Friday 10 September 2021

Strange And Disturbing Times 2.0

Strange And Disturbing: If we are not living through revolutionary times, then what sort of times are we living through? Is there another great historical era that bears comparison with our present period of intellectual and moral ferment? While finding an exact historic parallel is, obviously, an impossibility – no two periods of history are exactly alike – there is an era that rings more than a few bells: The Protestant Reformation.

I’VE BEEN RACKING my brains for an historical parallel to the strange and disturbing times we’re all passing through. Because these are strange and disturbing times. Beliefs and expectations once considered rock solid melt into air (to borrow Karl Marx’s magnificent phrase) and new beliefs and expectations, emerging with dizzying speed to replace the old ones, are promoted and defended with a frightening fanaticism. When was the last time human-beings went through such a period? More importantly, how did it end?

The first place to go looking for an historical parallel is, obviously, among the great revolutions of the modern era: the French, the Russian and the Chinese. Almost by definition, these were periods of tremendous turmoil during which a significant portion of the entire population was swept up and into a vast national movement demanding decisive and fundamental change.

In the first instance, these revolutionary movements were dedicated to the removal of present evils, and to the overthrow of the political and economic forces deemed responsible. Once achieved, however, the question of what should replace the old order swiftly undermined the people’s unanimity and, in circumstances of mounting horror, the Revolution began to devour its own children.

Tempting though it was to append the word “revolutionary” to the period we are living through, I felt obliged to reject it. After all, New Zealand is not being rocked by tremendous turmoil from below. Those on the receiving end of the policies responsible for homelessness, child poverty, precarious employment and crippling indebtedness are not rioting in the streets. Nor do we see political firebrands urging them on to storm New Zealand’s equivalent of the Bastille. (The local WINZ office, perhaps?) Though revolutions are, more often than not, led by “declassed” intellectuals, they are always and everywhere massive eruptions from the social depths. Intellectuals may lead revolutions (and, more often than not, bury them) but they are made by “the people”.

If we are not living through revolutionary times, then what sort of times are we living through? Is there another great historical era that bears comparison with our present period of intellectual and moral ferment? While finding an exact historic parallel is, obviously, an impossibility – no two periods of history are exactly alike – there is an era that rings more than a few bells: The Protestant Reformation.

Generally agreed to extend from 1517, the year in which Martin Luther protested (hence the term “Protestant”) the abuses of the Catholic Church; to 1648, the year in which the Treaty of Westphalia brought the catastrophic Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants to an end; the Reformation marked a crucial turning-point in the spiritual, political, social and economic history of Europe.

The medieval concept of “Christendom” – the united community of Christian believers presided over and guided by the Catholic Church – did not survive the Reformation. In the countries of North-Western Europe, where it triumphed, Protestantism ushered in the individualistic mindset which was to prove so crucial to the development of capitalism and the evolution of modernity.

What the intellectual stresses and strains of our own time have in common with the Reformation period is that they both originated in what might be called crises of confidence in the moral underpinnings of the established order. Intellectuals, almost all of whom would today be called “academics” (but who, in their own time, were concentrated in the institutions of the Church) were losing faith in the “official” version of the Christianity handed down from above, and began conceptualising a radically new, deeply personal, relationship with God, founded on scripture and unmediated by the spiritual agents of the Church.

It was Martin Luther, and the followers he inspired, who gave this radical movement coherent vernacular expression and, by using the “new technology” of the printing press, were able to communicate the new protestant doctrine to educated middle-class audiences across Europe with unprecedented speed.

If this was a revolution, then like the radical intellectual movements of our own time, it was a revolution of the mind. Incidental to the protestant reformulation of the spiritual, moral and political Christian narratives, were deeply personal religious insights and emotions. Experiences that were in no way subject to secular compromise. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, individuals conceptualised these powerful feelings as emanations of their “soul” – the survival of which overrode all other considerations. To save their souls, protestants were prepared to both endure – and inflict – persecution and martyrdom.

Today, these powerful emotional experiences and insights are said to constitute the individual’s “personal identity” – a concept which, like the soul, our twenty-first century metaphysical reformers will go to extreme lengths to preserve, protect and defend.

Moreover, and just like their protestant predecessors, these identarians are socially and institutionally positioned to ensure that their new “truths” are entrenched in the legal and institutional frameworks of the nation state. Racial and sexual identity issues encompass both the personal and the political. The salvation of the self and the salvation of society cannot be separated. Heresy and heretics are deemed intolerable. They must be silenced.

Unquestionably, the differences between the identarians of today and the protestants of 500 years ago vastly outnumber the similarities. Nevertheless, like our own time, it was a period of extraordinary intellectual stress and strain. At stake were ideas and expectations about which people were simply unwilling to compromise. How could they, when at stake was the very essence of what they believed themselves to be, and the creation of a world in which that essence could survive and thrive?

How did it end? Badly, I’m afraid. The wars that were sparked by the Protestant Reformation, and the inevitable “Counter-Reformation” of the Catholic Church, killed millions. The German territories, which supplied the principal battlegrounds for this vicious religious conflict, are estimated to have lost a third of their inhabitants. Ultimately, Protestants and Catholics agreed to differ. Strange and disturbing times seldom end any other way.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 10 September 2021.


Kat said...

I would add into the mix humans moving from being predominantly hunters and gatherers to agriculture. Perhaps we are also moving back to the future with developing sectarianism evident throughout the world. The opposing force is diversity and inclusion and equal opportunity. Oh for a crystal ball and a French astrologer.

Rick said...

"The local WINZ office, perhaps?"

A bit. But mostly Countdown.

"these identarians are socially and institutionally positioned to ensure that their new “truths” are entrenched in the legal and institutional frameworks of the nation state."

I believe 'Change That Sticks' was the victory speech for Labour 6.0 after the most recent election, yes.


Pierre said...

No it is not a revolution but the imposition of bio-medial fascism.

How can they be so confident?

Because the vaccines give you immunity. But that immunity runs out in people who have received at least one jab, much like it does in AIDS patients, who then die. The Covid-19 mRNA vaccines make their recipients immune-dependent on the State. If you received the vaccine, your life is literally now dependant on having booster shots.

Anonymous said...

Goodness, Chris - you obviously grew up and were educated at a time when high school history covered the European Middle Ages then on to English history and Henry VIII. Of course todays students will never be taught any of this because the new history curriculum seems to dwell about nothing else other than Aotearoa.....

Anonymous said...

A great parallel. The religous nature of identitarianism is stark. The 'identity' (especially the gendered identity) is a separate entity from the body, just like the soul. Of course, now, saving your soul (viz gender identity) involves changing you body if it doesn't match your gender identity. This is an irreversible medical process (doomed to failure due to our biology). It also makes lots of money for those supplying the drugs involved and the surgical procedures. Protestants and Catholics carried out their own versions of body changing (and cleansing) with witch hunts (= witch burning) and the Inquisition.

oneblokesview said...

I suggest you look at the ideological revolution that was Cambodias Khmer Rouge.

Perhaps that is a closer analogy to the Covid Crisis, where ideology trumps reason and logic.

One does not have to limit the world view to a handful of historical bad actors to see bad times.
Personally I think this is a dilemma exacerbated by the media classes and the elite.

Especially with the new information czars at Facebook, google, twitter et al deciding arbitrarily what is right or wrong.

CXH said...

“personal identity” – a concept which, like the soul, our twenty-first century metaphysical reformers will go to extreme lengths to preserve, protect and defend.

I agree with some of this but you are surely wrong with the quote above. There is no protection of the personal identity, you must accept the group personality or face the mob. Individualism is no longer to be tolerated, it has become one thought for all, a communal soul that will brook no disent.

Odysseus said...

Yes we are living in Revolutionary times. While there are many strands to this Revolution including new dogmas around racial and gender identity, the fulcrum is the existential crisis driven by climate catastrophists. It is no accident therefore that Ardern described climate change as her "nuclear free moment" and that she was eager to declare a "climate emergency"" citing the disasters that would befall us if we failed to act according to the experts' prescription. It is her hinge policy. For climate catastrophists "pre-industrial" times are the Garden of Eden when everything existed in a stable equilibrium. But industrialization, driven mainly by capitalism, disrupted the balance of Nature through the generation of excessive carbon dioxide gas. Little matter that industrialization has lifted millions out of poverty and continues to do so. I will not debate the science here because that would take too long and I would in any case promptly be rejected as a denialist which is the modern word for heretic. But I will offer the view that climate catastrophism is a nihilistic and deeply anti-human belief system that may well lead to considerable upheaval, poverty and suffering before its energies are spent and its dogmas are exposed for the fraud they are.

Brendan McNeill said...

Good analysis Chris

There are similarities between the Woke ‘soft’ totalitarian revolution that is happening today and the Protestant reformation. Both are essentially religious, both are characterised by moral and intellectual certainty, both are intolerant of heretics.

There are differences of course, perhaps the most profound being the reformation being more of a ‘bottom up’ transformation, although there were leaders, essentially it was ordenary people who for the first time had opportunity to read the Scriptures in their own language who rebelled against the corrupt ruling religious elites.

The Woke revolution however is led by the secular elites who, having long abandoned Christianity, have now discovered a just and righteous cause in anti-racism, gender theory, equity and all things LGBT+.

Woke religion is effectively a Christian heresy, based upon a perverted understanding of what it means to be human and a rejection of our historical understanding of truth and justice. Ironically, it could only have arisen in a culture still retaining an echo of the Judeo/Christian story. The idea of universal human dignity where each individual is deserving of justice and respect is a uniquely Christian construct. This is not found in Islam or other eastern religions. I don’t recall it being much evident under the Soviets and it is foreign to the PRC.

Unsurprisingly Wokeism it is hell bent on consuming its host, and establishing itself as the preeminent ideology of our time. I agree, it is unlikely to end well, but then I have been something of a cultural pessimist for a while.

Jens Meder said...

If the atom bomb succeeds in disciplining our current "Catholics and Protestants" to agree on disagreement and allow each other to carry on in their own ways, -

then I think ultimately the party which achieves 100% of direct citizen participation in individual wealth ownership creation and management will prevail over only partial or totally absent citizen participation in capitalism, as e.e under slavery.

greywarbler said...

If Martin Luther (who nailed his '95 Theses' to a church door in 1517) ushered in more personal dealing with God, was the Holocaust the end of that, an acceptance of mass edict again?

Have the Anabaptists anything to tell us?
...After the German Peasants' War (1524–1525), a forceful attempt to establish theocracy was made at Münster, in Westphalia (1532–1535).

Here the group had gained considerable influence, through the adhesion of Bernhard Rothmann, the Lutheran pastor, and several prominent citizens; and the leaders, Jan Matthys (also spelled Matthijs, Mathijsz, Matthyssen, Mathyszoon), a baker from Haarlem, and Jan Bockelson (or Beukelszoon), a tailor from Leiden. Bernhard Rothmann was a tireless and vitriolic opponent of Catholicism and a writer of pamphlets that were published by his ally and wealthy wool merchant Bernhard Knipperdolling. The pamphlets at first denounced Catholicism from a radical Lutheran perspective, but soon started to proclaim that the Bible called for the absolute equality of man in all matters including the distribution of wealth.


Kimbo said...

Interestingly historian Niall Ferguson argues that the 130 odd years of upheaval from the pamphleteering of the era of the Reformation to the Peace of Westphalia is the best analogy for the current free movement of (for want of a better phrase) "information" challenging the established status quo of the ruling priesthood.

sumsuch said...

The 30s times the pretty much extinction of the species is good enough for me as per parallels.

But it is the greatest fun seeing us think our present comfort matters half a shit. Every one from the the least to the 'greatest'. I howl.

Kit Slater said...

The old is dying and the new cannot be born and in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. What rough beast...

Nick J said...

Our current zeitgeist seems to me a repetition of Puritan events. The common theme is a prohibition by the pure on long established norms, newly transformed into vices.

Civil war England resulted in military control of England by the New Model Army, largely manned and commanded by Puritans. You can see parallels to the Taliban in their imposition of a dogma based morality. Dancing and drinking banned, churches cleared of painting and ornaments, no festivals.

"Dull dull dull" said the people, "bring back the King so we can go to the Pub. And send those bloody Puritans off to join their mates in America."

That is todays wokesters, clearing up their prohibitions upon just being ourselves will be a delight.

Guillaume said...

Earlier this week I had a telephone call from the Fortune Company who wanted to talk to me about astrology! I could hardly believe my ears, but I guess if there's money to be made out of it…

David George said...

I don't think it's a revolution or a reformation, there's something more, something existential about what's going on.

"What, then, is the real significance of the orgy of cultural self-immolation sweeping through the nations of the West? Is it the clearing of the ground for a new way of seeing, a new ideology, a new culture? Maybe. But there is another possibility: that the culture war marks not the birth of a new value system but a last desperate gasp of the old one. It could be that the incoherent semi-ideology of ‘social justice’ will turn out not to be a successor culture at all, but the instrument of our final dismemberment: the flickering of the last thin flames of the Faustian fire."

David George said...

It's the 20th anniversary of the September 11th raids and I'm still trying to make sense of it all, the suicide of the terrorists on the one hand and the civilisational suicide of the West on the other.
Twenty Years On. Excerpt:

"This loss of cultural self-belief had many causes. Secularism had eroded the biblical foundations of the west. The carnage of World War I destroyed the belief in dying for your country.

Most devastatingly of all, the Holocaust passed a shattering judgment against modernity. So in the repudiation of its foundational beliefs, the west arrived at precisely the same point as the Islamic jihadists.

Of course, westerners never saw any similarity between themselves and Islamists locked into the seventh century and whom it dismissed as incomprehensible, crazy and worthless.

But in a mirror image, the west was busily severing the connection with its own historic values. This was compounded by an arrogant assumption that western attitudes were universal.

The west therefore tried to impose its utopian, post-modern belief in negotiation and compromise upon a Middle East and Islamic world that saw conflict solely in terms of victory and defeat, strength and weakness.

And so the west has continued to repeat its fiascos by indulging in the same fantasies that it will end the “forever wars” — whether through the Israel-Palestine “peace process,” the Iran nuclear deal or abandoning Afghanistan, where both British and American governments are now spinning themselves the fantasy that Taliban “realists” will keep the Taliban jihadists in check.

And military strength matters less than belief. The 9/11 attackers didn’t use sophisticated military hardware. They hijacked civilian aircraft and turned them into flying human bombs of enormous destructive potential.

What fuels the jihad is the power of an idea. That idea is the cult of death.

To overcome a cult of death, the west needs a belief in life. Its own life. That is the way to draw the necessary courage and resolve from this most sombre anniversary; but alas, it seems the most difficult of lessons to learn."

greywarbler said...

Can you explain the painting? Are they all blind - they seem to be holding long poles keeping two men together or are grasping each other's shoulders?

PaulVD said...

I think that this idea has legs, Chris. Obviously the parallels are not exact, but various people have remarked on the quasi-religious nature of the woke belief system (and of other contemporary Western belief systems, such as the Trump heresy).

A few off-the-cuff thoughts:

First, this is essentially a Western phenomenon. There is no apparent equivalent in Iran or China, where the heretical ideas are mainstream Western liberal ideas developed over the last several centuries.

Second, the Protestant Reformation is ongoing. Once it was accepted that there could be more than one branch of Christianity, there was nothing to prevent an indefinite number of new ones. The fragmentation has been the most extreme in the US, but it happens everywhere. There are several Maori branches, and even today Brian Tamaki can call himself a bishop and set up a new branch, and people will join him.

Third, the violence of the Protestant Reformation was justified by the need to preserve the true faith (that is, all of them) against enemies, but it was energised by the concurrent power struggles. Luther would not have survived more than a few months without the protection of local rulers trying to maintain some independence against both Rome and Vienna. And a succession of wars between major kingdoms (England-Spain most obviously) were given religious justification, even though the real motives were largely about control of resources. It is a worrying thought that the energy behind the woke movement is about power: some issues are trivialities like who has the power to define place names (not Maori, but Maori elites) and whose statues are acceptable, but more seriously as the basis for claims to real control of our society and its resources. Regardless of the merits of these claims, it is not obvious that they can end well.

Kirk said...

What is happening is going to lead to unimaginable evil, Chris. If you don't work harder to get a grip on things all your past warnings about authoritarianism may as well have come from Ken Ring for how hollow they will sound.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. But I see the identarian elite as more Catholic. Rather than the Lutheran assertion of a direct line to epistemic authority, the identity elite shroud knowledge as truth revealed on the basis of ascriptive identity or induction into a cadre of knowledge-makers. Look at the way the education system nowprescribes acceptable opinions and attitudes. And the courts and independent agencies stuffed with lawyers are given/allowedto take more decision-making authority away from parliament.

Matthew Wagner said...

Honestly none of you have any idea. It's about the OGP.

Kimbo said...

@ greywarbler

Yes, they are all blind. Is inspired by Christ’s command to forsake mistaken spiritual leaders and teachers:

“Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind they will both fall into a ditch”. (Matthew 15:14).

Ancient Dan said...

Well said

Simon Cohen said...

Kat what time frame are you talking about when you say humans moving from predominantly hunter gatherers to agriculture. Certainly not in the last 2000 years. So I am really struggling once again to understand what you are meaning.

Mike Grimshaw said...

It's worth having a look at Irving Kristol's "Two Cheers for Capitalism" wherein
Kristol not only attacks the limitations of Friedman et al, but also identifies the reduction of meaning in capitalist society (capitalism has no transcendence he says); and this meaning is exactly what progressive neoliberalism seems to offer via identity politics
There's also some interesting work coming out of Foucault's turn to the agency and 'meaning' offered by neo-liberalism...which is why neo-leftists are not immune to neo-liberalism either

So, to consider your historical analogy, what we have is not Luther’s reformation but rather Calvin’s theocratic Geneva; identitarian politics is a secular theocracy of the progressive neoliberal.

greywarbler said...

Thanks Kimbo 7.51
That reminds me of Radionz Media Watch this morning talking about Peter Williams retiring as talk host - a leader in obfuscation and suspicion. His followers got no clarity of understanding it appears - follow to the ditch!

David George said...

Yes Chris, "strange and disturbing" scarcely begins to describe it.
Take this gender identity bill being considered. A women, far from being a definable being, a fundamental and axiomatic aspect of humanity is to be diminished to the status of an idea. Less than an idea perhaps, a vague feeling, an undefinable emotion, a pretense, a delusion that requires us all to pander to the vanishingly small cohort of the self diagnosed gender dysphoric.

It gets worse; laws are being developed to criminalise the questioning of this insanity.

BTW. there are still a couple of days left to make a submission on the bill. The Speak up for Women organisation have links and suggestions to help.

Note: When you've finished selecting and editing using the website, copy your text, then click through Parliament's website. They haven't made it easy as their website doesn't accept 'right click paste' but you can paste by holding down the 'Control' key together with the letter 'V' key. Alternatively, you can paste your text into a word document and upload that directly.

The Barron said...

Interesting as always. I will raise a few counter points, however.

Martin Luther was an extreme anti-Semite. The time of the reformation is juxtaposed with the Spanish reconquista, which included with it new theories of racial identity. No loner were Moors and Jews in Iberia a religious category, but it became one of inherited status. Whereas previous Jews could convert and become Spanish Catholics, now they could be expelled or brutalised because of ancestry. This new categorization of people through ancestry allowed New World slavery to be racialized. The racialization led to 'race' perception based on colour and geographical origin.

As the West saw new lands, they saw new people. All with differing values and cultures. Many had traditions regarding sexuality and gender identity that were against the accepted public gaze of the Westerners (recognizing Europe had hidden subcultures). Colonisation repressed many of these identities and practices.

Medieval women had made some gains post-Plague, but the reformation had both sides evangelizing women's place in society, most noticeable the Puritans.

Revolutions in the American colonies, France and Saint Domingue pushed the enlightenment concept of the 'Rights of Man' and universal rights. The suppression by all western powers of Saint Domingue made the idea of 'universal' rights into a far more narrow view.

The point is, that identity politics was highlighted through the reformation and enlightenment. However, the identity rights were oppressed - theologically, legally, economically and socially. Identity politics, like all other social movements come from historical positions of disadvantage.

The current movements are not creating identity politics, but a realignment of the place of women, ethnic minorities, sexual and gender identity and practice, disability and religion (or lack of) within the rights inherent in the post-colonial world of universal rights.

Identities were forged by the repression of the reformation on some groups, by enlightenment exclusion and 19th Century European categorization for legislative suppression. All we are seeing now is the inevitable claim to be included within universal human rights.

thesorrow&thepity said...

The beginning of a 2nd Reformation? no! Where the West is heading right now if we don't stop it, is towards a 2nd Dark Age!

The cancerous cancel culture espoused by mindless woke zombie automations is now being aimed at the sciences (was only ever a matter of time before they did so).
Today they de-platform, tomorrow they'll be burning people at the stake... IF we don't stop them.

John Hurley said...

CCC has a draft strategy, but what could you say in any submission. I just hurled abuse at them

David George said...

I see The NZ Herald have refused to publish the pre-booked ads from Speak Up for Women that featured the dictionary definition of women (adult human female) because "we considered that these were potentially inflammatory"
The advertising standards authority had already cleared the ads - was there ever any serious question that a straightforward dictionary definition could be "offensive". Will our dictionaries have to be purged as well, a national book burning session perhaps.
Strange and disturbing times.

John Hurley said...

Meng Foon says Taranaki Whanui prisoners built the Otago University clock tower. Who advises him?