Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Old Anew

The Irish Times invited me to contribute a 'new proclamation', along with a few others, which was published last weekend.  Mine was a slightly edited (for word count reasons) version of the one I wrote in my book back in 2010.

It was a nice touch on the part of the Time's designers to recreate it in 'ye olde parchment' style:


I was pleasantly surprised that my own version had stood the test of time (all 5 years!) since I wrote it.  Needless to say, it won't stand the test of time as well as the original (which I reckon is still the best - and most relevant - version going).

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tectonic Change

This I didn't know:
In 1933, on the Japanese island of Izu Oshima, a twenty-one-year-old student named Kiyoko Matsumoto jumped into the volcano of Mount Mihara from an observation point overlooking the molten lava. Her death became a media sensation across Japan as newspapers reprinted her poignant suicide note and turned her into an overnight celebrity. Nine hundred forty-four people subsequently jumped into the volcano’s crater in 1933 alone. In the years that followed, thousands more made the one-way trip to the volcano, including, every year, dozens of suicide-pact couples who plunged into the lava together. The Tokyo Bay Steamship Company set up a daily line to the island’s volcano rim, which became known as “Suicide Point,” to ferry victims and spectators: Some passengers bought one-way tickets to the destination, while others traveled there round-trip to watch people jump. This suicide epidemic ended only after officials made it a criminal offense to purchase a one-way ticket to the island and placed a barrier at the observation point.
From a powerful essay on assisted suicide and euthanasia by Aaron Kheriaty.   The point is that ideas are contagious, and that bad ones often spread faster than good ones, until they are stopped.  The recent Irish Times finding that 54% of adults agree there are circumstances where they would help a family member to die reveals the extent of one particularly bad idea.  Though younger adults are much more in favour than older adults for some reason.

Xavier le Pichon - who knows something about volcanos as he developed the theory of tectonic plates - has a different take: he thinks we need to welcome suffering as a sign of our humanity, and to see human fragility - like nature's - as something positive.

In the meantime, the rough beast that is the 'culture of death' keeps slouching forward.  It even has its own soundtrack:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Nuaspeak

Some people think all religions are the same; typically people who don't believe in any religion themselves.  I'm beginning to think the same about politics; all political parties are the same.  After all, politics is about securing power for the purpose of creating a better life for those who support you.  Communists think life will be better without rich people, and fascists think life will be better without communists.  But they - and liberals, socialists and conservatives in between - earnestly think that life will be better for others when they achieve power.  Sort-of-all-the-same: perhaps I'm having a crisis of (political) faith?

Which brings us to RENUA (they seem keen on the capitals by the way, judging by their website). Given that nowadays the Overton Window in Irish politics ranges all the way from slightly left-of-centre to extreme-left-of-centre then it's obvious that what Ireland needs right now is... another left-of-centre political party.  Not, of course, that you will have gathered that from the chorus of disapproval that greeted the launch of RENUA last week.  No, instead we're warned that RENUA is in the business of bashing the public sector and - you might want cover the children's eyes here - is nothing more than re-heated Progressive Democrats. The horror.

I don't read it that way. Their Vision & Core Beliefs could grace the manifesto of any mainstream Irish political party, with statements ranging from:

There is no greater moral and political issue than securing the future of children.
to:
We believe in creating the conditions that allow arts and culture to flourish.

One definition of a platitude is that stating its opposite sounds ridiculous rather than contrarian.  I hear a lot of platitudes.  Not so much Newspeak as Nuaspeak.

But in fairness I don't think that's the fault of RENUA.  Politics in Western democracies has become remarkably narrow and sterile.  The same set of left-of-centre beliefs are now orthodoxy in not just all the political parties but also in the media, academia and the wider commentariat. Witness the hysterical reaction to Nigel Farage in the UK. He refuses to comply with the new orthodoxy and they hate him for it. Partly it's the Krauthammer Effect (conservatives think liberals are stupid, but liberals think conservatives are evil), and partly it's because - for the left - politics is their religion and government is their god.  Death to the infidels and all that.  Come to think of it, maybe there's no difference between religion and politics, never mind between different religions and different parties?

Still, I can't help feeling that RENUA has missed a trick.  The whole idea of dissent in politics (and religion, for that matter) is to signal to other potential defectors (and Lucinda is, don't forget, a 'defector') that there are lots of people just like you who are unhappy with the status quo and who deserve to be in power rather than the incumbents. This requires a rallying cry which signals that those in power are insufficiently [fill in the blank here] and that if you gain power then you will resolve to undo/do better whatever [fill in the blank] is at stake.

Blogger Spandrell puts it, rather bluntly, thus:
More likely than not, some members of the ruling coalition are not very loyal. They’d rather defect. But they can’t backstab the coalition just like that. You don’t do that; it looks bad. Your comrades will go against you. There are costs to defection.
Unless you’re not the only defector. You need a way to signal your intention to defect, so that other disloyal fucks such as yourself (and they’re bound to be others) can join up, thus reducing the likely costs of defection. The way to signal your intention to defect is to come up with a good excuse. A good excuse to be disloyal becomes a rallying point through which other defectors can coordinate and cover their asses so that the ruling coalition doesn’t punish them.  
... At any rate, the whole point of the above is to signal your disaffection from the status quo. The precise content of your signal is irrelevant. It is completely dependent on the particular ideological ecology of your culture. But the underlying mechanism is the same. You want power, and you signal your intent in the optimal way to minimize the chances of official punishment, and make it easy for others to join your banner.
The problem is, I don't see what the big [fill in the blank] rallying cry is for RENUA. And 'transparency' won't do it - too easy for others to steal. No, they should either have gone far more left than any of the mainstream incumbents - though it's a pretty crowded pitch, as noted earlier - or a little more right (mindful of the Window): a very empty pitch.

In the end, it would take a Frank Underwood to lead yet another left-of-centre political party to power in a political landscape that's full of them. But Lucinda Creighton is no Frank Underwood, and I mean that as a compliment.

Image Cred

Friday, March 13, 2015

Ark of Hope

The old joke goes that left-wingers love humanity but hate people; whereas right-wingers hate humanity but love people.  Jean Vanier loves both, and is a deserving winner of this year's Templeton Prize.  Vanier is a Catholic philosopher and founder of the L’Arche communities for the mentally disabled. There are over 130 L'Arche (French for Ark) communities throughout the world - including here in Ireland.

Vanier reminds us that we are all vulnerable at some stage in our lives (especially at the beginning and at the end) - a reality of human existence that binds us all together as human beings.  And while that can be a frightening realisation, it can also be extraordinarily powerful in calling us to live loving, flourishing lives.

But enough of my ramblings - let the good, goodly, Godly man explain it himself:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Peak Children

A recent trip to Milan got me thinking about babies.  The lack of them, that is.  Italy's birth rate recently reached its lowest level since the foundation of the state in 1861, and the Italians are worried that their country is dying.  Even Pope Francis has quipped that Italians seem to prefer pets to children.  Though on the strength of a few days in Milan I'd say it's still 50/50.

All this demographic soul-searching in Italy was prompted by a 1% drop in the number of births year-on-year.  Meanwhile here in Ireland the CSO recently announced a 3% drop in the number of births in Ireland and there wasn't even a murmur. Okay, we still have one of the highest birth rates in Europe, but the number of births per 1,000 population is clearly trending down, as the chart shows.  This comes after a brief, Celtic Tiger era echo baby boom as the Pope's children became parents (that's John Paul II, just to avoid confusion).


Still, the baby issue is going to be big.  Or smaller, to be precise.  We've reached Peak Children apparently, which means there'll never be more children alive than there are today. Which I find kind of sad, but that's probably just me being sentimental.  Still, there are a few downsides to falling birth rates, including:

  • An end to Ponzi-style pay-as-you-go pension schemes that effectively require more workers entering the labour force than pensioners retiring (that's just about every welfare system in the Western world)
  • A flight from the family that means fewer people to care for - or care about - increasingly dependent elderly populations
  • The onset of secular stagnation as ageing populations save more and invest in non-productive assets such as houses

There are a few upsides, of course:

  • Just as the Black Death flipped the balance of power from surfeit capital to suddenly scarce labour, so fewer workers will ceteris paribus enjoy much higher wages, or so thinks Stratfor's George Friedman
  • While a shortage of people will accelerate the emergence of artificial intelligence and 'caring robots' - as is happening in Japan already
  • Pensioners eventually draw down their savings, so interest rates will go up as capital becomes scare, providing valuable interest income for pensioners after a long period of low rates

But while all these trends and projections make for interesting speculation, they are mostly exercises in extrapolation.  I think a more interesting exercise is to think about the cultural consequences of a world that has more elderly people than children.

One of the most interesting writers on the psycho-cultural aspects of demographic transitions is Sarah Perry.  Her magnificent essay on The History of Fertility Transitions and the New Memeplex was one of the smartest and most original blog posts I read last year. As she explains it, historically European culture prevented people from restricting family size within marriage.  But a new pattern, originating in New England and France in the late eighteenth century, allowed for the control of fertility within marriage and pretty soon (within a couple of centuries) became the norm. Hence Peak Children.  As she notes dryly:
Once the fertility transition to controlled fertility occurs in a population, its fertility generally continues to decline until it is below replacement. The benefits of the new pattern are increased material wealth per person, a reduction in disease, starvation, and genocide, and upward social mobility. The main drawback is the onset of a dysgenic phase that may end civilization as we know it.
The end of civilization definitely counts as a downside in my book, and she does make her case rather well.  It's a long post, but well worth pouring yourself a drink and enjoying the read.  Though it does point to a few, rather more serious downsides to Peak Children:

  • We are having fewer children because they are no long an asset (materially or otherwise) but a liability, and we now value children less than any other civilization in human history
  • The rich and intelligent have fewer children and aren't replacing themselves, risking the emergence of an 'Idiocracy' (but without any improvement in equality)
  • A rising share of childless adults in the population (and Ireland has one of the highest shares for women in Europe according to UCD's Tony Fahey) means a generation with less 'connection' to future generations and an increasingly 'high time preference' culture (it was, after all, low time preferences that gave us civilization in the first place...)
  • We may even be experiencing our own 'Mouse Utopia' as a species, with all that entails, including the Sexodus that will in turn accelerate the decline in births even further.
After all that I think it's time to take the dog for a walk...

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

After Paris

Below is the unedited text of my article in yesterday's Irish Independent:

Did the recent attacks in Paris change Irish views on immigration?  The ‘short answer’ is yes, at least for 30% of all Irish adults in a recent Amárach poll.  However, the ‘long answer’ requires us to step back and examine the experience of immigration in Ireland, and some of the differences between our experience and those of the UK.

First of all we need to distinguish between immigration from the rest of the EU, and immigration from outside the EU.  A ComRes poll towards the end of last year found that only 17% of Britons thought the current level of immigration from the rest of the EU was ‘good for Britain’, similarly only 16% thought immigration from outside the EU was good for Britain.  In marked contrast, the Amárach poll shows that the majority (53%) of Irish people think the current level of immigration from the rest of the EU is ‘good for Ireland’, falling to 32% for the current level of immigration from outside the EU (still twice the UK level).

Ireland and Britain were among the few countries to completely open their borders to workers from all EU countries upon the accession of ten central and East European countries back in May 2004. Ten years on, what has been the impact?  In the same ComRes survey, only 1 in 4 Britons felt the contribution of immigrants in the previous ten years had been positive for the British economy, 40% felt it was negative.  Here in Ireland, over a third (35%) sees a positive contribution from immigrants looking back ten years, only 30% view it as negative.

Of course, the contribution of immigrants has not simply been economic.  When asked about the impact of immigration on culture, we again find a marked contrast between Irish and British experiences.  Just 21% of Britons feel immigration has been positive for British culture and 49% feel it has been negative (the balance are neutral).  In Ireland, 32% feel the contribution to Irish culture has been positive, and only 25% feel it has been negative (half the UK level).

Curiously, Irish men tend to have a more positive view of the economic benefits of immigration than Irish women, but a more negative view than women of the cultural benefits.  There is also a significant generation gap in Ireland when it comes to immigration and its perceived impact.  Essentially those under 35 are significantly more positive about the experience, while those over 35 (and especially over 55) are much more negative.

So if we tend to be more positive than our neighbours about the impact of past immigration, what about the present and the future?  The Amárach poll, conducted just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack, has found a more negative turn in sentiment in Ireland.  On the issue of immigration to Ireland from outside the EU, the vast majority of Irish people (71%) want stricter controls, 20% want them to remain as they are, and only 8% want looser controls.  And while there are still big differences between age groups, even among 16-24 year olds the majority (53%) want stricter controls.

Which brings us to the recent attacks in Paris: the majority of Irish people (54%) have not changed their opinion about immigration because of the attacks.  However, a sizeable minority – 30% – have changed their opinion, and the rest are not sure.  Women are more likely to have changed than men (32% vs 27%), while those in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to have changed than those in higher groups.

What has changed?  Among the 30%, the biggest change has been concern that immigration controls are not strict enough, followed by a decline in trust in some immigrant groups – Muslims in particular.  Others are fearful of future attacks, perhaps even in Ireland, and worried about Islamist terrorists – such as those who instigated the attack in Paris – entering the country.  

The attack on Charlie Hebdo also raised important questions about blasphemy.  Nearly half (46%) of all Irish adults think that the laws against blasphemy in Ireland should be removed, 24% think they should not be removed, and the rest don’t know.  Men are more likely than women to favour removal (50% vs 42%), though there are few age differences on this one.

But removing laws on blasphemy (ignoring the merits and demerits of such a move for now) may not be enough to mitigate some of the pressures that now emerging.  Just weeks after the Paris attacks, only a third of Irish people are optimistic about future relations between different religions and faith communities in Ireland, while 30% are pessimistic.  Optimism is highest among 16-24 year olds, which is probably just as well as they are the ones who will have to navigate the complex future of change and uncertainty that lies ahead.

BY THE NUMBERS:

% who think current level of immigration from inside the EU is good:
Ireland = 53%
UK = 17%

% who think current level of immigration from outside the EU is good:
Ireland = 32%
UK = 16%

% who think immigration over past ten years has been positive for the economy:
Ireland = 35%
UK = 26%

% who think immigration over past ten years has been positive for national culture:
Ireland = 32%
UK = 21%

% agree controls on immigration to Ireland from outside the EU:
Should be stricter = 72%
Should be looser = 8%
Should be remain as they are = 20%

If opinion about immigration has changed since attacks in Paris:
Yes = 30%
No = 54%
Not sure = 16%

Should laws against blasphemy in Ireland be removed:
Yes = 46%
No = 24%
Don’t know = 30%

Optimistic or pessimistic about future relations in Ireland between different religions and faith communities:
Optimistic = 33%
Pessimistic = 30%
Neither/nor = 37%

Sources:
Amárach online poll of 1,000 Irish adults, January 2015
ComRes online poll of 2,019 British adults, November 2014

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Russians Are Coming

One of the advantages of growing older is that sometimes you've heard it all before, leaving you unfazed by the latest 'alarums and excursions'.  One of the disadvantages of growing older is that you've heard it all before...

The recent alarum about Russian military aircraft entering Irish airspace has all the hallmarks of a good old-fashioned, reds-under-the-bed panic.  Yes, I've heard it all before because there seems to be a perennial need to paint Russia and Russians as 'The Other', to be feared, suspected and contained.  Albeit with a brief lull after the fall of the Soviet Union.

We even see it in reports on the conflict in Ukraine (the separatists are always 'Russian-backed' while the Ukrainian military are apparently operating all on their own). Even the BBC is resurrecting The Russians Are Coming commentaries on the deceptive and manipulative practices of the Russian military (or Maskirovka as it's known).  I don't doubt the Russian's are practicing maskirovka in Eastern Ukraine, and I don't doubt NATO are too.

Another advantage of growing older is the ability to step back and see the bigger picture (or to at least try and see it).  Understanding history can help, so can psychology.  Take the peculiarities of the Russian National Character, delineated by Dmitry Orlov:
Russia has a long history of being invaded from every direction, but especially from the west, and Russian culture has evolved a certain mindset which is difficult for outsiders to comprehend. First of all, it is important to realize that when Russians fight off an invasion (and having the CIA and the US State Department run Ukraine with the help of Ukrainian Nazis qualifies as an invasion) they are not fighting for territory, at least not directly. Rather, they are fighting for Russia as a concept. And the concept states that Russia has been invaded numerous times, but never successfully. In the Russian mindset, invading Russia successfully involves killing just about every Russian, and, as they are fond of saying, “They can't kill us all.” (“Нас всех не убьёшь.”) Population can be restored over time (it was down 22 million at the end of World War II) but the concept, once lost, would be lost forever. It may sound nonsensical to a westerner to hear Russians call their country “a country of princes, poets and saints,” but that's what it is—it is a state of mind. Russia doesn't have a history—it is its history.
Rather than demonise Russia the West needs to work with it on the task of building a more stable world order - taking Putin's offer in his speech at Valdai seriously - rather than escalating matters further.  Moreover, Russia's improving demographics will make it more important to the West rather than less important.

Perhaps there is a role for neutral Ireland in turning the European Union away from a path that seems set on conflict (one that will involve us in more than just airspace infringements).  Given some of the similarities between the Irish and Russian national characters we might even be ideal for the job.

Such a role will recognise the alignment of long term interests between Europe and Russia and will call on both Russians and Europeans to live up to the high ideals they both espouse but increasingly ignore.




Sunday, January 18, 2015

Minority Values

"Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion." Søren Kierkegaard
Did the recent atrocities in Paris smash the Overton Window, or simply rattle the frame?  The Overton Window - as noted before - describes the prevailing range of political ideas that are acceptable to an electorate at any given point in time. Before the atrocities in Paris, the Overton Window was quite narrow in relation to immigration and relations with Muslims in Europe.  I suspect it has gotten wider after Charlie Hebdo; only time will tell.

Much of the analysis since has focused on freedom of speech.  It's an important issue - even if the previously narrow Overton Window would have seen Charlie Hebdo banned in the UK - but I don't think it's the main issue.  The real issue is one of values: freedom of speech is merely a derivative of higher order values. Moreover, it is about a clash of values: Islamic, Secular and Christian.  George Friedman spells out a grim dilemma facing Europe:
Something must be done. I don't know what needs to be done, but I suspect I know what is coming. First, if it is true that Islam is merely responding to crimes against it, those crimes are not new and certainly didn't originate in the creation of Israel, the invasion of Iraq or recent events. This has been going on far longer than that. ...Nor is secularism about to sweep the Islamic world. The Arab Spring was a Western fantasy that the collapse of communism in 1989 was repeating itself in the Islamic world with the same results. There are certainly Muslim liberals and secularists. However, they do not control events — no single group does — and it is the events, not the theory, that shape our lives.
Europe's sense of nation is rooted in shared history, language, ethnicity and yes, in Christianity or its heir, secularism. Europe has no concept of the nation except for these things, and Muslims share in none of them. It is difficult to imagine another outcome save for another round of ghettoization and deportation. This is repulsive to the European sensibility now, but certainly not alien to European history. Unable to distinguish radical Muslims from other Muslims, Europe will increasingly and unintentionally move in this direction.
If indeed events shape our lives, what else might happen to shift the window in Europe's debate about Islam and immigration?  The biggest one that I can see is the collapse of Saudi Arabia. After all, it is Saudi Arabia's funding for and export of Wahhabism that has done much to exacerbate Islam's problem with Islamist violence.  But if Nassim Taleb is right, Saudi Arabia ticks all the boxes when it comes to a country on the edge of fragility: including a centralised governing system, undiversified economy, excessive debt and leverage, a lack of political variability, and no history of surviving past shocks. It goes without saying, of course, that the collapse of Saudi Arabia wouldn't just cause problems for Islamist extremists...  

But beyond the geo-politics, we need to bring the debate back to one about values in order to chart a way forward for a European politics of engagement, not appeasement.  And here I think is the biggest problem for Europe.  We can spend more on security, spy on ever more suspects and police our borders more effectively,  but the fundamental question will remain unanswered: what are the values of Europe's majority and why are they superior to those of an extremist minority?

If Kierkegaard is right - that truth always rests with the minority because the majority have no opinion - then there may not be an answer because the majority no longer have any shared values of their own.  To Friedman's point, Europe's cultural DNA is built around quite distinctive values: a fusion of Greek, Roman and Christian insights into what makes a flourishing society and economy.  As Deirdre McCloskey explains it, Europe's Great Enrichment was thanks to the 'seven virtues' of Prudence, Temperance, Courage, Justice, Faith, Hope & Love - the first four from the ancient world, the last three from Christianity.

But we have lost our philosophical, ethical and moral connection with these core virtues - and unless we recover them then a flourishing society and future for the West will keep receding over the horizon. Or, as Kierkegaard warned, the majority will 'in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.'

Islam is not the only minority faith in Europe - so also is Christianity throughout much of the continent (ignoring 'cultural Christians'). So there are several 'minorities' contesting for Europe's future. Charles Taylor sees the future as a three-way contest between secular humanists (the dominant orthodoxy in Europe for now), neo-Nietzschean antihumanists (they haven't gone away you know), and acknowledgers of transcendence (mainly Christians but also Muslims).  As Taylor sees it, any pair can gang up on the other, so expect to see increasingly strange coalitions as the Overton Window both widens and shifts in the months and years ahead.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Overton Obstacles

The remarkably negative reaction to Lucinda Creighton's new political initiative suggests that the Irish welcome change, so long as nothing changes.  What caused such a negative reaction?  It was hardly the four platforms, carefully designed to offend no one.   Though perhaps that's the problem.  Sure, Reboot Ireland's use of 'PC language' is a bit dated (God knows most Microsoft Windows users understand 'reboot', but the average smartphone user?).

But that isn't it either.  I think it has to do with narrow, leftward drifting nature of the 'Overton Window' in Irish politics.  The Overton Window, named after Joseph Overton,  describes the prevailing range of political ideas that are acceptable to the electorate at any given point in time.  Some ideas are 'in the window' and therefore are acceptable as part of any party's platform, while other ideas are beyond the Pale.  The window looks like this:

The task of those advocating policies for change is to 'move' the Overton Window up from Unthinkable and Radical to Acceptable then Sensible and ultimately into Policy.  The concept applies both to social and cultural issues (abortion, gay marriage) and to economic issues (minimum wages, water charges).

Of course, political activists will want to move the Overton Window to make their ideas sensible and popular in the hearts and minds of the electorate.  But the political mainstream is formed around what is already popular (and policy) and so those with radical or unthinkable policy ideas have a job to do.

The problem is, the gravitational pull of the Overton Window makes it hard for new political parties to distinguish themselves from existing parties if they start advocating policies that are already mainstream.  This fate appears to be befalling Ukip, who - according to Nick Wood - are now sounding just like the rest of the LibLabCon PC-consensus (and that's not the Windows version).

So how do you 'move the Window'?  The classical, Gramscian technique is to propose radical but outlandish ideas far to the Left of the mainstream/Overton Window consensus (that their advocates know won't be acceptable, for now), which in turn makes far more reasonable, 'compromise' policies just a little to the Left of the window seem quite reasonable by comparison - then repeat the process:


It sometimes works in reverse (e.g.: Thatcherism in the UK, which threatened to dismantle the Welfare State but ended up dismembering the unions instead).  Nevertheless, most of the time the Overton Window moves Left rather than Right (clearly in the case of social policies and increasingly in the case of economics policies - ask a deposit holder in Cyprus if you don't believe me).

The problem for Reboot Ireland is that it is starting firmly within the Overton Window (even Lucinda's admission that she favours gay marriage places her firmly in the 'Acceptable/Sensible' consensus camp).   Hence some of the negativity - there isn't a big demand for 'more of the same' right now.

So without a Ukip style pitch for the 'Popular Liberalism' vote (already captured by Independents it seems), it would appear Reboot Ireland will go nowhere. Other than gradually drifting to the Left with the rest of the mainstream consensus as the Overton Window eventually moves.  Not that they'll be around long enough to 'make the drift', given where they are starting from...

Maybe what Ireland really needs is its own Russell Brand.  Someone who can appeal to that fast growing constituency - the politically ignorant - who can be easily persuaded by the next celebrity with a soundbite.  The Overton Window has become the Overton Tweet.




Thursday, December 18, 2014

Retail Liturgy

Retail therapy has become retail liturgy: an exercise in public worship shared and practiced by believers in the transformative power of shopping. Dundrum Shopping Centre is the Pro-Cathedral of retail liturgy, and the Blanchardstown Centre is Christ Church Cathedral (though I might have my denominational allusions confused).

The idea that shopping has become a form of collective worship is one developed by James K A Smith.  His Theos talk - The Secular is Haunted - introduces Jamie's thoughts on Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's ideas about secularism, including our need for liturgy - sacred or secular.  I'm also reading Jamie's introduction to Taylor - How (Not) to Be Secular - and it is a delightful read.  Anyone who can weave Radiohead, David Foster Wallace and Augustine into a narrative knows how to engage his reader.

Christmas, of course, has a special liturgy all of its own.  Indeed, just as many feel compelled to go to church at Christmas time but not other times of the year, many (albeit mostly men) feel compelled to go shopping at Christmas time but not other times of the year.  Funny enough, you get carol singers participating in both liturgies...

Maybe it's me, but this Christmas seems a bit more 'manic' than previous Christmases, though that might simply be the end of the recession (for some) and people enjoying a bit of a 'blow out' after all the lean years.  Or it might be that the continued substitution of the secular for the sacred in our post-Christian society makes us even hungrier for shared experiences of belonging and transcendence - even if it is in a shopping centre.

But don't get me wrong - I'm glad for the retailers that they are having a 'good' Christmas after all they (and we) have been through.  Still, we should beware the dangers of our new secular liturgies.  As Arthur C. Brooks suggests, we should celebrate abundance but avoid attachment.

Easier said than done, of course.  I personally don't see the need for a new range of Louise Vuitton handbags, but a new iPhone 7 would undoubtedly be an historic step forward for all mankind. Though womankind might beg to differ...








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