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Why we should prefer history to hysteria

2020 June 11
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by Paul Vallely

When a Roman patrician donated a new bathhouse, aqueduct or road to the city he would often have a prominent stone inscribed D.S.P.F or de sua pecuna fecit. It meant ‘paid for with his own money’. In return his fellow citizens often put up a statue to him. When the great man fell from public favour the statue was often torn down – a practice, I learned while researching my forthcoming book on philanthropy*, which became a great symbolic gesture in any revolt or sedition.

The lessons of history go far wider than that, as we have seen this week with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, once lauded as the city of Bristol’s greatest philanthropist, but now reviled as a slave trader. The event tells us something about the nature of history, the need to remember, the danger of forgetting and the fact that we do not stand detached from history but are part of it.

The need to remember is perhaps the easiest of these lessons to learn. Colston gave the contemporary equivalent of about £25 million to build schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches, though he excluded as beneficiaries the Catholics, Dissenters and Whigs his politics led him to despise. But his fortune was built upon the sale of 84,000 slaves, of whom 19,300 died in the ships he used to transport human beings from Africa to the Caribbean and then bring tobacco, sugar and rum back to Britain. It is hard to argue that such tainted money can ever be fully redeemed by good works.

The danger of forgetting is clear from those who fail, or refuse, to understand that at the time slavery was generally condoned by the educated church-going classes. John Locke, that most celebrated philosopher of liberty, was a shareholder in Colston’s company. The protester who sprayed “Churchill is a racist” on his statue in Parliament Square may remember historians’ revelations that Britain’s wartime leader privately used derogatory anti-black language – but appears to have forgotten that the choice in 1940 was between Churchill’s slang and Hitler’s genocide.

After the fall of the Soviet Union several East European countries took down their statues of infamous Communist dictators but, rather than destroying them, placed them in statue-parks so children could learn something of the context the past gave their present. History is a better option than the hysteria on display in Bristol this week. Liverpool, whose splendid array of Grade 1 listed architecture is a testament to another city whose greatness was built on slavery, has responded to the complexity of its own history with a Slavery Museum in which future generations can learn to comprehend the complexity of their own chequered past.

In such ways do we make our own history in an honest and healthy fashion. Colston died in 1721. The notorious statue was erected only in the era of Victorian imperialism – almost 200 years after his death. Removing the statue to a museum would merely have been another stage in the way city makes its history – and one from which its children could learn far more than this week’s attempts simply to erase the past.

* Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely will be published by Bloomsbury in September

Time for action not more words on Black Lives Matter

2020 June 5
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by Paul Vallely

A celebration of the five decades of the music of Ella Fitzgerald was shown on television last weekend. It was a glorious uplifting reminder of the incomparable phrasing of the greatest jazz singer of the 20th century. But the shadow of racism fell across the joy.

In one scene, early on, the US police were seen assaulting a group of black people with a powerful water-jet. It was a grim prefiguring of the scenes from the United States today in which heavily-armoured police are brutally dispersing crowds demonstrating at the callous on-camera killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman. Ninety years on, and nothing has changed.

Online, the next day, Pentecost Sunday, our priest gave a sermon which imagined a triptych. In the first panel was the Tower of Babel where language caused confusion and bred suspicion. The second showed how, at Whitsun, language brought unity and insight. The third panel, he suggested, was the one we are painting today of our contemporary world.

The mass was in English but the songs were in Ibo and ki-Swahili. That is one part of our painting. But in another Donald Trump was using tear gas, rubber bullets and baton sticks to clear his path to a church before which he posed holding a Bible as though it were an object to swear on rather than a message to take to heart. It was the kind of scene which made the religious dystopia imagined by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale seem suddenly not so far-fetched.

George Floyd was in Minnesota, where he died, as part of a church work programme in which he hoped to gain a licence to drive a heavy goods vehicle while being, in the American parlance, ‘discipled’. He had been sent there by his pastor at the Resurrection project in Houston where Floyd was “loved, admired, and served as a father figure to guys in this community”.

His death, the Revd Patrick Ngwolo said, was “an inflection point” after which “we either master racism, or allow it to master us”. The blood of an innocent victim cries out for vengeance but also speaks of the possibility of redemption. It is for us to choose which it would be.

An angry protestor on the street echoed that dichotomy more bleakly.  “For half a century we have tried Martin Luther King’s way of peace – and it has not worked,” he raged. “It is time to try the way of Malcolm X”. Violence, as Dr King observed, is the language of the unheard.

We should not make the mistake of reassuring ourselves that the grotesque cartoon politics of the United States do not obtain here. In our own land black people are ten times more likely to be stopped and search than whites. They are three times more likely to be excluded from school. They have the highest unemployment rate of all ethnic groups. They are dying in disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19.

Public Health England this week published a report which confirmed that. Indeed it showed people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had double the risk of dying from the virus, compared to people of white British ethnicity.  The question now is what are the government, and the rest of us, going to do about it?


from the Church Times 5 June 2020

Let’s give the poor world 2% of what we spend saving ourselves from the virus – so that they can fight it too

2020 April 16
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by Paul Vallely

It was hardly a surprise to be told that we are in for three more weeks of lockdown. A fortnight ago we were told that the peak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic would occur around the middle of this month. Now the experts are shifting it forward another week or two, with deaths continuing at a high level for some time.

Of course, the lockdown is causing problems – physical, financial and psychological. But it was chastening to read this message from an Indian doctor in the UK: “Social distancing is a privilege. It means you live in a house large enough to practice it,” he wrote. “Hand washing is a privilege too. It means you have access to running water… Most of the ways to ward off the corona are accessible only to the affluent. In essence, a disease that was spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of the poor. All of us who are practising social distancing and have imposed a lockdown on ourselves must appreciate how privileged we are.”

Aeroplanes are not necessary to the transmission of plague. The Black Death in the 1340s showed that as it swept across Europe killing as many as half the entire population. Modern methods of transport have undoubtedly accelerated the speed with which pandemics can proceed. But the responsibility of the rich to assist the poor in combating this disease is not rooted in our culpability for air travel. It is a question of both moral imperative and enlightened self-interest.

Anyone who has travelled through the favelas of South America, the slums of India, or the vast shanty town of Kibera outside Nairobi – where more than a million Kenyans live cheek by jowl in homes which lack clean water and sanitation – will have some understanding of the way that this disease will spread like wildfire once it arrives there.

Tomorrow the finance ministers of the world’s leading nations are gathering, by video, for the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. They will discuss a multi-trillion dollar strategy to prevent the imminent global recession from turning into an economic crisis as terrible as the Depression of the 1930s.

It is important that they do not forget the world’s poorest people. African nations were due to make $44 billion debt repayments in 2020. These must be frozen or entirely wiped away. Aid and cheap loans of $100 billion have been promised; that figure needs to be doubled. Poor nations also need new digital data systems to spread accurate health messages to mobile phone users, collect data on symptoms, keep track of outbreaks, target cash to the hardest-hit sectors, and monitor how aid is being spent to prevent corruption.

Can we afford to do that at a time when our own resources are so stretched? All that would cost just 2% of what rich nations have spent on the stimulus packages which have already been put in place worldwide. Without it millions, not just tens of thousands, of deaths could follow, and a movement of refugees could ensue which would dwarf recent migration flows. Can we afford to help? Can we afford not to?

My Church Times column for 17 April 2020

(posted early to lobby the IMF/World Bank meetings on Fri/Sat.)

Creatures of the Black Lagoon

2020 April 3
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by Paul Vallely

There are photographs in our local paper of the Blue Lagoon, a beauty spot less than an hour’s drive away, up in the Peak District, where the police have poured black dye into the water to make it less attractive – in order to deter visitors. The black substance, which was poured in by officers wearing hazmat suits to protect themselves, spread out across the turquoise water like great ugly jellyfish.

It’s been portrayed in the popular press as the latest example of ‘coronavirus correctness gone mad’ – along with police use of drones to name-and-shame walkers taking their dogs out on the high moors and council environmental health officers telling corner shops that they could not sell Easter eggs as these are ‘non-essential items’. They widely quoted the former supreme court justice Lord Sumption who proclaimed this week that excess enforcement of the official guidance on self-isolation and social distancing was in danger of turning Britain into a “police state”.

The distinguished judge was undoubtedly correct in pointing out that there is an important difference between behaviour which is, on the one hand, unwise and, on the other, illegal. The police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences but only legal regulations. They exceed these when they rule that the law restricts people to exercising outside only once a day or in a certain place.

Good policing depends upon consent and relies upon the common sense of the public. In the main that is in evidence. But, as the scenes of panicking shoppers elbowing aside old people in supermarkets – or stealing from the cage containing other shoppers’ donations for food banks – reminded us there are always a few delinquents.

More commonly there are those who can’t or won’t understand the advice to leave a six-foot gap while queuing in the local mini-market, despite the staff having marked black-and-yellow crosses on the floor.  “No need to get heavy bro,” as one joint-smoking youth riposted to an agitated pensioner. Society needs to find ways to discourage such behaviour – after repeat offences the staff barred the youth – and occasionally the police may have to be involved.

Police chiefs have responded by getting together to agree common guidelines to avoid the inconsistency of Lancashire police having issued 123 enforcement notices in less than a week while Bedfordshire police issued none. They will tell officers that they must enforce the law and not the off-the-cuff pronouncements of individual politicians.

That said, circumstances differ from one place to another. The decision by Derbyshire police to discourage walkers on the high moors came in response to the previous sunny weekend when visitors inundated the Peak District National Park crowding into villages populated mainly by elderly residents – and emptying their local shops.

As for the Blue Lagoon, what most of the press failed to ascertain is that the use of black dye there has been a common tactic by the police over the years to discourage daytrippers from bathing in the alluring waters – whose colour comes from the calcium oxide used in the quarrying process which created the beautiful pool. It has left the lagoon with a pH not far short of ammonia and bleach as the signs around the pool make clear. But common sense is sometimes a singularly uncommon quality.


What Spike Milligan has to say to Stephen Byers

2020 January 29
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by Paul






There are interesting parallels

between laughter and lying.

Both subvert the truth and are

infectious. So how does one

liberate and the other stultify?




The last time I saw Spike Milligan was in a taxi at 2am somewhere in the middle of Birmingham. We had been for a meal in a curry house which ended so late because every time a waiter came to the table Milligan invited them to join us. It had begun when the comedian asked the first member of staff his name and discovered it was Patrick. The restaurant was run by a family from Goa, the one part of the sub-continent where, thanks to Portuguese colonialism, you stood a good chance of meeting Indians who were Catholics. Since Milligan too was a Catholic who had been born in India the opportunity was too good to miss. We ended up with five waiters sitting at the table. Service, as a consequence, was very slow.

After the meal he gave me a lift to my hotel. As I reached the front door a trumpet appear from the taxi window and played a spectacularly ear-shattering fanfare. Then came Spike’s head. “Announcing the arrival of that celebrated journalist Paul Vallely, Esquire,” he bawled into the quiet night air. After a wild cackle of laughter the cab roared off leaving me to face the consequences of the music as the hotel staff opened the door.

Milligan was always like that. On another occasion I was with him at a local radio station. The programme on-air was being piped through the building so staff could keep in touch as they rushed from office to studio. It was even in the lift. Spike, however, got it into his head that this was muzak and therefore an intolerable invasion of his personal space. In the lift Milligan stood directly in front of the station manager, and placing his mouth only an inch or so from the hapless manager’s began to sing, can belto as Harry Secombe used to put it, directly into the poor man’s face. “See how you like it,” Spike said, without further explanation, as we left the lift.

There was a disjunction between reality and fantasy in Spike Milligan’s head. It was what made him a comic genius. The borderlines between truth and fiction, satire and surrealism, blurred in his head, producing the most unlikely juxtapositions – and not always to his advantage as I found when I discovered him in tears after one performance where the audience had laughed at “the serious bit” he tried to do on the seal fur trade in the middle of his otherwise absurdist act. The more he railed that this wasn’t funny, the more they had laughed.

Recalling Milligan at his death this week made me think again about Stephen Byers. For there are interesting parallels between laughter and lying; deception is there in both, or at least a wilful process of jumbling what is true with what is not.

Religion can be very po-faced about this. Let your Yes be Yes, and your No be No, as the Bible has it. And some secular philosophers have taken just as hard a line.  Lying, Kant said in his Metaphysics of Morals, is “the greatest violation of a human being’s duty to himself.” The principle of truthfulness must be upheld whatever is at stake.

Traditional moral theology has been less rigid. We are only obliged to tell the truth when the person we’re addressing has the right to the knowledge. Thus if a newspaper asks about your sex life, you can lie with moral impunity, unless it touches on a matter of the common good as it arguably did with President ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ Clinton.

But what about Stephen Byers? Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt – and presume that his dissembling when interviewed on television by Jonathan Dimbleby was not for the low motive of saving his own skin but was inspired by the desire to protect the best interests of his troubled department, of his party, of the Government, or even, and this is stretching the point, the travelling public – could his lies ever be justified? Moral theology offers all manner of caveats to excuse lies for a greater good. But none of them seem to apply to a decision to lie to the general public about a matter of common interest. And though telling the truth in the House of Commons after lying on tv may be a political mitigation it is not a moral one.

The bigger problem, as the ethicist Sissela Bok, points out in her seminal Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, is that lying – even when it is done in the name of some greater good, like national security – spreads like a disease and threatens to infect the trust and integrity which are the very foundations of all social exchange. Yet the legal, moral and social sanctions society has traditionally employed against deception –  perjury, libel, sin, guilt, shame and embarrassment – today seem increasingly to have less purchase. In a world where the stress on individualism, on competition, on achieving material success generates intense pressure to cut corners we are, it seems, becoming desensitised to lying.

What both Spike Milligan and Stephen Byers have done this week is draw our attention to the way the accepted order of things can be subverted by being cavalier with the truth. Only with Milligan the result was liberating, exposing our mechanisms of deception and mocking them, while with Byers it was another nail in the coffin of our society’s moral stultification.

Looking for my Dad on the D-Day beaches

2019 June 4
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by Paul Vallely

Photograph after black-and-white photograph of the D-Day landings have appeared on our television screens, in print and on countless internet sites in recent days. Scanning the faces I realised I was doing more than absorbing the grim reality of the largest seaborne invasion in history and the turning of the tide of the Second World War. I was looking for my father.

He was at Dunkirk, I knew that. He had been with his regiment, the Royal Engineers. But he was later attached to the Commandos and had been involved in actions behind enemy lines about which he remained stonily silent until the day he died. Towards the end of the war he had been posted to Palestine, for we had his olive-wood photo album. But in between, I had long wondered, did he take part in the Normandy landings. I was just 16 when he died, and never found a mood in which he could be enticed to break that silence.

There was a moral ambiguity to killing which my Dad, a good Catholic, was not prepared to cheapen to satisfy the curiosity of a child. But there was nothing ambiguous about the cause for which the men of his generation fought, nor about the courage with which they steeled themselves to the frightening fight.

Last week his comrades-in-arms did speak, and it was with the venerable understatement of a previous age which was all the more moving for its quiet modesty. “There was a job to be done.” But the tears of the old men, the bewildered admiration of the great-grandsons they had brought with them for this last pilgrimage to Normandy, and the heartfelt handshakes of the middle-aged French women who grasped their hands in greeting, all of that spoke with eloquence. These were the men, as one older relative put it to me, who “were all that stood between us and the prospect of a Nazi tide which, if it swept us aside, would go on to conquer the whole world”.

It is hard to imagine what cause might unite the present generation in such an enterprise today. And that is not just because the present is always more muddled than the past. The war against Hitler, his fascist ideology and his genocidal death camps had a great narrative of good versus evil. Its outline had a shocking clarity. In our post-modern epoch, we are constantly told, all narratives have equal validity. The phrases which fell from old men’s lips on Friday – about camaraderie and esprit de corps – sound alien to modern ears.

Nazism was outlived by Communism but, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, American capitalism confidently pronounced The End of History. That reckoned without the tenacity of nationalism – which broke out like a virulent rash all across eastern Europe – and fundamentalist religion which quite shattered the old world order with the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

Our wars since then have seemed a good deal more confusing. The self-righteousness of our invasion of Iraq has ended in a murderous sectarian quagmire. In Afghanistan we seemed uncertain of the purpose of our military engagement against the Taliban who had earlier been armed by the Americans in order to drive out the Russians. The war on terror ended up with the insupportable detention without trial of Guantanamo Bay. In Syria we have backed the opposition to Assad only to find that it includes al-Qa’ida affiliates whom many fear as a greater evil.

There is one clear grand narrative. Next year China will overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy. But in most other respects the picture is fractured. The European Union was set up as a “never again” bulwark against a war in Europe but, for some, the grand European project has begun to lose traction, as the rising Ukip tide has shown. In its place the European Right is raising panic against what it calls “the Islamisation of Europe”. France has banned head-scarves in state schools, Belgium the full veil, Switzerland minarets on mosques and there are campaigns in Norway against circumcision and halal food.

In none of this is there the kind of idealistic cause which inspired volunteers such as George Orwell to go off to Spain to join the International Brigade to fight fascist Franco – unless, of course, you count European jihadists going off to Syria, which is not the kind of idealism about which we really want to hear. Ukraine’s fight against the insidious and unpredictable behaviour of its neighbour Russia inspires a vague and general hope for peace. But it inspires no nations, or volunteer individuals, to put their boots on the ground.

A year before the US entered the Second World War President Franklin D Roosevelt set out a vision of Four Freedoms to ensure world peace after the conflict. They included “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point… that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour”.

Barack Obama sounded a good deal less utopian on Friday when he advised our own age “whenever the world makes you cynical – stop and think of these men”. Yet only the hard-hearted would not have felt emotion at the rheumy tears of those whose comrades gave their tomorrow for our today. But they were clear about what had to be done when faced with Hitler’s tyranny. They fought for freedom. Today we are a lot less clear about what freedom means. And what we need to do about it.

Paul Vallely is visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester

Independent on Sunday, 8 June 2014


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
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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
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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
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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
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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