Waking the dead
A Tory MEP has attracted derision for his loopy beliefs in the paranormal - but he is merely the tip of an iceberg of absurd mumbo-jumbo, argues James Turley
The European parliament, it is probably fair to say, is hardly an environment overburdened with mirth at the present time. The existing cohort of MEPs will therefore no doubt be keen to welcome the latest addition to their number, a Conservative deputy for the East Midlands by the name of Rupert Matthews.
Matthews has positively rocketed to notoriety, and on one level it is no wonder. He is possessed of a number of distinct personal quirks, which are commonly found together - he is a UFOlogist, a believer in the Roswell and Area 51 conspiracy theories, and a believer in Bigfoot. He is also a self-proclaimed ‘ghost-hunter’, a skill set he endeavours to pass on to others through his teaching arrangements at the International Metaphysical University (a mail-order ‘college’ where a set of fraudulent cranks endeavours to rip off a set of aspiring fraudulent cranks).
Matthews was propelled into this position by the resignation of Roger Helmer - triggered not by any personal scandals or suchlike, but by the Conservative Party’s perceived deviation from the hysterical far-right views he endorses, including the full set of Europhobic prejudices and, on one memorable occasion (the recent riots), the demand that the army should be sent in and shoot arsonists “on sight”. Charming.
By the rules of the European parliament, his resignation triggers no by-election; so the good people of the East Midlands are stuck with the next-best placed candidate in the region. That man is Rupert Matthews. In political substance, as it happens, there is not a huge change here; Matthews is also a bilious rightwinger, but of a rather more American conspiracy-paranoia type. Fellow MEP Daniel Hannan describes him as an “energetic patriot”, and energetic indeed are his views on the Lisbon Treaty, which he imagines allows the European commission to deploy “Panzer divisions” on British soil without our say-so (one wonders, if the EU is such a menacing military threat, why it cannot afford tanks less than 70 years old).
Of course, his views are not, pound for pound, any more irrational than those of his predecessor. Both are fitting enough representatives of the petty bourgeois philistines who make up the readership of the Daily Mail, for whom every threat is an existential one. Torpedo the EU, or it will invade Britain! Shoot the rioters, or civilisation will collapse into anarchy!
Capitalism, like any other mode of production, ‘works’ by having the appropriate conditions available for its reproduction. Partly these are strictly economic (making sure enough people are fed to grow more food, so to speak); but ultimately any class society needs recourse to the state and political forms appropriate to that society. It also needs ideological forms that win passive or active consent from the persons under its sway.
As capitalism falls further into decline, what should be a well-oiled machine begins to fall apart; political forms which solved one problem become an obstruction to solving another (the project of European unity being one very obvious example). Ideology, meanwhile, becomes more and more fragmented and irrational. The Daily Mail is the prevailing shorthand in this country for that irrationalism; from its pages spill ever more absurd chunks of pseudo-science, mangled statistics and Manichean accounts of minor political disputes.
The rise (and rise) of religious reaction is a very obvious factor here. Though the more small-c catholic irrationalisms of the Tea Party partly buck the trend, US politics remains imprisoned by a shock force of Christian reactionaries, many of whom border on the fascist in their views (the Dolchstosslegende - the belief that military defeat stems from the treason of liberals and other unworthies on the home front - is a prominent account on the American right of the disaster in Vietnam and then the attack on the twin towers).
Angels v aliens
And, indeed, all those on the right who scoff at Matthews’ mystical idiocy but accept either the teachings of or some positive role for the Christian church should remember the famous admonition of Christ: “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye” (Matthew vii:5).
Matthews believes that ghosts haunt various locations around the world. Christianity is founded on an account of a man being executed, rising from the dead and making enigmatic visitations around the area for a few weeks before heading off to heaven. Matthews believes in aliens; Christians believe in angels. The difference is hardly enormous.
For that matter, irrationalisms interpenetrate; there is a whole new-age cult about angels, which speaks of them in much the same terms as some UFO cults talk about benevolent visitors from the firmament. There are Christian cults which believe that, come the end of days, god’s chosen few will be gifted with the kind of powers one finds in Superman comics - flight, laser eyes, that kind of thing (the Wasilla Assembly of God became briefly infamous a couple of years ago thanks to personal links to Sarah Palin - again, it is a terribly American eschatology).
The fundamental difference is the sedimentation of history. Christianity, like most major world religions, goes back millennia (the youngest of the major faiths, Sikhism, was born in the late 15th century). It has established itself through billions of worshippers, and trillions (or more) individual acts of worship - the irrationality is repressed by the religion’s reduction to its principal functions in society (heart of a heartless world, and so forth), and pervasive invasion of everyday life. The result is the well-known stereotype of ‘progressive’ Anglican clergymen who barely believe in god at all.
Yet, as the ‘mystical shell’ of wildly magical claims about the universe gives way to the ‘rational kernel’ of simply lulling the masses, the latter function decays too. It is founded on precisely the mysticism it must brush under the carpet to remain relevant to an age where god and Mammon are one and the same. The repressed returns: in one form, as a religious fundamentalism which claims unbroken continuity with the founding acts of the religion; and in the other, as the proliferation of new sources of magic (ghosts, aliens and the rest).
‘Traditional’ religion, whether in its relatively sophisticated or dogmatic-fundamentalist versions, decries new-age loopiness not because it is a latter-day Golden Calf, but because it reveals very clearly that all religious beliefs are rather more earthly than they would like to admit.
It is worth turning to another recent farrago with a paranormal bent; on September 11, hundreds of people went to see the celebrity psychic, Sally Morgan, communicate with the next life at a theatre in Dublin. The next day, a disgruntled punter called into an RTE radio talk show to reveal that, from her spot in the cheap seats, she could hear a man feeding Morgan the information on which she was basing her ‘readings’.
Morgan protests her innocence; rival psychic Derek Acorah wasted no time in twisting the knife (despite having been similarly embarrassed in the past himself). Yet this is simply one of the many ways in which the psychic circuit is widely known to be a colossal and cynical fraud perpetrated on the bereaved and the gullible. We know that the likes of Morgan and Acorah (and, presumably, Rupert Matthews) use a combination of cold-reading techniques and prior information-gathering to present a plausible illusion of an ectoplasmic netherworld just out of view. The stage psychic has the same relation to the stage magician that the torturer has to the surgeon - broadly the same know-how is turned to less than benign ends.
From there, it is but a small step to the US televangelists who fleece millions to fund their ‘good works’; and from there in turn, just another step to the Church of England, which thrives on the basis of enormous land-holdings and state beneficence; and from there, one more to the Roman Catholic Church, which has accumulated enormous material wealth in its one and a half thousand years of existence. Seen through the prism of the obviously ridiculous spiritualism of contemporary society, rather more august religious institutions begin to look like the cons they are.
So, for all his manifest stupidity, Rupert Matthews is a perfect representative of the spiral descent of capitalism into autocannibalistic irrationality. The Tory right is concerned that he will ‘let the side down’ in a country that will not forgive his loopy gaffes in the way that many Americans forgave Sarah Palin’s. Their concerns may be well founded, for now - but Britain is not the country of hard-headed pragmatists it fancies itself to be, and there will be many more obscurantists and weirdoes in blue rosettes before the decade is out. For now, we can at least enjoy the fleeting spectacle of the encounter between the EU bureaucracy and Matthews’s ‘energetic patriotism’.
What could go wrong?
- The Independent November 1.