For as far back as I can remember into the 1940s, a newspaper photo of Winston Churchill was stuck to the door of the kitchen fridge on our sheep farm in Queensland. I’m not sure where my Dad stood on the matter, but Mr Churchill was my mother’s pin-up boy during The War and for a long time after. She exonerated him from any responsibility for betraying eastern Europe to the Soviet Empire, and even for stripping Australia of the troops it needed to defend itself from invasion by Japan. The British Empire was A Good Thing, and his defence of Britain’s own interests was The Right Thing at all times.
In later years, she became more objective. Three months with me in my Kombi van driving from Corfu to London opened her eyes to a small part of the non-British world. It put into perspective my report to her (in a letter home, years before) that Mr Churchill was regarded by Palestinians as a War Criminal, because he connived with Zionists to dispossess the natives. Linda & I gleaned that morsel of intelligence over Christmas dinner in the shabby flat of a refugee family in Kuwait in 1965. I wasn’t around to see Mum’s reaction to my report. Just as well, probably.
One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Personal reverence for a tribal hero rarely survives a change of tribal loyalties – or of tribal ethics and traditions. “Citizens of the world” know this – people who have renounced allegiance to the tribes (nations, communities) of their birth in favour of a broad loyalty to mankind. Ethics that apply to the whole of mankind are called “human rights”, although “entitlements” would be a better word than “rights”.
As a concept, human rights purport to extend every group’s or family’s or nation’s ideals to everybody in the world. The idea is a pious dream – hopelessly impractical, since it opposes every natural prejudice that human communities of any size possess. Why do we bother with it? Well, in practice, we don’t bother with it. Human-rights observance has never gotten off the ground, and is already defunct as an ideal. After all, it requires tolerance of other groups, families, nations and cultures, and no society in the world is ready to do that. Especially, no religious group. Religious prejudices seem to be the hardest of all to let go of.
We in the West are continually assured that Christianity is a tolerant religion; and it is true that Christian communities in general do allow non-Christians to adhere to their own faiths. Actually, most religion-oriented nations tolerate the observance of other faiths, even such ones as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and Japan. However, religious extremists always screw things up, and the secret of religious tolerance is to keep control out of the extremists’ hands.
Here in Cayman, local Christian extremists would like to send all the local gays to prison and to deport the foreign ones. Christian fanatics in other places openly endorse the slaughter and mutilations of Moslems by the millions. There is a nasty cult in Israel that urges the killing of non-Jewish babies, on the grounds that those babies might grow up to oppose Jews. The cult’s fans in the national Army wear T-shirts showing a pregnant Palestinian woman in cross-hairs, with the slogan “One shot, two kills”. Fanatical Moslem priests in country districts of their nations stone to death Moslems who abandon their faith.
All the extremists decry the intolerance of other religions, while ignoring those of their own. Such hypocrisy attracts the contempt of moderates, but it endures. We of the West in general, and of Cayman in particular, have a tendency to claim an ethical superiority we just don’t have.