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It is nearly eight years since I wrote my first article for this blog. The piece was not so much an article as a short welcome to prospective readers of what was hoped to become something of substance. It was published on 20 July 2012.
After sixteen years of teaching secondary school Humanities, I was about to retire from all forms of employment that stretched back to 1960 – when I began work in a relatively short career as a Telecommunications Technician with the Australian Post Office. In between the latter (teacher – 1996-2012) and the former (technician – 1960-1966), I served the Christian Church, in a thirty-year career, as an Ordained Minister of the Baptist denomination.
During the past eight years I have had the opportunity of reflecting on those years and the requisite three careers that have now passed into history and memory. Much of that reflection has found its way into the articles that have appeared in this blog. Someone said to me recently that, by reading the last paragraph of each article, you can usually tell what each of them has been about. In so doing, continued the commentator, the reader would discover that the blog has been about one of “politics, religion or royalty”.
Should that same commentator search through the 149 previous articles comprising this blog, it would reveal that such a conclusion would be incorrect. This blog has contained a substantial volume of articles concerned with such disciplines as music, literature, philosophy and ethics, history and comment of a more personal nature. The sub-heading for the website locating the blog articles says that it is “A site for the examination of and commenting on life and time.” On inspection and as the author of the articles, it occurs to me that the blog has to do with what, in a general manner of speaking, could be described as “culture”.
For our purposes The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “culture” as: 1 a. the arts and other manifestation of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively, b. a refined understanding of this; intellectual development, 2. The customs, civilisations and achievements of a particular time and people. In short, life and time!
Coincidentally or otherwise, it seems timely that, as I recently was running my eyes over a now aging and little used theological library, my gaze alighted on a small book which, whilst protected with a plastic cover, nevertheless, showed the signs of age and use. An address label on the inside of the book’s cover indicated that it had once resided, with the same owner, at an address in Melbourne, Australia, attesting to the fact of the book’s longevity (it was published in this reprinted edition in 1972).
The name of the book is Theology of Culture. It was written by Paul Tillich, the German theologian and philosopher of religion. Dr Paul Tillich is, by general consent, the 20th century’s best known and most creative writer on religion. Perhaps the widest read and most influential publications of Paul Tillich are Courage to Be and his scholarly volumes on Systematic Theology.
Theology of Culture is a little gem of a book. It draws together fifteen of Paul Tillich’s finest essays, “in which a diversity of contemporary attitudes and problems is brought within the wide scope of his philosophy.” By discussing religion in relation to art, psychoanalysis, (the philosophy of) Existentialism, science and education, Dr Tillich shows “the religious dimension in many special spheres of man’s cultural activity.” He compares the cultures of “Europe and America, America and Russia, and the philosophies of Protestantism and Judaism.”
Tillich provides a definition of “religion” that I adopted and used for many years. He states that “religion is being ultimately concerned about that which is and should be our ultimate concern. This means that religious faith is a state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, and God is the name for the object and content of that concern (whatever that concern may be).” He is pointing to an existential, not a theoretical, understanding of religion – a God grounded in human existence and experience; not one that is supernatural, supra-terrestrial or defined by dogma and submerged in formulae.
Paul Tillich is equating religion with radical questioning about what is the meaning of human existence. He does so against the background of what is happening to human beings in the 20th century – world and continental wars, economic crisis, wealth inequality, scientific discoveries, disparities in education, and the meaningless of so much that is part of human life. As I reflect on his writings, situated as I am in the early part of the 21st century, and do so against the background of the troubles, travails and terrors of contemporary life and times – in a word “culture” – to this list I would add worldwide terrorism, the full force of market globalisation, and the environmental crisis.
The over-arching invitation of Theology of Culture is for the reader, indeed, for humanity, to discover through all the exigencies of contemporary living what is of ultimate concern and importance for human life – what is ultimately important for me! In this discovery God and the purpose of humanity, indeed, what it means to be a person, are to be found.
Some years ago, around the period of the pinnacle of Paul Tillich’s literary influence, it was said that the kind of thinking represented by his works and words, as encapsulated in Theology of Culture, is part of “the expression of the great revolution within and against Western industrial society which was prepared in the nineteenth century and is being carried out in the twentieth.”
As I conclude this, my 150th blog article, it seems clear to me that the thoughts and words of Dr Paul Tillich, his philosophy of God and of human existence, resonate as much in the 21st century as they ever did.
As people gaze out from their windows and yearn for a more recognisable form of living, as the desire for the lifting of the national lockdown increases, as a greater number of persons become more unrecognisable due to the wearing of face masks, as the government of the UK seeks to increase national testing, tracking and tracing in its bid to turn back the tide of the damage being done by the Covid-19 virus, we come to realise the relevance of what one commentator has said: “The irony is that everyone’s liberation depends on their willingness to be incarcerated”
In the meantime, by some strange quirk of their national psychologies, we are informed that various polls show that, despite the enforced population lockdowns in each of their countries, well publicised leaders of a number of governments have experienced a spike in their popularity. This is true of Boris Johnson in the UK, Scott Morrison in Australia, and, most bewilderingly of all, Donald Trump in the USA.
One of the stranger aspects of the stories surrounding the worldwide response to the Covid-19 pandemic is, for this writer, the increasingly widespread demonstrations in the USA against the enforced government lockdown on freedom of movement for the citizens of that country. This lockdown is, of course, a contemporary feature of life in many countries and appears to be focused on economic and personal liberty concerns. It seems to me, however, that these demonstrations are misplaced.
Viktor Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. His family perished in a concentration camp near Dachau. Following his Holocaust experiences, Frankl published a memoir called Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). The philosopher Francis J. Ambrosio (Georgetown University, Washington, USA), has said that “this memoir can be understood as a translation of Socrates’ principle of the ‘care of the soul’ into the more contemporary idiom of the human search for meaning.” Frankl’s version of the “care of the soul” confronts the reader with “the necessity to make a decision about the role that freedom, responsibility and suffering play in the human search for meaning in life.”
In his memoir Viktor Frankl speaks of the difference between liberty and freedom.
He describes liberty as “the way in which human beings choose to deal with external, circumstantial situations.” It is a capacity for humans to select for themselves from different options – a bit like choosing from a restaurant menu. It is a “body” choice and, incidentally, it has echoes in the American Constitution. Lockdown is a reduction of our liberty; it limits our choices. Freedom, however, is more of a “spirit” (soul) choice. It has to do with choosing one’s attitude to any given set of circumstances. It has to do with thinking positively and then immersing oneself in these thoughts.
Freedom, “the capacity of each person to decide what his or her identity as a person will be”, can never be taken away. Viktor Frankl realised this in consequence of his experiences in the concentration camp.
In a particularly poignant passage in his memoir he states: “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may be few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Freedom, in other words, is freedom of conscience.
Those protesting American citizens (perhaps to be numbered amongst those who gave Donald Trump his popularity spike), indeed, lockdown protesters anywhere, may also need to recognise that lockdown may take away one of their liberties, one of the menu delicacies; but it does not take away their freedom, it does not take away the menu. Freedom remains the property of the individual. It is that quality of the spirit that enables the individual “to develop a contagion of courage, good health and solidarity.” (Ben Okri)
The UK, as with other nations, faces an existential crisis, a crisis that may well define what the nation, what the family of nations, is to become.
Freedom imagines that a day will come again when Covid-19 pandemics and their like will no longer entrap and disable whole populations; when peoples’ attitudes, their freedom, will once again have full reign in determining their liberties and their view of the world in which we live.
Freedom imagines a time when humanity can redirect its attention to issues of climate change, civil rights, universal healthcare, justice and poverty; when human beings will no longer have to obediently listen to or abide by the prejudice and diktats of government officials, religious leaders and royal persons; when other voices will be heard and not just those of wealth and power.
Freedom imagines a future when body and soul will once again work in harmony. That is a future for which to look forward – in freedom.
After the actual word “Brexit” it was the most used word in the whole of the Brexit debate. I speak, of course, of the word “Democracy”.
The word “democracy” and the practice of government which it typifies, has a long and chequered career, going back to the ancient Greek state of Athens. It refers to a form of government in which the people of the state have the authority and opportunity to choose their governing legislation and those who legislate. Who people are and how authority is shared are core issues for democratic development.
This word, or one of its derivatives, was primarily used by the proponents of Brexit to emphasis their case for withdrawing from the European Union. The argument of the so-called “Brexiteers” referred to the fact that, at the 2016 EU Referendum, the electorate voted, albeit by a small % margin, to withdraw from the EU.
On 23 June 2016, the recorded result was that the UK voted to leave the European Union by 51.89% for Leave to 48.11% for Remain, a margin of 3.78%. This corresponded to 17,410,742 votes to leave and 16,141,241 to remain, a margin of 1,269,501 votes. The national turnout was 72% of the population eligible to vote. So, the overall democratic decision of the British electorate was to “Leave the European Union”, with England and Wales voting to “Leave” while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to “Remain”.
As the above information shows “democracy” is understood in terms of the outcome of a single substantive referendum, moreover, a referendum in which the voting citizens in only two out of four constituent British countries, rather than a majority of all UK citizens in all British constituent countries, voted to leave the EU. The UK is to leave the EU on 31 January 2020 with a British population arguably equally divided between leaving and remaining in the EU. “Democracy” is here understood as “the winner (Leavers) takes all”, with the losers (Remainers) becoming a page in the history books!
It remains to be experienced as to whether the promises given to the British people in consequence of leaving the EU will come to fruition. The situations and events in the national life of the UK over the coming years will reveal the truth or otherwise of the Brexiteer promises and their insistent expressions of the “democratic will” of the British people.
In the meantime, it is legitimate to ask as to whether some of the other outstanding concerns of democrats in the UK will merit the attention given to democracy by the Leave proponents in the EU Referendum. Such concerns would include the following:
• The reform of the voting system in the UK. At present this is the “first past the post” system of electing local and national governments, as well as referenda. It has been consistently shown that a “proportional” voting system would be a more just and more universal system of voting.
When it suits their purposes, successive British governments have been fond of directing attention to the successful practices of other countries – why not a more modern and democratic form of electing governments?
• The reform of the British House of Lords. This chamber of British government is composed of unelected persons, perhaps representing designated political parties but not associated with a specifically designated political constituency or electorate. Members of the House of Lords are appointed, often in consequence of political patronage. Moreover, “Lords” or “Peers” (for such are members of the House of Lords known in parliament and in daily life) are appointed for the duration of their lives.
Consequences of this system include the reality that, by its very nature, the House of Lords discriminates in favour of an elderly and ill-represented membership. So too, the numbers of members in House of Lords is grossly disproportionate to its democratic functions and responsibilities. Adding more calumny to democracy is the fact that the House of Lords also admits the unelected bishops of the Church of England, the so-called “State Church” in a multi-faith society.
• It is widely considered that “democracy lies at the heart of the rule of law” and that a “democratic society” is one in which there is a functioning government that upholds human rights through a Parliament that is sovereign. The fact that, for many in the recent EU Referendum, the decision of the people was regarded as sovereign, and not the House of Representatives in Parliament, indicates that the British Constitution is minimally known. A major factor in this is that the British Constitution remains in an unwritten form.
Democracy permits representation of the people. Therefore, democracy requires an active citizenry that takes part in public life, is educated to so act in a politically responsible way and is sufficiently politically astute in order to avoid being manipulated. In this way, the citizenry’s freedom under the law of the land is maximized. It is to be understood that the “basic standards in political, social and economic rights are necessary to ensure that everyone can play a meaningful role in political life”.
For the above reasons it is fundamental that the British Constitution is in written form and can be made available to the perusal and understanding of everyone.
• Probably the most undemocratic institution in British life is the monarchy. The UK is a Constitutional Monarchy. This is a form of government in which “a non-elected monarch functions as the head of state within the limits of the constitution. Political power in a constitutional monarchy is shared between the monarch and an organized government such as the British Parliament”. Nevertheless, the people of the UK are often falsely regarded as the “subjects” of the monarch and not as “citizens” of the UK.
One constitutional expert, Vernon Bogdanor, has defined a constitutional monarch as “a sovereign who reigns but does not rule.” So, a constitutional monarch acts as a visible symbol of national unity, and the exercise of their powers are generally a formality, without the sovereign enacting personal political preferences.
In the UK, the monarch is determined through the hereditary line of the House of Windsor. However, it is not just the head of this house that is maintained by the British State, it is the whole extended family – who are given “royal” titles. Most of these “royals” at best have representational roles and little to do with the political and democratic functions of the British State. Moreover, none of this family have ever been elected to perform any form of role or function.
The above are a selection of aspects of British life that, as important as they are, do not function according to democratic principles, are matters of governance that have generally been avoided by successive British governments, and have never in modern times been the subject of a substantive people’s referendum. A list of such issues could include the perpetuation of an honours system that bestows awards based in ranks within the “British Empire”, e.g., MBE, OBE, as well as the role and function of the Church of England as the State Church of the British nation.
It is to be noted that most silence on the above-mentioned matters comes from those, politicians and media commentators included, who were most vocal about “democracy” being enacted through and determinative of the outcome of the 2016 British EU Referendum on membership of the EU. Surely the time has come for the citizens of the UK to be permitted to exercize their constitutional rights to determine the shape and outcome of each of these matters.
Democracy in the 21st century existence of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland demands nothing less.
“I have placed death before life, wrote Charles Gounod, “because in the order of eternal things death precedes life.” The French composer was speaking about his oratorio Mors et Vita. This is a work filled with operatic drama, soaring orchestral music and meaningful solo passages sung with clarity of purpose and diction.
Perhaps the music is exemplified by the middle section of the work, the celebrated “Judex”, with its memorable melody – a signature tune for the whole work. Indeed, it was this piece of music, with its sensuous spirit and captivating appeal, first heard on my car radio, that awakened my interest in the whole work. It was to be some awakening and a recording of the music was immediately purchased.
The chosen recording, the Warner Classics 2-disc digital set from 1992, features a splendid quartet of Barbara Hendricks (soprano), Nadine Denize (alto), John Aler (tenor) and Jose van Dam (baritone), accompanied by Christopher Kuhlmann (organ), the Orfeon Donostiarra Chorus and the Orchestre du Capitole de Toulouse. All components are superbly managed by Michel Plasson, a conductor totally inside the music of Gounod. The orchestra is exhilarating and the soloists inspirational across the whole spectrum of this piece. Understandably, Hendricks illuminates the soprano lines with often incandescent singing, and van Dam commands the baritone’s pronouncements.
It is to be regretted that this work seems not to have entered the concert repertoire as it deserves greater recognition and wider appreciation than it apparently has. Perhaps this situation is owed to the fact that the work runs for in excess of 156 minutes. So too, the work is in three parts and, whilst the first part, “Death”, is a requiem that could stand alone as a composition, it is, nevertheless, an intrinsic part of the whole.
Whilst the above may be the case, it is interesting to note that the music itself was composed in the wake of Charles Gounod’s highly acclaimed The Redemption – an attempt to continue the impact and value of that work. According to the musicologist Richard Langham Smith, the Mors et Vita shows the musical influence of Bach and Wagner. It was dedicated to Pope Leo XIII.
Be that as it may, Mors et Vita is itself a composition to be cherished with its musical drama, operatic singing, striking orchestral passages and a primary musical motif which is reiterated throughout the work. According to the composer, the essential features of the ideas in the motif are “the tears which death causes us to shed here below; the hope of a better life; the solemn dread of unerring justice; the tender and filial trust in eternal Love.”
As mentioned in the foregoing, Mors et Vita has three sections:
First Part: Mors (Death), a fully-fledged requiem with a prologue and an epilogue. The music opens with a sombre passage leading to a series of triumphant choruses, with brass predominating, and solo parts for tenor and soprano sung against a lyrical orchestral accompaniment. This flavour of music continues in each appropriate section of the requiem, orchestral drama alternating with individual contributions from the soloist, striking cymbals with quieter passages illuminated by the strings of the harp. A choral component provides something of a heavenly vision. Musically, the seriousness of “Death” is brought to consciousness, but its sting is removed, sorrow is replaced by joy.
Second Part: Judicium (Judgement), the most celebrated component of this delicious oratorio, is first introduced by the violins in concert with the chorus – a languorous idyll that develops into a powerful chorale. It is this section that provides the most eloquent portions of what this oratorio offers: soaring and inspirational choral singing; clear and satisfying, and somewhat seductive, solo contributions; tense and powerful orchestral accompaniment in the louder passages; noble, tender and melodious in the quieter music. As the section nears its conclusion, the latent sorrow of the first part and the “Judgement” of this second part is refined by an expectation of the expulsion of pain.
Third Part: Vita (Life), a section comprising of sustained emotion and the expression of happiness. The above-mentioned qualities of the soloists, orchestra and chorus are all present in this section as the work moves towards a joyful choral finale. “Life” is quietly introduced, again with the use of the baritone voice, and the music gradually builds towards its climax as the chorus reprises the Judex theme of the second part. It could be said that the work had a double ending. The consummate choral ending of the “ergo sum alpha et omega” could well have concluded the work most satisfactorily, but the composer continues with a joyful “Hosanna…”, in order to bring the entire piece to an extended but appropriate and satisfying conclusion.
The version on Warner Classics is probably as good as it comes. The soloists are all first rate and sing flawlessly – it would be difficult to put together a foursome of esteemed soloists as good as those on this recording. The chorus is full-bodied and harmonious, often incandescent, and the conductor is in full control of a strong, responsive and expansive orchestra in a musical composition full of idiomatic structures and musical challenges. The recorded sound is clear and well-spaced, allowing the music to expand at the climaxes with the quieter passages deftly but firmly controlled and sensitively executed.
Charles Gounod’s oratorio, Mors et Vita, is a ‘must have’ piece of music for any lover of classical music, and certainly those with an interest in sacred or secular choral music. This is sublime music, superbly recorded, supremely satisfying. Music to be cherished.
Daniel Ellsberg, the “Watergate” commentator, said that the book is “a masterpiece”. Mikhail Gorbachev, the true force behind the ending of the Cold War, considered the book to be “indispensable” reading. I speak, of course, of the Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone book The Untold History of the United States.
Peter Kuznick is a professor of history and the director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. Oliver Stone is a Hollywood movie director who has won numerous Academy Awards for his work on such iconic films as Wall Street, JFK and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone further directed a DVD series of the same name from the book. The documentary series is compulsive viewing.
The book is a valuable insight for any student or chronicler of the history of the United States of America. Perhaps this statement should be qualified with the further statement that the American history with which the book deals is the relatively modern history of the USA. The material commences near the beginning of the 20th century with the period immediately before the First World War and the USA’s involvement in the Central American states. This is also the period of the Russian Revolution. This serves as a necessary foundation for the main content of the overall narrative. The period before the 20th. Century receives sparse comment, except in passing
So, the focus of the book is the history of the period that the authors, Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, name as the century which saw “the rise and decline of the American empire”. Using the “latest research and recently declassified documents” the book builds a meticulously documented and shocking picture of the American empire – “the most powerful and dominant force the world has ever seen”. Further, it is the view of the book’s authors that this empire has “determined the course of world events for the interests of the few across the twentieth century and beyond.” According to Oliver Stone, these events and the interests behind them, are little understood by the citizens of the USA.
In his DVD commentary, Oliver Stone has stated that a primary reason for co-writing the book and making the documentary series is to make Americans, and particularly young Americans, more generally aware of an American history that is rarely mentioned in the nation’s classrooms.
The latest edition of the book, published in 2019, has a section on “The Truth on Trump”. The latest Blu-Ray, four disc version of Oliver Stone’s documentary series includes two Prologues (I) “Chapter A: “WW1 and the Russian Revolution”, and (2) “Chapter B: 1920-40”, as well as “A Conversation with History: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone.” Reading the actual book is itself a massive undertaking, as it chock-full of information on the relevant 20th Century events, contains a most impressive catalogue of notes and references, and deals with aspects of and opinions about USA history that are rarely part of contemporary awareness or discussion.
The DVD documentaries bring the full force of the book to the screen and impacts both the imagination and the conscience with the breadth and depth of its footage. It helps the enquirer to understand why this history has rarely seen the light of day in the educational establishments of the USA.
Particularly of interest to this reader was the sections of the book that mentioned the figure of Henry Wallace. Wallace was the Minister of Agriculture in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic administration in the USA prior to and during WW2. Wallace was pastoralist and a passivist. He was expected to be named as Roosevelt’s Vice-Presidential candidate at the 1944 USA national elections. Wallace had made a distinct impression in his role in the Roosevelt government and was known for his anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist views and his deep concern for human rights. He was more popular amongst the American electorate than all other vice-presidential candidates combined.
However, at the 11th hour before the 1944 elections, Roosevelt was persuaded by conservative power brokers in the Democratic Party to replace Wallace with Harry S. Truman. Truman was a little known and undistinguished Senator from mid-west America. He had made few enemies and he was considered unlikely to rock the boat. Kuznick and Stone point out that, as well as his apparent racism and antisemitism, little thought was apparently given to the attributes that would be necessary for Truman to lead the USA and the world in the challenging times ahead.
It was as USA President that Harry Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It is open to speculation as to what world history since 1944 would have been had Henry Wallace become President of the USA. Perhaps a matter of “altered states”?
Oliver Stone asks a series of penetrating questions with the written and filmed material: Do Americans really know and understand their shared and complicated history? How do the citizens of the USA recall the small details and forgotten players that influenced some of the biggest events from America’s past? Will American children, present and future, get the whole story from reading their history books? How will the foregoing affect the ongoing history of the United States of America?
Oliver Stone narrates the DVD filming. His quiet and sombre voice is accompanied by suitably serious, sometimes ominous, music as the commentary presses on to important, for the world as well as the USA, summations, insights and conclusions. In the process, the material features such well-known Americans as Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Nixon, Reagan, Bush senior and junior, Obama and, of course, Trump. Many not so well-known, but important figures in USA history are also covered, e.g., Woodrow Wilson and General Smedley Butler, James F. Byrnes and Henry Wallace, as well as many of those in-between. Figures are combined with facts, characters with consequences, in a narrative that is never less than compelling.
As a former teacher of secondary school history, but never one who had studied or taught American history to any great extent, I found this book and documentary series a valuable source of information and recollection – urging a desire to forego retirement and take up the history books again with, of course, a focus on American history. Without equivocation, I can recommend both the book and the DVD series to the widest readership.
In this book Oliver Stone offers his personal testimony: “From the outset I’ve looked at this project as a legacy to my children and a way to understand the times I’ve lived through. I hope it can contribute to a more global, broader insight into our history”. He dedicates the book to his own children as well as “the better world that they and all children deserve”. As well, he affirms his faith in the “often misguided, sometimes destructive and occasionally exalted species to someday achieve that goal”.
A few weeks ago, the House of Commons was presented with the latest Queen’s Speech in which the government, despite the expectation of a General Election, set out its priorities for the coming period of Parliament. It is rare for such speeches at any time to focus on issues of human rights, especially with so much current attention being on the Brexit debate and the ongoing political uncertainty. The latest Queen’s Speech was no exception.
With so much in the political and social worlds that seem to divide the British nation at present, it is timely and helpful to take a step back and focus on the values that unite us – especially the fundamental rights and freedoms we all share.
Amnesty International (AI) is an organisation that exists in order to protect and enhance human rights worldwide. So, in anticipation of the 2019 Queen’s Speech, AI put together an alternative Queen’s Speech in which it listed its seven human rights’ priorities for challenging injustices – both in the UK and around the world.