.

Today’s critics suggested that the embrace of Christianity was no more than “a dishonest and cynical attempt to appeal to the Christian right”. One sketchwriter noted that the inaugural choir from Missouri singing about welcoming strangers from overseas to their new land didn’t seem quite in tune with Mr Trump’s immigration policy. Prayers noting that the poor and humble are blessed, opponents said, merely emphasised the wealth and ego of the new President.

The Pope was more ambivalent. In an interview given on inauguration Day, Pope Francis insisted we must wait and see. “I don’t like to judge people prematurely,” he said. But he offered two revealing riders. He criticised what he called “spray religiousness” insisting that Christianity was found only in specifics. And he warned against people looking to a charismatic leader as a “saviour” to restore a nation’s identity, adding: “Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him, and then he destroyed his people. That is the risk.”

The incoming President’s clerics turned everything to his advantage. When the heavens began to rain on Mr Trump’s parade Rev Franklin Graham proclaimed: “In the Bible, rain is a sign of God’s blessing”. The rest of us may take a rather different view.

from The Church Times

President Trump and the nuclear bomb codes

2017 January 17
by Paul Vallely

A man in uniform will wait discreetly behind the scenes of today’s US Presidential Inauguration. He will carry the briefcase containing the codes with which Donald Trump will be empowered to launch the world’s most potent nuclear arsenal. For the next four years a military aide with the briefcase will stay constantly by Mr Trump’s side.

It’s a scary prospect, and not just because the reality-TV star businessman President has no experience of either politics or the military. Donald Trump has an erratic and volatile personality. He is thin-skinned, quick-tempered and prone to vindictive retaliation to judge from his juvenile use of Twitter. He is a man with poor control of his impulses.

Throughout the campaign commentators predicted that at some point he would drop the coarse vulgar braggadocio, with which he sought to enlist America’s disenfranchised angry white voters, and become “presidential”. He never did, instead issuing wild threats to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, ban Muslims from entering the US, denigrate climate change, cosy up to the Russians, disparage NATO, and slap trade tariffs as high as 35% on goods entering the United States, starting a trade war which could plunge the world into recession.

But the signals from his team are mixed. He has nominated an Energy Secretary who thinks the Department of Energy shouldn’t exist, a Secretary of State with a history of doing commercial deals in Russia, and a Defence Secretary who rejoices in the name of “Mad Dog”. His chief Middle East adviser backs the extremist Israeli desire to abandon a two-state solution and suppress the Palestinian dispossessed.

Appearing before select committees in Congress, however, his nominees have sprung surprises. Mr Trump’s future Secretary of State called Russia “an unfriendly adversary”, adding “we are not likely to ever be friends”. His Defence nominee contradicted the Trump verdict that NATO is “obsolete” and called it “the most successful military alliance in modern world history”. Trump nominees also rejected their leader’s insistence that President Obama’s nuclear arms deal with Iran should be torn up. They said No to the idea that the US should withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. And the man chosen to be the new director of the CIA said he would refuse to carry out a Trump order to torture suspected terrorists.

It is just possible that these men will be able to moderate the worst impulses of the new President. After all Mr Trump lacks consistent views on many things – he has changed his mind about abortion and gay rights, for example – and seems inclined to go for whatever is politically opportune.

In ancient Rome victorious generals as they made their triumphal progress through the city were said to have a slave stand behind them in their chariots to whisper into the great man’s ear that this glory was transient and that one day he too would die. We can only hope that the presence of the man with the briefcase exercises a similar psychological restraint on Donald Trump.

from The Church Times

 

UK aid policy needs better scrutiny than this dog-whistle journalism

2017 January 8
by Paul Vallely

LAST year ended with some ferocious attacks on Britain’s overseas aid budget by right-wing newspapers. Reading through the material over the Christmas holidays — I know, there were far more festive things to do — prompted me to for­mulate a couple of New Year’s Resolu­tions for politicians and press alike.

Anyone with more than a passing ac­­quaint­ance with development knows that the quality of foreign aid needs to be constantly scrutin­ised and improved. The Times and the Daily Mail, in particular, highlighted three areas of concern: too much money is being spent on highly paid Western consultants; the chief executives of some charities in receipt of British aid earn massive salaries; and large sums are being invested in private sector growth on the debatable assumption that benefits will “trickle down” to the poor, when aid ought to be targeted at direct poverty alleviation.

But the campaigns also revealed the need for much higher-quality journalism. Too many articles were filled with leaps in logic, false equivalence, and ideologically driven innuendo and smear.

Again, let’s take three just examples. The Times downloaded large amounts of data, which is freely available on government websites, and presented it as an investigative scoop. Some of what it found was, aid insiders know, cause for genuine concern. But other material lacked context, such as its complaint of £23,000 in taxpayers’ money going to write a two-page policy brief — as if it would have been better “value for money” if it was 200 pages long.

This is classic confusion of quantity and quality, input and outcome. The real question is surely how much work went into those two pages, what logistical and security challenges the authors faced, and whether the document was penetrating and useful.

The Daily Mail went beyond sloppy cut-and-paste journalism with a misleading claim that millions of pounds went to a girl band that is the Ethiopian equivalent of the Spice Girls. In fact, the money goes to a project to combat forced early marriage, child slavery, and to educate girls — reducing child mort­ality and HIV transmission, and raising family incomes.

But most pernicious was the extrapolation that several newspapers invited that all this proved that all British aid was so inefficient and corrupt that the cash should be diverted to the care of the elderly in the UK. That is as pre­posterous as saying that the deaths at Stafford Hospital mean that we should do the same with NHS funds. Or that dubious pro­cure­ment practices on Trident mean that we should abolish the Ministry of Defence.

Instead of feeding dog-whistle politics that panders to the ugliest currents in British public life, the press should focus on the difficult questions. How much should you pay senior charity workers if you want to harness the best skills of the business sector to max­imise the number of poor people whom charities can help? Are constraints on the number of civil servants a false economy that has led to the growth in overpaid consultants? Is giving the world’s poor 7p out of every £10 of our national income really over­-gen­erous?

Of course, tackling such dilemmas will be harder work than wilfully misleading readers to feed a political agenda.

from The Church Times

Why Pope Francis must not retire at 80

2016 December 17
by Paul Vallely

Pope Francis is 80 today, the age at which cardinals must retire from the electoral college which will pick the next leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Will Francis chose today to retire too?

In the past popes ignored this octogenarian watershed. They went on until they died. But Benedict XVI changed things when he became the first leader of the Catholic Church to resign in more than 500 years. Pope Francis has, in the past, indicated that he might retire too. But it is vital for the church and the world that he does not do it now.

The two popes before Francis were conservatives. Between them John Paul II and his successor Benedict set the public tone of Catholicism for more than three decades. In just three years Pope Francis has gone some way to hauling the Catholic Church back towards the centre. But the ideological right within Catholicism is increasingly fighting back. Their private criticism of the first Pope from the global South is turning to public dissent. Now is not the time for Francis to have innovative thoughts about institutionalising papal retirement by stepping down.

Francis is not the liberal the secular media sometime paint him. He takes the traditional Catholic line on abortion, contraception, gay marriage and women priests. And yet his positions can be more nuanced than the Catholic Right can tolerate.

Gays have felt welcomed by his famous “who am I to judge?” remark. He has invited transgendered individuals into the Vatican and physically embraced one of them. He has opened the path to fuller inclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics with the church. He has set up a commission to investigate the possibility of women deacons, which many see as the first step to female priests. And at the recent 500th anniversary of the Reformation he acknowledged that Martin Luther had a point about spiritual corruption within the Catholic Church.

All this – together with his sweeping reforms of Vatican finances, his work to remodel the Roman bureaucracy known as the Curia and his moves to empower the wider church and rid the papacy of its monarchical status – have gone down badly with traditionalists.

Some of the men who became bishops during the previous 35 year conservative ascendancy have reacted with sullen silence, in what one Vatican veteran described as “passive-aggressive non-compliance”. But others have been publicly hostile or disdainful – and some are now openly resisting him.

Just a month ago four ultra-traditionalist cardinals issued a public challenge to the pope. They said that his ruling that, in certain circumstances, remarried Catholics might take Communion, could require a “formal act of correction” from the College of Cardinals. They published five dubia – doubts – virtually accusing the sitting pope of heresy, something without precedent in recent Catholic history.

Those who rely on the internet for their information might be forgiven for supposing a civil war is raging inside the Catholic Church. That is certainly what the “culture warriors” in the United States – which is where many of the most ideological hardliners are to be found – want the world to believe. They paint a picture of a Catholic majority, loyal to the unchanging traditions and teachings of the Church, locked in combat with a progressive pope who is diluting doctrine and capitulating to the moral relativism of contemporary secularism.

Such nonsense flies in the teeth of opinion polls which show that 85pc of US Catholics approve of this pope. Talk to Catholics in the pews in the United States and you encounter a less rigid, more generous, more pastoral mood than is evident among some of their bishops. In Europe and the UK too the vast majority of Catholics love this pope.

The Catholic Church has always married aspirational ideals with a pragmatic pastoral compassion. Pope Francis enshrined this subterranean pragmatism in official teaching when he issued his document Amoris Laetitia in April after a two year Synod process. His critics accuse him of being wilfully vague in the document and deliberately avoiding doctrinal clarity; the Pope’s response is that people are more important than dogma.

Mercy is the prime gospel value for Francis. It has been the dominant theme of his time as Pope. During his Year of Mercy, which ended last month, Francis made that concrete with a series of private visits to vulnerable and marginalised groups. He ended with an encounter – to the discomfit of traditionalists – with men who left the priesthood to marry, and with their wives and children too. “We have to meet people where they are,” Francis said.

Pope Francis is playing a long game. He has refused to reply to the four cardinal critics but has indirectly attacked them for rigidity, legalism, psychological inadequacy and generally behaving like the Pharisees who tried to trap Jesus with trick questions in the gospels.

Publicly he has declared himself unworried by the hostility of this vociferous minority. “I’m not losing sleep over it,” he told an interviewer recently, adding that he would continue to follow the path of the Second Vatican Council, which turned the Church away from sacramental introspection towards engagement with the wider world – a reform that many conservatives have spent the past four decades trying to undo.

Instead the Pope has been quietly moving to restore a more moderate tone to the Church. He has just sacked all the conservatives from the body that governs Catholic worship. He bypassed the three leading right-wing US archbishops who expected red hats when he created 19 new cardinals last month. And the head of the Vatican’s main working court this week declared that the four cardinal critics could be stripped of their red hats.

It’s unlikely Francis will do that. Instead he is steadily remoulding the College of Cardinals, filling it with moderate pastors rather than doctrinal ideologues. For the first time in history Europeans are outnumbered by the rest of the world in the body which will elect the next pope. Cardinals have been appointed from 11 countries which have never before been represented. Almost half the electors are now from the poor world.

But Francis has named only 44 of those electors, compared with 76 created by previous conservative popes. If Pope Francis wants to secure his legacy he must not retire yet.

Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: the Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism

This article first appeared in The Guardian