A Christmas reflection or Cognitive Dissonance

I have been struck over the Christmas period by the beautiful descriptions of God contained in the carols and oratorios sung.  He (for ‘he’ it is) is great, loving, all-knowing and able to do for us everything we need. Of course, his care for us hardly seems to tie in with the reality of our lives, but we nonetheless continue with our idealisation of God.

Indeed, hymns of praise were sung in one of the Baptist churches in Kentucky on Sunday, this following the absolute devastation and many deaths caused by the biggest hurricane ever recorded in that area. How they managed to reconcile his omnipotence and love with the random path of the hurricane, and so the random choice of victims, I cannot begin to imagine. They must surely feel the dissonance entailed.

They have though somehow defined God in such a way that he is a paradigm of all that they could ever want - the perfect benign dictator - and having so defined him, to remove him from his position would destroy their dreams.  

For the vast majority of Europeans, however, I suspect that there is a growing realisation that we should not take all this too seriously. Even the Pope has accepted that the mortal sin of lust should be regarded as less serious than other mortal sins, such as pride, and he seems even to be willing to overlook homosexuality.

There are of course still the 'true' believers who take it all very seriously, and want the Pope out (watch out for the poisened chalice!), but I think that in Europe, at least, the idea of God is increasingly put into the same category as chocolate - people eat it when they feel in need of a little comfort.

And so, normally, they live their lives without taking much notice of the shouty people who want us to chastise ourselves for our sins.  Indeed, it may be for once that a dictatorship will come to an end simply because no-one can be bothered to be afraid any longer - an overthrow through apathy rather than by violence.

A few years ago however, just before Christmas, there was a poll in Russia to find the greatest Russian of all time. Fifty million people voted. It was a close run thing. In the end, Alexander Nevsky, a 13th century warrior prince came first and second was reformist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, who was assassinated in 1911. In a strong third position though, came Uncle Joe (Stalin).  He had in fact been leading until just before the poll closed. These days he is just as, if not more, popular amongst Russians.

Now tell me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t he some sort of dictator?  The one who sent many millions of people to their deaths in the work camps of the Gulag and because of whom tens of millions perished in political purges or during the forced collectivisation of farms during his 28 year rule?

The poll had been inspired by a similar poll carried out in this country to find the greatest Brit. The result was a close call between such luminaries as Newton and Darwin, but ultimately the winner was Winston Churchill. He was a war leader, but he was leading the fight against a dictator with a very recognisable moustache, still revered by rather strange groups of people who see an iron fist as the main requirement for a leader - providing, of course, that they can be in his gang, even posthumously.

As we all know, dictatorship, although on the surface an aggregation of power in one person’s hands, depends on there being people who will act as his enforcers. Whether the bully in the playground or a dictator of a country, he still needs his gang of supporters.

Now I am not suggesting that the Russians who voted for him in the poll or who see him as a great Russian now would actually have been in Stalin’s gang if they had been alive during his reign of terror.  Instead, it seems that, somehow, the passage of time has enabled them to down-play the horror of what happened in favour of a sentimental attachment to the presumed stability and greatness of the country during that period. Actually to accept reality, but still acclaim his reign, would create a major outbreak of cognitive dissonance.

Many people no doubt also look back at the stability and wealth (for a minority) that there was when the white population was in charge in Africa. That of course, just like the Russian example, is to confuse a wanting for stability, with the means used in order to obtain it. If dictatorship were the only means of achieving such ends, then it would be a sad day.

Such selective vision is, however, commonplace in us humans. In fact it seems that from polling in this country that, with the lack of trust there is in politicians, a surprisingly large number of people would not be too bothered if they never had to vote again. What they refer to as a ‘strong leader’ would be their preference, although they stop short of the dissonance which would be caused by using the term ’dictator’.

If only we could agree on someone to take over - perhaps Mr and Mrs Obama? There is of course precedent for inviting new rulers into the system. Such an offer was made to the protestant couple, William and Mary of Orange, in order to replace James II, a very keen Catholic.

At the same time as their appointment, however, the parameters of their reign were set out and a constitutional monarchy was created by the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights also established the supremacy of Parliament. But now Parliament seems to be malfunctioning, with a series of Prime Ministers incapable of commanding consent from their own MPs. The latest is Boris, Boris the man with a vacuum where there would normally be some concept of morality.

The government’s policy regarding Covid is obviously the most important matter which the government has to deal with. That 100 Conservative MPs chose to say that they disagreed with a central plank of their own government’s programme means that they do not have confidence in the PM. In other times, this would have been sufficient to provoke a resignation. But no more.

I think that the party is actually in a state of incomprehension. As I understand it, although the votes amount to a bit of BoJo bashing, mainly the rebels seem to want to be seen as upholders of British liberty.

Don't ask me to explain their twisted inner thoughts, but it all has to do with Brexit and the wish to see ourselves as more libertarian and so different to and better than the rest of the world. And so the need currently seen by Boris for restrictions is unacceptable to the very people he led so that we could boldly go into a bright new future free of EU constraints.

It's all rather come back to haunt him. It is a case of severe cognitive dissonance in the Conservative party...and we suffer the collateral damage from a weakened and directionless government.

15 December 2021

Paul Buckingham

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