Nelson Mandela and the holy quest

Poor old Dawkins. Poor old Hitchens. You know who I mean: the writers who make a mint with those blockbusters proclaiming that God is dead. They yearn for a human race composed entirely of scientific rationalists, and look at what they get.

You can mock the tenets of Christianity, you can drive people out of churches, you can claim that religion is bunk. But you will never eradicate the superstition in the human heart. Even in this supposedly godless age, we have a deep need to categorise things as holy or unholy; and if you want to understand how the search for holiness still drives our simple souls, look at the magnificent photo that appeared in the paper the other day.

A bunch of global celebrities has converged at a dinner party in Pretoria, way back in 1997. There is Mia Farrow, mother of 15, ex-wife of Woody Allen and André Previn, an actress most famous for giving birth to the devil in Rosemary’s Baby. There is Pakistani cricket legend and statesman Imran Khan and his gorgeous wife Jemima, top Chinese actor Tony Leung, and the sensationally gifted record producer Quincy Jones and his wife.

These are all educated people.  So why in heaven’s name were they sitting down to dinner with Mr Charles Taylor, a blood-soaked Liberian warlord? The only guest with any conceivable excuse was diamond-toting supermodel Naomi Campbell, who has since plausibly claimed that she did not know where Liberia was. The rest of them must surely have known Mr Taylor’s background, even if they did not know that he had just come to power with the slogan: “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I still vote for him.” Indeed, if some of the allegations now being levelled against him in the Hague are correct, Naomi and co were lucky not to be eaten by their dinner companion.

Not only does Mr Taylor stand accused of being co-responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of west Africans, sometimes ordering his supporters to hack off the hands and feet of adults, children and even babies. He allegedly had a pregnant woman buried alive in the sand, and when a man betrayed him he is said to have commanded him to be ritually sacrificed in order that he might eat his intestines. So, to repeat the question: what possessed these apparently sentient A-list celebs to break bread – and then pose for a commemorative photo – with this allegedly gut-guzzling maniac?

Why did they risk that most precious thing, their reputations? The answer, of course, is that the man at the centre of the group portrait, and their host, was Mr Nelson Mandela, and Mr Mandela is by common consent just about the best, kindest and most gracious man on the planet. It is the goal of every celebrity to have his or her photo taken with Mr Mandela. He beats Obama. He beats the Queen. He knocks the Pope into a cocked hat.

With his radiant smile and his transfiguring presence, he washes away the sins of all those who come near him. It didn’t matter to the slebs that they were in the presence of an allegedly limb-chopping warlord. They were literally in the presence of a saint – or the closest the modern world has come to reproducing this ancient concept. They left reason behind and gravitated towards holiness, the sense of spiritual goodness our species still craves. And of course the reverse phenomenon is everywhere.

When that undersea explosion took place off the coast of Louisiana, I remember coming into the office as everyone was watching the TV images of the oil gushing unchecked into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Gosh, I said, it was certainly terrible. But the thing about oil was that it was a naturally occurring substance and after a while the sea would help to break it down. Things would eventually get better, I prophesied.

At which I received a volcanic rebuke. “How can you say that?” fumed my secretary, Batley-born Ann Sindall. “How can you possibly minimise a disaster like this?” I am not minimising it, I said, suddenly feeling a bit like former BP boss Tony Hayward in front of the world’s media. I am just saying that in the end nature will recover, as with previous oil spills. But by then you will appreciate that the argument was more or less lost, and I slunk into my office under heavy fire.

So I took a lively interest last week in the headline of one respectably eco-conscious newspaper, above a report explaining that the spill was being dispersed. “How can five million barrels of oil simply disappear?” it asked indignantly, as though some sort of fraud had taken place. The paper than left it to Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at Southampton University, to answer its own question.

“We’ve been saying all along that this wasn’t the catastrophe that the politicians and the media would have us believe,” he said. “It’s not the world’s worst environmental disaster and not even the worst oil spill.” So speaks the voice of sweet scientific reason – the reason the scientists vainly deploy to the tabloid journalists who ring them up and rage about cloned cows.

What has happened to the 96 progeny of Dundee Paratrooper, the cloned bull from Scotland? No one knows, but it seems likely that many of them have already been killed and eaten. Will any of these clone-fed people suffer any ill-effects? Will they start mooing or turning into minotaurs? Of course not. As the American Food and Drug Administration has already determined, there is absolutely no metabolic difference between a cloned cow and any other cow. But people feel there is something profane, something “disturbing” in the idea of eating a clone, just as there is something extra awful about an oil spill, a sense of moral pollution that goes beyond the damage to the environment.

It is irrational, but then we will never be a wholly rational species. It is deep in human nature to seek the holy and to shun the unholy, even when no such unholiness really exists. Naturam expellas furca, as I always say, tamen usque recurret. (You can try and drive out nature, but inborn character is ineradicable)

You can read the article in full here in The Daily Telegraph

32 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela and the holy quest”

  1. Why did all these people ” educated people ” sit with Charles Taylor? Because he has lots of blood diamonds and power, of course.

    Power and money will make other people want to be your friends. Even when you are ugly, uneducated or a mass murderer.

    Paris Hilton’s new boyfriend is an ugly looking Malaysian multimillionaire bloke who spent 3.8 million Euro on Champagne at a party for her in the south of France last month.

    Naomi Campbell told the police she had passed those blood diamonds to the man who is in charge of Nelson Mandela’s charity organisation as a donation. This man hadn’t told anybody, even the charity, about this (!). When asked in court, he said he hadn’t wanted to give those diamonds to Mandela’s charity because he didn’t want the charity’s name get tainted by the blood diamonds, so he had decided to keep those diamonds for himself and his wife (!).

  2. Religion is the enemy of superstition. It claims that there is order and reason in the supernatural. The well-known quotation from G K Chesterton runs “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.”

  3. ( Cough, cough, cough ) Er… err… ( in Latin ) Oo Aa homo foggio, Elizabetto vip BNP chair-homo cucumbio patio-partio…

    meaning: Oh how forgetful people are, the Queen just invited the BNP party leader to her summer garden party last month. Remember?

  4. Tiresias, when my son was three years old, he asked me, ‘Why is green?’.
    I offered that if one were to mix yellow paint with blue paint, one would have the colour green. And that chlorophyll is the cause of green in plants.
    My young son was not satisfied. ‘But, Dad, why is green?’
    Eventually I fobbed off his request for a metaphysics of colour, with the desultory response, “Green just is. Like space and love.”
    Disturbingly, children acquire cynicism quickly. He hasn’t bothered to ask me, “Why is religion?”

  5. Did someone mention Queen Elizabeth II inviting the BNP Party leader to her summer garden party? And what about western leaders sitting down, dining, wining and laughing with communist-mass-murderers-cum-leaders in the past and in the present time? That’s politics for yous!

  6. I laughed so much at Boris’s comments about the effects of eating cloned cows on humans. (Will they start mooing or turning into minotaurs? of course not.) Unfortunately, on the BBC news tonight, a scientist was saying that he was concerned because not enough research has been done on the effects of cloned meat on humans, and he thinks it might be dodgy. Uh oh!

    Edith, the Queen could not avoid inviting Nick Griffin to a garden party: the fault lies with the idiots who elected him. Thank goodness the invitation was cancelled. Griffin was making huge capital of the invitation, and when it was cancelled, he screamed blue murder, saying he had never been told that it was not the done thing to get publicity in such a situation.

    Doesn’t this prove, if more proof were needed, what a dreadful man he is? It goes without saying that you don’t exploit an invitation to take tea with the Queen, any decent person knows that without further explanation. Thank goodness the Queen, poor lady, did not have this ghastly man inflicted on her when she was only trying to do the right thing.

  7. Angel,the Queen could have avoided inviting Griffin.
    It’s her house. Would you invite him into your house?

    Why is Queen?

  8. Ed, of course not. But the Queen is supposed to invite all elected British politicians. Through the stupidity of some of the British public, Nick Griffin was an elected politiciain. Through her desire to demonstrate British fairness, the Queen felt she had to invite him.

    I applaud the good intentions of her Maj. and I am so glad that Griffin’s ensuing stupidly exploitative behaviour gave the Palace a valid reason for disinviting him. The Queen was only trying to be fair.

  9. interesting article.

    “The [bike hire] system in London has been commandeered by a sponsor to the detriment of the users, and I wonder why. Was it due to poor negotiating skills on the part of the organisers?”


  10. It makes me furious when the bike hire scheme is criticised because of the Barclays logo. We are in the middle of a vicious recession! Most astutely, Boris made use of sponsorship to get the scheme underway, the 25 Million from Barclays must have come in very handy in getting the scheme off the ground.

    If we had a healthy economy, we could dispense with sponsorship and branding, but we haven’t. Until the credit crunch is over, it is sensible to make use of sponsorship, and maybe we should accept that a lot of people are spoiled, and moan about every little thing. Thanks to Boris, London now has a great bike hire scheme, we should be patting him on the b ack. The Boris bike is preferred in Paris to the Velib! The French say the Boris bike is much sturdier and more stylsh. What better accolade could there be?

  11. #1. Massive tax on 2nd homes. It’s not possible for everyone on the planet to have a 2nd home; by that definition it’s selfish, and those who are selfish need to pay a heavy price.

    How many homes does Boris Johnson have? How many children does he have? How many homes does his silver-spoon brother have?

  12. Any homes that Boris Johnson, bless his little cotton socks, has were paid for by his talent and hard graft, nothing could be more democratic than that. (he paid for his own little cotton socks too.)

    Who is Boris Johnson’s silver spoon brother? As a student of the Johnson family, is there someone that I have missed? Boris’s brothers are , I think, Jo Johnson, Max and Leo. They have all worked hard for anything they have. So who is this mysterious silver spoon stranger?

  13. “A-level results: Public schools expected to take lion’s share of new A* grades”

    I believe Boris Johnson had one of these Eton silver-spoon starts in life. Did Jo Johnson, Max and Leo all attend Eton too?

  14. Nelson Mandela once liked the use of indiscriminate bombing as an act of terrorism. People forget that.

  15. No wonder a large percentage of students come out of Eton looking like those characters off Another Country or Brideshead Revisited. Nothing wrong, of course. In fact, it’s rather romantic.

  16. zxcv, Boris was so clever he won a scholarship to Eton, so no silver spoon involved there. Geez life must be tiring for you, that huge chip on your shoulder must weigh you down…..

  17. GWENAP, an adult shop in Hull, has this shop board:




  18. Edna,
    The spririt of the great Frank Zappa is clearly alive and well, and thrives amongst the adults of Hull.
    My day has been made!

  19. Oh Edna, don’t mock the terrorists, dear. The terrorist won’t blow U up in revenge but they will call U a racist instead.

    ( U have to admire the British terrorist’ English sense of humour weally don’t ya? )

  20. But Edith, not a patch on the British terrorist Scottish sense of humour, as performed by Kenny MacAskill, at Holyrood, and soon to tour the Americas.

  21. Crikey did Boris write this on the back of a napkin whilst chatting on the tube? It’s a bit disjointed although he tries valiantly to string it all together in some sort of coherent message.

    First of all Dawkins and Hitchens don’t argue that God is dead, they argue he doesn’t exist. Chris Hitchens doesn’t expect people not to be superstitious because he knows there are lots of stupid people in the world, he just doesn’t believe he’s one of them.

    Nelson Mandela is widely reported to be next to a saint but I don’t think many celebrities would bother to look up what he’s actually done before accepting a dinner invitation. Nor would they demand a copy of the guest list before accepting. What?! To have dinner with Mandela is social currency. Superstition and holiness has nothing to do with it.

    I can’t see that the naivite of Boris’s current secretary, or the oil spill, has anything to do with cloned beef. Although I do understand he’s trying to make some connection in terms of public outrage but I don’t think the two situations are comparable, not least because Boris is wrong: we simply don’t know what the effects of cloned meat are going to be. And we learned to be sceptical of the assurances of the FDA a while back (Seroxat, Vioxx?).

    To be fair to Ann Sindall it could be that she was considering the oil spill in terms other than environmental. Financially it’s been a spill for all involved, and reputations have been damaged all round, including the reputation of that coastline as a holiday choice. That has nothing to do with superstition but reality. Something Dawkins and Hitchens are pretty keen on.

    Finally it has to be said that journalists can be accused of being the architect of the kind of outrage or superstition Boris alludes to in this piece. If they weren’t then the Daily Wail would only be bought because it is the perfect size for the litter tray.

  22. “Journalists..the architects of ..outrage or superstition”
    On the money, Philipa. As I think PT Barnum observed, (correction welcome):
    ‘Nobody ever got rich by over-estimating the intelligence of the public”

  23. “The idea of God was not a lie but a device of the unconscious which needed to be decoded by psychology. A personal god was nothing more than an exalted father-figure: desire for such a deity sprang from infantile yearnings for a powerful, protective father, for justice and fairness and for life to go on forever. God is simply a projection of these desires, feared and worshipped by human beings out of an abiding sense of helplessness. Religion belonged to the infancy of the human race; it had been a necessary stage in the transition from childhood to maturity. It had promoted ethical values which were essential to society. Now that humanity had come of age, however, it should be left behind.”

    – Sigmund Freud

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