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.

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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?

A meeting of bishops from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches is coming to an end here in Birmingham. It has been a stimulating, encouraging, challenging and good time together. In brief, we have looked at the international scene, the European scene, prayer and evangelisation, and where we go from here together.

Haunting the meeting is the spectre of a Trumpian revolution in the United States – with considerable implications for the rest of the world – and the debate about Brexit.

One of the interesting features of debate about the USA and Brexit is the constant attempts to close down debate on detail on the grounds that “we won, so shut up and let the winners get on with it”.

Politics cannot be run only by politicians. Politics is about people who hold different views, different values and have different priorities. In other words, all of us. A vote does not end the conversation. Had the UK voted to remain in the European Union, there is little chance that those who ‘lost’ would be accepting the status quo and going quiet; nor should they.

The referendum on membership of the EU delivered a decision to leave. However, almost half of those who voted did not vote that way. It was not overwhelming or decisive (as has often been stated). The country is divided – almost in two – over the matter. So, how we proceed from here must take seriously the concerns of the half the country that does/did not want to leave the EU. How we leave matters. The language we use in the course of the debate (on how to leave) matters.

From my own experience – and despite some of the public posturing – some of those in government take the 48% seriously and understand the need to hold the country together.

I have not changed my view that much of the language of certainty and promise is at least speculative and at worst fantasy. This means that we have to be prepared for huge disillusionment and further resentment when many of the Brexit promises turn out to be unfulfilled. Yes, the gains must be identified, too, it is the deficits that will provoke the reaction.

Donald Trump might well be doing what he said he would do – which is his prerogative – but democracy means that the debate continues. If lies are told, this matters; and the nature of the lies must (if we believe truth has any value) be named. However, not everything inconvenient to my preferences are necessarily lies.

It is right that serious questions are asked about policy from any democratically elected government. Protest must be legitimate. The questions we must ask about the questions raised pertain to very basic stuff: what is a human being? why do people matter? what is a good society? from what (theological) anthropology do our values and moral judgments derive? what responsibility do I take as a citizen for shaping our collective common life?

For Christians the answers will be rooted in the nature of the world as God’s creation, people as made in the image of this creator God, and neighbourliness being rooted in more than seeing others as commodities or merely economic entities.

 

So, the new year has begun. In with a bang, or with a whimper of fear and hesitation?

I was reminded this morning (while preparing for a radio interview) of the entry for New Year’s Day 1917 in the diary of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia: “The year 1916 was cursed; 1917 will surely be better!” Well, the Somme might have been appalling, but the Russian Revolution was to take the lives of Nicholas and his family (and, consequently and ultimately, millions of others) less than a year after writing his diary.

Wishful thinking is not the same as hope. Hope – which has to be vested in a vision – commits the hopeful to work towards the fulfilment of that vision. Hope has little to do with optimism: whereas optimism looks for the bright side in what happens, hope looks reality in the eye and is not diminished when that reality renders optimism as fantasy.

2017 will see the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the quincentenary of the Reformation. Both revolutions set Europe and the world ablaze. The language of freedom and a new world order exploded as an old order was challenged and assumptions (about why the world is the way it is) were questioned. And they remain pertinent as we move from 2016 into 2017.

2016 saw the rocking of an established order as the UK voted to leave the European Union and Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. Further elections in France and Germany in 2017 have the potential to further reshape Europe and the international relationships that have held the world together since the Second World War. ‘Populism’ is the word of the day – either an accolade or a term of derision, depending on whether you approve of the what the populace asked for. Whatever the choice, we face two questions: (a) 2016 showed us how easy it is to bring down; 2017 will show us whether we know how to build up. (b) we are where we are (regardless of how we got here), so how can we commit to shaping the future rather than bemoaning the past?

Photo-20161129151817817.jpgIt takes centuries to build a culture and a community; it takes minutes to destroy it. Look at Aleppo. If the commentariat is correct in judging that Brexit and Trump represent a rejection of ‘establishment’ and ‘elites’ (that is, we know what we are against), then what are we for? Put to one side the worrying irony that the articulators and leaders of the anti-establishment and anti-elitist movements are themselves the epitome of establishment and elitism, we have to ask what we wish to replace the current establishment with. My guess is that those who found common cause in ‘breaking down’ will struggle to find common cause in what they wish to see ‘built up’.

I come back to the distinction between wishful thinking and hope – the former leaving it to others to shape (as it is easier constantly to criticise and pick holes in those who try to bring about change) whilst the latter invest themselves sacrificially in making a positive difference even where this might be diminished or rejected. This is why, following Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified for it, Christians are drawn by hope and not driven by fear.

We do not know what 2017 will bring. We can fear for a (worryingly narcissistic) Trump presidency and we can come to terms with the sheer complexity of what Brexit might turn out to look like (with “the best deal” not being achievable?), but, ultimately, we will have to face the consequences of the decisions we have made whilst committing ourselves to shaping a common future in which the poor and marginalised are not left behind. Brexit is usually defined in terms of economics, trade and finance; it has to be about people, society, values and the common good of the whole nation.

We don’t know how the future might look. We do not know whether further Aleppos will curse our global humanity in 2017 – or whether revolutions might come where they have not come before. We cannot be sure what the impact of Trumpian protectionism and disregard for the environment will be. We must join in the argument as adults who take responsibility, even when the decisions do not go their way.

A reading of history makes clear that ‘now’ is never ultimate. Tomorrow will come. We must, as a people of hope, live in the reality of the day, learning from the past but drawn by a vision for and from the future, committed to shaping and not just complaining. “The Word became flesh (and dwelled among us)”, wrote John in the prologue of his gospel; our words will become flesh – one way or another – and we must take responsibility for them. Then we must use them to shape a vision that captures the imagination
and is not swayed by events, fears, conflict or destruction.

It is not enough to know what we are against, and to be angry about it; we must know what we are for, and commit ourselves to making it happen. Building up is always harder than breaking down.

It is infinitely amazing how instantly we all jump to judgement. Analyses of Donald Trump's win were pouring out even before it had been formally declared. So many words, so much opinion, so much assertion in the face of actual ignorance.

So, I decided not to write anything yesterday. I couldn't see the point of adding to the voices.

Today, having reflected on the Trump triumph, I simply offer the following pegs for my own thinking:

1. Like Brexit, the content of the campaign will probably bear little relation to the reality that will follow. Slogans might abound, but promises are almost always empty or cannot be delivered anyway. If Donald Trump does one tenth of what he promised he would do on Day One of his presidency, he is going to have a very busy day – not least setting up the Grand Jury to get Hillary “great public servant to whom we owe a great debt” Clinton into jail. We live in what is being called a “post-factual” world. What it really means is that we accept our politicians lying through their teeth to us during a campaign, knowing that this lying doesn't matter. That is the world we have chosen to accept.

2. Today is tomorrow's yesterday. Time will tell whether a Trump presidency is dangerous or not. It will certainly shift the parameters of what is possible and how international relationships are recalibrated. The truth is, we have no idea what will happen when he takes over from an intelligent, articulate, cultured, plitically experienced president who was thwarted throughout his presidency by a Congress determined to stop him doing anything.

3. We now enter a new and unpredictable world. We also do not know what impact this phenomenon will have on the French and German elections next year. An era of reactive populism across Europe will shift all the plates across the planet, but we don't know. We felt the same when Ronald Reagan took up the reins in the White House, but although his presidency brought elements of “worry”, the world survived; furthermore, the chemistry between him and Gorbachev provoked change that might not have been possible with other characters. (Of course, this led to Putin…)

So, it is too early to make judgements or even prophecies (although this won't stop people trying).

I am a Christian. I don't think Christians should ever be surprised by anything that happens. We get on with reality, whatever complexion that reality adopts. We are committed to the world, but fired by a vision of how that world might be different. So, even if the world goes mad, we will stay stuck in – trying to shape it, yes, but also engaging with it whether it looks good or bad.

We'll see…

What is it about politicians that encourages them to make absurd pitches for power? During the EU Referendum campaign we saw ridiculous promises, based on dodgy assumptions, made with a confidence and certainty that defied reality. In the USA we see it in Donald Trump's campaign slogan: 'Make America great again.'

No definition of 'great'. No real definition of 'America' – by the time you've excluded all the people Donald doesn't like, it isn't clear who is left to enjoy the 'land of the free'.

Anyway, I am only thinking about this because on holiday earlier this month I read five books (including Elvis Costello, Tom Wright and Sam Wells), two of which haunt me: Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Romulus der Große'. I have already written very briefly about the first (brilliant book), but it is the latter that comes to mind just now in the context of Trump and other matters.

Not many Brits have heard of Dürrenmatt. A Swiss novelist and playwright, he describes 'Romulus der Große' as an “ungeschichtliche historische Komödie” (an unhistorical historic comedy). Written in 1950, it shows the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, with the action taking place during the day of (and the day following) the Ides of March, 476. The Empire is about to collapse under the invasion of the greatly feared Germans and Romulus awaits its – and his – demise calmly. His family, ministers and courtiers try to force him to act decisively against the catastrophic and imminent Germanic invasion, but Romulus prefers to stay at home breeding domesticated chickens and doing nothing in response to the threat.

The ending is surprising and very civilised.

It is very clever, very funny, and needs to be rediscovered nearly seventy years after its initial production. Written in the aftermath of the German catastrophe of the twentieth century, it has much to say to us today in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan, Brexit and America. Here are a few quotes (my translation as I only have the text in German):

Even the worst news sounds quite pleasant when spoken by someone who has rested well, has bathed and shaved, and has had a good meal.

It is not about the content of the language…

ZENO: “Now we must save our culture.” ROMULUS: “In what way is culture something that can be saved?”

Echoing elements of George Orwell's 1984, Romulus and Zeno (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and escaped from Constantinople) come up with slogans they might use to counter the German invaders:

“For freedom and servitude!” “For slavery and justice!” “For caprice against barbarism!”

Rea, the daughter of Romulus, argues with her father that he must give everything to save the fatherland:

REA: “Our unconditional love for the Fatherland is what made Rome great.” ROMULUS: “But our love did not make Rome good.”

Which is where Trump comes in. Has greatness solely to do with power? Or success? Or self-protection? Where does “making America good” come in? Or the UK, for that matter?

I could quote other bits that resonate still, but that will do for now. Read the play – it isn't long. I have no idea if it is available in English, but the German is powerful even today. Under the humour and the satire there is a powerful punch.

 

Donald Trump plays into that bizarre American obsession with 'safety'. You paint America as a dangerous place where before even catching a train you have to be persuaded that it is a safe thing to do. You then demand a president who will make America safe as well as 'great' again.

Which means what? What would it look like for America to be 'great' again? Or 'safe' again? We don't get answers – just the usual perversity when it comes to asserting that more accessibility to more guns will magically make everyone safer.

Well, Americans will have to do their own business in the face of its Faustian pact with democracy in November. But, this impacts on the UK, too. Before leaving for a break I did an interview with BBC Radio 5Live in the wake of the murder by IS crazies of an elderly priest in France. Not exactly heroic, these criminals, are they? I mean, choose your targets.

The line of questioning put to me was that churches in England will now have to increase their security. What advice would I now be giving to my churches? I think my response must have been very disappointing. Increase vigilance and learn to look differently at what is going on around us, but don't go mad, start erecting fences or putting sentries on our churches. As if.

Isn't this what terrorists want us to do – be terrorised?

But, the main reason for rejecting some vast increase in security of buildings is that, as I think I put it, you can't legislate for total security. Furthermore, no one has the resources of money, time or people to provide anything remotely approximating total security. In the end, total safety is not something anyone can secure. Not even Donald Trump.

Our churches should open their doors and welcome people in. Yes, as happens already, someone should keep aware of who is there and who might be lurking around outside – especially if they are carrying knives and have their face covered. Yes, anything suspicious should be noted and, if necessary, the police alerted. That is common sense.

But, the first casualty of the current horrors should be the lie of total safety. History is littered with demagogues who promised safety and security along with renewed greatness. Their names are known to us. While understandable that in times of great fear and uncertainty people look for security and the promise of simple certainty, we should beware of the disillusionment and destructiveness that can follow when the empty and unachievable promises are seen for what they really are: a fantasy.