Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Brexit: Lessons from the east about what folly it would be to choose isolation

Andrew Rawnsley                     Guardian/UK                       24 April 2016

Vietnam has its dark side. But it is impossible not to be wowed by the progress it has made over the past three decades, nor impressed by its potential. Poverty has fallen steeply; levels of education and health have risen sharply. Average incomes are many multiples higher than they were. On its current growth trajectory, Vietnam’s economy will soon surpass several European countries. With a population rising above 90 million, it is already the world’s 14th most populous country. That population is very young. More than half of the Vietnamese are under 30. They seemed to this observer to be sparky, hard-working, pragmatic and eager to get on.

This is one of the happening countries of the world and the world is noticing. Barack Obama will be visiting in May. Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, called in on Hanoi in the past fortnight. David Cameron visited last year, the first British prime minister to make the trip.

A Britain that wants to maximise its future prosperity will seek to be part of the future of coming countries such as Vietnam. There is Vietnamese interest in aspects of Britain, particularly a perceived British expertise in insurance, banking, science and technology. But compared with other global actors, we are not that significant in the Vietnamese scheme of things. Certainly not as important as its complex relations with the US and its Asian neighbours, especially the historic enemy and one-time occupier to the north. In so much as the UK matters to a country such as Vietnam, our influence is leveraged through membership of the EU. After three and a half years of negotiation, the EU and Vietnam recently signed a free trade agreement (FTA). When Mr Hammond came visiting, getting the FTA ratified was the main point of the talks from the perspective of his hosts.

That is one of more than 50 agreements with countries on every continent that will be forfeit if Britain quits the EU. Brexit would not only trigger years of horribly complex and acrimonious renegotiation of the terms of trade with our former EU partners – it would also mean starting again with the rest of the world. The Brexiters don’t like to talk about this. When they are forced to address this consequence of self-ejection from the EU, they airily dismiss it, as Michael Gove did in the Panglossian speech he recently delivered on behalf of the Outers.

You do not have to accept every doomsday projection to see that this would impose a steep penalty on growth. The renegotiation of so many trade deals would take time, a punishingly protracted amount of time, time that Britain really cannot afford to waste when the shape of the global economy is changing so rapidly, new players such as Vietnam are jostling for pieces of the action and the rest of the world is organising itself into trading blocs. It is extremely hard to see how Britain could possibly get better terms negotiating on its own rather than as part of a team of 28 nations. It is incredibly easy to see how Britain would get much worse terms.

Those are self-interested reasons for sticking with the EU: we will be better off in. A more altruistic argument was suggested by my journey through Vietnam. The embrace of globalisation by its rulers has not been accompanied by an adoption of a free market in politics. Vietnam is still a one-party state. The Communist party retains a monopoly on power. All the TV stations and newspapers are state-controlled. In the latest index of world press freedom, Vietnam is ranked 175, fifth from bottom. Pro-democracy campaigners are chucked in jail. Monitoring bodies describe the human rights record as “dire”. Publc resentment at corruption is so widespread that Vietnam’s prime minister recently felt obliged to tell the rubber-stamp parliament that he would do something about it.

Can Britain nudge Vietnam towards a more democratic path? Acting alone, we just don’t matter enough to Hanoi to have a chance. As an actor within the EU, there is a better hope. As a price of the free trade agreement, the Vietnamese government had to swallow a commitment to legalising workers’ rights, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. It also signed up to higher environmental standards. Britain within the EU can help to achieve that sort of progress; Britain acting alone cannot. There is strength in numbers. If Vietnam, a country with such a fiercely forged sense of national identity, can grasp that there is no future in trying to hide walled against the world, then it will be mighty perverse if Britain makes the opposite choice.

This is the concluding section of a long article

Saturday, 16 April 2016

We're Picking and Choosing Among Desperate People

Robert Fisk             Independent/UK            Common Dreams             April 08, 2016

The most relevant newspaper cartoon on the asylum story popped up on the front page of The Irish Times this week, for Martyn Turner’s sketch caught two scandals in one.

On the left hand side was a rich businessman stepping onto a palm-fringed island under the caption: “Since forever, RICH people have been taking their assets offshore to avoid tax...” On the right hand side of the cartoon, refugees in a flimsy rubber boat sail across choppy seas beneath the words: “Since recently POOR people have been taking their assets offshore... Guess which problem we have worked day and night to stop?”Well, of course, it’s the poor guys who are getting the chop – courtesy of an annual €3bn to the Turks and an easy visa for anyone from Izmir to Iskanderia who wants to take a look at the EU which the refugees risked their lives to reach.

It’s not just that – nor the clever-clogs way in which the EU packed its first boat of returnees with Pakistanis who don’t quite qualify for our pity, and thus couldn’t be seen on our television screens as refugees fleeing for their lives. They all went meekly aboard, guarded by the blue legions of Frontex, that least accountable of all border institutions the EU has yet invented. I’m sure they’re all gentle lads and lasses, but why on earth do they wear these preposterous hygiene masks over their faces when confronted by refugees?

Reporters, NGOs, local villagers apparently feel no need to protect their health from the huddled masses of the Middle East. But the Frontex centurions seem to be in a state of permanent delicate healths. Indeed, like the soldiery and cops of Brussels, it now seem ‘de rigeur’ for any self-respecting European security man to wrap his face up in scarves or hoods. Are we telling the world that the refugees are plague carriers? Or have the Belgian army and police and Frontex picked up this fashion accessory from Isis itself?

As for the ‘one-for-one’ refugee “exchanges”, as we’ve now been taught to call the whole fandango, what happened to our well-founded concerns about the nature of the state – Turkey – to which we are dispatching immigrants the moment they step ashore on Greek territory?

Sure, the Turks have promised that they will be very correct and pleasant and sweet to all the folk we fling back at them. But isn’t there a problem with Turkey? Isn’t this the place where the cops take over newspapers and lock up journalists, and where the army has been slaughtering large numbers of Kurds for decades, and where the president is turning into a miniature Sultan? And where, still – let this not be forgotten – the government does not recognise the Turkish genocide of a million and a half Christian Armenians in 1915?

I imagine that present-day Armenian refugees from Syria will demand a quick transit to Greece – and Syrian Kurds in Greece will request a very slow journey back to Turkey. I was very struck by the words of French philosophy professor Frederic Worms last month who pointed out that the Turks will somehow ensure that Europe has ‘validated’ the identity of refugees travelling (‘legally’, if that’s the right word) in the other direction. In other words, we’re already choosing the ones we want from the ones we don’t want.

The ironies and the injustices – and the violence, alas – are still to come. Yet at least there are some prepared to point out the iniquities of the current crisis – and take risks to do so. Among the latest are German journalist Wolfgang Bauer and Czech photographer Stanislav Krupar whose slim new book, Crossing the Seas: is a bleak but deeply revealing expose of the ‘trade’ in refugees. Both men set off from Egypt, beaten by youthful smugglers on their way to the beach, only to be caught when it turns out that the nightly Egyptian naval patrol has not been paid off by the smugglers. When the same Syrians – without their journalist friends – try the same trip later, the very same patrol boat lets them sail away.

But it’s not just the detail in this book that counts. It’s the anger. Europe had done nothing to bring the carnage in Syria to an end, Bauer says, and “most European governments...said a no-fly zone and military intervention would just worsen the situation... Hundreds of thousands of people have come to us across the sea and via the Balkans. And now the EU’s interior ministers want to close the borders. None of them have resigned, despite the thousands who have drowned in the Mediterranean in the wake of their mistakes...”

I don’t buy Bauer’s demand for military action; by funnelling weapons to the bad guys in Syria, we’ve done quite enough “intervening” already. But his conclusion is humbling indeed. 

Another Look at Easter

By Ian Harris                      Otago Daily Times                     April 8, 2016

There’s a lot that’s right about the Easter just passed, but God punishing Jesus for the sins of the world isn’t part of it. Not even when you say “Ah yes, but that simply shows how much God loves us.” For one thing, that whole notion depends on the existence of the God of theism. Any view of God requires us to speculate on what that God is like: in theism humans project on to this external being the best and highest values that we can conceive – love, justice, compassion, holiness, wisdom, truth, beauty – and a consequential hatred of their opposites.

In the 5th century the creative mind of St Augustine teased that out further by saying the biblical origin myths mean that human life began in a state of perfection. Then Adam and Eve disobeyed their creator, and everyone since has been born into a state of sin, simply by virtue of their origin. That is unavoidable, Augustine argued, because “original sin” is passed on through the sex act. And sin merits punishment. Sinners need to be rescued. But how? 

In the 11th century Anselm, then archbishop of Canterbury, devised an answer by projecting on to God a feudal image of a just ruler who could not treat lightly any breach of his laws. Offenders had to be punished, or the moral order would collapse. Who could bring hope to all these miserable sinners? Only Jesus, the perfect man, said Anselm. So Jesus accepted God’s just punishment for sin on behalf of everyone who identified with his sacrifice on the cross. That narrative of sin, punishment, faith and salvation inspired Christian faith for the next 1000 years.

Then came the great advances in scientific knowledge of the past 200 years. We learnt that human life did not begin perfect and whole, but evolved over millions of years from earlier species, gradually developing new skills and attributes. As such knowledge expanded, the theistic model of God began to seem less self-evident than before. For many, God became less an objective being in heaven and more a supreme influence within human consciousness. Any mature view of Godness has justice at its core, but it is not the penal justice of a sentencing judge. Rather it is doing justly, acting compassionately in everyday life.

If, then, there was no original human perfection and so no “fall” into original sin, if there is no heavenly overlord poised to condemn sinners, no place called heaven and no physical hell, a new view of Easter becomes necessary. Or rather, the oldest view can re-emerge.

The most telling corrective to the punishment-oriented interpretation of the cross comes from Jesus himself, twice over. First there is his parable about a young blade determined to have a good time. He asked his father to give him in advance the inheritance he expected from his father’s estate, so he could take off and live the high life. That was highly insulting – it was tantamount to saying he couldn’t wait for his father to die – but he got his inheritance anyway.

Then everything turned to custard. He squandered his money, sank lower and lower, and finally grew so desperate he had no option but to crawl back home. He deserved a good whipping for his arrogance and waste. Instead, his father laid on a feast to welcome him home. For Jesus, that reflected the character of God. You can’t go beyond unconditional love. 

Then there’s the example of Jesus on the cross. He could have railed against the authorities and his executioners. He could have threatened they would all pay dearly for their part in killing an innocent man. He didn’t. He said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” You can’t go beyond unconditional love.

Easter, shorn of the punishment motif running through well-loved hymns, rituals and much preaching, proclaims that unconditional love. It is the clue to Jesus and the heart of Godness. It does not judge or threaten. It welcomes gracefully, offers love, and sets a wholesome direction for living

In Christianity, this is summed up in the affirmation that though Jesus died, the Christ is risen, Christ being the archetype of love, grace and transforming power. Like all archetypes, it is imprinted on the psyche, and is expressed in the lives of those who follow him.

That’s what Easter is really all about – not Jesus paying for our sins, but the Christ releasing us into a new way of being. Which is how it was at the beginning.

Many Americans believe only in America

Giles Fraser                    Guardian/UK                   4 March 2016

‘Trump waves his Bible around – though he is apparently unable to name a single verse from it when asked – and talks a lot about making America great again and the threat from Islam.’

It has long been presumed that America is more Christian than Europe. But it’s a myth. Of course, way more people go to church in America. And you can’t become president without holding up your floppy Bible and attending prayer breakfasts. But what
the Donald Trump phenomenon reveals is what several intelligent Christian observers have been saying for some time: that a great many Americans don’t really believe in God. They just believe in America – which they often take to be the same thing. God was hacked by the American dream some time ago. “The evangelical church in America has, to a large extent, been co-opted by an American, religious version of the kingdom of the world. We have come to trust the power of the sword more than the power of the cross,” writes Gregory Boyd in The Myth of a Christian Nation.

On the whole, I defer to people’s self-description when it comes to religious belief. If people say they are Christian then that’s good enough for me – unless we are talking about school places or running for office. Then it’s worth a little more scepticism. So with Trump, who has done so much to peddle the ridiculous birther conspiracy about Obama’s nationality, there is a considerably less ridiculous re-birther question. “Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian,” said the pope of Trump’s faith, “… if he says these things, this man is not a Christian.” Likewise, the head of the US Presbyterian church into which Trump was baptised said: “Donald Trump’s views are not in keeping with the policies adopted by our church.”

Not in keeping is putting it mildly. It’s not even that he tries and fails. “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes?” he says. No, Trump doesn’t even begin to model Christ in his life. On the poor, on appealing to fear, on telling the truth, on sexual ethics, on (not) loving his enemies, on making greed his God, Trump models the anti-Christ.

But none of this makes much of a difference to Republican voters who have long been linked with evangelical
Christianity. Trump waves his Bible around – though he is apparently unable to name a single verse from it when asked – and talks a lot about making America great again and the threat from Islam. And that speaks volumes about what sort of faith it is that Republican believers actually believe in. Little wonder, as Professor Stanley Hauerwas says, that America doesn’t produce interesting atheists: they don’t have a God interesting enough to deny.

America itself has long been its own civil religion. Church and state may be separated, in theory. But if the state itself is deified, then the church has already capitulated. The 1833 amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution did away with church establishment. But it also insisted that “the public worship of God, and the instructions in piety, religion, and morality, promote the happiness and prosperity of a people, and the security of republican government.”

When the Pilgrim Fathers got in their little boats and sailed to the new world, they took with them a narrative that had begun to build in England, that the protestant English were actually the chosen people. America, then, was to be the new Israel. The pilgrims had landed safe on Canaan’s side, the promised land. The original 13 colonies in North America “were nothing other than a regeneration of the twelve tribes of Israel” as one American newspaper put it in 1864.

In other words, America became its own church and eventually its own god. Which is why the only real atheism in America is to call into question the American dream – a dream often indistinguishable from capitalism and the celebration of winners. This is the god Trump worships. He is its great high priest. And this is why evangelicals vote for him. But the God of Jesus Christ it is not. The death of God comes in many diverse and peculiar forms. In America, it is the flag and not the cross that takes pride of place in the sanctuary.