Cheering for Thanatos

First published in The Hedgehog Review on 2nd June 2015fuseli_sarpedon_death

As if there weren’t enough mighty causes, age-defining campaigns, momentous movements coming to a head last week. As if the public square were not already deafened by the cacophony of acrimony, war cries, whoops of delight. As if health care, gun control, and gay marriage were a light load for the news cycles, yet another issue strode into the limelight, an issue the importance of which it is impossible to overstate.

At the end of that crowded week, The Economist took its stand on euthanasia. Its front page pictured a snuffed candle. “The right to die—Why assisted suicide should be legal,” the headline read. Just a few days before, The New Yorker had run a devastating in-depth “Letter From Belgium,” which reported on the escalating number of cases of assisted suicide for people with non-terminal illnesses in that Benelux bastion of social liberalism.

What has prompted the sudden prominence of the issue? Continue reading

June 2015 siiiicccckkkk playlist


The Vaccines, Dream Lover
Kendrick Lamar I
Mumford & Sons, Ditmas
Imagine Dragons, Bet Your Life
Florence & The Machine, Long & Lost
Foy Vance, At Least My Heart Was Open
Sufjan Stevens, There’s A World (Neil Young cover)
Ike & Tina Turner, Too Many Tears In My Eyes
My Morning Jacket, Believe
The Maccabees, Pelican
Townes Van Sandt, Lungs
Magnetic Fields, Love Is Lighter Than Air
Bruce Springsteen, Tougher Than The Rest

The Pope, the Jew and the vision of Blue Labour

First published by Standpoint magazine May 2015

In 2013 Lord Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill was giving a lecture at the Vatican. He was expecting to speak to a handful of intellectuals. Hundreds of people turned up, including, in the third row, a man wearing a white skullcap with a broad smile on his face. Speaking in Italian, Glasman outlined his signature critique of our overweening states and exploitative markets. He found himself assailed by an American free-market fundamentalist. “Interfering in managerial prerogatives and the free movement of capital,” said his inteDemotix 10th January 2012rlocutor. “There’s a word for this — Communism.” Glasman, who hails from a small-business background and whose project revolves around broader access to credit and the wider distribution of profit, set about defending himself. A fierce debate ensued until the man in the third row stood up to intervene. The room fell silent. “What’s the idea?” said Pope Francis to the American, siding with Glasman. “You exploit the parents and then buy pencils for their children in school?” Continue reading

April playlist

Sufjan Stevens, No Shade in the Shadow of The Cross
The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River #20
Typhoon, PostscriptWill Butler
Will Butler, Anna
Odetta and Larry, Old Cotton Fields At Home
Yo La Tengo, Pablo & Andrea
Hollow Talk, Choir of Young Believers
Bifrost Arts Psalm 90,
Bob Dylan, Every Grain of Sand
Phosphorescent, You Can Make Me Feel Bad
Emmylou Harris and Richard Thompson, How will I ever be simple again?
Whales in Cubicles, We Never Win
Beirut, After the Curtain

How I screwed up in Hollywood (and how not to)

First published in The Spectator,Screwing up 28th March 2015

I took a trip to Hollywood because I’m a budding screenwriter. ‘Budding’ in this context means ‘unsuccessful’. Here’s Tennessee Williams on being an unsuccessful writer: ‘A life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before.’

The meeting I clawed along to was at Rough Draft. This is how I got there: it started with pure nepotism. My dad knows a guy who has generous instincts and loves encouraging young people in their careers. He took me to lunch at Scott’s, where we happened to sit at a table along from a famous producer who’s made most of my favourite films. When he came over to say hi to my dad’s friend, I knew I had 30 seconds to pitch my script. Continue reading

Going to Church in America

First published by First Things

We are late for church. It’s Sunday morning in Char­lottesville, Virginia, and we’re late for church. I pull up in the car park, and my wife and I get out. We rush to the entrance, and I swing wide the door and hold it open for her. And then we find ourselves in a wide vestibule area.

The carpets, weak olive. The walls, light gray. Colors no one would live with, as Updike says.

But we can’t be that late, because smiley people—blazers and bow­ties—are still there to thrust pro­grams into our hands.

I lean forward and gently pull open the doors of the sanctuary. What we find inside is quite aston­ishing. It stuns me. It stuns Holly. It is beyond our wildest imaginations. I simply have no frame of reference for the sight that greets me. Continue reading

February 2015 Playlist

I’m excited about this one: some new discoveries as well as some classics. Enjoy!

The Headlocks – Dream While You’re Awake
Interpol – Hands Away
Vampire Weekend – Worship You
Alt J – The Gospel of John Hurt
Kansas City – Marcus Mumford (Basement Tapes)
Radiohead – Videotape
The Strokes – Heart In A Cage
Sufjan Stevens – We Three Kings
War On Drugs – Lost In A Dream
Letts – Charles de Gaulle
Yo La Tengo – I’ll Be Around

Chocolate threatens my marriage

First published by The Spectator Life on 29 November 2014

Mr and Mrs Smith: they have nothing on us. Their conflict, mere child’s play. Because since moving to America last summer my wife and I have been engaged in an increasingly frenetic game of cat and mouse over chocolate.

I only have myself to blame, because in a moment of madness I swore to give up chocolate, the substance which brings much pleasure and many pounds.

The logic went like this. 1. American chocolate is dreadful. 2. I am not tempted by dreadful chocolate. Therefore, ceteris paribus… 3. I will not eat chocolate in America.

But the premises were false.

First, naively did I assume that the America I knew as a child, when the chocolate options were exhausted by Hershey’s Kisses and Reese’s Pieces, would be the same country I encountered a quarter of a century later. Continue reading

Distributism Isn’t Outdated

G._K._Chesterton_at_work-554x414First published by The American Conservative on 13th November 2014

G.K. Chesterton offers a non-statist vision for economic and social change that’s still relevant in the age of the iPhone.

I’m not holding out for a Red October 2017, but neither am I happy succumbing to a weary fatalism about the kind of capitalism we find ourselves with today. I want to believe things could be different, but that will require more vision than can be found in our current political arguments. And its accomplishment will hinge upon inspiring rather than alienating business leaders.

This will require a vision for transformation that—crucially—doesn’t revolve around a model of gladiatorial government whereby elected representatives battle for policy changes and social justice while we sit by cheering. No, we need a non-statist vision for economic and social change.

G.K. Chesterton’s early 20th century “distributism” is a movement typically considered a spent force, which is always a good reason to pay attention to something, for finding a vision for the future often requires swiveling back to the past. It holds out just the sort of powerful vision that could very well capture the hearts and minds of business leaders.

Chesterton’s “distributist” project tried to chart a middle course (but not “Third Way”!) between laissez faire capitalism on the one side and state socialism on the other. The problem with the former, as Chesterton wrote in The Outline of Sanity 10 years after the Russian Revolution, was that “The practical tendency of all trade and business today is towards big commercial combinations, often more imperial, more impersonal, more international than many a communist commonwealth.” While of the alternative, Chesterton said, “the point about Communism is that it only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.”

Instead, Chesterton picked up and ran with what we might call the Lockean strain in Pope Leo XIII’s famous encyclical Rerum Novarum, the emphasis on the natural integrity of private property. For Chesterton, ownership is a self-evident good, which therefore shouldn’t be abolished but widely distributed. Similarly, profit is a good thing, in fact too good a thing not to be shared. Accordingly, what Chesterton took issue with in the then-current defense of capitalism was that it was a “defense of keeping most men in wage dependence; that is, keeping most men without capital.” This conviction compelled Chesterton to lambast big business (which backfired when big chain of news stands refused to sell G.K.’s weekly); to monitor and oppose mergers; to advocate independent proprietorship; and to pronounce on every possible occasion that “small is beautiful”.

What possible relevance, though, can distributism have in globalized 21st-century economies? Economies where self-employment makes up so small a proportion of overall employment? In economies that produce complex, specialized goods from iPhones to aircraft?

Well, I think we could envisage in our economies a radical increase in the rate of self-employment—by which I mean, proportionately, a small increase! Small but significant. For, excitingly, many of the jobs that lend themselves to self-employment—bike shops, cleaning, landscape gardening, building trades—are entry-level. Ownership can be most achievable for some of the most disadvantaged and for the longest unemployed.

Policy circles at the moment, in the U.S. and the U.K., are abuzz with talk of how transformative “interventions” can improve someone’s life—interventions like the Family Nurse Partnership, or other types of mentoring for isolated young mothers. The distributist vision will require interventions as well, but interventions undertaken by men and women in the business community who give their time and energy to mentor young people at risk of crime, those coming out of the criminal justice system, or the long-term unemployed, all with the aim of giving them the confidence to set up their own productive, self-owned businesses.

How else might the distributist vision be achieved? Many on the right say that the best thing men and women in the business community could do for the poor is to start companies. Absolutely, but what about starting companies that the poor have a stake in from the very start?

Take a rural example: I have a friend who has made a significant amount of money, with which he has purchased a farm. But instead of working the land for him, the worker keeping the pigs will run the business with my friend, will co-farm, and will then share the profits.

Interestingly, however—as Jay Corrin notes in his excellent book Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002)—Chesterton’s promotion of ownership and concomitant dismissal of wage-dependence led, in the General Strike of 1926, to the distributists strongly disapproving of the central demand of the trade unions: an insistence on a living wage. As Corrin says: “Focusing on the issue of wages, they argued, would only serve to perpetuate the division of property between employer and employee.”

At this point, though, Chesterton was running so far with the Lockean strand of Rerum Novarum, he left behind its other emphasis: the living wage. We can’t afford to make that mistake. For the truth is we don’t have time to wait until the elimination of “wage-dependence”; something needs to be done now about the low-wage economy. More specifically, the poor deserve a “floor” in terms of income—in the form of a living wage.

In the UK there have been two recent political attempts to respond to Catholic Social Teaching: Phillip Blond’s Red Toryism—focusing more on Chesterton’s distributist vision—and the Blue Labour movement developed by Lord Glasman, a Jewish political philosopher. His thinking and activism bears the impress of his appreciation of what he called the precious “gift” of Catholic social teaching. For as a community organizer, Glasman is adamantly anti-statist. Only by lobbying companies one by one, he insists, bringing management into direct relationship with their low-paid staff, should the living wage be campaigned for.

Returning to America, the task of tackling poverty can seem overwhelming. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world, while drug use is so endemic that it would now seem that opium is the opiate of the people. But chief among our priorities must be to increase ownership amongst the poorest and to ensure them a living-wage “floor.”

How will this be accomplished? Not mainly through government. No, this vision will be accomplished by envisioning, rather than alienating, business leaders; envisioning them to do things differently in the capitalist economies in which we find ourselves.

The misery of men-only parties

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 September 2014

Last year my wife Holly and I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, a stunning colonial town nestled in the Shenandoah mountains. Charlottesville was just voted America’s happiest city by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. We happily wander the downtown promenade, or visit the viognier vineyards, but there are some customs we’ve found hard to fathom. Chief among these is what can only be called the ‘sausage fest’, parties to which only men are invited.

Arriving to take a job at the University of Virginia, I was thrown in among the nexus of relationships a big academic institution affords. Add to that the Americans’ unjustifiably high estimation of Brits (in contrast to our unjustifiably low estimation of them), and I was well set up to make friends.

Holly, though, had to wait a while for her work permit to come through. So when the wife of an academic colleague sent us an invitation to his 30th birthday party, I said: ‘Go on, give her call. She could become a friend. Tell her we’d love to come.’

‘Delighted James can come,’ was the reply. James? Eh?

This apparently is par for the course. Wives organise parties for their husbands but when the ‘big night’ arrives, very much leave them to it. I find this problematic both personally and in principle.

Personally, I don’t really enjoy a party sans femmes. Stag weekends, for example. I’ve always found them a necessary evil. Why do I like parties with women? Not because I’m still after them. No, because — and maybe saying so is in itself sexist — why construct a social situation only to extract from it all charm, all vivacity, all grace? Women have been a force for good in the world. I truly believe that. Or as Inspector Morse once put it, ‘I have always believed femininity to be the guarantor of civilisation.’

But there’s a principle at stake too. When it comes to the bother about the burka, I hold the unremarkable position of being enough of a liberal to think the veil oppressive, but enough of a pluralist to concede women should be allowed to wear it. Deep down, though, I feel that if male lust poses a threat to society, it’s incumbent on men, not women, to deal with it. Why must how women dress be determined by how men are?

Where I am in the States, though, the prevailing position seems to be even more radical. It is as if male lust requires not just that our womenfolk remain covered. It requires that they not be there at all.

Maybe I should be more exact. For in truth it seems that the Virginians’ under-lying fear is not an evening with women. It’s an evening with women and bourbon.

Another ‘sausage fest’ I attend, again organised by the man’s missus, is held in his house. When we arrive there’s no sign of women and children. The eight of us take our seats, whereupon a single 20-ounce steak is placed on each of our plates. No potatoes. No accoutrements. Just meat and, in the middle of the table, a helluva lot of bourbon.

My wife likes to introduce me as a ‘one-pint wonder’. It should be said, I have the suggestion of a paunch and am at best ‘ugly handsome’, while Holly is slender and beautiful. Nevertheless, she can drink me under the table. Recall the opening scene of that sweeping epic Raiders of the Lost Ark. Remember the thin dark-haired heroine who has challenged a burly climber to a drink-off? She slams a shot. He matches her. Then he slowly keels over into the snow. Our first date was rather like that.

So as Woodford Reserve swills in my mouth, and the mantelpiece swims through my glasses, it strikes me that it really should be Holly representing us at this sausage fest. They’ve invited the wrong representative of Team Mumford.

Instead as the night wears on, my conversation becomes more convoluted and my analogies weaken. At 2 a.m. we eventually pile out into minus 12°C. I stumble home, ‘the crunch of frost beneath the foot’. I traipse up the drive shouting ‘HOLLLEEEE’ like Brando in Streetcar.

You might say I’m being overly judgmental about a culture I have freely embraced, indeed which has freely embraced me. I have been treated to the Americans’ outstanding hospitality, yet here I am criticising their mores. Perhaps sausage fests may be justified on the grounds that they provide important opportunity for the sexes to regroup. But sadly, over the course of a year, I’ve been to about nine sausage fests, whereas my wife hasn’t been to any birthday parties for the women. Maybe they don’t age in the same way.

Or perhaps you suspect the reason I feel uncomfortable about my sausage fests is because deep down I feel uncomfortable about my sausage. Well, in that, as with the sausage fest, you’d be better off asking my wife.