I spent one glorious summer as an Anglican. I rediscovered my faith while at university and the only place to explore it was the Church of England. I wasn’t interested in the non-Conformism of my parents and I had been raised to think that the Pope was the Antichrist, so the Anglicans it was. I settled on an Anglo-Catholic bastion called Little St. Mary’s and was Baptized there in the New Year of 2003. It was a magical place. It was very old and the grey stone steamed with incense. In winter, three tramps slept in the hallway. I went there one snowy night for Mass and found myself alone with the priest in the Lady Chapel. You could see his breath in the air as he muttered the liturgy. I can close my eyes now and still hear the choir signing the Antiphon on a Sunday morning. That is what Heaven will sound like.
I became an Anglican around the time that Rowan Williams
became Archbishop of Canterbury. At first, I was very excited about the new broom. Something about Rowan spoke to a peculiarly English spirituality – half druid, half monk. He was a soft spoken intellectual in an age that abhors thoughtful silence. Rowan’s language was uncompromisingly difficult and ripe with metaphor. Best of all, he was an Anglo-Catholic. I hoped – and I still do – that the English and Roman churches might be reconciled. Aside from institutional oddities (married priests, female clergy) the Anglicans seemed spiritually in “the right place” for reunion.
But it all went horribly wrong. Poor Rowan had an impossible task. Anglicanism is home to a liberal Protestant movement that orientates towards social reform. Unfortunately, it is also home to an alliance of Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals that is more conservative in hue. The conflict isn’t just realized in opposing theologies. The liberals tend to be Western and rich; the traditionalists are found more in developing world congregations and among the poor. While the liberal group is older and smaller, it is institutionally far more powerful. The Christian Left predominates in the universities and conclaves.
The liberal and traditionalist viewpoints were irreconcilable. Rowan responded to the crisis in the only way that an Englishman knows how: he compromised. The result was nine years of confusion. He might say that he wanted women bishops, but he opposed them in the pursuit of unity. One day he would lament the “dim witted” attacks on Christianity and another he would describe crosses as “religious decoration.” He seemed personally open to gay priests, but tried to ram through an arrangement within the Anglican Communion that would keep them from becoming bishops. Intellectually, he was a liberal. Organizationally, he always accommodated traditionalists. In practice, he frustrated both schools of thought and only deepened the divisions within the Communion further.
A lot of people have concluded that his failure was the fault of his personality. To be sure, he is an irremediably and unforgivably boring priest. Often I would hear one of his sermons on the radio and be outraged by its multitude of blasphemies. Only later, when I had the chance to go through a hard copy with a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, would I realize that he was actually talking perfect sense. The man made an art out of muddle.
Yet, there was nothing Rowan could have done to resolve the contradictions of the Anglican Church. Division within the Communion is nothing new: disagreement over theology was at the heart of the English Civil War. But what makes the current struggle impossible to resolve is that it isn’t just about doctrine – it’s about the very purpose of the Anglican Church itself. The liberals think that the Church should be the servant of society. The traditionalists think that society should be the pupil of the Church. Servant or teacher, which is it to be? You can’t be a servant if you spend all your time lecturing your master about his many sins. Nor can you be a teacher if you believe that your pupil already has all the right answers. The Church had to decide what it was and stick to it.
I recall one evening watching a debate on television between a liberal woman “vicar” and a conservative male “priest.” They were arguing over female bishops. The woman vicar said that the Church should adapt to reflect society’s makeup and mores, or else it will become irrelevant and thus a poor servant. The male priest replied that the Church was there to teach eternal truths and that the World of God wasn’t up for consultation and reform. I asked my mother, who was also watching, who she thought won the debate. She replied that she felt the woman vicar was nicer and that my mother would be more likely to go to her if she was seeking comfort. “But,” I asked, “who would you want to marry or bury you?” “The man,” she replied instantly. “He actually sounds and looks like a priest.” The woman vicar had compassion but the male priest had authority.
This existential conflict – between whether to be a servant or a teacher – was physically embodied by Rowan Williams. Ultimately, he failed to satisfy on both counts. He refused to “teach” the public because he didn’t want to drive anyone away. But he also failed to “serve” us because the confusion he created made the Church even more irrelevant. Nothing speaks more to Rowan’s ineffectuality than his parting words: “I think there is a great deal of interest still in the Christian faith.” After nine years of leadership, is that all he has to offer? People are sort of curious
about faith? One would hope that they would feel a stronger emotion than “interest” for a religion that thousands have died for, which is the official faith of England, and which is, by Rowan’s own reckoning, The Truth.
I did not stay an Anglican long. I wasn’t raised in it, so I felt little affinity for the endless round of lunches and tombolas. Nor was I impressed with where it was headed. It seemed to offer no resistance to the de-spiritualization of Britain; in many regards it felt like a conspirator.
Of course, there are flourishes of nostalgia. A snatch of Parry, a few lines from the Book of Common Prayer, Remembrance Sunday etc etc. But these are, I fear, relics. Britain is now a post-Christian society. Little St Mary’s isn’t a church – it’s a museum.
Every New Year, I come up with the same old plans for re-launching myself upon the world as a better, purer me. At least half of them involve God (“go to church more”, “pray more often, and not just for me” etc) and the rest hygiene. How many times have I promised to give up drink and take up weights? More times than my alcohol addled brain can remember (seriously, it’s becoming harder and harder to remember things like this).This year, I’m doing something different. Rather than going for modesty, I’m embracing the spirit of the New Greed and re-launching myself as someone bolder, braver and little more masculine. Here are my goals for 2012.1. Pick a new name. I hate Timothy. It’s the name of a well meaning but slightly simple posh boy – the kind of reliable spruce who wears his school’s rugby top well into his forties. So I’m thinking of dropping “Timothy” (or “Timbo” as my critics prefer) for something more butch. I like “Buck”. Buck Stanley. Now, that’s a name you can rely on in a tricky situation. Got a cat stuck up a tree? Call Buck. Need to change a tire on the side of the freeway? Call Buck. Call Buck for instant satisfaction and a chin you could eat a steak off.2. Grow a beard. There’s no escaping it: I’m getting old. And as I get old I’m developing those horrible English jowls that cause the face to lose all form. I’m in danger of waking up one day to find I look like Kim Jong-un. The only solution is to hide my sins beneath a beard. Ladies love ‘em and the best men wear ‘em – from Greek philosophers to salty sea dogs.
Of course, you have to be careful. Overdo the tash and you can end up looking like one of the Village People.3. Buy a gun. Nothing says “I’m a man” like having the power to kill another man (without actually having to go near him). Not many people realize that a tourist to the US is legally allowed to purchase a firearm, so I’ll be doing that on my next trip. I won’t wear it in the street because I’m liable to shoot the first suspicious looking type that asks for my train ticket. But I can wander around the house with it: point it at mirrors, take a shower with it etc. 4. Become more Right-wing. Nature is taking care of this one already, but I do sense the need to notch it up a bit. Ideally I’d like to get a column in a newspaper with a title like “The Voice of Reason” or “Common Sense for Common People”. Then I can pour forth on the evils of “femi-Nazis”, atheists, communists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and ticket collectors. Of course, the only point of having a column like that is so that you can occasionally voice a Left-wing opinion that takes everyone by surprise. “It’s Time to Nationalize the Banks”, or “End Cruelty to Goldfish NOW!”5. Track down the Mokele-mbembe. For some reason, the West has rediscovered this mythical beast of the Congo. It’s probably because everyone’s grown sick of looking for the Loch Ness Monster. Well, nothing says butch more than getting a big knife, throwing on a pith helmet, and going in search of a big, scary monster. If I find it, I shall shoot it and stuff it. Cruel perhaps, but a better fate than obscurity.O heck, none of these promises shall last. I shall be back to being a bow-tie wearing, soft-jawed liberal by February. But in the great American spirit of reinvention - and with a toast to whoever and whatever you want to be - I wish you all a Happy New Year!
At the sidelines of British life, everything is okay. Ann Widdecombe is starring in panto and 80’s comic due Cannon and Ball have published a book called Christianity for Beginners. In other news, Neil Hamilton has joined UKIP. I found out by mistake when I saw a link for an online video labeled “Neil Hamilton – I’m coming out”. It turned out to be a speech to this year’s UKIP conference (presumably in a lockup in Cornwall?). Neil was wearing a union jack bowtie he’d had made for himself during the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the Common Market. It’s incredible to think that thirty six years later … Neil Hamilton’s still wearing bowties.For American readers, who are these people and why do they matter? Neil Hamilton was a former Conservative MP who was accused of taking bribes. Evidence now suggests that he was innocent, but that didn’t stop his career spectacularly crashing. Bankrupted by legal fees, he and his fantastic wife, Christine, were reduced to appearing on game shows and painful self-parodies. One of the strongest memories of my adolescence was watching Neil host a show about political scandal. The producers had him whip the camera with a cat-o-nine-tails and whisper, “s-s-s-sex!” I swear it left me impotent for life.UKIP is the United Kingdom Independence Party, and it’s a perfect fit for Mr. Hamilton. It was founded by Right-wingers who quit the Conservative Party in the 1990s in protest at its post-Thatcher drift to the center. In particular, they felt it was too accommodating to the European leviathan. What the contemporary UKIP does precisely stand for is up for debate, but it can no longer be dismissed. Having come second in the last European elections and attracted one million votes in the 2010 general election, it is now officially Britain’s fourth party. If the UK practiced proportional representation, there would probably be about thirty UKIP MPs. The House of Commons bar would never be empty again.UKIP is home to hundreds of thousands of disenchanted voters. People who are disenchanted with the process of UK politics tend to join the Liberal Democrats. People who are disenchanted with its lack of humor or ideology swing to dear old UKIP. Voting UKIP is white people’s way of telling the Prime Minister to “kiss my black ass”. Polls suggest that it pulls in surprisingly even amounts of support from Labour and Conservative voters. Despite its populist appeal, UKIP is blighted by an image problem. It has come to be seen as the party of the golfer – the Right-wing, retired stock broker with diabetes and a wife who is fanatically devoted to Bridge. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is the epitome of the classless Tory. He talks openly about going to lap dancing clubs and there’s something about his cheerful patter that is more redolent of the race track than the polo circuit. Farage is the best weapon UKIP has at the polls. The previous leader, the perpetually bored Lord Pearson, would admit to only a passing knowledge of his party’s manifesto and exhuded a kind of resigned good humor. Farage, in contrast, crashed onto the British political scene like a populist tornado.If I write jokingly of UKIP then it’s not for the usual, disingenuous reasons (most British commentary on the party is filled with snobbery and spite). It is innately funny because it wallows in its own outrageousness. Its central proposition – that the UK should leave the European Union “NOW!” (regardless of the cost) – is a powerful magnet for a perverse mix of bloody-mindedness and commonsense. The European Union is a disaster that has ruined several member states. There is no good sense in trying to harmonize the economies or governments of Germany (a strong economy based on export) and Greece (a weak economy based on selling dirty rags to tourists). And yet the Union has tried to do just this – for reasons of political ideology. The fundamentalists driving forward European integration care nothing for its economic cost. Still less do they care about concepts like national self-determination or self-governance. They see the desire to rule oneself as an Anglo-Saxon eccentricity. Incredibly, some British people see it that way, too. There are Brits who fly the European flag on their front lawns. To what do they feel they are committing their allegiance? The metric system?UKIP has become a lightning rod for people angry with European integration, whatever their reason. Old socialists reject the single market’s anti-regulatory impulse (it is essentially illegal under EU law to nationalize an industry, and the EU has forced terrible spending cuts on member states). Tories and nationalists abhor its collectivism and assault on sovereignty. A fair few Britons will admit that they just don’t like the French. The feeling is mutual.What makes Europhobia so potent is the fact that the British political class has ignored it. Despite strong public support for withdrawal, no party with run on that platform. Countless politicians have promised a renegotiation of the terms of our membership and failed to deliver. Anger at Europe has been internalized into anger at Britain’s gutless politicians. This is something UKIP’s establishment critics don’t understand about the party: it has as much to say about Britain as it does Europe.If UKIP’s real issue is political corruption, the problem is that it isn’t united on the solution. Certainly, every single member wants some degree of withdrawal from the EU. But one of the reasons why it has failed to set a domestic agenda might be a lack of unity beyond that point. Farage and Hamilton represent the dominant wing of the party, which is shamelessly libertarian. They basically want UKIP to pick up where Mrs Thatcher left off: free trade with the developing world, social liberalism (read: lap dancing), the deconstruction of the welfare state, and taxes lower than a dachshund's belly. But there is another side to the party, one which approximates more to the populist conservatism of Gianfranco Fini or Jorg Haider. Their presence is obvious in UKIP’s opposition to the wearing of the Muslim veil, its anti-immigration rhetoric, and its demand that church and businesses be free to discriminate against gays. There is absolutely no evidence to support this assertion, but I’d bet good money that the libertarians tend to be middle class golfers and the populists are more working class.Ironically, UKIP’s coalition is rather more European in flavor than it is British. It is common in Europe – particularly the Latin countries – for a coalition of wildly different activists to form around a single idea or person. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (defunct since 2009) was an example. It combined liberals, Christian Democrats, and former communists - all united by the need to modernize the country’s political and economic structures. Each faction enjoyed control over an aspect of policy, satisfying everyone by giving in to their most passionate demand. UKIP has achieved a similar degree of harmony by allowing the populists to govern immigration, the libertarians to decide tax policy, and everyone to unite around withdrawal from Europe. This is only new in the British context, where parties are traditionally motivated by ideology or class. Having attended a UKIP Christmas party, I can attest that it attracts an extraordinary mix of people. The only things they had in common were a hatred of foreign governance and a tendency to drink and drive.If I had one wish it would be this: that UKIP becomes the British Tea Party. We have no independent conservative movement in Britain because the Conservative Party saps its energy and money. Without a real primary system, there is no effective way to protest Conservative policy or hold the party to account. By threatening to take away votes at a general election, however, UKIP could force the Conservatives back to the Right. If they finally won seats in Parliament, a coalition could ensure some meaningful renegotiation of our relationship with Europe. The use of external pressure is what forced the Republican Party to the Right in the 1970s: the independent candidacies of George C Wallace encouraged it to think again about states’ rights and taxes. Likewise, the Tea Party’s domination of the current GOP primaries demonstrates how an independent movement that teases candidates with seductive offers of support in return for hardcore policy commitments can change the national political discourse. That is what UKIP must try to become: an American style independent conservative movement that blends anti-government and Moral Majority fervor. The question is, does UKIP have the degree of seriousness and depth necessary to do this? The arrival on the scene of Neil Hamilton suggests not. Pleasant and witty though the man is, for millions of Brits he is associated with exactly the kind of corruption UKIP exists to wipe out. God bless him for re-entering our lives, though. There’s something so wonderfully English about a career that begins in Parliament and ends on television. In America, it’s so often done the other way around.
As a historian of the US, the riots in London made me think instantly of the urban disorder in America in the 1960s. There are big differences: size, scale, and lack of political motive this time around. This is not the right moment to plug a book, but I noticed when researching my forthcoming biography of Pat Buchanan that there were three different reactions to the disorder of the 1960s. Two – Leftwing pandering and Rightwing populism – were on display in this nice vignette from the 1968 Chicago riots. The local police had horribly over-reacted to the presence of 10,000 antiwar protestors during the local Democratic Convention, using nightsticks and tear gas to dispel the largely peaceful crowds. The demonstrators gathered in Grant Park, across from the hotel where the conservative pundit Pat Buchanan was lodging. He stayed up all night with the Leftwing writer Norman Mailer, drinking cocktails and watching the fight down below. The city had imposed an 11pm curfew on the demonstrators and when they failed to move, the police charged them with teargas and truncheons. Mailer leant over the balcony and screamed at the cops, “Pigs! Fascists!”
Buchanan leant over and shouted, “Hey, you’ve missed one!”
Those were the two responses to the crises of 1968 that most people are familiar with, and both are getting a big play in London 2011. In the 1960s, several conservative populists called for a take-no-prisoners answer to urban chaos: no recognition of supposed grievances, 100% support for the police, and zero tolerance for offenders. Presidential candidate George Wallace promised to hand the streets over to the cops for 24 hours, all civil liberties suspended and no questions asked. Having just witnessed my own capital city be looted by thugs and vandals, I feel considerable sympathy for this position. One’s first instinct in the midst of criminality is to go all Rambo. A good friend asked the question on Facebook, “Where is Charles Bronson when you need him?”
Leftwing commentators in the 1960s expressed far greater sympathy for the rioters than what one might find today. The Kerner Commission of 1968 blamed the disturbances entirely on racism and poverty, with little consideration for personal responsibility. It concluded that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal”, and proposed massive federal spending projects as a solution. That view, incidentally, is still popular within my own field of historical research. The consensus within the academy is that the disorder of the 1960s was a legitimate response to white racism and an unjust war, while the stunning popularity of conservative politicians like Wallace, Buchanan, or Ronald Reagan reflected an underlying mainstream fascism.
What is forgotten about 1968 is that there was a “third way” response to the violence, and it had a big constituency. It was the approach taken by Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey: toughness informed by compassion. Humphrey was a liberal before the term became submerged within radical Leftwing discourses in the 1970s – before it became synonymous with socialist economics and identity politics bullcrap. Nor did it have anything to do with obscure British philosophers: Smith and Mill probably sounded like undertakers to Hubert. Rather, it was a politics shaped by the misery of the Great Depression and the violent grandeur of the Second World War. Humphrey’s liberalism was tough and sinewy. He loved his fellow man, but he understood that part of love is censorship and reform. Man is born in sin: people used to get that.
When he accepted his party’s nomination in Chicago 1968, the same week that Mailer and Buchanan watched the cops and demonstrators duke it out in the street, Humphrey opened with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light.” Then he said, “Rioting, sniping, mugging, traffic in narcotics and disregard for law are the advance guard of anarchy and they must and they will be stopped. But may I say most respectfully, particularly to some who have spoken before, the answer lies in reasoned, effective action by state, local and federal authority. The answer does not lie in an attack on our courts, our laws or our Attorney General. We do not want a police state, but we need a state of law and order. And neither mob violence nor police brutality have any place in America.”
It was a complex formula, perhaps too nuanced for the angry spirit of the age. But it balanced what many citizens were looking for: a definition of law and order that keeps in check both the criminal individual and the over-mighty state. Humphrey went on to say, “Nor can there be any compromise with the right of every American who is able and who is willing to work to have a job, who is willing to be a good neighbor, to be able to live in a decent home in the neighborhood of his own choice … And it is to these rights – the right of law and order, the right of life, the right of liberty, the right of a job, the right of a home in a decent neighborhood, and the right to an education – it is to these rights that I pledge my life and whatever capacity and ability I have.”
What Humphrey meant was that law and order and social reform are not contradictions as the Marxist Left would have us believe: they are two sides of the same social contract. Peace guarantees the opportunity for progress and progress irons out the iniquities that spur disorder. It’s a forerunner of that blunter paradigm, “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. For those who, frankly, want to see some criminals get a good thrashing but who also don’t want to give up on the dream of urban renewal, this is a powerful promise. It was popular enough in 1968 to take Humphrey to within one percentage point of winning the presidency.
As we have come to expect, Britain’s political leadership has been singularly lacking throughout these riots. A few have offered jingoisms, while a former mayor has unwisely suggested that the hoodlums need love. There is a space – a wide vacuum in fact – for a reasonable statesperson to ask, “Can’t we all get along?” Most voters are conservative in that they want peace in the streets yet liberal in that they don’t want to use water cannons to get it. One solution is transformative leadership. Robert Kennedy offered something of that when he spoke in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination. He said, "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black." He asked the crowd to go home and pray, and they did. Indianapolis was one of the few major US cities that didn’t experience riots that night. I pray that a similar recourse to reason is still possible in this crisis. In the absense of decent leadership to provide it, I shall be getting grandpa's shotgun down from the attic. To quote Pat Buchanan when asked his response to new federal gun controls: "Lock and load".
My time in Los Angeles is drawing to a close. I’m anxious about returning to London (via a week in Washington DC) because I’m finally starting to build a life here. The house has my smell; the floors are covered in my crumbs; those are my socks strewn across the bathroom floor. It should come as no surprise that I’ve made more friends in three months in Hollywood than I did in 28 years in England. Bar my floating accent and bizarre wardrobe, I’ve gone completely native.
An example. I’ve taken to having lunch once a week at the Panda café on Sunset. It’s a long, hot walk south of Franklin – the road that cuts East to West and divides rich and poor from North to South. There are few people down there, no Caucasians for sure, only a handful of Hispanic men with moustaches hanging around on street corners selling manual labor. Wealthy white men drive slowly past, wind down the window, and ask for the time of day.
“What you looking for, senior?”
“Depends on what’s on offer.”
“Lawn cut, $20. Roof tiles, $50. If you want me to do any heavy lifting, you have to clear it with my pimp first.”
The Panda is a part of a grisly chain of Chinese restaurants that serves irradiated chicken and something they claim is rice but is palpably not. The rule of thumb for Chinese restaurants is to dine within only if both the waiters and the customers are Chinese. In Panda, everyone’s Mexican. I go there because I’m hooked on cheap crap and I enjoy the fiesta atmosphere of lunch break for the DIY guys. Sometimes the nannies bring their little white charges in, and there’s something reassuring about the future generation’s bilingualism.
I was leaving Panda yesterday, bloated by three rounds of “Chernobyl chicken” and a man and a woman stopped me in the street. They were fairly well dressed and a little sun burnt. They both had the vague stare of the crack addict.
“You got any spare change buddy?” the man asked. “We lost our hotel key and we’ve been sleeping under the freeway.” Whether it was the saddest story of accidental tourism or the lamest lie ever told, I gave him a five. His wife was astonished. She shook my hand.
“Thank you, sir,” she said. “I had a sandwich, but someone stole it.”
[Pause for a moment to reflect that none of this would have happened in England. We’re so conditioned to fear other people in London that even walking on the same side of the road as this couple would be regarded as reckless. But it was the tone of the conversation that was uniquely American: the naïve sense that we might enjoy each other’s company if we only tried.]
“How on earth does someone steal a sandwich?” I asked.
“Are you Australian?” she replied, nicely deflecting the question.
“No I’m from England.”
“O, you’re from England? Say, is it true that Prince Charles killed Diana?” Thirty minutes later and we were still talking. Or rather, the lady and I were still talking: the fellow just kept staring at the sun and scratching his neck. He really wanted to go spend that $5.
So it is in the area of sociability that I’ve gone American, and it’s something I’ll dearly miss. I don’t think that living here has made me a better person, but the conviviality of Hollywood does give that false impression. If life were – as it is here – a long round of fundraisers for congressmen and rock concerts for dolphins, then we’d all feel permanently really, really good about ourselves. But I’m conscious that all the love is unstructured and useless. The obsession with telling good personal stories means that charity is atomized (“I personally, like, believe, you know, that education is so important … and that’s why I, like, read books.”) When asked what he does for a living, one man told me earnestly, “I fight poverty.” The how, when, and why were never followed up, but he seemed very sincere about it. “I’m building a website. To fight poverty.”
That might be one reason why Buddhism is so popular. It’s all about personal narratives – one man’s voyage from ignorance to enlightenment. And I’ve heard many, many of them. One Buddhist lady told me at a cocktail party that, “We don’t judge or evangelize; we are all on our own journey”. But for faith to transcend personal therapy, it relies on externals – doctrines, churches, monks, priests, communities. No one in Los Angeles, I sense, exists for other people. How can they, sitting as they do on their yoga mats in perfect isolation from one another – colliding only at vegan picnics to save the white tiger? Everyone out here is very friendly, friends even. But for relationships to have value there must be flickers of love and hate. Where else do memories come from? In the purple light of the Pacific Ocean, everything in Los Angeles is Zen.
And I think that’s one reason why conservatives don’t often flourish in this town. There’s been a lot of literature (chiefly by James Hirsen and Andrew Breitbart) about how conservatives are locked out of making movies by their politics. But Hollywood doesn't work by censorship. This town is all about business, and that business is driven by a free market of ideas. For anyone to exclude any idea on the grounds of ideology would be stupid – it would lose the viewership of at least half the country. And the vast majority of movies do conform to a fairly conservative view of human nature: families, ambition, violence, faith, and patriotism are generally encouraged. There are exceptions, but the comparative success and failure of pro and anti-war movies is indicative of how the market moves (compare Lions for Lambs with Saving Private Ryan).
No, the problem that the conservative faces isn’t intellectual, it’s social. Conservatism tends to be raw and unfiltered. In conversation, it punctures the Zen equilibrium that sustains everyone in Los Angeles. The industry works by networks and anyone who can’t sustain a long conversation about the importance of raw carrots and natural fibers to the functioning of Yin and the flowing of Yang won’t fit in. One writer told me that following 9-11, he found work dried up. There was plenty of interest in his output (he’s a very good writer) but when it came to small talk before pitches, or the gossip at the writers’ in LA Farm, he was immediately frozen out. “People would open with, ‘Isn’t George Bush a moron?’ And I would say, ‘No, I voted for him.’ And I could feel I was losing their respect.”
True, this suggests that Hollywood cleaves to the left. But I suspect the real problem with what the writer said wasn’t the content but the act of disagreement itself. Hollywood conversations deal in hyperbolic affirmations: “You’re amazing. That pitch was the best ever. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met. Adam Sandler really is funny, isn't he?” Disagreement and contradiction are acts of verbal rape.
Why is Hollywood so sensitive to criticism? Because it’s a town motored by untested ideas. If we were to tell everyone who came up with a new plot line or concept for a commercial that it sucked (and 9 out of 10 of them do) then nothing would get done. If you were to tell that idiot on the street corner strumming a one-string guitar that he sucks, it would spark an industry-wide crisis of confidence. Writers, actors, and directors are sensitive people. They need to know that everything they do and say is “Fantastic - the best!” The cynical, minority-reporting lash of conservatism doesn’t fit. Why, if that is true, did Ronald Reagan flourish here? Because he was very, very nice. He was, by all accounts, the actor's actor and in conversation he deflected controversy with quips and annecdotes. Ronald Reagan was the Zen master of rightwing charm, and it's the ability to avoid controversy that marks success from the failure in La-la Land.
It is in that last, important regard that I have truly become Californian: I’ve caught its obsession with fantasy. I can’t wait to return to England to be reminded that nothing is possible and that thing the Americans call ambition is really just naiveté. Home is where the heartless are.
Conspiracy theorist David Icke believes that the world is run by lizards. To be specific, it is run by a crossbreed of reptiles and men who live in the middle of the Earth, drink blood, and come from Alpha Draconis. Devilish shape-shifters, their first family are the Windsors and they govern us through royal bloodlines. The lizard people control things via the banking system. We monkey men are their slaves, freedom is an illusion. I have a fantasy wherein I meet Mr. Icke at a party, I go up to him and say, “David, I am a reptoid and I can confirm that everything you believe is true.” Then I run away, leaving behind a happily validated madman.
Some dismiss Icke as a media-hungry simpleton who got high while watching V: The Miniseries in the 1980s and mistook it for a newsreel. Others suspect that the lizards are a racist analogy for the Jews. Certainly Icke’s theory corresponds with classic tropes of the Neo-Nazi conspiracy genre: the world is controlled by an inter-related species through the money supply. But this is probably unfair. Icke has denounced anti-Semitism many times and there’s no hint of hate speech in his writings. Indeed, it is wrong to dismiss the Icke phenomenon out of hand. His books sell well and he’s had a big cultural impact. [The 2008 Minnesota race was so close that it went down to recounting individual spoiled ballots. On one of them, some wag had crossed out all the candidates’ names and written in their place “The Lizard People”.]
Conspiracy theories like Icke’s are usually a rational attempt to make sense out of a series of bizarre and frightening events. It is a fact that Western democratic governments have conspired against their citizens. The list of atrocities in America is shocking. The federal government’s assault on Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas in 1993 ended in the deaths of dozens of innocent citizens. In neither case was the government’s intention malign, but it was guilty of gross incompetence and bending the Constitution. Watergate, Gulf War Syndrome, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Chappaquiddick, the Kennedy assassination, all have raised questions about the honesty of federal agencies. What the conspiracy theorists do is to draw links between these individual violations of human rights to create a unifying theory. The principle is rational but the process and outcome are not. They bury genuine crimes beneath illegitimate or untested data, creating links between unconnected events, building pattern upon pattern of duplicities that kaleidoscope into a big mess of crazy. But it is wrong to dismiss as irrational or insane Icke’s desire to bring order to the universe, to make sense of the violent, corrupt, dumb things that governments do to their own people. Nor is retrospective conspiracy thinking limited to mad white people. The popular myth within the African-American community that AIDS was created by the government to control the black population developed in the 1970s in tandem with revelations that public health officials had denied treatment to black syphilis sufferers to examine the disease’s long term effects.
Moreover, Icke offers an unusual way of expressing a fear of impersonal forces that is common to all of us. If Icke is writing metaphorically about a world run by lizard men, then he is a genius (the corollary to that is that if he’s writing literally, then he’s a nut). The world is slipping beyond the control of the individual as technological, social, and economic change make larger structures of organization necessary and inescapable. The linkage of economies has rendered nation states a sham; the threat of terror demands a multilateral approach; human rights legislation defending the rights of grand minorities chips away at individual freedom of speech. While the internet has increased our access to information, it has also made the world seem smaller. Government agencies grow like bacteria swelling in a Petri dish. Before the Second World War, the British didn’t even have to own passports. Now the government gathers our DNA, eye scans, and tax records. The logic of the slow loss of control is horrible and overwhelming. The desire to find someone responsible for it is understandable.
But what is more terrifying than David Icke’s fantasies of evil reptilian kitten-eaters from another planet is that all of this is not planned. It is random. The War on Terror was started not by the President of the most powerful nation in the world but by a handful of amateur criminals. It is far more frightening to admit that all of the crazy stuff that happens is spontaneous rather than organized and rational. With a few notable exceptions, modern Western societies are not evil and well organized. They are mad and inept. If that was not true, then wouldn’t David Icke have been assassinated by now?
[The picture is Leonid Brezhnev mixing work and pleasure at his dacha in the 1970s. It’s a stark reminder of the importance of wearing clothes.]
Last week, I spoke at a Big Ideas meeting on the subject of the role of religion in American politics. I did so as part of my self-appointed crusade to make a case for preserving a role for faith in public life. At the end I was asked a very good, deceptively simple question – how would I actually define religion? My talk had presumed that having faith meant joining a church, believing in doctrine, and living the life of a visible saint. But for the vast majority of believers, religion is about births, deaths, and marriages and little else. They think about God fleetingly and only at times of need. So why give a prominent role to something so unstructured and, sometimes, cynical?
However, the utility of faith is one the things that makes it so indispensible. Religion gives us a language to describe triumph and tragedy. Take that language out of the vocabulary and we’d be emotionally bankrupt.
One of the greatest works about American religion is The Puritan Dilemma by Edmund Morgan. Morgan argues, convincingly, that the fire and brimstone Christianity of the 17th century Puritans was actually a way of expressing and understanding trauma. They concluded that bad things happen to faithless people, that war with the Amerindians, disease, famine, and poverty were linked to moral culpability. The Puritans created a lexicon to describe their ethical ambitions, leaving us the timeless image of “a city upon a hill”. Morgan is softer on the theocratic prejudices of the Puritans than he should be, but he is right that Jeremiad culture was an attempt to rationalize disaster and find ways through it. Christianity permeates the Civil Rights movement in a similar way. The movement was not a Christian construct by any means (its opponents were often Biblical fundamentalists), but religion helped express ideas of righteous suffering and redemption. It is no coincidence that so many of the movement’s leaders were preachers, or that African Americans identified so strongly with the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt.
Western society uses religious language and imagery far more than it realizes. Its values are there in human rights law or the casual evocation of brotherhood by politicians. When Jimmy Carter met Soviet leader Brezhnev at the 1979 Vienna Summit to discuss the control of nuclear weapons, the communist surprised the Baptist by remarking that “God will not forgive us if we fail”. Why did the commissar of an atheist state use such religious language? Probably because “God” is a way of expressing The Judgment of History – a supreme moral verdict that is beyond the transient, shortsighted opinions of man.
When the results of the UK Census are in, we shall discover the scope of belief in Britain. Doubtless, there’ll be mileage for the cynical in the mix of fantasy and ignorance that the survey will reveal (something I added to by putting “Jedi” as my religion. Process that, Lockheed). But the fact that so many British people don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus but do believe in horoscopes, reincarnation, and angels is not to be dismissed. That’s religion in an eclectic, postmodern age giving expression to a genetic need for the divine. Whether religious, agnostic, something, or nothing, most people desperately believe that there must be something more than this. If not, then we are in Hell. The fragility of our bodies and the evil men do are not temporary trials, they are all we get.