Losing our religion

Who knows about classics and the Bible these days?

Jeremy Paxman observes that during his 16 years as host of University Challenge, he has found that contestants "know less and less about classics and the Bible, and more and more about science and computing".

Who can doubt it? But this modern lack of awareness of two fields that were regarded as essential to a good education for so long is little noted -- even though it must count as one of the greatest transformations in our culture in the past half-century.

When Enoch Powell made his infamous "rivers of blood" speech in 1968, he could have assumed that the wider audience would know that the quotation was from Virgil's Aeneid (Mary Beard analyses the reference brilliantly here).

Similarly, Tony Benn could still be certain that a sizeable number of his potential readers would understand why he titled his 2004 memoir Dare to be a Daniel; that they would be aware of the Old Testament prophet of that name, if not necessarily the Salvation Army hymn.

But that would have been the older proportion. For younger browsers, the first Daniel to come to mind would probably be the Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe. Benn acknowledges as much in his book: "I often forget that few people now have a biblical background or knowledge of the different Christian traditions. Biblical and religious references that slip into my speeches and articles are not necessarily always understood."

To lament the passing of these corpuses of knowledge out of the realms of popular discourse and their retreat into the citadels of scholars is not to make any comment about levels of religious belief: after all, a classical education was never intended to encourage consultations with oracles or sacrifices to Zeus. It is, instead, to mourn the breaking of a connection with millennia of history, references to which were the common currency of art, literature, music and even conversation.

Is speech the poorer for our no longer being able to assume familiarity with the works of Homer and the precise gradations of office in the Roman senate? Yes, I think so. More serious, though, is that a proper understanding of much of the fine art produced in Europe over the past 2,000 years is simply not possible without knowledge of the Bible. This not just about the subject matter, but about the positioning of people, objects, shadows -- all allusions lost on those unversed in Christianity.

Likewise, the joys of Handel's Messiah or Mozart's Requiem are severely impaired if one does not know why, as the countertenor aria has it, "He was despised, despised and rejected", or what the sounding of the trumpets in the "Dies Irae" -- the Day of Judgement -- are heralding. Questions of rights, philosophy, the existence of evil -- all these matters are frequently approached afresh, which may be a good thing in itself. What is less commendable is the latter-day ignorance about the Christian and classical thinkers who spent long decades pondering and writing about them. There just might be something to be learned there.

I am not suggesting that all need attain the easy expertise in the classics of a Boris Johnson or the ability to cite Old Testament chapter and verse possessed by my late grandfather, a Methodist who frequently spent a good couple of hours debating scripture on the doorstep when Jehovah's Witnesses came to call. But for these vast libraries to slip from the mind within a generation or two, and for no one to call "Stop!" and urge us to consider what we are losing, feels like carelessness of monumental proportions.

Does it really not matter that we no longer know what, until very recently, our ancestors took for granted?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder