Last week, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) approval of the ‘roll out’ of a vaccine against malaria made the news. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) had been working on finding an effective malaria vaccine for thirty years. Stage Three trials, the final stage, took five years and were completed in 2015. Pilot implementation in Africa began in 2019. Before COVID such a WHO approval would scarcely have merited a paragraph. That’s some measure of how vaccines are on everyone’s minds. It also says something about the response to any killer or debilitating disease which is confined to the tropics. This is not a swipe at GSK particularly, nor at their perseverance, but comparison with the incredibly speedy design and production of anti-COVID vaccine does inadvertently highlight pharmaceutical companies’ research – and commercial - priorities.
By the end of the 20th century malaria still caused over 800,000 deaths worldwide every year most of them children under five and pregnant women, mostly living in sub-Saharan Africa. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set a reduction target to reverse the incidence of the parasite and to halve deaths from malaria by 2015. The roll out of a new malaria vaccine, the first against any parasite, represents a collaborative response by GSK, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Seattle-based health not-for-profit Program for Appropriate Technology in Health known as PATH, an impressive outfit with some 1,600 staff. It is another step towards the goal of eradicating disease that emphasises the importance of partnerships.
Vaccines trigger our immune system to attack invading viruses. You might think that immune systems prompted by a vaccine would be easily aroused against the two malaria parasites, Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, large bodies when compared to COVID viruses. But you’d be wrong. Plasmodium is like some Alien life form transforming itself several times in its life-cycle: merozoites bursting out of red blood cells causing fever and turning into gametocytes, oocysts taking up residence in the salivary glands of certain types of female mosquitoes, merozoites finding such a home-from-home in our livers that our immune system ignores them. Homo Sapiens and Plasmodium have known each other for a very long time and the parasite has adapted and flourished. Finding the right stage of the parasite’s development to intervene, zapping the parasite before it gets into the liver, or into the red blood cells, was only the beginning of the long haul to find an effective vaccine.
The danger of the vaccine being mistakenly taken for a magic bullet represents a problem for GSK. The present vaccine alone is at most 40% effective. Yet combined with seasonal treatments, two anti-malarial drugs administered during each of the year’s most dangerous four months - after West Africa’s short rainy season – it does create a high level of protection from the disease. But scaling up such combined treatments will make heavy demands on Africa’s fragile health systems. And for malaria to be eradicated, established preventative measures must continue alongside vaccination.
Bed-nets impregnated with insecticides harmless to people contributed to the halving of malaria deaths around the world from an estimated 839,000 in 2000 to 438,000 in 2015 - though there was only an 18% drop in infections. American financier, Ray Chambers, appointed UN malaria envoy in February 2008, marshalled funding that contributed towards a global campaign that delivered a billion bed-nets and prevented a total 6.2 million deaths. Even this simple solution was not as simple as it appeared. It required explaining the causes of malaria so that people understood what bed-nets were for and how to use them –- and ensured they persisted keeping their young children tucked at bedtime in despite the nets reducing any cooling air-flow.
The World Bank bed-net programme in Sierra Leone and Nigeria was a case in point. Nets were delivered efficiently but too often they got used as bridal veils, or fishing nets, or sold, or not hung properly. Health education was necessary. And it will be just as essential to persuade people that besides getting vaccinated the other protections against malaria remain vital: correct use of bed-nets, cleaning up standing water where mosquitoes breed, access to rapid diagnostic kits – because misdiagnosis can be fatal. Changing parents’ understanding and behaviour, as I learned in Sierra Leone, needs a nationally planned malaria control programme involving everything from radio jingles to engaging chiefs, local elders, imams, sheikhs, pastors and priests as health educators within their communities. I watched religious leaders preaching sermons and khutba on parents’ moral duty to protect the under-fives as well as training others in their communities to undertake house-to-house visits introducing malaria prevention messages.
Malaria is now a tropical disease. But that is because in the last century countries with substantial budgets for health and well-developed health systems succeeded in producing effective anti-malarial drugs and eliminating mosquitoes and thus the disease. Eight US Presidents caught malaria. George Washington was infected in Virginia aged 17. Abraham Lincoln while growing up in Illinois. Deaths from malaria in Britain’s marshy coastal areas only began to decline in the 19th century. In 1861 Britain was reading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in serial form. The story opens with Pip, the book’s ‘hero’, staring at his parents’ gravestone and describing those of his dead brothers as, ‘little stone lozenges each about a foot long…arranged in a neat row’. It is in that graveyard that Pip and the escaped convict Magwitch first meet. The setting for this encounter, St. James, Cooling, in ‘the marsh country down by the river’ in Kent, was on one of Dickens favourite walks, and the ‘stone lozenges’ referred to can still be seen today. They marked the graves of a large family whose children had died of “the ague”, malaria.
Malaria could be eradicated in Africa but it would require better co-ordinated national malaria campaigns, strengthening of health systems, and reversing our cuts in international development aid. Success to date has involved supportive governments and complex international partnerships. In Sierra Leone religious leaders, key influencers, reached five million people with national malaria programme messages. Ebola and the pandemic have slowed the momentum created by the Millennium Development Goals. When less than 1% of people in Africa have received COVID jabs, GSK’s announcement may seem almost irrelevant. But the new vaccine has the capacity to further reduce malaria deaths from the present over 400,000 a year. It is a significant further step towards the goal of eradication. So perhaps not a herogram for GSK but at least two cheers.
See TheAricle 12/10/2021
Climate Change is a perilous turning point in human history. We are beginning to acknowledge this but are still far from achieving the level and intensity of economic change required to meet the threat. The kind of planned, co-ordinated, radical action by governments that is needed is just not happening. As Greta Thunberg put it at the September Youth4Climate conference in Milan, “We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah blah blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action”. Lies and half-measures condemn her generation to be Climate Change’s victims. They will be living with its dire consequences. Climate Change is about the betrayal of youth.
Hope, along with faith and charity (or love), is traditionally known to Christians as one of the theological virtues, one of the habits or skills that promote moral conduct. These virtues are found in St Paul’s Epistles - but not in Aristotle - and are seen as a divine gift. They and the moral conduct they promote, carry sacred authority for Christians who are enjoined to hope. But much of the West has to do its hoping – telling the truth and acting courageously with urgency - without the sacred authority.
Climate change is not just a turning point in human history it is as great a moral issue as the threat of nuclear holocaust and for the same reason. The moral conduct that can significantly reduce the peril has to characterise governments as well as citizens, within the context of geo-politics. But geo-politics is dominated by a very limited concept of national interest. Foreign policy, moreover, perpetually looks over its shoulder at public opinion and domestic policy. The geo-political world is not accustomed to acting on the principle that the purpose of politics is justice, a proposition elaborated by the thirteenth century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In the case of Climate Change today, it is justice for future generations. Without massive public pressure, based on a moral argument about responsibility to future generations, governments’ action will not be commensurate with the magnitude of the threat.
No contemporary political system or government wins prizes for effective action to curb global warming. The Chinese Communist Party could but, despite coercive and authoritarian rule, isn’t giving up its damaging addiction to coal as an internal energy source. It tries to make itself into a secular version of sacred authority, threatening a dictatorial surveillance dystopia with ugly results. In democratic societies, because of the dominance of individualism and libertarianism, countering Climate Change becomes a matter of personal choice; you can modify your behaviour – what you eat, how you travel, energy use, or not. But to choose to do nothing can seem justified when you acknowledge how little difference individual actions will make without dramatic political and economic change by the major carbon emitters, the USA, China and India. How many trees and vegans, for example, are needed to offset China’s use of coal?
The world’s faith communities, led by Pope Francis, are taking action whilst governments seem to have been on a drag-anchor moving away from the binding 2015 international treaty agreed in Paris and committing us to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. ‘’ On 4 October, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, forty leaders of the world’s major religions together with leading Climate Change scientists met in the Vatican. They had gathered together as faith leaders to sign their appeal, Faith & Science Towards COP26 worked on since February, and handed to them by two representatives of the September Youth4Climate conference in Milan.
"We plead with the international community, gathered at COP26, to take speedy, responsible and shared action to safeguard, restore and heal our wounded humanity and the home entrusted to our stewardship" reads the summary addressed to the participants of COP26 to be held in Glasgow next month. Underlining the importance of the occasion the Pope then presented copies to the two President-Designates of COP26, Alok Sharma and the Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio. (Italy and Britain, chairing the G20 and G7 respectively this year, have been supporting preparations for this religious summit). "COP26 in Glasgow represents an urgent summons to provide effective responses to the unprecedented ecological crisis and the crisis of values that we are presently experiencing, and in this way to offer concrete hope to future generations…Future generations will never forgive us if we miss the opportunity to protect our common home," said the Pope.
British Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States and spokesman for this gathering of faiths, has emphasised how the different religions saw ‘nature, world, environment as a gift to us…not something we are here to abuse’. In the words of Sally Axworthy, Britain’s former ambassador to the Holy See, we need to “moderate our desires, rethink our economic model to be within the bounds of what nature can sustain, [my italics] and focus on support for those least responsible for but most affected by climate change. The dialogue with the scientists has been creative – facts and values coming together – or as one speaker put it, enlightened passion”.
This consensus between youth, scientists and the world’s faiths, sealed in a symbolic event, is a hopeful sign of truth-telling. We urgently need facts, values and virtues to be aligned. We urgently need governments to heed the faiths’ vision that countering Climate Change is a moral obligation. And to heed the scientists whose disclosure of facts must dispel our tendency for denial. "We have in the past 100 years declared war on creation”, declared the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in Rome. It must end.
Catholics are taught that inaction and half measures, the absence of truth, can be grievous sins of omission. The secular world should perhaps settle for a different description: crimes against humanity.
See also TheArticle 05/10/2021
When a lot of things go wrong at the same time the result is often a high stakes blame game involving three players: the general public, the mass media and the government. If any two concur on a suitable target the third will not be long in coming on-side. After over eleven years in power, a Tory government might be expected to get some blame for a National Health Service starved of adequate funding and staffing. A cherished national institution staggering under the weight of rhetoric, re-organisation, high expectations and prolonged pressures, serving an overweight, aging and unhealthy population without an integrated health and social care system for the frail and vulnerable, but with a door marked ‘private’ available for those with the money so they won’t need to wait their turn, has for the last two years been overwhelmed by the needs of COVID sufferers and the responsibility for curbing the spread of the virus. We do not hear a mea culpa from government nor are we likely to.
But someone must be to blame. Enter, telephone in one hand, stethoscope in the other, your local GP.
When it comes to government incompetence there is always recourse to deflecting attention elsewhere, ideally to some group deemed blameworthy. In Britain this tactic leans heavily on the dark arts of the right-wing press. The Daily Mail detects pockets of popular anger and resentment like a well-trained police sniffer dog. The paper’s campaign to reverse the decrease in face-to-face appointments with ‘the family doctor’ is a study in misrepresentation. We learned from the Mail on-line of 16 September that it may have led to “an 88% spike in stillbirths during the pandemic” - despite the article showing no connection whatsoever between GP appointments and stillbirths. There is no connection. An editorial error apparently occurred. Understandable as the Mail was having to compete with the The Telegraph’s headline “Vets serve pets better than GPs do the Public” of 26 August.
The Mail followed up by intimating that GPs had fewer consultations on Fridays because they were taking long weekends off. I looked at the analysis of phone calls for a week in May this year before the COVID infection rate began climbing and when vaccinations were in full swing to a northern England practice with – below average - 5,500 patients. There were over 1,350 incoming calls on the Monday but only 451 on the Friday. Could there be some correlation between lower demand at the end of the week and the lower level of consultations on Fridays compared with other days?
But what of the main beneficiary of the press campaign against GPs, the government? Our new Minister of Health, Sajid Javid, entered the blame-game on 14 September. “It is high time”, he said, “GPs started operating in the way they did before the pandemic and offering face-to-face appointments to anyone who wants one”. Well, he was relatively new in the job. He knew there weren’t overall enough GPs but he might have wondered if extending the average GP working day – which would be needed if GPs were to comply- from ten hours to 24 hours was a feasible idea.
And what of the general public and their perceptions? The work that GPs do when they are not face to face with patients is rarely taken into account by people anxious to see a doctor. For example, apart from phone consultations, there is routine management of the practice, keeping patient data up-to-date, checking test results, liaising with clinicians in hospitals, acting as a substitute for unavailable clinicians, visits to care homes, and so on. And then there is the additional demand, 3.2 million more patients since 2015, and at a time of falling GP numbers. Because COVID dissuaded patients from checking on medical symptoms, many more are now contacting their GP with serious conditions requiring immediate attention – doctors describe themselves as ‘holding more risk’. And the risks are rising.
By dog-whistle and more blatant means, the government and right-wing press have been encouraging the public, who have no way of observing the daily work-load of a GP, to think that they (who pay for the NHS through their taxes) are being short-changed by fat-cat doctors. As long ago as 2017 the Mail was working on creating resentment at GPs’ income asserting that they were earning £200,000 per annum. In reality such earnings were achieved by only 270 out of the country’s 28,000 fully-qualified and full-time equivalent GPs, those who managed a group of practices counting many thousands of patients. The average GP’s income is about £98,000 comparable to that of other professionals in senior and responsible positions who expect to work at least a 10 hour day.
Doctors aren’t saints. They do seek to maximise their incomes. A GP practice is an unusual form of business, with partners and salaried employees providing services to the public and relying most often exclusively on public funds. Increasing the number of employees deployed to answer phones or interact face-to-face with the public would increase the practice’s costs. Hanging on the line for ages irritates healthy people let alone someone feeling ill and anxious. But things have gone beyond understandable irritation to verbal abuse of practice staff and in one mid-September incident in Manchester a serious physical attack on four staff members leaving two hospitalised with head injuries.
Undermining this country’s front-line of health care, its 28,000 GPs – yes there are not enough - might sound a smart political tactic but is utterly irresponsible. GPs are the gateway to hospitals and further treatment. They ensure that unnecessary demand for specialist treatment, tests and medication is controlled. For this system to work it is essential to maintain the bond of trust between doctor and patient at its heart. That trust is now under threat at a time when it is most needed. Trust is easy to destroy and so difficult to re-establish.
Of course General Practice can always be improved. Government should encourage innovative ways to meet the extraordinary demands now being made on it. But it is time to stop targeting GPs in the blame-game before it is too late and the sour conflict generated by a divisive political culture infects and grievously damages one of our national treasures.
See TheArticle 01/10/2021
We had almost forgotten the terrorist threat midst our other troubles: COVID, Climate Change and BREXIT. The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and a sobering BBC broadcast by Ken McCallum, Director-General of MI5, was the reminder we needed: 31 significant terrorist plots had been disrupted in the last four years. Just because we hadn’t heard of these threats – eight of the plots incidentally were by right wing extremists – didn’t mean the threat had gone away. Indeed a future attack was ‘highly likely’ not least because of the encouragement given to jihadists by NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan.
The MI5 chief’s message was refreshingly clear. Our problem is how to identify and counter real threats of violence such as jihadism. With all eyes on the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the massacre of civilians and thirteen American soldiers at Kabul airport tragically illustrated he point he was making.
McCallum’s presentation avoided using the usual vague terms to identify what forces we ought to consider, to quote Tony Blair, ‘a first-order threat to security’. He avoided terms such as radical Islam, violent religious extremism, Islamism and Islamists. Tony Blair who is deeply concerned uses the words ‘radical Islam’ and ‘Islamism’ interchangeably to mean religion turned into a political ideology. And ‘the ideology’ is, in his view, ‘in inevitable conflict with open, modern, culturally tolerant societies’ though the exact nature of the threat is left open to a variety of interpretations.
Muslims are not alone in wanting to see religious principles carried into, or expressed within society and politics. See Christian Democracy and see the role of different forms of Judaism in Israeli politics. And ‘radical’ means getting to the roots of a faith not some perversion of it. Monks and nuns practise radical religion and no-one is much bothered when they adhere to their principles and vows, though, of course, they do not wish to impose their views on others. In its current usage ideology seems to mean nothing more than a set of ideas that we in the West don’t like or consider bad.
‘Is Islamism a problem or only in its expression as violent extremism?’ Blair asked in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) earlier this month, admitting that there are plenty of people who buy into parts of ‘the ideology’ but who eschew violence. He answers his own question by saying Islamism – a manufactured term - is ‘a first order threat to security’ both as an ideology and as violence. The template for this assertion seems to be the other old hostile ism, communism. This is a problematic assertion.
Firstly it implies that our intelligence services, like all organs of the British state with limited resources, should be expected to perform two highly labour intensive jobs, to detect and nip in the bud jihadist terrorist attacks, and to wean thousands of people from religious ideas with which we don’t agree and even find repugnant. Ideas about culture, society and politics, some of which they share with jihadists. Secondly it ignores the fact that Muslims from a Salafi and Wahabi tradition who reject violence can, and do, act as highly effective practitioners of what is usually called de-radicalisation. For that reason they were, for example, amongst the first to be murdered by Boko Haram in NE Nigeria.
At the heart of Blair’s approach to the problem of identifying and dealing with the causes of jihadist violence is his overestimation of the influence of religious ideology in the aetiology of today’s violent extremism. This leads him to focus on issues like the textual misuse of Qur’ānic verses, which he believes to be motivating behaviour, rather than focussing on the personality, the mind-set, the binary thinking behind the social perceptions that lead to violence. This approach treats as irrelevant the startling statistic that 40% of those who get caught up in extremist violence have suffered from some form of mental illness, and, amongst whom in addition, there is a high incidence of petty criminality. The focus on ideology over-intellectualises the motivations of most jihadists at the expense of the emotions. As a Muslim police officer once said to me “think of them as angry young men who have got lost”.
Except for the leaders and manipulative recruiters, jihadists often seem to be young people prone to violence who have found a justification for their inclinations, and a ‘solution’ to their problems, in a perverse interpretation of Islam, not the other way round. The question which their fellow Muslims ask and they cannot answer is: ‘Have you ever thought Allah might have another purpose for you in life other than jihad?’
Investment in our scandalously understaffed mental health services might reasonably be described as a key plank of counter-terrorism. Intelligence services do not have the resources to promote the set of values which we hopefully dub as ‘Western’ to counter religious ideas with which they conflict. But these values should inform the conduct of governments. Schools are consciously promoting these values and can, as in Birmingham, evoke Muslim protests. Something like the Prevent programme which ultimately depends on one-to-one mentoring is a last step. Meanwhile responsibility falls on Muslim leadership both to notice young people heading down the wrong path and with the skills and wisdom to help them turn back.
If your task is to keep Britain safe from jihadist attack then lumping together movements as diverse as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Boko Haram in Nigeria under headings such as radical Islam, Islamism and violent religious extremism, obscures more than it reveals and leaves you with no satisfactory solutions to local problems. These catch-all labels risk catching ordinary mainstream Muslims. Thanks to the internet there really is an international threat and the Taliban’s national success will encourage it. But the problem with Tony Blair’s expansive definition of our current ‘first order threat to security’ is that many ordinary Muslims, and most notably those able to change minds, may feel he is targeting them.
See also The Article 27/09/2021
This Chinese curse or Chinese greeting – it’s not clear which - seems to fit the years 2017-2021. We have been through ‘interesting times’ in all the ambiguous meaning of the proverb. Events with profound long-term consequences seem to have been following each other, or overlapping, with unprecedented speed and regularity. During this time I’ve tried to blog on a broad spectrum of themes, from terrorism to hedgehogs, sharing thoughts and ideas, primarily for friends and family.
Blogging is fun but ephemeral. Not like holding a glossy new book you’ve labored over for years. I hope that pulling these blogs on-line together under thematic headings in chronological order will both make them more reader-friendly and increase their life-span. Broaching some of these topics, getting some of the shared frustrations of the day into my website, may even have increased my own life-span. You can find the book by clicking on online books at the top of my website and then on May You Live in Interesting Times. The last piece to make it into the on-line book was on Afghanistan - sadly rather reinforcing the title. Dip in where your interests lie and explore. Meanwhile I will try to keep up the regular flow of the past four years.
Part One focusses on major themes that have characterised the period: Democracy and Politics, Human Rights and Terrorism. I have put Catholicism in this first section because I believe Catholic social thinking has much to contribute to the politics we need in order to overcome our contemporary crisis, especially in a culture dominated by secular assumptions about society, governance and economics.
Part Two moves more into the realm of the big events and actualité: government policy and practice, BREXIT, and changes in the Conservative Party. The disruption and damage created by these three has been prodigious. We have witnessed something unprecedented and potentially dangerous which will have an impact on generations to come as well as hastening the decline of the UK. But, yes, there is very little here on the biggest event, the COVID pandemic. With BBC News on the verge of running out of epidemiologists, virologists and behavioral scientists for comment, who can find much to add?
Part Three might be called international affairs, or at least events in countries of which I have, for one reason or another, some professional experience and, I hope, some insights. The section is led by the USA and Africa where my family has lived, and the Middle East and North Africa whose conflicts, generally made worse by the West, have dominated the period.
Part Four, Observations, contains what doesn’t fit neatly into the preceding sections, and opens up different themes. Some thoughts on COVID are to be found here.
Particularly those who turn to the Africa section may enjoy my other on-line book to be found alongside this one, Emirs, Evangelicals & Empire which came out of research in Northern Nigeria. I wanted it to be available to all Nigerians who might be interested but who would have had little chance of reading a hard-copy.
Finally, after the heavy-lifting editing of Jane Linden my thanks to some fine-tuning editing by Daniel Johnson, editor of TheArticle blogsite where most of these blogs have been published for most of the period covered. Edmund Ross was responsible for sorting this collection into thematic and chronological form and putting it in good shape into my own website.
So back to normal and worrying about what to make the subject of the next blog. We haven’t stopped living in interesting times.
Some 70 million US citizens are Roman Catholics, about 22% of the total population. In the 2020 elections the Catholic vote split half and half between Trump and Biden but only 44% of white Catholics voted for Biden. Some 20 million Americans identify as Latino Catholics (about 55% of the overall Hispanic population) and of these Hispanic Catholics the vote was 67% for Biden, 26% for Trump. Thanks to voter registration activists such as Stacey Abrams and Black Lives Matter, the black vote, especially in states like Georgia came out in force. It was even more pro-Biden than the Hispanic (polls indicated that in some states 90% of black female votes were going to Biden). American voters are racially split and the Biden presidency relies on minority voter turn-out.
These figures alone illustrate the problem for a white Catholic President who asserts his Catholic identity. Ethnicity and origins play an important role in determining voting behaviour, but three other features of the contemporary USA give Biden cause for concern. The first is that as a Catholic President he must position himself in relation to national politics riven by ‘culture wars’ turbo-charged by the Republican Party. The Tea-Party movement with its mixture of right-wing populism, shrink-the-federal state anti-Washington activism plus anti-immigrant policies, emerged in 2009. Trump’s drive for white supremacy, support for racist voter suppression, and rhetorical championing of favourite evangelical Christian themes, particularly opposition to abortion laws and same-sex marriage, made these goals seem politically achievable, but only by the Republican Party.
The second concern for a Catholic President is that the culture wars have seeped into the US Catholic Conference of Bishops. The American Church was already polarised - between a strict traditionalist social conservatism with an in-built bias towards Republican politics, even in its Trump extremes, and a liberalism committed to social justice at ease in the Democratic Party. Biden faces, and has faced, strictures from a minority of conservative bishops about his political position on abortion and to a lesser degree his attitude towards gay and divorced people receiving the Eucharist. “The President doesn’t believe what we believe about the sacredness of human life” Archbishop Joseph Naumann, head of the Catholic bishops’ Pro-Life Committee told the prestigious US magazine, The Atlantic. He was not referring to Trump’s accelerating the use of the death penalty during his last days in office.
The Democratic Party does not pick radicals for their Presidential candidates, that is why they rejected Bernie Sanders and chose the centrist Biden. Anyone who read Francis’ encyclical Fratelli Tutti would see, that the Pope is politically a prophetic radical thinker who has more in common with Bernie Sanders than the President. But the Republicans perceive Biden as an ally of Pope Francis, who is himself under fire, and they have succeeded in placing the President firmly on the ‘enemy’ side of the culture wars in a Church divided nationally and racially as well as globally.
As Massimo Faggioli points out in his recent Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, Biden’s own Catholicism, pious, un-intellectual, and compassionate reflects the openness to the world of Pope John XXIII and the second Vatican Council. The Council document Gaudium et Spes (Joy & Hope), issued on 7 December 1965, the day the Council ended, begins with: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” The problem for Biden, who would endorse these words, is that since the 1970s the Council and its documents have been subtly, and not so subtly, undermined by neo-conservatives, re-interpreted and politicized. When the social conservatives in the American Church looked outwards they saw Obama as the leader of a militant secular modernization and an overweening federal State, with Biden as his misguided Catholic apprentice. And for many their enemies’ enemy, Trump became, at least electorally, their friend.
The third concern for Biden is that this polarization within the American Church has contributed significantly to division within the global Church that came of age with the appointment of an Argentinian, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Pope Francis. The cardinals chose a Pope from the global South further shifting the centre-periphery model of a Eurocentric Church towards a more networked, less command and control Church, a process described in my Global Catholicism: towards a networked Church, Hurst 2012. Rome remained pre-eminent but the Curial bureaucracy surrounding the Pope found itself downgraded and under serious pressure to reform. The large American Church, traditionally punching well below its weight, assumed more significance, especially when Archbishop Carlo Mario Viganò, Vatican ambassador to the USA from 2011 to 2016, lead a virulent attack in 2018 on Pope Francis alleging homosexual conspiracies and Vatican cover-ups of sexual abuse. Viganò, a former chief of Vatican Curial personnel, was able to draw on his wide range of personal contacts in his attempts to create a movement to marginalize and smear the Pope. He failed but the tension within the divided American Church remains.
Biden can expect more moral support from the current Pope than from his two papal predecessors but it is support that may come with a political cost. The President finds himself at the intersection of an unholy set of inter-related and interlocking pressures: notably the tens of millions of Catholics who voted for Trump ignoring his four years of attempted destruction of democracy. He and the Pope are singing from the same hymn sheet over the climate crisis, sharing a compassionate openness towards gay sexuality, and a commitment to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, notably to Mass in the vernacular. In America the Latin Mass had become something of a right-wing cause supported by several bishops, Cardinal Raymond Burke, formerly archbishop of St. Louis the most prominent. These divisions within Catholicism mirror the divisions within the nation which President Biden has the enormous task of healing. He cannot look to the American Church to be part of the solution.
Biden’s leadership as Commander in Chief during the tragedies of defeat and hasty evacuation in Afghanistan has done nothing to heal divisions in a shamed nation. Even though his new thinking about US military intervention will have found approval in Rome he has received no accolades and derived little inspiration from the American Catholic hierarchy. It is high time they ended censorious and curmudgeonly criticism and show more concern for the future of democracy and the task of national healing that awaits America’s second Catholic President.
See The Article 02/09/2021
President Biden has taken a lot of stick over Afghanistan, some of it justified. From Tony Blair to the Tory back-benches, in Parliament and on the BBC, we have been treated to days of passionate denunciation of American withdrawal – announced, of course, long before the current rush to blame. A miasma of unreality and theatricality rose from all the understandable political emotion and anguish.
It is as if in Clausewitz’s account of the nature of war, his mixture of emotion, chance and rational calculation, the rational can simply be ignored. “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will”, Clausewitz wrote - to balance his war as ‘politics by another means’. The Taliban applied his lesson successfully. From Trump to Biden, as a consequence of chains of policies, decisions, and mission-creep, and as a result of a successful insurgency against a corrupt government and foreign invaders, the US was finally forced to submit to the Taliban’s will, negotiating and implementing its own exit from Afghanistan. It is not Biden’s decision that will determine the outcome for thousands of fleeing Afghans seeking but the Taliban’s.
According to Aristotle, a dramatic tragedy needs to obey the three unities of place, time and action. Reacting to the retreat into Kabul airport, the flights and chaos of the last week in and around it, we find political leaders playing their parts in such a tragedy. The G7, calling for the USA to extend the withdrawal time to allow more Afghans to escape, pitted NATO members against an American President, a President who rationally calculated that this course of action would escalate into a disastrous fire-fight with the Taliban lobbing mortars into the airport and fierce ground assaults on US forces trying to hold a perimeter (as Daniel Johnson indicates TheArticle 25/08). It is and was a tragic dilemma. But it was Biden who behaved like a rational statesman and refused.
It is perfectly understandable that denial and raw emotion prompted the positions taken up by MPs who had served in Afghanistan and played military roles in the tragedy. But it is not obvious why so many others took the opportunity to scapegoat Biden. Did they seriously think that more troops flown into Kabul airport would have kept it open for flights without it becoming a modern Alamo? Did they advocate a position they knew would be untenable to put pressure on the Taliban? Were they just ‘virtue signalling’, or in the case of Britain just trying to ‘punch above its weight’? And doesn’t the appalling ISIS terrorist atrocity at Kabul airport suggest at least one area of common concern between NATO and the Taliban that will require cooperation?
Perhaps the Biden-bashing sprang from deeper causes than his misjudging the resolve to fight of the Afghan National Army who in many instances fled the Taliban without firing a shot, or even his failure to foresee the corrupt government would collapse like the proverbial house of cards. Given the lack of clear and up-to-date intelligence from rural areas, a hasty withdrawal was inevitable. The CIA can claim to have presented the Commander in Chief with sudden collapse as one of several possible scenarios depending on the amount of American force available on the ground and in the air. But in a matter of a week or two abandoning a vast armoury of US military equipment?
Apart from Canada, all the loudly lamenting G7 members have at some point passed through a significant period of imperial ambition, and some have experienced imperial grandeur. Their dream of defying the victorious Taliban seems a post-imperial fantasy. Perhaps these Prime Ministers and Presidents still believe in some inviolable right to order the world and export Western values, and couldn’t recognise their own hubris and its consequences. Or perhaps we were watching a – deflected - fear of a US isolationism that long preceded Biden.
It is not as if US isolationism versus intervention was a new issue. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff then US Secretary of State, and Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defence, along with Tony Blair and his chief of staff in the UK, Jonathan Powell, had debated the issue before 9/11 including drawing up criteria such interventions must meet. Tony Blair’s wide-ranging 24 April 1999 speech in Chicago after the atrocities in Kosovo – justifying intervention and bombing - was a significant contribution. There was also the UN World Summit in 2005 on ‘The Responsibility to Protect’ that defined circumstances that required international intervention, looking back on the failure of any world power to intervene in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Blair, in a recent speech opposing American withdrawal called Biden’s use of the slogan ‘forever wars’ as ‘imbecilic’. But didn’t Biden’s decision to leave by 31 August comply with the very criteria for military action which Blair had proposed in his Chicago speech? In Chicago he had said “Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?” Breaking the agreement to leave by the end of the month concluded with the Taliban would have been neither sensible nor prudent. It could not have succeeded without massive military re-engagement and loss of life.
The aura of unreality surrounding this widespread denunciation of Biden, the assumption that America has only to say the word and the date of the exit could be changed, may spring from elsewhere: delayed recognition that US isolationism is here to stay, or fear that the USA was changing its strategic priorities, turning its back on Europe to concentrate on China. Nothing new here. Blair’s Chicago speech ended: “I say to you: never fall again for the doctrine of isolationism. The world cannot afford it. Stay a country, outward-looking, with the vision and imagination that is your nature. And realise that in Britain you have a friend and an ally that will stand with you, work with you, fashion with you the design of a future built on peace and prosperity for all, which is the only dream that makes humanity worth preserving”. There was surely some element of fear this was a fading dream lurking behind the attacks on Biden for his failure to consult with his allies.
Some clear and specific reassurances from the American President, if not some apology and explanation for the lack of consultation with his NATO allies, are long overdue. We must now respond to the consequences of the change in US priorities. But like COVID we are going to have to live with the Taliban More tragically, so are the Afghan people.
see TheArticle 27/08/2021
Not many democratic organisations without fanfare of trumpets can, and have, celebrated a 800th Jubilee. In August 1221, thirteen Dominicans, a good apostolic number led by the well-connected Gilbert de Fresney, landed in Kent and set off for Oxford. This month four young English Dominican friars have been marking the anniversary by walking the same route from Kent to Oxford back to the priory in St. Giles, to arrive on 15 August 2021.
Groups of ‘Black Friars’ (after their distinctive black cape worn over a white habit) were already established in Paris and Bologna when the twelve reached Oxford in 1221. At the time these three great mediaeval universities were attracting the best teachers and students in Europe. The Oxford Dominicans were not just there to satisfy their intellectual curiosity but to promote Catholicism both philosophically and theologically and to grapple with Christian heresies, Judaism and Islam as required by the Order.
Part of the staying power of the Catholic Church is its ability to allow innovative religious communities to flourish in response to different historical needs and sensibilities– provided they acknowledged, or finessed, papal authority when disputes arose. The mission of the newly formed Order of Preachers, the Dominicans, was to marry faith with reason – which Pope Benedict XVI described as having ‘a natural harmony’ - and to respond in the simplicity of their lives to the poverty around them. The great Summa Theologiae of the 13th century Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, was intended as a compendium of Christian thought, all that any peripatetic friar might need to win the arguments and convert by reasoning anyone on the wrong path, especially those in the new towns and cities.
All very well, you might say, but what about the Spanish Inquisition, the fanatical Cardinal and friar, Torquemada, and the torture of heretics. Not much to celebrate here apart from their role in Monty Python sketches. Dominic’s own approach to the Cathars (Albigensians) in Languedoc - they believed the body and material world was evil and only the soul good - had been one of example through way of life, preaching and reasoned debate. The Pope charged the Dominicans and Franciscans with the task of inquisition only in 1231, ten years after St. Dominic’s death. By then, however, the Church was already dealing with deviation from Catholic doctrine by fear and violence, for example in the Albigensian Crusade (1209-29. In the late 15th century the Pope appointed Torquemada as the Grand Inquisitor for a Spain now led, post-Muslim defeat, by its Catholic Kings.
Across the Atlantic one of the next generation of Dominicans, the Spanish priest, Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, was pleading for recognition of the humanity and rights of Native Americans before the Spanish King, Charles 1st, and winning the argument. The Dominican Order weren’t and aren’t monolithic. Nor were they always in the corridors of power. Between the years 1538 and 1540 Henry VIII confiscated every single one of Britain’s 57 Dominican houses. **
Fast forward to the 20th century and I will never forget my visits to the Dominicans’ radical Johannesburg priory in the - ironically - named Mayfair district. In the 1980s Mayfair was surprisingly multi-racial. Everyone was poor or down-at heel not just the blacks. The local South African Dominicans had set out to find a suitably decrepit property, fitting their voluntary poverty (hence the name mendicant Orders) to their ministry to the poor. A gleeful estate agent was astonished to get the building off his hands.
Albert Nolan OP, a South African born in Cape Town and a former university chaplain, made the priory a sanctuary for Christian and other supporters of the banned African National Congress, dealing with their everyday problems and exploring the spirituality that would sustain them through surveillance and probable arrest by the apartheid system. His vision of the Dominian vocation of preaching included participation and leadership in the influential and ecumenical Institute for Contextual Theology – influential enough for the apartheid propaganda machine to denounce it as the work of the Devil and the priory to get shot up. He was also the editor of Challenge, a popular and radical newspaper for the country’s grassroots Catholic communities. His 1972 book Jesus before Christianity presented to a secular world a radical historical Jesus in the context of the time. It could be seen as a South African approach to liberation theology and narrowly missed censure from Rome because of its – unsurprising - failure to mention the Church.
In 1983 the global Dominican community showed how much they valued Albert by electing him Master-General of the Order - but only for a few hours. When he asked their permission to decline the honour in order to pursue his ministry in Johannesburg and the struggle against apartheid, they voted on it and agreed. In 2003 he was one of the first to be honoured by Thabo Mbeki’s government with the South African Order of Luthuli. And after publishing several ground-breaking books of theology, in his late eighties, he is now retired.
What then of Blackfriars Oxford now home to Timothy Radcliffe, another great exponent of the Dominican tradition in his preaching and writing and former, much-travelled Master-General of the Order. Blackfriars present mission is very much the one envisioned by its 1221 founders. Attached to the priory is a Private Hall of the University owned by the English Province and base for Blackfriars Studium noted for its theology and philosophy but also its diversity of students, teachers and postgraduate degrees. The Las Casas Institute of ethics, governance and social justice and the Aquinas Institute, part of the work of Blackfriars Hall, reflect the great names of Dominican history as well as promoting contemporary Catholic social and philosophical thinking pioneered most famously in the 20th century by Vincent McNabb (1968-1943) and Herbert McCabe (1926-2001).
There is something very attractive about the mission-oriented democracy of the Order and its commitment to the natural harmony of faith and reason, combatting the drift into the emotion-led catastrophes of our political world. The Dominican motto: contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere (to contemplate and hand on to others the fruits of contemplation) beautifully summarise their approach. When you come to think of it, quite a good motto for humble bloggers too.
** Richard Finn’s history The Dominicans in the British Isles and Beyond will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2022.
See TheArticle 15/08/2021
As British and American forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan, many people would have been thinking of the families of troops who died there: 454 British deaths between 2001 and 2015 - when troops withdrew from combat operations - and 2,372 American deaths overall. Sorrow at the terrible death toll caused by the war amongst the Afghan civilian population during the last twenty years, (48,000 at least but this is only an estimate), is less often expressed.
The Taliban - the name means students – (of the Qur’ān), are closing in fast. People may remember in better times BBC reporting from Herat in Western Afghanistan now under siege and about the south western province of Helmand, a former hell-hole for British troops, facing the imminent fall of Lashkar-Gah its provincial capital. Future Afghan or US air-force bombing of civilian areas occupied by the Taliban means that more civilians as well as combatants will die.
Britain and America completed the withdrawal of their few remaining ground troops and contractors a month ago, leaving residual technical support only. Air support, operating long-distance now from the Gulf, is much reduced. The speed with which the Taliban moved into major cities, or emerged within them, was unexpected. There are reports of many displaced people moving into the capital Kabul. Journalists are risking their lives reporting from receding front-lines. Accounts contradict each other. On the one hand there is the morale-boosting optimism of General Sami Sadat, former Afghan National Army Commander in Helmand, trained in both Germany and UK, claiming the insurgents will be beaten back by special forces. On the other there is the pessimism of Afghans themselves in threatened cities giving often contradictory accounts of the Taliban’s rapid assumption of control and their brutal behaviour.
Hopes that the Taliban’s ideology had mellowed since 2001 are over. There are reports of the savagery of Taliban assaults and the aftermath of their occupation of the first major urban areas – forced marriages to their fighters and executions of anyone associated with withdrawn foreign forces. If anything the Taliban’s perverse interpretation of Islam has hardened since the beginning of the US/UK’s Operation Enduring Freedom and the invasion of NATO coalition troops from 2001-2002.
It is difficult to remember that foreign intervention in Afghanistan was originally intended to destroy Al-Qaeda’s safe havens there. This war aim required defeating and chasing the Taliban out of the cities. But this in turn led to a near impossible goal: a commitment to the long haul of building democracy, stability and a modicum of security in an alien, and poorly understood, social, ethnic, religious and political culture. The combination of cultural solidarity amongst ethnic Pashtuns who compose nearly half the population and predominate amongst the Taliban, anti-foreigner nationalism, and the quest for an imagined 7th century religious Caliphate, have for two decades sustained the Taliban as a guerrilla force which could not be dislodged. And in addition covert cross-border support from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate meant that the coalition faced into a very strong headwind. Iraq took up time, troops and resources that might have bolstered coalition efforts in Afghanistan. Trying to conjure a modern liberal democratic State into existence in one country was hubristic, in two at the same time was cruelly punished.
Surprise at the effectiveness of the current Taliban offensive is not the only misplaced reaction. Given the disappearance of active NATO military power in-country and the prospect of a victory for a powerful Islamic extremist organisation it was predictable that foreign extremists seeking a new caliphate would be drawn to Afghanistan. And likewise that these opportunist incomers would somehow believe that ‘Allah the merciful, the compassionate’ demanded first and foremost jihad and the subjugation of women. There was an obvious precedent. Al-Qaeda itself had been created from similar ‘martyrdom migrants’, mostly Arabs led by Abdallah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, sucked into Afghanistan to fight the occupying Soviets. In the 1990s it even had US support.
Afghanistan is a failed State, insecure, unstable and with little hope of democracy prevailing. It is marauding rival militias who should now be expected to emerge. It might seem that not a single coalition political objective has been achieved. But there have been successes. There are indications that the nearly 30% of the population who are urban-based, in the main, have different expectations of their government. Amongst them there is strong support expressed for the hoped-for democracy and stability promised by the USA. In rural areas under Taliban control hopes for cultural change, modernisation, are evidently weaker and seem far-fetched.
But it is important to remember the many Afghans who actively supported the allied cause. For them, on 29 July, President Biden got a bipartisan billion dollar support and assistance bill through Congress aimed at protecting those whose lives were in danger because of their work for NATO forces and the elected Afghan government. Already 8,000 US visas have been issued and the application process is being streamlined. The response of the British government to the danger threatening our own loyal ‘collaborators’ recently elicited expressions of ‘grave concern’ from 40 military chiefs, including six former heads of our armed forces. They questioned the rejection in the past three months of 500 asylum applications from interpreters, drivers, cooks and others who had worked for British military forces and pointed to the danger that such mean spiritedness would ‘dishonour’ the British armed forces. Their pleas, and those of their military advocates, ought not to go unheard in Whitehall and Westminster.
Was it worth it? The bitter judgement of bereaved relatives of soldiers, “no it wasn’t”, must be respected. But for almost twenty years some 14 million Afghani women and girls had the doors of education and participation in public life wedged open for them. Even as the doors are shutting we need to remember the many Afghan parents who want their daughters educated, they have not changed their minds and nothing can take the experience of education away from the young people who received it. Those who died fighting the Taliban gave their own futures so that girls and women through education could hope for and aspire to a better future. That is not a wasted life.
See TheArticle 05/08/2021
In his recent book, How To Make a Vaccine: An essential guide for COVID-19 & Beyond, Dr. John Rhodes celebrates the 300th anniversary of the first well-recorded inoculation against smallpox in Britain in August 1721. At the time smallpox was killing up to 400,000 people in Europe every year including a grandchild of King George I.
The science of vaccination has made extraordinary strides. Our thinking about ethics only some modest positive developments. Vaccination opened up a set of important questions about the common good, choice and individual responsibility, misinformation, and latterly, moral indifference.
The story begins in Constantinople with the wife of the British Ambassador to the court of the Ottoman Sultan. Once a beauty, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was disfigured by smallpox but survived to become an advocate of inoculation, or as she called it ‘ingrafting’, a practice performed on the Sultan’s wives. Lady Montagu’s son was successfully inoculated against smallpox in 1718. On her return to London a grand promotional event for the inoculation of her daughter was organised with royal court physicians including the King’s physician, Sir Hans Sloane, in attendance.
The Princess of Wales, Caroline of Ansbach, well read in the science of the day, (later Queen as wife of George II), instigated an experiment with the aim of protecting her own children. Six prisoners due to be hanged in Newgate, were offered their lives and freedom if they volunteered as guinea-pigs to test the safety and effectiveness of inoculation, also called variolation. With celebrity endorsement from London’s good and great this became a high profile event which Fellows of the Royal Society and some 25 members of the College of Physicians came to observe. In charge was the Scottish physician, Charles Maitland, a former embassy physician in Constantinople where he had learned the technique.
What followed was not for the faint-hearted.
Maitland made an incision into an arm and a leg of each convict and then inserted material from the pustules of an infected person. He had to repeat the procedure as not enough local reaction could be detected. One of the volunteers received the material up the nose. A 19-year old girl who had been inoculated was later exposed to a child smallpox victim and proved to be immune. All six were given a royal pardon and walked free a month later. Public opinion about inoculation was divided and, as it is today, politicised: the Whigs at court justifying the experiment on utilitarian grounds and the Tories opposing it on grounds that physicians should not play God. The anti-vaxx movement in Britain had begun.
Doctors in Asia had been playing God and evoking opposition for many years. Rhodes quotes the Chinese emperor, K’ang-hsi in the late 1600s. “The method of inoculation having been brought to light during my reign, I had it used upon you, my sons and daughters….In the beginning when I had it tested on one or two people, some older person taxed me with extravagance, and spoke very strongly against inoculation. The courage which I summoned up to insist on its practice has saved the lives and health of millions of men”.
The next big step, from inoculation to vaccination, came courtesy of a Gloucestershire milkmaid, Sarah Nelmes, who caught cowpox from a cow called Blossom. It’s the better known story of two rural physicians, Edward Jenner and John Fewster, proving that pathogens administered in a weakened form could protect against a more virulent form. Result: millions of lives saved. Blossom’s hide hangs on the library wall of St. George’s Medical School a bovine equivalent of Jeremy Bentham’s stuffed hide displayed in University College London.
But there is a lot more to Rhodes informative book than some captivating medical history. He is at his most instructive teasing out the complexities of the human immune system, a little army of interactive defenders against foreign intrusion each with its own task: surveillance cells patrolling, helper T-cells, killer T-cells, B-cells which have daughter cells that produce the antibodies we’ve all heard about, regulatory T-cells that shut down the immune response once the pathogen is defeated, memory B-cells that, I imagine, must trigger the amplified response from a booster dose of vaccine, and memory T-cells. I wish the word awesome hadn’t been voided of all meaning. The immune system is simply awesome. Though it can and does make mistakes.
How To Make a Vaccine is an important genre of science popularisation. It is clearly written but asks a lot of a reader without any biological or scientific background. Not because it is aimed primarily at a scientific audience but because it is narrating and explaining the intricate complexity of the immune system. There were well over two hundred different COVID vaccines at different stages of development as Rhodes was writing. They fall into eight distinctive categories depending on what part of the virus biochemistry is targeted and how: inactivated or attenuated forms of the virus, its DNA or messenger RNA or protein configuration for example. This is good news as variant mutations are unlikely to counter the effectiveness of all available vaccine categories.
Opposition to protective measures against viruses and bacteria has a long history. Andrew Wakefield’s spurious claim in 1998 that the combined vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella, MMR, was linked to autism was the direct antecedent to current resistance. The history indicates that a minority of the public will always be prone to making bad decisions about how best to look after their – and others’ - children or their own health. And this will inevitably create public health problems.
The Pope has made it unequivocally clear being vaccinated is a moral obligation. But Vatican guidance for Catholics in 2020 was pre-occupied by the question of the origin of cell lines that have contributed to vaccine production – human foetal tissue from two sources in the 1960s - despite vaccination being of paramount concern for the common good in this pandemic. This was at the expense of common good arguments for getting jabbed. The guidance concludes that the remoteness of the original ‘evil act’, abortion, removes any complicity from those seeking protection for themselves, family and others today. Indeed vaccination ‘may be a moral obligation’ if there are no other effective ways of stopping infection. Those who refuse in conscience must scrupulously find other ways of avoiding transmission of the virus. Scientists should obtain their cell lines without ending the development of a human life. Something tells me this is not going to sway militant anti-vaxxers.
How to Make a Vaccine is well worth the effort. The scientific progress it presents is in many ways comforting. It puts flesh on the dry bones of ‘following the science’. Anti-vaxxers, especially those addicted to conspiracy theories, should ask themselves how the medical profession, with their Hippocratic Oath, have conspired to fool the world for the last three hundred years – and yet managed to save so many lives. And then dip into this paperback. They won’t even open it, of course. The persistence of opposition to vaccination based on nothing to do with conscience is sad, obstinate and dangerous.
See TheArticle 30/07/2021