Friday, 21 October 2011

Mitt Romney and the Latter Day Saints

While shivering at a bus stop on the outskirts of Rochdale last night, I was approached by two smiling teenage boys wearing ties and nameplates declaring them ‘elders’ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They were so earnest and eager to talk that I felt embarrassed about trying to shoo them on with the plainly absurd claim that I’m busy - an impulse reaction to any stranger not asking for directions or the time - and instead stood talking to them until their bus arrived.

The Latter Day Saints - or Mormons -  have been the subject of some debate in the USA recently since Mitt Romney entered the race for Republican Presidential candidate in the 2012 elections. A 6th generation Mormon, Romney has largely declined to discuss the specifics of his faith. He addressed the issue in 2007, shortly before losing the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination to John McCain, by invoking JFK’s reassurance that he ‘will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office.’ Despite this, a recent poll showed that 20% of the Republicans polled were uneasy about Romney’s Mormonism, with 40% viewing it as not a Christian religion.

The young men I spoke to were also a bit uneasy about the label, flinching slightly at my use of the word ‘Mormons’. Their principal concern was that I agree to read the Book of Mormon, which one of them swiftly produced from his pocket, and after some less-than-committal noises on my part, the conversation turned to the provenance of the book. Mormons believe that their religion’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr, was visited by an angel who led him to the book - written on golden plates - which he then translated and published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. Needless to say, the plates were never seen by anyone else.

I was interested to see how they arrived at their belief in this story over the competing explanation, that Joseph Smith Jr simply wrote the book himself. They countered that I can’t know either way, which is true, but as I explained to them, there is a countless number of documented instances throughout human history where people have written texts, but not a single documented instance where an angel has appeared. So by that logic, one explanation is much more likely than the other - we can’t know for sure, but we can gauge the relative validity of the two competing explanations. At this point the two elders were visibly glazing over, and seemed relieved when their bus pulled around the corner. In parting they gave me a card showing a picture of Joseph Smith bathed in divine light, and giving details of their website.

If Mitt Romney is successful in his bid to be President of the USA, he will have his finger on the trigger of the largest military arsenal in the world. He will make decisions that could shape world history for generations. After the two elders left, I was left wondering what impact these beliefs - which are a bit outlandish even for Romney’s fellow Christian Republicans, who regard Mormonism as being on a par with Islam in terms of distance from their own beliefs - would have on his decision making process. If Romney wholly accepts, as he presumably does, that God appeared in New York in 1830 to tell Joseph Smith to avoid established churches - an odd and confusing message, coming from God - then what else will he accept?

The young men I met were clearly uneasy with my questions, and were glad to get away. They seemed pleasant and harmless on their patrol of suburban Rochdale, but the notion that someone who shares their odd aversion to simple logic could become capable of shaping the global narrative for up to eight years is frankly terrifying. I’m sure that Romney would do his best to separate his religious views from the duties of the office he aspires to, but the fact remains that his decisions would be percolated and shaped in the same mental space that has been cleansed of the capacity to differentiate between absurd propositions and logical ones.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Labour should take a stand on its principles

Earlier this week, Liam Byrne outlined the results of a new policy review to the Labour front bench. While the results are fairly predictable, the recommendations Byrne is making should cause alarm to anyone hoping that Ed Miliband won’t follow the New Labour approach of trying to be all things to all people. As Don Paskini pointed out on LC, the views expressed in the review aren’t really aligned with New Labour policy or ideology. Liam Byrne said: “The first priority for Labour this year is to get back in touch with voters – whose trust we lost at the last election…that’s why this year we’re starting our policy review, with the No1 focus on getting back in touch with voters – and changing our party to make sure we don’t lose that connection again.”

But Byrne’s implication that Labour should adjust their philosophy in response to the zeitgeist is very New Labour. By the time the 2010 election came around, Labour had shifted ground so many times that they were totally unrecognisable as a left-wing alternative.

Respondents to the review have expressed concern around cuts to policing and youth services, but I’m less inclined than Don to read a leftist bias into this – it seems like concern for the safety of the respondents and their property, rather than concern for the vulnerable.

Added to the worries around immigration and the EU-scepticism, I’d say it’s safe to conclude that the review points to a right-wing bias in the respondents. This is not especially surprising, but it does throw up a question about how Labour should react. Should they move to the right in order to connect with voters? Only if their key aim is getting into power, rather than influencing opinion.

What Labour should do is ignore the focus groups, ignore Liam Byrne and take a stand on an unashamedly statist, pro-EU, anti-cuts, redistribution-based platform. They say a week is a long time in politics, so 2015 may as well be a millennium away – why not risk unpopularity in the short term if it’s going to help stimulate debate, and possibly shift the public mood – even slightly – further to the left?

Also, as Don points out, the respondents to the review aren’t necessarily representative of the electorate, so a hard shift to the left may draw in those voters who have already disengaged because their views aren’t being represented at parliament level.

There will be time for Labour to adjust their platform when the election draws nearer, but in the meantime they could try to revitalise – and perhaps even influence – the debate by doing the unpopular thing and wearing their statist heart on their sleeve.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Land of Easy Money

Of all the news you have read this week, perhaps the most surprising might be that we’re living in ‘the land of easy money’. This was the description of the UK attributed to Ms. Ayan Abdulle, who incensed the Daily Mail last weekend after fraudulently extracting over £250,000 in various state benefits between 2004 and 2010. Ms. Abdulle has been jailed for four and a half years by a Harrow court for lying in her asylum claim, in which she described being attacked by militia in Somalia in 1998, when in reality she had been claiming asylum in Sweden around this time.

The phrase ‘bogus asylum seeker’ has become a sort of shorthand for the Daily Express and Daily Mail’s stance - it combines anger at the perceived laxity of the UK asylum system with a sort of general, undefined xenophobia. Invariably the stories eschew statistics in favour of individual stories like Ms Abdulle’s, and the language is heavy with allusion - references are made to the fact that Ms Abdulle has six children (read ‘feckless’), and a claim that she left Sweden because she ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to learn Swedish (read ‘lazy and insular’).

Left-leaning publications are equally prone to this sort of myopia when it comes to asylum and immigration. Instead of focusing on ‘bogus’ claims, the Guardian and the Independent are more likely to report a case where a legitimate asylum seeker has been failed by the system and made destitute, or give a platform to an asylum appeal like Peace Musabi’s. It’s likely that the horrors these people have run away from will be described in full, morbid HD. The intention of this type of selective reporting is no less politically loaded than the Daily Mail stories - the aim here is to place human rights above all other concerns, and to appeal to empathy.

Both the Mail’s and the Guardian’s stances are legitimate attempts to set the terms in which asylum and immigration are viewed by the general public, and in a healthy democracy it’s important to have opposing views expressed loudly and often. Failures in the asylum system which lead to human suffering need to be flagged up, as do flagrant abuses of the system. But there is a danger that the ideologically-motivated noise from both sides may drown out the more difficult questions that are best addressed somewhere in the middle, without individual examples, and with the rhetoric turned down to a background hum.

For example, is it possible to believe in the universal right to express one’s sexuality without fear of attack, while at the same time questioning the practical implications of offering asylum to anyone who self-identifies as gay? There will never be a way of verifying such claims, and while the standard of living in the UK remains significantly higher than in, say, Uganda there will always be a powerful motivation for people to abuse the system. But should this mean that we turn a blind eye to every such claimant, even if their lives are endangered on their return?

Or, can we balance the right of immigrants to the UK to retain their own cultural practices and religious beliefs while at the same time promoting their integration into mainstream British culture? Is ‘integration’ as a concept tainted with cultural imperialism, or is it a necessary process in creating a non-ghettoised and ethnically harmonious society?

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have any definitive answers to any of the above. But it seems clear that rigid ideology isn’t very useful in trying to reach any answers. Both online and IRL, talking about immigration or asylum in less-than-absolutely-certain terms can result in being called either a heartless xenophobe or a woolly-minded fantasist (or much worse), depending on who you’re talking to. But ambiguous questions require ambiguous approaches, and the immigration and asylum debate has been polarised along ideological lines for too long.