Wednesday 17 June 2015

There are no parallels between ISIS and the SNP. Except one.

Some time ago, I wrote an essay in Duncan Brack's book Reinventing the State. I'm not sure it was quite what the editors expected or intended. It was the only essay in the book which was as much about theology as it was about politics.  I called it 'Liberalism and the search for meaning'.

I thought about it today, given that practically every morning there are other stories about teenagers, families and now nine children, who have given the authorities the slip to go and fight for ISIS and build what they claim is an Islamic state.

I took a little swipe in the essay at Richard Dawkins, then riding high, because of his disapproval of symbolism and myth (he has since rather clarified his position on fairy tales, so this might be unfair). This is what I said:

This knockabout stuff is actually rather puritanical, and therefore dangerous. When people are encouraged to believe that the only things worth saying are scientific – deriding any truth but the literal – they don’t just deride symbolic, philosophical, moral or historical discussions. They don’t just limit how we can talk about life. Nor do they just bang the drum for atheism, as they believe they intend. They encourage a creeping fundamentalism in all areas. They are lining up behind those who peddle a similar kind of narrow, intolerant religious truth.

I still believe the basic issue: that scientific fundamentalism, like economic fundamentalism, encourages religious fundamentalism.  All exclude the human element.

But I realise that market fundamentalism, and the kind of arid postmodernism that sometimes looks a little like liberalism (but isn't), encourages religious fundamentalism in other ways too.

If all we can aspire to in life is to spend more money - if every other shibboleth and religious hope has been swept away - you can  see why people yearn for some other meaning.

This isn't enough of an explanation of the lure of a death cult like ISIS, but it is a clue.  So is the sheer romance of nation-building.

The apotheosis of the SNP hasn't got much in common with ISIS (except beheading of course - I refer, in case of objections, to the peculiar movie Highlander, where beheadings were pretty copious).  But there is this: nation-building is a hugely romantic, thrilling and worthwhile business, filled with meaning and purpose.

You can see why people might reject the assurances offered by establishment figures, who warn us that our comfort blankets may shrink a little if we try to build a nation from scratch.  Think of the risk to our investments, good lord.

The implication of this, if there is one, is that people need meaning. They are starved of it by most politics and virtually all economics, at least as presently constituted. The vacuous kinds of liberalism on offer around the world (and there are many of these) offer a kind of rootless, vacuum of identity consumption (at best) and, at worst, a corrosive emptiness and soullessness

The other implication is that we can, perhaps, borrow a little more of that nation-building into our politics here - a sense that we can make a difference, build things, make things happen, before health and safety regulations kick in.

This is what I wrote in the essay:

The language of Us and Them, which is used so often by progressive politicians about the religious world, is tantamount to backing ourselves into a corner of secular unbelief. It threatens to hand the fundamentalists a monopoly of spiritual values. Liberals should reserve the right to be a spiritual force themselves and to start recognising and addressing the need for meaning among their potential supporters in the electorate, and to distinguish, not so much between religious and secular values, but between good and bad religion...

Maybe I wouldn't put this quite like that now, but I think I was right. It is time politicians began to look again at the search for meaning - and start trusting people to build nations again...

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Anonymous said...

If your point was, "There is a parallel between ISIS and the Lib Dems". I'd say it was a strange but brave piece about the commonality of human nature.

As it is, it's really just a David Starkey style hate piece: using a superficial comparison to wax eloquently on how the SNP are kinda like Nazis, terrorists, fundamentalists, etc.

Would you say that the Irish have a connection with serial killers because of the movie The Leprechaun? What on earth made you think a non-political Hollywood movie provided a basis to associate the SNP with brutal executions?

David Boyle said...

You seem to have misunderstood. The parallel was nation-building, and my point was that nation-building is a compelling idea.