The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

Alexandria and The Rule of The Book

The date is March 8, 415 CE. It’s probably a bright and sunny day, as the place is Alexandria, and most days are bright, or at least sunny, in Egypt. By this stage, Alexandria has enough Christians in it to allow for a Christian schism – moderates on one side under Orestes and hard-liners on the other, led by the Patriarch Cyril.

In this awesome, wonderful and wondrous city is a woman called Hypatia. She is a mathematician and astronomer. She teaches. Not just that, she’s held in the highest of regard across the ancient world. Many of her ex-students are powerful political figures in this, one of the most powerful and influential cities of the Roman era. She is credited with great moral authority within this same city. Silesius the philosopher can think of no-one greater on the whole face of the planet. She creates a staggering number of devices for measuring azimuths, tables for all kinds of calculations, is credited with improving the astrolabe to such a degree of fine accuracy that it can be used, not just for navigation and measuring mountains, but for telling the time of the day by just about any celestial body.

She is a shining light in a city that has already produced ideas like the earth being round, the sun being the centre of the solar system; where a philosopher accurately measured the circumference of the planet with what was essentially two sticks and a massive brain… In fact, speaking of brains, this is the city where the West first heard the idea that the brain might be the boss of the body.

And amidst all this, Hypatia is rated an exceptional mind.

But not by Cyril and his cronies. Cyril has been cynically using ignorance and prejudice to condemn Hypatia as a witch. He puts about the idea that her instruments are for divination – black magic. It doesn’t help that an astrolabe can be used to (broadly) predict the tides and weather. Eventually, a mob consisting largely of Christian monks hunts Hypatia through the city and drags her into the Caesarea (once a temple to the Caesars but now vandalised and invaded with a giant cross). Here, in this scratch church, they cut the philosopher into pieces, pick up the dismembered body parts and dump them outside the city.

This murder is often seen as a sort of critical starting point for the process that eventually resulted in the destruction of 99% of the texts in this amazing city’s amazing library.

And certainly, the deeper motives behind all this murder and vandalism can be seen as more political than religious – more temporal than spiritual, but it is impossible to deny that the perpetrators on the ground were motivated by a religious feeling that was as sincere as their ignorance was deep. It is therefore irrelevant that they were manipulated by cleverer men – their prejudice and ignorance was a lethal weapon, honed, aimed and used to devastating effect by their political and spiritual masters.

Sound familiar? It should. What we have here is a clear and specific warning from history. Any time you meet an evangelical who tells you that he doesn’t need to think because faith is his reason, every time you see a fundamentalist screaming and frothing about his right to religious ‘freedom’ over and above the civil rights of any and everybody else – remember Hypatia. Every time you encounter an anti-academic, anti-scholarly, anti-critical right wing bible thumper, or hear a rant from a Tea Party spokesperson, or other spurious ‘defender of the common man’, remember Alexandria. Remember that this is exactly the sort of person that set the development of the modern world back a thousand years or more. The kind of person that did so much damage to our corporate human knowledge that we will probably never know the extent of our loss.

Remember, and also note that these people and attitudes can’t just be scorned, ignored or laughed at.

They have to be fought.

Unpacking Cory Bernardi’s Dystopia – Part 1

You may or may not be aware, but Senator Cory Bernardi has written a book. He has called it ‘The Conservative Revolution’. The fact that the title appears to be an oxymoron, and that the Senator appears to be just a plain moron, were sufficient to inspire me to read it from cover to cover. And what did I find between the economically elegant, flimsy black covers? Well, I’ll tell you.

Firstly, it took me a very long time to work out exactly what the book was trying to be. It started out like a treatise, with Cory helpfully defining terms that he intended using and laying out a few heads of what he was pleased to call arguments. The problem with this was that there simply wasn’t enough evidence or reasoning to make it anything near a fully-fledged treatise. Also, but not quite so critically, he never once descended from the broadest generalities into anything approaching the specific.

Then I thought it might be a manifesto, but in this I was also mistaken. Out of 162 pages, a bare 16 pages are devoted to positive statements of position, belief and intention. And not just this, a good portion of this 16 pages is devoted to repeating negative or antagonistic ideas mentioned ad infinitum throughout the rest of the book. Most of the remaining 146 pages is overwhelmingly devoted to describing and debunking ideas that the author doesn’t believe in.

It was not, in fact, until I arrived at the final 16 pages that I finally realised what, in fact, this book is. It’s a paean to the faithful – an attempt to clarify opinions, ideas and prejudices which he assumes his readers already hold, presumably with the intention of giving them ammunition they can use when arguing with ‘leftists’ and ‘radicals’.

And what, pray tell, are ‘leftists’ and ‘radicals’? You might think you know, but Cory knows better and has helpfully defined these terms for us.

Leftist: “…left and leftist will be used to make general reference to those political and social forces that are opposed to the traditional principles outlined through this volume.”

Radical: “…ideas that are promoted by these people are fundamentally at odds with natural law, the traditions and cultural wealth that we have inherited from our forefathers, and are therefore diametrically in opposition to what is best for society and the individual.”

and

“[People]…who are constantly trying to tear down our institutions and diminish our historical values because these don’t fit with their own view of how the world should function.”

So, that’s that settled then. And a good thing too, because I would have thought that ‘left’ and ‘leftist’ referred to something entirely different (and less vague) and that a ‘radical’ might be considered to be anyone calling for a revolution. Which would have been very confusing, given the title and thesis of the book.

Reading on, we discover that Cory and his Conservative friends (conservatives are people who “seek to protect and defend the structures and values that have allowed our nation to achieve the traditional freedoms and prosperity that we enjoy today“) live in a terrifying world. Apparently, a social revolution occurred in the sixties that has seen the entrenchment of ideas that are threatening to tear Western society apart. Some of these dangerous ideas include secularism, same-sex marriage, legal abortions and, weirdly, Islam. It is the good Senator’s belief that what is needed is for ‘Conservative Warriors’ to bring about a  ‘Conservative Revolution’, which he goes on to explain (none too clearly) should be seen as a ‘counter-revolution’. Fortunately, he uses someone else’s definition of this term so yes, in this book, counter-revolution means exactly what you think it means.

What will happen if we don’t have this counter-revolution tout suite? Cory paints a chilling picture. Society will be atomised, but power will be concentrated in ‘big government’. Secularism will run rampant, causing depression, dislocation, suicide and mass alienation. Also, something about Sharia law which, for the life of me, I cannot make sense of. Especially in the context of rampant secularism. The free market will cease to operate and laissez faire capitalism’s tender mercies will therefore be denied to the poor and industrious. We will lose the respect of our neighbours and, he implies, end up in another world war.

He cites as evidence his assertion that ‘leftism’, consisting in this case of over-regulation and nationalisation of the market, caused the GFC and that if we don’t immediately cede more control of the market to big corporate, we are due for another one. I don’t believe I need do more than just mention that particular nugget.

The Senator then goes on to cite various authorities to back up the following ideas:

  • Society is not perfectible
  • Order is required for a functional society
  • Custom and convention make up a significant part of law
  • The use of past knowledge makes for better forecasting
  • Prudence is prudent (which seems a wasteful way to use a citation from Plato)
  • Diversity is important
  • Power should be limited
  • Private property is a cornerstone of society

Which is nice, but completely unnecessary, seeing that none of these ideas are really in dispute.

All of this seemingly random, muddled intellectual flailing leads up to what might be termed the res: Senator Bernardi’s grand plan (?) vision (?) program for revolution (?). Whatever the hell it is, it is made up of three pillars – namely, Faith, Family and Flag.

In next week’s episode, I will examine the author’s interpretation of these three F’s and what it reveals about this statesman’s vision for and of Australia.