Thursday, December 20, 2007

Reflecting on the West in the light of the Crescent Moon

Yesterday, before I left Kuwait for my ten days holiday in England I told myself the change would be dramatic. I knew I’d experience a more extreme cultural shift than anything I’d known before. Possibly becasue of this expectation the change wasn’t as stark as it might have been; but it was still a jolt, a highly interesting one of course, even if in curious ways a depressing one, at least at first.

Maybe it was only the crowds, and that an Underground journey from Heathrow to North Greenwich can never be fun. But I couldn’t help feeling, almost as soon as I left customs and largely as I’d expected that something present and alive in Kuwait, some ambience and atmosphere, something innocent and cohesive and delighting to be alive, was missing somehow here in Blighty.

Maybe I imagined this. Maybe it was my projection. Maybe I was hallucinating. Or maybe not.

Especially, my impressions were of two things. On the one had, the people. So many people and so many of them stoney faced, steely egotists, deracinated from themselves as well as from one another. Even the way they talked to their friends in their insulated bubble-worlds seemed formal and robotic, as if they were communicating across space, one planet to another, rather than side by side, organically, as fellow companions on dry land. Then there was the media. The style of the broadsheet I read, which happened to be ‘The Independent’, was fakely familiar in a way I’ve come to deeply regret about the drift of British culture over the past ten years. This false chumminess between people who lie to and exploit each other everyday is a cloak to mask power dynamics that it would be better, surely, to be honest about. I’m all in favour, of course, of harmony and union between people. But please, can’t we make it real? And if we can’t make it real, can’t we at least protect our minds from this sloppy regime of vapid blandishments? A problem in addition to this was an aggressive assertion of what one might call a crass, pagan triumphalism.

One headline, for example, ‘You are what you wear’ is so unspeakably false. The fact that it can be asserted shamelessly, in an aura of apparent cool, is to me profoundly depressing. Of course one wants to think this fashion slogan was meant ironically. But was it? Even if it was, is it read this way?

Ok, ok, I accept it, I should take my foot off the ‘Your’re turning into an Old Testament religious lunatic’ pedal. Still, I’m amazed that so much of this excrement can be stomached by people who actually have to live here.

That said, I have to make it clear that my fundamental loyalty towards and love of my native Christian culture is deeply felt and non-negotiable. It stands as a background to anything negative or critical I might say about my culture, be that my English and British one, or less locally my European and broader Christian one. Basically, to be blunt, if I criticise my country or civilization it doesn’t mean I want it to die out or, heavens forbid, be overthrown by Islam or any other civilization. Rather it means I’m exercising both the right and the custom, itself germane to and expressive of my culture, of collective self-reflection and self-examination. What might be perceived by those less given to self-examination as a weakness need be no such thing; but rather the glory and efflorescence of a culture that is confident enough in its own axioms and premises to be willing and prepared at times, or even to an extent at all times, to stare into the void to check and make sure its public life, its laws and its practices have been justly and virtuously established and to see whether or not they might require modification or revision.

Similarly, the preparedness to see value and virtue in a foreign culture, such as Islam, or Buddhism, or Judaism, and to consider that in specific ways these cultures may exhibit or express qualities we either have never expressed or which we used to exhibit but no longer do, does not in any way constitute an admission of inferiority to those foreign cultures such as to imply that we, and we alone, are the ones who need to be taking lessons from abroad. If I compliment my friend or even a stranger for a quality about them I love or admire, this does not mean I have given them a position of rank above me in any imagined power hierarchy. So too between civilizations; compliments or expressions of admiration for a foreign culture do not constitute a request to be supplanted by that culture. Unless, of course we really do wish to see the world as a power struggle of all against all, as those who wish to destroy the sovereignty of the subjective will, wish us to believe. That choice, most fundamentally of all, of whether we as individuals wish to stand in a relation of struggle with one another or not, is up to us, and us alone.

Of course a serious problem we now face in the west, especially amongst young people, and much evidence of this can be found in the blogosphere as well as our media, is not that we are unable to reflect critically on ourselves but on the contrary that the extent of our self-criticism has become far, far too deep and too vast. To the extent, indeed, that Western cultural apocalypticism is largely accepted as an indisputably true premise that should inevitably form the framework and essence of everything that is said, or felt or thought about Western culture. Not to buy into and accept that sense of an already arrived at or impending nihilism is considered by many of these home grown, self-appointed priests of doom to be the stance of a fool, a dunce or some manner of idiot (you tell me, insults-all of them devoid of content- are the oxygen of so much of this perspective that there’s quite a colourful range). Any suggestion that things might not actually be totally falling apart, and that there is still much either active or dormant to be celebrated in the west, is too often greeted with smirking sighs and grins of an almost or in fact unreachably smug condescension.

Interestingly, it seems that some of these voices on the blogosphere, consider it inevitable that Islam will take over and conquer Europe at some future stage. Well, unless they're being ‘ironic’ – and I know I’m not always good at reading irony. I’m not sure to what extent these opinions are melancholic or enthusiastic about such an extension of the crescent moon’s dominion. I suppose that in so far as they are expressed by those not themselves converts to Islam, or thinking of converting, that they would be lachrymose, or even to some extent despairing opinions. I’m presuming, or rather hoping in any case, that none of these voices, which see Islam’s extension of the Dar-al Islam into Europe as inevitable, would be Christian in anything other than a purely nominal sense; given that I presume and expect that anyone who actually knows and has experienced the love and glory of Jesus Christ knows that against it Islam has little to offer and cannot compete.

To be frank, I think that if I weren’t a stubborn, somewhat involuntary believer in the Christian God, or at least my version of him/her/it (given that it has often felt like God’s existence was just undeniable), I too would be worried about the future of Europe regarding the ambitions of Islam. There seems little doubt that, peacefully or not, Islam covets Europe and indeed the entire world. Quite why it should want to do this is a question you might like to address to individual Muslims themselves, but that it does do so I think is fairly uncontroversial. Indeed, as it happens I'd actually accept that Islam has a right, in a certain very qualified sense, to want to try to convert the world to its own idiosyncratic and peculiar ways. As long as, of course, we have ourselves the right not to be persuaded of our need to convert to them; and as long as they, naturally, endeavour to exert the efforst of conversion only though the power of argument and open, civilized, kindly discussion.

Anyway, that was a tangent from what had been intended to be a post about my immediate arrival back in Britain, my reverse culture shock, which happened last night. I guess this will have to wait. Meanwhile I’ll be collecting more data for reflection.


May said...

Who are you staying with, in England?

Jonathan said...

Have been in London so far, staying with my sister Rachel and seeing various assorted souls from my university days, though curently I'm with my friend Lee in Northampton and am heading down to see Matt in Brighton on the 23rd. Public transport permitting, I'll be in Suffolk with my Mum on the 24th until the 26th when we'll be joined by my 2 sisters and brother (the vicar). So it's all pretty busy..what about you? x

Anonymous said...

excellent post

May said...

I was worried that you had nowhere to stay. Tell your mum to look after you with love (you are her little one).

I am on holiday! It feels so good. I'll be at home for a week then we'll probably spend a few days in Rome.

Hi, Elberry.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for that Elberry. Glad you liked it.