Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Season of bad will

While I've ran out of [good] reasons why this is the case, I still, as a matter of prejudice, oppose the death penalty. It's perhaps the shadow of utilitarianism that makes me feel like this, as when Saddam Hussein can see in his impending execution an opportunity to play the martyr:
"Saddam Hussein has vowed to go the gallows as a "martyr" ready and willing to sacrifice himself, after Iraq's highest court rejected an appeal against his death sentence."
A martyr is someone who is killed because of, solely because of, their confession of faith.

Whatever else you might think about all this, I think you'll agree Saddam Hussein doen't really qualify here.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christians attacked, government to blame

The Archbishop of Canterbury says 'extremist' attacks on Christians in the Middle East are becoming 'notably more frequent'.

He blames the extremists.

No, of course he doesn't:
"In an extraordinary attack, Dr Williams accuses Tony Blair and the US of endangering the lives and futures of many thousands of Christians in the Middle East, who are regarded by their countrymen as supporters of the "crusading West."
If the Archbish redirected the responsibility for anti-Muslim violence in Britain in a similar way, it would rightly be dismissed as being soft on religious hatred. But what people of Rowan Williams ilk usually do is blame the government for that as well.

Perhaps this tendency to infantilise adult human beings is part of what puts people off going to church?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Respecting believers

Timothy Garton Ash has a good piece in CiF where he argues that it is possible to respect believers without respecting what they believe.

He's right - although it's a bit like when Christians go on about hating the sin whilst loving the sinner in that the maxim tends to be honoured more in the breach rather than the observance.

There's a reason for this, I think. While Christians may profess to believe that everyone is a sinner and they are only saved by grace - deep down I suspect many don't really believe or feel this. This leaves them, despite their protestations to the contrary, with an inability to love the sinner because they really think they are not like them.

Same with many atheists. Their inability to respect believers stems from their self-image as people motivated purely by reason, and who - unlike the believer - have no space in their hearts and minds where they embrace irrationality.

I'm not going to excite any hardcore atheists by describing their position as a belief. It isn't. Interesting, though, the way that in this case belief and non-belief both produce in people the illusion that they are a different order of human being.

Conserve resources this Christmas

You could do worse than follow Johann Hari's example. He's saving energy by recycling the article he did at this time last year.

In fairness there's a couple of add-ons this year. Like a completely new book of the Bible - one called 'Elisha', apparently.

And a new injunction: "Embrace your littleness", he suggests.

Go ye and do likewise, Johann.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Size matters

Actually it's shape. Of the face. Politician's faces, to be exact:
"FORGET policies or moving oratory, when it comes to winning the popular vote it is the shape of a politician's face that matters, according to a new study.

Researchers have discovered that Tony Blair's electoral success can be partly put down to his features, which voters preferred to William Hague's and Michael Howard's.

Similar subconscious voting patterns might also have propelled George Bush to election victory and caused similar results in Australia and New Zealand."
Even if true...

I'm not sure this makes the Holyrood elections in 2007...

...that much easier... predict.

But maybe it's just me. Any swing-voters out there find anything to choose between these rather distressing specimens?

Concern over rising use of 'chemical cosh' on disturbed youngsters

From the Scotsman:
"MORE children than ever in Scotland are being prescribed drugs to treat hyperactivity, figures revealed yesterday.

Statistics show prescriptions for treating attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) increased by almost 16 per cent in 2005-6, with 49,528 handed out by doctors.

This compared with 42,832 the previous year and fewer than 4,000 in 1996.

The cost to the NHS has increased to more than £1.89 million, compared with £1.45 million the previous year and less than £33,000 in 1996.

The Scottish Executive said the rise was due to increased awareness of ADHD and it did not expect to see similar rises in future years."
ADHD - bah! They can remember every score in every Premier league game, concentrate on Playstation for goddam hours. It's the medicalisation of social problems. Other forms of social control have been all but de-legitimised so they dish out the soma instead.

And it isn't strong enough to deserve the name 'cosh'.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

National tragedy

Cafe India has burned down. This I did not know.

New Look

Purely the result of technical incompetence. Got firefox. Which made the original layout look shit. So changed it for this standard blogger fare, because that was the only thing I could work out how to do. Which is ok except I lost haloscan - so if you spent a lot of time pouring scorn on my previous posts, well I'm afraid it's gone for good.

Meanwhile in the real world, the bullshit is piling up. I've done two duvet-days in a row. One reason is that I'm genuinely a bit under the weather. The other is apparently in this place the headteacher goes around the school on the last week with a clipboard and takes a note of people who aren't giving themselves a heart-attack attempting to cram knowledge into today's disaffected youth in these last dying days of the term. This from the man who comes over the tannoy inviting us to pray for dead people - at the time of year when people of that religious disposition do that sort of thing. It's simply too much for me.

Other bullshit news: My girlfriend is going for an interview tomorrow. One of the questions is, "Describe a firefighting situation, which you dealt with. What did you do and how did you do it?" And this isn't for a post in the fire-service. There's the problem with society right there. Who was it that said bloggers shouldn't swear? Well, I think life demands it - so go fuck yourself. Merry fucking Christmas.

David Cameron - in need of an education

Amongst the topics he could do with a refresher in are the British constitution:
"So it would be right actually to hold a general election as soon as is reasonably possible, because the British people thought they were electing Tony Blair. He's off. Someone new is coming. They need a mandate."
Well, if they thought that, they're wrong - unless they live in Sedgefield. Prime Ministers don't get 'mandates' from the British people, they get them from Parliament. And it's not to lead, it's to govern. Do we really have to have another Prime Minister that doesn't get any of this?

He could brush up on some [recent] history too. I seem to remember someone called John Major who was 'without a mandate', according to David Cameron's criterion. The good thing about John Major is that no-one could ever accuse him of leading anything.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Are veggies more intelligent?

They are according to a Southampton University team, who found that children with a higher IQ at ten were more likely to become vegetarians in later life.

Vegetarians who confirm this hypothesis, in my view, would include:

a) The great Thomas Hobbes

b) My girlfriend.

Vegetarians who refute this hypothesis would include:

a) Hitler. Not least amongst his shortcomings was his thinking, "Invading Russia - now there's an idea".

b) George Bernard Shaw. "I've seen the future and it works". Have you? Have you really?

c) All the people who call themselves vegetarians who 'sometimes eat fish'. Look - try to get it into your heads: A FISH IS NOT A VEGETABLE!

Plus my diet is increasingly vegetarian. Does this mean I'm becoming more intelligent? I don't think you'd find many people who would agree with this.

The jury's still out on this one, I reckon.

[Via: PP]

Friday, December 15, 2006

Our friends the Sauds

Astonishing, even by the standards we've become accustomed to from this government, to see it as baldly put as this:
"Lord Goldsmith consulted the prime minister, the defence secretary, foreign secretary, and the intelligence services, and they decided that "the wider public interest" "outweighed the need to maintain the rule of law". Mr Blair said it would be bad for Britain's security if the SFO was allowed to go ahead, according to the statement made in the Lords by Lord Goldsmith. The statement did not elaborate on the nature of the threat."
The public interest outweighs the need to maintain the rule of law. Let's read that again: the public interest outweighs the need to maintain the rule of law. Then let's delete 'rule of law' and try it with 'democracy' or 'liberty'.

The Blairites will say, "Don't be ridiculous - this would never happen". I'd have to ask, why not? By what principle could it be excluded? Certainly not the one that informs the Prime Minister's concept of the 'public interest'.

There's something else as well:
"One witness who gave evidence to the SFO, Peter Gardiner, a director of a travel agent used to make alleged slush fund payments, said last night: "It's an interesting signal that this gives to industry and the world I am thinking of the hundreds of hours I have wasted and all the personal problems this has caused me.""
I'm not one of these who thinks they know the inner-workings of intelligence services throughout the world but I can't think of a single Middle East commentator that doesn't agree that much of the money used to fund the Terror we're supposed to be at War with comes via Saudi Arabia, with figures in the intelligence services and the army high in the hierarchy of suspicion. You could say, then, that this government's cavalier disregard for the protocols of criminal investigation sends an 'interesting signal' to them too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The end of the 'neoliberal nirvana'?

I'm no Hayekian liberal, me. I agree with whoever it was who said that the free-market was the 'last great untried utopia'. But reading this codswallop is enough to make you one:
"From the ubiquitous green issues, through ever-increasing queasiness about consumerism, to the basic matter of where we live, the most important debates to come will not be about how to extend the market, but how to rein it in."
Green issues indeed! Heard of Chernobyl, John? Where we live? Only someone who's never lived in a council estate could write this. As for your 'ever-increasing queasiness about consumerism' - stop doing it, then! Honesty!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Another year, same old blood libel

This year it comes courtesy of the Socialist Worker:

Via Harry's Place. Read the comments thread and weep. Here's a brief preview:
"Why is everyone wasting so much time discussing whether the Jews were or were not responsible for Jesus's crucifiction (sic)? Christ's very existence is a work of fiction, utterly without any historical basis."
And my favourite, from the same author:
"So, what's the problem?"
Where to begin?

The difference the weather makes

Here's Sunny:
"Hello! As you may imagine, I’m writing this from sunny Los Angeles. I love this place - the people are really friendly, the weather is great and the side-streets are immaculately manicured."
Contrast and compare:
"Hello! As you may imagine, I'm writing this from sunny Glasgow. I hate this place - the people are really hostile, the weather is fucking unnatural and evil. It hasn't stopped raining for over a goddam month and I'm going crazy. Oh, and the streets are a fucking disgrace."
Then you come home and read this sort of shit, recommended by the normally sane S & M, who thinks this sort of twaddle represents 'fine ideas' for constitutional reform:
"We don't have universal suffrage, and no-one is advocating it. Therefore there's a choice that has to be made, and a legitimate question is Who should vote?

I believe that people who derive their main form of income from the state (yes, including teachers) should not be given the vote. Either we accept the libertarian position of state as monster, or we treat it as a consensual collective that generates welfare-enhancing policy. In which case the relationship between customer and employee needs to be refined:

- Ford employees shouldn't determine Ford's production levels: they should participate in developing efficient responses to consumer-defined production."
Yeah because as a teacher, and therefore an employee of 'the monster', obviously I have no legitimate interest in the overall level of taxation, wether we should join the Euro, whether detention without trial should be extended, whether to have ID cards or not, how much money the government spends on the goddam roads, what sort of school my children will go to, whether to go to war or not... I could go on but I think the point is clear. There's a fine line between 'libertarian' and anarcho-capitalists that have lost their goddam minds.

"What are your holiday plans?", asks Sunny. To get through them without killing someone. But if I fail and get the jail - can I expect 'libertarian' bloggers to defend my right to vote?

Reasons to celebrate Christmas #1

There's an amusing article about the Daily Mail stories of the spectre of secualrism that is threatening Christmas over at CiF. But it was the first comment under the article that caught my attention. Somebody called 'Koolio' writes:
"Christmas has been banned. What was once a pagan winter festival became the Mass of Christ to celebrate the birth of Jesus. All this has been swept aside, now it just an orgy of consumption, we are expected to buy each other gifts as a proxy for love and care, gorging ourselves with turkey and pies whilst millions abroad starve."
So in case you're understandably disposed to the bah-humbug feeling at this time of year, that's reason #1 to celebrate Christmas right there. 'Tis the time of year where we can gather with friends and family - and stick two fingers up to the puritans.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Conservatives and marriage

When there used to be a married man's allowance, I was married. When the government scrapped them, I got divorced. Coincidence? Of course is is. No-one makes these sorts of decisions on the basis of a personal tax assessment and as Tom Hamilton has pointed out, it would be slightly odd if they did.

And the Conservatives' decision to make the family a political issue is really odd for two reasons.

One is, as practically everyone has pointed out, whatever one thinks of the diagnosis, the cure simply won't work. The financial cost of divorce is so great, any fiscal regime that made it even more undesirable would have be both extravagant and draconian to a degree that would not be merely undesirable - it would be impossible. Unless, that is, they are prepared to countenance no tax at all for the married, combined with a system where a team from the Inland Revenue come round to your bed-sit and steal what little furniture you have left. Even then, I doubt it would work.

Because poverty does not cause divorce. I'm not just extrapolating from my own experience here. The divorce rate is higher in wealthier countries. Part of this is economic, but not in the way the Tories think. We get divorced because we can. It is, I can testify, financially painful - but not unbearable, still less unfeasible. Polly Toynbee inadvertently provides evidence for this because while she complains that the Tories have confused cause and effect, she then refers to the experience of Denmark, which she rightly says has the lowest level of child poverty in the EU. But doesn't the fact that it also has the same level of single-parent families as us rather undermine her 'cause and effect' point?

Any fair EU comparison would also show that it is the predominately Catholic members, which are generally also the poorest, that have lower divorce rates than the predominately Protestant ones. We get divorced, not only because we can afford to financially, but also because historically it has been easier both legally and socially to do so.

Which brings me to the other odd thing about this latest foray by the Tories into the realm of 'family values'. Given the embarrassment of John "Edwina Currie shagging" Major's ill-starred 'back to basics' campaign, why have the Tories come out with this now? Chris wonders whether they aren't pandering to their own supporters by dressing up handouts to their own as concern for the most needy in society. Possibly, but I doubt it. The truth is the Conservatives have identified a genuine social problem that has consequences that are fairly easily demonstrated. Polly Toynbee's solution is to go for the Denmark option, which - as I'm sure she is well-aware - would involve a massive expansion in the provision of nursery education. This would overcome the single most important obstacle to single-parents returning to work, the means by which they can overcome poverty.

But old age and my own experience - both professional and personal - is making me more conservative (as well as more hypocritical, given my circumstances), so I doubt whether this is the answer. People in my position tend to get very defensive about this sort of thing. When it is women, justifiably so - given the disgraceful attacks we have seen from the Tories in the past on single-mothers.

But I'm persuaded nonetheless that family breakdown is an externality that needs a more careful response than the usual recourse to the old categories. People of my generation grew up with the feminist critique of the institution of marriage. It wasn't that none of this was justified, it's just that I don't think it occurred to many people at the time that this could be balanced by similar critique of divorce. But now that the results are in, so to speak, I think it should be.

The Tories edge towards this with a focus on the responsibility of fathers. A welcome change, in as far as it goes. But fundamentally they don't have the solution either. I'd suggest the reason they've come out with this gumph about tax-breaks is because they clearly lack the courage, ability, confidence, sheer pig-headedness, or whatever it takes, to make a proper conservative argument like this one and have fallen instead for the notion that families, like everything else in society, can be controlled and moulded into a pleasing shape by the state. As if this was a condition that has hitherto failed to materialise only for want of finding the correct combination of fiscal levers to pull.

Protesters condemn Holocaust conference

From the Scotsman:
"A conference of the world's most prominent Holocaust deniers opened in Iran yesterday amid international condemnation and protests by dozens of Iranian students, who burned pictures of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and chanted "death to the dictator".

Never has the hardline leader, who was giving a speech at a university in Tehran yesterday, faced such open hostility at home.

One student said the crowd was protesting against the "shameful" Holocaust conference - which was organised after Mr Ahmadinejad described the murder of six million Jews by Nazis a "myth" invented to justify the occupation of Palestinian land - and the "fact that many activists with student movements have not been allowed to attend university".

The conference "has brought to our country Nazis and racists from around the world", the activist added."
Both embarrassing and slightly more difficult to handle than usual for the regime that likes to hang children because Ahmadinejad has used the fact that Holocaust denial is illegal in some European countries to present Iran as a champion of free speech. He seems to be discovering that the pesky thing about free speech is that people don't always say what you would like them to say.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The 'torture debate' - a reply to Norman Geras

Norm objects to my recent post about the 'torture debate' on the grounds of my rejection of the very need for a torture debate and my 'too brief' dismissal of Stephen de Wijze's article about torture.

The first position requires some explanation because I was perhaps unclear. I regret the very existence of a 'torture debate' in the way that Zoe Williams regrets that there is an abortion debate. What she feels is that this represents the reality that what she regards as an inviolable right for women is presently threatened by the possibility of compromise. I think she's right about this - and it's the same with torture. I wasn't really suggesting that a rational defence of the torture taboo shouldn't be made but rather regretting the dismal situation where these have to be made at all. But this, as Norm might say himself, is where we are - so I suppose they have to be.

This is why I used the expression 'the wisdom of ages and of nations' in this context. Arguably it's a bit of a cheap shot to take an expression that is obviously a piece of rhetorical flourish so literally. Of this Norm writes:
"[T]he 'wisdom of nations' hasn't always come out against torture."
I'll overlook the insult* implicit in the assumption that I was unaware of this. I was talking about Britain - I think I mentioned it specifically - and we are talking about the United States too, a country whose constitution specifically proscribes torture in her Bill of Rights. 'Ages and of nations' does not imply that there has been universal recognition of this principle from time immemorial but rather that this was a lesson human beings might have reasonably been expected to have learned from history. That it had been is implicit in the constitutions of Britain, France and the United States. That it is these three countries that have breached the taboo against torture in the second half of the twentieth century was in my mind when I made the appeal to tradition. I make no apology for doing so because the American constitution, for all its flaws, is smarter than Donald Rumsfeld.

This brings me to the article I dismissed with, according to Norm, undue haste:
"Anyone reading Shuggy's post but who hasn't read Steve's review article may form the impression that Steve either defends 'torture warrants' or has too soft an attitude to torture (though it surely wasn't Shuggy's intention to give this impression). Neither point is true."
It certainly wasn't my impression to suggest that Stephen de Wijze advocated 'temporary torture warrants'. I was using this an a example of the sort of idea that would be familiar to people following the torture debate. The second point, though, I plead guilt to. Stephen de Wijze does, in my opinion, have a too soft attitude towards torture and I'm afraid Norm misrepresents his article if he thinks you'll find in it an unequivocal condemnation of torture as always and everywhere wrong. An easy mistake to make though because clarity, in this article anyway, is conspicuous by its absence. Take this, for example:
"Consequently, the answer to the question of whether it is morally justified to use torture in the face of a TBS is both yes and no.

It is always morally wrong to use torture but in some cases of the TBS it is also a moral duty to practice it - one must do wrong in order to do right! In these rare and extreme circumstances, there is no escaping getting dirty hands."
So, it's always wrong to use torture - except in circumstances where it is the lesser evil, in which case it is not only permissible, it might be considered the duty of a government's security forces to perform it. But because it's always wrong, it can never be legally institutionalized. But since it might have to happen sometimes to find a ticking bomb, those found guilty of carrying out what is always wrong might in retrospect legally be found to have done right after all? And Norm thinks it's me that has got myself into a tangle? Hmph!

*Ok, I've chilled now. There wasn't one - my mistake. Still don't like the de Wijze article, though.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Against the torture debate

Some welcome cricket-free posts from Norm at last - although here's one I didn't care for. Or to be more precise, it contains a link to an article I didn't care for. Norm describes this piece by Stephen de Wijze as a "an absolutely must-read" survey of the "torture debate".

So I read it. Then I wished I hadn't bothered.

It's not that the article isn't a reasonable summary of the "torture debate"; it's just that I don't think we should be having such a debate at all. Stephen de Wijze is amongst a number of people who have described the prevailing liberal consensus that is opposed to all torture under any circumstances as a 'taboo'.

The notion of taboo carries connotations of irrationality, of beliefs held on the basis of prejudice. I think the 'taboo' against torture can be rationally defended quite easily. Philosophically, torture fails the Kantian 'Kingdom of Ends' test; historically it has demonstrably failed the utilitarian test. But my purpose here - and this is where I worry I'm becoming a conservative - is to defend the taboo against torture as a taboo - this being an inclination, based on moral sentiments not necessarily formulated into abstract thought - something drawn from the wisdom of ages and of nations, rather than men.

Every society has them - and that the prohibition against torture has formed part of the history of Britain is something that makes me more favourably disposed towards it, and forms a big part of the reason I was so appalled at Nick Cohen's sleekit apologia for it.

I strongly dislike this talk of us being in an "unprecendented situation", as if there wasn't enough information available to us from history about the human condition already. Did we really have to witness the shame and disgrace that was Abu Ghraib to learn it all over again? And isn't the fact that a 'debate' is taking place at all evidence that not even this most recent lesson has been learned?

Let me put it in the most unequivocal way I know how: the very idea that 'liberals' should consider, even for a moment, the notion of 'temporary torture warrants', that the state should be allowed under any circumstances to have this power over other human beings, is something that comes from the Father of Lies himself.

[Cross-posted in DSPTFW]

Communication breakdown

This made me laugh:
"A HI-TECH bid to stop trouble in a Scots town's pubs had to be scrapped because English call centre workers couldn't understand the bar staff.

Publicans in Elgin, Moray, tried to beat the brawlers by reporting fights to a pager company in Middlesex, who then sent electronic alerts back to the local police.

But by the time the bar staff had managed to make themselves understood, many of the yobs were long gone.

The landlady of Elgin's Ionic Bar, Karen McPhee, said yesterday: "The call centre people often couldn't make out what staff were saying, and the police couldn't make out the messages sent on to them."
And you thought trying to talk to your ISP provider in India was hard work. There's a lesson about technology, globalisation and the limits thereof, somewhere.

[Thanks Will]

Encouraging religious devotion

The appropriately-named Sheik Rage has a novel way of going about it:
"Anyone who does not pray five times a day will be beheaded, an official in a southern Somalian town declared yesterday, adding that the new edict will be implemented in three days' time.
Those who do not follow the prayer edict after three days have elapsed "will definitely be beheaded according to Islamic law", Sheik Rage said."
Sorry, that should say, "ancient way of going about it."

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bloggers' code of conduct

Missed this completely. I learn belatedly via Paulie that Press Complaints Commission director Tim Toulmin has suggested that a voluntary code of conduct for bloggers is desirable:
"[G]enerally on the internet "there are no professional standards, there is no means of redress", Mr Toulmin said.

He added: "If you want to see how the newspaper industry would look like if it was unchecked, then look at the internet."
I have done. It looks so much better. But a code of conduct? If you must. Here's my suggestion:

1) Say what you think is true.

2) Don't get paid for it.

I agree doing 2 is making a virtue out of necessity but since this is the state of affairs for most of us, we can rejoice that it allows us to do 1 more effectively.

Oh and to Tim Toulims and Alistair Campbell. Redress? Go fuck yourselves.

Labour plans 'male MOT'

From the Scotsman:
"MOT-style health checks for men over 40 will form part of the Scottish Labour Party's manifesto commitments.

Under the plans, men would be invited to take the check-up when they reach 40, looking for problems that might get worse if not addressed early."
These tests would include:
"Checks on blood pressure and cholesterol would identify those at a high risk of heart disease and stroke.

Such men could be given diet and exercise advice.

Drugs could also be prescribed to limit the risks among those who caused the most concern.

The MOT would also look for signs of diabetes.

Men would face questions about their lifestyles.

Those who smoked could be directed to smoking cessation services to help them quit.

Flabby bastards would be urged to do more press-ups..."
And if you think I made the last one up, it's only the form of words I changed.

This is in order to reduce the gap between the life-expectancy of men and women. Is it just me? It is just me if the comments under the article are anything to go by but I think, why? Women's life-expectancy used to be lower than men's essentially because of child-birth. This is much safer now, and women do this less anyway, leaving the men popping their clogs at a younger age. This is because a) we smoke more b) drink more c) take more drugs d) work longer [I doubt the Executive will be planning to eliminate this vice from our lives] and e) avoid the goddam doctor.

Women do less of the above apart from e) - so they live longer, but statistically are more likely to enjoy poorer health. Probably because they're going to the doctor more often and being diagnosed with stuff. With the exception of d), it seems to me we get the better deal. Shorter life but more enjoyable. So what's the problem? We don't live long enough but if we do, they complain we're a burden to the state? There's no pleasing some people. As I've said before, it's not really joined-up social policy, is it?

Monday, December 04, 2006

Entertaining doubts

We are - or I am, anyway - accustomed to feeling more favourably-disposed to religious believers when they admit to having doubts about their faith from time to time. Rightly so, in my view.

Perhaps those of us of an agnostic or atheist disposition should reciprocate from occasionally - share our own crises of doubt, as it were. I know I have them.

For example, here I am in a Catholic school. Now as so often is the case these days, you find yourself having to define every word that has any conceptual weight and when this veers towards religion this means you have to explain what atheist, agnostic, monotheism and polytheism mean.

See the ones who react by declaring themselves to be atheists? Complete numpties, for the most part. Let's put it this way - I don't think they'd be justified declaring themselves 'brights', as Richard Dawkins would have them do.

Comment, to coin a phrase, is free - but please take this in the spirit of levity it was intended, for goodness sake.

Chavez and the politics of polarisation

Chavez has been re-elected for a third six-year term. No-one's talking about it. Not in my workplace, not in the pubs I go to. But the blogosphere is a different story. The reason behind this is a familiar one. Political partisans, leftists in particular, have a long history of being obsessed with the events taking place in two arenas in the world - the Middle East and Latin America.

It is because it is felt that it is here that the fundamental clashes between right and left, capitalism and socialism, are played out in primary colours. For the ultra-leftist, the attractions are obvious. All but the most blinkered gave up pretending the Soviet model was internally more benign than liberal capitalism with a welfare state decades ago. But both the Middle East and Latin America were always different stories - areas of the world where evidence of capricious Western statecraft was and is both copious and obvious.

I would point out that the very same leftists had a tendency to ignore the role of the other superpower in both these regions; one has only to compare the starkly different responses to the Soviet and American invasions of Afghanistan for an example of this. But this would be to make the reckless assumption that the people involved in the 'debate' possess memories. And more importantly it would be to fall for the partisan trap that merely apes the polarised politics that have been so destructive to these parts of the world.

For they have been characterised not just by sharply-defined ideological political movements but something altogether more corrosive to civil society - fundamental disagreements not just over policy but over the very mechanisms that determine which policies are executed in the first place. That priests are politicised, the police corrupt, unions riot, politicians and businessmen bribe, and the military coup are symptoms of this very fact. To take sides at various times in a variety of ways is tempting, at at times irresistible, but as often as not this serves only to be part of the problem in these parts of the world.

Enter Chavez. For those aching for the collapse of the American empire, his attractions are obvious. Better than Castro on account of the fact that he isn't at death's door; he was democratically elected; and is fundamentally less repressive than Castro ever was or is now. And you don't have to long for America's demise to acknowledge that he spends his country's oil-wealth in a more benign fashion than the American-sponsored House of Saud.

Yet I'm not celebrating for reasons that I think others are finding difficult to articulate. There is his foreign-policy to consider, of course - his support for dictators of questionable sanity and unquestionable inhumanity in Iran and Zimbabwie. But there's something more fundamental than this. The threat President Chavez has already posed for liberty is clear to anyone who cares to look. And that he intends to seek an amendment to the constitutional restriction on Presidential re-election is perhaps indicative of what is to come.

But Chavez groupies ignore this for the same reason they ignored and continue to ignore Castro's repression - they prefer equality to liberty. It's an old division on the left that dates back to the Russian revolution. I understand this, I was brought up with this. I even used to share it in my youth, but not anymore. Others may have different reasons for their scepticism over the Chavez phenomenon; mine is that while liberty and equality are desirable, they are not necessarily co-existent and where they should conflict, I choose liberty every time. It's as simple as that.

Cross-posted at DSTPFW

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The exhaustion epidemic

Louise Carpenter has a piece in today's Observer about tiredness and modern life.

It looked interesting but I'm too knackered to read all of it.

Actually, I think it's the weather and the lack of sunlight. It can't be a coincidence that an article like this comes out now and not in the spring.

That and work. It's not so much that we work longer hours - well, I don't anyway. It's the feeling of being monitored all the time. This combines with the feeling that one of the things that is monitored more than ever before is your attitude. I hate this and am genetically incapable of being 'positive' on command so spend an undue amount of working time explaining to 'line-managers', many of whom in a previous life must have worked for goddam Butlins or something, what the word 'cynical' means and by extension why they are wrong to apply this to me.

I mean, seeing signs like this one above immediately make me feel tired. [This one's outside the RE department. I think the irony was unintentional.]

Friday, December 01, 2006

Semantic flexibility

Always a problem with political terminology because some words, like 'liberty', 'choice', or 'democracy', are like motherhood and apple pie; no-one can be seen to object to them without inviting obloquy. So instead concepts are either stretched to allow for connotations that the terms were not originally designed to carry, or they are narrowed in order to exclude something the writer or speaker finds undesirable.

It was this tendency that led Isaiah Berlin to complain that liberty had become a concept so porous that there seemed no definition that it would not bear - hence his distinction between 'positive' and 'negative' liberty.

Democracy is also such a word, conditioned by people's response when it produces results they don't like. Neil Clark accuses Daniel Finklestein of doing just that - arguing he is using a 'Fordian' definition with regards to the election of Ahmadinejad in Iran. It would be no exaggeration to say that Mr Clark is using a somewhat elastic definition of the term when he states unequivocally that "Iran is a democracy", as Marcus points out.

Moreover, it is impossible not to notice that the 'Iran is a democracy' line is today being heard from those of a hard-left tradition that has historically tended to radically narrow the term when it is applied to the results of elections in the West in order to explain away the fact that the people have an annoying tendency to vote contrary to their interests, as perceived by those commentators who profess to speak for them.

However, the temptation to expand or contract the meaning of democracy to suit the situation is ever-present and often taken by people of all kinds of political persuasions so any sensible conversation requires some agreement over the meaning of terms.

With regards to democracy, the preference would be for the concept to have some relationship to how the term has historically been understood, which is to say it refers to a representative democracy where political leaders are chosen in periodic competitive elections. It would also require an acceptance that even this limited form is not absolute and that states can be more or less democratic, depending on a) the extent to which elections are genuinely competitive b) the extent to which the political leaders produced by these elections actually govern. While there may be disagreement on the margins, surely Iran fails to meet even the most circumscribed definition of the term 'democracy', as it has been understood historically? To argue otherwise is to render the term meaningless - and to suggest it fulfills some more idealised version of the concept, absurd.

On Scottish independence (again)

Sorry. I'll be brief.

Jimmy Reid, Alisdair Gray and Christopher Harvie talk nonsense.

John Lloyd talks sense.

That's all.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cameron, Livingstone and JS Mill

David Cameron has attacked Ken Livingstone for peddling "Marxist cliches" about ethnic minorities.

Livingstone has responded by claiming it is JS Mill's famous 'harm principle', rather than Marxism, that forms the basis of his support for multiculturalism:
"Multiculturalism has nothing to do with an assertion that there are no universal values. The very statement that people should only be able to do such things that do not interfere with others is clearly an assertion of a universal value. In so far as they do not interfere with others, people should be able to chose freely which values they wish to pursue. A person, for example, may wish to wear a yarmulke, a turban or a hijab or none; they are free to chose."
Hardly a clash amongst intellectual titans, is it? Whatever else Livingstone might be, he certainly isn't a Marxist, so Cameron's wrong there. And I'd also agree with Livingstone's liberal defence of people's right to wear what they choose and follow the religion of their choice and so on. Beyond that, there's a couple of problems with his use of Mill.

Mill was concerned with individual rights; multi-culturalism with group rights. These two goals can obviously clash if the latter are ever internally intolerant of the former.

Like some on the left, Livingstone fails to distinguish the personal from the political - perhaps because he doesn't believe in such a distinction, I wouldn't know. With his harm principle, Mill was concerned with defending an individual's right to make choices free from interference by the state. But he did not do so on the basis that we should therefore approve of the choices people make - only that state interference was a greater 'mischief' than that which people can do to themselves through 'self-regarding actions'. This doesn't really have much to do with the celebration of diversity that I assume Livingstone is envisaging when he invokes JS Mill in the way that he does.

With these two considerations taken into account, along with the fact that Mill was a strong supporter of women's rights, while Livingstone is probably correct to suggest that he would have defended, for example, the right to wear a hijab, it seems unlikely that he would have seen it as an expression of multiculturalism to be celebrated in the way that Ken Livingstone does. Anyway, while I share Livingstone's aversion to anything that sounds like a compulsory state monoculture, I don't think Cameron, and before him Trevor Phillips and Jack Straw, were actually suggesting there should be one. Moreover, even if they were, Mill would have, of course, defended their right to say so.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Who will speak for Britain?

Sorry for going on about this topic but it's been preoccupying me. What future for the Union if even supposedly conservative commentators aren't willing to make conservative arguments in its defence? Take, for example, the historical comparisons made by Simon Jenkins:
"Partition is the new politics, despite being the hobgoblin of centralism. It is through partition that Ireland is booming, Slovakia reviving and the Baltic states prospering. The British government is in favour of it for everyone else, even forcing it on the former Yugoslavia and Iraq/Kurdistan. This year it welcomed Montenegro to Europe's community. By what hypocrisy do Westminster grandees ridicule Scotland's ambition?"
Where to begin? Does Simon Jenkins really believe Britain, a union older than the French and American republics, to be historically comparable to post-WWI constructs like Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia - to say nothing of Iraq?

And then there's Ireland - which he takes as a shining example of the benefits of partion in a manner worthy of Alex Salmond, leaving the reader with the question as to whether Simon Jenkins is acquainted even the most rudimentary facts of economic history. What else but ignorance can allow a writer to decry subsidy and then fail to grasp basic things like dates and the small matter of EU subsidy in an article that complains about the corrosive effects of the Barnett Formula? I'd expect better from my sixth-year pupils, frankly.

As for his cant about the 'will of the people', I can't bring myself to discuss it except to insist that this writer who is so fond of quoting De Tocqueville and Burke should cease to do so forthwith because clearly he has understood neither. That he has found a home in the Guardian is entirely fitting.

Then there's Laban Tall:
"Historically the UK was at centre an English enterprise. Though ambitious Scots, Irishmen and Welshmen powered large chunks of the Empire, the Armed Forces, industry and commerce, and Britain's whole was greater than the sum of her national parts, England was the heart of Britain - and rightly so in the opinions of its inhabitants. The largest, wealthiest, most important part - and the best part, too."
No. This is not patriotism but nationalism - the very thing that will dissolve the Union, if we let it. It is exactly the same spirit we hear from Jack McConnell when he says Scotland is the "best small country in the world". Nationalism does this - compares itself to everyone else, as well as defining those who don't belong. It's born of insecurity. Patriotism is different. It is an understanding that the attachments you don't choose that are the most significant - like the ones you have for your family. I don't try and convince myself my family is the best in the world, that they meet my needs more efficiently than any other family could do, or that they are more beautiful and intelligent than any other. Rather my love for them, my allegiance to them, is borne of just that - because they are my family. So it is with my country. Opinion polls say it has 'outlived its usefulness', its utility? Not for me, it hasn't, not for me. And never shall it be so.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Scotland consistently sectarian

Not just a problem confined to the West of Scotland, apparently:
"The first major study of new anti-bigotry laws in Scotland shows that 635 people were accused of religiously aggravated offences between January 2004 and June 2005."
Cardinal Keith O'Brien was quick as ever to play the victim card, claiming it was indicative of anti-Catholicism in Scotland.

Of course it is but the report showed that there is anti-Protestantism too. Statistics aren't my strong point but doesn't a 30% share of all 'religiously aggravated' offences by a 'faith community' that represents only 16% of the population represent quite an impressive result for the hoop-wearing community?

Cardinal Keef didn't share with us any thoughts he may have had about what that represented.

Calling Laban Tall.

Big brother is watching you

But I ain't watching it - not if Tommy Sheridan's going to be on it, as predicted by the Scotsman. Actually, I will - unable to avoid it. Like looking at an accident.

The tale of Tommy's demise is a bit sad, as Dave Osler says.

Slightly embarrassing being Scottish sometimes. I'm left wondering what it is about our political culture that produces this sort of cheesy celebrity-salesman type demagogues.

No, scrub that. Least up here we don't try to pretend this sort of kitsch represents socialist politicians reaching out to the yoof, or something - like some of the mad London-based SWPers do. Now that's embarrassing. Bought used cars from them, so they did.

Bring on the holidays

Too long since the last one, and the next one seems too far away. Kids are losing their damn minds, staff have already lost theirs. I sense Mr Chalk is having much the same experience since he's resorted to raising a petition to draw attention to the dismal state of discipline in many of our schools, which he - rightly, in my view - sees as the single most important barrier to improving standards in education.

Although it depends on where you work, I suppose. In response to his 'do something' injunction, I was wondering if it would make a difference if council tax payers in Glasgow were aware of what they are getting for their money. Not only does Glasgow have the shittiest schools in the country, it also has the highest council tax payments in the country. I wonder how many people are aware that one of the reasons for having the highest council tax bills is because we have shit schools. Because the utter shitness of our schools is one of the major factors behind people leaving the city and as they do, there are less people to pay the council tax - so the bills go up.

Another thing I was wondering, which has nothing much to do with this, is why 'libertarians' never follow through the logic of their position when it comes to education? Why stop at 'school choice'? Why not make education itself voluntary?

And why is choice the preserve of parents only? Where's my choice? Why don't 'libertarians' come out with any fun ideas like elected headteachers? Or no headteachers? Instead we get all this boring stuff about bloody vouchers. "Sweden has them, don't you know?" Oh, who gives a fuck? Libertarians? Pah! Lightweights...

Monday, November 27, 2006

People losing their damn minds #18

John 'mad dog' Reid has been losing the plot in his attempt to 'deliver the killer blow' to the nationalists at Labour's Oban conference with some arguments that are surreal as they are nasty:
"Breaking up the Union would leave Scotland vulnerable to terrorist attack and a flood of illegal immigrants, John Reid, the Home Secretary, said yesterday in Labour's most scathing attack yet on the SNP."
'Scathing' it may be - but it also doesn't make any goddam sense. Illegal immigrants, we are told, are economic migrants coming into Britain under false pretences. But we don't get very many up here now, so why would an independent Scotland receive more, when we are also being told separation would completely wreck our economy? Not just a bit fucked, totally fucked - according to Gordon Brown, Douglas/Wendy Alexander*, and now John Reid - plagues of locusts, the whole shabbang. Since we can rule out the weather as a 'pull factor', wouldn't this deprive them of any reason for wanting to come to Scotland? Ah, but duplicitous Johnny Foreigner will still want to come and blow stuff up, fucked economy notwithstanding, reckons John Reid. His reasoning behind this is so mental I can't even bring myself to discuss it.

The he blamed the SNP for "allowing the Tories to get into office for the last twenty years". Two years longer than they were actually in power? That's a fairly damning indictment. I mean, I'm opposed as much as any Unionist to blaming the English for everything. But Thatcher? The voting statistics show they really need to take the rap for that one, surely?

Then it got really scary:
"[R]eferring to his widely anticipated leadership bid against Gordon Brown, Mr Reid joked: "Almost one million of us Scots live and work in England - in all walks of life, up to and including the Prime Minister. And I am told the next Prime Minister might be a Scot as well."

Later, Mr Reid was given the opportunity to rule himself out of the fight for the leadership, but once again refused to do so."
As politician's jokes go, this one's even more unfunny than usual.

John Reid: Has brains, is dangerous - on account of the fact that he's done gone lost his goddam mind and he's from Lanarkshire.

*I revealed in a ground-breaking previous post that Wendy and Douglas Alexander are in fact the same person.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sociology degrees - please take one

So said a graffito written in a toilet cubicle in Glasgow University above the toilet-paper dispenser. Indicative of the relatively low esteem the discipline is held - a fact that distresses and perplexes Anthony Giddens:
"We live in a world of extraordinary change, in everyday life, family relationships, politics, communications and in global society. We are witnessing, among other things, a return of the gods, as religion re-emerges as a major force in our societies, locally and on a worldwide level.
My question is: in such circumstances, why isn't sociology again right at the forefront of intellectual life and public debate?"
I don't know exactly, but perhaps people are less willing to study it now for similar reasons I was disinclined to when I went to university. The impenetrable and ugly jargon. Or the way in which sociology students used to say to me, "Man is a social being", as if this were some breath-taking revelation that made their statist political preferences self-evident.

But these were minor considerations compared to the feeling I always had that it was sociology, rather than economics, that was the 'dismal science', offering a diagnosis but without any cure - or at least not one that satisfied. A sort of Calvinism without salvation; a discourse where contemporary social institutions were invariably understood as being 'oppressive', without any vision of what shape future ones might take.

It seemed to be characterised by an ahistoricism curiously combined with a confidence in their deterministic view of the human condition - this being the other problem with it for me. Any 'science of society' that seeks to make law-like generalisations really should have had a better track record. Why should sociologists be called apon to explain a 'return of the gods' when they conspicuously failed to predict this in the first place? And why should they be expected to understand this post-Soviet world of ours when this state of affairs too was hidden from them until it actually happened?

Perhaps I'm being unfair, and retrospectively satisfied that I made the right choice in avoiding the subject, but I do think part of the answer to Mr Giddens' question lies within his own speculations:
"[S]ociology's star was dimmed by the rise of market-based philosophies from the early 1980s onwards. As a phase of government, market fundamentalism lasted some twenty years - roughly the period covered by the Reagan and Thatcher governments. Its overall influence lasted longer, since more sophisticated versions of it continue to guide international organisations, especially the IMF and World Bank, down to very recent times. If markets settle most aspects of social life, including social justice, the scope of social factors - the prime province of sociology - is correspondingly reduced. The economic, as it were, predominates heavily over the social."
But 'market fundamentalism' didn't have this effect on history, or psychology, or political economy, or philosophy - so shouldn't sociologists ask themselves why it had this effect on the field of sociology? It may simply be that they are avoiding the realisation that they were simply wrong about too many things. The apostle of the 'Third Way' should, I think, at least consider this possibility.

Anthony Giddens: understandably depressed


Further to this post, I found this via Eric in the comments.

I'm thinking of having my own pithy sayings printed and having then stuck up around the school. Maybe something like:

"Remember: that light at the end of the tunnel may just be an on-coming train".
Or perhaps one from Tom Lehrer:
"Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it".
Then see a) how long it takes anyone to notice b) how long it takes to work out who it was c) whether adults can get away with the 'wisnae me' defence that proves so effective for the pupils.

Nationalism update

Further to the post below, there's an extraordinary poll in the Telegraph that shows a higher proportion of English voters than Scots want Scottish independence:
"A clear majority of people in both England and Scotland are in favour of full independence for Scotland, an ICM opinion poll for The Sunday Telegraph has found. Independence is backed by 52 per cent of Scots while an astonishing 59 per cent of English voters want Scotland to go it alone."
And Labour aren't helping with these odd arguments they are using. Mixed in with the usual distressing appeals to be 'modern' and 'globalisation' and stuff are things that just ain't true. For example, in Oban Gordon Brown said:
"We should never let the Nationalists deceive people into believing that you can break up the United Kingdom."
What a strange thing to say. Brown and the rest of them are making these arguments now precisely because it is possible to break up the UK.

Or Douglas Alexander:
"Scottish Secretary Douglas Alexander will close Labour's conference in Oban with another attack on the SNP.

Mr Alexander will claim the SNP strategy of independence runs counter to global political trends."
Eh? Typical New Labour: something is undesirable if it is 'counter to global political trends'. But it isn't even that. Weren't they paying attention to what happened to Yugoslavia? Or more gently in Czechoslovakia? Arguably globalisation makes this sort of thing more likely as people cleave to local loyalties in the face of impersonal economic forces.

Would it kill them to say something like, "The break-up of the UK is perfectly possible, it wouldn't necessarily be a disaster for the Scottish economy - nevertheless we don't think it would be a good idea"?

Then they could offer to put John Reid back in his cage, or something.

"Sooo - where can I get one of these?"

Saturday, November 25, 2006

For the Union

Blair seems to have been sufficiently rattled by the possibility of an SNP win in the 2007 Holyrood elections to take the trouble of delivering "his most passionate and comprehensive condemnation of Scottish nationalism yesterday", according to the Scotsman:
"The Prime Minister has derided the Nationalists in the past. Indeed, it has become routine for him to sprinkle a few anti-Nat insults and jibes into every speech he gives in Scotland.

But this is the first time he has taken such time and effort to confront the SNP and its policies."
Perhaps, as the piece suggests, it's the legacy thing. Having insisted that devolution would cement, not undermine, the Union, he seems unnerved at the prospect that it might prove to have the opposite effect.

Blair is right to confront the nationalists - but it's the manner in which he is going about it I have a problem with. Blair said the SNP's politics are those of "fear and grievance". He's right about the latter, but wrong about the former; if there is fear, it is being peddled by Blair and Brown, not the nationalists. One just has to sample the arguments used, which depend heavily on the 'cost of divorce' theme - that separation would be a disaster for the Scottish economy.

But this serves only to cheapen the debate - serving only to give a constitutional angle to the tired debate in British politics where essentially statist parties attempt to woo the voters with promises to grow the economy faster, and redistribute the proceeds more efficiently, than their rivals.

There's another Unionist case to be made and perhaps I shouldn't blame Blair and Brown for not making it because I find it difficult to articulate myself. It has something to do with one's allegiance being a civilisational choice, rather than a calculation of potential economic benefits. Something to do with preferring a polity that is based on civility rather than ethnicity. Definitely something to do with an affection for what is familiar over a future state that cannot be known. For although I doubt it, perhaps a larger Scottish state would really make us more like Scandanavia instead of the Soviet Union. But even if it did, I don't want to be like Sweden or Norway. Because while I'm sure this is pure prejudice on my part, I think this would be a lesser fate for us.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Miscellaneous rants

Sorry for light posting - been goddam busy actually working, which doesn't agree with me at all. I'm in a real tick the boxes department here, within a tick the boxes school.

They are so keen on ticking boxes that they invent boxes for you to tick that you are not contractually obliged to tick. It's at times like these I don't recognise my own species. Why would you do that, why? More importantly, why are they doing it to me?

Here's a photo of the notice that confronts me every bloody morning when I go to pick up my register. It was probably against the law or something to take this but I thought I should give you the flavour. If I turned around and went home, what sane person would blame me?

Anyway, elsewhere people have been busy. Harry's giving up smoking and is asking for advice. Mine is do it, don't do it - but don't turn into one of these born-again anti-smokers who smile smugly and dispense advice replete with their own giving up the evil weed experiences. "I found I can taste my food so much better..." Bully for you. Now fuck off.

Elsewhere, Chris Dillow reads books (Gordon Brown's, for heaven's sake) so you don't have to. He suggests that since Gordy assumes without argument that it is the role of government to make the country an enterprise association, he is the sort of person that reads merely to reinforce his own prejudices. Clever chap. Chris, that is.

Will has news that Trot factionalism is bad for job security.

And here's a tabloid story that made me laugh:

"Federline will be revealing everything about his short marriage in court, including Britney’s lesbian fantasies, as the couple battle over custody of their two sons Sean Preston and Jayden James.

An insider told the Sun: "Britney has told him more than once she is sexually attracted to women and men equally.

She has asked Kevin many times if they could have a threesome."
The Sun said she begged. Several times. But we are to take it he declined.

Apparently he's expecting a court of law to believe this. Which is nothing if not ambitious, to say no more than that.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Theology and being sensible

Richard Dawkins once said that theology departments in universities should be closed down because theology isn't a subject, since it studies something that doesn't exist.

Here's a response to that sort of line from someone who knows the difference between systematic and Biblical theology.

As Tom points out, Dawkins ignorance of the subject has led to him being a little confused. But beyond that, there seems to be philistinism at the heart of what he says:
"If all the achievements of theologians were wiped out tomorrow, would anyone notice the smallest difference? Even the bad achievements of scientists, the bombs, and sonar-guided whaling vessels work! The achievements of theologians don't do anything, don't affect anything, don't mean anything. What makes anyone think that "theology" is a subject at all?"
It reminds me of the utilitarian, "Why study Latin?" line - and Michael Oakeshott's answer. Because it represents an investment in human thought and as such forms part of the general conversation of mankind, that's why. You need another reason?


Monday, November 20, 2006

New Generation Network

Interesting new manifesto, of which the blogosphere's own Sunny Hundal has had no small role in. The CiF piece related to it has some refreshing lines. I liked this one:
"We need an approach that discards the older politics of representation through government sanctioned gate-keepers."
Absolutely. For example, expecting an old guard of imams who represent entrenched interests to represent the voice of 'moderate Islam' that will draw radicalised Muslim youth away from extremist organisations is a bit like expecting the Moderator of the General Assembly to bring Rangers bigots into line. They'll need some fresh thinking, so this looks to be a promising start. The first to the microphone lot need to be challenged - because in many cases that's the only reason we hear so much from them.

W.O.B (update)

Our Jack has waded into the War on Buckfast:
"It's not only a drink which is particularly attractive to younger people for a number of reasons, but it is also a badge of pride amongst those who are involved in antisocial behaviour. So I think the health minister was absolutely right to target it and I think those who produce it should take his views more seriously."
The first bit is true. So why give it more publicity?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

On the triumph of intolerance

With regards to religion and its relationship to civil society, an old friend of mine has, I think, the right question: we had become accustomed in this country to people treating religion as something akin to a hobby in as far as it was understood to be something one did in private, in one's own time. You make think its a generalisation, or a stereotype - but I think it is true; the British have for a long time, perhaps since Cromwell, been suspicious of what used to be called 'religious enthusiasm'. What to do, he asks, when this is no longer the case, when there are apparently so many people who take it seriously?

David Starkey's answer is that we are confronted today with a situation where religion has to be 'put back in its box'. His argument is that the privileges that the Church of England have retained since Henry VIII have come back to haunt us in a multi-faith society because each religious grouping has a claim against the state on the grounds of inequity:
"Because certain privileges were retained for the established Christian churches, there is the argument from equity. This says that because the right to have faith schools has been accorded to the Church of England, Judaism and Catholicism, therefore we must give it to Islam.

Similarly, in the House of Lords we have the extraordinary situation where religious leaders sit ex officio in the legislature. Only one other country entertains the practice — the Islamic Republic of Iran. Now it is being suggested that because bishops are represented in the Lords, therefore rabbis, Catholic archbishops and imams should also sit there. This, in the early 21st century, is grotesque."
This much I agree with. Other religious minorities can justly claim they are discriminated against but it is absurd and intolerable for the British state to become the protector of faith in general, which is behind Prince Charles' fatuous suggestion that he should be called the Defender of Faith, indefinite article.

Starkey is right to call for a secular state and refreshingly right to suggest that history teaches us that such a secular state must reject Jacobinism. For as Ruth Gledhill reminds us, there is nothing more calculated to cause religious fundamentalists to flourish than to give the sense that they are being persecuted. This is why the various universities that have decided to proscribe the activities of Christian Unions on campus are being not only illiberal but unbelievably stupid. Christian unions, this piece says, are under unprecendented threat from students claiming they are 'exclusive'. A Christian group excluding people who aren't, em, Christians - fancy that. I wonder if socialist unions are being obliged to accept addresses from Tories? No, I don't really.

It's the same with Islam. I worry about people who don't seem to know what tolerance means. For there is no need for tolerance for things you approve of. The Dutch, who used to understand this very well, are in danger of forgetting this lesson from history. For their famous liberalism was not the product of the elimination of religion, as some seem to suppose, but because of the competing interests of the various religious groups that grew up in this historic centre of trade and commerce. Calvinists, Catholics and Jews here learned that religious tolerance was the better way than progroms, persecutions and pogroms.

Yet they are in danger of forgetting this with the proposed ban on Muslim clothing, as advocated by Rita Verdonk, the Immigration minister. No liberal should feel comfortable with 'national discussions' being conducted about what people wear. Here's the liberty I claim for myself, and therefore believe should be extended to others, perhaps the closest I have to a credo: I want the freedom to prostrate myself to Allah five times a day, go to mosque on a Friday and avoid bacon if I want to. Or the freedom to watch pornography whilst wearing a pink tutu, eating a bacon sandwich washed down with a beer, followed by a big spliff full of skunk-weed and white heroin, if I want to. Those who know me understand that while I'm much more likely to do the latter, I don't particularly want to do either but I claim it as my freedom nonetheless. Because I might feel the need to. Because my own bad decisions are better than good ones made on my behalf by somebody else.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Speaking of libertarianism

There's a silly quiz you can do, which I found here.

Here's what I got:

Simplistic, perhaps. But I'm a simple man with simple pleasures. You become a 'libertarian' if some of these are illegal and you wish they weren't, is all.

More "shrill discourse" please

Matthew Taylor, Blair's out-going chief strategy adviser says:
"We have a citizenry which can be caricatured as being increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet capable of self-government."
An arrogant twat, as Chris rightly says. And one could add that since Matthew Taylor thinks blogs are part of the problem, what he says doesn't quite ring true:
"What is the big breakthrough, in terms of politics, on the web in the last few years? It's basically blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and, generally speaking, basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are.

The internet is being used as a tool of mobilisation, which is fantastic, but it only adds to the growing, incommensurate nature of the demands being made on government."
It's the last bit I don't recognise. I suppose it depends what blogs you read but on my regular reading list there are more than a few whose principle 'demand' on government is that it should do less.

The generally libertarian stance of many blogs can be seen clearly when you look north of the border. The dreary dead-tree statist consensus here simply doesn't reflect right-libertarian voices like these ones.

And by a happy coincidence, and as you might expect, Mr Eugenides has made the same point already. So if we repeat it, perhaps Mr Taylor and all the other Blairite managerialists might eventually get the message: you want 'empowered communities' full of 'active citizens'? Well, fuck off and leave us alone, then.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Against Sabbatarianism

From the Scotsman:
"THE Free Presbyterian Church yesterday won the support of a key parliamentary committee to continue their fight to reinstate Sunday as a day of rest.

The church believes working on a Sunday instead of worshipping God or spending time with family is at the root of social disintegration."
And what if you don't believe in God and/or don't have a family? Scotland used to have a particularly dismal way of observing the Sabbath, which although greatly diminished, still forms part of my childhood memory. It consisted of everything being shut and the only thing being on telly some turgid but worthy beeb drama. I don't know how interesting attending Sunday school would have been because my parents were atheists but without even than to break the monotony, Sunday used to be like a waiting room in the dentist - on a national scale.

This is what the 'wee frees' are nostalgic for:
"Research by the Keep Sunday Special campaign found almost half of people questioned think shopping on a Sunday can add to people's overall stress levels at the weekend."
So don't do it then. Honestly! Apart from disagreeing with the supposed benefits of this dreary Calvinistic tradition, I'm at odds with the theology - even if one accepted it is the role of the state to impose this on everyone else, which it isn't:
"The Rev Hugh Cartwright, who was representing the "Wee, Wee Frees" as the Free Presbyterian Church is known, said that no work at all should be done on a Sunday. People should not watch television, read papers or play sport, but attend church, read the Bible or spend time with family."
I've already read the Bible and having done so I've detected a couple of pretty fundamental problems with this compulsory Sabbath observing argument, which are:

a) Hate to break it to the wee frees but the Sabbath is on Saturday, ok? 'Fraid I can't see past the logical problem of the whole thing; one and seven are different things.

b) Christians are not required to obey the Mosiac law (see the artist formerly known as Saul of Tarsus - a guy y'all are usually very keen on, as long as he's banging on about predestination or something), of which Sabbath observance is a part. If you disagree, go and get yourselves circumcised before you start telling the rest of us what to do on our days off.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Scotland gets new education minister

Jack McConnell paid tribute to the 'hugely-popular' out-going education minister Peter Peacock:
"The First Minister said Mr Peacock was leaving the education system "in good shape", with morale high, increasing numbers of teachers entering the profession and pupil attainment improving."
Morale is indeed sky-high. Speaking for myself, I come into work almost giddy with euphoria - and I know most of my fellow professionals feel the same.

Anyway, just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the rather nice Mr Peacock is being replaced with Hugh Henry. You know the type - former leftwing 'firebrand' who has since become a New Labourite. John Reid without the charm in other words. Look forward to a growth in the use of 'progressive', talk of the 'challenges facing us in the 21st century' etc. Generally these types no longer believe greater equality is even desirable, never mind possible - but the economic determinism dies hard. Liberty in the form of decentralisation? Forget it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

God and teapots

Bertrand Russell used a 'flying teapot' analogy to illustrate the point that the onus of proof lies with the religious believer, rather than the sceptic:
"If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time."
While I accept this argument up to a point, there's a couple of problems with it. It holds in the sense that both the belief in flying teapots and God are incapable of falsification and therefore unscientific according to the Popperian definition, nevertheless believing in God has always struck me as being unlike believing in flying teapots for a couple of reasons.

One is the idea that all 'leaps of faith' are essentially the same. Surely most people operate on the working assumption that they are not? Take conspiracy theories. These are characterised by a) a lack of evidence, b) an implausible belief in the superhuman capabilities of tiny groups of people. But, while there is no evidence, for example, for the various 9/11 conspiracies, one wouldn't automatically assume those who espouse these theories are insane in the way David Icke obviously is.

The other is one that Bertrand Russell, and more recently Richard Dawkins, make for me: people do not have the same social and psychological investment in believing in flying teapots - or more historically, an aversion to walking under ladders - than they do in God. The aversion to walking under ladders has not historically been the repository for communal codes of morality, unlike religion. Now while it is obviously true that this has not always been benign, as Dawkins points out, this shouldn't lead him, and Russell before him, to dispense with the original insight that they for their own reasons felt themselves unable to follow through: historically religion has operated on more levels and at a deeper level than the various superstitions they like to use as analogies.

This does not require those of us who are agnostics and atheists to 'respect the beliefs of others', still less put up with the rhetorical nonsense that our position is a 'faith'. But it does require - I think, anyway - that we use better arguments than those that pretend believing in God is like believing in flying teapots. Because socially, psychologically, emotionally, and politically this is clearly not the case. And once we've eliminated these, there isn't as much left of us as some like to pretend.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Male bonding

It's getting goddam chilly up here and my central heating wasn't working properly - so I set about letting the surplus air out of my radiators.

"What are you doing, Daddy?", my son asked.

"just fixin' the heating, son", I growled manfully, wrench in hand.

The fact that it was my girlfriend that told me this was what was wrong with it and what needed to be done detracted only slightly from the feeling of masculine achievement; those of us who are children of academics have to take these small victories over technology where we can find them.

For academics, along with really posh people, go through life with a sense of wonder that few people can equal. "So you put the bread into these two slots and they come out as toast? Amazing!"

The last time I had this feeling I changed the battery in my car. Took me about two hours, and I gave myself several electric shocks - but still...

Speaking of which, would anyone know why I can't copy music I've downloaded (or 'burn', I think you young people call it) onto blank CDs and/or how to change the template on this stupid blog without losing all the information?

Yesterday in Turkey

Thousands demonstrated in support of secularism during the funeral of Bulent Ecevit in the capital Ankara:
"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," crowds chanted as his coffin reached the city's main mosque."
Because they love their native country more than the salvation of their own souls. Not exactly a snappy slogan, as Eric says - but beautiful nonetheless. To me, anyway. Who was it that said "pagan self-assertion is as good as Christian Islamicist self-denial"?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Offensive illiberalism

Gordon Brown and the BNP, as Tim Worstall, Chris Dillow and Dave Weeden have rightly pointed out, are both guilty of this.

Following the acquittal of Nick Griffin and Mark Collett on charges of inciting racial hatred, Gordon Brown has, in typically New Labour fashion, decided what we need is more laws to protect 'mainstream opinion':
"Chancellor Mr Brown said: "Any preaching of religious or racial hatred will offend mainstream opinion in this country.

"We have got to do whatever we can to root it out from whatever quarter it comes.

"And if that means we have got to look at the laws again, we will have to do so."
Charlie Falcnor joins in the carnival of illiberalism:
"He said there should be "consequences" from saying Islam is "wicked and evil"."
Chris asks that since Richard Dawkins thinks religious education is 'child abuse', surely he too would fall foul of any law that proscribed this?

Logically yes - but I suspect Chris imputes too much method behind this government's authoritarian madness. This government seems to have the idea that religion in general is a Good Thing that should be supported by publicly-funded schools and laws that restrict free-speech and so on.

But Dawkins would probably be safe because his hostility to religion is an equal opportunities affair. He would be allowed to say he thinks, which he does, that Islam is a 'wicked religion' as long as he quickly added "and so is Christianity and Judaism".

People who say religion is a splendid thing would of course be safe, along with those who say that they like Christianity, Islam or Judaism in particular. I'd imagine a problem would arise, though, if supporters of any of these start to explain why they prefer them to the others.

Christians, for example, who think God said His final word through his son and that therefore Mohammed is in fact a false prophet might find themselves straying into dangerous territory.

As might Muslims who think Christians are dangerous heretics for thinking that not only was Yeshua Ben-Joseph a prophet but in fact the very incarnation of God. And if either of them expressed these opinions particularly forcefully, they'd be guilty of preaching hate.

The problem this government has is that probably the majority of Christians and Muslims, if they are at all orthodox in their beliefs, actually think something along these lines because exclusivity is central to all salvation religions.

Indeed it might be the case that one of the reasons that Muslims are more likely to come to people's attention for this sort of 'religious hatred' is simply because they have not yet learned to publicly evade, deflect and obfuscate in respose to questions about what they actually believe - unlike the disingenuous Church of England and Roman Catholic clerics who pop up occasionally on our TV screens and in our newspapers. Whenever they're actually asked questions of a probing nature, that is - a rare thing indeed.

Gordon Brown's proposals are not just offensive to 'mainstream' liberal opinion, then - they are intellectually absurd. I for one am heartily sick of hearing about Brown's 'intellectual gravitas' and how many goddam books he reads. So what? He's either reading the wrong kind - or he doesn't understand them.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A lesson in sematics

AC Grayling gives the "Theos" thinktank (sic) a well-placed kick in the gonads:
"In the foreword to the confused document produced by the religious thinktank Theos this week the Archbishops of Canterbury and Westminster, in a joint statement whose very existence does the latter great credit given that he officially thinks the former is damned (it is official Roman Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church), iterate the claim that "atheism is itself a faith position". This is a weary old canard to be set alongside the efforts of the faithful to characterise those who robustly express their attitude towards religious belief as "fundamentalist atheists".

This is classified in logic as an "informal fallacy" known as a "tu quoque" argument. We understand that the faithful live in an inspissated gloaming of incense and obfuscation, through the swirls of which it is hard to see anything clearly, so a simple lesson in semantics might help to clear the air for them on the meanings of "secular", "humanist" and "atheist". Once they have succeeded in understanding these terms they will grasp that none of them imply "faith" in anything, and that it is not possible to be a "fundamentalist" with respect to any of them. I apologise to those who know all this of old, but evidently if our archbishops remain in the dark about such matters, there must still be a need for patient iteration of - what else? - these fundamentals."
He also patiently explains a little of the history of secularism. If you read the Theos report, you'll understand this is a necessary and timely exercise in remedial education.

I've asked rhetorically before but now I'm really starting to wonder - where do we get all these dim clerics from?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Racism and power

Over here.

Return of the 'Dixie-crat'?

Sidney Blumenthal is one amongst a number of commentators heralding the Republican rout in the Congressional Mid-terms as a 'revolution' in American politics.

Given the electoral dominance of the Republicans for the last twenty years or so, it is understandable that he should be getting a little moist at the possibility that the Republican 'big tent' has collapsed, leaving them as a hollowed-out 'regional-rump' party dominating only in the South.

While he's obviously premature in his judgment, he may well prove to be right about this. However, he doesn't as yet consider what the implications of this might be. But one early inference that one might draw from these results is that they represent the return of the 'Dixie-crat' - not in the narrow regional sense but rather in that the Democrats now hold power in Congress on the back of conservatives who are Republicans except in name.

An interesting feature of this new intake is that it seems to reverse what seemed to be becoming the natural order in political parties on both sides of the Atlantic; with the leaders representing a more centrist position than much of the Congressmen, MPs and the rank and file in general. Kinnock, Smith and Blair were more centrist (or rightwing, if you prefer) than most of the Labour party. John Major to the left of European obsessed ideologues on the backbenches. The unsuccessful Bob Dole more moderate than the bulk of the Republicans, not least the crew that came to dominate Congress under Clinton. And so on. Not so this time, it seems:
"When Congress returns in January, both the House and Senate will see something of an ideological shift, with an influx of freshmen Democrats who, while unified in their opposition to the war, are well to the right of the party's current caucus on cultural issues."
The Times piece goes on to profile the positions of these 'Blue-dog' Democrats on issues like gun-control ad abortion. A number of these are only Democrats out of their opposition to the Iraq war. Old cons instead of neocons, in other words.

Potentially positive if it meant the Democrats out of necessity dispensed with the partisanship that so disfigures American party politics but hazardous too should the leadership press ahead with a sectarian agenda. And a more melancholy obervation is that consensus would require a cementing of the cultural shift to the right and that the very need for such a consensus might suggest that the 'culture wars' will remain a feature of the American political landscape for the forseeable future.

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