The getting of wisdom

I recently received an email from a friend in Australia. My friend and I share similar social and political views, cultivated over many years of face-to-face-conversation and email correspondence. His latest email came with an attached video. The video featured George Monbiot, the British author, journalist, and campaigner speaking about contemporary political developments. Monbiot was outlining his belief that there has been a huge reorientation of the shape of global politics.

He is of the view that oligarchs around the world are heavily influencing political developments. They have “discovered the formula for persuading the poor to vote for the interests of those who are very rich”. This formula includes the “massive use of lies, and cheating on an unprecedented scale, misrepresentation, mobilising social media to generate manipulative and mendacious adverts, false news, and conspiracy theories for the purpose of persuading people how to vote, or to not vote at all.”

The oligarchical interests are putting forward persons whom Monbiot refers to as “killer clowns” – seductive and popular political figures like Trump (USA), Johnson (UK), Bolsonaro (Brazil), Modi (India), Morrison (Australia), and similar others in countries such as Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Philippines. These puppet-like figures encourage the public to laugh along with them, luring the public into a false consciousness, whilst those behind them manipulate what is happening. This is a global phenomenon which suggests that leaders of opposition parties, e.g., Hilary Clinton (USA) and Jeremy Corbyn (UK), and alternative political platforms, are not primarily to blame for the apparent failure to provide successful opposition to governmental systems and prominent leaders.

Unfortunately, due to the very same billionaire press and media ownership and control of which he speaks, George Monbiot – with his timely and important message – does not get the attention that the message, and the presenting person, deserves. The prophet is, indeed, “without honour in his own country”. My corresponding friend concluded his email with the words, “I know that I am preaching to the converted”. My response was that… “even the ‘converted’ need a refresher course now and again.”

In the past I have constantly been puzzled, though perhaps I should not have been, as to why genuinely working-class people (surely the majority in western democracies, though we divide them into other categories), continually vote-in wealthy, right-wing, manipulative, distasteful persons to govern them – putting-up with their lies, amorality, misuse of public funds, misogyny, law-breaking, exceptionalism, etc. Monbiot’s analysis provides many of the missing pieces to the puzzle.

“Where have all the flowers (of politics) gone?” The answer, my friends, may be “blowin’ in the wind”. Yes, “the times they are a’changin”, but have they got any better? Puff the Magic Dragon seems to have permanently and sadly “slipped back into his cave”. Comic characters (Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the rest of the “marvellous” brigade), seem to have replaced the gods as sources of hope for the future, and the overcoming of repression and crime. The modern heroes of the computer-age games are the presiding champions over the insidious persons and situations threatening the minds of contemporary young people. The conflict model highlighted by the modern heroes, their emphasis on combat, rather than prevention, is indicative of the contemporary social and political milieu.

Has there been any genuine change since the days of the rioting on the college campuses in the USA? Was revolution limited only to the librettos of the popular operatic songs that came out of Nashville, Liverpool, and San Francisco in the 1960’s, the anti-war demonstrations of the Vietnam conflict, or the anger at political corruption within inept western governments? Where can be heard the echoes of the voices of yesteryear? The emphasis on ecology, planet warming, and the annihilation of animal, insect and plant species may have replaced other international concerns, but the practical solutions to these issues have thrown-up few champions. David Attenborough and George Monbiot are among the few.

As I write, increased numbers of people around the globe are dying in consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. The precious personal and material resources of even the most industrially, economically, and medically advanced countries are being stretched to the limits of their endurance. Even in this situation, fortunes are being made, resources are being squandered, corruption is being practiced, ignorance is being rewarded, and the rational bases of most philosophic and religious teachings – freedom, love, compassion – are being practiced in short measure, with their lack amongst national leaders blissfully forgiven by an undemanding public. 

When he was not working as an iron moulder in a foundry, my father was a preacher. As a life-long supporter of the Labour Party and a former shop steward, he was fond of saying that “money is the root of all evil”. Money, and the pursuit of wealth, brings prestige, power and all those things that emanate from being wealthy. Philanthropy generally only occurs amongst those who can afford it. I am of the view, however, that the productive activity that results in the accumulation of wealth is itself the activity of the genuinely philanthropic – those who work to make money for those who own and direct their work.

Basic Marxism? No, basic observation and critique. Reading Robert Tressell’s “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists” (1911), has been instructive – the equal of anything of Marx, though I suspect that the latter may have been a source of the former.

I devoted a considerable portion of my working life to an institution that claimed to be able to change the way of human life, but rarely did – at least not on an institutional scale (I can think of individual cases, but numbers of these were, nonetheless, often captured by the institution). Through reading, videos, conversation, writing, music, and self-critique, I am now engaged in further exploration and learning about the extensive scope of the many and varied things that should have involved the deeper and wider participation of, amongst other organisations, the institutional Christian Church.

This further education has become a retirement enquiry into, if not pursuit of, what could (should?) have been. What was intended, or, perhaps, dreamed about in a cave; assumed from “an old-rugged cross”; meditated upon under a Bodhi tree; or the outcome of reflections on the history or wisdom of the ancestors.

Where are the signs of hope? Where are the “green shoots in the concrete, the “buds of May”? What hope is there in Biden’s (American) “one nation”, Johnson’s (British) “taking back control”, or the “Pentecostal prayer for progress and plenitude” that seems to be coming out of  Morrison’s Australia?

What price (universal) democracy – but who are “the people”? Personal and national revolution – with hopes of “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity”? Worldwide integration, incorporating the “Grey Nation” of black and white together – but what about the Chinese? Genuine and successful socialism – but what price will need to be paid? The hopes and questions could go on, with another lifetime being required to even begin to find some answers. What price resurrection?

The “Getting of Wisdom” (with a nod to Henry Handel Richardson) is more comprehensive than the instruction of the school (even a private school in Melbourne) – which takes me back to where I may have started; with an end point that has no full stop but, nevertheless, deserves the occasional reminder.


About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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