Monday, February 05, 2007

class prejudice, religious blight

dastardly murder of a finally sung hero - JC's execution

Having just spent a bit of time reflecting on family and other matters, it's back to the less perilous subject of religion. Currently I'm reading two texts, The Tyrannicide Brief, by Geoffrey Robertson, and Descartes, by the philosopher A C Grayling. In both of these books, religious division and intransigence loom large, and they deal with overlapping periods, the first with the English Civil War and the restoration of the monarchy, roughly between 1640 and 1660, the second with the particularly brutal Thirty Years War, roughly between 1618 and 1648. I've already mentioned that England was a god-besotted nation in the seventeenth century, and it's clear that the same could be said for the whole of Europe.

It's important to make this point and to recognize and really to celebrate the difference between that intolerant century and our own, and particularly to note the difference in religious emphasis, for by intolerance I essentially mean religious intolerance.

Having almost finished Robertson's book which gives something of a general picture of England in the mid seventeenth century, and before that Ridley's weighty biography of Lord Palmerston, which gives a general picture of England in the nineteenth century, there's no doubt whatever that the various churches or denominations had far far greater social and political power in the earlier period than in the later one, and further that even their power in the nineteenth century is much less than today. This gives the lie to such absurdly titled books as Alister McGrath's The Twilight of Atheism: The rise and fall of disbelief in the modern world, for not only does disbelief continue to rise in western society, notwithstanding certain backwaters, but society has clearly reaped the benefits of such a rise, in terms of civility and inclusivity.

Dawkins' book is at its best when it reveals the dissociation between religion and morality or justice, not only noting the intemperate reviling of non-believers by public officials and so called law enforcers in the USA, where the lines between politics and religion have been so disturbingly blurred in recent years, but also citing the sort of evidence that the reading of history also reveals, that a far more tolerant understanding of other races, of a long-oppressed gender, of the needs of children, of different sexual orientations and so forth, has emerged in the past one hundred and fifty years, coincident with a decline in organized religion. I wouldn't say that the decline has caused the growth in understanding, of course. I'd say instead that the greater mobility of modern populations, and the success of modern liberal education over that period, has been a major factor both in religion's decline and in the growth of understanding. Science and the scientific method too have played some small part.

Religious intransigence is one obvious source of exasperation for me when reading history, and another is class prejudice. As a person of impeccable working class credentials, who's as incapable of 'getting' the Armani suit thing as the Armani-suited Leonard Cohen is of getting the Bohemian thing [though I keep trying, and anyway I look much more like a slob than a boho], I always find myself bristling at this kind of prejudice.

And besides, who'd wanna wear a fucken suit in this filthy weather, eh Lennie?

The class thing, certainly in the 17th century, played into the religious thing too. Beneath the divine right of kings comes a lesser divine right to an aristocratic inheritance and a title, and a guaranteed job as, say, a 'Justice', distributing legal favours to his backscratching aristo cronies. I remember years ago, when as a kitchen hand I received a lift home from a smart beautiful waitress, who was studying law and is now undoubtedly in full flight as a legal eagle. I spoke a little disparagingly of the wigs and gowns get-up of the profession, which she defended quite stoutly for such a slim girl, but I should've been more forceful – I probably had the old obvious on my mind. The fact is that these aristo get-ups are a constant reminder to the poor and benighted, who are mostly on the receiving end of judgments, that the class system and the law are interminably entangled.

The story of David Hicks is a good modern illustration of this truism, but the story of John Cooke, as presented by Robertson, is far more frightful.

Cooke, an upright puritan lawyer with even more impeccable working class credentials than my own, was the man given 'the tyrannicide brief'', the poisoned chalice of prosecuting Charles Stuart, King of England, for the crime of 'tyrannicide', newly minted for the occasion, possibly by Cooke himself. However, though Cooke may have made up the term 'tyrannicide', he certainly didn't invent any of the crimes committed by the pig-headed, murderously egotistical Mr Stuart.

Stuart – okay aka Charles 1 – had been fighting tooth and nail against a parliament that wanted to, and really needed to curb his power. When it wouldn't grant him unlimited funds to do whatever, he would dissolve it, or try to. Or he would make promises to get his own way, and immediately break them as not being binding upon an absolute monarch. This of course led to greater distrust and greater rifts, until all-out war was declared between the supporters of the king and those of parliament.

After various defeats, Charles would make concessions while all the time conspiring behind the back of the victors to raise more troops to return him to the absolute power he claimed as his right. It became increasingly clear that civil strife would continue as long as he was around, and that if parliament, and its rights, were to survive at all, the king would have to go. Even keeping him an eternal prisoner would be a danger. It was a situation not unlike that of Mary Queen of Scots (the grandmother of Charles 1, and he was definitely a chip off the old block), only far more problematic, as the position of Charles was always potentially more powerful than that of Mary, and his support, due to incumbency, far greater.

So it was decided that Charles should be tried as something like an enemy of the state. It was reasonable to argue this, though of course novel at the time. It was setting precedents about heads of state who unnecessarily and unreasonably plunge that state into war, whether civil or international, a subject of great interest to me.

This is where John Cooke came in. He was a very able and conscientious lawyer of humble origin, a puritan who believed in the role of the parliament as a brake on absolute power. When the parliamentary side required a prosecutor in the case against the king he put his hand up, while most other lawyers scarpered. He performed well, and was rewarded by Cromwell, but he made enemies while trying to bring law reform to corrupt jurisdictions, both in England and Ireland. He was also an indefatigable pamphleteer for the cause of law reform and republicanism. By the standards of his day he stood out as impeccably honest, fair and diligent in his application of the law. Aristocrats, who were accustomed to decisions going their way as a matter of course, came to despise him.

So, come the restoration, John Cooke made the perfect sacrificial lamb. His fervent religiosity apart, he was a man well before his time. The story of his fate makes for depressing reading. Most depressing of all is the failure of the republic and the public rejoicing at the restoration. Fascinated though I've always been about the antics of the royals, this book has helped me clarify my own position as profoundly anti-monarchist. Even constitutional monarchy is a bad thing in my view, because it panders to that most grotesque phenomenon, the cult of personality. It would be an excellent thing if The Tyrannicide Brief could be turned into a mini-series. It deserves to reach a wider audience.

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