As I get older, more and more I find that a diverse range of interesting questions turn out, at root, to have a comparatively small repertoire of solutions. And time after time, it is religion that provides the answer.
I do not mean, of course, that I think that religion is any more than bunkum. I mean that when a large number of evidently intelligent people herd together to say or do something that is – or should be – self-evidently stupid, there is usually some mechanism work which organised religion has cottoned onto a long time ago and been exploiting ever since. If one can work out how organised religion has made people do something stupid, one is well on one’s way to understanding why people are doing something stupid now.
Before getting to the point of this particular blog, there are a couple of waypoints I need to establish:
- Some time ago, my elder daughter was reading classics at University, and to my initial surprise, she told me that proficiency in neither Latin nor Greek was a requirement these days. But first blush, this seems bizarre, but on reflection it might as well be acknowledged that everything now remaining in the Latin or ancient Greek languages has already been translated many times – probably many hundreds of thousands of times – and nothing terribly useful is to be gained by translating it yet again. What matters is understanding the content of these texts, and not the mechanical task of translating them yet again.
- Since going to the bar, I have learned first-hand what I had previously been told by trial lawyers, namely that the process of forgetting is as vital as the process of learning. To do a good job in trial, it is necessary for counsel to learn a huge amount of stuff. It is necessary to be able to say to a witness, “But that is not what you said in your letter of 3 November 2009, is it?” when that letter is just one among many thousands of documents in the brief. Or, when the judge says “And when you get that from?” To be able to answer without delay, “It is on page 202 of bundle K, your Honour”. The capacity for any human being to have this sort of stuff loaded up in memory is limited, and the only way to make room for the next case is to junk the stuff from the last case. This explains why clients are sometimes startled when they meet the barristers who ran a case for them a few years ago, but seem unable to remember anything much about that case.
- Before the recent explosion in the understanding of genealogy, and whilst it was still a subset of biology, Richard Feynman remarked on why it was that biology had made so little progress as a science in the 20th century compared with, say, physics or chemistry. He put it down to language, and the requirement that biologists should learn such a huge amount of material, and in particular endless classifications of lifeforms, and the parts of lifeforms. This essentially useless knowledge which need not have been learned (it can be looked up on demand) inhibited, he suggested, creating thinking and hence scientific advance.
So, with the stakes of these thoughts planted in the landscape, let us turn our attention to the study of modern languages. It is a popular thing for undergraduates to want to study. I am not remotely suggesting that it is a particularly easy topic, and learning several languages (typically European) no doubt requires very considerable intellectual effort. But what is the point of it, particularly for people whose first language is English? Of course, we need some people who can speak foreign languages as diplomats and so forth, but the numbers of intelligent people who the universities turn out with no skill in anything apart from the ability to speak French or German to people who can usually speak English even better far outstrips any meaningful demand.
So what does society do with these people?
Organised religion has, of course, been onto this for a very long time. A reasonably well-off upper middle-class family of, say, a couple of hundred years ago might well have had several sons. The oldest son would take over the family farm, or the family firm. Another son might go into the army, but there were only so many officers that the army needed. What are the other sons going to do? The convenient answer, of course, was to create a vast number of clerics: vicars, curates, and all sorts of other categories of ecclesiastical bods. In very large measure, of course, they served no useful purpose whatsoever but – and this is a very big part – the system provided a very useful way of giving a “living” to the kith and kin of the powerful. There arose a sort of conspiracy which supported that system. I do not mean to suggest, of course, a conspiracy in the sense that people met in darkened rooms and plotted as to how many of the upper-middle-class might be employed by the church, but rather that there was a sort of unspoken understanding in favour of that status quo. It might have been much better, of course, if all of these people had instead been engaged in the process of designing better steam engines or building better buildings, or even getting on ships and establishing an empire, but happily, there was still enough people to do these things, and the church, with all of its bizarre customs and strange language, was a useful way of taking up some of the remaining slack.
The world moves on, of course, and religions evolve. Thus, in most parts of the world (except the United States and the Muslim states) the notion of a God tooled up with fire and brimstone has largely been replaced with equally potty notions about climate change and the like. So what can we do with all of these bright young things who leave university, now not so often with a degree in theology, but in modern languages, and who need well-paid jobs? In a sense, of course, the problem is worse now, because there need to be jobs for the women as well as the men.
In Europe, at least, the EU has provided a wonderful answer. It provides scope for employment for huge numbers of the upper-middle-class in a way that gives purpose to their otherwise useless language skills. No matter that it would make far more sense for the English to buy their butter from Australia, their lamb from New Zealand, their rice from India et cetera et cetera et cetera. Those people are all speaking English, and what we are looking for here is a trading system which creates a demand for our upper middle classes to speak foreign languages, and also to create an extraordinarily complex regulatory system, with vast screeds of pointless legislation and directives. The whole edifice is doing essentially the same thing that the church was doing a couple of centuries ago. And of course, the brains of the multilinguists are so befuddled by the huge task of remembering all those languages, and comprehending the massively complex landscape of EU regulation, that they are less able to recognise simple answers to simple questions? Like, does it make sense to subsidise European farmers to grow rice when they can do it in the third world for a fraction of the cost?
The EU is very coy about how many people it employs – probably about 100,000 or so if one includes the many ancillaries. But the number of people whose jobs are intimately connected with the EU, in central government, local government, quangos, NGOs and the like is much, much bigger.
My guess is that many of the Remainians in the corridors of power would feel that there would be something traitorous to their own kind in voting to leave, even if the burdens of continued membership far outstrip the benefits.
Old habits die hard. My dearest mother had no actual religious beliefs at all in adult life, but continued to support the church. It was largely loyalty to the vicar, and his need for a job.