There are revelations, there are shocking revelations, and then there is the rare double-take revelation — whence, in revealing something shocking, the revealer assumes you know something that you find yet more shocking still.
Thus The Guardian and other newspapers splashed out yesterday with the revelation that Tony Blair was the godfather (yes, yes) to one of Rupert Murdoch’s and Wendi Deng’s children — one of the two who will take over what remains of the News empire, and push it into China, long after they have done away with James, an obvious dud.
Yes, the story is surprising, even given the well-known closeness between Murdoch and Blair — and the desire to bind him into the family with some bullsh-t archaic role that has a medieval aspect to it. But what was really eye-popping was mentioned in passing: that Blair had attended the christening of the Deng-Murdoch children “on the banks of the Jordan River”.
Say what? They did what? Apparently so. One had either forgotten it, or never known, but there it was hiding in plain sight — a Hello magazine photo shoot with the entire extended family, down by the riverside, having allegedly sought out the place where, by tradition, Jesus was baptised.
Surely this is the real story. Blair’s sycophancy is well-known. If Rupe had decided to convert to Judaism, Blair would have been at the Deng-Murdoch bris, playing the role of foreskin*. Murdoch’s identification as a Christian to varying degrees, and in varying contexts, has been going on for years. But the banks of the Jordan is summat else.
The Hello shots of the event are instantly self-parodic, of course — the whole gang in white, presumably to look sepulchral. Instead they hover between a publicity shot for Dallas c.1979, and the summer snaps of the Ceausescus, who favoured a similar look. But what is most grimly funny is what a travesty of Christianity they are.
After all, the whole point of Christian rituals of baptism, communion, etc, is the idea of full presence everywhere at such key moments — a baptism can be done with tap water, communion with a Salada, and whatever surrounds the rite in question should be mild concessions to the human need for ceremony.
Having your baptism on the banks of the Jordan, as if being closer to the spot where one quasi-fictional or historically composite character didn’t baptise another one, is to take Christianity backwards — to make it some crude, idolatrous form, as if Ba’al were hanging around Ramallah.
The crude idea that this could somehow be better is some weird mix of new age wackiness, familial narcissism, megalomania and Chinese god-emperor worship all bound up in one package. That Blair, who believes himself told by God to destroy Iraq, came along for the ride is all to be expected.
When ruling elites and cliques approach their decadence, ritual and superstition take over from rationality, because a clear-eyed view of the situation does not square with your self-belief. Murdoch’s Christianity may or may not be sincere, but it is emblematic of the manner in which an idolatrous, hollowed-out version of the religion has been adopted by a ruling elite who for a decade or two placed their faith in the mantra of growth, consumerism and free markets.
Blind Tiresias can see that this doctrine alone does not merely encourage nihilism — it is nihilism in essence. Before the very recent present, every culture existed on the premise that significant parts of it were incommensurable, untradable, non-quantifiable — the sacred, whether that be a funny-shaped rock, a social order, the Sabbath, whatever.
But the sacred is merely a special case of “fixed meaning”, whether it’s a sense of place, of mutual obligations, of habits and institutions that sustain a worthwhile existence. In the past three decades, in the West, these aspects of life have been subject to the most extraordinary ungrounding in history — only the brief period of high Bolshevism and the Chinese cultural revolution can compare, and their effects were partial rather than global.
The dissolution of all that grounds people, and the insistent argument that any lingering disquiet you feel at this is your own fault, has sent people rushing back to religion of various types for several decades now. More recently, those enforcing the whole deal have felt the need for the same sort of religious anchoring that the nihilism of capital requires.
But there’s a problem — Christianity is originally a doctrine of radical equality and reciprocity, scornful of power. That won’t do at all, so contrary versions of it become popular.
For the American Right, its forms of evangelism that celebrate the accumulation of wealth, as an extension of the “good works” doctrine, and celebrate power and inequality as a necessary component of charity. In the Anglosphere, conservative Catholicism has increasingly become the religion of choice.
Retaining a hierarchical cosmology that originally mirrored medieval power, suffocating any notion of radical doubt in a cloud of incense and gold leaf, and with a complex system — confession, purgatory, etc — that makes it possible to take the notion of sinning seriously, without actually stopping doing it.
Catholicism has become a means by which the Right can subcontract a series of enforcers — from Miranda Devine to Angela Shanahan in Oz, and a few others — to enforce the notion that no big changes — the market, globalisation, the destruction of local community — has a real effect on human being or character. It’s all bound up in a departure from faith, belief, the Western etc, and those institutions that purportedly sustained it, such as the father-led family.
Such pundits, the Right’s useful idiots, have always believed this stuff, even as their employers and editors dismissed them as wacko. What has changed recently is that Western power and its structures of manufactured consent — from consumerism to European social democracy — are all starting to fall apart. News Corp in Britain and perhaps in the US, has hollowed itself out, because it was so eager to deploy a nihilistic approach to human tragedy, friendship and the like.
So inevitably, the whole family would appear at the banks of the Jordan — less to be washed clean of sin than to imbibe its magic powers. Dressed in white, they look less angelic than upholstered, a group portrait of overpriced sofas. White, the colour of purity in the West, and mourning in China, looks less like shifts for the purpose of baptism, and more like shrouds. A revelation indeed.
*Yes, I know they are both daughters.