Britain ushers in the bigots

“We don’t do God,” Tony Blair’s director of strategy and communications Alastair Campbell famously said in 1996, an effort to prevent the then-prime minister discussing his faith in public. It was good advice.

Britain was and remains not only a secular country, but a rightly cynical place, scarred by religion’s divisive blade throughout history, most recently by the violence of Christian sectarianism in Northern Ireland and the radicalised British Islamists swayed by a Wahhabi cult preached online.

In the U.S., religion and politics have long been in lock step, prevailing opinion suggesting candidates for office must prostrate themselves before the Almighty’s earthly representatives to get ahead.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 chipped away at that presumption, the billionaire businessman proving that when it came to the support of white Christians, appealing to their whiteness could circumvent having to appeal to their faith. Race before religion, as it were.

Yet the disastrous election of British Conservative leader Theresa May this week has brought American-style faith infused politics to the centre of British power. The use of the Democratic Unionist Party as a buttress for a minority government currently balancing on three legs means May will be in debt to a group of radical protestants with links to terrorism, whose views wouldn’t look out of place on the 700 Club.

Same-sex marriage is illegal in Northern Ireland thanks mainly to the efforts of the DUP whose faith demands they intervene in the prospective happiness of people they don’t know and have never met.

Likewise, abortion rights have been deliberately hobbled, forcing countless numbers of young, scared and vulnerable women to leave the country to receive medical help.

Moreover, the DUP counts legions of creationists amongst its cohort, with some 40% of the membership believing children’s education should be deliberately stultified by the teaching of superstition in science class.

And like the U.S. Republican Party, the DUP embraces climate change denial, appointing a sceptic to the role of environment minister in 2008. After all, melting ice caps and the likely future starvation of millions of people is all part of God’s celestial blueprint.

This is who May is now in bed with. She has signed up to a short-term toxic deal that will not only further ostracize the young, liberal generation which the Tories are already hemorrhaging, but also progressive members of her own party, not least the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, a woman who single-handedly revived the Tories north of the border and whose reward for that feat is to find herself now sharing power with people who think her partnership with another woman is an abomination.

And this says nothing of the politically disastrous ramifications of giving succour to just one of the parties in Northern Ireland, with the potential to disrupt the sensitive balance between the DUP unionists and the nationalists of Sinn Féin.

The British parliamentary system gives May an absolute right to try and form a government with whichever party she can. And politicians holding personal ambition over the good of the country is commonplace. Yet surely May knows that engaging with the DUP is too high a price to pay?

Fortunately, she is surrounded by equally ruthless vessels of personal advancement, who are already circling the prime minister with the stench of blood. Likely she’ll be taken down soon by a member of her own cabinet.

After two general elections, a referendum and an independence campaign in recent years, no one in the UK wants another national vote. Yet a rerun in Autumn will be welcome if it means people such as the DUP are quickly dispatched back to the dark, unthinking fringes where they rightly belong.

This article first appeared in HuffPost UK. The original can be found here.

Shouting ‘gun control’ across the Atlantic isn’t going to save a single life

“What the fuck is wrong with America?” It’s the stock refrain that echoes across the rest of the developed world after another mass shooting blights an otherwise civilized, progressive and responsible state.

“Gun control,” comes the shout from Europe’s ancient capitals. Kill the Second Amendment; excise the law that routinely leaves bodies heaped in schools and churches across the bloodied republic.

It’s an easy answer and wholly unsatisfactory. Democratic America is what it chooses to be, but the issue is so aged, politicised and now polarised that banning guns is not only impossible, it would likely do little to stop the type of bloodshed witnessed last week in Roseburg.

Here’s what is known:

The US boasts a high murder rate — one of the highest in the developed world. Guns are likely the main cause of this higher rate, being the prime weapon in around 65 percent of all US murders.

An American is five times more likely to be murdered than a British person, and 40 times more likely to be murdered with a gun. However, overall crime rates in the US are falling, with the rate of gun deaths halved since the early Nineties.

Nobody knows how many guns there are in private hands. A 2007 Small Arms Survey suggested around 270million but it’s likely much higher.

The reason there is no national firearms database is because the government has not been allowed to create one. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, argues that the government knowing who owns a gun is an infringement on the constitutional right to bear arms. Not only can Washington not stop citizens buying a gun, it doesn’t have the right to know who owns one.

Why is there no gun control?

The disproportionate power for the NRA, which plays on an old and ingrained distrust of the government, has turned Second Amendment absolutism into a test of identity. You cannot be a true Republican, a true conservative, a true constitutionalist, or a true American and countenance gun control, so they argue. Backed by the gun manufacturers, the NRA has money to bully politicians, funding those who display Second Amendment fidelity, while financing the opponents of politicians that pose a threat.

And there is plenty of money to go around. In the past seven years, the share price of most major gun manufacturers has increased; Sturm Ruger’s share price has gone up 700 percent since 2009.

The upsurge in sales is tied to the election of Barack Obama; gun enthusiasts, anxious that the commander-in-chief would enact gun control, responded by stockpiling weapons.

However, the gun lobby didn’t cause this anxiety. The election of the country’s first African-American president churned up a raft of ugly sentiment — racial, religious and social — allied to a shifting national demographic that led many citizens to feel America was changing and not for the better. The gun lobby feed off this anxiety while stoking the flames.

Despite the increase in sales, crime rates have still fallen. Yet the US retains a deserved reputation for gun violence. This is because although the overall trend is downward, the numbers of mass shootings, the type that capture national and international attention such as Oregon, are rising.

Would gun control work in the United States?

It is unlikely that implementing controls, such as background checks for buyers, would stop the type of mass shooting that increasingly plagues the national body.

Neither would banning guns, at least in the short term. There are an estimated 300 million weapons in circulation in the US; restricting access to guns, as enforced in the UK and Australia, would not hinder a determined buyer. The time for that has long passed.

And despite a succession of mass shootings (11 during Obama’s tenure alone), there remains little public appetite for gun prohibition. A 2011 poll showed that only 26 percent of US citizens want to ban handguns.

What onlookers can fail to appreciate is the depth of feeling towards concepts of liberty and individual freedom that burns in the national consciousness. Even if it were proven that gun controls would prevent mass shootings, some Americans would still resist.

The loathing for government restrictions is so deeply entrenched that there is almost no price for which many Americans would hand over their firearms. And for Second Amendment absolutists, the NRA included, liberty is so sacrosanct that they would be willing to endure any atrocity to retain the right — even if that means scraping 10 children off the wall every six months.

It’s a Faustian pact, but it’s also a choice. If there were a genuine demand for legal restrictions, candidates would emerge in regional and national elections campaigning on that plank — “vote for me, I’ll ban the guns.” Citizens would vote for those candidates en masse and the country would change. That they do not is down to crony capitalism and the influence of the NRA, but it’s also because Americans choose not to.

Here’s the real question: does a lack of gun control make mass shootings inevitable? This is where fact gives way to conjecture and politics. The NRA skillfully diverts attention away from guns after every massacre, framing the problem as a mental health issue.

But it’s a far broader cultural problem. So what is it about American culture that drives young men to take an automatic weapon to a school, church or cinema and start shooting?

Guns are part of the problem, but guns alone don’t turn sane people into mass murderers. Then again, there is something perverse and fetishistic in the way guns are revered in the US that is individual the country.

Opponents of the Second Amendment point to the success of banning weapons in the UK and Australia after the Dunblane and Port Arthur massacres. Would those countries have suffered further atrocities had guns not been banned? Possibly, but with the multitude of guns in circulation in the US (unlike in the UK and Australia) comparisons are problematic. The best you could say for a blanket ban is that it may eventually cause a cultural shift away from firearms, but probably not for generations.

It’s an ‘American’ problem.

Guns have become a tribal issue in a country increasingly separated by two opposing identities. Speaking about this article to an otherwise dispassionate and rational ally in the Midwest triggered a visceral response in which gun control was instantaneously dismissed. Likewise, speaking to colleagues in New York sparks an opposing but equally primal reaction.

This plays out on a national level with massacres met by entrenchment on both sides — those who believe guns make individuals safer and those who believe they make the country as a whole more dangerous. The makeup of these opposing groups falls along political, ethnic, social and geographic lines, as revealed by Pew polling.

Speaking after the shooting last Thursday, Obama scolded the nation for becoming “numb” to the problem. He is right; it has become “routine.” But the detachment is not because Americans don’t care… it’s because they don’t know what to do. Half the country advocates measures that wouldn’t stop mass shootings while the other half refuses to acknowledge the gun’s role in creating a destructive culture. And that, to answer the original question, is what is wrong with America.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Healthy bodies for a sick world…

“Physical culture is in the air just now,” reflected P. G. Wodehouse in an article forVanity Fair published a year before the “gentleman’s gentleman” entered the literary canon.

The essay described how the “average man” of post-Edwardian England “now postpones his onslaught on the boiled egg for a matter of fifteen minutes,” time devoted to a “series of bendings and stretchings which in the course of time are guaranteed to turn him into a demi-god.”

A century later and physical culture once again pervades. Earlier this week, a colleague in London penned an article highlighting the growth in female sports as symbolic of a wider trend towards health and fitness in the U.K.

The U.S. is similarly bending and stretching under the spell, with traditional gyms augmented by boutique fitness centers and juice shops in the country’s great metropolises.

My colleague cited figures on the mushrooming market for women’s sporting clothes to emphasize the refocus towards personal wellbeing, while noting the community aspect of modern fitness fueled by the carbs of “celebrity and media.”

She is certainly right on the community aspect, with a strong argument that gatherings around fitness have superseded the church and synagogue — brick victims of secularism’s powerful strides. As such, health could simply be the latest expression of the human need to experience transcendental emotion beyond the individual.

The fitness center is, after all, the modern incarnation of a religious cult, one that leans back beyond Wodehouse, even beyond the “muscular Christianity” of the Victorians and into antiquity with the Romans and ancient Greeks using exercise as a preparation for war.

Yet the current flowering may have more immediate psychological drivers too. Wodehouse wrote about the push towards “physical culture” in 1914, a year bandaged by the tumult of war wrought on both citizenry and soldiery.

Likewise, the 2008 financial crash (and its economic and political aftermath) blanketed the hitherto comfortable West in doubt, insecurity and a profound sense of unease.

Whereas Europe and America’s portly middle classes once relied on a career delivering sufficient recompense to raise a family, buy a house, enjoy vacations, and save for a comfortable retirement, the 2008 meltdown broke the illusion.

Banks crumbled, interest rates plummeted, employment fell and wages stagnated. Meanwhile, restrictions on lending created a generation for whom homeownership — the most basic emblem of long-term security — was denied.

Meanwhile, the rise of the Islamic State abroad was paralleled by anti-immigrant sentiment at home, the rats of the far-right resurfacing from the pipes and sewers to once again spread the bacilli of intolerance and hate.

For a generation, the system’s upheaval highlighted a lack of control in the world, a psychological blow that led many to turn inwards, attempting to regain control via dominance over their own bodies.

In a society unrestrained and a future unknown, perhaps exercise regimes, healthy eating and mindfulness offered a return to the illusion or at least a way to cope with the stress therein.

Writing the year the Great War was unleashed, Wodehouse scoffed at how “the advertisement pages of the magazines are congested with portraits of stern-looking, semi-nude individuals with bulging muscles and fifty-inch chests.”

The author lived to be 93, having practiced his own daily exercise regime for more than 50 years. Were he alive today, he may well have noted the plates of healthy food, yoga poses and shirtless pull-ups similarly congesting Instagram.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Pews give way to the saddle

The congregation stands at the door of the chapel, hands clenched around bottles of water, feet balancing on horseshoe clips soon to mount pedals.

“Is it like spinning?” a woman behind me asks her uninitiated companion. “No,” she replies. “This is Soul Cycle.”

The priest, a young man with a tailored beard and a defined physique, beckons the worshippers in. The pews are freshly wiped; white towels decorate the handlebars. Each bike is occupied; hopefuls on the waiting list are turned away.

The priest sits by the altar choosing a hymnal from a computer perched on a table protruding from the wall. Under the music, the noise of locking machinery vies with chatter.

Riders select their bike before the class ensuring a demarcation of devotion — skeptics at the rear, fanatics at the front. The bikes immediately facing the priest are reserved by the most loyal — booked in the hope of receiving a look of favor or a nod of recognition from the leader. Some congregants attend church daily, some more than once a day.

It’s a ’90s nightclub, an ’80s aerobics video, a self-help convention and a liturgy. It’s a mass of steam pipe-sweaty believers all moving in primal groupishness — forward, back, left, right, always on the beat, always on the beat, always on the beat.

The riders mirror the movements of the priest at the altar, each motion choreographed immaculately with the music.

Across the notes, the priest shouts mantras of mindfulness, mutterings shorn from self-help cards and as opaque as the horoscope: “We ride, we struggle, we change, we grow, we conquer.”

The message condensed is that fitness means confidence and confidence means happiness, all delivered in fortune cookie prose: “Ride from the soul and find the happiest, fittest, most confident you in every aspect of your life.”

Through moving as one, individuals experience “self-transcendent emotions,” feelings of something greater than themselves; tribal and uplifting, the same euphoria derived from amphetamines and EDM or singing in a choir.

The priest finally reveals why we are all there: “Together we will escape the difficulties of our lives and become a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

It’s an easy sell. In a world in which corporations reduce individuals to a daily function, the church provides more. It says you are greater than your role, more than a number on a spreadsheet vying for a few additional dollars at the end of the year, more than a hungry dog snarling over scraps at the corporate feeding bowl.

You are more than a reluctant psychopath, forced to compete for approval from above whilst treading on those below lest they move ahead at your expense. You are a human. You are more.

Candles surround the priest like Anglican evensong while scripture ornaments the wall — “Athlete, Legend, Warrior, Renegade, Rockstar.”

Throughout the service God is praised, praised by the priest in branded shorts, the human God, you, the rider, all the riders, the congregation and the collective endeavor it submits — all praised by the priest in branded shorts.

The service ends and the pews empty. The congregants leave weary, fitter and closer to happiness. “Tough class” a man says to a woman removing her shoes. “Yes, he really pushed us today,” she replies. “It was like a different world in there.”

The hope is that conviction bleeds from ritual into the real world. Riders just have to keep coming back. Founding a church, it seems, is as easy as riding a bike.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Why some American politicians deny basic science

NEW YORK — During a foreign policy think tank discussion in London on Wednesday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a likely presidential candidate for 2016, was asked whether he believed in evolution.

To a British audience, it might seem an odd question to pose to a sitting governor of a US state – akin to asking whether the Earth was round, or if he believed apples fall to the ground because of gravity.

Yet the Republican demurred, unable to answer – much to the delight of the journalists in the room, who not only had a story but one that could be duly soaked in a dye of cultural snobbery.

In his defence, it was not that the governor didn’t have the correct answer. Like everyone in the room, he knew full well that evolution is a watertight scientific theory. However, it is precisely because Walker has presidential ambitions that he found himself unwilling to answer, forced to look preposterous in front of the mocking crowd.

But what witchcraft is at work that requires a man bent on becoming leader of one of the most scientifically advanced nations in the world to deny a theory so universally accepted?

Put simply, politics.

A Pew poll in 2009 found a majority (54%) of Republican voters believed in evolution.Similar polling in 2013 found far fewer Republicans (43%) believed in evolution. In just four years, disbelieving Republican voters had switched from a minority to a majority.

That’s not to say more Americans had come to question evolution. The overall percentage of disbelievers remained that same – a still staggering 40%. It was that more people that reject evolution had come to identify with the Republican brand.

But why? Pew found that older Americans are far more likely to reject Darwin’s teachings, as are white evangelicals. In recent years the Republican Party has increasingly come to rely on these twin demographics – older voters and evangelical Christians.

Most Americans still believe in evolution. It’s likely most Republican politicians believe in evolution, albeit quietly. But increasingly the party’s base, those that turn out to vote in presidential and midterm elections, do not. To remain in power, some politicians must pander to this base, regardless of how discordant it makes them look to the rest of America or indeed the Western world.

The increasing polarisation of American politics is also at play. A general mistrust of science has come to represent the default position of many Republican voters, hence similar obfuscation on matters of climate change. The longer this persists, the more entrenched these views become.

Which leads us back to Walker, forced to sit on a London stage and embarrassingly “punt” on a question, knowing that delivering an honest answer would alienate him with the very supporters he needs to corral for a White House bid.

Walker’s party has compromised on truth to retain power. It won’t last; relying on an ageing vote is unsustainable. Yet until the party itself evolves, Republican politicians will continue to be laughed at around the world.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.