Borrowing From Chomsky

There is a common element in the two examples of political rhetoric about religion we’ve been looking at recently – Steven Waldman’s last weekend and David Blunkett’s this past week. Both of them argue at least partly from perceived alienation or resentment or anger or grievance, or all those, of religious groups or ‘communities’. Alienation and resentment of religious believers at being ignored by secular Democrats or Democratic secularists, and alienation and grievance of Muslims at not being protected by the Race Relations Act, because it doesn’t cover religion. ‘While Jews and Sikhs are covered under the existing law, those of Islamic faith and Christians are not,’ as Blunkett put it on the ‘Today’ programme. One interesting thing about that argument is that grievances and alienation can be manufactured and constructed. As there is manufactured consent, so there can be manufactured grievance, manufactured anger, resentment, outrage, indignation, offense. So all these claims and announcements that voters will be alienated by candidates who don’t, or don’t appear to, or don’t obviously enough appear to, share their religious beliefs – all these claims are doing more than describing a situation, they’re also calling the situation into being. They are in fact doing their best to create the very situation they purport to be predicting and warning against. Of course, all political discourse does that to some degree – but it’s as well to be clear that that’s what’s going on.

Also of course that’s emphatically not necessarily a bad thing. It can be an excellent thing, even the best thing. Waking people up out of their apathetic slumbers, bringing injustices to their attention, inspiring them to want and demand changes – that can be one of the most moving and valuable things humans can do. Think William Lloyd Garrison, John Stuart Mill, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela. But it can also be the other thing – think Pope Urban II, Savonarola, Luther, Hitler, Paisley, Khomeini, bin Laden. Sometimes apathetic slumber is infinitely preferable to wakefulness. So one ought at least to be attentive to such things, and not simply to assume that all mentions of the indignation of some ‘community’ or other is automatically justified and righteous.

I have a profound inner knowledge of all this, a source of deep insight and intuition and wisdom, on account of how I’m a genius at manufacturing and then wallowing in grievance myself. To put it another way, I’m a petulant brat. Perhaps it comes from being the youngest child – hmm? (Of course if I were the middle child I would say it came from that, and if I were the eldest, that it came from that. Anything will do.) I mean after all, you know – my sister and brother did get to put their feet on the sofa when I didn’t. Therefore I get to whine and pout whenever I feel like it for the rest of my life. Right? Of course.

It’s the old Smothers Brothers (yes I know hardly any of you will know what that is, never mind that) recurring line ‘Mom always liked you best,’ which for some reason always made me laugh like a drain. I suppose because it’s about sibling rivalry, and as I said, I have this deep insight into sibling rivalry. It’s a useful corrective, the line is. Whenever I have a bad manifestation of Adult Onset Transferred Sibling Rivalry-Positional Jealousy Syndrome, I simply say to myself, ‘[Insert name here] always liked you best,’ laugh maniacally, and become magically sane again.

Well maybe not sane, exactly, that’s probably expecting too much, but in the manner of Bertha Rochester, a little quieter.

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