On institutions – part one

Shadow could not decide whether he was looking at a moon the size of a dollar, a foot above his head; or whether he was looking at a moon the size of the Pacific Ocean, many thousands of miles away. Nor whether there was any difference between the two ideas. Perhaps it was all a matter of perspective. Perhaps it was all a matter of point of view.

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Yesterday I went along to the Edinburgh Independent and Radical Book Fair, which is organised annually by the magnificent Word Power Books. In its sixteenth year now, this event is held at Out of the Blue Drill Hall in Leith and its regular features include an eclectic line-up of authors and guest speakers, and an enticing display of books for sale. Long rows of tables are arranged in the main hall and laid out with a vast selection of books, so that people may wander up and down the aisles, absorbed in their browsing.

There are no 3-for-2 stickers on these titles, nor any piles of insipid bestsellers. Like Word Power’s shop on the south side, the offerings range from the obscure to the polemic, from the subdued to the strident, from anarchism to zapatistas. Politics, sociology, art, fiction, poetry, cooking, craft and even children’s books line the tables; again, as when I visit the shop itself, I find it impossible to leave empty-handed.

As I walked over to the Drill Hall in the noonday sunshine, brown leaves crunching under my feet on the pavement, I reflected that the Radical Book Fair sits beside Samhain and Bonfire Night in my mind, as a signal of autumn’s peak and winter’s approach. “It’s an institution,” I thought to myself.

This year I attended a session featuring Richard Holloway and Helen Percy. Holloway is the former Bishop of Edinburgh of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the well-regarded author of several books. I’m currently reading his latest, Leaving Alexandria (subtitled “a memoir of faith and doubt”) and in the past have read and found much to ponder in his books Godless Morality and On Forgiveness. Helen Percy was a minister in the Church of Scotland, whose book Scandalous, Immoral and Improper recounts her experience of being raped by a parishioner and subsequently blamed and vilified by the Church community and authorities, rather than supported and protected. I’ve not read this book, nor indeed had I ever before heard about her case, so I was appalled to learn of the suffering inflicted upon her throughout the ordeal.

In the course of the session, Holloway made the following observations: that an institution’s primary goal, beyond all others, is self-preservation; and that an institution will always sacrifice the individual in order to maintain its own existence and retain whatever power it holds. I should add that he clarified his remarks as being a general observation of all institutions, not as a condemnation directed at a specific institution, ie the church. Institutions, he suggested, were too complex to be labelled either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – they are as flawed and riddled with imperfections as the human persons who create and constitute them.

Ok, fair enough. But then, perhaps it’s all a matter of perspective. Perhaps it’s all a matter of point of view. In my view, institutions are hoarders of power and preservers of the status quo, and they are driving a global monoculture of consumption that is causing our ecological boundaries to creak at the seams, threatening to burst.

This reminds me of something that Helen Percy mentioned near the start of the session, in respect to her work aiding victims of rape in South Africa. She described a boy she knows, from a tiny village in the Kalahari desert, whose personal ambition when he grows up is to join the Navy and to obtain the ultimate status symbol: a flat-screen tv. Her tone implied, to my mind, that this was a good thing to aim for, an implication she sealed with an approving wonder that the dreams he harboured were “just like ordinary boys.” I think that she must have meant that his unordinariness stemmed from his traumatic experience of rape, not the hardship he is enduring in a childhood without The Box.

Just what will he learn of himself when he acquires that idyllic flat-screen marvel? That he is a child of God? Or that he is a disposable cog in a machine busily grinding its way through his people’s rightful heritage? And who is it that defines what is ‘ordinary’?

On my bedside table, next to Leaving Alexandria, sits the other book I am currently reading: American Gods by Neil Gaiman. The novel pits a ragged collection of all-but-forgotten ancient gods – carried by their believers from the old world to the new – against the modern deities of media, technology, and designer logos; fantastic, magical and weird versus slick, shiny and shallow. I’m not quite finished with it, so I don’t know yet who will win. Do any of us?

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