03 January 2017

On Meaning #nlpoli

Brexit supporter and insurance magnate Arron Banks got into a tussle on Twitter late last year with Cambridge classicist Mary Beard. Banks tweeted that Rome had been done in by immigrants, with the obvious implication that western European countries should be wary of letting all sorts of people cross their borders and settle down.

Beard took issue with that rather superficial view, and things went down hill from there. Banks pitted his very best recollection of grammar school history  - as well as Gladiator and I, Claudius apparently - against a Cambridge don.  Even J.K Rowling got in on the act.

This sort of clash is going on more and more these days with the rise of a nationalists and nativists across western Europe and North America.  As in the discussion of the Beard-Banks exchange, lots of people decried the comments as an example of the post-factual world we live in.  Facts don't matter any more. Folks believe what they want to believe and will act accordingly.

Lots of people on the political left or in the centre are decrying this supposedly new trend but there's a bit more to it than the rise of ignorance or the end of western civilization as we know it.

Not a new thing

In the 1970s and 1980s,  constitutional expert Eugene Forsey made a very big issue out of the fact that many of the proposals for constitutional change that swirled around at the time came out of falsehoods, myths and all sorts of misunderstandings.  In 2006,  comedian Stephen Colbert gave us the word "truthiness"  or beliefs that persist despite evidence to the contrary substituted fiction for fact and in 2016,  the Oxford dictionary gave us the word "post-truth" to describe essentially the same phenomenon.

One of the novel features of the Beard-Banks exchange was that it involved someone not normally involved in politics - a university academic - with someone more likely to be very active in the hurly-burly.  Beard found herself in the midst of a classic political tussle and, for whatever reason, she balked.  Beard never did explain why Banks was wrong.  She got so caught up in the confrontation itself that she skipped over an explanation of her point:  the concept of borders and nationality were very different in Roman times plus the Romans didn't just fall apart one day, anyway.

Beard missed her chance. She found herself in a perfect moment to explain some really deep ideas in a very accessible way to a really wide audience.  She was participating directly in real-life politics in real time, which she is allowed to do in her country.

Plus,  Beard shouldn't have been off-put by the concept of a dispute between different interpretations of events even if the starting point was actually a dispute about the events themselves. After all, Beard's clash with Banks embodied historical inquiry.  Professional historians do this all the time.  They ponder what happened  - that's the facts bit - but the other bit,  the really savage bit,  is the fight over what the facts means.

Missing the meaning

Like so many people who watched the Brexit fight in Britain or the recent election in the United States, it is very easy to get caught up in the phenomenon of the confrontation itself or to get wrapped up in one side or the other. This has been especially true in the United States where many of the conventional media have gotten involved in political confrontation itself.  They have taken sides. Involvement in a confrontation really isn't a problem in a democracy.  The problem comes when many of these folks either withdraw from the discussion, as Beard did, or become so completely immersed in one side or another of it, as is happening in the United States,  that she ignore the larger picture.

Meaning and the Post-Truth World

After all, the world we live in doesn't operate on a single plane. There are events that are in front of our eyes or that we can easily surmise and then there are the other events that go on behind the scenes, out of view.  That should be one thing that regular SRBP readers should grasp.  It's one of the enduring points under every post.

As much as humans like to stuff things into very tiny pigeon holes,  Donald Trump really isn't an incredibly stupid man who is going to blunder about for four years,  sell out to the Russians, and destroy the universe in the process. That's just a Democratic version of birtherism.  Trump does lots of things for lots of reasons. He's like all politicians.  Remember that when he is spouting off.  There's likely something else on the go.  In particular though,  remember that at its simplest level, the political contest in the United States last year was about events and what they mean.

Elections have become less a matter of a big debate - trying to persuade folks of things through arguments  - as they are about driving your own people to the polls and the other folks away from them. But they *are* about meaning.  That's what Donald Trump and his acolytes were getting on about when they insisted there were no more facts. There are facts, of course. What the Republicans meant was that in political confrontations, you appeal to your own people by telling them what they believe even if it isn't strictly factual or doesn't conform to what the other folks believe.

Once you get that point,  realise something else that is so basic, we may all forget it. What individual voters are doing in a western liberal democratic election is putting meaning to things. They are picking which meaning they accept. We don't merely allow people to put meaning on things, we *expect* them to do it in order for our society to function. And that, friends, is a very unusual thing in the world.

Meaning and local political culture

The idea is so unusual that even we didn't do it for a very long time in some areas. Calvin Hollett's new book, Beating against the wind, looks at opposition in different parts of Newfoundland and Labrador to Anglican Bishop Edward Feild's Tractarian theology.  At its heart,  the resistance to Feild in places like Harbour Buffett  was a fundamental political debate about who gets to decide.  Tractarians held that the right to make important decisions rested with the clergy alone.  The idea was based on the notion of apostolic succession.  That is,  the right to decide came from Christ's original disciples whose relationship to God had been passed on by physically touching one to another in a formal way. This had started with the apostles and the laying-on of hands to their first generation of leading Christian believers, repeated on down through the centuries to the current crop of priests, like Feild.

On the other side was a view that emphasised both a personal relationship to God and a personal responsibility for ones own spirituality.  The evangelical view did away with the trappings of organized religion.  This view shunned candles in the church except for light, for example.  Most particularly for Thomas Collett in Harbour Buffett,  the Protestant view rejected the notion that religious authorities could both apply a tax to the faithful and coerce its collection by denying access to religious services.

The parallel between the Protestant view and the democratic one is unmistakable.  The Anglican disputes arose in the period between the establishment of representative government in Newfoundland in 1832 and responsible government in 1855.  To help us put some shape on our understanding of this, we can bring in here an idea explored by Kurt Korneski in his recent book Conflicted colony, that of Newfoundland as a frontier.

 Before 1832 and for some time afterward,  Newfoundland was a place in which people lived but over which the legal authorities in St. John's had an uneven hold hold.  There may have been a law prohibiting trade with the French, for example, but there was no doubt such a trade existed in the day-to-day lives of people along the south coast.

In the same way,  and in the absence of religious authorities,  Anglicans like Collett were used to looking after themselves and doing what was necessary to meet their religious needs. Without Anglican clergy readily available,  people had baptised children themselves using the Church's Book of Common Prayer.  They had also relied on Methodist clergy from Burin who regularly visited the communities in Placenta Bay.

The struggle that erupted between Bishop Edward Feild and Collett and others across the territory of Newfoundland and Labrador was one about control. It was a struggle about who gets to decide, which is, in essence, a struggle over who can assign meaning to events, in this case religious or spiritual ones. This is a parallel with developments in the secular world as the political authorities in St. John's struggled among themselves as well as struggling to impose their authority across the whole of the territory.

Echoes of the frontier 

Korneski identifies a phrase - "the government of St. John's" - that suggests the sort of distance both in mind and body that many people felt along the south coast,  on the west coast and in Labrador towards the political authorities in 19th century Newfoundland and Labrador.  That notion and the things that influenced it didn't go away quickly.  We stayed physically very much removed from one another until well into the latter part of the last century.  It may sound like a long way off but we are really talking about a transformation that finished within the past 30 years or so and that only began meaningfully about 20 years before that.

We shouldn't take that to mean that people outside St. John's were unconcerned with or disconnected from the government completely.  Collett, for example, had political and social connections to the capital and to the government.  His father, who had brought him to Newfoundland around 1815, was a British Army officer who was buried along with his second wife in no less an edifice than Holy Trnity church in Stratford-upon-Avon..

Collett didn't sit idly by in his dispute with Feild, either.  He published two books in London and wrote with the governor about the problem.  When Feild and his priest refused to baptise his grandchildren, Collett's son had them baptised at St. Thomas' in St. John's.

What we are talking about here is a distance between the government and a community or a sense of relevance of it to everyday life for most people. Until relatively recently, the government presence in everyday life consisted chiefly of the local post office or the money that the local politician brought round for one project or another. Schools were run by the churches and even though it was the government that paid for schools,  the government itself had no identity in any community outside St. John's.

Communities were not incorporated so there was no local government, except in St. John's until well into the 20th century. Within communities, life revolved around the church.  People lived in segregated communities with Roman Catholics living in one part of the harbour and the various protestant denominations living clustered in others. The government itself was divided along religious lines with specific departments being predominantly Roman Catholic - like justice - while other departments were Church of England or Methodist.  Segregated education persisted in Newfoundland until the 1990s and in many respects religious identity, closely associated with ethnic identity, was more important in the way people identified themselves.


This post is not a whole thought or a series of whole thoughts.  Rather,it is more of a rumination or an exploration of some ideas that have cropped up recently. We have meaning.  On top of that we, in the local context,  the way people look at themselves and their community,  the relationship with the government at St. John's and with politics generally,  and the way some of these ideas have changed over time.

What we've offered up here original observations.  They may be penetrating insights into the obvious. They may be something else.  They may be connected, as we've done with them here.  They may wind up unconnected or as part of some other ideas.  It's fitting that this is going out on the 12th anniversary of Bond since this is the sort of thing that happens around here every once in a while.  It's how some big ideas grow.

Anyway,  there are some things to ponder. They will probably be popping up again for a while.