Thursday, 8 September 2016

Trump, Corbyn and the power of faith

“Credo quia absurdum”, “I believe because it is absurd”, may sound like nonsense but it’s a powerful statement of faith.

Attributed to Tertullian, one of the earliest Christian authors, the phrase means that there’s no need for faith when it comes to the rational. I don’t need to believe that an unsupported weight will fall if I release it, because I can see it happen each time and have no reason to imagine that the next time the weight will hover or rise.

When it comes to the virgin birth, on the other hand, or the resurrection of the crucified Christ, I am dealing with events for which there is no rational explanation. Accepting them as true does require faith because I have no evidence for them. In terms day-to-day existence, they are absurd and therefore can only be believed or rejected, not proven or disproved.

That’s a perfectly legitimate stance, though it doesn’t happen to be mine. “I believe what can only be accepted by belief” sounds fine for anyone so inclined, but it works less well for those who prefer to know than to believe, and therefore seek evidence rather than faith. In any case, what I find essential is to limit belief to religious matters and not let it interfere with other domains where it can only be damaging. In particular, complete separation of faith from politics seems to me the only way to keep our forms of government sane.

That’s why I find it worrying that faith is entering our politics once more. That's the case in the US, for example. A huge minority – and I hope it remains a minority – seems convinced that Donald Trump is the way forward. They believe that it’s possible to build a 2000-mile wall and make it formidable enough to keep immigrants out; they even seem to believe that they can persuade the country just outside that wall, Mexico, to pay for it. They believe it, I presume, because it is absurd.

Essentially, at the back of Trump-mania is a specific form of belief: the worship of the messianic man, the providential figure without whom nothing can be achieved. Curiously, we have the same phenomenon in Britain, though not on the right of the political spectrum, but on the left. Here, the article of faith concerns Jeremy Corbyn, apparently believed by a great many Labour Party members – at least the new ones – to be the indispensable key to success. “If Jeremy can’t do it, no one can do it,” I saw on a poster at one of his rallies.

The venerable Corbyn
But is the veneration political or devout?
This is a belief based wholly on absurdity. There is simply no evidence at all that Corbyn is well-placed to realise any kind of Labour programme in office. In fact, all the evidence points the other way: he’s most unlikely ever to form a government.

His supporters regularly tell me about the by-elections Labour has won, with increased majorities, since he has been leader. They simply ignore that Ed Milliband, the previous leader, had exactly the same track record: actually, one more such by-election win (five rather than four), lulling the party into a false sense of confidence, shattered when we were badly defeated in the 2015 General Election. It is absurd to believe that with the same track record in opposition, the new leader will achieve anything more. Unless we simply believe because it is absurd.

The true believers claim is that Corbyn’s dire poll figures are not to be accepted. It’s true that polls are often misleading, but sadly the evidence (if evidence is what you like) is that their error is to overstate Labour support. But, I have been assured on Twitter that’s simply not the point:

“Polls don't reflect public opinion, they try to influence it. The sooner you eejits realise that, the Labour Party will do ok.”

What doesn’t fit the pattern of belief is rejected as untrue (and only believed by eejits). So, for instance, when Corbyn put out film of himself sitting on the floor of a “ram-packed” train because he couldn’t find a seat, that made an important point about the state of our (privatised) railways. When the railway company, Virgin, released film of him walking past empty seats, we were told that was a distortion of reality, that the true situation wasn’t as the film seemed to suggest.

For a while, I lived in what today is called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At one time, there was a rebellion by a movement that called itself Simba. Its priests assured the young men of the movement that if they simply ran at guns, looking neither right nor left, shouting “Mai! Mai!”, “Water! Water!”, any bullets fired at them would simply turn to water. Sadly, some of these young men were killed by bullets, but that didn’t invalidate the priests’ beliefs: clearly, the victims had looked right or left and brought death upon themselves.

Similarly, if Corbyn tries to make a valid point about privatised rail companies, but does it in a cack-handed way, stage-managing the setting for his statement so poorly that he’s quickly exposed, that isn’t evidence of his ineptitude, it’s evidence of how biased the media are against him. Just as when the parliamentary Labour party loses confidence in him, by a 4:1 majority, that doesn’t prove he can’t win his colleagues’ support, it only proves their base, treacherous plotting.

If Corbyn is re-elected leader, as seems likely, and goes on to take the party to a historically catastrophic defeat, which seems just as probable, the fault won’t be his. It will be down to the traitors in the parliamentary party or the jackals of the right-wing media. The fact that previous Labour leaders have faced the same obstacles but managed to overcome them will not be a consideration.

Because what we’re up against isn’t reason. It’s faith. It doesn’t matter how irrational it is, we believe it precisely because it is absurd.

Credo quia absurdum.

Postscript H L Mencken once wrote, “Tertullian is credited with the motto ‘Credo quia absurdum’ – ‘I believe because it is impossible’. Needless to say, he began life as a lawyer.”

Mencken’s remark isnt really relevant to my argument, but I just like it.


Anonymous said...

You can fool some of the people all the time.

David Beeson said...

And who is 'you' in this context?

Anonymous said...

Trump or Corbyn.

David Beeson said...

Then, I'm glad to say, I entirely agree with your sentiment...

Anonymous said...

Thank you.