Faith, trust and pixie dust

And zombies.

First, elsewhere:

Zombies, according to Simon Pegg, are the ‘most potent metaphorical monster’ - but can they be relevant during Covid-19? My (fairly tricky) review of The Living Dead, over at Tor.com.


Tomorrow night, I’m hosting Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens for a discussion of his new book, Incitement: Anwar Al-Awlaki's Western Jihad. The book is not a biography, more a study of the infamous recruiter’s impact, and a deep dive into what made him so effective. As with all these book talks, this is an examination of the power of communications, and how the techniques of persuasion can be used for good or harm. It promises to be a very good chat - register now to join.


I am 20ish books into my Western read.

You can see progress - with mapping the associated values - here.

A few brief recommendations:

  • Herbert Purdum’s My Brother John (1966) was surprisingly funny - not what I expected from a Western, but really pleasant. I’ll admit its voice came as a surprise, but this is a good-hearted book where nice things work out for good people.

  • Sheldon Russell’s A Forgotten Evil (2019) also had a humorous note throughout, mostly in the utterly human, banter-laden dialogue. But that only emphasises how dark this book is. The ‘forgotten evil’ is the human (‘incidental’) cost; the tiny tragedies that underpin history. In this case, the figure of General Custer looms larger than life, and is interwoven throughout the book - even as he never actually appears himself. Instead, we’re following the personal heroics of ‘smaller’ people. It is incredibly well-crafted.

  • John Prebble’s Buffalo Soldiers (1959) is another one that’s hard-hitting. As the title indicates, it is ultimately about race: a working class white Lieutenant in charge of a newly-formed Black cavalry unit, in charge of policing the local Native population. It reminded me of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) - a raw, contemporary, attempt to wrestle with the ideals and realities of the time. It tackles - head-on - challenges of vocal diversity versus more pragmatic inclusion, as well as the difficulty of maintaining idealism in the face of individual human failings. Not for the faint of heart, but, impressively (sadly?) still relevant today.

  • Judy Alter’s Mattie (1988) is a slightly meandering narrative about a frontier doctor. There’s not much in the way of conflict - and, to be honest, only minimal doctoring. But it is an insightful look at how communities are born and grow. Like A Forgotten Evil, this champions the ‘ordinary extraordinary’ as the people who built and made the West. (Although, thankfully, far less grim.)

And a longer one:

  • Thomas Eidson’s St Agnes’ Stand (1994) follows Nat Swanson - your archetypical charismatic, rogueish cowboy. He uses a crossbow (!), is devilishly handsome, and ain’t never shot a man who didn’t deserve it. Etc. etc. While on the run from a posse, Nat encounters a group of Apaches who have trapped a wagonload of nuns. And orphans. Nat, against his self-interest, gets involved, and the rest of the book follows the brutal, noble, and occasionally implausible, events of the siege.


St Agnes’ Stand sounds over the top, and, well, it should be. The set-up is just that: the classic cowboy figure in a classic heroic situation. But Eidson counterbalances that by putting his four-colour characters into a hyper-real context. Death is visceral and terrible and painful. The thirst and starvation is excruciatingly detailed. The events are horrible and heart-breaking. It is an incredibly powerful use of archetypes to create immediate engagement, but Eidson then subverts the story from there.

Nat is a gritty ‘realist’; the titular nun is, well, saintly. As the book goes on, of course, we find that Nat is a secret idealist and Sister St Agnes is well-grounded, but the lesson remains the same: it is faith that Nat needs (and St Agnes has, in abundance).

Faith, however, is not a value. This is not helpful for my coding. This, at first, perplexed me. But Rokeach, if you’ll remember from the last newsletter, divides values into terminal or instrumental.

  1. A terminal value is what you are working towards. Faith is not an ‘end-state’ of being.

  2. An instrumental value is the ideal behaviour to achieve it. Faith is not a behaviour. In fact, faith is a non-behaviour. Faith is the belief in an outcome without having evidence or justification for that belief. Faith is an explanation for a behaviour.

When we talk about faith, we’re generally using it one of three ways:

First, as a shorthand for morality. Faith’s equivalence with morality is something that varies by geography. Globally, 45% say that a belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values. In the US that’s 44%, Canada 26%, and UK 20%. In the developing world, it is a different story: 95% of Kenyans think faith is necessary for morality. Indonesia: 96%. Nigeria: 93%. Brazil: 84%. These values shift over time - Japan, for example, has gone up 10% since 2002, while the US has declined by 14%.

Second, as a means of defining an in-group. Faith is a demographic segment. Like any other demographic, it defines who we see as ‘like us’ and who we see as ‘not us’. It gives us a shared experience, a shared set of attitudes and behaviours, a culture and a community. Faith is an identity.

Third, as hope. Hope, like faith is ‘belief in an outcome despite the lack of evidence’. Neither faith nor hope are a behaviour - or a value - but they are both motivations for behaviours. Faith is a reason for doing things; for behaving a certain way. You wear x or go to y because, and that because is faith.

Hope too is a reason for action - a powerful, but often forgotten one. We behave in a certain way not because we know what the result will be, but because our action might make things a bit better. Hope is behaviour without expectation; a contribution without guarantee of reward. It is also essential to the functioning of modern society. A single vote is infinitesimal, but we cast it because we hope it makes a difference. A single piece of litter won’t make a difference, but we put it in the bin in the hope that others do the same. Hope fuels our positive social norms. Unless we believe in better, there’s no reason to do our bit.

The reverse of hope - despair, I suppose - is equally successful when it comes in promoting inaction. In the nasty world of disinformation, for example, this is a major theme: strategic narratives around distrust or division; narratives that say a vote is meaningless, or the system is fraudulent. These are designed to encourage inaction. To dissuade people from participation; to reduce our faith in positive outcomes. [Both those links to articles by Haroro Ingram, one of June’s book club guests, and one of the most compelling thinkers in this space.]

Back to the Wild West, hope and faith are again interchangeable. Sister St Agnes has hope that Nat can save her, Nat founders until he is willing to try the impossible, for hope that it will make a difference. If it were not for this faith, they would have given up, but hope gave them resilience and also inspired action.

Hope, like faith, is not a value. But it is invaluable.


Further reading on faith, hope and charity:

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