27 June 2009

The optimism in Cain and Abel

By Liam Carroll

Humans like stories, and with good reason. Not only are many of them fun, but they are also informative. Psychologist Jordan Peterson has an interesting interpretation of the Genesis stories of Adam and Eve and their two sons, Cain and Abel; it is interesting, in my opinion, because it mixes religion and science, and is both plausible and positive.

When humans were animals, before the development of self-consciousness and rational planning, we lived in paradise. We lived in paradise because we had no thought for tomorrow, no anxiety about what we should or should not be doing; we were instinctive, we lived in the flow of life, moment to moment.

As we evolved, over several hundred thousands of years and underwent rapid brain development we became increasingly self-conscious. Who knows why, or God knows why, depending on your perspective. Either way, it was an evolution; an experiment of nature, or a process of design by the creator.

The emergence of light and the creation of Adam and Eve represents this emergence of consciousness in incredibly compressed form; it's only a page or two in Genesis, about a million years according to geneticists. The snake, curled upwards around the tree, is symbolic of the central nervous system running up the spine with our organs of sight, hearing and smell in the head. This is the information system that makes us alert to our environment. It warns us about physical threats and alerts us to things we need or desire.

The eating of the apple is the moment that Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness, their vulnerability, their mortality; the fruit of knowledge is knowledge about ourselves and our environment, it is the birth of self-consciousness. We are no longer in paradise, we are no longer ignorant and blissful, we no longer live in the moment, in the rich flow of life. We now have to start preparing for tomorrow, to labour, to plan, to protect and to provide for ourselves, starting with the fig leaf.

Out of Eden we go with the Cherub, our youth, with the flaming sword, barring our return. We now have to plan and work, to store wealth, to prepare for lean times, for unexpected eventualities, and God knows what else.

Cain and Abel, the first sons, brothers, or two aspects of the human psyche, provide the first story of the choices that face us. Abel does everything right, he knows what sacrifices to make to please God and he is happy and God loves him. The love of God, literal or symbolic, depending on your perspective, represents happiness and well being. Although the world can be a cruel and tragic place, those people, according to this interpretation of the story, who behave appropriately, who make the correct self-sacrifices, and do not put aside everything for themselves, achieve happiness.

Cain on the other hand, doesn't make the right sacrifices. He sacrifices something, but in Genesis it doesn't go into detail. God is not happy with him though, and from this we might surmise that what he thinks is a sufficient sacrifice, in reality isn't. His sacrifices, his efforts, are mean and paltry, he wants to keep the best for himself, but he is unhappy, for God, or life even, does not treat him well. Cain's jealousy of Abel's happiness, of the love that he receives from others, as represented by God, is too much for Cain, and he ends up killing Abel. Life for Cain goes even further downhill from there.

The optimism of this interpretation of Cain and Abel, following on the heels of our expulsion from Eden, lies in the fact that there is redemption for humankind, if we make the right choices. Self-sacrifice doesn't mean going without, it means gaining something else.

20 June 2009

Stop exporting death and destruction

By Nicola Pratt

This week, Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), a UK-based group with a lively branch in Norwich, will be calling on the UK Department for Trade and Industry to stop using British taxpayers' money to help private companies sell arms, as part of its 'Stop' week (14-21 June). In the current economic downturn, it may seem unrealistic to call for an end to official support for a multi-million pound UK industry, which employs over 300,000 people. Between 2003 and 2008, the UK was the second biggest exporter of arms in the world. Some people may ask, isn't it better that countries buy their weapons from the UK rather than our competitors, such as the US, Russia and France? The government, which underwrites arms sales made between British companies and foreign governments, has rules against providing licenses to sell arms to countries where they may be used for internal repression, to increase regional instability or cause human rights violations. Nevertheless, in the first nine months of 2008, the government licensed arms exports to Israel worth over £27 million. It is difficult to believe that none of this equipment was used by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip earlier this year, where over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, a third of whom were women and children, and 4,247 homes were destroyed.

Even if the government was to follow its own rules on arms sales, in today's world, it is increasingly difficult to know the destination of all arms sales or to guarantee that they are not being used against civilians. Globalized production means that the UK sells parts to other countries, such as the US, to include in assembling weapons which are sold on to other countries. Meanwhile, wars are increasingly fought in civilian-populated areas, rather than between two national armies on the 'battlefront'.

What is equally worrying is that arms sales may increase the chances of conflicts escalating. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the volume of weapons being exported to the Middle East has risen by more than 33% overall in the past four years. During 2004-2008, 34 per cent of all arms sales to the Middle East went to the small Gulf state of the United Arab Emirates, while Israel received 22 per cent and Egypt 14 per cent. The UAE and other Gulf countries have long been significant importers of western-made weaponry. High oil prices until last summer helped to fuel expenditure on arms imports amongst the UAE and other Gulf states. The other main driver is the previous US administration's desire to support its allies in the Gulf against Iran. Indeed, the UAE and other Arab Gulf states have been historically concerned about the possible threat from their large Iranian neighbour across the Persian Gulf and these concerns have risen since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, resulting in a destabilization of the region's balance of power. Pieter Wezeman, a SIPRI, researcher commented, "While we are a long way from the levels [of imports] reached in the early to mid-1980s, this is still a worrying trend in a region beset by multiple sources of potential conflict and limited intergovernmental trust and transparency". Large arms imports to the Gulf are more likely to be aggravating the security situation, rather than lessening tensions. It is possible that Iran's development of nuclear technology is spurred on by the fact that it is surrounded by countries either armed or occupied by the US and its allies (the Arab Gulf states, Iraq and Afghanistan).

As taxpayers whose money helps to support the UK arms industry, we have an ethical obligation to hold our elected officials to account over arms exports and to prevent the global insecurity that our government helps to create.

Many thanks to Christine Wilson for her help with this article.

13 June 2009

Welcome to Paine's County

By Lee Marsden

While visitors to Norfolk are welcomed by road signs proudly proclaiming that Norfolk is "Nelson's County" last weekend's bicentennial celebrations in Thetford demonstrate that honour rightfully belongs to Norfolk's greatest son, Thomas Paine. Paine is one of the most politically significant figures of modernity, a leading figure and inspiration in the American and French revolutions that helped shape the modern world. A Thetford boy who attended Thetford Grammar School before becoming a corset maker, excise officer and then, after a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin, a major political figure on both sides of the Atlantic. The University of East Anglia and Thomas Paine Society hosts a biannual Thomas Paine lecture, and UEA's politics department awards its best student with the Thomas Paine prize each year, but for many Norfolk residents Paine remains largely unappreciated. Throughout the summer and autumn, however, Thetford hosts a variety of events to commemorate the life of this great thinker.

Paine challenged the existing order of his day, writing three of the greatest political tracts ever written which still have resonance. In 1776, Common Sense became the best selling book of the eighteenth century, selling 125,000 copies in just three months in a population of just two and a half million people in the thirteen American colonies. Paine made the case for American independence, railed against the monarchy, inheritance and privilege, arguing in favour of representative democratic government, and to establish America as a safe haven for the world's oppressed. Written in two parts The Rights Of Man in 1791 and 1792 offered justification for the French revolution, opposed hereditary rule as being as "absurd as a hereditary mathematician", sought elected leaders, term limits, a judiciary acceptable to the public, redistribution of income, pensions, state education, a system of welfare benefits, the end of wage restrictions, a complete separation of church and state and the abolition of the monarchy. Finally, in 1794 and 1795 Paine wrote the Age of Reason, the application of reason to the Bible. In exposing inaccuracies and contradictions within the Bible, Paine produced a far more devastating critique of religion than anything produced by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens; suggesting that "the whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum".

Paine was vilified in his home country for attacking the monarchy, in France for opposing the execution of the King, and in America for opposing religion. And yet, throughout the ages, Paine has continued to inspire those who believe that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood". In a year that has been marked by the greed of bankers and politicians, the death throes of the New Labour project, the upsurge in support for racist and Little England parties, and the inability of the leader of the opposition to articulate any coherent policies, the memory of Thomas Paine behoves us to rediscover the radicalism that inspired previous generations. To read Thomas Paine's work is to again be challenged about the potential of political engagement to change the world. Paine fought to defend and advance democracy, to oppose inheritance and privilege, to oppose offensive warfare, and to defend reason and secularism against religious fundamentalism.

Thomas Paine is radical and an antidote to a political culture that is more impressed by presentation than substance, is more concerned about personality than character, and is more concerned about self rather than community. Paine believed that a better world was possible and set about doing something to achieve it, and so can we. So let's celebrate that inheritance and be proud that we live in "Paine's County".

6 June 2009

The lesson of ancient dragons

By Liam Carroll

Dragons are one of the most widespread and ancient symbols in human culture and are still consistently emerging in artistic, educational and religious activities to this very day. I had the pleasure recently of cycling the Dragon Trail around three charming Norfolk churches on the Broads and was struck by the dragons enduring appeal. I was even more surprised when I subsequently walked around Norwich Cathedral cloisters and saw many dragons on the roof bosses.

Probably the oldest creation myth that we know of is the Enuma Elish, which foreshadows much of Genesis and comes from the same part of the world (the Middle East). It features the great dragon Tiamat, a watery chaotic power, that is confronted by Marduk, a courageous god, who defeats the dragon and creates the world from her carcass. It represents the awakening of human culture, and is echoed in the Bible by the creation story and later references to the sea beast Leviathan.

Marduk's struggle with the dragon Tiamat, and the biblical threat to God's kingdom from the sea beast are psychological stories, not events. The struggle to keep chaos at bay, to have the courage to do the right things and to confront fear and anxiety, was, and still is, a living reality. For the ancients, the world was a much more mysterious place, and probably more frightening, for death was never far away. Yet even today, in the age of science, we cannot eradicate anxiety.
To achieve anything of value still requires a struggle of some sort, the sacrificing of one's time, a test of will power or the ordeal of examination. Yet we often know in our hearts that we must endure such discomforts for there is really no other way to progress in life, for talent too is often only the product of considerable effort.

Children and young people are constantly challenged by new and uncomfortable experiences, whether that be starting school, going to the dentist or going to work for the first time. Adults may be expected to be somewhat better equipped to deal with the new and unfamiliar, yet in reality we often have to face far more serious choices, for which the consequences of failure can be far reaching.

Anxiety and difficult choices face all people throughout their lives, and the process of getting old hardly lessens the burden, despite the increase in wisdom. We are imperfect beings with imperfect knowledge about ourselves and the world, and it is not surprising that we seek to lessen our state of vulnerability through material security.

Material security often proves evasive though; the more one pursues it, the more it seems to recede into the background; the more we run from our vulnerability, the more we are endlessly confronted by it.

Folklore, fairytales and dragons offer a different wisdom; the hero always makes the difficult choice, the fool pursues the immediate gain, the hero always helps people despite the difficulty of his journey, the fool always seeks to outwit people for his own personal benefit and thinks himself clever. In the final end the fool is always left with nothing whilst the hero gains the ultimate prize, which is never something material but something more precious like love or redemption for a particular community.

Norfolk and Norwich have a rich variety of dragons; mostly to be found in it's many religious houses, but also in it's heritage (Dragon Hall and the Snap Dragon in the Castle Museum), but most enduring of all are the dragons of children's stories that still proliferate homes, schools and libraries. This is to be welcomed, for the dragon stories often have something valuable to tell, something we have perhaps been telling ourselves since the very beginning, but somehow we seem to keep forgetting.