August 2017


This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Loving your neighbour as yourself is harder than it sounds. But, I would argue, it is also much more interesting than it seems. For example, it assumes that we might need to get to know our neighbour, and, at least, try to look through their eyes.

If travel does broaden the mind, then holidays such as this weekend when many Brits are enjoying a break abroad, surely open up the opportunity to look, listen and learn differently. And this is where we hit the problem: language.

Almost all Brits abroad will expect the natives to understand and speak English. And, to our embarrassment, they probably will. And they will pride themselves on their polyglottal skills.

Language learning in Britain continues to decline. According to statistics reported in newspapers last week, the numbers studying languages at school and university are falling fast. Some voices claim that this really doesn’t matter – that we can pick up a bit of German or Spanish later in life … if and when we need it.

Except that a language is not a commodity that can be simply picked off the shelf when convenient or expedient. To learn a language is more than to wield a tool; rather, it is to inhabit the world that language shapes.

At the age of 91 the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that we can’t understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do this we need to know language. In fact, he suggested learning two. For most Europeans this isn’t a problem; they constantly cross borders and entertain foreigners. Communication matters beyond mere functionality.

Not so here. It seems to me that political language in the UK has been coloured by the assumption that anything has value only in so far as it fulfils an economic end. Accordingly, we too easily regard language learning as a waste of time unless it leads to high-earning job in the future. But, I remember a German businessman in a hotel explaining to a monoglot British counterpart that although their negotiations were done in English the English couldn’t understand what was being said behind their backs – and that this put the Brits at a disadvantage. No response.

And this is why it is vital that children and young people learn other languages – at least in order to open their minds to different ways of seeing, thinking and interpreting the world. If loving your neighbour assumes knowing your neighbour, then learning the odd language opens up a world of wonders.

And let it be said at times of international insecurity, stress and fear: there is never a more important time to listen through the ears and look through the eyes of my neighbour – if only to see ourselves as we are seen.

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This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The first time I went into the Foreign Office in London I was somewhat taken aback by the sight of murals depicting renowned military victories of the British Empire – scenes that now provoke embarrassment or shame even though they belong to their time and to a particular colonial narrative of national identity.

How do we deal honestly with conflicted histories?

Well, this is a question that is dividing America as pressure grows to remove statues of Confederate leaders who 150 years ago fought a civil war over the rights to enslave other human beings. And the problem is this: how are we to remember the past with honesty and courage, not celebrating, but remembering and learning?

This is not a new problem. Walk around some German cities and you find yourself treading on small brass plates set in the pavement, recording the names and dates of Jews who had lived there before being deported and exterminated. More powerful than some huge memorial covered in names, these so-called ‘stumbling blocks’ (Stolpersteine) have a massive impact as you realise that they are everywhere.

In fact, Germany has form here. Look up beneath the roof outside the east end of the Stadtkirche in Martin Luther’s Wittenberg and you see a mediaeval engraving of a Jew being baited in a pig sty. Exposed during restoration after German reunification, rather than put it in a museum or cover it up, they shone a light from a memorial placed beneath it to the fallen Jews of Wittenberg during the Holocaust.
Somehow this faces the horrors of the past in a way that draws a line to the present and educates those whose memory doesn’t stretch that far back.

The German approach is partly informed by its Christian culture which itself is shaped by Jewish notions of memory. To re-member means, literally, to put back together the elements of a story in a way that is healthy and true. The people of Israel, having been liberated from over 400 years of oppression in Egypt and 40 years in a desert (allowing the romanticises of history to die off), prepare to enter the land of promise. And they are warned: as time goes by you will quickly forget that once you were slaves. Then you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you forget this, you will one day lose everything.

So, they shaped the year around rituals and festivals that even today re-tell that story and militate against cultural or religious amnesia.

Maybe this offers a clue not only to Americans wondering what to do with statues of Confederates, but also to the rest of us who have to wrestle with ambiguous or shameful histories. Face it, but with the humility that remembers rightly. Not “forgive and forget”, but “remember and forgive”.

Words are marvellous, aren’t they? Even Humpty Dumpty recognised that those who make words mean whatever they want them to mean have power.

We witness the President of the United States using language in a very particular way. His hypocrisy is boundary-free. It is not proving hard to find tweets from his past that condemn him in the present – for example, his criticism of Obama for playing golf and taking holidays have not stopped him from exceeding Obama in both. Yet, it is as if whatever was said in the past can now be magically forgotten or ignored. And the only reason this corruption of language and political discourse is possible is because we allow it to be so.

That is why protest is so important.

Right wing or left wing models of social or economic policy broadly offer people different approaches to a similar end: the common good and the prospering of a people.But, what we are seeing now is of a different order. The corruption of language and meaning, the dismissal of truth, the casual yet deliberate assertion of fantasy as fact, all these contribute to a dangerous normalisation of lying, misrepresentation and hypocrisy.

What’s new, you ask? Hasn’t it always been thus? Well, yes. But, it has also been protested against, found unacceptable, and held to be shameful. The fact of past general corruption does not legitimise contemporary specific corruption, nor should it excuse us from naming what is wrong now.

As an Englishman it is uncomfortable enough watching the disgraceful Trumpian drama unfolding across the Atlantic. But, I am also reading Shashi Tharoor‘s polemic against the crimes and sins of the British in his recently published Inglorious Empire. Polemical it may be, but it shines a light on Britain and its not-so-distant past that contributes to British self-identity as it gets re-shaped for a post-Brexit world. In other words, offering a critique of Trump and the USA must come with a huge accompanying dose of humility and realism about our own history. And that realism should compel us to demand better from our present in order to ameliorate what might lie in the future.

So, going back to questions of language and our descriptions of truth, today David Davis MP described the British approach to negotiating a customs relationship with the European Union as one of “constructive ambiguity”. Which means what? Constructive from whose perspective? Constructive in terms of building what – clear understanding? Ambiguity in terms of keeping options open? Or an inability or unwillingness to commit?

These are questions, not statements. The point is that language is used in such a way as to imply cleverness when, in reality, it might suggest ignorance or incompetence. (It might be useful just once if the British could entertain the imaginative exercise of looking through EU eyes at ourselves, and listening through ears shaped by other languages to the language we use of them and ourselves. I won’t hold my breath.)

The common factor in all this is the popular acceptance of a corrupt public and political discourse. The fact that alternative power-mongers (Hillary Clinton, for example) might be equally or more corrupt does nothing to address our responsibility for demanding truthfulness, honesty and realism from those who actually have accountable power. Valuing democracy means more than ticking a box every few years.

There is usually a tune going around my head. This week it is The Who’s ‘We won’t get fooled again’. The trouble is, we all too easily get fooled again. Just read history.

I have never quite understood the concept of the ‘American Dream’. This is partly because whatever the dream might be for some, it is clearly a nightmare for others. Look, for example, at the statistics for gun crime, health inequalities and the gulf between the rich and poor. Land of the free and home of the brave? I wish.

But, lest it appear that prejudice should filter a much wider reality, it is indisputable that if you can succeed in the USA, you will understand freedom differently from those who fail.

What is more important this week is not arguments about the fulfilment or otherwise of the great American Promise (rooted in a narrative of Exodus-related exceptionalism), but, rather, whether the oft-repeated dominant myths of American self-understanding any longer bear the weight of reality. Seen from this side of the Atlantic (with a great love for American friends and great admiration for much of what the United States stand for), however, the real world is leaving behind elements of American self-identity and exposing its deep myths as somewhat shallow fables.

Donald Trump

It appears that many Americans regret having voted for Donald Trump. Apparently, they believed his promises of magic restoration of greatness without asking questions of his empty rhetoric. His misogyny, amorality, financial track record, sexual behaviour, narcissism and nepotism (to name but a few of the obvious challenges) would have ruled out the candidacy of any other semi-reputable politician for the Presidency of the United States of America. His subsequent lying, shamelessness, vindictiveness and inhabiting of some ‘alternative reality’ (in which things that happened didn’t happen and things that didn’t happen did happen; in which things he said he didn’t say and things he didn’t say he did say) cannot have come as a disappointing revelation to anyone with half a brain or ears to hear. His espousal of the alt-right has not come as news. His condemnation of anyone and anything he sees as a challenge to himself (Obama, for instance) is weighed against his silence in the face of inconvenient truth or facts.

Yet, none of this is a surprise. It was all there to be seen before he was elected. How on earth did the Christian Right even conceive of the possibility of backing a man who can’t put a sentence together and who epitomises narcissistic amorality? If Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted because of her handling of an email server (or because Americans had had enough of political dynasties), by what stretch of moral imagination could Trump have been thought of as a cleaner, brighter alternative? To which base values did he appeal?

Donald Trump is the most consistent politician America has seen. Nothing that is happening now – the testosterone competition with North Korea’s leader, NATO, Russia, for example – is new or surprising. It was all there to be seen. Either it was seen and approved of (which says something of the moral sense of the people who voted for him) or something blinded good people to the reality of what was put before them.

Charlottesville

This has now reached a head in the violence of Charlottesville. Or, perhaps, less the violence and more the evident brazen impunity of the White Supremacists in waving their swastika flags, being accompanied by heavily armed militias, parading with torches, Nazi salutes and shouts of ‘Heil Trump’. This open bravado, provocative and blatant, is only possible because the fascists believe they can get away with it – or might even get approval from the top. The response to Trump’s lack of condemnation (or ‘naming’ them) published in The Daily Stormer makes it abundantly clear that they think Trump is beholden to their dogmas.

Trump’s unwillingness to name the offenders is not helped by White House clarifications that he included all perpetrators in his condemnation of violence. Contrary to protestations that he intended to include them in a general condemnation, he has said nothing specific. He attacks anyone and everyone – even his own colleagues – on Twitter; but the two he never mentions are (a) Wladimir Putin and (b) the white supremacists/nationalists. Join the dots – it isn’t hard.

(For another time: Trump has managed to grant to Putin what Soviet/Russian powers failed to achieve over seventy years: the destabilisation of the western alliance. Putin must think his birthday comes every day. I will return to this another time, but for a country that obsesses about its own security it is astonishing that they seem blind to what is happening internationally.)

Here again Trump is not being inconsistent. This is who he is and how he has been since his campaign began. There is nothing surprising here. The surprise is simply that people are surprised.

The future

Social media and the commentariat are ablaze with references to the rise of Hitler, the insidious corruption of political language and the potential imminence of nuclear war. It is easy to be dramatic and read into the present from the past in ways that are convenient, if hysterical. Images of judges in England on the front page of the Daily Mail, branded ‘Enemies of the People’ during the Brexit debate may rightly be paralleled with pictures in Der Beobachter of judges in 1930s Germany being branded ‘Traitors’. There are times when pointing out the parallel at the very least raises our moral antennae to the dangers of normalising language or behaviour that is corrupting.

However, there are moments in history where a tipping point is reached and it matters that people stand up and challenge the danger. This is one of them. Charlottesville is only one (relatively small) town in an enormous country, and most of the USA will have been as horrified as the rest of us at what they witnessed this weekend; but, the images coming out of this one place become iconic of a deeper malaise. People are right to look for consistency in the rampant condemnations and criticisms of their President in his favoured medium Twitter. If he damns Islamic terrorists and wet liberals for their actions, we can expect him to damn right-wing militias and neo-Nazi criminals when they walk his streets and drive cars into ordinary people. Silence.

In Berlin it is possible to do what a friend of mine who lives there calls the ‘death and genocide tour’ of places of significance. But, perhaps the most important place to visit is the relatively new Museum of Topography, built close to the site of the demolished Gestapo HQ. This museum documents the slow corruption of civil life and political discourse. It tracks the normalisation (the gradual acceptance of compromise) of corruption in public language, behaviour and institutional life. That is what made Nazism possible and, even, probable.

And that is the question standing before the American political establishment today. Does democracy matter? Furthermore, do truth-telling, truth-owning, public honesty and the integrity of language matter any longer? Is there no place for shame in today’s conflicted world?

There will be a million analyses of this situation. I write simply to get some thoughts into words. As a Christian leader, not oblivious to similar challenges here (consider the acceptability of multiple lies during the Brexit campaign and the brazen impunity of those who told them), I applaud my brothers and sisters in the USA who stand against the corruptions described above. I am proud that Christians (among many others) stood against the wickednesses of Charlottesville. But, I remain incredulous that evangelical Christian leaders, Bible in hand, can remain supportive of the President and administration that is corrupting their country. When will the Republican Party take responsibility, stop wringing their hands, and stand against this regime that will be able to do little without their support?

This is the script of this morning’s Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Chris Evans Show.

It’s that time of year again. For me August slows everything down and I finally get some space. But, it’s also the time for long car journeys … and that means loads of time to listen to music. The great thing about your kids having grown up is that no one argues with your choice of CDs.

Well, what you’ll find in my car this morning – I have just checked – is a strange mix of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Richard Ashcroft, Elbow and the wonderful Imelda May. I got back from a trip the other day feeling that my emotions had been shredded, listening to songs that seem to have been dragged out from the depths.

And that’s the power of music. Words on their own can pack a punch, but add a good tune and some decent backing and your guts go on a different journey.

There’s nothing new about this. One of the other things I do during August is read all 150 Psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Simply because I get immersed in a song book that doesn’t always reflect my mood or circumstances, but does provide a vocabulary for times yet to come. Whether howling with complaint about the injustices in life, or laughing with joy at the wonderful enormity of the cosmos, or weeping alongside those whose lives have been torn apart, or encouraging your mates to stick with it regardless of the hindrances … the whole of life is in there and there’s a song for everyone at every time and in every place.

Just over a week ago I was talking to child refugees in the countryside outside Khartoum in Sudan. Kids whose family have disappeared and who find themselves abandoned or orphaned through the violence of others. Yet, they still hear the echoes of a haunting melody that whispers of hope as they are taken in and cared for by strangers who meet them where they are. Lament is coloured by laughter; memory does not just belong to the past, but is being created for tomorrow.

So, in all the twists and turns of a fragile life, it is still possible to detect the sound of a plea uttered by Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”