Friday, 11 September 2020


 As a kind of bonus on the whole Freud/Jung thing, I also treated my self to a read of  H. Rider Haggard's She, which Jung refers to several times as an exemplar of the archetype of the anima, the female (for men) figure who represents our souls, our unconscious or our inner life in both dreams and myths.

She was Haggard's second novel, following the phenomenal success of King Solomon's Mines in 1885.  Before publishing his first blockbuster Haggard was a British civil servant and, in the role of secretary to the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal, spent six years in Southern Africa where both novels are set.  Afterwards he retired to his native Norfolk and became a writer of fanciful and massively popular adventure stories, many set in exotic locations which at least in theory were in Africa.  

Haggard was an early exponent of what these days we would think of as pulp fiction.  He was a forerunner of such prolific writers as Edgar Rice Burroughs (creator of Tarzan), and such later productions as the Indiana Jones films.  The point is not to be believable, and even less to be 'good literature', but to be fun and exciting.  

Why, we ask, was an erudite scholar like Jung interested in such things?

The basic story of She centres around Leo Vincey and his foster-father Horace Holly and is narrated for the most part by Horace.  Leo is orphaned as a young child, and Horace agrees to take on his care at the request of his dying father.  In the process he is entrusted with various objects which he is to reveal to Leo when he comes of age.  When the time comes, these objects turn out to be various scrolls and tablets which tell the tale of Leo's ancestry, tracing it back 66 generations to a renegade princess of Egypt and her lover, a priest of Isis, who travel to the heart of Africa and encounter an evil queen who kills the father.  Leo is tasked, like each of his ancestors before him, with the mission of travelling to this distant country and avenging himself on the wicked queen who, improbably, is said to still be alive (previous attempts, obviously, having failed).

Although Horace finds the story hard to believe, Leo is keen to at least check it out, so off they go.  They journey through storm, swamp and wild animals and find their way to the remote realm, where they discover that the story is indeed true.  The land is ruled by a queen who is known as 'She who must be obeyed' or simply 'She', whose real name is Ayesha and who is at least 2,000 years old.  She is not only virtually immortal but has amazing powers and is stunningly beautiful, so much so that she goes veiled among her subjects.  Both Horace and Leo fall hopelessly in love with her as soon as she reveals herself to them.

Yet for all her great power, beauty and longevity she doesn't seem to have much of a life.  She has spent 2,000 years living in a complex of underground tombs mourning the death of the lover she killed out of jealousy, pouring curses on her long-dead love rival and ruling a nation of savage cannibals who don't seem to have gained any benefit from her power and wisdom.  It is only when Horace and Leo arrive that she comes alive, recognising Leo as the reincarnation of her dead lover and offering both of them immortality so they can join her in whatever unspecified plans she has for their future life.  Together they make a hazardous further journey to the source of immortality, deep in the heart of the mountain, where of course things don't go quite to plan.

In order to see what Jung saw in this tale, need first to get past some potent barriers.

First of all is the story's patent absurdity.  It's not so much that it's unbelievable - most great fantasy is unbelievable - as that the story lacks internal logic.  Even with the normal suspension of disbelief that comes with reading fantasy, the reader is constantly pulled up by things that make no sense.  It doesn't help that the characters themselves are very 'thin', so you don't feel a lot of emotional connection with any of them.  Even their dialogue is conducted in kind of clunky pseudo-Elizabethan prose that makes them sound as though they are constantly declaiming from the stage.  

All this would be fine, given it's just a bit of fun, but a more difficult barrier is its racism, classism and sexism.  I suspect this may not have even occurred to Jung, who seemed to accept implicitly the idea of 'primitive' races, but it is no longer tenable in the 21st century.  The story riffs on the idea, popular among the European colonisers of Africa in the 19th and early 20th centuries, of an ancient African empire ruled by white people - because of course such heights of civilisation could not be attained by black people!  Here we see the Africans as irredeemable cannibalistic savages, ruled by fear since they are incapable of reason.  After 2,000 years among these savages it is only when the British visitors arrive that Ayesha finds kindred spirits and unveils herself.  The unreflective sense of racial superiority is nauseating.  Haggard also takes class superiority for granted - upper class Horace and Leo are equal to the adventure, but their servant is not and ultimately perishes.  Women, even Ayesha herself, appear as objects rather than characters.  

So I repeat, what attracted Jung to this clunky, racist piece of writing?  He doesn't explain in any detail but picking out what he says about the archetype of the anima/animus I think I can hazard a reasonable approximation.  

In Jung's understanding of archetypes a woman figure represents the anima, which stands for the soul, the unconscious, our innermost being - for a woman, the same figure is represented by a man, the animus.  We are not consciously aware of this figure but we see her/him in dreams and such figures appear in the artworks of patients who are either drawing their dreams or spontaneously drawing what comes into their minds.  

The ideas associated with this figure are complex, but at the risk of oversimplification she/he is leading us to greater self-understanding and self-awareness, helping us to become more integrated humans.  She/he is not, of course, an actual being but a representation of aspects of our unconscious which, in Jung's understanding, is collective as well as individual.  

What attracted Jung to She is that Ayesha is a very vivid representation of this archetype.  She is, to all intents and purposes, a goddess - an immortal being of great power and beauty.  Yet she is also hidden in a way that is analogous to the hiddenness of our unconscious - living underground in a secret, inaccessible place.  She does not, in a sense, have a life of her own, and nor is she perfect or even particularly good - one of the things concealed in the tomb is her capacity for murder.  This is true to the psychology of our unconscious, where some of the things we repress are desires for revenge or impulses to cruelty which may express themselves in various ways through our unconscious.  So we should not confuse archetypes or the anima/animus with ideal types - they are aspects of our personality and flawed as we are.  

It is only by identifying and uncovering this hidden self that we can address the issues she represents, but this is not easy. Simply to find her and verify her existence is difficult and dangerous - Horace and Leo must brave a storm, travel through  deadly swamps, come close to being eaten by lions, and battle savage cannibals before finally seeing her face to face.  This reflects the psychological risks we need to take in order to reach this level of self-understanding.  Often when people undertake counselling or psychotherapy they initially find that things seem worse as the systems of repression they have been using to survive fall away and they have to face the issue they have been avoiding.  

Yet it is not enough for them to simply meet Ayesha, or even to fall in love with her.  Finding her is the beginning of the journey, not the end.  Once they have found her, they must follow her to learn what she can reveal, which is the source and spring of life itself.  This involves further hazards, and at the end when they are face to face with both her and the source of life they must make a decision.  Interestingly, they opt not to accept immortality, and in the process she herself loses her immortality and shrivels to nothing.  Yet there is also the promise that all of them will be reborn in the future, as Leo is apparently the reincarnation of his distant ancestor.  

Ultimately, what they are engaged in a search not for eternal life, but for Truth.  On their final journey into the heart of the mountain they pass through the ruins of the ancient city of Kor and visit the temple of Truth.  In the centre is the statue of a goddess with her face veiled and this inscription:

Is there no man that will draw my veil and look upon my face, for it is very fair? Unto him who draws my veil shall I be, and peace will I give him, and sweet children of knowledge and good works.”

And a voice cried, “Though all those who seek after thee desire thee, behold! Virgin art thou, and Virgin shalt thou go till Time be done. No man is there born of woman who may draw thy veil and live, nor shall be. By Death only can thy veil be drawn, oh Truth!”

And Truth stretched out her arms and wept, because those who sought her might not find her, nor look upon her face to face.

This type of symbolic journey is common in literature around the world and it is this quest which makes She compelling and has ensured it remains in print over a century later, despite is many glaring faults.  

Did Haggard intentionally create this picture of the anima and the psychological/spiritual journey?  If you follow Jung's line of thinking it hardly matters.  Jung's patients did not intentionally place alchemical symbols and significant numbers in their spontaneous artworks, nor did they deliberately conjure these in their dreams.  They are expressions of the collective unconscious, something we all have within us as a birthright, a part of our inheritance as much as our 'flight or fight' response and our opposable thumbs.  The point is that it is present and, in a sense, the less deliberate it is the closer it comes to the archetype.  I suspect this is why Jung drew attention to this work alongside the sophisticated, intentional philosophical systems which form much of his analysis.  

You don't need to buy Haggard's racism, classism, sexism or extraordinarily clumsy dialogue.  However, it might be worth reading this book as an aid to reflection on your spiritual journey, especially if you are a man.  You might get a sense of the importance of such a journey, as well as its difficulties and dangers.  You might inspired to begin this journey yourself, or to continue it if you have already begun.  

You might also have a little bit of fun along the way.  

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Freud and Jung

 Among the backlog of unread books on my shelf was a copy of Sigmund Freud's Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.  It consists of a course of 28 lectures delivered by Freud at the University of Vienna in 1915 and 1916, designed to introduce students to the main ideas involved in psychoanalysis.  I gave this book to my father many years ago, I forget why, and eventually it made its way back to me and sat on my shelves until this year, when I finally read it.  Perhaps there is some kind of subconscious significance to the fact that the volume fell apart as I was reading it, so I had to bin it when I got to the end.

My first introduction to Freud's ideas was not encouraging.  When I did introductory psychology subjects at the University of Queensland in 1979 and 1980 as part of my social work degree, the psychology faculty there was very much dominated by the idea of psychology as an experimental science, driven by scientific methodology and randomised control trials.  Freud's deductions and speculations could hardly be further from this world, and his ideas were given short shift.

Yet you could hardly escape Freud's cultural influence.  Jokes circulated based on his ideas.  His face, with his short beard and intense eyes, was synonymous with psychology in the same way Albert Einstein's shock of curly white hair stood for scientific genius, or Che Guevara's handsome young face symbolised radical politics.

Over the years I've bumped into Freud's ideas over and again - in religion, where he is a widely read atheist; in literature, where his ideas permeate a lot of early 20th century writing; even in my somewhat rare forays into human behaviour and psychology.  Perhaps there was something wrong with the dismissive approach taken by my first teachers.  Could someone be so influential, and yet so wide of the mark?

The Introductory Lectures are, of course, a good place to start getting a handle on his ideas.  They are broken into three sections - in the first, he talks about the idea of the unconscious, as revealed to us in everyday life.  He uses the term 'parapraxes' to describe the various ways our unconscious intrudes on our daily lives - slips of the tongue (which to this day are called 'Freudian slips'), lost objects, forgotten names or dates, accidental breakages.  These, he says, are ways that our unconscious thoughts push their way into our notice, alerting us to the fact that what we openly acknowledge as our feelings or opinions is not the full story.  Sometimes our accidental words reveal our real feelings far better than those we intend to say.  Sometimes our forgetfulness reveals a hidden reluctance.  If we reflect on these incidents, we can arrive at a better self-understanding and perhaps live with a little less self-deception.  I have certainly found this to be the case.

Yet as he goes on his ideas become more baffling and, to my mind, more arbitrary.  In the second group of lectures he talks about the interpretation of dreams.  Like parapraxes, dreams are forms of unconscious mental activity, giving vent to things that we don't admit to consciousness.  He starts out by describing how they use incidents from our waking life as raw material and twist these in ways that often don't make obvious sense.  

Interpreting dreams is one of the central methods of psychoanalysis, and for this Freud primarily uses the technique he calls 'free association'.  In this technique patients are asked to say whatever words come to their minds in relation to the dream, and then these are explored for their own associations until the patient and analyst together reach some kind of bedrock of meaning.  Freud only hints at this technique and its results, regarding it as an advanced subject rather than an introductory one.  Yet as he progresses through the discussion you can see that he regards the ultimate meaning of the most significant dreams as relating to sexuality and sexual development.  

This view is made clear in the final group of lectures, which deal with neuroses.  Here Freud outlines his theory of sexual development, which centres around what is possibly his most famous idea - the 'Oedipus Complex'.  As children, he says, we naturally identify with the parent of the same sex (boys with their fathers, girls with their mothers) and experience sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex.  This leads us into a deep psychological conflict as we experience our same sex parent as both role model and rival, and cope with the forbidden love for our opposite sex parent.  This all, of course, takes place unconsciously.  Freud believed that it happens to all of us, but if we mature properly we move past it, fix our attachment onto a more appropriate person and live well-adjusted lives.  If for one reason or other this normal development is blocked, the result is a neurosis - what we may describe as OCD, severe anxiety, panic attacks, etc.  

How did Freud reach this conclusion?  He says it was the result of his clinical work, but we can also learn, if we read a little about Freud, that much of it came from self-reflection about his relationship with his parents and his experience of what we might now call depression, although he referred to it as 'neurasthenia'.  My early teachers were dismissive because, of course, this is not subject to objective verification.  Indeed, even in his own day many of his closest associates questioned these conclusions, but although he refined his theories over the years he remained immovable on this point.


Freud's professional life was turbulent, to say the least.  As his reputation and fame grew he founded a society of psychoanalysts, starting out as a small discussion group in his home in Vienna, and later becoming more formalised as the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and eventually the International Psychoanalytic Society as the ideas spread beyond Austria.  Although Freud encouraged others, such as Viennese pupils Alfred Adler and Otto Rank and his Swiss protege Carl Jung, to take on formal leadership roles in the society, he remained the ultimate authority and had strictly limited tolerance for deviation from his ideas.

The result was a series of splits, as Adler, Jung and Rank all published ideas that differed significantly from Freud's narrow focus on sexual development.  Freud was too deeply invested in his ideas to budge, and the societies he founded couldn't cope with the resulting diversity of views and fractured as Adler, Jung, Rank and others went their separate ways.

Of all the dissenters, Jung is the one whose influence has most rivalled Freud's beyond the confines of clinical psychology.  Having been stimulated by Freud's writings I thought it would be interesting to delve a little into those of his pupil/rival, and I borrowed Jung's Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious and his Psychology and Religion from the BCC library.  

Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious is a collection of writings published in other places as early as the 1920s and as late as the 1950s, often revised from their first form for later publication.  As such it represents a series of fragments, overlapping and reinforcing one another so that you get the full picture piece by piece rather than via a sustained argument.

The cornerstone of his view is that humans inherit what he calls 'the collective unconscious'.  He distinguishes this from the 'personal unconscious', which is formed by our own life experiences and particularly by experiences of childhood which are repressed or forgotten - the way Freud uses the term.  The collective unconscious, on the other hand, is something we all share, analogous to inherited instinct, which is present naturally in our brains and emerges without anyone needing to teach us.  

Jung thought that the collective unconscious expresses itself through a series of archetypes - the 'animus/anima' which represents the soul, the wise old man, various animal symbols (snake, fox/wolf, ram, eagle, etc) which represent various aspects of our psyche, and various numbers and shapes such as the numbers three and four and various multiples thereof, and the circle, triangle, square and cross, to mention just a few.  These symbols and archetypes are used and repeated in religious and mythological symbolism from around the world and from various ages, but is also reproduced symbolically in the dreams and artworks of people who have no prior knowledge of them.  

This basic set of ideas leads him to a detailed analysis of the symbols he finds in the dreams and drawings of his patients.  He interprets these in the light of a range of religious and mythological sources.  Although these include mainstream faiths (Catholic Christianity and Buddhism in particular) he is particularly interested in esoteric ideas such as Hermetic philosophy and alchemy, and he goes into great detail analysing the meaning of his patients' productions in the light of alchemical symbolism.

It is not clear to me what he does with this knowledge in a clinical context - it seems that his aim is to help his patients to greater self-understanding in order to become more fully integrated personalities.  No doubt he dealt with this more fully in technical publications I am never likely to read, or perhaps he reserved it for personal instruction with his students.  

Freud believed that religion was simply an illusion, or perhaps delusion, born out of our primal conflict with our fathers.  Jung, however, is more coy about his own views.  In Psychology and Religion, a series of three lectures first delivered as the Terry Lectures in 1938 at Yale University, he goes so far as to say he believes atheism is foolish, but I haven't read anything in which he locates himself in any religious tradition - he approaches religion as a psychological phenomenon.  He certainly has no interest in creeds or religious systems, which he sees as diversions from the unconscious meaning of the symbols of religion.  The closest he comes is perhaps the following:

...I never preach my belief.  If asked I will surely stand my my convictions which do not go further than what I consider to be my actual knowledge.  I am convinced of what I know.  Everything else is hypotheses and beyond that I can leave a lot of things to the Unknown.  They do not bother me.

Yet he sees that religious dogma has a greater value, at least psychologically, than scientific theories because it represents the accumulated wisdom of generations, and is best suited to 'irrational facts' such as the operation of our unconscious.  For this purpose, it doesn't matter a great deal which particular religion you follow, and he sees the core symbols and ideas as recurring across religions in any case.  For instance, at one point he says, 'The suffering God-Man may be at least five thousand years old, and the Trinity is probably even older.'

Writing in 1938, he is profoundly disturbed by the way Protestantism has stripped European religion of its mystical content, such an extent that it forgot the unaccountable forces of the unconscious mind.  The catastrophe of the Great War and the subsequent extraordinary manifestations of a profound mental disturbance were needed to arouse a doubt that everything was well in the white man's mind. When the war broke out we had been quite certain that the world could be righted by rational means.  Now we behold that age-old spectacle of States taking over the age-old claim of theocracy, that is, of totality, inevitably accompanied by suppression of free opinion.  We again see people cutting each other's throats to support childish theories of how to produce paradise on earth.  It is not very difficult to see that the powers of the underworld - not to say of hell - which were more or less successfully chained and made serviceable in a gigantic mental edifice, are now creating, or trying to create, a State slavery and a State prison devoid of any mental or spiritual charm.  There are not a few people, nowadays, who are convinced that mere human reason is not entirely up to the task of fettering the volcano.


I thought that perhaps it might be unjust to compare Jung's detailed writings with Freud's basic introduction, so I also borrowed a copy of Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents. This is a slim volume first published in 1930, in which Freud grapples with the question of why, in the face of the many benefits of civilisation, modern humans are so discontent with it and seem so intent on upending it.  

His analysis of the question revolves around a version of human anthropology which suggests that humans, in their first state, were isolated individuals who began to band together mainly for the purpose of sexual convenience - men (in his very male-centric scheme) found it convenient to have their sexual partners on hand, as it were, and so formed stable pairs which included their children.  These became the site of the primal oedipal conflict as the sons became rivals with their father for their mother's affections and eventually killed him in order to take his place, then deified him to cope with their subsequent guilt.  

This primal conflict continues to be played out in our individual and social lives.  Our sexuality is a fraught mix of desire and guilt which leaves us restless.  This can be usefully contained and channeled if we have sufficient opportunity to express this sexuality with appropriate partners.  However, he traces developments in the time leading up to his own in which the scope for appropriate sexuality was progressively more and more restricted - firstly to within monogamous marriage and then even within marriage to the purposes of child-bearing rather than pleasure.  The result was frigid women, impotent men and all round discontent.  Blocked from legitimate expression, sexual conflict expressed itself more and more often through neurosis, both individual and collective.

You can see, no doubt, why even Freud's closest followers felt a need to take a different path.  You wonder what Freud would have made of the fact that we now have abundant sexual freedom and yet still seem intent on destroying the civilisations that nurture us.


There is no need to labour the point.  Suffice to say that to me, at least, Jung's thought world is rich, varied and illuminating whereas Freud's, beyond his basic seminal concepts, is thin and artificial.  Still, Jung was building on the foundation Freud laid.  Whether either is right in all respects is, to some extent, beside the point.  The question is, do they stimulate us to see ourselves more fully, to become more complete people?  My sense is that they do, and that is certainly their intent.

Nonetheless, I can also see why my early teachers were repelled from psycho-analysis.  While both Freud and Jung - and others in this tradition - based their ideas on lifetimes of clinical work, they are hardly verifiable by an objective observer.  On what basis does Freud decide that the sexual components are the most fundamental, or Jung that the archetypal content is of crucial importance?  How do we know that they are not simply interpolating their own views into the dreams of their patients, and even (although they deny it) subtly suggesting this content through their own theories?  It's hardly surprising that psychologists went looking for a more objective, experimental framework for their discipline.

Yet this irrationality is kind of the point.  Both the psychoanalysts and their more scientific successors are trying to make sense out of irrational phenomena.  We draw these things from the unconscious, where the laws of rationality don't apply, and bring them into the light of reason, but in the process we change them.  We can be no more certain that the experimental psychologists have asked the right questions than that the psychoanalyists have drawn the right conclusions.  The best we can hope for is that in the process we become more self-aware, and that we find better ways to treat those who are mentally unwell with skill and kindness.  Perhaps, along the way, enough of us might reach a level of collective self-understanding which will help us to avoid destroying ourselves.

Tuesday, 11 August 2020


Continuing my trawl through some of the books that have been waiting to be read for way too long....  Quite some time ago I bought a second-hand copy of Jacques Ellul's Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, probably at a Lifeline book sale.  I remember starting to read it, finding it dense to the point of incomprehensibility, and putting it on the shelf for later.  I'm not the only person who felt this - the book's previous owner covered the pages with underlining and illegible marginal comments for about the first third of the book, after which its pages are completely untouched.

If this memory is accurate then I must have got smarter in the intervening years. His writing is not nearly as impenetrable as I remember it.  Not that it is exactly an easy read - he's a French intellectual, after all - but I found it clear, highly logical, and completely disconcerting.  

Ellul was a prominent Christian intellectual in the second half of the 20th century, writing extensively on the crossover between theology and social theory.  He was primarily a sociologist and lawyer rather than a theologian and some of his books were purely sociological.  This is one of them.  It was first published in French in 1961, with its English translation appearing in 1964 (well before feminists succeeded in teaching us that our book titles shouldn't casually exclude half the human race).  The title is self-explanatory - he explores propaganda, what it is, its key characteristics, what the conditions are for its flourishing, why it is effective and what the limits are to this effectiveness.  Writing as he was in the shadow of World War 2, in which France was ruled by a fascist government, and at the height of the Cold War, this was obviously a pressing subject for him and it is hardly less so for us.

The book is disturbing because he suggests that propaganda is not the occasional rantings and misinformation of totalitarian regimes or self-interested elites.  Rather, he sees it as integral to, and possibly indispensable in, any advanced, technological and urban society - any society in which citizens live en masse in large, impersonal communities.  Hence, communist and fascist societies have their propaganda but so do capitalist democracies, and this propaganda is firmly embedded in the structure of these societies.  

Not all propaganda is the same, and he describes it through four somewhat overlapping dualities.  

The first is the distinction between political and sociological propaganda.  Political propaganda is what we normally think of when we hear the term - communication from political actors designed to persuade us to support certain leaders or policies.  Sociological propaganda, on the other hand, aims at persuading us to adopt a particular way of life and set of values and attitudes.  The two are, of course, not unconnected - the background values and priorities make us receptive to particular political messages.

The second is the distinction between what he calls 'the propaganda of agitation' and 'the propaganda of integration'.  These are, in a sense, opposites although they may be used by the same leaders or parties.  The propaganda of agitation stirs us to action.  It is what brings us out on the street to protest, riot, launch pogroms or rise in armed rebellion against our masters.  It is what revolutionary parties use but it may also be used by established authorities if they feel threatened, as a way of deflecting attention from their own failings onto some unfortunate minority.

The propaganda of integration seeks to persuade us in the opposite direction.  It urges and teaches is to accept things as they are, to live within the bounds of society, to be good obedient citizens and consumers.  It is both more pervasive and more pernicious, attaching us more and more firmly to where we are.  Although the propaganda of agitation may be more explosive and produce more striking results, it is also time-limited.  We can only live in a heightened emotional state for so long before we run out of steam, but we can be passive for our whole lives, gradually leaning to accept more and more outrageous impositions as right and normal.

The third duality is between vertical and horizontal propaganda. As the names suggest, vertical propaganda comes to us 'from above' from those in authority be they government officials, party leaders or 'captains of industry'.  The second comes to us via our peers - our workmates, our neighbours, our families.  Effective propaganda uses both, the messages of leaders are reinforced and amplified by local representatives who 'sing from the same song-sheet'.  The result is that we do not just feel, as isolated individuals, that we should obey this great leader.  We also feel that we are all in it together, that our friends and family are on the same journey so if we rebel we not only renounce a leader but our community.

The final duality is between what he calls 'rational' and 'irrational' propaganda.  Some propaganda is purely an appeal to the emotions, unconnected to any facts.  It is like the connection between buying a four-wheel-drive and living a carefree life.  The connection makes no sense if you examine it, but it has a huge emotional resonance.  On the other hand, he suggests that a lot of propaganda is intended to appeal directly to our rationality, or at least to present us with facts.  These facts will even be true - indeed, truth makes them more effective as blatant lies can be exposed.  But this does not mean that it is neutral - facts are carefully selected and presented in a particular way to lead us to a particular end.  Facts are not valued for themselves, they are tools of manipulation just as much as our emotions are.

Why do we have propaganda?  Well, of course, governments, parties and leaders create propaganda because it works.  But why does it work?  He suggests it works because as people living in a mass society we want and need it.  We no longer have the intimate, traditional community relationships, the religious, ethnic and personal identities which ground us and tell us who we are and how we should live.  These are swept away in the tide of urban industrialisation, and we are left looking for alternative sources of meaning.  Propaganda slips into this space, filling our lives and giving them meaning and purpose.

If this points us to why propaganda works, it also points us to its limits.  Propaganda works if it meets our psychological needs, if it fits in with the world as we are experiencing it.  If it cuts across this too jarringly we will reject it.  If it presents us with assertions that are a long way from what we believe or know to be the facts of the case we will not believe it.  As they taught us in Social Work 101, you need to 'start where the person (or the society) is at'.  The propagandist can't be too far away from those he or she seeks to influence, and can't move them too far - at least, not all at once.  Propagandists hold their subjects captive but are also, in a sense, captive themselves.  


As I was reading this, I kept thinking of CS Lewis' The Abolition of Man.  I read this a long time ago and pulled it off my shelf to refresh my memory.  

In a review some years ago, I compared Lewis to Ellul.  They were both intellectuals and prolific authors, committed Christians who worked in fields other than theology and combined the insights of their chosen field with a careful understanding of the Christian faith. 

Like Propaganda, The Abolition of Man is not a specifically Christian book.  It consists of three short lectures Lewis gave in the early 1940s, collected into a fifty-page booklet first published in 1943.  He doesn't use the term 'propaganda' but what he describes is precisely what Ellul means by 'sociological propaganda', propaganda embedded in the material of ordinary education.  His target is a text-book on English composition by two un-named English schoolteachers which encourages students to view statements of value ('this waterfall is sublime') as statements of feeling ('I have sublime feelings').  In the process they imply that things don't have any value in themselves, they only have the value we impute to them.  We should do away with this silly emotionalism, they imply, and stick to the bare facts.

This is his starting point for a critique of the idea that things only have the value that we give to them, and the consequent licensing of humans (educators, elites) to shape others - particularly students - into whatever form they deem most advantageous.  The problem is, how do they decide what is advantageous?  By what criteria do they judge this?  Advantageous for what, or whom?  The end result of this logical development is that a few elites in one generation would build a depleted humanity - a human race in which what makes us human has been abolished.

Against this he sets what he calls the Tao - the teachings of major religions and philosophies throughout the ages which tell us what has value, what is good, what we should do and avoid doing.  These ideas are foundational - they are not logically derived, they are themselves axiomatic.  If we do away with them we don't end up with something more logical or reasonable, we end up with something quite arbitrary.  In attempting to conquer nature we end up surrendering to it because we have nothing which separates us from it.

What he is describing here, and talks about more in other writings, is the idea of 'Natural Law' - that humans have certain ideas of right and wrong which are embedded in us and recur in all cultures at all times.  For Lewis, this Natural Law is a sign that the universe is designed by a conscious, intentional deity, and that humans carry something of the image of this deity.  We attempt to deny or suppress this image at our own peril, to do so makes us less human, not more.

There's a lot to critique in this argument.  One starting point would be to point out that he uses the term Tao to mean something quite different to the meaning given to it by Lao Tsu, the founder of Taoism.  This being the case, it is worth asking how real is his supposed consensus between the great sages.  The answer is, not nearly as real as he makes out.  These things are matters of contention and argument.  Lewis knows this and acknowledges it, but he doesn't do anything with this knowledge.  At the end of the book he presents an appendix with collected sayings from various ancient teachers showing their commonalities, but this is an artificial procedure - what he has presented in reality is a series of carefully curated statements which agree with his view.

The second thing is that his critique is weakened by the lack of any sophisticated analysis of power.  He recognises that certain elites would end up deciding for us what sort of humans we should be.  What he doesn't analyse is who these elites are, how they come to be the elites and what they are aiming at.  

One of the key requirements of propaganda is that it is purposeful.  Successful propagandists know what they are doing.  In propaganda we have insiders who create propaganda, we have those who do their bidding in spreading it and amplifying it, and we have those who receive it and are acted upon.  It is not necessary that the elites who create the propaganda believe it.  In fact, it is better in many ways that they do not.  They need to be clear-eyed about the effects it will have.  Even their agents need not totally believe it it - they may be given a glimpse of some hidden knowledge that they are persuaded would not be in the wider interest to spread.  Propaganda is the exercise of power, not the exercise of belief or conviction.

Nonetheless, there is something in what Lewis is trying to say, even if he doesn't see clearly what it is.  Lewis would like us to hold firmly to the idea that some things are true and good, and other things are false and evil.  To do this, we need criteria for truth and goodness.  Where will we get this from?  These questions are contentious, but humans have been working on them for thousands of years so we have plenty of resources to draw on.  If we simply debunk all of this and say 'there is no criteria for truth and goodness' or even 'truth and goodness are illusions' we deprive ourselves of humanity and find ourselves at sea, unable to do anything meaningful.


I started reading Ellul again because of my concern about climate change.  Right now we have a clear scientific consensus that the world is locked in to warming of somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius, and that this will be much greater unless we cut our emissions rapidly over the coming two or three decades.  But this is not new - scientists have been clear about this for over three decades now, and yet we have continued to increase our emissions.  Why is this?

The reason is that climate change has been the subject of a concerted propaganda campaign.  The hub of this campaign is the hugely wealthy and influential industries that benefit from fossil fuels - miners of oil, coal and natural gas, and the users of these fuels to generate electricity, power transport and so forth.  These industries are motivated by naked self-interest - they want to keep profiting from their investments, and their propaganda seeks to protect these profits.  The result has been a sophisticated, multi-pronged strategy which involves funding think-tanks to produce 'scientific' analyses debunking the science, buying political influence through hard lobbying and generous political donations through which they have steadily insinuated themselves into our political system, and the turning of key media outlets to their cause through strategic shareholdings and relationships.  

The result has been a general population that is either ignorant, doubts the science, does not see it as an important issue or thinks it is insoluble.  It doesn't matter that these positions are incompatible with each other, or with the actual science which is widely known.  What matters is that the resulting confusion keeps us compliant and focused elsewhere, so that the oligarchs can go on profiting.  As Ellul suggests, propaganda works because it tells us what we want to hear - that things can go on as they are, that our patterns of production and consumption need to not change.  This is indeed the very message to which we have been conditioned by the bombardment of advertising over the past half century and by the neo-liberal economists and politicians who 'preach the gospel of unlimited growth', to borrow a phrase from Graeme Connors.  The advocates for action have a much harder sell, even with the weight of science on their side, because they are asking us to change.

Crucially, though, the oligarchs themselves don't believe their own propaganda.  They understand and believe the science.  They are preparing for climate change and for a post-carbon world.  Even as they milk their investments in fossil fuels they are developing their renewable assets, using their market and political power to ensure that new players will not get the jump on them and force them out of business.  If to do so requires the world to warm by three or four degrees instead of two this is a risk they are prepared to take in order to shore up their long-term market position.

It's ironic that so many conservative Christians who admire Lewis (although not necessarily Ellul) have fallen for the trick and are among the most strident advocates for this industry-led propaganda.  Indeed, they have been specifically targeted by it, with clever messaging using Bible quotes and pseudo-religious reasoning to turn them against the environment movement and bring them onside with industry.  Hence followers of a faith that demands repentance, truthfulness and reverence for the works of God become resistant to change, assert that truth is a matter of opinion and adopt an instrumental approach to nature.

Perhaps it is worth reflecting on the way Lewis begins his lectures, with a reference to a story in which the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge overhears two tourists talking about a waterfall.  One calls it 'sublime', the other 'pretty'.  To Coleridge, the word 'sublime' captures well the grandeur of the sight, while the term 'pretty' is inadequate and trivial.  For Lewis (unlike the authors of the text he is critiquing) Coleridge is right because the waterfall is inherently sublime.  There is a grandeur and power in God's creation which exists in and of itself, and not merely because of how it makes us feel.

Whether they have this value because they are created by God, because they are animated by a spirit of life, because they embody an objective standard of beauty or because they represent an important part of the web of life into which we ourselves are inextricably integrated (options which are well worth discussing) the point is that the non-human world has a value in itself.  It is worth preserving for itself, not merely because it is useful for us and whether or not a cost-benefit analysis identifies a higher and better use for the resource.  

Perhaps, then, we could agree with Lewis that it is objectively good to preserve life on our planet and its fragile ecosystems - that the species we are driving to extinction are valuable in themselves, that the seasons are beautiful and fitting, that our beautiful coastlines would be objectively poorer for their erosion.  Perhaps we could also agree that nature is inherently orderly and knowable, created by a good intelligence, and that this means scientific findings are not mere matters of judgement or competing truths.  The evidence does not lie.

All of this would help us, and give us the grounding, to resist fossil fuel industry propaganda.  It would, indeed, provide a pathway through the inevitability and necessity of propaganda identified by Ellul.  The more we can recover our roots, our identity, the values of our faith and our heritage, the less we will be duped by the wealthy and powerful people who would like to manipulate us.  

Friday, 10 July 2020

The Wealth (and Poverty) of Christians

One of the things I've been doing over the past few months is reading some of the books that have been sitting untouched on my shelves for a long time.

A while ago, a friend passed on a copy of a book called Wealth and Poverty: Four Christian Views on Economics, published by the evangelical publishing house Inter-Varsity Press back in 1984.  It had been sitting on her shelf for a long time, and has been sitting on mine for the past year or two.  

Back on the 1980s IVP published a number of 'four views' titles, designed to present readers with some alternative Christian views on contentious subjects.  This one is edited by Robert G. Clouse, with contributions by Gary North, William E Deihl, Art Gish and John Gladwin.  Each contributor contributes a lead essay outlining their viewpoint on the topic - these are around 30 pages each - and then provides a brief response to the other three.  North is touted as representing 'Free Market Capitalism' , Deihl's view is labelled 'Guided Market', Gish is 'Decentralist' and Gladwin is labelled 'Centralist'.

The result is fascinating, but not necessarily as enlightening as the publisher was hoping for.  Let me provide you with a brief outline.


The first essay is by Gary North, who at the time of writing and for many years after was the Director of a think-tank called the Institute for Christian Economics.  Over the years he has been closely associated with US libertarian politician Ron Paul.  His view is titled 'Free Market Capitalism' in the book but this makes him sound like an orthodox conservative economist.  He is anything but.  In his essay, and in his responses to his fellow authors, North hammers a single central message - Biblical Law provides a model for economics that is applicable now and which present-day societies can and should follow.  By Biblical Law he mainly means the law of Moses.

This view is odd for a number of reasons, but whatever its oddness, it would be easier to take it seriously if North did so himself.  In practice he plays fast and loose with the law he professes to revere.  His basic framework comes from Deuteronomy 28, in which God promises blessings for Israel if they follow his laws, and hardship of they don't.  This conveniently ignores various passages in the Bible, especially the New Testament, which promise suffering to those who are faithful to God, but don't let that bother you.  What is really interesting is the way North is able to so glibly twist the Law to support his own viewpoint.  

For instance, the prohibition on theft is used to argue that the Law respects private property, and therefore that any attempts at redistribution amount to theft.  He then cites the tithe (10% of produce) as definitive limit on the level of taxation.  Redistribution is out of the question as this is theft, and implies taxation above the 10% threshold.  What of the various other parts of the Mosaic law which require the cancellation of debts every seven years and the redistribution of property every 50?  Best not to mention those.  And how does a contribution of 10% of income to the temple and its officials get converted into a taxation law for the secular government?  He fails to explain.  

Then there are the laws of inheritance - he notes that property is to be distributed evenly among all the person's children, leaving aside some caveats and complexities.  This, he says, is far better than redistribution as over time everyone would end up with similar modest holdings.  Not sure how that works if some families start out with nothing, but in any case with bewildering speed he flows from there into share-cropping and joint-stock companies as if these just appear logically out of the text.

What appears at first glance to be a rigid biblicism turns out to just be a thinly veiled religious justification for libertarianism.  It would be laughable if it were not for the fact that North and his cronies have been quite influential in the American religious right, turning American Christians into Tea Party activists intent on stripping away the few remaining protections available to the poor.  If this essay does nothing else, it exposes on what feeble foundations this identification rests.


William Deihl is or was (I can't easily work out if he is still alive) a Lutheran layman, a civil engineer and sales manager who wrote a number of books on issues to do with the spirituality of work, 'Monday to Friday spirituality' as it is sometimes called.  Rather than the kind of pseudo-literalism presented by North, he outlines three Christian principles relevant to economics - freedom, responsibility and justice.  These, roughly, suggest that people should be free to live their lives without unnecessary interference, should take responsibility for themselves and one another, and are entitled to economic justice.  

It's hard to argue with these principles, but they are wide enough to drive a truck through.  His particular truck, perhaps somewhat conveniently, looks a lot like the US system in which he lived - a market economy with some regulation, a residual welfare system designed to ensure people's needs are met without sapping their sense of self-responsibility, a fairly narrowly-framed view of justice, and an encouragement to Christians to live more simply and care for the poor.  He casts a censorious look at Swedish social democracy and a somewhat wistful one at Japanese corporate welfare, neither of which he seems to understand in any great depth, before landing at the US as the 'best of all possible worlds' with, perhaps, a little more generosity and a little less greed.  

Of course he says that no one economic system has been ordained by God.  But in general he seems to be pretty comfortable with the one he has.  Why change what is not broken? he seems to be saying.  But in the process he underestimates the level of brokenness in the world economy, the poverty of much of the world, the course of ecological destruction which was already quite clear by 1984.  Perhaps he just lacked the imagination to see that something better is possible.


Of all the four essays, I find myself most instinctively drawn to the one by Art Gish.  Gish was a Mennonite and member of an intentional Christian community until his death in 2010, and is best known as a peace activist, opposing the Iraq war and standing in front of Israeli tanks in the West Bank.  Of all the essays, his is the one that makes the most effort to get to grips with the Biblical teaching on wealth and poverty.  He provides readers with a sample of the teachings of the Law on economic justice, a flavour of the prophetic denunciation of injustice, and a solid sense of Jesus' preference for the poor.  All this leads him to a damning diagnosis of 20th century capitalism, with its entrenched inequality, chronic state of war and environmental destruction.

What, then, are Christians to do?  I found myself underwhelmed by his response, which was essentially that we should withdraw from this system and build a new one, based around Christian community.  The system, he appears to be saying, is irreparably broken and our only option is to start again from the ground up.  This is, indeed, the life he attempted to live but I found myself wondering - is this the only way?  Are there not reforms that can at least bring us closer to a just and sustainable community?  Is there something that can be done for those outside the pale, for those who can't live in such communities?

Of course, Art Gish and his wife Peggy were the real deal.  They walked the talk, practiced what they preached, and did a lot of good in the world.  But I found myself dissatisfied with the leap between analysis and action, the 'one size fits all' solution.  Perhaps I'm just justifying myself and the fact that I continue to enjoy my individualistic Western lifestyle, but I think there is something more to my objection.


So, finally, to John Gladwin.  Gladwin is the sole Englishman among a group of Americans, an Anglican clergyman who at the time ran the English church's social responsibility body and later became a bishop.  His theological analysis sits, perhaps, somewhere between Deihl's and Gish's, far more attuned than Deihl to the scale of injustice but unlike Gish still seeing some hope for the system as it is.  Perhaps his difference with Deihl is as much to do with perspective as anything - writing from England in the 1980s he had much more exposure to at least the English variant of European social democracy, and was perhaps more positive about government action as a result.

For Gladwin, the problems posed by modern capitalism - poverty, environmental damage - are too big to be amenable to private charity or individual Christian social responsibility, valuable as these are.  Structural problems require structural solutions, and these require government intervention.

This is the position which, in practice, I have adopted through my life, both in my work and in my personal engagement.  Although I have tried to simplify my lifestyle and to be generous in my giving, I have never had the illusion that this is more than a drop in the ocean.  Hence, over the years I have put a lot of energy into arguing for better government policy on issues like poverty, homelessness and climate change.  I have to say, the results have been somewhat disappointing and I often wonder if Art Gish is right after all - but it seems better to keep trying than to give up.

The main problem with Gladwin's essay is that he lets the side down, so to speak, by presenting his case poorly.  In the end, his essay drowns in generalities and it is no clearer at the end than at the beginning what we should actually do.  Yes, government needs to intervene, but how, and to what end?  And why does it not?


On the whole, I found Wealth and Poverty disappointing.  I think part of the problem is simply that it is difficult, in a thirty page essay, to adequately address such a complex question.  It requires both substantial theological reflection, and a thorough understanding of how a modern capitalist economy actually works.  None of the authors is really able to get beyond a superficial analysis of either question. 

Also, none of the four authors is an economist.  This is a curious choice by IVP, an invitation to more or less prominent Christians to opine on a subject of which their knowledge is limited.  It means they are missing half the picture - they all appear to have theological knowledge but they lack the technical understanding of economics that would be needed to apply theology seriously to the subject.  The result is that even their theological reflections are not that deep, and seem more or less to reflect the milieus in which they spend their lives.  

The authors and editor would have done well, before embarking on this project, to read Redmond Mullin's The Wealth of Christians, published a year earlier on 1983 - although perhaps as a former Jesuit the good Evangelicals of IVP considered him beyond the pale.  Mullin died in 2011 and I can't find a decent bio of him online, but from what I can glean he trained as a Jesuit and after leaving that order worked as a charity fundraiser.  He wrote a number of books on fundraising and helped to found the Institute of Fundraising in the UK - I believe their office has a plaque in his memory.

He's not an economist either, but at least he spent his life thinking about how to persuade the rich to part with their resources in the interests of the poor.  He also has a complete book to himself to explore the subject, although not a particularly long one at just over 200 pages - less than a quarter of the length of Adam Smith's classic economic treatise to which its title refers.

Most of the book traces the history of Christian thought on wealth and poverty, beginning with its Jewish and Stoic antecedents and taking us through the New Testament, the teachings of the church fathers and the views of prominent Christian thinkers in each subsequent age.  Much of it consists of quotes from a wide range of Christian and other sources, which makes for a rather dense but enlightening read.

In Mullin's view, Christian economic ethics are not radically different from the Jewish and Stoic ethics that preceded them.  All three emphasise the transitoriness of wealth, the sinfulness of greed and the duty to both justice and generosity towards the poor.  What is different in Christianity is the notion of incarnation - that the other person before you, including the poorest, appears before you is an embodiment of Christ himself and must be treated as such.  

This idea led to a radical attitude to wealth among the first Christians but over time, especially in the post-Constantinian church, this was moderated to a more conventional combination of charity and urgings to self-reliance.  He traces a similar pattern in subsequent Christian movements - for instance, the Franciscan friars started out radically poor, but soon their individual poverty became a form within which they amassed substantial collective property.  By the 19th century, the fervent evangelicals of the Clapham Sect did plenty of good without ever really questioning their entitlement to their wealth.

His conclusion is that all movements to change the game on wealth and poverty contain the seeds of their own corruption.  Institutions founded on radical Christian principles soon revert to the status quo, doing good and generous work within the broad framework of accepted morality that has been the norm ever since pre-Christian times.  Living a radical, incarnational view of wealth and poverty requires a new conversion in each person and in each generation.


Mullin's view explains a lot.  It explains, for instance, how it is that the authors of Wealth and Poverty, with the possible exception of Art Gish, can so fully absorb the economic ethos of their surrounding communities that they believe it to be Christian.  It also, perhaps, lends some legitimacy to Gish's pessimism about the economic mainstream, although it suggests that the alternative communities in which he lived are just as prone to corruption as the monastic communities which were their forerunner.  It also explains the meagre fruit of the movements for justice in which I have participated, and the fact that many of their fiercest opponents also wear a Christian label.

But it also says that there is a way forward.  None of these five authors, perhaps not even Gary North for all his mendacity, will necessarily labour entirely without fruit.  Even North would like people to be charitable in a strictly limited (and definitely voluntary) way.  William Deihl is a very unambitious reformer but if we heeded his urgings to live more simply and be more generous we would at least be on the path to something better.  The social democracy of John Gladwin ensures an adequate lifestyle for everyone, even if it may be flawed in many ways.  And Gish's communities, even if they don't succeed in becoming the new normal (or change to become more normal themselves) provide a spur to us to think differently, to see new possibilities, to go further.

We shouldn't expect perfection.  Richmond Mullin reminds as that the way is difficult and beset with wrong turnings, that the solutions are only ever partial.  But that is our journey, individually and together, to keep moving closer to what we should be.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Noel Henry and Rayshard Brooks

A little after 8.00pm on Monday, 15 June, Noel Henry was riding his bicycle to his home in the Adelaide suburb of Kilburn when he was pulled over by the police.  They told him they suspected him of being in possession of drugs, and ordered him to put his hands on his head so they could search him.  According to the police statement released the next day, he 'originally was compliant and after a short time he began to refuse. Police attempted to arrest the man who resisted and a struggle ensued.'  

The noise of this struggle alerted his friends who came out of the house.  Some of them filmed parts of the incident and subsequently posted their films on social media.  They show three police officers holding Henry on the ground, one of them hitting him, and his head being forcibly pushed down onto the concrete footing of the fence they have pinned him against.  All this while his friends yell at the police to 'get off his head' and 'let his head up', while others attempt to intervene, only to be pepper-sprayed.  Eventually Henry was arrested and taken to the Kilburn police station, where he was charged with hindering police, resisting police and property damage - apparently a police body camera was damaged during the struggle.  He was released the next morning, with minor injuries, and the subsequent police statements are ambiguous about whether they will pursue the charges.

These are the raw details, but it is important to look at the detail here and probe a little beyond the bald facts.  The first thing to note is that Noel Henry is Aboriginal.  The second is that the police were in the neighbourhood responding to 'an alleged high risk domestic violence matter where a woman was taken to hospital'.  Henry was riding his bicycle near the address of their call-out, although as far as I can tell he had no connection to the incident they were investigating.  I don't suppose the police could have been expected to know that, and so it made sense that they stopped him to find out.  Other witnesses have suggested he was initially stopped because he was not wearing a helmet.  But look what happens next.  The police say they suspected he was carrying illicit drugs and they searched him.  Wait, what?  Weren't they responding to a domestic violence incident?  What led them to have this suspicion?  Looking at the subsequent charges it was clearly unfounded.  At what point did they realise he had no drugs?  They don't say.

The second thing to note is the subsequent escalation.  While Henry initially consented to be searched, at some point he decided he'd had enough, and refused to cooperate further.  At this point, the police resorted to force, and before long there were three policeman holding him down while he struggled to escape.  This was clearly a violent struggle and it is not surprising that reports afterwards indicate Henry was injured, as was one of the police.  According to one of the witnesses, the entire incident lasted about 45 minutes, and Henry was on the ground for about 20 of these.  For part of these 20 minutes he was not moving and his friends feared he was unconscious.

Meanwhile, remember that 'high risk domestic violence matter'?  During this 45 minutes, what was going on with that?  While the police were inexplicably searching someone for drugs and pinning him to ground, were the woman and her children safe?  Where was the perpetrator of this serious violence?  Nothing in the police report or the media answers that question and I wonder if any of the journalists thought to ask.

It is of course no accident that this happened to an Aboriginal man.  One his friends who witnessed the incident explained.

(Doris) Kropinyeri said other Indigenous people in the Kilburn area were regularly approached by police.

“Me and my friends have been walking down the street in the middle of the day and police will pull us over and ask us where we are going,” she said.

“They said they suspected he had illicit drugs, that’s always the case, they seem to think that we are all drug users here, every Indigenous person in the Kilburn area.”

In a final detail, his friends notified the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement, whose representative went to the Port Adelaide watch-house in the capacity of his legal representative.  The police appeared to be uncooperative, refusing to tell his representative whether he had medical treatment (the police commissioner subsequently suggested he had been offered this but refused it) and telling them he had not been given bail because he hadn't asked for it.  

To me, this incident is the whole story of Aboriginal deaths in custody told in one incident, but fortunately without the death.  Let me step you through it.

1. An Aboriginal man is stopped on the street, even though he doesn't appear to be doing anything wrong (aside, perhaps, from riding his bicycle without a helmet) and is accused of possessing illicit drugs, an accusation which turns out to be untrue.  There was quite possibly no need to stop him at all, but if they did need to, say if they thought he had some connection with the domestic violence incident they were supposed to be attending, then it would have made sense for them to skip the drugs bit and ask him about that.

2. When the man decides that he is being treated unjustly and refuses to cooperate further, the police decide to arrest him, and insist on their way by forcing him to the ground and holding him down for an extended period.  What were they arresting him for?  Did they have any evidence that he had committed a crime?  Clearly not, given they didn't charge him with one - his charges all relate to his conduct after their attempted arrest.

3. He is then held overnight (not bailed) and not given medical assistance despite being injured.  These are both common factors in deaths in custody, and both were completely avoidable.  

Fortunately Noel Henry escaped with only minor injuries - I say fortunately because since 1991 over 430 Aboriginal people have died in prison or police custody and some of these have been in similar circumstances.  In 2004 on Palm Island, Mulrunji Doomadgee had his spleen ruptured in a similar violent arrest for a trivial offence and died in the watch-house without anyone calling a doctor.

Meanwhile, this piece of apparently routine harassment and subsequent escalation seems to have taken priority over a serious incident of domestic violence.  Because domestic violence is not that important, right?

It's not clear what the South Australian police leadership think of this incident, but perhaps they are not entirely happy.  The two officers who were mainly responsible have been 'placed on administrative duties' while an internal investigation takes place.  But we have heard about these internal investigations before.  It is rare for a police officer to be sacked, or even demoted, as a result of one.  In the case of Mulrunji Doomadgee, the officer who killed him, Snr Sgt John Hurley, was charged with manslaughter but acquitted.  Key pieces of evidence were cleaned up before investigators arrived and the investigators spent their time on the island drinking and hanging out with Hurley and his associates. No-one was disciplined over this cover-up.  Hurley kept his job in the Queensland Police for over a decade.  It took two further incidents of violence, both against non-Aboriginal suspects (neither of whom died) for him to finally be sacked.


Another thing that highlights the extent of Noel Henry's good luck is a disturbingly similar incident that occurred three days earlier on the other side of the world, in Atlanta, Georgia.  Rayshard Brooks, a young African-American man, was asleep in the front passenger seat of a car that was pulled up, driverless, in the drive-through of a fast-food restaurant.  It's not clear how he got there and why the car was pulled up where it was, blocking customers from using the drive-through.  Perhaps if he had been in the car-park a few metres away he would still be alive now.  As it was, the police arrived.

The encounter was initially peaceful and routine.  A single police officer arrived, woke Brooks up and asked him to move his car into the car-park, which he did.  Then he got out of the car and the police officer noted that he seemed to be drunk and called for a colleague to help him.  The two of them conducted a 'sobriety test' which included a breathalyser, which showed him to be over the legal limit for driving.   He was perfectly cooperative with the police for the 40 minutes all this took, and he was unarmed.

Let me pause at this point to look at this.  So far in the story, it is not clear that Rayshard Brooks has broken the law.  He may have.  After all, his car got there somehow, so perhaps he drove it there.  But when the police arrived he was not driving the car, he was asleep in the passenger seat.  The only time he drove the car, to their certain knowledge, was at their direction, to shift it a few metres out of the drive-through.  Aside from the unfortunate choice of parking place, he was in fact doing just what the police and road safety authorities ask us all to do when we are too drunk to drive - sleep it off, and drive later when we are sober. He does not seem to have been a danger to anyone.

Nonetheless, the police decided to arrest him and the situation rapidly went from routine to catastrophic.  Brooks refused to accept arrest and struggled violently with the two officers.  They attempted to pin him to the ground, and one of them tasered him repeatedly to try and stop his struggles.  He managed to wriggle out of their grip, grabbed one of the officers' Tasers and ran off, discharging the Taser in their general direction (but not coming close to hitting them) as he ran.  In response, one of the officers dropped the taser he was holding, drew his pistol, and shot Rayshard Brooks three times.  Brooks died of his gunshot wounds.

There are so many things wrong with this incident, and they start well before the fatal shots.  They are similar to the things that went wrong in Noel Henry's case.

1. The police did, in fact, have a responsibility to make sure that he didn't drive while drunk, but they were not obliged to arrest him.  There were other ways to stop him from driving.  They could simply have told him not to, and taken his word that he would go back to sleep in the car and drive home in the morning.  If they were worried about him lying to them, they could have confiscated his keys.  They could have confiscated the keys and locked the car with him outside it, and then left him to fend for himself.  They could have offered to drive him somewhere.  Brooks suggested his own solution - his sister lived nearby, he said, he would walk to her house and come back to get the car in the morning.  Perhaps they could have given him a lift there.  This would have kept everyone safe - him, all the other road users and, incidentally, themselves.  

2. Then, of course, there is the actual shooting, which is pretty much impossible to justify.  Although Brooks had their Taser - a non-lethal weapon - he was running away, not threatening them.  They could simply have let him run.  They knew who he was, and where he lived.  They had his car, and theirs.  They could even have followed him in their car and picked him up when he ran out of breath and the adrenaline rush subsided.  Instead, the officer seemingly didn't even think before drawing his gun and firing.  

Unlike the South Australian police, it is pretty clear what the Atlanta police command think of this incident.  Both officers have been sacked, and the man who fired the gun, Officer Garrett Rolfe, has been charged with murder.  This has a long way to go, and we should not get our hopes up at this stage.  Of the many US police officers who have faced charges over killing members of the public, including unarmed ones who were not threatening them in any way, only one has been convicted - ironically Mohamed Noor, a black policeman who killed Justine Damond, a white Australian woman who had called the police in response to a suspected domestic violence incident in her neighbourhood.


The sad thing about both of these incidents is that they occurred after the death of George Floyd and during the resulting mass protests in both the US and Australia.  These events were the top items on the nightly news here in Australia as they were in the USA.  The police officers involved must have been aware.  Why were they not being doubly careful and thoughtful in the way they dealt with black people in the community?

But it is easy to just lay the blame at the feet of the police involved.  Certainly if you kill someone, or beat them up, there should be consequences.  But the fact that this happens repeatedly, across both our countries and many others, indicates that something deeper is going on.  We need to change systems and cultures as well as prosecuting some individuals. 

Of course, the men who ended up in the watch-house (Henry) or dead (Brooks) were part of oppressed groups - Aboriginal Australian, African American.  In our respective countries, these two population groups are massively over-represented in our prisons and justice systems.  Some people have said to me, in recent weeks, that this is because they commit more crime.  If they didn't commit crimes, they wouldn't be in prison.  This is partly true but only a small part of the story.  What stands out in both these stories is that the two men were not in fact committing crimes.  Noel Henry was riding his bike home.  Rayshard Brooks was sleeping in his car.  One had the misfortune of  being near where a crime took place, the other had parked in an inconvenient place.  It would be hard not to conclude that the subsequent police response was driven in part by their race.  

A second thing to notice is that in both situations the process of investigation and arrest took precedence over concern for the safety of either the person concerned or other members of the public.  The South Australian police were supposed to be attending a domestic violence incident, but they allowed themselves to be diverted by the notion of finding out if Noel Henry was carrying illicit drugs, and then arresting him for refusing to cooperate.  The safety and wellbeing of the woman and perhaps her children took a back seat, not to mention Henry's own wellbeing.  In Atlanta, once the police had established clearly that Rayshard Brooks was too drunk to drive their priority was not to ensure he got home safely and without injuring anyone else, it was to arrest him, presumably for being drunk in charge of the vehicle in which he was sleeping. 

I wonder if this is a product of how success is measured in the police forces of the two places.  Are they rewarded for making arrests, but not for getting people home safely?  Certainly in the past decade or two we have seen a steady growth of 'law and order' policies which favour arrests, charges and jailing people over prevention and rehabilitation of offenders.  In the US, especially, many places have laws which allow police to stop and search people without any reason, and a number of categories of trivial and virtually non-existent crimes on which they can be arrested.  You will not be surprised to hear which racial group is most targeted by these laws.  In Australia one of the most common reasons Aboriginal people, and other poor people, end up in prison is unpaid fines.  This means a trivial offence such as travelling on public transport without a ticket can gradually escalate into a huge fine with charges for interest, court costs and so forth which the person has no chance of ever paying, and which can only be expunged by a stint in jail.  Surely we can do better!

A final thing to note here is that once the process began, there seems to have been an imperative that the person must not get away, that they must be subdued and brought into custody.  Remember that these are not men charged with serious crimes, or posing a threat to society.  Yet once the police had started down the enforcement track there was no escape hatch, no way for them to pull back, even when going on required risking (and in Brooks' case taking) their lives.  

In 1991 Australia held a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody which made over 300 recommendations.  Some were implemented, most were not, and even those that were are often now honoured in the breach.  More recently, the Australian Law Reform Commission investigated the question and came up with a more modest list of 35 recommendations.  As far as I know no Australian government, national, State or Territory, has yet taken up its recommendations.  I don't know the US scene so well, but I have not doubt people have proposed similar solutions there as well.

If you ever think that racism is a thing of the past ask yourself, why does this keep happening?  Why do Aboriginal people, and African Americans, feel so strongly about this that they will turn out in huge numbers in the middle of a pandemic?  And why do our governments not leap into action, but instead keep doing the same things they have always done?  That is racism.  I like to think we can do better.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Portraits of Homelessness

Here's some more social isolation reading for you.  As you may know, I've spent a lot of my career working on housing and homelessness.  I could write endlessly about policy and service responses (indeed, I have in other forums) but this is not the place for that.  Instead, here are two books that tell great homelessness stories.


 A few years ago I read John Healy's The Grass Arena, his account of life as a homeless alcoholic in London.

This remarkable book was first published in 1988, made into a movie in 1991, then disappeared off the radar for years after Healy had a dispute with his publishers.  It was finally republished in 2008 by Penguin Modern Classics and it is this edition that I read.

Healy was born in London in 1943, the son of poor working class Irish immigrants.  As a child he suffered abuse at the hands of his father and this set the course of his life.  He was an angry man.  As a teenager he took up boxing, feeling exhilaration when he managed to pummel and opponent and earning notice for his talent and aggression.  After school he joined the army and became regimental boxing champion, but the army is not the place for a man who has issues with authority and he spent as much time in detention as boxing or doing his assigned duties.  Before long he was given a dishonourable discharge and sent packing.  He wound up homeless on the streets of London.

Through all this the one constant was alcohol.  He began drinking at the age of 14.  It relieved his pain, or so he said, but it also ruined his life.  He was an angry drunk (or perhaps he was just angry no matter what) and impossible to live with, so he wound up living nowhere, or everywhere, one of the many homeless alcoholics who are a constant of the street life of London and any other city you care to name.

His description of this life forms the heart of the book, and a confronting description it is.  What he describes is a series of incidents which centre around callous brutality.  He and his companions would do whatever it took to get their hands on alcohol, and would get drunk.  If necessary, they would steal it from one another - not by stealth, but by brute force.  If there was enough to share they would drink it together, but as they got drunker all appearance of conviviality would disappear and eventually someone would be beaten up, even on occasion killed.  He had companions on the street but no friends.  Each of them had only one friend, alcohol, and none of them would not hesitate to knife anyone who got between them and their true love. 

Of course if you behave this way you are bound to end up in prison, and that is what happened to John Healy.  While inside, he learned to play chess, and it changed his life.  On his release, instead of returning to the streets he went to live with his mother and started practicing his new-found obsession.  Although he never quite achieved his dream of becoming a Grand Master he did become one of England's leading chess players, travelling the country for tournaments and exhibitions and writing a book on chess strategies.  I believe he is still alive, living sober and probably still grumpy and difficult but nonetheless alive in a Council flat somewhere in England.

This is a great book, graphically and brilliantly written, but something about it doesn't quite ring true.  Not that I think Healy is a fraud, by any means.  He is no Helen Demidenko, inventing a fake persona to give his fantasies an air of reality.  All the indications are that he is just who he says he is, and that his life of homeless alcoholism is the real deal.  Nor does his story of trauma ring false.  Although he doesn't follow the classic recovery trajectory of someone like Eric Clapton, his life trajectory is highly believable for someone who suffered childhood abuse, and his story is all too familiar.

What strikes a false note here is the unremitting brutality of the account of his life on the streets, of the habitual violence, the absence of kindness and friendship, the total lack of scruple of both he and his companions.  Not that there is no violence among rough-sleepers.  It's all too frequent.  But Healy's account is oddly one-dimensional.  Anyone familiar with chronic homelessness will tell you that along with the violence is genuine friendship, loyalty and affection.  One of the reasons that attempts to house people who have been sleeping on the streets for a long time are often unsuccessful is that they get lonely in their housing, and go back to where their friends are.  Perhaps, in a moment of drunken rage, friends will fight fiercely and injure or even kill one another, but this is not the totality of their friendship.

Not that this should be an excuse to say, 'oh, that's alright then'.  Just because it's not quite a bleak as John Healy paints it doesn't make it good.  Homelessness is a blight on society, ultimately deadly to those who experience it, and totally unnecessary.  COVID-19 has shown us just how easy it is to give shelter to homeless people, and with a little more persistence and a fraction of the resources governments have poured into assistance for wealthy companies and the recently unemployed, none of them would need to return to rough sleeping.  My friends at Everybody's Home have a plan to end all homelessness, not just street homelessness, by 2030, all eminently doable.


When I read The Grass Arena for the first time a couple of years ago, I immediately thought of WH Davies' The Autobiography of a Super-tramp, a copy of which I bought many years ago at some book sale or other because of the link between it's title and the band Supertramp which I listened to in the 1970s.  Supertramp even named a 'greatest hits' album 'Autobiography of Supertramp' as if to underline the connection for anyone who cared to dig.

Davies' book was published in 1908 with the assistance of George Bernard Shaw, who wrote a preface and drove a hard bargain with the publishers of Davies' behalf to ensure he got a decent advance and royalties and retained ownership of the work.  At the time if its publication the author was 37 and had already started to make a name for himself as a poet, self-publishing a slim volume of poetry and sending it to various literary names in the hopes that they would pay him the purchase price.  In the subsequent years, until his death in 1940, he became something of a minor celebrity, publishing various volumes of poetry and other writings and mixing with London't literati.

Despite this later celebrity, like Healy, Davies was the real deal.  After growing up with his grandparents in a Welsh pub (where he learned to drink among other things) he left school under a cloud at 14 after being part of a gang of teenage thieves, and served an apprenticeship as a picture-framer which he completed but didn't enjoy.  Feeling restless, he travelled to Liverpool and there took ship for the USA.

The heart of the book is his description of his five years in North America, travelling from place to place, riding the rails, begging for his living, occasionally working or living off charity.  Where for Healy the homeless life was one of unremitting violence, in Davies' telling it is a long and exciting, although often hazardous, adventure.  Many of the stories are genuinely funny and a lot of them may be apocryphal or at least exaggerated.  For instance, one of the japes used by some beggars was to sing for their supper - they would arrive in the early evening in a reasonably well off street, stand in the middle of the road and begin to sing, in the hopes that the residents would reward them with money or food.  You might think that this venture required some singing ability, but in Davies' description the opposite applies.  The trick is to sing as mournfully and tunelessly as possible.  If you sing well, the residents will want you to continue.  If you sing awfully they will do whatever it takes to make you stop.  It doesn't matter a great deal if you are pelted with foodstuffs rather than handed them, as long as they are edible.

Even Davies' exposure to prison was chalk and cheese to Healy's dreary inevitability.  He explains how he and his companions would take advantage of a lurk in the penal systems of various US states under which the local sheriff would be paid an allowance for each prisoner he held in custody.  On those cold winter nights prison seemed an attractive option - a warm bed, good meals, not particularly onerous incarceration, even a fair degree of freedom considering the sheriffs didn't want to scare off paying customers by making the incarceration too strict.  Much of winter was spent travelling from place to place getting free accommodation in this way, until the spring made sleeping out of doors OK again.

As you can imagine, it was not a realisation that he needed to get his life in order that put an end to this merry jape.  Rather, on a stint back in England, just as he and a companion were about to embark again to try their luck on the Canadian goldfields, he had a terrible accident.  His foot was trapped and mangled under the wheels of a train, and as a result he had a brush with death, a long stint in hospital and his foot was amputated.  This put an end to his wandering life and the book winds down with him writing poetry in front of the fire in a seedy London boarding house.

Looked at this way, homelessness is almost something you should try for yourself.  Of course it makes for a merry story, and it certainly made Davies' standing as a writer and got him out of that seedy boarding house.  Perhaps, indeed, it was a little easier in the 1890s US than in late 20th century London, or present day Australia, but somehow I doubt it.  Going hungry, sleeping out in the cold and rain, being at risk of robbery and assault - you could survive it all as a young man, but you would be unlikely to come out unscathed - and in fact Davies did not, he ended up with a wooden prosthesis instead of a foot.


No, dear readers, homelessness is not a jolly romp.  It is hard, whether you are sleeping on the streets, couch surfing, moving from place to place or sleeping in a homeless shelter.  Your physical and mental health are put under stress, you are at risk of exploitation and violence, your relationships break down and you are trapped in a cycle of poverty.  Homelessness is something that should be avoided at all costs.  A society that is blase about the existence of homeless people still has a way to travel down the path of humanitarianism.

Then again, neither is it as bleak as Healy would have you believe - at least, that is not the usual experience of people living through it.  Homeless people, at least most of them, are not the psychopathic monsters Healy portrays.  Certainly, many of them have mental illnesses which may be poorly treated, but more often than not these make them a danger to themselves.  Homeless people are as complete as the rest of us - they experience and express love and care for one another as much as they fight one another, they laugh as much as they cry or shout, they are as likely to share as they are to steal.  This is how people survive on the streets - that, and the hard work of various charities and many skilled professionals.

There is no reason for people to be homeless in a wealthy society.  We have plenty of resources to go around.  There is a vast amount of research about what works in helping people move from homelessness to a more stable, healthier life.  The problem is not that we can't do it, it is that our governments and our community as a whole just doesn't see it as a priority.  Why not?  Search me, after 35 years in that industry I'm none the wiser.