Shocking, but true

Every now and again a book comes along that, after reading it, one wants to strongly recommend to the wider reading public. For me, such a book is The Untold History of the United States.
When commenting on this book The Guardian journalist, Ed Vulliamy, said “This is not history for history’s sake…, this is the history of our present and future; long beyond cold war, into war on terror, war on drugs.” When introducing his book, the co-author, Oliver Stone, stated that the contents of the book are what history students in the USA – and, by implication, history students everywhere – should be taught, rather than the re-cycled and homogenised versions for domestic consumption they are currently taught. The contents of the book justify this statement.
The Untold History of the United States is co-authored by the decorated Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone and the distinguished American University Professor of History Peter Kuznick. Both are North Americans writing about their own country. Daniel Ellsberg, the American economist, activist, and former USA military analyst, and author of the Pentagon Papers, says that the book is “a masterpiece”. Mikhail Gorbachev, the true force behind the ending of the Cold War, considers the book to be “indispensable reading.”
The history with which the book deals is the modern history of the USA. The period before the 20th Century receives no comment as the material commences with the period immediately before the First World War and the USA’s involvement in the Central American states. There is also a brief treatment of the Russian Revolution. This serves as a necessary foundation for the main content of the book’s overall material. The Untold History of the United States is the history of the period that the authors, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, designate as “the rise and decline of the American empire.”
The book chronicles a “riveting landmark account of the rise and decline of this empire – the most powerful and dominant force the world as ever seen.” It is a broad narrative that traverses the landscape of a century that the American magazine magnate Henry Luce declared would be the “American Century”. Throughout the book, the authors parallel this concept with that attributed to President Roosevelt’s Vice President, Henry Wallace, that the 20th Century should be “the Century of the Common Man.” It is crystal clear that the authors of this important book on the history on the USA favour the view of Wallace over that of Luce.
The book is a lengthy and elaborate, highly detailed and incisive, investigation of USA history. It is impeccably sourced from the latest research and recently classified documents – personal accounts, government records, biographies and autobiographies, a comprehensive variety of historians and history books, with detailed chapter by chapter notes. The book’s pages are filled with pictures, and the occasional cartoon, of historical persons and events, declassified documents and records, and historical datelines.
The erudition of The Untold History of the United States is quite remarkable, as, beginning with the USA’s forays into Central and South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it plots step-by-step the course of a self-destructive latter-day American history. The concluding section of the edition of the book under review, 2019, comments on Donald Trump’s “cavalier and precedent-defying approach” to presidency. It could be called “the truth on Trump”, and the antics and pronouncements, the follies, of this president could be viewed as an inevitable outcome of the preceding American century.
Reading the book is itself a massive undertaking, as it chock-full of information and deals with aspects of and opinions about USA history that, seemingly, have never been taught in the classrooms of America – or anywhere else for that matter!
As indicated in the above, there is also a documentary film series of the book. Having seen these documentaries, which originally appeared on the Public Service Broadcasting Channel (PBS) in the USA, and are now on DVD and Blu-ray, this writer, again, strongly recommends their viewing. In addition to the material in the book, the documentaries contain interviews with the authors and other prominent figures in the political world. The DVDs 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.
Oliver Stone asks a series of penetrating questions with both 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, actually “get” the whole story from reading history books? And how will the foregoing (the events presented in the book) affect the future of the United States of America?
Oliver Stone also narrates the filming contained on the DVDs and his voice is accompanied by suitably serious, sometimes ominous, music as the commentary presses on to summations, insights, and conclusions that are important for the world, as well as the USA. In the process, the material features such well-known Americans as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and junior, Barack Obama and, of course, Donald J. Trump. Many not so well-known, but important figures in USA history, are also covered, e.g. Woodrow Wilson and Henry Wallace, and many others.
The book builds “a meticulously documented and shocking picture of the American empire.” 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 20th Century and beyond.” The motivation and emotion behind the book can be seen in the concluding paragraph. “At the start of this journey, when we began the documentary film and book project, we dedicated it to our six children – biological, adopted, and step, of Asian, African, and European ancestry – and ‘the better world that they and all children deserve’. We end on the same note, affirming our faith in our often misguided, sometimes destructive, and occasionally exalted species, to someday achieve that goal.”
As a former teacher of secondary school history, but never one who has formally studied or taught American history to any great extent, I found this book, published by Penguin at a very competitive price, and the documentary series, to be a most valuable source of information and recollection. I can recommend both the book, The Untold History of the United States, and the DVD series of the same name, without equivocation.
To conclude, 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 (American) history.”
Read, view, and understand.
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Ironies abound

After a Spring and Summer when the British, if not the worldwide, conversation has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrival of Autumn finds that Brexit is back on the scene. The major topic within the Britain and Brexit conversation is the thorny subject of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
Those familiar with this writer will know that I have often argued for the rightful status within the UK of Northern Ireland – otherwise known as Ulster. This argument has included comment on the perplexing nature of Northern Ireland’s British identity. This can be seen in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, where the British government has suggested that there be a UK border with the Irish Republic down the middle of the Irish Sea. Such a suggestion means that there would be no recognisable land border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
So too, the occlusion of Northern Ireland from being an intrinsic part of the UK, can be most brazenly seen when, in recent years, British sporting teams have been called “Great Britain”, or “Team GB”!
Realistically, as well as technically, Great Britain is an island containing the UK countries of Wales, Scotland, and England – but not Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland, though not a part of the island of Great Britain, is a constituent country of the United Kingdom. So Northern Ireland must take its rightful place when teams represent the UK. These teams should not be called “Team GB”! What is wrong with “Team UK”?
This matter reintroduced itself to my consciousness recently when I came across an article, written several years ago, that spoke of the reaction within the UK to the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014. Most of the fall-out from this event had focused on the umbrage that England, the largest partner in the union of the British states, had taken with the promise of more devolved powers for the Scottish parliament. As usual, Northern Ireland opinion, as with the Welsh perspective, had tended towards being ignored, or at least, not heard very loudly.
Northern Ireland has always had close links with Scotland. Many immigrants went to Ulster from Scotland. Scottish west coast seaports are a favoured way for Ulster people to enter the Great Britain mainland. My maternal grandparents left Northern Ireland for Glasgow, Scotland, just before my mother was born. Not surprisingly, my late mother considered herself to be Irish. So, a significant part of my ancestry is Irish.
If, in 2014, Scotland had said “Yes” to independence, then Northern Ireland would have been squeezed between an independent Eurozone state to the south, the Irish Republic (Eire), and an independent and likely Eurozone state a few miles across the sea to the east. The British national flags, conspicuously seen around Ulster, would have been drained of some colour, and the Orange Order on both sides of the Irish Sea may have had cause to question some loyalties.
So, as one newspaper put it, “We had people who believe in the political unity of the island of Ireland supporting the political partition of the island of Great Britain; whilst people who supported the continuing partition of Ireland tramped the streets in support of the unity of Britain”.
To put it another way, Northern Ireland wanted Scotland to stay within the UK, but itself wants no part of the Irish Republic. On the other hand, Scotland had a referendum on withdrawing from the UK, yet wished Ulster to remain as part of the UK and not join with the Irish Republic.
Ironies abound!
To emphasise the ironical, it seems that a pub on the (Roman Catholic and pro-Irish union) Falls Road in Belfast, paid for a pro-independence (for Scotland) “Yes” billboard. So too, on the eve of the referendum, poll graffiti artists climbed halfway up Black Mountain – a hill on the outskirts of Belfast and visible from almost everywhere in that city – and painted a “Yes Scotland” message. Meanwhile, in support of the campaign of “No” to independence for Scotland, the pro-UK Union, anti-Irish unification, Loyal Orange Order held street marches in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, during the week before the referendum vote.
The British Isles certainly have their fair share of irony. Ironies do, indeed, abound! Yet, one further irony sits quietly in the background, that is, we were told, even if the people of Scotland had voted in their referendum to leave the UK, Elizabeth Windsor, the Head of the UK State, would have remained, at least for the foreseeable future, as Head of State for Scotland!
In the event of Scotland becoming independent of the UK, the remaining union of British countries might well have complained about such things as the continuing use of sterling in the Scottish banking system, the matter of Scotland retaining Scottish oil, border controls and passport requirements, but it seems that there would have been no argument about a British monarch remaining as the Head of State for the independent nation of Scotland! As a republican, and a Scot by birth, I find that to be the biggest irony of all.
Strange people, us Brits!
When I worked in community organising with World Vision UK (WVUK), my office tried to appropriately respond to the volatile sectarian situation in Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, by having two concurrent community organising projects – one in the Roman Catholic Falls Road and another at the top of the Protestant Shankill Road. The arrangement seemed to work satisfactorily.
Notwithstanding, I always sought to go the extra mile. So, when I went to Belfast on WVUK business, I was accommodated in the Roman Catholic Cathedral. The cathedral was located on the Falls Road, Furthermore, I had the privilege of staying in the same apartment as the most senior Roman Catholic in the whole of the Irish island – the All-Ireland Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church – when he visited Belfast.
The situation was that of a Protestant minister of religion (as I was at the time), and a republican (as I still am), having a room, not at a neutral, non-sectarian “inn”, but high up in the tower of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in a predominantly Protestant and pro-UK union city! Rather ironic really, but it does indicate that you do not have to be a royalist in Northern Ireland, nor a Roman Catholic, to be respected for being a concerned human being!
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Double vision 2

In my previous blog (Article 153), I sought to discuss some of the inter-connections between the British Republican Movement (BRM) and the National Secular Society (NSS). The focus of the discussion was on such matters as the respective attitudes of these two organisations to such areas of British life as democracy and governance, the monarchy, the role of religion in the life of the British State, and the place of the Church of England (CofE) as the established institutional religion of the nation.
The discussion concluded with the realisation that monarchy is at the very centre of the institutional life of the United Kingdom, including aspects of its governance and the operation of the Established Church. Monarchy’s place is epitomised and legitimised through its institutional connection with a minority faith, the Protestant Church of England. This church is privileged in its presence and archaic in its practice and position. This situation is unsustainable; it is both an affront to the freedom of religious faith and to the democratic principles under which the governance of the UK is supposed to function. This is a major point of intersection between the NSS and the BRM.
It might be asked, then, as to why a concerned and widespread critique and action has not, heretofore, been brought to bear on this situation. This may be due to several contributing factors. It will be my purpose to discuss these factors in the following article, part two of this essay, “Double Vision”.
Firstly, it may be said that the situation is brought about by the inertia of the British people and their democratic institutions.
It might be thought, wrongfully in this writer’s opinion, that monarchy impinges little upon the ordinary and everyday life of the people. On the contrary, monarchy is endemic in the perpetuation of memorable days and ceremonies in national life – especially those to do with seasonal religious festivals and militarism.
Secondly, monarchy – its appearance and presentation, palaces and estates, publicity and celebrity, and its manifold trimmings – is assumed to be a tourist attraction and, therefore, a major contributor to the national coffers.
Several investigations by the BRM have shown this to be a false assumption – even without the continuing presence of a “royal family” tourists would still come to this country in their droves, indeed, it is quite fallacious, if not fatuous, to claim otherwise. For the tourist to any country that still harbours monarchy, the latter is wallpaper; the tourist dollar is not spent on wallpaper, no matter what its colour or pattern.
Thirdly, it is repeatedly stated that Elizabeth Windsor has earned the respect of the British people by the manner of her efficient and devoted attention to her monarchical role.
Most public opinion would say that she has done “a blinder of a job” over a long and successful career. It needs to be recognised, however, that much of what she says and does appertains to the conduct of her official role and its necessary functions. It must also be kept in mind that she, and her considerable extended family, are generously remunerated for their functional duties, enjoy numerous inherited privileges, are amply rewarded in kind for gratuitous services, as well as private and institutional protection from many of the dangers and hardships that are faced by the vast majority of British citizens.
In the evolution of each of the above, the CofE has played its part. The role of the CofE would include the presence of regal cathedrals, seasonal and annual ceremonies of both a national and peculiarly religious nature, rituals in the Houses of Parliament, or events to mark the continuity with the religious past of the nation – especially with the English nation. It needs also to be said that secular figures in the past, notably Charles Bradlaugh, the founder of the National Secular Society, have, through oration, law practice or participation in governance, made known their opposition to the constitution of the UK and, by implication and practical application, the place of monarchy and established religion in this constitution.
Despite the protestations of persons such as Charles Bradlaugh in the late 19th century, as well as those more contemporary protesters to be found in the BRM and NSS, and in the wider society of the 21st century, there remains the affront of the twenty-six bishops of the CofE who are afforded the privilege of sitting with the unelected Lords in the Upper House of the British Parliament, the lack of reform within the cloisters of the CofE, the undemocratic basis for and formation of the House of Lords, or the democratically questionable royal prerogatives given to the government of the day through such bodies as the Privy Council.
Each of the foregoing delivers special privileges to their receivers, making it unlikely that change would be welcomed, at least by those in receipt of such special privileges. It could be concluded, therefore, that the latter is a fourth reason for the lack of a concerted critique of the institution of the monarchy and its relationships with other national institutions.
In a meritocratic democracy where equality is, or should be, a working principle, the ideal is that all persons have the right to choose an education, a career, a partner, a religious faith to follow – or none if that is the desire. A member of the royal family who is in the direct line of succession is unable to make these democratic choices. Her or his life is circumscribed by the intentions and objectives of their future role in British society. That role also prescribes a peculiar religious adherence that necessitates a bias in the choice of religious faith.
What further choice, apart from leaving the religious faith of their choice and passion, does a typical member of the CofE have if his or her political principles and beliefs do not agree with the privileged position of their particular religious faith in British society? Is there a contradiction in the theological statements of Christianity including the pronunciation that “Christ is King” and, by implication, the head of the Christian faith and its constituent churches,  when, in fact, a male monarch – a king – being Head of the British State, is also be the Head of the CofE?
Whilst accepting the role of a monarch in the constitution and practical functions of the CofE, what can a practising member of the CofE do when believing that the life of a monarch is inconsistent with the beliefs and proclamations of the church for which they have sworn fealty? What should the person of faith do when that faith is sullied by its links with governments that operate with principles that are clearly devoid of Christian, or any religious, content – or are simply corrupt?
Does the person of faith face the same limitations within the CofE as does the ordinary British citizen face with the government of the day when wishing to protest at the ideas and actions of their respective institutions? Where does genuine democracy reside in both Church and State in British society?
Persons of religious faith can be found in the membership of the British Republican Movement, though they are most unlikely to be members of the National Secular Society. Monarchists can be active supporters of the NSS, although divesting themselves of any support for the notion of “the divine right to rule of kings and queens”. It is salutary to consider that all founders of the NSS were republicans but, whereas the NSS supports the removal of all unelected bishops from the House of Lords, not all NSS supporters consider that the House of Lords should be an elected chamber. Monarchists, however, are most unlikely to be supporters of the BRM.
The authenticity of the above statements can be verified by an examination of each of founding principles and ongoing activities of each of the BRM and NSS organisations. There are strands in each of these movements which intertwine. Each have campaigns that would welcome the support of the other. Each has a vision of British society that encourages democracy, meritocracy, citizen participation, and freedom of conscience and belief – including religious belief.
I am of the twin view that neither a specific religious faith – Christianity or otherwise, nor a monarchy – inherited or otherwise, should have a privileged place in the public life of British, or any other, society. The reasons for this double perspective, this “double vision”, have been outlined in the above and are the bases for my membership and ongoing support of both the National Secular Society and the British Republican Movement. I commend both organisations to the reader.


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Double vision

For many years I have been a member of the British Republican Movement (BRM). This is a movement that supports the abolition of the monarchy in the United Kingdom and, until that institution is finally and democratically ended, calls for reform in its day-by-day functions and relationships with other British institutions. The BRM has links with republican movements within Europe and the wider world.
In recent years I have also been a member of the National Secular Society (NSS). Founded in 1866 by the lawyer and politician, Charles Bradlaugh, the NSS has ten principles upon which it was founded and according to which it continues to operate. The binding force of these principles is George Jacob Holyoake’s definition of secularism as “a positive alternative to atheism”. The NSS is not opposed to religion but holds to the view that society should “promote freedom of and from religion.” Moreover, “genuine religious freedom is best secured by keeping religion out of the public sphere and running public policy on reasonable, rational grounds, where everyone’s rights are balanced.”
It is likely, therefore, that an examination of these two organisations, the British Republican Movement, and the National Secular Society, would lead to the recognition of the links between them. Thinking of this, I recently listened to an NSS podcast that involved a conversation between Dr Emma Park, the Podcaster for the NSS, and Graham Smith, the CEO of the BRM. Together, these two knowledgeable commentators provide a clear pair of eyes, a genuine double vision, on related and increasingly controversial subjects.
The focus of this discussion was on such questions as: If you are a secularist. should you also be a republican? How have the two movements been historically intertwined? How close are the ties between monarchy and the Church of England (CofE) today? Can a hereditary monarchy ever be compatible with a truly secular democracy? The discussion touched on several other and related issues. In what follows, I will draw on the substance of that conversation as I discuss the possible links between republicanism and secularism in the British context.
The Chief Executive Officer of the BRM, Graham Smith, is of the view that, as an institution, “the contemporary British monarchy reflects a 19th century culture of middle England”. It has undergone few reforms to bring it into the modern world and, at times, it has shown itself to be a dysfunctional family. It is quasi-religious institution that links religion, a “royal” family, and the governance of the UK. As such, it gives a privileged place in the religious life of the nation to the CofE. A BRM survey (2019) found that only 12% of the UK population identifies with the CofE, yet the latter is regarded as the “Established Church” of the nation.
When a new monarch is enthroned, the ceremony is replete with references to Christianity and the new monarch’s devotion to God through that religion and its embodiment in the CofE. The presiding monarch is the “Supreme Governor” of the CofE. It is presently forbidden for the UK monarch to be a Roman Catholic, nor a devotee of any non-Christian religion – despite the multi-cultural, multi-faith nature of contemporary Britain. So littered is a coronation ceremony with oaths and promises associated with religious and stately duties, that there is little room in the ritual for a detailed statement of the monarch’s role with the people – or, as it is still stated with respect to the British people, the monarch’s “subjects”.
The limitations of the specific oaths and promises associated with a monarch’s enthronement, as well as with the practical nature and structure of her or his role, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a sitting monarch to speak out on such secular and social awareness issues as democracy, poverty, inequality, racism, political corruption, international economic aid, as well as more faith-based issues, for example, the existence of religious discrimination and questionable quasi-religious cultural practices. The foregoing subjects do, of course, possess a religious dimension, but, for republicans and secularists alike, these areas pose major dilemmas for the closed system of institutional monarchy as practised in contemporary Britain.
The present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has been an exemplary adherent to the religious nature and function of the UK monarchy. It seems obvious that Elizabeth Windsor believes in, if not the actual “divine right of kings and queens to rule”, then the divine nature and function of her role and her personal desire for its religious fulfilment. It could be argued that it is for this reason that the present queen will never abdicate her position in British life.
The person who is expected to succeed Elizabeth Windsor, her eldest son, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, has stated that he desires not only to become the Head of the CofE, but also the “champion of all faiths”! Apart from the apparent arrogance of stating his perceived personal suitability for this role, as well as the impertinence of his thinking that the variety of religious faiths as practised in the UK desire such a champion, there are serious doubts as to whether some, if not many – and not only more fundamentalist religious faiths – would want him to be their champion!
It could be asked, therefore, will monarchy ever catch-up with modernity, and is Charles Windsor the most appropriate person to be the next head of the British state and its traditional and established form of religious faith? It might also be conjectured that, if both the CofE – as the “established church” of the British state – and the inherited British monarchy are archaic institutions linked by the persona of a single figure, then removing one would prefigure the removal of the other.
From the above, it will be realised that monarchy is very much associated with a peculiar form of religion in British society. Monarchy’s place is epitomised and legitimised through its institutional connection with a minority faith, the Protestant Church of England. This is both an affront to freedom of religious faith and to the democratic principles under which the governance of the UK is supposed to function. This is a major point of intersection between the NSS and the BRM.
It might be asked, then, as to why a concerned and widespread critique and action has not, heretofore, been brought to bear on this situation. This may be due to several contributing factors. It will be my purpose to discuss these matters in the next article, part two of this essay.


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For what it is worth

During the lockdown in England, there has been a steady stream of cartoons and comments appearing on my mobile telephone and computer – most of them emanating from family members but shared on a wider basis. One of the most recent of these stated the following:
“The lockdown will have demonstrated three things:
  1. Our economy collapses as soon as it stops selling useless stuff to over-indebted people.
  2. It is perfectly possible to greatly reduce pollution.
  3. The lowest paid people in the country are the most essential to its functioning.”
As with most people, I have an interest in the things that are bought and sold and how this effects my economic status. So too, my concern about pollution in our world is deep, and has been for a long time. However, it was the third point in the above comment that particularly took my interest, that is, the statement that, “The lowest paid people in the country are the most essential to its functioning.”
I am quite certain that this is a reference to the value of those persons, for example, hospital nursing staff, cleaners, and Care Home workers, who are performing a vital role in the National Health Service (NHS) and related areas. So too, it would extend to include those who contribute their manual work to our society, for example, those who work in sanitation, refuse collection and labourers in various fields.
There is little doubt in my mind that the reference to the above categories of workers has its roots in the contribution of hospital staff in the worldwide battle against the current Covid-19 pandemic. In England there has been a weekly ritual of persons standing in the streets and handclapping those who work in the NHS. The work done by these persons, as well as the current importance that has attached to their work, has inevitably led to appeals to increase the wages/salaries of these workers once the major effects of the pandemic have been controlled, if not eradicated.
The assumption being made in this appeal is the situation where those “heroes” of the NHS are all being paid at an equal or equivalent rate. It is quite true that hospital workers have been, and continue to be, essential to the functioning of our country, but are these all to be paid at the same rate? Is a nurse more essential than a specialist epidemiologist; is a hospital cleaner more essential than a resident doctor; is a hospital porter more essential than a skilled thoracic surgeon?
A rational analysis would surely lead to the conclusion that many of those in the NHS work in an adjunct capacity to those highly trained in the medical disciplines. As such, these adjunct workers are paid at a lower rate than those whom they assist, prepare the way for, or clean-up after. What is true within the hospital and medical field is also true of other fields of work.
Perhaps the bone of contention in the saying that “The lowest paid people in the country are the most essential to its functioning”, is the use of the suffix ‘most’. This gives a superlative meaning to the following word “essential”, thereby inflating its relative position in the sentence.
There are many whose vital contribution to the upholding and development of our society who are paid at a rate that is low in relation to others. Often these low paid jobs, whilst being important, do not require a high skill component – their value lies in the actual personal physical contribution, often remunerated at a level that is not commensurate with the risk it involves. An example of this would include a member of the armed services, whose life is often on the line in warfare, but who is not duly compensated for the same when such a situation arises.
None of the foregoing is in fact to argue that NHS workers, for example, should not be given a pay increase in consequence of their services during the Covid-19 pandemic. Such an increase would recognise the contemporary value of their work, but it is not to say that such work is more essential than that of persons, usually with specialist qualification and who are highly trained and whom we depend on at all times, for example, general practitioners, dentists, lawyers, skilled trades-peoples and educationists.
It would seem relevant to the above that to have some idea as to what constitutes “low pay” and high pay. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) offers two methods of measuring people’s household disposable incomes: median and mean incomes, both within a range of £0 to £80,000. Interestingly, this range would suggest that those persons earning in excess of £80,000, though s relatively small percentage of the British working population, in terms of disposable income, could be considered as being a privileged, even elitist, segment of the population.
The mean measure of income divides the total income of individuals by the number of individuals. A limitation of using the mean measure is that it can be influenced by just a few individuals with substantially high incomes and, therefore, does not necessarily reflect the standard of living of the “typical” person.
In mitigation of the above reasons, the more usual method of measuring income is to use the “median” measure. This method of measuring disposable household income is the income of what would be the middle person if all incomes in the UK were sorted from poorest to richest. Median income provides a good indication of the standard of living of the “typical” individual in terms of income.
Both methods of measuring income are “equivalised”, that is, they account for the fact that households with more people will need a higher income to achieve the same standard of living as households with fewer members. The ONS calculates that the distribution of equivalised disposable income in the UK is skewed towards lower income people; mean income (£35,900) is £6,300 larger than median income (£29,600).
So, to return to the original statement that, “The lowest paid people in the country are the most essential to its functioning”, would be to suggest that the “most essential” workers in the country are being paid less than the median wage, that is, less that £29,600.
Clearly, this is an unsustainable argument as it would depose, by dint of the salary they earn, most of the UK workers in the professions, many who own and work in private businesses, employees in banking, protective services, public services, local government and politics – just to name a selected few areas of employment – and who are vital cogs in the national economic machinery.
However,  the original statement presents us with a moral, not a financial or legal, choice. The statement was most probably written as an emotional, yet realistic, reaction to and appreciation of the urgent and difficult work that was being done at a time of national crisis. Such work deserves public recognition and acclaim, and, in such circumstances, an objective re-assessment of their financial remuneration is one such appropriate reward.
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Searching the soul

The music of Aram Khachaturian is an acquired taste. This is especially so where his symphonies are concerned. Those persons coming to his symphonic output expecting a typical “European” sound of music will be surprised, disappointed, delighted or rendered speechless. It has been said that this composer’s style is a blend of traditional Russian and “Transcaucasian” elements – central Asian or oriental. This can be explained in terms of his personal background and music education.
Aram Khachaturian was born in 1903 in the multicultural city of Tiflis, the capital of Georgia. His family background was Armenia and he is generally regarded as a Soviet “Armenian” composer. He died in 1978 and is buried in Yerevan, Armenia – a country probably best known as the location of Mount Ararat, upon which, according to the biblical story of the flood, Noah’s Ark came to rest. So too, Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity. An understanding of Khachaturian’s personal and music philosophy can be approached through an examination of his three symphonies, as well as his attractive concertos for violin and piano.
This article will focus on Khachaturian’s symphonic output.
Aram Khachaturian’s rather unconventional symphonies require an approach that is independent of a western European understanding and appreciation of the genre and, therefore, the listener’s musical mind should be open to a more aggressive and dynamic sound – a musical sound quite different to that of most of the well-known composers in the development of classical music. However, Khachaturian’s symphonies do contain echoes of his European counterparts, e.g. Gustav Mahler, as well as the more traditional Russian composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and one of his teachers at the Moscow Conservatoire, Miaskovsky). Whatever the case, the effervescent and emotionally arousing music of this composer provides enjoyable and satisfying listening – appreciation of which grows with repeated playing.
The Symphony No.1 (1934) is dedicated to the 15th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. The music contains traditional Russian elements but with a style that has been described as “Transcaucasian” (see above). The musicologist, Deryck Cooke, has described the first symphony as “impressionistic and quiet, barbaric and noisy, but absolutely fascinating”. The opening of the first movement indicates the direction the music will take.
The large symphony orchestra provides an energetic platform upon which to construct the movement, before what seems to be a delightful, and recognisably Russian, main theme is heard. There is also a suggestion of jaunty jazz music. The whole is built into a massive climax (one of many in this symphony). The slow movement is marked “Adagio Sostenuto”, but there is not a great deal of that which is “slow and sustained” in the music. Notwithstanding, the movement concludes with due dignity. The third movement contains elements of dance music, with themes initially heard in the first movement now combined with oriental strains. This is an attractive mix and carries the symphony to a bright and energetic conclusion.
By the time of the Symphony No.2, sub-titled “The Bell”, Khachaturian’s fame as a composer had become widespread – chiefly through the popularity of his concertos for piano (1936) and violin (1940), as well as his ballet music. The 2nd Symphony was a product of the Russian experience of WW2, commonly remembered in that country as the “Great Patriotic War”. It was certainly seen as such by Aram Khachaturian and the 2nd Symphony is probably his most profound, and best known, symphonic work. Its composition began as the Nazis invaded western Russia in 1940, and the symphony was premiered in 1943. In between those years, the agony of the Russian people evolved.
The Symphony No.2 has a higher level of dramatic expression and this is immediately evident in the symphony’s first movement. The “colourful instrumentation, passionate melodies, balletic rhythms, and instrumental virtuosity” of the second movement reflects the Asiatic elements in the composer’s background. The elegiac third movement contains echoes of the 13th century “Dies irae” chant, showing the religious flavouring of some aspects of Russian music. This movement contains massive musical climaxes and “The Bell”, the sub-title of this symphony, can be distinctively heard – the sound of alarm for the Russian people. The fourth and final movement of the 2nd Symphony is pregnant with optimism as it conveys the people’s triumph over oppression. The characteristic brass contribution to Khachaturian’s music is very much to the fore in this movement and, after a mountainous cascade of sound, the symphony ends in a sea of tranquillity.
Khachaturian’s Symphony No.3 (1947) was composed for the 30th Anniversary of the October Revolution. It is a symphonic cavalcade of triumph and rejoicing. Somewhat unique in the symphonic repertoire, it is a one movement composition that again uses a large orchestra, with an organ and a prominent part for an extra quota of trumpets. Despite an almost unrecognisable pedigree, the music has an irresistible energy and awesome power.
The work commences with a quiet organ solo and is gradually joined by the orchestra. The violins are prominent before the trumpets echo the main thematic material. All these elements are gradually combined until the force of their energies moulds a climax of strength and brilliance before offering a more tranquil conclusion. A mesmerising piece that one critic described as “an astounding creation, a vision of almost unstoppable energy and fierce muscular strength descending from afar, borne on a high wind, bursting upon us with shattering force.” Wow!
The music of Khachaturian is limited in its profusion of recordings and it has not enjoyed productions by the more popular recording studios. However, the ASV label has been faithful to this composer, as has the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Loris Tjeknavorian. However, there are few composers who express their loyalty and passion to the people and modern history of Russia (or Soviet Union when this nomenclature was appropriate) than Aram Khachaturian. Wearing its passion on its sleeve, the music of the composer – often noisy and violent, sometimes serene, but always reflective and loaded with expression and meaning – searches the soul of his nation.
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Grasped by ultimate concern

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.


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Looking forward in freedom

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.


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Behind closed doors

During these times of lockdown, social distancing and a substantial number of lives being lost due to the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, it may, nevertheless, be considered that other aspects of life remain worthy of continuing concern. These are matters that, in more normal times, would replace the headlines related to Cobra meetings, the provision of personal protection equipment, the rapid building of new hospital facilities, testing, antigens, antibodies and vaccines, and the daily countdown of the number of people dying locally, nationally and worldwide from Coved-19.
Such matters include the global ecological crisis, where the race is now on to repair the damage caused to the earth’s climate by humanity’s misuse of the earth’s resources; the never-ending pursuit of wealth and power that continues to divide the nations of the world, resulting in an abundance of wealth and possessions for some at the cost of impoverishment for many; the continuation of the immensely profitable trade in weapons of war and mass destruction that grotesquely disrupts the lives of many people living in the developing world; the viability of modern capitalism and a society that works for all age groups, rather than for the middle-aged, old and conservative. The list could go on.
Such concerns have been replaced in the headlines, at least temporarily, by the focus on the progress of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Coronavirus is now reaching into practically every corner of the earth’s surface and its destructive effects are impinging on the well-being of individual lives, families, local communities, whole nations and continents.
In the United Kingdom the primary consequences Covid-19 are to be seen in the rapidly rising numbers of people dying from the silently spreading but deadly disease. Medical personnel and facilities are being stretched to near breaking point. Scientists are deeply engaged in researching and producing a vaccine that will halt the spread of and further control the ravages of the virus over time.
On a daily basis the people of the land are given updates about the progress of the disease by government ministers, media presenters, scientists and by human interest stories focusing on the families of the those who have died – especially the deaths of those in the medical profession who have given their lives in caring for those, in hospitals, care homes and private homes who have contracted the disease. There is an intense interest on what steps are being taken to find a cure for and halt the march of Covid-19 around our planet. At the same time there is a growing appreciation of those ordinary citizens who work in essential services – epitomized in the weekly “clap for the NHS heroes”.
With some sense of the inevitable, there is a developing critique of the government’s handling of the national crisis. With a Prime Minister relatively inactive due to his being a victim of, though recovering from, the disease, there seems a lack of genuine and legitimate leadership at the top.
The rudder of the political ship is not being handled with strength and direction; government ministers, formerly critical of “experts” during the long, drawn-out debate on Brexit, now refer to the same persons as if they were saints and heroes; there seems to be an air of confusion, even ineptitude, in the manner in which decisions are taken to provide financial, medical and personal accommodation for those most affected by the spread and impact of the disease. Incompetence is a word that is being increasingly heard in the daily discussion about and presentation of the national medical dilemma and what is being done about it.
As well as political figures, in its moment of dire need, the nation is expected, as in the past, to look to its religious leaders and statespersons for a wise word, or at least something that makes some sense. But, in a nation that is increasingly secular, the words from the religious heads of the Anglican Church, the UK’s State Church, as well as from other denominations and faiths, seem to have only the same effect as a weekly sermon – well thought out and resourced, but without the impact that once there may have been. The influence of the masters and practitioners of tradition seem noticeably to be on the wane.
The same may be said of that epitome of tradition – monarchy. In the past royalty has come to the aid of a beleaguered government but, despite being eagerly anticipated and watched by a significant minority of the national population, the traditional locations, impressively staged, and cultured address from the Head of State, Elizabeth Windsor, the recent royal address seems somehow to have been temporarily sustaining but permanently ineffective.
The emotionally appealing address, with due solemnity and practiced presentation, evokes a bygone era and references thoughts and words meaningful only to an aging population. “We will meet again”, is the enduring punchline – without reference to where or when!
Perhaps there is a growing recognition that in times of medical emergency, financial hardship, emotional privation and soulful imaginings, those of ancient lineage and power that live in spacious country estates, within historic and impenetrable walls, private medicine, privileged attention, devoted acolytes and obedient entourages, in short, those who live in a world much different to the one lived in by those they regard as subjects, that the age of royal and ancient patronage is coming to an end.
Meanwhile, behind closed doors the nation ponders and  waits.


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Responding to the voices

In my previous blog (see article 146: Hearing the Voices of February 6, 2020) I posed the following question: To what extent should the British State be involved with the religious, cultural and family background of the children and young people for whom it has the responsibility to educate? This question was linked with the related issue of the extent to which parents of children coming to the United Kingdom should be expected to comply with the educational aims and objectives of the British educational system?
The article then proceeded to ask a further question, that is, in a multi-cultural society, should all expressions of religious faith and cultural practices be treated with equal value? It was then stated that these questions, as well as other related issues, are explicitly referred to in the recently published Ofsted Report 2018/19 (January 2020).
In an interview which followed the release of the Ofsted Report 2018/19, the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, commented that a weakness in the children’s services can be seen in the fact that in confronting several issues the relevant action “meant crossing lines of race, culture and religion, with all their inherent sensitivities.” Ms Spielman was tacitly acknowledging that the education of many children – especially those in the “most vulnerable situations” – was being hindered by the religious beliefs and practices, the faith culture, of their family background.
Furthermore, the necessity to address this cultural situation was something of which educational authorities, indeed political responsibility, was wary of confronting. Some subjects that seem to be “inherently taboo” would include the following:
• Schools illegally segregating pupils and giving girls a much worse deal than boys
• Books in schools that promote corporal punishment
• Materials that say that a wife cannot deny their husband
• Teaching materials are censored to airbrush women out of history
The findings related to these issues have been reported, but public discussion of them has failed to materialize. The relevant voices have not been heard loud enough or with sufficient clarity and “too few people are willing to tread in these sensitive areas, so that real concerns drop out of sight almost at once.” Many in contemporary multi-cultural British society find it difficult to acknowledge that “the different rights we value are not always easy to reconcile with each other.”
As the Ofsted Report 2018/19 acknowledges, such seemingly irreconcilable rights would include the following:
• The interaction of religious freedom with the law of the land
• Rights for groups versus rights for individuals, especially girls
• The extent of parents’ rights over children
• The differing perceptions in different sections of society as to what constitutes a family or a relationship.
To paraphrase an important section of the report: in consequence of the sensitive nature of issues (such as those above), and the sometime volatile reaction to any discussion of them, it is often the case that there is no swift condemnation from government and remarkably little from national and local political leaders. Powerful voices are often muted. Headteachers are isolated. Overall, leadership is lacking.
It is implicit in the Ofsted Report 2018/19 that there are tensions in children’s education and care between the aims and objectives of a national curriculum and the religious and cultural background of the students the curriculum seeks to serve. The tensions are evident; the solutions are more of a problem.
One solution to this situation is provided by the National Secular Society (NSS). Some background information will be helpful.
In 1944 the British Government brought in the Education Act 1944. This act meant that, for the first time, both primary and secondary education would be provided to all free of charge in England and Wales. However, as the NSS has commented, the Act “also brought hundreds of faith schools into the state sector, introduced daily worship in all schools and created the system of voluntary controlled, voluntary aided and community schools we still have today.” The intention of religious education within the Education Act 1944 was to simply inform, not preach or proselytize. The reality, however, has been otherwise.
It has been estimated that faith schools account for around a third of publicly funded schools in England and Wales, while many Scottish and Northern Irish schools are divided along sectarian lines. The research of the NSS reveals that “faith schools have a negative impact on social cohesion, foster segregation of children on social, ethnic and religious lines, and undermine choice and equality. They also enable religious groups to use public money to evangelize children.”
So, the NSS considers that “the scourge of faith schools, and the deference to religious interests within the education system”, are largely the legacy of the Education Act 1944.
In consequence of the above, in April 2018 the NSS launched its No More Faith Schools campaign. This is a national campaign dedicated to bringing an end to state funded faith schools, believing that this can happen when like-minded persons, including those working in local and national governmental and educational circles, work together to this end.
The NSS believes that the No More Faith Schools campaign “is a platform for everyone who wants to see an inclusive education system, free from religious control.” It seeks to bring together all those who think that “children from all faith and belief backgrounds should be educated together and allowed to develop their own beliefs independently.”
So too, the NSS is of view that we can build “an inclusive education system today, to ensure an inclusive society tomorrow”. This education system will be one that is free from religious proselytization and discrimination. Where religion is taught in such a system it will be from a secular approach, for example, as an aspect of a subject syllabus in what the philosopher and educator A.C. Grayling has called the “history of ideas”, or from a philosophy and ethics approach and, therefore, void of any confessional or evangelical basis.
In ways such as these the aforementioned irreconcilable religious beliefs, parental rights and cultural practices, a number of which would come into conflict with British law, as well as group rights versus individual rights and different perceptions within different sections of society as to what constitutes a family or a relationship, would be provided with scaffolding for a more cohesive approach to children’s educational services.
The NSS is not alone in hoping that a future Ofsted Report will reflect such a framework.


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