Saturday, 24 August 2013

Election in the Air, Election on the Ground

You may think we are in the midst of an election campaign, but actually we're having two.  One is being fought across the airwaves in the various forms of national media,  The other is being fought in local communities.

The first campaign is between the two leaders, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, with their support crews assisting and others like Christine Milne, Clive Palmer and Bob Katter trying to muscle in as best they can.  We see this campaign on our TVs every night, we read about it in the papers, we hear it on the radio. 

This campaign appears to be pretty even.  Rudd is a lot smarter than Abbott and knows how to work the media, but neither leader is that popular really.  In the thrust and parry of debate very little of substance is discussed, and who "wins" is as much a matter of debate as the actual issues being discussed or avoided.

Despite this contest appearing to be fairly even, all the polling information seems to be saying that the Coalition is gaining ground and that in two weeks' time we will elect an Abbott government.  People analyse what the leaders are doing and how this is making the ground shift, but I don't think it has anything to do with them.

This is because there is another election campaign that we rarely see in the media, but see a lot in our daily lives.  It is fought out by local candidates and grassroots party members in shopping centres, on street corners, in local halls and on front doorsteps.  People set up tables to answer questions, hand out leaflets, knock on doors, display posters and wave at busy intersections. 

I can only speak for Brisbane, where I live, but it seems to me that while the leaders are fairly even, the Coalition is winning the local campaign by a huge margin.  The Labor Party hardly even seems to be trying.  My letterbox is flooded with LNP brochures.  Wherever I go I see LNP banners with their candidates' smiling faces.  Their volunteers are out in force, having friendly chats with people in shopping centres, handing out pamphlets and generally letting us know they are here for us.  Labor, on the other hand, is virtually invisible.  It is as if Rudd is leading an imaginary party.

Interestingly, this is not even about the candidates necessarily.  I have met my local Labor member, Graham Perrett, and he seems to be a pretty good bloke.  He is intelligent, prepared to listen and discuss issues, responsive to local concerns and he works his bum off.  I haven't met his LNP counterpart, Malcolm Cole, but I would not be surprised to find he's much the same with a more conservative slant. 

The key to this campaign is not the candidates themselves (unless they do something seriously dumb) it is the support they have behind them.  It is the ordinary local residents who are prepared to champion their cause.

This is where the Labor Party seems to be in trouble, and this trouble is not a new development.  Eighteen months ago the Labor Party was reduced to seven members in the Queensland parliament.  One of the keys to the magnitude of this loss is that Labor lost the confidence of its core supporters.  Its rapid privatisation of government assets angered its trade union membership base, and people who would normally campaign for Labor stayed away.

It seems that they haven't come back yet.  Meanwhile the other group of people who would be core Labor supporters - the middle class left like me who are concerned about issues like global peacemaking, the environment and social justice - don't have much to get our teeth into.  Federal Labor has been a willing participant in the spiral of deterrence on asylum seekers, reluctant to take action on climate change and indistinguishable from the Coalition on foreign policy.  People like me will preference Labor with a heavy heart, and will not prostitute ourselves by actively campaigning for them.

The result is that there is no-one to drop things in letterboxes, stand on street corners, set up tables in shopping centres or host sausage sizzles.  Kevin Rudd was so desperate he made a public appeal for volunteers when he announced the election date.  It doesn't seem to have worked.  The latest polls show Rudd is in trouble in his own formerly safe seat of Griffith in inner Brisbane, threatened by a solid grassroots campaign led by former AMA president Dr Bill Glasson.  Rudd is forced to wage a desperate nation-wide campaign on the airwaves knowing there is no-one looking after the home front. 

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Handmaid's Tale

Intrigued by a reference in Merold Westphal's Suspicion and Faith, I've just finished reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Atwood is a prolific Canadian novelist, poet and essayist, critically lauded and much decorated.  This is my first encounter with her writing but I don't think it will be long before I read more.

The Handmaid's Tale is a work of social satire.  Satire operates by highlighting and exaggerating absurd or problematic aspects of an idea, worldview or public personality in order to debunk it or turn it into an object of ridicule.  By far the most common application of this technique is to make us laugh, but laughter is never the main aim.  The main aim is to deflate pretensions, to open up the space for criticism, to bring the powerful or popular down a peg or two.

Less commonly, because it takes much more skill, satire can aim to horrify, to make us weep.  The classic example is George Orwell's 1984, a grim comment on the totalitarian state (whether socialist or capitalist) and the pernicious role of covert surveillance. 

1984 is also a classic example of how easily such satire is misunderstood.  As the real 1984 rolled around, journalists wrote earnest articles cataloguing the predictions Orwell made about this year, how many had been fulfilled and how many had not.  Orwell would have been rolling in his grave.  He wrote the book in 1948 and got its title by reversing the digits, a thinly coded indication to his first readers that he was talking about their own day.

This is the sort of satire to which The Handmaid's Tale belongs.  Atwood's target is gender relations, but to put it so baldly undersells the complexity and nuance of her tale.  Her dystopian republic of Gilead, located somewhere in what we know as the USA, is a military dictatorship built in a world of pollution, war and alarmingly low birth-rates.  Its rulers are a military/religious group called the Sons of Jacob, who impose a rigid caste system on their society based on an odd but superficially plausible interpretation of the Bible. 

In a way, this is a world ruled by men.  Women are to stay home, look after their homes and bear children, except that most of them are unable to do so.  Yet it is not quite that simple.  The whole society is stratified.  Women can be Wives, Daughters, Marthas or Handmaids - or in some cases, for lower caste men, they may be Econowives who have to fulfil all the roles for one man.  Or some few may be Aunts, those whose job is to keep other women in line. 

The men are also stratified - Commanders are in positions of authority, Angels are front-line soldiers who fight Gilead's many wars, Guards perform more menial home duties, the feared Eyes conduct surveillance.  Each caste has its own uniform.

Atwood's story is narrated by a Handmaid, the most peculiar of Atwood's inventions in this strange world.  The fertility problem means many women are unable to have children (fertility is, of course, attributed to the women, even though informally they know men can also be sterile).  To solve the fertility problem, high-caste men whose wives are childless may be assigned a Handmaid, styled on the story of Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah who give their handmaids to Jacob to bear children on their behalf. 

This particular handmaid is known as Offred, a name taken from that of the man to whom she is assigned.  Trained at the Rachel and Leah Centre under the tutelage of the formidable Aunts Lydia and Elizabeth, she is then assigned to a high-ranking commander whose name is presumably Fred but who is only ever referred to as The Commander.  Also in the household are Fred's Wife, who Offred refers to as "Serena Joy" a former morals campaigner now ironically forced to live out the gender roles she advocated but never lived; Rita and Cora, the Marthas who do the household chores; and Nick, a Guard who is the Commander's personal servant and who may also be a covert Eye. 

Dressed in her bright red uniform, Offred is isolated in the household, forbidden to read as all women are, viewed with suspicion and fear by the other women, allowed out once a day to go shopping in company with another Handmaid who she meets on the corner and treats warily, and otherwise confined to her room, tense and bored.  Once a month, she takes part in the Ceremony with the Commander and his Wife, aiming futilely to conceive a child which will be brought up by Serena Joy as her own. 

Told like this it sounds flat and clinical, but this tale is powered by grief.  The social transformation that created Gilead has been rapid and disorienting.  Offred has lost everything - her husband (most likely killed as they try to escape across the border, but she has no way of knowing for sure) her child, assigned to another more "worthy" family, her occupation as a librarian (she is now forbidden even to read), even her own name.  She remembers how it was before, and these memories jar against the official version in which the extremest pornography of the "time before" is portrayed as the everyday reality from which women have now been "freed".

What makes this grief so hard to bear is that there seems no possibility of it ever being resolved, or even acknowledged.  Offred is a mere instrument of reproduction.  The notion that she may be an independent being, with thoughts and feelings of her own, seems anathema to those around her.  The reader enters her inner turmoil as she has nothing to do but mull endlessly over what she has lost, and what she has become.  We, too, feel trapped.

Yet as the story proceeds we are allowed to glimpse the cracks in this totalitarian world.  Even the Commander himself seems trapped, unhappy enough to seek Offred's illicit company - not for sex as she fears, but for secret games of Scrabble and intelligent conversation.  Serena Joy is even less happy with the world she helped create, full of bitterness and resentment which has so few channels in which to flow.  It is in this unhappiness, and the possibilities for rebellion it creates, that we must look for hope.

We can laugh at the absurdity of this tale, exaggerated as it is, but it will be a grim laugh.  How far is Gilead from Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia?  How comfortable should we be that our own fundamentalisms would be incapable of similar oppression given the opportunity?  The Bible quotes and passages on which the Sons of Jacob rely are twisted out of shape by the ideology they serve, but are we immune from such twisting ourselves? 

The Handmaid's Tale, like 1984, is a kind of fairground mirror.  The image it gives back is grotesque, distorted, yet it is still recognisably ourselves.  Look carefully, and beware!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Abbott's Six Point Plan

So, the first week of the election campaign has gone pretty much to plan.  We've had a debate in which both sides mouthed platitudes.  The leaders are flying frantically from place to place across the country and vying for air time in both senses of the word.  The Murdoch press has amplified its long campaign to get an Abbott government elected to the point where it is a tortured scream.  As expected, the initial enthusiasm for Kevin Rudd has worn off and the polls are suggesting a big Coalition win.  Even the recruitment of former premier Peter Beattie as Labor candidate for the Queensland marginal seat of Forde seems to have backfired.

If my place is any indication, perhaps one reason the election is tilting towards the Coalition is that they are the only ones doing any campaigning.  I live in the marginal Labor seat of Moreton, and have yet to see any material from sitting member Graham Perrett.  Not even via e-mail.  I know his office has my e-mail address because he replied to my recent angry message about the PNG "solution". 

On the other hand, LNP candidate Malcolm Cole has e-mailed me several times and flooded my actual mail box with flyers.  The latest one tells me about the Coalition's "six point plan" for Australia.  It's a depressing read. 

These things are generally written in code.  The words sound encouraging and reassuring, but once you start to dig into what they mean it can be quite scary.  This one is a classic of the genre.  Here are the six points with my translations.

1. We will build an stronger, more productive and diverse economy with lower taxes, more efficient government and more productive businesses that will deliver more jobs, higher real incomes and better services for you and your family.
"Lower taxes" for businesses, "more efficient government" means cutting services (note we will have "better" services but the quantity thereof is not mentioned), and "more productive businesses...more real jobs, higher real incomes" is code for business-friendly changes to the industrial relations system.

2. We will get the Budget back under control, cut waste and start reducing debt - to keep interest rates as low as possible and to protect the Australian economy from future economic shocks.
This is another way of saying "more efficient government", code for budget cuts. 

3. We will help families get ahead by freeing them from the burdens of the carbon tax - to protect Australian jobs and reduce cost-of-living pressures, especially rising electricity and gas prices.
The reference to families is of course a piece of misdirection to distract you from the fact that the main beneficiaries of removing the carbon tax will not be families, they will be big businesses, particularly those like mining companies that generate a lot of pollution.  This pollution will now once again be free, insofar as the costs of the resulting environmental degradation will also be borne by someone else.  We're not sure who yet.

4. We will help small businesses grow and create more jobs - by reducing business costs and cutting taxes as well as cutting red and green tape costs by $1 billion every year.
This point is code for the removal of environmental protections which now result in two types of tape, presumably since the tape manufacturers are unable to source red dye in the required quantities.  The $1b figure is completely meaningless since no-one knows what this all costs anyway. 

5.  We will generate one million jobs over the next five years and two million new jobs within a decade by growing a bigger, more productive and prosperous economy.
This is a statement of hope.  The government hopes that if it cuts spending, taxes and regulation and makes the industrial relations system more pro-business this will result in employment growth.  Note the jobs will not be "created" by government but "generated", a much more ambiguous term.  In fact all the direct government actions hinted at in these six points will result in fewer jobs.  What is the opposite of "created"?  Obviously a word that can't be used in an election pamphlet.

6. We will build new roads and highways to get things moving - with an emphasis on reducing delays and bottlenecks to improve people's quality of life.
At last, something that requires no translation - more roads!

While this message does require a little decoding, it is not hard to see what kind of government this will be.  They will cut taxes to business and to pay for this they will have to cut services, but these cuts will go under the name of reducing waste and cutting bureaucracy. 

Environmental protections will be rapidly removed and the carbon tax will go, accelerating the degradation of the natural environment and our contribution to global warming.  The costs of this degradation will be borne by future governments and therefore not Tony Abbott's problem. 

Cuts to environmental programs will not be enough to pay for the tax cuts.  Welfare, health and education will all be in the firing line. Costs for many of these will be shifted back to the States, which will come as a shock because in the last couple of years Liberal state premiers have been working hard to shift them in the other direction. 

Despite the fact that we need to be preparing for a post-oil future and developing transport options that reduce carbon emissions, the government's transport policy will be about more cars and trucks.

Apparently the majority of Australians are planning to vote for the party that is promising us this.  I can only assume they either haven't read the six point plan, or did not know how to decode it.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Peter Gabriel

Recently I acted on a whim and bought myself Peter Gabriel's first three solo albums on CD.  In his enigmatic style each of them is simply titled Peter Gabriel so they have, by default, taken on various names: either simply "1, 2 and 3" or, for those in the know, names drawn from the pictures on their covers - "Car" for the first, "Scratch" for the second and "Melt" for the third.

I first heard Gabriel via Brisbane student radio 4ZZZ when I was at high school in the late 1970s.  One evening they played the entire The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the last album Genesis made with Gabriel as singer.  I was hooked at first listen.  I loved the passionate, energetic music, the constant experimentation with sounds and voices and the bizarre fractured fairy tale that ran through the album.  It's still one of my favourites 35 years later.

My love of this album put me in a distinct minority that didn't necessarily include all the members of the band.  Perhaps they didn't feel it was their finest work but there was also a certain amount of resentment involved.  Gabriel effectively hijacked the songwriting process by insisting on writing all the lyrics himself.   Such a takeover was tantamount to sacrilege in a band that saw itself first and foremost as a songwriting collective. 

Nor did they grow to love the album any more through performing it in its entirety over 200 times on the subsequent tour.  By the time it was over everyone was relieved that Gabriel was departing.  The parting was reasonably amicable but they all knew Gabriel needed to go his own way.

The question was, what exactly was Gabriel's own way?  There was little to be gained if he just replicated Genesis' sound, and the introspective, distant emotional tone of much of their music would hardly do for a solo artist.  He had his magnificent, athletic voice but what else did he have?

The first album, released early in 1977, could be described as a "promising beginning".  It sounds like a series of experiments in what sort of artist Gabriel wanted to become.  Moribund the Burgermeister, which opens the album, sounds just like Genesis.  Perhaps he put this song at the beginning to reassure nervous fans.  They needed it, because he quickly departed from the script.

There are some clear missteps.  Excuse Me and Waiting for the Big One are attempts at a kind of jazz fusion that would have been better left in the studio archive.  His essays in stadium rock - Modern Love, Slowburn and Down the Dolce Vita - are better but nothing to write home about. 

In the midst of this mediocrity are three gems.  Humdrum and Here Comes the Flood would sit comfortably on Gabriel's later albums, beautiful atmospheric tracks that showcase his soulful voice and storytelling skill.  Then there is Solsbury Hill.  Musically it's a genuine diamond, a jaunty pop tune unlike anything he has written before or since.  The lyrics are, literally, a revelation as Gabriel climbs Solsbury Hill and receives a message from a visiting eagle.

To keep in silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho' my life was in a rut
Till I thought of what I'd say
Which connection I should cut...

When illusion spin her net
I'm never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom....

It was partly a celebration of the freedom he felt on leaving Genesis, but it also seems to promise something more, a germ of creativity hiding within, the "real" Gabriel waiting for the right moment to be revealed. 

The second album, released in mid 1978, left listeners still waiting for that moment.  Unhappy with the production on Peter Gabriel 1, Gabriel ditched Bob Ezrin and decided to work instead with guitarist Robert Fripp.  Fripp's work with King Crimson and a vast array of other artists showed a rare creative edge, a willingness to experiment which Gabriel needed at that point. 

In a sense it worked for him.  The album is more even, it has a coherent sound, there is a strong touch of Frippery about the guitar and keyboard production.  Yet while it avoided the obvious lows of the first album, there were also fewer high points.  The songs are just not particularly good and even Gabriel's voice is often muted, as if he was struggling to commit to the material.

Sometime in 1979 something changed.  It's as if Gabriel went back up Solsbury Hill and spoke to the eagle again.  This time he came down with his mind clear, knowing exactly what kind of music he wanted to make.  With a third producer, Steve Lillywhite, on board he took the leap into space which is the hallmark of real genius.

Genesis drummer Phil Collins guested on the first two tracks and was apparently unimpressed to find Gabriel had removed the cymbals from the drum kit.  Was he also planning to remove the black keys from the piano?  Yet later he, Gabriel, Lillywhite and engineer Hugh Padgham would all claim credit for the resulting sound and Collins used it on many of his own recordings.  You can hear it from the first bars of the album, the simple, driving pattern which opens The Intruder.  Freed from the mess of clashing cymbals the rhythms are reduced to their uncluttered basics. 

It isn't only the drums that benefit from the makeover.  Each instrument is given its own clear space, instead of being buried in Phil Spector's wall of sound that even Fripp was unable to break through.  Sometimes it's creaky keyboard effects, at other times a simple guitar line, or else a marimba dancing above the mix or a wailing saxophone.  There's not that many instruments - as many as are needed, and no more. 

All this would be wasted if the songs were no good, but Gabriel had descended Solsbury Hill with a clear mind and seemed to know exactly what he wanted to say.  The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway was a concept album in the old sense, a set of songs woven around a single story, something that if you wanted to you could make into a film or a stage musical.  Peter Gabriel 3 is the other kind, like Dark Side of the Moon, a set of songs united by a common theme. 

Gabriel's theme is alienation and it comes in many forms.  Sometimes it is deeply personal, like the frightening amnesia of I Don't Remember, the manic compulsiveness of No Self-Control or the exhausted fragility of Lead a Normal Life.  Sometimes it is quite ordinary, like the travelling musician's pain at conducting romance over the telephone in And Through the Wire.  Sometimes it leads to cruelty, like the sinister thrill of Intruder or the callousness of Not One Of Us - a song that goes through my head every time I read coverage of my country's treatment of asylum seekers - or the spectacular assassination of Family Snapshot.  In the two most famous songs from the album it is political, the caustic satire of Games Without Frontiers in which our wars are recast as children's playground games, or Biko, the haunting lament for South African activist Steve Biko who was murdered in custody in 1977.

Writing and singing such songs requires amazing emotional courage.  Although it was another decade before Gabriel tried his hand at genuine confessional songwriting on Us - with mixed results - he inhabits each of the characters in these songs, screams and sobs their pain or their anxiety, cries out with them for recognition, for someone to break down the walls that separate them from the rest of humanity.  He even brings himself to inhabit their cruelty, conveying the chilling illicit enjoyment of the Intruder:

I like to feel the suspense
when I'm certain you know I am there.
I like you lying awake
Your bated breath charging the air
I like the touch and the smell
Of all the pretty dresses you wear
Intruder's happy in the dark
Intruder come, Intruder come and he leave his mark.

The courage to dredge this feeling up from the pit of his soul and lay it out for us to see is what sets this album apart from Genesis, and from his own earlier efforts.  There is nowhere to hide in these songs, no vague elliptical storytelling, no symbolism, no clever conceit.  It fires straight from the heart.  To perform these songs well it has to hurt.

Yet although the subject matter is dark, it is not without hope.  Steve Biko's death was not pointless.

You can blow out a candle
But you can't blow out a fire
When the flames begin to catch
The wind will blow it higher.

And so it proved.  Biko never saw the end of apartheid, but Mandela did. 

Perhaps there is hope for the others too.  The poor, exhausted soul of Lead a Normal Life will surely one day be able to do so.  The amnesiac of I Don't Remember may one day recover his memory.  The long-distance lovers of And Through the Wire at least retain their connection, troubled though it is.  Perhaps even the callous and cruel will learn to overcome their fear.

There's safety in numbers
When you learn to divide
How can we be in
when there is no outside?

Gabriel reaches behind the callousness to the fear that feeds it.  In the process he encourages us to step out of the prisons we have created for ourselves and to see the "other" as a person - both the stranger, and the cruel insider - so that we can share a common humanity.  As it did for Gabriel, so it will take great courage for us.  Are we willing to risk it?

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Your Precious Vote

I know you're all hanging out for a bit more election commentary, given there hasn't been much of it lately.  The truth is, I'm a bit gun-shy after the shock of the last Queensland Election and not quite sure if I should put my toe back in the water in case the sharks rip my foot off.  Still, here goes...

The Australian Electoral Commission has been running these ads, encouraging you to get on the electoral roll.

Your vote, they say, is a precious thing which you keep hidden somewhere safe and then pull out every three years and use, before putting it safely back in its box.

What the ad doesn't show is the next scene in each of these little cameos in which the actors recoil, gagging and gasping as they race to open the window and dispel the stench.  If you leave things unattended for three years, they tend to rot.  We all know that the only things you hide under the floorboards are dead bodies. 

This ad goes some way to explaining the stench which currently surrounds Australian politics.  We often hear that Australians have "turned off" politics.  Party memberships are falling, people are switching off their TVs when Rudd, Abbot and Gillard come on, people have little idea what the parties actually propose to do.  We have, in fact, done what the AEC seems to be suggesting - we have put our status as electors in a box and hidden it under the bed.  What right do we have to complain when we take it out in preparation for September 7 and find it has gone off?

Democracy is not about what politicians do, or even about what those few people who have close access to politicians do.  There is another name for that form of government.  It's called "oligarchy" - "government by the few", a political system in which a small class or clique of people rule the rest.  This is in fact what our system of government has largely become.  If we feel disempowered then our feelings are not betraying us, we really are disempowered. 

I have solid evidence of this.  When I have written passionate letters and e-mails to politicians about issues such as climate change, asylum seekers and housing services, if I do get a reply it is generally polite but clear that the government will ignore what I say, despite me usually writing in association with well-organised campaigns on these issues.  On the other hand, when our nation's big mining companies lobbied to get rid of the mining tax the Prime Minister lost his job and the government caved in.  What is this if not oligarchical behaviour?

This is why both our major parties present us with lists of policies that are almost identical.  This is why it is so hard for us to get decent responses to issues like housing affordability, justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, protection of asylum seekers, emissions reductions, foreign aid or a host of other things that are important to the poorest in our society but mean nothing if you are rich and powerful.  It's no accident that the gap between rich and poor has increased in our society.

We haven't caused this but we aid and abet it by our lack of involvement.  True democracy is not a once in three years thing, it is about constant engagement, being informed, keeping leaders accountable, organising around causes we care about.  Otherwise our democracy will continue to become more and more oligarchical. 

Many of my readers (if they have bothered to read this far) will be saying, "But I'm just not very interested in politics."  Well, I'm not very interested in washing dishes.  Yet if I don't do it every day, within a few days my kitchen will be a stinky mess and I won't have anything to cook with or eat off.  If I leave them for six months, my friends will stop visiting me and my family will be frantically ringing around trying to find support for me. 

If we neglect our politics, the same thing happens.  It may not be fun or interesting, but if we don't want our society and our world to turn into a stinky mess we need to pay attention and do our bit.  We can start in the next month, but if we're not there for the long haul we shouldn't complain if we don't like the result.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Suspicion and Faith

Thanks to a recommendation from my cousin Luke I've just finished reading a book by Merold Westphal called Suspicion and Faith.  It's the most refreshing and challenging Christian analysis of atheism I've read for some time.

The hinge on which the book hangs is the idea that there are two sources of atheism, and that they require two radically different approaches from Christians.  The first he calls "evidential atheism" and is based on a sceptical approach to religion.  When Richard Dawkins asserts that the theory of evolution removes any need for a creator, he is engaging in evidential atheism. 

The second is what he describes as the "atheism of suspicion".  This atheism does not arise from doubts about the evidence for belief, but from doubts about the motivation of religious believers and the function religion plays in our societies and our individual psyches.

Scepticism is directed towards the elusiveness of things, while suspicion is directed toward the evasiveness of consciousness.  Scepticism seeks to overcome the opacity of facts, while suspicion seeks to uncover the duplicity of persons.  Scepticism addresses itself directly to the propositions believed and asks whether there is sufficient evidence to make belief rational.  Suspicion addresses itself to the persons who believe and only indirectly to the propositions believed.  It seeks to discredit the believing soul by asking what motives lead people to belief and what functions their beliefs play, looking precisely for those motives and functions that love darkness rather than light and therefore hide themselves.

It is appropriate for Christians to attempt to refute evidential atheism, because it is about content - about facts and the nature of reality.  On the other hand we attempt to refute the atheism of suspicion at our own peril.  Our motives as believers, and the role we and our institutions play in history, are a long way from being above reproach.  In fact, the writings of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus carry a very similar thread of suspicion towards religion, and Christians would be best to listen carefully.

With this in mind, he recommends reading the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche as a Lenten meditation, a penitential reading aimed at self-knowledge and repentance.  These three thinkers are pillars of modern atheism and all embody in a different way an atheism of suspicion. 

If you find the idea of atheism for Lent shocking, there's a good chance this is the book for you.  Why not just read the gospels and the prophets and get the critique from there? Westphal makes two points.  The first is that as modern writers, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche write to a situation like our own, so we don't have to strip away layers of ancient culture to understand them.  The second is that the message of Jesus and the prophets has itself fallen victim to the processes of interpretation which these critics of religion say is part of the problem, so it is hard for us to hear them.  Hence the atheists of suspicion, who have no allegiance to our traditions of interpretation, can help us to see these texts with fresh eyes.

It's hard to summarise Westphal's message in a short post.  His analysis is complex and needs to be read with close attention as he trolls the voluminous and often difficult writings of his three subjects, attempting to grasp the essence of their analysis of religion.  However, at the risk of horrible over-simplification here is a quick taster.

For Freud religion is a form of defence mechanism, helping us to conceal from ourselves and from others our true motivations.  This can happen in many ways, depending on our own psychological make-up.  It could be, for instance, that we use religion as a way of bargaining to avoid actually giving up the things of which we feel most ashamed.  It could be that in our religious rituals we act out, individually or collectively, the thing we most desire to do - eating the body and blood of God as a way of acting out the murder of our own fathers, for instance.  And it could be that our praise of God is a form a flattery, concealing our contempt and hatred in words of love because we are afraid to express our true feelings. 

The thing is, though, that this is not mere hypocrisy.  All these things take place below the level of consciousness, concealed from ourselves as much as, perhaps even more than, from others.  Through this concealment we assuage our tortured conscience while avoiding real change.  This kind of analysis leads Westphal to label Freud as a "theologian of original sin".  His analysis should remind us that sin in biblical Christianity is not the committing of particular acts, but something embedded in our very being.

For Marx religion is viewed politically as a form of "false consciousness", preventing the oppressed classes from clearly understanding their oppression and rising up against it.  Religion either actively aids their oppression by ordaining the existing social order as God-given, or diverts their response to this oppression by encouraging them to endure it rather than change it.

It is hard to deny that the Christian religion has been used in this way through history.  Yet the Bible itself is full of passages condemning the oppression of the poor and proclaiming God's wrath at the oppressors, and Jesus proclaimed a kingdom in which there would be no hunger or oppression.  How have these many passages been so effectively neutralised? 

Westphal spends a number pages analysing the strategies, from the clumsy but sometimes effective ones of banning or editing the bible (both effective in maintaining North American slave ownership) to more subtle strategies of interpretation which emphasise passages which support the status quo, resort to vague generalisations about justice to evade specific action here and now, or locate the justice proclaimed by the prophets and Jesus in a future ideal realm rather than in the present.  Christians need to beware of all these manoeuvres, which place us at odds with the God who is for the poor in a special and distinctly practical way.

Most difficult of all is Westphal's analysis of Nietzsche.  First of all, he has to remind us that Nietzsche may have been Hitler's favourite philosopher, but Hitler would have been unlikely to be Nietzsche's favourite politician.  Nietzsche was scornful of racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular.  It helps to see how Westphal compares him with Freud and Marx.  Freud, he says sees religion as our ontological weakness seeking consolation.  Marx sees it as sociological power seeking legitimation.  For Nietzsche it is sociological weakness seeking revenge.  It is the way powerless people seek to exercise power and seek recompense from those more powerful than them.

Hence, Nietzsche helps us to avoid the pitfall into which Marx could lead us - if God is on the side of the poor, then the poor must be good.  This is not so - the poor (including us, because most of us are powerless if not actually physically poor) are just as open to suspicion as the rich.  It's just that the poor and powerless have even more need to conceal their true motivations, to hide their anger and hatred behind a mask of love and goodness.  Hence many of what we like to think of as our virtues turn out to be "glittering vices", behaviours which seem attractive but mask our fundamental rejection of the good.

I could go on, but this is enough to give you an idea of the murky world into which Westphal leads us.  If we want to be true to the message of Jesus and the prophets, he says, we need to be prepared to have our motives questioned.  We need to be prepared to answer for how we use our faith.  Does it advance the cause of justice or the cause of oppression?  Do we seek to right wrongs or humiliate those who perpetrate them?  Do we seek genuine virtue, or glittering vice?  Do we seek God, or use him to justify ourselves?

These are not pleasant questions, and it is easy to evade them.  I must confess that when Dinesh D'Souza turned the tables on atheists I enjoyed the points he scored at their expense, however cheap they may have been.  Yet I know Westphal is right, my triumph is a mask for my own shame in the face of religious crimes and betrayals.  Refutation of the atheism of suspicion is a defence mechanism which only confirms the accuracy of that suspicion.  A better response, a more Christian but infinitely more difficult one, is to listen with humility and allow even our enemies to lead us to repentance.