IN The Guardian, Rowan Williams struck a lovely note from a lost age of innocence with a piece denouncing the arms trade. “About half of our development spending goes to states and regions affected by chronic violent conflict, and about half of our arms exports go to states where military force is used against its citizens or vulnerable neighbours.
“It’s as if we are creating, or at least helping to maintain, the very conflicts whose terrible effects we then spend money on mitigating.
“This is both economic and moral nonsense.”
It’s not that he’s wrong: he’s painfully right. What’s more, the concision and clarity that evaded him when he had some real power and decisions to make as Archbishop of Canterbury have returned to his prose, now that he just has opinions.
But it all seems dissociated from any political process. The continued British logistical support for Saudi Arabia’s brutal and pointless war in the Yemen is only going to grow more important to our economy during the grim/sunlit years ahead.
It is not just Yemen. In one of the most startling and horrible pieces of video journalism I have ever seen, The New York Times reconstructed — it seems mostly from smartphone video — a recent massacre of Shia pilgrims by an elite unit of the Nigerian army.
Somehow, it is even more shocking to watch soldiers beating the wounded with iron bars as they lie on the ground than it is to see them firing deliberately and at close range into the backs of a fleeing civilian crowd.
When Boris Johnson last year visited Nigeria as Foreign Secretary, it was reported that 300 British military advisers had helped to train 28,000 Nigerian troops in infantry skills, civil-military affairs, and media operations, among other things. There seems to be a need for some refresher courses.
STORIES about the influence of digital media in spreading what you might call crowd-sourced extremism continue. The Daily Beast had an usual one. This was a young man who was led by the YouTube recommendation algorithm to neo-Nazism, after he developed an interest in atheism.
This was not for Nietzschean philosophical reasons: it happened because the atheist movement was convulsed a couple of years ago by its own version of the #MeToo scandals, and the subsequent anti-feminist backlash. It was the sexually frustrated nerds whining about “social-justice warriors” who led him to the Holocaust-deniers, with whom they made common cause against the monstrous regiment of women.
But entirely conventional media are still astonishingly powerful — a power in inverse proportion to their respectability. The part played by tabloid front pages in supermarkets, where you cannot help but see them, is not often considered. In this country, there is the relentless barrage of stories about the “migrant invasion” in the Express and the Mail.
It is worth noting that these, too, can be explained by something like the YouTube algorithm: it would be quite wrong to think of the Express as a paper with fascist principles, or any at all, for that matter. What gets on the front is whatever stimulates people to buy it. A similar part is played by the National Enquirer in the United States, which was in the news because its owner had spent $150,000 to buy up and suppress the story of a Playboy model who had had an affair with Donald Trump.
At the same time, it was running a series of startlingly lurid attacks on his opponent. The New York Times reproduced a whole series of them. The most impressive headline was “Hillary: 6 months to live! Brain cancer and blood clots; MS, Strokes, and Alcohol Abuse.”
People who stop to think about that, even for a moment, will realise that it is ludicrous; but most people, who see headlines in passing, are not going to stop and think about politicians even for a moment. They will retain the kind of vague supposition that there is something horribly wrong with her, even if they cannot remember what.
BUT it’s Christmas. Time for a story about present-giving. A megachurch leader in South Carolina is in trouble for giving his wife an unusual anniversary gift. Pastor John Gray (not to be confused with the philosopher) gave his wife, Aventer, a car — a $200,000 Lamborghini SUV.
The whole thing was, of course, filmed, and put up on Instagram, where you see the couple dressed up to the nines, moving through a whooping congregation to where the car is parked. When she catches sight of it, she curtsies to it, twice: perhaps the weirdest moment in the whole story.
Some of his flock see this as a moment of theological significance. One of them writes: “Love you John & Aventer. . . God is soooooo good . . . . & their’s more where that came from! Ya’ll make God look good . . . because he is!!”
Others are, more predictably, outraged — or, perhaps, simply puzzled about which SUV Jesus would drive.
Pastor Gray is an occasional preacher at one of the high temples of the prosperity gospel, Joel Osteen’s megachurch in Houston, Texas. His own church used to be called the Redemption Church, but now is known as “Relentless Church”. There is a television programme screaming to be made in which he does a job swap with the Vicar of St Gargoyle’s.