Friday, 21 March 2014

Twenty-first Century Bear-baiting

The bear has a sore head and it is on the loose, out of its pit.  Anyone who doubts bear baiting is cruel only has to see the suffering of Mr. Putin through his torment at the hands of Western powers.  NATO has crept up to Mother Russia’s borders, the West arbitrarily pushed for Kosovan independence, through which it broke from Serbia – Russia’s ally.  The United States invaded the sovereign state of Iraq (ruled by a brutal psychopath), ignoring Russian opposition.  The West encouraged a crony capitalism to rise from the ruins of the Soviet Empire, allowing the hated oligarchs to prosper.  Russia is smarting and now it is flexing its muscles.  The Crimean crisis is of course about protecting a Naval base and pipelines, it is about extending its sphere of influence, it is about protecting Russian speakers in the Crimea, but it is also about Russian pride, even Russian hurt pride. 

This outlook may seem like Russian paranoia to those of us in the West, but it could still be a genuinely-held world-view and it seems this is perhaps how the world does look and feel to Putin and his allies.  I am sure there are many liberal Russians who would not see things this way.  It does seem the case though that the rising tensions between the West and Russia are at root to do with a failure to understand each other.

It also seems difficult for the West to understand why the Crimean people should vote in a referendum to join Russia (having arbitrarily been given away to the Ukraine by Krushchev) and thereby avoid closer links with the apparently morally-good European Union.  However, looked at dispassionately, the West might have offered material wealth, but it also offers spiritual poverty. The conservative society of Eastern and Southern Ukraine is presented with a liberal-individualist culture in Wetern Europe manifested through abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, secularism and materialism – is that really such an appealing culture to join?

The Slavic world has not done well out of contact with the West.  Before the Napoleonic Wars, Russia was an agrarian society based around the institutions of Monarchy and Church.  Invasion by France woke Russia up to its technological backwardness.  It therefore embarked upon a programme of modernisation and industrialisation, with all the ugliness and brutalisation that industrialisation brings.  We know in the West that industrialisation can lead to the loss of something precious – one only needs to think of Ruskin, Carlyle, the Romantic poets and the Distributists to hear the literary mourning for a lost world.  There is a constant theme in our men of letters that a better world has been cast away for riches.  Yes we have an easier life physically in the industrialised West, but are we not poorer emotionally and spiritually?  Church attendance is down, marriages are fewer and break more often, teenage-pregnancy rates are high, employees often suffer mentally (stress, nervous breakdowns) from the demands made of them by corporate employers.  What we have cast aside - the hard work of a traditional, agrarian life - might even have been the praxis leading to virtue.  The Russians would understand that.

Hyper-modernisation in Russia went hand-in-hand with a sort of hyper-Enlightenment.  Bolshevism reared its ugly head, throwing off the Church and tradition by taking the ideas of the Enlightenment to their inevitable conclusion – political violence and atheist values.  Thus, while the West preserved the Church and its political institutions, Russia took the pseudo-science of Enlightenment theory seriously and plunged into bloody revolution, followed by brutal oppression by an atheist regime.

Russia as the Soviet Union oppressed its own people and its subject peoples brutally.  People disappeared to the Gulag for opposing a regime that can only be regarded as evil, particularly under Joseph Stalin.  Whole peoples were moved to different locations, as a means of undermining the concept of nation that binds us together.  The West remained as a beacon of hope for many in that dark time. 

The Cold War saw the West win, not only because of its economic strength, but because there was still virtue residing in its culture, handed down by its heritage – a heritage Russia had violently forsaken.  However, during the latter part of the Twentieth Century the West became more and more detached from its own cultural values and developed a liberal-individualist anti-culture.  Liberal individualism would not have defeated Nazism and neither did it win the Cold War.

A financially and morally bankrupt Russian Empire disintegrated in the 1990s.  The West did not think it necessary to offer its heritage of political tradition and cultural values; rather, it introduced Russia to capitalism unlimited by values and cultural norms that still applied (however diminished) in the West.   The hated Russian oligarchs prospered.  Once again Russia was brought into contact with the worst aspects of Western culture.  Selfishness and materialism, not tradition and religion, were seen as the alternative to Socialism. 

The West might see itself as a bastion of the rule of law and political freedom.  To Russians it probably looks like the preacher of selfishness, licentiousness and materialism.  Western Europe was once built upon Church and Monarchy, now it appears to have subsided into moral turpitude.  The only value that matters is individual freedom or rather selfish licence unconstrained by values or taboos.  That at least is probably how we look to the Slavic world.

Of course it is difficult really to imagine how we look to others, if not impossible.  Notwithstanding that, we must at least feel some unease at simply proselytising the post-Soviet world into value-less liberal-individualism.  It really is a rather corrosive world-view and the Slavs, with their own traumatic history of destructive atheism and an all-powerful, oppressive State can probably see that.

Yet in the West we still presume that our earlier moral integrity means that even today, what we do is right because we are the ones doing it.  Thus, invading Iraq or supporting the breaking away of Kosovo is the morally right thing to do, but for Russia to annex Crimea or for the Crimeans to choose to leave the Ukraine is wrong.  Well perhaps it is wrong and certainly Russia is signed up to respect the Ukraine’s borders as part of the deal on nuclear weapons.  The West is therefore on relatively firm legal ground in opposing the annexation and it is right to be concerned about the fate of the minority Tartar people.  However, now that the modern West has descended into a value-less liberalism it is not in a position to preach to others.  So perhaps it would be less hypocritical to see this international crisis as a battle to extend spheres of influence on the part of the West as much as the East, rather than trying to claim the moral high ground.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Putting things right

As another hunting season draws to a close (one much disrupted by the weather), it is worth considering the position of one of our great cultural traditions.  Despite the Conservative Party’s pledge to hold a free vote on the ban, despite Tony Blair, the man who as Prime Minister who used the Parliament Act to force the ban through the House of Lords unconstitutionally, admitting he was wrong and despite a clear impact on farms such as sheep farms on the Fells hanging on by their fingertips, hunting for political reasons alone remains banned.

Just as it was once useful for Mr Blair to allow frequent free votes on hunting to keep his more prejudiced backbenchers happy, so for the current Government hunting can be a useful political football.  It is all very well to launch a review into the impact on farming of restricting the despatch of foxes to one couple of hounds, but repeal of this aspect of the ban could be achieved by statutory instrument, with no need for a Parliamentary vote.

It feels more as though the review is to send a message of sympathy to hunting people without actually acting.  Yet even Tony Blair now admits the hunting ban was a mistake.  There are few who would argue the ban was about animal welfare.  It was as Tony Banks said “totemic” – it was a deliberate attack on a certain way of life and an imaginary, stereotypical foxhunter, who bares little resemblance to the majority of keen hunt supporters - The people that in Tony Banks’ bitter mind represented the class enemy.  Because this was about a visceral hatred and class resentment, no argument would ever have won around a man like Tony Banks.

So what is to be done?  Hunting has shown its determination to survive within the law, despite that law being unjust and unclear.  It faces the threat of animal-rights extremism, increasing urbanisation taking away country, an ambiguous and draconian law and this season, as so many others have also suffered, the impact of the flooding.

Hunting has rightly been defended on animal welfare grounds.  Most people of sound mind understand that hunting an animal is more natural and humane than trapping, poisoning or shooting.  Most realise that fox numbers have to be controlled.  The real misunderstanding seems to be that urban people assume that people enjoy hunting because they enjoy killing.  This is a complete misunderstanding and comes from ignorance, so perhaps it is time to talk about what is so enjoyable about hunting.

If hunting is only justified on the very valid argument of pest control the debate is narrowed to a question of whether foxhunting is cruel or not.  While that argument can be clearly won, the urban mind still does not comprehend what is enjoyable.  So they then ask: Why don’t you just treat it like pest control?

The answer to that is surely that hunting has grown organically throughout the centuries as part of rural English culture.  It is therefore multi-faceted.  Nobody sat down one day and planned hunting as the means to control foxes.  Rather, it has arisen naturally through tradition.  So the enjoyable things about hunting (which previously did a vital job in wildlife management) are the community, the tradition and pageantry, the thrill of riding across country and jumping fences and most importantly of all working with animals – horses and hounds.  Anyone who truly loves animals cannot fail but be absorbed by hounds working.

We know hunting did a vital job before the ban, but just because it did that vital job, does not mean that it should not be enjoyable or rich in community and traditions.  So rather than the hunting rules and rituals being unnecessary, they are precisely what make hunting so rewarding.  This is perhaps why hunting is surviving all that the Government throws at it. 

However, the question must be asked:  What about the fox?  For as long as there are so many restrictions on how a fox can be legally hunted, other less humane methods have to be resorted to by others (trapping or shooting).  The landowner will need to be rid of the fox, whatever the intentions of Labour MPs when they voted for the ban.  So really anyone who cares about animal welfare should be pressing for the ancestral duty of hunting to be restored to it.  Hunts across the land are fighting hard to sustain a way of life handed down to us, but for as long as hunts can only go through the motions, the fox must be controlled in more brutal ways by others.

Our ancestors handed us a method of fox control that respected the law of nature – often the sick and the diseased despatched naturally through hunting, rather than more indiscriminate means of culling.  The fox was given a clean chance of either complete escape or instant demise, with minimal suffering.  Hunting has survived under the ban because it is multi-faceted and is sustained by the commitment of hunt staff and masters and the rich tradition and the closeness to animals and nature it offers supporters.  Nature would be better served however if hunting were given back its historic role of humanely controlling the fox.