Art, faith and home

Recently I’ve developed an interest in the work of two artists associated with Hitchin, the town where we’ve lived for the past twenty years. For those who don’t know it, Hitchin is a medium-sized market town in north Hertfordshire, close to the borders with Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. Despite being only half an hour from London by train, the town has managed to retain much of its historic character, having escaped the worst of the town planning ravages of the Sixties, with the market square and medieval streets in the centre still mostly intact. Originally built around a Carmelite Priory and a magnificent parish church founded by King Offa, and in later centuries dominated by a cluster of wealthy Quaker families, there’s still much that’s quirky and distinctive about Hitchin. And it’s surrounded by some of the least spoilt countryside in southern England, including the fields where Henry VIII hunted, the woods where Bunyan preached, and the estate where the late Queen Mother spent her childhood.

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A romantic image of 17th century Hitchin by F.L.Griggs (1902)

However, despite these undoubted qualities, it is still surprising to discover that our adopted home town was home to two artists whose work and biographies I would have found intriguing, even if they hadn’t lived here. Both men – F.L.Griggs (1876 – 1938) and Theodor Kern (1900 – 1969) – spent a significant part of their lives in Hitchin. One was born here, but then moved away; the other came here as a refugee and stayed for the rest of his life. One was an etcher and illustrator; the other a painter and sculptor. Besides their shared association with Hitchin, the other factor that they had in common, which adds to my fascination with them, was their Catholic faith. Like me, Griggs was born into a resolutely Nonconformist family, but converted to Catholicism as a young man, whereas Kern was a cradle Catholic. But both were devout, and for both men faith was a key component of their very different artistic outputs.


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The site of the Griggs family shop in Hitchin High Street (author’s photo)

Frederick Landseer Griggs came from a family of Baptist shopkeepers. His father kept a bakery in Hitchin High Street (the site is now occupied by a mobile phone shop) and he attended a variety of local schools, but also had private drawing lessons from men like the watercolourist Samuel Lucas the younger, a member of a prominent – and artistic – Quaker family in the town. Much of Griggs’ work reflects his upbringing in Hitchin, as well as his long walks in the surrounding countryside, and features many familiar local landmarks, including a beautiful etching of our own village church in St Ippolyts, just to the south of the town.

Griggs st ippolyts 1927

F.L.Griggs, ‘St Ippolyts’, 1927

Fred Griggs was received into the Catholic Church in 1912, befriending Fr Adrian Fortescue, the parish priest in neighbouring Letchworth, who was also an antiquarian, scholar and adventurer with interests similar to Griggs’ own. Griggs later moved to Chipping Campden, in the Cotswolds, where he was associated with the Guild of Handicraft and came under the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The main influence on his art was Samuel Palmer, and it can be argued that his visionary work stands in a tradition reaching back through Palmer to William Blake, and forward to Graham Sutherland and John Piper. There are also occasional affinities, to my untrained eye, with the work of the Anglo-Welsh – and Catholic – painter-poet David Jones, the principal subject of my long-forgotten PhD thesis.

Theodor Kern self portrait 1920s

Theodor Kern, ‘Self Portrait’ (1920s), Wardown Park Museum, Luton (via

Theodor Kern was born almost a quarter of a century after Griggs, in Salzburg, Austria. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, where he was a close associate of the Expressionist painter Anton Faistauer, with whom he collaborated on frescoes adorning the walls of a number of churches and theatres. I was fascinated to discover that, while in Vienna, Kern was also befriended by the German philosopher, theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich von Hildebrand, whose writing has been an important influence on me in the last few years, and indeed Kern was invited to stay at the von Hildebrands’ family home in Florence (von Hildebrand was himself from an artistic family, his father being a noted sculptor).

Kern view of Florence

Theodor Kern, ‘View of Florence’, Wardown Park Museum, Luton (via

After the Anschluss of 1938, Theodor Kern helped many friends to escape occupied Austria, which eventually made his own continued residence there untenable, and he fled to England, where he eventually settled in Bearton Green, Hitchin. (Why Kern chose Hitchin as his home is a mystery I’m keen to solve.) He remained here for the rest of his life, teaching at a college in Luton and working on paintings, frescoes and sculptures, many of which can be found in buildings both sacred and secular around Hertfordshire and eastern England. On his death in 1969, Kern seems to have bequeathed most of his works to his widow, who in turn left many of them to local galleries and museums.


Theodor Kern, ‘Laetare’ (Madonna and Child), woodcarving

I’ve known about Theodor Kern for some time, having developed an affection for his wood carvings in the church of Our Lady Immaculate and St Andrew in Hitchin, where he was a parishioner, but I’ve only recently become interested in his other work, and in his life story. To my shame, I hadn’t heard the name of F.L. Griggs until a touring exhibition of his work arrived in town from the Ashmolean Museum last year. However, I suppose Griggs is the better-known artist of the two, partly because he was a figure in the later stages of the Arts and Crafts movement, partly because his work was used to illustrate a number of popular books, including the Highways and Byways series published by Macmillan, but also perhaps because he devoted himself single-mindedly to one particular art form. By comparison, Kern’s reputation may suffer in part because so many of his commissions were local, and also because (again, to my untrained eye) he seems to have experimented with a number of different artistic schools, rather than being associated with just one. So if you look for Kern’s work online, you can find Pissarro-esque landscapes, Expressionist portraits, and even some experiments in Cubism, as well as more mystical sacred works that, once again, put me in mind of the paintings of David Jones.

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Cover of Jerrold Northrop Moore’s illustrated biography of F.L.Griggs (A.C.C. Art Books, 2008)

der maler kern new

Catalogue of the exhibition ‘Der Maler Theodor Kern – Künstler zwischen den Welten. Versuch einer Biographie’, Residenzgalerie Salzburg, 1975 

Since discovering the work of these two artists, and their association with Hitchin, I’ve been keen to find out as much I can about them. In the case of Griggs, it helps that there is already a full-length biography by Jerrold Northrop Moore, the biographer of Elgar, published in handsome coffee-table format with a generous helping of illustrations. In Kern’s case, the situation is rather different. There was apparently a short biography of him written by a local amateur artist and poet, but I’ve yet to track it down. So far, the fullest account of Kern’s life and work that I’ve come across is the catalogue for a retrospective exhibition in his native Salzburg in 1975, a copy of which I managed to acquire from a secondhand bookseller in Austria. The only slight problem is that it’s written in German, a language I studied for just two years at school, more than forty years ago. Maybe the desire to translate this booklet will provide me with an incentive to improve my proficiency.

In the meantime, if anyone has any information about Theodor Kern’s life, or insights into his work, or indeed can add anything to my knowledge of F.L.Griggs’ work, or either artist’s association with Hitchin, then please do get in touch with me at

Afterword: Theodor Kern and Dietrich von Hildebrand

This is what Ernst Ziegeleder has to say about the friendship between Kern and von Hildebrand in Der Maler Theodor Kern (forgive my poor translation from the German):

His circle of friends, in Salzburg chiefly determined by the Schuchter family, in Vienna had a dominant personality in Professor von Hildebrand, and this circle conspired to help Kern prosper in his newly acquired spiritual attitude and religious firmness. Among other things, Kern owed to Dietrich von Hildebrand an extremely happy stay of several weeks in 1835 in Panon Halma, a splendid Hungarian Benedictine monastery, magnificent and rich in treasures, where he was a guest, and in return he gave lessons in German conversation to the abbot. In his free time he could paint at will. Kern remained a loyal friend of this abbot until his death in South America. Moreover, Kern was also a guest in Hildebrand’s villa in Florence, where in 1936 he completed landscapes in oil. These are reminiscent, particularly in their further developed artistic penetration, of his early Salzburg period.

I’ve also found the following references to Kern in My Battle Against Hitler, von Hildebrand’s memoir of his anti-Nazi activism, translated by John Henry and John F. Crosby:

When I returned to Vienna [in 1935] I found out to my great joy that Kern had decided to settle there permanently. He had a deep sense for all that is great and beautiful in art as well as in the realm of truth. He was profoundly reverent and possessed a deeply value-responding * attitude. At the same time, he was full of humour and had all the charm of an Austrian. I soon came to feel nor just close to him but also free to be myself in his company. His presence would be an important factor in the significant period now beginning in my Vienna years. (p.200)

My friendship with Kern developed more and more and we saw one another frequently. Wherever I would give a lecture, he would accompany me for protection. (p. 205)

The final extract is taken from Hellmut Laun’s account of von Hildebrand’s dramatic escape from Austrian following the Anschluss:

[Theodor] Kern was on the line. His voice was sombre and changed as he asked me to come immediately with my car to the Hildebrands’ apartment in the Habsburggasse. I got no answer out of Kern when I tried to probe him about what was going on. I quickly realised that something had happened that he could not mention on the telephone. (p. 235)

Clearly, von Hildebrand was one of the friends that Kern helped to flee Nazi-occupied Austria. Kern himself would follow his friend into exile shortly afterwards.

* I puzzled over the meaning of  ‘value-responding’, until I realised that it was a term coined by Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book The Nature of Love. Full text available here.

Footnote: my new blog about Theodor Kern

If you’ve enjoyed this post, you can follow my quest to find out more about the life and work of Theodor Kern here.


Reflections on Brexit Day

It’s taken me nine months to get around to posting about the European Union referendum, but it’s not as if the issue has gone away in the meantime. Last Saturday saw a big pro-EU march in London, and I’m writing this on ‘Brexit Day’, just a few hours after Theresa May ‘triggered’ Article 50, officially declaring the United Kingdom’s intention to leave the EU.

Sitting on the fence

I sat firmly on the fence for most of the referendum campaign, arriving at a decision about which way to vote quite late in the day. I was torn between two conflicting principles. I’m an unabashed Europhile: that’s to say, I love Europe (which is not the same as loving the EU). We travel in Europe a good deal, I (try to) speak a number of European languages, and I’d estimate that a least a third of my reading is in European literature.  My sense of identity is closely bound up with European history, religion, philosophy and art. As an academic and educator, I’ve seen the benefits of European cooperation and cultural exchange, and have spoken with Eastern European colleagues for whom joining the EU was an important symbolic moment, marking a move away from the influence of Soviet communism and into the orbit of free nations.

On the other hand, I’m a believer in genuine subsidiarity, convinced that political decisions should be made as close as possible to those they affect, and I’m suspicious of unaccountable transnational entities (whether governmental or corporate) that suck power away from local representative bodies. I’m also a firm believer in the nation state, historically the best preserver of democracy and local rights, and hostile to the integrationist and expansionist plans of many leading figures in the EU. Like Roger Scruton, I suspect that many Britons are instinctively wary of the EU project, largely because we’ve never been invaded or subjected to totalitarian tyranny, so we don’t think we need a United States of Europe to protect our freedoms – and also because we’re jealous of our longstanding tradition of ‘bottom-up’ common law and find it difficult to reconcile with the ‘top-down’ Napoleonic legal traditions of continental Europe. I’m not an economist, but it’s pretty obvious that the Euro has been something of a disaster, a symbol of Eurocratic overreach, and not auguring well for plans to integrate the economic and social policies of member states still further. At the end of the day, I’m also something of a ‘small-is-beautiful’ kind of guy, keen to preserve local differences in political and cultural traditions, and even in apparently trivial things such as weights and measures, against an encroaching supranational body that would eradicate them in the interest of rational uniformity.

At the same time, I believe in international cooperation, and I’d like it if Britain were part of a loose European association that cooperated on economic and cultural matters, but respected the independence, sovereignty and diverse traditions of its constituent countries. The option I dearly wanted – a reformed European Union that rejected the integrationist agenda of recent years and returned to this original vision – wasn’t on the ballot paper. Instead, it was clear that those driving the European project wanted still more integration, more interference in national legislative processes – a European army was talked about, perhaps eventually a United States of Europe – and, based on past evidence, its instigators wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, forcing member states to vote in repeated referendums until they got the answer they wanted.

So the choice, for people like me, was between giving the EU the benefit of the doubt, and risking Britain being absorbed into an increasingly overbearing and undemocratic superstate – and taking the opposite risk, of getting out before it’s too late, and going our own way.  When push came to shove, I voted ‘Leave’, convinced partly by the fact that two of the leaders of the campaign were politicians whom I have long admired: Gisela Stuart and Michael Gove, both of them luminaries of the Henry Jackson Society, and both of them internationalists and Europhiles in the best sense of the word.

Shock and horror

This is not the place to relitigate the referendum. Instead, I’m more interested in what’s happened since the result was announced, and what it tells us about shifting political and cultural identities in Britain. On the day the referendum result was declared, I happened to be at an academic conference in a picturesque historical town in southern England. It was a truly international affair, with a preponderance of delegates from the Nordic countries and continental Europe. At the conference dinner on the eve of the result, European colleagues were keen to hear about the referendum campaign, though none of them seemed desperately worried about the outcome. I spent most of the evening talking to a Norwegian academic who reassured me that her country’s non-membership of the EU (as she put it, the elites had tried twice in referenda to get the population to vote ‘yes’, but each time the people had said ‘no’) was not a bar to full involvement in European academic life: she herself had studied and taught in a number of EU countries and was regularly in receipt of European research funding.

This nonchalant attitude contrasted starkly with the reaction among British colleagues the next morning, after the result was announced. After waking early to watch the results on television, I went down to breakfast to be greeted by a sea of sullen faces and expressions of sorrow, anger and disbelief from my fellow Brits. For most of the British delegates present, it was as though an important part of their world had come to an end. I kept quiet, and away from those conversations, thinking I must be the only ‘Leaver’ at the conference. It was only later that I realised I hadn’t been. Sociologist Frank Furedi was one of the keynote speakers, and in the aftermath of the referendum he wrote this:

The morning after the EU referendum, I was with some colleagues at an academic conference in Canterbury, Kent. Most of them were totally dumbfounded by the result. They were genuinely taken aback that a majority of British voters opted to leave the EU. One puzzled social scientist expressed his astonishment: ‘I have never met or talked to anyone who supported Brexit.’ And he is by no means the only person who has never encountered those ‘other’ people, those people who felt moved to vote against the EU. It seems that far too many highly educated supporters of the Remain campaign have been talking only to people like themselves. The world they inhabit has little room, or patience, for those others who do not share their outlook.

My experience has been similar to Furedi’s.  Of course, in academia these days, and particularly in the humanities and social sciences, you get used to a certain homogeneity of political thought (a phenomenon that thankfully some are beginning to challenge). But this was on another level. In the days and weeks after the referendum, people would walk into meetings and start sounding off about the horrors of Brexit, without any sense that there might be someone in the room who thought differently, and with no acknowledgement that there could be legitimate arguments on the other side of the debate. The general assumption, at least in the academic circles I move in, seemed to be that no decent, well-informed, liberal person could possibly have voted ‘Leave’.

At a personal level, I’ve seen friendships – both virtual and face to face – fracture as a result of the referendum, with (it has to be said) Remainers more likely to sever ties with friends who chose to vote the other way. I was ‘unfriended’ on Facebook by a friend of many years, with whom I’d previously disagreed, without any rancour, on a whole range of political and religious issues – simply for linking to some pro-Leave sources: ‘I hope you’re happy with your new friends’ was his terse parting shot.  In the words of the writer Susan Hill:

Brexit has been as bad as any surge in washing away hitherto strong foundations. I am talking about friendships. I have never known the like. To be called a racist, a ‘little Englander’ and worse was bad enough, but to have people one has long known and liked say they could no longer be friends with ‘someone like you’ was very shocking. 

And quite senior figures, who should have known better, were by no means immune from the general tendency to demonise Leave voters. A few days after the result was announced, the vice-chancellor of my university gave a speech in Belfast, in which he declared that the result demonstrated the need for widening access to adult education. The clear implication was that the only explanation for the ‘Leave’ vote must be that the majority of the population were ill-informed. Imagine if, after Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, establishment figures had put it down to the ignorance of the working classes? It would have been condemned as grossly patronising. And yet, over the past nine months, one has heard similar suggestions time and again from the pro-Remain commentariat.

A few weeks after the referendum, I attended my daughter’s graduation, at which the guest speaker was an eminent Dutch-born US diplomat, who was being awarded an honorary doctorate. He (mis)used his speech to sing the praises of the EU and to suggest, in so many words, that the UK’s vote to leave was a symptom of rising xenophobia on both sides of the Atlantic (this was when Trump’s campaign was in the ascendant). There was no hint in his remarks that the EU might just have contributed to its own unpopularity, and no sense that Leave voters might have been motivated not by hatred but by a belief in democracy and accountability – something you’d think a US diplomat might understand.  I detected some uncomfortable shuffling and murmuring among the audience of proud parents, of whom a substantial number must have been Leave voters. Again, this speech was hardly unrepresentative: I’ve lost count of the number of speeches and articles over the past year that have lumped ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’ together as symptoms of a tide of reactionary populism. As both a ‘Leave’ voter and a resolute anti-Trumper, I’ve found that deeply offensive.

‘Those people’

I suppose this is what irks me more than anything about the reaction to the referendum result among many Remain voters. Not so much that they take a different view to me – after all, my own fence-sitting has left me with an understanding that there are powerful arguments on both sides – but the implicit refusal to accept that there might be legitimate reasons for voting ‘Leave’.

Equally patronising and sometimes downright offensive has been the tendency to psychologise or sociologise away people’s reasons for voting ‘Leave’. If it’s not a lack of education, then it must be social deprivation, or resentment of globalisation, or something else – anything but a rational conclusion that membership of an undemocratic, bureaucratic and overweening superstate might be a bad thing for Britain. Instead, Leave voters have been routinely dismissed as though we were all racist, xenophobic or just plain ignorant. Running alongside this has been a tendency by the Remainer commentariat to collapse Leave voters into the membership of UKIP and to identify Brexit with Farage, something I’m sure he’s only too happy with. After all, it would be much more difficult to dismiss the likes of proven internationalists like Gisela Stuart, Boris Johnson or Michael Gove as racist or xenophobic. To quote Furedi again:

In the eyes of too many Remain strategists, the uneducated working classes have few redeeming qualities. They were frequently portrayed as parochial xenophobes who hate immigrants, who hold on to outdated values, and who fear uncertainty and change.

In the aftermath of the referendum, the hatred directed at ‘those people’ — who are apparently too stupid to understand the issues at stake — has intensified. Baiting the old has become a popular sport among angry supporters of the EU. Their unrestrained language of contempt, their attack on the allegedly racist, empty-headed multitude, is reminiscent of the vocabulary of elitist disdain that has long been used by oligarchs, from Ancient Greece onwards.

One wonders how lifelong anti-EU campaigner Tony Benn would be treated by his erstwhile comrades today: would his resolute critique of the EU’s democratic deficit now be dismissed as a cover for racism?  As Diane Abbott has said (even she occasionally gets something right): ‘Tony Benn supported exiting the EU all his life and nobody could have said he was anything other than a staunch progressive and internationalist.’  (For an eloquent articulation of the left-wing case for leaving the EU, see Professor Alan Johnson’s New York Times column yesterday.)

In all the acres of handwringing and doom-mongering commentary from Remain supporters since the referendum, I’ve read hardly a word of criticism of the European Union, or any admission that the EU might itself be partly to blame for the result. I find it astonishing that people who claim to be liberals and democrats are not more critical of the EU’s obvious democratic deficit. Instead, efforts to explain the referendum result focus not on the EU – but on the motivations of the voters who had the temerity to reject it.

If it’s been difficult to fathom Remain voters’ hostility to the Leave camp, it’s also hard to understand why – like my colleagues at the conference – they were so surprised. The polls throughout the referendum campaign were fairly evenly balanced, so a Leave verdict was always a distinct possibility. This, together with the decades-long scepticism of many British people towards the EU, should have prepared the Remain camp for a possible defeat. Don’t these people read newspapers or watch television – don’t they remember the passionate campaigns to keep the pound, or to defend shopkeepers who wanted to retain British weights and measures? Could it be that Furedi is right, and that Remainers just don’t get out enough, and are so coccooned in their homogenous social circles that they have never met anyone who is critical of the EU?

So, to turn the tables on Remain voters for a change: how are we to explain their widespread sense of shock and horror at the referendum result, and the tendency (at least among some of them) to account for the motives of Leave voters in such patronising and sometimes offensive ways? Over the past nine months, as I’ve listened to colleagues and friends, and as I’ve followed the anguished Facebook statuses and Twitter postings, I’ve tried to understand what’s going on. And here are my thoughts.

Explaining Remainer-ism

Firstly, I’d suggest that the intense emotionality of many Remainers’ reaction to the result, is because, on the Left at least, membership of the EU is no longer a matter of rational argument but one of identity. I’ve written before about the ways in which the Left has become increasingly homogenous and predictable in recent years, so that if you know what a liberal-leftish person thinks on one issue, you can usually guess their views on a range of others. Certain opinions have become unquestionable totems, so that if you are ‘progressive’ then of course you share the same view as other progressives on, for example, climate change, abortion, immigration, gay marriage – and membership of the EU.

But what about the question of democratic accountability, which I would argue, against the dismissive views of many Remainers, was actually the key reason why a majority of British people turned against the EU? How can liberals and left wingers, for whom democracy is surely another core belief, square their unswerving support for the EU with its obvious democratic deficit? Well, I have a sneaking feeling that many Remainers are only too aware of this – and may even have a guilty conscience about it. I might even go out on a limb here and suggest that one reason many on the liberal-left love the EU is that it has made it possible to smuggle on to the UK statute book ‘progressive’ measures that would have a hard time getting a hearing in the UK domestic context. So leaving the EU will remove a key means of imposing their agenda on a recalcitrant British electorate. I often wonder if the EU would be so popular with liberals and leftists, and whether they would be so tolerant of its lack of democratic accountability, if it sought to impose a conservative social agenda on its member states?

If many Remainers seem to care little for democracy, they also appear to have scant regard – especially if they are on the liberal-left – for questions of national sovereignty, another issue that I would guess weighed heavily with Leave voters. To quote Polly Billington:

The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic. […] There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. 

For many progressive Remainers, the argument that the EU rides roughshod over British sovereignty probably counts for little –  because it’s not something they really care about. As Maurice Glasman (a left-wing Brexiteer) and other Blue Labour thinkers have argued, one of the reasons for the growing detachment of the Left from its former working-class base is that the mostly middle-class liberal-left have little feeling for the patriotism and national pride of the electorate – and specifically, they have a problem with Englishness or Britishness. As Jon Cruddas has written:

Since 2005 voters who are socially conservative are the most likely to have deserted Labour. They value home, family and their country. They feel their cultural identity is under threat. They want a sense of belonging and national renewal. Tradition, rules and social order are important to them. Labour no longer represents their lives.

As  Jonathan Rutherford has said, progressive politics has generally failed to recognise this:

To favour one’s own kind over foreign nationals was seen as racist and xenophobic. To want borders that control the free flow of goods and labour to safeguard one’s job and way of life was both morally wrong and economically inefficient. A love of one’s own home town and country, and a desire to give priority to their wealth and security, was misguided. The sovereignty of a nation was a misnomer.

For the liberal-left, national feeling is all well and good for romantic or exotic nations like the Irish, the Scots and the Catalans – but the English? To be honest, we’re a bit embarrassed by English patriotism, equating it with the reactionary Right. Partly, of course, this is the legacy of Empire, which has left the British generally, and the English in particular, with mixed feelings about national identity. But there is a general failure on the part of the Remain side, as with the broader progressive camp, to recognise that there can be a ‘good’ patriotism. Instead, pro-EU campaigners, who wouldn’t be seen dead waving a Union Jack, proudly wrap themselves in the flag of the European Union (a pseudo-state at best), or make it their profile picture on social media alongside some such description as ‘proud European’: freed at last from the lifelong discomfort of being British! (Incidentally, another thing I resent about some Remainers is their tendency to hijack the notion of ‘Europe’ and conflate it with the EU. Last week, a notice about a French film showing at our local film society included the sentence ‘We’re going to miss all this when we’re gone’ – as if no one ever watched a foreign film before 1973! Britain was a key player in European culture, and our own culture was deeply imbued with European influences – as well as influences from elsewhere in the world – long before the EU was ever thought of, and will continue to be so long after we’ve left it.)

At the end of the day, I’m with Edmund Burke in believing that it’s impossible to love humanity in the abstract – or rather, one’s love for humanity has to start where you are:

To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

Love of the local and the familiar, far from precluding care for the universal, is actually a precondition of it. I think this is what Theresa May was getting at when she said that to be a citizen of the world is to actually to be a citizen of nowhere, and it’s something David Goodhardt analyses in his new book.  (This question of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, of ‘somewhere’ versus ‘anywhere’ is, of course, a complex one. The poet and translator George Szirtes – a long-time blogging friend – recently wrote a passionate defence, contra Theresa May, of the notion of ‘citizens of the world’, with some aspects of which I’d want to take issue, but with whose broader vision I find myself in instinctive sympathy. )

However, there’s a broader political reason for defending the nation state. In the words of the human rights activist Natan Sharansky:

 The traditional classical European ideal is the national democratic state. The idea was born with the French Revolution and, to some extent, the American Revolution.  And it was very closely connected to the idea of liberalism. Why? Because in order to guarantee the rights of every individual, human rights, the rule of majority, you must have this majority which is linked by some very deep mutual background. There must be some glue that is keeping this together and this glue is their identity, whether it is based on religion, nationalism, history or the value of their culture. It went together. 

To quote Jesse Norman :

The nation state is the fundamental guarantor of legitimate power. Given our history, we have a moral obligation, and a huge practical interest, to reaffirm in a constructive and modest way the wider case for flexibility and localism and democracy; for a Europe of nation states.

A Europe of free and independent nation states, peacefully co-existing, cooperating and collaborating where they need to, but retaining their own sovereignty, identity and national traditions. Maybe that’s something that we can all, Remainers and Leavers, hope, work and pray for post-Brexit.

To conclude. I’m not asking convinced Remainers to change their minds about the EU, any more than I’m going to change mine. What I’m seeking is an end to the patronising talk about the racism, xenophobia and ignorance of ‘Leave’ voters, and an acceptance that there might just be legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate. I would never dream of ‘unfriending’ or shunning someone because they voted ‘Remain’ (‘some of my best friends…’ etc). All I want is for those who so passionately supported the Remain campaign to afford ‘Leavers’ the same respect. And now that Article 50 has been ‘triggered’ and there’s really no going back, can we all just move on, please?

Morbid symptoms?

I’ve always been fascinated by the process of conversion, whether religious or political, having experienced a few myself. What does it actually mean to change one’s mind, and what is really going on when a person decides (or finds themselves compelled) to exchange one set of deeply-held beliefs for another?

For some, conversion may be a sudden, road-to-Damascus thing, but I suspect that for most the experience is rather more complicated and long-drawn-out. Converting to a new religious faith or adopting a new political outlook can often feel like a painstaking journey across an uncharted landscape, in which the familiar world you’ve left behind only gradually fades into the background, and the final destination only slowly comes into view.

One of the things I’m intrigued by is the way that, during the transition from one belief system to another, elements of one’s former worldview persist, even when the intellectual foundations that underpinned them have started to crumble. To quote one of the books I’m reading at the moment, paradigm shifts leave behind ‘untidy residues’ of the paradigm that they are superseding.* Or to repeat an over-used quotation from my erstwhile political hero Antonio Gramsci: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. In my current political transition, which I attempted to describe in a couple of the final posts on the old blog, some features of my old progressive leftism hang on in there, and I struggle to integrate them into my new perspective.

An example of this is my commitment to gender equality, which has always been a cornerstone of my politics, as well as providing the motivation for much of my work as an educator and researcher. As I noted in those earlier posts, the socialist outlook, of which pro-feminism was a key part, and the general Enlightenment-rationalist-progressivism that underpinned it, have lost their appeal for me. But this particular element of the superstructure that was built on those foundations doggedly persists.

Not only that, but fate (or Providence) appears to be playing an ironic game with me. At the very moment when these major changes are taking place in my thinking, and just when I could really do with some intellectual ‘down time’ to take stock and reflect, I’ve finally begun to achieve some success in my academic work on gender equality: winning a major research grant, being invited on to working groups, getting asked to take part in panel discussions with politicians and business leaders. I’ve even got involved in a couple of online spats with men’s rights activists (it’s not that I don’t agree that the wilder fringes of feminism need critiquing, but I tend to see the men’s rights movement, with its me-too victimology, as part of the problem, not the solution).

All of which is forcing me to do some difficult intellectual work, to clarify for myself what I now think about these issues. Specifically, I keep asking myself: what new grounds can I find for my continuing belief in gender equality, and to what extent might that new framework change the nature of my commitment?

These questions came into sharp focus for me recently when I attended a couple of conferences on men and masculinities in the United States. This is not the place for a general description or evaluation of those events, but I want to share a number of ‘moments’ when a sense of profound alienation from the general consensus among those attending really struck me.

The big cheer for Planned Parenthood

One of the speakers at the opening night gala of the first conference was a local councillor, bringing greetings on behalf of the Democratic mayor of the city. He was keen to burnish his own pro-feminist credentials, and as an additional claim, to enlist his wife’s accomplishments – among which were many years working for Planned Parenthood. This was met with enthusiastic whooping and clapping from some parts of the audience, in response to which the councilman smiled and said, ‘Yes, that always gets a big cheer’.

Well, I wasn’t among those cheering. Planned Parenthood is ostensibly, of course, one of the major providers of family planning advice in the US, but it’s also responsible for around 300,000 abortions per year. Not only that, but its much-lauded founder, Margaret Sanger, was a notorious eugenicist and racist (and poor African-Americans still account for a disproportionate number of US abortions). This is not the place to debate the legality or otherwise of abortion, but whichever side of the divide one is on, surely the termination of so many potential lives should be a cause for regret rather than something to cheer about?

I was reminded of another awkward moment (for me, anyway), at a government-sponsored event in Whitehall, when I listened to a senior civil servant reporting back on some Europe-wide negotiations on a gender equality resolution, and noting that a clause on ‘reproductive rights’ had been vetoed by ‘an unholy alliance’. At this point, rather proud of his joke, he winked at the audience and added, ‘I think you know who I mean’. (He meant, of course, the Vatican and a number of conservative European political parties.)

Neither of these were comfortable moments for anyone who regards themselves as both pro-equality and pro-life, seeing support for women’s rights and for the rights of the unborn as part of a seamless web, what Catholic social theorists call a ‘consistent ethic of life’, along with with opposition to euthanasia, capital punishment and unjust wars.

Question: is it possible to be pro-feminist and also pro-life? Actually, I don’t need to answer that, since organisations such as Feminists for Life, New Wave Feminists and the Susan B. Anthony List have already gone there.

The Steinem interpretation of history

One of the keynote speakers at the same gala event was a veteran American feminist. OK, it was Gloria Steinem (and I’ve written about her before.) For the first ten minutes of her talk, I thought Steinem was actually one of the better speakers, in an evening that inclined rather towards repetition of pious platitudes. But then she went off-script and treated us to a long historical excursion, in which we learned that everything in the gender garden was rosy until European civilisation came along and imposed inequality on an idyllic prelapsarian and gender-equal world.

Turning to her own country, Steinem claimed that Native American society upheld genuine gender equality and, once again, it was those pesky European settlers who upset everything. Well, one doesn’t have to be an apologist for western colonialism to realise that this was a load of hokum. In fact, a strong counter-argument could be made that it was only the combination of Greek rationalism and Judeo-Christian theology, bolstered by the Enlightenment, that made it possible to think of women as autonomous individuals with rights, rather than the chattels that they often were in the ancient pagan world.

Harmless nonsense on Steinem’s part? Possibly. But it could be argued that this skewed version of history is dangerous, because it plays into a wider regressive left narrative, in which ‘the West’ is to blame for all the ills of the modern world, and which non-western cultures are idealised and let off the hook, even when they perpetuate forms of gender oppression more egregious than anything in western democracies.

Question: Is it possible to be pro-gender equality without buying into the wider anti-western, culturally relativist narrative of the regressive left?

All power to the state!

At one of the sessions at the same conference, a speaker on gender and care (a topic close to my own academic interests) spent a good deal of time and energy excoriating ‘neoliberalism’, that catch-all bugbear of the academic Left. His central thesis was that, as the role of the welfare state began to recede in many developed countries, care was in grave danger of being ‘privatised’.

But hang on a moment: isn’t care precisely a private thing, something belonging not to the state, but to the intimate bonds of affection and reciprocity between family members and close friends? OK, so there are certainly instances when family care breaks down and the state, on behalf of the wider community, needs to step in and play its part. But shouldn’t this be the exception, rather than the rule?

At the same conference, a keynote speaker argued that progressives need to ‘take back’ the idea of ‘the family’ from the Right. But does the Left, including the gender-equality Left, actually believe in the family, and accept that families have rights and responsibilities that are no business of the state?

Question: If you believe in gender equality, do you have to believe that it can only be achieved by giving the state greater control over people’s lives? 

The apology on behalf of North Carolina

At the second US conference that I attended, one of the first people I met was a delegate from North Carolina. Almost his first words to me were a profuse apology on behalf of his home state. Why? Because it had recently passed legislation requiring individuals using public restrooms to use the facility that accorded with the gender of their birth. Transgender campaigners were up in arms about this, arguing that people should be allowed to use whichever restroom matched their chosen identity.

What irked me about my fellow delegate’s apology was his assumption that, as somebody who believed in gender equality, I would automatically sympathise with his position on this other issue. But, as it happened, I didn’t (though I kept quiet about it). Like a lot of people – including many women – I have strong reservations about a public policy that would allow individuals who are biologically male to enter facilities currently reserved for women and girls. And going further, although I accept that a small minority of people experience gender dysphoria and deserve sympathy and support, I don’t believe that gender identity is completely fluid or simply a matter of ‘choice’, nor that it is totally unrelated to biology.

Surely this is one of those issues where a newly-discovered ‘agenda’ actually conflicts with existing rights – in this case, the rights of women and girls to privacy and safety – and deserves a nuanced and cautious response, rather than simply shouting about a newly-discovered ‘oppression’?

I find this happens a lot on the gender equality scene, and on the Left more generally. If you’re known to be ‘sound’ on one issue, people assume they know what you think on a whole lot of other issues to (the most recent example here in the UK being the Brexit vote, of course). The progressive Left is actually incredibly homogenous: if you know what someone thinks on one issue, you can usually predict what their views are on other things. And then there’s what I describe as the ‘additive’ approach to oppressions: when a fashionable new cause comes along, you just add it to the list, even if the newly-discovered ‘rights’ actually conflict with those you already believe in.

Question: Can you be pro-feminist without buying into every one of the fringe issues that attach themselves to the gender equality agenda? 

So there you have it: a series of questions prompted by being in this strange transitional condition, having let go of one set of philosophical assumptions, but not quite secure in, or clear enough about, the new set of beliefs that I’m moving towards. Are my questions ‘morbid symptoms’ of a mind that can’t quite decide what it believes, or legitimate issues that need to be worked through, if my current ‘conversion’ (if that’s what it turns out to be) isn’t to be merely a reactionary swapping of one set of off-the-shelf nostrums for another?

I’m hoping that this new blog – or rather, this new incarnation of an old blog – will be a place where I can work through these and similar issues. I hope the debates that I have with myself might occasionally be of passing interest to others, even if you don’t always agree with my conclusions. Please feel free to join in the discussion via the comments.

*The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Turn to a Poetic Metaphysics by Michael Martin (Angelico Press, 2015)