Friday, 13 August 2021

Raptured into the VIP lane

Remember John Nelson Darby, that very well-connected chap who came up with the idea of the godly being physically taken up into heaven in the Rapture when the End Times kick off? The Exclusive Brethren guy? Turns out the Exclusive Brethren are still a thing. And they're still extremely well-connected:

At least £180 million – and up to £300 million – in ventilator and PPE contracts appear to have been awarded to companies linked to an evangelical movement described as a “cult” by former members which has multiple ties to the Conservative Party, Byline Times can reveal.

The Exclusive Brethren is a subset of a Christian group, often described as Plymouth Brethren in the UK. It came to prominence after being investigated by the Charity Commission over whether it was delivering enough “public good” to maintain its charitable status.

The sect, whose members are subject to strict disciplinary practices, enjoys tax reliefs and rebates reportedly worth as much as £11 million a year.

 Byline Times

Apparently the movement has stayed true to its establishment roots and, ironically, these committed evangelical Christians are still doing their bit to ensure that the meek are as far from inheriting the earth as they ever were. It's also still a bit cultish, apparently.

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

The rapture of the elites

Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here,* which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
Matthew 16:28
In its original form, Christianity looks like a doomsday sect, rejecting the transient things of this world and scorning worldly power and riches, based on an explicit belief and expectation that the end of days, when the established order would be torn down and remade, was at hand. So don't accumulate wealth, don't even think about how you'll support yourself. God will provide. Consider the lilies. Sell all your stuff, give to the poor and come and follow me. The big guy upstairs gonna sock it to the Man and all you meek shall inherit the earth. 

Which sounds to me very much like the voices of alienated people keenly anticipating the destruction of an existing order that isn't doing it for them and which they're not invested in.
When The End Times self-evidently hadn't rolled around before all of those standing there had tasted of death, the belief system adapted itself, the millenarian elements retreating further into a more or less vaguely specified future. By the time Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, the contempt for worldly splendour had been dialed down a lot and the faith had developed into a religion more palatable to those with various degrees of worldly wealth and power, not the exclusive preserve of aescetics who wanted to give it all away, embrace poverty and let the Lord provide until his imminent return.

None of this is particularly original, but it does point to an expected pattern - in general, you'd think millenarian religion and apocalyptic belief systems would appeal to the less powerful, to those with the least to lose, while more established religions and philopsophies which have come to an accomodation with secular power would be more appealing to people who are more or less comforable and happy with their status and place in the existing hierarchy. 
In secular terms, you could almost see the proto-Christians as revolutionaries and the conventionally pious majority in the Christian Roman Empire and subsequent Christendom as conformists. I say almost, because the early Christians, unlike secular revolutionaries (and some other religious groups) weren't actively trying to engineer the downfall of the existing order. Not for them the credo of Auden's radicals:
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder; 
To-day the expending of powers 
On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.
The overthrow of the established order was to be accomplished by God, not by Party cadres mobilising the masses.
We still have  people with a millenarian mindset, notably believers in The Rapture, who think that the End Times may be close at hand. In their belief system, true believers will be bodily teleported to heaven immediately before a seven-year period of strife and suffering called The Tribulation afflicts the sinful remainder of humanity. This time of troubles will end when Christ returns and establishes a thousand-year godly kingdom.

This is where the plot twist I wasn't expecting comes in. I would have expected a belief system like this to have originated with the marginalised and excluded, with people with no investment in the established order.
But then I happened across a radio programme** about John Nelson Darby who, I found out, was the guy who first came up with the idea of The Rapture.

Darby was very much not poor, marginalised or oppressed. He was born, in 1800, to a wealthy Anglo-Irish land owning (and castle-owning) family and educated at Westminster School and Trinity College, Dublin. An accomplished scholar and linguist, Darby won a gold medal on graduating in Classics in 1819. Influenced in his choice of career by an evangelical tutor at Trinity, Darby was ordained as a curate and, shortly thereafter, as a priest in the established Church of Ireland. And in case you think Darby wasn't already well-connected enough, he got his middle name from the Lord Nelson who was a family friend and Darby's godfather because of course he was.

As an evangelical and Bible scholar, Darby became unhappy with the established church, but not because it was too exclusive, or oppressive. For Darby, it wasn't unbending or exclusive enough. In particular he seems to have become disenchanted with an established church linked to a state which had already taken the first tiny baby steps towards Catholic emancipication,*** something which he saw as acts of state apostasy towards his Protestant faith.
Coming from the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendency, people like Darby, his family and peers saw any extension of the rights of the Catholic majority as a personal threat to their own status in a zero sum power game. And legislative emancipation wasn't the only threat they saw - shortly before Darby was born, the certainties and confidence of the Ascendency were violently shaken by major uprising against British rule in Ireland, the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
It was an echo, on home soil, of the turmoil that people of Darby's class saw all around the world. The Irish rebels of 1798 had some support from the French, whose own revolution in 1789 had terrified the established elites of Europe. Going back to the American Revolution and forward to the Napoleonic Wars which had been raging in Darby's youth (when some had explicitly identified Napoleon with the Antichrist), it seemed to people who valued order, hierarchy and their personal stake in that hierarchy that the natural order of things was being violently upended. 

If state apostasy, violent revolution and globe-spanning wars weren't enough to put Darby into the frame of mind to contemplate the End Times, in 1819 a pro-reform rally was held in Birmingham, protesting about the fact that the city had no representative in Parliament, at a time when pocket boroughs with tiny populations and controlled by landowning interests returned members to Parliament. The same year authorities in Manchester put down a similar rally in the Peterloo Massacre. These sort of demands stuck people of Darby's class as an affront to the natural order.
Darby broke from the Church of Ireland and went on to devise the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture in which Christ will suddenly take up the true believers (but not members of what Darby regarded as an apostate established chuch and believers in false religions) into heaven, leaving the less godly down below to endure sufferings of The Tribulation. Darby first popularised these ideas in annual meetings of Bible students organised by his influential evangelical friend, Theodosia Wingfield, Viscountess Powerscourt
Darby was also a co-founder of the evangelical Plymouth Brethren, where his eschatological ideas gained some traction. When the movement later split into "Open" and "Exclusive" Brethren, Darby became the de facto leader of the Exclusive Brethren, who were also known as "Darbyites." In his later years Darby undertook missionary tours of America, where the idea of pre-tribulation rapture was took hold among members of various Protestant denominations including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists.
It's a bit of a counter-intuitive origin story, but it is one that resonates in the current climate, where the recent big, noisy attempts to overturn the status quo, have been elite-led and profoundly reactionary in nature. The status anxiety of Darby and his class and their wish-fulfilment dream of seeing the decadent, apostate modern order smashed feels very familiar. As they say, "When you're privileged, equality feels like oppression."
Bonus piece of trivia: in 1875, a few years before Darby died, a wealthy couple from Leamington Spa, who had become converts to Darby's Exclusive Brethren, gave birth to a son. The father was particularly devout and became an itinerant preacher, reading a chapter of the Bible to his wife and son every day after breakfast. It's a remarkable testament to the  power of reverse psychology that the son was none other than Aleister Crowley, later to become the notorious black magician, occultist, self-styled "Great Beast" and "the wickedest man in the world."
*My italics. 

**BBC Radio 4's In Our Time (link to BBC Sounds here also on YouTube here, also available on Stitcher).

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Blackmail is such a dirty word

So farewell then, Matt Hancock. Caught red handed in precisely the same sort of sleaze and corruption in which Boris Johnson and the rest of his cabinet are almost certainly mired just as deeply. The Sun probably has as much dirt on Hancock's cabinet colleagues, but chooses not to release it:

Reportedly, there is a huge safe or vault in The Sun office, full of embarrassing (and in some cases probably incriminating) items on politicians and celebrities which remain (for the time being) unpublished. The Sun vault is also referred to as the "black museum" by Fleet Street hacks, and blackmail may be one of its purposes. Another purpose may be hushing up crimes committed by friends or supporters of Murdoch, including sex crimes later exposed under the police's Operation Yewtree. The retention of so much unpublished material is hard to justify: either these stories are in the public interest and should be published, or they are not and so should not be held in reserve.

Rational Wiki summary of a Byline Times piece.

Apparently there will be a (probably toothless) investigation into who leaked the incriminating material on Hancock. A more interesting investigation, which won't take place, would be into why Hancock was targeted in particular, and equally sleazy colleagues spared.

Three possibilities spring to mind:

  1. Straighforward scapegoating - the government has so far managed to dodge a lot of the blame for the excess deaths and rampant corruption which has characterised their pandemic response but maybe somebody's decided they can't escape all the blame for ever, and Matt Hancock has been set up as the sacrificial example to absolve his boss and colleagues of their share of the blame.
  2. Something more personal - maybe Hancock is felt not to have opened up the economy quickly enough for the Murdoch media and he's being made an example of pour encourager les autres to be even more reckless with public health.*
  3. Something even more personal - something to do with a power struggle within government, involving one of Murdoch's most loyal fifth columnists in goverment, Michael Gove and his creature, Cummings.

Was Hancock thrown to the wolves at random because they just had to lighten the troika somehow, or was he the victim of a targeted character assassination because somebody important wants a change of policy or personnel? The great British public, in whose interest The Sun allegedly publishes such stories, will probably never be allowed to know the truth.


 *If you want a flavour of the Murdoch empire's real feelings about lockdowns and the associated public health measures, here's one of their more unmuzzled outlets, the US Fox News, describing distancing measures in the pandemic as "politicized coronavirus hysteria":

 "The riots have ripped the mask off the mainstream media politicized coronavirus hysteria. When it was politically convenient, the media shamed and attacked people who wanted to reopen their stores or even gather at the beach,” Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson told Fox News. “Now that rioters and looters are gathering in large numbers, the media no longer cares about social distancing, because the media sympathizes with them.”

Brian Flood, Fox News, 1st of June 2020 - no link, because it's divisive garbage, obviously.

Friday, 25 June 2021

The road to autonomous hell

A footnote to my last post about autonomous killer drones; they're not just worrying because they're (possibly) already here. There's also a compelling military logic to keep developing such things:

...when you talk about drone systems, about remotely-piloted systems, these systems are comparatively easy to detect. I mean, it's not that easy if you actually want to build a counter-drone system, but it's still comparatively easy, and that's because of the uplink and the downlink ... the control links that go to the drone and the information links that come back to the pilot. So if you want to fly an unmanned system in a way that's as stealth[y] as possible, you want to cut these links, which means you need to give the system more autonomy.

Dr Ulrike Franke, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, (about 2'30" into this video).

Communication links are a vulnerablity, and the technology exists to get rid of that vulnerability. So the incentive to make killbots autonomous exists.

The only upside, for those of us who don't like the idea of swarms of killing machines perpetrating algorithmic carnage, is that swarms of drones which communicate and coordinate with one another retain this weakness. Maybe the take out is that it's easier to make killbots as solitary assassins than terrifying swarms, at least if the defenders have the capability to detect the swarm's chatter and use countermeasures.

History suggests that, all other things being equal, these sorts of technological constraints, rather than moral debates, tend to guide how militaries use novel ways of waging war. An interesting book review by David Fedman and Cary Karacas highlights this. They're dissecting Malcolm Gladwell's The Bomber Mafia,* a book which suggests that the savage fire bombing of Japanese cities in World War Two was the result of a doctrinal battle being won by brutal area bombing advocate Curtis LeMay over the more restrained advocate of precision bombing, Haywood Hansell.

Fedman and Karacas aren't having this over-simplification of history, though. In reality, they write, the dividing line between area and precision bombing had already become blurred over Europe and the path chosen owed more to pragmatism and contingency than to some moral and doctrinal face-off between two Great Men™:

It’s important to recognize that, by the time the COA [Committee of Operations Analysts] issued this report, the AAF [Army Air Force] was already engaged in the radar (or “blind”) bombing of German cities. While Gladwell devotes considerable ink to a frustrated Hansell contending with the challenges of the air war in Europe, he says little about the broader evolution of American bombing tactics. Hobbled by poor weather, the Eighth Air Force had come to accept that precision bombing was not achieving results. The use of radar, by contrast, appeared more efficacious, even if it meant accepting that bombs would fall haphazardly across urban areas. Under the pretext of destroying Germany’s railways, moreover, they had begun to bomb large swathes of entire cities. 

After a character from my favourite sci fi show in many years, The Expanse, kills the mad scientist who's been unleashing all sorts of horrors on the human race, he says "I didn't kill him because he was crazy. I killed him because he was making sense.

If you're building a drone to evade detection and countermeasures it makes sense to make it autonomous, which is a pretty scary perverse incentive.

*Disclosure - I haven't read it and, after that review, I don't feel inclined to.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Slaughterbot #1

Killer drones hit the headlines recently in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, when Azerbaijani drones seem to have decisively defeated Armenian mechanised forces. The evidence that drones played a decisive role in Azerbaijan's victory seems pretty convincing (although others have denied that this really is an extinction-level event for the charismatic megafauna of the battlefield, as Charlie Stross called tanks).

Whoever's right on the state of play in the drones vs. tanks arms race, in one sense this isn't a paradigm shift. The drones being used in Nagorno-Karabakh weren't autonomous, but remotely controlled by humans. In that sense they're just another incremental step in a process of humans being able to kill other humans ever more remotely. The process had already gone far enough for George Orwell to comment on how far we as a species had anonymised killing through technology eighty years ago:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.

To quote again that old passage from Ecclesiastes, which was a favourite of Orwell's for its simple, resonant language:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. 

Except, maybe there is a new thing under the sun. Remote killing where no human directly identifies a target and an algorithm decides who's friend or foe, who lives and who dies. Concerned AI researchers have been making a noise about this possibility for some time. The recent sci fi short film Slaughterbots highlighted the danger. Slaughterbots is fiction, but according to a UN report cited by Ed Nash, a Slaughterbot-style autonomous drone may have already killed without any human being directly involved in the target selection. Last year.

If you didn't already think 2020 was unsettling enough, this five minute video might change your mind:

Saturday, 5 June 2021

A small miscellany

 Just some random stuff that caught my eye recently:

  • Marion Stokes: the woman who recorded everything. The strangely compelling story of the former librarian and activist who spent 35 years from 1979 filling 40,000 VHS tapes with the daily TV news and current affairs programmes of the day. Madness, but there was method in it (along with a ton of footage not preserved anywhere else, which is now being digitally archived for posterity).
  • While we're on the subject of archives and memory, the lies and broken promises that underpin the UK's current Brexit reality have been so numerous and shameless that it's exhausting to keep track of them all. Which is why the good folk at Yorkshire Bylines have produced The Davis Downside Dossier so you don't have to. 12 more or less inconsequential upsides and 178, often catastrophic, downsides spotted at the time of writing and counting. Named in honour of David Davis's infamous boast that "there will be no downside to Brexit at all, and considerable upsides."
  • Brazil: the title of Terry Gilliam's absurdist dystopia in movieland, also the location and pattern of a real-life dystopia in our world. A depressing piece which argues that Brazil, the country of the (fake) future, with its intractable neo-feudalist inequalities could be the template for all our futures, if the present trajectory of elite capture of the political economy continues. 
  • Bitcoin: a green disaster with, to paraphrase David Davis, no upside and considerable downsides. John Quiggin argues that the time to divest from Bitcoin is now.
  • Favourite pizza topping? Back in the Sixteenth Century, when Pope Pius V was kicking back from the day job of excommunicating England's Good Queen Bess, or instituting the feast of Our Lady of Victory after the successful outcome of the Battle of Lepanto, he probably liked to chill with a rose water and sugar pizza and a Michelangelo fresco, while waiting in vain for Netflix to be invented.

Friday, 4 June 2021

The bro smirk, the smirk of dominance


In yet more Britain Trump news, Former Guy may be disappearing ever more inexorably into madness and failure but, Cheshire Cat-like, his trademark smirk lingers on, on the faces of the Trump tribute band currently governing the UK. 

Today's pound shop Donald is Grant Shapps, the ΓΌber-Trumpy get-rich-quick grifter who used to pretend to be a multimillion-dollar web marketer under an assumed name. Here he is hardly even trying to justify reversing the irreversible, or being wildly inconsistent about controlling borders in a pandemic:

Of course, he's not alone. 


From Patel to Johnson the perma-smirk of invulnerability is now as much a part of the Conservative brand as the Tory Power Stance.

 As Ophelia Benson said of the Trump smirk, back in the days of Former Guy's pomp:

It’s the bro smirk, the smirk of dominance.

It would be interesting to see if he's still smirking now that his influence doesn't even extend to being heard on his low-traffic blog (I feel your pain, Donny) and how long the smirk will persist on the lips of the Britain Trump crew who were, presumably, counting on their special relationship with Former Guy to make a success of "Global Britain."